Tag Archives: Farah Szaravid

11 – 11

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“I’ve never actually seen something like that before,” Principia commented. “Aren’t they fairly rare?”

“Oh, aye, that they are,” Sister Eivery replied with good cheer, arranging the talisman carefully upon the practice dummy. “You’re an enchanter yourself, I understand? Well, divine blessings are nothing like that, basically. It’s all art an’ no science, every piece a personal touch without any easily reproducible methods goin’ into its creation. That’s why ye rarely see divine blessings on things not actively carried by a divine caster. Blessin’ your own kit, that’s a right dish o’ cake, but those blessings fade pretty quick. Layin’ a permanent blessing, the kind comparable to enchantment? Well, it ain’t just any cleric who can do that at all. An’ a good, powerful one like what we’ve got on this charm, that’s rarer still. Not so many o’ these left in circulation.”

“Not so many?” Principia said skeptically. “How many is that?”

“Well, it’s not as if I went an’ took inventory,” Eivery said, giving her a sardonic look and stepping down from the footstool she’d had to employ to arrange everything to her satisfaction upon the dummy. “I can tell ye, though, there’s a bare handful o’ clerics in each cult today who can produce permanent divine charms, and not a one can match relics like this. There’s not been a Hand of Salyrene since the Enchanter Wars, an’ that’s about what it takes to lay a charm of this caliber.”

“You do realize,” the elf said, raising an eyebrow, “that our operating theory is that the device we’re about to test on that apparently very rare charm will break it?”

“Aye,” replied the gnome, giving her a sunny smile. “An’ I also realize the High Commander signed off on this personally, so what’s it to the like o’ you an’ me?”

“I don’t know,” Principia murmured, shaking her head. “It just seems wasteful. We’ve got boxes of these things to play with and little enough notion what they even do; that thing seems quite valuable. Not to mention irreplaceable, apparently.”

“Well, ye never know,” Eivery said cheerfully. “The last few years, paladins ‘ave been croppin’ up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Mayhaps Salyrene’ll call up another soon an’ make all this moot, aye?”

“And maybe we’ll find ourselves with a need for every divine shielding charm in the Sisterhood’s collection and the lack of this one will mean somebody gets blasted by staff fire.”

“Oi, but you’re a dour one,” Sister Eivery said dryly. “Goin’ right for the worst case scenario, is it? Well, in that event, we can take comfort in the fact that based on what we know now, this ‘ere was the perfectly logical thing to do. That doodad an’ all its sisters ‘ave been gatherin’ dust since Jasmine Darnassy’s day. ‘Sides, if our operatin’ theory is these gadgets break divine charms, far better we do what’s necessary to know about ’em before it comes down to a crisis, aye?”

“Oh, you’re not wrong, Sister,” Principia said with a sigh. “I suppose it’s just the old grove talking. Smashing ancient, priceless artifacts to test cheap, newfangled ones… I may not be a traditional elf, but it bugs me. Gods, I’m starting to sound like my mother now. Somebody just shoot me in the head.”

“Well, I don’t have authorization for that,” Eivery said solemnly, “but if you’re serious, I can get a head start on the paperwork.”

The sergeant shook her head. “For the sake of thoroughness and my own paranoia, can you walk me through what all this setup does?”

“Aye, it’s simple enough. All the paraphernalia, ‘ere, is just so I can activate the talisman itself without bein’ immediately in range. That’s both fer safety concerns, considerin’ what ye’ll be firin’ at it here in a bit, an’ to make sure I actually can. In this situation, it might be difficult to do without an intermediary.”

Principia frowned and turned to peer at the gnome, carefully angling her head so as not to be looking down her nose. Eivery had a Stalweiss-pale complexion and hair an almost elvish shade of light blonde, which went quite well with her white Avenist robes. In bearing, though, she was much more a typical gnome than a typical Sister, all good cheer and boundless energy. Even the way she walked was a rapid series of almost-leaps that moved her at a speed comparable to her fellow Sisters, most of whom had legs as long as she was tall.

“Care to offer a little more detail on that?” Principia prompted after a moment, during which Eivery had fallen into study of her work, eyes darting over every detail of the arrangement to check for errors. “Why wouldn’t the talisman activate?”

“Well!” the little Sister said, snapping back to the present. “It’s a theological issue, innit? Now, see, what we’re aimin’ to do is possibly damage that relic, possibly permanently fer all we know, which falls under the general heading o’ sacrilege by some definitions. Aye, you’re not wrong t’be concerned on that point. See, the thing about divine power is, unless yer a dwarf, it comes from a deity. If Avei was to pop down ‘ere an’ ask us what the blazes we were up to, I reckon she’d be on board once we explained. She’s a reasonable sort, is Avei. But the likes o’ you an’ I ‘ardly warrant that kind o’ personal attention from a goddess, which means we’re dealin’ with ‘er in a more diffuse aspect. An’ when not specifically incarnated, gods are kinda… Well, mechanistic. All rules an’ principles, pretty predictable, long as you don’t draw their personal attention. There’s a good chance me tryin’ to activate a relic of Avei with the purpose in mind o’ smashin’ it would…well…”

“Get you smote?” Principia asked, raising her eyebrows.

Eivery barked a laugh and shook her head. “Hah, not by our goddess, Sergeant. If Avei takes the good time and trouble to smite somebody, they were doin’ a lot worse’n petty vandalism. Nah, though, there’s a good chance we’d find out that just plain isn’t allowed, an’ the thing wouldn’t trigger at all. So! All this ‘ere is some very basic fae work, easy enough even a divinist like me can crank it out. Not as basic as it could be, considerin’ I don’t have any fairy connections or talismans o’ power to run it, so I ‘ad to set up all these gizmos just to provide the smidgeon of energy we need. But aye, all the whole thing does is enable me to channel a little divine spark into the relic from way over ‘ere, at a safe distance an’ with enough in between that the poor thing can’t tell I’m plannin’ to blast it with your experimental whatsit, there.”

“Ah,” Principia said, nodding. “Well, you could have spared me some wondering by explaining all that up front. I am an enchanter, you know; I could’ve rigged an array myself to do more or less the same thing.”

“Aye, you could’ve set up an arcane system to channel divine power.” Eivery was generally too cheerful and too kind to be scathing, but the look she gave Principia was rather pointed. “Do ye not know yer Circles, woman? Unless you’re a straight-up mage, none o’ your tricks woulda done more’n get in the way.”

“Allow me my delusions, please,” Principia said sardonically. “They’re all that’s keeping me warm at night, these days.”

Eivery laughed obligingly, and Principia sighed, picking up the liargold-augmented staff set aside from the others, the one Commander Rouvad had already fired in demonstration. It had probably no more than three or four shots left before its liargold superstructure burned out, if that.

The relic they were using was a simple shielding charm, a fist sized golden eagle—cast in apparently real gold—on a heavy chain, now draped over the neck of a practice dummy. According to Sister Eivery, the shield it produced was significantly more powerful than even modern arcane shielding charms, though wouldn’t compare with the personal shield of either a wizard or cleric. Such was generally the case with magical relics like this: they hadn’t the strength or complexity to rival what an actual practitioner could do, but the really well-made old enchantments still held up against their newer counterparts. Modern enchantment was all about new kinds of charms, and ease of reproduction; with the exception of certain specific devices like mag cannons and Rail caravans, few modern contraptions packed the same kind of raw power that the practitioners of old had worked into the objects they left behind.

The nearest of Eivery’s fae charms was a good three yards away from the relic-wearing dummy, well outside the range of the shield once it was activated. They were simple enough, consisting of a small pedestal on which was a large crystal for power—not modern clean-cut quartz, but an older object tied to some fairy source or other—and arranged in a display of sticks, pebbles, and chalk lines, both atop the pedestal, on the floor around it, and even marked on the nearby wall. The whole thing looked far more primitive than an enchantment network of glass and metal wire, but Principia couldn’t have said whether this was due to the inherent nature of fae craft as opposed to divine, or simply Eivery’s unfamiliarity with it. In fact, it looked a lot like things she’d seen shamans create back in the grove, but elves usually defaulted to the oldest, most hidebound means they had of whatever it was they set out to do.

“Well, everything’s shipshape,” Eivery said, nodding up at her. “I’m good to go if you are.”

“Right,” Principia agreed, nodding in return. “Let’s get this over with.”

The priestess grinned at her once, then stepped over to lay her hand against the side of the pedestal.

There was no visible effect among the fairy craft laid out except for just the faintest glow kindled within the large, rough-cut crystal, but an instant later the golden eagle talisman flashed, and a sphere of pure golden light snapped into place around the dummy, producing a pleasing and very soft tone like the sustained chime of a distant bell. It was light enough that even Principia’s ears barely detected it.

“And here we go,” she muttered, raising the staff to her shoulder, and taking aim.

The familiar flash of gold light burst forth as she squeezed the clicker. It impacted the golden shield, and instantly the sphere flickered out of existence.

A split second later, the power crystal cracked straight down its center, and bits of pebbles and twigs were hurled in every direction from atop the pedestal.

“Whoops!” Eivery cried cheerfully, shielding her face. “Got a reaction outta that one, didn’t we?”

“Holy crap, it worked,” Principia muttered. “It shut it off… Quick, check on the relic.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” the priestess replied, already bouncing over to the dummy. She dragged her footstool closer and clambered up, taking the heavy necklace in both hands and peering at it closely with a pensive frown.

“Aye,” she said after a long, silent moment. “Aye, that thing smacked the Light right out of it. Not completely snuffed out, there’s still power in ‘ere…but nowhere near as much as there was. I’d ‘ave to study it closely to see whether the actual structure o’ the blessing itself is damaged. If it’s just been de-powered, odds are it’ll naturally recharge itself over time.”

“But if not…” Principia let out a low whistle. “Please do so, Sister. We need to know everything we possibly can about what we’re dealing with.”

“Way ahead o’ you,” Eivery grunted, standing on tiptoe to pull the chain over the dummy’s squat head. Principia resisted the urge to dash over and help her; after the last time, she had learned that such help was not wanted or appreciated. Not all gnomes were touchy about their height, but those who were… “Scary enough if somebody’s built a battlestaff that snuffs out divine magic. If it can actually unwork a blessing…”

“I’m no divinist,” Principia said, scowling down at the weapon in her hands, “but that seems really unlikely. Being able to counter actual energy… Well, there’s plenty of precedent for that. What would be new here is having a passive enchantment that can do it; Circle transition effects aren’t supposed to be achievable in any significant strength without a conscious caster working on them. It’s not impossible, though, not even theoretically. Actually dismantling a blessing or spell, though? That’d be like designing a spell that could build a golem.”

“Aren’t there arcane spells that can do the like o’ workin’ jigsaw puzzles?” Eivery asked curiously, trundling back over to her with the damaged relic.

“Sure,” Principia said with a shrug, “but that, again, is the work of powerful mages, who, again, have to be there casting the spell.”

“Aye,” Eivery mused, tilting her head to peer at the crates of other nullifier staves. “This ‘ere’s a leap forward in magical understanding, any way ye slice it. Stands to reason, theoretically, if somethin’ can be made to neutralize divine magic, there’s variants possible to do the same to all four schools.”

“Yeah,” Principia agreed. “Theoretically. The difference is, somebody sat down and did this. Somebody with a big budget and a lot of free time. My squad and Bishop Syrinx both are working on the who, but…” She trailed off, shaking her head.

Eivery pursed her lips thoughtfully, then suddenly grinned and hastily hopped over to the nearby velvet-lined box in which the relic had been transported. She carefully lowered it back into its home, then turned to bounce back toward the dummy.

“All right, then! Next test seems obvious t’me, aye?” Turning to face Principia, she was suddenly surrounded by a sphere of glowing gold. “Fire away!”

The elf stared at her, making no move to lift the stave into firing position. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Oh, c’mon,” Eivery said disdainfully. “Nobody went to the time an’ trouble o’ makin’ those things just so’s they could shoot at divine shielding talismans. As we were just discussing, there just aren’t enough of ’em to make it worthwhile. Nah, these’re meant to be used on clerics. That’s the real danger here, an’ therefore that’s what we need to test, aye? Best have as much intel as we can get before goin’ back to Rouvad with this.”

“Rouvad,” Principia snapped, “will mail me to my parents’ grove in three different packages if she learns I fired this thing at a priestess.”

“Pfft! Here’s me, takin’ full responsibility.” Behind her glowing shield, she grinned broadly and spread her arms wide. “I’m askin’ for it, Locke. Me word of honor before Avei’s own ears, that’s what I’ll tell the High Commander. All my idea!”

“I’d really prefer you do the tests on the relic, first.”

“Those’ll take hours, Locke. Aren’t ye curious to know the limits o’ these things?”

“I mean, we don’t know yet whether the effect is permanent! What if this completely destroys your ability to wield divine magic?”

“Categorically impossible,” the gnome said without hesitation. “C’mon, Sergeant, this is basic stuff. My power comes from Avei; it’s a function o’ my connection to her. That connection can be dampened, interfered with; aye, there’s plenty o’ precedent in the history o’ Circle warfare. Any battlemage worth ‘is salt knows how to disrupt a cleric’s power. Like we were just sayin’, all that’s new, ‘ere, is it bein’ a passive enchantment rather than an actively cast spell. But no mage, warlock, or witch can destroy a priest’s relationship with ‘er goddess. That’s nonsense. There is just no way an enchanted weapon can do it!”

Principia shook her head, unconsciously turning the staff over and over in her hands. “I do not like this at all, Eivery. I follow your logic, but really, the risk. Not just to you, but no matter what you say about responsibility, Rouvad hardly needs an excuse to toss me out of here on my beautiful ears.”

“Y’know, Locke, you surprise me,” Eivery commented, folding her arms now. “Fer the pain in the butt everybody says you are, I never expected you to be such an ol’ mother hen.”

The sergeant narrowed her eyes. “…woman, are you trying to provoke me into shooting you?”

Eivery grinned. “Is it working?”

“A little. But seriously, now…”

“Sergeant,” the gnome said more seriously, “these things came from the Thieves’ Guild, aye? As in, the Guild not only had ’em, but they tipped us off to come find ’em, right?”

“That’s what I was told. What of it?”

“Don’t give me that, you’re the clever one. Really, I’m not a nincompoop just because I’m bubbly an’ adorable, an’ I know you aren’t the irritating blockhead you like to pretend to be. We both know there’s a real urgency, here. How often does the bloody Thieves’ Guild do the Sisterhood this kind o’ favor? We don’t ‘ave time fer this, Locke. Look, in the worst case scenario, if it does somehow permanently affect my connection with Avei, that can be rebuilt. The same slow way I built it in the first place, an’ probably a sight quicker with some help from the Salyrites. But even that’s scarcely possible. We need data, an’ we can start by figurin’ out how much interference it creates with a personal divine shield, an’ how long it takes the connection to recover on its own.”

Principia shifted the weapon uncomfortably in her grip. “Based on previous cases of Circle interactions, what would you guess?”

“I’d be amazed if it’s as much as an hour,” Eivery said cheerfully. “Point o’ fact, I’ve been neutralized fer that long in the past. Aye, I wasn’t always safely behind these ‘ere walls, pokin’ and proddin’ at mystery gizmos with the likes o’ you. We’re neither of us any strangers to danger, Locke. Now pull the clicker, while we’re still young.”

Principia sighed and shook her head, but raised the staff back into firing position. “Someday, Eivery, when we know each other a little better, you’ll look back on the fact that I’m being the voice of restraint here and fully appreciate what a bad idea that means this is.”

“Promises, promises.”

“Are you sure you can still examine the relic if this—”

“Would you quit yer bellyachin’ an’ shoot me already?!”

She barely came to the end of the sentence before the flash of light snuffed out her shield.


“It’s only been a day, Lang,” Ephanie said in exasperation, looking up from her own polishing. “You can’t possibly be that bored yet.”

“Anywhere else? No, of course not,” Merry replied, gesticulating with the rag she was using on her armor. “But come on, Corporal, Locke won’t even let us hang around in the courtyard.”

“That is an excellent decision on her part,” Nandi said from her top bunk, not looking up from the book she was reading. “The sight of us hanging around in the courtyard would provoke justifiable resentment from the other squads. And that’s not even touching upon what Captain Dijanerad would think.”

“The Captain’s pretty easygoing,” Casey said.

“With Locke, yes,” Nandi agreed. “Because Shahdi is wise enough to see that Locke’s madness is a thin veneer over a sturdy framework of method. The rest of you are another matter.”

“I just want it entered into the record,” Merry stated, “that just one day is plenty of time to go completely stir crazy in a cabin.”

“I bet if you asked the Sarge real nicely she’d let you run extra drills,” Farah suggested.

“You know what, I think I will. If nothing else, it’ll confuse the hell out of her.”

“Lang,” Ephanie said in exasperation, “we’re soldiers. Waiting around is the lion’s share of what we do. If there’s ever an actual war…honestly, I can’t even imagine how you’ll cope.”

“Probably shoot herself,” Casey said cheerfully.

“While we’re fantasizing,” Farah added, “why stop at war? Let’s say we’re…stranded in the mountains. How much you wanna bet we’d eat Lang within a week?”

“Well, I mean, sure, that goes without saying,” Merry replied, grinning as she continued polishing her boots. “The only one with more meat is Avelea, and she’s actually useful around here.”

“Excuse me?” Ephanie said, setting down her rag and cuirass to scowl at her.

“It’s a compliment, Avelea.”

“And it’s not technically meat,” Nandi murmured. Casey and Merry both dissolved in laughter at Ephanie’s expression.

“I have to say I don’t mind the respite,” Farah said. “I’m pretty interested in this mission. Aren’t you all?”

“That’s half the problem,” Merry replied, still chortling. “I mean, we could be out there.”

“Doing what?” Ephanie asked pointedly. “You and I aren’t even needed for Sarge’s project, apparently, and Shahai’s group just have to wait for the apprentices to contact them. Just stay alert, run your drills and be ready, Private. We’ll have action before we know it.”

“I guess there’s that,” Merry said rather sullenly. “At least here, we’re surrounded by other soldiers and not civvies. I swear, if one more dimwit stops me on patrol to talk about the weather…”

“It’s three weeks past midwinter and people are walking around without coats,” Farah pointed out. “The weather is worth talking about.”

“I heard the Emperor’s secretly assigned the entire Azure Corps to figure out if the weather’s being unnaturally interfered with,” said Casey.

“The one thing you can be assured about the Emperor’s secret activities,” said Nandi, “is that you wouldn’t have heard about them.”

“Which would go right out the window if the whole Azure Corps was in the know,” Farah added.

“Well, still,” Casey said defensively. “It’s not natural. The Emperor’s gotta be doing something.”

“Yep,” Merry said fatalistically, “that’s it. That’s the conversation I was just being thankful I’m not out there having with the locals. You’re doing this just to annoy me, aren’t you, Elwick?”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Casey said cheerfully. “Apparently, I’d have to make sergeant before I’ll have the free time to make my decisions based on what annoys you. Which is good, it gives me plenty of time to observe Locke’s technique.”

Merry chucked a boot at her.

“I don’t know what this is,” Principia said, stepping into the cabin, “but luckily for you knuckleheads I’m far too lazy to enforce proper discipline. Lang, your footwear will be either on your feet or up your ass if you continue to be unable to control it.”

“Are we just all going to pretend she can’t hear us from halfway across the parade ground?” Farah stage whispered.

“Sergeant!” Merry saluted without rising from her bed. “Permission to ask why you’re shiny!”

“I am an elf, Lang,” Principia said haughtily, sashaying down the center aisle between rows of bunks with her nose in the air. She wasn’t shiny, per se, but a faint lightening of the air followed her, almost as if she were being tracked by a spotlight. “I walk in beauty and light all of my days. I am hardly surprised it’s taken you this long to notice, stoopid hoomin.”

“Permission to point out that Corporal Shahai is not shiny!”

“I prefer taste and restraint in my personal grooming,” Nandi said lazily. “Glowing in public is so gauche.”

“That’s a blessing of some significant strength, if I’m not mistaken,” said Ephanie. “Congratulations on finding one priestess you can get along with, Sarge.”

“Congratulations are premature, I’m afraid,” Principia said wryly. “Sister Eivery was flinging blessings around like candy at Wildfeast, just because she could. And she was right—the effect of the neutralizers only lasts about an hour. There’ll be no living with her, I just know it.”

“Neutralizers?” Ephanie set aside her armor, and Nandi sat up and leaned over the edge of the bed, attending more closely to the conversation. “So the tip was right, then? Those weapons counter divine magic?”

“Rather effectively,” Principia said with a frown. “It’s…disturbing, to be frank. Eivery ended up taking the rest of the day to run tests and make sure she’s healthy and sorted out, so we weren’t able to get started on actually reverse-enchanting the things. The rest of our mission has just become that much more important, ladies. We know what those things are, now. It’s that much more important to know where they came from.”

“Oh, Sarge.” Ephanie reached over to the stand beside the arcane heater, picking up a thick envelope resting atop it. “You have mail. A courier brought it by an hour ago.”

“Oh, gods, what now,” Principia groaned. “Mail call is in the morning. Special deliveries are always bad news.”

“I wonder which’ll tell you what’s in it faster,” Merry mused. “Opening it, or whining at it?”

“Corporal Avelea, I want you to poison Lang’s next meal.”

“I’m…not so good with poisons, ma’am. Can I just stab her?”

Silence answered. Principia had opened the envelope and was staring at its contents. Its thickness was deceptive; rather than containing a sheaf of papers, there was only a single note, and a fluffy pink blossom, only slightly squished due to having been carefully housed in a wide envelope.

Casey frowned, edging forward to peer at it. “That’s…is that… That looks like a mimosa blossom.”

“It is,” Nandi said quietly. “Sergeant, if it’s not private…?”

“It’s just a time and a place,” Principia said tonelessly, staring at the two lines on the note. “This afternoon, in the central temple of Ryneas.”

“The god of art?” Merry wrinkled her nose. “That’s basically just a museum, right? Or do they have classes there? Is that even a proper religion?”

“Sounds like the point,” Casey said. “It’s a pretty neutral place to have a meeting. What I wanna know about is that flower. Where the hell would somebody get something like that in midwinter? And what does it mean?”

“Well, you can grow flowers in winter with alchemy or fairy magic,” Farah said slowly. “But a mimosa’s a whole tree.”

“The Arboretum,” said Nandi, in the same quiet tone, her eyes fixed on Principia’s expression. “Plants in the indoor botanical gardens are charmed to blossom year round. It holds several mimosas.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to pick the flowers in there, though,” Casey pointed out.

“Yes,” Nandi agreed. “But someone might be willing to steal one.”

“Why, though?”

“It’s a signature,” Principia said. Very carefully, she tucked the note and the flower back into their envelope. “A rather clever one; sure to get my attention, and meaningless to most people who might intercept this. All right, ladies, be ready. We’re going to have dinner early and head out to answer this summons.”

“We have to go to a museum?” Merry whined.

“Are you sure, Sergeant?” Nandi asked softly.

“I see two possibilities,” Principia replied, her tone cold. “If this is a genuine invitation, I have to answer it. If it is a trap… I’m not going alone. We’ll go to the museum, I will go to the specified gallery, and the rest of you will remain close enough that Shahai’s ears can tell you what’s going on. If it’s authentic… Then I guess you can go home. In fact, it would be best if you did. If it is not, however…” The envelope crinkled under her rigid fingers. “Then I want six Legionnaires on hand to explain to whoever had this bright idea that this is not a string they should pull.”

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11 – 9

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“Well, this place and others like it,” Joe said in response to Tallie’s last question. He had integrated himself quite smoothly into the group, aided by the byplay which occurred upon his statement that he didn’t drink. Jasmine had taken that opportunity to carefully dance around an “I told you so,” and Joe had slipped into a seat next to her. “It’s more’n a mite different from playin’ in a frontier town like I grew up in.”

“Bet a lot of things are different,” Ross grunted.

“Ain’t that the plain truth,” Joe said fervently. “Out there, ain’t more’n a few card sharps to go around, and they’re spread out across whole provinces. ‘Less one came to town, I never had anybody of my own caliber to play against, so the winnings were smaller but more consistent. Here? No shortage o’ high-rollers to compete with, once I found out where they like to hang. Means I don’t win nearly as much, ‘less I wanna try cheatin’, which is a good way to get yourself blackballed. Still, I do okay. The pots are bigger, an’ I take enough of ’em to pay my bills.”

“I’ll say!” Tallie replied, waggling her eyebrows. “I mean, just look at that suit! You’re so snazzy!”

“Thanks,” he said dryly.

“Is there an actual living in that?” Jasmine asked.

Joe shrugged. “If you’ve got a gift for it, there can be. Wouldn’t mind tryin’ my hand at somethin’ that gave a little more back to society, but it ain’t like I’ve got any better trade. All I know is poker and shootin’.” He frowned, eyes growing distant. “Same goes. There’s money in that if you’re good at it, but… Card sharping maybe ain’t the most honorable pursuit, but I’ll never kill anybody for such a dumb reason as money.”

“Killed a lot of people?” Ross asked after a pregnant pause.

Joe grunted and folded his arms. “One’s far too many.”

“Well, I think that’s just fabulous,” Tallie enthused. “This is the most precious thing I’ve ever seen. To our new friend, the littlest card shark!” She raised her glass in a toast. Joe gave her a flat look which hinted at the progressive decay of his patience.

“Sorry about Tallie,” said Rasha, pouring himself a second glass of rum. “She’s very sweet and a little abrasive. I haven’t decided if that should be ‘and’ or ‘but.’”

“Whose side are you on?” Tallie asked, affronted.

“Right now, I am on rum’s side.” He drained half his glass in one gulp.

“Slow down,” Jasmine suggested. “We have all evening.”

“I’m fine,” Rasha grunted. “This isn’t as strong as the stuff I was raised on.”

“We gotta go up four flights of stairs to leave,” said Ross. “Nobody wants to carry you.”

“I said I’m fine!”

“Rasha knows his business,” Tallie said, reaching across the table to pat his arm.

“So, you guys are with the Guild?” Joe said, glancing around the table at him. His inquisitive look settled on Jasmine, who didn’t meet it.

“Well, we’re just apprenticing at the moment,” Tallie said airily. “But hell yes we’re with them! You are looking at the four greatest future thieves ever to roll out of that casino!”

“There’s a colloquialism about counting unhatched chickens that I think applies here,” Jasmine commented.

“Oh, you, always naysaying.” Tallie flapped a hand at her face and had another drink of her rum. “You’ve gotta have confidence! Say it like you believe it, until you believe it, and then keep on believing it until it’s true! It’s all in setting the right goals—set ’em high enough, and the sky’s the goddamn limit!”

“Maybe there’s a little more to success than setting goals?” Jasmine said, her eyes on Rasha, who was pouring a third glass of rum.

“Jasmine, I like you and all, but you’ve gotta stop being the voice of reason. It cramps my style. Hey, why do we say ‘goddamn,’ anyway? Doesn’t that kind of imply only a single god? Wouldn’t ‘godsdamn’ make more sense?”

“Phonetically awkward and theologically inaccurate,” said Ross. “’Goddamn’ rolls off the tongue. Last consonant of the first word is the same sound as the first consonant of the second, so they chain together easily into a single word. I’ve heard ‘godsdamn,’ but it’s just harder to say.”

“Hm, yeah, you’re right,” Tallie agreed, rolling her mouth as if examining the flavor of the word. “Slower, and kind of awkward.”

“Also,” he continued, idly toying with his half-full glass, “notions like the Universal Church as an actual center of worship don’t date back much further than the Reconstruction. For most people, for most of history, there was only one god, or at least only one that mattered to each person.” He paused, blinked, and frowned; everyone at the table was staring at him. “What?”

“I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one sitting,” Jasmine explained.

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Stuff like that’s interesting to me. Trained with the Veskers for a while. Might still be there if I wasn’t so interested in stuff like the etymology of cussing.”

“To cussing, dammit!” Rasha said loudly, lifting his own glass.

“TO CUSSING!” Tallie roared, following suit.

“Did…they throw you out?” Jasmine asked hesitantly. “I mean, not to pry. You don’t have to answer.”

“Nah, I don’t mind,” Ross said with a shrug. “There’s room for weirdos with the bards; they don’t really throw you out. But if you’re into stuff they don’t think is appropriate… Well, bards are real good at making you uncomfortable without crossing any lines.”

“Really, they were that upset about your study of cussing?” Tallie asked, grinning broadly.

“Eh.” He shrugged again. “Really didn’t get bad till I talked with my language tutor about my hobby. Historical figures with names that turn real embarrassing in Tanglish.”

“Like who?” Tallie demanded avidly.

“Horsebutt the Enemy, for one,” Jasmine said dryly.

“Nah, Stalweiss honor names don’t really count,” Ross said, straightening up and putting his glass aside. He looked more animated than they’d yet seen him. “That’s just a different culture’s ideas what makes for an impressive portmanteau. Horsebutt, for example, makes perfect sense if you’ve been around horses; you’d know damn well which end of the horse not to mess with.”

Tallie burst out laughing so hard she nearly spilled her rum. Ross carried on despite that.

“It’s mostly orcish heroes, though there’s a few others in other human cultures. But the orcs are where the real gold is at. Like Warlord Buddux, or Slobbernock the Wise. That one’s old enough he might’ve been apocryphal. Modern orcish tends to go for shorter names.”

Tallie, by this point, was laughing so hard she was having trouble staying in her chair; even Joe and Jasmine were grinning in amusement. Ross didn’t go as far, but his expression was more relaxed than usual. He clearly enjoyed the attention.

“Yeah, well, the bards didn’t find it as funny,” he admitted with a shrug. “Bards’re big on respecting culture and language. Wasn’t like they were mean to me, I just… Y’know, didn’t feel I fit in, exactly. So, trying something else, here.”

“To the etymology of cussing!” Tallie crowed, lifting a glass which she didn’t appear to have noticed was now empty.

“And gaining new outlooks,” Jasmine agreed more soberly, nodding at Ross.

“Think it’s funny?” Rasha asked more quietly. “Laughing at people because they’re different?”

“It’s kinda mean,” Ross agreed frankly. “Not arguing that. But these people are long dead. And they didn’t think of themselves as what the names sound like to us. Just phonetic coincidence. That’s what makes it interesting to me.”

“It’s just a bit of fun, Rasha,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Nobody’s being wronged.”

He grunted, topping off his glass and raising it to his lips.

“Hey, are you okay?” Jasmine asked mildly, reaching across the table to slide the jug of rum out of his reach. Rasha either didn’t notice or didn’t react to this, polishing off his fourth glass of ale and thunking it back down onto the table, whereupon he stared accusingly at it.

“I’m s’posed to be,” he said bitterly. “That’s the whole point of all this, right? New place, new life, new…everything.”

“New skills, new friends, new connections,” Tallie agreed, still chipper but now not as exuberant, seeming to have caught some of his mood. “C’mon, Rasha, you’ve been here two days. This stuff takes time to do!”

“What if it doesn’t work?” Rasha asked in a plaintive whisper, clutching his empty glass in both hands and staring into it. “I can’t keep going like… I can’t. I’m here to become somebody who’s… Who doesn’t have to…”

“Take anybody’s crap,” Ross rumbled, nodding. “That’s what Eserion’s about.”

“Don’t care about anybody,” Rasha said, his lip trembling. “I’m sick of my crap.”

“Rasha,” Jasmine said gently, scooting closer to him. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m wrong.” Tears began to slide down his face, his thin shoulders shaking slightly. “I don’t fit, and I feel wrong all the time, like I’m not supposed to even be like this. I’m the wrong…wrong person, and life, and…” He squeezed his eyes shut, scrubbing the back of his sleeve across them.

“Okay, this is the most insensitive thing I’ve ever said, an’ I’ll apologize to him when he sobers up enough to appreciate it,” said Joe, glancing casually around at their surroundings. “But this really ain’t the place to break out cryin’. Some o’ the folk in here are just watchin’ for an excuse to jump on anything they see as weakness.”

The others followed suit, surreptitiously peering at the Den. Its noise and crowd seemed to be working in their favor; nobody appeared to have noticed Rasha’s inebriated breakdown, or to be paying them any attention at all.

“Yeah, so,” Ross mumbled, pushing back his chair. “This was fun, let’s do it again sometime. Good time to head home, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed, rising smoothly and laying a hand on Rasha’s shoulder. “C’mon, Rasha, let’s move out.”

Despite the lack of any direct opposition, not one of them questioned Joe’s warning. New they might be to the Thieves’ Guild proper, but they were all people who knew how the rougher element thought, and behaved. Rarely would anyone else seek out the service of Eserion.


“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed. “We are not in league with—um. That is, I mean… Basra who?”

“Herschel,” Principia said kindly, “hush.”

“Please,” Ami muttered.

“A good number of times in my life,” Principia began, “in fact, just about every time I found myself in a helpless position at the mercy of someone I didn’t like, they took the opportunity to make a speech about how much cleverer they were than I. Okay, not every time, but enough to notice a pattern. It is wholly obnoxious, but it looked like fun, so I’m gonna try it. Besides, you kids clearly need to be taken down a peg right now, for your own good.”

She folded her hands on the table and smiled pleasantly, keeping her body subtly angled to include both Schwartz and Ami in the conversation. Only the bard was physically hemmed into the booth by her presence; Schwartz could have simply stood up and left, but he just scowled sullenly, making no move toward the aisle.

“The last time I saw Ami, here, she was quite literally up to her neck and beyond in Basra’s schemes. Now, I realize you’re a Vesker, Ami dear, and not subordinate to her. Also I understood you were informed of exactly what she nearly did to you, and anyway, you no doubt have a life of your own. Just seeing you again doesn’t necessarily form any connection to the Bishop. However.” She turned her focus to Schwartz, who swallowed heavily. “Making the assumption of Basra’s place in this explains everything so very perfectly that I’m going to have to run with it.”

She rested an elbow on the table to point at him. “You, you claim, have an enemy—someone keeping your would-be turtledove in an abused position. My gods, Herschel, you’re talking about Jenell Covrin? I would never go so far as to claim anyone deserves the kind of shit she’s getting from Syrinx, but that girl could benefit from a few sharp slaps across the mouth in general.”

“Hey!” he barked. “I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head about—”

“And that’s confirmation,” Principia said smugly, cutting him off; he immediately looked abashed. Ami rolled her eyes. “So, you’ve linked up with Ami, here, another individual who’s suffered from Basra’s excesses, and the two of you are building a base from which to take her down. Oh, she’s a rotten piece who absolutely needs to go, but you can’t deny that for both of you there’s an element of personal revenge in this. Have I left out anything important?”

Again, she folded her hands, raising an eyebrow expectantly.

Schwartz and Ami exchanged a look, and then the bard sighed.

“Well, you seem to have covered the basics,” she said snidely. “Are you pleased with yourself?”

“You know, that is rather satisfying,” Principia mused. “I begin to see why all the villains in bards’ tales do it. I must start outwitting people more often. All right, you two, while I’m the last person who will ever argue in favor of Basra bloody Syrinx getting to wander around at liberty, doing whatever the hell she likes, I am strongly tempted to nip this thing in the bud right here. Largely because I can handle her, and I very, very much doubt that you two can. What I’m entirely confident of is your own belief that you’re capable of slaying the monster and rescuing the princess. You are, respectively, in love and attached to a faith which thinks the world runs on narrative. And you’re both barely out of your teens, which makes you invincible in your own minds.”

“My, she’s a condescending one,” Ami said archly. “Even for an elf.”

“Jenell is not a princess,” Schwartz muttered, “and she doesn’t need rescuing. She needs…backup.”

“Hm.” Principia drummed her fingers on the table. “That, at least, is evidence of some sense on your part. Jenell is somewhat trapped in her situation, but not because she has no possible exits. I’ve offered her one myself, and it wasn’t even the best option available to her. No, she’s there for the same reason you two are doing this foolishness; she wants to be the hero who brings down the villain. Well, there’s a lesson with that: heroes and villains aren’t a thing, and acting this way usually ends up with you firmly in your enemy’s clutches. Much like she is now. Right now, I am heavily inclined to go right to both your cults and tell them you’re plotting against the Avenist Bishop, just to get you two safely collared and out of harm’s way.”

“Are you quite done?” Ami demanded.

“No.” Principia sighed and shook her head. “Omnu’s balls, I’m starting to sound like Arachne. Damned Legions, making an officer of me… All right, listen. I have two questions, and the answers may—may, I say—prompt me to change my mind. I want to hear how you two got hooked up together in the first place, and I want to know who it is who’s been telling you,” she fixed a gimlet stare on Schwartz, “to befriend Eserites in preparation for taking on a creature like Basra.”

“Why?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because that’s very good advice. If you’ve been getting guidance from someone who knows what they’re talking about and is trustworthy… Well, that’s significant. So spit it out. Or shall I go straight from here to Bishop Throale’s office?”

Schwartz drew in a long, slow breath, his shoulders rising with tension, and then let it out carefully, most of the ire fading from his face.

“Abbess Narnasia Darnassy told me to seek out the Eserites,” he said finally. “She also told me to go to an elven grove and ask what anth’auwa means, which I’ve done, and to prepare myself with magic to combat a divine casters. Which…I am working on.”

Principia gazed thoughtfully at him for a long moment, then slowly leaned back against the wall of the booth.

“Narnasia,” she mused. “Yes…I can see it. She wouldn’t be fooled by Syrinx. And she doesn’t suffer evil for political advantage like Rouvad is willing to. All right, consider me…tentatively interested. I still have another question, if you’ll recall.”

“Well,” Ami said, tossing her head, “since that one calls for a story, I believe I shall take over from here, Herschel. If you’ve no objection?”

“Oh, by all means,” he said, waving a hand wearily. “Be my guest. I’m a little surprised you’re that willing to trust her, though.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she chided. “She has enough figured out on her own that it hardly matters, after all. And anyway, this isn’t an entirely unexpected development.” A feline little smile tugged at the corners of her sculpted lips, and she glanced coyly at Principia. “After all, we’re due an ally and mentor. It’s about that time in the story.”

“Oh, gods,” Principia groaned. “You kids are so dead.”

“Well!” Ami said, her tone suddenly airy and bright. “You know some of the lead-in, so I shall cut to the proverbial chase. It began for us in a townhouse in Vrin Shai…”


A place like the Den naturally had multiple bolt-holes; all of its entrances and exits were admirably discreet, and fortunately, Joe knew most of them. The group exited by a path which provided a somewhat gentler climb (albeit a longer and more roundabout one), and a less public exit than the one through the floor of the Stock Exchange. When they emerged into the alley behind the Exchange, the sky had darkened; at this time of year, night fell early, and despite the unseasonable warmth the air was sharp.

“All right, gimme a sec,” Ross said, carefully leaning Rasha against the wall. Jasmine and Tallie had both helped pull and push the drunken Punaji along, but Ross had taken on most of the effort. Rasha, who was sober enough to stand, but not to move consistently in any direction, had objected so loudly to Joe touching him that their new acquaintance had quickly backed off and not offered a second time.

“’m fine, gerroff me,” Rasha growled, trying to shove at Ross and succeeding only in tipping himself sideways. Tallie, fortunately, was hovering close enough to catch him.

“You were asking me why I don’t drink?” Jasmine said wryly to her. Tallie gave her a look, but didn’t reply.

“Gonna be a fun walk back to the Guild,” Ross grumbled. “Least it’s clean here. The hell kind of alley is this?”

“A discreet one,” said Joe. “Lots of junk piled at either end, with just enough space to slip through, but we ain’t the only people to make use of this exit. C’mon, it’s just gonna get colder from here, an’ it’ll probably rain before too much longer.”

“Doesn’t really look like rain,” Jasmine said, peering upward. The stars were invisible thanks to the city’s light pollution, but the sky didn’t appear to be overcast for once.

“It’s Tiraas,” Joe said pointedly. “It’s always gonna rain, unless it sleets instead.”

“Fair enough.”

“I’m sorry,” Rasha said tearfully, now leaning against Ross’s huge shoulder. “I runed th’whole night…” Ross sighed and patted him heavily on the head.

“No, you didn’t,” Tallie said. “Although, for future reference, we’re gonna have to limit your drinking. Can’t believe we let you down four glasses of that stuff. You’ve got the body mass of a starved squirrel, boy.”

“Don’ call me small!” Rasha flared up, flailing his arms so ineffectually it was impossible to tell what he was actually trying to do. “I’m not a boy! I’m not gay!”

Ross, again holding him upright, rolled his eyes.

“Alternatively,” Tallie mused, “we could let him finish getting drunk enough to go nice and unconscious. That might be easier. Did anybody think to grab the jug?”

“Easier for you, maybe,” Ross grumbled. “Something tells me you won’t be the one carrying him.”

“Good evening.”

All of them reflexively went still, even Rasha. Ross pressed him back against the wall with one hand, shifting his body in front of the smaller boy; Tallie and Jasmine both widened their stances, and Joe carefully shifted one side of his coat, his hand hovering near the wand holstered on his right hip.

Four figures had materialized out of the surrounding dimness, two from each direction. None were any taller than Jasmine’s shoulder, all where broad and blocky, and all were covered from head to foot in obscuring brown robes that appeared almost clerical. The one who had spoken was on their left, and moved a half-step in front of his nearby companion, continuing in a light Svennish accent.

“I hope the night finds you well,” he said politely. “We wish to have a brief conversation with you.”

“This isn’t the best time,” Tallie said warily, glancing back and forth. The two pairs of dwarves simply stood, the only menace being their obscuring costumes and the fact that they were completely cutting off the exits. They could get back into the Den, probably, but not without turning their backs on the dwarves to finagle the hidden doorway; it wasn’t even visible from this side, having swung shut behind them. “We’re taking our friend home. He’s had a couple too many, as you can see.”

“I think we c’n take ’em!” Rasha blurted, trying to stumble forward. Ross planted a broad hand in the center of his chest and shoved him back against the wall.

“Oh, this need not take long,” the lead dwarf said pleasantly. “You were present last night when an exchange of goods was disrupted by the Silver Legions. We require information regarding that.”

“We don’t have any,” Jasmine said evenly. “We’re just apprentices. We were just keeping watch and carrying boxes.”

“That is, of course, possible,” he said, his shrouded head bobbing once in a nod. “It is also possible that, in keeping with your thief-cult’s general pattern of behavior, you are lying. Either for specific reason or from a general desire to be troublesome.”

“Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren’t,” Tallie snapped. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? We’re done here. Excuse us, we need to leave.”

“Excuse us,” the dwarf replied, still politely, “but we will have to insist.”

As one, all four of them took a step forward, markedly shrinking the space between them and the apprentices.

Joe, in response, paced forward to stand next to Jasmine, facing the dwarves on the left while she faced the others.

“Gentlemen,” he drawled, “I haven’t the faintest idea what this is about; I’m clearly just in the wrong place at the wrong time, here. What I do know is that you have no idea the gravity of the mistake you’re makin’. Now, kindly step aside so we can leave.”

“Young man,” the speaker replied, “there is absolutely no reason this cannot be a perfectly civil exchange. If, however, you are determined not to meet us halfway, I will remind you all that no one knows where you are, and you are none of you important enough to your Guild that they will expend much effort to find you. Now, then—”

He broke off and tried to jerk back when Joe’s wands came up, but not fast enough. The beams of white light were almost blinding in the darkness of the alley, though they flashed for only a second. In that time, the other dwarves surged forward, producing cudgels and long daggers from within their robes, only to stop when Joe shifted his stance to point one wand in each direction, covering both groups.

The first dwarf was now clutching the remains of his robe, which had been neatly sliced along his outline by the wand beams and was trying to fall off him in pieces.

“Pardon my lack o’ manners in not tippin’ my hat, but as you can see, my hands are occupied,” Joe said grimly. “Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins, from Sarasio. You mighta heard o’ me.”

“Hooooo-leeee shit,” Tallie whispered, gaping at him.

The dwarf had given up on his robe, letting it fall to reveal a well-tailored suit covering his stocky frame; he contented himself with clutching the remains of the hood over his head, managing to mostly obscure his features, aside from a reddish beard trimmed just above his collarbone.

“You are a long way from Sarasio, young man,” he said curtly, “and have thrust your wands into matters well above your head. We are not here alone, and our disappearance will be noted—and responded to, swiftly and severely.”

“This is gettin’ to be oddly traditional,” Joe muttered. “Every good-sized city I visit, I end up shootin’ some nitwit in an alley. Buster, you’re standin’ here threatening members of the Thieves’ Guild. That does not say to me that you represent a particularly savvy organization.”

“And you are completely backwards in your thinking,” Jasmine added grimly, “if you believe the Guild won’t react to the disappearance of apprentices. Eserion’s people aren’t in it to steal; we’re training to humble the abusive, the powerful.”

“Damn right,” Tallie added, stepping forward. “You go picking on the Guild’s younglings, and there won’t be a place on this earth for you to hide.”

“Well,” the dwarf said in apparent calm, “that being the case, it does appear to be against our interests to let you leave here, doesn’t it?”

He shifted one hand to his belt; Joe’s wand snapped to cover him, but an instant later his fingers touched the shielding charm attached to the buckle, and a sphere of blue light flashed into being around him. The others immediately followed suit, the bubbles of arcane energy fizzing and crackling where they touched one another.

“All right,” Joe murmured, “gotta say, this could be trouble. I can burn through those shields, but not quickly, an’ takin’ on four dwarves hand-to-hand ain’t a winnin’ move.” He eased backward into Jasmine’s line of view and gave her a pointed look.

She sighed heavily, and clenched her jaw. “Understood.”

Before she could say or do anything further, however, the pounding of multiple booted feet sounded from their right. The dwarves on that side moved in an obviously well-trained pattern, one keeping his face to the apprentices while the other shifted to his back, facing that way.

Three Silver Legionnaires approached out of the darkness, un-helmeted but in armor. Four yards away, the elf in their center barked, “Form line!” Instantly, they shifted to a crouch, shields forward and lances aimed. It was a trifling size for a phalanx, but did effectively block the whole alley. And it was, after all, a shield wall bristling with spearheads.

“You,” the elf announced in a ringing voice, “will immediately deactivate those shields, turn, and depart this scene. You will do this to avoid the bloodshed which will ensue if we are forced to take you into custody.”

A beat of silence followed. The dwarves’ leader, still holding his severed hood, shifted his head minutely, studying the apprentices, Joe, and the Legionnaires. In the next moment, however, he took a step back, bowed politely, and touched his belt again. His shield flickered off, followed by those of his comrades.

“A pleasant evening to you all,” he said courteously. “We will continue this discussion another time. It is my fervent hope we can do so on the politest of terms.”

He and the dwarf beside him began backing away; the other two edged along the wall in front of the apprentices, urged by the continuing advance of the Legionnaires. Once both groups met up, they turned and departed as rapidly as they could without breaking into unseemly haste.

“Holy shit,” Tallie breathed, “I can’t believe I’m glad to see Legionnaires, after last night. And holy shit!” she added to Joe. “You’re the freakin’ Sarasio Kid!”

He sighed. “Miss Tallie, I was hangin’ around in the roughest dive in this city, clearly too young to be drinkin’, an’ dressed in a suit that cost more’n the places most of those galoots live. And yet, nobody even thought too hard about hasslin’ me. You didn’t happen to wonder why? No disrespect intended, but based on the Eserites I’ve known, you may wanna start talkin’ a little less and thinkin’ a lot more if you mean to advance in their ranks.”

“Wow,” she muttered. “I guess I’ll just shut up, then.”

“Stand at ease,” the elf said, and the Legionnaires straightened, lowering their shields and weapons.

“Hey,” said Ross, frowning, “you’re the ones who arrested us.”

“Thin’ we c’n take um,” Rasha burbled, slumped against his shoulder.

“Actually, a different squad arrested us,” said Jasmine, studying the soldiers closely. “These were from the squad who came to hand out punishment. What was it? Interfaith initiative? I’m finding it a challenge to believe that you just happened to be patrolling this alley at this time.”

“As well you should,” said the elf. “I am Corporal Shahai, and we’ve been looking for you. I believe you should consider how it was those dwarves managed to find you.”

“How did you manage to find us?” Tallie demanded.

“Persistence, luck, and elven hearing,” Shahai replied with a thin smile. “They, whoever they are, have only one of those advantages, and I am extremely suspicious of luck. Odd enough that we should have it in such quantity; that they should as well defies belief. That group is extremely well connected, and it would seem, extremely curious about those weapons they were attempting to buy.”

“Let me guess,” Tallie said slowly.

Shahai nodded. “The Sisterhood currently has custody of them, and are likewise very curious. It has proved impossible to tell, so far, what they do. Our squad hoped you could shed some light on the subject.”

“Not tellin’ you nuthin’!” Rasha blustered, pointing off to her right.

“Rasha, go to sleep,” Ross said wearily.

“We’re not tellin’ you nothin’!” Tallie added, pointing dramatically at Shahai.

“Tallie, shut up!” Ross exclaimed in exasperation. “Ma’am…uh, I mean, sergeant.”

“Corporal,” she corrected with smile.

“Right. Well, we don’t know anything about what those were, but we need to look up the guy who set up the trade and lean on him for our own reasons. We’ll find out what we can, and be glad to tell you whatever we learn.”

“What!” Tallie squawked.

“Connections,” Jasmine said quietly. “Not just in the Guild. Right?” She turned to fix Tallie with a firm stare. “We’re supposed to be building connections. Do you really not see how allies in the Silver Legions could be incredibly useful to us? In general, but also, apparently, right now. They aren’t the only interested party who thinks we know something about those staves.”

“And the other party are a lot less friendly,” Ross added in a low rumble.

“I…well…oh, fine,” she huffed, folding her arms. “I guess. I’m still watchin’ you, though!” She leveled an accusing finger at Shahai.

“Noted,” the corporal said mildly. “Your willingness to help is greatly appreciated; I have limited authority, but I’m confident our sergeant will fully reciprocate.”

“Is she actually in the Guild?” Ross asked, frowning.

“Yes, she actually is, and that creates complications when it comes to dealing with Eserites. You may not see her directly very much, but Sergeant Locke has our implicit trust. You can find us most of the time at the Third Legion barracks behind the Temple of Avei. How can we reach you, at need?”

“Uh…” Ross turned to the others. “That’s a good question. How can they reach us?”

“We can leave word at the Casino that any Legionnaires who come asking for us have legit business,” said Tallie, still looking miffed. “I dunno how much weight our say-so has, though. Something tells me the average thief’s urge to mess with the Legions weighs more.”

“It might generally be better if you wait for us to contact you,” Jasmine said wryly.

“So noted,” Shahai replied in the same tone.

“And corporal,” Jasmine added, “try firing one of those staves at a divine shield.”

Shahai fixed her with a sharp stare, and after a moment, nodded slowly. “Very well. I will pass that along to Sergeant Locke. Thank you, Ms…?”

“Jasmine.”

“Ah.” The elf nodded again. “Well met. With that, perhaps you would allow us to escort you out of this alley? I doubt you will be accosted again on the well-lit main streets, but…”

“That is an excellent point,” said Ross, picking Rasha up bodily and hoisting him over his shoulder.

“I dun’ need one!” the Punaji burbled ineffectually.

“Hey, uh…” Tallie turned hesitantly to Joe. “Those creeps know who you are now, too. Will you be okay? I mean, I know, that sounds kinda silly, you bein’ the Sarasio Kid and all…”

“Not silly at all,” Joe murmured. “The more complicated a situation, the less likely you can just shoot your way out of it. But I’m not without friends of my own. Tell you what, though, I believe I may just pay y’all a visit here pretty soon.” He glanced at Corporal Shahai. “Both groups.”

“You would be welcome,” she said with a smile.

As the motley group straggled back up the alley toward the busy street beyond, Nandi half-turned for a moment to look back and up.

Perched in a windowsill of the Exchange overlooking the alley, Grip grinned widely and waggled her fingers at her. Nandi turned without acknowledgment and continued on her way.

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11 – 7

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“Well, I can’t say you don’t know how to show a lady a good time,” Principia remarked. “Herschel, with the greatest of respect and all apologies to your delicacy and masculine pride… Are you sure you can afford this?”

He actually laughed lightly. “Oh, well…as a general rule, no, this sort of thing is well out of my budget. However, a good friend of mine works here, and wrangled me a membership so we can meet and talk in privacy. It is an excellent place for privacy, which is why I invited you! But, no, let’s just say I don’t commonly eat here. I mean, the drinks alone… Not that you should feel inhibited!” he added hastily. “Please, you’re my guest, get whatever you like.”

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” she replied dryly, “I’ve been a Legionnaire for a few months and a thief for two hundred years. I could buy this place. Since you’re providing the venue, how about I cover the drinks?”

“Ah, well, if you insist,” he said, not smooth enough to fully disguise his relief. She only smiled in amusement.

She had been intrigued when Schwartz’s message specified formal attire, and even somewhat surprised when he brought her to one of the city’s more expensive nightclubs. Most of these places actively sought to cultivate a men’s club atmosphere, all done up in dark hardwoods, red-stained leather, and either brass trappings with old books or pelts and hunting trophies, depending on the set of moneyed men to which they pandered. The Limelight Lounge, however, was known as a place for assignations between well-heeled couples; it was indeed designed for privacy, and also for softer tastes, its décor running heavily toward silks and velvets in deep blue, with etched glass partitions as décor. It also kept more generous hours than its counterparts, which was why it was not only open this early in the afternoon, but rather well-attended. The layout was also somewhat obfuscatory, with tables and chairs arranged in artfully uneven tiers and terraces around its stage, and two balconies running around the perimeter of the tall central room. No doubt the difficulty this created in navigating was offset by the privacy it afforded its patrons. The many nooks scattered here and there were cleverly positioned to have a good view of the stage and not much else.

They stood out somewhat, unavoidably. Though most of those present were in tailored suits and elegant gowns, Schwartz was not the only person to be seen in the formal robes of his cult, nor she the only guest in military dress uniform. Principia was, however, the only person to be seen in the white uniform of the Silver Legions; she rather doubted this place saw many Avenists. And she was, unsurprisingly, the only elf, unless more were hiding in the secluded booths. Not impossible, but this really wasn’t an elvish kind of place.

“So, this friend,” Principia mused after a moment’s pause, in which they strolled slowly along the rail of the lowest balcony. “Not a waiter or something, I assume, if he was able to get you a membership here…”

“She, actually,” he said, turning to nod toward the stage, on which a very pretty dark-haired young woman sat, singing in an exceedingly well-trained voice to the accompaniment of her guitar. Unlike many players who simply strummed the instrument’s strings, her fingers danced with a virtuoso’s mastery, filling the air with sweet little harmonies which wove around and through her song. “The management thinks quite highly of her around here. Enough to put up with my occasional presence, at any rate! Though, ah, they were quite adamant that pets are not permitted in the club.”

“You mean your little…Meesie, wasn’t it?” Principia tilted her head and smirked. “I should think elemental familiars belong in a wholly different category than pets.”

“Now, see, that’s the argument I made! I was firmly assured, however, that I was incorrect.”

She grinned, stopping and stepping in front of him to lean against the rail, gazing down at the singer. “Soooo. By friend, do you by any chance mean…?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” he said hastily. “She’s just a friend, just that, that’s all! Not that there’s anything wrong with Ami at all, of course. She’s certainly lovely—I mean, I’ve got eyes. But there’s, ah, someone…sort of. Maybe.” He trailed off, his expression growing dour, and absently rubbed at his shoulder where Meesie usually sat.

“Sounds complicated,” Principia murmured.

“It…rather is,” he admitted. “I don’t rightly know how she feels, or her situation… And we’re sort of prevented by circumstance from…well, even talking. For now. Maybe for… I don’t know. I mostly think I’m a fool to still be bothering with it at all. It’s a mess, and… I don’t know.”

“Go for it,” she said quietly, still watching Ami sing.

Schwartz blinked, turning to look at her. “Really? But you don’t even know the situation.”

“That’s my advice for most situations,” she said with a wry little smile.

“Hm.” He grunted and turned moodily to gaze down at the performing bard. “My mother advised me to forget the whole thing.”

“And the last thing I’d want is to undermine your mother, Herschel. I never met her, nor was aware of her existence, for that matter, but I will say that I’m likely at least four times her age. And what I’ve learned about love is that heartbreaks fade, but the regrets of opportunities you missed will haunt you forever.”

He simply gazed in silence for a few long moments, clearly no longer focusing on Ami, before replying. “Did you and my dad talk about things like this?”

“We did, actually,” she said, then her forehead creased in a frown. “But… You’re, what, twenty-three? Is that right?”

“Oh, ah, yes. I think I mentioned that.”

“Mm. Let’s find a place to sit, shall we?”

“Oh! Sure, good idea.”

He led her to a booth, screened by lush potted plants whose exuberant state of growth was inexplicable in the dim, windowless club. The table was elevated two steps, shielded from view to either side and affording them a good view of the stage and its performer.

“The thing is,” Principia said as she settled into a seat across from him, “you’d have been a little tyke of about five when I last saw Anton, and I had no idea you existed. I never even knew he was married. Quite frankly, I see why he kept it from me. Matters between us would have been different had I known.”

“Oh?” he said warily.

She grinned. “Let’s just say I’ve been prone to adventure most of my life, since long before that came to be considered a dirty word. It’s not often I find myself in the company of trustworthy friends, and I’m afraid I have a tendency to drag them into all manner of exploits when I have them. I’d have been a lot more cautious with Anton had I known he had a family back home. And he knew that, hence not telling me.” She shrugged. “Well, in the end, he profited from knowing me and I never got him into more trouble than I could get him back out of, but I still feel I owe your whole family an apology. Something tells me your mother wouldn’t be at all pleased to learn of some of what we got up to.”

“Mother certainly isn’t shy about experiencing the rougher side of life herself,” he said. “That’s how they met, in fact. She’d have gone with him on his trips—and did, at first, but once she became the Sheriff, she had an obligation to stay near home. My sister and I were partly raised by a variety of aunts and neighbors.”

“So, Anton’s wife is a Sheriff,” Principia murmured.

“And a former Legionnaire!” he added.

She winced. “All things considered, and with all respect to the lady, I think I’ll refrain from introducing myself.”

“If…you think that’s best,” he said doubtfully.

“So!” she continued in a more brisk tone. “As I believe I mentioned, the way Anton and I left things off, he did me a big favor which I always felt deserved repayment, and I’m sorry I never had the chance to make good on that. But you’re here and I’m here now, so let’s talk about what I can do for you. Why is it, exactly, that you feel the need to make friends and connections with Eserites?”

Schwartz frowned down at his hands, which were clasped together on the table. “I… Well. I’m afraid this is going to sound rather ungrateful, but I have to be frank on the matter of privacy. There are…circumstances. Secrets and dicey situations, and tales that aren’t even mine to tell, risks I can’t take. I’ll understand if this means you can’t work with me, but there’s going to be a lot that I just can’t—”

“All right, stop,” she said with a grin, holding up a hand. “Remember, Herschel, I am an Eserite. And as we were just discussing, your dad and I got along swimmingly without me ever knowing half the important details of his life. I definitely understand secrets and privacy, so you can leave off the flowery explanations. Let’s dispense with what you can’t tell me and focus on what you can. What is it you need?”

“I am not…exactly…sure,” he said, frowning. “Okay, well, the truth of it is… I have an enemy, which is something I am not used to, and not good at handling. I was strongly advised to befriend someone in the Thieves’ Guild to help teach me…well, how to handle an enemy.”

She narrowed her eyes in thought. “How urgent is this situation?”

“Well…it’s not good,” he said darkly. “Urgent, though… She—I mean they don’t know I’m…well, after h—them.”

“So, enemy’s a woman,” Principia said wryly. “Don’t make that face; this will go faster if you don’t try to cover up these flubs. I’m not going to interrogate you about it beyond what I need to know to help. Why is it urgent-ish?”

Again, he stared down at his hands in thought for a long moment. “…have you ever known someone who just… Just needs to be brought down?”

“Yes,” she said simply. “Frequently.”

He nodded. “And…apart from general principles, it relates to the other matter I brought up. Someone I, ah, care about is in danger from this person. Rather…constant danger.”

“Life-threatening?”

“I don’t…know? I suspect not, at least immediately. It’s more a matter of constant, calculated abuse.”

“This…is an ugly situation you’re sketching the outlines of,” she said, frowning. “Well, you may or may not have come to the right person. I definitely know a thing or two about dealing with hostiles, but trying to make a thief of you is probably not the wisest approach. Not knowing the person or the situation, there’s a stark limit to how much good my advice, or anyone’s, will do you. Herschel, I realize you’re a somewhat hesitant speaker in general, but you do seem to be stumbling a great deal over this. I think your first step should be to figure out what the maximum possible information you can give me about this is, and do so. I realize you’ve no personal reason to trust me, and I’ll respect your privacy. I’m not digging; I’m trying to lay out what it is I’ll need in order to help you.”

“I see,” he said, heaving a sigh. “Well, that…all makes perfect sense, I suppose. It’s just that… I was sort of warned specifically that once this person knows I’m coming after her, that’s when the real fight will begin…”

“That is probably the explicit truth,” she agreed, nodding. “And you’d better be ready for that fight when it starts. Which is the point of this, isn’t it?”

“Exactly. And… I don’t mean any disrespect, please believe that, but you’re right in that I don’t know much about you, and every person I let know about this is a chance for word to get back to…her.”

“Good,” she said. “You may not be a practiced enemy, but you’re clearly a careful thinker, Herschel. What I can tell you now is that your best plan for this will be…to plan. I’ve not seen you try to fight, but I understand you didn’t pose much of an impediment to Squad 342 last night. You’re a thinker, not a scrapper. Best to have your plans laid in full before you engage.”

He opened his mouth to reply, then suddenly turned toward the stage, where the music had stopped, followed by muted applause. The bard stood and bowed to her audience before slipping offstage, while a harpist smoothly entered from the opposite side to take her place.

“Ah, good,” Schwartz said in a more cheerful tone. “She always notices when I come in. I’ve no idea how, I swear she doesn’t even look up from her guitar, and anyway how could she see with the lights on her like that? But every time I visit she’ll come talk with me. I should introduce you here in just a moment!”

“Capital idea,” Principia said brightly, rising and slipping out of the booth. “Before that, allow me a moment, will you? I’ll be right back to meet your friend.”

“Ah, of course, sure,” he said, bobbing his head in affirmation.

After she had slid away out of view, he let out a sigh and leaned back against his seat, resting his head on the partition behind him. All this…scheming. With every new development, even the encouraging ones, it was made ever clearer to him that he was wildly out of his element. For a few long minutes he just rested there, breathing evenly and letting the soft strains of harp music from below wash over him.

“My, my, is it that bad?”

He straightened up and managed a thin smile as Ami slid into the booth across from him. “Hello. Lovely performance as always. And no…nothing new is bad. I’m just…coping, as always.”

“Well, you’re taking action, which is all anyone can ask, I suppose,” she said airily. “To judge by the white longcoat, I gather your date is this mysterious new friend in the Legions? Splendid work, Herschel. It can’t be said that you don’t move quickly.”

“Yes, and she’ll be back in just a moment.” He glanced around. “Actually, I’m not sure what the, ah… I mean, probably just the necessary. I thought it indelicate to ask.”

“Setting the trap,” Principia said brightly, appearing at the table again as if by magic. Ami jumped in surprise, then went rigid, staring at her; the elf gave her a pleasant smile. “It wouldn’t do for your friend here to get nervous and bolt, before I could position myself between her and any way off that seat. Young woman, I can see you thinking about it. Now tell me, which do you think is a worse idea: trying to shove your way past an elf, or past a Silver Legionnaire?”

Schwartz gaped at her. “Uh… What is going on?”

“Just a little…reunion between old friends,” Ami said in a strangled voice. “And this, Herschel, is why I wish you’d told me just who you were meeting.”

“I’ll bet you do,” Principia said, her false smile fading into a hard, piercing stare. “Spilt milk, Ms. Talaari. It’s not that I don’t believe in coincidences; I simply don’t like them. So why don’t we all have a calm, quiet discussion about you, me, the Schwartzes, and Basra Syrinx?”


“With all due respect, corporal,” Casey said plaintively, “is this really the best plan we have?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Nandi replied calmly, not glancing back at her. It was a well-heeled neighborhood they were walking through, and they passed mostly expensively-dressed people on the sidewalks, most of whom gave the three Legionnaires inquisitive looks. Several looked again at Nandi, doubtless unaccustomed to seeing elves in that armor. Despite the time of year, it was warm enough that they were not in their cold-weather gear, and as per regulations were not wearing helmets while on city duties that did not specifically require them.

“Um, I just can’t help thinking,” Farah said nervously, “apart from the unlikelihood of just stumbling over these apprentices, if the three of us just patrol in a constant circle around the Imperial Casino, the Thieves’ Guild will eventually notice.”

“Eventually?” At that, Nandi did glance back over her shoulder with a small smile. “I assure you, Szaravid, they’ve already noticed. Silver Legionnaires don’t patrol this district. Apart from the fact that it could be considered a provocative act against the Guild, there’s really no point. Even the Army doesn’t exert itself to keep peace here. No one attempts crime in territory under the control of the Thieves’ Guild. Or at least, no one does so twice.”

“I’m still hung up on the ‘provocative’ part of that,” Casey muttered, glancing about.

“Yes, they’ve noticed us,” Nandi said, again watching ahead. “The longer we keep up, the more curious they will be. Three soldiers are not a threat, and they’ll be wondering what we’re up to. By the third day of this, if not the second, someone will confront us to demand an explanation.”

“Three days of this?” Farah groaned.

“Likely more,” Casey said. “You were right; what are the odds of us just bumping into these apprentices?”

“Slim,” Nandi admitted. “Thus, when we are accosted by the Guild, we will tell them the full and unvarnished truth. Our squad is commanded by a Guild member, we are looking for information about the raid and the weapons confiscated there, and those apprentices are our best lead. If you should find yourselves, for any reason, confronted by Guild enforcers in my absence, these are the facts you will tell them.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Casey said warily.

“Not a good one, but the best one available to us. If we simply walked up to them and asked, they would assume we were lying and up to something, and treat us accordingly. Matters will seem different if we speak frankly when menaced their full strength—and they will make threats, so be prepared for that, but also remember they are very unlikely to harm Legionnaires unless provokes far more severely than we shall. If they refuse to accept our presence, that will be that, and we will have to report back to the sergeant and find a new avenue of approach. But I judge there is at least a strong possibility someone within the Guild will actually help us, if we put it to them the right way. I have dealt with Eserites in the past.”

“It feels risky,” Farah said, “showing them our hand like that.”

“Riskier by far to play games.” Nandi glanced back again, a clear warning in her eyes. “We will not fence with the Thieves’ Guild, ladies. We would swiftly and dramatically lose. And worse, the situation would reflect upon Sergeant Locke, embarrass Captain Dijanerad, draw the attention of Bishop Syrinx, and aggravate Commander Rouvad. Any of those outcomes could be disastrous for us.”

“I dunno,” Casey mused. “Locke’s pretty easygoing, as sergeants go…”

“That,” Nandi stated, “is because we are a small unit, because she knows you, and because the composition of this squad makes it a viable leadership strategy. The Sisterhood has extensive files on Principia Locke, and I have read them. If you had to choose between having her and Basra Syrinx for an enemy… Well, ladies, you can thank Avei for the side on which she has placed you. Trust me.”

“Really?” Casey said skeptically.

“I believe it,” Farah said in a quieter tone. “I like the Sarge, too. That doesn’t mean I underestimate her.”

“Good,” said Nandi with a small smile which they couldn’t see.

They turned a corner in silence, glancing at the white, gilt-edged shape of the Imperial Casino as it was briefly visible across an intersection on their left. For the most part, Shahai was leading them on a patrol route around the Casino at a distance of one street, rather than actually circling its walls.

“I know Locke said to drop this,” Casey said after a pause, “but… Corporal Shahai, that one apprentice, with the brown hair…”

“I know, Elwick,” Nandi said quietly.

“You do? I mean… Sure you do,” she added with a sigh.

“Yeah, it’s really not surprising, is it?” Farah smiled and jostled her affectionately with an elbow.

“Orders aside, Locke’s approach to that situation was the correct one,” Nandi said quietly. “We are being sent into a circumstance in which we may end up interacting with her, closely and repeatedly. Above all else, you will respect her cover and give no hint that you know her to be anything but some girl apprenticing to the Guild. With that understood… Locke has also placed us in position to possibly be of help to her, should an appropriate situation arise. I am quite confident the sergeant does not do such things by accident.”

“What is she doing in the Guild?” Casey wondered aloud.

“Nothing that’s any of your business until she tells you otherwise,” Nandi said flatly.

“Yes, ma’am,” Casey swiftly acknowledged.

Suddenly, the corporal stopped, turning her head. “…well. Then again, sometimes one gets lucky. This way, ladies, quickly.”

“What’s happening, ma’am?” Farah asked, falling into step as Nandi picked up their pace and turned, heading down a street away from the Casino.

“One and possibly more of our targets is now leaving the Guild and moving parallel to us, a block distant,” Nandi said crisply. “Tallie has a very carrying voice. I cannot be sure who, if anyone, is with her.”

“Omnu’s breath,” Casey marveled. “Just how acute is elvish hearing?”

“The acuity is less important in this case than the practice at filtering out specific sounds from background noise. Not many elves have spent as much time in modern cities as I.”

“I bet it’d be easier for her if we both shut up,” Farah muttered. Casey shot her an annoyed look, but she earned an over-the-shoulder smile from Nandi.

In silence, the three Legionnaires strode off into the city.


“Now, isn’t that interesting,” Grip said, watching the soldiers pass by directly beneath the building on whose roof she stood. “And you thought I was in an unreasonable hurry. If this doesn’t teach you to have some faith in my instincts, Silence, I don’t know if anything will.”

The man accompanying her folded his arms, watching the Legionnaires go. “You realize the elf can assuredly hear us.”

“That’s Nandi Shahai,” Grip said dismissively. “If she wants to question why I’m stalking her, I’ll be glad to hear what she’s doing poking around the Guild. Focus, Silence. My hearing’s not on her level, but I caught enough to know I was right. They’re following that group. Specifically the girl, I’d wager a month’s take.”

Silence shook his head. “I still refuse to develop a personal stake in this.”

“I swear,” she complained, “the older you get, the less fun you become.”

“That’s the usual way of things, Quintessa,” he replied with a faint smile. “Still, you are right. In an objective sense, it is interesting. I will examine the girl more closely myself, but unless the results of that are disappointing, I believe it will be worth informing Glory. And if she decides not to lay a claim…”

“Then it’s my turn,” Grip said with a hungry smile. “You do that. For now, I’m going to follow our friends down there. This evening is just bound to get more interesting before it’s over.”

Without another word, she took off at a run and leaped across the street to catch herself on a window ledge on the building opposite, which was one floor taller than this one. In seconds, Grip had clambered up the side, agile as a squirrel, and then went bounding away over the rooftops, swiftly catching up to the four apprentices on one side of the building row and Legionnaires on the other.

Silence stood, watching, until she was out of sight, and then turned to look back at the glittering domes of the Casino, frowning in thought.

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11 – 5

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He woke near noon, despite only having managed a few hours of sleep. Quite apart from his body’s determination that daytime was for activity, he was in an unfamiliar place in which he had yet to manage to feel safe, much less at home. Only exhaustion had brought sleep at all, and couldn’t hold it long.

Rasha opened his eyes, feeling the confusion of dreams fade away as he stared at the distant stone ceiling. The barracks, or dormitory (he’d heard it called both), was certainly not cramped. High ceilings aside, he had what felt to him like a very generous allotment of personal space. His modest bunk, a simple wooden-framed affair with a thing mattress and worn but good blankets, had a chest at its foot and a stool beside it, and was framed on all four sides by privacy curtains. Three were lashed into place, with the forth able to slide open to reveal the central aisle of the…barracksatory? Whatever it was called, it was roomier and more private than accommodations on any ship he’d ever bunked down in, even with the unfiltered sounds of his fellow would-be thieves all around him.

Somehow, he’d expected it to be different here. At that moment, lying there staring at the ceiling, he didn’t know why.

It was there, the crushing feeling of hopelessness that dogged him whenever he stopped to let it. Who was he kidding? A new start, a new life, a new career… None of his would make a new him.

Rasha drew in a deep, fortifying breath and forced himself to straighten up. He’d been down this road many, many times; he knew the drill. It would get better when he started moving. For a while, at least.

Maybe it would be better overall, too. Whatever else he could say about the previous night, it had kept him too busy to welter in his own inadequacy.

His clothes were still hanging on the bedposts, undisturbed. Perhaps Style’s warnings were taken to heart by the other apprentices, though he wasn’t about to trust a bunch of thieves-in-training not to pilfer his things. Fortunately, he had no things, aside from the clothes on his back—which, after being washed, had been unwearably soaked, forcing him to wrap himself in his blankets for security despite the fact the barracks (dormitory?) was kept quite warm by arcane heating ranges at both ends. Both Tallie and Jasmine had tried to loan him nightshirts, but he’d fended them off. He wasn’t about to pile wearing girls’ clothes onto his insecurities. Bathing in the men’s washroom had been enough of a nightmare, for all that Ross and Darius had sought their own corners, likewise disinclined to be social while nude. Thank the gods for small blessings.

They were dry, a couple of damp patches aside, and he dressed himself as quickly as possible, then poked his head out.

There were soft sounds of conversation and vague rustles here and there, but he could see no one. Actually, the dormitory was a lot quieter at this hour than it had been at dawn, when people were starting to get up. Rasha peeked up and down the aisle, uncertain what he was supposed to do with himself now.

The rumbling in his stomach decided him.

He passed through the pit as quickly as possible. It was extremely alive, with people everywhere talking, standing around, and practicing various thiefly arts. Rasha kept his head down and made a beeline straight for the dining room, ignoring everyone and certain everyone was staring at him with condescending judgment.

It was all in his head, he knew that. This didn’t make it feel any less real.

The dining hall was busy, too, but fortunately nobody was looking at him when he came in. Everyone was clustered around one end of one of the rows of tables, at the far side of the hall near the kitchens. Rasha paused in the doorway, studying this, before slipping around to the side of the long room farthest from the crowd and going in search of food.

It was an arrangement he knew well from various galleys. A single cook behind the windows presided over various pots and pans of food, which he ladled out onto the tray and plate Rasha collected from stacks of them at one end. The man was distracted to the point of dismissive, watching the cluster of apprentices nearby, which suited Rasha just fine. He also poured himself a cup of tea from the pot at the end of the window, and then found himself holding a laden tray and in need of a place to sit.

His instinct was to get as far from the crowd as possible. Experience had taught him that people would notice that, and some would choose to take it personally. The happy medium would be to slide as surreptitiously as possible onto a bench at the very edge of the gathering.

They were nearly all apprentices, or so Rasha assumed; they were older teenagers and younger adults. The focus of the group was unquestionably on a man who looked to be a fit fifty or so, with graying hair and a neatly-trimmed mustache, who was perched on the very corner of the long table, telling a story.

While Rasha considered this, he caught Jasmine’s eye. She, apparently a person after his own heart, was lurking at the periphery. Seeing that he’d noticed her, she smiled and patted the empty place beside her.

Well. It was at the edge, and after all, she at least was someone he knew. He rather liked Jasmine. She was quiet, and pretty, and impressive. Also, Tallie was right across from her, and while Tallie could be overwhelming, he’d already developed a fondness for her, too. Perhaps jail and forced labor had that effect on a group.

He made himself smile back, and came forward to climb onto the bench beside Jasmine. “Morning. Or afternoon. I’ve lost track.”

“Just past noon,” Jasmine said.

“Oh, hey, Rasha!” Tallie said cheerfully. Both of them were just finishing off their lunches. “Welcome back to the land of the living. I dunno about you, but I’m gonna be a log tonight. A few hours of beauty rest just does not cut it.”

He gave her a smile before glancing down at the other end of the table. “What’s all this?”

“That’s Lore,” Jasmine replied, spearing a forkful of potatoes.

“Um. What’s lore?”

“Him.” Tallie pointed with her spoon. “Lore. That’s his tag; he’s a priest. This being an actual cult, there actually are priests, believe it or not! And he’s pretty much the top-ranking one, except for maybe the Bishop. He’s also the resident expert on Eserite philosophy, and the guy who’ll be teaching it to us. You pay attention to him; you don’t get tagged into the Guild proper until he says you’re fit for it.”

“Hm.” Rasha paused to tuck into his meal. It was just like the night before: bland, but filling. He was already getting nostalgic for the spicy food back home. His sister Amrit made the best curry… “Does anyone else think this is a weird system?”

“Yes,” Jasmine said emphatically, drawing a grin from him against his will.

“Weird how?” Tallie asked.

“Well, it’s…” He shrugged. “There’s no teachers. Apprentices just do whatever, and… Of the people who seem to be dedicated to looking after us, it’s just these two, right? Lore and Style?” He raised his eyebrows. “The chief enforcer and the chief priest?”

“Who told you Style was chief enforcer?” Tallie asked, frowning. “Last night you didn’t even know who she was.”

“Darius loves to talk.”

“Oh. Yeah, he does.” She grinned, spooning up the last of her carrots. “Almost as much as me.”

“Rasha has a point, though,” Jasmine mused. “These are basically top people in the guild. Apprentices are kind of…at the bottom. Seems odd that they’re the only ones who have a dedicated responsibility for us.”

“All systems are corrupt!” Tallie said cheerfully around a mouthful, prompting both of them to avert their eyes. “Makes perfect sense to me the Eserites’d have a pretty unique system. Eh?”

Rasha coughed, forking up another bite of potatoes. “So, um, anyway. After lunch. What do we…do?”

“Whatever we like,” Jasmine said quietly. “No one tries to organize your activities. But we’re expected to be consistently working toward improving our skills, trying to either get a sponsor or go straight for full Guild membership. Style pulls people aside for a talk if she thinks they aren’t working hard enough.”

“Like I say, good system,” Tallie opined. “The Guild doesn’t need people who stand around waiting to be told what to do. You gotta be a self-starter, have your own motivation!”

“I’m kind of amazed how Style knows what everyone’s up to,” Jasmine murmured. “I only actually see her once in a while, mostly just passing through if she’s not grabbing somebody for one of her little talks. But she does seem to have her thumb on everyone’s pulse.”

“Okay, then.” Rasha drew in a deep breath, let it out, and had a sip of tea. “Training. How’s that work?”

“Well, you wanna learn something, you get somebody to teach you,” Tallie said, again gesticulating with her silverware. “Anybody, really. You can learn from the other apprentices—most sponsored ones don’t live here in the Guild, but they come for training themselves, and the ones with seniority are the closest thing to dedicated teachers. Just cos they don’t have enough status to be turning up their noses at a fellow apprentice who asks for help.”

“Just because their sponsors would land on them if they did that,” Jasmine added. “Isn’t that more or less what happened to Pick?”

“He was doing a little worse than that, but yeah, basically,” Tallie agreed. “Point is, Rasha, you’ve gotta be mindful of reputation and credibility. How much you have, and how much others have. Makes a difference who you can approach and how seriously they have to take you, or who’s likely to approach you, either to give or to ask for help.”

“Ugh.” He rubbed his forehead. “So if you’re not the most social person, this is basically a nightmare.”

“Basically,” Jasmine said dourly.

“Oh, don’t listen to her,” Tallie snorted, pointing accusingly at Jasmine. “This one’s definitely not a people person, but she does okay. A good start is to head out into the pit and demonstrate what you’ve got! Try stuff out, do what other people are doing. It draws attention; people will admire what you do right, and correct you where you’re wrong.”

“That’s true,” Jasmine acknowledged. “I’m not much of a social person, but so far I seem to get by on work ethic. Haven’t really had any proper training except from a couple of the senior sponsored apprentices.”

“Flora and Fauna,” Tallie added, nodding. “The Bishop’s. You’ll like them, Rash.”

“It’s Rasha,” he emphasized.

“Uh, yeah.” She winced. “In hindsight, I can see why it would be.”

“So,” he murmured, toying with a forkful of potato. “Just go out there and…do things. All right.”

“Finish your meal first,” Jasmine advised.

“Oh, believe me,” he assured her, “that wasn’t in question.”


What he could do…

Looking around the pit, where apprentices were working at dummies, sparring, climbing walls, and doing several things whose purpose he couldn’t guess, Rasha felt another moment of profound helplessness. What could he do that would impress anyone here?

Then his eyes fell on the balance bars. They were clearly designed for climbing, being built up in an asymmetrical, complex formation that rose over three yards high, made of smooth-sanded wood darkened by countless hands and joined together with metal fastenings.

He was making his way toward them before he could talk himself out of it again. Somewhat to his surprise, Tallie and Jasmine followed along. It was mildly encouraging that they didn’t have much more idea what to do than he; with them being his primary source of information, he tended to forget they had only been around a few days, themselves.

“Thieves need to climb,” he said, a smile breaking unbidden across his features.

“Well, yes,” Jasmine said behind him. “I suppose that’s—whoah!”

It wasn’t like rigging. The texture, the arrangement, the inflexibility of the bars… But it was grasping, swinging, pulling, knowing the weight of his body, feeling the inertia and gravity as he swam through them. Rasha hopped upward once to grab the lowest bar, and in seconds had bounded nimbly up through the whole arrangement to perch smugly atop it.

He had to grin in sudden pride when his performance was rewarded by cheers and wolf whistles from others about the room. They quickly returned to their own business—these folks had surely seen a lot of more impressive things—but for a few moments, he was the center of attention…and approbation. It was an unfamiliar feeling.

Rasha decided on the spot he needed more of it.

“Hey, not bad!” Tallie called, grinning up at him. “Not bad at all. Lemme have a go!”

Twenty seconds later, she was beside him. Her technique for climbing was very different than his; she swung her body in wide arcs, with graceful flourishes of whatever limb was not currently needed to hold herself in place. It was an inefficient method, but an undeniably beautiful one, and Rasha found himself curious where she’d learned to climb.

He was also uncomfortably aware of how her performance accentuated the long lines of her body.

“Impressive!” he said, hoping his skin was dark enough to hide his blush. His sisters were never fooled, but people of Stalweiss stock, he’d found, often couldn’t spot faint changes in coloration, not when their own faces turned bright pink at the slightest thing. “That’s…wow, I’ve never seen anyone climb like that.”

“Why, thank you,” she said, batting her eyes and simpering.

Rasha cleared his throat. “Um, well. I suppose there’s no mystery about me; just a wharf rat, used to scaling the rigging. I was dancing on ropes before I could walk.”

“Circus rat, here!” she said cheerfully, hopping upward and throwing herself into a somersault. She landed with one hand grasping the bar on which they both sat, and slowly straightened her body out above them, free arm and legs all pointing in different directions, balancing on her palm. “The point is not to get anywhere in a hurry, but to look good while you’re getting!”

“Mission accomplished,” he mumbled.

Tallie turned her head to grin and wink at him upside-down, and he had to drop his own gaze.

“There she is!”

He craned his neck to look below, where a slim blonde woman dressed in black was striding across the pit floor toward Jasmine, grinning.

“Oh!” Tallie swiftly re-folded herself to sit beside him on the top bar. “That’s Grip!”

“Grip… Oh, Randy’s master?”

“Ex-sponsor, yeah. She is not somebody you wanna cross.” She nudged him with an elbow, grinning eagerly at the scene below, where the senior thief had cornered and engaged Jasmine in conversation. “You’ll wanna watch this. Grip was around two days ago, Jas’s first appearance here. She got baited into sparring with one of the other apprentices.” Her grin grew hugely. “Flattened him. Just completely demolished, and didn’t even get bruised. I swear her hair wasn’t mussed. Yeah, Grip’s an enforcer; she saw that, and I had a feeling she’d be back to see some more.”

“I see,” he mused.

Tallie gave him an irritated glance. “What, that’s it? You’re supposed to express disbelief. How can a little slip of a thing like Jasmine be so dangerous?”

“It actually is really surprising,” he agreed, “but this isn’t when I’m learning of it. You remember last night, when we were all literally blind and it still took three Silver Legionnaires to pin her down?”

“Oh,” she said sullenly. “Yeah, I guess so. Fair enough.”

The conversation below had progressed while they were talking, culminating in Grip turning to the other nearby apprentices and asking for volunteers, while Jasmine stood aside, looking uncomfortable.

“Oh, all right,” Darius said, pushing forward through the crowd and trying for a show of reluctance, which was ruined by his broad grin. “I guess I can have a go. But just promise you won’t cry, Jas. I hate to see a pretty lady all mussed.”

Instantly, Jasmine’s posture shifted, reluctance and uncertainty vanishing as she turned to face him.

“All right,” she said quietly. “I promise.”

“He’s not very bright, is he?” Rasha whispered.

“No,” Tallie replied, grinning insanely. “No, he is not.”


“Ah, there they are,” Principia said as Casey and Farah entered the cabin. “Finally. Front and center, ladies, we’re waiting on you.” Indeed, the rest of the squad were clustered around the arcane heater at the end in which they slept, all but Principia herself sitting on their bunks. “We’ve got new marching orders straight from the High Commander. This is the big one, girls: an actual mission, something important to the Sisterhood’s interests, and a chance for us to prove our worth. We will not mess this up. I hope you enjoyed your last hour of normal duty shifts in a while, because once I’ve briefed you, we are off to the races.”

“Um, before that,” Farah said nervously. “We have something to report.”

Beside her, Casey sighed, looking resigned.

“Well?” Principia said impatiently. “Out with it, then.”

“It’s, um…” Farah shuffled her booted feet. “Well, Sarge, you remember the mystery of the jackass cadet who kept signing out prayer rooms under the name I. P. Standing?”

“Oh, no,” Nandi whispered.

Principia glanced at her, then fixed her stare back on Farah. “Vaguely, sure. What of it?”

“Well,” Farah said, “the good news is, today we caught her red-handed.” Casey edged subtly away from her.

“And the bad news?” Principia demanded.

Farah cringed, hunching her shoulders as if trying to withdraw her head into her breastplate like a turtle. “Colonel Standing would like a word with you, ma’am. At your earliest convenience.”

There was a moment of silence, in which Ephanie’s eyes widened in horror and Nandi closed hers. Then Merry burst out laughing so hard she almost immediately rolled off her bunk.

“You remember telling Farah to be more assertive?” Casey added helpfully. “Well, she’s been working on it.” Farah shot her a filthy look.

“Well, isn’t that the fuckin’ cherry on top,” Principia said sourly. “Thank you so much, Szaravid.”

“Sorry, Sarge,” Farah said miserably.

“Elwick,” the sergeant added, “walk over to Lang, and if she’s still on the floor by the time you get there, stomp on her organs. Everybody else, just…sit down and sort yourselves out. This is important.”

Merry was still grinning half a minute later when they had all assembled and arranged themselves under their sergeant’s now-irritated stare, but even she managed to mostly compose herself. Nandi sat cross-legged on her own top bunk; the others spread out on the bottom ones, waiting expectantly.

“Much as we need more warm bodies around here,” Principia mused, “I do rather like the coziness. After all the shouting and drilling, it’s nice to be a group of people and not the armored golems the bronze demands of us. Needless to say, as always, you are none of you to carry tales of how I do things up the chain of command.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused, most smiling.

“All right, to business.” Principia nodded once. “What we caught last night was the tail end of a bigger and more important operation. Rounding up a handful of Eserite apprentices, in addition to being a completely useless thing to do, was not the point. That raid was prompted by a tip from relatively high in the Guild itself, and its point was to seize the weapons being traded in that warehouse. I didn’t bring any to show you, because they’re to stay locked in the main temple at Commander Rouvad’s orders, but what we found are modified battlestaves of strange design and uncertain purpose. They are capped at both ends with large crystals and incorporate some kind of gold superstructure. When fired, they produce a slightly diffuse beam of yellow light which exerts a mild kinetic force on a target and no other visible effect. It is useless against energy shields. In short, the Legion has apprehended strange weapons that someone in the Thieves Guild felt it was important that we know about. We can’t tell what they are, or what they’re supposed to do, or where they come from.”

She let that sink in for a moment, panning her stare around the squad. “And it is now our job to answer those questions.”

“How?” Merry asked.

“In several ways,” Principia said, beginning to pace up and down. She only had room to make about three steps at a time before having to turn. “First, I’m to examine the devices themselves to figure out their purpose; the High Commander has suspended my weapons research until this is done. Second, this squad is to track the origins of the weapons, and try to learn about their provenance.”

“Once again,” said Merry, “how?”

“I’ve been mulling that,” Principia said seriously. “And I’ll come to it in a moment. First, though, there’s another thing you need to know. What I said about this being an important test of the squad’s mandate is true, but the stakes are higher than that. Commander Rouvad has tasked Bishop Syrinx with the same objectives; she is to pursue the matter through political channels. The Church, the Eserite Bishop, and whatever else she can manage.”

“Holy shit,” Casey breathed. “It’s…a race, then.”

“It’s more complicated than that, Elwick,” Principia said grimly. “In addition to doing our actual jobs, we’ll need to carefully manage our situation relative to Syrinx. Yes, this is a chance to pull ahead and prove ourselves more useful than she, which is a step toward the important goal of validating the Commander’s trust in this squad and making Syrinx herself redundant. However, she is not unaware of our stake in this, and if we start to show her up too badly… Well, you all know how restrained dear Basra is when she feels threatened.”

“She just got back from being punished for that,” Ephanie objected. “Surely she won’t lash out again.”

“She is likely to be more careful right now than she otherwise might, for exactly that reason,” Principia agreed, “but never forget that Basra’s calculations are just that. She had no personal restraint or regard for anyone but herself; only self-interest keeps her in check. This is going to be tricky, ladies.”

“Okay,” Casey said, frowning but slowly nodding. “What’s your plan, then, Sarge?”

“To begin with, leave Syrinx to me,” Principia said firmly. “If she approaches any of you in any way, report to me immediately and in detail. Aside from that, just keep clear of her.”

“Always a good policy,” Merry noted.

The sergeant nodded to her. “With that said, there’s the matter of how to actually begin tracking these weapons. The leads are few and the trail cold, ladies; this isn’t going to be an easy job. Maybe not a possible one. But we’re going to do what we can, using the very thing this squad was formed to foster: our connections with other cults.”

They glanced around at each other in confusion.

“Well,” Farah said doubtfully, “I guess one of Nemitoth’s libraries might be able to help identify the enchantments used on those weapons…”

“Yes, true, but that’s not what I meant,” said Principia. “I’m referring to the connections we have formed as a squad.”

“That pretty much is just Bishop Darling, isn’t it?” said Merry.

Principia grinned. “Think more recently. Very recently.”

“Oh, no,” Merry groaned.

“Oh, yes, Lang. We’re going to split into two teams for phase one of this. The first group will consist of Shahai, Elwick, and Szaravid. You will locate those Guild apprentices we met last night, cultivate friendships, and get them to tell you whatever it is they know. Do not treat them as a disposable information source, either. Useless as apprentices are, they won’t be apprentices forever. Not everyone who applies to the Guild makes it all the way—not even most. But we won’t waste a potential connection.”

“Why us, though?” Casey objected. “I mean, all due respect, Sarge, but wouldn’t you be a better choice to deal with the Guild?”

“I do have the knowledge and experience, this is true,” Principia agreed. “And for exactly that reason, I’ll be coaching you on what to say, what to do, and how to proceed. Carefully. But by the same token, I have my own reputation among the Guild, and my presence would be…complicating. Trust me when I say it’s best I remain at a circumspect distance from them for now. But I chose you three by process of elimination. Avelea radiates discipline and dignity even when out of uniform; among Eserites, that’s tantamount to tattooing ‘kick me’ on you forehead. And Lang…” She turned a critical look on Merry, who grinned puckishly. “Honestly, Lang, I could see you either making the best of friends with Eserites, or the worst of enemies, depending on how the conversation went. I’m reluctant to flip that coin when either heads or tails could end with you getting shanked.”

“Your concern for my welfare touches me, Sarge.”

“Yes, yes. Passive-aggressive jab at my leadership, obligatory rejoinder about my boots touching you, and we move on. We three, Lang, Avelea, and I, are going to pursue the other lead we’ve gained lately.” She grinned. “It’s a weak one, but he was on the scene—and given what we’re looking into, building a tie to the Salyrites will be all kind of useful. So while you guys are dancing with thieves, we’re going to look up our new friend Mr. Schwartz.”

“Question.” Farah raised a hand. “Don’t all of these people…um, sort of hate us right now?”

“I thought Schwartz seemed pretty mild-mannered,” Ephanie commented.

“Yes,” Farah said dryly, “but you don’t have to deal with the Eserites.”

“Well, I think you overestimate the level of hostility we’ll meet, Szaravid,” said Principia. “Hate is a very strong word. But yes, there may be some ill feeling. In that case, you will simply have to employ charm and persuasion.”

“And,” Farah said hesitantly, “what if I don’t…have charm and persuasion?”

“Then,” Principia said, “I guess you’re back to being assertive, aren’t you?”

Merry let out a long sigh and leaned back against the frame of her bunk. “Oh, yeah. This is gonna work.”

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11 – 3

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“Yeah!” Tallie jeered, rattling the cell door again. “Not so tough when somebody actually stands up to you, huh? Somebody oughta—”

While she spoke, Locke rapped her lance sharply with one boot to make it bounce on the stone floor, then deftly slipped a toe under it and kicked it upward into her hand, whereupon she set the tip against the cell door and raked it across the bars, making them ring obnoxiously. And vibrate, to judge by the way Tallie yelped and jerked backward, shaking her fingers.

“Here’s the situation in which you kids find yourselves,” the Sergeant said in a grimmer tone, raking her stare across them. “You flubbed a job and got nabbed. The Sisterhood has no interest in prosecuting illegal arms dealers—in fact, it’s a mystery to me why the Third Legion bothered to raid that meet in the first place. That means your next stop, according to standard operating procedures, is the military police, who are interested in illegal arms dealers.” She let that loom over them for a moment before continuing. “Now, you know and I know that you bumpkins don’t have anything worthwhile to tell them and you’re guilty of, at most, being accessories to whatever crimes were actually committed. It’s honestly a toss-up whether they’d bother to press charges, but they will work you over in the process of verifying that you’re just hapless know-nothing apprentice goobers.”

“That’s a little strong,” Rasha complained.

“But,” Locke said loudly. “I also know a lot about the type of people who seek to join the Thieves’ Guild, and what’s involved in the process. Unless your family’s Guild, you almost certainly are struggling with demons of your own—and I know none of you chuckleheads are legacies, or you’d be sponsored and not getting ditched in a warehouse by the only clown who’d take you on a job. Some of you, if not most of you, if not all of you, are going by assumed names.” She glanced rapidly from Jasmine to Ross to Tallie. “It’s a safe bet you all have good reason not to want the Empire digging into your business—and you’d better believe they would dig, for something like this. Dangerous or no, weapons traffic is a matter of connections. If you’re the only links they’ve got in that chain, they will find out whatever else you’re linked to. And then, once you got out of that, you would have to explain all this to Style. You know what a kind, understanding cream puff she is. I can’t say how much rep any of you kids have, but if you happen to be already in the doghouse, or just without enough established cred, being the reason Imperial Intelligence pays the Guild a visit would be enough by itself to get your butts bounced out into the street.”

The Sergeant fell silent, raised one eyebrow, and studied each of them in turn.

“What’s the alternative?” Darius asked in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.

“Be with you in a moment,” she said, suddenly sounding cheerful again. “You just ruminate on that whilst I deal with some other business. So!” Locke paced slowly down the bars, coming to a stop near the end and turning to face Schwartz, who stood near the wall of the cell with his arms folded, scowling. “What’s your story?”

“I am Herschel Schwartz,” he announced, “fellow in good standing of the Emerald Collegium of the College of Salyrene. I have not broken any laws, my only interactions with the Silver Legions prior to tonight were rendering them aid, and I am exceedingly irate!”

“You tell ‘er!” Tallie crowed.

“SHUT UP!” everyone else shouted at her. She gaped around at them, blinking in awe.

“Herschel Schwartz.” Locke studied him closely, wearing a faint frown. “By that description, you sound like a rather upstanding fellow.”

“Thank you, I try.” Meesie, squeaking pompously, bounced from his shoulder to his head where she stood upright and folded her tiny arms.

“Would you care to explain,” Sergeant Locke asked mildly, “just what you were doing attending an illegal arms swap meet, Mr. Schwartz?”

He jutted his chin out mulishly, now refusing to meet her gaze. “…you’d laugh at me.”

“Schwartz,” Locke said pointedly, “you are in a cell. You are implicated in crimes of the sort that makes Imperial Intelligence open dossiers on people, and keep abreast of their movements for years thereafter. If you get out of this with nothing worse than being laughed at, you’ll be making out very well indeed.”

“Yes, I see your point,” he said sourly. “All right, fine. I was looking to meet and make connections with Eserites.”

“Well, it’s a right pleasure to meetcha!” Tallie said cheerfully. Meesie chittered amicably back at her.

Darius cleared his throat. “Is it too late to deny knowing her? In fact, I’m increasingly willing to testify that this whole thing was Tallie’s idea.”

“I don’t think that’d work,” Jasmine said, deadpan. “She’s met Tallie.”

“Oh, whose side are you on?” Tallie snapped.

“Children,” Locke said firmly. “Hush. And as for you, Schwartz. Any reason in particular you were wanting to connect with the Thieves’ Guild?”

He shrugged, again not meeting her stare. “Well, it’s not as if I’m the sort of person who ordinarily has such connections, is it? Honestly, I have no interest in weapons, illegal or otherwise—except, well, some of those modified wands were rather intriguing, even if arcane work isn’t my field of specialization… Ah, yes, but anyway. That meetup was the only thing I was able to find out about that I could attend, and I was sort of warned against just walking into the Imperial Casino and trying to chat people up. I was willing to buy a staff or something if that’s what it took to make friends, but fortunately for my pocketbook, the Legion interceded.”

“That’s all very interesting,” Locke said, “but it’s not really what I asked you, is it?”

“No, I suppose it’s not.” Finally he raised his eyes to hers, now staring challengingly. “But I do know that socializing with Eserites is not a crime, and in fact cannot be considered evidence of a crime according to established legal precedent. So unless you intend to see me charged with weapons trafficking, which you know won’t stick, I would like to leave now, please.”

“Hm,” Locke mused, and then shrugged. “Welp! You’re not wrong. And as I have been given discretion with regard to what’s done with you kittens, it seems I have the authority to release you.”

“Can you stop with the diminutive nicknames?” Rasha snapped.

“You’re free to go,” Locke continued to Schwartz, ignoring the Punaji boy. “I’ll ask your patience a few moments longer, with apologies; you’re all leaving that cell in just a few moments, toward one destination or another, and I’d just as soon not deal with the rigamarole of extracting one person while corralling the rest. After you’re out of there, though, I’d appreciate it if you’d stick around for a few minutes, Mr. Schwartz. I’d like to have a word with you in private.”

He sighed dramatically. “I’ve told you everything I know about all this, which is practically nothing. I don’t see what else you can possibly want from me!”

“Oh, no,” she said with amusement, “I don’t suspect you of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I meant a personal conversation.”

“Then I understand even less,” he replied, frowning. “I’m pretty sure we’ve not met before—I’d remember a dark-haired elf.”

“We haven’t, no,” Locke said, now grinning openly. “But I’d like to chat a bit about another Mr. Schwartz I know, of whom you are the spitting image, minus about twenty years.”

He blinked. “You knew my father?”

Locke’s grin melted away. “…knew?”

“Oh.” Schwartz sighed. “Yes. He passed on six years ago. A carriage accident. Of all the ridiculous ways to go, after all he did in his life…”

“Hey, can you two maybe talk this out after—”

Darius broke off with a muffled curse as Ross swatted him upside the back of his head, sending him stumbling forward into the bars.

“Have some respect,” Ross grumbled disapprovingly.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you,” Schwartz said awkwardly.

“No. No, I’m sorry.” Locke shook her head. “If I took better care of my relationships I wouldn’t be finding out about lost friends years after the fact… And this isn’t the first time, either. But yes, anyway, I do need to deal with the rest of these first, but…”

“Sure,” Schwartz agreed, looking generally more amenable now. “And yes, I’ll hang around a bit after you’re done.”

“Smashing. So!” Locke turned to the others, raising her eyebrows. “Thoughts?”

“You’re not accustomed to holding prisoners,” Jasmine said critically. “Keeping us in suspense is cheap drama, and the threat isn’t ominous enough to even make it effective. Do you just enjoy wasting everyone’s time?”

“Okay, not with her, either,” Darius announced. “In fact, I disavow any knowledge of all of these fuckers.”

“My, kitten’s got some claws on her,” Locke said dryly to Jasmine. “I bet all the other girls back in finishing school lived in absolute dread of you.”

Jasmine narrowed her eyes to slits.

Rasha cleared his throat. “So, anyway, you were menacing us with threats of Intelligence and whoever Style is. Was there a better alternative?”

Locke boggled at him. “Whoever Style is?!”

Tallie cleared her throat. “He’s new. As in, first night. Hasn’t even got a bunk yet.”

“I’m having an interesting day,” Rasha grumbled.

“You poor bastard,” Locke said, shaking her head. “All right, here’s the deal. There are times when being caught between my various responsibilities is a hardship—but then there are times, like this one, where they all line up perfectly.” She began to pace slowly up and down in front of the bars. “I have a responsibility to the law, which is the least of my concerns here, because we all know you lot aren’t a threat to anyone except possibly yourselves. You might, it is true, become a threat one day if you stick with the Guild, but nobody rational prosecutes potential. I have a responsibility to the Silver Legions to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught criminals. I could maybe just let you all go as an interfaith gesture of goodwill and justify that to my captain as part of my squad’s mandate—”

“Yes!” Tallie said, gripping the bars again and nodding eagerly. “Embrace the mandate!”

“But,” Locke continued, ignoring her, “there is also my responsibility as a member of the Thieves’ Guild to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught screwups. So! I believe I know of a happy medium. One which meets all those objectives and gives you a valuable life lesson besides!”

“I hate valuable life lessons,” Tallie grumbled.

Locke stepped to one side and turned to regard those behind her with a sunny smile. The rest of her squad had been standing silently this whole time at parade rest; the Avenist cleric who’d accompanied them in watched the proceedings with interest from the sidelines, as did the sole Legionnaire who’d been left to guard the room.

“I asked your gracious host, Sister Tianne, if there was any significant work that needed doing around this facility—”

“Oh, come on!” Darius groaned.

“—and wouldn’t you know it! This temple has an attached stable, which is slated for renovation to house enchanted carriages rather than horses, the times being what they are. The budget being what it is, no actual workers have yet been contracted to do this, and as this particular temple is mostly a dedicated training facility and waypoint for the Legions on city duty, there aren’t enough permanent staff here to undertake a renovation themselves. So guess what!”

“I hate you,” Darius informed her.

Jasmine shrugged. “It sounds like honest work to me. And a fair enough consequence for tonight’s mess. Considering how this could have gone, I don’t see what your complaint is.”

“Jasmine,” he said in exasperation, “I did not join up with the bloody Thieves’ Guild because I wanted to do honest work!”

“You think thieves don’t work?” Ross asked.

“Everybody works,” Rasha added. “Don’t work, don’t eat.”

“Some of you,” Locke said with visible approval, “have a future in your chosen organization.”

“But it’s the middle of the night!” Tallie protested, again rattling the cell door.

“Oh, you’ve got some pressing appointment? A hot date?” Sergeant Locke arched an eyebrow. “Very well, it’s up to you. Since, if you’d rather not help the good Sister thoroughly clean out the stables, your next meeting will be with the military police. After all, nobody wants to keep them waiting.”

Tallie groaned and slumped forward, clonking her forehead against the bars.

“So,” Locke continued, “once you’re out of there, you’re out. You’ll answer to Sister Tianne until she is satisfied with your results—and Sister, be so kind as to be satisfied only when that place is spotless.”

“It goes without saying,” Tianne agreed.

“And in case any of you are thinking of bolting prematurely, let me just inform you that she will be sending me a full report of your performance, and if I find any complaints in it, they’ll go right to Style.”

“You don’t even know our names,” Darius huffed.

The Sergeant pointed to each of them in turn. “Gangly but hot wiseass, tiny Punaji, handsome yet poorly-dressed meathead, walking wall, deceptively dainty bruiser. Anybody wanna lay odds Style can’t figure out who you are?” She let them consider that for a moment before going on. “Come to a decision quickly, please, kids. I know you’re all eager to put this whole episode behind you, and poor Mr. Schwartz has been cooped up in there quite long enough.”

“Well, I can’t say this hasn’t been rather interesting,” Schwartz commented.

Tallie sighed and turned to face the others. “Well, whaddaya think, guys? Should we make a show of pretending to consider it to save face, or just go ahead and ask where the brooms are?”

“Oh, we’ll get to the brooms before the end of the night,” Sister Tianne said with a benign smile. “You’ll need to start with shovels.”

“I think,” said Rasha, “I’ve made some poor decisions recently.”


Casey was practically vibrating with eagerness as the downcast Eserite apprentices filed through the small temple’s courtyard en route to its attached stables.

“Are we going to stay and supervise this, Sarge?” Ephanie asked.

“No.” Principia shook her head. “They’re on the honor system now.”

“They’re Eserites,” Merry pointed out disdainfully.

“One,” said Principia, “they barely are. Two, they know the consequences of screwing this up; the point of the honor system in this case is to teach them some honor. And three, Lang, shut your hate hole, you dismal termagant, you. Avelea, keep everybody in line, please; the rest of you, stand in the courtyard here looking official until I’m back. You have my apologies for leaving you on the hook while I see to personal business, ladies. I’ll buy you all cocoa tomorrow.”

“That makes it all worth it!” Farah said with a broad smile.

“Sarge!” Casey finally burst out, the last of the apprentices having vanished into the stable. “That girl, the one with the dark hair—”

Principa’s finger was suddenly in her face. “No, Elwick.”

“But Farah and I met her, I’m sure it’s—”

“No, Elwick!” Principia repeated more loudly. “Drop it.”

“But I could see you recognized—”

“Elwick,” the sergeant snapped, “as soon as we’re back at base you will give me five laps of the parade ground at full run before removing your gear.” She took a step closer to the suddenly silent private, glaring. “And nothing that uninteresting, completely random Guild apprentice chooses to do is any of your business until and unless she tells you otherwise. I will not have to repeat any of this to you. Ever. Am I understood?”

Casey swallowed heavily. “Yes, ma’am.”

Principia held her gaze for a moment before withdrawing. “Good. Now I’m going to go have a quick word with Mr. Schwartz, and then we can be on our way back home.”

She nodded once to them, then turned and strode off into the temple proper, through the door Schwartz had earlier been shown by a resident priestess.

“Asking what the deal is with that apprentice is just gonna get me added to the shit list, isn’t it,” Merry said wryly.

Nandi Shahai glanced at her from behind her helmet, then at the door to the stables, and then after Principia, remaining silent.


Jasmine took the opportunity to glance at the sky as she pushed a wheelbarrow filled with the sludge and unspeakable smells of countless horses out to the courtyard, where she had been instructed to pile the refuse to be collected later and transported out of the city, there being ordinances about what could and could not be just tossed away in Tiraas. The island city had to regulate some things with exceeding care, lest people find themselves wading ankle-deep in pollution. It was hard to tell through the city’s omnipresent glow, but the sky didn’t appear to be lightening. What with one thing and another, she had completely lost track of time, but it was surely past midnight by now.

Straightening up after tipping the barrow over, she paused to scrub a sleeve over her sweaty forehead and glanced around the courtyard. Squad 391 were still present, lounging around at ease; clearly they didn’t find the apprentices to be much of a hazard or a responsibility. Not that she could blame them. In fact, one was leaning against the wall quite close by, which drew a second glance from her. The woman had her helmet off, revealing she was an elf. A blonde elf with horizontal ears, not another dark-haired wood elf, but still. There weren’t so many elves in the Legions altogether. It was quite odd to find two in such a small unit.

“Don’t take it as a rejection,” the elven Legionnaire said suddenly as Jasmine turned to push her wheelbarrow back inside for another load. “Locke’s enlistment was under the specific condition that she not go near you except at your invitation. She’s not overly fond of rules in general, but she can toe the line when necessary.”

Jasmine had paused, hands on her burden, to peer at the woman sidelong without turning to face her. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Of course. My mistake.”

She pushed the barrow another foot and a half before letting it come to a stop. “Your sergeant claims to be a member of the Guild.”

“It’s not a claim,” the soldier—a corporal, by her insignia—said with a smile. “The Legion knows her history and credentials quite well.”

“Are you sure she’s trustworthy?”

She cocked her head to the side in thought. “Complicated question, isn’t it? The chain of command seems to mostly find her a nuisance…but her own soldiers are quite loyal to her. I would say fiercely so, in some cases. That’s a particular type of officer who bears watching. In war and other dangerous times they have a way of saving us all; in more peaceful times, they cause the most horrendous trouble.”

Jasmine frowned slightly, then opened her mouth to speak again.

“Oi!” Tallie bellowed from within the stable. “Having a nice break out there?”

With a sigh, she picked up the wheelbarrow’s handles and pushed back into the stable.


Schwartz’s rented room wasn’t quite dark anymore by the time he got back to it. Not fully light, either—it was still before dawn—but even without flipping on the fairy lamp, he could see clearly by the pale glow of the windows. Well, good; one less thing to do. He was so tired…

He stepped in, shut and locked the door behind himself, and turned to make his way for the bed. He could afford an actual apartment but considered it wasteful; this small loft had all the space he needed for his books and magical supplies, and keeping a bed tucked into a far corner suited him just fine. Only halfway there did he realize someone was present, lounging in his armchair.

“Oh!” he said, stopping and blinking in surprise. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you…”

“Good morning, Herschel,” Ami said sweetly. “How was your evening?”

“Ah, well, you know. Long. I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but it’s so late it’s early and I’m really—”

“WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?!”

Despite her usually dulcet tones, Ami Talaari’s voice had been trained for power as well as precision; she could project at a porcelain-cracking volume in an enclosed space. He actually staggered backward, Meesie squealing and puffing up in alarm.

“Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” the bard raged, surging to her feet and stalking toward him. “The last thing I heard, you’d gone haring off to some godawful hole full of all manner of thugs, to make friends, of all the ludicrous things! And then you don’t come home all night? I thought you were dead! I pictured you being tortured! I feared you were in jail!”

“I was!” he protested.

Ami halted her advance, and blinked once, slowly. “Run that by me again?”

“Well, I’m not sure if it was jail in a legal sense,” he said. “The Silver Legion raided the warehouse and rounded up everybody who couldn’t escape—which was just me and some poor Eserite apprentices who hardly seemed to know what was happening. And they let me out, obviously, once things were sorted out, but… Yes, that did take up the bulk of the night, I’m afraid. Sorry, I didn’t know you’d be waiting up. Um…you don’t usually visit at…this hour. How long have you been sitting here?”

She waved that away. “Well, I suppose I can’t entirely blame that on you, then. Did you at least gain any contacts within the Guild?”

Schwartz stepped slowly forward and pulled over one of the chairs at the table, sinking down into it. “Well… Actually, it’s kind of a funny story.”

Ami arched an eyebrow superciliously, crossing her arms under her bosom, and Schwartz was pleased that he neither blushed nor lost eye contact; he must be getting used to her. It wasn’t even that he thought of her that way, really, but she did have a most impressive bust. And she accented it regularly and, he was sure, quite deliberately.

“I’m all ears.”

“You wouldn’t rather wait till later in the day?”

Somehow, that eyebrow rose even higher.

“Yes, right,” he sighed. “Well. It turns out the Legion sergeant in charge of all this is also a member of the Thieves’ Guild. And she knew my father. She said he helped her once with something important and she owed him, and since he’s gone now, she considered it her duty to help me out.”

“Wait. Stop.” Ami held up one hand peremptorily. “Did you really just tell me this Silver Legion sergeant is in the Thieves’ Guild? Is that allowed? Is it even possible?”

“I was rather curious about that, too,” he said frankly. “So were the apprentices. But she had a handful of troops following her, as well as the priestess in residence at the Avenist facility where they took us, and nobody contradicted her. And honestly, if anybody could’ve found the one Eserite Legionnaire in all the world to strike up a friendship with, it would’ve been my dad.”

Meesie squeaked rather mournfully, patting his ear. He reached up to scratch her head with a fingertip. She had only known Anton Schwartz briefly, but the elder Schwartz had been quite fond of the little elemental.

“So,” he went on, shrugging, “in a way, this ended up being a more perfect result than we could’ve hoped for. And now I am really indescribably tired…”

“Hmm.” Ami turned to frown out the window, placing herself in profile relative to him, and he sighed and shifted his own eyes to stare stubbornly at a bookcase. There was no way she didn’t do this on purpose. “Yes, that does sound good, doesn’t it? But also risky. If she’s in the Legion… That’s awfully close to Basra.”

“Yes,” he said wearily, “which is why it’s perfect as opposed to merely great.”

“You know,” she mused, a smile growing over her features, “I do believe you’re right. Very well, then! I shall forgive you for making me worry. We had better get planning on…”

She trailed off, having turned to face him. Schwartz was slumped forward in his chair, emitting a soft buzzing noise from his nose. Meesie climbed up onto his head and squeaked once, pointing one paw warningly at Ami.

The bard sighed and shook her head, but permitted herself a small, fond smile. “All right, then. Tomorrow. There’s time.”


“Good morning, Locke!”

Principia sighed, pausing to salute, the rest of her squad straggling to a halt to emulate her. They were ragged—not that it had been a particularly grueling night, just a very long one. She and Nandi were faring well, but drawing from stores of energy in the event of sleeplessness was an elven skill they weren’t able to share with the squad.

“Morning, Captain,” she said as Dijanerad approached. “You’re up early.”

“No, I’m not,” the captain replied with a smile. “On army time, this is business as usual. You’re out late.”

“Wasn’t my idea, ma’am,” Principia replied. “But it ended up being a good night’s work.”

“And I’m afraid it’s not done yet,” Dijanerad said, her expression growing grimmer. “The High Commander wants you, Locke. Soon as you were back, which is now.”

Principia drew in a deep breath and let it out through her nose. “What could she possibly need at this hour?”

“Well, gee, Locke, I don’t know. I bet if you ask her that, in exactly that tone, it’ll make a perfect ice-breaker.”

“I don’t know if I mention it often enough, Cap, but you’re my favorite.”

“That’s because I’m far too tolerant of your horseshit, and no, you don’t. Best get cracking, Locke. Patience is among Commander Rouvad’s many virtues, but…not so much with you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting again, and turned back to her squad. “Go get some rest, ladies. Except you, Elwick. Five laps. Move it.”

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Epilogue – Volume 3

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Warm weather had lingered throughout the continent, to the point that rumors had begun circulating about Ouvis’s displeasure and the Empire’s plans to employ various magical schemes to bring on winter. Any of these could be debunked by theological scholars acquainted with Ouvis’s habits (he had none to speak of) or magicians aware of the possibilities regarding weather control (there were no possibilities; you could manipulate the weather, not control it, and the manipulation was exceedingly inadvisable). Fortunately, the winds turned cold and the first snows began to fall before any of these nascent fears could get out of hand.

In a certain cabin barracks at the Silver Legion’s main fortress in Tiraas, more than a few jokes were made about how perfectly the onset of chilly skies and falling snow coincided with the return of one Bishop Basra Syrinx.

Three weeks later, they weren’t laughing. The housing provided to the Legionnaires of the Ninth Cohort was perfectly adequate—Avenist ethics wouldn’t allow soldiers to be deprived of necessities—but there was a wide distance between adequate and comfortable. The cabin was kept warm enough by the decades-old arcane stove provided, barely. Changing in and out of armor had become something of an ordeal, and all of them had changed bunks to sleep as far from the door and as close to the heat source as possible. Ironically, the much older technology of wood-fired iron stoves would have put off more heat, but in Tiraas, power crystals and enchanting dust were easier to obtain (not to mention store) than firewood, and the Legion quartermasters obstinately refused to spring for a refurbishment. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cabin, it remained cool enough that frost didn’t melt from the outside of the windows.

Thus, Principia got the usual round of unfriendly looks when she threw the door open. Her sunny mood, unsurprisingly, did not improve the reception.

“Gooooood evening, ladies!” she said brightly. “Everybody enjoyed dinner, I trust?”

“Shut that damn door, you maniac!” Merry barked, huddling by the stove.

“First, Lang, I have spoken to you about melodrama. It isn’t that cold. You wait till midwinter; you’ll feel a right fool for complaining about this. And second, we have company, so could you turkeys at least pretend there’s a semblance of a functioning chain of command in this barracks?”

She continued into the room, revealing the other soldier behind her, as the rest of Squad One got to their feet. In the next moment, they all snapped to attention, saluting.

“Bishop Shahai,” Farah blurted. “This is a surprise.”

“At ease, ladies,” Nandi said with a little smile, turning to pull the door closed behind her. “And surely you know it’s no longer Bishop. I was merely keeping the seat warm, as it were, and now its owner has returned to reclaim it.”

“Yes…we know,” Casey said quietly, relaxing her posture. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s, uh, good to see you again.”

“And in armor,” Ephanie added with a smile. “That’ll take some getting used to, Captain.”

“I fancy I’ve grown rather adept at getting used to things over the years, Avelea,” Nandi replied, smiling back and hoisting the rucksack she was carrying over one armored shoulder. “But before we all catch up, I believe Sergeant Locke has some announcements to make.”

“Yes, indeed I do,” Principia went on with the same mischievous cheer, opening the folder of papers she had held tucked under her arm. “Front and center, Avelea!”

Ephanie blinked, but didn’t join in the round of puzzled glances that passed between the others; relaxed as Principia preferred to keep things within their own barracks, she was the most devoted to military decorum among them. As ordered, she stepped forward to the middle of the aisle between bunks, falling naturally into parade rest.

“Ephanie Avelea,” Principia said more solemnly, “you are hereby advanced to the rank of Corporal, with all attendant duties and privileges. Furthermore,” she added, quelling Farah’s excited gasp with a stern look, “I am designating you executive officer of this squadron. Both are effective immediately.”

Ephanie’s lower lip trembled, but only for a second, before she snapped to attention and saluted, fist over heart. Only the lack of a sword, which she wasn’t wearing, diminished the gesture, and that not by much. “Thank you, Sergeant,” she said crisply.

“That’s all you have to say?” Principia asked somewhat wryly.

Ephanie swallowed once. “I… It really is. Thank you.”

“Now, I’m aware that it’s tradition in the military for officers not to bother explaining themselves as a general rule,” Principia went on, sweeping a glance across the rest of the squad, all of whom looked more excited even than Ephanie. “However, we’re a small unit, and within this little family, I want to make sure you all understand where I’m coming from with this.”

“It’s hardly a question, is it?” Farah burst out eagerly. “She has tons more experience than any of us! Weren’t you a Lieutenant, Ephanie?”

“Sides,” Merry added, grinning, “any of the rest of these jokers claiming to be officer material would be good for a laugh and not much else.”

“Stow that kind of talk,” Principia said flatly. “You’ve all got potential I don’t think you’re aware of, and the only reason I don’t ride your asses harder about it is the rest of you have all indicated you’re not planning to stick with the Legions as a career once your contracted enlistment is up. And even so, there are going to be some changes around here in that direction. But yes, back on point. Avelea does have the experience and the know-how, but that’s only half of it. You’re a by-the-books soldier, Ephanie,” she added directly to the new corporal. “And I, to put it mildly, am not. More importantly, you’ve consistently managed to support me with your knowledge of and devotion to the Legion’s principles and regulations, without ever undercutting my authority or butting heads with me.”

“You get the credit for that, ma’am,” Ephanie replied, still saluting. “You’ve always been quick to ask for input.”

“It’s a two-way street, and at ease, woman, for heaven’s sake. The point is, quite apart from your innate qualifications, you’re what I need both backing me up and counterbalancing me.”

“I won’t let you down, Sergeant,” Ephanie promised fervently.

“I know that quite well, Corporal,” Principia said with a grin. “Quite frankly I’ve had this in mind almost since I was promoted, but there have been…details to consider. Which brings me to our next item of business!” Turning, she smiled at Shahai, who was watching the proceedings with a warm little smile of her own. “This had to wait, Avelea, so you could be promoted first to preserve your seniority in the squad—an outdated and perhaps unnecessary little rule, but I’m being very careful to leave no wiggle room for someone to start picking us apart, and you know who I mean.”

She paused for emphasis, and they all gazed back at her in mute understanding. So far, none of them had heard directly from Bishop Syrinx, though Jenell Covrin had been spotted around the temple and adjoining fortress.

“The other thing I’ve arranged required paperwork which needed the approval of High Commander Rouvad, who did not want to give it.”

“Sergeant Locke approached me about this some time ago,” Nandi said, her smile tugging upward further on one side and taking on a sly undertone. “I began a campaign of persuasion upon Farzida as soon as I was able to relinquish the Bishop’s office. It has only borne fruit, finally, today.”

“The voluntary grade reduction for someone of Shahai’s status goes all the way to the top, I’m afraid,” Principia said smugly. “But Shahai has proved her worth—as if we haven’t all seen plenty of evidence of it already—and got her way. Ladies, may I introduce Corporal Nandi Shahai, the newest member of Squad Three Nine One.”

“Bwuh?” Farah said.

“Pick any bunk you like the look of,” Principia said directly to Nandi. “Except Lang’s, of course. Not that I don’t encourage you to push Lang around, but I think she has mites.”

“Oh, look,” Merry said dryly, folding her arms. “She ruined a nice moment. What were the odds.”

“W-welcome aboard…Corporal,” Casey said hesitantly.

“Yes, welcome,” Ephanie repeated. “I think…this is a very good idea, Sarge. She’s perfect for our squad’s assigned objectives.”

“Not to mention the un-assigned ones,” Principia said easily.

The others exchanged another wary look.

“You’ve, um, talked with her about…?” Casey trailed off, looking uncertainly at Nandi.

“Not explicitly, no,” their new squadmate replied, “but it’s exceedingly obvious that you will be contending directly with Basra Syrinx, and sooner rather than later. That she will be coming after you is an unavoidable conclusion—quite apart from the humiliation she suffered right under your eyes, which she won’t forgive, the fact is that your squad is a professional threat to her. Your assigned duties eat into the additional powers and responsibilities she has taken on beyond the standard job of the Bishop. I strongly suspect none of you are complacent enough or foolish enough to let her come without meeting her in kind, and I know Sergeant Locke isn’t.”

Principia beamed like the cat who’d eaten the whole aviary.

“And you’re…okay with this?” Casey asked warily.

Nandi’s smile faded, and she shook her head. “I am not okay in any sense with any part of this, ladies. What I am is in. I’ve been watching Basra Syrinx for a long time, and I know exactly what she represents and means for the Legions and the Sisterhood. Farzida believes she can be controlled and used to good advantage. So, I rather suspect, does the Archpope. I think you and I know better.”

“Nobody at the very top has a good view of what goes on in the shadows,” Principia agreed, nodding. “For now, let’s help the newbie get settled in, here, and then we have a promotion to celebrate! I know a perfect pub—discreet enough to keep us out of trouble, but not too much to be fun. And then…” She grinned wolfishly. “…we start working on our dear friend Basra.”


The office was illuminated only by the dim light of her desk lamp. She didn’t need even that to see; to elvish eyes, the moonlight streaming through the windows behind her was more than adequate for the letters she was writing. It cast a faint, rusty light over her desk, however, and created interesting shadows around the room. The lamp was more for ambiance than anything; she used it to great effect when intimidating unruly students (and sometimes parents), but had come to enjoy it for its own sake, too.

Only the soft scratch of her old-fashioned quill sounded in the room, at least aside from the soft flutter of wings as a small bird landed on the sill outside. Tellwyrn, who of course could hear that perfectly, too, ignored it. She also ignored the increasingly insistent croaking which followed. Only when the sharp, persistent tapping of a beak on the panes started up and refused to stop did she sigh in irritation, blow upon the ink to dry it, and put her quill away.

Spinning her chair around without bothering to get up, she un-latched the window and swung it outward, the bird nimbly hopping aside.

“I’m half-surprised you didn’t just blast it in,” she said acerbically.

“I really cannot imagine why,” Mary replied, swinging her legs in over the sill. She simply perched there, though, not coming the rest of the way inside. “When have you ever known me to do such things? Not everyone suffers from your delusions concerning what constitute social skills, Arachne.”

“From arriving to insulting me in seven seconds,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Sadly, that is not a record. What the hell do you want, Kuriwa? I have a shit-ton of paperwork to get done before I’ll have the chance to enjoy a week’s vacation from the little bastards, and so help me, if you ruin my holiday you’ll leave this mountaintop minus a few feathers.”

The Crow stared piercingly into her eyes, all levity gone from her face. “Where is Araneid?”

Tellwyrn gazed right back. “Who?”

Mary just stared at her.

“You’re not as inscrutable as you like to think, Kuriwa,” Tellwyrn said, idly turning back toward her desk, but not too far to keep her visitor in view. “I know you recognized my name. I knew it the first time we met. And yet, in three thousand years, you have never once asked me about this. So now I have to wonder…” She edged the chair back to face the Crow directly, and leaned forward, staring over the rims of her spectacles. “What just happened?”

“I returned to Viridill weeks ago, on your advice,” Mary replied. “It was good advice, by the way, and you ended up being more right than you knew. I thank you; it proved very good that I was there. Among the interesting things I learned was the repeated occurrence of spider webs as a theme, seen binding and drawing various players in that drama to one another. They were glimpsed only in the medium of dreams, thanks to Khadizroth’s intervention—that is a specialty of his, as you probably remember.”

“Of course.”

“And the matter put me in mind of a conversation I had with Sheyann not long ago,” Mary continued. “I have been noting for a while that wherever an event of significance occurs, particularly on this continent, it seems to be centered around the same few people. The dreamscape, of course, has a way of interpreting complex things in a way that is meaningful to intelligent minds. All this makes me wonder what strings have been tightening around us all that I was simply not in a position to see, before.”

“Spider webs, hm,” Tellwyrn mused.

“And so, I repeat my question,” Mary said, her stare sharp and unyielding. “What is the current location and status of Araneid?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Uh…dead? Undead? Mostly dead? Maybe sort of comatose, with a bit of unborn… It’s not simple, and quite frankly I never understood it well.”

“Go on,” Mary said flatly.

The sorceress twitched her shoulders in an irritated shrug. “You know, you really could have asked me about this in the beginning. It’s not a great secret. Or rather, I suppose I should say I’ve no care for the opinions of those who might want to keep it secret. I just don’t know, Kuriwa. What I know, you now do, and it took all of a moment to tell. I can add a little insight, though,” she said, folding her arms. “The corpse or sleeping body or whatever it is of a god makes a tremendous power source—but only another god would be able to make use of such a thing. To ask about a dead or almost dead deity, look for the living ones who have custody of her. If you want to know what happened to Araneid, ask Scyllith. If you want to get at her now, you’ll have to go through Avei. And in all seriousness, I wish you luck with it. I had just finished washing my hands of the whole sordid affair when we met the first time, and I will not be dragged back in.”

“Hmm,” the Crow mused, finally breaking eye contact and staring thoughtfully at the far wall. “The spider webs are not, after all, definitive proof of anything… But I have taken so long to come back here because I did my own research first. They are strongly associated with Araneid, and not just in myth. You say this goddess is…sort of dead, but not?”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “That’s as good a description as I could come up with, I suppose. Ask at the Abbey if you want to examine the…uh, body. I rather doubt they’d let you, though, and not even you are going to get through those defenses. Get too close to that thing, and Avei will land on you personally.”

“Is it possible,” Mary persisted, “that she could influence events across time? Your description suggests a revival of this Elder is possible. If this happens soon, what are the chances she could—”

“Kuriwa, I don’t know,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I’ve told you that. The magic involved is heinously complex and maybe comprehensible to me, but it was never explained, and I haven’t gone looking. I want out of the whole business. In theory, though? Sure, Araneid probably had that power, back in the days of the Elder Gods. I suspect most of them did. They didn’t have any equivalent of Vemnesthis watching against intrusions like that, and by the way, with him around and on duty she would have to be powerfully subtle to get away with it. Also… This would have to be very closely linked in time. If this is Araneid at work, she hasn’t been at it long. Someone would definitely have noticed before now. Probably someone in this room. Although…” Her expression grew faraway and thoughtful. “If it is within just a few years, though… There’s that great doom I haven’t been able to pin down. Alaric’s research points at an alignment of some kind… But of what we can’t figure out. It’s likely to be in just a few years, however. That could theoretically be a short enough time.”

Mary straightened up, suddenly frowning. “…Arachne, have you seen what is under Linsheh’s grove? I have long assumed that was an early stop on your own research.”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Linsheh and I don’t get along.”

“Yes, your feud made waves I have not managed to ignore, but I’ve heard nothing about it in four hundred years. I had assumed you two made up.”

“Well. For a given value of ‘made up.’ I’m pretty sure I won.” The sorceress grinned. “After her last stunt, I teleported her eldest son’s birth tree out of the grove, had it carved into a collection of exotic marital aids, sold them off in Puna Dara and sent her the receipts. I haven’t heard a peep out of her since, so I declared victory.”

For a long moment, Mary stared at her in utter silence. Then, finally, she shook her head.

“You really are the worst person,” she said in a tone of weary disgust. “In all my ages alive on this world, I have known the sick and depraved, the cruel, the truly evil. But you. There is no soul, living or dead, who is your rival in sheer, pigheaded obnoxiousness.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Tellwyrn said, smirking. “Especially not when you come pecking on my window in the middle of the night smelling like a haystack and with your hair badly in need of a brush. A lady likes to be finessed.”

“If you are investigating what’s coming, particularly if you’re curious about alignments,” Mary said curtly, “you need to look at what is underneath that grove. The answers there could reflect on other things that are of interest to you, as well. And for the love of whatever it is you may love, Arachne, try to mend fences with Linsheh while you’re at it. I don’t know what happened between you or who started it, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse. And we all will need to be able to reach out to one another in the near future, I suspect.”

She paused only to snort disdainfully, then turned and swung her legs out over the other side of the sill.

Tellwyrn watched the crow flap off into the night, frowning pensively.

“Hm… Well, it beats the hell out of paperwork.” She glanced disparagingly at her desk. “Then again, what doesn’t?”


“Have you all lost your goddamn minds!?”

It was well past dark and more than halfway toward midnight; sleet was pounding on the windows of Darling’s house, and the downstairs parlor had its fairy lamps turned as far down as possible, lit chiefly by the fire in the hearth. It was a cozy environment, the kind that would encourage sleepiness, if not for Style stomping up and down the carpet, raging at everyone.

“C’mon, now,” Darling protested. “You can’t possibly fail to see the benefits.”

“I don’t fail to see the benefits of ripping off the fucking Imperial treasury!” she snarled, pausing to glare down at him. “That doesn’t mean I don’t also see how that would bite me right the fuck on the ass!”

“How, though?” Tricks asked mildly. Aside from the circles under his eyes, he looked livelier than he had in weeks; all evening, he’d been growing more jolly as Style grew more irate. “You think the Sisterhood are going to spy on us? Quite apart from the fact they’ve shown no interest in doing that in eight thousand damn years, Style, this is not how you plant a spy. You don’t send a ranking officer of your army up to the enemy’s fortress and say ‘hello there, I would like to come spy, please.’ They’re not thieves, but a divinely-appointed military is definitely clever enough not to do something so thickheaded.”

“This is pretty much exactly what it looks like,” Darling added in the same calm tone. “A damn good idea, far too long coming, with huge potential benefits for both cults. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it first…although, it pretty much couldn’t have come from anyone else.” He grinned at the room’s other, quieter guest.

Style, meanwhile, clapped a hand dramatically over her eyes and groaned loudly. “You do it on purpose, Boss. And you, ex-Boss. You just like to see me suffer. I oughta throttle you both with your own fucking nutsacks.”

“Tea, Style?” Price asked diffidently.

“Don’t fucking start with me, Savvy,” the enforcer warned.

“It is my solemn hope that I do not have to start with you,” the Butler replied with characteristic serenity.

“What she means,” Sweet said with a grin, “is that it’d be politically awkward if she had to finish with you.”

“Style, you’ve been raging up and down for half an hour and generally making the point that this bugs you on an instinctive level,” said Tricks. “Fine, I get that. It’s your job, after all, to watch for threats. But if you’d seen a specific, credible threat here, you’d have said so by now. So with all respect, hun, button it. I’m making my decision: we’ll go ahead.”

Style snarled and kicked the rack of fireplace tools, sending them clattering across the carpet. Price swept silently in to tidy up.

“We’ll have to arrange a disguise, of course,” Darling said more seriously, studying his houseguest. “There’ll be all kinds of a flap if this gets out.”

“How the fuck are you going to disguise that?!” Style shouted.

“This is why I hate you sometimes,” Tricks informed her. “You never listen when I talk about what’s important to me. You don’t change a person’s whole appearance to disguise them, you just change the identifying details. Yessss… We’ll dye her hair, lose the uniform and give her a crash course in not walking like a soldier. It’s not like her face is widely known.”

Style snorted thunderously and halted her pacing directly in front of the chair next to Tricks’s. “Don’t you think for a second,” she warned, leveling a pointing finger, “that I’m gonna go easy on you, trixie.”

Trissiny, who had been silent for the last ten minutes as the conversation continued around her, slowly stood, her eyes never leaving the chief enforcer’s.

“If you insulted me by trying,” she said quietly, “I would lay you out. Again.”

Tricks burst out laughing. “Oh, but this is fantastic! It’s exactly the opportunity both our cults need—I love every part of this! Especially Style’s bloomers being in a bunch, that’s always good comedy.”

“I know where you sleep, twinkletoes!”

Ignoring her, he stood as well, turning to face their guest, and extended a hand. Trissiny clasped it in her own, gauntlet and all.

“It’s decided, then. You may all consider this official.” The Boss grinned broadly, pumping the paladin’s hand once. “Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild, apprentice.”

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10 – 3

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Between wanting to have this over with and being unable to get back to sleep, Ingvar ended up at the temple very early. Dawn was well-risen, the sky a pale gray and fiery in the east, but on city time that meant the night dwellers had long since staggered home and most people were still asleep. The convenient thing about paying a visit to soldiers was that they could be relied upon to be up with the dawn and probably already working. On the other hand, it was a strangely early hour for visiting. Not to mention that soldiers probably didn’t appreciate having their work interrupted first thing—or maybe they did; Ingvar had little notion what soldiers even did in peaceful times.

Plus, there were the obvious pitfalls of coming here.

Though not wishing to be indecisive, especially after Hrathvin’s upbraiding the night before, he found himself pausing at the foot of the steps of the Temple of Avei, staring uncertainly up at it. He remembered the back entrance to the Silver Legion grounds, but walking into an Avenist military base dressed in his full Huntsman gear was a very different prospect alone than when he had been in the company of a Bishop, several brother Huntsmen, and a squad of actual Legionnaires. Oh, and the Eserites, whatever use they were. Generally, clerics were easier to approach than warriors. Hopefully.

He was galvanized into action, not by having reached a conclusion, but by the subtle shifts in posture of the Legionnaires guarding the temple’s entrance, making it plain they were watching him almost to the exclusion of all else.

Carefully keeping his hand away from his tomahawk, Ingvar mounted the steps, nodding respectfully to one of the armored women in passing. She continued turning her head to stare at him, making no gesture in reply. He could barely see the glint of eyes behind her helmet, but could not make out an expression. Didn’t they usually forgo helmets on city guard duty? It wasn’t as if he’d ever paid close attention to the Legions, but he recalled having heard that somewhere.

The temple’s main sanctuary was quiet, currently inhabited only by a handful of Legionnaires posted at regular intervals along the walls and a couple of priestesses at the back, near the great statue of Avei. A few other women in white, some robed, some wearing simple tunics, passed through, most giving him suspicious looks, which he ignored. He also tried to avoid looking at the statue, unable to shake the irrational impression that the goddess was glaring at him. It was bright and peaceful, though, illuminated by fairy lamps. Obviously, no major temple ever closed, but there had evidently been no great business of war or justice overnight, nor any female emergencies. Whatever those might entail.

Well, he was here, now. His half-formed idea of speaking with a priestess and seeking permission to approach the Legion grounds was apparently the one he was going with. That was probably for the best, anyway.

“Are you lost?”

One of the priestesses approached him, a rather diminutive woman of swarthy, sharp-featured Tiraan stock. Her expression was very, very neutral. Ingvar carefully repositioned himself to face her directly, showing full attention even though an Avenist was unlikely to understand or appreciate the gesture, and bowed.

“I don’t believe so. I wish to speak with a Silver Legionnaire. Have I come too early in the morning?”

The priestess raised her eyebrows in mild surprise, turning her head to look pointedly at one of the soldiers standing at attention at the base of a nearby column.

“A…specific Legionnaire,” Ingvar clarified, feeling rather foolish. “I’m sorry, I’m not aware of the Legion’s…visitation policies. I don’t wish to…violate any rules.”

He hated himself a little for the hesitant tone, but it was the simple truth; he didn’t know the rules here, and the fact that Avenists were champions of weird and socially destructive ideas didn’t mean he was obligated to spit in their faces. He certainly wouldn’t get anywhere with them that way.

“What is this about?” the cleric asked.

“It is a religious matter,” he said, then hastily continued when her eyebrows climbed still further. “She knows me. I simply have a question to ask; it won’t take long.”

“A religious matter,” the woman mused. “I assume you are aware that religious matters between Shaathists and Avenists are rarely amicable.”

“Yes,” he said as calmly as he could. “And some men—and women—of lesser character take that as an excuse for rudeness. I see no benefit in treating people disrespectfully.”

Her expression did not soften, precisely, but she looked slightly more interested at that. “I see.”

“Sister, if I may?” The priestess glanced aside at the armored Legionnaire who had approached while they were talking, and nodded. The soldier nodded back and turned to Ingvar. “Who are you looking for, Huntsman?”

For a moment, he was tongue-tied. He recognized this one, obviously: Ephanie, Feldren’s runaway wife. She was a distinctive beauty, and he vividly recalled escorting her squad with Brother Andros. That was the problem: it was inappropriate to speak so directly with another man’s wife in his absence and without his permission, and anyway, he ought not to acknowledge her at all until Feldren brought her to heel. This conversation had the potential to encompass multiple insults to his fellow Huntsman.

On the other hand, she knew Shaath’s ways, might even recognize him, and most importantly, was in the same squadron as Locke. He couldn’t possibly ask for a more useful person to run into. Well, his whole presence here was placing practicality above tradition—might as well continue in that vein while the opportunity was before him. These things didn’t just happen, and the fates tended not to hold out another hand if one disdained their first offer.

Barely a second had passed while he furiously deliberated. He could tell by Ephanie’s wry expression that she had marked the hesitation, but he turned to her and bowed politely before it could stretch out any further. “Ah, good morning. In fact I would like to speak with your squad mate, Principia Locke, if possible.”

Now it was Ephanie’s turn to raise her eyebrows in surprise. “Locke? Sorry, but what do you want with her?”

“It’s…” He glanced at the priestess again. “It is a spiritual matter, pertaining to a vision. I actually need to ask about a family connection of hers.”

Ephanie pursed her lips. “She won’t like that. Locke doesn’t get on with her family.”

“All right,” Ingvar said, struggling to keep his expression neutral and tone polite. “And she is under no obligation to talk to me, of course. But I would like to ask her, please. It’s important.”

“He’s a fairly respectful young…man,” the priestess said, glancing at Ingvar, and he fought back a sigh. “It’s not as if they are banned from the temple grounds. I’ll leave this to your judgment, private; she’s your sergeant.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ephanie said respectfully, bowing to her. Ingvar took note of that. So they only saluted other Legionnaires, then? Weren’t the clergy above them? Such observations were just habit, of course; Shaath grant that the structure of the Sisterhood never became something he needed to pay attention to. Brother Andros had encouraged his political perceptiveness, and he tried to be in the habit of practicing it.

“It’s this way,” Ephanie said to him, half-turning toward the far end of the sanctuary. “This actually is a very good time for you to visit. Breakfast is about to be served, no one’s on duty yet, and we don’t have the day’s orders.”

“Good,” he said, then belatedly added, “My thanks.” She glanced back with a faint smile, and he simply followed her the rest of the way across the sanctuary and through the doors in the back corner. Eyes tracked them the whole way.

There weren’t many people about in the temple yet, but those they did pass gave him very sharp looks, several stopping to stare rudely. At least nobody accosted them, since he was clearly in the company of a Silver Legionnaire. Ingvar did his best to ignore them.

Of course, that left him with the problem of where to direct his eyes.

The Legion armor was modest, he had to give them that; he could see basically nothing of the shape of her body through it. As a downside, however, that left him staring at her most attractive visible feature: her rare, flame-red hair. That was hardly proper, nor respectful. It was a quandry, though, since his inability to actually see her rump or the curve of her waist didn’t make him comfortable casting his eyes in their general direction. Ingvar finally decided to study the interior of the temple as they passed, and lifted his gaze just in time to get a very hostile look from a priestess who had halted in a cross-hall, planting her hands on her hips.

Maybe he should have affected a less traditional style of dress for this visit, and foregone the weapons. On the other hand, so far, this was going about the way he had expected, and better than he had feared. If he was going to encounter opposition, better to do it honorably, without sneaking around.

“So…Locke made sergeant?” he offered, casting back to a brief mention from the sanctuary.

“Yes.” She glanced back at him again. “You can ask her all about it if you’re interested.”

He turned what wanted to be a sigh into a noncommittal little noise of politeness. Well, he’d tried.

Ephanie’s silence didn’t much bother him. It wasn’t really appropriate for them to be interacting at all, which of course she knew. Clearly she wasn’t holding to proper Shaathist behavior, now, but he’d been half-afraid she would swing in the other direction and go out of her way to spit on his standards, as some wildwomen did. Instead, she appeared to be conducting herself as a model soldier—which, errant as it was for a woman, was a better outcome for their interaction than he really could have hoped for.

It was not a short walk through the temple—they were traversing nearly its entire length, from the main hall in the front to the Silver Legion fortress at its rear, and the temple complex itself was massive. It was like a city, compared to the Shaathist lodge in Tiraas. Ingvar was keenly aware that the journey seemed longer because of his discomfort in this place, both inherent and caused by the glares and whispers that followed him.

Eventually, though, they did reach the fortress; built right into the temple complex itself, the transition was marked only by a checkpoint manned—womanned?—by bored-looking Legionnaires. They livened up considerably at the sight of a Huntsman in their midst, but did not challenge them, even verbally. He wondered at the significance of that; it seemed like lax security for a military installation, if all you needed to get in was the company of someone in uniform.

Crossing the parade ground he remembered from his previous visit to the fortress, they gathered more stares from other Legionnaires, who were trickling toward the temple in the opposite direction Ephanie was leading him. These, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved a less reserved group than the priestesses in the temple proper.

“Oy, Avelea!” one woman shouted in passing. “You got something stuck to your back!” A few of her fellow harridans cackled at this.

Ingvar stopped, turned very deliberately to face them, and bowed courteously before resuming his way, having to lengthen his stride to catch up with Ephanie, who hadn’t waited. The soldiers seemed surprised; the one who had catcalled jeered at him, but none of the others backed her up this time.

Simple courtesy. Much as he’d have liked to pin the lack of it on Avei’s degenerate ideas, he’d met far too many Huntsmen and people from all walks of life who seemed to think they could advance themselves by putting someone else down. Not once had he ever seen anyone improved by another person’s suffering.

They met the rest of Ephanie’s squad midway across the parade ground; apparently the others were among the last to head in for breakfast. They slowed and stopped as Ephanie led Ingvar up to them. Like his guide, they were in armor, with short swords buckled at the waist, but not wearing helmets nor carrying lances or shields. Principia, of course, he recognized immediately. The others didn’t leave much of an impression, except for the sandy-haired girl who hardly looked old enough to be away from her mother, much less enlisted in an army.

“Morning, Sarge,” said Ephanie, stepping over to join her squadmates and turning to gesture at Ingvar. “You’ve got a visitor.”

“I do?” Principia said incredulously, staring at Ingvar.

One of the other women, a dark-haired girl a little shorter than the elf, sighed dramatically. “Why is it always Locke?”

“He was in the sanctuary in front, talking with a Sister,” Ephanie explained. “I thought I’d better intervene.”

“What were you doing up there at this hour?” Principia asked her.

“Praying,” Ephanie said dryly. “In case it’s escaped your notice, Sarge, we live in a temple.”

“Oh,” the elf mused. “I didn’t realize you were…observant.”

“Yes, that’s correct. You know exactly as much about my spiritual life as I’ve cared to tell you.”

“All right, fair enough,” Principia said peaceably.

“Good morning, Sergeant,” Ingvar said courteously, bowing to Principia, who finally turned her attention to him. “My apologies for intruding. I hope I’m not keeping your squad from their duties.”

“My squad wouldn’t stop in their actual duties to chat with you,” she replied. “All we’re missing right now is breakfast. Which they could still be heading off to, if they wanted, though of course that won’t stop them from griping all day about missing it.”

She didn’t so much as glance at the others as she said this, but the youngest girl tugged at the arm of the last member of the squad, a tall, lean woman with skin a shade darker than the Tiraan average, and the two of them resumed walking toward the mess hall. Ephanie, Principia and the sharp-tongued one remained.

“Well, then,” said the elf. “It’s… Ingvar, yes? What can I do for you?”

He drew in a breath; this was it. “I need a little guidance. It has been said in the lore we keep of the elder races that all dark-haired wood elves are of a single family. Is that correct?”

Principia’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”

“I need to know how to contact Mary the Crow.”

Ephanie blinked; the other girl snorted derisively. Principia just stared at him.

“The smartest thing you could possibly do,” she said, “is stay as far away from Mary the Crow as you can manage. I’d say that to anyone, but in particular, she doesn’t have a high opinion of Shaathists.”

“What?” said the third girl. “I thought they didn’t hold elves to their bullshit double standard?”

“I really don’t feel like having a theological discussion before breakfast,” said Principia, turning to give her a sharp look, “and keep a civil tongue in your head while we have a guest, Private Lang. The Crow has her own issues with the Huntsmen.”

“Well, maybe this one would have better luck anyway,” Lang said, eying Ingvar up and down. “I’ve never seen a female Huntsman before.”

“Lang,” Ephanie said sharply, “shut up.”

Ingvar drew in a breath and let it out slowly. It was just to be expected; this one seemed particularly ignorant even by Avenist standards. It happened all the time; sooner or later he would just have to stop being bothered by it. Surely, someday.

“What is it you want with Mary the Crow?” Principia asked him.

He hesitated. Discussing spiritual matters with outsiders wasn’t smiled upon, and for good reason. On the other hand, he clearly wasn’t going to get any further here without explaining himself, at least somewhat. Give and take.

“It pertains to a vision,” he said finally, “and a quest. In a vision I was directed to seek guidance from a crow. It…could mean something else, but I believe Brother Andros and I encountered her previously, just before our last meeting. Visions are challenging,” he admitted. “I don’t know whether I am even tracking the right spoor, but this is the best idea I have.”

Lang rolled her eyes, but Principia nodded slowly, her expression more serious. “Well. Actually, that casts another color on this. You wouldn’t be the first; spend enough time being a big heap shaman and things like this start to happen. Mary has been the target of vision quests before, and she does take them seriously.”

Hope rose in him, mingled with unease. Progress was good, but a weak little part of him had wished for an excuse to give up on this whole venture. “Then you’ll help me?”

“Well…up to a point,” she said, shrugging. “I honestly have no idea where Mary is, nor do I wish to. I follow my own advice with regard to her. The less anybody interacts with the Crow, the happier they are.”

“I see,” he said, sighing. “Well. I thank you for your time, anyway. You have at least helped me see the path.”

“Now, wait a moment,” she said with a faint smile. “I can give you a little more help than that. If you want to get in touch with Mary the Crow, she has some kind of established relationship with the Eserite Bishop, Antonio Darling. Check with him; he probably can’t call her up either, but he may know more about how to reach her.”

Ingvar’s recently lifted hopes plummeted.

Oh, he remembered Darling. Much as he had to acknowledge some personal antipathy, due to the man’s generally foolish countenance and his failure to address Ingvar as a man, there were much better reasons to keep away from the Eserite. He remembered very well what had happened to Angner. It wasn’t even that he regretted any harm suffered by that Wreath traitor, but it was the way Darling had been. He’d heard very detailed accounts of it, how the man’s silly exterior hadn’t wavered through cold-blooded torture and shocking cruelty.

A man like that was… Scarcely human. A viper in a songbird’s plumage.

“You have a problem with Darling?” Principia said dryly, and Ingvar realized he’d done a poor job of marshaling his expression. “I must say that’s a first. His favorite thing in the world is making friends with everybody.”

“I’ll bet,” Ingvar muttered. “That man is… He’s just… Creepy.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Principia and Lang burst out laughing in unison. Even Ephanie hid a smile behind her hand.

Brother Andros liked to say that women were to be experienced, not understood. Ingvar had questions about that logic, but this wasn’t the first time he’d had the thought that he was better off not bothering.


 

“Wilson,” Ox said wearily, “did your mama ever tell you the story of the boy who cried wolf?”

Wilson broke off his gesticulations to squint suspiciously at the bigger man. “What? Course I know that story, what of it?”

“I want you to consider that in light of this here situation,” Ox rumbled. “You carryin’ on about this, an’ the general lack of interest in what’s got you so worked up. Every time anything happens, here you are complainin’. When nothin’ happens, you complain about that.”

“What’s your point?” Wilson snapped.

“His point,” said Jonas idly, watching the progress of the various personnel breaking down the tents, “is that you’re the boy cryin’ wolf. You complainin’ an’ stirrin’ up trouble ain’t worth a prairie dog’s fart, you do it so damn much. Someday you’re gonna have an actual point, by accident, and ain’t nobody gonna pay you any mind then, either.”

Wilson swelled up like a bullfrog, leaning forward and planting his fists on the table between the other two men. “Y’all can be assholes all you like, that don’t mean I’m wrong! You heard the Bishop speak—I’m just embarrassed I never thought about what she said before, even after livin’ in this town my whole life!”

“Too busy havin’ thoughts about a bunch of other shit that ain’t none of your business either,” Ox said dryly.

“Yeah, you laugh it up, big man. I ain’t the only one who feels this way,” Wilson said stridently. “It ain’t fair, the way them kids lord it over us. What gives ’em the right?”

“I oughta just ignore him, I know it,” Jonas said to Ox, “but I got this allergy to people talkin’ out their asses about stuff I actually understand.”

“That there’s a serious condition,” Ox said gravely. “You should see the doc.”

“Omnu’s breath, Wilson,” Jonas said before Wilson could start up again, “sometimes I think if I put as much effort into anything as you do into bein’ wrong I’d be Emperor. Them kids are exactly like any bunch o’ kids anywhere. Yeah, some of ’em do look down their noses at us. Course some do; there’s assholes like that anywhere. An’ y’know what? Most don’t. Ain’t always the rich ones, neither. That Falconer girl’s just about the sweetest thing I ever did meet, an’ I remember young Lord Ravinaad who got his own hands dirty helpin’ me clean out the stables after a couple of ‘is friends got drunk an’ raised hell behind the Saloon. No complainin’, didn’t even offer, just rolled up his sleeves an’ got to work like a good neighbor.”

“Them kids ain’t anything but different,” Ox agreed. “All types, from all over the world, but in the end they’re basically just folk. If you’d pay attention, there’s a lesson in that.”

“So how come none of our kids are invited to the fancy education up on the mountaintop?” Wilson demanded.

“Why, Wilson,” said Ox, “an’ here I had no idea you were a father. Who’s the unlucky lady?” Jonas snorted a laugh.

“Oh, shut the hell up,” Wilson said irritably. “Not my kids, our kids. We got young folk of our own, just like any town anywhere. What do they grow up to? Learnin’ a trade, takin’ over the farm or the shop. Some go off an’ join the Army or some clergy.”

“Name to me one thing that’s wrong with any o’ that,” said Jonas.

“Not a damn thing an’ you know it,” Wilson pressed on. “It’s the comparison. You know what those kids up there on the hill become? Rich. They leave here knowin’ all about the world, havin’ skills none of us could even dream of. A graduate of that University can write their own damn ticket any place they feel like goin’. Most of ’em leave with connections that’ll get ’em into the highest levels of whatever part of society they want, an’ I know you two hicks ain’t backward enough not to realize it’s who you know that matters in life. Well, we know ’em. How come the children of Last Rock have nothin’ better to look forward to than takin’ over a saloon or a farm?”

A thoughtful silence settled over the table, Ox and Jonas holding their mugs of beer without raising them for a sip. Both stared out from the shade of the Saloon’s awning, wearing identically pensive frowns as they observed porters, pack animals and the odd enchanted carriage hauling folded tents and religious paraphernalia toward the Rail platform.

“Huh,” Jonas muttered at last. “Ox, I suddenly wonder if this ain’t that moment. With an actual goddamn wolf he’s hollerin’ about.”

Ox heaved a sigh, causing his thick mustache to flutter. “Some folks have the good stuff, some folks don’t. That’s the way of the world, every damn part of it. You set yourself up to fix that, and you’re gonna have a hard time. Professor Tellwyrn’s always done right by this town as I see it, an’ I got no problem with a lot more o’ those students than I have got one with. Dunno what more a man can reasonably ask for.”

“Oh, yeah, she’s always done right,” Wilson said sarcastically. “’cept when those little assholes are opening up hellgates right over our heads.”

“One time that happened,” Ox grunted.

“So fuckin’ what?” Wilson exclaimed. “It was a goddamn hellgate! Omnu’s balls, man, one is all it takes! An’ they never did figure out which of ’em even did it! What the hell is gonna be next, is what I wanna know!”

Again, they fell silent, and after a moment, Wilson straightened up, folding his arms across his chest and adopting a smug expression.

At the other end of the shady front porch of the Saloon, Embras Mogul pointed to the three men, turning to his companion. “Now, there, y’see? Isn’t that absolutely fascinating?”

“Not particularly,” Bradshaw grunted. “That was a pretty direct jab Bishop Snowe launched. It’s bound to set people talking. Talk is easy.”

“Talk is the first step to things which are less easy,” Embras replied, “either to do or to live through. And you just got here, old boy; take note of how quickly I managed to find a suitable target for us to eavesdrop upon. I’ve been hearing little chats like this all weekend, starting before our dear Bishop Snowe fired a shot across Tellwyrn’s nose.”

The three men started up their conversation again, taking no notice of the two at the other end of the porch. Neither did any of those passing by on the street, despite Mogul’s glaring white suit and Bradshaw’s ominous gray ritual robe.

“I hope you’re not leading in the direction I think you are, Embras,” said Bradshaw.

“Well, it’s not as if this is a particularly difficult trail to follow,” Embras mused, lounging against the pillar at the corner of the porch. “The pattern I’ve been observing throughout this…revival…is consistent enough, and surprising enough given the general state of things in this town, that I can see the hand behind it. We already know Snowe is little more than Justinian’s charming and attractive mouthpiece, and there’s nothing like a religious festival to give him an excuse to flood the town with agents spreading dissent.”

“There’s not enough town here to flood.”

“You are being needlessly argumentative,” Embras accused. “Face it, Bradshaw, the Archpope is trying to stir up Last Rock against Tellwyrn.”

Bradshaw shook his head. “I just can’t see it. Even if there’s evidence hinting in that direction, which I’ll admit, it’s just that. Hints. Come on, Embras, Justinian’s smarter than that. What could he possibly hope to achieve? Tellwyrn is…outside the social order. Stirring up resentment against her, even if successful, would barely inconvenience her. The gods aren’t about to step in to bring her down, the cults wouldn’t bother to, the Empire has an actual policy about Zero Twenties that hinges on not stirring them up. Any other agents who wanted Tellwyrn taken out would’ve done it long since, had any of them the capacity.” He snorted, shaking his head again. “It’s ridiculous. He can’t do anything but piss her off, which is not a winning move. Justinian’s not nearly dense enough to try something like this.”

“And there, my friend, you’ve hit the nail on the head,” Mogul said gleefully. “He wouldn’t try something so insane—and yet, clearly, he is. Therefore, this is not Justinian’s game, but only the smoke screen obscuring his true motives. As you rightly point out, he’s more than savvy enough to operate on multiple levels, and not about to throw effort after foolishness.”

“Hm,” Bradshaw grunted, stroking his chin and frowning at the arguing men at the other end of the porch. “All right…let’s run with that theory, then. Offhand, I can think of two possible goals for stirring up trouble with the University. First, he’s trying to provoke a reaction from Tellwyrn that’ll get someone else to step in and finish him off for her. I’m inclined to dismiss that, since pissing off the cranky archmage is how stupid people throughout history get themselves dramatically dead.”

“On the other hand,” Embras said, raising a cautionary finger, “if there’s one man in all the world who could take that risk, it’s a sitting Archpope. As long as he stays in that Cathedral and keeps on top of his prayers, she can’t bring him down by force. Dear Arachne might be on a level to challenge the gods individually, but the whole Pantheon would crush her if she provoked them to.”

“Which is the fatal flaw in this idea,” said Bradshaw, nodding. “Despite her reputation and reliance on blunt force, the woman isn’t in any way stupid. She wouldn’t take such a risk even if provoked, and honestly I would expect her to see through such a transparent trap. Which brings me to my other theory: this is an effort by Justinian to coax us out.”

“Seems rather roundabout, doesn’t it?” Embras mused. “Tellwyrn and the Lady have a sort of detente in place; it doesn’t mean we have any connection to her.”

“As you said, there are currents here we don’t yet see,” Bradshaw agreed, “but after Tiraas this spring, we know Justinian’s interested in drawing us out and thinning our numbers. And yes, I know that was Darling’s game, but he couldn’t have done that without the Archpope’s support. Seems to me the best course of action here is to butt out.”

“The safe way isn’t always the best way, my friend,” Embras said with a wide grin. “I see great potential, here, to advance the work I started in Veilgrad.”

Bradshaw groaned, lifting his trembling hand to cover his eyes. “You and those paladins…”

“Yes, those paladins,” Embras agreed. “Think of it, Bradshaw. What would happen if the Trinity’s paladins learned their great secret? Would they strike them down like they do everyone else? How would they cover that up, in this age of printing presses and telescrolls? And the other option is even more intriguing!”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard this speech at least thrice this week.”

“Then you should see my point by now without all this naysaying,” Embras said with mock severity.

“And you should pay more mind to the Lady’s agreement with Tellwyrn. We are not to harm or interfere with her students. Chaining them to trees is hard to justify as anything other than interference, Embras!”

“I saved those wretched kids’ lives, and you know it.” Embras chuckled, shaking his head. “This is more of the same. Think of it! The Church against the University—those paladins are going to be caught right in the middle. They’ll be in just all kinds of trouble. What better opportunity to do them a few favors? And if we have to interfere with them a bit first, well… Eggs, omelets, you know how it goes.”

“The Lady may appreciate your hair-splitting,” Bradshaw warned. “Tellwyrn will not.”

“Indeed. That’s why we’ll have to be very careful to stay out of sight until we can produce evidence of just how useful we are. Do the kids a solid favor and vanish into the night before there’s any talk of reward—that’s the kind of thing that gets us in Tellwyrn’s good graces.”

“I don’t think she possesses any such thing as good graces.”

“Well, it’s how we get her to owe us a favor, then,” Embras said irrepressibly. “And the active immortals always respect a favor owed. That’s the currency that keeps them from killing each other off, after all.”

Bradshaw sighed, staring down the street. The square beside the Rail platform was visible in the distance, bustling with activity; more caravans had arrived and departed today, carrying Church and cult personnel and material, than the town saw in the average month.

Across the porch, Jonas rose and turned to enter his saloon, leaving Ox and Wilson to carry on their argument. The bartender’s expression was thoughtful, and troubled.

“I still think the odds are good this is a trap, and quite possibly one aimed at us,” Bradshaw grunted.

“But of course,” Embras said with a grim smile. “Spotting the trap is only the first step—next comes leading the hunter who laid it to step in it. And really, old friend, isn’t that the fun part?”

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9 – 37

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“It’s a standard strategy,” Vex explained, folding his hands on the table in front of him. Only he and Zanzayed had seated themselves; the rest stood around the rim of the conference room, with Squad One clustered against the wall opposite Vex. He, of course, sat at the table’s head. “In fact, this particular ploy deserves a great deal of credit for the Tirasian Dynasty’s reconstruction of the Empire in an era when anti-Imperial sentiment was rampant. Resistance movements and terrorist organizations exist even today, and Imperial Intelligence has a hand in all of them. We started a good many, wherever there lay a dangerous degree of citizen unease with no outlet. For the rest, we are the primary provider of funding. Obviously, they are all unaware of this.”

“Why the dragons?” Principia asked. “Surely they had little to fear from general dislike to begin with.”

Vex glanced at Ampophrenon, a clear invitation to speak. The dragon nodded to him before turning to Principia. “It is not that we feared for our own welfare. Our kind have always been rather unpopular among many peoples—I fear, not without reason. One of the Conclave’s aims is to remedy this, but that will likely be the work of generations. What we wished to ward off was an organized movement that would damage that work. Normalizing relations would be much more difficult with substantial public opposition in place.”

“And it is not the Empire’s policy to squash protest movements,” Vex added. “The temptation to do so has brought down many a kingdom; one can only repress the people’s will for so long. The Empire prefers more elegant methods of managing its citizens.”

“You’re being remarkably forthright,” Casey observed, eyes narrowed.

Vex smiled languidly; he seemed almost half-asleep. “The facts of Imperial strategy and tactics aren’t classified. Some of the details of these specific events are, of course, but it’s known, generally, how we do things. What have we to fear from exposure? Whatever its aims, the Empire’s policies result in a public that can generally do what they like. Oddly, they rarely seem to object.”

“The handling of this concern,” Ampophrenon went on, “was an early sticking point in our negotiations with the Empire. Rather than dwell upon it, we mutually decided that making a joint operation would help bind us together, and hopefully smooth over further points of difficulty.” He cast an unreadable look at Zanzayed, who grinned. “Thus, this has all turned out to be a rather more elaborate operation than, frankly, it strictly needed to be. More than half the point was to have the Conclave and the Empire working closely together. After seeing the number of people interested in joining this movement, however, I begin to worry we have created a problem where one did not exist.”

“The method is one we borrowed from the Black Wreath, Lord Ampophrenon,” the marshal said. Her outfit was still rather theatrical, with its black leather and red corset, but without the grisly wing-cloak and skull mask she was otherwise a much less impressive-looking woman, younger than middle age and with the dark hair and tilted eyes common to Sifan. “A wide net of recruitment brings in any remotely interested parties, most of whom want little more than to feel subversive. That attitude is particularly common among the wealthier classes. From there, we carefully weed out the truly motivated for more specific tasks, and a higher degree of trust. It’s a very effective strategy; there’s a reason the Wreath has relied on it for centuries.”

“Allow me to interrupt this self-congratulatory back-patting,” said Zanzayed. “The fact is I blatantly misused my rather tenuous connection to you, Principia, to make you a peripheral cog in this machine. You have my sincere apologies.”

“Only because you’re afraid of the Crow,” Principia said smugly.

His faint smile vanished. “I am not afraid of the Crow,” Zanzayed said testily. “I would rather not have another drawn-out exchange with her, though. Those are time-consuming and costly. In any case, you were never supposed to be in any danger. All of this was quite carefully planned; shining a bright light on you was merely a recruitment method to help us identify anybody who took the bait as a potential target. It was our assumption that a Legion-trained veteran Guild thief could deftly handle any such annoyances; we went to great lengths to keep you out of any real danger.”

“Which brings us to an extremely pertinent point on which I require information,” said Vex, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “We went to considerable trouble to have you and the Guild investigating a harmless gathering far from this fortress. And yet, here you are, and I confess I am without a clue as to how you learned of this. We have reliable reports placing your squad and a group of Guild enforcers en route to your intended target. What are you doing here, Sergeant Locke?”

Principia raised an eyebrow. “I already explained that to your agent, here.”

Vex turned his head, fixing the Marshal with an inquisitive look.

She cleared her throat. “Locke claimed to have been sent here by Vesk, sir.”

Vex simply looked back at Principia, showing no reaction to that news. “Interesting. That is the story you intend to stick with?”

“Believe what suits you,” she said with a shrug. “It’s possible it wasn’t Vesk, but a man matching his description materialized out of nowhere with none of the usual hallmarks of arcane or infernal rapid transit, possessing information there is—you yourself claim—no realistic way he could have, not to mention an aura which was absolutely blinding at that proximity. You probably already know this, but they don’t reveal their auras to elves unless they specifically wish to be recognized. If it wasn’t Vesk, it was another god masquerading as him, which… For our purposes and probably yours, comes out to the same thing.”

“Hmm,” Vex mused. “Lord Ampophrenon, I believe you are the resident expert on the gods. Have you any idea why he would take an interest in this matter?”

“With Lord Vesk, it is even more than usually difficult to say,” the dragon replied with a thoughtful frown. “He is capable of acting toward specific ends through quite elaborate means, just as they all are. There are records of him having done so. On the other hand, he also tends to intervene just because he thinks the outcome thus modified will make for a better story.” He glanced apologetically at Squad One. “If we consider Sergeant Locke and her troops as the likely protagonists here, that would seem to be the case. As I’m sure you can guess, those two motives provide excellent cover for each other. Vesk is a trickster god and less predictable in his motivations than even gods in general. It is an open question. I doubt that another deity would impersonate him, though. Only Elilial would show such disrespect, and I rather think she would find the prospect extremely insulting.”

Vex heaved a sigh. “Well…such is the world. All blasphemy aside, it seems sometimes that the gods only step in when they see a chance to cause more trouble.”

“Sounds like a fair observation to me,” Zanzayed said cheerfully. “Don’t make that face, Puff, it’ll freeze that way.”

“And so you set Saduko up to misdirect the Guild and the Sisterhood,” said Principia. “Exactly how many cults are you trying to antagonize?”

“I can only offer you my inadequate apologies, ladies,” Ampophrenon said, bowing. “We really did attempt to prevent you from being in a dangerous position. Lord Vesk’s intervention was unforeseeable.”

“Do you have some connection to Saduko, Marshal?” Farah inquired.

The marshal raised one eyebrow. “Right. By your apparent reasoning, Privates Avelea and Elwick must be long-lost sisters, being both of apparently Stalweiss descent.”

Farah flushed slightly. “I didn’t mean it like that. Was just a thought…”

“I am an Imperial citizen, born and raised,” the marshal said flatly. “And for your edification, my ancestors were Sheng, not Sifanese.”

“Anyway,” Farah said hastily, “if you weren’t expecting us to be there, how were you planning to bluff your followers? It looked a lot like you were actually trying to kill us.”

A grim silence fell over the room. The marshal stared expressionlessly at Farah.

“Because,” Farah said more hesitantly, “I mean, surely an Imperial agent wouldn’t—”

“Presented with an unforeseen situation with no good outcome,” Vex interrupted, “an Imperial agent keeps her eye on the broader situation and acts to complete her mission. Sometimes, our work necessitates extremely regrettable actions.”

“I believe I was clear on the subject of Locke and her crew being harmed,” Zanzayed remarked in a deceptively mild tone. “It’s fortunate they had a few surprises of their own handy, or you might have found your definition of ‘regrettable’ expanded.”

“While I am certain that you know your business, Lord Vex,” Ampophrenon added, “our honor was at stake in this matter as well. The Conclave would prefer that your agents remember to keep that in consideration when acting on any joint operation, henceforth.”

“I will definitely make a point of that to all operatives involved in Conclave-relevant assignments,” Vex said politely. “I am, of course, very grateful for your timely intervention; you seem to have saved us all a great deal of unpleasantness.”

“Some more than others,” Merry said coldly.

“Quite,” Vex replied, watching the squad through half-lidded eyes. “And you have my apologies as well, ladies. To reiterate, we did make a substantial effort to avoid placing you in harm’s way, but nonetheless, it is regrettable that your involvement put you at risk. Obviously, the Tiraan Empire wishes no harm to the Silver Legions.”

“Oh, obviously,” Principia said wryly.

“I must emphasize, Sergeant, ladies,” Vex replied in a subtly firmer tone, “that you are all Imperial citizens, and thus have a duty to the Silver Throne. You have my word that I shall personally see to arranging remuneration for your hardships. All these affairs, however, are strictly classified.”

“Noted,” said Principia in perfect calm. “I will be sure to include that in my report to the High Commander.”

Vex cleared his throat. “Perhaps you don’t take my meaning, Sergeant Locke…”

“Oh, I understand you just fine. I’m pretty good with subtext.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Casey said, barely above a whisper.

“I thought we’d already established that the unpleasantness was at an end?” said Zanzayed mildly.

“I’m sure you understand the necessity of security in this matter, Lord Zanzayed,” Vex replied, his eyes still on Principia. “With all respect, I would suggest that you speak with Lord Razzavinax before deciding on any courses of action.”

“I think you’d better think carefully about courses of action, Lord Vex,” Casey said sharply. “You’re not just dealing with the Sisters of Avei, here. Locke is still a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. You know what they do to—”

“Elwick, enough,” Principia said quietly.

The marshal smiled sardonically. “I can’t possibly emphasize enough that Imperial Intelligence is not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Marshal,” Vex said sharply, and she fell silent. “Sergeant, there is no need for this hostile tone. Rather than exchanging threats, let’s see if we can reach a middle ground.”

“No, I think I’m pretty content exchanging threats, my lord,” Principia said calmly. “Bargaining is an action for people in a weaker position.”

“Ah, yes,” Vex said with a very faint smile. “Your sense of humor is all part of your legend. You are in Tiraas, Locke. Even on the other side of the planet you would not be beyond the reach of Imperial Intelligence. We are merely asking for a little consideration and respect—”

“Such as your agent showed by attempting to murder us,” Principia replied. “I am giving you considerably kinder treatment in return. Keeping secrets from my chain of command is not on the table. Zanzayed!” she said more loudly when Vex opened his mouth again. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

The blue dragon raised an eyebrow. “Really, Prin? You want to chat now? Anyway, I thought we’d established that the matter was a ruse.”

“Sure,” she said equably, “but considering your goal was drawing attention to me and publicly making a connection, the ideal result was if I had agreed to a sit-down, and thus you’d have been prepared with a story if I went for it. You said it was family business, yes? I’ve been turning over and over in my mind just what business you could possibly have with my family, and all I can come up with is your several well-documented brawls with Mary the Crow.”

“She really is the most disagreeable person,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You have no idea.”

“I have met her,” the gold replied mildly. “I found her rather personable, in fact.”

“But beat-downs like that are rather out of character for her,” Principia continued, glancing at Vex, who remained silent. “Against someone like a dragon? If the Crow really considered you an enemy, she’d have carefully arranged for you to be dead, not torn up half the countryside boxing your scaly ears. Three times, that I know of. That is more like what she does with members of the bloodline who…disappoint her.”

“So we can assume she’s boxed your ears a time or two?” Merry suggested.

“The Crow doesn’t play too roughly with family who are too fragile for one of her legendary beatings,” Principia replied, glancing at her. “You asked me once, Lang, why I never pursued true mastery of arcane magic? That’s why. The more I think about this, though, the more I realize the only thing that would surprise me is if one of my aunts or grandmothers hadn’t carried on with a dragon at some point. A lot of them have done weirder things by far. So, Lord Vex, I do believe if you intended to threaten harm to me or anyone under my protection, you have placed yourself in a small room with the wrong dragon. Isn’t that right, cousin?” she asked Zanzayed.

He sighed. “Damn it, that was going to be my big reveal. Has anyone ever told you you suck the fun out of everything, Prin?”

“Nonsense, I am a non-stop barrel of laughs. At least, with people who aren’t involved in plots to murder me.”

“Regardless,” Zanzayed stated in a bored tone, “yes, she’s quite right. I feel the need to take this matter somewhat personally.”

“Zanzayed speaks not only for himself,” Ampophrenon added. “A dragon’s kin are considered sacred to all of us. The Conclave would take exception to any harm brought on Principia by the Empire.”

“You really shouldn’t stir up the Crowbloods anyway,” said Zanzayed with a grimace. “The only reason anybody gets any peace is they mostly don’t like each other, and they all have grudges with the Crow herself. You get two or more pointed in the same direction and you’re about to have a very bad day. Take it from someone who knows firsthand.”

“This is very fascinating information,” Vex said with a calm smile. “I would very much prefer to have known some of it before agreeing to involve Locke in this operation in the first place.”

“Family business is none of yours,” Zanzayed replied with a toothy grin.

“I hope we can consider the issue resolved now?” Ampophrenon asked. “To make our position unequivocally clear, it is not reasonable to suggest that Principia Locke or her troops should try to conceal these events from the Sisterhood of Avei. Any reprisal against them for making a full report will damage the Empire’s relationship with the Conclave of the Winds.”

“What he means,” said Zanzayed, his smile widening alarmingly, “is that Eleanora will be tetchy after I have personally dropped you in the center of the ocean.”

“Zanzayed,” Ampophrenon said reprovingly.

“I have told you over and over, Puff, that it’s necessary to be polite and considerate of mortals if you mean to get on their good side. Which is true. The other half of that equation, though, is that it tends to make some of them forget they are addressing a being who can unmake their entire world with a sneeze. Once in a while, a gentle reminder is constructive.”

“Well, it sounds like you lads have things to discuss,” Principia said. “We’ll be going, then.” Shouldering her lance, she turned and strode past her squad to the conference room’s nearest door.

“I’ll be in touch, cuz!” Zanzayed said brightly, waving from his chair. “Since we’re both living in town now, we’ve gotta get together!”

“Ugh,” she muttered, pulling the door open and stepping through. The squad filed out after her, Farah shutting it behind and sealing in the remainder of Lord Vex’s conversation with the dragons.

Soldiers were about in the fortress as if nothing had ever happened; they were walking, chatting, cleaning, standing guard and doing all the things troops on duty in a boring position in peacetime tended to do. Nothing about the scene was unfamiliar or eerie to Squad One. The Imperial troops gave them curious looks, several respectful greetings and even a salute or two, but they were not stopped. There was nowhere the merest hint that this vital fortification had been completely deserted an hour ago.

They kept quiet until they had descended from the upper conference room to the ground floor and finally emerged into the street. The fog was lifting, though the sky remained overcast, and Tiraas was altogether livelier and brighter than when they had come this way in the first place.

“I can’t believe you tried to arrest them,” Merry said once they were a block distant from the gates. “Did you really think that would work?”

“Of course not,” Principia said without breaking stride.

“Why do it, then?” Ephanie asked. “All due respect, Sarge, trying to assert authority you don’t have just makes you look weak.”

Principia’s eyes darted swiftly about, taking in the nearby scenery without betraying her glance with a move of the head. It was still early in the day, and they weren’t drawing much attention. Still, she turned sharply, taking them off the city’s central avenue and down a quieter side street before answering in a low tone.

“Because a god was involved. Where one is working, it’s a virtual guarantee that others are at least paying attention. I’ve been a faithful servant of Eserion for longer than you four have collectively been alive. I’ve also had no shortage of brushes with Avei—not personally, but I’ve had my hands on a number of sacred objects and rubbed shoulders with her priestesses. I’ve more recent reason to believe she is aware of me. More to the point, girls, those specific two gods, the ones with the greatest likelihood of noticing what was happening here, were the ones most likely to take an interest. Here we have powerful men behind locked doors abusing people for their own benefit. I gave them the chance to submit to justice, and they blew me off. If Eserion or Avei were paying attention, they are now pissed.” She finally glanced back at the others, all of whom were watching her raptly. “If I’m going to have the Conclave of the Winds and Imperial goddamn Intelligence batting at my tail, I would rather have deities take an interest in teaching them humility than have to deal with it myself.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Farah asked.

Principia shrugged. “You never can tell with gods. It was worth the attempt, anyway.”

“You didn’t invoke Avei’s name,” Casey pointed out. “Wouldn’t that have helped?”

“A sergeant in the Silver Legions doesn’t have that right,” said Ephanie. “It takes more than a little rank in the actual clergy to speak on Avei’s behalf. If the goddess was watching, she would have been offended at the presumption. That’s taking her name in vain.”

“What’s done is done,” Principia said. “Keep the pace up, ladies; I have a feeling our next appointment is going to be even less fun than the last one.”


 

Commander Rouvad paced slowly along the length of the table that had been set up in the underground gymnasium Squad One had used to practice, examining the armor and weapons laid out upon it. Off to one side stood Captain Dijanerad, her expression grim, and a much more serene Bishop Shahai. Also present was General Tagheved, the commander of the Third Legion. A silver-haired woman whose frame was corded with muscle and not diminished in the slightest by age, she watched the proceedings with an unreadable expression.

Squad One stood at a respectful distance, at attention. They were still in full armor, with the exception of Principia, who was dressed only in her white regulation tunic and trousers. It was her armor currently laid out for examination.

“Shielding charms,” Commander Rouvad said at last, reaching out to slide a fingertip along Principia’s breastplate. “Do you know why the Army doesn’t rely on them, Sergeant Locke?”

“For three reasons, Commander,” Principia said crisply. “Because it is always better policy to avoid spellfire than to try to repel it, because Imperial infantry prioritizes mobility above defense, and because the portable charms they are able to carry are serviceable against wandfire but unable to stand up to heavier weapons, like staves. Large metallic objects hold enchantments much better than light uniforms, and armor takes defensive charms very well due to sympathetic principles.”

“Mm,” Rouvad mused, slowly rounding the head of the table and pacing down its other side, her eyes still on its contents. “What other augmentations did you make?”

“Silencing and tracking concealment charms on the boots,” Principia reported. “Much heavier defensive charms on the shields, including a feature whereby the phalanx’s shields magnetically lock together to share a single defensive barrier. They are also equipped to disperse incoming magical energy into the ground, which requires a sizable metallic apparatus to function. This wasn’t tested today, but if it works it should enable a squad to stand up to much heavier fire at the cost of mobility. Charms on the helmet enhance night vision while protecting the wearer from excessive light and sound.”

“Risky,” Tagheved grunted. “You impede your senses in battle, you die.”

Principia stood silently at attention. Rouvad finally raised her head to glance at her.

“Answer her, Sergeant.”

“Yes, ma’am. Modern enchanting is much more precise than that, ma’am. The light-filtering charms are specifically designed to keep a soldier’s visibility at optimum level; it is resistant to flares and improves vision in darkness. I wasn’t able to work it to penetrate smoke, but I’m confident that is achievable. The sonic dampener only activates at a level of sound which is injurious to hearing; in the presence of such noise, soldiers would communicate by hand signals anyway.”

“Mm,” Taghaved said noncommittally.

The High Commander picked up Principia’s lance and held it to the light, peering at the subtly positioned switch on the haft.

“Will this thing fire if I press the button, Locke?”

“Negative, ma’am. That switch releases the firing mechanism. It can’t fire until you’ve pressed the button.”

Rouvad did so, and a narrow vertical slice of the shaft slid inward, a staff-sized clicker mechanism sliding out in its place. At the same time, the spearhead parted down the center, revealing the firing crystal.

“This would have to be partially hollow, then,” Rouvad mused. “That would seriously impair the structural strength of your weapon. Right?”

“Negative, ma’am. It is designed like a standard battlestaff, which means a hollow core of alchemically augmented metal to hold the engravements channeling the firing charge. It’s actually stronger than our steel-cored wooden lances.”

The Commander tilted the lance, studying the parted spearhead. “You can’t tell me this doesn’t utterly gut the physical integrity of the blade.”

“Correct, ma’am. The blade is enchanted to compensate, but that is sub-optimal. It’s a basic rule of enchantment not to do through magic what is more easily done physically. The use of a crystal firing surface is also not ideal; they burn and crack after prolonged use. That weapon is a prototype; it has substantial room for improvement. I was working on a tight schedule.”

“Incredible,” Rouvad murmured, poking at the base of the parted spearhead with a fingertip. “I can’t even see the hinges. I didn’t know you were a metalsmith on top of your numerous other talents, Locke.”

“The physical design was done by a Svennish engineer working in the city, ma’am. He has thoughts on how to improve it, but again… I had to rush them into service.”

“And I press the button again to return it to spear form?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rouvad thumbed the release, and the clicker slid back into the haft, the spearhead snapping back together. “Awfully close to the clicker when it’s out. In a combat situation you could accidentally disarm your weapon.”

“Yes, ma’am, I noticed that. I plan to rotate the release switch forty-five degrees along the haft and position it several inches forward to reduce that risk. In the next iteration.”

“Why,” Rouvad asked, carefully setting the lance down, “did you feel the need to do this, Locke?”

Principia hesitated, glancing over at the other officers present. Shahai and Tagheved remained impassive, but Dijanerad scowled at her. “Permission to speak freely, Commander?”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Ma’am, the Silver Legions are totally unprepared for combat in this century. We are coasting on the goodwill of the Tiraan Empire and the historically naïve presumption that large-scale military resistance to Avei’s aims will never be faced again. Right now, one for one, any Tiraan and most other military organizations would obliterate a Silver Legion unit of corresponding size in any open confrontation. We are not trained, equipped or prepared for combat with energy weapons. We aren’t prepared to contend with teleporting battlemages, zeppelin air support, mag artillery or tactical scrying. We have nothing that could even begin to stand up to an Imperial strike team, with the possible exception of a Hand of Avei—and frankly the nature of strike teams makes them powerful counters to any magic user, no matter how potent. Commander, if the Silver Legions go to war—any war—as we are, we will be utterly destroyed.”

Deafening silence weighed on the room.

“And of course,” Rouvad said finally, “you believe you are the only person in all of Avei’s legions to have thought of any of this, Sergeant Locke.”

Again, Principia hesitated. “With the greatest respect, High Commander, I have been aware of the Silver Legions longer than you have been alive. They have not changed in that time. What anyone has thought is unknown to me; I only see that nothing has been done.”

“Right,” Rouvad said in a dangerously soft tone. “Because from the exalted rank of sergeant, you are positioned to see everything being done in every Legion on every continent.”

Principia remained silent.

“You enabled her to do this, Shahai?” Rouvad said, turning to stare at the Bishop.

“I arranged this space in which Sergeant Locke could drill her squad,” Shahai said in perfect equanimity. “I was unaware of the specifics of her plans, though I guessed the general sense of it. In hindsight, I stand by that decision. This is good work. A good start, at least.”

“A good start undertaken without authorization, without her commanding officer even knowing of it,” Rouvad grated.

“Remind me, Nandi,” Dijanerad said flatly. “When did I interfere in the running of your command?”

“Enough, Captain,” General Tagheved said.

“I’m sorry if you felt stepped upon, Shahdi,” Shahai replied calmly. “I was given provisional authority over this squad for the duration of my mission. I judged this to be mission-relevant. Indeed, it appears to have saved their lives during the course of this duty. Not only have we not lost five valuable soldiers today, but they have come home with extremely pertinent intelligence.” She gave Rouvad a pointed look.

“I don’t know how many times it is worth bothering to lecture you about the chain of command, Locke,” Rouvad grated. “You do not just run off and do things. You are a sergeant; your decision-making prerogatives are specific and limited, and have been thoroughly explained to you. Major undertakings such as this are to go through the chain of command. You have no idea what is happening at the level above you—any of those numerous levels! Running off to completely alter your squad’s method of operation without your commanding officer’s consent or even knowledge could get good women killed in a crisis.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“No, Locke,” Rouvad said, and suddenly her tone was purely weary. “You don’t understand. I can go on and on about it, but you’ll only ever think of authority as something you have to circumvent. You are such an utter Eserite at heart… Well, despite what you persist in believing, in the military it is not easier to seek forgiveness than permission. The difference is you might get permission.”

She picked up the lance again, tapping its point against the table. “This is good work, Locke. If you had come up with a proposal for this, I would have cleared it. Your squad’s whole purpose is to explore new methods of operation for the Legions. I would have funded it! And now, since you can’t seem to demonstrate your competence without undercutting your credibility, I have to drag the source of one of the most promising developments I’ve seen in years over the coals before you go down in flames and take your entire squad down with you!”

“What you need to do,” Shahai said calmly, “is give Locke a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head. And then a research budget.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion, Captain Shahai,” Rouvad snapped.

“You’re getting it for free,” Shahai replied. “You badly need to stop trying to browbeat these women into place, Farzida.”

The High Commander rounded on her. “You will not speak to me in that manner in front of soldiers I am in the process of disciplining!”

“Or what?” the Bishop shot back, a sharp edge to her own voice now. “You’ll fire me? Do it, Farzida. I have plenty of hobbies I can pursue until the next High Commander realizes I’m too valuable to leave collecting dust in Viridill. You brought me into this to serve as a liason, to be a calmer voice where you can’t afford to; well, that is exactly what I am doing.

“Soldiers fight and die for each other. You know this. They’ll do the same for a commander who is one of them. Respect is earned, not commanded; you know that as well as any soldier and better than many. Have you thought at all about this squad’s experience in the Legions and how it would affect them? They have been singled out, persecuted, forced to circumvent the chain of command to ensure their very survival, and finally had to watch as the quite frankly unhinged agent who did all this to them was given a pittance of punishment and a promise that she will be back! And now you upbraid them for assuming their officers can’t be trusted? Honestly, Farzida, would you trust you?

“The problem,” she went on fervently, “is that you have to be the Commander with them. They don’t have the privilege of seeing how you agonize over this, how you grieve for soldiers under your command mistreated by others, how it grinds on you having to keep a creature like Basra Syrinx on the rolls because her particular brand of viciousness is something we can’t function without in this tangled modern world. What makes you such a good leader, Farzida—one of the things—is that you hurt the same as your troops hurt, whenever they do. But these women here have never seen that. You’ve never let them; I understand why you cannot afford to. You’ve shown them a cold bureaucrat who seems bent on getting them killed.

“Each of these women are in this Legion because they have nowhere else to go. Well, the Legion has formed them into a unit. Now we badly need to make them understand that they need the Legion as much as the Legion needs them before they start to realize that as a unit, they could go anywhere, do anything they like, and handle anything thrown at them. Because we do need them. Badly. You know and I know how right Locke is; we’re in no way prepared for what we all know will have to come eventually. Right here are represented the talents and the mindset that can help bring the Legions and the Sisterhood forward and ensure our very survival.

“You and Locke have got to start respecting each other on a personal level, and if that’s not good for the chain of command, so be it. For the goddess’s sake, you two would get along swimmingly if you didn’t have so bloody much in common!”

Captain Dijanerad looked shocked by the time Shahai’s speech came to an end, but General Tagheved only watched the elf with an expression of mild amusement. Rouvad stared at her, utterly blank-faced.

The silence stretched out, and none of Squad One dared disturb it with so much as an injudicious breath.

“Sergeant Locke,” the High Commander said suddenly, turning to stare at her. “You will personally scrub every inch of your cabin with your own two hands until it is in new condition. The rest of your squad, since not a one of them had the thought to go over your head when you decided to spit on the chain of command, can do the same with your cohort’s parade ground. Quit doing crap like this, Principia. I have all my future gray hairs carefully planned and have none to waste on you. And…” She set down the lance. “This is damn fine work, Locke. Starting tomorrow, I want you to submit material and budgetary estimates to Captain Dijanerad for the continuation of this research. Squad Three Nine One will continue to have access to this facility for drilling; your mission statement is now expanded to include research and development of modern weaponry and defenses suitable for incorporation into Silver Legion equipment and the necessary techniques to use them.”

She paused, glanced around at all the women present, then sighed and shook her head. “And now I have to go contend with the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. Fortunately, I’ll probably have the Guild on my side for this, disconcerting as that is. General, if you’ve anything further to say to this lot, they’re all yours.”

The High Commander turned and strode off toward the far door, leaving them behind.

General Tagheved watched her go, then turned a contemplative expression on Squad One.

“You’re a poor excuse for a soldier, Locke,” she said thoughtfully. “But you’re the kind of poor soldier who sometimes makes a priceless officer in tumultuous times. You watch your step. Dismissed, ladies.”

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9 – 34

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“We’re with the Silver Legions,” Principia called to the two golems. “If you can understand me—”

She received an answer in the form of two staff blasts that rocked herself and Ephanie back a half-step, making their formation quaver. An acrid smell rose over the lightning-induced tang of ozone in the air, the sign of a shield charm nearing the point of burnout. Those things hit much harder than the wandshots fired by the protestors.

“Retreat!” she barked, and the squad began backing away as quickly as they could, considering they were climbing damp stairs backwards. The golems remained where they were, not attempting to follow, but kept their staves trained on the Legionnaires. They did not fire again, however.

“That’s a defensive posture,” said Ephanie. “They’re blocking access to that landing, not trying to kill us.”

“Sarge,” Casey warned, glancing over her shoulder, “we are back in range of that cannon. It’s still aiming at us!”

“Veth’na alaue,” Principia muttered, turning to look. At their current height on the staircase, their heads and shoulders were visible above the top, just enough to put them in view of the artillery emplacement. It was indeed still trained on their position. For a moment she held onto the hope that it had been left there and abandoned, but even as she peered up at the mag cannon, its barrel began to glow. This time, it appeared to be building up a significant charge rather than firing right away. “Shit, there’s no cover.”

“Cannons would need to have this platform in their range of fire to clear away attackers,” Ephanie said crisply. “Sarge, I think we have a better chance taking on the golems.”

“No,” said Principia. “Break ranks and get to the far corner over there, just on the other side of the opposite gate. Go.”

She led the way, the others following; they bounded up the last few steps and dashed diagonally across the platform, huddling into the very far corner between the city wall and the stone balustrade. The active mag cannon swiveled to track them, but it couldn’t turn as fast as they could run, and ultimately didn’t manage to turn all the way. Its rotation stopped short of giving it full coverage of the platform.

“Okay, that’s something,” said Merry, who was sandwiched between Farah and the wall. “We’re still in range of the artillery on this side, though.”

“Nobody attacked us from east gatehouse,” said Principia. “Avelea, are they connected?”

“Not directly,” Ephanie replied, “but they could cross the battlements above to reach it.”

“Still no sign of movement from over here,” Principia murmured, her eyes sweeping the scene. “Keep your shields up and attention on the arrow loops; if anybody fires from there, return fire. Sing out immediately if one of these cannons starts to move. Time’s on our side; the Army has to be back in place sooner than later.”

“But we don’t know what kind of timetable that is,” Farah said tremulously.

“Right, which is why we’re not gonna sit here and wait for rescue,” Principia replied. “Listen up: once we start moving we’ll be back in range of the cannon, so we’ll need to work fast. When I give the word, fall into wedge formation facing that mag cannon and rake it. Avelea, how badly can we damage it?”

“With five staff-equivalent weapons, easily enough to take it out of commission, assuming five direct hits—and assuming whoever’s up there doesn’t know to activate its shields. Sarge, you remember our accuracy when we drilled with these things. And that cannon is still charging; the second we’re in its line of sight it’ll fire.”

Prin nodded, scowling at the mag cannon. It was partly hidden from view by the slight protrusion of the gatehouse, but they could see most of it from their position. “Scratch that, then. Avelea, Lang, you’re the best shots. Take position against the wall here and start peppering it. See if you can put it out of action. As soon as that thing is down, we form up and concentrate fire on this door. I want us off this ledge and back inside the walls ASAP.”

“Pretty sure attacking the city defenses is technically treason,” Merry muttered, kneeling with her shoulder against the wall while Ephanie took aim above her head. They fired simultaneously, then kept up a steady barrage, pausing only long enough between shots to keep their weapons from overheating.

Lightning scored black rents in the stonework near the mag cannon, but most of their shots hit it directly. The blue flash of heavy-duty shielding charms signaled that this would not be that easy, but no charm had an infinite charge, heavy or not.

Whoever was at the cannon’s controls clearly agreed; after a few seconds of taking fire, it retaliated. This time, it was fully charged.

The whole squad mashed themselves flat against the wall, raising shields in front of themselves, and even so, it was barely enough. The blast of white light that roared past them barely a yard from their faces was accompanied by a corona of ferocious static electricity; their shield charms flared almost opaque, whining in protest, and Casey’s shattered in a cascade of sparks. A cart-sized chunk of the platform adjacent to them was smashed to rubble.

“Elwick!” Principia shouted a second later, blinking the glare from her eyes. “Report!”

“Singed, not hurt, ma’am,” Casey said, still huddled behind her shield. “Sarge, my charm’s broken! If that fires again—”

“It’s not gonna fire again,” Principia said grimly. “Hold your position. If this doesn’t work, Avelea’s in command.”

She darted out into the open, crossing the platform in seconds and dropping her shield and lance on the way. The elf launched herself into a running jump, landing at the edge of the far balustrade and kicking off it; she spun in midair to kick off the very narrow protrusion of stonework that sheltered the gate, soaring higher in the direction of open space, but caught herself on the edge of an arrow loop. Dangling from it by both hands, she swung her body to the left, and then back to the right, actually running along the wall at a steep angle till she hit the narrow rim of stone again and kicked off, getting a grip on the next loop up.

A figure leaned out of a nearby arrow loop, aiming a wand at her; he was instantly struck by shots from Ephanie and Merry, and fell forward without a scream to lie smoking on the platform below.

“Now that’s interesting,” Merry muttered. “I thought Legion training for elves meant they weren’t that agile anymore…”

Principia was in the middle of another improbable leap when a figure peeked out from behind the battlements shielding the mag cannon, taking aim at her with a wand. Ephanie and Merry immediately fired on him, but the cannon’s defenses absorbed the bolts, leaving him with a clear shot at the sergeant.

A shadow fell across the platform.

The man at the cannon turned to look, then let out a squeal and dived back into cover; Principia paused, dangling from the bottom of an arrow loop and twisting her neck to see what was happening.

Though he landed with as much gentleness as possible, the beat of his massive wings was nearly enough to jar her loose from the wall. Bracing his hind legs on the platform, Ampophrenon the Gold grasped the upper battlements of the gatehouse with his right hand and laid the other on the mag cannon that had been harassing Squad One. With obvious care, he very gingerly turned it to face out to sea.

The cannon’s mounting rent asunder in a shower of sparks, leaving the dragon holding the broken weapon.

“Ah,” he rumbled, staring at the cannon in his hand with an abashed expression that was astonishing on his reptilian face. “Well, drat.”

Setting the cannon down on its ledge, he placed his hand under Principia’s dangling feet. “If I may, Sergeant?”

She gave him a long, considering look before letting go, dropping lightly into his palm. Ampophrenon lowered her carefully to the ground outside the gates.

A yelp cut through the air, and a figure emerged from the battlements above, drifting out into space. Dragonsbane, in her distinctive mask and wing cloak, squirmed as she was levitated above the gates, flailing about wildly with her saber. Behind her, another figure in lavish blue robes appeared, standing lightly on the battlements themselves.

“This isn’t over!” the woman ranted, shaking the weapon at him. “You can kill me, you can kill all of us, but one day—”

“I’m sorry to cut off what’s shaping up to be a really good monologue,” Zanzayed called out, “but you might want to save that one for another occasion, Marshal. The rest of your cohorts are all under a sleeping charm; nobody can hear you but us.”

Dragonsbane halted her gyrations, then very deliberately twisted herself to peer pointedly downward at Principia and the rest of her squad.

“Oh, don’t mind us,” said Merry. “This just got very interesting.”

“I believe the sun has set on this particular bit of subterfuge,” Ampophrenon rumbled, rearing up and spreading his wings. Moments later, he had shrunk down to his humanoid form and stepped off the balustrade onto the platform. “I said from the beginning that we should have been up front with Locke instead of trying to manipulate her, Zanzayed. All this chaos is what results from attempting to play such games with notoriously clever people.”

“You just hate fun, that’s all,” Zanzayed replied gaily, as he and Dragonsbane slowly drifted to the ground.

Ampophrenon grimaced at him, then turned to Dragonsbane and bowed. “I apologize for damaging the cannon, Marshal. Needless to say, I will be financially responsible for that and all damage to Imperial property incurred here.”

“That’s generous of you, m’lord,” she said carefully, “but there is really no way to arrange that without revealing your complicity in this. I’m sure the Imperial treasury can absorb it.”

“Shut up,” Principia said, bending to pick up her lance. “I don’t know what this is, and right now I am past giving a shit. You’re all under arrest.”

Ampophrenon blinked his luminous eyes at her. “Ah… Forgive me, Sergeant Locke, but I don’t think you understand—”

“Here’s what I understand,” she short back, leveling the lance at Dragonsbane and fingering the trigger charm that parted its blades to reveal the firing crystal. “I want all of you on your knees, weapons on the ground and hands on your heads before I have time to repeat my instructions.”

Before any of them could respond to that—which was perhaps fortunate, given Zanzayed’s gleeful expression—the side gate through which they had originally come opened, and a well-dressed man in his middle years stepped out. He glanced once at the scene—the two dragons, the Legionnaires, the improbably-dressed woman in the mask—and cleared his throat.

“Thank you for your commitment to civil order, Sergeant, but that won’t be necessary. My name is Quentin Vex; I head Imperial Intelligence. Perhaps it’s time we had a talk.”


 

Wide slashes were the opposite of proper rapier technique, but Ruda had quickly discovered that whatever magic animated the skeletons ran very thin in each individual specimen; it didn’t agree at all with mithril. The merest touch of her sword sufficed to reduce them to inanimate bone. Thus, she swept the blade around herself in wide, scything arcs, carving a path through the horde of undead and so far avoiding injury at their skeletal hands.

Which was not to say this was a winning strategy; the sheer numbers of skeletons were turning the tide gradually against her and her classmates. It would have been a significant challenge to keep up with them even if they crumbled to dust on each hit, but she was accumulating drifts of fallen bones all around herself, forcing her to constantly retreat in order to retain her footing. And still they came on, no matter how many she felled.

Another of those peculiar golden blasts hit her in the side; there was some pressure to it, but despite what it had done to Shaeine (which had caused her to formulate a theory), it had had no other effect on Ruda, and she had decided not to worry about it.

“Would you quit doing that?” Juniper exclaimed off to her right upon being shot with another of them. The dryad turned and stalked toward the cultist who had fired on her, evidently having had enough. She had been bulling through the undead by sheer brute force; the ones she smashed had a tendency to keep moving, just in smaller pieces.

On Ruda’s other side, Vadrieny screamed in fury at a knot of onrushing skeletons, which fazed them not in the least. In the next second she was being swarmed by them—not taking any discernible damage, but being crawled over by human-sized enemies was enough to hamper even her strength.

“For fuck’s sake, Vadge, they’re not afraid of you!” Ruda exclaimed, cutting down another swath of undead. “Teal, tell your demon to just kill the bastards!”

The cultist shrieked in panic as Juniper got her hands on him. Wrenching the augmented staff out of his grasp, she hurled it to the side, then picked the man up and tossed him into the air. The dryad caught him by the ankle, and proceeded to swing him bodily around, using him as a grisly flail against the summoned undead.

Vadrieny hurled off the last of the skeletons swarming her and pumped her wings once to leap across the sanctuary to Ruda’s side, where she swiped half the undead attacking the pirate into shards. Standing back-to-back halved the area each had to control and made their task suddenly a great deal easier.

“Don’t ever call me that again,” the archdemon ordered.

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “Didn’t really think that one through before I opened my mouth.”

One of the remaining cultists was clipped by a skeleton thrown by Juniper in the act of firing his weapon at Vadrieny; the shot went wild, smashing one of the cathedral’s stained glass windows. Apparently they had that much force, at least.

A silver streak zipped in through the open door and discharged a blast of wind at him, followed by a splatter of sleet.

“THIS BUILDING IS A HISTORICAL TREASURE, YOU DEGENERATE POLTROON!” Fross roared, lashing out on all sides with ice—and notably avoiding the use of any of her more destructive spells. Restrained or not, it worked. Even undead had trouble moving with their feet frozen to the floor, and those that got loose were deprived of traction.

“Finally, some fucking progress,” Ruda growled as she and Vadrieny began edging sideways toward the dais where the remaining two cultists stood, now firing persistently at them. In that concentration, the mild blows of the golden shots were enough to impede their advance, though not by much.

Then, the skeletons began to die.

It started in the front corner of the room, with those which had gotten past the students and neared the front doors. They simply collapsed en masse, and a wave of destruction flashed through their ranks. Undead fell to pieces in a long trail as if something invisible were cleaving through them.

Within seconds the phenomenon had ripped across the entire cathedral, then those still pouring out of the doors behind the dais fell as whatever it was passed within to finish the job.

The sudden quiet was astonishing. Juniper halted amid a heap of fallen skeletons, blinking, then looked down at the man in her hand. Blood splattered her, the bones and everything in her vicinity; he was limp and seemed to bend in far too many places.

“Uh oh,” the dryad said sheepishly. “I broke mine, guys.”

The doors, which Vadrieny had shut after putting Shaeine outside, swung open, and all three paladins stalked into the sanctuary, shoulder to shoulder.

“Ah,” said Ruda. “Valkyries. That explains it. Coulda used some of those before. Welcome back, guys!”

She and Vadrieny were slightly off to the side, leaving a clear path between the doors and the dais, along which the cultists and paladins now locked eyes.

“Do your worst!” the man in the center screeched, taking aim with his staff. “A million shall fall, a million shall rise, and all comes to naught! Chaos cannot die!”

Gabriel stepped in front of Trissiny, drawing Ariel and glaring. He pulled back his arm and hurled the sword forward. It was a somewhat awkward throw, exhibiting all of his usual athleticism, but the blade flared blue in midair and zipped across the entire length of the sanctuary, spinning end over end.

The cultist staggered back as Ariel slammed into his chest, impaling him cleanly through the ribs.

Gabriel held out his left hand and made a grasping motion; a phantasmal glove of arcane blue flickered momentarily around Ariel’s hilt, and suddenly the sword wrenched slightly to the side, lodging herself firmly in the man’s ribs and eliciting a gasp of agony from him. Then Ariel jerked backward, sailing across the room to her master and dragging the impaled cultist along.

They came to a clean halt less than a yard from Gabriel, who calmly grasped Ariel’s hilt with his left hand and stepped forward, bringing his face to within inches of the man’s filthy, matted beard. With his other, he grabbed the augmented staff, which the cultist still clutched.

The Hand of Vidius sneered and spoke in a growl that resonated throughout the church.

“Nothing. Doesn’t. Die.”

Gabriel ripped Ariel out sideways and yanked the staff away simultaneously, brandishing both weapons out to the sides. Suddenly unsupported, the cultist staggered, then sank to his knees, whispering something under his breath, before finally falling to the ground. After a few weak twitches, he lay still.

In the silence that followed, they could actually hear the buzzing of Fross’s wings.

“Badass is a weird look on you, Arquin,” Ruda said finally. “Quick, say something dumb before I lose all faith in reality.”

Seemingly galvanized by her voice, the last robed cultist took aim at Gabriel. In the next moment, Vadrieny landed next to him, casually ripping the staff out of his hands and tossing it away, then grabbed him about the neck with one clawed hand and hauled him back to the students.

“You will tell us the source of the chaos,” the archdemon said matter-of-factly, roughly pulling back the cultist’s hood.

This one, thus revealed, was actually a woman. She was as filthy as the others, her face smeared with a grime of blended sweat, dust and caked skin oil, her hair matted and filled with the grunge of the catacombs. Eyes wide and rolling, she stared blankly at a point above Trissiny’s head as the paladin stepped up in front of her.

“The source, there is no source, everything is the source. You don’t see—you should see. You will see, but too late. It shines, but it’s darkness. It’s all. Everything that’s not is is illusion, because it’s illusion. It is and it’s not, you understand?”

“Just like the ones at the prison,” Toby murmured.

“Chaos is very unhealthy to be around,” Trissiny said grimly. “It was a good thought, Vadrieny, but I’m afraid trying to get information out of her is pointless. She’s not even resisting; she just can’t think in terms that would be useful.”

“Unless it’s an act,” Ruda said skeptically.

“Possible, but this is consistent with the observed behavior of chaos victims,” Ariel commented as Gabriel wiped her blade clean with a handkerchief.

“I dunno, they managed to plan and execute all this,” Gabriel said.

“Chaos cultists are known to exhibit a certain animal cunning,” said Trissiny. “It’s the higher functions of intelligence that suffer from chaos exposure; they still have instinct. That’s arguably all they have. Also, let’s keep in mind that the Black Wreath is present and active and has betrayed us once today. I don’t believe for a moment that they are as innocent in all this as Vanessa claimed.”

“They did what?” Vadrieny demanded, turning on her.

“The summoners were a trap,” said Gabriel. “The Wreath was already there, with weapons like these. They claimed to have taken them from the chaos cult, but they used ’em on us and tried to hold us prisoner.” He held up the staff in his hand, studying it with a distasteful grimace.

“What the fuck do those even do?” Ruda demanded.

“These are what the Empire was making,” said Trissiny. “They block divine magic. A cleric shot by one is temporarily unable to cast. Or a paladin, as we discovered.”

“That was the theory I developed,” said Shaeine, striding toward them from the door. “You did say temporarily?”

“Yeah, actually,” said Toby, stepping toward her, “and it turns out Omnu is inclined to override the effect. Shaeine, I’m not certain if this’ll work for you—you’re not a Pantheon cleric. But I don’t see any way it could hurt…”

“Please,” Shaeine said with barely restrained intensity, “try.”

Toby reached out, his aura flaring gold, and laid a hand on her shoulder. Vadrieny stepped up to Shaeine’s other side, squinting against the glow but not backing away.

After a moment, Toby let his light subside. “There. I… That’s it, Shaeine. Any more and we might both burn.”

Shaeine closed her eyes, and a halo of pure silver rose about her. She let out a deep sigh, the obvious relief on her features jarring considering her usual composure. Vadrieny wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders.

“Thank you,” the drow said feelingly to Toby, who grinned back.

“That’s one fear addressed, then,” said Ruda, poking gingerly at the still-babbling cultist with the tip of her sword. When Vadrieny had released her, the woman had just slumped to her knees, making no move to either flee or attack. It was starting to look more and more as if her mind was simply gone. “Now what the hell are we supposed to do with this?”

“She’s no use to us,” Toby said firmly as the cultist continued muttering under her breath. “She’ll have to go into prison with the others. Despite everything, she’s as much a victim in this as anyone.”

Juniper wrinkled her nose. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Trissiny said firmly. “She’s not even mentally competent to stand trial. No one sets out to do things like this, Juniper; chaos damages the mind if you get too close to it. There are established legal precedents, here. She is to be considered insane and treated accordingly.”

“That leaves us back at square one, then,” said Gabriel. “With a city-wide disaster on top of everything else.”

“Not quite,” Ruda replied. “Think, guys. Undead coming up everywhere, sure. But this is the only place we’ve seen multiple cultists. They all came pouring out of the catacomb access right under this cathedral.”

“You think the source must be nearby,” said Fross.

“It’s as good a theory as any,” Toby agreed, nodding.

“And we’d better move our asses before the trail gets any colder,” Ruda added. “The chaos-whatsit may be close. We’ve got valkyries, three paladins, and my friend, here.” She held up the rapier. “And one of our paladins knows a thing or two about magic.”

“It’s possible he knows as many as three things,” said Ariel.

“I agree,” Trissiny said, drawing her sword. “Fross, Juniper, Shaeine and Vadrieny, please try to help the Army and the citizens outside. Those of us less vulnerable to chaos had better head below. If there’s a chance we can finish this, we have to take it.”

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9 – 32

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Whatever she had intended, the results of Dragonsbane’s first shot were disappointing.

Her sidearm was a pricier model that projected a clean white beam of energy instead of a lightning bolt, but it still sparked ineffectively against the squad’s shielding charms. Rather than joining in the assault, the assembled protestors shied back from the discharge with a mix of gasps and mutters.

“And that’s assault,” Principia snapped. “Drop that weapon and place your hands on your head, or we will exercise force.”

“Hell,” growled a heavyset man, drawing a wand from within his coat. “We’re protecting ourselves from monsters—nobody who’s afraid to make sacrifices deserves to be here.”

“Sir, I advise against that,” Principia warned.

“Sorry, ladies,” he said, sounding oddly sincere, and fired a lightning bolt directly into her shield. Again came the snap and flicker of the charm activating, this time directing the electricity downward where it scorched the stone between the Legionnaires and the activists.

Dragonsbane, having the high ground, fired twice more, in a more exploratory pattern; her shots passed above Ephanie’s helmet and then to the right of Casey’s shield at the flank of their formation, clearly gauging the range of their arcane shields. Unfortunately, the support of their group seemed to embolden others, and more weapons were produced add leveled at the soldiers.

“Charge weapons!” Principia barked. “Citizens, this is your final warning—disarm and disperse!”

“They’ve got nothing but spears and shields!” shouted a woman from the back of the crowd.

Three more blasts sparked off their augmented shields, utterly drowning out five tiny clicks as the Legionnaires unfolded small mechanisms from the hafts of their lances. Another clean blast from Dragonsbane neatly clipped the uppermost reach of Principia’s shielding charm, causing the entire thing to ripple visibly. At that, several of the protestors, including two had had hitherto been holding wands confusedly skyward, took aim at her directly.

“VOLLEY!” she roared.

Five spearheads parted down the middle on hidden hinges, and five powerful blasts of lightning erupted from the small blue crystals thus revealed.

The bolts ripped through the crowd, setting off a veritable fireworks display of activated shielding and grounding charms. The protestors were thrown into utter chaos, several shoved bodily aside by the suddenly active fields of force surrounding some of their number who had been standing too close. Only a minority had taken the precaution of wearing charms, however, and lightning arced straight through several bodies.

At the far edge of the platform, Dragonsbane herself dived to the ground, placing her supporters between herself and the Legionnaires. None of the lightning bolts had reached her anyway; once she got behind the crowd, no more had a chance.

Finally, the scattering Principia had originally predicted occurred, accompanied by a pandemonium of screams. People bolted in multiple directions, several of the more level-headed among them trying to shout orders, to no avail.

“MELEE FORM,” Principia bellowed over the din, “RIGHT STEP, ARC BACK!”

Retracting their weapons from firing configuration and restoring the blades, their formation moved laterally to their right and bent, positioning themselves with Casey against the stone wall surrounding the platform and the rest of the squad arrayed in a curve. The position funneled the fleeing citizens away from them and prevented them from being flanked, not that any of their opponents had the presence of mind for such a maneuver. They scurried toward the two smaller gates, bottlenecking at the entrances; several were pushed down and trampled.

One woman was shoved forward and impaled herself on the tip of Ephanie’s lance. The blade penetrated only a few inches, but the panicked victim pulled it out more sideways than straight; she staggered away after the others, bent over and leaving a trail of blood along the stone.

Seven well-dressed bodies lay on the ground, marred by scorch marks.

“Orders to pursue, ma’am?” Ephanie asked crisply, raising her voice above the din.

“Negative,” Principia replied. “Lost the leader; no point in trying to wrangle a mob.”

The farther side gate had shut while she spoke, on the heels of the last fleeing escapees. Seconds later, the one through which the squad had come thunked closed, followed after a moment by the muted clacking of the locks being activated.

“Um,” Casey said. “We’re trapped.”

“Negative,” Principia repeated. “The stairs lead down to the docks; even if she managed to clear the Imperial personnel away from that, too, they can’t possibly stay gone long.”

“Can you…pick the lock?” Farah asked hesitantly.

“That’s an exterior gate of the capital of the world’s greatest military power,” Principia said scathingly. “No, I can’t pick the lock.”

Farah was spared having to respond to that by a blast of lightning that scored the upper range of her shielding charm. Above them were thin openings in the gate fortress, old arrow loops, one of which had just produced a wandshot. Figures appeared in the shadows at several others.

“Kneel and raise shields!” Principia shouted, dropping to one knee in unison with the rest of her squad; they angled their shields, and consequently the attached deflectors, facing upward. “Charge weapons!” All five again activated the hidden clickers, parting spearhead to reveal firing facets. Two more wandshots sparked across their shields from different points. “Fire at will!”

The deluge of lightning they expelled put an immediate stop to fire from the fortress, scorching the stone walls and blasting chips out of the edges of the arrow loops themselves. Their weapons, though somewhat less powerful than Imperial Army battlestaves due to having to be concealed within lances, were nonetheless far heavier than wands. Seconds later, when Principia called a cease fire, silence reigned, the protestors apparently having been dissuaded.

“Omnu’s breath, they’re in the fortress,” Casey breathed. “Where the hell is the Army?”

“Sarge,” Ephanie said in a more even tone, “all those shots came from the arrow loops on this side of the main gate. Whoever went into the one opposite the gates isn’t organized or motivated enough to launch a counterattack. I bet the leader’s in the west gatehouse.”

“Well spotted,” Principia replied. “Not much we can do about it, though; at this point our best outcome is for those idiots to flee and leave the Army to come sort this out. I don’t care what pull that woman has, there is no way she can keep one of the gates of Tiraas unattended for more than a very short period.”

“Well, this is just great,” Merry growled. “So far today we’ve killed a handful of civilians, damaged Imperial property and gotten locked out of the city. Sarge, may I suggest telling the next helpful deity to fuck off?”

They froze as a muted whirring noise sounded from above.

Towers rising above the gatehouse and turrets extending from its upper surface had held siege weapons since time immemorial; positioned at the altitude they were, this fortification could demolish any enemy ships that dared approach the docks below long before they could land soldiers, and the gate itself was high enough to be out of reach of shipboard catapults. In this day and age, however, the old trebuchets had been replaced with mag cannons, barrel-like constructs bristling with antennae.

Now, the one to the west of the gatehouse had begun to emit a blue glow from its depths, and began moving, its antennaed nozzle swiveling in their direction.

“No,” Farah whispered.

“Is there any chance these charms of yours will stand up to artillery fire?” Merry squeaked.

“Retreat!” Prinipia barked, “Shields up, down the—”

Before they could move a step, the mag cannon got into position and unleashed a blast of blue light.

All five of their shield charms lit up; even despite the protection, the kinetic force of the blast broke their formation, shoving all of them back against the low wall, and a powerful static field caused their hair to bristle. The unpleasant jangling of electricity set their teeth on edge.

But that was all. And in mere moments, it began to subside.

“Hell yes!” Merry crowed, grinning.

“Stow it!” Principia snapped. “Move your butts—down the stairs!”

They obeyed, moving as quickly as they could safely back down a staircase while keeping their charmed shields raised and angled at the cannon emplacement. It took several more moments for them to retreat far enough that the upper ledge of the staircase blocked it from view. The whole time, the mag cannon continued to swivel, tracking them.

“That’s incredible,” Casey gasped. “How the hell did you make personal charms that can stand up to that? Even the Army doesn’t have those!”

“That weapon is meant to charge for a minimum of forty-five seconds before firing,” Ephanie said curtly. “That was a sneeze. If the people manning it knew how to use it properly, it could blast this staircase into fragments. Sarge, I recommend we continue to retreat.”

“Agreed,” said Principia. “This is now the Army’s problem. Get back down—”

Turning, she saw what lay below them and broke off.

The two wide stone staircases switched back and forth, intertwining in an angular spiral that alternated between tunnels bored through the mountainside and exterior steps slicked with spray from the falls. On the landing directly below Squad One, two hulking forms stood at the base of the steps, blocking their way.

They were armored in dingy iron plates engraved with arcane runes; despite being humanoid in form, the things were clearly not alive. The gaps in their armor at the joints revealed mechanisms that put off a faint blue light. Beetle-like helmets had wide hexagonal lenses rather than eyes, and each construct’s right arm terminated in an inset battlestaff rather than a hand.

“B-but outfitting golems with weapons is illegal,” Farah stuttered.

“Szaravid,” Principia said quietly, “governments outlaw dangerous things so they can be the only ones to have them. Ergo, those have to be Army property and have no quarrel with us. They may even recognize Legion armor. Don’t make any sudden…”

She trailed off as the two golems raised their staves to point at the squad.

“If we don’t die here,” said Merry, “I am gonna march right to the nearest temple of Vesk and smash somebody’s lute over their head.”


 

The glow lit their way to the walled cemetery; light blazed across the whole mountainside, a colossal golden nimbus emanating from within the walls, as if the sun itself were rising on the grounds. Both paladins slowed to a trot as they approached, weapons out and at the ready, and passed side by side through the open gates.

They apparently weren’t needed here.

The place had suffered a degree of destruction comparable to the graveyard in which Trissiny had been imprisoned, with smashed tombs, burned trees and nearly every grave unearthed from within. There were no traces of undead here, however, nor of demons—nothing but a few swirls of fine ash on the breeze.

The light had begun to dim at their approach, and finally diminished enough that they could see clearly. Nearby, two Shadow Hunters were just lowering their hand from their eyes, blinking in confusion and staring at the center of the graveyard, though the man closer to them turned to peer at the mounted paladins when they approached.

In the small decorative garden in the center, Toby’s glow had reduced itself to a more normal proportion, merely lighting up his aura. He stood in an almost meditative position, feet braced, spine straight, hands folded in front of him.

“Toby?” Trissiny called, urging Arjen forward at a careful walk. “Are you… All right? How do you feel?”

Slowly, Toby opened his eyes and studied them in apparent calm.

“I,” he said flatly, “am extremely angry.”

“Right there with you, man,” Gabriel agreed. “Also: holy crap. Can you do that again?”

“I didn’t do it that time,” Toby replied, turning his head to the Shadow Hunters. “Are you guys okay?”

“Aside from being half-blinded,” the woman began, then paused. “Actually, no, there’s no aside. I feel great. What’d you do?”

“If I’m not mistaken, that was the light of Omnu in its purest form,” Trissiny said, a grin breaking across her features.

“Holy hell,” the other hunter whispered, peering around. “The undead, those demon dogs… Everything’s just gone.”

“Here.” Toby paced forward, coming to stand between Trissiny and Gabriel and reaching up to place a hand on each of their legs. For a moment, the glow around him brightened.

A moment later, each of them flared alight. Trissiny closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath and letting out a sigh of relief.

“Fascinating,” Ariel mused.

“Well, that’s one glaring weakness in those disruptors,” Gabriel observed. “I guess it makes sense. Not likely the Army could invent something that stands up to an annoyed deity.”

“Nice…horse, Gabe,” Toby observed, studying Whisper. The shadow mare nickered and bobbed her head as if greeting him.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said with a grin. “She’s, uh, kind of delicate, though. Maybe you’d better ride with Triss.”

“Where are the others?” the female hunter asked tersely.

“We had to leave them,” Trissiny said with a worried frown. “Frind was unconscious but seemed to be all right. The others, though…”

“They had Wreath nearby, but they may have left when I slipped out,” said Gabriel. “These warlocks are up to something underhanded, but they’ve been careful not to actually hurt anybody. Actually…wasn’t there one here, too?”

“Three,” said Toby. “They seem to have gone.”

“That was actually worth seeing,” the male hunter said with a grin. “I never expected I’d live to watch the Black Wreath fleeing in panic; it’s almost worth all this trouble. We’d best go fetch our comrades; you lot had better get back to the city. If the Wreath wanted you pinned down out here, it’s a safe bet it’s so they can get up to something in Veilgrad.”

“Agreed,” said Trissiny.

“Which locations did you leave them at?” the woman asked.

“Um.” Trissiny blinked and glanced at Gabriel. “Actually, I don’t—”

“The Tranquil Shade Gardens and Vesmentheim Lawn,” he said.

“Right. Good hunting, paladins.” The man paused only to nod at them before following his companion. Once again, they moved at the speed that had enabled them to keep up with Arjen on the way there; in seconds they were out the gates and out of sight.

“How’d you know what they were called?” Trissiny demanded.

“He practices an ancient and secret Vidian technique known as ‘reading the signs.’”

“Ariel, don’t talk to my friends that way,” Gabriel said curtly. Trissiny had flushed slightly at the sword’s rebuke, and busied herself giving Toby a hand up. In moments, he had hopped into the saddle behind her. “All right, we’ve got the group back together.”

“Almost,” Toby said grimly. “Gods, I hope the others are okay.”

“They can take care of themselves,” said Trissiny, heeling Arjen forward. “And we can take care of the rest of the Wreath when we get there.”


 

“Keep in a line,” Ruda said in exasperation. “Quietly—quietly, damn your eyes! Don’t draw the—”

As if on cue, a child let out a shriek of terror. Across the square, the werewolf abruptly swiveled its head to glare at them, drawing its lips back in a feral snarl. The townsfolk shied backward, several crying out in fright. That proved too much for the wolf’s instincts, and it rounded on them fully, beginning to charge forward.

Scorn slammed into it from the side, sending them both rolling into a stack of barrels—one of the last objects in the square they hadn’t already smashed.

“Woman,” Ruda snarled, stomping up to the offender’s mother and brandishing her rapier, “in case you hadn’t noticed, everyone’s lives are at stake here. One of us is going to silence that child!”

“That is not helping, Ruda,” Juniper said reproachfully, gently pushing her aside and taking the terrified young mother by the arm. “It’s okay, she’s just cranky cos she cares. Nobody’s gonna hurt you; we’re not going to let them. C’mon, everybody, keep going. We’re almost all across!”

“Can’t fucking believe we made it this far,” Ruda groused, stepping back to critically examine the line of townsfolk fleeing into the guild hall. Indeed, Father Rusveldt was just now escorting an old woman at the end of the straggling formation, having insisted on being the last one out.

“Ruda!” Fross zipped out of the open doors of the cathedral. “We got trouble in here! The doors are down and Shaeine can’t shield this many—well, you guys had better come take a look.”

“Fucking great,” Ruda muttered. “Fross, can you keep an eye on this? If that hairy bastard makes another move in this direction, freeze his ass to the ground. I’m past caring about his feelings or Scorn’s.”

“Um, okay,” the pixie agreed. “For the record, we can’t really tell if it’s a him or a her, though clothes—”

“Don’t care!” Ruda snapped, dashing past her, up the steps and into the cathedral.

She arrived just in time to see Shaeine being pushed back by a veritable tide of undead. The doors at the end of the sanctuary had finally burst, emitting a flow of skeletons that had clearly been backed up against them, battering down the barriers with the sheer weight of their numbers. The drow was retreating quickly, re-forming a silver shield around herself and directing smaller ones to impede the advancing undead. Mindful of her energy levels, she wasn’t attempting to fully contain the pressure of the horde, merely to hamper and redirect their advance.

This time, though, once the initial rush had cleared, three more distinctive figures emerged from the doors. All three wore filthy robes that had apparently been crimson, once. All carried peculiar staves, capped at both ends with crystals and with golden lattices spiraling down half their lengths.

“What the fuck is this,” Ruda wondered aloud. “Shaeine! You okay?”

“Back,” the priestess ordered curtly. “This space is too open. We can try to hold them at the doors—”

She broke off as the central figure raised his staff, pointed it at her, and squeezed the clicker. A burst of pure golden light ripped across the space between them, striking her silver shield.

At the impact, the shield instantly collapsed. Sheine froze, naked shock painting her features.

The second shot hit her right in the chest and she staggered backward. The drow caught her balance, apparently unharmed, and gesticulated at the oncoming undead.

Nothing happened.

“Shaeine!” Ruda said urgently. “What’s wrong?”

“My shields!” the elf replied, and the note of unguarded fear in her voice was chilling. “I can’t cast—I have no magic!”

Then, suddenly, Vadrieny was there, folding her arms around the priestess and taking off with a mighty beat of her wings. She landed at the doors of the cathedral and backed carefully through them, bringing Shaeine with her.

Ruda and Juniper were left facing the oncoming undead and their apparent masters.

“Welp,” said the dryad. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah.” Ruda drew back her lips in a grin that was at least half snarl, stalking forward toward the horde and raising her rapier. “Finally, something that bleeds.”


 

For almost a minute, everything was dust, coughing, the rumble of falling stone and the persistent howl of the sphere of compressed air Khadizroth had used to protect them. It wasn’t equal to the hard shields created by divine or arcane magic, and aside from letting in a large amount of dust, it had failed to keep out all of the debris; they had all been peppered with fragments of masonry and other detritus.

“Is everyone all right?” Khadizroth asked, raising his voice above the sound of their gasping and coughing.

“Feel like I’ve been rammed through an arcane washer,” the Jackal wheezed. “That the best you could manage? The hell kind of dragon are you?”

“A surprised one,” Khadizroth said grimly. “Just a moment.”

The air shield broke, and suddenly a sharp wind tore past them, clutching at their clothes and hair and causing Shook to stagger. It carried the dust away, though, giving them their first clear look at their surroundings since the building had collapsed.

They stood amid the wreckage of what had been the tallest structure in Risk. It still was, if only because it had more rubble to pile up. In the course of falling through what had been the floor of Khadizroth’s office, their air bubble and shoved them forward, so that they were nearly out in the street.

Hardly had they had a chance to get a good look when another wind slammed into them far more aggressively from the opposite direction, followed by a wandshot that clipped the dragon on the shoulder.

Aside from moving slightly with the blow, Khadizroth did not react save to gesture sharply upward with both hands.

An entire line of trees burst out of the ground in front of them, what had been the dirt main street of Risk mere minutes ago. They swelled in seconds, forming an entire wall between them and their attackers.

“Vannae, heal and bolster everyone,” the dragon said curtly. “This has only just begun. If I can just get—”

Before they found out what he wanted to get, the barrier of trees shuddered under a heavy impact; blue light flashed between their trunks.

“This way!” Shook snapped, dashing across the street and into the shadow of the only half-demolished building opposite. The others followed, Vannae whispering a blessing as he ran. Cuts and bruises melted away under the touch of whatever magic he was using as the group huddled in the meager shadow of their improvised shelter.

The treeline shuddered again; Khadizroth pointed at it, and thick vines spiraled upward from among the roots, bracing the fortification.

A wandshot slipped through a miniscule gap in the barrier, but merely flashed down the empty street past them, not coming near hitting anyone.

“Everyone hold still,” the dragon said curtly, gesturing again. This time, the very stones of the wall beside them were yanked out of place, reassembling themselves into another wall—lower, but thicker, and placed between them and the trees. “Scratch that. Duck!”

They obeyed, and not a moment too soon. The biggest explosion since the initial volley sounded, followed by an ongoing roar of destruction as wood, stone and dirt were pulverized. A tree toppled directly onto their hastily conjured barrier, cracking the stone severely. Seconds later, before the aftershocks had ceased, a fallout of sand and gravel splattered across them from above.

Baring his teeth, Khadizroth stood up, raised both his palms, and pushed forward against the air.

His barriers, what remained of them, disintegrated into a crushed spray of stone fragments and what little remained of the trees; the force with which they were hurled forward exceeded whatever had just exploded against them. A shockwave of debris blasted forth, mowing down more ruined buildings in its path.

In the next moment, another wind rose up, whipping past them, but the five men held their ground, straightening.

Suddenly, everything was cleared away. The dust in the air, the rubble in the street, the improvised barriers Khadizroth had called up. They found themselves staring from a mere dozen yards at Longshot McGraw, Gravestone Weaver, Tinker Billie, the Sarasio Kid and the great feline form of Raea.

Wind whispered quietly in the background, as if relieved to be given a break from its recent exercise. In the near distance, minor rockfalls continued to sound as the wreckage of the town settled. Both groups seemed equally surprised to find themselves so nearly face-to-face, and both apparently intact despite all the carnage.

The tension hung in the air, waiting for someone to make a move.

“Wait, hang on!” the Jackal exclaimed, raising his hands. “Wait for it…”

“What?” Vannae demanded tersely, not taking his eyes off their foes.

“C’mon, haven’t any of you cracked a novel in your lives?” the assassin asked, grinning insanely. “We must observe the proprieties. Any second now, a tumbleweed will bounce across the road, and then we can proceed. Aaaaannnnny second.”

“Son,” said McGraw from across the way, “those don’t grow in this province.”

“Fuck’s sake,” Shook spat, whipping out his wand and firing from the hip.

He was quick, but the Kid was faster.

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