15 – 43

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“Yep, this is the place,” Joe said as they stepped across the boundary marked by the outer ring of standing stones onto the hard surface of the circle. “Not something I’m likely to forget.”

“Well, I’m not sure what I was expecting,” Billie said frankly, scratching her head and peering around, “but now we’re here, I’m pretty sure I expected more of it.”

The center of the Golden Sea was a broad disc of completely unadorned stone, with no markings of any kind, encircling a central pit from which glowed an intense white light. While it lit up the horizon from a distance, up close it was not painful to look at, likely due to some protective magic in effect; they could still see occasional flickers of lightning directly above, but these were silent and did not strike the ground. A ring of similarly unmarked stone columns circled the broad platform from outside, with a second smaller ring around the edges of the shaft of light. All the stonework looked faintly eroded, its edges being rounded in an uneven pattern that left hints of their original sharpness in places, but altogether it didn’t appear to be even as old as the Elder Wars. Stonework a lot less venerable than eight thousand years was usually in much worse repair.

Underwhelming as it might be in style, at least the place was impressive in size. The whole of Sarasio could have been laid out within the outer circle, and the central pit containing the huge portal was big enough for an Imperial zeppelin to fly into, assuming it went nose-first.

It was eerily silent, for the sheer quantity of magic that had to be involved in that portal. Divine and arcane magic, at least, tended to produce distinctive ringing and buzzing noises, respectively; there was nothing like that here, just the faint whisper of wind over the prairie. A steady sense of pressure in the air, like the weight of a sudden storm that hadn’t yet begun to drop rain, was the only indication that there was more to the portal’s glow than light.

In that quiet, the crack was audible as Weaver crushed the beetle he’d picked up in the tallgrass, raising his hand to whisper to the slain insect. The rest turned to watch; he continued forward till he stood some yards ahead, almost halfway to the edge of the pit itself, and stopped. After listening in silence for a full minute, the bard turned back to face them, his expression frustrated.

“Well, now what? Yngrid can’t use that portal, she says it works exactly the same on her plane as for us. It goes somewhere, which isn’t where she wants to be. Joe?”

“I dunno what to tell you,” Joe replied, shaking his head. “When I was here with Jenny, she jumped in, but she was obviously a different kind of creature, trying to achieve a different goal. Sorry, Weaver, I’ve got no idea how any of this works. I thought you only needed me to get here.”

“That’s what the instructions said,” Weaver growled, turning away.

“Reckon the ol’ Bishop saw a chance to get rid of us?” Billie offered.

“I can’t see it,” Joe said immediately.

“I agree,” Mary added. “We are familiar with Darling’s flaws; it seems unlike him to renege on our deal, or try to do away with us. Especially in such a roundabout manner. The oracular sources of his information are another matter, though. Guiding spirits may grow recalcitrant if one tries to insist on their compliance.”

“Well, now what, then?!” Weaver exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in sheer frustration.

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw began.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Weaver deadpanned.

“Just so.” Grinning, the old man tipped his hat to him. “Y’all may not have cottoned onto this, as most of our group outings begin and end with shootin’ at somebody, but I’m a portal mage by specialization. Trained in teleportation in my misspent youth on the reckoning that that’s where the money was. And I’m here to tell you, most kinds o’ portals ain’t like hellgates. A stable rift only connects two points across dimensions, in the same physical spot. This critter here appears to be at the center of the Golden Sea, I’d lay odds metaphysically as well as literally. With the Sea bein’ so notoriously shifty itself, not to mention known to have a mind of its own…” He turned in a slow circle studying the features of the quiet stone circle. “There’s gotta be somebody in charge, here.”

“Did you encounter anyone on your last visit, Joseph?” Mary asked.

He shook his head. “Nobody I didn’t bring with me. Me, Jenny, what was left of the Imps chasing us. It was all exactly like this. However, I didn’t know then what I know now. Considerin’ who had to’ve set this up in the first place…” Joe trailed off, then squared his shoulders and raised his voice. “Hey, Avatar!”

Dead quiet answered.

“I have been in a number of ruins of the Elder Gods over the years,” Mary said after a pause. “They all have a very distinctive aesthetic. Glossy metal surfaces, blinking lights in those which still have power. This looks nothing like their work. I would not assume it to be the product of the same culture.”

“Well, who else?” he asked, shrugging. “You don’t think the Pantheon did this, surely. Why in the world would they?”

“She’s not wrong, though,” Billie added. “Seen a few o’ those ol’ relics meself, Joe. Also, there’s the compelling fact that nobody’s answering you.”

“Well, does anyone else have an idea?” Weaver asked in a strained tone.

Joe chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, frowning. “…yeah. Avatar! The last command of your creator, Tarthriss, was to be of service to humanity. Well, we’re a patch o’ humanity, an’ we’re here. We need your help.”

Silence.

“Please,” he added.

“Nobody’s home, Joe,” said Billie. “Maybe if—”

“Do you imagine, Joseph Percival Jenkins, that I have spent the last eight thousand years with my thumb up my butt, eating bonbons and catching up on reruns?”

All of them whirled in alarm to confront the figure which had just materialized before them. He was a glowing and transparent purple man, apparently human, bald and clad in an odd, skin-tight garment. At least seven feet tall, he hovered off the ground in a posture that would have been intimidating even had he not been scowling down at them with his arms folded.

“Try to imagine,” the purple man snapped, “presiding over an unstable dimensional vortex in a state of constant use for which it was not designed, having to actively manage its condition to avoid creating any of the numerous catastrophes which could result from it veering completely out of control. Now add to that, just for funsies, having to counter the self-serving, short-sighed manipulations of centaur infernomancers on this plane and reckless demons on another who see a potential planet-devouring black hole in the making and have no thought but to poke at it so they can ride the translocation waves it puts out when interfered with. And now, you show up and have the gall to lecture me about service? Let me tell you all, since you’re here: for every moment that has gone by in the last eight millennia that this planet has not been turned inside out or ripped entirely off its axis, you are welcome!”

They all stared up at him in shock for a moment.

The McGraw removed his hat and bowed. “Well, sir, I admit I had no idea you were here in this situation. I thank you most sincerely for your service.”

“Aye, yer a good lad!” Billie chimed in exuberantly. “An’ hey! Now we’ve been ‘ere, we can visit again, aye? Ain’t those the rules? How’s about I fetch ye a little somethin’ ta make this place a mite more comfortable, eh? You could use a few bits an’ bobs to liven it up, what’s yer pleasure?”

“I don’t know that any material gifts would be of use to you, Avatar,” Mary added, also bowing, “but nonetheless, I add my gratitude for your important work. If I may ease your burden in any way, please ask. I should be glad to assist.”

“Oh. Well.” Amazingly, the ancient AI looked both surprised and rather mollified. “That is thoughtful of you, but the thought will have to suffice. I have no needs, and there is nothing you can do to assist in my task here. Any intervention would only make it harder.”

“Then I shall refrain,” Mary replied, nodding gravely. “But should circumstances change, the offer stands.”

“I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta just take a moment an’ deal with the sheer bloody revelation, here,” Billie added. “This upends me whole world, it does. Here I’m just truckin’ along on a good old-fashioned adventure, right as rain, and all of a sudden I find out…” She turned to Joe, grinning insanely. “Percival?”

Joe glanced at the gnome, but knew better than to give her a reaction. “Pardon me for pointin’ it out, Avatar, but for somebody livin’ in the literal middle of nowhere, you’re pretty well-informed.”

“Magic, as the saying goes, is data processing,” the Avatar replied. “The nature of custodianship over the vortex requires access to all available data in order to correct its frequent upheavals. I will admit, work aside, I have not been bored out here. Watching the rise and evolution of civilizations on this world in the aftermath of the Infinite Order’s downfall has been rather gratifying. I have sufficient processing power to keep tabs on the world, so to speak, without neglecting my duty. It is not an imposition to talk to you, either.”

“And I greatly appreciate that,” said Weaver, stepping forward. “I won’t sugar-coat it: I have to ask you for a favor. And from how you describe this portal, it sounds like it’s exactly the thing you don’t like doing.”

“Yes, your valkyrie friend,” the Avatar said, scowling again. “It should be possible to temporarily modify the dimensional instability of the vortex to enable her transition to the material plane. Difficulty aside, I am not convinced that’s a wise idea, Damian ‘Gravestone’ Weaver. Has it occurred to you that those creatures were removed to the dimensional insulation layer for good and specific reason?”

Weaver tensed, clearly controlling his instinctive response, and Joe hastily butted in before that discussion could go south.

“Scuze me for interruptin’, but you mentioned this portal’s not bein’ used for its intended purpose. If you don’t mind my askin’, what exactly is it doin’? And how’s that different from the original design?”

“The vortex,” the Avatar said more calmly, turning back to him, “was originally the Infinite Order’s contingency plan, in case their activities on this planet were to render it uninhabitable. It is an open connection across space, time, and dimensions, three factors which are the reason it has to be so large and powerful.”

“Why all three o’ those?” Billie asked. “Where’s it go?”

“To the planet from which they originally came, to an alternate timeline maximally similar to their own, and to a period sufficiently in the past that the world’s inhabitants would be sophisticated enough that the Order would not need to build an entire infrastructure from the ground up but not so advanced that they could have resisted conquest. At least, that was the stated rationale, and while it is factually correct I suspect it is not a coincidence that this was the period in which most of their favorite mythologies were being actively written. If they had to abandon this world, they were going to take over a primitive alternate version of their world of origin.”

“What a bunch o’ sleazy, chickenshit arseholes,” Billie scoffed.

“Quite,” agreed the Avatar. “As for its current use, it is powered on and open, neither of which was intended. This portal is fundamentally too powerful to be stable for a period of more than an hour. It has been running for approximately eight millennia. The physical instability of the entire surrounding region of the continent is only the most obvious effect of this.”

“Most obvious?” McGraw asked warily.

“There is an active dimensional rift to another world open,” the Avatar explained. “That world has mass-broadcasting technology, and this one has transcension fields. A constant flow of data streams across the rift, where it is absorbed by the ambient magic of this world and interacts at a very low level with every consciousness which exists here.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Um,” Joe said at last, hesitantly, “Sorry if this sounds obtuse, but…what, exactly, does that…do?”

“In practical terms? It is too diffuse to have a discernible impact on any individual, even those most powerfully connected to transcension fields. The effects are only perceptible in aggregate, over the very long term. For example, the natural evolution of languages is progressive, not cyclical as it is on this world. They tend inherently to drift and evolve, but thanks to the influence of this portal upon the magic of this world, they continue to evolve back into languages being streamed through it. Those are the types of influences it has: long-term cultural effects. Culture is more complex and the parallels are weaker, but many extant societies on this planet resemble nations from the old world of this period to a greater degree than coincidence could account for.”

“And this,” Weaver whispered, “this is what those oracles told me to come here and toss Yngrid through. I…think you were right, Mary. Darling must’ve pissed them off by asking too hard. This is a trap.”

“I realized it was I who raised the possibility, Weaver, but I am far from certain of that,” she said, giving him an encouraging smile before turning back to the projected form of the AI. “If I might trouble you to ask, Avatar: you said the vortex could be modified to allow passage to here from the space between. Would that be safe for a valkyrie to cross?”

“Physical access to the dimensional insulation layer is possible through a variety of means, as you well know,” the Avatar replied with a wry twist of his mouth. “At issue is that the valkyries were fixed there by Rauzon the Prime; their substance is altered such that they cannot exist outside it. I am aware of only one valkyrie being pulled back across and not destroyed, and that only because she was changed almost beyond recognition in the process. The applicability of this portal to your problem, Mr. Weaver and Yngrid, is that it is designed to facilitate the transition between a place which has active transcension fields and one which does not, for ascended beings dependent upon those fields for their survival. A creative application of that apparatus could reverse Rauzon’s changes to a valkyrie and re-align her to this plane rather than the insulation layer. As for how safe it is: this is a machine, of incalculable enormity, complexity, and power, being operated by the most skilled user possible. I am confident I could do this without harming Yngrid, but such a task simply cannot be conceived without risk. The fundamental question remains: why would I do such a thing?”

Weaver inhaled slowly and deeply under the Avatar’s pointed stare. The others just watched him in silence, sensing this was no time to interfere.

“The truth is,” the bard said at last, raising his chin to stare the Avatar in the eye, “I have no great justification for this. I’m here, disrupting your routine and asking you to monkey around with an apparatus you were charged with keeping stable, and I won’t dress that up as anything other than what it is. All I have to say in support of my request is that… That I love her. And that she does not deserve to be imprisoned there, just for being what she is. No one deserves that. So here we are, asking for your help, because you’re the only one who can help us.” Weaver closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again, and to the astonishment of his companions, sank down to one knee. “Please. Help us.”

“It is not that I am unsympathetic, you two. In fact…” Surprisingly, the AI’s expression melted into a wistful smile. “I suppose there is no harm in admitting it: I do enjoy a star-crossed romance. Perusing the literature being produced by your societies has been one of my greatest comforts. However… As cruel as Rauzon and the Order could be, their exile of the valkyries was not a pointless act. Those entities are dangerous and destructive. Bringing Yngrid back to this plane would mean introducing an enormous hazard to it.”

“She is a person with agency,” Weaver insisted quietly. “A kind, funny, warm person who can’t help being what she is, and has no desire to kill frivolously no matter how easy it is for her. She’s not a typhoon, or a disease, or a bomb.”

“All of which was true of her and all her sisters at their first exile, Weaver. What has changed?”

Weaver hesitated, opening his mouth, but seemingly found no answer.

“Uh, scuze me?” Joe interjected, removing his hat. “Actually…I think you’ll find some very important things have changed, just maybe not with Yngrid and the other valkyries.”

The Avatar raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”

“The Infinite Order is gone,” Joe said, politely but firmly. “Long gone. If I’m not mistaken, the current situation of the valkyries is under the authority of Vidius, to whom you don’t answer and owe nothing. We’re all extremely grateful for your efforts here in keepin’ this thing stable, as we’ve said. End o’ the day, though, only responsibility you have is to help humanity, like Tarthriss ordered.” He turned his head and nodded to Weaver. “He’s part o’ humanity. An’ I don’t care what anybody says, so’s Yngrid. They’re… We are askin’ for your help.”

“Nobody in all the world ain’t dangerous,” McGraw added, nodding for emphasis. “I reckon some, or most, of those here could raise about as much hell as Yngrid, if we took a notion to. People just gotta make their choices an’ then be held accountable for the consequences, and for that to matter, they’ve gotta have the freedom to do so. Stuffin’ somebody in a hellish netherworld where the sky’s made o’ monsters because they o’ what they might do ain’t logical any more’n it’s compassionate. That was an act o’ sheer lazy cowardice.”

“Aye, that’s a point, too,” Billie agreed. “Think on it: yer not the one who put the reapers where they are, but if you got the opportunity t’bring one home and ye don’t…well, then, you kinda are, ain’cha?”

“You are incorrect on one point,” the Avatar said quietly.

They all glanced around at each other in uneasy silence.

“I do owe something to Vidius,” the AI mused, turning his transparent head to gaze at the glowing vortex itself. “He is in large part responsible for the state of this thing, and my situation here. You know, now that it’s put to me in those terms, I find myself powerfully disinclined to uphold cruel vanity projects of Rauzon, Vidius, or any other ascended being who hasn’t troubled to clean up after their own depredations. Well, then.” He turned back to Weaver with a smile. “I shall consider myself persuaded.”

The bard swallowed heavily. “I… Thank you. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Correct,” the AI agreed. “Therefore, do not strain yourself trying; the sentiment is received and accepted. Now, this sensation may be uncomfortable, but I assure you it is quite harmless. I am aligning dimensional frequencies. One moment, please, Yngrid; I will inform you when it is safe to approach the vortex.”

Joe almost stumbled at the sudden vertigo; the very air around them seemed to change in tint, as if all color faded to leave sepia and gray. His eyes and his other senses were telling him different things about what he was experiencing. It was, in fact, a familiar sensation.

“Oy, this rings a bell,” Billie muttered, echoing his thoughts. “Where’ve I ‘ad t’sit through somethin’ like this before?”

“Back when we fought Khadizroth the first time, remember?” said McGraw. “It’s a thinning of the barriers between dimensions. He sensed Yngrid, thought Weaver was holding her against her will, and tried to bring her closer to this plane.”

“Oh, aye, I remember that!” Billie said, grinning broadly. “She carved ‘is green arse like a solstice goose. Hah, thanks fer remindin’ me, I been meanin’ to shake Spooky’s ‘and fer that bit o’ work.”

“I guess you’ll get the chance soon,” Joe murmured.

“Alignment complete,” the Avatar stated. “You may want to step back, Mr. Weaver, the focus of the effect is located at the center of the portal. Yngrid, do not under any circumstances pass through the event horizon. It should not have an attractive effect, but I advise against coming too close to it anyway. Please take flight and proceed directly through the aligned space above the vortex, then effect a landing upon the platform no less than ten meters from the edge. Be prepared; I must release the alignment as soon as you are clear or there will begin to be side effects.”

Weaver backed up as he directed, keeping his eyes fixed upon the space above the glowing pit. The rest of the group also retreated to make room, watching for the valkyrie’s appearance. There was no extra sign of any dimensional aperture, only the intense glow of the portal itself and the eerie distorted effect of the Avatar’s dimensional alignment.

Then, quite suddenly, she appeared.

The shape of black wings coalesced like smoke out of nowhere, approaching the ground in a dive from right across the pit. When they had seen Yngrid previously in the space between, she had been a blurry shape as if viewed underwater, and that was exactly how she appeared even as she sharpened out of seeming nothingness. But she sharpened further, until she was as plainly seen as any of them. The speed of it was as rapid as her descent, as if she was passing out of the netherworld exactly as she passed through the air. It was also too quick for any of them to get a good look at the process, except perhaps for Mary.

Evidently plunging into the confusingly almost-merged space around them was even more disorienting than standing in it. She hit the ground and stumbled, staggering forward and wheeling her arms and black wings both for balance. This proved counterproductive, as she managed to tangle the long haft of her scythe in her own feet and pitch violently on a course that would have smashed her face-first into the stone floor had Weaver not caught her.

The bard stepped forward adroitly, despite the dimensional effect muddling all their senses, and the valkyrie landed right in his arms. Her scythe clattered to the ground beside them, forgotten.

Yngrid was a tall woman with a thin build, wave hair of medium blonde, and a long, narrow face surmounted by a high-bridged nose. Her wings were enormous, feathered as inky black as a raven’s, and she wore a dress that seemed haphazardly stitched together from mismatched odds and ends of cloth and erratic pieces of rusty mail armor.

She and Weaver held each other, their eyes locked from inches apart, gazing at one another in disbelief, and growing, incredulous delight.

Then Mary gently nudged Joe’s arm. He looked over to catch her significant glance, then averted his eyes, feeling his face color. Billie actually grunted in displeasure at being nudged by McGraw’s staff, but the old wizard picked her bodily up and turned them both around. The whole group faced the other way, giving the just-united couple a moment of privacy.

“Negating alignment,” the Avatar announced, and for a machine intelligence the fond satisfaction in his voice was remarkably plain to hear; it was the tone of a romantic soul who had just played a role in linking up a pair of star-crossed lovers. Actually, Joe reflected, he sounded more like a bard in that moment than Weaver ever had.

He suited his words with action, at any rate, and the world stabilized around them as the alignment receded.

“So,” Billie muttered, “not ta be insensitive or nothin’, but we’re still out ‘ere in buttfuck, nowhere. How long d’ye reckon we oughta give ’em—”

“Uh oh,” the Avatar said suddenly.

Everyone turned to stare at him, even Weaver and Yngrid, who still had their arms around each other.

“Now, that’s an exclamation I never expected to hear from the likes of you,” Joe said nervously.

“We are about to have more company,” the Avatar said, now frowning. “The translocation eddies put off by the vortex are being co-opted to deposit a spatial tunnel onto this location. That has never happened before.”

“Aye, very ominous,” Billie said. “But what’s it mean?”

“Means someone’s tryin’ to shadow-jump onto this spot,” McGraw explained, clutching his staff. “Which, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, should be multiple kinds of impossible.”

“The act requires the intervention of a high-order ascended being intimately familiar and possessing privileged access to this portal facility,” the Avatar explained, his tone going flat.

“Ah,” said Mary. “Well, we were warned that this course of action was spitting in the eye of a god. Now, it seems, we shall learn what Vidius thinks of it.”

“Oh, aye,” Billie agreed, grinning and reaching into one of her pockets of holding. “Now comes the fun part!”

“Keep it in your pants, girl,” McGraw advised quietly. “We talked about this, remember? We’ll fight for our friends if we have to, but I don’t aim to mix it up with a god or his servants if there’s a chance we can talk ’em down, instead.”

“With all due respect,” Mary added, glancing back at Weaver and Yngrid with the ghost of a smile, “perhaps I should do the talking?”

Before anyone could react to her suggestion, a blade appeared out of nowhere, ripping a diagonal rent in the very air before them.

It was a scythe very much like Yngrid’s—in fact, exactly like it. The weapon parted reality to reveal a gaping slash in the world, through which Vidius’s agent stepped. The moment he was clear, it snapped back together as if it had never been there.

He shifted the weapon to stand upright, planting the butt of its haft against the stone with a resounding thump.

“Yngrid,” Gabriel Arquin stated, frowning at them all, “I am disappointed in you.”

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15 – 42

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Dawn was a gray time in the grove, the surrounding forest thick enough to obscure the early sunlight. Poorly-rested elves were still gathered on the mossy commons encircled by the stream, many able to relax for the first time since shortly after dusk the night before.

Those not too tired or stressed tensed at the sudden accumulation of arcane magic in their midst, but this was not unexpected. A split second later, Tellwyrn appeared with her usual barely perceptible puff of air.

“Arachne.” Sheyann was already nearby, and crossed the few steps to the mage’s arrival point in a brisk glide. “I hope you found good news.”

“Same as here,” Tellwyrn replied, nodding even as she glanced around. “Apparently the effect alleviated sharply once the sun came up. It’s hard to say how completely; people are still reeling from it, but that could be sheer shock from the experience as much as any residual magic. So, like we surmised: wolves are nocturnal, and evidently so is wolf magic.”

“Wolves may be active at any hour of the day,” Shiraki corrected, joining them from a different direction, “though they prefer to hunt at night. I am not simply being pedantic, Arachne,” he added at her scowl. “We should be careful not to prematurely think ourselves safe.”

“All right, that’s a fair point,” she acknowledged. “Anyway, sorry to be so slow in returning, I took the opportunity to check up on the campus and town. It appears to be explicitly fae-connected. Last Rock’s resident witch was hit by it, but nothing was felt by the Avenist or Vidian clerics in town, nor the Universal Church parson. No reaction from the arcanists or infernomancers in my research staff, either. How’s everybody faring, here?”

“Tired,” said Sheyann. “More so than a sleepless night alone could account for. Shiraki and myself, and the other Elders, have managed to remain active while suppressing the effect, but all our younger shamans had to spend the entire night in focused meditation. That is very much a short-term solution; the effort is exhausting. They will begin to burn out rapidly.” She turned a sober expression on Shiraki, who nodded in grave agreement. “We may not last much longer. Greater experience and stronger fae allies on whose auspices to call make a difference, but they will not sustain us indefinitely through constant exertion.”

“I don’t suppose it’s worth hoping that this was a one-night event,” Tellwyrn said wryly.

“It beggars belief that such a potent disturbance could be permanent,” said Shiraki. “Only a change to Naiya herself could fundamentally alter the nature of fae magic this way, and if that had happened the world would already know it explicitly. I still feel the ripples washing over us, Arachne; they simply do not pull as insistently while the sun is up. But without knowing what has happened, we can place no timetable on it.”

“Right. Well, if you run out of magical countermeasures, Taowi’s had some success treating the effects with glittershrooms.”

“And that works?” Sheyann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It seems to. At least, as a stopgap measure. She said sevenleaf was a better alternative if it has to be done long-term.”

Shiraki scowled. “Thank you for the suggestion, but the last thing we need is for everyone to be stoned on top of terrorized by howling in our heads.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to brush that off,” Sheyann countered. “A low enough dose can counter the stress of the experience, hopefully, without impairing the ability to function too much. It’s not ideal, but if we can’t come up with anything better… Of course, there’s the question of where to get glittershrooms. We grow nothing like that in our grove.”

He sighed. “If it comes to that, there are undoubtedly shrooms in the human town. There’s always someone cultivating them.”

“Sarasio still has abandoned buildings, and those things pop up pretty much anywhere they’ve been that’s sufficiently dark and damp,” said Tellwyrn. “Failing that, I’ll get you some if you want. But for now, while the pressure’s let up and before anybody collapses, I think we should see what we can do about finding the source of this and putting a stop to it. Have you had any results on that front yet?”

Sheyann shook her head. “I have been tending to the younger shamans, as they are finally able to relax their vigilance and get some proper rest. I’ve not yet sought the spirits’ guidance, though with the howling in abeyance I remain optimistic that the flows of magic are no longer too disturbed to make the effort.”

“Before we do that,” said Shiraki, “Neraene has had results from her meditations. I was just coming to notify you, Sheyann, when she emerged from her shrine.”

“By all means, then, let’s hear what she has learned,” Sheyann agreed, nodding to him and then looking expectantly at Arachne. The sorceress gestured them to proceed, and then fell into step alongside as they set off toward one of the bridges across the stream.

Those affected by the fae disturbance had gathered together on the commons, where they had sat in meditation most of the night and were now either sleeping or being tended to by other members of the tribe. The trio quickly left most of the grove’s elves behind as they passed out of the common area.

It was a surprisingly short walk to the new Themynrite shrine, not even fully out of earshot of the commons, to Tellwyrn’s surprise. Important as the night’s events had been, she had refrained from commenting or even inquiring about the fact that this wood elf grove now had a resident Narisian. Neraene nir Heral d’zan Awarrion was a priestess, and had diffidently offered to see whether her goddess could lend any insight to these dramatic events, then gone to the shrine to do so, and that was that. In short order they arrived, and Tellwyrn found that the tiny temple, fittingly, was underground. Its entrance yawned between two roots of the massive redwood; the space underneath would be braced by the tree’s root system in a manner the wood elves were fond of using for their dwellings and storage rooms. The only thing which marked it out from any other tree-cellar in the grove was the slab of granite erected beside its entrance, marked with the balance scale sigil of Themynra inlaid in silver.

Neraene herself stood in front of this, conversing quietly with another elf whose presence in the grove was even more surprising than the drow’s. They broke off their conversation at the approach of the Elders and Tellwyrn, the priestess turning to bow respectfully to them.

“Elders, Professor,” she said, every bit as serene and courteous as any Narisian. “Welcome back. The goddess has seen fit to honor me with some direction, though I fear it may be more scant than you had hoped.”

“We knew in advance that Themynra’s areas of concern are very specific,” Sheyann replied. “Any and all aid is appreciated, Naraene.”

The priestess inclined her head again in acknowledgment. “All I have ascertained through the goddess’s auspices is that there is a divine connection to the source of this trouble, albeit an indirect one. While the conduit for these shockwaves is clearly through the magic of Naiya, at its source is a connection to the Pantheon god Shaath.”

“It’s nice to have confirmation, I suppose,” said the other elf present in a drawling tone, “though given the wolf symbolism, that can’t have been much of a surprise.”

Tellwyrn affixed a flat stare on him from over the rims of her spectacles. In comparison to this character, a drow priestess suddenly seemed a great deal less out of place in a woodkin grove.

He might have been a wood elf by the shape of the ears, though his were decorated with heavy-looking gold jewelry which glittered with tiny sapphires and emeralds. A matching gold band held his waist-length hair up in a high ponytail that had been artfully arranged to bristle like the tail of a fox. His robes were pale blue, every inch of the fabric engraved with subtle geometric patterns in sea green that made them appear to shift color, and decorated further by metal panels of gold along the lapels, shoulders, and cuffs. These were fringed by more little jewels, though much of their surface was taken up by inlaid panels of pure swirling white light, resembling miniature dimensional portals. He had actual light-wrought shoulderpads, arched projections over his shoulders formed of glowing energy. Though his boots had daintily pointed toes, they were incongruously heavy, no doubt to better hold the enchantments that kept him hovering a few inches off the ground rather than let his expensive clothes come into contact with the moss.

“Do you by any chance know Zanzayed the Blue?” Tellwyrn asked him.

He arched one eyebrow sardonically. “I have not had the…experience. Why do you ask?”

“You are the first person I have ever met whose fashion sense makes his seem tasteful and restrained.”

The high elf smirked at her, and Shiraki sighed minutely through his nose.

“Arachne, this is Magister Anduor,” Sheyann said quietly, “also a guest in our grove.”

“And ever ready to do my part to assist my forest-dwelling cousins in their time of need,” the Magister added, executing a truly grandiose court bow which involved flourishes of both arms and his left foot. “Though my assistance was not asked, somewhat understandably as I gather you were distracted by the psychic pressure of this event and it is not my custom to bluntly insert myself as did the good Professor. I have spent the night constructing a custom scrying lattice that enables the tracking of fae currents back to their source.”

“You can do that?” Sheyann asked, openly surprised.

“Sure,” Tellwyrn answered before Anduor could. “It’s challenging to rig an arcane system to interact with fae magic without blowing up, but as long as you’re meticulous and know what you’re doing, it’s quite achievable. If he’s good enough to be a Magister and has been at it all night, it ought to work, probably.”

“The effort involved would be prohibitive for lesser purposes,” Anduor cut in, still looking peevish at her theft of his exposition, “but in this case, the inciting event appears to be planetary in scale. Energy ripples of that magnitude are difficult not to detect. Even more conveniently, they radiate outward from a single point. Once a wave is isolated and tracked for a short distance and its arc measured at two reference points along that course, calculating the point of origin is simple trigonometry. A moderately educated squirrel could do it.”

“I am still growing accustomed to the minutiae of surface life,” Neraene said diffidently. “Does ‘squirrel’ refer to something different in the Qestrali dialect?”

Shiraki gave her a look of amused solidarity; Anduor paused to roll his eyes before commencing a series of fluid and entirely unnecessary gestures with his well-manicured hands.

“Now, don’t be alarmed,” he said condescendingly. “I am not conjuring an entire divination apparatus here. This is merely a projection of its readout, a capability I luckily had the foresight to install before joining you.”

With a final flourish of his fingers and a (purely cosmetic) series of flashes from his jeweled rings, he called a hovering panel of pale blue light into being in front of them. In blue upon it was marked a barely perceptible grid, and in much heavier lines clearly showing the shapes of a landmass—specifically the western coast of the continent. The map was centered upon a single flashing dot which rhythmically emitted concentric rings of light that faded a few inches from it. A short string of numbers hovered alongside it.

“Latitude and longitude?” Sheyann asked.

“Very good,” Anduor said with the patrician approval of a tutor encouraging a remedial student.

“That’s in N’Jendo,” said Tellwyrn. “Ugh. Why is it always N’Jendo? Admirably straightforward folks, there, but they have awfully rotten luck with people conjuring apocalyptic bullshit in their backyard.”

“I cannot imagine that it makes much difference what the human kingdom is called at any given moment,” Anduor said in a bored tone. “Such magic is clearly beyond their capacities. Whatever is happening, it should be addressable without troubling to learn who claims the cluster of mud huts which approximates civilization in its proximity.”

“Why has no one murdered him yet?” Tellwyrn asked the two Elders.

“Most people who are not you don’t jump directly to ‘murder’ in response to minor irritation,” Shiraki said wryly.

“Most people haven’t met this guy.”

“Thank you very much for your help, priestess, Magister,” Sheyann said in a tone of courteous finality. “You have given us a starting point. If you’ll excuse us, we must decide upon our next move.”

“Should you need anything else, don’t hesitate to ask,” Anduor said magnanimously. “I’m always glad to instruct fellow elves in the ways of magic.” Neraene just bowed deeply to them.

“Our next move seems obvious to me,” Tellwyrn said as the three of them turned and began walking back toward the commons. “We go to N’Jendo, figure out what the hell is going on, and stop it.”

“You never do grow less hasty,” Shiraki murmured. “Charging into the unknown middle of—”

“Chucky, that was barely a valid attitude a thousand years ago. Even allowing for your Elder standoffishness, it just doesn’t work anymore. To say nothing of whatever is behind this insanity, others will be reacting. Do I need to lecture you on what could go wrong if the Empire gets its hands on something that can disrupt all of fae magic, everywhere? And they’re just at the top of the list of people who can probably locate this event and get people there quickly.”

“I share your unease at the idea of a hasty misstep, Shiraki,” Sheyann added, “but in this one case, I think Arachne is painfully right. One way or another, this will be dealt with. We have one chance to ensure it is done by us, on terms which will not cause ongoing harm.”

He sighed. “You are never more annoying than when you’re right.”

“Which of us is he talking to?” Tellwyrn asked Sheyann.

“Share the sentiment between yourselves; there is enough to go around,” Shiraki said, shaking his head. “The issue, then, becomes one of how quickly we can get there.”

“Instantly, of course,” Tellwyrn huffed. “I got the coordinates.”

“You know why we decline to participate in your cavalier matter scrambling,” Sheyann snapped. “Our spirit blessings can hasten—”

“Don’t be obtuse, Sheyann, it doesn’t suit you,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “I have respected your superstitions as much as possible, but this is not the time. You know as well as I it’ll take most of the day to get to N’Jendo from here even if you boost yourself to the maximum. That’ll leave almost no time to address whatever’s happening, or even figure it out, before night falls and the howling starts again, and then you’ll be dealing with that on top of being exhausted. So unless you’ve bothered to learn Kuriwa’s fast-travel trick of slipping through the space between, we teleport.”

“Arachne, just because you have no regard for…”

Shiraki laid a hand on Sheyann’s shoulder, causing her to trail off mid-sentence.

“She’s still insufferably right, Sheyann,” he said softly. “You know I agree with you. The fact remains, we simply have no time. Whatever the implications or repercussions, this is a sacrifice we will have to embrace. Just this once.”

She stared at him, then at Tellwyrn, and then finally closed her eyes and heaved a sigh. “Veth’na alaue. All right. We must notify the other Elders, and then, I suppose…go.”

“Just like old times!” Tellwyrn said, grinning and rolling up her sleeves. “C’mon, don’t deny it. You’ve missed the call of adventure.”

“Somehow,” Shiraki complained, “no matter what’s going on, you always find a way to make it worse.”


Sweet was the first off the caravan, bounding onto the platform and inhaling deeply through his nose until his chest puffed up like a rooster, as if he’d never smelled air before coming to Ninkabi.

There was a fortunate lack of fellow travelers, it being the first caravan of the day. One quick, surreptitious sweep of the station with his eyes confirmed that they should be able to grab a little privacy to confer before parting ways, without having to find a truly secure spot. Everybody knew what was up, but he wanted to make inescapably sure of that before the group split up. Flora and Fauna had already glided silently out of the caravan and moved to flank him as he turned to watch the others disembark.

Grip stepped out and panned an undisguised stare of cold analysis around the station, eyes narrowed suspiciously and one hand in her pocket. He had to suppress a wince; between that and her leather coat and general cultivated scruffiness, nobody would take her for anything but a thug up to no good. Ah, well, they all had their specialties, and Grip hadn’t become a successful enforcer by disguising who and what she was. Hopefully, on this job, that would be an asset and not an impediment.

Jenell followed her sponsor, and he nearly grinned at the girl’s mirroring of Grip’s posture and demeanor. She didn’t quite have it down, but for a relatively junior apprentice, she was coming along well. The last member of their party emerged, ebullient as ever despite the stressful night fae magic users in general had apparently spent, and peering about in even more obvious good humor than Sweet himself had projected upon his emergence.

“I say, that was positively luxurious!” Schwartz enthused. “Dashed convenient, these days. If you’d ridden the Rails five years ago you’d never imagine they were the product of the same Imperial service!”

“All right, chickadees, thisaway,” Sweet said cheerfully, setting off toward one corner of the station in a languid saunter. Grip fell into step beside him, her customary leonine prowl a sharp contrast to his own gait. The combination, he thought ruefully, would make it clear to any onlookers with a shred of worldly sense that they were both Thieves’ Guild operatives. He waited until they were relatively isolated behind a decorative tree with a panoramic view of any angle of approach before turning to address the group in a quieter voice. “You all know what we’re here after. And you know your roles?”

“Hunting down our two known contacts,” Flora said obediently.

“The three of us,” Fauna added, “will be checking the Izarite temples and Church chapels to track down Bishop Snowe.”

Both elves turned expectantly to the others. Schwartz was in the midst of summoning his little fire-rat familiar, but Jenell was expectantly watching Grip.

“He’s talking to you, apprentice,” the enforcer said dryly. “Sweet doesn’t need to check that I know my fucking job.”

Jenell’s cheeks colored slightly and the newly-summoned Meesie squeaked indignantly, but the junior thief answered quickly once prompted. “We’re tracking down Thumper. I don’t know this city, but Grip knows the Guild contacts in town and if that doesn’t work, we’ve got Herschel’s magic to help.”

“You got it,” Sweet said, nodding. “And on that note, whatever happens, please try not to get Herschel killed. I’m already leaning on our mutual tie to Thorn to bring him in on this, and that’s a girl whose shit list I don’t need to be on.”

Grip smirked in broad amusement, but Meesie chattered disapprovingly and Schwartz let out a huff of annoyance. “You do realize I’m not just Trissiny’s sidekick.”

“If that’s all you were, Herschel, you wouldn’t be here,” Sweet assured him. “I invited you specifically, rather than any of the magical specialists I might have contacted, because of the shadow hanging over this whole shebang. Make no mistake, this is putting you in direct danger, but it’s danger I know you’re both capable and motivated to deal with. I mentioned already that Basra is involved in this, tangentially, and probably still in Ninkabi.”

Schwartz and Jenell both scowled in matching expressions of anticipatory violence; Meesie hissed on his shoulder, puffing up like a scalded cat. Grip just folded her arms, one corner of her mouth twitching upward in a predatory little smirk.

“Yesterday,” Sweet continued, “among the many hasty errands I had to do to get this operation put together, I rammed some Imperial paperwork through. In light of her laundry list of known offenses, there is now an Imperial bounty on Basra Syrinx, dead or alive. Official notice may not reach Ninkabi until later today, but if you find yourselves arguing the right of way with the authorities over it, you surrender politely and wait for it to come through, understood? Because if the choice comes up, you choose dead.”

“You didn’t mention we were coming here to finish Basra,” Jenell whispered, her expression a troubling mix of anger and eagerness. Troubling on her, at any rate; Grip he knew could handle and channel that kind of vindictiveness, but it got raw apprentices killed.

“We are not here to finish Basra,” he said firmly, leveling a finger at her. “That’s not the job, and I don’t want you haring off after her. But she’s present, and involved, and we may come across her, so I need people here who can and will finish this decisively if, and only if, it comes up. Should you encounter Basra Syrinx, kill her. That is all, just kill her. No talking, don’t even pause for the satisfaction of making sure she sees you coming. Even with her divine shields cut off, that woman is a force of nature with a blade in her hand so do not be close enough to her for that to matter. You hit her instantly with every spark of witchcraft you can channel and whatever evil Grip has in her pockets, and then let the authorities sort out the rest. And make sure you don’t let your guard down at any point. She assuredly knows all of us, and has personal beef with more of us than not. With the shit going on in this city right now, don’t let anyone sneak up on you, and especially not her. Everybody clear on that?”

“Yes, but…uh, what if she sneaks up on you?” Jenell dragged a skeptical look across Sweet and both of his elven apprentices. “No offense, but…”

“Sweet’s no enforcer, but he didn’t get where he is by not knowing what he’s doing,” Grip answered her. “If you don’t know how he’s gonna handle the danger, then you don’t need to. You respect another thief’s secrets, apprentice.”

“Okay,” Jenell agreed, nodding. “Sorry.”

Schwartz drew in a steadying breath and let it out in a quick sigh. “Okay. So… Our meeting place is Notolo’s, traditional Jendi restaurant on the middle island, middle tier.”

“Notoli’s,” Sweet corrected, smiling, “but yeah, any local you ask will recognize it from that. Grip knows where it is, and you should try not to get separated for all kinds of reasons, but if you do, go there.”

Meesie cheeped in affirmation, standing upright and saluting.

“Aww,” Flora and Fauna cooed in unison. Grip rolled her eyes.

“Just out of curiosity,” said Schwartz, “isn’t there a famous Eserite shrine in this city? Wouldn’t that be a better place to…”

“The Font of the Fallen is not to be used for tactical purposes,” Grip said in a flat tone.

“Okay,” he said meekly.

“How’re you holding up, Herschel?” Sweet asked. “Any more complications from that…fairy business?”

Schwartz shook his head. “My dreamward held up, and it seems to have abated since sunrise. It’s weird… I can still feel this, kind of…roiling disturbance in fae magic in general. Lots of agitated spirits at the periphery of my awareness. It shouldn’t mess me up too much, though. At least, not more than I can compensate for.”

“Okay, you know your business,” Sweet said, nodding. “Watch out for yourself and don’t take unnecessary risks; whatever that’s about, we don’t need to borrow someone else’s trouble.”

In fact, he very much wanted to know more about that, but his own dance card was full. Whatever was going on, he would have to trust that Ingvar could take care of his own business. When it came to Ingvar, that was generally a safe assumption.

“All right, you all know your jobs,” he said aloud. “Let’s move out, people. Watch your backs out there, and keep it quick and quiet right up until you have to burn something the fuck down.”


“It’s not just me, right?” McGraw asked, staring north. “That wasn’t there last night.”

“Hell, that woulda been a lot more visible in the dark,” Billie agreed. “Nope, this here’s a shiny new development.”

“Joseph?” Mary asked, turning to him. “Does it look familiar?”

“Yeah, that’s it, all right,” Joe said quietly, also gazing at the glow on the horizon. It was a fixed blaze of white light, not unlike a sunrise but for the wrong color and the occasional flickers of lightning that snapped out from it into the sky. “The center…just like it was last time. I don’t get it, though. It took Jenny an’ me a lot longer to get here. We’ve only been walkin’ a few days.”

“Well, the Golden Sea’s notoriously shifty, innit?” Billie said cheerfully. “I always figured it shifted more side ta side, but I guess it works in the in an’ out direction, as well!”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Joe said. “I’m just wonderin’ what it means. The Sea’s s’posed to have a mind of its own, ain’t it?”

“A mind,” Mary said, “though not a mind as we would recognize one. Its movements may be purposeful…or random. Or perhaps, aimed at something which does not concern us directly.” She raised her head as if scenting the wind. “And yet, I am inclined not to see happenstance in any development right now. There are great things afoot in the world. Given our objective, that this should unfold before us so suddenly…”

“Well,” Weaver cut into the conversation, “I don’t see what more there is to be decided, and we’re not getting anywhere standing here chattering about it. We’re almost there, folks. Come on, let’s finish this.”

“Aye!” Billie crowed, swarming nimbly up the lanky bard’s body to perch on his shoulders, whereupon she pointed at the seething glow on the horizon. “We’ve got us a god to antagonize! What the hell’re we waitin’ for?”

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15 – 41

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The Shaathists were the last to arrive.

Ingvar had known in advance there would be three; the awareness was a constant tingle in the back of his mind, something to which he was not accustomed. There were six in his own party, and three Rangers had showed up. His learned sense of social and political rhythms combined with instinctive understanding of the balance inherent in nature, and a growing intuition he didn’t quite comprehend yet, to forewarn him of the shape of the thing forming before his eyes. Six of his own followers, six skeptical seekers, and the final party Rainwood had quietly told him was coming—also, he expected, six.

They were in the realm of the spirits, now. These things didn’t just happen. Ingvar was no shaman, could not speak directly to any invisible fae, but there was definitely something guiding him along.

Dimbi had brought two fellow Rangers, both older than she. So far, both Sha and Intima, as they had been introduced, had opted to remain silent and watch, leaving their more garrulous junior to do the speaking. Sha had kept the hood of the Ranger cloak up and clutched her longbow in front of herself as if for comfort, while Intima simply regarded everyone impassively, his broad features schooled into almost meditative stillness. Huge man that he was, a head taller than Ingvar and correspondingly broad, even that was vaguely menacing, but none of them had offered the slightest hostility. They were, after all, here. Had Dimbi or anyone she spoke to wished harm upon this endeavor, they could have just taken the story directly to their leader. Ingvar had to trust that they had come out of sincere curiosity, if only because suspiciously grilling them would just undercut what he was trying to accomplish.

Their location was not difficult to find for anyone remotely skilled in tracking; of the six of them, only Rainwood might have been hard to follow. Specifically wanting to be found, Ingvar had not troubled to walk with care once their daily hunting for necessary food was done, and they had left a veritable highway to this clearing. Now, in the center, there glowed a most unusual bonfire, created by the shaman’s craft from living branches piled with their still-green leaves emerging. The flame was white and put off no heat, but a steady glow not unlike the moon. Rather than the flickering glow of fire, it was as intense and even as a fairy lamp. The quiet blaze produced numerous little dancing lights, which one moment resembled nothing more than the sparks put off by any campfire except in clean white, and the next looked more like glowing butterflied fluttering under their own impetus, but fading from existence before they could be observed closely.

Shortly after full dusk, a lull had fallen, the Rangers exhibiting patience even as their expressions remained cynical; Ingvar had asked them to wait for the last arrivals before commencing the true purpose of this gathering. There was quiet, then, when the Shaathists emerged from the shadows of the trees.

Two of them Ingvar recognized as the youths who had accompanied three full Huntsmen previously, the Tiraan boy Samaan and another whose name he hadn’t heard. It was no surprise that it would be the young who were most curious and adventurous. Unexpectedly, though, they followed a man who was genuinely old, his hair fully white and his posture slightly stooped. He was a full Huntsman, though, carrying a blessed longbow and wearing both a bearskin cape and a bronze wolf’s head pin. Lean, wiry and still tall despite his aged hunch, he stepped fully into the clearing, sweeping a quick stare around all those assembled.

“Well, well,” the old man said aloud, his voice creaking slightly with age but still strong and clear. “It seems we’re expected!”

“Welcome,” Ingvar replied, nodding to him. “You are, indeed. All of us are some degree of surprised to find ourselves here; I simply have the benefit of a little more time to being ushered along by forces I cannot see.”

“And that would make you the famous Brother Ingvar,” the elder Huntsman said, eyeing him critically up and down.

“I suppose I’ll have to get used to being the famous Brother Ingvar,” he replied with a sigh.

“I imagined someone taller,” the old man grunted, then grinned. “But then, that’s exactly what I say every time I pass a mirror.”

“What are you of all people doing sniffing around this apostate, Dantu?” Sha demanded in a growl. “Going to switch sides yet again?”

“Brother Dantu has a bit of a history,” the second Shaathist apprentice, the local boy whose name Ingvar didn’t know, interjected with a wry smile, stepping closer to the eerie firelight and placing a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “He left the lodge in his youth to join the Shadow Hunters, and years later returned to the true path.”

“True path,” Dimbi repeated, her tone precariously heavy with sarcasm.

“That must be a long and remarkable story,” said Ingvar in a deliberately calm tone before more hostility could emerge.

“Right and wrong are usually not as simple as true and false,” Dantu said with a more sober expression. “Sometimes they aren’t even as simple as right and wrong, and that’s when you really have to watch your step. We tend to paint ourselves into intractable moral dilemmas by trying to make things simpler than they are. The Huntsmen say one thing, the Rangers another, and leave nuance to the fairies. Something tells me, Famous Brother Ingvar, you’ve come to make all our lives good and complicated again. I’ve come to see whether the upset you bright might be a solution, or just more problems. The boys, here, tell me you put on quite a show.”

“Oh, he does at that,” Taka agreed. “I’m still not sure how into all this mystic hunter business I am, but I’ve gotta say Ingvar’s never boring.”

“Glad to see you two again,” Ingvar said, making eye contact with each of the lads. “Samaan, and…?”

“How’d you know that?” Samaan demanded, one hand falling to the tomahawk hanging at his waist.

“Easy, there, Sam,” the other urged, smiling faintly. “Last time, you made Djinti call you down by name, remember? I’m Kanatu,” he added, nodding deeply to Ingvar, “the one who remembers details.”

“Oh, shut up,” Samaan grunted. “Very well, you expected us to come looking for you, we’re all impressed. Obviously you’ve gone to some trouble to set all this up. Let’s hear what you have to say, then.”

Ingvar looked over at Rainwood, who nodded to him.

“I have little enough to say,” Ingvar answered. “If it were that simple, all of this would be unnecessary. I’ve warned both of your groups, respectively, that I bring you painful, disruptive truths, and that I’m only a messenger; this business won’t leave you in peace if you drive me off. I wouldn’t have listened to the truth when it was first shown to me. That’s why it had to be shown.”

“Well, we’ve come all this way,” Kanatu said with a shrug, glancing warily over at the three quiet Rangers in their gray-green cloaks. “Say, show, whatever it is, whip it out.”

“Several of you are already well acquainted with this,” Ingvar said, now looking at the Rangers himself. Sha nodded and Dimbi quirked an ironic little smile, though Intima remained impassive as a tree. He made eye contact with Dantu, whose previously animated features had gone inscrutable. Ingvar had known several men like this one during his time with the Huntsmen, free thinkers who skirted the boundaries of tradition, never quite transgressing enough to be called down by the lodgemaster but subtly thumbing their noses at everyone. They were always the most willing to entertain unconventional ideas. Now, he had to wonder how many of those men had learned shocking truths and yet chosen the comfort of faith and community over harsh reality, as Dantu evidently had. “In fact, this is a pivotal moment for those following me, as well. Tholi in particular has been more than patient with my vague hints up till now.”

He paused, feeling the weight of everyone’s expectant stares, and turning his eyes to the mysterious white flame.

“For some of you, this will be a repetition of an old revelation. For others, merely…trivia. But for some, it will be a shock that may strip away everything you understand about the world. I have known tribulation in my time, as you can only imagine. Not every lodge is equally welcoming of a man in my position, and my career with the Huntsmen has been an often painful balance between the path to which I was called and a community that sometimes despised me. Yet I will warn you now that what you are about to see was the thing that hurt me the most. There is no pain quite like having your beliefs carved away. If any of you choose to walk away rather than face this, I will not name them coward.”

The Rangers didn’t react at all; Dantu’s thin shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. Kanatu just folded his arms.

“I’m not afraid of anything you have to show me,” Samaan snorted. “Let’s see you impress, Ingvar.”

Ingvar was positioned near the middle of the row of his own party, lined up along one side of the fire; he now glanced to both sides, taking in their expressions. Rainwood and Aspen both smiled encouragingly, while Tholi looked downright eager. Taka was going out of her way to appear as skeptical as the Rangers, and November just looked reserved. He suspected she was grappling with her own questions about why Avei had sent her into the middle of this business.

“Then I’ll ask you to please be respectful and hold your peace while the last members of this gathering arrive.”

“Who the hell else is coming to this?” Samaan muttered.

“Lad, when you’ll find out just the same whether or not you ask, it’s always better to keep quiet,” Dantu advised.

Ingvar was watching Rainwood sidelong. The elf had closed his eyes, breathing slowly and deeply. He could not feel shamanism at work, at least not explicitly or directly, but that sense was there. Of pressure, of potential, something vast in motion and not related to him but certain to determine the course of his next actions. It was, he reflected, very much like the sense of a thunderstorm rolling forward.

Then they arrived, and he swept all of that from his mind.

Where before only the single female had answered the call, now Rainwood’s entreaties via the spirits had successfully summoned the whole pack. The whole family.

There were six of them, rounding out the formation. Six of Ingvar’s party to start, the three Rangers and three Shaathists making six more, even more obviously now as they shifted away from the new arrivals with gasps and muffled exclamations, forgetting the tension between them to make way for the pack of wild wolves who stepped out of the darkness and up to the firelight.

“The Rangers have a rite for this purpose,” Ingvar said while the assembled group stared in mingled awe and fear at the predators joining them in the firelight. “I lack access to their secrets, and so this is not that. Rainwood has lent us his talents and the aid of his spirit guides to ask these guests for their guidance. In the faith of Shaath, there is no creature more sacred than the wolf. It is their ways which are held up as the ideal of living. The crux of the problem with the Huntsmen today is that they believe things about wolves which are purely untrue. Now, tonight, these honored guests, with the aid of the fae spirits all around us, will show us the truth of their lives. Please, sit.”

He folded himself smoothly to the ground, sitting cross-legged. One by one, the rest followed suit, several obviously reluctant to adopt a less defensible stance in the presence of so many of nature’s perfect hunters. It helped that the wolves appeared to hear his request and themselves sat down in a loose arc around their edge of the fire, all six gazing impassively at the humans with their ears up and alert. One by one, the rest of the party sank to the earth.

“This may be disorienting in its first moments,” Ingvar said quietly, accompanied by an intensifying glow from the white fire. “Rest assured that you are safe here. We meet under a pact of peace; these are friends and companions. What now unfolds is the craft of a master shaman. Still your unease, and trust the process as it comes to completion.”

The fire continued to glow while he spoke, its light beginning to waver almost like a natural fire’s, and mist poured out from its base to wash gently across the clearing in a luminous white carpet. The wolves showed no reaction to this, though several of the two-legged participants in the ritual shifted uncertainly, eyes darting.

Ingvar breathed in and out, deliberately following his own advice. He had checked again with Rainwood before beginning this; the shaman said that the spirits in the world were still agitated, but it was nothing to do with them and should have no impact.

The “should” was worrying. But they were here at the behest of those same spirits, as well as the gods themselves. At a certain point, a person simply had to have faith, and keep going.

In unison, the six seated wolves raised their noses skyward and cried aloud, their mournful howling echoing across the forest. It was a stunning music, and a truly astonishing thing to experience so close. Also, at that proximity, incredibly loud.

This time, none of those gathered made any noises in response, but Ingvar could tell just by glancing across them that they felt what he felt. The howl of a wolf was a call to family, a summons. It stirred, tugged at something inside himself placed there by the magic in which they had all partaken.

The mist rose around each of them, drifting upward in twelve little banks to wash smoothly over them, and then each began to take shape. Around every person, the shadow of a wolf cast in white moonlight formed, raising its head to cry mutely in answer to the call.

Of their own volition, he felt his eyes closing. By the time they had fully shut, the spirits and the wolves had supplanted his vision.


They were a large pack, and an uncertain one, still growing used to one another. They trusted him, though, and he honored that trust, devoting himself to leading them as best he could. He looked after is family, and they did after him. It was not a matter of asserting his will, but simply of the love between them, the same force that bound all living things. If it ever came to be that one of the younger ones would become stronger and a better leader, he would encourage that one to take the role. For now, they lived in an uncertain world, and he was the one with the knowledge and the confidence to guide them through it.

He missed his brothers, at times. The wise, canny older brother with the golden pelt, and the younger, darker one with his piercingly analytical mind. Not only because they were brothers and he wished to be alongside family, as was only natural, but because both were smart, and there were many strange smells in the air. He could have used their support. But what was, was. He was leader, now, and had his own family to look after.

They lived, were conscious, at a fixed point within a spectrum of memory, with the awareness of their lives in this forest stretching away both behind and ahead. It was a strange thing…and yet, not. This was just the world and what it was like to be alive within it, and yet he had the sense, sometimes, that there was something else. That things were supposed to be different. But he put that aside and dealt with the now. It was a good land, and a good life. They hunted in the darkness, and never went hungry. They played together in the shadowy times between day and night, curling up to share warmth and closeness during the sleepy sunlight hours. Games of chasing and scuffling were ways for him to teach the younger ones about the struggles of living.

And yet, there was that scent again. One of those troubling smells, wafting down from the mountains. He paused, raising his head. What was it? It was not food, or friend. Was his family in danger? The smell was new, impossible to place. It was…uneasy. Something about the world that was not what it should be.

No, Ingvar, that’s not the lesson.

He growled softly. Words were just noise, and the more troubling because he could not tell where they were coming from.

Don’t follow that scent. Listen to me, Ingvar. Trust the spirit of the wolf, not the other spirits.

Responding as always to his uncertainty, she stepped up beside him, leaning her bulk against his own in affection and support. His longtime partner, the one most special of all his beloved family, with her wild green eyes and the golden pattern like leaves dappling her pale coat. Her scent always reminded him as much of trees as of family. She raised her head to smell it as well. Beautiful and proud, and no less precious because she was rather unpredictable.

She bared her teeth in displeasure, echoing his soft growl.

Aspen, no! Don’t get involved in that, you’re too—

He snapped his jaws in anger. That was worse. Whatever that smell was, it was pushing at them. Pushing at her. At his family.

As one, they wheeled and gathered up the pack. Something menacing lurked in the wilds, and it was time for them to go. He raised his voice to howl, calling the rest together.

Please, Ingvar, remember peace. Don’t…

She howled alongside him, and her voice echoed through the forests, across the mountains, across the world beyond.

Aspen, NO!

The scent swirled violently, a storm gathering where there was no storm. Suddenly frantic, the whole family howled to one another, gathering together, turning to flee from the tumult. He led them away. He did not know where safety was, or what kind of threat encroached, but they trusted and followed him. They were his responsibility. He would let nothing harm his family.

The pack dashed away from the mountains, seeking safer ground. As they went they called out to one another, making sure no one was lost. The strange scent in the wind followed them, and called back.

And in the distance, on all sides, other wolves answered.


“Twenty-three,” Branwen said with a sigh, making a notation on her map. “I thought he said twenty hellgates?”

“If these people have even the most basic sense, they will have built themselves the most generous margin of error possible,” Khadizroth said absently, his attention focused on the diorama he had built on her dining room table. Assembled from dust he had called seemingly from the air itself, it formed a monochrome scale model of Ninkabi, with swirls of colored light dashing this way and that through its streets and canyons like errant gusts of wind. “Not all of these sites will produce viable hellgates, and they must be planning on at least some being discovered beforehand. It is a good strategy, but it means we must be unfailingly diligent.”

“Yes, the one we miss will be the worst,” she agreed wryly. “Isn’t that always the way… Any sign from your spirit guides of how many of these ritual sites are left to find?”

“As with much fae craft, it unfolds like relentless nature herself,” the dragon replied, giving her a sidelong smile. “It will be done when it is done. For now—”

“My lord!” Vannae said suddenly, shooting upright out of his seat.

“I sense it too,” Khadizroth replied, frowning now in alarm. “What on earth is…”

The entire model of the city shattered into a cloud, swirling chaotically until it formed a new shape.

Now, suddenly, it had made a moving statue of a wolf. The creature raised its head toward the ceiling, and emitted a howl as vivid and loud as if the living animal were right there in the room.

The door burst open and Shook staggered in, disheveled with sleep but brandishing a wand. “The fuck is that?! Everybody okay?”

Khadizroth was staring at the wolf in an unaccustomed expression of shock and disbelief.

“Ingvar,” he whispered. “What have you done?”


It seemed he’d barely had time to drift off to sleep, despite his intention to get an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s plans, but Darling shot bolt upright in bed to find both his apprentices at his sides, clutching his arms.

“Wha,” he burbled, “whazzat, I thought…”

The bedroom door burst open and Price appeared, her eyes sweeping the room.

“It’s okay!” Fauna said quickly. “He snapped out of it.”

“What happened?” the Butler demanded. “I have never heard such a sound. So help me, if you two are keeping a pet coyote…”

“That wasn’t us,” Flora objected. “It was him.”

“I had this dream…” Darling scrubbed a hand across his face. “I swear it was somewhere I’ve been before.”

“There was some serious fairy fuckery clustering around you out of nowhere,” said Fauna. “Seems to have dissipated, though.”

“We got here just before you started howling,” Flora added. “Are you okay, Sweet?”

He blinked twice. “Excuse me, I started what?”


The darkness of unconsciousness faded from his vision, replaced by Mary’s face, her eyes wide with uncharacteristic worry. He was breathing heavily as if he’d just run a mile, he realized, and almost toppled over, spared only by the grip of her slender hands on his cheeks. She was surprisingly strong, for an elf.

“Joseph, it’s all right,” she said soothingly. “You’re safe. Are you back with us?”

“I…” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, shaking his head. “What happened? I feel like I was just…somewhere else.”

“Damn, son, you scared the life outta me,” said McGraw, looming over him.

“Aye, that was a right wake up an’ no mistake,” Billie agreed, popping up at his side. “I never heard a human throat make a sound like that.”

“A sound like…what?” he asked weakly.

All around their little campsite, the Golden Sea stretched in every direction, seemingly infinite. Out of the darkness, suddenly from every direction there rose distant howls. They reminded him of the familiar voices of coyotes he’d often heard growing up in Sarasio. But…not. Their cries were longer, deeper…

Even more familiar.

“Like that,” said Weaver, standing a few yards distant with his back to the group, gazing at the dark horizon.


He was awakened by Hesthri climbing across him to the other side of the bed. The room was cool, its one window open to admit the evening breeze.

That, and sudden, surprising music from the hills all around Veilgrad.

Natchua already stood at the window, moonlight forming a gleaming corona on the darkness of her skin. Jonathan swung his legs over the side of the bed and followed Hesthri to join her.

“Aren’t there supposed to be werewolves in this area?” he asked, setting one arm across the drow’s slender shoulders while Hesthri laid a hand against her upper back.

“That,” Natchua said quietly, “and the normal kind of wolves. But not so many.”

It was true, he realized. Those howls were seemingly coming from every direction, repetitive and so unrelenting that he could hardly discern where one ended and the next began.

“It’s so beautiful,” Hesthri whispered. “What kinds of creatures are these?”

“Dangerous ones,” Jonathan said, stepping closer and taking advantage of the long reach of his arm to tug both of them against his side, gently squishing Natchua between them. “Though normal wolves hardly ever bother people unless starving or severely provoked. Werewolves are another matter.”

“This is another matter,” Natchua whispered. “I can’t tell what magic is at work here, but…it’s something big. Something in the world just changed.”


Andros Varanus took the risk of barging into the Grandmaster’s quarters without knocking.

Fortunately, the whole household was assembled, and awake, though still in sleeping clothes. Both of Veisroi’s wives turned on him with scowls at this sudden intrusion into their domain, but the Grandmaster himself raised a hand in a mute order for silence before either could upbraid him.

“You too, then, Brother Andros?” he asked, turning away from the fireplace into which he had been gazing.

“And not just me,” Andros rumbled. “Every man in this lodge is awake, due to the same dream. Every man but one. Hrathvin is in a trance from which his apprentice cannot stir him.”

Veisroi’s chest expanded with a long, deep breath. “Give him time. I named him shaman of this lodge for a reason; the man knows what he’s about. If he has not roused by dawn, we will send to the Emerald College for help.”

Andros nodded. “And the dream? You know this can only mean one thing, Grandmaster.”

“In the context of the telescroll I just received from N’Jendo…yes, I do,” the old man said, turning back to the flames. “Damn it all, Andros. I had such high hopes for Ingvar. When he set out on his quest from Shaath himself, I dared to think…”

“Ingvar also knows what he is about. He has more than earned our trust, Veisroi.”

“And how long has it been since we’ve had word from him? And now, just on the heels of warning that he is preaching apostasy in the West…this.” The Grandmaster clenched his jaw. “I hate to do it, Andros, you know I do. But a man does what he must, even when he does not wish to. Right now, do what you can to calm the men, make sure they’re seeing to their wives. It’s always the women who are most upset by things like this. In the immediate turn we will make sure Hrathvin is well. And when that is dealt with, for good or ill…”

“I protest, Grandmaster,” Andros said, as insistently as he could without making it a direct challenge.

“And that is your prerogative, Brother,” Veisroi replied without looking up from the fire. “But protest or not, tomorrow I will summon a Wild Hunt.”


Atop his watchtower on the ancient walls of Shaathvar, Roth stood with his back to the brazier’s warmth, staring out at the cold darkness. All around rose the pine-clad peaks encircling the valley directly below the city itself. And from all sides came the relentless howling.

“How can there be so many?” one of the two younglings assigned to join his watch asked, eyes wide. “Surely there can’t be that many wolves in the valley!”

“There aren’t that many wolves in the whole of the Stalrange,” Roth replied, his voice flat. A man did not flinch even in the face of…whatever this was. “I will keep the watch here; go rouse the captain. And you,” he added to the other, “fetch the barracks shaman. Keep your minds on the task before you, lads. This is a dire omen of something, but omens are a shaman’s work. Don’t borrow trouble for yourself until this has been interpreted by men who know the craft.”

“Yes, Brother,” they chorused, and both dashed off down opposite staircases toward the walls.

Roth just gazed out over the frigid, howling wilderness, wondering what had just happened to the world.


“This is not our business,” Arkhosh insisted, glaring at Mother Raghann. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the ceaseless howling of wolves which split the night all around. “People are agitated enough by this without you riling them up worse. Let the kitsune handle Sifan’s affairs and calm your own people, shaman.”

“This is not the kitsune’s business, either,” the old woman retorted, implacable as always. “These are ripples from a mountain dropped in the ocean, not a pebble in a pool. It began far from Sifan and extends farther still. The agitation of the spirits sings of a world in the grip of tumult, Arkhosh. And that makes it their business, and ours, and everyone’s.”

The other orc blew out a snort of irritation. “We are in no position to worry about the world, woman, or even Sifan as a whole. And we certainly owe the world no favors. It is the kitsune who are our hosts, and Tsurikura which is our business. If action is needed on our part, they’ll ask us for it. For now, we should tend to the walls. I can’t speak for spirits, but I know agitated wolves when I hear them.”

“Have you ever heard this many wolves?” she asked dryly. “What do you think our village walls would do if they took a notion to come here?”

“What say you, Aresk?” Arkhosh demanded, turning to his son, the only other orc gathered with them outside the gate. “Do they howl to us?”

The last and first priest of Khar stared out into the darkness, listening to the cries of wolves. The faintest glow of golden-white light limned him as he attuned to the faded power of their distant god. “Nothing in this tells me it pertains to us directly. But Mother Raghann is still right,” he added, turning to meet his father’s eyes. “We exist in the world, father. I agree that we should not meddle in what is not our business, or exert ourselves to aid those who would not do the same in turn. But waiting around to be told what to do by the kitsune is weakness. And just ignoring the world in the hope that nothing bad will happen is madness.”

Both of them bared tusks at him. Very recently, Aresk would have instinctively yielded to the displeasure of either of his elders, let alone both. But things changed, and he changed with them. It was that, or die.

“I suggest a middle ground. I won’t agree to our shamans rushing out to try to placate…whatever this is. But they should at least do what they can to learn what is happening. Whatever the spirits will tell us. With more information, we can better decide what to do. We should protect and support them in whatever rituals will best accomplish this.”

Raghann grunted. “Well. I can’t say the boy doesn’t talk sense. Very well, it’s at least a start.”

“A good compromise,” Arkhosh agreed, reaching out to squeeze his son’s shoulder. “Very well, Aresk, I concur with your council. We will start there. And then…” He looked sourly at Mother Raghann, and then out into the howling darkness. “…we shall see.”


“Elder?” the young woman asked, creeping up to the mouth of the cave just behind him. “What does it mean?”

The old lizardfolk shaman glanced back at her, and then at the rest of the tribe taking shelter, their eyes glowing in the dimness as they watched the cave mouth for danger.

He turned back around, facing outward and listening to the howls of the wolves, far too many wolves to actually live in this desolate land.

“It’s as I told you: a great doom is coming. This is only the beginning.”


Hamelin Hargrave stood in the open door of his cottage, gazing out at the normally peaceful hills of Viridill, listening to them. The spirits were so agitated he could glean nothing through the Craft; whatever was happening was clearly way over his head.

Tomorrow, he decided, he would make the trip to Vrin Shai and seek help. But not tonight. Magical or not, no matter how civilized an era it was, you didn’t set out on the roads after dark when the wolves were in a frenzy.


“Urusai,” Maru whined, curled up in the fetal position and clutching his head. “Urusai, urusai, urusai!”

“What’s that he’s chanting?” Professor Yornhaldt asked, craning his neck forward to peer as closely as he could without getting in Taowi’s way. She had a sharp tongue for people who interfered while she was tending to a patient.

“It means ‘loud,’” said Tellwyrn, herself standing on the other side of her currently crowded office, but watching closely as the campus healer tended to her prone secretary.

“Really?” asked Rafe. “I thought it meant ‘shut up.’ Kaisa used to say that to me all the time.”

“Language reflects culture,” Tellwyrn said absently. “To the Sifanese mindset, commenting that something is noisy suffices to demand that it stop. Taowi, please tell me that’s not what it smells like.”

“It’s exactly what it smells like, Arachne,” she said impatiently, still coaxing Maru to put the shriveled object she held in his mouth. “It’s worked on the others affected thus far.”

Tellwyrn took an aggressive step forward. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve been feeding glittershrooms to my students?!”

“To your students and to Stew,” Taowi Sunrunner replied, undaunted by the archmage’s ire. “There you go, Maru, don’t forget to chew. It’s affecting everyone fae-attuned, Arachne. What in the hell did you get me dried glittershrooms for if you didn’t think I was going to use them medicinally?”

Tellwyrn snorted. “I figured you’ve been an exemplary healer and as long as it didn’t interfere with your work I wasn’t going to begrudge you whatever you needed to relax.”

Maru was weakly chewing the wedge of dried glittershroom; Taowi took her eyes off him for a moment to give Tellwyrn a blistering look. “The principle harm done by this is simply stress. For most things I would simply apply a sedative, but this is clearly fae in nature and affecting people through the dreamscape somehow. Putting someone to sleep would just trap them in it. You’ll notice I asked you to procure a supply of shrooms right after that clever little fool Madouri did exactly that to herself by combining Nightmare’s Dream potion with the Sleeper curse. Glittershrooms induce euphoria without causing sleepiness; it’s the best spot treatment. Once everyone is stabilized I mean to switch them to sevenleaf oil, but considering how bad some of the reactions are, I advise the potency of shrooms to take the edge off.”

“How is everyone faring?” Tellwyrn asked more quietly.

“It hits fairies worse than witches,” Taowi said absently, her focus again on Maru as she soothingly stroked his fur while waiting for the glittershroom to take effect. “Stew was nearly this bad. Oak says she’s getting the same visions, but they don’t bother her, which makes me feel less worried about Juniper and Fross. Dryads are generally under different rules. With the students…it varies. Most of them welcomed a bit of shroom, but Iris declined. She wants to stay lucid to help keep watch over the others, and frankly I’m grateful for the assistance. She seems to be suffering the least from the effect.”

“And it’s the same for all of them?”

“They report the same visions.” Taowi looked up to meet her eyes. “Wolves howling. More than just the noise, this is hitting them right in the emotional center, as fae magic does. They’ve all said they feel they’re being called to something, but they can’t understand what, much less answer it, and that’s what’s causing the acute stress. This is some kind of compulsion which can’t be fulfilled. There are few things more psychologically excruciating.”

“We unfortunately lack a fae specialist,” Rafe said, turning to Professor Tellwyrn, “since Liari retired and Kaisa buggered off mid-semester.”

“And isn’t that the long and the short of it,” Tellwyrn said, shoving both fists under her spectacles to rub at her eyes. “It’s the area of magic I’m least equipped to analyze, but the geas on this mountain would at least warn me if the effect were targeted here. If it’s a general effect over a wide area, then wherever it’s coming from, we’re not the only ones feeling it. All right. Alaric, keep order here as best you can. Admestus, help Taowi with the afflicted.”

“You have an idea?” Yornhaldt asked.

She grimaced readjusting her glasses. “The only idea I have is begging for help. I’m going to Sarasio to see if Sheyann and Chucky know anything about this. Hold the fort, everyone.”


Rainwood stumbled backward with nothing like an elf’s usual grace, staring at the wolves in the clearing around his snuffed-out faefire.

They were beautiful, but nothing about them appeared natural. Patterns were set in their fur that looked dyed, geometric and clearly designed, and most strikingly, they glowed. Each a different pattern in a subtly different color. Their eyes were glowing wells of power without pupils; even their fur seemed to put off a gentle aura of moonlight.

In the spot where Ingvar had sat, the largest wolf turned to bare fangs at Rainwood, his pure white fur marked with sigils in luminous green and blue on the shoulders and forehead. He raised his head and howled once, and loud as the sound was, it was nothing compared to the metaphysical shockwave it sent out.

Rainwood actually fell backward, landing on his rump and gaping.

The pack gathered themselves and loped off into the trees, heading west toward the sea—though they would reach Ninkabi long before they got to the coast. Seventeen enormous, glowing, unprecedented creatures departed from the wilderness on a collision course with civilization, leaving behind a magical storm that roared outward in every direction, dwarfing the disturbance which had rocked the fae up in the Wyrnrange the previous day.

This one would be felt across every inch of the planet.

“Kuriwa’s going to kill me,” he said aloud, staring after the departed pack. “Literally, this time.”

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15 – 40

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Natchua indulged in a slower approach on the way home to Leduc Manor, shadow-jumping only enough to avoid people or a trip that would have taken much of the day. She did enjoy a little time spent walking in the mountains, and approaching the half-ruined mansion from its switchbacking access road gave her a few minutes both to savor the view, and to think.

Melaxyna was out in front in a simple human guise, her own customary features with a less eerie coloration and her wings and tail hidden, whittling a chunk of wood with a rusty-looking knife.

“That took a good few hours,” she observed as soon as Natchua came into view. “I was on the verge of getting worried.”

She kept walking up the path. The succubus had called out once Natchua was within the range of elven hearing; she opted to approach closer rather than try to have a discussion while shouting back and forth. It was a small thing, and she didn’t regard Melaxyna as hostile, but it did not escape her notice that this placed Mel in control of the conversation’s dynamic. Holding her peace until she arrived at a position of her choosing was another small thing that served a similar purpose. She would probably never come to enjoy thinking in terms like this, but it was an unfortunately important habit to acquire, and Natchua was starting from behind.

“I had a really peculiar moment today,” Natchua said as soon as she was close enough to do so without raising her voice. “Kind of an epiphany. There was this one point during the…generally pretty difficult discussions I had to have, where suddenly these two incredibly clever, powerful women I was trying to wheedle just visibly dismissed me as a concern and focused on verbally fencing with each other instead. Like I obviously wasn’t smart enough, or important enough, to be a player in that game. And what made it so strange was that I was pleased by it. That’s usually…enraging.”

“Reputation is a powerful thing,” Melaxyna said sagely. “No matter what it’s a reputation for, there’s always some way to leverage it. And being thought of as less smart than you are is always crazy useful, I’ve gotten great mileage out of that one over the years. So, how’re our girls getting along?”

“They’ll keep each other busy for a while, that much I’m confident in. I’m going to have to separate them again before too long,” Natchua continued with a contemplative frown. “If Kheshiri actually messes up Malivette’s situation it’ll mean major problems for me, and likely everyone in the province. And if Vette decisively wins that… Well, actually, that would solve the Kheshiri problem neatly, but then I’m right back to needing to do something about her, and it might be better to still have Kheshiri around to help with that. Well, anyway, hopefully this’ll buy me a few days without either of ’em underfoot, and a chance to see what they both do under pressure.” She paused, then drew in a breath to steady herself. “How’s it looking on the home front? Awful quiet in there…”

“Most of the others are over in the north wing,” Melaxyna said, turning to nod in the direction of the half-ruined arm of the house. “The hobs have pretty well reached the end of what they can do in the front hall, here, without a lot of materiel and supplies, so they’re surveying the damage in the next section. They seem to be getting along well with Xyraadi, now. She’s surprisingly down to earth when she’s trying to make an impression; I was expecting more snobbery, what with all the gratuitous Glassian, but nope! Sweet girl, really. Probably due to her history with adventurers. The chapbooks lie, Natchua. Adventurers were usually filthy hobos who went off to kill things in dungeons because they couldn’t hack it in actual society. Classy, they were not.”

“Right,” Natchua said impatient. “And…?”

Melaxyna gave her a knowing little smile, which she repressed the urge to slap. It was in the nature of a succubus to needle, and she was beginning to think this one in particular was deliberately training her in self-control.

“Jonathan seems steadier with something to do with his hands. We took a stroll down to the nearest lumber camp. They don’t actually cut the trees around here, I think their roots are what keeps the mountainside from sliding down on Veilgrad, but there’s a lot of logging in the province and there are a couple of sawmills pretty close by. We got some price estimates on what the girls will need, and picked up a few bits and bobs. He’s currently up in my little improvised kitchenette, fixing it to be a tad less improvised. I do appreciate a man who’s handy around the house,” she added, putting on one of those little succubus smiles that was a hair’s breadth in every direction from becoming a smirk. “What with one thing and another, I never had the chance for a cozy domestic life.”

“A cozy domestic life would drive you gibbering insane,” Natchua said flatly. She knew too well how right Mel was, though. Jonathan liked working with his hands; having a project would do a lot to settle his mind. “Right, well then… I guess I’d better go deal with this while I have a reprieve from Kheshiri sticking her nose into it.”

She swept up the stairs to the ruined doorway, or tried to. Melaxyna reached out to stop her with a hand on her shoulder.

“You’re a flawed person, Natchua, and this is going to hurt,” the demon said softly. “Don’t be afraid of either. You will be okay. Getting there may be a bitch, but you’ll be okay.”

Natchua could only stare at her for a moment, finding no ready reply to that. She reached up to squeeze Melaxyna’s hand, then gently removed it and continued through the doorway.

With the space defined by the broken remains of its outer walls, the once-grand front hall of Manor Leduc was effectively a courtyard, now, with a gaping hole in its floor leading to a basement. There was certainly little in the way of privacy separating it from the front steps, ensuring that her conversation outside had been audible to the shattered room’s sole occupant. Natchua had, of course, known she was there, having reached out to locate her unique infernal signature along the faint lines of magic that connected them, and being aware of her presence, it was easy to hear her breathing.

Hesthri was perched at the edge of the room, near the doorway opening onto the corridor to Sherwin’s kitchen apartment, squatting on her heels in the way hethlaxi often did. The way the armor plating covered their joints made it more comfortable to adopt a slouch, but they were quite capable of standing up fully straight, as Hesthri now demonstrated on Natchua’s arrival. She rose smoothly to her full height, putting her head up, shoulders back, and chest out. The posture served to accentuate her figure, and by this point Natchua was certain she did that quite deliberately. Hesthri watched her approach for a moment before stepping forward to meet her, holding out her hands in a position that sought Natchua’s own.

She, however, kept them at her sides, maintaining her own straight-backed posture and drawing the cloak of Narisian reserve back over herself. Hesthri stood right in the middle of the narrow lip of navigable space between the wall and the hole; an elf was more than agile enough to slip past her, but Natchua didn’t intend to evade this discussion.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, coming to a stop and projecting calm. “I take it Xyraadi and the horogki are getting on well enough that—hey, what are…”

Natchua having failed to reach out to take Hesthri’s hands, the hethelax instead raised them to gently cup the drow’s cheeks. Natchua started to pull away from her, but didn’t try very hard or very fast, and failed to escape before Hesthri stepped closer, raised her own face, and kissed her.

She stopped trying to move. It was barely two more seconds before she stopped pretending to be stiff. The breath leaked from her, mingling with Hesthri’s own, and her eyes drifted shut.

Hard and soft, just like Hesthri’s rapidly switching behavior. Her strategic plates of natural armor were as smooth and cool as iron, as if to emphasize what an otherworldly creature this was in Natchua’s arms. Elsewhere, though, she simply felt like a woman, at least in shape. She was so very warm; it was like embracing the coziness of a hearth. Her skin, where not armored, had an unusual but pleasing texture not unlike a snake’s scales. And her lips were just…

Natchua was the one to pull back, slightly, eventually, though by that point she had lost her grasp of how much time had passed. Her forehead rested against the unyielding armor of Hesthri’s, their breath still mingling. The hethelax’s blunt claws still cradled her face in a tender grasp, but Natchua found that she had at some point pulled the demon close and wrapped both arms around her.

Melaxyna, she now understood, had been entirely right. Her weakness wasn’t about a desire for sex, at least except as a means to an end. It was just the closeness, the warmth, the addictive feeling of another person touching her with tenderness, so sharply sweet it was nearly painful, like the first taste of candy on an unprepared tongue. She was just so unaccustomed to being loved that even the pretense melted her like butter in the sun. This was something she absolutely needed to fix, somehow. Kheshiri would make easy pickings of such a vulnerability, and after Melaxyna’s warnings Natchua well understood that even seeing her coming wouldn’t be enough to stop it.

“I don’t know you that well,” she said aloud, her voice rough, but soft. Hesthri’s eyes opened, regarding her own from inches away. “I don’t…truly know what it is you want.”

The demon’s smile was warm, and sad. “I want what’s best for you, Natchua. And I’m hardly surprised you’re wary, given how much I tend to disagree with you about what that is. Luckily for you, our pact requires my loyalty rather than obedience. I can’t decide if you’re the cleverest fool I’ve ever known, or the other way round.”

Natchua had to smile back at that, if somewhat bitterly. “What’s best for me, is it? Even at the expense of what’s best for you? Or Jonathan?” She hesitated, then pressed. “Or Gabriel?”

“I can’t say how I would handle it if you brought those loyalties into conflict,” Hesthri murmured, sliding her hands slowly down Natchua’s neck to her shoulders and making her entire spine tingle as if she were standing too close to an arcane spell matrix. “It hasn’t come up, Natch. If you and Jonathan will just stop being difficult about it, there’s no reason at all this cannot work out equally well for everyone.”

“Difficult,” she huffed, finally pulling back. “No reason to put yourself out, if it’s—”

“Of course there is. I love you.”

It hurt to hear. It was so unexpectedly blissful that it actually hurt. Gods, she was in so much trouble.

Natchua drew in another steadying breath, only belatedly noting that her reserve was long since in tatters. “Hesthri… It’s been days. We don’t actually know each other.”

“Intimacy takes time, and work.” Hesthri agreed. “But falling in love is easier than falling down the stairs. Faster, harder to do on purpose, and usually makes even less sense. Haven’t you studied any martial arts, Natchua? You lean into a fall. You get hurt by trying to fight it. Dear heart, I wouldn’t compel you even if it was within my power. If you truly want to struggle against this every step of the way instead of trying to see if we can make something good of it… Well, do you?”

Natchua backed up fully, out of her grip, and roughly dry-scrubbed her face with both hands. “I can’t decide whether we should have this out between the two of us first, or just go get Jonathan and see how much of a spectacle we can make of ourselves all at once.”

“Second one,” Hesthri said immediately. “This is a mess for everybody involved, and the three of us need to resolve it. It’s not fair to come at him as a united front. Jonathan deserves to be treated as an equal in this.”

“Your relentless logic is beginning to annoy me,” Natchua grumbled. Hesthri smiled at her with simple affection, and leaned forward to press a light kiss to the corner of her mouth. Natchua, despite her better judgment, let her.

“Come on, then. Let’s not put it off any further.”

Sherwin must have been off with Xyraadi and the hobgoblins; at least, there was no sign of him in his apartment, for which Natchua was grateful. She needed the entire walk through that space and up the stairs to the landing in which Melaxyna had cobbled together her little kitchen to settle her own mind. Despite what Hesthri claimed to intend, she had her own thoughts on how this situation needed to be settled. The sound of hammering grew louder as they climbed, each blow tightening the knot in her stomach, but at least the approach gave her the opportunity to pull back ahead of Hesthri and compose her features again.

Jonathan was kneeling with his back to them, pounding what looked like the last nail into a counter he had assembled along one wall of unfinished planks. The whole thing looked rough, but less so than Melaxyna’s arrangement of boxes and mismatched old furniture.

Their footfalls weren’t particularly heavy and it wasn’t as if he had elven ears, but regardless, he stilled as soon as the two of them emerged from the stairwell.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said quietly.

Finally, he turned around, straightening upright and laying the hammer down alongside a handful of spare nails atop the surface he had just assembled. He was, Natchua found herself suddenly reminded, really tall, and much broader across the chest and shoulders than any elf. And, with his previous anger under control, dignified in a way that contained an emotional intensity, which she had always seen as more worthy of respect than the cold aloofness she had been taught in Tar’naris.

“So,” he said after a pause, looking back and forth between the two of them. “I guess we’re doing this, then.”

Steeling herself and clinging to every shred of her reserve, Natchua stepped forward before Hesthri could say anything.

“It’s time for you to go, Jonathan.”

His eyebrows shot upward. “Go? Excuse me, but—”

“Yes, yes, I know, you figured you were good and blackmailed into this, and at the time I was flustered enough to let you get away with it. But you aren’t really going to set the Empire and the Church and whoever else after Hesthri, are you? No matter how mad you are at me. And now that would drag Xyraadi into this, not to mention the three hobgoblins, who you know don’t deserve that trouble. So that’s enough of this, Jonathan. You’re going—”

A sharp blow to the back of her head made her stagger. Natchua caught her balance, whirling to glare at Hesthri, who was scowling right back and lowering her hand.

“I can’t decide which of you is more ridiculous,” the hethelax snapped. “Honestly. All of this could be so easy!”

“I can’t see any damn way it possibly could,” Jonathan exclaimed. “She’s right about one thing, this entire business is built on lies, blackmail, and infernomancy. Nothing about it is easy in any respect!”

“Because you make it hard! The both of you!”

“I am trying to make it easy!” Natchua shouted. “I don’t know how you’ve got this worked around in your head, but he has no business here and he’s just going to get killed.”

“I thought we all were,” Jonathan retorted. “Wasn’t that the entire plan, Natchua?”

“It doesn’t need to include you!” she yelled back. “Goddammit, haven’t I done enough to you? Would you just let me protect you?! Can’t I do one good thing?”

“Oh, Natchua,” Hesthri sighed. Jonathan was staring at her in something akin to shock, blinking rapidly.

He rallied, though, squaring his shoulders. “You should know I’m not afraid of death or pain, especially not when the end goal is to help my son. Because you weren’t totally wrong, Natch, despite being so amazingly wrong-headed about every detail in between here and your ultimate conclusion. You are in a unique position to mess up whatever Elilial is planning and that will be a way to protect Gabriel. Considering the kinds of powers he has to contend with now, it’s about all I can do. So, no, I’m not leaving. We are doing this stupid bullshit scheme of yours. Especially since, somehow, you’re actually making it work.”

“You do know if I decide to just send you somewhere, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”

“I think you’d be surprised what I can do,” he retorted, stepping toward her. “Do you think I got tangled up with a hethelax demon and protected her on this plane long enough to have Gabriel without being pretty damn resourceful? Has she told you the full story yet?”

“Oh, vrasksha sknithal!” Hesthri shouted, throwing both her hands in the air. “Enough! Get in the room, both of you. Come on!”

She grabbed each of them by an arm and harried the pair across the hall to the nearest accessible doorway, which luckily was to Natchua’s bedroom. Jonathan and Natchua exchanged a look past Hesthri even as she was dragging them, mutually deciding to submit to this with good grace rather than engaging in a pointless scuffle with her. Anyway, she was right; there were a number of ways the rest of this discussion could go, and they were all better done in privacy.

Hesthri didn’t give either of them a chance to start in again, however, whirling on them the instant she had shut the door behind.

“All right, we could hold an entire lecture series on everything Natchua has done wrong here, but by all the gods, Jonathan, she’s twenty.”

“Twenty-one—” Hesthri reached out and clamped a clawed hand over her mouth, by which Natchua was so astonished that she allowed it to happen.

“But you,” the hethelax continued, pointing accusingly at him, “are being purely thoughtless and selfish about this, and it’s beneath you. I expect better.”

“Selfish!” Jonathan’s voice, uncharacteristically, climbed an octave and a half, along with his eyebrows. Natchua finally pulled Hesthri’s hand off her face as he turned his incredulous stare on her. “Did you put her up to this?”

“Don’t look at me, I have no idea what she’s talking about,” Natchua protested. “Come on, Hes, he’s the only one of us who makes any sense. That’s why I want him away from all this!”

“Natchua, shut up a minute,” Hesthri said with a sigh. “And Jonathan, stop making all of this about yourself, because none of it is. Despite how Natchua mistreated you in the process, the truth is you were caught up in the edge of something that was never meant to involve you, by a combination of chance, her terrible ideas and your own damn stubbornness. Yes, she used and lied to you, but ever since she’s been trying to protect you. And she did all of this to protect Gabriel in the first place!”

“Thank you!” Natchua explained.

“You shut your mouth,” Hesthri shot back. “I know you’re trying your best, but you seduced and deceived the man so you could recruit his own former lover into your suicidal crusade. Never mind facing off with Elilial at the end of all this, between that and your general pattern of decisions it’s astonishing you’re not dead yet! Can the pair of you honestly not see how badly you need each other? Jonathan, you were moldering away in Mathenon while Gabriel is out risking his life for the Pantheon, and I know that was eating away at you. It’s not like you to accept your own helplessness that way. Say what you will, Natchua’s nonsense has gotten you back moving, working, and helping, and you love it. And you!” She tried to swat Natchua’s head again, but this time the drow saw it coming and ducked away. That did nothing to stop Hesthri’s tirade. “Why is every idea you have just convoluted and outlandish enough to be completely unworkable? Are you honestly under the impression you can outmaneuver the goddess of cunning with the power of sheer daffy nonsense? That will work right up until she actually notices you. Natchua, Jonathan Arquin is the best thing that’s ever happened to you and the way you keep trying to get rid of him is the dumbest thing you’ve done yet. That is really saying something.”

They both stared at her in shock.

Hesthri sighed heavily. “You need her energy. You badly need his steadiness. She inspires and pushes you; it’s her influence that’s returning you to the vital, driven man I knew and fell in love with. He has so much to teach you about life, and love, and his influence is so exactly what you need to even you out. This man is exactly the one who can help you grow into the enormous potential I see in you. You’re a charming enough kid, Natch, but it’s the woman you are trying to become…” Her voice hitched, but she steadied it and continued. “…that I fell in love with. You need each other. It’s time to forgive, let go, and take the risk. Yes, we’re all going to get hurt. But if we’re together, we’ll get over it. That’s what people do.”

Another few seconds of silence passed between them before Jonathan cleared his throat roughly. “And…are you suggesting… How exactly do you fit into this, Hes?”

“In all the spaces between you,” Hesthri said, smiling now. “I’ve been a servant my whole life, Johnny. I am comfortable letting others take the lead. It’s… What I’ve never had is someone I respected, someone I loved, to dedicate myself to. Somehow, the three of us are a ridiculous, perfect couple. That is, if you two clowns will stop fighting it.”

He shook his head. “I don’t…that’s just too weird, even for—”

“Selfish,” she interrupted, but more gently this time. “We represent three different cultures here, Jonathan, and yours is the only one where it’s not completely normal to have multiple partners.”

“I don’t have a culture,” Natchua muttered. “Narisian anything is a vicious nightmare.”

“Even better, then,” Hesthri replied, taking her by the arm and pulling her forward. “This will just continue to be a wreck if we keep trying to be where we’re from. Can’t we just be who we are, instead? Everyone in this room is stupidly in love with everyone else. I’m not trying to claim this will be magical, or easy, or not prone to dramatic episodes like this. But it can work. And even if it doesn’t, it’s worth trying. Life is short, and often bitter, my darlings. You have to embrace whatever warmth and sweetness you can find. Even if it fails, take a chance on love. Even in Hell we know that.”

“It’s not that…” Jonathan swallowed painfully. “That wasn’t easy to get over, Hesthri. The way she—”

“Stop,” Hesthri ordered. “Say it to her, not to me.”

His expression turned wry for a moment, but he complied, shifting his eyes to Natchua’s. “It hurt me, Natch. It wasn’t just…being conned by some smooth operator. I know we didn’t talk about where any of this was going, in Mathenon, and I was content to just let things develop as they would, but…but she’s right. I loved you.” He hesitated, breathed in and out once, and corrected himself. “I love you. And you betrayed me.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was ragged, but she had to say it anyway. “I know that…that’s not enough, nothing is. It’s all I can say, Jonathan. I knew it was going to hurt you, and I hated myself for it, but I did it anyway. I thought…it was important enough. I didn’t have a better idea. I’m just sorry.” She had to stop talking, mostly because the lump in her throat was too painful, but partly because trying to babble out her feelings wasn’t getting her anywhere.

Tears, she noticed belatedly, were running down her face. This was a bad day for Narisian reserve.

“Look at her, Jonathan,” Hesthri all but whispered, stepping next to Natchua and wrapping one arm around her waist, leading her gently but inexorably toward him. “Isn’t that just Natchua in a nutshell? It was stupid and hurtful, but she didn’t have a better idea. She did what she could think of, because it was important, and it doesn’t really matter to her whether she gets hurt. Look at your girl. Your brave, selfless, reckless, beautiful, dumb, clever girl. What the hell is she going to do without you?”

“He doesn’t owe me anything,” Natchua mumbled, looking away.

“That’s for damn sure,” Jonathan sighed.

“Exactly. You’re better off hating me.”

“Oh…hell.” He sighed heavily. “Never once did I hate you. I was… Goddammit, Natch, it’s hard even to stay angry at you, no matter how much you deserve it. At times I downright resent how hard you try to do better. I’m just…I’m not even mad, anymore. It just still hurts.”

His callused fingers took her chin, gently moving her face back toward him. She let him, finding he had stepped close enough to embrace.

“You are not getting rid of me, Natchua. So all that leaves is…how are you planning to make it up to me?”

She opened her mouth, producing exactly as much useful commentary as a fish.

“You’re so focused on everything you do wrong all the time,” Hesthri said softly, gently stroking her back, “I don’t think you’ve ever even noticed how you bring people alive around you, Natchua. Everyone in this house is a better person because you lit a fire under them. People are loyal to you, even after knowing you for just a few days. It’s not because you have any particular idea what you’re doing, and you know it. It’s because your stubborn effort to be better, to accomplish something with the limited and horrible tools you’ve got, inspires people. You showed me the importance of my own potential. And Natchua, you’ve brought my love, the father of my child, back to life. He needs you, too.”

“This…is crazy,” she whispered. “I’m just going to fuck it all up again.”

Jonathan’s hand was still on her chin, and now shifted to caress her cheek. “Yeah…I’m pretty sure you will. You’re kind of a dumbass. Natchua…the hell with it. Hesthri is right, anything breakable is still fixable. I have no idea how this is going to work out, I really don’t. But doesn’t it beat the alternative?”

“I…I don’t…” She could barely breathe out the words; there were no more thoughts forming behind them. Just his face looming right above her, gazing down at her with that gentle expression she had fully expected never to hear again. Everything inside her was cracking under the weight of it.

Hesthri shifted to position herself between them, wrapping an arm around each to push them closer. One clawed hand took each of them by the back of the neck, pushing them the last few inches together.

If not for the both of them holding her up, Natchua probably would have collapsed when he finally kissed her. She slumped against his broad chest, barely held in place by one of his arms and one of Hesthri’s binding her to him. It felt as if she were molten, a warm jelly of sunshine wanting to dissolve into their embrace.

Hesthri nuzzled her cheek when they came up for air. Then the demon lifted her chin as the embrace around them shifted, to be the three holding each other in a circle more than Hesthri pulling them together. Jonathan’s lips met Hesthri’s, and Natchua watched from close enough to taste their shared breath. She looked for jealousy inside herself, and found nothing. She was too close, too much a part of this.

Jonathan pulled them both against his frame, his big hands caressing up and down both their backs, gazing down at them avidly as Natchua and Hesthri kissed deeply in his arms.

Hesthri was the first to hook a claw in Natchua’s robe, insistently tugging the garment aside and slipping in, blunt claws tracing over the soft shape of her. Hands caressed bodies, touching light brown skin and slate gray skin and chitin plates over snakelike scales, catching in the edges of fabric and pulling clumsily.

They shuffled backward, Jonathan’s knees coming to the edge of the bed, and Natchua wasn’t sure which of them giggled as they staggered down onto it.

It was awkward, and uncomfortable, and at moments embarrassing, and somehow, it all worked.

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15 – 39

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“So you did see him again,” Khadizroth said, leaning forward in his armchair to gaze intently at Shook.

“The one time, yeah,” he replied. “He and I had the same idea, for once: took one look at Syrinx losing the last ounce of her shit and even your famous diplomacy barely managing to keep her in check, and we both fucked off in different directions. He went right out the goddamn window. I take it the asshole never bothered to report back in?”

“As of the time Vannae and I departed, no,” the dragon murmured, frowning now. “Jack’s failure to do so indirectly led to that decision. When you vanished and it became clear to Inquisitor Syrinx that her title now amounted to nothing more than house steward for the two of us, I’m afraid she rather…well.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet she rather,” Shook grunted. “Sorry for leavin’ you guys in the lurch like that. At the time, it sure did look like my last opportunity to get my ass outta there in one piece.”

“It’s quite all right, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him with a small smile. “I see how you would have concluded that—and you may well have been entirely right. She might not have exploded had you stayed, but on the other hand… Well, what’s done is done. You’ve acquired valuable intelligence and we’ve extricated ourselves from Syrinx entirely. In a way, it worked out.”

“You don’t intend to return, then?” Branwen asked.

The dragon sighed softly, looking over at Vannae and then Shook again, then shook his head. The two of them were upright in opposite corners of the small parlor in the Bishop’s temporary residence, Snowe herself seated on the loveseat adjacent to Khadizroth.

“I have dealt with people sharing Syrinx’s particular disability a number of times over the years,” Khadizroth stated. “In fact, that is the core of what is wrong with the Jackal, though every manifestation is somewhat unique and naturally he is a distinct aberration from Syrinx, or any other anth’auwa. The outbursts of temper are explosive, but usually brief; most of the time they are quite unemotional and often focused. In Syrinx’s case, they have been coming closer and closer together, and growing more severe with each, which is a major warning sign. As the Inquisition has been shedding personnel and making no progress, her resources and options have continued to close in on her like the walls of a cell. Coming on the heels of her lost career in Tiraas…”

“This is bad,” Branwen muttered. “Steadily increasing pressure is one of the worst things for people like that. They need stimulation and variety to… Someone is going to be hurt.”

“I fear you are correct,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding. “With no outlet for her aggression and no other way to exercise her will, she will seek out or create a target. I deemed it best that this not be Vannae or myself. Unfortunately… I think we must all face the facts that our goals here have ended in failure. The smart thing for Syrinx to do, and the best outcome for everyone, would be for her to return to the Archpope and report the Inquisition’s failure. Any of her other options will bring her swiftly afoul of established powers in Ninkabi. Either way, it would seem our window of opportunity to silence her for good has closed.”

“Well, I dunno,” Shook said dryly. “I figure one of the things Jack is likely to do next, when he gets tired of picking on hapless city guards, is go after his own former team. And of the lot of us, Syrinx is both the most reachable and probably the most interesting physical challenge.”

“Do you really think that’s going to be his next move?” Branwen asked.

“I am glad to report I have zero fuckin’ clue what goes through that nutjob’s brain, Bishop. At his best, he’s only ever kept his crazy at a low simmer with a lid on top. Now? I think the pressure’s just built up till he couldn’t contain it anymore, and he’s just gone off on a wild-ass spree.”

“In this case, I don’t think I agree,” Khadizroth said pensively. “I can scarcely guess what he actually is trying to accomplish, but I suspect it is still goal-directed. Your assessment of the Jackal’s character lines up well with mine, but consider that he has kept it at a simmer for the two years we have known him. Unlike Syrinx, he has shown no pattern of increasing instability. And remember: the entire idea of our group was his. He not only brought us together and made his case for keeping ourselves close to Justinian, but it was he who laboriously laid the groundwork with the Archpope himself beforehand.”

Shook raised his eyebrows, glancing at Branwen. “Uh, K…”

“I think we are past the point of dissembling, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “The good Bishop has made no secret of her loyalties. In the worst case she can report this conversation to Justinian, who I assure you is already well aware that we have only endured his control for our own ends and bear him no goodwill. Now? That, too, appears to have ended in failure. He’s managed to make some use of our abilities and it seems the time has come for us to discreetly depart from his service.”

“So you’re saying he won?” Shook growled.

“I am afraid he has,” Khadizroth agreed, himself baring teeth for a moment in displeasure. “Sometimes, as the saying goes, the bear eats you. Now, at any rate, we are no threat to him and so our antipathy would appear to matter little. We are still here, in a city beleaguered by the Black Wreath, this mysterious cult which Justinian himself set up, and at least three of our own former compatriots gone dangerously rogue. Bishop Snowe is still an ally, at least for the moment, and our list of such has dwindled sharply. Let us all continue to get along.”

“It goes without saying that it would be a mistake to take anything the Wreath said to you at face value,” Branwen added, turning to Shook, “but if they were more or less correct, I consider this evidence that this cult is no longer under his Holiness’s control. I have already made it plain that I disagree with some of his methods—that is, after all, why I’m here—but I cannot believe he would do such a thing as open hellgates in a major city. There is no possible benefit to anyone in such an action.”

“Except, perhaps, an apocalyptic cult,” said Khadizroth. “Several extant hellgates were originally the work of such. If this is indeed what this lot are up to, they appear to be more ambitious than most.”

“Fuck,” Shook said feelingly.

“I understand you gentlemen are all rather short on options,” Branwen said with every appearance of genuine worry, looking at each of the three of them in turn. “Where will you go after this?”

Shook glanced for a moment at Vannae, who met his eyes, and then both turned back to her with matching fatalistic shrugs, both savvy enough not to betray anything by looking to their de facto leader for confirmation. Snowe might be an ally for the moment, but she was still directly in the Archpope’s camp and there was no reason at all for her to know about the other allies Khadizroth had already begun discreetly gathering at his old hidden lair. Even their little pantomime of conceding defeat to Justinian had been a bit of impromptu misdirection; one of the things Shook most enjoyed about working with the green dragon was how on the ball he was about things like that, even stuff he’d only have expected fellow thieves to have practiced. Khadizroth might still be acting against the Archpope out of a sense of duty, but for Shook’s part, he was bound and determined to make something stick to Justinian before all this was over. And it was not over, not as long as they still weren’t dead.

The dragon sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead with one hand and generally making a very convincing show of his quiet despair over this state of affairs. “I hope you won’t judge me too harshly if I choose to procrastinate dealing with that, your Grace. I even dare to hope something may come up while we are addressing the present urgency.”

“Of course,” she said with a warm smile, reaching forward to pat the dragon’s knee. Shook and Vannae again locked eyes, this time sharing a different silent message. “Well, for the time being at least, you are all more than welcome to whatever hospitality I can offer. I guess what we need to figure out now is what to do next.”

“Well, I know both my uses and my limits,” said Shook, folding his arms and leaning against the wall, “and playing brain checkers with the Black fuckin’ Wreath is beyond both. I brought you every detail I can remember, so forgive me if I leave it to wiser heads to suss out how accurate their song and dance was.”

All of them turned to look at Khadizroth.

“I know little of dimensional mechanics,” said Branwen, “and even less of necromancy. It sounds implausible, but…could something of the kind be done, Lord Khadizroth?”

The dragon had folded his hands and was staring into space with his eyes narrowed in thought. “The difficulty in answering that question is that necromancy is not a school of magic. There are several ways it can be approached, utilizing all four schools, most requiring heavy alchemy and minor shadow magic to boot. In theory? The answer is usually ‘yes.’ Magic is applying a localized subjectivity to physical reality. The highest possible application of any school of magic is the transcendence of its limitations. Mastery is often defined as performing any possible task with those originally limited tools.”

“So,” she said, equally pensive in expression, “the question becomes one of psychology and capability rather than magical theory. Can they do this?”

“Well said,” he agreed, nodding to her with a smile. “Unfortunately, we suffer a near total lack of data on this particular cult. I realize you are protective of his Holiness’s secrets, Branwen, but can you shed any light on this?”

“I’m afraid I have already shed what I have,” she said with an apologetic grimace. “I am only reasonably sure that the project was his Holiness’s. The Church has records of them and there are few other organizations which could create such a thing, the other main candidate being the Empire, which is contradicted by the group’s use to attack the Emperor. Circumstantial, but compelling. But that is the best I can offer.”

“Then all we have left to analyze is the Wreath,” Khadizroth mused.

He fell silent, and they all stared at him, the tension in the room creeping upward. The dragon just gazed narrowly at the wall, seemingly undisturbed by the weight of their combined attention.

“Nothing can be certain,” he said at last, so suddenly into the long silence that Shook and Branwen both twitched. “But based upon the available evidence, I am inclined to think they were serious, and at least as much as can be expected, honest.”

“Okay,” Shook said simply. “How so?”

“It is counter-intuitive,” the dragon continued, “but I have found over my long years that when clever people with a penchant for deception tell you something wildly implausible, they are more often serious than not. The logic is there, if you look closely. Deception hinges on fitting a piece of false reality into established patterns so that a victim does not look closely or think deeply. The last thing a deceiver wants is for you to stop and consider what is going on.”

“Hell, I can vouch for that much,” Shook agreed, nodding. “I’m no con artist by trade, but every Guild member knows the basics. You wanna con somebody, you gotta show ’em something that makes sense in their eyes, something they’ll expect.”

“Just so,” Khadizroth said. “And the Black Wreath is more than a rival crew of deceptive operators. They contain demons and prevent the opening of hellgates as a matter of religious duty; it is the reason for what little tolerance is extended to them by mortal governments and the other cults. Be assured, they absolutely would not scruple to take advantage of such events if they were already unfolding and the opportunity existed. But they are on record, very long and consistent record, taking these matters with the utmost seriousness. If they are concerned enough about this to seek help, the most probable explanation is that they need help.”

“That, at least, we can verify,” Vannae said quietly.

“Yes,” the dragon mused, folding his hands in his lap, “now that I know to look for an intersection of necromancy and dimensional warping, I can seek such through the flows of magic. There will be an element of chance at first, but if the Wreath has told the truth about this, once I have found one such and identified the workings used in its creation, I can locate any others with greater ease.”

“And…” Shook deliberately un-clenched his fists, flexing his fingers. “…what happened to me? The Wreath claimed not to have been behind it.”

“About that, I would be less sanguine,” Khadizroth said gravely, turning to him. “They do have reason to deceive you, and no reason not to; if they seek allies and had identified you as connected to the Inquisition, it would hardly serve them to admit they had assaulted you and confiscated Kheshiri’s reliquary. In addition, the alternative is that there is yet another player active in Ninkabi, who is capable of feats of infernal magic which the Wreath have never been able to manage before. That seems implausible…as does the alternative. Remember that Kheshiri was outside the reliquary for a time after its seizure, and for reasons I just went over, the Wreath would have immediately sealed a daughter of Vanislaas had they the means. This is a dangerous dilemma,” he said, leaning forward to gaze intently at Shook. “If there is such an additional party, their presence changes every equation and leaves us blind and vulnerable until we identify them. If not, the Wreath has not only increased their capabilities beyond what I knew, but has proven themselves willing to attack and curse even those to whom they turn as allies.”

“Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t,” Shook said, and blew out a breath of pure frustration.

“Well put,” Khadizroth agreed with a tiny smile of dark amusement. “At the very least, we should keep it in mind as a reminder of two things: the Wreath cannot be trusted, and we do not fully understand what is happening here.”

“So, you tracking our quarry to one of these portal sites is a starting point,” said Branwen. “I can provide transportation, since your movements in the city must obviously be discreet. Beyond that, though? If these people are sufficiently numerous and equipped that even the Wreath is desperate enough to seek help in dealing with them… Even with your aid, Lord Khadizroth, I’m concerned that adding ourselves to the effort is simply…not enough.”

“Who else is there?” Vannae all but whispered.

“Ain’t like we can go to any legitimate authority,” Shook grunted. “What the hell would we tell them? A tale like this…even if the Bishop blows her cover, I figure this is as likely to just damage her credibility as it is to add it to the claim.”

“Well, I can call in aid from the Church,” Branwen said slowly, pausing to chew her lower lip. “But… The Church is already involved in this. And they may not know what this cult is doing or why, but if they think they know, revealing that we are on their tail…”

“We were sent explicitly to hunt this cult,” Khadizroth added, “with the aid of this Inquisition. Two Church-aligned forces which cannot officially be acknowledged to exist, set directly into conflict. As far as the Church goes, all we can know for certain is that the left had doesn’t know the right exists, much less what it is doing. To seek official backup from that source would be, at best, a roll of the dice.”

“Especially since we’re all AWOL from our official backup,” Shook added. “So, can’t count on the Church. The Empire wouldn’t listen to us. What else we got?”

“The Guild?” Vannae suggested, looking at him.

“Leaving out that the Guild would haul me into a dark room for disciplinary thumping before they even thought about listening to what I had to say, we happen to be in one of the worst places for it. Guild presence in Ninkabi is just about as abnormal as it gets this side of Sifan. This is where the Fount of the Fallen is, one of our few actually holy sites. More Eserite priests here than almost anywhere else per square mile…which might be specifically applicable to this problem, sure. But that’s still not many, and there’s a lot less in the way of Guild muscle on hand than in basically any other major city.”

“I face a similar dilemma,” Khadizroth acknowledged, grimacing. “Here it is, an unprecedented moment in history when, for the first time, I could actually call upon other dragons for aid. But only in theory; in practice, I fear the Conclave of the Winds regards me very much as the Thieves’ Guild does you, Jeremiah. Inviting their attention would likely result only in my own removal from the scene. If I could persuade them to lend aid, just the persuading would surely take longer than we can spare.”

“My tribe is long dead and scattered,” Vannae murmured.

“Well, isn’t this cheerful as all fuck,” Shook growled, straightening up. He turned and began to pace up and down one side of the room.

“Are you all right?” Khadizroth asked, suddenly intent on him. “If you feel manic or unsettled, Jeremiah, please let me know. That can be a side effect of the magic that eased your weariness.”

“I’m fine,” Shook said, giving him a tight smile in passing. “Thanks, but this is just my thinkin’ posture. Not that I’m the best thinker in this outfit, but every little bit helps.”

“Very well. Do be sure to get actual sleep when you can, my friend. I can only ease the symptoms of weariness; your brain still needs rest.”

“I’ll get a nap while you’re hunting down necro-portals. Not like I’m any damn use for that. Shit, who else is there? The Wizard’s Guild?”

“Even less likely to listen to us than the Empire,” Branwen said a little morosely. “Oh! The Order of the Light?”

Shook barked a derisive laugh.

“Severely lacking in personnel in this day and age,” Khadizroth said more gently. “And no longer able to defy governments and move with impunity through their territory; that would leave us back at needing to persuade the Empire. I suppose, if we are desperate, I could try sending a telescroll to Last Rock. I understand Arachne has taken to using real world crises as testing grounds for her students. If she took me seriously it might get a party of young adventurers out here. I have found those to be surprisingly effective, when they are not amazingly ineffectual.”

“That’s twice now we’ve reached for solutions from the last century,” Shook grumbled, still pacing. “Is this the point where we officially acknowledge how fucked we are?”

“It’s worse than needing more help,” Branwen said, frowning deeply. “It’s the existing help. Talking of Last Rock… I don’t have privileged access to military records, but I have access to people who do, and I’ve learned that the Black Wreath was allowed to ‘help’ during the chaos crisis in Veilgrad. Apparently they did render material aid, and overall made the whole thing worse by causing more chaos effects with their demon summonings and then deliberately incapacitating all three paladins. And then it seems they tried to steal Imperial equipment as soon as the matter was resolved and only failed in that because the local vampire intervened. You are quite correct, Lord Khadizroth. Even if the Black Wreath helps in good faith, they will find a way to manipulate events and people to further their own goals. Furthering the Wreath’s goals is the absolute last thing I want.”

The dragon drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then reached over to take her hand. “Then the question we must ask ourselves is whether that prospect is worse than the alternative. If they are correct… Twenty hellgates, Branwen. Ninkabi would be a complete and permanent loss. Most of N’Jendo would be rendered uninhabitable.”

Shook came to an abrupt halt. “Hey, your Grace. Two questions. One, you got a pen and paper anywhere around here?”

“Of course,” she said, turning a quizzical frown on him. “Anything you need, Mr. Shook. You have an idea?”

“Probably not a very good one, but I guess we’re down to that point now. Which leads to my second question.” He grinned. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to loan me some money?”

Branwen raised her eyebrows. “That would depend. It might be more practical for me to buy whatever it is you need.”

“Yeah. Yeah, actually now you mention it, that’s absolutely right. Yeah, I’m a dumbass for not thinking of that up front, it’s obviously gotta come from you.”

“It?” she asked pointedly. “From me?”

“Right, it’s like this.” He stopped right behind the couch, leaning both arms against it to stare at the group with a grin even he could feel was a little unhinged. “We’ve got no resources and no credibility among the kinda dangerous people we need—but we all know somebody who does. And he may not wanna hear from most of us, but if we piggyback a little o’ my know-how on some of her Grace’s credibility, I bet we can get some real shit started.”


“I very much appreciate this, Antonio,” Bishop Ferdowsi said, his voice trembling just slightly. “I realize it verges on exploiting our professional connection…”

“Not in the least little bit, Mehmed,” Darling assured him, laying a hand on the older man’s thin shoulder. “This is exactly why we have a Universal Church: to help one another out in situations like this. I will take this directly to Boss Tricks, and we’ll get people on it at once.”

“Please understand, it’s not my intention to get anyone in trouble. We just want the Codex back. It is entirely irreplaceable.”

“It would be easiest and fastest if one of our people had taken it,” Darling said seriously, “since we could just get it back from them in that case. I have to warn you though, Mehmed, that’s a lesser possibility. Guild thieves are not to mess with the other cults unless on the Boss’s direct orders and under exceptional circumstances, and even then it’s usually the Vernisites. That rule is fiercely enforced. But we can still help a great deal. There aren’t so many people in Tiraas who would even want a five hundred-year-old illuminated manuscript, and any of those who are willing to receive stolen property will already be known to us. I’ll lay even odds we find it before the police do.”

“I understand. Regardless, I remain deeply grateful, Antonio, as does the entire Archive.”

“You can assure the Curator that we’re on it,” Darling said kindly. “I’ll head right to the Guild; I was going there anyway this afternoon. Thieves work best at night, so I dare to hope I may have something to tell you by tomorrow.”

He was frowning as he finally parted from the Nemitite Bishop, his steps quickening nearly to the point of breaking the serene gliding gait which helped characterize his ecclesiastical persona. He hadn’t had the heart to say it to the old man, but this was very likely to have been an inside job. Such things usually were, and honestly, who but a librarian would even think to steal a rare scroll? One thing he could be sure of: if this had been some rogue Eserite, he just might tell Flora and Fauna to work them over before Style got a chance. They’d do it, too. All three of them had felt rather protective of the Nemitites ever since that ugly business with Aleesa Asherad.

“Your Grace.”

Darling snapped out of his reverie, focusing his gaze on one of the last people he’d expected to meet in the Grand Cathedral.

“Price?”

“I apologize for disturbing you here, your Grace,” his Butler said crisply. “You received a telescroll at the house, brought by specialty courier, and I deemed it urgent. It came on a Universal Church priority signal, bearing Bishop Snowe’s name, from Ninkabi.”

Darling blinked. It was a forgivable lapse; they were alone in that corridor, Ferdowsi having vanished around a corner in the other direction.

“What the hell is Branwen doing in Ninkabi? She’s supposed to be…” Now that he thought of it, he hadn’t seen her in a few days.

Price produced the scroll from within her coat, folded and flattened by transit. “It is an unusually long communique, your Grace, and only the first line is from Bishop Snowe. The rest is in a Thieves’ Guild cipher, signed by Thumper.”

“What?!” He snatched it from her, raking his eyes across the row after row of scrambled letters as fast as he could without losing the thread. It was an older code and a simple one, but well, if it actually was Thumper, that made sense.

Darling read the while thing again, more slowly, just to be sure he had it right, before finally raising his head to stare at the vaulted marble ceiling.

“Price.”

“Your Grace?”

“Is there even the slightest chance my five adventurer friends haven’t vanished into the Golden Sea by now?”

“They have, at least, vanished from the city, your Grace. Beyond that, I regretably seem to have left my pocket oracle in my other trousers.”

“All right. Welp. I had to head down to the Casino anyway.” Sweet stuffed the telescroll into his sleeve and turned, striding down the hall with no regard at all for Bishoply poise. “C’mon, let’s go ruin Tricks’s entire week. I’ll be damned if I’m the only one who has to suffer.”

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15 – 38

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No one ever made it more than a few steps into an Izarite temple without being approached by a priest, but given the way he looked by that hour of the morning, Shook couldn’t blame them for being particularly on the ball. He was still in a tailored suit, at least, and had made sure his hair was still slicked back with the aid of his pocket comb and the tin of Sly’s Gentleman’s Cream he always carried—plus a judicious use of his reflection in store windows—but after the night he’d had, he was unshaven, hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, and teetering on his feet. As such, he didn’t even make it fully in the door before a priestess materialized seemingly out of nowhere and gently took him by the arm.

“Welcome,” she said in a soft tone, leading him to the side out of the doorway. “This is a safe place; you can rest here. We’ll take good care of you. What’s your name?”

“Uh…call me Jerry,” he stammered, embarrassingly unprepared for that simple question. With, by this point, Syrinx and her bullshit Inquisition doubtless added to the list of people hunting for his head, which already included the Sisterhood and the Guild, neither his full name nor his tag were safe things to throw around. Of course, in the last couple of years he’d almost never had to interact with the general public, except briefly and in passing, and usually Kheshiri had handled that.

“Jerry,” the woman said, smiling up at him warmly as though she were genuinely delighted to make his scruffy acquaintance. His customary annoyance at the two-faced trickiness of women in general started to well up, but he deliberately pushed it away. She was Izarite, after all; the expression was probably genuine. They were a bunch of feather-headed nutbars, but it was impossible to hate them for it. “I’m Nakhi, and I’m so glad you came. Come sit with me for a moment, and let’s talk.”

“Yeah, about that.” He planted his feet, causing her also to stop, still with a light grip on his arm. “I’m not lookin’ for the usual run of TLC, here. Who’s in charge of this temple?”

Nakhi looked quizzically up at him, stepping closer. “Brother Lokoru is the head priest, but he’s usually not up at this time of morning. We keep unconventional hours here, as you may have heard. But I’ll be more than glad to help you with anything, Jerry. Whatever’s going on, I can tell it has you under a lot of pressure. You’re in exactly the right place to have that turmoil relieved. That is what we do in Izara’s name, after all.”

She gave him that warm, gentle smile again, and he noted she was actually sort of pretty. Not a woman he’d have looked twice at on the street, but Izarites had a way about them; something about that relentless kindness of theirs was irresistibly attractive regardless of what they looked like.

“Thank, doll,” he said, gently extricating his arm from her grip. “Look, I know you got a job to do and I’m sure you’re good at it, but I’m gonna have to pass on having that turmoil relieved. I’m still using it. Can you maybe answer a couple questions about Izarite business in Ninkabi?”

“Well…it depends on the questions,” the priestess replied, her expression growing concerned. Exactly like a nurse whose patient wouldn’t take their medicine. “Obviously, we place a high value on privacy here. I would never repeat anything you shared with me in confidence, and I can’t betray any other guest’s confidence to you, either. But the cult itself doesn’t have many secrets. I meant what I said, Jerry: if there’s anything I can do to help you, then that’s what I’m here for. Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Omnu’s balls, was he in some kind of trouble. Nothing she could actually help with, though, and trying would likely just land him in hot water with the Church or one of the Pantheon cults with which he was already having problems.

“If there was some higher-up in town,” he said, evading the question, “some big important Izarite personnel from the capital, and they were being discreet and didn’t want their presence known, what’d be my best chance of meetin’ up with ’em?”

Nakhi blinked twice. “I’m…not sure I understand the question, Jerry. If somebody important were here and specifically wanted to avoid being known or seeing anyone, then it sounds like you couldn’t meet them. And I probably couldn’t, either, for that matter. I’m definitely not aware of anybody like that being in Ninkabi.”

“And if you were, you couldn’t tell the likes of me, anyway. Well, it was worth a try. Thanks anyway.”

“Are you looking for someone in particular, Jerry?” she asked. “We just don’t have a lot of celebrities or important officials within the Brethren. I can’t think of anybody who might match your description other than High Priestess Delaine or Bishop Snowe, and they’re both in Tiraas.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said, forcing a grin. “Sorry to waste your time, sister. Have a good one.”

He turned to go, but she reached out and caught his arm again. Anger surged; he did not appreciate being grabbed.

“Are you sure you won’t stay and talk for a while?” Nakhi asked, her voice as tender as a doting mother’s. “Whatever else is going on, Jerry, it’s obvious you could do with some rest, and probably a hot meal. We can provide both. And even if you weren’t looking to unburden yourself, I bet you’d be amazed at the difference it can make.”

Fucking whore, exactly like all the rest of them, looking to ferret out whatever secrets she could exploit. Izarites were supposedly empathic as a gift of their goddess; she had to be aware of how angry she was making him, but there was no sign on her face of any concern. As if to prove she was operating on some hidden agenda…

Breathe. Let it go.

Everyone is absolutely out for themselves, Sweet’s advice whispered in his memory, but you have to put yourself in their perspective, think about what they want. People are social animals, Thumper. You’d be amazed how many of their selfish agendas will actually impel them to do nice things for others and except nothing in return.

She was an Izarite. This was her hidden agenda. Losing his cool over this was his own weakness, exactly the thing his teachers had tried to get him past, and Kheshiri had worked so hard to exacerbate. It was past time he paid due honor to the men who’d been actually trying to help him.

“I appreciate it, honey,” he said, once more removing her hand from his arm as gently as he could. She didn’t resist, giving him no reason to handle her at all roughly. He patted her hand once before letting it go. “You’re a sweetheart, but you don’t have what I need. Take care, now.”

Shook turned and strode back outside into the sunlight before she could try again to dissuade him, not slowing his steps to a more typical walking pace until he had rounded the temple’s corner and was pacing down its length on the sidewalk.

It wasn’t much of a play, but it was the best he could think of on short notice. It was pretty clear that going back to the Inquisition wasn’t an option. With Kheshiri run off and the Jackal himself evidently having snapped under the pressure of his own scheme, to say nothing of that rabid loon Syrinx now holding the reins, he had to face the fact that this entire keep-tabs-on-the-Archpope plan had gone belly up without producing any results.

That pretty much left him with Khadizroth as the only person to turn to. He already knew it was within K’s power to locate him in the city, and didn’t know why he hadn’t yet done so, though he could think of several possibilities. The least dismal was that the dragon was just too preoccupied keeping Syrinx from burning Ninkabi the fuck down to come looking; it was also possible he knew Shook had spent the night with the Wreath and assumed the worst about him. That left him with one, more slender hope.

Khadizroth was of the opinion that Snowe was a much cleverer operator than she let on, and Shook respected his opinion highly. She’d pretty much have to be, anyway, to have come out here in order to put Syrinx down—itself a worthy goal in his view. He was gambling that she was sufficiently on the ball to make sure she’d be informed of interesting developments in whatever city she was in. Such as a scruffy person matching his description sniffing around for her at Izarite temples, for example.

He pulled out the pamphlet he’d acquired at a small Universal Church chapel, which gave the addresses of all the temples of Izara in Ninkabi, double-checking the next on the list. Yep, he was heading the right way, at least if his recollection of the street layout was solid.

Now there wasn’t much left but to hope Snowe found his trail before the Inquisition, the Guild, or the Avenists did. Or the Wreath. Or the Jackal, since the gods only knew what that demented fuck was up to right now and given his personality, killing off his former allies was an ample likelihood. Or this mysterious necromantic cult of Justinian’s, since that was evidently a real thing and was actually up to big trouble in this city.

Nothing could ever be easy, could it.


It was her own fault for leaving Kheshiri unsupervised for five minutes, Natchua reflected when she returned to the kitchen to find everyone assembled and the whole group in the process of exploding.

The entire story was obvious at a glance. The bit players had carefully removed themselves to three corners of the room: the three hobgoblins huddled together with their heads down in one, Sherwin in another watching the unfolding show as avidly as a theater patron during the fight scene, while Xyraadi perched daintily on a stool near the fireplace, sipping tea from a cracked mug with the aloof aspect of someone who wanted something to occupy her hands and mouth a lot more than she wanted tea.

It was just in front of the hall door, opposite the external door through which Natchua and Melaxyna emerged, that the real drama was playing out. Jonathan and Hesthri faced each other across the gap, he with his fists clenched and apparently on the verge of lunging at her, she just looking resigned. Natchua was in no way worried about that; aside from Hesthri’s physical invulnerability, she knew Jonathan Arquin would never get any closer than that to striking someone he cared about, especially a woman. That it had gone this far was a testament not only to how upset he was, but how suddenly the provocation must have come on, clearly before his prized self-control had a chance to re-assert itself.

And between them, just far enough back in the doorway not to obstruct their view of each other, Kheshiri looked confused and worried, glancing back and forth as if this outcome were a complete surprise to her. Given who and what she was, that was unlikely to be fooling anyone. It was certainly not fooling Natchua, who could read the malicious glee coursing through her aura like a newspaper headline.

Well, Mel had warned her Kheshiri’s campaign would begin with deliberately making a nuisance of herself.

“Oh dear,” Kheshiri said worriedly, wringing her hands. “Should…I not have said anything? I’m sorry, I don’t know all the history here…”

Jonathan tore his eyes from Hesthri to turn an incredulously furious stare upon Natchua. “Is this true?”

“Is what…” He physically swelled, and she broke off, shaking her head. “No, Jonathan, I am not being disingenuous. I’m pretty sure I know what this is about, but since the rogue succubus obviously started it, I’m not willing to assume.”

“That’s what this is about,” Hesthri said quietly. “And yes, Jonathan, it’s true.”

Amazingly, he managed to puff up even further, his face flushing almost crimson with the pressure of not lashing out. At least he managed to keep it strictly verbal.

“What is wrong with you?” he roared, addressing himself to the ceiling.

Natchua chose to assume, regardless, that it was directed at her.

“Well, if I knew the full answer to that, I’d already be at work fixing it, now wouldn’t I?” she asked wearily. “Nothing you don’t already know about, really. And I did try to warn you.”

“Nothing is wrong with me,” Hesthri said, her voice still soft. “Not now that I’m with you, and safe from my former mistress, and able to help Gabriel. All of it thanks to Natchua. What’s more,” she added in a firmer tone, stepping forward to compel his attention, “a lot less is wrong with Natchua than either she or you thinks, and none of it able to be addressed by carrying on this way. This isn’t how I wanted to you find out, obviously, but I was also not going to hide it from you, Jonathan. Since this is how it’s begun, though, let’s talk about it.”

“You want to talk.” He clutched his head for a moment, fingers clenching into bloodless claws. “…no. This is more shit than I can deal with.”

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said urgently as he rounded on Kheshiri. “Please, you can’t—”

“Later,” he snapped, not looking at her. “I can’t even look at you right now. Get out of the way!” he roared at Kheshiri, who quailed backward, still blocking the door.

The nigh-hysterical mirth roiling in her aura rose to such a pitch that Natchua was honestly impressed she managed to keep acting, but indeed she did, quivering and stammering and giving a very good impression of a woman too panicked by the sight of the man cornering her even to flee.

Natchua wasn’t sure what would result from the succubus continuing to antagonize Jonathan right now, but was not about to indulge her. A simple extension of her will caused the shadows to flicker and gather, sweeping Kheshiri away to stand at the opposite side of the room, well out of his path.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said as he stomped out down the corridor toward the ruined great hall. She only spoke his name, though, not raising her voice or trying to call him back.

“Mistress, I’m so sorry,” Kheshiri burbled frantically, “I didn’t realize—”

“Silence,” Natchua ordered with neither emphasis nor inflection. “I’ll deal with you in a moment. Melaxyna, would you please go make sure Jonathan doesn’t do anything…unwise?”

“He will not,” Hesthri stated, turning to her. “And he definitely doesn’t want to be hovered over. Just let him calm down on his own time.”

“I agree,” Natchua replied. “Which is why I asked Melaxyna, whose presence he won’t detect if she doesn’t wish it. I trust Jonathan, but I’ve never seen him that angry, and the woods around Veilgrad are not safe even by the standards of woods in general.”

Hesthri nodded at that, as did Melaxyna, pausing only to squeeze Natchua’s shoulder once. She slipped across the room, diverting momentarily to the corner to peck Sherwin on the cheek, then departed silently into the hallway, fading to invisibility as she went.

“Xyraadi,” Natchua said, turning to the khelminash, with a deep bow of her head, “this is more menial than the work you’re used to, I know, but can I ask you to supervise the horogki’s work today?”

“Pas de probleme,” Xyraadi assured her, rising smoothly and setting her cup on the mantle. “After helping Mortimer in Second Chances, I fancy I have acquired a knack for administration.”

“Oh, uh, about that, boss lady,” Pizzicato squeaked. Natchua turned to find her hunched as if expecting to be kicked; Glissando and Staccato were actually trying to hide behind her. “We, uh, sorta need some quality time with Mr. Moneybags, here. We gotta see about orderin’ some stuff to work with—stone, lumber, glass, tools, nails an’ shit. Cleanup’s well and good and a lotta that rubble is reusable but not even we can rebuild a house outta good intentions and slobber.”

“That’s Lord Moneybags, actually,” Natchua corrected her, smiling in spite of herself.

“Hey, just Sherwin’s fine,” he demurred. “The House of Moneybags doesn’t stand on formality. What’s left of it. And anyway, uh, I don’t really know what to tell you. I have my lawyers arrange for my supplies and stuff. If I need something in particular that’s not on the regular delivery I have them order it. If you just write down what you need…”

“I can certainly attend to that myself,” Xyraadi said, smiling. “If you girls will just tell me what you need, I shall arrange a full list for Sherwin to deliver to his steward.”

“Oh,” Pizzicato croaked, looking less than reassured. “Well, then. Great. Okay.”

“Is there a problem?” Natchua asked.

All three of them suddenly straightened up, frantically waving. “No, no! No problem! Everything’s fine and dandy!”

“There is not a problem,” Hesthri interjected, “but I see why they would fear otherwise. Girls,” she went on more gently, turning to the hobgoblins, “Xyraadi is not like the other khelminash. She fled from their cities and from Hell itself to come here and live free of them. I have found her to be kind and entirely reasonable; she won’t treat you the way the mistresses back home did. Right?” she added, turning a pointed look on Xyraadi.

“Oh, absolutement,” Xyraadi agreed hastily. “I apologize, ladies, for failing to consider your perspective. I, of all people! No, we are all five of us exiles from the same nightmare, are we not? And good riddance to it. I see no reason we cannot all be friends; it is not a hard thing to treat one another with a little basic respect.”

“Xyraadi has my trust as well,” Natchua added, seeing that the three hobs looked less than convinced. It would likely take time and exposure to bring them around; she just needed to apply a little encouragement to get them started. “But if anyone here has any problem with anyone else, you bring it right to me and I will take care of it. Okay? You’re not slaves here. It’s not possible for you to leave and roam this plane, I’m afraid, but if you wanted to go back to where you came from, I’ll arrange it.”

That prompted another round of frantic demurrals, and Hesthri winced.

“I’m sorry,” Natchua said ruefully, “that sounded like a threat, didn’t it? I promise it wasn’t. Don’t worry, girls, I’m not going to banish you unless you ask me to. I just mean, this is a small community and we need to get along. So long as everybody pulls their weight, I will make sure you’re treated as well as I can reasonably arrange. Fair?”

“Come, why don’t you show me what you have done so far?” Xyraadi suggested, smiling at the quailing hobgoblins and gesturing toward the door. “I would be delighted to hear your plans for the ongoing repairs.”

“Hes,” Natchua said, “would you mind going along? Not that I think they need more supervision, but they might feel better with you there.”

“Not at all. In fact, I’d be grateful to have something to do with myself right now.” She gave Natchua a warm smile before gently shepherding the still-uncertain horogki toward the great hall.

Sherwin cleared his throat as Xyraadi followed them out. “Well! I guess I’ll, uh…”

“That’s okay, Sherwin, it’s your room, after all. Don’t put yourself out; I’ll just get the rest of this mess out of your hair. Come, Kheshiri.”

The sunlight wasn’t as glaring as it had once been; the actual shadow spell to protect her eyes from the brilliance hadn’t been part of the repertory of infernomacny Elilial had given her, but it had been easy enough to work out. She didn’t even need dark glasses anymore.

“Mistress, I apologize,” Kheshiri said demurely. “It seems I misread the situation and spoke out of turn. If any trouble has resulted—”

“Yes, I know,” Natchua interrupted in a disinterested tone. Narisian reserve didn’t exactly prepare her for this kind of playacting, but she made do by trying to channel the attitude she felt best fit her needs: Tellwyrn’s. One of Tellwyrn’s specific attitudes, in fact, the slightly irritated dismissal she showed to problems that were only just barely worth addressing. As if this pivotal conversation with this highly dangerous individual were a fleeting annoyance, beneath her attention. “You’ve only seen me using brute force to solve problems, so you assumed that was the only trick I had, and therefore assumed you’re smarter than I. And that was fine, while you were an unwanted stray I had to gather up. Now, however, I have a task for you, and so it’s time for you to learn some things.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri murmured. “I will be glad to serve you in any way I can, mistress.”

Her expression, now, was surprised and intrigued, and for once the emotion in her aura was exactly the same.

The thing was, Kheshiri absolutely was smarter than she, and had to at least suspect it. But if she thought Natchua was dim enough not to recognize the disparity in their scheming ability, she might relax her efforts enough to make a mistake. Plus, by taking a leaf out of Hesthri’s book and abruptly changing her entire demeanor every so often, apropos of nothing, she might stave off the succubus from getting a true handle on her actual personality.

Gods, this was going to be exhausting.


By the time early afternoon rolled around, Shook was seriously considering trying to catch a nap in an alley like some kind of bum. Keeping moving the whole day was exactly the exhausting icing his already exhausting cake did not need; after visiting every Izarite temple in Ninkabi to sow the necessary seeds of suspicion, he had carried on a gradual circuit of the city, pacing between the temples in the hope that anybody who came looking for him would be less likely to catch him unawares as long as he was moving. If he got the first look, he could meet up with Snowe or Vannae if it was one of them, or flee from anyone else. But gods, he was about ready to drop right where he stood. It wasn’t like this was his first all-nighter, but it also wasn’t as if he were as young as he’d once been.

And ultimately it didn’t even work. He was shambling along, too out of it even to register where he was going anymore, much less what was happening around him, when a luxury enchanted carriage driven by a man in nondescript livery pulled up to the curb alongside him.

One of its windows swung outward, and Branwen Snowe’s face appeared in the gap. “May I offer you a ride, Mr. Shook?”

He was too tired to hesitate or even upbraid himself for being snuck up on after all his preparations. He just turned toward the carriage and grasped the door handle, Snowe already retreating along the seat. Shook clambered in and slumped against its plush cushions, only belatedly remembering to pull the door shut.

“Gods, am I glad to see you, lady,” he said as the carriage pulled smoothly back into traffic. “How’d you find me?”

“Khadizroth has been instrumental in tracking you. I must say, though, your plan to draw my attention was impressively clever. I’ve already had several confused reports of your movements. I’d like to think that even without our dragon friend, I would have been sharp enough to locate you.”

She smiled, and it was even better than the smiles he’d been getting from Izarite priests all morning, for all that it had that same ineffably gentle Izarite quality to it. The difference, he figured, was that Branwen Snowe was also out and out gorgeous, and clearly worked at it. None of the others had worn cosmetics, or applied more to their hair than water and a comb. She looked like she was on the way to one of her book signings or public addresses. He’d known plenty of women like this; they always looked that way.

“So K’s with you,” he said wearily. “Good. Makes this a lot easier.”

“Yes, it will be good to have everyone’s information in the same room,” she agreed. “I gather you must have had a very interesting night. And Khadizroth will be able to update you on events within Basra’s Inquisition since you slipped out.”

Shook grunted. “I bet Syrinx is about ready to chew her fuckin’ foot off.”

“She was close to that point before all this started.”

Despite the fatigue, he studied her face closely. “I guess that’s the best news you’ve had all week, right? You must really hate the bitch to go to all this trouble.”

Snowe sighed very softly, turning her blue eyes to the passing scenery outside the window. “Even if I were inclined toward hate…no. That seems like an emotion for enemies. Other people. Basra Syrinx is just a mad, deadly thing which has run amok for far too long. All I feel is pity for those she has harmed, and…remorse. This summer I stood in the Grand Cathedral while the paladin of her own faith demanded she be brought to justice, and heard the fellow Bishop whose opinion I respect the most point out something which has stayed with me ever since: all those of us who tolerated Basra because she was politically useful, even knowing what a monster she is, are complicit in her crimes. Her destruction is redemption, to me. That’s all.”

“I can respect that,” he said, nodding and letting his eyes close of their own accord. Shook was just too bone-weary to dissemble; that actually was a sentiment to which he could relate. “Oh…right. You’d best not bring me to whatever safe house you’re using, Bishop. Among the shit I need to bring everybody up to speed on, I spent the night with the Black fuckin’ Wreath. I’d bet my left nut they’re still tracking me. They damn sure can, and they’d be pretty stupid not to.”

“I see,” she said, turning back to him with her eyebrows raised. “Well… Thank you for the warning, but we must go where we are going regardless. That is where Khadizroth awaits us. After that, however, I’m confident he can erase any trace the warlocks can lay upon you, and my own roots in this city are shallow. We can move to a new, safer location easily enough.”

He just nodded. Sounded like good sense.

“I’m proud of you, Mr. Shook,” she said quietly.

He opened his eyes. “Excuse me?”

“I know nothing except what I cannot help but sense,” Snowe said, again giving him that Izarite smile. “But it is…familiar to me. You are a man struggling with inner demons, and slowly but surely, rising above them. Forgive my presumption; I just wanted you to know that I honor the effort.”

Shook stared at her for a moment. It seemed that this was the sort of thing that usually made him angry. Right at that moment, though, he just didn’t have the energy.

He leaned his head against the window and let his eyes drift shut again.

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15 – 37

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“Where’d everybody go?”

Teal looked up at Principia’s approach, straightening from her crouched posture at the edge of the cliff. As a young girl she had been nervous of heights, but bonding with Vadrieny had caused that to fade over time, and even reverse, to the point that her parents and even Shaeine protested her habit of lurking on ledges and atop things. But if you could fall all the way from above the atmosphere without suffering ill effects, not to mention being able to fly anyway…why not?

“Nowhere,” she said, unconsciously straightening her coat. “They’re in the building, packing up. Well, that and goofing off, it’s not like we had much to pack. I went. Just wanted to be alone and think for a bit. Which, now that I think about it, you could already tell, right? I mean, you can hear everything happening on this plateau. So why ask me?”

“Halfway there,” Principia said cryptically.

“What?” Teal frowned at her.

“You looked past the surface, but not far enough. Why would I indulge in such a harmless, pointless deception?”

“Sheer force of habit?” Teal said acidly. Then, when the elf just smiled at her for a moment, she spoke again more slowly. “Or it’s just a way to start a conversation and get me talking.”

Principia cocked a finger at her. “Bingo. See, you can spot these things as well as any bard, you’re just not in the habit of it. Anyway. I’ll go spread the bad news to the others, but since you’re here, our departure has been delayed so everybody might as well unpack again. I’ve just spoken with our Order guides and they don’t want to leave until dawn.” She shrugged irritably. “I can see their point. The trail has only a few safe spots to camp and the way they’re spaced out… Well, they’re accustomed to hiking in a certain rhythm for a reason.”

“Did you explain why it was important to go?”

“Explain what?” Principia asked with a wry little grin. “That we have an incredibly dangerous weapon we need to dispose of and I’ve got this feeling it’s gonna be more trouble alone on this barren mountaintop than if we take it back down to where there’s people? I didn’t even get into how we planned to hand it off to Arachne Tellwyrn. Somehow I think that might’ve made them even less sympathetic.”

“That’s…” Teal frowned. “That seems ominous, though logically I can’t put my finger on exactly why.”

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Principia intoned, putting on a sarcastically pompous aspect. “Seriously, though, you’re right. Ordinarily I wouldn’t think it meant anything, but the god of bards his damn self was right here, sticking his fingers into this pie. An arbitrary, barely-justified delay that keeps us isolated in the open for another day has ‘plot device’ written all over it.” She turned her head toward the building in which the other students could be faintly heard having an argument. “I can’t imagine what could happen out of the blue up here, but I’ve got the feeling something’s going to. Well. It’s not like you aren’t the most capable group of people alive when it comes to fielding threats, even without that crazy universal trump card you just created. I better go tell everybody to be ready for…whatever.”

She turned and made it five paces before Teal suddenly called after her.

“Locke, wait. Can you spare a minute?”

Principia paused, half-turning to look back at her with a raised eyebrow. “We’re not gonna be any less stuck here after a minute, sure.”

“You were an adventurer,” Teal said, her words slow as if she were pondering each with care as she spoke. “During the Age of Adventures. You must’ve known a lot of other adventurers, right? I mean, back when they were common and respectable.”

“For a sentence that’s basically not wrong, that one is full of a lot of misconceptions,” Principia said, turning to face her fully again. “You may be overestimating how common and how respectable adventurers were even during their heyday. And as for me, well, I was even less of both than the usual. Also I tended to be a pretty solitary type. Your average dungeon delving party has little use for thieves unless they’re hitting Manor Dire or someplace with a bunch of traps. I’m a con artist, I don’t do traps. But still… Yeah, I knew people. It never paid to stay too far out of circulation.”

Teal nodded, chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment. “Did you ever know any who were pacifists?”

“Sure, that wasn’t uncommon,” Principia said immediately. “Party healers, basically. The majority were clerics, and the majority of those who went adventuring and were more into healing than stabbing were Omnists, Izarites, and Salyrites. Of course, Salyrites will do pretty much whatever they can get away with, but Omnists are explicitly pacifist. Izarite dogma itself isn’t pacifist, but several Izarite denominations are, and have gone through phases where they predominate in the cult.”

Teal’s face had fallen while she spoke, and now she nodded again, a little disconsolately. “Party healers. That’s it?”

“That’s by a wide margin the majority, yeah. Of course, you can pick any adjective and it applies to somebody who called themselves an adventurer at some point, including a lot weirder than ‘pacifist,’ but you asked about people I knew. That’s not a trait I seek out in my friends. I’ve known the odd pacifist who wasn’t insufferably preachy, but that combination of traits seems oddly uncommon.”

Teal made a wry grimace at her, getting a grin in response.

“You’re looking for a role model, then?” Principia said after a momentary pause.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure that must be hilarious to you…”

“Absolutely not,” the elf said with a totally serious expression. She turned fully and walked back over to stand by Teal at the edge of the cliff. “If you’re looking to adopt a given way of operating, modeling someone who mastered it is an excellent starting point.”

“Just a starting point, though,” Teal said quickly. “I obviously need to tailor my own approach, but…it’s hard to know where to begin. I figured following someone’s footsteps would get me pointed in the right direction, until I can figure out my own methods through practice.”

“That’s exactly how you acquire basically any skill,” Principia agreed. “Well, I’m sorry I lack personal connections that would apply to you, but I’ll tell you what. You might find a lot of inspiration in my own favorite trickster heroine, and I’m willing to bet you already know a lot of stories about her. Every young pacifist reads everything they can find about Laressa of Anteraas.”

“Of course,” Teal said, now frowning quizzically. “She was already a great inspiration to me, since I was a little girl. But…did you say trickster heroine? I never really saw her that way.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Principia replied with a wide grin. “Nobody does, not now or in her own day, and that is why she’s my favorite. Peak technique for con artistry is to avoid being known for it; that’s how you keep people off their guard. Then and now, everybody oohed and aahed over her ‘peaceful warrior’ shtick and the spectacle she made of that, and never really caught on to how she schemed rings around them.”

“Really.” Teal was still frowning, but more thoughtfully now.

“For example, you know the story of Safiya’s Shaming, right? It’s one of the most famous.”

“Safiya’s Persuasion, they call it in Calderaas,” Teal said, smiling in spite of herself. “Sure, of course, I always liked that one. Sultana Safiya was planning to invade Akhvaris, but Laressa walked into the Royal Palace and spent three days following the Sultana everywhere she went, reciting from the Aveniad until she abandoned that plan and swore to leave the drow alone.”

Principia was grinning, too. “And how about the Lasher’s Loss? That one’s dear to my heart, for reasons I’m sure you can imagine.”

“I don’t… Wait, no, that’s familiar. Lasher was a Thieves’ Guild boss, right?”

“An underboss in Anteraas, yeah. Basically, Laressa was warned by an oracle—or an insider, depending on which version of the story—that Lasher and his thieves were going to rob the local temple of Avei. So she emptied out the treasury coffer and locked herself in it. When the thieves took it back to their base, they opened it up and boom! Instead of a box of gold, box of paladin.”

“Oh, yeah, I did hear that one!” Teal said, growing more animated by the moment. “Lasher kept her there one night, and by the time he let her go he was so enraptured he asked her to marry him.”

“Again, depends on the version,” Principia said, matching Teal’s mounting excitement in gesture and expression exactly, “but whether or not that happened, it’s a fact that she thwarted a Guild job, was kept overnight at their mercy, and in the morning they let her leave on good terms. Oh, but I know you know about Laressa’s Stand in the Briar Wars.”

“Yes!” Teal exclaimed. “Where she faced down four armies!”

“Every major participant in the war,” Prin said enthusiastically, “armies from Tiraas, Calderaas, Veilgrad and Leineth. They all marched on the plain west of Leineth itself…”

“And they found Laressa there, sitting right in the middle of it in an armchair…”

“Eating grapes and reading a book!”

“And all four generals stood there watching her for an hour…”

Principia laughed aloud. “And then every last one of them turned around and marched the fuck home! And it’s not just the big things like that, either, Laressa was sharp and in control of every one of her encounters. One of her favorite tricks was letting people attack her, doing her Sun Style evasion and deflection thing with just a touch of divine shielding, and let them work themselves into a fury and get worn out doing her no damage while she talked them around to her way of thinking.”

Teal nodded eagerly. “Yeah, I’ve seen Toby do that.”

“It’s a great trick, if you’ve got the skill. But with all respect to Toby, you’ve seen him do half of it. Laressa was also a master of, shall we say, conversational Sun Style. You’ll never persuade someone by proving them wrong, that just makes people dig their heels in. Most thought is emotional more than it’s logical. Changing people’s minds requires salesmanship and manipulation. Laressa was sly enough to do that, while also fighting physically. Honestly, I don’t think there have been many people who even could do the kind of things she did.” Her expression sobered by degrees until she was left with a small, knowing smile. “And it all worked because she decided what people should think about her and made it happen. To the point that even now, her biggest fans think the big deal about her was her pacifism.”

“Wasn’t it?” Teal countered. “Who but a pacifist would even have thought to do such things?”

“Well, for starters, every Avenist ever, if they were smarter and actually meant that high-minded talk about how the art of war applies to all confrontations, not just violent ones. I may be a bit biased here, Teal; I’m no pacifist, but I’m definitely not a fan of violence. It’s wasteful and destructive at best, brings out the worst in people and creates a mess that somebody’s going to have to rebuild from. It is far and away better to accomplish your goals through cleverness and maneuvering than by hurting people and breaking stuff. You can’t achieve that just by showing up and being all serene and peaceful. People who try that are usually the first to die. But it can be achieved with the proper technique, and Laressa of Anteraas had technique in spades.”

“How do you mean?” Teal’s eyes were narrowed in concentration now, as if she could read insight straight from Principia’s face.

“Well, think about just those examples we talked about. Stalking a Sultana through her palace until she buckles sounds like an effort of sheer brute force pacifism, until you read between the lines. There’s a lot of politics, there. Hands of Avei are traditionally given the run of the Palace in Calderaas, but do you really think a crowned head of state would submit to that kind of treatment if she felt it within her power to get rid of the person doing it? You have to understand that whole situation. The core of Calderaas’s army has always been heavy cavalry—basically the worst possible choice for invading a drow city. Safiya was young, inexperienced, and pretty painfully naive, and being given a lot of deliberately bad advice to cause her to blunder severely enough that the Calderaan Houses would be justified in removing her so one of her rivals could take over.”

“By, for example, getting most of the army massacred underground,” Teal murmured.

Principia nodded. “The Aveniad is basically a series of romanticized war stories; it’s laid out to teach lessons in Avenist battle doctrine and military strategy, not so much moral principles. It’s pretty incredible how anybody thinks you can shame someone with that. Laressa used her position to insert herself forcibly into Safiya’s inner circle, and you had better believe they spent the whole time trying to remove her. She fended off physical and political attempts to get rid of her—already requiring a broader skill set than most people will ever have—and protected the young Sultana from the same while giving her a crash course in military and political leadership. Safiya’s advisors had built up her ego til she wouldn’t hear contradiction from anyone, so Laressa spent three days making her realize for herself what was going on. She did all this while dancing around the temper of a spoiled teenager who was in the habit of ordering people who said things she didn’t want to hear out of the city. That whole affair ended with most of Safiya’s inner circle banished or beheaded, and Laressa her most valued advisor. Pacifism, my ass; if I was half that sly I’d be Empress by now.”

Teal was frowning deeply, her eyes slowly tracking from side to side as she formed connections. Principia watched her for a moment before continuing.

“Then there was Lasher. There are so many version of that story specifically because nobody knows what exactly happened between Laressa and the thieves that night. But what is known is just…general knowledge. Eserites have no respect for Avenists, very little sense of humor about having their operations busted up by outside forces, and an immediate strategic need not to let people see inside their hideouts and then leave to tell tales. And let me assure you, the Thieves’ Guild is not impressed by pacifist ideals. Laressa barged into the middle of that and got a bunch of Eserites to embrace her as a friend. I’m pretty sure Hands of Avei have achieved that exactly twice now.”

They both glanced at the building where the other students were still talking, then exchanged a small smile.

“And the Stand?” Teal asked, her expression and tone showing simple curiosity.

“You have to know a bit of background to understand that one, too. Another of Laressa’s tricks—not a favorite, as there are only so many times a body can do this—was to let her enemies beat her. Physically, I mean. But she only did this in public, and after carefully laying the groundwork, so that the outrage at this abuse of the peaceful paladin prompted backlash that soon destroyed whoever had ordered her roughed up. Leineth came later in her career, by which time it was widely rumored that if you harmed Laressa of Anteraas, Avei’s curse would come down on you and cause your utter ruin. Of course, if Avei could be arsed to show up and fight her own battles, she wouldn’t need Hands, now would she? That was all Laressa’s cunning at work. The Stand was the payoff of years of strategy and building a reputation, till entire armies didn’t dare to even try fighting around her.”

Principia turned her head to gaze absently out at the Great Tree in the distance, a little smile playing about her lips.

“In a lot of ways, Laressa of Anteraas was the ultimate bard. She succeeded by carefully crafting a narrative around herself that guided people to fit themselves subconsciously into the roles she wanted. And by all accounts, especially to people she set herself against, she was annoying as hell.”

Teal had to crack a smile at that, but it faltered quickly. “So…within all that, where’s the role of principled pacifism?”

“There’s not a thing in the world wrong with moral pacifism as long as you aren’t stupid about it,” Principia said with a shrug. “Morality is a fine thing for your personal life. Laressa clearly had it in spades, as do you. The main difference between you was the strategic ability to get shit done.”

Teal dropped her eyes.

“Then again, maybe take me with a grain of salt,” Principia added in a lighter tone. “Gods know I’m hardly one of the world’s great moral philosophers. Although… I do have a pet theory I’ve been wanting to bounce off someone for a while.”

“Oh?” Teal said warily.

“It’s a universal principle across every culture: you take care of your group. Loyalty and love for whatever social clusters you belong to is paramount to being a person. I’ve been mulling it, lately, and I have come to think that the closest thing there is to an objective gauge of someone’s goodness is the size of their in-group.”

Teal frowned. “So, what, the better someone is, the more popular they are?”

“Oh, is that vividly not the cause,” Principia chuckled. “No, I mean, the extent of their empathy—where they draw the lines between friend, foe, and uninteresting stranger. So at one extreme end of the spectrum is the Omnist ideal: absolute, universal compassion for all living things, everywhere. There’s a reason even the Omnists consider that an ideal to strive for, not something you can just up and do. I’m pretty sure a person would go crazy from the sheer pressure long before they managed to fully invest themselves in the well-being of everyone and everything alive. And then, at the other end, is what the elves call anth’auwa, someone whose entire group is themselves, with no moral regard for any other person. Good and evil are just points of view in ninety percent of situations where they meaningfully clash; the least subjective measure I’ve been able to find is a count of how many people are so important do you that you would sacrifice your own well-being for their sake. Your family? Village? Nation? Your religion? The whole world?”

“Huh,” Teal grunted, also turning to look out at the Tree now. “I think…I’d have to ponder that for a while. It feels like you might be onto something with that, though.” She turned back to give Principia a sharp look. “So how good a person would that make you, Principia Locke?”

“Not fucking very,” the elf said frankly. “Mostly because I don’t aspire to be any better. According to my little theory, I’m a better person than I was the first time we met, and I’ve gotta tell you I’m not real happy about it. Being invested deeply in other people seems largely an experience of broadened vulnerabilities and the stress of trying to take care of them. Before all’s said and done,” she went on in a softer tone, “I expect to be a better person still, by far. Gods, I am not looking forward to that.”

Teal was still studying her from the corner of her eye, both of them facing the edge of the cliff now but with the human’s head slightly tilted toward Principia, who was now staring at the horizon and chewing pensively on her tongue.

“So you admire people who are crafty irrespective of being moral, then?” Teal said at last.

“Hmm…” Principia made a waffling gesture with her hand. “I admire cunning for its own sake, true. But even being a self-described amoral creature, it’s hard to feel positively toward people who abuse and exploit others, isn’t it? I’m still Eserite at my core. I would say, rather… I admire people who are crafty about being moral.”

“And that’s the hardest thing about dealing with you, of course. It’s so difficult to untangle your good advice from your agenda that just hearing you say something that sounds like good sense makes me question the concept of sense itself.”

“Well, now, that’s its own trap,” Principia said, turning back to her directly. “Being too trusting will lead you into trouble, sure, but second-guessing everything and trying to look for hidden layers of lies in every shadow will cause you to blunder just as badly, and drive you nuts to boot. What’s important is understanding what a person’s agenda is, and keeping it in mind when you analyze their actions.”

“Hm.” Teal folded her arms, making a show of studying Principia. “What am I to think about you, then?”

“Now, now, you know what I’m after,” the elf chided gently. “Same thing I have been since before the first time I crossed your path.” She didn’t look again at the building where Trissiny was currently holed up with the others, but Teal did. “In a way, Teal, the lesson of Principia Locke is exactly the point I was trying to illustrate with Laressa. Whatever it is you’re after in life, if you get greedy and reckless and just charge in, you’ll make enemies and make a mess it’ll take you gods know how long to straighten out. The path to success is careful. The best victory is to find a way for everybody to win—and if somebody needs to lose, better to arrange for them to trip themselves than to walk up and punch ’em in the gob. That’s one of those things that’s regarded as a moral truth by a lot of people, but even to someone like myself without a lot of use for moral truths, it’s just good practical advice. I suspect that at the back of most morality, if you follow it to its original source, is something that a long-ago group of people agreed to do mostly because they got the best results from it.”

Teal nodded slowly. “So. Laressa of Anteraas. Hm… We haven’t had much luck in making the Mask show us specific people on request. But then, relying overmuch on a magical doodad like that is missing the point, isn’t it?”

“You don’t need me to tell you that,” Principia said. “I mean, I’ll tell you anyway just because it bears repeating: don’t mess around with that damn thing any more than you absolutely must. But I give you the credit of assuming you can figure that out for yourself.”

“And I do have at least one friend who probably knows a lot of stories about Laressa,” Teal mused. “And has both an Avenist and Eserite mindset. And who I’d trust more than you, no offense.”

“I’m never offended by good sense.”

“I’m not sure how much your…agenda…makes you a source of good advice, though.”

“Think in terms of what I’m looking to gain,” Principia suggested. “Above all else, I want Trissiny to be okay. To do that, I need the lot of you goobers to be okay; paladins historically don’t accomplish much or live long without their support systems. Their party, in a word. And sure, I could worm my way into your affections and make you uncritically regard me as a trusted source. Ruda and Shaeine would be pretty hard to bring around but I’m confident I could manipulate the rest of you pretty easily.”

“Wow,” Teal muttered.

“But that would be a lesser benefit,” Prin continued with a lopsided grin. “I’m a useful kinda person to have around, in certain specific circumstances. Of far more aid toward the goal of keeping you kids safe would be teaching you how to watch for people like me, and deal with us whenever we pop up. That skill is useful all the time, in every situation. And that even has the ancillary benefit of achieving the first goal; you’ll end up being able to get the best use out of me and my own skills when I happen to be around that way. Always go for the longer goal with the greater benefit, unless your back’s to a wall and you have no better choice. That’s what I fucked up two years ago in Clarke Tower. I got hasty, and greedy, and stupid.” She sighed softly. “And this is what I mean when I say it’s a lot of trouble, caring about people. I am very smart, Teal. Anything that makes me dumb, I have to resent.”

There was a silence, in which Teal frowned at her as if unsure what she was seeing.

“Well, anyway, that was well more than a minute,” Principia said, suddenly brisk. “I’m sure everybody is completely packed up by now, the better to be nice and pissed off at the news I bring. Allow me to go face the music.”

“You do know Shaeine can hear everything we’ve been saying. And I guarantee she’d be paying attention, just from the mere fact that it’s you and me, talking alone.”

Principia grinned and winked. “Then allow me to make a graceful exit. We’re perilously close to talking about my feelings, and I obviously can’t have that.” She backed up two steps before turning to walk toward the others.

“You’re missing the point, you know,” Teal called after her. “Same mistake Toby keeps making. Being connected to people is only exhausting if you insist on being responsible for taking care of everybody. You’re supposed to let the people you love take care of you too, Locke.”

Principia turned around without slowing, walking backwards while she spread her arms in a self-effacing shrug and grinned. “Well, that sounds like one of those pieces of excellent advice I intend not to take. I’ve gotta be my beautiful, flawed self, after all.”

She turned again and strolled the rest of the way to the shadowed doorway, her step a carefree saunter.

Teal stared after her, thinking.

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