Tag Archives: Hesthri

16 – 36

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

She did not stomp, and not because it wasn’t ladylike; Natchua had already resigned herself to the knowledge that she was going to disappoint anyone who expected her to behave like a proper Imperial duchess. No, Natchua restrained the impulse to slam her feet down with every step simply because she was somewhat overly conscious of social perception due to her embarrassing history of over-the-top melodrama at Last Rock and this Duchess business had only brought that closer to the surface. Even so, she really wanted to project anger with every fiber of her being as she bore down on the two elves who had intruded upon her domain.

Talvrin and Ashaele paused in the middle of the drive, watching her come; nobody else seemed inclined to approach them, perhaps unsurprisingly. Natchua made a sharp gesture with her right hand as soon as she drew close enough, wreathing the three in a subtle ring of shifting shadows and menacing whispers that hovered just at the edge of elven hearing. Even for non-elves, it obscured and mixed the sounds of their voices enough to ensure a measure of privacy.

“Shaeine has been a much better friend to me than I deserve,” she stated by way of greeting, “and I understand that you are here at the personal invitation of Ravana Madouri. That is why neither of you are being bodily hurled over the property’s walls right now. That fact is still subject to change if I am not extremely satisfied with your explanation of your bloody effrontery in showing your faces here.”

She folded her arms and waited imperiously to be answered. To her annoyance, neither woman appeared intimidated, but then Natchua hadn’t really expected it of them.

Magister Talvrin, at least, had the grace to bow to her. “Good evening and felicitations, Duchess Leduc. I am only too glad to offer an explanation, as it was my major concern in presuming to come here this evening.” She hesitated a split second before continuing. “Please understand that as a Magister of Qestraceel I am unable to express an apology, or anything else which might acknowledge fault on behalf of my government, in this difficult moment when tense negotiations with the Empire are ongoing.”

“You need to brush up on your Circles if you think coming here and dancing on my patience is a smart move, mage.”

The Magister continued, unperturbed but still solemn. “With that awkward reality acknowledged, speaking as a citizen of the Confederacy, I am deeply embarrassed that you were inconvenienced by our internal issues, and very relieved that you emerged unharmed. And I can assure you that there will be no repeat of that shameful event.”

“In fact, Natchua,” Ashaele added, “it may please you to learn that House Dalmiss has placed itself in disfavor with every level of our government from the Queen to the Confederacy itself, and Matriarch Ezrakhai has spared no effort in directing the resulting pressure onto Nassra’s head.”

Natchua stared at her, but after a moment allowed her mouth to quirk lopsidedly in a fragment of a smile. “Very well, you’re right. That’s pretty…gratifying. Was that all you came here to say?”

Ashaele glanced at Talvrin, who immediately bowed to each of them. “Please excuse me, Duchess, Matriarch.” She discreetly retreated outside the radius of Natchua’s sonic disruption, making her way toward Ravana.

Returning her gaze to Natchua, Ashaele stated in a much flatter tone, “Your mother is one of the most unbearable assholes I have ever had the misfortune to meet.”

Natchua went rigid. She happened to wholeheartedly agree, but between two Narisians there was virtually no more offensive statement that could be made. It was the kind of insult only a Matriarch could voice without expecting to be immediately punched in response; only a Matriarch had sufficient weight of social position that anyone would even defend her after such an offense.

And, Natchua realized after a shocked second, she was now equivalent in rank. Her right hand balled into a fist, and purple flames flickered across her fingers. Walled off in their cocoon of sound, with her attention fully on Ashaele, she didn’t hear the murmurs that rose, or even notice people rapidly backing away from the two drow.

“And I need you to understand that,” Ashaele said, her voice softer, eyes intent. “Your experience growing up was not normal. Narisian ways are ruthless and harsh, yes, but it is precisely because of this truth that our society can only function when we value each other. No one can lead her family the way a Narisian must, unless that family is held together by sincere bonds of love. In addition to her various defects of personality, Nassra has always failed to understand that simple and crucial fact. Goddess’s mercy, Natchua, a spider box is a weapon of last resort to punish those who knowingly and deliberately inflict shame upon their Houses. One should never be used to discipline children. That is nothing less than insanity! I will never condemn you for your behavior at Last Rock or elsewhere since you left us, and I have earned the ire of both Nassra and Ezrakhai by refusing to allow any pursuit of you through diplomatic channels. You were abused more than raised. Your anger and loathing is fully justified, and it is a tremendous credit to you that you’ve turned out as well as you have, after being raised by a selfish, thoughtless monster of a woman who saw you as nothing but a thing to be used. A daughter’s devotion is demanded in our culture, yes, but it must be earned through love and devotion in kind. I am…glad to see that you escaped, and are flourishing.”

She paused, still watching Natchua closely. Natchua, for her part, did not relax her fist just yet, but allowed the fire to flicker out, staring at Ashaele through narrowed eyes.

“Unlike my Qestrali colleague, I will apologize to you,” the Matriarch said after a moment. “The truth is that I am one of very few who had an inkling what was happening in your household and might have had the influence to do something about it. Even within another House, a Matriarch’s word is not nothing, and Ezrakhai does listen to me. But the truth is, I considered the costs and benefits and did nothing, for the sake of what I deemed the greater good. If you choose to despise me, Natchua, you’ve the right. I am sorry for failing you. It changes nothing, but I am. And if I can aid you now without compromising my responsibilities to Tar’naris and the Confederacy, I will be glad to do so. You’re owed it.”

“You never cared enough to say all this before now,” Natchua said, pleased to find her voice even. “Not a word to me, until the very moment I gained a noble rank. Do you imagine that you’re subtle, Ashaele? Even by my standards, you really aren’t. Spit out what you want before my patience finishes evaporating.”

It was heady, addressing a Matriarch by her first name, right to her face. Even a week ago, Natchua might have done so anyway, just to be aggressive. Somehow, the fact that Ashaele didn’t even have the right to complain about the presumption made it even sweeter.

To her credit, Ashaele offered no denial, nodding once in acknowledgment. “That is true, and all part of the pattern of my life. I must turn a blind eye to all manner of suffering in order to serve a higher purpose; such it is, to be Narisian. I don’t ask anything of you but patience and tolerance, Natchua. You’re now in a position to have some influence on the affairs of nations, however minor. All I ask is that you understand what was done to you was an inexcusable aberration. Please don’t punish an entire civilization for the actions of individuals.”

“Aberration,” Natchua whispered. “Really, now. You think my sad story is all that unusual?”

“I am well aware—”

“I’m sure you’d like to think that, Ashaele, but if you truly understand what life in Tar’naris is like for anyone who’s not born to power and privilege, you’re as despicable as my mother for presiding over that depravity and doing nothing about it. That festering shithole’s entire culture is based around the fact that whatever horrible thing it does must be okay, because after all, the Scyllithenes are always worse! It’s the most soulless possible approach to governing a society imaginable. Have you considered that, just maybe, your civilization deserves anything that might be coming to it, if not more?”

Ashaele tilted her head incrementally. “Do give me a minimum of credit. I am keenly aware of the flaws and failures of our society. What, exactly, is your plan to fix them?”

Natchua barked an incredulous laugh. “Is that my responsibility, somehow?”

“No, it is mine. And unlike you, I have not only given great thought to how our people must change, but worked steadily to achieve that end. It is obvious to anyone with eyes that Tar’naris cannot continue as it has. Irrespective of the weight of our moral failings, we have entered a world in which the unique Narisian blend of heavy-handedness and myopia will lead only to doom. But what do you imagine would happen if I tried to explain all this to the Matriarchs? Or even better, force them to comply? Has it been your experience that people politely listen and then change their ways when you calmly and rationally lecture them on the benefits of giving up their privileged positions?”

Natchua snorted. “All right, fair enough. But to rehash an earlier part of this conversation, I am done with Tar’naris and all its perfidy. This sounds like a you problem.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “hence my pleading with you not to make it worse. I will never insult you by downplaying your experiences, Duchess Leduc; I have offered my apologies for them, and my support with whatever cause of yours I can aid that does not contradict my loyalties. Only you can decide whether this is adequate. It is really all I can do.”

Natchua studied her in silence for a moment; Ashaele met her gaze firmly. There was nothing to be gained by trying to read a Narisian diplomat’s expression.

She snuffed out the sonic effect surrounding them, allowing the party music and soft conversation to rush back over their senses. Ashaele glanced to the side, noting the action, but making no further acknowledgment. Natchua did not miss the speculative and eager gazes fixed on them by a number of minor Tiraan nobility eager for any scrap of influence they could scavenge.

And so, she decided to throw them a bone.

“You needn’t worry that my experiences in Tar’naris will have any effect on elven-Imperial relations, Matriarch Ashaele.” Natchua did not raise her voice, but enough of the eavesdroppers had edged close enough that it wouldn’t matter. “House Leduc stands firmly behind House Tirasian, as I have made clear. Foreign policy is none of my business in any case, and I don’t aspire to influence it even indirectly. As for my own opinions, I am satisfied that Emperor Sharidan’s leadership is exactly what Tiraas needs. It should be obvious to you, to me, and to anyone who has paid attention to recent history that the Silver Throne has led us well these last years since the Narisian Treaty.”

Ashaele nodded and opened her mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on over her.

“With that said, House Leduc takes its responsibility to this province seriously. That may not have been true for some time, but under my leadership, things will change. I have already made it clear to House Awarrion what will happen to pushy drow who come to Veilgrad looking to profit at the expense of my people. After my encounter with the Highguard, I will extend that warning to all the Confederacy: I protect these lands, and any pointy ears coming here had better be attached to excellent manners, if they know what’s good for them.”

If anything, the onlookers had drifted closer while she spoke, and at that, cheers and applause broke out from the surrounding Imperials. Natchua didn’t even glance aside at them, keeping her focus on Ashaele, who was studying her in turn, utterly impassive. Hardly any of these people were even local to Veilgrad, but apparently one couldn’t go wrong by appealing to patriotism. At least with this crowd.

After a pause in which they locked gazes, Natchua finally looked past Ashaele’s shoulder to an unfolding scene which she’d been aware of since dropping the sound screen, but had not brought to the forefront of her awareness. She lowered her voice before adding a final thought, since it was one none of the onlookers needed to concern themselves with.

“Except him, of course. Raolo’s cool.”


“Raolo?” Toby didn’t trouble to disguise the surprise and delight on his face when he spied the elf making a beeline toward him from the gates, and not just because he had little regard for the politics and appearances that were so important to so many at this party.

For his part, Raolo was already smiling as he approached, but his expression only brightened further in response to Toby’s. Which just made him happier in turn, and so on in a mutual feedback loop until both were outright beaming by the time they closed the distance enough to clasp hands. It was just as well Ruda had stayed in Madouris; this was exactly the kind of encounter that made her loudly complain that too much sugar disagreed with her whiskey.

Grinning like a fool and not caring, Toby squeezed Raolo’s slender fingers in his own, and then impetuously pulled him forward into a hug which set the elf laughing even as he reciprocated.

“So you are glad to see me!” Raolo chuckled. “Guess I don’t have to worry about that after all.”

“Oh come on, why would you ever need to worry about that?” Toby pulled back enough to grin at him again. “This is exactly the blessing I needed. No offense to our hostesses, but maybe now I can finally enjoy this party.”

“Oh, you and parties.” Raolo playfully rubbed at his hair, which fortunately was too thick and wiry for him to easily muss. “Are you finally getting tired of benignly observing from the sides?”

“Oh, that’s fine and dandy when it’s at Last Rock with friends, or at least acquaintances. A bunch of miscellaneous nobility, though…” He chanced a glance to the side, and sure enough, more than a handful of well-dressed strangers were studying him with expressions he could only think of as sharklike. For just a second Toby wavered, feeling the pressure of expectations rearing up, but he immediately and deliberately pushed that aside. If he could stand up to the expectations of his own cult, what did he care what any of these people thought? “Well, at least it probably won’t turn out the way my last aristocratic social event went down.”

“Mm, has anyone checked that Trissiny’s not hanging around near the punchbowls?”

“Oh, come on!” Trissiny’s voice exclaimed from the near distance. Both of them grinned but otherwise ignored her.

“Never mind them anyway,” Toby said, reaching up to lightly shift a lock of golden hair that was obstructing his view of Raolo’s eyes. Even remembering how much the elf felt like silk under his fingers never compared to experiencing it anew. “What are you doing here, Raolo?”

“Ah, I’m glad you made it, Raolo,” Ravana said, idly sauntering by them with an unusually smug expression even for her. “I trust your journey was comfortable?”

“I think you know it was,” the elf replied sardonically. “The carriage and driver were a little excessive, Ravana. Not that I object to being driven, but that thing had eight seats and a cold box full of sparkling wine. Is that how you cruise around all the time?”

“No, but it’s how I treat my friends,” she said, smiling placidly. “Luxury is so much better appreciated by those not born to it.”

Toby heaved a sigh. “Ravana, stuff like this is why people are always demanding what you did this time. Didn’t I specifically ask you not to interrupt Raolo’s vacation? Just this morning?”

“Oh, did you.” And just like that, Raolo’s entire aspect changed. He still smiled, but suddenly the expression was brittle and there was something sharp in the set of his eyes. Without quite releasing Toby’s hands, he nonetheless pulled back.

“You know I’m glad to be able to spend time with you away from campus,” Toby said quickly. “It’s just… Ravana. You know? I think if somebody didn’t stop her she’d try to put puppet strings on all of us.”

“I do say that’s a bit much,” Ravana protested.

“Well, he’s not entirely wrong, you know,” Raolo said to her. “This was a nice thing you did, Ravana, and I thank you. People do get tired of being treated like somebody else always knows what’s better for them, though. I get enough of that at home,” he added, his eyes cutting back to Toby. That withdrawn hardness was still in them.

Toby winced. “Was it…bad? I don’t want to pry, I just… Well, I hate to come between you and what time you’ve got with your family.”

“That’s very considerate.” If anything, the elf’s expression stiffened further, and Toby found himself frowning quizzically. Even Ravana suddenly glanced sharply back and forth between them, picking up on the tension.

“Are you okay?” Toby asked in concern. “I suddenly feel like you’re… Uh, did I do something to upset you?”

For some reason, that only appeared to make things worse, though instead of growing more tense, Raolo suddenly sagged. It was a slight motion, the merest lowering of his head and slumping of his shoulders, but it made him look unmistakably defeated.

That was much worse.

Now Ravana appeared nearly as concerned as he, and Malivette, who had just wandered into their proximity, cleared her throat pointedly. Neither Toby nor Raolo looked over at her, though.

“No, Toby,” Raolo sighed, and then gave him a resigned smile that felt worse than a slap. “Everything’s fine.”

“Everything’s clearly not fine,” Toby insisted, frowning. “I can tell you’re upset.”

“About what?” Raolo shrugged. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Toby. You graciously relinquished your claim on my time so I could go home to the grove…just like I asked. And sure, my family are insufferable, but thanks to Ravana being also insufferable now I can spend the evening with you instead of them. It’s a perfect outcome!” He smiled again, trying to inject some cheer into the expression, but so obviously trying that it was painful to behold.

“Ahem,” Malivette said, not that anyone paid her any mind.

“Hey.” Gently taking Raolo’s hands again, Toby ran his thumbs across the backs of the elf’s fingers, holding his gaze. “You don’t need to do that, not with me. Whatever’s—”

“Can we please just not?” Raolo pleaded. “It’s a party. Let’s relax and have some fun. Look, there’s dancing! And I could use a drink.”

“If…that’s what you want,” Toby said dubiously.

For some reason, that made annoyance flare in Raolo’s expression again, but the elf quickly mastered it, put on another public smile, and opened his mouth to answer.

At that moment, Malivette began coughing loudly, quickly escalating to a series of hacking wheezes like a cat passing a hairball, and actually doubled over. Ravana edged warily away from her, while the surrounding nobles stared incredulously.

“Blaaaah!” The vampire straightened back up, turning a beaming smile on them as she wiped the back of her hand across her lips. “Scuze me, must’ve inhaled a clot. Say, lads, I just wanted to mention, the party only started out here on the lawn, the whole manor is open. Lots of indoor space, y’know, private rooms. Places to have a conversation discreetly.”

“Thank you very much, Duchess Dufresne,” Raolo said with a slightly wintry smile, “but that won’t be—”

“It’s Raolo, right?” She grinned broadly at him in that expression of hers that showed off her fangs a lot more than it actually suggested a good mood. “Say, just for the record, elves aren’t edible for me. I only mention that because it’s gonna become an extremely relevant reassurance if you do something to create a debacle at this extremely politically important party.” Malivette let the silence hang for two heartbeats of dramatic effect, just grinning at their shocked expressions, before continuing in a lower tone. “Go inside, boys, and have a chat. Quietly.”

“Um…maybe that would actually be best,” Toby said, turning his attention back from her to Raolo.

The elf clenched his jaw for a moment, then nodded in a single jerky little motion. “Fine.”


“Uh…” Trissiny watched Toby and Raolo disappear into the manor, frowning in consternation. “I hope they’re… Do you think we should do something?”

“Like what, Triss?” Gabriel asked. “What possible thing could anyone butting into that do that wouldn’t just make it worse? And that’s not even touching on the fact that neither of us is Mister or General Social Skills to begin with.”

“Hey, I think we’re both a lot better than we used to be,” she protested. “But still… Yeah, fair point. It’s just that I hate to think of… You know?”

“I do,” he nodded. “If there’s anybody who deserves some straightforward uncomplicated happiness, there they went. But relationships aren’t like that. You just gotta deal with stuff, and unless it’s an Izarite cleric involving somebody else in it doesn’t usually help.”

“And I think we’ve all had as much Izarite influence as we need for one night,” she muttered, glancing at the gates. At least Bishop Snowe had been as good as her word and left the grounds once her message was delivered. All things considered, that might have been simple self-preservation on her part.

“Well, anyway, it’s a party,” he said after a momentary pause. “I can think of a much better use of our time than standing here fretting.”

“I am terrified to ask,” Trissiny deadpanned.

He grinned and had the audacity to wink at her. “You remember our first week? Specifically, the first night of punishment duty, washing dishes for Oak?”

“Yes,” she said dryly. “You invited me to a town dance, and that was when I knew you were completely insane.”

“Exactly!” Gabriel stepped back, turned toward her, and held out one hand with a shallow bow. “You never did give me an answer on that, and the town social came and went. So you owe me one, Triss.”

“Are you serious?” Teetering on the verge of incredulous laughter, she glanced around at the grounds. “This is a political event, you know. Think politics. Us dancing would kick off a flurry of wild rumors.”

“Let ‘em speculate, it’s not like any of these people would know what they’re talking about. And hey, we might as well provide them some free entertainment! These parties tend to end with us terrorizing them one way or another, so we might owe it to ‘em. Just so you’re aware, the drinks are served over there on the buffet table,” he added helpfully. “It’s mostly bottled wine and hot cider at this time of year, but I did notice a lovely crystal punch—”

“I have no compunctions about hitting you since I know it doesn’t actually hurt you.”

“What’s the point of doing it then?” he rejoined. Trissiny made a face at him; he grinned more broadly and lifted the hand he was still holding out. “C’mon, they’re playing a waltz. That’s basically the easiest one.”

She studied him skeptically for a long moment, then finally permitted herself a smile of dour amusement and reached out to take his hand. In the next second, they were swirling out across the drive amid the other couples moving to the music.

In the moment after that, both of them stared at each other in shock and said in unison, without faltering in the motion, “You can dance!”

They completed one more stationary revolution before the other shoe dropped, and both paladins scowled, this time talking over one another rather than speaking in chorus.

“Wait a second, were you just trying to embarrass—”

“This was a trick, you sneaky—”

Both broke off, and then burst out laughing. And kept dancing.

“Seriously, though,” Gabriel said merrily. “You? Can waltz?”

“Hey, I grew up in a barracks up in the mountains with dozens of other girls. The only entertainment was whatever we made for ourselves! What about you?”

“Oh, Teal taught me,” he admitted. “It was after that trip to Tiraas in our first year, remember? You all went to that party at General Panissar’s house?”

“Ah, yes. That was…a mess.”

“Could’ve been worse, the way I heard it,” he said lightly, twirling her around the decorative fountain in the center of the roundabout drive. “Upon reflection what I’m most surprised about is that you’re letting me lead.”

“Because I figured you’d try to, and we’re probably creating enough of a stir without turning it into a scuffle,” she snorted. “A wise feminist conserves energy for the necessary battles by not fighting pointless ones.”

“Ever the strategist. Well, if there’s gonna be a scuffle, we should probably save it for later in the evening.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, everybody’s out here watching right now. As the night progresses and the drink is drunk, people will start pairing off and disappearing into those private rooms Malivette helpfully reminded us she has.”

Trissiny wrinkled her nose. “How would you know? Do you attend a lot of aristocrat parties?”

“I know what people are like,” he chuckled, “and I listen to aristocrats. We’ve got a good handful on the campus, you know, and several of them love talking about their fancy social events.”

“I see. Well.” She finally looked away from his face, glancing sidelong across the crowd they were still dancing through. “If we’re going to head back to Tiraas tonight and deal with Justinian, I’m afraid you and Juniper aren’t going to have the opportunity to sneak off.”

“Wh—Juniper?” Gabriel blinked at her in astonishment. “You thought we— Triss, that hasn’t been going on since freshman year!”

She blinked right back, equally startled. “What? Really? I thought… I mean, you’re…”

“Okay, I am straining not to take offense,” he complained. “Really, is that what you think, I have nothing on my mind but chasing skirts?”

“Well, in fairness, you do also like playing with your wand…”

“It would serve you right if I tripped you.”

Trissiny grinned, then cleared her throat with a little discomfort, glancing away again. “So, uh, not to pry, but what made you two decide to…?”

“Oh, it… Well, actually, we never decided. That is, there was never a conversation about it. It just sort of…stopped happening, and that was fine. Both of us, I mean individually, we both kind of came to a place where that wasn’t what we needed or wanted anymore, so it worked out fine.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, I guess it worked out ideally. Maybe closure would’ve been nice, but I don’t feel like I missed out on it. June doesn’t seem to, either. This way there was no awkwardness, and I got to keep a really good friend without making it, uh, messy.”

Slowly Trissiny nodded, staring at him with an oddly pensive expression. “Yeah… I guess there’s something to that.”

“What do you mean, to it?”

“Sometimes,” she said distantly, her eyes seeming to look at something far away, “having a conversation isn’t really…the best thing, necessary, or even useful. Not if everybody already understands up front that there’s no point.”

They had drifted to the edge of the dancing area, coming close to the end of one of the buffet tables, and that was the moment when the band brought the waltz to an end. Across the lawn, couples separated, many applauding politely. Trissiny and Gabriel slowly released each other in silence, studying one another’s eyes.

“Well,” Trissiny said abruptly, putting on a smile, “good timing. I’d better go supervise that.” She tilted her head to one side, where over by the manor’s steps, Malivette and Natchua had cornered Bishop Darling. “And I see you have fallen into my trap, as well.”

“Excuse me?” he exclaimed.

Rather than answering, Trissiny turned aside to address the woman in servant’s livery who was standing by the edge of the table with her hands neatly folded in front of her. “It’s Hesthri, right?”

The servant’s eyes widened and she focused on Trissiny, having been watching Gabriel. “I…beg your pardon, miss? You must have me mistaken for…”

“You were staring,” Trissiny said, not unkindly. “At him. And let’s face it, he’s not that good looking.”

“Those Eserites turned you into a spiteful little beast,” Gabriel complained.

“Yep,” she said with an unrepentant wink. “But seriously, Gabe, there are some conversations that actually do need to be had. I’ll catch up with you later.”

So saying, she turned and sauntered off in the direction of the Bishop and the Duchesses, leaving a tense island of quiet behind.

Gabriel shifted to study the serving woman, who was watching him closely in kind. They didn’t speak for a few long seconds, which under the circumstances was as good as a confession.

“She’s a sharp one,” Hesthri said at last, then grinned. “Not to mention pretty. So, you two…?”

“Oh, uh…no.” He shook his head, averting his eyes as his cheeks darkened slightly. “That is, there may be a tense…um, but not… Well, it’s, we’re friends, okay? We’re pretty close and I’d hate to mess up… Anyway, paladins don’t live the kind of life that…” Growling in frustration at his own inarticulate babbling, he trailed off and shook his head, scowling across the dance floor at nobody. “It’s just… It’s not a good idea.”

Hesthri studied him in silence for a few more beats, a gentle smile playing about her own lips, before finally reaching out to very lightly touch his arm.

“Tell me about her.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

16 – 17

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                      Next Chapter >

“Well…this changes matters.”

Darling nodded, staring ahead across the street with a slight frown. Though they were clearly the subject of attention, standing in front of a police barracks with Trissiny in her silver armor, they enjoyed the slight privacy of distance; passersby in Tiraas were generally adept at minding their own business, and few people anywhere would be eager to approach a paladin with that look on her face.

“I gotta check with Tricks, obviously,” Darling said abruptly after a loaded pause.

“Okay,” she agreed, but slowly. “And…if he…?”

“Everything we do next depends on what he has to say,” said the Bishop, finally turning to face her. “If Rake was on the up and up, I doubt Tricks will deny it. If he does… Well, that’ll have implications that we then have to deal with. In the likelier outcome, I’ve got enough pull to demand to know what he’s thinking with this. Tricks doesn’t do things without good reasons, Thorn, and we better know what the hell they are before charging ahead.”

Trissiny nodded. “Sounds like sense to me. I guess…this means we split up, for now.”

He emitted the tiniest huff of almost-laughter. “Yeah, ‘fraid so. You don’t have much say with Tricks and he’s not likely to appreciate being questioned with you in attendance. And your business at the Temple had better not wait any longer.”

“Gotta wonder if this isn’t exactly the play,” Darius commented from where he was leaning indolently against the station’s wall in a manner that would have him immediately picked up by the first passing soldier had he not been with Trissiny.

“Surely you don’t suggest Tricks works for…you know who,” Layla objected.

“I bet lots of people who don’t work for you know who end up doing his dirty work, regardless,” said Tallie. “Without knowing it, or even against their will.”

“Let’s not get too deep into speculation,” Darling warned. “Big mistake, to form theories when you don’t have the facts yet. Then, when the facts come, your brain’ll tend to try to fit them into your theories rather than the other way round. You may not be wrong, though,” he added, nodding at Darius. “Eyes and ears open, kids. We can’t be paralyzed by indecision, but don’t forget there’s some real shit afoot.”

“Shit afoot, nice turn of phrase,” said Tallie, grinning. “Sure does look like we’ve stepped right in it.”

“I know Sweet’s off on Guild business, and I’m not the boss of you,” said Trissiny, turning around to address the apprentices, “but I would appreciate it if you all stuck with me for now.”

“You want us at the Temple of Avei?” Darius demanded, raising his eyebrows. “Wow. I thought you were just humoring us.”

“No, Darius,” she snapped impatiently, “you were just pretending to think that because it gives you another excuse to act huffy. If what you want is to be left behind, keep that up, because I haven’t got time to hold the hand of a big boy who shouldn’t damn well need it.”

“Tooooold yoooooouuu,” Layla sang sweetly.

“The issue,” Trissiny continued more evenly, “is that Rasha’s presence is going to be necessary for the plan, and I may have to spend some time squirreled away with the High Commander or elsewhere that I can’t bring her along. After what happened last time, I’ll feel better with someone else on hand to watch her back.”

“I can take look after myself, you know,” Rasha pointed out. “I managed last time.”

“Yes, and you can do it better with friends behind you,” Tallie replied, patting her shoulder. “Thorn’s right; this isn’t a dig at you, it’s basic sense.”

“Not that I encourage you kids to pick a fight in the Temple,” said Darling, “but it is true that bullies like these Purists are much less likely to try to ambush someone moving in a group. Any predator will try to isolate prey before striking. All right, let’s burn mileage before we burn any more daylight. I’ll swing back by Glory’s this evening and hope to catch you so we can compare notes.”

“Right, same goes,” Trissiny replied. “If either of us can’t make it, Glory can make sure everyone’s up to date.”

“Now, remember, Sweet,” Layla said sternly, “as with most nights, Glory is having company this evening. Scruffy characters like you had better come in the servants’ entrance.”

“Just for that,” he said, winking, “I’m gonna take the sewer access, wipe my boots on the carpet, and tell her you told me to do it. Don’t try to sass the master, princess. All right, kids, work fast and stay safe. Catch up with you as soon as I can.”

They separated, heading in opposite directions up the sidewalk toward their respective next confrontations.


Kheshiri was still laughing after half an hour, though at least her initial hysterics had subsided to intermittent giggle fits that allowed the rest of them to converse. A look into her aura had informed Natchua that, while the initial outburst of hilarity was purely genuine, by this point she was just being deliberately annoying. That, Natchua was inclined to indulge. Enabling the Vanislaads to make pests of themselves helped take the edge off, reducing the risk of them doing something truly disruptive.

“It’s the weirdest damn thing,” Jonathan commented, gazing abstractly into his cup of tea. “After all the weird shit we’ve stumbled into and through since this summer, seems odd that this would be the thing that gives me pause. But…here we are.”

“This really bothers you more than all the…well, everything?” Natchua looked pointedly at Kheshiri, currently rolling about on the floor in front of the fire like a cackling dog, and the much more laid-back Melaxyna, who stood behind Sherwin’s chair, massaging his shoulders and cradling his head against her chest.

“The thing about demons,” Jonathan mused, “is that they just are what they are. They don’t get a choice, and can’t reasonably be any better. And even despite that, some of them choose to be better, and succeed.” Staring into space now instead of his tea, he reached to one side without looking, and Hesthri took his proffered hand. “As incredibly hard as it is for ‘em, they do. Nobles, now… Nobles are pretty much the opposite, in every respect.”

“Your point is well-taken, but that’s a little more grim than the reality,” said Melaxyna. “Nobles, like most mortals, are as good or bad as their upbringing and the choices they make. At their worst, they are no more monstrous than any mentally defective violent criminal, just more destructive due to their power. But the good ones are potentially enormous forces for good in the world, by the same token.”

“Honestly, Jonathan, I am inclined to see it the way you do,” Natchua said softly, stepping over to crouch by his chair. He finally focused on her at that, smiling, and she leaned her head against his knee with a sigh. Jonathan had more than a little Avenist in him and had initially been uneasy about the symbolism of having a woman he cared for sit by his feet, but Natchua found comfort in the position and had eventually brought him around. Even if she was still obviously the one with the power here, it was a relief to feel protected for a little while. “From everything I’ve read, Narisian nobility may not be any worse than the Imperial kind, relative to the two societies… But that just means they’re twice as vicious and underhanded on average, Tar’naris being the festering pit it is. Every instinct I have bridles at the idea.”

“I don’t want you to make a decision like this on my account,” he said quickly, setting his tea down on the table to stroke her hair, and then letting his hand rest lightly on the back of her neck, the way she liked.

“You are going to be a big part of any decision I make,” she replied. “Not the only part, but you matter a lot to me. I want to know how you feel before I do anything important.”

“I feel…wary,” he admitted. “Having had a few minutes now to think about how I feel, I’m starting to realize that much of my unease is due to the fact that I think you’d actually be a better noble than most. And as selfish as it sounds, it’s a little alarming because I have no idea how I would fit into that.”

“Well, look at it this way!” Sherwin said brightly. “You two could get married, and then you’d both be nobles. And hey, then Gabriel technically would be, too. I bet a paladin could get a lot of political use out of that.”

Everyone turned to stare at him except Kheshiri, who set off on another round of cackling, actually slapping one hand against the floor. Sherwin’s smile faded under their scrutiny and he shrank slightly in his chair, pushing his head back into Melaxyna’s chest as if to hide in her cleavage.

“Sherwin, honey,” the succubus murmured, squeezing his shoulders, “it’s a bit inconsiderate to put that kind of pressure on someone else’s relationship. Especially in public.”

“Oh, uh,” he stammered, “I didn’t… That is, I’m sorry if…”

“This is one of those things that you’ll only make worse by trying to fix, Sherwin,” Natchua said, not unkindly. “Hesthri, you’ve been quiet.”

The hethelax stepped closer, folding herself down to sit cross-legged practically on top of Jonathan’s feet, close enough to Natchua to reach out and place a hand on her knee. “That’s because I don’t think you’re going to like what I have to say.”

“And when has that ever stopped you?” Natchua retorted.

“When the matter is serious,” Hesthri said, gazing at her without reciprocating her levity, “and your feelings are on the line. I think it’s good for you to be regularly knocked off your high horse, Natch, but I never want to be the cause of real upset, not over something important.”

“I care what you think, too,” Natchua said, reaching out to clasp the clawed hand Jonathan wasn’t currently holding. “If it’s something important enough to worry you, I definitely need to hear it. I can take a rebuke, Hes.”

“Then I think you should do it,” she said frankly.

Natchua blinked once, then closed her eyes and turned her face slightly so that it was half-buried in Jonathan’s thigh. “Why do any of you think I would be good at this? I mean, specifically, why? I am not fishing for compliments or validation, here, I just don’t get it. I am just so very Natchua. It’s inconceivable to me that I would be good in this position. Am I really the only one?”

“I suspect,” said Hesthri, squeezing her fingers, “because all of us here are as suspicious of aristocracy as you are, for one reason or another, and that makes the very fact that you’d be such an unconventional choice comforting. But it’s not like I’d suggest any old fool off the street should be thrust into that position, even if I loved that fool as I do you. I think that Malivette hit the nail on the head, lovely. You would be good for Veilgrad, and Veilgrad would be good for you. Both those things have already been the case; this is really just formalizing it.”

“It’s because you’re such an apex asshole, mistress,” Kheshiri interjected suddenly. She had rolled herself around and was now stretched out on her belly facing them, chin propped up on her hands and grinning in continued glee. “You make your decisions based on pure principle, and your principles amount to protecting people from abuse if you can, and avenging them if you can’t. Your preferred strategy for doing this is always something so irrationally conceived and convolutedly executed that nobody ever manages to stop you. That, mistress, is precisely the profile of a reformer who comes along to burn all the bullshit out of a crooked system. ‘Natchua the Noble’ is one of those ideas no sensible person would think of on their own, but once it’s presented, damn if it doesn’t make an eerie kind of sense! It’s a classic Natchua idea, in other words.”

“That…is…actually quite well said,” Jonathan said slowly, studying Kheshiri, who winked up at him. “Puts my thoughts into words much better than I would have.” Hesthri nodded.

“That’s what succubi do,” Sherwin chuckled. “Well. Among other things.” Melaxyna bent forward to kiss the top of his head.

Natchua regarded Kheshiri sidelong, taking in her delighted expression and the magical signature which revealed the actual mental state it hid. She was in this habit for the obvious reason of trying to head off resistance and defiance from the succubus, but more and more lately, Kheshiri had regarded her with ever-increasing warmth and attachment. Something about that was even brighter and fiercer, now. Natchua couldn’t quite put a label to the demon’s feelings toward her, but they were intensely positive. Somehow, that was more unsettling than if the Vanislaad had meant her harm.

“Well,” she said aloud, “I have more thinking on it to do. Vette and Ravana want to move fast, for the sake of political shock value, but I am at the very least going to sleep on it. I’m interested in hearing more from all of you, too, if you have thoughts. For now, that’s not the only crisis brewing. Shiri, I have work for you.”

“Ooh!” Kheshiri executed a deft gymnastic maneuver by which she flowed from a lounging position to sitting upright without ever fully straightening up, the furor of delight behind her eyes only increasing at the attention. “I’m all yours, my mistress!”

Natchua winced at the phrasing, on purpose. Letting the succubus needle her and get reactions helped scratch that itch. “I’ve got the Black Wreath sniffing around me, and so far I can’t tell what the hell they actually want. They said revenge, but their actions don’t make sense in that context. You’re the Wreath expert, here. The way I heard it, you actually took them over a century ago.”

“Ah, good times,” Kheshiri said reminiscently. “I miss Onkawa. But yes, mistress, I recognize the pattern you’ve described. It’s a standard ploy: they are keeping you both in the dark and under pressure. The goals are variable—could be just trying to see what you do when stressed and confused, or they might be trying to weaken you in preparation for the real play.”

“I see,” Natchua murmured. “It does make more sense in that light. So as long as they retain the ability to move about mysteriously…they retain the upper hand. Even trying to figure out their movements slips me deeper into the trap. Hm. How would you suggest defeating a plan like that?”

“Now, just a moment,” Jonathan interrupted. “Not to doubt your expertise, Kheshiri—or reproach you for asking advice, Natch, that’s a very good habit to be in. But remember what we were just discussing about you and your plans? The Wreath are legendary schemers; facing them on their own terms seems like a bad idea. Better to retaliate with something they wouldn’t and can’t expect. If there was ever a time for a Natchua plan, this is it.”

“Yes, it is,” Hesthri agreed softly, but with a mischievous fervor in her expression.

“I do have insights, if you wish them, mistress,” Kheshiri added, “but I like the direction of Jonathan’s thoughts here. I would be delighted to see how you’d screw with Mogul and his crew.”

“How I would…” Natchua trailed off, frowning into space and barely feeling Hesthri’s gentle squeezing of her hand, or Jonathan subtly massaging the back of her neck in his grip. “So the game is to create confusion and pressure, then? You know what, I kind of love it. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

She snapped her eyes back into focus, finding Kheshiri grinning at her with a level of glee that verged on the psychotic. For once, Natchua found the expression, rather than alarming as usual, exactly what she wanted to see.

“First thing tomorrow, Shiri, you and I are going to have a prowl around Veilgrad with our respective knowledge of Wreath tactics and Elilinist magic. I don’t need to know what they’re planning, just where they’ve been and might be again. And then… If Embras Mogul thinks he’s pissed at me now, he’s about to learn how much worse things can always get.”


“All these…are not skilled enchanters?” Magister Danoris asked, visibly aghast. He did not go so far as it lean over the catwalk’s railing, but clutched it as if it were holding him up as he gazed down at the factory floor below.

“Well, yes and no,” Geoffrey Falconer answered in the same energetic tone with which he’d been playing tour guide since their arrival. Though in many ways he lived up to the stereotype of the absent-minded intellectual, Falconer was as intrigued as any expert in arcane magic would be at meeting high elves, and always pleased to show guests the workings of his factory. “Naturally we do employ quite a few enchanters by specialty, but the whole point of the assembly line is to make production as efficient as possible. We’ve set it up as best as possible to minimize the need for magical expertise; fully seventy percent of the positions along the line are manual. Some of those do require an application of magic, but using the standard inks and dusts—which we of course manufacture in house, from our own mana turbines. That increases the available hiring pool. We pride ourselves on paying well here at FI, but unskilled labor is still much cheaper than employing enchanters.”

“And these…laborers…will produce self-motivated vehicles?”

“Twenty an hour,” Falconer said proudly.

“How sophisticated are your horseless carriages?” Danoris demanded.

“It depends; we have a range of products. The higher-end models have more features, obviously, but they also require more specialized attention from enchanters and other artisans. This assembly line happens to be producing our most basic model, the FI-320. Full seating for four passengers, weatherproof wheel charms, maximum speed of forty miles per hour, and fully rechargeable power crystals—”

“I wish to inspect one of these vehicles.”

“Of course,” Falconer said, his good cheer seemingly undiminished by Danoris’s abrupt tone, though his fellow Magister shot him a reproachful look which he did not see. This was not even the first such grimace Ravana had observed, simply by hanging back and studying her guests as intently as they did the factory facilities.

Magisters Danoris and Talvrin had accompanied her on the tour while Veilwin systematically drained a bottle of wine in the lobby, along with two of their Highguard escort, leaving the other two soldiers and Magister Eveldion to oversee proceedings back at the Manor. So far, Ravana hadn’t teased out any differences in rank; Danoris and Talvrin had the same title, and while Danoris generally took the lead, that might just reflect the differences in their personalities as there had been no giving or taking of orders between them. Talvrin let him talk, but did not show much in the way of deference, preferring to walk somewhat apart and study their surroundings on her own time.

“What is a mana turbine?” she now asked.

“Ah, those are actually the very foundation of Falconer Industries,” Geoffrey said animatedly. “Also called mana wells, they are essentially just electrical generators situated on a ley line nexus, which produce steady quantities of the raw dust which can then be refined into various grades of enchanting powders, and further mixed with alchemicals to make enchanting inks that can be used to inscribe enchantments on spell parchment. We both use these in house on our own products, and sell the raw materials directly through outlet shops. FI started when the Enchanter’s Bane shifted ley lines enough that a major nexus formed on real estate my family owned; our activities here tugged them further so that there are now two smaller nexi nearby, which we also control. There are turbines on each. In fact, the nearest is just at the other end of this factory! Would you like to see it firsthand?”

“Yes, we would!” Magister Danoris snapped. Again, Magister Talvrin cast an irritated glance his way. This time, she caught Ravana’s eye. The Duchess gave her a bland smile.

“Right this way!” Geoffrey said, leading the way along the catwalk.

Their course took them to the end of it, down a metal staircase to the factory floor, and through a door at its end. The hallway beyond extended past the building itself, well-lit by both fairy lamps and broad windows which revealed the domed structure to which it led, some fifty yards distant.

Ravana let herself fall to the rear, studying her guests as they strode along, and only deduced halfway down the hall that the Magisters were engaged in conversation the whole time. They spoke in the minutest exhalations that only an elf could hear, but the argument irritated Danoris enough that he turned his head to scowl at Talvrin, enabling her to see his lips move.

She made a mental note to learn to read lips. Somehow it had never come up, but in the moment, Ravana could only castigate herself for overlooking such a clearly useful skill.

The door into the mana turbine was both locked and guarded, though of course the factory’s owner was not impeded by these things in the slightest. He led them through, and into the huge round chamber beyond.

They emerged onto another catwalk surrounding the circular pit dug fully ten yards into the ground, where the machinery of the mana well itself whirred ceaselessly, its mechanical arm spinning and filling the very air with static.

“This chamber is bristling with both conventional lightning rods and the best grounding charms available!” Geoffrey practically shouted over the noise as he led the way around the perimeter of the room toward the glass-walled control booth. “There is basically no chance of electric shock, though with the turbine running at this capacity there’s obviously a lot of static! This way, please, the booth is charmed against both the noise and the electricity.”

The elves were visibly grateful to be shut inside the calm and quiet of the control booth, even the two soldiers. Two enchanters in hard hats and coveralls embroidered with the FI logo gawked at their guests; their employer and even Ravana they knew by sight, but the high elves were well worth staring at even among dignitaries. They seemed both reluctant and relieved when Mr. Falconer himself asked for privacy in the booth, taking his seat before the runic control panel as they slipped back out.

“Is it always so…extreme?” Danoris demanded once the six of them were again alone, fingering one of his long ears.

“Actually, no!” Geoffrey said brightly. “This turbine is the smallest and oldest still in service, and borderline obsolete. We’ve perfected a method of producing much higher-grade mana powder which will enable the creation of far more sophisticated and powerful enchantments. Well, actually, we already have the capacity to make those enchantments, but dedicating a new turbine to mass-producing that quality of dust will finally make them economical and thus more widely available. But it’ll require completely dismantling the turbine and building a new one, which will of course seriously cut down our production while it’s being done. So! We’ve installed heavy-duty safeguards in here to ensure there won’t be any kind of magical event when the machinery breaks, and are running it round the clock at four hundred percent capacity to build up a backlog of dusts. Once it gives out, we’ll replace it with the upgrade.”

Both Magisters looked distinctly alarmed at that.

“Ah, but I don’t mean to sound boastful,” Geoffrey added with a wry grin. “Obviously, none of the magic we’re doing here is anywhere near on a par with what you’re used to back home.”

“Obviously not,” Danoris said dismissively, even as he frowned in clear worry through the noiseproof enchanted windows at the overworked turbine. This time, Talvrin didn’t bother to express disapproval at his rudeness. She was also frowning at the same sight, though more pensively.

Ravana looked rapidly between them and chanced a glance at the Highguard who had each positioned themselves to cover one of the booth’s doors; both were likewise studying the mana well. This, she decided, was the moment to strike.

“Naturally,” the Duchess stated in a light and airy tone, “our magical capability itself is not the source of the Magister’s worry.” Danoris whirled to glare at her, but she just carried on speaking with a blithe smile. “Rather, it is the fact that he came here expecting to see fur-wearing primitives in stone castles, with scarcely one individual in ten thousand an arcane user. And before the Enchanter Wars, that might have been the case. Tell me, how much has Qestraceel changed in the last hundred years? The last thousand?”

All the elves were staring at her now, Danoris in open anger, Talvrin with eyes narrowed intently. Geoffrey Falconer also watched her with a knowing little smile. Ravana quite liked Geoffrey, in large part because he liked her. Not that she craved his approval in and of itself; he had been present when she’d finally gotten rid of her father. While Teal had been deeply unnerved by that event, Geoffrey took grim satisfaction in the unmaking of the Duke who had caused him so many headaches over the years. Ravana respected pragmatism, and his appreciation of revenge.

“Young woman,” Danoris began.

“It must be quite a thing,” she said sweetly, “to be winning a race by default, and only realize you have competition when you feel its breath upon your neck.”

Danoris did not like that at all, and it showed all over his face. Talvrin remained thoughtfully focused upon Ravana, though for the moment, neither spoke.

“It seems to me,” she mused aloud, stepping forward to look out over the mana well herself, “that we have a great deal more to offer one another beyond today’s specific business. Clearly, your unparalleled mastery of the arcane makes your people a font of wisdom from which mine would be both honored and delighted to learn. And even if we can reciprocate little along the same lines, it is obviously advantageous for you to have a weather eye upon the state of human advancement.”

“That,” said Danoris, recovering some of his hauteur, “is hardly worth the—”

“You are by far the most inept politicians I have ever seen,” Ravana informed him, causing the Magister to stammer in incoherent offense. “You control your emotions no better than children. Every thought you have is displayed far in advance of expressing it. Were we truly at cross purposes, your transparent predictability would render the briefest conversation a strategic victory for me. How fortunate that I am not ill-disposed toward you!”

“Most fortunate indeed,” Magister Talvrin said quietly.

“If this is the way even the ranking dignitaries of the Qestrali comport themselves,” Ravana continued, staring aimlessly out the window, “it goes without saying that the Narisians have taken you for a ride in every negotiation between your peoples thus far. I am, as you have cause to be aware, on unfriendly terms with certain factions in Tar’naris; I’ve had cause to grow adept at handling them. I should be delighted to assist my new friends from Qestraceel in getting the better of any further dealings with the drow. And while I am a loyal and devoted subject of the Silver Throne, I would not consider it to be against the Empire’s interests to assist such valued comrades in mitigating the utter spanking your delegates are undoubtedly receiving in Tiraas even as we speak.”

Danoris physically swelled up, which was downright comical given his thin build and the way his ostentatious hovering shoulder armor shifted with the motion. Less amusing was the way his fingers twitched hungrily; for a moment, Ravana thought he might cast some spell at her out of sheer outrage. The much more composed Talvrin turned her head to stare at him.

After a few seconds, however, the Magister composed himself with a visible effort. It took him another heartbeat to put on a small and insincere smile, but he managed, for the first time, to direct a shallow bow toward Ravana.

“Perhaps,” the elf said with obviously strained courtesy, “there is potential for…useful intercourse between us after all…my lady Duchess. Once this day’s work is settled to everyone’s mutual satisfaction, I should be…willing…to discuss further…business. With you.”

Ravana regarded him sidelong, thankful she’d taken the risk of annoying Natchua earlier in the day to press her for details of her encounter with the Highguard squad she had disabled. There were political differences between them, and in fact, they apparently had formal means of addressing these in the field. It was time to take the second risk.

She turned to face Magister Talvrin directly and inclined her head. “It would be my pleasure, not to mention and unmatched honor, to develop a direct relationship between House Madouri and the Magistry of Qestraceel. For such a privilege, I should naturally do my utmost to be as accommodating and useful a friend as I am able. On one condition, of course.”

“Oh?” Danoris grated, further aggravated at being given the cold shoulder.

Ravana pointed at him with one hand, keeping her gaze fully on Talvrin. “This individual is never to be in my presence again. I am certain that so ancient and graceful a civilization as yours must have countless members who are able to conduct themselves appropriately in the presence of a Duchess. I therefore see no reason I should be subjected to the company of those who do not.”

“Now, see here!” Danoris barked.

“Such a trifling request is more than reasonable, Lady Madouri,” Magister Talvrin assured her with a broad smile. “I can only apologize for any offense my colleague has caused you thus far. I shall be glad to ensure that you see only the better face of our society henceforth.”

“Talvrin!” he exploded.

Geoffrey had turned his back to all of them by that point and was pretending to be absorbed in the dials and levers of the booth’s runic control panel.

“I mean no offense,” Ravana said pleasantly, “but I am honestly curious how such an obviously sophisticated civilization ends up with such boorish individuals in positions of power.”

Danoris had gone scarlet in the face; it was the first time she had seen an elf do that.

“Qestraceel all but runs itself,” Talvrin explained. “Manual labor is done by autonomous constructs—what you call golems. More physical functions than otherwise are performed by fully automated enchantments. The city’s functions need maintenance more than they need actual oversight. Even much of the necessary decision-making is handled by intricate and permanent data processing spells running sophisticated algorithms. In addition, our culture prizes above most other concerns its ancient and direct lineage; our society began immediately following the Elder War and more than a few Qestrali elves remember that time. Thus, political power tends to accrue those who have seniority and magical aptitude, rather than…people skills.”

“Magister Talvrin!” Danoris shouted shrilly. “The Magistry will hear of your divulging of our secrets to outsiders!”

“And then,” she shot back, whirling on him with a fierce scowl, “they will hear about how you made a spectacle of every weakness we possess before Imperial nobility, and the measures I was forced to take to keep said nobility positively disposed toward us and disinclined to hostility! You have rendered your presence diplomatically offensive, Magister Danoris. It would be appropriate for you to absent yourself from further engagements, or at the very least, remain silent.”

“Witnessed,” both Highguard stated, in unison and with audible satisfaction. Falconer’s shoulders quivered and he hunched further forward over the console.

Danoris looked as if he might vibrate through the floor.

“After all,” Talvrin continued, turning back to Ravana with a gracious nod, “the Duchess impresses me as a pragmatic woman who would rather benefit from our friendship than initiate needless friction.”

“Oh, very much so,” Ravana agreed brightly. “Revenge, as the Eserites say, is a sucker’s game. I look forward eagerly to a bright future. As friends.”

Eventually, she actually would have to teach them some of the sly circumspection a politician absolutely needed to survive on the surface; it wouldn’t be long after that before they adapted their own. But for a while, at least, there was much more candy to be taken from these babies.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                       Next Chapter >

16 – 10

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter >

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The hell you say,” Natchua snapped.

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

“They’ll be disappointed, is what!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh bff, fankth.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

15 – 75

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

Everyone immediately adopted a combative stance—which in Sherwin’s case, meant fleeing around the corner of the building. The rest of them readied spells, weapons, and shields, both succubi vanishing from sight.

“Oh, please.”

The goddess’s voice was derision itself; she made a single, languid flicking motion with one forefinger. Natchua and Xyraadi’s conjured infernal spells were instantly snuffed out, Jonathan and Hesthri’s arcane weapons and shield charms simply vanished from existence, and Melaxyna and Kheshiri both popped right back into view, looking stunned as if they’d each just been punched between the eyes.

“My armistice is with the Pantheon, governing my relations to them and their followers,” Elilial lectured. “It is worth keeping in mind that you assholes don’t work for any god or cult. I can do whatever I like with you, and no one will be able to call me oathbreaker.”

Natchua drew power for a catastrophic burst of pure destruction which surely would have caved in half the house, had Elilial not effortlessly neutralized it before it could form properly.

“By the same token,” she went on, “I should think it clear by now that you’d all be well and truly suffering if I’d come here for revenge. When I said I wanted a word with you, Natchua, that wasn’t a coy euphemism. It is time—past time—for you and I to have a polite conversation. In private.”

“You’re not taking her anywhere,” Jonathan grated, stepping in front of her.

“You’re sweet, Arquin,” Elilial said condescendingly. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring her right back.”

Before he or Natchua could say anything else, their whole surroundings changed.

Natchua spun in a circle, conjuring a nascent shadowbolt, but just held it for the moment; this time, the goddess didn’t interfere. She was now alone with Elilial, which was of course her most immediate concern.

“What have you done with—”

“Absolutely nothing,” the horned goddess said with a vague little smile of amusement. “They’re standing right where they were, freaking out about you. It’s we who’ve moved. Welcome to the grand entrance hall of Leduc Manor!”

It was definitely the entryway of a wealthy house in an Imperial style; Natchua had only ever seen it with the ceiling, floor, and most of the walls collapsed, but with the resemblance pointed out she could see the familiar shapes of its boundaries, windows, and the grand staircase sweeping up to a second-floor landing. This place was fabulously rich, draped with heavy velvet curtains, exquisite paintings, ornately embroidered carpets strategically placed upon the polished hardwood floor and marble busts of various members of the House. Being used to Leduc Manor in its current state, it was easy to forget that House Leduc had once had a great deal of money. Actually, still did; it was just that Sherwin didn’t care enough about anything to maintain his home.

“As it was, of course,” Elilial mused, her hooves clopping on the floorboards as she paced slowly across the hall, inspecting the furnishings. “Don’t worry, we have not traveled in time. The last thing I need after this day’s work is Vemnesthis climbing up my ass. He just might be the worst of the lot, but at least he’s never interfered with me personally, and that’s how I prefer it. No, this is…a little space all our own, where we won’t be interrupted.”

From which there would be no escape, she did not have to add. Natchua slowly straightened from her battle-ready crouch and let the shadowbolt fizzle.

“Well, fine then, here we are. Spit it out.”

Elilial was studying a painting of a supercilious-looking human of Stalweiss stock, her back to her guest. “I’m not sure how much Arachne understands about the nature of gods, but I know there are important things she’s not told you. You know, when we killed off the Elder Bastards, we weren’t even trying to become gods? Well, most of us, anyway; I have my suspicions about Vidius. The thing was done by changing the rules of godhood itself. Adding new limits and boundaries which the Elders were already well outside, and rendering them suddenly unable to exist. I told you and the rest of those anachronisms about the importance of aspects today.”

She finally turned around, favoring Natchua with a bland little smile. Natchua just stared icily back.

“It is also true, and this is the part they’ve really worked to keep quiet, that gods are influenced by the consciousness of anyone who draws on them for power. A single worshiper channeling divine magic won’t make any impression on a deity during their lifetime, but a whole society? That’s another matter. We tend to…drift. Change, evolve, subject to the beliefs of those who believe in us.”

Natchua frowned slightly in thought, beginning to be interested in spite of herself.

“Of course,” Elilial continued, “there’s an important counter to this effect which is necessary for us to retain some hold on who we are: paladins. Individuals imbued with a potent spark of a god’s essence have a much more significant impact on us. By choosing paladins with care, we avoid the subtle influence of the masses.”

“Most gods don’t even have paladins,” Natchua objected. “Themynra doesn’t. Vidius only just started… Salyrene hasn’t in a century.”

“Avei, Omnu, and Salyrene call their mortal anchors ‘paladins’ and send them out to be front-and-center in world events, yes. I promise you, though, every god who still exists and hasn’t gone utterly mad or been twisted beyond recognition has done so by having someone in whom they’ve entrusted a fraction of their identity. The ones who keep the details secret are probably smarter. Smarter than I was, anyway.” She turned back toward the side of the chamber, now staring sightlessly at the window. “Mine… Mine were my daughters.”

Natchua drew a deep breath slowly, connecting those dots.

“So perhaps you better understand the state I was in,” Elilial said after a pause. “My anchors slain, except for one whose memories were wiped away, attached to a blundering quasi-pacifist and developing a severe resentment toward me. My core believers, first whittled down to a fraction of their former strength during a years-long process that put them under constant tension and terror, and then finally cast into a place where I could feel no connection to them at all. You have never known me as…myself. Just a shamefully fumbling thing, deprived of most of what made me who I am, not yet aware how defeated I already was, awkwardly careening toward an inevitable catastrophe.

“Very little of what I have done in the last few years can even be counted as cunning, honestly. That whole scheme with you and Chase… Well, I suppose it wasn’t a terrible idea, strategically speaking, but it’s not at all how I have preferred to operate all these years. Reckless, unnecessarily cruel. And right at the end, there, marching demons into Ninkabi under cover of the invasion. I could’ve ended that in Hell, you know, it would have been much simpler to turn my forces on the invaders gathering around those hellgates before they opened. But no, in my desperation, I used such a last-minute brute-force measure that even my own high priest argued with me. Poor Embras… A better servant than I have deserved, of late. Arachne tried to warn me, a couple of years ago in Sarasio, but I was already too far gone to listen. I’m afraid I got a lot worse before I got better.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I see it all now,” Natchua sneered. “None of this has been your fault! You were just crazy from magical bullshit. I’m sure if you go explain it all politely to the Pantheon they’ll understand.”

“Mmmmmm,” Elilial hummed, pursing her lips. “It’s tricky, you know? A god is a vast intelligence, but also a limited one, and one of the few things we cannot clearly see is just how much agency we have. How much of what I do is truly mine? For my part, at least, I prefer to err on the side of taking responsibility.”

“How noble and self-effacing you are.”

“Oh, my reasons are cynical.” She shifted slightly to give Natchua a wry smile sidelong. “When agency and control is at a premium, you have to seize whatever you can. Blaming others for your mistakes can make you feel better, but it keeps you in the role of a victim. It’s better by far to assume responsibility, even for things that aren’t strictly your fault. A failure is an opportunity to improve yourself, if you own it.”

“Thanks for the advice. We done here?”

“I’m offering you explanations, not excuses. I just thought you deserved to understand why some of the things that I’ve done to you happened. It isn’t meant to justify anything.” She turned to face Natchua fully, and to the drow’s surprise, bowed. “With all that said, here’s the truth: I really fucked you over, and you didn’t deserve it. What I did to you was an entirely hypocritical abrogation of my own principles, and I’m ashamed to have used you and your buddy to cause such wanton destruction, especially while I’m always spouting off about the evils of the Pantheon. It probably helps nothing, but here it is: I’m sorry, Natchua.”

“I don’t need an apology from you,” Natchua spat. “As far as I’m concerned, I got mine when I demolished your cult and made you publicly bend your neck to Vesk. That was more satisfying than anything you could possibly say.”

The goddess regarded her in silence, her face expressionless.

Natchua folded her arms. “So you can go ahead and smite me now. Like I told you in Ninkabi, nothing you do to me is gonna un-kick your ass.”

“I have absolutely no intention of harming you, Natchua,” Elilial said mildly. “Ever. I brought you here to explain a few things, including that. Have you ever given any thought to the nature of cunning?”

Natchua threw up her hands, turned, and flounced over to a low velvet-upholstered settee with gilded accents, then flopped herself down onto it and stared mulishly at the goddess.

“People generally have the wrong idea about cunning, and I won’t lie: I’ve gotten great mileage out of that fact.” Elilial began to pace slowly up and down in front of the stairs, the sound of her hooves on the floor alternating as she walked off and on the strip of carpet running toward the door. “Talk about cunning and most people envision some mastermind pulling strings from the shadows, always staying ten steps ahead of everyone else and controlling every factor. That’s a complete fantasy, of course. Absolute control is a laughably preposterous idea. If a plan has more than three steps, they cease to be steps and become items on a wish list. Even if you reduce those notions to a believable level of possibility, that’s describing strategy, not cunning. That’s not what keeps the fox ahead of the hunters.

“Cunning is the quality of not only thinking more deviously than one’s rivals, but doing so quickly, while always in motion ahead of them. It is strategy and duplicitousness coupled with reaction time, the ability to execute a plan by reflex without having to actually form it first. A person is cunning when their instinctive response to a threat outmaneuvers everyone else’s carefully-laid schemes.”

She paused in the middle of the carpet, then turned and came back a few steps to lean against the endcap of the banister, regarding Natchua with a knowing little smile.

“I would say that right now, in the world, there are two people who most exemplify the concept of cunning, apart from myself, and I regret to acknowledge that neither is even in my cult. Archpope Justinian is the perfect exemplar of the more cautious brand. That man has meticulously arranged an entire continent as a game board to suit his ends, positioning himself to defeat every opponent who arises before they realize they’re playing.”

“Sounds like that deep-thinking strategy you were just saying doesn’t count as cunning,” Natchua replied, affecting a bored tone.

“On the contrary, that is exactly why Justinian has outfoxed all the countless people attempting to do the same thing,” the goddess said with a wink. “While they labor to set everything up just so, he patiently and quietly watches the whole, constantly reacting to every development as it happens and gently nudging things where he wants them to go. Not overreaching, careful not to betray his hand, but always watching, always acting. While they scheme and try to plan too many steps ahead, he remains eternally in motion. Some of them are players, many only pieces; he has established himself as the board itself.”

“Why don’cha marry the guy if you love him so much?”

“Oh, you know how it is,” Elilial replied, shrugging airily. “So often one finds oneself at cross-purposes with fascinating people and thus sadly deprived of the opportunity to befriend them. Plus, there is also the nagging little detail that he murdered my daughters.”

For the space of three words, she made her full presence felt, a psychic pressure of darkness and hellfire that conveyed unfathomable depths of rage without putting it on full display. Natchua warily sat upright, gathering her focus to form another spell if necessary.

Immediately, though, the moment passed, and Elilial straightened up and resumed her languid pacing.

“Then there’s the other kind,” the goddess went on, “the cunning of the fox. The aggressive kind that runs and pounces and eternally confounds both its pursuers and prey. I confess a personal fondness for that manifestation of my aspect; it’s a lot more reminiscent of how I used to be, back in the day when we were fighting the Elders. The fun kind of cunning that mostly looks like insanity or stupidity until you happen to notice in hindsight that this one particular maniacal idiot always seems to come out on top somehow. Every daffy thing they do inexplicably creates exploitable opportunities for themselves, and unmanageable chaos for everyone else.”

She paused in strolling away, glancing back over her shoulder with a smirk.

“I would say the person who most exemplifies that quality is you, Natchua.”

For one beat of silence, Natchua gaped at her.

Then she burst out laughing so hard she slumped over on the settee. Elilial turned around fully, watching patiently while Natchua rolled about, clutching her ribs, and finally tumbled off onto the floor.

“Yes, yes, everyone’s been telling you how reckless and capricious you are,” the goddess said with wry fondness, watching her. “It’s not even that they’re wrong, but let’s be real: here you are, having outmaneuvered the very goddess of cunning herself. You’re not the first to have pulled that off in eight thousand years, or even in the last five, but it places you in very rarefied company.”

“You are so full of it,” Natchua wheezed.

“I’ve quite enjoyed backtracking to check up on your progress,” Elilial said, grinning now. “Part of me regrets that I neglected to be watching you at the time, but it all worked out; obviously if I’d known what you were up to I’d have put a stop to it, and then we would both be thoroughly screwed. But you just keep doing these absurd things and then, somehow, winning! Recruiting Hesthri and Jonathan Arquin was a move nobody with an ounce of classical strategic sense would have made, and look how well that paid off. Releasing Melaxyna, likewise; everybody knows not to mess about with succubi, and you should know it better than most. But you trusted your instincts, and here you are. You brought Kheshiri to heel, Natchua. My own Wreath failed to do that; the last time she reared up on this plane I had to deal with her myself after she caused my cult nearly as much damage as you just did. And how did you subdue the most infamously wily succubus in existence?”

Natchua snorted and sat upright, leaning back against the settee. “That? I beat the shit out of her. You call that cunning?”

“You beat the shit out of her,” Elilial repeated, enunciating slowly, “which is something nobody would think to try on a succubus. Everyone knows it doesn’t work at best, and is counterproductive at worst. But you found a way to make such an overblown, dramatic production of whooping her ass that she as close to fell head-over-heels in love with you as that creature is capable of feeling about anyone. True, we’ve yet to see how long you can maintain your grip on her leash, but that promises to be just as much of a hoot.”

The mirth had slid from Natchua’s face now, replaced by an increasingly uncertain frown. It was Elilial’s turn to fold her arms, again grinning down at her and slouching against the banister.

“Duchess Malivette Dufresne is as good a schemer as they come, and she had a deft web woven around you before you even saw her fingers moving. And it all fell apart in one moment because it just never occurred to her that a stateless practitioner of forbidden magic on the run would even consider making herself a public figure. One little speech, and you pulled her fangs harder than anybody has since her University days.

“You’re the real deal, Natchua. Your issue is not that you’re stupid; I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that you’re not crazy. What you are is crazy like a fox. You’ve spent the last month proving it at the expense of people who are by any objective measure a lot smarter than you. That is what I like to see.”

Slowly, Natchua dragged herself upright, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. “Now, hold on a second. When you said you needed a… A paladin, or anchor, to stabilize your personality…”

Elilial’s grin widened.

“You seem a lot more stable now than you did in the…”

The goddess raised one eyebrow.

Natchua brandished an accusing finger at her.

“No. Fuck you! Don’t even fucking think about it, you sick old sack of lies!”

“Well, it seems I owe you another apology,” Elilial said with a sigh that failed to sound repentant. “I came here to notify you, not ask your permission. I had my little moment of clarity back there in the cathedral when I realized exactly how thoroughly I’d just been thwarted by a pesky drow I had dismissed as an overreaching idiot doomed to destroy herself. I finally realized exactly what had happened to me, and what I needed to do to repair myself. So I did it, right then and there.”

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Well, the least I can say is, it’s working,” the goddess said, her expression finally sobering. “At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that you might deserve to know. But you’ve made me remember what it’s like to live under the heel of oppressive deities, to need to fight back. I would probably have been better off leaving you in ignorance, strategically speaking. It’s just that… A point comes when no amount of strategy substitutes for ethics.”

“You can just fucking undo it right now, then!” Natchua raged.

Slowly, Elilial shook her horned head. “I’m sorry, but no. I was unraveling, Natchua. I was most of the way into my transformation into an unheeding monster, and worse, an idiot. I can’t go back to that. This time I will admit it up front: I am doing this to you without your consent, because I need to. And whatever I have to do to make it up, I will. But I don’t have a choice.”

“I fucking hate you.”

“Fair,” the goddess acknowledged. “Look at it this way: I am handing you the literal key to my fate. You can definitely find a way to use this in your revenge against me. If you decide that’s what you still want to do.”

“So what, you think I’m going to lead your new Black Wreath? Fuck you, I’m not helping you.”

Elilial tilted her head to one side, considering. “I think…I would rather you didn’t. If that’s what you decide you want, I guess we can revisit it, but you’re really not the type I look for in a cultist, my dear. Anyway, no; I don’t need anything else from you, Natchua. Your life is your own, now. Live it in the way that seems best for you. That is all I need you to do, and I’ll accept whatever repercussions that has for me. You could do a lot of good in the world, or a lot of harm. Or if you just wanna help Sherwin rebuild his mansion and settle in with your little harem, you can do that, too. The world is your oyster. And speaking of that, I guess I’d better send you back to the gang before they panic too hard and do something unfortunate.”

“Don’t you dare—”

“If you ever find yourself in need of help, Natchua, call on me. I certainly owe you.”

“Wait!”

Unsurprisingly, she didn’t wait. As before, there was no discernible effect of transition; she was just suddenly back where she had been, in the dark outside the ruins of Leduc Manor, surrounded by her agitated loved ones and Kheshiri. This time, with no demon goddess in sight.

“Natchua!” Hesthri bawled, immediately throwing her arms around the elf’s neck and clinging to her. Jonathan was a split second behind, wrapping them both up in a hug, and despite her own agitation Natchua deliberately sank herself into their grasp. She desperately needed it right at that moment. Somewhere off to the side, Xyraadi was babbling excitedly in Glassian.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Kheshiri exclaimed after a span of seconds that was not nearly enough. “What happened? Mistress, what did she do to you? Are we going after the old bitch for Round 2?”

“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua mumbled into Hesthri’s cheek, finally raising her head to stare at the sky between the nearby pines. “Shit. Fuck a fucking… Okay, okay, don’t panic. I can use this. It’s like she said, there has to be a way I can use this against…”

“Natch, are you okay?” Jonathan asked insistently.

She was still staring at nothing, muttering to herself. “I know, I know it’s not what any of you signed on for, it’s basically the worst case… Okay, this is not a crisis. I know there has to be something…”

“Hey.” He finally released her, pulling back enough to raise her chin with one hand and bring her eyes to his. “Natchua, whatever happened, we’re here. We’ve got your back, and we will get through this. Together.”

“Yes,” Hesthri agreed, still hugging her close and pausing just long enough to press a kiss against her cheek. “Just tell us what she did, and we will deal with it.”

“Talk to us, mon amie,” Xyraadi agreed. “We are still in this fight! What did she do to you?”

Slowly, Natchua dragged her gaze around the group, making eye contact with each of them in the darkness.

“Apparently,” she said at last, “I’m the new Hand of Elilial.”

The wind whistled through the pines; in the near distance, an owl hooted disconsolately. At least there were no wolves howling.

Then Kheshiri began to laugh. In seconds she was screeching in absolute hysteria, folding herself to the ground to pound weakly at the driveway with one fist.

Melaxyna grabbed at her own face with clawed fingers, dragging them slowly down to her chin in a gesture of exasperated despair.

“Natchua, no!”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

15 – 74

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter >

Many of his companions were deeply uncertain about the prospect of Ingvar going off into the woods alone with the Bishop of the Huntsmen, he could see it plainly on their faces. They trusted him enough not to protest overtly, though, when he gave last-minute instructions for them to finish setting up camp and hold steady until his return. For his part, Ingvar was not concerned about his safety. He trusted Andros, and it was more than just an emotional attachment. Even if the day came when the two of them were declared enemies—which was, he was forced to admit, a possibility—Andros Varanus would never do something so dishonorable as try to ambush him in the dark under cover of friendship.

Besides, they really couldn’t stroll far enough that Rainwood wouldn’t hear everything happening, and he more than suspected that at least one or two of the highly capable wilderness trackers accompanying him were going to shadow their footsteps in the darkness. If the same thought occurred to Andros, he made no outward sign.

“Huntsmen and Shadow Hunters,” Andros said suddenly after they had walked in silence till the flickering of nascent campfires was no longer visible through the trees. The darkness was nearly absolute but this was a settled and well-traveled land, a proverbial stone’s throw from a major city; in this forest, it was comfortable to walk in the dark simply by taking slow, small steps to avoid landing in rabbit holes or tripping on roots. At least for experienced woodsmen such as they. “Men and women alike. A dryad, an elf of the line of the Crow. A couple of others to whom I could put no easy label. It is… Quite an assemblage. A thing straight out of the Age of Adventures. And all these people follow you, Ingvar?”

“They follow Shaath,” he replied quietly.

Andros kept his eyes ahead in the darkness; his face, barely glimpsed by occasional beams of moonlight through the leaves, revealed nothing. “And yet, you have not brought them back to any lodge of the Huntsmen, to answer to the Grandmaster.”

Ingvar inhaled silently before answering. “Because those two things would be mutually exclusive.”

He knew even saying it that way was throwing down the gauntlet, but they were both Huntsmen; dissembling did not become them.

Yet, despite his expectations, Andos did not react as if challenged. “What makes you think so?”

“The word of Shaath himself,” Ingvar answered. “We bought him a few moments of clarity today. There were…unintended side effects.”

“I should say so,” Andros rumbled. “The world reels from your side effects, Brother.”

“The howling should be silent now, but…”

“What’s done is done. Do you know there are still riots in Shaathvar?”

“It does not surprise me,” Ingvar said softly. “There will be more, Brother. By Shaath’s will.”

The Bishop half-turned his head to look sidelong at him through the dark.

“The howling will be silent, but not the dreams. By our god’s own power, all who pray to him or invoke his name will know the truth of the wolf pack whenever they sleep.”

Andros’s burly shoulders shifted in a heavy sigh. “You should have let the old wolf sleep, Brother. It would have been kinder.”

Kinder?” Ingvar came to a stop, turning to face him directly. Andros did likewise, his deep-set eyes glinting in the dark. “He was chained. The very god of the wild, chained like a goat for slaughter! He suffered every moment of it, and all because of us. Of all of us, his loyal Huntsmen! Brother, we have been lied to.”

“Do you remember what I said to you, years ago in Tiraas?” Andros asked, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “It was the first time I took you with me to the Vidian temple. You were frustrated by all their circuitous doublespeak, as any reasonable man would be. But you understood all their underhanded implications, and were savvy enough to hold your own tongue until we were out of their earshot. I said that showed you had a knack for politics, and you took offense.”

Ingvar recalled that day well. From another man he might have called this apparent change of subject a deflection, but such was not in Andros’s nature. He did not speak unless his words were going somewhere to the point.

“You said,” he replied slowly, “that it was a sacrifice. A thing that must be done, on behalf of those who would never thank or respect those of us who saw to the Huntsmen’s political affairs. That it was only for those who could pursue what was right, in defiance of every other desire, for no better reason than because it was right. Because it was necessary, even if at times it seemed…”

He trailed to a halt in the middle of reconstructing that long-ago speech, as another layer of meaning clicked into place given the context of this conversation.

“You knew,” he breathed. “You already know. Who else? The Grandmaster?”

“What have you learned?” Andros asked.

“I believe I asked you first, Brother,” Ingvar retorted, holding onto his own poise by a thread. All this time…

“I know a number of things that you did not, when you set out on your quest,” said Andros. “Looking at you now, knowing even just hints of what you have been up to over the last year, I suspect you’ve learned many things that are unknown to me still. I am only curious how much, if anything, I still need to explain.”

“Did you know that gods can be imprisoned by belief?” Ingvar snapped. “Not just Shaath, all of them wear the chains of their own cults. But they have means of countering this effect; what is unique about Shaath is that these were turned deliberately against him. Did you know that Angthinor the Wise was a liar?”

“Ah.” Andros nodded once. “That I knew, yes. Do you know why Angthinor did what he did?”

That brought Ingvar up short, for it was the one crucial piece of the puzzle he had never been able to learn, and the one that troubled him the most. Angthinor had been a true Huntsman, in fact the very last. He had walked with Shaath, known him not only as a distant figure of reverence, but as a brother. How could he have betrayed him so?

Andros interpreted his silence as the invitation it was.

“Unique among the Huntsmen of his day, Angthinor had a broader field of vision than a simple hunter,” the Bishop said, turning and beginning to walk very slowly back the way they had come, in the general direction of the hill and the camp. Ingvar kept pace alongside, listening. “He was a healer and a scholar as well as a warden of the wild, not unlike the Shadow Hunters of today. You’ve learned much of their ways, I expect. He understood a great deal about what was happening in the world beyond his beloved forests. And most importantly, he was a man such as all Shaathist politicians have had to be ever since: one who recognized right, and necessity, and did not shirk from duties he found painful.”

“Duties,” Ingvar repeated incredulously.

“The struggle between right and wrong is easy,” Andros said evenly. “Only the most craven and pathetic fail to make that choice. A man is tested when he must choose between right and right, when the only option before him is what manner of evil must be accepted. Angthinor made his choice. I have made mine; you have made your own. Only the gods can say if we chose rightly… And, given what you say, perhaps not even them.”

“What greater evil was Angthinor avoiding by doing this?”

“As with the worst evils, one whose victims were blameless. Shaath had no part or responsibility in the travails that wracked the world in those days. Angthinor acted to correct a great imbalance kicked up by Avei, Sorash, and Arachne Tellwyrn.”

In spite of himself, Ingvar froze in surprise. Tellwyrn? He’d found her rather personable and willing to be helpful, if a bit brusque. One could well forget, meeting the woman in person, that she was a contentious figure who stood astride a wide swath of history.

“There were two gods of war in the days before Angthinor’s time,” Andros continued, drifting a bit to the south. He was either heading for the road or taking a roundabout path back to the camp. “Avei was goddess of strategy, Sorash of conquest and violence. They had other philosophical differences, of course: one the protector and champion of women, and one of men. Combined with their other aspects, they set between them the relationship between men and women that has lingered to this day. The one, seeking dominance through craft and cunning, the other through force and sheer strength of will and character. It was certainly not ideal, as it still isn’t…but it was a balance. And then Tellwyrn came along and killed Sorash.”

Andros heaved a heavy sigh, powerful enough to make his beard flutter.

“This is not well-remembered by historians. The Huntsmen have worked carefully to erase it over the centuries, leaning on the Universal Church to lean on the Nemitites, hounding the Shadow Hunters to relinquish certain accounts in their libraries. It doesn’t surprise me that you have not yet heard this account, Brother. Knowledge is not so easily wiped away; you would have found it eventually, but not within a year of looking. The remaining accounts are well buried.”

“Accounts of what?”

“Of what happens to a world when the goddess of womankind is abruptly without a rival,” Andros said bitterly. “Despite their protestations, the Avenists are not champions of gender equality. The Izarites and Vidians both embrace that principle, and you know the contempt the Sisterhood has toward them for it. You know better than most the hypocrisy of Avei’s followers. How hard they work to ease the transitions of twinsouled women, while they cast people like you out into the wild to fend for themselves.”

“I have added knowledge to my training as a Huntsman, Brother, not over-written it. I hardly need a lecture on what is wrong within the Sisterhood of Avei.”

“Then perhaps you can imagine what goes wrong with a world in which there is no check upon Avei’s excesses,” Andros rumbled. “Within a century, it was a world ruled by queens. In more nations than otherwise, a man without a wife had little to no place in society, and one with a wife needed her to make any decision governing his own household. The inciting event for Angthinor himself was being told by the circle of wise women who looked after his own village that herb lore, healing, and the chronicling of the seasons was their work, unsuited for a man. That he, a chosen champion of the wild god himself, should mind his place.”

He fell silent, teeth glinting in the moonlight as he bared them, the two of them emerging from the treeline into a clearing. Off to their right, Ingvar could see the hill with the two campfires atop, casting irregular shadows as people moved about them.

“It sounds,” he said, heading in that direction, “much like what we tell women within our faith, now.”

“And so,” Andros said, weariness weighing heavily on his voice, “there is balance again. Angthinor restored what was lost, at the expense of the god he loved most. Because objectively, his was the weakest and least significant god of the Pantheon, save only Naphthene. Because Shaath had never played a role in guiding the shape of civilizations, and thus, he could still be made to. It has not been a perfect solution, Brother. It was a choice that still deserves to be mourned. But it was made, and for good reason. And those of us who know this secret have upheld it, by the same logic. Even though we grieve the same injustice you do. We accept the chains upon our god, for those chains ensure the freedom of all mankind.”

“Do you not see, Brother?” Ingvar asked, his voice rough with emotion. “Regardless of his intentions, it was not the right choice. An injustice is not corrected by an opposite injustice!”

“And whose is the purview of justice?” Andros asked pointedly. “Even the Avenists will not let one person be both judge and prosecutor. To whom can you appeal for justice when the source of justice itself is the source of your oppression? All that could be done was to push back against her.”

“Perhaps that was true, then,” Ingvar breathed. “But today, Brother, the world has changed.”

“Indeed, you might well have made all this thoroughly moot.”

“I don’t mean that. Hours ago I stood with a host of warriors from all across this Empire and beyond while Elilial formally surrendered to the Pantheon. And, as a last parting shot, revealed to all of us exactly how to kill a god.”

Andros stopped walking, turning to face him, his bushy eyebrows rising in a mute question.

“A god can be destroyed when they are severed from their aspect,” Ingvar said, meeting his stare intently. “Do you understand what this means, Andros? Angthinor did not thwart Avei; he squandered the only chance to punish her tyranny for good. If her aspects are called into conflict with one another, she can finally be hurt. If she devotes herself to injustice and will not recant, even Avei can be made to pay the price.”

Andros was silent, his eyes now narrowed in thought. Ingvar watched him consider it quietly for long moments, until finally the Bishop turned and mutely resumed walking, this time heading straight for the camp.

“Veisroi intends to call a Wild Hunt against you,” he said abruptly after a dozen steps. “I convinced him to hold off until I could try to persuade you. I gather, Brother, that you have no intention of turning away from the path you’ve chosen.”

“I am not Angthinor,” Ingvar stated, “and this is not Angthinor’s world. My choice is simply between right and wrong. I stand with Shaath and with the truth. I will not be swayed by threats.”

“If you were,” Andros said, nodding, “that would be the first thing in all of this that would make me think less of you, Brother.”

They passed through the last of the trees ringing the hill and began climbing its bare sides back to the campsite, curious faces already gathering to watch them come.

“You must know—even the Grandmaster must—that getting rid of me would not make this end,” Ingvar said as they ascended the last few yards. “The dreams will not stop. The truth can no longer be suppressed, Brother. Veisroi can try to scapegoat us if he wants, but it will only add to his problems.”

“Perhaps,” Andros mused, coming to a halt at the edge of the firelight. “But remember, Ingvar, that Veisroi is both hunter and politician. He too clever to destroy you outright. So long as he has you to point at and call enemy, he believes he can maintain his grip on the Huntsmen.”

“And on you?” Ingvar asked quietly.

There was silence, as Andros met his gaze for several seconds, then turned his head to look around at Ingvar’s assembled followers. Finally, he turned back to Ingvar directly and inclined his head, once.

“I wish you good fortune, Ingvar. Whatever else must come between us in the future, you have nothing but my highest respect. To me, you shall always be a Brother. And truly, I hope that you succeed.”

“But,” Ingvar said softly, “you will not join us?”

Slowly, Andros shook his head. “The world you seek to make is a better one, a world I would very much like to live in. But even with all you have gathered to your cause, I do not believe you can succeed. You are not the first, and will not be the last. There are many things I have seen in the hidden archives which convince me your cause is doomed. I will mourn you, Ingvar, when you fall, as I would any brother of mine. But I must remain behind to ensure the world does not fall with you.”

Ingvar let out a soft sigh. “The world has already changed, Brother. Truth can no longer be fought as it has been in the past. Veisroi does not understand this, and that is why he will fail.”

“Warn your friends, the Shadow Hunters,” Andros advised. “If the Grandmaster cannot rally enough support against you to suit him, they make a very convenient target.”

“They are called the Rangers,” said Ingvar, “and it is time for the Huntsmen to address them as such. I know it is convenient for the Grandmaster to have a mocking epithet to throw at them, and so that is the first of his weapons I shall take away. From now on, we are the Shadow Hunters, and it’s a name he and his followers will come to fear.”

Andros nodded once, then held out his hand. One last time, Ingvar clasped it in his own.

“My fortune smile on your hunts, Brother,” Andros said.

“Walk in peace with the wild, Brother,” Ingvar replied.

Then Andros released him, and with no more ado, turned and strode back down the hill, heading for the road.

“So…we’re the Shadow Hunters now?” Taka asked skeptically once the Bishop had disappeared into the trees. “I’ve gotta say, it sounds a little… What’s the word? Contrived? Melodramatic?”

“Pompous,” November suggested.

“I’d just have gone with ‘silly,’” Tholi grunted.

“I was hoping we’d be the Wardens,” Dimbi added. “That’s got a ring to it!”

“Oh, I kinda like that one,” Aspen agreed.

“Well, the Rangers have carried both names for centuries and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm,” Ingvar said with a thin smile, still watching the point where Andros had disappeared into the darkness. “Labels can be weapons, as I just said. Just because we’re confiscating one of Veisroi’s doesn’t mean we have to take it to heart.”

“Don’t listen to the naysayers, Ingvar, I thought you handled that very well.”

There was a general yelling and scattering as everyone whirled to face the person in the middle of their camp who had definitely not been there a moment ago. Even the wolves fled, whining and circling around behind their two-legged companions.

The reaction of spirit wolves was the only indication of anything fundamentally wrong, aside from the fact that they all recognized her. Unlike her previous performance in Ninkabi, she had no towering presence or metaphysical weight, no aura pressing down on their consciousness. She was just a lone woman, albeit one with dusky crimson skin, horns, and hooves.

Tholi nocked an arrow and drew it back, taking aim straight at her heart.

“I’m curious, Tholi,” Elilial said in a pleasant tone, “and this is a serious question, no fooling. Suppose you shot me with an arrow. What do you think would happen next?”

Tholi’s expression took on a sickly cast as he found himself in the classic dilemma of either losing face by backing down or starting a fight he had no prayer of winning. Generally, Ingvar preferred to let young men get themselves out of that crevice and learn the hard way not to get back in it, but this was no time to take risks.

“Don’t waste your arrows, Tholi,” he said, stepping in front of the young man and directing his gaze at the queen of demons. “What do you want?”

“Why, the same thing I always want,” she said lightly. “To use you in my schemes. Pay attention, everybody, I’m going to teach you a trick.”

“No, thank you,” Ingvar said firmly. “We want nothing to do with infernal craft.”

“Oh, good heavens, no,” Elilial replied, grimacing. “Can you even imagine? The last thing this poor beleaguered world needs is more unprepared fools playing around in Scyllith’s toolbox. No, if you lot take to dabbling in infernomancy—and seriously, don’t—you won’t learn about it from me. On the contrary, I think you’ll find this rather wholesome. Why don’t you come over here, little friend?”

This last was not directed to him, but off to the side. Ingvar followed her gaze to behold a bobbing ball of cyan light drifting closer at her urging.

“Me?” the pixie chimed uncertainly.

“No need to be shy,” Elilial said, beckoning him and smiling. “I wanna show you something. Are you up for a little game?”

“Ooh! I like games!” All his hesitation abruptly gone, the pixie shot forward, swirling eagerly around her.

“That’s the spirit!” she said cheerfully. “Now, I’m pretty sure this is a game you’ve already played, but personally, I never get bored with it. Everybody stand back, we’re gonna have another round of Destroy the Demon!”

She held out one hand, palm up, and clenched it into a fist, and just like that, a sulfur-reeking rift opened on the ground for a split second, just long enough to discharge a snarling khankredahg demon.

Again, everyone except Ingvar and Aspen retreated, most shouting in alarm, but Elilial just pointed at the snapping brute even as it whirled on her. “Go get ‘im!”

“Yay!” the pixie cried happily and zipped forward, stunning the khankredahg with a miniature arc of lightning.

In the next moment, he was swirling eagerly around the demon, siphoning away magic and making the increasingly frantic creature shrivel right before their eyes.

“Surprising little creatures, pixies,” Elilial said to Ingvar and the others while watching this macabre spectacle. “Some of the most vicious predators in existence. They mostly eat each other, but… I don’t know what that screwloose firecracker Jacaranda did differently this time, but the pixies she made today aren’t culling one another like her previous batches did. In fact, though I haven’t yet looked closely enough to ascertain how, I’m pretty sure there are more of them than there were this afternoon. Even so, an awful lot of those out there already have a taste for demon, and their instincts compel them to go straight for the kill.”

“What exactly are you suggesting to us?” Ingvar asked, beginning to suspect he already knew.

“They didn’t get every demon,” Elilial said, sourly twisting her mouth. “Mostly just mine. The ones that fled Ninkabi were the others, the invaders I was trying to mop up. Hundreds made it out and are spreading in all directions. Most won’t last long; the Empire and the Pantheon cults are actively hunting them, and there are also lots of wild pixies hereabouts. But quite a few are good at keeping themselves hidden. Something has to be done about that.

“My Black Wreath have always served the purpose of cleaning up stray demons and warlocks on the mortal plane, but as of today, the Black Wreath functionally does not exist. Someone has to pick up the slack. So the question is, Ingvar: is your struggle with the Huntsmen going to be a purely political one, and purely for the sake of putting yourself in power instead of Veisroi? Because I certainly won’t judge you if so; it goes without saying I have no respect for that guy. But on the other hand, if you want your little reform movement to stand for something more…” She gestured languidly. “There’s work to be done. There are demons to slay, there are perfect shiny attack dogs fluttering around all over just waiting to be tamed and put to work, and now you know how easy that is. If you wanna get a head start on making a name for yourself, you know what to do.”

“I don’t trust you,” he said flatly.

“Well, obviously,” she replied, grinning. “I wouldn’t be bothering with you if you were an idiot. All I can promise you here is that I’m not asking you for anything and you won’t be hearing from me again. If you want to take up the charge against the demons, that’ll suit my purposes splendidly. If not, I’ll find somebody else. Think it over, Shadow Hunters. Hm.” She screwed her face up pensively. “You know, now that you pointed it out, that name does seem a little overwrought. Ah, well, that’s your business, not mine. I have another urgent appointment tonight, so I won’t keep you any longer. Good hunting!”

She snapped her fingers and vanished in an entirely unnecessary shower of crimson sparks.

“It’s a trap,” Tholi said immediately.

“How?” Taka demanded.

“Aw, is she gone?” the pixie chimed, drifting over toward them. Behind him was nothing but a patch of charcoal where the demon had apparently been drained of every spark of its life essence. “Shoot, now how’ll I know if I won?”

“It sure looks to me like you did,” Ingvar said with a smile. “What’s your name, little friend?”

“Name?” The pixie zipped about in a tight circle as if momentarily agitated. “I dunno, I’ve never thought about it. I don’t think pixies have names.”

“I know one who does,” Ingvar said gravely. “Everyone deserves a name.”

“You think so? Well, that sounds pretty neat! What should my name be?”

“Names are serious business,” said Ingvar. “We should talk for a bit, and think about it. Your name is important and we don’t want to rush it. Would you like to stay here with us tonight?”

“Well sure!” the little fairy chimed. “I like you people! And your wolves are fluffy and shiny, my two favorite things!”

“Um,” Rainwood cleared his throat. “That appears to be a lightning pixie. Just saying…”

“Yes, please refrain from zapping anybody,” Ingvar requested.

“Well, sure, I wouldn’t do that. It seems to hurt people. You guys are my friends!”

“Yay,” Aspen deadpanned.

“Let’s get some rest while we can,” Ingvar said, turning to the others. “I will take the first watch, along with our new friend here. We’ll try to talk quietly. Everyone sleep fast and hard, for dawn comes early. And with it, we hunt.”


The eldritch shadows departed and it wasn’t a whole lot brighter in their absence, except behind and far below them where the lights of Veilgrad extended out into the prairie from the foot of the mountains.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi groaned, gazing up the path at the dim shape of Leduc Manor. “Look how much more uphill there is! Natchua, we really must rebuild the ward network so we can shadow-jump directly in.”

“It’s on the to-do list,” Natchua assured her, patting Hesthri’s back. The hethelax leaned against her for a moment, but said nothing. She had been quiet since her and Jonathan’s conversation with Gabriel, and Natchua was torn between wanting to know exactly what had happened and not wanting to rip open any more scars tonight. “Well, standing here groaning isn’t getting us to bed any faster.”

She set off up the path, and everyone followed. Neither succubus took flight, though they could have made it to the house in seconds; Natchua suspected they just weren’t emotionally capable of passing up any crowd that might be a source of juicy gossip.

“Natchua,” Xyraadi said suddenly, her voice more serious, “now that we are… Well, now that it’s over, I am thinking very seriously of taking Lieutenant Locke up on her offer. I do not know how to not be fighting. And it would be good to work with the Sisterhood again. That Trissiny Avelea impresses me greatly; she is already a much wiser paladin than Trouchelle ever was.”

“I think that sounds like a good use for your abilities,” Natchua said with a smile. “You certainly don’t need my permission to do anything, you know. I appreciate you letting me know, though.”

“Of course, I would not abandon a friend and ally without a word.”

“I think that was a shot at you, Mel,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

“Cheap, tiresome, low-hanging fruit,” Melaxyna replied in a bored tone. “Bring your A-game or don’t talk to me at all.”

Xyraadi glanced back at the succubi momentarily. “I mention it also because I thought you might consider the offer yourself, Natchua. You, and any of us here.”

“I…” Natchua hesitated, looking at Jonathan. “I never thought about…”

“The idea has its good and bad points,” he mused. “It would be something to do. I have to say, I’m startled to find this whole campaign of ours over. I thought for sure that’d only happen over everybody’s dead body.”

“Hence why I mention it,” Xyraadi agreed. “A sudden lack of purpose is bad for the spirit, take it from one who knows. I am not saying you have to do what I do, but it is a possibility to consider.”

“Hard pass,” said Kheshiri. “I’ve done all the work under priests I care to, and the last Avenist I met was gibbering batshit insane.”

“You’ll do as you’re told,” Natchua said automatically. “And I…will consider it. But just to reiterate: not one of you—except Kheshiri, whose ass I own—is beholden to me. I brought you all out here to do something, and… Well, to my surprise as much as anyone’s, it’s done now.”

“I will go where you go, pretty one,” Hesthri said, slipping and arm around her waist.

“Same goes,” Jonathan chuckled and pressed against the hethelax’s other side. He was sufficiently larger than them that he managed to drape his own arm around both her shoulders and Natchua’s.

“Yes, there’s also that,” Melaxyna said lightly. “It’s been good to put on my dusty old Izarite hat after all these centuries. I have a lot of work still to do, making a functioning person out of Sherwin. And I confess, I might not have encouraged the three of you to have a go at it if I’d known you weren’t all going to die within a few days.”

“Excuse me?!” Natchua exclaimed.

“You took relationship advice from the succubus?” Jonathan added incredulously.

Hesthri gently poked a chitin-armored elbow into his ribs. “You weren’t complaining when she had her mouth—”

“Public!” he interrupted, jostling her.

“From the good succubus,” Natchua clarified.

“Do you mean good as in morally, or as in superior?” Kheshiri demanded. “Because you’re wrong either way, but I do like things to be clear.”

“Oh, not to worry,” Melaxyna chirped, waving her tail happily. “You three are a surprisingly stable unit, for a tripod. A bit more guidance and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make this work as long as you like with no further help. Trust me, I’m a professional.”

“And yet,” Xyraadi murmured, “not even the weirdest group of friends I have ever had.”

They topped the last rise in the path and slowed to a stop, finding Lord Sherwin himself sitting on the front steps of the manor amid all the construction materials despite the late hour.

“Sherwin?” Natchua asked as he jumped to his feet. “What are you still doing up?”

“Natch, everybody,” he said urgently. “The hobs are already hiding—you’d better get out of here before she—”

The manor’s doors burst open, and framed within them, backlit but a halo of seething orange flame, stood Elilial.

“There you are, you little beast,” she said, pointing one clawed finger at Natchua. “I want a word with you.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

15 – 68

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

The group materialized in a mostly-open interior space that appeared to have been a pub or restaurant, to judge by the bar along one side and the tables and chairs now smashed against the walls. In the clear space in the center, three startled khelminash demons standing around a summoning circle turned to face them.

The trio hesitated, perhaps confused by the appearance of a group of warlocks and demons of uncertain allegiance, a mistake which proved fatal for them. Natchua, even with all her bestowed knowledge, couldn’t match a highly skilled khelminash sorceress simply because there were so many infernal spells a mortal could not cast and survive, but no demon would ever match an elf for reaction time.

Before the demons could decide on a reaction, darkness swelled as Natchua shadow-jumped several large clusters of the wrecked furniture straight into their bodies. All three fell, pierced like archery target dummies with fragments of table and chair legs. Only one survived the initial strike long enough to whimper in pain. Xyraadi put a needle-thin lance of fire right between her eyes.

Non, non,” Xyraadi complained. “You take all the fun out of it! One is meant to make a witty remark before dispatching a foe.”

“I don’t know where to begin explaining why that’s a bad idea,” Jonathan muttered.

“Look, there was one right there! ‘Take a seat.’ It was perfect!”

“I reluctantly like your pet khelminash, mistress,” Kheshiri simpered.

“Quiet!” Natchua snapped. “This isn’t an adventure. No fucking banter, for heaven’s sake. Look, we have entrances on both sides of the room. Kheshiri, get up to the roof—from the inside—and see what you can see from that vantage. No flying, and be careful, if their forces are concentrated up here there may be warlocks who can still spot you.”

Kheshiri bowed and went invisible, and Natchua turned to Hesthri. “Hes, any idea what went wrong with your ring?”

The hethelax, her armored form clearly visible after the failure of her enchanted disguise ring, shrugged. “Well, Natchua, I’ve of course been working on it steadily while we were jumping all over the city fighting for our lives, with all that expertise in arcane enchantment that I’ve somehow acquired since this morning.”

“What did I just say about banter?”

“You say a lot of things,” Hesthri replied with a smile. “I listen to some of them. It’s an arcane device and we’ve been neck-deep in infernomancy. It got fried, that’s all.”

Natchua sighed. “All right, split up… Jonathan, Xyraadi, check the door over on that side. Hes, you’re with me. Careful and quiet is the order of the day, we have no idea what’s going on here. Poke your heads out if the coast is clear, and don’t wander out of sight of the door. We’re just getting a handle on the situation right now. Be as shy as trapdoor lizards.”

Xyraadi tugged on Jonathan’s sleeve. “What is a trapdoor lizard?”

“Search me. Let’s be as shy as rabbits, how about that?”

“Oh. What is a rabbit?”

“I know you know what a rabbit is.”

Natchua groaned out loud as the two groups separated, and Hesthri bumped her with her shoulder, grinning.

She carefully leaned her head out, sweeping her gaze around. This door opened onto a side street; apparently she’d sent Jonathan and Xyraadi to the side closer to the square. Thus oriented, Natchua could indeed tell that the noise of battle was coming from near the front gates of the city, though even as she listened, it seemed to be shifting deeper into the central island. Apparently they were making progress, but must have suffered some setback.

The problem with elven hearing was always sifting out relevant details from the vast amounts of data streaming into her ears. For the most part, the speed and acuity of thought with which elves were blessed compensated, but extremely chaotic events such as this one could cause paralyzing confusion. Natchua stepped out into the street, Hesthri right on her heels, raising her head and trying to focus.

The skies were filled with those flying khelminash discs, mostly aiming toward the major concentration of the action. A small cluster might be heading in her direction, it was hard to tell exactly; Natchua shifted her focus to that, watching them.

Then a massive explosion went off high above the city, followed by several subsidiary bursts. Colorful ones.

“Fireworks?” she asked aloud, incredulous.

“Incoming!” Hesthri barked, raising her staff.

A small, disorganized cluster of khaladesh staggered out of a wrecked storefront, immediately turning toward them; Hesthri began methodically firing her staff. Natchua, though, had to turn and leave her to it, as that group of khelminash warlocks was indeed now heading right for them, having been pushed lower by the fireworks and evidently spotted them in the process.

She used the same trick as before, figuring these wouldn’t have been close enough to see it the last time and thus have no counter, and she was right; overloading their discs sent them spinning out of control. This time, though, that had the effect of turning them into infernal missiles headed right at her, and it took some very rapid conjuring of shadow tentacles out of carefully placed portals to grab and fling the oncoming discs aside before they could impact right on her position. She took the time to make sure none of the three warlocks who fell off in the process made it to the ground alive. Important as that maneuver was, it nearly cost her dearly.

Natchua turned back around to find Hesthri standing her ground, not against the now-dead khaladesh troopers, but a figure mounted on a black horse barreling down on her with his scythe raised to swing.

“NO!” she roared, throwing forward both her hands as if the sudden surge of adrenaline that wracked her had taken over completely.

A veritable tidal wave of shadow swelled up out of the ground, impacting Gabriel and Whisper and halting their advance, then sending them tumbling backward. The eerie horse screamed in rage, staggering back to her hooves with her rider hanging on for dear life. They had righted and re-oriented themselves in seconds, but at that point Gabriel at least had the presence of mind to rein in his furious mount, finding Natchua planted firmly in front of Hesthri with her arms spread out to bar the way.

“Not this one, Gabe!” she shouted. “She’s…with me.”

Hesthri grabbed her from behind, peeking over her shoulder.

“Oh,” Gabriel said irritably, trying to regain control of his dancing steed, who clearly wanted to continue the attack. “Well, sorry about that, then. You know, I’m pretty sure this is exactly why Trissiny told you and your lot to stay on the south bank! How’s it going with the portals?”

“South bank’s cleared of them,” she said. “When we left there were only a few of the rest still active. They should be finishing up soon.”

“Good, then we can start mopping all this up,” he said brusquely, turning Whisper away. “Everyone’s regrouping in the front square; get your team back together and join us when you can. But approach carefully, or maybe send your demons somewhere they won’t get automatically shot.”

With that, they wheeled and galloped back the way they had come.

“He…that’s…”

Natchua carefully turned, wrapping Hesthri in a quick hug. “Yeah. Hes, there will be time; Gabe’s probably one of the more indestructible people here. But that conversation will have to wait, we’ve…”

She trailed off, raising her eyes, then narrowing them to make sense of what she was seeing. Hesthri, after a moment, pulled back, first frowning at Natchua and then following her gaze up at the sky.

“What…are those colored lights? And do I hear music?”

“Pixies,” Natchua said in disbelief. “Where did they all… Holy shit.”

A small phalanx of three flying discs, carrying nine warlocks, crested the row of buildings alongside them with an escort of tame katzils. Watching this array of infernal power being swiftly annihilated by a swarm of glittering, chiming glow balls was a sight to behold. Their sprays of lightning, water, wind and ice did half the work, but the pixies themselves latched on like piranhas, searing away the very infernal magic of which the demons were made and leaving nothing but a few specks of drifting charcoal.

“Inside,” Natchua said urgently. Hesthri required no encouragement.

Everyone else had already regathered in the pub, including Kheshiri.

“Okay, I really hope you saw that,” the succubus said upon Natchua’s return, “because there’s no way you’ll believe it otherwise.”

“Yes, I did,” Natchua said, frowning. “Are you two okay?”

“Please, I’m not so easily rattled,” Kheshiri replied, tossing her hair.

“I’m fine,” Xyraadi assured her, visibly shaken for the first time since the battle had begun. “What are those things?”

“Pixies,” said Jonathan. “Natchua, do you have the slightest idea where they came from?”

“Not even a glimmer, but fairies swarming this city will put a stop to a demon invasion pretty damn quick. Unfortunately, more than half of us are demons.”

“Welp, all this appears to be under control, then,” Kheshiri interjected. “I say we haul ass back to Veilgrad—”

“Quiet, Kheshiri,” Natchua snapped.

“Yeah, didn’t think so,” she muttered before subsiding.

“Regrouping with the others has just gone from a problematic idea to a non-starter,” Natchua continued. “We need to keep under cover. And… What’s left of the Elilinist forces, between all those adventurers and now the pixies, are as distracted as they are ever going to be.”

“Then this is our opportunity,” Jonathan said, nodding. “We get to the cathedral and get the drop on whoever’s there.”

“I realize—”

“This is what we all signed on for,” he interrupted her with a faint smile. “We know the risks, Natch. You set all this up for the chance of one surprise strike on Elilial. Right now, her whole command structure is concentrated in one spot, with their defenses in tatters and under constant pressure.”

“There will never be a better opportunity,” Xyraadi agreed, her face settling into an expression of grim fervor. “There is no telling what will happen to us, but like he said, we all knew that in advance. Now, we can hurt her. Such a chance won’t come again.”

“Um, excuse me,” said Kheshiri, “but if you—”

“You wanted to be part of this so badly you had to blackmail your way here,” Natchua interrupted her. “Welcome to the team, Shiri. I’m not unreasonable; if you think you’ll stand a better chance with the pixies and your own former partners up in the square, you have my permission to go try.”

“…you’re kind of hot when you’re being a sadistic bitch.”

“Not just then,” Hesthri said innocently, patting Natchua’s rump.

Natchua sighed. “Always with the banter. Is it always like this?”

“When it’s good, it is,” Xyraadi said, smiling.

“Well, we have no more time to waste. In or out, Kheshiri, make your choice.”

“Oh, I’m coming,” the succubus said, not without annoyance. “Wouldn’t be my first impossible dilemma, and I’m definitely not passing up the chance to see egg on Elilial’s face. I’ll just be in charge of getting as many of these clowns out alive as possible, shall I?”

“Get us as close as you can, Xyraadi,” Natchua ordered.

The sorceress grinned and raised her hands. “I will see what I can do.”

Darkness swelled, then receded, and they were once again outdoors, in the shadow of a great complex of domes and minarets. They stood in a small, walled-in vegetable garden, close to a door. Most of the surrounding view was blocked by the walls and the bulk of the cathedral itself, but what they could see of the sky was clear of both demons and fairies.

“What’s this?” Jonathan asked, raising his staff and sweeping his gaze around the area. “Looks like somebody’s cabbage patch.”

“This is the Omnist garden attached to the cathedral’s kitchen, and what are you doing here?”

All of them whirled to face a wood elf woman with black hair, who had definitely not been standing there a moment ago.

“Oh, hello, Kuriwa,” Xyraadi said in a resigned tone. “Since I doubt you have changed much in six hundred years, I would guess that we are here for the same reason you are.”

Mary the Crow scowled at them. “Well, I suggest you forget it. I have waited too long for this to have it bungled by a crew of miscellaneous infernal reprobates.”

“Miscellaneous?” Kheshiri said haughtily. “Never in my life have I—”

“Hush,” Natchua snapped. “Kuriwa, is it? Well, I haven’t waited nearly as long, but I’m not about to pass this up, nonetheless. I have business with Elilial.”

“She’s not in there, child,” Mary said condescendingly.

“But something important to her is. I don’t know what it is, yet, but I intend to go in there and deprive her of it.”

The shaman opened her mouth to retort, but Natchua barreled on.

“And if you’ve got the same idea, then the question is whether you want to spend you energies doing that with a little unexpected help, or waste them trying to stop me?”

“Girl, I am an elder shaman,” she said, exasperated. “Why do warlocks ever think they have anything with which to threaten me?”

“You cannot take her on, Natchua,” Xyraadi interjected. “And don’t look so smug, Kuriwa. She can absolutely delay you long enough to waste this chance, and probably draw the Wreath’s attention here. There’s no time for this. We have the same goal; it is foolish not to join forces.”

“There’s a hellgate under the cathedral,” Natchua said while Kuriwa narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “An ancient one—”

“I am well aware of that,” the shaman interrupted. “I was alive when it was created. It surprises me that you are… But yes, that will be where the Wreath and any demonic leadership are concentrated. I’ve already investigated their defenses, and I can assure you that this is where you stop. Aside from the divine protections on the cathedral itself and especially around the sealed hellgate site, the Wreath have additionally warded themselves against shadow-jumping. It is not impossible that they can be ambushed, but not by any warlock. So if you wish to help, return to the—”

“Supposing we’re willing to take the risk and waste time explaining to everybody there that we’re on their side before there’s a friendly fire incident,” Jonathan stated, “that’s not going to do us any good against all these damn pixies, wherever the hell they came from. We can’t be any help out there. This place is another matter.”

“Hey, that’s a good point,” Kheshiri said innocent. “And on the same subject, what’s the big heap shaman doing screwing around here instead of helping everybody else? It’s not like there’s any reason she needs to be afraid of pixies.”

Natchua folded her arms and raised her eyebrows.

The wood elf exhaled slowly through her nose. “I go where my abilities are put to the best use.”

“Us, too,” Natchua replied. “And like he said, that is here, not there. I assume you have a plan for getting close to the hellgate?”

“Of course I do!”

“Then deal us in. If you can just get us to the site, you’ll have a lot more assets to field against the Wreath. Or, as I said, you can squander this opportunity for both of us trying to slow me up, because regardless of anything else you do, I am going in there.”

“Natchua, is it?” Kuriwa mused. “You really are a splendid example of your people.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes. “That wasn’t called for.”

“Fine,” the shaman said, suddenly curt. “I suppose your bumbling presents less of a hazard down there when the Wreath are as likely to suffer from it as yourself than up here, wasting my time. But most of this group will have to stay behind.”

“Awfully convenient,” Hesthri remarked.

“You would find it much less convenient in proximity to that hellgate,” Kuriwa retorted. “It is sealed by, in essence, having a constant wellspring of divine light poured through it. Disabling that will be the Wreath’s priority, but it will take them considerable time and effort and until it is done, that site is not safe for demons to be near. You and your human friend may accompany me, warlock. The rest of these had better hole up nearby, ready to escape.”

Natchua hesitated, searching her face; Kuriwa’s expression was implacable.

A hand fell on her shoulder. She turned to look up into Jonathan’s eyes.

“It’s your call,” he said quietly. “Whatever that is, we’ll back you up.”

Kheshiri opened her mouth, and Xyraadi slapped the back of her head.

“I need…” Natchua closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again to meet his gaze. “I need you to stay with the others, Jonathan. You can all probably evade detection, but if not, three demons…”

“Look better with a human who can vouch for ‘em,” he finished. “Not much better. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you nobody likes a warlock.”

“Gabriel’s out there, and all three paladins know Xyraadi. If you’re discovered, distract and delay, tell whoever you meet to check with them. I doubt there are many people in this cathedral, given what’s been happening under it, but…”

“Understood.” He pulled her forward into a hug, and Natchua squeezed her eyes shut, clinging to him for a long moment. Another body pressed against her from behind, Hesthri’s patches of chitin plating digging into her in spots. She made no complaint.

“All right, let’s get moving,” Natchua said briskly, extricating herself. Kuriwa was watching now with a raised eyebrow, but thankfully said nothing. “You four need to huddle up somewhere inside, out of sight; we’ll collect you on our way back out. The first step is to get through this door. Kheshiri, can you pick a lock?”

“Course,” the succubus said, sauntering forward. She lifted the latch and swung the door outward. “Why, what of it? Surely you didn’t think a church would lock the back door to its enclosed garden?”

Natchua was spared having to answer that by the need to keep up with Kuriwa, who strode right in.

“Jonathan’s in charge,” she ordered as they all filed into the large stone kitchen. This cathedral must have an attached monastery or something to need such facilities; she wasn’t well-versed in Tiraan religion. Maybe they fed the poor, too? Omnists did a lot of that. “Jonathan, you know everyone’s strengths. I trust you to listen to them. Xyraadi is our resident expert in several fields.”

“Don’t I know it,” he agreed. “Be careful, Natchua. For once.”

“I will see what I can do,” she said dryly. “What’s the—”

Kuriwa raised her hand and made a vertical slashing motion, and something odd appeared. It was a weird line of distortion in the air that bent light oddly around it, distorting vision like water on one side.

“Step carefully,” the shaman said cryptically, sliding around to one side of it, and then slipped through as if passing a corner.

Natchua wanted to look once more at the others, but didn’t risk the time. She followed, studying the line uncertainly; it wasn’t at all clear how one was supposed to get through it, as it looked exactly the same from the side angle.

But then, she was through, as if just approaching it with intent was enough to effect the passage.

She was still in the kitchen, though now with Kuriwa again. The others were still visible, but vague and wavery, as if they were underwater; the three demons were surrounded by visible coronas of orange light.

“Do I want to know?” she asked.

“The space between spaces is very dangerous,” the wood elf replied, busily casting a small ritual circle on the ground in front of her with nothing but her bare hands. “It can be used for rapid travel, however, by those who are careful. With the right craft, one step here can cover many miles on the mortal plane.”

“That seems like it could be problematic indoors.”

“Precisely, hence my preparations. We can reach our target in but a few steps, but they will have to take us through the corridors of the cathedral and the complex beneath it with great precision. This must be arranged in advance. Ah, there we have it.”

“That was quick.”

“I am good at what I do,” the woman stated flatly. “Hold my hand, and do not let go.”

Natchua hesitated, but reached out to grasp her outstretched hand as offered. Kuriwa gripped her fingers, raised a foot to take a step, and then they were elsewhere.

“That’s disorienting,” Natchua muttered. “Is it—whoah.”

“Don’t look at them,” Kuriwa ordered. “Don’t react to them.”

They were in an outdoor gallery with broad archways opening onto the cathedral’s main sanctuary now, a position which provided glimpses of the sky. A sky which, in this place, consisted of colossal eyes and tentacles, writhing hungrily.

“Are you serious?!”

“Extremely. They are not real, strictly speaking. The sky monsters were placed there by the Elder Gods to prevent people from mucking about in this space; only the valkyries are impervious to their gaze. They do not actually exist except in the presence of a sentient mind which can perceive them. The more attention is paid them, the more real they become, until eventually they will attack. So yes, try to ignore them as much as you can. This is another reason your friends could not come; the infernal compulsion of demons resonates powerfully with those things, and draws their rage almost immediately.”

“Shit,” Natchua muttered. Kuriwa actually gave her hand a little squeeze, then took another step and moved them again, deeper down and inexorably toward their final confrontation.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                  Next Chapter >

15 – 67

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

“Why the hell are we losing now?” Taka shouted immediately upon flashing back into human form, pausing to grimace and wipe at the acrid stains around her mouth. Seconds prior, in the shape of a wolf, she had just torn out the throat of a khaladesh demon armed with notably better weapons than most of them, likely some kind of officer. “We killed the big one! That always works in stories!”

“We?” McGraw muttered, his attention on the next wave of khaladesh which he was pelting with arcane bolts.

“Don’t swallow,” Khadizroth ordered, pausing in his own work to lay a hand on Taka’s forehead. She scowled at the sparks of drifting green magic which momentarily swirled around her, but made no complaint. Nobody sensible turned down a free cleansing after getting a mouthful of demon. “It is the difference between an army and a rabble,” the dragon continued, releasing her and resuming his previous task; he was rapidly summoning more light creatures to attack the demons still trying to swarm them. “Our forces charged in no order, with no plan and without leadership, at an organized counter-force which deftly split us off to be defeated in detail. This is why Hands of Avei are important, even in the presence of allies who can objectively hit harder. While we had a plan and they did not, we were winning. The tables have turned.”

“There’s a lot o’ things I doubt about you, Khadizroth, but your intellect ain’t one,” said Joe, also facing forward and firing his wands as steadily as he could without overheating them. “If you got a plan, I’m all ears.”

“Plans are one thing; most of those here will not listen to me as readily as they would Avelea,” Khadizroth replied. “What we need to do is regroup, and have an orderly force ready for her to direct when she gets back.”

“How sure are we that she’s coming back?” Taka asked pointedly. “I mean, the other two paladins are still here and she got—”

“I have seen Avei’s champions fall in battle,” the dragon said with a thin smile, still conjuring magic against the demons. “Never to anything as prosaic as a great big explosion. And this one was trained by Arachne; she will have numerous tricks up her sleeve.”

“I can’t say I’m not worried about Trissiny,” Toby added, “but I’m not panicked yet. She’s survived worse, and come back to yell at us for falling out of formation.”

“That has also been my experience,” Khadizroth said gravely. “If you will all take my advice, then…?”

“Of course, Lord Khadizroth,” Vannae said quickly and predictably. Beside him, Rainwood rolled his eyes.

Gabriel brought Whisper cantering back up to them after another sweep; he and his scythe had been keeping the khaladesh in the vicinity from forming up, and also taking potshots at any khelminash flyers who got too close with the beams of black light it produced. The khelminash, though generally fearless, had failed to come up with anything that countered that, and were keeping their distance from the upper plaza, where Khadizroth and the much smaller group with them had been pushed back to the magic tree.

“Joe, you trust this dragon?” Gabe asked.

Joe glanced sidelong at Khadizroth, grunted, then nodded. “Here an’ now? He’s smart an’ no friend o’ demons. This is a good time for listenin’ to our elders.”

“I shall try not to disappoint,” the dragon acknowledged. “As I said, we must regroup. I see no bodies on the street from here, so hopefully everyone has taken shelter, but they are now scattered around this city block and beyond. The largest concentration are over there in the trading hall with the civilians and soldiers; being closest and most fortified, that is the least concern. We must gather the isolated groups and individuals, and protect them while bringing them back here. It’s Taka, yes?”

“I don’t recall telling you that,” she said suspiciously.

“Forgive me, but you are teeming with some of the most talkative fae spirits I have ever encountered,” Khadizroth said, pausing in his casting to nod deeply to her. “I need you to call your family, please.”

“My family are—oh, right. I see what you mean.”

With a flash of moonlight, she was gone and a huge, luminous wolf in her place. Taka raised her head and let out a long, warbling howl; immediately, the two spirit wolves which had gathered together with them followed suit.

Within seconds, more howls answered them from the nearby structures. Also, as if at the same cue, several squadrons of flying khelminash switched their maneuvers from sweeping the outlying streets to heading toward them in formation.

“Mr. Arquin,” Khadizroth continued, “how do you feel about antagonizing a large number of incredibly dangerous women into making you the main target of their ire?”

Gabriel barked a sardonic laugh. “Like I’ve been training for this moment my whole life!” Whisper whinnied a challenge and the pair of them charged off, Gabriel immediately disrupting the nearest khelminash formation with several well-placed scythe beams.

“Longshot, break off attacking and conserve your energy, please,” said the dragon. “I want you to watch for stragglers coming in; if they are pressed by demons, teleport them to us.”

“Can do,” McGraw agreed, bringing his staff up to a vertical position and tipping his hat. “For a while, anyway. Porting takes it out of a man.”

“I shall bolster you as best I can. Vannae, Rainwood, please prioritize healing any wounded we gather here, and otherwise continue defending this spot. Mr. Caine, can you sweep the surrounding structures and escort survivors back to us?”

“I can,” Toby said, “though I don’t move as fast as Gabe or Triss, obviously.”

Khadizroth opened his mouth to reply, but before he could a column of sunlight plunged down from the sky straight above to illuminate a wide circle next to them, just outside the radius of the tree’s branches. Golden light intensified in the place where it met the pavement, and in the next moment a horse stepped out of it.

She was a palomino, her coat a shade of golden blonde that shimmered as if literally gilded, with a contrasting black mane and tail. The creature might well have been made of sunlight, by her appearance. She wore a plan, well-weathered saddle over a woven blanket of warm brown with green embroidered designs and thread-of-gold Omnist sunbursts in each corner.

“Roiyary!” Rainwood practically squealed, rushing forward to throw his arms around the horse’s neck. “There’s my girl! How’ve you been?”

The mare whickered affectionately at him before gently pulling away and stepping over to an awestruck Toby.

“Good timing,” Khadizroth remarked. “But then, your performance a few minutes ago was just the kind of achievement that often earns a paladin their mount.”

“I have to warn you,” Toby said, gingerly stroking Roiyary’s nose, “I’m not the most experienced rider.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Rainwood said, grinning. “She’s taught worse. Just trust her and let her do the work.”

Roiyary nickered in agreement, turning to present her left side to Toby. He reached up and placed one hand on the saddle horn, and then smoothly flowed upward to land in the saddle as if he’d been doing so his entire life, somewhat spoiling the effect by looking comically startled that it had worked.

The sunlit mare whinnied, reared once, and then charged down the nearest side street, Toby balancing smoothly astride her; one would never guess from watching them that he was a less than expert horseman.

“The gods are with us,” Khadizroth commented. “Good, we’ll need them. Joseph, you know your business well; I caution you to prioritize dealing with ground forces as they approach. Your wands have proved very effective against the khelminash, but for that very reason the more of them you shoot, the faster they will develop a counter to your skill. Try to save those shots for a pressing need. You can judge such for yourself.”

Joe made no reply except to keep shooting.

“We have a solid defense on the ground, but those flyers are going to become a major problem as soon as we have people trying to rejoin us. Kuriwa… Do something.”

She had not been obviously in evidence, but at his demand, the little black crow landed right in Khadizroth’s green hair and pecked him twice on the forehead before fluttering off again.

Before it could become apparent what Mary planned to do, the enormous silver-armored bulk of Arjen burst out of a side street on the lower square, Trissiny astride him and blazing with light. Alongside them ran the lion-sized form of Meesie. They bowled right into a mass of khaladesh who were trying to form up for a charge, creating immediate disarray and ensuing slaughter.

“As I said,” Khadizroth murmured with a vindicated smile, conjuring up another spectral stag to join the fray. “They don’t fall that easily.”


Their campaign grew progressively more difficult the longer it went on, as the encroaching demons began to realize what was happening—or at least, the Elilinist ones, who had some kind of command structure and communication system in place. By the time they arrived at the final portal site on the south bank, there was no question of a swift ambush such as they’d been able to execute at the first few sites. Now, the resistance was fierce.

For Natchua and Xyraadi, massacring khaladesh foot soldiers was not an imposition, and they even had little to fear from the three khelminash sorceresses with the group. Xyraadi observed that these were probably still in training, or they’d be on a flying platform; at any rate, they had nothing to throw at the attackers but a barrage of shadowbolts, which the two warlocks easily deflected. Jonathan and Hesthri focused their staff fire on the khelminash, and they went down in minutes.

Matters became more difficult as, apparently, a warning was passed through the portal and a hulking baerzurg charged out of it. Then more difficult still as a shockwave of fire hurled the already-disintegrating bodies of demons and sheer infernal energy out at them. This, clearly, was one of the rare high-caste baerzurgs who were quite intelligent and able to cast spells.

Xyraadi grimaced in concentration, barely managing to gather the loose infernal magic into a single point, which she sent hurtling right back at its caster. The blast of pure entropic destruction rocked the baerzurg back a few steps, but not for nothing were those creatures considered to be impervious.

“Incoming flyers, twelve o’clock!” Jonathan barked, raising his staff to fire at the flying disc which topped the roof just beyond the portal to charge at them.

Two more followed, and they were entirely unimpressed by his lightning bolt, which one of the sorceresses swatted contemptuously to the side.

“Take out the portal,” Natchua growled. He and Hesthri both repositioned themselves, firing rapidly at the portal altar which was being physically blocked from their view by the armored baerzurg, with whom Xyraadi was rapidly exchanging spells.

Natchua was almost pleased by the intervention, having an idea she had developed a few portals ago by watching the flying discs. Reaching out with her mind, she could feel the complex infernal spells powering those devices. Complex, fully self-contained, and warded against meddling—by lesser warlocks than she, that was. There weren’t many gaps in the coverage that could be exploited, but there was a relatively open entry point in the spell lattice where they had to draw power from their pilots.

She simply poured an uncontained blast of pure, unfocused infernomancy into the networks, and the three platforms immediately continued doing what they were doing, but about five times as hard. As they were currently swooping down on the mortals below, this sent them accelerating well beyond the ability of their pilots to control. Two slammed into buildings to either side, the third overshooting them and impacting the ground behind in a deafening explosion.

Then either Hesthri or Jonathan scored a lucky hit, and with the last altar’s destruction, the portal winked out.

With a bellow of rage, the baerzurg caster charged bodily forward, shrugging off the bolts of viridian fire with which Xyraadi pelted it, and stepped right into the invisible spell circled the sorceress had been surreptitiously creating on the ground while keeping the other demon busy with spellfire.

The baerzurg was abruptly crushed like a tin can in the depths of the ocean, its impervious biological armor crumpling inward to a ball the size of a pumpkin, which landed on the ground, oozing black ichor.

A gurgle from behind in the sudden quiet was all the warning Natchua got; she turned just in time to see one khelminash sorceress, a survivor from the final crash, crumple to the ground, clutching her bleeding throat. Behind her, Kheshiri faded into visibility, holding an evil-looking dagger carved from something’s claw, which she had clearly looted from one of their foes.

“You have no idea how satisfying it is to murder these smug bitches,” the succubus commented.

“Au contraire, I have seldom felt anything so therapeutic,” Xyraadi rejoined.

“Yeah, no offense,” added Jonathan, “but are you just…better than all of these others? ‘Cause I notice we’ve been burning through ‘em pretty rapidly, and you don’t even look winded.”

“These are soldiers,” Xyraadi said contemptuously. “Trained and drilled to fire a prescribed sequence of spells in unison. Very dangerous in large numbers, but not individually impressive warlocks. I am a specialist, an artist.”

“Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered, “get aloft and double-check we don’t have another target.”

“I told you that was the last one, mistress,” Kheshiri said petulantly.

“You also told me these portals weren’t going to be opened,” Natchua snapped. “Do it!”

It was hard to perceive the succubus’s emotions directly with all the infernal magic flowing about, but this one time Kheshiri wore her petulance openly on her face. But she did, after a cursory bow, shoot upward with a powerful flap of her wings while fading back to invisibility.

“I think she is right, though,” Xyraadi murmured, stepping over closer to Natchua. “I can feel no more portals nearby.”

“Me, either,” Natchua admitted. “I just like making her jump.”

“Ah, yes,” the other warlock said, grinning. “It is good for her character, n’est-ce pas?”

“If that was the last one, what next?” Hesthri asked, also stepping closer and transferring her staff to one hand so she could slip her other arm around Natchua’s waist.

“Back to square one,” Natchua said, squeezing her back. Jonathan approached them from behind, tucking his staff into his elbow to rest a hand on each of their shoulders. It had been non-stop fighting for who knew how long, since they had set out from the square at the other end of the city. This moment to breathe was very much needed. “The cathedral and the ancient hellgate secured under it is still our main target, and it’ll also be the focus of the Elilinist demons coming in. Assuming the other teams have been doing their jobs, they’ll be low on reinforcements, but…”

A whoosh of air passed over their heads, and Kheshiri popped back into view as she landed nearby.

“Yes, about that,” the succubus said, folding her wings back. “I still see five pillars of fire, but none on our bank of the city. The strike team and Vadrieny are clearly faring well—we’re just better. The hellgates should all be cut off within minutes. But there’s more trouble, mistress. All the khelminash who’d been converging on the cathedral have moved away; they’re attacking the square inside the gates, up where we started from. I can’t see details from this far but it looks like a pitched fight.”

“That’s not good,” Jonathan stated, frowning. “Avelea’s plan was to push forward through the city. If the fighting’s still concentrated at the starting point, it’s all gone wrong.”

Natchua drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long hiss through her teeth. She was so close to something important to Elilial she could taste it.

“It sounds like an opening,” Hesthri said, looking at her inquisitively. “If the forces are being drawn away, the cathedral site is vulnerable.”

They were all looking at her, with varying expressions. It was true; this was exactly the opportunity for which she’d assembled them here.

Scowling, Natchua shook her head once. “Not while we have friends and family under attack. I’m not going to sacrifice anyone who hasn’t signed up for it specifically. We’d better go help them. Xyraadi, you’re better than I at jumping; find us a landing spot.”


Another baerzurg charged in through the broken gap in the wall, and Juniper punched it square in the chest.

The massive demon staggered backward, a fractured dent in its chest armor, and fell right into the gap in the stones through which it had come. Juniper brushed back the charred remains of her hair, planting her feet in a balanced stance and waiting for the next one, which did not come. She was severely singed and soaking wet, due to the demons discovering that setting fire to her was the only thing that worked, and Fross constantly dousing her in a freezing mist to compensate.

Ruda stabbed the last of the fallen baerzurgs behind her which was still twitching, causing it to fall still. The slender mithril blade of her rapier pierced their hide as easily as if it were paper; she had been finishing them off after Juniper brought them down. “Is that the last of ‘em?”

“There are no more large footsteps outside,” Shaeine reported. “I would not call this over, but I believe we have earned a breather. Juniper, we have never tried this, but if you are willing to risk Themynra’s judgment, I believe she would deem you more than worthy of healing, fairy or not.”

Juniper shook her head, eyes still on the tumbled gap in which the last baerzurg slouched, still twitching. Ruda stalked past her, rapier at the ready. “I don’t need it yet, Shaeine, but thanks. I’m more pissed off than hurt.”

Ruda speared the creature directly through the eye, causing it to emit an incongruously high-pitched squeal as it died. She yanked the blade out and turned to rejoin them, absently wiping acrid ichor off on the hem of her coat. “I dunno what this place was supposed to be, before, but it was not built with a siege in mind. We got way too many fuckin’ entrances to guard already without these assholes making more!”

“This is the main trading hub,” said the police captain who’d joined them, looking haggard but still unbent. He had wands in each hand, but had stepped back to let the students cover the baerzurgs coming in through the wall after they’d lost two soldiers learning that lightning weapons did absolutely nothing to them. “You’re right, it was designed for accessibility, not defense. Ninkabi’s outer walls have never been breached, for all the good that does us now.”

“City’s got lots of natural choke points, with all those stairs and bridges,” Ruda said, giving him a grin, “but yeah, that’s no fuckin’ help to us in here.”

“Hey, guys!” Fross zipped back over to them. “The dragon is trying to rally everybody out in the square.”

“More baerzurgs,” Shaeine said tersely. “Heading this way. They’ll be here in minutes.”

“Those fuckers need a hobby,” Ruda complained.

“They’ve got one,” Juniper said with a sigh. “Us. Guys, the soldiers can’t hold off baerzurgs. I’m glad things are going better out there, but I don’t think we can afford to regroup with the others while we’ve got those things coming in and civilians to protect in—uh, hello?”

To her amazement, as well as that of the others, one of the beleaguered refugees had scampered forward out of the crowd to wrap her arms around Juniper in a hug. She was a filthy, underfed, and generally ragged-looking young woman with bare feet, garbed in threadbare castoffs and clutching an ax handle with which she had nearly clonked Juniper on the head.

“Excuse me,” the dryad said in annoyance, gently but inexorably pushing her off, “but I’m kind of busy, here. Please step back with the others and concentrate on not dying. Hey!”

The woman surged forward again as soon as she was pushed away, giving Juniper another hug, this time accompanied by a kiss on the cheek, but then retreated of her own volition without having to be moved a second time.

“I think she is just grateful,” Shaeine suggested. “She is right, though, miss. It’s about to be very dangerous here.”

“Whoah!” Fross had to dart higher in the air as the ragged girl began hopping about in excitement, apparently trying to catch her. “What are you doing? Please don’t grab!”

“Oh, this one,” said the officer distractedly. “Mute beggar. She’s a little nuts, homeless people usually are. Lady, do you need to be restrained?”

The homeless woman turned and brandished her ax handle menacingly at him.

“That’s a yes, then,” he said in clear annoyance. “Ontu, Disrimi, get this—”

“Wait!” Fross chimed, descending again. “Wait a second, please…”

She fluttered down to hover right in front of the woman, who raised her hands again, gazing at the pixie with a rapturous expression. This time, though, she did not snatch, finally dropping the handle to cup her hands gently around Fross’s buzzing form without touching her. She brought her face forward till her nose was nearly touching Fross, smiling with a joy so intense it looked nearly painful. A tear cut a swath through the dirt staining one of her cheeks.

“Yeah, pixie shiny,” said Ruda. “Fross, you may wanna lead your friend back over there with the other civvies if you don’t wanna lose her.”

“They’re coming,” Shaeine said, expression intent as she faced the broken wall. The others still could not hear the approaching baerzurgs, but took her at her word. “Do you see any way we can seal up that wall in the next…sixty seconds?”

“Nope,” Juniper said tersely, rolling her shoulders. “Same song, new verse, just like the first. Should go a little smoother now we’ve had some practice.”

“Hey, guys,” Fross chimed softly, still cradled in the homeless woman’s grip. “Um. How much do you trust me?”

All three of them turned to study her curiously.

“It is not a question of how much,” Shaeine answered. “We trust you.”

“Yeah, jinglebell, you got more brains an’ heart than any of us,” Ruda agreed, grinning. “If you got an idea, we got faith.”

“Okay,” Fross said, emitting a descending arpeggio of chimes like a sigh. “All right. I’m gonna play a…a hunch, here. If this all goes horribly wrong, you can take turns kicking my ass later.”

“How,” Juniper asked sardonically. “Do you know a spell to enlarge it?”

All joking ended as Fross fluttered upward out of her new acquaintance’s cupped hands, producing the small flicker of light that accompanied her withdrawal of something from her aura storage.

The Mask of the Adventurer dropped down to land in the ragged girl’s hands.

“Whoah!” Ruda said in alarm. “I, uh… Fross?!”

“Okay, having said all that, I guess we can’t complain now,” Juniper added, “but what are you doing?”

“It’s gonna be okay,” Fross chimed, addressing both them and the woman now curiously turning the mask over in her hands.

“Time’s up,” Shaeine stated, and in the next second, the stomping of enormous feet sounded just outside the broken wall. Moments later, the dead baerzurg tumbled forward, knocked inward by a blow from without.

Juniper dashed forward, meeting the next demon to push in through the gap with a haymaker that sent it spinning right back out. Then the dryad herself was knocked backward by a counter-punch more than hard enough to fell a tree. She stumbled back, regaining her footing, but in her moment of distraction another baerzurg pushed its way into the building. A wall of silver light immediately slammed into it, halting its advance only momentarily but giving Juniper time to gather herself and attack again.

“Don’t worry about that,” Fross said to the woman now frowning at the artifact in her grasp. She raised her eyes to look inquisitively at the pixie. “Just…clear your mind. Whatever you’ve been through, try to put it aside. Remember who you are. We need the real you.”

Her expression grew more pensive. She adjusted her grip on the Mask, raising it toward her face, then hesitated again, looking uncertainly at the pixie.

“It’s okay,” Fross chimed soothingly. “Remember. It’s gonna be okay.”

She blinked once, then nodded slowly, and finally pressed the Mask against her face.

Light roared through the old hall, fanning out in a shockwave that washed harmlessly over all of them and smashed the three baerzurgs which had just forced their way in backward against the wall.

The thrum of her wings was a much more powerful counterpoint to Fross’s as she surged forward, her violet hair and diaphanous gown streaming behind her. The three baerzurgs barely had time to get back to their feet before she threw her hands forward, and streams of sparkling dust poured out with the force of geysers. One nailed each hulking demon right in the chest, and they each exploded in harmless showers of glitter.

A fourth tried to push in through the wall, and met the same fate.

Ruda lowered her sword. “…huh.”

The graceful woman held aloft on dragonfly wings descended to the ground, then turned around to grin at them.

“Jacaranda!” Juniper shrieked. This time it was she who dashed forward, and the Pixie Queen caught her in a hug, laughing as the two of them spun around.

A moment later they parted, and Jacaranda raised a hand for Fross to flutter forward and settle down in her palm.

“Oh, Fross,” she whispered, tears glittering in her eyes. “Can you ever forgive me?”

“I’m just so glad to see you’re okay,” the pixie squeaked. “I was really worried. I didn’t feel good about…y’know, leaving you in that place, but Kaisa said… I mean, Kaisa’s kind of insufferable, but she’s usually right, which just makes it worse but also I’ve found it’s best to do as she says even when it doesn’t seem to make sense because it mostly works out all right.”

“Yes…that tower was no fun,” Jacaranda agreed, gently drawing her hand forward so Fross could hug her cheek. “But it was just the no fun I needed. Thank you. And you, too, Juniper. You saved me.”

“Aspen’s here, too,” Juniper said. “Well, uh…somewhere. It’s kind of a mess out there.”

“Yes, so I see,” Jacaranda said archly. “Demons. Ick, they’re everywhere. I do not like demons.”

“That is a commonly held opinion,” Shaeine said gravely.

“Here.” Jacaranda buzzed off the ground again, swooping over to pick up the fallen ax handle and hand it solemnly to Juniper. “Look after my stick, please. It’s a really good stick. I want it back.”

“Uh…okay?” the dryad said, nonplussed.

Jacaranda winked at her, gave Fross a final smile, then turned and shot out through the open front doors of the training hall, leaving behind a faint trail of glitter which slowly dissipated in the air.

“Okay, so,” Ruda said pleasantly, “is anybody gonna explain to me what the fuck?!”


She tore right through the closest formation of khelminash flyers, sending them spinning away in all directions. The Pixie Queen turned to pirouette in midair, spraying mocking streamers of fairy glitter at the warlocks, before shooting straight upward with a whole squadron of enraged sorceresses in pursuit.

As she rapidly gained altitude, she turned this way and that, pointing her fingers and blasting long sprays of sparkling pixie dust in the general direction of wherever she could see any concentration of demons in the air. The pure fairy magic did not agree with them at all; being demons, those who weren’t smashed outright from the air by her attacks turned and came straight at her in a vindictive fury.

She climbed ever higher, and the ripples of attention spread outward, demonic aggression compelling them out of formation to face this new threat. Glittering and giggling, Jacaranda made for a very obvious target.

Being faster than they, she quickly put space between them, so that when she finally came to an abrupt halt to hover in the sky above the city, there was a great deal of distance between her and her nearest pursuers. Shadowbolts and other infernal spells reached her long before they did; the Pixie Queen yawned contemptuously as the magic fizzled out just from coming too close to her.

Only when they were almost upon her did she suddenly fold in upon herself, pressing her wings flat against her back, wrapping arms around her torso and hunching her legs in a midair fetal position. Before she’d even had time to begin falling, she exploded.

Jacaranda went off like one of Billie’s fireworks, spraying a massive ball of shooting streamers of multicolored flame in all directions, vaporizing the approaching demons and continuing downward, while she herself remained completely unharmed at the epicenter of the blast. Each of these streaks of light exploded in turn, setting off chain reactions that caused an ever-spreading shower of sparks to drift downward over the city.

Except that unlike actual fireworks, they did not dissipate. Every one of those tiny points of light carried on floating downward, and as they grew closer to the ground, a vast chorus of tiny chimes could be heard. This was followed shortly by gouts of fire, water, lightning, ice, air, and other elemental spells when they descended within range of the nearest demons.

Jacaranda hovered in place, gazing smugly down at her handiwork.

Demons began to perish in droves as thousands of furious pixies streamed down into the streets of Ninkabi.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >