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Bonus #55: Accursed, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Waytfm!

There was nothing there, even to elvish senses, just another expanse of sun-scorched and wind-blasted rock in the Spine. Or the Dwarnskolds, in the tongue of those who lived under it. This wasn’t even a major peak, merely a patch of the smooth, weathered stone chosen specifically because it was insignificant and unobtrusive, though it did happen to have a view, between other surrounding peaks, of the tropical sea to the north and the desert to the south. Typical; even when trying to conceal themselves, they could not resist a touch of pageantry.

Of course, she knew exactly where she was. And even had she needed help to find the spot, she saw the important arrangement of the innocuous outcroppings of stone around her. The fractal pattern concealed among a smattering of geologic debris. Neither magic nor mundane senses would reveal what was hidden; it would expose itself only to one who knew the secret.

She paused, looked around, and sighed. Then she withdrew the roll of hide from within her vest and peeled it open, revealing the power crystals Mervingen had crafted for her. The gate was meant to be opened by careful flows of arcane magic channeled into precise positions. She was not about to pass that current through her own aura, but the enchanted crystals, made to her specifications by the human wizard, would suffice. Quickly she stepped across the ground, setting each down in exactly the right position along the points of the invisible spiral.

The second the seventh was in place, the gate revealed itself.

It was not the collapse of an invisibility spell but something orders of magnitude more complex; the gate complex had simply not existed on that spot until it was properly invoked, though from within it the highguard on duty would have been able to watch her work, likely with some curiosity. Now it stood there, a smooth arch of wrought gold inlaid with incandescent blue in flowing patterns, augmented with more arcs of decorative glass hovering above its length and rising as barriers around the mosaic dais upon which it stood. Within the arch of the gate itself was the subtle discoloration of the portal, just enough to reveal its presence without betraying what was on the other side.

There were, as law prescribed, three highguard in attendance. The two flanking the gate itself held their position, while the officer immediately stepped forward off the dais, leveling his energy blade at her. She stood, arms at her sides, waiting.

“This is clearly irregular,” the highguard captain said in a clipped tone. Up close, as always, she couldn’t help noticing the little triangular protrusions in his helmet which shielded his ears, an affectation the elves among whom she lived would never bother with. “Identify yourself, woodkin, and identify whoever taught you how to do that.”

“My name is Kuriwa,” she replied, lifting her chin. “I know the gate activation sequence by right of citizenship. You will have me listed in your records as Avaran of the line of Tari’silmina’verai.”

“Oh,” he said after a momentary hesitation, annoyance and disdain filling the single syllable. Behind him, though their luminous glass faceplates hid their expressions from her, the two soldiers shifted their heads to look at each other, and she could easily imagine what they looked like behind the masks. The captain deactivated the energy blade and then clipped its hilt back to his belt, and drew his other sword. This one was shorter than many of its kind, little more than an overlarge and ornate dagger. “Liaron, identify her.”

“She speaks accurately,” the resonant voice of the talking sword replied. “This is Avaran, daughter of Magister Vynlian and Counselor Iranel, of the line of Tari’silmina’verai. This Kuriwa business is also on record; she is a known renunciate. So, not a desirable visitor, but she has not been exiled or even censured by the Magistry. Her citizenship is valid and she has the privilege of entering Qestraceel.”

The highguard captain had the ill grace to sigh dramatically, for which she would have reported him to the Magistry had there been the slightest chance of it doing any good. He slid the talking sword back into its sheath and picked up his energy blade again, though at least he had sufficient manners not to activate it.

“Very well, Avaran, you may pass. Welcome home.”

“My name,” she said firmly but quietly, “is Kuriwa.”

“As you wish,” the captain replied in a tone of overt disinterest, gesturing her toward the gate brusquely. She stepped past him, not pressing the issue. There was truly no point. One of the gate guards actually nodded politely to her in passing, a gesture she returned, and then she was stepping into the barely-visible portal.

It was no less familiar for how long it had been. The faint pressure, the sense of transition, and then she was pushing through the ephemeral barrier like passing into the surface of a pool. The searing heat of the Dwarnskolds vanished behind her, replaced by the cool air and glorious expanse of the hidden city of the high elves.

Of course, both the gate guards on the other side immediately turned on her with shields upraised. Not in true fear of a threat; having passed the gate on the other side without raising an alarm counted for a lot. But it was not often and rarely under favorable circumstances that wood elves were permitted to enter Qestraceel, and by her green-dyed robe, simple ponytail and lack of jewelry, she could not have been taken for anything else. Kuriwa stopped immediately inside the gate, already resigned to repeating the whole performance before being allowed to proceed.

This time, though, it was not to be.

“Oh, stop that, get out of the way. Go on, shoo, shoo!”

A smile broke across her face at the figure who ascended the steps to the gate platform three at a time, already waving aside the guards.

“Magister Anlin,” the officer on duty tried, “this person is—”

“This person is expected and I will vouch for her,” Anlin said in exasperation.

“I wasn’t informed—”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it. If you truly have a fetish for records you’ll find that I filed a certificate of travel for her arrival well in advance and I wish you luck in ferreting out whichever smug little slug in the Magistry managed to lose the arrival ticket. Right now, move your ears! Kuriwa!”

The last was in a veritable squeal, and Kuriwa’s grin stretched even wider as she stepped forward to wrap her arms around Anlin. More than simple happiness at seeing her sister again, this was the first time Anlin hadn’t stumbled over naming her correctly.

“Ow,” she protested a moment later, drawing back and frowning down at the thing affixed to Anlin’s belt. Taking in the sight of it, she widened her eyes. “Oh, my goodness, Anlin, where did you steal that?”

“Hah! I only wish I had the gumption to loot the high treasury,” Anlin chuckled, drawing the sword from is sheath. It was a unique piece, as they all were; this one was mostly black, which was unusual, but its glowing arcane runes made its purpose and nature unmistakable. In fact, Kuriwa noted that her sister had dressed to match the accessory; she had the same preference for jewel tones as most high elves, but today was gowned in understated azure and silver, with severe black accents. The jewelry worked into her coiffure was platinum and onyx. The severity of the colors made her look more mature, despite her ebullient grin. “No, this was appropriately issued to me by the Magistry to assist in my duties.”

“Even after you ran off to fight in both Hellwars?”

“Father’s pet theory is that Grandmagister Laierun thinks the responsibility and recognition will settle me down. Ariel, say hello to my sister Kuriwa.”

“I am not intended for social interaction, Anlin,” the sword said testily. “And your sister’s name is Avaran.”

Anlin slammed the black saber back into her sheath. “That is up to her, not you.”

“Legally—”

“Silence. Sorry about her,” she added, grimacing.

“No need,” Kuriwa assured her, waving away the sword’s rudeness. “You and I both know what they’re like.”

The highguard officer cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Magister and guest, but the gate platform needs to be kept clear if no one else is arriving.”

“Yes, yes, quite right,” Anlin said with a sigh, tucking an arm through Kuriwa’s and steering her toward the steps. “Oh, it’s just so good to see you again! Welcome home, sister.”

Qestraceel was not, would never be, had never truly been her home. But Kuriwa smiled warmly at Anlin and squeezed her hand as they descended the stairs to the street below. Anlin was one of the precious few who had never been at fault in her ongoing feud with the entire civilization of the high elves.

The vista of Qestraceel spread out before her, as familiar and alien as it ever was. The gate platform was positioned in its own dome complex at one edge of the great central dome, where in a worst-case scenario it could be cut off or even flooded, but the huge arched gateway into the main space offered a splendid view. There was plenty to see in the gate dome itself, of course. Hovering all around it on suspended platforms were guard stations and siege weapons—all, of course, disguised as art installations, quite a few with trailing clusters of flowering vines. More plant life climbed the glass banisters of the gate platform and its access stairs, the pylons holding it up and the subsidiary structures around its base, even the domed walls.

Not proper plants, though, not to her eyes. These leaves bore subtle patterns in gleaming blue; the flowers were delicate, airy, transparent and faintly luminous. Nature had never intended such things. The transparent dome itself had, in addition to its numerous functional enchantments, a charm to make the water outside as crystal clear as the air on the surface would have been, giving Qestraceel a splendid view of the ocean floor around it. Which, of course, was further augmented by magic to make for a stunning vista of coral reefs and kelp stands, none of which should have existed at this depth. But there they were, altered and fortified by magic, because all gods old and new forfend that the high elves should lack for pretty scenery to gawk at. The creatures and plants surrounding the city were at least ensorcelled not to leave this area or be able to reproduce unassisted, so they would not interbreed with or alter the ocean life beyond. Somehow, that didn’t make the whole matter any less repugnant to Kuriwa.

“Already?” Anlin murmured as they alit on the ground below the platform.

Kuriwa caught herself grimacing at the transmogrified ocean plants outside and sighed. “Sorry.”

“No, you aren’t,” her sister said with laughter in her voice, patting her arm. “You know I won’t argue with your sensibilities, sister. But just, strategically, maybe it would be best…”

“Yes, yes. I will try to keep my savage ways in check in front of Father.”

“Ah, good,” Anlin said solemnly. “And he will try not to act stiff and priggish at you. Between the two of you, I expect the peace to last a good five minutes this time. You’ve both grown so much.”

“Ariel, what’s the penalty for assaulting a sitting Magister?” Kuriwa asked innocently.

“Situational,” the sword replied. “In the case of Magister Anlin, probably a pat on the back and ceremonial flower garland from Grandmagister Laierun.”

“I am surrounded by traitors,” Anlin complained. “Well, I hope you’ve not forgotten how to ride, anyway.”

“Never,” Kuriwa assured her, an unfeigned smile blossoming on her face as they reached the gate. Off to the side of the path, a hovering servitor construct held the reins of two deinos with gleaming livery bedecked with Magistry emblems. She noted that even their feathers matched it, a result of careful breeding or possibly genetic intervention, but even that could not spoil the pleasure of being with these proto-birds again.

Anlin bounded neatly into the saddle of one deino, who obviously knew her well. Kuriwa stepped up to the second, so it could lean forward to sniff at her. The deino allowed her to stroke its featherless beak, emitting a friendly little croak which revealed its mouthful of fangs, and actually reached forward to pat her with one clawed hand, the vestigal pinions extending from behind its wrist flaring. Having been accepted, she vaulted up onto its back, sharing a grin with Anlin.

This she had missed. Horses were such a disappointment to one who had grown up riding proto-birds that she had preferred to develop spells to hasten her own travel speed than try to reach an accord with the panicky, lumbering hoofed beasts.

“Are you sure this won’t harm you politically?” Kuriwa asked as they led their mounts onto the vehicle path that skirted the outer edges of Qestraceel’s vast central dome. On one side rose the sloped transparent wall between them and the crushing depths outside; on the other, the spires of the city itself, gleaming with enchanted lights. The high elves they passed did not attempt to disguise the curiosity and, in some cases, contempt with which they stared at Kuriwa in her traditional woodkin garb.

“Oh, please,” Anlin snorted. “You could be stark naked and this wouldn’t even be the most scandalous thing I’ve done since breakfast. I have a running bet with the other Magisters of my circle on how long it’ll take the Grandmagisters to become so annoyed with me they confiscate Ariel.”

“I’m down for one more fortnight,” said the sword. “Obviously I cannot collect a prize for winning a bet. It is simple optimism.”

“I can see why Laierun thought this one might slow you down,” Kuriwa said.

“Everybody underestimates me,” Anlin replied with a fierce grin. “Well, don’t keep an auntie in suspense! How’s the whole clan?”

Kuriwa’s smile melted away in an instant. “We should wait to discuss that until we’re with Father.”

Anlin gave her a sidelong look of concern, but did not press. “All right. I’ll talk, then. I defy you to guess what that platterpate Athilor did to himself this time. You remember Athie, don’t you, the guy who’s obsessed with cracking self-enchantment? Well, the Magistry refuses to let him die no matter how many times this happens, but last year he actually…”

It was not as if Kuriwa particularly cared for the Qestraceel gossip, but she was grateful nonetheless to Anlin for filling the silence. If not for that, the ride to their family estate would have been a truly miserable trip, between her unease over the business that had brought her back here, and the uncomfortable memories that shone at her from every passing vista of the city like its omnipresent decorative lights. Truly, Anlin was the one thing she missed about this place. If not for the separation from her sister, Kuriwa would have no regrets at all about leaving the high elves behind. But the life of the woodkin was not Anlin’s path, and Kuriwa of all people would never have asked someone to submit themselves to a destiny they could not embrace. Least of all someone she loved.

The holdings of the line of Tari’silmina’verai rose through one of the outlying cliffs surrounding the city, far enough that the great central dome of Qestraceel and the crystal spire rising from its tip to the height of the Anara Trench’s upper rim made for a stunning but distant view. Reaching the estate was a long ride passing through a series of connecting domes and outer tunnels. It hardly seemed like any time at all, though, before they were unsaddling their mounts in the family stables.

Servitors ordinarily did such work, of course, or in the case of richer bloodlines, grooms. Anlin and Kuriwa both cherished any opportunity to work with the deinos, however. And this time, Kuriwa did not begrudge a few more minutes between herself and actually returning to the house proper.

What seemed like all too soon, however, they were there. Kuriwa felt a strange urge to formally ring the gong and announce herself to the name crystal. This place, crushingly familiar as it was, did not feel like home. Anlin, of course, simply opened the door and strode in.

Following her, Kuriwa hesitated on the threshold. Her father was waiting just inside.

They locked eyes and stood as if frozen. Magister Vynlian had not changed in the least from her memories. He was dressed as he always did in the informal comfort of home, in a silken robe without layers or pattern and no formal scarf, with his hair allowed to flow loose down his back instead of styled in a proper coif, held back only by a jeweled forehead band and gathered into a tail by a simple silver clip her mother had made using only her hands, no magic. He didn’t even bother to wear enchanted rings within his own house. Since his wife’s passing, though he had never acknowledge it aloud, Vynlian had stopped exerting himself to ward against any possibility of accident or disaster as such an important man among the high elves customarily would.

“Father,” she said at last.

And then he smiled, in simple happiness at seeing her. Something deep inside herself felt cracked, like a frozen river thawing in the spring. “Avaran. Welcome home, daughter. It has been too long.”

Just like that, so much of the joy went out of the moment. “My name is Kuriwa,” she said firmly. “As you know.”

“Ah. Yes, forgive me.” Vynlian’s own smile vanished. “I am told that you are in a position to understand, now, how jarring it never ceases to be when one’s own child throws aside everything of value you taught her.”

“Oh, you are told that,” she said stiffly. “And you bothered to hear it? I’m glad the continuation of our bloodline is of at least a little interest to you.”

“The continuation of our line among forest-dwelling primitives—”

“AHHHHH!” Anlin yelled, waving her arms about over her head. “She is not! Even! In! The house! Ariel, if one of them doesn’t start behaving like an adult, remind me to stab them both!”

“How many times a day must I remind you that I will not be made an accessory to criminal acts?”

“Is this how you address your colleagues in the Magistry, daughter?” Vynlian asked with grim disapproval.

“Yes,” Anlin said firmly, “and notably, they give me much less crap than you.”

“Father,” Kuriwa interjected. “I don’t want to argue.”

Both he and Anlin turned to her in pure surprise.

“I…wish you could respect my choices and my identity,” she said, struggling to keep a rein on her emotions and expression. “But… I have never loved or respected you less because of the decisions I’ve made. And I hate being at odds with you. Despite everything, we are family.”

Vynlian lowered his eyes, and swallowed. “Daughter, I… Well. Maybe if I were a better person, it would be easier for me to respect your choices. It is fact that I…have not tried as hard as I could. Truly, I am so glad to see you home. I have never ceased to miss you.”

Kuriwa stepped across the threshold into her childhood home, and with a speed that surprised her, cross the three steps into her father’s arms.

Some time later he released her, and they smiled at each other in wordless forgiveness. Anlin stood off to the side, beaming.

“Well,” Kuriwa said, suddenly self-conscious. “I would like to visit the shrine.”

“Of course,” her father said, touching her lightly on the cheek. “Of course. I’ve prepared a meal in the dining room. Your sister and I will be there waiting.”

“Thank you, father.”

A few minutes kneeling at her mother’s shrine helped her to stabilize her emotions. Sacred spaces consecrated to the dead were the only spots in high elf society characterized by notable fae magics. There had been a time in her youth, when she had begun to feel the call of the fae but not given real thought to what lay outside the safety of Qestraceel, that she had considered joining the ranks of the valkryn. The path of a death-priest did not suit her, though; it was life that called to her soul.

Only a tiny spark of power animated the memorial shrine, and of course the thought never crossed Kuriwa’s mind of taking it for any use of her own. Still, it was the first pleasant reminder since she had come back here. And it carried, of course, the reminder of her mother.

A few moments of meditation at the shrine calmed her enough that she no longer felt unsteadied by walking through these memory-laden halls, nor disgusted by the grandiose opulence that surrounded her here. Truly, this house was downright humble by the standards of the Magisters. Her father was a man of (relatively) simple tastes, and while Anlin could not be called simple in any respect, her eccentricities did not lead her toward indulgence in material comforts.

In the dining room, she paused and had to smile again, looking at the spread laid out on the table. Dragonfruit, acai, kiwi, fried lungshark, silver noodles and even imbued luff blossoms floating above a traditional glimmersauce. Vynlian had spared no expense to have all the favorite dishes of her childhood waiting for her.

For the space of one evening meal, it was like it had been before. She kept herself in check, and for a wonder, so did her father, to Anlin’s constant beaming satisfaction. They passed a simple, pleasant meal together as a family, and even the meticulousness with which they avoided topics sure to cause tension did not make it awkward.

Kuriwa, though she kept silent, could not have been more grateful. She desperately needed this, to face what would come next.

And it came within the hour, as they retired to the family solarium, surrounded by luminous glass walls, with colorful seaweed and anemones cultivated outside. Lively fish of species that naturally were not so vivid, nor could survive at this depth, darted through the fronds, and Kuriwa found herself for once not even desiring to make an issue of it. Even the sugared coffee Vynlian served for dessert had been purified of caffeine, as she preferred.

After all that, it managed not to be confrontational when her father turned to her and said, “I know you must have a specific need to have come back here, daughter.”

She drew in a long breath and let it out in a calming exercise he would recognize, having taught it to her as a child. Anlin held her steaming cup in both hands, now watching them in silence with Ariel laid across her lap.

“I have need of your help, father,” Kuriwa said at last, meeting his gaze.

It was he who turned away, staring out at the anemones. “I had dared to hope you might have come to see your family and home for reason beyond the need of our resources.”

“I am here as family,” she replied, controlling her reflexive surge of temper, “not as a beggar. It was you who taught me that the bloodline are to be protected and aided without condition or reservation, with every power and asset that can be wielded.”

Vynlian’s gaze snapped back to hers, and there was suddenly alarm in his eyes. “Your children. What has happened?”

Kuriwa swallowed heavily. “It…is not just my children, father. In the groves, we have different practices when it comes to birthing new generations.”

“Yes,” he said bitterly, “I am aware that the Naiyist tree-dwellers make a point of being fecund as human—”

“Father,” Anlin snapped, “how necessary do you think that attitude is?”

He scowled at her, but then when she glared right back, deliberately brought his expression under control before nodding at Kuriwa. “Your sister is right. Please forgive me, daughter.”

She nodded back, not trusting her voice to hold out if they went one step further down that path. “It is the nature of elves to live in balance with their environment, father. Existing in a living grove is very different from life within the walls of Qestraceel. No, we do not spread as quickly as humans. I don’t think you truly appreciate how rabbit-like humanity can be…but that’s beside the point. I have more than children, but grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.”

Vynlian closed his eyes, grimacing with such a rapid sequence of emotions that even her experience as a shaman and as his daughter did not enable her to track them. “Avaran, you are barely a thousand years old.”

“Kuriwa,” Anlin said pointedly.

“Please!” Kuriwa interjected before he could round on her sister. “This is difficult enough without fighting!”

“Yes.” Vynlian slumped back in his chair, setting his half-empty coffee cup on its arm and rubbing at his forehead. “Yes, you said your family is in need. If they are blood, they are blood. Tell me the trouble and I’ll come to grips with how many descendants I apparently have on my own time.”

“Thank you, father,” she said carefully. “It began with the Hellwars.”

“Ah ah!” Anlin said sharply, pointing at Vynlian before his furiously opened mouth could produce a noise. “You can say you told us so on your own time, as well!”

He subsided again, visibly biting back some retort, and gestured Kuriwa to proceed.

“Even after everything that has happened,” she said quietly, now staring out at the water herself, “I believe we were right to intervene. The world above would have fallen without every power which dared risk itself to oppose Elilial’s invasions. And the Magistry were purely deluding themselves if they believed Qestraceel could have remained isolated and secure if demons overran the surface. But… But you were also right, father, about the risks.”

Vynlian lowered his head, eyes closed. There was no satisfaction on his face at her admission.

“We caught Elilial’s attention, Anlin and I,” Kuriwa whispered. “She threatened revenge, of course, but I took it for drama and bluster. She is rather prone to both.”

“I remember,” Anlin said, her face pale now.

“In the years since the second war, though…” Kuriwa broke off and had to take a moment. “We… Father, all who descended from me have begun to be touched by the curse. It… Oh, father, it began with the children.”


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Bonus #54: Lightning in a Bottle, part 7

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Unsurprisingly, the Archmage’s portrait had no answer save its smug expression. Rhadid turned and snatched the vial from Admestus’s hand without another word, swiftly yanking out the cork and raising it to his lips.

“Whoah!” the alchemist interjected, raising both his hands. “Baby sips! Not more than a drop at a time, no less than four hours apart. Seriously, that’s pure, concentrated life essence and just a dash of time travel in liquid form. I don’t actually know what it’d look like if you overdosed on that, but I bet it would be hilarious. I mean, more for me than for you, obviously.”

Rhadid paused, giving him a sidelong look. But then he finally put the vial to his lips and very carefully tilted a drop onto his tongue.

His expression as he capped the vial again and slipped it into his pocket was pensive. “…pomegranate?”

“Eh? Eh?” Admestus grinned. “That’d be the life essence. You can’t really taste the time travel, fortunately. That’s more reminiscent of rust and ozone, and in higher doses would give you the farts something severe.”

“I feel no different,” the aristocrat mused. “If you have deceived me or failed in your task, Rafe, odds are we shall both be dead within the hour.”

“Well, an immortality potion that made you, I dunno, glow or levitate or something, that seems like it’d be asking for trouble, right? I thought the idea was to pass for a normal person who just can’t die. Makes you less of a target. Believe me, you’ll notice the difference as soon as something tries to kill you.”

“Or, if you are wrong, not,” said Rhadid. “Your work will be tested rather sooner than I anticipated, Admestus. I examined our surroundings while you were at work, and there appears to be an armory in the next chamber. The equipment is eclectic, antique, and heavily enchanted, but when a squad of vengeful Imperial soldiers is bearing down upon us, that may be just the ticket. Come, we have little time to prepare.”

“Uh, point of order,” Admestus said uncertainly, trailing along behind as Rhadid strode out of the laboratory but not, himself, moving to pass through the door. “I’m not lawyer or anything but surely the ranting of an undead wizard in a dungeon isn’t, y’know, admissible in court?”

“I don’t know why you persist in pretending to be stupid, but refrain from suggesting that I am likewise,” Rhadid snapped, pausing on the balcony outside and turning to stare at him. “Of course whatever just transpired has no legal weight. Thus, the belligerent fool who already detests me and is in command of the Imperial troops here will not want me in a position to argue my case before a magistrate. An inquiry into my mysterious death will be far easier for her to control. They will open with staff fire, not questions.”

“Yeah, but that specifically won’t do you any harm, now,” Admestus pointed out.

Rhadid was silent for a moment, studying him. “And there is what comes after to be considered. I am content for Roscoe to force a confrontation she doesn’t know she will lose for the same reason: whoever survives will decide before the law what happened here. It clearly doesn’t serve me to have Imperial soldiers reporting on my ambitions.”

“So, that little story was…”

“Which,” Rhadid continued in a low voice, “raises questions about the rest of you. One hates to destroy a rare talent such as yours or Professor Ahlstrom’s, Admestus. The soldiers, the gnomes, they matter to no one and won’t be missed. You are of great value to me, and you know I reward my most valuable servants generously. The more my plans progress, the more you will be positioned to profit by it. What say you?”

“Uh, well,” Rafe said with uncharacteristic hesitation, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That’s, I mean, the prospect—”

Rhadid’s rapier completely cleared its sheath faster than the average human eye could have followed. In a narrow doorway with one avenue of retreat, even half-elven reflexes did not defeat those of a swordsman who had trained since he could walk. The slender blade was sunk up to half its length in Rafe’s heart before the alchemist could retreat two steps.

“Hesitation gives answer,” said Rhadid. “I am sorry, Rafe, truly. It will be no end of trouble to find a talent equal to yours. But at least now I know where to bring them when I need…”

Admestus Rafe dissolved before his eyes, disintegrating into a puff of fog, which then dissipated into the air without a trace. Rhadid was left holding a sword on which there was not even a bloodstain.

“Crafty little halfling,” the nobleman said with an appreciative smile. He backed out of the door and sheathed his sword, already turning toward the nearby armory. “Play your games, then, alchemist. Since our host has seen fit to make me the arbiter of this contest, no one is leaving here until it is decided. And remember, old man,” he added, pausing to address the air. “I was never a less than courteous guest. Now my hand is forced, and the outcome of your game will be final. On your head be it.”

He did not notice his coat shifting more than his movement should have made it as he turned to enter the armory chamber.


“Will they be all right?” Eric huffed, trundling along behind Billie. “I know they’re out of sight behind the stacks, but aren’t they a bit cornered?”

“Don’t you worry about those three, Professor, gnomes know what we’re about in a crisis. An’ I’m not about ta leave a companion behind, never fear. We’ll getcha someplace not in the line o’ fire, quick as we can!”

“Yes, as to that, are you sure this isn’t all rather an overreaction? It’s not as if there is any proof the book’s account is true…”

“Aye, an’ there’s no lack o’ precedent for magic talkin’ books ta spew lies, either,” she agreed, glancing over her shoulder at him without slowing. “Leavin’ out the question o’ how believable that story was—which, havin’ met ‘is Lordship, is a lot—there’s the issue o’ why the ol’ wizard woulda spilled those beans.”

“Diristaan did enjoy setting his rivals against each other,” Eric said around gasps for air. “Please, can’t we slow down? Dwarves are not build for speed!”

“Good, cos this ain’t anything resemblin’ speed,” she muttered, but did moderate her pace slightly. “What’s at stake is ‘ow two relevant personalities will react t’that revelation, true or not. One’s a volatile, aggressive twit who I dunno how she got made an officer, one’s a cold ambitious snake who’s just ‘ad ‘is dirty laundry aired, an’ both are packin’ lightning. This is no time ta get casual about—”

“YOU!”

“Aaaaand speak o’ the Dark Lady,” Billie muttered, coming to a halt and raising her hands as the soldiers rounded the balcony corner ahead of them, weapons already leveled. Eric staggered up behind her, wheezing, and doubled over to brace his hands on his knees as soon as they were no longer moving.

“Where are you rushing off to?” Lieutenant Roscoe demanded.

“Findin’ a quiet spot ta wait this out,” Billie said. “Y’mind pointin’ those zappers another way? Bad form, trainin’ yer killsticks on somebody y’don’t actually mean to kill.”

“Where are the rest of those gnomes?” Roscoe snapped, her staff not wavering.

“Already gone,” Billie drawled. “Seriously, lady, we’ve gone this long stayin’ outta Imperial business, why would that change now? You got a treasonous noble on yer ‘ands, fine, it must be Tuesday. That’s a you kinda thing, let’s not involve the bystanders.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Roscoe said grimly, “at least as far as you gnomes go. But he is a member of Rhadid Daraspian’s party, and therefore a person of interest in this. You are under arrest, dwarf.”

Still panting, Eric straightened up slightly. He raised one hand, palm out, mutely begging for a moment to finish catching his breath.

“Oh, aye,” Billie said with scathing sarcasm. “Jus’ look at the fiend in ‘is little tweed suit. Thank th’Pantheon Theasia ‘as you ta protect ‘er from lost academics.”

“She’s quite right, you know,” Rhadid himself called, strolling up the balcony from behind the dwarf and gnome. “Really, Roscoe, picking on the Professor? You are the most trigger-happy excuse for a soldier it has ever been my misfortune to encounter.”

“Daraspian!” she snarled. “In the Empress’s name, you are under arrest for high treason against the Silver Throne! Stand where you are, disarm yourself, and place your hands atop your head!”

He did, at least, come to a stop, giving her and her squad a long, speculative look, but then focused his attention on the others again.

“In seriousness, Billie, where were you running? This whole complex is relatively enclosed; one spot to be caught in the fracas seems as good as the next.”

“Doors on the third level,” she explained. “Y’know, where we came in. There may not even be a floor outside anymore, but I figured, hey, maybe the Manor’ll at least let th’poor Professor sit this one out. He’s its biggest fan an’ ‘as no dog in this race, after all.”

“Ah, that does make sense,” Rhadid said, nodding.

“Enough!” shouted Roscoe. “You will comply, Daraspian!”

“No,” he said calmly. “Your order is unlawful, Lieutenant. You have no case, you have nothing which will stand as probable cause, and the very instant I am in a room with someone higher in your chain of command, you will have no career. Now are you going to belatedly pretend to be something approximating an officer, or are you going to murder me in cold blood in front of witnesses?”

She took two aggressive steps forward, sighting down the length of her staff. “I will not tell you again.”

Rhadid smiled patronizingly. “Yes, you will.”

The blast of lightning made Billie and Eric both throw themselves flat to the ground. They were not faster than the staffshot, obviously, but very fortunately it was a well-tuned weapon with refined direction charms and the blast did not arc off-course to strike either of them despite passing close enough to make their hair stand on end.

Lord Rhadid deliberately adjusted the lapels of his suit, right where it was smoking from the lightning bolt’s impact. Roscoe’s eyes widened and she backed up half a step; one of her soldiers muttered a curse.

“That,” Rhadid said pleasantly, “was the incorrect response.”

With that, he drew his wand and returned fire.

Fortunately for Eric, the very shrill noises he made were covered by the storm of crossfire flashing right above his head. He and Billie were quite effectively pinned down while Rhadid and the soldiers locked themselves into a wild stalemate shooting back and forth across them; the noble’s sidearm was simply not powerful enough to crack multiple military-grade shielding charms, while the full-strength staff shots he repeatedly absorbed were inexplicably ineffective against him, even without the telltale flash of a defensive enchantment to neutralize them. Nothing wearable could have stood up to that kind of assault, anyway, and yet he was totally unaffected.

Billie, undaunted by the destruction flying past overhead, belly-crawled over to the dwarf and tried to shake his shoulder to get his attention. Eric had buried his face against the floor in a panic, though, shielding his head with both his arms. Renewing her efforts in frustration, she found his heavy, sturdy form completely impossible to budge, at least for her strength. Growling curses that were unheard in the tumult, the gnome looked rapidly up and down the balcony; neither combatant seemed about to budge. Rhadid’s suit was a mass of smoldering scorch marks, but the man himself was now grinning in uncontained glee, an unsettling contrast to his normally composed demeanor. Rather than backing away, he began to take small steps toward the soldiers.

Then, suddenly, he staggered. He recovered quickly, but immediately stumbled to the side as if he’d been pushed. His grin turning to a snarl, Rhadid whipped out his rapier with his free hand and swung it in two wide arcs around himself, slicing nothing but air. This marked the first two seconds in which he was not actively firing his wand, and Roscoe shrieked a ceasefire order to her squad.

“Rafe,” Rhadid spat, then abruptly buckled completely, doubling over with a whoof of outgoing breath as if something had struck him in the midsection.

“Rush him!” Roscoe shouted, and the troops surged forward, stamping past Billie and Eric. That proved less than wise, as their active shielding charms prevented them grappling physically with him and Rhadid was the only one present with a bladed weapon. At least it ended the firefight flashing past overhead, however, and Billie surged upright, ignoring the ongoing struggle now that her survival wasn’t at stake.

“Foxpaw’s knickers, if I wasn’t such a sporting type I’d’a ditched your heavy butt already,” she growled, prodding Eric’s shoulder roughly with her foot. “Dungeon’s no place fer a bleedin’ librarian. C’mon, man, we need ta hey!”

The gnome was suddenly hiked bodily into the air by some invisible force. A moment later Eric, despite his weight, found himself pulled half-upright by a grip on his collar and then dragged down the balcony by the same entity causing Billie to hover alongside him.

“Y’mind awfully not doin’ that?” a disembodied voice requested as she squirmed and kicked. “Sorry about the manhandling, but I’m tryin’ to get you guys outta the stew, here.”

“Oh, aye?” She managed to get a grip on the invisible arm holding her, and ceased her thrashing. “Thanks fer the assist, then, but I can walk.”

“Can’t breathe,” Eric wheezed. In fairness, being pulled by the collar from behind did press his tie fairly hard against his throat. In moments, though, they were hauled around the corner of a bookshelf and into a small reading nook with a comfy chair, a lamp, and a window out onto the misty Vrandis pine forest outside.

Eric pulled at his collar, gasping, as soon as the invisible hand was no longer tugging on it, and Billie floated over to the chair to be set carefully upright on the cushions.

“Right,” she said, brushing herself off. “That’s done. An’ you are?”

He flickered into view, lowering a glass vial from his lips. The man’s lean face broke into a grin the moment he had swallowed the potion.

“Owl!” Eric cried, seeming to forget his discomfort. “Light’s grace, I thought you were dead!”

“Sorry for stressing you,” the thief said cheerfully. “You weren’t the one I set out to fool, but there was no way around it, I’m afraid.”

“But…but how?” the dwarf sputtered.

“Funny story! I woke up in that guest room and what should I find in my pocket but a set of clearly-labeled vials of invisibility potions and their antidotes. As I mentioned to you, my ass was the next on Rhadid’s chopping block, so I took the opportunity to set off that big, heavy rock trap in the courtyard and then disappear before he could decide to disappear me.”

Eric paused in rubbing his throat, frowning. “Wait, so… Rafe?”

“Had to’ve been,” Owl said with a shrug. “Guess the boy’s not as daffy as he acts, which I kinda figured.”

“Nobody could function an’ be as daffy as he acts,” Billie remarked.

“I won’t lie,” Owl added, “I was mostly upset to find out he’s a better pickpocket than me. Although I think I’ve just reclaimed the title.”

“But where have you been?” Eric asked. “Surely you weren’t wandering in the Manor alone?”

“Not the whole time, no; even with help, it’s no cakewalk to get around in here.”

Billie raised her eyebrows. “Help?”

“Oh, right,” Owl grinned. “Well, like any good little boy whose daddy’s gone on a bender, I went and fetched an adult. Oh, and speaking of!”

A few telltale azure sparkles of light had appeared in the air, but the whole thing unfolded far quicker than the average teleport spell; Owl barely had time to finish his sentence before the three of them vanished and reappeared elsewhere. They now stood at a corner of the third level of the balcony, within sight of the doors through which they had first entered the library, and there were two more members of the group.

“You found them, well done,” Arachne Tellwyrn said briskly. “I located this one, too, as you can see.”

“Hi, guys!” Admestus said gleefully, waving. “Boy, isn’t this exciting?!”

Eric had only just stood up when the mage teleported them. Now, he abruptly and heavily sat back down.

Below them, the sounds of battle changed in quality as the combatants apparently separated again. The scuffling paused, followed a moment later by the crack and flash of a wand firing, followed by the much heavier reply of a battlestaff, and then another.

“Excuse me,” Tellwyrn said, baring her teeth ominously, and vanished.

They immediately heard her voice again—at a distance, but raised to a screech of fury. Gehirnverweigererin!” Another flash of light burst from the balcony below them, this time clearly not caused by lightning, swiftly followed by the shouting of soldiers and Lieutenant Roscoe shrilly starting to demand something in the name of the Empress, immediately cut off by Tellwyrn roaring at a volume clearly augmented by magic. “Weapons are a privilege, as is life! And you lose both when you start SHOOTING UP A LIBRARY!”

When she reappeared a moment later, all of them instinctively backed away, which was for the good as Tellwyrn arrived with a large armload of books in tow. Scorched, damaged, and in some cases completely falling apart books. They hovered unsupported in the air around her as she got down to work. The battlestaves she had collected from the Imperial soldiers clattered to the ground, unattended.

Walls of blue light snapped into place around them, blocking off the group within an arcane shield, and Tellwyrn sat down on the carpet with a furious mutter of “Hosenscheisserin!” She began poring over the damaged volumes with gentle movements of her hands and harsh flickers of arcane magic, carefully knitting pages back together, wiping away scorch marks, and restoring them bit by bit.

“Wunderbar!” Eric said, clapping his hands in excitement. Tellwyrn ignored him, but the others stared, and he shrugged awkwardly. “It’s Old Stalweiss, you see. Hasn’t been spoken aloud since Diristaan’s day. I took five years of it as an elective in undergrad school!”

“That is the most you thing I can imagine anyone doing,” said Owl.

Below them, still out of sight, there were ongoing crashes and shouts as Rhadid carried on struggling with the soldiers. His wand had not appeared among their confiscated weapons, but there were no more lightning bolts. Clearly, the nobleman had got the message.

“Eh, pardon me fer askin’,” said Billie, “but is there somethin’ more urgent you could maybe be doin’ at this—”

“Be silent or be silenced,” Tellwyrn barked, not looking up from her work.

“Let the woman concentrate, Billie,” Admestus admonished. “Have you ever tried to reconstitute burned paper out of the very atmosphere? Seconds count!”

She threw up her hands and plunked herself down in the opposite corner from Eric.

A tremendous, singular clatter echoed abruptly through the library as thick wooden shutters, bound and braced by iron frames, slammed up out of the floors to lock away the contents of every single bookcase.

“Oh, now you’re protective of the collection,” Tellwyrn muttered acidly while still laboring to restore the damaged books. “This is why there are always hooligans running rampant in your house, you know. You never take care of your things in the first place!”

“Really, though,” Owl said, a bit gingerly. “Should we be…doing something? That officer seems like a bit of a tosser, but between her and Lord Rhadid, she’s not the casual murderer who’s apparently plotting world domination.”

“Oh, please,” Tellwyrn sneered. “I’ll get my hands dirty when something important is going down. There’s always some twit who thinks some magical gewgaw he’s found is going to make him the master of the universe. I should tell you how I got these spectacles sometime. You would not believe what their previous owner was doing. Those clods always end up the same way.”

“Yeah, seriously, we can take a break,” Admestus said cheerfully, rapping on the wall of arcane light with his knuckles and causing ripples of luminescence to spread from it. “We’re all safe and sound in Auntie Arachne’s bubble, and his Lordship specifically is not something we need to be worried about. Speaking as the person who set all this up, take the opportunity to grab a well-earned breather.”

“Set all this up, huh,” Billie said, giving him a very flat look.

“Oh!” Eric perked up. “Does that mean you arranged for Tamara to be here, too? Will we also find her safe and well?”

“Yes and no,” Rafe said with a shrug. “Yes in that she was along because I convinced Rhadypants we needed some muscle and recommended her for the job. And no, her ass is grass, as was the point. That was a really simple potion to brew! Combine Rhadid Daraspian and a tetchy, thick-skulled thug in one sapient dungeon, bring to a low simmer, and hey presto! Rhadid shows his arse right off the bat, and Manor Dire knows what to expect from him.”

They all stared at the half-elf, who gazed back with a placid smile and an arched eyebrow.

“So you were settin’ up yer boss fer this whole fiasco from the beginning?” Billie finally asked.

“Hah!” Rafe straightened up and struck a pose. “Never doubt it! Where there is a villain scheming to overthrow the just and virtuous rule of our fair Empress, there is a Rafe to thwart him! With cunning! With panache! With an exquisitely tight butt in only the most fashionable pants!”

“Your father didn’t belt you nearly enough,” Tellwyrn muttered.

“Why are you like this?!” Eric burst out. “Why can’t you just—just be a— Why aren’t you normal?”

Even Tellwyrn looked up at that, staring at Admestus over the rims of her spectacles. He started to scoff, but then actually subsided, his expression growing more sober under the weight of their combined stares. At last, he shrugged lopsidedly.

“I feel like you’re all fishing for some kind of grand revelation that just isn’t there. Not everybody can be a respected academic who fits in at a glance, Professor. Or a legendary, cantankerous archmage who everybody’s afraid to mess with, also Professor. People see a half-elf and it brings out the asshole in most of ’em. If everyone’s going to draw bullshit conclusions at first sight, things generally go better for me if they’re the bullshit conclusions I want.” He shrugged again. “That’s all.”

“Fact remains,” Owl said, “you deliberately led Tamara here to die. That’s not any different from what Daraspian did to her.”

“Yeah?” Admestus snorted, showing no hint of his usual theatrical ebullience. “Two years ago, Tamara beat the hell out of a fourteen-year-old kid I was tutoring. Stole his alchemy equipment to pawn, threw his textbook in the canal, and made a point of breaking his glasses. I hope Tammykins appreciates being peacefully dead instead of shrunk to three inches tall and left on the kitchen counter in the neighborhood cat lady’s apartment, because that was my first plan. Bitch was the worst kind of useless back-alley thug: the kind even the Guild wouldn’t take. If she hadn’t run afoul of me and Rhadid it was just a matter of time before some Eserite cut off her fingers.”

Owl grunted and shrugged, seeming entirely mollified by that. “All right, fair enough.”

“Hey, the violence seems to’ve died down,” Billie noted. “Who wants ta bet they sat down, ‘ad a nice calm discussion an’ worked out their differences?”

“One human’s coming up the nearest staircase,” Tellwyrn grunted, again focused on the books. “Daraspian, I think.”

Her elvish ears were correct, though it took them a few more seconds to verify it. Rhadid stomped toward them, his face wreathed in a furious snarl.

“You,” he spat, ineffectually stabbing the barrier with his sword. “You little vermin!”

“Well, damn,” Billie drawled, unimpressed. “Somebody needs ‘is nappy changed.”

“Oh, he’s probably just tetchy that I lifted this,” Owl said with a grin, reaching into his coat pocket. He pulled out a glass vial with a lead stopper, containing a sluggish purple liquid.

Rafe began laughing so hard he had to sit down.

With a visible effort, Rhadid suppressed his rage, even taking a moment to sheath his blade, smooth his hair back, and straighten his suit, though that last touch was particularly ineffectual as it was burned almost to shreds by repeated lightning blasts.

“Very well, I see the scales have tipped. You are in a position to make considerable demands of me, and I am in a position to bestow considerable wealth and favor upon each of you. So let us discuss how much we can arrange for you all to profit from giving back what is mine.”

“Ohh, buddy,” Rafe chortled, wiping away tears. “I don’t think you get it, Rhad. You were just shot a bunch of times.”

“Yes, and thanks to your brewing skill, I stand before you unscathed,” the nobleman said evenly. “I am impressed, Admestus. It is therefore worth a great deal to me to recover access to that potion.”

“And anyone actually smart enough to overthrow the Empire and conquer the world would’ve hovered and read over my shoulder instead of prowling around the adjacent rooms. That is a limited anti-death potion, Lordy boy. Limited. All magic is subjective physics—within limits. No alchemist, no wizard, no god can simply wipe away causality. Just…suspend it.”

Rhadid opened his mouth to reply, then utterly froze. The color drained from his face.

“Honestly, I coulda just fed you hemlock, but I really wanted to see if I could actually make that potion. And I wasn’t gonna shed any tears if you stabbed Roscoe; I really don’t care for her attitude.”

“Rafe,” Rhadid hissed, impotently clenching his fists.

Rafe made a production of drawing a pocket watch from his waistcoat, consulting it, and grinning. The snap of the watch’s lid closing carried a note of finality, somewhat spoiled by the alchemist waggling his fingers flirtatiously at his erstwhile employer. “It’s been a party, Rhadid. Tell Tamara I pointed and laughed!”

A single staffshot was enough electricity to inflict severe burns and overload the nervous system. As it turned out, the simultaneous result of several dozen abruptly catching up to someone who had temporarily suspended their effects amounted to a torrent of power that, for one second, glowed like the sun, and left behind little more than bones charred black. What remained of Rhadid Daraspian tumbled against the arcane shield and shattered to fall in jumbled fragments to the balcony floor.

Eric doubled over and was loudly sick.

“Charming,” Tellwyrn grunted. “Does it mean nothing to any of you that this is a god damned library?”

“Welp,” Owl said with a sigh. “Guess that means we’re not gettin’ paid.”


What little remained of the joint expedition to Manor Dire was much quicker and quieter, though not devoid of surprises.

Lieutenant Roscoe was among the three surviving soldiers, barely; at some point she had taken a rapier clear through her torso in three different places. The remains of her squad weren’t in much better shape. Compared to her previous attitude, she was very subdued after Rafe had administered healing potions. After rendering medical aid, the rest of the group left the Imperials to tend to their fallen.

Nobody bothered to say aloud that if Manor Dire was judging them by their ability to handle these events without resorting to brute violence, the gnomes had quite decisively won. Steinway, Woodsworth, and Sassafrass did not re-emerge from wherever they had hidden during the showdown, but Billie, who stuck with the rest of the survivors on their way out of the Manor, blithely assured everyone they were fine.

The next surprise came when the protective shutters over the bookcases abruptly withdrew, to reveal…nothing. Every shelf in the library was completely bare.

Tellwyrn withdrew a bag of holding from inside her vest, peeked inside it, and then smiled the self-satisfied smile of a well-fed housecat. “Ah.”

“Ohh,” Owl drawled while Eric was still groping, aghast, at an empty shelf. “I get it. New University and all, it must take a whole lotta time, effort, an’ money to put together a proper collection for the library. Unless you got a friend who’s about to put his place under new management an’ needs to clear up space on the shelves. That’s what this whole thing was about for you, isn’t it? The sweeping, the five-hundred-year-old dead language only Diristaan would know…”

“Oh, please,” she snorted, “I hardly need to suck up to Diristaan; I taught the boy everything he knew. Well,” she added pensively, “not the bit about achieving immortality by diffusing his consciousness into a non-discrete edifice. It would never occur to me to even contemplate such an asshat thing. Still.” In passing through the library doors, she paused to affectionately pat the door frame. “I always was fond of the lad. It’s been nice, being able to visit here and just relax, when I have time.”

“Aye, well, we gnomes aren’t big inta control an’ dominance,” said Billie. “This whole bit about competin’ fer rights to the place, that was the Manor’s idea, not ours. If me kin are gonna be a bigger presence ’round ‘ere goin’ forward, they’ll just be explorin’ an’ appreciatin’ the house. You of all people’ll be more welcome ‘ere than ever.”

“Oh, good,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “So much for peace and quiet.”

It seemed that Manor Dire was done playing games with them. The path from the library back to the entrance was direct, logical, and took all of ten minutes, without a trap or puzzle to be seen, much less any patches of confusing astral void. With nearly disorienting suddenness, they found themselves back in the long, rustic entry hall, facing the front doors to the mundane world outside.

“I would just like to say,” Eric spoke up suddenly, “that this trip has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me, and…and it has not disappointed, despite all the frankly horrible things we’ve endured in the process. I’m grateful to the Manor and its master for indulging one archaeologist’s curiosity and not punishing his, ah, lack of adventuring qualifications any more than necessary. And it has been both a pleasure and an honor to work alongside each and every one of you.” He hesitated, then smiled. “Even the homicidally unhinged ones.”

“D’aww,” Rafe cooed. “We love you too, big guy!” The half-elf broke off with a yelp as Billie pinched his butt.

“Hey, you,” Tellwyrn said, turning to him. “Want a job?”

Admestus gaped at her.

“I need an alchemy teacher,” she said bluntly. “I caught my longstanding one diddling one of the students, so he’s exploring the reaches of Suffering until she graduates. And I’m not thrilled with the guy I got to replace him. He’s competent and all, but… You’re clearly one of the best there is at what you do, if you managed to brew this.” She held up the nearly full vial of limited anti-death potion.

“Dammit!” Owl exclaimed, clapping a hand over his coat pocket. “I’m the Eserite here! Why the hell am I only the third-best pickpocket?”

“Sounds like a personal problem,” Billie said solicitously. “Are ye gettin’ enough veggies? May be a fiber issue.”

“Just as important,” Tellwyrn continued, ignoring them with her gaze still on Rafe, “you have a proven will to murder the hell out of anyone who harms one of your students. That’s everything I look for in a teacher. I’m willing to fire the chump I’ve got right now if you’re in.”

“Are you kidding?” Rafe squealed. “I am so in I can’t even think of an off-color metaphor, and that’s about a sentence hinging on the word ‘in’ for fuck’s sake! You just tell me when to start and—”

“Semester begins in three weeks,” she interrupted. “You’ll need to do some orientation beforehand. In fact…yeah. You have twenty-four hours to get your ass to Last Rock without my help. Consider that your final interview.”

“Then consider my ass hired!” Wasting not another moment, Admestus Rafe turned and pelted off down the great entry hall of Manor Dire, barely pausing to throw the front doors wide before charging through them and out into the world, leaving only his voice echoing behind. “Onward to glory!”

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Bonus #53: Lightning in a Bottle, part 6

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“Now, this looks somewhat more hospitable,” Lord Rhadid observed upon passing through the door. There was a brief scrum behind him as those assembled clustered together to peek through, followed by a somewhat more exuberant one as everybody eagerly piled into the aperture. The gnomes wormed nimbly through the legs of the taller folk, which mostly consisted of the pushy Imperial soldiers, with Admestus and Eric still bringing up the rear.

The reason for the fervor was that past the doorway, they were back indoors, in architecture that made sense. It was a most impressive layout, in fact.

They emerged on a third-floor balcony which wrapped the entire way around a cathedral-sized chamber entirely lined with bookshelves. Before them yawned the great open space of Diristaan’s library itself, encircled by another balcony on its second level. The walls on all three floors were fully covered by laden shelves; even the banister between them and the drop ahead was a waist-high row of shelves packed with books. Directly in front of them, hovering unsupported above the center of the open space, was a chandelier which put off brilliant golden light. It was unconnected to the ceiling, a floating crystalline orb which glowed like a miniature sun, constrained by bands of rune-marked iron and slowly orbited by irregular chunks of crystal that caught and refracted its light, casting shifting patterns along the bookshelves.

“At last,” Eric breathed after an awed pause. “The library. The sanctum sanctorum! The very beating heart of Manor Dire. To think that I should live to see this…”

“Also, solid ground, with walls an’ everything,” Steinway added. “Not ta downplay the significance o’ this but I’m pretty excited about that part.”

“Sanctorum?” muttered one of Roscoe’s soldiers. “What language is that, even?”

“Truly a grand edifice,” said Lord Rhadid, “and a priceless experience for each of us to have the honor of observing it. Not that I doubt you, comrades, but please do remember the house’s rules and refrain from creating a disturbance, here. Many of these books are rumored to be unique and irreplaceable; a careless act could deprive the world of a treasure beyond reckoning.”

“As his Lordship says,” Lt. Roscoe added to her soldiers, turning her back on Rhadid. “Best behavior, men. I want a maximum of zero damage and antagonism inflicted upon the Manor so long as we’re trusted enough to be allowed in here. I’ll have to rely on you to display our good intentions through actions, since I didn’t grow up with an elocution tutor and am not prepared to extravagantly suck up.”

“Y’know, I’m starting to feel a real kinship with you, Jane,” Admestus said cheerily. “In that it’s really kinda unbelievable that nobody’s shot either of us yet.”

“Give it a week,” Sassafrass suggested.

“Professor,” said Rhadid, turning to Eric. He then paused, and tried again. “Professor Ahlstrom!”

“What?” Eric demanded, wrenching his attention away from a study of the floating chandelier, then blanched and swallowed heavily. “Oh! Oh, my humble apologies, my lord, I was—”

“A forgivable lapse, under the circumstances,” Rhadid assured him with a slight smile. “No harm done. I shall be glad to let you explore the inner chambers at your leisure; in fact, you are undoubtedly the best possible guide for our new associates, here. But first, can you direct us to the alchemy laboratory?”

“Oh, well,” Eric waffled, peering around with wide eyes. “It’s not as if I’ve seen the blueprints! Forgive me, m’lord, but not many have come to this central chamber and emerged, and of those who related their story, none bothered with specific directions. It was implied in multiple accounts that the library itself is a focal nexus of sorts. All of Diristaan’s personal chambers should connect to it directly. We shall simply have to explore these balconies and the various doorways that branch off them. I, ah, presume an alchemy lab will be immediately recognizable when it is found.”

“To me, it will be!” Admestus crowed. “C’mon, slowpokes, let’s meander!”

“Actually I should note that it would be advisable not to become too greedy for knowledge,” Eric cautioned. “Our group came here specifically for the lab and were allowed admittance to this area, so that should be permissible. Likewise for any of you who sought a particular goal; being granted access is tantamount to permission. The Manor will tend to punish any overly ambitious use of its facilities. This is the hardest thing of all for an academic like myself, but do endeavor to restrain your curiosity.”

“Aye, well, we ain’t lookin’ ta plumb the secrets o’ the universe,” said Billie, who had clambered up onto the lower bookcases to look down at the floor three stories below. “I reckon our more general sorta curiosity about the place won’t ruffle the ol’ girl’s feathers.”

“What,” Roscoe asked Rhadid, “exactly do you want with Diristaan’s alchemy set?”

“It is rumored that the Archmage possessed a tincture which could transform jumped-up serving girls who pried into their betters’ affairs into pumpkins,” he replied with a bland smile. “I find I have an imminent use for such a substance. Come along, Admestus.”

“Hey!” she barked as he strode past her. “I’m not finished with—”

“Easy now, lass,” Woodsworth cautioned. “Remember the rules o’ this silly contest. Best behavior, aye?”

“…thank you for the reminder,” she said grudgingly, still fondling her battlestaff and glaring at Rhadid’s retreating back. “Especially since we’re apparently in competition.”

“Aye, an you aren’t winnin’ it so far,” Billie said brightly. “Lookit us, bein’ good neighbors to one an’ all! C’mon, lads, let’s ‘ave us a gander at the surroundings. Care ta come with, Professor?”

“I’m afraid I may not be very good company; there is just so much to demand my attention!”

“No worries, it’s not like we’re after the Manor’s secrets in ‘ere. Followin’ the expert seems like the optimal route for sightseein’.”

“Orders, LT?” the sergeant prompted after both groups had retreated in different directions, leaving the soldiers alone. “Should we follow them?”

“That Daraspian snot is up to something,” Roscoe said softly. “Even more than most nobles, any Daraspian is always up to something. I don’t know what someone like that could possibly want from Manor Dire’s secret lab, but it’s not going to be anything good. Riker, Talvedegh, follow him at a distance and see if you can suss out his intentions. The rest of you, stick with me. We’ll try to stay within sight of the balcony’s edge so you two can find us at need. Move out, people.”


Their goal was on the second floor. Multiple doors branched off from the library on every level; Rhadid and Admestus poked their heads into those they passed in the search for the old Archmage’s alchemy lab. Along the rim of the third level they found a little reading room, the door to the observatory, and a dungeon-like chamber lined with complicated-looking equipment that was probably Diristaan’s enchanting laboratory—all treasures that would turn the heads of many of the world’s most powerful seekers of magic and knowledge, but the two men now on the hunt passed them by with barely a glance. Likewise the room they discovered which was piled almost waist-deep in gold coins, gems, and miscellaneous bits of precious metalwork.

“Well, that has ‘trap’ written just all over it,” Rafe observed, carefully easing the door back shut. “Y’know, I didn’t actually think anybody stored treasure that way. Wouldn’t you want some kind of organizational system so you can actually find things?”

“If one is maintaining an actual treasury, yes,” replied Rhadid. “That arrangement appeals to those who hoard riches for the simple pleasure of owning them. In other words, fools and dragons, of which Diristaan was neither. You are correct, that was a clear snare for the greedy. Come, Admestus, time waits for no one.”

They descended a spiraling staircase attached to one corner of the balcony and there, by luck or the Manor’s aim, found the alchemy lab behind the first door they encountered.

“Oh, baby,” Admestus crooned, running back and forth along a row of tables laden with equipment, gently touching everything he saw. “Oh, yeah. Aw, man, I have always wanted one of these!”

“Focus, please,” Rhadid ordered. He planted himself in the center of the room, away from the equipment tables, shelves of books and scrolls, and glass-fronted cabinets full of reagents which looked as fresh as the day they had been stored five hundred years ago. “We came here for a reason. With what you’ll be paid for this work you can build your own lab just as replete.”

“Rafe never loses focus—oh, my gods, he has a copy of Vanimax’s Miscellany!” Admestus dashed across the room to seize a huge volume with a bejeweled cover.

“Rafe!” Rhadid barked.

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s not all fun and games,” the alchemist replied, setting aside the Miscellany and opening another tome. “I gotta consult the books first thing, here. Not only is this one of the few places the potion you want can actually be brewed, Diristaan was one of the few who had the recipe on file. Handy, that! Between you and me I don’t fancy jotting down the formula and then tottering off to the Deep Wild to set up a field lab. Nah, Manor Dire should be plenty abstract enough for us to bend the rules a bit…”

Rhadid was studying a large portrait hanging opposite the door, depicting a bearded man whose long black hair was shot through with a few almost cosmetic streaks of silver. Archmage Diristaan in this picture looked barely past middle age, and gazed down upon his alchemy lab with a severe expression.

“My thanks for the use of your facilities, sir,” Rhadid said aloud, bowing in the direction of the portrait. “It is an honor as well as a great help. Admestus, you are the specialist, but if there is anything I can do to materially facilitate this process, say so.”

“Yeah, gets a bit maddening just standin’ around watching, eh?” Rafe said, looking up at him with a grin. “Actually, if you wanna help, you can start setting up the bottle. To bring any of this brew out of the house and have it still work it’ll have to be contained in a specially created vial made of the inherent substance of Manor Dire. Luckily I procured us a suitable bit of glass.”

He reached into one of the pouches on his belt and pulled out what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary shot glass, setting it down beside the open book through which he was presently leafing.

Rhadid narrowed his eyes nearly to slits. “Is that… Of course, the glass the servant offered. Rafe, you were warned to take nothing from the house!”

“First,” Admestus said distractedly, his focus on the book, “that’s a bit of glass, not a lootable treasure. Second, I didn’t take it, it was offered freely. Third, I haven’t removed it from the house. And when we do, it’ll be in a wholly different form, one intended for the purpose. I do know what I’m doing, y’Lordship. Over there in the corner, that big jobby on the stone base with what looks like a still on top? That’s an arcane bottle forge—vintage, but you gotta figure ol’ Diristaan didn’t keep equipment around that didn’t do exactly what it was supposed to. Set the glass on that copper plate there so it can be warming up, and I’ll finish forming the vial out of it while the potion’s bubbling here in a bit.”

Rhadid hesitated, studying him, which Admestus appeared not to notice with his nose buried in Diristaan’s old alchemy recipes. He was doubtless not accustomed to being ordered about by his own employees, but he had offered, and the entire point of this expedition had been to get Admestus Rafe into this lab to do what needed to be done. Without comment, he picked up the glass and carried it over to the device indicated.

“Ha-HAH!” Rafe crowed suddenly, straightening up and jabbing his finger at the currently open page.

“You have it?” Rhadid whirled back to him, finally betraying eagerness.

“Oh, we are in business,” the alchemist said avidly. He cracked his knuckles and began rolling his sleeves up.

“And it will work? You are certain this is the potion we discussed?”

“Relax, Lord Bossman, I am all over this. We got one of the world’s greatest laboratories here, and I, let us not forget, am the Rafe himself! Let me loose in this joint and I will plug a stopper in death. Let’s get cookin’!”

They had not troubled to close the laboratory door. Just outside it, two Imperial soldiers eased back from the opening and exchanged a look and a nod. Then one took up a position out of sight next to the doorway while the other set off at a trot to find Lieutenant Roscoe.


The gnomes seemed to find Eric at least as interesting as the house, or at any rate, more entertaining. Billie offered some color commentary as the four of them trailed along in the dwarf’s wake, but for the most part they simply oohed and aahed on cue while he gushed about interesting features and watched with smiling amusement as he lost himself to the excitement of each new discovery.

“It is! It actually is!” the professor exclaimed, actually rushing back and forth in front of the object in question, which they had discovered in a long chamber which seemed to run behind one entire wall of the first floor, lined with an eclectic variety of objects either free-standing, attached to the walls, or displayed behind glass. Between a taxidermied creature that resembled a five-foot-tall bird with fangs and little clawed fingers emerging from the joint of its stubby wings and a suit of battle-scarred silver Avenic armor stood a nondescript, battered-looking cabinet on four legs. There was nothing atop it, suggesting that the thing itself was the display; it looked quite out of place in this hall of exotic trophies, but had agitated Eric more than anything else they had encountered.

“All right, no need ta keep us in suspense,” Billie prompted while he gently ran his thick hands over the edges of the cabinet. “What’ve ye found, then?”

“It’s a Vernis Vault,” Eric breathed. “Surely you’ve heard of them?”

“Aye, that I ‘ave,” Billie said, studying the cabinet with a newfound respect. “Blimey, that’s an ‘ell of a thing an’ no mistake. Though I guess it’s only sense that ol’ Diristaan’d have one a’ these squirreled away.”

“That’s just it!” the dwarf exclaimed. “There is no recorded indication that he did! You must understand, such connections are of the greatest importance in historical accounts. By linking great figures to the important events in which they were involved, the other personages of import they encountered, the rare treasures they possessed… Why, it is from this web of connections that history is made. Especially in periods from which the remaining accounts are fragmentary, and about people like Diristaan who resisted having their lives documented. But Diristaan, owning a Vernis Vault! I can say without boasting that I am among the foremost experts on this house and there has never been any written indication that one of the Vaults might be here! Why, this throws into question entire…”

He trailed off, taking a step back from the Vault and gazing at it in wonder. Then, following a pause, Eric knelt and reached for its latch.

“Hey, now,” Billie warned. “’ave a care, Professor. I realize yer excited but best not t’be pickin’ up things in the obvious treasure chamber. Especially the ones locked away.”

“Oh, good heavens, I know that,” Eric said absently, resting his hand on the latch. “The last thing I plan to do is try to remove anything. But…don’t you want to know?”

“Aye, I’m rather curious at that,” Woodsworth agreed. “What was so important to a chap like Diristaan that ‘e’d want a limitless supply of it, eh?”

Eric drew in a deep breath, making is barrel chest swell further, and as the gnomes all crowded around him to look, finally lifted the latch and swung the door open.

The Vault was empty.

“Of course,” the dwarf said solemnly after a moment’s silent staring. “Of course. What do you get the man who has everything? For someone like the Archmage…”

“Heh, it’s a bit of a letdown, though, innit?” Billie chuckled. “An’ ‘ere I half expected t’find the old boy kept his candy stash in it.”

“All those gadgets o’ yours ‘ave finally gone and irradiated yer brain,” Sassafrass accused, rolling her eyes. “Nobody would put candy in a Vernis Vault.”

“Some people just can’t take a joke,” Billie said to Eric as he gently shut the door again.

“I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m not in a very joking mood,” he rumbled. “All of this is the very fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, one I had never truly hoped to see realized, and each new thing I find is—”

He broke off, having straightened to find that the top of the Vault was no longer empty. Resting upon it, now, was a book.

Even more than the Vault, it looked like something that had no business in a trophy collection. The leather cover was scratched and ragged, its title simply scrawled in ink across a piece of thick vellum stitched to the cover in cruel defiance of every best practice in book-binding. The pages were uneven to the point that several seemed on the verge of falling out.

A light came on. There was a lantern hanging directly above the Vault, which they had not noted as it was dark when they’d come in. Now, a flame flickered to life within it, revealing an inner arrangement of mirrors and shaped shutters that caused it to shine a beam of light straight downward onto the bedraggled old book.

“Now that’s bait, that is,” Steinway said sagely.

“’ere now, what’s that henscratch?” Billie asked, pointing to the cover.

“It’s…Tanglic,” Eric whispered. “That is hand-written…”

“Well, obviously,” she snorted.

“It’s handwriting I know well,” he continued. “Few enough examples survive, but I have pored over them all for countless hours… That is Diristaan’s hand.”

They stared at the book in silence.

“Right,” said Steinway at last. “Bait. Who’s fer backin’ quietly away an—”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Billie held up a finger. “We are guests in here, remember? If th’very master o’ the house wants to tell us somethin’, I’m not gonna be the uncouth arse who turns a shoulder to ‘im. Professor, what’s that say, then?”

“It’s the title, I presume. It says The Book of Fates.”

“Bait,” Steinway insisted. “Ashner’s gloves, Billie—”

“You hush,” she ordered. “Honestly, man, pull yerself together. It ain’t even that yer wrong, that’s just advice fer another circumstance. This ain’t the Crawl an’ we’re not after loot; why the ‘ell would the ol’ boy wanna up an’ drop us down a spike pit when we’re bein’ such well-behaved guests? Professor, you’ve got the longest arms, care t’do the honors?”

Eric reached for the book, then hesitated. “If… I don’t disagree with you, Billie, but your friend also makes a good—”

“Oy vey,” Billie exclaimed. She had to leap upon and cling to the front of the Vault to reach across and flip the book’s cover open, but executed this maneuver without a hint of difficulty.

There was nothing written in the Book of Fates. The moment it was open, blue light surged up from its pages, as if its covers bound between them the view into some oracular pool. Accompanying the light came a voice—not from the book, but from the very air around them. It boomed through the room, through the halls and the library outside, resonating throughout the Manor. The voice of a man just beginning to grow scratchy with age, but still resonant and powerful, and now shimmering with an echoing quality as if to emphasize that it was not a sound made by a living throat.

“Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young man…”


“You’re certain that’s what he said?” Roscoe demanded. “A stopper in death?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the soldier reporting replied. “Riker and I both thought you’d want to know. He’s still there on guard.”

“Sounds too poetic to qualify as intelligence, LT,” her sergeant said in a skeptical tone. “Not to mention that alchemist obviously has multiple screws loose.”

“Yeah, agreed,” she murmured. “Still. An actual potion of immortality? That would be worth risking Manor Dire. If that actually is what Daraspian’s after, we don’t have cause to get on his case about it, though. There’s no law against trying to extend your lifespan.”

The entire squad jumped and spun to cover their surroundings with staves and wands when a voice suddenly thundered out of the very air and walls all around them. High above, the golden chandelier pulsed in time with its words.

“Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young man…who was born a hundred years too early. Later would come an era in which his fathomless hunger for power and prestige would be counted the greatest of virtues, but in his own time, it marked him a villain. Not least because he rose from the ranks of the darkest House of an Empire—a scion of what had once been a great legacy, now reduced to banditry and usury to scrape out a living. But this is not the tale of the fall of House Daraspian.

“Though born into wealth and privilege beyond the dreams of most men, from his earliest youth he stewed in resentment over his lot. Resentment at everything he felt owed, and yet denied. At the mages and witches of his day, gifted with a power of which he lacked the merest spark. At the greater Houses, with their storied histories and seemingly endless treasuries which his own family could only envy. At the elder members of his very House, for possessing rank above his own through no achievement save having, by pure coincidence, lived longer. At the woman upon the Silver Throne, for inheriting absolute rule and wielding it as a flail against the privileges of his own class. At the elves, for possessing by accident of biology the one thing he lacked, through which he could ultimately upend all the injustices he saw as having been piled upon him: endless time.

“Resentment filled him as if it were his very blood—but because he was an ambitious young man, he did not let it consume him, but turned it to fuel. While his relatives schemed and scuffled for dregs of power and handfuls of money, he devoted himself to study and training…and planning. Over time, he assembled a masterwork of strategy which would never be considered, much less taken seriously, by any of his peers, for the sheer scope of its ambition. The ambitious young man, you see, was content with nothing less than absolute dominion—over magic, over an Empire, over the world, over life itself. And so he laid his plans and began to put them into effect. Plans to suborn the powers of magic and those who wielded them to his own will. Plans to reduce those of his own House who would not bow to him. Plans to bring low the other Houses. Plans to topple an Empress, or her heirs, from a Throne. All these things he planned, and began to pursue. But the one thing he lacked was time. For a man can achieve all these things, with care and thoroughness, but not within the space of a man’s life.

“The last and most important thing the ambitious young man needed was freedom—from the passage of time, and from the consequences of failure. A solution to death itself, assurance that he would have the endless years needed to enact all his plans, and survive the assaults that would be thrown against him in response to them.

“This assurance he sought in my house, among my tools. The privilege he earned through guile, ambition, bloodshed, betrayal, and martial skill, all traits I respect. I choose not to deny him—nor to aid him against his first challenges. To me, this is but a story that livens the tedium of endless existence, and gives shape to the choices I will make. And I shall decide them based upon the outcome of this confrontation. This day, Rhadid Daraspian takes a fateful step into the future, which will lead either to his swift unmaking, or to his utter dominion.

“That is the secret. In the Book of Fates, there are only possibilities. It is not fate until it has happened. What will happen now? You who are guests in my home… Amuse me.”

The silence which followed was somehow louder than the voice had been.

It was finally broken by a click and then the low whine of arcane enchantment at work as Lt. Roscoe primed her battlestaff.

“But treason, now,” she said in a tone as satisfied as it was grim. “That, there’s a law against. Fall in.”


The finished potion was innocuous in appearance, compared to many of Rafe’s more exotic brews: simply a thick liquid of a deep, inky purple, without bubbles, steam, or anything to suggest it was a particularly aggressive affront against all laws of mortality and nature. It fit neatly in the thin glass vial produced by the bottle forge out of the Manor’s proffered shot glass. Admestus had held it aloft in reverence when the voice started booming through the chamber, preparatory to handing it over to the man who had commissioned it, and paid for this moment in both gold and blood.

By the time Diristaan’s recitation had ended, the alchemist had discreetly plugged a lead stopper into the vial. His patron, despite his earlier eagerness, had not reached out to take the potion, falling still as he listened to the story spelled out.

Then Rhadid turned to face the portrait, which was smiling at him. A moment ago it had not been.

“Now what petty satisfaction could you possibly have gained from that, old man?”

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Bonus #52: Lightning in a Bottle, part 5

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“You must choose the fate of all here,” the specter instructed, causing several of those present to stiffen in alarm. “Decide now whether you will go forward, or go back.”

“None of us have come all this way to turn tail at the first warning,” Lord Rhadid retorted.

“First warning?” Eric muttered incredulously.

“Retreat now, and you will not be expelled from the Manor,” said the specter. “The master’s house remains open to guests. Go back the way you came, choose a different path, and you may continue to explore these halls at your leisure. In the end, perhaps you will again come to the threshold of the innermost sanctum.”

Rhadid’s eyebrows lowered infinitesimally. “Perhaps?”

“Should you choose to go forward,” the guardian continued, “the way shall be opened for you, but know that you shall hold in your hand the destiny of the Manor itself, and all who are within.”

“This…ain’t the normal run o’ adventures in here, aye?” Billie said warily.

“Indeed, this is entirely without precedent,” Eric agreed. “If I may ask, what is it that makes the difference? Surely such a choice has never been placed before another visitor before.”

“These are interesting times. An unusual confluence of visitors has come to the master’s house: old friends, valued guests, would-be threats, agents of powers great and small. In their words and thoughts the master has seen portents of great things changing in the world beyond, things he deems it unwise to ignore.”

“I say,” Admestus breathed, “does that mean the old wizard himself is still—”

“Mr. Rafe,” Eric interrupted urgently, “whatever Manor Dire’s governing intelligence, it has never appreciated prying inquiries into its nature or business!”

“Curiosity is understandable, Admestus, but do please refrain from insulting our host, however indirectly,” Rhadid concurred, then turned back to the phantasmal figure. He hesitated, studying it; the specter wore robes of a style long associated with the wizards of old, and when it hadn’t shifted to resemble a skeleton or amorphous blur, clearly possessed an equally archetypal long beard. Right on the heels of Eric’s warning, though, would clearly have been a bad time to ask if they had the pleasure of addressing Archmage Diristaan himself, so the aristocrat shifted focus. “It is a heavy choice you lay before us, sir. I understand and respect the need to respond to changing events, but if I might ask, what have we done to earn this honor?”

“A suitable one has come,” the apparition said in its sepulchral voice. “The master has noted, among his visitors, a scion of long association with this house. One who has foreseen a great need, and come here of his own initiative to take action against the advance of fate. It is to this one among you that the question is direction—at this one’s feet is the choice laid. Know that if you press forward, it will be toward the end of this era. All wanderers in this house shall be called together, in competition to determine who shall have custody of this house’s future. Nor will the master yield easily to any passerby. If you choose the confrontation, you will be tested sorely, by every artifice of the Manor and against the ambitions of all who have come here.”

Rhadid half-turned to nod at Billie. “As we have previously established, Ms. Fallowstone, I have no ambition to take control of Manor Dire. I would, however, consider it a fair arrangement indeed to assist the Manor’s future custodians in earning that prerogative, so long as I was permitted to indulge my own smaller, very specific purpose here.”

“I’m beggin’ ya, just call me Billie,” she said with a sigh. “Can’t bloody stand havin’ that whole mouthful thrown around…”

“My apologies, Billie. I’ll make a note of it.”

She turned to her fellow gnomes. “What’d’ye think, lass an’ lads? This ‘ere’s pretty close to everything we coulda ‘oped, but I’m gettin’ a ‘too good t’be true’ vibe off the whole business.”

“A mite sudden, innit?” Sassafrass agreed. “Nothin’ makes me ears prickle like mysterious powers showin’ up ta offer me ‘eart’s desire outta the blue.”

“No reward without risk,” Woodsworth grunted. “You ain’t killed us yet, Billie, I’ll back yer call here.”

“It’s dicey, aye,” added Steinway. “Takin’ all the factors I can see, the deal appears worthwhile t’me.”

“Here’s our pitch,” Billie said, turning back to Rhadid. “Me kin an’ I mean ta preserve Manor Dire as it is, prickly spirit guardians an’ all. All we want is t’be able ta keep visitin’, explorin’ the dangers and earnin’ whatever reward the ‘ouse deems fair, an’ not ‘ave ta worry about the Empire or anybody else tellin’ us we can’t.”

“That would be a wonderful idea,” Eric said fervently. “My lord, this may be the last chance, ever, to preserve this historical treasure in something like its original state! If the gnomes—”

“You needn’t convince me, Professor,” said Lord Rhadid. “It appears to me that our purposes coincide rather neatly, Billie. If you are amenable to formalizing the agreement we previously discussed?” He bent his knees, reaching down to offer her a hand.

“The scion must make the choice,” the spectral custodian said patiently.

“Well, seems like all our ducks are in a row!” Admestus pushed forward, planting his fists on his hips and raising his chin. “Very well, spooky manservant! I, Rafe, do hereby choose: we press forward! Onward to glory!”

“Rafe,” Rhadid said in a tone of strained patience, in the act of shaking Billie’s hand, “this is not the time. My apologies, guardian. My alchemist is quite brilliant, but rather excessively eccentric. I choose to embrace the risk, with complete confidence in my allies and my skills. We shall earn your master’s favor, never fear.”

“The choice is made,” the specter agreed, already beginning to fade from view. “If you have chosen ill, may you not live to regret it.”

“Is it just me or was that a lot more ominous than it needed to be?” Admestus asked. The ghost was fully gone before he finished speaking.

“Eh, spirit guardians in ancient an’ terribly haunted places,” Billie said lightly, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. “There’s a certain etiquette to it all, aye? Rythms an’ formalities t’be observed. Y’get used to it.”

“So, ah…” Eric looked around, then shrugged. “To exactly what forward are we meant to go? This still appears to be something of a dead—oh, there it is.”

Among the floating bits of detritus in the astral void before them were several fragments of a staircase; these now ceased their aimless twirling and drifted closer together, a few matching chunks manifesting out of the ether among them, to form the patchy remnants of a way forward. It was no more a full set of stairs than a skeleton was a person, but looked theoretically climbable by someone willing to hop several wide gaps over an infinite abyss, and not think too much about what was holding the remaining steps up. They continued to bob subtly as if floating in water.

“Well, that looks a right frolic an’ no mistake,” Billie said cheerfully. “Off we go, then, lads!”

“Hadn’t you better—augh!” Eric broke off and covered his eyes as the gnome got a running start and launched herself bodily into space.

“Aw, were you that worried about li’l ol’ me?” Billie cooed at him from the nearest chunk of steps, which had wobbled slightly at her landing but not fallen or drifted out of place. “Yer sweet, fer a dwarf. Looks solid enough, lads! Shall we?”

“Quite, there is clearly no profit in lingering here,” said Rhadid, nimbly hopping up beside her, whereupon the gnome gathered herself to spring to the next (and smaller) bit of architecture. “Take it steadily and don’t rush, everyone.”

Eric swallowed so loudly they could all hear it. “Oh, my giddy aunt… I suppose this is an awkward time to reveal that I’m not at my best with heights.”

“Nobody who’s ever talked with a dwarf before is surprised,” said Steinway.

“Also,” Admestus added innocently, “Does it really count as heights if there’s no bottom?”

Eric groaned and covered his eyes again.

“Admestus, you are wearing on my patience,” Rhadid stated. “That I can forgive, but refrain from making this any harder for your fellows. All right, let’s take it one step at a time. Remember, haste leads to mistakes. We can afford to—”

The groaning of masonry made him cut off, a sound very reminiscent of their earliest mishaps in the lower halls after Tamara had attacked the undead servant. It was clearly coming from the hall behind them rather than the precarious bits of stair they had to climb, which was slightly reassuring for about two seconds. Then, with a tremendous crunch, the most distant patch of corridor visible to them collapsed into fragments of wood and masonry and tumbled away, to reveal another dizzying void behind it where the ballroom should have been.

They wasted a moment gaping back at this before another explosive dissolution of the architecture occurred, shortening the hallway still further. Now what had previously seemed like a solid stretch of corridor terminating in the void was clearly just hanging in it, unsupported, and now the abyss at its other end was drawing steadily closer, one yard of collapsing floor at a time.

“Never mind,” Rhadid said quickly. “Make haste and try not to fall. Let’s clear some room for them, Billie.”

“Way ahead of ya,” she said, which was the literal truth; the gnome was already three fragments of staircase forward from him. Her companions bounded nimbly onto the lowest piece the moment Rhadid cleared it.

“Here, drink this,” Admestus ordered, pressing a vial of what appeared to be swirling clouds into Eric’s hands and momentarily distracting the dwarf from his panicked muttering.

“What in blazes—”

“Featherweight potion,” the alchemist explained. “No offense, but you don’t look too awfully nimble in a hopping-across-the-sky sense. Come on, down the hatch! Time’s a-wasting, and so’s the floor.”

Eric squeezed his eyes shut again, but plucked the stopper and threw the entire contents of the vial down his throat in one gulp.

“That’s the spirit!” Admestus cheered. “C’mon, now, you can do it!”

Leaping onto the floating fragments of masonry was very much like hopping onto an anchored buoy; they shifted and bobbed with the impact but did not move far enough out of place to risk throwing them off. Eric was indeed able to leap farther than his stubby legs and significant weight ordinarily allowed, though he fumbled the first landing, unfamiliar with his newfound lightness. He ended up face-first on the stairs, clutching them with both hands.

Admestus had consigned himself to the rear to encourage Eric forward, but at that leaped up right on top of him, and not a moment too soon; the last pieces of hallway on which they had been standing collapsed into the void right behind him. Now the entire group was stretched across several hovering fragments of wood and stone, surrounded by a gaping abyss of stars in all directions.

“Oy, you all right back there?” Billie called from up ahead. “I don’t recommend dithering! Best we keep a move on ‘fore the house decides t’give us another little poke in the bum!”

“We’re fine,” Admestus called back, waving. “Just a minor case of…dwarf. Come on, ol’ boy, I realize you’re out of your element but she’s right. No time to rest on our laurels.”

“I am quite certain no one here has received anything that could be described as a ‘laurel,’” Eric groaned, but he had already clambered unsteadily back to his feet and gathered himself for the next leap.

He impeded their pace significantly; the rest of the group consisted of gnomes, a half-elf, and a human in the prime of physical fitness, and as such were able to ascend the shattered stairs with good speed. A dwarf, even one dosed with featherweight potion, was simply not built for jumping and climbing. The group grew more stretched out, with Rhadid quickly reaching the front as he was the least inclined to wait, but even the nobleman did not press enough to leave Eric behind entirely. Admestus remained at the back to monitor his progress, and the gnomes shouted encouragement—and, in Billie’s case, threw a rope. Slow as the going was, it seemed that the Manor (or whatever term described this endless nothingness through which they now climbed) wasn’t inclined to nip at their heels as long as they kept moving.

“Any insight where this infernal climb is leading?” Eric asked plaintively, clutching a handy fragment of banister to steady himself while the stairs beneath him ceased rocking from his leap.

“Let’s see…” Admestus leaned past him to peer at the group ahead. “Uh, the short answer is ‘up.’”

“I was afraid of that.”

“House is keepin’ us in suspense,” Sassafrass said from the island just above and ahead of them. “She does that. I reckon our next steps’ll come to us in due time, pardon the pun.”

At that moment, a passing wooden door suddenly opened, revealing a cluster of Imperial soldiers herded together in it. Since the door was tilted at about a forty-five degree angle relative to the group on the stairs, the sight was somewhat disorienting, and not just for them.

“What in Omnu’s name is going on here?!” barked the lieutenant who had gotten short with them previously. Her eyes fell on Rhadid and narrowed to slits. “This is your doing.”

“I don’t know how you could possibly assume that, Lieutenant,” he replied across the emptiness with impressive calm.

“Happens to be true, though, isn’t it?” Admestus called.

“Coincidentally, yes, but there is no realistic way she could know it.”

“What the hell did you do?” shouted another of the soldiers. “The whole house is collapsing! Where in fuck’s name are we?”

“I’ve got half a mind to place the lot of you under arrest!” the lieutenant snarled.

“Oh?” Rhadid mockingly raised an eyebrow. “And how, in your mind, would that scenario play out?”

More pieces of floating architecture had been moving while they argued, and by that point a general shape had begun to form. Half a hallway had appeared in segments, jagged fragments of floorboard attached to sections of wall. It would make for a narrow, wall-hugging crossing with several gaps to jump, complicated by the fact that the broken corridor wound slightly back and forth where its pieces were separated, but it would be very doable in single-file. Disconcertingly, it arced upward at an angle that had it meet the same spot as the newly-formed top of their staircase, which put the two groups on a course to meet at one point with gravity orienting them in two different directions.

In fact, the lieutenant took the initiative in hopping from the floating doorway to the nearest piece of hall, which conveniently began with a wide spot to make landing easier, complete with an upright segment of wall against which she steadied herself before moving forward to make room for her troops. Both she and Rhadid had turned their attention to the place ahead of and above them where the fragmented stairs and broken corridor intersected.

Their destination was assembling itself right before their eyes. Pieces of wood had drifted into union like some crazy jigsaw puzzle to form a jagged but fairly regular area several yards square. More chunks of masonry were floating toward it, coalescing into a decorative stone edifice in the center of the floor. At the same time, visible to them due to the weird angle at which it intersected both their access routes, a stretch of wall folded up at the rear edge of the platform, with a heavy oaken door set in the middle of it.

The last bits of stone slotted into place, forming, of all things, a large decorative fountain. More confusingly still, as soon as it was complete it began to spray water, its basin rapidly filled by the playful streams it shot upward.

And then, from around the frame of the door behind it, a golden glow rose.

“Hey, guys!” Admestus called, pointing. “Nobody quote me on this, but I think that’s where we’re going!”

The last of the Imperial soldiers had landed on their access hall, and now they turned to stare across the yawning gap at the gnomes and remainder of Rhadid’s group strewn along the staircase.

The lieutenant ran a hand unconsciously along her battlestaff and shifted it halfway toward a firing position.

“Don’t even think about it!” Billie ordered, pointing at her. “And don’t you think about it either!” she added, turning her accusing finger on Rhadid, who had unholstered his wand.

“May I remind you, Billie,” he said patiently without taking his eyes off the soldiers, “that this group is very specifically in competition with you?”

“Aye, an’ I’m not a hundred percent averse ta shootin’ somebody into an infinite void o’ stars, but fer th’record I don’t consider ‘bein’ in competition’ a good enough reason, clear?”

“What the hell is all this about competition?” the officer demanded. “What did you do?!”

“For pity’s sake!” Eric bellowed. “There’s plenty of room! Can we all agree to discuss this after we reach something passing for solid ground?”

“The dwarf’s right, LT,” a man wearing a sergeant’s insignia added. “This is nuts enough without having a firefight on top of it.”

She let out her breath in an angry hiss through her teeth, but returned her gaze to Rhadid. “Fine. A truce?”

“Truce implies that we were on violent terms, Lieutenant,” he replied. “Unless you were planning some manner of unlawful assault, I see no reason we need to clarify that point.” With that, he turned and resumed climbing the fragmentary staircase, somewhat faster than before. The officer gritted her teeth, but set off along her own pathway without another word.

Both Rhadid and the lieutenant set an almost unwisely quick pace for the remainder of the trip to the platform. Their slightly bending corridor was an easier trek by far, but the group on the stairs had a significant head start. The more it looked like the two groups were going to reach their destination at about the same time, the faster each of them pushed their pace, until even the soldiers had stopped bothering trying to keep up. The nobleman and the officer arrived alongside the fountain within seconds of each other, whereupon she glared furiously at him with her weapon in hand and he ignored her, turning back to watch the rest of his party members catch up over the next few minutes.

Eric only wasn’t the last to arrive because Admestus kept at the back with him to make sure he didn’t fall, aided by a lifeline Billie had thrown them and some of his own alchemical work. Several of the gaps, including the last one, were enough to make the dwarf balk at jumping, featherweight potion or no. At these, Admestus tipped a solution from a jar he produced from his belt of holding into midair, where it formed into cute little puffy clouds which were not only solid, but squeaked disarmingly when stepped upon. Eric did not seem to find this as amusing as the half-elf did.

He picked up the pace, though, when the lower end of the staircase began to fall apart behind them.

And then they were all there at the fountain, eyes locked and with far too many weapons in hand.

“Explain,” the lieutenant grated. “Now.”

“Since it seems we are going to be traveling together,” Rhadid said politely, “perhaps a belated introduction—”

“I have had enough of your bullshit!” she barked, raising her staff to point right at his face from far too close at hand. “You know what’s going on here, and you’ve as much as admitted you did it. You either give me a solid explanation or I give you a dose of voltage!”

“Do you really think that would hold up at your court martial?” he asked in a mild tone.

“Oh, fer fuck’s sake, ye great knob, don’t goad somebody holdin’ a weapon on ye!” Billie exclaimed. “What is it with nobles an’ havin’ ta be th’big man in charge all the time?”

“That’s pretty much exactly what it is with nobles,” one of the soldiers said in a much more equable tone than his commanding officer’s. “That’s all they are, from top to bottom.”

“This isn’t Lord Rhadid’s fault,” Eric said, a little breathlessly. He had stumbled forward as far from the edge as he could get, to lean on the side of the fountain, but now straightened up and directed himself toward the soldiers. “We found ourselves in a position to…well, I think we created a sort of tipping point, but this is the Manor’s doing. Or Diristaan’s, maybe, it was rather vague. A spectral servant of the house told us the Manor doesn’t like what it’s been seeing of the outside world that visitors have brought here, and has decided to make a change.”

“What kind of change?” the lieutenant asked, her eyes still narrowed. She did, at least, shift her staff to point away from Rhadid.

“It was my impression that the house will make that determination based upon the outcome of whatever happens here,” Rhadid replied.

“Yeah, you mentioned a competition.”

“Basically,” said Billie, “it looks like Manor Dire’s decided to pick a side. Y’know, like your people an’ mine ‘ave been tryin’ ta get it to do fer years now, with no result.”

“Hnh,” she grunted. “Seems like I’d be better off having my men just shoot you all, then.”

“If that were the case, d’ye think I’d’ve stopped ‘is Lordship from zappin’ you one?” the gnome retorted, raising an eyebrow. “C’mon, lady, you ain’t been killed yet; that means you know how this house thinks. It’s never gonna be about brawls t’the death. Ye win the game based on ‘ow ye play it.”

“Intriguing,” Rhadid mused. “Yes, you do have a point, the Manor does seem to rather disapprove of needless violence, does it not? At least, that which it does not cause. Whatever test lies ahead, it is likely to demand careful patience rather than brute force. Imagine, a contest one wins not by eliminating one’s competitors, but by refusing to do so.”

She finally straightened up her battlestaff, resting its butt against the floor. “Then it follows the house’s whole gambit will be trying to set us against each other, and see who cracks first.”

“So,” said Billie, “we win this thing by all agreein’ up front not to go at each other like stray cats in a sack an’ whoever best sticks t’that gets the prize, aye?”

“I feel I should perhaps restate, for the sake of our new arrivals,” Rhadid added, “that my companions and I are not after the prize in question. We only wish to make a brief use of the alchemy laboratory.”

“What makes you think you’ll even get to see that?” the soldier demanded.

“The servant did indicate that this…uh, rather unsettling path was leading us to the innermost sanctum,” Eric offered. “The library, enchanting and alchemy labs, Diristaan’s personal ritual chamber… You know, the ultimate goal of many who have come to this Manor over the years. I had the impression his intention was to push all of us together at that spot to…see what unfolded.”

“Aye, point of order about that,” Billie chimed in. “Didn’t you say y’met Arachne Tellwyrn in here?”

One of the soldiers cursed.

“The servant did say he was gathering everyone,” Rhadid agreed, slowly panning his gaze around at the nothingness beyond their platform. Their approach paths had drifted away, leaving them no avenue of escape save the still-glowing door. “I don’t see her here, however. She may have already left the grounds; a person like this isn’t likely to be constrained by the designs of others.”

The lieutenant drew in a deep breath, then at last nodded curtly. “Roscoe. Lt. Jane Roscoe of her Majesty’s 8th Corps.”

“A pleasure,” Rhadid said courteously. “Well! Shall we proceed, then?”

“We’ll scout through ahead of you,” Roscoe said, taking a step toward the door.

“Now hold on just a second!” Billie said imperiously. “Who said you get t’go first?”

“Perhaps I ought to take the vanguard,” Rhadid offered in a mild tone. “As the neutral party, here. You can each earn credit toward the house’s favor by not shooting me in the back.”

“Hey, yeah!” Admestus added brightly. “The way this’s all panned out, it seems like us and our noble are sorta the arbiters of this here contest! In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, guys, but didn’t the ghostly boy pretty specifically say that?”

The silence which fell was both tense and grim, which did not diminish his beaming smile in the slightest.

“Upon consideration,” Roscoe said tightly, “I think your Lordship is correct. After you.”

Rhadid gave her a smile which was only subtly mocking and, with no further ado, stepped forward and opened the door onto a blaze of light.

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Bonus #51: Lightning in a Bottle, part 4

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By the pattern they had already established, retreating from a challenge always meant a lack of further challenges for a time, but after losing Owl, the quiet began to get downright eerie. For at least two hours, they traveled the corridors of Manor Dire with nothing to do but appreciate the architecture. It seemed that in the absence of puzzles and battles the house did, at least, give them that much to hold their attention; where before there had been little but endless hallways of rough stone and wood, they began to see a much more interesting variety of features. More decorative displays, arched windows looking out over the Vrandis pine forest, a sizable banquet hall, two separate galleries of paintings, a small reading nook lined with laden bookcases, and other homey touches came one after the other as if to prevent them from getting bored.

But that was it. The house was silent, peaceful, unthreatening and almost uninteresting. If not for the fact that they had traveled a maze of corridors that should have taken them over several acres in a building they knew was only a fraction of that size, it might have been any well-preserved manor home from the late Age of Adventures.

The longer this went on, the more the tension weighed on them.

“Oh, man, when the other shoe drops it’s gonna drop hard,” Admestus groaned, staring at a pretty little solarium as if it were about to sprout fangs and eat someone. “Just, collapse a whole wing on top of us. There’s no reason to make us wait this long if it’s not planning something truly dire. Pun intended.”

“It’s difficult to disagree,” Lord Rhadid replied. “Professor, your thoughts?”

“The Manor definitely isn’t above applying psychological pressure,” said Eric. “Obviously I can’t say precisely what it is thinking but as a matter of general history, it is unlikely to drop an inescapable doom upon us unless it specifically desires our destruction, and we would probably know beforehand if it did. As long as we are still guests here, we should expect to be treated more or less as we have been. Tested, but not beyond our ability.”

“And is this silence part of the test?”

The dwarf hesitated, looking around the sunroom and then the hallway outside it as if he could divine the house’s intentions from the wall paneling. “I’m afraid I just don’t know. My gut feeling is that it is… But I have studied the Manor from afar, from centuries of recorded accounts. My knowledge is thorough, but lacks…immediacy. Intimacy. I know about it, but I don’t know it.” He shrugged helplessly. “It may just be giving us a reprieve, since we’ve lost two people in the space of a day.”

Rhadid nodded slightly. “Do not hesitate to give advice if any comes to you. For now, best we proceed. Keep in mind, gentlemen, that the simplest tactical reason to lull an opponent into calm is to spring a surprise upon them. I know it becomes tiring over the long term, but we must not relax our vigilance.”

“Opponent, now?” Admestus grumbled, bringing up the rear as they set off up the corridor again. “And here I thought were were honored guests or something like that.”

“In this of all houses,” said Eric, “that is splitting a hair.”

Fortunately for what remained of everyone’s equilibrium, the house did not keep them in suspense much longer. Only a few minutes after their discussion at the solarium, noises in the corridor up ahead made the group slow. Warning noises: shouts, crashing, and an intermittent loud hiss that might have come from some colossal snake. Clearly something violent was taking place. Though the three naturally hesitated, Rhadid did not stop, and for Eric and Admestus the choice was to follow him into whatever danger it was or be left behind.

The hallway opened onto the second-floor balcony wrapping completely around a sizable ballroom, which was as stark and rustic in design as the rest of the house. Shouts in high-pitched voices grew louder as the group approached, but what most occupied their attention were the sinuous shapes writhing through the air in the wide open space beneath the arched ceiling, occasionally spitting streamers of blue fire at something below.

“Katzil demons?” Rhadid murmured, pausing in the doorway to take stock. “No…these are white. That is not normal.”

“They’re, uh, also kinda translucent,” Admestus added, peeking past him.

“Some artifice of the Manor’s,” said Eric. “Not true demons, but meant to be evocative of them.”

At that moment a whirling bola shot up from the dance floor below, snagging one of the pseudo-katzils right around its midsection. The creature hissed in fury and emitted an abortive spurt of sparks as it was dragged down.

Rhadid crept forward, keeping himself low, and peeked over the banister.

On the floor below were gnomes—in fact, the same four they had met in the Manor’s entry hall the day before. Armed with grapples, nets, that one bola, and in the case of their leader Billie some kind of shoulder-mounted mechanical cannon, they were trying to subdue the flying spectres. Along the wall behind the gnomes were five enormous gilded birdcages, three of which now housed furiously writhing spectral air serpents. Two more stood open, and three gnomes were trying to wrangle the recently-captured specimen into one while Billie harassed the last demon with her device, which shot a metal claw of some kind on a long chain and then retracted it. The sole remaining creature was evading her efforts with little apparent difficulty.

“I see,” Rhadid murmured, his voice barely audible to his two companions in the tumult. “Professor, what are the rules about interfering in another expedition’s Manor experience?”

“I wouldn’t say there are rules as such, my lord. Just, whatever seems the most intelligent and courteous course of action in a given situation. But in this case, I might point out that the gnomes seem equipped for this particular trial while we are—and there he goes.”

The aristocrat abruptly straightened from his surreptitious crouch and strode away down the balcony, keeping pace with the kazil as it spun in erratic patterns. Now, a second gnome had rejoined the fray while his two companions worked to restrain their recent catch and get its cage door shut. This one hurled a weighted net attached to a rope; he and Billie Fallowstone’s claw launcher were having no luck. Not for nothing was this demon the last one free. It seemed to have a preternatural ability to detect and evade projectiles.

But then, swinging wide to avoid the flying net, it passed within a few feet of the balcony. Rhadid whipped out his sword and managed to rake the beast’s side with its tip as it came near.

The furious demon immediately rounded on him, opening its jaws. Rhadid had already drawn his wand, and cut off the blast of flame that was coming by firing a shot, forcing the beast to duck. It darted back and forth in front of the balcony, hissing and striking at him like an airborne snake while he deftly fended it off using the rapier’s long reach.

Unfortunately for the katzil, this performance kept it relatively stationary in a much smaller area, and Rhadid had to fence with it for mere seconds before it was entangled in the next toss of the net. The creature hissed in fury and immediately took off for the ceiling, seeming for a moment as if it might pull the gnome up with it, but then Billie’s claw snagged in the net itself and she added her own weight to the effort to pull it down, followed within moments by the other two gnomes hurling hooked lines to snare their quarry.

Getting the thing into the last cage was a struggle, of course, but one whose conclusion was foregone. While the gnomes went about wrestling their captive into place, Rhadid, pausing only to beckon his companions with an imperious jerk of his head, strode unhurriedly to the other end of the room, where a spiral staircase led from the balcony to the ballroom floor.

Billie herself turned to him with a grin as he approached, trailing Admestus and Eric; her three companions were coercing the struggling specter into its cage with the net and two long poles.

“Well! Thank ye kindly fer the assist, melord!”

“You are welcome,” Rhadid answered, inclining his head courteously. “Though you appeared to have the matter well in hand. I rather think I merely saved you a little time, in the end.”

“Maybe so, but it doesn’t pay to make assumptions,” she said. “Help is help, an’ it’s well-appreciated. This is it, then?” Billie’s expression grew more sober as she took in the dwarf and half-elf following him. “Havin’ a wee bit of a rough trip, are we?”

“It has had its ups and downs,” Rhadid agreed. “You seem to have fared somewhat better.”

“Aye, well, we’re professionals. All due respect, yer Lordship, plumbin’ a dungeon ain’t a good line o’ work fer amateurs to take up.”

“This is far from my first such adventure, though regrettably I cannot say the same for all of my party. At least one proved tragically unsuited for this particular task. Have you encountered any other groups, if I might inquire?”

At that moment the other gnomes got the cage door shut on the furious katzil, and a deep mechanical thunk sounded from beneath the ballroom floor. All five cages sank straight down into it, metal shutters sliding into place after them. At the opposite end of the room, huge double doors swung wide with an excessively loud creak, revealing a broad entry hall beyond.

Billie glanced at this with little interest before returning her attention to Rhadid. “Other groups? Not ‘ardly. Shouldn’t be anybody else in ‘ere ‘cept the Imperials.”

“An’ maybe Arachne, at this time o’ year,” one of her companions added.

“Aye, that’s right. I’m surprised enough you lot managed to get in. The Army ain’t keen to share digs, if ye get me drift.” Billie winked, finally putting down her claw-flinging device; it wouldn’t have been much for any of them to carry, but on a gnome the thing was enormously bulky. “They’ve more or less given up tryin’ ta keep us outta ‘ere, but it’s rare that other tall folk get through their little blockade.”

“I have my ways,” he said vaguely. “Have you run across the Army recently? Any idea how many teams are exploring the Manor at any given time?”

She shrugged. “It’s not often we cross paths with ’em, lucky enough. They ain’t overly enthused t’meet fellow travelers. I get on well enough with the rank an’ file, but the officers… Well, anybody who answers to a bureaucracy tends ta lack a sense o’ humor.”

“Interesting,” Rhadid mused. “We have crossed paths with an Army exploration team, as it happens. We also encountered Professor Tellwyrn, quite early on. I simply wonder how many Imperial or gnomish groups might be present. If it is only one of each, it would seem we’ve met everyone currently visiting the Manor, in a rather short span of time.”

Billie frowned, turning to make eye contact with her companions before answering. “One o’ the first things any large, organized group learns on bein’ introduced to the Manor is it doesn’t much care fer bein’ invaded. We keep it strictly minimal, only one group o’ the Folk in ‘ere at a time, an’ I reckon the Army keeps to the same policy, if it’s managed not ta wear it its welcome entirely by now. You ‘ave ‘ad a run o’ luck, an’ no mistake. Not ta dwell on a painful subject, but that’s a strangely impressive track record fer a group that’s managed t’lose forty percent of itself in one day.”

“Do you think we’d fare better if we stopped pronouncing the letter G?” Admestus asked innocently. “Is that part of your secret?”

“Admestus,” Rhadid warned.

“Aw, let ‘im poke fun, we don’t mind,” Billie said with a grin, raising one hand to wiggle her fingers flirtatiously at the alchemist. “Ain’t often I meet a fellow traveler as aroused by death an’ danger as me!”

“The work you’re lookin’ for is ‘never,’” her nearest companion grunted. “An’ you, I’ll thank ye not to encourage ‘er.”

“In every group there’s some oaf who interrupts conversations,” Billie said to Rhadid.

“When we first met,” he said, “I declined to discuss my reason for being here. I’m willing to reconsider that, if you are amenable to doing likewise.”

“Well, now, that’s interesting,” she commented. “Ain’t like we planned t’pry inta yer business anyhow, no worries on that score. Why the change in ‘eart? Or, I guess more t’the point, why the sudden curiosity?”

“I find myself considering the prospect of joining forces,” Rhadid explained, his neutral expression betraying nothing. “Clearly, that is not a prospect if our ultimate goals prove incompatible. But it seems unlikely to me that they would, as none of my ambitions involve inconveniencing anyone, least of all yourselves.”

Again, Billie angled her head slightly to catch the eye of one of her friends, the one who had interjected a moment ago. Their faces were as inscrutable as Rhadid, but they seemed to communicate something in that brief silence.

“I wouldn’t give that a hard ‘no’ on the face of it,” she said in a thoughtful tone, “though yer not wrong, Lord Rhadid, I’d need a wee bit o’ insight inta just what it is you’re after in ‘ere before weighin’ in on that.”

“I seek Diristaan’s personal facilities,” he said. “Mr. Rafe, whom you have met, is one of the finest alchemists in the Empire, though you would not know it from a conversation with him.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush!” Admestus trilled.

“Gonna brew yerself a potion, aye?” Billie asked.

“I have in mind a project which, yes, can probably not be completed anywhere else. Thus, my goal here is particular and brief. I mean to reach the alchemy lab, do what is necessary, and depart with a minimum of fuss, ideally without incurring the ire of either the Manor or any fellow travelers. To that end, I am willing to go somewhat out of my way to be of assistance to another party, within reason. The path to a specific goal in Manor Dire is always somewhat circuitous.”

“It is that,” she agreed. “Us, though, we don’t much mind wanderin’ about. Life’s in the journey, as they say.”

“So you are not after any destination in particular?”

Billie tilted her head, one of the pointed ear tips emerging from her curls twitching slightly. “Ye might call us…conservationists.”

“Oh?” Rhadid raised his eyebrows. “Is the Manor in danger?”

“Access to it is in danger, at least potentially,” Eric answered. “The great dungeons are vanishing, at least from public use. I mentioned this previously, my lord, if you’ll recall. Gnomes have been moving to colonize them, and the Empire is trying to seize control of them as continual sources of treasure and training for their agents. Manor Dire is a particularly dicey case since, as Ms. Fallowstone pointed out, the intelligence of the house does not welcome mass intrusion. To our new friends, this is a competition for territory.”

“So y’see our problem,” Billie said, nodding. “Possession is nine tenths o’ the law. Even the Empire doesn’t try to oust the Folk from places where we’ve set up shop, but they play a little rough in the race to control such spots in the first place. But y’don’t possess Manor Dire. Even raisin’ the prospect is askin’ fer a big spank upside the head. Best either we or the Imperials can do is maintain a presence ‘ere.”

“Mm,” he mused. “And you seek something to…tip the balance.”

“Well, now, that there’s a potentially double-edged sword, aye?” she said evenly. “’ere’s a scion o’ House Daraspian lookin’ ta do somethin’ mysterious in ‘is ancestor’s secret lab. Fer the likes o’ us, who’re lookin’ ta impress the house, that could be very good or very bad. No offense, yer Lordship, but yer family ‘aven’t actually controlled the Manor since Diristaan’s day, an’ more recently…how t’put this…”

“I think I would be better off not attempting to dissemble,” he said with a thin smile, “at least not while standing within the aegis of a sentient house which is listening to this conversation. House Daraspian’s wealth comes chiefly from smuggling and the drug trade. Where most of the great Houses feud with each other for power, our chief rivalries are with Imperial law enforcement and the Thieves’ Guild. I would offer as a character witness the fact that I persuaded a Guild representative to accompany me on this mission, but sadly, he is no longer with us.”

“My condolences,” Billie said solemnly.

“What I can say,” Rhadid continued, “and what prompted me to thus approach you, is the emergent suggestion that the Manor itself desires this arrangement. It is self-evident that the paths of any group of adventurers would only cross if the house itself desires that they do.”

“An’ your path keeps crossin’ everybody else’s,” she finished.

“And yours, now, twice,” Rhadid said, nodding. “The soldiers were openly hostile to us, and Tellwyrn…how to put this…”

“Tellwyrn pretty much says it all,” the other woman in Billie’s group interjected, grinning.

Billie turned around fully, and the other three focused on her. What followed was silent and swift, little more to outside observation than some twitching of ears and rapid glances, but somehow the gnomes appeared to hold a full discussion and reach a consensus in the space of about ten seconds. Billie turned back to face Rhadid.

“All right then, Lord Rhadid, ‘ow about this? We’re not up fer any kind o’ formal alliance or nothin’, leastwise not with us all bein’ relative strangers. But as none of us ‘as any pressin’ business an’ the only path through Manor Dire is ta wander around, we’re willin’ ta travel alongside an’ ‘elp watch yer backs. Offer insight an’ guidance, y’know, the likes o’ that. It’s no more or less than any decent Folk would do fer any fellow traveler out in a sticky position. Specially some who’ve had a run o’ bad luck such as you lot, apparently. So long as it’s understood that we’re not with you in any permanent sense, an’ may opt ta go our own way again if the situation demands it.”

“Reasonable, and more than fair,” Rhadid agreed. “I am likewise glad to render what aid we may, if the possibility arises. We may even be able to offer you some insight; not to impugn the expertise of gnomes on all things adventurous, but Professor Ahlstrom, here, is a historian specialized in Manor Dire specifically. And of course, should our business demand that we part ways, I am glad that we can do so without acrimony.”

“No worries, we don’t really do acrimony,” she said brightly. “All righty then! Since ye helped us get yonder door open, what see we go ‘ave a look at what’s beyond, aye?”


In fact, there wasn’t much of immediate interest beyond the door, just a broad flight of stairs up to a landing from which one hallway extended, and seemed to stretch on endlessly without even doors leading off it. This quickly began to seem like a resumption of the odd lull Rhadid’s group had experienced before meeting the gnomes, but at least it gave the two parties a chance to get to know one another a bit better.

The other three gnomes introduced themselves as Steinway, Woodsworth, and Sassafrass; whether those were given names or surnames they did not explain, and no one pried. After spending some time flirting with Admestus, Billie moved ahead to chat with Lord Rhadid at the from of the group, and gradually the half-elf and dwarf fell back to trail along at the end.

“Smuggling?” Eric asked in a low voice covered by Billie’s exuberant chatter up ahead. “Drug trading?”

“Two ends of the same business, in fact,” Admestus said brightly, though not as loudly as he usually spoke. “They import the coca leaves, since those don’t grow in the Empire, and refine them into cocaine. Without, I might add, the requisite paperwork and oversight mandated for both those activities. You didn’t quite know what you were hopping into bed with, I take it?”

“The, ah, particulars of Imperial House politics are fairly opaque in the Kingdoms, except to those who make a point of following them… What is cocaine?”

“Happy dust!” Admestus quickly let the broad grin melt from his features. “Well. All joking aside, it’s about the most brain-destroying mess you can put in your face without getting into the kind of alchemical narcotics that’ll get you locked up good and proper. Cocaine isn’t even strictly illegal in the Empire, the Treasury gives trade exemptions for its legal sale. But the fees and taxes on that are so high the Daraspians find it more economical to operate illicitly, even with all the regular scrapping with Imperial Marshals and the Thieves’ Guild this gets them into. The other Houses are really the only market for it, too. Any truly depraved aristocrat party in the Empire owes its fun to House Daraspian. Cocaine is a noble’s drug. Hence why the Treasury tries to tax it oppressively instead of banning it.”

“I guess the Guild wouldn’t like competition,” Eric murmured.

“You shorties really are willing to make the Thieves’ Guild the boogeyman under every bed, aren’cha? It’s actually kind of impressive you were willing to be so polite with poor Owl, in hindsight. No, the Guild isn’t in that trade. Eserites hate drug pushers; they consider them the worst kind of predator. If the Thieves’ Guild catches you hawking narcotics your best bet is to run straight to the police and get yourself tucked away in a nice, safe jail.”

Eric gave him a sidelong glance. “This is the longest I’ve known you to be serious at one time, so far.”

“Yeah, well.” Admestus shrugged. “Guess I’m not feeling quite my usual irreverent self, what with one thing and another.”

“Heads up back there!” Billie called. “Let’s cluster, looks like we’ve got a bit o’ scenery comin’ up.”

Eric drew a deep breath. “This, coming here, has been a lifelong dream of mine. I guess…knowing, intellectually, that delving a dungeon is hazardous can’t really prepare one for the actual experience.”

“True of everything in life, ol’ boy,” Admestus said, not without sympathy. Clapping the dwarf on the shoulder, he strode forward to join the rest of the group at the landing to which they had come.

Beyond it, there was no more house.

“Is this normal?” Lord Rhadid asked, staring at what lay before them.

“Gotta confess, I’ve never seen the like,” Billie admitted.

“I—this is—” Crowding forward, Eric broke off and swallowed heavily. “I fear this is without precedent in all my readings on adventures in the Manor.”

“All right!” Admestus crowed. “We’re special! Champagne and pudding all around!”

Their hallway terminated in a wide area that might have been an intersection of corridors. It was impossible to tell its purpose or even how large it might have been, because the whole thing was broken off. Jagged edges of floorboards extended into space—and space was, indeed, the right word.

Not only was the Manor apparently gone beyond this point, there was no view of the Vrandis countryside either. Before them yawned an infinite abyss, nothing but distant stars and odd swirls of colored nebulae. Pieces of architecture drifted in the vicinity, fragments of walls, floors, and even miscellaneous bits like statuary, suspended in the nothingness as though left over by whatever had ripped this part of the Manor out of existence.

“So,” Rhadid said at last, after they had all stared at this for several full minutes. “This lies at the end of a long hall with no other path available. That was the only exit offered us from the chamber wherein we met. It would seem that as soon as we decided to merge our paths, this outcome was inevitable.”

“Like I said,” Billie mused. “Either very good, or very, very bad. I’m still o’ two minds on it.”

“Well, now what?” Eric asked. “Do we try backtracking? Or… Honestly, it’s beyond me what we might even attempt to do with this.”

“How possible is it the dungeon is just broken?” Admestus asked.

“I don’t know how anyone would even begin to break Manor Dire,” Eric said, shaking his head. “But, just to play Dark Lady’s advocate, the Tiraan Empire once obliterated an entire country with magical weaponry, and I suppose if they decided the gnomes were getting the upper hand in this contest and were not inclined to lose gracefully…”

“I can’t see it,” Woodsworth replied, shaking his head. “We’ve been competin’ with the Empire over dungeons fer years, an’ they’ve been remarkably good sports. Even with Theasia bein’ such an ol’ hawk, Marshals an’ the Army are right courteous so long as they’re not bein’ outright attacked.”

“There is also Tellwyrn,” Eric added. “I suspect the list of things she can’t do is shorter than that of things she can. Though I don’t know why she would want to damage the Manor. She seemed fond of it.”

“I regret not having brought a mage of my own on this expedition,” Rhadid murmured. “It would have been far more useful than my so-called bodyguard… Presuming that the Manor is still constitutionally intact, this must be some manner of test, or challenge.”

“A leap of faith?” Admestus suggested innocently.

Rhadid turned a wry look on him. “Are you volunteering to take that leap?”

“I volunteer the Professor to do it.”

Before Eric could respond to this suggestion, a figure appeared in the space just before them, hovering beyond the shattered floor. The entire group retreated a full step from the specter—for specter it was, a phantasmal shape of pale blue, wearing wizard robes of an ancient style. Its face was difficult to focus on; one moment it seemed it might have been a man with a full beard, but then on a second glance it was a blank mask, or a decaying skull.

Its voice, however, was rich and mellifluous. When it spoke, it seemed that the words resonated from the air all around them.

“The master’s house can offer all that you seek, but the price is dear. Turn back, adventurers. Before you is reward beyond your fantasies, and a cost beyond your nightmares.”

“Welp, you heard the man,” Admestus said, throwing up his hands and turning around.

Rhadid grabbed him by the shoulder before he could take a step. “We have come too far to be deterred now, spirit. Speak your piece.”

“All of you are still welcome guests of the Manor,” the specter replied. “It is in this spirit that I give warning. You will regret the fulfillment of your ambition.” It hesitated before continuing. “But the brave never turn aside when it is wise. Listen, then, if you would test yourselves against your own fate. This is what you must do.”

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Bonus #50: Lightning in a Bottle, part 3

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The silence between them was not broken again until they came upon an opportunity for Owl to do his job.

“The first rule is to look for anything out of place,” the thief explained after carefully shepherding them around a stretch of the hallway marked by several slightly protruding floorboards. “Anything that should be flat or flush with another surface but inexplicably isn’t might be concealing a mechanism you don’t wanna disturb. We’re pretty lucky this is such an old place and hasn’t updated its décor, in fact. You get into modern environments and this is a lot harder. Lots of finicky little decorative touches that can conceal devices, and the gadgets themselves are engineered a lot more precisely. Small enough to hide better. This, though, all the heavy timber and rough stone, simple ironwork… Much easier to spot traps.”

“What d’you suppose might’ve happened if we stepped on those floorboards?” Admestus asked innocently.

“If you’re real curious you can go back and try it,” Owl drawled. “Given our job here I didn’t reckon it was worth the trouble.”

“Quite so,” Lord Rhadid agreed. “We have all seen how dangerous the Manor can be. Let us not tempt fate.”

“On that, a word of warning,” Owl added. “A really clever or devious trap-maker who’s expecting skilled intruders might hide a sneaky trap close to an obvious one to make you blunder into it. Or get you used to avoiding easily-spotted mechanisms and then spring something really subtle on you. I get the impression Manor Dire, or Diristaan’s ghost, or whatever the intelligence around here is doesn’t lack for cleverness. It’s definitely used to meeting skilled intruders. So keep your eyes peeled, don’t make assumptions and don’t ever get cocky.”

“Good advice for all situations,” said Rhadid, nodding approvingly. “Let’s proceed, everyone. Without dawdling, but also without excessive haste.”

“About how many yards per second would you say is the sweet spot, eh?” Admestus asked, jabbing Eric’s shoulder with his elbow.

“I will make it known if my expectations are not being met,” Lord Rhadid answered for him, with an even and pointed stare at the alchemist.

That killed the conversation again.

Their next encounter came upon them by surprise, and quite suddenly. The group slowed by unspoken consensus as they neared an intersection of halls, wary of the Manor’s tricks. As it happened, what came around the corner at them without warning was no device of Manor dire. Fresh from the memory of their last debacle, Owl and Eric both came to a stop, throwing their arms wide to prevent any reflexive actions by those behind them. It was unnecessary, as neither Rhadid nor Admestus were that twitchy or that rash. The alchemist did pretend to trip over Eric, though.

Up ahead, the group of half a dozen soldiers in Imperial uniforms likewise stopped. They had instinctively brought staves to bear on Rhadid’s group, but just as quickly raised them upon assessing the situation.

“What in the hell?” exclaimed the woman in the front, who had a lieutenant’s bars on her collar. “Just what in Omnu’s name do you think you’re doing in here?”

“The same as you, I rather think,” Rhadid replied calmly, pushing past Owl’s outstretched arm to take a position at the head of the group.

“Well, cut it out and sod off back the way you came, citizen,” she said bluntly. “This dungeon is off-limits to civilians.”

“No, it is not,” Rhadid said. “As I have already explained to your colleagues guarding the front access. The law is clear on this point.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, shaking her head. “That lazy piece of— If I find out you bribed your way in here I will personally see that you’re brought up on corruption charges along with Lieutenant Adaan. Name, now!”

He sketched a shallow bow, managing somehow to make the gesture subtly mocking. “I am Lord Rhadid Daraspian. And you are…?”

“Figures,” the lieutenant grunted. “Listen, Lord Daraspian—”

“Lord. Rhadid,” he enunciated in a tone that cut through even the prospect of dissent. “I was under the impression that basic etiquette was included in Army training, Lieutenant. Only a Head of House is addressed by title and surname, all others by title and given name. Fortunately for us all, my grandfather is not here.”

Admestus and one of the soldiers behind the lieutenant grinned broadly. Owl and two of the other soldiers grimaced in anticipation of what would inevitably follow.

“Thank you,” she said in a dangerously even tone, “for the reminder, your Lordship. Here’s one for you: Army operations in an active dungeon are treated under the law as wartime activities. Thus, interfering in them can be adjudged as treason before a military tribunal not answerable to any House, and in the meantime, I can order my troops to shoot you where you stand if I deem it necessary.”

“Which you clearly do not,” Rhadid replied. “I frankly see no relevance to any of that, since I am not interfering with you in any fashion and in fact look forward to parting ways. And I was not simply exchanging polite courtesy, Lieutenant. I require your name and that of your commanding officer.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits, and all the amusement vanished from the faces of the other soldiers.

“Uh, point of order here, m’lord,” Owl interjected. “Speaking from a strictly practical position, if somebody maybe has the legal right to shoot you it may not be best to make that their most attractive option. As you said, nobody here’s a threat or even necessarily a nuisance to anyone else. How’s about we leave it at that and shuffle along?”

“Never thought I’d say this, LT, but the adventurer’s got a point,” one of the soldiers remarked.

“He does,” she agreed, eyes on Lord Rhadid. “But that’s not really up to me, is it? If his Lordship is bound and determined to turn this into an issue that goes beyond the walls of the Manor, it’s clearly not for the likes of us to gainsay him.”

“I am determined only to pursue my mission here,” Rhadid said, still perfectly calm. “It makes no difference to me, Lieutenant, whether you let my party pass with no comment or fervently wish that I am eaten by the Manor, so long as you do not impede me. If that is not your intent, I am content to concern myself no further with your lapses in manners. One can expect only so much from the common soldier, after all.”

“Yeah, see, that’s the kinda stuff that’s not helping smooth this over,” Owl muttered.

“In that case, we common soldiers won’t keep your Lordship from your business,” she declared. “Fall in and let’s go.”

Rhadid’s group moved to one side of the hallway to let the soldiers file past.

“There’s some trapped floorboards back that way,” Admestus informed them, “if the house hasn’t rearranged itself since. Careful where you put your feet.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” said one of the troops, nodding to him. Moments later they were past, and proceeding briskly down the hall.

“Well, now, that’s just unfriendly,” Admestus muttered, turning to watch them go with his fists planted on his hips. “I warned them about what was ahead. Is it too much to hope for a little turnabout, there?”

“You, ah, don’t interact much with the commoners in your society, do you, m’Lord?” Eric asked hesitantly.

“In point of fact, I have,” Rhadid replied. “I find it is well worth the effort of cultivating goodwill, where the prospect of such exists. In cases where I need swift compliance from someone I can expect never to meet again, it is often more effective to strategically invoke the resentment many of them carry in the first place, and bend it to my own ends. There is seldom a swifter way to make resentful little people leave. None of which matters for our purposes, now that the obstruction is abolished. On we go.”

“Onward and upward!” Admestus agreed cheerfully.

As if his words had been prophetic, they rounded the corner to find a staircase ascending to the next floor. Owl led the way again, moving carefully and checking for ominous features of the architecture.

None appeared in the next few minutes, however, and by proceeding with deliberate care, the party made steady progress over the hours that followed. Owl’s sharp eyes kept them out of most of the traps, though as he lamented, creeping through a trapground by himself was a far cry from ushering a group of amateurs through the same, and they did not pass unscathed. Even their lapses did not bring them to significant grief, however. All of them were sufficiently adroit to avoid the marble bust which tipped over on them, and Eric proved too physically sturdy to be much damaged by the toppling bookcase he wasn’t nimble enough to evade. Lord Rhadid and Eric were both struck by the darts which a stuffed moose head spat at them when they stepped on the rug in front of it, but Admestus was able to swiftly neutralize the poison and standard healing potions made quick work of the minor puncture wounds thus inflicted.

Traps aside, they did encounter several puzzles. None blocking their paths, but Eric strongly advised pausing to solve these as part of gaining the house’s favor, to which Lord Rhadid acquiesced.

Eric’s knowledge of history and literature got them through the questions asked by the talking book they encountered upon a pedestal in the middle of the second-floor hall. Their reward for passing this impromptu quiz was a map of the surrounding hallways, which they used to avoid several clearly marked dangers, unlock a gate sealed by a complex mechanical puzzle that Owl ultimately solved, and proceed up another flight of steps to a third floor and beyond the map’s knowledge, at which time the piece of parchment itself turned blank.

The house did seem to go out of its way to test them each individually. Only Rhadid was equipped and skilled enough to defeat the animated fencing dummies which barred one corridor, and Admestus was able to make sense of the table of cups and bottles positioned before a wall of fire, mixing a potion from the supplied ingredients that enabled them to pass through the flames unscorched. Owl paused to solve a blacksmith’s puzzle sitting ostentatiously atop a stool, which then turned into a ring of keys that got them through a series of nearby doors, ultimately leading to a single door with no key, but a keyhole nearly as tall as Eric with two large shafts of iron standing nearby. Owl coached them through the basics of lockpicking and managed to lead a team effort which required the strength of all four, but eventually succeeded in springing the giant tumbler and letting them through.

That proved to be the pattern. Any challenge they could not solve, they could simply go around, though a path thus taken tended to lead nowhere interesting for a long time. A successfully passed puzzle, however, would lead quickly to another. The house was an ever-shifting maze and it grew progressively more difficult to grasp where they were in relation to where they had started, to say nothing of how long they had been there. They did not encounter any more servants of the house, however, neither zombies, the spectral servitors Eric had warned them to expect, nor semi-permanent guests making themselves useful like Tellwyrn.

When Admestus finally worked out the right combinations of weedkillers and fertilizers to coax a row of potted vines to shift their foliage away from a pair of double doors, the group encountered their first dead end, but also their first sign of open approval from the Manor since losing Tamara.

“It’s just the two rooms,” Owl reported, coming back through the only other door in the comfortable bedchamber into which they had emerged. “No other exits, though there’s a little washroom in the second one. Looks like your basic hotel suite. That’s a smaller and somewhat nicer bedroom in there, while you’ve got the second bed and chairs up here.”

“Hm,” Lord Rhadid mused, looking around. It was a rather cozy chamber, rustic as most of the Manor’s décor was, complete with a fully blazing fireplace and a stuffed unicorn head mounted above the mantle. “Professor, what do you think?”

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Admestus declared, flopping onto his back on the bed and lacing his fingers behind his head. “I think we’re about due for a break! Oh, my poor aching toesies…”

“I very specifically did not ask what you thought,” Rhadid answered him in a biting tone. “Professor Ahlstrom, I believe you said that an open bedroom was tantamount to an offer of safety?”

“All precedent confirms that, my Lord,” Eric agreed. “This is a very positive development! The house is a good host to those it deems good guests, and it would seem we have regained that status. I do recommend taking advantage of the offer.”

“I am loath to lose time,” Rhadid murmured, frowning at the wall in thought.

“None of us are tired to the point of collapse yet,” Owl said. “Shut up, Rafe. As I was saying, Lord Rhadid, there’s no telling when the next offer of safe shelter will come. If we push on, aside from having to backtrack outta here, we run the risk of being dangerously exhausted by the time we get another chance to rest.”

“Remember, we are guests here,” Eric added. “Rejecting an offer of hospitality may be taken as an insult, even if it’s done less violently than the last…well, you know.” He trailed off awkwardly, as all of them tended to do when reminded of that unpleasantness.

“I believe you are correct,” Rhadid said after a momentary pause. “On all counts. Very well, then, we camp here. Make yourselves as comfortable as you can. We will move out again as soon as is reasonable.”


There were four of them, and two rooms with a bed each. Therefore, naturally, the nobleman took the smaller bedroom with direct washroom access himself, leaving Eric and Owl to share the other bed and Admestus to sleep in the armchair. None of them bothered to protest this arrangement, or even seriously considered doing so.

The alchemist, somewhat ironically, seemed to be having the most restful night of the three consigned to this side of Rhadid’s closed door. He had tipped the chair to lean its tall back against the wall and draped himself within the resulting hammock, and quite soon was both snoring and drooling. The other two lay much less comfortably on the wide bed, Eric on top of the quilt and Owl beneath it. The sleeping arrangement, though, was not the thing that kept them up.

“So,” Owl said in a low voice, after several minutes of awkward silence broken only by Admestus’s reedy snoring, “we gonna talk about it or not?”

The dwarf cleared his throat softly, almost whispering his reply. “Do you think we ought to wake…?”

“Can you imagine anything good coming of that?”

“He does seem rather imbalanced, yes, but I assumed he was tapped for this mission for good reason. We’ve seen his considerable skill.”

“Don’t be taken in,” Owl murmured. “The eccentric professor bit is a bardic archetype, that’s all. I’ve met and worked with the kind of crazy that still manages to be incredibly good at a specific job, and that isn’t what it looks like. Think obsessiveness and poor social skills, not grandstanding and comedy.”

“I…admit personality types aren’t my own area of expertise. I’m something of an academic stereotype myself.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Why, then, do you think he is…like this?”

“Dunno. I do know when somebody works that hard to draw attention, he’s drawing attention away from something else. And when somebody with a belt full of poisons and acids wants me to not poke my nose into his business, I stay outta his business. I also don’t go outta my way to include him in sensitive conversations.”

They fell silent as Rafe snorted loudly, shifting in his improvised bed, and emitted a heavy sigh, then resumed snoring.

“It was the suddenness of it,” Eric whispered eventually. “Just…he just…”

“Here’s what I keep goin’ over,” Owl murmured back. “Everybody else here has a role. I’m a specialist in traps, and we’ve met lots of traps. You’re the leading expert anywhere on the Manor. The alchemist, because Rhadid wants something in the old wizard’s alchemy lab. In hindsight, I can’t think of a solid reason why he dragged along some thug wannabe adventurer.”

“You don’t think…you’re not suggesting… Lord Rhadid brought Tamara along specifically to…to…do that?”

“Doesn’t follow, does it? If he needed a living sacrifice, he wouldn’ta blown it on the first major obstacle we met. We’re in a dungeon, bein’ led by a man who’s clearly willing to spill our blood to get what he wants. In this situation, unknowns are dangerous. I dunno why he brought her and that makes me nervous.”

“I hate myself for even saying this,” the dwarf breathed almost inaudibly, “but…I mean, from a coldly pragmatic standpoint, in that specific scenario…”

“Oh, no, I totally get that,” Owl agreed quickly. “Rhadid coulda made her apologize an’ make nice with the zombie, maybe mollified the house that one time, but she showed how she was gonna act and it was just a matter of time before she got somebody killed. It made total sense, don’t beat yourself up for noticing. Difference is, we might’ve thought it, but we didn’t fuckin’ do it. Deliberately and without hesitating. That shit isn’t normal. I’ve met more killers than you probably ever will and the ones who just calmly do things like it means nothing scare me a hell of a lot more than the mad dogs that lash out when provoked.”

A shrill giggle split the quiet of the room. Rafe writhed, mumbling to himself, until he had squirmed completely sideways, with his legs dangling over one arm of the chair and his head leaning backward over the other in a position that had to have been terribly uncomfortable. At the very least it made his snoring significantly louder when it resumed.

“I suppose there’s an upside to all that,” Eric said at last. “At least we know we are important.”

“Mm,” Owl grunted. “What’s he want in the alchemy lab?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know. He only revealed to me that that is his goal. I rather suspect Mr. Rafe knows. If you want to ask him…”

“Don’t think I’m that worried just yet,” Owl murmured. “Least, not about that. More immediately… Rhadid’s the man with the plan, and anyway he obviously won’t regard himself as expendable. He obviously needs the half-elf to be alive at the end of this, cos whatever he wants in the alchemy lab requires the alchemist. You are the leading authority on this whole damn house. I’m a specialist too, but in a more general kinda stuff. Hell of a thing, being officially the least necessary person here.”

The ensuing pause was painful, and not just because of Admestus’s snoring.

“Well, so far as we know, Tamara was a nobody,” Eric offered. “I mean, that is…rest her soul. You know what I mean. My University knows where I am, and doing what, and with whom. I assume your Guild does likewise. Questions will be asked if I don’t return. And, ah, the Thieves’ Guild is rather notorious for imposing repercussions on people who misuse its members.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” Owl muttered bluntly. “We’re in a dungeon. People died doing this back in the day when this was a thing people generally did, and that hasn’t been true since the Enchanter Wars. Oh, there’d be questions if Lord Bigshot was the only one to walk outta here alive, but you know a smooth operator like him’d have answers. Nobody is gonna be too awful curious about people who die in Manor fucking Dire.”

Rafe squirmed again, shifting back around to a position that would put him upside down in the chair. This proved too much for its precarious balance; its two grounded legs scooted backward as the upper edge of its back slid abruptly down the wall and the whole thing impacted the ground with a bang, bouncing the half-elf roughly on impact. He let out a yelp, and then nothing, lying there with his legs dangling over the edge of the seat and the rest of him hidden behind it.

“Y’know what, screw it,” he said aloud after a moment’s silence. His rotated his ankles once each clockwise and then the other way, and then fell still. After scarcely a minute, his snoring began again.

“What is our plan, then?” Eric murmured.

“Same as it always was,” Owl replied. “Survive. Just a bit more complicated than we thought, is all.”

He rolled onto his side, putting his back to the dwarf, and thereafter they were silent. Even so, it was some time before sleep came to either of them.


At least breakfast was good.

The smell awakened them; overnight, a covered platter had appeared on the bedside table in the front room. Beneath its lid were utensils, a pot of tea, and four plates laden with boiled eggs, blood sausage, fried potatoes, tomato slices and baked beans. Eric reassured them that food offered by the house was safe, not that he had to try very hard. There was no table, forcing them to take plates to various seats around the room, but not even the aristocrat complained about the arrangements as they all tucked in.

The meal wasn’t completely devoid of complaint, however.

“It’s beyond my imagining,” Owl said between bites, “how one dainty little slip of a half-elf can snore like a thousand beavers devouring a whole forest.”

“Sir, how dare you,” Admestus retorted loudly. “I most certainly do not snore. The idea! Harrumph. Ha very rumph, sirrah!”

“What do you think of our progress, Professor?” Rhadid cut in.

“It’s of course impossible to gauge it in any objective manner,” the dwarf replied. “We are certainly making progress, m’lord. Continuing to solve challenges and impress the Manor with our conduct is the path forward. Navigating to the innermost depths of Manor Dire has always been a game of patience and perseverance.”

“So you have informed me,” Rhadid acknowledged, spearing a chunk of potato with his fork. “I do not want to risk attempting a shortcut if it will antagonize the house’s governing intelligence, let me be clear about that up front. If that risk can be avoided, however, I would prefer to speed our progress in any way possible. For example, we have found that both the Imperial Army and the gnomes are active here, and doubtless vying for the Manor’s favor. How do you suppose we might turn this state of affairs to our advantage?”

Eric blinked twice, seeming momentarily to forget his plate of food. “I…could not exactly say. Your Lordship is surely more skilled at politics of any sort than I; even the necessary politics of academia have tended to be over my head—”

Admestus straightened up. “Hah! For a dwarf, what isn’t—”

“Shut up, Rafe,” Rhadid ordered. “Go on, Professor.”

Eric cleared his throat, shooting the half-elf an annoyed glance. “As I was saying, m’lord, I don’t think it advisable to try. Intervening in such affairs, even supposing we have the opportunity, seems most likely to provoke the house itself. We’ll want to refrain from doing anything disruptive or destructive. The only exception I can imagine is if either other party in question begins acting directly against the Manor’s interests, in which case we could doubtless gain much favor by siding against them.”

“Seems improbable,” Owl noted, “bein’ as how both of them are trying to butter up the house themselves.”

“Precisely,” Eric agreed, nodding. “It would not be wise to attempt. The safe way is the slow way, my lord.”

“I see,” Rhadid said with a lack of inflection that obfuscated his feelings on the matter. “Well. Do finish your meal, gentlemen, and let’s be about it as quickly as we can.”

There was no obvious place to leave dirty dishes, so they carefully stacked everything on the tray and covered it again, leaving it right where it appeared, before setting out once more.

This necessitated some backtracking, as they had passed through a series of challenge-barred chambers to reach the bedroom suite. Eric insisted on slowing to examine their surroundings for hidden alternate exits, but if any such existed, the party failed to locate them. Soon enough, they were back in the corridor, and for lack of a better plan, set off down it in the direction they had not yet explored. Rather than leading to a turn or intersection as the halls tended to, this one ended in an arched doorway, the heavy oaken double doors within it standing wide open to reveal yet another surprise.

Beyond the archway was an outdoor courtyard, thrice as long as it was wide; at the opposite narrow end stood another set of doors, these closed, and flanked by windows of stained glass in ornate iron housing. A long stone path led from one end to the other, wide as each of the double doorways and laid out in intricate but irregular geometric patterns, with thick moss and occasional weeds lodged in the crevices between. The sides of the pathway were left green and untended, now choked with bushes, stands of scraggly wildflowers, and clumps of what appeared to be displaced Great Plains tallgrass. Interspersed along these, flanking the stone pathway at irregular intervals, stood six ancient and weathered standing stones, ten feet tall at least. Such monuments, left for unknown reasons by long-vanished people, stood here and there in the Stalrange and parts of the Tira Valley, but none had ever been noted in this part of Vrandis. As if to complete the ambiance, and match the cloudy sky overhead, a thin mist hung over the ground, obscuring the stone path at the courtyard’s farthest point.

“Now, stop me if I’m wrong,” Admestus said after they had stared at this for a few silent moments, “but weren’t we on the third floor?”

“Such a feature is still not impossible, in terms of strictly mundane architecture,” Eric pointed out. “More importantly, I advise you not to become hung up on such details here.”

“Owl?” Lord Rhadid prompted.

“Oh, yeah,” Owl said, nodding sagely. “That is booby-trapped as hell. It’s practically an overt threat. Lemme get a closer look.”

“Be cautious,” Rhadid reminded him as the thief crept out into the courtyard, sidling along the very edge of the stone path.

“Always am,” he said laconically, creeping along the ground to study the stonework in detail.

“What do you think?”

“The moss in the cracks is good. A lot depends on how long it’s been undisturbed, but depending on what kinda mechanisms are down there I may be able to tell which stones to not step on just by how thick it grows from one crevice to the next. Hey, Rafe! Can I assume you’ve got some manner of defoliant in that belt of yours?”

“Hah!” Admestus crowed, planting his hands on his hips and thrusting them forward. “Buckaroo, I will wager you an oral sex act of your choice that you can’t think of a potion or concoction I ain’t got in this belt of mine!”

“I’m gonna pass on every single part of that, thanks,” Owl said without rancor, still studying the ground. Reaching the first of the standing stones, he turned to examine it up close, running his fingers along the grass at its base. “Tricky thing here is how all this is an obvious test. I’m used to booby traps meant to keep people out, or straighforwardly kill ’em if they got in. Situation’s changed by it being the whole point for intruders to figure out the trap and how to circumvent it. It’s not always gonna be obvious how it’s changed, either. Hmm…”

“This is so suspenseful,” Admestus breathed, gazing avidly at the thief’s progress. “I can’t watch. Oh, I wish I’d brought peanuts…”

“So for purposes of your belt of holding, peanuts don’t count as a concoction?” Eric said wryly.

“Not the roasted kind with all the salt that you buy at circuses. Dammit, now I’m getting hungry again.”

It happened before any of them could react. Owl deliberately reached out with one leg to press his toes against a specific stone in the pathway, and the towering monolith he was crouched in front of slammed down. It did not move like a falling tower of rock; that would have given him plenty of time to jump out of the way. The thing descended with the speed and force of a bolt from a crossbow, impacting the path with a tremendous crunch of shattered stone.

Once fallen, the heavy ironwork at its base was revealed, including thick chains, huge hinges, and a single titanic spring which had unclenched to push it over so fast. As they stared in horror, a rhythmic clunking sound began from a mechanism below the floor, the chains grew taught and began to pull against the spring and the stone’s own weight, and it gradually tipped back up, being pulled once more into an upright position.

As it rose, the wreckage it had made of the path was revealed; that entire segment of stone tiles was pulverized. Of Owl, there was no sign.

“What?” Eric gasped. “Where’d he go?”

“You’re asking us?” Admestus said shrilly. “Isn’t this your area of expertise? Does the Manor usually disappear bodies that cleanly?”

“I—I don’t—we should at least check…”

Rhadid put out an arm to stop the dwarf from striding forward onto the path.

“This defeated our trap expert,” he said quietly. “Whatever the foe, it is important to know when you are beaten. As eager as I am to make progress, I am not eager to the point of recklessness. Come, we have more backtracking to do before we can resume going forward.”

He waited until the two of them finally retreated from the archway before following them back up the hall, casting a final lingering look at the now-innocuous standing stones.

“And then there were three.”

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Bonus #49 continued

Author’s Note:  This is the second half of the previous chapter, which has been updated on that page as well.  This page is being posted to ping those who follow the story via RSS or WordPress, and will not be linked in the archives.

The author apologizes for the schedule disruption and greatly appreciates everyone’s patience and understanding regarding the ongoing mental health issues that cause these events.


Fortunately none of them were standing in the path of the abrupt scenery change which immediately followed; rather than the subtle alteration the Manor had used to change their path behind them, this was swift, physical, and violent. Segments of the corridor’s walls behind and ahead of them slammed across the hallway, impacting the opposite walls with a deeply ominous boom and sealing the group in a space barely ten feet long.

“Professor,” Lord Rhadid said with impressive calm, “your thoughts?”

“I’m sorry, I would have warned you,” Eric babbled, “but you have to understand, meeting friendly agents of the household is most unusual and they are described more often as spectral than biologically undead, and besides, no adventurer’s account describes encountering a Manor servant this early on! They occasionally appear later in an excursion, when an explorer has passed multiple trials—”

His Lordship raised his voice to interrupt. “Professor. Fault can be discussed when we are not trapped like rats. Have you any thoughts on remedying this situation?”

“Oh. Um, I…yes.” Eric ran a trembling hand over his beard. “Well. That is, no precise parallel occurs to me, but, I think, generally…”

“How ’bout we try apologizing and asking nicely?” Owl suggested.

“Leave it to me!” Admestus proclaimed, swaggering forward to stand before the section of wall which had emerged to block their path. He cleared his throat, straightened his lapels, and ran a hand over his hair, then flung himself to his knees with a wail of dismay. “OH GODS I’M SORREEEE! It was all an accident, we didn’t mean to kill the zombie. SHE DID IT! HER!” He pointed behind him with one hand in Tamara’s general direction, pawing obsequiously at the wall with the other. “This is a terrible misunderstanding! Oh, gods, I don’t wanna die like thiiiiissss…”

He trailed off, bawling at the top of his lungs, alternately drumming on the wall with his fists and kissing it.

“Stop it, Admestus,” Rhadid ordered. “Professor Ahlstrom, I am waiting.”

“Right,” Eric said unsteadily. “Well, as a general rule, the Manor is not unreasonable; accidents occur under pressure. Owl has the right of it, in fact. When one errs, a good faith effort to make amends will do much to restore the house’s good graces.”

“How?” Tamara demanded, pointing with her still-unsheathed sword at the fallen zombie. It was groaning intermittently, its torso flopping this way and that, seemingly too weak to move in a goal-directed fashion with only one arm. Unsettlingly, its other arm and disconnected legs were both shifting feebly as well.

“Well,” said Rhadid, “that seems a start. Admestus, time to earn your salary.”

Admestus broke off licking the wall to look inquisitively at him. “I…I thought I was. You…you want me to seduce the house? I don’t know, I’ve never gotten it on with an edifice. But hey, if it’s for the good of the—”

“Enough!” Rhadid barked, showing the first open irritation he had betrayed this far. “Get over there and fix that creature, and cease your asinine noisemaking!”

“How the hell is this load gonna fix a busted zombie?” Tamara asked skeptically while Admestus scuttled over to the fallen undead without further comment. “I seriously doubt he can put on his pants unassisted.”

“Can’t,” Admestus agreed, having arrived at the zombie’s side in a slide on his knees, already reaching into the pouches attached to his belt of holding for his supplies. “That’s why I make it a point never to have my pants off alone. Well, one reason. Okay, little buddy, you just hang in there. Uncle Rafe’s gonna make it all better.”

Another low moan sounded around them—not from the zombie, but the house. This time, the floorboards actually shivered beneath their feet.

“Quickly, please,” Lord Rhadid suggested.

“Excuse me,” Eric protested, “but it’s a known principle that you cannot raise or significantly modify undead using alchemy alone. Any method of practical necromancy requires the active use of at least two of the four schools of magic, and most call for shadow magic as well!”

“It is for good and specific reason that I chose this imbecile as my alchemical specialist,” Rhadid replied calmly.

“Stop, I’m gonna blush!” Admestus trilled, even as he worked. Pulling the fragments of the zombie back together was the easy part; holding them in the right position proved more challenging, when the creature wouldn’t stop its weak thrashing. “Listen, guy, you’re gonna have to hold still. If I gotta immobilize you it’s just gonna mess you up even more.”

The zombie groaned, turning its mouthful of crooked, yellow teeth in his direction, but actually stopped wriggling. At least, its torso did.

“Reflex action, huh?” Admestus grunted, wrestling the still-twitching arm into place after pulling both ends of its sleeve apart. “’sokay, I can work with this…”

While he hadn’t attempted this specific feat before, he was no stranger to working rapidly, under pressure, and in adverse conditions. Admestus swiftly bound the two pieces of severed arm together with curse-briar twigs and enchantment-grade copper wire, liberally sprayed the resulting makeshift splint with a solution of skeleton dust and dilute panacea potion which he mixed in a small perfume bottle, and finally applied one drop of unicorn tear to reactivate the briars. Immediately they began to spread, twining up and down the zombie’s emaciated arm until its broken part was encased in a cast of rough, dark wood, the enchanting wires completely buried within.

“Okay, how’s that work?” he asked, ignoring both the nervous faces peering over his shoulder and another rattle of the floorboards. “You got a full range of motion? Cos, full disclosure, I’m kinda spitballing here and if that’s not holding together I’ll obviously wanna try something different on the other bit.”

The zombie carefully flexed its arm, seemingly without effort. Then it formed a thumbs up with the reattached hand and moaned wetly at him.

“All right!” Admestus said cheerfully. “We are in business! Tammy, babe, I’m gonna need you to hold his legs down.”

“I’m not touching that fucking thing,” she snapped.

“Omnu’s balls,” Owl grunted, dropping to the floor beside Admestus to help wrestle the still-kicking legs into position. “We don’t have time for this.”

Fortunately the zombie was skeletal enough that only its lower spine needed to be repaired to rejoin the two halves of its body. Minutes later, Admestus and Owl were carefully helping it to stand back up.

The undead opened its jaw wide, emitting a long groan.

“You’re welcome, ol’ chap!” Admestus said brightly. “I’d clap you on the back, but…y’know.”

“All right,” Rhadid said, looking around at their enclosure. “I note that the building itself has ceased making threatening noises, but we are still here.”

“Based on all my reading,” said Eric, “this should be…a start. I’m sorry, my lord, it’s out of precedent for us to have been greeted by a house servant this soon in our trek and I frankly don’t know what it signifies that we first botched it and then tried to repair the damage.”

“What do you mean, we?” Owl asked, turning a pointed stare on Tamara. She flipped him off.

“Well, we’re halfway there!” Admestus said cheerily, having picked up the fallen bottle of brandy and sole surviving glass. He poured himself a shot and then held it aloft. “Your health, zombie house!”

They all stared while he tossed it back.

“What are the odds that was poisoned?” Owl asked.

“I told you,” said Eric, “the Manor doesn’t poison people with drink freely offered.”

“Besides,” Admestus added haughtily, “an alchemist is never poisoned. Unthinkable!”

“Nine tenths of the shit you do is unthinkable,” Tamara informed him.

“Anyway,” Eric continued, “this is likely to make our way a little more perilous, at least until we’ve earned back some favor with the house. Forgiven is not forgotten.”

The low groan which resonated through the floorboards was too perfectly timed to have been coincidence. The zombie, now leaning against the wall, added an echoing moan, making an awkward rolling motion with its head that might have been a disjointed nod.

“He came out of here, didn’t he?” Owl stepped past the injured undead to open the only door in this section of the hall with them—as he had said, the one through which the zombie had abruptly emerged minutes ago. The thief poked his head in. “Hey, this looks like a lounge. ‘Splains why a waiter came outta here. There’s another door.”

“Well…there you go,” Eric said nervously, hitching up his satchel upon his shoulders. “Shall we?”

“Tamara,” Lord Rhadid said pointedly, nodding toward the zombie waiter, “is there something you would like to say to our new acquaintance?”

She looked at him, then at the zombie. It groaned at her. Tamara curled her lip and pushed past Owl into the lounge. “I’ll take point.”

The rest followed, Rhadid and Eric both pointedly bowing to the zombie in passing. Through the door was a wood-paneled room longer than it was wide, with several deeply-padded seats and low tables, a roaring hearth along one of its shorter walls and a long bar backed by a sizable stock of bottles against the side. The party moved through it without pausing to appreciate the scenery; the room’s other door was positioned to emerge into the same hallway from which they had just come, past the obstruction the Manor had placed across it.

When they emerged, however, the hallway was clear. It extended emptily in both directions, with no sign of either the barrier walls or the injured zombie.

As if to summarily squash any relief they might have dared to feel, another tremor rumbled through the floorboards, this one accompanied by a low growl that sounded like the product of something alive. The group froze momentarily, then Lord Rhadid turned to Eric.

“Professor?”

“We need to keep moving,” the dwarf said urgently. “It seems we’re not forgiven yet, after all; that must be earned. The faster we go, the more we will encounter, and that will lead to opportunities to impress the Manor positively. But there can be no more incidents like that! If we offend the house again while already on its bad list…”

“You heard the Professor,” Rhadid said firmly, casting a swift glance across the lot of them. “No mistakes from here. You must be fully on alert, but do not act without thinking!”

He finished his instruction staring at Tamara, and then stood there holding her gaze, even as the house groaned beneath them again. Finally she bowed her head, albeit sullenly.

“Understood, Lord Rhadid.”

“Good. Owl, Professor, take the lead again, please, and proceed at such a pace that you do not risk charging into a trap. You,” he pointed at Tamara, “go right behind them. Step forward to defend if and only if Professor Ahlstrom informs you of the necessity. Admestus, with me. Have countermeasures at the ready in case we are flanked, but again, look before acting.”

“Yes, sir, your Lordliness!” Admestus chirped, throwing a deliberately off-kilter salute. “If it’s all the same to you, milord, I shall also think before acting!”

“What the hell is he gonna do?” Tamara grumbled as they started moving up the hall. “Spritz perfume on the next monster?”

“Ooh, now there’s an idea!” Admestus chattered. “Monster perfume! But…what would be the market? There’s something there, I know it, but I’ll have to mull that. Meanwhile, I’ve got this!”

He pulled out a jar which filled the hallway with a clean white glow, causing the whole group to pause and turn back toward him.

“Lightning in a bottle,” he said in answer to the unasked question.

“Okay, but…not literally, though, right?” Eric replied.

Admestus stared at him without expression and replied tonelessly. “Everything I have ever said has been completely literal.”

The house shuddered around them. Several nearby doors rattled in their frames.

“Move,” Rhadid ordered, and they set off up the hall again.

“Now that you mention perfume,” Admestus added, “I do have a spray bottle full of flesh-dissolving acid!”

“I recommend you stop making statements which our host might construe as threats,” Eric advised.

“Pshaw, what, little old me? I’m the genius who put the waiter back together, remember? I’m officially the house’s favorite person here. It knows I’m harmless! Don’cha, ol’ girl?”

He patted a doorframe in passing, then leaped away across the hall with a yelp when the door jerked inward, revealing that both it and its frame were lined with jagged fangs, and then slammed back shut.

“Did you see that?” Tamara yelled. “It tried to bite him! The fucking house tried to bite him!”

“You gotta figure most of the people he meets get to that point sooner or later,” Own remarked.

“Wait,” Rhadid ordered, and they came to a stop, watching him. The group pulled a bit closer together as another distinctly animal growl sounded from within the walls—a very, very large one, the noise coming from both sides of the hallway and seeming to move as if whatever made it was progressing through the rooms nearby. Only Rhadid kept complete composure, standing somewhat apart from the group.

He stepped across the hall and back two yards to another door, and carefully tried the latch.

Fortunately for him, Rhadid had not been boasting about his credentials; his reflexes were not those of a man who lived comfortably on inherited wealth. He no sooner touched the latch than retreated, and thus was out of range when the door burst inward and a gigantic forked tongue lashed out across the hallway to strike the opposite wall. The door was also lined with fangs—bigger ones, this time—and emitted a truly deafening ursine roar before slamming shut again.

The floorboards trembled more violently beneath them, and suddenly, all the torches lining this stretch of hallway flickered out.

“If anyone is wondering,” Admestus announced, “the damp stain spreading on my pants is from my reagent bottles. Cork must’ve come loose.”

Lord Rhadid drew his sword, turning back to study the group thoughtfully, running his eyes over each of them. Then he nodded once as if deciding something and strode forward. “Very good, I have an idea. Everyone, step away from that door.” He pointed with his rapier at another one on the same side of the hall as the door which he had just narrowly escaped. “Tamara, try the latch.”

“Are you joking?” she demanded.

“No,” Rhadid said calmly, as if that were a perfectly serious question, and came to a stop right alongside her. “I will be right here with you, don’t worry. I know what I am doing.”

“I don’t know what you’re doing,” she snapped. “What’s your bloody great idea?”

The floor actually rippled beneath them, causing Eric and Admestus to stumble. For a moment the hardwood had surged like the surface of a disturbed pool; in the aftermath it was left firm as ever and undamaged. Another hungry growl resounded, this time definitely from the door Rhadid had indicated.

“The first step,” he said evenly, “was to hire a mercenary with the understanding that she would not be paid if she did not follow my orders.”

Tamara held his stare, her jaw muscles working; Rhadid simply gazed dispassionately back.

“This had better work,” she growled at last, turning to the door and drawing one of her wands. “Whatever the fuck this even is, it had better work. Ready?”

“When you are,” Rhadid replied, nodding.

She swallowed once, held her wand up at the ready, and with her other hand, reached out and turned the latch.

Tamara immediately jumped back, barely avoiding the meaty tongue which flopped out at her. The tooth-lined door frame snapped repeatedly, roaring loudly enough to disturb her hair.

Rhadid stepped back at the same time, then once again to place himself behind her. As Tamara dodged to the side, he nimbly shifted and planted a powerful snap kick right in the small of her back, knocking her off-balance and straight into the tongue.

Tamara managed to yell once, and as the fanged door slammed shut behind her there came a flash and snap of her wand discharging. Then silence.

The torches came back on. There was no more growling, no trembling of the floor; just a quiet hallway stretching away in both directions.

Rhadid reached out carefully with his sword, pushing down on the latch of the door that had just eaten Tamara until it clicked and the door, creaking quietly, eased an inch or so inward. He then planted the tip of the sword against the wood and gave it a push. The door swung open to reveal a quiet little study. Nothing but bookshelves lining the walls, and in one corner a desk with an oil lamp atop it, an overstuffed armchair pulled up alongside.

“As I thought,” Lord Rhadid said lightly, sheathing his sword. He stepped over, grasped the latch, and pulled the door gently shut. “The house is perfectly able to distinguish friend from foe. I think we shall have much less trouble from here. Remember to think before acting, everyone, and mind your manners. Well?” With no more ado he strode past them, heading on up the hallways. “On we go.”

The three of them stared after him in silence for a few seconds while the distance between them grew. Then, almost in unison, they hurried to catch up. There was really nothing else they could do.