Tag Archives: Embras Mogul

16 – 51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave granted.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Scrying?”

“No such luck, this is for teleportation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you seen such injuries before, Nassir?”

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

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

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

A moment of contemplative silence fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Be foxes, not spiders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He just laughed. It was all too much.


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

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

“Boys? Sic ‘im.”

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16 – 50

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She didn’t dare stop moving.

The necro-drake reacted a lot like a demon, for all that there was no infernomancy in or around it and indeed, any such conventional magic would have disintegrated due to its innate chaos effects, as Natchua had been quick to observe. When attacked, it attacked back, predictable as clockwork. It had gone after everyone in Veilgrad who had fired spells at it, and only been dissuaded from dive-bombing the mag cannon emplacement because Natchua had intercepted it mid-attack. And like many species of demon, it had no strategy beyond rabid frontal assault. That was the good thing: leading the creature away from the city was as simple as hammering it with spells and shadow-jumping away to strike again before it could kill her in retaliation. It didn’t get tired and never wised up to her strategy, just kept coming after her. The beast was no dragon; it wasn’t sapient, and not even particularly clever as animals went. A bear or wolf would have long since given up and gone to do something less futile.

That was the extent of the good news.

Natchua had nothing with which to fight except magic, and against a creature of chaos, magic was useless. Worse than useless—some of the misfires caused by her infernal spells hammering the necro-drake could easily have rebounded on her devastatingly had she been standing closer, which of course was exactly why she kept herself at a distance (aside from the threat posed by the beast itself). Also why she only attacked with magical projectile spells, no energy beams or other effects that would make a connection between her and her target. Spells rebounded, disintegrated, fizzled, transformed into harmless puffs of mist or far less harmless bursts of fire and acid; it seemed each one found a new way to go wrong. They certainly weren’t doing the necro-drake any harm, for all that it clearly perceived her hostile intent and continued coming after her.

She had worked out one trick so far which seemed to do the thing some damage, and was reluctant to use it. It was complex enough that only her elven speed and infernal mastery made it possible: she had to summon a fragment of native rock from Hell and use the inherent volatility of the dimensional transit to fling it at the necro-drake at high velocity, which was at least three individual things few warlocks could have done. Worse, that would leave infernally irradiated chunks of rock littering the landscape unless she took the time to both banish them back to Hell and siphon up the local infernal energy before it corrupted someone, two more feats that were beyond the average warlock’s ability and difficult enough even for Natchua that taking a few seconds to clean the mess she’d left in Veilgrad had nearly allowed the chaos monster to grab her. Thus, she wasn’t about to do that again, for all that it had been far more effective at harming her foe than any of her direct spells.

Worst of all, what harm she did do was quickly reversed; the thing had some kind of innate healing ability. Amid all the constant misfires, there were now again explosions and conjured projectiles which struck the necro-drake, revealing that the craggy black glass of its skeleton was exactly as fragile as it seemed like it should be, but when broken its shards would immediately flow back into place.

Infernomancy was the magic of destruction. All other things being equal, Natchua was certain she could destroy it through brute force alone; she had more than enough of that at her fingertips to compensate for any amount of rejuvenation. But things were not equal, and all her terrible power was good for nothing more than antagonizing it. That wasn’t nothing; she’d managed to lead it away from the city, out past the outlying towns and into the wide empty stretches of the Great Plains, leaving behind a trail of charred tallgrass, outcroppings of conjured rock, at least two mutated trees which had spontaneously grown from nothing, and an annoyingly whimsical variety of other lingering effects. Between constantly dancing ahead of the beast, checking the distance to make sure she wasn’t leading it toward a village or a woodkin grove (the Confederacy would really let her have it for that), and also doing her due diligence to make sure nothing being left behind was too dangerous, Natchua was rapidly becoming overextended. Even elven stamina wouldn’t enable her to keep this up forever, or for long. She needed a solution.

And of course, the only thing she could come up with was the absolute last thing she ever wanted to do: prayer.

“Hey, bitch!”

Undoubtedly the Wreath had rituals for communing with their goddess as did any faith, and undoubtedly that wasn’t one. Natchua didn’t know them, though; Elilial had given her knowledge of infernal magic, not Elilinist ritual practice, and while there was overlap it didn’t extend to religious sacraments. But she was, after all, connected to the Queen of Hell on a personal level, and so she fell back on her own character and resorted to shouting at her. The necro-drake didn’t seem to take the yelling personally; it was already trying to slaughter her due to all the spellfire, so it wasn’t as if some harsh words would make a difference.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you,” Natchua snapped aloud at the air as she stepped out of another swell of shadows twenty yards to the northwest of where the necro-drake was now clawing at the ground where she’d been standing a second before, and fired and short burst of shadowbolts right at its head to get the stupid thing’s attention. There was one factor that would make all the difference here, and only one person she could ask about it. “Paladins are supposed to be immune to chaos! That’s why they always send paladins when there’s a chaos event. I know you can do that, so why the fuck isn’t my magic working on this thing?”

The thing in question emitted its spine-grating wail and vaulted through the air at her. Natchua peevishly launched a carriage-sized fireball right into its face and shadow-jumped out of range a split second before its claws reached her, already conjuring another flurry of shadowbolts to be discharged once she’d positioned herself to lead it farther toward the Golden Sea. If worse came to worst, maybe she could keep going long enough to lure the thing into there and just let it get lost?

Of course, then there’d be no telling where or when it’d come back out…

In all honestly Natchua had not really expected an answer. Thus, the surprise at receiving one caused her a moment’s hesitation that nearly proved fatal before she jumped away again, scowling at the amused voice that rang clearly inside her own head.

Oh, Natchua, you do get yourself into the most interesting situations.

“Yeah, that’s real fuckin’ cute,” she snarled. “Are you going to help me or not?”

I believe you made it clear we would not have that kind of relationship, my dear. I acquiesced readily to those terms. You want nothing to do with me…unless you need help?

She hammered the necro-drake with another huge fireball. Then a second, when the first fizzled out into a harmless puff of smoke seconds before impact. The follow-up spell detonated in a shockwave of kinetic force that sent her flying backwards and smashed the skeletal dragon into the ground.

Natchua was back on her feet immediately, wincing and taking stock. Nothing broken; Professor Ezzaniel had taught her how to fall and her reflexes had been enough to compensate for the suddenness. She was nicely bruised all over, though, just from the force of the hit. The necro-drake stumbled drunkenly about, its bones re-forming right before her eyes.

“And you,” she replied, straightening her sleeves, “said I could call on you for help when I needed it!”

And you don’t need it. There is no need for you to continue fooling about with that thing. You can easily escape—even retrieve your family from Leduc Manor and go back to Mathenon until all this blows over.

“It attacked my city!” she snarled, blasting the chaos beast with a particularly heavy shadowbolt. It transmuted into a three-second burst of choral song in four-point harmony, of all things, but at least that sufficed to get the monster’s attention. It came after her yet again, and she shadow-jumped deeper into the plains, heckling it with desultory spells to keep it interested while she focused on mobility and arguing with the recalcitrant deity in her head. “Protecting Veilgrad is my responsibility! That is not negotiable.”

I will protect you if I must, Natchua, but not from the consequences of your own choices. Trust me, I know more of the history of House Leduc than you ever will, dear. No one will be surprised or even disappointed if you duck your head and sit this one out. Playing hero accomplishes nothing except to fluff your ego.

“Oh, you evil—” It was doubtless for the best that she had to break off and jump repeatedly away as the monster came after her in a renewed frenzy; for a few moments she didn’t even have to fire back at it to hold its interest. Natchua ultimately made a longer shadow-jump, putting enough distance between herself and the necro-drake that it paused, looking around in confusion.

Then she launched a seething kernel of hellfire into the air in a parabolic arc that came down directly on top of the beast. Before it drew close enough to be mangled by the chaos effect, she detonated the spell, causing another huge swath of tallgrass to be charred flat and the monster crushed into the ground. It instantly began trying to rise again, though it took several moments to regather itself sufficiently.

This was not a winning strategy. She needed to kill this thing. She could kill it, of that she was absolutely certain, if only the stubborn goddess would lend her protection to Natchua’s spells.

“I. Need. Your. Help.” Baring her teeth, she growled the admission with all the reluctance of her desperate predicament.

The surge of amused laughter resounding her head made her right eyelid begin to twitch violently.

Because I like you, Natchua dear, I’ll share with you a vital life lesson someone should really have made clear to you long before now: nobody cares what you want. They care what they want. Negotiation is the art of convincing others that meeting your needs will meet their own.

She chewed on that almost literally, working her jaw and watching the necro-drake get its bearings. Despite the distance, she was the only visible landmark around them as by that point she’d taunted it far out onto the prairie. With a keening roar, it charged across the ground at her like a galloping bear rather than trying to fly.

Natchua exploded the ground under it, sending it hurtling away. Unfortunately the monster had enough wit to recognize and abandon a doomed strategy, and came at her through the air again, forcing her to shadow-jump once more to avoid its dive. The interlude had bought her precious seconds to mull Elilial’s words.

“Well, I’m not leaving,” she stated aloud. “Not until that thing is dead. If it kills me, you lose your anchor.”

I like you, my dear, truly I do, and I’m willing to help you up to a point simply because I acknowledge how much I owe you. That doesn’t mean you have a blade to my throat, Natchua. You’ve bought me enough stability that if you insist on squandering your life, I have time to find a replacement. Your existence is not vital to me. Try again.

She cursed a few times each in elvish, Tanglish, demonic and Glassian (Xyraadi was right, it was perversely gratifying to be obscene in such a pretty language). And then for a few minutes longer as Elilial laughed at her again and she had to dance once more with the necro-drake.

It wasn’t getting tired. Natchua wasn’t either, yet, but she knew that would come before too much longer. She had already kept this up longer than a human spellcaster could, and even elven stamina had its limits.

“This is your chance to redeem yourself,” she tried again, moving and firing ineffective spells while speaking. “With the truce in place, if you take action to protect—”

It doesn’t work that way, not for creatures like me. You can have a redemption story because you’re a mortal woman. I am a goddess, a fixture of history. No one will believe I acted out of anything but self-interest.

Natchua did not shriek in frustration, instead channeling her ire into a particularly vicious blast of infernal destruction. The spell disintegrated an instant before smashing into the necro-drake, instead showering it with a cloud of flower petals.

She and it stared at one another in disbelief for a second. Then she zapped it again with a shadowbolt, and carried on evading its furious retaliation.

“What do you want?” she demanded in desperation.

More infuriating, wordless amusement. You’ve already hit on the real issue, and I have explained it to you further. Show me you can work that brain, Lady Leduc. Connect the dots and make this crusade of yours useful to me; you know exactly how. Do that, and I promise you’ll have your divine protection. And yes, you’re correct: with that, you can bring this thing down.

It hit her in a burst, the way her own squirrelly schemes often did, the insight that told her what Elilial was hinting at but refused to say outright. And then she could only curse again, because she knew what she had to do.


As distractions went, it wasn’t anyone’s best work, but Natchua figured it was pretty good for a spur-of-the-moment desperation spell. One of the basic summoning spells for katzil demons bound them to obey certain commands, and if carefully memorized and practiced beforehand could be employed to instantly summon a pre-bound flying, fire-breathing servitor to attack one’s enemies. That was one of the old standbys of the seasoned warlock. She was able to augment the base spell considerably, requiring only a few more seconds of conjuration, to compel one of the flying serpents to harass the chaos dragon while remaining out of reach and avoiding leading it toward any signs of civilization. Designing a binding to make it goad the necro-drake toward the Golden Sea proved more intricate than she could manage while casting by the seat of her pants, but hopefully this would distract it long enough to buy her a few precious minutes.

Natchua returned to Veilgrad in a series of jumps rather than directly just to lay a pattern of wards across the general path back, to warn her of the necro-drake’s return if it came back to the city after finishing off her enhanced katzil, which even optimistically she didn’t think would keep it busy for long. Most of them might not help, as the thing might not fly in a straight line and infernal wards had a starkly limited radius of sensitivity, but close to the city walls she swiftly set up three wide arcs that should give her a few seconds of forewarning if it returned.

From there, it was just a matter of shadow-jumping to the last place she’d seen her quarry and stretching out her senses. They were adept at concealing their presence from magical detection, even from her, but had little recourse against the ears of an elf. Natchua hated opening herself up this way in a city—even subdued as it was, Veilgrad was still painfully noisy, and the amount of screams and weeping she could hear made her heart clench.

Finally, though, something went right. It worked, and she found them not far at all from the rooftop on which their smoking barbecue still stood, abandoned.

The collected Black Wreath were making their way three abreast through a wide alley toward the mountainside gate of the city, and slammed to a stop with a series of muffled curses when her final shadow-jump placed her directly in their path.

“You’re going on foot?” Natchua demanded. “Well, whatever, I’m glad I caught up with you.”

“Excuse me, lady, but not everyone’s crazy enough to shadow-jump in the presence of a chaos effect,” Embras retorted.

“It’s arcane teleportation that’ll fuck you up if you do it anywhere near chaos. Shadow-jumping is relatively safe, so long as you don’t actually jump into the source.”

“You may have forgotten,” Vanessa said icily, “but we have particular reason to be leery of anything chaos-adjacent.”

“Right.” Natchua drew in a deep breath, steeling herself. That was the worst possible segue into her next argument, but she didn’t have the luxury of time to finagle this conversation back around. “I need your help to take that thing down.”

Mogul, Vanessa, and about half a dozen of the others outright laughed in her face. Which, she supposed, wasn’t the worst reaction she could have expected.

“Bye, Natchua,” Mogul said, shaking his head and stepping forward and one side as if to brush past her. “Good luck with that.”

Natchua reached to to press her hand against the cold brick wall, barring his path. “We made a deal, Embras.”

“No part of our deal involved us committing outright suicide,” he shot back, his expression collapsing into a cold scowl. “Don’t pretend what you’re asking is anything else. Remember when you handed me that oh so helpfully collated binder of yours? You said in particular to avoid chaos-related issues until everything else was wrapped up. If you intend to make this a stipulation of our arrangement…deal’s off.”

In the back of her head, Natchua felt one of her outlying wards disintegrate as proximity to a chaos effect unraveled it. The beast was coming back. Time grew ever shorter.

She had to inhale once fully to compose herself. Mogul being recalcitrant and petty in the middle of a crisis was just begging to be screamed at and belabored, but Natchua had a suspicion that was exactly the reaction he was fishing for, the perfect excuse to blow her off. As she had just been reminded, he didn’t care what she wanted to begin with. People cared about their own interests. She had to put this in the right way…

“This is your one chance,” Natchua said aloud, not a hundred percent sure where she was going but riding the sense that some subconscious part of her knew what it was doing; that approach had mostly led her to success so far. “The Wreath have always talked a big game about how you’re really in the business of protecting the world—”

“From demons,” Rupi interrupted, “not chaos.”

“—but the last time there was an incident like this in Veilgrad, your help was blatantly self-serving and only caused more problems. This is the moment when you can prove you mean your own rhetoric. Fight to protect this city, and it will be remembered.”

Mogul, expression skeptical, opened his mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on, overriding his intended interruption.

“This is the only chance! Running away is not the neutral action here, it will sink your prospects permanently. We’re at a unique moment in history: Elilial is at peace with the Pantheon, the Wreath has official sponsorship from Imperial nobility, and you’ve been winnowed down to a fragment of a remnant. Elilial’s name will be mud for centuries to come, no matter what she’s done now, she’s been the universal enemy of civilization for so long. But you are at a moment, the only moment you’ll get, when you can prove you have changed and people just might start to believe it. This can either be the rebirth of the Black Wreath, or its final slide into obscurity.

“That thing reacts like a demon; you know how to deal with demons. Magic isn’t effective against it, but it’ll attack anything that attacks it, however futile the spell is. Mages can’t reliably teleport around it, but with shadow-jumping you can stay mobile, get it to chase you away. I did it, and I’m just one person; a whole group can watch each other’s backs and pull it out of range of the city. Only warlocks can do this. It’s not just your reputation on the line here, but the future of infernomancy itself! I don’t even need you to take it down! I can do that, but I need someone to buy me time to prepare the spells I need.”

They were silent, now. Another ward went dark—much farther inward. To judge by the position, the necro-drake wasn’t returning in a straight line, but it was definitely coming this way. Fast.

“Help me,” Natchua said urgently, “and you can change…everything. This is your chance to make a new future, where the Wreath and Elilial can be part of the world instead of pushed into the shadows. Throw this chance away, and you won’t get another.”

Slowly, Mogul shook his head. “I can respect your passion, Natchua, but not enough to die for it.”

Then the chaos beast crashed through her outer string of wards arcing past Veilgrad’s western walls, then the next, and time was up. Natchua snarled at him and vanished in a swell of shadow, already cursing to herself when she rematerialized on the plains outside just as the necro-drake, roaring, crashed through her final line of wards and nearly reached the walls. She immediately snared it with a colossal tentacle of shadow—which, for a wonder, actually did snare it, as the purple-black tendril of energy solidified into a huge structure of glass upon contact with the chaos effect. It immediately shattered, of course, but it had been enough to interrupt the monster’s flight and send it flopping awkwardly to the ground just outside the gates.

She was already hammering it with fireballs and shadowbolts before it could get up, and retreated in a series of small shadow-jumps even as the necro-drake regained its bearings and came after her, howling in outrage. The whole time, she never stopped cursing.

This development not only sank her best idea, but her Plan B as well. With a promise of a paladin’s resistance to chaos and accomplices to buy her a few minutes to put her plan into action, she was certain she could kill the monster. Failing that, there were other paladins, and Natchua was certain they’d come running for something like this.

And had it been several hours ago, she could’ve shadow-jumped right to Madouri Manor and collected them. But now all three were neck-deep in major political actions in their own temples—structures with ancient and powerful wards that prevented her shadow-jumping, to to mention basically all of her magic, currently swarmed with dozens if not hundreds of people each who’d be demanding the paladins’ attention, and staffed by clerics who were unlikely to be impressed by her noble title and would probably become overtly hostile at the first hint of infernomancy. Untangling that could take, potentially…hours.

Natchua had just learned that she could distract this thing for, at best, a few minutes at a time. She was officially on her own. Which left the backup plan: stay alive long enough to goad it for hundreds of miles until they reached the Golden Sea and try to lose it there. That would be kicking the problem down the road, and probably not by more than a few days, not to mention guaranteeing it was uncertain where it would come back out again. But at least it would buy enough time for the paladins to rally, and the Empire to throw something together. Tiraas ran mostly on arcane magic, but its resources were unfathomable. Surely Imperial Command could come up with something.

That was a hope for later, though. For now, she had her task in front of her.

Cursing didn’t take much energy, so she didn’t stop even as she retraced her steps, past the wreckage and peculiar stains left by her last try to leading the necro-drake away from Veilgrad. Having to cover the same ground, in the same exhausting way, made it all feel so…futile.

But Natchua Leduc did not stop fighting in the face of futility. She cussed at futility and smashed it with shadow-bolts. So that was what she did.

The surviving spires of Veilgrad were still within view when suddenly infernal magic swelled around her. In the next second, the skies were filled with demons.

Katzils swarmed the necro-drake, distracting it from Natchua’s own attacks and earning her a reprieve. They fared poorly, of course, dramatically dying just by coming too close, to say nothing of what happened if it got its claws on one. But there were dozens of them, and they were being directed to spray it with green fire from the maximum possible distance. Better yet, they whirled around the monster, attacking it from all directions, which sent it into a confused frenzy. The necro-drake whirled like a dog chasing its tail, snapping and slashing, and demons perished, but for the moment, they held its attention.

Natchua took the opportunity to turn around and stare incredulously at the assembled warlocks who had just appeared behind her.

“Did you seriously just do that so you could make a dramatic entrance?” she demanded. “Are you bards now? No, wait, never mind, what am I saying? Bards would never do something so cliché.”

“Excuse you, bards wallow in cliché like pigs in their own filth,” Embras Mogul retorted, grinning at her. “Anyway, no, we obviously had to discuss our options without you hovering around to overhear and put in your two pennies’ worth. Fact is, Natchua, you made a compelling case, but you are also just about the last person we trust. There’s a general feeling, here, that you’re as likely as not to be planning to double-cross us at the first opportunity. It was Vanessa who pointed out that we’ve got a pretty good handle on your numerous character flaws. And not only are you too generally bullheaded to be duplicitous, if there is one thing we can rely on you to do, it’s keep going after an enemy long after all sense and reason should tell you to drop it and leave well enough alone.”

Despite herself, despite everything, Natchua found herself grinning as he spoke, and finally barked an involuntary laugh.

“Besides,” Vanessa added, “since we’re apparently not allowed to murder you, pummeling the hell out of a chaos creature sounds fucking cathartic.”

“I’ve never been so glad to see a bunch of assholes in my life,” Natchua replied. “Just…stay moving. This is no time for grandiose schemes or clever plots, you need to be agile and think on the go. The monster isn’t hard to trick as long as you don’t get too cocky. Keep in motion, watch each other’s backs, and keep it distracted and agitated. Be foxes, not spiders.”

“I am not losing any more of my people because of you,” Mogul warned. “If someone’s injured or we collectively get too tired to keep on, we’re pulling out. However long that takes, that’s how long you’ve got to put together whatever you’re planning.”

Natchua glanced behind her. The necro-drake was still tearing apart the katzils; it was getting close to finishing them off. Any second it might decide the assembled warlocks were a more tempting target than a mere handful of swarming demons.

“I’ll be as fast as I can manage,” she promised. “I will not abandon you. Just hold out for a few minutes. And Mogul—”

He held up a hand. “Don’t say it. Just get to work, Duchess. If we’re all still alive in an hour, I plan to gloat at length.”

“Here’s hoping,” she said, and called the darkness to carry her away to another broad, flat stretch of tallgrass, unmarred by habitation or any sign of combat, leaving the Black Wreath to tangle with the monster.

Before she could even start work, the resonant voice sounded in her head.

A deal’s a deal. You’ll have your divine protection.

“Good,” Natchua said curtly, pushing up her sleeves. “Now, I’ll also need spell formulae to confer that protection into the binding element of a demonic summoning. Damned if I’m gonna be the only one in this relationship earning my keep.”

The dark goddess’s delighted laughter echoed in her mind as she began casting.

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16 – 46

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“I haven’t done anything wrong!” Rehvad Salimon protested, his voice growing shrill.

“Master Salimon,” Ravana said in a calm and not unkind tone, “there is no one truly innocent. We all have something upon our conscience. The only person who makes such a blanket protest of innocence is, quite obviously, laboring to conceal guilt.”

He gaped at her for one fishlike moment, then began stammering. “I—but that—what does—”

Keeping her expression even as always, Ravana inwardly rebuked herself. It was a pointless observation, which a man less intimidated and out of his depth would naturally dismiss for the silly philosophical time-wasting it was. Playing such mind games with someone like this was purely self-indulgent, and needlessly cruel.

“More specifically,” she went on, cutting off his fumbling protests, “I should remind you that it is not customary for miscellaneous citizens to have a personal audience with their Duchess in the preliminary stages of an investigation. I am well aware of your role in organizing that lamentable incident outside Falconer Industries. Of greater import, I am aware that you did so at the instigation of the Universal Church, in exchange for a monetary bribe.”

“That’s not a crime!” he burst out, and then went pale. “I mean—that is, I don’t know what… My concerns about that archdemon were perfectly valid! Our concerns.”

The man was visibly sweating now. Ravana stared at him in silence. It was a favorite trick of Tellwyrn’s, one she’d not had an opportunity to learn before Last Rock. When her father had wanted to unsettle someone, he blustered and threatened. Cold silence was far more deadly to an already-burdened conscience, and easier to deliver with dignity.

This room was carefully chosen for such a purpose, a small office lined with dark-stained oak paneling and deep blue wallpaper that made it feel close, even claustrophobic, especially with five people present. Mr. Salimon occupied an uncomfortably small wooden chair in the center of the room, with two House Madouri guards looming behind him in positions flanking the door. Ravana sat across from him, in a comfortable armchair designed to evoke the aspect of a throne, Yancey standing like a solemn statue at her left. It was an interrogation chamber, designed for exactly this use, and all the more intimidating for a middle-aged shopkeeper like Salimon for being in Madouri Manor rather than a police barracks. Soldiers and police officers in the Empire scrupulously followed the letter of the law and handled citizens with care under the Tirasian Dynasty’s rules, with the occasional exception of Imperial Intelligence. The Madouris, on the other hand, were known to make inconvenient people vanish.

He drew in a deep and slightly shaky breath, making a deliberate effort to square his shoulders, and raised his chin. “I believe that the Writ of Duties requires me to be represented by a qualified attorney before any judgment is rendered.”

Ravana lifted one eyebrow. “Of course. Master Salimon, our purpose here is to determine the details of what happened. It has not yet been decided that you are to be charged with any crime. Should it come to that, you will of course have access to a lawyer of your choosing, or be provided one by the state if you are unable to secure such services on your own. Why?” She subtly leaned forward, holding her gaze on his. “Is there something to which you would like to confess that would require a trial?”

Even more color leached from his cheeks. That was the only reply he managed to produce.

“So,” Ravana continued more briskly, “as a key witness in this ongoing investigation, you will naturally be our guest here until the matter is brought to a conclusion, one way or another.”

“Y-your Grace,” he said weakly, “I…I mean, my Lady… I have a family.”

She frowned in reproach. “Good heavens, man, we are hardly going to torture you. This is the twelfth century, and we are all professionals here. You will be interviewed at whatever duration the specialists I employ deem necessary, and until they are finished, housed here when not speaking with them. Comfortably, Master Salimon, not in a dungeon cell. With all due respect, I imagine my humblest guest chambers are more salubrious than your own home. Simply cooperate with your interviewers to the greatest extent you can, and this matter can be resolved with the utmost speed.”

“But I…” He wrung his hands, staring pleadingly at her. “Please, Lady Madouri, you must understand I only meant to do what was right.”

“And make some easy coin in the process?”

Salimon cringed. “It—it was just that—”

“These are the details you should explain at length when asked. Now you must excuse me, Master Salimon, as I have many other engagements today.”

“I beg you, Lady Madouri—”

“That will be all.”

The guards immediately stepped forward and helped their guest to rise and make his way to the door. Politely, even gently, but no less firmly for that. Ravana had taken pains to ensure that her House Guard understood the distinction.

When the door clicked shut behind them, leaving herself and Yancey alone in the chamber, she allowed her expression to descend into a flat stare at the wall.

“He is a small business owner,” she said aloud after nearly a minute of silence. “A lifelong resident of Madouris. Born and raised.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Yancey replied. “A bootmaker. His shop is not large, but rather successful.”

“And that,” she whispered, “due to one of the business loans furnished by my treasury, before which he was a cobbler in a factory. I consigned everyone I loved to the headsman to rescue this province, Yancey. Opened my House’s wealth and resources to improve my people’s lives to the greatest extent I could—and with amazing success, if I may boast, in only two short years. Now, here I find one of the most direct recipients of my generosity, paid in my family’s blood, trying to stab me in the back. For a handful of doubloons. I begin to understand why the powers of this world still insist on resorting to torture, despite centuries of accumulated knowledge to show how ineffective the tactic is. There’s an appeal to the simplicity, is there not? If the subject won’t comply, hurt them until they do.”

“Torture is indeed an extremely effective tool for securing compliance, my Lady,” the Butler said diffidently. “It is sadly counterproductive when used to acquire valid information.”

“And even so,” Ravana hissed, her fingers tensing into claws on the arms of her chair, “it is tempting. So very tempting, when the subject in question is an infernally presumptuous ingrate.”

Two heartbeats of silence ensued before Yancey discreetly cleared his throat. “Veilwin and Barnes have both successfully attached magical traces to the priority targets Barnes’s spirits identified. The ‘bigger fish,’ as he put it. Lord-Captain Arivani also has his best men observing their movements. It is my understanding, my Lady, that those are the anticipated sources of intelligence on his Holiness’s connections in the province. Mr. Salimon’s detention is more designed to provide a pretext for your upcoming declaration, and convince the Archpope that we have failed to identify his true agents. If we do not truly expect to garner worthwhile information from Mr. Salimon… Strictly speaking, it would seem not to matter what befalls him here.”

With a Butler’s customary subtle precision, he managed to express the suggestion without voicing it directly.

Ravana continued staring at the wall in silence for another long moment before very slowly shaking her head. “Such self-indulgent brutality all too quickly becomes a habit, Yancey, and I have seen firsthand what that habit in a leader does to a realm. No… I fear I have already indulged myself to excess, here. The wretch will be handled with all due care and then thrown back to his sad little life when he’s no longer useful. Perhaps that, at least, will teach him some caution, if not virtue.”

“Very good, my Lady.”

She could not fault him for the suggestion, for all that it ran against her practices and stated policies for the running of her province. In truth, this entire interview had been unnecessary; nothing about Salimon’s case had required her personal attention, and indeed only took time away from the actually professional interrogators she employed, not that she expected them to get anything useful from him anyway. All of this was simply because she’d wanted to look him in the eye, see the man and hear his excuses for aiding the enemies of his Duchess. Ravana had expected nothing from him, and still come away disappointed. From Yancey’s point of view, it was a purely logical extrapolation to suggest she might wish to vent her ire on the little toad of a man—and Yancey, of course, would not venture an opinion on the subject one way or another. Whatever his mistress chose to do, he would see done with the greatest efficiency.

Ravana did not have that luxury. As a leader, she had to make better choices. The monster within her that eternally snarled for vengeance must remain leashed, until there were more fitting targets upon whom to loose it.

And in fact, only for minutes longer. She was about to declare total war upon a worthy target indeed.

“Time?” she asked crisply, rising from the chair.

“The reporters you invited have begun gathering, and will be ready when you appear to deliver your address,” he replied smoothly, the Butler of course not needing to consult any messengers or even a watch to know the exact status of any project within his domain. “As you requested, my Lady, only journalists from Madouris have been summoned, though we have not limited the conference to representatives of papers under your direct control. The paladins will begin delivering their own speeches within the hour.”

“I hope they took my advice,” she murmured.

“It appears so, my Lady. All three will make their announcements in a staggered order, to avoid drawing attention from one another, and build political momentum.”

“Good. And we have magical oversight to notify us when the last paladin announcement is complete?”

“Yes, my Lady. Veilwin expressed her displeasure at the need for her to remain sober for the duration.”

“She will live, provided she does not antagonize her employer much further.” Timing would be important; Ravana had suggested to the paladins that they would achieve a greater effect by chaining their formal announcements one after another rather than delivering them simultaneously, and she planned to launch her own as soon as they were finished to further extend the chain, and avoid stepping on their toes. Against the right kind of foe, a rapid succession of blows could be more devastating than a single more powerful one.

Ravana swept toward the door and her much anticipated date with full-scale conflict, but hesitated with her hand upon the latch. “And Yancey, make arrangements for me to have a fencing tutor during my vacations from Last Rock. Professor Ezzaniel believes I am not without talent, and… I suspect this seething desire to pummel the crap out of someone is going to become a recurring part of my life. I should cultivate a properly graceful means of expressing it. As befits a Lady.”


She emerged in a split-second surge of darkness as usual, and immediately had multiple destructive spells aimed at her. For a given value of “immediately;” Natchua had the dual advantages of faster-than-human reflexes and preparation, since only she had known in advance the precise timing of her arrival. Infernal countermeasures were already sizzling at her fingertips before the stepped out of the shadows onto the rooftop, and had assembled mental preparations to neutralize or reverse every hex the other warlocks conjured before they could attack.

But they didn’t. After a tense second, most of them released their gathered energies, and the few holdouts kept their spells in a suspended low-power state. Natchua, frankly, was disappointed. Her life would be so much simpler if they would just throw down honestly so she could put a final end to all this. And yet, here they were.

“Only you weirdos would hold a picnic on a rooftop in Veilgrad at midwinter,” she snorted, folding her arms and looking down her nose at the assembled Black Wreath.

“Like it?” Embras Mogul asked cheerfully, gesturing around. They had dragged—or more likely shadow-jumped—a wooden table and several benches up here, and even set up a grill. None of the warlocks appeared to be cold, which meant they hadn’t actually done any serious infernomancy, as that would destabilize most commercially available arcane heating charms. No, it appeared they were simply relaxing in the open air, working their way through a big cauldron of mulled cider and sandwiches made of grilled sausage and a horrible local specialty called sauerkraut which Natchua didn’t care to be within smelling range of. “I’m surprised more people don’t do this, what with modern warmth charms. Hot food and cold air make for a delightful contrast! Rupa, get the Duchess a sandwich.”

“The Duchess can get her own fucking sandwich,” retorted a Punaji woman before taking a long draught of cider.

“No, thank you,” Natchua sniffed. “I don’t suppose the owners of this building even know you’re up here?” She was answered by a variety of disdainful expressions. For once, and for whatever reason—likely having to do with eating and drinking—the Wreath had their hoods down. They were a collection of humans of various ethnicities; Natchua wasn’t sure she liked seeing all their faces this way. Wiping them all out would feel easier if they could be dismissed as formless robed mooks.

“Really, how many flat rooftops are there in Veilgrad?” Mogul retorted. “They’re practically asking for it. We should demand payment for clearing off the snow; that’s exactly why they build those steep gabled roofs around here, you know.”

“I guess I can’t fault your inventiveness when it comes to finding new ways to get my attention.”

“Yes, that’s right, Natchua,” he replied with gratuitously heavy-handed sarcasm. “Everything we do revolves around you.”

She folded her arms, refusing to rise to that bait. “Well, here I am. So go ahead, Mogul, do your gloating. Don’t hold back, let’s get it all out of your system up front.”

He actually hesitated with a sandwich halfway to his mouth, staring at her through slightly narrowed eyes. Several of his fellow cultists were regarding her with similar expressions, those who weren’t scowling outright.

“Gloating,” Mogul said slowly, rolling the word around as if to taste it.

“Are you really going to make me start?” Natchua demanded. “You know what, fine, whatever gets this done with faster. I’m big enough to admit when I’ve been beaten. So congratulations, you called my big bluff. I’ll own up to it: the thought genuinely never crossed my mind that you would actually grovel in public. I wouldn’t have. So, you win. And now I’m stuck with you freaks, because no, my word means too much for me to renege on a public promise, even to…you. I’m sure I have many long years of you finding ways to torture me with it to look forward to.”

She grimaced right back at their scowls, only belatedly noting that some of those scowls had melted into expressions of confusion. Natchua glanced back and forth at the displeased warlocks whose picnic she had crashed; now, for some reason, they mostly looked bemused or suspicious, as if trying to figure out what she was up to. Mogul himself was just staring at her with a curious blank face, sandwich still held halfway to his mouth.

“Well?” she prompted. “That’s it. If you were hoping for more, you’re gonna be waiting a long time. I just said I’m not willing to humiliate myself any—”

Natchua broke off again as Embras Mogul burst out laughing, then just stared while he appeared to fall into outright hysterics. Dropping his sandwich, the high priest of Elilial staggered into the picnic table, only haphazardly managing to slide onto a seat rather than tumbling to the frozen rooftop along with his spilled bread and sausage. Even the other Wreath were watching him with varying degrees of confusion and alarm, Vanessa stepping closer and reaching out but then hesitating, as if unsure how to deal with this.

“Does he often…?” Natchua gestured vaguely at the cackling warlock. Nobody answered her, except with a few spiteful stares.

“Y-y’see,” Mogul wheezed, removing his omnipresent hat and tossing it carelessly down on the table. “You see what she’s doing, though?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Natchua huffed. “What is it you think I’m doing now?”

“Not you,” he snorted, his laughter cutting off as abruptly as it had begun. “No, Natchua my dear, you pegged me right in the first place. I’m right there with you; I’d sooner chew off my own foot, if the alternative was making a degrading public spectacle of myself. Only a direct command from the Dark Lady could make me even consider such a thing.” He bared his teeth at her in an expression very much like a fox in the kind of trap that could only be escaped by the means he’d just suggested. “And so it was.”

Natchua narrowed her own eyes, feeling a chill down her back that was unrelated to the cold air. She had suspected at the time, having felt that moment of Elilial’s dark attention in the moment before the man had buckled to the ground. “I really don’t know how you can still trust her enough to do such a thing, after all that’s happened. Much less why she would see any advantage in humiliating you like that.”

“Why, that’s exactly what I just realized,” he replied, grinning bleakly up at her. “It’s a classic trick—but then, simple tricks are the best tricks. If you want mutually hostile people to get along, you give them a mutual enemy. And for people who are all, to varying degrees, averse to being ordered around, there’s no more tempting enemy than someone in authority over them. You see?”

She did see, but found nothing to say, for once.

“I don’t believe it,” one of the warlocks growled.

“That’s too…” Vanessa trailed off mid-sentence, as though unsure what she’d actually meant to say.

“It fits, though,” Mogul said, still staring up at Natchua. “It has to be said there’s not a shred of trust here, nor even amity. You know, what with all the murder and torture and ambushing and all.”

“I don’t believe you,” Natchua managed at last, echoing one of Mogul’s own followers. “I can believe Elilial would be cruel enough to make you humiliate yourself, but not for no point. There’s no reason she would care enough whether we get along. There’s no reason we need to.”

“I think you know better,” he replied, his stare again gone flat and expressionless. “There’s a new paradigm brewing; none of us know what the new order will shape up to be. But the Dark Lady isn’t one to just let things happen without applying her own finger to the scales. And obviously, whatever plans she has are better off with her cult and her paladin able to work together.”

Wind whistled over the rooftop, carrying with it the sounds and smells of the bustling city laid out around them.

“So,” Natchua said at last, “you do know about that.”

“Oh, come on, why did you think we were here?” he scoffed, spreading his arms. “Our only business with you should have been a quick and lethal ambush. But we had to know, Natchua. What other question could there have been, except why. In all of recorded history, even we have no hint there was ever a Hand of Elilial. And she chooses an enemy? Someone who did to us what you did? Of all the possible prospects, why you?”

It would be so easy to seize that opportunity to say something spiteful, or simply deflect the question, but something stayed her impulse. They were all starting at her with an intensity which, if it didn’t exactly bring down the masks, said this question was absolutely sincere, and pivotal. That was only understandable, even if she couldn’t see the raw aspect of their faces. Natchua had been trying to pay attention to this feeling, and while she didn’t feel she’d made much progress in understanding it, she had learned to at least recognize these moments of decision, when an unknown impulse prompted her to do something that seemed irrational. So far, these had turned out better for her than she had any right to expect. This time, it pushed her to simply be straightforward with the Black Wreath.

“She said I was cunning,” Natchua answered him, fixing her eyes on Embras’s and ignoring the intent stares of the other warlocks—and not, of course, relaxing her defenses for an instant, just on the chance one of them got agitated and then impulsive. “Apparently the archdemons were her equivalent of a paladin, and with them all gone and Vadrieny effectively against her, she needed something to fill the gap. It didn’t make sense to me why an avowed enemy was a good choice, either, but…here we are. Cunning, she said. I got the impression your cult has been disappointing in that regard. Clever and deceitful rather than cunning. She spent some time lecturing me about the difference.”

She hesitated, once more glancing around; Mogul remained expressionless, but some of the other warlocks were starting to look angry again. On that, she couldn’t exactly blame them.

“As for what’s really going on, I couldn’t tell you,” Natchua snorted. “The whole thing was a crock of bullshit. I have no idea what her game is, but honestly. Cunning? I know my faults, thank you, and I’m not stupid enough to swallow that. I’m impulsive and lucky, that’s all. Whatever game Elilial is playing, I guess she didn’t feel the need to bring you into the loop either, and I’m afraid I can’t help. Cunning, my gray ass.”

“Hm,” a bearded man grunted from one side of the group, shifting his eyes to stare pensively out over Veilgrad’s skyline rather than at her.

“I know that grunt,” Mogul said with a sigh, turning back to him. “That is the grunt of forbidden wisdom. Well, come on, Bradshaw. Let’s not keep us in suspense.”

Bradshaw’s eyes focused on him, and then he glanced again at Natchua. “Are we giving explanations to the…her, Embras?”

“The her has deigned to be forthcoming with us,” Mogul acknowledged. “And it does seem we are stuck with one another for the time being. Let’s hear what you know.”

The other warlock’s nostrils flared once in a silent sigh which connoted annoyance, but he did turn back to Natchua. “What you did at Ninkabi was…or at least, could be interpreted as a ritual called an Offering of Cunning. Someone who out-maneuvers the Black Wreath in open combat and then…” He paused, gritting his teeth so hard the expression was visible even behind his beard. “Well, the spirit of the thing calls for withdrawing at that point before delivering a deathblow. You technically didn’t kill anyone with your own hands, though your next actions certainly were the next worst thing. For whatever reason, it seems the Dark Lady chose to interpret that as an Offering of Cunning. The reward is a personal audience with her, in which the successful offerer is allowed to ask questions and receive truthful answers.”

“That’s the first I ever heard of that nonsense,” she assured him. “I really was just trying to kill you and ruin her day.”

“Yes, well, the last time we got an Offering of Cunning was two years ago and at that time, none of us had heard of it, either, including Embras. Understand that for most of the Wreath’s history, our core operations have been concentrated on this continent, as with most of the Pantheon cults. And that led to a dramatic change in the nature of our operations a century ago, as the Wreath was damaged almost as badly as the Empire during the Enchanter Wars.”

“I didn’t know you fought in the Enchanter Wars,” Natchua admitted, beginning to be intrigued in spite of herself.

“Ugh,” Vanessa grunted, folding her arms.

“Oh, I assure you our forebears did their level best to stay out of that mess,” Mogul said wryly. “Unfortunately, other parties taking advantage of the chaos took their own toll. The Wreath’s leadership at the time was entirely wiped out by… Well, actually, your friend Kheshiri could tell you that story far better than I, as she was neck-deep in it.”

“You lost the right to complain about Kheshiri when you let her out of her bottle in the first place.”

“I have to give you that one,” he agreed. “Anyway, your pardon, Bradshaw. Please continue.”

“The point,” said Bradshaw, “is that the Wreath keeps a mostly oral tradition; few of our secrets were ever written down. That loss of important personnel cost us a great deal of our magical and ritual knowledge, and so the Wreath subsequently pivoted from a largely mystical to a mostly political organization. A lot of its more esoteric knowledge was left lost. After the battle at Tiraas two years ago when we were abruptly reminded of the Offering of Cunning, I’ve been focusing on digging up what I can of the Wreath’s past mystical traditions. Ironically, the best sources now are hidden archives of the Pantheon cults recording their various observations. It’s been slow, but I have turned up a number of fascinating things.”

“One of which you just recognized,” she said.

“The grunt of forbidden wisdom,” Mogul said solemnly. “Go on, Bradshaw, lay it on us.”

“I know of cases like yours,” Bradshaw explained, now studying Natchua through narrowed eyes, his stare more analytical than angry. “Not exactly like it; I’ve seen no record of the Dark Lady gifting someone the way she did you and that Masterson boy. But the old Wreath used to deliberately do a similar thing, using the auspices of greater djinn. Actually that practice had fallen by the wayside long before the Enchanter Wars, as it was more risky than rewarding. Given the kinds of people who’d be selected for a task like that, the circumstances in which the risk was considered warranted and what usually happens when a greater djinn is invoked, it was mostly a recipe for losing key personnel exactly when they were needed most. When it did work, though, the warlock could gain, all in one moment, vast knowledge of the infernal.”

“Sure, no great mystery there,” Natchua said with a shrug. “Obviously a more powerful warlock is more useful.”

“It wasn’t about power,” Bradshaw said irritably. “It has never been our way to go head-to-head with our enemies. Even if we weren’t heavily outnumbered in every contest, we serve the goddess of cunning. And cunning was always the point. A person who was abruptly gifted a vast command of infernomancy would usually become almost preternaturally devious. Able to think faster than any of their foes, taking actions that seemed nonsensical at the time but always seemed to work out to their advantage.”

That, finally, brought Natchua up short. She narrowed her own eyes to slits, and at last nodded grudgingly. “…go on?”

“Subjective physics,” the one called Rupa said thoughtfully. “What’s that old expression, Hiroshi, the one the Salyrites like to use?”

“Magic,” replied a man with Sifanese features in a soft tone, “is data processing.”

“That’s basic magical theory,” Vanessa agreed. “Magic isn’t about power; the power comes from mundane universal principles. Magic is…information. It bridges the gap between what conscious minds can conceive and sub-atomic phenomena, and then performs the vast calculations necessary to produce physical effects based on ideas.”

Bradshaw nodded. “If you already have the right personality type…say, an aptitude for lateral thinking, that probably wouldn’t manifest well before you received the gift. Would I be right in guessing your antics mostly caused you embarrassment and trouble before your first encounter with the Dark Lady, Natchua?”

She managed not to cringe at the forcible reminder of her behavior during her first years at Last Rock. “That’s…not inaccurate.”

“Some people are just dumb,” Bradshaw continued, raising an eyebrow. “Or thoughtless, or overly aggressive, or any number of other things. But sometimes, people who act unpredictably or unwisely are just trying to extrapolate too much from their surroundings. Sometimes, if gifted with a great deal of magic, the gaps are filled in. They start to draw information from sources even they aren’t consciously aware of, and process it faster and in ways most people can’t. Their actions appear random, but they are instinctively led by…magic. Data processing.”

“Huh,” she said, blinking. “I guess…people with odd magical mutations do exist. Tellwyrn sort of collects them. November, Fross, Iris…”

“Yes, I’m sure you’d like to think of yourself as a unique and beautiful snowflake,” Bradshaw said with a disdainful sneer, “but no, I’m not talking about anything so interesting. It’s simply one possible effect of being suddenly inundated with magical knowledge the way you were, and it explains your subsequent pattern of blundering and failing your way into ever-greater success better than…well, anything.”

“Why am I just now hearing about this?” Mogul demanded.

Bradshaw turned back to him with a shrug. “It’s just a theory, Embras. Another possibility is that she hasn’t actually succeeded at anything and is being used by more powerful figures for their own ends. This Duchess business is definitely an example of that. And after all, it’s usually wise to look for mundane explanations before exotic ones. We don’t know, but…given her description of what the Dark Lady said, it’s at least a possibility.”

“If our fate is to be tied to hers anyway,” Hiroshi said softly, “perhaps it behooves us not to allow rival powers to manipulate her too badly.”

To judge by their displeased expressions, none of the other warlocks were enthusiastic about that idea. But no one offered a word of rebuttal; the fact was, he was right. The same held true from Natchua’s perspective. As little as she liked any of these…people, she had given her word, in public. As long as they were willing to toe the line, they now had the right to demand her protection.

She and Embras studied each other in mutual reluctance. Despite the animosity here, this was the situation they were in. They could either struggle further, or try to make the best of it.

“Okay,” Natchua said grudgingly, “I see what you mean. She is a manipulative one, huh. Why are you so eager to be jerked around like this?”

“You’ve never devoted yourself to a cause greater than your own life, have you,” he replied, and it wasn’t really a question. “I could explain, but the result would only be another argument with no winner. You’ll come to understand in time, or you won’t.”

“That’s super fucking helpful, thank you.”

Mogul grinned unrepentantly. “Well, then… What now?”

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16 – 38

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“What the hell is this?”

For just a moment, he’d made her freeze up. Confronted with this public gambit, Natchua’s mind ran away with all the dire possibilities, aided by the pressure of the incredulous glares upon her, and the part of her that was meant to respond intelligently came up completely blank.

For just a moment.

Then she found herself talking, and in a suitably scornful tone, not entirely sure what she was doing but riding the feeling she had that this was the right move. According to Elilial, Natchua’s “cunning” was an instinctive quality, a gift of hers that propelled her onward past what the likes of Mogul himself had achieved through practice. If the goddess was right, perhaps this unthinking confidence was precisely what she needed to prevail.

And of course, if the goddess was wrong—or lying—Mogul had just decisively outflanked her and anything she said from here was only going to make it worse.

“Why, it’s a kraagthshnorik,” Mogul said with theatrical innocence. “You did send us to deal with it, if you’ll recall, my lady. Your notes were most concise; it was entombed precisely where you indicated.”

The kraagthshnorik snarled a muffled protest, squirming against its bonds and achieving nothing but a puff of smoke from its nostrils and a patch of disturbed gravel. That, and a few abortive shrieks from the nearest aristocracy.

“Oh, he’s a comedian now, too,” Natchua snorted, ignoring the speculative murmurs that sprang up from all around the party grounds. “You just blew the last tattered shreds of my patience, Mogul, don’t pretend you don’t know I was referring to its presence here. Do I walk into your home and defecate on the carpet?”

“Are we speaking literally or metaphorically?” he inquired.

Natchua flicked out her right hand, spewing forth a column of shadow tentacles to the accompaniment of another few screams—really, at some point these people were going to have to run out of things by which to be shocked—and brought the whole fifteen-foot-long mass down at the imprisoned demon. Mid-descent, the ends of the tendrils formed together into a massive scythe blade of black light limned in sullen purple, which stabbed straight through the kraagthshnorik’s central body.

The demon emitted a booming yet plaintive groan and collapsed, its huge bulk disintegrating into charcoal and sulfur-smelling smoke right before their eyes. Mogul’s magical chains around it also slumped loose, and then dissipated themselves.

“Explain yourself,” Natchua ordered, pleased with her mask of icy contempt.

“Me?” Mogul spread his hands, still making himself a picture of well-meaning confusion. “My lady, whatever do you mean? You ordered—”

He at least had the good sense to break off when her shadow apparatus, which she had not dismissed so readily as his chains, whipped back into the air to bring the tip of its blade to rest right in front of his face. The scythe itself was nearly as long as he was tall.

“Natchua, I did not realize you and Embras had a relationship,” Malivette stated, gliding over to stand by her.

“Best of friends!” Mogul said cheerily.

She could kill him, of course. She was at least thrice the warlock he could ever hope to be. The tentacle scythe inched fractionally closer to his face.

Then she dismissed it, withdrawing the tendrils which had formed its base and in general continuing to make decisions faster than the rational mind could process what she was doing.

She should kill him, which he knew, and there was the rub. He had walked right up to her and made a pest of himself. Natchua could not see, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of any other Wreath or demons in the vicinity, but she knew they had means of hiding, even from her senses. Their gift of stealth she could penetrate, but the trick of warding themselves against even an elf’s natural perceptions was a thing of shadow magic, not infernomancy, and all they had to do was actively abstain from infernal craft and she would be unable to detect them that way. Mogul would not have done this without insurance, and whatever countermeasures he had planned risked collateral damage among these assembled nobility that would be politically catastrophic for her, well beyond the embarrassment he was trying to inflict. Unless he expected her to think of all that and… No, that was a dead end line of thought and not something upon which he would have banked his very life; Mogul’s whole problem was that he was an overly cautious planner, a schemer spinning webs rather than the aggressively fox-like master of cunning Elilial had claimed she wanted.

Plus, he’d walked into the home of Malivette, who might or might not be smarter than Natchua but had proven she had less patience for his bullshit, on an evening when she was hosting all three living paladins—who not only were likely to attack him on sight regardless of anything else going on, but had learned the necessity of so doing right here in Veilgrad.

And yep, there was Trissiny, already stalking over toward them, her furious glare switching from Mogul to Natchua even as the drow made note of her presence. The other two were… She quickly sorted through the haze of muffled sounds to isolate their voices, both inside the manor. They’d have to be properly distracted to have failed to sense the arrival of that large demon on the grounds—which made Natchua suspect afresh that Mogul wanted a violent confrontation. Yes, Gabriel was in a room talking quietly with Jonathan and Hesthri, and Toby was…good and diverted. He might still get what he wanted, to judge by Trissiny’s expression. Allegedly she was better about thinking before acting since training with the Thieves’ Guild, but she was still Trissiny, and this was still exactly what it looked like.

All these thoughts flashed across Natchua’s mind in the space of a half second, and were still in the process of sorting themselves when she answered Malivette in a tone of aloof irritation.

“I did brief you, Vette; he’s been loitering around, pestering me for days. I finally decided if the Wreath were planning to make a local nuisance of themselves, they might as well be useful in the process. So I directed Embras here to a list of local dangers around Veilgrad which I intend to vanquish anyway before any more loggers and trappers fail to come home from the woods. The Wreath do love to talk a big game about how they serve and protect the world from demons. I assure you, I did not give him license to make a mess upon your front lawn,” she added, returning her glare to Embras with a disgusted curl of her lip, as if he were a dog which had just tracked mud into the house.

“You do not let the Black Wreath help,” Trissiny interjected through gritted teeth. “Take it from someone who learned it firsthand, Natchua, in this very city. The chaos crisis was worse than it needed to be because we failed to destroy them when they came with an oh so reasonable offer of aid. Their demon-summoning unbalanced the whole region, and that was before they turned on us!”

Natchua made her expression deliberately more polite, as much as she could be non-confrontational with the paladin and not lose any more of the face she was desperately scrambling to save in front of the gathered nobility. All while wishing she could afford to make pointed expressions to the effect that this was not the time for any Hand of Avei antics.

“That’s because you let them help, Trissiny. I gave them specific tasks and outlined consequences for failure, noncompliance, or collateral damage. Which it seems I shall now have to enforce.”

“I sense that I have disappointed you, my Lady,” Mogul intoned with a farcical display of solemn contrition. “Do inform me how I might make amends, I beg you. I remain ever humbly at your service.”

And now Xyraadi had emerged from the crowd, approaching them with a similar expression, and Natchua nearly despaired. She’d been pleased to invite the khelminash, who was not only a friend but someone to whom she owed a lot, and in fact it had seemed her presence here would set a useful precedent, but Xyraadi’s feelings about the Wreath were roughly the same as Trissiny’s and her approach to expressing them only minimally more subtle.

Well, at least if this whole thing ended up as bad as it looked like it was about to, she could be reasonably sure Embras Mogul would be dead before he could enjoy the results of his scheming.

“I say, that was a rather prescient strategy,” Ravana said smoothly, herself gliding forward into the fray armed with a wineglass and an aloof smile. “The world has awaited with trepidation the full outcome of Elilial’s peace with the Pantheon; I suppose it stands to reason that the Wreath need not strictly be a banned organization any longer, provided they can render a useful service like the other cults. And abide by a…” She looked pointedly at the large patch of charcoal dust and disturbed gravel and sniffed. “…standard of behavior.”

“You’re not serious!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I see the sense in it,” said Malivette, regarding Mogul with a more pensive expression. Like a specimen on a dissection table rather than a misbehaving animal. “Obviously they must make some accommodation with the new order of things. Equally obviously, they need to get over their grudge about Ninkabi; we cannot have warlocks jumping about, harassing our nobility. It’s an elegant solution, Natchua, and how very like you to step out in front of a problem and shape it toward a useful end. I knew you would do well in this role.”

“You are too kind, Malivette,” Natchua replied graciously, inclining her head and hardly having to fake her amicable expression. Inwardly, she felt a rush of pure gratitude toward the pair of them for closing ranks with her in the face of this. Not that they had a choice; any public humiliation Natchua suffered at this moment would impact Malivette and Ravana nearly as much, and she was undoubtedly going to hear more about this at length later.

“That, of course, presupposes that the cult in question possesses the basic sense to comply with the needs of civilized society and not make nuisances of themselves,” Ravana added, looking down her nose at Embras, which took real skill on her part as he was a head and a half taller than she. “This little episode shows, at best, exceedingly poor judgment.”

“It does seem quite clearly to be an attempt to embarrass you in public, Natchua,” Malivette agreed, still examining Mogul with disdainful interest. “A rather sophomoric one, though. Is this really the best the notorious Black Wreath could conjure up to avenge their defeat? I recall them being… Well, I won’t say impressive, but less desultory in their machinations than this.”

Even Trissiny seemed to have calmed, studying Mogul through slitted eyes but making no move to intervene. Xyraadi was still bouncing a ball of golden fire from hand to hand, but did not appear about to throw it.

“Well, I think you’ll find that is the Black Wreath in a nutshell,” said Natchua, deliberately pitching her voice to resonate across the grounds. “People forget that Elilial is the goddess of cunning, not demons; her own cult certainly did. The last handful of years leading up to the Battle of Ninkabi have been an uninterrupted string of defeats and debacles at the hands of virtually everyone they ran across. The Empire, the Universal Church, the Thieves’ Guild, Trissiny here and her fellow paladins. I understand even my magic professor from Last Rock found time to slap a few of them around on a lark. They were reduced to a handful of warm bodies by the time I got down to them. And all because of…this.” She gestured with ostentatious contempt at the dirty spot that had moments before been a fearsome demon. “The Black Wreath are many things. Devious, duplicitous, arguably not unintelligent, even rather crafty at times. But cunning? No.” Natchua tilted her own head back, staring down her nose at Embras in an imitation of Ravana’s posture. And beginning to hear alarm bells in the back of her head at the lack of any discomfiture on his part under this verbal abuse, but she pressed on. He had to be put in his place in front of these onlookers or her own burgeoning reputation would take damage she’d require years to repair. “Cunning is an entirely different quality, the ability to scheme while on the move and under pressure. The Wreath under this one’s leadership has been utterly dependent on their ability to lay plans in advance, unable to adapt or respond swiftly to changes on the board. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what becomes of a cult which forgets its deity’s central value: it becomes a sad remnant whose sole means of retribution is making a stain on the floor.”

To her immense satisfaction, they laughed. The same privileged observers who a minute ago had been squealing in terror of a bound demon now produced a chorus of judgmental titters at the expense of the warlock standing in their midst.

And Mogul himself… He kept his head angled so that Natchua could not see his eyes, but his mouth beneath the broad brim of his hat remained set in an easygoing smile. He stood easily, his posture loose and nonchalant with both hands in his pockets, quite lacking the telltale signs of tension and displeasure she’d managed to wring from him on every previous encounter around Veilgrad. As she stared down at him, his lips stretched infinitesimally, that knowing smile broadening just enough to betray a flash of white teeth.

In that moment, now that it was too late, realization slammed down on Natchua and she understood how he’d just outmaneuvered her.

Mogul finally unfolded himself, sweeping off his hat and executing a low bow before the three disapproving Duchesses.

“My dear Lady Leduc! And Lady Dufresne, upon whose home I have so brashly intruded. Even the Lady Madouri, clearly a more honored guest here than I. It occurs to me, belatedly, that my little jape was in rather poor taste. If this unworthy servant might beg your indulgence for another moment, do tell me how I might make amends for this affront! My only desire is to prove my goodwill. After all, we must all enter this brave new world together, is it not so?”

Natchua breathed in and out carefully. She could still kill him… But no, she’d been right in the first place; he undoubtedly had backup ready to cause carnage among her guests and the havoc that would create might set Imperial Intelligence after her, or worse. At the absolute least, she would look petty, violent, and unstable if she attacked him after that speech, which would rule out any of the cooperation they were hoping to gain from the nobility gathered here.

Ravana and Malivette, to her deep displeasure, shifted subtly to aim their faces toward Natchua, inclining their heads forward slightly in a clear signal that they would defer to her on this matter, exactly when that wasn’t what she needed. Even Trissiny was just watching, silent and intent, but showing no sign she meant to thrust her sword into this. Typical, the one time Natchua wanted her to lash out…

But no. There they stood, having successfully saved face and blunted Mogul’s social attack. And all it had cost was the public agreement of three Duchesses of Great Houses of the Empire, before a notoriously vengeful Hand of Avei who now publicly deferred to their judgment, that the Black Wreath had a valid role to play in the world.

Even the Silver Throne, though it wasn’t bound by anything they said, might hesitate to outright contradict the formal stance of all three Houses, given the relationship between the aristocracy and the Emperor after the post-Enchanter Wars reforms. This would undoubtedly set every minor House represented here to scheming for whatever scraps of advantage they might gain from this, but there was no question at all of any of them openly defying the dictates of Houses Leduc, Dufresne, and Madouri.

Mogul had just goaded her into formally legitimizing his cult.

How many people, now, had warned Natchua that sooner or later her hasty approach was going to backfire? Well, she bitterly reflected, it was probably a blessing that nothing in the process had exploded or gotten anyone killed. Yet.

“Ladies,” she said, putting on a light tone and stalling for time in which to frantically think of a way out of this, “I am, as you know, somewhat new to this position. How would you recommend dealing with an obstinate servant who presumed to disrupt a social event with a petty display of pique?”

“Any such servant would be summarily dismissed, at the very least,” Ravana said, idly swirling her wineglass. “But I suppose that rather puts us back where this started, does it not? Clearly this…individual…needs to be taken in hand. And have his knuckles rapped.”

“Where I am from,” said Xyraadi, “he would lose his left hand for such an affront, and be sent to employ the other one breaking rocks in a quarry.”

“Are you talking about Hell or medieval Glassiere?” Trissiny asked.

The demon paused, tilted her head contemplatively, and then nodded. “I stand corrected. Where I am from, he would be partially flayed and suspended above a bed of tissue-dissolving carnivorous plants until his frame disintegrated too much to be restrained, with a steady stream of healing magics applied to prolong the process and ensure he remained conscious throughout.”

From somewhere nearby came the sound of an unfortunate noblewoman being sick.

“That sounds like rather more time and effort than this is worth,” Malivette said dryly.

Mogul continued to look unperturbed by this line of discussion, even amused, but it had given Natchua the few seconds she needed to hit on an idea. If he wanted to play mind games, she could play mind games.

She took two strides forward, physically separating herself from her allies and coming within a few feet of Mogul, then lifted her chin regally and stared down at him.

“I gather it is considered inadvisable for warlocks to visit Sifan.”

“Oh, indeed, my Lady,” Mogul assured her, grinning. “Do not mistake the indulgence you and I have both received from Ekoi-sensei in these lands for the reaction of the kitsune if we dared set foot on their precious islands. They tend to express their displeasure with even more imagination than Xyraadi, here.” He had the utter gall to wink at the Khelminash, who conjured another fireball and visibly contemplated hurling it at him.

“Then I gather you may be rather ignorant of their culture.”

He shrugged. “I’ll admit that was something of a sticking point in my previous interactions with the esteemed Professor Ekoi. I believe I wrapped my head around the basics, though not with much…nuance.”

Natchua put on a vulpine smile that required little effort at dissembling. “Do you know how a Sifanese retainer delivers a formal apology?”

“If you are suggesting that I open my belly, dear lady, I’m afraid I lack the appropriate ceremonial sword.”

“Oh, no, no,” she assured him with a cold grin. “We both know you haven’t enough guts to spill. No, Mogul. You will kneel. Down on both knees, and then press your forehead to the ground, with your hands palm down in front of you.” She tossed her hair, taking note with malicious satisfaction of the way his smile finally slipped away. “Words are worth nothing; if you are penitent, show me. Prostrate yourself, servant, and when I judge you have made an adequate show of submission to my will, I shall forgive your transgression. This time.”

He stared at her, all amusement gone from his face, and beneath his outrage at the suggestion Natchua could practically sense the wheels turning. There was no such custom in any of the nations of the Empire and never had been. What might be a formal display in Sifan was a grotesque humiliation anywhere in the domain of Tiraas.

This was a battle of social positioning, not magical power; if the price of legitimacy granted by House Leduc and its allies was for the mortal leader of the Black Wreath to debase himself like a slave before its upstart Duchess… Well, that was simply a bad bargain. The Wreath was already down to a shadow of its former strength, and dependent on its dangerous reputation to gather the defiant personalities it needed to rebuild itself. If he did such a thing, in front of an audience which would ensure the story spread to every corner of the Empire by dawn, he would all but place himself and all his followers directly in Natchua’s power. They would have no other hope of being taken seriously, much less support, from any quarter.

There was no way the proud arch-warlock of Elilial would take such a bargain. Staring him down, she allowed her lips to curl further upward even as his scowl deepened. Natchua silently enjoyed watching him suffer on the horns of that dilemma. All his careful scheming, and still she got the better of him!

The timing of what happened next, descending on them just as she dared to think herself victorious, was undoubtedly not a coincidence.

It did not bear her down as the experience had in the past. It appeared not to affect, or even be noted by, any of the others present; Trissiny in particular would have reacted violently, but there was no sign that she, the Duchesses or Xyraadi felt anything, much less so much as a peep from the minor nobility watching this confrontation. Mogul, though… He felt it. She could see it in the sudden stiffening of his shoulders, the way his expression froze. This was only happening to the two of them.

The pressure. The unmistakable sensation of another intelligence looming over them, a mind so vast and powerful that just to be in its presence was to feel one’s own insignificance before the full scope of the universe. For an infinite moment, the silent intelligence of a deity weighed down on Natchua and Embras. Examining, judging.

And then, through its touch upon their minds, there came a clear surge of amusement.

Then the sensation lifted entirely from Natchua, leaving her once again alone in her own thoughts. But not Mogul. He stiffened further until he was nearly vibrating, his whole face clenching with rage as a command was laid upon him—a command he clearly abhorred with his entire being.

But he obeyed it. As Natchua stared in utter disbelief, the leader of the Black Wreath sank to his knees before her. Then bent forward, stretching out his arms toward her feet, and pressed his face to the gravel, causing his hat to slide gracelessly to the side.

Trissiny emitted a strangled sound. Natchua just barely managed not to echo her.

“With the utmost humility,” Mogul said, his voice somewhat muffled by the ground but impressively clear of emotion, “I apologize for my affront, mistress. I beg the opportunity to serve you, in the hope of making amends. Myself and mine are pledged to your cause.”

For the first time, Natchua silently prayed to the patron goddess whose favor she had sworn never to seek.

Oh, you evil cunt. So help me, I will get you for this.

Elilial sent her nothing further, not so much as a vague sensation to show that she’d been listening.

And she, as the Duchess of House Leduc, had to honor her word. Otherwise, her failure to do so would be part of the story spread across the Empire and no one would ever cooperate with her again.

“You are forgiven.” Natchua had to draw on her full store of Narisian reserve to keep her tone expressionless, but she managed. “This time. Be aware that you have fully expended your share of my tolerance, Mogul. If I am forced to correct you again, it will be the last time.” She hesitated, then added grudgingly, “You may rise.”

He did so with far more speed than he had descended, settling his hat back in place atop his bald head and immediately tilting it again to obscure as much of his expression as possible. The remainder showed that his own self-control hung by a thread.

“By your leave, then, my Lady,” Mogul intoned. “I look forward to working with you again.”

Before anyone could comment on the obvious sarcasm, shadows swelled up around him, and then he was gone.

Immediately, a surge of exclamations and the swell of excited chatter erupted from the noble audience all around them. Within the small group still standing around the spot where Mogul had been, Trissiny was the first to speak.

“I cannot believe you just did that.”

“You and me both, sister,” Natchua sighed, then caught herself. Actually, Trissiny of all people she might want to bring into the loop on this, if it was going to be an ongoing thing. Not here and now, though; that conversation called for the assurance of privacy. There were still other elves on the grounds, and also she had been warned that some of the nobility liked to employ expensive arcane charms to snoop on one another’s conversations at social events like this. “It occurs to me, in hindsight, that making him pay for it in humiliation might not make him any easier to deal with in the future.”

“You think so?” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua cleared her throat. “Yes, well. I’m embarrassed to ask you to help clean up my mess, Triss, but… If I understand how this paladin thing works, I think you sort of have to.”

Xyraadi let out a low whistle.

“You understand this is why nobody likes you, right?” Trissiny said, staring at the drow. “Tell me you do get that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Natchua sighed. “Shall I go ahead and bring you a punchbowl?”

For just a moment, she thought the paladin was going to slug her.

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16 – 37

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They chose a room at random down the first hallway they explored, and once inside immediately stopped, momentarily so forgetting what they were here for that Raolo didn’t even bother to push the door all the way closed. Instead, both of them stared at the wall of the small study, which was covered with newspaper articles, framed and under glass, and all featuring headlines about a certain drow.

“So this is why they made her a Duchess,” Raolo said in disbelief. “I was really wondering about that.”

“It’s all noble politics. I was mostly concerned she was being taken advantage of somehow,” Toby admitted.

The elf shook his head, still staring at the framed papers. “Always worried about others, Toby.”

It was a quality Toby valued in himself, one he couldn’t see as inherently a bad thing even if he had to acknowledge he took it too far sometimes, yet the undercurrent in Raolo’s tone told him they were already returning to the problem. Whatever the problem actually was; he remained far from certain about that.

He reached out, almost gingerly, to take Raolo’s hand. Immediately Raolo squeezed his in turn, and the relief was like a physical force straightening his spine again. He needed that to cling to, as the elf finally turned away from the wall of articles to meet his eyes again.

“So.”

“So,” Toby repeated awkwardly. “I… Well, I don’t understand what I did wrong, but I’m sorry. I won’t do it again if you’ll just explain it to me. The last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

For whatever reason, that just made Raolo look exasperated. “Augh… Toby, you’ve done nothing wrong. You have been faultlessly respectful and considerate and did exactly as I asked.”

“Okay, then… What’s—”

“Did you ever consider that I didn’t want you to do what I asked?” Raolo asked plaintively.

He blinked. Then twice more. Opened his mouth to speak, closed it, squinted, and blinked yet again.

“…no?”

“Of course not,” Raolo sighed. “Look, Toby… I love my family, okay? They gave me everything I have, made me who I am. The same goes for my tribe as a whole. It’s just so much easier to love them from a thousand miles away in Last Rock where I don’t have to deal with them constantly disapproving of the thing that most defines me.” He held up his free hand, allowing tiny blue arcs of unformed arcane power to crackle between his fingers for a second. “Maybe in, like, ten years I’ll be glad to go home for, oh I dunno, a week. That sounds like about how long I’ll be able to stand the pressure by then. But right now? It’s miserable. I would rather do anything else, especially if it means I get to do it with you.”

“I see,” Toby said slowly. “But…you were pretty insistent.”

“Yeah.” Raolo nodded, grimacing. “I should go home and be the dutiful son. I really, really ought to. I owe it to them. So…that’s what I said.”

“Okay, I guess I’m beginning to get it,” said Toby. “Wow, it makes so much sense when you point it out. I’m really sorry I failed to read between the lines, there. In hindsight—”

“Would. You. Stop that?!” Raolo exclaimed, finally letting go of his hand. “Veth’na alaue, Toby, I am not in the right, here! I’m being irrational and childish and unnecessarily difficult!”

“I. Um.” There was really no serviceable answer to that, forcing him to fall back on the old standby. “Sorry?”

Raolo stared at him for three seconds, then said very calmly, “Would you excuse me for just a moment?”

“Oh. Well, sure…”

“Thanks.” The elf turned away, walked to the other side of the room until he stood six inches from the wall, facing it. Then he reared back and thumped his forehead against the oak paneling, causing several of the framed articles to bounce.

“Raolo!”

“Okay.” Turning back and showing no sign of pain despite the red mark on his forehead, Raolo returned to him with a serious expression. Tobias, you are… You’re the best person I know. I love how caring you are, how you’re always looking out for others. But the thing is, you do that for everyone. It’s how you… Well, I know we’re young and this has only been a thing for a few months and I haven’t wanted to push at you, and I definitely don’t want to seem ungrateful to the first person in my life who’s unequivocally put my needs first, but… But I am starting to feel like I’m just another person around you. Being looked after the way you do for all your friends.”

“Are you…under the impression that the, ah, the things I do with you are things I do with everybody?” Toby demanded.

That earned a reluctant smile. “No, and I don’t mean to undervalue that intimacy. It’s just… Aw, balls, this is why I didn’t want to talk about it.” Raolo covered his eyes with both hands, shaking his head in helpless denial. “I sound like such a lunatic right now.”

“No, you don’t,” Toby said automatically. It was the wrong response; Raolo lowered his fingers, revealing a scowl.

“You’re doing it again.”

“Sorry.”

“What do you think that is?!”

“Well, sorry!” Toby exclaimed, throwing his own arms up. “I don’t understand what’s happening here! Can’t you just tell me what it is you want me to do?”

“That!” Raolo surged forward, grabbing him by the shoulders, and then pulled him into a hug which Toby immediately reciprocated despite his exasperation. “I just want you to sometimes not take care of me. I want to feel special to you.”

“You want…” Toby tightened his arms around him, biting back the first response that came to mind. And then the second. And only belatedly realized he was still doing the exact opposite of what Raolo was asking. But this was hard, and he still didn’t understand it. “Have I made you think you aren’t special to me?”

“You did nothing wrong,” Raolo insisted, squeezing him in turn. “You did what you always do, what makes you so unequivocally good, and part of what I love you for. It’s just…”

“I do that for everybody?” Toby echoed.

Raolo’s nod rubbed his hair distractingly against Toby’s cheek. “Here it is, the first time we’re away from school and at liberty since we’ve been an item, and I can’t fault your choices or your respect for my choices, but the fact remains, you’re off having paladin adventures with your friends and I went home to be passive-aggressively sniped at by my parents. And less passively by my sister.”

“I said I was sorry for…wait.” Toby drew back, just enough to be able to study his face. “Are you jealous?”

Raolo grimaced. “I told you I was being irrational.”

“Raolo!”

“I know.”

“Raolo, aside from the guy who’s basically my brother, they’re all women! Two of them are married and one’s three inches tall and physically sexless!”

“I know! I promise I don’t feel threatened by Gabriel. It’s not about them, it’s…” Closing his eyes, he leaned forward to rest his forehead against Toby’s, right where he’d recently bonked it on the wall. “The bond you have with them is made of shared experiences, trauma, victory… I can’t help being bitter at you letting me go home instead of having the opportunity to share another adventure with you. I want to build something like that between us. You know, I have read my adventuring histories; paladins always have their own parties. I may not be a dryad or archdemon, but do you have any idea how powerful an elven wizard can become? I can totally pull my weight as a Hand’s companion.”

Toby chuckled in spite of himself. “I hear what you’re saying, but Rao… Most of these adventures have been due to class trips. I’d love to have you come with us on the next one. Do you want to be the one to pitch that to Tellwyrn?”

The elf snorted softly in amused agreement. “I know, that’s fair. I’m not blaming you. This is…talking about the future. You know, someday, Teal will be running Falconer Industries, or helping with whatever it is Shaeine will end up doing for the Confederacy. Ruda will be off ruling her country, gods only know what the fairies will be up to, and you’ll probably still work with Gabe and Triss from time to time but we both know the Trinity will likely send their Hands in different directions. But I can still be by your side. I know this is new, Toby, but… Elves don’t love lightly. We heal slowly from heartbreak, and try not to risk it. I do love you, and I wouldn’t be involved with you at all if I didn’t see a future. If I thought you were treating this casually.”

“I…like the sound of that,” Toby whispered, shifting his head just enough to rub Raolo’s nose with his own. “Even if I don’t like the idea of putting you in danger… Just the thought of you being there with me is perfect.”

“But that’s the future,” Raolo agreed. “In the present, I just wish you could stop with the Omnist thing, at least with me.”

“Rao, my faith is at the very core of who I am.”

“I know! I’d never ask you to change, just to…relax. Stop looking after me the way you do everyone else.” He opened his eyes, and they glittered with emotion. “I want you to feel…comfortable, and safe enough to let down that sense of duty and let yourself be mad at me when you feel it. I want you to desire me enough to ask me to come home with you for the holidays instead of seeing my family. I’d do it in a heartbeat, if you asked. I just want you to ask. I want to be special.”

Toby drew in a slow breath and let it out equally slowly.

“That’s a meditation exercise,” Raolo accused.

“Relax,” Toby murmured. “That’s…what you’re asking isn’t easy.”

“I know, love. Honestly, if it was just selfish, I wouldn’t even ask. But Toby, everybody needs to have a safe place to let go and just be. Let me be your safety.”

“My safety.” Slowly, he nodded, the gesture incidentally rubbing his nose against Raolo’s again. The elf nuzzled him in return. “Okay.”

Then Toby drew back, shifting his grip to seize Raolo by his thin shoulders, and gave him a hard shake.

“I am not a telepath! Damn it, you know I’d do anything I could to make you happy, but crap like this is just gonna keep happening if I don’t know what you want! Omnu’s breath, Rao, I adore you but this is some grade-A free-range nonsense! If we have a problem I need you to talk to me about it like the grown-ass elf you are—”

That was as far as he got before a display of elven agility brought Raolo squirming out of his grip, and then forward, throwing his arms around Toby’s neck and silencing him with a kiss that was as close to bruising as such a slender creature could manage. He found he didn’t mind the pressure in the least, and in fact, found it the best medicine. The tension and frustration of the last few minutes faded as if banished by a spell. Toby clutched him close, sliding one hand up to cradle his head and all but drinking him in.

Raolo also took the initiative in pulling back, but only after a few minutes and even then only because he needed air.

“That’s my boy,” he whispered with a grin of avid mischief.

Toby squeezed him closer, beginning to walk them both insistently toward the far wall—or more specifically, toward the writing desk standing against it. “And?”

Raolo bit his lower lip coyly. “And, yessir.”

“Good.”

The elf’s legs hit the desk and he nimbly slid up onto it, his fingers pulling at Toby’s robe as the paladin surged forward to seize him in another breathless kiss.

Behind them, unheard even by Raolo’s acute ears, the door to the study pulled the rest of the way shut. Out in the hall, Sapphire carefully stretched a stocking over the latch in the universal signal, and then turned to stroll back to the party, smiling.


Iris was standing off to the side, out of range of the dancers, holding a glass of sparkling wine. Ravana knew she didn’t like sparkling wine, or wine in general. Which wasn’t the point; Ravana also knew the glass was a prop, something for her to do with her hands. One hand, anyway, the other being occupied clenching in her skirt.

The Duchess came to stand silently beside her roommate and friend, following her gaze. They watched as the two paladins came to a stop and separated, then as Gabriel spoke briefly to a woman in uniform by the serving tables, and then as the two of them discreetly slipped away to go into the house.

Iris heaved a sigh. “I…am ridiculous.”

Ravana regarded her in silence.

“And worse,” the witch added after a pause, “I’m a coward. Well, you know what, this tears it. It’s been a year and a half. If I haven’t managed to screw up the guts to just talk to him, I am officially hopeless. It’s time to just forget the whole thing. Hey, Ravana, what are the odds I could find a nice young lord here to marry me?”

Ravana shook her head. “Nice lords of any description are rare, and aristocrats mostly marry for political advantage, not sentiment or even attraction. Now, I suspect you could quite easily find a wealthy lord or lady to make you a very lavishly kept mistress. You look ravishing in that gown, and your dark complexion is rather exotic in this part of the Empire.”

Iris made a grimace of mingled amusement and bitterness. “Thank you. So, hey, there’s my career planned out.”

“Don’t be absurd, you’re worth far more than that,” Ravana said almost brusquely. “I do agree with some of what you were saying, but rather than simply dropping the matter, what I’d suggest is just asking him. Even if it ends in nothing but rejection, at least that would be closure. And you wouldn’t be dithering anymore.”

“You saw that as clearly as I did,” Iris whispered.

The Duchess emitted a very ladylike little snort. “Those two are going to dither about with even more stamina than you have. I don’t expect it would be too difficult to snatch him, especially with that neckline. Not that Trissiny isn’t attractive, but you have the advantage in buxomness and everyone knows Gabriel’s pref—”

“You urgently need to stop,” Iris interrupted.

Ravana grinned. “I am only half jesting, Iris. If not now, then back at my manor. There is no shortage of available rooms.”

Iris covered her eyes with her free hand, still not drinking from her glass. “Ravana, please. What about you, then? Any of these fancy lads seem like a nice political prospect for you?”

“As I consider my point made, I shall indulge your transparent deflection,” Ravana said magnanimously. “In any case, no. I will not marry, I think. Any House in the Empire would benefit greatly from a union with House Madouri, but none have anything to offer me in return that is worth it. Especially now that I have achieved a firm alliance with Houses Dufresne and Leduc.”

“That seems kind of…grim. Doesn’t that fact free you up? You could marry for love, if you don’t need to do it for politics.”

Ravana’s expression had grown distant; she watched the party guests as they twirled into the next dance, not seeming to actually see them.

“I think I am what the Izarites call asexual.”

Iris looked at her sidelong. “You…divide in half to make two smaller Duchesses?”

Ravana made a silently eloquent face which both acknowledged and disapproved of the joke. “I refer to the orientation, not the reproductive strategy. I am twenty years old and have never felt the slightest stirrings of attraction toward anyone of any gender. Sexual desire is a thing I comprehend intellectually; on a visceral level I remain baffled at the damage people are willing to inflict upon themselves to indulge it. At my age, that seems rather definitive, don’t you think?”

“You make it sound like twenty is the verge of senility,” Iris said with a wry smile. “Maybe you’re just picky? Haven’t met the right person?”

“I don’t believe there are right or wrong people as a binary. As best I understand it, attraction is a spectrum, and my position on it is nowhere.” She paused to take a small, appreciative sip of her own wine. “This is not to complain, Iris. If anything I consider myself fortunate. Unburdened by the expectations of a spouse and living in an age in which children born out of wedlock face no legal and relatively little social stigma, I am free to rebuild my House’s imperiled bloodline by selecting the best available genetic donors.”

Iris shuddered. “That sounds so clinical.”

“It is, to me,” Ravana said, shrugging. “It is a tradition of my family. You may have noticed that I am blonde despite being—mostly—an ethnic Tiraan? The trait is recessive, but House Madouri has deliberately added infusions of elven blood at roughly hundred year intervals, for its longevity, stamina, and magical aptitude. We have endured for a thousand years without falling to the inbreeding that has destroyed so many noble Houses by managing our genome as if our children were thoroughbred racing steeds. It is especially relevant to me, as the last living member of my bloodline.”

“You make it sound like you can just…grab whoever you want to make them…perform.” Iris grimaced, finally took a sip of her drink, and then grimaced harder. “Ugh, bubbles.”

“I am hardly going to force anyone,” Ravana said, amused. “Nor do I expect much difficulty in the…acquisition. Though I am far daintier than the so-called Avenic ideal, I am hardly a warthog. And even if I were, many would not decline an invitation to the bed of a Duchess.”

“But…you don’t want to,” Iris protested. “I mean, if you’re not actually interested in…”

Ravana’s face went distant again. “You know, my grandfather was gay.”

Iris blinked at the abrupt change of subject, but didn’t answer. Ravana went on without apparently expecting her to, anyway.

“He managed to gird up his loins, in an unusually literal example of the expression, and sire one child in his lifetime. My father. Who so adored and remained loyal to my mother that even after her death he never so much as looked at another woman.”

“That’s so romantic,” Iris sighed with a slightly dreamy smile.

“My mind boggles at such abominable selfishness,” Ravana said icily, causing Iris’s smile to vanish in an instant. “Aristocrats are raised in depthless privilege. We wear and sleep in silk, dine on delicacies using silver and crystal, enjoy the benefits of the finest education that can be had and entertainments such as most people could never dream to experience. All this is a due and necessary offset for the tremendous pressures my social class must endure in the execution of our responsibilities. But far too many—including, to my shame, those within my own House—have embraced the privilege and eschewed the price. This luxury is paid for by the people who look to us for leadership. They are owed that leadership in return. Among other things, my people require stability and the assurance of continuity; a succession crisis can be absolutely devastating to a nation, or even a province. Yet, my own father and grandfather could not see past their own desires. At a time when our House had been driven to the edge of extinction by the Enchanter Wars, they left it there rather than submit to a minor personal indignity that pales before the suffering our populace will endure if the local government collapses.”

She paused, grimaced, and rubbed her finger around the rim of her wineglass, making it produce a clear, high-pitched tone.

“And just to rub salt in the wound, they were male. A man with the resources of an ancient and rich House can accumulate mistresses and sire a veritable village over the course of an average lifetime. Instead, that duty falls to me, whose ability to reproduce is…biologically constrained.”

“I think that may be the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

Ravana shrugged, the ghost of a smile drifting across her features for a bare moment. “It is what it is. So, I will keep an eye out for interesting sources of genetic material and, when the time comes, dose myself with alchemical aphrodisiacs and do what is necessary. Five times, I should think. I calculate that is the greatest number of children I can balance with my other responsibilities while still giving them each the individual care and attention they require. That is not optional; people raised with great power but no tenderness often end up rather twisted. I consider myself a relative success story of that scenario, and I am well aware that many people find me…unsettling. I find I am sufficiently looking forward to motherhood that I am not excessively bothered by the…squishy realities involved in achieving it.”

“Squishy realities. Now there’s a turn of phrase,” Iris sighed. “Funny enough, my first thought was to remind you that love potions are illegal. As if that was even a consideration for you.”

“Actually, that is funny,” Ravana said with a smile. “Such potions are a felony to administer to another person, and potentially a capital crime to do so without the victim’s consent, but they fall within the Noble Loophole governing controlled recreational drugs. I can dose myself with anything I like under the law.”

“The what governing what?”

“Anything which one must have a government-issued exemption to sell,” Ravana explained. “Opium, sevenleaf, glittershrooms and the like, and also certain alchemicals. You see, it is illegal to manufacture, purchase, sell, receive, or bestow controlled drugs. But, if you happen to have one for whatever reason, it’s not a crime to own or use it on yourself. That’s part of why glittershrooms are so popular; they’ll grow anyplace dark and dank. It’s quite common for people to find them entirely by accident in their own cellars. The law only constrains any means of acquiring drugs rather than having them because of the nobility, you see. For most people, it is presumed that if you own a controlled substance you committed a crime to get it, shrooms aside, and can thus be prosecuted. But because the inventories of House vaults are private, the Treasury cannot prove we didn’t just have vials of cocaine and love potions sitting in there left over from a past generation.”

“Wait, if the Empire can’t tell what you’ve got in storage…”

“Oh, the Treasury has the right to inspect and tally coin, bank notes, real estate, basically any form of liquid assets, and concealing such from the Throne is an offense for which a House’s charter of nobility can be revoked. But the Treasury requires specific cause to inspect a House’s vaults, and the burden of proof necessary is steep. So! As long as a House doesn’t skimp on its taxes, as a reward its members have a legal excuse to do whatever drugs they might wish.”

She smiled placidly up at the taller girl, who just stared back in something like horror.

“You know, stuff like this is why nobody trusts the nobility,” Iris complained. “This is exactly what I worry about Natchua of all bloody people suddenly having access to.”


Natchua could physically hear everything happening on the manor grounds, but the nature of elven hearing meant most of it was a blur which her subconscious filtered out as superfluous. Under the circumstances, she couldn’t even zero in on mentions of her own name with any reliability, given how much speculation about her was going on at this party. So it was mostly coincidence that she caught Iris’s last comment, helped along by the fact that she made sure to check up on whatever Ravana and Malivette were doing at a given moment, on the grounds that she now heavily depended on both while still trusting neither. And Vette was currently right in front of her.

She glanced aside at the witch, but deemed it not worth pursuing. After all, Iris undeniably had a point.

More immediately, her focus was swiftly demanded when a sudden chorus of screams from the front gate of the property interrupted her own conversation with Malivette and Bishop Darling.

Immediately both Duchesses were moving forward toward the source of the disturbance; being each of them an extremely dangerous creature in her own right, if there was trouble it only made sense for them to lead from the front. Natchua was less certain why Darling followed along, but didn’t spare him the attention to question his apparent lack of survival instincts.

In fact, it was he who offered the perfect commentary at what was now approaching her through the manor grounds as terrified nobles fled in all directions.

“What in the secondhand celestial monkey fuck is he doing?”

Obviously, it was the demon most people were frightened of; the thing was a good twelve feet tall and covered with the obligatory scale armor and spikes, complete with glowing eyes and flickers of fire snorting from its nostrils. Natchua wasn’t particularly concerned with that, however, as she could tell at a glance that the magical chains trussing it up like a cocoon were solid and more than adequate to the task. Those same chains were holding the beast aloft as it was propelled through the air at a walking pace.

Behind, holding the other end of the chain, strode a grinning man in a white suit. He came to a stop in the middle of the driveway, shifted the imprisoned demon out of the way and then, with a flick of his wrist, slammed it to the ground. The resulting crunch brought a muffled growl of outrage from the muzzled beast, which in turn prompted a new chorus of screams.

Embras Mogul doffed his hat and swept an elaborately courtly bow.

“Duchess Natchua of House Leduc! Your humble servant has completed the task you assigned. By your kind patronage and at your command, the Black Wreath stands ready to continue our devoted service to our new mistress. What orders have you?”

In the terrified silence which followed, everyone on the grounds turned to stare at Natchua.

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16 – 23

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The winter wind carried a particularly bitter chill just after dawn, when the sun was only barely up, not that it slowed them down. Ingvar naturally kept an eye on the trainees, but what they lacked in acquired skill they made up for in sheer grit, which only made sense given where they’d come from.

It was a sizable group, for what amounted to a standard patrol party, but it wasn’t as if the woods of western Tiraan Province needed much patrolling; the greater part of the purpose in being out was to help the newest Shadow Hunters get accustomed to woodcraft. He had brought November, a spirit wolf, two pixie companions, and three of the Harpies who were just along for the experience. Of them, little Mittsin, who at thirteen was the youngest of the entire group to be treated as an apprentice rather than one of the children, was by far the most intent and seriousness. Ingvar could relate, remembering well what it was like being that age and having so much to prove. The others, a woman in her late twenties and one who had to be pushing fifty, both tended to break into snickers any time they glanced at one of the fairies or the wolf.

It was the names, of course. Ingvar couldn’t begrudge them having a chuckle at Zap and Flicker; the pixies preferred simple, evocative names like that, and rather than being offended seemed pleased when humans found amusement in it. Now, though, he was starting to wonder if giving their wolf companions Stalweiss honor names had been a good idea; only people raised in the traditions of the Stalrange would even be able to interpret them, but he would have expected any such to take them seriously. There was a reason such names were seldom translated for the benefit of outsiders—exactly the same reason the Empire had made sure Heshenaad was remembered by the Tanglish version Horsebutt, where he was remembered at all. So now here he was, in the woods with a cherished packmate and two women who both knew that Nirtaath literally meant “nice bitch” and couldn’t seem to stop giggling about it.

“Really?” November demanded sharply, turning to give them a flat look at the latest round of snickers. Both of them quieted, having the grace to look abashed. Ingvar tried to take a gentler tone with these women, given what they’d been through, but he couldn’t deny that November’s razor tongue had its uses. Mittsin gave them a matching look of disapproval, which fortunately for her they weren’t positioned to see.

“Sorry,” Hilden muttered. Illia nodded agreement, keeping her mouth shut.

“I don’t get it,” Flicker whispered loudly, drifting over by Ingvar. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing is funny,” November stated, turning back around, “and some people should keep that in mind.”

“This is one of those things,” Zap added.

“Ohhh.” Flicker bobbed once in midair, chiming in acknowledgment. “Got it.” The pixies in general were remarkably sanguine about social dynamics which they recognized their failure to understand, once they recognized one of those was going on.

Ingvar cleared his throat, pointing off to the group’s right. “Look there, in that clear area between the trees. What do you see upon the snow?”

“Animal tracks,” Mittsin answered quickly, her voice slightly muffled by the scarf wound over the lower part of her face. She and the other two Harpies trudged forward through the snow to get a closer look, stopping only when Ingvar held out an arm to forestall them. Both pixies floated closer; Nirtaath glanced in that direction, then turned to survey the nearby woods, her ears pricked.

“Specifically, a story,” said Ingvar. “That’s one of the best things about tracking, in my opinion. It’s far more than recognizing when something has passed this way. Once you know how to read them, the signs of the wild are as clear as text on a page. Can any of you tell what this one says?”

“They just…end, suddenly, up there,” Illia answered, pointing. “Look, it’s like a bit splash.”

“But there are no tracks leading away,” Hilden added. “Did the animal just start flying?”

“It did indeed,” Ingvar said gravely, “but not on purpose. Those are a hare’s tracks. Look, follow the progression of events. It starts out from within those bushes, see? Hopping this way and that, in no great hurry, likely foraging. But then, suddenly, the tracks are deeper and much farther apart; it suddenly started running.”

“Something scared it,” said Mittsin.

“Exactly,” he said with an approving nod. “Look how it zigzags; the hare was dodging back and forth, trying to evade something.”

“I don’t see any other tracks, though,” said Illia.

“But you see the splash, as you called it. That disturbance is where the last struggle happened. Look at those shallow, wedge-shaped marks to either side of the crater. What do you think of that?”

They were silent, all three squinting at the spot in puzzlement.

“Wings!” Mittsin said suddenly.

“Wings,” Ingvar agreed, grinning. “Looks like a hawk; none of the owls that live around here are big enough to eat a hare. That one’s journey ended right on that spot.”

“Aw. Now I feel bad for the bunny,” Flicker chimed.

“All life exists by consuming other life,” Ingvar explained, more for the benefit of the three apprentices than the pixie. “We hunt to sustain ourselves; so do hawks, and wolves, and every predator. Animals exist within the balance and are intrinsically part of it. It’s only humans who learn to hunt, consume and destroy without respecting what they take, and what they take it from. Our duty as guardians of the wild is to understand that balance, so that was can protect it. We kill, but with respect, and gratitude.”

Suddenly Nirtaath growled softly, and he turned to follow her gaze. She was staring through the trees in the other direction from the hare’s tracks, ears forward.

“What’s the matter?” November murmured, kneeling beside her.

Ingvar didn’t speak, just following the wolf’s gaze and scanning for signs of anything amiss. Those who had undergone the fey transformation, human and wolk alike, had gained an instinctive understanding of one another’s communication. Nirtaath obviously didn’t speak Tanglish and it was debatable how much actual language she grasped, but she picked up on intent very well. He and November could read her lupine signals just as clearly; something was amiss in that direction, something she did not expect to find in this forest, but not something that alarmed her.

“Is…is something wrong?” Hilden asked.

All three of the other women gasped when the light swelled around November and she changed, standing beside Nirtaath in the form of a golden-coated spirit wolf with white wingmarks gleaming at her shoulders. She lifted her head, scenting the air for a moment, then shifted back.

“I smell magic,” she reported. “Fairy; not hostile, but it doesn’t belong here. And something else, underneath it, almost wiped away. A scent I don’t recognize. Almost…reptilian?”

“Zap, Flicker,” Ingvar said. “What do you think?”

Both pixies fluttered forward, drifting back and forth among the trees in that direction. Zap’s blue-white glow could be difficult to spot against the snow, but Flicker was a fiery orange and easy to follow. She was the first to come back, bouncing in midair in excitement.

“Wind magic!” she reported. “Something made a strong breeze blow through here last night. Right through here. Definitely magical, it wasn’t part of the normal air.”

“Hey, yeah!” Zap chimed, shooting back to join them. “I think it was covering tracks!”

“He’s right,” said November, shuffling forward in a crouch. “Look, the snow here’s more windblown. In a straight path through the trees, there. Something used a fae wind spell to wipe tracks and blow away most of their scent.”

“What kind of fairy would do that?” Illia asked nervously.

“I don’t know of any,” Ingvar mused, staring through the trees with a frown. “The few fairies that bother to cover their tracks either obliterate them with no trace or just use mental magic to deflect attention. This is more likely to be a witch.”

“Elves?” Mittsin asked.

“If an elvish shaman didn’t want their tracks to be spotted, we wouldn’t have spotted them.”

“It was more than a shaman,” November added. “Look how wide the area covered is. Could be…ten people walking abreast, and no telling how many deep.”

“Hm.” Ingvar looked back at his three charges, rapidly thinking. All three met his gaze and matching looks of stubbornness fell across their features; he decided not to bother trying to send them away. This was no time or place for an argument, and anyway, they had to learn sometime. “Neither November nor Nirtaath smelled a threat. Still, per our arrangement with the Duchess, we are responsible for these forests and this is something we need to investigate. Illia, Mittsin, Hilden, you three stay behind us and keep a sharp eye out. Flicker, would you please head back to the lodge and let Aspen and the others know we found something?”

“You got it!” the fire pixie chimed, swooping around him once and then shooting off through the trees, back the way they had come.

Ingvar rested a hand on Nirtaath’s back. “Let’s go see who our visitors are.”

“So, can…can you smell hostility?” Hilden asked as they proceeded slowly after the obscured tracks, Nirtaath at the head of the group with her nose to the ground.

“It’s debatable whether ordinary canines can pick up on things like that,” Ingvar replied, eyes ahead. “Our wolf blessing is fae in nature, and fae magic is excellent for discerning emotional states. Let’s proceed quietly, now, we don’t know who we’re approaching.”

“It goes right for that big ridge,” November said, pointing. “Look how rocky it is; do you think they could have climbed it? Or turned aside?”

“Depends on who it is,” he murmured.

Nirtaath growled very softly, but kept going, and her ears remained up. Ingvar patted her fur once again, continuing to creep through the snow.

“Oh,” Hilden whispered, peeking over November’s shoulder. “It’s a cave.”

“So it is,” Ingvar agreed softly. “Big one, too. All right, you three, remember never to do what I’m about to when you’re first out on your own. A cave in the winter more often than not means a sleeping bear. Stop here, stay alert, and if I shout to run, you run, straight back to the lodge. Look after your own survival first; I can take care of mine.”

He left them, trusting November and Nirtaath to keep them calm despite how alarming that last instruction must have been, creeping forward until he passed gingerly below the rocky overhang into the deep depression beneath the ridge.

At first, Ingvar’s eyes could discern nothing, accustomed as they were to the white landscape outside under gray dawn light. Then Zap floated up by his shoulder, casting a dim but helpful bluish illumination into the underground space.

The cave was much bigger than he would have expected, broad and so deep there was not even a hint of the back visible, but that was not what commanded Ingvar’s attention. In the pixie’s glow, hundreds of tightly-packed red eyes glowed back, all staring right at him.


At least Kheshiri got to disguise herself. Natchua would have preferred the comfort of a disguise charm, given how much attention she drew even at this pre-breakfast hour of the morning. There was only one resident drow in Veilgrad and she had been a well-known figure even before everybody wanted to hear her opinion of the new Elven Confederacy. Unfortunately, making herself known was the point of this excursion. She just had to endure the cheerful attention of passersby who weren’t the people she wanted to encounter.

“Nothing?” she grumbled aloud as the two of them paced through a still-sleepy residential street, where for once nobody was around to approach her. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think these jackasses didn’t want attention.”

“Well, aside from the relative likelihood of finding traces in any given disused warehouse or empty lot,” Kheshiri said reasonably, “the prospects of finding them in one of those at all is a coin toss. The odds are not in our favor, mistress, not taking this approach. To be really thorough we’d need to investigate influential people with whom they might have ingratiated themselves. That’s a Wreath standard, and usually preferable to skulking in squalor, for a whole host of reasons.”

“I don’t fucking have time for that,” Natchua grumbled, tapping the thick folder she carried against her thigh. “Anyway, it’s not like we’ve got a reasonable chance of finding them no matter what; the idea is make it easy for them to find me, the way Mogul seems obsessed with doing. You really think they’ve wormed their way into Veilgrad society?”

“You have to remember, mistress, the warlocks who know dangerous secrets are only a fraction of the Black Wreath, by the numbers. They’re the only fraction that’s important, but for every one of them there are a hundred cretins who’ve just learned a secret handshake so they can get off on how naughty they’re being, dabbling in Elilial’s business. Mostly that’s just the true Wreath’s recruitment pool, but it does provide them with connections to hide in places with indoor plumbing, when they need to. There are bound to be at least a handful in a city the size of Veilgrad.”

“Huh,” Natchua grunted. “After Ninkabi I bet they’ll be relaxing their recruitment standards.”

“They do need to replenish their numbers,” the disguised succubus agreed. “But they may actually find that harder after the truce. Elilial’s no longer as eeeeevil. That takes away a lot of the appeal.”

“I really want to insist that nobody’s that stupid,” she said with a sigh. “But we know the truth, don’t we.”

Kheshiri grinned maliciously. “Everybody’s that stupid, mistress.”

“I’d like to think I’m not. Hopefully, most of my personal friends and acquaintances aren’t.”

“Actually, you’ve got yourself a pretty good group, yeah. But statistically everybody.”

“Oh, Kheshiri, ever the pessimist.”

“Finally!” Natchua exclaimed, stopping mid-stride and turning to face the man who’d suddenly spoken from right behind them. “You took your damn time. Is this it, today? Oh, don’t tell me, everybody’s still at breakfast.”

“Now, now, the Black Wreath aren’t stray dogs,” Embras Mogul informed her, stuffing his hands into his pockets and slouching indolently against somebody’s front gate. “You’re generally not gonna get results with a ‘come hither’ as pitifully obvious as this one. If this is your idea of a trap, Natchua, I’m not impressed. And are you aware who this succubus is, exactly?”

“What succubus?” Kheshiri asked innocently. “I am a pure maiden from a good family of—”

“Don’t bother,” he said curtly. “As tempted as I am to just let you try to control this creature and suffer the consequences—”

“I’m not gonna take any sass on the subject of Kheshiri from the jackass who went and let her out of her bottle in the first place,” Natchua interrupted. “And for what, to try to cause trouble for some rando Eserite? Shit like this is why nobody takes you seriously when you start ranting about how the Wreath actually protects the world. Now listen up, I’ve already wasted enough time on your lollygagging today.”

“I feel I should remind you,” he said with a brittle grin, “that you should always worry less about the Wreath you see than the many you do not. Whatever you planned to spring today, Natchua my dear, I highly suggest—”

“Yes, all right, shut up.” Natchua calmly tossed the folder at him; by simple reflex alone, he caught it, his grin disappearing. “You’ll note I added colored tabs to the pages. The green ones are fairies and the black ones possible chaos events; I recommend you steer clear of those, or at least approach with care if you won’t take my word for it. The orange ones are infernal, that’s what I want you to focus on. If you get done with those, maybe have a look at the black tabs; undead problems aren’t exactly your purview, but if there’s one thing infernomancy is good for it’s breaking shit and you usually can’t go wrong just destroying zombies.”

“I beg your god damned pardon,” he said, clearly affronted.

“Every entry has a rough map and a serviceable description. Have a look at the kraagthshnorik entombed up in the hills,” Natchua advised. “It’s been there at least a couple hundred years and might hibernate forever, but being asleep it’s an easy target. It’s a place to start, anyway. The hedge warlock who’s camped out by the northern lumber camp probably just needs a scare put into him; I’d appreciate it if you approach that circle of imp summoners in the city with more care. They’re stupid teenagers and probably just gonna kill themselves, but they all have rich parents and I don’t need you stirring up the whole city. I was just going to collect evidence on them and turn it over to the Empire.”

“Are…are you… Are you giving me homework?” Mogul demanded incredulously.

“You Elilinists always make such noise about your mandate to protect the world from demons, right? Well, I went and found a bunch of demons for you. There they are, go nuts.”

“Listen here, you preposterous knife-eared wench,” he hissed, his usual facade of conviviality fading away, “the Black Wreath are not your fucking lackeys.”

“Here’s how it is, Mogul,” Natchua stated while Kheshiri grinned in insane delight. “I don’t know what you’re up to around here except that what you’ve told me you’re up to is a load of nonsense. And you know what? I officially don’t give a shit. I have things to do and no more time for your hogwash. The next time you want my attention, you can come to the Manor and knock like a civilized person. As long as you’re not bringing me hostility I will guarantee you safe passage. But if you want my attention, you’ll bring proof that you’ve done something to help protect Veilgrad or you will be directed to fuck right off. If you’re going to hang around my city, you will make yourself useful. That is all.”

“Now, you listen—”

Rather than listening, however, she snapped her fingers and shadow-jumped both of them away, cutting off Kheshiri’s howl of delighted laughter and leaving him glaring at empty space, holding the folder of local threat assessments.


Breakfast and the dining room of Madouri Manor was a cheerful affair reminiscent of the cafeteria at the University, despite its opulent surroundings, mostly due to the familiar company.

“I really wouldn’t want to put you out,” Toby assured Teal. “It’s fine, all three of us have mounts!”

“Toby, for heaven’s sake,” Teal replied in exasperation, “it is freezing out there and it’ll take you an hour to get to Tiraas on horseback. Let us give you a ride.”

“But weren’t you going to teach Shaeine to drive later? I mean, a big multi-seater coach can’t be the best vehicle for that…”

“I would like to think I thrive in extremely minor adversity,” Shaeine said primly.

“Is this that thing again?” Fross asked, floating over Toby’s plate. “The one where you’re so determined to take care of everybody you won’t let us do the same? I thought we talked about this.”

“Shame Raolo’s spending the winter break at his grove,” Iris added. “Raolo can always make him behave.”

“Hey, that’s a point!” cackled Ruda. “Maybe we should get him! Is there a scrolltower near his folks’ place?”

“Please don’t interrupt Raolo’s vacation,” Toby exclaimed.

“Yeah, there’s really no need,” Trissiny agreed. “This’ll blow over as soon as he realizes he just volunteered me and Gabe to freeze our toes off all morning.”

Toby halted mid-interruption, his mouth open, and then leaned back in his chair, groaning and covering his face with both hands.

“We love you too, bro,” Gabriel assured him, leaning over to drape an arm around his shoulders.

“It is seriously fine, Tobes,” Teal chuckled. “If it helps you, we’ve got a new truck model my dad would be delighted to have me show off in the capital. Heated rear compartment and everything. You’d be doing us a favor.”

The dining room door opened, admitting Yancey pushing a cart stacked with small envelopes.

“Ah, good morning, Yancey,” said Ravana, setting aside her teacup. “How is—good heavens.”

“There is no cause for alarm, my Lady,” the Butler assured her, bringing his cart around the table to park near her chair. “These are social invitations, sent by Duchess Dufresne to each of the individuals here.”

“Malivette?” Trissiny asked, blinking. “Us?”

“Oh, that’s right, she never really got to know me, did she?” Gabriel mused, accepting a card with his name in neat calligraphy from Yancey. “Only reason I can imagine why a noble would invite me to a social event.”

“Pursuant to that, my Lady,” Yancey continued while continuing to pass the invitations out around the table, “the Duchess reports that Natchua has acquiesced to her and your suggestion. The social event in question is meant to be the formal announcement of the Houses’ agreement. As protocol dictates, every ruling House and the minor Houses of Lower Stalwar and Tiraan Provinces shall be invited to attend.”

“Natchua?” Gabriel paused in the middle of opening his envelope, looking up with narrowed eyes. “At a social event? With Malivette? Ravana, what did you do?”

“Why does everyone always assume I did something?” she demanded.

The crackle of silverware and paper around the table fell silent as everyone paused in eating and opening cards to stare at her.

“Yes, all right, point taken,” the Duchess acknowledged with a wry little smile.

“One day is extremely short notice for a social event requesting the presence of such dignitaries,” Shaeine observed.

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, “I rather expect Malivette’s intent is to learn who is morbidly curious enough to show up despite the implied insult. One way or another, it promises to be an interesting evening! Was there anything else, Yancey?”

“Yes, my Lady,” he said, handing the last card to Iris and gliding back to her chair, where he folded his hands behind his back and stood at attention. “There appears to be a situation in the west of the province. This morning the Manor received an urgent signal from Sheriff Ingvar. I took the liberty of dispatching Veilwin to the lodge to collect a report.”

“Really? It’s not even eight in the morning,” Ravana said, raising an eyebrow. “I am most impressed that you managed to get her up.”

“I have found that Veilwin’s hangovers respond well to topical hydrotherapy,” Yancey said diffidently.

Gabriel frowned. “What kind of therapy?”

“He dumped water on her,” Ruda said merrily, still tucking into her pancakes. “Works on my Uncle Raffi, too!”

“It seems,” Yancey continued, “Ingvar has discovered a large group of lizardfolk attempting to surreptitiously cross the province, concealing their movements with fae magic.”

Once again, quiet fell over the room as everyone processed that.

“Lizardfolk?” Ravana demanded. “Why? How many?”

“The Shadow Hunters are still attempting to take stock of the situation, but Ingvar has ascertained so far that they are an assemblage of multiple tribes from the entire region of lizardfolk population, extending from Viridill to Mathena and the northern desert. They claim to be going to Tiraas in pursuit of some prophetic vision. The Sheriff has not obtained a thorough headcount, but Veilwin estimates there are at least five hundred of them.”

Ravana blinked twice. “…Trissiny, you grew up near tribal colonies in Viridill, yes? Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

“Uh…” Trissiny was still holding her knife and fork, apparently forgotten in both hands. “Based on what I knew, lizardfolk never live in groups of more than a hundred and usually less than half that, rarely approach human cities, have no organized religion, and hibernate in the winter.”

“Well, of course,” the Duchess said fatalistically, forgetting her manners to the point of placing one elbow on the table and leaning her face into her hand. “Because why should the high elves be the only race of people to suddenly abandon millennia of tradition in my backyard? I don’t suppose Ingvar happened to mention to these nomads that I am on vacation?!”

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16 – 11

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Natchua was a warlock and an elf; she could both feel the shape of the spells around her, and instantly discern in precise detail their velocity and direction. Instinct alone told her none of the shadowbolts were aimed at her, and held her in place, as several passed close enough to possibly graze her if she were to move.

Instinct only went so far, of course; she did not in the least trust the Black Wreath to be firing off combat spells in her vicinity, and had reflexively summoned the matrix of a shadow well which would draw all of them off course and absorb their energy to be cast back at their creators. Summoned, but did not deploy. In the blindingly rapid thought of that moment, she chose to refrain, prompted by what impulse she could not have precisely articulated. Perhaps this was the quality Elilial had insisted was her innate cunning, the tendency Natchua had to make snap decisions that appeared ludicrous at first glance but ultimately worked out in her benefit, a knack for intuitively making enormously complex calculations based on data of which she wasn’t even consciously aware.

Or maybe she was just impulsive and improbably lucky thus far and sooner than later it was all going to bite her lethally on the ass. Elf or no, Natchua couldn’t think fast enough to ponder this in any detail during the split second in which spells were flying all around her, she just made her choice and was immediately proved right.

Every one of the dozen shadowbolts converged on one of three spots in a rough triangular formation around her, farther out than the ring of Wreath warlocks, and at every impact spot there burst a surge of disrupted arcane magic.

Natchua lashed out with her own craft the instant they were revealed, and none too fast; with their ambush foiled, she was immediately the target of two abortive arcane spells and one physical assault, all of which she neutralized with a combination of shadow tentacles and an on-the-fly reworking of her shadow well to draw off and convert arcane energy.

The entire thing had taken less than a second, and left her standing in the center of a ring of robed cultists, holding three elves in the secure grip of dark tendrils of energy. They were wood elves, to judge by their ears, but in addition to being arcanists were dressed in the most preposterous costumes she’d ever seen. It appeared to be armor of some kind, but was made of a combination of gold and panels of apparent glass which scintillated with blue light. All three were now glaring furiously at her, an emotion to which she could relate.

“And what the fuck is this now?” Natchua demanded, using her tentacles to gratuitously shake the elf closest to the center of her field of view.

“Why, if I’m not very much mistaken,” Embras Mogul drawled with a self-satisfied grin, “these would be a sampling of the famed and mysterious high elves! Higher than most, if they thought ambushing a warlock with arcane spells was a good idea. Hell, what with the year I’m havin’, I wouldn’t turn down a nibble of whatever shroom these three are on.”

She bared her own teeth in displeasure, meeting the glare of the nearest high elf and not enjoying her thoughts on the subject. While living among humans, Natchua had been coasting on her superior reflexes and agility, but in this case, that advantage tipped the other way. These were also elves, and not only that, but clearly trained military; they were undoubtedly faster and more precise than she, even encumbered by armor. She hadn’t had the slightest hint they were sneaking up on her. No warlock, no caster of any kind, could prevail if they were taken out before they could even form a spell.

Mogul and his Wreath had in all probability just saved her life, and she was not enjoying the realization.

“I’ll deal with you in a minute,” Natchua informed her captives, then turned her glare on Mogul, whose grin did not diminish. “What’s all this about, then? Decided to give up on your revenge?”

“Oh, not in the least,” he assured her, his smile again altering subtly to hint at the snarl of a cornered animal. “Given our history, I simply didn’t enjoy being in your debt. But as for that, we’re square again, and can no resume our discussion of your murderous cruelty and what’s going to happen to you as a result. But while we’re here and on the subject…” Mogul’s grin faded and he tilted his head slightly. “I cannot help being curious. I’m sure you were aware our own skills were heavily dampened by the proximity of a chaos effect. Quite frankly I don’t think we could have extricated ourselves from that situation once it welled up. Why did you shadow-jump us out of the catacombs? Would’ve been far easier to take advantage and finish what you started in Ninkabi.”

Natchua pursed her lips for a moment before answering. “Yeah, well… Since you brought up Ninkabi, the truth is I felt kinda bad about it.”

“You felt,” said the female warlock who’d chewed her out last time, “bad. You felt bad. About stuffing us all in chaos space to die?”

“Well, wouldn’t you?” Natchua asked sweetly.

“Bitch, it is inconceivable that no one’s murdered you yet.”

“People keep trying, but I guess I’m just that much better than all of you.”

“Listen, you—”

“You listen,” she snapped, leveling a finger at the hooded woman. “I stand by every word I said to you in that tomb. What happened to you was no worse than you deserved, and apparently less than you deserved since so many of you survived it. But with that said, the whole maneuver was a matter of what I could physically do in that moment to take you off the board. Upon consideration… That is not something I would choose to do to anybody if I had the luxury of better options or time to plan. So, yeah, you had it coming and I have no patience for your complaints, but it still didn’t sit right with me. Thus, moving you out of range of a chaos effect that, yes, I knew you couldn’t escape yourselves. Besides,” she added begrudgingly, “you did go to all the trouble of warning me there was chaos in those catacombs. It was only fair.”

Mogul’s head shifted slightly as he met Vanessa’s gaze, and then another of his comrade’s, all of their eyes hidden by either hoods or hat brim. “Excuse me,” he said at last, “we did what?”

“Oh, don’t play coy,” Natchua scoffed. “You’re the Wreath, nobody listens to you. So if you want to give someone an important message, you use your overly convoluted Elilinist thinking to lead them into a position to discover it themselves while thinking they’re actually fighting you. And since your whole performance down there didn’t make a damn lick of sense, it was obvious.”

“Huh,” Mogul grunted. “Well, I do follow your logic—and yes, we’ve done that exact thing more than a few times. But no, Natchua, we had no idea there was any lingering chaos energy under or near Veilgrad. I assure you, after our own experiences, none of us want to go within leagues of that shit.”

“Right,” she drawled. “You’re gonna pitch to me that that grandstanding spectacle you put on instead of ambushing me like a sensible person was your real, actual plan? You, servants of the goddess of cunning, went about your vengeance in the one way absolutely guaranteed not to work? Mogul, I don’t get too worked up about people trying to murder me, that’s just business as usual, but if you keep implying I’m stupid our relationship is only gonna go further downhill.”

“I am honestly curious to see how much farther down we could possibly go,” he replied, shoving his hands in the pockets of his suit and adopting a slouched posture. “So, hey! Seems we’re all on track for even more interesting days ahead. Anyway, you scratched my back, I scratched yours, and now we can resume plotting each other’s demise, as the gods intended. Catch ya later, buttercup.”

He snapped his fingers once, and the whole group vanished again, the swelling darkness of their shadow-jumps slightly out of sync compared to the simultaneous departure they’d had when Natchua had removed them from the catacombs.

“Can you believe that guy?” she demanded of the angry-looking high elf still thoroughly ensnared off the ground in the grip of her shadow tendrils. All three had been trying to do some arcane craft or other during the entire conversation, all of which she passively siphoned away before it could form into actual spells. “Like I’m gonna swallow that he really thinks in terms of favors. Bullshit squared, I tell you. If you’re gonna scheme at someone right to their face you should at least admit it! That’s just polite, am I wrong?”

The high elf narrowed his eyes to slits and curled his lip back in a sneer. One of his compatriots began trying to struggle violently until Natchua directed the tentacles to hike her up in the air and shake her roughly.

“Well, anyway,” she said, folding her arms. “What the fuck is your problem? I dunno what makes you think you can go around assaulting people in Imperial territory but you are gonna spend the next little while learning in detail how wrong you are.”

“Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss,” he finally spoke in elvish, “you are wanted for multiple crimes against the Elven Confederacy, including but not limited to trafficking with demons, embezzlement of House Dalmiss funds, and assault of Confederate diplomats. By the authority of the Highguard you are placed under arrest. Do you submit to the law?”

She stared at him in silence. Somewhere in the near distance, a lone winter songbird began to add a desolate cheeping to the quiet of the snowy forest.

Natchua gestured with one hand and the tentacles lifted him higher, then deliberately turned him upside down and brought him closer, until she was staring into his green eyes from inches away.

“Buddy,” she said, “part of that was more ridiculous than the rest of it, but I can’t for the life of me decide which.”

“You’re only digging your own grave, warlock,” he grated around clenched teeth. “Resisting lawful arrest and assaulting Highguard will add exponentially to the charges against you. In the end—”

A shadow tentacle stuffed itself in his mouth. To judge by the bulging of his eyes, this pleased him even less than his treatment up till that point.

“I tell you what,” she said with a pleasant smile, “if this is gonna become a legal matter, why don’t we go consult an expert?”

The shadows swelled around them again, and then all four were gone, leaving behind only a wide disturbance in the snow.


“My, my, my,” Malivette crooned. The vampire turned to her right, swiveling her head to keep her eyes fixed on the three captive high elves, still fully ensnared by shadow tendrils now emanating from a dark patch on the floorboards around Natchua’s feet, and began pacing slowly in that direction. “My, my, my, my.”

Coming to a stop, she paused, then turned back the other way and meandered along in reverse, folding her arms behind her back and still watching the elves. “My, my. My, my, my, my.”

Malivette reached the opposite apex of her course, slowly turned again, and started back the other way once more. “My, my—”

“How long does this usually take?” Natchua asked of the Duchess’s escort. Jade lifted a finger to her lips, and Ruby winked at her.

Despite the stark lack of adornment in Dufresne Manor’s entry hall, the vampire’s household had managed to make an impressive display for Natchua’s prisoners, with the black-clad Malivette herself pacing the room like a caged lion. Behind her stood Ruby, Sapphire, Pearl, and Jade in their matching jewel-toned gowns, evenly spaced in a line and holding identical positions with their hands folded demurely at the waist.

“Always the spoilsport, Natchua,” Malivette chided her. “Well, then! I know the Tiraan Empire does not have a unilateral extradition treaty with the Elven Confederacy. I know this because the Tiraan Empire has no treaties with the Elven Confederacy. I know this because the Elven Confederacy has existed for about five minutes and the hot new gossip out of Tiraas these days is how both governments are still informally negotiating the terms under which they’ll start formally negotiating formal negotiations. Thus!”

She stopped her pacing in the exact center of her handmaidens’ formation, framed by Sapphire and Pearl, and batted her eyelashes coquettishly at the captive Highguard.

“By process of deduction, I conclude that your mission is strictly off the books. And therefore, your government is in no position to make any objections if the three of you just disappear. Or are found in well-gnawed pieces in a nearby bear’s den. Y’know, six of one.”

“Is this monster supposed to intimidate us, warlock?” the male high elf sneered at Natchua. “Try harder.”

“You are in the presence of her Grace the Duchess Malivette Esmerelda Dufresne,” Pearl’s voice rang through the hall, “High Seat of House Dufresne, Lady Protector of Veilgrad and Imperial Governor of Lower Stalwar Province, subordinate in this domain only to the Silver Throne itself. You will speak when instructed and not otherwise.”

He didn’t look much impressed by that, but at least he shut up. The two women with him gave him pointed looks, as best they could while trussed up in shadow and suspended in midair.

“Tell me,” Malivette inquired airily, “what would happen to three uninvited interlopers in Qestraceel who took it upon themselves to attack and attempt to abduct a resident? Hmm?” She sidled forward, tilting her head to one side and thrusting her face right into his, crimson eyes widened psychotically despite her smile. “Hmmmmmm?”

He curled his lip in apparent revulsion, but answered her in Tanglish, thickly accented by grammatically correct. “Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss is not a citizen of Veilgrad or the Tiraan Empire. She is a citizen of the Elven Confederacy and bound by its laws, and culpable for crimes committed against it.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said sweetly, “with no surname or honorifics, is not a citizen of your made up Confederacy, having renounced her citizenship in Tar’naris before said Confederacy existed. She is a guest I have personally made welcome in my province.”

He narrowed his eyes. “The warrant is valid. You are interfering with the lawful business of the Highguard, which is unwise.”

“And there it is!” Vette suddenly hopped backward and resumed casually pacing up and down the room. “What’s at the root of it all. The presumption. The attitude, inherent both in your conduct and the sheer unmitigated brass of your superiors, that you are entitled to do what you wish, where you wish, because nobody can stop you. Look around yourselves, my little goslings. You are well and truly stopped.”

The Highguard clamped his mouth shut and stared at her in obstinate silence.

“It’s time to negotiate,” one of his companions suddenly said in elvish.

He tried to turn to glare at her, but couldn’t quite rotate himself around far enough. “We do not negotiate with savages or abominations.”

“I challenge by the authority of high law,” she replied. “Let us be judged by tribunal. Witness this.”

“So witnessed,” said the other woman in a resigned tone.

Rather than seeming angered by this defiance, the man in the center frowned pensively, and again tried to turn toward her. This time, Natchua obligingly rotated him just enough. “Are you certain, officer?”

“I would not disrupt command on mission save in absolute certainty, seeker-captain,” she replied solemnly.

He worked his jaw as if chewing that for a moment, then nodded once. “The benefit of your experience is valued, officer. Your recommendation will be followed.”

She nodded back. “I withdraw my challenge.”

“Witnessed,” said the third with clear relief.

“The warrant specifies the legal status of the accused,” he said, turning his attention back to Malivette and switching again to Tanglish. Natchua shifted him again to make it less awkward. “She is a citizen of Tar’naris, and thus, now a citizen of the Confederacy, as citizens of all member states are as of its formation. This renunciation is on record, but not relevant. Tar’naris has no established policy for the renunciation of citizenship; the concept apparently does not exist in Narisian law or tradition. The only Confederate member state with such doctrine is Qestraceel, which recognizes renunciation as a personal choice but maintains the prerogative of law enforcement over renunciate citizens as it becomes necessary. Thus, her legal status is that of a Confederate citizen and subject to the Highguard’s authority. This would only be in question had she applied for and received citizenship in another state, but we have verified that this is not the case.”

“Well, that’s all fine and good,” Malivette said dismissively, “not to mention highly debatable, but nobody here is arguing any of that.”

“Uh, excuse me,” Natchua exclaimed.

“Natch, hush,” the vampire said. “Let me work. At issue here is the Highguard’s prerogative to act without my or the Silver Throne’s permission in Veilgrad. To wit: there is none. You are not on Confederate territory, and thus you are not enforcing laws, but breaking them. You, active military personnel, are going around committing trespass and assault with intent to abduct.” She leaned forward again, simpering. “Under certain conditions, precious, that is an act of war.”

“The Empire is not going to go to war over this little reprobate,” he said with naked contempt. “If you feel your privileges have been stepped upon…Duchess…you may lodge a complaint with the Magistry—” He broke off, grimaced fleetingly, then composed his expression and continued. “I mean, with the High Council. Or, more likely, request that the Empire do so. But let’s be honest: this is an ill-behaved, unpleasant, demon-trafficking young troublemaker, and had her fellow warlock criminal friends not intervened, we would have successfully extracted her without any notice or inconvenience on your part. No one would have cared. Is your personal pride worth allowing a criminal to run loose?”

“Natchua, please refrain,” Malivette said pleasantly as Natchua swelled up and sparks of purple light began to flicker along the tentacles, to the visible alarm of the two female Highguard. “I think I see what the confusion here is. C’mon, I wanna show you something I think you’ll be very interested in. Do bring them along, Natch honey!”

The Duchess abruptly exploded into a swarm of shrieking bats, prompting all three high elves to try to cast something arcane, which of course was immediately drained away to nothing by Natchua’s secure hold over them. The bats whirled away around behind the staircase, disappearing into a hallway that led deeper into the Manor.

Sapphire curtsied diffidently. “This way, if you please?” Turning, she set off in the same direction, at a much more sedate pace.

Pausing only to give the Highguard captain a baleful look, Natchua followed, dragging her three prisoners along. The other three of Vette’s attendants brought up the rear, in single file.

Partway down the hall, a door opened just as Sapphire passed it, and a man’s tousled head emerged. “What’s all the… Natchua?”

“Sherwin?” she exclaimed, coming to a stop and blinking at him. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m allowed to visit people, you know,” he said irritably.

“Well, of course you’re allowed. Hell, I’m proud of you. I was just surprised, is all. You hate… Everything.”

The Lord of House Leduc snorted, stepping out into the hall to peer up at the three armored elves being dragged around by shadow tentacles like a trio of disgruntled balloons. “So, uh… What’s all this, then?”

“Long story,” she answered. “Short version: assholes. Sorry, I better move it along, I’m keeping Vette waiting.”

“Well, Vette’s keeping me waiting,” he groused, shoving the door closed with more force than it deserved. “I may as well come see what’s so damn important it’s holding everything up.”

“The more the merrier,” Natchua said cheerily, setting off again after Sapphire, and gave the Highguard captain a playful jostle. “Right, chuckles?”

He did not dignify her with a response.

Sapphire paused at another open door and gestured them politely though. Sherwin slipped in ahead of Natchua, who “accidentally” bumped all three floating elves against the door frame while following. With the five of them plus Malivette and a sprawling bundle of energy tentacles in the room beyond, it was rather cramped, being a fairly cozy office.

“Hi, Sherwin,” the Duchess said pleasantly, reaching out to ruffle his hair until he ducked away, growling. “Sorry to keep you waiting, this just came up. Shouldn’t take a—”

“What the hell are these doing here?” Natchua shouted, pointing accusingly at the wall. “I told Jonathan to throw these damn things out!”

The entire wall was covered by newspaper clippings, each one framed and under glass as if it were a rare portrait. All were headlines about her.

“Yes,” Malivette said, smirking, “and because that was silly and you are an irrational goober who likes to break things, Jonathan sent them to me so they’d be safe.”

“I’m gonna throttle that man!”

“You had better make a point to get down on your knees in front of that man before he realizes how much better he can do than you, y’little… What was the word you used?” She peered up at the Highguard captain. “Ah, yes, reprobate. I dunno, sounds a little…grandiose, don’t you think? Seems to me jackass is a better fit.”

“Malivette,” Natchua warned.

“And by get down on your knees,” the vampire continued seriously, “I am referring to—”

“Vette, I live with two succubi,” she snapped. “I do not need single entendres spelled out for me.”

“What the fuck is even going on here?” Sherwin asked, scratching his head.

“Quite so!” Malivette agreed, suddenly brisk. “As you can see, dear guests, these are newspaper headlines from the past four months, all about our dear alleged fugitive. You can read Tanglish, yes? Good, good. Now, you’ll note quite a few are just local interest pieces. Natchua judges pumpkin pie contest, Natchua comments on this or that thing somebody needed a quote for on a slow news day, Natchua transports ex-Shaathist refugees to Viridill, Natchua donates to the new Nemitite library, Natchua endorses local brewery… Oh, ew, a pale ale? Somebody seriously needs to explain beer to you, girl.”

“I will not have my taste in beverages critiqued by an overly self-satisfied deer tick!”

“Omnu’s breath, is this what you’ve been doing all autumn?” Sherwin asked. “This is, like, politician stuff. You do know there’s no elected council in Veilgrad, right? I don’t think there’s been an elected anything in the Empire since Theasia got a bug up her ass about that mess in Shengdu.”

“Hey, I get bored cooped up in the house all the time, Sherwin. Not everybody’s a self-imposed shut-in. And, y’know what, fine, I’ll admit it: I like attention. You don’t think I was born with green hair, do you?”

“Now, being such worldly and intelligent individuals,” Malivette continued solemnly, “you can no doubt infer from this alone that Natchua is somebody important enough locally that not only does she get invited to do stuff like this, but the newspapers consider it…well, in a word, news. And if you’ll kindly direct your attention to the full pages occupying pride of place here in the center, you can tell why!”

The vampire gestured grandly at the largest of the framed papers, while Natchua sighed churlishly and rolled her eyes.

“These are the big exploits that made her name. The speech that rallied Veilgrad together and averted a mob, and most especially her heroics at the Battle of Ninkabi. Yes, that’s right: you were sent here to arrest the woman who personally decimated the Black Wreath and played a pivotal role in forcing Elilial’s surrender to the Pantheon.”

“Wait, that’s what these are here for?” Sherwin rounded on the elves, scowling thunderously. “You were trying to haul off my friend and guest? Where the fuck do you get off?”

“Ah, yes, I should mention,” Malivette added in a solicitous tone, “this is Lord Sherwin Leduc, the head of the other major House in Veilgrad.”

By that point, the captain was staring, wide-eyed, at the wall, seeming to see something far beyond it; something which alarmed him. Both his comrades were still reading papers, their eyes darting rapidly and expressions increasingly unnerved.

“So let me see if I have this right,” Malivette said, watching the three elves closely. “You are, of course, well aware that House Dalmiss is taking advantage of the Confederacy’s formation to have the Highguard bring in their dirty laundry. You are obviously not best pleased about this, but at the end of the day, you’re professionals with a sense of honor; you follow your orders and do your duty with skill and pride, regardless of what you may feel about any of the politics involved. What you did not realize is that House Dalmiss has severely misled you about the situation. Far from a no-name nobody who won’t be missed, Natchua is an Imperial war hero and beloved local celebrity. Her unilateral seizure by the Confederacy would severely antagonize the Silver Throne, provoke an enormous backlash of anti-elven sentiment—mostly in Veilgrad and Ninkabi, but likely spread throughout the Empire—and earn you the undying enmity of two Imperial Houses. I don’t know whether it’s Matriarch Ezrakhai herself or just Nassra who pulled strings to make this happen, but you deserve to be aware that she is using you to pursue her own obsessions in a manner that very nearly caused you to ignite a major diplomatic incident, exactly when your nascent government can least afford one.”

She folded her hands at her waist and smiled beatifically at them. Sherwin crossed his arms, still glaring, and Natchua raised a sardonic eyebrow.

The three elves were silent for a moment, looking at the newspaper clippings, then at Natchua. Finally, the captain turned his head to one side and spoke softly in elvish.

“I welcome perspective, officers.”

“None of this perforce invalidates the warrant,” the more talkative of his subordinates replied, “but it is materially crucial intelligence which High Command should have been given before deploying forces. I recommend we withdraw, report, and request new orders.”

“Concurred,” the laconic one added.

“Duchess Due Freen,” the captain said in Tanglish, his tone suddenly a great deal more respectful, even as his accent mangled her name, “we apologize for this intrusion into your domain. It seems we have been misinformed as to the situation. I respectfully request our release so that we may explain these facts to our superiors and avoid any further misunderstandings of this nature.”

“There, see? All friends again,” Malivette beamed. “And hey, it worked out for everybody! You avoided causing a crisis and learned some valuable facts, and we got three shiny sets of Highguard armor! A nice trophy each for Natchua and myself, plus a spare for Imperial Intelligence to analyze. Cheers all around!”

“Absolutely out of the question,” the captain barked, his newly-acquired politeness instantly vanishing. “The surrender of Highguard property under any circumstances is not on the table!”

“Here’s the thing,” she answered with a silky smile that made Sherwin give her a nervous sidelong look. “I’m glad you got this Natchua business sorted out, don’t think I’m not. But there remains the matter of you being here in the first place because you presume you can do as you like in our lands. That, my darlings, is what is not on the table. We are at a great moment in history, a dawning of a glorious new age, and all feeling our way in the brand new world unfolding before us. Since you charming Qestrali are not accustomed to dealing with us backwater Imperials, let me just get us all started by establishing a very important fact you will need to keep firmly in mind:”

Her smile abruptly vanished.

“This is our land. And if you trespass in my domain, there will be consequences.”

The vampire let that hang in the air for a beat while the captain worked his mouth soundlessly, then just as abruptly plastered a sunny smile back on her face, showing off her fangs.

“Now, then, that’s all settled! Natchua, dear, be a lamb and give our new pals a quick ride to Fort Vaspian so they can report in.”

“See you ‘round, chickadees,” Natchua said with a smirk, and snapped her fingers again. Darkness gathered momentarily in the room, and then both it and the shadow tendrils dissipated. The three elves were gone, and three sets of golden armor clattered noisily to the floor.

“Tut tut,” Malivette clicked her tongue. “Saph, honey, I’m sorry to drop this on you, but would you be ever so kind as to sort these out? I’m afraid this business has already made us late for an important appointment.”

“Of course, Vette,” the vampire’s handmaiden replied, smiling placidly. “It’s no trouble.”

“Ooh! Natch, it’s lucky you’re here.” Malivette turned to Natchua with an eager look that made the drow take a step backward. “Sherwin tells me you’ve got the very remarkable knack for shadow-jumping to places you’ve not previously been!”

“What of it?” she asked warily.

“It’s just that Sherwin and I have a state visit we can’t afford to miss. House business, you understand. And what with all this unexpected hoopla, we’ve gone and missed our caravan!”

“We could just not fuckin’ do it,” Sherwin suggested.

Malivette batted her eyes at him. “Sherwin. Dear. We discussed this, remember?”

“Blackmailer,” he muttered sullenly.

“Uh…yeah,” Natchua said, glancing back and forth between them. “That’s no trouble. I can’t just send someone that way, though, I’ll have to come with.”

“Why, that’s perfect!” Malivette chirped, clapping her hands. “Then you can hang about with us and provide a ride home, too. Oh, don’t worry, it’ll be good to get out of town for a day, and I just know our hostess will be delighted to show you the most lavish hospitality in Madouris. Actually, now that I think of it, you know Duchess Ravana personally, don’t you?”

Natchua sighed heavily. “Yep. Yeah, there it is. That’ll teach me to think this day can’t get any more annoying.”

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16 – 10

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Though the scheduling of this entire affair had been necessarily impromptu, it was Lord Vex’s responsibility to stay on top of events, and thus he was there to greet the Empress when she and her escort returned. They materialized in the secure room of the Palace’s harem wing set aside for teleport arrivals, Eleanora accompanied by two of the Imperial Guard and the two Azure Corps battlemages who had provided her transport—an almost cursory escort for a sitting Empress, but then, the entire business had been meant to be discreet.

Obviously, Vex did not react to her appearance. Eleanora wore her usual severe gown and had her hair pulled back into its customary tight bun. The gown, though, was unbuttoned to below her collarbone, and she had a woven crown of lilies perched lopsidedly atop her head. At her hip, hanging from a broad leather shoulderstrap decorated with Tidestrider beadwork, was a heavy satchel, itself dangling streamers of colorful beads and shells that clattered with her movements.

“Good morning and welcome home, your Majesty,” Vex said in his normal, distant voice once the battlemages had saluted their Empress and departed in flashes of blue glitter. “I hope your mission was fruitful.”

Eleanora gave him a momentary look, her own expression as closed and guarded as always, to the point that it clashed with her touches of holiday frippery.

“Tellwyrn was amenable to sharing, with some persuasion,” she said briskly, stepping forward off the teleport pad and striding toward the chamber’s door. Vex fell in alongside her and the two Imperial Guards silently brought up their rear. “She is not, as it turns out, a high elf.”

“I see. Well, it was still a worthwhile prospect to investigate. I am sorry you did not meet with more success.”

She flicked a sidelong glance at him, that extremely subtle look he knew so well which few would even have caught. That look meant she’d done something clever, and Vex had to consciously refuse to sigh.

“Tellwyrn has been in Qestraceel,” the Empress said, opening her satchel and carefully extracting a large, heavy volume bound in scuffed leather, its yellow pages unevenly trimmed. The thing looked positively ancient. She handed it very carefully to him. “She was so deeply offended by her treatment there that her first act upon departing was to assemble the most thorough record of her observations she could while the memory was fresh, and set it aside against a future occasion when unveiling the secrets of the Qestrali to an interested third party might, in her words, ‘inflict some damn humility’ upon them.”

Vex tucked the volume protectively against his side. “The most peculiar thing about knowing Professor Tellwyrn is how often one is forced to appreciate what a mulish, irritating bully she is.”

“Tell me about it,” Eleanora replied with an open sigh. “I have given that book a cursory examination; it’s quite legible, though the language is somewhat archaic, having been written some three hundred years ago.”

“Ah. Well, even if it is not up to date intelligence, historical data is still extremely valuable, given our complete lack of it.”

“It is definitely dated, but may be more pertinent than you imagine,” the Empress replied. “In addition to the written record, Tellwyrn was willing to speak at some length about the high elves. It’s not all that hard to get her to start complaining, actually. By her description, the most pronounced characteristic of Qestrali culture is their presumed exceptionalism. They believe themselves to have constructed a perfect society and appear as prideful and resistant to change as any elves, if not more so. It seems their society has not diverged significantly since its founding not long after the Elder War.”

“Did she have any insight into why they would suddenly join the world now?”

“I asked, of course. Obviously we cannot know without direct data, but in Tellwyrn’s opinion, such an abrupt action indicates an equally abrupt political shift within Qestraceel itself—which, she emphasized, would only occur if several very important people died within a short period. We may wish to investigate whether some disaster has occurred in the region, perhaps a volcanic action that damaged their city. The book contains its exact latitude and longitude.”

“Ah. How do they hide their island, did she mention?”

“It’s not on an island,” Eleanora said with a wry smile. “We were correct as to its general location, but were looking at the wrong altitude. Qestraceel is located at the bottom of a huge marine trench deep below the Stormsea. Tellwyrn also mentioned that the entire purpose of their vaunted navy is to spread misinformation concerning their location, numbers, and capabilities. I’m afraid all your observations of high elven caravels may have to be thrown out.”

“Even a misdirection can be revealing, once you know it is one,” he disagreed. “Omnu’s breath, what else is in this thing?”

“Population estimates, including troop and caster numbers—probably the least accurate information, after three centuries. Descriptions of their social structure, economy, government, and religion, the basic composition and preferred strategies of their military, which in Tellwyrn’s opinion are unlikely to have been significantly updated. A cursory but still useful overview of their interactions with the outside world and how they maintain secrecy. Diet and food sources, numerous descriptions of various uses of both active spells and passive enchantments, some of which we might ourselves be sophisticated enough now to reverse-enchant from the descriptions alone. There’s a whole section on etiquette which should be a tremendous help to our diplomats. Also,” she added with another little grin, “a very detailed account of the Qestrali criminal justice system in action, and an extremely vivid depiction of one of their prisons.”

“Bless that cantankerous old bitch,” Vex said fervently. “Did she say why she’s sat on this so long?”

“The high elves do make an active effort at secrecy. Revealing this information is necessarily going to provoke a severe reaction from them; Tellwyrn judged that the Empire at its present strength needn’t fear direct reprisal, and given recent events, has an actual need for this information. We should not forget that simply possessing data on the Qestrali is going to be seen by them as antagonistic.”

“Duly noted, though it remains to be seen exactly how much we shall have to care what they think.”

They came to a stop outside the door to Eleanora’s chambers.

“Does your Majesty wish to rest and freshen up,” the spymaster inquired, “or proceed with your day as usual?”

“I feel fresher than I have in years,” Eleanora said, almost wistfully, then shook her head. “Which, of course, is exactly what can’t be shown in public. Do have my steward cancel my usual morning appointments, if you would, Quentin. This must take priority, but I should have time to straighten up a bit while everyone is gathered. Please relay all this to Sharidan and have him get Panissar and the ministers here for a consultation. I want that book copied and put in the hands of analysts in Intelligence and the Foreign Ministry; in the meantime, I will brief everyone on what I’ve learned personally, which should be enough to get them a head start.”

“Consider it done, your Majesty,” he said, bowing over the heavy book. “Good to have you back.”

Eleanora nodded once, then turned and entered her bedroom, while the guards took up positions flanking the door and Vex strode off down the hall to see her will done.


Natchua was ambushed by demons the moment she stepped out of her room, which wasn’t all that unusual.

“There you are! Were you planning to sleep all day?”

“Some of us have been at work under your orders since before sunrise, you know.”

“Both of you stuff it,” she said irritably, pushing between the two succubi and forcing them to follow her on the way down to the first floor. “I was up past midnight being interrogated by Imperials, and just for your edification, I own a clock and know how to read it. It’s barely past breakfast time. Report in, and hold the whining.”

“Ooh, I love it when she’s commanding,” Kheshiri cooed, then shrieked playfully at Melaxyna’s slap to her rump.

Natchua sighed loudly and rubbed at her eyes with both fists.

“Yeah, well, I’ve got nothing,” Melaxyna said. “I’ve been up and down the city for two hours starting at dawn, lurking in all the markets. I didn’t encounter any unusual magic of any kind, or even a rumor of any. All the gossip is the elves this, the elves that. Even as big a deal as this Confederacy is, had there been even a whisper of a chaos event near Veilgrad, I guarantee that would be on everybody’s lips. But no, not a hint.”

“Afraid I have nothing better, mistress,” Kheshiri added as they rounded the corner and descended the wide stairs to the nearly-restored entrance hall. “Malivette is still taking your warning seriously, and according to Jade, so is Imperial Command. Everyone’s more concerned about the Wreath sniffing around for unknown reasons than they are about whatever spooked them into fleeing the catacombs, though.”

“Well, they’re not wrong,” Natchua grunted, coming to a stop at the base of the stairs and gazing absently around. The restoration was going well, especially now that she’d found some local laborers willing to work in a house full of demons under the direct supervision of three hobgoblins; oddly enough, Veilgrad locals seemed to find a strange comfort in knowing that nominally friendly evil lurked in the old manor again. For all that Natchua was herself becoming a fixture in the local community, Veilgrad’s regional culture was still mystifying at times.

The walls and roof were up; it was chilly and drafty in the hall, with boards still taking the place of the glass that had yet to be installed in its tall windows. There were no carpets, drapes, or other decorative touches yet, the floor and wood paneling hadn’t been properly varnished, and the place was strewn with tools, sawhorses, stacks of wood and other construction debris. The new wrought iron chandelier sat in one corner beside a pile of yet-unassembled enchanting equipment awaiting expert installation for its light-sensitive fairy lamps.

“It’s still too early in whatever the Wreath is doing to have a plan yet,” Natchua said after a contemplative pause. “I want your eyes and brains on whatever they come up with, though, Shiri.”

“You always know what I like to hear, mistress,” Kheshiri purred, grinning wickedly and slowly swaying in her hips in time with the waving of her tail. “Ahh, running rings around the Wreath, it’ll be just like old times.”

“And both of you be careful,” Natchua added more severely, setting off around the steps toward one of the newly reopened hallways. “You’re both made of magic. A proper chaos event could fuck you up beyond my ability to repair.”

“Are you sure that’s what it was?” Melaxyna asked. “Not trying to be difficult, Natchua, it just seems…”

“I know exactly how it seems,” she grumbled. “And as I told the Imps, I’m not a hundred percent certain of anything. I’m not personally very familiar with chaos interactions. But it scared off the Wreath, it came out of the same deep tunnels where that chaos cult was operating, and it just felt like that creepy place Kuriwa showed me. None of that’s more than suggestive. When it comes to chaos, though, it doesn’t pay to get sloppy. Worst case scenario, it’s nothing. Then you can say you told me so, and we’re not all hopelessly fucked, so… Everybody wins.”

Like the hall leading to it, the dining room had been almost fully restored. It still lacked furnishings, aside from a few surviving chairs and the enormous carved table which had endured its years of neglect with little ill effect that some polish hadn’t healed. The fairy lamps were awaiting installation, so old-fashioned oil lamps perched in their sconces, currently unlit. The fireplace was kindled, adding heat and warm light to the cool gray that beamed in through the open windows, their new glass in wrought iron housings revealing a gentle fall of snow to add to the covering already on the grounds outside.

“There she is,” Hesthri said fondly, sidling up to Natchua to kiss her cheek. “I made scrambled eggs with those spicy peppers you like, they’re under the cover on the table there. Should be fresh, but I can whip up some more.”

“Thanks, Hes. Don’t you worry about me,” Natchua replied, giving her a one-armed hug before turning to the table. “I grew up eating beetles and mushrooms, anything that’s not actually moldy still feels decadent.”

“Damn it, wench, let me pamper you a little,” the demon scolded, earning a mischievous grin in response.

Natchua’s path toward breakfast was interrupted when she came abreast of Jonathan, who was sitting sideways in one of the few chairs, his own empty plate pushed away and a cup of tea at his elbow while he read a newspaper.

“WHAT THE HELL?” she bellowed, ripping it out of his grasp.

Jonathan had quick enough reflexes to let go rather than let the paper be torn, and sat there with his empty hands still in position to hold it up, blinking through the space where it had been at Natchua, who was glaring at the front page.

“You know, girl, sometimes I wonder if you were raised in some kind of cave.”

“Why am I on the front page?!” she demanded of the room at large, slapping the offending document with the back of her hand. “What the fuck is wrong with these people?! The elves bust out the most astonishing political development in all of history, and somehow ‘Natchua fends off annoying reporter’ deserves a fucking headline? Who do I have to sacrifice to what to get some goddamn peace? Because I’ll do it, see if I don’t!”

“That’ll be Imperial Intelligence at work,” Jonathan said, picking up his teacup and taking a sip.

She rounded on him, brandishing the paper. “What? Why?”

“You,” he explained, smiling, “a beloved local oddball and hero, and also a foreigner who has no attachment to the Empire to speak of, reacted to the elves’ big surprise by urging people to stay the course and trust the government. The Throne couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement if they’d arranged it themselves. The Empire may not control any papers outright, thanks to the Veskers’ influence, but they definitely have means to lean on them. You’d better believe strings were pulled to get that to the front page.”

“Aaugh!” Natchua rolled up the paper and smacked herself repeatedly in the forehead with it. “I only said that because I thought it was the thing least likely to stir up trouble! And now look what—oof.”

Tiring of her carrying on, Jonathan had set down his tea, and now reached forward, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her into his lap.

“What’s done is done,” he stated, wrapping his arms around her and resting his chin atop her head. “It was a good idea, Natch, I think you made the right call. Sometimes you just get cornered and any step you take is gonna kick over some bucket of crabs. That’s life.”

Kheshiri deftly plucked the paper out of the drow’s grasp and unrolled it, Melaxyna leaning over her shoulder as they both perused the front page.

“Whoah boy,” Kheshiri said, her eyebrows climbing. “This is a bigger deal than your putative chaos flicker, mistress.”

“The hell you say,” Natchua snapped.

“It’s possible nothing’ll come of it,” Melaxyna added, “but it’s also possible she’s right. If Intelligence is content with this, great. But if they start approach you for more active cooperation…”

“They’ll be disappointed, is what!”

“No!” both succubi shouted, looking up at her in alarm.

“They’re right, love,” Jonathan said gently, squeezing her. “You gotta consider the way spooks and operatives think. If you’re not with them, you’re against them. ‘Neutrality’ is not an idea they respect.”

Natchua bared her teeth in a wild grimace and seized his arms, hissing and physically swelling up as she drew breath for another outburst.

Hesthri glided smoothly across the gap between them and pushed herself into their embrace, slipping an arm around Jonathan’s shoulders and the other behind Natchua’s head to insistently press the drow’s face into her cleavage.

Natchua made muffled noises of protest, squirming and flailing the one arm she could slip free, at least for a few moments. Very quickly, the struggle went out of her and she slumped forward, going limp and letting out a half-stifled groan.

Hesthri stroked the green stripe in Natchua’s white hair, smirking over her head at the two amused succubi. “It works on Jonathan, too.”

“’strue,” he agreed, slipping one arm free of Natchua to wrap around Hesthri’s waist and pat her hip.

“And on Sherwin,” Melaxyna said sardonically, “and on everyone. I hope you don’t think you invented that, Hes. Feeling better, Natch?”

“Uh bff, fankth.”

“Good.” Hesthri bent her neck to kiss the top of her head before withdrawing. “Then eat your eggs, pretty. The world will still be full of enemies after breakfast; I’ll not have you kicking ass on an empty stomach.”


An hour later, she left the Manor in a much better mood, at least partly due to a full stomach.

Though she could easily have used magic to protect herself from the cold, Natchua much preferred to wear the nice winter coat and boots Jonathan had bought for her. The coat she especially enjoyed, a deep blue knee-length garment lined with speckled fox fur; it was amazingly comfortable and she was so fond of the look she willingly forgave him for saying her old black leather duster made her look like a pretentious wannabe cowboy poet.

Externally, Leduc Manor was still a shambles, but at this point it was the shambles of construction rather than decay. The outer fence and gate had been fully repaired and fresh gravel coated the driveway, though of course no landscaping had yet been done and everything not stomped flat by the ongoing work was a maze of brambles and dead weeds. Carts and carriages were parked on its grounds, along with stacks of masonry waiting to be installed, all of it now buried under a layer of fresh snow. Construction had slowed considerably during the winter; as far as their hired workmen were concerned, it was stopped, but the three hobgoblins kept gamely on, unbothered by temperature and taking great satisfaction in their progress. There was no way they’d have the whole manor shipshape by spring, but Natchua rather expected the hired hands to be shocked at the state of the place when they returned.

The old Leducs must have leaned hard into their sinister reputation, to judge by their fondness for overwrought gothic architecture and decorative ironwork, to say nothing of the gargoyles, all of which were deliberately shaped to look like actual demon species. Still, the place must have been beautiful, in its way, when it was kept up. The layer of cleansing snow made it oddly appealing even now, and likely would have then.

A lot about the area was beautiful; one couldn’t help but enjoy the vista the Manor had over the city of Veilgrad below and the Great Plains beyond. The forested mountains soaring upward on all sides were an equally breathtaking sight. Even after a few months here, Natchua had not become inured to the spectacle, and so always left the house on foot when she was going into town.

She especially loved the snow, aware that at least part of it was the novelty. Even with an academic awareness of how deadly winters had been to humans until very recently in history, the sight of it was just…pure. Natchua couldn’t put words to the sense of serenity that came when heavy flakes were floating down from the clouds, but she took every opportunity to savor it. Even in Last Rock, winter had just been the months when it didn’t rain. Veilgrad’s unfriendly climate felt like a welcome part of the setting, something almost designed to appeal to creatures such as herself.

Obviously, shadow-jumping was a more efficient way to get anywhere, and she had been around and over Veilgrad enough by now that she could jump almost directly to any point she might need in the city. There was certainly no question of walking down the winding mountain road from Leduc Manor to the gates of Veilgrad, and then back up the other winding mountain road to Dufresne Manor. How long she walked before getting tired of it and jumping the rest of the way varied by trip, but she always made a point of setting out on her own two legs to begin with.

Evidently she’d done this enough for the habit to have been widely observed; they clearly knew to intercept her just below the first switchback past the gates.

Darkness coalesced in a ring out of the drifting snowflakes around her, and Natchua instantly gathered an arsenal of spells, having nearly limitless destruction ready at her fingertips by the time their gray robes were fully visible.

“Are you kidding me?” she demanded of the white-suited man who again led the dozen warlocks. “Again? What are you expecting to go differently this time?”

“Scuze me, miss, not to be rude,” Mogul said almost diffidently, holding up one finger. “If you’ll bear with me, please, I’ll be with you in just a second. All right, boys and girls, light ‘em up.”

They, too, had had spells ready, and at his word, a torrent of shadowbolts flashed at her from every direction.

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16 – 7

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“Well, of course,” Mogul drawled, thrusting his hands into his pockets and adopting a slouching pose so clearly exaggerated for effect it was reminiscent of a vaudeville performer. “That’s the only trick you know, isn’t it? Kill it with fire, ask questions never, then flounce away and let the authorities sift through the wreckage. No, Natchua, if I meant to mix it up with you, I promise you’d never have seen us coming. I want to have a word with you.”

“I don’t recommend having words with the Wreath,” Fedhaar said tersely.

“I notice you haven’t opened fire yet,” she replied, glancing back at him.

“Standard procedure not to force a confrontation with warlocks if it’s not necessary. If they don’t want to fight, grand, but that doesn’t make it smart to listen to notorious manipulators. We need to evac.”

“And that’ll be why he’s put himself between us and the exit,” Svanwen said.

Mogul tipped his hat.

“All right, sunshine, I’ll tell you what,” said Natchua, folding her arms imperiously. “Convince me you have something worthwhile to say and I’ll hear it out. Waste any more of my time and I shadow-jump all of us right out of this entirely pointless pain in the ass.”

“Any reason you can’t do that now?” Fedhaar asked.

“I’ll send you all back up top if you want,” she said. “He’s gone to the trouble of setting this up once, and cost Agatha’s people two days of work. I’d just as soon he get it out of his system before the next attempt is even more of a headache.”

“Hn,” the captain grunted, flexing his fingers along the haft of his battlestaff. “That said, I prefer we stay and keep an eye on this, then. Thanks for the offer.”

“Appreciate having you,” Natchua said, glancing back again to give him a nod. “Well? We’re waiting, Mogul. Spit it out, while we’re young.”

“Kind of an impossible position, isn’t it?” he mused. “I’m to impress someone whose core problem is being too up her own butt to possess basic empathy, or an awareness that actions have consequences.”

“Well, he came to the point more directly than I expected,” Natchua said, smirking faintly.

“Glib in the face of anything that might cause the discomfort of a real emotional response,” Mogul retorted. “I know you didn’t learn that in Tar’naris. You must’ve devoured those chapbooks and comics as soon as you hit Last Rock, kiddo. That would explain several things, actually.”

“I’m getting bored,” she warned.

“Now, as best as I’ve been able to piece together events after the fact, you actually spent a short time in chaos space yourself. You and the Crow; she’s just about the only person who can get into there and is insane enough to use it for transportation. So you know that’s not boring.” He was still showing teeth, the corners of his mouth still turned upward, but his upper lip had twisted the expression into a feral snarl beneath the shade of his hat. “Don’t you?”

“Did you honestly set all this up to complain at me?” Natchua exclaimed. “It was a warzone. I caught you idiots red-handed summoning more demons into it. And I’m the one who’s unaware of consequences? At least have enough courage of conviction not to whine when you get hurt in the process of being hilariously evil.”

“’Evil’ is a word people use to dismiss anything they can’t be bothered to understand,” Mogul shot back. “But don’t you worry, darlin’, we’re more than accustomed to being the bigger person. Case in point: I’m not even going to rant about how evil it is to consign a couple dozen bystanders to a dimension of unimaginable torment for no better reason than that you wanted to hurt the deity they answer to. Because I do understand it, Natchua. And mark me now: before I’m done, you will understand it, too.” His smile thinned, which ironically made it look more sincere, though it was still not a warm or cheerful expression. “Consider this the thrown gauntlet. Any fool can hurt someone; there is no greater vengeance than to make a person confront their own fundamental inadequacy. For most people, a personality is little more than a lifetime’s worth of built up defenses against the realization of what a piece of shit they truly are. I’m going to take that from you, Natchua. And when you finally have to acknowledge the true depth of your own stupid, selfish perfidy, that will hurt more than anything suffered by us, or by our comrades who never made it out of where you sent them. So you have that—”

“Oh, gods, are you done?” she demanded.

Mogul sighed, his smile finally inverting into an annoyed grimace. “Really, now, I’d think you could at least let me have my moment of drama. Surely even you will acknowledge you owe me that much.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Natchua snorted. “I’m gonna tell you what I told your bitch goddess: you’re no better. However justified Elilial is in her beef with the Pantheon, she’s a spiteful, destructive monster with oceans of blood on her hands. You think you’re so very put upon? Please. Yeah, I messed you up, but—and I can’t believe I have to keep repeating this—you were summoning an army of demons into Ninkabi. What, did you look around at the city being torn apart by demons and think, ‘hey, I know what this needs: more demons!’ Just fuck right off.”

“We were acting under orders from the Dark Lady,” another of the Wreath cultists interjected harshly. Her voice was feminine, though none of their faces save Mogul’s was visible, and the echoes in the tomb made it difficult for even Natchua to tell which one was talking. “We were trying to put a stop to the invasion! Her forces—”

“Even you don’t believe what you’re saying,” Natchua scoffed. “You were trying to stop a demon invasion with a demon invasion? You’re supposed to be the ultimate anti-demon experts. There is zero possibility you’re not fully aware that is the opposite of how it works.”

“When you’re given marching orders from an actual deity,” Mogul began.

Natchua barked a harsh laugh which reverberated through the tomb, prompting an agitated hiss from the chained rozzk’shnid behind the wall.If you’re the Black Wreath and living on a diet of your own prideful resistance to the gods, you question your orders. If you’re the Black Wreath and have been close enough to Elilial’s plans to have seen firsthand how she’s been unraveling for years now, you definitely question orders that you can plainly see are only going to make a catastrophe worse. Apparently, you idiots couldn’t be bothered. So what does that make you?”

“Are you trying to suggest we’re not the actual Black Wreath?” Mogul asked, his tone amused. “I have to say, that’s something I’m rarely accused of. In fact, this may be a first.”

“I’m saying you’re exactly like every other poor sap wrecking the world and coming up with no better excuse than ‘my god told me to.’ You think the Pantheon and their cults are assholes? Fine, maybe so, I wouldn’t really know. You think you’ve been mistreated? Sure, I handled you roughly, and so have a lot of others. But you think you’re in any better position to look down your noses? Please. You had your chance to prove you were better; I caught you right smack dab in the middle of it. That was your opportunity to show that all your resistance to the gods was something more than asshat us vs. them tribalism, your chance to stand up to an unjust goddess and do what was right instead of what you were told. And did you take it? Did you prove your character? Or did you duck your head and obey, and try to fuck up a disaster even worse? Well, Mogul?” She threw her arms wide, sweeping a glare around at the robed figures. “Any of you? What did you do?”

They remained hooded and inscrutable, though a growl sounded in the feminine voice which has previously spoken, softly enough that only Natchua could have heard it. Mogul’s mouth had pressed into a thin line, no longer showing any amusement either real or dramatically feigned.

The ensuing two heartbeats of silence were broken by a low whistle from one of the soldiers, followed by a muffled snort from another.

“Never mind, you don’t have to say anything,” Natchua stated in the most condescending tone she could muster. “We all know the answer. I just wanted to see your face wrap itself around that stupid expression. And you chuckleheads came here to make me confront my inadequacy? No wonder your goddess had to surrender.”

“You have no idea what that place was like!” the woman snarled.

“Vanessa,” Mogul warned, but ignoring him, she stepped forward, revealing herself to be the hooded figure closest to him on his left.

“People I cared about died in agony right in front of me because of you,” she snarled, pointing accusingly at Natchua. “Torn apart by monsters, because you had to pursue your own little grudge with Elilial! You don’t get to climb up on a high horse and lecture us!”

Natchua folded her arms again. “You know what? Fuck your dead friends.”

“Little beast!”

Vanessa hurled a shadowbolt of such intensity that its sullen purple glow lit the chamber for a split second. Natchua deftly brought up a hand to intercept it and plucked the thing out of the air; in her grasp, the streak of energy was suddenly a yard-long shaft of irregular violet crystal which streamed with sulfurous smoke. She contemptuously tossed it aside, and the solidified magic shattered upon the stone floor, brittle as old charcoal. By the time the soldiers managed to bring their weapons to bear, the fragments were already decaying into nothing.

“Fuck your nihilistic crusade,” Natchua continued relentlessly. “Fuck your whingeing goddess, fuck her hurt feelings, and fuck you all. You’ve been through some shit, fine, you can be upset about that, but you’re not going to act like the aggrieved party. You know what you did, and this entire stupid thing is nothing but you trying to make yourselves feel better by pretending there’s someone worse than you out there. And the proof of it is that you’re trying to pick on me instead of Mary the Crow, who was at least as responsible for that whole thing and would flick her fingers and annihilate the lot of you if you went near her, you self-involved cowards. You made your choices, and you chose to lick Elilial’s hooves and in the process throw away your own vaunted spirit of defiance and your divine mandate to protect the world from demons. So yeah, I sent your asses to Tentacle Super Hell, and you are now getting on my case about it so you don’t have to face up to the fact that that was what you deserved.”

Vanessa practically vibrated with rage, but silently; Mogul had gone still and stood stiffly upright, with none of his theatrically slouched demeanor. The other cultists, previously impassive, shuffled restlessly in their robes.

“Fuckin’ told,” Lieutenant Bindo observed, prompting another derisive snort from a fellow soldier.

“Quiet,” Captain Fedhaar ordered tersely.

All of them stilled, though not in response to him. The sound that echoed through the tunnels hovered right at the edge of hearing, even Natchua’s, resembling both a groan and a whisper. It came from the gate into the deeper, unmapped catacombs, accompanied by a soft stirring of air and the acrid smell of old decay. The rozzk’shnid whined and began scrabbling furiously at the stone, as if trying to burrow into the floor; mostly smothered by its noise was an ephemerally faint suggestion of murmuring voices, with words hinted at but nothing meaningful to be discerned.

It faded in little more than a second, though, and in the next instant the darkness momentarily deepened in the tomb, shadows drawing together around the cultists in unison. They receded immediately, and with them the Wreath vanished.

Ms. Svanwen let out a huff of pent-up breath. “Well. That’s…that, I suppose.”

“Not hardly,” Natchua murmured, frowning at the spot where Embras Mogul had stood. “There is no possible way that was all he wanted.”

“Agreed,” said Fedhaar, raising his battlestaff to plant its butt on the stone floor. “That kind of confrontation isn’t their pattern at all, though it can be the first step of a characteristic misdirection. Whatever they came here for, that was just the opening move.”

“Well, if they’re after me in particular, hopefully they won’t mess up your work any more,” Natchua offered, turning to face them.

Svanwen shook her head. “If nothing else, now they know they can draw you out by messing with Veilgrad’s interests. Blessed Light, and I played right into it. It was me who went and drew you into this, just like that prancing cockerel wanted.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about the Black Wreath thinking two steps ahead of you, ma’am,” Fedhaar advised. “That is pretty much what they do. For now, we need to get out of here and report this nuisance to ImCom and Duchess Dufresne. Jevani, finish what we came here for.”

“Sir!” One of his soldiers saluted, then swiftly stepped around the dividing wall with her staff at the ready.

“I could’ve done without that last bit of theater, though,” Fedhaar commented. The crack of lightning was deafening in the tomb, causing Natchua to wince and cover her ears; Jevani had to shoot the rozzk’shnid three times in succession to finish the armored creature off, but the captain continued as though there had been no interruption the second its squeals ceased. “That was just plain creepy. Didn’t seem like it fit with the rest of that guy’s performance, either.”

Natchua turned to face the direction of the doorway into the deeper tunnels, hidden out of view by the likenesses of the ancient kings, her face again drawn into a pensive frown. “I don’t…think…that was them. We may have additional problems.”


The whole exchange so far had taken place in the lodge’s grandiose entrance hall, simply because that was the only indoor space large enough to contain the whole group. The Harpies numbered thirty-eight women in total, most somewhere in their middle years but including a handful of teenagers and three gray-haired grannies, one of whom required a cane to walk, not that it had apparently held her back from rebelling against the regime in Shaathvar. There was a single Tiraan among them, a woman in her thirties named Sadhi who had looked singularly depressed every time Ravana had seen her; all the rest were Stalweiss, with hair in shades of brown and gold when not gray, plus two with the rarer red, most of them with the solid build of hardy mountain folk.

Despite the opulence of the lodge, with its gilt-fluted marble columns, the atmosphere in the room was surprisingly convivial, largely due to the noise from the front area near the doors, where Dantu had taken over shepherding the Harpies’ dozen or so accompanying children. The old man appeared to be having the time of his life, guiding the youngsters through a game that seemed to involve alternately sitting in a wide circle and chasing one another around it; fortunately he’d selected as the site for this roughhousing a large swath of plush carpet which had been enchanted so as to both repel stains and not inflict burns when skidded across. Ravana had already decided never to inform any of them that her great-grandfather had commissioned the thing for sexual purposes and her father had laid it before the door as its magic conveniently prevented mud from being tracked into the lodge. For the most part, she kept her focus on Ingvar and the Harpies, but periodically stole inquisitive glances at the elder and the children. She’d never had the opportunity to play such games at that age…

With the sounds of play as a backdrop, the more serious scene unfolding around the great hearth at the opposite end of the hall was spared from excessive solemnity. The refugee women stood and sat in a roughly semicircular formation, their attention mostly on Ingvar, who spoke in a steady and soothing tone that Ravana admired for how deftly he had perceived the mood of this crowd and the best approach to them. At least a few of the Harpies were still studying Dimbi with awed expressions. The younger Shadow Hunter had taken the form of a great wolf as a demonstration, and not seen fit to change back; she now sat next to Ingvar before the fire, a tawny creature the size of a small donkey surrounded by a gentle aura of light as if occupying her own private sunbeam, the golden geometric patterns marking her fur glowing gently.

“There’s nothing more natural than to feel that way,” Ingvar was saying earnestly in response to Brenhild’s last statement. The closest thing the Harpies had to a leader, she was a broad-shouldered woman with dark brown hair done in a single long braid and then wrapped around her head like a crown; apparently she had personally fended off Huntsmen trying to drag her and her comrades back home, first with a broomstick, then a cudgel, and later with the Avenic leaf-bladed gladius now hanging at her hip. She watched Ingvar with a skeptical frown as he continued, but showed no signs of disagreeing. “Every person has the right to space of their own; in Shaath’s service, we learn to appreciate solitude, and the fact that women are so frequently denied it in traditional lodges is just one of the crimes heaped upon you.”

More of the women than otherwise nodded at that, a couple grunting approval.

“As free beings, you’re entitled to decide whose company you keep, and when,” Ingvar went on, still holding Brenhild’s gaze with that inexhaustible calm of his. “If you don’t want anyone around sometimes, that is fine. If you don’t want any men near you at certain times or places, that’s entirely your right. It would be even if you hadn’t been through ordeals that would make it particularly understandable. Being part of the wild means determining these things for yourself. As a group, though, and as a doctrine, we will not be segregated by sex.”

“The Avenists cultivate women-only spaces,” Brenhild stated, narrowing her eyes.

“So they do,” Ingvar agreed with a nod. “In fact, so do Izarites and some sects of Vidians. We do not. This thing with men against women is the whole root of all our miseries, and needs to end. There is a lot we can learn from Avenists, and others, but not to the point of losing our own identity as Shaathists. As I said, when you need times and spaces to be by yourself, they’ll be available—but this will be because you are human beings with the absolute right to determine with whom you will keep company, and when, and under what circumstances. It will never be about formal segregation within the Shadow Hunters. That is a point of principle, yes, but there is also a crucial matter of overcoming bad habits within our own ranks. We have many former Rangers who are already accustomed to this and provide good examples; we also have Huntsmen who need to get used to accepting women as equals, and women from both Shaathist and other backgrounds who I will not see brushed aside into separate spaces. Even with the best intentions, that can all too easily lead to exactly the kind of gendered divide Shaath’s people urgently need to overcome.”

At that, Brenhild nodded, her expression finally softening; clearly taking a cue from her, several of the others nodded as well. Some of the Harpies still seemed skeptical of Ingvar, but fewer than when he had started speaking, and quite a few were gazing at him with utterly rapt expressions. Watching all this unfold from the shadow of a marble column a few yards away, Ravana was impressed by how well and quickly he was winning the group over.

“We’ve our own scars to heal, you know,” said Gretchen. A widow, she had had the personal privacy to take up a very cursory study of the fae arts without any Huntsman preventing her; the woman was no witch, but even her slight connection to magic had made the wolf dreams especially vivid and informative for her, leading to her taking a role as the Harpies’ unofficial shaman. It had been Gretchen who had foreseen Ingvar’s coming even before Ravana had informed the group of her intention to bring him, and she had ardently championed him as a solution to many of their problems. Now, though, her expression was concerned, even cynical. “Not that I doubt the seriousness of what you’re suggesting, Brother Ingvar, but I don’t think any of us are anxious to take on the obligation of tending to more Huntsmen of Shaath, even if it’s to teach them how not to be pompous puffed-up arses. There’s plenty of pain here that needs to be healed before any of us look to take responsibility for anyone else.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Ingvar agreed, inclining his head toward her. “I mean no offense, but you all have a great deal of learning to do in the ways of the wild, due to being unfairly kept from them for all these years. If you’re ever to be responsible for guiding others, that will come later, and only if you choose to embrace that task. For now, it will be the Shadow Hunters who take on the duty of guiding and nurturing you, not expecting you to do likewise just yet. I confess we are not an ascetic or healing-oriented order. There are other cults with deep arts for soothing hurts to the spirit. In Shaath’s service, we have the wild.” He smiled, glancing about at the group. “And honestly? The wild is good medicine. Simply being out in nature is one of the most healing experiences a person can have. The harmony of wild places soothes the spirit and guides the mind back into balance. This is true for anyone, but as you grow in your knowledge of woodcraft, your connection to the earth will grow stronger. That eternal comfort will always be there.”

He paused, glancing aside at one of the hall’s towering windows, and shook his head ruefully.

“Well. Words are cheap; this is the point where ordinarily I would lead you outside to walk among the trees and show you what I mean, but unfortunately, we’re in the middle of winter.”

“Hah!” Ritta, the eldest among them, cackled and thumped her cane against the floor. “You call this winter, sonny boy? You’ve not spent much time up in the mountains.”

Amid the laughter which followed, Ingvar grinned right along.

“All right, fair enough! I certainly have time, and I came prepared for a Tiraan winter.” He picked up his bearskin cape and swung it over his shoulders. “No one need feel obligated, if you’d rather stay in here by the fire, but anybody who’d like to accompany me in a short exploration of the forest is more than welcome. There’s no time like the present to introduce you to your birthright. The wild belongs to all who are called to it.”

Smiling broadly, Brenhild clapped her hands. “You heard him! Cloaks and scarves, everybody, and let’s not keep Brother Ingvar waiting. Give us five minutes, young man.”

To Ingvar’s visible bemusement, every last one of them headed off to the hallway toward the inner rooms where their effects were kept, from stooped old Ritta to little thirteen-year-old Mittsin, herself barely mature enough to be welcomed by the group as a sister rather than consigned to Dantu’s care with the other children. Evidently not a one of the Harpies was willing to be held back from her formal introduction to Shaathist woodcraft by anything so paltry as a foot of snow.

As the last of them streamed out of the hall, Dimbi stretched out in front of the fire, resting her head on her forepaws, and Ingvar slowly crossed the room to join Ravana.

“You impress me, Brother Ingvar,” she said before he could speak. “You’ve handled all of this with great skill. I did hope you would be the one to guide them forward; my faith was clearly well-placed.”

“It’s I who should thank you, my Lady,” he replied. “All of this is thanks to your kindness.”

Ravana nodded once, then made a languid gesture at the great hall itself. “I realize the pretentiousness likely doesn’t suit your aesthetic, but what do you think of the lodge?”

“I do feel slightly out of place,” he admitted, “but it is a magnificent edifice.”

She smiled coyly up at him. “How’d you like to keep it?”

Even his well-mastered expression faltered into startlement. “Pardon?”

“There are drawbacks, of course,” Ravana mused, turning her head to gaze toward the hearth. Dimbi was watching them sidelong, her ears pricked upright despite her relaxed posture. “Being stationary poses risks, with Grandmaster Veisroi and his loyalists baying at your heels. But it will also better enable more followers to find you, and Tiraan Province is in a far more central location on the continent than N’Jendo. There is certainly ample room for your extant group and quite a few more additions, even counting the Harpies.”

“I…” He trailed off after one syllable, staring at her in apparent confusion.

“It’s not charity I offer,” Ravana assured him. “There is a traditional relationship between House Madouri and the Huntsmen of Shaath, allowing them free reign of the forests in the province in exchange for providing forestry services. You’ll be aware of this, of course, as I understand you lived in the lodge in Tiraas for several years. The Huntsmen have similar agreements with a number of Houses. With a single ducal decree I can award this traditional right to your group.” She allowed her smile to widen slightly. “To keep up appearances, of course, that means I will have to formally and publicly acknowledge your sect to be the legitimate cult of Shaath.”

Dimbi raised her head at that, turning it to stare directly. Ingvar had belatedly marshaled his features, and now peered down at Ravana through narrowed eyes.

“Why would you do such a thing?” he asked. “Supporting the Harpies is one thing, Lady Madouri. What you suggest would place you right in the center of what may yet become a violent religious schism. It seems like an impolitic move.”

“I’m a calculating creature, Brother Ingvar,” she murmured. “If I choose to take sides in any conflict, it is a sign of my confidence that the side I select will be the winning one. So the question is: do you want me on your side?”

He studied her in silence for a handful of seconds before answering.

“I am not sure.”

Ravana grinned. “Your reticence shows wisdom. I do think you are in the right in your conflict, but more importantly, I think that you are the future. Veisroi and his ilk are the past. Have you considered the meaning and the nature of the progress we have seen in the last century, Ingvar? Telescrolls, Rails, zeppelins, wands, shielding charms. What does it all mean?”

“Connection,” he answered. “The world grows smaller.”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” she said, waving a hand. “House Madouri has reigned over this land for a millennium by looking always to the future. The future I see is one in which secrets will grow harder and harder to keep, and even the most common people more and more able to defend themselves. With every advancing decade, people will grow harder to deceive, and harder to oppress. The Shaathist traditionalists have a regime built upon lies and persecution; it will grow ever more unsustainable, and would even without the wolf god himself plaguing their nightmares. It is people like you, who seek to liberate and enlighten, who will move to the fore in the coming century.

“Which is not to say that your victory is preordained,” she cautioned. “It’s early, yet, and Veisroi is well-positioned to make his enemies disappear. Someone will topple his kind, in the end; it may or may not be you. As I see it, by throwing my support into making sure that you are the one, I position House Madouri to enter the world of tomorrow with hard-won credibility and valuable allies.”

“Hm,” he murmured.

“And then, there is the more immediately practical,” Ravana continued, lowering her voice nearly to a whisper. She gazed at the fire past Dimbi, who was still staring at her. “I am…a patriot, Brother Ingvar. Acknowledging my bias, I judge the Tiraan Empire to be the preeminent example of the potential of human civilization in the world today. I consider the Tirasian Dynasty the most effective the Empire has yet known, and Sharidan a superior ruler to either of his predecessors. His Majesty is regrettably constrained by the politics of his position from openly acknowledging that Archpope Justinian has deliberately made himself an enemy of the Throne.”

She deliberately parted her lips, showing the tips of her teeth in what was not a smile.

“I am not.”

“And to think,” Ingvar said softly, “I feared you underestimated the scope of the conflict you offered to enter. It’s the opposite, isn’t it? You are looking to an even grander struggle.”

“You deserve to succeed,” she replied, “and the Empire must endure. It is the general practice of those in my station to sit upon the fence until they feel they see which way the wind is blowing. Then again, it is the general practice of nobles to think nothing matters more than their own power. I choose to make a stand upon what I deem a greater purpose than my own desires. And in so doing, I mean to help shape the course of the wind itself.

“So!” she said, suddenly brisk, turning to face him directly with a broad smile. “This is what I propose, specifically. House Madouri shall formally recognize your sect as the true Shaathists, and award you the traditional rights, duties, and privileges of husbanding the wilds of Tiraan Province. You will be granted indefinite use of this lodge as a headquarters, with its upkeep and defense still funded by my treasury. Given the precarious nature of your situation, in order to lend further legitimacy I will bestow upon you the traditional title of Warden; it is long retired, like Court Wizard, but still on the books and will throw the weight of custom behind your position. In fact… Yes, to make certain you have the full authority to act in your new capacity as Warden of this province, in my capacity as governor I will appoint you an Imperial Sheriff, which will enable you to enforce the law within this domain, as well as create severe repercussions for any who seek to attack you.”

Dimbi shifted her head to stare at Ingvar.

“That is…incredibly generous, my Lady,” he said slowly.

“No, it isn’t,” Ravana replied, her smile unfaltering. “I have considered the matter carefully. What I propose will lay obligations upon you, as well as expose you to certain risks. This arrangement comes with plentiful compensation, to be sure, but only that which I deem necessary and suitable considering what I gain from it.”

“I see,” he murmured. “This is a larger decision than I had planned to make today, Lady Madouri. Obviously, I would like to discuss it with my fellow hunters.”

“You should of course do what you think is right,” said Ravana. “I will not, however, promise that the offer will still be on the table when you have finished with that.” He frowned, but she continued before he could speak. “I’m certain that consulting your fellows sets a most admirable precedent for spiritual purposes, Brother Ingvar, but with all due respect, such matters are between you and your followers. For my purposes, I require a leader who can act decisively when it is called for. I judge you to be just such a man. If I am thus in error, it of course changes the situation.”

She gave him a single beat of silence in which to mull that, during which he stared narrowly at her eyes as if trying to glimpse what lay behind them.

“Decisively, but not in unseemly haste,” Ravana added in a gentler tone. “You were just informing our guests of the calming powers of a walk in the forest, and are just about to lead them upon one. By all means, embrace this opportunity to ponder; I’m sure it will be every bit as soothing for you as for them. And when you return, we can discuss our shared future.”

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16 – 6

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“My family’s hunting lodge,” Ravana said, gesturing at the scene before them.

They stood upon a snow-covered hill in the western reaches of Tiraan Province, near the Viridill border, with a dense stand of leafless oaks behind them and in front, the long descent to the lodge itself in the middle distance. It rose proudly from a lower hill of its own, positioned right on the border between the ancient forest (one of the few in the province not burned or leveled in the Enchanter Wars) and the broad plain stretching toward the low hills that would become Calderaan Province beyond the northeastern horizon. Half a mile from the gates of the lodge stood a sleepy little village, looking quite picturesque buried under a heavy snowfall and with the smoke of a dozen fires streaming upward from its chimneys.

Lodge?” Dimbi repeated incredulously. “Don’t you mean summer palace?”

It could be fairly called palatial in its proportions. The main building was designed in the shape of a traditional Stalweiss longhouse, though the resemblance did not extend beyond shape. Its roof was expensive Sheng-style gabled slate, the tall windows stained glass, and even its towering support pillars were hand-carved into the shapes of upright animals, every one a work of art which had taken an entire ancient oak trunk. From the central longhouse spread rambling wings of faux-rustic timbers supported by fluted marble columns, the more recent featuring huge banks of plate windows made feasible even in the depths of winter by modern arcane heating.

She wasn’t about to mention that the nearby village existed entirely to staff and support the lodge. Ingvar, at least, had probably already figured that out.

“The House of Madouri has reigned over this province continually for a thousand years by cultivating certain defining strengths of character,” Ravana said proudly. “I will acknowledge that restraint and modesty are not among them. Honestly, I’m just glad to have found a useful purpose for this property, as I confess I don’t hunt. Nor, I suspect, did most of my ancestors who stayed here. Please forgive the distance; those staying in the lodge currently have been subject to a great many upsets of late, and I have observed they seem somewhat uncomfortable with grand displays of magic. I try to approach them in the most humble and unobtrusive manner feasible. My Court Wizard has been very accommodating in—Veilwin, really.”

The rest of them turned from their study of the lodge to follow Ravana’s gaze, now fixed on the wizard herself. Veilwin was now gulping deeply from a silver flask, and did not stop while meeting Ravana’s stare with raised eyebrows.

“You know, you’re just going to have to down a sobriety potion to teleport us back,” the Duchess said, exasperated. “It’s unlikely to be more than an hour from now.”

“An hour?” Veilwin replied, finally lowering the flask and grimacing bitterly. “An hour of complete, uninterrupted sobriety? Girl, do you have any idea what that feels like?”

“Yes, in fact,” Ravana retorted. “Speaking as a wine lover of, if I may flatter myself, some local repute, sobriety is my default and preferred condition.”

“And you’re easily the worst person I’ve ever met. Coincidence?” Veilwin brought the flask back to her lips and resumed an uninterrupted sequence of long gulps, while holding an arch stare at Ravana and, with snaps of her fingers, conjuring an armchair and a small bonfire. The sorceress flopped down in her seat and stretched her feet out toward the arcane blue flames as the surrounding snow hissed away to steam.

Ravana shook her head and turned her back on the elf. “Anyway. I presumed that veteran outdoorspeople such as yourselves would not mind a short winter hike, but if you are in any way uncomfortable I will not hesitate to send Veilwin back for coats.”

“That’s not necessary at all,” Ingvar said smoothly. “Your judgment was correct, my Lady, we are quite comfortable. Shall we?”

“Let’s,” she agreed, setting off down the hill. Ravana noted he did not question her comfort, but the man was doubtless intelligent enough to infer the presence of a heating charm. The enchantment woven into her own dress was more sophisticated than anything on the market (a Falconer prototype; Geoffrey came up with the most marvelous things when he got bored of tinkering with carriages). Even her breath did not mist upon the frigid air.

“What is she drinking?” Dimbi muttered as they strode through the knee-deep snow toward the distant lodge. “I could smell that flask from two yards away, it was like a burning alchemy lab.”

“I don’t know,” Ravana admitted. “Though I have observed its contents to be quite combustible. Between an elvish constitution and the resistance built up over a lifetime of drinking, I suspect what it takes to get Veilwin tipsy would kill an orc.”

“She’s…interesting,” Dantu said, grinning.

“Veilwin is a powerful and exceedingly skilled mage; I am quite satisfied with the performance of her duties. She is also, in addition to the alcoholism, congenitally incapable of withholding her opinions. I don’t think she’s ever held a single job for more than a month before.”

“I just meant,” the old man chuckled, “I’ve managed to meet a handful of nobles in my long years, none half so important as a Duchess, and I can’t see a one of ‘em letting one of their employees talk to them like that.”

“Not long ago,” Ravana murmured, gazing ahead as they plowed through the snow, “as I was listening to Professor Tellwyrn rightly excoriate my entire character, I experienced an epiphany: no one had ever spoken to me that way before. And further, no one ever spoke to my father in such a manner, either, and I now believe that is directly why he ended up the way he did. My father was neither evil nor unintelligent, he simply failed to comprehend that his own desires were not synonymous with the highest good of the universe. It is a failing to which nobles are regrettably prone due to the circumstances of our upbringing, and in fact, those circumstances are an unavoidable necessity. A chain of command only functions of those at its top are respected and obeyed. This is…a dilemma.”

“So,” Ingvar said softly, “you seek to surround yourself with those who will speak truth to power.”

“I was considering leaving university,” Ravana admitted, “but this understanding changed my mind. At Last Rock, I am surrounded by royalty, paladins, demigods… All manner of people who are in no way impressed by me. And those are just my classmates; the faculty are on another level entirely. It is an extremely healthy environment for people such as myself. Additionally, it buys me two and a half more years to collect advisors who will not hesitate to challenge me at need. Hopefully I can find some with more nuance than Veilwin, but she is…a start.”

“I respect that a great deal,” said Ingvar. “To know one’s own faults and seek to overcome them is both the least and the most that can be asked of anyone.”

They reached the base of the hill, which was less than half the distance to the lodge, but changed their trajectory. No longer descending toward the grounds, they now in fact began to push upward through the snow toward the rise upon which it was built.

“In any case,” Ravana said briskly, “our correspondence was relatively brief before Veilwin took it upon herself to fetch you, Brother Ingvar. How much do you know about the conditions from which the Harpies fled?”

“Less than I should,” he admitted, frowning. “We have stayed largely on the move; most carriers of news have been less persistent than your agents in finding us, Lady Madouri. Hunters have continually sought us out to join since Shaath’s call first went out, both Huntsmen and Rangers, and some have brought news from the Stalrange. It is somewhat sketchy regarding events in and around Shaathvar, however.”

“You are probably getting more applicants from Lower Stalwar, where the Rangers have more enclaves,” Ravana said. “Yes, I shouldn’t wonder; the situation around Veilgrad is quite different. People there have ample recent experience at rolling with large metaphysical punches, and Duchess Dufresne is a pragmatist after my own heart. Loudly dissident Shaathists have been inexplicably vanishing all winter, and not long ago, someone shadow-jumped a group of their runaway wives and daughters to the Abbey in Viridill.”

“I would be grateful to know anything you have learned of their circumstances,” Ingvar said in a carefully neutral tone.

“They are somewhat dire,” Ravana warned, now frowning herself. “Shaathvar has been an ongoing disaster from the day of the Battle of Ninkabi until I intervened last month. With the dreams that won’t stop coming every night, the core Shaathist regime there has been tearing itself apart, and one of the biggest sources of conflict is the simultaneous unraveling of more families than otherwise as women have been trying to either flee with their children, or in some cases, attacking their husbands.”

Dimbi grimaced. “Yikes. I support anyone wanting to live free, but that sounds…”

“Can’t rightly expect a person to remain calm and logical after they get divine confirmation they’ve been lied to like that for their whole lives,” said Dantu. “I don’t blame the women one bit.”

“It’s been chaos,” Ravana continued. “Nearly coming down to guerrilla fighting in the streets of Shaathvar and the surrounding forests, as women and sympathetic Huntsmen have been trying to escape, most willing to shed blood in the process, and traditionalists have taken it upon themselves to forcibly retrieve them. The governor declared a curfew and martial law, which didn’t help; the Empire had to send troops to hold the city, and that barely helped. The jails are crammed beyond capacity and the courts overwhelmed trying to figure out who drew steel on whom, and whether any of them were justified. And as if all of that were not chaotic enough, the Sisterhood sent a detachment of priestesses with a Silver Legion escort to counsel and support any Stalweiss women who desired freedom from their circumstances. The loyalist Huntsmen still in nominal control took that about as well as you would expect. And that, too, began to spiral, as various Huntsmen have arranged for themselves to be reminded why it is not wise to assault servants of the goddess of war.”

“I would have thought High Commander Rouvad had better sense than to poke the bear in such a manner,” Ingvar muttered, his eyes narrowed.

“I suspect that after the Syrinx debacle this summer, Rouvad is anxious to be seen standing on Avenist principle regardless of the political repercussions. Then, too, the Archpope has been deliberately dragging his heels on confirming a new Avenist Bishop, and it is known that the Huntsmen are his greatest pillar of support within the Pantheon cults. The Sisterhood may be growing tired of waiting to be listened to, and looking to make a point that they can insist upon it.”

“You said your intervention calmed things?” Dantu inquired.

She nodded. “It started as mass chaos but quickly coalesced into factional conflict, as such things do. The Shaathist traditionalists remained in control of the bureaucracy of the province, but once the Avenists got involved, they secured a defensible structure and began teaching runaways both the art of self-defense and the relevant laws around it. By then the group of local women who rose to find and shelter other runaways had begun to organize, and took to calling themselves the Harpies. Which was also a provocation, as no one has seen a living harpy outside of Inner Anvedra in a thousand years; it is obviously a reference to the harpy eagle on Avei’s sigil. By last month, a bitter stalemate had ensued, as the Harpies more or less rescued everyone they were apparently able to, and then had to turtle down and defend themselves from outraged husbands and fathers trying to drag them back home. When I offered to remove them en masse from the province, even the local government was grateful. They were themselves glad of a safe route out of the situation, the Sisterhood and the Silver Throne supported me, and with the Harpies gone from Shaathvar, it has finally begun to settle. Of course, I am inundated with complaints from various lodges about my unwarranted interference, but my lawyers are handling all of it so far.” She shrugged, allowing herself a cold little smile. “And what they cannot, the House guards stationed at the lodge will. I have made it clear that any rogue Huntsman trying to sneak into these grounds is asking for whatever he gets.”

All three Shadow Hunters glanced sidelong at her, but none responded directly to that.

“Did you have them teleported here by your mage?” Ingvar asked after a momentary pause.

Ravana shook her head. “These are women from a very traditional Shaathist background and their young children, who have already lost the most central underpinnings of their understanding of the world. They’re not sanguine about arcane magic and I have found it best not to rattle them any more than I absolutely must. Plus, teleporting this many individuals would have required me to hire most of the Wizards’ Guild, who themselves came from the great Salyrite schism a century ago. I made inquiries of the Archmage, who was leery of getting into internal Shaathist affairs. In the end, the Harpies’ escape served as the inaugural mission of my new private zeppelin. It was a little cramped, but more of them than otherwise seemed to enjoy the flight.”

Ingvar nodded, glancing at her again, and she could practically hear the unexpressed thought in his eyes: why was she willing to stick herself into the center of a bitter religious feud in which both sides were willing to shed blood and neither offered her any apparent gain? He kept quiet, though, and Ravana indulged in another knowing smile. It wasn’t yet time for that conversation.

The other two likewise held their peace, looking to Ingvar for guidance, and Ravana took note of the political acumen on display. He had clearly picked this group with care, even though it didn’t include his dryad friend or any of the others closest to him, or those most intimidating in a confrontation; his Shadow Hunters had only survived this long because they were too physically dangerous for any Shaathist lodge to attack in force. Obviously Ingvar had opted for a gentler approach here. Dimbi was a young woman, a good choice to help put the Harpies at ease and demonstrate that women were equals in his new Shaathism; Dantu was an old man, and doubtless a source of wisdom, while also not being an even remotely intimidating figure. And tellingly, both were socially adroit enough to follow Ingvar’s lead without overt instruction. It was a small thing, but it showed greater sophistication than she was accustomed to expecting of Shaathists.

Which boded well for her own plans.

“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that you have done this, Lady Madouri,” Ingvar said softly as they ascended the last steps of the hill upon which the lodge stood, its gables now towering over them. “The effort must have been considerable, and the results…are priceless.”

“No one else was doing it,” she said noncommittally. “A person in my position can do a great deal of good. I could also exhaust myself and my resources trying to put out every fire in the world, an error I am not about to commit. To an extent, one must pick and choose from many worthy causes. This one…resonated with me. I know what it’s like to live under the thumb of a man whose brittle ego and need to keep me there informed his entire view of the world. I brought you here, Brother Ingvar, because I believe you are the best possible person to help these women find their footing in this strange new world. And I daresay you will find a warm welcome here: the dreams of Shaath that continue to come have, according to some of them, mentioned you by name.”

“Now, that I did not know,” he murmured as they climbed the broad stone steps to the front door of the lodge.

“Regardless, we can only do what we can,” Ravana said, grasping the latch and turning it. She pulled the door wide, letting a rush of warm air out, and gestured within. “What will be, will be. After you.”


“It’s simple economics,” Svanwen explained as another fairy lamp clicked on in the tunnel ahead, and one behind the party winked out. “Lights with motion-sensing charms are a lot more expensive up front, yes, but they save me both the cost of a lot of recharging dust that needn’t be burned while nobody’s around and the man-hours it would take to have somebody come through switching them on and off. It’s one more thing my people can ignore and get on with their work. This project is likely to take decades, years at the very least. Over time, it’ll save a fortune. A good businesswoman takes the long view.”

“How’s all the flashing on and off on your eyes?” Captain Fedhaar asked Natchua. “I know drow see well in the dark, but I’ve heard you lot have some trouble in bright light.”

She had long since perfected the magic to maintain her vision without the need of dark glasses, but was not inclined to delve into that for his benefit.

“Don’t you worry,” Natchua said with a wink. “I can see better than any of you under any light level.”

Fedhaar grunted and turned his gaze back forward. “Elves are bullshit.”

Svanwen shot him a look as if fearing a racial conflict was about to erupt, then switched it to Natchua when the drow chuckled.

“Well,” Natchua said, shrugging, “he isn’t wrong.”

The dwarf shook her head. “Anyway. How’s the trail looking?”

“We’re still following,” reported Fedhaar’s tracker, a Western human called Lieutenant Bindo, who was walking at the head of the group with his attention on the ground. “The beast’s healthy, which is both good and bad; means it’s not leaking any infernal radiation. Harder to follow, that way, but much safer for everyone. Lucky there’s so much stone dust in these tunnels. Nothing that belongs on this plane has feet like this.”

“My people know what they’re about,” Fedhaar said coolly.

“I never meant to imply otherwise,” Ms. Svanwen assured him. “If I forget myself and prompt everybody to keep alert for any infernal craft nearby, it’s not meant as a personal slight. Just my veteran tendency to micro-manage.”

“It’s good advice, no matter whose ego is at stake,” said Natchua. “The second rule of infernomancy is to triple-check everything, and then triple-check it again.”

There was a momentary pause.

“All right, fuck it, I’ll bite,” Fedhaar finally said with a sigh. “What’s the first rule of infernomancy?”

She grinned at him. “Don’t.”

The captain couldn’t help grinning back. “Good rule.”

“So,” Svanwen said pensively, “the big question is how there’s a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels. They’re not the sort of creature that tends to wander through hellgates, even underground. We’re thinking there are two possibilities, the first of which is that some deep drow have burrowed into the catacombs somewhere down below the areas we’ve explored. That’s a worst case scenario, obviously. Scyllithenes with access to Veilgrad would officially be a crisis.”

“Unlikely,” Natchua opined. “If you had Scyllithenes, you’d be finding the mutilated corpses of your crew, now tracks from what amounts to a loose animal.”

“That’s exactly my assumption,” Svanwen agreed, nodding, “hence coming here with a small team of specialists and not Captain Fedhaar’s entire battalion. Imperial Command and Duchess Dufresne agree, though they did insist on having another unit from the Azure Corps on standby to bring in more soldiers if this goes sideways somehow. But all things considered, it’s most likely the second possibility: some rogue warlock hiding in the deeper tunnels. They made a great hideout for shifty types even when they were still full of bodies. That’s exactly what drew the chaos cult that caused the big disaster in the first place.”

“Mm,” Natchua grunted. “One warlock shouldn’t be too hard to take down, if it comes to it. Question is what they would summon a rozzk’shnid for. The creatures make decent guard dogs in tunnels, and…that’s about it.”

“This hypothetical warlock will explain themselves when we get them,” Fedhaar stated dispassionately. “One way or another.”

Natchua gave him a nod of approval.

“Tunnel opens out up ahead,” Bindo reported. “Tracks are still leading that way.”

“There’s a sequence of larger vaults just ahead,” Svanwen added. “They mark the deepest regions my people have explored and secured. Beyond that, there’ll be no more installed lights, and we don’t even have reliable maps of the tunnels.”

“We’ve got light sources and directional charms,” said Fedhaar. “I’m not worried about getting lost. It’ll just be a little less comfortable, that’s all.”

They emerged into a broader chamber than the arched tunnel along which they had been traveling. Well-lit now with large fairy lamps Svanwen’s crew had set up in each of the rectangular room’s corners, it was lined entirely by deep alcoves in the wall of the right size for a human body to be laid out, all currently empty. The center of the long chamber held three huge stone sarcophagi, their lids pushed aside and lying broken upon the floor.

“It still gets to me, sometimes,” Svanwen whispered as the group stepped carefully through the rubble. “All these honored dead, just… Treated that way. It’s sickening. Did you know Veilgrad was originally a necropolis? The first living residents were Vidian priests who looked after the old Stalweiss chieftains interred here. Burial records extend back before the Hellwars. And all just…swept aside, in service to pointless, destructive madness.”

“The Vidians have been quite clear that they were just bodies, at least,” said Fedhaar. “The souls of the dead were long since in Vidius’s hands and beyond tampering. C’mon, no use dithering here.”

Natchua opened her mouth, but stopped herself from commenting at the last second. While she suspected that was the sort of thing the Vidians would say regardless of its veracity just to keep people from worrying needlessly, it belatedly occurred to her that suggesting it would also cause nothing but needless worry.

Then she frowned, tilting her head. “Wait.”

The others paused, turning to look expectantly at her.

“I hear… Up ahead, there’s something. Sounds like scratching… Claws on stone, maybe.” She brought her eyes back into focus, first on Svanwen and then Fedhaar. “May be our beastie.”

The captain turned his head toward his soldiers and nodded once; in unison, all of them drew wands. “Good to have the elven bullshit on our side, I won’t deny it,” he said. “How far?”

“It echoes weirdly down here,” Natchua murmured. “Hang on…”

She closed her eyes, reaching out through magic. Yes—definitely a demon, at about the outer limits of her perception in this manner.

“There’s a sequence of chambers like this,” Svanwen said while Natchua concentrated. “All in a neat row, the last being the biggest. Beyond it the tunnels are more rough-cut, smaller, and twist about more. The final gate is as far as we’ve explored. It was supposed to be barred, but I’ve not had people down this deep in weeks.”

“Yes, looks like a rozzk’shnid,” Natchua reported, opening her eyes. “I can’t tell anything about the surrounding tunnels, but it’s maybe a hundred yards up ahead. Not moving around much. I don’t detect any active magic nearby.”

“Right,” Fedhaar stated, moving ahead. “We’ll take point, then. Careful and quiet, people. This thing may just be an animal but we don’t know what’s what down here.”

The soldiers saluted, and he waited to get nods of acknowledgment from Svanwen and Natchua before proceeding.

It was a tense passage through a series of cleared out burial chambers, each growing progressively larger, and the ancient carved decorations more elaborate the deeper they went. By the time the group reached the final sepulcher, the scrabbling of the demon was audible to all of them, along with a soft, intermittent metallic clatter. It was loudest as they stepped into what Svanwen whispered was the largest final tomb, a space the size of a church. There were motion-activated fairy lamps down here, too, though they were already on before the group came into view of them.

The last gate opened onto an open space lined with more burial alcoves, these carved into the stone walls to a height of four per wall. Above, the vaulted ceiling lay in shadow, soaring high enough not to be easily reached by the installed fairy lamps. This chamber had no free-standing sarcophagi, but maybe two thirds of the way along its length a stone wall stood in the center of the open space, leaving passages to either side and not reaching the ceiling. Its purpose was apparently decorative, being carved with the solemn likenesses of five ancient Stalweiss kings, each with inscrutable runes engraved above their heads.

The scratching was coming from the other side of this.

At hand signals from Fedhaar, the troops split up, creeping forward with weapons upraised to both sides of the barrier. Natchua joined the captain himself, as did Svanwen, and ignoring his grimace of disapproval, stepped forward to be the first around the corner.

The demon was there, all right. The rozzk’shnid was the size of a large dog, proportioned somewhat like a monkey and plated in natural armor, and eyeless. It was also wearing a heavy iron collar, from which a chain trailed to an iron spike driven into the ground. At their approach, the best stopped its futile worrying at the chain, turning blindly toward them and hissing.

For a second, they just stared.

“It’s like…” Svanwen whispered, “like it’s set out as…”

“As bait,” Natchua finished. “Oh, fuck.”

“Retreat,” Fedhaar ordered, and the soldiers immediately stepped back.

“Now, now, now, let’s nobody go and panic,” a new voice said jovially, and the group trailed to a stop just beyond the stone wall, staring at the entrance to the tomb, where a dark-skinned human in a pristine white suit complete with a wide-brimmed hat had just sauntered out of the tunnel beyond.

The soldiers brought their weapons up as eight figures in hooded gray robes materialized seemingly from nowhere along the walls of the tomb.

“Whoah,” the man in white said soothingly, raising both his hands. “Easy, now! Sorry about all this rigamarole, but I assure you I’ve no beef with most of you. Last thing we want is to kick up a scrap with the Army, after all. And most especially not with the inimitable Ms. Svanwen, here. I confess after having a good look through these chambers I’ve become quite a fan of your work, ma’am. Why, the place is starting to look downright homey!”

“Most of us?” Svanwen demanded, ignoring his flattery.

“Hey,” Natchua said, narrowing her eyes to slits. “I remember you.”

“Oh, do you,” he replied, his smile growing broader and notably brittle. “What an honor it is to be remembered by the great Natchua! My heart is all a-flutter.”

“I’m positive I killed you fucksticks in Ninkabi,” she snorted. “How the hell did you get out of that—”

“You seem to’ve adopted Veilgrad as your home,” Embras Mogul interrupted, grinning more widely still until the expression looked nearly psychotic, especially as he held his head tilted so the brim of his hat concealed his eyes. “There’s an old Shaathist hunting axiom you really should’ve picked up by now, Natchua honey: never wound what you can’t kill.”

“Those robes…” Fedhaar said. “Are these Wreath? What exactly are you assholes playing at? Elilial’s not even at war with the Pantheon anymore. It was kind of a big deal.”

“Oh, indeed, our business is not with anyone aligned with either the Pantheon or the Empire,” Mogul assured him. “My humble apologies for drawing you fine folks into this. It seemed the least disruptive way to get this malicious little darkling off by herself, but rest assured, I’ll make amends for the inconvenience. Now, as for—”

He broke off, staring incredulously, as Natchua burst out laughing.

“Oh, this is too rich,” she chortled, striding forward into the center of the room and rolling up her sleeves. “The Black Wreath has come to exact terrible vengeance! And here I was afraid for a second that something bad was happening. Agatha, Captain, this shouldn’t take long, but you may wanna step back a few paces to enjoy the show. The front row of seats may see some splattering.”

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