“Movement!” the Legionnaire with her eye pressed to the telescope suddenly announced.
Everyone in the command tent was instantly alert and facing her, which wasn’t much of a change as they had all been tense and pretending with varying degrees of effort to be engaged in other things. The exception, of course, was Aspen, who at first had seemed not to understand the problem, but revealed upon having it explained that she actually just didn’t care. She and Ingvar had been engrossed in a quiet conversation in a rear corner of the pavilion. Whatever they were talking about had occasionally drawn startled looks from Yrril, despite her Narisian reserve.
“Well?” General Vaumann said tersely.
“They’re getting up,” the Legionnaire reported. “Standing and… No signs of agitation. Still seem to be talking… Everything’s still quiet.”
Joe let out an audible sigh, and several of those assembled slouched in quieter imitation. Ami, who had given up strumming her guitar after her attempts to “lighten the mood” had drawn annoyed looks and finally a shouted reprimand from Colonel Nintaumbi, wrapped her arms around it and looked sullen.
“Wait,” the watcher said, and the crowd tensed again.
“Make up your mind,” Ami muttered.
“They’re… Separating. Bishop Syrinx is leaving, coming back this way.”
“And the elf?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.
“He’s turning… Appears to be departing as well. Yes—confirmed! The headhunter is retreating back into the forest.”
An audible exhalation from multiple throats passed around the tent. Schwartz muttered something unintelligible, sagging against at tent pole hard enough to shake it and earn an irritated look from a nearby Legionnaire.
“Continuing…target is lost to sight in the treeline, now. Bishop Syrinx is proceeding back this way on foot.” Basra’s horse, left unattended, had wandered off earlier, which the scout had also reported.
“Sir?” an Imperial Army soldier wearing a captain’s bars said to Nintaumbi. “Shall I stand down the alert?”
“Absolutely not,” the Colonel said firmly. “We wait at minimum to hear what Syrinx has to say about her conversation. Agreed?”
He glanced up at Vaumann, who nodded. Yrril just stood in apparent calm, watching down the field. The exact acuity of her eyes was something she hadn’t seen fit to elaborate upon; a surface elf would be able to see almost as well as the human with the telescope, and while drow theoretically had similar capabilities, they were significantly disadvantaged by the sunlight.
“Well,” Nintaumbi added more softly, “I guess the only casualty here has been Bishop Darling. He had to have crossed paths with that creature… There’s only one way that could end up.”
“With all respect, Colonel,” Joe said, “I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about Darling.”
“I’m not certain what combat capabilities he may have,” Ingvar agreed, “but if anyone living could talk his way out of fighting a headhunter…”
“Um…” Everyone turned to stare at the scout, who was still watching through her spyglass. “Now that you mention it…”
“Why, fancy meeting you here!”
At being hailed, Basra halted her march back toward the armies, turning to stare at Darling, who was strolling casually toward her from the coastline to the southeast.
“Antonio,” she said at a more normal volume as he drew close enough to hear it. “It seems this should surprise me, but somehow, it just doesn’t. I think I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by anything you do.”
“Now, you mustn’t say things like that, Bas,” he said brightly, coming up to stand alongside her. “That’s the next best thing to a challenge!”
She shook her head. “How did your conversation go?”
“I realize you asked first and there’s a certain etiquette attached to that,” he replied, “but really. Your conversation was obviously a lot more important, and I’m betting a lot more interesting. So…?” He gazed at her expectantly.
Basra grunted and turned to resume her stride toward the front lines, her fellow Bishop falling into step beside her. “About like I expected, though it took longer than I thought.”
“You expected a successful negotiation with a headhunter?”
“I expected to be able to pull his strings, but… That man was more obviously insane than even the stereotype suggests. I don’t know if you’ve dug up anything on headhunters in your infamous research into Elilial, but you’ve talked with that creep Mary enough to probably know they aren’t quite like the rumors tell us. That fellow was clearly far gone. He can’t have been fresh from Athan’Khar, unless he was wildly unstable even before going in. I wonder what he’s been doing up till now; I didn’t get much out of him about that.”
“And yet, you got him to turn around and leave.” Darling shook his head in wonder. “That has to be the century’s foremost feat of diplomacy.”
Basra grinned. “Well, I think so, but most diplomats seem to object to my characterization of diplomacy as piles and piles of lies and manipulations. Most people don’t much like having their illusions exposed. Anyway, he’s gone for now. I don’t know how much time this has bought, but he probably won’t attack in the direction of Viridill again. So that’s my conversation, and if you want the fine details, you’ll have to wait. I’ve no doubt you plan to invite yourself along for the full debriefing I’ll need to give the commanders, anyway, and I don’t enjoy repeating myself.” She glanced shrewdly at him. “Which brings us to you. Since you were coming from the shoreline, hell and gone from the road you went in on, I assume one of your shifty friends found and warned you before you stumbled across the creature?”
“Right,” he said more seriously. “On to the next battle. Before we reach the others, there are a few things I think you should know.”
The trip back to campus was a slow one, being long, uphill, and taken on foot (with the obvious exception of Fross). Trissiny and Gabriel had dismissed their mounts, considering it awkward to ride when nobody else could; Whisper wasn’t built for multiple riders, and Arjen couldn’t carry everybody. For the most part, it was also a quiet walk. The sounds of continued jubilation from the town below had mostly faded into the distance by the time they’d exhausted their efforts to theorize as to Embras Mogul’s true motives.
Their general feeling about the encounter was not celebratory.
“Uh…” Gabriel craned his neck back to glance up at the position of the sun as they passed through the archway onto the campus proper. “Crap, can’t see Clarke Tower from here.”
“It’s a relief,” Ruda commented, “to learn that you don’t automatically know the spots from which our dorm is visible, Arquin.”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s the biggest clock on campus. I’m fairly sure we’re gonna miss lunch if we wanna get to class on time.”
“Always on top of priorities,” Toby said with a smile.
“Hey, proper nutrition is important,” Juniper said seriously. “That’s true even when we haven’t just climbed a mountain.”
“Yes, this has been altogether inconvenient,” Shaeine said solemnly. “In the future, we should ask any deranged warlocks we encounter to schedule their assaults no earlier than four o’clock.”
“Huh,” Fross mused. “I wonder if that would work.”
“Well, I’ll certainly do my best to accommodate you,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully, stepping out from behind a tree just ahead. “All you have to to is ask!”
Weariness and malaise vanished in an instant; weapons came out, various auras sprang to life, and Vadrieny burst forth from Teal.
“You have made your last mistake!” Trissiny roared, golden wings blazing.
Everyone hesitated, though no one powered down or disarmed, and only half of them took their eyes off the warlock to glance up at the gatepost beside the arch, atop which Professor Ekoi suddenly sat, her tail twitching in disapproval.
“For once, would you think before attacking? The wards over this campus would repel incursions by far greater foes than this. Mr. Mogul is an invited guest. I expect initiates of this University to evince sufficient decorum to treat him as such.”
“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel exclaimed.
“What a curious question,” Ekoi mused. “If I had, clearly I would not know it. And if I had not, I would take offense at the implication. What possible motivation could you have for saying such a thing, Mr. Arquin?”
“I’m thoughtless and fed up with your crap, that’s what!” he shouted.
“For heaven’s sake, boy, hush. I realize class is not formally in session, but this is still an institution of learning. I have arranged, at great effort, a demonstration for you. Compose yourselves and learn, please.”
“Well, pardon me for contradicting your point, General,” Mogul said cheerfully, recapturing everyone’s attention, “but I expect to make a great many more mistakes. Perhaps if you pay attention to the good Professor, here, you’ll someday find yourself in a position to take advantage of one!”
“That does it.” Trissiny took a step forward, sword upraised.
“Avelea.” Ekoi’s tone was calm. “Do not make me come down there.”
“Would it matter if I pointed out that Arquin can see up your robe?” Ruda asked.
“What?” Gabriel said shrilly. “I wouldn’t—Ruda, for once can you not be such a creep?”
“They’re rather cute, aren’t they?” Mogul said to Ekoi. “With the banter, and everything. I didn’t realize adventuring groups actually did that! The chapbooks don’t seem historically authoritative, at a casual glance.”
“Because they do it doesn’t make it sound policy,” Ekoi remarked.
“Well, I for one always respect a spot of good drama. Well? Don’t be shy, let me have it.” He spread his arms wide, grinning and seemingly unconcerned with the array of destructive power poised to descend on him. “How was it? The yokels seemed to eat it up, but I dunno… Not one of my best performances, I don’t think. It felt a little overworked. Wouldn’t you say?”
“We’re not doing this,” Toby said flatly. “We are not going to indulge you in conversation. Just do whatever it is Professor Ekoi is tolerating your presence for, please.”
“Unless you want to learn whether she’s actually capable of stopping all of us from tearing you apart,” Vadrieny snarled.
“It’s so odd,” the Professor mused, “being among people who think that is in question. This is why I should make time to leave Sifan more often; too long away from the wild world and one forgets. Vestrel, that language is not acceptable. There are children here, for heaven’s sake.”
Gabriel clutched Ariel and his staff in a white-knuckled grip, suddenly looking rattled.
“Indeed, tempers appear to be fraying even as we speak,” Mogul said, tipping his hat to them. “So, dear students, the question is, as always: What have we learned today?”
“Fuck it, let’s kill him,” Ruda suggested.
“Wait,” said Shaeine softly.
“You arranged that whole thing,” Fross accused. “The demon trace thing, all of it. From the beginning. Why? What do you get from that?”
“Turning us against the Archpope, for starters,” Toby said tersely.
“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at them. “Nothing so crude. Turning you against someone is…well, it’s such a limited gambit. That’s the kind of thing you do to bit players who don’t really matter in the long run. It’s usually all too simple. No, consider the fact that the most esteemed Ekoi-sensei finds my presence and activities here tolerable. Aside from clear evidence that I’m not here to harm you, that shows what, specifically, I’m out to help you do. Which is…?”
He smiled expectantly at them.
“Learn,” Shaeine whispered.
“Bingo!” Mogul pointed at her. “The fact that you and I are nominally enemies is a condition of circumstance, not essential nature. You don’t seem to grasp, yet, how ephemeral all your affiliations and bonds truly are. Unlike the various cults that trained you before now, I’m not out to tell you who you should trust, what you should believe.” He folded his arms and adopted a cocky pose, smirking from beneath the brim of his hat. “What I want is the same thing your teacher, here, wants. The same thing Professor Tellwyrn wants. I want you to think. I want you to look beyond the surface, to question what you are told, to take nothing for granted. I told you before: the Black Wreath is on the side of truth. But I also told you that the truth would be devalued if I just dropped it on you. You’ll have to learn to seek it out for yourselves.”
“This guy is so full of it,” Gabriel muttered, unconsciously raising Ariel. Blue sigils along her blade flared to life.
“That I most certainly am,” Mogul agreed. “For the love of all that’s unholy, don’t take anything I tell you at face value—surely you’ve got that much figured out already. This time you made a lot of assumptions and a lot of rash actions. You thought like adventurers.” He shook his head. “As I’m sure a few people have mentioned to you, adventuring is a thing of the past. To succeed in this world, you need to be insightful, careful, and mindful of the subtle connections between things. This time,” he added, looking directly at Trissiny and grinning, “I made you a hero in the eyes of the public. I prevented a certain schemer in the Universal Church from getting hooks into you. You fought me the whole way, and yet you ended up doing exactly as I wished at every step. Now, just imagine what would have happened if I had actually meant you harm!”
“Did you seriously come up here just to gloat?” Juniper exclaimed.
“Of course not.” Mogul tipped his hat to her. “Merely to demonstrate. I don’t mind acknowledging that I’m not smarter than you, kids—at least, not collectively. You lost this one because you were playing the wrong game. Learn to play the right one. And now!” Turning toward Ekoi’s pillar, he bowed deeply, sweeping off his hat to reveal a shiny bald head. “Professor, it has been both a high honor and an unmitigated pleasure to work with you.”
“That’s a lie,” she said, smiling benignly, “but since it should have been, I shall accept the compliment.”
“With that, I really must be off—I can only imagine the stress poor Professor Tellwyrn is under right now, allowing me to stand here without smiting me into a puddle.” He placed his hat back on his head, straightened it carefully with both hands, then winked at them. “See you ’round, kids.”
Shadows gathered, and then he was gone.
Professor Ekoi hopped nimbly down, landing on the grass as lightly as a cat. “What you just heard was wisdom, students. It was not necessarily truth. The difference is important. Think on these things—think deeply, and carefully. But later, yes? For now, off to class with you.”
She turned and strolled casually away, the white tip of her tail bobbing behind her. The entire class stared at her retreating back, too dumbfounded to speak.
With the exception of Trissiny, who was staring at the spot from which Embras Mogul had vanished, her sword dangling limply from her fingers.
Though the remaining members of Basra’s party had clustered around trying to command her attention immediately upon her return, she had brushed them off to join the commanders in a private conference in Fort Naveen. Schwartz and Ami had both been loudly disappointed when it was made clear that they were not invited to attend. Only Branwen had managed to include herself, and that apparently on the pure basis of rank, not because she had anything in particular to contribute. Darling’s companions, though they had been similarly glad to see him alive and well, had been more restrained. Or perhaps, less interested in being cooped up with stuffy military leaders.
In any case, it wasn’t as if dallying was an option; after a relatively short exchange, a messenger from the fort had arrived with word that a very important figure had just been teleported in.
“I am absolutely astonished,” said General Toman Panissar in the fort’s secure conference room, “that you managed to persuade that deranged thing to back down, Bishop Syrinx.”
“I’m somewhat astonished that your response to that deranged thing’s presence was to come here,” Darling said, lounging back in the chair he had commandeered by the fireplace. “Wouldn’t the Empire find itself in a bit of a pickle if the supreme commander of the Army were suddenly killed by a headhunter?”
“His Majesty is the supreme commander of the Army,” Panissar said, giving him an irritated look, “and that is why I didn’t come until the Azure Corps brought word that the headhunter had retreated.”
“The point remains,” Yrril said calmly, “it was an incredible feat of negotiation, Bishop. I must add my commendation.”
“Thank you, but ‘negotiation’ implies more rationality on the part of the participants,” Basra said with a faint smile. “I was manipulating, twisting the facts and lying through my teeth, and he was, not to put too fine a point on it, batshit crazy. As I said before going, that was a situation that called for a politician.”
“It was still incredibly brave to go out there,” Branwen said earnestly. “I mean, I think I can consider myself a politician as well, and I feel no shame that I didn’t volunteer.”
“I am, among other things, a soldier,” Basra said with a shrug. “It had to be done. That’s what soldiers do.”
“I could only dream of filling my ranks with men and women who would willingly face such a thing,” Panissar replied. “But the important question remains: how much time have you bought us?”
“That I can’t say exactly,” Basra said, her expression falling into a frown. “I managed to convince him that messing with the Sisterhood wasn’t in his best interests. That much I was confident I could do before I went out there; whatever that elf thinks of anything, the actual danger comes from the spirits inside him, and Athan’Khar and Viridill respected each other for a long time, even when they fought. It was the attack on Athan’Khar that made Viridill turn on the Empire, after all. As to what he’ll do next, or when, or where…” She shrugged fatalistically. “This is a temporary reprieve, make no mistake.”
“Then we’ve gained nothing,” Colonel Nintaumbi said, scowling.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Panissar disagreed. “Time to prepare makes all the difference—it’s exactly the thing we’ve never had before, with any other headhunter’s appearance. Bishop Syrinx saved a lot of good soliers today; that thing would have torn right through those armies. Now, I’ve had time to alert Lord Schraede and notify Imperial Intelligence.”
“Schraede?” Yrril asked, tilting her head.
“Commander of the Strike Corps,” Darling explained.
“Indeed,” Panissar said, nodding. “The entire Corps has been pulled from their duties and set on high alert. Considering the headhunter’s known ability to shadow-jump, we must assume his next move could occur anywhere. Strike teams are moving into position across the Empire, each accompanied by portal mages of the Azure Corps to stay in communication. As soon as he shows his face again, the entire Strike Corps will land on him. Not even a headhunter can contend with that. And besides,” he added more thoughtfully, “while it’s a long shot, his Majesty had the idea to seek aid from…our allies. If they are willing and prove able, we may be able to head this off before the creature can attack.”
“Allies?” Vaumann asked, raising an eyebrow.
“The Emperor prefers that that matter remain classified for now,” Panissar said briskly. “Continuing with that line of thought, this business of stirring up elementals shows far more planning ability than any past headhunter has displayed, not to mention skills beyond them.”
Basra and Darling exchanged a glance.
“Well,” Darling said, straightening up, “it turns out that wasn’t the headhunter’s doing.”
“Oh?” Nintaumbi said sharply.
“I did manage to have a short conversation with Khadizroth the Green while I was very briefly in the woods,” the Bishop continued. “He and Mary the Crow are still down there—after rescuing me from blundering across that crazy critter, they stayed behind to see what they could do about it. But yes, back on point, it turns out we were both right, Bas. Khadizroth was down there to help, and he was behind the elemental attacks.”
“What?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.
Basra nodded, though. “Yes…I can see it. In fact, that explains the one glaring flaw in my theory that was troubling me. The elemental summoner showed a knowledge of the history and social nature of Viridill and the Sisterhood; it was odd in the extreme that he might think they would step aside and let him invade Tiraas.”
“Exactly,” Darling agreed. “Between that and his ploy to get Mary’s attention through Ingvar… He wasn’t attacking Viridill, he was trying to rally the province’s defenders.”
“Why?” Panissar demanded, narrowing his eyes. “If he had forewarning of this creature’s intentions, he could have just come to us.”
“There’s a lot about Khadizroth I don’t know, or understand,” Darling admitted. “Today was my first actual encounter with him; what I’ve heard previously has been secondhand at best. We do know, however, that he’s not involved with the Conclave, despite their claim to represent every dragon in Imperial territory, and I’ve had reason to believe before now that he has worked with the Universal Church in some capacity. That’s odd behavior from any dragon but a gold. I highly doubt he trusts or likes the Empire. The Crow doesn’t, either, but neither of them go for the kind of indiscriminate slaughter a headhunter causes. They moved to save lives, even those of their declared enemy. But yes, Toman, you’re correct.” He nodded grimly. “These are powerful beings with their own agendas, who should never be trusted or taken for granted. I think we’ll be a long time yet unraveling the threads beneath all this.”
“If we even can,” Basra said fatalistically. “Unless we can capture either Mary the Crow or Khadizroth the Green, we’re unlikely to learn anything more. Whatever other truths are out there…they’re buried in Athan’Khar, now.”
“Then I think that sums up the situation,” Panissar said. “The crisis has passed, for now, but this is not over.”
“If you look far enough beneath the surface,” said Darling, “there are always strings connecting events to other events. I can’t find it in me to believe all this just happened.”
“Headhunters,” General Vaumann pointed out, “are essentially chaos and randomness personified. If anything, the lack of connection to a greater pattern has been the most difficult part of this whole mess. I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude there’s some broader purpose at play, here.”
“We may be able to learn something more, either from the dragon or the Crow, or possibly even the headhunter,” Panissar replied, “but on the whole, I am inclined to agree with Bishop Darling. Lord Vex is of the same mind.”
“You can add me to that list,” Basra stated. “There’s just too much going on for us to assume this is over. Even once the headhunter is destroyed… I think we had all better keep these events firmly in mind, and be watchful going forward.”
For a moment, her gaze met and held Darling’s, and then they both turned back to the group, expressions betraying nothing.
Positioned in the room’s most comfortable chair in the far corner, Branwen let the continuing discussion wash over her, studying each of her fellow Bishops in turn, and wearing the faintest little smile.