Tag Archives: Branwen Snowe

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“He is an Izarite, as a matter of fact.”

“Now I’ve truly heard everything,” Shook snorted.

The Jackal brayed his characteristic shrill laugh. “Sonny boy, if you haven’t learned better than to think that by now, you never will!”

“He sounds like an intriguing individual,” Khadizroth said to their hostess, ignoring the two of them.

Branwen Snowe nodded, smiling at the dragon. “Infernomancy is not esteemed by the cult, obviously, but Mr. Agasti has exercised his craft—both of them—in Izara’s service. He is among the few trusted with the creation of shatterstones, and has provided legal services to local temples at no charge. I can personally attest that being a person not widely liked by the Brethren does not preclude being of service to them.”

“Shatterstones,” the Jackal chortled. “That’s got to be the silliest idea anyone’s ever had for defense.”

“I assure you, those things are not to be taken lightly,” Khadizroth murmured.

“More to the point,” added Shook, “what the hell legal services would the Izarites ever need? What kind of asshole sues a temple of Izara?”

“Such things do happen, now and again,” Branwen said ruefully, “but it mostly comes down to the fact that the majority of lawyers look to Avei for patronage. Their faith is not fondly disposed toward ours as a rule.”

The enforcer nodded. “Well, Avenists making trouble is something I definitely understand.”

“You could say it is what brings us all together,” Khadizroth added with a small smile at Branwen.

“To give the Sisterhood credit, I think blaming Basra on them is excessively harsh,” the Bishop replied, smiling back. “Creatures such as she are adept at squirming into organizations and hollowing out a niche for themselves. And it was Avei’s own who drove her out. Really, it was inspiring the way young Trissiny descended upon her. I am not pleased by violence as a rule, but to see an avatar of Avei’s righteous vengeance in action, one cannot help but be impressed.”

Shook and the Jackal snorted in unison.

“I have several times had the same thought,” Khadizroth said to Branwen, continuing to ignore them. The dragon gave her a warm little smile before returning his attention to the city map laid out upon the room’s sole desk. “So. This pattern is suggestive, obviously. What would you say are the chances that this Mortimer Agasti is in league with the Black Wreath?”

“The entire menace of the Wreath is that one can never be certain of that, about anyone,” Branwen replied gravely. “But I am as confident in Agasti’s loyalties as in anyone’s.”

“I dunno this guy but I’m inclined to agree,” Shook added, folding his arms and leaning against the wall. “The one Izarite warlock? Seems a little on the nose. The Wreath never do the obvious thing, even when it would be the smarter thing in their position. I honestly wonder if over-complicating everything isn’t a commandment their religion.”

“Then there is another explanation for the distribution of these sites you have identified around his establishment, your Grace,” Khadizroth mused, studying the map. “May I ask how you acquired this intelligence?”

“These reports come from the Thieves’ Guild,” she said. “My own contact, not the Church’s. Eserites are generally disinclined to respect any central authority; coupled with the general Western distrust for the Universal Church, it is unsurprising that these reports weren’t made available to Basra. I am reasonably sure they won’t be, either, so you needn’t worry about her learning these are not reports of chaos cultist activity.”

“How come the Guild hasn’t moved against ’em, if they know where they are?” Shook asked, his attention more focused upon her.

“Each of these six sites was the source of a single sighting,” Branwen explained, smiling vaguely at him. She had a tendency to appear oddly vapid when not speaking directly to Khadizroth. “A demon sighting, summoning residue, in one case just people in gray robes. Nobody has been harmed, that I have heard of, which makes all the difference. The Guild and the Wreath mutually avoid one another; it gets gratuitously ugly when they fail to, as I have observed since one of my fellow Bishops keeps deliberately setting that up. So long as the Wreath are not actually harming the people of Ninkabi, I don’t expect Eserite intervention. And they likely won’t. Whatever they are up to, the Wreath seldom create civilian casualties, I have to give them that.”

“What’re you thinkin’, K?” Shook asked.

“The obvious possibility is that the Wreath have some designs upon this Mortimer Agasti,” the dragon said, straightening back up and turning to gaze pensively out the office’s window. Branwen had brought them to a nondescript space owned by the Izarite cult, a two-room apartment with a cozy office-like space in which they now stood and a small, adjoining bedroom. “But that, I feel, is the less likely one.”

“The obvious answer’s always the less likely one with these assholes,” the Jackal chuckled. “Jerry hit that nail on the head.”

“I think,” Khadizroth said slowly, “they are using him as cover.”

“Trying to create ‘accidents’ to discredit Mortimer?” Branwen asked, her blue eyes sharp and alert once fixed on the dragon. “It occurred to me that this might be their goal. Their entire calling is to quell and contain demonic outbreaks. If they consider him a danger…”

“Possible, but I rather doubt it. Notably, the Black Wreath move to suppress lone warlocks, yes, but have historically been reluctant to face potential rivals. They go to great lengths to avoid the Topaz College, and flee from red dragons upon sight.”

“You may not’ve noticed, being cooped up with us the last year or so, but people fleeing from dragons ain’t just a Wreath thing,” Shook said dryly. The Jackal burst out laughing in near-hysterics; by this point, even Branwen knew to ignore him.

“Even so,” Khadizroth said, turning to face them again and folding his hands behind his back. “If Mortimer Agasti is a known and liked figure in the city, and closely involved with the Izarite cult, the Wreath are unlikely to have hostile designs upon him. Perhaps in years past they might have, but following their defeats at Tiraas and Veilgrad, their forces are considerably thinned. I cannot believe they would waste effort chasing mockingjays, which raises the question of what they are after in Ninkabi. What would be in character for them is using him as camouflage.”

“Yeah, I could see that,” the Jackal said, still grinning. “So long as they’re close to warlock boy, any miscellaneous demon shit that somebody reports is likely to get blamed on him.”

“The hole in that plan is the warlock himself,” said Shook. “Who better to hunt them down? If I was him, Wreath digging a burrow under my back porch would immediately become my first priority.”

“Mortimer is…quite reclusive,” Branwen said, frowning thoughtfully. “It is entirely possible he has not noticed any infernal presence nearby. Aside from his work on shatterstones, he has not done anything save look after his revenants within the walls of his club in years.”

“Do not forget, also, that the Wreath’s greatest weapon is their stealth,” Khadizroth added. “They can hide even from paladins, even from the gods, and that craft is Elilinist specifically, not merely infernal. A rival warlock might be one of the least likely parties to detect their presence.”

“Okay, so let’s say this theory’s right,” said Shook. “Wreath’s operating in that neighborhood, using this Agasti guy as a cover. What’s our play? Right off the bat I can tell you it’s not a good situation to wade into. Just the fact they were able to pick their own ground gives ’em the advantage. I like the Wreath better when they’re forced to meet on somebody else’s terms. Preferably mine.”

“Well spotted, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gravely, nodding. “Making targets of ourselves is not a winning move. As yet, it is unlikely the Wreath even know we are present and interested in them. That is our greatest advantage.”

“How’s about we make Basra a target?” the Jackal suggested, grinning as usual. “That’s where all this is leading up to anyway, isn’t it?”

“You know, that’s a pretty good idea,” Shook agreed. “If the whole objective here is cutting the legs out from under Basra, it’s a lot less likely to bite us on the ass if it’s somebody else who does it. Trick is setting that up.”

“It may be less tricky than you imagine,” Branwen said softly, “if approached in the right way. Simply introducing Basra to Black Wreath cultists directly will almost certainly result in some manner of explosion.”

“There’s no way she’s dumb enough to just lunge after bait like that,” Shook objected. “Nobody who’s lived that long and achieved what she has is that stupid.”

“Why, Thumper,” the Jackal cooed, “I didn’t know you thought so highly of our fearless leader! How long have you been nursing that crush?”

“First step in dealing with any asshole who needs a takedown is to give them full credit for their capabilities,” Shook said icily. “I made the mistake of not respecting one smarmy cunt once, and it’s the reason I’m stuck out here with you fuckers. I don’t mean to repeat my errors.”

“You may find it an amusing irony, Mr. Shook,” Branwen said lightly, “that Principia Locke has played a major role in cutting Basra Syrinx down to size on multiple occasions. She’s arguably the reason you are both out here.”

Shook went stiff as a plank, sucking in a long breath through his teeth. For a long few seconds, color rose in his face as if he were bout to burst a blood vessel.

Then, unexpectedly, he relaxed, and actually chuckled. “Y’know what? That actually is pretty funny.”

“Hmmm.” They all turned back to Khadizroth to find him smiling slightly, again looking down at the map. “I like this general line of thought. Rather than confront our enemies, let someone else exert pressure upon them. And ultimately, set them against one another without dirtying our own hands.”

“So, basically the thing Justinian does to everybody else,” the Jackal said lightly. “Hey, sounds good! Sure seems to work out okay for him.”

“We aren’t Justinian,” Shook pointed out. “And there’s a notable lack of a middle part in that plan. Pressure them how? And then, arrange that confrontation…how?”

“It is simply too early to lay out the final stages of such a campaign,” said Khadizroth. “The manner in which things develop will determine what pieces are in what position upon the board when the endgame approaches. It is a mistake to over-plan too far in advance, particularly when one knows as little as we do at the moment. Instead, we must seek to apply that pressure, and continue increasing it until an opportunity presents itself to move decisively.”

“What do you propose to do, Lord Khadizroth?” Branwen asked.

“Leverage the assets available to us, to begin with,” the dragon explained. “There are means within the mysteries of fae magic of laying triplines which may catch even the Wreath. I do not propose to set traps for them, but rather signals that will enable me to tell where they have been, and ideally, doing what. Unfortunately it is problematic for me to move about the city. Some things I can do from a distance, using only this map. For others, Vannae can travel more freely.”

“Somewhat,” Shook cautioned. “An elf will create less of an uproar, but they still aren’t common in cities. Especially out here in the West.”

“He can deflect some attention by adopting traditional costume rather than that suit he was wearing before,” Branwen suggested. “Many people cannot tell one elf from another, sadly. And city dwellers in general are somewhat jaded to novel sights. So long as he does not cross his own trail too frequently…”

“Elves can be pretty sneaky when they want to,” the Jackal drawled. “I mean, y’know, so I hear. Damn shifty elves, stealin’ our women and our jobs.”

“Great, more magic bullshit,” Shook grunted. “What’s that leave for us to do?”

“It would be tremendously foolish not to take advantage of the full range of talents available,” Khadizroth assured him. “To begin with, one thing we are equipped to do is draw official attention to this district and hamper the Wreath’s movements. In our own little cell are a Thieves’ Guild veteran, a succubus, and an assassin. If the three of you cannot create a stir that fills this neighborhood with police, no one can.”

“Oooh!” The Jackal sat bolt upright in the chair in which he had been sprawled, positively beaming. “Crime spree!”

“Now, hold on,” Shook interjected. “One of the few actually sacred sites to Eserites is in Ninkabi, and by Snowe’s account the local Guild is already aware of warlocks fucking around in this area. If anything resembling unauthorized crime starts happening consistently, the Guild will move into the neighborhood in force. And that will spook the Wreath into vanishing. Like the Bishop mentioned, they want none of that fight.”

“It will have to be a slow escalation,” Khadizroth agreed. “And ideally, of a nature that stirs up official presence in the entire city. The Wreath may be able to shift their focus away from Agasti’s local aegis, but that will only make them stand out more—and I think they will not leave Ninkabi entirely. There is, after all, a reason they are here.” He shifted to regard Branwen with a thin smile. “I have a theory about that, as it happens.”

“Oh?” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

“I hesitate to comment prematurely. With luck, my efforts with Vannae will yield answers soon.”

“It’s not kind to lead a lady on, Lord Khadizroth,” she said, smiling.

“I hope I shall soon be in a position to make it up to you, my dear.” Khadizroth held her eyes a moment longer before turning back to the others. “So. Given those criteria, what do you think?”

Shook heaved an irritated sigh. “I think that job needs either a much bigger crew or more magic fuckery. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Shiri can whip up something like that, which I got a feeling is why Syrinx doesn’t like me takin’ her out of the HQ. Me, though, I’m not the guy for large-scale manipulation.”

“So,” the Jackal said, his avid grin a sharp contrast to Shook’s dour expression, “crime that torques off the authorities…but slowly…and doesn’t rile the Thieves’ Guild. Oooh, it’s like a puzzle box! I love it! I’m gonna get started right away!”

“Get started on…what, exactly?” Branwen inquired delicately.

“I don’t know!” the Jackal exclaimed with wild glee. “But I have a good feeling about this!”

“Makes one of us,” Shook muttered.

“I apologize for relegating grunt work to you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said, drawing his eyebrows together in a slight frown, “but we must also be attentive to the need to placate the Inquisitor. My work and Vannae’s I can justify to her as hunting cultists, as that will be precisely what we are doing. We already need to concoct some manner of cover that will satisfy her as to what Jack and Kheshiri are up to. Someone needs to be following up on leads the old-fashioned way, if only to have something convincing to report to her.”

Shook heaved a sigh. “Yep, sounds about right. Well, hell, I haven’t made any of my choices with the aim of gettin’ to do the glamorous jobs. And you’re right, K, that bitch as as paranoid as a shaken can of mice. We’d better start digging up some bone to throw her or she’s never gonna let more than three of us at a time out of her sight.”

“Basra is paranoid,” Branwen offered, “but also possesses wide blind spots, and a tendency to get tunnel vision once her attention is fixed on a target. Certain important functions in her brain are just missing. In fact, what’s wrong with her is very similar to what’s wrong with him.” She nodded at the Jackal, who waved back. “If you have developed any skill at managing his antics in the last year, you will find it applicable in maneuvering around Basra.”

“That is good to know,” Shook said, and winked. “Thanks for the tip, B.”

“Now, I don’t think that’s entirely fair,” the Jackal protested breezily. “The woman is one big clenched sphincter rolling along in a ball of ego. At least I know how to have fun.”

“Basra has her amusements,” Branwen said, unsmiling. “She is particularly fond of murder, and of sexually abusing her subordinates. I urge you to be careful in dealing with her.”

“That’s just unsporting, that is,” the Jackal opined. “If you’re gonna sexually abuse someone, it should be at least a rival, if not a superior. Otherwise where’s the satisfaction?”

“You’re a twisted little fuck, aren’cha,” Shook grunted, stepping over to the desk. Ignoring the Jackal making kissy faces at him, he leaned over the map, his eyes darting back and forth across it a few times before he pointed to a specific spot. “This one has a lot more notes next to it.”

“Ah, yes, that’s a little cafe where there have been multiple suspicious sightings,” Branwen said, craning her neck to follow his indicating finger. “Well, three, which is two more than at any other location on the list. But those were three of the earliest; there has been nothing there in months.”

“Eh, this is busywork anyhow,” he said with a shrug, and stepped back from the desk, straightening his lapels. “And that’s where Syrinx will screech at me for not going if I don’t go there, so that’s a handy answer to the question of where to start.”

“I will have familiar spirits watching you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him, “in case you run into trouble. But remember: our ability to rush across the city to your aid is limited. Do be careful. This mission is not entirely a smokescreen, and there’s a real chance of the Black Wreath noticing someone dogging their heels.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shook said with a grin. “That, plus I need to avoid the actual Guild. Thanks for keepin’ an eye out, K, but this ain’t my first rodeo. You guys do your magic shit and…whatever the fuck he’s up to.” He jerked a nod toward the Jackal, then turned and pulled open the front door. “Let me worry about the grunt work. That’s where I shine.”


“I still don’t know if it’s a great idea to split up,” Jonathan protested.

“How much of what we’ve done would you characterize as a great idea?” Melaxyna replied.

“That’s my point exactly. Even relative to all this noise in general, this specific thing doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“It’s a question of dividing our forces most efficiently,” Natchua said quietly. “Melaxyna and I are going to canvas nearby magic shops and practitioners. That is my area of expertise, and let’s be honest, social skills are not. I’m more in need of backup from the manipulator demon.”

“Empathy demon,” Melaxyna corrected primly.

Jonathan sighed, distractedly running a hand through his hair. “Well. I won’t lie, it’s a little reassuring to know you’re consciously aware of that.”

Natchua’s expression soured slightly, but she made no comment on his observation. “The opposite is true of you, Jonathan. You’re better at talking to average, working-class people because you are one. You’re also likable and forthright, and frankly you don’t need supervision.”

“Thanks, I guess,” he said a little wryly.

“I’m not sending out off alone without protection,” Natchua added in a softer voice, her expression growing more solemn. “I have ways of being alerted if you’re in danger, Jonathan. Believe me, I’ve taken steps.”

“Natchua, knowing infernomancy has been done at me is never going to make me feel safer.”

She pressed her lips into an irritated line. “Fine. Good. Don’t feel safe, because you aren’t; none of us are, that is the entire point of this. But either you trust me, or you don’t.”

He stared at her. “Trust? Do…we need to revisit how this all started with you lying to me for months?”

“We both know what happened,” she snapped. “And that I didn’t harm you, or let you be harmed. Either you trust me, or you don’t. It’s a choice, Jonathan. Sometimes the smart thing to do isn’t the right thing.”

“Yeah,” he said quietly, meeting her eyes. “Yeah, fair enough. I guess it’s sure as hell true that none of us are here to do the smart thing.”

Natchua cracked a smile in spite of herself, but just as quickly cleared her throat, smoothing her face. “Right, anyway. We’re off; you find some watering hole to gossip with the locals. Come on.”

She turned and strode to the mouth of the alley, both of them following. They emerged into the morning sun, earning a few curious glances from passersby.

“Yeah, good thing this isn’t suspicious,” Jonathan muttered. “Don’t mind me, I’m just the guy coming out of dark alleys with two—oof!”

Melaxyna flung herself forward, hugging him with her arms around her neck and her feet off the ground. “You be careful, Johnny! This isn’t Mathenon and you don’t know where anything is, and if you get lost we’re not gonna spend the whole day chasing you down! Got it?”

She dropped her heels back to the pavement and gave him a pointed stare from inches away. He stared right back, blinking in shock.

“Never try not to be noticed, that’s shifty as hell,” the disguised succubus muttered, barely moving her lips. “Be noticed doing something ordinary, nobody’ll remember that. All right, get outta here, y’big goon,” she added loudly, reaching up to ruffle his hair and then turning to flounce away.

This time Natchua was left to follow, herself looking bemused.

Jonathan smoothed his hair back into place while walking the other way, peering around. The business day was underway by that point, shops opening and people passing with increasing frequency. He surveyed each storefront in passing, just like any person new to the city and looking for a place to stop in…which was true, ulterior motives or not.

Passing the open door of a small tea shop, Jonathan slowed at the smell of bread and meat from within, suddenly reminded that he’d skipped breakfast, not trusting anything cooked by a succubus. And apparently they were going to be in this city until suitable hours for a nightclub to open…

That decided him. He stepped into the relative dimness, taking in the layout as his eyes adjusted. There were three other patrons sitting at a table in the back, and a young Jendi woman standing behind the counter, just putting a fresh pot of tea on an arcane stovetop.

“Morning, stranger,” she said with a smile as he slid onto a stool at the counter itself. “What’ll it be?”

“Cup of plain tea, please,” he said. “Whatever you’re brewing there is fine. And… Okay, I’m too hungry to be picky. What would you recommend for someone who’s unfamiliar with Jendi food but willing to be adventurous?”

“There’s no high cuisine here,” she replied, grinning. “If you want a good solid breakfast, my pasties are the same meat, cheese and cabbage in flatbread you can get anywhere in the Empire.”

“The same as anywhere in the Empire sounds perfect!”

“Then perfect is coming atcha,” she said, winking and reaching for one of the still-steaming pastries set below glass in the case next to the counter. “It’ll be ten pennies for that and the tea.”

Jonathan was already pulling out his coin pouch and counted out pennies without comment; that was steeper than what a similar meal would cost back in Tiraas, but he’d been living in Mathenon where everything was hellaciously expensive. It was downright refreshing not to be gouged, after living in a city of bankers.

He chewed and drank in silence for several minutes while she attended to another customer. A shopkeeper was the perfect person to pump for information, but Jonathan knew better than to be seen to be pumping; people mistrusted a nosy stranger. For the moment, the food was plenty distracting, considering how hungry he was. The pasty appeared to be full of goat, and spicier than he was used to, but still good. This was good, honest chow, the kind of thing a man needed to fuel a solid day’s work.

For a few minutes he just let himself sit there in a cafe and eat. Just a guy and his breakfast. It was strangely but deeply therapeutic after the repeated upheavals of the last few days. And the last twenty years.

And as luck would have it, the shopkeeper was the one to strike up the conversation, in the end.

“I get mostly people from the neighborhood in here,” she said, returning to Jonathan with a smile and topping off his tea unasked. “You’re a fresh face! And clearly not from nearby.”

“Aw, what gave me away?”

Her grin was a white flash in her dark face, a smile of good humor that warmed her brown eyes. “You just passing through, or settling in?”

“That kind of depends on my luck,” Jonathan said with a sigh, setting down his nearly-finished pastry on his napkin. “You know how it is, a guy’s gotta go where there’s work. I thought I had a job lined up this morning, but that turned out to be somebody playing some kind of prank on me.”

She frowned. “That’s a rough start to the day. What sort of prank?”

“Oh, sent me to a place that’s not even hiring, and frankly…” He frowned, lowering his voice and leaning forward. “It was weird. Kind of scary. You know about a place called Second Chances?”

The shopkeeper’s expression went flat. “They don’t hire, stranger.”

“Yeah, I sure as heck know that now. You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I would swear it was a demon who answered the door. If I wasn’t passing by here and got distracted by the smell of your cooking I’d already be heading to the police.”

“If you’d met a demon who was afraid of being rumbled to the police, you wouldn’t have walked away,” she informed him. “That place is run by Mr. Agasti. Don’t you give him any trouble, he’s a good man.”

Slowly, Jonathan straightened up, setting down the teacup he had started lifting to his lips. “That so?”

“That’s so,” the woman replied, now meeting his gaze challengingly. “Yes, he’s a warlock, and yes, those are demons he’s got working his club. But Mr. Agasti has never hurt a soul, and done a lot of good for Ninkabi. You want to get by around here, you’d better not cause him any grief.”

Jonathan held her eyes for a moment, then nodded and raised his teacup again. “All right, that’s good enough for me.”

She looked slightly taken aback. “Is it?”

He shrugged, swallowed a sip of tea, and picked up his pasty again. “Sure, that hard to believe? I dunno the neighborhood, I’m new in town. It’s not the first neighborhood I’ve ever been to, though. If somebody rouses that kind of defense from the first random shopkeeper I meet, it almost always turns out they’re good people. I dunno how that works, him being a warlock and all, but there’s no reason I need to, is there? Everything’s better when folks mind their business.” He took a bite, smiling as he chewed.

The woman relaxed, and found a smile of her own. “Well, good. Sorry to get tetchy with you. It’s not always somebody new to the area is so down to earth about it.”

“Oh, I believe that,” Jonathan said wryly after swallowing. “Like I said, not my first day dealing with people.” He hesitated in the act of lifting his last bite to his mouth. “You mind indulging my curiosity, though? How’s a guy who summons demons get to be so well thought of by his neighbors? That’s something you don’t see every day.”

“No, that’s true enough,” she agreed, “Mr. Agasti is nothing if not special. Oh, hello there! Two Tiraan boys on the same morning, that’s new. You guys friends?”

Jonathan looked up, meeting the eyes of the man who had just stepped up to the counter from the door, whom he had never seen before. In fact, with one glance he was pretty sure this was not the sort of person with whom he was likely to become friends. The guy wore a suit about five times more expensive than Jonathan’s, had his hair slicked back with an excessive amount of oil, and in general projected a greasy quality he associated with aggressive salesmen.

“Not everybody from the home province is related, sweetheart,” the new arrival said condescendingly, then smiled, deliberately letting his eyes drop to her chest for a moment. “But maybe we can be friends, hmm?”

Her smile had already evaporated. “I’ll be right with you, sir,” she said curtly, then turned and strode off to check on the table at the back.

Jonathan chewed slowly on his last bite, stifling his annoyance. Quite aside from having his information-gathering interrupted right when it was about to pay off, now he was stuck next to the kind of man who urgently needed to have his face punched on general principles. It was enough to ruin the appetite.

The sleazy guy in the suit seated himself right beside Jonathan, regarding him with a smile that went nowhere near his eyes. “Funny conversation I just walked in on. What was all that about warlocks and demons?”

“Couldn’t really tell you,” Jonathan said noncommittally. “I was just about to find that out myself. I’m new to the area, too. If there’s demon stuff going on, that’s the kind of thing you want to find out about sooner than later, am I right?”

“Hell yes, and pun intended,” his new acquaintance agreed, extending a hand. “I’m Jeremiah.”

“Jonathan.” He grasped his hand and shook it firmly. Appropriately firmly, while Jeremiah stared into his eyes and squeezed hard enough he was clearly trying to hurt. One of those guys, if that hadn’t been obvious already. It wasn’t much of a hardship; the guy had decent grip strength, but Jonathan had spent his life working with his hands, and they showed it.

“So, Jonathan,” Jeremiah said in a tone that didn’t quite succeed at being nonchalant, “what brings you to town?”

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15 – 6

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The darkness receded, leaving them standing in sunlight and the fresh air of the mountains. The group, which had been clustered together in the Mathenon basement in which they had gathered for the shadow-jump, immediately moved a few feet apart. Mostly because several of them didn’t care for being in one another’s proximity, to judge by the grim stares Jonathan and Hesthri leveled at Melaxyna while stepping to the side.

The succubus was clearly unbothered. She rose up onto her toes, stretching her arms above her head and wings out to both sides, then relaxed with a pleased sigh. “Ah, that’s the stuff. Sun, breeze, and birdsong! I think I’ve had my fill of being indoors and/or underground for another lifetime.”

“Where are we?” Hesthri demanded, turning slowly in a circle to take in their surroundings.

“Veilgrad,” Jonathan answered, pointing at the city stretching away from the western foot of the mountainside upon which they now stood. “Or at least, the hills outside it. The city’s unmistakable. That, however, I don’t know about. A better question is: why are we here?”

He added the last with a frown of puzzlement, turning in the opposite direction. Above them at the pinnacle of the trail loomed the overgrown ruins of a manor house.

“That would’ve been a better question to ask before we jumped,” Melaxyna suggested with a simpering smile.

“Mel,” Natchua warned, “do not start picking at him. Or her, or me, or anyone. This group is already one person bigger than I had planned and we will all have plenty of time to get sick of each other in the days to come without professional help.”

“You know she used to wear her hair gelled up in a mohawk?” Melaxyna said, still in that innocently sweet tone. “It looked ridiculous. I’m glad she kept the green stripe, though, that’s actually rather dashing when it’s allowed to lie down properly.”

Jonathan glanced at her only momentarily before returning his focus to Natchua. “Right, well… Belated or not, the answer to my question…?”

Natchua turned and began walking up the road toward the gates of the manor grounds, giving them the option of following or being left behind. “I told you what I am looking for: demons who can be counted on to take action against Elilial, in spite of their own best interests. There are precious few of those, and it’s even harder to track them down since my primary means of doing so is to consult a djinn.”

“Safely, of course,” Melaxyna snickered. “Binding the djinn in question with a contract which prevents her from revealing anything about Natchua or her own plans to anyone. You can guess how much they enjoy that. I have never seen a djinn so piqued as Qadira el-Mafti after Natchua got done lawyering up at her. Of course, there’s no possible way that will ever come back to bite our fearless leader on the ass.”

“I don’t expect to still be alive by the time she finds an opportunity to make trouble,” Natchua said curtly. “Anyway, I have a lead on another prospect, but in the meantime, we are here to secure the other thing this mad little crusade will require: a safe base of operations.”

“Safe, huh,” Hesthri snorted. They had arrived at the head of the mountain road, where the gates still sort of stood. At least the stone pillars flanking them were still there; of the two wrought iron gates, one listed drunkenly from its hinges and the other lay flat on the path inside. Beyond, the spectacle of ruin was even worse than the glimpse visible from below had hinted. Both the long wings of the huge mansion were in terrible disrepair, with virtually every window either boarded up or reduced to a fringe of shattered glass, and the gabled roof was missing fully half its shingles and rent by yawning holes. That was nothing compared to the main entrance hall which stood between them. To judge by the size of its foundation and the height of the one standing corner, it must have been a grand edifice indeed at one point. Now it was merely a huge pile of rubble.

“For all intents and purposes?” Natchua snorted a mirthless little laugh. “Safe enough.”

“Was all this for dramatic effect?” Jonathan asked. “The whole wide approach, I mean. It’s not like there’s a lot to see, here, and it’s probably a better idea not to drop this group out in a public area where anybody might see us arrive. Wiser to bring us in closer to the building, if not inside it. Unless it’s even less safe than it looks, which would be saying something.”

“Nobody ever visits here, I assure you,” Natchua replied, leading them on a long path to the left of the smashed entrance, through the chest-high weeds and brambles which had overtaken the neglected garden. “And the grounds are protected by a very thorough set of infernal wards. Even I couldn’t shadow-jump jump onto the property itself without likely triggering some kind of trap.”

“Even you?” Hesthri drawled, shoving aside a bramble bush without reacting in the slightest to the thorns. “I thought we’d established you’re about the same age as my son. Infernal magic takes time to master, like any kind of magic. Any skill at all, for that matter. More time than you’ve been alive, girl.”

At the rear of the group, Melaxyna laughed aloud. Everyone else ignored her.

“I know very close to everything there is to know about infernal magic,” Natchua stated.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Look, Natchua, this may seem improbable, but we actually were your age at one point. It’s easy to feel like you know everything when you lack perspective on how much there is to know.”

“Do not talk down to me, Jonathan Arquin!” Natchua finally slammed to a halt at the corner of the manor, whirling to glare at him. The rest of the group stopped as well, Melaxyna lurking at the back with a malicious grin, and Hesthri clinging to Jonathan’s arm. That sight did nothing to improve Natchua’s humor. “When I say I know everything about infernal magic, I mean exactly that. Everything except whatever Elilial withheld to maintain some control, which is still more than any red dragon.”

He squinted in surprise. “Elilial…withheld?”

“Tell me, Jonathan, since you’re so old and wise and know so much,” she spat, “what do you think would happen if the goddess of demons cornered two teenage college students and stuffed their brains full of every detail of infernal lore? Do you think there is the slightest chance of them doing anything productive or responsible with that? With the entire school magic most suited to causing destruction and almost nothing else? And what lifespan would you give those two kids, at a guess?”

“Gods,” Jonathan whispered. Hesthri was staring at her in pure horror, now.

“And the best part,” Natchua said with a bitter laugh, “is we were just tools. Professor Tellwyrn was a little too close to her plans, so Elilial introduced a pair of time bombs to her campus.”

“That hellgate,” Jonathan said, eyes widening.

“Yes, that was Chase,” she said. “You think I’m cruel, or unwise, or just weird? Fine, I’ll own that, but I was the success story. He is now in a cell in Tar’naris, drugged to the gills so House Awarrion can keep him pacified while the matriarch devises a suitable torment for his offenses against her and hers. Frankly, that’s a better end than he had any right to expect. It’s a better one than I expect. There’s no life or future for me, do you understand that? You can’t walk around having this kind of power and knowledge without it seeping out to affect every aspect of your life. And you can’t live using infernomancy without causing chaos and gathering enemies.”

She paused, and none of them found anything to say in reply. Even Melaxyna no longer looked like she was enjoying the conversation.

“That’s why I’m doing this,” Natchua said at last, the anger leaking from her in a long sigh. “I am avenging my murder, Jonathan. Sticking some pain to Elilial will be nice, but the real victory will be ensuring that Gabriel and the other paladins survive whatever she’s planning intact and positioned to keep giving her grief for a good long time. And gods, I wish you hadn’t butted in. I wasn’t planning to have to avenge your death as well.” She turned around finally, rounding the corner. “But if you insist on involving yourself, fine. By the time I’m done there’ll be enough vengeance to redress a lot of sins.”

The group followed her in silence the rest of the way, which fortunately was not far. Tucked around at the back of the house was a small side door opening onto a stableyard which was now the resting place of half a dozen disintegrating carriages, all so far gone it was impossible to tell whether they had been horse-drawn or enchanted. Natchua’s warning about wards on the property had apparently been apt; the little door opened when they were still a dozen yards away, and a man’s head poked out.

He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties but prematurely balding, his pale complexion marred by a three-day growth of stubble. Though the stableyard was shaded both by the house and the mountain behind it, he blinked in what sunlight there was as though it were a new experience for him.

“Hello, Sherwin,” Natchua said, waving. “Here they are, as promised.”

“What did you promise this guy, exactly?” Hesthri demanded.

The house’s occupant squinted at them, then pointed at Jonathan. “Who’s this, then? You said two demons, Natchua.”

“This is Jonathan Arquin, who has decided to forcibly insert himself into our business,” Natchua said, giving Jonathan an annoyed look over her shoulder. “Sorry to spring that on you; it was sprung on me. Still, he’s trustworthy and actually probably useful. And not to be snippy but it’s not like you don’t have the room.”

“Room, yes, but rooms…” Sherwin sighed, stepping fully out into the yard and distractedly running a hand over his messy hair. “I’ve cleared out three rooms for you in the south wing. They’re not contiguous, I had to select a few where the floor’s not rotted and there are no major holes in the roof. Oh, well, I’m sure there’s at least one more that can be made to serve. If you’ll vouch for him, I guess that’s fine.”

“Everyone,” Natchua said, stepping aside and gesturing between him and her group, “this is our host. May I present Lord Sherwin, high seat and last scion of House Leduc. He’s more personable than he appears, given time to warm up to you. I’ve been visiting all summer; it’s just a momentary shadow-jump from Mathenon, as you now know. Sherwin, this is the hethelax I told you of. Her name is Hesthri.”

“Delighted, madam,” the scruffy young man said with a perfunctory bow.

“Like…wise,” Hesthri replied warily, doing a very poor job of masking her dubiousness, if indeed she was even trying.

“And this,” Natchua added with a smug undertone, “is Melaxyna.”

“I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you,” the succubus positively purred, sashaying forward with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips that made Hesthri roll her eyes and Jonathan avert his. Sherwin could only gape at her, mouth slightly agape, even as she sashayed up and twined herself around his arm. “Natchua tells me the most delightful things, my lord. Why don’t you show me around your charming mansion?”

“Oh, well, uh,” he babbled, “that is, it’s really more of a wreck…” The rest was muffled as the succubus deftly maneuvered him back inside and swiftly out of earshot.

“As for what I promised him, Hesthri,” Natchua said, watching after them with a sardonic twist of her mouth. “In a word: her.”

“Huh,” Jonathan grunted. “Spy, warlock, crusader, and now pimp. Your resume just keeps getting longer.”

“Jonathan, have you ever tried to make a child of Vanislaas do something they didn’t want to?” Natchua demanded.

“I’m pretty sure you know I haven’t.”

“Oh? The only thing I know about your history with demons is that you clearly have one.” She shifted her eyes to look significantly at Hesthri. “But you’re not wrong: since you aren’t dead or consigned to an asylum, you probably haven’t run afoul of a Vanislaad. So let me just assure you that your concern for Melaxyna’s virtue, while noble, is misplaced. She is fine, and having exactly as much fun as she suggested. If she wasn’t interested in being a carrot for me to dangle in front of Sherwin, I wouldn’t add to my problems by pressing the issue. Anyway, since they will likely be busy for a while, come on in and let’s see if we can find those rooms he talked about. They’ll be the only three without bats and cobwebs, I bet. And since Mel will likely be doing her sleeping in Sherwin’s, three is really all we need.”

“Natchua,” Jonathan said in a firm tone. “Does this poor guy have any idea what he’s getting involved with, here?”

“More than you do,” she shot back. “Sherwin Leduc needs your pity even less than Melaxyna. Next time you write to Gabe, ask him to recount what he and his classmates caught this poor guy doing. Anyway, I assure you, he’s fine with all of this. I won him over by promising…well, in addition to a playful succubus…a worthy objective to fulfill, like-minded people with whom to talk, and at the end of this when Elilial is royally pissed off and everything inevitably backfires on us, death.” She turned a cold shoulder to him and strode into the door. “So, everything in the world he wants.”

The two of them stood in the yard for a few long moments after Natchua had vanished within.

“I am increasingly surrounded by liars, creeps, and perverts,” Jonathan finally said aloud. “So why is it the thought that keeps coming to mind is ‘gods, that poor kid’?”

Hesthri sighed, stepping closer and resting her head on his shoulder. “I’ve missed you so much.”

They followed the others into the crumbling house, since that was all they could do.


“I am going to kill that bitch.”

Shook delivered the threat in a tone which belied its viciousness; solemn and pensive, his forehead faintly creased as he stared off at the distance in deep thought. Still, even spoken in a relatively calm voice, it was a statement which earned him wary looks from a couple of passersby, not to mention his own companions.

“And what sticks out in my brain,” Shook continued in the same tone of contemplation, “is how immediate and obvious that fact was. Sixty seconds of listening to Basra Syrinx talk and I was all, ‘yep, I’m gonna kill this bitch.’ Which got me thinking along some additional lines, there. For one thing, it’s goddamn unbelievable that…our mutual employer…would put us and her in a small confined space and expect anything but bloodshed.”

“The same thought occurred to me,” Khadizroth agreed, pacing along beside him.

“Because that’s the other thing that jumps out at me,” Shook mused. “There’s no fucking way it isn’t mutual. Considering she’s a disgraced ex-Bishop of Avei, that’s gotta be exactly what she thinks about me, Shiri, and Jack. Plus possibly you, depending on what she knows about your history.”

“Should I feel honored to be omitted?” Vannae asked wryly.

Shook snorted. “Van, you’re about as offensive as milk and cookies. If she’s got a problem with you it means she’s racist on top of…whatever else. Not that a cunt like that needs it to be any less cuddly. Fuck are you looking at?”

The last was delivered in a far more aggressive tone to a passing woman who had turned to stare at their conversation. She immediately ducked her head and hurried on past.

“That is not exactly helping us to blend in, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gently.

Shook barked a laugh. “Oh, I don’t think we need to worry about that; blending in isn’t gonna happen. You two are basically a walking museum exhibit. Trust me, I know about invisibility, it’s either can’t see, don’t see, or won’t see. When you have no way of being actually hard to notice, the best you can do is make sure people know to mind their own fucking business.”

Vannae did rather stand out; elves weren’t exactly a common sight in Imperial cities, but most urban dwellers would see them fairly regularly, even if his choice of a human-style suit made him memorable. It was Khadizroth who inevitably drew attention. Taller than either of them, the dragon had been forced to conceal his identity through the use of mundane methods which were impossible not to notice: he wore the heavy robes of an Omnist monk, but with a hood pulled up and overhanging his face deeply enough that as long as he kept his chin down, the glow of his monochrome green eyes was not visible. Hardly anyone walked around wearing an all-concealing hood in modern times, unless they were obviously hiding their features.

“Well, fortunately, it should be less of a concern from here,” said the dragon, veering to their left. “Our route takes us this way, ever farther from the well-trod paths.”

They had been walking along one of the walled border roads that ran along the sides of Ninkabi’s central island, with a fall to the river below on their right and the opposite cliff wall beyond. This was already a less-traveled route, three levels down from the surface of the island above, but now Khadizroth led them into a tunnel road which seemed largely disused, with litter drifted in its gutters and no current signs of occupancy. Even the doors lining it were boarded up.

“This isn’t the first time this has given us trouble,” Shook commented. “You keep saying you can’t disguise yourself with magic and I’m damned if I know why. I thought dragons could do basically anything with magic.”

“Were that true, I would not still be confined by the Crow’s hex,” Khadizroth said evenly. “Dragons are powerful and versatile, yes, but with that come a few…seemingly arbitrary weaknesses. The eyes and hair that distinguish us from mortals at a glance, even in our smaller forms, are an example. It is a side effect of our ability to occupy two forms. That means only two forms, and neither can be obscured.”

Shook grunted. “Seems fishy, how the world’s most powerful spellcasters haven’t found a way around a limitation like that in thousands of years.”

“Ah, but that is it exactly,” the dragon replied with a note of humor now in his voice. “Any of my brethren who devoted themselves to that search would be set upon by the others. We are solitary by nature; the only thing which reliably draws dragons together is the prospect of one of our kind attempting to seize an advantage over the rest. In fact, there have been some who found ways around that petty restriction. Their fate is the reason I’ve never tried.”

“Hm. I wonder how long that’ll stand, with this Conclave of the Winds thing going.”

“A curious question indeed,” Khadizroth said gravely. “They have been…strangely quiet since forming. I surmise that the Conclave is either plotting something which they do not want known, or too paralyzed by infighting to function. Given the nature of dragons, either is believable. I must say,” he added with a sigh, “that functional or not, the Conclave is a more honorable and more strategically viable solution to the problem of ascending Tiraan power than that which I attempted. I only did not try to organize such a thing myself because I never imagined it could be remotely possible. I deeply regret not having the opportunity to be part of it.”

“Mm.” Shook drew one of his wands, glancing around. They were seemingly alone now in the dark tunnel, which had no light at the other end. The only illumination came from a ball of fire Vannae summoned and held above his palm. “Well. Now we’re here, should we address the issue of what obvious bullshit all this is?”

“Do you mean his Holiness setting us to hunt a mystery cult of which he is almost certainly the source?” Khadizroth said wryly. “Or more particularly this tip of Syrinx’s that we are sent to follow?”

“Y’know what, take one of each, I’m a generous kinda guy.” Shook grinned, his teeth flashing in the firelight. “But sure, let’s focus on the immediate. Syrinx’s reasons for splitting up our group are so fucking nonsense it’s downright insulting. I mean, sure, the Jackal tends to stick out, but Shiri is easily the best among us at blending in—and you’re the worst, like we were just talking about. Besides, those are the specific two who should not be confined to a few rooms unless the whole idea is to make them so stir-crazy they give her an excuse to bust out the sword.”

“Basra Syrinx is a noted blademaster,” Khadizroth mused, “but even in hand-to-hand combat I rather think she would not choose to confront the Jackal. His aptitudes too perfectly counter her own. I agree with you, Jeremiah, as to the general thrust of the game being played, but I fear it won’t be so simple as that. This much we can say with relative certainty: our entire mission in Ninkabi is a shallow pretext, and it is likely that the true purpose is to set us against our newly appointed leader.”

“So the question is,” Shook said slowly, “is Syrinx in on it, or were we all just shut in this box together because Justinian wants some of us killed off and doesn’t care which?”

“Well phrased,” the dragon agreed. “The answer to that question will do much to shape the actions we must take in response. Based on what I have learned of Syrinx’s recent history, the Archpope took a political risk in protecting her; it seems unlikely he would then throw her away so swiftly. On the other hand, we have seen that he is inexplicably more eager to cull his own agents than his enemies. What do you think, Vannae?”

“I think,” the elf said softly, “we might consider asking the person following us.”

All three of them stopped and turned, Shook raising his wand. They were deep enough in the darkened tunnel that both ends were lost in shadow; in the flickering light, the shape of another hooded figure approaching from the way they had come was partially obscured.

“That’s far enough,” Shook snapped, taking aim.

The approaching figure raised both hands and spoke in a low, feminine voice. “I mean no harm. I’m the person you were sent to meet. And you are quite right, gentlemen: your task here is a sham, and so is the tip Basra is acting on. She thinks it genuine, though. It was the most convenient way for me to arrange to meet you.”

“And you are?” Khadizroth asked politely.

“A loyal servant of his Holiness the Archpope,” she said, approaching slowly with her hands still up. “But I would draw the important distinction that loyal and obedient are not the same concept. His Holiness is…prone to overestimating his ability to control wild elements, and unfortunately willing to use agents whose involvement will only harm his interests. Sometimes, those of us who believe in his mission and care for his welfare must act…contrary to his wishes. I know who you are—all three of you, and the two who did not come. And I’m here to tell you that between your entire group and Basra Syrinx, it is she who urgently needs to be destroyed.”

Vannae kept his attention on her, fireball upraised; Shook’s wand did not waver, though he and Khadizroth exchanged a meaningful glance.

“Well, madam,” the dragon replied after the tense pause, “you have our attention.”

She finally moved her hands, lowering her own hood to reveal auburn hair and blue eyes set in a pale, heart-shaped face.

“My name is Branwen. It’s well past time we had a talk.”

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14 – 32

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On a typically overcast, slightly muggy summer day in Tiraas, Basra Syrinx returned to her office to find it gone.

She came to a stop in what appeared to be an empty stretch of hallway in the Temple of Avei, revealing confusion only by looking deliberately up and down. No one was visible nearby; the only noises were from the other end of the hall, where it terminated at a balcony overlooking a sizable atrium not far from the main sanctuary. Most significantly, the door to her office was not where it always was. Nothing but plain wall.

Her expression finally shifted from its usual placid mask to vague annoyance.

Syrinx reached up to run her hand along the wall, then grunted deep in her throat and nodded, finding the frame of the door with her fingers. Slowly she ran her hand along the invisible shape to the latch, which she turned. It was not locked or tampered with and shifted as smoothly in her hand as always, but she did not push it open or step in yet. Instead the Bishop resumed her tactile exploration, dragging her fingertips up the doorframe and along the top.

She disturbed some kind of crunchy dust sprinkled along the top of the door frame. No—not dust. Crushed dried leaves.

“Mm hm,” Syrinx muttered aloud, gripping the golden hilt of her sword with her other hand and continuing to sweep the dust away. Then suddenly, with a soft gasp, she jerked her fingers back, shaking her hand. There was no mark of any kind on her forefinger, but that had sure felt like—

She retreated one step and ignited her aura, flooding the hallway with radiant divine magic.

Immediately the illusion collapsed, the crumbled leaves atop the door frame evaporating into oily smoke, and the tiny elemental perched on the center chattered angrily at her in protest.

“I thought this was an extraordinary effort for a novice prank,” Syrinx said wryly. “Mousie, isn’t it? You’re not the only one who’s bitten off more than they can chew today. Your little buddy Herschel is going to be up way past his bedtime if he means to start trouble with me.”

Meesie hissed at her, puffing up her fur.

Not for nothing was Basra Syrinx an admired blademaster; her sword cleared its sheath faster than most human beings could have visually followed, much less countered, and she swept the blade in a precise arc that would have struck down even that tiny target—had Meesie not been other than human.

Meesie vanished in a puff of sparks as the sword’s tip slashed expertly through her space. Those sparks, instead of dissipating in the air, streamed away down the hall, where they coalesced again into the ratlike shape of the elemental, now perched on the shoulder of Herschel Schwartz, who had been standing there the whole time—not invisible, but simply not catching anyone’s notice until his familiar drew attention to his presence.

“I had honestly given up, boy,” Syrinx said mildly, sheathing her sword. “It’s been, what? A year? And you’re only now getting shirty with me. Please tell me you’ve spent all this time making actual preparations and not simply screwing up your courage. Unless your whole plan is to disappoint me one last time.”

“You know, Basra, that’s your problem in a nutshell. You always go right for the throat. Maybe you should relax, learn to play around a bit. Have some fun with life.” Schwartz’s tone was light, deliberately so. It contrasted with the rest of him—stiff as a flagstaff, shoulders gathered in tension, fists clenched and eyes glaring. Meesie hissed again, tiny flickers of fire racing along her fur.

“This isn’t a chapbook and you’re not a hero,” she said flatly. “You don’t stand there and banter at me. If the next thing out of your mouth is a suitably groveling apology, I will give real thought to not taking a complaint directly to Bishop Throale and having you reassigned to a two-man research temple in Upper Stalwar.”

In answer, he grabbed Meesie and tossed her forward. The elemental landed on the floor halfway between them and suddenly took up much of the hall space, in a leonine form almost the size of a pony. She had, at least, enough restraint not to roar and bring every Legionnaire in the temple running, but bared her teeth at Syrinx and growled. Loudly.

Unfazed by this display, Basra narrowed her eyes, then flicked a glance at the recently-disguised door of her office before returning her focus to Schwartz, ignoring the hulking fire elemental entirely.

“No,” she murmured. “You wouldn’t dare attack me openly—and especially not here. You have far too much intelligence and not nearly enough balls. What are you trying to distract me from, clever boy?”

He’d been prepped for this, but Schwartz was no schemer or politician. He hesitated for a moment, betraying uncertainty, before jutting out his chin and forcing a facsimile of a cocky grin. “Oh, is that what I’m doing? Interesting theory. How willing are you to test it?”

The dramatic effect, such as it was, suffered greatly from Meesie’s sudden reversal to her normal form. It had been much less than a minute; the divine magic saturating the temple put her at a serious disadvantage. Which, of course, underscored the Bishop’s point.

Syrinx quirked one eyebrow infinitesimally, then turned and strode away toward the stairs down to the atrium.

“Hey!” Schwartz shouted at her. “Are you that willing to bet I won’t just shoot you in the back?”

She didn’t bother to inform him that people who actually did things like that rarely gave warning, but she did activate a divine shield. It was a low-energy glow hugging her skin, well below the power of a typical combat shield, but it would conserve her magic and almost certainly suffice for any fae spells done at her, especially in the temple.

Syrinx arrived on the balcony just in time to spot her own aide being escorted through a door on the ground floor below. This wing of the temple, just behind the sanctuary, was mostly offices; that one was behind thick walls with just the one door positioned to provide space for guards to defend it, and used primarily for debriefings and interrogations of a relatively polite nature. Flight or fight risks would be detained in the cells in one of the basement levels. Those loyal to the Sisterhood who had something sensitive to reveal were handled here, where there was ready access to the temple’s main entrance and the medical wing.

“Covrin!” the Bishop snapped, her voice echoing through the columned atrium. All those present, which consisted of the Legionnaires escorting Jenell Covrin and a couple of passing priestesses, turned and craned their necks up at her.

Covrin met Syrinx’s eyes across the distance.

Then, she smiled. A cold, cruel smile, befitting Basra Syrinx herself—and the girl Jenell Covrin used to be before her “mentor” had (as she thought) beaten her into submission. Not acknowledging the Bishop further, she turned and strode through the door, which the nearest Legionnaire shut firmly behind her.

It was at that moment Syrinx registered that she was looking at Squad 391. Principia Locke turned from closing the door to give her the blandest, most placid smile she had ever seen.

The Bishop turned and stalked for the stairs, immediately finding her way blocked.

“Good afternoon, your Grace,” the dark-skinned young man before her said politely. “I wonder if I could have a moment of your time.”

She held onto her professional poise by a thread. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time at the moment. Excuse me.”

Syrinx moved to step around him, and he smoothly flowed aside to block her. Grunting in annoyance, she reached to shove him aside, and her hand impacted a hard surface which rippled with golden light, the shield dissipating immediately in a display of very fine control for a caster so young.

“I’m afraid I must insist,” he said, still in a courteous tone.

“Boy,” she grated, “do you have any idea—”

“I have many ideas,” he interrupted. “I’m Tobias Caine, and I require your attention for a moment, Bishop Syrinx.”

Basra went stock still, staring into his eyes. He gazed placidly back, awaiting her response, but she wasn’t really looking at him. Variables in this equation began to slot into place in her mind.

“I don’t have time for this,” Syrinx said curtly, and barreled right into him, flashing her own shield into place.

Toby was a martial artist and too deft on his feet to be so easily bowled down the stairs, retreating with far more grace than most would have managed in that situation, but the bubble of hard light surrounding her prevented him from making the best use of his skills, most of which relied on having something to grip in order to redirect her movements. He wasn’t without his own brute force methods, however, and before she’d made it two steps he conjured a staff of pure light.

Just like that, her divine shield wasn’t doing her much good, as Toby used his staff skillfully to poke, bat, and shove her backward, as if he were blocking a rolling boulder. This stalemate did not favor Basra; he was physically stronger than she and had vastly greater mana reserves; both staff and shield flickered whenever they impacted, but hers would break long before his.

“I realize you are impatient with this,” he said with infuriating calm while thwarting her efforts to descend as if this were all some sort of game. “But you need to think of your own spiritual health, Bishop Syrinx. Whatever happens next, the manner in which you face it will do a great deal to determine the outcome. Redemption is always—”

Basra abruptly dropped her shield and whipped her sword out, lunging at him.

As anticipated, instinct made him abandon his improvised jabbing and fall into a Sun Style defensive stance, which should have put her at a considerable disadvantage; his staff had much greater range than her short sword and her position on the stairs made it all but impossible to duck under it. That, however, was not her intent. Basra had trained against Sun Style grandmasters, which Toby Caine, for all his skill, was not yet. It took her three moves to position him, feint him into committing to a block for an attack from the right which never came, and then turn the other way and vault over the rail.

She had only been a few feet down the stairs; it was a drop of nearly a full story. Basra had done worse, and rolled deftly on landing with her sword arm held out to the side, coming to her feet barely two yards from Squad 391.

All six women were standing at attention, unimpressed by this. Locke, Shahai, and Avelea had composed features as usual, but the other three looked far too gleeful. Elwick, in particular, Syrinx knew to be more than capable of hiding her emotions. The fierce expression on her face boded ill.

“Step aside, soldiers. That is an order.”

“Mmmm,” Lieutenant Locke drawled. “Nnno, I don’t believe I will. Why? You think you’re gonna do something about it, Basra?”

“Lieutenant!” one of the two priestesses who had paused to watch the drama burst out, clearly aghast. “You are addressing the Bishop!”

“Am I?” Locke said pleasantly. “Well, if she still is in an hour, I guess I’ll owe her an apology. You just hold your horses, Bas. Private Covrin has a lot to go over.” She deliberately allowed a predatory, distinctly Eserite grin to begin blossoming on her features. “With the High Commander.”

Toby had reached the base of the stairs. Above, Schwartz arrived at the balcony rail and hopped up onto it, his robes beginning to rustle as he summoned some air-based magic. A subtle glow rose around Corporal Shahai.

Then another such glow, weaker but unmistakable, ignited around Locke. The elf’s grin broadened unpleasantly.

“Your Grace?” asked the second priestess uncertainly, glancing about at all this.

Basra Syrinx turned and fled.

Toby moved to intercept her, but Syrinx grabbed the shorter priestess by the collar of her robes in passing and hurled the squawking woman straight into him. Schwartz didn’t make it to the ground that quickly and Locke’s squad made no move to pursue, simply holding position in front of the office door. She made it to the atrium’s main entrance with no further opposition, bursting past two surprised Legionnaires standing guard on the other side.

Behind her, the office door opened, and it wasn’t Covrin or Rouvad who emerged to pursue her.

The main sanctuary of the Temple of Avei was crowded at that time of early afternoon, which meant there was an unfortunately large audience of petitioners from all over the Empire and beyond present to see their Bishop come streaking out of a rear door at a near run. This escalated into an actual run when she heard the pounding of booted feet behind her.

“You!” Basra barked at another pair of startled soldiers as she passed, flinging a hand out behind her. “Detain them!”

“Your Grace?” one said uncertainly, and had Basra been in less of a hurry she would have stopped to take the woman’s head off. Figuratively. Probably.

“BASRA SYRINX.”

At that voice, in spite of herself, Basra turned, skidding to a graceful halt.

Trissiny Avelea wasn’t running, but stalked toward her past Legionnaires who made no move to intercept her as ordered—unsurprisingly. The paladin and Bishop weren’t in the same chain of command, but the rank-and-file of the Legions would have an obvious preference if their orders contradicted each other. Trissiny was in full armor, fully aglow, and golden wings spread from behind her to practically fill the temple space. Gasps and exclamations of awe rose from all around, but the paladin gave them no acknowledgment, eyes fixed on Basra.

The Bishop inwardly cursed the learned political instincts which had overwhelmed innate survival instincts; she should not have stopped. As tended to happen when she was confronted with an overwhelming problem, her entire focus narrowed till the world seemed to fall away, and she perceived nothing but the oncoming paladin.

“Trissiny,” she said aloud. “You’ve clearly been listening—”

Those wings of light pumped once, and Trissiny lunged at her with astonishing speed, sword first.

Basra reflexively brought up her own weapon to parry, a divine shield snapping into place around her, and then two very surprising things happened.

First, Trissiny beat her wings again—how were those things functional? They weren’t supposed to be solid!—and came to a halt.

Second, Basra’s shield was snuffed out, untouched. Frantically, she reached inward for the magic, and it simply wasn’t there anymore.

Tiraas was no stranger to storms, but the clap of thunder which resounded right overhead was far greater in power than the light drizzle outside made believable.

“I actually thought you were too clever to fall for that,” Trissiny said, and despite the continuing presence of her wings, it was as if the avenging paladin had melted away to leave a smirking Guild enforcer in silver armor. “You just tried to call on the goddess’s magic right in front of a Hand of Avei who knows what you did. Congratulations, Basra, you’ve excommunicated yourself.”

Amid the crowd, more figures were emerging from that door at the back of the sanctuary. The Hand of Omnu, Schwartz… And all of Squad 391. With Covrin.

Of course. Obviously, Commander Rouvad wouldn’t go to a debriefing room for such an interview, not when she had a highly secure office to which she summoned people regularly. This entire thing… Syrinx realized, belatedly, how she had been baited and conned.

She filed away the surge of livid rage to be expressed later, when she had the opportunity to actually hurt someone. For now, once again she turned and bolted toward the front doors of the temple, past the countless witnesses to her disgrace.

The lack of any sounds of pursuit behind her began to make sense when she burst out onto the portico of the temple and had to stop again.

Another crowd was gathered in Imperial Square; while the figure waiting for her at the base of the steps necessarily commanded widespread attention, he also discouraged people from approaching too closely. At least the onlookers were keeping a respectful few yards back. Including a handful of Imperial military police who had probably arrived to try to disperse the crowd but also got caught up gawking at the Hand of Death.

Gabriel Arquin sat astride his fiery-eyed horse, who pawed at the paving stones with one invisible hoof and snorted a cloud of steam. His scythe dangled almost carelessly from his hand, its wicked blade’s tip resting against the ground. Hairline cracks spread through the stone from the point where it touched.

“There is a progression,” Arquin said aloud, his voice ringing above the murmurs of the crowd, “which people need to learn to respect. When you are asked by the Hand of Omnu to repent, you had better do it. Refuse, and you will be ordered by the Hand of Avei to stand down. That was your last chance, Basra Syrinx. Beyond the sword of Avei, there is only death.”

The crowd muttered more loudly, beginning to roil backward away from the temple. Nervous Silver Legionnaires covering its entrance clutched their weapons, bracing for whatever was about to unfold.

Behind Basra, Trissiny and Toby emerged from the doors.

Syrinx lunged forward, making it to the base of the stairs in a single leap. Immediately, Arquin wheeled his horse around to block her way, lifting his murderous-looking scythe to a ready position. Even disregarding the reach of that thing, it was painfully obvious she was not about to outrun or outmaneuver that horse. Any horse, but this one in particular looked unnaturally nimble.

She pivoted in a helpless circle, looking for a way out. The crowd was practically a wall; behind was the Temple, once a sanctuary and now a place she didn’t dare turn. Trissiny and Toby had spread to descend the steps with a few yards between them. One pace at a time, the noose closed in on Syrinx, the space between the paladins narrowing as the Hands of Avei and Omnu herded her toward the Hand of Vidius, and inexorable death.

Basra had spent too long as a cleric and politician to miss the deliberate symbolism. She could choose which to face: justice, death, or life. Tobias Caine was even gazing at her with a face so full of compassion she wanted to punch it.

She didn’t, though. Instead, Basra turned toward him, schooling her own features into what she hoped was a defeated expression—based on the way people’s faces looked in her presence from time to time, as it was one she’d never had occasion to wear herself. She let the dangling sword drop from her fingers, feeling but suppressing a spike of fury at the loss when the expensive golden eagle-wrought hilt impacted the pavement. Just one more expense to add to the tally of what the world owed her. Ah, well. After today, carrying around a piece of Avenist symbolism probably wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

Syrinx let Toby get within a few feet before bursting into motion.

His own instincts were well-trained, and though he still wasn’t a grandmaster, Basra’s martial skill heavily emphasized the sword. In a prolonged hand-to-hand fight, she might not have proved a match for Toby’s skill—and definitely not now that only one of them had magic to call on.

That dilemma was resolved, as so many were, by not fighting fair.

It took her a span of two seconds to exchange a flurry of blows, carefully not committing to a close enough attack to let him grab her as Sun Style warriors always did, all to position herself just outside the circle the three paladins had formed and push Toby into a reflexive pattern she could anticipate and exploit. Arquin was momentarily confused, unable to swing his great clumsy weapon into the fray with his friends that close or exploit the speed of his mount, but Trissiny—also a highly trained fighter—was already moving around Toby to flank Basra from the other side.

So she finally made the “mistake” that brought her within range of Toby’s grab, and allowed him to seize her by the shoulder and upper arm. And with his hands thus occupied, Basra flicked the stiletto from her sleeve into her palm and raked it across his belly.

Almost disappointing, she thought, how fragile a paladin was. Hurling him bodily into Trissiny was pathetically easy at that point, and in the ensuing confusion of shouts which followed, she dove into the crowd, instantly putting herself beyond the reach of Arquin, unless he wanted to trample a whole lot of bystanders, to say nothing of what that scythe would do to them. He probably didn’t. Even as the helpless sheep failed to do anything to stop her in their witless panic, paladins always had to take the high road.

Basra shoved through the throng in seconds, pelting right toward the only possible sanctuary that still awaited her: the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church.


“Toby!” Trissiny lowered him gently to the pavement; he was bent over, clutching his midsection, from which blood had already spread through his shirt and was dripping to the ground at an alarming rate.

“No light!” Toby managed to gasp as Gabriel hurled himself to the ground beside him. “Not even an aura!”

“He’s right, stomach wounds are amazingly delicate,” Trissiny said helplessly, finishing easing Toby down so he could sit upright. “It may need a surgeon, if you accidentally heal something in the wrong place… We need healers here!” she bellowed.

“Keep to the plan,” Toby grunted around the pain, managing to nod to her.

“I can’t—”

“You do your job, soldier,” he rasped, managing a weak grin. “After her! Triss, we’re surrounded by temples and gut wounds take a long time to do anything. I’ll be fine. Get moving.”

She hesitated a moment, squeezing his shoulder.

“He’s right,” Gabriel agreed, taking up her position to hold Toby upright. “Go, Trissiny!”

“I’ll be back,” she said, and released him, rising and plunging into the crowd after Syrinx.

Help really did come quickly. Barely had Trissiny gone before the Imperial police were enforcing a perimeter around the paladins, and a priestess of Avei had dashed up to them. She knelt and gently but insistently lowered Toby to lie on his back, whipping out a belt knife to cut away his shirt so she could see the wound.

“Seems so excessive,” Toby grunted to Gabriel, who knelt there clutching his hand. “Coulda spared a lot of trouble if we’d just told her the plan was to let her get into the Cathedral…”

“Well, yeah,” Gabe said reasonably, his light tone at odds with his white-knuckled grip on Toby’s hand, “but then she wouldn’ta done it.”

“Oh, right. Inconvenient.”

“You need to hush,” the priestess said in exasperation, her hands beginning to glow as she lowered them to the wound. “And try to hold still, this will hurt.”


Trissiny managed to moderate her pace to an aggressive stride as she crossed the threshold into holy ground. The two Holy Legionaries flanking the door turned to her, but she surged past them without even so much as a sneer for their preposterously ornate armor.

The timing of all this had been very deliberate. A prayer service was in session—not a major one, so the great sanctuary was not crowded, but people were present. Most significantly, the Archpope himself stood at the pulpit, presiding. Justinian liked to stay in touch with the common people, more so than did many of his predecessors, and thus could often be found holding public appearances such as these rather than delegating them to priests. A mid-week afternoon service just didn’t command much draw, however, and the room was filled to barely a tenth of its capacity.

At the moment, nobody was getting any praying done, by the looks of things. Basra Syrinx was no longer in evidence, but her recent passage was obvious, thanks to all the confused muttering and peering around. At the head of the sanctuary, the Archpope himself was half-turned, regarding one of the rear doors into the Cathedral complex with a puzzled frown.

The ambient noise increased considerably when the Hand of Avei strode down the central aisle, sword in hand, the side of her silver armor splashed with blood.

“General Avelea,” Justinian said, turning to face her with a deep, respectful nod. “I gather you can shed some light on these events?”

“Where is Basra Syrinx?” she demanded, coming to a stop even with the front row of pews. It was downright crowded up here, most of the parishoners present desiring to be as near the Archpope as possible. The first two rows were entirely filled, with people who came from the world over, to judge by their varied styles of attire. Just to Trissiny’s left were three Omnist nuns wearing the heavy cowled habits of the Order of the Hedge, a tiny sect which had no presence in the Empire.

“You just missed her,” Justinian replied. For whatever reason, he continued projecting in exactly the tone he used for conducting worship. As did she, making their conversation clearly audible to the room. “She passed through here in apparent panic, demanded sanctuary, and retreated within. Toward her office, I presume. What has happened?”

“Syrinx will be removed from her office as Bishop the moment the formalities can be observed,” Trissiny replied, her voice ringing over the astonished murmurs all around. “She has been cast out of the faith by Avei herself as a betrayer, abuser of the trust of her position, and rapist. Moments ago she compounded her crimes by mortally assaulting the Hand of Omnu. I demand that she be handed over to face justice!”

The muttering rose almost to the level of outcry before Justinian raised both his hands in a placating gesture. Slowly, the crowd began to subside.

“I dearly hope Mr. Caine is being tended to?” the Archpope said with a worried frown.

Trissiny nodded once. “He isn’t so fragile, and healers were at hand.”

“That is a great relief.”

“Yes,” she said impatiently, “and so will be his attacker’s prosecution. Will you have your Legionaries produce her, your Holiness, or shall I retrieve her myself?”

“Justice,” he intoned, “as you know better than most, is not a thing which yields to demands. These are serious allegations, Trissiny. Gravely serious. This situation must be addressed calmly, rationally, and with full observance of all necessary formalities. Frustrating as these things are, they exist for excellent reasons. We cannot claim to dispense true justice unless it is done properly.”

“Please do not lecture me about the core of Avei’s faith, your Holiness,” Trissiny retorted in an openly biting tone, prompting another rash of muttering. “Justice is Avei’s province. Not yours.”

“And yet,” he said calmly, “Basra Syrinx has claimed the sanctuary of this church. I cannot in conscience fail to respect that, on the strength of mere allegation. Even from a person of your own prestige, General Avelea.”

“Am I to understand,” she said, raising her voice further, “that you are refusing to turn over a criminal to Avei’s justice, your Holiness?”

“You are to understand the law of sanctuary,” he replied. “It is observed by all faiths within the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me, your Holiness.” From the front pew near the Omnist nuns, another figure stood, wearing white robes with a golden ankh tabard. Bishop Darling inclined his head diffidently to the Archpope, but also spoke at a volume which was clearly audible through the sanctuary. “I have, personally, defended and protected Basra Syrinx from the consequences of her actions in the past, in pursuit of what I believed to be the higher good. I know you are aware of at least some of this. To that extent, I may be inadvertently complicit in anything she has done now. But a line has been crossed, your Holiness. If she has so violently erred that her own paladin has come after her in this way, I strongly advise against involving the Church in this matter.”

“You know the value I place on your council, Antonio,” replied the Archpope. “But I question whether this setting is the appropriate venue in which to discuss matters of this severity and complexity. General Avelea, would you kindly agree to join me in private to continue this conversation?”

“Some matters do deserve to be discussed in public, your Holiness,” Darling said before she could respond. “I speak in my capacity as Bishop. The Thieves’ Guild stands fully behind Trissiny Avelea in this matter.”

The murmuring swelled again, and once more Justinian raised his hands for quiet. As soon as he had achieved it, however, and before he could take advantage, another voice intruded.

“I concur.” Bishop Varanus rose from the pew next to Darling, towering half a head over the Eserite and turning his fierce, bearded visage on Trissiny. “Basra Syrinx is a rabid animal, and always have been. We all know this, and as Antonio has said, we all share guilt for whatever she has done. We have all failed to do our duty in getting rid of her, and now we see the consequences. Honor demands that this be addressed—now, and not later. In this one matter,” he nodded to the paladin, “the Huntsmen of Shaath stand behind Trissiny Avelea.”

“The Brethren of Izara stand behind Trissiny Avelea,” said yet another voice before the noise could gather too much, and despite her own diminutive appearance, Branwen Snowe could project her voice easily through the hubbub. “Basra is a deeply troubled person. I would prefer that she be offered some manner of help, if any is indeed possible—but if she has offended so severely that her own cult demands justice, this is clearly a matter of the safety of all around her.”

Beside Snowe, an old man with white hair rose slowly from his own seat. Though he looked frail, Sebastian Throale spoke clearly and as powerfully as anyone. “I am only passingly acquainted with Bishop Syrinx and have no personal opinion on this matter. But Trissiny Avelea has personally earned the trust and respect of my own cult—not a small thing, nor easy to do, given the relations we have historically had. If she deems this the right course of action, the Salyrite Collegium stands behind her.”

“I’m not gonna lie, I am astonished that this is even a question,” piped yet another individual, practically hopping to her feet in the pew behind Throale. Bishop Sally Tavaar, all of twenty-six years old, was widely considered a joke by everyone except her fellow Bishops, all of whom were too theologically educated to be less than wary around a bard who acted the fool. “That woman is a detestable cunt and always has been, and you all know it. It’s about damn time somebody did something about it! Only reason nobody has is everyone’s afraid of her, and you all know that, too. It’s just plain embarrassing that an avenging paladin is what it takes to deal with this. The Bardic College stands the hell behind Trissiny Avelea!”

“If I may?” Bishop Raskin was actually new to his post and not a widely known face yet, but he made a point of fully bowing to Trissiny. “These events are not a total surprise. The Hand of Avei has worked closely with those of the other Trinity cults, and I had some forewarning that events such as these might transpire. I have the assurance of Lady Gwenfaer herself that we have nothing but the greatest respect for our fellow paladin, and the Order of Vidius stands firmly behind her.”

Beside him, a slim woman with graying hair rose and inclined her head solemnly. “My colleague speaks truthfully. Omnu’s faith stands behind Trissiny Avelea.”

By that time, stunned silence had descended upon the Cathedral. It was allowed to hang in the air for a moment longer before Justinian spoke.

“Anyone else?” he inquired, slowly panning his serene gaze around the room. Trissiny and the assembled Bishops just regarded him in turn, as did the astonished crowd. It was not every cult of the Pantheon, but it was most of the biggest and most influential. More importantly, it included several which agreed about nothing, ever. This show of unity without the active encouragement of a sitting Archpope—in fact, in defiance of one—was all but unheard of. It might actually have been the first time a Shaathist Bishop ever publicly endorsed a Hand of Avei. Justinian simply continued after a short pause, though. “Very well. I hear and thank you for your counsel, brothers and sisters. Rest assured, your opinions I hold in the utmost regard, and this will weigh heavily on my deliberations on this matter. Those deliberations must occur, however; it is no less than conscience and justice demand. For the moment, sanctuary will be observed.”

“Are you actually serious?” Trissiny burst out. “You would really—”

“Did you believe,” Justinian interrupted, staring evenly down at her from his pulpit, “that aggressive demands and political maneuvering would be enough to eviscerate due process? Is that Avei’s justice, Trissiny?”

It was probably for the best that she had no opportunity to answer.

“BASRA!”

The entire room full of worshipers turned to stare at Jenell Covrin, who came striding down the central aisle in full Legion armor, trailed by Squad 391.

“Come out and face consequences, Basra!” Covrin roared, stomping right up to stand next to Trissiny. “It’s me, Jenell—your little pet. The one you thought a victim!”

“Young lady,” Justinian began.

“I did this, Basra!” Covrin screamed. “I’ve been gathering every secret you tried to bury. I brought them to the High Commander! I BROUGHT YOU DOWN! You can hide from the paladin, but you can’t hide from the truth.”

“Private,” the Archpope said more loudly, “this is not—”

“I DID THIS TO YOU!” Covrin roared, her voice all but rattling the stained glass. “For everything you did to me, I WON! And if you want to try settling it one more time, you’re gonna have to come out and face me. You’ll know how to find me, you bitch! Until then, I. FUCKING. WIN.”

“That is enough,” Justinian said flatly. “Sergeant at arms, please escort this young woman from the Cathedral.”

“Squad, form up!” Trissiny snapped. Instantly, the six members of Locke’s squad pivoted and snapped into a wedge, blocking off the aisle from the Holy Legionaires who had started toward them from the doors. They very wisely slowed as the Silver Legionnaires formed a menacing phalanx bristling with lances.

Four more Legionaries were approaching from the front of the Cathedral, but also did not get far.

“Grip! Duster! Ninetails!” Darling barked.

Instantly, the three Omnist nuns on the front row surged upright, hurling away their voluminous robes to reveal armed women in scuffed leather. All three Guild enforcers flowed into place in a triangle around Jenell and Trissiny, staring down the heavily armored Legionaries, who also came to a nervous halt.

“Come on, Covrin,” Trissiny said quietly. “Nothing else we can do here…for now. We will have to finish this later.”

She half-turned to meet Justinian’s eyes.

The Archpope nodded to her once, and smiled.

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Home.

Not that it hadn’t been an enlightening and immensely beneficial trip, but he was a creature of the city; walking the streets of Tiraas again was like regaining a part of himself that he had stopped noticing was absent. Even now, strolling placidly through the fairly upper-class Steppe neighborhood in his robes of office, Darling felt more at ease than he could remember in a long time. He’d found the time for a quick jaunt around some of his old haunts as Sweet, but apart from that he’d been largely buried under a backlog of work. Now, on his way to the Cathedral yet again, he’d chosen to go by foot, and to take a long detour that let him see more of the city than was strictly necessary.

It was worth it. Worth it on its own merits, and proved even more so as he discovered when he found himself outside a discreet old brownstone building with a familiar sub-level entrance and a tasteful sign out front. Familiar, though he’d only seen it once.

Darling paused, contemplating this. Well, he’d allotted himself plenty of time to amble, anyway, and it wasn’t as if this place would have been visible to him without very specific reason. A quick glance up and down the street revealed that he was completely alone, itself an odd and suggestive thing considering this hour of the morning.

With a shrug and a smile, he paused only to run a hand over his carefully combed hair, then descended the steps and opened the door to the Elysium.

The bar was just as he remembered: expensive, quiet, and mostly empty. In fact, it was considerably more empty this time, being that he was apparently the only patron. The only other individual present was a swarthy, shaggy-haired man standing behind the bar, idly wiping out a glass with a white rag.

“Top of the mornin’, Antonio!” Eserion called cheerfully, waving to him. “C’mon in, have a seat. Punaji Sunrise, right?”

“Now, now, that’s just to intimidate the party-going set,” Darling said easily, permitting none of the torrent of curiosity he felt near his face or voice. He strolled forward and slid onto a stool near the bartender, but positioned so that he could still see the door. “Generally I prefer a brandy, but c’mon. It’s not even noon. And I’ve got to go wrangle priests today.”

Eserion chuckled obligingly. “Fine, fine, I guess you’ll be wanting to keep your wits intact for that. Hot tea it is, then.”

Despite the lack of any stove or heating element, he produced a steaming pot and deftly poured a cup, which smelled bewitchingly of jasmine and vanilla.

“Oh, my,” Darling mused, lifting the porcelain cup and inhaling deeply. “That’s the good stuff. Smells like the boudoir of the most expensive lady I ever carried on with.”

“They serve this blend down at Marcio’s Bistro,” the god replied lightly, again polishing an already-clean glass. “Have you tried the food there?”

“I have, in fact, at their grand reopening. It tends toward the spicy, doesn’t it? Not necessarily to my taste. But then, that was at the dinner hour, and they were serving wine. I might just pop in every now and again for tea if this is what they have on offer.”

“Give the food a chance,” Eserion said with a mild smile. “It’s more zesty than spicy; not a combination of flavors one gets to sample much in Tiraas these days.”

“Indeed,” Darling said lightly. “I have it on good authority the cuisine there is a pretty good approximation of something no one has seen in eight thousand years or so.”

“Better authority than you may know. How was your trip?”

“Fantastic, thanks. Also…puzzling. I guess it just wouldn’t be fair if I got answers without picking up a dozen more questions along the way.”

“Well.” Eserion winked. “There’s really only one good thing you can do with a question, isn’t there?”

Darling lifted the teacup and took a careful sip, watching him. The god simply gazed back, wearing a disarming smile.

“Why thieves?” he asked at last. “Of all the things you could be patron of. What made you pick…this?”

Eserion’s smile widened momentarily, then he coughed and winked, setting down the glass and rag to fold his arms and lean back against the shelves behind him.

“The truth? The real truth? I’d advise you not to repeat this, Antonio, but… None of this was supposed to happen. The plan was to wreck ascension, not use it. We weren’t trying to turn into gods, all we wanted to do was bring them down. As usual with complex plans, it all went right straight to shit and we had to improvise. And those of us who ended up with godhood? Well, not one of us was prepared for it. A good few weren’t even part of the resistance. Naphthene owned a boat some of us had used; Sorash was a mercenary thug who happened to be nearby. Shaath… Ah, that poor bastard. All he wanted to do was field work, studying the wildlife. We just kept running across him when trying to keep away from civilization and catalog the fauna. He was gettin’ really sick of us by the end, and had the worst possible luck to be on hand when it all went down.” He paused, narrowing his eyes. “Actually…no, I spoke incorrectly. A few of us were prepared. Those who ended up with the greater power, the multiple aspects… We mostly just accidentally latched onto whatever concept spoke most to our hearts. Those four, though. They were ready. They had planned.”

“You think…” Darling frowned, toying with his teacup. “Did they deliberately take ascension, despite your plans?”

“I can’t see it,” Eserion said immediately, shaking his head. “Vidius…maybe. He’s enough of an old fox to think of that, but… Even so, it’s a stretch. But I never met anybody who wanted power less than Omnu or Themynra. And Avei…” He chuckled. “Poor Avei. She was always going on about what she’d do when we could all quit. When the gods were brought down, she was gonna go build a modest little house far from any cities and raise horses. No, they were just planners. Some people, Antonio, are simply heroic by nature. Adventurers born. They were ready for everything, including a rushed, accidental ascension. And thus, they ended up in charge.” He shook his head again. “Better them than me.

“But speaking of me, that’s what you asked about.” He tilted his chin up, smirking faintly. “Might not guess it to look at me now, but standards of beauty being what they were, I was just the prettiest princess of them all, back in the day.”

Darling blinked. “Uh.”

The god cracked a grin at him. “That was the point. I belonged to Szyrein, one of the Elders. In fact, I was one of her favorites. Bred for fifty generations to be beautiful, trained from birth to be…pleasing.”

Despite all his years of practice, Darling could feel the sudden, utter sickness he felt creeping onto his expression. Eserion’s face didn’t change, though, apart from the slightly faraway look that stole into his eyes.

“Your own wits and skills are all you have; they’re all that can’t be taken from you. People with too much power have—have—to be brought down. And at the intersection of those two truths is the fact that no matter how powerful, now supremely above you someone is, you can always find a way to stick to to ’em if you’re clever, and careful. That was who I was, so that’s what I became. Thieves, though?” He grinned. “That was sort of an accident. I guess if you grow up owned by somebody, you end up not giving a shit about property rights.”

“What did happen?” Darling asked.

Eserion’s expression sobered. “Watch yourself around Lil, Sweet. She’s every bit the schemer your research has shown, and more besides. But, like all really good deceivers, she doesn’t lie any more than she can help. You got a warning that you’d be wise to heed: there are things you just aren’t allowed to know. Not without consequences.”

“Am I wrong,” Darling asked casually, holding up his teacup to inhale the fragrance, “or do I get the idea you don’t agree with that policy?”

“Hey, now, I’m not the one making decisions in this outfit. You know how I feel about the people in charge, anyway. Not that I’ve any personal grudge with the Trinity, but… Nobody can be trusted with power. Not any of us; not even me. Power changes people. No matter how careful you are, or how noble your intentions, it twists and destroys you slowly from the inside.”

“Almost makes you wish there was a way to prevent anybody from having it,” Darling mused.

“Yeah, well.” Eserion smirked again. “That would involve somebody with absolute power administering it, which…brings you right back to the beginning. Nah, the best solution I’ve found is to have people whose whole purpose is fighting the power when it rises. It’s a constant struggle, but in the end, isn’t that better?”

“Is it?”

“People always have to struggle,” the god said more seriously, “that’s our greatest virtue. Even our crimes and failures give us things to fight against—and every fight can be a source of strength, and wisdom.”

“It certainly keeps you feeling alive,” Darling mused. “And sometimes, the opposite.”

“Sounds like you’re already getting nostalgic for your vacation,” Eserion said sympathetically. “Herding the cats wearing you down?”

“Oh, you know how it is.” He shrugged and took another sip of tea. “Justinian puts up such a front of being in control I honestly can’t guess how much control he really has. He doesn’t seem fazed by Tellwyrn’s utter destruction of his ploy against her; apparently it was just a test, he claims, to see whether that approach would work, and he’s very satisfied with the results.”

“That kind of inner control can be a weakness or a serious asset,” the god commented.

“Mm. It makes me worry about Tricks; too. I’m starting to see cracks, there, and that’s not like him.” He gave the god a piercing look. “I don’t suppose there’s anything you want to tell me…?”

“Sure, just as soon as you take up his offer to trade jobs again,” Eserion said cheerfully. “Honestly, though, Sweet, I think you’re doing more good where you are.”

“I was just wondering, though,” Darling said mildly, gazing up at the ceiling and pushing his teacup back and forth between his hands. “This thing about transcension fields…”

“Bleh, just say magic, for fuck’s sake. I never understood that gobbledygook and I don’t intend to start. Better for the universe if nobody ever figures out how to do that again.”

“Magic, then. This knowledge the gods have of what people know… The Avatar specifically said that’s processed by the…magic field. And suppose, hypothetically, there were a thing between dimensions, a thing that specifically blocks and disrupts magic. If someone learned something there…”

Eserion’s smile widened fractionally, but he shook his head. “You’re doing so well, Sweet. Don’t spoil it by asking me to cheat for you.”

“You? Cheat?” Darling put on his broadest, most innocent smile. “Perish the thought.”

Mentally, though, he re-categorized that theory from a tentative possibility to an avenue worthy of earnest pursuit.

To judge by the god’s smile, he wasn’t fooling anyone.

Yet.


Branwen’s office in the Grand Cathedral was spacious and elegantly appointed, with a large seating area between the door and her desk. Potted plants stood atop shelves, and in one corner a little decorative fountain splashed musically, its water kept moving and perpetually clean thanks to rare and pricey charms. The fireplace also roared with a comfy blaze—comfy and illusionary, which could add heat to the room or not, at a command. The enchantments in the room had cost more than even the gilded furniture, which was saying something. It was a pleasing space, though, where she could feel relaxed and at home, even away from home.

She was just finishing applying her seal to the last in a stack of correspondence when the door was opened from the outside without the courtesy of a knock.

“Ah, answering fan mail?” Basra asked pleasantly, stepping in and pushing the door gently shut behind her. “How wonderful! It’s a relief to see you’re still getting any. Imagine, a sitting Bishop publicly repudiated by her own goddess! You are a theological marvel, Branwen.”

“Actually,” Branwen said, “I’m told sales of my book have skyrocketed. Apparently nothing sells like notoriety. Not that it isn’t always a pleasure, Bas, but I’ve never known you to make idle social calls before. What can I do for you?”

“I’ve been doing some research,” Basra said, pacing slowly into the room, “into the career of one Ildrin Falaridjad. The downside of my stellar success in the crisis at the border has been a sad lack of damages for which she can be blamed; the list of charges resulting from her stupidity is depressingly short and minor. Of course, I already knew she was a staunch supporter of the Archpope and the Universal Church, to the point it was becoming an annoyance to her fellow Sisters. Interestingly, though, she’s never done anything like that stunt she pulled at Varansis. No insubordination, no outbursts of violence, no rampant glory-hogging or inexplicably having access to other cults’ rare magical devices. Nobody, even, who seemed to find her as congenitally thick-headed as I did. And I had a thought.” She continued forward at a leisurely pace, fixing a predatory stare on Branwen, who simply watched her approach in perfect calm. “Does is perhaps seem suspicious to you that someone would suddenly act contrary to their usual behavior in the presence of a known projective empath?”

“I think it’s telling,” Branwen said mildly, “that you’re talking about a woman acting out of character, and your own constant bullying and abuse of her doesn’t even enter into your calculations.”

“So I did some further digging,” Basra continued, ignoring her. “She has refused to reveal where she got that shatterstone, but Antonio was good enough to get me the rough black market price for one. They are obtainable outside your cult, but it costs more than Falaridjad would make in five years. Someone got it for her, someone with connections in Izara’s faith. And then, there is the matter of how she came to be part of the expedition. You dug her up, specifically, along with a bard who had an established dislike of me due to thinking I’d set her up for the Shaathists.”

“Of course,” Branwen said with a faint smile, “she thought so because you did that. Which also isn’t a consideration to you, I suppose.”

“And,” Basra continued, stepping right up to Branwen and looming over her, “it seems to me that someone as politically adept as yourself would not be oblivious to the fact that having a known Church loyalist involved in that mission could create questions. Concerns about my presence, and intentions. Abbess Darnassy had, in fact, mentioned at the beginning how very convenient it was that a problem arose which so precisely suited my talents to solve. All it would take was the persistent suggestion that Justinian had arranged the whole thing to get me back to Tiraas, and Commander Rouvad would land on me like the fist of Avei herself. And that was before said Justinian loyalist was inexplicably provoked into actively sabotaging the mission.”

Branwen smiled, sighed softly, and shook her head ruefully. “Oh…all right. I suppose I ought to have known better. I’ve made my way chiefly by being a source of happiness to those around me, which is a whole different kind of politics; I’m just not cut out for your flavor of cloak and dagger.”

“Indeed.” Her face cold now, Basra leaned forward, right into her space, planting one hand on the back of Branwen’s chair and the other on the desk to physically bar her into her seat. “I’m only going to tell you this once, Snowe. Do not attempt, nor even dream about attempting any such shit with me again. Ever. You are nothing even approaching a match for me in that arena, and I am not a person you want for an enemy.”

“Oh, Basra, don’t be silly,” Branwen said in a fondly chiding tone, still smiling. “You’re not a person at all.”

For a long moment they locked eyes, the Izarite smiling, the Avenist expressionless. Only the fountain and the fire could be heard in the room.

Finally, Basra tilted her head slowly to one side. “I beg your pardon?” she asked in a tone of mild curiosity.

“You’re a…thing,” Branwen continued, still with that pleasant little smile. “A walking defect. A would-be miscarriage conceived without a soul and quite accidentally brought to term. Oh, I realize you think you’re a wolf among sheep, but that’s only because you lack the mental architecture to understand the strength people gain by forming connections with each other. Something you simply cannot do.”

Moving deliberately, she stood up, pushing herself right back into Basra’s space; the other Bishop backed away at the last second, straightening up and still staring quizzically at the shorter woman.

“Understand, Basra, that you aren’t as invisible as you like to think. Oh, most people don’t realize what a horror you are; most people have no concept that things like you exist. But there are some—Commander Rouvad, his Holiness, Antonio—who do know, and tolerate you because they find you useful. Then, too, there are cultures which understand things that humanity has yet to puzzle out. If you ever find yourself in a dwarven university, you might find it illuminating to read up on what they call ‘social pathology.’”

Branwen took a step forward. Basra, her face an expressionless mask, backed away again.

“Here’s the thing, Bas. You simply do not comprehend how emotion works, because yours are such paltry things. Every feeling you have is shallow and wild, and all of them are variations on either rage…” She smiled, slowly, catlike and sly. “…or desire.”

There was no visible effect in the room, but the change that overcame Basra was instant and striking. Her eyes widened, pupils dilating hugely; she shivered bodily, gave a soft, trembling gasp, and abruptly surged forward. In an instant she had wrapped her arms around Branwen, roughly grasping her head and tilting it up to press a fierce, hungry kiss to her lips.

A moment later she was flung bodily backward by the shield of golden light which flashed into place around the Izarite.

“And once roused,” Branwen continued as if never interrupted, “you have no more control over your passions than does a child. Which is why I didn’t show you rage, and won’t allow you to experience it. At least until I’m done talking to you.”

Turning back to her desk, she pulled open the top drawer and retrieved a small compact; flipping the lid up to reveal a mirror, she took up the small brush contained within and set about repairing the damage done to the rouge on her lips.

Standing six feet away now, Basra absently scrubbed the back of her hand across her mouth, again staring at Branwen without expression.

“Matters are very different for most people,” the Izarite said, tucking the brush back into its slot and beginning to carefully fix her hair with her fingers, still gazing at the tiny mirror. “Emotion is so intertwined with thought as to be inextricable. There are so many kinds of emotions, and so many subtle shades… It’s a whole world you couldn’t begin to comprehend. And for someone like me, who can reach out and touch those vastly complex feelings…” Satisfied, she clicked the compact shut and turned to smile warmly at Basra. “Well, I won’t ask you to believe any claims I make. I shouldn’t need to, after all; you’ve gone and figured out for yourself how wildly out of character Ildrin acted when I needed her to. Instead, Basra, I want you to ponder a hypothetical.”

Branwen set the compact down on her desk and folded her arms beneath her breasts, her smile growing faintly, and becoming lopsided. “What do you suppose would happen if everyone who doesn’t understand you suddenly did… And everyone who tolerates you suddenly didn’t?”

She let that hang for a moment. Basra stared at her in continued silence, her face apparently frozen.

“So,” Branwen said more briskly, “I think you’re right; I’ll be staying away from trying to manipulate events henceforth. It really isn’t my strong suit, is it? Far more sensible to stick to what I can do, and do well.”

Abruptly, her smile faded and her voice hardened. “You are a rabid dog, Basra Syrinx. His Holiness believes he has you on a leash. Despite my misgivings, I have decided to trust his judgment, for now. But if you slip that leash again, like you did with Principia Locke and her squad—oh, yes, I know all about that—it will be the last time. Your entire world will unmake itself. Overnight. And nowhere will you find a hint that I was even involved. So…”

She strode forward, right at the other woman; this time, Basra gave no ground, simply watching her come. Branwen stalked almost close enough that they were touching again, staring up into Basra’s flat gaze, her own blue eyes suddenly ice-hard.

“Heel, girl.”

They stood that way in total silence for long seconds, and then Branwen suddenly smiled, turned away, and stepped toward the door.

Behind her, Basra twitched violently, another rapid change washing over her. Suddenly, her face twisted into an animalistic snarl and she took a half step forward, falling into a fighting crouch, hands outstretched.

“And before you attempt any of the things you’re contemplating,” Branwen added without turning around, “I suggest you consider how much this conversation surprised you, and ask yourself what else you have no idea I’m capable of.”

She opened the door, glanced over her shoulder with a flirtatious little smile, and glided out into the hall, leaving it open behind her.

Basra stood in place, breathing heavily for a few seconds, then whirled and stalked over to Branwen’s desk. There, she snatched up the little mirrored compact and hurled it savagely into the fire.


He was barely aware of where he was walking, having only a sense of veering indiscriminately back and forth; it was a shameful state of affairs for an elf, but nothing in this land would harm him. His inner battle consumed his attention. After all this time, he knew when he’d been beaten. He knew that, despite his intermittent attempts to alter his course, to vanish deeper into the twisted wilds of Athan’Khar, he was steadily making his way west. The spirits were driving west. Despite all his efforts to delay, soon enough he would reach N’Jendo.

And then it would begin, the thing he had tried so, so hard to avoid.

He took some small comfort in knowing that he wouldn’t last long. Eldei alai’shi never lasted long. The Empire had powers that well overmatched him. And there was some small hope, this time; after he had confronted the Avenists at the other border and been turned back, the humans would be ready. Headhunters usually caught them unawares, doing most of their damage before strike teams and battlemages could respond. This time, they’d be prepared.

How many people would he have to watch himself slaughter before they brought him down?

He didn’t even have to avoid thinking about it. These days, it was all he could do to think at all. The voices never let up anymore. He had denied them too long. They were too hungry.

Shadows passed over him.

He only belatedly became aware that he was passing over a rounded hilltop; around its foot were the remnants of an orcish town. The roofless remains of houses and shops now sprouted enormous growths like cancerous cacti thirty feet tall, bristling with person-sized, multi-pronged thorns, and with slowly undulating fronds extending upward toward the sky. The hill itself crunched beneath his ragged moccasins, its surface long ago melted to black glass by some imaginable heat source. Probably something the Tiraan did during the Bane…or maybe caused by one of Athan’Khar’s new residents. There were beings here capable of it.

The shapes cruising over him had excellent timing. He was just cresting the broke-glass hill when they plummeted down from the sky, banking and spreading their wings at the last minute to avoid slamming into the ground as they settled down. They still landed hard enough to shake the earth, which was unavoidable, given their sheer bulk.

Slowly, he turned in a full circle, studying the dragons and not sure what to think. His memories of his old life told him what a very, very odd situation this was. The spirits were mildly inquisitive, but mostly unconcerned. Dragons were no threat to them and of no interest. They really only cared about what they wanted to kill.

Four dragons, though. One of each primary color. Who had ever heard of such a thing?

“Good day,” said the gold in a resonant voice that boomed across the sky. “We must speak.”

“We must…go,” he said nervously, scratching at himself. There were no bugs, bugs did not like him anymore, but he often felt as if things crawled under his skin. “We have… The distance. Yes, have to go. I don’t want to, I’m really so very tired. But…we… Need. At the border, beyond the river, there was, there was, blocked, no use! Found the wisdom but… Other side, yes. There. More of. Um.”

A booming chuckle came from the blue dragon to his left. “This is our guy, then.”

“Peace, Zanzayed,” the gold said in a tone of weary patience.

The green cleared his throat softly—relatively speaking. “Well, it sounds as if you are having some difficulty expressing yourself.” He took one step forward, lowering his head to look at the elf more closely. “I believe I can help with that, temporarily. My name is Varsinostro. Will you indulge me for a moment?”

“Not to harm,” he said noncommittally, scratching his arm. “It’s, it isn’t you. No caring, why bother?”

“I’ll take that, and the lack of an attack, as agreement,” the dragon said with a truly horrifying smile. He reached forward with one enormous clawed hand, which the elf simply watched curiously as it descended on him. He was long past caring about his well-being, and anyway, what he cared about had long ago ceased to be a factor. The spirits were supremely uninterested in the dragons.

That huge hand settled on top of his head in an unbelievably gentle pat, just barely touching his matted hair. The claws curled down on all sides to touch the ground about him.

Suddenly, it was as if a door had been slammed.

The voices…he could still hear them, but distantly and fuzzily, as if underwater. Their constant, howling presence was ended. Suddenly, he was alone in his own head, for the first time in memory.

He staggered, stumbled, sat down hard with a crunch in the broken glass, staring.

“There we go,” the green said with clear satisfaction, withdrawing his hand. “This is purely experimental, understand. To my knowledge, no one has attempted this before. But I am encouraged by this initial success; I believe we can likely refine the method further.”

“You…you made them silent,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“I repeat, it will not hold long,” the green warned.

“And,” added the red one from behind him, “they are likely to be irate when they return.”

He doubted that. It really wasn’t the kind of thing the spirits even noticed; they were rarely interested in his perspective. He said nothing about it, though, having just remembered something important.

“Raash,” he whispered. “My name is Raash.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Raash,” said the gold one, bowing, which was a very odd sight. “I am Ampophrenon.”

“Please,” Raash said earnestly. “Please, quickly, before they come back. You have to kill me.”

Zanzayed snorted; Ampophrenon and Varsinostro exchanged an unreadable glance.

“Let’s call that Plan B,” said the red, stepping forward and snaking his head around to look down on Raash where he could see him. “First, we are extremely curious about recent events which unfolded at the Viridill border. That was you, correct? I’m assuming there are not two eldei alai’shi active in Athan’Khar at the moment.”

“No,” Raash said slowly, shaking his head. “Not anymore.”

“Anymore?” the blue repeated curiously.

“There was…” He closed his eyes, sighing; in the absence of the spirits’ constant, howling noise, the memory was suddenly more painful than he was expecting. “My brother. He came first, to take the pact. I came to stop him. We have been…struggling, here, for months. I’d thought to destroy myself once he was finally killed, but the spirits would not have it. They…” He paused, swallowed. “I was so close to finding a way, I’d just got them distracted and calm enough I thought I could eat poison. And then something happened at the old border to draw attention. Beings of Athan’Khar went across the river into Viridill, and found a huge Tiraan army massing. It drove the spirits wild. I couldn’t restrain them.”

“It’s very curious,” the red dragon rumbled, “that they were turned back after being reasoned with by one woman.”

Raash barked an incredulous laugh in spite of himself. “Reasoned? Oh, no, nothing like that happened. The Bishop…I remember her. Yes, she was very smart. She avoided most of the early mistakes I made in trying to deal with the spirits. She didn’t reason, she manipulated. She didn’t try to talk to me at all; her discussion was with the spirits, I was just there as an interpreter. I think she must have some experience dealing with the dangerously insane.”

“Hm,” Ampophrenon said thoughtfully. “That answers a few questions. Satisfied, Razzavinax?”

“Not remotely,” the red replied.

Varsinostro cleared his throat. “Anyway. As I said, Raash, I believe we can work to refine this technique, perhaps keep the spirits stifled more permanently. Possibly, though understand that I am in no way promising such a thing yet, purge them entirely. Is this line of study something you would be interested in pursuing?”

Raash could only gaze up at him, tears now coursing down his dirt-stained face. “I…I’d given up thinking… All I’d hoped for was death.”

“I will not deceive you,” the dragon said sternly. “It may yet come to that. But if you are willing to make the effort, as am I.”

“As are we all,” Ampophrenon said firmly.

Suddenly too overcome to form words, he could only nod.

“Smashing,” Zanzayed said cheerfully, leaning closer. “That being the case, our new pals back in Tiraas are rather curious about these events. And they may have instigated this little sit-down, but we have our own reasons for wanting to know more. In exchange for our help, Raash, we have questions.”

“Many,” added Razzavinax. “Many questions.”

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10 – 49

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“Movement!” the Legionnaire with her eye pressed to the telescope suddenly announced.

Everyone in the command tent was instantly alert and facing her, which wasn’t much of a change as they had all been tense and pretending with varying degrees of effort to be engaged in other things. The exception, of course, was Aspen, who at first had seemed not to understand the problem, but revealed upon having it explained that she actually just didn’t care. She and Ingvar had been engrossed in a quiet conversation in a rear corner of the pavilion. Whatever they were talking about had occasionally drawn startled looks from Yrril, despite her Narisian reserve.

“Well?” General Vaumann said tersely.

“They’re getting up,” the Legionnaire reported. “Standing and… No signs of agitation. Still seem to be talking… Everything’s still quiet.”

Joe let out an audible sigh, and several of those assembled slouched in quieter imitation. Ami, who had given up strumming her guitar after her attempts to “lighten the mood” had drawn annoyed looks and finally a shouted reprimand from Colonel Nintaumbi, wrapped her arms around it and looked sullen.

“Wait,” the watcher said, and the crowd tensed again.

“Make up your mind,” Ami muttered.

“They’re… Separating. Bishop Syrinx is leaving, coming back this way.”

“And the elf?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“He’s turning… Appears to be departing as well. Yes—confirmed! The headhunter is retreating back into the forest.”

An audible exhalation from multiple throats passed around the tent. Schwartz muttered something unintelligible, sagging against at tent pole hard enough to shake it and earn an irritated look from a nearby Legionnaire.

“Continuing…target is lost to sight in the treeline, now. Bishop Syrinx is proceeding back this way on foot.” Basra’s horse, left unattended, had wandered off earlier, which the scout had also reported.

“Sir?” an Imperial Army soldier wearing a captain’s bars said to Nintaumbi. “Shall I stand down the alert?”

“Absolutely not,” the Colonel said firmly. “We wait at minimum to hear what Syrinx has to say about her conversation. Agreed?”

He glanced up at Vaumann, who nodded. Yrril just stood in apparent calm, watching down the field. The exact acuity of her eyes was something she hadn’t seen fit to elaborate upon; a surface elf would be able to see almost as well as the human with the telescope, and while drow theoretically had similar capabilities, they were significantly disadvantaged by the sunlight.

“Well,” Nintaumbi added more softly, “I guess the only casualty here has been Bishop Darling. He had to have crossed paths with that creature… There’s only one way that could end up.”

“With all respect, Colonel,” Joe said, “I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about Darling.”

“I’m not certain what combat capabilities he may have,” Ingvar agreed, “but if anyone living could talk his way out of fighting a headhunter…”

“Um…” Everyone turned to stare at the scout, who was still watching through her spyglass. “Now that you mention it…”


“Why, fancy meeting you here!”

At being hailed, Basra halted her march back toward the armies, turning to stare at Darling, who was strolling casually toward her from the coastline to the southeast.

“Antonio,” she said at a more normal volume as he drew close enough to hear it. “It seems this should surprise me, but somehow, it just doesn’t. I think I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by anything you do.”

“Now, you mustn’t say things like that, Bas,” he said brightly, coming up to stand alongside her. “That’s the next best thing to a challenge!”

She shook her head. “How did your conversation go?”

“I realize you asked first and there’s a certain etiquette attached to that,” he replied, “but really. Your conversation was obviously a lot more important, and I’m betting a lot more interesting. So…?” He gazed at her expectantly.

Basra grunted and turned to resume her stride toward the front lines, her fellow Bishop falling into step beside her. “About like I expected, though it took longer than I thought.”

“You expected a successful negotiation with a headhunter?”

“I expected to be able to pull his strings, but… That man was more obviously insane than even the stereotype suggests. I don’t know if you’ve dug up anything on headhunters in your infamous research into Elilial, but you’ve talked with that creep Mary enough to probably know they aren’t quite like the rumors tell us. That fellow was clearly far gone. He can’t have been fresh from Athan’Khar, unless he was wildly unstable even before going in. I wonder what he’s been doing up till now; I didn’t get much out of him about that.”

“And yet, you got him to turn around and leave.” Darling shook his head in wonder. “That has to be the century’s foremost feat of diplomacy.”

Basra grinned. “Well, I think so, but most diplomats seem to object to my characterization of diplomacy as piles and piles of lies and manipulations. Most people don’t much like having their illusions exposed. Anyway, he’s gone for now. I don’t know how much time this has bought, but he probably won’t attack in the direction of Viridill again. So that’s my conversation, and if you want the fine details, you’ll have to wait. I’ve no doubt you plan to invite yourself along for the full debriefing I’ll need to give the commanders, anyway, and I don’t enjoy repeating myself.” She glanced shrewdly at him. “Which brings us to you. Since you were coming from the shoreline, hell and gone from the road you went in on, I assume one of your shifty friends found and warned you before you stumbled across the creature?”

“Right,” he said more seriously. “On to the next battle. Before we reach the others, there are a few things I think you should know.”


The trip back to campus was a slow one, being long, uphill, and taken on foot (with the obvious exception of Fross). Trissiny and Gabriel had dismissed their mounts, considering it awkward to ride when nobody else could; Whisper wasn’t built for multiple riders, and Arjen couldn’t carry everybody. For the most part, it was also a quiet walk. The sounds of continued jubilation from the town below had mostly faded into the distance by the time they’d exhausted their efforts to theorize as to Embras Mogul’s true motives.

Their general feeling about the encounter was not celebratory.

“Uh…” Gabriel craned his neck back to glance up at the position of the sun as they passed through the archway onto the campus proper. “Crap, can’t see Clarke Tower from here.”

“It’s a relief,” Ruda commented, “to learn that you don’t automatically know the spots from which our dorm is visible, Arquin.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s the biggest clock on campus. I’m fairly sure we’re gonna miss lunch if we wanna get to class on time.”

“Always on top of priorities,” Toby said with a smile.

“Hey, proper nutrition is important,” Juniper said seriously. “That’s true even when we haven’t just climbed a mountain.”

“Yes, this has been altogether inconvenient,” Shaeine said solemnly. “In the future, we should ask any deranged warlocks we encounter to schedule their assaults no earlier than four o’clock.”

“Huh,” Fross mused. “I wonder if that would work.”

“Well, I’ll certainly do my best to accommodate you,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully, stepping out from behind a tree just ahead. “All you have to to is ask!”

Weariness and malaise vanished in an instant; weapons came out, various auras sprang to life, and Vadrieny burst forth from Teal.

“You have made your last mistake!” Trissiny roared, golden wings blazing.

“Children!”

Everyone hesitated, though no one powered down or disarmed, and only half of them took their eyes off the warlock to glance up at the gatepost beside the arch, atop which Professor Ekoi suddenly sat, her tail twitching in disapproval.

“For once, would you think before attacking? The wards over this campus would repel incursions by far greater foes than this. Mr. Mogul is an invited guest. I expect initiates of this University to evince sufficient decorum to treat him as such.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“What a curious question,” Ekoi mused. “If I had, clearly I would not know it. And if I had not, I would take offense at the implication. What possible motivation could you have for saying such a thing, Mr. Arquin?”

“I’m thoughtless and fed up with your crap, that’s what!” he shouted.

“For heaven’s sake, boy, hush. I realize class is not formally in session, but this is still an institution of learning. I have arranged, at great effort, a demonstration for you. Compose yourselves and learn, please.”

“Well, pardon me for contradicting your point, General,” Mogul said cheerfully, recapturing everyone’s attention, “but I expect to make a great many more mistakes. Perhaps if you pay attention to the good Professor, here, you’ll someday find yourself in a position to take advantage of one!”

“That does it.” Trissiny took a step forward, sword upraised.

“Avelea.” Ekoi’s tone was calm. “Do not make me come down there.”

“Would it matter if I pointed out that Arquin can see up your robe?” Ruda asked.

“What?” Gabriel said shrilly. “I wouldn’t—Ruda, for once can you not be such a creep?”

“They’re rather cute, aren’t they?” Mogul said to Ekoi. “With the banter, and everything. I didn’t realize adventuring groups actually did that! The chapbooks don’t seem historically authoritative, at a casual glance.”

“Because they do it doesn’t make it sound policy,” Ekoi remarked.

“Well, I for one always respect a spot of good drama. Well? Don’t be shy, let me have it.” He spread his arms wide, grinning and seemingly unconcerned with the array of destructive power poised to descend on him. “How was it? The yokels seemed to eat it up, but I dunno… Not one of my best performances, I don’t think. It felt a little overworked. Wouldn’t you say?”

“We’re not doing this,” Toby said flatly. “We are not going to indulge you in conversation. Just do whatever it is Professor Ekoi is tolerating your presence for, please.”

“Unless you want to learn whether she’s actually capable of stopping all of us from tearing you apart,” Vadrieny snarled.

“It’s so odd,” the Professor mused, “being among people who think that is in question. This is why I should make time to leave Sifan more often; too long away from the wild world and one forgets. Vestrel, that language is not acceptable. There are children here, for heaven’s sake.”

Gabriel clutched Ariel and his staff in a white-knuckled grip, suddenly looking rattled.

“Indeed, tempers appear to be fraying even as we speak,” Mogul said, tipping his hat to them. “So, dear students, the question is, as always: What have we learned today?”

“Fuck it, let’s kill him,” Ruda suggested.

“Wait,” said Shaeine softly.

“You arranged that whole thing,” Fross accused. “The demon trace thing, all of it. From the beginning. Why? What do you get from that?”

“Turning us against the Archpope, for starters,” Toby said tersely.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at them. “Nothing so crude. Turning you against someone is…well, it’s such a limited gambit. That’s the kind of thing you do to bit players who don’t really matter in the long run. It’s usually all too simple. No, consider the fact that the most esteemed Ekoi-sensei finds my presence and activities here tolerable. Aside from clear evidence that I’m not here to harm you, that shows what, specifically, I’m out to help you do. Which is…?”

He smiled expectantly at them.

“Learn,” Shaeine whispered.

“Bingo!” Mogul pointed at her. “The fact that you and I are nominally enemies is a condition of circumstance, not essential nature. You don’t seem to grasp, yet, how ephemeral all your affiliations and bonds truly are. Unlike the various cults that trained you before now, I’m not out to tell you who you should trust, what you should believe.” He folded his arms and adopted a cocky pose, smirking from beneath the brim of his hat. “What I want is the same thing your teacher, here, wants. The same thing Professor Tellwyrn wants. I want you to think. I want you to look beyond the surface, to question what you are told, to take nothing for granted. I told you before: the Black Wreath is on the side of truth. But I also told you that the truth would be devalued if I just dropped it on you. You’ll have to learn to seek it out for yourselves.”

“This guy is so full of it,” Gabriel muttered, unconsciously raising Ariel. Blue sigils along her blade flared to life.

“That I most certainly am,” Mogul agreed. “For the love of all that’s unholy, don’t take anything I tell you at face value—surely you’ve got that much figured out already. This time you made a lot of assumptions and a lot of rash actions. You thought like adventurers.” He shook his head. “As I’m sure a few people have mentioned to you, adventuring is a thing of the past. To succeed in this world, you need to be insightful, careful, and mindful of the subtle connections between things. This time,” he added, looking directly at Trissiny and grinning, “I made you a hero in the eyes of the public. I prevented a certain schemer in the Universal Church from getting hooks into you. You fought me the whole way, and yet you ended up doing exactly as I wished at every step. Now, just imagine what would have happened if I had actually meant you harm!”

“Did you seriously come up here just to gloat?” Juniper exclaimed.

“Of course not.” Mogul tipped his hat to her. “Merely to demonstrate. I don’t mind acknowledging that I’m not smarter than you, kids—at least, not collectively. You lost this one because you were playing the wrong game. Learn to play the right one. And now!” Turning toward Ekoi’s pillar, he bowed deeply, sweeping off his hat to reveal a shiny bald head. “Professor, it has been both a high honor and an unmitigated pleasure to work with you.”

“That’s a lie,” she said, smiling benignly, “but since it should have been, I shall accept the compliment.”

“With that, I really must be off—I can only imagine the stress poor Professor Tellwyrn is under right now, allowing me to stand here without smiting me into a puddle.” He placed his hat back on his head, straightened it carefully with both hands, then winked at them. “See you ’round, kids.”

Shadows gathered, and then he was gone.

Professor Ekoi hopped nimbly down, landing on the grass as lightly as a cat. “What you just heard was wisdom, students. It was not necessarily truth. The difference is important. Think on these things—think deeply, and carefully. But later, yes? For now, off to class with you.”

She turned and strolled casually away, the white tip of her tail bobbing behind her. The entire class stared at her retreating back, too dumbfounded to speak.

With the exception of Trissiny, who was staring at the spot from which Embras Mogul had vanished, her sword dangling limply from her fingers.


Though the remaining members of Basra’s party had clustered around trying to command her attention immediately upon her return, she had brushed them off to join the commanders in a private conference in Fort Naveen. Schwartz and Ami had both been loudly disappointed when it was made clear that they were not invited to attend. Only Branwen had managed to include herself, and that apparently on the pure basis of rank, not because she had anything in particular to contribute. Darling’s companions, though they had been similarly glad to see him alive and well, had been more restrained. Or perhaps, less interested in being cooped up with stuffy military leaders.

In any case, it wasn’t as if dallying was an option; after a relatively short exchange, a messenger from the fort had arrived with word that a very important figure had just been teleported in.

“I am absolutely astonished,” said General Toman Panissar in the fort’s secure conference room, “that you managed to persuade that deranged thing to back down, Bishop Syrinx.”

“I’m somewhat astonished that your response to that deranged thing’s presence was to come here,” Darling said, lounging back in the chair he had commandeered by the fireplace. “Wouldn’t the Empire find itself in a bit of a pickle if the supreme commander of the Army were suddenly killed by a headhunter?”

“His Majesty is the supreme commander of the Army,” Panissar said, giving him an irritated look, “and that is why I didn’t come until the Azure Corps brought word that the headhunter had retreated.”

“The point remains,” Yrril said calmly, “it was an incredible feat of negotiation, Bishop. I must add my commendation.”

“Thank you, but ‘negotiation’ implies more rationality on the part of the participants,” Basra said with a faint smile. “I was manipulating, twisting the facts and lying through my teeth, and he was, not to put too fine a point on it, batshit crazy. As I said before going, that was a situation that called for a politician.”

“It was still incredibly brave to go out there,” Branwen said earnestly. “I mean, I think I can consider myself a politician as well, and I feel no shame that I didn’t volunteer.”

“I am, among other things, a soldier,” Basra said with a shrug. “It had to be done. That’s what soldiers do.”

“I could only dream of filling my ranks with men and women who would willingly face such a thing,” Panissar replied. “But the important question remains: how much time have you bought us?”

“That I can’t say exactly,” Basra said, her expression falling into a frown. “I managed to convince him that messing with the Sisterhood wasn’t in his best interests. That much I was confident I could do before I went out there; whatever that elf thinks of anything, the actual danger comes from the spirits inside him, and Athan’Khar and Viridill respected each other for a long time, even when they fought. It was the attack on Athan’Khar that made Viridill turn on the Empire, after all. As to what he’ll do next, or when, or where…” She shrugged fatalistically. “This is a temporary reprieve, make no mistake.”

“Then we’ve gained nothing,” Colonel Nintaumbi said, scowling.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Panissar disagreed. “Time to prepare makes all the difference—it’s exactly the thing we’ve never had before, with any other headhunter’s appearance. Bishop Syrinx saved a lot of good soliers today; that thing would have torn right through those armies. Now, I’ve had time to alert Lord Schraede and notify Imperial Intelligence.”

“Schraede?” Yrril asked, tilting her head.

“Commander of the Strike Corps,” Darling explained.

“Indeed,” Panissar said, nodding. “The entire Corps has been pulled from their duties and set on high alert. Considering the headhunter’s known ability to shadow-jump, we must assume his next move could occur anywhere. Strike teams are moving into position across the Empire, each accompanied by portal mages of the Azure Corps to stay in communication. As soon as he shows his face again, the entire Strike Corps will land on him. Not even a headhunter can contend with that. And besides,” he added more thoughtfully, “while it’s a long shot, his Majesty had the idea to seek aid from…our allies. If they are willing and prove able, we may be able to head this off before the creature can attack.”

“Allies?” Vaumann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The Emperor prefers that that matter remain classified for now,” Panissar said briskly. “Continuing with that line of thought, this business of stirring up elementals shows far more planning ability than any past headhunter has displayed, not to mention skills beyond them.”

Basra and Darling exchanged a glance.

“Well,” Darling said, straightening up, “it turns out that wasn’t the headhunter’s doing.”

“Oh?” Nintaumbi said sharply.

“I did manage to have a short conversation with Khadizroth the Green while I was very briefly in the woods,” the Bishop continued. “He and Mary the Crow are still down there—after rescuing me from blundering across that crazy critter, they stayed behind to see what they could do about it. But yes, back on point, it turns out we were both right, Bas. Khadizroth was down there to help, and he was behind the elemental attacks.”

“What?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

Basra nodded, though. “Yes…I can see it. In fact, that explains the one glaring flaw in my theory that was troubling me. The elemental summoner showed a knowledge of the history and social nature of Viridill and the Sisterhood; it was odd in the extreme that he might think they would step aside and let him invade Tiraas.”

“Exactly,” Darling agreed. “Between that and his ploy to get Mary’s attention through Ingvar… He wasn’t attacking Viridill, he was trying to rally the province’s defenders.”

“Why?” Panissar demanded, narrowing his eyes. “If he had forewarning of this creature’s intentions, he could have just come to us.”

“There’s a lot about Khadizroth I don’t know, or understand,” Darling admitted. “Today was my first actual encounter with him; what I’ve heard previously has been secondhand at best. We do know, however, that he’s not involved with the Conclave, despite their claim to represent every dragon in Imperial territory, and I’ve had reason to believe before now that he has worked with the Universal Church in some capacity. That’s odd behavior from any dragon but a gold. I highly doubt he trusts or likes the Empire. The Crow doesn’t, either, but neither of them go for the kind of indiscriminate slaughter a headhunter causes. They moved to save lives, even those of their declared enemy. But yes, Toman, you’re correct.” He nodded grimly. “These are powerful beings with their own agendas, who should never be trusted or taken for granted. I think we’ll be a long time yet unraveling the threads beneath all this.”

“If we even can,” Basra said fatalistically. “Unless we can capture either Mary the Crow or Khadizroth the Green, we’re unlikely to learn anything more. Whatever other truths are out there…they’re buried in Athan’Khar, now.”

“Then I think that sums up the situation,” Panissar said. “The crisis has passed, for now, but this is not over.”

“If you look far enough beneath the surface,” said Darling, “there are always strings connecting events to other events. I can’t find it in me to believe all this just happened.”

“Headhunters,” General Vaumann pointed out, “are essentially chaos and randomness personified. If anything, the lack of connection to a greater pattern has been the most difficult part of this whole mess. I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude there’s some broader purpose at play, here.”

“We may be able to learn something more, either from the dragon or the Crow, or possibly even the headhunter,” Panissar replied, “but on the whole, I am inclined to agree with Bishop Darling. Lord Vex is of the same mind.”

“You can add me to that list,” Basra stated. “There’s just too much going on for us to assume this is over. Even once the headhunter is destroyed… I think we had all better keep these events firmly in mind, and be watchful going forward.”

For a moment, her gaze met and held Darling’s, and then they both turned back to the group, expressions betraying nothing.

Positioned in the room’s most comfortable chair in the far corner, Branwen let the continuing discussion wash over her, studying each of her fellow Bishops in turn, and wearing the faintest little smile.

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10 – 44

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The atmosphere in the command tent was tense and growing tenser. Basra’s party had begun to wake an go in search of her, which had only helped partially; Branwen and Jenell had both turned up as they were arriving, and while Branwen, at least, was giddily eager to see Darling again, Jenell simply made another person to stand around in uncomfortable silence while the two Bishops chattered.

She was also the least awkward Legionnaire present. There had been a shift change while Basra and the commanders had gone to the checkpoint, and the Imperial guards had been replaced by soldiers of the Second Legion, all of whom were directing stares at Ingvar. Their expressions ranged from outright baleful to merely puzzled; he studiously ignored them, wearing a wry grimace.

“ATTENTION!”

All six Legionnaires (seven including Covrin, who hadn’t even been doing anything) snapped upright, redirecting their stares ahead into space. So did Joe, who then immediately flushed and sat back down on the stool he’d appropriated by one of the tent poles.

The commanders strode back into the shade of the awning, Vaumann, sweeping a scowl around at her soldiers which promised further discussion on this later, but made no further comment to them, instead nodding again to Darling.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said in a far calmer tone.

“What were you guys talking about?” Aspen asked.

“Aspen, that’s not polite,” Ingvar said quietly.

“What?” The dryad turned a scowl on him. “Why not? I want to know!”

“People’s business is theirs,” he replied calmly. “Prying into it shows a lack of respect. If someone wants you to know what they were doing, they’ll tell you.”

“Sides,” Joe added with a grin, “I reckon anybody’d have a few words to exchange if this gaggle of weirdos showed up on their doorstep.”

“I am not a weirdo,” Aspen snapped, stomping her bare foot. “Ingvar, tell him!”

“Tell him what?” Ingvar said dryly.

“Aspen, my dear, you are as normal as any of us,” Darling said gallantly.

“Thank you!” she said, pointing at him.

Basra cleared her throat loudly. “Anyway.”

“Right, yes,” Darling said in a more serious tone. “To business. I mentioned we uncovered something relevant to your engagement here.”

“Which, I’m sure, is quite a story,” Colonel Nintaumbi said flatly.

“A long one, most of which would be of little interest to you.” Darling nodded to his companions. “I’ll try to summarize, but chime in if I forget anything that seems significant. Especially you, Ingvar, you’re the one who saw the relevant part firsthand.”

“And me,” Aspen said haughtily.

“Of course,” Darling said, smiling kindly at her. “Anyhow. We’ve been off on a quest of Ingvar’s—Shaathist business which Joe and I happened to be along to help with. This culminated last night with a vision quest of sorts that involved Ingvar entering a kind of dream world, while we kept watch.”

“Dream world?” the Colonel said skeptically.

“I know of this,” said Yrril, nodding. “Themynra’s followers do not enter it deliberately, but some rites of the faith involve journeying within. Stepping into the dreams of others, or the space connecting them, is considered a risk against which acolytes are cautioned. This is very dangerous,” she added directly to Ingvar. “You entered it deliberately? I assume you had the guidance of a priest of your people.”

“An elvish shaman, actually,” the Huntsman replied. “Mary the Crow.”

Basra’s lips thinned, but any response she might have made was overrun by Colonel Nintaumbi.

“What?” he exploded. “The Crow?”

“She’s been pulling strings from the back of this business,” said Joe. “Uh, Ingvar’s business, not yours. Seemed she was as surprised as the rest of us to learn there was any connection.”

“Fraternizing with the Crow is an extremely serious matter,” Nintaumbi grated. “The woman is a highly dangerous individual and a self-declared enemy of the Tiraan Empire!”

“What?” Darling gasped, his eyes widening. “She is? All this time…? And I…” He turned his back to them, shoulders quivering, and said tremulously. “I just feel so used.”

An identical look passed between Joe, Ingvar and Basra; Branwen rolled her eyes. Nintaumbi and Vaumann stared, nonplussed, at Darling’s back, while Yrril raised an eyebrow.

“Antonio,” Basra warned.

“Yes, yes, fine,” he said, turning back to face them with a grin. “You can’t just let me have my fun?”

“No,” she said curtly. “This position could be under attack literally any moment. No one has time for your customary goofing around.”

“All right, Colonel,” Darling continued, “if you feel the need to report this, go right ahead, but I can assure you that my association with the Crow is long-standing and known to both Archpope Justinian and Quentin Vex. I’ve not spoken personally with his Majesty on the subject, but it’s my assumption that he knows what Vex knows. All of us feel it’s best to have someone who can talk civilly with her, rather than being completely in the dark concerning what she’s up to.”

“I suppose that will have to do, for now,” Nintaumbi said with a deep frown. “So long as you’re aware she is using you.”

“Yes, and she’s aware that I’m using her. Mutuality is the foundation of all stable relationships, don’t you think?”

“Actually,” Branwen began.

“Anyway!” Basra shouted.

“Anyway, Mary is only tangentally related to this,” Darling continued. “In this dream-quest of Ingvar’s, he encountered a green dragon by the name of Khadizroth, who warned him of events happening in Viridill and that there was trickery afoot.”

“Khadizroth,” Vaumann said, narrowing her eyes.

“So,” Nintaumbi said grimly, “it seems we have our summoner.”

“Not necessarily,” Darling demurred.

The Colonel snorted. “We’ve been looking for a highly powerful and presumably immortal fae magician; green dragons have been specifically mentioned as likely culprits. Khadizroth the Green is a known figure who is not on the roster of the Conclave’s membership. When I hear hoofbeats, your Grace, I think of horses, not zebras.”

“Seriously,” Basra exclaimed, “what is a zebra?”

“There’s more to it than that, Colonel,” Darling said, frowning himself now. “The timing is suggestive. Ingvar, would you mind relating exactly what passed between you and Khadizroth? I’m sure you remember it better than I.”

“Of course,” said the Huntsman, nodding. “In the dreamscape, I first found Aspen, and then the dragon. We spoke with Khadizroth at some length; he rendered insight into Aspen’s situation and gave us magical aid for her, and then we discussed my visions and my quest. Which,” he added with a sudden frown, “I don’t think are pertinent here…”

“Go on,” General Vaumann said, nodding.

“In the end,” Ingvar continued, “Khadizroth said that he was beholden to someone he didn’t particularly like assisting, and had sent out visions in order to call for attention and help. He spoke of events in Viridill and Athan’Khar—not by name, but he referred to cursed lands to the south, and that can hardly mean anything else. His last comment was that someone should know that what was happening here was a smokescreen. And then…”

“Yes?” Nintaumbi said impatiently.

“I think,” Ingvar said slowly, “he was attacked.”

“Attacked?” Basra said, scowling.

“He broke off mid-sentence,” Ingvar replied, “and thrashed and cried out in obvious pain. His flailing was so severe that it seemed to damage the dream-scape, and forced my vision to an abrupt end.”

“So,” said Darling, “to summarize, Khadizroth knows something about what’s happening here, and was trying to summon help in a sufficiently roundabout method that it wouldn’t catch the attention of…well, we don’t know who, unfortunately. After a perfectly lovely conversation with Ingvar and Aspen, he tried to deliver that warning, and that was the point at which he came under attack. Obviously, there are any number of possible interpretations of this, and yes, one is that he’s somehow behind these events. But another, and more likely it seems to me, is that he’s down there trying to help, and the actual summoner just acted to put a stop to it.”

A grim silence fell over the tent, all those present staring around at one another with pensive and unhappy expressions.

“I’m not sure whether this has helped us or not,” Nintaumbi said finally.

“It is more information,” said Yrril. “In war, information is a commander’s lifeblood.” Vaumann nodded approvingly at her.

“But if anything, the waters are muddied even further,” the Colonel growled. “Now we have another player, and an obvious suspect for complicity if not outright responsibility in these attacks, and yet we’re still not certain if he’s doing this, or why.”

“One thing is obvious,” said Darling. “Assuming Khadizroth’s account was true, there is another player involved, one who has some kind of hold on him. It could be someone who’s fighting against him, or who sent him down there to help, or anything else.”

“Let’s not forget this dragon has an established relationship with the Archpope,” said Joe.

“What?” Vaumann exclaimed, while Basra and Darling turned identically inscrutable expressions on the Kid.

“It’s come up, when I’ve crossed wands with him,” Joe replied, glancing at Darling. “What kind of relationship I couldn’t tell ya, but it’s something.”

“Crossed wands…” Nintaumbi stared at him. “You’ve fought this dragon?”

“Twice,” said Joe, nodding.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Sarasio Kid,” Darling said grandly.

“So I can’t say I’m exactly his bosom buddy,” Joe continued, “but we’ve managed a couple of fairly civil conversations in and around the shootin’, an’ I’d have to say that of all the things I’d suspect Khadizroth of doin’, lying ain’t one. He’s a little obsessed with honor an’ integrity.”

“Boy, isn’t that the truth,” Aspen grumbled. “We were talking with him for all of five minutes and he managed to make half of it about that.”

“It wasn’t that much,” Ingvar said, patting her on the shoulder, “and he was not wrong.”

“Which puts us right back where we started,” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“Indeed,” said Vaumann, nodding thoughtfully. “It seems the great tragedy here is that whatever struck him did so before he could reveal what he intended to.”

“When was this?” Basra asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Last night,” said Darling. “We stopped to rest and eat before coming, but even with that we made great time. Mary sent us off with some kind of fairy hoodoo to make the trip only a couple hours—this was from the elven grove on the north of the province. For some reason,” he added, grinning at Nintaumbi, “she wasn’t interested in coming along to chitchat with the Army.”

“What time last night?” Basra pressed.

Darling and Ingvar glanced at each other uncertainly.

“After midnight,” the Huntsman said after a moment. “There were no clocks in the grove, obviously. We could not see the position of the moon through the trees, and I for one was in a trance which tended to distort the passage of time.”

“Hm,” Basra mused. “I wonder what an Izarite shatterstone would do to a green dragon.”

“Very little,” said Branwen. “Those are only meant to be defensive; they react when magical entities invade the temples in which they are placed, transforming their inherent magic into the divine. It’s meant to critically weaken fairies and cause demons to burn. But a dragon is far too powerful a being to be severely affected by such an effect. Besides, the greens are not actually fairy creatures; they only use fae magic, and normally have spells of all four schools on hand besides.”

“Things work differently when used incorrectly, by definition,” Basra replied. “The fact that a shatterstone is meant to be a passive thing suggests it might cause entirely different effects when hurled at an enemy.”

“Sounds like you’ve had an interesting night, as well,” Darling remarked.

“All of this is speculation, and not particularly helpful,” said Vaumann. “Unless we can somehow arrange another conversation with this dragon, whatever he knows is lost to us. You said your people know rituals similar to this dream thing, Yrril?”

“I fear that is a null line of inquiry,” Yrril replied. “The priestesses I have brought with me are highly specialized in shielding and healing magic. By the time I sent to Tar’naris for a suitable specialist, battle is likely to be joined and the point moot. Besides, as I said, deliberately walking through the dream to connect to others is not part of Themynrite practice. Even if a priestess were willing to help, she would be improvising. Are we that desperate, yet?”

“Seems like an elvish shaman would be a better bet anyway,” Nintambi mused, “since they seem to do this on purpose.”

“Same problem applies,” said Basra. “It’d take a week to convince a woodkin shaman to leave their precious grove, and that’s assuming we could get one to listen at all. The elves up north were standoffishly sympathetic to our problem when I talked to them, but they’re still elves, and that would be asking a lot. I don’t suppose you have any idea where your friend Mary is now,” she added dryly.

Darling shrugged. “Generally speaking, you find out where Mary is when she feels like telling you.”

“What of the Viridill witches?” Vaumann suggested. “None came to the front with us, but there are still several in Vrin Shai.”

“I have no idea what any of them would even know about this,” said Basra, then frowned. “Wait, what? None came here? What the blazes do we need them for, if they’re not going to help with the elementals?”

“After Vrin Shai,” Vaumann said very dryly, “we determined they were better used as reserves to mop up individual events behind the lines while the military handled the main confrontation. They seem even less amenable to doing what they are told, when, and how, than the average run of civilians. Unless someone has another idea, then, I suppose that’s that. The information is appreciated, but it seems we’ll have to proceed as we were, without Khadizroth’s input.”

“Oh, all right,” Darling said with a cheerfully long-suffering expression. “I’ll go talk to him.”

Basra sighed. “Antonio…”

“In all seriousness, though,” he said, “he’s very likely in Athan’Khar, or near the border, right? I’ll head down there and have a word.”

“Are you off your nut?” Joe exclaimed.

“Okay, it’s like this,” said Darling, his expression sobering. “I’m a Bishop of the Universal Church, a ranking agent of the Thieves’ Guild and the former Boss thereof. I sit on the Imperial Security Council. I am the keeper of just all kinds of secrets, most of which I couldn’t share with you even if I were so inclined, because they aren’t mine, and there would be severe consequences if I blabbed. So, I’m sorry, but we’ve come to a point where I know things that you don’t and, with apologies, I can’t enlighten you.”

“But?” Vaumann prompted.

“But,” he said, “I have every reason to believe that if I approach, alone, Khadizroth will seek me out and hear me out.”

“That is absolute blithering madness,” Basra said bluntly. “Quite apart from the issue that this is a dragon we’re talking about, and one whose uncertain motives are the whole dilemma here… Antonio, that forest is going to spew forth hostile elementals at any time. If you go near it, you’re digging your own grave.”

“Well,” he said cheerfully, “you just gonna nitpick, or will you be useful and lend me a shovel?”

“Covrin,” she said, staring at him, “go punch Bishop Darling in the gut.”

“I—uh…” Jenell glanced, wide-eyed, between Basra and Darling, and took an uncertain half-step. “Yes…ma’am?”

“Stand at attention, Private Covrin,” General Vaumann said flatly.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jenell repeated, this time with obvious relief.

“Look, it’s like this,” said Darling. “I never go anywhere without a whole deck of aces up my sleeve, and I definitely don’t risk my own precious hide unless I am extremely confident in what I’m doing.”

“What are you doing, exactly?” Branwen asked, frowning worriedly.

“I am absolutely confident,” he said, “that I can approach the border, get Khadizroth to talk to me, and get away from him unmolested. That much I am certain of. What I’m not sure about is what the useful result of that conversation would be, so I definitely don’t suggest you put any of your plans on hold while you wait for me.”

“I assure you, your Grace,” Nintaumbi said woodenly, “no one was about to suspend operations based on…this.”

Darling grinned at him. “Just so. But in the end, what it comes down to is that I don’t answer to you. Unless somebody wants to scroll Boss Tricks in Tiraas and take a gamble that he cares enough to send me orders, you can’t stop me from going.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find there’s a lot we can do to prevent a civilian from wandering blithely into our combat zone,” Basra said, folding her arms.

Vaumann raised an eyebrow, looking in the direction of Basra and Branwen. “Your Graces are acquainted with your fellow Bishop; what do you think?”

“I won’t lie,” said Branwen, frowning, “this sounds like incredibly dangerous nonsense to me. But…Antonio has always known what he’s doing, ever since I’ve known him.”

“Yes,” Basra said somewhat grudgingly. “I believe I made mention of that in the first place. And he definitely knows the value of his own skin. If he says he can do this, he probably can.”

“Very well, then,” said Vaumann, glancing at Yrril and then Nintaumbi. “Unless someone else has an objection, you have my blessing, your Grace.”

“So long as it’s understood,” Nintaumbi said firmly, “that this will not lessen the firepower currently trained on what is about to be your position, Bishop Darling. For your sake, I dearly hope you do know what you’re doing.”

“Always do, Colonel,” he said cheerfully.

“I’d offer to go with you,” Joe added, scowling, “but me an’ Khadizroth…”

“I appreciate it, Joe.” Darling laid a hand on his shoulder. “You’re right, though; the history there would only make this harder. Heck, Ingvar or Aspen would be more likely to get his attention positively, but in this case my chances are best if I’m alone.”

“Ingvar and Aspen didn’t offer,” the dryad said pointedly.

“Anyway,” the Huntsman added, placing a hand on her upper back, “Aspen will be more valuable here.”

“Excuse me?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“That is actually a good point,” Vaumann said thoughtfully. “If Aspen is willing to help, her presence could work to put an end to hostilities. Elementals won’t attack a dryad.”

“Sure, that’s part of why I came,” Aspen said agreeably, shrugging.

“I do trust that you know what you’re doing,” Ingvar added directly to Darling. “And I have no trouble believing you know things you haven’t shared with us. All the same…be extremely careful. You court great danger.”

“Story of my life, believe it or not,” Darling said lightly. “Watch your back, too.”

“Always do.”

“If you intend to do this, your Grace,” Vaumann said pointedly, “it’s a walk of several hours to the border. I can arrange to have a rider carry you to the front lines, but beyond that point, you’ll be on your own.”

“Much appreciated, General!”

“Holy smokes.”

Everyone turned at the outburst to behold Schwartz, hair sleep-rumpled and with a steaming cup of tea in hand, staring at them from a few yards away. “Is that a dryad?!”

“Oh, look,” Aspen said acidly. “A gangly nitwit.”

To the shock of everyone present, Basra burst out laughing.


The sun had climbed barely to the apex of the sky when a very slight swelling of the shadows occurred near the fallen gates of Fort Varansis. It was a spot cast largely in shade anyway, due to the combination of the leaning, broken masonry and a twisted pine tree standing very close by.

Darling strolled out of the little nook a moment later, straightening his suit and peering about as if he hadn’t a care in the world beyond enjoying his stroll. He wandered into the crumbling courtyard of the old fortress, examining the remains of the previous night’s campsite. The fire had long since gone out, but the tracks everywhere were fresh, and abandoned bedrolls still lay there, with cooking utensils and a scattering of personal items nearby. He paced in an idle circle, examining all this, before bending to pick up a book.

“So you’re a warlock, now? I cannot say this surprises me.”

Darling straightened up, turned, and put on a broad grin. “Well, hello there! I don’t know whether to be delighted or disappointed. I had this whole routine worked out—you’d start by sending one of those elemental servants you seem to like so much, and then I’d say—”

“Following recent events,” Khadizroth interrupted, “my patience for these games has somewhat frayed. I am quite aware that you would not venture here without laying some kind of trap for me—as you must be aware that I would not approach you without making ample preparations of my own. I confess I did not expect to see you shadow-jumping, but as I said, on reflection it is oddly appropriate.”

“Oh, now, I can’t claim to be a master of the art,” Darling said brightly, resuming his slow circuit of the abandoned campsite. “Those Black Wreath talismans are always available to a fellow as resourceful as I.”

“Mm.” Khadizorth matched his slow circuit in the opposite direction, keeping the rough circle of sleeping rolls between them. The dragon, of course, wore the humanoid form to which he had been bound, as well as a distinctly skeptical expression. “At last, then, we meet. I must say I pictured this…differently.”

“Life’s like that, isn’t it?”

“Quite so. You are here, I gather, with regard to the business in Viridill?”

“I’ve been traveling with Brother Ingvar, in fact. We only recently learned of this.”

“Have you.” The dragon’s smooth emerald eyes narrowed further. “What is your interest in Ingvar?”

“He’s a friend.”

“Do you really have friends, your Grace? Or only pieces in your game to whom you smile as you move them about?”

“That’s your problem in a nutshell, K,” the thief countered. “You think those things are mutually exclusive. Eserite honor may not be the same kind you’re famous for preaching about—but on the other hand, nobody I call a friend has ever carried off vulnerable adolescents to form their own harem.”

“I see the civil portion of this dialog is at an end,” Khadizroth said bitingly. “Speak your piece, then, thief. I can only assume it contains whatever warning you have prepared that will persuade me not to obliterate you for your several insults and offenses against me.”

“Well, with regard to that,” Darling said, coming to a stop. He had placed himself opposite the entrance; the dragon likewise halted, turning to face him, framed by the open gate beyond. “We do need to talk about Viridill. And Ingvar, and most especially Justinian, and a variety of related topics. All of that’s new business, though, relatively speaking. Since you’ve been so generous with your time and didn’t make me argue with messengers before getting to you, we should have ample time for some old business to have a crack at you first.”

Khadizroth stared at him, frowning slightly for a moment, before his eyes widened infinitesimally in realization. Then he closed them, an expression of resignation falling across his features.

“I may have lied about that shadow-jumping talisman,” Darling confessed, folding his hands behind his back and smiling beatifically.

Slowly, Khadizroth turned around, opening his eyes to gaze at the two blonde, black-clad figures standing between him and the exit.

“Hello, girls,” he said softly.

“Hello, Khadizroth,” said Flora tonelessly.

“It’s time,” said Fauna, “we had a conversation.”

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10 – 42

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Though they still mostly lacked the paving of the Empire’s modern, carriage-friendly infrastructure, the ancient roads of Viridill had been designed to withstand time and the elements without needing major upkeep; most of them had been built when the province of Avei’s faithful had been beset on all sides by enemies, rivals, and marauding nomads, and needed to rapidly convey troops at minimal notice. The road, thus, was still a road and still navigable, but after nearly a century of scant use and no maintenance, it was in bad enough shape to throw up impediments to five people fleeing along it in the dark. Grasses had taken root even in its hard-packed surface, decades of wind and rain had gouged ruts and enormous potholes, and debris from the dense forest surrounding had fallen everywhere. All three priestesses ran with golden glows radiating from them, which helped a lot, but members of the party still tripped and stumbled often.

No one gave up. Even had anyone been so inclined, the sounds of what was coming after them would have spurred them onward. The eerie keening of whatever was running in an apparent group continued, but far worse were the long, aching screams, the far-too-human sounds of absolute pain and despair. And they were all growing steadily closer.

Ami proved to be in remarkably good shape; she was not only keeping up, despite awkwardly clutching her guitar case as she ran, but managing to hum almost continuously. It wasn’t quite full bardsong, but she lent what she could to the group. Schwartz, too, had cast a quick enhancement over them to keep them going once they all assembled on the bank beyond the frozen river. Between them, they had done what they could, and their efforts showed, but the group had been running for more than a quarter of an hour, and only Jenell and Basra were really trained for such exertion—and even Jenell was starting to falter, having to make the dash in armor.

They were all lagging. What was chasing them was still gaining.

Finally, Branwen lost her footing on a half-hidden tuft of grass and stumbled to her knees, barely catching herself against both palms and letting out a soft sob of pain and exhaustion. Around her, the rest of the group faltered as well, turning to look.

Basra kept going a few more steps before stopping and turning around. She stared down at the fallen Izarite for half a moment, then glanced up at the darkness swallowing the road in the direction from which they’d just come, then finally trotted back, reaching down to none too gently grasp Branwen under the shoulder and tug her upright.

“Not much further,” she said curtly, and even she was slightly out of breath. “The treeline is only a hundred yards ahead. Once we’re in the open, the armies will see us and help.”

“They don’t stop,” Ildrin wheezed, sagging forward and panting. “Why don’t they—”

“You shut your noise hole,” Basra snapped.

“They never forget, never forgive,” Ami said, clutching her guitar case as if for comfort; she was pale and utterly lacked her usual haughty poise. “They won’t stop till every drop of Tiraan blood falls. Once they get the scent—”

“That is not helping!” Basra exclaimed. “Come on, all of you, pull it together! We’re nearly out of the woods. Schwartz, is there any more you can do?”

“Very dangerous,” he croaked, panting heavily and with one hand pressed to his chest. “Messes up th’body… Natural capacity…”

“None of that will matter if we’re all—”

And then something burst from the trees beside the road, not ten yards behind them.

In the roughest sense, it was humanoid, pink and fleshy, but unformed as a scarecrow. Spindly arms were totally out of proportion to its body, tipped in fingers so long they resembled tentacles; for a head it had only a misshapen lump without apparent eyes. It had a mouth, though, a huge, gaping maw lined with uneven, flat teeth, dripping streams of viscous drool that glinted in the light of Basra’s aura. And it was easily fifteen feet tall.

The thing opened its mouth still wider and screamed, that same wail of anguish that had been following them since the fortress. This close, it was far louder, and somehow even more horrible. Ildrin and Branwen both staggered backward from it with muted cries.

Basra stalked forward, sword upraised; after a second, Jenell joined her, drawing her weapon and raising her shield.

Before they even reached the front of the group, the monstrosity wailed again and came charging toward them. Its speed was terrifying.

Schwartz spat a few unintelligible syllables and hurled Meesie straight at the thing, right over the heads of the two Legionnaires.

The mousy little elemental exploded in a massive fireball in midair.

What landed on the road between them and the monster of Athan’Khar was the size of a pony and more resembled a lion than a rodent, with a halo of seething flame for a mane. The creature didn’t so much as slow; letting out a deafening roar of challenge, Meesie charged forward, lunging to grasp one of its legs in her powerful jaws.

The elemental’s weight yanked the brute off-balance, and they tumbled sideways into the treeline, the monster emitting another anguished scream, this one sounding distinctly angrier. Meesie whirled to her feet and lunged on top of it, snarling and savaging the thing with fiery claws.

“Keep going,” Schwartz shouted, seeming to have recovered some of his breath. “She can’t hold it long!”

Branwen needed a tug from Ildrin to get moving again, and did so with a slight limp, but in the next moment they were all going, markedly slower than before, but still going. The sounds of battle receded behind them, but not fast enough for anyone’s comfort. In the distance but growing ever closer were the shrill, whining notes of the other kind of monster chasing them; not far behind the first beast came another ululating wail.

With a sharp pop and a flurry of sparks, Meesie appeared out of midair, again mouse-sized, and landed on Schwartz’s shoulder, squeaking in dismay.

“Out of time,” he panted, not glancing back.

“Almost there!” Basra shouted, pointing ahead with her sword. “See?”

Indeed, they were close; in the darkness they head nearly reached the treeline before being certain, but once they topped a small rise, a gap widened before them. The forest gave way to a wide plain, kept clear as a barrier against just the kinds of things now pursuing them; in the distance, two fortresses were visible, brightly lit with modern fairy lamps, and the torches of encamped armies even closer. Even in the dark and at this distance they could tell the forces massed there were significantly greater than when they had entered the woods the previous morning.

Topping the small hill seemed as if it would take the last strength from them, but they picked up speed running down the other side; for a wonder, none of them tripped or lost balance. In just a few moments more, they were emerging from the trees onto the plain, the road leading straight toward the fortress looming in the distance to the west.

The howl came from behind them, terrifyingly close.

And this time, the smaller shrilling of the other things was even closer.

They poured out of the trees only a dozen yards behind the fleeing humans, having seemingly avoided the road. There were easily a dozen of them, pasty white things like cave salamanders with far too many limbs, but they bounded along more like monkeys than spiders. That was all there was to them, seemingly: a central blobby mass and uneven numbers of gangly legs, with no signs of eyes or mouth. Nothing to indicate what produced that high-pitched keening.

Basra turned to face them again, her aura brightening and a shield flashing into place around her. “Schwartz, got anything else?”

“One las’ trick,” he wheezed, but was already moving as he did so, tucking his hands momentarily into his wide sleeves. He waved both of them in wide arcs, spreading his fingers; a hail of what seemed to be gravel flew from his left to strew across the ground, while he released a gout of powder from the right, which hung in the air, forming into a small grayish cloud.

Jenell pushed past him, raising her shield, as Basra stepped up on the other side; Ami and Ildrin huddled behind them, Branwen actually slumping to her knees in defeat.

The moment the first of the creatures crossed beneath Schwartz’s cloud, the night exploded into brightness.

A dozen small bolts of lightning slashed across the space between the cloud and what he had thrown to the ground. The spider-blobs kept charging heedlessly forward, and as soon as they lunged into the trap they were blasted to the earth by searing arcs of electricity. At the speed they were moving, it took only seconds for all of them to lie charred across the road, several still twitching feebly.

“Well done,” Basra panted.

Then the towering monster burst out of the treeline.

It bore long claw marks, oozing green ichor, as well as several burns, but it wasn’t slowed. Opening its mouth wide, it howled even louder than before at them, hurling itself forward in a mad charge.

Before anyone could stop her, Basra went pelting right at it.

The brute lunged forward, slashing at her with one of its gangling hands, fingers throwing off sparks as they scraped across her glowing shield.

The exchanged that followed was too rapid for the exhausted onlookers to make sense of, but in the next second, Basra was staggering backward, her shield collapsed under the sheer force of the blow, while the creature’s severed hand flopped to the road.

The howl it emitted was physically painful in volume. It hesitated barely a moment, brandishing the stump of its arm at them, before charging again.

Suddenly, black shapes swarmed around the group from behind, a whole wall of them planting themselves between the humans and the monster and raising a line of triangular shields. More darted forward, slashing at its legs.

The beast faltered, wailing and swiping ineffectually at the dark figures, which seemed like little more than shadows in the faint moonlight. They moved far too adroitly for it to strike.

Several more dashed into position, carrying long polearms; two of these charged at it from the sides, and deftly impaled the creature’s central body, then planted the butts of their weapons in the ground and held them down. It wailed, tugging back and forth and nearly dislodging its attackers, but even as they faltered, two more appeared, adding their own long shafts to hold it in place.

All the while, the milling shadows below went to worth with slashing weapons which were as indistinct as they in the darkness, ripping into its legs and actually beginning to carve chunks out of them. Wailing in fury and pain, the monster was progressively borne to the ground, the polearm warriors shifting position to keep it contained as it was systematically hacked to shreds.

Once they had its legs effectively removed, the shadows swarmed over it like ants, swiftly disabling its arms and then going to work on its central body. In only seconds more, its cries were silenced; mere moments thereafter, it stopped moving entirely.

The five humans stared at this over the shoulders of the shadow-figures between them and what remained of the monster.

Schwartz summed up everyone’s thoughts

“Uh—whuh?”

One shadow detached itself from the group, stepping toward them and lifting its hands to its head. It removed a helmet, an act which oddly made the dimly-glimpsed shape make sense; it, and all the others, were warriors in armor which had been treated with something to make it pitch black and non-reflective. The same effect had been applied to the blades of their long polearms and the sabers with which they had dispatched the monster.

Helmet off, the being revealed aquiline features, elongated ears, crimson eyes in a dark gray face and white hair cut in a bob that hung just below her chin.

“Drow?!” Jenell said in astonishment.

“Ah, good,” the drow said tonelessly, glancing at her. “A scholar. Bishop Syrinx, I presume?” she added, bowing to Basra. “I would ask how your negotiations went, but that would appear to be a formality.”

Another wail rose up very close by, and the drow commander’s gaze snapped in the direction of the forest.

A towering beast, seemingly identical to the first, lunged out of the treeline, pausing for a moment on the open ground to orient itself. Seconds later, a third emerged ten yards or so on its left.

The drow advance fighters scattered, forming themselves into a wide arc with pikemen interspersed along their length, preparing another takedown.

Before they could move, however, a barrage of lightning bolts came flashing out of the darkness to the northwest, carving scorched paths across the prairie grass and blasting the nearest monster off its feet. As it wailed in pain, the fire kept up, keeping it physically pinned down under the sheer fury of the attack even as it was systematically burned to a crisp.

Two squads of soldiers in light Imperial Army uniforms advanced toward them at a trot, their front ranks with staves leveled and firing even as they moved. What looked like a continuous stream of energy blasts was coordinated along the line, lightning flashing forward in a well-practiced pattern that kept up constant fire while allowing each trooper to let his weapon rest and avoid overheating. They came at an oblique angle that kept the drow out of their line of fire; circling around to do it had likely accounted for their late arrival.

The third monstrosity screamed in fury and turned to face them, setting off at a lumbering run; at a barked order from an officer, one squad peeled off, switching their fire to it and changing formation so the soldiers behind came into play, adding their staves to the assault. In seconds it had been brought down, thrashing and wailing while they came on. The first creature was barely stirring now, still under the continuous barrage of the first squad.

Of the humans sheltered behind the drow shield wall, all but Basra and Jenell actually sat down in the road, panting with exhaustion, and now, relief. The drow relaxed at a soft command from their leader, the advance warriors streaming back to join them and the shield defenders lowering weapons.

As the Imperial squads moved up even with the group, there came another barked order and the staff fire ceased. Moments later, orbs of elemental water were conjured in midair by battlemages and splashed downward onto the thoroughly dead and severely charred Athan’Khar monsters, followed by careful sprays that doused the small fires smoldering all over the area.

An officer peeled off from the first squad and trotted up to them, saluting as he came to a stop.

“Bishop Syrinx, glad to see you safe. Colonel Nintambi sends his regards; we’re to escort you back to the joint field command post.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” she said, nodding to him and sheathing her sword, before turning to peruse her bedraggled group. “Is Falaridjad still alive—ah, good. Take that woman into custody.”

He glanced uncertainly at the priestess, who was slumped on the ground with her head resting on her knees, shoulders heaving with the effort to draw breath. “Uh…ma’am? I mean, of course, but with all respect you don’t hold an Army rank; I’ll need a little bit more to go on.”

“Whatever follows from here is her fault,” Basra said curtly. “We succeeded in meeting and beginning negotiations with our antagonist, at which time this insubordinate, grandstanding mortal avatar of stupidity assaulted him with a relic she had apparently stolen from an Izarite temple. Our chance to make peace can be considered effectively squandered.”

Ildrin made no reply at all to this, still seemingly struggling for breath.

“I see,” the lieutenant said grimly, snapping his fingers and pointing to two of his soldiers. “You heard the Bishop; this woman is under arrest.”

“Sir!” the chorused, saluting, and stepped forward, each holding a staff in one hand and using the other to hike Ildrin upright by the shoulders. She offered no resistance, hanging limply in their grip.

“Where I am from,” the drow commander observed, “a person would be slain on the spot by her commanding officer for such conduct.”

“We have different ways here,” Basra replied. “I want her to survive to see the outcome of whatever follows, so she can be publicly held to account for every last ounce of the ensuing carnage.”

“Ah.” The commander nodded, smiling faintly. “I can see the virtue in such an approach.” The Tiraan lieutenant gave her an uneasy sidelong glance.

“The Empire and the Silver Legions I expected to find here,” Basra continued, “but your presence is a surprise. Not that I am anything less than grateful, mind.”

“Forgive me. I am Yrril nur Syvreithe d’zin An’sadarr, and have the honor of commanding the Narisian contingent attached to the coalition here.” She saluted in the Narisian style, twirling her saber then touching its tip to her temple before sheathing it. “Queen Arkasia was extremely curious at the sudden massing of troops this close to Tar’naris; upon being appraised of the situation, she dispatched forces to assist. The queen takes our treaty with the utmost seriousness. Tiraas and Tar’naris are sisters; whoso attacks one shall contend with both.”

“I, for one, am extremely delighted to see you here,” Basra said, bowing. “I’m sure my companions will concur when they have their breath back.”

Schwartz waved weakly, nodding in agreement.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Basra added somewhat wryly, “but I devoutly hope the rest of this event proves to be a complete waste of your time.”

“So does every sane soldier,” Yrril replied, her thin Narisian smile of courtesy expanding by a few bare iotas to show a hint of real amusement. “Based on your account, however, I fear we shall not be so blessed.”

“Indeed,” Basra said more grimly. “Lieutenant, and… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your rank?”

“I would customarily be addressed by given name by anyone not in my chain of command,” the drow replied, “but if it comforts you, we commonly translate the rank as Archcommander.”

“Archcommander, then. Lieutenant. If you’d kindly lead the way to the rest of those in charge, I have people badly in need of rest and medical attention.”

“Forgive me, ma’am,” said the lieutenant, “but it appears you could do with some yourself.”

Basra shook her head. “In time. First, I have a detailed report to present. The coalition’s leaders have to know what happened and what to expect.” She glanced back at the dark forest, narrowing her eyes. “I can’t say how soon, but we are about to be at war.”

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