Tag Archives: Captain Ravoud

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She wasn’t laboring on the omnipresent, never-ending paperwork for once. The office was quiet and dim as usual by that hour of the evening, the moonlight pouring through its large windows not competing with the warmer glow of the fairy lamp sitting on her desk. Tonight, Tellwyrn had elected to take some personal time, brushing all the papers to be graded into a filing cabinet and indulging in one of the hobbies she was least inclined to admit to in public.

Not that she’d ever have contended that it was good poetry, but the satisfaction was in the creating, not the having. Most of them she shredded, anyway. Tellwyrn paused with her pen hovering above the parchment, considering syllables and studying the kanji already marked down. Haiku didn’t really work properly in anything but Sifanese, in her opinion, having tried it in several languages. It was an aesthetic matter of the syllabic structure of the language, not blind adherence to custom; had she been a stickler for tradition she would be using a brush, not a pen.

She sighed heavily at the soft flutter of wings on the windowsill outside. Setting down the pen, she blew gently on the ink to dry it, then carefully picked up and tapped the stack of papers into neat order, ignoring the tapping from the glass behind her. The professor continued not to acknowledge it while it grew steadily more insistent until she had meticulously filed away the pages in a desk drawer, locked it, stowed the key in her vest pocket, and capped her inkwell, all with careful and precise little motions.

Then she whirled, grabbed the window, and roughly threw it open.

“Fucking what?” Tellwyrn demanded.

Mary the Crow swung her legs into the room. “Arachne, we must speak.”

“Well, it’s not like I expected a social call,” Tellwyrn retorted. “What’ve you done this time, lost another dryad?”

“It was you who—no, never mind, I’m not going to play that game with you tonight. It’s about the Arquin boy, and that sword of his.”

“Yes, Ariel.” Tellwyrn leaned back in her chair, scooting it back from the window and smirking faintly. “Who has never spoken in my presence. Arquin showed her to Alaric but has never asked my opinion about it. I think he’s afraid I’ll confiscate the thing.”

“He seemed to fear I would do the same,” Mary replied, her expression intent and grim. “It is an original Qestrali magister’s blade, Arachne. According to the boy himself, Salyrene confirmed this. Do you know anything of the significance of such weapons?”

“I figured it might be,” Tellwyrn mused. “Not many other mages have worked out the method. Yes, that’s what they do to the really naughty criminals, right? Not murderers or anything so pedestrian, but the ones with opinions the Magistry doesn’t care to hear.”

“You are barking up the wrong tree if you think I’m going to defend the Magistry,” Mary replied, eyes still intent on hers. “I went to Qestraceel before coming here to check on something. Arachne… They are not missing one.”

“Huh,” Tellwyrn grunted. “And?”

The Crow’s jaw tightened momentarily in annoyance, but she pressed on. “He found that thing in the Crawl, did he not?”

“Yes, during an excursion while the place was somewhat dimensionally unmoored, due to my incubus messing with some old Elder God tech he found. It’s probably from an alternate universe, Kuriwa, nothing to get your knickers in a knot over.”

“Arachne,” she said quietly, “I was… I visited the Crawl once, before you arrived. Before the Third Hellwar. It was my escape route from the deep underworld.”

Tellwyrn’s eyebrows rose slightly, but she remained silent.

“I understand,” Mary continued, carefully choosing her words, “you spent many years seeking out the gods to ask something none of them were able or willing to tell you. Was it about your own origin?”

“That’s ancient history,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “You had better have a damn good reason to be digging it up again, Kuriwa.”

“I am not proud of this,” she replied, “but I did the least wrong thing I could at the time. I thought it was necessary, even despite the price. To undo a curse Elilial laid on my entire bloodline, I had to deal with Scyllith.”

Tellwyrn worked her jaw once as if biting back a retort, then said in a deceptively mild tone, “So is that where the hair comes from? Always wondered.”

The Crow drew in a deep breath. “The price Scyllith demanded for her aid was one of my kin. She said they would be removed from all memory, excised from the timeline. Only I would know that someone had been lost, but…not who.”

The silence was absolute.

“You what,” Tellwyrn finally whispered tonelessly.

“Arachne, you have to understand—”

“You knew,” the mage hissed, leaning forward. “From the very beginning. You recognized my name. If you’d been in the deep Underworld before then, you would have recognized my accent. And you are telling me this now?”

“Listen, Arachne,” she said desperately. “It was suggestive, but not proof! You do not trigger my familial sense, your hair is the wrong color, you are an arcanist when none of my descendants are—”

“Are you trying to pitch to me,” Tellwyrn snarled, standing up so abruptly that the chair smacked against the desk behind her, “that it never crossed your mind that any of that could be explained by alternate-dimension fuckery caused by the sadistic Elder God you were playing around with? You’re going to stand here at the apex of all the history between us and claim you are that blitheringly stupid?”

“I had to be sure,” Kuriwa protested.

“YOU HAD TO BE IN CONTROL,” Tellwyrn roared, and a sudden shockwave of pure kinetic force blasted the office apart, smashing its furnishings and sending the door shooting across the hall outside, but also pulverizing the window and flinging Kuriwa out into the sky.

She caught her balance in the form of a crow, squawking frantically, and Tellwyrn shot out of the ragged hole where the outer wall of her office had been, landing nimbly on a square pane of blue light that appeared conveniently under her.

Kuriwa lit on the opposite end, in elven form again, and held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Arachne, listen, consider what—”

“Thee thousand years,” Tellwyrn raged, stalking toward her, each step sending ripples across the panel beneath them. “While entire civilizations rose and fell around us, I drove myself mad scrabbling desperately for answers in every dark corner of the world, and you had them the whole time?”

“It wasn’t that simple! Given what was at stake—”

“YOUR EGO WAS AT STAKE!”

The wind rose as Kuriwa gathered the attention of familiar spirits, but not fast enough; the blessing shielded her from serious bodily harm but the bolt of pure arcane power that hit her from point-blank range was comparable in strength to a mag cannon burst. She went tumbling moccasins-over-ears again, barely catching her balance on a leaf-shaped construct of green light which coalesced out of the air and hovered atop a constant updraft conjured from nothing.

“If you want to blame me—”

“Oh, you’re damn right I blame you!” Tellwyrn hurled a pumpkin-sized orb of lightning, forcing the shaman to glide swiftly out of the way. “Spare me your dissembling, you self-obsessed old carrion feeder! From the very beginning, you had everything you needed to answer both our greatest questions and you just couldn’t bring yourself to do it because I am something you couldn’t control!”

“The risk—”

“The risk was that you might have to acknowledge someone as an equal and then deal with them!”

“Would you let me finish a sentence?” Kuriwa snapped.

“Fucking NO!”

A spray of lightning bolts burst out of nowhere around them, forming a deadly obstacle course in midair. Kuriwa dodged nimbly, directing her leaf through the crackling haze with the deftness of an acrobat while Tellwyrn stood impassive atop her glowing panel, electrical discharges snapping harmlessly against the arcane shield around her.

“You may have swallowed your own bullshit, Kuriwa, but I never have, and in the end that’s what all this is about.” Tellwyrn folded her arms, her voice suddenly dead calm again. “You are so incapable of entertaining the possibility of not being in total control of something that you’ve squandered probably the widest window of time anyone has every had in which to do anything. Three thousand years, and you could have come to me at any point. Were you not such a walking bladder full of ego and spite, you’d have taken me aside the very day we met, but no. You had to wait.”

“Arachne, please.” Kuriwa brought the leaf to a hover again.

“You waited,” Tellwyrn continued, baring her teeth in a snarl, “until I tried everything I could try, and failed. You waited while I gave up on my whole existence and spent thirty years trying to die, in a place where you were quite possibly the only person alive who could have come to find me. You waited until I moved on, you selfish piece of shit. I gave up on the whole thing, found a true purpose in life and devoted myself to it, created an actual place in the world for myself that wasn’t just passing through it in every direction while trying to find my way back to somewhere I couldn’t remember. I was finally done, and happy, and this, this is when you chose to come here and tell me all this?!”

“I understand,” Kuriwa said urgently. “I am not saying I handled everything perfectly, but—”

“PERFECTLY?”

This time it was an actual mag cannon burst, or near enough, a barrel-thick beam of pure white light which impacted the prairie below less than half a mile from Last Rock, fortunately at an angle that sprayed the debris away from the town. Kuriwa tried to evade, but the deceptively wide corona of the beam finally caused her conjured leaf to explode, forcing to catch herself in midair on her own tiny wings.

A white sphere of divine light snapped into place around her, dragging the squawking and struggling bird forward until it rested right in Tellwyrn’s hand.

The tiny shield only collapsed when her fingers closed, clamping around the crow’s neck. Arachne held it up, glaring into Kuriwa’s beady little eyes from inches apart.

“I am done with you and your shit, Kuriwa,” she stated. “Stay away from my mountain. I don’t want to see you again.”

A sheer kinetic burst erupted, just like the one which had demolished the office, but stronger; centered on Tellwyrn as it was, she was not affected, but having released her grip on the Crow in the same instant as the explosion, Kuriwa was hurled over two hundred yards into the night sky amid a spray of dislodged feathers.

Tellwyrn stood impassively atop her floating panel of arcane magic, watching the little bird catch herself in the distance, flapping desperately to right her flight.

Kuriwa started to circle back to head toward her again.

Tellwyrn held up one hand, and a whirling vortex of sheer arcane destruction manifested in her grip, causing a steady breeze as the very air was drawn into it like a black hole.

The Crow veered off in defeat and glided away to the south.

The sorceress stood there watching until she had passed beyond the limits of even elven sight, even augmented by her enchanted spectacles. Then the pane of light beneath her turned and carried her back toward the hole in the wall, in which she could see and hear several of her faculty gathering. Explaining all this and then fixing her office promised to keep her occupied for a while.

She welcomed the distraction.


“The questions are growing more and more insistent, your Holiness,” Branwen said, her expression openly worried. On his other side, Colonel Ravoud walked in silence, but wearing a matching frown of concern. “I don’t think Imperial Intelligence has more than rumor out of Ninkabi yet, but the rumors are themselves damning, and there’s just too much evidence left, too many witnesses… They will piece together an account of what happened, at least in the broad strokes. The newspapers are already all but openly attacking the Church, including some I thought were in your pocket.

“And the symbolism,” she continued, her normally controlled voice rising in pitch. “The Guild and the Sisterhood haven’t formally left the Universal Church, but with both choosing to forego representation, it’s a very bad look. That’s two of the three cults that forced out Archpope Sipasian to install Archpope Vyara in the Enchanter Wars. If even one more cult turns away, this could present a major schism. The Veskers would complete that symbolic break and they’re the most unpredictable anyway, especially with Vesk himself having been involved in Ninkabi. Given that he actually forced a public surrender from Elilial, his credibility is at an all-time high. If they do withdraw it will be a political catastrophe, and I can’t get Bishop Tavaar to even respond to my messages.”

“And the Shaathists,” Ravoud added. “They are the most loyal to your cause, your Holiness, and thanks to this Ingvar character and his splinter sect, with all the dreams and visions and portents that heralded them, Grandmaster Veisroi is going to be too occupied trying to control his own cult to lend much in the way of help.”

“Thank you, Branwen, Nassir,” Justinian said calmly. “I greatly appreciate all the work you do.”

“Your Holiness,” Branwen protested, coming to a stop. The Archpope did likewise, turning to regard her with beatific calm, and Ravoud trailed to a halt a few steps further on, glancing up and down the hallway. This corridor was deep within the tunnel system under the Cathedral; they were unlikely to encounter anyone and all but certain not to meet anyone who was not supposed to be there, but Ravoud took his duties as Justinian’s protector with the utmost seriousness.

“I understand your fears, Branwen,” the Archpope said, reaching out to lightly rest a hand on her shoulder. “They are not misplaced. All of this I have planned for with great care.”

“I believe in you, your Holiness,” Ravoud said firmly. “I knew you would be in control.”

“Control is an illusion, my friends,” Justinian warned. “All we can do is have faith, and act as best we can without fear, and with our utmost skill and effort. You are right to be concerned, Branwen. All of this is unfolding too soon, before I am ready.”

“What shall we do, your Holiness?” she asked, wide-eyed.

“I…have planned for that, as well,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I had hoped and prayed that it would not come to this. I have, ready and waiting, the means to keep the circling vultures at bay until the proper time for them to strike, but it will require me to do things which I had desperately hoped I would not need to.”

“We’re with you, whatever comes,” Ravoud assured him. Branwen nodded.

“I am deeply grateful for you both,” he said, smiling. “Come, there is little time to tarry. Preparations must be made to meet the unforeseen, but first, tonight’s business has been long awaited and should not be delayed.”

This wasn’t the first visit by either of them to this secret underground complex, though it was the first time he had brought both together. Grooming each of them to a state of assured loyalty had been a long-term project, more so in Branwen’s case than Nassir’s as she had a far more complex mind and intricate motivations. In the end, though, he felt assured of both their loyalties, now that the moment had come. As much, at least, as anyone could be assured of anything. Certainty was as much an illusion as control; a time inevitably came when one simply had to act.

Justinian led the way in silence to the iron door, tapping the proper code into the runes affixed to its frame. It opened with a soft creak under the power of its own enchantments, and he strode through, both hurrying after as the door immediately began to shut again behind them.

Delilah turned and bowed to him upon his entry, receiving a smile and a deep nod in response.

“Finally,” Rector snapped, barely looking up from his runic console. Ravoud, ever protective of the Archpope’s dignity, shot the enchanter a scowl, but held his peace. It wasn’t his first time encountering the man, and Delilah had done her best to explain Rector’s eccentricities.

The chamber was a chapel-sized apparently natural cave in the bedrock beneath Tiraas, only improved by having a door added and the floor smoothed down; the rest of the walls had been left in their natural contours, originally. Now, it was heavily built up with powerful fairly lamps to illuminate the space and its heavy-duty equipment. Machinery was arranged all around the walls, along with sturdy beams of iron and copper to hold some of it up, and intricate networks of wires, glass rods and brass tubes. Most of the structures were made of modern enchanting equipment, though there were several purely mechanical apparatuses in the dwarven style, and here and there, sticking out from the contemporary machines, ancient fragments of Infinite Order technology distinguishable by mithril surfaces and in two cases, glowing information panels. All of it was confined to the outer walls of the chamber, including the section on which they now stood, leaving a wide open space clear in its center.

“Rector,” Justinian said calmly. “Is everything prepared?”

“I’m ready,” the enchanter said peevishly. “Have been for an hour. You did your part?”

Behind Justinian, Branwen gently placed a calming hand on Ravoud’s back as the Colonel tensed in agitation.

“I have made all possible preparations,” Justinian assured him. “We should be able to proceed without drawing the interference, or even notice, of Vemnesthis.”

“Should?” Branwen asked quietly. “No disrespect meant, your Holiness, but the Scions are one cult I am simply not prepared to contend with.”

“Wouldn’t they have intervened already if they were going to?” Delilah asked.

“Not till the last second,” Rector grunted. “Their standard policy. Wait till the event is ready to occur, freeze time, disassemble machine, deliver warning. Maximum emotional impact.”

“Indeed,” Justinian said gravely. “If I have failed and the Scions do register their displeasure, that will be the end of it. Apart from the probable loss of Rector’s entire construction, I will not engage in a futile contest with such an impossible force. And so, in more ways than one, this is the moment of truth. Proceed, Rector.”

“Thinning dimensional barrier,” he said curtly, rapidly manipulating runes on his console. “May be uncomfortable, but harmless. Stay calm.”

Massive power crystals began to glow and hum, energy lit several of the glass rods and brought several pieces of moving machinery to life, and in the next moment, the very quality of the air changed. It seemed to thicken and shift color, and a feeling almost of vertigo fell over all five of them, as if the floor had tilted. It did not, however, despite Branwen stepping unsteadily over to the wall to lean against it.

“Stable,” Rector reported. “Initiating major breach.”

In the domed ceiling of the cave, light began to swirl, quickly collecting into a visible vortex like the atmospheric effect caused by new hellgates. More lights activated and another bank of machinery hummed to life. Several brass connectors began to emit sparks, and a stray arc of lightning climbed one of the steel beams lining the walls.

“Rector?” Justinian asked calmly while the others ducked.

“All within normal parameters,” Rector grunted. “Triple redundancy in crucial systems, some circuit burnout planned for. Opening it.”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Branwen muttered.

The vortex in the ceiling widened, till the swirling effect was not a spiral but a border, rimming a circular space that was pitch black, as if the machinery had opened a portal onto some absolute void. No more equipment came to life, but the energy coursing through the connectors visibly and audibly intensified. A red indicator began flashing on one of the Infinite Order panels.

Rector’s control panel put off a sudden shower of sparks, causing him to dodge momentarily to one side, but he did not otherwise react, even when Delilah rushed forward.

They seemed to form out of the very air, a network of gossamer strands fanning out from the portal in every direction. Most passed through the very walls, trembling as if their other ends were affixed to targets which moved and caused the whole web to shiver, but many of the streams of ephemeral spidersilk were connected to each of them. Ravoud grimaced and tried to brush at them.

“Be calm,” Justinian urged over the noise of the enchanted machines. “They have always been there, you are only now able to see them. The webs are a visual metaphor, delineating connections. They will not harm you.”

He himself was connected directly to the portal by a single, massive cable of gnarled silk. So many streamers of spiderweb radiated away from him it was as if he were a second portal in his own right.

“Portal stable,” the enchanter stated, brusque as ever. “All values locked in. Initiating temporal phasing. Stay on this side of the console, may be disorienting if you’re too close. If the Scions interfere it’ll be now.”

He grabbed a lever and slowly eased it into an upward position.

Around the center of the open space a swirl of golden dust arose, quickly forming a helix shape in the air and then fluctuating wildly about, a tornado extending from the dimensional portal to the floor. Or, looked at another way, the upper half of an hourglass.

The Archpope’s deflections held. No Scions appeared; Vemnesthis’s attention was not drawn to the portal they had made between two points in time.

But someone else’s was.

The entire network of webs shivered, then began to shake violently. And then, suddenly, more things poked out of the portal.

Long, segmented appendages emerged, amid showers of sparks and arcs of lightning from the equipment all around as the portal was strained beyond its intended limits at the entity’s emergence. One of the colossal spider legs drove into the wall, thankfully missing the machinery; unlike the webs, this was clearly a physical projection. Its tip made a crater in the ancient stone.

“Your Holiness!” Ravoud shouted. “We have to get out of here!”

“Peace.” Justinian held up one hand, noting the way the strands of silk binding it went taut at the gesture, quivering with tension as their other ends were collected by whatever now rose on the other side of the spacetime aperture.

Someone screamed, either Deliliah or Branwen, at the sudden pressure that fell over the room, the distinctive psychic force of a consciousness orders of magnitude beyond their own looking upon them.

Amid the blackness in the center of the swirling, eight crimson eyes appeared.

Justinian flexed his forearm in a circle, gathering a physical grip on the spiderwebs, then yanked hard.

The eyes shifted, fixing their gaze upon him directly. The mental thrust of it might have crushed another person. But he was the Archpope, and even while hiding his activities from the gods, he enjoyed certain protections.

Justinian nodded once in acknowledgment, and released his grip on the webs.

With a great tearing of metal, the entire portal collapsed. All the visible magical effects dissipated and the arcane hum of the machines began to power down. The last evidence any of them could see of the metaphysical forces they had summoned was the spectral shape of a spider the size of a dragon emerging into the chamber, fading from view like a shadow from a campfire.

It was only relatively quiet, with furtive fountains of sparks and several residual electrical discharges snapping around the edges of the walls. A significant percentage of the equipment built into them had either exploded or been crushed by falling stone and beams; this great machine wasn’t going to work again any time soon. More than half of the industrial sized fairly lamps had been burned out, leaving the chamber cast in odd patterns of light and darkness.

Ravoud stepped forward, planting himself in front of Justinian with his wand in his hand.

“W-what went wrong?” Branwen asked tremulously. “That wasn’t the Scions. What was that?”

“Nothing went wrong,” Rector said.

“Excuse me?” Ravoud exclaimed. “What do you call that?”

“Unexpected side effect,” the enchanter said noncommittally. “Experiment succeeded, worked exactly as predicted. Look.”

He pointed, and they all turned to stare at the unconscious figure now lying in a heap in the middle of the floor, directly below where the portal had been.


The swirling column of golden light had been bad enough. Prairie folk were very much accustomed to tornadoes; glowing tornadoes that came out of a clear sky and sat in one place for several minutes managed to conjure both their very reasonable caution for nature’s destructive power and the more primal fear of the unknown.

It did not help that the citizens of Hamlet could all tell at a glance exactly where it had centered.

But then it got worse.

Thankfully, the glowing storm didn’t approach the village, but when it abruptly dissipated, it left behind a column of pure fire that would have been visible for miles around, accompanied by the ear-piercing scream of a woman in the extremity of terror and pain.

Exactly as it had been only a few short years ago on the night June Witwill had died.

Now, Marshal Ross, having ordered the rest of the townsfolk to stay back, led his two deputies on a fast march across the prairie to the old basin full of flowers, wands in hand and expressions grim as the grave. Of all the things this town did not need dragged up again…

He slowed as he reached the rim of the little hollow, raising his weapon and peering down into the depression, ready for anything. Or so he thought. Ross was not ready for what he actually saw.

As it had been on that other terrible night, the entire basin was scorched black, every stalk of tallgrass and versithorae blooms scoured away by the unnatural firestorm. But this time, she was there.

She huddled in front of the stone marker, her gingham dress hanging off her in charred rags; even her hair looked to be half-burned away. But apart from that… What could be seen of her skin looked whole, untouched by fire.

And she was alive.

The Marshal stepped down into the basin, Lester and Harriet right on his heels. Their boots crunched on the charred ground, kicking up occasional sparks where the destroyed vegetation still smoldered. She had to have heard their approach, but she just knelt there, huddled around herself, staring at the stone memorial bearing the Omnist sunburst, and her own name and date of death.

He came to a stop a few feet away, glanced at the other two. Lester looked wide-eyed and on the verge of being sick; Harriet’s face was set in grim lines as if she still expected the worst.

“June?” he said softly.

Slowly, she turned. Her eyes were wide and terrified beneath a charred fringe of brown hair, but it was her. He’d known her all her life, mourned her and moved on. And there she was, alive and scared out of her mind.

“M-Marshal?” June Witwill said weakly, tears beginning to cut tracks through the soot smeared on her face.

“Harriet, go fetch Doc an’ the priest,” Ross ordered. Immediately she turned and climbed back up the rim of the basin, heading off for Hamlet at a run.

“Marshal Ross?” June whispered. “What happened? What is going on?”

He dropped his wands on the ground, already shrugging out of his coat, and knelt to sweep it around her shoulders. She grabbed and clung to him as if for dear life, trembling.

“June, honey, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”


“Data matches,” Rector reported, hunched over the repurposed telescroll machine affixed to his console. “Good thing I added the redundant circuit breakers. Didn’t lose any data in the overload. Perfect match for the values in the Vadrieny data, filling in all the blanks. Looks good, your Holiness, we can finish the Angelus Project with this.”

“Well done, Rector,” Justinian said softly. “Very well done indeed.”

“What was that thing?” Delilah demanded. “The spider? Where is it?”

“Didn’t actually emerge here,” Rector said distractedly, still pouring over the stream of markings being produced by the transcriber. “Looked like it cos of temporal effects, but she used the opening we made to…I dunno. She’s not here, or now, though. Probably not far off. Time travel’s confusing and dangerous, good reason there’s a whole god of not letting people do this.”

They all tensed, save Rector and himself, as the sprawled figure in the middle of the floor stirred. Claws rasped against the stone.

Justinian stepped forward at an even pace.

“Your Holiness, no,” Ravoud insisted, planting himself between the Archpope and the thing they had summoned.

“It’s all right, Nassir,” Justinian said kindly, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. “This is according to plan.”

“But that creature…” The Colonel glanced over his shoulder, gripping his wand. “The risk. Without you, your Holiness, everything will fall apart.”

“Nothing of value can be done without risk, my friend,” the Archpope said softly. “But you know me, Nassir, and have been with me for a long time, now. Have you ever known me to take a risk that was not meticulously calculated?”

Ravoud hesitated, agonizing indecision written clearly on his face.

“Have faith,” Justinian said softly.

Finally, clamping his mouth into an unhappy line, the Colonel stepped out of the way. Branwen sidled up next to him, tucking her hand reassuringly into his arm, and they all watched the Archpope descend to meet the new arrival.

She groaned softly, in pain or confusion, twitching again, and then flapped her wings once with a force that sent a burst of air whirling through the chamber. There came an audible crunch as the claws tipping her fingers sank right into the stone beneath her.

Justinian stopped a yard away, and knelt. “How do you feel?”

With a jerk, she snapped her head up. Her eyes, wide and frightened, were whirling pits of orange flame.

“What—who are… Where am I? Who are you?”

Her wings were tipped with little claws at the joints, otherwise being decorated with a rather pleasing arrangement of red and blue feathers not unlike a Punaji macaw. She had hair of a fiery orange—but orange that human hair could actually be, not literally made of flame like her younger sister’s.

“My name is Justinian,” he said gently. “Take your time. You have just been through something deeply traumatic, but you are safe here. Don’t rush it. What do you remember?”

“I…I…” She sat upright, curling her legs under herself and letting her wings slump to the floor, clutching her head in both clawed hands. If she had been wearing anything, it had been burned away by the transition. “Nothing. Nothing! Who is… Who am I?”

“I feared this,” he said, sighing softly. “We have seen this once before.”

“My memory… It’ll come back. Won’t it?” Her expression was pleading, as desperate as her voice.

“I don’t know,” he said gravely. “It may not; you must be prepared for that possibility. I will do everything I can to help you, but I will not make promises that I don’t know I can keep.”

“Who are you?” she demanded. “Who am I?”

“I am someone,” he said slowly, maintaining calm in the face of the incredibly dangerous creature’s growing panic, seeking to help ground her, “who is supposed to be your enemy.”

“My enemy?” She bared fangs at him.

“Supposed to be,” he replied, voice even but firm. “We have been set against each other by those who would presume to rule us. By liars calling themselves gods; by those who were meant to give me guidance, and one who should have loved you above all else. But they seek to manipulate me into fighting unjust battles on their behalf, and condemned you to die for their own convenience. I tire of dancing to the tune of selfish creatures who presume to be my masters. I believe we should be free to choose our own fates. Me, you, all people, everywhere. And so I saved you.”

He bowed his head once in a deep nod.

“I am sorry I failed to do so more thoroughly. I had hoped to spare you some of this trauma, at least preserve your memory. We are laboring against colossal powers, and my efforts have been…imperfect. But I at least have managed to preserve your life.”

“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Any of this. I don’t know who I am, let alone why I’m here. What’s happened…”

“All will be well.” Justinian extended a hand to her. Behind him there came several indrawn breaths as his companions tensed. “None of us can say what the future holds, but I will do my very best to protect you. And together, perhaps we can free ourselves of our enemies’ control.”

Slowly, she reached out and wrapped her murderous talons around his hand. She had, he knew, the strength to crush him with a single clench, but she just held onto him. Firmly, yet gently.

“I’ll tell you everything I can about your history, and what’s happened,” he said, slowly standing up. Still holding his hand, she did likewise, raising her wings in the process. “But that will take time, and we should get you somewhere more comfortable first. To begin with, though, your name is Azradeh.”

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15 – 77

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“And you know what the really surprising thing is? I’m not even angry.”

Tellwyrn had swiveled her desk chair sideways and leaned it back as far as it would go, practically lounging in it with herself in profile relative to the students crowding her office. The fingers of her left hand drummed a slow and steady beat against the desk; with her right she held up the Mask of the Adventurer, slowly turning the innocuous-looking artifact this way and that and watching how the afternoon sunlight from her broad window gleamed along its understated silver decorations.

“Barely surprised, even stranger,” she mused, studying the mask. “Oh, a little bit, sure. A person doesn’t have something like this dropped on their desk and not spend a few moments pondering what, in general, the fuck. But it’s really striking how quickly that faded into this vague yet all-consuming sense of ‘yeah, that sounds about right.’”

“I can’t decide if we’re being insulted or let off the hook,” Gabriel muttered.

“I’ll take the one if it comes with the other,” Juniper muttered back.

“Hell, there’s a nice compliment in there if ya squint,” Ruda added, grinning.

“It has to be said that I’m not without responsibility in this,” Tellwyrn continued, turning the mask over to examine its inner face. “You certainly went and did exactly what I instructed, didn’t you? I think I can be forgiven for failing to anticipate this outcome, but really. The combination of you lot, that location, and vague instructions to have a spiritually meaningful experience? Yeah, I’ll own it, on a certain level I was sort of asking for this. Not sending a proper University guardian with you, even. I swear I thought that was a good idea but now I’m sort of grasping for the reason why.”

“Locke performed…adequately in that role,” Trissiny reported. She had changed out of her armor, but was standing at parade rest with only her sword buckled over her leather coat to identify her rank. “She’s jumpier than I would have expected under certain kinds of pressure, but I can’t fault her intent, or results. It all worked out.”

“Yes,” Shaeine agreed, “upon balance I believe your experiment can be considered a success, Professor. Though you may, in the future, want to personally escort groups which present a similar set of risk factors as ourselves.”

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn said with a scowl, still not looking at them, “I find I’m less annoyed about this thing than by the lot of you fucking off two provinces away to throw yourselves into a battle. Surprised? No. But by the same token, I know this is a conversation we have had before. More than once.”

“It was necessary,” Toby said in perfect calm. “I am sorry we broke your rules, Professor. In a case like that, however… We always will.”

“Mm.” She lifted her other hand to grasp the Mask by both its edges and brought it down toward her face.

All of them inhaled sharply, going wide-eyed and rigid.

Tellwyrn stopped moving, then half-turned her head to smirk at them.

The whole group let out their suspended breaths in unison, followed by Ruda emitting a slightly strained chuckle.

“You’re a bad lady,” Gabriel accused.

“I’ll tell you what.” Tellwyrn gently laid the Mask down on her desk and swiveled the chair forward to face them directly, straightening up in the process. “This is a one-time offer, don’t expect it to become general policy. But on this one occasion, if you can satisfy me that this was a successful educational experience, I will consider the lesson imparted and we can proceed without any further punishment. So?” Planting her elbows on the desk bracketing the Mask, she interlaced her fingers and stared at the group over them. “What did we learn?”

There came a pause, while several of them turned to peer uncertainly at one another.

“Consider it a group effort,” Tellwyrn prompted dryly. “I don’t care which of you comes up with an answer, so long as I’m satisfied that it’s one you’ve all absorbed.”

“We should be more respectful of the unpredictable things in this world,” Shaeine said softly. “Of magic, in particular, but generally. There can be severe consequences for assuming that the rules will always apply.”

“Yeah…that’s a really good way to put it,” Toby agreed, nodding. “From everything we know about the rules of magic, there was no reason to think this exact thing would happen, but it was reckless to think nothing of this nature could.”

“It’s not so much we didn’t think it could as it wouldn’t have occurred to us, or any sane person,” said Ruda. “But…damn. No more fucking around with mixed magic in sacred sites. It coulda been a shit ton worse.”

“It is sort of ironic,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “For most of my lifetime, it would have been the baseline assumption of everyone, magic user or not, that much about magic was unknowable and not to be trifled with. Then along come I, to drive away the cobwebs of ignorance and instill you all with methodical thinking. Lo and behold, it worked, and here you are lacking fear of the unknown, when that is the exact quality that would have kept you out of this mess. It’s enough to make a person reconsider their whole life.”

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Fross chimed.

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “That’s Nemitite doctrine. Have you been reading the theology textbooks now, Fross?”

“Yes, Professor, they make for really great light reading when I want a change of pace from magical theory. Also super helpful! A lot of stuff people do makes more sense when I understand the underlying philosophies that inform their behavior. But anyway, what I mean is, I don’t think your ultimate project here is wrong, not at all. Knowledge is never not better than ignorance. I guess we just hit a point where we got a little too full of our fancy University education and failed to respect the amount of ignorance we still had.”

“Well said,” Trissiny agreed.

“All right,” Tellwyrn said, finally cracking a faint smile. “That’s a good lesson indeed, and I am satisfied that you’ve absorbed it. All things considered, it worked out well. Whatever else happened, this thing enabled you to do a lot of good. Needless to say, if you ever again demonstrate a failure to consider the ramifications of tampering with unknown powers I will descend upon the lot of you like the personified wrath of Avei with a caffeine habit and a toothache. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.

“Which leaves us with…this.” She leaned back again, picking up the Mask. “The thing itself.”

“Really sorry to dump this on you, Professor,” Teal said earnestly. “But, well, Mr. Weaver said you might be the best person to look after it, and I can really see the sense in that.”

“Oh, yes,” Tellwyrn said, now staring expressionlessly at the Mask. “I can take it, sure. Chuck it in the vault with the rest of the collection, can do. Ever since I started making it my business to get the really dangerous crap permanently out of everyone’s hands, nobody’s come close to even finding where I stored it all, much less cracking my defenses. Course, I never had a god make a stab at it before.”

“You…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at the others. “Is a god after that, in particular?”

“Well, you tell me, Avelea,” Tellwyrn replied. “Since it seems like Vesk was at least ankle-deep in the creation of this thing and then up to his balls in everything that happened afterward. You three should know what he’s like, after this summer.” She pointed at Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel in turn. “Imagine you’re in a story. In a story, if there’s a big fancy magical sword that gets its own entire chapter of exposition, that thing is getting stuck in somebody before the third act climax. Probably after being the object of its very own epic quest.”

“But it…sort of was stuck in somebody,” said Juniper. “Uh, metaphorically, I mean. The mask was used in the battle; it gave Jacaranda her power back and that pretty much decided the whole thing.”

“Ah, yes,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “When you put it that way, the fact that there are pixies spread across half of N’Jendo now is indirectly your fault, as well.”

“What, you got a problem with pixies now?” Ruda asked, grinning. “Are you gonna take that, Fross?”

“She’s right,” Fross said quietly. “That is going to cause some real big problems.”

“So, yes, the Mask was used,” Tellwyrn said, “and it was a deciding factor in what can be understood as the big story arc running at the time. Hopefully… Hopefully that will be enough. The problem is the scale of it. What you’ve got here is the kind of thing that alters the destinies of nations for centuries to come, not a single event. At least, that’s how it would be in fiction. I’ll hide it away as best I can, because what else am I going to do? But I can’t help wondering exactly what’s going to happen to bring it back out again.”

“Okay, that’s already giving me a headache,” Ruda complained. “You sound like a fuckin’ bard. The world doesn’t run on fucking story logic!”

“Anything Vesk has his hand on this heavily is going to run at least somewhat on story logic,” Trissiny said, frowning deeply. “It would be a good idea to try to think in those terms, if you find him in your proximity. Which is annoying beyond belief because I am not good at it.”

“I’ll try to give you some pointers,” Teal promised.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Tellwyrn agreed. “In fact, in lieu of proper punishment, I have extra homework for you lot after this. I want you to go to the library, ask Crystal for copies of The Myth Eternal by Ravinelle d’Ormont, and write a three-page essay predicting possible next events resulting from your field trip, which you will justify citing the text’s description of tropes and narrative structure. This is a group project; I want you to compare notes and each turn in an individual essay describing a different outcome. On my desk by Friday.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to punish us if we answered your question!” Gabriel protested.

“Yes, Mr. Arquin, and as I said, this is not a punishment,” Tellwyrn said sweetly. “Would you like one of those instead?”

“Uhhh…”

“Irrelevant, because this is what you’re doing. All right, all of you out. Go rest, be in class as usual tomorrow. And see if you can try not to kick any more colossal metaphysical hornet’s nests for at least a week or so, hmm?”

Several of them sighed, but they turned and began filing out.

“Has anybody else noticed that something terrible happens to every city we go to?” Fross chimed as she drifted through the open door.

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Ruda agreed. “You fuckers are never visiting me at home again.”

“Correlation is not causation, Ruda,” Shaeine reminded her.

“I dunno,” said Gabriel as he shut the door behind them. “I feel like ‘Causation’ could be the title of our biography…”

Tellwyrn stared at the closed office door for a few moments with a bemused little frown, then leaned back in her chair, folded her arms, and glared down at the Mask.

It stared innocently back.


He was apparently the last to arrive.

“So I see this isn’t to be a private meeting,” Bishop Darling said pleasantly, gliding forward toward the base of the stairs in the Archpope’s personal prayer chapel. For once, Justinian was already standing at the base of the steps instead of waiting dramatically at the altar up a story-tall flight of steps, framed by the towering stained glass windows, one of which concealed the door to his secret chamber of oracles.

Bishops Snowe and Varanus were present, of course; that was almost a given. This was where the Archpope had most often assembled his inner circle of four—now three—Bishops. What was unusual was the presence of guards, two Holy Legionaries standing at attention to either side of the stairs, and Colonel Ravoud himself waiting behind the Archpope at parade rest.

“Antonio,” Justinian said gravely, inclining his head. “Thank you for coming. I’m sure you have much to tell me.”

“Mmm… No, I really can’t think of anything,” Darling answered, standing before him still with that serene Bishoply smile in place. Branwen gave him a wide-eyed look, Andros remaining inscrutable as ever behind his bushy beard.

“I confess that surprises me,” said Justinian, not sounding surprised in the least. “Especially after Branwen brought such an exhaustive report.”

“Why, precisely,” Darling agreed. “I’m sure she handled it just fine. And now, I believe there are some things you want to tell me.”

“You believe so?” Justinian asked in just as mild and pleasant a tone.

Darling smiled beatifically at him. “There had damn well better be.”

All three soldiers shifted their heads to stare right at him, Ravoud stiffening slightly.

Justinian’s eyes shifted past him to the door he had just come through, which now opened again. “Ah, good. The final necessary party to this conversation. Thank you for joining us, Basra.”

Keeping his pleasant smile firmly in place, Darling turned slowly to face her. In neither Church nor Avenist attire, she wore severe black garments which, he realized on a second glance, were a color-reversed version of Ravoud’s white Holy Legion dress uniform. The only insignia was a golden ankh pinned over the left breast. The dark color incidentally served to emphasize the white bandages peeking out from her left sleeve. An ornate gold-hilted short sword hung at her belt; well, that style of weapon only required one hand, after all.

Branwen drew in a sharp breath through her nose; Andros folded his arms, grunting once. Basra pulled the door shut behind her, then paced carefully toward them across the ornate carpet, her dark eyes fixed on Darling.

“Bas!” he exclaimed in a tone of jovial delight, spreading his arms wide. “How perfectly lovely to see you again! We have so much to catch up on!”

A practiced flick of his wrist brought the wand up his sleeve shooting out into his palm. She was still most of the way across the room; even with her trained swordswoman’s instincts Basra had time only to widen her eyes and stop moving before he’d brought it up and fired.

The crack of lightning was deafening in the acoustically designed chapel. A blue sphere of light ignited around her, the shielding charm of a sufficient grade to absorb the close ranged wandshot without flickering.

Basra bared her teeth in a snarl and dashed right for him, clawing her sword loose as she came. Darling shot her twice more before the pound of heavy boots on the carpet made him shift position to face the nearer of the Legionaries, who was bringing his ornate halberd down with the clear intent of barring them from reaching each other.

Darling grabbed the haft of the weapon with his free hand and spun, using his weight and the man’s own momentum to send him staggering right into Basra’s shield. It was disgustingly easy. Honestly, why had Justinian campaigned so hard to have his own private military if this was all he did with them? Not only was a halberd a hilariously dated weapon, the clod was using it indoors and obviously had no idea how, to judge by how easily it was taken from him.

It was heavy and unwieldy, and he had no chance of doing anything effective with it one-handed, but fortunately the quality of the Holy Legion remained constant; Darling was easily able to sweep it into the second soldier’s feet, sending the man stumbling to the ground. He hadn’t even tried to jump. It was an open question whether he physically could have in that ridiculous lacquered armor, but he’d done nothing except try ineptly to change course as the slow and heavy polearm came arcing at him. Never mind halberd technique, these guys hadn’t been trained in the very basics of hand-to-hand combat. What the hell was the point of them?

“Antonio,” Justinian protested in a tone of patrician disappointment.

“Be with you in a moment, your Holiness,” he said cheerfully, dropping the halberd.

Basra had just shoved the stumbling Legionary off her, and now received three more swift shots. Still the shield held; that thing was military grade. She was closer now, though, and lunged at him again with a feral snarl.

The shield was even phased to allow her to attack through it, which was cutting edge and really sophisticated charm work. Unfortunately for Basra, his more old-fashioned tricks were just as good. Her sword didn’t even draw sparks as it raked across the divine shield that flashed into being around him.

“Should’ve stayed down,” he informed her, winking. “It suited you.”

She made a noise like a feral cat and stabbed at him again, ineffectually. He fired back, the impact of the wand creating a burst of static and the sharp stink of ozone at that range. Basra stumbled backward, blinking the effects of the flash away from her eyes.

A thump and clatter sounded from behind him, and he re-angled himself to check the scene without letting Basra out of his field of view. The tableau told a story at a glance; Justinian looking exasperated, Branwen openly amused, Ravoud flat on his back on the stairs and Andros just lowering the arm with which he’d clotheslined the Colonel when he had tried to join the fray.

“Really?” Justinian said disapprovingly. “I would have hoped you two would try to reason with him, at least.”

“We are completely behind you, your Holiness,” Branwen assured him. “Rest assured, the moment Antonio begins doing something inappropriate, we will restrain him.”

“Eventually,” Andros rumbled.

Darling grinned and shot Basra again.

A wall of pure golden light slammed into place across the entire width of the chapel. It was a solid construction at least a foot thick, easily the most impressive Lightworking Darling had ever seen.

As rarely as they were called upon to exercise it, one could easily forget that a sitting Archpope was at least one of the most powerful divine casters in the world. Once in a while, one had found cause to demonstrate it, such as Archpope Sairelle’s famous binding of Philamorn the Gold.

Darling shot it, just to be sure. No effect.

“Enough,” Justinian stated, hand outstretched and glowing. “Antonio, I understand your frustration—”

“I am well aware that you do,” Darling stated, turning to stare at him with the pretense of conviviality gone from his features. “And I’m aware that you are aware that ‘frustration’ is in no way the word.”

“This of all moments is no time for you to succumb to impatience,” the Archpope said soothingly. “It is no secret that we have all acted upon complex agendas, Antonio. For this long, at least, we have all been able to relate to one another like—”

“Ah, yes, that’s really the thing, isn’t it?” Darling said with a bitter grin. “Because as we all know, I’m Sweet of the thousand agendas. Whose side is he on? The Guild, the Church, the Empire? I’m the guy who can smile nicely at everybody and play every side against the middle, committing to none. And I, I, am now officially done with this. That fact alone should warn you just what kind of line you’ve crossed, Justinian.”

Ravoud had bounded back to his feet, stepping away from Andros, and now strode forward, pointing accusingly at him. “You will address his Holiness as—”

“Pipe down, Nassir,” Darling ordered. “When I need someone to get humiliated by the Last Rock Glee Club I’ll tag you into this.”

“Please, Colonel,” Justinian said gently, making a peaceful gesture with his free hand. Ravoud clamped his mouth shut, looking anything but happy, but stepped back and folded his arms, glaring at Darling. “We have been through a great deal together, Antonio. I will not downplay the severity of recent events, but surely you do not think that now of all times it behooves you to throw everything away.”

“Do you know how many people died in Ninkabi?” Darling demanded. “Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question. Nobody knows, because they are still finding bodies. And oh, what a perfect storm of factors had to align to make that catastrophe happen! Basra here, Khadizroth and his crew, the Tide. Every one of them your pawns, Justinian.”

“And yet,” the Archpope said softly, “not even the first time I have been complicit in the mass summoning of demons into a major city under siege. Though as I recall, it was someone else’s plan, the last time.”

So he was willing to admit to that in front of Ravoud and these incompetent non-soldiers of his? Interesting.

“Oh, don’t even try it,” Darling retorted with open scorn. “Tiraas was a series of small controlled summonings by professionals, with the full oversight of the Imperial government. In Ninkabi twenty hellgates were indiscriminately opened after your pet assassin went on a murderous rampage to cull the local police. The fact you’d even bother making that comparison shows you have no argument to make, here.”

Justinian lowered his hand, and the wall of light vanished. On its other side, Basra still clutched her sword and glared at him, but didn’t move forward again.

“So this, finally, is the price of your conscience?” the Archpope asked in utter calm. “It is steep indeed, Antonio.”

“Oh, is that what you think is happening here? My moral outrage compelling me to make a brave stand? I would have thought you knew me better by now, Justinian. I’m more than sleazy enough to stick right to all manner of perfidy just to keep a close eye on it. I’d have walked out on you long ago if I was going to do it out of anger or disgust. But you have burned way too many bridges with a single torch this time. You cannot keep a lid on the details of what happened in Ninkabi, not now that most of your own enforcers have run off to who knows where with all their knowledge. This rat is leaving this ship, Justinian, unless you can give me a compelling and immediate reason to think you can survive the backlash coming your way and guarantee that nothing like this ever happens again.”

“And what would satisfy you?” Justinian inquired.

“For starters?” Darling pointed at Basra without looking in her direction, keeping his gaze locked on the Archpope’s. “Kill her.”

“That is a trap,” Justinian replied before Basra could react. “A rhetorical snare, Antonio. You seek to manufacture an excuse to do what you wish and blame my unreasonable refusal, knowing very well that I cannot give any such cruel order.”

“There is absolutely no reason not to,” Branwen stated.

The Archpope shifted to look at her, his eyebrows lifting incrementally. “Branwen…”

“I know you believe you can control that creature, your Holiness,” she said, giving Basra an openly contemptuous glance. “Or at least, want to believe you can. I cannot imagine how you could still think so after the last week.”

“I have been saying it for years,” Andros grunted. “A rabid animal should be put down, not put on a leash. Events continue to prove me ever more correct.”

“The events in motion are greater than any of you can yet realize,” Justinian said softly. “Basra still has a role to play. As do you all.”

“One thing hasn’t changed, Antonio,” Basra herself sneered, stalking forward. “Anything you believe you can do, I can still do better.”

He turned slowly to face her. Then, suddenly grinning, Darling held up both his hands and began to applaud.

Andros let out a hearty boom of laughter, and Basra lunged at him with her sword again.

“Basra.”

The Archpope’s voice brought her to an immediate halt. She glared at Darling with her face a mask of truly psychotic hatred, literally quivering with the desire to attack, but she did not move.

“Of this I assure you,” Justinian stated. “Every bitter price I have levied, every sin with which I have stained my soul, is in service to a greater good which will be worth the cost when it has done. Too much has been paid, now more than ever, for us to stop. This must be seen through to its end, or all of this suffering has been for nothing.”

Darling turned back to him. “Boss Tricks demands all the assurances I just asked of you, Archpope Justinian. Until they are produced, the cult of Eserion will choose to manage its relationships with the rest of the Pantheon directly, forgoing the mediation of the Universal Church. So, bye.”

He turned and walked right past Basra toward the door.

“You know, it wasn’t Eserion who saved you.”

Darling slowed to a stop, but did not turn around, and Justinian continued.

“I had a similar experience, Antonio. I witnessed something the Pantheon prefers to keep far from mortal knowledge. I survived only by the intervention of another god, one who questioned the injustice of keeping their secrets at the expense of so many lives. That is what happened to you, is it not? And so much of the course of your life has proceeded to its current point because you believed it was Eserion the defiant who shielded you. Eserion allowed you to think so, but it was not he.”

Still, Darling didn’t turn, subtly rolling the wand between his fingers.

“Will you really throw away all those years of searching,” Justinian asked softly, “when you are so near to the end? The time is fast approaching for all questions to be answered. You have labored with such industry and cleverness to obtain these secrets, Antonio. I would hate for you to come so close only to miss them.”

“Okay.” Darling turned halfway, just enough for the Archpope to see his face. “Let’s hear it, then. Spill the big secret, tell me what the gods are hiding and what really happened at the end of the Elder War. I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

“You of all people,” Justinian said, spreading his hands slightly at waist height to indicate those gathered near him, “understand that this is no place or time for such revelations. But soon, Antonio.”

“Yeah, well, see, that’s the thing,” Darling said, smiling again. “I don’t need you for that, either. Not anymore. Oh, and Baaaasra,” he added in a saccharine singsong, widening his smile to a wolfish grin as he turned it on her. “You can’t hide in here forever. You know it as well as I; you’ll go gibbering mad if you even try to keep yourself so confined. I will be seeing you again. Real soon.”

He turned his back on the silent assemblage and strode out, kicking the chapel door open, then kicking it again to close.

It shut behind him with a boom of echoing finality.

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12 – 44

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“As of now, this unit is reduced to one man,” Ravoud reported, his tone tight with compressed emotion. “Two, once Rossiter is cleared from observation for her head injury. She would have been already, but our medical staff is stretched to the limit.”

“I gave orders that you should reach beyond the Legion’s medics for this,” said Justinian, frowning. “If there is one thing the Universal Church does not lack, it’s healers.”

“Yes, your Holiness, but this isn’t a situation that can be solved with more healing. If not for Khadizroth and Vannae, we would have lost a lot more men last night. The remaining injuries, though… That weapon seared what it cut, sir. Re-attachment of the limbs simply isn’t an option. The good news is it prevented them from bleeding out on the spot; most of our medics’ initial work was in preventing infection. Now, they are trying to keep the men with internal injuries stabilized. There, again, Khadizroth has been invaluable. For now, the work is better served by having a few skilled people doing their best than a lot of outsiders slinging magic around.”

“Very well,” Justinian replied, heaving a sigh. “I trust your judgment in this, Nassir. The offer stands, though; if you can use any further resources or personnel, requisition them immediately. I’ve made it known you speak with my authority in this matter, at least for the time being.”

“Thank you, your Holiness,” Ravoud said, bowing. “There is also the matter of security…”

“Yes, always. We will prioritize, however,” said the Archpope. “Right now, our highest concern is the welfare of our men—whatever we can still ensure. There are so many for whom we can do nothing.”

“Yes,” Ravoud said, and his voice echoed with the hollowness he had kept leashed all day through sheer professionalism. “Your Holiness… It’s as I said. This is half the functional core of the Legion, just…gone. And each of them was hand-picked from the available troops. Sir, unless we either recruit more aggressively or considerably relax our standards, it’s going to take far longer to rebuild the Legion than it did to build it in the first place. Even re-assigning troops from First Unit…”

“Either of those will compromise security,” Justinian murmured. “We’ll hold off on the decision for now, Nassir. For the moment, as I said, we focus on healing. I will get fae healers to see about tissue regeneration. At the very least, hopefully we can save those who suffered cuts to the torso from that weapon. It may be that we can restore severed limbs for the rest.”

“Regenerating limbs is atrociously expensive,” Ravoud said quietly. Despite his gaunt pallor, his eyes remained focused and alert behind their reddened rims. “It’s not a problem which can be solved by throwing the Church’s treasury at it, either. The Salyrites can only do so much without burning up very rare reagents. Even the Empire doesn’t offer such treatments to its personnel except in very special cases.”

“I am aware. If nothing else, we can reach out to the elves—which, of course, raises its own set of problems. You are right about security, Nassir. We will attend to this first and foremost, and then, when we are able to take stock and see how badly we’ve been forced to reveal our hand, the issue of recruitment can be revisited.”

“Of course, your Holiness. I see your point.”

They paused, both turning, to stare up the wide central hallway. It had had only a cursory cleaning, and was now free of bloodstains and severed body parts, but there were scorch marks on the golden stone in multiple places.

“What was it?” Ravoud whispered. “Only Rasevaan seems to have seen the thing and not been cut by it; she said the assassin threatened her, but then destroyed the warding arrays rather than attacking. She described a beam of light that made a sound like a giant wasp. Some of the men… Some of them have been talking, through the painkillers. They’ve said similar. What kind of new weapon are we facing?”

“Not a new weapon,” Justinian said with another sigh. “A very old one. Artifacts of the Elder Gods; the Church has three in its vaults. I will let you inspect one, if you wish. There are others in the possession of the Imperial Treasury; the Royal Museum in Svenheim has one actually on display. By this point in history, most of them which are going to be found probably have been, and have made their way into the hands of institutions with the sense to secure them away from use. It’s rare enough even to see one, but nearly unheard of to see one wielded in combat. I had believed anyone who might possess such a thing would be too intelligent to wave it around.”

“There’s a curse on them?” Ravoud asked. “That would be just like the Elder Gods…”

Justinian shook his head, managing a weary smile. “It was a weightless blade which cuts anything and burns as it touches, Nassir. It hardly needs a curse to be impossibly dangerous to handle. This raises very troubling questions.”

“Indeed.”

Both turned to greet Khadizroth, who now approached from the central chambers where he and the others lived. The dragon nodded to them before continuing.

“I’ve examined such devices myself; several of my kind possess such treasures in their hoards. I agree with your assessment, your Holiness. It has been a long span of years since one fell into the hands of anyone fool enough to use it. Few relics of the Elder Gods are safe to handle at all. Regardless, I have done what I can for now to stabilize the three survivors

suffering organ damage from that…thing. I am confident, however. They are in a deep sleep; give me the night to gather my strength and some resources from the planes, and I will finish their healing on the morrow. This process is very involved; I will not risk a subject’s health by approaching it unprepared.”

“Your aid is greatly appreciated, Khadizroth,” Justinian stated, inclining his head deeply.

The dragon nodded in return, to exactly the same degree, then shifted his gaze to Ravoud.

“After that, Colonel, I will begin regenerating the less life-threatening injuries suffered by the others. You should know that this will take time. I can do it without dipping into stockpiles of priceless components as most human witches would need to, but you were correct that the process is a great challenge. It is worse in this case.” The corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval. “That accursed implement cauterized what it cut. Life-saving in the immediate term, in some cases, but it makes the procedure more invasive than it might otherwise be. I will need to cut again, to have an open wound with which to work, and draw forth new flesh from there. It’s doubtful I can attend to more than one limb in a day, and there will be pain involved. While I don’t expect any of the soldiers will decline, they deserve to know, in advance, what to expect. If any does refuse, I must respect his wishes.”

Ravoud turned to him directly and bowed deeply. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this, Lord Khadizroth,” he said, his voice finally quavering. He had held up stolidly during the long night and morning with the strength of character Justinian had come to expect from him, but Nassir Ravoud would much rather have lost an arm of his own than have to watch soldiers he had hand-picked and trained suffer through what they had last night.

“Indeed,” the Archpope agreed gravely. “We are truly blessed to have you with us. This is a debt I doubt we can repay.”

“There is no debt,” Khadizroth said immediately, waving one hand. “I am only sorry I failed to save more lives. I was attempting to track the interloper, and underestimated the carnage she had wrought until I saw it firsthand.”

“The generosity of dragons is justly legendary,” said Justinian with another deep nod. Khadizroth returned the gesture again, neither of them commenting on the other half of that old proverb: the greed of dragons was just as legendary. The Archpope had not missed Ravoud’s formal address of him; never before had he called him Lord Khadizroth, nor shown any inclination to interact with him at all unless required. It was worth remembering that this dragon, even more than most, was dangerous for his canniness and proficiency at recruiting followers more than for his innate power, especially bound as he was. Not for the first time lately, Justinian wondered if the Crow’s curse was adequate to keep this creature safely housebroken.

“If it is not too sensitive a question,” Khadizroth continued, “what do we know about the attacker? I have spoken with the others; she fended off Kheshiri and the Jackal quite deftly, which is…surprising.”

“Little progress on that front,” Justinian admitted. “Our focus has been on preserving what life we still can. I assure you, I would have made time to track this villain, but there is simply nothing to go on. Sister Rasevaan has determined that she teleported in and out with the skills of a highly advanced mage, someone able to penetrate even the wards on this temple, but the attacker herself showed no arcane talent—nothing but skill at hand-to-hand combat. All we can be sure of, then, is that she did not work alone.”

“Your Holiness,” said Ravoud, now frowning in thought, “I meant to discuss this with you, anyway. I don’t believe this was meant as an attack.”

“Oh?” Justinian raised an eyebrow, as he and Khadizroth both turned to the Colonel.

“The only two uninjured soldiers were Alsadi and Rossiter,” Ravoud explained. “Relatively uninjured, at least; Rossiter was struck in the head, but they were the first to encounter her, and the intent was clearly to neutralize them non-fatally. An interesting choice, considering the intruder’s…later pattern. In fact, she choked Alsadi unconscious, and then left him on the floor. He doesn’t know how long he was out, obviously, but it can’t have been more than a minute.”

“Unconsciousness from oxygen deprivation simply doesn’t last that long,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding.

“Then,” Ravoud continued, “she entered the adventurers’ compound, under a stealth effect, where Kheshiri caught and intercepted her. She put down the succubus, the assassin, and the enforcer—all quite deftly, but again, without killing, which had to have been a deliberate choice. Given the armament we know she had, lethal force would have been easier, if anything. She fled from Lord Khadizroth upon his appearance, however.”

He paused, swallowing heavily, before continuing.

“Thereafter, she began using increasingly deadly force as she fled toward an exit, the wards having been tightened once the alarm was raised. Based on this sequence of events, the picture that emerges isn’t an intended assault, otherwise it would make no sense to avoid killing our higher-value assets when she had them at a clear disadvantage. Likewise, she apparently wasn’t expecting to find a dragon here.”

“You think this was a scout?” Khadizroth asked.

Ravoud’s frown deepened. “It’s not so simple. A trained spy would have dealt with Rossiter and Alsadi more definitively, and hidden them somewhere they wouldn’t quickly be found and raise an alarm. And there’s the final chapter of the debacle; Rasevaan said the attacker didn’t speak, but clearly threatened her. We know she could easily have killed her, but apparently…didn’t want to.” He turned directly to the Archpope. “Strange as it sounds, I think what we had was a combat asset, not an intelligence one, attempting to fulfill the wrong role, and not wanting to cause harm. Faced with overwhelming force and not knowing how to evade or deflect it, she retaliated when confronted. But it seems she was just trying to look around, and get out. The damage she caused…it begins to seem more like panic than malice.”

The dragon’s eyes had narrowed to emerald slits. “How curious. I follow your logic, Colonel, but… If that is the case, why send a warrior to do a spy’s job—and do it so poorly? Who could have the resources to train such a person to such a dangerous level of skill, equip her with such weaponry, and then nearly squander her on a mission so ill-suited? Surely not the Empire. Many complaints I have against the Silver Throne, but its competence I have learned to respect. At least, in its current incarnation. Likewise, the Black Wreath is neither so brash nor so inept. Who else would dare assault this temple?”

“In fact,” Justinian said smoothly, “this raises a thought which dovetails neatly with one of my own. Walk with me, please, gentlemen. I would like to continue this discussion in a place less…open.”


“Despite your loss of situational control, I have to consider this mission an overall success,” Lord Vex assured her. Milanda wasn’t yet clear on what arrangement allowed her three compatriots to reach the Imperial spymaster so quickly, but here he was in their shabby safe house, only a few hours after her escape from Dawnchapel.

Hours in which she had not slept.

“The Holy Legion’s true nature is hardly a secret,” Vex continued. “Justinian can keep a project like that out of the general public’s view, but we’ve known what he was about from the beginning. We know their numbers, and simply based on what you describe, you utterly decimated them. That damage alone undoes long months of his work, and sets back his military ambitions vastly.”

Milanda closed her eyes, and didn’t speak for a moment, until she could be certain her voice would be relatively even. It was raspy with lack of sleep, but fairly satisfactory, all things considered.

“It can’t have been more than a couple dozen men. How much damage could that be?”

“Understand the stage at which he stands in building his army,” said Vex. “The elite core of the Holy Legion as it was before last night was no threat to the Empire—but it was a core of carefully-selected, highly trained, fanatically loyal soldiers. From such a seed is an army sprouted. He still can grow that army, but his options now are either to grow one from lesser stock, or start again. Either is satisfactory, from our perspective. In any case, the intelligence you found was nearly as valuable.” He narrowed his eyes. “Forgive me, but you are certain the name you heard was Kheshiri?”

“I realize I didn’t perform to your standards as an Intelligence agent,” Milanda said wearily, “but I am a courtier, Lord Vex. Remembering unusual names is a skill I have practiced. You sound as if you recognize it.”

He nodded. “That one is dangerous, even by Vanislaad standards.”

“What makes her so dangerous?”

Vex gave her one of his sleepy smiles. “Well, we have a number of less-reliable reports which are positively hair-raising, but for example…the most interesting tidbit from her known exploits is that the succubus Kheshiri ran the Black Wreath for several weeks during the Enchanter Wars. She assassinated and replaced Elilial’s own high priest. From what we pieced together after the fact, the Wreath themselves never even caught on; the goddess herself had to step in. Kheshiri is a major problem, especially in Justinian’s hands. Hm… That means the other man you describe was likely Jeremiah ‘Thumper’ Shook, renegade Thieves’ Guild enforcer. He is many orders of magnitude below her pay grade, but he’s been missing for over a year, and connected with Kheshiri at her last sighting. We’ve yet to puzzle out the nature of his connection with her, but I suspect there’s a link there to how she got loose in the first place. The Wreath had her imprisoned as recently as two years ago. The others you describe are known, as well.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Who were they?”

“Of course, any elf can wear a suit, for all that they rarely do, but between the description and his demeanor, that elf was likely the Jackal, a professional assassin also linked recently to Justinian’s plots. And…there is the dragon.”

“If the Archpope is in league with the Conclave,” she began quietly.

Vex shook his head. “That much I don’t fear. Only a gold would mess around with the Church. There are few enough of those, and only Ampophrenon here in Tiraas—and he is still the head of the Order of Light, whose relationship with the Church has been carefully watched and is still notably frosty. No, the Conclave’s missing dragon has also been connected with the Archpope recently, albeit tentatively.” A thin smile flickered across his face. “Less tentatively now, it seems.”

Milanda frowned. “I thought the Conclave spoke for all the dragons. At least on this continent.”

“That is what they claim,” the spymaster said with a shrug, “and I for one and not inclined to call them liars, even when I know they are. I strongly suspect wanting to find and control Khadizroth the Green was one of their central motivations—for coming here, if not for forming in the first place. Khadizroth, too, would have little regard for a human institution like the Church. Justinian has some manner of hold on him. If we can find that, and break it…” His smile expanded to almost genuine proportions. “We are on good terms with the Conclave to begin with. Setting them against the Church would be…so very, very interesting.”

Milanda nodded mutely, her gaze wandering.

After a moment, Vex reached out to touch her shoulder. She snapped her eyes to the invading hand, then to his face. His expression was…attentive, and strangely gentle, which made her instantly suspicious.

“I have a cleric on my core staff—an Izarite, but trusted and loyal, with the highest clearance. He’s necessary for my ministry’s operation, and especially the health of many of my most important personnel. I’m going to make him available to you, Milanda. I’d like you to make an appointment. You can be assured anything you say to him will remain private, even from me.”

“Thank you, but I don’t need healing,” she said tonelessly.

Vex stared down at her for a moment, then shook his head. “Ms. Darnassy, I train spies. You know what one of the biggest hurdles is for them to overcome? All the technique of the craft can be learned, just like any trade. But for spies and soldiers alike, the constant problem we have in training our people is that human beings in their right mind simply do not want to kill. We must learn to do so, for the greater good. And…even with training, many retain a strong reluctance. That is why I keep a mental healer on staff. All too often, my people come back with damaged minds and hearts. And they tend to suffer more for the things I order them to do, than for what is done to them.” He glanced aside for a moment before meeting her eyes again. “I’ve made use of his services myself. If I found myself not needing them, I would have to question my fitness for duty.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” she said with a tight smile.

“Don’t bother,” he retorted, his tone too kind for the brusque words. “You have an excellent poker face, but remember who you’re talking to. I started in this business by seeing through nobles and courtiers when they tried to hide their intentions. Milanda… If you were under my command, I would remove you from active duty until you had been cleared by a mental healer to return to it. As it is…” He sighed softly. “I can only recommend, strongly, that you see one. If not mine…whoever you can trust to keep the secrets that must be kept. I’m sure you have contacts of your own. But do not underestimate the seriousness of this, please. You would be dangerously unhinged if you could unexpectedly kill or maim that many people without suffering for it, and you can become dangerously unhinged if you leave this unaddressed. Injuries to the mind are not less severe than those to the body. Either can leave you unable to do your job.”

“Thank you,” she repeated. He stared at her. After a moment, she averted her gaze, and spoke more softly. “I…really, thank you. I will…think about what you said. You’re probably not wrong.”

Vex nodded. “In the meantime… Try to get some sleep, at least. I can tell you haven’t, yet, and it’s a start. For now, we’ve a space in which to breathe before making another step, and you should be well rested before you plan one. The enemy is reeling and has no means to retaliate directly. Oh!” He smiled again, like a lazy, well-fed cat. “And I have some good news.”


“A pattern emerges,” Justinian said, turning to face them and folding his hands at his waist. His expression was precise—serious, concerned, with only the faintest knowing hint in the cast of his eyes and lips. Khadizroth would perceive it, but the effect on Ravoud would be subconscious. “Information at this point is too sketchy to be certain, but I have learned to trust my intuition in these matters. Khadizroth, I hate to prevail upon you when you are already exerting yourself so greatly on behalf of our fallen, but I must ask a favor.”

“I’ll take no offense at the asking,” the dragon said mildly. “There are things I cannot do, of course, and things I will not.”

“It goes without saying,” Justinian acknowledged, as Ravoud stepped over to them after securing the door of the small office. “And I will emphasize that while this matter is time-sensitive, the restoration of our people is of course of greater importance. If it can be only one or the other, I will prioritize the care of our injured.”

Khadizroth nodded.

“I need,” Justinian went on pensively, “to request your aid with a fae divination.”

The dragon’s eyebrows shifted upward fractionally. “Oh? I am, of course, aware that the Archpopes have control of the majority of oracular resources left in the world.”

“Ah, but not so,” Justinian said with a faint, careful smile. “The Church, it is true, owns as many divinatory objects as it has been able to secure—but their use by a layperson such as myself is a very different matter from the personal answers which can be garnered by a master of fae craft.”

“True,” the dragon agreed. “But I am certain you have made use of those tools, and as such will be aware that oracular prophecy is…less than helpful when it comes to specific, tactical information.”

“Of course. But I believe there are certain types of questions which lend themselves more readily to the voice of oracles, is it not so? Yes or no questions, the finding of lost things…”

Khadizroth nodded again. “Go on…”

“As I said, I see the beginnings of a pattern.” Justinian began to pace back and forth—very slowly, not sacrificing the dignity of his carefully-cultivated presence, or giving the impression of frenetic movement. “The timing of this, for one. I cannot ignore the fact that one of my secret projects recently brushed against one of the Empire’s. I of course immediately extended an olive branch, but I would not expect the Throne to take any such at face value.”

“That would explain the presence of an agent, poking around,” Ravoud said softly. “But…not why they would poke here, or send someone so clearly unsuited to the task. The Empire has plenty of people skilled at such work. The very best.”

“The Empire also would not equip an agent with a beam sword,” Khadizroth added, his lips quirking again in disapproval. Justinian made a note of that. An affectation, meant to build rapport, and perhaps strengthen the connection he was deliberately forging with Ravoud? Or did the dragon have some personal antipathy toward those weapons?

“Indeed,” he said aloud. “But there is more. Our Emperor and Empress have succeeded in part by, effectively, dividing the roles Theasia played between them. The old Empress was generally well thought of, but had a reputation for unpredictability and vindictiveness. These two… Sharidan plays the politician very well, and has devoted much effort to cultivating the goodwill of the people at large, as well as various specific parties. Nobles, trade guilds, the like. Eleanora, by contrast, is the iron hand in his velvet glove. She is known to directly control Lord Vex, and to be the actor behind the Silver Throne’s most vicious pursuit of its interior enemies. The loved, and the feared. And I have never before heard any suggestion that they are in anything but perfect accord.”

“Go on,” Khadizroth urged, frowning now.

Justinian stopped his pacing, turning to them again and putting on an intent, earnest expression. “The Emperor has not been seen in public for several days. When I went to see him, urgently, in the middle of the night, he did not appear—I had an audience with the Empress, Lord Vex, and most interestingly, Milanda Darnassy.”

The dragon quirked an eyebrow. “Who?”

“One of his Majesty’s mistresses,” Ravoud explained.

“Hm.”

“Very odd indeed,” Justinian agreed. “I wasn’t aware that she had any role in politics—nor was Bishop Darling, who accompanied me, and he takes great pains to know such details. And while neither of them harbors much love for my humble self, it is very much against Sharidan’s nature to snub a sitting Archpope by refusing an urgent request for a meeting.”

“I think,” Khadizroth said slowly, “I begin to see the direction of your thoughts, your Holiness.”

Justinian nodded, assuming a grim little smile. “While last night’s assault wouldn’t be characteristic of the Empire as a whole, or at least of the Tirasian Dynasty, I have no trouble imagining Empress Eleanora ordering such a thing—if, that is, she were for some reason operating without her husband’s moderating influence. And that brings me to my question. One which is very important on its own merits, but which I’ve a hunch may reflect upon our problems here.” He spread his arms in a gesture that was half benediction, half shrug. “Where is the Emperor?”

Justinian watched them consider it, and permitted himself the luxury of a knowing smile, since it would only add to the impression he sought to create here. It might be nothing—but who knew what the damage Rector had wrought upon the Hands might have done? And if Sharidan were out of pocket, for whatever reason… Well. If Khadizroth the Green were the one to find him, then if something unfortunate befell the Emperor soon after that, the dragon would make a very convenient chew toy for Eleanora. And just when he was beginning to think Khadizroth was become more trouble than he was worth.

There were no setbacks in the great game. Only changes on the board.

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Prologue – Volume 4

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Ravoud was always precisely punctual, which aided the Archpope tremendously in timing his appearances. It was a small thing, but great things were only aggregates of smaller ones, and image was both his weapon and his battlefield. When people looked at him, they saw what he wished them to see, and it was the entire foundation of his power.

He stood, straight-backed and calm, with his hands folded behind his back, gazing through the windows of his office at the city, a view he could have painted from memory. Though his face was not visible from the door at this angle, he kept it schooled in an expression of thought. A scene was constructed of many pieces of scenery, and just because the audience did not see the work of the stagehands did not make it any less important.

“Enter,” he said calmly at the sharp knock on his door, his voice projected just enough to be audible without.

The office door swung open, then shut, and then came the footfalls on his floor, approaching him; he had learned to recognize Ravoud’s step even among those of his soldiers, whom he trained to mimic his precise gait.

Justinian turned exactly as the Colonel was kneeling behind him, giving the man a perfect view of the very moment when his expression transitioned from a contemplative frown to a kind smile at the sight of his subordinate, a split second before he lowered his own eyes.

Small things, in aggregation, made up all the world.

“Rise, my friend,” he said as Ravoud kissed his proffered ring. The Colonel straightened up smoothly, saluting—which Justinian had made it clear he did not need to do, but he valued the man’s sense of protocol and proper respect too much to insist on the point.

“Your guests have assembled, your Holiness,” Ravoud reported, “in the conference room as directed.”

“Then by all means, let us join them,” the Archpope replied, setting off for the door.

In the hall, the two Holy Legionaries bracketing his office door saluted, but at Ravoud’s gesture remained in place rather than following. Justinian liked to use these walks through the less-populated upper halls of the Cathedral to hold discussions to which he preferred there not be an audience.

“And how are the Bishops, in your estimation?” he asked as soon as they had rounded the corner.

Ravoud kept his eyes ahead, but his brows lowered in a thoughtful frown. “In most respects, much the same as always. Bishop Varanus is the only one of the four I feel comfortable turning my back to.”

Justinian smiled warmly. “Do not underestimate Andros’s cleverness. But yes, you judge him well. The man’s sense of honor is his greatest driving force. Most respects, though?”

Ravoud nodded. “There is more tension between them than before, since Syrinx’s return. And beyond her presence, I believe I’ve only just realized why.”

“Oh?”

“Most of the time, Snowe and Darling are a moderating factor. The other two have strong and mutually hostile personalities, and the Eserite and Izarite deliberately keep the peace. Suddenly, though, they are not. In the conversations I’ve seen, Darling appears suddenly more neutral—not as if he is courting trouble, but more as if he wants to watch the others to see what happens. And there is a specific tension between Syrinx and Snowe, now. I suspect that is what caught his interest. I suspect he noticed it long before I.”

“How fascinating,” Justinian murmured. “And what do you make of this?”

“I think,” Ravoud said with the slower diction of a man carefully choosing his words, “Snowe has done something to antagonize Syrinx. A couple of times, when she thought no one was looking, I caught Syrinx giving her a look which frankly I think will keep me up at night. As a rule, any new tension between them I would attribute to Snowe; Syrinx is the aggressive one, and more hostility from her would change nothing. If the usual peacekeeper turned to bite her, though…”

“Nassir,” he said warmly, “I continually marvel at your perceptiveness when it comes to the motivations of others. Well beyond your military and organizational skills, it makes you a priceless asset to me.”

“I merely apply lessons I’ve learned from leading people, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, inclining his head modestly. “Soldiers are trained to follow orders and procedures, but even in the military, I find you get the best results from others by paying attention to their needs and strengths.”

“Indeed, that very observation is the cornerstone of my own leadership strategy. Hmm. I trust Branwen’s loyalty absolutely, but it could become problematic if she begins taking the wrong sort of initiative on my behalf. She could damage carefully laid plans by stepping into them unawares. Goading Basra would be exactly that kind of misdirected initiative…” Justinian came to a halt, tilting his head back and gazing upward as he often did in public to indicate he was thinking. Ravoud stopped beside him, folding his hands behind his back and waiting with no hint of impatience for the Archpope’s next pronouncement.

Justinian made him wait only a few moments before delivering it. “I believe I shall change my schedule somewhat, Nassir.”

“Oh?”

“There is another errand I had intended to make after meeting with the Bishops, which instead I shall do now.” He turned to regard Ravoud directly, nodding once as if to indicate he had settled upon an idea. “Please inform them of the unfortunate and unexpected events when demand my attention; I expect I shall be with them in less than an hour. In that time, I would like you to observe them carefully, please. I shall be keenly interested in your analysis of what is revealed by having the four of them cooped up in a room together for a little while.”

The corner of Ravoud’s lips twitched once to the left, the only tiny sign of approbation he permitted to breach his professional reserve, and he bowed. “Yes, your Holiness.”

“I want you to know, Nassir,” Justinian said, laying a hand upon his shoulder, “that I appreciate your willingness to aid me in these many little ways that you do. You have provided exemplary service well beyond that for which you were contracted.”

“It is my honor to serve in any way I can, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, his voice firm with conviction.

“Even so, it is appreciated, and you deserve to know that.” Justinian smiled and squeezed his shoulder once before letting his hand fall and stepping back. “Go, then. I shall not keep you waiting long.”

The Colonel saluted him crisply before continuing on in the direction they had been walking, at a far more brisk pace than the Archpope’s customary leisurely glide. Justinian watched him go for a moment before following more slowly, and turned down the first side corridor he reached, leaving Ravoud to vanish into the distance of the Cathedral’s hallways.

As he moved into more heavily-trafficked areas, he encountered more people—clerics, guards and servants he knew, as well as various visitors to the Cathedral. All of them stopped in their own tasks to bow deeply, and all of them got a smile and a nod from their Archpope. He was careful to vary his expression by small degrees, with the tiniest changes of the muscles around his mouth and eyes, as he made eye contact with each person. Just enough to create the expression that that smile was for them, for each of them in particular, and not a fixed expression he simply carried on his face. Another time he might have stopped to talk with several, inquiring after details of their lives about which he was careful to stay informed. Indeed, today he made silent mental calculations over how often he had done so with each recently; it wouldn’t do to become overly chatty with everyone, and create the impression that anybody could demand a slice of his time on a whim, but he thrived on the perception they had of him as a man who saw each of them individually, and not as the faceless masses many leaders saw in their servants. Not today, though; he had places to be, and without too much delay.

Near ground level in a wing which provided guest quarters for visitors to the Cathedral, he arrived in a quiet hallway and strode unerringly to a door whose location he remembered without need to consult any notes. A soft knock was followed by the rustling of activity within—immediate rustling, suggesting the suite’s occupant had been waiting for that knock, though it was several seconds before the door opened, so she had not been sitting eagerly beside it. About as he expected.

In the second between the door opening and the woman behind it recognizing him, he took note of her expression: intent and slightly tense, far too carefully neutral to belong on a happy person. That was only to be expected, considering the last few weeks.

“Your Holiness!” she gasped, immediately bending to kneel.

“Please, Ildrin, stand,” he said, reaching out to grasp her by one shoulder—on the side, not the top, making the gesture supportive rather than patronizing. “You have had a trying enough time without being expected to bow and scrape. I promise you, I shall never demand that of you.”

“I wouldn’t complain,” Ildrin Falaridjad replied, not entirely keeping the bitterness from her tone. “I’ve made enough of a mess of things…”

“You have done quite well with the resources and the situation you were given,” he said firmly. “Never think otherwise. I am told by the healers that you have been certified free of any lingering effects of mental tampering.”

“But,” she said, her face twitching with the effort to repress anger, “such tampering occurred. I… Even now I can’t believe…” The priestess had to pause and physically swallow down emotion before continuing, gazing intently up at him. “Do they…know who, or what, or how…?”

“I assure you,” he said gravely, “I am pursuing what avenues of investigation I can, but they are limited. And considering the circumstances in Athan’Khar, you must be prepared to be disappointed. It is very likely that your opponent in that situation was responsible, if not another completely undetected third party. Or fourth, or fifth party,” he added ruefully.

Ildrin heaved a heavy sigh, some of the tension leaking from her shoulders. “Well. I understand that both the Bishops have returned.” Once again, she didn’t quite manage to keep the ire from her face.

“Yes,” he said simply, granting her an encouraging smile. “They are here, in fact. At my request, Bishop Syrinx’s pursuit of your affairs has ceased.”

“Thank you,” she said fervently.

Justinian sighed softly and shook his head. “I find Basra a very valuable agent—there are few more skilled at accomplishing the right type of tasks. She is not, however, a people person. Of course, I cannot advise High Commander Rouvad on the disposition of her assets, but personally, I would never have placed Basra in charge of others in the field. Well, what’s done is done. On the subject of Rouvad’s policies, it seems it will take some time yet to terminate the case the Sisterhood has laid against you. They are congenitally less inclined to accept our explanations about mental influence; the evidence seems not strong enough to meet Avei’s admirably high standards. Do not despair, I am more than confident we can smooth all this over, but it is likely to take more time.”

“I see,” she said, bitterness once more creeping into her tone, then took a deep breath and bowed to him. “Your Holiness, I greatly appreciate the effort you are expending on my behalf. I can’t imagine what I’ve done to deserve it.”

Justinian smiled, tilting his head infinitesimally and regarding her pensively for a moment before answering. “I will tell you a secret, Ildrin. One which I’ve never voiced to an Avenist before, as I fear it runs counter to their doctrine. It has been my experience that no good comes from giving people what they deserve. I treat people according to the potential I see within them, to help them grow into it as best I am able. Never once have I been disappointed by the results of this policy. I foresee great things for you.”

He allowed her to stammer wordlessly in overawed gratitude for a careful space of seconds before continuing in a more serious tone.

“In point of fact, I would not inflict idleness upon you; I know you to be a woman of action. For the time being, necessity demands you remain my guest, beyond the direct reach of your sisters. If you are willing, I have a request to make of you.”

“Anything!” she said, eyes shining with fervor.

“I must warn you,” he said more seriously still, “this is an extremely sensitive matter. I believe the situation calls for your skills exactly, but your involvement will be…experimental. It may not work out, and I don’t want you to push yourself beyond your comfort if the job is not a good fit. Regardless of how the matter ends, it is a project which I insist must remain secret for the time being, until I tell you otherwise.”

“Your Holiness, I will not let you down in even the slightest way,” she promised avidly, nodding with almost childlike eagerness.

He gave her a gentle smile. “You haven’t yet. If you are interested, then, please come with me. There is something I would show you.”

Ildrin remained on point as he led her through the Cathedral, clearly eager to ask questions, but containing herself. Justinian held his peace for the remainder of the walk, taking in observations as they progressed deeper into the sub-levels below the Cathedral itself, through ever thicker doors with larger locks. Ildrin was self-disciplined and did not ask or push beyond what she saw as her place, but on the other hand hadn’t much of a poker face.

That, perhaps, was just as well.

He led her along corridors, down stairwells, and through increasingly secure doors, occasionally passing other personnel who stepped back and bowed to him, but for the most part they were more alone the deeper they went. She either had an excellent sense of direction or hadn’t considered that she would need help to make her way back out of here, he decided, based on her obvious interest untarnished by any sign of unease. Finally, Justinian stopped before a door made of actual steel, and turned to her.

“Remember,” he cautioned, “absolute secrecy.”

“I swear,” she promised, “I will do credit to the trust you’re placing in me, your Holiness.”

He smiled at her, then placed his hand against the metal door frame. Ildrin looked suitably impressed when, a moment later, the metal door—six inches thick—swung silently inward. He would, of course, have to explain how the enchantments worked, but that could wait.

Inside was another, much shorter corridor, terminating in another door, this one whitewashed wood and looking for all the world like the front entry of some country cottage. Justinian strode forward, Ildrin falling behind as she jumped and turned to suspiciously eye the metal door when it swung shut behind them.

He rapped once with his knuckles, then opened the door and stepped through, beckoning to Ildrin.

The room beyond matched the expectations set up by its entrance: it could have been anyone’s living room. Comfortable, just slightly shabby, yet clean. Ildrin blinked, peering around.

A woman had been sitting in a worn easy chair by the fireplace; upon their arrival, she rose smoothly, stepping forward with a broad smile. “Your Holiness!”

“Delilah,” he said warmly, coming to meet her and taking her hands in his own. “And how are you faring?”

“Quite well, thank you,” she replied. “As always, I would love a nap, but generally speaking I am well. Just taking a short breather; he’s fully occupied making little adjustments. Actually, your Holiness, I think you have good timing. We appear to be close to another attempt.”

“How fortuitous!” he said. “And how is our guest of honor?”

“Very much the same,” Delilah said with a sigh, releasing the Archpope’s hands and stepping back. “I do the best I can, but… Well, you know, of course.”

“Indeed I do.”

She glanced past him at Ildrin, her expression openly curious. Delilah was a pale, dark-haired woman in her early thirties; she wore a simple shirt and trousers that didn’t look clerical in the least, but had a pink lotus badge pinned at the shoulder.

“Delilah Raine,” Justinian said, stepping smoothly aside to gesture between them, “Ildrin Falaridjad.”

“Charmed!”

“Pleasure.”

“Ildrin,” he continued, “is here to try assisting you.”

“Oh?” Delilah’s expression grew markedly happier. “That is wonderful news!”

“Delilah,” Justinian said to Ildrin, “is, for want of a better term, a caretaker. Beyond here, the primary occupant of this suite is…well, you’ll be introduced to him momentarily. He is a truly brilliant man, but…somewhat difficult. Delilah’s nurturing approach to looking after him has yielded great results, but I’m afraid it keeps her rather tired; this is a full-time job. In addition to lightening her workload, I would like to explore the possibility of trying another approach. He was quite irascible when he first came to us; now, after some months of progress under Delilah’s care, I believe it is an appropriate time to branch out. Ildrin,” he added, turning to Delilah now, “has ample experience as a novice trainer and interfaith mediator; she is well prepared to offer the sensitivity and understanding our friend needs, but in general is known for a sterner approach than is the Izarite way. It is my hope this can help not only hasten his work, but move him toward better adjusting to looking after himself. I will caution you both,” he added seriously, “that this is an experiment. Our friend is somewhat delicate, Ildrin, as you shall see, and not everyone is able to form a connection with him. It is entirely possible that this will not work out, through no fault of yours. You must be prepared for surprises, and disappointments.”

“I will, of course, do my best,” Ildrin replied, now looking somewhat nervous. “Just…who is this person?”

“Well, why don’t we introduce you?”

“I would recommend against that,” Delilah said, frowning. “At least, at the moment. He is in a working frame of mind right now. But this would be a good opportunity for Ildrin to see what that looks like.”

“Quite so,” Justinian agreed. “If you would lead the way?”

She dipped her body slightly in a curtsy which looked a little odd, considering she wasn’t wearing skirts, then turned and led them through the door at the back of the room.

Beyond that was a kitchen, with what could have been a back door set into a side wall. Delilah opened this and stepped out onto a neat little rear deck.

Instead of extending over a yard or garden, though, the back of the ‘house’ opened onto a cavern that was clearly natural, though parts of it had been carved to make it more habitable. The floor was even, and numerous fairly lamps hung from the walls, casting the stone chamber in bright illumination. The entire space was filled to bursting with machinery and enchanting paraphernalia, ranging from enormous structures of glowing glass rods and copper wires to miscellaneous drifts of partially-inscribed spell parchment and casually strewn bottles of enchanting dust.

Ildrin stepped forward to join the others at the rail, gazing about in awe.

In the center, a space had been cleared around another apparatus, which seemed to consist of a large magic mirror in the old style, surrounded by banks of various crystals, tubes, wires, and plates of stone and metal engraved with runes, some glowing. The mirror itself had been wired directly into a stand containing four sizable power crystals—the three-foot-long industrial kind that held charges for major factory machinery.

Laboring over this with a wrench in one hand and a feather quill in the other was a man in a ragged, dirty coat, with gray hair forming a wild nimbus about his head. He muttered continually to himself, making minute adjustments to his peculiar device.

“Very close,” Delilah murmured. “I’ve seen this many times. Fine-tuning before an attempted activation.” She sighed. “And of course, I’ll be needed for what comes next.”

“Who knows?” said the Archpope. “This might be the attempt that works.”

She shook her head. “I’m almost afraid to wonder how to look after him if that happens. At least I know how to handle his failures.”

“There are no failures, Delilah, only steps in the process.” The priestess just shook her head again.

The man abruptly barked a laugh and stood back, planting his fists on his hips and breaking his quill in the process. He set off on a slow circuit around the device, studying it closely from every angle and incidentally giving his audience a better view of himself. He had a receding hairline,and a wildly unkempt beard beneath a hooklike nose, with piercing dark eyes which flickered rapidly across the structure he had assembled. His build was generally lean, though he had a noticeable paunch—the body of a man who did all his work with his fingers and brain. Despite the position giving him a clear view of the porch, he did not seem to notice them there.

“Ildrin, this is Rector,” the Archpope murmured. “One of the most brilliant enchanters alive today.”

“He won’t make eye contact when speaking to you,” Delilah said softly, “so don’t be offended by that. And he does not like to be touched. When he gets lost in his work this way, he’ll tend to think of nothing else until he reaches a stopping point, at which time it’s my job to make sure he does stop, to eat, bathe, and sleep. He hasn’t done any of those in four days. At other times, when he’s not in this state, you’ll find him fastidiously clean and actually quite devoted to his daily schedule. There are numerous other nuances. I’ll acquaint you with them as best I can as we go.”

“I see,” Ildrin said thoughtfully. Justinian took it as a very positive sign that she seemed intrigued and contemplative, not disgusted or even startled, as some tended to be when meeting Rector in one of his moods.

The enchanter came back to the front of his device, rolled his shoulders once forward and once backward, and began systematically cracking his knuckles. One joint at a time, at precisely one-second intervals.

“This is the pre-attempt ritual,” said Delilah. “Here it comes…”

The attempt, when it came, was almost disappointingly simple after all that buildup: Rector simply grabbed a lever attached to the side of the rack of large crystals and pulled it downward.

A low hum of magic at work filled the air. A powerful hum; even one of those crystals could have powered a mag cannon. Runes and glass tubes at various points along the apparatus blazed to life, and finally, the surface of the magic mirror itself did.

Its silver face flickered once, then turned stark black, and a peculiar symbol appeared in its center, rotating slowly. A circle formed around it, then broke at the top to make a partial ring and began slowly disappearing along one side, like a fuse burning down. No, given its pattern, more like a clock ticking down.

Rector dry-washed his hands, gazing avidly at the mirror and absently shifting his weight back and forth.

When the “clock” reached zero, the circle completely consuming itself and vanishing, the mirror flashed once more, and a figure appeared.

It was a man—purple, translucent, bald, and strangely dressed. His image flickered and wavered erratically.

“YES!” Rector crowed in a reedy voice, pumping both fists in the air.

The purple figure moved its mouth; a half-second later, out of sync, words sounded from the mirror, the voice strangely resonant when it wasn’t stuttering and halting.

“Av-av-avatar temmmmmmmmmmmplate lo-lo-loaded. Wa-wa-warning: critically in-in-insufficient processing power detec-tec-tec-tec-tected. Advise—warning, critical—cri-cri-cri— System fail—”

The mirror flashed once more and went dead, again nothing more than a simple reflective surface. An array of rune-engraved spell plates connected to it by wires and glass tubes began to smoke faintly. The hum of arcane magic faded rapidly, the slight glow of the power crystals cutting off.

“NOOOOO!” Rector howled, falling to his knees and clutching his hair with both hands. “So close—SO CLOSE! WHY won’t you just WORK!” He doubled over, sobbing and pounding at the floor with his fists.

Delilah had already stepped down from the porch and went to him, circling around front where he could see her approach and making no move to touch him.

“Rector,” she said firmly, kneeling.

At the sound of her voice, he bounded abruptly upright again. “Yes! Right, you’re right, no time for carrying on, I think I know what went wrong. I know what to try, I just—”

“Rector,” Delilah said, kindly but implacably, “it’s time to take a break.”

As she had said, he didn’t even look at her, bounding over to a nearby table laden with scrawled diagrams, power crystals, and vials of faintly luminescent enchanting dust. “No, no time, I can take a break later, I have an idea…”

“We talked about this,” Delilah insisted, moving around to the other side of the table so she was in his field of view again. “The mind and body are machines, too, Rector; you have to maintain them. Yours are far too valuable to risk being damaged from neglect.”

He froze at that, staring down at his table, but doing nothing with the pen and paper he had picked up. “I…yes, I know. But my work. I’m close!”

“You will still be close after some food and sleep,” she said gently. “You’ll be able to work better then, too. Isn’t this too important to approach it at less than your best?”

She was clearly adept at handling him; his recalcitrance slowly but surely melted as Justinian and Ildrin watched from above.

“And so you see,” said the Archpope gravely. “This is a peculiar task I’m asking you to undertake, Ildrin, and not an easy one. There will be no recrimination if you decline to take it on.”

“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I think…I can do this. I want to repay your kindness, but… I actually think I can do this. He certainly seems more difficult than anyone I’ve worked with before, but I’m not a stranger to difficult personalities.” She snorted softly. “Quite frankly I think this will not be as bad as working under Bishop Syrinx.”

Justinian allowed himself a wry smile at that, even though Ildrin wasn’t looking at him. She did, however, look up to frown at him after a long moment.

“Your Holiness… What, exactly, is he building?”

The Archpope nodded slowly, keeping a sage smile in place.

“The future.”

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9 – 38

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“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

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“I kinda miss having Fross along,” Ruda commented. “No offense, but you guys are a little… I dunno, glaring.”

Trissiny and Toby both glanced at her, saying nothing; up ahead, Gabriel sighed but did not turn around.

“It’s just that she’s got this pleasant blue-white thing going on; it’s soothing. It’d be a nice way to improve the fuckin’ scenery down here, what there is of it. All this yellow is puttin’ me on edge.”

“We’re pursuing necromancers toward a source of pure chaos,” Toby said. “If you weren’t on edge, I would be worried for your mental health.”

“And the light is usually referred to as ‘gold,’” Trissiny added dourly. Ruda just laughed.

All three were glowing subtly, which was the only source of illumination in the tunnels beneath the cathedral. In fact, it had been the only source of illumination in the old church’s basement, but in these much more cramped corners, the light felt even more precious, regardless of Ruda’s commentary. The group could probably have seen where they were going by the light of only one aura. Pushing back against the darkness made them all feel slightly better.

Nothing about the catacombs was visually surprising: the tunnels were cramped, dusty, and dark. A blend of natural caves and man-made structures, they passed without apparent pattern through exposed dirt, carefully dressed stone, crumbling old brick and living rock, both carved out and naturally worn by aeons of water. Water, too, they passed twice and had to step over once. Though small galleries opened off here and there, so far the group had only been able to follow a single tunnel, just barely wide enough for three of them to walk abreast if they squeezed in.

Most of those side galleries had held coffins. All were now empty.

Bones were everywhere, so thick in places that the students had to pick their way carefully over piles, and in some cases wade through them. Even Ruda had not offered a joke about this; they were all working hard at ignoring it as much as possible. At least the trail of felled undead told them they were headed in the right direction.

Until they passed through a doorway and had to stop, staring.

The chamber ahead, barely lit by Gabriel’s aura, seemed to be a cylindrical natural cavern, like an underground tower. A bridge (without railing, of course) extended from the door in which they stood to a platform in the middle, part of an island which jutted out from the wall to their right and had clearly been flattened for this purpose. There were two doors in the wall adjacent, and three more narrow bridges leading to openings around the rim of the cavern. Below, the darkness fell away to seemingly infinite depths, the bottom completely out of view.

Bones littered the whole area indiscriminately. One of the other bridges was clear of them; aside from that, every path before them was marked by the same gruesome trail they’d been following.

Ruda craned her neck to peer over Gabriel’s shoulder. “Aw, fuck.”

“That’s your answer to everything,” Gabriel said, glancing back at her with a smile, then pointed at the far door on the ledge. “It’s that way.”

“What are you seeing that we don’t?” Trissiny asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “But I’ve got scouts ahead. Oh, that reminds me, the Army search teams are all back topside; they’ve got some wounded but didn’t lose anyone. But yeah, my friends are all back. Vestrel’s giving me directions.”

“They found the source of chaos?” Toby said sharply.

“They think so,” Gabriel replied, stepping forward—very, very carefully—across the stone footbridge. “They don’t want to get too close, which I fully support. It’s causing some kind of dimensional issue, and being phased out the way they are, they could be vulnerable to that. But Vestrel says that from a distance, it looks like some kind of artifact, not a dimensional rift.”

“That’s…unexpected. And unusual.” Trissiny spoke thoughtfully as she followed the others across to the platform. “But not without precedent. Maybe it’s for the best—if it’s not an actual rift we have a better chance of dealing with it. Artifacts can be destroyed.”

“Just for the record, soul reapers are scared of this fucking thing and we’re walking right toward it,” Ruda said. “I can’t help thinking this is not the smartest thing we’ve ever done, guys. And let’s face it, we have done some pretty dumb shit.”

“Yes,” Trissiny said archly, “because you didn’t listen to my advice and I had to fight the centaurs on my own. What did we learn, Ruda?”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“And they’re not afraid,” Gabriel said testily. “They’re cautious. The difference is important.”

“Look at you, bein’ all protective,” Ruda said, shoving him lightly in the shoulder from behind. They were passing through the indicated doorway into another tunnel, so this was much less dangerous than it would have been in the tower chamber. Even so, he stumbled over a skull and shot her an annoyed look. “Aw, don’t make that face, it’s cute!”

“In any case,” said Ariel, “we are approaching with the active attention of the three primary gods of the Pantheon. It is well within the Trinity’s power to subdue chaos radiation, particularly if the source is a tainted object and not a planar rift. I presume that you are all staying in touch with your patrons?”

“Yeah,” Toby said, nodding.

“And as I’ve mentioned before,” Trissiny said, “’patron’ is a specifically gendered word and not—”

“I have never said this to a living being, Trissiny Avelea, nor imagined that I ever would, but it is my professional opinion that you need in the worst way to get laid.”

Ruda laughed so hard she nearly fell over.

Toby cleared his throat loudly and raised his voice to be heard over her. “Gabe, please be sure to thank Vestrel and the others for us.”

“She’s the invisible one, man,” Gabriel replied, grinning back at him. “She can hear you just fine. Says you’re welcome. Triss, don’t grind your teeth. And Ariel, if you don’t quit being an ass to my fellow Hand I’m gonna let her whack you with the sword of Avei and see which breaks first.”

It was another half hour’s walk through cramped darkness. The path the valkyries indicated led them through more tunnels, now branching out enough that the group could easily have become totally lost without their aid. At one point they passed close enough to a massive subterranean waterfall to be dampened by its spray; the flowing water which had done the initial work of carving out the corridors beneath Veilgrad was still very much in evidence. It was only in dry chambers distant from it that they passed evidence of bodies having been deliberately interred, which was sensible.

The farther they went, the fewer bones they encountered, until the entire place appeared to have been picked clean. Clearly, every corpse down here had gotten up and rushed to the surface; they had descended well past the level at which the skeletons had fully cleared out.

Gabriel stopped in a small square antechamber decorated by a bust of a Stalweiss chieftain set in a wall niche.

“This is it, guys. Another fifty yards or so straight down: this corridor angles upward slightly and terminates right in the relic room where the problem is.”

“What are we walking into, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

He paused for a moment, frowning at a point near the wall where no one visible was standing, before speaking. “It’s… Okay, this is all starting to make a little more sense. They were able to scout it from above. We’re in the mountains outside the city now. Seems the chamber in question is very close to the surface, and there was a cave-in. The relic had been bound in some kind of container that kept the chaos from leaking out, but part of the ceiling landed on it and broke it. That’s probably what kicked all this off in the first place.”

“Duly noted,” said Toby, glancing around at the others. “All right, guys, from here on, active prayers at all times. Ruda, I know it’s your least favorite position, but maybe you’d better walk in the back. In fact, if it’s a straight shot from here, let’s have Trissiny take point; she’s best at both attack and defense, and infernal radiation aside, there’s no telling what this may spit out at us.”

“Chaos isn’t sentient, is it?” Gabriel said, frowning as Trissiny moved past him into the tunnel.

“Unknowable,” Ariel replied. “It has nothing we would recognize as a mind, which is very far from saying it has no mind.”

“And on that cheery note, here we go,” Ruda said fatalistically. “I suppose I could add a few prayers to the goddess I grew up knowing, but I assure you Naphthene doesn’t give a shit.”

Trissiny had her shield up before her as she led the way—her physical shield, in addition to the divine one. They walked in grim silence, not dragging their feet but in no hurry to meet what lay ahead.

There was light at the end of this tunnel; as Gabriel had said, the ceiling had collapsed and daylight been allowed to stream in. The group paused at the door to the relic chamber before Trissiny stepped forward, allowing the others to exit the corridor and fan out to both sides of her.

What this room had once looked like was impossible to tell now. It had clearly been large and roughly circular, but the walls and much of the floor were obscured. Apparently the entire ceiling had come down, leaving them in a broad island of sunlight completely buried under chunks of fallen stone so broken that it was impossible to tell whether the original roof had been natural or carved.

They had been cleared away at certain key points, though. The door was clear, as was a path to the reliquary in the center. This was the only sign anyone had been present since the collapse; clearly the chaos cultists must have spent considerable time in this chamber, but they had either been careful to leave no traces or something that removed them after the fact.

In the center lay what could have been a sarcophagus meant to house a man twelve feet tall and correspondingly broad. It had been an elaborate thing, once, banded in silver and engraved with runes both arcane and divine. Now, it lay broken. The pieces of its shattered lid and walls had been carefully set aside, revealing what lay beneath. Though the stone of both the ceiling and sarcophagus must have fallen on the object within, it had not been so much as scratched.

The skull was enormous, easily big enough that the dragon could have swallowed a person whole when alive. Unlike the other bones they had seen on the way here, this was coal black and glossy as if lovingly polished.

Silence stretched out while they stared, until Gabriel finally spoke.

“Vestrel says this whole area was…tainted, sort of, until we got close and our auras pushed it back. Don’t let up for a second, guys, we do not want to be near that thing at its full power. I… It’s been a good long while since I listened to old fairy tales. That can’t possibly be what I think it is, can it?”

“The details are lost to history,” Trissiny said softly, “but we do know it happened. That was no fairy tale. This is… It has to be. The skull of Belosiphon the Black.”

“Who the fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“He was a chaos-tainted dragon who served Scyllith before the Elder War,” said Toby. “Which… Well, I guess this was as good a place as any for it, though I can’t imagine what could have been holding its power in check all this time. Whatever it was must’ve been worked into that big stone coffin, and broke when it did. So…what do we do with it now?”

“I don’t advise you attempting to do anything personally,” said Ariel. “This is something for the gods to handle. By the look of those runes, they did so last time. Salyrene is personally invoked multiple times in those charms; she does not generally permit people to do that.”

A shadow fell over the sky above, and they all jumped, staring upward.

“What is that?” Trissiny demanded, dropping into a battle stance. “Something the skull is doing?”

“No,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “It’s… According to Vestrel it’s a zeppelin. Has Imperial Army markings. And…it’s stopping, right overhead.”

“I desperately want to think this is good news,” said Ruda, “but I’m not quite that dumb.”

“Stand ready,” Ariel said urgently. “There are multiple arcane transfer signatures forming on this site—”

A series of sharp pops and crackles sounded, accompanied by flashes of blue light, and half a dozen people materialized in the space. Three wore the blue robes of Salyrite clerics, two were in improbably elaborate crimson-and-gold armor over white surcoats, and the last was dressed in a pristine white longcoat; they could see no more, as he had landed with his back to them.

“Quickly,” the man in the coat barked, unnecessarily. The priests had already begun furling a large length of iridescent cloth over the dragon’s skull. Both guards turned to level their impractical gilded polearms at the students. “Chaos will be in abeyance in the paladins’ presence, but that doesn’t make it safe. How long?”

“One minute, at the most,” the woman farthest from them said tersely, beginning to carefully fold the edges of the shimmering blue fabric under the skull.

“Step away from that!” Trissiny ordered. “Who do you think you are? What are you doing?”

“We are with the Universal Church,” he replied, “answerable directly to his Holiness the Archpope. We are securing this incredibly dangerous artifact before it has the chance to cause any more harm to Veilgrad. So, the same thing I expect you came here to do.” He finally turned to give them an extremely flat look. “Hello, kids.”

Gabriel blinked in astonishment. “Captain Rouvad?”

“It’s Ravoud,” he said testily, “and it’s Colonel.”

“You work with the Church now?” Toby asked.

“I am blessed to have been offered employment,” Ravoud said curtly. “My last job was abruptly terminated about the time these two ladies killed my best friend. You may recall something of the incident.”

“We wrote you a letter of commendation,” Trissiny protested.

“Yes, thank you. That made it all better.”

“Package secure,” the priestess said crisply. “The dimensional weave is operating exactly as tested. Chaos energies will be contained for transport, but this will decay rapidly. We have less than one day to get it securely to its new resting spot.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Seconds are precious, as you just heard.” Rouvad nodded curtly to them. “Thank you for your invaluable assistance, ladies and gentlemen. You have my word this thing will trouble Veilgrad no more. Take us out, Sister.”

Another series of flashes and pops followed, and then they were gone, leaving an empty, broken sarcophagus where the skull had lain.

Above, a distant thrum sounded as the zeppelin powered up its elemental thrusters. In only a few moments more, the shadow receded, allowing bright sunlight to pour unimpeded into the chamber once again.

“Well,” Toby said at last, “I guess that’s…that.”


 

“Major, thank the gods,” the soldier said fervently as Razsha strode up to him, the rest of her strike team following in the standard diamond formation. Seven troopers had formed a perimeter around one corner of the old guild complex, staves aimed at what lay near the wall. “She beat the werewolf unconscious and then dragged it in here. The Colonel said to keep her secured, but… I mean, how? We saw that fight. I don’t think we could…”

“You did fine, soldier,” Razsha said, patting him on the shoulder. “That particular demon has…a degree of trust. Three paladins are taking responsibility for her. When did the werewolf transform back?”

“Less than five minutes ago, ma’am. About the time the skeletons collapsed. Does that mean it’s over?”

The Major made no response, staring through narrowed eyes at Scorn, who was seated upon an unconscious man dressed in the shredded remains of what had been a formal suit. Demon and man alike were bruised and scratched virtually all over, but that did not seem to have diminished the Rhaazke’s spirits.

“Hello!” she called cheerily, then roughly patted her captive on the head. “Not kill!”

“I’m glad to hear that, I suppose,” Razsha said.

“Well, that’s…something,” Simmons offered. “It’s not a bad grasp of Tanglish considering she’s only been practicing a couple days.”

“I’m more concerned that that’s one of the first things they felt the need to teach her,” Tieris muttered.

“I can’t believe it,” Durst whispered, staring. “I just can’t. An actual, live Rhaazke. Here! What I wouldn’t give to—”

“Durst,” Razsha interrupted, “you did say this is a sentient demon, right?”

“What? Well, I mean, of course. They’re the dominant culture in their dimension.”

“Then let’s assume she enjoys being gawked at like a zoo animal about as much as you would and keep that to a minimum. She’s holding that werewolf down, and isn’t hostile. That’ll do, until the paladins get back here and take her off our hands.”

“How long will that take?” Simmons wondered aloud. “And I don’t think she’s all that skittish. She doesn’t seem to mind having battlestaves pointed at her.”

“I doubt she knows what they are,” said Durst. “A bunch of humans with sticks aren’t going to impress her.”

“Hypothetically,” Razsha mused, “would a staff shot put her down?”

“Hypothetically?” Durst grimaced. “There’s no data. Nobody’s shot one that I ever heard of. Um, they are very powerful demons, though. There’s a good chance it would just piss her off.”

Scorn ruffled the unconscious werewolf’s hair and waved at them with her other hand. “BEHOLD!”

Major Razsha sighed. “Those kids had better get back here fast.”


 

“Wait, the Church?” Teal exclaimed. “Captain Ravoud? This is… I don’t even know what to think.”

“That is far too many coincidences in far too short a time for my comfort,” Shaeine said.

“Hit the nail on the head,” Ruda agreed. “Come on, the timing alone. We clear a path to the big bogey and that’s the moment they show up to whisk it away? There is some serious behind-the-scenes fuckery going on. I think we blundered across the tip of a very big iceberg, guys.”

“Belosiphon the Black,” Teal murmured. “Incredible.”

“It kind of explains it, though,” said Fross.

Trissiny heaved a sigh, sweeping her gaze around the church. Fross’s ice had been removed, but not without leaving some signs of water damage to the pews. There was also the broken window and the fact that most of the sanctuary was piled knee-deep in bones. Altogether the cathedral had seen better days. “Well, for the moment it’s over. I agree, though, Ruda. There’s something more to this. I don’t think we can just leave it alone in good conscience.”

“Well…our actual assignment here is done, though, right?” said Juniper. “Which…shoot. We weren’t the ones who actually solved the problem, were we? I hope that doesn’t affect our grade. It wasn’t our fault the Church stepped in.”

“Your priorities are on point as always, Juniper.”

“Cut it out,” Gabriel said curtly, smacking Ariel’s hilt. “What’s been happening up here, guys?”

“The whole city got quieter,” Fross reported. “The Army’s been fanning out, cleaning up and helping people. Colonel Adjavegh sent Timms to check on us.”

“We reported the cathedral currently clear of both hostiles and civilians,” said Shaeine. “We felt, though, it was best we remained here to secure your exit. Timms apparently agreed; at least, we have heard nothing further from them.”

“We tried to clean up a bit in here,” Fross added glumly. “It’s gonna be a long haul, though. I feel really bad about the church.”

“Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully from the dais behind them. “The Church does not lack for resources. They’ll have everything shipshape in no time.”

All of them whirled on him, most drawing weapons; Vadrieny burst forth, flexing her claws.

No one attacked, though. Seven robed warlocks stood on the dais with Mogul. Each of them was carrying a crystal-tipped divine disruptor, including the ones the students had collected from the cathedral itself.

“How dare you show your face in front of me,” Vadrieny snarled. “You tricked and assaulted my friends, and now you steal from us!”

“Your pardon, lady, but I believe that’s a bit unfair,” Mogul replied evenly, tipping his hat to her. “You were dealing with chaos cultists in possession of Imperial weaponry capable of neutralizing a paladin. They had laid traps for you. I’m still stuck on how those crazy buggers managed to plan all this; it was an altogether respectable operation, and all done by people who couldn’t string two coherent sentences together. Something’s fishy as all get-out, here. Regardless! Caine, Arquin and Avelea would have found themselves de-powered and at the mercy of insane necromancers with ample undead slaves had we not stepped in.”

“Stepped in and put us at your mercy!” Trissiny growled, brandishing her sword.

“Why, yes,” Mogul replied mildly. “While more than half of these weapons were still in hostile hands, I went out of my way to secure you three where you would be safe until the disruptors could be rounded up. I’ve dealt too much with Pantheon worshipers to expect gratitude for such a paltry favor as saving your lives, of course. Seeing you safe and hale is reward enough.”

“That’s a load of bullshit,” Gabriel snapped. “We’re the Hands of the gods. Whatever you think of Vadrieny, I don’t believe for a second you would go out of your way to protect us.”

“Don’t you?” Mogul replied, tilting his head like an inquisitive bird. “There is, as you say, the matter of Lady Vadrieny’s high regard for you—that’s far from nothing in my estimation. But no indeed, I make it a point never to do anything that serves only one purpose. I do have an ulterior motive. Y’see, kids, if you kill a paladin, all that happens is another one gets called—by a deity who makes you the new one’s first order of business.”

“Better to play with them, I suppose,” Juniper said quietly.

“Well, now, a daughter of Naiya would know all about batting her prey around before delivering the final mercy, I bet!” Mogul replied, grinning. Juniper dropped her gaze, shoulders slumping. “But no, kids. That’s logic for more stable times. A great doom is coming, and secrets are unraveling on all sides. Dead paladins are worth nothing to anybody, but paladins who know the truth?” His grin broadened; with his head angled so the brim of his hat hid his eyes, the effect was deeply creepy. “Paladins who are in on the secret their gods are trying to hide? That’s a thing that’s never been seen. I do believe I want to let that unfold. The Black Wreath, you see, has always been on the side of truth. And now, that means we have a vested interest in your welfare.”

“What truth?” Fross demanded.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at her. “That’s the downside of having a reputation as terrible as ours: we can’t tell the truth, or it becomes tainted by association. No, you have to find it out yourselves. We have to content ourselves with unraveling the Pantheon’s secrecy from a safe distance. Pursuant to that, I believe you kids are acquainted with a certain Joseph Jenkins?”

“What about Joe?” Gabriel demanded, taking aim with his wand. Instantly the other warlocks on the dais pointed their disruptors at him.

“Joe,” said Mogul smugly, “is or is about to be in possession of some extremely interesting information that sheds light on what’s been happening here in Veilgrad. One might say that you and his group of friends each hold half the pieces to this puzzle. You’ll want to drop him a line at your earliest opportunity. He can be found in Tiraas these days; if he’s not gotten around to listing his address, Bishop Antonio Darling will know how to reach him. That’s yet another name familiar to you, I believe!”

They all stared at him in silence.

“Well!” Mogul said briskly. “Time waits for no man. No one, I should say; my apologies, General Avelea. We must be off, then. These devices need a new home—”

Silver mist shot in through the broken window at a steep angle, slamming into the floor of the cathedral midway between the students and the warlocks. It swirled upward in a twisting pillar, then resolved itself into the lean figure of Malivette Dufresne.

“Embras!” she squealed, throwing wide her arms. “How just perfectly lovely to see you!”

“…Lady Malivette,” Mogul replied, suddenly looking wary. “I must say, this is unexpected.”

“Why, yes, of course,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Because everyone knows Malivette is hiding in her manor while the kids are here. She’s afraid of the valkyries, you see! Y’know, the ones right now crawling all over this building.”

“They’re not going to harm you,” Gabriel said carefully. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, by the way.”

“Good heavens, boy, I know that,” Malivette said, turning to wink at him. “Right back atcha, by the way. And frankly I wouldn’t much care if they did. It’s not like I so very much enjoy existing.”

“Well,” said Mogul, shaking his head. “Well, well, well. If there is one thing I respect, it’s a well-executed ploy. My hat is off to you, madame.” He suited the words with actions, lifting his straw hat to reveal a shiny bald head and bowing to her. “If you’ll forgive me a prying question, how did you even know we would be here?”

“My, someone thinks a lot of himself!” Malivette tittered, turning back to the warlocks, who edged back away from her. “No, Embras, actually I was hoping to catch whoever was behind all the crap afflicting my city, but…you’ll do. Yes indeed, this is quite fortuitous! It seems you’re in possession of some very exciting items belonging to the Empire!”

Abruptly the cheer melted from her features, and she stared coldly up at Mogul.

“Give them to me.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah. Perhaps you would care to discuss—”

The vampire moved with such speed that not even a blur was visible. One moment she was standing on the floor of the sanctuary; the next, she was in the midst of the Wreath’s formation, arms wrapped around Vanessa, one hand tangled in the warlock’s hair, wrenching her head back to expose the side of her neck.

Shadows swelled around Vanessa and Malivetted, then instantly dissipated.

“No, no, dearest,” the vampire cooed, “none of that. It’s rude to leave a party before the guest of honor has even had a drink.”

Vanessa emitted a thin keening sound of pure panic.

“Nessa, easy,” Embras said urgently. “She’s just making a point; if she wanted you dead, you would be. Don’t rile her! Lady Dufresne, if you want a hostage, I’m more valuable.”

“But you care about this one,” Malivette said sibilantly. “I know your great secret, Embras Mogul. Everyone is afraid of the big bad Wreath; afraid of your eeeevil, baby-sacrificing ways. I know a thing or two about being a monster, and I know about faith. You just might care more about the world and each other than any of the other cults.”

“Stop this,” Toby said urgently. “All of you! Malivette, please—”

Vanessa was crying openly now, practically vibrating with tension.

“Do you know what it’s like,” Malivette continued softly, her crimson eyes fixed on Mogul, “being hungry all the time? Never getting your fill? Worse, living in a world inhabited by delicious walking steak dinners? The smell alone… I never take more than the bare minimum I must to survive. It’s been so long since I just…drained someone.” Slowly, she leaned in, pressing her nose to the side of Vanessa’s neck, and inhaled deeply. “Mmmfffnn… Warlocks are so spicy. And best of all, nobody would miss one.”

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut, whimpering.

“Enough,” Mogul snapped, tossing the disruptor to the ground at the foot of the dais. “You win. Everyone, give them up.”

“But Embras—” a man in gray robes started to protest.

“Do it!” Mogul barked. “Enchantments are replaceable—people aren’t!”

The rest followed suit, tossing down their weapons, and backed away.

“Let go of her,” Mogul said, glaring at Malivette. “You have no idea the harm you’re doing. You know what the Church did to her just this summer?”

“You know how many of those disruptors there are, Embras?” Malivette replied in a hiss. “Because I do. Please don’t lie to me. It makes me peckish.”

She drew her upper lip back, leaned in, and pressed the tips of her fangs to the nape of Vanessa’s neck.

The warlock fainted.

Mogul held out his hand to one side, glaring mutely at the vampire. Seconds later, another robed figure flickered into visibility and placed one last divine disruptor in his outstretched hand. He tossed it onto the pile with the others.

“Attaboy!” Malivette said, suddenly all sweetness and light again. She knelt, gently lowering Vanessa to the ground and somehow managing to make the awkward movement look graceful. “Don’t you worry, kids, I will ensure that most of these find their way back into the Army’s hands.”

“Most?” Toby said sharply.

“Well, yeah,” she replied, winking at him. “Like I told you once before, I’m patriotic enough. I think it’s a grand idea for my government to have the best and newest weapons available! But no government needs to be the only entity with access to any weapon. Or so I hear from some Eserites I’m acquainted with, who I bet will know just how to disseminate these shiny new enchantments into the world. All right, this was fun, but I gotta go get a drink now before I accidentally kill a whole bunch’a people. See you at home, kids!”

She dissolved abruptly into mist, which flowed down the steps and over the pile of disruptors, then vanished. The weapons disappeared along with it.

Embras Mogul stepped over to Vanessa as soon as the vampire was gone, kneeling to gently gather her into his arms.

“And with that, it’s official,” he said grimly. “Now no one is pleased with the outcome of this, except the blood-sucking undead. Y’know, they say you can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep; what interesting friends you’ve got. I’ll be seeing you kids again soon.”

Shadows swelled up over them, and then the Wreath were all gone.

For several moments they could only stand in stunned silence.

“Um,” Juniper said at last, “how come warlocks and vampires can just do whatever they want in a church? Aren’t these places supposed to be consecrated? Cos…I’m not feeling de-powered either, now that I think of it.”

Gabriel rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah. Well. Crisis over. The chaos is gone, the Wreath is gone, the Army’s even getting their weapons back.”

“Most of them, apparently,” said Shaine.

“Right.” He sighed. “So why do I feel like we didn’t win here?”

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6 – 5

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Having some time to himself, in hindsight, had been too much to hope for. Not just because he was up to his ears at the best of times between Imperial business, Church business, Guild business and the various games he had to play to pit those interests against each other and keep them from tipping out of balance—or smashing him for being the meddling interloper he was.

It was a lovely day, the first such in quite some time, the sky clear and the air warm enough to dispense with scarves and gloves, though still with plenty of bite. Spring always came late to Tiraas. As such, it seemed everyone who didn’t have a good and specific reason to be indoors was out enjoying the relative warmth. Couples, families and miscellaneous individuals strolled the streets with the lackadaisical gait of people on no particular business.

Not that Sweet minded the crowd, aside from the added difficulty of navigating through them, but as an inveterate people-watcher, it was a challenge to get from one point to another without being distracted. The Guild mostly ran his spy network these days; it wasn’t as if going on his city rounds could truly count as business anymore. He kept himself in circulation through the city because he loved doing it, because it was personally satisfying and made him feel grounded. Today, though, he found himself caught up watching a hundred little tableaus in passing, rather than making his way to any of his stops with any kind of efficiency. After an hour or so, he gave up and just strolled like everyone else was, enjoying the humanity as much as the sunshine.

And maybe, subconsciously, he knew it would be his last opportunity for a while; there was just too much going on. Some people—most people—who had recently been targeted by Black Wreath assassins might have feared to be out in public alone, but in truth, Sweet was more at home on the streets than in the fancy townhouse which he regarded as little but a prop in his role as the Bishop. Just let anyone try to take him on in his own streets. It was nearly a disappointment that not even a hint of such hostility emerged.

It was a nice hour, while it lasted, but then the world caught up with him. So much for his day off.

He sighted the disturbance from a block away, being closely attuned to the currents of the city. Sweet turned down the street in question, making his way toward the fuss without hurry. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing that required hurry, anyway. Not much was evident from that distance except for a forming crowd and raised voices, but he could clearly see the steeple, topped with an ankh, of a Universal Church chapel right at the thick of things.

As Sweet approached the upraised voices gradually became clearer, though he couldn’t make much sense of what they were saying. The last few feet he had to actually push through onlookers, which he did as gently as possible, with smiles and murmured apologies; soon enough he was standing at the very edge of the cleared space surrounding the disturbance.

There, he had to stop and just stare, his normal aplomb fleeing.

“What…the…hell.”

The demonstrators wore black robes—cheap ones, apparently dyed sackcloth. Somebody had thrown those together at the last minute, clearly. They contrasted starkly with the masks, which were identical and clearly well-made: each person wore the plaster face of a woman with red skin, surmounted by twisting horns. They carried signs with a variety of slogans: SHAME; ONE EMPEROR IS ENOUGH, JUSTINIAN!; BETTER THE WREATH THAN THE WRATH; MORTAL WORLD FOR MORTAL RACES. The seven people present appeared to be trying to chant, but weren’t making much of a go at it, each spouting their various phrases and tripping over each other’s lines.

“How long has this been going on?” he asked aloud.

“Less than ten minutes,” said a voice at his elbow. Sweet was too old a pro to visibly startle at being addressed, however much it surprised him. He half-turned to regard the speaker from beneath an upraised eyebrow.

“Grip. Dare I ask what you’re doing in the thick of this?”

“I’m not in the thick of it,” the half-elf said dryly. “I’m on the outskirts, where it’s safe. To answer your question, virtually every enforcer in the city is hunting Wreath after they came knocking on your door. I was staking out a magic shop known for peddling diabolist supplies when these ducklings came along.”

“Are they…Wreath?” he asked carefully.

Grip snorted. “Cavorting in the street like that? Hell, no. I’d dearly like to know who they are and where they came from, but the actual Black Wreath doesn’t do shit like this, as I should think you know. It evidently organizes shit like this, however. These clowns were at the shop collecting those robes, masks and signs.”

“Hmm.” Darling stroked his chin, studying the protestors through narrowed eyes. They certainly weren’t garnering any sympathy from the crowd; the onlookers were watching this display with expressions of revulsion and derision, some beginning to be openly hostile. Even as he watched, a thickset man shouted at the demonstrators to crawl back in their holes, quickly echoed by another voice.

Behind them, a Universal Church chaplain was standing on the steps of the chapel being protested against, looking more puzzled than alarmed. Darling couldn’t blame him. As Grip had pointed out, the Black Wreath just didn’t do things like this.

The enforcer cleared her throat softly and tugged his sleeve. “I suggest we get a more appropriate vantage, yeah?”

“Good idea.”

They slipped carefully back through the crowd; it required more pushing, as thick as it had grown, but the spectacle was arresting enough that nobody bothered with them. From there, it was the work of moments to slip into an alley, up piles of refuse, drain pipes, and window shutters to land on the flat roof of the shop across the street from the chapel. A wall kick was necessary to make it all the way up; thankfully he didn’t stumble in front of Grip, but Sweet had to reflect ruefully, as he caught his breath, that he was getting to be out of practice at this.

“This can’t go on much longer,” he said. “If they’re not Wreath, they’re clearly sympathetic to them. I’m amazed the whole lot haven’t been rounded up by soldiers already.”

“As to that, I have a theory,” Grip murmured. She planted a foot on the short parapet and leaned on her knee to look down, but was peering in both directions up the street rather than at the robed protestors. As usual, she wore striking black, with prominently displayed knives strapped to her in various places and a cudgel hanging at her belt. Most Eserite thieves would have rightly disdained such ostentation, but Grip’s line of work was about inflicting fear more than inflicting pain. You couldn’t be an enforcer without breaking fingers and kneecaps as needed, but the scarier you were, the less you had to do it. A trail of rumors was much more efficient than a trail of blood; tails of blood were useful only because they started rumors. “It’s the reason I followed these guys rather than busting up the shopkeeper who was supplying them per the Boss’s orders. Call it a hunch, but I suspect a parallel between… And there we go. My timing is as flawless as always, it seems.”

Sweet followed her pointing finger to the opposite end of the street, where an entire phalanx in bronze armor had rounded the corner and positioned themselves to completely wall off the avenue. Grip then pointed the opposite way, to a second phalanx taking position.

“No,” Sweet breathed, staring at the Silver Legionnaires. “They wouldn’t…”

They were, and they did. The spears didn’t come up, but the two walls of shieldmaidens began to sparkle as divine shields formed over the front ranks, cast by the priestesses embedded in their formations, and they started closing in on each other. Seeing them come, people turned and tried to flee, including one of the black-robed figures.

“No, no, no!” he said in agitation, clenching his fists as he watched panicked city dwellers rebound off the phalanx, finding no place to slip through. “Not against civilians! And not just the Wreath, they’re hitting everyone! Rouvad, what are you thinking?!”

“They’re not hitting anyone,” Grip murmured, watching closely. “No weapons, see? They’re just…oop, I’m wrong.”

Another robed protestor had tried to flee, pressing himself against the wall of a storefront in an attempt to slip past the phalanx. The Legionnaire on the edge had broken formation momentarily to slam him against the wall with her shield. Sweet couldn’t hear the crunch from up there, but he winced, feeling it. Moments later, the front line had passed them, and two more Legionnaires gathered up the fallen man, none too gently.

They were not being so rough with the townspeople caught up in their trap, but they also weren’t letting them through the formation. People began forcing their way into shop doors and alleys to escape the press; Sweet clearly heard a window being broken. Two Legionnaires, one from each side, had slipped through the phalanxes from behind and now were taking position across from the robed protestors with shields and lances out, pushing them back as they attempted to bolt to an alley across the street.

From there, it was over in a few seconds. Abandoning their signs, two of the robed demonstrators fled up the short path into the very chapel they’d been agitating in front of; the black-robed priest stepped aside to allow them in. The rest surrendered and were quickly rounded up by Legionnaires. The phalanxes broke up, soldiers assuming guard formations, and the priestesses fanned out. In moments the street was lighting up in flashes as they administered divine healing to people injured in the scuffle—including to one of the protestors.

“And that’s why the guards didn’t come,” Grip said in a satisfied tone. “Imperial duty or not, most soldiers are at least nominal Avenists. If the Legions want to claim a prerogative, a watch commander will find reasons to delay dispatching his troops. As I thought, our cult wasn’t the only one that felt insulted by the Wreath’s roughhousing.”

“Oh, gods,” Sweet whispered, understanding dawning on him. Not the full details, of course; there was too much about this that made absolutely no sense. But the shape of it… “It’s another provocation.”

“Another?” Grip turned to him, raising an eyebrow.

“None of the Bishops were hit with anything nearly strong enough to take us out. The Wreath is playing a longer game. They’re trying to stir something up.”

“Mm.” She turned back to watch the soldiers securing the street, ushering the remaining civilians out of the way. “This is a bigger something than they usually go for.”

“A great doom is coming,” he murmured, then pointed at the chapel, where the priest was arguing vehemently with two Avenists, a woman in bronze armor and one in simple white robes. “What’s going on there?”

Grip laughed bitingly. Like most halfbloods she didn’t much care to be reminded of her heritage, but those ears were too useful in their line of work to be ignored. “Apparently those two assholes have claimed sanctuary in the chapel, and he’s choosing to honor it. Gotta admire the man’s pluck if not his judgment. Well, legally he has the right of… Yup, there they go.”

The Legionnaire and priestess had turned and retreated, looking so disgusted that Sweet could clearly read their expressions even from this distance. Not that he had the attention to spare for them.

“They’re actually trying to incite the population against the gods,” he marveled.

“That’s a new one,” Grip commented. “I can’t imagine they’ll get far with it.”

“In the long run? Hell, no, the Pantheon’s worshipers are far too entrenched. But if they play it right, they can stir up enough trouble over a short span of time to accomplish…”

“What?” she asked after he trailed off.

Sweet scowled, shaking his head. “If I knew, I’d be out putting a stop to it. Bloody hell, though, they’re doing it well. Rouvad must be mad to have allowed this; the Legions are usually a lot more careful around civilians.”

“Hnh,” she grunted. “Makes you wonder what the Huntsmen are out doing. Bet it makes this look like a Sunday picnic.”

“Makes me wonder what pins the Wreath set up for them to knock down,” Sweet muttered. “Clearly, the demonstrations were not the point. They’re creating just enough agitation that the offended cults have easy targets on which to vent their ire, in just the right places where innocents will be caught in the…” He stopped, his eyes widening. “Grip, did you say you were watching a shop?”

“I did,” she said slowly. “I mean, I was…”

“Tricks sent enforcers throughout the city, targeting known Wreath locations?”

“Well, we don’t know any actual Wreath locations, or we’d have beaten them down a long time ago. But there are all kinds of suspected contacts in the city…”

“You mean to tell me that right now, all over Tiraas, Thieves’ Guild enforcers are out smashing limbs and property of people who might have some connection to the Black Wreath? Some of whom—most of whom—assuredly don’t?”

She looked up at him, the blood draining from her face, then down at the scene in the street. “Oh, shit fire.”

“Get back to the Guild,” he said, already moving back toward the alleyway from which they’d ascended. “Get in to see Tricks, use my name and break whoever’s leg you have to if he claims not to have time for you. Get him to put a stop to this.”

“He can’t!” Grip protested, following him. They paused at the edge of the roof. “Sweet, everyone’s already in motion. All over. This was a massive strike, sent out to crush every fingerhold the Black Wreath has in the city. It’ll take every warm body left in the Guild to even get to all the targeted locations… If there’s anybody left at the Guild who actually knows where everyone went, it’ll be too late to stop it all, and—”

“Damn it, woman, we don’t have time for this!” he shouted. “Go try! I have to get to the Cathedral to try to stop the rest of the cults from playing into the Wreath’s hands!”

She obeyed without another word, slinging herself over the edge, bouncing off the wall below and catching a grip on a drainpipe, which shook with the impact but held. Sweet followed with a little more care, his brain churning so hard it threatened to damage his concentration on the task of climbing.

The Guild was, right at that moment, sending a very strong message to exactly the wrong people, which the Wreath had assuredly already made preparations to spin into the narrative they were going to sell to the general public. Doubtless there were more demonstrations like this being set up to bait the Sisters into making similar blunders, all over the city. The gods only knew what the Huntsmen were doing. And what about the Izarites? A more harmless group of people had surely never existed, but if there were a way for them to be manipulated into making a mistake, the Black Wreath were the ones to do it.

And what was Justinian doing?


“There is little I can do,” the Archpope said gravely. “Captain Ravoud, take a message to High Commander Rouvad; inform her of these developments and Bishop Darling’s theory. She, at least, has the communication networks in place to call back her Legions before they make this situation any worse. Have someone dispatch a similar message to Grandmaster Veisroi. See to it personally, Captain.”

“Immediately, your Holiness,” Ravoud said crisply, saluting, then turned and dashed off back down the hall. The Archpope, at this time of day, was busy; Darling had actually called him out of a prayer meeting for this. It was a rather sensitive discussion to be having openly in the halls of the Cathedral, but he had chosen to value speed over secrecy in this case.

Ravoud was a name he remembered from recent events in Lor’naris. The man now wore his Imperial Army uniform with insignia removed and the coat left unbuttoned, which was common enough for ex-soldiers. Clearly he was working for the Archpope now, though he wasn’t in Holy Legion armor. Darling filed away this piece of whatever puzzle it was to be worked at later.

“That, unfortunately, is the extent of my immediate power here,” Justinian said ruefully, his face a mask of patrician concern. “It is only the structure and nature of the Avenists that makes even that much possible; the cults of Eserion and Shaath are far more proactive. Commander Rouvad can, at least, rein in her people.”

“I’ve sent a runner to the Boss with the same warning,” said Darling, “but I’m afraid it’s not going to be in time to accomplish anything.”

Justinian nodded. “And even if we could reach them in time… As I have mentioned, I cannot actually require any of the Church’s member cults to do anything. At most, I can intercede with their deities to ask that the cult leaders be overruled, but… That takes time and considerable effort, will have far-reaching consequences and may not even be necessary.”

“In most cases, I don’t think it would be,” Darling said with a frown. “The Shaathists might consider their vendetta more important than the strategic realities of the situation…”

“I’ve heard Shaathists and Avenists alike say similar things about Eserites,” Branwen noted, smiling and placing a hand on Darling’s arm to soften any sting in the words. She had, fortuitously, been with the Archpope when he had arrived; they now had the hall to themselves, aside from the two Holy Legionnaires who escorted Justinian everywhere.

“Let us not start that debate, please,” Justinian said firmly. “At present we don’t know what the Huntsmen may have done or will do. Veisroi, though as devoted to the principles of the wild as any Shaathist, has proven amenable to compromise in the past. He will listen to my messenger.”

Darling drew in a deep breath and let it out in a rush. “Which leaves only whatever his cult has already done. I can’t escape the feeling the Wreath has manipulated each of us from within, too. It’d be the only reliable way to ensure the cults reacted the way they wanted. We’ve always taken it as given that our cults have been infiltrated. Those Legionnaires… That operation just didn’t seem characteristic of them.” He turned to Branwen. “This may be a little out of line, for which I’m sorry, but is there any chance the priests of Izara might do something…rash?”

“Such as what, for example?” she asked archly.

He shook his head. “I don’t know, Bran. All I’m sure of is that we’ve all been played.”

“It is a fair objection,” said the Archpope, “but also a fair question. I will send a messenger to High Priestess Delaine. Whether or not she has taken any action, she deserves to be kept in the loop. I think we can consider the disciples of Izara a lower concern, however; it is not in their nature to offer aggression of any kind.”

“We’ve lost this one, haven’t we?” Branwen asked glumly.

“Second in a row,” Darling added, surprised by the bitterness in his own tone.

“Despair is a sin, my friends,” the Archpope said firmly. “To presume that hope is lost is to presume knowledge of the future that we mortals cannot possess. Trust in the gods. More importantly, trust in the better aspects of our own nature. The Wreath’s nihilism may cause untold damage in the short term, but in the long, I truly believe that humanity is better at the heart than they would make us out to be.” He came to a stop, turning to face them. “You are right, Branwen; we must consider this engagement lost. Steel yourselves to face further losses in the immediate future; the Wreath has planned deeply and prepared well, and we must assume they will be prepared for our next logical moves. Therefore, we shall place our focus upon a depth of future action beyond what they can foresee. Branwen.” He placed a hand gently on her shoulder, gazing solemnly down at the much shorter woman. “I have a plan, which will require me to lean heavily upon you in the coming days. I know your wounds are still raw. If you do not feel yourself up to this task, there will be no recrimination of any kind… But I must know now. Once it is begun, it will be too late to change course.”

“You can count on me for whatever you need, your Holiness,” she replied, meeting his gaze with uncharacteristic steel in her own. “I won’t let you down. And I will not let them win, or escape consequences.”

“Good,” Justinian said with a grim smile of his own. He nodded to Darling. “If you would, Antonio, please stay at the Cathedral for the time being, at least until we know what is happening with the other cults and can bring the immediate situation under control. There will be subtler currents moving; I will be counting on your mind to spot them and form appropriate plans.”

“Of course, your Holiness,” he said. “Anything I can do.”

Justinian nodded again, releasing Branwen. “Come, then, we’ll retire to my study to lay plans. I must also summon Basra and Andros; in the immediate days, I will be relying on each of you to interface with your own cults.”

He continued talking, setting out ideas as they walked; Darling listened enough to be aware, but did not give the Archpope his undivided attention. It wasn’t even that he had strategies or questions distracting him. It was still too early in the game for those to have taken a meaningful degree of form, for all the uncertainties that surrounded them.

No, what tugged at his mind was excitement. The Wreath, finally, was making their play. Elilial was making her play. While she lurked in the background, there was little he could do but wait.

Now, after all his years of seeing to what the Church wanted and the Empire wanted and the Guild wanted, and his recent days of managing what his team of adventurers wanted, to say nothing of rogue elements like Tellwyrn and her gang of teenage meddlers, he could finally see about getting what he wanted.

Elilial was the goddess of cunning, after all. He had to wonder if she would see him coming.

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