Tag Archives: Anjal

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“Is he going to be all right?” Raolo asked worriedly, hovering around Oak and the small tanuki cradled in her arms. “I mean, if he made those dents in the brickwork that was a hell of an impact. Should we have moved him? I know if someone has spinal damage it’s very risky—”

“He is a fairy,” the dryad grunted, her irritated tone belying the gentleness with which she had handled Maru. “He’s made of magic, even more than you are, elf. Any physical injuries he gets will mend if given the chance.”

Maru stirred, grimaced, and grasped his head with his paws. “Eeeee-teteteteh…”

“Well, now he’s…ticking,” Addiwyn observed, walking on Oak’s other side. “I’ve no idea if that’s good or bad.”

“I’m glad to see you awake, Maru,” Ravana said from the front of the group. She did not stop walking, but turned her head to speak. “Your aid against that Hand was tremendously appreciated. I am terribly sorry to have left you behind; it was a strategic decision, not a personal one, rest assured. I consider that I owe you for it.”

“Hai, hai,” Maru mumbled, waving vaguely at her. He yawned hugely, displaying rows of needle-sharp teeth, then rolled over in Oak’s arms and snuggled himself into the bemused dryad’s bosom.

“Well,” Addiwyn said with a faint smirk, “and here I’d always heard the Sifanese were famously polite.”

“Tanuki are fairies, after all,” Shaeine replied, absently scratching behind F’thaan’s ears while she walked. “They are polite in the presence of a bigger, more dangerous fairy, and that is about it. With no kitsune on the campus…”

Abruptly, someone materialized on the path in front of them with a shimmer of blue light.

Natchua yelled and hurled a shadowbolt; it impacted empty space in front of the new arrival, the blow causing a spherical arcane shield to become momentarily visible.

“Whoah, cease fire!” the man said, holding up his hands, palms out. He wore an Imperial Army uniform with a Strike Corps insignia in blue. “Friendly! You’re students here, right? Is everyone okay?”

The group paused, studying him warily.

“We are unharmed,” Ravana said after a moment, stepping forward and inclining her head slightly. “With the exception of our tanuki friend, who apparently just needs rest. He is campus staff, as is the lady carrying him; the rest of us are, indeed, students. Please forgive my classmate’s reaction. We have had very bad luck, recently, with uniformed individuals claiming to be acting on orders from the Throne.”

“So I’ve been given to understand,” he said, still holding his hands up. “We’re here to help. Rest assured, my team is acting on the orders of the Throne. The Emperor himself sent us. Major Tavathi of his Majesty’s Strike Corps, at your service.”

“A pleasure, Major,” she replied. “I am Ravana, Duchess of House Madouri.”

“Your Grace.” At her introduction, Tavathi straightened up and saluted. “It’s a relief to find you unharmed—and awake! Can you tell me your situation, please?”

“Can we trust this guy?” Natchua asked, flexing her fingers. “Just because he’s a mage and is wearing a uniform…”

“A fair concern,” Major Tavathi. “Would the rest of my team serve as valid credentials in your eyes?”

“That would be quite adequate, Major,” Ravana said quickly, before Natchua could interject.

Tavathi pointed one finger straight up, and a pulse of blue light shot from its tip, rising twenty yards into the air, where it erupted like a firework.

“What the hell does that prove?” Natchua hissed, rounding on Ravana. “Just because he’s got more people who you just let him signal—”

“There are no analogues for an Imperial strike team,” Ravana said smoothly, “at least not on this continent. The Silver Throne is not gentle in discouraging imitation. And if they are not an Imperial strike team, they will be well within our capacity to demolish.”

At that, Tavathi smiled in clear amusement, but offered no comment.

The group edged backward at the sudden, large swelling of shadow out of nowhere nearby. It receded immediately, revealing three more uniformed soldiers with Strike Corps insignia—in gold, orange, and green, respectively—as well as four men in House Dalkhaan uniforms. One of these fainted on arrival.

“Hey—you can’t just do that!” another squawked. “We’re acting on orders from a bloody Hand of the Emperor! It’s not our fault if—”

“Yes, we know,” the woman with the gold badge said loudly. “Your position is understood, gentlemen. You are not in trouble.”

The team’s warlock shook his head. “Is it mission critical that they not be in trouble? Because unless somebody silences the excuses—”

“Nix the chatter, Weiss,” Tavathi ordered. “I’ve found us what looks like a prime LZ in addition to these locals. Scan and secure this area. Is this satisfactory, your Grace?” he added much more politely to Ravana.

“I believe that will suffice, yes,” she said, having studied the rest of his team while they were talking. “To answer your—”

“Hey!” the boldest of the Dalkhaan guardsmen blustered, stomping forward. “I demand—”

“Shut up,” Tavathi barked at him. The man blinked and actually stepped backward. “My apologies, your Grace. Please, continue.”

“To answer your question,” Ravana repeated, her poise unruffled, “most of the campus’s population is in the Crawl, seeking sanctuary in the Grim Visage. The campus seems to have been under attack by these gentlemen, led by a Hand of the Emperor who appears to have gone renegade.”

“Nonsense!” the Dalkhaan soldier interrupted. “These kids are just…”

Shaeine slipped forward and touched him lightly on the forehead before he could react. The man’s eyes rolled up and he slumped to the ground, unconscious. One of his fellows let out a whimper.

“Thank you!” Weiss exclaimed. Shaeine nodded at him.

“We recently fended off the Hand,” Ravana continued calmly, “and have not seen any soldiers on the uppermost level except those you just brought. There was a Vidian priestess helping him as well. It appears they have all gone to the Crawl to try to extract our classmates.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Tavathi said, saluting her again. “Team, report.”

“No demonic presence nearby,” Weiss said crisply.

“There’s a dryad and a tanuki in this group, of all things,” the woman with the green insignia added, “but no faeries or fae effects in the vicinity.”

“The region is divine-neutral,” the priestess said. “It seems almost like it as deliberately prepared for a teleportation platform. Given Tellwyrn, that’s not improbable.”

“Very good.” Tavathi pulled what appeared to be a pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open; it produced a faint blue glow, though the watch face was hidden from the students by his hand. “Azure One, this is ST39 in the field. LZ secured, ready to port on your signal.”

“Understood, Team 39,” a faintly distorted voice replied from the watch. “Azure One is ready to port, standing by.”

“Incoming.” Tavathi closed his eyes, forehead creasing in concentration. His team moved without orders like precisely engineered dwarven clockwork: the priestess began to glow subtly, directing a gentle stream of divine energy toward Tavathi, where it soaked into the blue spell circle that had spread across the grass from his feet, transmuting divine into arcane power to boost whatever he was doing. The witch and warlock, meanwhile, took up positions flanking them, facing outward and each raising their right hand in preparation to hurl a spell at any threat which might appear.

“Is that a handheld magic mirror?” Addiwyn asked, staring. “I thought that was impossible!”

“Not impossible,” Raolo replied, “just really, really unlikely. You don’t see magic mirrors often because no one’s figured out how to mass-enchant them; they still have to be individually hand-crafted by master enchanters. And they’re fragile because you can’t add any strengthening charms to the glass. So it doesn’t make sense to try to carry one around. But I guess if you’re in the Strike Corps, you’ve got the resources for equipment anybody else could only fantasize about.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty great,” Weiss said cheerfully without looking at them.

“Well, at the least, I guess that’s more evidence they really are Imperial,” Addiwyn said, smirking at Natchua, who just gave her an irritated look.

A faint, crackling hum rose in the air around them, and the group edged away from a spot nearby on the lawn as sparkles of blue light began to manifest there. It was almost half a minute before Tavathi’s spell finished, but finally there came a sharp crackle of displaced air and six Azure Corps battlemages materialized on the campus lawn.

“Tellwyrn is not going to be greatly enthused about this,” Addiwyn murmured, watching them immediately leap into efficient action.

Four of them spread out, defining a region of the lawn which encompassed the groups already present and an adjacent area of empty grass. These were surrounded by faint auras of light, clearly maintaining active shields; rather than watching where they were going, all four had their attention focused upon handheld scrying devices. Once in position at the corners of the space they had claimed, they each faced outward, apparently keeping watch. Meanwhile, the other two set down the hefty backpacks they had holstered and began extracting lengths of metal, crystal, and glass, and quickly fixing them together.

While this was going on, there came another swelling of shadow and a second strike team materialized in the spot where Tavathi had summoned the battlemages. Not wasting a moment on pleasantries, the four of them strode off, keeping in a pristine diamond formation, and began pacing around the outside of the Azure Corps’ perimeter.

“Are we being invaded?” Natchua asked pointedly. “Because I have to tell you, Tellwyrn’s already going to be mad enough…”

“We have our orders,” Tavathi said almost apologetically. Almost. “I can’t say this is going to make Tellwyrn happy, but no, we’re here to help clean up, not take over the campus or anything. I’m not the one in charge here—she’s coming shortly—but as I understand it the plan is to have Imperial interests off the campus and out of everyone’s hair as quickly as can feasibly be done.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, folding her arms.

Shaeine had set F’thaan down to romp around her feet during the preceding chatter, but now picked him up again when he set off toward the apparatus the mages were building. The puppy squirmed and yipped excitedly in her arms, but she held him close, whispering soothingly in elvish while watching the Corps work. F’thaan calmed quickly, and even seemed to follow her gaze. It was obvious, by that point, what they were building: a gate. The mages finished attaching the last large power crystals and one tapped a code into the runic console appended to one of its upright pylons.

Light swirled in the center of the doorway, then coalesced into a flat, glowing sheet. Barely a second later, two men in the black uniforms and long coats of the Imperial Guard rushed through, each with a battlestaff in hand and at the ready. Both immediately stepped to the side and took up flanking positions around the gate. They were followed by two more, who joined them, and then a further four who spread out, positioning themselves as far distant in the Azure Corps perimeter as they could go while remaining inside it; once this last four had spread themselves evenly around the edges, they began a steady counter-clockwise patrol of it, moving in the opposite direction as the strike team patrolling outside.

Next came two Hands of the Emperor, wearing familiar black coats; their outfits were identical to the uniforms of the Imperial Guard except they lacked insignia, decoration, or even color of any kind. They were also not visibly armed, not that that meant anything. Both Hands stepped smoothly to the sides, joining the Guards now watching over the gate.

Yet a third strike team emerged through the gate now, in single file with the cleric in front, maintaining a golden shield as soon as he was clear of the arcane portal. They stepped forward and stationed themselves in a square, holding a small region just beyond the gate itself.

“Omnu’s breath,” Raolo muttered, staring at the multiple concentric rings of the Empire’s finest securing a single patch of the cafeteria lawn. “What the hell do you people need all this for? Who’s coming, the Emperor?”

“No,” Tavathi said, now with a grin. “Not quite.”

He and his team all snapped to attention and saluted, and not a moment too soon: seconds later, Empress Eleanora stepped out of the gate and stopped within the third strike team’s space, slowly turning her head to survey the campus with a faintly upraised eyebrow.

Ravana and Shaeine immediately bowed; belatedly, Addiwyn dropped to one knee. Raolo made an astonished gagging noise, and one of the Dalkhaan guards whimpered again.

“Who’s that?” Oak asked. At some point in the last minute, Maru had vanished from her arms and was now nowhere to be seen.

“Report,” the Empress ordered curtly.

“We have secured those of the local troops we found, your Majesty,” Major Tavathi said. “According to these students, they engaged the renegade and he retreated. The rest of the campus’s population is hiding in the Crawl and they believe he has gone there, along with any other personnel he brought. They mentioned a priestess of Vidius.”

“So, Reich is still here,” Eleanora said, narrowing her eyes. “Very good, Major. You two,” she gestured to the nearby Hands of the Emperor, “take Strike Team 34 into the Crawl, find the renegade, and secure him. That is priority one. If possible, safely extract Lorelin Reich, and order any more House Dalkhaan soldiers and anyone else with him to report back here. Team 37.” She paused only momentarily for them to assemble; the strike team pacing around outside the perimeter shadow-jumped all of ten yards to stand in front of her, saluting. “Search the campus and locate any remaining soldiers, and bring them to this location. They are not to be treated as hostile; they believed they were following legitimate orders from the Throne. But if any resist, do keep in mind that Duchess Dalkhaan is not in the Throne’s good graces at the moment.”

The team saluted again, turned, and jogged off down the path deeper into the campus. The two Hands and the other team had already vanished in a crackle of arcane light.

Finally, the Empress turned to the students, and nodded acknowledgment. “Please, rise. It’s a relief to see all of you well, to say nothing of up and about.”

“It is a relief to be so, your Majesty,” Ravana replied. She and Shaeine only straightened when so bid; likewise, Addiwyn had not risen from her kneel until given permission. A round of bemused glances passed between Oak, Natchua, and Raolo.

After all that, the arrival of Arachne Tellwyrn was downright anticlimactic. She appeared in her usual barely-perceptible puff of displaced air, and tilted her head to stare around at the scene over the rims of her spectacles, ignoring the profusion of spells and battlestaves which were suddenly raised in her direction.

“Well. I knew I’d have a mess to clean up when I got back here, but this specific one is a surprise. Madouri, you insufferable little asp, shall I assume from context that my cafeteria has also been half-demolished?”

“No, just my kitchen,” Oak snorted. “Hi, Arachne.”

“Now, why would you assume I—”

“Miss Madouri, you are welcome to think you’re smarter than I am,” Tellwyrn snapped, “but if you speak to me as if you think that, we are going to have a long discussion about manners which you won’t enjoy at all.”

“Enough.” The Empress’s voice was not raised or given emphasis, but it stifled the discussion like a wet blanket over a campfire. She raised one hand in a casual gesture, and only then did the last strike team and Imperial Guard stand down, lowering the weapons they’d aimed at Tellwyrn. Eleanora’s flat stare had never left the archmage. “The situation here is currently under control, no thanks to you, Arachne.”

“Now, listen here—”

“No. For once, you will listen. We are going to have a conversation about these events, right now. Your office.”

“I have—”

“I. Said. Now.”


Peace was famously the central essence of Omnu’s character. In the aftermath of his touch upon the Rock, it continued to hold sway even as the awe of the god’s visit via his paladin began to give way to the practical necessity of cleaning up the aftermath. It wasn’t that the situation lacked any tension; all the parties present had very recently been in a pitched battle, after all. But calm persisted, and not only due to divine intervention. The leaders of the main factions had made themselves present and set a firm example.

Ayuvesh’s deportment around the King and Queen was downright demure, and that, as much as his firm orders to the remaining Rust cultists, ensured their compliance with the Punaji. By the same token, Rajakhan had made it emphatically plain that the conflict was over and no abuse of prisoners would be tolerated. At first, Anjal herself had paced among the soldiers carefully disarming and securing cultists while the King and Ayuvesh watched from a distance, but after some minutes and no outbreaks of tension, she had rejoined them, followed by Ruda.

There were other watchers, anyway. The very Hand of Avei was present with a small squad of Legionnaires. And while it had been made known that the three scruffy young people accompanying her were from the Thieves’ Guild, no one had bothered to mention that they were all just apprentices. Avei and Eserion were the two gods likely to react the most vehemently to any abuse of power; their simple, observant presence was more of a deterrent than any over threat could have been.

Schwartz had occupied himself with Fross; even after the pixie had recovered her glow, she saw fit to perch on his hand, engaging in an animated conversation with her new friend and Gabriel. They made an odd little tableu in one corner of the courtyard, even Ariel being somehow balanced on her tip, blue runes occasionally flickering as she added to the discussion, which had quickly grown both magical and technical.

Vadrieny was perched like a gargoyle atop the gatehouse, along with both Huntsmen of Shaath. The archdemon had made it plain she was watching them, though she didn’t bother to upbraid Arlund for his performance. Brother Ermon seemed to be doing an adequate job of that.

“And now,” Ayuvesh said finally, breaking a long pause, “this has unfolded the way it must, and we should consider the future.” He turned to Ruda, and bowed deeply. “Princess, I beg that you restore the Elixir.”

She raised her eyebrows. “The what?”

“It is…the source. Of all this.” He raised his mechanical hand and pointed to it with his opposite one. “I brought it out of the ancient factory of the Infinite Order in the vessel provided, but after that it was able to reproduce and expand itself. Tiny traces of the Elixir suffuse us, our workings, the technology that keeps us upright. It was your incursion into that old temple which caused it to abruptly cease working today, and forced me to take this drastic action. We might not even have noticed, immediately, but the machines spoke a warning.”

“Oh.” She sighed softly. “That’d be the nanites. Do you even understand what those were?”

“Yes. Tiny machines, each the size of a molecule, working perfectly in concert.” He managed a wry little smile. “We are a religious order, after all; such institutions lend themselves to a certain…grandiosity of speech. That doesn’t mean I do not know what my elegant terms refer to. We need them, your Highness.”

Ruda glanced at her parents, who watched in silence, then back at him. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you. They’re gone now, for good.”

“I…understand your reluctance to extend trust,” he said carefully. “Nothing is more sensible. But please, Princess, understand our position. The Elixir was not merely a source of power and a weapon. We need it. It is the thing which animates our very bodies. Without it, these limbs and attached machines will function for a while…but there is nothing sustaining them, maintaining them. They will break down, and die. The lucky among us will be left merely without working limbs. Some of my people are kept alive by this technology; it serves in place of hearts and lungs, not just arms and eyes. I will accept whatever provisions you must impose as a fair price, but please, we must have the Elixir. Without it, more will die.”

Ruda closed her eyes for a moment, but when she opened them again, her gaze was resolute. “Then I’m sorry, Ayuvesh, but there’s nothing anyone can do. I wasn’t refusing to help; I am telling you that I can’t. We didn’t destroy anything in that facility, just the opposite. We found the machine intelligence the Elder Gods left behind to watch over it, the one your people tormented till he was too crazy to stop you from taking the nanites in the first place. And we repaired him. You understand what that means? The first thing he did when he was awake and lucid again was shut down your…Elixir. But he didn’t tell us that; he said he wouldn’t do it for us unless we helped repair more of his stuff. So we did, and then he admitted he’d tricked us, and said because of the way he’d been treated he had no more trust for mortals and was going to shut all the doors permanently. Then he teleported us to the surface. That guy, or thing, was the only thing that could have restored your nanites, and thanks to you, he is entirely done with people. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to see him again.”

Ayuvesh stared at her for a long, silent moment. Finally, he bowed his head. “I see.”

“I think it would be a mistake to take ancient Elder God thinking machines at their word,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully. “Especially one with a history of insanity. We will, at the very least, send scouts through the tunnels to the entrance and verify that it is closed.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed, nodding. “And we can leverage what little knowledge we have of the Elders’ technology to see if we can get it open again—without pissing the Avatar off any further, that is. I wouldn’t put it past that asshole to flood the whole place if he gets any more unwanted visitors. We had to ditch that Imperial spook who was the expert on Infinite Order stuff, and I’ve got a feeling we won’t be seeing her again, either. But Locke knows a bit about it, too.”

“Lieutenant Locke’s mandate is pretty much fulfilled,” Anjal pointed out. “She and her squad will be heading back to Tiraas soon.”

Ruda grinned. “If Locke isn’t feeling helpful, we can have Trissiny lean on her. I bet she’d love to make pointy ears jump through a few hoops.”

“I will, it goes without saying, lend any expertise I and my people have to this endeavor.” Ayuvesh bowed, deeply, to all three of them in turn. “I am very grateful that you would extend this much consideration to me and mine, after all that has happened.”

“You are our prisoners,” Blackbeard rumbled. “The Punaji do not abuse those in their power. Besides, the points you made to us were valid. We have common foes, it is clear.”

“The screamlances are not run by nanites,” Ayuvesh said, meeting the King’s gaze with a slight frown. “I don’t know how long they will function, but they won’t break down nearly as quickly as our more…complex parts. I urge you, your Majesty, to hide them away, and let it be widely known that they have been destroyed. They may provide Puna Dara an edge, some day, when she needs it most. But if Tiraas knows that you are keeping such things…”

“If nothing else,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully, “you will make a perceptive advisor.”

“I will be glad to be of service to my country in whatever way I still can.” Ayuvesh shifted his gaze to watch the Punaji soldiers politely guiding the bedraggled remnants of his cult into the fortress. “For whatever time I may have left.”


“You didn’t come directly here from the zeppelin crash,” the Empress stated once they were alone in the Professor’s office.

“Oh?” Tellwyrn’s tone was disinterested. She strolled around behind her desk and flopped down in her chair with a sigh. “And you think that because…?”

“Timing. Just before I left Tiraas, I received a report that Zanzayed the Blue had teleported himself directly into the main Omnist hospital in the city with nine burn victims in tow. The rest was not hard to piece together, especially in light of his and your rather dramatic departure some hours previously.”

“Zanza did that?” Tellwyrn actually chuckled softly. “Well, well. The old lizard’s getting positively soft-hearted.”

“I guess that makes one of you,” Eleanora said pointedly. “In any case, with the immediate crisis over, we can move on to…supplementary business.”

“Do you plan for this to be a long conversation?” Tellwyrn asked, raising an eyebrow. “Because I’m not absolutely positive it is over. I make a point never to take a thing like that on faith until—”

“Spare me, Arachne. The very fact that you found other business before coming back here goes to show you are, if anything, more confident of this resolution even than I. Would you care, for transparency’s sake, to enlighten me as to what you were up to?”

“Is that an official request, or a personal one?” she asked sweetly.

Eleanora stared down at her without expression.

“Oh, fine,” Tellwyrn said after a pause, again adopting a vague smile. “Actually I did teleport straight here from the zeppelin…just not here here. I checked in on matters in the Crawl first.”

“It is supposedly impossible to teleport in or out of there,” Eleanora said with a sigh. “Though it doesn’t really surprise me to find yet another rule that seems not to apply to you.”

“Quite,” Tellwyrn said smugly. “But…yes, things down there are even stranger than they are up here. Strange, but well in hand. Your agents will find their renegade neatly trussed for pickup and most of his lackeys conveniently on hand to come along.”

“Most?”

At that, Tellwyrn frowned. “There was a warlock helping him, who seems to have vanished. It’s easy enough for them to do, of course, but shadow-jumping out of the Crawl also should not be possible, at least for one not properly attuned. But the Crawl is…under new management, so to speak. Its normal security may have gaps. I will be plugging those quickly, but it seems to have given that one all the opportunity he needed. Anyway, I presume you’ll just be chucking this rogue of yours into an incinerator? After all, there’s not much you can—”

“You really are a monster,” Eleanora said disdainfully. “That rogue of ours has been a devoted and priceless servant of the Throne for years. The trouble he’s caused is due to an attack upon the Hands themselves, from which the Throne failed to protect him. We bear a responsibility.”

“Ah,” Tellwyrn smirked. “In that case—”

“In that case.” Eleanora planted her fists on the desk, leaning over it to glare at her. “The Throne has a responsibility, but the fault for this lies with whoever whisked him away behind some kind of dimensional barrier which prevented him from being restored along with the rest of the Hands! I don’t suppose you’d care to offer any insight into who that was?”

Tellwyrn opened her mouth, then shut it. “Oh. Well, I—”

“You went swaggering around, dealing with the problem right in front of you with the maximum force at your disposal, and giving no thought to the long-term consequences. For a change,” she added with blistering sarcasm.

The elf schooled her expression, folding her hands atop the desk. “I have the sudden feeling we are no longer just talking about the current situation.”

“I did harbor a lot of bitterness for a lot of years, Arachne,” Eleanora said in a lower voice. “I’m sure the whole thing was nothing to you, just a way to amuse yourself and indirectly threaten my father.”

“Your father was the one foolish enough to try to make a political point of attacking my school—”

“And so you picked on his child?”

“Nonsense,” Tellwyrn snapped, suddenly straightening up and bringing their faces much closer together. “I showed up uninvited to his fancy party and was a model guest. For someone who was just castigating me for throwing force around, I should think you’d appreciate the tactic!”

“Oh, quite, you very handily made your point about how little ground he had to stand on. And I’m sure the opportunity to expose and humiliate his confused daughter was just icing on the cake. I am deeply ashamed of how much time I wasted wondering whether you were actually interested, or just planning to use me against him. Or what might have happened if you’d stayed to talk the way you offered to. In fact, I rather owe you thanks for breaking into my rooms the other day; it gave me a minor epiphany. It doesn’t matter what you might have done if you’d stayed, or why you bothered at all.” She leaned forward further, eyes narrowing to slits. “Because I was seventeen, you abominable creep.”

Slowly, Tellwyrn eased back in the chair, and let out a soft sigh. She did not lower her eyes, though. “It was just a little harmless flirting, Eleanora. If I hadn’t been called away, that’s all it was ever going to be. Because you were an adolescent, and I’m an asshole, not an ephebophile. It honestly didn’t occur to me how big a deal it would have been to you…”

“I’m sure,” Eleanora said icily.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “Not that I don’t understand in hindsight. That’s a hell of a vulnerable age… Well, regardless. I am sorry.”

Eleanora tilted her head slowly, studying the elf’s face. “You actually are, aren’t you?”

“Not a good look on me, is it?” the Professor said bitterly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“Of course it matters. How much, I can’t say… But it matters. And you aren’t wrong. It was a little harmless flirting, a long time ago. A very minor infraction in the grand scheme of things, which I blew far out of proportion for far too long. It’s left you…a ghost, so to speak, that I need to exorcise.”

Tellwyrn leaned back further in her chair, eyes widening in startlement, as Eleanora smoothly continued forward, actually climbing on top of the desk and bearing down on her with a distinctly predatory glint in her eye.

“Uh…excuse me?” she said incredulously as the Empress rested one hand on the arm of her chair for balance, and boldly grabbed the collar of her vest with the other. She made no move to retreat or push her off, however, just staring in disbelief. “I don’t care what throne you sit on, nobody—”

“If we’re going to discuss the adventures of nobody,” Eleanora said, her voice suddenly falling to a murmur, “I’ve one to add. Nobody turns me down, Arachne.”

“Young woman,” Tellwyrn replied, still not moving, “years of co-ruling the mightiest nation in the world have gone right to your head.”

“It isn’t about power, you blustering fool.” The Empress slid her fingertips along Tellwyrn’s throat, her full lips curling up in satisfaction at the sharp little breath the gesture elicited. Slowly, she slipped her hand around to grasp the back of the elf’s neck. “On the contrary, it’s about knowing who you’re dealing with. No one says ‘no’ to me because I only approach people…who simply aren’t going to.”

Before Tellwyrn could conjure another objection, Eleanora pulled her forward, leaning down to find her lips, and put an end to the conversation.

 

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13 – 48

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“We finally have a bit of luck,” the captain in charge of the guardhouse said while one of his subordinates carried on untying the remainder of their compatriots. “These people don’t think like soldiers; they all just charged off to answer that threat without leaving a rear guard. They don’t even have the sense to keep watch on prisoners. That gives us an opening, and may give us more if we can take advantage.”

Several of the troops were still dazed and the room smelled unpleasantly of vomit; the sonic weapons which had incapacitated them had taken their toll. Fortunately, those had just been used as an initial measure, and then the cultists had methodically gone through and tied them up. Or, rather, one cultist in particular had, with apologies and pauses to make sure no one had suffered unduly from the screamer bomb his compatriots set off.

“How so, sir?” a sergeant asked, flexing her recently unbound wrists.

“That remains to be seen. We must be alert for opportunities, but these yokels don’t know a thing about fighting; all they have are superior weapons. To begin with, I won’t reproduce their mistake. Get staves aimed at the walltop door; I want that stairwell filled with lightning at the first sign of hostile—”

He broke off, spinning to face the grinding noise of wood being scraped against stone. Tallie, who had rescued the two soldiers from the armory below and brought them up to the barracks, had picked up one of the short benches from the tables and was now dragging it across the floor.

“Kid, what the fuck are you doing?” a soldier demanded.

Meesie scampered out of the neck of Tallie’s shirt to perch atop her head, then pointed at him and squeaked furiously.

“Man,” someone whispered. “Even the rodents sass you, Ankhar.”

Meanwhile, not responding to them, Tallie kicked the door to the upper stairwell shut, hauled the bench up against it and propped it at an angle against the latch. She worked it securely into place, tugged at the door to make sure it wouldn’t budge, then turned back to them with a satisfied expression, dusting off her hands.

“There! Door secured, cap’n, sir. Now if you guys’ll show me how to open the actual gate, we can bring in my reinforcements.”

“You’re asking me to take a lot on faith, young lady,” the captain said grimly.

“First, I am a thief, so let’s have no more of that ‘lady’ talk. And second, yes, I damn well am. You can either take it on faith or hunker down here and wait for a miracle. I mean, another miracle, in addition to the one you’d be refusing to let in through the gates to save your castle.”

“Well, sir,” a lieutenant pointed out, “there wouldn’t be much point in her untying us if she wasn’t on our side. And if this is some kind of convoluted backstab, we can always shoot her.”

“That’s logic I can’t refute,” the captain said with a sigh. “All right, get that gate open, and let’s hope the next insanity that comes charging in here is on our side.”

“You know, I like you guys,” Tallie commented, following the two soldiers who turned and headed for the rear stairs at the captain’s order—the same two who’d been stationed down below. “If I survive tonight I’m gonna have to visit Puna Dara again. How’s the food here?”

“Depends,” one of her new companions said, voice fading from the barracks as they descended the stairwell. “You like curry and fish?”


Mandip frowned, walked, and listened. Holding up his screamlance in his only hand, he fired at the end of the hall up ahead. The lightning bolts stopped, and he picked up his pace slightly.

Sure enough, rounding the corner, he found a palace servant slumped against the wall, retching and clutching her head. The screamlances weren’t terribly accurate weapons, but that had its advantages when you didn’t know exactly where an enemy was. This looked to be a maid, someone not accustomed to physical hardship, and the weapon’s effect had done a number on her even with an indirect hit. She had even dropped her wand, which Mandip kicked away.

At his arrival, she snatched a curved dagger from her belt and swung at him. Woozy and disoriented, the woman didn’t actually get near him, but he shot her again anyway. At that range, the screamlance caused her to fall completely over to lie on her back. She barely managed to roll to one side before emptying her stomach.

“I’m sorry,” Mandip said mechanically. “It will pass soon. Try not to move until your head stops spinning.”

He moved on, weapon up, leaving her there. It was the same shallow platitude, word for word, he’d offered to every palace defender he had shot thus far. None of them had seemed appreciative, not that he cared what they thought. Ayuvesh had explained that taking them down without doing harm was essential to the plan, setting up their next step after he reached an accommodation with the Crown, and Mandip had accepted his reasoning.

That didn’t mean he gave a damn about these rich people in their cozy palace, or that he didn’t feel satisfaction in leaving them slumped on the ground in pain. Well, not so much the servants, but still; their lives were easier than they’d ever appreciated. A little suffering would do them good.

On he went, listening to the voices in his built-in communicator. Something was going wrong on the walls; they were under attack. Probably the adventurers who had somehow destroyed the Elixir. Time was short… If those meddling monsters broke through before Ayuvesh could reach a deal with the King, it would all be over. Fortunately, everyone on the network could hear that, too, and it seemed to be going well.

Nothing he could do about it. He kept walking, looking for more people to incapacitate. He was in a richer wing of the palace now, the kind of place he could have fed the Order for weeks by looting for five minutes, but Ayuvesh’s orders were clear and his plan sensible. Not that Mandip had a hand to spare, anyway. Nor would again, unless they could restore the Elixir. His arm had begun to grow back where the dryad had torn it off, but it had stopped, of course, the new metal extensions coming well short of forming another hand.

Well, maybe he could meet some actually rich people and shoot them. Servants and soldiers might be better off than he had been, growing up, but it still didn’t bring any real satisfaction to strike them down. At least they worked, they did something, even if it was just propping up rich bastards. The halls continued to be deserted, though.

Mandip paused next to a door, hearing a sound from within. Someone hiding? His shield was holding just fine, but it would probably be better not to be ambushed from behind. He tucked his screamlance under his stub of an arm awkwardly to grasp the latch and pushed the door open.

This looked like a guest room of some kind. There was nobody present—no one human, anyway. Apparently the noise had been caused by the animal, which was sitting atop the upturned ottoman it had seemingly knocked over. In fact, half the furnishings in the room were overturned. This creature did not appear to be properly housebroken…

Actually, what was that thing? Mandip frowned, leaning into the room to stare. It looked like an overlarge rabbit…with antlers.

It also moved very fast. He didn’t have enough warning to even take his screamlance back in hand, let alone fire it, before the beast lunged across the room and those antlers drove right into his chest.


“I kinda like it when she’s glowy,” Darius huffed, raindrops spraying with each breath. “Makes ‘er easy to find in bad weather.”

Trissiny was no longer trailing golden wings, nor projecting a divine shield, but a residual aura of light still hung around her, making her stand out in the dimness of the storm. She had arrived at the north gate before them, which wasn’t really surprising given the fact that she was mounted.

“Are you guys all right?” she called as Darius, Schwartz, and Layla came running up. Layla skidded in a rain puddle, staring at the new arrivals rather than watching her footing, and Darius barely caught her in time to prevent a fall. “Any word from inside?”

“Good timing!” Schwartz said, waving. His glasses were completely fogged over, but strangely enough he didn’t seem to be having trouble getting around. “Looks like everything’s on schedule, expect that my diversion just finished crumbling. But Tallie and Meesie have rescued all the soldiers, blocked off the upper exit and are getting that gate open. Uh, I gather the south gatehouse is…under control?”

The two groups finished trailing to a stop, eyeing one another speculatively.

“You brought Hershel? Good thinking.” For that being a compliment, Principia’s tone was oddly cool. Her expression was flat, as well.

“Who’re these?” Ruda demanded bluntly. “And what are they good for?”

“They are friends, so keep a civil tongue in your head,” Trissiny replied. “Layla and Darius Sakhavenid are Guild—smart and good in a tight spot. Schwartz is a witch of the Emerald College, he’s our magical support. Well, more of it, I guess. I was not expecting to find you guys here.”

“Jeepers, a dryad!” Schwartz squeaked.

The object of his fascination wasn’t paying him any attention. “Something’s wrong,” Juniper murmured, her voice almost drowned out by the rain. She had turned to stare at the gate. “I can feel…”

“Yeah, a lot’s wrong,” Principia said, patting her on the shoulder. “We’re dealing with it, hun.”

“Oh, my,” Layla breathed, staring up at Gabriel, who sat astride his shadowy horse with scythe in hand, turning his head constantly to scan the surrounding streets. A number of Punaji citizens, not much deterred by the storm, had begun to gather and watch, but so far nobody seemed inclined to intervene.

Darius looked from Layla to Gabriel and back, and then placed a heavy hand on top of her head, forcibly turning her gaze away from the Hand of Vidius.

“No,” he stated. “Absolutely not. You wipe that look off your face, missy. I will drown you in a mud puddle before I—oof!”

“Next one’s going to be below the belt,” Layla snapped, backing up and rubbing her knuckles, much as her brother was now rubbing his solar plexus. “You just worry about your own business.”

Ruda rolled her eyes and strode toward the closed gates. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, Shiny Boots, how the hell did you dig up more bickering adventurers? Till I met these assholes I always thought that was a myth spawned by chapbooks.”

“Paladins attract them,” Principia observed.

The creaking of the gates cut through the conversation and the noise of the rain as they began to swing outward.

“All right,” Ruda said sharply, raising her voice. “We do this smart, people—remember your lessons from the Crawl. Uh, new folks, that means squishy thieves and finger-wigglers stay in the back. We’re going in hard and fast, heavy hitters up—hey!”

Ignoring her, Juniper had pushed through the crack in the gates the second it was wide enough to accommodate her frame, and dashed off across the courtyard toward the fortress. There almost immediately came a scream, the sound of someone being punched—loud enough to be audible from outside—and the peculiar whining of the Rust’s sonic weapons being fired.

Ruda threw her hands up. “Or, just charge the fuck in, I guess! Paladins to the front, ride down anything June leaves standing. Where the fuck is she in such a hurry to get, anyway?”


Their “improved” shields came with quite a downside: they stood up better than any arcane charm to wandfire, but did not block solid objects. A category which included giant devil-rabbits.

Mandip was driven bodily back into the hall by the force of the impact, then staggered further, wheeling all the way across it to slump against the opposite wall, where he stumbled to the ground in shock.

The rabbit had fallen, too, and now turned to glare at him with one evil pink eye while he gaped in astonishment, belatedly becoming aware of the pain in his chest. The tips of the thing’s antlers were bloody.

Mandip cautiously prodded at the wounds with a finger. Blood seeped out, staining his shirt; those antlers weren’t sharp, but given the force with which they’d hit, they had crushed as much a pierced. At least they hadn’t penetrated far.

The rabbit turned toward him, and with a yell, he threw himself sideways. The beast hit the wall directly above him, antlers first, and tumbled down, apparently stunned. It landed partially across Mandip’s legs, and he kicked it off, scrambling away.

His eye caught the glint of something white. There, by the door, lay his dropped screamlance. This little monster had very long ears; if anything would put it out of commission…

It started moving again, getting its feet under it, and Mandip tried to stand up, immediately faceplanting as he had unconsciously attempted to brace himself with his missing arm. Scrambling awkwardly, he managed to lay his hand on the screamlance’s handle and turn to aim it just as the rabbit hopped upright and faced him again.

He fired, point-blank.

And the beast went completely berserk.


Rust had assembled in the courtyard; they were currently in disarray, Juniper having bowled right through their group. Of the eight present, one lay dazed to the side with another helping him up, the rest mostly turned to fire screamlances after the departing dryad. She was wearing one of the Avatar’s earplugs, though, and didn’t appear even to notice. In fact, she showed no interest in them at all, and was in the process of dashing into the fortress itself when her compatriots streamed in through the opened gate.

At their arrival, the cultists whirled, raising weapons. Trissiny and Gabriel reined in their mounts, weapons in hand; Arjen stood stock-still, practically radiating discipline, while Whisper pranced and tugged impatiently at the bit. The pair of them were like contrasting bookends, light and shadow bracketing the princess who strode up to stand between them, rapier unsheathed.

Weapons were aimed, but as the paladins had stopped, the Rust did not yet fire. More of them began to appear from the fortress, coming around from side doors, though two staggered out of the main entry, looking dazed. They had probably encountered Juniper in passing.

Layla and Darius obediently held back, but Schwartz stepped up next to Trissiny. Principia cut off to the side, where the south gatehouse’s lower door had burst open, to join those now emerging. Punaji soldiers and Silver Legionnaires streamed in—a small group, but enough to form a significant flank. As if at this signal, the small inner door of the other gatehouse opened as well, and its complement of soldiers marched out, weapons at the ready.

With them, all but unnoticed in the rain and tumult, came Meesie, scampering across the courtyard to climb Schwartz and take her place upon his shoulder. Fross, meanwhile, zipped over to hover next to Gabriel.

The Rust were visibly frightened, over a dozen of them now in the courtyard; with weapons up, they continued to draw together.

“That’s your mistake,” Ruda said, her voice booming across the open space. “I have major spellcasters here, and troops flanking you from both sides; with you clustering together like that you’ve positioned yourself to get raked by fire from all angles while we’re in no danger of a crossfire. I’m well within my rights, here, to order you all slaughtered like sheep, but you’re still Punaji, even if you are traitorous little shits. And I’m tired of seeing my people die. You surrender now, I will guarantee you get fair treatment.”

They stopped moving immediately, leaving them in a disorganized, staggered formation across the courtyard.

“You’re wrong, Princess,” one cultist near the center said, stepping forward. She was holding a screamlance, but conspicuously pointed it at the ground. “Your weapons are useless against our shields—oh, yes, they work in the rain, unlike arcane shielding charms. You have no defense against our weapons, either. Don’t make this a battle. You will not win it.”

“Bitch, I’m not gonna have a pissing contest with you,” Ruda snapped. “We were just in your secret cavern. We just shut off your little nanite toys, permanently. The Avatar you tortured into insanity was very inclined to be helpful; believe me when I say you don’t have the advantage against me and mine that you did against this fortress’s defenders. If you came here to go out in a blaze of glory, take the first shot. Otherwise, drop them. I’m not asking again.”

“Stop!”

Everyone twisted about, craning their necks, as a fiery streak cut through the rain overhead. Vadrieny arced over the walls, crying out as she ignored the drama unfolding below and made a beeline for one of the other towers, and the lone figure which had risen from behind its battlements.

“Stop! Don’t do it—”

Ignoring the archdemon’s pleas as he did her approach, Brother Arlund loosed the arrow he had drawn back.

The cultist who had addressed Ruda had positioned herself ahead of the group, giving him a clear shot. The shaft pierced cleanly through her neck.

The Rust began shouting in fury even as they fired in all directions. In the next instant, answering fire came from the Punaji soldiers fanned out to either flank of the adventurers, and the courtyard was lit by the glare of lightning upon energy shields.


Mandip had quickly given up trying to fire at the accursed creature; it just kept coming. In less than a minute, he had become a mass of bruises and bleeding gouges, and the psychotic rabbit had thrashed about, bouncing off the walls and ramming him over and over with those pronged antlers. He quit trying to shoot it again and resorted to bludgeoning the beast with his screamlance, which wasn’t having much effect.

Especially not when it got tangled in the jackalope’s horns and wrenched from his grasp.

He’d already tried to flee, and it had chased him. With nothing left but his hand, he grabbed at it frantically on its next lunge. Rather to his own surprise, Mandip got a grip on one of the antlers as it was buried a few inches into his side.

Of course, the little monster thrashed and twisted, threatening to wrench free from his grip. With one one hand to hold, it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to for long.

In pure desperation, he swung it furiously against the wall. Then again, and again.

It was the blood, his own blood, slickening his grasp on the antler that finally slipped it loose, and he staggered back, hunched over in pain, bleeding from dozens of wounds, gasping for breath. The rabbit, though, finally lay still where he had dropped it. Dazed? No… It was bent nearly double in the middle, its back clearly broken.

Mandip drew a ragged breath of relief and stumbled backward. In the act, he lifted his head, and suddenly discovered he was not alone.

The dryad stood barely two yards away. She was not looking at him, though, but at his erstwhile opponent.

“My bunny.”


“There we go,” Toby said, helping the two of them into the gatehouse through its lower door, which was still unlocked. Just off the narrow hall onto which it opened was a small armory, and he carefully maneuvered both his patients inside and toward chairs. In addition to the woman who had fallen from the wall, he had paused to assist the man lifted from his mount by Gabriel’s charge. The scythe’s blade had not so much as nicked him—very luckily, or there would have been nothing even a Hand of Omnu could do—but the man had effectively been hit with a lance in the center of his chest and hurled to the pavement. Toby had fixed the internal bleeding and soothed away his shock, but his ribs would require more specialized seeing to.

“What…now?” the woman asked weakly once she was seated. “We can’t… After this, there’s nothing left for us. They’ll hang us all…”

“All of us,” Toby said, laying a hand on her shoulder, “are going to have to face responsibility for the things we’ve done here today. I have no authority over the Punaji government, but my experience has been that its King and Queen are fair-minded, and I know their daughter is. You have my word, I will do everything I can to ensure you’re treated well. The Crown doesn’t answer to me, but it will at least listen.”

“Thank you,” the man said weakly. He was still hunched forward, arms wrapped around himself.

Toby nodded, reaching out to touch his shoulder and passing a tiny glow of light into him. “Are you in very much pain?”

“Mostly…discomfort,” he gasped. “Long as I don’t move, it’s not too bad. Or breathe too much,” he added with a wince.

“All right. I’ll get a healer out here when I can, a proper one. It sounds like an all-out battle is unfolding out there, though. I don’t know how long this will be. You both seem stable for now. Please stay here; when the soldiers come back in, tell them you surrender and they shouldn’t harm you. The Punaji codes of war mean they’ll bring healers to take care of injured prisoners.”

“Not like we have much choice,” the woman said, not without bitterness.

“Everybody has choices,” Toby said, turning and taking a step toward the door. “I need to go deal with some of them.”

“And our…friends?” the man whispered. “You’ll have to kill them, too…”

Toby glanced back at him, his eyes already glowing. Light rose in the room, not so much as if emanating from the paladin, but seeming to rise from everywhere at once.

“No, I don’t. I have accepted too many compromises recently; that is my error to atone for. I’ve had enough. This is ending, now.”


“Stop! Stop! You must put down your weapons, we have surrendered! That was the plan, you—”

“What is happening?” Anjal demanded. “Can you talk to them, or can’t you?”

“They’re not listening,” Ayuvesh said. For the first time since he had cornered them, he was visibly shaken, even frightened. “I can give orders but unless they obey…”

“If you cannot control your people,” Rajakhan grated, “what good are you? What are your assurances worth?”

Ayuvesh whirled to face him, prompting the two Punaji soldiers and Akhatrya to surge forward. As did the two Rust cultists who had accompanied their leader, but Ayuvesh moved no further and fortunately a brawl did not break out.

“We can all hear one another,” he said sharply. “They can hear my orders, yes, but they are right now being pounded by your daughter’s cavalcade of monster friends, and listening to one of our own being apparently torn apart! Would you lay down your weapons under such conditions? Would your soldiers? Could you make them?”

“Zari,” Rajakhan grunted, then strode forward, pushing past Ayuvesh and ignoring his companions. “Come. Perhaps we can still salvage this.”


The initial rounds of the battle were an exercise in futility; the Punaji’s salvo did nothing except ignite shields around the Rust, while their counter-fire knocked the soldiers out immediately, every one of whom had only just recovered from previously being struck down by sonic weapons. In seconds, they and the Legionnaires were down, wiping out the defenders’ numerical advantage and leaving the Rust facing only the adventurer group.

At that point, the engagement immediately turned against them.

Fross didn’t bother firing lightning bolts, having learned from the example of the Punaji, but simply sprayed the Rust with elemental ice. It steamed violently in the tropical air, but the solid mass was not deterred by their peculiar shields any more than the rain was, and served to knock them down, freeze them momentarily in place, and deprive them of footing.

On the other side of the group, Schwartz began pelting the enemy with fireballs, which were ineffective, and chunks of rock torn up from the very pavement, which did much better. At least until someone nailed him with a sonic shot and he topped over backward, crying out and clutching his ears.

Meesie, however, burst into the form of a pony-sized lion with a roar of fury and hurled herself bodily into the main cluster of Rust. Trissiny charged a split-second behind her, not even bringing her sword into play but simply using Arjen’s bulk to smash the group apart and keep them off-balance. Gabriel spurred Whisper into a run belatedly, but rather than trying to trample anyone, he cantered off to the side, swinging his weapon (which had a much longer reach than Trissiny’s sword) against the cultists as he passed them. The divine scythe was deflected by their shields, apparently counting as energy to whatever function governed them, but it also did far more damage than staff fire, making them spark and flicker, and in several cases collapse entirely.

All the while, more Rust continued to trickle out of the palace, throwing themselves into the fray.

And once the first of them gave up on Ayuvesh’s order to use only the screamlances, the rest swiftly followed suit. Several were carrying weapons that were decidedly more lethal.

An explosion hurled Trissiny from her saddle, some kind of thrown bomb knocking Arjen bodily off his hooves. The man who had tossed it was immediately set upon by Meesie. Trissiny rolled to her feet, finding herself in the middle of a melee, and a blade of some kind attached to someone’s mechanical arm raked her divine shield, causing it to flicker badly. She countered the next one with her sword, the weapons sparking where they connected—that thing was clearly more than just steel.

Punaji soldiers, trying to get up and find targets again in the tumult, were struck by thrown blades, and another bomb went off, apparently hurled at Gabriel but missing and exploding harmlessly in empty space. The next, however, was far too close to the re-forming Legionnaires as they tried to get back into formation, bowling them over and causing someone to scream in pain.

Principia came sliding past them, snatched up a fallen lance, and hurled it with elvish accuracy, striking down the man who’d thrown the bomb. Another turned and raised a screamlance in her direction, and a Huntsman’s arrow struck him right through the arm.

Vadrieny shot across the courtyard, skimming over the battle and skidding to a stop on the ground, where she bodily swept Darius, Layla, and Tallie up into a knot, folding her impervious wings around them. To judge by the ensuing shouts, they were none of them reassured by this, but the archdemon suffered nothing from the theives’ attempts to beat her off, and began slowly but implacably herding them away from the unfolding brawl.

Suddenly, the clouds parted.

From a single gap in the storm cover above came a beam of concentrated sunlight, illuminating the small side door to the north gatehouse, from which Toby had just stepped. His eyes were like pools of light, and gold raced across the ground through the cracks between paving stones from his feet, as if carried by the rainwater.

Light rose further, seeming to climb up from the ground like mist. It almost had a tangible presence; it thickened the very air, bringing stillness, and gradually a distant tone began to pierce through the sounds of battle. Like a flute, or a bell, high and sweet, it hovered just beyond the range of hearing.

All around them, the fighting stilled. People slowly stumbled to a halt, their movements growing sluggish and their gazes unfocused. Within moments, everyone present was standing still, staring in amazement at the Hand of Omnu.

He walked slowly across the courtyard like a living sun. The rain had ceased; above, the blue sky reemerged from behind increasingly wispy clouds as what had been a furious storm cover moments ago burned away as rapidly and unnaturally as it had risen. Light blazed from Toby, covering the courtyard, intense enough it should have been painful to look upon. But there was no pain.

In fact, wounds had already begun to knit together. As everyone stared in shock, arrows and fragments of metal were gently dislodged from flesh, which healed without scarring behind them. Bones realigned, lightning burns evaporated, pierced organs were restored. The only injury which struggled momentarily against the glow was a black gash rent in a man’s chest by Gabriel’s scythe; his flesh had been in the process of crumbling to dust, and the power of death did not easily relinquish its claim. Under so great a concentration of Omnu’s light, however, it finally receded.

There were dead, still lying where they had fallen, but anyone in whom the faintest spark of life had still flickered was now left fully restored.

For a single moment, it seemed as if someone else stood behind Toby, or around and above him; someone whose presence was like the sun itself, powerful enough to drive lesser minds into paralysis simply by being near them. It was a fleeting moment, though, and passed quickly. With it went the overwhelming rush of magic.

It was sunny and balmy in the courtyard in its passing; steam rose from rainwater and pixie ice as it rapidly dissolved under the sun. Everyone simply stood in awed silence, staring at Toby.

“Some of you are defending your homes, or the people you love,” he said, not raising his voice but projecting easily into every corner of the courtyard. “Others were abused and abandoned, just trying to make something of your lives, and trusted the wrong people. Everyone present has made mistakes, but there are no monsters here. That’s enough fighting. Enough.”

Nobody found anything to say, just watching as he stepped across the courtyard and knelt to pick something up.

“Fross,” Toby said more quietly, “I am so, so sorry.”

“Wooooow,” the pixie said weakly. “That was a loooooot of divine power. Way impressive, man. Also, I’d kind of appreciate a warning next time.”

For the first time since they’d known her, her glowing aura was entirely extinguished, leaving only her fuzzy little body lying in his hand. Big black eyes blinked owlishly up at Toby from a little moth’s face; her antennae drooped listlessly, and even her crystalline wings seemed too weak to flutter.

“I didn’t exactly plan the way that went,” he said, eyebrows drawing together worriedly. “Are you okay?”

“Aw, sure, jus’ drained,” the pixie said, weakly lifting a tiny arm to wave. “I am a bottomless well of power! Bottomless, I tell you. But you burn off enough of the top, an’ it takes a while to refill.”

“Thank goodness. Here—you’re a witch, aren’t you?”

Schwartz blinked at being suddenly addressed. “I, uh…yes? How’d you know?”

Very carefully, Toby held out his hand, cradling Fross. “Would you please hold my friend until she can fly again? Hopefully it won’t take long.”

“I—that—why, sure, I’d be honored.” Just as gingerly, Schwartz carefully accepted the little burden. Meesie, having returned to her normal form and normal perch, climbed down his arm to peer closely at Fross.

“Hey, uh… Where are you going?” Ruda asked as Toby turned and strode toward the castle.

“You know better than I what needs to be done here,” he said. “I have more healing to do.”


He didn’t have to search. In that unexpected moment of total communion with Omnu’s presence, he had been shown exactly where to go.

Juniper knelt in the hallway, Jack’s broken body laid across her lap, one hand slowly moving over his fur. All around her lay the ruins of what had been a human being. Blood practically painted the whole area, interspersed with scraps of flesh, bone, organs, and a few pieces of twisted metal.

Toby stepped through it without reaction, ignoring the smell and the squishing under his shoes. He simply walked up to Juniper and squatted on his heels, bringing his face down to the level of hers.

“Wasn’t really fair of me,” she whispered. “It wasn’t…really his fault. You know what Jack was like. There’s a difference between killing somebody and murder, isn’t there?”

“There can be,” Toby replied.

“Understanding why it’s wrong,” she said tonelessly. “And then doing it anyway. Because I wanted him to hurt, and then die. I don’t know what to think, Toby. I don’t feel bad about killing him. I don’t. I do not. He killed my Jack. But…I feel very bad about not feeling bad. It’s stupid. I used to think developing a conscience was just a burden, but now? I think mine doesn’t work right.”

“No.” He reached out and lay his hand atop hers on Jack’s fur. “That sounds about right, June.”

“It doesn’t make it right, does it.”

“No.”

“But…is it at least…understandable?”

He nodded. “Very.”

She closed her eyes. “I can’t do this, Toby.”

“You’ve proven you can,” he insisted softly.

“No, not like this. Is this what it’s going to be like to love something? People are defined by their attachments, by what they love, I keep noticing that. And when one is ripped away like that they break so completely that…everything breaks. I swore I would never kill anybody again. And it just…doesn’t matter now.”

Leaves had begun to sprout in her hair. As she spoke in a dull monotone, tiny tendrils of roots appeared, branching out from beneath her and squirming through the blood.

“I love you all, my friends. And you’ll all die. And it will destroy me. I can’t feel like this anymore, Toby. I’m not strong enough.”

He leaned forward, leaned his weight upon her, wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Then he began to glow.

Juniper gasped sharply. In the divine light, the leaves vanished from her crown, the tiny roots retracting into nothingness. “Stop it, Toby.”

“I can barely understand how hard this must be for you,” he whispered. “Humans, all the rest of us… We learn about loss earlier on. We grow up with it, and we learn that as much as it hurts, we are strong enough.

“No, I’m not,” she said weakly, slumping against him. “It makes me a monster, Toby. I threw away everything I’ve learned… It makes me a killer. I was so stupid to think mortals are weak. You’re stronger than I could ever be. Please let me go. I’m too dangerous.”

“So am I,” he said. “We’re all dangerous, June. Everyone has the power to kill and destroy.”

“Not like me.”

“Not like you,” he agreed, “but still. It’s about choice, and mastering yourself. Something we’ve all been learning how to do for years, and you’ve only just started trying. But we’re all just learning, Juniper.”

“Stop it,” she whispered. “I don’t want to feel better. I just killed somebody. It’s supposed to hurt.”

“Yes, it is. Killing should hurt. Losing Jack should hurt. I’m not trying to make you feel better, June. It needs to hurt; if it doesn’t hurt, it’ll never heal. But it can heal, and you can still do better.”

“I can’t put a life back into the world.”

“That’s right, he’s gone, and it’s your fault, and you will have to deal with that. But you can still do good in the world. Something you loved is gone, but you will still love. I don’t want to take away your pain, June; you need it. I just want you to understand that this moment, this pain, is not the whole world. Leaving the world behind won’t get rid of the pain, or the guilt, it’ll just cut you off from the good you can still do. The happiness you’ll go on to feel.”

“But it’ll make me stop feeling this,” she said plaintively.

“You can’t destroy pain, is the problem. You can only spread it around. If you go, June, then everyone who loves you will feel the way you’re feeling right now.” He shifted, moving his hands to cradle her face and pulling back enough to rest his forehead against hers. Brown eyes met brown eyes from the distance of a soul’s breath. “You don’t want to do that to us. I’m not some sage, June. I’m just a guy who’s been trying to figure this stuff out for a little bit longer than you have. I want to keep figuring it out with you. I just…I don’t want to lose my friend.”

Slowly, he let the light fade, then wink out.

They knelt there in silence. Her transformation, once driven back, did not begin again.

Tears welled in her eyes, began to pour down her face, and the barren emptiness of her expression crumpled into agony.

“I’m so sorry, Toby. I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“I m-miss my b-bunny.”

He pulled her close again, and didn’t let go.

 

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13 – 47

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The mounted cultist turned to see what was bearing down on him, hesitated for a bare instant, then sent his giant mechanical rooster stomping in the other direction as fast as it would go. It immediately encountered an ice slick, lost footing, and skidded across the plaza in a painful-looking tangle of metal limbs, leaving his still-sparking lance to lie on the ground behind him.

“Nice, Fross!” Gabriel shouted, even as Whisper erupted from a burst of shadow and smoke on the wall behind him.

Trissiny didn’t bother to pursue the fallen rider, adjusting the angle of Arjen’s charge to head for the second cultist.

This one was made of sterner stuff.

The cobblestone elemental continued methodically backing up for another charge at the gates, incidentally opening a path between them, and the mechanical insect lunged forward to meet the charging paladin head-on.

Arjen was taller and bigger, but the cultist’s weapon had a longer reach. By accident or design, he rammed its sparking tip into the horse’s chest as they impacted. Arjen bellowed in pain, staggering and barely keeping his footing on the rain-slick pavement; the force of the impact sent him off-course, enough that Trissiny’s futile sword swipe at the spider-rider in passing went nowhere near him.

Both riders arced about as they recovered, wheeling to face one another again. Whatever damage had been done to Arjen he seemed to have shrugged off—no surprise, given the divine energy blazing from his rider. The cultist’s weapon had been bent by the collision, and was now emitting constant sparks from the two spots where it had warped in addition to arcs of electricity from its tip, all of them creating a staticky haze in the rain. He seemed undeterred, however, leveling his crumpled lance and surging forward again.

It was at that point that the Rust holding the battlements above the gatehouse managed to draw a bead on Trissiny.

Immediately she pitched sideways in her saddle, keeping enough of a grip on the reins and with her knees to avoid tumbling off, but slowing Arjen’s loop as he responded to his rider’s distress. The noise of the sonic weapons was oddly muted to those at whom they were not directed, but their shrill whine rose above the voice of the wind and receding thunder.

Even as she struggled to stay mounted, Trissiny’s aura brightened, hardening into an extra layer of divine shielding encompassing both her and Arjen, and the golden wings still unfurled behind her actually extended several feet as Avei’s hand upon her intensified. She was hunched over in clear distress, but tried to straighten Arjen’s course and meet the enemy’s six-legged charge. It was an awkward recovery, though, and even with his bent lance, the cultist had more speed and a more direct angle at their exposed flank.

The goddess’s attention seemingly spared Trissiny the worst of the sonic weapon’s effect, but whatever Avei’s reason, she did not intervene decisively to end the battle.

Fortunately, she was not the only one in a position to do so.

A bolt of black light ripped through the downpour, striking the Rust rider straight in the chest and nearly unseating him. His lance jerked off-target, but his mount did not slacken its speed. Whisper was galloping faster than Arjen, her invisible hooves having no trouble on the slickened pavement, and Gabriel passed Trissiny to meet the attacker in a proper joust, scythe leveled before him.

The man’s life was saved by the fact that the wicked blade did not strike him with its cutting edge; instead, the cap of its pole lifted him clear out of the seat and hurled him several yards backward in an impact that had to have crushed ribs at the very least.

He brought Whisper around in an impossibly nimble pivot; where Arjen had greater strength and endurance than a flesh-and-blood horse, she was more agile than a mountain goat. Trissiny had recovered enough to guide her steed out of the path of the runaway mechanical spider, which clattered past on a course that would eventually lead it to crash into the wall. It was probably gratuitous, then, for Gabriel to chase it down, but he did.

“Fross!” Ruda barked, pointing her rapier at the battlements. Some of the Rust had switched targets, but Gabriel was wearing one of the Avatar’s earplugs and didn’t even seem to notice that he was being fired upon.

“On it!” The pixie streaked upward just as Gabriel slammed the blade of his scythe into the middle of the fleeing mechanical, causing it to immediately burst apart in a profusion of suddenly rusted-out parts, but she slowed in confusion when the attacking cultists abruptly tumbled forward over the ramparts.


The reduced Squad One moved as quickly as they could without making noise that would give away their position, which was quicker than almost any other phalanx in the Legions thanks to the silencing charms Locke had laid on their boots. Even so, with Shahai remaining behind with two of the Punaji troopers who hadn’t recovered enough to be fit, in Lieutenant Laghari’s assessment, for combat, they made a pitifully short line.

Ephanie took a position on the left flank, where she would be able (hopefully) to break away and deal with a cultist who was separated somewhat from their group, firing at whoever was attacking the gate below. Behind the Legionnaires, Laghari led his troops from the front, peeking up over the edge of the trapdoor down into the gatehouse. He wasn’t being rained on directly due to a column-supported roof covering this section of the walls, and the water still blowing through the area didn’t impede visibility too much.

There were six Rust atop this gatehouse, all lined against the battlements with their weapons aimed below, and unaware of what was happening behind them—their last information being that the defending soldiers were incapacitated below.

Unfortunately, someone had warned the north gatehouse, and four more armed Rust were coming. Squad One had barely got into formation when they began shouting warnings to their fellows.

“CHARGE!” Ephanie roared.

Shields up and lances forward, the Legionnaires pounded across two yards of rooftop and slammed into the cultists from behind, just as they began to turn.

Almost the whole group immediately went over the walls, Merry losing her grip on her lance as it was stuck through someone’s midsection. Ephanie broke formation and rushed the outlier barely in time to prevent her from bringing her sonic weapon to bear. Slamming her shield into the woman’s body, she shoved as hard as she could, driving her back against the battlements.

Behind her, the chaos of battle erupted, Merry and Farah going down with shrieks of pain as the Rust’s reinforcements fired sonic weapons into their formation, and then the roar of staff fire as Laghari and his troops burst out of the stairwell, ripping into the intruders with a torrent of lightning bolts. Ephanie couldn’t see the outcome; if the Rust’s shields operated like standard arcane ones, they wouldn’t function in the rain. If not… One way or the other, this was about to be decisively over.

She had to focus on her own fight.

The cultist before her had a metal plate covering one eye with a gap in it, in which a green crystal was set. This did nothing to disguise her furious snarl. Ephanie got her shoulder into the shield and rammed her even harder against the battlements, the position of her body preventing the cultist from getting the sound-thrower aimed at her. It also made it impossible to bring her lance into place, however, so she dropped it and drew her short sword.

Her attempted stab was caught. Of course that would be the side on which her enemy had the metal hand. They struggled for position and for control of the blade, unable to use weapons and reduced to an ugly contest of brute strength. Ephanie was taller and stronger than the average woman, than the average Legionnaire, even, but her foe was part machine, and she was not gaining ground.

The fact that none of her squad had already intervened was a bad sign.

“Um, scuze me, sorry ’bout this…”

She barely had a moment to process the squeaky little voice which sounded from close by, and then she was bodily picked up and moved backward through the air, supported by apparently nothing.

The cultist staggered forward, or started do, and then a little ball of silver light darted in between them and hit the machine-augmented woman in the chest with a tiny bolt of lightning. That was enough to drive her back against the battlements; a second sent her tumbling over to join her fellows.

“Fross!” Ephanie gasped. “Good timing!”

“Thanks, I do what I can!”

She finally could turn to assess the situation, and found it dramatically improved from minutes ago. All three of her women were apparently all right, the two who’d been hit again sitting against the battlements with Nandi making a beeline for them, already glowing. Lightning burns marred the walltop around the Rust who had tried to come from the other gatehouse, every one of whom now lay unmoving in the rain.

“THE STORM CARES NOT!” Laghari bellowed, brandishing his staff overhead. His soldiers roared defiantly in response, and he turned to speak more calmly to his new allies. “Damn glad you ladies were along for this! But there’s no time to rest on our laurels. The bastards are in the Rock—we have to go protect the King and Queen!”

Fross chimed loudly for attention. “I realize that’s your duty and all, but considering what’s about to shake loose down there, you guys may wanna sit this one out.”


“Why the fuck are you brunette?”

Trissiny brought Arjen to a stop, grinning down at Ruda. “Really? That’s the first thing you have to say to me?”

“It looks wrong, and I demand you change it back immediately, and also I am damn glad to see you, Shiny Boots.” Ruda’s return grin was huge, and she punched Trissiny’s booted foot, causing Arjen to snort in annoyance and twist his neck around to give her a look. “This doesn’t look much like you learning to be sneaky in Tiraas with the Eserites, but I can’t say you haven’t got some damn good timing!”

“Triss!” Gabriel barely got Whisper to stop, and she still pranced in place, whinnying excitedly in the rain. “I never thought I would say this, but I wanna hug you! Wait, why are you a brunette?”

“Thanks for the assist, Gabe,” she replied, saluting him with her sword. “I see somebody’s taught you to actually ride instead of let Whisper haul you around like a plough. Is the whole class here?” she added, frowning around as the rest of them came forward. “I don’t see some people I would expect… And one I didn’t.”

“You will never be rid of me, young lady,” Principia said grandly. “I’m like a soulbinder hex, an Imperial tax assessor and a case of the crabs in one svelte, dashing package! Also, you need to dye your hair back the way it was ASAP. You’re starting to look like my mother, and that’s just fucking disturbing.”

“Button your yap, Serg—Lieutenant, before I kick it buttoned.” Trissiny ruined the threat with a broad grin.

“All right, big reunion, lots of stories to catch up, but later,” Ruda interjected. “We’re at war here. Boots, I don’t suppose you know who’s conjured the cobblestones to knock on my front door and how quick that’ll get us into the fortress?”

“Actually, yes, I brought a witch who’s doing that,” Trissiny said, “and our attack on this gate was a diversion. I’ve got Guild people quietly getting into the north gate as we speak.”

“Even better! Let’s haul ass, people, time’s wasting.” Ruda immediately set off around the Rock’s corner tower at a run, the rest of them swiftly falling in behind her. In fact, the two mounted paladins outpaced her swiftly, as did Principia, leaving Toby and Juniper to bring up the rear.

The dryad was the last of them to round the corner, but Toby trailed to a halt after going only a few feet, then turned to stare back at the scene before the gates.

The bedraggled pavement elemental was still beating itself against the wood, but after the damage the Rust had done, it wasn’t making any further progress. In fact, each hit now dislodged more cobblestones than splinters; it was staggering unevenly on each charge, and at this rate would shake itself to pieces long before breaking the gates down.

Two mechanical mounts lay broken on the plaza, which Toby ignored. As he stared at the handful of cultists who had fallen from the walls, one moved weakly.

The Hand of Omnu turned resolutely and strode back to them.

He knelt beside the first person he came to for only a moment, touching the man’s neck with two fingers, then straightened and moved on to the next. Toby moved swiftly down the row, checking for breath, for pulses, and finding nothing until he got to the very last, the one who had fallen off the wall at the farthest edge of their formation.

She tried feebly to push at him with her working hand. The other arm, a metal one, had been bent to the point of uselessness beneath her. Toby gently caught her attempted shove, a faint light rising around him and causing the falling rain in their vicinity to glitter gold.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, the golden glow intensifying in his eyes. “Can you turn your head to the side? If not, try to breathe through your nose. You can choke on rainwater in this position.”

“Wh—why…” she rasped, then coughed, spraying raindrops. He quickly ran his hands over her, palms glowing, and closed his eyes in concentration.

“All right,” Toby said, opening them to look at her seriously. “Looks like you landed on the machine parts. There’s not a thing I can do to fix those, sorry. You haven’t broken your spine or your head, miraculously, but when you hit the ground this…chassis bit that’s connecting the metal arm to your rib cage got shoved into the wrong place, and it’s pressing on your vertebrae and lungs. I’m going to have to move it back before I heal anything. Do you understand?”

“Why…help me?” she whispered.

He just shook his head. “This is going to hurt, a lot. I need you to try to stay focused, all right? It’s okay to yell. Keep your head turned if you can so you don’t choke on rain. Are you ready?”

She stared at him with one frightened eye and a cracked green crystal.

Gently, Toby took her good hand and curled his fingers around hers. “I’m not going to force anything on you, not even healing. You need to know that if we don’t do this now, you’re going to die, and not quickly. You are bleeding a lot. I have to put bones and metal bones in the right place before healing or it will kill you. But if you don’t want me to, I won’t. Understand? It’s your body and your life. You’re in charge here.”

Almost infinitesimally, still holding his gaze, she nodded.

He nodded back. “Ready, then?”

She squeezed her eye shut. “Do it.”

She did a lot more than merely yell, thrashing so badly that he had to pause in his work to hold her down until she could control herself. The woman had a metal collarbone which arced around to cover most of her back, and she had landed on it. Her machine arm was crushed into uselessness and the thick metal brace had been shoved against her spinal column, tearing muscle and skin and threatening to dislodge a lung, and possibly her heart. Forcing it back into an approximation of its proper position was absolutely brutal work.

He finished it as quickly as he was able, though. Toby had crimson stains on his shirt and flecks of blood as far-flung as his face, just beginning to be rinsed away by the rain, by the time he could move on to healing the actual damage. That, he did as rapidly as possible, using precise and careful jets of golden light to knit ligaments, bones, and muscle back together. Simply suffusing her with divine power could have congealed the mess of her torso into a lethal knot.

She lay sobbing through most of it, even as the pain receded under all the divine light. By the time he was done, though, she had stilled, just breathing heavily.

“All right,” he said at last. “You’re going to live. That’s the best I can give you; I’m sorry. I can’t do anything to fix the machines, but fortunately none of them are running your vital organs. Divine light should stave off infection, but you have lost a lot of blood. You need to get food down quickly, and you’ll have to rest a lot. First we’ve gotta get you in out of this rain. They said the other gatehouse was open; there will be medical supplies in there. C’mon, you can lean on me.”

He rose from his knees and started to help her upright, but she caught his hand again, with more strength this time, and made no move to stand, instead staring up at him.

“Why?” she asked a third time.

The golden halo dimmed from around Toby, and he let out a soft sigh.

“…because I live in a world where that’s a reasonable question. Because that won’t change unless someone changes it. Because…I seem to be the only one here.”

She nodded, weakly, and began shifting to rise. He slipped an arm under her shoulders, drenching the sleeve in a mix of rainwater and blood.

“You want to remake the universe,” the woman grunted as they carefully stood. She had to cling to him. “Make your vision reality. I…relate.”

“And what’s your vision?” he asked.

She offered no reply. They simply hobbled off through the rain, toward the gatehouse. Above them, the sky was starting to lighten, and the thunder had all but faded. Water still pounded the city, but the storm was passing.


“Now, we can concoct a story between us how you defeated me,” Ayuvesh said while they stared at him, nonplussed. “Of course I’ll value your input, but I like the sound of you pressing forward against my scream-weapon through sheer force of will. That will greatly impress the palace guards who have been incapacitated by it, and rumors of your inhuman strength will spread through the city! We want you to come out of this securely in power, after all. But I do have a fondness for the old stories of improbable heroics and mighty champions—it’s a known weakness. What do you think, too implausible?”

The King and Queen exchanged a married look.

“It’s a trick, clearly,” Anjal said, folding her arms. “I just can’t spot the snare.”

“Oh, I assure your Majesties it is a trick,” the leader of the Rust replied, his charming smile belying that he was still on his knees with his hands in the air. “I am not playing it on you, however, but rather inviting you to join me in it. I could win this battle, yes…but not the war which would follow. You were never my enemy. That we have been pushed to fight one another tells me the true threat has yet to be revealed.”

“Mm.” Rajakhan grunted, nodding slowly. “You do see it, then, the doom that would befall you if you seized the Rock.”

“Befall me and all of Puna Dara, and soon enough the other Punaji cities,” Ayuvesh said, his expression sobering. “I am not blind, Blackbeard. If my fellows and I took the government… It remains an open question whether we could hold the Rock even against the outrage of the city itself, and the other players who desire the Crown. And if I managed that, what then? Tiraas would never permit this. To prod at that dragon would spell the end of the Punaji as a free people. Whatever else you think of me, believe that I want that outcome no more than you.”

“I usually love hearing traitors spout patriotism when on their knees,” Anjal remarked. “Less so from one who might get up at any moment.”

Ayuvesh did not get up, nor even lower his hands, but his expression hardened. “You created this situation. Never once did I or any of my people even hint at disrupting the order of society or interfering in your rule. I knew where that would lead! We are both leaders, your Majesty, and we are both Punaji. Once a challenge was made, withdrawal was impossible; the only outcome was escalation. You have advanced it faster by unleashing your daughter’s adventurer friends upon us, but this began when you brought that Silver Legion to occupy the streets and stifle our activities. Had you not, my Order would never have made a move against you!”

“That’s a very easy thing to claim now, when you come asking for trust,” Anjal said skeptically. “If we do take your word on that, it means…what? That you only intended to overthrow our culture, not the government, and install yourselves as a religious authority?”

“I preach that each man and woman is their own authority,” he said patiently. “And an overthrown culture usually ends up in ruins; the process of absorbing a new idea, of incorporating it safely, takes generations. That is our aim—permanence. It will not be achieved by toppling what is in place, but by adding to it. And who knows? Perhaps our will would not have been strong enough. If our ideas did not have merit enough to stand upon their own, then by those same ideas, they would have faded away in time. None of that matters now. The truth of this moment is that no, I am not asking for trust.”

Both drew swords and took a step back as he slowly stood up, lowering his hands, but Ayuvesh kept his movements even and calm, and made no further motion once he was back on his feet. His screamlance lay against the wall, apparently forgotten.

“We are a practical people, aren’t we? And so I’ve demonstrated that I can kill you and take your crown at a whim, because simply telling you so would achieve nothing. If you so despise me that you are willing to exchange your lives and the freedom of the Punaji people for assurance that I will be destroyed within the year, well, you have the power to choose that. If not, I offer to place myself and my people at your mercy… Because that is the only way I see for my Order and my nation to survive.” He lifted his chin, staring calmly at them. “Bending the knee is a very small price to pay for that. I know my worth, my value as a living, thinking person. It does me no harm to show humility, if that is what it takes.”

“I see the logic in what you say,” Rajakhan rumbled, lowering his sword. “All of it. It has a reversal, though. Your sham of a surrender would put you in the Rock, with the capability of overthrowing us at any moment. What you are trying to do is install yourself as the power behind the Crown.”

Ayuvesh held up one finger. “A power in addition to the Crown, answerable to it. Have you troubled to learn anything of our teachings, Rajakhan? I think you will find little there to which any Punaji would object. Regardless, I know nothing of running a nation or contending with political struggles. Overthrowing you by subterfuge would be as futile as doing so by force. Puna Dara is blessed to have a good King in these turbulent times. If you will accept the surrender and service of the Infinite Order, you will find us undemanding and, I think, quite useful.”

“How?” The Queen could pack a tremendous weight of cynicism into one word.

“For example,” Ayuvesh said to her, his mouth quirking wryly to one side, “I came out tonight planning to cut my way through the Rock’s gates, and enduring the inevitable losses we would suffer from their defenders. Instead, imagine my surprise at finding myself suddenly approached by a mysterious partner offering to open the gatehouse for us. They were strange people; it was a succubus who slipped in and unlocked the door. Answering to a hooded man who, so far as I know, thinks I could not tell he was a dragon. A green dragon, not a red, and thus a most incongruous leash-holder for a child of Vanislaas. And I have been asking myself, as I’ve made my way through your fortress.” He spread his hands in an eloquent shrug. “What was it that prompted my King to invite a Silver Legion here to lean upon us? What had we ever done to so offend him? And now I wonder what little voice has been whispering in your ear, as well as mine.”

Anjal suddenly bared her teeth; Ayuvesh took a step back as she swung her sword, but the blade clanged uselessly against the corridor’s stone wall.

“Naphthene’s barnacled twat, I told you it was fishy for the Avenists to suddenly offer us intelligence and military support!”

“Don’t blunt your blade, woman, are you a fishmonger’s son playing with his first knife?” Rajakhan, for his part, sheathed his own sword in a decisive gesture. “I told you at the time, the Sisterhood has never in its thousands of years of history tried to steal anyone’s territory or seize temporal power outside of Viridill, and we haven’t done any of the things that have provoked them to overthrow other kingdoms. But!” He held up a hand, forestalling her angry retort. “I think, now, I should have listened to you better.”

“No matter how many times you have that realization, the next time it always comes as a surprise to your wooden head!”

“It’s well that you persist, regardless. Surely you don’t think I keep you around for your charming disposition, dear heart.” The King turned his stare back on a somewhat bemused Ayuvesh, not reacting when his wife slapped the back of his legs with the flat of her blade. “If the Sisterhood has one weakness, it is that they are themselves vulnerable to manipulation. Half the other cults are always running rings around them. Especially the Black Wreath. Who have been astonishingly helpful, of late.”

“Now, that is interesting information,” Ayuvesh said, raising his one eyebrow. “I cannot imagine a green dragon working for or even with Elilial’s servants… But Wreath or not, it’s clear to me that we have an enemy. One who benefits from a weakening of Puna Dara by using me and mine as a weapon against the Crown. The more time we waste, testing our wills against one another, the more they profit. But.” He bowed to them. “If we combine our wills together, in the very act that our enemy must fear most, the universe will bend before us. If you will let me join you.”

 

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13 – 46

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“All right. Caine, heal who you can,” Ruda said, breaking the stunned silence. “Arquin, help him.”

“Um…”

“Yes, I know you suck at it, which is why you’re following his lead. Juniper…do something about that.” She pointed at the huddled form of Milady, turning to her next targets as Toby and Gabriel headed toward the nearest source of pained groans. “Locke, Fross, I need intel. Check at the doors and windows, see what you can see without getting lost in that mess. And that leaves…”

She abruptly bounded onto the crate serving as steps to the improvised dais and from there to the platform itself, prompting a startled squeal from the man now lying flat upon it with his arms over his head.

Ruda bent to seize him by the collar and dragged him bodily to his knees, idly resting the tip of her rapier against the crates in conspicuous view.

“Hi there,” she said with a grin that was far too broad to be sincere. “While my friends try to salvage what they can of your friends, I’m gonna need you to tell me where your other friends toddled off to.”

The man stared up at her, mouth moving convulsively for a moment until he closed it to swallow.

“The ones with the metal appendages,” she prompted, deliberately flexing her wrist and scraping the tip of her sword along the wood near him. “I’m sure you must’ve noticed them.”

“I…” He swallowed again before continuing hoarsely, staring at a point past her shoulder. “I was… They helped me, don’t you see? I was nothing, but they taught me…”

“They picked up a loser at his low point, yes, I understand how religions work.” Ruda gave him a firm shake. “Where are the metal people?”

“My boat sank,” he said mechanically, “my son ran away to Tiraas, I had nothing…”

“HEY.” She hiked him up higher till his face was inches from hers, and his attention focused back on her. “I am not your fucking biographer. Where the fuck did your leaders go? Spit it out!”

This was fortuitously punctuated by a shriek from behind her as Toby set someone’s dislocated shoulder. The flash of golden healing light which followed only served to cast her face in ominous shadow.

Ruda’s prisoner drew a shuddering breath, but then his eyes seemed to come more into focus and he made a small shift which might have been a squaring of the shoulders had he been held in a less awkward position.

“I…can’t,” he said more quietly. “Do what you want. I have many weaknesses, but I’m no traitor.”

“Well, I respect that,” she replied, drawing back her sword arm to lift its tip till it rested against his thigh. “But it makes this really fuckin’ hard, so—”

“Hey!” Principia slipped back in from the side door through which she had departed, leaving it to bang in the wind behind her. “We’re about a block from the palace. It’s hard to hear clearly in this storm but I’m pretty sure the Rock is under attack.”

“It’s bad, Ruda!” Fross chimed, zooming in from one of the upper windows. “She’s right, the castle’s under seige—and I think for the second time! There’s Rust cultists with metal pieces holding the ramparts and someone else is attacking the south gate, I didn’t get a good look at who or what, but somebody is channeling lightning bolts at the Rust on the battlements!”

Ruda drew in a hissing breath through her teeth, then abruptly dropped the cultist. “Congrats, you are now redundant, have a nice life. We’ve gotta move, people. What’s our situation?”

“There’s…not a lot of these people I can still do anything for,” Toby reported somberly. “The good news is nobody who survived had any immediately life-threatening damage, but some of these lightning burns are going to require more complicated treatment than—”

“That’s their problem, then. There’s a hospital four streets away; if you’ve done the triage, we’re done here. Juniper? Is she going to be any use at all?”

“I…have no idea what’s wrong,” Juniper said helplessly, straightening up. She had been kneeling next to Milady, trying to get a response, but the woman had fallen into repetitive rocking and a haunted stare into space. “I can’t find any injury or curse or anything and all the magic in her makes it hard to sniff out… I mean, she smells kinda like me. She’s just gone completely bonkers, it looks like.”

“Battle shock,” Principia said curtly, striding over and squatting on her heels to peer at Milady. The woman in black didn’t seem to notice. “She just slaughtered a room full of people, after all; nobody normal can go through something like that without some kind of reaction. More to the point, the only humans I’ve seen move that way are Butlers. You can’t lose a fight, can you?”

This last was in a lower tone, directed at Milady. She made no reply except to squeeze her eyes shut and begin whispering frantic apologies to no one.

“Excuse me, what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“I think she’s got a fairy curse of some kind,” Principia said, still studying Milady. “It’d explain why she smells like dryads. I knew a guy once who had something similar; he was cursed never to lose a battle.”

“How is that a curse?” Gabriel asked.

“Boy, look at this, and look at that.” Principia pointed first at Milady and then at a stretch of the floor upon which seven dead people were strewn in a mixed swamp of their own blood. “Imagine being forced to retaliate with all your full lethality whenever anybody came at you, and having no control over it. What a nightmare.”

“Well, we’ll have to leave her, then,” Ruda stated, heading toward the front door.

“We can’t do that,” Toby retorted. “Especially not here! She’s helpless, and surrounded by—”

“Aside from being the Princess here,” Principia interrupted, standing, “Punaji is right. She’s a liability. She has been a liability from the beginning, the whole time she was accompanying us into unknown danger with this hanging over her and no word of warning. Bitch could’ve had the effect triggered by anything and slaughtered half of us before we knew what was happening. Leave her, we’ve gotta move.”

“Nobody is not worth helping,” Toby said stubbornly.

“Caine, either come help save my family or fuck off. I don’t have time for this.” Ruda hauled open one of the big front doors, grabbed her hat as a gust of wind immediately tried to rip it away, and stalked out into the storm without another backward look. Principia went right on her heels, and Fross darted after them, Juniper following more slowly and with several uncertain glances back at Milady.

“You can’t tell me this is right,” Toby said, turning to Gabriel. “She just saved our—”

“Toby, you were there. She started that fight, because of that…whatever it was that went off, which she never warned us about. Locke has a point, that’s murderously irresponsible at best. It could’ve killed us all down there; it’s actually a miracle it didn’t.” He glanced down at Milady, then shook his head and turned resolutely toward the door. “No, it isn’t right. It’s not. Sifa’s going to stay and watch over her, but that’s all I can spare. Sometimes you have to choose who to save, Toby. I’m choosing Ruda’s family.”

He rested a hand on Toby’s shoulder for a moment, glanced a last time down at the huddled woman, then turned and followed the others out into the storm.

Toby was the last to go, but go he did.

The group had only been out of sight for a minute, and the surviving Rust were starting to creep toward Milady, when a new figure appeared in the door, sending them fleeing toward the side entrance with a chorus of screams.

The sylph paced across the warehouse with his peculiar gait that was both a stork’s prancing and a snake’s slither, and slowly coiled his long shape around her, huge talons squelching softly in the drying blood underfoot. She didn’t respond.

“Poor, stubborn little hero,” Aradeus murmured, arching a wing protectively over her. “Mmm. You smell of pain buried not deep enough, and good advice not obeyed. You should have gone to see the healer. Always go to see the healer. Well.” He subtly tightened around her, disturbing her balance; she slumped against his silvery body, and he rested his chin atop her head. “Mmm. Great adventures will unfold tonight, but there is no evil to destroy, so I will not fight. I will observe. This is as good a place as any other, hmmm? We will watch this storm pass together.”


The gatehouse’s tiny side door was thick enough to constitute a fortress wall on its own, aside from being the narrowest door she had ever seen. Its odd proportions made it interesting to slip through and get it shut behind her against the howling storm without attracting attention. Tallie paused just inside, letting the water stream off her (it wouldn’t give her away since the whole hallway was likewise wet) and listening.

A faint rustle sounded from the room to her right, but apart from that, nothing. Once she was fairly sure no one had heard, she crept forward.

It was a narrow hall, terminating directly ahead in a stairwell that ascended to, according to Trissiny, a barracks. That would be full of Rust cultists. Though the gatehouse had a matching small door to the interior of the fortress, of course there was no convenient path from that portal to this one, which made sense defensively speaking. If anybody penetrated this entrance they would have to navigate a deliberately illogical route full of corners, stairs, and ideally soldiers, many of the halls in question lined with apertures in the ceiling and upper walls through which the Rock’s defenders could rain punishment on any intruder.

This hall had an ominous profusion of those. Hopefully the Rust hadn’t already found a use for them.

Midway down it along the right wall was a door into what Trissiny had said would be a small armory. Apparently somebody was in there, to judge by the faint scuffling she heard.

Tallie slipped up to the edge of the door, paused for a moment in thought, and then jumped. The narrowness of the hall was her ally; it gave her the perfect amount of space to brace herself across its width. Clambering up to the ceiling, she grabbed the inside of one of the dark holes meant to pour boiling oil or whatever on her, extended her body fully along the ceiling and braced her toes in another, and gingerly lowered her head to peek in through the upper edge of the doorway.

It was a cat burglar’s constant salvation: nobody ever looked up.

The armory was in pretty good order, with no signs of a struggle. That was odd, considering there were two Punaji soldiers and one half-machine man who had to have been one of these Rust characters present. One of the Punaji was bound hand and foot, lying on his side facing the door. The other lay oriented in the opposite direction, with the machine cultist kneeling between him and the entrance, apparently tying off a matching set of bindings.

Tallie hesitated, then lowered her head more fully into the room, enough to be noticeable. Sure enough, the bound soldier’s gaze shifted to her and his eyes widened.

She lowered her free hand, holding herself in place with one hand on an oil loop, one foot in another and the other braced across the hall, and held a finger to her lips. The man stared up at her, but did not otherwise react.

Two friendly soldiers present, and an enemy with his back to the door. Surely she wasn’t going to encounter any situation so fortuitous again. But how to take advantage? Tallie wasn’t a fighter even when accounting for people who weren’t partially made of metal.

Dithering nearly cost her dearly; Tallie snapped her head up at the unmistakable sound of feet running down the stairwell.

The armory had rafters across the ceiling. Trusting the architect not to have been a complete obfuscatory asshole, Tallie shifted herself forward and down at an angle, grabbing the lintel of the door frame with both hands, and swung her whole body feet-first into the room, vaulting straight upward.

Yes, rafters in the right place! She had to shift her angle of attack in mid-swing, but even so got her legs wrapped around a beam with a deftness that pleased her, then swung the rest of the way up to land atop it, out of view of both the door and the cultist below.

She could’ve made that jump by the age of eleven, but the very training that honed her body into a limber showpiece had left her with some habits the Guild had had to laboriously beat from her. Training had paid off, though, and she made her movements economical and silent. The fallen soldier’s eyes tracked her, but the cultist gave no sign he’d heard a thing.

That was all the time she had before the approaching footsteps finished approaching. Another cultist, likewise with a whole limb that looked like some crazy dwarven contraption, but this one a woman.

“Rasul!” she said breathlessly. “Are you still—what are you doing? Just drop a screambell and leave them!”

At the woman’s entrance the soldier who had noticed Tallie shifted his glare to her and did not glance upward, giving no sign of her presence. Eserites weren’t big on prayer, but she offered a silent thanks for meeting friendlies who weren’t complete and utter rubes.

“You’ve heard the sound those things make,” Rasul replied calmly, finishing binding the second soldier’s arms behind his back. “It’s painful, and you can’t tell me it won’t cause permanent damage to the ears if you just leave it on someone. We didn’t come here to be cruel.”

“Well, we don’t have time to be kind,” she snapped. “Somebody is assaulting the south gate—somebody with magic. There’s lightning bolts coming from the sky and some kind of a thing trying to ram the gate down, and the screamlances aren’t doing a thing to it. We have to hold them off until Ayuvesh can finish his work!”

“I see.” Rasul straightened, the joints in his legs—both metal starting from above the knees—clicking oddly, then again as he bowed to the two fallen soldiers. “I’m sorry about this, brothers. You should be all right here; it won’t be long.”

With no more word, he strode out after his comrade, who had already bolted back up the hallway. The man moved with amazing smoothness for somebody whose legs were clockwork.

Tallie listened for the sound of his heavy steps to recede up the stairs before dropping lightly to the floor. Whipping out her belt knife, she knelt next to the second soldier, just because his bound hands were facing her.

She took the precaution of reaching her free hand around to cover his mouth, and a good thing, too, as the sudden contact prompted a yell. The other trooper started to pull himself upright, struggling against his bonds, as Tallie approached his compatriot with a knife.

“Hush up, rubes!” she hissed. “I’m gonna cut you loose, hold still a minute.”

“Not that I’m ungrateful but who the hell are you?” the first man demanded. It was a fair enough question; she obviously wasn’t Rust, but equally obviously wasn’t military or even Punaji.

“I’m with the Thieves’ Guild,” she said quietly, sawing through the just-tied cord as rapidly as she could. “I’ve got more thieves, a Salyrite witch and the Hand of damn well Avei coming to help, but I need to get them inside before they can be much use.”

“Well, fuck me running,” the man she was untying said in amazement.

“Later, sailor,” Tallie grunted. “Business before pleasure. You guys know the layout; I need to get that gate open so my people can hit these assholes from behind. What’s—”

“Uh, first things first,” interrupted the first man she’d seen, his eyes now fixed on a spot at which men had an annoying tendency to stare. “Why’ve you got a glowing rat in your cleavage?”


“This is taking too long. Is it taking too long?” Layla altered her pacing pattern, beginning to orbit the rest of the group instead of stalking up and down in front of them. “How long does it take to break into an impregnable fortress? I should have gone with her, I can move almost as quietly… You’d know if something happened to her, right, Schwartz? You’d tell us?”

“Oy.” As she passed, Darius reached out and seized his sister by the back of her neck. “You can’t possibly think that’s helping him concentrate.”

“It’s all right,” Schwartz said without opening his eyes. “Concentration is as much emotional as intellectual. As long as you lot are squabbling, I know the world is still in order.”

Darius snorted a laugh at that, but Layla just shook him off with a glare and resumed pacing, now chewing her bottom lip.

Schwartz hadn’t bothered with any kind of ritual circle for this, though off to his right was another small improvised altar made from cobblestones pried up out of the streets themselves, this one with a handful of loose crystals of various colors on its top. He was sitting cross-legged, his spine straight and eyes closed, with elbows braced against his sides and both arms extended palm-up. His right hand appeared to be on fire; in his left rested another cobblestone which constantly trembled and twitched as if he were bouncing it, though his hand was not moving.

“Waiting is part of any heist,” Trissiny said calmly, “as well as any military campaign. This is a bit of both. Trust our friend like she does us; we all know what we’re doing.”

“If it was you in there I’d be less worried,” Layla muttered, not slowing. “Or Schwartz. The rest of us are just apprentices.”

“None of you are just anything,” Trissiny said automatically, then let out a soft sigh when Layla scowled at her. “All right, I take your point, but still. Tallie is good. We wouldn’t have let her do this if she wasn’t good enough.”

“Wait—there’s trouble.”

Schwartz suddenly opened his eyes, and Darius winced looking at him. Behind his spectacles, they glowed orange-red, the same shade as Meesie’s fur.

“Trouble where?” Trissiny asked, instinctively grasping her sword. “Do we need to pull her out?”

“Tallie’s okay,” the witch reported. “She’s rescued a couple of soldiers, and the Rust have been drawn off by our diversion; Meesie can’t hear any strange noise weapons nearby. The problem is at the other gate.” He suddenly grimaced and had to close his hands over the cobblestone, which was suddenly trying to jerk fully away from him. “I’m—they’ve—okay, those sound weapons aren’t bothering the elemental but it turns out they’ve got more mundane methods…”

“Stay here and be ready to help Tallie if she needs it,” Trissiny ordered the siblings, drawing her blade. “Sounds like this is my cue.”


The group pulled back together as they neared the fortress. The storm appeared to be on the wane, Naphthene’s fury ebbing off as quickly as it had come; the wind had slackened notably and the lightning was both less frequent and more distant. There was no relief from the downpour, however, and they were all drenched from the moment of stepping outside.

Fross, as usual, darted ahead, shooting around the corner that led their current street onto the open square before the Rock’s south gate. Principia was the first after her, but the rest were not far behind. They all piled to an immediate stop, though, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.

Something was trying to smash the gates like a living battering ram, a low-slung creature about the shape of a crocodile but apparently covered in a shell of stone. Or stones, more correctly, thickly clustered over it like scales. In fact, it was hard to tell details through the rain, but they appeared to be exactly the same color and texture as the cobblestone plaza over which it was charging again.

The weird creature was clearly trying to bash the gate itself in; even as they watched, it backed up and charged forward once more, its blunt head crashing against the outer gates. There was no telling how long it had been at this, but there was already a sizable splintered dent around the spot where the gates met, evidence of repeated pounding. However, the stone monster’s efforts were no longer going so smoothly.

It appeared to be trying to ignore the Rust harassing it and focus on its task, but that was clearly growing more difficult by the moment. A person sitting astride some kind of mechanical mount and carrying a long lance was hassling it relentlessly. The machine he was riding resembled an ostrich with a long tail for balance and a steering stick like an enchanted carriage’s where its head should be. It made an awful clatter as he maneuvered it one-handed, piston-legs pounding into the cobblestones and its joints clacking and emitting gouts of steam.

Its rider swooped around in a wide arc to charge at the stone beast again even as his target backed up for another run at the gate. He lowered his lance and its head sparked alight with arcs of electricity that made an uncontrolled nimbus in the rain. It impacted the side of the creature with enough force to shove it off-balance. The impact was enough to bring the mechanical running-bird up short, and the rider only kept his grip on the lance because it was attached to his metal arm.

Another Rust cultist was nearby on foot, wielding another shock lance with which he continually jabbed and bludgeoned the stone creature. Lacking the speed and weight of the birdlike mount, his blows hadn’t enough inertia to shift it, but that electrified lance head still did damage, each blow causing a spray of stone chips and sometimes dislodging an entire chunk of rock.

While they stared, another mechanical thing suddenly arrived, charging out of a side street to join the fray. This one was like a gigantic insect, six legs clattering noisily as it came. Rather than slamming into the stone beast as it first appeared to be about to do, it skidded to a stop nearby and this second Rust cultist leaped into its seat.

“Okay, these guys and their contraptions are old news,” Ruda said above the noise, “but what the fuck is that thing?”

“There’s a lot of fae magic in that,” Juniper said, squinting through the rain. “Like…it’s mostly fae magic.”

“It’s an elemental,” Principia said slowly. “A pavement elemental. Well, that’s a new one, I’ve gotta say.”

“What’s your call, Princess?” Gabriel asked, turning to Ruda. “Taking down the Rust is a safe bet, but we don’t know whose side the elemental’s on, except that they don’t like it. Is this an enemy-of-my-enemy thing, or do we come down on anyone who’s attacking the Rock?”

Ruda frowned at the scene in silence for a bare moment before responding. “Fuck it, we’ve gotta get in, and it looks like they’ve got control of the gates. My parents are in danger right now, we don’t have time to sort this out. Take down the Rust, and unless that thing attacks us help it get the gates—”

A deep, bellowing whinny cut through the storm and her orders, and yet another bulky figure came charging into the square from a side street. This one came from almost straight ahead, originating off the north side of the fortress’s corner and approaching at an angle that would barely skirt the tower and plow head-on into the melee.

It was a horse—an armored horse, though clearly not mechanical, and ridden by an armored figure. That was all they could perceive through the downpour, until it burst alight. Golden wings flared out from the rider, and her sword blazed with pure divine power as she leveled it at the nearest mounted cultist.

“YEEAAAAAH!” Fross screamed, shooting straight upward and erupting in a burst of silver glitter like a firework. “YOU FUCKERS ARE DONE!”


The Rock was a surpassingly resilient bastion, defensible both within and without. Punaji history being rife with coups and revolutions, those occupying its seat of power made no assumptions about their safety. Even in its deepest interior, the Rock’s corridors abounded with blind turns, choke points, doors as hard to break as the outer gates of some lesser fortresses, and more than a handful of booby traps.

It was also, of course, fully staffed both by soldiers and by civilian Punaji who not only carried weapons but didn’t need much prompting to use them. The joke on the wharves was that a Punaji scullery maid was roughly a match for a Sheng infantryman.

Unfortunately for the current royal family, all these defenses were useless against a foe who cleaved through them without even a proper fight.

What unfolded as the handful of Rust swept through the Rock could not have been called a battle. Punaji defenders were swiftly felled by sonic weapons, collapsing in pain and disorientation usually without even squeezing off a shot. The few who managed to fire on their attackers achieved nothing, wand and staff bolts sparking harmlessly against energy shields which were far more durable than the arcane charms with which they were familiar. Nor did the Rust tie down their vastly inferior numbers by trying to seize and hold any ground; they simply neutralized anyone who got in their way and swept on, making equally short work of any physical barriers in their path with blades extended from their machine arms—blades whose edges glowed as if hot, and which sliced through dense wood faster and cleaner than any saw, slowed only slightly when they encountered metal.

The Rust were clearly not here to capture the Rock. They were searching for something. As scattered and disoriented defenders slowly recovered in their passing, they quickly figured out what.

So did the King and Queen, and as such, they were not caught in any corner or defensible position, clearly having learned better from the example of what befell their troops. This communication suggested the presence of tactical scryers, but that did not matter in the end. Ayuvesh had his own means.

He had directed his people to fan through the fortress in a pincer movement as best they could given its maze of corridors, encircling the Rock and closing in. So it was that he finally snared his targets in a long hallway as they attempted to retreat, doubtless to some secret exit from the Rock itself.

Rajakhan and Anjal were accompanied only by their seneschal and two soldiers, and the latter had been neatly felled by sonic shots from the cultist who appeared at the end of the hall down which they fled. The royal couple turned to retreat while Akhatrya tried (fruitlessly) to hamper the attacker, but it was Ayuvesh himself who met them coming the other way. Through the reports of his people scattered through the fortress, he had been tracking them for some time already.

He had left one of his followers behind at the other end of the corridor to ensure they were not interrupted. Finally, he had his moment.

Both King and Queen bared steel at him, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and glaring without a hint of fear.

“Your Majesties,” he said grandly, gesticulating with his metal hand. “I will not waste our time with insincere pleasantries. My people rage unimpeded through your fortress, completely unhindered by the best you can throw against them. You know by now that your weapons will not prevail against me. I have you cornered and at my mercy. This chase, it would appear, is well and truly over.”

“Do what you came to, but spare me your juvenile gloating,” Blackbeard growled. “The Punaji will not—”

“Forgive me,” Ayuvesh said, holding up his other hand, “for interrupting what I’m sure would have been a memorable speech, but once you have learned what I came for I think you will be glad not to have wasted it upon my unworthy self.”

“Speak, then,” Anjal snapped.

“I mistrust words,” he replied with a smile. “Deeds are what matters in life. Action, and the will to take it. And so!”

He tossed aside his screamlance, to their visible surprise. Their expressions of confusion only deepened when Ayuvesh carefully knelt upon the stone floor, and raised both his hands, metal and flesh, in the air. He bowed his head to them, speaking only two more words.

“I surrender.”

 

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13 – 26

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“You said Chase couldn’t be the Sleeper!” Rafe accused.

“What I said,” Fedora retorted testily, “is that it doesn’t make sense and is a complete departure from his personality and all established patterns. Masterson is all about trouble for trouble’s sake, sure, but he always stops short of challenging boundaries once he knows where they are. Furthermore, if he’s the Sleeper, it means he started by Sleeping himself, forcing you to expend the hellhound breath and establishing an alibi while some kind of delayed reaction cast the curse on Natchua. That would be a brilliant, devious action, and totally outside his wheelhouse.”

“I’ll vouch for that analysis,” Yornhaldt added, glancing at Tellwyrn. “If Chase had ever exhibited that kind of lateral thinking… Well, his grades would be an entirely other story.”

Standing by the office door, Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Our conversations have been very instructive in the short time you’ve been here, Murgatroyd. I have learned a great deal about the children of Vanislaas, I feel. You’ve spoken of a compulsion to scheme and cause trouble. The manifestation of the aggressive nature that comes from infernal corruption, channeled into subtlety by Prince Vanislaas’s protection.”

Fedora stopped in his pacing, where he was already threatening to wear a groove in the carpet before Tellwyrn’s desk, and turned to frown at him. “The Sleeper’s a warlock, not an incubus.”

“Yes,” Ezzaniel agreed, folding his arms. “And as we all know, a warlock’s first and most important task is always to keep the corruption at bay. Using infernal magic without becoming tainted by it requires patience, restraint, and exactitude… Traits which Chase Masterson decisively lacks. To speak hypothetically, if Elilial appeared and gave him vast knowledge of the infernal, the very first thing he would do would be to cast something reckless and corrupt himself good and proper. And then, draw upon that knowledge to contain and conceal the taint, but if he could not excise it—which to my knowledge no warlock can… I could well imagine such methods having a similar effect to the blessing of Vanislaas. Warlocks historically tend to be as devious as they are belligerent, do they not?”

A hush fell on the office, Fedora frowning in thought. One by one, the assembled Professors turned to look at Tellwyrn, who was sitting behind her desk, elbows propped on its surface and chin resting on her interlaced fingers, staring into the distance. In the corner behind her, Maru stood holding a tray of teacups, which now rattled as he trembled slightly.

“It’s plausible,” Fedora finally said, almost grudgingly. “But one hundred percent wall-to-wall conjecture. It’s a critical mistake in criminal investigation to form theories before you’ve got facts. What we know, now, is that he’s been seen suddenly using infernal magic at a level of skill way beyond what a junior would know even if that were a course of study at this school. Professor.” He turned around to face Tellwyrn. “How certain are you that Masterson wasn’t dabbling in the dark arts before you brought him here?”

“Absolutely,” she replied tonelessly.

Fedora nodded. “Then this is academic. Chase is one of the kids the Dark Lady blessed; if he’s not the Sleeper, he knows who is. Either way, he’s our answer to the sleeping curse.”

“Alaric,” Tellwyrn said quietly, shifting her gaze to him, “how close are you to a cure?”

Yornhaldt heaved a heavy sigh. “Arachne… I am working with one of the greatest arrays of magical talent ever assembled to unravel what might well be the most excessively elaborate curse ever devised. There is simply no frame of reference for predicting something like this. We could have the key breakthrough literally any hour. Or it could take…potentially years.”

“And the Hand sent him off to Tiraas, knowing we’d have to go fetch him,” Rafe said in disgust. “Damn, but that’s some good bait.”

“It should go without saying he did this specifically to get you off the mountain,” Fedora said to Tellwyrn. “Obviously, he means to make a move of some kind as soon as you’re gone.”

“I have other warning of that already, yes,” she agreed. “He’s diverted the Imperial presence away from the research program. Is there any chance, do you think, that order came from a legitimate Imperial source?”

“My connections there are long-distance and a lot weaker than they were,” Fedora cautioned, “but I can’t see it. Vex was well pleased with the results he was getting from this partnership, and Sharidan listens to him. If you’ve gone and done something to piss off the Throne, that’s another matter, but if not… No, that was just this guy clearing the way. They won’t have canceled his rank or warned anybody about him; if they wouldn’t admit there was a problem when all the Hands were haywire, they won’t for this one guy. The Silver Throne can’t afford to look any weaker than it is.”

“Do you think, gentlemen,” she asked softly, “you could find and retrieve Chase if I sent you all to Tiraas after him?”

“If we could persuade him to come…perhaps,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “I am not absolutely sure that’s possible, nor would I really know how to do so. If you are talking about forcing him, Arachne, may I remind you the Sleeper fought the entire sophomore class to a standstill?”

“If we instigate something like that in Tiraas, it could mean the end of this school,” Ezzaniel added. “And Alaric’s right. We wouldn’t win, anyway.”

“And the other option,” she continued in the same quiet tone. “If I leave the mountain and you are left to protect it…can you?” This time, she fixed her gaze directly on Fedora, who shrugged helplessly.

“Pound for pound, against a disgraced Hand of the Emperor and whatever allies he’s cobbled together?” He grimaced. “Sure, absolutely we can take him. The faculty could, the new research fellows could…hell, the students probably could, even without the sophomores. But this guy’s nuts, Professor. I can’t diagnose his brain but the symptoms I observed were paranoia and blind aggression. There’s no predicting what the hell he’ll try, and the fact that he can’t win isn’t going to stop him. That’s a battle that will have casualties. As your head of security, I have to tell you we can’t guarantee the students’ safety if it comes to that.”

“Veth’na alaue,” Rafe muttered.

“All right.” She stood up abruptly, her tone suddenly filled with its characteristic iron. “Thank you, gentlemen, for helping me organize my thoughts; I believe I see the whole situation, now. I am going to Tiraas to retrieve Chase. Now, this is what you will do…”


“You have got some fucking nerve,” Ruda snarled, drawing her rapier.

“Honestly,” Embras Mogul said with a grin, adjusting his lapels and ignoring the soldiers who surged forward with staves leveled at him, “do you kids plan out your one-liners ahead of time? Concurrently?”

“And what is this now tracking mud on my floors?” Rajakhan rumbled. He seemed quite relaxed, lounging in his chair at the head of the long table, but his dark eyes were fixed piercingly on Mogul. At his side, Anjal practically vibrated with tension, a hand on the hilt of her saber.

“This, your Majesty,” Toby said quietly, “is the leader of the Black Wreath.”

“Ah,” the King rumbled. “Stand down, men.”

“Why, your Majesty, I am truly touched!” Mogul tipped his hat courteously. “I so rarely—”

“Don’t read a welcome into my refusal to waste lives trying to wrangle one of the world’s greatest warlocks,” Rajakhan said disdainfully. “If it turns out I need you dead, these preposterous young people will see to it. Explain your intrusion.”

Mogul had shadow-jumped straight into the conference chamber where they were tensely waiting for Teal to return. Now, as the guards lowered their weapons and grudgingly stepped back, he carefully settled the hat back on his bald head and took a discreet step back himself, placing a little more distance between him and the students.

“I’m here as a favor to Vadrieny,” he said, “with whom I just had a conversation. She regrets that she will not be accompanying you on your excursion; she’s gone to Tiraas to fetch the Sleeper.”

“The longer that sentence went on, the less sense it made,” Gabriel snorted. “You wanna try again?”

“That is how manipulators operate,” Toby warned. “The longer he talks, the more ground he gains…”

“Oh, honestly,” Embras exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “This whole mess is already enough of a debacle without me poking the bear. I’ll tell you frankly, Vadrieny heading off after the Sleeper is a mistake. She was baited into it specifically to make your job harder, now that you’ve gotta do it without her, and I told her not to go. I guess I can take some blame, there,” he added more thoughtfully. “Given a little effort I probably could’ve manipulated her into doing the smart thing and my say-so did have the opposite effect… In my defense, that girl is just irritating as hell to talk to.”

“I suggest you watch what you say about Teal in our presence,” Juniper growled.

“Oh, I was talking about Vadrieny,” he clarified, grinning again. “Truth be told, I’ve a rather high opinion of Miss Falconer. Somehow I doubt she’d appreciate hearing it, though.”

“And just what does the Sleeper have to do with Tiraas?” Gabriel demanded.

“Here’s what you need to know,” the warlock continued, his expression growing serious. “Your problems in Puna Dara are one chapter in a thicker book. There’s trouble going down in Tiraas and Last Rock, and our mutual opponent in this has just made a move designed to exacerbate and prolong these conflicts. The Sleeper was just exposed as Chase Masterson—” Here he paused for a moment until the cursing died down. “—who was then directed to flee to Tiraas and seek shelter working with the Imperial government. I doubt he’ll actually find any, but that’s not the point. The ploy was to get Tellwyrn out of Last Rock and Vadrieny out of Puna Dara, to make sure none of what’s about to happen in either place gets wrapped up too quickly.”

“That checks out,” Milady said suddenly. “Archpope Justinian’s whole gambit here is to try to forge an alliance between the Empire, the cults, and his Church, so he can evade the consequences for some of his recent antics. You kids are too close to cleaning this up and most of his people haven’t even got here yet; he needs this drawn out longer.”

“Well, then,” Anjal said dryly, “we would know exactly whom to thank for our recent troubles, if only any of the people talking where remotely trustworthy.”

“Hey,” Gabriel said reproachfully. “What’d I do?”

“Shut the fuck up, Arquin,” Ruda sighed. “Question is, are we gonna believe this guy?”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Mogul said airily, “you should never trust anybody. What you should do is know who you’re dealing with—know their personalities, their agendas, the situations in which you interact with them. Trust’ll just lead you into mistakes, but understanding helps you predict what someone will do.”

“Damn good advice,” Principia said approvingly. “And on that note, the Black Wreath will absolutely trick you into doing whatever gets you out of their way, but they don’t just wreck people’s lives for the fun of it, despite what the Church likes to preach. Most people who aren’t summoning random demons have nothing to fear from ’em, but the sheer concentration of paladins in this group means you kids had better step carefully around this guy.”

“Fuck that, I say we stab him,” Ruda snorted, taking a step toward Mogul.

He retreated, raising his hands. “Now, now. You remember what I said last time we talked?”

“I remember a lot of sniggering about stealing our divine disruptors,” Fross chimed, “and then a lot of whining when Malivette single-handedly kicked your butt.”

“There was no sniggering or whining,” Mogul said reproachfully. “Really, young lady, I expected you to gloss over the part where I saved your lives, but such casual slander is beneath you. No, I was referring to my ultimate goal. Beyond these little squabbles and adventures, the business in which my Lady and her faithful have been engaged for millennia. Your gods have lied to you.” He grinned broadly, tilting his head forward just enough that the wide brim of his hat concealed his eyes, leaving his smile a white gash in his dark face. “What I want is to see what shakes loose if their own precious paladins find out their secrets. I can think of no better shortcut to that goal than helping you kids get yourselves into one of the Elder Gods’ strongholds.”

“You know about that, do you,” Rajakhan said quietly.

“We know where all of them are,” Mogul replied. “Our mandate is to protect the mortal plane from demon incursions, and there are still more than a few demons who once bowed to Scyllith. Demons or modern warlocks getting their mitts on Elder God junk is a worst-case scenario. These Rust aren’t demonic and thus not our problem, but you’d better believe we noticed and have been watching them. Yeah, I know all about that thing under the harbor and I’ve taken pains to be up to date on what’s happening here. Justinian wants you slowed down, and Vadrieny is halfway to Tiraas by now. You’re looking at hours more to make your way through the old mining tunnels.”

“Hang on, halfway to Tiraas? There’s no way,” Gabriel snorted. “She’s not that fast.”

“Vadrieny’s flight has little respect for the laws of physics,” Mogul said, tilting his hat up to wink at them. “One of her sisters once circumnavigated the planet in two days, and that was on a wide zig-zagging course being chased by a Hand of Salyrene. How fast she goes is a function of how anxious she is to get somewhere. So yeah, from here to Tiraas? I’d say half an hour, tops. More importantly, I oppose whatever the Church desires. As I was just saying to your classmate, I’m starting to question whether Justinian’s agenda really lines up with the Pantheon’s, but after due consideration I’ve decided I don’t like the son of a bitch anyway. If he wants you wasting time, then I want you making progress. So!” He swept off his hat and executed a deep bow. “I’m not goin’ in there with you, but I can have you at the entrance in seconds.”

“Or,” Juniper said, folding her arms, “you could shadow-jump us to the bottom of the ocean, or into a volcano, or…”

“The Wreath is part of Tellwyrn’s new research initiative,” Fross pointed out. “It wouldn’t make sense for him to harm us. Or even to refuse to help us, not that we asked.”

“Full disclosure,” said Milady, “my agenda aligns with his on this one point. If Justinian is trying to slow down our progress, I’m all the more eager to get there faster. Remember, we have no idea what we’ll have to do down there, or how long it might take. I’m willing to risk working with him, if you are. I’ve dealt with scarier beings,” she added, giving Mogul a cool look.

“I don’t trust this, obviously,” Toby said. “And please don’t start lecturing about trust again. Ruda? This is your city, and we’re here explicitly to back you up. I’ll follow your judgment on this.”

Ruda drew in a breath and let it out slowly, looking at him, and then over at her parents.

“You know the risks, and you have a good mind, little minnow,” the King said, nodding gravely. “I share your friends’ misgivings. And their regard for your judgment. I have already declared this mission is yours.” Anjal took his hand, inclining her head once toward her daughter.

“Fuck it,” Ruda said, turning back to Mogul. “We passed the point of pussyfooting around when we let our bard spit in a goddess’s eye. Bunch up, everybody. We’re letting the asshole help.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Can I just remind everyone that last time he helped—”

“He saved your lives,” she interrupted, “did exactly what he promised, and also tried to further his agenda at our expense. I expect exactly the same shit this time, and it’s my judgment we can clean up whatever additional fuckery he causes after we put out the immediate fires. I’m not gonna force you, Arquin. Either you trust me or you don’t.”

“Aw, you know I’m with you, Zari,” he said with a grin. “If I was gonna break from the group I think it’d have been when you fucking stabbed me.”

Mogul cocked his head to one side. “You kids have some interesting stories, don’t you?”


“It’s not much of a plan, is all.”

“Well, Darius, you’ve got till we get there to come up with a better one,” Tallie said, striding along at the head of the group alongside Jasmine. Meesie hadn’t left the latter’s shoulder, and was their guide, pointing the way and squeaking urgently the whole time. They’d had to ignore a lot of passersby, many of whom stopped to stare at the little elemental. “I’m really, really hoping that Ross is following them, too, and didn’t also get captured. But if not…that’s what we got. Find ’em, get Schwartz back on his feet an’ let him make with the mojo.”

“It’s not that I mind charging into certain death,” Darius growled from behind them. “They’ve got our friends; that’s what you do. Certain death or no, you don’t leave people behind. But we’re dragging my baby sister along on this…”

“Yes, because gods forbid she make any decisions for herself,” Layla huffed.

“You are sixteen!”

“Really, Darius. Where do you see that argument leading? In what possible outcome does it end well for you?”

“How’ll you feel if I’m the one who gets hexed into ashes, hm?”

“Insert obligatory comment about peace and quiet,” she said lightly. A moment later, though, she shifted closer to him, and he draped an arm around her shoulders as they walked.

He could be forgiven for being on edge; even apart from the inherent tension of the situation, Layla had circumvented the need for Jasmine to round everyone up back at the house by emitting a blood-curdling shriek at a pitch and volume that had set dogs barking all through the neighborhood. It had also brought Darius crashing into the kitchen in a panic, half-dressed and hefting a candlestick in preparation to bash someone.

That was also when they had learned that Ross was absent, as well. He was ordinarily so quiet, there was no telling how long that might have taken to discover, had they tried to find him the old-fashioned way.

“It’s not that Darius is wrong, though,” Tallie said more softly. “Pretty scary enemies. Lot of unknowns.”

Jasmine nodded, glancing back and forth between Meesie and the sidewalk ahead of them. They had just emerged from Glory’s expensive residential neighborhood into an equally expensive shopping district; their plain clothes and shabby coats made them stand out somewhat, not that any of them cared.

Tallie looked at her sidelong and sighed, her breath misting on the air. “Look, I don’t wanna—”

All of them stopped and reflexively flattened themselves against the storefront they were passing when screams suddenly broke out along the street behind them. The four apprentices braced themselves for action, turning to face whatever was coming as the cries of shock and fear spread.

A streak of living fire had just crested the city walls, soaring toward them, even as the mag cannons spaced along the guard toward began clumsily turning, trying to track the intruder. Its form grew clearer as it approached; it was a person, held aloft on wings of pure flame. All of them except Jasmine ducked slightly when the creature arced directly over their street and banked, gliding away toward the center of the city.

“What the fuck,” Darius wheezed, pressing Layla against the wall with one arm. “What was that? A phoenix?”

“An archdemon,” Jasmine corrected, staring after the flying creature, which had vanished over a nearby rooftop. The cries around them were still ongoing, having changed in tone as the demon vanished from view but not begin to abate.

“A what?” Tallie exclaimed.

“A daughter of Elilial,” Jasmine clarified. “The last living one, actually. Vadrieny.”

“Oh, gods,” Layla whispered. “That has nothing to do with us… Please, please let that have nothing to do with us.”

“Is there any point in asking how you know this?” Tallie asked wearily.

“I’ve seen illustrations…” Jasmine trailed off, shrugging irritably when they all turned to stare at her. “And I’ve seen her in person before. She has a Talisman of Absolution; she’s not going to go around attacking people.”

“Well, that’s dandy, I suppose,” Darius snapped. “Any insight into what the fuck she’s doing in Tiraas?”

“Not a glimmer,” Jasmine admitted, then winced when Meesie began tugging violently on her ear, squealing shrilly and pointing ahead. “Walk and talk, guys. We’re still losing time.”

“Right.” Tallie once again took the lead, straightening up and setting off, and the others fell in. She let it rest for a moment before asking, “So, Jas… Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Jasmine sighed again. “I…”

“I don’t mean to put you on the spot.” Tallie kept her eyes forward as she walked. “I’ve been thinking, though. Remember when Style kicked your ass?”

“No, refresh me,” Jasmine said sourly. “How did it go?”

Tallie grinned, but her expression sobered again immediately. “The thing is… Quite apart from you being more physically dangerous than almost anyone else I know, the thing I’ve noticed about you is you don’t overestimate yourself. You know what you can do and don’t push it; your restraint has kept us out of a bunch of trouble. I’m sure you remember that business with the Vernisite caravan.”

“I’m still annoyed I even had to talk you clowns out of that. Boosting anything from the Vernisites is expressly against—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tallie said impatiently. “What I’m getting at is… You rushed into that thinking you could win it. It’s the only time I’ve seen you screw up that bad, and I’ve been wondering about it, and why Grip was so hellbent on getting you as an apprentice. Why you were so adamant not to go along with her, too. I keep coming around to the idea that you’re used to having more to throw around in a fight than just your own muscles.” She snuck a glance at Jasmine, who was staring ahead as they walked. “I mean… You know an awful lot about alchemy and magic for somebody who doesn’t do them.”

Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Look…”

“When I asked if there was something you wanted to tell me,” Tallie said hastily, “I meant exactly that. It’s your life and we’re all runnin’ from something. You don’t need to share if you’re not ready to. But right now, this situation, we’re going up against Silver Legionnaires and Salyrite casters. People who have already killed. This is serious shit, and all we’ve got for a plan is ‘hopefully wake Schwartz up.’ We only know he’s not dead because Meesie’s still here.”

“When we were riding out of the city,” Layla said suddenly, “that night when we fought the dwarves, you started to suggest something, and Glory cut you off. She said something about not playing your trump card too soon.”

“I just wanna know,” said Tallie. “If it goes as bad in there as it might… Are we as fucked as it seems? Or is there something more we can count on?”

Jasmine was silent for a long moment. Even Meesie trailed off her constant squeaking, watching her in concern.

“Whatever they’ve got to throw at us,” Jasmine said finally, not turning to meet anyone’s gaze, “I’m certain I’ve faced scarier. And killed some of it. But there’s a big difference between being able to dish out pain, and being able to protect people. If this goes as badly as it could, that is still going to be very bad.” She looked over at Tallie, eyebrows drawing together in worry. “Let’s concentrate on Plan A. Schwartz is still our best bet.”

Tallie nodded, and they continued on in silence. After a moment, she reached over and tucked her arm through Jasmine’s.

“Seriously, though, that demon thing,” Darius said suddenly. “That’s not gonna get involved in this business, is it?”

Jasmine sighed. “We should be so lucky.”

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13 – 23

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“It isn’t that you’re wrong, Mr. Mosk,” Tellwyrn said, pacing slowly up and down her dais as she usually did while lecturing, “it is a question of detail. The difference between an educated person and an uneducated one is comprehension; both perceive the same basic reality, in this case that the Age of Adventures is trailing to a halt and has been for centuries now, but you are studying to become the sort of people who can name specific causes, understand how those factors interact, draw insights from them and then apply those to current and future events.

“Specifically, in this case, we are covering the end of the Age of Adventures to illustrate a rather uncomfortable and little-appreciated but vitally important fact that underpins all societies.” She came to a stop, resting a hand on the lectern, and regarded the class over her spectacles. “The single, unavoidable, core reality which separates an organized state from primitive, tribal societies, is that the state holds a monopoly on violence. Police forces exist to enforce this internally, and armies externally. A state which fails to maintain this monopoly has failed to exist, and is by definition already in the process of collapsing by the time this effect can be widely observed. An organized state only exists when it is the sole entity within its purview whose exercise of force is considered legitimate.”

The door at the rear of the classroom opened and Colonel Azhai slipped inside, quietly pushing it shut behind her and taking a position against the upper wall. Almost every head in the room turned at her arrival, and several students twisted around fully to stare up at the visitor.

A shrill whistle followed by small explosions seized everyone’s attention; Tellwyrn had pointed one finger upward, which had spouted a small display of fireworks.

“Class is still in session,” she said peevishly, “and I am down here.”

The Professor waited for everyone to fully focus upon her again, and then a few seconds longer just to make her point, before continuing.

“With regard to the adventurer problem, it is important to consider that for most of recorded history, human civilizations have been islands built around useful clusters of resources; on most continents and especially this one, a combination of limited populations and abundant hazards have kept the borders of nation-states from pressing against each other. To take what is now the Tiraan Empire as an example, there was a time when Calderaas existed a two-month ride through bandit-infested no man’s land from the Tira Valley or Viridill, and much longer to any of the dwarven kingdoms. Constant pressure existed on all states in the form of marauders from Tar’naris, from Athan’Khar, from the dozens of dungeons, centaur and plains elf raiders from the Golden Sea, the odd fairy excursion from the Deep Wild… Even from other groups of humans, as the Stalweiss, Punaji and Tidestriders regularly molested any of their neighbors who neglected their defenses for a moment. In this era, adventurers served a vital role in legitimizing the states from which they launched. They exerted counter-pressure, thinning out these aggressive agents at their source without requiring kings to institute expensive military action. They also appropriated wealth from these targets, which then bolstered local economies, and served to keep trade routes clear simply by traveling along them and representing hazards that most bandits wouldn’t try. I trust you can all, by this point in the semester, explain what changed that? Miss Fillister.”

“Human populations expanded,” the girl called upon replied, lowering her hand, “and all of those external threats were eventually pacified, one way or another.”

“Precisely,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod. “The role of population is very understated in most modern discussion of the adventurer problem. Everyone knows there is not much left for adventurers to do; few appreciate the importance to them of having a place in which to do it. While there were broad gaps between states, blank spots on the map and regions considered too dangerous to settle, adventurers were useful in keeping the hazards therein from encroaching upon established kingdoms. They aided the legitimacy of states by keeping violence outside their borders. But when all the borders come together, when there are no more gray areas outside the law, the opposite happens. Adventurers doing what they do within the purview of a state’s authority are an inherent challenge to that authority, because so long as people are committing violence, for any reason, it means the local government has failed to assert itself. Thus, the government is forced to either assert itself harder, or collapse. For a time, when the dungeons began drying up and rogue societies were either contained, destroyed, or folded into the Empire, some adventurers tried turning to vigilantism. They were landed on harder than those who flocked to the frontiers. Yes, Miss Willowick?”

“Talkin’ of current events,” Maureen said, lowering her hand, “ain’t this sorta what’s goin’ on in Puna Dara right now? Rumor is, the local government’s facin’ the prospect of a change, if it can’t keep its own house in order.”

“That’s an excellent example,” Tellwyrn agreed.

“And…in Last Rock?” Maureen said more hesitantly. “Like…last night, fer example. I know we’re only technically within Calderaan Province here, an’ the Sultana’s writ runs pretty thin. But if there’s t’be mobs an’ chases an’ whatnot…”

“An interesting point,” Tellwyrn said, beginning to pace again. “Last Rock is a somewhat unusual case, due to my presence and this University’s. A better example would be the ongoing expansion of wand regulations in frontier towns throughout the Great Plains. In the decades since their initial settlement, private ownership and use of firearms was considered a widespread necessity given the hazards represented by the Golden Sea. More and more, though, laws are changing; the situation in Sarasio was something of a tipping point, showing that heavily-armed residents are more of a danger to one another now than centaur or plains elf raiders. Not coincidentally, it took an event which directly challenged the Empire’s authority to provoke a wave of reforms. All of which are potential topics for your homework! Next class, I want a two-page essay from each of you on a current application of this principle, covering an example of your choice: discuss a modern situation in which a state’s success or failure to assert control of violent action within its borders reflects upon its overall stability. And with that, we’re out of time for today. Class dismissed.”

She remained by the lectern, watching placidly, while they all gathered their books and filed out, several exchanging greetings with the Colonel on their way to the door. Azhai was a woman of reserved and formal bearing, but compared to some of the fellows assembled at the new research division of the school, she was not standoffish with students and had already garnered a positive reputation.

Once the last of the pupils had shut the door behind them, she finally strode down to the dais, where Tellwyrn was waiting with a mildly quizzical expression.

“My apologies, Professor,” Azhai said. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your class.”

“Nonsense, you were perfectly decorous,” Tellwyrn said, dismissing that with a wave of her hand. “Maintaining focus in the face of extremely slight distraction is just one of the basic life skills I have to teach these kids, since so many of their parents clearly couldn’t be arsed. What can I do for you, Colonel?”

Azhai drew in a slow breath, frowning in thought. “I wanted to let you know in person that I’ve been recalled. I’m to abort my assignment here and depart Last Rock.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn replied, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I must say you will be missed. I confess this surprises me, Colonel. Have you been told anything about a replacement? I am assuming, here, that the Empire’s interest in my program has not abruptly ceased. I’ve not heard so much as a hint of this from Tiraas.”

“That’s…the thing, Professor,” Azhai said, a grim note entering her tone. “No, I was not given any instructions regarding my successor. I have also not heard so much as a rumor from the Azure Corps that the Throne has changed its position on you and your research program. Staying in touch with Tiraas from out here is a bit of an undertaking, as I’m sure you know, but I have been doing my best to remain on top of the rumor mill. Everything I have heard suggests that the University is in good standing with the Empire, and with Intelligence in particular. Furthermore, Professor… Forgive me if I seem to be dancing around certain topics, but I was explicitly instructed not to reveal details of my reassignment to you.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn repeated in a low drawl. “How extremely mysterious.”

“Off the record,” said Azhai, glancing at the door. “As I am no longer on duty here, and in the interest of casual conversation… I transferred to the Azure Corps from the Corps of Enchanters, Professor; I have no shortage of personal experience working with special forces. When you’re not attached to one of the regular corps, you tend to gain some insight into the politics behind the Army. There are lots of factions wanting to make use of forces with special skills, and some which simply resent the special corps and like to throw petty inconveniences our way when they can get away with it. You learn to watch for certain red flags… And I am seeing a lot of those today. Being told to abandon a mission and vacate the premises but not given instructions on where to report next. The sudden reversal of policy from Command—and most damning, orders to keep this hushed from the Azure Corps’s brass and Intelligence. Professor, somebody, somewhere, is up to something they should not be, and which I seriously doubt is being undertaken with the Empire’s best interests in mind.”

“I appreciate you offering me your insight on this, Manaan,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “I understand there are risks to you in doing so. Rest assured you can count on my discretion.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Azhai said, nodding in reply, a hint of relief passing across her features. “Understand that I like it here, I support your program and I was very much looking forward to the research we were about to undertake. My loyalty, though, is to my Emperor. And as a soldier I will follow orders, but if those orders aren’t for the Emperor’s benefit…”

“You don’t have to justify anything to me,” Tellwyrn assured her. “Assuming all this gets resolved soon and the Empire’s participation in my research initiative continues, I’ll hope to see you back here. You will always be welcome.”

“I’ll hope to be back,” Azhai said fervently. “In the meantime… I have been ordered to be packed and out of Last Rock by tonight.” She tilted her head forward, staring into Tellwyrn’s eyes with as much emphasis as she could muster.

“Thank you for keeping me in the loop,” Tellwyrn replied, patting the shorter woman on the shoulder. “I had better not detain you any longer if you’re on a tight schedule. And don’t worry about me, Colonel, you take care of yourself for now.”

“Worrying about you seems presumptuous, somehow,” Azhai said wryly. “Just… Take care of the kids, Professor. I mean that in a general sense, of course.”

“Oh, I always take care of my kids,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “I mean that as generally or specifically as the situation requires, and you might pass it along to whoever needs to hear it.”

“I will. Here’s hoping to see you again soon, Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Safe travels, Colonel Azhai.”

Tellwyrn waited until she had departed the classroom before snapping her fingers. Maru popped out of midair nearby, dropping a foot to land lightly on the dais.

“If you must do that, you could at least teleport me directly onto the ground,” the tanuki complained. “I know you do this on purpose, Professor.”

“Maru, I should hardly have to remind you that we met when you tried to drop me into a spike pit,” she retorted. “You don’t get to fuss about these little jokes.”

“Ah, but my fussing about them is half the fun,” he said, grinning widely. “For you, I mean.”

Tellwyrn did not smile in response. “I brought you here because making Fedora vanish out from in front of whoever he’s pestering right now would be the fastest possible way to reveal that something’s up. I may have secured a brief head start, which could be squandered if whoever’s watching this campus realizes I know. Find that incubus and both of you haul ass to my office as quick as you can without drawing attention. Whatever’s going down, it’s going to be tonight.”


“I see your hunt was successful,” King Rajakhan stated as he strode into the room, his daughter on his heels. Ruda paused to kick the door shut, her eyes also on the guest perched on a chair at the end of the conference table.

The Queen and the rest of the sophomores were scattered around the table, Juniper playing with Jack in one corner and Teal in another, experimentally plucking at a sitar—which, to judge by the results produced, she had never played before. Principia lounged next to the door, making a show of cleaning her fingernails with a dagger. Most of them, overtly or not, were monitoring the woman garbed in black, including a climate-inappropriate cloak, who was seated in a prim posture with her hands on her knees, watching them all calmly.

“My business also went well, husband, thank you for asking,” Anjal said archly.

The King grunted. “I always assume your efforts meet with success, wife. I can’t be so safe about all of these.”

“Flatterer,” she accused, but with a smile.

“So what’s the story with this one, then?” Ruda asked, scowling at the woman in black.

“She came along quietly enough,” Gabriel reported. “And in fact she’s been quite willing to help. That is, with anything we ask that’s not explaining who she is, or who she works for.”

“Also, she’s got an invisible friend.” Juniper looked up from her jackalope at the ensuing silence, finding everyone staring at her. “You guys didn’t notice? She does the same exact thing Gabe does when Vestrel’s talking. Tilting her head to listen and staring at nothing for a second.”

“Well, how about that,” Gabriel drawled, turning fully to face their guest. “Anything you wanna add, Milady?”

She cleared her throat. “I don’t suppose you would believe I was talking to another valkyrie.” Her accent was Tiraan, her voice with the precise diction of an educated person.

“Do you find that funny?” he asked coldly. “Because I guarantee, you’re the only one.”

“Yeah, an’ this standoffishness isn’t gonna work,” Ruda added, glaring and ostentatiously fondling the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “Way I heard it, your fuck up sank negotiations with the Rust and spooked them into releasing that fucking thing in the harbor. I wanna know just who the hell you think you are, in detail.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I don’t want to tell you your business, Ruda, but consider that there may be an advantage in leaving it vague.”

“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” she exclaimed, rounding on him.

“Well, I mean, it’s pretty likely she’s from the Imperial government,” Fross chimed, swooping around the woman in black in a wide circle. “I mean, gosh, look at all these enchantments. She’d have to be an archmage to make this gear herself, which I don’t think she is. That means it was probably supplied by a government, and not a dinky little poor one.”

“Like ours?” Anjal said dryly.

“Oh.” The pixie dimmed, fluttering lower. “I didn’t mean…”

“And that’s the point,” Toby said quickly. “If she is Imperial, as seems overwhelmingly likely, there are benefits to everyone having some deniability. As soon as we all officially know the Empire has been unilaterally acting here and making a mess of it to boot, the Crown will pretty much have to respond to that, right? Which will create a whole slew of new complications.”

“As things stand,” Anjal added grimly, “we can avoid wrestling that shark, and make it damn clear to the Empire that we know and don’t appreciate this, without being forced to do so through formal channels. Listen to the boy, Zari, he has surprisingly good political instincts for an Omnist.”

Toby returned her smile. “Actually, your Majesty, that little theater we put on earlier helped me work through a spiritual problem with which I’ve been grappling.

“Happy to be of service,” Anjal said, tipping her hat. “But back to the point at hand. You two haven’t missed much, yet, but the revelations so far are not small. Apparently we have an ancient hideaway of the Elder Gods buried underneath the middle of the harbor.”

The woman in black cleared her throat as everyone focused on her again. “Yes, a fabrication plant—a place where they made their machines.”

“That explains some stuff about the Rust, doesn’t it,” Gabriel muttered.

“And you know this…how?” Rajakhan demanded.

“All the facilities of the Elder Gods were sealed at the end of the Pantheon’s uprising,” she explained. “And then, after that, they were all buried underground or sunk underwater by Naiya, probably to keep Scyllith from getting at the resources in them if she ever got out of the hole Themynra has her in. Some, though, have subsequently been re-opened by various mortals. I have worked closely in one of these. You might say I’m the closest thing available to an expert on the Infinite Order’s technology. I mean the real Infinite Order,” she added. “The actual Elder Gods, not these Rust idiots.”

“They’re idiots,” Teal muttered from her corner, plucking a discordant twang. “Who got caught screwing around in their tunnels and borked our mission there?”

The woman sighed. “Fair enough. I’m sorry; I tripped an alarm I failed to see coming. But back to the point at hand, the Order’s machines have the ability to connect to each other and communicate over long distances. It was severely diminished when the Pantheon shut off the transcension field linking them, but it can still be made to work in a limited capacity.”

Gabriel scratched his head. “Trans what?”

“A kind of magic. The point is, I learned from another of these systems elsewhere, weeks ago, that the fabrication plant in Puna Dara had been opened and accessed. Actually, this was done ten years ago.”

“Ten years,” Anjal muttered.

“It gets worse,” the woman in black warned. “The Infinite Order’s machines and facilities require their personal input to be re-activated. The one here was opened under Scyllith’s credentials.”

“Ffffffuck,” Gabriel whispered.

“Now, nobody panic,” Toby said hastily. “If Scyllith were loose, problems would be a lot worse than the Rust and a lot more widespread than Puna Dara.”

“That’s correct,” the woman agreed, nodding. “It’s far more likely that someone got hold of her credentials somehow and used that. There are ways; I have some experience with them.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Juniper said. “If you need one of the Elder Gods to open these things and you’ve opened one, whose credentials are you using?”

She sighed, making a resigned face. “Naiya’s.”

“And how did you do that?” the dryad demanded.

“By recruiting some of her daughters to help,” she said wearily. “Dryads and a kitsune.” The woman frowned suddenly, looking to the side. “I do not think that’s a good idea. No, seriously, that’s just going to agitate… Okay, fine, but there’s still security to—”

“Have you utterly lost it?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Invisible friend, remember?” Juniper said, gathering Jack into her arms and standing up. The jackalope’s behavior had indeed improved; he hardly struggled at all. “This is good, though, it’s finally something we can verify. Which dryads? What kitsune?”

“I don’t know how we can verify that part,” Fross objected. “We only know one kitsune and she’s not exactly available to ask.”

The woman in black was frowning now, staring into the distance. After a moment, she sighed heavily. “All right, fine. I said all right! I don’t… Oh, whatever, it hardly matters now, anyway. Apple, Hawthorn, and Mimosa,” she finally answered, turning to Juniper.

The dryad let out a low whistle. “Well. Aspen told me those there are in Tiraas.”

“Mm hm,” Anjal grunted, scowling. “Tiraas.”

The woman in black sighed again. “Fine, fine, on your head be it. And I am being requested to convey a message.” She turned to Gabriel. “For Vestrel. Yrsa would like her to know that things were hard for a long time, but she is doing well, now. She sends her love.”

“Okay, what the hell was that?” Gabriel demanded after a short pause. “Vestrel is completely freaking out. And not in a good way, Milady. If that scythe were tangible on this plane you would be headless right now.”

“I told you so,” the woman muttered, rubbing unconsciously at her neck.

“Are we seriously calling her Milady?” Ruda snipped.

“Well, she won’t tell us her name, and it’s as good as—” Gabriel broke off, wincing. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to explain that some more. And no more of this cagey—”

“If I may?” Everyone turned to look at Principia, who had raised a hand. “With apologies to Vestrel, this sounds like family business. And if there’s one thing I know about family business, it’s that it is messy. We really have much more urgent things to discuss; valkyrie drama is going to have to wait for now. It sounds like what we’ve gotta do is break into an Infinite Order facility and destroy it. I’ve been in those before; this is not a small undertaking.”

“Not destroy it,” Milady said quickly. “In fact, the opposite. The Infinite Order are using something called nanites to do what they do. I don’t know what those are, but I do know it’s a prohibited technology; the Order sealed it and even blocked records that explain them. Which means if the Rust have got them out and working, they have disabled the security in that facility. There should be an intelligent system governing it, which has to have been seriously messed with for this to have happened. If we can get to that and repair it, we may be able to completely disable them.”

“Intelligent system,” Principia grunted. “And you say it’s broken. When an intelligence breaks, that’s called madness. I do not look forward to trying to wrangle an insane Avatar.”

Milady’s gaze snapped to the elf. “How do you know what an Avatar is?”

Principia grinned at her. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, pumpkin.”

“Enough,” Rajakhan growled. “You say we have to fix this thing. How do you propose to do this, not even knowing what’s wrong with it?”

“That’s the hard part,” Milady admitted. “I’ve done so before, but it took days, and we have no choice but to go in blind. It is in no way going to be easy. But this is not like repairing a machine; it has more in common with…counseling. These are thinking, feeling things with personalities.”

“I may be able to help with that,” Toby said slowly. “Though I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up.”

“Juniper’s help will also be invaluable,” Milady said. “She is a link to Naiya, which may help get us access. And I think Principia had better come,” she added reluctantly. “Anyone who knows anything about Infinite Order systems will be useful.”

“Someday I’ll learn not to open my goddamn mouth,” Principia said philosophically. “Oh, who’m I kidding? No, I won’t.”

“Before that,” Gabriel interjected, “we have to get into this place. Something tells me the Rust isn’t going to be enthused about that prospect.” He was still scowling at Milady, clearly having picked up some of Vestrel’s agitation. “How do we even find the way there?”

“I can guide you,” said Milady. “My…counterpart has a complete map of the tunnels and mineshafts all around Puna Dara and can convey directions to me in real time. Several of them link up to the corridor the Rust have dug connecting to the old fabrication plant. There are a number of paths that avoid areas they traffic.”

“So we need to distract them,” Anjal said, suddenly grinning. “We are already working on that. Rajakhan has been exhorting the people while I worked on the powerful; Puna Dara itself is going to turn on the Rust.”

“If you can provide me with some disguise charms,” Principia added, “something to make my squad look like locals, I can furnish a more focused distraction. Like, outside that warehouse that they’re using for their public face. Five people who start screaming and throwing rocks can turn an angry crowd into a mob in seconds.”

“What you are talking about,” Rajakhan grated, “is dangerous almost beyond comprehension. To everyone involved.”

“I comprehend the danger, your Majesty,” she said seriously. “The offer stands, if you decide the risk is worthwhile. But I agree—if somebody has a better idea, that would be excellent.”

“It’s too bad the weather’s nice,” said Fross. “The Rust’s mechanical augmentations are metal and run on electricity; rain will impede them. Maybe not much, but every little bit helps.”

“Maybe more than a little, actually,” the King said, frowning. “We have noted, in monitoring them, that they avoid going out in storms. Most Punaji love rough weather—it was a notable pattern of behavior.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we can afford to wait around for a storm,” Ruda snorted. “Fross is right, the weather’s gorgeous and gonna stay like that for at least a while. We can’t afford to fuck around; every minute that thing is in the harbor, the city’s economy is hemorrhaging, to say nothing of how it’s riling up the populace. And while we’re on the subject, distracting the Rust is only part of the issue. If we’re going to be out in the harbor, the sea serpent’s a factor, too. Not to mention that it could attack the city if the Rust feel too threatened.”

“A nice, big storm would solve that problem as well,” Fross offered. “It’s still subject to the laws of physics, even if it’s designed to withstand mag cannon fire. With the water agitated it will be unable to navigate and will have to go to the bottom to avoid getting beached. It might be forced to leave the harbor entirely.”

“Fross,” Ruda said with strained patience, “it is not storming. It is not going to storm any time soon, and no power in creation is going to make the weather change. Trust me, that’s in Naphthene’s hands, and Naphthene does not give a shit. That is the core reality of Punaji life. Talking about storms is wishful thinking.”

A suddenly loud twang chimed from the corner, making Principia wince.

“So,” Teal said slowly, “a storm would temporarily neutralize the sea serpent and the cultists, and since the Punaji like harsh weather, might actually help the public move against the Rust. Do I have all that right?”

“Teal, what did I just fucking say?” Ruda exclaimed.

Teal carefully set the sitar down and stood, adjusting her robes. “That we can’t conjure up a storm. All due respect, Ruda, but… I bet I can.”

 

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The sun rose over a city stirring with barely-contained furor. A constant hum livened the streets, anger and incipient panic growing steadily. It would not be long before it exploded, one way or another. Already people were gathering around the walls of the Rock.

The sight of Puna Dara’s movers and shakers entering the fortress helped to deflect some of the rising unease, at least for a while. Punaji as a rule did not revere the powerful and wealthy, but by the same token, everyone in the Punaji nation who had accrued power and wealth had done it themselves. With the sole exception of the royal family, there was no hereditary nobility, and a hefty estate tax limited the wealth a person could inherit; anyone positioned as a leader in Puna Dara had earned that, and was treated with respect. Not the fawning that Imperial or Narisian nobles expected, but respect.

Even the royals could be deposed if enough public sentiment turned against them, which added another dimension to the arrival of over a dozen wealthy visitors to the Rock. That the Crown would seek council with the various guildmasters, merchants, and civic leaders of the city was a sign that action was being taken, and served to assuage some of the public’s fear. By the same token, though, if there was to be a change of leadership, it would almost certainly fall to one of those now summoned by the King.

And there was still the serpent making its slow patrol in the harbor. The thing was tireless, and bore no marks from the mag cannon fire it had suffered last night. One way or another, the tension rising would soon boil over.

They met with the Queen and her advisors in a formal dining room first thing that morning. The Rock’s throne room was mostly used for entertaining foreign visitors who expected such grandiosity from a crowned head of state; Punaji, particularly of the successful variety, did not respond well to being lorded over. Anjal had positioned herself at the head of the long table, and that was as far as the privilege of rank went on this occasion.

None of those assembled would have stood out among the rich in Tiraas; ostentation in Punaji culture was seen as an invitation to a comeuppance. Leathers and fabrics were of the highest quality, hats had more feathers than most and some coats had understated gilt trim; swords and daggers were of exquisite workmanship and in many cases not even bejeweled. That was how the Punaji displayed wealth, in quality rather than frippery.

Guards stood at each of the doors, servants along the back wall, and the Queen’s special guests behind her chair, which immediately brought comment.

“I see some interesting faces present,” said a woman a few years younger than Anjal and apparently high in the rankings, as she positioned herself close to the head of the table. “I do not see his Majesty. Has he something better to do this morning, Anjal?”

“And it’s a pleasure to see you too, Ashla, as always,” Anjal said dryly. “The King and Princess Zaruda are preparing to address the public, and in fact I intend to involve you all in that, but first we need to have a discussion. With me are some allies who have been sent by the major cults to assist with this Rust issue. Brother Ermon and Corporal Shahai have been most helpful already.” She turned and nodded to the incongruous pair standing against the wall behind and to her left. Both were impressive, Ermon in full regalia but for the fur cloak, which the climate did not permit, Shahai in Legion dress uniform borrowed from the local Avenist temple. “And this is Tobias Caine, Hand of Omnu.”

“Toby is fine,” he said, bowing slightly. “A pleasure.” He was closer, standing at the Queen’s right.

“Interesting,” mused a tall man whose beard was more gray than black. “Shall we take this as the Crown’s formal declaration that it requires help with this crisis?”

“Neither my husband nor I have called for help, until this morning when we asked you to join us,” Anjal said calmly. “All these have been here for days now; their various masters dispatched them and we have made them welcome, as is not only polite but strategic. The last thing we need right now is various cults running around muddling the issue further.”

“You’d think they would have learned, after what happened to the Fourth Legion,” Ashla commented.

Nandi cleared her throat. “It is not often that Avenists and Shaathists find common ground, but we do have in common that we do not scare easily.” Ermon grinned.

“And this wasn’t a crisis until this morning,” Anjal continued, “merely a problem. Now it is damn well a crisis, as you can all plainly see, and we’d be fools not to accept any aid which is available, so be so good as to lose the attitude, Jandhar.”

“Of course, you’re quite right,” the man who had spoken replied, nodding deeply and giving her a smile. “My apologies.”

“I should clarify,” said Toby, “that I was not sent by my cult. I’m here as a personal friend of the Princess, at her request.”

“Yes, Zaruda’s entourage,” replied a stately woman halfway down the table. Most of the women present wore Punaji attire of greatcoats and hats, distinguished from the common folk only by finer fabrics and brighter colors, but this one was in formal silk dress, her white hair held up by an arrangement of fine gold chains connected to the blue jewel set between her eyebrows. “I daresay we have all heard of you by reputation. She keeps fascinating company, our Princess.”

“That damned school,” another man muttered.

“As to that,” Jandhar piped up, “stop me if I’m just shooting my mouth off again, but how is it the lot of you haven’t already put this thing to bed? You represent quite the bundle of firepower, from what I understand.”

“Complex problems are rarely solved by hitting them hard enough,” Toby replied.

“Spoken like an Omnist, to no one’s surprise,” said Ashla, curling her lip. She had set her hat on the table and picked up one of the pastries laid out, but was now tossing it idly from hand to hand rather than taking a bite. “This one seems to occupy pride of place, Anjal.”

“We don’t get many paladins,” Anjal said brusquely. “With regard to the matter at hand—”

“This clearly is the matter at hand,” Ashla interrupted. “The Rust have been building themselves up for the better part of a year, and you’ve done nothing. They proved their will and capability to be a threat by striking down an entire Silver Legion, and you did nothing. Now you’ve got…what, a multi-cult strike force? Paladins? And somehow you’ve abruptly made this worse.”

“Oh, keep it in your pants, Ashla,” snorted the youngest man present, who didn’t look any older than Toby. “This is not the time for a political upheaval, and you aren’t going to be the next Queen. I want to hear what her Majesty and these fascinating people have to say.”

“I am absolutely flabbergasted to find you sober enough to be here at this hour of the morning, Khadesh,” Ashla replied with a cold little smile. “That’s how we know things are bad.”

“Ashla, if you want to take potshots at me, knock yourself out,” Anjal said sharply. “But anybody who’s just going to snipe at each other can go stand in the hall and do it. We do not have time for this childishness. We are here to discuss the situation, and options. We have not been doing nothing. The Huntsmen have helpfully located the Rust’s base of operations—their real one, not the harbor warehouse we all know they’ve been using. We are also in contact with the local Eserite chapter, who are gathering intelligence for us. Corporal Shahai’s squad is the first of several Silver Legion special forces units the High Commander has sent.”

“Don’t you have any actual Punaji to solve your problems?” Ashla exclaimed.

“We Punaji solve our problems by keeping our wits about us,” Anjal retorted. “For most of their existence the Rust were apparently harmless. Their involvement with what befell the Fourth Legion was unproven—until last night. Thanks to Toby and his friends we have confirmation of that from the Rust’s leader himself. Prior to this, the Crown had no excuse to clamp down on them.” She leaned forward, gripping the arms of her chair. “Had we attempted it, Ashla, you would have raised bloody hell—and unlike your posturing here and now, you would have been right to do so. The one thing the Punaji must absolutely never tolerate in their government is its clamping down on anything resembling dissent, which was all we could prove the Rust to be guilty of.”

“Hear, hear!” Khadesh exclaimed. “And furthermore, we all know this, so let’s not waste time and insult each other’s intelligence by making the Queen explain obvious decisions we all fully understood to begin with.”

“The Rust admitted fault for striking down the Legion, then?” the richly-dressed old woman asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Yes,” said Toby, “right before unleashing that sea serpent and instructing my friends and I to carry an ultimatum back to the Crown. They don’t actually want anything but to be left in peace; I gather they were quite alarmed by the display of force we represented to them. We were trying to negotiate when a third party intervened and spooked them.”

“Third party?” Jandhar demanded. “Who?”

“Someone anonymous,” Toby replied. “The rest of my group is working on that right now. Someone wielding powerful magic, which is why we cannot have them running around unsupervised any longer; I believe the current crisis would not have developed had they not antagonized the Rust while we were there. But they seem to have done it by interfering with those magic machines the cultists use, which makes me suspect they have valuable aid to offer once we catch them.”

“Probably Imperial,” Ashla snorted. “Tiraas just can’t leave well enough alone.”

“Perhaps,” Anjal said mildly. “If that is the case, there will be no official acknowledgment. Both because the Crown does not need to have the Silver Throne meddling in our business so intimately, and because if this rogue agent is not going to cooperate, I intend to throw them to the Rust as a chew toy to placate them.”

That brought grins and a few chuckles from around the table, quickly cut off when Ashla slapped her palm down.

“So that’s it?” she demanded. “Placate them?”

“As a first step,” Toby said. “That is not the only—”

“And this is who you’re getting advice from, I see,” Ashla barreled on. “Omnists would have us all sit and meditate while our city is overthrown by machine cultists! Do you not understand, boy, that that sea serpent represents the end of Puna Dara?! As long as it’s out there in the harbor, we have no trade. Our ships can’t sail. It will be days before the lack of fish causes widespread hunger, at most. Without our ships, we are nothing!” She finished on a shout, actually hurling the pastry at Toby’s head.

He caught it, looking bemused.

“Toby,” the Queen said in a deceptively mild tone, touching the jewel on her forehead with a fingertip, “did Zari ever tell you the significance of these?”

“Uh…” Toby blinked. “No, your Majesty, it hasn’t come up.”

“It was actually started by a foreigner,” she said. “Queen Sera. She was Calderaan, married to a Punaji King for political reasons.”

“Oh, come on,” Jandhar exclaimed. “Is this really the time for a history lesson?”

“Shush,” Khadesh said airily. “I like this story.”

“The Calderaan, of course,” Anjal continued lightly, “are a military society, and largely Avenist, but King Dakresh mostly thought of his new wife as foreign, and noble, and therefore delicate. So when Puna Dara was attacked by the Sheng, he forbade her to leave the fortress and fight. Not only did she take up a sword and join the fray, she took the time to place a target on her forehead.” Anjal grinned, tilting her head so that the gem flickered in the light. “It has ever since been the custom for Punaji women of a certain rank. Only one of sufficient power and importance that she is already a target wears the jewel; to put it on is to proclaim that you believe yourself such, which is not wise in our society unless you are prepared to back that up. It is a standing invitation, in essence.” Her grin widened. “A woman wearing the jewel is saying, ‘slap this off my head, if you think you can.’”

“Hm,” Toby mused. “I see.”

“If you’re quite done educating your foreign guests,” Ashla said, her voice dripping with acid, “I think we have a rather more urgent matter to—”

Toby’s hand was much faster than hers; he threw the roll hard enough that the impact on her forehead made her jerk backward.

“Wow, that’s on there good,” he observed. “You know, I always wondered how Ruda kept that thing on. Didn’t seem polite to ask.”

“It’s enchanted,” the grandmotherly woman explained with a wry smile.

“Who’s Ruda?” somebody inquired, but was drowned out by the scraping of chair legs on the stone floor as Ashla shoved her seat backward, standing and drawing her saber.

“Little boy,” she said in deadly calm, “I do not care whose Hand you think you are. If you issue a challenge to a Punaji woman, you are going to bleed.”

“You started it,” Khadesh pointed out gleefully.

Ignoring him, Ashla lunged at Toby with the sword.

He moved like water, flowing aside and toward her, spinning around the back of her blade and coming to rest behind her. Somehow, in that split-second, he had ended up with one hand on her sword arm and the other on her waist, as if he were guiding her through the swing.

Ashla emitted a high-pitched grunt of pure outrage, trying roughly to shrug him off. Toby continued to flow with her impetus, spinning the pair of them in a full circle like they were dancing and tugging the sword from her hand in the process, as a smooth continuation of her own attempted stab. He twirled them around, extending a leg almost as an afterthought to kick Ashla’s chair.

It slammed against the back of her knees, causing her to drop back into the seat with another grunt. In the next instant she froze, Toby having planted the tip of her saber against her belt buckle. He shifted it a few inches, however, guiding it unerringly back to its sheath. A single flick of his wrist sent the blade sliding home with a whisper and a click.

“The monks of Omnu exist to encourage peace,” he said, “as gently as possible.”

Pushing her chair back into the table required more brute force, but he did not seem to lack for it; Ashla’s midsection met the edge of the table hard enough to wring a squeak from her.

“The Hand of Omnu,” Toby said from right behind Ashla, both his hands resting on her shoulders, “exists to insist upon peace. No more gently than necessary.”

He held that position for a few seconds before releasing her and taking a step back.

Khadesh applauded until his neighbor reached over and swatted his hands down.

“I do prefer peaceful solutions,” Toby continued, stepping back over to the Queen’s side; Anjal was grinning openly at him. “I certainly tried to reach one with the Rust’s leader. But if any of you are worried that I am going to try to broker a solution which will not reflect the best interests of your nation, let me put that fear to rest. There was a moment, talking to him, listening to him, when I wanted to believe. As little respect as I have for the Rust’s philosophy, as long as they weren’t harming anyone, as long as they just wanted to practice in peace, I really wished I could support them in that. Reassure them, and persuade the Church, the Empire, and whoever else to leave them alone. But that was before. That man, Ayuvesh, acknowledged attacking and all but destroying a Silver Legion—just because they might have been a threat to him. When startled and faced with the possibility of my friends and I intervening, he set loose that beast in the harbor. He operates through fear, securing his needs by the threat of force. He is a bully and a terrorist, and he has to go.” He nodded firmly to the Queen. “I speak for my friends as well when I say that we are fully behind the Crown in this. The Rust must fall.”

“So when we talk about placating them,” Anjal continued, nodding back, “it is a tactic only to buy time. We must acknowledge that at this moment, the upper hand is theirs; so long as their pet is swimming around the harbor, they have a hand on Puna Dara’s throat. Our first priority must be to break that grip, and persuading them to release it, as galling as it may be, is our clear best bet in that regard. But in doing so, however we must, we will not lose sight of the fact that the Rust have declared war upon the Punaji.” She bared her teeth, and the expression was no longer a smile. “And the Punaji do not suffer tyrants.”

There were fervent mutters of approval at this, and one outright cheer from Khadesh.

“Well said,” Jandhar stated, nodding. “What, then, is your plan?”

“The situation is this,” Anjal said, folding her hands lightly. “We have two paladins, a pixie mage, a dryad, and the archdemon Vadrieny—together enough sheer force to crush almost any opponent. Unfortunately they can’t be used directly on the serpent because none of them can fight while swimming. The Rust did not do what they did to the Fourth Legion, which suggests that they aren’t able to. Conjuring that sea serpent guaranteed them the enmity of all Puna Dara, not something they would have done lightly if they had a cleaner option.”

“Back up,” said Ashla, not much the worse for wear for her recent manhandling, aside from an even more annoyed expression. “Vadrieny? That one’s the worst of Elilial’s get. Mindless destruction personified. Are you certain you have her under control?”

“Vadrieny is not under control,” Toby said quietly. “She was nearly destroyed five years ago and has no memory of her existence before that point. She is a friend, and has earned my trust. These…are interesting times,” he added wryly.

“I note that your assessment of the situation made no mention of conventional military assets,” said Jandhar. “Are we just not going to bother solving this ourselves, with soldiers?”

“This is not a conventional military situation,” the Queen replied. “We do not know what additional tricks the Rust have yet to play, and more to the point, they have made it plain that if they are further antagonized that serpent will begin destroying the docks and the ships there. What we need is to get to a point where we can use our forces. That means we need, first, to neutralize that serpent and cripple the Rust’s magical abilities. And that is being worked on as we speak.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” said Khadesh, grinning.

“I am in here talking to you while my husband is out there addressing the public for one reason,” Anjal said with a smile. “He is a much better public speaker than I. For the time being, the Crown is forced to comply with the Rust’s demands, to prevent the destruction of the docks—but the Rust have made a critical mistake in that regard. They depend upon Puna Dara for…everything. They have to eat. They have to move freely through the city to get any supplies they need. They wish to spread their gospel, which requires a public that will listen to them and not, for example, hurl bricks. The King is reminding the people right now that the government serves them, not the other way round, and while the government is forced to wait—for now—the Punaji people, themselves, are far from helpless.”

“So that is why you need us,” the old woman said slowly. “We can command action from our various employees. More to the point, we command respect from the general public. A united plan enacted by everyone in this group will spread throughout the city.”

“I like it,” Ashla said suddenly, nodding to the Queen. “Make it impossible for the Rust to do any business—even to exist in Puna Dara. As long as it’s not soldiers refusing to sell them food or let them walk down the street unmolested, they cannot claim the Crown has challenged their ultimatum. They may have cut off trade in Puna Dara, but Puna Dara can cut them off just the same.”

“And making that point,” Jandhar mused, “might just encourage them to call off their snake. Which brings us back to the other point: how, then, do you plan to neutralize their magic and put a stop to them?”

“That,” said Toby, “is what the rest of my friends are doing right now. We know someone who has insight into the Rust’s workings; it’s just a matter of bringing her into the fold.”


Milanda had given up on sleeping and gone in search of breakfast. All she’d managed after coming back to her rented hovel was a quick nap before another eyeball-gouging nightmare had catapulted her back out of bed, and she hadn’t dared try again. Worry and remorse made for poor company, but they sure kept her occupied.

They had occupied her mind, too; she was stymied as to her next move, and keenly aware that stress and lack of sleep were wearing down her faculties. If she still had that Infinite Order screen she could maybe have kept working at it, but as Walker had rightly pointed out, that thing would undoubtedly lead the Rust straight to her. So she’d ditched it back in the mines, and now here she was, alone, probably responsible for the current disastrous state of affairs in Puna Dara…

This mission was altogether not going well.

Dawn found her out on the street, heading for the nearby market where she could obtain some bread and fish. Milanda honestly felt too anxious to be hungry, but it was an excuse to move. Maybe a little air and exercise in the tropical sunlight would help clear her head. Maybe it would tire her enough that she could actually get some rest.

Of course, that was before she felt the blazing beacon standing out from the sea of candles that were the people around her, perceived through her life sense. She recognized that bottomless font of fae power from having followed her around last night, and from working with her sisters. Well, actually, she couldn’t distinguish between dryads at a distance this way, but how many could there be in Puna Dara right now?

And more to the point, what the hell was Juniper doing here?

Walking along with her attention on the dryad some two streets off to her left, she was sufficiently blinded to her own surroundings that only the reflexes granted by her fae attunement enabled her to catch the object tossed to her.

“Here ya go!” a voice said cheerfully. “On the house. You could use it, hon, you look half dead.”

It was a steamed honey bun, and it had been lightly pitched to her by a black-haired elf. There were few enough of those, but Milanda had taken pains to be able to recognize this one in particular, and her stomach dropped further. She resisted the urge to glance down at herself; the disguise charm on her gear should make her look like an unremarkable Punaji woman. Maybe this was a coincidence?

And maybe Justinian would spontaneously drop dead of a heart attack and she could go home.

“No, thank you,” she said politely, holding out the bun to the elf.

“Take it,” Principia bloody Locke said in a gentle tone that made Milanda want to punch her. “I know the look of somebody who hasn’t slept or eaten all night. A full stomach’ll help you get some rest, too.”

What the hell was going on? Was this a Legion special forces thing, hunting her down in connection to the ongoing Rust debacle? Or was it Locke on personal business as Trissiny Avelea’s biological mother, trying an even more indirect route? Milanda wasn’t on speaking terms with her grandmother, but she was aware that Narnasia had bodily ejected the elf from the Abbey last time she came sniffing around.

And in either case, how the hell had she found her?

Plus, that dryad was still wandering about not far away. Not getting closer, but…

“Guilty conscience?” Locke inquired innocently, and Milanda very nearly hurled the sticky bun at her face.

“What do you think I have to be guilty about?” she snarled.

The elf shrugged. “No idea. Worries, then? Or recently in love? Those are the big three, when it comes to insomnia.”

She could run. Of course, even with all her new gifts, she likely couldn’t outrun an elf. And even if this elf didn’t chase her down… Now that she was here, Milanda had to learn how much she knew and how she’d found it out. That this was a coincidental meeting was simply beyond the scope of possibility.

She started walking again, slowly, and Locke fell into step beside her. Obviously, she did not take a bite of the bun; gods only knew what the wretched woman had done to it.

“Conscience,” Milanda said suddenly. “And worry.”

Locke nodded, strolling along and apparently not watching her. There was silence for a long moment.

“Have you ever done something,” Milanda finally said, painfully aware she was in no mental state for these games, “something unspeakably awful…that wasn’t at all your fault, but you were there. No matter how rationally you know you couldn’t have stopped it, you can’t help feeling…”

“Nope,” Locke said after she’d trailed off. “I’ve lived a long time—at least, by human standards—and done some pretty awful shit, but I am glad to say everything I did was my idea. Good or bad, for better or worse, I own my mistakes. I’d hate to be in your shoes, if that’s what’s eating you. It sounds…disempowering.”

“That’s a good word,” Milanda mused. “What’s the worst thing you’ve done?”

The elf emitted a soft huff of breath that might have been the shadow of a laugh, or a grunt, or almost anything. “Oh, that’s easy. Abandoned my daughter.”

So…maybe this was a personal thing after all? That was not better. The absolute last thing she needed was this random event blowing her cover.

“I’ve lied and cheated like you wouldn’t believe,” Locke continued thoughtfully, “killed and maimed… And stolen, oh, gods. I bet I’ve lifted about the annual gross domestic product of Stavulheim, one way or another. But all that was for a purpose. Even the people who’ve suffered for it…well, I knew what I was doing and why, and I always considered it worthwhile at the time. My little girl, though. I was just scared, and confused, and stupid, and mostly pissed off about being those things when I’d spent two hundred years thinking I had all the answers. I did something for all the wrong reasons, something I didn’t understand, and it…huh. I guess maybe I can relate to you a little better than I thought.”

“Mm,” she said noncommittally.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” she asked, turning to give Milanda an inquisitive look.

Murdered a room full of soldiers? Accidentally provoked the Rust into unleashing a sea serpent on Puna Dara? The burning presence of the dryad was drifting closer; she was hemmed between Locke and Juniper. Was that an accident?

Gods, she was so tired.

“I don’t really care to discuss it,” she said shortly. “Thanks for the bun. I’d better be going.”

“Well, it really isn’t that easy,” Lock said, stopping and turning directly to her. Oh, great, here it was. “Y’see, I was hoping we could have a conversation. You know, connect, maybe find some common ground.”

“I think you have me confused with someone else,” Milanda said politely. What could she do to this elf, if it came to that? Her augmented reflexes worked to protect her; they were useless on the attack, and she didn’t think she was faster than an elf. Plus, there were people around. Ignoring the two of them, as people in cities did to each other, but that would change if she took a swing at somebody.

“The thing is,” Locke said mildly, “the pixie and the dryad have this trick where they can…okay, honestly, it’s a bit over my head. Something about attunements and tracking and I dunno from fae magic, I left all that crap behind when I fled my parents’ grove. But no, I don’t have you confused with someone else. I’m just the first envoy, lady. The polite one. Isn’t it best for everybody if we do things the polite way?”

Milanda dropped the sticky bun in the street, planted her feet, and loosely balled her fists.

“Try to do it the impolite way,” she said quietly. “Go on, Locke. Try.”

The elf raised an eyebrow. “She knows my name. That’s interesting. Anyhow…no, sorry, that’s not my job. I guess you’ve just removed me from the equation.”

And suddenly the dryad was right there.

The overwhelming presence simply shifted spontaneously from its distant position to mere yards away; Milanda spun, right in time to see a young Stalweiss woman remove an enchanted ring, staring at her, and resume her natural green-and-golden coloration.

“You’re new at this,” Juniper said condescendingly. “If you are very helpful, and I mean so helpful that I end up getting over how annoyed I am at you, maybe I’ll teach you a bit more about the attunement. Maybe.”

Before Milanda could decide on a course of action, the earth shook, and people began screaming and scattering.

She whirled back the other way, where Vadrieny had landed in the street hard enough to make a small crater in the dirt. Locke was backing away slowly, but Milanda paid her no attention. She had just spied something else out of the corner of her eye.

She hadn’t felt him at all, and still didn’t; it was like he was completely absent from her life sense, he and that absurd, smoke-and-fire horse he rode. Gabriel Arquin brought his mount to a halt a few yards distant and leveled his scythe at her.

“Morning, sunshine,” he said flatly. “I see you decided not to play nicely with our elf. Very well, by the power vested in me by this here life-destroying divine weapon, I hereby deputize your ass. Welcome to the team.”

 

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