16 – 58

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“Above all, in such times, we must have faith.”

The sanctuary of the Grand Cathedral was as packed as it had ever been, despite the Empire-wide state of emergency and warnings for all citizens to take shelter. In a way, they had, for all that a dense crowd might be even more vulnerable to attack; shelter was more than physical, and just as the Archpope now said to the assembled throng, it was in precisely such times that people sought the comfort of faith.

“The word is often invoked in this temple, and countless like it,” Justinian continued, his mellifluous voice filling the sanctuary to its farthest corners with its perfect, sonorous gravity. “Faith, most often spoken of as a religious sacrament. Faith in a god, in a dogma, in a church. I will remind you all in this most desperate hour, my friends, that faith goes far beyond religion. It is upon faith that everything hinges. We have faith that our friends and loved ones will not abandon us. Faith that those who sell our food, our clothing, our tools, have not shortchanged us. Faith that our governments will protect and provide as we need them to. Every interaction each of us has with another person is a thread of faith, and it is of the countless thousands of these threads that the web of our lives is made.”

He paused, gripping the sides of his lectern for a moment. No arcane magnification charm was applied to the ancient wood; Justinian needed nothing but the Cathedral’s acoustics and his own trained diaphragm to make himself heard in the back row, even now, when he lowered his voice for emphasis.

“And never is the importance of faith clearer than when it disappoints us. I understand, sisters and brothers, how your faith has been betrayed. We may speak of the gods and their mortal agents which we thought to protect us from crises such as this. We might speak of our government with its armies, which in city after city has been powerless to stand against threat after threat. But even in the midst of renewed crisis, I caution you: do not abandon faith. Faith, you see, is not certainty.”

He smiled, with both sorrow and warmth.

“In life there are no certainties; even the gods do not promise us that. The universe is chaotic, and it is not given to us to live in perfect bliss. For what would be the point of that? What is life without opportunities to strive, to grow wiser and stronger? And how could we do so if we were never challenged—and not only challenged, but specifically beyond what our faith can bear?

“No, friends, we must not despair because our faith has not protected us. The role of faith is that we may continue to believe, even in the face of evidence that what we believe in has failed. And this, friends, is the true power of faith: its capacity to triumph over reality itself. For by acting upon faith, by proceeding upon assumptions that have been broken, we remake the world around us until it falls back into line with what we have faith that is should be. Faith, friends, is the power to band together and triumph.

“I will not minimize the threat we face, nor excuse those who have failed when they should have protected us. Instead, I will caution you all not to abandon faith. Have faith in the gods, in paladins, in thrones, in all those things you count upon—for even if they have responded imperfectly, it is through the support of our faith that they may be empowered to rise to the threat.

“Above all, have faith in one another. It is the darkest times which show us the brightest light within our hearts. It is when we are tested that we raise ourselves up to persevere. It is when the bonds between us are attacked that they strengthen.”

He raised his hands in an uplifting gesture, both benediction and incitement.

“Have faith, brothers, sisters, friends, fellow members of this human family. Have faith that all will be well—and in so doing, go forth together and make it so.”


“That brilliant, evil son of a bitch,” Ruda said, hurling the transcript of the Archpope’s sermon down on Ravana’s dining table.

“Eh, it sounded a right nice speech t’me,” Maureen admitted. “So, I assume that means I missed somethin’, aye? I never claimed t’be the savvy type, politically speakin’.”

“He’s changed the terms of engagement.” Teal’s voice was barely above a whisper, her eyes fixed on a distant point beyond the fireplace. “It’s…a brilliant move. The cults are beginning to turn on him, and after Veilgrad Triss and the boys have what they need to prove he’s behind the chaos monsters.”

“Okay, I don’t get it either,” Iris said in some annoyance. “Why isn’t that good? I mean, now he’s gone and let loose dozens of the fuckers. Obviously that’s a big problem but if there’s proof Justinian is behind it, hasn’t he just nailed himself to the wall?”

“I can’t.” Ruda slumped down in her chair, tipping her hat forward to cover her eyes. “I just cannot with this horseshit. Not you, Iris, you’re fine, it’s just the sheer fuckery of it. I need a moment to wring some of the sleaze outta my soul. Shaeine, can you take over?”

“By unleashing both unstoppable monsters and immortal warriors which are among the only things which can combat them, the Archpope has effectively invalidated all the laborious preparatory work that has been done up till now to work him into a corner,” Shaeine said tonelessly. “It is now a matter of public opinion, and the facts are thus barely relevant. Now, any accusations against the Archpope will be seen as sowing division exactly when it can least be afforded—especially by Ravana and the paladins, who by taking a stand against him previously will have made it seem they are prioritizing old political vendettas above the public good.”

“But they ‘ave proof!” Maureen protested.

“That matters a lot less than it should,” Teal replied wearily.

“Politics and facts are, at best, tenebrous allies,” said Szith.

“It’s a crisis,” Ruda explained from under her hat, not shifting her position. “Can’t have division in a crisis. Didja note in the speech, how he emphasized that? And also how the gods an’ paladins and especially the Throne have let everybody down by allowin’ all this to happen.”

“Just the…the gall,” Iris hissed. “He did all this!”

“It’s politics,” Teal said, heaving a sigh. “Fuck. He played us all. He played everyone.”

“I seriously do admire the gambit,” Ruda admitted, finally lifting her hat enough to peer up at everyone. “It’s maybe the evilest bullshit I ever fuckin’ heard of but god damn was that clever. A master fuckin’ play.”

“That is public opinion, though,” said Scorn, who was not wearing her disguise ring, drumming her clawed fingertips upon the table. The group assembled was somewhat diminished in size; Juniper was still in Tiraas and the paladins, after checking in, had gone right back out to hunt necro-drakes with assistance from the Conclave. “There is still proof. The Empire can act upon this, yes?”

“That is what makes it a master stroke, as opposed to simply a clever one,” said Shaeine. “The great secret of power is its fragility. The cults, the Throne, the Church… Indeed, all religious, political, financial and other establishments, rely upon consensus for their very existence. They only come to seem immutable because we grow accustomed to them. Any can be toppled if enough of their followers decide they should no longer be obeyed—or if not destroyed outright, deprived of enough of their support to function. That was the overarching lesson of the Enchanter Wars, and that lesson is still very much on the minds of the cults and the Houses.”

“So, in order for the Empire or the Trinity cults or anyone to act on the proof,” Teal chimed in, “they would have to, in essence, invade the Cathedral in force to seize Justinian. It could still work, if it was possible to do it swiftly, but with all the power of the Pantheon backing him up and him apparently able to control it even against the Pantheon’s will… Well, the various forces assembled against him could maybe take him down eventually, maybe not. Either way, it would be a long, bloody, drawn-out struggle. And given all Justinian’s done to make himself and the Church popular over the years, a lot of the public will side with him. Especially now. It would mean a schism in basically every participating cult and very likely a rebellion against the Empire.”

“Most of the Houses’d side with ‘im,” Ruda grunted in a dispirited tone. “Specifically because they don’t give a fuck about religion. They care about their own power, which means they’re automatically against the Throne reaching beyond its traditional powers.”

“House Tirasian does have its allies,” Shaeine murmured. “Powerful ones, even. Houses Madouri, Leduc and Dufresne represent enough of a threat to give many of the lesser Houses pause, but there would also be opportunists… He also has the orthodox Shaathists, doubtless other loyalists within every cult. Justinian will not have done this until he is certain of enough allies to at the very least force a stalemate if the established powers dare attack him openly. He is, by all appearances, a meticulous planner.”

“That’s what everybody will be considering,” Teal added. “The political cost of turning on him now would be crippling… And even if he is transparently behind it, the fact is there are chaos dragons rampaging across the continent and nobody can afford a civil war in the middle of that.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Iris said tremulously, “but…I mean, surely the Trinity cults? The Guild? Didn’t the paladins just go through all that rigamarole to make sure they’d side against the Church?”

“And that’d be why Justinian just yanked out the rug,” said Ruda with a bitter laugh. “Way Boots an’ the boys tell it… Boss Tricks ain’t exactly the portrait of reliability right now, the Dawn Council isn’t interested in doin’ fuck all under any circumstances, an’ Lady Gwenfaer’s paper cuts bleed politics. High Commander Rouvad seems like the kind o’ broad who’d take a stand on principle, but then again, she’s also the one who decided Basra fuckin’ Syrinx being good a politics made ‘er worth putting up with all the rest of her general Syrinxitude. We got coin tosses in the best case scenario.”

“Some might still be willing to act, if there were a plan in place and a certainty of, at least, a chance,” Shaeine said quietly. “But whoever acts first will embrace tremendous risk, and the full brunt of the opposition. The pressure will be heavily against anyone sticking their neck out.”

“I’ll go one further,” Teal said quickly. “Soon as we can talk to ‘em again we need to make sure our paladins don’t try to charge at Justinian with blades out.”

“There’s really only one of ‘em likely to do that,” Ruda said with a grin.

“Sure,” Teal replied a touch impatiently, “but it matters that they have credibility and the pull to motivate a lot of people into action behind them. Frustrating as it is, appearances matter, even to paladins. They can’t squander it by seeming to pick a political fight in the middle of a crisis.”

“So,” Scorn rumbled, “what is needed is a person in a position of power, interested in doing the right thing, and willing to be seen as a villain.”

She immediately turned to look straight at Ravana. One by one, so did everyone else in the room, until every eye was fixed upon her except that of her Butler, who stood silent as a gargoyle behind her left shoulder.

Ravana said with perfectly ladylike posture at the head of the table, casually swirling her wineglass in one hand and gazing thoughtfully at nothing. As the room fell silent, she ceased toying with the glass and raised it to her lips for a sip. It was a pink elven wine; she usually did not prefer their sweetness, but the lower alcohol content made it a beverage of choice when she had thinking to do.

Lowering the glass, and seeming to ignore the silent regard of her friends and classmates, the Duchess allowed her lips to slowly curl upward into a viper’s smile.

“Yancey,” she said, “make the arrangements for another press conference tomorrow. In addition to my accusations at this morning’s event, I will publicly charge that Archpope Justinian is behind the chaos drakes, and that he has deliberately caused all this destruction and loss of life for personal, political gain.”

She paused to take another dainty sip; Yancey, attuned to his mistress, watched her without acknowledging the command, as he detected another part forthcoming.

“I will also,” Ravana continued after swallowing, “detail the method by which an Angelus Knight is created, describe the final fate of Sister Lanora, and announce that any cleric who has been personally excommunicated by their former deific patron will be made welcome in Madouris and placed under my personal protection. Along with a warning that their lives are in urgent danger otherwise.”

“Very good, my Lady,” said Yancey. “Shall we arrange protection for the source of this intelligence?”

The Duchess shook her head. “She indicated confidence that her involvement was absolutely unknown to the enemy, and in this case I fear we must take her at her word. The irritating truth is that none of my field agents are of a quality that can match what Justinian has at his disposal. Posting a watch over her would likely do nothing but to draw his attention to her, and in the end my people would be unable to provide sufficient protection.”

“I might’ve known you’d Ravana it,” said Ruda, sounding impressed despite herself. “I know we practically asked for it this time, but c’mon, that’s gonna put you right at the top of Justinian’s shit list.”

“Yeah, no offense,” Teal agreed, “but this business in Madouris up till now has been small potatoes, Ravana. You’re not high on his priorities. If you start spewing his secrets in public…”

“It is a strategic truism,” Ravana said, again idly swirling her wine, “that when one is losing a game of chess to a clearly superior opponent, the correct move is to punch them in the face and overturn the board. This advice, while a valid point, ignores the broader political ramifications which you were just discussing. To be seen as the one to forebear the pretense of civilized behavior that we like to think governs us is to cede a significant material advantage. The solution, thus, is to provoke one’s opponent to throw the punch, and accept the censure of the onlookers.” She smiled again, showing just the tips of her teeth. “And then, in the name of self-defense, stab them in the throat.”

“Why is it even your hypotheticals jump directly to six steps too fuckin’ far?” Ruda demanded.

“Ravana,” Szith said quietly, “the Archpope can punch harder than you can. Significantly.”

“One does not just punch, though,” Ravana replied primly. “As a martial artist, you know it very well. There are questions of position, leverage, angle, maneuver… Teal has the right of it: I must admit, to my chagrin, that I have been up till now little but an inconvenience to his Holiness. If I begin revealing in public fundamental secrets which he will have no idea how I learned, I become a problem. He will be forced to…solve…me. And for me to defend myself will look altogether different than if I, or anyone, were to assault the Universal Church during a universal crisis.”

“I fear you have missed my point,” Szith insisted. “You would have to survive his attack, Ravana. Giving you full credit for the ability to cause trouble upon which this plan seems to rest, even you must acknowledge that you are not at your best on the defensive!”

“Am I not?” Ravana narrowed her eyes; her smile, if anything, widened. “Justinian is a creature of meticulous plans. Unexpected and uncontrolled violence is antithetical to his mode of operation. Even when he has unleashed it—such as now—it has always been safely far from his own base of operations, and with himself in at least partial control of all sides of the performative conflict. True carnage, the rapid unfolding of unforeseeable events, heavily disadvantages web-weavers such as he. That is the domain of paladins, adventurers, and it must be said…” Smirking, she actually bowed slightly from her chair. “…villains. I do not delude myself that this is my fight to win, or that I even could. No; our predicament is that Justinian has changed the nature of the battle to advantage himself. I will simply change it again.”

She sipped her wine once more, eyes glinting with manic anticipation.

“If his Holiness truly wishes to play about with chaos, then we shall go on a journey together, and explore the truth of what chaos means.”


“Really. Two minutes?” Despite the disappointing news, Justinian sounded more impressed than anything.

“That’s a broad guess,” Rector grunted, hunched over an instrument panel as usual and not looking up at his guest and patron. “Approximating from initial attack range, but even at the most conservative value, it was fast. Way faster than the one lost at Veilgrad. Weird readings, too… The chaos shard itself blinked out. Usually there’d be a major divine event concentrated on it before nullification. I think it was moved back to the dimensional insulation layer.”

“I suppose it is no more than should be expected,” Justinian mused. “Very well. I see I shall have to arrange something to keep the good Professor occupied. Interference of that caliber could be disastrous at this stage.”

Rector finally hesitated in his manipulation of the ancient data screen. He did not look up from it, but froze with his fingers above the glowing panel, staring at nothing.

“Thought you decided to leave her alone. Tried that, right? Didn’t work.”

“I probed at her, yes,” Justinian said mildly. “The point was, in part, to gauge her reaction; among other things, the attempt verified that she does have an interventionist streak, which has just become immediately relevant. I will consider my options. Fear not, Rector; I have several contingencies in varying states of readiness. Some may require your aid, but as always, I shall provide you the greatest advance notice I am able.”

“It’s Tellwyrn,” said the enchanter, still not moving. “Not much gets her attention except for threatening her students. Right? Is that… There’s already a lot of collateral damage.”

Justinian studied the back of his head pensively for a second before answering. “These are the painful decisions of strategy and moral cost versus benefit of which I spoke to you before, Rector. I fear that the closer we come to the final steps, the more…difficult they will grow. And we are very close indeed. Have patience for just a while longer. Soon, all of this will be finished.”

Rector remained in his rigid position for a moment, then grunted and resumed scrolling the screen as if he’d never stopped moving. After watching him for a moment longer, the Archpope retreated, not bothering with a farewell. He was not one to forebear such courtesies, but had learned that Rector was more annoyed than reassured by extraneous social rituals.

Seconds after the door shut behind the Archpope, Azradeh appeared from invisibility in the corner.

She was still testing her limits. According to one of her books—theology was among the subjects Justinian had been quite willing to let her read—a sitting Archpope gained a great deal of divine power but lost the cult-specific gifts as they were elevated from the servant of one god to the servant of all. So, in theory, he shouldn’t have Izarite empathy. Thus, she’d been lurking about him invisibly to see if he ever reacted, which he had not.

Unless he was a natural empath; those did seem to be drawn to Izara’s service. That would mean he was only pretending not to know when she was invisible in his vicinity, a thought which verged on paranoia but also wasn’t entirely implausible when it came to Justinian. But even in that eventuality, he was still pretending he couldn’t sense her, which meant she had a little leeway of maneuver until he was willing to blow his advantage. Even that was useful.

Of course, it was more likely he just couldn’t tell, period, but she was unwilling to commit to assumptions about the man.

“Wow, busy day, huh?” she said cheerfully, sauntering over toward Rector.

He just grunted, as usual. The handy thing about Rector was how little interest he had in anyone else’s comings and goings. As long as she didn’t pop out of invisibility right in front of his eyes, he wouldn’t wonder where she’d come from. Actually, Azradeh wasn’t completely sure even that would get his attention.

“Now, you make sure you’re getting enough sleep,” she lectured, circling behind him. “I will not hesitate to tattle to Delilah on you, see if I don’t.”

“Go away, pest,” he growled.

“Yeah, yeah.” Azradeh sat down on one of his less-cluttered workbenches, just loudly enough to make it clear from behind that that was what she’d done. He twitched in the most amusing way, but didn’t turn to chastise her further. “So what was that about collateral damage and attacking students? That doesn’t sound like you.”

He froze again.

“Or his Holiness,” she continued in a light tone. “Or…well, I wouldn’t’ve thought so, but who knows with that guy? He’s been really good to me, y’know? And you too, I guess. Man, though, it’s hard to say what goes on in his head. I wouldn’t think he’d deliberately get anybody hurt, but—”

“Just get out!” the enchanter snapped, snatching up a handful of brass screws from the nearest table and hurling them backward in the vague direction of her voice. Azradeh watched them sail past a good yard to her right. “I don’t have time for you right now!”

“Hey, it’s okay,” she said soothingly. “You’re just the equipment guy, right? It’s Justinian who makes the decisions. If somebody gets hurt, well, is that really your fault?”

“GET! OUT!”

Rector finally spun, snatching up a wrench and flinging it with far more accuracy. As usual she didn’t blink when it bonked off the bridge of her nose, but when he hurled his data screen she plucked it deftly out of the air.

“Hey, be careful,” Azradeh urged, setting the panel gently down on the workbench. “I know those things are durable, but they’re thousands of years old and it’s not like you can make more.”

“LEAVE! GO AWAY, DEMON!”

“Okay, I can see you’re busy,” she said, hopping off the table and ignoring the constant barrage of tools, crystals, and metal parts which pelted her. “Promise you won’t forget to eat, all right? See ya later.”

Azradeh turned and strolled toward the door, not reacting when a glass tube shattered on the back of her head. The deluge of metal and glass only halted before she actually exited because he ran out of conveniently throwable objects within easy reach.

Once the door shut behind the archdemon, Rector abruptly sat back down in his chair and sagged, leaning forward and resting his face in his hands.

For once…for perhaps the first time in a long time…the architect of so much of the future was not thinking about his next project. He just sat alone in his secret underground laboratory, thinking about some of the things he had created.

And what they might mean.

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16 – 57

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They came streaking out of the depths of the Golden Sea, leaving trails of black smoke across the sky. The skeletal figures made no formation, in fact fanning outward as they traveled; when they failed to do so, conflict erupted in brief midair scuffles, the necro-drakes snapping and clawing at each other before separating and banking away in a different direction. One particularly fractious pair actually locked together in a body brawl that cost them the use of their wings and began plummeting toward the prairie below. Only the intervention of a third spared them a crash, ironically, as another aggressive drake dive-bombed the clawing couple, the impact sending all three necro-drakes wheeling away in different directions, howling their outrage at one another.

And still more came, in twos and threes, snapping and shrieking and then separating, a steady stream of dozens emerging from the deep magical frontier and fanning out, their mutual hostility goading them to set off on multiple courses. Briefly they would turn and lash out at one another, but unlike the mad, almost demonic aggression of the first necro-drake which had perished at Veilgrad, something pushed them to restraint, at least with one another. The damage their brief clashes inflicted was healed immediately, but it served to nudge them away from further conflict, propelling them to fan out and fly far until they could no longer see one another.

As if something were guiding them from the outside, against their own nature.

Thus, what had begun as an airborne column from their point of summons was a broad fan by the time they began passing beyond the border of the Golden Sea itself, into the visually unremarkable Great Plains beyond, and spread further, widening into an array of courses that would send the monsters toward every part of the Empire east of the Wyrnrange and south of the Sea, from Veilgrad to Mathenon, and most definitely toward the central cluster of Tiraas, Madouris and Anteraas on the southern coast. And, of course, everything they would pass by on the way.

For all that it lay almost due south of the origin point in the Golden Sea’s center, by the time the flock had traveled that far they had spread to such an extent that only one of their number spied the lone mountain rearing up out of the prairie and veered toward it, driven by its fundamental compulsion to attack. Emitting its unearthly howl across the plains, it folded its wings and dived, streaking in a shallow descent toward the spires and terraces at the peak of the mountain, where it sensed life, and magic.

“Absolutely fucking not.”

Last Rock’s most notorious denizen was far too well-schooled in the ways of chaos to bother striking it directly with magic. Instead, the actual spell was deployed far in advance of the necro-drake’s course, and with a thunderclap that cracked windows and traveled even farther than the monster’s scream, a burst of solid air directed with the precision of a wandshot ripped out of the sky and slammed into the diving construct, physically shattering its pieces and sending them hurtling straight down to the prairie far below, well over half a mile short of the mountain itself.

They began reassembling almost immediately; within seconds the thing had drawn itself mostly back together, its broken body knitting into place and the cracks healing. It was just picking itself up out of the smashed tallgrass and shaking its head when she arrived.

Not reckless enough to teleport that close to a chaos effect, Tellwyrn nonetheless arrived with a suddenness that went well beyond an elf’s natural speed; despite her characteristically bombastic displays, she held countless tricks in reserve against the possibility of someone seeing and preparing for them, for situations exactly such as this.

“What part of I am on vacation do you lot keep failing to comprehend?” the diminutive blonde figure demanded shrilly, stomping through the tallgrass toward the chaos beast. “If it’s not tedious social events in Veilgrad or royalty gatecrashing my beach bungalow, it’s whatever the hell this is supposed to be!”

The necro-drake gathered itself enough to lunge at her, snapping its jaws, and immediately was yanked backward.

The wind picked up, howling all around them as the tallgrass in a broad circular area bent toward a point directly behind the drake’s tail; loose strands of vegetation, dirt, and insects went hurtling into the spot as if a hole in reality were trying to suck the entire contents of the prairie into a pinprick-sized point. The necro-drake barely managed to flatten itself to the ground, digging in its claws into the earth, as the force of wind dragged it inexorably backward. Its strength sufficed to keep it from coming loose, but the task demanded all four limbs. It couldn’t even raise its head to snap at Tellwyrn again.

“I’m a reasonable woman, despite what they say,” she commented, strolling closer at a more idle pace which belied the wind tugging at her hair and clothes, her slim figure otherwise undisturbed even though the force of attraction was now ripping up clumps of tallgrass and sucking them into the vacuum. “I get it; life is just full of inconveniences, interruptions, and miscellaneous pains in the ass. All I ask is that some effort be made to compensate me for my trouble, you know? Even if it’s just a token gesture.”

The necro-drake tried to lift its head to howl at her and immediately lost four feet of ground as the raised posture provided more surface area for the wind to push against. It flattened itself again, clinging desperately to the spots where its claw marks in the dirt terminated. The slim elf still stood upright against the torrent, unruffled aside from her ponytail.

“Vette is always a gracious hostess, if cloyingly quirky. Besides, it was gratifying to see Natchua thriving despite her various self-imposed setbacks. I worry about that kid. And Eleanora at least offers possibly the most fabulous set of knockers it’s ever been my privilege to rub my face all over. Top five, definitely. Not to mention her…statuesque personality and voluptuous intellect. Honestly it’s a shame she happened along at this point in both our lives; that girl is wife material if I ever saw it. You see my point, though?”

Tilting its head to one side, the necro-drake managed a desultory snap of its jaws and a noise that was more like a plaintive croak than its typical unearthly howl. Tellwyrn stared down at it over the rims of her golden spectacles.

“All you have to do is make it worth my while. In all the old stories, you’d never approach a great sorcerer or dragon, archfae or even demon lord without an offering in hand. There is a reason for that. Any interruption can be forgiven with the right bribe, or at minimum a token of respect. You, though? You neglected to bring me a present. And so you get the full grumpy.”

By sinking half its front foot into the ground, the necro-drake achieved enough leverage to haul itself two yards forward against the gale, stretching its neck and opening wide its jaws to threaten the elf even as dirt and loose tallgrass bounced off its obsidian skeleton.

Tellwyrn held up her right hand and snapped her fingers.

Another thunderclap roared across the prairie, the explosion of air for one instant pushing the tallgrass flat even against the ongoing torrent of pressure. With it came a second, massive blast of nearly solid air, striking the necro-drake full in the face from virtually no distance away. The hit dislodged and shattered it, and its pieces were sucked into the vacuum point before the monstrosity had the chance to be aware at had been attacked.

The moment the shards of obsidian and magic were drawn into that point, the pressure and howling wind ceased. With the spell in abeyance, an apple-sized black orb containing all the matter sucked into that point, compressed around the crushed chaos shard funneled into its center, fell to earth from a point about four feet up. Naturally, being as massive and impossibly dense as it was, the small object hit like an artillery strike, sinking several yards straight down and making the already-ravaged surface of the prairie around it ripple like water.

Event that failed to dislodge Tellwyrn, who was left standing on a disc of solid and undisturbed ground moments later when the dust settled. Scowling, she gestured with one hand, and the orb rose back up out of the ground to hover in place for a few seconds while an intricate weaving of divine, arcane and infernal magic slid into place around it, forming a lattice which funneled its inner chaos back in on itself to prevent so much as a flicker from escaping. Not for nothing was she one of the foremost experts on chaos magic still alive. The sorceress made a beckoning motion with her hand and the ball, now wrapped in streamers of multicolored light, drifted closer to her.

“Ugh,” she grunted. “Looks like valkyrie problems to me.”

Tellwyrn twisted her wrist, making a grasping motion in midair, and with a terrible screeching noise reminiscent of rending metal, the air itself tore apart, opening a doorway onto a dimmer version of the prairie with a seething mass of colossal tentacles blotting out the distant sky. Amid the twisting morass, enormous eyes blinked, several immediately turning to glare directly at the aperture.

The elf just flicked her hand and sent the ball of compressed chaos hurtling through, then released her grip on the portal itself before it could hit the ground. The gate slammed closed with another burst of thunder.

Snorting irritably, Tellwyrn adjusted her spectacles and turned slowly around, scanning the sky in various directions. Nothing out of the ordinary was visible to the naked eye, but for multiple reasons that applied no limitation to her.

“Huh. That is…a lot of those bastards. And you just know they’re gonna expect me to deal with this. Of course, I always have to do everything. What’s it going to take for everybody to comprehend that I am retired? For fuck’s sake, I teach history now. I gave the world twenty-nine centuries of adventuring services, you can all fix your own shit for once!”

She hesitated, glaring at the sky, then sighed heavily.

“Oh, bah.”

After all the thunderclaps, the minute pop of her departure was anticlimactic, leaving behind a thoroughly destroyed stretch of prairie outside Last Rock in the universal symbol that Tellwyrn had been here.


“Down! DOWN!”

Captain Afarousi’s bellow was barely audible through the discharge of battlestaves, the crash of broken masonry and the spine-twisting howl of the monster itself, but her soldiers weren’t idiots. The beast finished climbing out of the wrecked tower it had just dive-bombed and lunged across the battlements, where the wall’s defenders were already lunging out of the way, taking shelter behind chunks of fallen stone or within craters made in the wall itself; several chanced the ten-foot drop to the sloping tile roof of the guardhouse below.

Its tail scraped what was left of the battlements as it roared across the walltop, swiping at fleeing Royal Guards. Afarousi yanked open the heavy door to the next guard tower, frantically gesturing the three nearest soldiers through before being the last after them; the necro-drake bore down on her with such speed she very nearly didn’t make it.

There was no time to pull the door shut after, she just dived out of the way around the wall, and in the next instance the whole tower shook. Stone bulged inward from the outer wall where the monster impacted, and in the shuddering of the whole edifice Afarousi found herself fearing the structure was about to come down on top of them.

She landed on her back, losing her grip on her staff, and was forced into an undignified crab scuttle to gain further distance as one skeletal claw was thrust through the tower door, swiping blindly at them.

The crack of a battlestaff discharging in an enclosed space that close was utterly deafening, but Captain Afarousi wasn’t about to complain when the monster’s entire claw shattered, obsidian bones splintering to fragments and its necrotic-looking ligaments dissolving. Another keening roar of outrage made the already beleaguered tower shudder further, but at least the necro-drake pulled back what was left of its arm.

The shot had bought only seconds, she knew. Already the pieces were flowing back outward as the thing reassembled itself. Afarousi got her feet under her and lunged to the side, scooping up her staff and shouting for her soldiers to retreat to the tower’s opposite entrance, where the stretch of wall on the other side hadn’t yet been hit. She herself knelt beside the wholly inadequate shelter of an upturned table, bracing her battlestaff in a firing position to buy them moments when the monster attacked again.

It would attack again. Nothing stopped it. She’d already seen it tear through priests and mages as well as common soldiers, both Calderaan and Imperial. Directed magic misfired in wholly unpredictable ways around the chaos beast, but at least the lightning bolts of conventional wands and staves did some damage. Small damage that immediately reversed itself, but that was the best they’d managed.

Before the second blow finished off the tower, though, there came a fusillade of shots from the near distance and the necro-drake yowled again as it was hammered by lightning bolts from the north, outside the walls. The tower shuddered again as it shifted and launched itself off the broken battlements.

Wasting no time, Afarousi darted to the doorway and peered out.

A squad of Imperial troops had taken position on a stony rise just outside the city, where they had formed a firing line and hammered it with a full volley. The necro-drake immediately descended on them, and she could only watch in sickened anticipation, having seen this already.

But a cerulean glow had already risen around the small squad, and with a flash of blue light, the entire group vanished, seconds before the monster landed on their hill. Keening in frustration, it pivoted this way and that, actually lifting its claws to check under them like a confused cat which had just lost a mouse.

Captain Afarousi spared a prayer of blessing for the Emperor. She and the other Sultana’s Royal Guards had been holding the line purely because the Imperial troops helping man the walls of Calderaas had been among the first to perish in the attack; they had better weapons, and had even managed to hit the monster with a mag cannon burst. In those first moments, none of them understood what they were facing, and by the time Afarousi and the other survivors had learned that magic would backfire against this foe, it was too late for the first line of defenders. The superior tactics and weapons of the Imps had been their own undoing.

They’d already learned, though, repurposing their battlemages to strict teleportation. As she watched, another squad heckled the necro-drake with staff fire from further out, on another rise flanking the north road out of the city, then themselves disappeared in another flash when it tried to charge them.

“Report,” she ordered hoarsely.

“We’re proper fucked, Captain,” Saldaan stammered.

Afarousi jabbed him with the butt of her staff, but not hard. She didn’t spare him the full strength of her glare, though.

“No more of that, Guardsman,” she snapped. “These are the walls of Calderaas. They don’t fall while there is a living drop of the Royal Guard’s blood still up and fighting!”

That turn of phrase didn’t exactly hold up to semantic scrutiny, but it did its job; Saldaan and the others within her field of view straightened up, their expressions hardening, and she got a salute from him and several other grim nods.

She also got a stark visual reminder that there were only seven of them. Seven of her soldiers, still standing and with weapons in hand. Avei send that more of the cohort were sheltering elsewhere and seeking to regroup, but Afarousi did not kid herself that she hadn’t lost a great deal of her command today. What remained of the battlements were liberally splattered with blood and worse; she had seen far too many fall with her own eyes. Goddess’s grace, right within her field of view now was an arm protruding from beneath a boulder that had minutes ago been part of the next tower. No need to guess why it wasn’t moving; it was even odds whether it was still attached to the rest of someone under there.

“We hold,” she stated. “The Imperials are adapting their tactics: look, they’re leading it away. We don’t have attached mages like them, and our…” She had to pause and swallow heavily against a swelling in her throat. Aliana had died right in front of her, early on, standing fearlessly up to the beast like a Sister of Avei should. Afarousi had been counting down days till the Sisterhood rotated their detachment again, so Aliana was no longer under her command and it wouldn’t be inappropriate to ask her… In the next moment, she shoved all that ruthlessly aside to be dealt with if she was still alive at the end of the day. There was no time while the battle still raged. “What we have are our weapons and our training, and our oath to the Sultana. So long as any part of this wall stands, we will hold it.”

“CALDERAAS ETERNAL!” they chorused, two brandishing staves overhead. Including, Afarousi was gratified to see, four more of her men and women who had clambered out of improvised cover elsewhere along this shattered stretch of the wall.

That relief was short-lived, though, as the third attempted guerrilla strike by the Imperials failed spectacularly. The mages were just a hint too slow, and the teleportation fizzled as the necro-drake dived onto them.

Several of her Guards averted their gaze; Afarousi forced herself to watch. It didn’t last long. At least the Imps got in a few shots before they fell. Sometimes, that was all a soldier could hope for.

Gods above, this was supposed to be peacetime. This was Calderaas, deep in the heart of the Empire. Mosters attacking cities was fairy tale nonsense out of the Age of Adventures. This wasn’t supposed to be happening.

Immediately she could see the crack in the Imps’ improvised strategy; it depended on improbably precise timing. The next leapfrogged squad was already too far away to continue the maneuver. They fired a volley at the necro-drake but they were already out of effective staff range, and the lightning bolts arced off course well before reaching their target.

The beast raised its skeletal head as if sniffing the air. It did, indeed, turn to glare at the Imperial squad, which they answered with more potshots, but then it twisted again to look at the city.

Staring at its disturbingly chromatic eyes, Afarousi felt she could feel the hatred simmering in it. That thing wasn’t trying to eat, or seek revenge, or anything an animal might do. It just wanted to cause destruction. To kill.

With one beat of its wings, it launched itself into the air and surged back toward the city.

“We need to consolidate,” Captain Afarousi heard herself say. “Saldaan, take everyone to the north gatehouse and place yourself under Colonel Fedmadhev’s command. I’ll make sure you’ve got time to get there.”

“Captain—”

“I have given my orders!”

To their credit, her soldiers turned and ran without further debate, though they knew what this meant.

As a line of soldiers fled through the half-broken tower and across the wall on the other side, the necro-drake shifted its focus slightly, winging toward them just as she had expected. It had already demonstrated it was drawn to moving targets.

So Afarousi shot it. Not with her battlestaff—it was still well out of range—but her sidearm.

In many ways, service in the Royal Guard was a welcome reprieve from the Game of Houses that constantly plagued the city; in the Sultana’s direct service there was strict discipline and she was addressed only by military rank by both superiors and subordinates. She had been eager to enlist for that reason, and not just because service was an honored tradition of House Afarousi. But she was still the Lady Shahrizad Fatimah Afarousi, and that meant she had certain privileges—such as her custom wand, a gift from her father. While a true enchanter’s wand would deploy a versatile beam of magic and thus prove ineffective here, this was a layperson’s sidearm, expensive for far more than its mother-of-pearl grip and intricate platinum fittings. It fired a particle beam that would travel for miles if uninterrupted and strike with the precision of a logarithm.

And Captain Afarousi was a crack shot, because she had practiced until she could make that claim. Because she felt a soldier ought to be.

She nailed the bastard right between the eyes.

Very much to her surprise, it went down.

With a howl that sounded very much like pain, the necro-drake folded up in midair and twisted about as if it had just plowed into a wall, plummeting to the road while the Captain lowered her wand, staring in disbelief. Had she accidentally found a weak point?

Not weak enough, she discovered as it immediately surged upright again, its gaze now fixed unmistakably on her. The necro-drake screamed in rage. She shot it again; this time it twisted its skull just enough that the beam raked its cheek instead of hitting it again in the forehead.

“Come on then, you evil shit,” Afarousi hissed, then roared back at it. “CALDERAAS ETERNAL!”

Death met her challenge, springing forward and shooting right at her, this time undeterred by the beams and lightning bolts with which she pelted it, firing with both hands. There was a strangely pure clarity in that moment, knowing how it was about to end, so much so that she felt something like vertigo when it did not.

A streak of Light plummeted from the sky right in front of her, and for the second time in ten seconds, the necro-drake hit the ground, this time with a winged shape atop it, hacking with a glowing sword.

The monster screamed, twisted, and bucked violently, managing to dislodge its attacker. It surged aloft again, no longer coming at Afarousi, who was so startled by these developments that she forgot to shoot it again.

Almost immediately, though, the other flying figure got its bearings and resumed the attack, arcing through the air to strike the necro-drake directly on its side, where its neck met its body. They both crashed down right atop the wall just yards from Afarousi, so close she had to jump back to avoid an errant swipe from one skeletal wing as the beast thrashed.

Its struggles were short-lived as the glowing warrior brought its sword down in one mighty swing and hacked straight through the neck, beheading the monster.

Immediately, of course, it began trying to knit itself back together, but that momentary decapitation made the rest of the body go limp, buying the warrior time to leap astride the upper part of its remaining neck, bring its sword up, and ram it straight downward, point-first, through the exact spot in the center of its forehead where Afarousi had shot it.

In the next instant, it was nothing but black glass. The necro-drake disintegrated in pieces which fell to litter the broken walltop and cascade down both sides; as the multi-hued light vanished from its eye sockets, the smoke put off by its body and the glowing tendrils binding its “bones” together vanished, leaving behind nothing but shards of obsidian.

Captain Afarousi found herself alone atop the wall with something even more out of legend than the monster.

It was a tall and rather androgynous figure, clad in luminous golden armor over a pure white robe, its eyes blazing with holy light. Behind it spread glowing wings, like those the Hand of Avei was said to manifest in moments of the Goddess’s personal blessing, but these seemed permanent, and solid. As she stared, the divine warrior withdrew its sword from the cracked skull, raised one booted foot, and stomped hard.

The black skull shattered under it.

“What,” she said numbly. “Who are…”

“I am Angelus.” The warrior’s voice was like a choir, like a dozen voices in perfect harmony. “I serve the Universal Church.”

“And what…was that?”

“It was evil,” they replied, “and there are more of them. I must go. Rally your defenders, soldier; this fight is just begun. All must be ready.”

They fanned their wings once, and shot aloft, leaving her alone on the wall with the shards of the greatest enemy Calderaas had faced in living memory.

Captain Afarousi craned her neck, watching the glowing figure arc away through the sky until it was lost to distance, then turned to stare around her.

The walls were all but shattered along this stretch. Dozens if not over a hundred brave soldiers had fallen in their defense. But alarm bells were ringing through the city, the belltowers and minarets untouched, citizens still rushing to get to shelter. For all that they had been slaughtered, the defenders had stopped the beast at the wall. Or at least, kept its attention long enough for the Angelus to arrive. It had not gotten so far as to fly inward and rampage in the city itself.

The walls of Calderaas had held.

She wished it felt more like a victory.

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16 – 56

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“Nurdrakhaan,” the Archpope repeated, staring pensively at the ancient data screen affixed to Rector’s apparatus by a framework of commercially available brass fastenings. Currently it was displaying strings of text and numbers which conveyed raw data that the enchanter could evidently interpret, though Justinian understood only bits and snatches.

“That’s what I said,” Rector snapped, still testy from his morning’s excursion into the cold. He tended to wilt outdoors even when the weather was pleasant, hence his complete comfort with living underground for years on end. “Not a lot of data on those, rarely see ‘em on this plane, but size and configuration’s unmistakable. Nothing else makes an infernal signature like that. Apparently got banished back to Hell, too, that’s a first. Usually gotta just kill ‘em.”

“Demonology is not my field of specialty,” Justinian admitted, “but they are mostly magical, are they not? By description, they don’t seem very aerodynamic.”

“Aerodynamic,” Rector scoffed, still tapping rapidly at the screen. “Completely made of magic. Never mind flying, the square/cube law would kill those things just for existing if there was any mundane physics involved. So, no, they should not have been able to tangle with the chaos drake. Makes no sense. Obviously missing a lot of data here.” He irritably flicked the screen with the backs of his fingers. “But I don’t know why or how. This is a direct transcension interlink, it shouldn’t have blind spots like that.”

Justinian raised his head, inhaling slowly as he considered. “A chaos construct destroyed by infernomancy, with key details inexplicably obscured from magical oversight… An explanation presents itself, though it seems improbable.”

“Actually improbable in the mathematical sense, or just counter-intuitive?” Rector grumbled. “Go where the data leads. Data doesn’t respect your prejudices.”

“Point taken,” the Archpope replied with a small smile which Rector was not positioned to see. “I suppose, on further reflection, it does make a certain sense, in light of Antonio’s great research project. Hmm. Natchua…of House Leduc. An interesting choice, but then, the Dark Lady has always been fond of those who skillfully oppose her. We may be forced to adapt to this development, Rector. I would like you to adjust the final array plans to deal with the possibility of large-scale infernal interference.”

Rector let out a long hiss and finally took both his hands off the screen to clutch its edges in a knuckle-bleaching grip. “You told me to key it for divine and arcane effects. Adding another school of potential problems will increase its complexity exponentially!”

“I am sorry to lay it upon you, Rector, but this is now the situation. The final array cannot fail. Everything else can be worked around, but that…”

“Forget the difficulty, you do realize every extra layer of complication introduces more possible things that might go wrong?”

“I do. I must rely on your skill, as always.”

The enchanter heaved an exasperated sigh. “You want me to just go ahead and make adjustments for all four schools while I’m at it?”

“I fear that burden would be prohibitive. I cannot foresee the fae becoming a significant concern, but if the situation changes again I will give you as much advance warning as I am able. We must be prepared for infernal interference because it is now a significant prospect, but not a certainty. I do, after all, have leverage over Elilial, should she set herself against me. For now…” He paused, narrowing his eyes in thought. “…this development forces my hand. You are certain the construct summoning apparatus is stable?”

“I said it was, didn’t I? Completely solid, no significant errors. I even tweaked its efficiency to tighten up the core matrix, should work faster now.”

“Good. We will have to deploy it remotely. Please initiate the summons with all our remaining prepared shards simultaneously.”

Rector went completely still. For a protracted moment he was silent, still apparently staring at the device.

“All of them,” the enchanter repeated at last.

“Yes.”

“We only have the one Angelus Knight.”

“The necessary components to make more are secured and on their way here already. The timing will be awkward, but should suffice.”

“Components,” Rector repeated in a flat tone. “If we let all of them loose with only one Angelus, plus the three paladins and whatever intervened at Veilgrad… There’s going to be a lot of damage. A lot.”

Justinian paused, studying the back of the man’s head; Rector remained still in his seat as if arrested by the ideas he was considering.

Rector could be difficult to read, even for a veteran Izarite. At this point Justinian suspected Delilah was the only person who was truly adept at communicating with him, though Azradeh had made surprising inroads in her brief time here, for all that Rector affected to dislike her. The man was not as oblivious as he often appeared, and certainly the farthest thing from stupid. He had, however, always seemed rather narrow of focus, incurious about politics or anything occurring above his subterranean lair with its sprawling complex of workshops in which he was provided everything an enchanter could dream. To Rector, the projects he worked on were absorbing as intellectual exercises. He had never expressed an interest in what the Archpope actually did with his technology, even when the Throne’s retaliation through the interlink had blown up one of his original labs.

But that was before he’d been taken out into the world, seen a nearly headless corpse firsthand and been present when twelve willing souls sacrificed themselves to form a construct of which he had been the principal designer. Considering him now, it occurred to Justinian that Rector’s tense, annoyed demeanor since that morning’s events might arise from more than the inconvenience and cold.

“I’m afraid so,” Justinian answered, glancing back at the closed door to the chamber. Rector hadn’t overtly mentioned the events at the ruins that morning, the risk of which was exactly why he had not invited Delilah to be present for this conversation. Even Nassir was beginning to have questions; she would definitely not have been sanguine. “Everything we do here is toward a greater purpose, Rector. The great difficulty of our work is that it is the greatest purpose, an unprecedented elevation of the whole of humanity. In any complex endeavor there are costs to every benefit, and when one operates on this level… Well, as the saying goes, you can make a desert verdant, but it might empty an ocean. Some of our actions will have unforeseen consequences, and some will carry costs of which we are forewarned, and must choose to accept anyway.”

“And this.” Rector paused abruptly; knowing him, more likely for thought than emphasis. “This will be worth it?”

Justinian exhaled deeply. “I have calculated as best I can to ensure it is so. Life is unpredictable, Rector. I have erred in the past and others have suffered for it; that is a burden I would not wish upon anyone. That is why I have to continue on this course: to spare others having to do so, and to ensure that we meet our goal, and that everything will have been worth it. There are no guarantees, but I swear to you that everything I do is designed toward the greatest possible good, using information and resources to which no one else has access. If I believed anyone could do this task better, I would gladly step aside and let them.”

The enchanter was still for a few more moments, then finally, slowly, released his grip on the machine and returned his hands to their position over the touch screen, beginning once more to scroll through the data.

“Simultaneous deployment should be possible. The array isn’t set up for that, but the difference isn’t qualitative and it’ll be a…relatively minor adjustment. The power source is more than adequate, so…” He tapped a sigil in one corner of the screen and began poking and flicking at the resulting diagrams. “Mm, yeah, it’s more a software than a hardware issue. I can make most of the changes from right here, then go augment some of the conduits, lock in the necessary foci…should just take a few hours.”

“Thank you, Rector.” Anyone else Justinian would have patted on the shoulder, but the enchanter did not like to be touched. “I appreciate all you do.”

He didn’t answer, already fully absorbed again in his device.

Behind them, and behind the illusion of a closed door, the actual door to the room was pulled carefully shut as Azradeh, invisible under the same magical camouflage, eased back out into the hall. She retreated back toward her room, claws silent on the floor. She had only recently worked out how to do this; it was tricky, experimenting with the latent magic within her in moments when she was certain she would not be observed, but some judicious testing on Rector, Delilah, and Nassir had confirmed the stealth worked. Branwen was another matter; Azradeh didn’t want to risk trying to get too sneaky around an empath. But Branwen wasn’t here right now.

For now, she kept her secrets close. Every little advantage could be crucial, and based on what she’d just heard, the moment when they might was fast approaching.


Amazingly, the day just continued to get more interesting. Rasha fancied that she handled the arrival of several huge, glowing wolves which shifted into people rather well, being by that point somewhat inured to outlandish magical bullshit. Glowing wolf-people didn’t hold a candle to what the Archpope had just done right in front of her. At any rate, the Shadow Hunters (as they introduced themselves and she carefully avoided laughing—really, what a name) did, just as Eserion and then Rogrind had suggested, work for the provincial government. Rasha had somewhat ignored the details of political news outside the capital, but confronted with this it did not escape her that by fostering the reformist Shaathists the Duchess Madouri had, contrary to customary practice for nobles, inserted herself in a bold and direct way into cult politics. This was most relevant to Rasha’s concerns because it showed Madouri had aligned herself firmly against the Archpope. Firmly, and rather more aggressively than she would expect from an Imperial governor.

All of this danced about in the forefront of her mind when, scarcely an hour later, she found herself sitting down for tea with the Duchess in person.

The Shadow Hunters had decided to escort her and Rogrind straight to Madouris, since they were apparently a distance from their own headquarters that would have required magic to reach before the two bedraggled refugees began to succumb to the cold. There had followed a flurry of introductions and polite escalations, as Rogrind and Rasha between them had sufficient connections that dropping Trissiny’s name just proved the straw that broke the donkey’s back. The dwarf had ultimately vanished without so much as a farewell, not that she particularly missed him, and no sooner was Rasha herself bandaged, clean, and freshly attired than she was informed by Yancey, the Duchess’s Butler, that she had been invited to join the Lady for tea.

It was Lady, he diffidently made certain she knew in advance. The Duchess did not care for the more traditional epithet of “her Grace.”

“I can’t thank you enough for your generosity, my Lady,” she said, drawing on every scrap of the demure poise Glory had drilled into her.

“Pish tosh, I would be absolutely disgraced to do a whit less,” Ravana Madouri replied in an airy tone which belied the sharp focus of her eyes. “You are a personal friend of my own dear comrade Trissiny, and here I find you have been heinously mishandled on my own lands. I can at the very least see to your comfort and convenience. Consider it a matter of honor, if you wish, but rest assured this is no imposition.”

Whatever she might say, it was generous. Rasha was attired in a new dress—an expensive one in keeping with the latest trends in fashion, and which fit her. Not as perfectly as a properly tailored garment, but quite well. And that raised the question of just why such a thing was so readily on hand, as it certainly did not belong to the Duchess. It would not have fit her.

Rasha was deeply wary of this woman simply due to Trissiny’s description of her personality, but that description had largely omitted the physical and left her imagining the Duchess as some statuesque, imperious figure of impossible beauty and a downright draconic aura of power. To her surprise, Ravana Madouri was tiny. Unusually for Tiraan nobility, she was blonde, and shorter even than Rasha by a few inches. Not to mention just daintier in every proportion. Rasha herself was happy with her body as it had turned out, for all that Sister Eivery had tried to prepare her for disappointment as there were limits to what transformative alchemy could safely do. Far from being disappointed, she found that a tomboyish aesthetic rather suited her tastes, hence her shorter hairstyle. Still, she was not accustomed to being the the taller or more voluptuous of any two women, and yet…here they were.

The infamous Duchess was like a little doll. A tiny, pretty doll who gazed at Rasha with blue eyes like icicles sharpened to killing points. Meeting that dissecting gaze above that bland smile, she found herself believing every detail of Trissiny’s warnings about this woman.

“With regard to that,” she said aloud, “I do hope you don’t put too much blame on Rogrind. Given our history it feels odd to say that, but he actually is, to my amazement, an ally in this.”

“Quite so, quite so! Don’t worry, the situation was explained to my satisfaction. An unusual scenario, to be sure, but I, he, and I suspect you are all accustomed to, shall we say, extenuating circumstances?” She smiled again, then took a sip of her tea, eyes drilling into Rasha over the lip of the cup. “My people escorted Mr. Rogrind to the Svennish consulate here in Madouris. By this time I expect he is back in the capital; it would be standard procedure for them to have a portal mage on call. The gentleman’s account of your morning’s adventures was fascinating! Though somewhat incomplete, I must say.”

“Well,” Rasha murmured, “you know spies.”

“Of course.” Ravana’s smile was a shark’s. “Then, too, he appears to have been oddly incapacitated during part of the events in question. I understand you observed something of great interest?”

And there it was. The Duchess might even have been serious about that “matter of honor” business when it came to tending to Rasha herself, but a woman like that wouldn’t have only one motivation for anything she did. This was the meat of it.

“This is…difficult to talk about,” Rasha said, speaking carefully and thinking as rapidly as she could. Madouri would, of course, be an excellent ally, and already was politically aligned with her by default, but nothing she’d heard about the Duchess suggested she should or could be trusted. “For several reasons. I am entrusted with certain confidences, and also I’m afraid I understood relatively little of what the Archpope did there. High-level magical shenanigans are rather outside my wheelhouse.”

“So the Archpope was there,” Ravana mused. “Observed by you, without noting your presence?”

“It’s difficult to talk about,” Rasha repeated, affecting an abashed little smile.

The Duchess acknowledged that with a slight inclination of her head. “A pity. So much future trouble might have been avoided had you or Rogrind thought to slide a poisoned knife into his back.”

“Eserites don’t carry poisoned knives, my Lady.”

That had been a test, and the result was interesting. Ravana’s eyes shifted almost imperceptibly, crinkling with what looked like real humor. Of course, a person so self-possessed was more than capable of believably faking an emotion, but that wouldn’t be a likely choice of feigned feeling, given the innate rhythm of a conversation such as this.

“Oh?” she said aloud. “How surprising. I should think that would be stock in trade for a Guild agent.”

“The Guild doesn’t do assassinations, and poison is a poor choice of implement for the occasions when we find it necessary to dispense pain. It is more effective, pursuant to our goals, to see it inflicted by a conscious hand than some invisible agent. Also, in the Tiraan Empire, having any combination of poison and bladed weapons on one’s person at a time is considered evidence of murderous intent. A magistrate can impose a prison sentence for that alone.”

“A pity,” Ravana said with a soft sigh. “I’ve not found occasion to poison anyone, but I must say it seems too elegant a tool to be left in the drawer, as it were. Still, it does not do to criticize the experts at their own craft. I have been immensely satisfied with the Guild’s presence in my lands. It is my inclination to let them go about their business without interference from me.”

“It is unusual, my Lady,” Rasha said in the most carefully polite tone she had ever employed, “to meet an aristocrat who feels positively toward the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Do not mistake me, I rather doubt I would make a good Eserite myself. I believe in the importance of strong leadership and centralized power, you see. But I do highly regard the Guild’s approach to corruption. It must be excised without hesitation or mercy. Those who abuse the public for their own profit should receive not an iota of tolerance.”

Their eyes locked, and after a momentary pause, Rasha nodded once, slowly, in simple agreement. Ravana inclined her head again in response, and for just that second, the two shared a real mutual understanding. Not forgetting their respective places and agendas, of course, but it was a beginning.

Rasha decided to take a risk.

“You have a reputation, my Lady,” she said, allowing her delicate caution to relax just enough to meet the other woman’s gaze with open wariness, “for an interest in…unconventional assets, magical or otherwise.”

“I suppose I should be grateful that is the part of my reputation you’ve heard,” Ravana replied in a wry tone. “To be sure, I lack the magical expertise to understand exotic spellcraft, much less create it, but I do enjoy making myself at least aware of such…interesting assets. Especially if I can then employ specialists who are able to exercise them on my behalf.”

“A pragmatist.”

“Just so.”

“Especially when there is…corruption to be excised.”

This time, the Duchess’s answering smile was slow, and somehow icy and warm at the same time. It was a complex expression, one Rasha took as another gesture of camaraderie.

“Just so,” Ravana repeated softly.

Carefully, carefully. Obviously, she intended to tell Trissiny, and Glory, every detail she could recall save those Eserion had asked her specifically to withhold. Those exceptions were enough of a personal burden without adding the guilt of offloading the entire responsibility for this onto the shoulders of her paladin friend. Rasha was not at all sure whether Trissiny would choose to involve the likes of Ravana in what was unfolding between their growing alliance and Archpope Justinian; the Duchess was a potent asset, but not a notably reliable one.

But in the end…Rasha was not her subordinate. This was not Trissiny’s secret, and thus not her decision. And after the day she’d had, it seemed to her that unleashing a monster against her enemies would be a fine payback.

“Hypothetically,” she said aloud, setting her teacup down on the table between them and leaning back in her chair, “as someone with at least a layperson’s interest in obscure magical powers… What would you do if your enemy could deploy what is effectively an archdemon, except powered by divine rather than infernal energy?”

The Duchess’s expression changed not by a whit, and her answer was smooth and immediate. “Well, one is tempted to immediately resort to esoteric magical measures to undermine and neutralize such a foe. What can be created by intricate spellcraft is often best undone by more of the same. And then, of course, it becomes a game of perpetual one-upmanship between those in control of these opposing magical forces. I do quite enjoy such contests of wit, skill, and organizational aptitude, myself.”

“Forgive me if I presume, my Lady, but I perceive an implication in your response that you might act otherwise than according to what you describe as best practices.”

Ravana’s answering smile was downright vulpine. “Indeed. My very inclination toward games such as those obligates me to be mindful of occasions when it is most appropriate not to play them. The best tricks, as they say, are often simple tricks. Facing such an enemy, I would recall my Circles of Interaction and blast it with the most intense concentration of arcane magic it is humanly possible to accumulate and deploy.”

She set her cup down on the table with a solid clink, still holding Rasha’s gaze.

“And then, when the great weapon of the enemy was weakened and near death, I would personally stand upon its neck until I could watch the divine light fade from its eyes.”

“It’s,” Rasha said slowly, “that last bit, there…”

“Come now, I should think an Eserite of all people would understand. Sometimes, it is not enough to defeat one’s enemies. Sometimes, they must be taught fear.”

A shiver traveled up Rasha’s spine, a warning that she was treading in very dangerous waters indeed. It was not, however, a shiver of apprehension, but excitement. With it came the anticipatory prickle of vengeance beginning to take shape. Rasha might not be able to match any of these great powers in strength or even wits, but that did not make her anyone’s football to be kicked around. And what better ploy was there for a weaker player than to set the stronger against each other?

“I hope I am not taking up too much of your time, my Lady,” she said with a gracious nod of her head. “If you would be so kind as to indulge me, I would dearly like to discuss these matters with you further.”

“My dear Rasha,” the Duchess Madouri replied with a smile of pure kindness and warmth, “you are an honored guest here. My time is yours.”

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16 – 55

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

Thinking about nonsense like that was a welcome reprieve.

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

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

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

“None taken!”

“How many brainwashed soldiers could he possibly have?”

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

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

“A good point,” the god agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fucking bards,” she muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, now I kinda want to know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hesitated before continuing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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16 – 54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ingrate,” Mogul snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” the dragon growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He blinked.

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

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

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

Ampophrenon twisted his neck around to stare incredulously at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Indeed. Gabriel, if I may…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck,” Gabriel whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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16 – 53

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s…horrifying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have faith in you, Rector.”

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

“An elf?!” Rasha exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t just—”

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

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

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

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

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

The world around them grew lighter.

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

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

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

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

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

“That doesn’t look particularly targeted.”

“Just watch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s reversing what happened to her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…it’s…what is…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rise, most honored servant of the Light.”

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

“What is your command?”

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

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

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

“But what is it?”

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

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Hiatus Notice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 – 52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you care?”

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

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

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

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

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

Another surge of shadow and she was gone.

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

He was answered mostly by grins, though not entirely.

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

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

Bradshaw sighed heavily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Natchua, no!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No thanks to you,” Natchua retorted.

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

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16 – 51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave granted.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Scrying?”

“No such luck, this is for teleportation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you seen such injuries before, Nassir?”

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

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

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

A moment of contemplative silence fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Be foxes, not spiders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He just laughed. It was all too much.


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

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

“Boys? Sic ‘im.”

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