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The Shaathists were the last to arrive.

Ingvar had known in advance there would be three; the awareness was a constant tingle in the back of his mind, something to which he was not accustomed. There were six in his own party, and three Rangers had showed up. His learned sense of social and political rhythms combined with instinctive understanding of the balance inherent in nature, and a growing intuition he didn’t quite comprehend yet, to forewarn him of the shape of the thing forming before his eyes. Six of his own followers, six skeptical seekers, and the final party Rainwood had quietly told him was coming—also, he expected, six.

They were in the realm of the spirits, now. These things didn’t just happen. Ingvar was no shaman, could not speak directly to any invisible fae, but there was definitely something guiding him along.

Dimbi had brought two fellow Rangers, both older than she. So far, both Sha and Intima, as they had been introduced, had opted to remain silent and watch, leaving their more garrulous junior to do the speaking. Sha had kept the hood of the Ranger cloak up and clutched her longbow in front of herself as if for comfort, while Intima simply regarded everyone impassively, his broad features schooled into almost meditative stillness. Huge man that he was, a head taller than Ingvar and correspondingly broad, even that was vaguely menacing, but none of them had offered the slightest hostility. They were, after all, here. Had Dimbi or anyone she spoke to wished harm upon this endeavor, they could have just taken the story directly to their leader. Ingvar had to trust that they had come out of sincere curiosity, if only because suspiciously grilling them would just undercut what he was trying to accomplish.

Their location was not difficult to find for anyone remotely skilled in tracking; of the six of them, only Rainwood might have been hard to follow. Specifically wanting to be found, Ingvar had not troubled to walk with care once their daily hunting for necessary food was done, and they had left a veritable highway to this clearing. Now, in the center, there glowed a most unusual bonfire, created by the shaman’s craft from living branches piled with their still-green leaves emerging. The flame was white and put off no heat, but a steady glow not unlike the moon. Rather than the flickering glow of fire, it was as intense and even as a fairy lamp. The quiet blaze produced numerous little dancing lights, which one moment resembled nothing more than the sparks put off by any campfire except in clean white, and the next looked more like glowing butterflied fluttering under their own impetus, but fading from existence before they could be observed closely.

Shortly after full dusk, a lull had fallen, the Rangers exhibiting patience even as their expressions remained cynical; Ingvar had asked them to wait for the last arrivals before commencing the true purpose of this gathering. There was quiet, then, when the Shaathists emerged from the shadows of the trees.

Two of them Ingvar recognized as the youths who had accompanied three full Huntsmen previously, the Tiraan boy Samaan and another whose name he hadn’t heard. It was no surprise that it would be the young who were most curious and adventurous. Unexpectedly, though, they followed a man who was genuinely old, his hair fully white and his posture slightly stooped. He was a full Huntsman, though, carrying a blessed longbow and wearing both a bearskin cape and a bronze wolf’s head pin. Lean, wiry and still tall despite his aged hunch, he stepped fully into the clearing, sweeping a quick stare around all those assembled.

“Well, well,” the old man said aloud, his voice creaking slightly with age but still strong and clear. “It seems we’re expected!”

“Welcome,” Ingvar replied, nodding to him. “You are, indeed. All of us are some degree of surprised to find ourselves here; I simply have the benefit of a little more time to being ushered along by forces I cannot see.”

“And that would make you the famous Brother Ingvar,” the elder Huntsman said, eyeing him critically up and down.

“I suppose I’ll have to get used to being the famous Brother Ingvar,” he replied with a sigh.

“I imagined someone taller,” the old man grunted, then grinned. “But then, that’s exactly what I say every time I pass a mirror.”

“What are you of all people doing sniffing around this apostate, Dantu?” Sha demanded in a growl. “Going to switch sides yet again?”

“Brother Dantu has a bit of a history,” the second Shaathist apprentice, the local boy whose name Ingvar didn’t know, interjected with a wry smile, stepping closer to the eerie firelight and placing a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “He left the lodge in his youth to join the Shadow Hunters, and years later returned to the true path.”

“True path,” Dimbi repeated, her tone precariously heavy with sarcasm.

“That must be a long and remarkable story,” said Ingvar in a deliberately calm tone before more hostility could emerge.

“Right and wrong are usually not as simple as true and false,” Dantu said with a more sober expression. “Sometimes they aren’t even as simple as right and wrong, and that’s when you really have to watch your step. We tend to paint ourselves into intractable moral dilemmas by trying to make things simpler than they are. The Huntsmen say one thing, the Rangers another, and leave nuance to the fairies. Something tells me, Famous Brother Ingvar, you’ve come to make all our lives good and complicated again. I’ve come to see whether the upset you bright might be a solution, or just more problems. The boys, here, tell me you put on quite a show.”

“Oh, he does at that,” Taka agreed. “I’m still not sure how into all this mystic hunter business I am, but I’ve gotta say Ingvar’s never boring.”

“Glad to see you two again,” Ingvar said, making eye contact with each of the lads. “Samaan, and…?”

“How’d you know that?” Samaan demanded, one hand falling to the tomahawk hanging at his waist.

“Easy, there, Sam,” the other urged, smiling faintly. “Last time, you made Djinti call you down by name, remember? I’m Kanatu,” he added, nodding deeply to Ingvar, “the one who remembers details.”

“Oh, shut up,” Samaan grunted. “Very well, you expected us to come looking for you, we’re all impressed. Obviously you’ve gone to some trouble to set all this up. Let’s hear what you have to say, then.”

Ingvar looked over at Rainwood, who nodded to him.

“I have little enough to say,” Ingvar answered. “If it were that simple, all of this would be unnecessary. I’ve warned both of your groups, respectively, that I bring you painful, disruptive truths, and that I’m only a messenger; this business won’t leave you in peace if you drive me off. I wouldn’t have listened to the truth when it was first shown to me. That’s why it had to be shown.”

“Well, we’ve come all this way,” Kanatu said with a shrug, glancing warily over at the three quiet Rangers in their gray-green cloaks. “Say, show, whatever it is, whip it out.”

“Several of you are already well acquainted with this,” Ingvar said, now looking at the Rangers himself. Sha nodded and Dimbi quirked an ironic little smile, though Intima remained impassive as a tree. He made eye contact with Dantu, whose previously animated features had gone inscrutable. Ingvar had known several men like this one during his time with the Huntsmen, free thinkers who skirted the boundaries of tradition, never quite transgressing enough to be called down by the lodgemaster but subtly thumbing their noses at everyone. They were always the most willing to entertain unconventional ideas. Now, he had to wonder how many of those men had learned shocking truths and yet chosen the comfort of faith and community over harsh reality, as Dantu evidently had. “In fact, this is a pivotal moment for those following me, as well. Tholi in particular has been more than patient with my vague hints up till now.”

He paused, feeling the weight of everyone’s expectant stares, and turning his eyes to the mysterious white flame.

“For some of you, this will be a repetition of an old revelation. For others, merely…trivia. But for some, it will be a shock that may strip away everything you understand about the world. I have known tribulation in my time, as you can only imagine. Not every lodge is equally welcoming of a man in my position, and my career with the Huntsmen has been an often painful balance between the path to which I was called and a community that sometimes despised me. Yet I will warn you now that what you are about to see was the thing that hurt me the most. There is no pain quite like having your beliefs carved away. If any of you choose to walk away rather than face this, I will not name them coward.”

The Rangers didn’t react at all; Dantu’s thin shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. Kanatu just folded his arms.

“I’m not afraid of anything you have to show me,” Samaan snorted. “Let’s see you impress, Ingvar.”

Ingvar was positioned near the middle of the row of his own party, lined up along one side of the fire; he now glanced to both sides, taking in their expressions. Rainwood and Aspen both smiled encouragingly, while Tholi looked downright eager. Taka was going out of her way to appear as skeptical as the Rangers, and November just looked reserved. He suspected she was grappling with her own questions about why Avei had sent her into the middle of this business.

“Then I’ll ask you to please be respectful and hold your peace while the last members of this gathering arrive.”

“Who the hell else is coming to this?” Samaan muttered.

“Lad, when you’ll find out just the same whether or not you ask, it’s always better to keep quiet,” Dantu advised.

Ingvar was watching Rainwood sidelong. The elf had closed his eyes, breathing slowly and deeply. He could not feel shamanism at work, at least not explicitly or directly, but that sense was there. Of pressure, of potential, something vast in motion and not related to him but certain to determine the course of his next actions. It was, he reflected, very much like the sense of a thunderstorm rolling forward.

Then they arrived, and he swept all of that from his mind.

Where before only the single female had answered the call, now Rainwood’s entreaties via the spirits had successfully summoned the whole pack. The whole family.

There were six of them, rounding out the formation. Six of Ingvar’s party to start, the three Rangers and three Shaathists making six more, even more obviously now as they shifted away from the new arrivals with gasps and muffled exclamations, forgetting the tension between them to make way for the pack of wild wolves who stepped out of the darkness and up to the firelight.

“The Rangers have a rite for this purpose,” Ingvar said while the assembled group stared in mingled awe and fear at the predators joining them in the firelight. “I lack access to their secrets, and so this is not that. Rainwood has lent us his talents and the aid of his spirit guides to ask these guests for their guidance. In the faith of Shaath, there is no creature more sacred than the wolf. It is their ways which are held up as the ideal of living. The crux of the problem with the Huntsmen today is that they believe things about wolves which are purely untrue. Now, tonight, these honored guests, with the aid of the fae spirits all around us, will show us the truth of their lives. Please, sit.”

He folded himself smoothly to the ground, sitting cross-legged. One by one, the rest followed suit, several obviously reluctant to adopt a less defensible stance in the presence of so many of nature’s perfect hunters. It helped that the wolves appeared to hear his request and themselves sat down in a loose arc around their edge of the fire, all six gazing impassively at the humans with their ears up and alert. One by one, the rest of the party sank to the earth.

“This may be disorienting in its first moments,” Ingvar said quietly, accompanied by an intensifying glow from the white fire. “Rest assured that you are safe here. We meet under a pact of peace; these are friends and companions. What now unfolds is the craft of a master shaman. Still your unease, and trust the process as it comes to completion.”

The fire continued to glow while he spoke, its light beginning to waver almost like a natural fire’s, and mist poured out from its base to wash gently across the clearing in a luminous white carpet. The wolves showed no reaction to this, though several of the two-legged participants in the ritual shifted uncertainly, eyes darting.

Ingvar breathed in and out, deliberately following his own advice. He had checked again with Rainwood before beginning this; the shaman said that the spirits in the world were still agitated, but it was nothing to do with them and should have no impact.

The “should” was worrying. But they were here at the behest of those same spirits, as well as the gods themselves. At a certain point, a person simply had to have faith, and keep going.

In unison, the six seated wolves raised their noses skyward and cried aloud, their mournful howling echoing across the forest. It was a stunning music, and a truly astonishing thing to experience so close. Also, at that proximity, incredibly loud.

This time, none of those gathered made any noises in response, but Ingvar could tell just by glancing across them that they felt what he felt. The howl of a wolf was a call to family, a summons. It stirred, tugged at something inside himself placed there by the magic in which they had all partaken.

The mist rose around each of them, drifting upward in twelve little banks to wash smoothly over them, and then each began to take shape. Around every person, the shadow of a wolf cast in white moonlight formed, raising its head to cry mutely in answer to the call.

Of their own volition, he felt his eyes closing. By the time they had fully shut, the spirits and the wolves had supplanted his vision.


They were a large pack, and an uncertain one, still growing used to one another. They trusted him, though, and he honored that trust, devoting himself to leading them as best he could. He looked after is family, and they did after him. It was not a matter of asserting his will, but simply of the love between them, the same force that bound all living things. If it ever came to be that one of the younger ones would become stronger and a better leader, he would encourage that one to take the role. For now, they lived in an uncertain world, and he was the one with the knowledge and the confidence to guide them through it.

He missed his brothers, at times. The wise, canny older brother with the golden pelt, and the younger, darker one with his piercingly analytical mind. Not only because they were brothers and he wished to be alongside family, as was only natural, but because both were smart, and there were many strange smells in the air. He could have used their support. But what was, was. He was leader, now, and had his own family to look after.

They lived, were conscious, at a fixed point within a spectrum of memory, with the awareness of their lives in this forest stretching away both behind and ahead. It was a strange thing…and yet, not. This was just the world and what it was like to be alive within it, and yet he had the sense, sometimes, that there was something else. That things were supposed to be different. But he put that aside and dealt with the now. It was a good land, and a good life. They hunted in the darkness, and never went hungry. They played together in the shadowy times between day and night, curling up to share warmth and closeness during the sleepy sunlight hours. Games of chasing and scuffling were ways for him to teach the younger ones about the struggles of living.

And yet, there was that scent again. One of those troubling smells, wafting down from the mountains. He paused, raising his head. What was it? It was not food, or friend. Was his family in danger? The smell was new, impossible to place. It was…uneasy. Something about the world that was not what it should be.

No, Ingvar, that’s not the lesson.

He growled softly. Words were just noise, and the more troubling because he could not tell where they were coming from.

Don’t follow that scent. Listen to me, Ingvar. Trust the spirit of the wolf, not the other spirits.

Responding as always to his uncertainty, she stepped up beside him, leaning her bulk against his own in affection and support. His longtime partner, the one most special of all his beloved family, with her wild green eyes and the golden pattern like leaves dappling her pale coat. Her scent always reminded him as much of trees as of family. She raised her head to smell it as well. Beautiful and proud, and no less precious because she was rather unpredictable.

She bared her teeth in displeasure, echoing his soft growl.

Aspen, no! Don’t get involved in that, you’re too—

He snapped his jaws in anger. That was worse. Whatever that smell was, it was pushing at them. Pushing at her. At his family.

As one, they wheeled and gathered up the pack. Something menacing lurked in the wilds, and it was time for them to go. He raised his voice to howl, calling the rest together.

Please, Ingvar, remember peace. Don’t…

She howled alongside him, and her voice echoed through the forests, across the mountains, across the world beyond.

Aspen, NO!

The scent swirled violently, a storm gathering where there was no storm. Suddenly frantic, the whole family howled to one another, gathering together, turning to flee from the tumult. He led them away. He did not know where safety was, or what kind of threat encroached, but they trusted and followed him. They were his responsibility. He would let nothing harm his family.

The pack dashed away from the mountains, seeking safer ground. As they went they called out to one another, making sure no one was lost. The strange scent in the wind followed them, and called back.

And in the distance, on all sides, other wolves answered.


“Twenty-three,” Branwen said with a sigh, making a notation on her map. “I thought he said twenty hellgates?”

“If these people have even the most basic sense, they will have built themselves the most generous margin of error possible,” Khadizroth said absently, his attention focused on the diorama he had built on her dining room table. Assembled from dust he had called seemingly from the air itself, it formed a monochrome scale model of Ninkabi, with swirls of colored light dashing this way and that through its streets and canyons like errant gusts of wind. “Not all of these sites will produce viable hellgates, and they must be planning on at least some being discovered beforehand. It is a good strategy, but it means we must be unfailingly diligent.”

“Yes, the one we miss will be the worst,” she agreed wryly. “Isn’t that always the way… Any sign from your spirit guides of how many of these ritual sites are left to find?”

“As with much fae craft, it unfolds like relentless nature herself,” the dragon replied, giving her a sidelong smile. “It will be done when it is done. For now—”

“My lord!” Vannae said suddenly, shooting upright out of his seat.

“I sense it too,” Khadizroth replied, frowning now in alarm. “What on earth is…”

The entire model of the city shattered into a cloud, swirling chaotically until it formed a new shape.

Now, suddenly, it had made a moving statue of a wolf. The creature raised its head toward the ceiling, and emitted a howl as vivid and loud as if the living animal were right there in the room.

The door burst open and Shook staggered in, disheveled with sleep but brandishing a wand. “The fuck is that?! Everybody okay?”

Khadizroth was staring at the wolf in an unaccustomed expression of shock and disbelief.

“Ingvar,” he whispered. “What have you done?”


It seemed he’d barely had time to drift off to sleep, despite his intention to get an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s plans, but Darling shot bolt upright in bed to find both his apprentices at his sides, clutching his arms.

“Wha,” he burbled, “whazzat, I thought…”

The bedroom door burst open and Price appeared, her eyes sweeping the room.

“It’s okay!” Fauna said quickly. “He snapped out of it.”

“What happened?” the Butler demanded. “I have never heard such a sound. So help me, if you two are keeping a pet coyote…”

“That wasn’t us,” Flora objected. “It was him.”

“I had this dream…” Darling scrubbed a hand across his face. “I swear it was somewhere I’ve been before.”

“There was some serious fairy fuckery clustering around you out of nowhere,” said Fauna. “Seems to have dissipated, though.”

“We got here just before you started howling,” Flora added. “Are you okay, Sweet?”

He blinked twice. “Excuse me, I started what?”


The darkness of unconsciousness faded from his vision, replaced by Mary’s face, her eyes wide with uncharacteristic worry. He was breathing heavily as if he’d just run a mile, he realized, and almost toppled over, spared only by the grip of her slender hands on his cheeks. She was surprisingly strong, for an elf.

“Joseph, it’s all right,” she said soothingly. “You’re safe. Are you back with us?”

“I…” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, shaking his head. “What happened? I feel like I was just…somewhere else.”

“Damn, son, you scared the life outta me,” said McGraw, looming over him.

“Aye, that was a right wake up an’ no mistake,” Billie agreed, popping up at his side. “I never heard a human throat make a sound like that.”

“A sound like…what?” he asked weakly.

All around their little campsite, the Golden Sea stretched in every direction, seemingly infinite. Out of the darkness, suddenly from every direction there rose distant howls. They reminded him of the familiar voices of coyotes he’d often heard growing up in Sarasio. But…not. Their cries were longer, deeper…

Even more familiar.

“Like that,” said Weaver, standing a few yards distant with his back to the group, gazing at the dark horizon.


He was awakened by Hesthri climbing across him to the other side of the bed. The room was cool, its one window open to admit the evening breeze.

That, and sudden, surprising music from the hills all around Veilgrad.

Natchua already stood at the window, moonlight forming a gleaming corona on the darkness of her skin. Jonathan swung his legs over the side of the bed and followed Hesthri to join her.

“Aren’t there supposed to be werewolves in this area?” he asked, setting one arm across the drow’s slender shoulders while Hesthri laid a hand against her upper back.

“That,” Natchua said quietly, “and the normal kind of wolves. But not so many.”

It was true, he realized. Those howls were seemingly coming from every direction, repetitive and so unrelenting that he could hardly discern where one ended and the next began.

“It’s so beautiful,” Hesthri whispered. “What kinds of creatures are these?”

“Dangerous ones,” Jonathan said, stepping closer and taking advantage of the long reach of his arm to tug both of them against his side, gently squishing Natchua between them. “Though normal wolves hardly ever bother people unless starving or severely provoked. Werewolves are another matter.”

“This is another matter,” Natchua whispered. “I can’t tell what magic is at work here, but…it’s something big. Something in the world just changed.”


Andros Varanus took the risk of barging into the Grandmaster’s quarters without knocking.

Fortunately, the whole household was assembled, and awake, though still in sleeping clothes. Both of Veisroi’s wives turned on him with scowls at this sudden intrusion into their domain, but the Grandmaster himself raised a hand in a mute order for silence before either could upbraid him.

“You too, then, Brother Andros?” he asked, turning away from the fireplace into which he had been gazing.

“And not just me,” Andros rumbled. “Every man in this lodge is awake, due to the same dream. Every man but one. Hrathvin is in a trance from which his apprentice cannot stir him.”

Veisroi’s chest expanded with a long, deep breath. “Give him time. I named him shaman of this lodge for a reason; the man knows what he’s about. If he has not roused by dawn, we will send to the Emerald College for help.”

Andros nodded. “And the dream? You know this can only mean one thing, Grandmaster.”

“In the context of the telescroll I just received from N’Jendo…yes, I do,” the old man said, turning back to the flames. “Damn it all, Andros. I had such high hopes for Ingvar. When he set out on his quest from Shaath himself, I dared to think…”

“Ingvar also knows what he is about. He has more than earned our trust, Veisroi.”

“And how long has it been since we’ve had word from him? And now, just on the heels of warning that he is preaching apostasy in the West…this.” The Grandmaster clenched his jaw. “I hate to do it, Andros, you know I do. But a man does what he must, even when he does not wish to. Right now, do what you can to calm the men, make sure they’re seeing to their wives. It’s always the women who are most upset by things like this. In the immediate turn we will make sure Hrathvin is well. And when that is dealt with, for good or ill…”

“I protest, Grandmaster,” Andros said, as insistently as he could without making it a direct challenge.

“And that is your prerogative, Brother,” Veisroi replied without looking up from the fire. “But protest or not, tomorrow I will summon a Wild Hunt.”


Atop his watchtower on the ancient walls of Shaathvar, Roth stood with his back to the brazier’s warmth, staring out at the cold darkness. All around rose the pine-clad peaks encircling the valley directly below the city itself. And from all sides came the relentless howling.

“How can there be so many?” one of the two younglings assigned to join his watch asked, eyes wide. “Surely there can’t be that many wolves in the valley!”

“There aren’t that many wolves in the whole of the Stalrange,” Roth replied, his voice flat. A man did not flinch even in the face of…whatever this was. “I will keep the watch here; go rouse the captain. And you,” he added to the other, “fetch the barracks shaman. Keep your minds on the task before you, lads. This is a dire omen of something, but omens are a shaman’s work. Don’t borrow trouble for yourself until this has been interpreted by men who know the craft.”

“Yes, Brother,” they chorused, and both dashed off down opposite staircases toward the walls.

Roth just gazed out over the frigid, howling wilderness, wondering what had just happened to the world.


“This is not our business,” Arkhosh insisted, glaring at Mother Raghann. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the ceaseless howling of wolves which split the night all around. “People are agitated enough by this without you riling them up worse. Let the kitsune handle Sifan’s affairs and calm your own people, shaman.”

“This is not the kitsune’s business, either,” the old woman retorted, implacable as always. “These are ripples from a mountain dropped in the ocean, not a pebble in a pool. It began far from Sifan and extends farther still. The agitation of the spirits sings of a world in the grip of tumult, Arkhosh. And that makes it their business, and ours, and everyone’s.”

The other orc blew out a snort of irritation. “We are in no position to worry about the world, woman, or even Sifan as a whole. And we certainly owe the world no favors. It is the kitsune who are our hosts, and Tsurikura which is our business. If action is needed on our part, they’ll ask us for it. For now, we should tend to the walls. I can’t speak for spirits, but I know agitated wolves when I hear them.”

“Have you ever heard this many wolves?” she asked dryly. “What do you think our village walls would do if they took a notion to come here?”

“What say you, Aresk?” Arkhosh demanded, turning to his son, the only other orc gathered with them outside the gate. “Do they howl to us?”

The last and first priest of Khar stared out into the darkness, listening to the cries of wolves. The faintest glow of golden-white light limned him as he attuned to the faded power of their distant god. “Nothing in this tells me it pertains to us directly. But Mother Raghann is still right,” he added, turning to meet his father’s eyes. “We exist in the world, father. I agree that we should not meddle in what is not our business, or exert ourselves to aid those who would not do the same in turn. But waiting around to be told what to do by the kitsune is weakness. And just ignoring the world in the hope that nothing bad will happen is madness.”

Both of them bared tusks at him. Very recently, Aresk would have instinctively yielded to the displeasure of either of his elders, let alone both. But things changed, and he changed with them. It was that, or die.

“I suggest a middle ground. I won’t agree to our shamans rushing out to try to placate…whatever this is. But they should at least do what they can to learn what is happening. Whatever the spirits will tell us. With more information, we can better decide what to do. We should protect and support them in whatever rituals will best accomplish this.”

Raghann grunted. “Well. I can’t say the boy doesn’t talk sense. Very well, it’s at least a start.”

“A good compromise,” Arkhosh agreed, reaching out to squeeze his son’s shoulder. “Very well, Aresk, I concur with your council. We will start there. And then…” He looked sourly at Mother Raghann, and then out into the howling darkness. “…we shall see.”


“Elder?” the young woman asked, creeping up to the mouth of the cave just behind him. “What does it mean?”

The old lizardfolk shaman glanced back at her, and then at the rest of the tribe taking shelter, their eyes glowing in the dimness as they watched the cave mouth for danger.

He turned back around, facing outward and listening to the howls of the wolves, far too many wolves to actually live in this desolate land.

“It’s as I told you: a great doom is coming. This is only the beginning.”


Hamelin Hargrave stood in the open door of his cottage, gazing out at the normally peaceful hills of Viridill, listening to them. The spirits were so agitated he could glean nothing through the Craft; whatever was happening was clearly way over his head.

Tomorrow, he decided, he would make the trip to Vrin Shai and seek help. But not tonight. Magical or not, no matter how civilized an era it was, you didn’t set out on the roads after dark when the wolves were in a frenzy.


“Urusai,” Maru whined, curled up in the fetal position and clutching his head. “Urusai, urusai, urusai!”

“What’s that he’s chanting?” Professor Yornhaldt asked, craning his neck forward to peer as closely as he could without getting in Taowi’s way. She had a sharp tongue for people who interfered while she was tending to a patient.

“It means ‘loud,’” said Tellwyrn, herself standing on the other side of her currently crowded office, but watching closely as the campus healer tended to her prone secretary.

“Really?” asked Rafe. “I thought it meant ‘shut up.’ Kaisa used to say that to me all the time.”

“Language reflects culture,” Tellwyrn said absently. “To the Sifanese mindset, commenting that something is noisy suffices to demand that it stop. Taowi, please tell me that’s not what it smells like.”

“It’s exactly what it smells like, Arachne,” she said impatiently, still coaxing Maru to put the shriveled object she held in his mouth. “It’s worked on the others affected thus far.”

Tellwyrn took an aggressive step forward. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve been feeding glittershrooms to my students?!”

“To your students and to Stew,” Taowi Sunrunner replied, undaunted by the archmage’s ire. “There you go, Maru, don’t forget to chew. It’s affecting everyone fae-attuned, Arachne. What in the hell did you get me dried glittershrooms for if you didn’t think I was going to use them medicinally?”

Tellwyrn snorted. “I figured you’ve been an exemplary healer and as long as it didn’t interfere with your work I wasn’t going to begrudge you whatever you needed to relax.”

Maru was weakly chewing the wedge of dried glittershroom; Taowi took her eyes off him for a moment to give Tellwyrn a blistering look. “The principle harm done by this is simply stress. For most things I would simply apply a sedative, but this is clearly fae in nature and affecting people through the dreamscape somehow. Putting someone to sleep would just trap them in it. You’ll notice I asked you to procure a supply of shrooms right after that clever little fool Madouri did exactly that to herself by combining Nightmare’s Dream potion with the Sleeper curse. Glittershrooms induce euphoria without causing sleepiness; it’s the best spot treatment. Once everyone is stabilized I mean to switch them to sevenleaf oil, but considering how bad some of the reactions are, I advise the potency of shrooms to take the edge off.”

“How is everyone faring?” Tellwyrn asked more quietly.

“It hits fairies worse than witches,” Taowi said absently, her focus again on Maru as she soothingly stroked his fur while waiting for the glittershroom to take effect. “Stew was nearly this bad. Oak says she’s getting the same visions, but they don’t bother her, which makes me feel less worried about Juniper and Fross. Dryads are generally under different rules. With the students…it varies. Most of them welcomed a bit of shroom, but Iris declined. She wants to stay lucid to help keep watch over the others, and frankly I’m grateful for the assistance. She seems to be suffering the least from the effect.”

“And it’s the same for all of them?”

“They report the same visions.” Taowi looked up to meet her eyes. “Wolves howling. More than just the noise, this is hitting them right in the emotional center, as fae magic does. They’ve all said they feel they’re being called to something, but they can’t understand what, much less answer it, and that’s what’s causing the acute stress. This is some kind of compulsion which can’t be fulfilled. There are few things more psychologically excruciating.”

“We unfortunately lack a fae specialist,” Rafe said, turning to Professor Tellwyrn, “since Liari retired and Kaisa buggered off mid-semester.”

“And isn’t that the long and the short of it,” Tellwyrn said, shoving both fists under her spectacles to rub at her eyes. “It’s the area of magic I’m least equipped to analyze, but the geas on this mountain would at least warn me if the effect were targeted here. If it’s a general effect over a wide area, then wherever it’s coming from, we’re not the only ones feeling it. All right. Alaric, keep order here as best you can. Admestus, help Taowi with the afflicted.”

“You have an idea?” Yornhaldt asked.

She grimaced readjusting her glasses. “The only idea I have is begging for help. I’m going to Sarasio to see if Sheyann and Chucky know anything about this. Hold the fort, everyone.”


Rainwood stumbled backward with nothing like an elf’s usual grace, staring at the wolves in the clearing around his snuffed-out faefire.

They were beautiful, but nothing about them appeared natural. Patterns were set in their fur that looked dyed, geometric and clearly designed, and most strikingly, they glowed. Each a different pattern in a subtly different color. Their eyes were glowing wells of power without pupils; even their fur seemed to put off a gentle aura of moonlight.

In the spot where Ingvar had sat, the largest wolf turned to bare fangs at Rainwood, his pure white fur marked with sigils in luminous green and blue on the shoulders and forehead. He raised his head and howled once, and loud as the sound was, it was nothing compared to the metaphysical shockwave it sent out.

Rainwood actually fell backward, landing on his rump and gaping.

The pack gathered themselves and loped off into the trees, heading west toward the sea—though they would reach Ninkabi long before they got to the coast. Seventeen enormous, glowing, unprecedented creatures departed from the wilderness on a collision course with civilization, leaving behind a magical storm that roared outward in every direction, dwarfing the disturbance which had rocked the fae up in the Wyrnrange the previous day.

This one would be felt across every inch of the planet.

“Kuriwa’s going to kill me,” he said aloud, staring after the departed pack. “Literally, this time.”

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13 – 20

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“All right,” Inspector Jaahri said in a weary tone, “one more time, then. Miss Sakhavenid found—”

“With all respect, Inspector,” Glory said, finally with open sharpness, “we have been over this six times now. It is neither a long nor a complex story.”

“I find that repetition helps weed out accidental little falsehoods that tend to creep into any narrative,” the Inspector replied, matching Glory’s stare flatly. “Or do you imagine yourself to be an expert on Imperial investigative procedure?”

“It is not procedure for you to have dismissed the entire house full of guests,” Jasmine interjected.

“Quiet, girl,” Jaahri snapped, shooting her a sidelong look.

“Each of those,” she pressed on, “was a potential witness and suspect, and I know you did not have time to interview them all in detail—”

“Sergeant,” the Inspector said loudly, “if that young woman interrupts me again, take her into custody.”

The tension in the room increased significantly, and it had not been slight to begin with. Glory and her staff for the evening had been gathered in the downstairs parlor at the insistence of the Inspector, along with Schwartz and Ami. The rest of the house had been cleared out, at Jaahri’s insistence, leaving them alone with eight Imperial soldiers, who had positioned themselves in a ring around the civilians. Their demeanor was cold almost to the point of aggression; they stared balefully at the gathered Eserites (and Vesker and Salyrite) as if expecting to have to break out wands at any moment. A rather peculiar attitude for soldiers to have toward a group of young servants whom they had not been informed were Guild apprentices.

Smythe was gliding smoothly around the chamber, offering tea to each soldier in turn, and being irritably rebuffed every time. Which, of course, did not ruffle his equanimity in the slightest.

“Why are your men not investigating the house, or the crime scene?” Glory asked, her tone again deceptively mild.

“Madam,” Jaahri said impatiently, folding his arms, “I will ask the questions, if you don’t mind—”

“I mind,” she interrupted. “In fact, I have had just about enough of this. It beggars belief that you would dismiss an entire house full of suspects only to sit here grilling those least likely to have been implicated in this crime.”

“Don’t presume that I know nothing of this matter except what I’ve learned here tonight,” the Inspector retorted. “I already have my suspects, Ms. Sharvineh, thank you for your concern. For instance, the late Mr. Treadwell was not a social creature, and in particular was last seen in seclusion due to an embarrassing misstep within his own cult. Someone exerted significant pressure to bring him out to this event…at which he was subsequently murdered. And as luck would have it, I happen to know already who did so.”

“You accuse me of this?” She raised one eyebrow, her expression artfully skeptical.

“I am not yet ready to make accusations,” Jaahri replied, tucking his notebook away in an inner pocket of his coat. “But I am well aware, Ms. Sharvineh, that there is an ongoing matter here, and that you have attempted to conceal the connection from me. This group of young people very closely matches the description of a group of Thieves’ Guild apprentices who were involved in the burglary of a temple of Avei, an event connected to Mr. Treadwell being reprimanded by his superiors in the Collegium. Now, it would seem he has been silenced.”

“Now, that’s real interesting,” Tallie snapped. “Since Schwartz and Ami weren’t part of—”

“Hzzt!” Ross grunted, driving an elbow into her side nearly hard enough to knock her over. Glory glanced over at Tallie, letting out a soft sigh.

“And that is an admission,” Jaahri said with grim satisfaction. “I believe you had all better accompany me to the barracks to discuss this further, in more detail.”

“She is right, though,” Glory said thoughtfully, holding up a hand to forestall Darius, who had straightened up and unfolded his arms at the Inspector’s last comment. “Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Talaari are not involved in that. Why would you see fit to detain them? Herschel is a guest this evening—the only one you did not dismiss. And I cannot fathom what connection you think my paid musician might have to the murder.”

“The fact that you know less than I is the reason this will be quickly solved,” Inspector Jaahri stated. “Sergeant, start gathering these people up, all of—damn it, will you go away?” he snapped at Smythe, who had offered him a canape. The Butler bowed in silence and retreated to stand by the door. Jasmine glanced at him once, pressing her lips together; Smythe’s act had effectively removed him from the soldiers’ consideration except as a buzzing nuisance, and now he had placed himself in control of the room’s primary exit, holding a tray which would serve as either weapon or shield. Clearly, these troops were not accustomed to dealing with Butlers.

“Hershel,” Glory said calmly, “what do you have for neutralizing enemies in a crowd?”

“You are on thin ice, Sharvineh,” Jaahri warned.

“In fact I’ve got just the thing!” Schwartz replied, while Meesie bristled on his shoulder, chattering at the Inspector. “Cooked it up after our last go-round. You know, the one where we trounced a contingent of Svennish intelligence agents?” He cast a pointed look at Jaahri, who hesitated in the act of opening his mouth again. “Controlled chain lightning. I can cast it to arc only to targets I designate; a quick and clean way to clear out a room of mixed hostiles and friendlies. I’d sort of rather not, though. Lightning has a tendency to be lethal.”

“Are you aware that threatening a duly appointed agent of the Silver Throne is a crime, Mr. Schwartz?” the Inspector grated.

“Are you aware of the penalty for corruption for officers of the Emperor’s law?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“That does it,” Jaahri snapped, pointing at her. “Sergeant, arrest that one. Now.”

A man wearing sergeant’s stripes glanced at Jasmine, then at Schwartz, and swallowed. “Sir…”

“Did I stutter?” the Inspector asked incredulously, rounding on him.

“A thought occurs to me,” Glory said idly, inspecting her flawlessly manicured nails. “We know that poor Mr. Treadwell was involved in a conspiracy which has been pursuing these apprentices. All of us had been operating on the assumption, however, that this was strictly a matter among the cults. I confess it simply did not occur to me that there would be enemy agents among the Imperial Army. And yet, I am stymied as to why else you would choose to dismiss most of the possible suspects from investigation, Inspector, or how you would know to include Mr. Schwartz and the bard in this…net, of yours. Tell me, what do you think will happen when I bring my own influence to bear upon you?” A feline smile uncoiled itself across her lips. “I am not, as I suspect you know, without powerful friends.”

“You have managed to say the worst possible thing available to you in this circumstance, Sharvineh,” Jaahri said. “You are all under arrest, and I strongly suggest you comply voluntarily. Resisting his Majesty’s—”

Smythe interrupted him by clearing his throat loudly; the Butler, in fact, was in the process of slipping back into the room, having ducked out while everyone was distracted. Jaahri whirled on him, reaching into a pocket of his coat, and one of the soldiers actually drew a wand. Smythe ignored all of them, directing himself to a point in midair near the center of the parlor.

“Bishops Darling and Syrinx to see you, madam,” he intoned, stepping aside.

They paced inside in lockstep, both wearing their formal Church robes and tabards, but both moved with the graceful stride of a pair of leopards, their eyes snapping to Inspector Jaahri as soon as they entered the room. Even the ecclesiastical uniforms did not detract from the effect; these were plainly here as Eserite and Avenist, not Church officials.

“Oh, now, don’t let us interrupt you, Inspector,” Darling said in an uncharacteristically flat tone.

Behind them, three more women strode into the parlor, immediately fanning out to assert full control of the exit; Flora, Fauna, and Jenell Covrin also stared coldly, making a point of watching the assembled soldiers.

“Yes, by all means,” Syrinx growled, fondling the ornate hilt of her sword. “Finish your thought.”


Akhatrya rapped on the wooden door frame even as he stepped into the room without waiting to be invited; the palace seneschal enjoyed certain privileges as well as responsibilities, and being on hand to assist the royal family whether they sought him out or not involved some blending of the two. It was late, and this wasn’t strictly his responsibility—any number of lesser servants could have seen to it—but he made a point of keeping an eye on any of the family who were under unusual stress, or acting out of the ordinary.

Both conditions applied to Princess Zaruda this evening.

She did not commonly choose to spend time in her father’s office, or any place predominated by papers and books. Neither did the King, but Rajakhan never shirked his duties, no matter how tedious he found them. It was a safe bet, however, that when the King did not need to be actively poring over documents, he would be elsewhere, and so Ruda had had the office to herself all night. She’d spent the evening having clerks bring her a variety of textbooks, financial records and copies of several treaties. Now, Akhatrya entered to find her hunched over an open volume of conversion tables, muttering to herself and tracing one fingertip across a page as she read.

“Would you like anything, your Highness?” he asked diffidently.

“Think I got everything I wanted, thanks,” Ruda muttered without looking up.

The seneschal smiled faintly. “Good. I meant more in the way of food or drink, however. Perhaps a pillow?”

“It isn’t that late,” she said, finally lifting her eyes to frown at him. The office had two narrow windows looking out across the battlements at the harbor, which showed nothing but darkness at this hour. It was not dim, thanks to the fairy lamps.

“Very good, your Highness,” Akhatrya said, bowing. “I am, of course, at your disposal, should you have questions about anything you read.”

She was already frowning at the book again, and absently shook her head. The seneschal waited another moment before bowing again, despite the fact she was no longer looking at him, and turning to go.

“Hey, Akhatrya, wait a second.”

“Your Highness?” He turned back to face her, folding his hands in front of himself.

Ruda almost grudgingly tore her gaze away from the columns of figures she was studying. “Let me pose you a hypothetical.”

“I am at your service.”

“Suppose you worked for a King or Queen who wanted to change the standard of measurements we use from the common system to the dwarven system. How would you advise them to go about implementing that?”

He hesitated for a moment, thinking. “Well… In honesty, Princess, my first recommendation would be not to.”

She drummed her fingers once on another book, staring at him. When she said nothing further, he continued.

“Forcing changes in people’s way of life from the position of the Crown is always tricky, Princess, and should be done as sparingly as possible. This is true for all rulers, but most especially for those governing a people as free-spirited and prone to defiance as the Punaji. Any hint of heavy-handed action without a clear and specific purpose will agitate the populace. That, in particular, would impose costs upon everyone, most especially merchants. Converting from one system—any kind of system—to another is always a difficult transition.”

She let out a soft huff, and turned her head to scowl at the dark windows. “If there’s one thing I would expect of Punaji, it’s not to carry on following a mindless tradition when there are better, more effective ways. Especially a tradition that it turns out was created by the Elder Gods for the specific fucking purpose of holding people back and making our lives difficult. Akhatrya, have you ever looked at the tables of dwarven measurements? It’s all so…efficient. Everything’s derived from a base measurement designed to be specifically useful. Everything scales in neat increments of ten—no figuring or fumbling involved, if you can damn well count you can do shit it takes a trained accountant to handle now. No wonder the dwarves switched over. If they can do it, why the hell can’t anyone else? Why not the Punaji? What the economy alone would save in the long run is more than worth the hassle of converting!”

“If only people saw life in terms of neat costs and rewards,” he said wryly. “Your Highness, I have not been party to your political education. Are you aware of the systems of government used by the dwarves?”

“Mm, not in much detail,” she admitted. “I could probably tell you more about Tiraan or Sifanese or Arkanian politics than the Five Kingdoms. They’re pretty insular an’ they bend over backwards to accommodate us whenever we do business; I’ve mostly learned how to show ’em proper manners when they visit and leave their inner workings alone. Hell, even the Sifanese are less standoffish about people getting into their internal business.”

“I see,” Akhatrya said thoughtfully. “Are you acquainted with the concept of socialism?”

“No, but I like it already,” she replied, grinning. “Sounds cuddly.”

“It’s an idea which is implemented, in one form or another, in the governing policies of each of the Five Kingdoms,” he explained. “Basically, the core contention of socialism is that nothing which is necessary for life should be the subject of personal profit, for anyone. Food, lodgings, and medical care, for example, are all provided to all citizens equally by the state. The different dwarven nations have varying standards of what is necessary; by and large, they are all more highly organized at the state level than any human nation, and their governments provide a very wide range of services compared to ours. They have elaborate public education, for example, all the way through the university level, and state-sponsored arts, museums, scientific research, loans of business capital… Obviously, this necessitates a very high level of government involvement in all aspects of life, and is funded by a heavy income tax, levied progressively according to individual wealth.”

Ruda stared at him in blank silence for a long moment.

“Well,” she said at last, “that’s not quite the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but I respect it for trying.”

Akhatrya grinned. “Consider this, though. Even with most of their economies in shambles and gross domestic products flatlined at best for the last ten years, the Five Kingdoms have universally low crime, almost no unemployment, and zero homelessness. Most societies in the state of economic vulnerability they currently suffer succumb to further related maladies, notably outbreaks of disease. No such thing has happened in the Dwarnskolds. They suffer some privation, but they do so equally. The strong do not prey upon the weak, and society itself endures without leaning upon its most vulnerable members.”

“Akhatrya, it sounds like you like this cockamamie scheme,” she exclaimed. “You can’t possibly be thinking of trying something like that in fucking Puna Dara! We’d have a revolution within five fucking minutes!”

“And that,” he said, nodding, “is exactly my point. I heartily approve of you studying the ways of our neighbors to learn from their strengths, Princess. But never forget that we are not dwarves. We are not even Imperials. We are Punaji, and not every useful idea that exists in the world would be useful to us. Some, though they might indeed prove to be assets, are simply too far from the core of who we are. The people will not tolerate anything they see as an attack upon the spirit of our nation.”

She turned again to frown at the window, but this time the expression was more thoughtful than disgruntled.

“The spirit of our nation,” Ruda said quietly, “is already under attack. A long, slow one that we can’t seem to do anything to halt. There’s no room for a pirate nation in the world as it’s shaping up. We already depend on the Empire’s goodwill to prevent one of the other naval powers of the Azure Sea from invading us, and isn’t that a constant fucking insult. Sooner or later, we have to either change who we are, or…give up. Forget who we are, be absorbed by Tiraas like the Calderaan and the Stalweiss and the Onkawi and…” She trailed off, and swallowed heavily. “Gods. I hope Mama and Papa are gone before it comes to that. I don’t want them to have to see it.”

After a moment, Akhatrya stepped quietly over to the desk, and reached out to lay a hand upon her shoulder. It was not strictly appropriate, but the Rock was probably the least formal of the government palaces in all the world. They were, after all, Punaji.

Ruda heaved a sigh and cleared her throat, turning back to regard him with a freshly incisive expression, and he let his hand fall, stepping back.

“We’re already the Five Kingdoms’ biggest trading partner, though,” she said. “Everything they make and wanna sell overseas comes through Puna Dara. Since the Narisian Treaty they’ve vastly increased the business they do that way instead of selling to the Empire, too. There is no possible way Punaji merchants aren’t already familiar with dwarven systems of weights and measures.”

“That is true,” he allowed. “Most have found it profitable to endure our neighbors’ little peculiarities. And if the systems are indeed as superior as you say, there may well be some who already favor them.”

“So, getting back to my original question.” Ruda leaned back in her father’s chair, staring at the far wall, and propped her (thankfully clean) boots up on a copy of a tariff agreement with the Kingdom of Stavulheim. “How to implement that, while still respecting the independent spirit of the Punaji. Since the precedent’s already there, I think we could begin by encouraging the use of dwarven standards without mandating them. Go slow, go careful, gradually get the population more acquainted with ’em an’ make sure there’s widespread acceptance before starting to switch actual government practice. Hnh, I much prefer to get shit done, but I guess you’ve gotta take your time when dealing with the egos of tens of thousands of people.”

“The safe way is the slow way, as a rule,” he agreed, smiling again.

Ruda looked back up at him, grinning. “So! You like my general strategy, then? Anything you’d add?”

“Well,” Akhatrya said, “you asked me what I would do, hypothetically, if I served a monarch who insisted on pursuing such a course. In that situation…yes, I think I would proceed much as you describe. And I also would offer thanks to the gods that my people were in the hands of a wise Queen.”

Her smile actually faltered, and the princess cleared her throat, averting her eyes. “Ah… Yeah, well, I guess—”

Both of them stiffened as an alarm bell began tolling outside the fortress, quickly followed by a second, and then more.

Ruda swung her legs back to the floor and bounded up, crossing to the window, where she pressed her face against the glass, peering out at the darkened harbor.

“What the fuck?” she exclaimed after a brief moment, then whirled and dashed for the door.


“THINK!” Ayuvesh thundered, his voice booming from the walls of the cavern.

The group actually hesitated, which was just as well for the sake of diplomacy; Vadrieny had already burst forth, both Huntsmen had bows drawn, Gabriel was brandishing both scythe and saber, and even Toby had shifted to a ready stance.

“You servants of the Pantheon are always so quick to turn to violence,” the leader of the Rust continued, bestowing on them a mocking smile from his perch atop the walking machine. At the touch of his fingers upon the chair controls, it took a lumbering step backward, then shifted, awkwardly turning itself to face them at an angle. “Really, it’s not as if I don’t know who the lot of you are. Would I actually want to start a fight with you, here, in our own sanctum? Knowing it would cost the lives of many of my comrades, and incalculable damage to our home and resources? No, no, children, rest assured, I was not challenging you to battle.”

“Y’know, for a guy who talks so much about how put-upon he is,” Fross chimed irritably, “you spout a lot of what are really easy to take as threats.”

“This is a misunderstanding,” Toby said firmly. “I honestly have no idea what’s happening, and I have no qualms at all about telling you anything you want to know about the woman who stole the screen off your gateway. I can’t even say for sure if she’s the reason for this—”

“I would be willing to put money on that,” Gabriel growled.

Toby shot him a quelling look. “But we certainly have no attachment to her. Her behavior was not exactly friendly.”

Ayuvesh regarded him sardonically while he spoke, then lowered his gaze to study something set amid the controls on the arm of his mount’s seat. “Hummm. And yet, I find no indication of someone apart from you lot creeping around…” He paused, frowning. “And yet. A screen was remotely activated, and its position is currently unknown. So…perhaps.”

“Perhaps is a starting point,” Toby said soothingly, holding up both hands. “Look, we’ve already established that none of us here wants anything to get more violent than it already has.”

“Ah, yes, so we should now lay our cards on the table,” Ayuvesh said bitterly. “As you did when you mentioned this mysterious woman as soon as you entered.”

“Honestly, man, what would you have said?” Gabriel asked in exasperation.

Vadrieny turned on him with the same tone. “Are you under the impression that you’re helping, Gabe?”

“Not usually,” he muttered.

“Let me lay out for you some other things we have established,” Ayuvesh continued, again manipulating his controls. The walker retreated further, even as the other members of the Rust scattered to man various pieces of machinery, or disappear into side tunnels. “None of us are eager to volunteer information—perhaps understandably. You kids have a tendency to perceive threats in every little thing, and respond with the promise of your considerable capacity for brute force. I, on the other hand, respond to threats by…rearranging the playing field. The best way, I find, to avoid getting into a pitched battle is to make the process so uninviting that no one seeks to offer you violence.”

“Like you did to the Silver Legions,” said Juniper.

“You seem to think that was an extreme response,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “What’s more reasonable, when presented with a large, threatening force, than to remove that force from the board, as gently as possible? But you lot aren’t a Silver Legion. You have a lot more firepower, a lot less restraint, and not half the logistical hurdles involved in doing anything. Carefully incapacitating you isn’t really a prospect, I suppose. So I must, if we are to continue these discussions, somehow ensure your good behavior. I wish I could think of a less regrettable way to do so. Truly, I do.”

He pushed a lever and the walker turned to face one of the walls, which was already shifting into motion, its innumerable machine parts whirring and shuffling like a colossal swarm of ants. Metal arms extended from dozens of points, each bearing view screens of various sizes, and began fitting them together into a single, huge display, its image clear despite the lines of connection running across it and its wildly uneven edges.

The cobbled-together screen showed them an image of the city harbor under the moonlight. As they watched, the waters began to stir.

“I expect you kids to be respectful, henceforth,” Ayuvesh chided, “for the sake of Puna Dara.”


Ruda burst out of the fortress doors onto the battlements, racing for the foremost tower which extended into the harbor with Akhatrya right on her heels. It was chaos, but organized chaos; soldiers dashed alongside them, moving themselves into proper order, as more assembled in ranks in the Rock’s main courtyard below.

The princess and the seneschal reached the tower, troops hustling out of their way, and tore up its steps to the platform on top, where Ruda pressed herself against the crenelated wall, staring incredulously out over the harbor.

Ships were moored, but there was fortunately no active traffic at this hour, and thus no vessels were lost in the disturbance. The spot near the center of the bay, which alternately bubbled as if pressed upon from below and descended into a whirlpool, abruptly exploded, spraying water as far as the docks.

The thing that rose up from within was titanic, a thick, sinuous shape plated in irregular metal over its coiled scales. A row of metallic spikes ran along its spine, with lengths of wire connecting them and giving off sparks and arcs of lightning which danced across the surface of the water. Most of the massive sea serpent’s head was original flesh and bone, but its wedge-like lower jaw was entirely metal, and its right eye had been covered over with a huge patch connected to the plates and spikes climbing up its back. Into this was set a tremendous green fairy lamp which cast a sickly glow across the whole harbor.

Giant sea serpents did not come this close to the shore, they very rarely breached the surface and definitely did not vocalize. The augmented monstrosity finished showing that it did not respect any of these rules by throwing back its head and emitting a mighty roar which had a distinct undertone of metal scraping against metal.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Ruda roared right back, turning to Akhatrya and pointing accusingly out at the beast. “Look at this! This is what happens when I leave those assholes unsupervised!”

 

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12 – 58

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“I need someone to say how quiet it is,” the Jackal murmured, easing back into the alley from having peeked around the corner. He turned to grin at the rest of them. “You know. So I can make the obvious rejoinder.”

He was met by a cluster of unimpressed expressions.

“It’s too quiet,” he clarified, seeming on the verge of bursting into laughter.

“You see what I have to deal with?” Shook muttered to Joe. “Every day with this crap.”

“My heart bleeds,” Joe retorted. “Although, to be fair, that was just the once.”

They all ducked at the sudden gust of wind that swooped into the alley. Seconds later, a stack of old crates a few yards back shook slightly, and Kheshiri popped back into view atop it, wings still spread from her glide.

“Well?” Shook demanded.

“It’s a trap,” the succubus reported.

“Didn’t we already know that?” Rook stage whispered. Moriarty nudged him with the butt of his staff, scowling.

“No, no, this is good news,” Kheshiri continued, grinning, as she folded her wings against her back. “It was supposed to be a trap, but it’s been neutered. The guy in charge is gonna try to ambush us right out there on the street, he’s got his people positioned packed into alleys and a couple ground-floor rooms in the surrounding area. But! The Thieves’ Guild have finally got off their butts and been moving, too, and they do quick and quiet a lot better than these guys. They’ve ambushed several of the shadow-jumpers and have been blocking doors. I don’t think they’ll be able to contain the whole horde, there are still at least a couple scores of ’em, but Mr. Big Shot out there is gonna be very underwhelmed when he tries to spring his ambush.”

“How, exactly, do you know this guy’s in charge?” Joe demanded.

“Because he’s the only one I can sense,” she said condescendingly. “I told you the others are on drugs—all I get from them is…fuzz. They’re like a sea, not like individuals. The ones using magic, though, and this guy, they’re alert and focused. And this one’s standing still, not shadow-jumping around, which makes him in charge. We take him out—”

“You can read minds?” Finchley blurted out in horror.

“Not quite,” Danny murmured. “Children of Vanislaas can sense desires, though. It’s an intuitive thing. I never heard of one making such tactical use of the skill, though…”

“I’m a piece of work,” Kheshiri said smugly. “Right, master?”

“That’s my girl,” Shook said, then snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground by his feet. The demon obediently hopped down from her crate and went to heel with an unnecessarily slinky gait, deliberately turning to brush her bust against Finchley’s chest as she squeezed past and causing him to turn nearly scarlet.

“As a point of general reference,” said Joe, “you guys trust the demon because…?”

“People make such a fuss about trust,” the Jackal mused, shaking his head woefully. “We work as a group because we all know what we want and what we’re like. And Kheshiri will be in deep shit if anything excessively bad happens to her precious master, there. Considering we’re not only in mortal danger but surrounded by Guild enforcers who specifically want to haul his ass away in chains, she’ll behave herself. And she’s right; if we’ve identified the leader, and he thinks he has the upper hand but doesn’t, this is our chance to finish this.”

“Undead,” Vannae said weakly. He had regained some of the color in his cheeks, but was still having trouble breathing, apparently.

“Ah, yes,” the Jackal said, “that. When I said ‘undead,’ I didn’t mean skeletons and zombies. He’s got some real nastiness waiting in the wings. Soon as his trap fails to go off, he’ll drop that hammer, so we’ve gotta finish this fast.”

“Vampires?” Finchley squeaked.

“Kid, if there was a vampire after us, most of this group would be dead already,” the Jackal said disdainfully. “Constructs. Big ones. Constructed undead are pretty fragile, but they hit hard. Better by far if we put a stop to this before they come into play.”

Rook cleared his throat. “Uh, doesn’t it seem likely the thieves will attack him once that starts? Him and possibly us, since we’re with Shook?”

“Fuck my life,” Shook muttered. Kheshiri snuggled against his side, and he absentmindedly patted her rear.

“Yep,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Well, what’re you jokers all standing around for? This beehive ain’t gonna kick itself!”


“Here?”

“I—I don’t know!” Maureen said frantically, clearly on the verge of tears. “I wasn’t—it all looks the same, it’s just grass and I can’t see over it—”

Sheyann stepped over to the horse and reached up to lay a hand gently on Maureen’s leg. The gnome broke off, choking back a sob, then blinked down at the elf.

“One breath at a time,” the Elder said, radiating calm. Maureen nodded, hiccuping again, and squeezed her eyes shut, clearly reaching for self-control. Sheyann shifted her attention to Whisper’s other rider. “Gabriel, did you happen to take note of your surroundings?”

“’Fraid I have the same problem, uh, Elder,” he said, frowning around at the horizon. “I was distracted trying to find the girls, and…this all looks the same to me. I came north toward the Sea, so it’s this general area…”

“It’s here,” said Wyrnst, who was barely visible through the tallgrass, being a foot shorter than its average height. “It’s fading fast, but…there’s a characteristic smell about this, so to speak. Infernal magic was used…not quite here, but across the dimensional barrier from this spot. I’ve encountered similar in the aftermath of major summonings. From what I know of how the Golden Sea works, it could cause the same residue. Can you sense anything?”

“Agitation,” Haunui murmured, gazing out across the tallgrass. “The wind speaks of its anger. They call this a sea?”

“We know that’s how centaurs navigate,” said Tellwyrn, striding forward to join Sheyann. “Shift the Darklands, cause a corresponding shift on this side of the barrier, at least until the tension builds up and the whole system randomizes itself. But that’s within the Sea, and we’re a good half a mile from the border. Sheyann, you’re older than I; have you ever heard of someone reaching out of the Sea to suck someone in like this?”

The Elder shook her head, patting Maureen’s leg one last time and then taking a step north, toward the endless horizon, where the last red light of sunset was fading. “Centaurs are not ambitious warlocks; I doubt any would think to try such a thing. I do feel it, now that I focus…but it’s strange. It’s not what I… Give me a moment, please. I must concentrate.”

She folded her legs under herself right where she stood, sinking smoothly down to kneel and consequently all but vanishing into the tallgrass. Gabriel gently nudged Whisper away, giving the Elder a respectful space in which to work.

Haunui glanced down at her, then up again at the horizon. “I will help if I can, but I do not understand this land. Nor the depth of your craft.”

“There are few elemental spirits anywhere on this continent that don’t know Sheyann,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “and few people anywhere who are more skilled at what they do. If she wants to try something, we’ll probably get the best results by leaving her to it.”

“She’s out there,” Maureen whimpered.

“And we will find her,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “Sheyann is, as usual, right. Right now the best thing you can do is take care of yourself, Maureen. Try to find some calm.”

“Should…I go back for some of the others?” Gabriel asked uncertainly. “I mean, since Whisper and I have the speed, here.”

“To retrace the Sleeper’s steps, we need infernomancy and shamanism,” Tellwyrn replied. “That’s who I brought along, Arquin—and before you suggest it, Embras Mogul is already more involved in this whole business than I like.”

“Wasn’t gonna,” he muttered.

“Mr. Wrynst,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the dwarf, “I realize this is out of your element, but can you detect anything else?”

Wrynst stroked his chin ruminatively. He was clean-shaven and altogether looked the part of the modern dwarf; his formal robes were well-tailored, suggesting a business suit in their style and cut to accentuate rather than conceal the blocky shape of his physique.

“Not without more to go on,” he said at last. “As I said, the traces are fading rapidly, even while we stand here. The problem is that there wasn’t actually a rift opened. I can track a shadow-jump or dimensional transfer if I can get at it, but this accursed mirroring effect obscures the traces I’d need to read. The real action happened in Hell, not here. If either of our shaman can coax the Sea to oblige us, that’ll be another matter. Rifts are even easier to follow in the context of other nearby rifts, so long as you’ve a head for the math—and have the right tools. I have both, of course! The Golden Sea makes the ultimate sextant in that regard; most theorize there is a massive dimensional nexus of some kind at its center, which both causes the instability in the region and is the reason the Sea doesn’t let anybody get at its heart. But, again, that’s little help because the shifting we’re trying to follow is merely a reflection of something that happened in another universe, and I’ve neither the senses nor the instruments to perceive something like that in the necessary detail.”

“The winds are angry,” Haunui repeated morosely. “I expect no help from them.”

“Thanks for that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh.

“The Sea will help us,” Sheyann said suddenly, opening her eyes and standing. “I must remain here, to keep communication open. The mind of the Sea is normally unreadable…but it seems Iris reached it.”

“She said please,” Maureen whispered. “Over and over. I didn’t know who she was begging…”

“The child will be a truly remarkable witch, in the fullness of time,” Sheyann said gravely, “provided we are able to rescue her. She touched the Sea itself, its consciousness, something no shaman I have ever known has been able to do.”

“Iris has gifts apart from her craft,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “I don’t invite just any teenage witch to my school. You have an expression that says there’s a downside, Sheyann.”

“The consciousness of the Golden Sea is…rather like a god, in some respects,” Sheyann explained, nodding. “It is a consciousness, but not like ours. In the way it is approached, it’s like a machine, responding predictably to a few narrow stimuli and ignoring most others. While gods will sometimes make their thoughts known, however, the Sea never has that I know of. Iris left traces that I can follow. However…”

“Here it comes,” Tellwyrn muttered.

Sheyann gave her an irritated look without pausing. “This is delicate. I sense compliance toward Iris, as well as resentment at the Sleeper. I don’t understand what Iris did, exactly, and cannot reproduce it; the Sea will not comply with me. To do this, I will have to skirt the line between cajoling the Sea’s distant mind in the wake of Iris’s touch, and coercing it to cooperate, as the centaurs do. One false step will backfire catastrophically.”

Tellwyrn drew in a breath, and let it out in a short sigh. “I know your skill, Sheyann. If anyone can do it…”

“I would not suggest such a risk if I didn’t think I could,” the Elder replied gravely. “That is not the problem. I must maintain a reflection, in Mr. Wrynst’s words, of what was done before.”

“What’s that mean?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“The Sleeper’s passage was separate, and invisible to me,” Sheyann said. “I can retrace the grip that seized Iris and Maureen. But two were taken, and only two can follow.”

“Sometimes,” Tellwyrn growled, “I honestly hate magic.”


Immediately upon exiting the alley, they put together the best formation they could. Shook and Kheshiri stepped to one side of the opening, the Jackal and Vannae to the other, while Joe paced out in the center, wands in hand. Behind him, Danny emerged, and the three soldiers swiftly clustered around him as soon as they had space to do so, brandishing staves at the empty street.

“Fuckin’ creepy,” Shook muttered. “Haven’t even heard any alarm bells…”

They all whirled to face the shadows which swelled in the center of the street ahead. The darkness receded, revealing three figures in gray robes which obscured their faces.

“Grandiose,” Kheshiri said skeptically. “You only needed one caster to shadow-jump. You’re sacrificing strategic value for—”

“We are the rising tide,” a gravely voice interrupted her.

“Which one’s talking?” Finchley whispered.

“I will bet you a year’s pay it’s the one in the middle,” Rook muttered back.

The Jackal barked a laugh. “No bet.”

“We will sweep away the unworthy,” the voice continued, and finally the figure in the middle stepped forward to raise his arms skyward. “The very stones are worn away by the tide!”

“Fascinating,” said Danny, craning his neck to peer over Moriarty’s shoulder. “Excuse me, but what god are you with? I don’t recognize that rhetoric.”

“You cannot stop the—”

The cultist’s proclamation was cut short by a lightning bolt. It was an imperfect shot, coming at an awkward angle; the electric discharge struck the figure to his left indirectly, arcing to graze him. He toppled backward to the street with a squeal, while his compatriot fell silently, robe smoking. The other cultist jumped backward, and vanished in an abrupt swell of shadow.

The rest of them had whirled to face the direction from which the shot had come, with the exception of the Jackal, who flung his arms wide in a gesture of frustration.

“Oh, come on! I was gonna murder that guy! Goddammit, I never get to kill anybody anymore…”

Sweet hopped down from the second-floor fire escape, landing in a deep crouch, then straightened, still aiming a wand.

“Still alive?” he said to the fallen cult leader, who was emitting shrill moans of pain. “Splendid, I have some friends who’re looking forward to kicking your ass in meticulous detail. Flora! Fauna! Why do I not hear—ah, there we go.”

A bell began tolling not far away, followed by another, and then a third more distantly, the city’s chain of alarm bells finally coming to life to signal the emergency.

“Sorry, boss!” shouted a feminine voice from the roofs above the street. “We’re not miracle workers, you know!”

“Flesh and blood can only move so fast,” another added.

“Yeah, yeah,” the thief muttered, sweeping his gaze across the group. “Joe, you picked a perfect time to show up. Everybody all right?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Danny said pleasantly.

“Well indeed,” the Jackal said, grinning. “The man himself! It’s been a while.”

“It’s gonna go much worse for you than the last time if you attempt any of the bullshit you’re contemplating,” Sweet said curtly, striding over to the fallen cultists. He kicked the leader, eliciting another cry of pain. “You. I don’t know who you fuckers are, but you are going to explain, and then have things explained to you. You do not do this horseshit in my city. By the time I finish—”

He jumped back at the resurgent rise of shadows. Six more robed figures had appeared on either side of the street from the cluster of people present, arranged in a pair of matching triangles.

“Summoning formations!” Joe barked, snapping his wands up. He dropped the three on their right with a round of blindingly fast shots.

Shadow-jumping was an extremely rapid process, though, and by the time he’d turned to the other cluster, they had done their work. The shadows which swelled up obscured that entire half of the street momentarily. When they receded, the three cultists had vanished with them. What remained behind was at least twelve feet tall.

“Oh, by the way,” the Jackal said helpfully. “Undead.”

It was proportioned like a centaur, with a humanoid torso rising from a four-legged base, and made from bones. Not that it was a skeleton; it had been built from haphazardly-collected bones forming a lopsided structure, held together with bolted lengths of iron and pulsating greenish strands of tissue rather like misplaced ligaments. Atop its torso was a single, normal-sized human skull. If not for the overall horror of the thing, its tiny head might have looked comical.

The accompanying smell was truly unspeakable.

Rook squeaked, Finchley retched, and Moriarty shot it. He actually hit it, too, the blast of lightning sending charred bone fragments flying and causing electricity to crackle visibly along the iron pieces lining its structure. The only tangible result of this was to catch the construct’s attention. It turned far more smoothly than such an awkward-looking thing had any right to, facing them directly.

Joe dispatched a rapid series of shots, burning hole after hole through the thing’s tiny head until the skull finally dissolved completely in broken fragments.

This accomplished nothing. The construct ignored him entirely, charging at the group with the speed of an angry bull.

The three soldiers shoved Danny back into the alley, leaving the rest of the group to dive out of the way. It crashed against the side of the building with an awful clatter, breaking chunks of masonry and sending large pieces of bone and iron to the sidewalk.

“Look how fragile it is!” Kheshiri shouted from above. “We can wear it down!”

Joe, Sweet, and the elves had gotten out of the way, Vannae moving far more deftly than his previous show of weakness had suggested he could. Shook was slower, and got accidentally kicked in the monstrosity’s charge and sent skidding across the pavement. Kheshiri dived to the ground, landing over him with her wings protectively spread.

Lightning blasted out of the alley’s mouth; with the construct pressed against the opening, there was no way they could miss, and bolts of energy ripped pieces of it loose. They broke off firing as the thing adjusted itself to reach into the alley with one enormous arm. It was thankfully too big to fit inside, but it had a long enough reach that they were forced to retreat to avoid being grabbed.

Sweet and Joe fled to the opposite side of the street, where the thief let fly with indiscriminate shots from his wand, raking more and more pieces off the monster, while the Kid surgically shot out metal joints one at a time. After just a few seconds of this, the monster sagged slightly to one side, beginning to lose some of its structural integrity. It stumbled further when the Jackal darted up and slammed a long blade into the knee of one of its back legs, wrenching it loose and causing it to slump sideways, that leg disabled.

Moving less adroitly now, the construct shifted to face the rest of them, just in time to take another barrage of lightning out of the alley to its central mass.

“Hold your fire!” Kheshiri shouted. The succubus dived straight down from the sky, striking the monster’s shoulder with both feet and all her weight, then bouncing off and gliding away. The impact knocked its arm loose entirely, leaving it with just the one reaching into the alley.

“Shit!” Shook yelped from up the street. “Shit shit!”

They turned, barely catching the end of another swell of shadows from that direction as the cultists jumped back out, leaving behind a second construct built along the same lines as the first.

“What?” Sweet protested. “How? Where were they keeping them?”

“With multiple shadow-jumpers, coulda been in Sheng-la for all the difference it makes,” Joe said grimly, swiveling and unleashing a barrage of wandfire at the thing as it came barreling up the street at them. “Gotta catch the—look out!”

They had to dive out of the way again, back toward the first monster, which was still trying to move, but able to do little but thrash now, all of its limbs having been disabled by the various adventurers. The new arrival slammed against the apartment building opposite, shattering windows and demolishing a set of decorative eaves; Joe and Sweet barely got out of its way in time to avoid being crushed.

A figure swathed in black plummeted from the roof above, cloak billowing behind her.

“Flora, no!” Sweet shouted.

“Flora, yes,” the elf snapped from right next to him, grabbing his arm and tugging him away. “You let the heavy-hitters deal with this crap.” Fauna planted herself between him and the second monster, brandishing long knives in both hands.

“Wait a sec,” Sweet protested, though he didn’t struggle against her tugging. “If you’re—who is that? Who else wears a cloak?!”

The black figure whirled and swarmed across the construct’s massive body like a temporally accelerated monkey, moving with speed and deftness that even an elf could not match—not to mention strength. Striking with hands and feet, it swiftly and precisely knocked loose strategic pieces of iron while clambering over the monster and evading its grasp. In barely ten seconds, it accomplished what a gaggle of armed fighters hadn’t managed to do to the first construct, which was still feebly wriggling, now lying across the street itself after the last barrage of staff fire had knocked it away from the alley. The new construct, however, collapsed to the pavement in pieces. Something fundamental in its body had clearly been destroyed; it entirely disintegrated, none of its components even attempting to move.

There was a momentary pause in which the only sound was the ongoing alarm bells, followed by another massive swell of shadows out of nowhere, immediately pierced by three beams from Joe’s wand. The shadow abruptly dissipated, leaving three robed figures lying dead in their wake.

“That is enough a’ that,” Joe growled.

Kicking aside a piece of arm as long as she was tall and lowering her hood, the figure in black turned to face the rest of the street. On the ground and stationary, she was revealed as a pretty young woman with dark hair.

Across the way, Shook, Kheshiri, the Jackal, and Vannae, who had just attacked an undead monstrosity five times their collective size without flinching, shouted in panic and scrambled away toward the nearest open alley.

Face set in a predatory glower, the woman shot after them, fast as a pouncing lion.

“STOP!”

Roughly pushing aside Finchley, who was trying to hold him back, Danny emerged from their hiding place, giving the still-twitching necromantic construct a wide berth, but showing no sign of unease. On the contrary, his voice and bearing radiated a command which, surprisingly, stopped everyone in their tracks. The woman skidded to a halt, whirling to stare at him, and the four she’d been pursuing hesitated in spite of themselves.

“We’ve won here,” Danny said firmly. “No more. No turning on each other, and no revenge. Let them be, Milanda. I owe them.”

She let out a short breath, then charged at him, cloak flaring behind her.

Moriarty whipped up his staff at her and Danny punched him in the face, and then she was on him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head against his chest.

Feet came pounding up the street, and Joe whirled to aim wands, which he immediately lowered.

Five soldiers skidded to a halt, weapons raised, staring around incredulously.

“What in the goddamn hell?” demanded the sergeant at the head of the group. “Weapons down! NOW!”

“Coulda used you gentlemen ’bout ten minutes ago,” Joe muttered, holstering his wands.

“Officers,” Sweet said pleasantly, obligingly dropping his wand and raising his hands over his head. “This is…” He paused, glancing around at the dead bodies, the damaged walls, multiple lightning burns, and shattered remnants of two giant constructs of bone, one still trying to get up. “Well! This is probably more or less exactly whatever the hell it looks like.”

 

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“Oh, you asshole,” Sweet murmured, grinning down at the spectacle below. “Look, he’s looping ’em back now.”

“Before you go giving anybody too much credit,” said Fauna, “he could just be lost.”

“He of all people knows how not to get lost in Tiraas,” Sweet disagreed, proceeding along the edge of the rooftop at a pace which matched the slow amble of Danny and his increasingly twitchy entourage. “Especially since they’re supposed to be heading toward the Palace. Just go uphill. Nope, he’s deliberately leading them in circles, after picking the most switchbacking route through alleys he could find so they don’t immediately notice.”

“I’m a little surprised somebody who lives in the Palace would even know how to do that,” said Flora.

“I was just getting started late in Theasia’s reign, but even then there were persistent rumors about how Sharidan liked to sneak out of the Palace and have little adventures. I dunno what a crown prince would have wanted in a neighborhood like this, but I also wouldn’t assume he doesn’t know his way around the city.”

“That’s actually kind of a good thing, isn’t it?” Fauna mused.

“Yeah,” Flora agreed, nodding. “Better to have a ruler who’s at least been in touch with the people.”

“Course, based on that one’s rep, could’ve just been a lot of being in touch with the pretty people’s butts in bars.”

“Doubtful,” said Sweet. “He likes his women, but he likes them eagerly willing. I’ve never once heard a suggestion the Emperor has so much as pinched a chambermaid. But back to the matter at hand, I still don’t understand what I’m seeing here. Why’s he want to ramble around the city with nobody but those clowns to watch his back? Sharidan is less cautious than either Eleanora or Vex, but this is just bull-goose reckless, and that doesn’t fit his pattern at all…”

All three lifted their heads at the hoarse cawing of a crow. They listened till the pattern completed itself, then Sweet nodded once, and Flora mimicked a starling call in reply.

“Why crows for this job?” Fauna muttered. “Every damn time, I half think it’s gonna be her until the whole code is complete…”

“She wouldn’t announce herself,” Flora said, grinning.

“Because crows are easy to mimic,” Sweet replied, again watching the foursome they were tracking below, “because I let Duster set the ground rules since she’s in charge on the ground this time and she can do a crow, and because apprentices who aren’t given something to bitch and whine about get bored and do stupid things. Everybody wins.”

“You’re a jerk,” Fauna said affectionately, patting him on the back.

A shape swung nimbly up the nearby edge of the roof, moving more like a circus acrobat than someone who should be concentrating on their stealth.

“What’s the word, Bounce?” Sweet asked.

Despite his characteristically ebullient way of moving, the lanky man wore a frown. “The word is trouble, Sweet. Duster’s pulled Rake, Chesty and Grimoire back to keep an eye; we got a big group of Black Wreath forming up.”

Sweet straightened up fully, frowning at him. “Excuse me, a who?”

“So far, least twenty,” Bounce said. “Clearly staging for something. People in those gray robes, being shadow-jumped into an empty apartment one at a time. Your guy an’ his pals are gonna pass not too far from ’em, at this rate.”

“Bullshit,” Sweet said bluntly. “The Wreath has nothing to gain and way too much to lose.”

“Hey, did I say I’d personally analyzed the situation?” Bounce asked irritably. “I see robes, I see shadow-jumping, Duster tells me go warn Sweet the Wreath’s here, my job is done. She figured you’d wanna get a look before they do…whatever.”

“Damn right,” Sweet said, now frowning deeply. “Girls…stay on our target. And remember.” He leveled a stern finger at them. “Whatever else is going on here, eyes are on us, including probably those of Imperial Intelligence. Best. Behavior.”

“Sir, yes, sir!” they chorused, snapping to attention and saluting.

Sweet shook his head. “All right, lead on, Bounce. Double-time.”

“You’re spending too much time at that Church, man,” Bounce complained even as he vaulted over the ledge onto a balcony below. “Starting to talk like an Avenist…”

“Being shadow-jumped, he said,” Flora murmured. “Don’t all the Wreath know shadow-jumping?”

“Remember, most of the Wreath is just dilettantes, they only recruit trusted people for actual missions.”

“You know what I meant.”

“Yeah…they wouldn’t need to be shadow-jumped anywhere, and shadow-jumping means they don’t have to group up before staging an attack.”

“And, of course, any bunch of assholes can put on gray robes. You remember—oh ho, what have we here?”

They both leaped across the next alley, then crouched by the edge of the roof, peering over at the scene below.

“What timing,” Fauna muttered. “Sweet had to take off right before someone he’d definitely wanna see happens along…”


“Why, hello! Fancy meeting you here!”

“Danny,” the youth replied, returning his wave with a quizzical frown. “Fancy meeting you out. Something happened?”

“Ah, yeah, you might say that,” Danny said ruefully. “I’m moving to new accommodations.”

“Are Lakshmi and Sanjay all right?”

“Yes. Safe, unharmed, and…rather annoyed, I’m afraid. It was my fault, and for now, I’ll have to leave it at that; we can have the whole sorry story later. Ah, but forgive me! Joe, this is Andrew, Thomas, and Jacob. Guys, this is Joe.”

“Pleasure,” Moriarty said curtly.

“Did we tell him our first names?” Rook asked, nudging Finchley with an elbow.

“Shh.”

“Wait, your name’s Andrew?”

“Shut up!”

“Is…everything all right?” Joe asked warily.

“We’re in a bit of a hurry,” Moriarty said stiffly. “Your—My—Mr—”

“Danny,” Rook prompted.

Moriarty gritted his teeth. “Is this boy trustworthy?”

Danny gave him an amused look. “More than most people. This is quite fortuitous, though, Joe; I imagine I can guess what would bring you to this neighborhood, but this particular back alley?”

“Wait, back alley?” Finchley demanded. “You said this was a street to—oh, for crap’s sake, you’re leading us in circles, aren’t you.”

“Behave yourself!” Moriarty hissed, turning to glare at him. “A little respect!”

“Yeah, that much ain’t a coincidence,” Joe replied, still wearing a pensive frown. “It’s barely dark an’ the neighborhood is quiet. That’s far enough from normal to make me feel suddenly curious. I was headin’ to drop in on the Sanjakars before they turned in, but instead I’ve been wanderin’ around, havin’ myself a listen.”

“Hear anything good?” Rook asked sardonically.

“Mostly just quiet,” Joe said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t figure. You wouldn’t know anything about this, Danny?”

“Anything about what?” Moriarty demanded in exasperation. “Just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean…anything. Does it?”

“Did you notice anything in particular, Joe?” Danny asked, all jocularity gone from his tone now. “I realize you’re an exceptionally gifted young man…”

“I don’t hear like an elf, if that’s what you’re askin’,” Joe said with a wry half-smile. “An’ the movements of groups of people ain’t exactly my strong suit—just the opposite, you might say. But I’ve gotten used to this city enough to notice when there’s not the same activity there oughtta be. So, that’s my answer, an’ I note I’m still waitin’ on yours.”

“He doesn’t have to tell you anything,” Moriarty snapped, stepping in front of Danny.

He was immediately pushed aside—gently, but insistently, but a hand on the shoulder. “Jacob, please,” Danny said calmly, “Joe is a friend. And he’s right; this is an odd situation. Anybody would be curious.”

“More pertinently,” Joe said, “I remember you bein’ on the run from somethin’. Now, it occurs to me that one thing that could quiet a neighborhood is word goin’ around that folk would be better off goin’ inside. Places like this, I know the Thieves’ Guild can clear the streets pretty quick, for example.”

“We should be so lucky,” Danny muttered. “The Guild has no quarrel with… Ah, forgive me, Joe, I’m not trying to put you off. No, I don’t know what’s happening, but…it’s not impossible that it has to do with me.”

“That being the case,” Finchley gritted, “perhaps we should resume moving toward Imperial Square? Without detours this time, perhaps.”

“Mind if I tag along?” Joe asked with deceptive mildness.

“Actually, that would be fantastic, if you don’t mind,” Danny said smoothly. “Andrew’s right—if this is about me, best I remove myself from a residential area where others might be caught up in it. And if not, it’s none of our business and we don’t need to be caught up in it.”

“Good idea,” Rook grunted, gently nudging him from behind. “Forward march, if you please, sir.”

“I’m thinkin’ this might be a good time to break the traditional urban reserve,” Joe said, falling into step beside them as they proceeded up the alley toward the street ahead. “I ain’t troubled any o’ the few people I’ve passed, but next one, I reckon I’ll stop an’ ask what’s up.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Moriarty grumbled.

“It’s not a bad one, Joe,” Danny said. “Trust your instincts.”

“I trust my skills an’ my brain,” Joe replied. “Instinct’ll get you killed.”

“Some nice wands you got there,” Finchley said rather skeptically. “Can you use ’em?”

Joe grinned at him. “I get by.”

They emerged into the street proper, and paused. It wasn’t merely quiet; it was almost deserted. As Joe had said, that was eerily abnormal for a city the size of Tiraas, at this hour. They were now standing on one of the curving avenues which orbited the city’s heart; in the distance in both directions there was the sound of traffic from one of the larger radial streets between Imperial Square and the outer walls, but the arc of this street hid that from view. Nearby, though, it was virtually silent. Doors were closed, windows shuttered, and the only person out was a well-dressed woman gliding up the sidewalk toward them.

“Ma’am,” Moriarty said politely, even as he shifted his grip on his staff.

They made a most peculiar group: three men in nondescript clothes, carrying weapons; one man in a cheap suit; one armed teenager in a clearly expensive suit. If she found any of this odd, however, she made no sign, merely giving Moriarty a polite little smile in reply.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” Her bearing and inflection matched her expensive dress and fox-trimmed coat, marking her a woman of wealth, if not aristocracy.

Joe subtly moved one hand near a wand. “Pardon me, miss, but would you happen to know if anything…unusual is goin’ on in this neighborhood?”

At that, she paused, arching one eyebrow superciliously. “Young man, do I look as if I reside in a place like this?”

“With the greatest respect, ma’am, you do not,” he replied, in a carefully polite tone. “As such, it’s a mite peculiar to see a lady of your obvious quality alone, in a place like this, at this hour.”

She glanced quickly at each of them in turn. “Oh, dear. Are you planning to mug or assault me?”

“Of course not!” Moriarty exclaimed.

“Now look, Joe, you went and scared her,” Rook said reproachfully. “Shame on you.”

The woman’s eyes fixed on Danny’s; he regarded her right back, face impassive. Despite her question, she seemed perfectly at ease, and in fact, now smiled coquettishly.

“Boys,” Joe said quietly, “circle up. This ain’t right.”

“Correct as usual, Joseph,” she said, stepping forward again. “In your analysis, not your plan. Keep moving, boys, we need to be out of here.”

“Okay, whoah,” said Rook, frowning and tightening his own grip on his staff. “Just who are you? Friend or foe?”

“Dicey question,” she said with a smile. “Enemy, temporarily on your side. You are about to be attacked; keep in a group around…” Her eyes flicked up and down Danny’s form, and her smile stretched into an outright grin. “…your friend, here. And seriously, keep moving. There’s going to be a big mess; our best bet is to get to a busier street where there’s law enforcement.”

“Who are you?” Joe demanded, drawing a wand.

“If I told you, you’d just shoot me,” she said in exasperation. “And seriously, move! Are you all—”

She broke off, whirling at the sound of running feet. A figure in a gray robe had burst out of a nearby shop door and now dashed toward them, brandishing a knife.

Moriarty and Finchley both fired their staves, mostly by reflex, managing to destroy a street lamp and seriously damage a parked carriage with lightning bolts. The robed figure made it another three yards closer before Joe put a clean beam of light through his head.

“That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen,” the woman said, deadpan. “Electricity arcs toward conductive bodies. How the hell did you miss at that range?”

“Lamp posts are metal,” Moriarty said sullenly.

“Aw, shit—move!” Rook barked, now rudely shoving Danny back into the alley. More people in ash-gray robes suddenly began streaming out of the open door, all charging right toward them and brandishing a collection of knives and clubs. Aside from the pounding of their feet, they moved in eerie silence.

“Not in there!” the woman shouted fruitlessly. “Go toward the—oh, for hell’s sake!”

She followed Rook, rudely shoving past Finchley and Moriarty, who had turned to fire at the oncoming mob. They managed to hit the crowd, at least, but aside from tripping over the bodies, none of their attackers seemed fazed by the fact they were charging into a barrage of electric death. Joe backed up after the woman, leveling much more careful shots.

It was over with shocking suddenness; where there had been a charging mob, there was abruptly just a street littered with smoking corpses. At least a score of them, the nearest of which had almost reached the alley.

“What the fuck,” Finchley demanded in a tremulous voice. “The Black Wreath?”

“This is not the Wreath,” the woman said firmly. “The Wreath is competent and quiet. They make convenient villains, though; lots of people like to frame them, especially since it’s as easy as throwing on a cheap robe before committing crimes. I don’t know who these clowns are, but they’re hopped up on some kind of berserker drug, if the one I knifed earlier is any indication. Look, boys, that light show will draw official attention fast, which means whoever planned this has got something bigger to play. I don’t know who can pull an army out of their butt like this, in Tiraas no less, but they wouldn’t do so just to waste it. We’ve gotta get your boy into the arms of Imperial protection now.”

“Or,” said Rook, still with a protective hand on Danny’s shoulder, “we sit tight and wait for that Imperial protection to show.”

“Use your head,” she snapped. “Our enemy knows the situation just as well. We were herded in here. This is where the real blow will fall, and it will fall quickly before the soldiers arrive, so will you fucking move already?!”

“She’s right,” Joe said tersely, “we gotta get movin’, back up the street toward Imperial Square. And while we are movin’, you can explain just who the hell you are, an’ how you know me.”

“Oh, we’ve heard a lot about one another’s exploits,” she said with a broad grin, and winked at him. “Now come along, boys, before—”

“Too late,” said Finchley, backing up into the alley.

“More,” Moriarty reported, following suit. “…lots more. Oh, hell. The whole street—”

“Gods fucking damn it,” the well-dressed lady hissed incongruously. “And we continue to be herded! This is what I get for working with groups. Well, go if you’re going! Too risky to fight our way out through a crowd, head back the other way.”

Joe pushed ahead of them, leading the way back up the alley, which kinked and curved in several places to accommodate the neighborhood’s idiosyncratic architecture. Rook stayed behind him, with the other two men and their new companion bringing up the rear.

“Somebody had better start explaining to me just what the hell is going on,” Rook growled as they scampered back toward the next nearby street.

“I have to say, this is not what I expected,” Danny remarked. “Your pardon, madam, but I don’t believe we caught your name?”

“She said Joe would shoot her if she told it,” said Finchley. “I take it you two have met?”

“Oh, not in person,” she said with a throaty little chuckle. “We’re aware of each other, though. Mutual friends. You know how it is.”

“Sadly, that doesn’t narrow it down much,” Joe grumbled. “I can’t think of anybody I’d wanna shoot on sight, ‘cept—”

Suddenly, he skidded to a halt, whirling, and leveled a wand at her face.

“Whoah!” Rook exclaimed. “Being chased, here, I don’t think we have time for this!”

“Aw, he guessed it. Truce,” she said, raising her hands. “All right?”

“Your word ain’t worth a thing,” Joe said coldly.

“That, bucko, is for damn sure,” she said with a smirk. “However, I am here on business, not pleasure. Today’s business is to get your buddy there back safely home.”

“Are you alone?” he demanded.

“Course not, you think the big boss would send me out unsupervised? My team’s nearby, trying to contain this. The Thieves’ Guild outsmarted themselves, as usual; clearing people away from the streets kept most of the resident rabble safe, but it’s also cut way down on official response time. Gods only know how long it’ll take somebody to run for the Imps, because the Eserites sure as hell aren’t going to.”

“The Guild is here?” Danny asked.

“Uh, someone is coming up this alley,” Finchley said nervously.

“I’ve got my boys fully occupied trying to prevent us from being flanked,” she continued. “Shoot me, and at least one of them is going to assume the truce is dropped. So, if you don’t actually care about your friend here getting home alive and don’t mind the thought of Jack and Jerry springing out at you from the shadows, I guess, knock yourself out, kid.”

Joe’s eyes cut momentarily to Danny. “If we get outta this alive, I’m gonna insist on findin’ out why you’re so damn important, Danny.”

“Oh, that is just priceless,” she breathed. “You don’t know? If this whole thing wasn’t just a complete clusterfuck I’d be loving the hell out of this…”

“Why are we not moving?” Finchley demanded.

“Fair point,” Joe snapped. “New formation, though. She goes in front, an’ the second I give the word, or you think it’s appropriate, or you get so much as a hunch, blast her.”

“A gal could take this personally,” the lady said with clear amusement.

“I don’t overmuch care how you take it,” Joe replied flatly, keeping his wand trained on her. “Move, please, an’ no funny stuff, Kheshiri.”

 

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12 – 54

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As afternoon faded into early evening, the overall light in Tiraas did not diminish, even in this relatively dingy district, though it changed in character with the transition from gloomy, cloud-obscured sunlight to the sharp golden glow of the fairy lamps lining the streets. Given the typical weather in the region, nightfall often had the ironic effect of enlivening the colors of everything the light touched. At any rate, the approach of dusk did little to diminish the activity in the street. This particular district was a fairly quiet one most of the time, not rich by any means, but with several temples and regular patrols by the military police; it was a safe enough place to stand outside, observing passersby.

That was fortunate for the man currently calling himself Danny, as he lounged against a corner, simply watching the people as they went about their business. City folk were not terribly ebullient with strangers as a rule, but he received and returned a few polite greetings, nonetheless. One pair of patrolling soldiers slowed slightly as they passed him, but a smile and cordial greeting, coupled with his calm demeanor, apparently assuaged their concerns. People did much stranger things than stand around doing nothing in the city, and those up to no good either avoided troops or were with the Thieves’ Guild, which in either case was encouragement not to bother him.

When not greeting someone, though, he tended to let his expression lapse into a near-frown, more pensive than unhappy. He was normally quite adept at concealing his thoughts; here, he was nobody worth looking at twice, and being able to let his guard down just a little was a luxury.

Three young men approached, immediately standing out. They were moving faster than the average passerby, they had come out of an alley across the street rather than down the main avenue, and they went right toward him with obvious intent. All three drew up on the sidewalk next to him, looking nervous and generally shifty, and he suppressed a sigh. This would draw far more attention than anything he’d been doing.

“Your, uh,” the red-haired one stammered, “I mean mister—I mean, um…”

“My friends call me Danny,” he said mildly. “For the time being, that is. Are we friends?”

“We would never presume,” said the only one with an obviously military bearing, his tone as stiff as his spine. “It would be entirely inappropriate—”

“Yes, we most certainly are friends of yours,” interrupted the third, the only ethnic Tiraan in the group and with an impressive enough habitual slouch to make up for his companion’s posture. “Have been for a good long time. Look, uh, Danny, you don’t know us, so I get that you’ve got no reason to trust us here, but—”

“If I am not mistaken,” he said with a smile, “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, yes?”

They all gaped at him.

“You know us?” Finchley croaked at last. “I mean—you—but that’s—”

“You lads have had a rather interesting couple of years, so I understand,” Danny said lightly. “You might be surprised how many people are aware of you. Just as I am surprised to find you, of all places, here. I’m sure this is quite a story.”

“We’re here to escort you to safety, y-your…” Moriarty swallowed hard. “…Danny.”

“It is quite a story, but he’s right,” Rook added. “This probably isn’t the best time. We’re working with Ms. Darnassy, whom I trust you also know?”

At that, Danny straightened up. “That’s…very interesting. Last I heard, she was fully occupied with matters that didn’t include my immediate safety. How you three factor into it is quite the puzzle.”

“The short version is, by accident,” Finchley said hurriedly, glancing around in a way that would be sure to draw the attention of any patrolling soldiers, had any been nearby. “The, uh…the…men…who are a little…”

“I have some friends who are presently under the weather, yes,” Danny said mildly. “Milanda was working on that. Please, continue.”

“Uh, right. Well, one was at the college where we were…um, attending, and he caused…some trouble.”

“Yadda yadda, some stuff happened,” Rook continued airily, “our mutual friend Quentin found us and pointed us at the lovely and talented Ms. Darnassy, and when he heard you lost the couch you were crashing on, we got tapped to lead you to a new one. So, speaking of that, shall we? This is all very, y’know…terrifyingly exposed.”

“Hmm.” Danny considered them thoughtfully for a long moment, not minding their obvious signs of anxiety. A trap? That, he decided, was very unlikely. They knew who he was, and the core of all their recent problems was that they had more personal loyalty to him than sense or talent; that made them the worst possible choice of agents to mean him harm. Plus, this would be just like Vex. The spymaster had not been happy in the least with his plan, and this way he could put a token watch around him and be able to argue later that as incompetent as these three were, they didn’t count as real guards. In fact, it was sort of perfect. “Very well, I appreciate you going out of your way, gentlemen.”

“It is no trouble, sir,” Finchley said fervently. “So, uh, this way, if you please.”

“Now, now, wait up,” Danny said smoothly as they all three took a step up the street. He paused to straighten the lapels of his suit. “It’s such a fine evening, isn’t it? There’s no hurry. I so rarely get to stroll the streets; no need to set such a pace.”

He actually passed them, at a leisurely amble, while they gaped at him as if wondering if he were insane and not daring to say so. He recognized that specific expression; it was directed at him with fair frequency.

“Um,” Rook said finally, “with all due respect…there kind of is a hurry. Because you’re…pretty vulnerable here, y’know, and if something happens to you, it’s not just you who’s gonna suffer for it. Danny.”

“Relax,” Danny said, turning to grin at him. “I know what I’m doing. Coming?”

There was another pause while they hastened to catch up and fell into an obvious formation behind him, looking nervous. He repressed another sigh; attracting certain kinds of attention was, after all, part of the plan, but this was going to get random soldiers or Silver Legionnaires involved. Did the Legions even patrol this district?

“As I understand it,” Finchley said, clearly choosing his words with extreme care, “the plan involves…our friends who are unwell. Yes? Maybe they aren’t the most reliable of…friends…right now? Kind of by definition?”

“I’m not expecting much from them except trouble, truth be told,” Danny agreed. “If they end up showing up tonight, the trick will be making sure it’s trouble for the right people, but I’m reasonably confident I can arrange that. No, gentlemen, I’m counting on other parties to become involved in this.”

Even with all three of them behind and thus out of his line of sight, he could practically hear them exchanging dubious looks.

“Who?” Moriarty finally asked.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question,” said Danny. “Suppose you were trying to outmaneuver someone who is adept at manipulating events from a safe distance, someone who works with exacting precision and never takes a risk unless he’s certain he has control over the whole environment. Suppose that a major part of your long-term plan in this regard involves gaining the allegiance of his opposites: individuals who thrive on adapting on the fly to chaotic situations, and who have been stubbornly refusing to take a side. In that situation, what would you do?”

“I suppose,” Rook said slowly, but without pausing, “in that purely hypothetical scenario, I would create some goddamn chaos.”

“Watch your language!” Moriarty barked.

“It’s fine,” Danny said with a grin. “And quite so, Mr. Rook. That is, indeed, the plan.”

“Which means,” Rook continued sourly, “you’re gambling that you can control the chaos when it breaks out.”

“Unlike the antagonist I referred to, I don’t bother to wait until everything is certain before acting. Adaptation is crucial. That doesn’t mean I don’t hedge my bets, however. It’s a critical mistake to gamble without an ace or three up one’s sleeve, gentlemen.”

“Oh, gods,” Finchley muttered. “Please tell me he doesn’t mean us.”

Danny laughed.


“Now, who the hell is that?” Sweet muttered, leaning over the rooftop’s edge to frown at the four men proceeding up the street below. “Those three resemble some individuals I know by description, but there’s no possible way it’s them.”

“Actually, we know them,” said Flora.

“Yeah,” Fauna agreed, “they were with Professor Tellwyrn and her students in Lor’naris last year.”

“They wore Army uniforms then, but she treated ’em like bellboys.”

“Which, to be fair, could just be Tellwyrn being Tellwyrn.”

“If I were a lesser man,” he complained, “I would need to sit down. What the fuck is going on here? With everything I learn, this makes less and less sense. C’mon.”

He stepped back from the ledge and strode up the fortunately gently angled slate roof beside them, swiftly cresting it and proceeding with more care down the other side. At the base of that, they had to vault across a narrow alley to the flat roof opposite in order to keep pace with their quarry.

“According to what they said to him,” Flora reported, “Vex and Darnassy sent them here.”

“Darnassy,” Sweet muttered. “That one keeps popping up lately—and suddenly. She’s been an Imperial mistress for a few years now and never made a peep about wanting to do more than warm Sharidan’s bed until this week. I don’t like unknown quantities butting into my already messy job…”

“Is this a job, though?” Fauna asked. “Do we really need to keep doing this? Maybe the best thing is to back off and let the Imps deal with their own crap.”

“You have a point,” he said, “and yet, you aren’t right. Think back: you said you overheard about the Hands being able to teleport by lurking above an open window, yes?” He paused to look at them, waiting to get nods of acknowledgment before proceeding. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that seasoned Intelligence operatives on a mission of no less importance than keeping watch over the Emperor himself would chatter about sensitive mission details right next to an open window? They do know we like to use the rooftops. Did you take any special steps to make sure you weren’t seen?”

“No,” Flora said, frowning in thought. “You’re saying they leaked it to us on purpose?”

“But why?” Fauna asked. “That would just set the Guild against Intelligence. Which it did.”

“Not exactly,” he said. “Everything that happened after that might as well have been scripted. Based on the roles we play, I pretty much had to go down to Vex’s house and make a show of being able to kick his ass—a ranking Guild priest who’s been given the runaround by Intelligence has little other option. He knows this. Not only did he play along, with an aggression I’ve never seen from him before, he actually threatened me to the point I had to hurt one of his people to avoid breaking character.”

“You’re saying he forced you to act that way?”

“You know better than that, Flora,” he reproached. “Force is the least effective of all kinds of coercion, and Vex knows that as well as any Eserite loremaster. No, he told…a story. Laid out a neat narrative that I had to follow unless I wanted to break character, and doubled down on it to make sure I followed along. I had the option not to comply, but would pay for it by signaling that my allegiance is elsewhere than with the Guild—which is not true, and considering where else I’ve got strings tied, would have created complications for me and the Guild’s business. It was neatly done, actually. The point is, it’s unusual for him to be even that pushy. The only reason he would even try to back me into a corner like that is if something big were on the table, either something he hoped to gain for the Empire, or an unexpected threat he had to move against.”

“Like the Hands?”

“That’s the thing,” Sweet mused. “Any other time, I’d think he was just trying to make me take a side and declare allegiance. But he’s never shown interest in pressing that issue before, and this is the worst possible time. The whole government should be in damage control mode as long as the Hands are off-kilter, and with Danny running around down there, the stakes are far too high for Vex to be playing games like that with me, of all people. None of this makes any goddamn sense, and that means we don’t know what’s really going on. And that means we need to learn, fast, given how involved we already are.”

“That kinda goes back to the original question,” Flora pointed out. “Couldn’t we…disengage?”

“Isolation is death,” he said severely. “There is no safety; a fortress is a trap. We’re already engaged, and whatever’s happening has already proved it’s going to seek us out. This strategy is already as conservative and hands-off as I’m willing to go; we urgently have to figure out what the hell is going on here.”

All three paused at the hoarse cawing of a crow, turning to look in the direction of the noise. Darling nodded at Fauna, who nodded back, and then produced a few notes of a starling’s call. Flora paced along the edge of the roof, keeping an eye on the torturously slow progress of their targets, while the other two waited tensely.

They didn’t have to wait long. A woman in a long coat hoisted herself over the opposite edge of the roof and strode toward them, scowling.

“That bad, huh?” Sweet asked.

“Dunno from bad, but it’s weird,” she said. “You were right, Sweet, they’ve all started moving. I’m late to report in because we’ve had to wait to make sure of what we were seeing. You sure that guy down there is important to the Imps? You made it sound like they’d wanna protect him.”

“Spit it out, Duster,” he said tersely.

“They’re bugging out,” she replied. “All across the neighborhood. And not in one direction; they’re fanning out like they’re fleeing a fire. Intelligence is abandoning the whole district.”

Slowly, his expression crumpled into a thunderous scowl. “What the hell?”

“You tell me,” she said, folding her arms.

“You’re sure of—no, never mind, you already said so. Hn… Seen any signs of…special agents?”

“Seen, no,” the enforcer said with a shrug. “Sure, Intelligence has assets we wouldn’t be able to spot, but by definition, how the hell would I know if they’re hovering around?”

“You’re right, of course,” he agreed, clapping her on the shoulder. “Sorry, Duster, I wasn’t snapping at you. This whole thing is just balls-out crazy. Good work; have everybody pull carefully to this area. Not clustered all together, but I want us to be able to react in concert to anything that goes down in this vicinity.”

“You got it,” she said, nodding, then turned and dashed away. Reaching the edge of the roof, she vaulted over, causing a metallic thump as she hit the fire escape below.

“Vex,” Darling whispered, turning to stare down at the Emperor of Tiraas, walking the streets accompanied only by three of the worst soldiers in the Empire, “have you lost your mind?”


Gabriel was still shrugging into his coat as he entered the town hall, but just inside the door he stopped, staring at the standoff which had developed. “Uh…what’s this, now?”

“Ah, welcome back,” said Toby. “You heard about the demons?”

“Vestrel warned me before one of Vengnat’s friends got there, yeah. What’s this doing here?” he demanded, pointing at the gray-robed Black Wreath warlock.

“That is the subject of some discussion, Mr. Arquin,” Matriarch Ashaele said.

“They’ve offered to help,” Teal added. “Nobody’s happy about this, but we may not be able to afford to turn them down.”

“They? Them?” Gabe exclaimed. “There’s more?”

“Any time you see one Wreath, you can assume there are more,” Toby said grimly. “This didn’t get really awkward until she spilled the beans about him.”

“Let me just point out, again,” said Inspector Fedora with a long-suffering sigh, “that I am the only person here with legitimate government credentials.”

“Hey,” the Sheriff protested.

“And he’s hardly the first child of Vanislaas to get those,” the warlock said cheerfully. “This is supposed to be a secret, but one of his ilk was governor of Mathenon for over a month a few decades back. It’s never a smart idea to let them weasel into positions of power.”

“Very much the same can be said about you,” Toby snapped. “Fedora, what are you even doing here? I thought you were up on the campus.”

“I have made careful arrangements to know when and where demons are being summoned in the whole region around Last Rock, for obvious reasons,” the Inspector replied. “That’s here, and so here I am.”

“Speakin’ of which, I’ve got demons in and around my town, apparently,” Mayor Cleese said tersely. “I don’t think we’ve got time for this, people. I recognize this is literally makin’ deals with devils, but if it keeps Last Rock from bein’ overrun with hellspawn, I’m prepared to take whatever help presents itself.”

“I’ll leave this to wiser heads than mine to settle,” Sanders added. “But for the record, if the order that comes down is ‘shoot ’em both,’ I ain’t gonna complain.”

“I am not excessively worried about lesser warlocks such as the Elilinists,” Ashaele said smoothly. “She is correct about the incubus, however.”

“Now, I realize you don’t much care for me, friendly neighborhood paladins,” Fedora said with a grin, “but you both know my credentials are legitimate, and my superiors know who and what I am. Turning on a duly appointed agent of Imperial Intelligence will create trouble none of you want.”

“And now he’s threatening us,” Teal said, scowling.

“Hey!” Gabriel shouted, earning surprised silence. “The only person here making a lick of sense is the Mayor. We do not have time for this! Am I correct about those robes? Are there two priestesses of Themynra in this room?”

“You are indeed,” one of the drow women he indicated replied with a thin smile.

“Fine,” he said firmly. “I’m not much of a theologian, but some of us here should remember what we’ve learned from Shaeine. If the ladies will oblige us, a simple blessing by the goddess of, among other things, judgment, will reveal who is and is not trying to screw us over.”

“It is not quite so simple,” the other Themynrite cleric said. “A simple blessing will not reveal agendas or plots. However, it will burn any who are aligned with evil against Themynra’s objectives, which appears to be the fundamental question here. I’m sure the goddess will not consider this a frivolous use of her power.”

“Well spotted, Gabriel,” Ashaele said, smiling.

“Themynra, huh,” Fedora mused. “You know, I’ve never actually had a divine blessing on me that wasn’t used as an attack. By all means, go for it. This oughtta be interesting.”

“Whatever,” the warlock said irritably. “If that’s what it will take to get some action taken here, I’ve no objection.”

“And aren’t they gracious,” Sanders muttered.

Toby gently nudged Gabriel out of the doorway and toward one corner of the town hall, where Juniper was hovering with her sister Ash. “Nicely done,” he murmured. “Though for the record, you just insulted a room full of important people, including the Matriarch.”

“I—wait, what? No, I didn’t!”

“You kinda did, though,” Juniper observed. “I mean, if the mayor’s the only one making sense, it implies…”

“Aw, fuck,” he muttered. “I mean, that is. Um. I’m sure Shaeine has mentioned to her mother that I tend to have my foot in my mouth. And any of the drow who were at the picnic can attest I’m a big fan of the lady.”

At the other side of the noisy room, Ashaele shifted her head slightly to look at him and very deliberately smiled, before returning her attention to the front, where Fedora and the warlock were being limned with silver light by the two priestesses. In keeping with their previous attitudes, the incubus seemed fascinated by the whole procedure, while the warlock had her arms folded and extended one leg so her foot peeked out from beneath the hem of their robes, just to make sure everyone could see her tapping it. Neither appeared to be burning.

“Smooth, kid,” Ash said with a grin.

He sighed. “Thanks, I try. Has anybody else turned up? Ruda and Fross would be handy to have around about now, or any of the remaining freshman girls…”

“No sign of our classmates,” said Toby. “I haven’t heard anything about Szith, but actually Maureen and Iris were in town. From what I’ve been told, they were the first to spot a demon, and got a warning to the drow. Then apparently they retreated into the prairie to avoid sparking off a fight, and that’s the last we heard—”

“What?!” Fedora’s insouciant demeanor instantly collapsed, and he lunged across the room toward them, prompting Sanders and three of Ashaele’s bodyguards to level weapons, all of which he ignored. “You idiots! What are you standing around here for?!”

“Um, excuse me,” Juniper said, frowning, “but I think we were just discussing—”

“You know the Sleeper likes to create distractions to herd people off and strike them alone! You’ve got two classmates who’ve isolated themselves out there away from help, and that wasn’t your first priority?”

There was a second of shocked silence.

“I hate to acknowledge it, but the hellspawn is right,” Ariel observed. “You’re idiots.”

“Come on!” Gabriel barked, spinning and bolting for the door.

“You cannot just run out there without a plan,” Ashaele said firmly, coming after him with a swiftness which did nothing to diminish the smoothness of her glide.

“I don’t intend to, ma’am,” he said. The Matriarch actually pushed ahead of Toby and Juniper, following him outside. Gabriel bounded down from the town hall’s steps, put two fingers to his lips, and whistled.

Several nearby townsfolk yelped and dashed away at the explosion of smoke and shadow which erupted from the ground in the middle of the street. Whisper lunged out, prancing to a stop near Gabriel and pawing one of her invisible hooves at the ground in eagerness.

“It’s not a complex plan,” Gabriel continued, placing a hand on his steed’s neck, “but it’ll work. I need to go after them. I have the fastest mount, my valkyries can conduct a search pattern at very high speed, which’ll be the most reliable way of finding the girls, and I’m hardly defenseless. Nobody else has the same combination of advantages.”

“I see your point,” Ashaele acknowledged, though not without a faint frown.

“I can still help,” Teal disagreed, stepping out of the town hall. “Vadrieny is faster than Whisper, and there’s not a thing the Sleeper can do to us. Let’s be realistic, Gabe, we don’t know if you being a half-demon has any effect on that curse. What if you get sleeped out there on the prairie? We’d never find you.”

“Keep in mind I’m the Hand of a god,” he said with a grim little smile, nodding at Toby. “Trissiny clued us in about this, remember? You do something magical enough to a Hand, particularly if it’s demonic in nature, and you’re begging for their patron’s direct attention. We can only hope the Sleeper’s dumb enough to want a face-to-face chat with Vidius. I kinda doubt he is.”

“Gabriel is correct,” said Ashaele, placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “He is the best suited for this. And while you are also correct, daughter, there are other factors to consider. The town is still in immediate danger, and Vadrieny is one of our most potent combat assets. There are more people than your friends who will need protection; he can help two, but it will take every pair of hands we have to look after the whole town.”

“I’ll be quick as I can,” Gabe said with a roguish grin, then took a step back from Whisper, got a brief running start, and vaulted onto her back.

He landed awkwardly and she whinnied in protest, prancing and pivoting about to give him a reproachful look. Gabe yelped, snatching ineffectually at her mane as he tumbled off the other side.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Ariel, “he remembered to mount from the left. Believe it or not, this represents marked progress in the Hand of Vidius’s horsemanship.”

Standing in the door of the town hall, Fedora folded his arms and heaved a sigh. “Ohh, yeah. We’re all boned.”

 

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12 – 48

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Milanda didn’t fly reflexively into action, either to attack or flee, which she took as a good sign. So far, her augmented reflexes had proved they could both kill whatever threat could be killed and run from one that couldn’t, all without her conscious input. The fact that the kitsune’s statement didn’t provoke a response from her suggested she wasn’t entirely serious.

“I’ve missed your penchant for the dramatic,” Walker said with a smile, further bearing out this assumption. “Would you release her, please? Dryads are not accustomed to being manhandled.”

Akane shifted to give Hawthorn a contemptuous look; the dryad was snarling and whining, while trying to yank the hand free from her ear, without success.

“Perhaps the experience would be beneficial to her in the long run,” Akane suggested, but after a deliberate moment, probably just to prove her point, she let go. Hawthorn immediately skittered backward, clutching her ear and glaring accusingly.

“You are a big jerk!”

Akane turned a cold shoulder to her, focusing her attention back on Walker. “I hope you can explain the condition of this place, Yrsa. It appears to have been upended by some kind of cyclonic toddler, whether before or after these Tiraan managed to disable the Avatar, I cannot begin to guess. Everything I have seen so far suggests to me that these people absolutely do not need to be left in custody of this facility!”

“Come on, Akane, you know better than that,” Walker replied. “No current humans would be able to shut down an active Avatar.”

“I should think you, of all people, would be familiar enough with the adventuring breed not to make assumptions regarding what humans can or cannot do,” Akane said haughtily, folding her arms. “I have learned the hard way that humans require careful shepherding—for their own good, not to mention everyone else’s.”

“Be that as it may,” Walker said, still in a deliberately calm tone, “the Avatar is fine. He’s been pulled from the main network here and installed in the gravitational isolation chamber. He did this, himself, willingly, and you can go talk to him if you wish. I’m sure he’d be glad to see you.”

“How about you stay away from there!” Hawthorn said shrilly. Everyone ignored her.

“Assuming you are correct,” Akane sniffed, “that doesn’t explain everything going on here. Why are the Tiraan keeping three dryads prisoner, to say nothing of you?”

“Nobody here’s a prisoner!” Hawthorn snapped. “Everybody but you is invited!”

Walker sighed softly. “I…sort of am a prisoner, Hawthorn. But!” She held up a hand to forestall Akane, the tip of whose tail had begun twitching in suppressed agitation. “As much as I don’t enjoy being kept underground, I’m also not inclined to fight it—not because the Imperials intimidate me, but because this is for the best.” She turned her full focus on the kitsune, her expression intent, almost pleading. “I don’t know if you’re aware of what I’ve been…like, since I was brought back to this plane.”

“I have heard…whispers,” Akane acknowledged quietly. “Troubling ones.”

Walker nodded. “As long as I’m down here, nobody dies from being near me. I consider it…a fair deal. I hate being a…walking hazard, Akane. Being a houseplant isn’t ideal, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.”

The kitsune shot Milanda a look. “I see. And…this? Standing here, clearly brimming with stolen power?”

“Given,” Hawthorn interjected before Milanda could speak, “not stolen. Milanda is very nice to us, unlike some uninvited visitors to this place!”

“I hardly even know where to begin with what the Empire is doing with all these children of Naiya,” Akane snapped. “Just the mere fact that they are in possession of this facility and have had the temerity to alter it is disturbing enough. I take some slender comfort in the evidence that they haven’t penetrated far.”

“Not even as far as we have,” Walker interjected. “The Imperials can only get into the access hall, out there, and the GIC.”

“Regardless,” Akane barreled on, “there are dangers in here which the Tiraan Empire unequivocally does not needs to get its hands upon! Yrsa, do you realize there’s an entire cache of anthropomorphs in suspended animation in this port?” She curled her lip disdainfully. “All females, in stasis chambers bearing Druroth’s personal seal, and you know very well what that means. Disgusting. It would be kinder to terminate their life support before the Tiraan find them. Those creatures have suffered enough without being unleashed in a barbaric cluster of mud huts like what’s—”

“You are not killing anyone!” Milanda snapped.

Total silence fell, even over Hawthorn. Akane turned a piercing stare directly on Milanda. Her eyes flicked over her once, and her right ear twitched.

“And,” she finally said, the full weight of her disdain filling her voice, “you are…?”

Despite the fatigue still pressing down on her, and the tension of the moment, Milanda had a sudden realization. Her outburst had been born of her own weariness and frustration, yes—some deferred horror from the death she herself had recently caused. But in its aftermath, the pressure of having to adapt and talk her way around this frighteningly powerful being, something snapped into place in her mind.

“Someone,” she said quietly, “who needs your help.”

Akane favored her with a scornful little smile. “Child, I give you credit for brazenness—whatever little credit that deserves. Why in the world do you imagine I would want to help you? I thought I made it plain I am a hair’s breadth from wiping your civilization clean like the stain I consider it to be.”

Walker had just mentioned that Akane had a fondness of drama, but it didn’t seem wise to make a point of that. “I really don’t think you mean that, Akane-sama.” The kitsune lifted her eyebrows fractionally at the formal address, but an instant later the corners of her mouth also tilted up almost imperceptibly. Encouraged, Milanda pressed on. “I understand all this must be shocking and an unpleasant reminder, but I can’t see you as unreasonable enough to take it out on so many uninvolved people. An entire culture.” It verged on fawning, but considering what this creature was capable of, that didn’t seem inappropriate. Hopefully, Milanda was reading Walker’s cues correctly, and her assessment of Akane’s temperament wasn’t too far off…

“An entire culture,” the kitsune said disdainfully. “You are down here, and acquainted with Yrsa; do I infer that you know something of the true history of this world? Something more than people at large have remembered?”

“We’ve had some very good conversations about history, yes,” Milanda said neutrally. “Obviously, I can’t say how much I may not yet understand…”

“Not much, I bet,” Hawthorn muttered. “We should think about calling her Talker instead of Walker.”

“One of my sisters and I are conducting a continuous go tournament,” Akane said, “which has run longer than your entire civilization. I am presently up ninety-three thousand four hundred thirty two games to ninety-three thousand four hundred twenty nine. Child, you are addressing the heir and custodian of the longest uninterrupted cultural lineage in existence. The kitsune have watched over and shaped the continuous prosperity of a society which stretches back long before the settling of this world—a society which was one of the noblest and most graceful cultures to exist on humanity’s birthplace. And you talk to me about culture? You’re a collection of primitives, jabbering in a borrowed language and pantomiming a hodgepodge of long-dead traditions, shaped by forces whose very existence you don’t even imagine. If Tiraas were wiped out this instant, the world would recover and be none the worse for the event in what history would come to record as an eyeblink.”

“Uninterrupted is really stretching it,” Walker said suddenly.

Akane turned a frown on her. “What?”

“Mother turned her back on her own society,” Walker said, “just as all her Order did. She later repented and revived its memories, but that’s definitely an interruption.”

“Pedantry does not suit you, Yrsa,” Akane said irritably. “My point stands.”

“More importantly,” Walker insisted, “there is no possible way an entire culture could survive completely intact after passing through the bottleneck of one woman’s recollections, goddess or no. I know you and the others did your own research in the Order’s files to piece together other fragments, but still—”

“Just who is this girl, Yrsa,” Akane interrupted with a faint smile, “that you’re so concerned for her welfare as to deliberately irritate me in order to draw my focus from her?”

Walker hesitated, glanced at Milanda, then turned her stare back on Akane.

“I have sisters,” she said quietly. “Many lost to me now…some few I can again speak to. And I owe that to Milanda’s intervention. But in all the universe, I have exactly one friend.” She shot Milanda another look, this one with a trace of asperity. “And it’s all I can do to keep her from getting herself killed, without you helping.”

The kitsune actually grinned at her, then turned her head to examine Milanda with more interest, now, and some amusement. “Very well, I’ll consider myself caught. You are correct, young lady—I am not shy about my occasional capriciousness, but genocide is something I would much rather threaten than carry out. Still, my original question remains.” She tilted her head back, her expression aloof now; her ears, though, were alert and swiveled forward, which Milanda interpreted as a positive sign. “Why should I help you? And to do what?”

This called for words to be chosen with great care. If only she were a little better rested for this confrontation…

“If you’ve been investigating the computers here,” she said, “I suspect you have some idea, at least, what this facility does now.”

“Yes, your little…project,” Akane sniffed, pursing her lips in disapproval. “I applaud the ingenuity, at least, but I take a very dim view of your Empire using the Order’s technology for its own benefit.”

“They didn’t just do that, however,” Milanda said firmly. “The Tiraan who first found this place couldn’t have forced the Avatar to move—he chose to cooperate, and to set up this system for them. And now it needs help to be repaired.”

“A curious fact, if true,” the kitsune said with a shade too much disinterest to be believable, “but I am still waiting to learn what this has to do with me.”

“The Avatar isn’t loyal to the Empire,” Milanda said, watching her reactions closely. “He’s following the last directive left to him by Tarthriss: to be of service to the survivors of the human race.” This was what she had just finally figured out, the thing that explained the Avatar’s recent machinations, as well as his entire presence here and willingness to work for the Silver Throne. It was amazing, in hindsight, that she hadn’t put it all together before. “He is doing this because he considers the Tiraan Empire to be good for humanity. At least,” she added pointedly, “in its present form. And that’s the really important thing, here. A government is not its governor; even a benign leader will be succeeded, and eventually a less competent and/or more malevolent one will rise. Having a system like the Hands of the Emperor does a great deal to secure the safety of the Silver Throne while the system works—and while its operator judges that the Throne deserves it. But if he decides it doesn’t, then he has…leverage.”

“What you are suggesting,” Akane mused, still studying her quizzically, “is that I, of all people, should be placed in a position to have that…leverage. I take it you, yourself, are skeptical of this Empire’s beneficence?”

“My loyalty is to the Emperor,” Milanda said quietly. “He tasked me with restoring the Hands to their proper state. But in the end… His loyalty is to the Empire, and to its people. He may not have realized that the Hands were placed in part as a measure to keep the Empire on the right track, but I know him, and I believe he would approve. One lever does not control the Throne, after all. This whole situation has proved the Emperor and the Empire can survive with minimal disruption without them. Even if you don’t trust or care for the Empire, having the ability to neutralize the Hands does not make you a crippling threat to it. But it does make you—and Walker, and the Avatar, and whoever else is involved—a party who can insist on being listened to.”

There was a beat of silence, in which they all regarded each other—most thoughtfully, Hawthorn with a blend of confusion and mounting alarm.

“This is a compromise,” Milanda finally added. “It’s not the ideal outcome I would have wanted. It is, of course, an imposition to ask it of you, Akane-sama. Keeping Walker here is certainly an imperfect balance of her own interests, and even the dryads infer both costs and benefits from their involvement. But I believe this is the best thing for everyone. For us, for the Empire, for the world.”

“I believe you are getting ahead of yourself,” Akane said loftily. “You are correct that I have little care for the Empire. I’m puzzled by your conclusion that I should care for the world itself. I have my sisters and our nation to consider. Nothing more.”

“However,” Milanda countered with a smile, “I am also talking to a being who can erase me with a flick of her tail—but I note that’s not the point you emphasized when challenged. You talked of culture, tradition. Yes, I am gambling, and perhaps I’m wrong… But something tells me you do care about the world. Maybe more than you’ve ever allowed yourself to express.”

Akane stared at her in silence, one ear twitching.

“The Infinite Order are gone,” Milanda said, meeting her gaze. “Whatever promises you made to Naiya to stay on your island… We both know she has not been herself for far longer than Tiraas has existed. She sent you there for your own protection, from threats that no longer exist. It’s not just that, though. The fact is, Akane-sama, you might not find it within your power to wipe out the Imperial capital now. Oh, you’re a threat which could cause unprecedented damage, but… In the century since the Enchanter Wars, the Empire has become something that can neither be ignored, nor unilaterally destroyed, by any other power remaining in the world. Even the dragons have found themselves compelled to come to terms with this. I’m not asking for a pure favor; this is a chance for you to take a hand in the shaping of the world.”

Akane continued to stare for a long moment. Then, unexpectedly, she smiled. “You sound very much like Kaisa.”

“I see,” Milanda said carefully. “Is that…a compliment?”

“Yes and no,” the kitsune said offhandedly. “She is someone whom I dearly love, who frustrates me to no end with her wild notions. You may consider me, for now…tentatively interested. Let us go see what Avatar 01 has to say. This should be quite revelatory; it’s been a very long time since I spoke with him last.”

“Now wait just a minute!” Hawthorn shouted. “This crazy jackass with the tail is not coming to our home! I live there, dang it—my sisters are there! What the crap do you people think you’re—”

She fell very abruptly silent as Akane surged forward, drawing herself up to her full height. Their proximity emphasized that the kitsune actually wasn’t terribly tall, which seemed incongruous, given the way her personality filled the whole room. Physically, though, she needed the extra few inches added by her ears to stand over Hawthorn. Even so, the dryad backed away, staring at her in alarm.

“And just what do you mean,” Akane said in a dangerously quiet tone, “by expressing yourself like a common tavern wench, to say nothing of cavorting about in the nude? The sheer disgrace. You are a child of Naiya, heir to a legacy whose importance you can’t even begin to grasp. Very well, I see we have a great deal of work to do—here, to say nothing of these humans and their little pet project. Henceforth, I shall expect better of you.”

“I—what the—hey!” Hawthorn finally drew herself up to her own full eight, crossing her arms and trying for a haughty expression, which only managed to appear childishly sullen next to Akane’s far more expert poise. “I am a dryad. I do what I do, and I don’t need to explain myself to anybody! Just who do you think you are?”

This time, Akane moved so fast she didn’t appear to move at all. Suddenly, she was just there, her nose inches from Hawthorn’s, without seeming to have crossed the intervening space. The dryad froze, eyes widening; the kitsune smiled, and something in the expression was far more alarming than her previous anger.

“You,” she said in a tone of silken steel, “may call me onee-san.”

Hawthorn stared at her. Then, very slowly, she leaned to the side to peer around Akane at the others. “Walkeeerrrrrrr?”

“It’s out of my hands now, kid,” Walker said with clear amusement. “’Fraid you’re on your own.”

“Enough of this,” Akane said decisively. “We will go discuss these matters with the Avatar—and then, depending in part on what I find there, we shall proceed…” She swept a piercing stare across the room, Milanda, and finally Hawthorn. “…with whatever needs doing.”


In a perfectly nondescript apartment in a lower-class but not too rough neighborhood of Tiraas, an unremarkable-looking man in an uninteresting, inexpensive suit sat beside an open window, a newspaper held in front of his face. Its angle did not obscure his view out the window, or through the windows of the apartment across the street and one story down.

At the sound of footsteps in the hall, he coughed discreetly, lifting one hand to his mouth and making a fist to cover it. The steps, muffled slightly by the carpet, shuffled slightly as their occupant carefully stepped over the stack of newspapers in the hall which had toppled over and partially blocked the way—providing the pretext for her to step in the prearranged pattern. It was the right sequence of steps and pauses, but even so, the man by the window did not lower his hand until she had entered the room and he recognized her face. Only then did he let his arm come to rest on the end table next to his reading chair, removing his fingers from the handle of the wand concealed up his sleeve.

“Evening, Rex,” the woman said cheerfully to the man, whose name of course was not Rex. “How’s the birdwatching?”

“Blessedly dull,” he replied with a bland smile. “The eagle hasn’t left the nest—gods send this is all that’ll happen until this whole business is resolved.”

“Nothing definitive from back at the office on that,” she replied, settling herself into the other chair facing his and positioned next to the room’s other window, “but indications are things are settling down. Whoever’s working on the problem seems to be getting results. The Hands are stabilizing, causing fewer ruffled feathers. Still suddenly popping up where they can’t be, though.”

“Mm. If they can just work out how to keep that new teleporting without having it coupled with them being unstable, that’ll be the bee’s knees,” Rex grunted, tossing his paper down next to the chair and getting to his feet. “Thanks for being early, by the way.”

“No worries—I know you pulled a double. No sense in any of us getting too run-down,” she said, smiling, but not looking at him. Her attention was also not on the book she had picked up and opened, but at the apartment across the way, watched through her peripheral vision. “Grab a few winks, I’ll hold this down.”

“Cheers.”

He strode from the room, betraying none of the stiffness that should be expected of a man who had not moved in four hours. The woman hummed softly to herself, and turned a page. She hadn’t read a single line, of course.

Outside the open window and a few feet straight up, two figures dressed in black were perched on the eaves. Flora and Fauna exchanged a long, loaded look, then in unison turned and bounded away over the rooftops, silent as falling leaves.

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11 – 21

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None of them were totally surprised to be ambushed as soon as they returned to the Guild. Once inside the subterranean passage complex, but long before they reached the Pit, two blonde figures materialized out of a side corridor as if by magic.

“So!” Flora said, raising her eyebrows archly. “We hear you’ve had quite an afternoon.”

“Oh, come on,” Darius protested. “Were you guys just waiting here for us to get back?”

“Oh, please,” Fauna said disdainfully. “You think we have nothing better to do with our time?”

“The ears are decorative,” Flora added, winking, “but not only decorative.”

“We heard you coming as soon as you hit the casino.”

“All right, that’s just ridiculous,” Tallie scoffed. “How sharp can elven hearing possibly be?”

“It’s not the sharpness of the blade, but the skill with which it is wielded,” Flora said sententiously. “Also, you’re ducking the question.”

“You didn’t ask a question,” said Jasmine. “But on the subject of them, what exactly have you heard?”

The elves exchanged a wry glance.

“Well, she’s got us there,” Fauna admitted.

“The word going around,” said Flora, “is that you lot went to Glass Alley, got in a fight with Ironeye’s people, and then somehow fell in with Webs and his little faction.”

“Wait, faction?” Rasha exclaimed. “And who is Webs?”

“Vandro,” Fauna replied. “So…is that not true, or did he just not mention his tag?”

“’strue,” Ross grunted. “What faction?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s infighting,” Flora said, frowning, “but Alan Vandro is of a theological mindset that puts him at odds with the Boss on many subjects. This is dangerous ground for apprentices to stumble into, guys.”

“With regard to that,” Darius said sharply, “you two were right there when Covrin told us to go find that magic shop. Since you know so damn much about this, a word of warning would have been nice!”

Again, the elves glanced at each other.

“Okay, seriously now,” said Fauna sardonically. “The tip was to go to Glass Alley, find the Finder’s Fee, and ask Sparkler about how dwarves might be tracking you.”

“It’s a big leap from that to getting into an altercation with Vanda Frost and her cell!” Flora added pointedly.

“And quite frankly we’d love to hear that story because how in the hell did you manage that?”

“And why?”

“If you guys have some kind of collective death wish, there are cleaner ways!”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Tallie said wearily. “Stuff just…happened.”

“Uh huh,” Flora said skeptically. “Well, if you’re gonna be a thief, you can’t be the kind of person stuff just happens to.”

“What nonsense is that?” Jasmine demanded, scowling. “Things happen to everyone. The world is just like that.”

“An Eserite,” said Fauna, “is in control. We cultivate our skills, but more importantly, the mindset to use those skills.”

“You can’t just careen around reacting to stuff,” Flora continued. “You need to have a plan, and the ability to make a plan and enact it quickly, under pressure.”

“If you had been planning, I’m pretty sure you would not have ended up on Vanda Frost’s shit list after one encounter.”

“We’re crediting you with a certain amount of basic common sense, there, but hey, if we’re wrong…”

“Isn’t it cute how they can be assholes even when they’re been helpful and commiserative,” Darius said wryly.

“Kind of an Eserite thing, innit?” Ross grumbled.

“Well, look, anyway,” said Fauna, “we’ll wanna hear this whole story straight from the source, as it were, but you’d better not put off facing the music.”

“Style is gonna have things to say to you,” Flora said ominously. “It’ll be that much worse if you make it seem like you’re avoiding her or trying to weasel out of it.”

“Go right up to her, take your lumps, and don’t complain.”

“For the gods’ sake, don’t act submissive or meek, she’ll really tear into you if you show that kind of weakness.”

“But if you just take responsibility like grown-ups and don’t make excuses, Style won’t be any harder on you than she feels she has to be.”

“She’s ham-fisted and has zero patience for bullshit, but she is fair, and all the stuff she puts apprentices through has a purpose.”

“That’s why she’s given such an active role in apprentice training. That’s not a traditional duty for the head enforcer.”

“Hm,” Jasmine mused. “I’ve noticed that about really good teachers.”

“Like alchemy teachers, for example?” Tallie said sourly.

Darius cleared his throat. “Yeah, well… Much as I’m sure you ladies would love to stand around bickering, I say we respect the wisdom of elves. In all the stories, people who don’t listen to elves end up royally screwed. Right, Ross?”

“Wisdom of elves,” Ross grunted. “Plain common sense, more like.”

“That’s the spirit,” Flora said with a grin, patting Rasha on the shoulder.

“To the gallows with head held high!” Fauna crowed, saluting them.

“That’s extremely helpful, thank you,” Jasmine grumbled as the group filed past them, continuing on their way to the center of the complex.

Despite the apprehension which hung over them, the sounds of the Pit were pretty much the same as always for the time of evening. It was semi-quiet, a good number of the apprentices being in the dining hall, whose open doors contributed most of the ambient noise. There were people training, though, as was nearly always the case. And, as usual, a handful of Guild members were about, either passing through on some business of their own or loitering to watch the apprentices.

Several glanced at the five of them as they approached, and one even offered a nod of greeting, but their expressions were disinterested. If any of them had heard any rumor regarding this one group of apprentices, they gave no sign.

“I guess that’s positive,” Rasha mumbled as they filed down the steps to the base of the Pit. “I half expected everybody to be anticipating our demise.”

“What a delightful turn of phrase you have, Rasha,” Darius said with a sigh.

“No reason they’d all show it overtly,” said Tallie. “Weren’t you listening to the elves? Eserites are supposed to be controlled and careful.”

“Eserites are frequently assholes,” Rasha countered, “if you haven’t noticed. Somebody would be gloating if there was reason to.”

“Yep,” Ross agreed. “Wasn’t really our fault, anyway. Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

“WELL WELL WELL.”

No sooner had they reached the bottom than Style appeared at the top of the stairs opposite, glowering at them, and began stomping down. She was attired today in an actual chain mail tunic, with heavy leather gauntlets and boots, her belt bristling with pouches, weapons, and tools; it was an obvious nod to the wandering adventurers of yesteryear, floppy hat and all. Her expression, however, did as much as her booming voice to bring a halt to all conversation and activity in the Pit.

“And just when I was thinking my brand-new ass-kicking boots haven’t had a chance to be properly broken in,” she said loudly, stalking across the floor toward them, “lo and behold, I’ve got a gaggle of apprentices trying for the intramural stumbling fuckwit championship. Truly, the gods are goddamn beneficent!”

“You jinxed us,” Darius hissed, jabbing Ross with an elbow. “You, of all people!”

“There are certain formalities to be observed,” Style said, coming to a stop right in front of them and folding her brawny arms. She was taller than any of them, even Jasmine, and more powerfully built than any but Ross; the sheer physicality of her presence would have been intimidating even were it not for her glare, which looked like it could shatter glass. “Before we get to the yelling and smacking that we all know is coming, I’m going to offer you a chance to spin your side of this. Just in case it turns out you don’t all deserve to get your bells rung, and because none of you little bastards are crafty enough to weasel your way out of this with wordplay. So?” Her glower intensified by an order of magnitude. “Explain.”

“Uh…” Darius winced, and glanced aside at the others. “What have you heard?”

Style’s bulky physique made it seem she should only have been able to move slowly; this was clearly not at all the case. She clapped Darius hard on the side of the head with an open-handed swat that sent him staggering before it seemed possible for her to have un-folded her arms.

“I’d really hoped it was obvious from context,” Style growled, “but this is not the time for you to be getting clever. I’m not gonna repeat myself; if you don’t have a masterful fucking explanation for this towering cock-up, we’re gonna proceed straight to the entertaining portion of the evening.”

“We went to Glass Alley,” Tallie said quickly, “following a tip from a Silver Legionnaire that the magic shop there could provide some insight into how a group of dwarves has been following us around. Just about as soon as we got there, we met a friend of ours, Schwartz, who’s a Salyrite…um, fae user. He was getting attacked by some, uh, local residents.”

“Go on,” Style said grimly.

“Well, we were gonna jump into that,” Tallie continued, “but…it sort of became unnecessary. Ironeye showed up with her entourage and kicked everybody’s ass. And we talked to her briefly and since we weren’t doing anything wrong, she let it go without even saying much of anything to us, so, you know, we figured that was pretty much that.”

She paused, glancing at Rasha, who looked like he was preventing himself from shrinking into his own pockets by sheer force of will. “And then Rasha asked her for directions to the Finder’s Fee.”

“You asked,” Style enunciated carefully, turning the full weight of her baleful stare on Rasha, “Ironeye. For directions.”

“…seemed like she’d know the district,” he said hoarsely.

Style smiled thinly without actually diminishing the strength of her frown, which was a terrifying thing to behold. “Rasha, there’s a point to be made here about common goddamn sense, but I have to say, this is evidence that you do not lack for balls. Quite frankly I was beginning to be concerned about that. Irrespective of any other destruction I have to heap on you, here…kudos for that.”

“Well…great,” he muttered.

“Anyway.” Style turned her attention back to Tallie. “Since you’ve designated yourself the narrator, continue. You asked Ironeye for directions.”

“Right,” Tallie said, nodding. “And then she sent us into a fucking trap. We got locked in a room. So…we broke out of it. And Rumor and Gimmick were right outside, and we left with Gimmick.”

“Hmmm.” Style dragged out the grunt until it was nearly a hum. “All right, well. This is why I ask questions before cracking heads together—take note, those of you who’re going into the enforcement business. What I’ve heard is from Rumor, which was a deliberately incriminating pile of hints and vagueness about you causing trouble in Glass Alley. Nothing that actually contradicts this account, she merely implied otherwise—which was kind of what she does. If your story is true, for Ironeye to throw you in a cell just for being on her lawn was way over-the-top, and I’m gonna have fucking words with her about the treatment of other people’s apprentices. If I have to go down there and find out that this story is not true, the world of hurt you little shits are in for will make what I planned for tonight look like the gentle fondling of your virgin true love. So, with that established…” She tilted her head back, staring down her nose at them. “Would you like to modify your story any?”

“That’s what happened,” Tallie said stubbornly, clenching her fists. “Ask her. If she tells you otherwise, ask Gimmick.”

“And Herschel Schwartz,” Jasmine added quickly. “You can find him through the College of Salyrene pretty easily, I bet.”

“Mm hm,” Style said, still staring down at Tallie. “And is there anything you, in particular, would like to add?”

“Oh.” Tallie winced. “Well, uh, you know. When we got out, Rumor was, um, standing around outside the place where we’d been locked up. And I sort of punched her.”

They were reminded of the presence of multiple onlookers by a general in-drawing of breath and one low whistle. It was a startling reminder, to judge by the way Rasha jumped; Style had a way of dominating the scene to the exclusion of all else.

“Uh huh,” Style replied in a very even tone which was far more terrifying than her previous shouting. “Wanna explain your thought process, there?”

“Well,” Tallie said defensively, folding her arms, “by that point I was sick of getting the runaround from assholes, and she was continuing to be a smug, aggravating pain in the ass.”

“And that,” Style said calmly, “in your mind, is grounds for a sucker-punching.”

“She was party to what you admitted was abusive behavior toward us,” Tallie said, her voice climbing half an octave. “Aren’t we supposed to not take shit from people abusing their power? That’s the whole point of this cult, isn’t it?”

“Child,” said Style, “as an enforcer I am, among other things, a student of human behavior. Your posture and tone show me very clearly that you know you’re in the wrong, here; indignation over unjust treatment looks very different. Since you’ve been here less than two weeks, I’m not gonna call you down for your sad fucking lack of a poker face. However, keep in mind that I am a highly-ranked officer in this cult. Now, do you really think standing in front of me and twisting Eserion’s sacred principles around in a way that gets you off the hook for your own dumbfuckery is a smart thing to do?”

“Uh.” Tallie outright cringed. “Well—”

Again, Style unfolded herself almost too fast to observe. Her fist slammed into Tallie’s midsection, doubling the girl over and sending her staggering backward, where she would probably have fallen had Jasmine not caught her. Before Jasmine could get a good grip, however, Style seized a handful of Tallie’s hair and hauled her away from the group, unceremoniously tossing her toward the open center of the Pit.

Tallie staggered, wheezing and bent over with both arms wrapped around her middle, but she kept on her feet.

“I’d have hoped most of this was obvious, but since I was clearly wrong, I’m gonna explain,” Style growled, stalking toward her. “In detail. First, revenge is a science, which you will be expected to understand and master before you’re done getting trained.”

Tallie tried to straighten up, at which moment Style jabbed her hard in the collarbone with the heel of her hand, sending her staggering again.

“The purpose of retaliation,” the enforcer continued, “is to influence the future behavior of someone, and not necessarily the person being retaliated against. That means you need to approach it strategically: set out your goals, form a plan, and enact it carefully. Lashing out at someone who’s offended you is inbred orc behavior, not at all befitting a member of the Thieves’ Guild.”

This time, Tallie had enough wind back and the presence of mind to raise her forearm to try to block the slap Style aimed at her head. With lightning precision, the larger woman switched to her other hand, clapping Tallie across the ear and sending her crashing to the ground with a yelp.

“Second, if you have a problem with the way a Guild member corrects your behavior, you come to me. If you’re whining and wasting my time, you’ll suffer for that, but if you have been legitimately abused, they will. I’ll not have assholes mistreating my apprentices. That is my prerogative.”

She folded her arms again, staring coldly down at Tallie, who huddled on the floor, seemingly afraid to try getting up again. “And finally, you do not assault members of this Guild who outrank you. Once you’re initiated and tagged, you have a lot of free reign in this cult. We’re not big on ranks in general. Your dipshit little friend Pick could walk up to the Boss himself and ream him out, and while that kind of numbnuttery has consequences, there’s no official protocol or mandatory ritual punishment. But that’s for people who have earned their way into Eserion’s Guild. You are just some kid. We’re seeing if you’re worth elevating to membership, but right now? You have no privileges here. You will treat Guild members with respect…”

She unfolded her arms and began stalking forward. “Or I will treat you like a fucking kickball!”

And suddenly, Jasmine was between them.

“That’s enough.”

Style halted, staring almost quizzically at her. “Kid. I am disciplining an apprentice, here. Only one person present gets to decide when it’s enough. You wanna venture a guess who that is?”

“This isn’t discipline,” Jasmine said flatly. “This is you picking on someone weaker than yourself who can’t fight back.”

“This is the consequences of her insubordination, thoughtlessness, assault, and general wasting of my time,” Style replied in the same tone. “And you are getting some leeway here because standing up to power and supporting your fellow thieves are things we want to encourage, but you had better think about what the consequences will be for you if you fail to butt out.”

“I keep hearing Eserites talk a big game about standing up to bullies,” Jasmine spat. “But I keep seeing Eserites being the biggest bullies themselves! From Pick treating apprentices like poorly-trained dogs to Ironeye using magical ordnance on impoverished—”

“That’s your problem, Jasmine,” Style interrupted calmly. “You fail to discern the difference between those things—and whatever other examples you’re about to spit out, including this situation right here. Pick is a smug fuckhead who will be disciplined for his behavior. Ironeye has earned credibility and the benefit of the doubt, and even not knowing the story I know her well enough to be certain whatever she did was deserved by whoever she did it to. Your new best friend Webs doesn’t sharpen his claws on people who don’t have it coming, either, and believe me you’ve no idea the cruelty that man is capable of. We do what’s necessary, and when we fuck up, we get held accountable. Just like you’re about to be.”

“Necessary,” Jasmine sneered. “It’s funny how it’s always necessary for you to throw your weight around, isn’t it?”

“Jas, don’t,” Tallie whispered, reaching up to grasp her leg.

“You’re smarter than this,” Style said evenly. “I get that you came here to work through some of your own stuff, but I expected you to know better than this. You’re picking a fight you don’t need, girl. This is not the place for cries for help. Now get out of my way, Jasmine.”

“It’s okay,” Tallie wheezed, dragging herself back to her feet. “It was my fuckup, I’ll take it. C’mon, don’t make this an issue…”

“Don’t do that,” Jasmine said, turning her head to give Tallie a sidelong look. “You deserved that first punch, Tallie, not this. Don’t make excuses for someone who outranks you to kick you while you’re down. That wouldn’t make you much of an Eserite, would it?”

“Child,” Style said almost sadly, shaking her head, “you don’t know what ‘down’ is. I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to be the one to show you. You and me are gonna talk about this, Jasmine, and that’s not a euphemism. This shit needs to be worked through, and I’ve got time and the ears to lend you. But right now you need to back off.”

“Then,” Jasmine said, turning back to face her fully and shifting to a more balanced stance, “you need to back me off.”

The silence in the Pit was absolute; no one even breathed. Even the cafeteria had gone still, apprentices clustering in the door to stare out at the scene unfolding.

Style sighed heavily. “Aw, kid… You just had to.”

She lunged with the same impossible speed, but Jasmine was not Tallie. Lacking Style’s size and muscle, she didn’t try to deflect the punch fully, instead stepping inside the reach of Style’s arm with the same blinding agility, pushing the attacking hand just slightly off-course and launching a counter-jab at Style’s throat.

Style seized her wrist and swiftly spun in a full circle, tearing Jasmine out of her balanced stance and finally hurling her aside. Apprentices scattered out of the way as Jasmine careened into the wall by the pickpocketing dummies. Despite the disorientation she’d been subjected to, though, she remained adroit on her feet, instantly regaining her poise and actually kicking off the wall to lunge back at Style.

In the intervening second, though, Style had continued forward and met Jasmine head-on with a haymaker which the smaller woman barely avoided taking full in the face. Style’s fist grazed her skull, but even as she staggered past, she managed a knife-handed jab directly into the enforcer’s armpit. It was an excellent strike, the kind of blow that could possibly have rendered her right arm temporarily numb and useless, had Style not happened to be wearing chain mail.

It was Jasmine who let out a yelp of pain.

She retreated as Style came relentlessly after her, deflecting another jab and aiming a kick at Style’s knee. The enforcer merely shifted just enough that Jasmine’s boot struck her on the thigh instead, which didn’t slow her a whit.

Her next punch caught Jasmine hard on the jaw. She reeled, her martial skill suddenly useless in a blind daze, but Style didn’t give her even those seconds to regain her equilibrium. Grabbing Jasmine by the hair with her left hand, she hauled her around and past herself, at the same time bringing her other fist up in a vicious uppercut that landed square on Jasmine’s solar plexus. The air went fully out of her in a hoarse croak, and she dropped.

The whole exchange had taken less than ten seconds.

“You assume a lot of things,” Style said coldly to the girl kneeling at her feet, presently unable to breathe. “For example, that I’m in my position for reasons other than my ability to kick ass. You’re good, kid—amazing, even. I am better. This was not the way you should’ve learned it.”

She grabbed Jasmine’s hair again, hauling her upright, and once again slammed a fist into her belly, then hurled her to the stone floor.

“Stop it!” Tallie shouted fruitlessly.

Jasmine was too dazed even to catch herself, hitting the floor in a disjointed heap. She was only there for a moment before Style’s boot impacted her ribs, flipping her fully over.

“I legitimately hate this,” Style snarled. “Beating down some fucker who deserves it? Oh, that’s satisfying. But you, kid, you just had to push me, in public, in the worst way. This is all so fucking pointless.”

At the final word, Style stomped hard on Jasmine’s upper back, slamming her down into the floor just as she’d been trying feebly to rise. Jasmine let out a croaking sound and spat a mouthful of blood.

Tallie arrived in a clumsy slide, hurling herself bodily over her fallen friend.

“Enough!” she shrieked. “What’s wrong with you?! You’re killing her!”

“No.”

Everyone’s gaze shifted at the speaker, a new arrival on the scene.

Tricks, the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild and high priest of Eserion, was descending the steps into the Pit. He was a diminutive and plainly-dressed man who’d not have garnered a second look from any random passerby on the street, but those present knew who he was.

“Style is too good at her job to kill someone who doesn’t need it,” he said calmly, striding over toward his chief enforcer. “Or to hurt them one bit more than she intends.”

He came to a stop, gazing down at Jasmine and Tallie. Jasmine coughed, spraying a few more droplets of blood onto the stone floor, and the Boss sighed, then lifted his head to pan his gaze around at the silent apprentices standing on all sides.

“So. Who can tell me what our Miss Jasmine did wrong, here?”

More silence followed. Style folded her arms again, her expression pinched and unhappy.

“She challenged Style,” said Darius, his voice startling against the quiet. He was pale and looked shocked, but his tone remained even. “Publicly, in front of the people whose respect she has to keep. Against the chief enforcer, who can’t be seen as soft. And she refused multiple offers to back down.”

“Well done,” Tricks said with an approving nod, pointing at him. “We are thieves, my apprentices, but not just thieves. What we do is for a purpose, and we cannot achieve that purpose merely by redistributing wealth. That’s been tried, and it simply never goes anywhere. Eserion’s cult is about understanding what moves people, and using that understanding to move them. We’re as heavily invested in social comprehension as the Izarites or Veskers. As such, you cannot afford to act rashly. You must identify a need to act, form a plan, and proceed toward its completion with a cool head. Otherwise…”

He sighed sadly, again turning to gaze down at Jasmine, who had been helped to her hands and knees by Tallie and seemed not to have the strength or wind to rise further. “Quite apart from failing your god, you will very often find yourself bleeding on the floor.”

Tricks let the lesson sink in for another second before continuing.

“Tallie, take her to the doc. And the rest of you,” he added, turning to where Rasha, Ross, and Darius were clustered at the foot of a staircase, “go with them. I’ll be wanting to speak with you kids before you turn in tonight. Style, I’ll talk to you in a bit. I need to tend to something before finishing this.”

He patted the towering woman on the upper arm; she gave him a curt nod, then resumed watching Tallie help Jasmine slowly to her feet. The enforcer’s expression was unreadable, but her broad shoulders shifted gently in a sad sigh.

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