15 – 12

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The road swung away to the west, and at that point Taka led them off it, tromping through the ragged grass into the foothills northward, where the trees began to thicken. No one offered any commentary at the change, including Rainwood, who presumably also knew where they were going. It was in the general direction the monks and other travelers had indicated the lodge could be found, so Ingvar saw no reason to debate their route.

He was debating, at least inwardly, asking Taka how far they had yet to go. Orange sunlight still streamed across the foothills, but the sun was sinking rapidly and within another hour it would be wiser to seek a campsite rather than risk trying to continue. This sort of hilly, rocky terrain was particularly treacherous in the dark; it was challenging enough to find footing when one could see one’s feet.

It wasn’t Ingvar, though, who broke their silence, half an hour or so after they left the road.

“I’m impressed,” Tholi said.

Ingvar, Aspen, and Rainwood all glanced back, where he and November were bringing up the rear. Taka, leading the way ahead of them, did not seem interested in the discussion.

“Get this into your head right now,” November said curtly when she found Tholi addressing her. “Nothing I do, ever, is calculated to impress you.”

Tholi sighed. “Yeah, you actually did manage to convey that already. My mistake, thinking you might respond to civil conversation rather than shouting.”

“Your mistake was not trying civil conversation the first time! You don’t get a second first impression.”

“You didn’t make a spectacular one yourself, princess.”

“Listen, you—”

“Don’t.” Ingvar didn’t look back at them again, but projected his voice enough to be clearly heard. “There was good advice hidden in that exchange. If you can’t speak to each other politely, just keep quiet. I don’t know why you two are so determined to needle each other and it doesn’t matter. If you’re going to be traveling with others, I expect you to show them some basic consideration and not make tremendous pests of yourselves.”

He glanced meaningful at Aspen, who rolled her eyes and sneeringly waggled her lips in a silent mockery of him.

“Don’t you?” Rainwood mused.

Ingvar gave him a look. “What?”

“You said you don’t know why they’re determined to needle each other. I don’t see a mystery, there. A Shaathist and an Avenist, and both teenagers with all the maturity and restraint that implies. Everything that’s followed from putting them in proximity has pretty much been arithmetic.”

“I am twenty-two years old,” November said acidly.

“Oh, sorry,” Rainwood replied in a tone of purest innocence. “So only he gets to use that excuse, then. My mistake.”

Aspen and Taka chuckled aloud; Ingvar, out of simple politeness, contented himself with a smile which the two following were not positioned to see.

“It was just a compliment,” Tholi said after a pause. “I actually am impressed. I was thinking you’d start whining about your feet and tripping over them immediately, but you’re clearly an experienced hiker. Maybe not up to Huntsman standards, but then, nobody is.”

“Have you ever trekked into the Golden Sea and back, boy?” she retorted. “I have, multiple times. You just worry about your own feet, mine are more than capable of doing their job.”

“Don’t call me boy,” he growled.

“Ooh, struck a nerve, did we?” she replied. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize a big, strong man’s man like you would be so easily offended.”

“It is a matter of serious import in Shaathist faith,” Tholi explained, the clenching of his teeth audible in his tone. “A man who has undergone the rites of adulthood is recognized as such. Claiming otherwise is a serious insult.”

“Ah, I see,” she said solemnly. “I didn’t realize that. Well, live and learn! So now when I call you boy you’ll know I mean it personally.”

Ingvar slammed to a halt and whirled, and even so by the time he turned around Tholi had grabbed his tomahawk and November had braced her feet in an Eagle Style combat stance, which even he knew wasn’t the best choice for someone not actually holding a sword.

“You’re entitled to your opinion of Shaathists, Stark,” he said flatly. “The gods know I have had my own issues with them. But whatever else you can say about them, Shaathists do not express themselves through spiteful, disrespectful, juvenile insults. Until this day, I would have comfortably said the same about Avenists, and I have rarely found reason to compliment the Sisterhood. I don’t know enough of your story to even guess where this venom comes from. It isn’t Avenist and you certainly weren’t taught it by Tellwyrn or anyone she employs. Whatever your issues, you are an adult, and as such expected to conduct yourself with a bare minimum of courtesy toward other people, even those you dislike. If you refuse to be civil for the sake of your traveling companions, or out of simple decency, perhaps you will at least refrain from being an active embarrassment to Avei?”

By the end of that, her cheeks were burning and she had clenched her fists at her sides. Ingvar held her stare anyway. Tholi, though he had to have been itching to pile onto that, at least recognized he could not do so without making himself guilty of exactly the same failing, and in fact it represented a growth in his maturity that he understood that fact before it was pointed out to him. He kept silent and did not add to November’s embarrassment even by looking at her.

As it turned out, he wasn’t the problem.

“You,” Aspen announced, pointing at November, “have just been told.”

Ingvar sighed heavily. “Aspen.”

“Yeah, yeah, fine,” she said, throwing her hands up. “Well that was fun and all. Let’s just keep moving, we don’t have a whole lot of daylight left.”

When the party resumed walking, Tholi and November drifted away, both behind the rest of the group and off to both sides so they were not within convenient earshot. After a momentary contemplation, Ingvar decided to let them be. He’d have to call them closer as it got darker, but for the moment he’d take whatever kept the peace.

“So,” Taka drawled after they had hiked in silence for a couple more minutes, “who’s taking bets on how long it’ll be before those two are sharing a bedroll?”

“What are you talking about?” Aspen demanded, mystified.

“Oh, please,” Taka snorted. “You could cut the sexual tension with a wooden spoon. When two healthy young people go at each other like that it usually means they’re too awkward to admit how much they wanna bone.”

“Nope, she’s gay,” the dryad said immediately, then hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at November, who was trudging along almost ten yards away. “And weirdly…defiant about it. It’s been interesting getting to know new people and sensing information about their sexuality, but some of ’em are muddled up in ways that just confuse me.”

“Wait, dryads can actually sense things like that?” Taka glanced back at her. “I always figured that was a myth.”

“Yeah, people have some really strange ideas about dryads. That one is true, though. I’ve never smelled anything quite like November. It’s like she’s…I dunno, wanting to fight with somebody about it. I don’t mean she’s sexually aggressive, actually kind of the opposite. But more generally aggressive, in a way that’s tangled up in her sexuality. I don’t understand it. I haven’t met anybody else who’s…that way.”

Taka gave her another look over her shoulder, this one distinctly wry. “Haven’t you?”

“We haven’t had the opportunity to meet a lot of Avenists,” Ingvar explained.

“Ah,” Taka said, nodding in understanding.

“That’s not true, we met a whole mess of them at Athan’Khar,” Aspen objected. “There were hundreds!”

“You went to Athan’Khar?” Rainwood said in clear surprise.

“Just within a mile or so of the border,” Ingvar explained. “There was a Silver Legion there. So yes, I suppose we did meet quite a few Avenists, but mostly from a distance. Bishop Syrinx was the only one we spent any significant time around.”

“That woman was just off,” Aspen opined. “Cold and empty. A healthy enough sex drive, but not connected to anything or aimed at anything, just roiling around in an empty space inside her like bees in a bottle.”

“Aspen,” Ingvar interrupted, “I would rather you didn’t reveal other people’s personal business. Sexuality is private. That applies to people in general, but especially people we’re going to be traveling with.”

“Yeah, you’ve said,” she replied with a sigh. “Sorry, Ingvar. I’ll try to do better at remembering. It’s just interesting to me, is all. I don’t really understand people very well yet; that is something I can grasp just by instinct. About how much farther is this place, anyway? I don’t really see anything that looks like a human dwelling. Can we get there before dark?”

“Not far, in fact,” Taka said. “And actually you can sort of see it from here, it’s on that ridge under the mountainside straight in front of us. The actual lodge isn’t visible due to the terrain, but you can see its location.”

“That may be farther than we can travel in the daylight that remains,” Ingvar said, frowning.

“Yeah, maybe,” Taka agreed. “But not much farther. If you wanna call a halt and camp, I’m game. Not like I’ve got anywhere to be. But if you’re comfortable going on after sundown, we can probably make it not too long after that.”

“Pretty close to the Omnist temple, isn’t it?” Tholi observed, having wandered close enough to join the conversation. “I thought these Shadow Hunters liked to hide away from other people.”

“The Rangers,” Ingvar emphasized, “probably chose this site because of its proximity to the Omnists. There is also a Shaathist lodge not too far from here, and Omnists are great peacemakers.”

“I thought the whole point of this site is being distant from anybody,” Tholi grunted.

“Yeah, but it’s not like these guys are the first ones to have the idea,” Taka said lightly. “The whole Wyrnrange is dotted with temple complexes all up and down its western edge. Especially near the big cities, and we’re a bare few miles from Ninkabi here. There’s a big, super important Izarite temple up north in Thakar, on the falls, and little retreats and lodges peppered the whole way from the Deep Wild’s frontier to Onkawa’s northern coast. It’s just the right balance of remote but still accessible to civilization that most of the cults have planted a flag somewhere along the way. Good place for peaceful retreats, or shifty business they don’t want in the public eye. Either one. Sometimes both. I’ve been hiking up and down the western row since I was fifteen. I never stopped in with the Shadow Hunters, though, so this’ll be interesting.”

“Having trouble picking a cult?” Rainwood asked.

“Yup,” she said laconically.

“I still don’t understand why we’re doing this, Brother,” Tholi muttered. “Shadow Hunters? I know you said you’re looking for secrets to help Shaath, but… These people are a disgraced offshoot who couldn’t keep to the ways of the wild.”

“Bear in mind, Tholi, that I have spent much of the last year journeying around the Empire and meeting with various lodges of the Rangers—which is what they prefer to be called, and I’d like you to start using the term. You know nothing about them but what you’ve been told by your brother Huntsmen, who regard them as a doctrinal threat. The truth is more complex.”

“They have women in their ranks!” Tholi insisted.

Everyone instinctively snuck a glance back at November, but she was tromping along behind them, still out of easy range of hearing.

“Have you ever considered that the way our lodges treat women is pretty hypocritical?” Ingvar replied. “What is the point of valuing a wild spirit, if our entire approach is to domesticate them?”

“You’re talking like an outsider,” Tholy protested. “That’s not how it is at all! A spirited woman is more valuable than a meek one, but in the pack the female yields to the dominant male. That is the way of the wild, the way emphasized by wolves, Shaath’s sacred animal sent to teach us his path!”

Ingvar drew in a slow breath and let it out just as slowly. “There are things about wolves that you don’t understand, Tholi. If you’re going to come with me on this quest…that’s going to be one of the hardest lessons ahead of you. It’s something I don’t think I can convey with words alone. You’ll have to learn it the way I did. And it is the Rangers who hold the means to do so.” He patted Tholi firmly on the shoulder, giving him an affectionate shake for good measure. “Have patience, Brother. You obviously trust my opinion, if you went to the great trouble of hunting me down all the way out here in N’Jendo. I will do my utmost to be worthy of your regard, but for the time being, I have to ask you to be patient and believe I am leading somewhere with this.”

“I do trust you, Ingvar,” Tholi said, not without reluctance. “Well, you’re right, I am already well into it now. I guess it would be pretty foolish to run or start arguing at this point. Just don’t ask me to address one of these women Rangers as Brother.”

“I don’t expect they would greatly appreciate it, anyway,” Ingvar said gravely.

As it happened, they did arrive before the fall of full darkness. Apparently it helped their speed that the party mostly strode along in tense silence for the remainder of the journey, with the sole exception of Rainwood, who passed the time by telling them stories of his days as an adventurer. And he, of course, could both see in the dark and balance on one toe on a marble, so the falling light did not impede his speed.

It helped further that they did not need to trek the entire way. Twilight had descended and the remaining sunlight morphed from red to an eerie faint gold when they first beheld the lamps descending the ridge which hid the Ranger lodge. Taka fell back without comment (for once), allowing Ingvar to take the lead. He kept them going, now to meet the figures who were approaching them from ahead.

There were five, arrayed in an arrowhead formation like migrating geese. The lamps were held by the two flanking the central figure; as they came closer, those on the edges were revealed to be carrying longbows very like those used by Huntsmen of Shaath. The tall man striding in the center, instead, held a staff which towered over him, its carved head containing a sizable chunk of crystal. All five of the Rangers wore hooded cloaks like those Ingvar and Aspen had encountered elsewhere, these dyed in a lighter green that blended well with the local terrain. The archer on the left end of their formation looked Tiraan, but the rest were Westerners.

“Hail, fellow travelers,” he called as the two groups neared, raising one hand.

The leader of the Ranger group lifted his staff once in acknowledgment, its crystal head glinting in the dying light. “Hail. What brings you to this wild corner of the world?”

“We came seeking the Rangers at the local lodge,” Ingvar replied courteously. They had come within three yards of each other now, and they stopped, so he did likewise. When meeting armed strangers in the wilderness it was wise not to press closer than they were comfortable with. Fortunately, the rest of his group followed his lead. He had been far from certain that they would, considering that they were all either fae creatures far older than he or unpredictable, poorly-behaved youths.

“You’ve found them,” the man replied, planting the butt of his staff in the dirt and tilting his head back to study them. He was of thin build, taller than most Jendi, with his wiry hair trimmed close and a neatly cut beard outlining his jaw, just beginning to be tinged with gray. “And by description, you must be Brother Ingvar.”

“I am,” Ingvar said with some surprise. This was the first group of Rangers to indicate that they had heard of him. “And this—”

“Aspen, daughter of Naiya,” the leader interrupted, nodding to her. “An honor. More than that, I was not expecting.”

“I’m surprised to learn you expected us at all,” Ingvar replied. “Truthfully I wasn’t expecting any of these companions, either; Aspen and I have known them all for less than a day.” He stopped, letting the silence hang expectantly. That this man had not introduced himself yet verged on rudeness.

“You and your dryad companion have stirred up a fair amount of curiosity, Ingvar of the Huntsmen,” he said, his expression inscrutable. “Enough that the lodges of the Rangers have begun sending messages to one another, forewarning fellow Rangers of your coming, and the general course you have set. We have ways, also, of tracking the movements of strangers in the areas we hunt. Your imminent arrival was known to us days ago.”

“I see,” Ingvar said slowly. Something about this situation was beginning to make his hackles rise. Thus far, he had found Rangers to be insular folk, but courteous and hospitable. These were standing rigidly, two with weapons at the ready, and their tension was infectious. Aspen had gone quiet, frowning. Ingvar trusted her not to be aggressive without cause, but Tholi was high-strung and November seemed even more so. “Of course, I’ve learned by now that the Rangers are custodians of a great deal of lore that the Huntsmen have forgotten. We would be greatly honored at the chance to learn from you.”

All four of the companion Rangers shifted their hoods, turning to look at their leader. He inhaled slowly and deeply, his hand working unconsciously on the wood of his staff as if he were gearing himself up for something dangerous.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice abrupt after the silence. “There is no welcome for you here, Ingvar. You and your companions must go. The lodge of the Rangers cannot harbor you.”

“I…don’t understand,” Ingvar said, frowning. This was totally unlike any previous reception he had received from their order.

“I’m sorry you have come so far for nothing,” the lead Ranger said, his voice almost curt now. He turned to go.

“Hey!” Aspen exclaimed. “None of the rest of your guys were this rude!”

“And I have apologized for it, daughter of Naiya,” he replied, having paused. “But my word is final.”

“I am a dryad,” she said incredulously. “You can’t tell me what to do!”

“I cannot compel you,” he agreed. “Nor must I offer you anything.”

“You know,” she said, more angry by the second, “if we really want to go into your lodge there’s not really anything you can do about it, now is there?”

“Aspen!” Ingvar barked. “We will not force ourselves upon them.”

“But—”

“No.”

“You may of course do as you choose,” the Ranger said evenly. “If you decide to press on…then fate will decide what follows. For now, we return, and I ask you again to go.”

“The world has changed even more than I had allowed myself to see,” Rainwood said quietly, “if a lodge of Rangers turns away travelers at sunset.”

The leader hesitated again, but then finished turning around and set off back the way they had come, offering no further answer. His companions followed, with some hesitation. The lantern-bearers backed away for a few steps before turning to catch up with him and the man on the edge of their formation, who had already started moving off.

The other archer hesitated, and then actually stepped forward instead of back.

“You see that tree?” she said in a low voice, pointing with her longbow. “The Kharsa pine with the cleft top? Camp within sight of it, and on the southeast side of the ridge. That’s well within our territory, in sight of the lodge. None of us with bother you, and as long as you are that close, the Huntsmen won’t, either.”

“Dimbi,” the lead Ranger called. She turned and strode away after them.

“Thank you,” Ingvar called after her, and received no response.

“What was that all about?” Aspen demanded as the Rangers disappeared back into the trees below the ridge on which they lived.

“I don’t know,” Ingvar said slowly. “Rainwood, you have known of Rangers longer than I. Can you offer us any insight?”

“My spirit companions may know something,” the elf mused, “though I would prefer to find a place to camp before invoking them. That was very strange, Ingvar. Hospitality is an important virtue among all decent people, and has been an agreed value among the wardens of the wild since long before any of their present names. Before there were Shaathists or Rangers or even Silver Huntresses, the archetype existed, and they offered succor to travelers in need. This is a new and troubling development.”

Tholi grunted. “I can’t say I’m impressed with your Shadow Hunter friends, Ingvar.”

“Every group of Rangers we have met before now was glad, even eager to host visitors,” Ingvar said, frowning after the bobbing lights that still flickered between the trees ahead.

“Well, I don’t know what you expect,” Tholi said disdainfully. “These are from a corrupt tradition that couldn’t manage to keep Shaath’s ways.”

“They claim it’s the other way round,” said Aspen.

“The truth, as usual, lies in the middle,” Rainwood added. “It would be most accurate to say that the Rangers and the Huntsmen are both heirs of much older traditions.”

“What was that about Huntsmen?” November added nervously. “What did she mean? Surely they wouldn’t be in this area, not with a Shadow Hunter lodge that close. I thought you were kidding about that, Ingvar.”

“Actually, nearly all Ranger lodges are positioned close enough to Shaathist lodges to cause some overlap of hunting grounds, and general friction,” said Ingvar.

“See, I was right,” Taka chimed. “Putting themselves right in the Omnists’ backyard would keep them out of a lot of trouble, if they’re bumping up against the Huntsmen.”

“Why would they court trouble that way in the first place?” November asked.

“Disaffected Shaathists are their major source of recruits,” Ingvar explained. “Lodges recruit pretty aggressively from cities and outlying farms, in part because they constantly lose people. Women run away fairly regularly, and for exactly that reason young men are often cast out. The rites of manhood that Tholi insisted upon you acknowledging are not easy. Shaathist marriage customs depend on a lodge having more women than men, particularly among the young. Conditions for a man to be initiated into Shaathist traditions as a man are harsh. Many fail. And once they have failed, they have no place in the community of the faith.”

“That sounds like a pretty damn terrible idea,” Taka said dryly. “Not to mention kinda dickish.”

Ingvar nodded. “Among other things, it’s the main reason the Ranger traditions still exist, as I said. Shaathist lodges constantly bleed a trickle of apostates and rejects, and a few of those always find their way to the Rangers.”

“Well, if there is a true lodge nearby, that solves that problem,” Tholi insisted. “They, at least, keep to the law of hospitality! A lodge would offer shelter to even a shrill, abrasive Avenist whelp without criticism or judgment, even if she didn’t have us with her.”

“I don’t know why you’re talking like we need a place to stay, anyhow,” Aspen said petulantly. “Have you seen who you’re traveling with? A dryad, two Huntsmen, an elf, and a couple of girls who obviously aren’t half as useless as they both act. Nobody here is uncomfortable sleeping outdoors.”

“I don’t think I wish to approach the local Huntsmen until we know more, anyway,” Ingvar agreed. “The Rangers do honor the law of hospitality, Tholi. This turn of events is strange for exactly that reason. I want to learn the lay of the land before risking that the next group of people from whom we should be able to expect welcome greet us with worse than these. Come, let’s look for a sheltered place.”

The group followed him east, toward the mountains. Ingvar set a much slower pace now, making sure to keep the pine tree with the split top in view, but mostly being wary of where he stepped. In truth, they needn’t be very picky about a campsite. Aspen alone was ten times as dangerous as anything that prowled these hills, and any threat on more than two legs would instinctively avoid her anyway. All they needed was a flattish space big enough for everybody not on watch to lie down around a small firepit. Still, he kept going, seeking a spot that could be easily secured.

Unnecessary, perhaps, maybe even irrational, but something odd was afoot in these hills, and Ingvar wanted every small piece of security he could grasp. There was no objection from any of the group, now straggling after him in single file. Most of them were smart enough to observe that they weren’t in any direct danger; he interpreted their silence as a reflection of his own unease.

“Rainwood,” Ingvar murmured into the darkness, barely audible even to himself. In moments the elf was at his side, strolling along as blithely as if he had always been there. “You are a shaman.”

“Thanks for noticing!” Rainwood said, cheerful as always.

“If I described to you a sacred rite based at least in part upon fae magic,” Ingvar continued quietly, “could you replicate it?”

“Almost certainly not,” the shaman said immediately. “Fae magic isn’t like arcane; it’s made of feelings and relationships, not math. There are no formulae. But if you can describe to me what this rite is meant to do, there’s a good chance I could devise one that achieves the same end.”

“I’m a little afraid to improvise,” Ingvar murmured, “but then again, it may be appropriate to make a break with older traditions. I suddenly find that I have…followers. It has occurred to me that the specific needs of what I must accomplish will require me to either change the thinking of a lot of Huntsmen of Shaath, or build my own splinter sect. I have been avoiding that realization as neither is a comfortable idea for me, but…here it is.”

“You’ve got spirit guides and apparently Avei herself deciding this is the time,” Rainwood agreed. “It might not be smart to procrastinate any further.”

Ingvar nodded. “And so, I have pups who must be shown the truth about wolves. I know the way this must be done, to make it a meaningful revelation. I only lack the means.”

“Be sure of what you are doing,” said the shaman, “and be careful. Wolves don’t bite nearly as hard as truth.”

He could not disagree.

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15 – 11

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“Do we really have to go already?” Aspen whined. “I like these people! They’re nice!”

“Do mean that in the sense that they actually are nice, or just that they fed you?” Ingvar replied dryly without slowing his pace.

“There’s no reason it can’t be both. Anyway, it’s afternoon! This is just about the worst time to be leaving a safe place to sleep, we’ve only got a few hours of travel time before dark.”

“There are hardly any unsafe places to sleep when you travel with a dryad,” Rainwood pointed out merrily.

“More important,” Ingvar added before Aspen could make another comment, “it is because these people are nice that we are taking ourselves and our very disruptive business away from their temple.”

“Oh.” Aspen scowled, turning her head to direct the expression over her shoulder. “Good, then. At least I know who to blame.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Tholi muttered. November, trailing along behind him at the end of the group, at least had the sense to keep her own mouth shut.

“It was pretty bad,” Ingvar stated. “When your shouting match can be heard through stone walls, you are officially not fit for civilized company. And I say that as someone who, like any Huntsman, does not have an excessively high opinion of civilized company. It isn’t hard to show some extremely basic consideration for other people. I can’t fathom any reason for two adult humans to be screaming like children in the front hall of monks who have offered them hospitality.”

“All right, all right!” Tholi exclaimed. “That was…a lapse. How long am I going to be hearing about it?”

“I’ll treat you in the manner your actions up to the moment have earned, Tholi. If you wish to be treated differently, every moment is an opportunity to begin building a new impression.”

“I’m just so glad all these people are coming with us,” Aspen groused. “I was getting real tired of all the peace and quiet when it was just the two of us.”

“Well, the good news is your sarcasm has improved greatly. I would never know you hadn’t been doing it your whole life.”

“Thanks a lot, Ingvar,” she demonstrated. “Why is the elf still here? I thought your spirit thingies just wanted you to bring us to the temple and…these two.”

“Evidently not,” Rainwood said. He was walking on the other side of Ingvar from her, a jaunty spring in his step that clashed with everyone else’s mood. “It’s a funny thing, spirit guidance; sometimes, the things it tells you to do are so downright odd as to seem like terrible ideas. I don’t mind admitting it took me longer than the average human lives to begin trusting my guides every time, but more than once my life has been saved by following guidance that at the time sounded suicidal. I’ve no idea where this merry adventure is leading us, but the word from the spirits is that my part in it is not over! Ah, and here’s our other new acquisition.”

“Other?” Aspen looked over at him with a frown, then forward again, and came to an abrupt stop. “Oh, no.”

“Oh yes, I’m afraid!” Rainwood said brightly, swaggering on ahead.

“Who’s that?” November asked in a stage whisper. “What’s the problem?”

They had descended the terraces of the Omnist temple complex in a different direction than the one from which they had come, and were now nearing the outer border on the road leading north west. A few yards ahead of them, on the edge of the lowest stone terrace, sat the same grouchy young woman who had first led them to the ziggurat. She was now perched in an indolent pose, kicking her legs against the retaining wall, and had traded her monk’s robe for a colorful tunic-like garment that was popular throughout N’Jendo and Thakar.

“There you are,” she said, hopping down to the road with a grunt. “I hear you’re off to the Shadow Hunter lodge next, right?”

“You hear that, huh?” Aspen said warily.

“I grew up in this hick-ass backwater, so I know where just about everything is,” the girl said. “I’ll take you there. My name’s Taka Mbino.”

“Nice to meet you again,” Ingvar said politely. “I’m—”

“Pretty sure I remember everybody,” Taka interrupted, grinning. “The great and famous Ingvar, Aspen the dryad, Rainwood the elf with the especially improbable name. And those two who obviously are too childish to matter.”

“Hey!” November protested. Tholi just scowled, adjusting his grip on his longbow.

“Yeah, thanks, but we’ve got an elvish shaman,” said Aspen. “Pretty sure we can find the way.”

“It’s no trouble,” Taka assured her, still grinning. There was a mocking cast to her features that few people had used with Aspen, to her visible annoyance. “It’s about time I moved on from here anyway. I gave Omnu a fair chance and I mean the big guy no offense, but I’m coming to the conclusion that this place is not for me. Maybe the Shadow Hunters are a better option.”

“Okay, fine,” Aspen snapped, “I’ll just come right out and say it. We don’t like you, Taka Mbino. You’re rude and snotty and full of yourself. I tried, Ingvar,” she added, turning to him. “I was polite and subtle at first, you saw me do it!”

“Uh huh,” Taka drawled. “And are you upset because I hurt your feelings, or because you don’t want the competition for the role of bitchy drama queen in the group?”

Aspen’s jaw fell open. For once, she appeared to have been rendered silent.

“You, uh, do realize this is a dryad, right?” November said hesitantly. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to take that tone with somebody who can tear you in half the long way.”

“A daughter of the Mother is owed some consideration,” Tholi agreed, nodding reproachfully.

“I’ll keep it in mind. Welp, daylight’s burning. It’s this way.” Taka turned her back and set off up the road.

“What do the spirits say about this?” Ingvar asked quietly.

Rainwood just winked at him and set off following the young woman. Ingvar heaved a sigh, patted Aspen soothingly on the back, and followed. The dryad was growling to herself as she fell into step beside him, but at least she did so.

The other two started walking after a short pause, as well, but they both remained a few paces behind, where it was relatively safe.


Manor Dufresne was not laid out with guests in mind, these days. There seemed to be very little furniture in the public rooms and almost no decoration. Nonetheless, it did feature a dining room, and Malivette’s four thralls were quick to seat their reluctant visitors and kept them well-plied with tea, cookies, and as the time stretched on toward the dinner hour, sandwiches and soup. The four of them were never less than gracious hostesses, which at least somewhat offset Sherwin’s reminder that they were a significant physical danger, and the fact that they were, effectively, holding the group against their will.

When the door to the dining room abruptly opened and Natchua poked her head in, Melaxyna was the first on her feet.

“Well?” the succubus demanded, hands clenching.

“We’re leaving,” Natchua said tersely. “Come on.”

Pearl cleared her throat, gliding forward. “Your pardon, but…”

“It’s quite all right, lovey!” Malivette cooed, appearing in the doorway behind Natchua with her chin practically resting on the drow’s shoulder. “So sorry to keep you all waiting so long! We’ve had a lovely chat and come to a series of understandings. Melaxyna, dear, I do apologize for all the rough talk earlier. I’m ever so glad that this isn’t going to turn unpleasant after all!”

“Oh, well then,” Melaxyna said tonelessly. “As long as you’re sorry and glad, I guess what’s a death threat or two between friends?”

“I realize you’re mocking me but in all seriousness that is a very healthy attitude to take in this situation,” Malivette replied, nodding solemnly. Natchua, giving her a peevish look over her shoulder, edged out of the way while the vampire continued. “I meant it when I said I empathized with you, y’know. People are about as excited to see a vampire move into the neighborhood as a succubus, and for a lot of the same reasons. With the shoe on the other foot I’m sure you’d have reacted exactly the same. At least, if you were seriously looking after the welfare of the city. But that’s all in the past now!” she added, beaming delightedly at them.

“Wait, really?” Jonathan asked. Standing with his hand protectively behind Hesthri with his hand on her shoulder, he looked mostly confused by this turn of events. “Just…like that? After just…talking? Is that really all it took?”

“Dunno what you mean ‘just like that,’” Sherwin groused. “We’ve been kicking our heels in here over an hour…”

“And why are you arguing, she is letting us go,” Melaxyna hissed.

“I guess I’m just surprised,” he said, frowning. “Natchua, is everything all right?”

“Everything is wonderful,” the drow spat. “Now come on. I think we have imposed on the Lady Dufresne’s hospitality quite enough for one day.”

“Hear, hear,” Sherwin grunted, shoving himself away from the table with poor grace and stalking toward the door.

The rest of them followed, subtly encouraged by the herding motion of Malivette’s four companions gathering at the opposite end of the room. Their hostess and Natchua had both already retreated into the broad entrance hall onto which the dining room opened.

“And don’t you worry a bit about my hospitality,” Malivette nattered on, looping her hand into Natchua’s elbow as they walked toward the front doors. “My door is always open, and there are so few who would even want to take advantage! That goes for you, too, Sherwin. I know you’re a houseplant by choice, but seriously, you’d be welcome.”

He sighed heavily and produced a rusty pocketwatch from his trousers, looking at its face and then giving Natchua a very pointed stare.

“Anyway, now that we know we have actual things to talk about, I do hope you’ll pop by again.” Malivette affectionately bumped Natchua with her hip on the last word. The drow sighed and gently but insistently disentangled her arm, stepping away from the vampire.

“Seriously,” Jonathan said, frowning, “are you okay, Natchua? Keeping a succubus near a city isn’t a small matter. I hope you didn’t have to do anything too…”

“Nothing,” she interrupted. “It’s just as she said, we talked and reached an understanding. And now I really would like to be moving along.”

“Yeah, so,” Sherwin said, frowning himself now, “I’m glad Mel’s safe, then. Did you—”

“Sst!” Natchua rounded on him, baring her teeth.

“If this is about the hobgoblins,” Malivette said kindly, “I don’t care about that, so long as you stick to your plan of only summoning females. Very clever solution, that! And really, Sherwin, you could use the help. What would your family say if they saw the state you’ve let their manor come to?”

“Oh, who cares,” he exclaimed. “Good riddance to them. I’m not absolutely certain, Vette, but I’m reasonably sure they had a hand in what happened to your family.”

“No.” The cheer faded from her expression rather abruptly. “Have you been carrying that all these years? See, this is why I think we should talk more. No, Sherwin, that wasn’t their doing.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “Well. I guess…I’m glad to hear that. Not like I was close to your folks or anything, but the gods know they were better people than mine. Not that that’s setting a high bar.”

“I’m serious, Sherwin,” she said, her smile returning and looking all the more sincere for being smaller. “Visit me. But for now, I imagine you’re feeling a little overstimulated; this has to be more social interaction than you’ve had in the last year. Yes, you’re all clearly eager to be heading back, and I’ve already delayed you too long. My sincere apologies for the inconvenience, but the important thing is we got it all sorted in the end! Ruby, Jade, would you bring the carriage back around, please?”

“No need,” Natchua said curtly, gesturing the others toward her. “We’ll see you around, Vette.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Natch,” the vampire said, as brightly as ever. The last thing they all saw as the shadows rose up around them was her waving cheerily.

The darkness fell away to reveal late afternoon sunlight and the clean air of the mountains, with Manor Leduc’s ruined bulk rising in front of them. Sherwin heaved a deep sigh and immediately slouched off, heading for the half-overgrown path around the corner toward the old kitchen entrance.

“Whew,” Melaxyna exhaled. “I could have done without that. My kind like room to maneuver, not being tucked away under guard. Are you sure you’re okay, Natchua? You probably had it worse than any of us.”

“I appreciate everyone’s concern, but I wish you’d all drop it,” Natchua said in a strained tone. “It was fine. We talked. I’d have preferred keeping Malivette and everyone else out of my business, but sometimes you have to compromise. And I learned some interesting things today.”

“Oh?” Jonathan asked warily.

“I learned that drow are not edible to her kind,” she said, turning and following after Sherwin at a much more sedate pace. He had already disappeared around the corner. “And apparently vampires can drink demon blood, but it works more like a drug than food. I learned that vampirism is exceedingly difficult to cure even for modern alchemical science. I learned that Ravana bloody Madouri has been making political overtures to both Malivette and Sherwin, which surprises me not in the least given that sneaky little egomaniac’s idea of a good time. I even learned a good deal I didn’t particularly need to know about why she has four attendants instead of three or five and what exactly she does with them. It was all very educational.”

“Uh…huh,” he said, frowning at her back. “Well, sorry for prying, I guess. I can’t help feeling a little responsible for any, um, compromises you had to make, since it was all our necks on the line…”

“Compromises?” she snorted, glancing over her shoulder at him. “I said I’d try to protect you and I meant it, Jonathan. That doesn’t mean my first act in a crisis would be to offer my neck to a vampire on your behalf.”

“Well, that wasn’t…” He grimaced, glancing to the side, and thus missing Hesthri urgently shaking her head to ward him off this line of conversation. “I just meant, well, it was obvious enough from those four women what sort of personal company that vampire prefers, and… Not to be indelicate, but we pretty well know that you’re willing to—”

Natchua slammed to a stop and whirled so fast her streaked hair flared out behind her. Jonathan Arquin was nobody’s coward, but at the expression on her face he actually backed up a step, instinctively moving one arm partly in front of Hesthri.

The very sunlight seemed to fade, as if the drow’s fury were leeching brightness from that piece of the world. Shadows lengthened around them, followed by an unintelligible whispering at the faintest edge of hearing that was barely distinguishable from the now-vanished sound of wind through the grass.

Just as quickly, it all faded away. The sound and light returned abruptly to normal, and the rage melted from Natchua’s features. Followed, apparently, by most of her energy, as her shoulders slumped and she dropped her head to stare at the ground.

“Well, look at that,” she said dully. “Turns out I have absolutely no right to even be angry about that remark. Go…rest up, Jonathan. This mess has delayed us a whole day and I have another prospect to look up first thing tomorrow.”

Natchua turned and trudged away, visibly dispirited, even from behind. The rest of them stood as if rooted until she had rounded the corner into Sherwin’s kitchen apartment.

“Very nice,” Melaxyna finally said, veritably dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“I don’t need criticism from you,” Jonathan retorted with a scowl. “I was just… Never mind, she’s right. Doesn’t matter, not my business.”

“Oh?” The succubus leaned toward him, sneering. “Then why so protective, and why do you care what she does, or with who?”

“What kind of idiot wouldn’t care about the well-being of a warlock he’s agreed to follow arou— Hey!”

He shied back, but not fast enough to prevent her from lashing out to smack the side of his head. She moved almost like an elf when she wanted.

“Next time you get an armored hand,” Melaxyna threatened. “You want to care about Natchua’s well-being? Try not hurting her, you dumbass. Honestly, I didn’t see it till right now but you are so Gabriel Arquin’s father. He clearly didn’t get it from this one!” She pointed at Hesthri, who had kept her mouth firmly shut through the entire discussion.

“Oh, please,” he said stiffly. “I’m here to look after Hesthri, not…her. We know for a fact she was only ever using me.”

“You absolute fucking idiot,” Melaxyn said, shaking her head. “Have you really never had a girl fall in love with you? Pfeh.” The succubus turned and flounced off after the warlock, leaving the two of them behind.

Hesthri sighed softly, but then pressed herself against Jonathan’s side, slipping an arm around his waist in half a hug. He draped his own around her shoulders unthinkingly, still staring ahead with a blank expression. She just looked up at him in silence until he suddenly laughed.

“So that’s where he got it from!”

“He?”

Jonathan shook his head. “Toby Caine reports that our son has amazingly good luck with women, provided he’s not trying to. Apparently it’s the trying that trips him up. Hes… I don’t even know what to say. This whole mess—”

“None of this is your fault,” she interrupted, reaching up to rest her clawed fingertips gently on his lips. “I know what she did and why. You’re not to blame for having feelings. Natchua is to blame for…doing this. I am out of Hell, free from your government and Church and facing a possibility of seeing my son again; I can’t find it in me to complain too hard about all the downsides that have come with it. Honestly, I can’t even blame the girl for having emotions herself, or failing to understand them. It’s her mess, but we were young and blind ourselves once.”

“I seem to recall that,” he replied, looking down at her with a wry little smile.

“Me, too.” Hesthri smiled back at him, though the expression faded a moment later. “Johnny… Remember what happened to us when we assumed nothing as intangible as feelings was going to trip us up? This thing with Natchua is not your fault, but it’s also not going to go away if we just ignore it.”

He closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath. “…yeah. Damned if I know what the hell to do now, though.”

“You may be a little too close to the situation, my dear. Maybe…take a step back, and let me try?”


As a consequence of traveling into a mountain range from the east, the sun had slipped out of sight far earlier in the evening—late afternoon, really—than the group from Last Rock were accustomed to. Their guides had insisted on calling a halt due to the dark, and though none of them were anywhere near sleepy yet, the day of hiking had left them well ready for a rest. Camp had been made on a smallish ledge which provided them sufficient room not to worry about falling off, but not room to wander too far from each other.

And yet, Principia had managed to be rebuffed by enough cold shoulders to find herself drifting away to the very edge of the firelight. As with everything, she bore this with good humor and no sign of resentment, even as Merry was drawn into the group around the fire, sitting between Ruda and Juniper and chattering animatedly with both.

A shape detached itself from the small crowd throwing shadows along the cliff wall behind them, stepping toward her with both hands carrying laden plates of cornbread and baked beans.

“Hungry?”

Given the Legion schedule of mealtimes and her own frugal magic use, it could well be years before Principia needed to eat again. She was not, of course, about to make an issue of that.

“Why, aren’t you thoughtful! I’m surprised, though. I thought it was Toby who made a point to look after everyone.”

“I am nothing if not a gentleman,” Gabriel said, grinning and offering one of the plates. “Shut up, Ariel.”

“I didn’t—”

“You were going to, and don’t. Please, allow me.” He actually bowed as she took the plate, then bent to brush dust and loose scree off an uneven little lip of stone against the wall behind them before gesturing for her to sit.

“A gentleman indeed,” Principia replied, perching on the edge and smiling up at him. “Which, no offense, doesn’t exactly square with your reputation.”

“Yeah, that’s the bane of my existence,” he said solemnly, sitting down beside her. “I can deal with the demon prejudice and the gossipy newspaper stories and all the silly rumor-mongering, but I wish everybody would stop repeating facts. Hope you like cornbread, by the way, because there’s going to be plenty left over. Most of this group won’t touch the stuff. Apparently they had a bad experience in the Golden Sea, once.”

“You’ve gotta learn to let these things go,” she said sagely, scooping up a bite of baked beans with the tin fork that came with the plate. “If I turned up my nose at everything that had ever been used against me at some point or another I’d starve. So, Gabriel, if you don’t mind a little nosiness, what makes you so willing to come hang out with the local pariah? As you noted, Toby I understand…”

“A little nosiness?” he mused, looking at her sidelong with a small smile, idly pushing beans and cornbread around on his plate. “Impressive restraint. In your position I’d be going whole hog and demanding everyone’s backstory.”

“Seems unfair,” she acknowledged after swallowing the bite. “Since I don’t really intend to recount my whole history. Of course, there’s the fact that we literally don’t have time for that…”

“Shaeine is your problem,” he said, now gazing at his friends around the fire. “She’s the most reasonable person I’ve ever known and I don’t think is even that vindictive. But you have to understand the Narisian mindset. Shaeine as a person is a distinct entity from Shaeine the daughter of her matriarch; the one can forgive little offenses, while the other has to insist on repercussions for shit done to her. Besides, not much is more important to Narisians than their reserve. Slipping her something that took that away, in public, is a far more serious insult than it would be to basically anybody else.”

“I see,” she murmured. “That’s…all fair.”

“Teal will follow Shaeine’s lead, of course,” he continued in a pensive tone, his gaze now faraway in thought as if he were lost in this mental exercise. “As will Vadrieny. I hardly think you need to worry about being torn in half by an archdemon, though. She’s a little impulsive, but above all Vadrieny cares for Teal, who hates violence.

“Trissiny is likely to back Shaeine in this. Apart from her own issues with you, those two have a unique bond, in this group. Not the closest bond, that would obviously by Shaeine and Teal. But they’re both devout, composed, and value all the things that implies. And they both have a slight cultural bias—not a really bad one!—against males, thus why Toby doesn’t get the same benefit of that sisterhood. If you want Triss back on your side, you will need to persuade Shaeine.”

He paused, shrugging idly, and had a bite of cornbread. Principia just chewed in silence, watching him as if she didn’t dare to interrupt.

Gabriel continued after swallowing. “Toby is everybody’s friend. Fross is not going to bother you; she hates practical jokes. She’s making good progress at grasping humor but she doesn’t really get the difference between attacking somebody playfully and aggressively, and I don’t think Fross is capable of harming anyone she doesn’t fully think deserves it. Juniper is trying to be a good Omnist now, and is scared of her own propensity for violence, anyway. You’ll have no trouble from her.

“Ruda…” He trailed off, then grinned. “Hell if I know. She values loyalty, fighting, playing rough, standing on your own, and freedom. That leads to some weird combinations of values. Ruda’s always doing stuff that I would never have expected but then in hindsight makes perfect sense. So far Shaeine’s just been tripping and poking at you, but if this keeps up Ruda might join in or butt out entirely or maybe try to get her to back down. I have no damn idea. It’s always an adventure with her.”

Principia had given up all pretense of eating now, just watching his face. She let the silence hang for a few moments before speaking in a carefully neutral tone.

“That’s a very thorough report, Gabe. And what about the last person it’s missing?”

“Well! I’m not really objective about that, am I?” He turned a grin on her, setting his fork down on his plate. “Tell you what: after Puna Dara, I bet a smart lady like you has a pretty good measure of me anyway. And you’re also a hobbyist enchanter, right? So I bet you’ll have plenty of time to suss out where I stand on this whole thing while you’re figuring a way off that adhesive charm you just sat on. G’night, Lieutenant.”

He stood up with no more ado and sauntered off back to the fire.

Principia watched him go for a moment. Then she experimentally shifted. Her hips had barely an inch of leeway to move and wouldn’t rise at all off the stone. The elf grinned and leaned back against the cliff wall, spearing a bite of baked beans.

“Well. She’s got a good group of friends, anyway. Excellent.”


“Whew,” McGraw grunted, glancing back at the town. “Not to carp on about it, but why that town? I’m pretty sure I mentioned I am specifically unwelcome in Last Rock.”

“Aw, y’big baby, it’s fine,” Billie said cheerfully, slapping his thigh. “We didn’t get arrested or blown up, which is my standard fer a successful visit. Oy, this tallgrass is a towerin’ pain in the arse! I can’t see fer shite. Who wants t’give the gnome a piggyback ride?”

“What, all the way to the center?” Weaver snorted. “Dream on. Just keep making noise so we don’t lose you.”

“You wanna get from Tiraas to the Golden Sea frontier, Last Rock is the most direct route,” Joe said, pushing strands of tallgrass out of his way. “Anyway, no harm came of it. Which is good; it was enough of an ordeal getting this one into the caravan.” He grinned and flicked the tail of the nigh-omnipotent immortal hitching a ride on his shoulder. Mary didn’t deign to transform back and make a comment, though she did turn and peck him on the ear. “Ow. So, I take it spending the night in the inn back there is off the table? Cos not to complain, but it’s not more’n two hours before dusk. Basically the worst possible time to be headin’ out on a camping trip.”

“Everyone in this group is either perfectly comfortable sleeping rough, or actually prefers to,” Weaver grunted. “Under the circumstances I figure we can afford to cater to McGraw’s irrational fear of that poor little town.”

“A pissed-off archmage ain’t an irrational fear,” McGraw retorted. “Least, I wouldn’t call her that to her face.”

“Almost a shame,” Joe said lightly. “I was sorta lookin’ forward to explorin’ back there. Man, that place has changed—an’ fast! Sarasio’s havin’ kind of a boom the last year or so, too, but nothin’ like that.”

“Sarasio doesn’t have a world-famous University,” said McGraw. “These little frontier villages rarely get the luxury of stasis, Joe. They either wither away or grow into somethin’ more. Progress marches on.”

“Aye, lotta marchin’ goin’ on here, innit?” Billie said. “Ey, Joe, how’s about ye lend me yer other shoulder?”

“Why’s it always me?” he complained.

“Cos Elias is old an’ delicate an’ Damian’s a fuckin’ grouch.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Weaver grunted, and suddenly bent over in the tallgrass. One short scuffle and a whoop from Billie later, he reappeared with her riding on his shoulders. “Omnu’s balls, you just like to complain, I swear.”

“Oh, an’ that doesn’t describe you to a ruddy T, eh?”

He strode through the tallgrass and the falling dusk in silence for a few yards, holding her ankles and staring ahead at the distant horizon.

“Listen… All of you. Not that I want to make a whole thing of this, but—”

“Aw, come off it,” Billie said fondly, patting his head. “Breakin’ character fer one minute won’t kill ye. We’ll all still know yer a ruddy asshole come sunup.”

Weaver came to a stop, and the others did likewise. He regarded each of them for a moment in the fading orange sunlight.

Then he actually smiled. The unaccustomed expression transformed his whole face.

“Thanks. All of you.”

McGraw and Joe both tipped their hats in silence. Mary croaked and ruffled her feathers.

Then, as one, the group turned and marched off again, heading north toward the frontier and the unconquerable wilderness beyond.

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15 – 10

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“Natchua, honey,” Malivette said in a deliberately kind and gentle voice, “I hope you’re comfortable being condescendingly spoken to like you’re a child, because my only other response to that kind of talk…well, you’d like that even less. Now, really. Are you sure you want to make this confrontational? Have you maybe not thought this matter through carefully?”

“Of course I haven’t thought it through,” Natchua said bitterly. “I came here with every intention of never interacting with anyone in Veilgrad but Sherwin. If I had my way, everything would unfold without anybody knowing we were ever here, and everybody would have been better off that way. Instead I’m now dealing with you, and no, I don’t have a plan for that. What I have is a lot of infernal magic and a vested interest in protecting these people. That’s what you should keep in mind here, Lady Dufresne. You start messing with my friends and I’ve got exactly one recourse for that, and it won’t leave anybody happy. So instead of that, how about we walk this back a little bit and see if we can’t find a friendly resolution to this…difference of opinion?”

“Uh, Natchua?” Sherwin said warily, glancing around at Malivette’s four attendants, who had fully encircled the group. “Remember just a minute ago when I said very firmly that we do not want to start a fight here?”

“Sounds like she agrees with you, Sherwin,” Malivette remarked, giving him a thin smile. “Right, Natchua? Nobody here wants the outcome of any kind of brawl that might ensue, especially since there’s no such outcome that doesn’t include most or all of you dead. Natchua, I need you to button up your fly and think with your big head for a moment. I’m sure you are very protective of your friends, and that’s admirable and all, but that is a succubus. If you know anything about infernal magic, or if you’re able to read, you understand why she cannot be allowed to run loose. I’m responsible for this city, and this province, and you bringing her here is the kind of thing for which I could legally have already separated you from your skeleton if I had any intention of doing such a thing. Sometimes, kiddo, the right thing to do is back down, acknowledge exactly how you’ve made a gigantic cock-up of the situation, and let the nice Imperial governor contain the incredibly dangerous demon without making this any messier than it already is.”

“Don’t,” Sherwin urged, placing a hand on Melaxyna’s shoulder as she tensed up. “Even the thralls can track you by smell; Vette definitely can. Don’t go invisible or do anything else to set them off.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” the succubus muttered, tail lashing.

“It’s not even that you’re wrong,” Natchua said quietly, still standing between Malivette at the others. “But it is what it is. Melaxyna is not a threat to anyone right now, and won’t be so long as you leave her in my custody.”

The vampire’s scarlet eyes flicked past her to Sherwin. “Your custody, is it? Interesting. If anything, you’re even less qualified for that than he is.”

“She’s a lot more qualified than you may realize,” Hesthri offered.

“We can either come to some kind of compromise,” Natchua insisted, staring her down, “or you can suffer the consequences.”

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“I’m afraid not, Jonathan,” Natchua replied without taking her eyes off Malivette. “That’s all we have to work with, here: the fact that interfering with us would be a lot more trouble than leaving us alone. I don’t want to do this, Malivette, but if you try to separate Melaxyna or any of my people, I’m going to have to stop you. And you may very well win that confrontation, but I can promise you it would cost you dearly. I intend to die elsewhere, do you understand? Not dealing with you. But I intend to die, regardless, and if you force my hand, it’ll be here and now, destroying a wide swath of whatever you may still love in this world. I don’t want to, and it may cost me everything, but I’ll do it anyway because I am way past being backed into a corner. Or you can avoid all this and we can find a compromise. Choose.”

In the short quiet which followed, it wasn’t just the vampires and elves who could hear Jonathan’s teeth grinding.

“Wooooow,” Melaxyna said at last. “I do believe that was the single edgiest thing I’ve ever heard. Did that sound impressive in your head before your mouth fell open? A chapbook author wouldn’t even cram a speech like that into the mouth of their most cliché villain—they’d re-read that and say ‘nah, everybody but consumptive thirteen-year-olds would find this unintentionally hilarious’ and start over. Really, Natchua, a vampire who lives in a crumbling manor with four beautiful maidservants is telling you to tone down the melodrama. You think about that for a moment, and reflect on the direction your life has taken.”

By the end of that, Natchua’s mouth was hanging slightly open. She blinked her eyes three times in rapid succession.

Malivette, meanwhile, clapped her hands together once and rubbed them briskly. “Well! I’ll say this much for this entirely too awkward conversation: now I know who’s responsible for belatedly jamming a spine up Sherwin’s butt, and to my surprise, it’s not the succubus.”

“You really don’t need to be an asshole about this, Vette,” Sherwin complained.

“It’s too easy to be with the effort of not doing it, Sherwin dear. I would like to have a pleasant little chat with the ringleader of this fascinating operation, without the peanut gallery. Girls, make our guests as comfortable as you can for a little bit. If,” she heavily emphasized the syllable, holding up one hand and meeting Natchua’s eyes, “Melaxyna attempts to escape, or does anything else that you judge requires it, kill her immediately. Failing that, she is an esteemed guest and is to be treated as such until I say otherwise.”

“Yes, Mistress,” all four chorused in eerie unison.

“And yet,” Melaxyna mused, “still not the kinkiest party I’ve ever been to.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said pleasantly, “do join me upstairs. I believe we should converse woman to woman without the distraction of all these onlookers.”

“I—”

“Now.” The syllable cracked with the force of a thunderbolt, seemingly through the entire house; the very floorboards shuddered and in the near distance, several doors slammed in emphasis.

Natchua slowly tore her gaze from Malivette’s and nodded at the rest of her group. “It’s all right. Please do as they ask, and be polite.”

“Look who’s telling who to be polite,” Jonathan said flatly. “Keep in mind we’re all still in the building and try not to start a brawl, will you?”

“I did manage to run my own life before you came along, Jonathan,” she said irritably, turning her back on him. “Lead the way, Lady Dufresne.”


Syrinx continued pacing up and down for a few minutes after hearing their report. The rest of them sat in silence in the conference room, watching her.

It wasn’t as if there was much for her to think about, and if this was some kind of power play, it clearly was not working. The three of them had returned to find Syrinx already stewing and both Kheshiri and the Jackal looking serenely pleased with themselves, which as good as said how that inevitable personality clash had played out in their absence. Now, Khadizroth and Vannae sat in matching poses of pure serenity, hands folded atop the table and regarding the pacing Inquisitor in total calm. The Jackal had tipped his chair up on its hind legs, slouching back in it and resting his snakeskin boots on the table. He was unnecessarily cleaning his fingernails with a stiletto and intermittently glancing up at Syrinx, his self-satisfied grin not wavering for a moment. Shook had pulled a chair away from the table and turned it to face the front of the room directly, and now slouched back in it with his legs splayed, watching the Inquisitor with a vague little smile with his head resting in Kheshiri’s bosom while she, standing close behind him, slowly ran her hands up and down his arms.

The Inquisitor’s clear anger was having no effect on its intended targets, and that appeared to be making it worse.

“And that’s all?” Syrinx abruptly demanded, coming to a stop and rounding on them.

“At this time, yes,” Khadizroth said, still utterly calm. “Your lead appears to have been fruitful. The results are slight, this is true, but one cannot expect miracles at the very first step of such an investigation.”

“Something wrong, boss lady?” Shook asked in a milder tone than his voice ever held when he wasn’t being deliberately spiteful. “It was your lead, after all. We met the mark and got results. I dunno why you seem so…tetchy.”

Ironically, that suddenly calmed Syrinx down. She straightened up and the tension melted from her stance, her incipient scowl fading away as she turned a more thoughtful stare upon Shook. He continued to sprawl indolently in his seat, but others in the room more sensitive to undercurrents clearly smelled danger; the Jackal’s blade froze, as did his expression, and he glanced rapidly between Shook and Basra. Kheshiri also stopped the movements of her hands, her fingers clenching on the sleeves of Shook’s coat.

“Quite so,” Syrinx said in a clipped tone, staring blankly at him. “For some reason I expected such a vaunted crew as yours to have achieved more progress, but in hindsight I cannot imagine why.”

“Well, don’t take it to heart, sugar,” he drawled. “We’ve disappointed even smarter people than you.”

Kheshiri’s fingers clawed an iota harder in a silent warning, which he disregarded.

“Mr. Shook,” Basra said, now with a pleasant little smile that made the Jackal’s grin widen slightly in anticipation, “it’s beyond my fathoming why you would even want to get a rise out of me in your situation, but what disappoints me most is that you aren’t better at it. Apparently the Thieves’ Guild doesn’t train its thugs nearly as well as they like to claim. Regardless, you will straighten up. You rely upon his Holiness the Archpope for protection from the Imperial law enforcement and multiple cults you have provoked, including your own. And right now, it is I who will decide how, and indeed whether, that protection will be extended over you.”

He had tensed up, but did not move, and kept his expression deliberately even. “That so?”

“You stand out even in this gaggle of reprobates, Shook,” she stated, planting her fists on the edge of the table and leaning forward to stare down at him. “I know your history. While we are here, I promise you, there will be no preying on or abusing women.”

Shook’s frozen expression suddenly thawed, and then warmed, a dark but genuine smile curling up the corners of his mouth.

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

The Jackal burst out laughing. The room filled with a series of shrill barks of his amusement which may have hinted at the origin of his nickname.

Slowly, Basra straightened back up, her expression revealing nothing.

“In a situation like ours, discipline is a necessity, not a luxury. It is sorely clear how the lack of it has rendered you lot virtually useless. For the duration of your service under my Inquisition, Shook, you will address me as Inquisitor, or ma’am. Is that clear?”

He gave her a lazy mockery of a salute. “Yes sir, ma’am.”

She elected not to push it, instead turning a wry look on the Jackal. “Are you just about done?”

“Wait, wait,” he gasped, holding up one finger with the arm not clutching his ribs. “A-almost…”

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

The elf instantly quieted as if a switch had been flipped, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands atop the table. The sudden display of obedience did not improve Basra’s mood; the look she turned upon the dragon was even more wintry than that which she’d directed at Shook.

“I am not very familiar with this city,” Khadizroth said in a courteously calm tone, bowing his head deferentially to Syrinx. “So I’m afraid I have little useful counsel to offer as regards our next move. We await your orders, Inquisitor.”

She held his emerald stare for a moment, then worked her jaw once as if chewing on the idea of him, and finally turned her gaze on the paper lying near her on the table. Scrawled in Khadizroth’s neat hand upon a sheet of enchanting vellum Vannae had been carrying was the short list of locations in Ninkabi where the contact Basra had sent them to meet had said cultist activity could be found. She picked it up, eyes tracking back and forth as she re-read the few lines.

“What was your impression of the contact in question?” Basra asked suddenly.

Vannae and Shook both turned to look at Khadizroth, who opened his mouth to answer.

“Shook,” Basra said curtly. “I want to hear from you.”

Shook hesitated, glancing at Khadizroth and then back to her with eyebrows raised. “Uh, you sure? As you were just commenting, I’m just muscle, here. Big K’s the—”

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

“Well, yes. You literally just did that.”

“Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said softly. “The Inquisitor is correct. Please don’t add to her difficulties.”

Shook hesitated, then nodded at him. “Yeah, fair enough. My apologies, Inquisitor. Well, there wasn’t a lot to see. Shortish woman, wore Omnist robes with the hood up. Not much of a disguise, since even monks don’t just walk around that way—practically announcing that you’re up to something, walking around like that. But it worked as far as hiding her face, anyway, and it’s not like we came off any less weird, with K having to use practically the same get-up. Acted pretty standard, for an informant who’s not used to playing this game. Skittish, looking over her shoulders a lot. Low-pitched voice, I think might’ve been using a voice-altering charm, but I’m no enchanter. Gave us those locations and then bugged off outta there.”

For the first part of his recitation, Basra had kept a level stare locked on Khadizroth, who was watching Shook attentively, but by the end she had directed her full attention to the enforcer.

“Anything to add to that, either of you?” she asked when he came to a finish.

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

“A good description,” the dragon agreed. “I can confirm the presence of a voice-altering charm. More than that I did not discern, as any such measures would by nature be intrusive, and your orders were to get information without spooking or provoking the informant. I assumed you wished to avoid jeopardizing the source, which of course is wise.”

“Where’d you dig up this alleged source, anyway?” the Jackal asked lazily, now balancing his knife point-down on his fingertip.

“You know as much as you need to,” Basra snapped.

“As you wish,” Khadizroth said diplomatically before the elf could respond. “I certainly understand the operational need to control information. As a rule, the more we know, the more effective we are in the field. I must admit I am curious about your choice of agents to send on this particular assignment.”

“Dragon,” Syrinx said coldly, “understand this now: I will not tolerate your attempts to undercut my authority.”

“I apologize if I have overstepped,” Khadizroth said, bowing to her from his seat. “No disrespect was intended. I simply took you for a kindred spirit, so to speak.”

Basra actually betrayed surprise, straightening up suddenly. “I beg your pardon?”

Khadizroth glanced briefly around the table, then unlaced his fingers to spread his hands in a small gesture of self-deprecation with a wry little smile. “You are not far wrong to call us a gaggle of reprobates. Most of us here have nowhere else to go, and assuredly little other prospect of being of use to the world than in the Archpope’s service. Likewise, we face potential…difficulties…with certain parties we have offended, should we find ourselves outside his protection. Forgive me, but I thought perhaps you could relate.”

Her lips drew back to bare teeth in a nearly feral expression. Khadizroth kept right on speaking with truly impressive control, managing to hastily cut off any response without sounding at all rushed.

“Those of us who have been a bit longer in this situation have rather laboriously learned not to take offense when it is inevitably given; it has doubtless not escaped your notice that this is a group of large personalities stuffed into a small space. Despite the obvious conflicts, we are a surprisingly effective unit when we exercise our various skills cooperatively. It seems to me a woman of your formidable reputation makes a significant addition to an already significant array of talent.”

“You seem to be under a misconception,” Syrinx said icily. “I am not joining your little…club. This operation is mine. You lot are simply an asset which has been assigned to me for my use, at my discretion. The sooner and more thoroughly you internalize that fact, the more smoothly this inquisition will go. And you want it to go smoothly. If it does not, I promise you, it will not be I who suffers for the failure.”

“Of course.” Again, Khadizroth inclined his head respectfully to her. “What is our next move, Inquisitor?”

Basra turned away, again studying the page. She paced up and down the short end of the room twice more before abruptly stopping.

“You were wondering why I dispatched the muscle and not the subtlety to meet with an informant.”

“Seemed like a curious choice,” Shook agreed, leaning his head back into Kheshiri’s cleavage while she began kneading his shoulders. “But hey, what do I know. The muscle just goes where the brain says.”

Basra divided a look of withering contempt between the two of them, which earned her nothing but a flirtatious wink from the succubus.

“I risked acting on the assumption that even you had sufficient wits to follow simple directions and not create a complete debacle out of one short conversation. I’m somewhat relieved to have that faith validated. The choice of you three was because I was uncertain of the identity and origin of this…informant. I preferred to deploy the less fragile talents given the potential risks. We are not going to be friends, let us clarify that up front. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be wasteful with your lives. You are, after all, valuable assets. Except Shook.”

The enforcer’s face tightened, but he threw her another sarcastic salute, not shifting from his comfortable position.

“I don’t know any better than you what any of these places are,” Basra continued brusquely, flapping the page once at Khadizroth. “I am going to check with the Holy Legion’s local personnel and decide on our next target, at which time I will have your next orders. For now… Adequate work, so far. Dismissed.”

The group exchanged a round of glances.

“Is that…military speak?” the Jackal asked, scratching his head. “What’s that mean, exactly?”

“I believe it means we can go,” Vannae offered.

“I think there’s a subext that we’re expected to go,” Kheshiri added.

“Correct.” Khadizroth pushed back his chair and stood; as if at that signal, the rest began rising as well. “It is customary to depart upon dismissal. Come, the Inquisitor has work and we will only be underfoot.”

He led the way to the door, the rest filing out after. Behind them, Basra turned her back, making a show of studying the list again, which did not conceal the seething tension that gripped her form.

Kheshiri at least waited until they were out in the hall with the door shut before commenting. “Now, that one is wound way too tight. Baiting her is so easy it’s not even fun.”

“Maybe don’t, then?” the Jackal suggested, then giggled shrilly. “Aw, who’m I kidding. You do your thing, doll—me, I have a taste for low-hanging fruit. And I’ve been itching to have a go a that one ever since she and a bunch of her Bishop friends ruined my night a couple years back. Actually it was just before I met the rest of you freaks. And now look! Poor little Basra has come down hard in the world.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth said firmly. “This is neither the time nor the place.”

The Jackal snickered, but followed without further commentary as the dragon led them to the common area around which was clustered the small bedrooms they had been assigned.

Vannae carefully shut the door behind them while the group clustered around the couch and two chairs before their small fireplace. Shook opened his mouth to speak, but Khadizroth forestalled him with an upraised hand.

The dragon produced a bottle seemingly from nowhere, a glossy thing of green glass about as tall as a wine bottle but much thinner. Raising it to his lips, he blew once across the top, producing a soft tone, then handed it to Vannae. The elf did likewise, his breath making a brief puff several notes higher in pitch, then turned and held it out to Shook.

The enforcer took the bottle slowly, frowning, and turned a look on Khadizroth. At the dragon’s encouraging nod, he shrugged and also blew across the lip, then handed it to Kheshiri. They all repeated the little ritual, the Jackal last; he pretended to fumble and almost drop it in the act of handing it back to Khadizroth, snickering at Vannae’s abortive motion as if about to dive to catch it.

Ignoring the byplay, Khadizroth held the bottle up to his own lips one more time, but on this round simply whispered something inaudible. Then he held the bottle out at arm’s length and upended it.

Whispers poured out, slithering voices resonating through the small room and gradually rising. As the sounds grew more distinct, their own voices emerged clearly, raised in an argument. Khadizroth gestured outward once with his hands, and the noise suddenly cut off.

“That,” he said, “is what anyone listening from outside the room will hear. For a few minutes, at least, we can speak in privacy.”

“Nice trick,” said the Jackal. “How come you never used that one before?”

“We are usually under tighter observation, especially in Tiraas, and I prefer not to tip my hand any more than necessary where Justinian might see it. Syrinx has fewer skills, resources, and options. Now time is short—while the spell lasts, let me catch you up.”

“So, shall I assume you were less than forthcoming about your encounter with the good Inquisitor?” Kheshiri asked sweetly.

“The person who came to meet us,” Khadizroth reported, “was none other than Bishop Branwen Snowe.”

The Jackal let out a whistle, but the dragon continued before anyone had a chance to chime in.

“There is, indeed, more going on here than we know—and more than Basra Syrinx knows. This cult, as we suspected, was a weapon of the Archpope’s and our mission here a sham. Snowe does not know what, specifically, Justinian intends by sending us all here, but her stated objective is to destroy Syrinx, whom she regards as unstable, dangerous, and a threat to the Archpope’s long-term plans.”

“Which is good and believable,” Shook added, “by virtue of being the simple truth. I never met somebody who so obviously had ‘crazy bitch’ written all over her.”

“And you’re taking Snowe at her word, are ya?” the Jackal asked wryly.

“Hardly,” Khadizroth replied. “She is, at the very least, going against Justinian’s wishes and seeking the downfall of another of his agents. To have achieved even this much progress toward such a goal, she would have to be far too clever to blithely trust the likes of us with her true intentions.”

“This game is getting better by the minute,” said Kheshiri, her tail beginning to sway eagerly behind her. “So Snowe has inserted herself into the Church’s agents out here to pose as Basra’s source, unknown to Basra?”

“Oh, he hasn’t even gotten to the good part yet,” Shook said.

“Snowe claims she has documentation of this secretive cult’s activities that is more thorough than anything any investigation could possibly turn up, if it were a serious mission,” said Khadizroth. “Evidently—and this should surprise none of you—the full details would be quite incriminating to Justinian, and as such she will not share them all. It appears she is, at least on some level, personally loyal to the Archpope. But she is willing to dole out enough tidbits for us to report back to Syrinx, and sustain the impression that we are actually pursuing this sham of an assignment.”

“While we…?” Kheshiri prompted, raising her eyebrows.

“The intelligence we just turned over is, indeed, about cult activity in Ninkabi,” Khadizroth said evenly. “But the cult in question is the Black Wreath.”

“And what,” the succubus said slowly, “is the Wreath doing here?”

“That she didn’t know,” Shook answered. “Seems like it’d be worth finding out, don’t you think?”

“So you want to conduct a real investigation of the Black Wreath while conducting a pretend investigation of this mystery cult?” the Jackal said, an incredulous note creeping into his customary grin.

“While,” Khadizroth replied, nodding, “playing both ends against the middle between Syrinx and Snowe. We need to learn what each of them is really up to, here, since they are clearly neither telling us anything resembling the truth.”

“And,” Shook added, “the most important part: figuring out how we can best use all of these assholes to bring each other down, before one or some or all of them can do it to us. And what do we call that, kitten?” he added condescendingly, swatting Kheshiri on the rump.

Her grin had stretched to resemble the Jackal’s at his most unhinged. “That, master, we call fun.”

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15 – 9

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“What is a vampire?” Hesthri demanded.

The carriage went over a bump, jostling them all and causing Natchua to growl wordlessly as she had to scramble to sustain the plate-sized spell circle she was crafting in midair between them out of lines of fire.

“A vampire is an apex shadow magic creation,” Melaxyna replied. Unlike the rest of them, she appeared perfectly relaxed, having spun around on the carriage bench to lean her back against Sherwin’s shoulder, with one leg extended to brace a bare foot against the door. “The only monsters of any significant power that don’t derive their nature from any of the four primary schools of magic. It’s…a lot to go over, actually, what’s immediately relevant is that most of them are not to be trifled with. There are different blood lineages with different powers, as I understand it. Malivette Dufresne is a pretty heavy hitter.”

“Uh…huh,” Hesthri said slowly, wide-eyed. “And why are we just passively going along to her house, then?”

“Because she demanded it,” Sherwin said bitterly. “Which she can only sort of do, legally, but it’s the vampire part that concerns me more than the Imperial governor part.”

“Is it?” Jonathan grunted. “I’m a bit more concerned that a vampire is an Imperial governor.”

“Makes sense to me!” Melaxyna said lightly. “You want a governor who won’t be pushed around, right? And if she’s also an object of fear and revulsion, you don’t have to worry about her building a power base and leading a rebellion. Maybe all the Imperial governors should be vampires!”

“I wouldn’t make suggestions like that in front of Vette,” Sherwin advised. “The vampire who gave her the curse also wiped out her entire family.”

A strained quiet fell, in which they stared at each other and listened to the grinding of the carriage’s wheels and the clopping of hooves that pulled it along.

“Okay,” Hesthri said at last. “New question, then. How are we going to fight her?”

“No fighting!” Sherwin insisted, actually shrugging Melaxyna off to straighten up with an alarmed expression. “You may’ve got the wrong impression from that ‘heavy hitter’ talk—Malivette isn’t a thing like me or Natchua, or Mel, or you. She is off the Circle of Interaction entirely, which means there’s no easy counter to her powers. And her powers are just ridiculous to begin with. I’m frankly not sure the whole group of us could take her down in a fight, if it was her alone. But she’ll have her whole gaggle of thralls around, so that’s not even slightly possible.”

“Oh,” the hethelax said in a very small voice, leaning forward to look at Jonathan. The two of them were separated by Natchua on the bench. He shifted to meet Hesthri’s eyes, and started to reach across to take her hand, which brought his own close to the circle Natchua was creating in the air.

“Out of the way!” she barked.

“It’s not exactly all bad,” Sherwin added, almost grudgingly. “Vette probably won’t do anything too violent to us, for the other reason we shouldn’t try it on her.”

“Other reason?” Jonathan said incredulously.

“Imperial governor, remember?” Melaxyna prompted with a grin.

Sherwin nodded in sour agreement. “Even if we could take her, there’d be hell to pay. Likewise, she can’t just up and murder a bunch of people.”

“Why not?” Jonathan asked in his driest tone. “Aristocrats do that all the time. Who the hell cares about us?”

“I am the last member and nominal Head of House Leduc,” Sherwin said with a heavy sigh. “It’s not exactly a conventional situation up here, but Houses Leduc and Dufresne have been feuding and struggling over the control of Veilgrad and Lower Stalwar Province for generations. Only thing that kept it from getting nasty was the rest of the Houses watching the situation. The Empire wouldn’t give a crap about anything that happened to me, but if the vampire aristocrat was even implicated in my demise, the other Houses would raise a stink until the Silver Throne had to come down on her. They can’t have her bumping off competition, especially since nothing in any of their arsenals would even slow Vette down. Nobles reliably freak out about anything that even smells like a threat to their power, so she can’t afford to be anything but a model citizen. Fucking politics,” he added in a sullen grumble, crossing his arms and leaning his head against Melaxyna’s. “This crap is why I never leave the house.”

“Oh,” Jonathan said neutrally, “is that why.”

Sherwin narrowed his eyes at him, while Melaxyna grinned. Jonathan, meanwhile, shifted his attention to Natchua.

“Do you really have to do that right here and now? I’d at least like to know how much cancer we can all expect to get from being this close to hasty infernomancy.”

“Nothing I ever do will be so uncontained as to cause splash effects,” Natchua sneered.

“She’s right, that spell is fully inert beyond its boundaries,” Sherwin added. “Very tight confinement work. That’s the most important skill a warlock can have, you know. Which is not to say I can tell what she’s doing; I’ve never seen anything remotely like that.”

“The Black Wreath would make anybody they caught doing this disappear,” Natchua said, eyes on her spell. “Since the whole plan is to go after them before they even think to come after us, worrying about that would seem somewhat redundant. And no, Jonathan, I would rather not be doing this here and now. Handling it in a moving carriage makes it orders of magnitude more difficult. Circumstances have kind of forced my hand, though. There.” She lowered her hands, and the glowing runic circle remained in midair, rotating slowly and remaining perfectly in position relative to the carriage. Natchua snapped her fingers and opened her palm, and a dagger dropped from the empty air into her grasp, a short knife with a wickedly sinuously blade whose cutting edge glowed as if red-hot.

“Whoah, now,” Melaxyna said, finally looking somewhat perturbed.

“Hesthri, give me your hand,” Natchua ordered.

Hesthri immediately scooted away from her against the side of the carriage, tucking her hands against her chest and frowning. “What? Why? What are you going to do?”

“There is not time to go into it!” Natchua snapped. “I’m not going to hurt you; I didn’t go to the considerable trouble of tracking you down to treat you wastefully. But you also weren’t called here for a vacation! You agreed to follow my orders on this campaign, and if you’ve decided you’re not going to do that, you may as well go right back where you were.”

“Hey,” Jonathan said sharply, “don’t talk to her like that!”

“Hush, boy,” Melaxyna drawled. “Every word she just said was right. This whole scheme is crazy, but we did all agree to follow the drow, and by implication, trust her. Anybody who’s having second thoughts urgently needs to fuck off.”

Hesthri drew in a sharp breath as if anticipating pain, but then extended her hand to Natchua, albeit with some hesitation.

The drow seized her index finger with her left hand, and with her right, very carefully began trimming away the claw on her fingertip. Hesthri winced, watching, but did not twitch.

“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, peering at this in fascination. “I thought hethelax armor was completely invulnerable.”

“Not to that thing,” Melaxyna said in a tight voice, her eyes now locked on the dagger. “How did you get your hands on one without tipping off the Wreath? I thought they hid all of those away.”

“They did,” Natchua said absently, focusing on her work. “I made this one myself. There we go.” She released Hesthri’s hand and the hethelax immediately snatched it back, retreating again to the edge of the bench. “That should grow back on its own, Hesthri. If it hasn’t started in a couple of days, let me know and I’ll fix it. Are you okay? That wasn’t supposed to hurt.”

“No,” Hesthri said, grimacing and holding up her declawed finger. “I mean, yes. I mean—I’m fine, it doesn’t hurt. Just feels weird.”

Natchua carefully dropped the trimmed claw into the circle of glowing lines, where it immediately snapped to the center and hung there. “Your turn, Mel. Hand.”

“What?” Melaxyna squealed, abruptly scrabbling away from Sherwin. “Me? Why?!”

“Hush, girl,” Jonathan said solemnly. “We’re doing as the nice warlock orders, remember?”

“Jonathan Arquin,” Natchua growled, “we have established that you’re here explicitly because I don’t have the heart to kill or disappear you. If you’re going to do shit like that, my mind can change. If the succubus can refrain from needling everybody, you have no excuse. Mel, we don’t have time for this, we’re getting closer to the vampire’s lair by the second. Give me your hand.”

Melaxyna whined like a kicked dog and made gruesome faces, but obeyed, even more hesitantly than Hesthri had. Natchua had to reach out, seize her wrist, and haul her hand closer, but the actual procedure was much quicker: she simply jabbed the succubus’s fingertip with the knife’s point, causing an entirely excessive squeal of pain.

A single drop of black blood welled up. Natchua released Melaxyna, who yanked her arm back, but the droplet remained behind. The warlock gestured and it drifted through the air to join the slice of hethelax claw.

Instantly the entire circle snapped inward, forming a tiny ball of fire around the two joined specimens. That burned out in half a second, emitting a puff of acrid smoke and leaving behind a blob of viscous black substance with an oily sheen on its rippling surface. It undulated and squirmed in midair.

“If that’s what I think it is,” Sherwin said warily, “I can see why the Black Wreath wouldn’t want you doing it. Or anyone, for that matter.”

“And…what do you think it is?” Jonathan asked in the same tone.

Natchua simply took the wriggling thing between her thumb and forefinger; it squirmed but failed to escape. “All right, Mel, other hand.”

“Whyyyyy,” Melaxyna whined. “Come on, I already donated! It’s her turn again!”

This time, Natchua simply pointed at her with the hand not holding the blob, and chain of orange fire lashed out of her fingertip, twined around one of the succubus’s arms, and dragged it closer. Before Melaxyna could react further, she dropped the blob right into her palm.

It immediately sank into her skin and vanished.

“What did you do?!” Melaxyna squalled, struggling so violently the carriage rocked. “Get it out! What is that? So help me, you knife-eared little darkling freak, if you’ve—”

She broke off suddenly, as the other hand which she’d raised in a fist was suddenly encased in a black gauntlet with spikes protruding from the knuckles.

“Oh, no,” Sherwin whispered. “Natchua, what have you done?”

“Good,” Natchua said approvingly, ignoring him. She let go of the glowing dagger and it vanished, freeing her hand to pull out her mundane belt knife. “It’s made with your own blood, so it should sync directly with your native shapeshifting and give you full intuitive control. Make a gauntlet on your other hand.”

The other hand was still imprisoned by the chain, which did not prevent Melaxyna from obeying. A second gauntlet formed over her skin.

Natchua lashed out with elven speed, stabbing the blade right at the center of Melaxyna’s palm. It impacted the armor with an impotent clink, snapping off its tip. The gauntlet was not so much as scratched.

Melaxyna’s expression morphed to one of incredulous delight. “Best. Boss. Ever.”

“D-did you just give hethelax invulnerability to a succubus?” Jonathan breathed. “Natchua, no!”

“Natchua, yes!” Melaxyna crowed.

“Pardon me while I just double-check that the wards in here are actually preventing those thralls from hearing this,” Sherwin muttered.

“It’s not total invulnerability,” Natchua explained, finally dismissing the fiery chain and releasing Melaxyna’s arm. “Your shapeshifting has been, in a word, upgraded: you can now create armor which, yes, inherits hethelax invulnerability. That means it’s vulnerable to all the things you already are, like divine magic and valkyrie scythes. The theory is you should be able to alter the appearance as you see fit; you can make ordinary-looking clothes that will stop a wandshot, or a full suit of armor. Whatever you like. And the point of all this,” she added more loudly as three people drew breath to begin protesting, “is to have an ace up our sleeves! Just because Malivette Dufresne is generally disinclined to murder us all does not mean she can’t, and in case I need to remind you lot, we have a notable lack of legal standing, here. Of all four schools, infernal users are least equipped to deal with a vampire, or with undead in general. I want to go in there with at least something Dufresne isn’t expecting and won’t have a convenient way to handle, just in case, and this is the only idea I had prepared.”

“Well,” Hesthri said after a short silence, “you’ve absolutely just created a crisis for somebody somewhere down the line, but that’s the future. I guess right now we’d better concentrate on dealing with the vampire. So if we can’t fight her or run away, what the hell are we going to tell her?”

“I was counting on our presence here being a secret,” Natchua said, giving Sherwin a look.

“Oh, don’t scowl at me,” he snapped. “If you didn’t know her vampire senses would spot you landing here, how the hell would I?”

“The point is, I didn’t plan for this! I don’t have a story that would explain this group and I don’t know how fast I can cobble one together.”

“I dunno if you even can,” said Jonathan. “Unless you actually work for the Empire, the Church, or the Topaz College, summoning sapient demons is pretty damn illegal. Summoning a Vanislaad is the kind of illegal that gets you locked up for life!”

“Well, everybody’s clear, there,” Melaxyna said absently while changing the appearance of both her armored gloves and admiring them. “Natch didn’t summon me, I was already on this plane. Arachne can vouch for that, if it comes down to it.”

“That’s true,” Sherwin agreed, “and merely consorting with a Vanislaad isn’t a crime. The presumption of the law is that anybody entangled with them is probably a victim of their manipulation.”

“That’s the dumbest law I ever heard of,” Hesthri scoffed.

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” Sherwin grumbled. “House Leduc called in a lot of favors to get Empress Theasia to institute that one. Gods, am I glad my whole family is dead. Legally speaking, we’re in trouble, here, but not mortal trouble. The hethelax is a relatively minor threat…”

“This hethelax in particular is going to create waves if the Empire identifies her,” Jonathan said grimly, “which they might from my presence alone.”

“Vette isn’t the Empire,” Sherwin offered. “And she has her own reasons for not wanting attention called to her business. We can spin this, hopefully in a way she’ll go along with, but… Honestly, Natchua, we may have to just tell her what’s going on.”

The carriage lurched as it came to a stop.

“Time’s up,” Natchua said fatalistically. “Looks like we play it by ear.”

Further discussion was precluded by the opening of the carriage door.

“Welcome,” Ruby said pleasantly, stepping back and gesturing them out with a graceful bow. “Please, honored guests, this way.”

They disembarked one by one, feet crunching on the gravel drive. The gravel, at least, looked relatively fresh, unlike the waist-high weeds which choked the surrounding lawn. Before them, the manor house itself was largely covered by climbing ivy.

“Do the nobles here just not bother taking care of their property?” Melaxyna muttered. “At least this place looks better than yours, Sherwin.”

“The nobles here don’t want company,” he said pointedly.

“How’s she govern the province, then?” Hesthri asked, equally pointedly.

“The actual administration is done by her steward, Grusser, down in the city,” Sherwin explained, already shuffling toward the mansion’s front door. Natchua caught up in two long strides and then held back to glide along at his shoulder. The rest followed more warily, Jonathan pausing to peer at the stone obelisk which stood in the middle of the circle drive.

The manor’s front doors opened before the reached the steps, and two more women emerged, also wearing striking evening gowns. So far all of Malivette’s attendants were beautiful young women of local Stalweiss extraction, and all were uniformed in extravagant dresses that were identical apart from being color-coded. Ruby and Jade had driven them in the carriage, garbed in red and green respectively: these were in white and blue.

“Sapphire and Diamond, yes?” Melaxyna prompted.

“Pearl,” Sherwin corrected her.

“Welcome,” said Sapphire courteously. “Please, step this—”

“Yeah, yeah, spare me,” Sherwin interrupted her, stomping up the front stairs. “Nobody but you has the energy to pretend this is a polite social call. Let’s get this bullshit over with.”

“He’s not used to being around people,” Melaxyna said apologetically.

“We’re familiar with Lord Leduc,” Pearl replied with a smile. “We wouldn’t dream of disturbing his solitude except at great need.”

“Ladies,” Jonathan said far more politely, bowing to each of them before entering.

“If any of you were thinking of trying something, let me just repeat: do not.” Inside the remarkably bare front hall of Manor Dufresne, Sherwin paused to turn a warning look on the rest of his party. “Vampire thralls are as strong as a human in good shape, and as fast and agile as elves. They’re basically Butlers, functionally. In fact, my pet theory is that’s literally what Butlers are, since nobody’s seen whoever leads the Service Society in the eighty-odd years since it was founded.”

“Good guess, but no!”

They all jumped at the voice which came from the top of the staircase before them. A moment ago no one had been there, but now at the head stood a young woman in a black dress, smiling cheerfully down at them. She had the gaunt look of someone who habitually didn’t get enough rest or food, not to mention an unhealthily pale complexion. Even so, she might have passed for human if not for her crimson eyes.

Malivette Dufresne descended the stairs with mincing little steps, trailing her fingertips along one of the banisters on the way down. “I’ve been around Butlers; believe me, I would know if they were even vampire-adjacent. My pet theory is it’s done with alchemy. You know, like how the Silver Legion can turn elves into specimens with basically human strength.”

“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, “well that’s disappointing. Alchemy? There’s no romance in that.”

“Tragic, I know,” Malivette agreed, alighting at the base of the stairs. “I welcome you, Lord of House Leduc, to my home in the spirit of mutual interest and the long respect which has stood between our great Houses. In honor of that friendship, and with the deepest apology for disturbing your much-cherished quiet, I must make a most humble inquiry.” She swept an arm in a wide gesture to indicate the whole group, and abruptly her tone and expression changed to one of sheer exasperation. “What the hell, man?!”

“Me?” he exclaimed. “Which of us is sending their goons to drag the other one outside on no notice, huh?”

“Sherwin!” Malivette pressed the heels of both her hands against her eyes. “How many times have—look, I seriously am not trying to start something here. You know I don’t have a problem with you. Heck, in another life, you and I might have found ourselves joined in a loveless political marriage, and I assure you the revulsion I feel at that prospect is purely general, not personal.”

“Right back atcha, buttercup,” he huffed.

“But, for the last time, you cannot have a succubus!” Malivette pointed dramatically at the demon in question, glaring at Sherwin. “I was willing to overlook this when you built the world’s most excessive Vanislaad cage, but I know for a fact you’ve had that thing dismantled and now here’s this creature traipsing around my province unattended, and holy shit, Melaxyna?”

“Hi, Vette!” Melaxyna said cheerfully, waving. “You’re looking terrible. But less so than the last time I saw you, so… I guess you’re doing well?”

“Still always hungry, but less pissy about it,” Malivette replied, tilting her head quizzically. “And here you are, out of the Crawl. Did Professor Tellwyrn finally let you go, then?”

“Well, Arachne hasn’t come storming out here to haul me back, and that’s well within her capability,” the succubus said thoughtfully, “so I take that as notice that my services are no longer required.”

“You two…are acquainted?” Natchua said pointedly.

“I did go to that cockamamie school, you know,” Malivette replied. “Crawl expeditions and everything. Mel’s been an institution down there since long before you enrolled, and by the way, hello, Natchua. I’m so glad you’ve stopped wearing your hair up in that ridiculous spiky number, the green stripe is actually quite fetching when you let it lie flat. Drow have such lovely hair.”

“You two are acquainted?” Melaxyna asked, blinking.

“Most years there’s at least one field trip per class to Veilgrad,” Natchua explained, eyes locked with Malivette’s. “This city is prone to the kind of weird nonsense that makes for Tellwyrn’s idea of a useful class exercise, and also the governor is an alumna. It’s a handy little arrangement. I will point out for the record that my class excursion wasn’t the one that unleashed a zombie horde in the city.”

“I do say when I was warned of a succubus and a drow warlock I was not expecting either to be a familiar face, much less both.” Malivette turned her quizzical look on Jonathan and Hesthri. “Don’t tell me… Nope, you two aren’t ringing any bells. Well, then again, I don’t know any hethelax demons.”

“Yeah, about that,” Sherwin said belligerently, “we need to have a talk about whatever means you’re using to monitor my estate!”

“You just go ahead and hold your breath waiting for that,” Malivette retorted. “Look, here it is: I don’t know what all this is about, I’m glad Sherwin is finally making friends—truly—and I am nothing if not sympathetic to someone operating with what amounts to an illness that compels them to be dangerous to others. I probably relate to a succubus better than anybody who’s not one. But the fact remains, Mel, you are what you are and you cannot be running around loose in my city!”

Natchua stepped between the vampire and the succubus. “Then let’s talk about this.”

“Oh, we’re going to talk about this,” Malivette agreed, “but we’re going to do it once I’m certain she is taken care of.”

“I see old times don’t count for anything,” Melaxyna muttered.

Natchua continued matching Malivette’s stare. “You’re not touching her.”

“Young lady,” the vampire said, smiling in a way that displayed her elongated canines to great effectiveness, “would you like me to explain in detail why every part of that sentence was more wrong than the preceding, or shall I save time and demonstrate?”

“She is with me,” Natchua said coldly. “You take one of my people, and I’ll take one of yours.”

There was a moment of absolute silence.

“Okay,” Jonathan said finally, “however all this shakes out, can we establish a rule that Natchua doesn’t handle negotiations from now on?”

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15 – 8

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It took several hours for Sherwin to find her. Not that there were all that many places in Manor Leduc where one could safely go without risking a fall through the rotted floorboards; it simply took him that long to go looking. He had been very much preoccupied.

“Ah, there you are,” Natchua said as he stepped into the room, not looking up. She was inscribing runes on the floor in living fire with movements of her hands, not troubling with chalk and powder. “Upright and hale, I see. Make sure to get plenty of fluids and don’t let her blindfold or tie you up. Not that Melaxyna will do you any actual harm, but a Vanislaad’s idea of fun gets abruptly less fun for everyone else the second they have you completely in their power.”

“I’ll, ah, bear that in mind,” Sherwin mumbled, adjusting his untucked shirt self-consciously as he crept into the room. “This was my… That is, this particular basement chamber…”

“Yes, I know, it was described to me in detail,” she replied. “Sorry I didn’t get to see it with all the holy symbols still installed. That sounds like quite a feat of magical engineering.”

“Right, well… Natchua, why are you summoning hobgoblins in my house?”

“Horogki,” she corrected. “The common name is pretty misleading, they’re more closely related to gnomes than goblins. And not to quibble, but I am banishing one.”

“Was it something I said?” wheedled the specimen in the circle around which she was conjuring runes. He, as well as the two other hobgoblins standing in similar containment circles farther back in the room, was a creature about four feet tall with scaly crimson skin and large ears, as well as orange eyes that glowed around slitted black pupils. Apart from that, they did very much resemble gnomes in build and stature. “I can change! I’m a versatile kinda guy! For you, baby, I can be anything.”

“Yeah, boss, give ‘im a chance!” called one of the others. “Just look how cute he is!”

The male upon whom Natchua was working grinned ingratiatingly, displaying a double row of unevenly jagged shark-like teeth.

“Sorry, no dice,” she said dispassionately, finishing the last lines of the banishing circle and adding a languid flick of her wrist. The central circle in which the hobgoblin stood was consumed by a momentary column of white fire, and then the whole thing was gone, demon and all.

“Awwww,” complained both the remaining two in unison.

“They…speak Tanglish,” Sherwin marveled. “Huh, usually only the smarter demons know mortal languages before summoning. Based on my reading, hob—I mean, horogki are considered basically vermin.”

“Hey, buddy, we can hear you talkin’, ya know,” huffed one of the two remaining demons.

“Genetic memory,” Natchua explained, already inscribing another summoning circle. “I am summoning specifically from a bloodline with prized engineering skills. The Tanglish is a nice bonus, one I wasn’t actually expecting.”

“Engineering skills,” he said, scowling. “I see. Would I be right in guessing that answers my question as to why you are summoning horogki?”

“Sherwin, this place is falling apart.”

“That is how I like it,” he said testily. “It ensures my privacy, which I should think you would particularly want while you’re staying here! You can’t just go fixing up a man’s ancestral home, Natchua.”

“I’m collecting three or four of them at most,” she said, then hesitated. “In fact, on reflection, just three. Believe me, I don’t intent to rebuild the whole place—that front entry hall that Scorn and Vadrieny smashed is probably going to have to stay that way. But honestly, Sherwin, aside from the little nest you’ve built in the kitchen, there’s nowhere in this manor that isn’t, at best, uncomfortably rugged. Most of it is actually dangerous. Horogki from a mechanically-inclined lineage are a better prospect than hiring contractors, in our particular situation.”

“Oooh!” One of the remaining horogki pressed herself forward against the barrier of her binding circle, not seeming to mind the way it sparked all over her. “That sounds like a challenge. Lemme at ‘er, boss!”

“Well, I suppose,” Sherwin muttered grudgingly. “What was wrong with that fellow, then?”

“He was male.”

“Uh…” He took a step backward, eyeing her warily. “Is this a drow thing, or…?”

“It’s the reason summoning them to this plane is so hazardous that even the Black Wreath won’t do it,” she said with a wry smile. “Two month gestation, four years to physical maturity, and genetic memory that ensures they’re born with a working knowledge of life, and a famously…excitable nature. At the rate they breed, horogki can overrun a kingdom in two decades. Hell is so dangerous that they die there at a phenomenal rate; on this plane, almost nothing can check their population except a deliberate and vigorous culling. They’ve been the cause of more Avenist crusades than Vanislaads. So, to ward off that particular problem, I am summoning only one sex.”

“You are no fun,” complained the other horogki. “You’re the living opposite of fun!”

“Get used to it,” Natchua said without sympathy.

“And, uh…any particular reason why females?” Sherwin asked.

“…huh.” She actually hesitated in her work for a second before continuing to scribe the summoning circle. “That is a drow thing, I suppose. Just the bias of my upbringing coming through. It shouldn’t make a difference which sex we use, practically speaking.”

“Ah, that’s a relief,” Sherwin said, grinning. “Y’know, often when a warlock goes out of their way to summon exclusively female demons, it’s because they have…intentions.”

She stopped again, this time turning to give him a long look over her shoulder. “Really, Sherwin?” Natchua turned back and made a show of eyeing the two hobgoblins over speculatively; one tilted her head in confusion while the other grinned and struck a pose. “Are you already bored with Melaxyna? Well, if they don’t mind, I guess I don’t.”

He flushed bright pink. “Now, that’s not what I—”

“I can’t say I would recommend it, though,” she added, resuming work on the circle. “We’re talking about creatures that have about four times a human’s upper body strength, teeth that can dent steel, and a notable lack of impulse control even when not in the throes of…anything that tends to lower the inhibitions. I didn’t take you for such a thrill-seeker.”

“I did not intend…” Sherwin broke off and cleared his throat, his face now fully red. “Uh, never mind that. What went wrong with your summons, then? I assume you didn’t intend to get a male that time.”

“Nothing went wrong, I expected to have to banish a few in the process; this is by nature a coin toss. I would expect you of all people to know that the only summoning spell with a gendered component is for Vanislaads. And really, even that one is only encoding information in the spell that tells them what kind of form to take to best beguile their prospective summoner.”

He blinked. “Wait, what? They’re male and female, aren’t they?”

“They’re shapeshifters, Sherwin,” she said, smirking. “With a noted tendency toward gender fluidity. It’s not known whether that results from the transformation process or Prince Vanislaas prefers to choose souls with that characteristic, but there it is.”

Sherwin blinked again, twice, and tilted his head in puzzlement. “Gender…fluidity? What does that mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” she drawled. “It’s a surprisingly functional trait, in the case of Vanislaads. More than one has slipped the net because their pursuers failed to connect the incubus sighted in the next province over with the succubus they were chasing. It takes a nuanced understanding of stealth to properly leverage that, you know. What people don’t think to look for is just as invisible as what they literally cannot see.”

Sherwin swallowed heavily, his face now pale beneath its coat of stubble. “Um. Does that mean… That is, do you happen to know if Melaxyna…”

Natchua shrugged. “Does it really make a difference, for your purposes? You could ask her, if you’re awfully curious. I wouldn’t, personally. The children of Vanislaas are able to use that particular trait to their advantage because people don’t think about it. Might not be healthy to let one Vanislaad know you’ve been thinking along lines they would all rather you didn’t.”

“Hang on, now, you said you had her under control!”

She turned again to look at him.

“I mean…you know what I meant,” he exclaimed. “In the sense and to the extent that any succubus is ever under control.”

“Melaxyna won’t harm you, or anyone here,” Natchua assured him, turning back to her work. “But she won’t be here forever. Our contract prohibits her from setting anyone else after me or my allies once she’s dismissed, either. I can’t say for certain whether Vanislaad business qualifies under that protection if she decides a given warlock knows too much. They’re not very cooperative creatures as a rule, but…one never knows.”

“Omnu’s balls, you’re a troublesome houseguest,” he grumbled.

Natchua glanced back at him again, grinning. “Be honest, Sherwin. Am I really one whit more troublesome than you fully expected?”

He had to hesitate before answering that one, but then did so with a reluctant grin. “Okay, fair point.”

“So here’s where—hang on. What devilry are you up to this time, Natchua?” Jonathan Arquin demanded, stepping into the room and scowling at the two imprisoned hobgoblins.

“Hey there, cutie!” one called, waving exuberantly.

“It may not look it at first glance,” Sherwin said, “but apparently this is the first step in fixing this place up a little. How’re you settling in, Mr., uh…”

“Arquin,” he said, finally tearing his suspicious stare from the demons to his host. “Jonathan Arquin. It’s quite the, ah, charming home you have, Lord Leduc. I can tell it has a lot of historical value.”

“You can be frank with me, Mr. Arquin, I’m hard to offend,” Sherwin said with a rueful chuckle. “It’s a dump. Honestly, I like it that way. But then, I never expected to have company for any length of time, so…I suppose some repair is in order. Wouldn’t do for somebody to fall through the floor.”

“Okay, I’m getting really curious to poke around this place,” said one of the horogki.

“House Leduc were a rather infamous clan of warlocks, for a long time before being reduced to just Sherwin, here,” said Natchua. “This manor hid secrets of the most dangerous nature before falling into such disrepair that it may be unsafe to walk through. I’d advise against poking around, Jonathan.”

“Curiouser and curiouser!” chimed the second horogki.

“I was looking for you two, not poking around, and Melaxyna told me exactly where to look. You’ve got another guest, Lord Leduc. Someone who is asking specifically for you and Natchua.”

Natchua broke off her scribing and whirled to stare at him. “What? Me? By name?”

“Not by name, no,” Jonathan shook his head. “The lady did ask for the drow warlock, though. That’s a little too on the nose to be a coincidence.”

She turned a scowl on Sherwin. “Nobody outside this house should have the faintest clue where I am, Sherwin, unless you told someone!”

“Come on, Natchua,” he protested. “I literally don’t talk to people. You lot are the first company I’ve had in years. Even my supply deliveries are just left in the stableyard!”

“Well, my shadow-jumps are too good to be tracked, I can guarantee that. The only way anybody would have even spotted us coming in is if… Actually, I can’t even think of a way! Can you imagine how someone would have been monitoring your grounds through means beyond the current magical state of the art?”

“Oh, ssshhhhiit,” he groaned, suddenly clapping a hand over his eyes. “…all right, I know what this is. Come on, we’d better go face the music. And be nice, Natchua. This isn’t gonna be a situation for slinging power around.”

“Most situations aren’t,” Jonathan grunted. Natchua just swept past him, following Sherwin out into the hall and up the stone stairs to the kitchen.

“So, I guess we’ll just wait here then, shall we?” called one of the imprisoned hobgoblins as the three of them departed.

In the kitchen above were two unfamiliar women, one of whom was recognizable on second glance as Melaxyna, minus the wings and tail and with her unnatural coloration swapped out for a stereotypical Tiraan palette. She was sitting on the edge of Sherwin’s rumpled bed with her hair disheveled and a blanket strategically draped over just enough of herself to make it clear she had nothing else on, as though to make a deliberate statement of what she had been doing for the last couple of hours.

The other was tall, young, and as pretty as Melaxyna, a local fair-haired Stalweiss woman clad in a crimson evening gown with a high collar. It made her look aggressively out of place in the converted kitchen apartment, with its stereotypical bachelor mess strewn over every surface. She had taken up a position in the center of the floor, as far as possible from anything which might touch her dress.

“Lord Sherwin,” the new arrival said with a diplomatic smile that did not touch her eyes, turning toward the door as the three of them filed in. “Felicitations; I see you have finally acquired a succubus. Who is not secured in that cage you so laboriously constructed. Do you require a lecture on the unspeakable danger this creature poses to the entire city?”

“Sherwin, honey,” Melaxyna cooed, angling her body toward him and letting the blanket slip a few calculated inches, “who is this person, and may I please kill her?”

“No!” he shouted, waving his hands. “Do not! Any of you, trust me, killing her is not on the table. Best case scenario you’ll end up looking foolish; if you actually managed to harm her we’d all be in deep shit. Now what the hell do you want, Ruby? Or actually, I guess I should ask what the hand up your butt wants, since we both know you haven’t got a mind of your own.”

Ruby finished giving Natchua a long, thorough visual inspection before turning to him with another meaningless smile. “This is some extremely interesting company you are suddenly keeping, Lord Sherwin. Of course, my Lady would under ordinary circumstances not dream of meddling in your business to even the slightest degree. All this begins to look ominous, however. Need I explain why this kind of activity is of immediate concern to the governor of this province?”

“Governor?” Jonathan’s eyebrows shot upward. “This is starting to sound a whole lot less discreet than you described it, Natchua.”

The drow heaved a sigh. “Oh. The governor. Trust me, Jonathan, she appreciates the value of discretion better than anybody.”

“You can assure Malivette that nothing happening here will spill beyond the walls of Manor Leduc,” Sherwin said testily. “Which makes it by definition none of her damn business. Now, if that is all…”

“You can assure her of that yourself, m’lord,” Ruby replied smoothly. “The Lady Dufresne has sent a carriage to convey you and your very fascinating new houseguests to her residence for a polite conversation. She has instructed me to emphasize that her intentions toward you are as always nothing less than friendly, in the spirit of the long detente which has reigned between your two great Houses, and also that this is not a request.”


Their guides had kept them moving well after the customary time for a lunch break, smiling politely but refusing to relent even despite Ruda and Gabriel’s complaints. The reason became clear in the early afternoon when the party reached their designated stopping place, which proved well worth both the wait and the hike.

Just off the winding mountain trail was a grotto where a waterfall plummeted in a series of steps from a high-up spring into a wide pool below, casting the entire tiny stone valley in a cooling mist. The group had broken for a belated meal, and then tarried to rest and rejuvenate themselves.

There wasn’t room in the grotto for anybody to get properly lost, and so they had each wandered to various corners to pass the time without getting out of sight of each other. Their two guides from the Order of the Light had so far been diffident to the point of standoffish, but Toby had finally occupied them both in conversation at the edge of the pool, along with the two Legionnaires. Gabriel and Juniper were engrossed in teaching Sniff to play fetch up and down the path leading from the main pass to this hidden alcove. Ruda had left her hat, coat, and sword on the ground near their supplies and was now playing a game with Fross which seemed to consist of her trying to ice-skate across the pool in her boots, while the pixie created a path of ice inches in front of her and vanished it immediately behind. Needless to say, she was utterly drenched, and laughing so exuberantly it was amazing she hadn’t managed to drown herself.

Trissiny finished climbing the long, winding path up the side of the grotto to one of the tiers of the waterfall, where a smaller pool lay against the cliff wall, some twenty feet up and with a perfect view of the rest of the valley and their relaxing classmates. Teal and Shaeine already sat on the rocks at the edge, trousers and robes respectively rolled up and with their shoes on the rock beside them, dangling their feet in the water while F’thaan splashed ecstatically around their legs, yipping and trying to chase puffs of spray.

“I’m not intruding, am I?” Trissiny asked, having to raise her voice a little due to the sound of the falls.

“Not at all,” Teal called back, waving. “Please, join us.”

She took a careful seat a few feet distant, perching her booted feet on the rim of the pool and resting her folded arms across her knees. Below, Principia glanced up at them and raised one hand in a perfunctory wave before quickly returning her attention to her own conversation. What with the roar of falling water, this was the first time all morning any of them had been within sight of the elf but not the range of her sharp hearing.

“Do you know anything about the Eserite doctrines of revenge?” Trissiny asked aloud.

“No, but I confess I am rather curious,” Shaeine replied. “My sister Nahil has offered some intriguing commentary about Eserites. The Guild’s codes seem quite opaque to outsiders.”

“Very little of it is actually secret,” said Trissiny, lifting one shoulder in half a shrug, “we just don’t talk much with outsiders about Guild business. But revenge… By Eserite lore, there are three criteria a situation has to meet before you should pursue vengeance upon someone: it has to be satisfying, strategic, and safe.”

“Oh?” Shaine smiled faintly, turning her face toward Trissiny. “How intriguing. In fact, it begins to sound similar to Narisian philosophy. Would you elaborate?”

“Revenge,” Trissiny said, gazing distantly at the scene below them, “is only satisfying if the target knows what is happening to them, at whose instigation, and why. Anonymous acts of retaliation can be amusing, but they’re just…not the same. Not really worth the effort, usually. That’s the part that makes it tricky to line up the other two requirements. For it to be strategic, it means there has to be a functional purpose in attacking someone. In the Guild’s case, that usually means a show of force that will dissuade them from causing further trouble. If you don’t arrange the situation carefully and make sure your act is the final one, all you’ll do is kick off an escalating cycle of retaliation. Which plays into the criterion of safe. In fact, I personally always thought it should just be folded into the second one. Basically, don’t seek revenge on anyone if they’re in a position to do it right back at you afterward. So, given how tricky it is to align all those criteria, Eserites—that is, good Eserites who keep to the codes—very rarely end up seeking personal revenge.”

Shaeine nodded slowly, still wearing that faint smile. “I see. We can address the subtext whenever you are ready, Trissiny. It’s not uncomfortable for me.”

Trissiny sighed, glancing up at her and then looking back down at the others. “The way you keep giving Principia a cold shoulder when she tries to apologize to you is honestly fine, Shaeine. That’s the least of what she has coming, and she knows it. Using your energy shields to trip or jostle her every time…might be less so. Whatever else she may be, Principia Locke is Eserite right down to her core. That means she knows when she’s in the wrong, and won’t begrudge you getting a little of your own back. If you push it to the point where she decides you’re the one being abusive, though, you may be courting more trouble than you comprehend. Don’t underestimate her.”

Shaeine studied her in silence for a moment, then turned her head to look at Teal.

“It’s Trissiny, loveling,” Teal said softly, barely audible through the sound of falling water. “We should be open with her.”

The drow closed her eyes and leaned over for a moment, briefly resting the crown of her forehead against Teal’s jaw, then turned back to Trissiny with a smile a few degrees warmer.

“Trissiny, I realize you have a complicated history with that woman, and less attachment to her than to the one who raised you. But these facts remain: she is your mother, you are my friend, and my culture is what it is. She would have to have done far worse to me than the, I admit, relatively minor offense she committed before I would willingly do her serious harm. Rest assured, I have no intention of acting toward her in a way that could reasonably be described as abusive.”

Trissiny nodded, turning an answering smile on her. “Good, I’m glad to hear that. I guess… I don’t really understand, then. I don’t mean any offense, Shaeine, but…this seems petty to me. And you’re one of the least petty people I’ve ever known. That tells me there’s something going on that I’m missing.”

“Oh, I can be a little petty,” Shaeine replied, now with an open if reserved grin. “From time to time. But you’re right, it is not quite so simple as that. Well, let me put it this way. In Tar’naris, we have a saying: the best revenge is to place someone in your power.”

Trissiny frowned thoughtfully. “Then that really sounds like you may be asking for trouble.”

“I’m hardly going to try to enslave her, either,” said Shaeine. “But it’s just as you said, Trissiny: the situation matters. Principia has been nakedly angling to get closer to you as long as we have known her, and I don’t expect that has changed. Now, furthermore, she answers to your High Commander and is on some mission which, I surmise, involves getting on the good side of at least Tellwyrn and possibly all of us. In short, there is no situation in which it will be safe or strategic for her to retaliate against me. The moment she commits to such a feud, a huge swath of everything she wants will go up in smoke.”

“So you think you can mess with her with impunity?” Trissiny said warily. “Shaeine…”

“It’s not that,” Teal assured her. “Look, Triss, as mad as we both were at the time, that was two years ago. It was all remedied in minutes, and everybody is over it. There are no grudges being held here.”

“What there is,” Shaeine added, “is a clever, well-connected, potentially very useful person to know who now finds herself needing to worm her way back into my good graces. I have no intention of harming Principia in the least; I have no specific plans for her, either. What I do know is that my mother would be severely disappointed in me if I squandered an opportunity to leverage the debt of honor she owes House Awarrion for the sake of getting some trifling personal revenge. In short, my little pranks are intended simply to make it clear to Principia that she is not in favor with me.” A mild, self-satisfied smile settled over her features and she leaned back slightly, stretching out her legs and wiggling her toes above the surface of the water. “And then…we will see what she is willing to do to get there. And if I allow myself to enjoy the process just a little, well, the smirking polecat did creep into our home and drug us both.”

“So that’s your game,” Trissiny mused after a thoughtful pause, frowning faintly at the scene below them. Principia was still not looking in their direction.

“Trissiny.” Shaeine turned to her, straightening up and fully sobering her expression. “I meant what I said. This is a matter of seizing an opportunity; it’s not a vengeance I feel a particular need to pursue, nor does my House specifically want anything from Locke. More immediately, I care very much about your feelings, and what you think of me. If you request it, I will instantly drop the entire thing and make no further reference to it. As far as my own feelings go, I have forgiven her long since. A grudge is a heavy thing to carry, and seldom worth the labor.”

“No,” Trissiny said pensively, pausing to chew on her lower lip for a moment. “No, now that I understand what you’re doing… I have no objection to any of this. Sounds like you actually do know what you’re about, and I see no harm in it. With that said, now, I do have a request.”

“Name it.”

Trissiny turned to face her with a sudden grin. “I wanna play, too.”

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15 – 7

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Ingvar yielded to their pleading, since they at least managed to do it without descending back into shouted insults at each other, and so the conversation was taken to a more private venue. Brother Nandu was just as happy to offer them a quiet place to hold their discussion, where Tholi and November would incidentally not be within range of any of the monks going about their business in the temple. The chamber offered was a small prayer room, with a tiny round window opposite the door which projected sunbeams onto the floor, and stone benches lining both its longer walls. It was a little cramped with four people present, but not uncomfortably so. It was, additionally, located clear on the other end of the monastery and featured thick walls and a thick wooden door doubtless intended to provide a meditating monk with silence and privacy, which coincidentally would serve just as well to shield everyone else from any yelling which broke out within.

Four people because Aspen so blithely assumed she was included that nobody bothered to contradict her. Brother Nandu gently shooed away the surly monk who had met them on the road, and Rainwood accompanied them, chattering on about catching up on the news. Tholi frowned when Aspen strolled into the cell with them, and got as far as opening his mouth to comment before Ingvar caught his eye.

“Very well,” Ingvar said as soon as he had shut the door behind them. “Here we are. Now I want to hear those explanations. Starting with you, Tholi.”

“Excuse me,” November exclaimed, “but I was sent here on a divine quest, which I am sure is more important than—”

“So, nothing would happen if I just clobbered her, right?” Aspen said cheerily.

They all turned to stare at her, November going white.

“I mean, if I understand what people tell me about Imperial law,” the dryad continued. “How it basically doesn’t apply to me. So, if I was to get tired of someone mouthing off and punched her through the wall, nothing important would actually happen, right, Ingvar?”

“Several important things would happen,” he said patiently. “To begin with, a human being would be dead, which is a serious matter as we have discussed several times. Our hosts would be horrified, and I would hope you would not do them the discourtesy of making them clean up such a mess. Also, just because the Empire doesn’t claim dominion over dryads does not mean they wouldn’t do anything if you murdered an Imperial citizen. In particular I think our own mission is better off without drawing that kind of scrutiny.”

“Ah, I see,” she said gravely. “Okay, thanks. Anyway, you were about to talk, Tholi?”

November swallowed and edged away along the bench until she was bunched into the corner. Tholi gave her an openly amused glance, but at least refrained from any active needling. That was probably the best behavior Ingvar could hope for, from either of them.

His expression quickly sobered when he turned back to Ingvar, though. “Things have been getting…strange at the lodge since you left, Brother. That’s why I came looking for you: looking back, that’s the moment that it started getting serious.”

“Strange in what way?”

“With every passing day we feel less and less like Huntsmen,” Tholi said, now frowning deeply. “At least to me. And…I’ve kept my mouth shut about it, mostly, because I know I’m young to the brotherhood. And also because when I have said anything, I either get told to mind my place or brushed off because nobody has the time to educate me. That’s the thing, I remember when brother Huntsmen did have the time to educate each other. You in particular, Brother Ingvar, bopped my nose at least twice a day when I was a youngling, but you always explained. The younglings growing up now… They’re being taught to obey, not to understand. I feel like I’m the last Huntsman raised to actually grasp what being a Huntsman means.”

“What’s happening to the lodge, Tholi?” Ingvar asked quietly.

“Well, we hardly ever see Brother Andros anymore, he’s constantly down at the Cathedral or doing something with the other cults. Much more than he used to, even—it feels like it goes well beyond him being Bishop. There are strangers in the lodge all the time, Church people and others I don’t know. The Archpope keeps sending that Snowe woman with the jugs and the slimy blond Eserite around, and the both of them are wrapping Huntsmen around their little fingers like… Well. At least that rabid Syrinx woman has been gotten rid of.”

“Bishop Syrinx?” Ingvar said, raising his eyebrows. “Not that I’m surprised, but what happened to her?”

Tholi sneered contemptuously. “Apparently even the Avenists had enough of her. The way I heard, it came out that she was molesting Legionnaires. The Hand of Avei herself came to Tiraas and whipped the shit out of her right in the middle of Imperial Square, and good on her for it, I say.”

November was practically shaking with some repressed emotion; Ingvar gave her a level look, concluded that she was continuing to repress it, and opted to leave well enough alone. “Interesting. Well, go on. The Church is meddling in the lodge?”

“It’s worse than that,” Tholi said, frowning again as his thoughts returned to the matter. “Men are coming and going in a way I don’t like. Huntsmen do less hunting now, rites have become more and more infrequent and they keep being sent to do things with other cults, and on secretive missions…”

“What kind of missions?”

“Don’t know.” Tholi shook his head, looking frustrated. “I guess I’m too young. And also I haven’t been happy about the way things are shaping up; that probably contributed to me being cut out. But the Huntsmen in Tiraas are becoming agents of the Archpope’s agenda. Like, brazenly. It feels like Justinian leads us as much as Veisroi does. The Grandmaster had already sent away every Huntsman from the lodge who might challenge him for the weakness and brought in men from other lodges who’ll support him. You saw that happening when you were still around, Brother.”

“I do remember the trend,” Ingvar murmured. “I trusted the Grandmaster to have a plan and the good of the Huntsmen in mind, though, and Brother Andros to check him if he went too far.”

“Well, I think your trust may have been misplaced, Brother Ingvar,” Tholi said grimly. “Since you left it’s been getting worse. Veisroi has moved on to chasing away anybody who raises a voice to protest what’s happening, and surrounded himself with bootlickers. Men who like power, and politics, and see following him and the Archpope as a way to get them. And Brother Andros hasn’t said or done a thing about it. I wasn’t close enough to know why—he might be fully behind the Grandmaster, or maybe Veisroi and Justinian just keep him too occupied to protest. Either would explain him being gone all the time. When I left… Well, I was starting to get pretty firm hints that I’d be better off moving to a different lodge, anyway.”

“I see,” said Ingvar, frowning. “I’m sorry, Tholi. You deserved better than that. It doesn’t explain why you are here, though, or how you knew I would be.”

Tholi’s expression brightened. “I was led here, Brother! I heard that before you set off on your vision quest, you started to have dreams telling you to go, right?” He paused just long enough for Ingvar to nod in confirmation before pressing on. “Well, I have too! I…honestly tried to ignore it for months. I’ve never thought of myself as some kind of spirit-speaker—I just wanted to embrace the wild and hunt alongside my brothers. You know, find a good wife, provide for a family. A simple life, that’s what I felt I was heading toward. But every night I had these dreams, too vivid and always clearly remembered when I woke up. They didn’t feel natural. I kept seeing…” He hesitated, glancing at the window. “…guides. Birds leading me west. Sometimes they talked, and told me to find you. When I started to see wolves as well, always urging me west, and the men at the lodge were starting to freeze me out anyway, I gave up and left. I guess sometimes the spirits don’t care if you’re not attuned to them. If they have a task for you, they won’t let up until you get off your butt and do it.”

“I can relate to that,” Ingvar said wryly.

“And I was right!” Tholi unconsciously gripped his bow in both hands, gazing avidly at Ingvar now. “I found you, Brother! The spirits led me here, to some backwater at the ass end of N’Jendo where there’s no reason I could’ve expected to find you and you didn’t even know you were going to be. It has to mean something! Doesn’t it?”

“Isn’t that kind of exactly what happened to you, Ingvar?” Aspen prompted.

“Kind of exactly,” Ingvar agreed. “Well, who knew. All right, November, you’ve been patient. What’s your story?”

“As I told you,” she burst out with a sudden force that suggested she had been struggling to contain herself while Tholi talked, “I was sent here on a direct mission from Avei herself!”

“Avei,” Ingvar said, not troubling to disguise his skepticism. “The goddess personally told you to come find me?”

“Well, she also ended up here, after all,” Tholi said somewhat grudgingly. “Not that I think much of this brat, but that’s obviously…not insignificant.”

“Oh, you’re right about that,” said Ingvar, still studying November thoughtfully. “I’m just trying to make sense of it. Gods rarely reach out to people in person. I doubt if anybody but Trissiny Avelea and Farzida Rouvad have heard directly from Avei in the last decade.”

“Well, I can assure you I did,” November snapped. “It’s not the sort of experience I could be mistaken about. Furthermore, Professor Tellwyrn herself validated my quest and gave me the semester off for this. Whatever else you may think about Tellwyrn, she knows the gods as well as anyone does.”

“I do have a lot of respect for Tellwyrn,” Ingvar acknowledged. “A very impressive woman, and more sly than she likes to appear.”

Tholi shrugged. “I guess the girl’s a priestess of Avei, after all. And clearly something is going on that’s getting the attention of gods and spirits.”

“She’s not a priestess of Avei,” Aspen said.

“What?” Tholi frowned at her. “No, I saw her using divine light, she’s definitely a priestess.”

November opened her mouth, but Aspen blithely chattered over her. “No, I’ve been sitting here remembering. I pretty much forgot all about November after we left Last Rock because she wasn’t all that important to me, but I do remember Juniper talking about her while we were there. She’s an Avenist and kind of a bitch about it, but not a priestess—she’s a mutant.”

“Now, just a minute!” November burst out.

“A…mutant?” Tholi frowned quizzically.

“Yeah, she’s a whatchamacallit, an anomaly. She can use divine magic without a god’s help, like a dwarf. Juniper also said most of her classmates find her annoying, she’s in love with Trissiny Avelea, and is pretty mediocre in bed.”

November went scarlet and began physically shaking. Tholi impressed Ingvar by not overtly piling mockery on the young woman’s humiliation, though clearly his discretion had improved only a little since they had last met. The young Huntsman turned his back, but either couldn’t or didn’t bother to stifle the shaking of his shoulders.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said flatly, “we have talked about this. People have the right to privacy, especially with regard to romantic and sexual matters. The fact that you can sense things they’d rather keep quiet means you have a responsibility to keep such knowledge to yourself. I know your sister Juniper understands and practices this; there is no reason you can’t.”

“Right,” she said with a sigh. “Sorry, Ingvar.”

“Don’t apologize to me,” he ordered. “I’m not the one you offended.”

“Oh, okay then.”

Aspen smiled brightly, placing her hands demurely in her lap, and looked deliberately innocent.

He stared her down. “Aspen.”

“Oh, all right,” the dryad said with poor grace. “Sorry, November, that was rude of me. I won’t do it again.”

November answered with the red-faced silence of someone who did not trust her own voice.

“Tholi, act your age,” Ingvar said disapprovingly. “Laughing at someone else’s misfortune is childish and unbecoming a Huntsman of Shaath. Putting all that nonsense aside, Ms. Stark, what was it exactly that Avei ordered you to do?”

“To find you.” November was still red-faced and trembling, but clearly grateful for the change of subject. “Avei said… She said that you are undertaking an important quest, Huntsman Ingvar, something that greatly concerns the entire Pantheon, and that you would need help. She commanded me to find you and help you in any way you need, and told me to come to this location to meet you.”

“Avei said that,” Ingvar muttered. “That’s… I’m not questioning your word, November. After all, if you were lying or wrong I don’t see how you could have ended up here, looking for me. But it’s a lot to take in.”

“For me, too,” she mumbled.

“Hey, Tholi,” Aspen said suddenly. Ingvar looked up to find the dryad staring at Tholi with an almost predatory interest and Tholi himself looking uncomfortable and shifty. “You said you dreamed about birds leading you here, right?”

“Uh, yes.”

“What birds, exactly?”

He shrugged. “You know, just birds…”

“Yes, but what kind?”

“Crows.” Tholi glanced over at November, then finally met Ingvar’s eyes, and finished with visible reluctance. “And… A golden eagle. I didn’t… That is, at the time, I didn’t think it could possibly… Well, a bird is a bird, and dreams are just… Brother Ingvar, what is going on?”

Ingvar stepped over to the window, staring at the mountain beyond. “First this…frankly incredible quest. This whole time I’ve been thinking there was no way I could do this, just because it would require a kind of shift from within the Huntsmen that… And yet, it sounds like the Huntsmen are already suffering the beginnings of what could become a schism if it isn’t mended. And now… Now, another god of the Pantheon takes an interest. The absolute last one I would have expected. Well.”

He turned around to face them, nodding once. “Very well. You two are not the help I would have summoned for this task. Then again, if I’d been the one handing out cosmic assignments, I would not have nominated me for it, either. We must trust that the gods know something we don’t.”

“Of course they do,” Aspen said reasonably. “They’re gods.”

“Gods are creatures with agendas,” Tholi added, “just like anyone. I’m not so sure I like the sound of running around doing Avei’s bidding.”

“I’m pretty sure Avei doesn’t want you trying to do her bidding, either,” November sneered.

“Are you?” Ingvar shook his head. “You may both feel differently once you hear what is actually happening. All right, where to begin…”

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15 – 6

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The darkness receded, leaving them standing in sunlight and the fresh air of the mountains. The group, which had been clustered together in the Mathenon basement in which they had gathered for the shadow-jump, immediately moved a few feet apart. Mostly because several of them didn’t care for being in one another’s proximity, to judge by the grim stares Jonathan and Hesthri leveled at Melaxyna while stepping to the side.

The succubus was clearly unbothered. She rose up onto her toes, stretching her arms above her head and wings out to both sides, then relaxed with a pleased sigh. “Ah, that’s the stuff. Sun, breeze, and birdsong! I think I’ve had my fill of being indoors and/or underground for another lifetime.”

“Where are we?” Hesthri demanded, turning slowly in a circle to take in their surroundings.

“Veilgrad,” Jonathan answered, pointing at the city stretching away from the western foot of the mountainside upon which they now stood. “Or at least, the hills outside it. The city’s unmistakable. That, however, I don’t know about. A better question is: why are we here?”

He added the last with a frown of puzzlement, turning in the opposite direction. Above them at the pinnacle of the trail loomed the overgrown ruins of a manor house.

“That would’ve been a better question to ask before we jumped,” Melaxyna suggested with a simpering smile.

“Mel,” Natchua warned, “do not start picking at him. Or her, or me, or anyone. This group is already one person bigger than I had planned and we will all have plenty of time to get sick of each other in the days to come without professional help.”

“You know she used to wear her hair gelled up in a mohawk?” Melaxyna said, still in that innocently sweet tone. “It looked ridiculous. I’m glad she kept the green stripe, though, that’s actually rather dashing when it’s allowed to lie down properly.”

Jonathan glanced at her only momentarily before returning his focus to Natchua. “Right, well… Belated or not, the answer to my question…?”

Natchua turned and began walking up the road toward the gates of the manor grounds, giving them the option of following or being left behind. “I told you what I am looking for: demons who can be counted on to take action against Elilial, in spite of their own best interests. There are precious few of those, and it’s even harder to track them down since my primary means of doing so is to consult a djinn.”

“Safely, of course,” Melaxyna snickered. “Binding the djinn in question with a contract which prevents her from revealing anything about Natchua or her own plans to anyone. You can guess how much they enjoy that. I have never seen a djinn so piqued as Qadira el-Mafti after Natchua got done lawyering up at her. Of course, there’s no possible way that will ever come back to bite our fearless leader on the ass.”

“I don’t expect to still be alive by the time she finds an opportunity to make trouble,” Natchua said curtly. “Anyway, I have a lead on another prospect, but in the meantime, we are here to secure the other thing this mad little crusade will require: a safe base of operations.”

“Safe, huh,” Hesthri snorted. They had arrived at the head of the mountain road, where the gates still sort of stood. At least the stone pillars flanking them were still there; of the two wrought iron gates, one listed drunkenly from its hinges and the other lay flat on the path inside. Beyond, the spectacle of ruin was even worse than the glimpse visible from below had hinted. Both the long wings of the huge mansion were in terrible disrepair, with virtually every window either boarded up or reduced to a fringe of shattered glass, and the gabled roof was missing fully half its shingles and rent by yawning holes. That was nothing compared to the main entrance hall which stood between them. To judge by the size of its foundation and the height of the one standing corner, it must have been a grand edifice indeed at one point. Now it was merely a huge pile of rubble.

“For all intents and purposes?” Natchua snorted a mirthless little laugh. “Safe enough.”

“Was all this for dramatic effect?” Jonathan asked. “The whole wide approach, I mean. It’s not like there’s a lot to see, here, and it’s probably a better idea not to drop this group out in a public area where anybody might see us arrive. Wiser to bring us in closer to the building, if not inside it. Unless it’s even less safe than it looks, which would be saying something.”

“Nobody ever visits here, I assure you,” Natchua replied, leading them on a long path to the left of the smashed entrance, through the chest-high weeds and brambles which had overtaken the neglected garden. “And the grounds are protected by a very thorough set of infernal wards. Even I couldn’t shadow-jump jump onto the property itself without likely triggering some kind of trap.”

“Even you?” Hesthri drawled, shoving aside a bramble bush without reacting in the slightest to the thorns. “I thought we’d established you’re about the same age as my son. Infernal magic takes time to master, like any kind of magic. Any skill at all, for that matter. More time than you’ve been alive, girl.”

At the rear of the group, Melaxyna laughed aloud. Everyone else ignored her.

“I know very close to everything there is to know about infernal magic,” Natchua stated.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Look, Natchua, this may seem improbable, but we actually were your age at one point. It’s easy to feel like you know everything when you lack perspective on how much there is to know.”

“Do not talk down to me, Jonathan Arquin!” Natchua finally slammed to a halt at the corner of the manor, whirling to glare at him. The rest of the group stopped as well, Melaxyna lurking at the back with a malicious grin, and Hesthri clinging to Jonathan’s arm. That sight did nothing to improve Natchua’s humor. “When I say I know everything about infernal magic, I mean exactly that. Everything except whatever Elilial withheld to maintain some control, which is still more than any red dragon.”

He squinted in surprise. “Elilial…withheld?”

“Tell me, Jonathan, since you’re so old and wise and know so much,” she spat, “what do you think would happen if the goddess of demons cornered two teenage college students and stuffed their brains full of every detail of infernal lore? Do you think there is the slightest chance of them doing anything productive or responsible with that? With the entire school magic most suited to causing destruction and almost nothing else? And what lifespan would you give those two kids, at a guess?”

“Gods,” Jonathan whispered. Hesthri was staring at her in pure horror, now.

“And the best part,” Natchua said with a bitter laugh, “is we were just tools. Professor Tellwyrn was a little too close to her plans, so Elilial introduced a pair of time bombs to her campus.”

“That hellgate,” Jonathan said, eyes widening.

“Yes, that was Chase,” she said. “You think I’m cruel, or unwise, or just weird? Fine, I’ll own that, but I was the success story. He is now in a cell in Tar’naris, drugged to the gills so House Awarrion can keep him pacified while the matriarch devises a suitable torment for his offenses against her and hers. Frankly, that’s a better end than he had any right to expect. It’s a better one than I expect. There’s no life or future for me, do you understand that? You can’t walk around having this kind of power and knowledge without it seeping out to affect every aspect of your life. And you can’t live using infernomancy without causing chaos and gathering enemies.”

She paused, and none of them found anything to say in reply. Even Melaxyna no longer looked like she was enjoying the conversation.

“That’s why I’m doing this,” Natchua said at last, the anger leaking from her in a long sigh. “I am avenging my murder, Jonathan. Sticking some pain to Elilial will be nice, but the real victory will be ensuring that Gabriel and the other paladins survive whatever she’s planning intact and positioned to keep giving her grief for a good long time. And gods, I wish you hadn’t butted in. I wasn’t planning to have to avenge your death as well.” She turned around finally, rounding the corner. “But if you insist on involving yourself, fine. By the time I’m done there’ll be enough vengeance to redress a lot of sins.”

The group followed her in silence the rest of the way, which fortunately was not far. Tucked around at the back of the house was a small side door opening onto a stableyard which was now the resting place of half a dozen disintegrating carriages, all so far gone it was impossible to tell whether they had been horse-drawn or enchanted. Natchua’s warning about wards on the property had apparently been apt; the little door opened when they were still a dozen yards away, and a man’s head poked out.

He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties but prematurely balding, his pale complexion marred by a three-day growth of stubble. Though the stableyard was shaded both by the house and the mountain behind it, he blinked in what sunlight there was as though it were a new experience for him.

“Hello, Sherwin,” Natchua said, waving. “Here they are, as promised.”

“What did you promise this guy, exactly?” Hesthri demanded.

The house’s occupant squinted at them, then pointed at Jonathan. “Who’s this, then? You said two demons, Natchua.”

“This is Jonathan Arquin, who has decided to forcibly insert himself into our business,” Natchua said, giving Jonathan an annoyed look over her shoulder. “Sorry to spring that on you; it was sprung on me. Still, he’s trustworthy and actually probably useful. And not to be snippy but it’s not like you don’t have the room.”

“Room, yes, but rooms…” Sherwin sighed, stepping fully out into the yard and distractedly running a hand over his messy hair. “I’ve cleared out three rooms for you in the south wing. They’re not contiguous, I had to select a few where the floor’s not rotted and there are no major holes in the roof. Oh, well, I’m sure there’s at least one more that can be made to serve. If you’ll vouch for him, I guess that’s fine.”

“Everyone,” Natchua said, stepping aside and gesturing between him and her group, “this is our host. May I present Lord Sherwin, high seat and last scion of House Leduc. He’s more personable than he appears, given time to warm up to you. I’ve been visiting all summer; it’s just a momentary shadow-jump from Mathenon, as you now know. Sherwin, this is the hethelax I told you of. Her name is Hesthri.”

“Delighted, madam,” the scruffy young man said with a perfunctory bow.

“Like…wise,” Hesthri replied warily, doing a very poor job of masking her dubiousness, if indeed she was even trying.

“And this,” Natchua added with a smug undertone, “is Melaxyna.”

“I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you,” the succubus positively purred, sashaying forward with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips that made Hesthri roll her eyes and Jonathan avert his. Sherwin could only gape at her, mouth slightly agape, even as she sashayed up and twined herself around his arm. “Natchua tells me the most delightful things, my lord. Why don’t you show me around your charming mansion?”

“Oh, well, uh,” he babbled, “that is, it’s really more of a wreck…” The rest was muffled as the succubus deftly maneuvered him back inside and swiftly out of earshot.

“As for what I promised him, Hesthri,” Natchua said, watching after them with a sardonic twist of her mouth. “In a word: her.”

“Huh,” Jonathan grunted. “Spy, warlock, crusader, and now pimp. Your resume just keeps getting longer.”

“Jonathan, have you ever tried to make a child of Vanislaas do something they didn’t want to?” Natchua demanded.

“I’m pretty sure you know I haven’t.”

“Oh? The only thing I know about your history with demons is that you clearly have one.” She shifted her eyes to look significantly at Hesthri. “But you’re not wrong: since you aren’t dead or consigned to an asylum, you probably haven’t run afoul of a Vanislaad. So let me just assure you that your concern for Melaxyna’s virtue, while noble, is misplaced. She is fine, and having exactly as much fun as she suggested. If she wasn’t interested in being a carrot for me to dangle in front of Sherwin, I wouldn’t add to my problems by pressing the issue. Anyway, since they will likely be busy for a while, come on in and let’s see if we can find those rooms he talked about. They’ll be the only three without bats and cobwebs, I bet. And since Mel will likely be doing her sleeping in Sherwin’s, three is really all we need.”

“Natchua,” Jonathan said in a firm tone. “Does this poor guy have any idea what he’s getting involved with, here?”

“More than you do,” she shot back. “Sherwin Leduc needs your pity even less than Melaxyna. Next time you write to Gabe, ask him to recount what he and his classmates caught this poor guy doing. Anyway, I assure you, he’s fine with all of this. I won him over by promising…well, in addition to a playful succubus…a worthy objective to fulfill, like-minded people with whom to talk, and at the end of this when Elilial is royally pissed off and everything inevitably backfires on us, death.” She turned a cold shoulder to him and strode into the door. “So, everything in the world he wants.”

The two of them stood in the yard for a few long moments after Natchua had vanished within.

“I am increasingly surrounded by liars, creeps, and perverts,” Jonathan finally said aloud. “So why is it the thought that keeps coming to mind is ‘gods, that poor kid’?”

Hesthri sighed, stepping closer and resting her head on his shoulder. “I’ve missed you so much.”

They followed the others into the crumbling house, since that was all they could do.


“I am going to kill that bitch.”

Shook delivered the threat in a tone which belied its viciousness; solemn and pensive, his forehead faintly creased as he stared off at the distance in deep thought. Still, even spoken in a relatively calm voice, it was a statement which earned him wary looks from a couple of passersby, not to mention his own companions.

“And what sticks out in my brain,” Shook continued in the same tone of contemplation, “is how immediate and obvious that fact was. Sixty seconds of listening to Basra Syrinx talk and I was all, ‘yep, I’m gonna kill this bitch.’ Which got me thinking along some additional lines, there. For one thing, it’s goddamn unbelievable that…our mutual employer…would put us and her in a small confined space and expect anything but bloodshed.”

“The same thought occurred to me,” Khadizroth agreed, pacing along beside him.

“Because that’s the other thing that jumps out at me,” Shook mused. “There’s no fucking way it isn’t mutual. Considering she’s a disgraced ex-Bishop of Avei, that’s gotta be exactly what she thinks about me, Shiri, and Jack. Plus possibly you, depending on what she knows about your history.”

“Should I feel honored to be omitted?” Vannae asked wryly.

Shook snorted. “Van, you’re about as offensive as milk and cookies. If she’s got a problem with you it means she’s racist on top of…whatever else. Not that a cunt like that needs it to be any less cuddly. Fuck are you looking at?”

The last was delivered in a far more aggressive tone to a passing woman who had turned to stare at their conversation. She immediately ducked her head and hurried on past.

“That is not exactly helping us to blend in, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gently.

Shook barked a laugh. “Oh, I don’t think we need to worry about that; blending in isn’t gonna happen. You two are basically a walking museum exhibit. Trust me, I know about invisibility, it’s either can’t see, don’t see, or won’t see. When you have no way of being actually hard to notice, the best you can do is make sure people know to mind their own fucking business.”

Vannae did rather stand out; elves weren’t exactly a common sight in Imperial cities, but most urban dwellers would see them fairly regularly, even if his choice of a human-style suit made him memorable. It was Khadizroth who inevitably drew attention. Taller than either of them, the dragon had been forced to conceal his identity through the use of mundane methods which were impossible not to notice: he wore the heavy robes of an Omnist monk, but with a hood pulled up and overhanging his face deeply enough that as long as he kept his chin down, the glow of his monochrome green eyes was not visible. Hardly anyone walked around wearing an all-concealing hood in modern times, unless they were obviously hiding their features.

“Well, fortunately, it should be less of a concern from here,” said the dragon, veering to their left. “Our route takes us this way, ever farther from the well-trod paths.”

They had been walking along one of the walled border roads that ran along the sides of Ninkabi’s central island, with a fall to the river below on their right and the opposite cliff wall beyond. This was already a less-traveled route, three levels down from the surface of the island above, but now Khadizroth led them into a tunnel road which seemed largely disused, with litter drifted in its gutters and no current signs of occupancy. Even the doors lining it were boarded up.

“This isn’t the first time this has given us trouble,” Shook commented. “You keep saying you can’t disguise yourself with magic and I’m damned if I know why. I thought dragons could do basically anything with magic.”

“Were that true, I would not still be confined by the Crow’s hex,” Khadizroth said evenly. “Dragons are powerful and versatile, yes, but with that come a few…seemingly arbitrary weaknesses. The eyes and hair that distinguish us from mortals at a glance, even in our smaller forms, are an example. It is a side effect of our ability to occupy two forms. That means only two forms, and neither can be obscured.”

Shook grunted. “Seems fishy, how the world’s most powerful spellcasters haven’t found a way around a limitation like that in thousands of years.”

“Ah, but that is it exactly,” the dragon replied with a note of humor now in his voice. “Any of my brethren who devoted themselves to that search would be set upon by the others. We are solitary by nature; the only thing which reliably draws dragons together is the prospect of one of our kind attempting to seize an advantage over the rest. In fact, there have been some who found ways around that petty restriction. Their fate is the reason I’ve never tried.”

“Hm. I wonder how long that’ll stand, with this Conclave of the Winds thing going.”

“A curious question indeed,” Khadizroth said gravely. “They have been…strangely quiet since forming. I surmise that the Conclave is either plotting something which they do not want known, or too paralyzed by infighting to function. Given the nature of dragons, either is believable. I must say,” he added with a sigh, “that functional or not, the Conclave is a more honorable and more strategically viable solution to the problem of ascending Tiraan power than that which I attempted. I only did not try to organize such a thing myself because I never imagined it could be remotely possible. I deeply regret not having the opportunity to be part of it.”

“Mm.” Shook drew one of his wands, glancing around. They were seemingly alone now in the dark tunnel, which had no light at the other end. The only illumination came from a ball of fire Vannae summoned and held above his palm. “Well. Now we’re here, should we address the issue of what obvious bullshit all this is?”

“Do you mean his Holiness setting us to hunt a mystery cult of which he is almost certainly the source?” Khadizroth said wryly. “Or more particularly this tip of Syrinx’s that we are sent to follow?”

“Y’know what, take one of each, I’m a generous kinda guy.” Shook grinned, his teeth flashing in the firelight. “But sure, let’s focus on the immediate. Syrinx’s reasons for splitting up our group are so fucking nonsense it’s downright insulting. I mean, sure, the Jackal tends to stick out, but Shiri is easily the best among us at blending in—and you’re the worst, like we were just talking about. Besides, those are the specific two who should not be confined to a few rooms unless the whole idea is to make them so stir-crazy they give her an excuse to bust out the sword.”

“Basra Syrinx is a noted blademaster,” Khadizroth mused, “but even in hand-to-hand combat I rather think she would not choose to confront the Jackal. His aptitudes too perfectly counter her own. I agree with you, Jeremiah, as to the general thrust of the game being played, but I fear it won’t be so simple as that. This much we can say with relative certainty: our entire mission in Ninkabi is a shallow pretext, and it is likely that the true purpose is to set us against our newly appointed leader.”

“So the question is,” Shook said slowly, “is Syrinx in on it, or were we all just shut in this box together because Justinian wants some of us killed off and doesn’t care which?”

“Well phrased,” the dragon agreed. “The answer to that question will do much to shape the actions we must take in response. Based on what I have learned of Syrinx’s recent history, the Archpope took a political risk in protecting her; it seems unlikely he would then throw her away so swiftly. On the other hand, we have seen that he is inexplicably more eager to cull his own agents than his enemies. What do you think, Vannae?”

“I think,” the elf said softly, “we might consider asking the person following us.”

All three of them stopped and turned, Shook raising his wand. They were deep enough in the darkened tunnel that both ends were lost in shadow; in the flickering light, the shape of another hooded figure approaching from the way they had come was partially obscured.

“That’s far enough,” Shook snapped, taking aim.

The approaching figure raised both hands and spoke in a low, feminine voice. “I mean no harm. I’m the person you were sent to meet. And you are quite right, gentlemen: your task here is a sham, and so is the tip Basra is acting on. She thinks it genuine, though. It was the most convenient way for me to arrange to meet you.”

“And you are?” Khadizroth asked politely.

“A loyal servant of his Holiness the Archpope,” she said, approaching slowly with her hands still up. “But I would draw the important distinction that loyal and obedient are not the same concept. His Holiness is…prone to overestimating his ability to control wild elements, and unfortunately willing to use agents whose involvement will only harm his interests. Sometimes, those of us who believe in his mission and care for his welfare must act…contrary to his wishes. I know who you are—all three of you, and the two who did not come. And I’m here to tell you that between your entire group and Basra Syrinx, it is she who urgently needs to be destroyed.”

Vannae kept his attention on her, fireball upraised; Shook’s wand did not waver, though he and Khadizroth exchanged a meaningful glance.

“Well, madam,” the dragon replied after the tense pause, “you have our attention.”

She finally moved her hands, lowering her own hood to reveal auburn hair and blue eyes set in a pale, heart-shaped face.

“My name is Branwen. It’s well past time we had a talk.”

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