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This is a post to notify people following the blog that the previous advance chapter has been unlocked for the public; the new advance chapter will be posted directly on my Patreon page.  I’m moving to this system because the password routine was causing confusion and breaking RSS for everybody.  Sorry about that, I’m still working out the best way to go about all this.

I apologize for missing Friday; last week ended with a minor medical emergency, but following a very brief hospital visit I’m working on a prescription and doing much better.  And as a heads up, my roommate and I are moving apartments over the course of this week.  I will try to get the chapters up on time regardless, but be aware that future schedule disruptions are quite possible.  Join up with my discord server to keep appraised of updates as they happen.

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Rasha sat down on the end of the cot. There was plenty of room, its occupant being a dwarf; Rogrin’s shoulders both bulged over the sides but his feet didn’t come near the end. Then again, it was a conjured prop placed there by a literal god, so its properties were probably whatever they needed to be. That’d explain why it not only held up to a solid dwarf worth of weight plus hers, but remained completely stable on the uneven snow when she plunked down.

Thinking about nonsense like that was a welcome reprieve.

The Archpope, his surviving non-sacrificed lackeys, and his horrifying new creation did not linger. She paid enough attention to note that Rector was their teleportation specialist, and he wasn’t even a mage; apparently the equipment back at the Cathedral connected to his handheld device included a rapid transit function. Which itself was worth knowing, as to the best of Rasha’s awareness enchanted machines that could perform a teleportation were far beyond the current state of the art. At any rate, that seemed important enough that she managed to dully make a note of it despite the numb sensation that had settled over her after what she had just witnessed.

At any rate, in just a few more minutes, they were gone back whence they had come, which was a relief. She needed to think.

“Keystone souls,” Rasha whispered, then continued, her voice growing stronger as she worked through thoughts out loud, the process helping to regain her equilibrium. “So…he needs one of those per…Angelus. Imbued with the Pantheon’s power and then cut off from their attention? By the sound of it, any Pantheon priest who’s been personally excommunicated by their god. Okay. Okay, that’s…that’s good. That can’t be a common occurrence, so that puts a limit on how many of those things he can make, even beyond…” She trailed off and swallowed heavily. “Gods in pants. Uh, no offense.”

“None taken!”

“How many brainwashed soldiers could he possibly have?”

“The Holy Legion aren’t brainwashed,” Eserion said idly, now leaning one shoulder against the rock outcropping Schwartz had made last year, apparently perfectly at ease. “Just recruited and groomed with exacting care. That’s also significant, y’know. Justinian’s dabbled in real brainwashing, too—that’s what happened to those poor Tide bastards he threw at his problems with all the care of a man upending a bucket of crabs. No, I reckon his Angelus thingumajig requires willing and cognizant souls to power it.”

“But…not the keystone soul,” Rasha mumbled, frowning at nothing. “Lanora was dead, and even if she hadn’t been… I fancy I have a decent grasp of that woman’s flaws, and I can’t see her as the type to sacrifice herself for…something like that.”

“A good point,” the god agreed.

Rasha straightened up suddenly. “Wait a second… A divinely excommunicated priest, who doesn’t even need to be loyal? He’s already got Basra Syrinx squirreled away in that Cathedral! If this was their prototype attempt, why was it so important to come all the way out here in the snow and risk exposure, not to mention reversing time, just to get Lanora? That Rector guy made it sound like they were taking a lot of risks by doing it this way!”

“Mm, good point,” Eserion mused. “Good ol’ Basra sure doesn’t seem to be useful for much except raw materials for an appalling science experiment…at least, not to the likes of you or me. And yet, here we are. It’s almost as if Justinian’s the kinda guy who keeps multiple irons in multiple fires. He sure isn’t shy about making use of her particular brand of crazy.”

“Crap in a hat, after this I don’t even wanna imagine what kind of special plan he has for that woman,” Rasha muttered. She’d not had to deal with Syrinx directly, but between Trissiny’s personal stories and Glory’s collection of rumors the picture that emerged was frightening. “That’s probably gonna be a paladin-sized problem, whatever it is, anyway. Yeah, okay, I get why you wanted me to see this, it’s crucial intel. I can get Glory, Thorn…and Sweet. Between them, they know everybody. We’ve got a good chance of finding these keystone people before Justinian does, if we get the Guild and the Sisters and Imperial Intelligence on it.” She glanced down at Rogrind. “And Svennish intelligence, I guess. Thorn’s in good with them and I just heard the Archpope isn’t, so…” Rasha trailed off, frowning at a sudden thought. “Why’d you go to the trouble of knocking him out, then? Not like I’m this guy’s greatest fan but it seems like seeing this stuff for himself would’ve helped a lot.”

“Ah, well, you know how it is,” Eserion said with a cavalier grin. “He’ll have to be content with you catching him up after the fact, Intelligence types are used to patching together secondhand information. More to the point, such a perspicacious fella would immediately set about connecting the dots if I sleeped him now, instead of for the duration of my visit. So rather than ‘Eserion and Rasha are hiding something specific from me,’ he’ll be more inclined to think ‘Eserion is an asshole,’ which, y’know. Not incorrect.”

In that moment Rasha was abruptly reminded that while he might be the focus of her own religion, gods were dangerous creatures to be around.

“So there is more,” she said carefully. In different company this shift in mood might have her reaching surreptitiously for her throwing knives, but she’d already lost them, and realistically…what would be the point?

Eserion tipped her a singularly knowing wink. “Oh, very much so. I’ve been keeping an eye on you for a little while now, Rasha. Not that I arranged for you to be out here, exactly, but it was shaping up so conveniently I opted to just manage this situation rather than cutting it off. Sorry to put you out, and all that.”

“Yeah, well…I guess I can’t exactly complain. Thanks for helping me and Zafi out yesterday. That coulda been bad if you hadn’t stepped in.”

“Just don’t get used to it,” he advised. “Not that you aren’t a swell gal and all, and I have every confidence you’ll shape up to be one of the best of your generation, but you just can’t get in the habit of counting on the gods to step in and rescue you from danger. Nobody can, generally speaking, but that goes triple for Eserites.”

“Yeah, I’m well aware you expect us to fix our own shit. It’s one of the things I respect the most about Guild doctrine. So…what’s all this about, then? Why me?”

“Ah, ah!” Grinning, he held up a finger. “Now that, Rasha, is an important question, and it’s just not time for it yet. We’ve gotta address that one with all due seriousness, and that means we have to go through storytime first. These things have to be done in a certain order, as the bards tell us.”

“Fucking bards,” she muttered.

“They have some good points, though. For example, that everybody is the hero of their own story.”

Rasha shrugged. “Sure, everyone thinks they’re justified in whatever damn thing it is they’re doing, that’s not a groundbreaking insight. And it doesn’t mean they are justified, or that good intentions excuse anything.”

Eserion nodded, then took one step away from the rock slab and squatted on his heels in the snow. He continued to look perfectly comfortable in his partially-undone tuxedo, which of course was no surprise. His presence was probably the reason she also wasn’t cold, despite her lack of a warming charm and the fact that her half-dose of weather resistance potion had to be wearing off by now.

“Correct. But again, like I said, sometimes people have a point, even when it’s super uncomfortable for you to acknowledge that they might. That’s not the same thing as being right, or justified, but you will often find that a lot of folks who are antagonistic toward you aren’t as wrong, in an objective sense, as they probably seem to you. For example, let’s take his Holiness, Justinian.”

“Oh, I’m not gonna like the rest of this, am I?” she whispered.

Eserion grinned but did not pause. “Well, I did promise you storytime. Once upon a time, there was a wandering priest who came upon a great secret. A secret as ancient as divine magic itself, and so terrible that as a consequence of the nature of divine magic, anyone who learns it will be instantly struck dead, so that they can’t spread it around. But here’s the twist: he didn’t find this by accident. Because you see, those of us with a degree of control over the divine are able to shield people from that effect, at need. A certain deity with uncertain motivations led this man to this truth, opened his eyes to a terrible injustice that has been allowed to linger and determine the course of the world ever since.”

“You…what?” Rasha breathed. “What could…I don’t…”

“Easy,” the good said soothingly, giving her a smile far more gentle than his more customary rakish grin. “Don’t worry, Rasha, I’m not gonna dump that on you. I’m already laying enough of a burden on your head without painting a target on it as well. What you just saw was a hint, but it’s not close enough to the secret that you could figure it out unaided. You’re safe.”

“Well, now I kinda want to know.”

He regarded her solemnly. “Of course, you’re human. And I could tell you, and protect you. But you might not want to know after you did. Not all knowledge is useful, Rasha. Some of it’s only a burden.”

She nodded slowly. “And this story is about Justinian, right?”

“Ah!” He grinned again. “But that’s the second twist, Rasha. For you see, this isn’t actually a story, but two. This has happened a handful of times since the Elder Wars, and mostly nothing came of it, though occasionally it caused a mess. Elilial loves this trick; the upper echelons of the Black Wreath all know the secret, and it’s a big part of why they’re so dang cranky all the time. But this time, in this generation, this exact story has played out twice. A god with an agenda counter to the Pantheon’s led someone to the secret and protected them from the inevitable doom that followed. The stories diverge from there, however. The first, yes, was a young adventuring priest named Justinian Darnay—an educated man with, nonetheless, a head full of romantic notions about justice and valor that might better suit an Avenist than the Izarite he was. The second,” he grinned more broadly, and paused slightly for dramatic effect, to her vast irritation, “was a scrappy but charming street kid, name of Antonio Darling.”

Slowly, Rasha straightened up on the cot, only at that point becoming aware she’d allowed her posture to slouch. Glory would have been disappointed.

“Well…you had my attention already. Go on.”

“What matters to our twinned stories, what makes the fundamental difference between them, is the two disparate directions these two men went with this knowledge. Justinian began a methodical climb to power and is now engaged in trying to rearrange the world itself to fix that injustice. Darling… Didja know his great project as Bishop was to fund and direct the work of theological scholarship of this century? He set every young priest and clerk he could recruit to comb through every archived source of information known to exist, leveraging his own influence to get access even to the most hidden ones, about Elilial. Weeding out contradictions and unverified accounts, to assemble the definitive historical and psychological profile of the Dark Lady. The Nemitites were downright huffy it was an Eserite who did this. Interesting difference, though, right? Presented with the same revelation, one man sets out to fix it, while the other sets out to figure out what the fuck happened, and why.”

She frowned again. “Well… Different people are different, after all.”

“Ahh. But tell me, Rasha, does Sweet seem like the kinda guy who can look at a terrible injustice and not immediately want to pop open a tin of kickass on whoever did it? Remember, we’re talking about the man who was Boss of the Thieves’ Guild at one point.”

“Sweet is…uncomfortably comfortable with moral conflicts. According to Glory, he’s sorta notorious for playing all ends against the middle.”

“But he has a line he won’t cross, which you know specifically because Justinian crossed it. Sweet had been sticking close to the Archpope for the same reason he’s been stalking Elilial for years: trying to understand what was really happening, so he could figure out what to do about it. But Justinian went too far, and he broke away, hence the current state of religious politics in Tiraas.”

“Hm. I get the impression you’re leading somewhere with this.”

“Always. It’s about how and why both came upon the revelation, you see. Because they weren’t guided to it by the same god, or by the same agenda. Justinian was led by the nose along a prepared course meticulously calculated to guide him to certain conclusions—and then, crucially, offered aid and support in his campaign to right the great wrong. Antonio just had a piece of nonsense shoved in his face that was guaranteed to break his understanding of how the world works, and then cut loose to deal with that, without even the knowledge that he possessed forbidden information, much less that he’d been granted divine protection from it. All things considered, it’s only natural, the different ways these two reacted to the revelation.”

Rasha narrowed her eyes. “So you’re suggesting… Sweet doesn’t know everything Justinian knows. Or thinks he knows.”

“And there, we come to it.” With a sigh, Eserion leaned back, actually sitting down in the snow, from which position he gazed up at her with a purely weary expression. “You see, Rasha, I have been running…a con. You may have noticed some off-kilter behavior from the Guild and the Boss recently.”

“You bet your ass I have. You have any idea how much trouble it’s been, trying to keep this whole thing from blowing up?”

“Course I do,” he said, smirking unrepentantly. “I’m gonna tell you a secret, Rasha: I’m not the god who set Sweet on the course he’s on now, nor the one who protected him from the knowledge. He thinks I am, but I’m not. By the same token, I am not the renegade god currently doing the most to ensure Justinian’s schemes are thwarted before they’re completed. But he also thinks I am.” He grinned, the expression downright gleeful despite his posture of exhaustion. “It’s a fake out, see? After all, I’m Eserion the defiant, humbler of the mighty and bane of corrupt systems everywhere. Obviously I’d be the one to squirm out from under the influence Justinian’s using to keep the gods off his back, and set myself to cutting him down to size. He’ll be coming after me, not realizing what the real threat is. And Sweet won’t be able to clue him in, because he doesn’t know, either!”

“Wait! You don’t think Sweet would betray you to the Archpope, surely.”

There fell a pause of several seconds, over which Eserion’s grin faded.

“Well, there…we come to it. The heart of the issue. Because you see, Rasha, you don’t know everything Justinian knows. Sweet doesn’t know everything Justinian knows. And Justinian tolerates Sweet’s ongoing meddling and defiance because he firmly believes that once he’s able to bring Darling fully into the loop, to learn everything he knows and be able to protect him from divine retaliation for knowing it, Darling will side with him against the Pantheon. Against me.”

Rasha inhaled just as slowly to steady herself against the vertigo. “But…he’s wrong. I mean, he wouldn’t.”

“The thing is?” Eserion shrugged fatalistically. “The thing is…he might. Rasha, I am not saying I agree with Justinian’s take. But I’m also not saying the man is definitively the villain of this twisted-up multi-threaded story. What I am saying is that there’s an argument to be made for both sides. That a person who knows the whole picture could reasonably decide to side with Justinian, or against him. And Antonio Darling is a veteran of playing the angles, and navigating complex moral dilemmas. He could absolutely tip either way. The real, scary truth? I don’t honestly think I would blame him if he turned on me. I was never comfortable with the Pantheon’s choice; I argued hard against it at the time, and for correcting it before Elilial had her little tantrum and effectively locked us all on this course. But in the end, I’ve gone along with it. For eight thousand years, I have lived with what we did, and not tried to overthrow the system. The inherently…corrupt system.”

He hesitated before continuing.

“So now, finally, it’s time for the answer to your question: why you?”

“I’m suddenly very afraid I don’t wanna know,” she whispered.

His answering smile was sympathetic. “It didn’t have to be you, Rasha, I’ll level with you about that. You’re just the most suitable candidate who happened to wander too close to the core of these events and get tangled up in it. Two years ago you were nowhere on anyone’s list of relevant players, and are still barely in the notice of most of them. And that’s the very thing that makes you perfect. Because as much as I can relate to their perspectives and respect their ability to ponder the deep truths of the universe, I am tired of these Great Men with their Great Thoughts, their angst and compromise and complex agendas. And believe me, I include myself in that description. When it comes right down to it, if the world has to tip on somebody making a moral decision? I would always rather trust it to a woman who’s had to live with her boots on the ground in the world men like that have made, who’s fought and clawed and connived for everything she’s got, including her very identity.”

“…I am wearing a dress that cost more than my dad’s first boat, and I didn’t even pay for it myself.”

“And that dress is burned, torn, and stained with your own blood because you preferred to ride an explosion than quietly submit to somebody pushing you around. Life’s not about what is or isn’t handed to you, Rasha, but what you do with it.”

She shook her head, heard. “No, this is too much. I’m not some chosen one, okay? You want Trissiny.”

“The con is ongoing,” he said as if she hadn’t spoken, his eyes holding hers. “I’m still guiding these events to their necessary conclusion. A moment’s going to come when Antonio Darling has to make a choice; that much is part of the agendas of everyone else involved. My little contribution is you. When that moment happens, it’ll be under your eyes, Rasha. And I will make sure, in that moment, you have a knife in hand, and a window of opportunity to do what needs to be done.”

Rasha stared at him in horror. “You can’t mean— No, you’re not asking me to kill Sweet?”

He just stared up at her with the same expression. “Nope. I’m asking you to decide, when the moment comes, if that is the right thing to do. And then act on your decision.”

She bounded up off the cot hard enough to tip it over if it hadn’t been weighed down by an unconscious dwarf. “Fuck you! I don’t want this, you understand? This is… This is too much! I’m just a kid from Puna Vashtar, I can’t decide the fucking fate of the world!”

Her god just looked at her with sad eyes in a tired face.

Rasha took a step closer, brandishing a fist at him. “You can’t do this to me!”

“That’s right at the heart of the issue, you see,” he replied. “Gods are powerful beings, yes, but constrained ones. We are limited by our natures, by our aspects, even by the influence of our faithful. And this summer, dear ol’ Lil went and spilled the beans at Ninkabi about exactly how that can be used against us. The way to kill a god, Rasha, is to separate them from their aspect. Get them to act in a way contrary to the binding force that holds them to the world, or catch them doing it, and you can pry the consciousness loose from the power.

“But here’s the trick of it.” He had the temerity to wink at her again. “I believe I alluded to Justinian’s knack for evading the wrath of the gods, yeah? That’s why his personal presence was needed for rewinding time, which would otherwise set Vemnesthis on him in a heartbeat. He’s been fucking around with some real dark secrets, ancient stuff—specifically, the machinery of the Elder Gods that both they and we used to attain godhood in the first place. His schemes have come this far because he’s able to deflect our attention, make it so we can’t take an oppositional stance toward him.

“Unless our very godhood itself is in question. See?” Eserion grinned, looking both bitter and pleased with himself. “Like, for example, if the god of thieves and defiance starts directing his faith to do nonsensical and abusive things, coercing his high priest to mislead the Guild itself. Or forcing some poor apprentice who deserves better treatment into world-shaking shit that’s way above her pay grade. That is some very un-Eserite crap right there, Rasha. It all makes me just a little bit less me, or less the god I’ve become. And thus, a little less constrained. Most importantly, it’s enough to squirm out from under Justinian’s control.”

“But… Doesn’t that specifically make you vulnerable to being, y’know, killed?”

“Exactly!” He leaned forward, grinning more broadly still. “Exactly. And that is the con. Because he’s gonna have to deal with me, you see? Not only am I no longer under his thumb and a threat to him, I’ve made myself vulnerable in the process. It’s gonna be Justinian against me, in a struggle that could legitimately go either way, but which he has to win because if he doesn’t, I will personally wipe the floor with his ass at the moment when he’s the most vulnerable. But! The real beauty of it, Rasha, is that it’s all a distraction. It’s like I said: I’m not the god who backed Sweet. That one has made his own arrangements to shrug off Justinian’s control and set up the board to thwart him at that final moment. And as long as the Archpope is focused on me as the biggest threat, he’ll never see the real one coming.”

Rasha could only stare at him in silence for a few heartbeats before she finally shook her head. “I could blow the whistle on all this, you know. You’re so convinced Sweet might betray you—what makes you think I won’t just right right to him with this whole story? Hell, I could even go to Justinian. Bet that’d earn me a pretty cushy position in whatever world order he’s trying to set up.”

“Aside from the fact that you just saw how Justinian treats his most loyal followers?” The god smiled up at her, and it was no longer his wolfish grin, but a simple smile. Kind, and tired, and sad. “Nah. You could do all that, Rasha, but…I trust you. I picked you for a reason, you know. You’re a good kid.”


Rogrind sat bolt upright, unconsciousness fading right into perfect alertness as his training dictated.

They were in the same place. Except now, he was lying on a cot, at the foot of which sat Rasha, sipping from a steaming porcelain cup of tea and staring moodily into the distance. Despite the surrounding snow, it was pleasantly warm.

Without even looking over at him, Rasha wordlessly extended her arm, handing him a silver flask. In matching silence, Rogrind accepted it and unfastened the cap, raising it to sniff. His eyebrows lifted in surprise; that was good Svennish brandy. His personal favorite brand, in fact, the bouquet was quite distinctive. He did not, of course, take a drink.

“How embarrassing,” he said aloud, closely watching the young thief. She looked unharmed, but more dour than she’d been when he was last conscious. “I seem to have drifted off.”

“You missed some real shit,” Rasha said sourly. “No fault of yours. Eserion was here, knocked you right out. Apparently he wanted some one-on-one time with me.”

“Ah.” Well, a divine intervention could explain the cot, the drinks, the unnatural warmth around them…though it was not the only thing that might, and he was not one to take Eserites at their word.

“Some of that was personal, but you did miss important developments I better catch you up on,” she continued, finally turning to look at him. Her eyes looked downright hunted. “And you are not going to believe it, for the simple reason that you’re not a crazy person. He said that in order to demonstrate my veracity I should forewarn you that we’re about to be rescued by talking wolves. I don’t know what the hell that means, but by the sound of it I’m half hoping he was just fucking with me.”

“Ah, that sounds like Duchess Madouri’s new Wardens. Curious, though; last I was informed, they were all concentrated at the other end of the province. But then, I suppose their inherent fae magic would be quite an aid in both predicting events throughout Tiraan Province where their attention might be needed, and crossing overland faster than the mortal norm.”

Rasha stared at him. “Excuse me, the Duchess’s what.”

“You don’t keep up with the political news?” he said, keeping his tone deliberately mild. “That surprises me, Rasha, especially coming from a student of the esteemed Ms. Sharvineh.”

“I’m a girl of specific and limited interests,” she replied, shaking her head. “Well, okay then. While we wait for…that…you’ll probably want to hear about Justinian’s exciting new superweapon.”

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16 – 54

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“First things first: you do not give me orders.”

Natchua brandished an accusing finger right in Ampophrenon’s face, and her hair was immediately blown back by a powerful draconic snort which wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever smelled, but she could altogether have done without. Trissiny clapped a hand over her eyes; Toby just leaned his head back to stare at the sky as if he might find patience there. Gabriel, Natchua noticed peripherally, was making small steps and squinting at the ground as if looking for something, but she paid him no further mind, what with the dragon dominating her perspective.

“I came here to aid and protect, not to interfere with you or anyone,” Ampophrenon growled. “That does not mean I will forebear whatever action is necessary to prevent more harm done to the mortal world by demonkind.” His huge head shifted slightly to direct a baleful glance behind her at the Wreath; most of them shuffled backward nervously, though Mogul just folded his arms and met the dragon with a defiant stare. Ampophrenon had already returned his attention to Natchua, though. “In matters of chaos or infernomancy, to say nothing of both, I will not take needless risks. Explain.”

She narrowed her own eyes, thinking rapidly. The thought suddenly at the forefront of her mind was that being cagey and keeping secrets was risky and just not sustainable. Natchua wasn’t a deceptive person by nature; sooner or later she’d slip up if she tried leading a double life of any kind. And that wasn’t even touching on the fact that Mogul and the Wreath knew of her connection to Elilial, and she didn’t doubt for a second they would drop that into the open the moment they saw advantage for themselves in it. Or just for the sheer assholery of it.

At the first opportunity, Natchua decided, she needed to sit down with the three paladins—the three other paladins, technically—and explain what Elilial had done to her. Apart from avoiding the effort of keeping secrets, they might well be able to help. That was them, however. This particular situation did not call for excessive honesty; she had a strong feeling she knew exactly what Ampophrenon the bloody Gold would do if he found himself nose-to-nose with the first ever Hand of Elilial.

“The same way anybody gets magic to work around chaos,” she said shortly. “I rustled up some divine intervention.”

His golden eyes narrowed to slits. “You…managed to stir Salyrene from her isolation to aid your craft? Impressive. And dubious.”

“Oh, I wish,” Natchua replied, emitting a short bark of involuntary laughter. “That would have been so much better! No, I have no idea how to reach out to Salyrene, if that’s even possible anymore, for anybody. Nah, it’s worse than that.”

“Elilial.” The growled word was not a question.

Natchua folded her arms. “I guess she pays attention to anybody who manages to tweak her nose good and proper. And no, I’m not saying it was a good idea, just that it was the only one I had. Obviously, if I’d known you four were on the way I would’ve just stalled until you got here. But I didn’t, did I?”

“I more than guess at the Dark Lady’s habits,” Ampophrenon stated, baring his huge fangs at her. “You court more peril than you understand, young woman. Elilial has long held a fascination for those who thwart her. Many a defender of the Light has become entangled in her schemes after winning a great victory, ending as a pawn of Hell, willingly or not. Those unwise enough to wield infernomancy against her are likelier than most to face that fate.”

“Huh,” Natchua muttered, intrigued in spite of herself. “I did not know that.”

“Then consider yourself warned, if only belatedly. I dearly hope you paid for this aid up front, warlock. If you incurred a debt to her…”

“Oh, the price was quite explicit.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the assembled Wreath. “I had to let them help. Y’know, first step in cleaning up their image with the truce in place. Since I needed somebody to hold the line for me while I put together the necessary spells, it worked out. As far as I knew then, anyway,” she added, scowling. “Again, if I’d known proper help was coming…”

“Ingrate,” Mogul snorted.

“Yeah, and that’d be why she was so eager to lend you a hand,” Gabriel commented from the sidelines, still pacing about and studying the trampled earth.

“Indeed,” Ampophrenon rumbled, rearing back to gaze down at them from his full, towering height. “I apologize that I was not swift enough to assist against the chaos event. But I am here now, and at the very least, I can prevent this from becoming a further issue. You are owed thanks…Natchua. I scarcely imagined I would find the entire surviving Black Wreath, gathered conveniently within range of my claws.”

“Hang on,” Toby interjected, “Lord Ampophrenon, Elilial does have a truce with the Pantheon.”

“I have ever labored to serve the Pantheon’s interests,” the dragon rumbled, the first hints of golden flame beginning to flicker around his jaws. “But I have never served under them. If Elilial chooses to take this up with me directly…well, it will not have been our first such discussion.”

“Stop,” Natchua barked over her shoulder, holding up a hand as if that would forestall the cluster of infernal spells she felt being formed, as if anything a dozen warlocks could conjure would take down three paladins and a gold dragon. “And you, back off! As much as it galls me, these fuckers are under my protection.”

“Oh?” the dragon growled.

“We made a deal,” she insisted. “They did their part. They risked their lives fighting to protect my city, and that places them under my guarantee of safety. That was my end of the bargain, and it doesn’t change because you offer me a convenient out. It’s called honor; I hear it was kind of a big deal, back in your day.”

He snorted again, this time producing a short gout of lightfire along with the rush of hot breath. “I respect your position, young woman, but this matter is larger than you by far. If I will not stand down for the Pantheon’s truce, yours certainly will not change my mind. Stand aside.”

“Listen here, dragon!” Natchua snarled, again pointing accusingly at him.

Ampophrenon lowered his head so abruptly that for a split second she thought he was striking at her with the intent to bite, but he simple dropped his enormous skull to ground level, the better to glare into her eyes.

“Yes?” The dragon’s retort resonated through the ground and her very bones, a pointed reminder of just what she was facing.

And for one brief moment, she was within a hair’s breadth of making a similar point right back at him. By the way Trissiny and Toby tensed up, it seemed they saw the same coming.

It was the urge that stopped her, the indefinable impulses that had guided her to this point in life. Her cunning, according to Elilial; the result of her magical imbuement reacting with her own intelligence, by Bradshaw’s theory. It told her to stop, and this time, Natchua forced herself not only to listen, but to think. She tried to embrace it consciously, follow the impulse with her reasoning. Why was this new plan the one she should pursue?

Obviously, throwing down with a gold dragon was a very bad idea, but not a worse one than taking on Elilial, and her so-called cunning hadn’t stopped her from doing that. Could she take him on? The Wreath would pretty much have to help her, and in this case, the three paladins might not intervene… Of course, he was Ampophrenon the Gold. Hero of the Hellwars, vanquisher of archdemons, and who knew what else over thousands of years of storied activity against the forces of Hell. She was likely not even the first grandmaster warlock he’d faced, and his continued existence attested to how that had turned out.

No…that wasn’t it, wasn’t the thing forewarning her. It didn’t feel right. Natchua tried to follow that to its source, to something she could parse rationally. Feelings were just mental shortcuts, enabling quick responses to huge gluts of data the conscious mind couldn’t sort as quickly. Somewhere, deep within it, there was cogent reason—especially in her case, if Bradshaw’s theory was correct.

“Well?” Ampophrenon growled pointedly, emphasizing that she’d been frozen in thought for several long seconds while the tension thickened around them.

As if inspired by his prompting, she had it. The warning wasn’t telling her to surrender or retreat, but to change strategies. No matter how she might wish otherwise, Natchua was not Tellwyrn. She could defeat a dragon, just not in a contest of magic or might. But a Duchess had resources an archwarlock did not.

Natchua raised her chin, attempting to look down her nose at the towering beast before her.

“Is it my understanding, then, that the Conclave of the Winds intends to intervene unilaterally, by force, in the internal affairs of an Imperial province? Please state your position specifically and in detail, Lord Ampophrenon. I wish to deliver an accurate and thorough complaint to the Silver Throne and to your embassy.”

He blinked.

“Ah, yeah,” Gabriel remarked lazily. He’d wandered a few yards distant by that point, and now finally looked up from his search of the ground to make a wry face at them both. “We kinda skipped over the introductions, didn’t we? Lord Ampophrenon, this is Duchess Natchua of House Leduc.”

“Leduc.” He bared his teeth at her again.

“She’s not wrong, also,” Trissiny added, grimacing. “House Leduc doesn’t hold the governorship of Lower Stalwar Province at the moment, but this deal of patronage in exchange for service was ratified by Duchess Malivette, who is the governor. I witnessed the agreement myself.”

Ampophrenon twisted his neck around to stare incredulously at her.

“I know,” she exclaimed, raising her hands in defeat. “I blame myself. Apparently when you’ve half-drowned one noblewoman, the ones who don’t have to be physically afraid of you lose all regard for your opinion.”

“Malivette’s the vampire,” Toby added helpfully. “So…oof. I’m afraid this isn’t as simple as we’d like. You are a representative of a sovereign government, and they are protected agents of the provincial defenses… Wow. That would technically be an act of war, wouldn’t it?”

“I can assure you,” Natchua added, “Whatever the Silver Throne decided to do to the Conclave in that eventuality, I would personally guarantee the closure, on pain of lethal measures, of this and our allied province in Madouris, to all Conclave personnel. Shut the fuck up, Mogul,” she snapped, breaking her haughty demeanor momentarily in response to his cackling before turning back to the dragon. “And that, Lord Ampophrenon, would be a very regrettable position for me as well as for you. Because I find myself in such a situation that I have to not only tolerate but embrace the Black Wreath in my province, and I for once would feel a great deal more comfortable if a certain gold dragon could be made welcome to visit Veilgrad at his leisure.”

Slowly, Ampophrenon’s expression shifted, one of the scaly ridges above his left eye rising. The expression was recognizable but awfully peculiar on his reptilian face. His tone of voice, at least, was far more thoughtful, if unmistakably loaded. “Oh?”

“Oh, very nice,” Mogul snorted behind her, his laughter fading abruptly. “I see how it is.”

“You know what, Embras?” Natchua rounded on him. “You’re goddamn right that’s how it is. We have our arrangement and I’m a woman of my word, but that doesn’t make me a fucking idiot. I don’t trust you nearly as far as I could throw you. So long as you do your part and toe the line, I will faithfully look out for your interests, but honestly? I’m expecting you to manage that for about a week, tops. And I’d love nothing more than to have a big friendly dragon around to charbroil your ass the second you step out of order.” She looked rapidly back and forth between him and Ampophrenon. “We all know where we stand, here?”

“It is still the fairest deal we have been offered by the mortal powers of this world since long before living memory,” Hiroshi said softly.

Bradshaw grunted. “She’s still a vicious little shit, Embras, but she stood up to a gold dragon for us. It’s… Like Hiroshi said, it’s fair.”

Trissiny had paced slowly forward while they spoke, and now reached up to rest one gauntleted hand against Ampophrenon’s elbow, which even with him crouching to the ground was slightly above her head height. He twisted his neck to look at her again.

“She’s serious, though,” The paladin assured him quietly. “Natchua is…Natchua. What you see is what you get; this conversation alone probably tells you more or less what you need to know. But she does try to do her best toward the right thing. Her first act as an Imperial noble was to try to entice Eserites back to Veilgrad, just because she felt nobility should have some check on their power.”

“Thanks, Triss,” Natchua said sourly. “Look, Ampophrenon, we can be enemies if it’s that important to you. Or we can be allies, even if you find the prospect uncomfortable. If I can play nicely with these assholes, I will definitely not turn up my nose at you.” She hesitated, feeling the intuition rise up again, this time prompting her to do something she really didn’t want to. But it hadn’t led her wrong yet. Swallowing her pride—and swallowing physically in the process—Natchua continued grudgingly. “Look, I… It’s probably not news to you that I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’ve been staying one hop ahead of a crisis, not just with this chaos horseshit but…generally. I’m certainly not blind to the fact that fucking around with infernomancy is almost certainly gonna be what kills me in the end, not that that was my choice to begin with. I would… That is, if you’d be willing to accept my welcome to visit Veilgrad at your own leisure, to keep an eye on whatever you feel could do with some oversight, I would… I’d be grateful for any guidance you could spare me.”

Slowly, Ampophrenon reared up again so that his neck arched high above, and gazed quizzically down at her, even tilting his head to one side as if puzzling over what he saw. Everyone stared up at the dragon in anticipatory silence. Everyone except Gabriel, who was now poking about in the charred and flattened mat of tallgrass with his booted toe and the butt of his scythe.

At last the golden dragon shook his head once, then shifted. The transition was remarkably smooth considering the change of size involved; a second later, Natchua found herself face to face with a tall man in golden armor, his eyes featureless orbs of light. Even in that smaller form, he projected presence almost like a physical force. Now that she had a moment to pause and consider it, she had the distinct impression that only her own native orneriness was keeping her from falling to one knee before him. Dragons were intense, even when they weren’t tacitly threatening to destroy you.

“I have lived a long time,” he said, his voice sonorous still, but at least not overpowering to the eardrums, “and seen a great many things, some more…surprising than others. Rare as such individuals are, the truth is that I have counted infernomancers and even demons among my allies in the past. They face a high hurdle when it comes to earning trust, as it should be. Yet in the end, real situations are complicated, and individuals should be judged by their actions. I am reminded of the paladins’ friend Xyraadi, whom I understand they liberated from imprisonment quite recently.”

“My friend, too,” Natchua interjected. “I invited Xyraadi to my coming out party yesterday. I think she came even closer than Trissiny to fireballing Mogul here off the face of the earth. Not that I blame her.”

Wonder of wonders, a faint smile tugged at one corner of Ampophrenon’s mouth. “Ah? On the one hand that seems an improbable coincidence… And yet, speaking to you now, it fits together oddly well. What I recall, now, is that the common factor among every warlock I have found worthy to work alongside, over the centuries, has been that they sought out restraints upon their power and safeguards against their own inevitable failure to contain it.” He narrowed his eyes and tilted his on chin up, giving Natchua a long and openly judgmental look that made her bristle, but she restrained herself. “You have certainly not earned my trust, Natchua Leduc. But based upon what I see, and the recommendation of the Hands of the gods… I am willing to believe you deserve the chance to earn that trust.”

She drew in a deep breath. “I grew up in Tar’naris, y’know. And not as a noble, either; I was a low-caste orchard picker. I’m only mentioning it so you have a bit of perspective when I inform you that that was the single most condescending thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“And if you are very blessed indeed,” Ampophrenon replied, unabashed, “that will be the worst discomfiture you are forced to endure for some time. May we all be so blessed, but let us not count on it.”

“Natchua, enough,” Trissiny interjected when she opened her mouth again. “This is the closest thing to a win we’re all going to get out of this. You can’t put this many people who want each other dead in the same place and expect hand-holding and hugs.”

“Yes,” Toby added, quiet but firm. “Let us please have peace, as long as we can.”

Vanessa heaved an exasperated sigh; fortunately, everyone ignored her.

“Quite so,” said Ampophrenon, now inclining his head forward. “The Conclave’s very formation was an acknowledgment of the new reality of the world: that we who wield tremendous power can no longer prosper simply by exercising it.” He glanced past her at the robed warlocks with a flat expression before meeting her eyes again. “It seems we must find ways to…tolerate the presence of detestable people, at least up to a point. Learning to find the proper balance will not be swift or easy, I expect, but I will make the effort in good faith.”

“Ah hah!” Gabriel crowed, fortunately before Natchua had to find something polite to say to the overbearing dragon. Everyone turned to watch him bend over and carefully pick something up from the mess of dirt, charred tallgrass stalks and fragments of shattered obsidian that had been pieces of the necro-drake’s exposed skeleton. “Found it.”

He held it up: a black shard that resembled the broken bits of glass all around at first glance, save that it was smoothly curved and not crystalline in structure. Moreover, to the magically-attuned eyes of everyone present, it was wrong. Not visually, but to look at the thing was to feel the twisted energies permeating it, struggling against the very shape of nature around them.

Toby took an involuntary step forward. “Is that…?”

“The chaos source,” Natchua said, frowning. “It was embedded in the monster’s skull. I was just about to go looking for it when you lot landed on top of me.”

“And he’s holding that thing with his bare hands?” Rupi marveled. “Well, folks, there it is: the dumbest thing any of us will ever see.”

“Oh, blow it out your ass,” Gabriel snapped. “I’m a paladin, and I came here prepared for chaos specifically. It’s a good thing we did arrive before you got down to cleanup, Natchua. I’m not sure your impromptu deal with Elilial would’ve extended to you handling something like this safely. As long as it’s one of us three holding it, with the Trinity paying direct attention to this, it should be…” He hesitated. “Yeah, uh, safe doesn’t seem like the right word. Stable?”

“Well, that’s great for now,” Trissiny said, scowling, “but what do we do with it?”

“If I recall,” Toby offered, “the standard practice everybody’s agreed on for chaos artifacts is to have Tellwyrn secure them—”

He had to stop, being overwhelmed by a cacophony of shouts and complaints from the various Wreath warlocks present.

“Silence.” Even without changing to his greater form, Ampophrenon could project his voice with a tangible power that permitted no contradiction. To Natchua’s surprise, the Elilinists didn’t resume their protests even after the sheer force of it cut them off, and the dragon continued in a much calmer tone. “Chaos artifacts, perhaps. I will spare you a recitation of Arachne’s faults, as I’m sure most of those here are familiar with them intimately, but it is true that she has proved herself trustworthy when it comes to securing such devices away from meddling hands. Those are deliberately created objects meant for mortal use, however, not…this. That is a fragment of pure evil; the danger it poses comes from its very existence.”

“I can guarantee you it was being used in something deliberately created,” Natchua scoffed.

“Indeed. Gabriel, if I may…?”

Gabriel obligingly stepped closer to the dragon, holding up the shard; everyone else shifted away, but Ampophrenon leaned forward, peering closely at the incongruously small object without reaching to touch it himself. Slowly, the dragon’s expression descended into a scowl of barely restrained fury.

“That,” he stated icily, “is dragonbone. Ancient, and infused with chaos while the dragon was still alive.”

“And that,” Toby whispered, “tells us everything.”

“Belosiphon the Black,” said Trissiny. “His skull was here, in Veilgrad, not long ago. We saw it with our own eyes.”

“…before it was taken away by Ravoud, and agents of Archpope Justinian,” Gabriel finished, baring his teeth in a grin of angry triumph. “Finally, we’ve got the slippery bastard dead to rights!”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, son,” Mogul interjected, ambling forward to join them and generally ignoring all the hostile expressions directed his way. “I reckon at least some of what happened here today would’ve taken even Justinian by surprise, but that’s a man who doesn’t so much as scratch his ass without layers of plausible deniability and contingency plans in place. Not that I’m saying it’s nothing, just be prepared to be disappointed if you were hoping this’d be the—”

He broke off with a muffled curse and stumbled backward as Gabriel suddenly shoved the dragonbone shard into his face, barely avoiding being touched by it.

“Gabe, that was just plain juvenile,” Toby reproached.

“Yes, it was,” Trissiny said solemnly. “Do it again.”

“Please do not play around with that,” Ampophrenon in a tone that brought all levity to an instant halt. The dragon paused, shaking his head, before continuing. “Power is granted to paladins to neutralize and destroy chaos sources such as this. Each of your cults has its own ritual magic to achieve that end, requiring chiefly one or more god’s direct attention through an intermediary such as a Hand or high priest. Have any of you been taught such craft yet?” He met each of their eyes before continuing. “No matter, I know both Avenist and nondenominational variants of the spell, which I shall gladly teach you. Aside from the urgent need of this moment, I suspect this portends a further use for this knowledge in the days to come. Best that you be prepared.”

“Whoah, hang on,” said Natchua. “You’re not suggesting there are going to be more of those things?”

“That one, it seems, was made from one tiny shard of bone,” Ampophrenon replied gravely. “You just saw firsthand how large a dragon’s skull is. It smacks to me of conserving a resource for which further use is intended. Not to mention that this appears to have achieved little except some random destruction in the vicinity. For a cunning operator such as Justinian, that seems an uncharacteristic action…unless it was only a trial run.”

“Fuck,” Gabriel whispered.

“Yeah, well, you guys can get the next one,” said Vanessa. “Not that that wasn’t some decent exercise, but—”

“If the next one comes here, you’ll do your part and like it,” Natchua informed her. “But yeah, for the record, I will much prefer to have paladin or draconic help if it’s available.”

“And while we’re on the subject of cooperation,” Mogul said cheerfully, stepping back up to the conversation, though this time he pointedly did not come within arm’s reach of Gabriel. “Just to lay out the facts: the truce between the Dark Lady and the Pantheon prohibits combat between their servants and hers, yes? But based on the information Vesk provided her—and thanks to you three for collecting it, by the way—it was Justinian himself who meddled in our summoning to destroy the Lady’s daughters.” His grin stretched till it looked almost painful, a rictus of pure malice barely cloaked in unhinged glee. “And now, it seems, we have confirmation that Justinian is no servant of the Pantheon, after all. I believe you know what that means.”

“In my considerable experience,” said Ampophrenon, staring him down, “the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.”

“There was never any question of us being friends, let’s not pretend otherwise,” Mogul agreed. “But in the here and now, ladies, dragons, and paladins, it appears that we all have the same problem. And as of this moment, it is officially open season on his ass.”

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16 – 53

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A god of the Pantheon made a pretty good host, even for surreptitious surveillance. In addition to shielding himself, Rasha, and Rogrind from detection by the Archpope’s party, Eserion ensured a comfortable temperature for them that somehow did not affect the surrounding snow, and even conjured a cozy little cot for the unconscious dwarf. By that point Rasha half expected him to provide snacks, which she did not mention due to her suspicion that if she did, he would, and that would just be a little too weird.

“You’re sure he’s okay?” she inquired, glancing again at Rogrind. By the rise and fall of his chest, he might just be peacefully asleep.

“Why, you suspect me of ill will toward the ol’ boy?” Eserion asked, tearing his eyes from the spectacle amid the ruins to grin at her.

“Well, I mean, he did sort of stalk, harass, and try to murder several Guild members, not to mention abducting, drugging and torturing Pick…”

“Never pad a rap sheet, Rasha,” the god chided. “Pick wasn’t tortured; they wanted intel and the Svennish are too professional to make that blunder. Anyway, all that’s settled, yeah?”

“I’m just…I dunno, surprised. The Guild itself is pretty big on force as a deterrent. I assumed that came from you.”

“There are people who just can’t be reasoned with,” Eserion said, his expression immediately growing solemn, almost glum. “People who cannot be redeemed and won’t improve. There are people in this world who are unsalvageable, intolerable, people with whom you can do nothing but destroy them before they can harm anyone else. As an Eserite you’re going to have to deal with a few of those people over the course of your life, Rasha, and as such you need to be aware that that is a tiny number of people. Nearly everyone is doing the best they can to do what they think is right, and when they fail, it’s just failure, not sin. Often well-meaning people have to be stopped, but there’s rarely a point in pursuing them after that.”

She frowned down at the sleeping dwarf again. “Well, okay, but…I mean, all the kidnapping…”

“Your dwarf friends saw shadowy abusers behaving violently and were willing to get violent themselves to shut that down.” He glanced at her again and winked. “Eserites of all people should respect that. Perspective’s a powerful thing, Rasha; if you can put yourself in someone’s shoes, you’ll be much better able to tell if you can find common cause with them. Do so, if they’re not too depraved to be worth it, which these guys aren’t. Thorn had the right idea on this. Ooh, eyes front, it’s about to get interesting again!”

The interlopers had not been idle while Rasha and Eserion got the unconscious dwarf settled. The twelve soldiers had positioned themselves in a ring encircling, oddly enough, not the Archpope or his companions but Lanora’s corpse. Though they carried battlestaves at the ready and all faced outward, eyes ceaselessly scanning the area for potential threats, to Rasha it appeared more like a ritual formation than a military one. All twelve were arranged in a perfect circle, spaced around it totally evenly, and though Eserion had been chattering to her at the time, she hadn’t missed Justinian and the officer apparently in charge of them, Nassir Ravoud, directing each to stand in their exact spots. Once placed, they stood immobile—not more still than military attention demanded, but not straying from their assigned places by so much as a toehold.

“This is entirely unsatisfactory,” the grouchy enchanter named Rector barked moments after Eserion’s warning. “These conditions— I need my equipment for the kind of certainty you’re talking about!”

“I will be able to guide the temporal transfer to a degree,” the Archpope told him patiently. “You need only initiate the basic rift, Rector. What is essential is the Angelus configuration. Is there any problem with the remote link to your equipment setup?”

“Wait, temporal transfer?” Rasha muttered while they continued to argue. “Rift? That sounds like time travel. There’s no way, even he would have Scions crawling up his ass…”

“Justinian’s got a way with gods,” Eserion said with a grim chuckle. “The Scions don’t respond to what Vemnesthis is prevented from noticing, see?”

“That’s…horrifying.”

“More for me’n for you, I bet. Hsst, this part’s important.”

“It should work, but this is not ideal,” Rector was saying in response to the Archpope’s last comment. “It’s not just remote interfacing with the machines, it’s translocating the entire ritual effect from the prepared chamber to…out here. You have any idea how much data has to be transferred for that to work? Even along a trascension interlink this is pushing it! And this is the prototype version! Makes way more sense to write this one off and start over with the next—”

“Rector,” Justinian interrupted, his voice still patient and gentle but now with a firmness that stifled all debate, “we cannot waste a keystone soul. It is not a common state of affairs for a soul to be imbued directly with divine power by the Pantheon, and then specifically cut off from its notice. I am gathering others, but none are yet in the vicinity of Tiraas, and events have made the need for a functioning Angelus Knight urgent. It is profoundly regrettable that we failed to secure Lanora in time to prevent this, but this is now the situation, and these the extraordinary measures we are forced to take to recover her. Can you do it? If it will not be possible, you must warn me before we make the attempt.”

Rector scowled at the inscrutable machine he was hunched over, and Rasha gaped at the scene.

“He can’t…surely he can’t bring her back from the dead?!”

“Oh, if only,” Eserion murmured. “No, I’m afraid it’s a lot worse than that, Rasha. Watch.”

“It…should work,” Rector said reluctantly. “I don’t like it. This is not tested. First attempts should always be in secured conditions, not in the field. If it goes wrong…”

“Will it?” Justinian asked, calm as ever.

The enchanter blew out a heavy huff of air. “I said it should work, didn’t I? It’s just not proper. It’s not safe procedure!”

“I have faith in you, Rector.”

“The tracks terminate over there, your Holiness,” Ravoud reported as he returned to the Archpope’s side from studying the mess left in the snow around the crash site. “Abruptly; I think they teleported out. Two of them, a dwarf and an elf.”

“An elf?!” Rasha exclaimed.

Eserion cackled and patted her on the back. “You’ve got small feet, and those slippers leave tracks that look like moccasin prints. Cos, y’know, nobody would be wearing shoes like that in the forest on purpose. Goes to show, a person can reason with perfect logic and still be dead-ass wrong without all the facts.”

“The Confederacy is too unstable yet and has no interest,” Justinian was musing to himself while Ravoud stood patiently by and Rector growled at his machine. “A dwarf and an elf who can teleport… Last Rock?” He frowned at Lanora’s body, then shook his head. “No. Neither Tellwyrn nor Yornhaldt would have done this. But…” Slowly, Justinian’s expression cleared, and then he actually smiled. “Trissiny. Avei chose well; that young woman is rapidly growing into her mother’s cunning.”

“I…suppose the second set could have been a half-elf,” Ravoud said, clearly dubous, “but they weren’t wearing Silver Legion boots, I would have recognized that.”

“Indeed. We shall have to add Svenheim to our roster of potentially hostile actors, Nassir.”

The soldier winced. “That would be trouble, your Holiness. The Church lacks influence in the Five Kingdoms.”

“Indeed, that is what makes it a clever move on her part.”

“I do not like how intelligent this guy is,” Rasha muttered. She hadn’t made that connection until Rogrind spelled it out, and she’d been standing in the middle of it, not looking at the aftermath. The god beside her just nodded.

Rector heaved another large, overdramatic sigh. “My fingers are cold. All right, I’ve made this secure as I can. Everything was already set up on the other end for the Angelus configuration, and initiating the temporal rift…well, it’s ready. Long as you’re just accessing the divine field’s battery bank, it hasn’t been long enough to make that any harder. I can’t do anything to make it all more ready.”

“Thank you, Rector.” Justinian nodded deeply to him, which he appeared not to notice. “Then we shall delay no longer.” The Archpope stepped forward from his position to the side of the circle, not crossing into it but changing his placement in a way Rasha recognized as symbolic. Spreading his hands at waist height, he addressed the assembled soldiers. “My faithful friends.”

None shifted from their assigned spots, but all twelve turned to face Justinian and dropped to one knee in the snow, not lowering their heads but gazing up at him raptly. Looking at their faces, Rasha felt an involuntary shiver that had nothing to do with the weather. Those expressions… It was as if they were staring at the source of all light and hope in the universe. She had rarely been in proximity to true fanaticism, but Glory had taken pains to bring her apprentices as guests to religious services where they could see it, and recognize it in the future. There was nothing more dangerous that came from the hearts of people, Glory had warned, and in this moment Rasha believed that. The Universal Church was supposed to be a simply administrative body, a facilitator of interfaith diplomacy between the Pantheon cults. For these men and women to so obviously regard the Archpope as an object of worship, Justinian had clearly twisted everything beyond all recognition. Even if he was successfully deposed, repairing what he’d done to the Church itself would be the work of years, if not generations.

“Each of you knows what comes next,” the Archpope addressed his devotees, his delivery a masterpiece of presentation: grave, solemn, yet kind. “Each of you has volunteered, unasked. What lies before you is not sacrifice, but ascension. And yet, it will be a change—a transition to something you cannot yet conceive. I would ask no one to embrace this except fully of their free will. If any of you would step back from this task now, this shall be the last moment to do so. There will be no recrimination, and no punishment. The task before you I cannot ask of you; it must be fully of your own volition. I would condemn none who choose to turn aside from this path.”

There was silence. Not one of them spoke, or even moved, merely gazed up at him in something very like rapture. Rasha had to tear her own eyes away from them in sheer, sick horror. Even not knowing yet what was about to happen, that little speech told her everything necessary. Faith was a powerful thing, able to uplift people, but if twisted, could utterly destroy them.

“Yeah,” Eserion said gently when she turned to stare helplessly at him, patting her shoulder once. “I know, hon.”

“We can’t just—”

“You gotta let people make their choices, Rasha. Even when those choices are obviously uninformed, or formed out of somebody’s deceit. None of us are qualified to control someone else’s life. Not even me, certainly not you.”

She clamped her lips shut miserably, suddenly sure she didn’t want to know what was coming next.

“I am humbled,” Justinian whispered, bowing his head before the silent soldiers kneeling in front of him. “As you have kept faith beyond what anyone could ask or expect, I swear your actions shall be honored as long as human memory persists. Even as you transcend the need for names of your own, the names you leave behind will be kept for eternity, that all who come after us will be reminded of the meaning of duty. Go forward, my dearest friends, with my gratitude, and the certainty that you are bringing salvation to the world.”

Ravoud, Rasha noted, didn’t look remotely comfortable with this, either. Wide-eyed and stiff beyond the demands of military bearing, he looked like a man on the verge of making a protest. But he didn’t, and when he turned his head to look at Justinian she saw something that, in a way, was even sadder than the blind fervor of his soldiers: simple, unconditional trust.

Rector was a living contrast to the mood, watching the Archpope with an impatient grimace. Justinian turned to him and nodded once, and with a soft exhalation, the enchanter placed his fingers in position upon the device he was carrying and began to move them in precise patterns.

The world around them grew lighter.

“Easy,” Eserion soothed, patting her on the shoulder again. “What you’re about to see isn’t gonna be comfortable but you’re in no danger. This part here is just a general surge of divine magic in the area. Hell, after the morning you’ve had, it might do you a world of good.”

It actually was sort of pleasant, incongruously with the scene thus far. Aside from a general lightening of the atmosphere, which looked odd due to how gentle it was and not glaring off the surrounding snow the way sunlight did, she felt a sense of imposed calm pushing against her mounting unease, plus a pleasant tingling replacing the sore spot at her shoulder where the destroyed warming charm had burned her. At the very edge of her hearing was a soft tone, reminiscent of both bells and flutes; Rasha couldn’t quite place what it sounded like, but it was soothing.

Justinian had closed his eyes and tilted his head back in a pose Rasha recognized as common among spellcasters focusing on something, and now the light suffusing the area brightened further around him, coalescing into a golden aura illuminating his body in particular. Except, unlike any divine aura she had personally seen, it seemed to solidify into constant, ever-shifting rays of discrete light beaming out from him in all directions, rather than a simple suffusing glow.

“Uh…” Rasha leaned away from a sunbeam that flashed past to her left.

“Relax, those wouldn’t hurt if they hitcha dead on,” Eserion assured her. “And they won’t, anyway. You’re not what this hoodoo is targeting.”

“That doesn’t look particularly targeted.”

“Just watch.”

Almost as soon as he spoke, a target did indeed emerge. More and more of the rays shifted forward, peppering the blood-stained snow in the middle of the circle, until they clustered to the point that a scintillating spotlight was focused on Lanora’s nearly-beheaded corpse.

“Target locked in,” Eserion murmured, watching intently. “Now comes the ‘temporal’ bit. This may start to get disorienting.”

“And yet you keep telling me to watch it.” Most people’s gods probably didn’t appreciate being sassed, but he chuckled.

It was at that point the ritual began to truly demand her attention, because Lanora twitched.

Not physically, the way a body would, Rasha realized; golden after-images were beginning to flicker around the corpse, suggesting at movements it was not actually making. At least, for the first few moments, before it quite abruptly sat up. In a single jerky motion the body heaved upright to a kneeling position, then passed through another series of blurry flashes before even those consolidated into a kind of reverse spray of light flashing into place around Lanora’s head.

This consolidated into the missing parts of her skull, formed out of golden light. The rest of her body had taken on a luminous quality, as if the solid matter were dissolving into energy even as energy flowed in to make up for what had been lost. She twitched and heaved again, jerking unnaturally upright into a hunched standing posture. Only when another reversed explosion flashed into place at the missing chunk of her side did Rasha’s appalled brain catch up with what she was seeing.

“He’s reversing what happened to her!”

“Think this is the cutoff point you were looking for,” Rector grunted, eyes fixed on his machine rather than the awesome spectacle in front of him. “Right? Right. Re-syncing.”

The light changed, no longer streaming directly from the Archpope but still lingering around Lanora’s upright body—and in fact, beginning to glow more brightly from it. Justinian’s eyes opened and he heaved a breath, not ostentatiously but enough to reveal the exertion of his performance, and his chest continued to rise more heavily as he stepped back from the circle, Rouvad hovering about him like a worried mother hen.

“Translocation’s working fine,” Rector reported tersely. “Whole system seems to be running, power’s sufficient to activate the ritual remotely, no significant throttling of energy or data across the connection. Everything’s within expected tolerances. This seems to be working.”

Justinian just nodded at him, which he didn’t see, eyes still fixed on his gadget. Rasha was barely paying attention to them, her gaze fixed on Lanora.

The body continued to change, color seeming to gradually leech from it as the glow intensified, as if its physical substance was dissolving to leave a person-shaped construct of Light behind. Now, as the glow intensified further, she actually began to rise off the ground. Her limbs shifted in an almost lifelike way, as though the woman’s intelligence were once again operating them. Now fully translucent and golden, Lanora ascended vertically, still in the center of the circle, until her feet dangled just above the heads of the onlooking soldiers. Spine arched, she leaned her head back to gaze at the sky, extending her arms behind her. Rasha couldn’t see her expression from that angle, but the pose could have indicated a sublime experience, or the furthest extreme of agony.

Staring at this, it took her an extra few seconds to notice the changing light was beginning to affect the twelve soldiers as well. More divine auras were slowly rising into existence around each of them, somewhat unevenly as if the energy affected every individual in a subtly different manner. Gradually, their own postures shifted; all had turned by that point to face Lanora’s transmuting body in the center, and one by one, military bearing began to yield to postures similar to hers. Heads back, arms going loose, spines slowly arching, their bodies clearly gripped by some extreme sensation, for good or for ill.

None of them made a sound. The scene was so chillingly silent that the distant, high-pitched chiming of divine magic at work seemed far louder than it was.

Rasha had to avert her eyes at the sudden explosion of pure golden light from the center of the circle, bursting with a sound like an enormous bell. A surge of wind and sheer kinetic force rushed outward, blasting snow in every direction—not the bloody snow, thankfully, that appeared to have dissolved along with Lanora’s corporeal form—and only Eserion’s hand against her back saved Rasha from being tipped over by the sudden impact.

When she could see again, Lanora was gone, and what had happened to her was beginning to take hold of the twelve soldiers. Slowly, they each rose off the ground, the colors and textures of their physical forms fading into constructs of translucent gold.

“Oh, no,” she whispered, “they’re not…”

Eserion made no reply, and no one else heard her.

The effect wasn’t as simple as it overtook the twelve sacrificial volunteers. Where Lanora had hovered there was now a single point of light, blazing like a second sunrise and connecting each of them with streamers of luminous energy. More such tendrils coiled and connected each of them around the circle, and across it, making a web of intricate rays. Not just direct beams connecting them, either; the more Rasha stared, the more she felt there was a pattern to them, something fiendishly complex, and yet, something it felt she should be able to grasp the purpose of, if she could only study it long enough. Narrowing her eyes in concentration, she glared against the throbbing pain that began to grow behind them…

A hand settled atop her head and Eserion forcibly turned her face away from the scene.

“It’s like an eclipse,” he advised. “Glance, then glance away. You don’t stare directly into that unless you wanna seriously hurt yourself.”

“But…it’s…what is…”

“Trust me, Rasha, that only seems like you should be able to parse it. You’re looking at sheer mathematics of a caliber that’d tie your brain in knots. Study the edges, get a broad impression, and don’t fixate. This is almost over, anyway.”

She tried to follow his advice, averting her gaze and glancing across various soldiers’ rising forms individually without trying to take in the whole scene, checking in on the Archpope and his two lackeys—none of whom were doing anything interesting, just watching the unfolding ritual like she was—then turning her head to take in the ritual with only her peripheral vision. That didn’t make much difference, but as long as she didn’t gaze too long at any one point or let her consciousness get sucked back into the intricate riddle of magic unfolding in the center, she could follow the progression of events.

By that point, what had befallen Lanora was in the final stages of affecting the twelve soldiers, and Rasha very much feared she knew what was next for them. Unlike Lanora, though, they were being pulled forward as they rose into the air—or more accurately, toward the center. The whole thing gave her the intuitive sense of a well-made sailor’s knot tightening in on itself to form a solid structure from loose coils of rope as the tension was pulled taut. Even without understanding what was happening, she could sense the momentum, feel the pull on her very soul as existence bent around them, the magical forces at work tugging everything into a single point of collapse.

Something was taking shape, something forged from thirteen mortal souls, crafted of impossibly intricate flows of magic.

Rasha finally had to look away entirely as all dissolved into Light. She could no longer make out any details with her eyes, nor could they stand to be directed at the intensity of luminous power that shone from the ritual circle. There was nothing now but the blaze of divine magic, so intense it felt warm on her cheek as she shifted her head away from it.

Then it faded, quickly at the end. The finality came not with another burst of power, but almost anticlimactically, the glow dissipating and the ringing in Rasha’s ears receding to a barely discernible tone at the faintest edge of hearing. Reluctantly, fearing what she would find, she turned back to see the result.

In the center of the disturbed snow, now cleansed of every trace of the twelve soldiers or Sister Lanora, including the sprawling bloodstain itself, there knelt a glowing…lump. Rasha blinked, unable to visually parse what she was seeing for a moment, until it shifted.

An arm emerged from amid the golden shell, bracing itself against the ground as if it had nearly toppled over. The luminous outer coating continued to crack and shift, reshuffling itself confusingly until the face emerged, along with the shape of a kneeling person within, and perspective snapped into place, finally letting her realize what she was seeing.

It was wings. Broad pinions wrought of sheer golden light, glowing gently and somehow distinct enough that she could pick out every single feather. They had been mostly wrapped around the kneeling form, obscuring its shape, but now flopped outward to spread across the snow in an ungainly manner. The figure lifted its head, and she realized its hair had also contributed to the glowing confusion. That, too, was golden, and not like simple blond hair: it seemed not only made of light, but subject to some force outside the norm, shifting slowly about as if in a soft breeze, or an ocean current.

The winged person had white skin, the color and texture of marble, so pure it resembled a moving statue more than skin. Its features were angular, androgynous, and it wore a robe of snowy white, over which was laid a suit of armor, golden and glowing as its wings and hair. Rasha saw the hilt of a sword buckled at its waist, also gold, but apparently actual gold, and not made of glowing energy.

Justinian paced forward, the soft crunch of snow under his careful steps incongruously loud in the stillness, and knelt before his creation, reaching out with both hands.

“Mnn,” Rector grunted, ruining the moment. “Looks like…success. All measurable values within their expected ranges based on the Vadrieny and Azradeh data and my extrapolations. We’ll have to do proper tests in a secured location, of course.”

The Archpope ignored him, gently taking the hands of the Angelus Knight, as he had called it.

“Rise, most honored servant of the Light.”

The Angelus fully lifted their head finally, opening their eyes. Within were pure, fathomless pools of the Light itself. It answered him in a voice like a choir, thirteen resonant souls speaking in unison.

“What is your command?”

“What?” Rasha echoed faintly, the single word sounding dumb even to herself. It was all she could come up with, though.

“Demigods are interesting critters, y’know,” Eserion commented, once again bracing a hand against her back to help keep her upright. Rasha didn’t ordinarily care for being touched by men she did not know very well, but his little pats and pushes had all been simply reassuring, and now she just felt grateful for the support. “They don’t follow…any established rules, see? Basically a god’s apex creation, something they make out of bits of themselves and usually some mortal they found especially worthy. They cause the most abominable fuckin’ trouble, which is why most of us haven’t done that in the longest time. For a good while, the only demigods were the daughters of Elilial.

“Then, well, the worst befell them. Only Vadrieny survived, stuck in the body of Teal Falconer… And just about the first thing that happened to the two of them was that they spent weeks in the Universal Church, being poked and prodded and studied by Justinian’s best and brightest minds. What he learned from that formed the basis of this little science project, along with some additional sources of info he’s scrounged up since, and a lot of really high-level magical understanding that was necessary to fold all that data into a useful form.”

“But what is it?”

“That,” Eserion said quietly as Justinian helped the Angelus to their feet, “is for all intents and purposes an archdemon, minus the demon part. Crafted from divine magic, and loyal only to him. And now that he knows it works, he can make as many as he wants.”

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Hiatus Notice

The Gods are Bastards will be going on official hiatus until mid-August, aiming to resume the third week of the month.  I sincerely apologize for this.  Explanation to follow; if discussion of depression, mental health, or various current events (you probably know the ones) are uncomfortable or triggering for you, you may want to skip the rest of this post.

So, the long and the short of it is I’m having the most severe mental health breakdown I’ve had in years.  Not the worst ever, but the worst in a long time, and I am basically failing, entirely, to function.  It’s not just updates to the story that have ceased; it’s been weeks since I’ve managed to do anything.  This has been a perfect storm of problems, I think.  My depressive episodes have been getting steadily worse for the last few years anyway, I’ve grown increasingly burned out on the story itself to the point that I was starting to dread having to write each chapter, and then came the outside influences.  I have been responsibly socially isolating and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future because I live in a country whose pandemic measures have been blitheringly incompetent on average, and the isolation has been progressively wearing on me, interacting with my existing condition in a way I did not anticipate and am handling poorly.  And now, most recently, the city I live in has become the front line in my government’s attempted slide into fascism.  I don’t think I’m in immediate physical danger from that, hiding in my apartment as I’ve been anyway, but the stress it causes is still constant and severe.  Basically, this has moved beyond one of my standard depressive episodes and verges on a full-blown crisis.

I don’t know what, if anything, I can do about it.  There’s really no mental health care of any kind available to me.  I hate to call a hiatus now; it’s an incredibly stupid time, with this book in its climax and last few chapters.  I was trying so hard to get to the end of Book 16 and then take the break, but I failed to make it.  I’m sorry for that.  At this point, though, the only real change I’m able to make toward self-care is declaring the break official just to remove the weight of my ongoing failure to produce chapters from hanging over me so immediately.  That’s been my greatest source of additional stress the last couple of weeks.

I just want to reiterate how sorry I am for all of this.  I hate letting down the people who’ve done so much to support me, and I wish I could do better for you.  I love and appreciate everyone who reads my story; all I want is to make something cool that brings people a little happiness, because we certainly all need some.  I’ll try to do better in the future, but for right now I’m forced to acknowledge that the best thing I can do is try to pull myself back together a bit.

I’ll still be reachable via discord, and will post any updates there, as well as here.  There will be a few changes when I return in August; I have some ideas I want to try, particularly toward offering some additional benefits for Patreon backers.  At any rate, once TGAB resumes the standard update incentives will, and given the backlog that has accumulated while it was suspended, extra chapters will be funded for quite a few weeks to come.

Please stay safe out there, and take care of yourselves.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.  Sorry about everything.

edit: I only realized after the fact I first posted this in the wrong part of the site.  Seriously, I’m not functioning well.  Sorry, should be fixed now for RSS readers.

16 – 52

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With a unified, resonating hiss that tore the skies, the two nurdrakhaan surged forward at a terrifying speed, undulating rapidly just like eels slicing through the water. Their disproportionately small crimson eyes narrowed to slits and their beaked jaws opened wide as they closed the distance in preparation for their attack, revealing multiple rows of serrated teeth behind the hard beaks themselves.

At this unmistakable aggression, the necro-drake’s momentary unease vanished as if at the flip of a switch. It forgot the warlocks who’d been harassing it for the last half hour; in a single beat of its wings which scattered stray wisps of inky smoke, it launched itself aloft and pelted straight across the prairie, low enough that the wind of its passing disturbed the tallgrass which remained in the wake of its battles with Natchua and the Wreath. Black smoke trailed behind like a comet’s tail and the chaos aberration let out its own eerie howl in counter to the nurdrakhaans’ distinctive hiss.

The massive creatures were separated by over half a mile, but the distance closed in a terrifyingly short span of seconds. At the last moment, the necro-drake beat its wings a final time, shooting upward in order to dive down at the nurdrakhaan, which were less agile in the air and, though they tried to correct, were unable to change course quickly enough to meet the skeletal monster with their menacing jaws.

With an impact that could be felt through the ground a mile distant, the necro-drake slammed into one nurdrakhaan from above, seizing its neck and driving it into the earth. The second demon overshot but swiftly circled back to where the chaos beast was savaging its flailing companion. Rather than attempting again to seize the necro-drake in its beak, it simply headbutted the skeleton at full speed, tearing it loose and sending it flailing through the air.

The necro-drake recovered itself quickly, turning and hurtling forward again, this time at the second nurdrakhaan. Both grappled in midair for a moment before the drake managed to seize the demon with its limbs, clawing at its side and repeatedly slashing at the three of its eyes on that side with its bony tail, while the nudrakhaan hissed in fury and thrashed about. It took the second demon several seconds to position itself properly to seize the necro-drake in its beak and rip it bodily clear.

All three knew nothing but attack. They thrashed and flailed, hurling themselves repeatedly against one another in mindless savagery, only the infernal bindings on the nurdrakhaan preventing them from attacking each other as well. Individually, they were at a disadvantage: the chaos beast was far more agile, both in the air and especially on the ground, and with not only fanged jaws but four clawed limbs and a tail, it possessed far more in the way of natural weapons. But there were two, and each time it managed to latch onto one, the second was there to clamp a massive beak onto its body, to smash it with an armored head or a lash of a flat tail.

In short order, the damage began to accrue—not merely on the landscape, which so quickly accumulated craters and massive gouges from repeated impacts of the huge monsters that a radius of several acres soon ceased to resemble a prairie. The combatants accumulated damage, as well, even the hardened hide of the nurdrakhaan acquiring rents from which seeped acrid black blood that smoked when it struck the ground. The necro-drake’s actual structure was brittle black glass, tenuously held together by ligaments of shimmering magic barely visible through its haze of smoke. It suffered greatly from body-blows which would have pulverized a castle. Its innate self-repair kept it alive, but only just; the sheer physical punishment it received from two colossal, unrelenting demons started to wear it down as none of the spellfire it had soaked up since arriving in Veilgrad could. It was a creature of chaos; much of that magic had misfired or fizzled on contact, doing little harm. The nurdrakhaan, their own inherent magic shielded by Elilial’s intervention, bypassed its defenses by the simple expediency of hitting it.

Repeatedly, unceasingly, utterly disregarding their own accumulating injuries. Demons did not know mercy or retreat. If they felt fear, it only fueled their rage. Not for anything would they stop.

Wisely, all the mortal warlocks observing this had removed themselves further as soon as the necro-drake’s attention was off them. Not so far as to be completely absent from the scene, but they could watch it far more comfortably from a distance of several miles. It was a clear day on the vast prairie, and not at all hard to see the three titans trying to pound each other to smithereens from far enough away not to be in the fallout zone.

The Wreath were too enraptured by the spectacle, and perhaps too exhausted as the adrenaline began to ebb from them, to even register surprise when darkness swelled in their midst and Natchua stepped out of midair.

“Everybody okay?” she demanded brusquely, glancing back and forth to get a quick headcount.

Embras Mogul had plucked a strand of brittle winter tallgrass and was idly chewing on the broken end, staring at the awesome spectacle in the distance.

“Lady,” he drawled after a pause, “do you have any idea how illegal that was?”

“A lot less for me than for you,” she retorted. “Hereditary privileges of House Leduc, law of expedient measures in defense of the realm… And that’s before the Throne weighs how much trouble there’d be if they try to come down on a very popular noble for saving an Imperial city. I might have to pay a fine.”

“Fine, nothin’,” he huffed. “You just went from Quentin Vex having a thick file on you to having your very own office at Intelligence of dedicated agents making sure he gets a daily briefing on what you have for breakfast. You’re gonna be someone’s job now, Natchua. Several someones. Ever hear the term Zero Twenty?”

A particularly furious hiss echoed across the prairie, followed by a howl of impotent rage as one of the nurdrakhaan seized the necro-drake’s ribcage in its jaws and arced through the air to slam it into the ground.

“You’re sweet to worry about my well-being,” Natchua said, “which is what I’ll have to assume is going on here since I know you are constitutionally incapable of giving a shit where you stand with the legitimate authorities. It’s the only thing about you I’ve ever been able to relate to. I gather, regarding my earlier question, you all actually are okay?”

“Do you care?”

He turned to her, raising his chin so as to meet her eyes without the wide brim of his omnipresent hat in the way, just watching her with an expression as neutral as his tone. In almost any situation that phrase would be a challenge, or at least sarcastic, but Mogul was strangely subdued. It was just…a question. One by one, the rest of the warlocks shifted their attention from the colossal thrashing taking place in the distance, turning to watch her with the same weary neutrality.

“Course I do,” Natchua replied, shrugging once. “We made a deal, and you did your part. You protected my city, so I protect you. Doesn’t mean any of us have to like each other, but I keep my word.”

Mogul made a broad, chewing motion with his jaw, shifting the tallgrass stalk to the other corner of his mouth, and then nodded once. “Yup. We’re fairly winded, but no injuries. That’s a little bit more exercise than we like to get on our operations, but you are dealing with professionals, here.”

“I think I’m getting a blister,” Rupi complained. “I’m gonna file for compensation from House Leduc.” Vanessa halfheartedly nudged her with an elbow.

“Knock yourself out,” Natchua grunted. “I have a steward now; he strikes me as somebody who could use a laugh. Thank you for holding that thing back, all of you. If everyone’s still shipshape, your part in this is done. Go rest up while I finish this.”

Another surge of shadow and she was gone.

“So, this may go without saying,” Embras announced, turning to the others, “but there’ll be no question of letting Duchess Bossypants get the impression she’s going to order us around.”

He was answered mostly by grins, though not entirely.

“Is it necessary to be defiant for defiance’s sake, Embras?” Bradshaw asked. “She just jumped to nearly within swiping range of that…mess. I don’t know if getting any closer is a smart thing to do.”

“You’re not wrong,” Embras replied, “but ask yourself how confident you are that a girl whose main strategy in all conflict is ‘hit it with the craziest thing you can imagine’ can actually clean this up, instead of inventing an exciting new way for it to be worse.”

Bradshaw sighed heavily.

“I suspect that common sense concerning Natchua will never be the easiest or most pleasant thing to hear,” Hiroshi said with a small smile, and then was the first to shadow-jump out.

They arrived in a staggered formation, materializing one by one over several seconds behind Natchua, who was holding out both hands toward the conflict between the three enormous monsters, which itself was uncomfortably close. She did not look up at them, but at that distance an elf could not have failed to detect their presence, even through the enormous noise of screeching, hissing, and earth-shaking impacts.

“Really?” she said in a sour tone, otherwise remaining focused on her work.

“Well, we’re not allowed to wage war on the Pantheon’s servants,” Embras said reasonably, “or you. Putting down demons and…I guess…other assorted creepy-crawlies is all we’ve got left. And surely you don’t think we trust you to handle this unsupervised.”

“Just don’t get in the way,” Natchua snapped. To summon the nurdrakhaan, she had used a scaled up version of the basic katzil summoning and binding spell—it had required exponentially more power and certain parts of the matrix were fiendishly complex in comparison, or anybody could have been able to do it, but the result had been a spell that worked more or less the same, including having a built-in mechanism to banish the creatures back to their own plane at will and familiar controls the caster could leverage to direct the demons.

After leaving them to soften up the necro-drake for a few minutes, she now seized those reins actively, not least because the chaos monster was softening them in turn and the whole idea was to finish this business as efficiently as possible. It took her a few false starts to get the hang of it; the process was very similar to the intuitive control she had over her own muscles, but there were inherent mental barriers against applying that to two entities separated from her physically, with very different types of bodies and startlingly simple nervous systems, and through whose senses she could not see directly. It was both intuitive and counter-intuitive, and it was not at all helped by the fact that she was trying to pin down a thrashing monstrosity which did not at all want to cooperate.

But in the end, the nurdrakhaan were huge, and bulky, and Natchua’s own personal lack of subtlety in her approach to life found a harmony with their simple minds and the task at hand.

One of the gigantic demons got a firm grip on the necro-drake’s long neck; under her careful control, it was light enough not to shatter the brittle glass of its “skeleton,” which would have just freed the monster and caused its self-healing ability to restart the whole struggle. Natchua directed that nurdrakhaan to bury its nose into the earth itself, pinning the necro-drake down by an inexorable grip right behind its head, exactly the way one would hold a venomous snake. This mostly denied it leverage, though there remained the problem of its four legs, tail, and wings, all of which could be used to push off from the ground.

She settled that by having the second nurdrakhaan curl itself up like a sleeping cat and sit on the chaos beast. That, ironically, took more doing, as nurdrakhaan did not normally touch the ground at any point in their life cycle and the demon had trouble parsing the concept. But Natchua prevailed, and soon enough the necro-drake was weighed down by an iron grip on its neck and the huge bulk of a coiled beast flattening it against the earth. It continued to struggle, but ineffectually. There was little it could do but twist its head very slightly from one side to the other, and claw helplessly at the ground with its talons.

“Damn,” one of the Black Wreath warlocks murmured from behind her, followed by a low whistle from another.

Several of them drew breath to protest as Natchua stepped forward toward the pile of monsters, but ultimately decided against bothering to argue with her. They did catch on, eventually.

She strode up until she was less than her own height distant from the necro-drake’s nose. It snapped its jaws at her, its attempts to lunge forward carrying it only a few inches, which were immediately pulled back. Even the impact of its teeth were practically a thunderclap at that proximity.

“You’re not very smart, are you?” she asked aloud. “I suppose there’s no point in asking you to explain yourself. Do you even know who sent you here, to do this?”

It parted its jaws to scream in helpless fury, trying to twist under its attackers. The question was rhetorical, anyway; now that she finally had the luxury of examining the necro-drake up close, Natchua could tell at a glance that it had no sapience. She was not versed in chaos magic, save for Professor Yornhaldt’s warnings that it was an inexact science at best and incredibly likely to backfire. Chaos did not submit to containment and could only with great exactitude to coaxed to flow in certain directions. From an academic perspective she could appreciate the incredible skill that had gone into this creation.

Not that that was going to stop her from smashing it until barely fragments remained.

More to the point, regardless of one’s own magical specialty, one could always discern the presence or lack of a mind in a magical creature. Magic was information, and so was thought; a discrete intelligence was a raging bonfire within the flows and currents of whatever spells shaped a being. This one’s barely constituted a flicker. Modern arcane golems were more intellectually sophisticated.

With time and care, she could undoubtedly have examined the necro-drake in enough detail to discern its weak points, the flaws in its component spells which would cause it to collapse if struck in just the right way. Whether she had the time was debatable, but she sure as hell lacked the inclination.

Natchua summoned the shadows to her, held both her hands forward, and poured pure shadow magic into it.

The idea had come from Kheshiri, the way the succubus had laboriously suffused her own being with shadow magic to better illuminate and control her own component spellcraft. It had taken her months, though. Most people thought shadow magic was limited by the paucity of the long-dead magic fields whose remains it was collectively composed of. Natchua, though, knew a trick.

You had to both recycle the shadow magic continuously—something that would not occur to most practitioners because none of the four primary schools could do that, given how they interacted with sapient minds—and augment one’s supply by reaching for the shadow residue held in other dimensions, a skill available only to warlocks, as drawing power and creatures from Hell was all part of their stock in trade, and no one else’s.

Shadowbeam was a spell that rarely saw the light of day, so rare was the warlock who suspected it existed, much less knew the method. Its base effect was similar to the garden variety shadowbolt, except in a continuous stream rather than a single discharge. In this case, Natchua prolonged its duration significantly by dimming the components of the spell which added its kinetic force and neurological pain. She simply cast a steady stream of bruise-purple darkness straight into the necro-drake’s face.

Shadow magic poured into it, flooding its aura, filling the spaces between its component spells and causing them, as it had with Kheshiri, to stand out in stark relief to her subtler senses. Natchua still could not make heads or tails of most of what she saw, but doing this, she could more clearly discern the presence of chaos. She felt it, trying to seize and twist the massive inflow of shadow magic, and being actively countered by the direct effort of the goddess now looking over her shoulder.

From Elilial she sensed nothing directly, but knowing the Dark Lady was watching so closely regardless made her equal parts angry and uneasy.

More to the point, she could finally discern the source. It was an incongruously tiny thing, for such a powerful creature as it inhabited, but there it was: the merest sliver of absence, pushing against all the magic around it. She could get a vague sense of the way the necro-drake’s component spells had been ingeniously balanced against that constant pull and one another to float around that tiny seed of chaos without being drawn in or destroyed, while all other magic done at it would be instantly countered. All magic not aided by the hand of a god, at least.

It was just one little speck, embedded in the skull, right between its chaotic eyes. One minuscule source for all this horror.

She started to reach out with one of her shadow-tendrils to extract the thing, then thought better of it. Instead of a scalpel, Natchua summoned a hammer: a burning, entropic spear of infernal power, which she hurled straight into the center of that chaos spark. Guided by Elilial’s own protection, it struck true, smashing right through the will of chaos to twist reality around itself.

That careful balance of spells was suddenly not so carefully balanced at all. In a chain reaction taking barely two seconds, they failed, imploded, and burst, spraying fragments of shattered black bone in every direction—save straight forward, as Natchua pushed against the explosion with a shockwave of her own power. Both nurdrakhaan dropped, the one holding the necro-drake’s neck diving straight down and half-burying its head in the soil, the other thumping to the earth. Around them washed a pulse of pure darkness which immediately dissipated, the vast well of shadow magic with which she had suffused the monster rushing out and back to its source now that it had no spell matrix to inhabit.

Natchua took two steps backward, and reached out with her mind to nudge her two demon thralls. They rose up from the ground in silence, leaving her to examine the scene. Where they had pinned the necro-drake there was nothing but a shallow crater, with flecks of broken obsidian strewn outward in all directions. No taint of chaos or infernomancy remained among most of the wreckage, but she could still feel that tiny shard, somewhere. Natchua frowned and started to kneel down to look closer. That had to be found and dealt with, urgently. It shouldn’t be too hard, now that she had time to work…

Then an entirely new kind of roar split the sky, accompanied by a rapidly approaching beat of wings. Several of the gathered Wreath yelled in alarm, and Natchua shot back to her feet, turning to face whatever the hell was happening now.

She barely spun in time to catch it; dragons could move with impossible speed when they wanted to.

An enormous golden form descended from the sky like a diving falcon, seizing one of her captive nurdrakhaan in his claws and bearing the hissing demon to the ground. At the edge of her awareness, Natchua could clearly hear familiar voices shouting her name, but she had no time to listen to that.

With Elilial’s laughter ringing gleefully in her head, she lashed out in sudden fury.

This time the shadowbeam carried the full force of its unmodified base spell, and with all the loose shadow magic still lingering in this area, it had enough impact to bodily rip the gold dragon off his target and shove him physically into the sky like a blazing comet. Dragons might be the universal masters of magic, but the shadow schools were a wild card against which few casters could be prepared, especially for exotic spells like the shadowbeam which hardly any would ever encounter. She sent the dragon hurtling a good three hundred feet straight into the sky before he gathered himself enough to counter her attack with a rock-solid shield of divine light, and then a pulse straight back at her with ran right down her beam of shadow magic and dissolved it.

Natchua allowed that, only holding onto it long enough for the divine attack spell to be soaked up by her shadowbeam before striking her directly. She only needed a few seconds to do the needful, anyway.

Not for nothing was the banishing spell worked right into the summons and control matrix, ready to be activated at an instant’s need. One should never bring forth demons without the ability to put them back down. Both nurdrakhaan seemed to dissolve from their heads backwards as the fiery collars of light suddenly raced down their sinuous bodies, dissipating past their tails. Behind them sounded a pair of thunderclaps, staggered by less than half a second, as air rushed in to fill the void left by the two huge creatures being returned to their home dimensions.

That was all the time it took for the dragon to be back.

This time, instead of coming at her with fire and claws the way he had the nurdrakhaan, he landed on the ground right in front of her, lowered his head and roared in fury, a show of surprising restraint she attributed to those same three voices still shouting desperately at her and him both.

“Wait, wait, Lord Ampophrenon, she’s a friend!”

“It’s all right, stop attacking, both of you—”

“Natchua, no!”

Instead of whatever no was supposed to mean in this context, Natchua shot straight upward on another pillar of conjoined shadow tentacles holding her by the legs, till she was at eye level with the towering divine beast. He bared his fangs fully, emitting trickles of acrid smoke, his luminous citrine eyes narrowed to furious slits.

Natchua drew back her hand and slapped him hard across the tip of his nose.

Obviously, that did nothing physically to the dragon—in fact, her own hand hurt quite a lot after impacting his surprisingly hard scales—but he blinked, shook his head and snorted, apparently out of sheer surprise.

“What the hell is your problem?” she bellowed right into Ampophrenon’s face. “You show up immediately after a crisis and the first thing you do is attack the people who just solved it? Who raised you?”

“She did not just do that,” Rupi said in an awed tone from behind her. Natchua wondered for a moment what any of the Wreath were still doing there, only belatedly realizing that the unpleasant tingle at the back of her neck was a divine working spread across the area. One quick mental push revealed that the dragon had blocked shadow-jumping, no easy thing to do. But then, he was a dragon.

“Everybody stop!” Trissiny shouted, finally clambering up Ampophrenon’s neck from where she’d apparently been seated and grabbing him by the horns, a position from which she could command both his attention and Natchua’s. “This is clearly a misunderstanding! Natchua, could you not be yourself for five minutes until we straighten this out?”

Behind her, Gabriel slid off Ampoprhenon’s neck and tumbled gracelessly to the torn-up prairie below, followed by Toby, who landed beside his sprawled friend with catlike agility.

“Well, look here,” Natchua spat, “a dragonload of paladins. Exactly what I needed half an hour ago.”

“If you think we coulda got here faster, I’d like to know how,” Gabriel complained, getting to his feet and dusting dirt, ash, and shards of necro-drake off his coat. “Gods, what a mess. What’d you do this time, Natchua?”

“Your job is what she did, boy,” Embras Mogul commented, and Natchua very nearly turned around and pegged him with a shadowbolt for his trouble.

Ampophrenon the Gold shifted his pointed head to look directly at the leader of the Black Wreath and all his assembled followers, then snorted again.

“I sense the taint of chaos here,” the dragon rumbled. “Am I to understand that you put it to rest?”

“No thanks to you,” Natchua retorted.

He bared his fangs at her once more. Each was longer than her forearm, and he had a lot of them. “You, a spellcaster, destroyed a threat most notable for its imperviousness to magic? You will explain yourself, warlock. Explain quickly, and for your own sake, explain well.”

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16 – 51

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Tendrils of shadow rose beneath her, twining together into a great twisted trunk and entangling her legs, and lifted Natchua straight up. She rose to a solid twenty feet in height, balanced perfectly in the tentacles’ grasp, until she judged that a sufficient altitude to do what she needed. Off to the south, beyond the range of human senses, she could see the necro-drake thrashing about and erratically charging in different directions as its new targets teased and tormented it from all sides. The green blotches of elven groves were barely visible to her in other directions—close enough the woodkin shaman would undoubtedly be aware of the large-scale infernomancy that was about to be performed on this spot. Hopefully they’d do as woodkin usually did: duck their heads and wait it out rather than taking action. The last thing she needed was nosy shamans disrupting her casting, to say nothing of what would happen if they appealed to the Confederacy and brought more of those damned Highguard.

Projecting steady streams of fire from her palms, Natchua quickly sketched out two huge spell circles, establishing only the basic boundaries to delineate their overall purpose, then paused to survey her work before getting down to refining the specific—rather elaborate—details this was going to need. For a moment, she considered a third, then thought better of it. Two should be plenty.

Next was supplies. In quick surges of shadow, she summoned from Leduc Manor the extra materials necessary for this that she hadn’t carried on her person: a selection of power crystals, enchanting dusts of three distinct grades, and finally, two bemused succubi.

“What the f— ” Melaxyna broke off and clapped a hand over her eyes. “Well, at least she’s not dead, I was more than half convinced…”

“What kind of bassackward nowhere is this supposed to be?” Kheshiri complained, peering about at the vacant prairie. “You never take me anywhere nice.”

Both demons fell silent as they caught sight of the sprawling circles burned into the ground to either side of their arrival point, the nearby stalks of tallgrass still smoking. In eerie unison, their expressions changed to a matching look of tremulous uncertainty as they recognized what she was about to do and basic pragmatism rebelled at the implications, while their Vanislaad attraction to carnage reveled in them.

“Have you finally lost your last vestiges of sense?” Melaxyna demanded. Kheshiri just began squealing and giggling. After that first moment of uncertainty, they seemed to have taken off in opposite directions, almost as if they’d planned it.

“Enough!” Natchua barked from atop her shadow-tendril perch. “I do not have time to argue; either you trust me or you don’t. I need those circles charged. You both understand the proper lines to augment with enchanting dust and the runic nexi where power crystals will need to be placed. Each of you pick a circle and get to work. Double-check with me if you have any questions, but otherwise no dawdling! We have one chance to save Veilgrad.”

Kheshiri instantly snapped her wings out, snatching up a bag of enchanting dust and swooping off to begin tracing glittering purple lines around the perimeter of one of the circles. Melaxyna hesitated for two full seconds, just long enough Natchua feared the succubus was about to rebel at this. But then she just shook her head, gathered up an armful of power crystals and launched herself at the other circle, muttering under her breath. Even Kheshiri wouldn’t have been able to make out any words at that distance, but Natchua of course heard her clearly.

“Hell with it, either I trust the little freak or everything’s twice-fucked anyway. She hasn’t ended the world yet.”

Natchua forbore comment outwardly, though she spared a moment to hope that remark didn’t prove prophetic. Then she resumed firing jets of flame into the ground, carefully avoiding both swooping succubi and searing the finer details of her summoning circles into place. The Wreath would hold the line for a while, but the clock was ticking.


Despite his dire commentary on their situation, Rogrind seemed in little hurry to remedy it. Of course, as he subsequently pointed out when she complained, they were a short walk from one of the province’s main highways, and with an iota of luck, could there flag down a lift to Tiraas. In the absolute worst case scenario, they’d have to walk to Madouris, which was closer; in nicer weather that would have been merely tiring and time-consuming. At present, it would be a very unpleasant slog through the thick snow, though Rogrind insisted he had enough of his resistance potions to tide them both over. Which did nothing to make the prospect appealing to Rasha, who was already not enjoying standing here in the snow while he fussed over the ruins of his carriage.

She understood his purpose, of course, for all that it was no concern of hers and thus annoying. A custom carriage outfitted by Svennish intelligence contained all sorts of goodies his agency wouldn’t want falling into the hands of anyone who might come to investigate this wreck. Already Rogrind had pried loose multiple concealed devices and made enough of them disappear to reveal he had potent bag-of-holding enchantments on multiple pockets. Including, she noticed with amusement, the vehicle registry plates. Undoubtedly those wouldn’t lead directly to the Svenheim embassy, but Imperial Intelligence would take one look at what had happened to this carriage and begin tracking everything as far as its substantial resources would allow.

“Oh, that’s real subtle,” she scoffed as Rogrind very carefully uncorked a vial from his apparently substantial alchemy kit and poured its contents over a console which had been hidden beneath the driver’s seat. Most of its dials were shattered anyway, but the thing itself must have been distinctive. At least before the metal had begun to dissolve under the potent acid with which he was now dousing it. “I’m more nobody’s gonna have any questions about that.”

“Obviously,” the dwarf replied without looking up, continuing to be unperturbed by her disapproval, “the best technique is to avoid notice entirely. When that fails, it can suffice to ensure that there remains nothing to notice. Alas, this is somewhat more labor-intensive, and less likely to succeed. In the business one must not expect the fates to align in one’s favor.”

“Can’t see, don’t see, won’t see,” she agreed. The dwarf sighed softly but said nothing, and Rasha gleefully filed that away. He didn’t like being reminded that the Thieves’ Guild’s work was very similar to his own. There was more amusement to be leveraged from that, surely. “While we’re standing around making small talk anyway, what are you still doing in Tiraas at all? I’d’ve figured you’d be reassigned as hell after your cover got blown last year.”

“An agent whose identity is not known has many uses,” he explained, still outwardly calm. “An agent whose identity is known in his country of operation has other, specific ones. In particular when one operates opposite skilled players like Quentin Vex, it is vastly useful to have obvious targets for him to follow around. There are no wins or losses in the great game, Rasha, merely changes upon the board. Hm.”

“Something wrong?” He’d stopped pouring, as a faint light had begun to flicker on one of the surviving pieces of the instrument panel he was destroying. Rogrind hesitated before continuing his work, quickly drizzling acid over that, too, and snuffing it out.

“No more wrong than we should expect, I think. Apparently we are being tracked by means of fae magic.”

“Hm,” she echoed, frowning. There were tradeoffs in fae versus arcane divination; fae tracking was all but impossible to deflect or evade, but so inherently imprecise that it was often not more useful than more vulnerable but specific arcane scrying. “Friend or foe?”

“Sadly, we would need an actual practitioner to determine that. The simple ability to detect fae attention via a passive enchantment is state of the art. By your leave, I believe we should adopt a cautious posture, in any case.”

“Leave granted.”

He took great care to re-cork the bottle which had contained acid and wipe it off on the surviving upholstery before stowing it away. Rasha would’ve just discarded the bottle on the grounds that any idiot would be able to discern what had happened here and one more piece of glass wouldn’t tell them anything, but then again, thieves and spies weren’t so similar that they had exactly the same training. Only when that was done did he produce a device made to look like a pocketwatch—a standard deception, Glory had over a dozen enchanted devices set in watch casings—and flipped it open.

Whatever it was, the information it contained instantly changed the dwarf’s mood.

“Hide,” he hissed, already turning and bolting. Rasha’s only instincts were trained enough to set her into motion before she bothered to ask questions. For a dwarf, Rogrind was amazingly agile, but she was still faster, and so managed to beat him to the shelter of one of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the ground last year. Funny how things worked out; for all she knew, this was the second time she’d taken shelter behind this particular bulwark.

“What is it?” Rasha breathed once they were concealed. Rogrind still had his device out; she snuck a peek over his shoulder but couldn’t make heads or tails of the multiple tiny dials set into its face.

“We’re about to have company,” he whispered. “An arcane translocation signal just activated in this vicinity.”

“Scrying?”

“No such luck, this is for teleportation.”

“Shit,” she whispered. It might not be bad; Rasha’s friends would definitely be looking for her by now. Off the top of her head, though, she didn’t know of anyone in her inner circle who could teleport. Then again, Trissiny knew all sorts of wacky people, and Glory knew everyone. She looked at the very clear tracks the two of them had made through the snow right to their hiding spot and grimaced, noting Rogrind doing the same.

He pulled out another vial, drank half, and handed the rest to her. Rasha downed it without asking, and he immediately tugged her arm, beckoning her to follow. They set off to another position behind a large hunk of fallen masonry—this time leaving behind no traces in the snow. That was some good alchemy; thanks to Glory’s tutelage, Rasha had some idea what potions like that cost. It stood to reason an intelligence agent would have resources, but she hadn’t realized Svenheim made such heavy use of potions. That information was worth taking back to the Guild.

Even as they moved, a shrill whine like a very out-of-season mosquito began to resonate at the very edge of her hearing, growing steadily louder. No sooner had the pair ducked behind their new concealment than sparks of blue light began to flicker in the air over by the carriage’s wreck. It was but another second before a bright flash blazed across the ruins, and then over a dozen people materialized.

Rasha did not curse again, though she wanted to. These were not friendlies.

By far the majority were soldiers in crisp uniforms, with battlestaves at the ready; they instantly spread out, forming a perimeter around their landing zone and several detaching themselves from the formation to cover the wrecked carriage and the body of Sister Lanora. Rasha didn’t recognize those uniforms. They were white, vaguely resembling Silver Legion formal dress, but their insignia was a golden ankh over the breast. She’d thought the Holy Legionnaires only wore that ridiculously pompous armor, but one of the other parties present revealed the troops could not be anyone else.

Glory had insisted all her apprentices attend occasional services at the Universal Church, simply for the sake of being exposed to polite society. It was not the first time she had seen him, thus, but his presence here threw everything Rasha thought she understood into disarray. Archpope Justinian never left the safety of his power base in the Cathedral. And why would he? There, he was all but invulnerable, even against the countless factions and powerful individuals he had spent the last few years industriously antagonizing. Yet, there he was, his powerful build and patrician features unmistakable, behind a golden shield which had flashed into place around him the instant he’d arrived.

Rasha snuck a glance at Rogrind, who was staring at the new arrivals with the closed expression of an observant man determined to take in all possible data and reveal none in turn.

“Ugh!” shouted one of the other people with the Archpope, a stoop-shouldered individual bundled up as if against an Athan’Khar winter rather than a clear day in the Tira Valley. “These conditions are totally unacceptable!”

“Unfortunately, Rector, this is what we have to work with,” Justinian replied, his mellifluous voice utterly calm. “I apologize, but I must rely on your skill to overcome the inconvenience. This is the last place Lanora’s spirit existed upon the mortal plane, and distance from it makes the task more difficult. Seconds and inches are precious. Nassir, is that…?”

“Think so, your Holiness,” reported one of the soldiers, straightening from where he’d been kneeling at the very edge of the bloodstained patch of snow. The man’s face was hard, but Justinian’s grumpy companion took one look at the remains of Sister Lanora and was noisily sick into the nearest snowdrift. “No other bodies nearby, and she’s wearing Purist gear. Unfortunately her face is…gone.”

The Archpope, perhaps fittingly, was made of sterner stuff. His expression was deeply grave as he joined the soldier and gazed down at the body, but he did not flinch or avert his eyes. “What terrible damage. I don’t believe I have ever seen the like. It’s almost as if…”

“It looks like something triggered small explosions inside her body,” Nassir said, scowling deeply. “In the head, and look, there in the side. That wound would’ve been inflicted first. The head wound would be instantly lethal, so there’s no point in attacking again after that.”

“Have you seen such injuries before, Nassir?”

“Not in person, your Holiness. I’ve been briefed on the like, though, in the Army. Not sure anything I’ve heard of would’ve done it here, though. Some fairies are known to do nasty things like this, but nothing that lives this close to the capital. And of course, if you see unusually ugly wounds, infernomancy is always a suspicion…”

“There has been nothing of the kind done upon this spot in many years,” Justinian stated, raising his head to slowly direct his frown across the scenery. “At this range, I would sense it even under the Black Wreath’s concealment.”

The soldier nodded. “That leaves arcane attack spells. They exist. Very illegal, though. The Wizards’ Guild and the Salyrites both prohibit such craft.”

A moment of contemplative silence fell.

And then, a hand came to rest on Rasha’s shoulder, causing her to jump.

“Go on, say it,” breathed a new voice next to her. “Ask him.”

She just barely managed to stay silent, turning to gawk at the man who had appeared from nowhere between her and Rogrind: the waiter from the cafe who had warned her and Zafi of the Purist ambush. He was even still in his askew tuxedo, the cravat untied and hanging unevenly down his chest. Now, he was watching the scene unfolding before them with the wide-eyed eagerness of a child at a play.

Then she noticed that Rogrind had slumped, unconscious, to the ground, face-down in the snow.

“What of a Thieves’ Guild hedge mage?” Justinian asked, and the waiter began cackling aloud in sheer glee. Rasha frantically tried to shush him without adding to the noise herself.

“They…would be very hesitant to do such a thing, your Holiness,” the soldier named Nassir answered, his voice slowed with thought. Amazingly, neither he nor any of the others appeared to notice the gleeful hooting coming from Rasha’s hiding place. “The legal authorities would investigate any such thing, and possibly get Imperial Intelligence involved. Plus, if the Guild were feeling particularly cruel, they’d do something that would kill far more painfully and slowly. As deaths go, it doesn’t get much more merciful than the sudden loss of the entire brain. It’s not in their nature to risk official attention for something that gains them so little. Still,” he added pensively, “if I had to list mages who might know spellcraft like this, a back-alley Guild caster would top the list, even if they were hesitant to use it in practice. For example, this could be a vicious repurposing of a lock-breaking spell.”

“Oh, relax,” Rasha’s new companion chuckled, patting her on the head as the conversation over Lanora’s corpse continued. “They can’t hear or see us, I took care of that. Also your dwarf buddy here. Don’t worry about him, he’ll be fine; he’s just taking a nap. We’re about to see some shit that he really doesn’t need to, is all. You’ll have to convey my apologies when he wakes up.”

There were just too many questions; she settled on one almost at random. “Who the hell are you?!”

The man turned to meet her gaze, still wearing a cocky half-grin. And for just an instant, he let the veil slip, just by a fraction.

Weight and sheer power hammered at her consciousness as Rasha locked eyes with an intelligence as far beyond her own as the sun was beyond a candle. It was just for the barest fraction of a second, but it was enough to cause her to sit down hard in the snow.

Before them, Justinian raised his head suddenly like a hound catching a scent, and once more turned in a slow circle, studying his surroundings with a frown.

“Easy, there, Rasha,” Eserion said kindly, helping her back up. “I know you’ve had a pisser of a day already, but stay with me; you really need to see this next bit. Moments like this are rare, and you’ll almost never get forewarning of them, much less a front-row seat. We’re about to watch the world change right out from under us.”


One of the worst things about Natchua was that she was sometimes extremely right.

The Black Wreath didn’t fight; at most they laid ambushes. They contained, and that only after preparing the ground ahead of them to the best of their ability, luring their prey exactly where they wanted it before striking. Whether putting down loose demons, rogue warlocks, or their own traitors, it was simply not their way to engage in a frontal assault. Maybe, occasionally, the appearance of one after setting up the scene with the most exacting care, but actually fighting? Hurling themselves into the fray with spell and weapon and their own lifeblood on the line? It simply wasn’t done. It was not Elilial’s way.

Be foxes, not spiders.

The damnable thing was that their usual approach absolutely would not have worked here. The necro-drake was very much like a demon in how predictably it reacted, but there was a lot they could do about demons. Against this thing, their spells were simply not able to make a lasting impact. The mission wasn’t even to destroy or contain it, but only to keep it busy. There was nothing for it but to fight.

Embras Mogul wasn’t particularly surprised at how satisfying it was to simply let loose with all his destructive skill at an enemy, nor how the other survivors of his cult were clearly finding the same liberating vigor in it. After all they’d been through, it was only natural. He was rather surprised to find out that they were, in fact, pretty good at it.

They knew each other intuitively, with the intimacy of long cooperation and bonds forged in suffering. The Wreath moved in small groups, noting and reacting to one another so intuitively it felt like pure instinct. One trio would vanish as the necro-drake dived at them, and others would pummel it from multiple directions with shadowbolts, forcing the increasingly frustrated monster to whirl about and struggle to pick a target while under attack from all sides, only to be thwarted again when its chosen victims vanished into their own conjured darkness when it even tried to get close.

The poor thing was actually rather dumb. It never improved its strategy, just got progressively sloppier as going on and on without making any progress made it ever more angry.

It wasn’t as if they were making progress, either, but the difference was they were having fun. For once, the shoe was on the other foot: after a string of debacles and defeats, they were the cats tormenting the mouse and not the other way around. Embras kept an eye on the others every moment he could spare his attention from the necro-drake, watching for injury or signs of fatigue, but rather than growing tired, he saw his compatriots having more fun than he’d seen them have in years. Some, like Hiroshi, seemed to have fallen into a trancelike state of flow, concentrating in apparent serenity on their spells and tactics, while others were smiling, grinning with savage vindication as they did what no responsible warlocks ever allowed themselves to do: poured unrestrained destruction at their target.

It was, as Vanessa had said, cathartic. And he was a little afraid of what it might mean for the future, perhaps more than he was of the inept monstrosity trying to slaughter them all. It was going to be…a letdown, going back to their usual ways after this burst of sheer release. If they even could. Was there still a place for the Wreath as it was in the world? And if not, how big a mistake was it to tie their fates to Natchua of all bloody people?

Despite his misgivings, Mogul was having such a grand time shadow-jumping about and hammering the chaos best with infernal carnage that his immediate reaction to the sudden end of the exercise was a surge of pure disappointment. In the next moment, as he beheld the nature of that end, his emotional response felt more…complex.

The sound that echoed suddenly across the prairie brought stillness, as warlocks and necro-drake alike all stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. It was a terrible noise rarely heard on the mortal plane, and always a herald of catastrophe: a low sibilance that was like a hiss, if a hiss was a roar, a sound that was at once subtly slender and deafening.

The necro-drake’s bony face was unable to convey expression, but somehow, its body language as it turned to confront this new threat showed shock, even a hint of fear. It crouched, letting its wings fall to the sides, and lowered its head.

Embras Mogul, meanwhile, suddenly sat down in the tallgrass, laughing his head off.

Vanessa appeared next to him in a swell of shadow. “You know, I think we may have miscalculated, allying ourselves with that girl.”

“She doesn’t do anything halfway, does she?” Rupi added, coming to join them on foot. “Bloody hell, Embras. It’s like a…an infernal Tellwyrn.”

He just laughed. It was all too much.


They were adolescents; she’d made the summoning circles smaller on purpose, simply because full-sized adults would be too large to effectively grapple with the necro-drake the way she needed them to. All they had to do was pin the bastard down so she could step in and deliver the coup de grace. Behind their beaked heads, between their triple rows of crimson eyes and the flared directional fins, they wore collars of glowing crimson light, containing the runes which imbued them with the pact of summoning, restricting their behavior to that commanded by the warlock who had called them to this plane. Such bindings had never been placed on demons of this species before. They floated above her, eel-like bodies larger than a Rail caravan undulating sinuously as they awaited their mistress’s command.

It was with grim satisfaction that Natchua beheld the suddenly cowering necro-drake. Standing on the prairie beneath two captive nurdrakhaan, she pointed one finger at the monstrosity.

“Boys? Sic ‘im.”

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16 – 50

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She didn’t dare stop moving.

The necro-drake reacted a lot like a demon, for all that there was no infernomancy in or around it and indeed, any such conventional magic would have disintegrated due to its innate chaos effects, as Natchua had been quick to observe. When attacked, it attacked back, predictable as clockwork. It had gone after everyone in Veilgrad who had fired spells at it, and only been dissuaded from dive-bombing the mag cannon emplacement because Natchua had intercepted it mid-attack. And like many species of demon, it had no strategy beyond rabid frontal assault. That was the good thing: leading the creature away from the city was as simple as hammering it with spells and shadow-jumping away to strike again before it could kill her in retaliation. It didn’t get tired and never wised up to her strategy, just kept coming after her. The beast was no dragon; it wasn’t sapient, and not even particularly clever as animals went. A bear or wolf would have long since given up and gone to do something less futile.

That was the extent of the good news.

Natchua had nothing with which to fight except magic, and against a creature of chaos, magic was useless. Worse than useless—some of the misfires caused by her infernal spells hammering the necro-drake could easily have rebounded on her devastatingly had she been standing closer, which of course was exactly why she kept herself at a distance (aside from the threat posed by the beast itself). Also why she only attacked with magical projectile spells, no energy beams or other effects that would make a connection between her and her target. Spells rebounded, disintegrated, fizzled, transformed into harmless puffs of mist or far less harmless bursts of fire and acid; it seemed each one found a new way to go wrong. They certainly weren’t doing the necro-drake any harm, for all that it clearly perceived her hostile intent and continued coming after her.

She had worked out one trick so far which seemed to do the thing some damage, and was reluctant to use it. It was complex enough that only her elven speed and infernal mastery made it possible: she had to summon a fragment of native rock from Hell and use the inherent volatility of the dimensional transit to fling it at the necro-drake at high velocity, which was at least three individual things few warlocks could have done. Worse, that would leave infernally irradiated chunks of rock littering the landscape unless she took the time to both banish them back to Hell and siphon up the local infernal energy before it corrupted someone, two more feats that were beyond the average warlock’s ability and difficult enough even for Natchua that taking a few seconds to clean the mess she’d left in Veilgrad had nearly allowed the chaos monster to grab her. Thus, she wasn’t about to do that again, for all that it had been far more effective at harming her foe than any of her direct spells.

Worst of all, what harm she did do was quickly reversed; the thing had some kind of innate healing ability. Amid all the constant misfires, there were now again explosions and conjured projectiles which struck the necro-drake, revealing that the craggy black glass of its skeleton was exactly as fragile as it seemed like it should be, but when broken its shards would immediately flow back into place.

Infernomancy was the magic of destruction. All other things being equal, Natchua was certain she could destroy it through brute force alone; she had more than enough of that at her fingertips to compensate for any amount of rejuvenation. But things were not equal, and all her terrible power was good for nothing more than antagonizing it. That wasn’t nothing; she’d managed to lead it away from the city, out past the outlying towns and into the wide empty stretches of the Great Plains, leaving behind a trail of charred tallgrass, outcroppings of conjured rock, at least two mutated trees which had spontaneously grown from nothing, and an annoyingly whimsical variety of other lingering effects. Between constantly dancing ahead of the beast, checking the distance to make sure she wasn’t leading it toward a village or a woodkin grove (the Confederacy would really let her have it for that), and also doing her due diligence to make sure nothing being left behind was too dangerous, Natchua was rapidly becoming overextended. Even elven stamina wouldn’t enable her to keep this up forever, or for long. She needed a solution.

And of course, the only thing she could come up with was the absolute last thing she ever wanted to do: prayer.

“Hey, bitch!”

Undoubtedly the Wreath had rituals for communing with their goddess as did any faith, and undoubtedly that wasn’t one. Natchua didn’t know them, though; Elilial had given her knowledge of infernal magic, not Elilinist ritual practice, and while there was overlap it didn’t extend to religious sacraments. But she was, after all, connected to the Queen of Hell on a personal level, and so she fell back on her own character and resorted to shouting at her. The necro-drake didn’t seem to take the yelling personally; it was already trying to slaughter her due to all the spellfire, so it wasn’t as if some harsh words would make a difference.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you,” Natchua snapped aloud at the air as she stepped out of another swell of shadows twenty yards to the northwest of where the necro-drake was now clawing at the ground where she’d been standing a second before, and fired and short burst of shadowbolts right at its head to get the stupid thing’s attention. There was one factor that would make all the difference here, and only one person she could ask about it. “Paladins are supposed to be immune to chaos! That’s why they always send paladins when there’s a chaos event. I know you can do that, so why the fuck isn’t my magic working on this thing?”

The thing in question emitted its spine-grating wail and vaulted through the air at her. Natchua peevishly launched a carriage-sized fireball right into its face and shadow-jumped out of range a split second before its claws reached her, already conjuring another flurry of shadowbolts to be discharged once she’d positioned herself to lead it farther toward the Golden Sea. If worse came to worst, maybe she could keep going long enough to lure the thing into there and just let it get lost?

Of course, then there’d be no telling where or when it’d come back out…

In all honestly Natchua had not really expected an answer. Thus, the surprise at receiving one caused her a moment’s hesitation that nearly proved fatal before she jumped away again, scowling at the amused voice that rang clearly inside her own head.

Oh, Natchua, you do get yourself into the most interesting situations.

“Yeah, that’s real fuckin’ cute,” she snarled. “Are you going to help me or not?”

I believe you made it clear we would not have that kind of relationship, my dear. I acquiesced readily to those terms. You want nothing to do with me…unless you need help?

She hammered the necro-drake with another huge fireball. Then a second, when the first fizzled out into a harmless puff of smoke seconds before impact. The follow-up spell detonated in a shockwave of kinetic force that sent her flying backwards and smashed the skeletal dragon into the ground.

Natchua was back on her feet immediately, wincing and taking stock. Nothing broken; Professor Ezzaniel had taught her how to fall and her reflexes had been enough to compensate for the suddenness. She was nicely bruised all over, though, just from the force of the hit. The necro-drake stumbled drunkenly about, its bones re-forming right before her eyes.

“And you,” she replied, straightening her sleeves, “said I could call on you for help when I needed it!”

And you don’t need it. There is no need for you to continue fooling about with that thing. You can easily escape—even retrieve your family from Leduc Manor and go back to Mathenon until all this blows over.

“It attacked my city!” she snarled, blasting the chaos beast with a particularly heavy shadowbolt. It transmuted into a three-second burst of choral song in four-point harmony, of all things, but at least that sufficed to get the monster’s attention. It came after her yet again, and she shadow-jumped deeper into the plains, heckling it with desultory spells to keep it interested while she focused on mobility and arguing with the recalcitrant deity in her head. “Protecting Veilgrad is my responsibility! That is not negotiable.”

I will protect you if I must, Natchua, but not from the consequences of your own choices. Trust me, I know more of the history of House Leduc than you ever will, dear. No one will be surprised or even disappointed if you duck your head and sit this one out. Playing hero accomplishes nothing except to fluff your ego.

“Oh, you evil—” It was doubtless for the best that she had to break off and jump repeatedly away as the monster came after her in a renewed frenzy; for a few moments she didn’t even have to fire back at it to hold its interest. Natchua ultimately made a longer shadow-jump, putting enough distance between herself and the necro-drake that it paused, looking around in confusion.

Then she launched a seething kernel of hellfire into the air in a parabolic arc that came down directly on top of the beast. Before it drew close enough to be mangled by the chaos effect, she detonated the spell, causing another huge swath of tallgrass to be charred flat and the monster crushed into the ground. It instantly began trying to rise again, though it took several moments to regather itself sufficiently.

This was not a winning strategy. She needed to kill this thing. She could kill it, of that she was absolutely certain, if only the stubborn goddess would lend her protection to Natchua’s spells.

“I. Need. Your. Help.” Baring her teeth, she growled the admission with all the reluctance of her desperate predicament.

The surge of amused laughter resounding her head made her right eyelid begin to twitch violently.

Because I like you, Natchua dear, I’ll share with you a vital life lesson someone should really have made clear to you long before now: nobody cares what you want. They care what they want. Negotiation is the art of convincing others that meeting your needs will meet their own.

She chewed on that almost literally, working her jaw and watching the necro-drake get its bearings. Despite the distance, she was the only visible landmark around them as by that point she’d taunted it far out onto the prairie. With a keening roar, it charged across the ground at her like a galloping bear rather than trying to fly.

Natchua exploded the ground under it, sending it hurtling away. Unfortunately the monster had enough wit to recognize and abandon a doomed strategy, and came at her through the air again, forcing her to shadow-jump once more to avoid its dive. The interlude had bought her precious seconds to mull Elilial’s words.

“Well, I’m not leaving,” she stated aloud. “Not until that thing is dead. If it kills me, you lose your anchor.”

I like you, my dear, truly I do, and I’m willing to help you up to a point simply because I acknowledge how much I owe you. That doesn’t mean you have a blade to my throat, Natchua. You’ve bought me enough stability that if you insist on squandering your life, I have time to find a replacement. Your existence is not vital to me. Try again.

She cursed a few times each in elvish, Tanglish, demonic and Glassian (Xyraadi was right, it was perversely gratifying to be obscene in such a pretty language). And then for a few minutes longer as Elilial laughed at her again and she had to dance once more with the necro-drake.

It wasn’t getting tired. Natchua wasn’t either, yet, but she knew that would come before too much longer. She had already kept this up longer than a human spellcaster could, and even elven stamina had its limits.

“This is your chance to redeem yourself,” she tried again, moving and firing ineffective spells while speaking. “With the truce in place, if you take action to protect—”

It doesn’t work that way, not for creatures like me. You can have a redemption story because you’re a mortal woman. I am a goddess, a fixture of history. No one will believe I acted out of anything but self-interest.

Natchua did not shriek in frustration, instead channeling her ire into a particularly vicious blast of infernal destruction. The spell disintegrated an instant before smashing into the necro-drake, instead showering it with a cloud of flower petals.

She and it stared at one another in disbelief for a second. Then she zapped it again with a shadowbolt, and carried on evading its furious retaliation.

“What do you want?” she demanded in desperation.

More infuriating, wordless amusement. You’ve already hit on the real issue, and I have explained it to you further. Show me you can work that brain, Lady Leduc. Connect the dots and make this crusade of yours useful to me; you know exactly how. Do that, and I promise you’ll have your divine protection. And yes, you’re correct: with that, you can bring this thing down.

It hit her in a burst, the way her own squirrelly schemes often did, the insight that told her what Elilial was hinting at but refused to say outright. And then she could only curse again, because she knew what she had to do.


As distractions went, it wasn’t anyone’s best work, but Natchua figured it was pretty good for a spur-of-the-moment desperation spell. One of the basic summoning spells for katzil demons bound them to obey certain commands, and if carefully memorized and practiced beforehand could be employed to instantly summon a pre-bound flying, fire-breathing servitor to attack one’s enemies. That was one of the old standbys of the seasoned warlock. She was able to augment the base spell considerably, requiring only a few more seconds of conjuration, to compel one of the flying serpents to harass the chaos dragon while remaining out of reach and avoiding leading it toward any signs of civilization. Designing a binding to make it goad the necro-drake toward the Golden Sea proved more intricate than she could manage while casting by the seat of her pants, but hopefully this would distract it long enough to buy her a few precious minutes.

Natchua returned to Veilgrad in a series of jumps rather than directly just to lay a pattern of wards across the general path back, to warn her of the necro-drake’s return if it came back to the city after finishing off her enhanced katzil, which even optimistically she didn’t think would keep it busy for long. Most of them might not help, as the thing might not fly in a straight line and infernal wards had a starkly limited radius of sensitivity, but close to the city walls she swiftly set up three wide arcs that should give her a few seconds of forewarning if it returned.

From there, it was just a matter of shadow-jumping to the last place she’d seen her quarry and stretching out her senses. They were adept at concealing their presence from magical detection, even from her, but had little recourse against the ears of an elf. Natchua hated opening herself up this way in a city—even subdued as it was, Veilgrad was still painfully noisy, and the amount of screams and weeping she could hear made her heart clench.

Finally, though, something went right. It worked, and she found them not far at all from the rooftop on which their smoking barbecue still stood, abandoned.

The collected Black Wreath were making their way three abreast through a wide alley toward the mountainside gate of the city, and slammed to a stop with a series of muffled curses when her final shadow-jump placed her directly in their path.

“You’re going on foot?” Natchua demanded. “Well, whatever, I’m glad I caught up with you.”

“Excuse me, lady, but not everyone’s crazy enough to shadow-jump in the presence of a chaos effect,” Embras retorted.

“It’s arcane teleportation that’ll fuck you up if you do it anywhere near chaos. Shadow-jumping is relatively safe, so long as you don’t actually jump into the source.”

“You may have forgotten,” Vanessa said icily, “but we have particular reason to be leery of anything chaos-adjacent.”

“Right.” Natchua drew in a deep breath, steeling herself. That was the worst possible segue into her next argument, but she didn’t have the luxury of time to finagle this conversation back around. “I need your help to take that thing down.”

Mogul, Vanessa, and about half a dozen of the others outright laughed in her face. Which, she supposed, wasn’t the worst reaction she could have expected.

“Bye, Natchua,” Mogul said, shaking his head and stepping forward and one side as if to brush past her. “Good luck with that.”

Natchua reached to to press her hand against the cold brick wall, barring his path. “We made a deal, Embras.”

“No part of our deal involved us committing outright suicide,” he shot back, his expression collapsing into a cold scowl. “Don’t pretend what you’re asking is anything else. Remember when you handed me that oh so helpfully collated binder of yours? You said in particular to avoid chaos-related issues until everything else was wrapped up. If you intend to make this a stipulation of our arrangement…deal’s off.”

In the back of her head, Natchua felt one of her outlying wards disintegrate as proximity to a chaos effect unraveled it. The beast was coming back. Time grew ever shorter.

She had to inhale once fully to compose herself. Mogul being recalcitrant and petty in the middle of a crisis was just begging to be screamed at and belabored, but Natchua had a suspicion that was exactly the reaction he was fishing for, the perfect excuse to blow her off. As she had just been reminded, he didn’t care what she wanted to begin with. People cared about their own interests. She had to put this in the right way…

“This is your one chance,” Natchua said aloud, not a hundred percent sure where she was going but riding the sense that some subconscious part of her knew what it was doing; that approach had mostly led her to success so far. “The Wreath have always talked a big game about how you’re really in the business of protecting the world—”

“From demons,” Rupi interrupted, “not chaos.”

“—but the last time there was an incident like this in Veilgrad, your help was blatantly self-serving and only caused more problems. This is the moment when you can prove you mean your own rhetoric. Fight to protect this city, and it will be remembered.”

Mogul, expression skeptical, opened his mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on, overriding his intended interruption.

“This is the only chance! Running away is not the neutral action here, it will sink your prospects permanently. We’re at a unique moment in history: Elilial is at peace with the Pantheon, the Wreath has official sponsorship from Imperial nobility, and you’ve been winnowed down to a fragment of a remnant. Elilial’s name will be mud for centuries to come, no matter what she’s done now, she’s been the universal enemy of civilization for so long. But you are at a moment, the only moment you’ll get, when you can prove you have changed and people just might start to believe it. This can either be the rebirth of the Black Wreath, or its final slide into obscurity.

“That thing reacts like a demon; you know how to deal with demons. Magic isn’t effective against it, but it’ll attack anything that attacks it, however futile the spell is. Mages can’t reliably teleport around it, but with shadow-jumping you can stay mobile, get it to chase you away. I did it, and I’m just one person; a whole group can watch each other’s backs and pull it out of range of the city. Only warlocks can do this. It’s not just your reputation on the line here, but the future of infernomancy itself! I don’t even need you to take it down! I can do that, but I need someone to buy me time to prepare the spells I need.”

They were silent, now. Another ward went dark—much farther inward. To judge by the position, the necro-drake wasn’t returning in a straight line, but it was definitely coming this way. Fast.

“Help me,” Natchua said urgently, “and you can change…everything. This is your chance to make a new future, where the Wreath and Elilial can be part of the world instead of pushed into the shadows. Throw this chance away, and you won’t get another.”

Slowly, Mogul shook his head. “I can respect your passion, Natchua, but not enough to die for it.”

Then the chaos beast crashed through her outer string of wards arcing past Veilgrad’s western walls, then the next, and time was up. Natchua snarled at him and vanished in a swell of shadow, already cursing to herself when she rematerialized on the plains outside just as the necro-drake, roaring, crashed through her final line of wards and nearly reached the walls. She immediately snared it with a colossal tentacle of shadow—which, for a wonder, actually did snare it, as the purple-black tendril of energy solidified into a huge structure of glass upon contact with the chaos effect. It immediately shattered, of course, but it had been enough to interrupt the monster’s flight and send it flopping awkwardly to the ground just outside the gates.

She was already hammering it with fireballs and shadowbolts before it could get up, and retreated in a series of small shadow-jumps even as the necro-drake regained its bearings and came after her, howling in outrage. The whole time, she never stopped cursing.

This development not only sank her best idea, but her Plan B as well. With a promise of a paladin’s resistance to chaos and accomplices to buy her a few minutes to put her plan into action, she was certain she could kill the monster. Failing that, there were other paladins, and Natchua was certain they’d come running for something like this.

And had it been several hours ago, she could’ve shadow-jumped right to Madouri Manor and collected them. But now all three were neck-deep in major political actions in their own temples—structures with ancient and powerful wards that prevented her shadow-jumping, to to mention basically all of her magic, currently swarmed with dozens if not hundreds of people each who’d be demanding the paladins’ attention, and staffed by clerics who were unlikely to be impressed by her noble title and would probably become overtly hostile at the first hint of infernomancy. Untangling that could take, potentially…hours.

Natchua had just learned that she could distract this thing for, at best, a few minutes at a time. She was officially on her own. Which left the backup plan: stay alive long enough to goad it for hundreds of miles until they reached the Golden Sea and try to lose it there. That would be kicking the problem down the road, and probably not by more than a few days, not to mention guaranteeing it was uncertain where it would come back out again. But at least it would buy enough time for the paladins to rally, and the Empire to throw something together. Tiraas ran mostly on arcane magic, but its resources were unfathomable. Surely Imperial Command could come up with something.

That was a hope for later, though. For now, she had her task in front of her.

Cursing didn’t take much energy, so she didn’t stop even as she retraced her steps, past the wreckage and peculiar stains left by her last try to leading the necro-drake away from Veilgrad. Having to cover the same ground, in the same exhausting way, made it all feel so…futile.

But Natchua Leduc did not stop fighting in the face of futility. She cussed at futility and smashed it with shadow-bolts. So that was what she did.

The surviving spires of Veilgrad were still within view when suddenly infernal magic swelled around her. In the next second, the skies were filled with demons.

Katzils swarmed the necro-drake, distracting it from Natchua’s own attacks and earning her a reprieve. They fared poorly, of course, dramatically dying just by coming too close, to say nothing of what happened if it got its claws on one. But there were dozens of them, and they were being directed to spray it with green fire from the maximum possible distance. Better yet, they whirled around the monster, attacking it from all directions, which sent it into a confused frenzy. The necro-drake whirled like a dog chasing its tail, snapping and slashing, and demons perished, but for the moment, they held its attention.

Natchua took the opportunity to turn around and stare incredulously at the assembled warlocks who had just appeared behind her.

“Did you seriously just do that so you could make a dramatic entrance?” she demanded. “Are you bards now? No, wait, never mind, what am I saying? Bards would never do something so cliché.”

“Excuse you, bards wallow in cliché like pigs in their own filth,” Embras Mogul retorted, grinning at her. “Anyway, no, we obviously had to discuss our options without you hovering around to overhear and put in your two pennies’ worth. Fact is, Natchua, you made a compelling case, but you are also just about the last person we trust. There’s a general feeling, here, that you’re as likely as not to be planning to double-cross us at the first opportunity. It was Vanessa who pointed out that we’ve got a pretty good handle on your numerous character flaws. And not only are you too generally bullheaded to be duplicitous, if there is one thing we can rely on you to do, it’s keep going after an enemy long after all sense and reason should tell you to drop it and leave well enough alone.”

Despite herself, despite everything, Natchua found herself grinning as he spoke, and finally barked an involuntary laugh.

“Besides,” Vanessa added, “since we’re apparently not allowed to murder you, pummeling the hell out of a chaos creature sounds fucking cathartic.”

“I’ve never been so glad to see a bunch of assholes in my life,” Natchua replied. “Just…stay moving. This is no time for grandiose schemes or clever plots, you need to be agile and think on the go. The monster isn’t hard to trick as long as you don’t get too cocky. Keep in motion, watch each other’s backs, and keep it distracted and agitated. Be foxes, not spiders.”

“I am not losing any more of my people because of you,” Mogul warned. “If someone’s injured or we collectively get too tired to keep on, we’re pulling out. However long that takes, that’s how long you’ve got to put together whatever you’re planning.”

Natchua glanced behind her. The necro-drake was still tearing apart the katzils; it was getting close to finishing them off. Any second it might decide the assembled warlocks were a more tempting target than a mere handful of swarming demons.

“I’ll be as fast as I can manage,” she promised. “I will not abandon you. Just hold out for a few minutes. And Mogul—”

He held up a hand. “Don’t say it. Just get to work, Duchess. If we’re all still alive in an hour, I plan to gloat at length.”

“Here’s hoping,” she said, and called the darkness to carry her away to another broad, flat stretch of tallgrass, unmarred by habitation or any sign of combat, leaving the Black Wreath to tangle with the monster.

Before she could even start work, the resonant voice sounded in her head.

A deal’s a deal. You’ll have your divine protection.

“Good,” Natchua said curtly, pushing up her sleeves. “Now, I’ll also need spell formulae to confer that protection into the binding element of a demonic summoning. Damned if I’m gonna be the only one in this relationship earning my keep.”

The dark goddess’s delighted laughter echoed in her mind as she began casting.

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16 – 49

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“It went very well,” the newly re-minted Bishop Shahai assured her quietly, smiling.

“It’s kind of a blur,” Trissiny admitted, having to restrain herself from rubbing her hands against herself. At least the uniform gauntlets ensured no one could tell her palms were still sweaty. “I hate public speaking. Goddess, send me more demons instead…”

“More and more, politics is the arena of modern warfare,” said the elf. “No disrespect, Trissiny, but perhaps you should be glad you have a knack for making speeches and make peace with the need.”

“General Avelea!”

At that voice, they both looked up at the still-chattering scrum of reporters being held behind the line of Silver Legionnaires in the Temple’s main sanctuary. He was not the only person calling Trissiny’s name, as many of the journalists were still trying to get her or Shahai’s attention, but that voice out of them all cut straight through the noise. He did much the same physically, striding forward with a courteous nod to the Legionnaires—who, despite orders, instinctively shifted to let him through.

You just didn’t argue the right of way with a dragon.

“Lord Ampophrenon?” Trissiny asked in surprise.

Ampophrenon the Gold strode up to her and Shahai and inclined his head respectfully to each of them. “General, Bishop. Congratulations on your day’s work. I am truly sorry to so abruptly impose myself on Avenist business, especially at a time like this, but I fear the need is urgent. General Avelea, have you received a personal summons from Avei recently?”

“I haven’t…” She paused, narrowing her eyes. “What’s this about?”

Ampophrenon was already standing with his back to the reporters, and at that made a quick gesture with one hand. A shimmering rose in the air behind him like a heat mirage and the sound of voices cut off.

“I dare to hope that I will owe you an apology for wasting your time, General, but if not, you and your two counterparts may be urgently needed. The Conclave has had advance warning that a chaos event may be unfolding, or about to. And,” he added with a piercing glance at Shahai, “the specific timing rouses…suspicions.”

“Chaos event,” Shahai murmured, narrowing her own eyes. “He…would, wouldn’t he? If we presume his hand was behind the events at Ninkabi…”

“And at Veilgrad,” said Ampophrenon. “The evidence that he was involved with the skull of Belosiphon is all but conclusive. By the General’s own account, it is now in his possession.” The dragon paused, turning his attention on Trissiny, who had closed her eyes in an expression of concentration.

She opened them not two seconds later, her face going pale. “Veilgrad. Again.”

Ampophenon drew in a breath. “Curse that man’s remorseless ambition. That was at the goddess’s warning, I take it?”

“I had to ask directly, but yes. If she didn’t reach out to me first, it may not be as serious as it could.”

“There is that,” he agreed, “but such things must never be taken lightly. We cannot afford to risk teleportation to or near a chaos event, but I can still provide quick transportation there, for you and the other paladins.”

“Hopefully their gods will have warned them as well,” she said quickly. “I appreciate your aid, Lord Ampophrenon. Nandi…?”

“You go do what you do best, Trissiny,” the Bishop answered. “Goddess be with you. I’m going to summon Elwick and the squad. If Justinian has been forced by your maneuver to act in haste, he may have made a mistake upon which we can capitalize. Let me worry about the politics for now.”

Trissiny nodded, then grimaced. “And let that teach me to be careful what I pray for.”


“Hunter’s Quarter reports civilian evac is complete!”

“Squad C is in position, sir. Squad D moving up. The bait squad is standing by.”

“Colonel! Quartermaster reports there’s enough raw flashpowder in that fireworks depot to assemble enough explosive bolts for a full volley from the crossbows we’ve got on hand. He’s proceeding with the construction.”

“Good,” Adjavegh grunted without taking his eyes from their ceaseless scan of the windows. “Make sure his entire department is on it, Timms. There are no other priorities.”

“Yes, sir!”

A shadow fell over the command center and most of those present reflexively crouched down. It passed, though, and seconds later the skeletal dragon set down on another rooftop halfway across the city. Colonel Adjavegh alone had not moved, standing at parade rest in the center of the activity around him, eyes on the enemy. It was simple bravado, perhaps, but it mattered to the men and women under his command to see their leader focused and calm in the face of absolute, literal chaos.

Veilgrad’s Army barracks had its command center in a squat, square chamber on its roof, below only the watchtowers. All four walls had tall windows interspersed with thick stone columns—an addition constructed well after the Enchanter Wars, but in the age of mag cannons stone walls were of little use and the commanding view over the city and its surroundings was of more utility, especially at a time like this. Even so, the windows of course were heavily enchanted. Right now, several of them had soldiers with spyglasses keeping a constant watch on the beast currently terrorizing the city, while the command center itself roiled with messengers keeping Adjavegh appraised of all unfolding developments and conveying his orders.

“Sir!” His aide, Sergeant Timms, darted to his side bearing a sheet of paper she’d just taken from another such messenger. “A response from ImCom!”

“Finally,” Adjavegh grunted, snatching it from her. “I’m glad this is more interesting than the fresh gossip in the capital—what in the hell?”

“It’s pretty garbled, sir.”

“I can see that it’s garbled, Sergeant!”

“It was transcribed faithfully, sir. This came via telescroll, like our initial report to ImCom.” She craned her neck over his shoulder to study the page, which was a mishmash of letters strung together in an order that only formed words about half the time. “The scrolltower transmissions were probably scrambled by the chaos effect, Colonel. See, this looks like a request for clarification. The message they got from us was probably just as mangled.”

“If that’s the case…” Adjavegh hesitated a moment, squinting at the message, then raised his voice to a battlefield roar. “I want a full emergency shutdown on the Rail stations, now!”

“Sir,” replied a lieutenant, “the Rails immediately stopped running when—”

“The emergency shutdown, son! Get on it!”

“Yes, sir!” The man snapped off a salute and dashed for the stairs. The Rail stations in cities as large as Veilgrad were capable of launching a shutdown signal through the physical Rails themselves that would effectively disable the entire network, Empire-wide. It could be re-activated from Tiraas, but that would let Imperial Command know there was a crisis here, if they couldn’t communicate directly. To Adjavegh’s knowledge, the emergency shutdown had never been used, even during the Battle of Ninkabi. Its implied message was that the city sending it was under conditions too dangerous to approach.

They had worked out very quickly that the dragon was a chaos beast, when it had come under immediate attack from both the city’s formal defenders and several magic-wielding civilians. That had gone disastrously; Adjavegh had lost four squads of soldiers in the first five minutes, and who knew how many citizens who’d rallied to the defense. But with that bitter lesson had also come the insight that conventional lightning weapons did damage the beast, so long as they were fired from beyond point blank range. Once past the enchantment itself which conjured the lightning bolt, it was just an electrical discharge like those that came from the sky. The dragon seemed to recuperate rapidly from damage, but it had been damaged, if briefly.

Hence his current strategies in place. Adjavegh was laying a trap in one of Veilgrad’s open squares, positioning soldiers with battlestaves in windows surrounding the square. Once they were in place, the all-volunteer “bait squad” would attempt to provoke it into the killbox where it could be blasted apart by a torrent of lightning from all directions. So far the skeletal dragon hadn’t used any kind of breath weapon, merely attacking with its jaws, talons, and tail. If that failed, there was his backup plan underway: Timms and the Quartermaster had rustled enough working crossbows to outfit two squads and Q was at work crafting explosive bolts, using chemical flashpowder from fireworks rather than alchemicals, which might be ineffective against chaos.

As of yet, he had no Plan C.

“Damn scrolltowers,” he growled, crumpling the garbled message in his fist. “Guess that means we won’t be hearing an explanation from the Conclave of the Winds, either.”

“That’s not a dragon, sir!” called one of the young men at the windows with a spyglass.

“Come again, soldier?”

“It’s too small by half, sir, and when I can get a glimpse through all the smoky shit… Yeah, those aren’t bones. It’s made to look like a dragon, but that isn’t a skeleton, it looks like carved…uh, what’s that shiny black rock? Volcanic glass?”

“Obsidian,” said Timms.

“Right, thanks, Sergeant. It’s a necromantic construct, sir. Like those things with the last chaos crisis.”

“Good eye, soldier,” said Adjavegh. He had no idea how to put that information to use, yet, but more intel was always better. “Keep it up. Timms, what’s the status of the killbox?”

“Squads still moving into position, sir. It’s slow getting through the catacombs, with all the civilians down there.”

He gritted his teeth, but didn’t complain. It wasn’t safe to move troops aboveground, but this inconvenience was a sign that the measures in place to protect Veilgrad’s citizens were at least working. With the upper levels of the catacombs cleared and entrances to them in countless buildings across the city, people had fled below. Most had gone without even needing to be chivvied along. This was now city policy in response to emergencies like this; at Duchess Dufresne’s insistence, they had held drills. Bless that creepy woman’s foresight.

Now, the city was almost eerily quiet, for all that parts of it were burning and dozens of buildings in various states of collapse. With everyone fled or fleeing underground, there were few screams, and even the alarm bells had gone silent—mostly because once people stopped shooting at it, the chaos dragon had gone after those. Only two of the belltowers were still standing, as they were mostly automated and the chaos effects caused by the dragon’s mere proximity had shorted out the enchantments running them before it felt the need to knock them down.

Unfortunately, that left it with nothing to do but circle above the city, hunting for stragglers. Which it was now doing again, perched atop a trade hall and craning its neck this way and that.

“What?” Timms burst out suddenly. “No, no. Who ordered— Stop them! You, get over there and shut that down!”

Adjavegh turned to follow her furious stare even as another soldier darted to the steps. To his incredulous horror, he saw one of the mag cannon emplacements atop the nearest watchtower powering up and swiveling to take aim at the dragon. Some clicker-happy artilleryman apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity of the thing finally holding still.

“Omnu’s hairy balls,” he breathed, seeing the inevitable unfold. He hadn’t given orders that the dragon not be fired upon with mag cannons; instead, he had disseminated the information that it was a chaos beast and presumed his soldiers knew what the fuck that meant, since every damn one of them had been trained on it. Allegedly. A running messenger wasn’t going to get down the stairs, across the battlements, and up the stairs in time…

And didn’t. Everyone in the command center cringed half a minute later as the mag cannon discharged with a roar.

It was a good shot. The barrel-thick beam of white light pierced the sky above the city and nailed the target dead-on—or would have, had it not been a chaos dragon. Several yards before the point of impact the beam itself dissolved, spraying the dragon with a heavy dusting of snowflakes. A solid coating of ice formed across the rooftop on which it sat, and then the ice burst into flame. A mag cannon burst contained a lot of magic for chaos to randomly distort. Adjavegh supposed it could have been a lot worse.

Not that it wasn’t plenty bad enough. The dragon shook itself furiously and roared, it’s eerie voice like nails upon a blackboard. Then, turning its blazing chromatic eyes upon the barracks from which the shot had come, it launched itself into the air and came winging right at them.

“Colonel!” Adjavegh turned to Timms just in time to catch the battlestaff she tossed at him. She was holding another herself. The two locked eyes for a second, and then he nodded. There was no need to communicate more.

Staff fire wouldn’t do much to help them, but if it was time to die for their Emperor, they would go down shooting. Across the command post, other officers and enlisted were drawing sidearms or equipping themselves from the weapon racks. There really wasn’t time for more than that, not even evacuating the tower.

It was a damn shame, Adjavegh reflected as time seemed to slow around them with the chaos dragon bearing down. He’d been skeptical of having an Eserite as his personal aide—you didn’t get many of them in the military—but Timms was the best he’d ever had. A con artist’s approach to logistics meant his soldiers got what they needed, regardless of what ImCom had decided to send where, and she had a deft hand at navigating Veilgrad’s peculiar local politics. Timms would’ve made a damn fine officer in time, if she wasn’t poached by Intelligence first.

Plus, now he wouldn’t get to tar and feather whatever absolute driveling moron had fired that cannon. That was a regret, too.

“Gentlemen, ladies,” the Colonel said, raising the battlestaff to his shoulder and keeping his eyes fixed upon the apparition of smoke and black bone surging toward them, “I am honored to have served with every one of you. For the Emperor!”

Then an explosion burst in midair directly next to the dragon, sending it tumbling away over the city walls and shattering windows and rooftiles in a four-block radius.

While the soldiers gaped from their command post, the dragon recovered, pirouetting in midair to face this new threat, and immediately being peppered by a series of purple-black streaks, all of which misfired in some manner upon impacting it. They fizzled, careened off-course, transformed into bursts of fire or clumps of dirt, even a flurry of flower petals. Enough of those effects were painful to fully distract their target from the barracks.

The dragon pivoted on a wingtip, diving at another rooftop. Adjavegh saw a blot of darkness swell seconds before its impact, and then the beast was under attack from another direction as it investigated the crushed roof under its claws. An orange summoning circle appeared in midair and out of it hurtled a chunk of black stone. That was apparently not magic; it hit the beast hard enough to send it tumbling off into the street below.

Once it burst into the air again, another series of shadowbolts seized its attention and it went haring off in a new direction.

“What in the hell?” Adjavegh lowered his staff in disbelief.

“Sir!” exclaimed the soldier with the spyglass, “it’s the Duchess!”

“The vampire?”

“No, sir, the other Duchess. The new one!”

“The—wait, the warlock? What in blazes is the woman thinking? No spellcaster can bring that thing down!”

“No,” said Timms, “but she can herd it out of the city!”

Indeed, the distant shape of Natchua Leduc was only visible now in the momentary surges of shadow as she vanished from one rooftop after another, continually firing her ineffective spells at the chaos dragon and goading it to chase her ever farther away. Toward the western walls, and the empty prairie beyond.

Colonel Adjavegh had not been best pleased at the recent political developments. In his opinion, the last thing House Leduc needed was to continue existing, and his impression of Natchua herself was that she was an irascible brat whose primary talents were rabble-rousing and preening. It had certainly not pleased him to learn that she’d publicly cut a deal with the Black bloody Wreath just the night before. In this moment, he was forced to revise his opinion somewhat.

“Avei’s grace,” he said grudgingly. “the girl may be an evil bitch, but if she’s going to be our evil bitch, I can live with it. All right, people, we’ve got a breather! The killbox and flashpowder plans are not to be discontinued in case it gets away from her and comes back. Timms, see if we can get some telescrolls through to Tiraas now that that damn thing’s leaving the area. Send physical messengers, too, through different city gates. Carriage and horse riders; worst case, something’s gotta slip through. Notify the evac squads there’s been high-level infernomancy cast above the streets and put together a cleansing team to get to work as soon as we have an all-clear.”

He paused amid the flurry of activity his orders provoked, and then added another.

“And I want the officer in command of that artillery post replaced and in a cell before I finish this sentence.”

“On it, sir,” Timms said crisply, already scribbling on her clipboard and gathering two messengers with pointed jerks of her head.

Adjavegh allowed himself a deep, steadying breath as he turned back to the western windows of his command post. In this day and age, one could forget that the oldest Imperial Houses were founded by adventurers. Modern nobles were the descendants of the people who had the fancy magic weapons looted from deepest dungeons and the skill and experience to use them. They made themselves rulers by stepping up and doing what was necessary during crises, when no one else had the will or the capability. Even the Leducs and Dufresnes had earned their position by conquering the greater part of the Stalrange on the Empire’s behalf. Having known his share of prissy aristocrats, he had assumed those days were long over.

Instead, he now found time, and a need, to mutter a prayer for the warlock of Veilgrad.

“Godspeed, you crazy witch. Give ‘im hell.”

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16 – 48

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“Do you realize how infuriating all this is?”

“I can only imagine the depths of your inconvenience,” Rogrind said dryly.

“Oh, to be sure, you and your bullshit are not a positive addition to my day, but frankly? You’re just the icing on the cake,” Rasha informed him. “I am having the most frustrating week. Do you know how many times I’ve been chased, attacked, or abducted in just the last few days? This is ridiculous. I joined the Thieves’ Guild in large part so I would never have to feel helpless and put upon again. The damsel in distress bullshit is getting old fast.”

She expected either a glib retort or silence, depending on whether the dwarf was more inclined to play the freelance adventurer or hardened government agent at this moment. Not that it much mattered; Rasha herself was merely filling the air with an admittedly desultory attempt to deflect his attention while she searched for something she could use to leverage herself out of this new mess. Even so, she was surprised when Rogrind canted his head slightly as if giving her words serious consideration.

“The truth is,” he answered after a contemplative pause, “you are a diminutive specimen of your race, Miss Rasha. If you pursue a religion and career which consist mostly of entering combative situations with established powers, I’m afraid that inevitably means you will be on the back foot, physically speaking, for much of your life. Obviously, much the same is true of your mentor, Ms. Sharvineh, but she is adept at avoiding situations in which she is physically imperiled. That, of course, is the result of years of skilled effort bent toward establishing her secure position. Until you are able to establish such a bulwark, yourself…here you are.”

“Here I am,” Rasha repeated, now peering back at him closely. “Well, since we’re chatting, how would you have avoided getting nabbed, in my position?”

“First of all, don’t wander off by yourself.”

She winced. “Yeah, fair enough. Though in my defense, somebody was supposed to be watching my back. He took a break to get laid.”

“I wondered.” The dwarf’s face melted into an expression of pure disapproval. “How grievously unprofessional.”

“In his defense, it was with a dryad. And if you’d seen her—”

“I did see her, and while I take your point, I don’t consider that a mitigating circumstance. Sexual enticement is one of the oldest ploys in the book to distract an enemy agent; to fall prey to it from one’s own allies is a truly lamentable display. I expect that from newly enlisted soldiers, not field agents, or even established Guild thieves. In any case, aside from not committing rookie blunders, there are preparations you can make to ameliorate your physical vulnerability.”

“The martial arts, so I’ve been told.”

“Formal martial arts require a significant level of mastery to be useful in real-world situations. A Sun Style grandmaster could perhaps have disarmed me from your position, but few others. For practical purposes, the basic Eserite brawling techniques you’ve been taught should suffice for situations in which fighting would do you any good at all. No, by preparation, I mostly refer to equipment, and practice in using it. For example, the style of dress you seem to prefer provides ample fabric in which to conceal quite a variety of devices.” He gestured toward her heavy winter dress with the hand not currently holding a wand aimed at her heart.

Rasha idly lifted her left arm to inspect the sleeve—not the one in which her wand was hidden. “I suppose I could slip a knife in here…”

“Weapons are only the most basic of options,” said Rogrind. “Skilled foes will be prepared for them. Your resources would be better spent on unconventional applications of enchanting, or alchemy. One always has an advantage when one possesses tools and techniques for which the enemy is unprepared.”

Slowly, she lowered her arm, definitely not making the compulsive twitch of her right fingers toward her wand, as they wanted to. A thought had just descended into her awareness, bringing with it a note of embarrassment that she hadn’t made this observation immediately.

He hadn’t searched her.

Rasha was a member of a faction known for carrying concealed weapons—and he himself had just pointed out that she was dressed in a way which facilitated that. Rogrind was a veteran field agent, government trained. He knew better than this. And yet, not only had he failed to make even a cursory check for any such weapons on her person, he hadn’t even secured her hands before putting himself in a small moving box with her.

There was something going on here beyond the obvious.

They stared at each other in thoughtful silence for a long moment. The carriage passed through the busy city in eerie silence, its walls clearly charmed to cancel noise.

“You’re surprisingly free with the advice,” Rasha said at last, “considering I’m pretty sure you’re taking me out of the city to be murdered and hidden in a ditch somewhere. Wasted effort, isn’t it?”

“It’s not often, these days, I get the opportunity to speak as an old professional to a younger one,” he answered lightly. “And on that note, Rasha, a relevant piece of advice one of my early mentors gave me: if you are in a position to ask ‘is this the end,’ the answer is ‘not yet.’ A situation may be futile, but it only becomes hopeless when you decide that it is.”

“You’re…actually encouraging me to keep on fighting you?”

“After all we’ve been through?” One corner of his mouth twitched upward in a wry little partial smile. “I confess I would be disappointed if you did not.” The dwarf hesitated, his eyes flicking away from her toward the window separating the passenger compartment from the driver’s seat, where Sister Lanora would be partially visible from his perspective. Rasha nearly took advantage of his momentary distraction, but was forestalled by the fact that she didn’t actually have a plan yet, except maybe to tackle him. Which she had tried once before, to a dismal lack of effect, and then they hadn’t been in an enclosed space, nor he armed. The moment passed and he returned his focus to her face. “Sometimes, Rasha, the needs of the mission require us to accept…unwanted company. For a short while.”

Interesting.

She made no comment in reply, mulling. Was he hinting at something? There were enough little indications to indicate this whole situation was more than it appeared, but not enough yet to suggest what. Rasha, clearly, was still in a very dicey situation, and most likely a lethally dangerous one…but not exactly the one she’d thought.

She looked toward the side window of the carriage, noting the soldiers manning the guard post right outside as they passed through one of the city gates. Then she considered, for a second and a half, the hints Rogrind had dropped that his intentions were not as immediately murderous as he had first suggested, and inwardly steeled herself, deciding to take a risk.

Rasha exploded suddenly into motion, hurling her body with as much force as she could against the side of the carriage, grabbing and yanking the door handle.

“HELP! I’m being abducted!”

Rogrind did not move—didn’t even shift his wand hand to continue covering her, just watched in silence. The entire performance was utterly fruitless; the handled didn’t budge, the military police showed no indication they could see her through the windows or hear her shouting, nor her pounding on the door, and even her body-checking the vehicle itself didn’t make it rock by so much as an inch. Slowly due to the pace of traffic but still inexorably, the view outside changed to the walls of the bridge linking Tiraas to the mainland beyond.

This was the west gate, she noted; they were heading into Tiraan Province, not Vrandis. The domain of Trissiny’s Duchess friend, Ravana Madouri. That made absolutely no difference to Rasha inside this carriage, but it might become relevant if she managed to get out of it.

Slowly, Rasha drew back from the window and re-seated herself, folding her hands primly in her lap. “Worth a try.”

“Only naturally,” Rogrind said with a gracious nod of his head and the supreme confidence of one who knew his prisoner had no options.

Rasha had not really expected anything to come of that, in terms of getting out; her goal was to gather information, and she had just succeeded at that rather well.

His lack of reaction proved little, as he’d been aware before she moved that she wouldn’t succeed in escaping the carriage. But Rasha had just learned several interesting things about the carriage itself. One-way darkening of glass was a common charm, and in fact, the only charm she’d just detected which could be called common. The kind of silencing enchantments which could be laid upon windows with common enchanting dusts would bar noise from either side, but not the thumps of impacts directly on the windows themselves, yet the soldiers hadn’t even glanced over when she pounded on the glass. More telling was that the carriage hadn’t rocked in response to her sudden movement. Shock enchantments protected the wheels; it was a heavier-duty balancing charm than was standard that would prevent a vehicle from being shifted by sudden motion within. Rasha was small, but no carriage was that perfectly balanced without some extra enchantments. Then, there was the door itself; the lock hadn’t budged when she’d twisted the little knob. The lack of any further mechanism suggested it, too, was enchanted, and the kind of charm which would key it to a specific person’s touch was both definitely not standard and required its own power source.

This was a later-model Dawnco sedan, the sort of vehicle the Guild commonly used for getaway carriages, and not unlike those the Svennish agents had driven when chasing Rasha and her friends about last year. And it had been modified with serious extra enchantments, which told her two things.

First, this was not some piece Rogrind, a disavowed ex-agent, could have picked up from a dealer. Custom charm jobs were expensive, and charms of this nature drew eyes from the government if they noted them being applied. After last winter’s events, nobody in Tiraas who did this kind of work for the Guild would sell to a Sven for fear of blundering into the latent hostility between Eserites and the Kingdom of Svenheim. Which meant Rogrind’s story about being sacked was a lie. Fired government agents might be lucky to walk away with the contents of their pockets, not expensive major equipment like this. That led to the question of just what the hell the Svennish secret service wanted with her now. That issue with the divine disruptors was long put to bed, and from everything Rasha knew of the dwarves the most believable thing Rogrind had told her was that they would want nothing to do with Purists.

And second, all these extra enchantments needed extra power. Basic carriage design had been part of Rasha’s unconventional training—not to the extent of being able to fix enchanted carriages, but specifically with an eye toward finding hidden modifications in them. She had re-positioned herself in a different spot on the seat, and already noted the difference in vibration. This might be a stroke of luck; beneath the rear-facing passenger seat would be one of the standard spots…

With that, Rasha had a plan. A desperate one with a high chance of backfiring catastrophically, but with the alternative being to trust that this old enemy, who had abducted her in concert with a new enemy, wasn’t really as hostile as he appeared… It was time to roll the dice.


Not exactly time; there were a couple more ducks she needed to line in a row before she could make a move, and of course, that lining up proceeded with terrifying lack of speed while the carriage itself picked up its pace, carrying her ever further from the city, and witnesses.

Rasha did not miss the irony that they were following almost exactly the route of the last winter carriage ride she and Rogrind had taken out of the city: north from the bridge, on the main highway toward Madouris, which at this pace they would reach within the hour, at the absolute most. That had been in the dark of night during a blizzard, which (despite the reckless speed at which every vehicle in that chase had driven) had slowed them considerably. Now, they were making good time on a well-traveled road, which warned Rasha what to watch out for. Once Lanora turned off onto a side road with fewer prying eyes, the end was close.

But not, as Rogrind himself had just advised her, yet at hand.

She’d made a performance of shifting this way and that on the seat, brimming with nervous energy that kept her readjusting her position and sliding back and forth to peer out the windows on both sides. Rogrind watched her, but did not comment or try to interfere, merely keeping his wand trained on her. At one point Lanora, apparently catching sight of Rasha’s constant movement through her peripheral vision, had thumped on the window separating the driver and passenger compartments in annoyance, which Rasha only happened to notice because she was moving at the time and had it in her field of view, as the silencing enchantment covered that window as well. Neither she nor the dwarf acknowledged Lanora’s displeasure. The actual point of all the shifting about had been for her to examine the vibrations coming from under the bench. And bless the thin padding of Dawnco’s economy carriage seats, she’d done it within minutes. Rasha had identified the spot, slightly left of center and directly under the front passenger bench, where the vibrations were most perceptible: the likeliest position for the secondary power crystal keyed to the carriage’s various extra enchantments.

So she finally planted herself as far from it as possible, leaning against the right wall in a position that both maximized her distance and gave her a clear line of sight to the spot, which she’d landmarked by identifying one button in the pattern sewed into the seat cushions. Now there was nothing but to wait for an opportunity, and hope it didn’t come too late.

And since that was too great a risk, Rasha did the properly Eserite thing and set about creating her own damn opportunity.

“I can’t square this geniality with your whole mission of revenge,” she commented.

“Revenge. Is that what you think?” Rogrind raised an eyebrow.

“You pretty heavily implied it. Besides, if you have such a low opinion of Purists, why else would you be helping her? It’s not like you and I have any business, apart from you settling the score after I spanked you last year.”

“That is certainly one way to describe those events,” the dwarf said, smiling faintly. “Another would be that you were in the vicinity when someone actually competent foiled my mission.”

“Yeah, and I note you’re not going after any of them. Bullying, petty grievances, assisting religious fanatics you claim to dislike… I can’t decide which part is the worst reflection on you.”

“You are attempting to provoke an emotional reaction from me,” he said, still with that ironic little smile. “I don’t mind that as such, except that the effort is so halfhearted. One does hate to have a front row seat, as it were, for an inept performance of one’s craft.”

She didn’t need him actually agitated, just to look away for a second; even a relatively minor emotional upset would cause most people to shift their eyes momentarily, but she wasn’t dealing with most people here. Rasha glanced out the window herself and stiffened.

The moment was nearly here. They were turning off the main road onto…

“Well, well,” she said quietly, staring at the scene as best she could from this angle. “Doesn’t this take you back. This was your idea, I take it?”

Apparently the old fortress had been a landmark, an unused Enchanter Wars-era ruin left intact purely for its historicity. After the murderous schemes of Basra Syrinx had blown the whole thing up last winter, the Empire hadn’t even bothered to clean the grounds; the field was now littered with widespread outcroppings of fallen masonry, currently dusted with fresh snow. It made them look oddly serene, a contrast to Rasha’s memory of the violence through which this spectacle had been created. She even caught a glimpse of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the very ground to shield them from the fallout. Only the wrecked carriages had been removed.

“Not as such,” the dwarf murmured, finally shifting his head to follow her gaze. “It does make for a conveniently isolated spot, though, positioned along this otherwise well-trafficked route. How history repeats itself, hmm?”

She’d started moving the instant his gaze was off her, letting the wand slide gently out of her sleeve rather than flicking it into her palm as she normally would; a slower motion was less likely to catch his eye. Rasha looked over at the button she’d identified, made an educated guess how far down the target would be, and fired.

Moment of distraction aside, Rogrind could not miss the soft hiss of a beam wand discharging at that proximity, much less the light. In a split second he was on top of her, trying to wrestle the weapon from her grip. He only failed because he’d mistaken her intent; the dwarf was much stronger than she, but in gripping her wrist and keeping the wand aimed away from himself and Lanora, he inadvertently kept it pushed in more or less the exact direction she wanted.

Rasha grunted and struggled against him in dreadful futility, managing only to twitch under his weight and muscle. Her shot had achieved nothing save a smoking hole in the upholstery. Now, in defiance of all wand safety, she clamped down on the clicker and kept up a continuous beam. Immediately the handle began to warm dangerously in her grip as she raked it this way and that across the general area of her target, able to move only in minute jerks and hoping that would be enough—


Her vision returned, fuzzy. She could hear nothing but a shrill whine deep in her own head, beyond which the world was silent. Had she actually been unconscious? Everything was so hazy. It was cold. Rasha was…face down? Weakly, she tried to rise…

A big hand grabbed her arm, hauled her upright; she was too dazed to protest. Then there came a stab of pain through the sensory fuzz. She managed to focus on the thing he tossed away as it fell to the snow: a fragment of wooden paneling from the carriage, one jagged end crimson where it had been lodged in…her. Oh, right, that was why her shoulder suddenly hurt. Good, good, her training whispered at the back of her head. Shoulder injuries could disable your arm, but rarely killed you, at least not immediately.

He—the dwarf, Rogrind, she focused on him now, noting his disheveled hair and burned suit—was hauling her bodily away; she stumbled, trying to keep up. What was… Oh, fire. There was burning wreckage. Blearily, Rasha looked back. The carriage was blown perfectly in half, both large pieces burning merrily and a wide spray of charred wood spread around the site. It sat in brown winter grass in the ditch by the road, the nearby snow blasted away by the explosion.

Well, that was one thing gone according to plan, anyway. Shoot the power crystal, disabling the carriage. It had been disabled a little harder than she’d hoped; that crystal must’ve been powering a lot more than the enchantments she’d identified to have had that much oomph in it. Made sense in hindsight, a spy agency vehicle would have all kinds of hidden tricks. Well, live and learn. Which she had, so far.

Suddenly the grip manhandling her shifted. Rasha blinked, trying to focus again on Rogrind as he pressed something against her lips. Glass? A bottle? No, a vial. With his other hand he gripped the back of her neck and made her tip her head up, pouring it into her mouth. Poison? No. She knew this flavor—sour, subtly fruity, tingling with contained magic. Healing potion.

Rasha’s vision and her mind began to clear, and the pain in her shoulder receded along with the shock. Also, the ringing dropped steadily in pitch, descending into a dull roar and then even that faded as her eardrums were mended. She became conscious of a different pain on her other shoulder—right about where her heating charm had been pinned. Ah, yeah, that would’ve burst from being that close to an arcane explosion, and healing potions didn’t work well on burns. Still, she was still alive, and now she could see, hear, and think.

Also, she was cold. Outside in the winter, with no heating charm or even a coat.

“Well, I have good news for you, Miss Rasha,” Rogrind said in a layered tone of aggressive joviality. “If you are so devoted to your freedom as to blow up vehicles while inside them, I can safely predict you will not be a prisoner often or for long.”

“I do what I can,” she said modestly, giving an experimental tug on her arm. His grip shifted not an inch; he was half-covered in soot, his hair and clothing charred and half his coat torn away, but other than that appeared unperturbed. Dwarves were inconveniently sturdy folk.

Something small bonked off the other side of Rasha’s head, and by sheer instinct she tried to catch it. Her cold-numbed fingers didn’t succeed in seizing the object, but she did note as it fell that it was another glass vial. She turned her head in the direction it had come from and met Sister Lanora’s burning gaze.

The Purist had her sword out; she was disheveled and not as badly burned, having been separated from the explosion by more layers of carriage, though blood dropped down half her face from where something had struck her on the temple. It made a perfect complement to her expression.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself, you little monster,” she hissed, bringing the sword up. “That was your last act of defiance.”

Rasha was suddenly yanked away, struggling to stay on her feet as Rogrind hauled her behind himself. “Ahem. This inconvenience aside, the terms of our agreement are met, Sister Lanora. We are in private, and you have the girl.”

“That is not a girl!”

“Whatever you say,” he grunted. “Before this proceeds any further, it is time for your end of the deal.”

“As soon as that pestilential brat is—”

“No.” Even without shouting, he projected his voice at a volume which cut her off neatly. It was a good trick, Glory had of course taught her apprentices that one early on. “You have already unilaterally modified our agreement once, and I have to say I am not best pleased with the results. The documents, Lanora. Now.”

The ex-priestess glared, her grip on the sword shifting, and for a second Rasha thought she might take a swing at the dwarf. Then she produced a wordless, feral snarl and stabbed the tip of the longsword into the frozen earth to free her hands, with which she snatched a bag hanging from her belt and began to rummage inside it. Even Rasha knew better than to treat bladed weapons that way; Trissiny would have… Well, that was the least of what Trissiny would be upset by, here, but it really said something about the Purists as a whole.

“Here,” Lanora snarled, hurling a leather-bound journal at the dwarf, which he neatly snatched from the air. “Take it and get out of the way!”

Saying nothing, he did so. Rogrind released Rasha, stepping aside and immediately opening the book, his eyes darting rapidly across its contents as he began to leaf through pages.

That left Rasha and Lanora facing one another with nothing between them but the chill of winter.

“I don’t think I’ll ever understand you,” Rasha admitted, taking a step back and tucking her chilled fingers into her sleeves. Her wand was lost, but she still had the knife in her other sleeve, right where she’d minutes ago suggested to Rogrind that she could one day start keeping one. “You had an actual message from a goddess. Do you know how many people have only dreamed of something like that? Who cares if it wasn’t what you wanted to hear? You could—”

“Shut up!” the woman shrieked. “Just shut it! I lost everything, do you understand that? I gave my life to Avei and she threw me away like so much trash. And for what?! To make some kind of point? All I have is this, boy. I can’t stick a sword in that bitch goddess—or even Trissiny Avelea, realistically. But at every step, your face has been there mocking me, and I can sure as hell do for you.”

“Well,” Rasha acknowledged, continuing to retreat as the former priestess kept pace, raising her sword. “I have to admit, I have no argument for that. Except to point out that you’re a moron. But then, you know that, don’t you?”

Lanora bared her teeth like a wolf about to pounce and raised the longsword over her head.

Rasha whipped her left arm forward, hurling the knife.

It went spinning away a full yard to Lanora’s right. Her fingers were almost numb from cold.

Lanora barked a mocking laugh and stepped forward, bringing the sword down. Mid-swing, there came another deafening boom from close by. The carriage was already done for; this time, what exploded was Lanora herself.

The left side of her midsection burst, spraying blood and viscera across the snow; she physically buckled as the core of her body was suddenly lacking a chunk of its structure. The sword tumbled to the ground, sinking beneath the snow, as its owner collapsed. She tried to press her hand over the wound, but the hole was bigger than her hand. Staring uncomprehendingly at the crimson stain spreading around her, Sister Lanora slumped fully to the ground.

“General Avelea sends her regrets,” Rogrind said dispassionately. Rasha turned her incredulous stare on the dwarf. He had tucked the black book under one arm and was now holding a… It resembled a wand, but heavier, an iron tube with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism, now emitting smoke from its business end. Rogrind was already tipping a small vial of some powder into it, followed by a little metal ball. “She preferred an amicable resolution. Unfortunately, she is not here. And I like my loose ends neatly tied.”

He leveled the weapon. Lanora stared up at him in dull-eyed disbelief, and then the sound came again. It was thunderously loud, even more so at that proximity than a lightning wand. The Purist’s expression vanished along with her face and the greater part of her head.

Rasha averted her gaze, cringing, and wasn’t ashamed of it. The Guild inured one to violence, somewhat, but that…

Rogrind lowered his weapon with a sigh. “What a mess. If only I hadn’t lost my wand… Ah, well. You are a clever lass, Rasha; I trust I needn’t explain too much of this?”

“You…” She had to swallow and then clear her throat before she could speak properly. “Yeah, I guess after last winter, you did owe Trissiny a favor, huh?”

“Fortunately for us both, Trissiny Avelea is too intelligent to deal in such intransigent currencies as favors and debts,” he answered with a wan smile. “She presented herself at the Svennish embassy the day after our last visit to this spot, and rather than making complaints or demands, arranged for the Silver Legions on multiple continents to be armed and armored with Svennish steel. It all but singlehandedly resurrected our metalworking industry; a masterful exercise of soft power. My King has made his orders clear: what the Hand of Avei wants, she gets. In this case,” he held up the book, tucking his weapon back inside his coat now that the smoke had stopped, “documentation linking the Purists to the Universal Church.”

“You could have told me what you were doing, instead of scaring me half to death with this nonsense! Don’t you think I would have helped?”

“Rasha,” he said patiently, already fishing in his pockets again (what remained of them), “what part of our previous encounters do you think left me with the impression that you could be trusted to hold up your end of a sensitive operation? Not that you haven’t grown dramatically under Tamisin Sharvineh’s tutelage, but I could hardly take that risk. I do greatly regret involving you. Our arrangement was a hair’s breadth from completion on optimal terms—Lanora was about to be taken into protective custody in return for the documents, where she would have been safe, as the Archpope’s influence in the Five Kingdoms is minimal. But alas, you happened to cross her field of view as we were making the handoff, escorting three of her erstwhile companions evidently in custody. And then…” He grimaced. “She demanded your head for her compliance. That ridiculous woman was quite irrationally obsessed with you.”

“Yeah, she, uh, mentioned that.” Rasha glanced at the spreading stain that had been Lanora, then shuffled back; the blood was seeping rapidly through the snow and had nearly reached her own slippers. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just take the book from her at that point?”

“Her bag of holding was spelled to open for no one else; it would take a skilled enchanter weeks to extract it. And a person in her mental state, while easily manipulated, is nearly impossible to coerce. Once a person has nothing left to motivate them but spite, they can’t be forced to do anything. Here.” He had found what he wanted in his pockets: another vial of liquid. The agent downed half of it with a grimace, and then stepped forward to hand the remainder to Rasha. “Potion of weather resistance. It’s no personal heating charm, but it will stave off hypothermia for a while.”

Rasha accepted without hesitation; her fingers were already so numb she could barely tip the liquid into her own mouth, but she managed, and immediately blessed warmth began to spread through her.

“She was a centimark from freedom,” the dwarf murmured, frowning down at the woman he’d just killed. “Protection for herself and any of her comrades we could find. It was a generous deal, and a better ending than she deserved. But she threw it away for a chance at petty vengeance, and now look. This is what vindictiveness gets you.”

“Revenge is a sucker’s game,” Rasha quoted, nodding.

“And now we are stranded in the woods, in midwinter, standing over a fresh corpse.”

“You’re awfully liberal with the complaints, for somebody whose fault all this is!”

“And who blew up the carriage?” he countered, then smiled and held up a hand to forestall her rebuttal. “This is how it goes sometimes, Rasha. We made the best decisions available with the information we had, and ended up needlessly at cross-purposes to our mutual detriment. Such is life. Now, let us put that aside and see what we can do about survival.”

“Yeah, I guess it’d be a shame if Trissiny didn’t get those documents, after you went to all this trouble.”

The spy nodded, his polite smile firmly in place. “Precisely.”

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