16 – 1

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The residence of House Dalmiss was built into a great natural wall between the main cavern of Tar’naris and the secondary cave in which the city’s agricultural works had been built, with an enviable view overlooking both. The Duchess of House Madouri and her Butler were escorted by diffident guards to their appointment with the Matriarch in a colonnade open to the air on the agricultural side, lit by the golden gleam of its huge sun crystals.

The chamber was set up as a miniature throne room, with its entrance at one narrow end leaving a long approach to the opposite wall, where a dais held a single ornately-carved chair upon which Ezrakhai awaited them. Two House soldiers stood impassively at attention at the foot of the dais, bracketing the guests’ view of her, and a single chair was set up in the center of the floor, facing the throne.

“Duchess Ravana,” she said by way of greeting, with a single dip of her head.

“Matriarch Ezrakhai,” Ravana replied with a matching nod, seating herself without waiting for an invitation. Yancey stepped up to place himself behind her left shoulder, folded his hands behind his back, and assumed a stillness that would have suited even a Narisian.

“I ask your pardon for the sparse accommodations,” the Matriarch said tonelessly. “Your visit was unexpected. We are unaccustomed to entertaining guests of your esteemed rank with so little warning.”

A robed servant, the only other drow in the room now that Ravana’s guides had departed and closed the door behind her, stepped forward with a deep bow, and poured wine from a stone bottle into a goblet which she then handed to the Duchess.

“On the contrary, the fault is mine for so abruptly imposing upon you,” Ravana said smoothly, taking the cup without otherwise acknowledging the servant, who then backed away against the wall. “I can find no fault with your hospitality. My thanks for receiving me in person on such short notice.”

Ezrakhai inclined her head again, then hesitated, her eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly; Ravana had taken a tiny sip, grimaced, and set the goblet down upon the arm of the chair.

“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” the drow asked, her tone still even.

“There is but one concern we heads of House must always put first, is there not?” Ravana replied pleasantly. “The welfare of our people.”

“Indeed,” Ezrakhai said impassively, “though I am uncertain how I might aid you in the care of your own, your Grace.”

“Ah, but as it turns out, you can.” Ravana folded her hands demurely in her lap, still smiling. “I was recently made aware that several citizens of Madouris and Tiraan Province are currently held in Tar’naris against their will. According to my investigations, five have been placed in indentured servitude of unlimited duration to members of House Dalmiss.”

“I see,” Ezrakhai said with the faintest downturn of the corners of her mouth. “I assure you, your Grace, that enslavement in Tar’naris is assigned only as a just punishment for serious crimes of which the subject has been duly convicted.”

“Yes, I am aware of the politics involved,” Ravana said, languidly waving one hand. “I could, of course, argue with the procedural details of each trial; I have taken time to gather information on the various improprieties of all five convictions—”

“That would be something to take up with the courts, which answer directly to the Queen. I cannot intercede in their judgments.”

“—but we both know that would be missing the forest for the trees, as it were. At issue is that the very institution of slavery in Tar’naris is applied selectively to humans and enforced through corrupt trials, in order to secure a rare luxury for those able to purchase a miscarriage of justice. I’m sure it must shock and horrify you that any such exist among your House.”

“Again,” Ezrakhai said, now with a faint edge to her tone, “that is a matter you would have to bring before the courts. If you can prove that those trials produced an improper verdict, Duchess, you could have them overturned. The guilty would then, of course, be freed.”

“That all sounds rather tedious, does it not?” Ravana mused. “They could also be freed if those in custody of them relinquished their claim.”

“I think you would find that a rather hard sell,” the Matriarch said dryly. “A slave is a rare and prestigious acquisition.”

“To be sure, to be sure. Thus why I have requested an audience with yourself, Matriarch. I assume you have sufficient authority over your House to order the release of my people. I formally request that you exercise it.”

In the heavy silence which followed, Ezrakhai very slowly drummed the fingers of both hands upon the armrests of her throne.

“I am not thoroughly versed in the details of House politics within the Empire,” she said at last, “but I cannot imagine it is news to you that no aristocrat reigns by complete and incontestible fiat. Power is made of the agreement of one’s subordinates that one is to be obeyed, and can be damaged by excessive use. I’m afraid it is simply out of the question for me to make such demands of multiple members of my House simultaneously, your Grace. It would be at minimum deeply disruptive, and in all likelihood severely damaging to my rule.”

“I sympathize,” Ravana said with apparent sincerity, inclining her head. “Nonetheless, that is, not to put too fine a point on it, your problem. I require the release of my citizens.”

Another beat of silence passed. This time, Ezrakhai stared down at her, silent and still as a gargoyle.

“That remains beyond my ability.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Ravana said, still smiling pleasantly. “Merely beyond your willingness.”

“As you say,” the Matriarch retorted, finally wearing open annoyance. “As such, I wish you good fortune in pursuing your dispute with Queen Arkasia’s court. Now I must excuse myself, as it is a particularly difficult time for my House and certain matters require my ongoing attention.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Ravana said, nodding. “The disappearance of your second daughter. I imagine that is most preoccupying.”

Ezrakhai had begun to rise from her throne, but now hesitated, narrowing her eyes again. “You are indeed well-informed, your Grace.”

“Oh, naturally,” Ravana said airily. “After all, I have her.”

Both House Dalmiss guards finally reacted, shifting position subtly to stare at her directly, one moving a hand to the hilt of her saber. Ezrakhai herself abruptly sat back down, leaning forward to stare at the Duchess.

“What did you say?” she whispered.

“It was quite easy,” Ravana explained, smiling broadly. “I simply had her snatched right off the street. That is a thing I can do, Ezrakhai, while your people must resort to elaborate trickery to do the same. I say that not to boast, but to emphasize an important point which I believe has gone over your head.”

The Matriarch shot upright, baring her teeth. “You will return my daughter immediately, you smirking child!”

“I have every intention of it,” Ravana agreed, folding her hands again. “The condition in which she is returned, of course, depends entirely upon you. Now, as I said, I require the immediate release of all citizens of Tiraan Province behind held in slavery by your House. You have forty-eight hours to remand them, unharmed and without exception, to Imperial custody. If this is not done by that point, you will receive…an ear.”

Ezrakhai’s eyes widened. “You dare—”

“At intervals thereafter,” Ravana continued, “unless these demands are met, further…bits and bobs. The other ear, fingers, feet… Eyes, tongue. You know, whatever protrudes and is accessible. This should afford you quite some time to carry out this difficult task, as I have no intention of killing Ezranat and there are so many things a person can lose and still live. One way or another, you’ll receive her back, alive. In the worst case scenario, a blind, mute, limbless torso. In any case, one who knows exactly whose intransigence resulted in her state. And if that somehow has still not moved you to comply, I will simply seize another member of your family and begin again.” Ravana’s smile widened, showing the tips of her teeth. “Which I can also do, Ezrakhai, regardless of any defenses you raise. For the simple reason that I am, by every measurable standard, your superior.”

The Matriarch pointed at her, barking a few harsh syllables in elvish, and both guards lunged at the human, bringing up their swords. With typical elven speed, they crossed the space faster than a human could have noticed them moving.

Most humans.

Yancey intercepted them just as rapidly, seizing the wrist of the closer soldier and snapping her arm with a jerk even as he tripped the other. The guard screamed as she was sent hurling over the side of the open colonnade to plummet into the fields below. By that point the second guard was already in the process of spinning back to her feet and slashing at him with her saber in the same motion.

The Butler hopped nimbly over the blade, once more kicking her, but this time hooking a foot under her body in the process and hiking her physically upward before she could regain her footing. It closed the distance enough for him to seize her by one ankle.

He spun in a full circle and hurled her in the opposite direction. The guard struck the servant, slamming both into the stone wall hard enough to crack it. They tumbled to the floor and lay unmoving, a puddle of blood already beginning to spread.

Yancey stepped back behind Ravana and resumed his formal posture. Exactly three seconds had passed.

“This is what I mean,” Ravana admonished. “A sensible, civilized person would have paused to consider that Ezranat’s life rests in my hands, and acted accordingly. You, Ezrakhai, are a savage, and that is why you are now in this situation. Your people thrive because the Empire wills it. You survive because the Silver Throne deems your existence advantageous. In the prosperity brought by the patronage of Tiraas, you have grown ungrateful and arrogant. As you have chosen to squander my goodwill, you shall now be relegated to dealing with me in a more proper manner: as befits a lesser civilization, existing at the sufferance of a greater. Yancey.”

She spoke with a subtle emphasis as Ezrakhai took two long steps across the floor toward her.

“If this overweening termite presumes to lay a finger on my person, break both of her legs.”

“Yes, my Lady,” the Butler intoned in perfect serenity.

The Matriarch froze, glaring with pure hatred. Ravana leaned slowly forward, her smile finally slipping.

“Forty-eight hours,” she repeated, “until the dissection begins. You needn’t worry for Ezranat’s life; I am actually able to guarantee the safety of people under my protection, as I am the ruler of a true noble House and not a cave-dwelling arthropod with pretensions of significance. I expect you to remember this lesson, should the opportunity arise for you to falsely enslave a citizen of my province in the future. If I am forced to put you back in your place again, I shall not do so as gently.

“And when you attempt to attack me in retaliation,” she added with a condescending smile, “which you will, because you are a brute savage with the capacity for only a few predictable thoughts, you will not be getting the personnel you send back. At least, not immediately. I mean to commission a very stylish drowhide trench coat in the Imperial style, when I have accumulated enough leather. I will send it to you, as a personal gift from House Madouri. Just the first one, though. After that, I believe I’ll begin work on a lovely sofa.”

“You are a sadistic little monster,” the Matriarch hissed.

“No, Ezrakhai,” Ravana retorted, the smile vanishing from her features. “You are a little monster. I am a far greater one. If, as I suspect, you are capable of absorbing no other lesson from this, get that into your head. The reminders will only grow more costly with repetition. Now, then!”

She stood smoothly, pausing to incline her head once more in a courteous gesture.

“My Butler and I are going to walk out of this House unimpeded. Either because you belatedly summon the basic sense not to interfere with me while your daughter’s fate hangs in the balance, or because you have nothing capable of impeding us. In truth, it makes no difference to me.”

Ravana turned and glided away, back toward the audience room’s door.

“You cannot be arrogant enough to think this ends it,” Ezrakhai snarled behind her. “No matter how this plays out, Madouri, for an insult of this magnitude there will be vengeance. On the last drop of my blood, I swear it!”

The Duchess paused, and looked over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “The mole bares its teeth. It would be endearing, were it not so sad. Come, Yancey.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

They departed the room in silence.


The namesake fortifications of Fort Vaspian physically barred the tunnel entrance to Tar’naris, funneling all commerce between the drow city and the surface through Imperial-controlled gates, but in the decade of peacetime a civilian presence had expanded around the battlements, until the label of Fort Vaspian was used to refer to what amounted to a mid-sized town as much as the citadel at its heart.

Thought it offered numerous accommodations, including several comfortable enough to suit the standards of an aristocrat, Ravana’s next meeting was deep within the old fortress itself, where absolute security could be ensured by the Empire, and more specifically, one of the individuals already waiting when she arrived.

“Ah, I see I am the last here,” Ravana said, gliding forward to join Lord Quentin Vex and Nahil of House Awarrion at the fireplace, while Yancey shut the door behind them. “I do hope I have not kept you waiting. Departing the city was surprisingly difficult; a large, apparently informal procession of some kind has slowed traffic along the main thoroughfare to the gates.”

“Not to worry, your Grace,” Nahil said serenely, “I’m just relieved to hear that was your only delay. I might have worried for your safety, if Matriarch Ezrakhai took offense at your demands.”

“I found the Matriarch eminently reasonable, after some judicious prompting,” Ravana replied with a smile, settling herself in a chair across from Nahil while Vex lounged against the hearth.

“Then everything proceeded as planned?” the spymaster inquired.

“Precisely according to our agenda,” she reported, “though I cannot say with certainty what the Matriarch’s response will be. Narisians are, I fear, rather inscrutable to me, and she is an aristocrat besides, with all the implied poise. I am confident I did what could be done, but I won’t predict with certainty that she will accede to my demands.”

“She will,” Nahil said with a humorless little smile. “Ezrakhai is a cautious and conservative person by temperament. In any case, I am already making arrangements for House Awarrion to ‘accidentally’ learn about this confrontation; if Ezrakhai proves resistant, my mother will apply pressure. We will have our precedent within the week. A confrontation between one Narisian and one Imperial House may not, in and of itself, make the necessary waves,” she added, directing her gaze at Lord Vex.

“It is only a starting point,” he assured her, “and I am already at work preparing the next steps. When it is believable for word to spread, the narrative we will seed through our press contacts is of the Duchess personally intervening to restore the affronted honor of House Madouri and Tiraan Province. The very fact of House Madouri’s diminished prestige will all but force other Houses who have lost citizens to the slave trade to follow suit, just to save face.”

“And once confrontation with the larger and wealthier Houses of the Empire becomes a serious prospect,” Nahil finished, allowing herself a smug smile, “the danger to Tar’naris’s very infrastructure will give Queen Arkasia plentiful leverage to pressure the Houses to turn against the slave trade. Even in the best case scenario, this likely will not obliterate it completely, but depriving the market of its primary buyers will be a crippling blow. It may be too early to celebrate yet, but I believe her Grace has now done the difficult part; so long as we manage the next few days carefully, all should turn out as we have planned. On behalf of myself, my mother, and the Queen, I thank you both for your assistance.”

“We all profit by this,” Vex replied, nodding deeply to her. “The Silver Throne thanks you and Matriarch Ashaele for making this possible, Nahil.”

“May our friendship continue to prosper,” she said, rising smoothly. “I hope you will both forgive me for rushing off, but it is a momentous day, and my mother will require a swift report on our progress.”

“Of course,” Ravana said graciously. “Please give Matriarch Ashaele my compliments, Nahil.”

“I shall. Goddess’s guidance to you both; please do not hesitate to call on me if House Awarrion can assist you in the future.”

With a final bow, she turned and strode to the door. Yancey opened and held it for her, bowing.

The second the Butler had shut it behind her, Vex turned to Ravana. “And the additional steps we discussed, your Grace?”

She didn’t bother to ask whether the room was secured against elvish hearing, though there was no visible sign of a warding charm, nor the distinctive prickle of arcane magic in the air. Such things could be hidden, and Quentin Vex did not make stupid blunders.

“A smashing success,” Ravana reported primly. “I can say with all confidence that Matriarch Ezrakhai was left so bitterly affronted that she will never cease to seek revenge as long as I remain alive. I believe I can milk further insults from her inevitable attempts at retaliation, but ensuring that the resulting destabilization of House Dalmiss imperils Tar’naris’s food supply will fall to you, Lord Vex. I would gladly offer further aid toward increasing the Narisians’ dependency on the Empire, but Tiraan Province must still import crops to sustain itself. I gather we have been somehow outmaneuvered?”

He actually blinked in surprise. “What makes you say so, your Grace?”

“You look unhappy, Lord Vex,” she replied gently. “Given your famous self-control, that can only be deliberate. Either unexpected developments have derailed the plan, or you intend to double-cross me. I choose to err on the side of optimism.”

“Hm,” he grunted, reaching into his coat and withdrawing a folded sheaf of paper, several pages thick. “I appreciate your faith, Duchess Ravana. It is the first, I fear. While you were meeting with the Matriarch, the situation changed right out from under us.”

She accepted the sheets from him, opened it, and began rapidly perusing their contents. Half a minute passed in silence while Ravana’s eyes darted rapidly across the pages, and her brows slowly lifted.

“Well,” she said finally, turning to the third page. “I see. Indeed, we appear to have outsmarted ourselves. This will ensure the security of Tar’naris’s food supply without Imperial help, not to mention possibly granting Ezrakhai access to strategic resources I may live to regret.”

“That is the least of what this will change,” he said dourly. “Of course, your Grace, you shall have the full backing and protection of the Imperial government. You have been a staunch ally of House Tirasian and your involvement in this project was at my instigation. The Silver Throne does not abandon its allies.”

“I appreciate that,” she said with a nod, casually holding up the papers. Yancey ghosted across the room to pluck them from her hands, the Butler then stepping discreetly back to begin reading the documents.

“It’s too early to say what form that aid will need to take,” Vex continued, pressing his lips together in displeasure. “Rest assured, your Grace, I will be in contact. In the immediate term, however, this has left me with a thousand new fires to put out. I must touch base with my people on the ground here at Vaspian, and then return to the capital with all haste.”

“Yes, of course,” she said seriously. “You will know where to find me; I’ll not keep you any longer.”

The spymaster bowed to her, then turned and followed Nahil’s path to the door.

“Lord Vex,” Ravana said suddenly, “do you believe there is any possibility that Nahil suspected our secondary objective?”

“I don’t see how she could have,” he replied, turning to regard her with one eyebrow quirked. “Based on what she knows, needlessly antagonizing the Matriarch would have been both pointless and out of character for you. But it goes without saying that even the part of your mission she knew would make you an enemy of House Dalmiss.”

“Yes, of course,” Ravana mused. “And it is inconceivable that she did not know of this development…indeed, this entire affair very neatly kept you occupied while it unfolded. Well. Thank you, my lord.”

“My Lady.” He nodded again, and turned to step out, Yancey having already opened the door courteously.

The Butler closed it behind the spymaster, and only then returned to his mistress’s side, the folded documents already tucked into his own coat.

“His Lordship’s lack of admonition against pursuing a grievance against Nahil could be interpreted as tacit blessing, my Lady,” Yancey said diffidently. “Shall we begin formulating an expression of displeasure at her maneuvering?”

“Now, Yancey, it does not do take these things personally,” Ravana mused, staring pensively into the fireplace. “This is how the game is played. Nahil acted with the resources and knowledge at her disposal toward the best interests of her House and monarch, precisely as a noblewoman ought. I feel no personal ire toward her. Even, I daresay, a touch of admiration. It was quite neatly done.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“For now!” Ravana stood, her gaze snapping back into focus. “Our guests will be arriving at the Manor by this evening, and indeed, these events are certain to send shockwaves across the continent. Even not being formally involved in international relations, there will be repercussions we shall feel directly. The politics of both our nations are about to be thrown into a tumult that no one can ignore. Come, we must dig Veilwin out of the tavern and return to Madouris immediately.”

“Very good, my Lady,” he said, preceding her to the door to hold it open.

“And later, when circumstances provide a suitable opportunity,” Ravana murmured to herself, “I will gently notify Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion that House Madouri does not forgive.”

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15 – 78

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She wasn’t laboring on the omnipresent, never-ending paperwork for once. The office was quiet and dim as usual by that hour of the evening, the moonlight pouring through its large windows not competing with the warmer glow of the fairy lamp sitting on her desk. Tonight, Tellwyrn had elected to take some personal time, brushing all the papers to be graded into a filing cabinet and indulging in one of the hobbies she was least inclined to admit to in public.

Not that she’d ever have contended that it was good poetry, but the satisfaction was in the creating, not the having. Most of them she shredded, anyway. Tellwyrn paused with her pen hovering above the parchment, considering syllables and studying the kanji already marked down. Haiku didn’t really work properly in anything but Sifanese, in her opinion, having tried it in several languages. It was an aesthetic matter of the syllabic structure of the language, not blind adherence to custom; had she been a stickler for tradition she would be using a brush, not a pen.

She sighed heavily at the soft flutter of wings on the windowsill outside. Setting down the pen, she blew gently on the ink to dry it, then carefully picked up and tapped the stack of papers into neat order, ignoring the tapping from the glass behind her. The professor continued not to acknowledge it while it grew steadily more insistent until she had meticulously filed away the pages in a desk drawer, locked it, stowed the key in her vest pocket, and capped her inkwell, all with careful and precise little motions.

Then she whirled, grabbed the window, and roughly threw it open.

“Fucking what?” Tellwyrn demanded.

Mary the Crow swung her legs into the room. “Arachne, we must speak.”

“Well, it’s not like I expected a social call,” Tellwyrn retorted. “What’ve you done this time, lost another dryad?”

“It was you who—no, never mind, I’m not going to play that game with you tonight. It’s about the Arquin boy, and that sword of his.”

“Yes, Ariel.” Tellwyrn leaned back in her chair, scooting it back from the window and smirking faintly. “Who has never spoken in my presence. Arquin showed her to Alaric but has never asked my opinion about it. I think he’s afraid I’ll confiscate the thing.”

“He seemed to fear I would do the same,” Mary replied, her expression intent and grim. “It is an original Qestrali magister’s blade, Arachne. According to the boy himself, Salyrene confirmed this. Do you know anything of the significance of such weapons?”

“I figured it might be,” Tellwyrn mused. “Not many other mages have worked out the method. Yes, that’s what they do to the really naughty criminals, right? Not murderers or anything so pedestrian, but the ones with opinions the Magistry doesn’t care to hear.”

“You are barking up the wrong tree if you think I’m going to defend the Magistry,” Mary replied, eyes still intent on hers. “I went to Qestraceel before coming here to check on something. Arachne… They are not missing one.”

“Huh,” Tellwyrn grunted. “And?”

The Crow’s jaw tightened momentarily in annoyance, but she pressed on. “He found that thing in the Crawl, did he not?”

“Yes, during an excursion while the place was somewhat dimensionally unmoored, due to my incubus messing with some old Elder God tech he found. It’s probably from an alternate universe, Kuriwa, nothing to get your knickers in a knot over.”

“Arachne,” she said quietly, “I was… I visited the Crawl once, before you arrived. Before the Third Hellwar. It was my escape route from the deep underworld.”

Tellwyrn’s eyebrows rose slightly, but she remained silent.

“I understand,” Mary continued, carefully choosing her words, “you spent many years seeking out the gods to ask something none of them were able or willing to tell you. Was it about your own origin?”

“That’s ancient history,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “You had better have a damn good reason to be digging it up again, Kuriwa.”

“I am not proud of this,” she replied, “but I did the least wrong thing I could at the time. I thought it was necessary, even despite the price. To undo a curse Elilial laid on my entire bloodline, I had to deal with Scyllith.”

Tellwyrn worked her jaw once as if biting back a retort, then said in a deceptively mild tone, “So is that where the hair comes from? Always wondered.”

The Crow drew in a deep breath. “The price Scyllith demanded for her aid was one of my kin. She said they would be removed from all memory, excised from the timeline. Only I would know that someone had been lost, but…not who.”

The silence was absolute.

“You what,” Tellwyrn finally whispered tonelessly.

“Arachne, you have to understand—”

“You knew,” the mage hissed, leaning forward. “From the very beginning. You recognized my name. If you’d been in the deep Underworld before then, you would have recognized my accent. And you are telling me this now?”

“Listen, Arachne,” she said desperately. “It was suggestive, but not proof! You do not trigger my familial sense, your hair is the wrong color, you are an arcanist when none of my descendants are—”

“Are you trying to pitch to me,” Tellwyrn snarled, standing up so abruptly that the chair smacked against the desk behind her, “that it never crossed your mind that any of that could be explained by alternate-dimension fuckery caused by the sadistic Elder God you were playing around with? You’re going to stand here at the apex of all the history between us and claim you are that blitheringly stupid?”

“I had to be sure,” Kuriwa protested.

“YOU HAD TO BE IN CONTROL,” Tellwyrn roared, and a sudden shockwave of pure kinetic force blasted the office apart, smashing its furnishings and sending the door shooting across the hall outside, but also pulverizing the window and flinging Kuriwa out into the sky.

She caught her balance in the form of a crow, squawking frantically, and Tellwyrn shot out of the ragged hole where the outer wall of her office had been, landing nimbly on a square pane of blue light that appeared conveniently under her.

Kuriwa lit on the opposite end, in elven form again, and held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Arachne, listen, consider what—”

“Thee thousand years,” Tellwyrn raged, stalking toward her, each step sending ripples across the panel beneath them. “While entire civilizations rose and fell around us, I drove myself mad scrabbling desperately for answers in every dark corner of the world, and you had them the whole time?”

“It wasn’t that simple! Given what was at stake—”

“YOUR EGO WAS AT STAKE!”

The wind rose as Kuriwa gathered the attention of familiar spirits, but not fast enough; the blessing shielded her from serious bodily harm but the bolt of pure arcane power that hit her from point-blank range was comparable in strength to a mag cannon burst. She went tumbling moccasins-over-ears again, barely catching her balance on a leaf-shaped construct of green light which coalesced out of the air and hovered atop a constant updraft conjured from nothing.

“If you want to blame me—”

“Oh, you’re damn right I blame you!” Tellwyrn hurled a pumpkin-sized orb of lightning, forcing the shaman to glide swiftly out of the way. “Spare me your dissembling, you self-obsessed old carrion feeder! From the very beginning, you had everything you needed to answer both our greatest questions and you just couldn’t bring yourself to do it because I am something you couldn’t control!”

“The risk—”

“The risk was that you might have to acknowledge someone as an equal and then deal with them!”

“Would you let me finish a sentence?” Kuriwa snapped.

“Fucking NO!”

A spray of lightning bolts burst out of nowhere around them, forming a deadly obstacle course in midair. Kuriwa dodged nimbly, directing her leaf through the crackling haze with the deftness of an acrobat while Tellwyrn stood impassive atop her glowing panel, electrical discharges snapping harmlessly against the arcane shield around her.

“You may have swallowed your own bullshit, Kuriwa, but I never have, and in the end that’s what all this is about.” Tellwyrn folded her arms, her voice suddenly dead calm again. “You are so incapable of entertaining the possibility of not being in total control of something that you’ve squandered probably the widest window of time anyone has every had in which to do anything. Three thousand years, and you could have come to me at any point. Were you not such a walking bladder full of ego and spite, you’d have taken me aside the very day we met, but no. You had to wait.”

“Arachne, please.” Kuriwa brought the leaf to a hover again.

“You waited,” Tellwyrn continued, baring her teeth in a snarl, “until I tried everything I could try, and failed. You waited while I gave up on my whole existence and spent thirty years trying to die, in a place where you were quite possibly the only person alive who could have come to find me. You waited until I moved on, you selfish piece of shit. I gave up on the whole thing, found a true purpose in life and devoted myself to it, created an actual place in the world for myself that wasn’t just passing through it in every direction while trying to find my way back to somewhere I couldn’t remember. I was finally done, and happy, and this, this is when you chose to come here and tell me all this?!”

“I understand,” Kuriwa said urgently. “I am not saying I handled everything perfectly, but—”

“PERFECTLY?”

This time it was an actual mag cannon burst, or near enough, a barrel-thick beam of pure white light which impacted the prairie below less than half a mile from Last Rock, fortunately at an angle that sprayed the debris away from the town. Kuriwa tried to evade, but the deceptively wide corona of the beam finally caused her conjured leaf to explode, forcing to catch herself in midair on her own tiny wings.

A white sphere of divine light snapped into place around her, dragging the squawking and struggling bird forward until it rested right in Tellwyrn’s hand.

The tiny shield only collapsed when her fingers closed, clamping around the crow’s neck. Arachne held it up, glaring into Kuriwa’s beady little eyes from inches apart.

“I am done with you and your shit, Kuriwa,” she stated. “Stay away from my mountain. I don’t want to see you again.”

A sheer kinetic burst erupted, just like the one which had demolished the office, but stronger; centered on Tellwyrn as it was, she was not affected, but having released her grip on the Crow in the same instant as the explosion, Kuriwa was hurled over two hundred yards into the night sky amid a spray of dislodged feathers.

Tellwyrn stood impassively atop her floating panel of arcane magic, watching the little bird catch herself in the distance, flapping desperately to right her flight.

Kuriwa started to circle back to head toward her again.

Tellwyrn held up one hand, and a whirling vortex of sheer arcane destruction manifested in her grip, causing a steady breeze as the very air was drawn into it like a black hole.

The Crow veered off in defeat and glided away to the south.

The sorceress stood there watching until she had passed beyond the limits of even elven sight, even augmented by her enchanted spectacles. Then the pane of light beneath her turned and carried her back toward the hole in the wall, in which she could see and hear several of her faculty gathering. Explaining all this and then fixing her office promised to keep her occupied for a while.

She welcomed the distraction.


“The questions are growing more and more insistent, your Holiness,” Branwen said, her expression openly worried. On his other side, Colonel Ravoud walked in silence, but wearing a matching frown of concern. “I don’t think Imperial Intelligence has more than rumor out of Ninkabi yet, but the rumors are themselves damning, and there’s just too much evidence left, too many witnesses… They will piece together an account of what happened, at least in the broad strokes. The newspapers are already all but openly attacking the Church, including some I thought were in your pocket.

“And the symbolism,” she continued, her normally controlled voice rising in pitch. “The Guild and the Sisterhood haven’t formally left the Universal Church, but with both choosing to forego representation, it’s a very bad look. That’s two of the three cults that forced out Archpope Sipasian to install Archpope Vyara in the Enchanter Wars. If even one more cult turns away, this could present a major schism. The Veskers would complete that symbolic break and they’re the most unpredictable anyway, especially with Vesk himself having been involved in Ninkabi. Given that he actually forced a public surrender from Elilial, his credibility is at an all-time high. If they do withdraw it will be a political catastrophe, and I can’t get Bishop Tavaar to even respond to my messages.”

“And the Shaathists,” Ravoud added. “They are the most loyal to your cause, your Holiness, and thanks to this Ingvar character and his splinter sect, with all the dreams and visions and portents that heralded them, Grandmaster Veisroi is going to be too occupied trying to control his own cult to lend much in the way of help.”

“Thank you, Branwen, Nassir,” Justinian said calmly. “I greatly appreciate all the work you do.”

“Your Holiness,” Branwen protested, coming to a stop. The Archpope did likewise, turning to regard her with beatific calm, and Ravoud trailed to a halt a few steps further on, glancing up and down the hallway. This corridor was deep within the tunnel system under the Cathedral; they were unlikely to encounter anyone and all but certain not to meet anyone who was not supposed to be there, but Ravoud took his duties as Justinian’s protector with the utmost seriousness.

“I understand your fears, Branwen,” the Archpope said, reaching out to lightly rest a hand on her shoulder. “They are not misplaced. All of this I have planned for with great care.”

“I believe in you, your Holiness,” Ravoud said firmly. “I knew you would be in control.”

“Control is an illusion, my friends,” Justinian warned. “All we can do is have faith, and act as best we can without fear, and with our utmost skill and effort. You are right to be concerned, Branwen. All of this is unfolding too soon, before I am ready.”

“What shall we do, your Holiness?” she asked, wide-eyed.

“I…have planned for that, as well,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I had hoped and prayed that it would not come to this. I have, ready and waiting, the means to keep the circling vultures at bay until the proper time for them to strike, but it will require me to do things which I had desperately hoped I would not need to.”

“We’re with you, whatever comes,” Ravoud assured him. Branwen nodded.

“I am deeply grateful for you both,” he said, smiling. “Come, there is little time to tarry. Preparations must be made to meet the unforeseen, but first, tonight’s business has been long awaited and should not be delayed.”

This wasn’t the first visit by either of them to this secret underground complex, though it was the first time he had brought both together. Grooming each of them to a state of assured loyalty had been a long-term project, more so in Branwen’s case than Nassir’s as she had a far more complex mind and intricate motivations. In the end, though, he felt assured of both their loyalties, now that the moment had come. As much, at least, as anyone could be assured of anything. Certainty was as much an illusion as control; a time inevitably came when one simply had to act.

Justinian led the way in silence to the iron door, tapping the proper code into the runes affixed to its frame. It opened with a soft creak under the power of its own enchantments, and he strode through, both hurrying after as the door immediately began to shut again behind them.

Delilah turned and bowed to him upon his entry, receiving a smile and a deep nod in response.

“Finally,” Rector snapped, barely looking up from his runic console. Ravoud, ever protective of the Archpope’s dignity, shot the enchanter a scowl, but held his peace. It wasn’t his first time encountering the man, and Delilah had done her best to explain Rector’s eccentricities.

The chamber was a chapel-sized apparently natural cave in the bedrock beneath Tiraas, only improved by having a door added and the floor smoothed down; the rest of the walls had been left in their natural contours, originally. Now, it was heavily built up with powerful fairly lamps to illuminate the space and its heavy-duty equipment. Machinery was arranged all around the walls, along with sturdy beams of iron and copper to hold some of it up, and intricate networks of wires, glass rods and brass tubes. Most of the structures were made of modern enchanting equipment, though there were several purely mechanical apparatuses in the dwarven style, and here and there, sticking out from the contemporary machines, ancient fragments of Infinite Order technology distinguishable by mithril surfaces and in two cases, glowing information panels. All of it was confined to the outer walls of the chamber, including the section on which they now stood, leaving a wide open space clear in its center.

“Rector,” Justinian said calmly. “Is everything prepared?”

“I’m ready,” the enchanter said peevishly. “Have been for an hour. You did your part?”

Behind Justinian, Branwen gently placed a calming hand on Ravoud’s back as the Colonel tensed in agitation.

“I have made all possible preparations,” Justinian assured him. “We should be able to proceed without drawing the interference, or even notice, of Vemnesthis.”

“Should?” Branwen asked quietly. “No disrespect meant, your Holiness, but the Scions are one cult I am simply not prepared to contend with.”

“Wouldn’t they have intervened already if they were going to?” Delilah asked.

“Not till the last second,” Rector grunted. “Their standard policy. Wait till the event is ready to occur, freeze time, disassemble machine, deliver warning. Maximum emotional impact.”

“Indeed,” Justinian said gravely. “If I have failed and the Scions do register their displeasure, that will be the end of it. Apart from the probable loss of Rector’s entire construction, I will not engage in a futile contest with such an impossible force. And so, in more ways than one, this is the moment of truth. Proceed, Rector.”

“Thinning dimensional barrier,” he said curtly, rapidly manipulating runes on his console. “May be uncomfortable, but harmless. Stay calm.”

Massive power crystals began to glow and hum, energy lit several of the glass rods and brought several pieces of moving machinery to life, and in the next moment, the very quality of the air changed. It seemed to thicken and shift color, and a feeling almost of vertigo fell over all five of them, as if the floor had tilted. It did not, however, despite Branwen stepping unsteadily over to the wall to lean against it.

“Stable,” Rector reported. “Initiating major breach.”

In the domed ceiling of the cave, light began to swirl, quickly collecting into a visible vortex like the atmospheric effect caused by new hellgates. More lights activated and another bank of machinery hummed to life. Several brass connectors began to emit sparks, and a stray arc of lightning climbed one of the steel beams lining the walls.

“Rector?” Justinian asked calmly while the others ducked.

“All within normal parameters,” Rector grunted. “Triple redundancy in crucial systems, some circuit burnout planned for. Opening it.”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Branwen muttered.

The vortex in the ceiling widened, till the swirling effect was not a spiral but a border, rimming a circular space that was pitch black, as if the machinery had opened a portal onto some absolute void. No more equipment came to life, but the energy coursing through the connectors visibly and audibly intensified. A red indicator began flashing on one of the Infinite Order panels.

Rector’s control panel put off a sudden shower of sparks, causing him to dodge momentarily to one side, but he did not otherwise react, even when Delilah rushed forward.

They seemed to form out of the very air, a network of gossamer strands fanning out from the portal in every direction. Most passed through the very walls, trembling as if their other ends were affixed to targets which moved and caused the whole web to shiver, but many of the streams of ephemeral spidersilk were connected to each of them. Ravoud grimaced and tried to brush at them.

“Be calm,” Justinian urged over the noise of the enchanted machines. “They have always been there, you are only now able to see them. The webs are a visual metaphor, delineating connections. They will not harm you.”

He himself was connected directly to the portal by a single, massive cable of gnarled silk. So many streamers of spiderweb radiated away from him it was as if he were a second portal in his own right.

“Portal stable,” the enchanter stated, brusque as ever. “All values locked in. Initiating temporal phasing. Stay on this side of the console, may be disorienting if you’re too close. If the Scions interfere it’ll be now.”

He grabbed a lever and slowly eased it into an upward position.

Around the center of the open space a swirl of golden dust arose, quickly forming a helix shape in the air and then fluctuating wildly about, a tornado extending from the dimensional portal to the floor. Or, looked at another way, the upper half of an hourglass.

The Archpope’s deflections held. No Scions appeared; Vemnesthis’s attention was not drawn to the portal they had made between two points in time.

But someone else’s was.

The entire network of webs shivered, then began to shake violently. And then, suddenly, more things poked out of the portal.

Long, segmented appendages emerged, amid showers of sparks and arcs of lightning from the equipment all around as the portal was strained beyond its intended limits at the entity’s emergence. One of the colossal spider legs drove into the wall, thankfully missing the machinery; unlike the webs, this was clearly a physical projection. Its tip made a crater in the ancient stone.

“Your Holiness!” Ravoud shouted. “We have to get out of here!”

“Peace.” Justinian held up one hand, noting the way the strands of silk binding it went taut at the gesture, quivering with tension as their other ends were collected by whatever now rose on the other side of the spacetime aperture.

Someone screamed, either Deliliah or Branwen, at the sudden pressure that fell over the room, the distinctive psychic force of a consciousness orders of magnitude beyond their own looking upon them.

Amid the blackness in the center of the swirling, eight crimson eyes appeared.

Justinian flexed his forearm in a circle, gathering a physical grip on the spiderwebs, then yanked hard.

The eyes shifted, fixing their gaze upon him directly. The mental thrust of it might have crushed another person. But he was the Archpope, and even while hiding his activities from the gods, he enjoyed certain protections.

Justinian nodded once in acknowledgment, and released his grip on the webs.

With a great tearing of metal, the entire portal collapsed. All the visible magical effects dissipated and the arcane hum of the machines began to power down. The last evidence any of them could see of the metaphysical forces they had summoned was the spectral shape of a spider the size of a dragon emerging into the chamber, fading from view like a shadow from a campfire.

It was only relatively quiet, with furtive fountains of sparks and several residual electrical discharges snapping around the edges of the walls. A significant percentage of the equipment built into them had either exploded or been crushed by falling stone and beams; this great machine wasn’t going to work again any time soon. More than half of the industrial sized fairly lamps had been burned out, leaving the chamber cast in odd patterns of light and darkness.

Ravoud stepped forward, planting himself in front of Justinian with his wand in his hand.

“W-what went wrong?” Branwen asked tremulously. “That wasn’t the Scions. What was that?”

“Nothing went wrong,” Rector said.

“Excuse me?” Ravoud exclaimed. “What do you call that?”

“Unexpected side effect,” the enchanter said noncommittally. “Experiment succeeded, worked exactly as predicted. Look.”

He pointed, and they all turned to stare at the unconscious figure now lying in a heap in the middle of the floor, directly below where the portal had been.


The swirling column of golden light had been bad enough. Prairie folk were very much accustomed to tornadoes; glowing tornadoes that came out of a clear sky and sat in one place for several minutes managed to conjure both their very reasonable caution for nature’s destructive power and the more primal fear of the unknown.

It did not help that the citizens of Hamlet could all tell at a glance exactly where it had centered.

But then it got worse.

Thankfully, the glowing storm didn’t approach the village, but when it abruptly dissipated, it left behind a column of pure fire that would have been visible for miles around, accompanied by the ear-piercing scream of a woman in the extremity of terror and pain.

Exactly as it had been only a few short years ago on the night June Witwill had died.

Now, Marshal Ross, having ordered the rest of the townsfolk to stay back, led his two deputies on a fast march across the prairie to the old basin full of flowers, wands in hand and expressions grim as the grave. Of all the things this town did not need dragged up again…

He slowed as he reached the rim of the little hollow, raising his weapon and peering down into the depression, ready for anything. Or so he thought. Ross was not ready for what he actually saw.

As it had been on that other terrible night, the entire basin was scorched black, every stalk of tallgrass and versithorae blooms scoured away by the unnatural firestorm. But this time, she was there.

She huddled in front of the stone marker, her gingham dress hanging off her in charred rags; even her hair looked to be half-burned away. But apart from that… What could be seen of her skin looked whole, untouched by fire.

And she was alive.

The Marshal stepped down into the basin, Lester and Harriet right on his heels. Their boots crunched on the charred ground, kicking up occasional sparks where the destroyed vegetation still smoldered. She had to have heard their approach, but she just knelt there, huddled around herself, staring at the stone memorial bearing the Omnist sunburst, and her own name and date of death.

He came to a stop a few feet away, glanced at the other two. Lester looked wide-eyed and on the verge of being sick; Harriet’s face was set in grim lines as if she still expected the worst.

“June?” he said softly.

Slowly, she turned. Her eyes were wide and terrified beneath a charred fringe of brown hair, but it was her. He’d known her all her life, mourned her and moved on. And there she was, alive and scared out of her mind.

“M-Marshal?” June Witwill said weakly, tears beginning to cut tracks through the soot smeared on her face.

“Harriet, go fetch Doc an’ the priest,” Ross ordered. Immediately she turned and climbed back up the rim of the basin, heading off for Hamlet at a run.

“Marshal Ross?” June whispered. “What happened? What is going on?”

He dropped his wands on the ground, already shrugging out of his coat, and knelt to sweep it around her shoulders. She grabbed and clung to him as if for dear life, trembling.

“June, honey, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”


“Data matches,” Rector reported, hunched over the repurposed telescroll machine affixed to his console. “Good thing I added the redundant circuit breakers. Didn’t lose any data in the overload. Perfect match for the values in the Vadrieny data, filling in all the blanks. Looks good, your Holiness, we can finish the Angelus Project with this.”

“Well done, Rector,” Justinian said softly. “Very well done indeed.”

“What was that thing?” Delilah demanded. “The spider? Where is it?”

“Didn’t actually emerge here,” Rector said distractedly, still pouring over the stream of markings being produced by the transcriber. “Looked like it cos of temporal effects, but she used the opening we made to…I dunno. She’s not here, or now, though. Probably not far off. Time travel’s confusing and dangerous, good reason there’s a whole god of not letting people do this.”

They all tensed, save Rector and himself, as the sprawled figure in the middle of the floor stirred. Claws rasped against the stone.

Justinian stepped forward at an even pace.

“Your Holiness, no,” Ravoud insisted, planting himself between the Archpope and the thing they had summoned.

“It’s all right, Nassir,” Justinian said kindly, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. “This is according to plan.”

“But that creature…” The Colonel glanced over his shoulder, gripping his wand. “The risk. Without you, your Holiness, everything will fall apart.”

“Nothing of value can be done without risk, my friend,” the Archpope said softly. “But you know me, Nassir, and have been with me for a long time, now. Have you ever known me to take a risk that was not meticulously calculated?”

Ravoud hesitated, agonizing indecision written clearly on his face.

“Have faith,” Justinian said softly.

Finally, clamping his mouth into an unhappy line, the Colonel stepped out of the way. Branwen sidled up next to him, tucking her hand reassuringly into his arm, and they all watched the Archpope descend to meet the new arrival.

She groaned softly, in pain or confusion, twitching again, and then flapped her wings once with a force that sent a burst of air whirling through the chamber. There came an audible crunch as the claws tipping her fingers sank right into the stone beneath her.

Justinian stopped a yard away, and knelt. “How do you feel?”

With a jerk, she snapped her head up. Her eyes, wide and frightened, were whirling pits of orange flame.

“What—who are… Where am I? Who are you?”

Her wings were tipped with little claws at the joints, otherwise being decorated with a rather pleasing arrangement of red and blue feathers not unlike a Punaji macaw. She had hair of a fiery orange—but orange that human hair could actually be, not literally made of flame like her younger sister’s.

“My name is Justinian,” he said gently. “Take your time. You have just been through something deeply traumatic, but you are safe here. Don’t rush it. What do you remember?”

“I…I…” She sat upright, curling her legs under herself and letting her wings slump to the floor, clutching her head in both clawed hands. If she had been wearing anything, it had been burned away by the transition. “Nothing. Nothing! Who is… Who am I?”

“I feared this,” he said, sighing softly. “We have seen this once before.”

“My memory… It’ll come back. Won’t it?” Her expression was pleading, as desperate as her voice.

“I don’t know,” he said gravely. “It may not; you must be prepared for that possibility. I will do everything I can to help you, but I will not make promises that I don’t know I can keep.”

“Who are you?” she demanded. “Who am I?”

“I am someone,” he said slowly, maintaining calm in the face of the incredibly dangerous creature’s growing panic, seeking to help ground her, “who is supposed to be your enemy.”

“My enemy?” She bared fangs at him.

“Supposed to be,” he replied, voice even but firm. “We have been set against each other by those who would presume to rule us. By liars calling themselves gods; by those who were meant to give me guidance, and one who should have loved you above all else. But they seek to manipulate me into fighting unjust battles on their behalf, and condemned you to die for their own convenience. I tire of dancing to the tune of selfish creatures who presume to be my masters. I believe we should be free to choose our own fates. Me, you, all people, everywhere. And so I saved you.”

He bowed his head once in a deep nod.

“I am sorry I failed to do so more thoroughly. I had hoped to spare you some of this trauma, at least preserve your memory. We are laboring against colossal powers, and my efforts have been…imperfect. But I at least have managed to preserve your life.”

“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Any of this. I don’t know who I am, let alone why I’m here. What’s happened…”

“All will be well.” Justinian extended a hand to her. Behind him there came several indrawn breaths as his companions tensed. “None of us can say what the future holds, but I will do my very best to protect you. And together, perhaps we can free ourselves of our enemies’ control.”

Slowly, she reached out and wrapped her murderous talons around his hand. She had, he knew, the strength to crush him with a single clench, but she just held onto him. Firmly, yet gently.

“I’ll tell you everything I can about your history, and what’s happened,” he said, slowly standing up. Still holding his hand, she did likewise, raising her wings in the process. “But that will take time, and we should get you somewhere more comfortable first. To begin with, though, your name is Azradeh.”

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15 – 77

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“And you know what the really surprising thing is? I’m not even angry.”

Tellwyrn had swiveled her desk chair sideways and leaned it back as far as it would go, practically lounging in it with herself in profile relative to the students crowding her office. The fingers of her left hand drummed a slow and steady beat against the desk; with her right she held up the Mask of the Adventurer, slowly turning the innocuous-looking artifact this way and that and watching how the afternoon sunlight from her broad window gleamed along its understated silver decorations.

“Barely surprised, even stranger,” she mused, studying the mask. “Oh, a little bit, sure. A person doesn’t have something like this dropped on their desk and not spend a few moments pondering what, in general, the fuck. But it’s really striking how quickly that faded into this vague yet all-consuming sense of ‘yeah, that sounds about right.’”

“I can’t decide if we’re being insulted or let off the hook,” Gabriel muttered.

“I’ll take the one if it comes with the other,” Juniper muttered back.

“Hell, there’s a nice compliment in there if ya squint,” Ruda added, grinning.

“It has to be said that I’m not without responsibility in this,” Tellwyrn continued, turning the mask over to examine its inner face. “You certainly went and did exactly what I instructed, didn’t you? I think I can be forgiven for failing to anticipate this outcome, but really. The combination of you lot, that location, and vague instructions to have a spiritually meaningful experience? Yeah, I’ll own it, on a certain level I was sort of asking for this. Not sending a proper University guardian with you, even. I swear I thought that was a good idea but now I’m sort of grasping for the reason why.”

“Locke performed…adequately in that role,” Trissiny reported. She had changed out of her armor, but was standing at parade rest with only her sword buckled over her leather coat to identify her rank. “She’s jumpier than I would have expected under certain kinds of pressure, but I can’t fault her intent, or results. It all worked out.”

“Yes,” Shaeine agreed, “upon balance I believe your experiment can be considered a success, Professor. Though you may, in the future, want to personally escort groups which present a similar set of risk factors as ourselves.”

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn said with a scowl, still not looking at them, “I find I’m less annoyed about this thing than by the lot of you fucking off two provinces away to throw yourselves into a battle. Surprised? No. But by the same token, I know this is a conversation we have had before. More than once.”

“It was necessary,” Toby said in perfect calm. “I am sorry we broke your rules, Professor. In a case like that, however… We always will.”

“Mm.” She lifted her other hand to grasp the Mask by both its edges and brought it down toward her face.

All of them inhaled sharply, going wide-eyed and rigid.

Tellwyrn stopped moving, then half-turned her head to smirk at them.

The whole group let out their suspended breaths in unison, followed by Ruda emitting a slightly strained chuckle.

“You’re a bad lady,” Gabriel accused.

“I’ll tell you what.” Tellwyrn gently laid the Mask down on her desk and swiveled the chair forward to face them directly, straightening up in the process. “This is a one-time offer, don’t expect it to become general policy. But on this one occasion, if you can satisfy me that this was a successful educational experience, I will consider the lesson imparted and we can proceed without any further punishment. So?” Planting her elbows on the desk bracketing the Mask, she interlaced her fingers and stared at the group over them. “What did we learn?”

There came a pause, while several of them turned to peer uncertainly at one another.

“Consider it a group effort,” Tellwyrn prompted dryly. “I don’t care which of you comes up with an answer, so long as I’m satisfied that it’s one you’ve all absorbed.”

“We should be more respectful of the unpredictable things in this world,” Shaeine said softly. “Of magic, in particular, but generally. There can be severe consequences for assuming that the rules will always apply.”

“Yeah…that’s a really good way to put it,” Toby agreed, nodding. “From everything we know about the rules of magic, there was no reason to think this exact thing would happen, but it was reckless to think nothing of this nature could.”

“It’s not so much we didn’t think it could as it wouldn’t have occurred to us, or any sane person,” said Ruda. “But…damn. No more fucking around with mixed magic in sacred sites. It coulda been a shit ton worse.”

“It is sort of ironic,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “For most of my lifetime, it would have been the baseline assumption of everyone, magic user or not, that much about magic was unknowable and not to be trifled with. Then along come I, to drive away the cobwebs of ignorance and instill you all with methodical thinking. Lo and behold, it worked, and here you are lacking fear of the unknown, when that is the exact quality that would have kept you out of this mess. It’s enough to make a person reconsider their whole life.”

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Fross chimed.

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “That’s Nemitite doctrine. Have you been reading the theology textbooks now, Fross?”

“Yes, Professor, they make for really great light reading when I want a change of pace from magical theory. Also super helpful! A lot of stuff people do makes more sense when I understand the underlying philosophies that inform their behavior. But anyway, what I mean is, I don’t think your ultimate project here is wrong, not at all. Knowledge is never not better than ignorance. I guess we just hit a point where we got a little too full of our fancy University education and failed to respect the amount of ignorance we still had.”

“Well said,” Trissiny agreed.

“All right,” Tellwyrn said, finally cracking a faint smile. “That’s a good lesson indeed, and I am satisfied that you’ve absorbed it. All things considered, it worked out well. Whatever else happened, this thing enabled you to do a lot of good. Needless to say, if you ever again demonstrate a failure to consider the ramifications of tampering with unknown powers I will descend upon the lot of you like the personified wrath of Avei with a caffeine habit and a toothache. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.

“Which leaves us with…this.” She leaned back again, picking up the Mask. “The thing itself.”

“Really sorry to dump this on you, Professor,” Teal said earnestly. “But, well, Mr. Weaver said you might be the best person to look after it, and I can really see the sense in that.”

“Oh, yes,” Tellwyrn said, now staring expressionlessly at the Mask. “I can take it, sure. Chuck it in the vault with the rest of the collection, can do. Ever since I started making it my business to get the really dangerous crap permanently out of everyone’s hands, nobody’s come close to even finding where I stored it all, much less cracking my defenses. Course, I never had a god make a stab at it before.”

“You…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at the others. “Is a god after that, in particular?”

“Well, you tell me, Avelea,” Tellwyrn replied. “Since it seems like Vesk was at least ankle-deep in the creation of this thing and then up to his balls in everything that happened afterward. You three should know what he’s like, after this summer.” She pointed at Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel in turn. “Imagine you’re in a story. In a story, if there’s a big fancy magical sword that gets its own entire chapter of exposition, that thing is getting stuck in somebody before the third act climax. Probably after being the object of its very own epic quest.”

“But it…sort of was stuck in somebody,” said Juniper. “Uh, metaphorically, I mean. The mask was used in the battle; it gave Jacaranda her power back and that pretty much decided the whole thing.”

“Ah, yes,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “When you put it that way, the fact that there are pixies spread across half of N’Jendo now is indirectly your fault, as well.”

“What, you got a problem with pixies now?” Ruda asked, grinning. “Are you gonna take that, Fross?”

“She’s right,” Fross said quietly. “That is going to cause some real big problems.”

“So, yes, the Mask was used,” Tellwyrn said, “and it was a deciding factor in what can be understood as the big story arc running at the time. Hopefully… Hopefully that will be enough. The problem is the scale of it. What you’ve got here is the kind of thing that alters the destinies of nations for centuries to come, not a single event. At least, that’s how it would be in fiction. I’ll hide it away as best I can, because what else am I going to do? But I can’t help wondering exactly what’s going to happen to bring it back out again.”

“Okay, that’s already giving me a headache,” Ruda complained. “You sound like a fuckin’ bard. The world doesn’t run on fucking story logic!”

“Anything Vesk has his hand on this heavily is going to run at least somewhat on story logic,” Trissiny said, frowning deeply. “It would be a good idea to try to think in those terms, if you find him in your proximity. Which is annoying beyond belief because I am not good at it.”

“I’ll try to give you some pointers,” Teal promised.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Tellwyrn agreed. “In fact, in lieu of proper punishment, I have extra homework for you lot after this. I want you to go to the library, ask Crystal for copies of The Myth Eternal by Ravinelle d’Ormont, and write a three-page essay predicting possible next events resulting from your field trip, which you will justify citing the text’s description of tropes and narrative structure. This is a group project; I want you to compare notes and each turn in an individual essay describing a different outcome. On my desk by Friday.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to punish us if we answered your question!” Gabriel protested.

“Yes, Mr. Arquin, and as I said, this is not a punishment,” Tellwyrn said sweetly. “Would you like one of those instead?”

“Uhhh…”

“Irrelevant, because this is what you’re doing. All right, all of you out. Go rest, be in class as usual tomorrow. And see if you can try not to kick any more colossal metaphysical hornet’s nests for at least a week or so, hmm?”

Several of them sighed, but they turned and began filing out.

“Has anybody else noticed that something terrible happens to every city we go to?” Fross chimed as she drifted through the open door.

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Ruda agreed. “You fuckers are never visiting me at home again.”

“Correlation is not causation, Ruda,” Shaeine reminded her.

“I dunno,” said Gabriel as he shut the door behind them. “I feel like ‘Causation’ could be the title of our biography…”

Tellwyrn stared at the closed office door for a few moments with a bemused little frown, then leaned back in her chair, folded her arms, and glared down at the Mask.

It stared innocently back.


He was apparently the last to arrive.

“So I see this isn’t to be a private meeting,” Bishop Darling said pleasantly, gliding forward toward the base of the stairs in the Archpope’s personal prayer chapel. For once, Justinian was already standing at the base of the steps instead of waiting dramatically at the altar up a story-tall flight of steps, framed by the towering stained glass windows, one of which concealed the door to his secret chamber of oracles.

Bishops Snowe and Varanus were present, of course; that was almost a given. This was where the Archpope had most often assembled his inner circle of four—now three—Bishops. What was unusual was the presence of guards, two Holy Legionaries standing at attention to either side of the stairs, and Colonel Ravoud himself waiting behind the Archpope at parade rest.

“Antonio,” Justinian said gravely, inclining his head. “Thank you for coming. I’m sure you have much to tell me.”

“Mmm… No, I really can’t think of anything,” Darling answered, standing before him still with that serene Bishoply smile in place. Branwen gave him a wide-eyed look, Andros remaining inscrutable as ever behind his bushy beard.

“I confess that surprises me,” said Justinian, not sounding surprised in the least. “Especially after Branwen brought such an exhaustive report.”

“Why, precisely,” Darling agreed. “I’m sure she handled it just fine. And now, I believe there are some things you want to tell me.”

“You believe so?” Justinian asked in just as mild and pleasant a tone.

Darling smiled beatifically at him. “There had damn well better be.”

All three soldiers shifted their heads to stare right at him, Ravoud stiffening slightly.

Justinian’s eyes shifted past him to the door he had just come through, which now opened again. “Ah, good. The final necessary party to this conversation. Thank you for joining us, Basra.”

Keeping his pleasant smile firmly in place, Darling turned slowly to face her. In neither Church nor Avenist attire, she wore severe black garments which, he realized on a second glance, were a color-reversed version of Ravoud’s white Holy Legion dress uniform. The only insignia was a golden ankh pinned over the left breast. The dark color incidentally served to emphasize the white bandages peeking out from her left sleeve. An ornate gold-hilted short sword hung at her belt; well, that style of weapon only required one hand, after all.

Branwen drew in a sharp breath through her nose; Andros folded his arms, grunting once. Basra pulled the door shut behind her, then paced carefully toward them across the ornate carpet, her dark eyes fixed on Darling.

“Bas!” he exclaimed in a tone of jovial delight, spreading his arms wide. “How perfectly lovely to see you again! We have so much to catch up on!”

A practiced flick of his wrist brought the wand up his sleeve shooting out into his palm. She was still most of the way across the room; even with her trained swordswoman’s instincts Basra had time only to widen her eyes and stop moving before he’d brought it up and fired.

The crack of lightning was deafening in the acoustically designed chapel. A blue sphere of light ignited around her, the shielding charm of a sufficient grade to absorb the close ranged wandshot without flickering.

Basra bared her teeth in a snarl and dashed right for him, clawing her sword loose as she came. Darling shot her twice more before the pound of heavy boots on the carpet made him shift position to face the nearer of the Legionaries, who was bringing his ornate halberd down with the clear intent of barring them from reaching each other.

Darling grabbed the haft of the weapon with his free hand and spun, using his weight and the man’s own momentum to send him staggering right into Basra’s shield. It was disgustingly easy. Honestly, why had Justinian campaigned so hard to have his own private military if this was all he did with them? Not only was a halberd a hilariously dated weapon, the clod was using it indoors and obviously had no idea how, to judge by how easily it was taken from him.

It was heavy and unwieldy, and he had no chance of doing anything effective with it one-handed, but fortunately the quality of the Holy Legion remained constant; Darling was easily able to sweep it into the second soldier’s feet, sending the man stumbling to the ground. He hadn’t even tried to jump. It was an open question whether he physically could have in that ridiculous lacquered armor, but he’d done nothing except try ineptly to change course as the slow and heavy polearm came arcing at him. Never mind halberd technique, these guys hadn’t been trained in the very basics of hand-to-hand combat. What the hell was the point of them?

“Antonio,” Justinian protested in a tone of patrician disappointment.

“Be with you in a moment, your Holiness,” he said cheerfully, dropping the halberd.

Basra had just shoved the stumbling Legionary off her, and now received three more swift shots. Still the shield held; that thing was military grade. She was closer now, though, and lunged at him again with a feral snarl.

The shield was even phased to allow her to attack through it, which was cutting edge and really sophisticated charm work. Unfortunately for Basra, his more old-fashioned tricks were just as good. Her sword didn’t even draw sparks as it raked across the divine shield that flashed into being around him.

“Should’ve stayed down,” he informed her, winking. “It suited you.”

She made a noise like a feral cat and stabbed at him again, ineffectually. He fired back, the impact of the wand creating a burst of static and the sharp stink of ozone at that range. Basra stumbled backward, blinking the effects of the flash away from her eyes.

A thump and clatter sounded from behind him, and he re-angled himself to check the scene without letting Basra out of his field of view. The tableau told a story at a glance; Justinian looking exasperated, Branwen openly amused, Ravoud flat on his back on the stairs and Andros just lowering the arm with which he’d clotheslined the Colonel when he had tried to join the fray.

“Really?” Justinian said disapprovingly. “I would have hoped you two would try to reason with him, at least.”

“We are completely behind you, your Holiness,” Branwen assured him. “Rest assured, the moment Antonio begins doing something inappropriate, we will restrain him.”

“Eventually,” Andros rumbled.

Darling grinned and shot Basra again.

A wall of pure golden light slammed into place across the entire width of the chapel. It was a solid construction at least a foot thick, easily the most impressive Lightworking Darling had ever seen.

As rarely as they were called upon to exercise it, one could easily forget that a sitting Archpope was at least one of the most powerful divine casters in the world. Once in a while, one had found cause to demonstrate it, such as Archpope Sairelle’s famous binding of Philamorn the Gold.

Darling shot it, just to be sure. No effect.

“Enough,” Justinian stated, hand outstretched and glowing. “Antonio, I understand your frustration—”

“I am well aware that you do,” Darling stated, turning to stare at him with the pretense of conviviality gone from his features. “And I’m aware that you are aware that ‘frustration’ is in no way the word.”

“This of all moments is no time for you to succumb to impatience,” the Archpope said soothingly. “It is no secret that we have all acted upon complex agendas, Antonio. For this long, at least, we have all been able to relate to one another like—”

“Ah, yes, that’s really the thing, isn’t it?” Darling said with a bitter grin. “Because as we all know, I’m Sweet of the thousand agendas. Whose side is he on? The Guild, the Church, the Empire? I’m the guy who can smile nicely at everybody and play every side against the middle, committing to none. And I, I, am now officially done with this. That fact alone should warn you just what kind of line you’ve crossed, Justinian.”

Ravoud had bounded back to his feet, stepping away from Andros, and now strode forward, pointing accusingly at him. “You will address his Holiness as—”

“Pipe down, Nassir,” Darling ordered. “When I need someone to get humiliated by the Last Rock Glee Club I’ll tag you into this.”

“Please, Colonel,” Justinian said gently, making a peaceful gesture with his free hand. Ravoud clamped his mouth shut, looking anything but happy, but stepped back and folded his arms, glaring at Darling. “We have been through a great deal together, Antonio. I will not downplay the severity of recent events, but surely you do not think that now of all times it behooves you to throw everything away.”

“Do you know how many people died in Ninkabi?” Darling demanded. “Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question. Nobody knows, because they are still finding bodies. And oh, what a perfect storm of factors had to align to make that catastrophe happen! Basra here, Khadizroth and his crew, the Tide. Every one of them your pawns, Justinian.”

“And yet,” the Archpope said softly, “not even the first time I have been complicit in the mass summoning of demons into a major city under siege. Though as I recall, it was someone else’s plan, the last time.”

So he was willing to admit to that in front of Ravoud and these incompetent non-soldiers of his? Interesting.

“Oh, don’t even try it,” Darling retorted with open scorn. “Tiraas was a series of small controlled summonings by professionals, with the full oversight of the Imperial government. In Ninkabi twenty hellgates were indiscriminately opened after your pet assassin went on a murderous rampage to cull the local police. The fact you’d even bother making that comparison shows you have no argument to make, here.”

Justinian lowered his hand, and the wall of light vanished. On its other side, Basra still clutched her sword and glared at him, but didn’t move forward again.

“So this, finally, is the price of your conscience?” the Archpope asked in utter calm. “It is steep indeed, Antonio.”

“Oh, is that what you think is happening here? My moral outrage compelling me to make a brave stand? I would have thought you knew me better by now, Justinian. I’m more than sleazy enough to stick right to all manner of perfidy just to keep a close eye on it. I’d have walked out on you long ago if I was going to do it out of anger or disgust. But you have burned way too many bridges with a single torch this time. You cannot keep a lid on the details of what happened in Ninkabi, not now that most of your own enforcers have run off to who knows where with all their knowledge. This rat is leaving this ship, Justinian, unless you can give me a compelling and immediate reason to think you can survive the backlash coming your way and guarantee that nothing like this ever happens again.”

“And what would satisfy you?” Justinian inquired.

“For starters?” Darling pointed at Basra without looking in her direction, keeping his gaze locked on the Archpope’s. “Kill her.”

“That is a trap,” Justinian replied before Basra could react. “A rhetorical snare, Antonio. You seek to manufacture an excuse to do what you wish and blame my unreasonable refusal, knowing very well that I cannot give any such cruel order.”

“There is absolutely no reason not to,” Branwen stated.

The Archpope shifted to look at her, his eyebrows lifting incrementally. “Branwen…”

“I know you believe you can control that creature, your Holiness,” she said, giving Basra an openly contemptuous glance. “Or at least, want to believe you can. I cannot imagine how you could still think so after the last week.”

“I have been saying it for years,” Andros grunted. “A rabid animal should be put down, not put on a leash. Events continue to prove me ever more correct.”

“The events in motion are greater than any of you can yet realize,” Justinian said softly. “Basra still has a role to play. As do you all.”

“One thing hasn’t changed, Antonio,” Basra herself sneered, stalking forward. “Anything you believe you can do, I can still do better.”

He turned slowly to face her. Then, suddenly grinning, Darling held up both his hands and began to applaud.

Andros let out a hearty boom of laughter, and Basra lunged at him with her sword again.

“Basra.”

The Archpope’s voice brought her to an immediate halt. She glared at Darling with her face a mask of truly psychotic hatred, literally quivering with the desire to attack, but she did not move.

“Of this I assure you,” Justinian stated. “Every bitter price I have levied, every sin with which I have stained my soul, is in service to a greater good which will be worth the cost when it has done. Too much has been paid, now more than ever, for us to stop. This must be seen through to its end, or all of this suffering has been for nothing.”

Darling turned back to him. “Boss Tricks demands all the assurances I just asked of you, Archpope Justinian. Until they are produced, the cult of Eserion will choose to manage its relationships with the rest of the Pantheon directly, forgoing the mediation of the Universal Church. So, bye.”

He turned and walked right past Basra toward the door.

“You know, it wasn’t Eserion who saved you.”

Darling slowed to a stop, but did not turn around, and Justinian continued.

“I had a similar experience, Antonio. I witnessed something the Pantheon prefers to keep far from mortal knowledge. I survived only by the intervention of another god, one who questioned the injustice of keeping their secrets at the expense of so many lives. That is what happened to you, is it not? And so much of the course of your life has proceeded to its current point because you believed it was Eserion the defiant who shielded you. Eserion allowed you to think so, but it was not he.”

Still, Darling didn’t turn, subtly rolling the wand between his fingers.

“Will you really throw away all those years of searching,” Justinian asked softly, “when you are so near to the end? The time is fast approaching for all questions to be answered. You have labored with such industry and cleverness to obtain these secrets, Antonio. I would hate for you to come so close only to miss them.”

“Okay.” Darling turned halfway, just enough for the Archpope to see his face. “Let’s hear it, then. Spill the big secret, tell me what the gods are hiding and what really happened at the end of the Elder War. I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

“You of all people,” Justinian said, spreading his hands slightly at waist height to indicate those gathered near him, “understand that this is no place or time for such revelations. But soon, Antonio.”

“Yeah, well, see, that’s the thing,” Darling said, smiling again. “I don’t need you for that, either. Not anymore. Oh, and Baaaasra,” he added in a saccharine singsong, widening his smile to a wolfish grin as he turned it on her. “You can’t hide in here forever. You know it as well as I; you’ll go gibbering mad if you even try to keep yourself so confined. I will be seeing you again. Real soon.”

He turned his back on the silent assemblage and strode out, kicking the chapel door open, then kicking it again to close.

It shut behind him with a boom of echoing finality.

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15 – 76

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Adventurers?” High Commander Rouvad uncharacteristically slammed the hefty budget request down on her desk, atop all the other paperwork Principia had assembled. Fortunately, they were alone in the Commander’s office—or perhaps unfortunately, as an audience might have tempered Rouvad’s ire, or at least its expression. “Locke, your orders were to assemble an army!”

“Excuse me, Commander, but they weren’t,” Principia said calmly, standing at attention before the desk. “My orders were to assemble a force capable of defeating any extant military power. Leaving aside that I wasn’t given the time or resources to build a conventional army, especially not one up to modern standards, I don’t actually think one of those would accomplish that directive anyway. I found an approach that will.”

“You think you can counter modern military equipment and strategies using assets that were notoriously impossible to control even before they were obsolete?”

“Precisely, ma’am.”

The High Commander stared at her for a long moment in silence, during which the lieutenant just gazed back, perfectly composed. Rouvad finally sighed, and seated herself in her desk chair, notably not directing Locke to do likewise, or even stand at ease. “All right, Lieutenant. I suppose Avei wouldn’t have deliberately set you this task if it was anything that could be done conventionally. Go ahead, let’s hear your reasoning.”

“The Imperial Army is the most powerful military in the world right now,” Principia said immediately, “and not because of its size, but because of its constant embrace of new techniques and strategies. Most armies stagnate if unused for long periods, but the Tirasian dynasty has funded new enchantments and technologies for the Army’s use, had Imperial Intelligence keep regular reports on methods fielded by other nations, and directed the Army to constantly update itself even over the last century of peace. Thus, I began with the approach of hypothetically neutralizing Tiraan units, and settled on a strategy which will be universally applicable.”

“Adventurers,” Rouvad said, her tone utterly flat.

“Adventurers,” Principia agreed. “The Imperial Army’s greatest strength is its embedded magic users. In the field, infantry units deploy in small squadrons, relying on teleportation to obviate the need for supply trains, stay in communication, and even rapidly position themselves on the field. Using specialized mages, a commander can deploy infantry and mag artillery instantaneously via teleportation, and other specifically trained battlemages provide light magical artillery in the form of a standardized catalog of combat spells. The Army still employs its Corps of Engineers to erect field fortifications, bridges, and the like, but now relies more heavily on the Corps of Enchanters to position shield foci designed to be immediately salvageable even if they are broken by enemy fire. Spells and enchantments are also the source of most of the Army’s current use of traps and munitions. They even use conjured water to keep troops hydrated in the field.

“I think, in analyzing the disparity of capability between the current Silver Legions and the modern Imperial Army, it’s far too easy to view the Army’s advanced equipment and methods as an unequivocal advantage. I certainly fell into that trap with my own alternate weapons program. It misses the equally important fact that these advantages come with a critical drawback. Imperial units can be seriously interfered with by a warlock who neutralizes their enchantments, or a witch who causes them to blow up. They could be brought to a complete halt by coordinated action from both.”

“Asymmetrical warfare is Tiraan operational doctrine, Lieutenant,” Rouvad said impassively. “I hardly think you are going to beat them at that game. You will never assemble anything to compete with the Strike Corps out of antisocial misfits.”

“Yes, Commander, exactly. Trying to match the Army’s sophistication and overall power is a losing game. It’s an arms race, a question of who has the most money and warm bodies to throw at a problem—which aside from its practical drawbacks flies against Avenist doctrine. The strength of modern militaries comes from their systems. Technology, spellcraft, organization. And systems have weak points.”

“Those weak points are known and protected.”

“Protected according to structured doctrine and established methods. An army’s strength is organization; its enemy is chaos. Therefore, I propose to weaponize chaos. During the Age of Adventures, it was well known that experienced adventurers were a serious threat to military forces simply due to their ability to create unexpected hazards, target officers, split formations, and so on. In the absence of adventurers, these weaknesses have only grown. Heavy reliance on arcane magic makes them vulnerable to Circle effects, a weakness the Army has not remedied simply because there are no organized infernomancers of sufficient scope to threaten them, and even demons are as vulnerable to lightning weapons as anyone else. They have never faced any serious threat from witches or fairies simply because those avoid modern civilization precisely due to all the arcane magic. Not to mention that there are other ways of dealing with modern charms. I’ve already got one recruit who could neutralize an entire battalion’s energy shields just by making it rain on them.”

“Yes, the dragon,” Rouvad said, shuffling the papers on her desk and pulling out Principia’s personnel file on Khadizroth the Green. “Goddess preserve us, Locke.”

“There are other structural weaknesses created by the modern world of systems and connections,” Principia continued smoothly. “As Avei teaches us, the aim of warfare is to eliminate your enemy’s ability to wage war. Less than that risks defeat, and more abandons morality. The modern reliance on complex machines and charms creates opportunities to neutralized armed forces before combat occurs. A battlestaff is a device orders of magnitude more complicated and expensive than a spear, and you can break it just by getting dust in its clicker mechanism. And did you know there are exactly three factories in the entire Empire capable of producing power crystals large enough to run mag cannons, or zeppelin engines?”

Rouvad slapped the file down atop the others. “Let us say I consider your point valid, Locke. These…these are your recruits? ULR students? A Shaathist offshoot sect? Archpope Justinian and Bishop Darling’s personal hit squads? A gaggle of warlocks and demons led by a renegade drow? And, again, Locke, the dragon!”

“No, Commander,” Principia said serenely, “that is our recruitment pool. I have signed on Khadizroth the Green, the shaman Vannae, Longshot McGraw, Tinker Billie, the Sarasio Kid and Gravestone Weaver. Those names alone are weapons; most of them are modern legends. We both know it was the bards who decided the outcome of the Enchanter Wars as much as any soldiers. I rather think Xyraadi will take up my offer soon, which would likewise be a boon; she is an established ally of the Sisterhood, with a legend of her own.”

“A khelminash demon,” Rouvad said, rubbing her temples. “You do realize there are spiritual factions within the Sisterhood which consider the very existence of those creatures a living insult to Avei.”

“Yes, Commander, and I am also aware that those spiritual factions fixate on khelminash because they never expect to actually see one, and many of their fellow Sisters forcibly prevent them from picking on the women they actually want to bully. If there is any blowback as a result of this, I will requisition those spiritual factions a regulation spoon so they can eat my entire ass.”

“Watch it, Lieutenant.”

“I do not expect this Brother Ingvar or his followers to join up, which is probably for the best, but I do advise cultivating a relationship with them. His sect is half women and appears to be focused on fixing everything objectionable about Shaathism as its entire point. But that’s a matter for the Bishop, not my division.”

“We don’t have a Bishop, Locke,” Rouvad snapped. “Justinian has refused to confirm two candidates already. Given his spurious reasoning, I am pretty sure he means to just forestall the Sisterhood having representation within the Universal Church as payback for that whole business with Syrinx.”

“That’s above my pay grade, Commander,” Principia said pleasantly.

Rouvad leaned slowly back in her chair, staring up at the elf. “I truly, deeply hope that whatever the goddess wants from your presence proves worth the unmitigated pain in the ass you are, Locke.”

“Only time will tell. We must trust in Avei’s wisdom.”

The Commander shook her head and picked up the budget proposal again. “You asked for a facility in Viridill, specifically.”

“Yes, Commander, a remote one. Given the nature of the First Legion I have proposed, a rural headquarters is optimal both for security and practicality. And its location in Viridill will be important to underscore that this is an Avenist venture.”

“Yes, you made mention of that in this personnel request,” Rouvad said, picking up that document with an even more acid expression. “You want your pick of soldiers from First Squadrons throughout the Legions? This is going to make you even more enemies than your winning personality.”

“I much prefer volunteers, actually. At issue is that only Squad One soldiers are going to be of the kind I can even use, and it’s vital that at least half my personnel be gathered from the Legions, or the civilian Sisterhood. Adventurer guilds were still an active force during the first few decades of my career, Commander, and I’ve seen how they operate. Like any social group, each has its own culture and unique values. This thing is being commissioned by Avei, and needs to be specifically Avenist. In order to be effective, I’m going to have to acquire the best talent available, from wherever I can find it. I need at least their number in Sisters and Legionnaires to maintain the culture of the unit. I rather think the squad commanders won’t mind giving up a soldier or two if it’s made clear that we are assembling a support team for Hands of Avei.”

Rouvad’s expression softened almost imperceptibly. “You indicated that, as well, in writing. Your plan is for the First Legion to be under Trissiny’s command?”

“Under the Hand of Avei’s command,” Principia corrected. “Right now, that’s Trissiny, but there will be more after her. Historically, paladins have very rarely acted alone, and I’ve always found it purely odd that the Sisterhood has not had a dedicated support team for its Hands since the Silver Huntresses. With this unit being formed in response to the changing world, it’s only natural. One woman acting alone, sword-first, isn’t going to get much accomplished in this day and age. Trissiny has done an admirable job of absorbing that lesson already. Not to mention that any Hand of Avei is going to be a more qualified commander than I ever could.”

“Your unit’s not even formed and you’re already trying to weasel out of command.”

“I’ve made no secret that I consider commanding a Legion outside my wheelhouse,” Principia said frankly, “but this is the job and I agreed to do it. It’ll be another year and a half before Trissiny’s done at Last Rock, anyway. I wouldn’t suggest this if I didn’t consider it in the best interests of the mission. The Sisterhood needs a versatile, permanent force directly under its paladins a lot more than it needs me in charge of anything forever.”

“I would hardly suspect Trissiny of trying to undermine me,” Rouvad mused, studying Principia through narrowed eyes, “but after that stunt you two pulled with Syrinx, you and Trissiny in combination… There is already a rift between us that I don’t like. Schisms between Hands and High Commanders have happened in the past, and always to disastrous effect. It can be difficult enough to justify the complexities of politics to a paladin without the likes of you leaning on her from the other direction.”

Principia hesitated, then straightened infinitesimally. “Permission to speak freely?”

Rouvad regarded her in silence for a moment, then her shoulders shifted in a minute sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Trissiny understands the importance and the complexities of politics just fine,” Principia said, holding the High Commander’s gaze. “I won’t attest to how good she is at it just yet, but she’s young and learning. What matters is that she comprehends that someone in your position has to make tough calls and compromises, and I think she’s wise enough to recognize and respect when someone more experienced has to take the reins. If her faith in you was damaged by the Syrinx affair, it’s because you made a bad call. The utility of keeping that woman around was never worth the harm she did, and in the end it was Trissiny who had to clean up your mess. You can’t expect her not to have questions about your leadership after that, Commander. It doesn’t mean it’s unsalvageable. Trissiny is also intelligent enough to recognize that even experienced commanders make mistakes. If you want to mend that rift, you should talk to her, and acknowledge what went wrong.”

Rouvad slowly worked her jaw as if chewing the elf’s words, shifting her eyes to stare at the far wall. Only for a few seconds, though. Suddenly brisk again, she leaned forward in her chair, setting down the personnel request. “Your opinion has been noted, Lieutenant. Moving on, when I gave you permission to offer amnesty and the Sisterhood’s protection in order to recruit key personnel, I was not expecting you to make it a blanket offer to an entire assembly of random would-be adventurers. Which, of course, you knew, and didn’t say that was your intention because you were well aware I’d have squashed that.”

“It was not my intention, Commander, just how the situation transpired. I have made it clear the Sisterhood doesn’t have the legal authority to pardon crimes, and its protection has limits. Though it wasn’t my plan exactly, I think it worked out well. This gives me some wiggle room to apply the offer of amnesty to those who are worth it, and discreetly direct the requisite authorities to any other applicants if it’s deemed necessary.”

“Despite everything, Locke, I can’t find it in me to just blithely assume you know what you’re doing. The fact that you always seem to come out on top is not the same quality as being in control of your own life, much less the unit under your command. But… You have earned at least some trust. And there is always the fact that you were put here by Avei. She, I have to assume, knows what she is about.”

Another pause ensued while she studied Principia’s face. Then Commander Rouvad picked up the pen from its holder, dipped it in her inkwell, and began to sign forms.

“Goddess watch over us all.”


It was the same room in which the three of them had had their last meeting, close to two years ago. Being a basement space in the Thieves’ Guild underground chambers used for clandestine interviews, it was never the most wholesome of spaces, but the atmosphere between them the last time had still been particularly dour. Now, it was oppressively grim.

“And that’s it,” Tricks said softly, his tone giving no indication of his feelings.

Thumper nodded once. “Long and the short of it, Boss. I figure you’ll want me to sit down with Questions for the fine points, but I’m pretty sure that covers everything you need to know right off the bat. Whole thing was just a complete fuckin’ waste,” he added bitterly, dropping his gaze to scowl at the floor. “The whole plan to interfere with Justinian amounted to diddly shit, the Keys situation apparently resolved itself before I ever even ran into her, and all I did for two years was get conned and pushed around by every asshole who gave it a try. Omnu’s hairy balls, I don’t think I’ve ever fucked up that consistently or hard in my life. An’ that’s sayin’ something.”

“It matters that you recognize that,” Tricks said mildly. “I more than half expected you wouldn’t.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s worth a whole goddamn lot,” Style rumbled, “but not nothing.”

“And I’m not ready to completely write off the time you spent answering to Justinian and Syrinx,” Tricks added. “Yes, Thumper, you’ll definitely be having regular sessions with Questions until he’s fully satisfied. There may yet be something buried in that head of yours that you don’t even know is important.”

“Sure, however many sessions he needs,” Thumper agreed, nodding. A skilled interrogator had uses far beyond extracting information from the unwilling; one as talented as Questions was employed just as often to tease out details and secrets from the memories of those who didn’t even know they knew anything of value.

“So, you’ve had an interesting couple of years,” Style stated, striding forward. Thumper tensed instinctively at her approach but made no move even when she stopped, looming ominously over him. “Seen and done some real shit, apparently. But before that, there was the assignment the Guild sent you on out to Last Rock. Way I hear it, there are some teeny-tiny details you failed to report on, particularly with regard to your handling of Keys on site. She shared with us, after you left, exactly what you’d threatened to do to…what was it…ah, yes, motivate her. You wanna dispute that account, Thumper?”

He tensed further, shoulders lifting with an indrawn breath, but the enforcer leaned his head back to meet her eyes. “Nope. Sweet told me what she said. Sounds like pretty much how it went down.”

Style’s foot came crashing down onto the front of his chair right between his legs, missing him by a fraction of an inch and causing him to jump.

“And are you fully cognizant, Thumper,” she said in a sibilant hiss, “exactly why conduct like that is not fucking acceptable under any circumstances, but most especially toward a fellow member of the Thieves’ Guild?”

“I wasn’t…gonna actually do it,” he said weakly. “It was just a bit of…motivational theater.”

“Ohh, Thumper,” Style whispered, reaching down with one big callused hand to very tenderly brush his cheek with the backs of her knuckles. Thumper bit down on his lips, going white with sudden terror. “Taking that at face value, let’s just forget about the monumental failure of enforcer technique that is issuing a threat you don’t intend to follow up on. Hell, we will set aside, just for the moment, the fact that even threatening rape is, according to Avenist, Imperial and Eserite doctrine, an act of sexual assault. Let’s just brush all that under the rug for a moment, here, and address the fact that THAT IS NOT WHAT I FUCKING ASKED YOU.”

She seized his hair and wrenched his head to one side, bending down to bellow directly in his ear. Thumper cringed, grabbing the seat of the chair with both hands and going stiff as a board in her grasp, but made no physical reaction aside from that.

“No, Style, I get it,” he said, his voice tight with pain. “I apologized to Keys, for what that’s worth. It was a shit thing to do and I was way over the line.”

Style held him in place for three more heartbeats, then abruptly released his head and stepped back, staring down at her fingers. “Thumper, why the fuck does your hair smell like oranges?”

“Samivir’s Hair Cream,” he said weakly, lifting one slightly trembling hand to smooth his hair back down into a semblance of order. “For the discerning gentleman, it says on the tin. It doesn’t stay this flat by itself, y’know.”

“We’ve had some pretty interesting correspondence concerning you,” Tricks said idly, lounging back in his own seat in an utterly relaxed posture and regarding Thumper with an expression that was almost bored. “Webs vouches for you, because of course he does. Then again, his story about a succubus manipulating your actions has been corroborated, so… There’s that. Also, before you reported in, Sweet has informed me that in addition to the demon you recently had memory-altering infernomancy done on you, and then more mindfuckery by a green dragon. You understand how all this really muddies the waters when it comes to sussing out your exact degree of culpability for your actions.”

“I don’t think Big K would do me wrong,” Thumper said, frowning. “He’s a good sort, for a fuckin’ scary primordial lizard monster.”

“Which is more or less exactly what someone laboring under a magic dragon whammy would say,” Tricks observed. “I’m calling Glimmer down here from Mathenon to give you a good working over, too. I wanna know exactly what’s been done to your brain in as much detail as possible before we go deciding what to do about it. Meanwhile, we have also received a written communication concerning you, from Keys herself.”

“Oh, I think you’ll get a kick out of this,” Style said with grim amusement when he tensed again.

“Keys,” Tricks stated with a faint, bemused frown, “has requested clemency from us concerning your punishment for anything done by you to her and forsworn any intent to seek restitution.”

Thumper blinked twice. “…huh?”

“In basically any other circumstances,” said Style, “that would mean I’d haul her ass in here for an analysis, because that’s the kind of thing victims of abuse are prone to do for somebody who’s got his tentacles worked into their brain. Now, we all know you’re not that specific breed of asshole and Keys would still be three times as smart as you after getting hit on the head by a whole tree full of coconuts, but still, it’d be policy. But this is Keys, she whose industrious labor over the course of lifetimes to be the greatest possible pain in everyone’s ass I have decided I shall respect. In fact, I’ll go so far as to caution you that she is clearly only doing this to get you to join that asshat adventurer guild she’s running for the Sisterhood, and don’t even get me started on that horseshit, because she wants you under her thumb to torment you at her leisure. Hate to spoil a sister’s grift, but it is, as I’ve mentioned, Keys, so if she wants to piss away her right to restitution, fine and fuck her anyway. But that still leaves us, and you, and what it is that we are going to do about you.”

She planted herself directly in front of him and leaned forward, stretching her lips into a psychotic death’s head grin, and said in a saccharine tone, “Would you like to know what we are going to do about you, Thumper?”

He swallowed once before answering. “It’s pretty heavily on my mind right now, yeah.”

“Well, you’ve got a monumental asskicking coming, that’s for goddamn sure,” Style said, abruptly straightening up and crossing her arms to glare down at him. “Sexual harassment of a Guild member, failure to report in when ordered, and a whole ream of shit that flirts with the boundaries of outright treason. Oh, yeah, you’ve got a foot up the ass in your future. But with each new revelation the curious case of Jeremiah Shook has become more layered, like the world’s most obnoxious shit-soaked onion, until what I recently assumed would be a very satisfying case of me stomping you into an orange-scented stain on the floor has turned into a whole ream of goddamn detective work before we manage to sort out exactly how responsible you are for everything you’ve been blundering around in, and how badly your brain has been fucked with already.

“So I have decided, Thumper, that we are going to give this aaaallllllllll the time it needs. You’re gonna spend as long with Questions and Glimmer as they want, and then a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer still, until the both of them are entire sick of your face and my meddling, because I am not gonna leave a pebble unturned in that greasy-ass head of yours.

“And then, once it has been established beyond all possible hint of doubt exactly what the fuck you’ve done and what you deserve for it… Then, and only then, will I kick your ass. And oh, Thumper, the asskicking I shall rain down upon you will be the crown jewel of my career, an unimpeachable masterwork of retribution.” She raised both her arms as if in benediction, gazing at the ceiling with a nearly rapturous expression. “Your culpability shall be known to the most infinitesimal degree, and you shall be stomped with godlike fucking exactitude. I will smite you with an exquisite fucking symphony of fairness, measuring every blow to the tiniest iota of its positioning and force until you have been punished so flawlessly for your two-year parade of shitheadery that not even your self-involved victim complex will enable you to walk away feeling you’ve been mistreated. Vidius himself shall descend from his throne on high to sit at my feet and learn the ways of fairly judging souls, that’s how precisely I’m gonna pulp you. I shall be a cleansing fire of fists and feet, and you shall emerge with the dross burned away to leave only a sore and chastened, but pristine and new, piece of shit of exactly the caliber the gods half-assedly created you. From the divine instrument of flawless retribution that is my size nine boot, you will ascend, born anew by the baptismal asskicking of Style which will echo down through the ages as a legendary arbiter of the very abstract fucking concept of justice.”

By that point, even Tricks was eyeing her askance. Thumper gaped up at the chief enforcer with his mouth slightly open as she finally lowered her arms, planted her fists on her hips, and grinned down at him.

“And I shall do all of this on your behalf, Thumper, not because you matter to that degree, but because I am sick of your bullshit. Now how’s that sound to you, hm?”

He finally shut his mouth, swallowed once more, then cleared his throat. “I… Yeah, okay. Let’s do that. Sounds pretty good, actually.”

Slowly, Style’s grin faded. “Thumper, I get that you’ve been through some shit, but the one thing I did not expect you to acquire from your travels was a sense of humor.”

“No foolin’, Style, I mean it,” he said, now frowning faintly. “I’ve been… I’ve been looking back at all the shit I’ve ever done over the last few days, and I can’t get away from the fact that I just don’t know what’s what anymore. Kheshiri sure screwed with my head, yeah, but it’s from a lot longer back than that. The farther back I think, the more I realize I’ve been fed a mix of real good advice and complete bullshit, and only listened to about half of each, and now all I know is that a lot of what I thought I knew is bullshit, and I’m not even sure which part. It’s like… Y’know when you go up a staircase without paying attention and don’t count the steps right, so you get to the top expecting more stairs and there’s this second where the whole world’s out of balance cos the floor’s not where you thought it should be? It’s like that, except all the time. And it fuckin’ sucks.

“Khadizroth said something to me about punishment, how’d he put it… Yeah, he told me when you’ve done somethin’ wrong, it puts you kinda out of balance with your whole existence, an’ from a state like that taking a punishment you’ve earned can be, like, medicinal. Puts you back in order with the world. Sounded like the dumbest fuckin’ mumbo-jumbo I’d ever heard at the time, but I dunno anymore. I can’t go on stumbling around with no idea who I am or what’s true or exactly why and how I keep fucking up everything. So… Yeah, Style, let’s go for it. You do what you gotta, I trust you to know what’s fair.”

Both Style and Tricks were staring at him, blank-faced. Thumper looked rapidly back and forth between them, then cleared his throat awkwardly.

“So, uh… Not to change the subject or nothin’, but while I’m here bein’ examined and all, am I allowed to leave the Guild?”

“What the fuck do you think, Thumper?” Tricks asked wryly.

He nodded. “Yeah, fair enough. Can I get people visiting me?”

“Depends on the people, but I don’t really see why not,” said the Boss. “Webs has moved his operation to Tiraas; I’m pretty sure he’ll want to chat with you at the first opportunity. Way I heard it, you owe him an apology, too.”

“Gods, I really do,” Thumper grimaced. “So…and I’m just askin’, here…if Sweet was to do his interfaith thing and could find one willing to come, could I get a priestess of Avei to come here an’ chat with me?”

They both stared at him again, now openly incredulous.

“It’s nothin’ urgent,” Thumper hastily clarified. “Just, y’know, spiritual stuff. Sweet’s got more important shit to do, so if it’s a problem don’t even worry about it. I just got some, uh, questions.”

“I think,” Style mused, “this may take even longer than I thought.”

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15 – 75

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Everyone immediately adopted a combative stance—which in Sherwin’s case, meant fleeing around the corner of the building. The rest of them readied spells, weapons, and shields, both succubi vanishing from sight.

“Oh, please.”

The goddess’s voice was derision itself; she made a single, languid flicking motion with one forefinger. Natchua and Xyraadi’s conjured infernal spells were instantly snuffed out, Jonathan and Hesthri’s arcane weapons and shield charms simply vanished from existence, and Melaxyna and Kheshiri both popped right back into view, looking stunned as if they’d each just been punched between the eyes.

“My armistice is with the Pantheon, governing my relations to them and their followers,” Elilial lectured. “It is worth keeping in mind that you assholes don’t work for any god or cult. I can do whatever I like with you, and no one will be able to call me oathbreaker.”

Natchua drew power for a catastrophic burst of pure destruction which surely would have caved in half the house, had Elilial not effortlessly neutralized it before it could form properly.

“By the same token,” she went on, “I should think it clear by now that you’d all be well and truly suffering if I’d come here for revenge. When I said I wanted a word with you, Natchua, that wasn’t a coy euphemism. It is time—past time—for you and I to have a polite conversation. In private.”

“You’re not taking her anywhere,” Jonathan grated, stepping in front of her.

“You’re sweet, Arquin,” Elilial said condescendingly. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring her right back.”

Before he or Natchua could say anything else, their whole surroundings changed.

Natchua spun in a circle, conjuring a nascent shadowbolt, but just held it for the moment; this time, the goddess didn’t interfere. She was now alone with Elilial, which was of course her most immediate concern.

“What have you done with—”

“Absolutely nothing,” the horned goddess said with a vague little smile of amusement. “They’re standing right where they were, freaking out about you. It’s we who’ve moved. Welcome to the grand entrance hall of Leduc Manor!”

It was definitely the entryway of a wealthy house in an Imperial style; Natchua had only ever seen it with the ceiling, floor, and most of the walls collapsed, but with the resemblance pointed out she could see the familiar shapes of its boundaries, windows, and the grand staircase sweeping up to a second-floor landing. This place was fabulously rich, draped with heavy velvet curtains, exquisite paintings, ornately embroidered carpets strategically placed upon the polished hardwood floor and marble busts of various members of the House. Being used to Leduc Manor in its current state, it was easy to forget that House Leduc had once had a great deal of money. Actually, still did; it was just that Sherwin didn’t care enough about anything to maintain his home.

“As it was, of course,” Elilial mused, her hooves clopping on the floorboards as she paced slowly across the hall, inspecting the furnishings. “Don’t worry, we have not traveled in time. The last thing I need after this day’s work is Vemnesthis climbing up my ass. He just might be the worst of the lot, but at least he’s never interfered with me personally, and that’s how I prefer it. No, this is…a little space all our own, where we won’t be interrupted.”

From which there would be no escape, she did not have to add. Natchua slowly straightened from her battle-ready crouch and let the shadowbolt fizzle.

“Well, fine then, here we are. Spit it out.”

Elilial was studying a painting of a supercilious-looking human of Stalweiss stock, her back to her guest. “I’m not sure how much Arachne understands about the nature of gods, but I know there are important things she’s not told you. You know, when we killed off the Elder Bastards, we weren’t even trying to become gods? Well, most of us, anyway; I have my suspicions about Vidius. The thing was done by changing the rules of godhood itself. Adding new limits and boundaries which the Elders were already well outside, and rendering them suddenly unable to exist. I told you and the rest of those anachronisms about the importance of aspects today.”

She finally turned around, favoring Natchua with a bland little smile. Natchua just stared icily back.

“It is also true, and this is the part they’ve really worked to keep quiet, that gods are influenced by the consciousness of anyone who draws on them for power. A single worshiper channeling divine magic won’t make any impression on a deity during their lifetime, but a whole society? That’s another matter. We tend to…drift. Change, evolve, subject to the beliefs of those who believe in us.”

Natchua frowned slightly in thought, beginning to be interested in spite of herself.

“Of course,” Elilial continued, “there’s an important counter to this effect which is necessary for us to retain some hold on who we are: paladins. Individuals imbued with a potent spark of a god’s essence have a much more significant impact on us. By choosing paladins with care, we avoid the subtle influence of the masses.”

“Most gods don’t even have paladins,” Natchua objected. “Themynra doesn’t. Vidius only just started… Salyrene hasn’t in a century.”

“Avei, Omnu, and Salyrene call their mortal anchors ‘paladins’ and send them out to be front-and-center in world events, yes. I promise you, though, every god who still exists and hasn’t gone utterly mad or been twisted beyond recognition has done so by having someone in whom they’ve entrusted a fraction of their identity. The ones who keep the details secret are probably smarter. Smarter than I was, anyway.” She turned back toward the side of the chamber, now staring sightlessly at the window. “Mine… Mine were my daughters.”

Natchua drew a deep breath slowly, connecting those dots.

“So perhaps you better understand the state I was in,” Elilial said after a pause. “My anchors slain, except for one whose memories were wiped away, attached to a blundering quasi-pacifist and developing a severe resentment toward me. My core believers, first whittled down to a fraction of their former strength during a years-long process that put them under constant tension and terror, and then finally cast into a place where I could feel no connection to them at all. You have never known me as…myself. Just a shamefully fumbling thing, deprived of most of what made me who I am, not yet aware how defeated I already was, awkwardly careening toward an inevitable catastrophe.

“Very little of what I have done in the last few years can even be counted as cunning, honestly. That whole scheme with you and Chase… Well, I suppose it wasn’t a terrible idea, strategically speaking, but it’s not at all how I have preferred to operate all these years. Reckless, unnecessarily cruel. And right at the end, there, marching demons into Ninkabi under cover of the invasion. I could’ve ended that in Hell, you know, it would have been much simpler to turn my forces on the invaders gathering around those hellgates before they opened. But no, in my desperation, I used such a last-minute brute-force measure that even my own high priest argued with me. Poor Embras… A better servant than I have deserved, of late. Arachne tried to warn me, a couple of years ago in Sarasio, but I was already too far gone to listen. I’m afraid I got a lot worse before I got better.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I see it all now,” Natchua sneered. “None of this has been your fault! You were just crazy from magical bullshit. I’m sure if you go explain it all politely to the Pantheon they’ll understand.”

“Mmmmmm,” Elilial hummed, pursing her lips. “It’s tricky, you know? A god is a vast intelligence, but also a limited one, and one of the few things we cannot clearly see is just how much agency we have. How much of what I do is truly mine? For my part, at least, I prefer to err on the side of taking responsibility.”

“How noble and self-effacing you are.”

“Oh, my reasons are cynical.” She shifted slightly to give Natchua a wry smile sidelong. “When agency and control is at a premium, you have to seize whatever you can. Blaming others for your mistakes can make you feel better, but it keeps you in the role of a victim. It’s better by far to assume responsibility, even for things that aren’t strictly your fault. A failure is an opportunity to improve yourself, if you own it.”

“Thanks for the advice. We done here?”

“I’m offering you explanations, not excuses. I just thought you deserved to understand why some of the things that I’ve done to you happened. It isn’t meant to justify anything.” She turned to face Natchua fully, and to the drow’s surprise, bowed. “With all that said, here’s the truth: I really fucked you over, and you didn’t deserve it. What I did to you was an entirely hypocritical abrogation of my own principles, and I’m ashamed to have used you and your buddy to cause such wanton destruction, especially while I’m always spouting off about the evils of the Pantheon. It probably helps nothing, but here it is: I’m sorry, Natchua.”

“I don’t need an apology from you,” Natchua spat. “As far as I’m concerned, I got mine when I demolished your cult and made you publicly bend your neck to Vesk. That was more satisfying than anything you could possibly say.”

The goddess regarded her in silence, her face expressionless.

Natchua folded her arms. “So you can go ahead and smite me now. Like I told you in Ninkabi, nothing you do to me is gonna un-kick your ass.”

“I have absolutely no intention of harming you, Natchua,” Elilial said mildly. “Ever. I brought you here to explain a few things, including that. Have you ever given any thought to the nature of cunning?”

Natchua threw up her hands, turned, and flounced over to a low velvet-upholstered settee with gilded accents, then flopped herself down onto it and stared mulishly at the goddess.

“People generally have the wrong idea about cunning, and I won’t lie: I’ve gotten great mileage out of that fact.” Elilial began to pace slowly up and down in front of the stairs, the sound of her hooves on the floor alternating as she walked off and on the strip of carpet running toward the door. “Talk about cunning and most people envision some mastermind pulling strings from the shadows, always staying ten steps ahead of everyone else and controlling every factor. That’s a complete fantasy, of course. Absolute control is a laughably preposterous idea. If a plan has more than three steps, they cease to be steps and become items on a wish list. Even if you reduce those notions to a believable level of possibility, that’s describing strategy, not cunning. That’s not what keeps the fox ahead of the hunters.

“Cunning is the quality of not only thinking more deviously than one’s rivals, but doing so quickly, while always in motion ahead of them. It is strategy and duplicitousness coupled with reaction time, the ability to execute a plan by reflex without having to actually form it first. A person is cunning when their instinctive response to a threat outmaneuvers everyone else’s carefully-laid schemes.”

She paused in the middle of the carpet, then turned and came back a few steps to lean against the endcap of the banister, regarding Natchua with a knowing little smile.

“I would say that right now, in the world, there are two people who most exemplify the concept of cunning, apart from myself, and I regret to acknowledge that neither is even in my cult. Archpope Justinian is the perfect exemplar of the more cautious brand. That man has meticulously arranged an entire continent as a game board to suit his ends, positioning himself to defeat every opponent who arises before they realize they’re playing.”

“Sounds like that deep-thinking strategy you were just saying doesn’t count as cunning,” Natchua replied, affecting a bored tone.

“On the contrary, that is exactly why Justinian has outfoxed all the countless people attempting to do the same thing,” the goddess said with a wink. “While they labor to set everything up just so, he patiently and quietly watches the whole, constantly reacting to every development as it happens and gently nudging things where he wants them to go. Not overreaching, careful not to betray his hand, but always watching, always acting. While they scheme and try to plan too many steps ahead, he remains eternally in motion. Some of them are players, many only pieces; he has established himself as the board itself.”

“Why don’cha marry the guy if you love him so much?”

“Oh, you know how it is,” Elilial replied, shrugging airily. “So often one finds oneself at cross-purposes with fascinating people and thus sadly deprived of the opportunity to befriend them. Plus, there is also the nagging little detail that he murdered my daughters.”

For the space of three words, she made her full presence felt, a psychic pressure of darkness and hellfire that conveyed unfathomable depths of rage without putting it on full display. Natchua warily sat upright, gathering her focus to form another spell if necessary.

Immediately, though, the moment passed, and Elilial straightened up and resumed her languid pacing.

“Then there’s the other kind,” the goddess went on, “the cunning of the fox. The aggressive kind that runs and pounces and eternally confounds both its pursuers and prey. I confess a personal fondness for that manifestation of my aspect; it’s a lot more reminiscent of how I used to be, back in the day when we were fighting the Elders. The fun kind of cunning that mostly looks like insanity or stupidity until you happen to notice in hindsight that this one particular maniacal idiot always seems to come out on top somehow. Every daffy thing they do inexplicably creates exploitable opportunities for themselves, and unmanageable chaos for everyone else.”

She paused in strolling away, glancing back over her shoulder with a smirk.

“I would say the person who most exemplifies that quality is you, Natchua.”

For one beat of silence, Natchua gaped at her.

Then she burst out laughing so hard she slumped over on the settee. Elilial turned around fully, watching patiently while Natchua rolled about, clutching her ribs, and finally tumbled off onto the floor.

“Yes, yes, everyone’s been telling you how reckless and capricious you are,” the goddess said with wry fondness, watching her. “It’s not even that they’re wrong, but let’s be real: here you are, having outmaneuvered the very goddess of cunning herself. You’re not the first to have pulled that off in eight thousand years, or even in the last five, but it places you in very rarefied company.”

“You are so full of it,” Natchua wheezed.

“I’ve quite enjoyed backtracking to check up on your progress,” Elilial said, grinning now. “Part of me regrets that I neglected to be watching you at the time, but it all worked out; obviously if I’d known what you were up to I’d have put a stop to it, and then we would both be thoroughly screwed. But you just keep doing these absurd things and then, somehow, winning! Recruiting Hesthri and Jonathan Arquin was a move nobody with an ounce of classical strategic sense would have made, and look how well that paid off. Releasing Melaxyna, likewise; everybody knows not to mess about with succubi, and you should know it better than most. But you trusted your instincts, and here you are. You brought Kheshiri to heel, Natchua. My own Wreath failed to do that; the last time she reared up on this plane I had to deal with her myself after she caused my cult nearly as much damage as you just did. And how did you subdue the most infamously wily succubus in existence?”

Natchua snorted and sat upright, leaning back against the settee. “That? I beat the shit out of her. You call that cunning?”

“You beat the shit out of her,” Elilial repeated, enunciating slowly, “which is something nobody would think to try on a succubus. Everyone knows it doesn’t work at best, and is counterproductive at worst. But you found a way to make such an overblown, dramatic production of whooping her ass that she as close to fell head-over-heels in love with you as that creature is capable of feeling about anyone. True, we’ve yet to see how long you can maintain your grip on her leash, but that promises to be just as much of a hoot.”

The mirth had slid from Natchua’s face now, replaced by an increasingly uncertain frown. It was Elilial’s turn to fold her arms, again grinning down at her and slouching against the banister.

“Duchess Malivette Dufresne is as good a schemer as they come, and she had a deft web woven around you before you even saw her fingers moving. And it all fell apart in one moment because it just never occurred to her that a stateless practitioner of forbidden magic on the run would even consider making herself a public figure. One little speech, and you pulled her fangs harder than anybody has since her University days.

“You’re the real deal, Natchua. Your issue is not that you’re stupid; I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that you’re not crazy. What you are is crazy like a fox. You’ve spent the last month proving it at the expense of people who are by any objective measure a lot smarter than you. That is what I like to see.”

Slowly, Natchua dragged herself upright, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. “Now, hold on a second. When you said you needed a… A paladin, or anchor, to stabilize your personality…”

Elilial’s grin widened.

“You seem a lot more stable now than you did in the…”

The goddess raised one eyebrow.

Natchua brandished an accusing finger at her.

“No. Fuck you! Don’t even fucking think about it, you sick old sack of lies!”

“Well, it seems I owe you another apology,” Elilial said with a sigh that failed to sound repentant. “I came here to notify you, not ask your permission. I had my little moment of clarity back there in the cathedral when I realized exactly how thoroughly I’d just been thwarted by a pesky drow I had dismissed as an overreaching idiot doomed to destroy herself. I finally realized exactly what had happened to me, and what I needed to do to repair myself. So I did it, right then and there.”

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Well, the least I can say is, it’s working,” the goddess said, her expression finally sobering. “At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that you might deserve to know. But you’ve made me remember what it’s like to live under the heel of oppressive deities, to need to fight back. I would probably have been better off leaving you in ignorance, strategically speaking. It’s just that… A point comes when no amount of strategy substitutes for ethics.”

“You can just fucking undo it right now, then!” Natchua raged.

Slowly, Elilial shook her horned head. “I’m sorry, but no. I was unraveling, Natchua. I was most of the way into my transformation into an unheeding monster, and worse, an idiot. I can’t go back to that. This time I will admit it up front: I am doing this to you without your consent, because I need to. And whatever I have to do to make it up, I will. But I don’t have a choice.”

“I fucking hate you.”

“Fair,” the goddess acknowledged. “Look at it this way: I am handing you the literal key to my fate. You can definitely find a way to use this in your revenge against me. If you decide that’s what you still want to do.”

“So what, you think I’m going to lead your new Black Wreath? Fuck you, I’m not helping you.”

Elilial tilted her head to one side, considering. “I think…I would rather you didn’t. If that’s what you decide you want, I guess we can revisit it, but you’re really not the type I look for in a cultist, my dear. Anyway, no; I don’t need anything else from you, Natchua. Your life is your own, now. Live it in the way that seems best for you. That is all I need you to do, and I’ll accept whatever repercussions that has for me. You could do a lot of good in the world, or a lot of harm. Or if you just wanna help Sherwin rebuild his mansion and settle in with your little harem, you can do that, too. The world is your oyster. And speaking of that, I guess I’d better send you back to the gang before they panic too hard and do something unfortunate.”

“Don’t you dare—”

“If you ever find yourself in need of help, Natchua, call on me. I certainly owe you.”

“Wait!”

Unsurprisingly, she didn’t wait. As before, there was no discernible effect of transition; she was just suddenly back where she had been, in the dark outside the ruins of Leduc Manor, surrounded by her agitated loved ones and Kheshiri. This time, with no demon goddess in sight.

“Natchua!” Hesthri bawled, immediately throwing her arms around the elf’s neck and clinging to her. Jonathan was a split second behind, wrapping them both up in a hug, and despite her own agitation Natchua deliberately sank herself into their grasp. She desperately needed it right at that moment. Somewhere off to the side, Xyraadi was babbling excitedly in Glassian.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Kheshiri exclaimed after a span of seconds that was not nearly enough. “What happened? Mistress, what did she do to you? Are we going after the old bitch for Round 2?”

“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua mumbled into Hesthri’s cheek, finally raising her head to stare at the sky between the nearby pines. “Shit. Fuck a fucking… Okay, okay, don’t panic. I can use this. It’s like she said, there has to be a way I can use this against…”

“Natch, are you okay?” Jonathan asked insistently.

She was still staring at nothing, muttering to herself. “I know, I know it’s not what any of you signed on for, it’s basically the worst case… Okay, this is not a crisis. I know there has to be something…”

“Hey.” He finally released her, pulling back enough to raise her chin with one hand and bring her eyes to his. “Natchua, whatever happened, we’re here. We’ve got your back, and we will get through this. Together.”

“Yes,” Hesthri agreed, still hugging her close and pausing just long enough to press a kiss against her cheek. “Just tell us what she did, and we will deal with it.”

“Talk to us, mon amie,” Xyraadi agreed. “We are still in this fight! What did she do to you?”

Slowly, Natchua dragged her gaze around the group, making eye contact with each of them in the darkness.

“Apparently,” she said at last, “I’m the new Hand of Elilial.”

The wind whistled through the pines; in the near distance, an owl hooted disconsolately. At least there were no wolves howling.

Then Kheshiri began to laugh. In seconds she was screeching in absolute hysteria, folding herself to the ground to pound weakly at the driveway with one fist.

Melaxyna grabbed at her own face with clawed fingers, dragging them slowly down to her chin in a gesture of exasperated despair.

“Natchua, no!”

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15 – 74

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Many of his companions were deeply uncertain about the prospect of Ingvar going off into the woods alone with the Bishop of the Huntsmen, he could see it plainly on their faces. They trusted him enough not to protest overtly, though, when he gave last-minute instructions for them to finish setting up camp and hold steady until his return. For his part, Ingvar was not concerned about his safety. He trusted Andros, and it was more than just an emotional attachment. Even if the day came when the two of them were declared enemies—which was, he was forced to admit, a possibility—Andros Varanus would never do something so dishonorable as try to ambush him in the dark under cover of friendship.

Besides, they really couldn’t stroll far enough that Rainwood wouldn’t hear everything happening, and he more than suspected that at least one or two of the highly capable wilderness trackers accompanying him were going to shadow their footsteps in the darkness. If the same thought occurred to Andros, he made no outward sign.

“Huntsmen and Shadow Hunters,” Andros said suddenly after they had walked in silence till the flickering of nascent campfires was no longer visible through the trees. The darkness was nearly absolute but this was a settled and well-traveled land, a proverbial stone’s throw from a major city; in this forest, it was comfortable to walk in the dark simply by taking slow, small steps to avoid landing in rabbit holes or tripping on roots. At least for experienced woodsmen such as they. “Men and women alike. A dryad, an elf of the line of the Crow. A couple of others to whom I could put no easy label. It is… Quite an assemblage. A thing straight out of the Age of Adventures. And all these people follow you, Ingvar?”

“They follow Shaath,” he replied quietly.

Andros kept his eyes ahead in the darkness; his face, barely glimpsed by occasional beams of moonlight through the leaves, revealed nothing. “And yet, you have not brought them back to any lodge of the Huntsmen, to answer to the Grandmaster.”

Ingvar inhaled silently before answering. “Because those two things would be mutually exclusive.”

He knew even saying it that way was throwing down the gauntlet, but they were both Huntsmen; dissembling did not become them.

Yet, despite his expectations, Andos did not react as if challenged. “What makes you think so?”

“The word of Shaath himself,” Ingvar answered. “We bought him a few moments of clarity today. There were…unintended side effects.”

“I should say so,” Andros rumbled. “The world reels from your side effects, Brother.”

“The howling should be silent now, but…”

“What’s done is done. Do you know there are still riots in Shaathvar?”

“It does not surprise me,” Ingvar said softly. “There will be more, Brother. By Shaath’s will.”

The Bishop half-turned his head to look sidelong at him through the dark.

“The howling will be silent, but not the dreams. By our god’s own power, all who pray to him or invoke his name will know the truth of the wolf pack whenever they sleep.”

Andros’s burly shoulders shifted in a heavy sigh. “You should have let the old wolf sleep, Brother. It would have been kinder.”

Kinder?” Ingvar came to a stop, turning to face him directly. Andros did likewise, his deep-set eyes glinting in the dark. “He was chained. The very god of the wild, chained like a goat for slaughter! He suffered every moment of it, and all because of us. Of all of us, his loyal Huntsmen! Brother, we have been lied to.”

“Do you remember what I said to you, years ago in Tiraas?” Andros asked, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “It was the first time I took you with me to the Vidian temple. You were frustrated by all their circuitous doublespeak, as any reasonable man would be. But you understood all their underhanded implications, and were savvy enough to hold your own tongue until we were out of their earshot. I said that showed you had a knack for politics, and you took offense.”

Ingvar recalled that day well. From another man he might have called this apparent change of subject a deflection, but such was not in Andros’s nature. He did not speak unless his words were going somewhere to the point.

“You said,” he replied slowly, “that it was a sacrifice. A thing that must be done, on behalf of those who would never thank or respect those of us who saw to the Huntsmen’s political affairs. That it was only for those who could pursue what was right, in defiance of every other desire, for no better reason than because it was right. Because it was necessary, even if at times it seemed…”

He trailed to a halt in the middle of reconstructing that long-ago speech, as another layer of meaning clicked into place given the context of this conversation.

“You knew,” he breathed. “You already know. Who else? The Grandmaster?”

“What have you learned?” Andros asked.

“I believe I asked you first, Brother,” Ingvar retorted, holding onto his own poise by a thread. All this time…

“I know a number of things that you did not, when you set out on your quest,” said Andros. “Looking at you now, knowing even just hints of what you have been up to over the last year, I suspect you’ve learned many things that are unknown to me still. I am only curious how much, if anything, I still need to explain.”

“Did you know that gods can be imprisoned by belief?” Ingvar snapped. “Not just Shaath, all of them wear the chains of their own cults. But they have means of countering this effect; what is unique about Shaath is that these were turned deliberately against him. Did you know that Angthinor the Wise was a liar?”

“Ah.” Andros nodded once. “That I knew, yes. Do you know why Angthinor did what he did?”

That brought Ingvar up short, for it was the one crucial piece of the puzzle he had never been able to learn, and the one that troubled him the most. Angthinor had been a true Huntsman, in fact the very last. He had walked with Shaath, known him not only as a distant figure of reverence, but as a brother. How could he have betrayed him so?

Andros interpreted his silence as the invitation it was.

“Unique among the Huntsmen of his day, Angthinor had a broader field of vision than a simple hunter,” the Bishop said, turning and beginning to walk very slowly back the way they had come, in the general direction of the hill and the camp. Ingvar kept pace alongside, listening. “He was a healer and a scholar as well as a warden of the wild, not unlike the Shadow Hunters of today. You’ve learned much of their ways, I expect. He understood a great deal about what was happening in the world beyond his beloved forests. And most importantly, he was a man such as all Shaathist politicians have had to be ever since: one who recognized right, and necessity, and did not shirk from duties he found painful.”

“Duties,” Ingvar repeated incredulously.

“The struggle between right and wrong is easy,” Andros said evenly. “Only the most craven and pathetic fail to make that choice. A man is tested when he must choose between right and right, when the only option before him is what manner of evil must be accepted. Angthinor made his choice. I have made mine; you have made your own. Only the gods can say if we chose rightly… And, given what you say, perhaps not even them.”

“What greater evil was Angthinor avoiding by doing this?”

“As with the worst evils, one whose victims were blameless. Shaath had no part or responsibility in the travails that wracked the world in those days. Angthinor acted to correct a great imbalance kicked up by Avei, Sorash, and Arachne Tellwyrn.”

In spite of himself, Ingvar froze in surprise. Tellwyrn? He’d found her rather personable and willing to be helpful, if a bit brusque. One could well forget, meeting the woman in person, that she was a contentious figure who stood astride a wide swath of history.

“There were two gods of war in the days before Angthinor’s time,” Andros continued, drifting a bit to the south. He was either heading for the road or taking a roundabout path back to the camp. “Avei was goddess of strategy, Sorash of conquest and violence. They had other philosophical differences, of course: one the protector and champion of women, and one of men. Combined with their other aspects, they set between them the relationship between men and women that has lingered to this day. The one, seeking dominance through craft and cunning, the other through force and sheer strength of will and character. It was certainly not ideal, as it still isn’t…but it was a balance. And then Tellwyrn came along and killed Sorash.”

Andros heaved a heavy sigh, powerful enough to make his beard flutter.

“This is not well-remembered by historians. The Huntsmen have worked carefully to erase it over the centuries, leaning on the Universal Church to lean on the Nemitites, hounding the Shadow Hunters to relinquish certain accounts in their libraries. It doesn’t surprise me that you have not yet heard this account, Brother. Knowledge is not so easily wiped away; you would have found it eventually, but not within a year of looking. The remaining accounts are well buried.”

“Accounts of what?”

“Of what happens to a world when the goddess of womankind is abruptly without a rival,” Andros said bitterly. “Despite their protestations, the Avenists are not champions of gender equality. The Izarites and Vidians both embrace that principle, and you know the contempt the Sisterhood has toward them for it. You know better than most the hypocrisy of Avei’s followers. How hard they work to ease the transitions of twinsouled women, while they cast people like you out into the wild to fend for themselves.”

“I have added knowledge to my training as a Huntsman, Brother, not over-written it. I hardly need a lecture on what is wrong within the Sisterhood of Avei.”

“Then perhaps you can imagine what goes wrong with a world in which there is no check upon Avei’s excesses,” Andros rumbled. “Within a century, it was a world ruled by queens. In more nations than otherwise, a man without a wife had little to no place in society, and one with a wife needed her to make any decision governing his own household. The inciting event for Angthinor himself was being told by the circle of wise women who looked after his own village that herb lore, healing, and the chronicling of the seasons was their work, unsuited for a man. That he, a chosen champion of the wild god himself, should mind his place.”

He fell silent, teeth glinting in the moonlight as he bared them, the two of them emerging from the treeline into a clearing. Off to their right, Ingvar could see the hill with the two campfires atop, casting irregular shadows as people moved about them.

“It sounds,” he said, heading in that direction, “much like what we tell women within our faith, now.”

“And so,” Andros said, weariness weighing heavily on his voice, “there is balance again. Angthinor restored what was lost, at the expense of the god he loved most. Because objectively, his was the weakest and least significant god of the Pantheon, save only Naphthene. Because Shaath had never played a role in guiding the shape of civilizations, and thus, he could still be made to. It has not been a perfect solution, Brother. It was a choice that still deserves to be mourned. But it was made, and for good reason. And those of us who know this secret have upheld it, by the same logic. Even though we grieve the same injustice you do. We accept the chains upon our god, for those chains ensure the freedom of all mankind.”

“Do you not see, Brother?” Ingvar asked, his voice rough with emotion. “Regardless of his intentions, it was not the right choice. An injustice is not corrected by an opposite injustice!”

“And whose is the purview of justice?” Andros asked pointedly. “Even the Avenists will not let one person be both judge and prosecutor. To whom can you appeal for justice when the source of justice itself is the source of your oppression? All that could be done was to push back against her.”

“Perhaps that was true, then,” Ingvar breathed. “But today, Brother, the world has changed.”

“Indeed, you might well have made all this thoroughly moot.”

“I don’t mean that. Hours ago I stood with a host of warriors from all across this Empire and beyond while Elilial formally surrendered to the Pantheon. And, as a last parting shot, revealed to all of us exactly how to kill a god.”

Andros stopped walking, turning to face him, his bushy eyebrows rising in a mute question.

“A god can be destroyed when they are severed from their aspect,” Ingvar said, meeting his stare intently. “Do you understand what this means, Andros? Angthinor did not thwart Avei; he squandered the only chance to punish her tyranny for good. If her aspects are called into conflict with one another, she can finally be hurt. If she devotes herself to injustice and will not recant, even Avei can be made to pay the price.”

Andros was silent, his eyes now narrowed in thought. Ingvar watched him consider it quietly for long moments, until finally the Bishop turned and mutely resumed walking, this time heading straight for the camp.

“Veisroi intends to call a Wild Hunt against you,” he said abruptly after a dozen steps. “I convinced him to hold off until I could try to persuade you. I gather, Brother, that you have no intention of turning away from the path you’ve chosen.”

“I am not Angthinor,” Ingvar stated, “and this is not Angthinor’s world. My choice is simply between right and wrong. I stand with Shaath and with the truth. I will not be swayed by threats.”

“If you were,” Andros said, nodding, “that would be the first thing in all of this that would make me think less of you, Brother.”

They passed through the last of the trees ringing the hill and began climbing its bare sides back to the campsite, curious faces already gathering to watch them come.

“You must know—even the Grandmaster must—that getting rid of me would not make this end,” Ingvar said as they ascended the last few yards. “The dreams will not stop. The truth can no longer be suppressed, Brother. Veisroi can try to scapegoat us if he wants, but it will only add to his problems.”

“Perhaps,” Andros mused, coming to a halt at the edge of the firelight. “But remember, Ingvar, that Veisroi is both hunter and politician. He too clever to destroy you outright. So long as he has you to point at and call enemy, he believes he can maintain his grip on the Huntsmen.”

“And on you?” Ingvar asked quietly.

There was silence, as Andros met his gaze for several seconds, then turned his head to look around at Ingvar’s assembled followers. Finally, he turned back to Ingvar directly and inclined his head, once.

“I wish you good fortune, Ingvar. Whatever else must come between us in the future, you have nothing but my highest respect. To me, you shall always be a Brother. And truly, I hope that you succeed.”

“But,” Ingvar said softly, “you will not join us?”

Slowly, Andros shook his head. “The world you seek to make is a better one, a world I would very much like to live in. But even with all you have gathered to your cause, I do not believe you can succeed. You are not the first, and will not be the last. There are many things I have seen in the hidden archives which convince me your cause is doomed. I will mourn you, Ingvar, when you fall, as I would any brother of mine. But I must remain behind to ensure the world does not fall with you.”

Ingvar let out a soft sigh. “The world has already changed, Brother. Truth can no longer be fought as it has been in the past. Veisroi does not understand this, and that is why he will fail.”

“Warn your friends, the Shadow Hunters,” Andros advised. “If the Grandmaster cannot rally enough support against you to suit him, they make a very convenient target.”

“They are called the Rangers,” said Ingvar, “and it is time for the Huntsmen to address them as such. I know it is convenient for the Grandmaster to have a mocking epithet to throw at them, and so that is the first of his weapons I shall take away. From now on, we are the Shadow Hunters, and it’s a name he and his followers will come to fear.”

Andros nodded once, then held out his hand. One last time, Ingvar clasped it in his own.

“My fortune smile on your hunts, Brother,” Andros said.

“Walk in peace with the wild, Brother,” Ingvar replied.

Then Andros released him, and with no more ado, turned and strode back down the hill, heading for the road.

“So…we’re the Shadow Hunters now?” Taka asked skeptically once the Bishop had disappeared into the trees. “I’ve gotta say, it sounds a little… What’s the word? Contrived? Melodramatic?”

“Pompous,” November suggested.

“I’d just have gone with ‘silly,’” Tholi grunted.

“I was hoping we’d be the Wardens,” Dimbi added. “That’s got a ring to it!”

“Oh, I kinda like that one,” Aspen agreed.

“Well, the Rangers have carried both names for centuries and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm,” Ingvar said with a thin smile, still watching the point where Andros had disappeared into the darkness. “Labels can be weapons, as I just said. Just because we’re confiscating one of Veisroi’s doesn’t mean we have to take it to heart.”

“Don’t listen to the naysayers, Ingvar, I thought you handled that very well.”

There was a general yelling and scattering as everyone whirled to face the person in the middle of their camp who had definitely not been there a moment ago. Even the wolves fled, whining and circling around behind their two-legged companions.

The reaction of spirit wolves was the only indication of anything fundamentally wrong, aside from the fact that they all recognized her. Unlike her previous performance in Ninkabi, she had no towering presence or metaphysical weight, no aura pressing down on their consciousness. She was just a lone woman, albeit one with dusky crimson skin, horns, and hooves.

Tholi nocked an arrow and drew it back, taking aim straight at her heart.

“I’m curious, Tholi,” Elilial said in a pleasant tone, “and this is a serious question, no fooling. Suppose you shot me with an arrow. What do you think would happen next?”

Tholi’s expression took on a sickly cast as he found himself in the classic dilemma of either losing face by backing down or starting a fight he had no prayer of winning. Generally, Ingvar preferred to let young men get themselves out of that crevice and learn the hard way not to get back in it, but this was no time to take risks.

“Don’t waste your arrows, Tholi,” he said, stepping in front of the young man and directing his gaze at the queen of demons. “What do you want?”

“Why, the same thing I always want,” she said lightly. “To use you in my schemes. Pay attention, everybody, I’m going to teach you a trick.”

“No, thank you,” Ingvar said firmly. “We want nothing to do with infernal craft.”

“Oh, good heavens, no,” Elilial replied, grimacing. “Can you even imagine? The last thing this poor beleaguered world needs is more unprepared fools playing around in Scyllith’s toolbox. No, if you lot take to dabbling in infernomancy—and seriously, don’t—you won’t learn about it from me. On the contrary, I think you’ll find this rather wholesome. Why don’t you come over here, little friend?”

This last was not directed to him, but off to the side. Ingvar followed her gaze to behold a bobbing ball of cyan light drifting closer at her urging.

“Me?” the pixie chimed uncertainly.

“No need to be shy,” Elilial said, beckoning him and smiling. “I wanna show you something. Are you up for a little game?”

“Ooh! I like games!” All his hesitation abruptly gone, the pixie shot forward, swirling eagerly around her.

“That’s the spirit!” she said cheerfully. “Now, I’m pretty sure this is a game you’ve already played, but personally, I never get bored with it. Everybody stand back, we’re gonna have another round of Destroy the Demon!”

She held out one hand, palm up, and clenched it into a fist, and just like that, a sulfur-reeking rift opened on the ground for a split second, just long enough to discharge a snarling khankredahg demon.

Again, everyone except Ingvar and Aspen retreated, most shouting in alarm, but Elilial just pointed at the snapping brute even as it whirled on her. “Go get ‘im!”

“Yay!” the pixie cried happily and zipped forward, stunning the khankredahg with a miniature arc of lightning.

In the next moment, he was swirling eagerly around the demon, siphoning away magic and making the increasingly frantic creature shrivel right before their eyes.

“Surprising little creatures, pixies,” Elilial said to Ingvar and the others while watching this macabre spectacle. “Some of the most vicious predators in existence. They mostly eat each other, but… I don’t know what that screwloose firecracker Jacaranda did differently this time, but the pixies she made today aren’t culling one another like her previous batches did. In fact, though I haven’t yet looked closely enough to ascertain how, I’m pretty sure there are more of them than there were this afternoon. Even so, an awful lot of those out there already have a taste for demon, and their instincts compel them to go straight for the kill.”

“What exactly are you suggesting to us?” Ingvar asked, beginning to suspect he already knew.

“They didn’t get every demon,” Elilial said, sourly twisting her mouth. “Mostly just mine. The ones that fled Ninkabi were the others, the invaders I was trying to mop up. Hundreds made it out and are spreading in all directions. Most won’t last long; the Empire and the Pantheon cults are actively hunting them, and there are also lots of wild pixies hereabouts. But quite a few are good at keeping themselves hidden. Something has to be done about that.

“My Black Wreath have always served the purpose of cleaning up stray demons and warlocks on the mortal plane, but as of today, the Black Wreath functionally does not exist. Someone has to pick up the slack. So the question is, Ingvar: is your struggle with the Huntsmen going to be a purely political one, and purely for the sake of putting yourself in power instead of Veisroi? Because I certainly won’t judge you if so; it goes without saying I have no respect for that guy. But on the other hand, if you want your little reform movement to stand for something more…” She gestured languidly. “There’s work to be done. There are demons to slay, there are perfect shiny attack dogs fluttering around all over just waiting to be tamed and put to work, and now you know how easy that is. If you wanna get a head start on making a name for yourself, you know what to do.”

“I don’t trust you,” he said flatly.

“Well, obviously,” she replied, grinning. “I wouldn’t be bothering with you if you were an idiot. All I can promise you here is that I’m not asking you for anything and you won’t be hearing from me again. If you want to take up the charge against the demons, that’ll suit my purposes splendidly. If not, I’ll find somebody else. Think it over, Shadow Hunters. Hm.” She screwed her face up pensively. “You know, now that you pointed it out, that name does seem a little overwrought. Ah, well, that’s your business, not mine. I have another urgent appointment tonight, so I won’t keep you any longer. Good hunting!”

She snapped her fingers and vanished in an entirely unnecessary shower of crimson sparks.

“It’s a trap,” Tholi said immediately.

“How?” Taka demanded.

“Aw, is she gone?” the pixie chimed, drifting over toward them. Behind him was nothing but a patch of charcoal where the demon had apparently been drained of every spark of its life essence. “Shoot, now how’ll I know if I won?”

“It sure looks to me like you did,” Ingvar said with a smile. “What’s your name, little friend?”

“Name?” The pixie zipped about in a tight circle as if momentarily agitated. “I dunno, I’ve never thought about it. I don’t think pixies have names.”

“I know one who does,” Ingvar said gravely. “Everyone deserves a name.”

“You think so? Well, that sounds pretty neat! What should my name be?”

“Names are serious business,” said Ingvar. “We should talk for a bit, and think about it. Your name is important and we don’t want to rush it. Would you like to stay here with us tonight?”

“Well sure!” the little fairy chimed. “I like you people! And your wolves are fluffy and shiny, my two favorite things!”

“Um,” Rainwood cleared his throat. “That appears to be a lightning pixie. Just saying…”

“Yes, please refrain from zapping anybody,” Ingvar requested.

“Well, sure, I wouldn’t do that. It seems to hurt people. You guys are my friends!”

“Yay,” Aspen deadpanned.

“Let’s get some rest while we can,” Ingvar said, turning to the others. “I will take the first watch, along with our new friend here. We’ll try to talk quietly. Everyone sleep fast and hard, for dawn comes early. And with it, we hunt.”


The eldritch shadows departed and it wasn’t a whole lot brighter in their absence, except behind and far below them where the lights of Veilgrad extended out into the prairie from the foot of the mountains.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi groaned, gazing up the path at the dim shape of Leduc Manor. “Look how much more uphill there is! Natchua, we really must rebuild the ward network so we can shadow-jump directly in.”

“It’s on the to-do list,” Natchua assured her, patting Hesthri’s back. The hethelax leaned against her for a moment, but said nothing. She had been quiet since her and Jonathan’s conversation with Gabriel, and Natchua was torn between wanting to know exactly what had happened and not wanting to rip open any more scars tonight. “Well, standing here groaning isn’t getting us to bed any faster.”

She set off up the path, and everyone followed. Neither succubus took flight, though they could have made it to the house in seconds; Natchua suspected they just weren’t emotionally capable of passing up any crowd that might be a source of juicy gossip.

“Natchua,” Xyraadi said suddenly, her voice more serious, “now that we are… Well, now that it’s over, I am thinking very seriously of taking Lieutenant Locke up on her offer. I do not know how to not be fighting. And it would be good to work with the Sisterhood again. That Trissiny Avelea impresses me greatly; she is already a much wiser paladin than Trouchelle ever was.”

“I think that sounds like a good use for your abilities,” Natchua said with a smile. “You certainly don’t need my permission to do anything, you know. I appreciate you letting me know, though.”

“Of course, I would not abandon a friend and ally without a word.”

“I think that was a shot at you, Mel,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

“Cheap, tiresome, low-hanging fruit,” Melaxyna replied in a bored tone. “Bring your A-game or don’t talk to me at all.”

Xyraadi glanced back at the succubi momentarily. “I mention it also because I thought you might consider the offer yourself, Natchua. You, and any of us here.”

“I…” Natchua hesitated, looking at Jonathan. “I never thought about…”

“The idea has its good and bad points,” he mused. “It would be something to do. I have to say, I’m startled to find this whole campaign of ours over. I thought for sure that’d only happen over everybody’s dead body.”

“Hence why I mention it,” Xyraadi agreed. “A sudden lack of purpose is bad for the spirit, take it from one who knows. I am not saying you have to do what I do, but it is a possibility to consider.”

“Hard pass,” said Kheshiri. “I’ve done all the work under priests I care to, and the last Avenist I met was gibbering batshit insane.”

“You’ll do as you’re told,” Natchua said automatically. “And I…will consider it. But just to reiterate: not one of you—except Kheshiri, whose ass I own—is beholden to me. I brought you all out here to do something, and… Well, to my surprise as much as anyone’s, it’s done now.”

“I will go where you go, pretty one,” Hesthri said, slipping and arm around her waist.

“Same goes,” Jonathan chuckled and pressed against the hethelax’s other side. He was sufficiently larger than them that he managed to drape his own arm around both her shoulders and Natchua’s.

“Yes, there’s also that,” Melaxyna said lightly. “It’s been good to put on my dusty old Izarite hat after all these centuries. I have a lot of work still to do, making a functioning person out of Sherwin. And I confess, I might not have encouraged the three of you to have a go at it if I’d known you weren’t all going to die within a few days.”

“Excuse me?!” Natchua exclaimed.

“You took relationship advice from the succubus?” Jonathan added incredulously.

Hesthri gently poked a chitin-armored elbow into his ribs. “You weren’t complaining when she had her mouth—”

“Public!” he interrupted, jostling her.

“From the good succubus,” Natchua clarified.

“Do you mean good as in morally, or as in superior?” Kheshiri demanded. “Because you’re wrong either way, but I do like things to be clear.”

“Oh, not to worry,” Melaxyna chirped, waving her tail happily. “You three are a surprisingly stable unit, for a tripod. A bit more guidance and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make this work as long as you like with no further help. Trust me, I’m a professional.”

“And yet,” Xyraadi murmured, “not even the weirdest group of friends I have ever had.”

They topped the last rise in the path and slowed to a stop, finding Lord Sherwin himself sitting on the front steps of the manor amid all the construction materials despite the late hour.

“Sherwin?” Natchua asked as he jumped to his feet. “What are you still doing up?”

“Natch, everybody,” he said urgently. “The hobs are already hiding—you’d better get out of here before she—”

The manor’s doors burst open, and framed within them, backlit but a halo of seething orange flame, stood Elilial.

“There you are, you little beast,” she said, pointing one clawed finger at Natchua. “I want a word with you.”

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15 – 73

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A hand came to rest on Toby’s shoulder and gave him a gentle shake.

“Yep, I had a feeling a whole city full of people in need would bring this out. Do we need to go have The Talk, Toby, or are you gonna go eat something and rest without having to be carried?”

“Hi, Gabe,” Toby said without looking up. “Your concern for my well-being is noted. And it’d carry more weight if you hadn’t just ambushed me from behind while I’m working with a knife.”

“I’ll admit it, I’m willing to play a little rougher with you than with people who can’t twist me into a sailor knot one-handed. The heck kind of potato is this?” Gabriel added, stepping up alongside Toby and picking up one of the tubers he was slicing.

“They’re taro,” he said, pushing the slices he’d just made into the pot next to his cutting board and taking the root from Gabriel’s hand to begin cutting it up. “They grow in the northern Tidestrider isles and Onkawa. Apparently they’re a delicacy this far south, and a whole bunch were just donated, so in the stew they go.”

“Seriously, man,” Gabriel said, leaning forward over the table to catch Toby’s eye. “If you’re already back here doing this instead of out there laying hands on the injured, I know you must be feeling the burnout. For the umpteenth time, you can help fewer people if you exhaust yourself trying.”

“You’re a good friend, Gabe,” Toby said, smiling and continuing to chop. “But no, I’m… This is something different. The priestess in the trauma camp said things were under control and gave us that exact speech, sent all the light-wielders away to rest up for tomorrow. I do like to be helpful, but right now I have some stuff on my mind and doing repetitive tasks in relative quiet helps me think.”

Relative was the key word; Toby had set himself up in an improvised pantry attached to an equally improvised kitchen, where vegetable stew and flatbread were being prepared on portable arcane ranges and hastily-built brick ovens for the overnight shift of relief workers who’d just arrived fresh from Viridill and Jennidira. Being in a large canvas tent, there wasn’t much in the way of sound protection, just chest-high barriers of crates walling off this corner. They could see and hear everything outside, but it was a little island of semi-solitude amid the bustle of the aid workers’ camp.

“Oh, yeah.” Gabriel started to lean against the table, then immediately backed away when it shifted under his weight. “I have been asked to relay a loud complaint to Omnu via you about messing in valkyrie business. Personally, I’m quite happy how all that went down, but, y’know. I did promise to pass it along. I don’t suppose this is related to…?”

“Yeah,” Toby said quietly, eyes on his work. “That wasn’t Omnu. It was me.”

The soft, rhythmic swish and thunk of the knife going through taro into the cutting board filled the few seconds of silence.

“You can raise the dead now?” Gabriel finally asked in a very careful tone.

“Of course not. But Omnu can. He’s a god, why wouldn’t he be able to? He just won’t. Ordinarily.”

“There are…a lot of really good reasons for that, Toby. Death is one of those things that can’t play favorites.”

“You don’t need to explain to me why death is important to life. Everything lives because something else dies. You think these taro plants wanted to be yanked out of the ground and chopped up for stew? The balance has to be respected or it will break. No death, no life. I get it.” He swept the slices into the pot and picked up another root. “And there’s a lot else that was wrong with that, too. It turns out that with the combination of Omnu stepping in to handle a crisis with a holy nova, some basic meditative techniques of mindful awareness, and the knowledge of how gods and their consciousness actually works… I can pretty much take over. Make him do whatever I want him to do.”

He sliced up two more taro roots before Gabriel spoke again.

“Maybe you really shouldn’t be doing that.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Toby said with a sigh. “Good gods, do I not want that kind of power, or the responsibility that goes with it. It’s easy enough to just say I won’t do it again, but… Omnu only steps in that way when the need is extreme, and in a crisis, with me already knowing how… I honestly can’t swear I’d never think it was necessary again. But you know what?”

He brought down the knife harder than before, almost like a cleaver, taking off a large chunk from the top of the next root. Gabriel glanced down at it, then back up at Toby’s face.

“I am not sorry,” Toby said, quietly but with fierce emphasis. “People were dead, and now they aren’t. My friends were gone, and now they’re back. Even knowing that was a bad idea and a wrong thing to do, even being scared of what it means, I have zero regrets. If anything… My entire spiritual journey over the last few years has been learning what it actually means to be peaceful, but not passive. How it’s necessary to act, how the way of peace means finding gentle means to impose your will, not being free from the responsibility to do something. And Omnu? He doesn’t even talk to me. We go on an absurd quest and meet half the Pantheon, and never a peep from him. I ritually invoke him to seek his advice and all I get are warm fuzzy feelings. If I don’t get to sit around meditating and growing vegetables like I was raised to want, why should he? Who should be taking more responsibility and more action than a god?”

Toby finally set down the knife entirely and planted his palms on the cutting board, bracketing it and the half-chopped root. He stared down at them, seeing something far away.

“When it all comes down to it, I find I resent Omnu. Never mind regret, I feel vindicated. And that… That’s pretty alarming, Gabe. I feel like I’m at the beginning of a road that goes places I know I don’t want to go, but I’m not sure if I can actually turn around anymore.”

Gabriel rested a hand on his shoulder again, silently.

“Thanks for listening,” Toby said, finally looking up at him with a wan smile. “Look… I wanna work and chew on my thoughts for a while to sort this out. Would you mind being an ear again, later, when I have more of a handle on it?”

“Absolutely,” Gabriel said immediately. “I mean, not at all. I mean, you know what I mean. I get it, this has been a day of heavy stuff and as much as I kind of hate myself for the selfishness of it, it’s pretty helpful having all this work to run around doing while it processes. Just had a chat with my parents that was even more revelatory than the fact of them being here, and…” He hesitated, looking past Toby at something just outside the tent. “And what timing, looks like the next item on my agenda just showed up.”

“Wait, did you say parents?” Toby looked up at him, blinking. “Plural?”

“Yeah, that’s gonna be another of those conversations.” Gabriel patted his shoulder. “You gonna be okay here for now, then?”

“Yeah, I’ve got food to prepare and a space to think, that’s all I need. You?”

“This is gonna get more awkward before it gets less so,” Gabriel said with a sigh, finally tearing his gaze from what had been holding it outside the kitchen tent to give Toby a wry grimace. “We can both have that long talk once everything’s a bit more settled.”

“It’s a date,” Toby said, smiling. “Don’t forget to get some rest tonight.”

“Goes double for you.”

He went back to chopping roots in peace while Gabriel navigated his way around the stacks of boxes, skirting the edge of the open tent so as not to interfere with the people cooking, and stepped out of the glow of its fairy lamps into the relative dimness of Ninkabi’s front square. Most of the streetlamps had been destroyed what with one thing and another, but various temporary sources of light both magical and burning were set up around the centers of activity, and the towering willow Khadizroth had planted in the very stones glowed in the darkness with a soothing blue-green radiance.

“Natchua,” he said, striding up to where she was hovering outside the kitchen tent, “I want a word with you.”

The drow actually winced. In stark contrast to her usual demeanor, she looked fidgety and nervous, and now seemingly afraid to meet his gaze, despite having clearly come here specifically to seek him out.

“Gabe,” she said, pausing to swallow heavily. “So, uh, Jonathan tells me you’ve had…a…conversation.”

“It was barely an introduction,” he said tersely, strolling off into the dimness between two tents and leaving her to follow. “There is a shit ton of stuff that urgently needs doing in this city and no time for the in-depth conversation that’s gonna need to be. So, I know the basics, and then we all went to help out where we could.”

“Right.” She followed him to a quieter and dimmer space behind the row of service tents, up against one side of the old trading hall, and there he stopped. Natchua drew in a deep breath and deliberately straightened her back. “Well. Look, all this is—”

“You know what, I really don’t think I’m ready to talk about ‘all this’ just yet,” he interrupted. “I wanted to ask you about something else.”

“I…yeah, sure,” she said, lowering her eyes. “Fair. I know you don’t like me, so…”

Gabriel sighed quietly. “I always liked you, Natch.”

She looked up again, blinking rapidly. “Wait. Really?”

“I dunno how subtle you thought you were being with that ‘edgy angry deep drow’ act but in all honesty it was amazingly obvious to everyone on campus that you were grappling with serious issues of your own. Issues of upbringing and heritage that caused you to act like an ass to everyone you met. Believe me, I can relate to that. I always figured, you and I could have some great conversations once you’d figured out some of your stuff and were ready to. But then you were gone, so…” He shrugged.

Natchua was staring at him with her mouth slightly open. “You…never said anything.”

“You know, most people aren’t Chase Masterson,” he replied acerbically. “If you lash out at everybody who approaches you, they will very quickly learn not to bother. Even I figured that out immediately, and let’s face it, I’ve never been the most socially astute person.”

She dropped her gaze again. “Well, ouch. And fair. I just… Look, I never meant for any of this to happen, I just—”

“Omnu’s breath, I just said I don’t wanna talk about it,” he exclaimed. “I just said that! Okay, you know what, fuck it, fine, let’s rip off that scab. I get it, okay? Every sexual relationship I’ve ever had took me by surprise. Life is complicated, and shit just happens. It pretty much hurts just to exist most of the time and you have to grab whatever happiness you can find because the gods only know when there’ll be any more. You may be a sketchy weirdo, but I trust my dad to know what he’s doing, probably more than anyone else in the world. And even if he doesn’t, a girlfriend half his age is the kind of mistake the guy’s more than earned. Eighteen years of being solely responsible for me can’t have been easy. I understand, Natchua. I’m not mad at you, or him; if anything I’m a lot more concerned about that demon than I am about you. But it’s weird, all right? This is fucking weird, and I have had zero time to process it, and I am not ready for this conversation. Okay?”

Natchua’s mouth had fallen open again, but she finally shut it with an audible snap before saying in a much more level tone, “That demon is your own—”

“She’s nothing to me,” he said curtly. “My dad obviously sees something in her and his opinion counts for a lot, so… I will give that a chance. But whatever there is between Hester and me is in the future. All I know right now is what it’s like in Hell and what kind of person survives there.”

“Hesthri,” Natchua corrected, “and she’s something to me right now. I don’t need you to like her but you need to refrain from insulting her in front of me.”

Gabriel hesitated, then let out a surprised little bark of laughter. “Well, fair enough, you’re right. My apologies. But anyway, if we can finally refrain from having this conversation I keep telling you I’m not up for, I wanted to talk to you about something else in particular.”

“Well, sure,” she said more hesitantly. “What do you need?”

“As I understand it, your whole deal is you have basically all the knowledge of applied infernomancy, right?”

“All of the Elilinist tradition,” she said warily. “The Scyllithenes have other methods, and there are demon-only spells I know but can’t actually use without blowing myself up. None of it was my idea, either, and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you stay out of infernal magic. I can attest that it brings nothing but trouble.”

“I was recently informed,” he said, “by a source I would consider extremely knowledgeable but dubiously trustworthy, that there’s a method by which I could channel my own hethelax blood to form a kind of mental screen against telepathy.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes in thought. “Blocking telepathy? Well… Yes, actually, and it would barely constitute infernomancy. Hethelaxi already passively channel the magic in their blood into an intermittent berserk state; the trick is using mental discipline to control that, create a sort of wall of pure rage and aggression that surrounds your mind and blocks any efforts to peer into it without affecting your thoughts. Actually, that should be a lot easier for you than for any other full or half-hethelax, what with the divine magic you’re also carrying. And whatever knowledge of Vidian mental techniques you’ve picked up, even I know the higher practices of that are all about cultivating two different mental states at once.”

“Not…exactly,” he murmured, also frowning pensively, “but close enough. Although… I don’t think that would work. I’m talking about a powerful telepath, someone capable of penetrating any mental defense.”

“Telepathy, actual telepathy, is usually divine magic,” she said warily. “Exactly what or who are you worried about trying to read your mind?”

“This is paladin stuff, Natchua. Trust me, the less you know, the better.”

“Gabriel…”

“I’m serious, it’s not something you need to be involved with. If that means you can’t help me, then… Well, okay, I’ll look somewhere else.”

“No,” she said quickly, “no, I think I’d rather you ask me. At least I won’t try to trick you into something dangerous, and most people who know infernal magic would. All right, so you can’t just block telepathy; there actually is another way, using a variant of the same method. It’s considerably more difficult, though.”

“I’m all ears.”

“You’d still be using the firewall defense, sort of. Except instead of a blank surface of pure emotion forcibly keeping people out, you’re cultivating a superficial layer of false thought. The idea is that anyone peering into your mind will see what looks like you reacting predictably to whatever’s going on around you, and so they don’t bother to look any deeper. So your real thoughts remain hidden by subtlety rather than brute force.”

“I see what you mean,” he murmured. “That sounds like it’d be a lot of work to set up. But…it might just work.”

“It’s a tricky habit to cultivate,” she agreed, nodding. “Like I said, you’re probably in a better position to do this than basically anyone, but you’re still looking at some major mental discipline. Expect a lot of time spent in meditation and thought exercises. I can show you the initial method, but after that point, you’ll probably get better help from Toby and Shaeine when it comes to disciplining your mind to do this without you having to constantly focus on it. Um… How soon are you expecting to need to use it?”

“No idea,” he admitted. “But when it comes to preparedness, getting started sooner is always better than later.”

“And when it comes to getting the drop on somebody with greater knowledge than you, all you need is one moment of surprise,” she said, nodding. “All right… Let’s go find a place to sit down and I’ll walk you through it.”

“Perfect, I know a cleared-out alley just over here. C’mon.” He turned and headed off, skirting the side of the trading hall, and Natchua followed.

“Whatever you’re into, just be careful,” she said primly after a moment. “You know how your father and I worry.”

Gabriel slammed to a halt and turned, fixing her with a flat stare.

Natchua tried for a grin, which gradually melted into a pained grimace under his silent gaze.

“Right,” she said eventually. “We’re not there yet.”

Very slowly, he raised his eyebrows.

“…we’re not going to get there, are we.”

“Just shut up and walk, Natchua.”


Naturally, when it came time to rest, they had retreated from the city. Ninkabi remained such a buzzing hive of activity even after full dark that it had taken nearly an hour of walking to reach a site the pack felt was sufficiently wild to let them relax. Ingvar selected a bare hilltop, as they were not trying to conceal their presence, since it afforded a good view both of the city and the nearby highway leading to its gates. It would not do to be snuck up on by any new turn of events, given the many surprises that had come over the last few days.

Elder Shiraki had remained inside the walls, stating that he could put off fatigue for several days more and would not fail to lend his aid when so many needed help. Rainwood remained with them, though.

“What do you make of that,” Ingvar asked the shaman while others behind them wearily but efficiently set up two campfires for the whole group to huddle around. He had helped gather wood, and watched long enough to satisfy himself that the groups were not separating again. To his satisfaction, Huntsmen and Rangers continued to mingle, along with the more disparate members of his own party. Even the wolves showed no hesitation and were now all flopped down and snoring amid their human pack. It had been a long day for them, as well.

Now, he and Rainwood were watching tiny colored lights dancing in the darkness all around. As they looked on, a trio of them—pale blue, green, and orange—buzzed close and then began circumnavigating the base of their hill, chiming happily all the while.

“This is going to shake some things up,” Rainwood mused, studying the pixies. “It’s probably for the best that they all left the city, but… Look at them, spreading out in every direction. They’ll be all over the West in weeks, and gods only know what’ll happen when they get into Athan’Khar. I suspect they’ll be welcomed in the east; lots of witches in Viridill, descended from refugees who settled there after the Enchanter Wars.”

“My impression today has been that they are generally not like Fross from Last Rock. They seem… Childlike. Almost dangerously so.”

“No almost about it,” the elf said gravely. “They are notoriously simple-minded and playful, and for beings that spew pure elemental energy, that could be dangerous. Fortunately they’ll probably avoid human civilization, since enchantments have become so prevalent and they won’t like to be near arcane magic. That’s probably why they left Ninkabi once the demons were all taken care of. No, I think the biggest impact this is going to have is on the practice of fae magic. There are Viridi witches and elvish groves to the east, and Tidestrider wavespeakers to the west. Pixies have always been among the most sought-after familiars a shaman could have; the sheer power they supply is infinite, the most direct line to Naiya that’s available to mortals. It’s bottlenecked a bit by how much they can channel at any one time, but… It used to be if you wanted a pixie familiar you had to go through the Deep Wild, which was very likely to kill you, and into the Pixie Queen’s grove, which was almost certain to kill you, befriend one, and then get back out through more Deep Wild with a loud fairy in tow guaranteed to attract everything that even might want to kill you. It was only the rare and already powerful who pulled that off. Now, suddenly, there’ll be dozens, hundreds of practitioners with pixie familiars. I can’t even begin to guess how this will change things.”

“Change is constant,” Ingvar murmured. “We don’t have to like it, we just have to embrace it, or be crushed beneath its feet.”

“Cheerful,” Rainwood said dryly. “Hm… I wasn’t sure before, but I think the person coming toward us from the highway is heading for us deliberately.”

“Person?” Ingvar asked. Behind him, several heads were raised at that, and Aspen and Tholi came forward to join them. “Well, we are setting up camp on a hilltop. I can imagine people would be curious.”

“Not many people are out being curious in the middle of the night, near a recently-attacked city,” said Tholi. “Not people with good intentions, anyway.”

“I mention it because I’m pretty sure he was tracking us specifically,” said Rainwood. “And that’s suggestive. This group leaves a very distinctive trail.”

“So it does,” Ingvar murmured. “Well, then. If we are to have a guest, let’s be hospitable. Dimbi, November, would you please set aside a portion of that flatbread for a visitor?”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Dimbi snorted. “Set the women to do the homemaking. Gonna revert to tradition after all, Ingvar?”

He turned to give her a wry look. “I made a request of the two people who are carrying the food. But if you’re going to make an issue of it, I can have Tholi take over.”

Dimbi laughed at him, already obligingly laying out another portion of dried meat and fruit on a spare piece of flatbread.

“Thank you,” Ingvar said politely.

It was a wait of only a few more minutes before the single traveler came into view of human eyes, lit by the firelight. Ingvar began to have an odd certainty who was coming, even before he drew close enough to reveal his bearded visage, or the traditional Huntsman’s regalia he wore.

“Brother Andros,” Tholi exclaimed in surprise.

“Tholi,” the Bishop of Shaath rumbled, pausing to study him up and down. “So this is where you ran off to. Well, I am glad to see you in good company.”

“Welcome, Brother,” Ingvar said, stepping forward and offering a hand.

Andros Varanus came the rest of the way, holding his gaze, and clasped his offered wrist in the traditional manner. “Ingvar. It is good to see you, as well. I had begun to fear that I never would, again.”

“Another Huntsman?” Taka asked, peering critically at the new arrival. “You missed all the fun.”

“Taka, don’t be rude,” Aspen admonished, earning an incredulous stare in response.

“Indeed,” Andros agreed, releasing Ingvar’s hand and turning to frown in the direction of Ninkabi. “She speaks an awkward truth. While the whole world reacted to dire threats and met a foe against whom my skills as a Huntsman would have been sorely needed, I was stuck in Tiraas, dealing with magical and political affairs, and only arrived here after it is long settled. It is a sobering moment, when a man is forced to recognize exactly the kind of useless old man he will one day become.”

“That’s needlessly grim, Brother,” said Ingvar with a small smile. “I’ve learned, somewhat against my will, that one is never too old to change when the need for change becomes severe enough.”

“Yes,” Andros said evenly, turning back to him. “Yes, I understand you have learned a great deal since you set out on your vision quest. We have begun to hear word in Tiraas, already, of the changes you bring.”

“Awkward truths,” Ingvar agreed softly.

Andros held his eyes again, studying him closely, then nodded once. “Walk with me in the forest, Brother. There are things we must discuss.”

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