Tag Archives: Finchley

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Despite the late hour, Darling was alert and energetic even without the aid of strong tea, much less coffee. The sense of a new and interesting game suddenly afoot did wonders for his personal motivation. Price claimed his addiction to intrigues was worse than anything he could eat, drink, or smoke. If it kept him upright, moving, and sharp close to midnight after a long day, though, he wasn’t going to complain. Particularly as his current adventure was a response to an urgent summons by Imperial Intelligence. Whatever this was, he didn’t want to go into it at less than his best.

The neighborhood through which he strode was quiet at this hour, and in fact quite safe, being an upscale place occupied chiefly by pricier businesses and thus heavily patrolled. He was probably the scruffiest person it had seen all day, attired presently as Sweet the thief rather than the Bishop, but luckily there were no soldiers immediately in sight to question him. Not that he couldn’t talk his way out of that, but it didn’t do to keep the Imps waiting.

His steps slowed briefly as he passed through an intersection, glancing down the side avenue, only a few blocks into which he had twice found the Elysium.


The address he had been given was an Imperial safe house, which of course he knew despite no such explanation being included in the message summoning him. In fact, this was one of the safe houses he wasn’t supposed to know about, not that he planned to enlighten whoever he met. Darling liked Vex well enough and meant no ill toward his department or the regime it served, but just coexisting with a man like Vex necessarily meant hoarding whatever advantage he could secure.

He stepped into a back alley, which was actually clean; the space had been designed as a service entrance for the three buildings clustered around it, and rich folks had their standards. The good ones applied the same standards to spaces occupied by their servants. He strode smoothly past the first two doors, well aware that his approach had to be observed, and grasped the handle on the third without bothering to knock.

The door opened instantly and silently, and he slipped through, pulling it shut behind him. There was no one present to greet him, leaving him to choose between going down a darkened hallway and descending a narrow flight of stairs. Light and faint voices came from the bottom of the steps, so that way he went.

It occurred to him in passing that this would be a fantastic place for an ambush. His message had come from an Imperial functionary he knew, though, and Vex had no reason to pull a stunt like that. Still and all, he tucked his fingertips into his sleeves, where he had throwing knives concealed.

A moment later, he removed them, upon stepping into the room at the bottom of the stairs and seeing who awaited him. Quentin Vex himself was present, lounging against the wall; General Panissar stood near the door in full uniform. The third man was dressed casually, in a suit that had seen no wear and was of good quality but clearly not tailored for him; it had probably been procured from some department store particularly for this exercise. Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, Emperor of Tiraas, assuredly did not have any such garments in his own wardrobe.

“Please don’t,” the Emperor said quickly when Darling started to kneel. “The formalities have their place, Darling, but there’s nobody here to impress. Let’s not bog this down with ceremony, shall we?”

“As you wish, your Majesty,” he said diplomatically, straightening up and adjusting his lapels. He glanced at Vex, then Panissar, then back at the Emperor. “Well, here we are, then! I didn’t even know what to expect and I’m still alarmed. Shall I assume the Emperor isn’t nearly as unprotected here as he looks?”

“Obviously,” Panissar said with disdain. “I’d feel better if I could have brought a few Imperial Guards, but the situation being what it is…”

“My people are keeping watch,” Vex said with a yawn. “My best people. Blanketing the district with them would risk drawing eyes, which is exactly what we don’t want. A handful of my top operatives represent more effective power than a platoon, anyway.”

“Are you gonna let him talk to you like that?” Darling asked Panissar, who snorted derisively. “Sorry, I don’t know a better way to lighten the atmosphere of impending doom. What’s going on, how bad is it, and how can I help?”

“To begin with,” Sharidan said seriously, “anything and everything discussed here is Sealed to the Throne.”

He paused for acknowledgment, and Darling nodded deeply in a gesture that verged on a bow.

“The situation is this,” the Emperor continued. “Something has interfered with the Hands of the Emperor. All of them are exhibiting mental instability, coupled with the sudden possession of powers they never had before.”

“Holy shit,” Darling whispered. “Ah…excuse me.”

Sharidan actually smiled. “Not at all; I’d say that is the correct reaction.”

“We are working to contain this situation,” said Vex. “Intelligence and the Army are both shifting assets to strengthen protection of the Imperial family, and monitor any ongoing projects in which Hands are participating. As discreetly as possible, of course; as effectively as can be done without informing the assets in question of the nature of the problem. It may not prove feasible, but ideally we can resolve this before it turns into a crisis.”

“Hang on,” said Darling. “The Hand who usually sits on the council with us. Is he still at Last Rock?”

Vex gave him a sleepy, mirthless little smile. “Indeed. Verification of the problem has come from that quarter; we’re aware of the potential for escalation, there, and watching it carefully.”

“Professor Tellwyrn has been helpful and surprisingly restrained,” Sharidan agreed.

“Excuse me,” Panissar growled, “but in the version of events I was told, the woman broke into the Imperial Palace, assaulted one of the Empress’s companions and vandalized her bedroom.”

“In the course of delivering a friendly warning, yes,” Sharidan replied, smiling. “Which, for her, was helpful and surprisingly restrained. She bypassed an annoying bureaucracy in order to deliver a message, and I can’t say I don’t sympathize with the impulse, irksome as her methods are. Last Rock isn’t the worry, here; I am. The Hands surround and follow their Emperor above all else. Their current instability is a grave threat; one has already tried to arrest Eleanora. It has been decided,” he continued with clear displeasure, “that the best response in this situation is to remove me from a position where I can do anything to help.”

“Your Majesty knows why,” Vex replied calmly, “and clearly are in agreement. It’s not as if we could force you to comply, nor would.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Sharidan said with a sigh. “I do know. I don’t have to like it, though. For the time being, in any case, the Empress will maintain the government.”

“You need a place to hide,” Darling guessed.

“Exactly.” The Emperor nodded. “Which is why we asked you here, your Grace.”

He frowned. “Don’t you have safe houses?”

“Many. All of them, however, are known to the Hands,” Sharidan replied. “They will be able to find me anyway, given the need, but not as easily as if I am in a place unknown to them. Each Hand can sense my direction and approximate distance from their position, but that’s it. Getting to me will take time, and involve figuring out a route, gauging the situation…”

“And if one or more start moving in his direction, we’ll know,” Vex added. “This operation will involve me posting agents to watch both his Majesty and the Palace, and any other Hands in circulation. As soon as one makes a move at the Emperor, we’ll intervene to extract him. Unfortunately, Hands have unrestricted access to all of Imperial Intelligence’s assets, including the power to give orders to my personnel with the Emperor’s own authority. They can find any of our bolt-holes nearly as easily as they can the Throne’s own.”

“We are addressing this as best we can,” said the Emperor, “by keeping the agents in question in the field with orders not to report back until they are told otherwise. The Hands, meanwhile, have been informed that all of this is a gambit on my part to flush out a conspiracy. Which is roughly true; they simply weren’t told they were its target. The downside of needing to keep them pacified is that I cannot curtail their authority while we work. This should suffice for a while to keep them away, but if the emotional instability they’ve begun to demonstrate worsens, one or more is likely to make an irrational move.”

“This whole situation is disastrously unstable,” said Darling. “I trust something is being done to rectify the root problem?”

The Emperor sighed. “Clearly, something has interfered with the magic powering the Hands. Unfortunately, there are no specialists on that particular…arrangement. I have sent someone I trust to attempt to address it, but… It may not be possible.”

“I hope you have a longer-term plan in that case, your Majesty,” Darling said.

Sharidan nodded. “She is to attempt a repair if it can be done; if not, her instructions are to destroy the entire system.”

“Can that be done?”

“Anything can be destroyed,” the Emperor said softly. “Whether that proves feasible in this instance is another matter. She will do what she can, and we have other plans ready to be activated if she fails, which are not germane to our discussion here.”

“What you need,” Darling said slowly, “is someone who can hide you in the city, using resources and personnel not known to the Imperial government, close enough to the Palace but also far enough that you can either return to it or flee it on very short notice.”

“Exactly,” Panissar grunted. “Hence you. Despite your known tendency to play all ends against the middle.”

“I won’t waste anyone’s time denying that, but in a case like this…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.I’d say this is no time for games. Far, far too much would come unraveled if something happened to the Emperor. Speaking of which, first things first: you gentlemen have probably already decided this and were maybe about to make a point of it to me, but under no circumstances can any Thieves’ Guild or other personnel be told who he is, much less why he’s hiding.”

“We are firmly in agreement,” Panissar snorted.

Darling nodded. “With that established… Yes, this shouldn’t actually be too hard. Any number of people either owe me favors or would love to do me one, and for Eserites, someone needing a no-questions place to crash where they’re encouraged to stay away from the windows isn’t an odd circumstance at all. I’ll have to winnow it down to people who can be both trusted and relied on. To do that, I’ll need to put my ear to the ground for a bit, find out who is or is not currently in a bad situation we don’t want to be near. Also not unusual for Eserites. What’s our timetable, here?”

“That will ultimately be determined by his Majesty’s agent,” said Vex. “The base situation will be resolved when she does so, one way or another. I will say, however, that having a bunch of physically overpowering, highly-ranked government officials slowly growing more and more unhinged will escalate this into either a massive crisis or a cluster of smaller ones, sooner than later. I give this no more than a week before it devolves into a disaster we will be hard-pressed to contain. Current problems aside, if the Emperor is out of sight for longer than that, political tensions will begin to form which could impair the government’s function on their own. Coupled with the Hands…”

“A week.” Darling rubbed his chin in thought. “This is gonna be a no-sleep night for me, then. Let me head back to the Guild and rule out some options; I want to be sure what we’re stepping into before we take the Emperor near it.”

“Is your Guild involved in a lot of things that physically dangerous in the city?” Panissar demanded.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Darling said with a shrug. “But a lot of what the Guild is involved in could be instantly escalated into a dangerous mess by putting the Emperor and Vex’s watchers anywhere near it. The underworld functions on a delicate balance, gentlemen; that’s what keeps it from affecting the lives of most citizens who don’t seek it out. If we’re going to do anything to affect that balance, we’ll do it carefully, especially given the stakes. This, I assume, is one of those spots the Hands know about?”

“Indeed,” Sharidan said, nodding. “And in theory should be safe; all of this is an added precaution, because we expect more than fear that some of them will act rashly, in spite of my orders. It should suffice for a while, though.”

“All right,” Darling replied. “A while is all I need. I’ll have something more permanent for you by morning.”

The entrance to the Wells was an unassuming sight, disguised as a small shed. Still, when the door opened, all three leaped to attention and saluted, Rook after twitching as if stung by a wasp.

Ravana stepped out, looking calm and composed as usual, if inquisitive, and swept a curious look across them. Behind her, two of her classmates followed, Scorn having to duck to get through the doorway and make room for Szith.

“Gentlemen,” Ravana said mildly. “Good evening. When Afritia said I had visitors, I confess I rather expected some of my classmates.”

“Your Grace!” Moriarty practically shouted. “We humbly thank you for taking the time to speak with us an apologize profusely for this imposition and the late hour!”

“At ease,” Ravana said with clear amusement. “All the way at ease, Private Moriarty. We’ve known each other only briefly, but it has been enough for me to be certain you would not trouble me were the matter not important.”

Behind her and to either side, the drow and demon mutely folded their arms in an eerily identical posture, framing the diminutive Duchess with the subtlest hint of menace.

Rook cleared his throat, dropping his salute. “Thanks, Duchess Madouri. And, uh, all due respect, but you can probably expect a little more bowing and scraping, ‘cos the plain truth is we came to ask a favor of you and you probably can’t even imagine how uncomfortable that is, oh gods I’m really sorry to bother you.”

She actually laughed softly. “Perhaps you’d better blurt it out before Moriarty suffers a cardiac event, then. Mr. Finchley, I have several times had the thought that your porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. Would you care to take over?”

Finchley froze, blinking. “P-porridge, your Grace?”

“An old Stalweiss fable,” she said ruefully. “My apologies, I do have something of a predilection for esoteric allusions.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, I’m sure it’s just one of your many charming—”

“What do you want?!” Scorn barked, making all three jump backward.

“Scorn, please,” Ravana said in the same tone of mild amusement. The demon just grunted. Szith raised one eyebrow.

Finchley took a deep breath, clearly steeling himself. “Your Grace, we would like to ask your help in acquiring legal counsel.”

“Interesting,” Ravana mused. “For what purpose?”

“Getting early discharge from the Army!” Rook blurted.

“Under circumstances which are, in the best possible interpretation, highly suspicious,” Moriarty added.

Ravana stood silently for a few seconds, taking the time to examine each of their faces in detail, before speaking. “I do say that is unexpected. Forgive me if I presume, gentlemen, but it has been my observation, in the course of our admittedly brief interactions, that all three of you find great pride and satisfaction in serving in his Majesty’s army, even if politics beyond your control have relegated you to an irrelevant backcountry nonsense post which negates any possibility of career advancement.”

“Oh, there were never any hard feelings about that,” Rook chuckled. “It’s not like any of us was gonna have career advancement anyhow. Moriarty’s the only one who even knows any regulations, and he literally cannot shoot the broad side of a barn. Funny story, we tested that.”

“After you got me drunk,” Moriarty snarled, “and let us not waste the Duchess’s time!”

“Here’s the thing, your Grace,” Finchley said. “There’s a Hand of the Emperor on campus, and the short version is, he’s gone crazy. Even Professor Tellwyrn is alarmed by how he’s been acting. But he’s a man with absolute authority. At the end of the week, if she hasn’t fixed this Sleeper problem to his satisfaction, he’s going to try to punish her by…disappearing us.”

“He used the actual words ‘never seen again,’” Rook added, gulping.

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but…how would that punish Professor Tellwyrn?”

“It wouldn’t,” Moriarty replied, “in any way, shape, or form.”

“Finchley wasn’t kidding,” Rook added. “The man is completely off his nut.”

“So that’s our predicament,” said Finchley. “The ultimatum is probably impossible for Professor Tellwyrn to meet—she’s doing her best about it anyway, so what was even the point? And when it doesn’t happen, well… I mean, theoretically, he could just be reassigning us…”

“Our posting here is a political matter, though,” Moriarty said glumly. “We’re supposed to be out of the way. Us being stationed in the capital might have…um, repercussions.”

“Plus,” said Rook, “not to harp on this, but this guy is seriously unhinged. There is absolutely no telling what he’ll do with us. And legally? He can do any damn thing he wants.”

“How does a lawyer help you, then?” asked Szith.

“That is simple enough,” said Ravana. “The Empire is not an oligarchy, despite constant attempts by families such as mine to make it so. In a society of laws, the law can be used to challenge power on its own terms. In this case, by pressing suit over their treatment and securing early discharge on the grounds of abusive treatment by superiors, they create records, and attention. A threat like this would have to be carried out quietly; by making that impossible, they pull at least a few of its teeth. His only counter would be to declare this a matter of national security, which would bring the eyes of Imperial Intelligence onto his own misconduct. Seeking legal counsel of the kind I could connect you with is actually a very good idea, gentlemen, as it would take more than the common run of lawyer to pull this off. I am more concerned by your allegation that a Hand of the Emperor has become unstable. The implications are positively staggering.”

“Even I find it hard to believe,” Szith agreed. “The Hands are legendary. Their position and stability seems immutable.”

“A society is basically a collection of things we agree to believe,” Finchley said quietly. “It’s…a shape we give to what would otherwise be chaos. These things seem immutable until the moment they come crashing down, and we have to face the fact they only ever existed because everybody said so.”

Ravana cocked her head to the right, regarding him with a suddenly thoughtful expression. “Very insightful, Mr. Finchley.”

Finchley coughed awkwardly, flushing. “I, ah, well… My dad’s in the Wizard’s Guild. I grew up listening to wise old educated people chatting about life over tea.”

“I do believe my House attorneys could do what you wish,” she mused. “The first step would be to file injunctions protecting you from reprisal while you physically remove yourselves from the clutches of your superiors.”

“You can get permission to go AWOL?” Rook said in apparent delight.

Ravana gave him a vulpine smile. “With the right lawyer, Mr. Rook, one can do whatever one likes, and acquire permission retroactively. That isn’t even much of a trial, as it is within both the letter and the spirit of several laws aimed at protecting soldiers from exactly this sort of abuse. The real challenge would be contesting the orders of a Hand, which are the same as those of the Emperor, for all intents and purposes. That command cannot be gainsaid. It would have to be…interfered with, misdirected, undermined, sabotaged. Which, of course, is also within the purview of a truly good lawyer.” Her smile widened. “By which, of course, I mean a truly evil one.”

Finchley drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Your Grace, I know this is a vast imposition, but we’re desperate. Could you…?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s totally out of the question,” she replied, and continued when they all visibly deflated. “Not for lack of willingness to help on my part, gentlemen, but my House is still in hot water with the Silver Throne as it is. I have made progress during the last half year, but I am far from the point where I can afford to have my House attorney’s spit in a Hand of the Emperor’s eye.”

“I see,” Finchley said morosely. “Well. Again, your Grace, we’re sorry to have bothered you.”

“Now, just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand, again smiling very faintly. “I cannot afford to have my House attorneys step into this, which is exactly why I cultivate contact with highly effective, highly disreputable legal firms in both Tiraas and Madouris. One never knows when an inconvenience such as this will arise. I can put you in touch with the perfect person by telescroll. However,” she said quickly as all three perked up and Rook opened his mouth, “no one fitting that description can be simply approached from the street, as it were. Such a firm will require an introduction from an established client, and proof that their rather significant remuneration is assured.”

Rook blew out a sigh. “Welp, there’s that. Like the man said, m’lady, we’re sorry for bothering you.”

“You three have quite the penchant for getting ahead of yourselves,” Ravana said with amusement. “I’ll take care of everything. The telescroll office is closed, but I can have orders dispatched and funds procured by noon tomorrow. By dinner, we can have you on a caravan to the capital, out of this Hand’s immediate reach, and with the support of a powerful ally.”

“Your Grace, we cannot ask you to do that,” Moriarty said firmly.

“Man, we literally just asked her to do that,” Rook retorted, jabbing him with an elbow.

Moriarty stepped away from him, setting his jaw. “Asking for help from her personal lawyers is asking for a big favor—that’s bad enough. Asking her to pay for some lawyer in Tiraas… That’s asking for money. A lot of money. It’s out of the question!”

“We are, of course, deeply grateful for the offer, your Grace,” Finchley said, making a shushing motion at them. “I have to tell you, though, the three of us combined have basically no prospect of ever being able to pay you back.”

“I’m not in the habit of loaning money,” Ravana replied, “except after negotiating a suitable interest rate and securing collateral. You may consider this a gift, gentlemen. A favor for friends, if you will.”

“I…see,” Finchley said slowly. “I’m… Forgive me, I don’t wish to be rude, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d care about us all that—”

“Finchley!” Moriarty shouted, aghast. “Do not insult the Duchess!”

Ravana actually laughed. “Oh, not at all, Private Moriarty. I’d suggest a little more circumspection when speaking to nobles in the future, Mr. Finchley, but your point is well taken indeed. It is rare that powerful aristocrats pause their own business to grant expensive favors to passing acquaintances. When you see that, you should always look for the hidden agenda.”

“I, uh…oh.” Rook looked over at the others. “Um, can you guys think of anything safe to say to that? Because I got nothin’.”

“In this case, you may be assured it is nothing that will bode ill for you,” Ravana said, smiling. “Scorn, you are developing a decent mind for politics. Can you see the advantage for me in this?”

“I really, really can’t,” Scorn admitted, scowling. “These boys, I like them well enough, but they aren’t good for much.”

“And that’s our epitaph right there,” Rook said, grinning.

“This situation with the Hand,” Szith said softly, “cuts to the very heart of the Imperial government. Something of great import must be happening in Tiraas, something which will cause ripples of change. If you ignore it, it will wash over you, and perhaps push you under. If you pick a side, you run the risk of being wrong. But if you intervene subtly, you can deny involvement if ends badly, but take credit if it ends well.”

“Bravo, Szith,” Ravana said approvingly. “You have good political instincts, yourself.”

“In Tar’naris, one needs those to survive,” the drow replied, face as impassive as always. “The mighty are often not careful where they place their feet. One must be adroit to avoid being stepped on.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, turning her sly little smile on the three baffled-looking soldiers, “indeed one must.”

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12 – 12

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“Ladies,” Gabriel said in greeting as the two groups met at the stairs to Helion Hall’s second floor. “Wow, this makes everybody. You also got a summons from her Majesty, then?”

“Yeah,” said Teal. “And I have to admit the thing that bothers me most is how little it bothers me to have imperious notes spontaneously appear in the room where I sleep. After all the times Tellwyrn’s surprise-teleported us places, it just doesn’t seem as invasive anymore.”

“We’re being fuckin’ trained,” Ruda said fatalistically, leading the way up the steps. “Which, granted, is the point of a college education, but my papa isn’t paying to have me turned into a goddamn show pony.”

“Toby, are you all right?” Shaeine asked gently. Gabriel’s eyes cut back to his friend, full of concern.

Toby sighed softly, his dour expression not lightening. “Just got back from taking Raolo to the infirmary,” he said tersely.

“Oh, no!” Juniper said, eyes widening. “Is he okay? What happened?”

“Like the others,” Toby answered, eyes ahead as they topped the stairs and entered the hallway. “He seems fine. Just asleep.”

“Fuck,” Ruda spat, turning to give him a look of commiseration.

“This is getting out of hand!” Fross chimed. Patterns of white light shifted along the walls as she zipped spastically back and forth above their heads. “People are getting really worried, and frankly I think they’re right to! How much longer can this possibly go on?!”

“Hey,” Teal said gently, squeezing Toby’s shoulder. “If you need—”

“Thanks,” he said sharply, then immediately sighed again and gave her an apologetic look, which she answered with a smile. “Thanks…but this isn’t suddenly worse because it’s affected a personal friend of mine. If anything, the lesson here is how I should’ve been more concerned with it from the beginning.”

“Caine, enough,” Ruda said flatly. “It is suddenly worse because it affects someone you know. Sounds harsh, but that’s just how people think. Paladin or no, you’re a person.”

“I’m a person called to serve others,” he retorted. “A paladin is expected to do better. And this is not about me!”

“What happened to Raolo isn’t about you,” she said. “The whole Sleeper bullshit isn’t about you. But this, how you feel? That is. You’re allowed to have feelings and flaws—what the hell would gods need paladins for if they didn’t want a human perspective? Let your friends care about you, dumbass.”

Gabriel patted him on the back. “As usual, she’s not wrong and it’s annoying as hell. Look, man, despite what we all know Tellwyrn will think, maybe it’s time we look into doing something ourselves.”

“Such as?” Teal said wryly.

Juniper cleared her throat. “Uh, assuming Tellwyrn’s in her office, which seems likely since she told us all to go there, we’re probably within her earshot here.”

“Yeah, well, Tellwyrn’s also smart enough to see this coming,” Gabriel replied.

They turned at the sound of feet on the stairs, beholding the craggy-face balding man in the long black coat leading the campus’s three resident soldiers up to the hall.

“Move,” the Hand spat, shouldering roughly past Ruda.

“Excuse you?” she said incredulously.

“Sorry,” Rook muttered in passing. Finchley gave her a look of desperate apology; Moriarty seemed occupied with worrisome thoughts of his own.

“The hell’s that about?” Gabriel asked aloud, watching the group fast-march down the hall toward Tellwyrn’s office.

“Dunno,” Ruda said shortly, “but let’s go have a look-see.”

Ahead, the Hand simply opened Tellwyrn’s office door without knocking and barged right in, prompting winces from all three of his followers and several of the pursuing students. They picked up their own pace to join him around the now-open door, but did not attempt to enter themselves. They weren’t the only ones.

“Get in here!” the man said in clear exasperation to the three soldiers, who were hanging back outside the doorway.

“Why, how lovely to see you again,” Tellwyrn said from inside. She was seated behind her desk, regarding him with a sardonic expression. “Still hanging around, are we? Please, won’t you come in. Make yourself right at home.”

“I have observed,” he said curtly, “that you are keeping Imperial personnel in a state of useless idleness on your campus.”

“What, these three?” Tellwyrn said incredulously, glancing past him at the troops, who had entered the office as ordered, but clustered nervously right inside the door. She could also see the sophomores gathered outside, but didn’t acknowledge them yet. “Are you seriously going to get on my case about that? They were stationed on my campus by order from Imperial Command, quartered at my expense, without my permission. Honestly, they don’t eat much and the scruffy one in the middle there is actually mildly amusing. I’ve even known them to be occasionally useful, to the extent of reaching tall shelves, opening stuck jars, that sort of thing. The fact that I don’t find this intrusion by your regime to be onerous is hardly evidence that all this is some sort of plot on my part.”

“I am reassigning them,” he said bluntly. “I’m dissatisfied with the progress you are making on our mutual problem, Tellwyrn, and particularly with your attitude when pressed about it.”

“My heart weeps for your dissatisfaction,” she replied, deadpan.

“You know what your problem is?”

“Yes. But do go on, I’m curious what you think it is.”

“You are of the opinion that you are an unmatched power in this world,” he said, scowling at her. “That rules do not apply to you. That no one can impose consequences upon you. About this, you are mistaken, and since you choose not to apply yourself to the protection of your students, it is high time this was made inescapably clear to you.”

“Literally every single thing you just said is incorrect.”

“At the end of the week,” he stated, ignoring her, “I’m having these three reassigned to Tiraas, and that will be the last you ever hear of them. Unless, perhaps, I see a dramatic improvement in your conduct, and some manner of concrete result. Am I understood?”

Very slowly, she tilted her head to one side. “In all seriousness… Are you feeling all right?”

“I’ve made myself clear,” he snapped. “That is all.”

Suddenly, he just wasn’t there anymore. Gabriel bit back a curse.

“Okay, what the fuck,” Ruda exclaimed. “Was that guy a Hand of the Emperor? What the hell’s he doing here?”

“Kids, get in here,” Tellwyrn said irritably, taking off her spectacles and setting them on the desk.

“Um?” Rook tremulously raised a hand. “Was that ‘last you ever hear of them’ line as pants-shittingly terrifying as it sounded to me?”

“Kinda, yeah,” Gabriel agreed.

“Seriously,” Ruda said, marching up to the desk. “Could you hear what happened out there? The fucker practically shoved me out of his way!”

“I don’t think that’s the most important thing happening here, Ruda,” Teal said.

“You might be wrong about that,” Ruda retorted, turning to scowl at her. “Legally, a Hand of the Emperor speaks on his behalf. I don’t give a shit about people being rude to me, personally, but for a Tiraan representative of the highest possible rank to treat the princess of Puna Dara like a misbehaving chambermaid, there would be consequences.”

“Whoah, now,” Gabriel soothed. “Maybe this isn’t the time to be prideful…”

“Don’t fucking talk to me about pride, Arquin,” she snapped. “Remind me, which of us picked a screaming fight with a volatile paladin on week one, here?”

He scowled. “For the record, I deserved a smack on the head for that, not having a sword drawn on me. And she, at least, didn’t succeed in fucking stabbing me.”

“That’s not the point, either!” Ruda barked. “This isn’t personal. The pride of nations is a very real and important thing. The Punaji can stomach living in the shadow of the Empire because the Silver Throne has always treated us with respect. Nobody has any illusions about who’s the greater power, but we’re allies, not slaves. If that changes…”

“Zaruda,” Tellwyrn said firmly, “while you’re correct in everything you just said, I’m going to ask you to please hold your peace about this for the time being. Don’t make it more of an incident than it already is, and don’t assume anything that particular Hand says is representative of his government, legality or no. Something is wrong with that guy.”

“Uh, yeah,” Finchley piped up. “I mean… He was threatening you with taking us away. Seriously, how can he possibly think that’s even a threat? I can’t imagine anyone thinking we’re that important, especially someone as savvy as he ought to be. It makes no sense.”

“I’m a little bothered by how readily I have to accept your reasoning,” Moriarty muttered.

“It makes a little bit of sense,” Tellwyrn said, grimacing. “It’s a personal attack. You three aren’t exactly a strategic asset, no, but you’ve become a fixture on the campus. You’re liked around here. Still, you’re right. He seemed to think he was holding a much more significant loss than this is over me, which underscores my point. I’ve been dealing with that man for a few days now, and for most of it, he was exactly as professional as every Hand I’ve seen in the past. Suddenly, he’s been absurdly aggressive, and between this scheme and nearly causing a diplomatic incident just now, he’s clearly operating with badly impaired judgment.”

“But…he’s a Hand,” Rook said, aghast. “Of the Emperor. He can’t get impaired!”

“The magic powering the Hands is something way above and beyond what’s widely known to the world,” Tellwyrn said seriously. “I don’t grasp the ins and outs of it myself, but just from the basics I do know, I can assure you it’s without precedent—and risky. Frankly, I find myself surprised it’s taken this long for something to go wrong with one of them. Boys, whatever else you do, I strongly advise you not to seal yourselves in a Rail caravan or any other enclosed space with that guy.”

“He’s a Hand of the Emperor!” Finchley said shrilly. “If he gives us an order—”

“Whoah.” Tellwyrn held up a hand of her own. “I sympathize more than you might think. Even I can’t afford to deny him right to his face—or do you believe I let most unhinged assholes talk to me like that? If I were you, I would start considering my options, and if there aren’t any good ones available, look into creating new ones. In fact, that’s what I plan to do, anyway. You just may face more urgency about it, is all.”

“Fuckin’ lovely,” Rook muttered.

“For now,” she said in a gentler tone, “move along, if you would. I need to have a word with the kids, in private.”

Moriarty saluted; the others just turned and shuffled toward the door in glum silence, the students shifting out of their way.

“And boys,” Tellwyrn said softly, prompting them to pause and look back. “However you end up leaving the campus, be sure to say goodbye before you do. I can’t afford to challenge the Throne openly, like I said. But if you can arrange for it not to be an act of open treason on my part, you’ll have a home here, should you need one.”

“I can’t even begin to imagine how the hell we could arrange that,” Finchley said bitterly.

“You can’t,” she replied with a faint smile. “Totally beyond your power. However, you numbskulls, think carefully about where you are, and who you know. What I said about creating new options? There’s no shame in asking for help. I am not the only person on this mountaintop who can make things happen.”

They paused, glancing at one another speculatively, and then Finchley nodded.

“Thanks, Professor.”

“Yep,” she said, nodding back. “Now go on. Scoot.”

She waited until they were gone and the door shut behind them before speaking again.

“Well, here we are. Thanks for coming relatively promptly, by what passes for your standards.”

“Thanks for not just grabbing and porting us all here in our underwear, for once,” Ruda said bluntly. “Also, are we really done talking about that? There’s a crazy Hand of the Emperor hanging around campus. That’s not a small fuckin’ problem.”

“No,” Tellwyrn said evenly, “and it’s an even less small problem if he’s not the only one. I spent a good chunk of my day in Tiraas making sure the Throne itself is aware of this. That, unfortunately, is the most I can do about it at the moment. Anything I do to that character directly constitutes assault against the Imperial person, which would stir up more trouble than even I can stomp down.”

“Wait, by the Throne itself, you mean…” Gabriel blinked in realization. “Holy shit, you went to see the Emperor? What’s he like?”

Tellwyrn rubbed at her eyes. “Arquin, please shut up.”

“Oh, hey, speaking of that guy and me not doing what you say, Vestrel’s insisting you hear about this,” he said, suddenly frowning. “That wasn’t shadow-jumping or teleporting he just did.”

“What?” Tellwryn straightened, frowning at him. “What do you mean?”

“Apparently,” he said, glancing at an empty spot in the room, “he moved through the place where valkyries are. She says Hands aren’t supposed to be able to do that. Hardly anybody is.”

“Hm,” she grunted, her frown deepening. “Hmmmm. Actually…it makes more sense than shadow-jumping. There are a variety of ways into chaos space, but the most reliable is through powerful fae magic. In fact, I know a certain annoying shaman who is inordinately fond of that trick.”

“Fae magic?” Juniper folded her arms. “I thought that guy smelled familiar!”

“Which is neither here nor there,” Tellwyrn said, suddenly brisk. “Thank you for telling me, Gabriel. And Vestrel. That may be significant. For now, though, I asked you here for a reason, and he wasn’t it.” She sighed. “I just heard about Raolo. Taowi had a note for me waiting, but I only got back to my office a short time ago.”

“Professor?” Fross chimed tentatively. “Is this… Um, what I mean is, is it as bad as it seems like it could be?”

“Well, that’s as good a lead-in as any,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “The first half of what I wanted to tell you is a warning. According to that character from Imperial Intelligence who’s helping with this—the Inspector, not the Hand—the Sleeper is exhibiting an escalating pattern. He started with Chase, who has no significant magical or martial abilities, and was probably a test case. Then came Natchua and Addiwyn, and ambushing elves is hard, even for other elves. The attack on November failed, but she’s a caster of not-insignificant strength—specifically a divine caster, which seems to be a relevant counter to the Sleeper’s magic. Raolo, now, is not only an elf, but an arcanist, an unusual and very potent combination.”

“She is selecting increasingly challenging targets,” Shaeine said suddenly. “Testing herself.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “That’s Fedora’s theory, and it seems to make sense to me.”

“Wait, she?” Gabriel blinked, looking back and forth between them. “Uh, who? Are we talking about November?”

“About the Sleeper,” said Shaeine.

Teal cleared her throat. “It’s called ‘common gender,’ Gabe. It’s a linguistic convention in languages that lack genderless pronouns, like Tanglish and elvish. Which gender is the assumed default basically depends on the culture; in the Empire, that’s male, in Tar’naris, it’s female.”

“Yes, forgive me,” Shaeine added. “I did not mean to cause confusion.”

Tellwyrn cleared her throat pointedly. “Fascinating as this is, I’m not making idle conversation. The Sleeper is running through the list of interesting but relatively soft targets, and running out of them. Fedora specifically mentioned, as the next likely victims, the faculty, and you kids.”

“What?” Juniper exclaimed. “Us?! Why?”

“Think about it,” Toby said wearily. “How many people now have told us what a bunch of powerhouses we are? Paladins, demigods, archdemons…”

“That’s part of it,” Tellwyrn agreed. “The other part is that you kids are much more close-knit than other classes. In part because there are so few of you, I suspect, but you also seem to be simply…compatible. I admit I was rather pessimistic after your first week on campus last year, but your group has formed into more of a cohesive unit than basically any class I’ve ever had. Use that. From now on, I want you watching each other’s backs at all times. Fross, Juniper and Vadrieny may be impervious to the Sleeper’s curse; we cannot be absolutely sure yet that infernal magic is the vector for its transmission, but the evidence points very strongly toward that. Which means Gabriel, Toby and Shaeine also have potent defenses against it.”

“Y’know what, just insert a long string of curses here,” Ruda said sourly. “You’ve all heard me, you know what to imagine. I’m suddenly feeling too pissed off and depressed even to bother.”

“Self-pity does not become you, Zaruda,” Tellwyrn said sternly. “Despite lacking a lot of the magical advantages of your classmates, in a year and a half you’ve never once showed a problem keeping up with them, and that is damn well incredible. However, in this particular case, it does mean you are uniquely vulnerable, and you can’t afford to ignore that. I’m sorry to invade your personal life like this, but I have to put my foot down. I want you moved out of your room in Clarke Tower; until further notice, you’re to stay with Juniper and Fross. At no point are you to be off on your own.”

“Figures,” she said with a wry grin. “No sooner do I finally get my own room…”

“We’ve got plenty of space!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I’m very small and I don’t even use my bed! It’ll be fun!”

“It’s not supposed to be fun.” At Tellwyrn’s soft, weary tone, they all stilled, turning to look at her again. “As I said, kids, that was half the reason I asked you here. The other…” She sighed heavily, leaning back in her chair, and again rubbed at her eyes with both hands. “What I’m about to say is totally without precedent in the history of this University. As bad as things are right now, I need to leave the campus for a little while.”

“Where are you going?” Toby asked quietly.

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Sifan.”

“You think Professor Ekoi can stop this,” Teal said.

“I think her sudden absence is what’s caused this,” the Professor said bitterly. “And furthermore, she had to have known that. In case you kids haven’t put it together yourselves, this Sleeper is almost certainly the same asshole who opened that hellgate last year, and if he’s a warlock, there’s excellent reason he stayed quiet while there was a kitsune on the campus. So yes, I am going to go find Kaisa, get an explanation for her actions, and try to convince her to come back. And that, kids, places me well outside my realm of expertise. Navigating the Twilight Forest is a potentially nightmarish prospect, even for the likes of me. I may be a match, power for power, for one kitsune, but I absolutely don’t want to find out. Going to where all the kitsune are, in their own home, it is going to take time just to get around, and that’s before I ever start to work persuading Kaisa to come back and help. Obviously, I’m going to hurry as much as I can, but…this is not a small prospect. There’s no way I’d leave the University in these straits if I didn’t think this was the best and only option to straighten all this out.”

“Well…okay,” Ruda said, shrugging. “Why’s that so unprecedented, and what’s it got to do with us?”

“What’s unprecedented,” said Tellwyrn, “is me involving students the way I’m about to. Kids… I want you to look after the place.”

“I’m…not sure I understand,” Juniper admitted, frowning.

“As we’ve been over,” Tellwyrn said evenly, “you’re an individually very powerful bunch, and you function extremely well as a unit. Honestly, assembled in this room is both more firepower and more coordination than the rest of the faculty. And, several false starts aside…you’re good. You all care about other people, and matters beyond yourselves. You’re driven by principle. And you exhibit the one trait I learned to associate with the very best of adventurers during my own long career, the one which exemplified the few I came to call heroes: you have a knack for succeeding in situations where, quite frankly, you should not. So… Please protect my campus. I do not want you hunting the Sleeper; don’t do anything that’ll spark a witch hunt, you know very well from my class how horrific those can be, especially in an enclosed social environment like this one. Fedora’s still around and working, and while that guy is his own bag of horrors, he seems competent; let him do the job. But please be ready. There’s a very good chance you will be targeted, yourselves. In that event…” She paused to clamp her lips into a tight, unhappy line. “In that event, fellow student or not, know that the Sleeper has by now completely worn out his or her right to my protection. If you get the chance, put them down. As finally as is feasible and necessary.”

A silence fell over the room, and hovered while the students stared at her in wide-eyed uncertainty. It was Shaeine who finally broke it.

“Understood,” she said, bowing to the Professor. “We shall do our utmost not to disappoint.”

“Professor Tellwyrn?” Fross said hesitantly. “I know I already asked, but… This is, um… It’s really bad, isn’t it? I mean… The Sleeper, the Hand, everything.”

“Stay away from that Hand,” Tellwyrn ordered. “It’s not practical to expel him from the campus; just keep your distance, and if he tries to mess with you, disengage. But yes, Fross. This is bad. You all know the kind of dangers this University uses for training exercises; the campus has seen significant threats beyond even those in the past. But the Sleeper…between this rash of cursing and the hellgate, this is as bad as it has ever been. This person is an enemy, plain and simple, not a misguided student in need of correction. Add to that the Hand, the Wreath still sniffing around, and who knows what else… Yes. Be aware how serious this matter is.”

She leaned forward, folding her arms on the desk, and gazed at them with uncharacteristic earnestness.

“And I wouldn’t ask this of you, or even discuss it with you, if I didn’t have faith in you. Whether you kids can solve this in my absence I wouldn’t say. Frankly, I’d find that rather surprising. But you’re a good group. You’re competent, and you’re good people. You can at least help. Please do.”

“We will,” Toby assured her quietly.

“Thank you.” Tellwyrn blew out a heavy sigh, slumping in her chair. “All right… Classes aren’t canceled, you’ll have a substitute, but I intend to be gone by tomorrow morning. Hopefully this won’t take more than a few days—if it’s going to be more than that, I’ll give up and come right back. In the best case scenario, I’ll be back sooner, and with help. Whatever else happens, hold the line. For now, go get some rest. You’re probably gonna need it soon.

They remained silent and tensely contemplative all the way back outside, none of them speaking up until they were in the hall and the office door shut behind them.

Fross’s sigh was a descending arpeggio of tiny bells.

“I wish Trissiny was here.”

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12 – 11

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It had already been a long day, and the afternoon had barely begun. Eleanora had managed to arrange a short break for herself, Sharidan being trapped in a working lunch with ambassadors from the Five Kingdoms pursuant to the ongoing negotiations; she was very much looking forward to a light meal of fruit in the privacy of her room. And to having Isolde rub her shoulders. The woman’s fingers were positively magical, and nothing else was going to suffice to nix the gathering tension headache she felt coming on.

Stepping into her chamber, she paused for a moment.

Arachne Tellwyrn was sitting on her bed. The frontier adventure novel Eleanora had hidden under her mattress was open in the elf’s hands; the box of Svennish chocolates she kept in her nightstand sat on the sheets, open and now half-empty, surrounded by crumpled wrappers. A bottle of Glassian red wine she had been saving now sat on the nightstand, also half-empty.

“There you are,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I thought you’d never come back.”

The pause had been as much of a rise as she was going to get—Eleanora was far too self-contained to reveal any more of her feelings to this interloper. She cycled rapidly through all the obvious questions and dismissed them as things Tellwyrn would either refuse to answer or probably intended to anyway, and continued briskly into her room. Calling for the guards would be antagonistic and likely pointless; it was doubtful even a Hand of the Emperor could deal with the archmage. And after yesterday…

“What have you done with my chambermaid?” she demanded.

“Assuming you’re referring to that bosomy blonde number with the legs up to her neck, she is secured in the bathroom, completely unharmed, albeit rather miffed.” Tellwyrn smirked. “Does your consort know you call her a chambermaid? I have a hard time imagining she’d appreciate that. She seems…scrappy. By the way, your chocolates are poisoned.”

To Eleanora’s supreme annoyance, that made her pause again.

“Forgive me, that might have been a little overdramatic,” Tellwyrn mused, holding up a half-eaten chocolate and peering at it critically. “A better word might be ‘tainted.’ What’s in these won’t harm anybody who doesn’t have an extremely unlikely allergy, and honestly, you’d probably have to be an elf to detect the flavor. It’s distinctive, though. Especially in the presence of sugar, sylphreed makes this bitter, citrusy aftertaste…”

“Sylphreed,” Eleanora said with long-suffering patience, “does not exist.” Mentally, she was already counting down the elf’s allotment of seconds before she gave up on humoring her and summoned the Imperial Guard.

“Yes, yes,” Tellwyrn said, waving airily with the piece of candy. “The plant was a foolproof contraceptive and a reliable treatment for several common venereal diseases, so naturally humanity harvested it into extinction. Equally naturally, the elven groves which still cultivate it don’t let it be known that they do. I’m not kidding about the flavor; wood elves use it as a seasoning.”

“You use contraceptives for flavor?”

“They,” Tellwyrn said with a hint of annoyance for which Eleanora felt zero sympathy, “not we. I don’t move in those circles. And yes, elves are not prone to accidental pregnancy and even less in a hurry to have one. The stuff is easy enough to avoid when somebody wants a child. All of which is neither here nor there; his Majesty has yet to produce an heir, hmm? Now there’s this, and I don’t believe in coincidence. Someone, it seems, is resourceful enough to penetrate your security, connected enough to have access to elven secrets, and clueless enough to feed you contraceptives. That’s a truly horrifying combination.”

“And causes one name to spring immediately to mind,” the Empress said acidly.

Tellwyrn snorted and popped the rest of the piece into her mouth, speaking around it. “I wouldn’t know where to begin finding sylphreed; any place I might try would probably just lead to a fight with the local Elders. I certainly don’t mean your government any harm, and honestly, would I tell you about this if I were behind it?”

“That’s a common enough ploy…”

“To establish trust,” the elf said with a mirthless grin. “When performed by people who give a rat’s ass whether you trust them, yes.”

“That’s a fair enough point, I suppose. If you’ve only just discovered this, it’s not the thing which prompted this intrusion, I gather.”

“Indeed.” Tellwyrn set the book down on the bed and straightened to a more upright posture, shifting to face Eleanora directly with a serious expression. “There is a Hand of the Emperor at Last Rock who appears to be coming unglued.”

Having had the whole conversation thus far to steel herself, Eleanora did not betray even a hint of the sudden unease she felt, merely affecting a disdainful lift of her eyebrow. “Quite an accusation. Or it would be, were it less vague. Can you offer useful details, or have you come specifically to waste my time?”

Tellwyrn made no response to her open asperity. “How much do you know about the situation right now?”

“The situation at Last Rock? The broad strokes. Sleeping curses, your general inability to control your students, a likely connection to last year’s hellgate crisis—and by the way, thank you for that—and the aid of Imperial Intelligence in hunting down your perpetrator, which you should have sought immediately after the resolution of the last disaster when you failed to apprehend the guilty party.”

“All those years of charm school were a wise investment, I see,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “The Hand originally came to feel me out of his own volition, and I decided if the Throne was going to fart around on my lawn anyway it could make itself useful. That is why I’m only now accepting government help, not because I came begging for it, but I am about ready to change my mind.”

“Yes, yes,” Eleanora said impatiently. “What specifically is he doing that has you in such a tizzy?”

The Professor raised an eyebrow of her own, but answered. “Today his behavior suddenly altered. Dramatically. He was rude, pushy, aggressive, and deliberately provocative.”

“Is that really all?” the Empress said disdainfully.

“I have dealt with Hands of the Emperor since they were of the Empress, Eleanora. The moment I came back to society and found Theasia had begun screwing around with dryads, I made damn well sure to understand what to expect from them. Their conduct has never been anything but uniform. They are icily calm, collected, even laudably diplomatic. Now? Even that diabolical thing from Intelligence agrees his behavior was unprecedented and alarming. No, I don’t panic every time a government official acts out of character. Hands of the Emperor are another matter. Something is wrong. And aside from the host of issues this raises for you, it’s going wrong on my campus. If this guy loses it like he seemed close to doing today and I have to deal with that, legally I’ll have assaulted the Emperor. So here’s me, making an overture before that point arrives. I want it understood that I have dealt with the Throne’s representative in good faith and anything which follows will only be whatever is necessary to protect my students.”

Eleanora was still mulling points from earlier in that speech when it came to an end. Dryads? She now embraced a conclusion she’d begun considering yesterday: despite Sharidan’s explanations about her plausible deniability and his mother’s secrets, he was going to explain some things about those Hands of his.

“Diabolical thing from Intelligence?” she said aloud. “They sent Fedora out there? Well, I suppose that makes sense. He’d better have at least one of his handlers on site, too.”

“You seem to have latched onto the least relevant part of that,” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“You and I have very different standards of relevance, Arachne, and no, I didn’t miss anything you said. Mood swings—”

“And shadow-jumping.”

That brought her up short. “…you saw this?”

“He appeared out of nowhere and vanished the same way, and it wasn’t arcane teleportation. If it was mere illusion or stealth, it was enough to fool both my own senses and these,” she tapped the rim of her golden spectacles, “which is not a small thing. More to the point, it’s something the Hands have never had before. Have you been altering them?”

“Surely it goes without saying that I am not going to discuss business of that nature with you.”

“Well, if you have, the side effects include emotional instability, which, if you’ll excuse me for telling you your own business, is a bad trait in extremely powerful people who are always hovering around the Emperor.”

“Your concern is appreciated,” Eleanora said tonelessly.

“All right, fine.” Tellwyrn set the box of chocolates aside and rose, dusting off her hands. “I’ve brought you into the loop, that’s my moral responsibility taken care of. I haven’t made any secret of my self-interest, here, but this also is a matter of concern to the Throne. But if your personal antipathy is more important—”

“Don’t you dare,” Eleanora hissed, assuming a mask of icy rage. The emotion was quite genuine, but she was fully in control, now; her emotions were possessions which served her needs, not wild things which controlled her. She stalked toward the bed, backing the elf up against it. “You have intruded here by force, assaulted someone important to me and made a show of disrespecting my possessions—my personal ones, not the expensive trappings of my rank. You will not stand in my home and act like the aggrieved party trying to be reasonable. This was all the same ploy you always use with everyone: making a show of how unpredictable and dangerous you are, to cow the audience into giving you your way. I know your power, Arachne, but I do not bend my neck to bullies. I didn’t before I sat on a throne. If you plan to push me one inch farther, you’d better just kill me. Otherwise, you are going to learn just how different this Silver Throne is from the one you brought down in the Enchanter Wars.”

Tellwyrn met her furious stare with her eyebrows upraised in surprise. After a long moment, she nodded slowly and sidled away, extricating herself from between the Empress and the bed. “Well…all right. That’s pretty fair, the whole thing. Excuse me, then.”

She made it halfway to the door before pausing and half-turning.

“I’m sorry, by the way, for running out on you like that. No, this is not an attempt to curry favor, or regain any moral high ground. I actually just wanted to apologize; it’s overdue. I left so suddenly because of a call for help. In fact, I lost a good friend that night, which I’m afraid drove everything else right out of my mind. And then you were getting deeper and deeper into politics, and it seemed like a good idea to leave you alone, especially after you tied yourself to the Throne. But…there it is. If I hurt you, I didn’t mean to.”

Eleanora folded her arms, her face once again stonily impassive. “And is that finally all?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Tellwyrn said with a wry twist of her lips, turning back toward the door. “Look after yourself. I mean that very sincerely. Unless I’m badly overreacting to this Hand thing, you could be in real danger, Eleanora.”

She strolled out into the hall as casually as if she owned the place. Eleanora didn’t watch her leave; she suddenly had much more important matters to consider. First, though, she made a beeline for the bathroom. If Isolde had so much as a bruise or scraped knee, she was going to have a fortress built at Last Rock, and a battalion stationed there. With strike teams.

“I’m not arguing the moral point, Moriarty,” Finchley said wearily. “Just the practical one. What, exactly, do you think we could’ve done to protect the students from being attacked by an apparently invisible, un-trackable enemy who in all probability is one of them?”

“Hell, I’ll argue the moral point,” Rook said with a grin. “The Sleeper’s gotta be one of the little bastards, and they can all demonstrably take care of themselves better than we can. We don’t get sent into the Golden Sea and the Crawl every year just to see what happens, and thank the flippin’ gods for that, because what would happen would be us getting our asses killed. And that’d be a damn shame after we were within groping distance of Elilial and walked away, even if we can’t tell the story. Just anticlimactic, is all. Nah. There’s ‘not our fucking job,’ and then there’s this.”

“You are both missing the point,” Moriarty grated, “practically and morally, and you’ll note the total lack of surprise in my expression. It doesn’t matter what we do or don’t have the physical power to do. I hate that we’re sitting here, safe and comfortable, while civilians are being attacked. We’re soldiers! We are supposed to protect the people of this Empire!”

“Y’know, a good chunk of the student body aren’t even Imperial,” Rook said reasonably.

Moriarty clapped a hand over his eyes. “It’s like talking to a wall. A slovenly, lazy, undisciplined, insubordinate—

“Ease up,” Finchley said with a grin. “It’s not likely we’ll find ourselves in a position to help, but come on. All three of us would step in if we had the opportunity and the means. Surely we’ve proved that much to each other by now.”

Moriarty let out an irritated huff, turning to glare at the windows, which showed the prairie far below, stained orange with the beginnings of sunset. “I might feel better if the Sleeper targeted us next.”

“That is because you’re a fuckin’ idiot,” Rook grunted.

“Or a masochist,” said Finchley.

“Which,” Rook replied, “is a sub-species of fuckin’ idiot.”

“Me,” Moriarty said woodenly, “to appease my conscience, and you two because you deserve it!”

“Indefinite enforced bed rest?” Rook said, grinning insanely. “I haven’t been nearly good enough to deserve that! But hell, I’ll take it.”


They managed, with some scrambling; Moriarty whipped around and snapped to attention immediately, Finchley a second later, Rook only after falling off the bed and leaping to his feet.

The resident Hand of the Emperor stood in the dorm they shared with Gabriel and Toby, studying them coldly. None of them had heard the door open. He paced slowly down the short rank they formed, then back, turning his head to keep his flat stare on them. Finally he stopped and grunted.

“At least one of you gets credit for good intentions—which, needless to say, are worth nothing. You men will pack your gear and be ready to move out upon my order. You have wasted quite enough time loafing about here; it’s time for you to act like soldiers, assuming you can remember how. But first.” He paused, then nodded. His expression was not a smile, but something in it hinted at satisfaction, and even a small degree of pleasure. “First, you are going, finally, to be useful to your Emperor.”

She opened and closed the door when passing through it, loud enough that from any other elf it might have been pointed. In Tellwyrn’s case, though, it probably meant nothing. She wasn’t prone to subtlety in any of her actions.

“Hey, Arachne,” Rafe said with a grin, turning from organizing his tools. “You missed dinner. Want a bit to nosh? I always keep some snacks on hand.”

“No, thanks, I filled up on candy and contraceptives,” she said, surveying the room with a raised eyebrow. “And I’m not just saying that because you offered me food while cleaning your alchemy lab.”

“Excuse you, my lab is a shining beacon of spotless perfection as always, and anyway I’m almost done.” He set the two beakers he’d been holding on their shelf, shut the cabinet and latched it, then turned and held his arms wide, grinning. “See? Done. It’s rather late in the day, Arachne, classes are long over with. What’ve you been out doing all afternoon?”

“State visits,” she said cryptically. “Admestus, I was just prompted today to take a closer look at something which is obvious in hindsight, but sailed right under my nose at the time.”

“Damn, and it’s not even Tuesday,” he said lightly. “Something I can help with, I gather? If you just wanted to think out loud, you usually roust Alaric for that.”

“Mm.” She was studying him closely over the rims of her spectacles, her eyebrows creased in a faint frown. “Kaisa overreacted.”

“Hsst!” He dropped to a crouch, looking rapidly back and forth in alarm. “Don’t speak ill of the creature! She can probably hear you!”

“From Sifan?” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“I am not going to rule that out! Other things I’m not going to rule out include her not actually being gone, because I do not understand why Ekoi Kaisa does anything and I don’t wanna get turned into a frog. She actually has done that, Arachne. Took great pleasure in telling me the story. It ended with soup.”

“She did overreact, though,” Tellwyrn mused, wandering idly into the lab and picking up a sealed jar of tiny eyeballs. She examined this abstractly, not seeming to really see it. “Played the perfect ‘volatile kitsune’ angle. She is prickly about being shown proper respect; most of her sisters are. Kaisa, though, likes to play that angle, and I can’t believe I let her make me forget it. I’ve seen her do it before, act offended and crazy in order to get the reaction she wants, or just to deflect attention. That business, though…that was more affront than your little prank warranted. Also, while I have known her to storm off in a huff, it was never over somebody playing a joke on her. That should have brought retaliation.”

He groaned. “Well, isn’t that just peachy.”

“And then there’s you.” Tellwyrn set down the eyeballs, turning to stare very flatly at him. “You do the same thing. I’m not the kids, Admestus, don’t even try to pull the wool over my eyes. I’ve no issue with your methods of deflecting, except when you take it too far—and I don’t even mind, all that much, cleaning up when you do. This, though.”

“This is all beginning to sound rather accusatory,” he said, folding his arms. “Also, it’s not like you to beat around the bush this way, Arachne. What’s on your mind?”

“Yes, all sorts of people are acting out of character lately,” she said. “Kaisa, flipping out and storming off over a little joke which, honestly, she would have thought was funny, and then got you back. Twice over. You, a person evincing a very healthy fear of irate kitsune—and by the way, take nothing I say here as discouragement of that, because you should fear them if you ever meet another one—who for some reason decided to play a highly aggressive prank on one. How many years has it been, Admestus? I do know you. I know the kind of jokes you like, the kind of targets you prefer and exactly what you get out of tweaking their noses.”

“Am I so transparent?” he asked mournfully.

“To me? Yes. I’m betting to several of your colleagues, as well. Alaric pretends to find you so annoying because he knows you enjoy it. This, though. I was so distracted by Kaisa’s antics and then this Sleeper crap I never paused to consider how very out of character it would be for you to deliberately provoke her that way.”

“Hah!” He struck a pose, planting his fists on his hips. “For the sake of my art, I will endure any travail!”

Tellwyrn folded her arms and stared at him over the rims of her glasses.

It was only a moment longer before Rafe visibly deflated. “Oh, all right, fine. I didn’t slip Kaisa an anti-magic potion—honestly, how would that even work? I’m pretty sure she’s got entire senses for people playing pranks. Drugging a kitsune probably isn’t even possible. She asked me to play along, Arachne. Which I did, for the two very excellent reasons that she scares the hell out of me, and I didn’t see any harm in it. If she was going to mess with the kids or with you, I’d have come to you. I thought she was just bored with teaching and wanted an excuse to quit, and it cost me nothing to make myself useful. I mean, Alaric was back and all…”

“No.” Tellwyrn shook her head, turning to frown at a rack of bottled reagents. “Kaisa does not get bored with teaching. I asked her to come teach because it’s what she does. Her one great joy in life. If she decided to walk out in the middle of her contract, she’s got good and specific reasons.”

“Hey…” His expression sobered. “Do you think this has anything to do with the Sleeper? I’m not an idiot, it did occur to me… But I couldn’t see her doing something like that. I mean, I can’t say I know her well, but she always seemed to care about the kids, in her way. And if nothing else, she respects you.”

“I think you’re right about that,” Tellwyrn mused. “I don’t believe in coincidence. This started up right when she left—but the connection there is obvious enough without weaving conspiracies out of cobwebs. What we’re dealing with is almost certainly a very powerful diabolist, but no diabolist is anything more than prey for a kitsune. However… Now I have to wonder what angle Kaisa is playing. I don’t have it in me to believe she was blind to the results of her departure. I’ve never known her to act without full knowledge of every repercussion her actions would have.”

“Hey, uh, look,” he said awkwardly, scratching behind one of his ears, “you know I wouldn’t…”

“Relax, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said, giving him a fondly exasperated look. “You’re not in trouble. You were right about both your points: defying Kaisa if she asked for your help wouldn’t have been wise, and helping her wasn’t any kind of betrayal of me. I do trust her, and you, and I don’t suspect either of meaning harm to the campus.”

“D’aww.” He beamed. “I’m all warm and fuzzy!”

“Yeah, well, you enjoy that luxury.” Tellwyrn turned back toward the door. “I now have to go and do something about this.”

“Sorry for being late,” Toby said, sliding onto the bench in the little reading alcove. “You were right, I think I may have over-committed myself a bit this semester. I’m gonna give it another week to hit a rhythm before I start paring anything down, so don’t worry, I’m still up for studying.”

Raolo didn’t raise his eyes from the spellbook open in his lap. Toby gave him a long look, then sighed.

“Oh, the silent treatment again? That’s not as entertaining as you think it is, Rao. I’m not that late. And who was it who decided to set up in the back corner over here instead of our usual table? You’re lucky Crystal saw you heading this way or I’d still be looking.”

He grinned and nudged the elf in the shoulder with his fist.

Raolo immediately slumped bonelessly in the other direction, the book sliding from his lap. Toby’s reflexes snapped into action; he grabbed the freshman before he could fall far.

“Raolo?” Gold light flashed into being around them; somewhat awkwardly, given their side-by-side position on the wall bench, Toby wrestled the elf around to face him, tilting his head back. The younger boy didn’t respond in the slightest to the manipulation, even when Toby had to grip his hair to hold his head up, and thumbed his eyelid open. He was breathing; his pulse was steady. He wasn’t an accomplished diagnostician by any means, but between his classes and some of Omnu’s innate gifts, he could sense enough to know Raolo was, more or less, healthy.

Just asleep.

“Oh, no.”

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10 – 29

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A constant background noise of angry mutters filled the square, but for a moment at least, it was still. Wilson cowered under the glow of active battlestaves, the townspeople held position, and the students stood as if frozen in place.

“Teal,” Sekandar said very quietly, “this would be a good time to show your other face, I think.”

Vadrieny shifted her head, fixing Scorn with a fiery stare, and said softly, “Be still.” In the next moment, however, she withdrew, flaming wings and claws vanishing to leave Teal still holding the towering Rhaazke by one arm. Scorn looked unhappy, her jaw clenched, but she obeyed the archdemon’s last command.

A man stepped to the side from the thick of the crowd, seizing the young boy by the arm and bodily tugging him backward, scowling and mouthing an obvious reprimand that was inaudible to the students from beneath the constant babble. Rook drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively, keeping his grip on his staff but sagging physically in relief to the point that the weapon drifted down to aim at the ground.

In that moment of comparative calm, Ravana cleared her throat and stepped forward, attempting to push between Finchley and Rook. When neither man budged and she failed to exhibit the necessary physical strength to force them to, she cleared her throat again, more loudly, and spoke in a well-practiced, resonating voice that projected across the square despite the angry buzzing of the townsfolk opposite.

“Gentlemen, if you will not lower your weapons, kindly power them down, at least? It’s clear to me that we are suffering from a series of misunderstandings. I have no intention of bringing any formal charges against Mr. Wilson. We do not punish people for having opinions.”

Rook and Finchley paused, glancing at each other, but Moriarty immediately relaxed his grip on his staff’s clicker, causing the electric glow limning its business end to fade. Rook followed suit a moment later, and all three shifted their grips to aim the weapons skyward.

The square grew quieter; while the crowd kept up a low, disaffected murmur, the shouting ceased. More people continued to trickle in through side alleys, but they all slowed and peered around on arrival, the additional numbers seeming not to add to the overall tension.

“Very good,” Ravana said with an approving smile. “Now—”

At that second, Trissiny and Gabriel dashed into the square from the direction of the town’s edge, both skidding to a stop and staring at the scene.

Immediately, shouting resumed, louder and angrier than before.

“There she is!”

“What the hell’s wrong with you, girl?!”

“You know how—”


“Goddammit, Carl!”

“All y’all, settle, let ‘er explain—”

“Please!” Trissiny shouted, raising her hands—which was not as calming a gesture as she seemed to mean it, since she was still holding her sword. “Everyone, please! Is anybody hurt? Did anyone notice something alarming or odd tonight?”

“Y’mean, aside from you?” a woman shouted derisively, prompting a chorus of agreement.

“Triss,” Gabriel said, “I don’t think…”

“Listen to me!” she shouted. “There was a demon in this town tonight! It’s very important that everyone make sure they and their neighbors are unharmed and unaffected.” This had a slight calming effect on the crowd, but angry mutters continued. “If you feel at all unwell or out of the ordinary, please go to the church or the Vidian temple to speak with a priest; symptoms of infernal attack can be—”

“Is that why you broke down the Saloon’s door, you hooligan?” barked an older man in a ragged hat.

Trissiny visibly gritted her teeth. “I was trying—”

“You can’t just warn people about danger, you gotta run around scarin’ folks half to death an’ breakin’ down doors?!”

“Listen to me—”

“You knocked over my front fence! Who’s gonna fix that?”

“Stop,” Szith ordered, thrusting a fist in front of Sekandar when he tried to push forward. “Defending her will only make this worse. We need to disengage, all of us.”

Indeed, Gabriel appeared to be trying to persuade Trissiny to back away, though his muttered pleas were swamped by the slowly increasing roar of the crowd.

“That. Is. ENOUGH!”

Gabriel and Trissiny both jumped apart, whirling to face the stooped figure that emerged from the alley behind them. Finally, actual quiet descended on the scene, broken only by scattered murmurs. She hobbled forward, dragging herself along on two canes, and a veritable chorus of sighs rose from the citizens of Last Rock, accompanied by many rolled eyes and shaken heads.

“Evenin’, Miz Cratchley,” someone said in a tone of ostentatious resignation, earning a few titters.

“I never saw such a sad display,” Mabel Cratchley declared, pulling herself to a stop just inside the square and glaring furiously. “What’s got into you people? Where are the good, solid folk who who’ve weathered prairie storms and elf raids since before that mountain had anything on it but flowers? A hundred years and more Last Rock has stood here, since before the Empire bothered to extend its protection over us, and we’ve stood our ground on our land just the same. We’ve relied on nothing but each other and the gods, and lived to remember it. We earned our lives out here, through work, faith, and god-given skill. And now…now, I find y’all standing around, fixing to throw a fit because of a few bruises and broken fence latches? What, you got shoved and shouted at, and now you have to whip up a mob?” She pointed one cane at the prone form of Wilson, teetering momentarily on the other. “I expect such from fools such as that. I thought better of the rest of you!

“What would make you happy?” the old woman continued, taking another shaky step into the square. The now-quiet crowd actually pressed backward, as if physically driven by the force of her outrage. “There was a demon in our town. A demon! And you’re all pitching a fit because someone rushed down here to warn you, and chase it off? Have every last one of you lost your minds? We have the incredible blessing of a paladin in our midst to protect us, a Hand of a goddess herself, and you’re all complaining? You’d like it better if she left you to see your children corrupted and strangled in their beds, is that what I’m hearing?”

She planted both canes firmly in the dirt, then laboriously straightened her spine, drawing herself up to a surprisingly considerable height to glare at the silent throng. “I’ve no shortage of complaints with that woman and her school. You’ve all heard them. I’ve argued with many of you, and I have never been shy to criticize those who needed it, be they honest Last Rock folk, the Calderaan governors, the Empire, the University, whoever! Yes, I’ve known my share of grievances. But in my eighty-six years until this night, I have never been ashamed of my neighbors.”

The silence was crushing.

Every person in Last Rock had heard Mabel Cratchley complain, and more than otherwise had felt the swat of one of her canes on their backsides while growing up, and been prodded by them many times since. But not a soul present had ever before heard her voice quavering on the edge of tears as it was tonight.

“I can’t even look at you.” The old woman drew in a deep, shaking breath, sinking back down into her customary stoop, then laboriously began turning back the way she had come. “Ms. Trissiny, if the gods have any regard for the opinion of one old woman, then by the time I’ve finished my prayers this night, Avei will know there is one soul in Last Rock who is grateful that she watches over us.”

“Here.” Trissiny sheathed her blade and stepped quickly over to Ms. Cratchley’s side. “Let me help you home, ma’am. It’s late.”

“Bless you, child, but I know my way. You’ve better to do than waste your time on the likes of me.”

“The demon’s gone.” Trissiny’s voice was low and calm, but in the silence left by Ms. Cratchley’s speech, it echoed across the square. “And a paladin is not more important than anyone else. We serve, that’s all.”

The old woman started to speak, then simply cleared her throat and nodded mutely, allowing Trissiny to take her by one arm.

Everyone watched in silence as they retreated back down the alley, till they were lost in the shadows and the soft shuffling of Ms. Cratchley’s feet faded away.

Then Ravana took advantage of her escorts’ distraction to slip between them and out into the square.

“Well, then,” she said briskly, “I understand there was some incidental damage done during Trissiny’s ride through the town? Doors, fences, the like? Why don’t we see if we can help set things straight?”

“Aw, now, you don’t need to trouble yourselves,” a man at the front of the crowd said, doffing his hat, while others shuffled and muttered awkwardly behind him.

“Nonsense,” said Sekandar, pushing his way forward with a smile. “It’s late, and everyone will be wanting to get to bed as quickly as possible; best to get these things squared away.”

“Aye!” Maureen agreed brightly, stepping forward and tugging Iris by the hand; Rook gave up on trying to hold the students back and moved aside, making a wry face. “That’s what neighbors do fer each other, after all!”

The students began shifting forward in unspoken agreement, with the exception of Shaeine, who caught Scorn’s hand and leaned up to murmur to the demon. The townsfolk continued mumbling and shuffling, but without hostility now. Their ranks opened up, letting the students move among them, where Ravana and Sekandar led the way in asking for directions to any property damaged during Trissiny’s ride.

“S-so,” Wilson said tremulously, “that’s that, then? I, uh, reckon I oughtta go apologize to the young lady. Don’t rightly know what got into me…”

“Same as always, isn’t it?” Finchley said rather archly. His expression softened when Wilson slumped his shoulders, lowering his gaze to the ground. “We on for poker as usual on Wednesday?”

“Don’t see why not!” the older man agreed quickly, nodding in eagerness. “Lemme just see if I can get the lady’s attention real quick—”

“You’ll have to do that another time, Wilson,” Moriarty said firmly. “Right now, we’re going to the Sheriff’s.”

“What?” Wilson gaped at him. “B-but she said—”

“She said she would not press charges,” Moriarty replied. “She did not direct us to rescind arrest, and there remains the matter of you interfering with a soldier of the Empire in the protection of an Imperial governor by means of physical assault.”

“Omnu’s balls, Wilson, you’re lucky we know you,” Finchley said in exasperation. “You don’t grab a soldier’s weapon. Ever.”

“Any other trooper in the Empire woulda shot your ass dead in the street,” Rook agreed, “and the inevitable inquest would’ve backed them up. Now, c’mon, let’s go explain to Sam why you’re a towering dumbass. That’s pretty much his usual Monday night, anyway.”

They led the shamefaced man off toward the town center, while the now-blended group of citizens and students dispersed through the side streets.

Behind them all, Scorn scowled heavily at nothing in particular. After a long moment of sulking, she childishly stomped one clawed foot on the ground before turning to stalk back in the direction of the University campus.

“All right,” Basra said, planting her fists on her hips. “This was not what I was expecting.”

There were two Silver Legions currently based in Viridill, the Second on constant patrol through the province and the Fourth encamped in Vrin Shai itself. Soldiers of the Fourth were now spread through the city, forming cordons around each of its multiple canals. So far, though, they were only standing there, enforcing a safe distance between what was in those canals and the citizens who had come out to gawk at it.

Water elementals were clearly visible, amorphous beings formed of the canal water itself, changing shape as they jumped about on the surface and seeming to vanish entirely when they submerged beneath it. They spent an awful lot of time up in the air, though, most splashing each other and shooting jets of water here and there, and occasionally at any people they happened to catch sight of. A few of the onlookers were still soaked from such incidents during the elementals’ first appearance, but by this point, most of those targeted were Legionnaires now standing resignedly in wet armor.

In addition to the near-constant noise of splashing, the elementals had voices which were now audible almost everywhere in the city. They were high-pitched, unearthly, and spoke in no language anyone understood, but they were also unmistakably laughing. Or, more often, giggling.

It seemed all they wanted to do was play.

Basra and her party had edged up to the perimeter enforced by the soldiers, studying the scene, with the exception of Ami, who was keeping a respectful distance and a protective grip on her guitar. A sudden squirt of water shot out of the canal, scattering against the golden shield that flashed into place around Basra and incidentally spraying Schwartz, who squealed rather girlishly and skittered backward.

“Is it possible we were mistaken about the elemental at the house?” Ildrin asked. “I mean…we started in on it almost before it could do anything. These seem harmless enough… Maybe it just wanted to talk.”

“That thing was eight feet tall and built like an ogre,” Ami said from behind them. “It clearly had the brute force to be a danger, and the subtlety to penetrate our defenses without effort. The choice of messenger was the message. Specifically, a threat.”

“Exactly,” said Basra. “Schwartz, you’re certain there are no other elementals called up in the city? Just these…things?”

“I was twenty minutes ago,” he said, wiping off his glasses on the sleeve of his robe. “My divination spread is back at the house… But no, this was what I detected arriving, this and the one specimen that, ah, visited us.”

“The situation is tentatively considered under control,” said the Legionnaire wearing a captain’s insignia who stood nearby, having been grabbed and quickly interrogated by Basra upon their arrival. “At the moment we’re awaiting the arrival of sisters from the temple; General Ralavideh has ordered something called a…frog-in-a-pot maneuver.”

“What does that mean?” Basra demanded.

“I’ve no idea, your Grace,” the captain said with long-suffering patience. This was far from the first very pointed question the Bishop had shot at her. “I’m not a cleric.”

“It’s a reference to the old metaphor,” said Schwartz, now soothingly stroking Meesie, who seemed agitated by all the wetness in the vicinity. “You know, how you can boil a living frog slowly if you increase the heat in its pot by increments, but it’ll jump out if you try to do it all at once? Same applies to using divine magic to neutralize elementals. If you just flare up at them, they’ll be able to tell you’re weakening them, and react to that. If you start very gently, though, and gradually increase the power, you can progressively weaken them until they just…fall apart.”

“Hm,” said Branwen, chewing her lower lip and frowning at the occupied canal. “Offhand I can think of several problems with that plan…”

“Yeah,” Schwartz agreed, nodding. “With all respect to the general and the Sisterhood, I don’t think that’s going to work. For one thing, these are all over the whole city. You’d need an army of priests to cover the whole space to do it all at once; if you did it sequentially, canal by canal, it’d take days. And that’s assuming the elementals stayed gone once banished—what’s happened here is there were charms evoked in the water itself, which means they’re likely to reappear once it’s not being actively channeled at.”

“You could compensate for that by blessing the canals,” Ildrin offered.

“Yes,” Schwartz agreed, “theoretically. But there’s another problem; doing this maneuver requires divine casters to call up and hold a constant stream of energy. You pretty much can’t not do that without risking serious burnout. I, uh…honestly, this sounds to me like something to do when you lack better options.”

“We have our orders,” the captain said stiffly. “I’m sure the general has everything under control.”

“The canals are full of water elementals,” Basra snapped. “Whether or not they’re presenting an active threat, this whole city is very much not under control. Schwartz, are these things as harmless as they seem?”

“You mean potentially?” He shrugged helplessly. “I mean, if they all attacked, that’d be a big problem. And I don’t see what’s stopping them… But, like, tactically speaking, if they were going to do that, wouldn’t they have done it at first, when they had the element of surprise?”

“Maybe this shaman really isn’t trying to start a fight,” Jenell mused.

“The other elemental incidents throughout the province were definitely hostile,” said Basra. “Not nearly as violent as they could have been—in fact, they did seem to specifically avoid causing unnecessary harm. But still hostile. This is a departure.”

“And, again,” Ami added, “that rock elemental was not a friendly thing to send us, whether or not it was planning to bash all our brains in.”

Before anyone could respond to that, another Legionnaire in soaking wet armor came dashing up, saluting. “Captain Veiss! New orders from the general.”

“Ah, good,” the captain said, pointedly turning her back on Basra, whose increasingly sharp questions she’d been enduring with steadily diminishing patience. “We’re ready to begin?”

“No, ma’am,” the soldier replied. “The operation is suspended; new orders will be coming shortly. You’re to hold position, keep the civilians away from the elementals. Bishop Syrinx,” she added, turning to Basra. “That’s…you, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Basra replied. “Ralavideh has orders for me, as well?”

“A request, ma’am,” the messenger said diplomatically. “She would like you to join her to discuss new developments in this situation as soon as possible.”

“Excellent,” Basra said with clear satisfaction. “At the temple?”

“No, ma’am, she’s set up a field command post at a square in a more central location in the city. I’ll guide you.”

“Lead on,” the Bishop replied, glancing aside at the rest of her party with a wry lift of one eyebrow. “Well, fall in, troops. It seems we’re going visiting.”

They had gone right to the nearest canal from their house, which fortunately was, itself, not far from the center of the city. To reach General Ralavideh’s temporary headquarters, they only had to travel a few blocks and descend one tier. It was a mostly uneventful trip, though it required some navigating around rubbernecking residents. So far, no curfew had been declared, and nothing was preventing curious citizens from standing around gawking at the unusual sights; the Legionnaires seemed to mostly be keeping them away from the canals by sheer presence. Silver Legionnaires were very much respected in Vrin Shai.

There was a brief delay when they had to cross a canal and their guide warned them that anyone traversing the bridges could expect to be liberally splashed. Basra had quickly vetoed the use of divine shields, lest it agitate the elementals, but then Ami had flatly (and dramatically) refused to risk getting her guitar wet. Ultimately they had trooped across, Branwen holding a compact little shield over their bard, while the rest of them got soaked. For the remainder of the trip, Schwartz worked some of his own magic to dry them (and their grateful escort) off, while everyone rather irritably gave Ami a cold shoulder.

A market square just beyond the bridge had been overtaken by the Fourth Legion; their guide led them past an outer perimeter of soldiers into an orderly beehive of activity, making straight for a cluster of folding tables which seemed to be the center of the whole operation. As they approached, Basra lengthened her stride, passing their escort and striding right up to the General.

Ralavideh was a Tiraan woman in her fifties, short and stocky in her armor, with graying hair trimmed close to her head. She was surrounded by a dozen people, a mix of senior officers, priestesses of Avei, and off to one side a small knot of civilians in diverse attire. She turned away from a cleric upon Basra’s arrival, nodding in greeting.

“Ah, Captain Syrinx—good, I was hoping one of my messengers would find you.”

“Thank you for including me, General,” Basra replied. “I’m long since discharged, though, you needn’t address me by rank. What’s the situation?”

“At this moment,” said Ralavideh, “we have an unprecedented annoyance in Vrin Shai, but the situation appears not to be dangerous. That doesn’t mean we intend to leave it as is; the Governor agrees with me that these beings need to be removed as swiftly as possible. Right now our focus is on doing so without escalating the situation. Have you anything to contribute to our knowledge of the, for want of a better word, enemy?”

“Not of these specifically,” Basra said, nodding to Schwartz. “My elemental specialist, here, had detection wards over the city and hasn’t identified any other incursions, though we were visited by a large rock elemental at our temporary base.”

“Hm,” the General mused, frowning down at a map of Vrin Shai on the table before her. “Then I’m not the only one who knows the Abbess set you on the hunt for this elementalist. Well! In addition to wanting your perspective, we have unexpected help who also asked to see you as soon as possible.”

Indeed, as she was speaking, a man with a familiar bearded face stepped forward, trailed by the other assorted civilians who had been clustered together at one corner of Ralivedeh’s command post. “Your Grace! Good to see you again!”

“Mr. Hargrave,” Basra replied, nodding. “I confess I hadn’t expected to meet again so soon.”

“Yes, I’ve made…well, it’s a long story,” he said seriously. “These are some of the people I went to speak with. Over a dozen have come to Vrin Shai with me; Abbess Darnassy said we could find you here.”

“You brought Viridill’s witches here?” Basra asked, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

“Well, not all of them, by any means,” Hargrave clarified hastily. “You see, it’s—”

General Ralivedeh cleared her throat pointedly.

“Right,” Hargrave said quickly. “Priorities. They were going to try neutralizing the elementals with priestesses, which would have been quite risky and probably ineffective. Now that we’re here, the rest of my friends have fanned out through the city to begin laying preparations, and we’re going to deal with this matter first of all. Barring any further upsets, I believe we can have all this cleared away in a few hours. Tomorrow, though, I’d like to have a lengthy conversation about what we’ve learned.”

“Excellent,” she said emphatically. “Can you use another caster? Schwartz, make yourself useful.”

“Glad to!” the Salyrite said cheerfully, stepping forward. “Actually, I may have some fresh data to add to your findings—I had a good, solid ward network overlaying the city before all this started up, and I was able to detect…”

He melted into Hargrave’s gaggle of witches and they drifted off toward the canal in the near distance, talking among themselves.

“That’s been the theme of the evening,” Ralavedeh said with an annoyed twist of her mouth. “I’m glad they came along, but you know what it’s like working with civilians. Takes a constant effort to know what they’re doing and make sure they don’t screw up my chain of command.”

“I do know,” Basra agreed. “Well, for the time being it seems I’m a little superfluous, here…”

“Actually,” said the General, “since you brought your whole group, I wonder if I could borrow them for a bit?” She turned, nodding to the others. “I understand Bishop Snowe and a trained bard have joined you—we’ve a use for talents exactly like that.”

“Oh?” Basra raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Ami asked dryly. “Or do you intend to just leave this mob to its own devices?”

Beyond the perimeter marked by the Legionnaires, a noisy and energetic crowd were circulating, talking and gesticulating eagerly. No one seemed particularly agitated, though, and while their general noise didn’t yield any specific conversational threads at this distance, it didn’t sound angry.

“I would hardly call that a mob,” Basra began.

“Well, that doesn’t mean you just ignore them,” Branwen said in mild exasperation. “This is what you wanted us for, General?”

“If you’re able and willing,” Ralavedeh replied, nodding. “Citizens of Vrin Shai are a respectful people as a rule, and they trust the Legions, but you simply cannot drop an event like this on top of thousands of civilians and expect it to stay calm indefinitely. Fortunately this happened at dusk; provided we can get it squared away before business hours begin tomorrow, we can hopefully avoid any serious unrest. For now, I would like any help possible in keeping a lid on this.”

“Hm,” Ami mused, absently tuning her guitar and frowning at the onlookers. “That’s hardly the whole population of the city. Nor even a significant percentage…”

“It’s a start, though,” Branwen said with a smile. “Come, Bas, let’s see if we can’t put people’s minds at ease.”

She glided off toward the edge of the square opposite the bridge without waiting for anyone’s approval, apparently not seeing the scowl Basra directed at her back. Ildrin, Ami, and Jenell, who had seen it, followed at a more circumspect distance.

At the other end, the plaza terminated on a broad staircase only four steps tall. It was a short enough drop that they could plainly see the people milling around below it, built mostly for decoration and to prevent wheeled vehicles from entering the market square. Legionnaires were guarding the staircase, however, keeping the civilians isolated in the wide street below.

The crowd focused its attention on the top of the stairs as Branwen arrived, taking a position near the center between two soldiers, who looked quizzically at her and then at a nearby officer. Apparently having been told what to expect, the lieutenant gestured them away, and they shifted to the very edges of the staircase, distancing themselves from the Izarite Bishop. By that point, a few scattered cheers had broken out and people surged forward eagerly, smiling up at Branwen.

“Well, what a night this is!” she said, her light voice projecting skillfully out over the crowd, and earned a laugh from her audience. “I’m a guest here, myself, so please don’t take anything I say as an official pronouncement. General Ralavedeh has very kindly allowed me to speak to you—which works out well for everyone, as I’m sure you know how much I love to hear myself talk.”

During the laugh which followed this, Ami mused aloud, coincidentally having placed herself close enough to Basra to be audible to her, “My, she’s actually rather good at extemporizing, isn’t she? Somehow, I’d though all her speeches were the work of Church handlers.”

“What I can tell you,” Branwen continued as soon as it was quiet enough again, “is that the Sisterhood of Avei has matters well in hand. At this point, it’s not yet certain what is happening or why, but there is no indication that anyone is in any danger. And should these…peculiar visitors take a turn toward hostility… Well, in that event, I find I am still not overly concerned. This is Vrin Shai, after all!”

She beamed proudly down at them, waiting for the cheers to subside before continuing. “It’s hardly a secret that the cults of the Pantheon don’t all see eye-to-eye, and indeed, my faith has its frictions with Avei’s. If I must be surrounded by an invasion of strange elementals, though, I can honestly say there is no one among whom I would rather find myself. Yes, the Sisters of Avei are indeed fearsome in battle, and the presence of all these Legionnaires makes me feel much safer. But there’s far more to it than that! Avei is a goddess who places great trust in people. For all of the Sisterhood’s history, she has encouraged people to find their own courage, to hone their skills, and the result is what you see around you! An invincible city, filled with an unconquerable people, living under the aegis of a goddess who has led them to be the most they can be!”

More cheers, this time slower to subside. Branwen nodded and smiled encouragingly, but before she opened her mouth to speak again, there came a shout from near the front of the crowd. The speaker hadn’t waited for silence, and so most of the words were lost, but the Bishop was apparently close enough to make them out clearly. All that was clearly audible from Basra’s position behind her was “Last Rock.”

Apparently, Branwen was not the only one who’d heard the words. The crowd’s voice faltered into confusion, cheers and applause continuing from various quarters, while others who had been close enough to hear broke off their adulation, murmuring.

“It’s hardly kind to cast aspersion on the people of the frontier,” Branwen said with an artful hint of reproach. “In fact, I was in Last Rock very recently, and I found them to be a most admirable folk as well. They have had a different journey through history than you, and were shaped by different pressures, but I rather think they would cope well with a situation such as this, too. The prairie breeds hardy and adaptive folk.

“If anything, the comparison should only encourage you! For all their strengths, the folk of Last Rock lack a great gift that Avei has bestowed on you: leadership and examples which come from within, not from above. You live with and among the Sisterhood—the Legionnaires rise from within your own families, proving the potential of a whole population. No one sits high atop a mountain, grooming rogue adventurers and denying you a place among them.”

She paused for more reaction again, but this time the result was clearly not as she expected. The onlookers frowned, glancing at one another in apparent confusion—at least, some of them. Quite a few tittered, and open laughs sounded from several direction. Branwen hesitated, for the first time betraying uncertainty.

“So, your Grace,” called a male voice from near the front, the same voice which had shouted about Last Rock. “I take it you haven’t seen today’s papers?”

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10 – 27

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“What are you doing?” Scorn demanded suspiciously, drawing back her lips to bare fangs and scowling at Rook.

He skittered back a step, eyes widening. “I—oh, uh, I was just… I mean, it’s not like they trained us for honor guard duty, I was just trying to be polite…”

“Armed man sneaking up on my behind is being not polite,” the demon snapped.

“Scorn.” Ravana’s voice was gentle and soft, but nonetheless stilled the growing confrontation. “He’s correct, that was a polite gesture. It’s a custom, here, for a man to hold a lady’s chair for her as she sits.”

“…oh.” Scorn rolled her shoulders once, then nodded curtly at Rook. “Thank you, then, for custom.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied, still edging backward.

Ravana cleared her throat very softly, catching Scorn’s gaze and raising one eyebrow.

The demon drew in a deep breath, swelling menacingly, then let it out in a sigh. “I am sorry for snapping at you. I misunderstood.”

“No offense taken at all!” he said with forced cheer, retreating all the way to the wall. “Enjoy your dinner.”

“Wow,” Teal murmured. Shaeine gave her a sidelong little smile; Maureen grinned and winked.

“Is a good custom anyway,” Scorn added, seating herself. “Man showing respect to a woman. We do not have that at my home. Maybe I start it when I go back.”

“It’s actually a complicated question whether chivalrous gestures like that are respectful or just sexist,” Teal mused. “Or both.”

“Such cultural practices are often difficult to parse in such simple terms,” said Shaeine. “We have many such customs in Tar’naris, and while we largely eschew discriminatory practices that cause unnecessary strife, I must acknowledge that many of them are quite openly sexist.”

“Well, not everything discriminatory is overtly disruptive, necessarily,” Sekandar remarked.

“Indeed,” the drow replied, nodding to him. “In fact, I have had several very interesting conversations with Trissiny about this very subject.”

“If by ‘interesting’ ye mean ‘long,’ I don’t doubt it,” Maureen said cheerfully.

Sekandar hid a smile behind a discreet little cough. “By the way, where is Trissiny? I thought you were going to invite her, Ravana.”

“I did indeed,” the Duchess said serenely. “Invitations were extended to, among others, all three paladins and Princess Zaruda. Unfortunately, that forms a roster entirely of people who have no interest in dinner parties. In frankness, while I would have welcomed anyone who chose to attend, I mostly made the offer so that no one would feel excluded.”

“Ah,” the prince replied, keeping his expression even. Iris sighed softly, glancing down at her hands in her lap.

“I’m afraid the rest of the sophomore class begged off, citing prior commitments,” Ravana said calmly. “But no matter! We are here, and have the place to ourselves. It promises to be an enjoyable evening.”

The place in question was one of the closest things Last Rock had to a back alley: the space between the rear of the Ale & Wenches and the warehouse behind it, which was town property communally used by local businesses for storage. Ravana had somehow arranged for it to be not only scrupulously cleaned, but decorated with tasteful paper lanterns and bunches of hanging flowers. Their table and chairs were of the folding variety, but the tablecloth was a rich brocade. And the food was better than anything served in the A&W. They could hear (and smell) the town clearly, and had a clear view of more back buildings in one direction and the prairie in the other, but a little care had somehow transformed this spot into a peculiar kind of outdoor dining room.

“So,” Scorn said carefully, peering around, “this is a…formal occasion?”

“Oh, not particularly,” Ravana said airily, reaching for the basket of rolls. “I use the term ‘dinner party’ somewhat euphemistically. Really, more of a picnic.”

“Okay, good,” Scorn said, nodding. “I am… There are customs, yes? I don’t know them.”

“Precisely,” Ravana agreed, smiling and glancing over at Teal. “Consider it an opportunity for us to get to know one another better, without the pressure of expectations. And you can get some practice toward dining customs without any stakes.”

“I am not being laughed at,” Scorn said, dragging a scowl around the table.

“Most certainly not,” Sekandar agreed gallantly. “I’m sure no one here would dream of it.”

“Anyone who does will be asked to leave,” Ravana stated. “Which is why I was careful to invite only people who I trust not to do any such thing.”

“And notably,” Iris added, smugly pouring herself a glass of wine, “our other roommate is absent.”

“I begin to wonder if your fixation on Addiwyn isn’t making things in our room worse, with all respect,” said Szith. “I know her flaws as well as you, but she has been notably quiet since the first week of classes.”

“Well, of course,” Iris said acidly. “Since her behavior in the first week was utterly psychotic, that isn’t setting much of a bar, now is it.”

“She did save yer life in the Golden Sea trek,” Maureen pointed out.

“I’m sure that was just reflex,” Iris muttered.

“Granted, I wasn’t as close at the time,” said Sekandar, “but I never met anyone whose reflexes include grabbing a manticore by the tail to prevent it from stinging someone.”

“This roommate,” said Scorn. “I think I have met her. She is the rude elf?”

“That sums her up perfectly,” Iris agreed.

“Hm.” The demon nodded. “Why do you let her to act this way? Best to have things out, openly. If she is being mysterious and nasty, force a confrontation. Then you get the truth!”

A short silence fell.

“I quite agree,” Ravana said after a moment. “In fact, I said so at the time.”

“Aye,” Maureen added wryly. “An’ we tried that. Didn’t go so well.”

“Sometimes forcing a confrontation is the last thing you should do,” Teal said gently. “Um…on another note…are we really just gonna make the guys stand around while we eat?”

“We are on duty,” Moriarty said crisply from the other end of the alley. “Per the statutes governing use of Imperial soldiers by the Houses, our current arrangement with the Duchess constitutes a binding—”

“What he means,” Rook interrupted with a grin, “is that if her Grace wants to pay us to stand around, then stand we shall. You kids have fun, don’t worry about us. Frankly, I feel like we’re gettin’ away with something as it is. Not likely you’re in any danger in this town.”

“Why did you feel the need to hire them on as security, if you don’t mind my asking?” Shaeine inquired.

“I am not concerned for my physical safety, considering the company,” said Ravana, calmly buttering a roll. “Given the tensions in Last Rock, of late, I thought an official Imperial presence might keep things…calm.”

“Well, that’s a good thought, but maybe going a little overboard,” Iris remarked. “Nothing ever happens in this town.”

Teal and Shaeine exchanged a look, but said nothing. At the other end of the alley, Finchley turned to glance at his compatriots.

Rook leaned over and nudged Moriarty with an elbow. “Permission to mention the hellgate?”

“Oh, shut up,” Moriarty muttered.

“No trouble at all,” Tarvadegh assured him, “It’s not like there are any temple ceremonies at this hour, and I tend to stay up late reading, anyway. My time is yours. What’s on your mind, Gabe? Made a breakthrough on that shadow-casting?”

“Actually, this isn’t about training,” Gabriel said slowly, pacing down the center aisle of the underground Vidian sanctuary and finally sinking down onto a bench. “I… Well, I sort of wanted to talk. Are you available in your, y’know, priest-like capacity?”

“Absolutely,” Tarvadegh replied, sitting beside him. “Is this…something you can’t discuss with your friends?”

Gabriel sighed heavily and slumped forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Well…it’s about them, is the thing. Sort of.”

“Okay.” Tarvadegh just nodded, then waited silently for him to continue.

“What if…you knew something?” Gabriel said finally. “Something important…maybe even urgent. Something that affects the people closest to you, and…something you weren’t sure you could tell them?”

“Well, there are a lot of ‘somethings’ in that hypothetical,” the priest replied. “A whole lot depends on the situation. Gabe you don’t have to tell me any details that may be sensitive, rest assured. I’m here to help if I can, though.”

“The thing is…we’ve always been a group, y’know?” Gabriel sighed and absently drew Ariel, turning the sword over and over in his hands. “Maybe not at first, we had to learn to work together… But as things are, we’re a unit. My first instinct is always to trust the group, to bring them stuff like this so we can plan, but… I dunno, I have this feeling that it would be a bad idea in this case. The specific problem in question, I’m afraid, might provoke a, uh, fearful, ignorant reaction.”

“How so?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.

Gabriel glanced over at him. “…this is confidential, right?”

“Absolutely,” the priest said immediately. “Assume that Vidius hears anything you have to say here, but confession is sacred in all faiths I know of. I wouldn’t reveal your thoughts even to Lady Gwenfaer.”

“Well, there’s some heavy stuff going on,” Gabriel said, watching the light flicker dimly across Ariel’s blade. “The…Black Wreath is sniffing around us. Rather aggressively. And yeah, that sounds like exactly the kind of thing I should warn somebody about, right? Except… Based on what I know, I really think it’s smartest to take a step back and let them, for now. And…that would be a really, really hard sell. Even Toby probably wouldn’t go for that; Trissiny would absolutely lose her mind. Teal and Vadrieny have their own issues with the Wreath, and after what happened in Veilgrad, we’ve all got cause to be nervous about them. But I’m also thinking about Veilgrad, and the Wreath, who they are and what they want. And in this case…they are specifically not trying to hurt us. They seem to be trying to provoke a reaction.”

“That sounds like a rather hostile action in and of itself,” Tarvadegh observed.

Gabriel nodded. “But I’ve got indication their motive may actually be helpful… And there are other things. Professor Ekoi is circling them like a hawk, which I’m pretty sure means Professor Tellwyrn knows about this, too. And neither of them has done anything. What I think… I think the right thing to do would be to quietly watch and see what they do. And I think my friends will insist on going on the attack. And…I think that would be a disaster.”

“Can I ask a few questions?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.

“Sure, of course.”

“I suspect I know this already, but what source of information do you have that your classmates don’t?”

Gabriel grimaced. “Yeah, well…that’s another thing. I think certain issues may come up about the fact that I’m having valkyries spy on people. Do you… This isn’t some kind of abuse of my position, is it, Val?”

“I doubt you have to worry about that,” the cleric assured him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t really make the reapers do anything—if they choose to help you, take it as a sign of their favor. And additionally, anything you do involving them is all but guaranteed to have the god’s attention, so be assured he would let you know if he disapproved.”

“Okay, good.” Gabriel sighed, nodding. “That’s actually quite a relief.”

“Whether it’s an abuse of anyone’s trust is another matter,” Tarvadegh continued. “A paladin’s role is a martial one more often than not, and there are circumstances in which gathering intelligence is necessary and appropriate. Especially against the Black Wreath.”

“And…” Gabriel paused to swallow. “…what about certain new priestesses of Vidius and Avei who may have moved to the town recently?”

For a long moment, Tarvadegh stared at him in silence. Finally, he leaned back, his expression growing thoughtful.

“I’ve not been in a hurry to introduce you to some of the more complex inner workings of the cult,” he said at last. “Since our earliest practice sessions, it’s seemed to me that you do better being yourself first and a Vidian second. There must be a reason Vidius called our first paladin from outside the faith. But as a general rule, Gabriel… This kind of thing is not at all unusual within our ranks. The doctrine of masks and false faces makes trust a thing that we perceive differently than most others. We don’t value it less—if anything, we value it more. But within the cult, there is an expectation that no one is going to tell you the full truth about themselves, their ambitions, or their activities. If you’re spying on a priestess of Vidius, for whatever reason… Well. Without saying anything personal about the woman in question, just by virtue of her position, she’s probably done as much to others.”

“Have you?” Gabriel asked, frowning slightly.

Tarvadegh gave him a grin. “Yes, of course. Though for future reference, that’s a question you’ll probably want to avoid asking people outright.”

“Yeah, that occurred to me as soon as I said it,” Gabriel agreed, wincing.

“And as I said, if you’re using valkyries to do this, you would be told if Vidius disapproved of your activities. If anything, I’m encouraged to see you taking some initiative with intelligence-gathering. Now, spying on a priestess of Avei is another matter. To my knowledge, the Avenists have no craft that could detect a valkyrie’s presence, but for future reference, absolutely do not try that on a Salyrite.”


“And be wary of the likely repercussions if you are discovered. The only cults that actively spy on the Sisterhood are the Black Wreath and the Thieves’ Guild. You have probably heard from Trissiny what they think about that.”

“Yep,” he said ruefully.

“But back to your original question,” Tarvadegh said in a more serious tone, again squeezing his shoulder. “First, let me say that I’m very glad to see you thinking carefully before acting. Honestly, Gabriel, in general I’ve observed that you thinking of yourself as thoughtless is more of a fault of yours than actually being thoughtless, though thoughtlessness is still a real issue you have. I, uh, sort of lost control of that sentence. Need me to re-phrase?”

“No, I think I got it,” Gabriel said, grinning. “And you’re pretty much not wrong.”

“Okay, good,” Tarvadegh replied with a smile. “So yes, I’m glad you’re thinking about this first. However, the main reaction I take from it is that you don’t seem to respect your friends very much.”

Gabriel straightened up, his eyes widening, and stared at Tarvadegh in mute dismay.

“Think about it,” the priest went on gently. “These are some of the most dangerous people in the world—and, as you have seen firsthand, some of the most effective. Sure, they have their foibles. Just from your own descriptions, I know of several, and yes, I can see how the information you’re withholding could generate some rather strident reactions from several of them. But ultimately, none of them are stupid, and you aren’t without flaws. Gabriel, when you decide to determine who knows what, you’re effectively trying to control what people do. And that means you’ve placed yourself at the head of the group—a group which you’re now trying not even to lead, but to manipulate.”

“But…but…” Gabriel clenched his jaw, swallowed heavily, then lowered his eyes.

“And,” Tarvadegh said kindly, “I know that isn’t what you intend. Honestly, as a Vidian paladin…well, you’re unprecedented, but if someone had told me ten years ago there would be a Vidian paladin, I’d have pictured someone doing exactly that. The problem here, as I see it, is that your actions are in conflict with your ethics and your desires. I think you’ve stumbled into this box accidentally, not out of a desire to control the situation. That, in my opinion, is the root of your problem.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said quietly. “That’s…wow. Holy crap, I’m an asshole.”

“As we were just saying,” Tarvadegh said wryly, “you’re a little thoughtless. People make mistakes. Whether or not you’re an asshole is a function of what you do next.”

“Right. You’re right.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Yeah, I have to tell them everything. I should’ve just done that from the beginning…crap, this is gonna be a difficult conversation.”

“The important ones usually are.”

“Thanks, Val. This…was exactly what I needed to hear.”

“Well, that’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Tarvadegh said with a grin. “That’s a joke. They don’t actually—”

He broke off and both of them looked at the ceiling as the sound of hoofbeats thundered by overhead.

“What the…” Gabriel frowned. “It’s after dark, who’d be…” He trailed off, glancing to the side at the invisible figure which had just dived in from above. “Oh, shit. Trissiny.”

“Bishop Syrinx, may I have a word with you?”

Basra glanced over at Ildren, who had just emerged from the rear door of their borrowed townhouse, but did not pause in stretching. Against the far wall of the rear courtyard, Jenell also glanced up, then immediately resumed packing away their practice swords and surreptitiously rubbing the several bruises she’d just acquired.

The house, though its décor was purely Viridill, was built in the Tiraan style, which meant a short public garden in the front, by the street, and a walled courtyard behind. Since this particular house sat on a corner, bordered by streets on two sides, it was less private than some—they could hear the traffic outside from the courtyard, and there was no telling what anyone had thought of the sounds of two women going at each other with wooden swords for the last hour.

“Certainly,” Basra said after leaving her to stew for a calculated moment. “I’m about to head inside, though; make it quick, if you please.”

Ildrin glanced over at Jenell. “In private, please?”

“I’m willing to indulge you, but not the point of going out of my way,” Basra said brusquely. “And Covrin is my assistant; she’s likely to end up hearing anything you have to say, anyway. I have a habit of venting to her about the various time-wasters I’ve had to deal with in the course of a day.”

Ildrin clenched her jaw for a moment. “…fine. What is your problem with me? I hardly know you, but I came here to offer my assistance when asked, and you have been nothing but dismissive and hostile.”

“Very well, you want the simple truth?” Despite her claim to be on the way inside, Basra turned and strolled over to a stone bench set against the courtyard’s far wall, seating herself. “Working where I do, in the Universal Church, dealing largely with the results of Archpope Justinian’s various…agendas…I have incidentally become acquainted with a number of individuals whom he considers useful and trustworthy. Yours is a name that has repeatedly come to my attention, both in the Church itself and from sources within the Sisterhood. You have a well-established reputation, Sister Falaridjad, as someone interested in Justinian’s cause as much as Avei’s. If not more so.”

“That is a false dichotomy and you know it!” Ildrin exclaimed. “I have never been anything but loyal to Avei and the Sisterhood. But yes, I see a great deal of sense and virtue in the messages that the Archpope has put forth during his tenure, and I’d like to think that’s reflected in my actions. So why is this a problem?” She took a step forward, pointing an accusing finger at Basra. “You have the same reputation, and far more than I! I’d say anyone in the Sisterhood or the Legions would contend you’re as much Justinian’s creature as Rouvad’s. I’ve heard more than a few rumors that’s the reason you’re now out here. What, exactly, is your problem with me?”

“I have no problem with you,” Basra said in perfect calm. “I barely know you, nor have any particular interest in you. My problem is with a Universal Church element meddling in this matter. From the Sisterhood’s perspective, intervention by the Church is not appropriate unless called for. From mine…” Her voice and expression abruptly hardened considerably. “If Justinian or you have any thoughts of ‘helping’ me make a name for myself out here to restore Commander Rouvad’s high opinion of me, any attempt to do so would horribly backfire. And then I will be angry.”

“Your Grace,” Jenell said, staring at a spot in the far corner of the courtyard, where dust had begun to swirl upward in a slow spiral that had nothing to do with the very faint movements of air that drifted over the walls.

“Furthermore,” Basra barreled on, making a silencing gesture at Jenell, “Justinian, at least, is wise enough to know that any attempt by him to intervene would only worsen matters. Which means you’re either here on your own initiative, or far more likely, this is Branwen’s idea. Allow me to let you in on a secret, in case you haven’t noticed: Branwen is an idiot. Letting her graduate beyond serving Izara flat on her back has been a sad waste of the only use she has.”

Ildrin narrowed her eyes. “Whatever issues the two of you have, she has the same reputation among Church-related circles. She’s trusted, and loyal to his Holiness. So, yes, when she approached me about this, I was glad to offer my services.”

Basra snorted. “I’ll consider my point made.”

“Ma’am?” Jenell said in alarm, having put down the practice swords and picked up her metal one. The dust column had silently swelled to a height greater than a person, and was coalescing slowly into a humanoid figure.

“Fine, whatever!” Ildrin exclaimed. “You can still control the situation—it’s not like I’m going to run around trying to slay elementals behind your back! Just give the orders and I’ll follow them; that was the job I signed on for. There is no reason for you to be so hostile! I came here in good faith. Does it matter to you at all how this affects me?”

Basra stared blankly at her. Jenell started to speak again, but the Bishop made a swatting gesture in her direction. “Of course. Sure, of course your perspective matters. But not at the expense of the mission. I’ve told you already, Falaridjad, just be ready; when trouble arises, you’ll get your chance to prove yourself.”

“And in the meantime,” the priestess said bitterly, “I’m to continue being treated like a—”

“Basra!” Jenell barked.

Basra snapped her head sideways to glare at her, and in the next moment was on her feet, falling into a ready stance. Jenell threw her sheathed sword, which she deftly caught and drew, tossing the scabbard down onto the bench.

Despite being formed from dust, the massive figure’s slow movements made a soft grinding of stone against stone, and indeed it looked, now, like it was assembled from irregular chunks of rock. Towering over eight feet tall and proportioned in a way that would have been imposing even had it not been made of boulders, the elemental dwarfed both them and the courtyard itself. As Jenell backed up toward Basra, it turned to face the three women. The lower of the slabs of rock that formed its head shifted, opening up an obvious mouth, and a deep rumble sounded from within.

“Well, Falaridjad, now’s your chance,” Basra said quietly. “Don’t make any moves to agitate it, but on my signal, I want you to draw as much divine energy as you can. Weakening it is the only chance we have against that thing.”

“Will that be enough?” Jenell asked, her voice trembling.

“We are about to find out,” Basra said, apparently in total calm. “Try to circle around, slowly, toward the door. If this doesn’t work, we’ll have to run, and it can’t fit…”

She trailed off as the door to the house opened and Ami came strolling out, strumming a soft tune on her guitar and looking perfectly unconcerned. She ambled out into the courtyard, beginning to sing a lilting tune in elvish.

The rock elemental had been shifting toward the three women, its posture clearly aggressive, but suddenly it went quiet, turning to focus on the bard. Another rumble sounded from within, but this time a very soft one; it took one ponderous step toward her, then sank slowly down onto its knees, peering down at her.

Ami smiled calmly up at it, continuing to play, but the words of her song changed.

“Oh, don’t stop planning on my account,

You were really going strong!

Get an idea and please spit it out—

I can’t keep this up for long.”

“Okay…same plan applies,” Basra said. “Move toward the door, slowly so as not to agitate it. Talaari can back inside last, and it’ll be trapped out there.”

“I’m pretty sure that thing can beat down the wall and get out into the city,” Ildrin said tersely.

“And we’ll deal with that,” Basra replied. “but first we have to survive, and that means not being trapped in a box with it.”

The back door abruptly banged open again and Schwartz came skittering out, Meesie clinging to his hair. “Your Grace! Bishop Syrinx! My wards have picked up a major elemental ohhhhh, shit.”

He slid to a halt, frozen and staring up at the elemental, which had turned its head to peer at him, beginning to straighten up.

Ami’s fingers danced nimbly across her strings, and her voice glided upward into a deft arpeggio that seemed almost to fill the courtyard with light. The elemental turned back to face her, seeming to relax again, and shuffled forward a couple of grinding steps, bending closer.

“Ah, good, our specialist,” Basra said sharply. “Schwartz, do something about this.”

“Right,” Schwartz said weakly, staring up at the elemental, then physically shook himself. “Right! I can…yes, I think I can banish it. How did that thing get in here?”

“It didn’t start like that,” Jenell said. “It formed from dust.”

“Dust to stone! That’s amazing! Whoever summoned this must be—ah, yes, right, on topic. Yes, I can still banish it, provided it’s in a weakened state. Ladies, when I give the word, I’ll need you to channel as much raw divine energy at it as possible—but not until I’m prepared! That will make it very angry.”

“Covrin, go get Branwen out here,” Basra said curtly. Jenell darted through the door into the kitchen without another word.

Schwartz, meanwhile, knelt on the ground and pulled several small pouches and vials from within his sleeves, while Meesie scampered down his arm to cling to his hand. “Ami, can you keep it in that position, please? I’ll just need a couple of minutes.”

Ami didn’t even glance at him, nor allow her relaxed posture and kind smile to waver, but switched again to a stanza in Tanglish.

“I hardly have it on a leash!

Be quick about it, Schwartz.

Fine control’s outside my reach.

Nothing rhymes with Schwartz.”

“Warts?” Ildrin suggested; Basra made a slashing motion at her.

Schwartz, meanwhile, had picked Meesie up and bodily dipped her in a bag of powder, held her up to whisper into her twitching ear, then set her back down. The fire-mouse immediately dashed toward the towering elemental, leaving behind a trail of sparkling powder on the ground. Upon reaching it, she began running around it, first in a simple circle, then in more complicated patterns. Gradually, a full spell circle began to form around the elemental’s feet, positioned so that it was entirely inside it, and Ami was just barely within its outer edge.

“Don’t!” Basra said urgently when Ami took a half-step back. “It’s fixated on you, Talaari; it’ll follow you. Retreat when we’re ready to move.”

The bard made no response, continuing to play, sing, and gaze placidly up at the rock elemental.

It made another soft rumble, then reached over with one huge, clumsy hand to grab a small rose bush from nearby. This it ripped right out of the ground, and set down next to Ami.

Meesie’s powder was not running out, fortunately, but it took the tiny elemental time to weave in and out, forming the circle. Schwartz kept his eyes focused on her, expression intent; Ami played on, and Basra stood with her sword at the ready, a half-step in front of Ildrin, whose eyes darted nervously about.

Jenell ran back out the kitchen door, trailed a half-moment later by Branwen, who stared at the scene intently but without apparent alarm.

“Schwartz?” Basra said quietly.

“Almost,” he murmured, beckoning. Meesie dashed back to him, and he gave her a small handful of nuts, which she stuffed into her mouth, making her cheeks bulge comically. “Just another moment…”

Meesie ran back to the spell circle, and made a quick but halting trip around it, pausing every few feet to retrieve an acorn from within her mouth with her nimble front paws and place it in a specific spot on the circle. The whole time, Ami kept up her singing.

The effect was clearly beginning to waver, however. The elemental made another rumbling sound, shifting as if in a shrug. It began clambering back upright.

“Schwartz,” Basra said urgently. For the first time, Ami glanced aside at him, betraying nervousness.

“Done!” he said, as Meesie dashed back toward him. “Swamp it with light and I’ll do the rest!”

“On my signal,” Basra said rapidly, “you two join me at the edge of that circle, and you get out of there, Talaari. Three…two…now!”

She rushed forward, her aura flaring alight, with Branwen and Ildrin flanking her. Ami skittered backward, keeping up her strumming for good measure, but between that and the sudden wash of divine energy, the elemental’s calm was effectively shattered. It threw up one arm to shield its head from the glow, letting out a low, awful roar of displeasure.

Shifting its body around, it drew back its other arm, clearly preparing a devastating punch at Basra, Branwen and Ildrin.

“Herschel!” Jenell cried.

“Got it!” he said, planting his hand, palm-down, on the very edge of the trail Meesie had made toward the elemental, the one feeding into the circle itself.

Rather than anything rising up from the circle, a column of white light slammed down from the sky, filling the space defined by the spell circle and momentarily blotting out the elemental from sight. It let out another unearthly roar, and suddenly the light vanished.

Where it had stood, there was only dust. It didn’t hold together even for a second, collapsing to the ground and washing over them in a cloud that seemed to fill the courtyard. All six staggered backward from it, coughing and spluttering, Ami trying to hold her guitar overhead and out of reach of the tide of grit.

In seconds, however, the dust dissipated as well, seeming to melt back into thin air. Only a few swirls of powder were left on the ground, in and around the remains of Schwartz’s banishment circle. A double handful of fragrant mint leaves drifted on the air, settling gradually to the ground.

Branwen caught one. “What on earth…?”

“Oh, ah, that’s mine,” Schwartz said awkwardly. “Well, I mean, you’re welcome to have it, if you want, but that was conjured by my… That is, it’s perfectly safe! All my doing, nothing to do with whoever called that thing here.”

“Good work, all of you,” Basra said, lowering her sword to her side. “Especially you, Schwartz, and you, Talaari.”

“All in a day’s work,” he said modestly.

“Well, I do have a few uses, if I may say so,” Ami replied with a smug smile. “Don’t think of me as just the bitch with the nice ones.”

“Oh!” Scwhartz’s eyes widened. “Bishop Syrinx! I came out here to tell you—it wasn’t just here! I detected multiple elementals appearing—all over the city!”

In the sudden silence that fell over the courtyard, they finally took note of the sounds drifting in from outside. The normal mild clamor of early evening traffic had been replaced by a distant but distinct cacophony of crashing, splashes, and screams.

“Stop!” Basra barked as Ildrin whirled to dash for the courtyard’s side door. “Running out there with no plan will only make things worse. Back into the house, grab any weapons or supplies you need, and meet at the front door in two minutes. We will find what’s going on and put a stop to it, but in an organized fashion. Go!”

They all turned and moved toward the door, following the Bishop, who suited her words with action by being the first one through. Jenell paused and backtracked a moment to retrieve Basra’s scabbard from the side bench where it still lay.

“You, ah, might want to be careful with the b-word, Ami,” Schwartz said, following the bard in at the tail of their procession. “Avenists really don’t like it.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, turning to give him a coy smile. “Ildrin definitely didn’t, I could tell. But Bishop Syrinx, who is never too shy to express her displeasure about anything? Not even a hint that she’d noticed.” She turned forward again, her smile only broadening as she stepped back into the shadows of the house. “Interesting, is it not?”

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“Cover me!” Ruda ordered, charging straight at the hthrynxkh, sword-first. It brandished its own weapon, which seemed to be a black jawbone still full of jagged teeth, and gargled something at her in its own language, which neither of them understood. The hiszilisks awaiting orders nearby also charged, however, forcing Fross to choose between dealing with that and upbraiding her classmate.

She decided the second option could wait for later.

Fross ascended a few feet and shot forward, placing herself between Ruda and the oncoming hiszilisks. Whether they even saw her was debatable, but she rendered it irrelevant by emitting a cloud of freezing vapor that neutralized their wings, sending them squawking to the ground. Despite the number of spells she had been carefully learning over the last few months, in the stress of the moment Fross fell back on what was most familiar, not to mention what cost her the least energy to use. A dozen icicles formed in the air, slashing forward and pinning each demon to the ground. They wouldn’t last long in this climate, especially not driven through Hell-formed flesh, but any of the hiszilisks still alive when they melted wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Ruda was having a harder time of it. In the few seconds which had passed before Fross could pay attention to her again, she had found herself grappling with the hthrynxkh at a much closer range than her rapier favored. They had stumbled into the shade of the cafeteria’s rear colonnade, and the demon had pushed Ruda against the wall; Fross could see her hand gripping its wrist, preventing it from bringing down its weapon, but it had a similar grip on her sword arm. In that position, the demon’s greater height and reach gave it the advantage.

Fross quickly considered her options; most of her commonly-used attacks were out. Electricity would conduct through Ruda, any area-of-effect spell like the icy cloud would strike them both, and impaling it with an icicle risked stabbing her classmate as well as the demon. She had to settle for something much less dramatic.

The hthrynxkh barely reacted to the snowballs with which she pelted its back. It growled, but Fross couldn’t tell if that was in response to her or its struggle with Ruda, who had just kicked it hard in the knee, trying to wrench it to the side and off her. Even down on one knee, it was nearly as tall as she, and was already pushing back upright.

Chiming in annoyance, Fross drew on her stored arcane energy for something so counterintuitive to her that she’d been almost afraid to try it, though the spell itself was quite simple. Basic, even, one of a mage’s most elementary standbys.

Basic it might have been, but the fireball which impacted on the hthrynxkh’s back made it shriek in pain, stiffening and nearly losing its grip on Ruda.

In the next second it started squealing and stumbled backward, dropping the black jawbone and swatting at the girl. Not until they had staggered a few feet away and spun almost completely around, leaving Ruda’s feathered hat lying on the pavement, could Fross see that the pirate had clamped her teeth onto the demon’s throat and was growling and trying to shake a bite loose like a terrier.

“Oh, that’s not good,” Fross said, and was completely ignored.

The hthrynxkh had finally had enough; it relinquished Ruda’s arm to bludgeon and push at her with both hands. That was exactly what she’d been waiting for; she allowed it to shove her away, then calmly whipped up her sword and stabbed it straight through the throat, right where the marks of her teeth were oozing ichor.

“Blech,” Ruda spat, whipping her blade free as the hthrynxkh collapsed. “Thing’s got hide like leather.”

“Yeah, that’s for armor and support; they have kind of frail bones. Ruda, you got demon blood in your mouth.”

“I noticed,” Ruda said, scrubbing black blood off her chin with a sleeve. “Fuckin’ ew. Tastes like coffee, but somehow worse.”

“It’s also really dangerous! Most demons are at least somewhat toxic, and the infernal corruption—”

“Whoop, we got company. Chat later.” Ruda turned, raising her sword, as two more hthrynxkhs rounded the corner of the cafeteria. They paused, apparently startled at seeing the students, but one whistled sharply and the other quickly collected itself, running forward to meet Ruda’s charge with its bone-spear upraised.

“Oh, crud,” Fross complained. A well-directed blast of frost knocked over the shadowlord which had summoned help, and then she was occupied dealing with that help. An entire group of hiszilisks had dived toward them at the signal. Fross sent three successive bolts of lightning through their formation—not natural lightning as wands fired, but a combat spell that sent arcs of it snapping between them, burning them badly even though they avoided the worst of it by not being grounded. No sooner had that small swarm fallen, though, than another came at them.

Those she brought down with a cloud of freezing mist, then had to pause to ice the hthrynxkh again, lest it join its comrade in attacking Ruda, following that up with two fired icicles. One missed entirely and the second only grazed it, but she had to turn and deploy lightning at the grounded hiszilisks before they could get aloft again. In the time that took, the shadowlord took refuge behind a pillar.

Fross was by far the more nimble of them, but she paused to check on Ruda rather than chasing it.

Somewhat to her surprise, the pirate was just finishing off the hthrynxkh she’d attacked; somehow she had ended up holding both her rapier and the pointy end of its spear, which had been broken off in the middle. She was just straightening up from stabbing it in the chest with both—it had several other bleeding wounds already—when its companion let out another, louder whistle.

Three separate squads of hiszilisks turned sharply, coming at them from multiple directions.

Luckily, Fross’s education among mortal society had equipped her with appropriate commentary for just such a situation.

“Shit fuck crap damn hell!”

Her attacks were less effective because they had to be faster and more diffuse; she had no shielding spells (that was pretty advanced arcane work, well beyond her level), and wouldn’t be able to protect Ruda if the demons closed with them. Clouds of ice, balls of fire, arcs of chain lightning all lashed out, wounding and driving back their attackers but not doing significant damage to any one group. A single hiszilisk fell from the air, and she couldn’t spare the attention even to discern what had brought it down.

“You come to my world?”

The hthrynxkh staggered out from behind the pillar, Ruda right on top of it, her features twisted in rage. It caught its balance, settling into a fighting crouch, but she pressed forward, lashing out with her sword. The demon actually caught the blade, then howled in shock and pain as she ripped it free of its grip, severed fingers flying. Apparently there was enough magic in its being to be extremely vulnerable to mithril, which it had likely never encountered in Hell.

“You come to my campus, attack my friends, and get into my fucking face with your greasy-ass hide and you fucking little bug-thing asshole buddies?!” Ruda screamed, slashing wildly. That was no proper rapier technique, but despite the lightness of the blade, she was opening wide gashes on its tough skin with each blow. The demon staggered away from her, now trying to turn and flee in earnest.

Fross diverted her attention from that to send a much more serious cloud of ice at the closest group of hiszilisks, which had gotten entirely too close for her liking. Not close enough that the spell had the full effect she wanted, but they spun out, several plummeting to the ground and the rest drifting away from her. The other two swarms had coalesced into a single unit, which actually made her job easier. Two flashes of chain lightning brought down a handful of them, convincing the rest to circle away and try from another angle.

The hthrynxkh let out a squall that demanded her attention. Fross threw a desultory fireball at the retreating hiszilisks before turning to stare.

Ruda had chased it out from under the awning and into a tree. Into the tree, literally; the demon was groping at the broken-off shaft of its compatriot’s spear, which had been thrust through its belly into the trunk behind. It shrieked again when Ruda drove her rapier straight through its upper chest. The fact that it managed suggested they didn’t keep their lungs in the same place as mortals.

She was snarling savagely now, flecks of foam actually forming at the corners of her mouth.

“You want a piece of mortal life? Well here it is, you little shit!”

Ruda drew back her fist and punched the demon hard, right in the face. Its head rocked backward, cracking against the tree trunk. Then she pulled back and struck it again…and again. She kept up the barrage of blows, roaring the whole time, punctuating her words with punches.

“You came! To the wrong! Fucking! Town!” The demon jibbered pitifully, trying to ward her off with both hands, which she ignored. “I’m not! Some easy! Meat! I am a MOTHER! FUCKING! PIRATE! QUEEN!”

The crack which followed was loud enough to be audible despite the buzzing and yelling going on in all directions. The hthrynxkh’s head deformed under Ruda’s final blow, her fist sinking deep into the center of its face. Foul-smelling ichor spurted out through its nose and mouth, leaking from the eyes and ears, and finally the demon slumped, falling still.

Fross realized that she had been staring at this spectacle in shock for several long moments, and she wasn’t the only one. The nearby hiszilisks had fallen into a stationary hovering pattern, watching.

Ruda stood with her fist embedded in the shadowlord’s face for several seconds, panting so heavily that her shoulders heaved. Then, quite suddenly, she stepped back, seized the hilt of her rapier and yanked it loose, causing the hthrynxkh’s corpse to slough forward over the spear haft still pinning it to the tree. She turned, grinning insanely, and pointed her sword up at the assembled hiszilisks.

“All right, fuckers, there’s plenty for everyone. Form a line.”

Instantly, they broke formation, turning and buzzing away from her at top speed.

Ruda laughed loudly. “Candy-assed little daffodils! C’mon, partner, let’s go find something else to kill.”

“Whoah, hold up!” Fross protested, buzzing down lower. Ruda’s eyes were alarmingly wide, her pupils narrowed to pinpricks, and she was baring her teeth like a coursing hound. “Ruda, you’ve ingested demon blood. A small amount, but it’s clearly affecting you.”

“Bullshit, I’ve never felt better in my life!”

“Uh, yeah, that’s the euphoria and aggression. You’re drugged.”

“I don’t get drugged!”

“And I’m still curious about the mechanism behind that but right now I bet it’s the only reason you’re not dead. Infernal biomatter reacts very badly with—”

“Oh, blah blah yackety horseshit,” Ruda snorted, stalking off toward the corner of the cafeteria and the main lawn beyond. “You can scholarize on your own time, right now there’s…a…”

She slowed to a halt, swaying, and abruptly crumpled to the ground, dropping her rapier.

“Ruda? Ruda!” Fross buzzed about her frantically. Ruda’s eyes were rolled back, her mouth flecked with foam. She wasn’t convulsing, at least, so probably wouldn’t choke… Fross chimed discordantly in wordless dismay. Why didn’t she have healing potions stored in her aura? A first aid kit, at least! Her entire social circle consisted of reckless people who attracted danger.

“Medic! Healer!” she called, fluttering in frantic circles above her fallen classmate. “Trissiny? Juniper! Shaeine! Help!”

A loud buzzing and rapidly approaching cries alerted her. A whole throng of hiszilisks were zooming toward her, apparently drawn by her shouts. The pixie came to a stop, staring up at them.

“Oh, great,” she muttered. “Didn’t think that all the way through, did we, Fross?”


“Now where are they all going?” Vadrieny asked, frowning, as a flock of hiszilisks buzzed past overhead.

“Look,” said Toby, pointing at the corner of the cafeteria. From the space beyond, there came a flicker of bluish light. A group of hiszilisks vanished around the corner, another approaching from above. Whatever it was, they seemed awfully attracted to it. “You think that’s one of…”

“Must be,” Gabriel said tersely. “We’ll catch up, Vadrieny, go.”

She was already aloft, diving through a flock of flying demons in passing and scattering them, sending a couple to the ground in pieces. Gabriel and Toby followed at a run. They were no match for her airborne speed, but reached the corner in only a few moments, rounding it at full tilt.

They took in the scene without slowing. Ruda, on the ground; Fross above her, defending desperately. The pixie lashed out with ice, fire, lightning and beams of pure arcane light, but it wasn’t enough. Though she heavily outclassed any of her attackers, their numbers were inevitably overwhelming her, and her very spells were creating a spectacle that seemed to constantly attract more.

Vadrieny cleaved through an oncoming flight of hiszilisks, circling around to smash the formation of a second group, but more still streamed around her on all sides. Gabriel took aim with his wand and let loose a gout of hellfire that reduced an entire squad to ash.

Still more were coming. It was almost as bad as the students’ first stand against the initial charge, and this time they hadn’t the benefit of Shaeine’s shield.

“Get in there and flare up,” Gabe ordered tersely. “It’ll weaken Fross but it might help Ruda.”

“But you and Vadrieny—”

“She can take it, and it’s just pain. I fight better from range anyway. Hurry!”

Toby redoubled his speed, pulling ahead—he’d always been in better shape than Gabriel, and even having the hellfire coursing through him under control didn’t augment his actual attributes any more than berserking had.

A wash of gold light spread outward from Toby, causing Fross to flutter drunkenly toward the ground for a moment and several hiszilisks to peel off, screeching in distress, but the bulk of them slowed only slightly.

They weren’t going to be fast enough.

One demon dived in, taking advantage of the pixie’s momentary lapse in cover fire, landing atop Ruda and raising his stinger. Gabriel and Fross shouted in unison, both too far away.

Juniper had to have come at a dead run, judging by the speed with which she was skidding. She slid in on one hip, pouring her full weight and momentum into the hiszilisk in a kick.

It departed the scene horizontally so fast they didn’t even see it move, leaving one wing and a splatter of icor behind. The demon smashed through one of the pillars outside the cafeteria, making a crater in the brick wall behind it.

A silver shield slammed into place above the group, forming a disk against which a squadron of hiszilisks bashed themselves. Shaeine came running in right behind Juniper, her robes flying behind her; she reached the fallen pirate about the same time Gabriel did. With that, the shield flexed, forming a hemisphere, the edges coming to the ground around them and sealing them off from their attackers.

Vadrieny landed at the apex of it, threw back her head, and let out a long scream.

The buzzing demons whirled away, screeching in dismay, their siege broken. In moments they had cleared the area.

Gabriel considered demanding why she hadn’t just done that in the first place, and decided nothing worthwhile could come of it.

“Yeah, you better run!” Fross shouted, then immediately contradicted herself. “Get back here! I’m gonna hex you so hard eighteen generations of your descendants will piss themselves at the sight of fireflies!”

“I think you’ve been hanging out with Ruda too much,” Gabriel informed her. “Toby, how is she? Safe to move?”

The bubble vanished and Vadrieny hit the ground beside them, immediately sweeping Shaeine up into a hug. For a wonder, the drow didn’t offer a word of protest.

“She’s poisoned, not injured,” Fross reported. “Carefuly, Toby, it’s basically pure infernal magic. Holy healing might cause a bad reaction. She got blood from one of them in her mouth.”

“She bit one?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Man, I wish that surprised me more than it does.”

“Oh, this sounds I’m better suited to treat it, no offense, Toby.” Juniper knelt over Ruda, grimacing. “Sorry ’bout this, Ruda, I don’t know another way to do it.” Gently tucking a hand behind Ruda’s neck, the dryad lifted her head and kissed her full on the mouth.

Gabriel turned his back, scanning the skies with his wand up. The hiszilisks appeared to have taken Vadrieny’s warning seriously, and they weren’t being approached by any shadowlords. In fact, the only hthrynxkhs in sight were corpses. “Is everyone okay? What happened?”

“We went to the astronomy tower,” Shaeine said, standing on her own now, but still pressed against Vadrieny’s side, with one clawed hand resting on her waist. “It was the last plan we had, and we hoped the others would gather there.”

“We were trying,” said Fross. “Is she gonna be okay?”

“Pleh,” Juniper said, straightening up and grimacing. “Yeah, I got it all. Yuck. Why in the world would she bite a demon?”

“It probably made more sense in context,” said Toby.

“Fuck!” Ruda abruptly sat bolt upright, snatching up her sword from where it had fallen next to her. “Fucking—where the— Oh. Hi, everybody. Did we win?”

A deep hiss from the nurdrakhaan, somewhere out of sight, made them all freeze.

“We’re working on it,” Gabriel said tersely.

“Where’s Trissiny?” Juniper peered around, her forehead creased in worry. “She’s the only one still missing…”

“Trissiny…” Toby broke off at another distant hiss, then straightened his shoulders resolutely. “…is better prepared than any of us for exactly this kind of situation. We’ll assume she’s fine until we learn otherwise.”

“Okay,” Juniper said, nodding, and turned back to Ruda. “How do you feel?”

“Oddly refreshed,” the pirate reported, scrubbing at her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Good,” said Teal, still with her arm around Shaeine; Vadrieny had only just receded. “What possessed you to bite a demon?”

“Teeth are an excellent natural weapon when you’ve got no others available,” Ruda said dismissively, climbing to her feet. “Never mind that, you see that asshole nailed to the tree? I punched his fucking skull in!”

“Bet that’s not the part that made you collapse.”

“Fuck you, Arquin.”

“He’s not wrong, though. At least when I do it I don’t faint afterwards!” Juniper’s grin faded as they all turned to stare at her. “…right. Too soon. Sorry.”

“We’ve got a breather here,” Gabriel said, “but it won’t last. Plan still stands; let’s get to the tower and under what cover there is, and try not to attract more attention till someone important comes through the portal. Once we can get our hands on an officer or warlord or whatever they’ve got, we’ll be making progress toward getting rid of them.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Teal, nodding.

“Why the fuck are we taking orders from Arquin?” Ruda demanded. “And… Holy shit, your eyes are black. How are you talking at all?”

“First part because he’s talking sense, and I think we can wait to hear the second part until there’s less of a crisis going on,” Toby said. “It’s a good idea, let’s move.”

“Uh, guys?” said Fross. “We’re waiting for a bigger, more important demon, right? How’s that look?”

They turned and craned their necks in unison, staring up at the portal. Another wave of a dozen hthrynxkhs was descending, each borne aloft by two hiszilisks, but behind them came a lizard-like creature with feathered wings, bigger than a horse. It dived almost straight down, giving them a view of the hulking, bronze-scaled demon astride the saddle on its back.

“That looks promising,” said Gabriel with a smile. “Vadrieny, if you would?”


“Uh…why do you have a rack of battlestaves in the faculty lounge?” Rook asked, gripping the staff he’d been offered.

“This is a college,” Tellwyrn said, handing the last weapon to Moriarty. “Why wouldn’t there be a rack of battlestaves in the faculty lounge? Now keep close, I may need some covering fire if I have to do anything complicated.”

She led the way out into the hall, striding toward the lobby.

“As long as we don’t have to get into any kind of conveyance with you, sure,” said Finchley. “In fact, I am never, ever doing that again. If the options are ‘ride with Tellwyrn’ or ‘get eaten by demons,’ I’ll just take poison and hope they choke on me.”

“Most of them don’t eat people,” said Tellwyrn. “They might make an exception for you, though. I hear melodrama makes the meat sweeter.”

The door of a nearby classroom burst off its hinges and a scrawny, black-scaled figure burst into the hall, hissing at them. All three soldiers let out wild yells, bringing up their weapons and unleashing a barrage of lightning.

Two seconds later, there was silence. The tips of the staves smoked slightly, and the smell of ozone hung heavy in the air. Black char marked huge swaths of stone surrounding the now-scarred doorframe. In the center of it, the demon clutched at its chest as if feeling for wounds.

Then it exploded. Bits of gore and scaly leather splattered the floor around them, held back from the men by an invisible shield.

Standing a couple of yards to the side of them, Tellwyrn lowered her hand, which had been pointing at the demon. She wasn’t even looking in its direction, but staring at them in disbelief.

“Um,” Finchley offered weakly, “…I think these are misaligned.”

“That was a shadowlord,” she said. “They have a proper name, but it just sounds like a throat full of phlegm. Stealth and short-range teleportation, plus very resistant skin, but rather brittle bones. Try to shoot them from a distance if you see more; if they close with you, don’t bother trying to cut them. Use blunt force.”

“Except we don’t have any cutting or clubbing weapons,” Rook protested.

“A staff is a clubbing weapon, you shambling simpleton,” she exclaimed. “Someday I need to pin you to an examining table and try to figure out how your ancestors managed to breed. Stay behind me and… You know what, just keep those staves pointed at my back. That’s probably my best bet for not getting shot.”

She stalked off into the lobby. The three crestfallen soldiers followed her after a moment’s silent brooding.

Tellwyrn led the way through the lobby and out onto the front steps of Helion Hall, where the group paused for a moment, taking in the spectacle. The hellgate swirled above them, its surrounding funnel of clouds glowing faintly orange and flickering with the afterglow of red lightning. Hiszilisks buzzed everywhere in the near distance, though there currently appeared to be none close to the ground on the uppermost terrace.

“Hm,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully, planting her fists on her hips and peering around. “What we need is…ah, yes. Perfect timing.”

The red-scaled lizard dropped like a stone, banking at the last possible moment with a dramatic sweep of its colorfully feathered wings and settling to the ground on the lawn just down the steps. It hissed loudly, shaking its frilled head, and the hulking creature perched on its neck stepped down. Nearby, more shadowlords dropped to the grass, released by the hiszilisks that had been carrying them.

Tellwyrn bounded down the steps of the Hall, strolling forward to meet the demons and looking totally unconcerned. Behind her, the soldiers crept forth more warily, weapons up.

The baerzurg stomped up to her, grinning. “This land is claimed in the—”

“You are on my lawn,” Tellwyrn announced.

The demon paused, apparently surprised, then narrowed its already beady eyes, looking her up and down. “I could crush you with one hand.”

She burst into gales of laughter. The baerzurg scowled heavily; around him, the shadowlords looked at him, and then each other, as if uncertain what to do. They likely weren’t accustomed to being greeted this way.

“Who dares to stand in my way?” the baerzurg demanded finally.

“My name,” she said, her laughter cutting off instantly, “is Arachne Tellwyrn.” She tilted her head forward, peering up at the demon over the tops of her spectacles. “And you. Are on. My lawn.”

“Tellwyrn?” The demon’s eyes widened. “Oh—I didn’t—I mean, nobody told us… That is, perhaps we can—”

And then a streak of flame flashed past, and he was gone. Screaming triumphantly, Vadrieny arced back up into the sky, the baerzurg flailing as it dangled from one of her claws.

Professor Tellwyrn blinked her eyes twice in astonishment, before a thunderous scowl fell across her features. “Did that spoony bard just—”

The hiss that sounded from above was enough to shake the very ground.

“Oh, fuck,” Rook said, looking upward.

The assembled shadowlords, coming to the same conclusion, whirled and fled. The three soldiers bolted, too, diving past Tellwyrn and all attempting to huddle behind her slender frame. She turned, watching calmly, as the titanic shape of the nurdrakhaan bore down straight at them. It was listing sideways in flight, one of the air sacs behind its head burst open and trailing streamers of fire, and seemed to be falling more than flying.

Tellwyrn lifted one hand and made a swatting motion.

The beast was wrenched to one side in midair, its bulk hitting the ground just in front of Helion Hall and pulverizing the pavement. It continued to slide past, tearing up ground as it went, its armored face plowing into the cafeteria and demolishing that entire half of the building. The thrashing coils of its body smashed into the front of Helion Hall, crushing the decorative stonework and collapsing the atrium and a good chunk of the structure behind. The entire structure rumbled, more distant rockfalls sounding as some of the pieces which abutted the edge of the cliff apparently fell off.

The silence which fell when the nudrakhaan finally stopped moving was quite sudden, and seemed absolute in comparison to the havoc of its landing, even with the buzzing of hiszilisks forming a constant backdrop.

Then, just behind the ruptured air sac, a line of gold appeared between two plates of the creature’s armor. They flexed outward, emitting a much brighter glow along with a gush of smoking black blood that withered the grass where it fell. The fragments of armor pulsed twice, then one suddenly tore loose entirely, falling to the ground. It landed, smoldering, inches from Professor Tellwyrn.

Trissiny Avelea staggered out, completely coated in ichor, and bent double, dropping her sword and shield to lean on her knees with both hands, panting.

“Young lady,” Tellwyrn said severely, “you are so very grounded.”

“’m fine, thanks f’r ask’ng,” Trissiny wheezed. “Sec…”

She straightened up, and a blaze of brilliant gold shone out from her. Acrid smoke billowed up as the demonic effluvia coating her boiled away, sending the three soldiers staggering backward away from the stench. In its aftermath, as the light slowly died down, she rolled her neck and shoulders, shaking her arms, a dozen bruises and cuts fading from her skin.

“Right,” the paladin said more crisply, bending to retrieve her weapons. “What’s the situation?”

“Grounded,” Tellwyrn repeated.

“You…you killed a nurdrakhaan,” Moriarty all but whispered, staring at her in awe.

“Yes,” Tellwyrn said acidly, “irritating and generally obstreperous as she is, one tends to forget that a Hand of Avei is very serious business indeed.”

“Last time a nurdrakhaan came onto this plane, it took four strike teams, an Imperial mag artillery unit and the Ninth Silver Legion to bring it down,” Moriarty said, still staring. “They suffered seventy percent losses.”

Tellwyrn turned to him, finally looking surprised. “You know your history.”

“Yes, well, it turns out there’s a trick to it,” Trissiny said. “They’re only impervious on the outside.”

“Uh huh,” the Professor said skeptically. “And did you have some kind of plan that involved this outcome, or did you just stick your sword—”

“Would you mind holding your usual sarcastic commentary until we’re out of this?” Trissiny interrupted. “My friends are probably still in immediate danger, and I need to find them.”

Tellwyrn snorted. “Oh, they’re in danger all right, but it starts after I get rid of the demons on my campus and have you all to myself. As far as the demons themselves go, they seem to be doing just fine.”


“Huh,” said Gabriel, staring at the fallen corpse of the nurdrakhaan. Its bulk hid most of the lawn behind it from them, the part that wasn’t embedded in what little remained of the cafeteria. “How about that. What do you suppose happened to it?”

“I think something it ate disagreed with it,” said Toby. For some reason, he was grinning widely.

“Killing me will change nothing!” the baerzurg raged. “More will come!”

“Hush,” Vadrieny ordered, planting a claw on his chest just below the mouth. He was lying spread-eagled on the grass, four small silver shield spells pinning each of his limbs to the ground. “Do you know who I am?”

“It doesn’t matter,” the demon spat. “We do not recognize your authority!”

“As far as you’re concerned, buttercup, her authority is absolute,” said Gabriel, leveling his wand at the creature’s face. He was feeling dizzy and spent, the modified berserking state having passed while they had been relatively still. As much of a relief as it was not to have that maddening pressure building up in him, he was left drained, which had never happened before. Not to mention that the ability to cast hellfire through his wand would have been very useful right about now. Still, he kept himself upright by necessity and force of will. “Now then, you are going to tell us how to cancel this invasion and send all your creepy buddies back where they came from.”

The baerzurg gnashed its jaws, but their position on its upper chest meant it couldn’t get them around anything. Even Vadrieny’s foot was out of his reach. “And if I do not?”

“That outcome will not occur,” Shaeine said placidly, folding her hands at her waist. “All that is yours to determine is what happens to you before you comply.”

Toby looked distinctly unhappy with the way this conversation was turning, but had the poise to keep silent about it. Fortunately he was standing out of the baerzurg’s limited range of view.

“Trissiny!” Fross shouted suddenly.

They turned to behold the paladin striding toward them with a relieved smile.

“Hey!” Toby said, his own expression changing to match hers. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll do,” she said, grinning. “Is everyone okay?”

“It’s really good to see you,” Gabriel said sincerely. She gave him a surprised look, then smiled again.

“We’re here too,” Finchley added from behind her.

“Uh, yeah,” said Ruda. “Why are you here?”

“Fuck if we know,” said Rook, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Ask the boss lady.”

The three of them parted to admit Professor Tellwyrn, who was staring at the students with a distinctly predatory glint in her eye.

“Ohhhh, crap,” Juniper whispered.

“Oh, you have no idea,” said Tellwyrn. “But we’ll deal with that later. Since you are here, we can see about closing that damned hole.”

“No!” the baerzurg squawked, struggling against his bonds. “That is our opportunity to—”

“Oh, shut up!” Tellwyrn snarled, pointing at it.

There came a sharp pop, and suddenly there was nothing held down by the tiny shields. A patch of bronze skin lay on the grass, with a spiraling streamer of bones, organs and muscle arching upward toward the roof of the half-collapsed cafeteria. It hung for a moment in the air, then collapsed, splattering a trail of black blood across the lawn.

“What the fuck,” Gabriel whispered. “Why do you even know a spell like that?” Finchley turned away, bending over and retching.

“That,” said Tellwyrn, “is what happens when you try to teleport this close to an active hellgate. Actually you normally have to be a lot closer, but this one is freshly opened and the whole area is dimensionally unstable. Don’t ever attempt it, for reasons you can see.”

“But we were gonna interrogate that guy!” Fross protested. “He was our leverage to get the rest of the demons to back down!”

“Oh?” Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Hum. That’s not a bad plan, actually. Regardless, it is now superfluous, as I am here. I am going to show you the proper procedure for closing a hellgate.”

“If you could do that, why is all this even happening?” Ruda demanded. “You coulda just—”

“Because,” Tellwyrn said caustically, “when all this started I was operating under the assumption that I would have Imperial strike teams to perform the procedure from one end, not untried students for whose safety I am responsible. The Empire is not sending help, however, and you idiots are here, so we’re going to make the best we can of this. Provided you can follow simple directions, this is over.”

Suddenly, everything went still.

The droning of demon wings was silenced. The very movement of the wind over the mountain froze; the slowly rotating pattern of clouds above halted in place, the red flashes ceasing. A pale glow fell over the campus, rather like moonlight, casting everything in a silvery luminescence. After the sickly illumination of the hellgate, it was a refreshing sight.

“Seriously?” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “Now?”

Shadows gathered, the darkness of the night air itself seeming to take form and twist, as though momentarily opening onto a place where matter existed in more than three dimensions, and a figure stepped forth onto the lawn.

He towered high above, more than twenty feet tall, dressed in a sweeping black coat and battered, wide-brimmed hat. His narrow face was lined by a thin beard, and in his left hand he carried an enormous scythe.

For a moment, all was silent as the god stared down at them, and then he grinned.

“Arachne!” Vidius exclaimed with evident delight. “Always good to see you. I’m sorry I haven’t dropped by to look over your new place yet. You know how it is. Busy, busy.”

“Well, your timing is abysmal as usual,” she said, folding her arms. “I’m in the middle of redecorating.” Tellwyrn panned her gaze sourly around the ravaged campus. “…apparently.”

“Ah, yes, had a bit of a tiff here, haven’t we? Why don’t I help you straighten up a bit?”

And just like that, everything was fixed.

The cafeteria, astronomy tower and Helion Hall stood as untouched as they had that morning. Nothing was on fire anywhere; there was no sign of the dozens of smashed windows, uprooted bushes and other petty acts of vandalism inflicted by various demons over the course of the evening. Not a single corpse remained, from the enormous nurdrakhaan to the runtiest hiszilisk. It seemed there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place on the whole campus. It was a lovely late spring night, clear and with a faint, cool breeze.

Above, there were no swirling clouds, no eerie light of another world, no skin-crawling leakage of infernal energy. No sign the hellgate had ever existed.

“Holy fuck,” Ruda whispered.

Finchley whimpered.

“Yes, gods are amazingly useful on the very rare occasions when they decide to show up and damn well do something,” Tellwyrn said.

“Have a little respect!” Trissiny exclaimed shrilly. “You are in the presence of—”

“Ah, and you must be Ms. Avelea,” Vidius said, bending down and tipping his hat politely to her. “A pleasure. I appreciate the thought, but I really don’t need to be defended. It’s quite all right, Arachne and I go way back. I know very well she doesn’t mean any harm.”

“You know more than we do, then,” Juniper said.

“That’s rather the point of divinity, don’t you think?” The god of death smiled down at the dryad. “Or at least one of its biggest perks.”

“I know you didn’t come here just to be helpful,” Tellwyrn said. “What do you want, Vidius?”

“You really shouldn’t talk to him like that,” Moriarty muttered, looking ashen. Nobody paid him any heed.

“Well, you’re correct, Arachne,” Vidius said, his expression growing more serious. He straightened up and rested the butt of his scythe against the ground. “The hellgate and the events of today—both here and elsewhere—came as a surprise, even to us. Of course, that in and of itself is enough to indicate Elilial is on the move, and yet I have firm evidence that even she was taken aback by what happened here. Apparently there are other powers working behind the scenes, powers that support neither the Pantheon nor Hell. This is far from the first hint of such recently. A great doom is coming, and we must be prepared to meet it. To that end, I have been…studying something.”

“Something?” Tellwyrn asked dryly, raising an eyebrow.

“A possibility,” Vidius replied. “The prospect that I—that we—have been wrong. I don’t have to tell you that the world is changing rapidly, I’m sure. The gods are considering how we should and must adapt to the new realities. All but the most hidebound of us are deeply involved in this, but I, for my part, have been looking at…older errors. Things that have gone far too long uncorrected. Indeed, we have clung to ideas even when they seemed imperfect because so much depends upon our constancy. What hope can we offer the mortal world if we ourselves are always changing our minds? The sudden need for change, then, has provided an opportunity.”

The god smiled. “Gabriel, how are you?”

“Confused as hell,” Gabriel answered promptly.

Vidius laughed. “Get used to that, my young friend. Seriously, I’m not just joshing with you. Life is a confusing and constantly surprising muddle. It’s about when you decide you have everything figured out that you start to be consistently wrong. Knowing the truth of one’s own foolishness is the beginning of all wisdom.”

“Um… Okay,” Gabe said after a moment in which no one else spoke.

Vidius’s expression grew more solemn. “I cannot speak for any of my kin, Gabriel Arquin, but for my part, you have my apologies, inadequate as they are. The way you have been treated your entire life is frankly unjust; this treatment of all who share the blood of demonkind has, I now judge, been the cause of more harm than good in the world. I can only hope it is not too late to correct it.

“I have another purpose here, tonight: the gods need to be more in touch with the mortal world than we truly can be, now more than ever. My brethren have a number of means of keeping themselves grounded, so to speak… Means which have served them well but which I have never thought appropriate to my own designs. As the world changes, though, those designs change with it, and I find myself needing a representative. Someone resourceful and brave, who understands very well the principle of duality. After watching you for a time, I believe I’ve found my man.” He grinned again. “What say you, Arquin? Would you like to work with me?”

Gabriel gaped up at the god. “As…are you asking… You want me to be a…a…”

“For lack of a better term, a paladin, yes.” His smile widened. “The Hand of Vidius, the first of the line.”

There was total silence for a long moment, everyone gaping in shock at either Gabriel or Vidius. With the exception of Tellwyrn, who looked mildly intrigued.

“I can’t be a paladin!” Gabriel exclaimed at last. “I’m a demonblood! There’s no way for me to even touch divine magic, it would kill me!”

“The pool of energy you refer to as divine magic,” Vidius replied, “is the remains of the previous generation of gods, the Elders. As far as its inherent traits go, it is not normally accessible to mortals—with the exception of dwarves and some gnomes, due to a genetic quirk. Other races draw on the divine through the auspices of the gods, according to our own discretion—which, as you have had cause to observe, varies by deity. Themynra has fewer and entirely different rules than the Pantheon. Even Scyllith’s followers can wield the divine light, and in the same breath as they channel infernal power. The light of the Pantheon burns demonkind because we will it to be so.” He paused, then nodded slowly. “I now judge this to be in error. What I am asking, Gabriel, is that you help me prove it to my brethren. That means you will have my personal blessing and protection. Those who make the rules, in short, can make the exceptions.”

“But…why me?” Gabriel whispered. “I mean… If we’re going to be frank, here, I’m kind of a dumbass much of the time.”

“You do seem to have trouble listening,” Vidius agreed.

“Oh, you can’t begin to imagine,” Tellwyrn muttered.

“I was just saying,” the god continued, “that I consider the awareness of one’s own flaws to be a great asset; it’s something relatively few people your age possess. Yes, you have flaws aplenty, but you know it, and you know them. That sets you apart from the herd, Gabriel. As for the rest… I do have my reasons, and my plans. If you choose to accept, you will learn more with time. Be warned, though, that this is not a small thing I’m asking.” He nodded once to Toby, and then to Trissiny. “You are more personally acquainted with the realities of a paladin’s life than most, I think. Your path won’t be like theirs; I don’t plan to do everything the same as Omnu or Avei. It will involve great danger, however, and great sacrifice. Be sure.”

Gabriel lowered his eyes, staring aimlessly into the distance. Toby stepped forward, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder, and squeezed. Finally, Gabe raised his head.

“Well, what the hell, I wasn’t gonna have much of a lifespan anyhow. Might as well make a difference, right?”

“That’s the spirit,” said Vidius, grinning.

There was a flash in midair, a small fountain of sparks, and another scythe appeared, hovering in front of the god’s face. It was sized for human hands, and appeared very old and roughly-made, only its solid black haft distinguishing it visibly from any farmer’s implement. Slowly it descended through the air to hang in front of Gabriel.

“By this is our pact sealed,” said the god, solemn-faced now. “Take your weapon, Hand of Vidius, and with it, the first steps toward your destiny.”

Gabriel lifted one hand, hesitated for a moment, then squared his shoulders resolutely. He reached out and grasped the haft of the scythe.

The moment his fingers touched it, the weapon shrank, shifting form, and in the next moment Gabriel was left holding a long, black wand with an uneven shaft.

“We both have a lot to learn in the days and years to come,” said Vidius. “We’ll get started on that soon. For tonight, you have a victory to celebrate, and well-earned rest to acquire. I will leave you to that.”

The god tipped his hat again. “A pleasure to meet all of you. Gabe, Arachne, I’ll be in touch.”

He was gone with as little fanfare as he had come.

The wind whispered softly around them; even in the god’s absence, no one dared to so much as breathe. Gabriel was staring, wide-eyed, into space, apparently seeing nothing.

“Gabe?” Trissiny asked hesitantly.

He swallowed once, lifting his head, and turned to meet her eyes.

Slowly, almost hesitantly, he began to glow. Golden light blossomed around him until he was lit by a blazing corona of divine energy.

In the middle of it, tears began to slip down his cheeks.

Toby and Trissiny stepped forward in the same moment, each draping an arm around Gabriel’s shoulders.

“I don’t even know how to feel,” Gabe whispered.

“You have time to figure it out, brother,” Toby said, giving him a gentle shake. “And… Man, I am just so damn proud of you.”

“Yes,” Professor Tellwyrn intoned softly. “This is going to change absolutely everything. Not just for you, Gabriel; the repercussions of this will rock the world. You have time, indeed, though not much. Not as much as you’ll need, perhaps. We will work on it. You’ll have a great deal of help, and you will learn what you need to know, hopefully before it’s time for you to call on that knowledge. All that’s in the future, though. Right now, you need to focus on the present, because I AM PERSONALLY GOING TO ASS-KICK EVERY ONE OF YOU LITTLE BASTARDS DOWN THE MOUNTAIN AND BACK!”

The entire freshman class shied away from her, Fross darting behind Juniper.

Ruda cleared her throat. “The gods made us do it.”

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7 – 9

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“I had no idea this was here,” Rook said, keeping a hand on the wall as he crept along the narrow passage.

Tellwyrn half-turned her head to scowl at him, the orb of light hovering over her hand casting eerie shadows across her face. “That’s because you never needed to know. In fact, once all this nonsense is over with, you can forget you knew about it, understand? This is an emergency access.” She turned back to face forward, her continued grousing clearly audible. “If the students find out about this, it’ll be full of beer bottles and bodily fluids by the end of the week. What is it with kids and dark, private places… I should’ve just adopted fifty cats.”

Rook glanced back at his compatriots, none of whom offered a comment. Wisely, he didn’t either.

The tunnel couldn’t have been that long, but already their passage through the cellar of the Ale & Wenches seemed like it had occurred in another life. Down here there was nothing but bare granite walls. Though full of dust and cobwebs, the stone was glossy smooth and seamless, clearly having been bored out of the mountain with impossible precision, no doubt by some arcane craft of Tellwyrn’s. It had no lights of any kind save that which she had brought, and as she kept it at the head of the group, Finchley kept nervously speeding up to outpace the darkness behind him, earning irritated grumbles every time he bumped into Moriarty.

“Ah, here we are,” Tellwyrn said after a long, awkwardly silent hike.

“Finally,” Moriarty muttered.

The appearance of a circular chamber ahead took them by surprise; though their guide’s slim profile concealed little, the darkness and her control of the light source meant none of the three were really aware of their destination until the Professor was stepping out into it.

The chamber was round, gray, and otherwise exactly like the tunnel which led to it, carved from granite as smooth as glass, its surface gleaming in the glow of her light. It was dim even with the glowball present, just large enough to swallow its relatively feeble rays, but not so much that there were any areas left in blackness. That, plus the absence of any corners due to its round construction, made the place less spooky than the tunnel. All three stumbled into each other and nearly lost their footing in their haste to get inside.

Professor Tellwyrn gave them a disparaging look, then stepped onto the low platform in the center. “Well, come on. It’s chaos up there, if you hadn’t noticed. I haven’t time for your pratfalling.”

They crept obediently up the single step onto the small, circular dais. Apart from the open segment through which they stepped, it was encircled by a waist-high rail of tarnished brass, set about half a foot inward from the perimeter. The space was big enough to comfortably hold a person, and was quite snug with four.

“You’ll want to hang onto the rail,” Tellwyrn said, not making any move to do so herself. “Stay away from the open edge and don’t stick out your hands, or anything else you may need later.”

“What?” Rook grimaced at the dusty rail under his hands, shaking a spiderweb off his fingers. “What is this, a teleporter of some kind?”

“Teleportation isn’t safe near a hellgate,” Moriarty snapped. “Otherwise she could have just ported us all there from Calderaas.”

“So what’s the…” Finchley trailed off, having spied the circular hole in the ceiling, sized exactly the same as the dais. Beyond it was only blackness. “…oh, bugger.”

Tellwyrn grinned. “This comes out in the staff lounge, which has a sink. So if any of you are inclined toward motion sickness, I strongly suggest you hold it until we arrive.”

“If we were inclined toward motion sickness,” Rook retorted, “you’d have found out on the RAAAAIIIII—”

There was no preparation or warning of any kind. The stone platform just shot straight upward with a speed that nearly flung all of them to the floor. Except, of course, for Professor Tellwyrn, who folded her arms and balanced calmly in the gap at the front, watching smooth stone walls whiz past as they ascended.

“Been a while since I hung around with soldiers,” she murmured to herself. “Seems to involve a lot more screaming than I remember.”


“Are you sure you’re okay? How’s your head?”

“You didn’t hit my head, just winded me.”

“I’m really sorry about—”

“Fross,” Ruda said firmly, grinning up at her. “Just for future reference, if the options are between smacking me around a little and letting me get eaten and/or landed on by a giant fucking bird-eel-dragon thing from Hell, make with the smacking. I’m fine. Let’s focus on fixing this bullshit.”

“Okay,” the pixie agreed, bobbing down lower. “I’ll work on my fine control. I’m not used to levitating something person-sized with, y’know, precision.”

“Mm hm,” Ruda said absently, crouching behind a pile of rubble as a small group of hiszilisks buzzed past in the near distance.

The cafeteria was a shambles. In addition to the shattered windows along its front face, half the roof had been caved in by the nurdrakhaan’s impact. The wreckage provided a convenient path for them, though, between the dangerously exposed facade of Helion Hall and the now-smashed astronomy tower. Between heaps of fallen timber and brickwork, upset tables and chairs and the building’s remaining walls and support pillars, there was plenty of cover for them to creep through. Best of all, the hiszilisks didn’t seem interested in poking around through it, perhaps due to its wrecked state.

“Are we wasting our time?” Fross asked in a hushed tone. “Surely they’re not still planning to meet at the tower. It’s smashed.”

“It was the last plan we had,” Ruda replied just as quietly, peeking out to keep an eye on the demons outside. “Most of it was knocked over the side of the mountain, so the lobby area seems to still be there. And I don’t see any of the others. I’m hoping none of ’em are dumb enough to just mill around out there and get picked off; if we remembered to meet up at the tower, maybe the others will, too.”

“I guess,” Fross said doubtfully. “But we may have to go out looking for them.”

“We’ll check the tower, and if that doesn’t work out, it’s a relatively sheltered place to make a new plan.”

They crept forward through the jumble of broken furniture, keeping a wary eye on the open front of the building. The buzzing of giant wasp wings filled the air, punctuated by bone-shivering hisses from the nurdrakhaan, but there were no voices from their classmates. Also no screams, which was some comfort at least. Ruda moved in short bursts, from one piece of cover to the next, pausing to gauge the situation at each spot. Fross simply stayed low to the ground.

Then something landed right outside.

Both of them instinctively ducked behind an upturned table, then very carefully peeked back out. They were a good ten yards distant, almost half the width of the building, and it was facing away, but the newness of it compelled caution. Humanoid, it was lean and oddly misshapen, as though its lumpy black skin was pulled too tight in places, twisting it off center.

“Uh oh,” Fross whispered, “it’s not just hiszilisks now; they’re bringing in real forces from across the portal. That’s a hthrynxkh.”

“It’s a fuckin’ what?” Ruda spat. “Naphthene’s tits, what is with these freaks and their names? Does Elilial spend her free time sitting around making up impossible new consonants?”

“Colloquially called a shadowlord,” Fross recited. “Sentient demon, high-caste. Non-caster, but possessing limited inherent camouflage and short-range shadow-jumping abilities. Very durable skin, but not magically resistant like a hethelax, it’s all armor. Stronger than they look, but less agile.”

A second hthrynxkh dropped to the ground next to the first, holding a sword that seemed to be made of something’s jawbone. They conferred momentarily in their harsh language, then the first darted off across the lawn, while the second let out a piercing whistle.

A dozen hiszilisks assembled in front of the shadowlord, which began speaking to them. It sounded angry, but that might have just been the effect of its harsh voice and guttural language.

“Round the back?” Ruda suggested very quietly.

“Round the back,” Fross agreed.

They retreated toward the opposite end of the cafeteria. The windows there looked out over the Golden Sea; one had been shattered by the damage that had wracked the building, but the rest had held, having been enchanted to be far more durable than simple glass. Wind whistled through the opening; directly overhead, hidden by what remained of the roof, the nurdrakhaan hissed again.

They ducked around behind the serving counter into the hallway which ran adjacent to the kitchen, immediately picking up speed now that they were out of sight of the open front of the building. Just as quickly, however, they slowed, coming to a complete stop a few yards from the door that led to a small, walled garden area between the cafeteria and the classroom at the base of the astronomy tower.

“Was that left open before?” Fross asked quietly.

Ruda shrugged, creeping silently forward. The door opened outward; she pressed herself against its frame and leaned gingerly out just enough to peek around the edge.

Another hthrynxkh stood with its back to them, not more than ten feet distant, gesticulating and barking orders at several hiszilisks. At each motion of its arm, one of the flying demons buzzed off, but there were still half a dozen present.

“Fuck,” Ruda muttered, pressing her back against the wall inside the hallway.

“Okay,” Fross said quietly, “that’s out.”

“Hm… You said camouflage and shadow-jumping. How far can they jump?”

“Only a few feet, it’s more for combat maneuvering than travel. Limited, like I said.” The pixie fluttered back down the hall. “Speaking of camouflage, I have a stealth spell. Not true invisibility, is the problem; I don’t think it’ll work here. We’d have to get too close to him to sneak by. Should work on the other side, though, there’s more room to maneuver out there. If we head back to Helion Hall we can go in and look for…I dunno, something. Tellwyrn’s office is in there, she’s bound to have—”

“Hey, asshole!”

Fross chimed in alarm, buzzing back toward the door, through which Ruda had just stepped, drawing her rapier. She came to a stop right before the opening, muttering to herself.

“That surprised me. Why did that surprise me? I’m supposed to be the fast learner here…”


Hiszilisks scattered at her passing, but Vadrieny didn’t pause to deal with them. She flitted to the broken-off second floor of the erstwhile astronomy tower, then from there to the spires atop Helion Hall, then to a precarious perch in a swaying elm tree, pausing at each spot to peer around desperately. There was a brief golden flash that suggested Toby or Trissiny in the corner of her vision, but it was gone when she turned to look for it again. Nothing but buzzing demons and the hissing of the nurdrakhaan.

Nowhere a glimpse of silver.

Frantically she took wing again, swatting a particularly slow hiszilisk out of the way, and cut a wide arc over the descending terraces of the campus. Everywhere demons. Not a sign of her classmates. Not a hint of the silver glow of Themynra.

A low groan rose involuntarily in her throat, emerging as a thin keening.

She’s fine, she’ll be fine, Teal said anxiously within her, failing to convince either of them. She’s smart, she’ll get to shelter. There are all kinds of buildings. She knows the campus.

Vadrieny landed too hard on the battlements of Ronald Hall, causing the partial collapse of a stretch of crenelated stone that would have sent Tellwyrn into a towering rage in any other circumstances and would likely pass unnoticed now. The hiszilisks were gleefully causing havoc wherever they landed; they weren’t strong enough to do much to the stone buildings of the campus, but Vadrieny could see small fires in a dozen places, to say nothing of smashed windows and fairy lamps. And that wasn’t even touching the damage to the cafeteria and astronomy tower.

Then her attention was caught by the arrival of more demons.

They were lean black figures whose shapes she recognized immediately. Shadowlords; used by Elilial’s forces as shock troops, but likely to be operating more as guerillas, considering the origin of this particular demon army. At least a score of them were descending onto the campus from the hellgate, each carried downward by two hiszilisks, with more steadily appearing. Several had already landed by the time she noticed them, and were clearly giving directions to the smaller flying demons.

Vadrieny sank her talons into the stone.

“We have to fight.”


“Teal,” she said in anguish, “she’s out there. Maybe alone, maybe hurt. These will be setting out to search the campus; they’ll find her. They’ll find her faster than we can, due to sheer numbers.”

Teal was silent inside, radiating terror for Shaeine, and beneath that, deep reluctance at what her other half was suggesting.

“We can’t negotiate with these,” Vadrieny insisted. “Demons only understand force. But they’re bringing in those of higher rank now. If we make our point to them, they may call a retreat.”

We can’t. Please…

“I know,” Vadrieny whispered. “Love, I know. But… She’s out there.”

There was a heartbeat of abject stillness within, then a rush of pure sorrow.

I understand.

The archdemon drew in a breath and let it out slowly through her fangs. “Go deeper inside, Teal. You don’t want to see this.”

No. I’m as responsible as you. I won’t hide.

She found nothing to say, simply sent her a rush of love, which was returned in kind. Both were spiked with fear and remorse.

Then Vadrieny, the last princess of Hell, flared her wings and let out a scream that shattered windows remaining all over the campus.

She launched herself forward, zooming straight at a cluster of four hthrynxkhs, surrounded by a buzzing throng of hiszilisks. Before they could react she had seized the closest in both hands, talons sinking deep into its armored flesh, lifted it up, and tore the creature in half, flinging its pieces away.

Two shadow-jumped a few feet back from her, raising weapons; the third actually dropped its obsidian knife, raising both hands.

“Wait! I surr—”

A swipe of her claws ripped its head clean off, sending the remainder of its body tumbling end-over end across the lawn.

The surrounding hiszilisks shot away in all directions, desperately putting space between themselves and the raging archdemon.

The last two shadowlords were still shadow-jumping in retreat, but they could go only so far at a time. It was only seconds before Vadrieny got her claws on one, sinking them deep into its ribs and dragging it closer.

“You don’t surrender!” she screamed directly into the flailing demon’s face. “This is my world! You leave, OR YOU DIE!”

She tossed it straight up into the air, seized it by one of its ankles, and set about swatting hiszilisks out of the sky with the still-shrieking hthrynxkh. Only for a few moments, though; the hiszilisks were a mere distraction. Spotting another shadowlord, Vadrieny dived at it talons-first, screaming a challenge.

Deep inside her, Teal watched it all in silence.


The nurdrakhaan hissed its displeasure, trying to flick her off with its fin, which didn’t quite reach. Trissiny, gritting her teeth, braced one booted foot into the corner of its jaw, where the edges of its beak didn’t quite close, gripped her sword firmly with her right hand, and with her left, punched it hard in its lowest eye.

The beast hissed like never before, thrashing up and down in midair. For a moment she thought she was about to be shaken loose, but her sword held in the groove in its facial armor left by one of Vadrieny’s claws, and she actually managed to wrap the fingers of her other hand around the lower edge of its eye socket.

That, needless to say, made it even madder.

Bucking up and down, and then from side to side, it failed to dislodge her, though in those tense moments the simple act of hanging on consumed the entirety of Trissiny’s attention.

She was beginning to have second thoughts about this idea.

Failing to remove the pest that way, the nurdrakhaan changed tactics. Its flight leveled out; the smoother motion gave her a much needed moment to gather her bearings. She lifted her head, chancing a peek forward at its course, discovering at the last possible second that they were diving straight toward a very familiar sight.

Trissiny wreathed herself in a golden shield, pouring every iota of power she could summon into it; the sphere cut right into the armored face of the nudrakhaan, prompting an enraged hiss, but did not dissuade it in the slightest. She ducked her face against its steaming carapace, tightening her grip as best she could, and shielded so fervently she could feel the beginnings of heat in every nerve, as the monster smashed face-first into the stone bridge connecting the campus to Clarke Tower.

It was a split-second’s utter chaos; the impact jarred her, both physically and in the auric senses connecting her to the golden shield. For a moment, she couldn’t even be sure which way was up.

A moment later, she opened her eyes to discover that “up” was precisely where they were going. The bridge plummeted in fragments toward the plain below, the tower spinning slowly as it drifted off into space. Then she could spare no more attention for the wreckage that had been her home for most of the year.

Her sword had worked itself loose in the impact; both her boots had been knocked free. She clung to the nurdrakhaan’s eye socket with the fingers of her left hand, flailing with both feet to regain purchase as it arced around upward, ascending straight toward the hellgate.

Going through that, she reflected, would be less than ideal.

Before she could get a firm grip, however, the nurdrakhaan shook itself again, more violently this time, and suddenly she was gripping nothing. Trissiny tumbled head-over-boots through the sky, hurled almost straight upward, the slight arch of her flight probably not even enough to send her off the mountain.

Or such was the best she could figure; no amount of martial training had prepared her to keep her wits under conditions like these.

Light flared as her shield snapped reflexively back into place; golden wings stretched outward behind her, stabilizing her descent.

She had barely a second to realize she was plummeting straight toward the open maw of the nurdrakhaan, rushing up to meet her.

Trissiny kicked backward, adjusting her body at the last possible second to be sure to meet it sword-first.


“No!” Toby shouted impotently as the glowing light of his fellow paladin winked out above the monster’s head.

“Hrrash k’vankhthrazk! Hkhaasha vnarr!”

He whirled at the voice, finding himself being approached by three shadowlords, the nearest leveling a spear at his heart. It had an obsidian head, the haft made from what was unmistakably something’s leg bone, despite being black. The creature holding it looked twisted, misshapen, its scaly hide worked into uneven ridges and lumps as if it didn’t fit properly over its lopsided frame.

“No,” he whispered again.

Black, leathery lips drew back over yellowed fangs in a mocking grin, and it drew back its spear to strike.

Toby’s eyes narrowed to slits, and he bared his own teeth.


The spear plunged forward. He caught it just behind the head, spinning, and yanked the demon forward into its own thrust. As it staggered past, he stepped neatly out of its path, wrenching the weapon from its grasp, and thrust the butt of the spear between its legs, twisting and sending it tumbling to the ground.

The two behind it charged him.

Toby flared alight with golden power, causing both demons to hiss and stumble, closing their eyes against the glare. The Sun Style didn’t favor offensive strikes, but it was the work of seconds to sweep the legs out from under one and tip the other over backward.

All this had drawn extra attention, however. The first hthrynxkh had regained its feet and was circling him warily; two more, armed with weapons of obsidian and bone, were dashing toward him. Worse, a sizable swarm of hiszilisks was assembling. They seemed to be holding off for the moment, perhaps to give the shadowlords their prerogative to strike first.

“This is not your world,” he said, hearing the snarl in his own voice and not hating it as much as he should. “This realm belongs to the gods. I will not have this…this barbarism.”

The nearest hthrynxkh snarled and lunged; Toby jabbed it straight between the eyes with the butt of the spear, knocking it to the ground, senseless. It was the most brutal strike he had ever performed against a living being.

“I will not have you here!” he roared, twirling the spear overhead and slamming it point-first into the ground in front of him. The light rose in his aura, first blinding the nearby demons, then pushing them physically back while they shrieked in protest, some beginning to smoke.

“I. Will have! PEACE!”

It was as if the sun rose where he stood.

Golden light burned with such an intensity that even he couldn’t see. Demons screamed, steamed and tumbled backward, but couldn’t move fast enough to escape; there was no outrunning light. It rose all around, flaring outward with kinetic force the blasted the grass flat in all directions.

Toby could feel the burning at the edge of his consciousness, knew what it heralded, and didn’t care.

But before it could grow worse, the light just as suddenly winked out.

It seemed he should have been blinded by it, but he stood, not even blinking, in a clear space in front of the smashed cafeteria. A few shards of obsidian lay on the ground nearby, even the bone and sinew to which they had been attached gone now; it had been demonic in origin, too. The shadowlords and hiszilisks were gone; even the corpses piled up from the party’s earlier confrontation had vanished. There was only ash, dancing on the wind.


Gabriel’s attempts to climb back onto the uppermost terrace had only attracted more hiszilisks to him. His wand had kept them at bay for a while, but he hadn’t found where the other one had fallen when he’d been thrown by the nurdrakhaan’s impact, and now he wasn’t even sure where he was. The demons had quickly figured out that he could only shoot at one of them at a time, and it was easy enough to get behind someone who had no one left to watch his back. He found it very difficult to navigate with three wolf-sized demons actually climbing on him.

He flailed, staggered, managed to shoot himself in the shoulder in his efforts to get them off, and succeeded in dislodging one. Mostly by pure luck, he shot another dead as it attempted to zoom in to fill the recently opened space. Past the jumble of legs and wings clinging to him, he spied a tree, and lurched toward it.

Spiny legs pinned his left arm to his size and mandibles pinched at him in two places, but for all their tenacity, these creatures didn’t have the magic it would take to actually pierce his skin. That magic would have killed them even faster than it would him. He wasn’t as utterly screwed in this situation as most of his friends would have been, but he was still not in control.

He managed to reach the small copse of trees, one of which had been uprooted and knocked over somehow, and turned, slamming his back against the trunk of an oak. The hiszilisk clinging to him from behind screamed in protest. Gabriel stepped forward and bashed it again, and then a third time, until it finally let go.

He managed to turn, aim, and shoot it through the chest before it could get up.

Then the one climbing on him on the front bit him right on the crotch.

Howling in outrage, Gabriel leveled his wand at it, then thought twice.

In that moment of hesitation, its tail lashed forward, the stinger driving right into his eye.

Even his soft tissue wasn’t vulnerable to physical damage, but it definitely wasn’t impervious to pain. That was the last straw.

The roar that tore itself from his throat was no longer human. He whirled, flailing furiously and peppering the entire area with wandshots. Beams of light arced out in all directions, actually driving back the swarm. Eyes totally black, roaring and snarling, Gabriel quite by chance laid his free hand on the hilt of the sword hanging at his waist. Purely on instinct, he ripped it free of its sheath and hacked at the creature clinging to him.

He had it off in seconds, but didn’t stop there. While the hiszilisks twitched and squealed, he pummeled it artlessly with both the sword and his wand, which was still spewing wild bolts of power. He slashed, bludgeoned and blasted for nearly a minute until he was assaulting little more than a black smear and scattered chunks of smoldering meat, before finally pausing to look around.

At some point, the remaining hiszilisks had decided to seek less deranged prey. He was alone.

The half-demon planted one foot on the fallen tree, brandished both weapons in the air, and let out a wordless roar of triumph.

“All right, that is enough of that.”

Suddenly, impossibly, the sword twisted in his grip, its blade flaring bright white. It plunged straight downward, stabbing through his foot and pinning him to the tree.

He was too shocked even to scream.

“You are completely out of control, boy, and your allies are scattered to the wind. I’d be content to leave you to your fate, but I will not be carted back to Hell as some kind of trophy. Centuries down in that wretched hole were bad enough. So against my better judgment, I am going to help you, hellblood. Now, let’s see what we have to work with.”

Gabriel clutched the sword’s handle, frantically trying to pull it out of his foot, grunting and snarling with each jerk. He might as well have been trying to pick himself up by the hair for all the progress he made. All the while, and though his berserking mind made little sense of it, the voice carried on in his ears.

“Ah, an enchanter. Not a good one, but it’s something. A cleric would be better, though obviously that’s not possible for you… An arcanist can’t do much with infernal magic, but the infernal can take power from the arcane. Hm, you can’t actually use that power, though, can you? Ah, part hethelax, I see. Well, perhaps there’s a workaround we can use.”

Desperately, he fired a furious salvo of wandshots at the sword, succeeding in drilling holds in the log, blasting his own shoe to fragments and not so much as singeing the leather wrapping its hilt.

“We can’t use your aura to power your spells, but vice versa? Ah, yes, the problem is you lack cognitive control over your infernal nature. It comes out as this…imbecilic carrying on you’re doing right now. Shuts off the brain completely. This you can’t do anything about, it’s a venting mechanism; if we blocked it you’d be overwhelmed by your own aura and likely combust or something. But we can change the way it vents. Ah, yes, I see how it can be done. I’m using your own skills, of course; I’m no arcanist. You could have figured this out yourself if you weren’t so afraid of your own nature. But perhaps that’s wise of you. Oh, stop that,” the voice added in disgust as he leaned forward and gnawed on the sword’s handle. “You’re like a dog, even more than most humans. Right, I’m going to use your own stored arcane energy to effect a small change in the connection between your aura and genetic code. This is the most fundamental essence of your self we’re playing with, here, so I imagine this will hurt quite a lot.”

In the next second, he completely forgot about the sword pinning his foot.

Pain subsumed every inch of Gabriel’s body, and then clawed its way into his mind, and into something which lay beyond that, beyond what he could have found words for even had he been capable of words at that moment.

He arched his back, thrashing and heaving helplessly with the throes of agony, howling at the sky. His whole body twisted, tensing and twitching against itself in existential protest. His eyes, black and fathomless, bulged so wide they seemed on the verge of popping out entirely.

And then, for just a moment, they flared orange.

Fire raged across his vision, then just as quickly subsided, and Gabriel straightened up, blinking.

Confused, he looked around, taking stock. His clothes were ripped in dozens of places and his left shoe was a ragged, scorched mess about to fall off. Only the enchanted green coat Tellwyrn had given him seemed to have survived undamaged. But…survived what?

The memory wasn’t there. He’d been swamped by demons… Which were now gone. He still had the wand in his right hand, and the black sword in his left. There was the faint memory of a voice talking to him from a great distance, but it flittered away like a barely-remembered dream when he tried to focus on it.

He swiveled in place, staring around. Demons were everywhere, gleefully wrecking the campus. Neither that nor his confusion over what had transpired in the last few minutes could hold his attention, however; he could feel pressure building up inside himself, as if something in his core was burning, growing hotter and causing him to expand beyond the volume he could safely hold. Flames licked at the edges of his vision.

Suddenly, understanding clicked into place. He took aim with the wand, and a beam of pure orange fire, pencil thin and intense enough to melt stone, blazed out. Deftly, he cut a rapid zig-zagging pattern through an approaching cluster of hiszilisks, and a second later, they were tumbling to the earth in scorched pieces.

Gabriel lowered his wand, awed. He understood. It was the berserking, the defense mechanism that hethelaxi had evolved against infernal corruption, channeling the hellfire in his blood in a way that didn’t drive him mad or destroy his body. Except it was channeled further now, somehow reaching through the pathways he used to access arcane magic. It still raged in him; it still demanded an outlet. He had to spend this power or it would overwhelm him again, taking away his ability to think. But he could spend it now.

Had he done this on instinct, somehow? He would never have voluntarily gone messing around with his own nature that way. Any enchanter knew better than to try to enchant himself; in the history of magic, that had led to a handful of towering successes and thousands of horrific tragedies.

Whatever the reason, it was done, and he hadn’t the luxury of standing around in introspection. Hellfire raged in him, demanding an outlet.

Gabriel stalked forward, channeling his inner fire through the black enchanter wand and laying waste to any hiszilisks which buzzed too close to him. He could control it far more finely than the wand’s native power, creating walls and spirals of fire, even directing fireballs that chased after their targets. All the while, he peered around, taking stock, his thoughts driven forward with the same frantic energy that fueled his magic.

The nurdrakhaan was hissing and flailing about high above; he dismissed that for the moment as it didn’t seem interested in him. He couldn’t see any of his friends… This was a disaster. None of them could last long alone.

Then a screaming streak of fire flashed past overhead. Gabriel stopped, his eyes tracking her path. She dived down onto a fleeing shadowlord and in seconds was airborne again, leaving her prey in pieces partially ground into the dirt. He could see evidence of several such attacks in the near distance.

Vadrieny soared back out overhead, and he calmly leveled his wand, directing a bolt of power straight into her path.

The fireball exploded on impact, sending the archdemon tumbling skyward. She recovered her balance in midair, screaming in fury, and dived straight down at him.

At the last second she adjusted her flight so as not to hit directly, landing hard enough to crack the pavement before him.

“Have you lost your mind?!” Vadrieny howled into his face.

“HAVE YOU LOST YOURS?!” he roared right back at her. The archdemon actually reared back, momentarily shocked into silence. Gabriel didn’t give her a moment to recover. “You’re flailing around killing them one by one! What do you think that’s going to accomplish? There are hundreds, and more keep coming! We have to assemble our friends before they’re picked off!”

“I am trying to keep them safe!” she shot back. “We have to drive the demons back—”

“You aren’t driving anything anywhere! Stop for a moment and think. They started with shock troops, then sent more dangerous ones. Eventually someone important will come through. We need to get him when he lands, and not just kill him but control him, and for that we need the group back together!”

“I can’t find them!”

“Then let them find us!” He thrust his wand skyward, letting loose a geyser of pure hellfire, venting off the pressure had had been building up during the conversation. Vadrieny took a step back, looking warily up at the gout of molten energy. “You’re a living fireball; the others can see you clearly. They’d have grouped up on you already if you would quit flying around! Get back aloft and stay in a holding pattern above me while I make my way back to the cafeteria lawn. Watch for Toby, Trissiny and Shaeine; you’ll see their magic as easily as they’ll see ours. We’ll gather whoever’s there to meet us and then find the rest, and then we will deal with the asshole behind this bullshit when he shows his face.”

Vadrieny blinked her glowing eyes. “That’s…actually a really good—”

“Go!” he bellowed, pointing skyward again. To the surprise of both of them, she did, shooting upward and settling into a glide above him, circling like a vulture while he stalked up the stairs to the next terrace, lashing out with his wand at any hiszilisk that came near.

They reached the lawn just in time to be momentarily blinded by an impossible corona of golden light. Gabriel paused, shielding his eyes until it subsided, then blinked at the lone figure standing in front of the wrecked cafeteria amid a swirl of ash.

“All right,” he said to himself with a grin. “That’s two.”

He set off toward Toby with long strides, wand at the ready and Ariel still hanging from his hand, forgotten.

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5 – 31

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Mercifully, the sun was finally slipping toward the sea in the west, but it was still more than warm on the rocky plains outside Onkawa. He trudged along through the scraggly bushes and lone patches of stubborn tallgrass, coat thrown over his shoulder and only a pilfered straw hat to protect him from the rays. At least he was alone. The distant city had been built on the cliffs above the sea, along the tributaries of the river, deriving scant resources from its rocky environs. Onkawa’s livelihood was trade and fishing; no one attempted to use this land for anything else.

Shook stopped as he came to an old dirt road running north to south, looking warily up and down it. Beyond that lay the mountains toward which he was headed; this was the first sign of civilization he had encountered since fleeing the city, and anxious as he was to avoid anyone who might be pursuing him, it brought him up short. Still, the road was empty. There was no other sign of life except for an enormous monitor lizard sprawled on a nearby outcropping of rock, still soaking up the heat trapped in the stone even after the sun had faded away.

The creature half turned its head toward him and flicked its tongue out, tasting the air. It looked to be nearly as long as he was tall.

“Don’t even fucking think about it,” Shook growled, reaching for a wand with the hand not holding up his coat.

The monitor flicked its tongue again, blinking both sets of eyelids.

He was contemplating shooting it on general principles when movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Shook swiftly sidestepped, repositioning himself to keep both the lizard (probably harmless, but he was well past the point of making assumptions) and the approaching figure in view. As the airborne dot grew close enough to become more distinct, however, he relaxed slightly.

Kheshiri swooped down and came to a graceful landing a few feet away, beating her wings once to slow her momentum. The quick breeze it caused was extremely welcome, even if it did knock his hat off. It was a stupid hat anyway.

“Master,” she said, looking tense but relieved. “I was worried. Did you get use out of the supplies I—”

“I have spent the whole goddamn day plodding across this goddamn desert, and I’m not dead of dehydration or heatstroke. Yes, I made good use of the supplies; the potions should be enough to last us till the mountains, if you’re sure you don’t need any.”

She shook her head, watching him warily. His voice was a subdued monotone, and contained an uncharacteristic lack of threats and bluster. “I don’t have many physical needs. I’m just glad you didn’t get chased down. I didn’t want to leave—”

“What’d you find out?” he asked curtly.

Kheshiri pursed her lips, then sighed. “It’s not good, master. Saduko lived. Vandro’s calling in special healers to make sure she has a full recovery. Amanika’s fine, and apparently on a fast track to heading up the local Guild chapter house. Vandro is upgrading his security system.”

He just nodded. His expression was blank, exhausted; there was something empty in his eyes.

Kheshiri sidled closer, lower her voice to a gentle murmur. “We’re gonna be fine, master. You’re smart and tough as hell, and you’ve got me. We’ll get them all for this, I promise.” She tried to cuddle up under his arm, but he pushed her away, not nearly as roughly as he usually did.

“Took you that many hours to find that much out?”

“Most of it was travel time,” the succubus said, suppressing irritation. “And…I saw an opportunity to take Vandro out of the picture, so I went for it. It…didn’t pan out.”

He glared. “You tried to… Goddamn it, you stupid wench, he has a Butler. The man is never out of earshot. It’s a miracle you aren’t dead! It’d serve you right, doing a stupid thing like that.”

“Yes, he has a Butler,” she said in exasperation. “A servant! How was I supposed to know he’s some kind of martial arts genius?”

“It’s a fucking Butler!” Shook shouted. “How can you not know what a Butler is?!”

“How would I?” she shot back. “Last time I was on this plane of existence, a butler was a guy in a suit who served tea and looked fancy! Maybe I could be more useful to you if you’d explain these things instead of making fun of me!”

She broke off, breathing heavily. Shook just stared at her. Any moment now would come the tirade, possibly with a punch in the jaw for emphasis.

Any moment.

He sighed and turned away. “Ask questions, Kheshiri. We were in that house plenty long enough for you to start wondering. You don’t understand something, you ask.”

“Yes, master,” she said meekly. While his back was turned, she permitted herself a fleeting expression of gleeful triumphant. Oh, he was all but broken. Clay to be reshaped. “I’m…sorry, master,” she added hesitantly. “I messed that whole thing up. I smelled a rat from the beginning, but… I thought it was Amanika who’d turn on us. Vandro took me by complete surprise. Luckily my precautions were of some use.”

He opened his mouth to reply, then turned his head sharply, looking up the road. A carriage was trundling along the dirt track in their direction. Shook swiftly peered around them, shoulders tensing.

“No cover,” Kheshiri said tersely, shifting silently into her local girl appearance. “It’s okay. We’re just two people out…”

“For a romantic stroll through the howling goddamn wilderness at sunset?” He gave her a disparaging look.

“…we can play the lost travelers angle, maybe bum a ride?”

“Look at that old jalopy, Kheshiri,” he said, staring at it. “Needs painting, broken head lamp…scruffy and busted.”

“I don’t think we’re in a position to be picky, master…”

“Shut up. Look at it, but listen to it. Damn near silent. That’s not some farmer’s raggedy-ass old carriage, it’s a well-maintained modern rig running the best Falconer enchantments, made up to look like a farmer’s old carriage.”

He really wasn’t stupid. Fantastically dense on certain subjects, emotional and easily manipulated, sure, but once in a while he’d abruptly remind her that he was fully trained by the Thieves’ Guild.

“Think they’re here after us?”

“Be ready for a fight,” he said as the carriage drew close. “Maybe they’re passing by on the way to some other… Oh, god damn it. Why should we get any luck?” he added in a growl as the vehicle began to slow and then pulled over to the opposite side of the road. This close, they could see that it was driven by an elf in traditional forest attire, with the addition of a pair of tinted goggles protecting his eyes from road dust.

“Shift back,” Shook said quietly.

“Master, I—”

“We’re past the point of pretenses, here. Let’s make ’em think carefully about whether they wanna fuck with us.”

“Yes, master,” she said grimly, fading back to her true form and stretching her wings menacingly. They weren’t all that useful in a fight, but they made for fantastic dramatic effect. The monitor lizard, apparently unimpressed by the carriage, recognized a traditional “puffing up” display and shifted a few feet away from them on its rock, tasting the air again.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that,” said a voice from within the carriage, and another elf emerged, stepping down into the road. He wore a pinstriped suit and an obnoxious grin. “We come in peace! I have a business proposal, if you’d like to put down those—”

Shook fired a bolt of white light into the ground right in front of his feet, cutting him off.

“I have exactly no patience for whatever bullshit this is,” he growled. “Next thing you say had better be a damn good reason for me not to shoot your ass.”

“Okay,” the elf said, his smile widening. “I’m the Jackal.”

Shook eyed him up and down. “Bullshit.”

“What’s a jackal?” Kheshiri stage-whispered.

“Look at it this way,” the elf said brightly. “I’m either the Jackal or some idiot who’s going to get killed for walking around using his professional moniker. Which do you think is more likely to intercept you on a deserted road in Buttfuck, Onkawa Province?”

“…god damn it, I hate today,” Shook muttered. “That sounds like a pretty good reason to shoot you, frankly.”

“You’d have done it if you were going to,” the Jackal said merrily. “Still could, but… I’ll tell you up front, others have made that mistake. None twice, though.”

“Who is this guy?” Kheshiri demanded, an edge to her voice.

“An assassin,” Shook said curtly.

“Oh, good,” she purred, waving her tail languidly behind her. “I love killing assassins. They appreciate the irony so much better than average shmoes.”

The Jackal laughed. “And this must be the charming Miss Kheshiri! Delighted, my dear, simply delighted. Driving our humble conveyance is my good friend Vannae, and allow me to introduce your other new friend…”

Out of the shadows of the carriage’s interior stepped another elf, this one with flowing green hair, a thin strip of beard… And eyes like luminous, smooth-cut emeralds.

“Khadizroth the Green,” finished the Jackal.

“I hate my life,” Shook corrected himself.

Khadizroth studied him over, then directed a distinctly contemptuous look at Kheshiri before turning to the Jackal. “These are the people with whom you insisted on meeting? Very well. I am patient, but not infinitely. Speak your piece, please.”

“Right then!” the Jackal said with relish, rubbing his hands together. “Quite so, quite so, you’ve been more than patient. I have brought us all together to present a fairly simple opportunity.” He spread his arms, smiling like a salesman. “How’d you all like to work for the Archpope of the Universal Church?”

In the silence that followed, the monitor tasted the air again.

“I think he’s making fun of us,” Kheshiri said, sounding offended. “Let’s kill him.”

“Now, hear me out,” the Jackal said, laughing again. “Archpope Justinian has embarked on a bold new project to rally the world’s remaining adventurers under his own thumb. Eventually, the plan is to have what amounts to a Church-controlled army of people very talented in the fine art of causing destruction.”

“First of all, adventurers are washed-up losers,” said Shook.

“Commonly, yeah,” the Jackal replied cheerfully. “I’m referring to the couple dozen or so individuals who aren’t. And, not coincidentally, don’t call themselves—ourselves—adventurers in this day and age. But the reality is the same. Three hundred years ago, we’d have been wandering, campaigning, dungeon-looting heroes, all of us.”

“Not all,” Khadizroth said quietly. “Some of us would have been targets of the rest.”

“Okay, leaving all that aside,” Shook snapped, “this is the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

“You are young,” the dragon said dryly.

“More to the point, this is not something I think I like the idea of the Archpope doing. So no, you can count me the fuck out.”

“Oh, honestly, Thumper, do you think I want him doing this?” the Jackal asked condescendingly. “It’d be an unmitigated disaster. Nobody needs to have power of that kind, and if anybody does, it’s definitely not the Church. Gods, no, this has to be prevented at all bloody costs.”

“And yet, you’re recruiting for him?” Shook demanded.

“That’s right.” The Jackal tucked his thumbs into his belt and rocked back on his heels, grinning broadly. “I am.”

“What the fuck—”

“It’s because he doesn’t think he can kill Justinian,” Kheshiri said quietly.

The Jackal pointed a finger at her. “Bingo!”

Shook narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Killing the Archpope is the most logical solution to this…problem,” the succubus continued, studying the assassin through narrowed eyes. “Failing that… To oppose him directly would be suicide. The Church probably has more resources than the Empire, considering it’s stretched across the whole planet. The only workable strategy for stopping this is to go along with it. Earn trust, get placed close to Justinian, then watch for or create an opportunity to sabotage it.”

“Hm,” Khadizroth said thoughtfully.

“The lady is dead on, and proving that I was right in picking you two,” the elf said, still as cheerful as if discussing the sunny weather. “I am, to be quite honest, the best there is at what I do, and I will tell you that killing a sitting Archpope is simply not in the cards. There are limits to what Justinian can do with his power, but the gods are watching over him. I don’t mean that as the passe benediction it usually is; the actual gods keep their actual eyes on him, at least to the point of protecting him from harm. It’s part of the pact that led to the Church’s formation. No, he’s here to stay. All that’s left to do is to unwork his plans before he can complete them.”

“And you chose us?” Shook looked expressively around at the little group. “You’ve got interesting taste.”

“He’s completely insane, is what,” Kheshiri said disdainfully. “I am, in case it slipped your notice, a demon. Me going near the Church is a death sentence.”

“It might interest you to know,” the Jackal replied with a sunny smile, “that while I proposed this roster of talents, each of you was personally approved by His Holiness.” He paused, letting that sink in for a moment. “Justinian is a very forward-thinking chap.”

“Indeed, this new Archpope seems quite permissive,” Khadizroth noted, “considering we were brought here by a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman.”

“The skills represented by this group are plenty impressive enough to warrant recruitment,” the Jackal declaimed. “There’s me, of course, and Khadizroth here is… Well, I’m sure I don’t have to delve into his resume to impress you. Kheshiri is a noted conniver and corrupter even by succubus standards, and our boy Thumper is a veteran of security at the central office of the Thieves’ Guild. He’s the lad they send to break kneecaps when the kneecaps in question are attached to someone most people don’t want to mess with.”

“What’s his story?” Shook asked, nodding at the elf perched in the driver’s seat.

“Oh, he comes with the dragon,” the Jackal said offhandedly. Vannae tightened his mouth, but remained silent. “Even better, each of us has a hook. Justinian likes to deal with people he can control—or thinks he can. Kheshiri is bound to a kind of soul jar. Shook is currently on the outs and on the run from his own Guild. Khadizroth has been placed under a curse that severely limits his options, magically speaking. And me, well, I’ve spent the last couple of years laboriously building up the impression for Justinian’s sake that he has me on a leash. So that’s why he approves the lot of you for his venture. What’s far more interesting is what’s in it for us.”

“Go on,” Khadizroth prompted.

“We four displaced villains have enemies in common,” the Jackal continued, his smile turning grim. “There’s Justinian’s own scheme, of course, but we’ve all suffered from the attentions of one man: Bishop Antonio Darling.”

“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Shook said. “I have no quarrel with Sweet. He’s always been straight with me. Helpful, even.”

“Oh, Thumper, open your eyes,” the assassin said disdainfully. “Think about what’s happened to you. You had one little difference of opinion with an errant member of your Guild, which stemmed from you being sent by them to bring her to heel because she was out of line. Next thing you know, you’re wanted and on the run, and Principia is welcomed back with open arms. Do you even know why?”

“How do you know about any of that?” Shook demanded.

“Oh, I have my ways; that’s not important. What matters is that Darling was the one who sent Principia to Last Rock in the first place. As I understand it, you were sent by the Boss of the Guild to take her to task and she turned outright traitor, yes? Then the Boss sent you out again to drag her back.” He smirked. “Next thing you knew, the Guild wanted your ass on a platter. What you don’t know is what happened in between, in Tiraas. Someone with the power to lean on the Boss of the Guild, and with a pre-existing tendency to favor Principia, stuck his fingers in. Do the bloody math, Thumper.”

Shook had slowly stiffened as the elf spoke, and by this point had clenched his fists so hard around his wands that they vibrated. His expression was a portrait of barely-held control.

“And so, here we are,” the Jackal continued. “United in threefold purpose: We need to cozy up to Archpope Justinian to undercut his plans, we need to find ways to dismantle the various shackles placed upon each of us, and we most especially need to administer some long-overdue comeuppance to Antonio Darling and his various lackeys. As a professional courtesy to one another, I think we can find time to deal with the two friends of his who have caused us the most grief: Mary the Crow and Principia Locke.”

“And what’s to stop you from stabbing us in the back?” Shook asked tightly. “You’re not exactly a trustworthy figure, and I note this whole damn thing is your idea.”

“Alternatively,” Khadizroth suggested, “Any of us could turn on you. Or each other. I see little, if any, cause for trust here.”

“Okay, let’s think that through,” the Jackal suggested brightly. “Say you gang up, kill me and run back to Justinian with the story of how I was setting up a scheme against him. Curry a little favor, remove some competition, right? Then whoever was left would be in exactly the same position: needing to secure their freedom and revenge, and with one less ally.” He shook his head, still smiling. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We’re all professionals, and we all know where our best interests lie; in this case, that’ll suffice in place of genuine trust between us. Hell, I’d venture to say it’s the closest thing to real trust anybody ever gets in this life.”

Another silence fell; the thief, the demon and the dragon regarded each other speculatively.

“I’ve gotten us started with a little good-faith effort,” the Jackal continued smoothly. “I recently helped our buddy Khadizroth here out of a jam caused by Darling’s little hit squad. Interestingly enough, Darling is officially in charge of the Church’s adventurer recruitment program, but Justinian apparently doesn’t trust him completely. Can’t imagine why, heh. So I was dispatched with orders not to let it be known who I was, since Darling and the Crow both know who I work for.” He smirked smugly. “I may have failed to execute that as carefully as I might. By which I mean, I made damn sure two of the would-be dragonslayers got a good look at me.”

“How in the hell is that a good faith effort?” Shook growled. “That’s helping Darling.”

“Sure is,” the Jackal said cheerily. “Specifically, it’s helping him see who his real enemy is: Archpope Justinian. It’s helping to place our two groups of enemies at each other’s throats. Let them wear one another down with schemes and counterschemes while we position ourselves. By the time they’re done with that, whoever’s left over will be ripe for the picking.”

“I find this entire affair distasteful, for countless reasons,” Khadizroth said, frowning. “…however, your logic is compelling.”

Shook nodded slowly.

“I don’t trust this, master,” Kheshiri said tersely.

“Good,” Shook replied. “You’d be a fool to. But…the enemy of my enemy.”

“That never works out in the long run.”

“Oh, I’m making no promises about the long run,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Right now, we’re at the point of making sure there is a long run for any of us. We are each other’s best bet of doing so.”

“I will join you,” Khadizroth said solemnly.

Shook sighed. “Hell with it. We’re in. Not like we have any better options.” Kheshiri lashed her tail furiously, but kept silent.

“Excellent,” the Jackal purred. “Pile in, then, my friends, and let’s get out of this dump. We could all do with some rest and a good meal. And in some cases, a bath.”

Full dark fell as the carriage, loaded with its new passengers, whirred smoothly off on its way down the road. The monitor lizard watched it go, flicking out its tongue to sense the air. It made no reaction to the departing carriage, nor to the disturbance that developed in the air nearby once the vehicle was nearly out of sight.

The air shifted, twisted and rippled, as though reality itself were putty being stretched and mashed in a child’s hands. Out of the distortion stepped a stately figure in absurdly ornate blue robes, allowing the illusion effect to fade behind him.

“Now, you see that?” Zanzayed the Blue asked the monitor. “I swear, every time I see him, Khadizroth has minions. He doesn’t even try. He’s just always got some bloody mortal to fetch and carry for him, even while he’s apparently cursed, blackmailed and guilty of a ridiculously villainous plot to overthrow the Empire through organized miscegenation. It’s just not fair.”

He sighed moodily. “Now, if I had minions to talk to instead of you, little cousin, I could get some real feedback here. They’d say, ‘Zanza,’—they’d call me Zanza, I run a pretty loose hypothetical ship—’Zanza,’ they’d say, ‘you’ve tried to keep mortal followers too, and you always lose interest after a few years and forget about them. Remember the time you left four girls in a tower and forgot to feed them for thirty years? That was just gruesome, that was.’ And I’d have to shrug bashfully and admit they’re right.” He huffed in annoyance. “Of course, the alternative is this thing right here, where I’m standing alone in the wilderness talking to myself. Maybe I should give it another try. Whatever, I blame Khadizroth. Thanks to him and his idiocy, now I have to go do actual work. Bah.”

In the falling darkness, he shifted, swelling, his luminous blue eyes rising skyward, first with the revelation of his greater form, and then as he beat his massive wings and took off.

The lizard, unimpressed by travelers, carriages, impromptu conferences and dramatic magical effects, was nonetheless very impressed by finding itself in the company of the ultimate apex predator. It whirled and scuttled away with astonishing speed.

Zanzayed, though, was already halfway toward the mountains, paying it no more mind.

Captain Ravoud couldn’t help being awed. He had been to the Grand Cathedral, of course, but never beyond the public spaces dedicated to worship. Its inner halls were stately, opulent, almost perfectly designed to make him feel glaringly out of place in his stark uniform.

The soldiers of the Holy Legion who escorted him only added to the effect. Resplendent with their decorative armor and elaborate polearms, they were stern and aloof, more rigid in their bearing than the Imperial soldiers whose company he was used to. Even Ravoud’s certainty that his troops would vastly overmatch this lot in any real action did nothing to assuage the intimidation he felt. These were an honor guard, a ceremonial unit. They existed for psychological effect. It was no more than natural that he felt it in their presence, or so he told himself.

It was almost a shock when they came to what was apparently the right door; it had begun to seem he would wander this extravagant maze forever, as if trapped in a dream. His escorts, however, smoothly shifted formation (with needless but well-choreographed stomping that made their armor clank in unison), two of them moving to flank the polished oak door. One knocked.

“Enter,” said a slightly muffled voice from within. The guard turned the knob, stepped aside and saluted Ravoud. The captain returned the salute (the other man did it wrong) and stepped through. The door was pulled shut behind him, separating him from his erstwhile guards.

This space was smaller, and impressively managed to seem somewhat cozy, despite being made of the same carved white marble as the rest of the Cathedral, illuminated by towering stained glass windows as well as modern fairy lamps. The furnishings were of very dark-stained wood, bookcases laden with old leatherbound volumes, overstuffed armchairs upholstered in deep burgundy, small cabinets and stands scattered in a profusion that seemed almost cluttered. A comfortable fire labored against the winter chill in an ostentatious hearth on the far wall. The whole effect conspired to seem comfortable, habitable, offsetting the grandeur of the office itself.

Ravoud gave it all scarcely a glance, immediately falling to one knee as the Archpope of the Universal Church himself approached him.

“Your Holiness,” he murmured, kissing the proffered ring.

“Captain Ravoud,” Justinian said with a beatific smile, and withdrew his hand. “Thank you for joining me so swiftly. Rise, my son.”

He obeyed slowly. “I…was surprised by your summons, your Holiness. I confess I’m not at all sure what it is I can do for you…”

“Well, we can discuss that presently,” said he Archpope, turning to face the far end of the long office, near the fire. “First, there is someone where whom I think you should meet.”

Ravoud turned, and instantly froze, the blood draining from his face.

She stood in front of an armchair, an afghan sprawled on the floor beside her where it had clearly fallen from her lap when she abruptly rose. She was thinner than he remembered, her hair longer, but there could be no mistaking that face. It had haunted his dreams long enough.

“Alia?” he whispered.

“Nassir?” he little sister replied hesitantly, stepping convulsively forward once, then stopping as if unsure of herself.

“Alia!” he cried, completely forgetting the exalted company in which he stood and rushing forward. She ran to meet him, bursting into tears, and in the next moment she was in his arms. She wept—they both wept, rocking slowly, wrapped around each other.

“I thought you were lost forever,” he whispered finally, when enough of his breath and mental faculties recovered to form words. “I was… I tried, Alia, I tried so hard to reach you, but they blocked me at every turn. I was so close to giving up…”

“I missed you,” she sniffled, nuzzling at his shoulder. “Oh, gods, Nassir, you have no idea. I thought if I could just see you again…”

“Have you seen Papa yet? Oh, Alia, he hasn’t been the same since we lost you.”

“Not yet, I’ve only been here in the Cathedral.” She drew back slightly to smile up at him. “Papa’s still okay?”

“He will be now,” Ravoud promised, cupping her face in his hands.

“Thank the gods,” she said, tears still brimming in her eyes. “It’ll be so good to see him before I go back.”

He froze. “…go back?”

“I’m not supposed to be out,” she said, suddenly nervous. “I’m going to be in so much trouble…”

“Alia, that’s all over,” he soothed. “You’re safe now, in Tiraas. We’re not going to let any drow get to you.”

She was shaking her head before he even finished. “You don’t understand… It’s not my place, Nassir. I know where I belong. Mistress is going to be so disappointed… I’ve got to make it all right, I didn’t want to come, but they made me…”

“Alia, what are you talking about?” he demanded, his blood chilling.

“This has been an extremely trying time for all of us,” the Archpope said smoothly, stepping up next to them. “We must take the time to discuss these matters fully; it needn’t all be done tonight. Miss Ravoud, of course you should reconnect with your family. Your mistress will understand a brief delay.”

“I…” She bit her lip, glancing between Justinian and Nassir. “I guess… I don’t have permission, is what worries me…”

“All will be well,” the Archpope promised, smiling gently at her. “You are very tired, I know; it’s been a long day. I need to have a few words with your brother, my dear, and then you two will have all the time you need to talk. Branwen, would you kindly take Miss Ravoud into the sitting room and see that she’s comfortable? I’ll send the Captain in momentarily to join her.”

“Of course, your Holiness,” said a new voice, and Ravoud only then realized there was another woman present. It was a testament to the distractions occurring that he hadn’t; she was exactly the kind of woman he usually spotted right off. Short, yes, but pretty, curvy, and with striking hair of a deep red. She smiled warmly, taking Alia by the hand and gently pulling her away. “Come along, honey, let’s let your brother deal with his business as quickly as possible, so you two have all the time you need to talk.”

“All right,” Alia said, reluctantly letting herself be drawn away. “Don’t take too long, though, Nassir? I really want to talk with you, and, and, I can’t be gone too much longer.”

He only managed to nod, trying for a smile. A lump of congealed horror in his throat blocked all efforts at speech.

“Oh, but maybe you can meet mistress!” she said brightly, her face lighting up at the idea. “I just know you’ll love her. Everyone loves her.”

He couldn’t even nod. Alia didn’t seem to notice. She let Branwen escort her to a side door near the fireplace, and then through.

The moment it clicked shut, he rounded on the Archpope.

“What is wrong with her?! A spell?”

Justinian shook his head, his expression grave. “Narisian drow do not waste energy on such effects when more mundane methods will do. The crude term is ‘brainwashing.’ There is a hidden compliment to your sister in this; she would not have been so dramatically…worked upon, were she not unusually resistant to them in the first place. The mind, Captain, is always growing, ever adapting. The essence of the technique, as I understand it, is to introduce the subject to sufficiently severe trauma that they are forced to adapt new ways of thinking to survive, and then guide that adaptation in directions that serve your purposes.”

Ravoud was barely conscious of being ushered over to a large desk and gently pushed into a chair in front of it. He bit his fist, gazing emptily into the distance in shock. “Can… You can undo it?”

“There is no going back, I’m afraid. Only forward. That is how the mind works, Captain; you cannot change what has been done.” Justinian placed a glass of brandy on the desk in front of Ravoud, who hadn’t even seen him pour it. He went on more gently, a calm smile wreathing his face. “But we will put her right. It will be many times easier than having so distorted her in the first place. She already knows how to be a free, independent person, and has memories of the habits and patterns that will enable her to do so. It is simply a matter of bringing them back to the forefront, giving her time to heal, and to forget the behavior modifications that were forced upon her. It is a process, Captain; you must understand this. There is no magic incantation. It will take time and expert guidance. Luckily, we have the best. A man named Orthilon, once a Narisian slave trainer and now a resident of Lor’naris. There is no better expert on their methods.”

“More drow,” Ravoud said bitterly, closing his hand around the glass. He didn’t lift it to his mouth.

“Some disdain to use the tools and weapons of the enemy,” Justinian said mildly. “Personally, I find there is no more elegant victory for the righteous than to unmake the wicked upon their own depravities. Orthilon is trustworthy and diligent; I will personally vouch for your sister’s care. I am also,” he continued, turning and pacing over to gaze out the window at the arcane-lit city, “working to extract Tamra Faroud, who I understand was engaged to your late friend Corporal Khalivour. This is taking time and substantial energy, but I am confident it will be done. Unfortunately, so doing will expend the last of my resources in Tar’naris; I likely will not be able to rescue any more of the enslaved unfortunates there. The drow city is in the grip of a pagan goddess. It is possibly the place where my influence is thinnest.”

Ravoud swallowed the lump in his throat. “I… I can never thank you enough, your Holiness. What have I done to deserve this favor?”

Justinian turned to face him, his expression calm, thoughtful. “Let me ask you a question in return, Captain. What do you think of my Holy Legion?”

Ravoud carefully removed his fingers from the glass of untouched brandy. “They are…very impressive, your Holiness. Very dramatic. Stylish.”

“Anyone could tell me that,” Justinian said with a faint smile. “I am asking you not as a casual observer, but as a military man.” When Ravoud hesitated, he added more gently, “I beg you to speak honestly, Captain. I can assure you that nothing you have to say will offend me.”

“Well,” Ravoud said slowly. “From a strictly military standpoint… I don’t see any use for them. At all. Almost no one fights with armor and bladed weapons anymore, and of those who do… Honestly, those men wouldn’t stand a chance against the Silver Legions. I just… Your Holiness, I assumed they were meant to be strictly ceremonial. You can’t send those men against any significant threat. They’d be slaughtered.”

He trailed off, afraid he’d gone too far, but the Archpope only smiled warmly. “You have the right of it, Captain. I fear I had to engage in distasteful maneuvering and expend a great deal of political capital to gain authorization for the Church to build a military force within the Empire’s borders. Making that force an obviously ceremonial token army with little practical value has been a necessary step in soothing the feathers that were ruffled in this process.”

Justinian folded his arms behind his back, his expression growing distant. “The world, alas, is not so blessedly simple as to let me carry on in such a fashion. The fate of your sister is an example of a persistent problem the Empire faces: all too often, the Emperor is constrained by politics and unable to act…or perhaps, simply lacks the will to do so. I would not presume to judge his heart; I can only analyze his actions. Then, more recently, events in Lor’naris have reaffirmed the concerns which prompted me to form the Holy Legion in the first place. The shadowy forces at work in that debacle prove the need for the Church to strike directly against evil when it arises. It is a capacity we must develop.”

“Are you… Your Holiness, have you managed to learn anything about the people who were trying to organize that uprising? The Army’s investigation hit an immediate wall.”

“Suffice it to say, Captain, that you will hear no more from the individuals responsible,” the Archpope said with a smile. “I can assure you of that personally. I do, you see, have some ability to act where needed. As these events prove, however, more direct and forceful action is often necessary. You may not have heard of it yet, but the Black Wreath is rising, the fae in the wild places are growing restless, and in all corners of the world are whispers that a great doom is coming. Where the Empire cannot or will not act, the Church must. And to that end… While those who would oppose us are calmed by my extremely pretty, entirely useless guards, I have a mind to put together a smaller but considerably more effective force to act on my behalf.” He paused, studying Ravoud thoughtfully. “I will need someone to lead it. Someone trained in modern military tactics, experienced in leading men… And, while loyal to our Empire, someone very personally aware that governments cannot always be counted on to act where action is necessary. The more I learn of you, Captain Ravoud, the more I begin to think I have found that man. I understand you have been offered the chance to resign your commission in the Imperial Army due to the recent events in Lor’naris. While this may have seemed a punishment to you at the time… Often, the gods have a greater plan for us.”

Ravoud barely waited for him to finish speaking. He practically lunged up from his chair, starting at the Archpope and nearly trembling with fervor as he replied.

“Your Holiness, I am your man. To the death.”

Justinian smiled kindly, reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“I know.”

The Imperial Rail station in Tiraas never truly closed. Despite the end of standard running hours, there was often a need for various persons on Imperial or other urgent business to charter private caravans. One of these was just now departing a platform, laden with agents of Imperial Intelligence on some clandestine night mission. In the relatively quiet hours of the night, though the doors remained open and the lights on, the station was protected from loiterers, vagrants and vandals by a light but steady presence of soldiers.

By and large, they let people be. Various night owls wandered through the station on no particular business; it was also a popular spot for all sorts of assignations, being clean, well-lit and safe. By the very nature of the traits that made it attractive, the Rail station was not prone to hosting any gatherings that were illicit or illegal, so the soldiers patrolling its platforms rarely interfered with anyone who did not give them specific cause.

The guards certainly didn’t bother three men in Imperial Army uniforms, standing on a platform next to a station trolley loaded with an assortment of backpacks and small satchels, rather like the light luggage of maybe a dozen people or less. After the men had been there for well over an hour, though, just standing, one of the guards finally approached them.

“Evenin’, lads,” he greeted his fellow soldiers, finally getting close enough to note their faces. One looked amused, one furious, the third merely perplexed. “Need any help?”

“Brother,” said Rook with a grin, “you have no idea.”

“They can’t possibly have just forgotten us!” Moriarty burst out.

Finchley sighed heavily, turning to the mystified station guard. “Do you happen to know if there’s a telescroll office open this late?”

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5 – 13

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“Are you pleased with yourselves?”

They weren’t, and his tone indicated that he knew it. Moriarty folded his arms, staring down at his two fellow soldiers with an expression that was just a shade too grim to qualify as a smirk; Rook and Finchley hunched in their seats, refusing to meet his eyes, or each other’s.

The inn’s common room was quiet this early in the morning, this not being the sort of establishment whose patrons relied on the in-house kitchen for breakfast. The party from the University had commandeered a table in one corner, and ordered a pot of tea, which the inn’s notorious cook hadn’t found a way to botch. Aside from the two privates, who were sitting somewhat limply, Toby leaned against the wall nearby, watching the stairs and ostensibly ignoring the byplay. Moriarty stood as stiffly as ever, starting to really get into his tirade.

“This is why we have regulations. This is why societies have rules, and standards of what constitutes decent behavior. The fact that you two are having an awkward morning after spending much of the night in uncomfortable proximity to one another’s junk is pretty much a best-case scenario. You do realize that, right? Not only fraternizing with with the object of your escort mission, not only indulging in I don’t even want to know what hedonistic revelry, but fooling around with a threat level eight sapient monster? In the heart of a city where the bulk of our assignment involves keeping her calm? Do you realize all the ways this could have blown up in your faces? The mind boggles.”

“The tongue doesn’t boggle, I notice,” Rook muttered.

“Oh, you want to criticize me?” Moriarty demanded acidly. “Maybe you should occupy yourselves thanking Avei there are no superior officers here to rip you a whole new set of orifices. I have half a mind to report this whole boondoggle to General Avelea!”

“I really can’t imagine anything good resulting from that,” Toby said without looking over at them.

“I suppose it’s not a worthwhile reason to bother her,” Moriarty allowed. “I’d be embarrassed on behalf of our unit, anyway.”

“Our ‘unit?’” Rook said incredulously. “You mean, the three losers who only aren’t court-martialed because it wouldn’t be worth what ImCom spent on paperwork to do it?”

“And yet, you keep testing Command’s patience,” Moriarty snapped. “By, for instance, engaging in some kind of depraved orgy with—”

“All right, enough!” Finchley exclaimed, finally lifting his stare from his cooling tea. “I would really like it if we never, ever discuss this again. Agreed?”

“I’ll drink to that,” Rook muttered, lifting his teacup.

“And if we promise not to do it again,” Finchley barreled on as Moriarty opened his mouth to speak, “will you finally freaking drop it already?”

“I suppose that’ll have to do,” Moriarty said, his expression reverting to vague smugness. “So long as you learned something from all this.”

He was spared Rook’s reply—which, to judge by the look on his face, would have been scathing—by the arrival of Fross. The pixie appeared at the base of the stairs and shot over to their table in a frantic streak of white light.

“Juniper doesn’t wanna come out today!” she announced.

Toby straightened, frowning at her. “What?”

“Yeah!” Fross bobbed up and down in midair twice. “She says she doesn’t like the city and would rather just stay in the inn.”

“I’ll go talk to her,” Toby said with a sigh.

“Uh, are you sure that’s smart?” asked Rook. “Or, um, necessary? If she wants to sleep in, I say we respect her wishes.”

“I said I’d talk to her, not try to persuade her of anything,” Toby said patiently. “If she just wants to rest, there’s no harm at all in that. But if she’s starting to get fed up with the city or the people in it… One way or another, that needs to be addressed before she decides to do something about it.”

“Fuck a duck,” Rook muttered.

“Well, so long as you two don’t take it into your heads to try to improve her mood through sexual healing again,” Moriarty began while Toby headed off to the stairs, the pixie darting around his head.

“We had an agreement!” Finchley said, pointing accusingly at him.

Moriarty snorted. “Fine, fine. You two sit here and sulk. I’m going to go procure some rations for us.”

“Have you not noticed the food here sucks?” Rook demanded.

“We’re in the army,” Moriarty shot back. “Food is supposed to suck. Living on that campus is turning you two soft.” He hesitated, then sniffed disdainfully. “Softer. I’ll be back momentarily; try not to have an orgy while I’m gone.”

They watched him go with matching expressions of disgruntlement.

“Not a word,” Finchley said after a moment.


“Not one word!”




They sat in silence, staring at their now-lukewarm beverages. The sleepy common room was still and dull, the only sounds being muted conversation from the direction of the kitchen, where the inn’s cook was being introduced to Moriarty’s people skills. It was several minutes before either spoke again.

“…she gives really good—”

“Oh, yeah.”

They clinked their teacups together, grinning.


Gabriel had long since decided the chill of the winter morning was far less oppressive than the atmosphere in the common room, to say nothing of Private Moriarty’s nagging. It had been a good ten minutes, though, and no sign of movement from within. He tucked his hands into his pockets and hunched down to bring his ears into the protective aegis of his upturned collar; the weatherproofing enchantment on his coat was truly marvelous, but did no good for the skin left exposed to the frigid air. Cold probably wouldn’t harm him, the way it could a full human, but it certainly wasn’t his favorite thing. He was considering going back inside to wait for the rest of the group to decide they were ready to leave.

“Why, hello! Gabriel, wasn’t it?”

He looked up, blinking in confusion for a moment before he placed the figure now approaching him. The man wore a much heavier coat, which made perfect sense given the weather, but his broad black hat was distinctive, as was the long, narrow face beneath it, angular jaw lined by a thin strip of beard.

“Well, hey there!” he said with a smile. “You made it out of Sarasio!”

“Most of us did, thanks to the intervention of your group,” the man remarked, coming to a stop alongside him.

“I think maybe ‘interference’ is the word you want,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Possibly ‘meddling.’ There are adventuring traditions to be maintained, after all.”

“Pah.” The man in black waved a hand. “It’s meddling if you screw it up. Save the day and you get to be heroes. Savor that, my boy; the world increasingly seems to have little use for heroes. Had a chance to consider my advice?”

“Lots of chances,” Gabriel nodded, “and even some to practice. I have managed not to start arguments with Ruda and Trissiny on at least half a dozen occasions. It, uh… Doesn’t always come back to me in time,” he admitted, wincing.

“Well, they wouldn’t call them habits if they were easy to cast off. The effort is the important thing. It’s been a good long time since I was in school, but isn’t this during the academic semester? You haven’t dropped out, have you?”

“No such luck. We’re here on another of Tellwyrn’s jolly little field trips.”

“We?” The man raised an eyebrow. “All of you? In the city? That sounds like an utterly terrible idea.”

“Well, yes. If you want to explain that to Tellwyrn, be my guest. Just give me time to get at least three streets away, first. How about you? This seems like an odd place to run into you.”

“The place isn’t odd,” the man mused. “All roads lead to Tiraas. It’s fairly interesting that the two of us would cross paths, though; it’s not a modest-sized city by any means. In fact, you could say I’m following up on the events in Sarasio, myself. There’s an enchanting shop in this district, rather famous in some circles, run by a half-demon. Seemed like a worthwhile place to visit.”

Gabriel frowned pensively. “How so?”

The man in black regarded him in silence for a moment, his expression serious but difficult to read. “I come from a rather conservative background,” he said at last. “My…family…are quite heavily invested in certain well-trod notions about the way the world is. Lately, though, I’ve begun wondering if we might have been very wrong, all this time, about certain things. Demonbloods, just for instance.”

“That’s…maybe not an unhealthy attitude,” Gabriel said slowly. “Demonbloods are dangerous. By definition.”

“Lad, nobody isn’t dangerous. A schoolchild can ram a pencil through your eye socket into your brain and kill you in seconds.”

“That’s cheerful.”

“It’s an example. The measure of the threat a person poses is in what they do with their capacity to inflict harm. Some make a point of doing none; some devote that destructive potential to protecting the first group from the third, which are those who spread damage around wherever they think it benefits them most. The real question, then, is whether being part demon makes a person more inclined to be dangerous.” He tilted his head, dark eyes studying Gabriel piercingly. “Any thoughts on that?”

“…it’s not a simple question,” Gabe replied after a pause for thought. “For one thing, there’s more than one kind of demon.”

“Mm.” The man nodded. “Lots of complicating factors. That fact alone makes it seem somewhat foolish to dismiss all demonbloods as one category, wouldn’t you say? Particularly after speaking with you and Mistress Elspeth, I wonder if I’ve not made a right fool of myself all these years by brushing aside the half-demons I’ve encountered. Lots of possible friends and allies, never given a chance. All that wasted potential.”

“You meet a lot of half-demons?” Gabriel asked, raising his eyebrows. “Th—we aren’t exactly commonplace.”

“Oh, I travel around a fair bit,” the man said easily. “You meet all sorts, if you spend enough time circulating.”

“Hm.” Gabe shuffled his feet, which were growing chilled. His shoes, though sturdy, lacked the coat’s magical protections. “Well…I guess it’s good and all if you’re being a bit more progressive. Won’t make much difference in the long run, though. The world at large is never going to be accepting of devilkin.”

The man in black stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I was in the city for the hanging of that lady from Sarasio. The proprietress of that establishment that provided us all with room and board, and apparently instigator of the whole uprising. Actually, there were a few visitors from Sarasio on hand, aside from those on the scaffold. Young Mr. Jenkins, for one. It was all…surprisingly tasteful.”

“…tasteful?” Gabriel said warily.

“You read about public executions in fiction,” the man said, now gazing across the street, apparently lost in his train of thought. “Jeering and cheering from the crowd, dramatic speeches about the glory of the state and the evils of whoever was on the chopping block. All manner of rotten food being thrown. Fairly accurate, in a lot of cases; people did stuff like that. When life is hard, life is cheap, and people learn to mock death as the only way they can stand to live so close to it. None of that happened at the hanging, though. Not much of a crowd, and they were all… I want to say bemused, and saddened. No pontificating from the Imperial officials, either, just a list of charges and the pronouncement of sentence. The fellow was even quite polite to his…guest of honor.” He shook his head slowly. “As knowledge increases, so does understanding. Philosophy…decency. People are truly getting better. Oh, not consistently, and not as quickly as one might hope. But looking at the grand scale of progress, I’m inclined to be optimistic. So who’s to say who may or may not find acceptance in the world tomorrow, or next year?”

“I don’t think I’d know how to live in a world that accepted me,” Gabriel mused, now staring into the distance himself. The man in black turned his penetrating gaze back on him.

“You’re accustomed to keeping your head down, I’m sure. There are two sides to everything, though. Ever thought about trying to make yourself part of that progress?”

Gabriel was quiet for a while. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft. “I’m not sure if I ought to. It’s not like the world’s ever given me a break. What’s my motivation to help it?”

“That, son, is a question to which you should give some real thought.”

Gabe shook himself as if rousing from a reverie, turning back to the man with a smile. “Heh, you know, this is twice we’ve met, and I never have gotten your name.”

“Hm… I suppose that’s so, isn’t it? Tell you what.” The man in black grinned and reached up to tug the brim of his hat. “If our paths should happen to cross a third time, I’ll consider that a sign that you need to know it. Till then, perhaps.” He strolled off down the icy street, whistling.

Gabriel watched him go, momentarily forgetting even the cold. “Weird.”


“I did not sleep enough,” Teal said, yawning.

Trissiny rolled her eyes. “Nobody told you to stay up half the night dancing.”

“You are not being fair, Trissiny,” said Shaeine. “Someone did tell her to stay up dancing. And I stand by that directive.”

“I didn’t need to sleep enough,” said Teal with a smile, brushing the back of Shaeine’s hand with her own. “Dancing was much better. We should do that more often.”

“Goddammit, what is it going to take for you two to quit acting like a fairy tale?” Ruda exclaimed. “Breakfast wasn’t so fantastic that I want to taste it again.”

“Oh, let them be happy,” said Trissiny, smiling faintly. Ruda just snorted.

They paused, breaking their formation to press themselves against the front of a store and let a woman with two children pass. The mother, a drow, gave them a deep nod of the head and a polite little Narisian smile. The two kids stared openly, the girl with the happy grin of pure innocence. Both had ash-gray skin and dusty blonde hair; the girl’s ears were human in shape, while her little brother’s came to points, but were not as long as an elf’s.

“This place is kind of amazing,” Ruda said to herself as they continued on their way.

“Proof that differences need not result in conflict,” said Trissiny, nodding. “And that, I suspect, is precisely why someone seems determined to undermine the district. A closed mind is directly threatened by the presence of open ones.”

“Oh, you see evil conspiracies in every shadow,” Ruda said disdainfully. “Sometimes, Triss, people are just assholes. You don’t need to reach for hidden agendas to perfectly explain everything going on here.”

The paladin sighed. “Maybe. Well, after last night, I can at least hope something will be done.”

“I thought you weren’t happy about your conversation with the General?” said Teal.

“Not particularly, but sometimes the goddess provides in unexpected ways. Very unexpected. Panissar brushed me off, but Bishop Darling seemed far more motivated to step in.”

“For whatever good that’ll do,” Ruda grunted. “The man seemed smart, but…shifty. Nobody who’s that full of himself helps just to be helpful.”

“He’s not by any means the help I would have preferred,” Trissiny admitted. “Certainly not someone on whom to rely. ‘Smart but shifty’ sounds about right, but… I’ll take whatever works. Whether it’s the General properly keeping order among his troops or Antonio Darling protecting whatever illicit business interests he has in the district, so long as it results in these people getting the support they need, I can live with it.”

“That’s the spirit! A little pragmatism goes a long way, I say.”

The four came to a sudden stop, turning to stare at the speaker, who had just appeared alongside them. She was a young woman of Punaji origin, to judge by her accent, complexion and traditional boots, greatcoat and feathered hat, though her ensemble was of a much thicker shirt and trousers than Punaji style dictated and had been accessorized with a huge scarf and wooly mittens. She grinned cheerfully at them.

“Can we help you?” Trissiny asked at last.

“Why, yes! Yes you can!” the girl said, her grin widening. “I was just about to ask if you’d be willing to do me a little favor. Word is you’ve gotten fairly friendly with Bishop Darling.”

“How could you know about that?” Trissiny demanded. “That was just last night!”

“Ah, but you see, Trissiny, it’s my business to know things,” the girl replied mysteriously.

“That,” said Ruda, rolling her eyes, “and you were just talking about it. Literally seconds ago.”

“Spoilsport,” said the visitor, her grin returning. “By the way, it’s a real honor to meet you, Princess Zaruda.”

“You haven’t met me, spanky. You just walked up and started talking.”

“Right, sorry, I get carried away. You can call me Peepers!”

Trissiny suddenly grimaced. “Oh.”

“Yes, oh,” Peepers said cheerfully. “Anyway, since you offered to help me out, it’d be a real boost to my career if you could mention how much I helped you with your Lor’naris project to Darling next time you see him.”

“Wh—how much you what?” Trissiny exclaimed. “You haven’t…you just walked up! What help are you talking about?”

“Well, as to that.” Peepers turned to point one of her thick mittens up the street. “Left side, bout forty yards ahead, there’s an alley between a boarded-up building and an accountant’s office on the other side. You’re gonna want to have a look at what’s going on in there, General Hand, ma’am. In fact, you probably wanna get to it soon. And don’t go alone.”

They all stared at her.

“Like, today,” Peepers prompted. “Nowish. Time’s wasting.”

“Why?” Teal asked suspiciously.

“What, I’m supposed to give you all the answers? Hold your hand the whole way? You’ve got your tip, ladies; if you’re gonna act on it, now’s the time. Remember, my regards to the Bishop!”

The girl turned and actually skipped away, back up the sidewalk in the direction from which they’d come. Ten feet distant, she slipped on a patch of ice, barely avoided tumbling to the pavement, and from there proceeded at a much more sedate pace.

“The fuck kind of name is Peepers?” Ruda demanded.

“It’s not a name,” Trissiny said grimly. “That sounds like a Thieves’ Guild tag.”

Ruda’s face crunched into a grimace. “What? That girl was Punaji. We don’t have Eserites in Puna Dara.”

“There’s nowhere that doesn’t have Eserites,” said Trissiny. “If you do a better job than most at pushing them underground, that just means you don’t know who they are. Come on, we’d better have a look at that alley.”

“Oh, good, sure, let’s fuckin’ do that,” Ruda groused, though she fell into step alongside Trissiny as the paladin set off, Teal and Shaeine trailing along behind them. “Since it’s not an obvious trap or anything.”

“Maybe,” Trissiny allowed. “It wouldn’t be the first case of a Guild agent playing a prank on a Legionnaire, but they never take it to the point of causing actual harm. The Guild is quite deft at toeing the line, when they choose to.”

There had been no precipitation overnight, so there was no more buildup of ice on the sidewalks; unfortunately, that meant there had been less effort than yesterday to clear them, and treacherous patches remained where the morning frost lurked almost invisibly. The girls proceeded much more purposefully than their previously meandering pace, but not so quickly that they didn’t watch each step with care. Trissiny kept her attention on their destination, the others falling silent in her wake.

The boarded-up building was broader and squatter than most structures in the district; it looked like it might have been a warehouse or factory when in use. The accountant’s on the other side of the alley was in much better shape, its brickwork a little pitted and chipped like almost everything in Lor’naris, but it had a large window set into its front, apparently new and freshly painted with the firm’s name. No one appeared yet to be active within. The four gave it barely a glance before following Trissiny into the alley.

Here, the dimness quickly faded to real dark only a few steps in. Trissiny slowed to a halt, peering into the gloom; she could make out shapes, but not much more, and her vision was better in the dark than Teal or Ruda’s.

“Shaeine, cover your eyes,” she said quietly, then drew her sword. The blade ignited with golden radiance, lighting up the dismal space as if the alley suddenly had its own private sun.

For the most part, it would have been better left unseen. It was a dead-end alley, terminating in the bedrock below the city walls, with no doors to its bordering structures on either side. Consequently, despite the general ethos of cleanliness and order that prevailed in Lor’naris, upkeep here had been neglected, and truly ancient trash of all descriptions littered the ground, gathering into drifts in the corners, all of it coated with a layer of uncleared ice. The walls themselves were somewhat grimy, water-stained in many places. The girls spared none of this so much as a glance, however.

The man standing two thirds of the way down the alley wore a scarf wrapped around his lower face; his eyes were concealed by a thick pair of tinted goggles. He stood utterly still, apparently having frozen upon their entry in a bid to remain unnoticed. Before him, against the wall of the warehouse, sat a disorderly stack of barrels and old planks; the light glittered on small bottles of fluids and iridescent powder strategically placed throughout. In his hands he held a modern arcane firestarter of the kind sold to pioneers for extended trips into the wilderness.

For a moment, there was utter stillness.

Then Trissiny spoke, her voice several degrees colder than the winter air. “You have six seconds to convince me this is not what it looks like.”

He dropped the firestarter and reached into his coat.

“No,” she barked, striding forward with her glowing sword upraised.

The man withdrew his hand and swung it at the ground; something small tumbled from his fingers to strike the icy pavement.

A tremendous clap of thunder echoed through the alley, and for a split second an utterly blinding white radiance overwhelmed even Trissiny’s light. She yelped and staggered, clapping her free hand over her eyes; behind her, the others cried out as well. The divine glow vanished along with Trissiny’s concentration, but none of them could see the alley plunged back into darkness. They couldn’t see anything. She felt a figure brush past her, then heard a curse from Ruda followed by the thud of someone losing their footing on the slick ground. Stars and comets still swarmed her vision, leaving her blind and helpless.

The man slipped as he burst out from the mouth of the alley, but didn’t moderate his pace, dashing back toward the entrance to Lor’naris. People got out of his way as quickly as they saw him approach, his progress half running and half sliding.

“Hey!” shouted a drow man, turning and setting off after him, but he didn’t respond or slow.

Then, to a chorus of screams and curses, a streak of fire burst out from the alley behind him.

Vadrieny arced overhead, swooping past above and executing a graceful pirouette midair, transferring her forward momentum downward with a flap of her burning wings. Her talons sank into the very pavement with a crunch as she landed, securing her footing on the slick street. People bolted in all directions, several standing their ground and reaching for weapons.

“I think you’re about to be under arrest,” the demon commented calmly. She only stood, blazing wings extended to block his progress; she flexed her claws, but made no movement to attack.

Fumbling slightly with cold and nerves, the man drew a wand from within his coat and pointed it at her.

Vadrieny grinned, displaying a mouthful of terrifying fangs. “Whatever mistakes you have made in life, that would surpass them.”

He hesitated, the wand quavering but still aimed in his general direction. Too late, he registered and responded to the sound of bootsteps behind him, turning to face back the way he’d come.

Trissiny deliberately launched herself onto a patch of ice, hurtling forward in a slide. As the man pivoted to face her, she slammed her shield into his face, transferring her full momentum into the blow. He hurtled backward to the street, the wand tumbling from suddenly nerveless fingers.

The fallen would-be arsonist groaned softly, one hand twitching, then fell still.

Ruda stomped up, slipping and cursing vehemently even by her standards, while Trissiny knelt next to the fallen man. Several drow and humans had stepped cautiously forward, still eying the burning demon askance, but having taken their cue from the fact that the paladin was clearly not alarmed by her. Some might even have recognized the Talisman of Absolution pinned to her lapel.

“Is he dead?” Ruda demanded, coming to a stop.

“Stunned,” said Trissiny. “I’m not much of a healer; I hope I didn’t crack his skull. That can cause serious problems…” She raised her head, then glanced around. “Isn’t Shaeine with you?”

“Here,” called a voice far behind them. Shaeine had just emerged from the alley and was picking her way with great care along the sidewalk, keeping one hand on the wall for balance. The other was still held over her eyes.

Vadrieny pumped her wings once and shot back overhead, coming to a much more gentle landing beside the drow. With astonishing tenderness, she wrapped her arm around Shaeine, huge claws curling over her shoulder protectively; the priestess actually leaned against the demon. “Forgive me,” she said, raising her voice to address the others up ahead. “I’m afraid my eyes were more sensitive than yours to that device. Give me a moment to apply healing, please.”

“Sorry for leaving you,” Trissiny said with a wince.

“Not at all, you had an obvious tactical concern,” Shaeine replied absently, her whole head alight with silver. Vadrieny stood silently by, one blazing wing arched protectively over the priestess.

Ruda, meanwhile, had tugged free the fallen man’s scarf and goggles. “Anybody recognize this asshole?” He was a young human, clean-shaven and with his hair cropped short, with a perfectly unremarkable Tiraan complexion.

“He’s a city guard,” said a drow woman standing nearby. A human girl next to her nodded in agreement, grim-faced.

“Are you sure?” Trissiny asked, her expression dissolving into a scowl.

“Quite,” said the drow. “I have found it is wise to know them all on sight.”

“Unbelievable,” Ruda muttered. “Does the Imperial Army deliberately train its troops to wade hip-deep in the most idiotic bullshit they can find? I mean, fuck, those three privates we have at the school are kinda funny, but the shit going down in this city is starting to get seriously fucked up.”

“An accusation isn’t proof, Ruda,” said Shaeine, approaching, her eyes open and apparently working. Teal hovered protectively behind her, the demon once again submerged. Shaeine carefully knelt on the man’s other side, reaching out to place a fingertip against the center of his forehead. “Give me a moment… Yes, he is very mildly concussed. Easily fixed.” Her hand glowed momentarily, then she looked up at Trissiny. “I have placed him in a natural sleep, and taken the liberty of helping him relax more deeply than he is accustomed to, while leaving his ability to speak. You may find him…suggestible.”

“Excellent,” Trissiny said grimly. “All right, you. Why were you trying to set a fire?”

The alleged guard turned his head, smacking his lips for all the world like a man deeply asleep in his own bed. She was about to repeat her question when he finally answered, his voice dreamy. “Jus’ a small one, nobody hurt. Empty building. Setting an example… Make it clear the district’s not under control. Still need soldiers.”

Ruda snorted loudly; Trissiny made a shushing motion at her. The surrounding citizens were now dead silent, the drow impassive, the humans looking increasingly furious.

“Why now?” Trissiny demanded. “Why this escalation?”

“General Panissar…throwing his weight around,” the man mumbled. “Inspections… Paladin sticking her nose in. Captain says we—”

Abruptly, Shaeine reached out to touch his forehead again, and he fell silent with a deep sigh, a goofy smile passing across his face.

“What—why did you stop him?” Trissiny demanded. “He was confessing!”

“His use of ‘we’ indicated he is, indeed, a soldier,” Shaeine replied calmly. “This man is a Tiraan agent; for me to interrogate him under magical coercion would be a violation of treaty.”

“You knew that already!”

“Suspected,” she said impassively. “He was accused. Hearing it confessed from his own mouth changed the situation entirely.”

“Bah,” said Ruda. “I say we wake him up again, smack him around till he goes back to talking.” There were several mutters of agreement from the onlookers.

“No!” Trissiny shouted, then continued more quietly, dragging a hand over her face. “…no, Shaeine is completely right. Without law, justice is impotent. Though you were playing it pretty close with the technicalities,” she added, turning a wry look on the drow.

“Yes,” said Shaeine with a satisfied little smile. “We call that ‘diplomacy.’”

Trissiny stood with a sigh. “All right… Clearly, he must be placed under arrest. Just as clearly, there is a conflict of interest with the local guard barracks, which means we can’t hand him over to them. I’ll take him to the Legions. May I have some help getting him on the horse, please?”

There were gasps and curses, and even visible startlement on several drow faces, when the crowd turned to find Arjen waiting patiently just behind them. The Lorisians quickly marshalled themselves, however, and as requested helped lift the slumbering guard up, draping him across the saddle behind Trissiny. No one, luckily, indulged in the temptation to be unnecessarily rough with their captive, though there were several good-natured offers of rope and chains to lash him down.

“I can manage,” she demurred, reaching behind her to keep a one-handed grip on the fellow’s belt.

“You might have some trouble getting through the city, though,” Ruda commented, planting her fists on her hips. “Paladin or no, carrying a man draped over your horse’s ass like a sack of flour is gonna draw you some attention. And what if you pass more assholes from this guy’s barracks on the way? They might arrest you.”

Trissiny gave her a small, cold smile. “I almost hope they try.”

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5 – 9

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“It’s all so simple.”

“Hm?” Toby turned his head to look inquisitively at Juniper, who had been mostly quiet since they’d re-entered Lor’naris.

“I finally put my finger on what’s been bugging me about the city,” she said quietly, her gaze straight ahead but unfocused. “Humans love straight lines and right angles so much, and I’ve been puzzling over it… I don’t see the benefit. I think I’ve figured it out, though. Lines and angles mean simple patterns. Patterns you can easily design and…and control.”


She nodded. “Everything is patterns; everything is mathematics, ultimately. Nature has no restraints on its complexity, though. So much in nature looks completely chaotic from any one, limited perspective… But it’s not. There’s always a pattern. A lot of it is fractal. And that’s what it all comes down to: simplicity, and control. Everything humans make is square because you can clearly see the whole pattern of square things. You master it by making it. There’s nothing in it to remind you of how tiny and insignificant you are in the grand scope of things.”

He walked along in silence for a moment, digesting this.

“Deep, man,” said Rook behind them. Moriarty let out one of his exasperated sighs.

“That’s…actually a kind of compelling theory,” Finchley mused. “My dad told me something similar, once.”

“We could go back to the park later,” Toby suggested, “or a different one? There are quite a few in the city. You didn’t get a chance to really explore…”

“Ugh. Parks.” Juniper actually shuddered. “Please, no. At least the city is honest about itself; it’s supposed to be all bricks and planks and flat surfaces. Seeing all those plants corralled into that… That pre-planned space… Trees in a park are no better off than eagles in a cage. They can’t be happy there, but they don’t know any other life. It’s depressing.”

He could find no answer to that, instead glancing reflexively around the street. Few people paid their group any attention, which was refreshing. All day as they’d strolled around the city, visiting spots he thought Juniper might find interesting, intent stares had followed them. Some of those were doubtless from the agents of Imperial Intelligence which were supposed to be keeping tabs on the dryad, but the attention was more than could be explained by this alone. He well understood the cause, and it made him uneasy.

They didn’t fit with any understood pattern. Some in the city might recognize his face, but he as casually dressed, and the monks of Omnu and the Universal Church had tried to limit access to him until he was grown and educated. Juniper, for her part, was just another pretty girl, albeit one who behaved a little oddly, and whose dress and shawl were constantly disheveled because she couldn’t stop tugging at them. But for such an otherwise unremarkable couple to be followed by Imperial soldiers was attention-getting, and the exact composition of their escort was worse for those who knew about such things. Three troopers was odd; escorts were almost always even in number. Plus, these were all privates, equal in rank and unsupervised by any officer, which was all but unheard of. Toby had considered asking them to wear civilian clothes in the future, but a day spent in Moriarty’s company had warned him off suggesting such a huge breach in regulations.

Among the rambunctious students of the University and the straightforward folk who inhabited Last Rock, he’d begun to let himself forget some of the things he liked least about life in the city. The nature of Tiraas was the same everywhere, from the meanest slum to the halls of the Palace itself, but growing up dividing his time between working and meditating with fellow monks and prowling the back streets with Gabriel, Toby had remained blissfully ignorant of politics—until Omnu decreed he should take a central role in the world’s events. Then, he’d been forced to learn quickly. Nobles, priests, the wealthy and the ambitious… They watched like hawks, latching onto anything they could use. Anything out of the ordinary was either a threat or an opportunity to them, sometimes both. Toby could hardly imagine what would happen when somebody tried to make use of Juniper in his or her schemes, but it wasn’t going to be pretty. Omnu grant that Tellwyrn would take them back to Last Rock before anything went that far…

“Home again, home again,” Rook said cheerfully, and Toby realized with a pang of guilt that the man had been talking the whole time he’d lapsed into rumination. He tried never to ignore anyone, but the more time he spent in Private Rook’s company, the easier it became to tune his prattle out. More than half of his jokes and commentary had been underhanded flirtation with the fairy they were escorting, and nearly all of it had gone right over her head. Toby was seriously considering suspending his policy of staying out of other people’s personal business, taking Rook aside and explaining that if he wanted to bed Juniper his best bet was just to ask nicely.

“Home again,” he agreed with some relief as they stepped into the common room of the relatively warm inn, nodding to the innkeeper, who grinned broadly in response. Tellwyrn—or, more likely, Tellwyrn’s gold—was apparently well-liked in this establishment. Hopefully that would help in smoothing over any trouble the students caused. Toby wasn’t quite optimistic enough to believe there’d be none.

Juniper, who for most of the day had been content to let herself be led around, now took the lead, climbing the stairs in silence. Her moods were hard to interpret, but she seemed troubled by something. That was bothersome, and not just because she was a friend. A troubled dryad in the heart of Tiraas could cause untold havoc. What could Tellwyrn have been thinking?

The others, with the exception of their professor, had already assembled in the top floor common area when they reached the top of the stairs.

“Hey, guys!” Ruda called, waving languidly. She sat sideways in an armchair with her knees over one arm and her head hanging off the other, her hat hung on a corner of the chair’s back. “Good timing, the boss lady just popped off to fetch us some dinner.”

“It’s a little early, isn’t it?” Toby said, ambling over to join Gabriel by the window.

“Bite your tongue,” Gabe said, grinning. “It is never too early, or too late, or too anything for a free meal.”

“What he said,” Rook agreed.

“How was your day?” Teal asked. “We haven’t seen any of you since this morning.”

“Well, it’s a big city,” Finchley noted. Juniper had seated herself in a chair and was frowning pensively at the far wall, again tugging at the collar of her dress.

“Pretty good, all things considered,” Toby said, smiling at Teal. “We mostly just walked around a bit, visited some of the sights. It seemed like a good way to show Juniper the city.”

“I tried to blend in,” the dryad said, finally lifting her gaze. “Lots of people were staring, though.”

“That probably wasn’t to do with you,” said Trissiny, frowning. “Men, starting tomorrow, this is to be considered discreet ops. Civilian attire only.”

“Yes, General,” Moriarty said with such obvious relief that Toby felt abashed. It had been arrogant to assume he was the only member of the group who’d spotted the problem.

“Thank you,” he said quietly to her. She glanced over and actually smiled momentarily, before her expression stilled and she sharply turned her stare back to the window.

Toby withheld a sigh. She would get over it, in time… But when? He missed their camaraderie. It wasn’t just that he authentically liked Trissiny, or that she was the only fellow paladin in the world. She hadn’t been wrong; they did make excellent counterpoints to each other in many ways. It was nobody’s fault they’d never be able to do so in the way she wanted.

“Ah, good!” Professor Tellwyrn said, appearing at the head of the stairs. “Everyone’s finally here; we can proceed. Clear a space, please.”

As everybody shuffled back from the low table in the middle of the room, she gesticulated casually at it, and suddenly the lounge was filled with spicy aromas as steaming platters of food appeared, with a neat stack of plates and utensils on one end.

“Oh, hell yes!” Ruda crowed, surging to her feet. “You beautiful freak, I could kiss you!”

“Strictly prohibited by campus policy,” Tellwyrn said, smiling faintly. “And I wasn’t pandering to your sensibilities, Zaruda. Puna Dara curry is just the thing to cut the chill of a Tiraan winter. You’ll note the pitcher of milk: that’s a consideration for the more than half of you whom I expect to be unequal to the spice. Dig in, everybody. Oh, for the… Neatly! Form a line, people. Omnu’s breath, it’s like you’ve never seen food before.”

Tellwyrn evidently wasn’t hungry; she hung back near the windows, smiling faintly and making acerbic observations about people’s table manners while they gathered up plates of food in cheerful disorder. The cuisine ran heavily to fish, but was unfamiliar to most of them, and the act of dishing up noodles, meat and steamed vegetables cut in exotic configurations wrought some confusion. Tellwyrn had provided both forks and the traditional chopsticks; Ruda was the only one who selected a pair of the latter. As they got down to eating, the milk did, indeed, become quite popular.

“All right,” the professor said finally once everyone was dutifully tucking in, “there’s been a change of plans that concerns you. Our stay in Tiraas will be extended by a few days, I’m not sure how much exactly. That being the case, I’ve popped back to Last Rock to collect assignments from you from your other professors. This was an unscheduled trip in the first place, and occurring as it does so early in the semester, you run the risk of being put behind if you don’t get some coursework in. Some have left lecture notes for you,” she said, producing a disconcertingly thick bundle of papers from thin air, “but most are reading assignments. You’ll have to acquire the books yourselves, but there are no shortage of Nemitite libraries in this city, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Toby had felt a sinking sensation at her first pronouncement, and now glanced furtively at Juniper, who was chewing a mouthful of fish and looking uncharacteristically morose. He hadn’t realized until this moment just how concerned he was. She’d done nothing aggressive so far, not even hinted at hostility, but he couldn’t escape the feeling that the longer the dryad remained in the city, the closer they came to a real problem.

“Why the extension?” Gabriel asked, fanning his face. He was flushed from the curry.

“My appointment in Tiraas has turned into a somewhat more complicated quest,” she said. “The details don’t concern you, but I will need to visit Onkawa for a few days. You lot will remain here, tend to your work and proceed with what you were doing. I’m satisfied with your progress so far.”

“What progress?” Trissiny exclaimed, but was quickly shouted down by her roommate.

“Bullshit!” Ruda declared, pointing her chopsticks accusingly at Tellwyrn. “Why the fuck do we have to stay here in Slizzle City while you run off to bask in the capital of fucking sunshine?”

“Slizzle?” Gabriel said, raising his eyebrows.

“Combination of sleet and drizzle,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “I got it. Nice wordplay, Punaji.”

“Fuck you! Why can’t we come to Onkawa too?”

“Because your assignment is here,” the Professor said with implacable calm. “You are making good strides and the last thing I want is to disrupt your progress.”

“What progress?!” Trissiny demanded.

“All in good time,” said Tellwyrn with an enigmatic smile. “Explaining it would defeat the purpose. Suffice it to say, you’re doing just as I anticipated so far, and I have no doubt that you will absorb the relevant lesson by the time we’re done here. Now, then! The situation being what it is, we’re going to have a little lesson of our own while we’re here and before I have to leave in the morning. Everybody comfortable? Splendid. Boys, you can stick around; congratulations on getting to audit a lecture at my very exclusive University. People would kill for this opportunity.”

“I will bet ten doubloons that no one has ever killed for the chance to audit one of your lectures,” said Rook.

“Perhaps not, but people have paid a lot more than ten doubloons.”

“People such as all of us, for example,” Ruda grumbled.

“Not all,” said Gabriel with a grin. “Some of us earned scholarships.”

“Arquin, do you want me to come over there?”

“Flirt on your own time, kids,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, then pressed on while both of them stammered in incoherent outrage. “Class is now in session. Previously we were discussing the gods, their nature and origin. The focus of this class being what it is, the reason for covering this topic is obviously to keep in mind the impact the gods have had on the progress of history. What we went over in the last class was merely background; what remains is to cover the way in which gods impact the course of societies and nations. Their subtler workings, in short.

“Previously we discussed weaknesses of gods, ways in which their natures can be used against them, used to manipulate them and circumvent their behavior. In this class we will discuss the context in which that is applicable: the broader, subtler influence the gods have on the world. Dealing with them in person is another matter. A god incarnated into physical form is a thing in a class unto itself. It has been eight millennia since the last apotheosis; while there once were deities of all types and degrees of power, by this point the weaker ones have long since been picked off. Any extant deity, once before you in the flesh, as it were, has full agency and sufficient power to decisively overwhelm any other type of force which is currently known to exist. If you set yourself against a god and don’t manage to head him or her off before they arrive in front of you…you lose.”

“What’s the difference between subtle and more direct workings, then?” Teal asked.

“I was just coming to that very subject. Since you asked, Miss Falconer, let me reply with a question: How was your day?”

Teal blinked at her, then looked over at Shaeine, who shrugged. “Uh…fine?”

“Falconer, I should think that by now you know me well enough to realize I have no interest in pleasantries, especially not during class. I was asking for information. You have spent the day walking around Tiraas, with your hair hacked short, dressed in men’s clothing and in the company of another young woman. Tell me, what sort of reactions did you get to that?”

Teal’s face closed down. “I don’t know. I don’t bother to notice them anymore.”

“Really?” Tellwyrn said sardonically. “Impressive self-restraint.”

“It wasn’t really optional,” Teal said sharply. “Vadrieny doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about it. I barely stopped her from killing the girl who used to bully me as a kid.”

“I see. Fair enough, then. Miss Awarrion, you are keenly attuned to the responses of others. Tell me, did you notice any hostility toward the two of you on your outing today?”

“Nothing overt,” Shaeine said, calm as always. “A number of individuals seemed displeased to see us, but I assumed the response was to the presence of a drow. We were not harassed or accosted.”

“Well, let me put it another way.” Tellwyrn leaned back slightly, glancing around the room. “Does anyone doubt that there was an adverse social reaction to Teal walking around the city quite visibly being gay as a solstice tree?”

“Is there a point to this?” Teal demanded, with more of a bite in her tone.

“I don’t pick on people because their suffering amuses me, Falconer. Not students, anyway. You’ve all encountered the attitudes of which I speak.” She began to pace up and down, as she usually did when she got well into a lecture, though the little lounge didn’t provide her nearly as much space as her classroom. “A woman’s place is in the kitchen. Boys kiss girls and vice versa, and anyone who says differently is an aberration. Why should this be so? A mere few blocks from us is the greatest concentration of Avenist power outside of Viridill itself. Not far from that is the central temple of Izara, who resolutely teaches that all love is good. Indeed, Teal and Shaeine weren’t overtly pestered; the city of Tiraas is probably one of the more accepting places in the Empire for two women strolling hand-in-hand. But throughout the Empire itself, these attitudes prevail. How can this be?”

“Well…based on context, I’d say you’re talking about the influence of the gods,” said Fross.

“Obviously, yes. In this case…?” She trailed off, peering around expectantly.

“Shaath,” said Gabriel after a moment.

“Interesting,” Tellwyrn mused. “Now what would make you think of him?”

“Well…he’s the most obvious culprit for the kind of social attitudes you’re talking about. Sort of infamous for it, actually.”

“Indeed. And yet, Shaathism is far from a majority faith. The lodge in Tiraas itself is little more than an afterthought, a glorified drinking hall. The actual cult of Shaath has never been large, and its areas of direct political influence are by definition on the outer fringes of the civilized world. How could such a deity possibly promote his worldview to the point that it seriously challenges that of Avei, one of the primary gods of the Pantheon?”

“Which one is Shaath?” Juniper asked.

“He’s the god of the wild,” said Toby. “The patron of hunters, explorers…” His eyes widened. “…and pioneers.”

Tellwyrn pointed at him, nodding in approbation. “Yes. Go on, Mr. Caine.”

“And…pioneers are kind of huge right now. The Empire’s putting enormous effort and resources into settling the frontier regions in the Great Plains. Popular fiction is full of cowboys and elves.”

“Precisely.” She clapped her hands and then rubbed them together, grinning. “In fact, Shaath and Avei have been doing this dance since time immemorial. You can tell at a glance whether a given society is in an expansionist phase, and how it is conducting that expansion, by observing how it treats women and anyone who lies outside the heterosexual norm.”

“To call that a ‘norm’ is counter—”

“Yes, Avelea, we all know you’re a feminist. At this point, you can just assume we all know, and refrain from harping on it every chance you get. Anyway. We have already discussed how an idea, a concept, a set of principles, is central to the very identity of a god. It naturally follows that they do their best to promote these ideas, but it is also important how the ideas promote them. The ascendance of Shaathist philosophy in cultures with minimal Shaathist belief is a prime example. Where one part of the god’s aspect—reverence for the wilderness and those who make their lives in it—is ascendant, other parts—such as a patriarchal approach to societal organization—ascend as well. In some cases, the distinction blurs, because most gods have fairly coherent identities and the concepts they embody are naturally associated. Shaathism is a good example precisely because patriarchy has nothing to do with the frontier spirit except in his cult. Seeing the connection play itself out in society is unmistakably seeing his influence at work. That, students, is the subtle influence of the gods. It’s not in bolts of lightning or divine visitations; those are things I could do, and have done. The gods slowly, imperceptibly, gently twist the very world around us on an incomprehensibly vast scale.”

“Well, that’s not terrifying or anything,” Gabriel muttered.

“Mr. Arquin, if you’re not afraid of the gods, you’re a fool. I am not referring to your ancestry, either. These are beings of truly awesome scope and power. That they can be outmaneuvered, that they can even be killed, does not change this fact. They are not lightly to be challenged, for the same reason that hurricanes are not.”

“So… You talked about manipulating the gods,” said Fross. “Can you do that with their, y’know, ideas? Try to change societies by promoting one god? Or vice versa?”

“The attempt to change society by promoting a given god is a large part of what religion is,” Tellwyrn pointed out. “But yes, I do know what you’re referring to; it’s known as ‘the impossible arithmetic’ by scholars. Measuring and taking advantage of the social influence of deities on a smaller scale is something on a par with astrology in terms of the sheer silliness of the effort. Which is not to say that people don’t try to do it.”

“What, you don’t believe in astrology?” Ruda asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of wizard?”

“There are two common fallacies when it comes to astrology,” said Tellwyrn. “One is that the position of heavenly bodies has no influence on life on this world, and the other is that they have a strong enough influence to be discernible. In practice, astrology is relevant in certain kinds of ritual spellcasting and almost nothing else. The influences are there, and they are real, but they are effortlessly overwhelmed by mundane, terrestrial concerns. So it is with the subtler workings of the gods, in general. Indeed, only on the scale of civilizations the size of the Tiraan Empire are such movements even observable, and that without any great deal of precision. Attempts are made to calculate these considerations for short-term political gain, but frankly, if you’re going to try to use a god’s influence for your own benefit, you’re better off just going to temple services.”

“That’s hard to believe,” Trissiny said. “First you say the gods are powerful beings in person, who can overwhelm just about any force. Then you say their broader influence is so subtle it might as well not be there except in the very long term.”

“A good point, Avelea, and precisely the concern which will concern our explorations in this semester’s classes. We have discussed how Shaathist philosophy is currently predominant throughout the Empire; that era is coming to an end, however. Even now, the Rails are being upgraded, the Empire has all but secured the frontiers around the Golden Sea and the Deep Wild, allied with Tar’naris and effectively sealed the other two drow city-states in their own tunnels. The Age of Adventures is long acknowledged to be over, and its brief resurgence in the form of cowboy culture is soon to peter out. Soon enough, the lands occupied by people will be largely settled, and everyone will then turn themselves toward more civilized concerns—such as, for example, justice and war. Another age of Avei will rise. And the scale on which these things happen is so vast and so ponderously slow that in any remotely detailed survey of history, it is hardly worth considering.”

She smiled, looking pleased with herself. “What matters to us, as we study history, is the point where these two aspects of divine being intersect. The gods are forces, and they are individuals, and those two things interact. Not one of them is unintelligent, or unmotivated. As long as they’ve been at it, they have perfected the art of exerting just the right amount of force in just the right place to start events moving in the direction they want. Frequently, too, they find themselves at cross purposes; Avei and Shaath are far from the only two who have strong differences of opinion about how the world should be run. This is why the various cults are constantly scheming against each other, and why the formation of the Universal Church is such an astonishing achievement. I grouse about the Church, and for good reason, but the fact that it does as well as it does at keeping the cults in line and at peace is really incredible.”

Tellwyrn began pacing again. “A prime example of what I mean was in the peaceful annexation of Madouris by Tiraas seven centuries ago, and the Eighty Year War which immediately preceded it…”


“Four?” Darling said in surprise. “Already? Damn. It’s just been one day. I was expecting to be at this for weeks before we got so much as a nibble.”

“If your Grace is feeling overstimulated, there is plenty of time yet to be bored,” said Price calmly, still holding out the four telescroll envelopes on a silver tray. “As I’m sure I need not remind your Grace, these represent less than a third of the overtures sent out.”

He snatched the envelopes. “How many of them are interested? I assume you read these.”

“Indeed, your Grace, I took the liberty. All four acquiesce to your request. In fact, they appear rather eager to meet at your earliest convenience.”

“Four,” he mused, tugging papers out of envelopes and grinning as he beheld the names on each one. “No…five, counting Mary. Hm. Yes, I do believe this is enough to start with. Yes, this is actually a pretty solid group, decent balance of skills. Send out a batch of replies, Price; they’ll get their meeting. Oh, and put the scarecrow up on the roof again.”

Price looked pained, which he knew was deliberate. “If your Grace insists. When shall I schedule the meeting?”

“Let’s not waste any time; the gods only know what Khadizroth is doing while we dilly around. Set it up for tomorrow.”

She cleared her throat pointedly. “Regardless of these individuals’ apparent eagerness to meet, and the convenience of Rail travel, tomorrow morning is too soon to be feasible. Tomorrow night your Grace has consented to attend the gala at General Panissar’s house.”

“Oh, right. That.” Darling made a face. “That man throws the dullest parties… But the Emperor might come. Bugger, I really can’t afford to miss it… All right, the next day, then. First thing!”

“May I remind your Grace that none of these people is Arachne Tellwyrn. At least one is known to be even more prickly, and at least one other is prone to drinking heavily on a nightly basis. Proposing a breakfast meeting may be seen as…antagonistic.”

“Fine, fine,” he said impatiently. “In your finely-tuned social opinion, would lunch be appropriate?”

“Perhaps an hour before,” she said calmly. “To convey urgency, acknowledge the importance of their time and leave them the opportunity to make their own plans? We should offer them a meal and be prepared to provide it… But following your Grace’s proposal, it is likely they will want time to consider and discuss their options. These are people unaccustomed to answering to any supervisor. Granting their space will be paramount in keeping their interest.”

“Do what you think is best,” he said, striding around behind his desk and plopping down in the chair. “I do mean that, Price, I’m relying on your judgment. Keep me in the loop with your plans, but… We are not going to regard this as a trial run. We need to hook these people.” Darling set the papers down on the desktop and stabbed them with a fingertip for emphasis. “We’re not gonna get a better lineup. These are the ones I want.”

“Even aiming for late morning,” she replied, “this may prove…uncomfortable…for your Grace, given the party which is to take place the night before.”

“The boring party,” he said dismissively. “I don’t plan to be there late, and even if something interesting happens… Well, just have the coffee ready.” He spread out the four telescrolls, grinning fiendishly. “This is just too perfect. Mary the Crow, Gravestone Weaver, Tinker Billie, Longshot McGraw and the Sarasio Kid. If I can point these guys at Khadizroth, this is as good as over.”

Price made a subtle expression with her mouth that was far too proper to be either a grimace or a wince, but nonetheless conveyed her disapproval. “I trust your Grace is indulging in hyperbole, and need not be reminded that nothing is ever so quickly or neatly dealt with.”

“Well, of course,” he said, grinning. “Are you kidding me? I’m about to set fire to the barn, here. What matters is it’s his barn, and not mine.”

“I fervently hope your Grace is correct on that point.”

“Yeah.” He lowered his gaze to the slips of stiff, yellow paper, each bearing a terse message and the watermark of the Imperial scroll service. “Yeah, me too.”

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