Tag Archives: Casey Elwick

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“Thank you,” Rasha said quietly enough not to interrupt the ongoing discussion as she accepted the mug of hot cocoa.

“Ma’am,” McGraw answered at the same volume, smiling and tugging the brim of his hat to her before turning to pick up another cup from the tray he’d set on the end table and offer it to Shahai.

Watching him, Rasha did not miss the inherent cleverness of the old man positioning himself as the de facto housemaid; it was a discreet but undeniably effective strategy for keeping himself in the good graces of the large group of dangerous women occupying the living room, nearly all of them Avenist and several of uncertain motivations.

Joe hadn’t employed any such strategy, but then…he was Joe. It was less likely to occur to him than to the more experienced old wizard, and anyway, Joe was probably the most inoffensive person in the room. He stood against the wall out of everyone’s way, listening with his arms folded and—unlike far too many teenage boys—reflecting his lack of anything to contribute by keeping his mouth shut and bothering no one. The only person in the safe house who even might be misandrist enough to take issue with Joe’s existence was, herself, subdued and seemed so depressed that even Rasha felt a grudging pity for her. Grudging, and very slight.

The woman in question found herself the center of attention at that moment as both McGraw and Shahai turned on her, with a mug of cocoa and a question, respectively.

The seats in the safe house’s small living room were mostly taken and Sister Magden, being the least favored person present, hadn’t managed to snag one. She was sitting on the other end table in a slouched posture with her head down, arms wrapped around her scabbarded sword as if clinging to it for comfort.

It was a couple of seconds before she responded to either of them, finally looking up at McGraw patiently holding out the steaming cup to her. Mutely, she shook her head, and he withdrew with a smooth bowing motion that made Rasha wonder if he’d ever been a waiter.

“Magden?” Shahai prompted.

“Sorry, I was…” Magden turned to the elf. “What did you say?”

“You told Rasha you were looking to get in contact with General Avelea,” Shahai repeated, showing no sign of impatience. She was one of those people who gave the impression that impatience was an entirely foreign concept to her. “What did you need her for?”

“Oh.” If anything, Magden’s shoulders slumped further. “I was… I sought to ask her personal intercession with Avei on behalf of Sister Lanora. I understand the point of a public punishment of that magnitude for political purposes, but I believe it was unfair. Lanora was—we were misguided, the goddess made that clear. But she was always a good priestess, who did what she believed right. I thought…she deserves another chance. At least, I did,” she added bitterly, her voice dropping to a bare whisper. “Apparently I didn’t know any of my sisters as well as I thought. I cannot believe women I trained and prayed alongside would try to do something so contemptible as what I saw tonight.”

Shay let out a loud, expressive snort, and Casey lightly swatted the back of her head.

“It might comfort you to know, Magden, that by far the majority of your erstwhile comrades have done exactly as the goddess commanded,” Shahai said gently. “About two thirds have already left the city alone or in small groups, departing for unrelated destinations. The Sisterhood lacks a comprehensive intelligence network, but Tiraas has only two publicly accessible gates and two Rail stations; it is not hard to watch the comings and goings. Plus, most of them abandoned their Purist gear in the section of the Temple barracks they’d taken over. Tabards, chainmail, bracers, and swords; the High Commander has set our quartermasters to examining them for hints as to their origins. We can dare to hope that those you saw tonight were the only ones engaged in such depravity, but I’m sure I needn’t caution you all not to hang too much trust on optimism.”

She swept her gaze around the room, receiving nods of acknowledgment.

“I believe I have the full picture now,” Shahai continued. “I must inform you all that I received a message from General Avelea herself just before Sergeant Elwick’s reached me. She has to travel to Veilgrad tonight on political business, and in fact will be taking Bishop Darling, who I understand has been an ally in this matter. That means that until tomorrow, we are effectively on our own. Right now our priority has to be locating the remaining Purists, and most especially Sister Lanora. Their whole order was clearly propped up by the Universal Church as a ploy to divide and damage the Sisterhood, and now that that has failed, those women and the knowledge they hold present a danger to the Archpope’s operational security. They are prime targets either for recruitment into his inner circle, or elimination. We must find and secure them.”

“Why?” Shay demanded. “We’re talkin’ about a bunch of morons whose entire shtick was dragging Avei’s name through the mud so they could have an excuse to bully people. Screw ‘em, I don’t see how this is worth stickin’ our necks out.”

Magden’s expression darkened further, but she didn’t look up from her steady examination of the carpet at her feet.

“First of all,” Shahai replied, turning a flat stare on Shay, “because Justinian has a long pattern of recruiting hopeless individuals and honing them into effective servants; every warm body we keep out of his coterie now is a better trained and better armed problem we won’t have to deal with later. And second, Shay, the Purists were dealt with by Avei. As of that declaration, those who have not gone on to commit further crimes are not wanted for any offense, and those who have should be duly tried and punished under the law. Leaving them to be brutally silenced in some back alley the way they tried to do with Rasha is not acceptable in either case.”

Shay looked less than convinced, but offered no further objection, just sprawling back into her armchair.

“There is also the reason Justinian will be motivated to secure or silence them: Lanora and possibly others possess materially useful intelligence which we need. Knowing that the Archpope is behind so much recent trouble is not the same as being able to prove it. If we can definitively link something to him, we will gather a great deal more support and the Empire can bring its resources to bear on him.”

“Why did you let Lanora out of your sight in the first place, then?” Rasha asked pointedly. “I mean, not you specifically, Sister Nandi, but…”

“I take your point, and it’s valid,” Shahai said, nodding to her. “Were the Sisterhood a governmental or solely military organization, she probably would have been held and interrogated. But it is first and foremost a faith, and lacks the legal authority to involuntarily detain an excommunicated individual within the Empire. I personally would have had her followed, at the very least, but evidently that did not occur to anyone at the time.” She pursed her lips in disapproval.

“How’re we gonna find ‘er, then?” Joe asked quietly.

Shahai nodded. “As Sister Magden has lost contact with her, we are forced to fall back on the measures you used to locate the Purists this evening. With apologies, Casey, I need to divide and direct your team.”

“Nandi, it’s me,” Casey said, grinning. “I’m not Locke, you don’t have to explain what a chain of command is every single time. What’re your orders?”

Shahai gave her an amused smile in response as she answered. “Bandi, Elias, I need you to attempt to locate Sister Lanora via magic. Do you believe you can do it?”

“I will try,” Sister Bandi said, bowing. “My magic is paltry, I warn you. I cannot predict the outcome of the attempt.”

“Worth a shot,” McGraw agreed. “I can do a bit with sympathetic principles… It’d help if we’ve got anything connected to her. Somethin’ of hers, ideally somethin’ she valued.”

Magden raised her head as everyone turned to look at her. Straightening, she fished in the neck of her robe and pulled out a small talisman, an Avenist golden eagle carved in a disc of ebony, hanging on a chain. “Lanora gave me this. She made it herself, years ago, and wore it for over a decade.”

“That’ll do,” McGraw said, both he and Bandi nodding. “That’ll do quite nicely. I do warn you, ma’am, any divine charm on it’s likely to be degraded by me doin’ arcane craft at it…”

“It is not blessed,” Magden said softly, rubbing her thumb across the sigil. “Just…special.”

“Excellent,” Shahai said crisply. “Sister Magden, I would like you to assist them as best you are able. I remind you that Lanora may be in danger if we cannot find her.”

“I’ll help in any way I can.”

“Good. Casey, please remain here to coordinate and supervise; make sure they have everything they need. Meanwhile, Shay, Joseph and I will escort Rasha and Private Medvidaar. First to an Imperial police station to file a report on the Purists’ attack this evening; it will be politically important for a record of their actions to be in government hands, and this will provide the Empire with a pretext to bring pressure to bear upon both the Church and the Huntsmen. After that we can conduct Rasha back to Tamisin Sharvineh’s house, and the Private to the Temple. I believe the five of us represent a group which would deter anyone willing to attempt an ambush in the city.”

“Why don’t we just keep Rasha here?” Shay suggested. “Y’know, where we can keep an eye on ‘er ourselves.”

“Why don’t we ask what Rasha thinks of all this?” Rasha countered, raising one eyebrow.

“There is that,” Shahai agreed. “We are certainly not going to coerce Rasha into anything. I do hope you agree with me on the importance of making a police report?”

“It’s never my first instinct,” Rasha conceded, “but it’d be interesting to be in a police station on the right side of the bars for once.”

“I’m sure,” Shahai replied, smiling. “As for the rest, I am not attempting to get rid of you; I simply think you will be safer at home. This safehouse’s only defense is its anonymity, and when we are working specifically against Church and Sisterhood personnel it may not even have that. By contrast, the Sharvineh mansion is a target I understand even the Svennish intelligence service did not dare assault.”

“No, it’s fine, I agree,” Rasha assured her, taking Zafi’s hand. “I’d really like to get home, anyhow. You sure Zafi will be all right back at the Temple?”

“Wherever the Purists are, they’re not there,” Zafi replied. “That’s the one place we know they’re not. Nobody’s gonna try to snatch a Legionnaire out of her own cohort. And when I’m not drilling with the squad I can stick near Sister Azelea.”

“I will also make an effort to keep an eye on you, Private,” Shahai promised, “at least until we are sure the immediate situation has been resolved. Does anyone have further questions? Good, then let us get to work. Time is short and growing shorter.”


“So…I understand the problem.” She stood in the center of the chamber, clawed hands on her hips and her wings neatly folded against her back so that they flowed behind her like a rigid cape of feathers, with their small claws rising above her shoulders. “The machine must be, in essence, rebuilt from scratch after the damage it suffered. The work takes time because it is a secret of the highest order, so no one is trusted to help you work on it. And also, no one knows how. Plus, it is made mostly of pieces which are rare and expensive, including many irreplaceable Elder God artifacts for which there can be no substitution. Even with the search ongoing, it might be years before enough have been gathered, and…possibly never. I understand.”

The underground space had at least been cleaned up over the last four months, and was no longer a charred wreckage of mechanical and enchanting parts. Now, the equipment arrayed around it and climbing all the walls encircling the broad summoning circle in which she stood was clearly in a half-built state, with incomplete metal structures bristling from the floor, unfastened wires trailing, copper and glass rods extending from various machines into empty air, and miscellaneous parts strewn about either loose or in crates.

She heaved a deep sigh, then grudgingly nodded. “I owe you an apology, then, Rector. I am sorry for implying you were deliberately stalling. The work you do must be very difficult.”

Azradeh turned when there was no response save the continuing soft clatter of a wrench on the inscrutable cabinet on which he was working, something that resembled a twelve-foot-tall grandfather clock with glowing parts and a face which depicted a swirling portal into some mysterious darkness.

“Rector?” she prompted. “Did you hear me? Please respond.”

“I’m not deaf!” the man abruptly shouted in exasperation, not looking up from what he was doing. In fact, it sounded like he was tightening bolts harder all of a sudden. “Omnu’s breath, woman, will you go away?! I am trying to work!”

Azradeh tilted her head, studying him curiously. Rector was an odd one, and truthfully rather annoying to deal with, but she felt no animosity toward him. Of the very few people with whom she had contact, only two treated her…in a word, normally. Colonel Ravoud and Delilah were both polite, but their tense bearing never let her forget that she was a creature capable of tearing them apart bare-handed, that her name was a byword for terror and destruction in their language. Branwen set off alarms in her head just by being in the room. Justinian himself, of course, was always kind and composed, but he was his own kettle of fish. Only Rector didn’t seem to care at all what she was. It made her like him, despite his congenital lack of even the most basic social skills.

“A cogent analysis, Azradeh, but there is another important factor which limits us further.”

She turned again, regarding the Archpope himself as he descended from the half-rebuilt control platform to join her on the summoning circle below.

“When we rescued you,” Justinian explained, leaning his head back to look up at the central point on the ceiling where a secondary energy nexus would be housed when the great machine was activated, “another being…intervened. Something extra-dimensional and extremely powerful. We must do considerable research to determine what effect this had, and plan for it before trying again. That alone is prohibitive.”

“I see,” she murmured. “Then there’s no telling when I can see my sisters again. Or if.”

Justinian laid one hand gently on her upper arm; he alone was unafraid to touch her. Well, Rector wasn’t afraid either, but he loudly disliked being touched at all, as she had discovered.

“What can be done can be repeated; it is simply a question of the difficulty and the cost. Sometimes, they are too great to attempt in practical terms. In this case, I refuse to accept that possibility unless it is forced upon us. We will rescue your sisters, if it can at all be done. I simply cannot predict when. I’m sorry, Azradeh.”

She shook her head. “Everyone is doing what they can. I feel like I could be doing more. Maybe I could help Rector?”

Head buried in his clock-like apparatus, Rector emitted a feral growl that echoed oddly.

“I certainly don’t understand how this thing works, but I can follow simple directions. You can’t tell me someone who can lift giant metal beams and cling to the ceiling wouldn’t be useful—”

“KEEP THE DAMN DEMON OUT OF HERE!” the enchanter bellowed. “NOTHING BUT INTERRUPTIONS! LET ME FOCUS!”

Delilah was already descending from the platform, giving them one of her pointed looks, the one which presaged a lecture about how much more difficult it would be for her to calm and re-focus Rector after this.

“Perhaps we have interrupted his work enough for the time being,” Justinian said discreetly.

Azradeh sighed. “Fair enough. I’ll see you later, Rector. Don’t forget to eat something, okay?”

With surprising accuracy, he hurled a brass-framed power crystal at her. Azradeh made no response, not even blinking as it bounced off her temple.

“I’m wearing him down,” she assured the Archpope while the two of them climbed the steps toward the control platform. As the passed, Delilah pressed a hand over her eyes.

“I am not sure that approach will work,” Justinian said delicately once they had passed out into the hall beyond. “There is a method to befriending people like Rector. Pressuring them is not part of it.”

“People like Rector, huh,” she mused. “So is there a name to what’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing is wrong with him,” he said without hesitation. “He is different, that’s all. But yes, we have at least a partial understanding of it. The dwarves have made a scientific study of this in recent decades, and elven tribes have traditional methods of raising such individuals. They appear to occur naturally in every race in small numbers. Most people, Azradeh, have minds that are made up in large part of people-related instincts, innate skills which enable us to recognize and interact with one another. Rector, and those like him, are born missing some or all of those aptitudes; they are replaced with other capacities. As you have doubtless observed, his talents lie elsewhere. We simply must extend more than the usual tolerance and understanding to help him make those skills useful to us all.”

“Hmmm. So they’re always gifted enchanters?”

“No, and no,” he replied, smiling. “They do tend to produce savants, but in various fields; enchanting happens to be Rector’s particular specialty. But even so, not the majority. Most are simply people, with a condition, and their own talents and abilities like anyone else.”

“I wonder if it’s really worth the effort of extra care, then, if they’re not mostly as useful as Rector…”

“Always, if only to avoid the judgment of how useful someone is. The effort is worth it, regardless of any singular result yielded. Making that effort to care for others is what determines that we are a society which does so, as opposed to one in which people are merely exploited for whatever utility can be wrought from them. The former always creates a stronger and more resilient social order than the latter.”

“Collective over individual utility,” she mused, nodding slowly. “I can see the logic. I wonder if they have similar ideas in Hell.”

“Our knowledge of that is secondhand at best,” the Archpope said gravely, “but indications are very much the opposite. Back to the present, I’m sorry about the sparring golem you were using. I was only just informed.”

“Oh. I guess I’m the one who should apologize,” she said, grimacing.

“Not in the least.” With one of his caring smiles, Justinian patted her again on the shoulder. They had arrived at her room; Azradeh hadn’t been going anywhere in particular, just following him, and now allowed him to gently usher her in while he continued speaking. “I’ll make arrangements to bring you another one as soon as I am back above, but…I fear the thing will happen again, eventually. Unfortunately, those things simply aren’t made to withstand strength like yours. I truly am sorry, Azradeh. It’s hard to provide means for you to exercise down here.”

“I’d really like the chance to fly,” she said, wandering over to her music player—a rare and expensive enchanted device, so she understood, and which she treasured—and lightly rested her claws atop it without reaching for one of the sound disks. “I feel that would help me…remember. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of me visiting the surface soon?”

It had been a desultory question with no real expectation behind it, but he gave her a pleased smile in response. “In fact, I finally have good news about that! You know the reasons we must maintain discretion, but I have been monitoring an ongoing situation which I think will provide exactly the pretext we need to let you stretch your wings above a bit. I am carefully nudging it in the proper direction; with a little bit of luck, I expect to be able to bring you up within the next few days.”

“Really?” She looked up at him, smiling in genuine anticipation.

“It is not set in stone yet,” he cautioned, “but I have committed to the plan. If it does not pan out, I will re-prioritize to put aside some other concerns and arrange an outing for you in the near future. I owe you that much, at the very least.” The Archpope’s eyes fell on her well-stocked bookcase, next to her reading desk, and he reached out to draw his fingertip through the light coating of dust on the spines of the theological histories on the top shelf. “Are you…not interested in reading about your family?”

“I’m interested,” she said, letting her own expression grow more pensive, “but…concerned about prejudicing myself. Nothing has brought up memory, not as an explicit recollection of something I could describe, but I do get flashes of feeling. A sense of familiarity about some things. I’m concerned about corrupting my perception, so to speak. If it’s going to come back to me, I’d like it to come before I start filling my head with other people’s ideas about what my sisters and I were like.”

“I do see the sense in that,” he said, his eyes falling on one of the volumes laid on the desk. “Ah, that’s right, you did ask for a copy of Branwen’s book. Have you finished already?”

Azradeh snorted. “In the sense that I read four chapters and now I’m finished with it, yes. What a bunch of absolute piffle. It’s all self-aggrandizing nonsense—anybody who already believes that stuff doesn’t need the encouragement, and anyone who does need it isn’t going to have their life changed by a book. The whole thing is nothing but selling people validation.”

“I suspect no one involved in the creation of this book would dispute that,” he said, his smile a touch wry. “It was a mechanism to improve Branwen’s public perception, and did its job quite well. Of course, I will continue to supply you with more reading material. Have you any specific requests?”

“Oh!” She looked up from her shelf of music disks, smiling. “That reminds me, could I get a newspaper subscription?”

The Archpope did not betray any emotional reaction, not by so much as a blink. “Newspaper?”

“Or several of them, ideally,” she went on, frowning at the disks. “Why are these out of order… Oh, that’s right, I re-shelved in a hurry after…anyway.” Azradeh set about sorting her music collection, speaking in a distracted tone. “Newspapers are mentioned in more recent books; it sounds like a great way for me to get up to speed on the modern world. Oh! Even better, what about some magazines? The books are great, but I like the idea of something more, how to put it… Ephemeral? Connected to the current moment in time. It sounds from what I read like magazines aren’t very well respected in literary circles. That sounds ideal.”

“That should be quite easy,” Justinian replied, smiling again. “Yes, I will have a selection brought for you immediately. Magazines are usually quite focused in their subject matter; you can pick those which most interest you and I will have them delivered regularly.”

“That’s fantastic, thanks!” Azradeh said brightly, giving him a smile as she slipped the last disk back into its place.

The conversation continued as usual and she showed no further reaction to betray the victory she had just won; revealing that she was even aware of a victory would have likely undone her efforts.

Azradeh might not have memories, but she still had instincts, and every one of them had screamed at her from the beginning that Archpope Justinian could not be trusted—and that further, revealing that she sensed this would place her in danger. This, finally, was hard confirmation. That his response to the idea of her receiving newspapers was anything other than the prompt “yes, of course” with which he had answered all her requests for entertainment and education showed he was invested in controlling her understanding of the world outside. And that meant both that she had zero chance of getting newspaper subscriptions, and that she must swiftly dispel any suspicion on his part that she sought to wriggle out from under his control.

Hence the magazines. They would reveal less about the current world, particularly a selection curated by Justinian himself, but they would reveal something, in little bits and pieces. And even better, he all but had to accede to the request in order to keep her distracted from the more dangerous subject of newspapers.

For now, Azradeh would continue slowly gather information and play along with whatever he was doing, certain only that his final goals were not what he was telling everyone. It might be that his true agenda was in her best interests after all, and if not, better that she be trusted and in a position to do something about it. Even if she hadn’t the recollection of her history, millennia of habit still cautioned her to keep her friends close and enemies closer, at least until she could tell the difference.

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16 – 32

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“Just who I was looking for, in fact.” Sister Magden stepped forward, grim-faced and blade first. “To begin with—”

“Back off!” Zafi barked, lunging in front of Rasha and bringing up her sword in a guard position. “You get one chance to back down, lady.”

Magden stopped, looking incredulous. Then she glanced at her own longsword and blinked as if surprised to find herself brandishing it. To Rasha’s surprise, the priestess lowered the weapon.

“Ah…excuse me, that wasn’t… Well, regardless, I need to speak with—”

“Back. Away.” Zafi pressed forward, raising her short sword again.

Despite having her own guard lowered, Magden spared the other woman’s blade a scant glance, looking only miffed and not the least bit worried. It was not lost on any of them present that she was an Eagle Style duelist facing a young graduate of Legion basic training who didn’t even have her shield.

“Regardless of anything you witnessed in the sanctuary yesterday, Private, you are speaking to a priestess of Avei. I suggest you lower your…”

Pounding feet from behind them made her eyes shift past Zafi’s shoulder. Rasha steeled herself, tucking her chilly fingers into her sleeves to touch the metal secured there, while Zafi looked rapidly back and forth in apparent panic, visibly coming to grips with the fact that she couldn’t cover Rasha from both directions.

The two white-robed Purists slowed to a stop rather than attacking, though; one was carrying one of those longswords, but the other appeared unarmed.

“Sister Magden!”

“Farzi, Janelle,” Magden replied, narrowing her eyes. “What’s all this, now?”

“I knew you’d come,” the woman with the sword said eagerly. “Don’t let them past! The others will catch up, and we can finish this.”

“Finish?” Magden’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “I hope that does not mean what it sounds like, sister.”

The two Purists both frowned. Rasha and Zafi shifted position subtly, catching the mood, directing more of their attention away from Magden, the apparent lesser threat.

“It’s just…it’s just a last detail,” the other Purist said, her voice firming up as she spoke. “One thing to be cleaned up.”

Magden’s eyes cut to Rasha and then back to her fellow priestesses. Incredible as it seemed, her expression was growing more furious by the second.

“Oh, yes? A little detail, to be cleaned up. With your sword, in some dark alley, while the detail is running away from you. Forgive me, sisters, I think there’s some confusion here. Whose priestess do you claim to be now? Because when we last spoke, you served the goddess of justice.”

“Well, blow me down,” Zafi mumbled, catching Rasha’s eye sidelong. “Is one of ‘em actually gonna be reasonable?”

Her voice had been low, and it was probably fortunate that none of the Avenists responded to the comment, or appeared to notice.

“I thought you were with us, Sister Magden,” the Purist with the sword said, having the effrontery to sound hurt. “If you’re not— What are you even doing here?”

“I was just asking myself that,” Magden snapped. “Now it seems the goddess directed me here. I am doing as a priestess of Avei should. What are you doing here?”

“Ambushing a civilian with intent to abduct or assault,” Rasha said with a pleasant smile. “They also deliberately deceived Imperial police with criminal intent. Would you like to know the established penalty for all of that? We are taught such details in my faith. Of course, it would likely be lesser for you. Magistrates are usually lenient with Avenists, especially clerics.”

All three priestesses turned baleful looks on her, and Zafi added an incredulous one. Rasha kept her hands hanging at her sides, clinging to her serene bearing as Glory had trained her. Folding her hands demurely at her waist would have better heightened the effect, but this way she could keep her concealed knives ready to deploy.

“Maybe,” Magden said in a dangerous tone, “you should shut up before you somehow make this even worse. In fact, that’s enough of all of this. You two, Private and…thief. We’re leaving.”

“They’re not leaving!” snarled the sword-carrying Purist, taking a compulsive step forward and raising her weapon.

“Are you forgetting who taught you to use that sword, Farzi?” Magden said contemptuously. “Lower it before you embarrass us both any further. If you can belatedly summon the sense to drop this nonsense, I will report it as a lapse in judgment rather than the premeditated abrogation of your vows it looks like.”

More shapes loomed up out of the darkness behind them, these approaching at a less breakneck pace, but the three additional ex-Purists who now stepped forward arrived in time to hear Magden’s last statement. All five were now glaring—at her, rather than Rasha for a change. Two of the new arrivals had swords; the third carried a wand.

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” the woman who by default had to be Sister Janelle hissed. “You’re— You of all people, Magden! You cannot possibly side with this…this creature over your own Sisters!”

“The creature in question hasn’t committed any crime, or harmed anyone,” Magden shot back, “and even if he—sh—even if that were true, nothing justifies Sisters of Avei murdering people in alleys! What are you all even thinking?! Just being here… Avei commanded our order to disperse! Avei! The Goddess herself!”

That seemed to bring them pause, but only for a moment.

“Gods are…difficult creatures,” said one of the new arrivals, pushing to the front of their group with her sword still held at her side. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, sister, given your special fields of study, but you know I am a student of theology. It’s a known fact that the commands of deities can be influenced by the way they are invoked. We can’t consider it definitive when Trissiny Avelea called down judgment while we know her sympathies were already tainted by…this one.”

She sneered overtly at Rasha, who didn’t spare her a glance, being focused on the one with the wand.

“Is that a fact,” Magden said in deadly quiet.

Golden light blossomed in the alley.

Everyone present shied back and shaded their eyes for the seconds it took them to adjust, Zafi and a few of the Purists with hisses of displeasure. Sister Magden had lit up with a golden halo of pure divine light as she channeled energy actively without yet directing it. Pushing forward between Rasha and Zafi, utterly ignoring any threat they might have presented her, the priestess planted herself between them and her own former comrades.

The second she was clear, the light around her hardened into a golden sphere.

“I stand with Avei,” Magden’s voice rang through the cold alleyway. “I serve Avei, and an oath of service is not suspended when I am ordered to do something I happen not to like! I’m confident I remain in the goddess’s good graces, sisters. It’s far simpler to obey her commands than to rationalize why I shouldn’t have to. But if your faith is wavering, don’t take my word for it! You can call judgment down on yourselves, you know.”

The five of them shuffled backward. Magden gave them no quarter, taking a step to maintain the distance.

“Well?” she barked. “I note none of you have called on the goddess’s light. Why? Is there some reason you fear to draw her attention? Are you perhaps doing something right this minute you know to be wrong?”

The woman in the lead drew a deep breath and let it out in a puff of mist, her expression hardening, and raised her sword.

“I don’t want it to come to this, Magden,” she said coldly, “but anyone not with us is against us.”

Magden’s sword flashed in a horizontal arc that impacted hers with a furious clash, and the other woman was sent stumbling against one of the alley’s walls by the force. Magden, in addition to her mastery of the sword, had clearly trained in the knack of modulating a divine shield to let her attack through it while blocking outside forces.

“Avei is against you,” she stated. “I didn’t want it to come to this either, sisters, but if this is where you must plant your flag, I like my chances.”

The woman in the lead quickly recovered her feet, and the two others with swords hesitated, visibly recalculating their odds against their order’s finest swordswoman in a cramped alley, but Rasha was still not watching them. Most of what she knew of divine shields came from correspondence with Trissiny, according to whom a paladin’s barrier could stand up to a lot, but an average cleric’s shield would rapidly decay if subjected to point blank wandfire. So, when the Purist with the wand took aim at Magden, Rasha flung out her own arm.

It wasn’t one of her better throws; her fingers were half-numb from being bare in the cold. The throwing knife struck the woman in the upper chest where it wouldn’t do much damage, but at least the blow succeeded in making her stagger back with a shriek. Lightning flashed deafeningly in the confined space, punching a crater in one wall a few feet above their heads and showering them all with fragments of brick.

For doubtless the first and likely the last time, Rasha, Zafi, and Magden all had the same thought. All three turned and dashed away up the alley, the two of them not needing Magden’s shouted order to flee. Rasha saved her breath for running, but privately had to wonder whether Magden was uncertain of their chances against five of them or was just reluctant to take a blade to women she likely still thought of as friends.

Unfortunately, she also seemed to presume herself to be in charge, and pushing her way up the alley behind them surrounded by a bubble of hard light gave her more authority than she perhaps deserved.

“Take this right!” she ordered as a gap in the wall loomed up.

“No,” Zafi shouted back, “keeping left will lead us to—”

“Do as you are told, Private!” In a frustratingly impressive display of Lightworking skill, she dropped the shield to dart forward and to their left, swelling it again to push both of them into her chosen alley.

Rasha hissed in wordless displeasure, but didn’t try to fight, as that would only let their pursuers catch up. She was inclined to chalk this up to Magden’s naive arrogance and presumption that she was automatically in command. A crafty enemy might have used this whole incident to earn trust in order to get them alone for an assassination, but by Rasha’s reading the woman didn’t have that kind of subtlety in her. So far, the extent of Purist cleverness seemed to be setting up ambushes that anyone could have warned them were sure to backfire. Hell, their best case scenario if they succeeded in what they were trying to do here was Trissiny hunting them all down like stray dogs.

Magden immediately revealed the reason for her insistence by kicking over the stack of crates lurking in the mouth of this side alley, forming an impromptu obstruction that would definitely not inhibit their foes enough to have been worth this detour, and Rasha privately decided that next time she was going to follow her own damn path if it meant she had to stab the woman. Incompetent help was basically the same as another enemy.

“This is insanity,” Magden snarled at no one in particular as they pounded down this new back alley in the wrong direction. “What are they thinking? Avei spoke to us! The Goddess herself! I didn’t like it either, but nobody needs to like it. She’s the Goddess! The subject is closed!”

“It’s pretty normal, actually,” Rasha puffed, annoyed that Magden was less out of breath with this exertion than she was. The priestess’s legs were a lot longer; Rasha had to take more steps faster to keep up. “If you conclusively debunk something somebody really wants to believe, they’re not likely to change their minds. Most will get mad and dig their heels in, start massaging reality until it looks more like they want it to. Honestly, the fact you actually did what Avei said shows unusual character.”

“I do not need validation from you,” Magden spat, giving her a bitter scowl.

“Okay, maybe not too much character,” Rasha allowed.

“If you’re not with them, why are you looking for Rasha?” Zafi demanded.

“I need to speak with General Avelea,” Magden grated. “And it turns out a Sister of Avei like myself has less direct access to her than some Eserite…person.”

“Then how’d you know to look for me here?” Rasha exclaimed.

“A few minutes ago I met a scruffy man wearing half a tuxedo who said you’d be down these alleys. I assumed he was sending me into some manner of ambush, but I was in a mood to vivisect a few muggers anyway, so here we are. The Goddess works mysteriously at times.”

“I’m not sure that’s the deity you’re working with right now,” Zafi muttered.

Then the three of them had to skid to a stop, Rasha nearly losing her balance on a patch of ice until Zafi caught her. The alley had abruptly opened up into a kind of courtyard surrounded on all sides by four-story structures, each with a rear loading door facing the cul de sac. There was, or at least had once been, another alley leading out of it in the opposite direction, but someone had built a ten-foot-tall wooden slat fence across it at some point. That looked dubiously climbable, at best, and definitely too tall to jump.

“Oh, good,” Zafi exclaimed. “I’m just so glad we went this way instead of staying left! Just think, we could be back on a main street with police now instead of trapped like rats, and wouldn’t that be awful.”

“Young woman,” Magden shot back, “if you cannot find something more—”

“Shut up!” Rasha barked at both of them, already heading to her left. “Try these doors, we only need one unlocked!”

None were unlocked, of course. Most didn’t even have handles on this side.

Zafi began pounding on one with her fist, loudly demanding it to be opened, while Rasha swiftly crossed to the only door with a visible keyhole and knelt, already extracting her lockpicks from their hidden pocket. All the other doors were clearly meant to be openable only from the inside. She set to work, both annoyed about what the filthy floor of this alley was now doing to the hem of her dress and grateful the lock was an old-fashioned one any idiot could have picked. All she needed was a minute…

And naturally, that was also a forlorn hope. The angry Purists pounded into the alley—now there were six of them—and immediately fanned out in the open space, raising weapons. Magden and Zafi pivoted and brought up their own blades in readiness, and Rasha wasted precious seconds pausing to reach for her remaining throwing knives before deciding that getting this door open was a better use of her abilities.

The woman who’d argued with Magden was still in the lead and now opened her mouth to deliver another no doubt riveting spiel, but then gasped, raising her eyes to the top of the wooden fence.

Their only warning was a clatter of bodies rapidly clambering up something stacked against it—of course, there’d be a convenient path up the other side—and then yet another white-robed priestess of Avei vaulted over the top, this one a Westerner with a multitude of narrow braids flying about her head.

She hit the floor in a roll and charged forward. Zafi pivoted to slash at her, but the priestess flowed under the relatively clumsy swing as if she were made of water and kept going. Magden turned, sword upraised, but the new priestess did not join the others in attacking her.

On the contrary. Before they could react, the woman ducked under the Purist leader’s stab and simultaneously ripped the sword out of her hands while dropping the woman with a knife-handed jab to the throat. She moved like no one Rasha had ever seen in a fight, flinging the confiscated sword almost contemptuously and yet nailing another Purist on the skull with its heavy pommel while turning to barehandedly disable a third.

With a roar, another woman in a white robe under a more mundane winter coat hit the ground from the fence and charged forward. She moved with much less grace, slamming fist-first into the only Purist who didn’t have a weapon and sending her reeling backward.

A beam of clean white light flashed silently through the air, piercing the hand of the woman who had been taking aim with her lightning wand, which she dropped with another shriek of pain; despite being the most dangerously armed member of her group, she was not having good luck today. Turning to look in the direction the shot had come from, Rasha could only gape in surprise.

“Joe!”

“Hey, Rasha!” Joseph Jenkins said cheerfully, hopping down from atop the fence while another young woman with a Legion short sword bounded over it right after him. “Sorry to leave it so close. Seems we’re cursed with dramatic timing.”

“This behavior is utterly contemptible,” stated the dark-skinned woman who had just taken down four fellow priestesses with her bare hands in a few seconds. Two were clearly unconscious and the rest had been disarmed; all who could still walk were frantically backing away now. “I urge you to submit to citizen’s arrest, sisters. Penance begins a path to redemption.”

“Fuck that, let’s beat ‘em up for a while longer,” suggested the other new priestess, grinning and raising both her fists. “Asskicking is good for—”

“Heel, Shay,” ordered the teenage girl who incongruously seemed to be in charge of this lot. “That’s more than enough carnage. Bandi, is that one going to die?”

“Possibly,” the martial artist allowed, dispassionately studying the fallen Purist who was struggling to breathe around a damaged windpipe. “That would be unfortunate; permission to render healing?”

“Please do. Let’s not have any corpses here.”

“Finally, a voice of reason!”

“Oh, what the hell now,” Zafi demanded as the retreating Purists flocked away from the alley mouth, leaving one of their number sprawled insensate on the ground and another clutching her neck while Bandi knelt beside her, applying golden light to the injury from her hands.

Of all things, two Huntsmen of Shaath entered the courtyard from behind them.

“Unbelievable,” Magden hissed, raising her sword again.

“Now, now, Sister, let’s have peace,” the Huntsman in the lead said in the same smooth tone with which he had already interrupted them. “I think all of this has gotten more than sufficiently out of hand, don’t you? I propose everyone take a moment to breathe and find some calm. Brother Arlund, would you kindly make sure the fallen Sister here is all right?”

“Don’t you touch her!” one of the other Purists squawked while the second Huntsman strode forward to bend over their unconscious comrade.

“I assure you Arlund would never handle a woman, or anyone, with anything less than the utmost respect,” the more loquacious Huntsman said in a soothing tone.

He actually stood out, to the eyes of anyone familiar with Huntsmen of Shaath. The man was neatly groomed, his winter tunic boasted subtle embroidery in the elven style, his long hair was tied back in a tight tail and his beard gathered into a chest-length braid, and even his traditional bearskin cloak appeared to have been brushed. He also spoke with a smooth, cultured intonation at odds with the (mostly accurate) popular conception of Shaathists as scruffy outdoorsmen.

Unlike Arlund, who looked up from the fallen woman with a much more characteristic grunt. “She breathes. Took a knot to the temple. Head injuries need quick treatment, but mostly likely she’ll be fine.”

“Now that is a relief,” his companion said with evident sincerity. “Sisters, perhaps it would be best if you withdrew your friend from the line of fire, as it were? That is, if these good people will kindly stand down,” he added with a courteous bow toward Magden.

“Whaddaya think, Casey?” Joe asked. He had not put away his wand, but was currently aiming it at the ground.

“I think they’re beyond the point of any funny business,” Casey said, watching the Shaathists warily as Arlund stepped back and the Purists began to edge forward. “There’s absolutely no justification for denying someone healing. Speaking of, Bandi, how is she?”

“Serviceable,” Bandi reported, also retreating from the oncoming Purists and Shaathists while the woman she’d been treating now backed away. “She is in no danger, though I imagine that is still uncomfortable.”

To judge by the way the priestess continued to clutch her neck while glaring daggers at Bandi, she was correct.

“Good,” Casey said curtly. “Please be more careful in the future, the last thing I need is you killing someone by accident. Now, then, I don’t know what business Huntsmen have in this, but with all due respect, you need to back off. We’re taking these women to the Imperial authorities.”

“I wonder if that is the best use of everyone’s time?” the more talkative Huntsman asked with a calm smile, while Arlund lurked behind his shoulder, glaring at them. “Here we stand amid the ruins of multiple grievous errors in judgment. Does it not seem to you that it’s best we all step back and allow one another to depart in peace?”

“Yeah, that’s not on the table,” Casey stated. “Thanks for your help, but we’ve got it from here.” Magden nodded in agreement.

“Ah, forgive me, I have failed to express myself clearly,” he said, his smile not diminishing. “We in Shaath’s service are men of action, not of words.”

Everyone’s eyes shifted, and he half-turned to follow their gaze. Then his smile widened and he turned back to Casey while three more longbow-wielding Huntsmen paced silently out of the alley behind them.

“No one is taking anyone into custody.”

This unusual Huntsman might be polite, even suave, but he was definitely not obsequious. He held Casey’s gaze, clearly having pinned her as the person in charge despite Magden’s puffing up, and the two stared one another down in a mute contest of wills. Her expression was icily blank, while he managed to keep smiling even as his eyes silently offered the very violence from which he was courteously urging that they all abstain.

“Are you certain,” Casey asked at last, in the same tone of deadly quiet, “you want to embrace the consequences of your actions here, Huntsman?”

“That is tomorrow’s hunt, miss,” he replied politely, inclining his head. “Here and now? Surely it is best that we all refrain from exacerbating this…misunderstanding. It seems to me we have been lucky there has been no more serious injury, yet. Just a little more aggression from anyone present would imperil that clean record.”

“This one sure does talk fancy,” Shay observed. “They aren’t breeding Shaathists like they used to, I guess.”

“The wolves of Shaath hunt with Ingvar, now,” Joe drawled, twirling his wand. “All that’s left under Veisroi are the tame dogs.”

“Joe,” Casey growled as four of the Huntsmen present turned to him with bared teeth, one raising his bow.

“I should hope,” the leader said, more loudly but still calmly, “that I can count on the men of Shaath to show more character than to rise to childish insults. Someone here must be the adult, after all. Now then, I believe it’s past time we separated these groups of people who so clearly do not enjoy sharing space. Ladies, after you.”

He turned to the Purists, bowing respectfully and gesturing toward the alley mouth, which his followers had just shifted aside from.

“Are we lettin’ ‘em go?” Shay demanded, turning to Casey.

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Casey replied, still staring at the smooth-talking Huntsman. “If this becomes a real fight… No matter who wins, everyone loses.”

He smiled and favored her with a deep nod. She just narrowed her eyes, and kept staring until the Huntsmen and Purists had all filed off up the alley. He was the last to go, giving her a final smile over his shoulder.

At last, Casey heaved a sigh. “Fuck, that was closer than I like ‘em. Rasha, are you okay?”

“Well, my date was interrupted,” Rasha said, indulging in a bit of petulance now that the danger seemed past, “but otherwise, this has been no worse than some decent exercise.” Zafi chuckled, stepping over to take her hand. “Excuse me… Casey, was it? This is embarrassing; I’m certain I know you from somewhere, but I can’t recall exactly.”

“My squad threw you in jail once,” Casey said with a wry smile.

“Oh, that’s right!”

“Does that really narrow it down?” Magden asked acerbically.

“Maybe not, but then we made her muck out a stable. Tends to leave an impression. Who’s this, then?”

“This is Sister Magden,” Rasha introduced her. “A former big name among the Purists who now…I think…ison our side?”

“I am on Avei’s side,” Magden corrected with barely-repressed dislike. “Even if that puts me in…strange company.”

“Strange company ‘bout sums it up, no offense,” Joe commented.

“Okay, that’s a sufficient amount of banter,” Casey stated. “This looks like it’s gonna need to be a long-ish conversation. Let’s have it someplace less frigid, shall we?”

“Heh, that’s what she s—”

“Shut up and march, Shay!”

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16 – 28

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McGraw had spent by far the majority of his career in the wilderness and small towns of the Great Plains frontier, but not all; he had ranged widely enough over the years to have been in more than a few urban safehouses. Enough, at least, to recognize one on sight. When you’d seen one, you’d seen them all, these empty but well-maintained residences kept by various powerful organizations against times when they needed to discreetly stash someone for a while.

They were so empty, despite being fully furnished. There was no personality or character, just bland arrangements of styleless furniture and only the most neutral and inoffensive of decoration, when there was any at all. Interestingly, he had always recognized the home of Bishop Darling as another such place. That had been only the first hint that “Bishop Darling” was a role being acted rather than a real person, McGraw was just as glad to have parted ways from the man on amicable terms before he had to find out what was underneath that mask. The Darling residence had even less personality than this place, which at least identified its owners by having golden eagle sigils or casually displayed copies of the Aveniad or Avenist librams in every room. The front parlor even had a full shrine to Avei; a small and plain one, but still. Avenists might occasionally mutter “war is deception” or some such aphorism but as a rule they didn’t care for sneaking around or hiding their intentions.

Following his careful exploration of the mid-sized middle-class townhouse (only three bedrooms, but none of the team were overly particular about their living conditions), he returned now to that front room, his first view down the hallway revealing Joe leaning against the wall and watching something.

“Serviceable place,” McGraw observed, approaching. “Cozy, but not—”

He broke off when Joe raised one finger to his lips, crossing the last few feet in silence to peek into the room.

Everyone else was here, Shay lounging in the room’s most comfortable chair and Casey also leaning against the wall, next to the door in a position which made her invisible to someone approaching it. McGraw had noted her tendency to do that and similar things; someone had taught this girl stealthy habits. They were all watching the fifth member of the group, who appeared to be doing particularly unconventional witchcraft in front of the little shrine to Avei.

Like most who’d gravitated or been assigned to the First Legion, their two actual priestesses of Avei did not exactly fit in with the rest of the Sisterhood. Shay Iraa liked beer and loud, off-key singing, and thus spent a lot of her free time in taverns frequently getting into brawls, which had only been tolerated because she had extricated an astonishing number of battered women from their situations. Even so, the Sisterhood was just as happy to have her off training in Viridill rather than having to be retrieved from jail every other week. All in all she resembled the popular stereotype of an Eserite, and was always ready to demonstrate that upside the head of anyone unwise enough to point it out.

Bandi Avelea, on the other hand, was easy to mistake for an Omnist, given her stereotypically serene bearing and devotion to the martial arts, as well as her emphasis on meditative and spiritual disciplines which were held in less esteem in the pragmatic Sisterhood. Indeed, upon first seeing her demonstrate her fighting style during a First Legion training session, McGraw (and others present) had mistaken it for a Sun Style sequence until she began serenely explaining and demonstrating on a luckless target dummy all the ways in which she could kill a person with one unarmed hand.

Now, Sister Bandi stood in a defined spell circle consisting only of seven crystals arranged around her, which McGraw only knew was fae in nature because of the unpleasant prickling it caused against all the arcane magic he had stored in his own aura. There was a limit to how much fae magic a priestess could do, if only because most fairy spirits objected to being in the presence of so much divine energy. But by settling for strictly low-tier spells and getting a little creative, one could always pick up some extra versatility from outside one’s own preferred skill; he’d done so himself.

What she was doing more resembled a very slow dance, or perhaps a martial arts sequence performed at half speed. The priestess, eyes closed, moved evenly through a fluid series of motions with her arms and legs, flowing in a manner that almost resembled water held within the tube delineated by her spell circle.

Casey leaned over to him and murmured, “She’s checking if we can pick up any traces magically. I figured it’s worth a try. Hate to just sit on our hands while we wait for General Avelea and Nandi to come back with more orders.”

McGraw nodded once, understanding. Trissiny was engaged in some high-level political maneuvering with the aid of her fellow paladins and had to return to their current base in Madouris to check up on the progress of that, while Shahai was at the Temple of Avei meeting with the High Commander. She, at least, would be back with orders by that evening, but Trissiny had been clear that there were numerous unexpected events in the air and she might not be able to return that day.

He leaned over toward Casey in turn, lowering his head and his voice to mumble in a low tone even Joe shouldn’t have been able to pick up. “I’ll get ya a rolled-up newspaper t’whack me with if y’want, boss lady, but meantime, a word of advice.”

Her eyes flicked up to his face, expression neutral, as he continued.

“Best way to impress folks like General Avelea is by not tryin’ to impress them. People of action only get irritated if the spot you maneuvering for favor.”

The sergeant’s cheeks darkened slightly and he saw her eyes narrow in displeasure, just as expected.

But then Casey turned her head to resume watching Bandi’s odd ritual, her expression of annoyance turning to one of contemplation. She didn’t even try to deny it; by that point, no one in the First Legion didn’t know Casey Elwick was an ardent fan of Trissiny Avelea and undoubtedly over the moon at having the chance to work directly under her.

“Okay, thanks for the tip,” she said softly, “but I don’t know what else to do, here. Irrespective of impressing anybody, we accomplish nothing by loafing around waiting for orders. It’s not like this is a regular Legion. If we can’t take some initiative toward the mission, what’s the point of us? If you’ve got a better idea for how to spend our time, Elias, I’m open to it.”

He quite liked Casey; for someone so young (he’d eat his hat if she was eighteen) she had a good head on her shoulders, and not only the habit of thinking carefully before acting but the solemn aspect of someone who had learned her restraint and strategy through suffering. She reminded him a lot of Joe, in that respect.

“When you put it that way, it does seem like the most solid move in our position,” McGraw agreed, tipping his hat. “My apologies, Sarge. Y’get to be my age and it’s easy to forget y’ain’t the only person in the room who knows what he’s doin’.”

She gave him a sidelong smile at that, but further conversation was cut off by the end of Sister Bandi’s ritual.

She straightened up, first raising her arms out to both sides and then bringing them up, overhead, and down to fold her hands at her waist, and finally opened her eyes. At that signal, all seven of the crystals around her tipped over in unison.

“It is well you insisted on this measure, Sergeant,” she said seriously.

“You got a lead?” Casey asked, straightening up.

“I did warn you that my very basic oracular craft is unlikely to pick up on trails of subtle maneuvering, and indeed I did not. But focusing upon the Purists, I was touched by spirits their intentions have moved. Vengeance, and violence. They are about to strike.”

At that, Joe also straightened up.

“At who?” Casey demanded.

Sister Bandi shook her head, the beads in her multitude of thin black braids clattering softly. “While the spirit is still upon me, I can lead us toward the place. But it is like a hound tracking a scent. I cannot see where it will end, or what will meet us there.”

“If those fools go after Trissiny, they’re toast,” Joe said. “They can’t be dumb enough not to know that…”

“Oh, I dunno,” Shay disagreed, “they are pretty damn dumb.”

“Trissiny’s Eserite friends,” Casey said. “Rasha, the Sakhavenids, and…what’s her name, the acrobat.”

Shay finally joined the others in bolting upright. “Shit. Disgraced or not, if priestesses of Avei stick swords into Guild apprentices it’ll be war in the streets by sunset.”

“Okay, we’ve gotta move,” Casey said, glancing rapidly back and forth across the group, all of whom were staring expectantly at her for orders. “But… We can’t just…”

She faltered, and McGraw gave her an encouraging nod. He could tell what needed to be done, and he would tell her if she didn’t work it out herself. But he waited, at least for a moment. Casey was smart enough and she’d grow faster as a leader and tactician by doing these things for herself. He knew his role in this party; it was the wise old wizard’s job to support the scrappy young heroes, not take over. Showing some faith in the young sergeant was worth a delay of a few minutes.

In fact, it only took a few seconds before her eyes fixed on him and widened slightly in inspiration. “Elias! Can I borrow one of those portal runes of yours?”

“What’s mine is yours, boss lady,” he agreed, already fishing one out of his pocket to hand over. “Though you do realize it won’t let you teleport without a push from yours truly.”

“No, but you can find it, right? And teleport to it?”

“Ah,” he said, nodding and deliberately clearing his expression as if catching onto her plan. It was the best strategy, which was why he’d immediately thought of it, but it cost nothing to encourage her. “You’re right, that I can.”

“Defending this position isn’t important in and of itself,” Casey said to the others, “but this is where the General and the Bishop expect to find us, so we can’t just disappear from here. Elias, I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave you behind for now. Wait here in case one or both of them returns; the rest of us will go try to intercept…whatever’s about to happen. You’ll be able to bring either of them right to us, if that’s what she orders. If we’re in deep trouble and need backup, I’ll destroy the rune. Will you be able to sense that?”

“With a little bit o’ concentration, I can manage that,” he agreed, nodding again. “Shouldn’t be too hard to ‘port right to its last position, then.”

“Good. If that happens, be ready for maximum trouble. Our goal here is to prevent a big messy fight from breaking out; if I have to call in our wizard for firepower, situation’s FUBAR.”

“Understood, Sarge.”

“Sorry for ditching you,” she said again. “It’s the best I can think of. All right, everybody, move out. Bandi, lead the way.”


The formal announcement would come the next day; Rouvad, like Trissiny, wanted to move fast and begin working before Justinian or anyone else had time to prepare political countermeasures. But before embarking on her new set of duties, the High Commander had wanted Nandi’s impressions of the project her previous squad had been working on and had to abandon upon the First Legion’s formation. Locke had, with Billie Fallowstone’s help, quietly continued her weapons research in Viridill, but now it seemed her erstwhile research partner had finalized her original project.

And so, Nandi found herself in Sister Eivery’s basement workshop with the gnomish priestess and the High Commander, holding and studying what had apparently been a regulation Silver Legion lance before it had been heavily modified.

“Well?” Eivery prompted, grinning up at them. “How’s it look?”

“Expensive,” Rouvad said flatly, taking the spear from Nandi. “Are the glowing runes and this… Is this shaft coated in lacquer? Eivery, is this absolutely necessary?”

“Arguably not,” the gnome admitted. “It put ‘em on the demonstration model, there, so you can see it’s doable. There’s a reason most battlestaves don’t ‘ave that, it adds to both the cost of manufacture an’ the weight. But the point is that it protects the runic engravings, see? Yer average battlestaff ain’t gonna see use as an actual staff, whereas the whole point o’ these, so I was given ta understand, is for ‘em to double as firearms and spears. Thus, they’re gonna be seein’ a lot o’ physical contact.”

“It can probably be dispensed with,” Nandi said. “If properly used, a lance’s head will see physical impact a lot more than the rest of it. Eivery’s right, though, the proof of concept is valuable.”

“Darn tootin’,” Sister Eivery agreed.

“Agreed,” Rouvad rumbled. “All right, I understand the clicker mechanism and I think I can intuit the reason for this clunky device at the base of the spearhead. What I note is that these runic engravings are a lot more extensive than on any battlestaff I’ve ever seen. Can you explain why?”

“Aye, give it ‘ere,” the priestess said imperiously, ignoring the sardonic expression with which the High Commander handed the modified lance back to her. “It’s the enhanced engravings that make it all work, see? I actually didn’t ‘ave the inspiration meself, but stumbled across th’basic method from the works of an old Hand of Salyrene, Andronimus the Spellblade.”

“Curious,” said Nandi. “If this solution was found as far back as Andronimus’s time, I wonder why no one has adapted it already? Magnan, at the very least, would have pounced on such an innovation, and he certainly had access to Salyrite records.”

“Aye, but it wasn’t in those records,” Eivery replied, grinning madly. “Andronimus ‘ad quite the stick up ‘is arse about people stealin’ ‘is works an’ never wrote down ‘is methods. This one was noted in the last place anybody’d think ta look, cos nobody studyin’ magic reads Tellwyrn’s published journals. They’re mostly a list o’ complaints about legendary figures, good fer comic relief an’ a touch o’ historical detail. But! In between gripin’ about how Andronimus snored an’ ate ‘orrible stinky cheeses and ‘ad terrible taste in music, she mentioned a sword he made that cast lightnin’ from the tip an’ how clever the method was. See, metal’s no good fer electrical enchantments on account of ‘ow conductive it is, so Andronimus placed the enchantment on the handle, which caused the lightnin’ bolt to form a few inches beyond the tip o’ the blade!”

“Hm,” Nandi murmured. “Modern firearms do that anyway, albeit just beyond the tip. Even a wooden shaft would be destroyed if you tried to channel that much electricity physically through it.”

“An’ there’s been no reason to modify that,” Eivery agreed, raising the lance to firing position and grasping the clicker, “cos nobody’s considered puttin’ blades on a firearm till that crazy elf came along. Modern armies fight at a distance. And so, behold!”

The crack of the weapon was functionally indistinguishable from that of a conventional battlestaff. Its lightning bolt charred and half-destroyed Eivery’s unshielded target dummy, with no backward arcing along the shaft or spearhead.

“And that heavy bit at the base of the spearhead,” Nandi said, “that has a grounding charm to prevent accidents?”

“Just so! Also, talkin’ of accidents, I discovered quite coincidentally that if ye do this, make the bolt form more’n a foot forward o’ the end o’ the staff, ye gain a lot of accuracy! These aren’t as precise as beam weapons, obviously, but they won’t arc nearly as much as an ordinary staff.”

“So,” Rouvad said, muted excitement in her voice, “you could increase that even further?”

“Sorry, Commander.” Eivery shook her head, raising the staff to plant its butt on the floor; in that position, it towered over her. “This is as far as I’ve been able to extend it. That’s why its engravings are so long. There’s just no room fer more.”

“But you said the original inspiration was a sword. On the handle! That was a much shorter surface and a much longer distance, if it sparked beyond the tip of the blade.”

“Aye, an’ I also said it was Hand of Salyrene that made it! Whaddaye want from me?”

Rouvad turned back to Nandi. “So you see where we are. Eivery has already refined Locke’s armor enchantments for efficiency; the updated versions will stand up to staff fire and augment soldiers’ abilities in several important respects. That makes an inherently more expensive kit than any Imperial trooper’s, but that’s the price to be paid for better-equipped soldiers. With the finished firing lance, we only have to begin training our soldiers with them.”

“First we ‘ave to make this stuff,” Eivery objected. “I don’t mind workin’ me fingers down, Commander, but I’m one gnome. If ye want me to equip a Legion, gimme ten years.”

“Yes, production is an issue,” Nandi agreed. “The Sisterhood does have a contract with Reviani Firearms, does it not? I know we don’t order many energy weapons, but for just that reason, they would likely appreciate the business.”

“I am…reluctant to give these specifications to an established firearms company,” Rouvad said, frowning. “We will have the element of surprise upon the first battlefield deployment of this equipment. The more people who know of it…”

“Well, buildin’ an in-house enchanter corps’ll take almost as long,” said Eivery.

“Our paladin has contacts with Falconer Industries,” Nandi commented. “They don’t make any weapons at the moment, but have the manufacturing capacity to produce almost anything. And if FI can’t do it, Geoffrey Falconer undoubtedly knows who can, and could arrange an introduction.”

“That’s a good idea,” Rouvad replied. “We’ll both be in close contact with Trissiny over the next few days anyway. I will raise it with her at the next opportunity. In the meantime, Eivery, please put together as many kits of the new gear as you can without exhausting yourself. I’ll assign you whatever enchanters we have who can be trusted. Ideally, I’d like to send a few to Locke’s outpost and be able to outfit one squad from the Third’s Cohort One to begin training.” She paused, then smiled. “I’m glad to have you back here, Nandi. I’ve missed your insight.”

“Aye, well, if we’re done with all the huggin’ an’ kissin’,” Eivery huffed, “I didn’t get ta tell ye the really neat thing I discovered.”

“There’s more?” Nandi asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Aye, another ‘appy little accident, ye might say,” the gnome chuckled, already at work unscrewing the spearhead from its shaft. “A neat trick that works as a result o’ this specific model’s design. If ye just take off the bayonet, like so… ‘Ere we are.”

She bounded over to a low stack of bricks she’d erected in the middle of the workshop in the form of a wall that was shoulder-high on her. Grinning, the gnome pressed the head of the lance, minus its blade, against the wall aiming at the half-wrecked target dummy which was across the room on its other side.

“Wait,” Nandi objected, “don’t tell me… There’s no way that thing can fire through walls?”

With another perfectly ordinary thunderclap, a bolt of lightning flashed from a point a few inches beyond the wall and finished demolishing the target.

“Eh? Eh?” Eivery cooed, waggling her eyebrows at their expressions. “Ehhhhhh?”


It had already been a full day not long after noon, and so by the time Trissiny returned to Madouri Manor she found herself eagerly looking forward to some lunch and a cup of hot, strong tea, and not just to help wash away the winter chill. A steward informed her upon arrival at the Manor that Ravana was not present at the moment, which she had to admit was something of a relief. Trissiny had yet to decide exactly how she felt about the diminutive Duchess, but one thing was certain: Ravana Madouri demanded her full attention when she was present, for much the same reason she would have carefully watched a large spider if she found herself in a room with one.

Returning to the suite her classmates were inhabiting during their vacation, she was pleased to find Toby and Gabriel there waiting for her, in fact having a conversation just inside the door, rather than in the sitting area of the main hall itself.

“Trissiny!” Gabe said, grinning in welcome. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. How’d it go?”

“All according to plan,” she replied, smiling back, “though my business today was mostly just squaring away details. I had a couple of interesting conversations with dragons I’d like your opinions on, but that can wait. How’d your meetings go? Are we ready to move?”

The boys exchanged a look, and then a nod.

“I’m as certain of Gwenfaer’s support as I reasonably can be,” Gabriel replied, turning back to her. “She gave every indication of wholeheartedly supporting the plan. And… Before that, we had a little chat about trust. I’m convinced of her reasons for opposing Justinian, and I made a point that she’s going to have to start being generally less squirrelly about it, but if she can behave I am willing to extend a little trust. At least, enough to let her earn more.”

“Well, good. It’s kind of funny, though, you being the one to make demands like that of your cult leader. Usually that relationship goes the other way.”

“Yeah, well.” He shrugged. “I did not mention how I have valkyrie friends who can invisibly watch everything she does and a valkyrie scythe that Vidius explicitly wants used to cut the rot out of the cult. Seemed kind of redundant, y’know? She’s a sharp enough lady to have figured all that out already.”

“Good plan,” Trissiny agreed, nodding. “That’s Eserite practice, too, you know. If you’ve got an unspoken threat to hold over somebody, you only cheapen it by pointing it out.”

“Good to know,” he said wryly.

“Sounds about as straightforward as it went with the Dawn Council,” Toby reported. “I gained…some support, and I’m afraid I burned a few bridges in the process. But most importantly, the Bishop is on my side. I’m as certain as I reasonably can be that the cult will fall in line with the plan.”

“Good,” she said seriously. “I’m sorry if it got you in trouble with them, though, Toby.”

“Thanks,” he said with a soft smile, “but to be honest, the fault here is theirs, not yours or even mine. The Dawn Council’s entire method of dealing with everything is to bow to inevitability, after they’ve waited to be certain what it is. It was just a matter of making myself inevitable. They’ll bow. Some of them are not going to be happy about it, though. Future engagements with them may be… Well, not as good.”

“Man, it’d be nice if we could just convince everybody to do the sensible thing,” Gabriel complained. “Sometimes, though, you just gotta apply the stick instead of the carrot. If we can help with anything, Toby, we’ve got your back.”

“I appreciate it,” he said, smiling again. “But anyway! Before we move on to that, Trissiny, there’s something unexpected to deal with.”

“Well, of course there bloody is,” she said with a sigh. “I’m really starting to sympathize with Ravana. What this time?”

“It turns out,” Gabriel said, grinning, “that you have a visitor.”

“Me?”

“You,” Toby confirmed, already turning to head back toward the doors into the remainder of the suite.

She followed, alongside Gabriel, already frowning in thought. Who would be seeking her out here? Practically everybody she knew, she’d already talked with today. Herschel knew she was staying in this Manor over the winter break, but now that she thought about it, she hadn’t notified Ravana or her guards to let him in. One of her elvish relatives? Trissiny wouldn’t put it past Lanaera to be able to bully her way into a noble’s house, but she didn’t care for leaving her grove any more than any other Elder shaman did.

They only made it a few more paces before the mystery resolved itself, their guest emerging from a side parlor. She had no doubt heard the whole conversation; Trissiny’s visitor was, indeed, an elf. Just not any of the elves she would have expected.

Trissiny came to a stop, blinking in surprise. “Natchua?”

“Trissiny, good, you’re back,” the drow greeted her tersely. “I’m sorry to barge in on your vacation like this, especially when you’re obviously having a busy day, but I need your help.”

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16 – 26

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“I was going to say, I can point out the location on a map,” Trissiny commented, her breath misting on the air as she peered around at the snow-covered mountainside and the old temple complex just up ahead, “but I see you already know exactly where the First Legion is headquartered, for some reason.”

“I’m not just a pretty face, Trissiny,” Zanzayed said primly, adjusting the collar of his heavily embroidered robe.

“The Conclave has been careful to keep abreast of world events,” Ampophrenon added, inclining his head respectfully toward her. “It was formed in large part to overcome the broad tendency of our kind to fail at so doing, General. I apologize if this seems intrusive; we saw no indication that the First Legion’s headquarters were meant to be a secret.”

“It isn’t, don’t worry. I was just surprised,” she assured him. “I see you even picked us a prime landing spot! Far enough out to give them forewarning without making for an inconvenient winter hike. Very deft, Zanzayed, almost as precise as Professor Tellwyrn’s.”

Almost,” he huffed. “You see how she talks to me! Me, her own some-number-removed cousin, whom she has met exactly twice! No respect, this new generation.”

“Indeed,” Ampophrenon agreed mildly while they strode forward toward the complex, “I am impressed by how quickly she has picked up the art of handling you, Zanzayed. I have had the honor of working with many Hands of Avei, and hold them in the highest esteem, but it must be said that most have not been so…socially adroit.”

“Now, that’s something I don’t often get called,” Trissiny remarked.

The headquarters Rouvad had assigned to Locke and her upstart Legion was an old temple complex high in the weathered mountains of Viridill, which had been mostly abandoned due to sheer inconvenience, even among the various Avenist facilities perched in the highlands, like the Abbey itself. The sole access to this remote spot was a single steep, winding flight of weathered stone steps carved right into the mountains which made large-scale supply deliveries all but impossible, and would have been absolutely suicidal to climb currently, while covered with ice.

It was an impressive complex, built across four small peaks with deep ravines between them and connected by stone bridges, two of which had fallen at some point. Currently, the First Legion HQ looked somewhat eclectic, having clearly been quickly renovated; ancient granite temples had been hastily (but apparently carefully) repaired with patched walls of wood, brick, and metal, and the two broken bridges were spanned by similar constructions. All of the paths were cleared of snow, and there were even greenhouses and a number of smaller outbuildings of uncertain purpose appended to the existing structures, one of which was topped by an exhaust antenna along which occasional crackles of electricity arced.

Zanzayed had set them down on a cleared-off, round stone patio at the head of the treacherous stairs, and separated from the temple campus proper by an arched stone bridge which, to judge by its weathered state, was part of the original construction but still evidently sound. Beyond it was a half-ruined structure which had been a gatehouse once before the archway collapsed and was later cleared out of the path; of the original gate, there remained no trace. The half of the building which still possessed a roof now also had an improvised metal stovepipe emerging from an upper arrow loop and puffing out wood smoke. As the three of them crested the arch of the bridge, the gatehouse door opened and a very small figure emerged.

“Zounds,” the gnome exclaimed, waving eagerly. “General Avelea, what an honor! Please, come on in, make yourselves at home. And you brought dragons! It’s Lord Ampophrenon and Lord…Zanzayed, aye?”

“Our reputation precedes us,” Zanzayed preened.

“Gnomes are always well-educated,” Ampophrenon replied.

“Thank you,” Trissiny answered the gate guard, “Mr…?”

“I’m Bonkers, ma’am,” he said, grinning. “It’s me moniker, not me condition, never fear.”

“Nice to meet you,” Trissiny said with the merest hesitation, while Zanzayed snickered outright and Ampophrenon gave him a disapproving look. “I need to speak with Captain Locke immediately, if you would conduct us to her.”

“Ah…” He winced, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m not to leave me post, ma’am, no disrespect intended. Thing is, I’m alone on watch just now, as me partner already went to fetch the captain soon as you popped in. Reckoned you’d wanna talk with ‘er, an’ the other way ‘round, as well.”

“Good thinking, then,” she said, nodding. “Ah, and speak of the Dark Lady. That was quick.”

The door of the nearest temple structure, one occupying the same peak as the gatehouse, had opened while Bonkers was speaking, and three figures approached them rapidly, the first two gliding rapidly over the frosty stone paths (being elves) while the third picked her way more carefully along behind.

“I’m willing to bet ‘Dark Lady’ isn’t even the worst thing you’ve called me, though not usually to my face,” Principia called as she trotted up. “Trissiny, welcome! And Lord Ampophrenon, what an unexpected honor. What’d you bring him for?” she added, pointing accusingly at Zanzayed.

“Seriously?” he exclaimed. “I’ll have you know I am literally the only member of this party who has contributed materially to it so far!”

“He’s right, Locke,” Trissiny agreed, “and just because he’s family does not mean you get to insult visiting Conclave delegates while in uniform. Keep a civil tongue in that head.”

“Oh, so it’s only okay when you do it,” Zanzayed huffed at her.

She winked, unrepentant. “That is how rank works, yes.”

“You really belong in this family,” he informed her.

“Hey, now,” Trissiny exclaimed, “I don’t think that kind of language is called for.”

“Below the belt, Zanza,” Principia added reproachfully. “People do have feelings, you know.”

Zanzayed threw his arms up in the air and turned away in a dramatic sulk.

At Principia’s side, Nandi Shahai cleared her throat pointedly. “Perhaps we could conduct our visitors indoors and provide some refreshments?”

“Actually,” Trissiny said more seriously, “it’s good that you two came out in particular. I need to speak with both of you alone. But Lord Ampophrenon has expressed an interest in what you’re doing out here, and I for one would be very glad to hear his thoughts about the Legion. If our guests could have a tour of the facilities…?”

“Perfect!” Principia said brightly. “Iraa, you know the sights. Please show our guests around, and make sure you swing by the mess hall and fix Zanza up with some bacon.”

“Uhhh… I mean, sure, Captain,” the third woman with them replied, clearly nonplussed. Though she had the broad shoulders (and twice-broken nose) that tended to come from Legion service, her manner of addressing her commanding officer contradicted that impression.

“I don’t suppose that bacon comes wrapped around shrimp?” Zanzayed asked with almost childlike hope.

“Zanzayed, this is a military facility hundreds of miles inland,” Principia said patiently. “Why would we have shrimp?”

“Well, why have you got bacon, then? How ‘bout that, huh?”

“We are grateful to be accommodated, Captain Locke,” Ampophrenon interjected courteously. “We would not dream of asking any special treatment.”

“You’ll be in good hands,” Principia promised him. “Sister Shay Iraa here knows the place inside and out, and is delightfully plain-spoken, I think you’ll find.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” Iraa replied, deadpan. “Well, then! If you’ll come this way, uh…my lords? Let’s get you started at the bunker, grab something to nosh.”

“Now you’re talking my language!” Zanzayed said, following the priestess up the path toward the next bridge.”

“I am surprised you have room in a place like this to train in adventurer activities,” Ampophrenon added as the three headed off.

“Oh, this is just the topside, there’s old tunnel networks to all kinds of interesting places. We got caves, a nice clearing behind that peak over there, a patch of pine forest, the ravine floor under us… Most of ‘em show signs of being used for military training before we moved in.”

Trissiny turned back to the two elves as Iraa and the dragons vanished over the bridge’s arch. “So! I guess congratulations are in order, Captain Locke. You must be the most rapidly-promoted officer in centuries.”

“Not even in the top fifty, according to Nandi here,” Principia replied cheerfully. “Though apparently I am something of a record for an officer in peacetime.”

“War tends to create career opportunities in the most unfortunate way,” Shahai agreed solemnly. “The command post is over here, General.”

“So, I have to ask,” Trissiny added in a lower tone as they moved off, glancing over her shoulder. The gatehouse guard had already discreetly retreated to his post, shutting the door behind him against the winter chill. “Bonkers?”

“We have everyone vetted by our top fae and divine casters for hostile intentions,” Principia assured her. “Aside from that… These are adventurers, not soldiers, and a good few of ‘em are here at least partly because of the amnesty. I’ve made it policy not to pry into anything we don’t explicitly need to know.” She grinned at Trissiny. “This ain’t your grandma’s army, General.”


“Well, no, I’m clearly not happy about it,” Principia said, one short but thorough explanation later when the three of them were ensconced in her office with its late-model arcane heater. “I went to a lot of trouble to get Nandi into my squad in the first place, and she’s been invaluable in keeping this place shipshape, what with all the large personalities we’ve got here. But I’m also not an idiot, and… It’s the right call, Trissiny. I saw firsthand how she performed as Bishop, and it’s exactly the approach this situation needs. You are definitely gonna be missed around here,” she added directly to Shahai, “but I can clearly see the sense in it. The Sisterhood right now has more need of you there.”

“I wouldn’t presume to proclaim myself the best woman for any task,” Shahai said almost diffidently, “but given your general pattern of interactions with the High Commander, General, I consider the fact that you are both in agreement on this to be an adequate endorsement.”

“Also, you know,” Trissiny said dryly, “orders.”

“Of course,” Shahai replied with a wry smile. “I will go wherever Avei requires me, no questions asked. Your pardon; after five centuries of service I’m afraid I’ve become prone to speaking my mind.”

“Well, Rouvad and Locke both think you’re worth it, and I’m inclined to agree.”

“So, about the other thing,” Principia said more seriously, getting up from her seat and crossing to open the door, “I believe I know just the right backup for you. Hey, ELWICK!” she bellowed down the hall outside. “Get in here!”

“I had an uncomfortable realization yesterday when dealing with the Purists,” Trissiny admitted while Principia returned to her chair. “With you and the squad no longer in the Temple, I have no personal connections there, aside from Rouvad herself. Being able to pull rank is nice, but it’s also useful to have access to a view from lower on the chain of command. Fortunately, I managed to strike up an acquaintance with Azalea Hsing that I think will prove positive.”

“Oh, that’s an excellent choice,” Shahai agreed, nodding. “Sister Azalea is clever and far-sighted, and good at gathering Legionaries and novice Sisters under her wing.”

Casey Elwick appeared in the doorway, saluting. “You squawked, Capt— General Avelea!”

“Come in, Sergeant Elwick, and shut the door,” Principia ordered. “Congratulations are in order. I’m giving you field command of the First Legion’s first-ever active deployment. You’ll be operating directly under General Avelea, but mostly on your own, like we’ve trained.”

“Thank you,” Casey all but squeaked, then swallowed and controlled her voice. “I will not let you down, ma’am! What’s the mission?”

“The General will brief you fully when you’ve assembled your team,” Principia said, nodding at Trissiny before the latter could answer. “The short version: urban counterintelligence. Go gather up, let’s see… McGraw, Jenkins, Iraa, and Bandi Avelea.”

“Sister Shay is still escorting our other guests around the campus,” Nandi reminded her.

“Right, so find her last. You’ll be moving out with the General and Shahai in one hour, Sergeant, and you’ll need time to get everyone briefed before departure. Let’s make it sharp, the General’s time is valuable.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Casey barked, saluting again. “I’m on it!”

“Dismissed,” Principia said, and the young sergeant rushed out so rapidly she almost forgot to shut the door behind herself.

“I have to admit,” said Trissiny, “I’m a little surprised at how well this place is shaping up. It’s a strangely appropriate outgrowth of your little oddball squad. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had all turned to disaster. No offense.”

“None of us would’ve been surprised,” Principia said ruefully. “But the real test is coming; apparently you’ll get to see it firsthand. Oh, but speaking of!” She suddenly straightened up in her chair, grinning. “My squad had a secondary mission in Tiraas that I’ve quietly continued out here. While everybody’s getting rounded up and packed, General, you wanna see something cool?”


“A rifle?” Trissiny asked, turning the blocky device over in her hands. “What does that mean?”

“Refers to the rifled barrel,” Billie Fallowstone replied from the other end of her underground workshop, where she was affixing a strong shielding charm to a training dummy. “The long hollow bit there, it’s got spiraling grooves on the inside, to stabilize the projectile in flight. Can’t take credit for the notion, it was Locke’s idea!”

“I love taking credit,” Principia added, “but truth be told, that one was actually Rouvad’s.”

“Aye, ye get surprisin’ bursts of insight from folks with no actual engineerin’ skill,” Billie agreed with an irrepressible grin, trundling back over toward them. “Some distance from the problem helps, I guess. Let’s see it, then, General.”

Trissiny carefully handed the weapon back to her and watched as the gnome briskly opened a hinged panel in the top of its squared midsection and slotted in a tapered metal object she picked up from a nearby table, then shut and latched it again.

“Here now, what’s that?” Principia demanded, peering down at the procedure. “What happened to the metal balls? I thought we agreed shaped projectiles were too farfetched—”

“You agreed that,” Billie said scornfully, “an’ you were right, insofar as yer eyes were too big fer yer belly, as usual. All that fancy talk o’ spiral-shaped projectiles an’ aerodynamic fins was pie in th’sky, but a cylinder with a cone on one end fits neatly in the barrel and is stupid easy to cast. I can whip up a mold me damn self usin’ scrap I’ve got layin’ around, an’ any foundry can crank out thousands of ‘em by the hour if we go inta production. The shaped bullets’re a good seventy percent more accurate than those fool balls the dwarves were usin’. Here, General, care ta do the honors?”

“Sure,” Trissiny said warily, accepting the loaded weapon back. “The ammunition goes in that top compartment, there? Seems awfully inconvenient; you can’t have much rate of fire that way.”

“Aye, yer dead right. That li’l girl ain’t a production model, I’m still prototypin’ various features. I got me a much more efficient magazine design in progress over there.” She waved at a miscellaneous pile of tools and scraps on her workbench which might have been anything at all, as far as Trissiny could tell. “Now, use the rune there to prime it.”

Trissiny touched the rune, and the arcane device obligingly hummed to life. A thin slot revealing the power crystal lit up with a blue glow on one side, just behind the ammunition compartment.

“Now, be sure ta brace the big ‘eavy pommel against yer shoulder, good an’ solid,” Billie said seriously. “There’s a good reason I made it that way. First model I tried was built along the standard battlestaff model, with the butt tucked under yer arm. An’ that’s the story o’ how I discovered this thing’s got about ten times the recoil of a lightnin’ staff. Damn well shot outta my grip across the room backwards.”

“Duly noted,” Trissiny said, carefully holding it as directed. She had fired battlestaves, of course, but not often, and the different shape of the rifle made it a somewhat awkward grip, but it seemed to fit well enough. Moving carefully, she took aim at the target dummy, which now stood behind the blue glow of a military-grade shielding charm. “Ready?”

“Whenever you are,” Principia said with an anticipatory grin.

Squeezing the clicker produced a flash of blue light from the power crystal’s slot and also from the tip of the barrel, accompanied by a thunderclap almost exactly like the discharge of a battlestaff, which was nigh-deafening in an enclosed space. The rifle did indeed try to jerk right out of her grasp; Trissiny found herself nearly aiming at the ceiling a second later when it was back under control, the end of its long muzzle smoking faintly.

There was now a gaping hole in the center of the dummy’s body. The shielding charm, rated to stand up to sustained staff fire before failing, had been snuffed out like it was never there.

“Nice shot!” Billie crowed. “Yer a natural! Aye, the toys Locke was tinkerin’ with used an explosive charge like the dwarven original, which seemed t’me needlessly cumbersome an’ askin’ fer trouble. An arcane acceleration charm’s way too power-intensive, but you can cobble up a real efficient contained explosion that uses less power per crystal than the standard staff shot, an works beautifully ta fire th’projectile. Also won’t blow yer arm off if ye light up a cigarette.”

“Why didn’t the dwarves refine it this much?” Trissiny asked, still frowning at the slain target dummy with the smoking rifle in her clenched hands. “You’ve only been at this a year or so, and they’re rather famous for engineering.”

“There are a million possible answers to that, and we don’t know enough to guess which might be true,” said Principia. “Such things usually come down to social or economic factors rather than the technology itself. What do you think of it so far?”

“Shield-breaking utility aside,” Trissiny said softly, “this thing would do terrible damage to a living body. Different damage than a lightning bolt, but… I’m not sure if better, or worse?”

“I’ve tested that girl’s older sisters on pumpkins an’ melons,” Billie said seriously. “Yer right, it is not pretty. Makes a fair neat little hole goin’ in an’ a honkin’ big terrible one comin’ out the back. Ye hit somebody in the right spot with one o’ these an’ I reckon the best healers would be stymied.”

“There’s also the matter of escalation,” Principia added. “I talked about this with Rouvad. The first battle in which these weapons are used will be an absolute rout, but immediately after that tactics and devices to counter them will begin to be deployed. The projectile weapon itself is enough of a jump forward that there’s no telling how far that arms race will run before it settles back into any kind of equilibrium. I suspect the Svennish are aware of the same thing. The base concept is pretty clearly aimed at negating the Tiraan Empire’s military capabilities, but it can’t be a coincidence that we took the original from an intelligence agent while their soldiers have never been seen with such weapons.”

“It’s a big improvement over battlestaves in range, accuracy, an’ stoppin’ power,” said Billie, “but can’t match ‘em for rate o’ fire or economy. An’ the ammunition situation is actually a step back from arrows. Metal projectiles are smaller, but about as ‘eavy an’ more expensive to make.”

“Well,” Principia snipped, “maybe if you used the original spherical ones—”

“Blow it out yer arse, Captain. This ‘ere’s my workshop, an’ I’ll not be party to the deployment of inferior technology!”

“I need to think about this,” Trissiny stated abruptly, bending to hand the weapon back to Billie with great care. “Don’t get me wrong, ladies: you’ve done fine work here. This is extremely impressive. But I can’t help having the sinking feeling you’re about to unleash something horrific on the world.”

“Aye,” Billie said solemnly as she accepted the rifle into her arms, “we’re not blind ta that, General.”

“What it comes down to,” Principia added, “is that we didn’t invent this technology; we’re just refining it. The knowledge was out there, and bound to be used sooner than later. So the issue becomes one of whether it’s going to be our people who get ravaged by its first deployment, or someone else’s. That is a damn ugly choice to make, Trissiny, but I don’t see how we could make a different one.”

“You’re right about that,” Trissiny murmured. “What’ve you come up with in terms of countering this, Billie?”

“So far?” the gnome hedged, wincing. “Me best notion is armor. Made o’ materials which do not, at this time, exist. Got meself a couple ideas fer alchemical treatment o’ wood an’ ceramic, but that’s not me field of specialty. An’ I’ve not even tried scalin’ the tech up to a cannon-sized siege engine. I’ve frankly no idea what ye even could do against that.”

Trissiny inhaled deeply and then blew the air out in a huff. “All right. Thank you for bringing me up to speed on this; I very much fear it’s going to be relevant far too soon. For now, I think we’ve still got a little time before I need to brief Elwick’s team and have Zanzayed bring everybody back to Tiraas. Changing the subject, Locke, where is Khadizroth?”

“In his own chamber, pretty far underground,” Principia answered. “You need to talk with him, too?”

“I was actually hoping to,” Trissiny said thoughtfully, “but that was before Ampophrenon invited himself along for this visit. I’m not sure we’re ready for that confrontation to unfold.”

“Yikes. No kidding,” Principia cringed. “But you needn’t worry; Khadizroth knew it the second two dragons arrived on our doorstep and warned me even before Iraa came to do likewise. Then he went to hide himself away.”

“Ah, good,” Trissiny said fervently. “Damage controlled, then. Still, it seems a waste; I was taking advantage of a rare opportunity to make sure it was Zanzayed he met with first, and under my supervision. We can’t keep him away from the Conclave forever, but I’d rather not start with its cannier members.”

“Do not underestimate Zanzayed,” Principia warned her. “I have twice seen him directly cooperating with Imperial Intelligence, and Quentin Vex does not associate with fools. Zanzayed is thousands of years old and has survived brawls with Arachne and Kuriwa. He wouldn’t be the first person to downplay his own intelligence for strategic advantage.”

“Aye,” Billie agreed, grinning. “You actually study under Admestus Rafe, right? Same principle applies.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Trissiny said with a pensive frown. “Well, then. I guess I have no other pressing business here. Let’s go get everybody caught up and then move out. Not that I’m not enjoying the visit, Locke, but the real trouble’s unspooling in Tiraas as we speak, and I don’t like leaving it out from under my eyes any longer than necessary.”

“There’s always trouble out from under your eyes, Trissiny,” Principia said. “You can’t plan for everything. The best you can do is stay flexible and learn to think fast and react smart.”

Trissiny sighed softly. “Yeah, I’ve been getting that impression. I just hope I can learn fast enough.”

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14 – 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meesie hissed at her, puffing up her fur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covrin met Syrinx’s eyes across the distance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basra Syrinx turned and fled.

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

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

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

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

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

“BASRA SYRINX.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind Basra, Trissiny and Toby emerged from the doors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“I can’t—”

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

She hesitated a moment, squeezing his shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, right. Inconvenient.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is a great relief.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“BASRA!”

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

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

“Young lady,” Justinian began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grip! Duster! Ninetails!” Darling barked.

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

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

She half-turned to meet Justinian’s eyes.

The Archpope nodded to her once, and smiled.

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Epilogue – Vol. 4

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The High Commander’s office was deep enough in the temple that the sound of thunder penetrated it, but even the fiercest rain was muted by intervening walls. It was not thundering now, and the dreary patter of Tiraas’s usual weather made no sound within—at least, not to the humans. Commander Rouvad and Squad One were left in silence.

She had not directed them to stand at ease, or in fact said anything since their arrival. For over a full minute, Rouvad just studied them with a quizzical little frown, as if struggling to figure out what she was looking at. For such a famously self-possessed woman, it was an unusual expression. Almost alarmingly so.

“Well,” the High Commander said at last. “Another mission completed, and with a nearly optimal outcome. I had a secondary reason for sending you there and placing you in charge, Lieutenant Locke. My intention was to give you the chance to become familiar with the other special forces squadrons, and get them accustomed to you. And, more specifically, to taking orders from you. Yet, all other squads have nothing to report of your interactions except that they arrived in Puna Dara to find you there, looking insufferably pleased with yourself, and reporting that the entire matter was settled.”

She paused again, her mouth twisting to one side in a sardonic half-grimace that was far more characteristic of her.

“Anything to add to that, Lieutenant?”

Principia cleared her throat. “I am extremely pleased with the performance of my squad, Commander, but the situation placed us entirely in a supplementary role. I believe our assistance was useful, but ultimately it was adventurers who settled the crisis in Puna Dara. I cannot take credit, individually or on behalf of my unit. And I am always insufferably pleased with myself, ma’am, it wasn’t situationally specific. If I’ve done something to offend any of the other squad leaders, I’ll owe them an apology.”

“You may be the most irritating presence in all my Legions, Locke, but you’re far from the only large personality, particularly among the special forces. Had you given offense, I’m sure I would be hearing about it. No, they are simply left in the same position they were to begin with: wondering just who and what you are and why I would put you in command. And as usual, you’ve managed to make a wreck of my careful planning without seeming to realize you were, and while fulfilling the letter of your orders to perfection. It’s an incredible talent you have, Locke.”

She inhaled deeply, shoulders rising, and let out the breath in a heavy sigh.

“You once had the gall to take me to task about the state of the Silver Legions’ combat readiness. You were not entirely incorrect, either. I certainly have not failed to notice that we are trained and equipped to fight the wars of two centuries ago. Nobody has, Locke; you weren’t clever for pointing it out. If anything, you underestimated the issue. The Silver Legions have not stagnated since the Enchanter Wars, we have regressed. The Legions which beat the Imperial Army at the borders of Viridill fought with battlestaves and magical artillery—primitive compared to those of today, but still. They also made heavy use of what, in any other organization, would be called adventurers. The last, lingering remnants of the Silver Huntresses and the old League of Avei. Those are truly gone, now, their only heirs the Legion special forces you didn’t get the chance to work with in Puna Dara recently.

“Today’s Silver Legions serve a different purpose than did those of a hundred years ago. When we are sent to fight, it is against the same universal evils we always have. Demon infestations, renegade warlocks, necromancers, the odd outbreak of aggressive fae… The methods of wars past still work against them, as do our corps of priestesses wielding Avei’s light. In some ways, these events are relics of a world that is slipping further into the past every day. Apart from that, the Legions remain a calming influence, a reminder of Avei’s presence. It assuages the fears of many, and dissuades others, like the Huntsmen of Shaath, from becoming too aggressive in areas where we maintain a presence. In the century since the Enchanter Wars, we have specialized in very specific kinds of war—and they do not include grand interstate conflicts. The Silver Legions have not, since that time, acted against any mortal government by force of arms. And because of that, we are welcomed nearly everywhere…despite the memory of the war in which we were instrumental in bringing down the world’s mightiest empire. The nations of the earth permit our presence because we bring stability, and do not threaten their power. And so we are a universal force without having to fight for an inch of the ground we hold. Politics: the continuation of war by other means.”

She paused, frowning slightly, then inhaled a slow breath as if steeling herself for something. “This was not a strategy instigated by any High Commander. It was a command directly from Avei.”

Rouvad stood, suddenly, and paced out from behind her desk to stand in front of it, studying each of them in turn as she continued.

“Avei’s orders were that this measure must be unequivocally genuine. No surreptitious preparations or great secrets: the draw-down of the Silver Legions was to occur in exactly the manner it appeared on the surface. Naturally rumors arose at first that this was a ploy, but they have faded with time. No hint has ever emerged that the Silver Legions are engaged in any hidden program to suddenly bring forth unexpected power, because no such program has existed. The only way to guarantee that a thing will not be found is to guarantee that it is not to be found.

“You have all heard rumors of the First Silver Legion?”

She paused, watching them. One by one, they nodded, as it became clear the Commander was actually waiting for a response.

“That rumor persists throughout the Legions,” Nandi said finally. “It always has.”

“It is a real thing,” said Rouvad, turning her back on them to stare at the wall behind her desk, on which was hung a map of the continent. “But not in the manner people suppose. Avei commanded the designation of First Legion be reserved, as we do for first cohorts within each Legion and first squadrons within each cohort, for special forces. The First is to serve as a military force that can actually take on any known opponent and win. And it does not exist. The First Legion is not training in secret; it is waiting to be called, at the goddess’s command.”

Rouvad’s tight braid shifted slightly back and forth as she shook her head infinitesimally, still looking away from them.

“Gods don’t commonly speak to their followers, and ours is no exception. I have rarely had orders directly from Avei during my tenure. One concerned you, Locke, as you know but I presume your squadron does not. Do they?”

“If so,” Principia said carefully, “they didn’t hear it from me. You ordered me not to reveal that, ma’am.”

“So I did. You do generally stop short of open disobedience, don’t you? Well, ladies, for your edification, when this one showed up here with her rap sheet longer than the history of some nations, transparently angling to get close to her estranged paladin daughter, my inclination was naturally to toss her out on her dainty ear. It was at Avei’s direct order that she was allowed to enlist.”

The entire rest of the squad turned their heads to stare at Principia in disbelief.

“Attention,” she snapped. Five pairs of eyes immediately faced front again.

Rouvad turned, looking across their line with faint amusement on her features. It faded immediately.

“The goddess has given orders again. What I am about to tell you is, until further notice, a secret of the highest order. You will reveal it to no one. So far as the Third Legion’s chain of command is to know, your squad will be answering to me directly in pursuit of a classified project, which is true, and your status is not otherwise changed. That project is the creation of a secret military unit within the Silver Legions capable of contending with and defeating any rival force which exists upon this planet. Avei’s orders come with a warning: a great doom is coming. She anticipates it will be less than two years before this force must be put to the test. That is how long you have, Locke.

“For the time being you will remain ostensibly assigned as you presently are. Known only to yourselves and to me, however is your new designation: Squad 111. The First Legion is raised, ladies. Whatever is coming…it is nearly upon us.” She shook her head again. “May the goddess watch over us all. Any questions? Locke?”

“You…that…” For once, it appeared Principia had nothing to say. She swallowed heavily and tried again. “To clarify… You expect me to bring the Silver Legions forward a hundred years? In less than two? In secret?”

“I frankly don’t know what to expect,” Rouvad replied, with open bitterness. “Do you imagine this fills me with confidence, Locke? Do you really think I would choose to place this burden on your scrawny shoulders? But I am overruled. Here’s a great secret for you, perhaps more secret to some than to others: the gods are not always right. But they unquestionably know a great deal that we do not. And I trust Avei. Not merely as a divine being, but as an individual. From my survey of history and my personal experience with our goddess, I believe she knows what she is doing, even when no one else does. Let me tell you, this tests that belief. Tests, but does not break or even bend it.

“You will answer directly to me in this, Locke. I am not advancing you to the rank of General, that would be ridiculous. I expect you to continue showing the proper decorum and respect toward your superior officers—the fact that you technically command a Legion now does nothing to change that expectation. Whatever and whoever you need, if it’s within my power, is yours. Everything goes through me, you are not to go off on your own or cut me out of the loop. But you will have my unconditional support, and are entitled to every resource I can muster for your project. Beyond that… The means by which this shall be done is left entirely to you. Understand?”

“This is impossible,” Principia breathed.

“No, Locke, you are impossible,” Rouvad said sourly. “This is merely the ludicrous, pestilential millstone round the neck you have been to countless souls over the last two and a half centuries. I bet it surprises you as much as me to learn that your career has been actually leading up to something. Regardless, you will doubtless have questions and require clarification, but I believe you had better take time to compose yourself before bringing them, otherwise they are unlikely to be pertinent. For now, dismissed.”

They stood there, Principia with her mouth half-open in a totally uncharacteristic expression of baffled shock. The rest of her squad were varying degrees of stunned and alarmed; all had shifted their heads slightly to look at her sidelong.

“You are dismissed, ladies!” Rouvad barked.

Principia jumped physically, then sketched a salute. Ephanie, at the other end of the line, turned to open the door. They filed out in silence, the weight of the High Commander’s stare seeming to push them physically from the office. It didn’t let up until Ephanie shut the door behind them.

The hall, fortunately, was deserted for the moment.

“Sooo.” It was Merry who finally broke the silence. “Szaravid, you’re the historian here. On a scale of the Enchanter Wars to the Second Hellwar, how boned would you say we are, exactly?”

“The Second Hellwar didn’t leave a single functioning kingdom anywhere on the continent,” Farah said faintly. “It won’t be anywhere near that bad. I mean, it can’t. Surely?”

“Cut the chatter,” Ephanie ordered. “The LT is scheming.”

They turned their attention on Principia, who was indeed staring into space, but not with the lost look she’d worn moments before. Her eyes were slightly narrowed, darting this way and that as if studying a large, complex diagram none of them could see. Noting positions, charting connections, extrapolating…

“Okay,” she said, and nodded slowly. “All right. I have an idea.”


By now, the Archpope’s seclusions were a known habit, and his personnel knew better than to try to dig him out when he was sequestered in prayer. He actually did sequester himself in prayer, at least enough to be seen doing it and preserve the legitimacy of the claim. But the habit served most importantly to earn him time to vanish into the catacombs beneath the Grand Cathedral and pursue the various projects which demanded his personal attention. Those no one else could be allowed to see.

On this occasion, he passed through the labyrinthine passages and numerous barriers by rote, knowing every turn, every combination, every step to avoid setting off a trap, and came before a simple metal doorway with a small glass panel set into one of its upright columns. The maze Justinian had created beneath the Cathedral would have been a very irresponsible thing to leave for his successor, did he not specifically plan that there would not be another Archpope after him.

The panel blazed alight at his touch, emitting a soft white glow. He submitted his palmprint, traced a pattern with his fingertip, tapped one corner in a specific rhythm, entered a fourteen-digit alphanumeric code, and played three bars of a melody on the one-octave piano keypad which appeared at the final stage. Only after all that did the door truly come alive, filling with a luminous panel of inscrutable blue light.

Time was precious. Justinian stepped through it without pausing even a moment, despite the enormity of the step he was taking. He had grown accustomed to this particular miracle.

That was related to the matter which so troubled him now.

He emerged on a walkway of spotless, gleaming metal, extending hundreds of feet ahead and broad as a city avenue, lined with a waist-high balustrade along which softly glowing panels were spaced, providing gentle illumination. In fact, the path was curved, but on such a scale that it appeared perfectly straight from the perspective of any person standing upon it. Ahead, it terminated against a coliseum-sized structure which extended downward, like a massive, inverted tower. He did not step to the side to look over the edge; aside from being a disturbing view, he knew what he would see.

Nothing, straight down, for countless miles until far below, at the center of the moon, was the mass shadow engine—now more a phenomenon than a structure. The awesome power source which provided not only the energy that had once ignited magic itself on the world, but the gravity which governed the very tides.

He did pause to look upward, as he always did, at the transparent panel which formed the ceiling over this walkway. Above it stretched infinite space. It was good timing; at the moment, he could also see the world of his birth and all his careful plans, half-hidden by the moon’s shadow.

There seemed no specific sound, save for the soft yet omnipresent ambient hum of powerful machines functioning at low power—unusual, in this century, but distinctive to those who knew it—yet mere seconds after Justinian’s arrival a whirring began. From the huge complex at the other end of the path, a small form rounded the corner of its open doorway and came whizzing toward him on nimble little wheels. It veered from side to side in excitement as it approached, emitting a pleasant series of chimes and brandishing its multiple insectoid arms in the air.

Justinian smiled as he paced forward to meet it with a measured step, pausing when the Caretaker unit intercepted him. It wheeled around him in a full orbit in its glee before stopping, and he placed a hand atop its upper protrusion.

“Hello, CT-16. It’s good to see you again. I am afraid the pace of events keeps me from visiting often, but it is always pleasant to meet you.”

The little golem chimed happily back, ducking out from under his hand to whirl around him once more, then fell in beside him as he continued forward toward the huge structure.

Justinian allowed the smile to melt from his features as he walked beside the Caretaker.

“It has been bad, recently,” he said, staring ahead at the complex they approached. “This last week… My plans continue to develop apace, with no further major upheavals. It seems I have even gained some ground. The price, though, is bitter. Many who have seen the value of my ideas and shown loyalty to me because of them…sacrificed. Apprehended by the government and their lives and careers greatly disrupted. And those are the more fortunate. Others have perished…in unfortunate events when the Empire came for them, in violence at the hands of that creature Tellwyrn…”

He sighed softly, and closed his eyes for a moment without slowing his pace. The Caretaker made a whirring little series of chimes and produced a brush on one of its arm tips, and gently stroked his sleeve in a comforting gesture.

“And poor Ildrin,” Justinian whispered. “Loyal, trusted Ildrin, who has served me with such diligence. I killed her, CT. Oh, I was nowhere nearby. But I maneuvered her into a desperate position, orchestrated the systematic loss of all her support, left her isolated and vulnerable, knowing just how this would act upon her psyche… And then stranded her in a situation with a group of angry Eserites and a vengeful paladin. The outcome was mathematical. It doesn’t matter who held the blade, the blood of a faithful friend is on my hands.” For just a moment, his normally controlled features twisted in disgust. “Because she was no longer useful. Because knowing as much as she did made her a liability. Because it was…strategic.”

He slowed, swerving to the side, and finally come to a stop, planting his hands on the rail and leaning over it, head hanging. The Caretaker sidled up beside him, chiming questioningly in concern.

“I feel it coming on,” Justinain said, opening his eyes and gazing down into empty space. Before him was a perspective the human mind had not evolved to see; it was dizzying, disorienting. The infinite abyss extended down to a swirling mass of light and shadow, the size of a continent and which his mind wanted to believe couldn’t be anything like that in scope. All around, more complexes extended downward from the outer crust of Luna Station, which curved away in all directions.

“I was so passionate when I began this,” he said into the void. “So full of indignation at what the gods have done to us. I have learned…sympathy. For them, for their choices, even for the costs they have inflicted on the world in the name of protecting their power. They were hopeless rebels who rose up to oppose omnipotent beings—just as I am now. And it begins so easily. One compromise, then another, and so on, and each makes the next easier. The cost not so painful. The guilt…more distant. Already I have reached the point where it does not hurt…enough. Not enough, CT. All this, Ildrin alone, this should make me weep. Yet I see only the place it served in the larger plan. This is the sign that I should stop. I am no longer the pure-hearted idealist who began this. I no longer trust myself with the work.

“And yet…and yet, I have no choice. There is no one else who can take up the task. If I leave it now, it will all have been for nothing. The work still needs doing; all these sacrifices cannot have been wasted. The best I can do, anymore, is loathe what it is making me.”

Surreptitiously, the Caretaker grasped his robe firmly with two of its arms.

Justinian smiled, reaching around to pat the golem’s top again, and straightened up, away from the drop before him. “Thank you, my friend, but you needn’t worry. I don’t desire to rest. I do not deserve peace. No…there is only the work, now. But I’m afraid, CT. I am so very terrified that by the time I come to the end of this, even if I succeed… That I will have become a monster who absolutely cannot be allowed to have the power it will grant me. And this hideous cycle will only begin again.”

He stepped back, and raised his head further, again looking up at the arch of space ahead. The world had risen, its edge now clipped by the rim of the skylight. In minutes more it would pass out of view.

“I wonder,” he whispered, “if they ever reached this point? If they faced the knowledge that they needed to stop…but could not afford to?”

Man and golem stood that way, silent, for long moments of contemplation.

At last, Justinian began walking again, resuming his course, and the Caretaker came with him, finally releasing his robe.

“I appreciate you, my little friend,” he said. “Confession is very healing; it is no accident it plays a role in Izara’s faith, and several others. There is simply no one else to whom I can unburden myself, anymore.” He patted the Caretaker again. “Few and fleeting as these meetings of ours are, they are precious to me. If I could not admit to someone how much all this troubles me… I believe I would be lost already if not for you. Thank you.”

The golem chimed pleasantly in reply, again reaching up to gently grasp his sleeve in one of its metal appendages.

“I shall do my utmost,” Justinian said gravely, “to make the outcome of my labors worthy of your trust. I know you waited alone for a very long time. Your first masters began in pursuit of science and the ultimate truth of the universe, and fell to vicious insanity. The Pantheon sought justice, freedom, and a new hope for all the people of this world…and look what they immediately did. The cycle must break, CT. I hope against hope I shall be the one to do it. That you will not have to be disappointed yet again.”

The Caretaker just chimed soothingly, and stroked his arm again with the brush.

They were silent until they reached the broad opening into the complex, the massive round tower of metal descending into a spire that aimed at the moon’s terrible core.

“More immediately,” Justinian said in a thoughtful tone as they descended a long ramp, “I find that I have made fundamental errors which I must now correct. I underestimated how difficult it will be to keep all these various factions and foes stirring for the time it will take, without allowing them to destroy me. They are more capable than I anticipated, this is true. But more significantly, I failed to account for so many sharing information. Far too many are starting to realize who sits behind all their troubles. I blame Vesk,” he added wryly. “In the bardic epics, fairy tales, even the modern chapbooks and comics, enemies never talk to each other—at least, not openly. And now I find myself greatly threatened because so many of my opponents have simply had conversations, like adults. Foolish of me, unforgivably foolish.”

They rounded a curve, the ramp switching back down; this part of the complex had been built to be navigable by wheeled servants like CT-16. Ahead, an opening appeared at the end of the arched passageway.

“That can be dealt with,” Justinian said, frowning deeply now. “At the cost of causing more stains on my soul, and more pain and havoc for who knows how many other souls who have done nothing to deserve it. But…I cannot see any other way. They must all turn on me in the end, but not yet. It isn’t time yet, and I can be easily overthrown, still. If I am to postpone this reckoning until the right moment, I must give the heroes and villains and meddlers in general something else upon which to focus for a time.”

They emerged from the tunnel onto a balcony which ringed a circular space with no floor; below was only the infinite drop. From the dome arching overhead extended machines which projected suspensor fields holding up the object in the center of the open space. The thing itself was fully encased in a rectangular brick of transparent material, almost as clear as the air and visible only by its corners, but incredibly hard and a disruptor of transcension field energy besides. Not despite but because of its open plan, this spot was the most secure space in the solar system to keep a highly dangerous object. If the suspensors shut off for just a second, the thing they held would plummet straight down to the annihilating force of the mass shadow event, which nothing could survive.

“And so,” Justinian said grimly, stepping forward to grasp the rail before him and stare at the thing he had secreted away here, “I will regret that there is no one left in a position to forgive me for this. I must…unleash something upon them all.”

Within the clear block, the long skull, larger than he was, seemed carved of ebony. Justinian stared at the huge, empty eye sockets, meeting without flinching the knowing grin of Belosiphon the Black.

“Something great. Something terrible.”

 

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13 – 47

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

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

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

This one was made of sterner stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“CHARGE!” Ephanie roared.

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

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

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

She had to focus on her own fight.

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

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

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

“Um, scuze me, sorry ’bout this…”

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

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

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

“Thanks, I do what I can!”

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

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

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


“Why the fuck are you brunette?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why…help me?” she whispered.

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

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

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

Almost infinitesimally, still holding his gaze, she nodded.

He nodded back. “Ready, then?”

She squeezed her eye shut. “Do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” she asked a third time.

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

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

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

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

“And what’s your vision?” he asked.

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


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

The King and Queen exchanged a married look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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