Tag Archives: Iris

16 – 16

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“I’m sorry I missed ‘er, though,” Maureen said wistfully. “It’s been a real treat gettin’ to catch up with the junior class as well as you girls while everybody’s here. Seein’ Natchua woulda been a grand addition to the week!”

“I am not sure why,” Scorn grunted, idly playing with her expensive disguise ring now that she had taken it off. “Natchua behaves better now than she ever did at school, but it does not make her pleasant to be around.”

“Well, that just makes me actually want to catch up with her,” Iris said, grinning. “Which I never did before. Natchua was always a jerk; I’m suddenly real curious to see what she’s like, mellowed.”

“Her hair is less spiky,” said Scorn. “Still green, though.”

“Sometimes,” Ravana said with a beatific smile, “all it takes for a person to begin to flourish is the right environment. Apparently, Last Rock was not that for Natchua. It never occurred to me ahead of time, but I can entirely see Veilgrad agreeing with her.”

“I am just as grateful to have missed her,” Szith murmured, “and not out of any personal antipathy. Given Natchua’s situation with regard to Tar’naris, duty would have compelled me to bring a detailed report of any encounter to her House. I consider that prospect awkward in the extreme.”

“In point of fact, that occurred to me,” said Ravana, nodding to her. “Otherwise I would have invited her to stay a bit and chat with everyone. Perhaps it worked out for the best, in any case. She seemed in a hurry to return to Veilgrad. Also,” she added with a mischievous little smirk, “I don’t believe she cares for me, personally.”

“Hard to care what she cares about,” Scorn opined.

“Well, what’s done is done,” Ravana said briskly, glancing at the door of the lounge as it opened to admit Yancey. “I’m glad to have that bit of business over with, at least. Fortunately it ended early enough in the day that we’ve plenty of time to make the afternoon show I mentioned over breakfast. That is, if you are all still interested?”

“Aye, sounded a right pleasure!” Maureen chirped. “Ain’t often I get ta see a new art form bein’ born!”

“Moving lightcaps, though?” Iris asked skeptically. “As much as you like to chatter about lightcaps, Ravana, it seems like we’d have heard about it before today if that was a thing.”

“As I understand it, they are not true moving pictures like a magic mirror or scrying surface, but a sequential progression of images set to music and projected upon a large stage. For just that reason, Iris, I am extremely curious. If this works at all well, I may be inclined to invest in the company producing them. Is the carriage ready, Yancey?”

“Your pardon, my lady,” the Butler said, bowing deeply. “There is a situation in the grand hall which requires your attention.”

Ravana’s smile instantly disintegrated. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, what now?”

“I am deeply sorry to have interrupted your afternoon plans, my lady.”

“No.” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily. “No, Yancey, I’m sorry. It is the absolute height of stupidity to castigate a good servant for performing his duties well. I ought never vent my frustration at you.”

Yancey bowed again, his face adopting an astonishingly expressive little smile; only a Butler could have conveyed without words both forgiveness and the assurance that no forgiveness was necessary. “I shall redouble my efforts to protect your free time during this brief vacation, my lady. A delegation has arrived from the Elven Confederacy, accompanied by seven citizens of Tiraan Province liberated from captivity by House Dalmiss. You instructed that this be brought directly to your attention should it transpire, and in any case, the leader of this embassy demands your presence.”

“I see,” she said, chewing her bottom lip for a moment. “Well. That, in fact, is an extremely important matter. Girls, I am so sorry to do this yet again,” the Duchess continued, turning to her friends with a rueful expression.

“I shall never resent you for placing duty first,” Szith assured her with a deep nod.

“Yeah, you told us up front this was likely to happen,” Iris agreed, stepping forward to give Ravana a quick hug. “It’s okay, don’t you worry about us. We’re being ridiculously pampered by your staff, it’s not like it’s an imposition.”

“How about this, then?” Maureen suggested. “Tonight, we’ll all ‘ave a sleepover, an’ swap gossip like we used to back at the dorm. It’ll be just like old times!”

“I say, I like that idea!” Ravana said, smiling broadly. “We can stay in my chambers; goodness knows I have the room. After the Wells, my own bedroom feels rather like a museum.”

“It’s a date!” Iris promised.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Ravana, nodding to each of them. “I apologize again for running off on you like this, but I’m afraid it doesn’t do to leave foreign dignitaries twiddling their thumbs. Especially not after I’ve gone to all the trouble of blackmailing them.”

She turned to go, but not before seeing a cluster of alarmed expressions


There were fourteen individuals awaiting her in the great hall, seven elves and seven humans. Ravana’s first observation, even before she took note of her own liberated people, was that not one of the elven delegates was a drow.

In fact, it seemed clear that all seven were high elves. Four were evidently military escorts rather than diplomats, standing stiffly at attention in a formation enclosing the cluster of humans and all clad in armor that seemed made of blue glass and gold plating. Just as Malivette and Natchua had described, though at the time Ravana had privately thought it sounded wildly implausible. It looked wildly implausible, but…there it was.

To judge by the other three, Qestrali fashions ran to long robes, inordinate amounts of jewelry, and lavish hairstyles. There were two men and a woman, all with long hair; one of the men wore his down his back in an elaborate cascade of braids, while the other two had theirs wound about their heads in extravagant styles. The woman’s was actually draped over a sapphire-encrusted halo of gold which hovered along behind her head under some enchantment, bobbing like a buoy as she paced slowly up and down the columned hall to examine the hanging banners. All three had robes woven with glowing patterns; the man in the lead, whose ostentatious coif was held in place by three bejeweled hairsticks, actually had large and heavy-looking shoulderpads of solid gold which hovered above rather than resting upon his thin shoulders.

Any Imperial House worthy of the title could afford to bedeck its members in such wealth, up to and including the decorative enchantments. Ravana was less sure about the feasibility of enchanting accessories to float along with clothes, simply because it would never have occurred to her to do such a thing. By Imperial standards, such ostentation was gauche in the extreme. In her opinion, excessive flaunting of luxury revealed a critical weakness of character. The question was whether this was the standard in Qestraceel, or they were trying to impress her specifically.

If the latter, they were broadly ignorant of Imperial customs, which had significant implications.

The seven humans were clumped together in clear unease bordering on outright fear, staying as far as they physically could from the Highguard escorting them. All wore dark robes of Narisian style, looking downright plain next to the surrounding elves. No coats were in evidence, but they showed no sign of having been recently chilled, so at least their escort had provided some magical protection from the cold. She also noted that they were all under thirty, five men and two women, and all notably attractive specimens of humanity.

A reminder of exactly what the Narisian elite usually wanted human slaves for, those execrable darkling bastards. Ravana had definitely arranged all this for broader political goals, but when now faced with the reality of it, the surge of revulsion and outrage she experienced was genuine. Not that she allowed any of it to show upon her face. There was a time and place for such openness, but this was not it.

Most of the elves and all of the humans were watching her and her own escort long before they met them midway through the great hall, though the man with the levitating shoulderpads was the last to look up; he was staring up at the hall’s chandeliers with a fixed frown until Ravana herself was barely five yards away. Surely he’d seen magical lights before. His clothes alone carried far more impressive enchantments than her fairy lamps.

“Ah,” he said in a peremptory tone, meeting her eyes and lifting his chin. “You are Duchess Madouri, then?”

She arched one eyebrow at his rudeness, saying nothing.

Ravana had arrived flanked by Veilwin and Lord-Captain Arivani, the commander of her House guard, with Yancey following discreetly and four of her own soldiers marching in formation behind—a detail Yancey had no doubt ordered to mirror the elves’ display.

Arivani was sufficiently disciplined not to scowl openly at guests in a formal greeting, but his expression was icy as he lifted his battlestaff to strike its butt against the marble floor with a sound that rang through the cavernous hall.

“You are in the presence of her Grace, the Duchess Ravana Firouzeh Laila Madouri, High Seat of the House of Madouri, Imperial Governor of Tiraan Province and Lady Protector of Madouris.”

That was not technically the correct greeting, nor his place to issue it, but she employed Arivani for his military competence and his personal loyalty to her, not his diplomatic skills. Besides, in this specific case, asserting who was in charge in this house did happen to be the correct action.

“Welcome to Madouris,” she said simply, a far cooler greeting than she’d so recently given the delegation from Veilgrad.

The other two high elves executed shallow bows in her direction, but the man who was apparently in the lead just pursed his lips in visible annoyance, his green eyes flicking over each of them in turn. It ultimately settled, but not on Ravana.

“What bloodline are you from?” he demanded, staring at Veilwin.

“Ah, ah, ah,” she chided, wagging a finger at him. “I’m honest grove stock, not from your fancy-pants city under the sea. If you’re thinking about trying to haul me back there, forget it.”

“Under the sea,” Ravana said aloud, allowing her eyebrows to lift in surprise. “Why…of course! I’d always heard it floated, but that makes so much more sense. There’s no need even to hide it if no one can dive that deep, after all.”

All three high elves fixed glares on Veilwin.

The Court Wizard grinned broadly and uttered the single most insincere “Oops” Ravana had ever heard, even after two years at Last Rock.

Finally tearing his gaze off the sorceress, the elves’ leader squared his shoulders and turned back to Ravana with a curt little nod. “I am Magister Danoris of Qestraceel, representing the diplomatic interests of the Confederacy. We’re here to oversee the previous agreed prisoner exchange. As soon as you produce Matriarch Ezrakhai’s daughter, you may have these…people, and we can all return to our own business with a minimum of further fuss.”

“She took the Matriarch’s daughter?” one of the Imperial women burst out in shock, then immediately clapped both hands over her mouth and tried to hide behind several of her fellows. In fact, the majority of the group huddled more closely together in a manner that made Ravana freshly furious at what must have been done to so cow them.

Not all, though. The shorter of the two men actually surged forward, ignoring the two Highguard who shifted to face him. They did not physically stop him, though, and he came up to stand abreast of the Magister, where he fell to one knee and bowed his head.

“My Lady,” he said in a voice coarse with emotion, “I swear by Omnu’s name, I am your man for life.”

“Rise,” Ravana ordered, keeping her voice calm. “And welcome home. You are a citizen of the Tiraan Empire, and now safe in your own land. This is a civilized country. Here, you will not be compelled to any obeisance that deprives you of basic dignity.”

He did stand, but hesitantly, and raised his head enough to peek shyly up at her. The expression on his face held a fervor she had usually only seen on people at religious services.

Interesting. Ravana made a mental note to keep track of these seven as they were re-integrated into society. Pawns they might be in this game, but a pawn which crossed the entire board as they had could be shaped into any piece.

“Right,” Danoris said, clearly unimpressed. “The prisoner, if you please?”

“Yes, that was the agreement,” she replied, turning a wintry little smile upon him. “I have given orders that she be prepared and can be handed over quite shortly. Of course, we must execute due diligence to ensure our own interests. As soon as the identity of these citizens has been verified, the exchange can be completed. Lord-Captain, please escort the civilians to the specialists I have arranged.”

“My lady,” Arivani acknowledged, saluting.

“Excuse me,” Magister Danoris interjected sharply, “but the essence of a prisoner exchange is that you get yours when we get ours. Not before.”

“This is a formality,” she stated, still wearing that tiny smile, “but a crucial one. I have fae magic users standing by who can verify true identities; imagine the embarrassment for all concerned if the Matriarch had sent me the wrong people. And since I am not the party here who has made a long-standing practice of enslaving citizens under false pretenses in a violation of treaty, it is not my word which is in question here.”

“You forcibly abducted—”

“Prove it,” Ravana demanded, widening her smile at his incredulous expression. “But! As a gesture of good faith, in acknowledgment of the Confederacy’s interests and to emphasize that my dispute is solely with House Dalmiss and not Qestraceel or the Elven Confederacy as a whole, I of course invite you to delegate one of your magic specialists and as many of your military escort as you deem necessary to observe the process. Perhaps you will find it intellectually interesting; I’m told fae magic differs vastly in methodology from your own.”

“My lady,” the man who had knelt to her said earnestly, dry-washing his hands, “my name is Samir Talvadegh, I’m from Tiraas and my family lives right here in Madouris, they’ll vouch for me—”

“I believe you, Mr. Talvadegh,” Ravana said gently. “I do not suspect foul play, but it is critically important that these things be done in the proper manner, and duly witnessed and recorded. This is not Tar’naris. As I am certain our noble guests from the graceful civilization of Qestraceel can attest, in an actual society the documentation of important events is an absolute necessity. Particularly when it concerns something as crucial as the relationships between sovereign nations.”

“It is to the advantage of all parties,” the female high elf said softly, “to have a verification on record to which observers from both sides have agreed, Magister Danoris. Not to mention,” she added with another shallow bow toward Ravana, “that we are all cognizant of the stakes involved, and none here would risk the ongoing negotiations between the Confederacy and the Empire by dealing falsely with one another.”

“Just so,” Ravana agreed, nodding courteously. “In particular, further diplomatic incidents must not be risked, after this morning’s events in Veilgrad.”

At that, Danoris’s scowl deepened, and two of the Highguard shifted to glare at her directly. Ravana took note that these elves were as well-informed as they were undisciplined. Really, she had never met either diplomats or professional soldiers who had such poor control of their emotions. Was this the result of too many millennia at the bottom of the sea, never having to test their wits against legitimate rivals? If this was what all high elves were like, the Imperial nobility would devour them like a school of piranha, and the Narisians had undoubtedly already made puppets of them.

Which, now that she considered it in those terms, would explain a lot.

“I’m given to understand that fae spells can be imprecise in execution,” Ravana said when no one else spoke for a handful of seconds, “but rest assured, I will take every measure to ensure the comfort of guests while the necessary is attended to, however long that may take. I pride myself on hospitality. In fact!” She put on a sudden broad smile as if just having an idea. “I believe I know just the thing to entertain such distinguished visitors while necessary formalities are carried out. This Manor is but a short distance from the Falconer Industries factory, the pride and principal economic pillar of Madouris. Veilwin can teleport us there for a quick tour and right back with no time lost.”

“We are not here to sightsee,” Danoris spat.

“I would welcome the opportunity to observe an Imperial enchanting facility firsthand,” the other male Qestrali said, his softer tone a deliberate counterpoint to their leader’s overt ire.

“Indeed, it sounds fascinating,” agreed the woman, fixing Danoris with a very pointed look.

“It goes without saying,” Ravana added smoothly, “the elves of Qestraceel have nothing to learn about arcane magic from the likes of us. Nonetheless, I believe you will find this…instructive, Magister.”

And even if he did not, she would.

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13 – 45

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“You went and tattled on me?” Professor Yornhaldt said with uncharacteristic exasperation, the result of his last several minutes spent trying to chivvy the students gathered in the rear hall into groups while simultaneously arguing with his colleagues. “Mister Finchley, really.”

“Whoah, now. First of all!” Fedora smoothly inserted himself between Yornhaldt and Finchley, pointing two fingers at his own eyes. “You got a problem with one of my boys, Prof, you take it up with me. And second, you’re goddamn right he went an’ tattled. Good man, Finchley. Oy, Emilio! Were you seriously gonna let him do this?”

“Rest assured, I argued against it,” Professor Ezzaniel said dryly, leaning against Radivass’s stand with his arms folded. “But Alaric has seniority here, and Arachne’s absence does not make this a democracy.”

“I am tired of this debate,” Yornhadt said irritably. “With the sanctuary effect compromised—” He broke off momentarily as Fedora darted forward, trying to punch him in the nose. The incubus’s fist, of course, halted inches away. “Yes, Murgatroyd, I know, but we have also verified that it is beginning to weaken! The students’ safety is of paramount—”

“Okay, here’s your problem,” Fedora interrupted. “First rule of any engagement: know your enemy.” Ezzaniel nodded emphatically, but did not interject as the Inspector continued. “You’re thinking like a wizard, and if we were dealing with a wizard, I’d rely entirely on your judgment, Professor.”

“We are dealing with a warlock, which in terms of—”

“The warlock’s a stooge, at best,” Fedora said dismissively.

“Forgive me,” Yornhaldt snapped, “it seems I keep trying to speak while you are interrupting. Murgatroyd, I don’t even know what that fog effect is, which means this individual—”

“It’s called the Fog of War, and it’s a closely guarded Salyrite secret,” Fedora retorted, ignoring Yornhaldt’s exasperated sigh at being cut off yet again. “You don’t wanna know what I had to go through to learn that spell even exists. The Topaz College is very careful not to bust that out where the Black Wreath might see it and figure out the trick. Which is beside the point: don’t worry about that warlock! He or she is hired muscle, period. The man in charge is that Hand of the Emperor, and he does not think like a wizard, he thinks like an operative. His enemy is in a secure, virtually untouchable position, so rather than bash his head on that in some kind of magical pissing contest he’ll maneuver to get us out, and that is what we are seeing! Fog blinding us, demons coming at the front door and our invincible magic protection on the fritz. He’s made going out the back the most attractive option, which means… Anyone?”

“Means that’s what he wants us to do,” said Gilbert Mosk, who stood at the forefront of the students unabashedly listening to this exchange.

“Bingo!” Fedora crowed. “And when do you do what your enemy wants you to do?”

Hildred tentatively raised a hand. “…never?”

“I was looking for ‘fucking never,’ but I’ll accept that, Hil.”

“Actually,” Ezzaniel said mildly, “if you know more than your enemy it is a very strong ploy to make them think—”

“Thanks, Emilio, but you can stop helping.” Fedora folded his arms, leering at Yornhaldt. “Ergo, sending students out the back is the last bloody thing we should be contemplating, here!”

“It’s not that I don’t respect the logic of your arguments,” Yornhaldt said stubbornly. “I understood and acknowledged all that when Emilio was pointing it out a moment ago! But we must consider the stakes. I cannot, in good conscience, keep the entire student body pinned down in a position we know is not secure!”

“Alaric, he’s right.” Professor Ezzaniel’s calm tone was like a bucket of water on the increasing heat of the argument. “You are thinking like a mage. There are only two entrances to the Grim Visage, both small and accessible only by narrow bridges. Even if the sanctuary effect fails entirely, this is a phenomenally defensible structure. To abandon it would be folly.”

Yornhaldt dragged a hand over his lower face, heaving a deep sigh. In the momentary pause, the sound of the back door clicking shut captured everyone’s attention.

“Conover!” Fedora barked at the young man who had just slipped back inside. “What the goddamn hell do you think you were doing out there?!”

“Having a look,” Jerome said, unfazed by the demon’s ire. “I thought you might want to know, Inspector, you were right. We’re flanked; someone is coming up the bridge toward the door. And it’s Lorelin Reich, so it’s obviously a trap.”

“Reich?” Ezzaniel frowned deeply.

“Okay, how ’bout this.” Fedora turned back to Yornhaldt, tucking his thumbs behind the lapels of his rumpled trench coat. “Before we risk any kids either way, how’s about me and the boys go have a look-see? If there’s a trap, better it springs on us than the students. Fair?”

Another pause fell, in which Yornhaldt nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful.

Behind Fedora, Moriarty nudged Rook. “You’re not going to complain about having traps sprung on us?”

“The way I see it,” Rook replied philosophically, “we were always gonna die to something ridiculous and right out of a particularly half-assed chapbook. If we gotta go, I’d rather go doin’ my damn duty and protecting the kids. Wouldn’t you?”

“Well said,” Finchley agreed.

“Chapbooks.” Moriarty tilted his head. “…you can read?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Rook retorted, grinning broadly.

“Now, now, boys, save some for the villains,” Fedora said cheerfully, making a line for the rear door. “If we’re gonna play it up like it’s story time, you always banter in front of the enemy. Fall in, let’s go lick the strange glowing gem!”

“From anyone else, that’d be a figure of speech,” Rook commented as he brought up the rear, Fedora having already vanished through the doorway into the fog beyond. “You would not believe the shit this guy keeps in his pockets, though…”

“Hang on,” Rafe said suddenly when the last of the campus guards had vanished outside. “If I’m here, and Alaric’s here, and Emilio’s here, and our entire security department is now out there, who’s guarding the front?”

He was answered by shouting and the clatter of booted feet from the door to the Visage’s main commons, followed in just moments by the crack of lightning.


Most of the students present in the common room lost seconds to confusion and panic, but the very moment the front door burst open, Szith and Scorn both surged into action, placing themselves in front of the stairs to the second level, the Rhaazke with arms stretched and claws bared, the drow with her short sword upraised in a fighting stance.

Men in the shabbily-maintained livery of their House barreled inside in complete disorder, bellowing and brandishing battlestaves, and from the moment of their arrival, total chaos reigned.

The intruding soldiers pointed weapons threateningly, shouting orders—most of which were contradictory, demanding that students come quietly, back away, put their hands up, lie down, and more. Some seemed to just be shouting, wordlessly. In no semblance of a formation, they staggered into the room, quite accidentally blocking the door as the sheer press of their comrades pushed them further inward and to the sides.

At the same time, the University students began sorting themselves in response. Some clearly outperformed the invaders in terms of poise, and within seconds a ragged defensive line had stretched to either side of Scorn and Szith, consisting of eight youths wielding either blades or magic. Three shields, two of golden divine light and one of arcane blue, partially blocked them off from the troops. Behind them, though, more of their classmates either panicked or simply froze, some rooted in place and others streaming away toward the merchant hall were the professors were gathered, or toward the stairs to the rented rooms.

In the cacophony of shouts and scuffles, there was no telling who fired the first shot or why, but it was only seconds before one of the Dalkhaan guards discharged a staff. Immediately, lacking any better plan, the rest followed suit, and the din of screams rose amid the cracks and explosions of lightning.

The Grim Visage was still a sanctuary against significant violence, and no lightning bolt struck flesh. The effect had limits, however, and it was only moments before the magical shields were battered down by lightning bolts. Nor was the onslaught harmless, even aside from the panic it induced. The stone walls and furniture were not immune to violence, and it seemed that ricochets did not count as attacks to the sanctuary effect. Splinters and sharp chips of rock went flying, a few inevitably striking people.

The stink of smoke and ozone filled the air, and not a coherent word could be discerned between Szith and Scorn trying to get their fellows into order and the increasingly panicked raving of the armed men now spraying the whole room with lightning.

Amid the carnage, a hand seized Maureen and hauled her bodily to her feet. In the press of bodies she was pulled several yards before managing to twist around and see who had her.

Melaxyna tugged the gnome free of the crowd by the banister and pushed her toward Sarriki, pointing toward the door behind the bar, and then shoved Sekandar, whom she had also pulled along, in the same direction, before diving back into the fray to round up a few of the more panicked students.

Maureen was glad enough to be led along. At least someone was in charge, apparently.

By the time a wall of solid blue light slammed across the front of the common room, effectively isolating the attacking soldiers, Melaxyna and Sarriki had retreated into the pantry with five rescued students.


“I’m gonna go ahead and assume this isn’t what it looks like,” Fedora called, as he sauntered out onto the bridge. “Because it looks like I can have my boys here blast you right off into space and there’s not a damn thing you could do about it. But nah, surely a smooth operator like you would never put herself in such a vulnerable position.” He grinned nastily, coming to a stop, and tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Unless she was takin’ orders from a psycho who would totally put her and everybody else working for him in that position.”

He and the three campus guards had advanced just beyond the range of the Fog of War, to a widening of the bridge which gave Finchley and Rook—the better shots, though not by much—room to spread out a bit and sight along their weapons to either side of Fedora, while Moriarty behind them kept an eye on the surrounding ledges and bridges which bedecked the vast slanted central chamber of the Crawl.

Ahead of them, Lorelin Reich likewise came to a stop, keeping her hands upraised. She paused, studying the four of them, before answering.

“I guess this is the proper place for me to bluster in return. Would you mind awfully if we advanced a bit past that point? I am somewhat pressed for time.”

“Well, I have all the time in the world,” Fedora drawled. “What with my defensible position and clock ticking down till mama bear comes home. But sure, guest’s privilege! What’s on your mind, doll?”

Slowly, Reich lowered her hands. “Here’s the situation: we are ordered to capture your entire student body.”

Fedora leaned slightly to one side, pretending to peer around behind her. “…we?”

“Myself,” she replied, “a little more magical support, and a handful of soldiers.”

“Uh…huh. And you plan to do that…how, exactly?”

“As things stand,” she said in an even tone, “I don’t see any way that is possible. We are, you understand, required by the firmest of commands to assist our patron in this endeavor. To refuse would be nothing less than treason. To fail, however, is another matter.”

“This is starting to veer in an interesting direction,” he remarked. “Do go on.”

“Understand that I can’t simply surrender, or retreat,” Reich continued. “My…employer…has stepped away to attend to an urgent matter on the surface. In his absence, I will of course do my utmost to fulfill the commands he has left. It is my opinion that the utmost I can do in this situation is try to reach a compromise with our targets.”

“Hmmm.” Fedora made a show of stroking his chin, tilting his head back to gaze upward in a pantomime of deep thought. “Quite the pickle you’re in, there, hun. Now, I’m gonna assume you’ve got something good and nasty pointed my way right now, so I won’t be so blithe as to ask how any of that is my problem, but as negotiations go, your position—”

“Boss!” Rook said suddenly. “Watch it!”

He had appeared behind her in total silence. At the soldier’s warning, Fedora snapped his attention back forward and Reich whirled in shock to behold the Hand, where he had simply not been a moment ago. His suit was ragged and torn, stained with grass, and had pieces of glass and wood stuck in it here and there. Though no sign of injury lingered on his exposed skin, drying blood streaked from the top of his bald head down half of his face. It lent an even wilder aspect to his expression, which was very nearly feral.

“Sir,” Lorelin gasped, immediately adopting a tone and posture of relief. “Thank the gods, I was almost out of option—”

With a single backhanded blow, the Hand sent her hurtling off the bridge.


Melaxyna turned from the door, where she had poked her head out through the curtain. “Okay, that’s calmer for the moment. The wizard has cut off those idiots, but between them and your little friends throwing spells back at ’em, that shield of his is under fire from both sides. It can’t stand up long, no matter how much mojo he’s got. Sarriki, let’s get these kids back into the basement until this settles down.”

“The others?” Sekandar asked, holding Szith’s saber at the ready. “Can we get anyone else back here?”

Melaxyna shook her head, approaching him, and also spread her wings; their full span nearly filled the pantry, encouraging the group toward the back door which Sarriki was in the process of unlocking. “They’re either champing at the bit to fight or have buggered off outta there. I realize you ducklings are big damn heroes in your own world, but take my advice: let the grown-ups settle this while you’ve got grown-ups around to settle things for you. All too soon you won’t anymore.”

“I’m just as happy ta sit this out,” Maureen said emphatically, still clutching Crystal’s core fragment to her chest as she gladly retreated through the rear door into the lower chamber.

She’d never been down here before, but Teal had described it to her; this didn’t look anything like she’d been told. Of course, much of that had been due to Rowe’s attempt to subvert the Crawl, but whatever hodgepodge of stolen and cobbled-together magics he had assembled had long since been cleared out. The chamber was octagonal and bordered by what looked like doors with stone frames. No, metal. No…

In spite of her anxiety, Maureen had to step closer to one, reaching out to touch it while the rest of the group streamed past her. It was metal, though its deep gray color and matte texture resembled stone at a casual glance. It was the material of the gates themselves that was more interesting; Teal had said they were like windows into different parts of the Crawl, but whatever power had animated them seemed to be turned off, now. They were simply panels of black. Featureless black which devoured all light and felt like nothing when she carefully prodded at one with a fingertip.

At least it smelled okay down here. The new management was clearly using this as an extension of the pantry to house more expensive foodstuffs that weren’t as readily available in the Crawl, including dried meat and herbs, which made the air pleasantly fragrant compared to the tavern above. There were bags, barrels, and casks to provide a decent range of surfaces on which to sit, of which most of the rather shocked students quickly took advantage. Sekandar took up a position near the stairs, saber in hand, while Sarriki slithered around checking on the others and Melaxyna planted her fists on her hips, surveying the room with an annoyed expression.

There was a stone structure in the center, like an altar. It was taller than Maureen, and apparently built right into the floor. She stepped over to it, studying the odd geometric markings inlaid along its sides.

At the back, facing away from the door, she paused, finding a small rectangular slot just above her eye level. There was a subtle marking right below it which seemed familiar. The whole arrangement jogged something in her memory…she had the feeling she had seen this recently. But Maureen’s recent memory was largely a melange of panic and shock.

“Tsk,” the succubus muttered. “Well, we know this place is of some kind of central significance to the Crawl, after what Rowe was doing down here. Seems like there should be something we could use to defend the Visage from attack, if we only knew how it worked. Sarriki, did any of that asshole’s little pet project survive in some closet?”

“Yes, Sarriki, why don’t you enlighten us.”

Even Sekandar had turned to regard the succubus as she spoke, and now gasped, backing away from the steps and the figure who had appeared in the doorway.

It was Melaxyna.

She held her position, blocking the exit, and fixing a gimlet stare on the other version of herself in the room. The first Melaxyna straightened slowly, staring back, then glancing over at Sarriki.

“Interesting,” the naga mused. “Before this gets too dramatic, let me just remind everybody that at a close enough range, I can smell the difference. Who wants to come get a kiss first?”

“Oh, don’t bother,” the Melaxyna in the door said disdainfully, still glaring at her counterpart. “Of all the weaselly horseshit I might have expected you to try, Rowe, I have to admit this was not on the list.”


“Back! Back away from them, retreat to the merchant hall!” Professor Ezzaniel strode unflinching into the din, grabbing students and bodily moving them away from the soldiers and the already-faltering shield between them. “Domingue, you will cease throwing fireballs at that immediately. Everyone move back past the door!”

“I don’t know how well combat potions will work with this sanctuary dingus, but I can’t throw these until we get the kids out of range,” Rafe said from near the bar. “Hang tight, old man, just a bit longer…”

Yornhaldt’s teeth were gritted in concentration, but he managed to reply. “What…is that?”

“Just a sleeping gas, should put ’em down easy enough. And it’s heavier than air, so we should be safe on the second level. Anything more aggressive I’m afraid the sanctuary will block.”

The dwarf nodded curtly. “You may have to throw through staff fire. This is going down any moment…”

“Scorn,” Ezzaniel was shouting from below, “so help me, if you do not get us all killed here I will fail you. All of you, get back!”

“Didja ever regret not taking a nice, quiet research job?” Rafe asked.

Despite the tension causing the tendons in his neck to stand out, Yornhaldt managed a grin. A tight, strained one, but still. “Did you?”

“How very dare you, sir. The idea.”

Then, with a grunt, the mage slumped forward and the arcane shield collapsed. Emboldened, the soldiers began firing again in earnest, now also pushing forward toward the stairs.

“Aw…shit fire,” Rafe growled, resting his free hand on Yornhaldt’s shoulder and hefting a bottle of potion with the other. “EMILIO! Don’t let them get up the stairs! Draft who you have to, but keep them below our level.”

“Are you serious?” Ezzaniel exclaimed, flinching as he was sprayed with stone chips from a nearby explosion of staff fire against the wall.

“Serious as fine cuisine, brother!”

Ezzaniel didn’t bother to castigate him further. “Scorn! Szith! Get back here! Forget everything I just yelled at you, we are holding this line!”


She didn’t even scream as she fell, too shocked by the suddenness and the blow to her face. And then, seconds into the infinite descent, by having her fall suddenly slowed as she was seized from behind.

Reflexively, Lorelin ignited a divine shield, and there was a yelp from above her.

“Cut that out, ingrate!”

Habit took over. Had to think clearly, had to be someone else in this situation. Find a new mask, someone who would not panic while plummeting to her death. Calm did not come over her, but thanks to years of practice, she managed enough of a facade of calm to fool even herself, mostly. Repressing reflex, she dropped the shield.

Immediately, Fedora grabbed her again, and their fall slowed and became more horizontal. The incubus groaned alarmingly, and as a downside of the more lucid mask she was wearing at the moment Lorelin realized that his wings wouldn’t enable him to fly with her weight tugging on them, but it seemed he could at least manage a glide.

To…where?

The central shaft of the Crawl was dotted with ledges, bridges, and tunnels, but none were conveniently in front of them. Of course.

Fedora tried to bank, but did so too suddenly, and his wings folded up under the pressure. Lorelin shrieked as they shot straight downward again for a few seconds before the demon could get his wings open and steady once more.

“If this doesn’t end up saving my life,” she said tremulously, pitching her voice over the rush of passing air, “I want you to know I still appreciate it!”

“If it doesn’t end up saving your life soon, I’m dropping your ass,” he grated. “I’ve got men up there facing that monster and I care about them a lot more than you!”

“Then—” she started to ask why he was bothering, but instantly thought better of it.


“Everywhere,” the Hand snarled, “I am surrounded by treason. From every corner!”

“Aw, shut your fuckin’ yap,” Rook growled, and fired.

“FOR THE EMPEROR!” Finchley bellowed, doing likewise.

Their eyes didn’t want to make sense of what transpired next; the Hand seemed to flow around the lightning bolts that ripped toward him point-blank. Rook managed to squeeze off another shot before their target was somehow upon them.

He grabbed Rook’s staff, and the soldier had the presence of mind to let it go rather than engage in a tug-of-war with a being far stronger than himself on a narrow footbridge.

“Down!” Moriarty shouted from behind them, leveling his own weapon. Finchley dropped to the floor, but Rook wasn’t fast enough.

The Hand seized him by the throat, hauling him around in front to stand squarely in Moriarty’s sights. Rook grasped at his arm with both hands, trying to claw the man’s grip loose, but the effort was as futile as trying to dig up an oak tree.

“Fire at will, Private Moriarty,” the Hand sneered, locking eyes with his prisoner. “By all means, give your comrade a quicker end than I will. In fact, all of you, feel free to spare one another the full punishment for your betrayal. Whichever is last to go shall suffer the retribution meant for all three. Well? Who’s going to—”

Rook released his arm and jabbed him right in both eyes with his index fingers.

With a roar, the Hand hurled him off into space.


Of course. That symbol was…

Maureen held up the rectangular piece of quartz she had been clutching. In the distance, the volume of crackles and explosions increased as the battle in the tavern picked up again. Near at hand, the first Melaxyna was slowly easing back to the side of the pedestal, bringing her even with Maureen’s position. The gnome, though, stared at the engraving on the metal capping one end of the crystal. It matched. And holding them side by side, she could see how neatly the thing would fit in that slot.

“Now, let’s nobody go and get too excited,” the nearest Melaxyna said soothingly. “We’re still under sanctuary, remember?”

“And it had limits even before it was under attack,” replied the other succubus. “You may remember, Rowe. A nice, slow application of force can slip by it. Or—”

Suddenly, a hand came to rest on Maureen’s head, fingers curling into her hair. “Ah, ah, ah,” the demon clutching her cooed. “I do remember, cupcake. But there are some here who haven’t seen it yet!”

She did the only thing she could think of, and shoved the crystal into the slot.

Sekandar whirled, taking aim with the saber. “Take your hands off her.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” And suddenly, it was Rowe’s voice again; Melaxyna’s shape melted away to reveal him. “Sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, my little eclairs. Now then, we’re all going to have a nice, calm—”

The entire structure trembled. All around them, tiny lights appeared from hidden crevices in the walls between the gateways, which themselves suddenly shifted to display a pure, glowing white.

Heaving a sigh, Rowe roughly twisted Maureen’s head up to meet her eyes. “All right, kid. What did you just—”

Suddenly his grip was torn loose form her hair and the incubus was bodily hurled across the room by an unseen force to impact one of the white gates. Upon striking its surface, he slipped neatly through and vanished.


Rook unabashedly screamed, a long, high wail that echoed in the vast cavern, even as he curled himself into a fetal position. Not until he had fully run out of breath did he process the fact that he wasn’t actually falling.

Cracking one eye open, he peeked out from under his arms. He was lying on his side, in midair, a few yards from the bridge on which Finchley, Moriarty, and the Hand were all staring at him in stupefaction.

Further inspection revealed that he was resting upon a square panel of pure white light, suspended in midair.

“Oh,” he said weakly. “Well. All righty, then.”


“You made it,” Lorelin gasped as soon as he released her, slumping to hands and knees on the transparent panel onto which Fedora had just dropped her. This afforded her a dizzying view of the horrific drop still stretching out below, but at least it felt solid, which was a great step up from her situation of a moment ago. “Thank you. Oh, gods, thank you.”

“Uh…yeah, sure.” Standing behind her, Fedora tilted his hat back so he could scratch his head, turning in a slow circle to peer around them. “Yeah, I’ll take credit for this. Why the hell not?”


It wasn’t silence, but the quiet which descended upon the common room felt like it after the incredible noise which had just reigned. The blue beams of light which sprang up from the floor produced a deep, arcane-sounding hum that filled the room. More importantly, however, they each seized one of the intruding soldiers, forcing him bodily into a stiff, upright position, and held him.

The assembled students and professors stared, dumbfounded, at their suddenly imprisoned foes. The soldiers’ expression were of pure terror, but it seemed they couldn’t move anything but the muscles in their faces.

Battlestaves littered the floor where they had been wrenched out of hands by some invisible force and dropped.

Slowly, Rafe lowered the arm he’d been in the process of hauling back to toss his bottle of sleeping gas. “Well…damn, old man. I did not know you could do that.”

Still panting from mental exertion, Professor Yornhaldt had to swallow heavily before he could answer. “I can’t.”


The Hand blurred, then snapped back into focus, and suddenly his expression was of pure shock at finding himself unable to shift space. In the next moment it got worse.

He was jerked physically upward as if on an invisible string, and in midair, six square panels of light identical to the one supporting Rook appeared around him. These, however, snapped together to form a cube, catching him in the air.

“AND JUST WHAT,” Crystal’s voice thundered through the Crawl, “DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING TO MY KIDS?”

 

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13 – 38

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The Crawl shuddered.

The rumble was low, but it echoed through the vast slanted cavern, accompanied by the distant clatter of falling rocks and a few small plumes of dust that drifted down from above. And, moments later, by fearful mumbling from the ill-equipped soldiers gathered on the stone bridge which arched down to the entrance of the Grim Visage.

“Steady,” said their captain, his voice nearly as gravelly as the Crawl’s.

“Focus,” snapped the Hand of the Emperor a moment later.

Willard Tanenbaum did not lift his eyes from the great carved face that gave the Visage its name, despite the sweat dripping from his brow. “Sir… The Crawl is known to have a sentience of its own.”

“A rudimentary and diffuse intelligence, mechanistic and barely aware,” the Hand said curtly, also staring at the Visage. To the observers behind them, the two men seemed simply to be standing there, frowning; the subtle magic they worked made no visible effect, aside from the minor seismic reactions it was beginning to provoke. “Like a god’s. In fact, rather like a sleeping bear. Keep focused, work slowly and steadily, and don’t jostle it. We can finish our work and be gone before it wakes, if we’re careful.”

“Tiptoeing around a bear is one thing,” Tanenbaum replied, still without breaking his stare. “Carving a hole in the wall of its den without waking it, in the short time it’ll take Tellwyrn to get back here—”

One of the rough-looking soldiers cursed—in Glassian, oddly enough—and turned to bolt back toward the exit. He froze with a yelp, finding himself face-to-face with the Hand who had an instant before been in front of him, next to the warlock.

“So long as we are not incompetent,” the Hand said icily, staring at the would-be deserter without expression, “it will work. So long as we are not cowardly, we will not be summarily tossed off the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

Another faint rumble sounded from the depths. The men pressed closer together, the one faced down by the Hand retreating frantically into their midst.

“Clear,” Tanenbaum said after a short pause. The Hand kept his gaze on the men for a moment longer, then stepped to the side, moving around them to rejoin the warlock.

“Sir.” The captain stepped out of the group to meet him. “The Duchess sent us for what we were told was a simple police action on a college campus.”

“Are you protesting your treatment, Captain?” the Hand asked quietly, a dangerous sibilance creeping into his tone.

The soldier did not react. He was clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest of his command, possibly the only one among them to whom the word “soldier” truly applied, though in most militaries he would have been considered too old for active duty.

“I’ll serve however I’m ordered, sir,” the Captain replied evenly. “And I’ll shoot any man who deserts right in the back before he gets ten paces, as we did in the old days. But I warn you, sir, this isn’t the old days, and this isn’t the Imperial Army, nor even the House guard that trained me. These boys are not a group I would pit against adventurers and monsters, or whatever else is coming outta there, sir. They’ll not stand up to that, no matter what you or I threaten ’em with, sir, begging your pardon.”

“It won’t come to that,” the Hand said, relaxing somewhat. “Keep your men in line, Captain; all they’ll be needed for is to keep the retreat orderly, as we’ll have prisoners in tow. I have all of this under control.”

He stepped past the officer, rejoining Tanenbaum, and no one who doubted his assurance was daft enough to voice it. Even when the Crawl rumbled another sleepy protest.


“You tryin’ to catch flies?” one of the guards sniggered.

His companion finished his long, luxuriant yawn before turning to give him a rude gesture, earning another coarse laugh in reply.

In front of them, a few feet away, Lorelin Reich lowered her arms, turned around, and stared at them.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the first man said unrepentantly. The one who’d yawned, at least, cleared his throat and straightened to a semblance of attention.

“Do you have any idea how difficult this is?” the priestess demanded.

“Not really, no.” He shrugged, and scratched the side of his neck. “No offense, I can’t actually see you doing anything. Just standing there in front of the door.”

She had, in fact, been at it for over half an hour now, standing and staring, occasionally making hand gestures. The campus chapel’s magical defenses were visible to the naked eye: the walls and door were slightly blurry, as if seen through murky water, and a few inches in front of that was an almost transparent layer of blue light, cast by an arcane shield. Lorelin’s guards, in truth, weren’t giving her enough credit; what she was doing had caused both of these effects to occasionally flicker or ripple.

Nothing of import had happened, though, and the two men were clearly losing patience. They were typical examples of the troops the Hand of the Emperor had found, which was to say, unimpressive. Neither of these was one of the aging House Dalkhaan regulars, but the younger, scruffier generation of hirelings whom very few Houses or militaries would have taken. Both were in need of a shave and some long posture drills, and one was so overweight he couldn’t button his uniform coat. At least neither had so much as leered at her. Fading and decrepit or no, Dalkhaan was still a House of Calderaas, and Calderaas was Avenist country. Men with such habits weren’t drawn to military service there. Not even a “military” slovenly enough to accept these dregs.

“Then take my word for it,” Lorelin said patiently, “it is difficult. I would appreciate it if there were no distractions.”

The man she was speaking to put on a mulish look and opened his mouth, doubtless to complain, but the yawner jabbed him in the hip with the butt of his staff.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, nodding.

She nodded back, and turned again to face the chapel. That was undoubtedly as much acquiescence as she was going to get.

Before she could even raise her arms again, there rose a shrill whine at the very edge of hearing, like a particularly large mosquito in the ear. It ended suddenly, followed by the complete disappearance of the force field around the chapel. A second later, the building seemed to solidify before them as it shifted back into phase with the world.

“Hey,” the yawning man said brightly, “it worked!”

Lorelin had her back to them and so didn’t conceal her expression, frowning at the doors in consternation.

Fortunately, she was standing at the base of the three steps leading up to those doors, and so was not close enough to be struck when they suddenly burst open.

Both guards raised their staves, one fumbling so badly he nearly dropped it, to take aim at the group who appeared in the chapel’s doorway. Two drow women stood at the forefront, one in formal robes and holding a puppy of all things, the other with a green streak dyed through the center of her hair.

A wall of silver light snapped into place across the top step. Lorelin shifted backward away from them.

“All right, hold it right there,” one of her guardians said. “Let’s not go and do anything rash, kids. You’re not in trouble, but you need to move off the campus, by the authority of the Emperor. Let’s lower the magic, nice and easy, now.”

“If you do lower the shield,” the green-haired drow said to her companion, “I can kill all three of them before they can fire.”

“Ugh, no, you can’t,” a female plains elf just behind her snorted. “All he has to do is squeeze that clicker—”

“Okay, that’s enough of that kind of talk,” the guard snapped. “You don’t want the trouble that’ll come from defying an Imperial edict, much less attacking troops operating under the Emperor’s banner.”

Lorelin shifted to look back at them, then up the stairs again at the students. Another elf, a woodkin this time, had pushed forward between the two drow, and whatever he had just conjured formed a blue glow from his clenched fist.

Of course, she was aware of the identities of everyone who was supposed to be in that chapel. What were they doing awake?

She held up a hand, and a golden sphere formed around the two troops, sparkling in the sunlight.

“There, see?” the more talkative of the two smirked. “You’re not the only one who can—”

Lorelin clenched her fist and the shield bubble contracted abruptly, slamming both men against each other. One discharged his weapon, which sparked blindingly against the inside of the sphere. It immediately widened again, leaving them staggering.

She clenched the bubble three more times in rapid succession, smacking the pair together until one of the staves cracked and both men were too dazed to stand unaided, then released the shield entirely.

One of them immediately flopped to the grass, unconscious from an unfortunate impact of his head against a staff. The other stumbled woozily, clutching his own skull with both hands.

A rod of pure golden light appeared in Lorelin’s grip. Not bothering with any further finesse, she lifted it overhead and slammed it down atop the distracted soldier’s head. The lightworking dissipated at such sharp contact with solid matter, but not before doing its job; he dropped like a sack of beans.

She turned back to scowl at the five students, who were now staring in confusion through Shaeine’s shield.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Lorelin said testily.

“Yeah, I just bet you—wait a second.” Raolo pointed accusingly. “You did that!”

“That chapel,” she said, “was phased out and shielded, with both effects somehow tied to the powerful fae geas laid on this mountaintop. I was tasked with cracking those defenses using my skill at divine magic, based on a very brief demonstration of how the geas could be interfered with. Frankly, I’m far from certain I could have opened that door if my life depended on it, but at the very least, I could have stalled for hours.” She held out her arms in an exasperated shrug. “But then you had to go and open it up yourselves! And now here you are, out in the open where he can get at you.”

A human girl—that would be the young Duchess Madouri—slipped through the cluster of elves to position herself at the forefront of the group.

“Stalled?” she asked in a tone of mild interest.

“All right, listen,” Lorelin said, heaving a short sigh. “It’s too complicated to explain the whole thing right now. Professor Tellwyrn is temporarily absent, and your campus is under attack. Most of your classmates have been evacuated into the Crawl, where they should be safe, at least for the short term. Tellwyrn will be back before too long, and I’ve contacted Imperial Intelligence. Help is coming. But for right now, with you outside the protections of that chapel, you’re in more danger than any of the rest of the students. You need to get off the campus, quickly. Don’t go to the town, the— He has allies in Last Rock, and didn’t bring them up here, so I know they’re waiting below. You’re college kids, I’m sure you know someplace in the area to hide yourselves from official eyes? Don’t tell me where, just get there.”

“Just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand in a peremptory gesture to forestall both Lorelin and her fellows, Natchua and Addiwyn both having opened their mouths. The effect was somewhat ruined by Shaeine’s puppy leaning over to snuffle at her upraised hand.

Lorelin blinked, and squinted. Was that a baby hellhound? Well…that answered one question, and raised a whole host of others.

“Who, exactly, is leading the attack on the University?” Ravana asked calmly, lowering her hand out of the puppy’s reach.

“There’s no time—”

“Natchua, are you able to send a shadowbolt through any shield she can conjure?”

“Not directly,” the drow replied with a tiny, unpleasant smile. “But I know a dozen ways to crack a divine shield in less than four seconds. Then shadowbolts.”

“You see, madam,” Ravana said in that condescendingly pleasant tone aristocrats apparently learned in the nursery, “all we know is that you were engaged in trying to dig us out of our protected chapel and have a predilection for turning on your allies. There is little ground for trust, here. You will have to offer more than vague hints.”

Lorelin let out a long, slow breath, controlling her expression. In the tension of the moment, she had actually not considered the sheer physical danger of her situation, but one of the drow was a fellow light-wielder of some skill, and apparently the other was a warlock. And, as Ravana pointed out, they had no reason to trust her. In this situation, they might well decide that blasting her was a preferable option to walking away.

Well, she’d handled worse. Unlike the Hand, at least these could be reasoned with. Hopefully. How much did they know? Best to play it safe, for now.

“About a month ago,” she said, deliberately glancing up the path to display nervousness, “the Hands of the Emperor began acting strange. Paranoid, aggressive, showing sudden magical abilities they’d never had before. Within a week they were back to normal, with the exception of one. He had been working with Tellwyrn on…your situation. Now, for whatever reason, he is obsessed with her and completely out of his mind. The Empire won’t acknowledge one of their Hands has gone rogue, so he is still acting with the Throne’s full authority until they can get here and put a stop to him. He is behind the attack on the campus, and is down in the Crawl with a Salyrite warlock, trying to dig your classmates out of the Grim Visage.”

She could tell already, even before she finished explaining: they knew. Ravana and Shaeine kept impassive, as she would expect from noblewomen, but Raolo and Addiwyn exchanged a satisfied glance and Natchua nodded slightly. Someone had not only awakened them with a fresh source of hellhound breath, but brought them up to date. Her instinct had been correct: trying to prevaricate would probably have led to a barrage of shadowbolts.

Belatedly, it occurred to Lorelin the only likely source of up-to-date intelligence and hellhounds who could get in and out of Tellwyrn’s heavily-defended chapel without disrupting its wards. Well, Shaeine was involved with Vadrieny’s host, after all…

“Listen to me.” She glanced once more in the direction of the Crawl, affecting subtly more nervous body language. “I realize that for students at what amounts to a school for adventurers, being asked to stand down is tantamount to a challenge, but you need to think strategically. This Hand is a complete lunatic; the only troops he’s brought are losers like these.” Lorelin nudged one of her erstwhile guards with a foot, prompting a soft moan. “The other Church contact working for him here is as wary as I am; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called for help, too. Fighting this guy will only escalate matters. There’s no actual way he can win here; all he can do is cause damage. Please get yourselves out of the area so you don’t become that damage.”

Lorelin stared pleadingly up at them. Had it just been the surface elves or Natchua, she’d have put on the mask of a reasonable authority figure, but the two noblewomen made it complicated. They wouldn’t acknowledge any authority on her part, and would be suspicious of too much earnestness. Just a touch of fear and vulnerability should hopefully do the trick…

“Well?” Addiwyn prompted after a pause in which they all just watched her, as if by staring hard enough they could read her intentions. “Are we trusting her or not? She did tell the truth…as far as we know.”

“Trust is a stronger word than I would choose,” Ravana said, glancing at Shaeine as if for confirmation. “But…yes. Fact-checking aside, she is correct on one point: escalation is a concern. An unstable man with the powers of a Hand of the Emperor can cause incalculable damage, not least because he will not act strategically. His very presence here proves this; there is no possible victory in assaulting the University.”

“So…we run, then,” Raolo said with a sigh. “Well, I don’t like it, but it’s sense. I know a place—”

“I will be proceeding with the plan I outlined for you,” Ravana said smoothly.

“Of course you bloody will,” Addiwyn muttered.

“Now, see here!” Lorelin did not have to augment the frustration in her voice.

“If any of you wish to follow the Vidian’s advice and flee, I will not judge you ill,” Ravana stated, stepping forward and turning to face them, the motion neatly placing her at the head of the group and physically excluding Lorelin from the discussion. “Mistaking strategy for cowardice is the mark of the defeated. It is only sensible to secure your welfare. However, the woman is correct: while the Hand cannot win, here, he can cause damage. Our classmates will be in the Grim Visage, and he will be interfering with the Crawl as he taught her to do here. If he can overcome the sanctuary effect, he will be in a confined space with a large group of people, many of whom are physically quite powerful. He will be taken down, but in that situation, it will inevitably be a bloodbath.”

“That is a big ‘if,’” Raolo pointed out, then craned his neck around Ravana to address Lorelin. “Hey, you! What are the chances he can actually do that?”

“…I have no idea,” she said honestly, pausing to think for only a second. “I don’t understand the magic involved, and I don’t know the capabilities of Hands even before they’re…interfered with, or malfunction, or whatever happened to him.”

“Very well, then,” Ravana said briskly. “I will proceed. I welcome anyone who chooses to join me and will not begrude any who would rather retreat. You,” she added, turning to indicate Lorelin with a curt nod, “will report to this Hand, inform him that we have broken out and are on the way to the uppermost terrace of the University to pursue some plan against him. That happens to be the literal truth, by the way, in case you are actually in his pocket. If he cannot get through the Visage’s defenses, we lose nothing by making him run around wasting time. If he can, this will save the lives of many of our classmates.”

“Except you will have a Hand of the Emperor after you!” Lorelin exclaimed. “If you’re expecting your warlock friend to help—”

“The imperviousness of Hands to warlock magic is precisely how it is known among the nobility that they are fae-powered,” Ravana said condescendingly. “Don’t you worry, I know what I am doing.”

“How did you know she’s Vidian?” Raolo asked.

“That’s Lorelin Reich,” Addiwyn sneered. “The one Arquin chased out of town.”

“I recognized her, yes,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Also, it is generally a safe thing to assume of a cleric who is as adept an actress as this one. Now, there is no more time to waste.”

With that, she glided the rest of the way down the stairs, turned right, and headed off up the path toward the upper campus. After the barest pause, the rest of her fellow Sleeper victims followed. Every one of them.

Lorelin watched them go for a long, incredulous moment, then threw up her hands in frustration, turned, and stalked off in the direction of the Crawl, leaving two bruised bodies on the ground behind her.


“Prince Sekandar, can I ask you to keep this safe for me?”

He sighed, but reached out to accept the scabbarded saber. “If you like, Szith. I’m never going to convince you to just call me Sekandar, am I?”

“I’m sure it speaks well of you, in your culture, that you make yourself so approachable,” she said, her face a mask of Narisian calm. “In my culture, the habit of excessive familiarity with one’s betters can be lethal. In a few short years, I will return there, and after Natchua’s…performance…I suspect my conduct will be scrutinized closely.”

“You don’t want that sword, then?” Scorn asked. “It is the bigger one. More powerful, yes?” The Rhaazke sat on the stairs, one arm draped over Maureen. Generally she didn’t enjoy being physically dominated by her classmates, but under the circumstances, Scorn’s towering protective presence was as comforting as Iris on her other side, murmuring to herself and rubbing some dried leaves between her fingers. They smelled pleasant; Iris claimed what she was doing would have a calming effect on the pub’s occupants.

The more than a hundred refugees from the University filled the place to capacity, and had already displaced most of its usual crowd. The tension could have been cut with a knife, but so far it had stayed relatively calm. Maybe Iris actually was helping.

“Do you recall when Matriarch Ashaele visited the campus?” Szith said, putting on one of her tiny smiles. “The guards she brought with her carried sabers like these.”

“Yes, I remember,” Scorn said impatiently. “Powerful swords, like I said.”

“Power is not without is disadvantages. This is a better weapon.” The drow rested a hand on the pommel of her short sword, which was still belted at her waist. “A saber must be swung in wide arcs, which handicaps it in close quarters, and makes formation fighting very difficult. For organized infantry combat, you want short swords—like this one, or those the Silver Legions carry. For precisely that reason, Narisian House guards are not permitted to own them. They may only carry the saber, which is a dueling weapon. Aristocrats and their protectors are trained in a ritualized style of formal combat which leaves them no match for an organized infantry. I am a soldier of House An’sadarr, sworn to fight for the Queen and Tar’naris. Thus, I have a weapon which is better suited to these tight quarters.”

“Interesting stuff,” Maureen said, nervously turning over the chunk of decorated quarts which was (hopefully) the heart of Crystal in her hands. “An’ Sekandar, here, is also trained in Narisian dueling?”

“Well, no,” the prince said with a smile, “but also sort of yes. Up here on the surface, a saber is more of a cavalry weapon—and Calderaan cavalry is rightly famous, if I do say so myself. We also have a dueling style which uses it. Probably not the way Szith was taught, but I can manage not to cut my own leg off, if this comes to a fight. Hopefully,” he added, turning to the drow again with a more sober expression, “it won’t come to that. If I understand how the Visage works, it can’t.”

“One always hopes battle will not come,” she said, shifting her gaze to the front of the tavern. “One always assumes that it will, and prepares accordingly.”

The doors were shut and had been barricaded with furniture, but Melaxyna and Fedora both perched on the second-floor windows which were set in the eyes of the great face that gazed outward at the Crawl’s entrance. Neither of them was putting on any pretense; though his rumpled suit, coat, and hat contrasted with the ragged piece of hide she wore as a dress, both were in fully demonic form, complete with alabaster-pale skin and crystalline eyes—and, more relevantly, wings and tails. These provided an aid to balance, as there was no actual place to sit in front of those windows, leaving them precariously clinging to narrow sills.

A sharp whistle turned every head in the room; Xsythri, Melaxyna’s hethelax henchoman, had clambered up onto the rail near the group on the stairs and was waving frantically for her boss’s attention.

The succubus heaved a dramatic sigh, then shoved herself off the wall and glided the short distance down. Fedora did not follow, but kept his head turned and attention fixed on their conversation, disregarding whatever he was watching outside.

“We’ve got a problem, boss lady,” Xsythri began.

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Melaxyna said sourly. “We’re out of mushroom beer again.”

“Of course not, you know we can’t give that to student—no, dammit, worse than that! I just had to break up a little scuffle in the market room.”

Melaxyna’s lashing tail suddenly went still. “…how bad a scuffle?”

“Not bad,” Xsythri said, eyes wide and worried. “Very minor, just some jostling from being too close together. Somebody threw a punch and that went nowhere, cos of the sanctuary effect.”

The succubus heaved a deep breath, turning her head to stare sightlessly at the front of the tavern again. She couldn’t see out the windows from this angle, but by that time they all knew the Hand was out there with some of his new lackeys, doing something.

“Why’s that a problem?” Iris asked warily, opening her eyes and pausing in her soft chant. “Sounds like an inevitable little nothing, in a situation like this.”

Melaxyna shifted again to give the witch a long look, then abruptly whirled, wings flaring out for balance, and punched Xsythri in the face.

Her fist stopped an inch from the hethelax’s nose, a soft ripple in the air marking the sanctuary effect’s protection.

“Oh, nice,” Xsythri snapped. “That’s great, boss, thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah, so…we’re protected, right?” Iris prompted. “Ow! Hey!”

Melaxyna had struck again, this time lightly flicking Iris’s ear with a fingertip.

“The sanctuary effect,” the succubus stated grimly, “is absolute. All violence—all violence—is impossible within the Grim Visage.”

Under the demon’s stare, Iris stopped rubbing at her ear, her eyes going wide. Sekandar let out a long breath, and a soft growl rumbled deep in Scorn’s throat.

“But now,” Melaxyna said, again turning to face the entrance, “the effect is…relative. Whatever the hell that guy is doing out there, it’s starting to work.”

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13 – 24

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“Morning,” Jasmine said mildly as Tallie shambled into the kitchen, blinking blearily.

“My ten-year-old self would hate me for asking this,” Tallie replied, pausing to smother a yawn, “but how come I gotta come in here after some food? Glory and Smythe both seem to love playing host. I figured there’d be something laid out in the dining room.”

“You missed them,” Jasmine replied. She was leaning against the kitchen cabinets, idly practicing rolling a coin across the backs of her fingers; at this point she could do it as smoothly as any Guild veteran. It had been harder for her to learn to lean against things rather than standing at parade rest, and her posture still looked a bit affected. Too stiff in the shoulders to be a believable ruffian’s slouch. “Glory left first thing this morning to do some errands and check up on things—she’s got contacts to…uh, contact, both official and less so. Pretty much all of her household went along. Rasha to learn, Smythe for protection because she is still an item of interest to violent conspirators, and Ami…” she grimaced. “Actually I’m less sure about that.”

“To shmooze,” Layla said primly. The only other person present, she was seated at the kitchen table, working on a plate upon which she had assembled slices from the bread, cheese, and summer sausage laid out. “Ami is quite the career girl, and Glory is the best opportunity she’s ever had.”

“This morning has been an interesting experiment in who gets up when, without Style stomping through the dormitories kicking random beds,” Jasmine asked with a grin. “Ross has been through and out; Schwartz came in for some tea and I seriously think he was sleepwalking the whole time. No sign of Darius yet.”

“An’ you’re up, of course,” Tallie grumbled, shuffling over to the table and plopping herself into a seat before reaching for the sausage. “I’ve got no explanation for this one.”

“That’s because you never listen to me,” Layla scoffed. “Little rich girl can’t possibly have anything worthwhile to say.”

“No, no,” Tallie moaned, weakly flapping a hand at her. “No sniping till I’m properly awake. Unfair. What about that thing where all our lives’re in danger, huh? We know anything about that? The Bishops got it all squared away?”

“I think that’s the lion’s share of what Glory went to find out,” Jasmine said more seriously, then straightened up. “The second shift of Legionnaires Syrinx called for came to relieve the others less than an hour ago. This looked like less than a half squad, so hopefully things are simmering down. I know we’re all gonna get stir crazy, but the Bishops were right; better to stay put while this is cleaned up by the professionals. I’m going to go check on the others.”

“Good idea,” said Layla. “Ross was talking about going outside to flirt with the Legionnaires.”

Tallie straightened up, blinking in surprise. Jasmine hesitated in the act of heading for the door, turning a wary look on Layla. “…I thought he was joking. I mean, come on. Have you ever known Ross to flirt with anybody?”

Layla arched an eyebrow. “Have you ever known him to joke?”

Jasmine stared at her for a moment, then shook her head. “Bloody hell,” she muttered, hurrying out through the dining room.

“Are they making the troops stand outside, still?” Tallie asked blearily after swallowing a bite of sausage. “Just cos it hasn’t snowed in a week doesn’t mean it’s balmy out there.”

“They’re troops, that’s what they do,” Layla replied with an indifferent shrug. “Those last night declined offers to come in. And rightly so; they can’t very well guard the house against intruders if they’re not watching for people to approach.”

“Ah, yes, right,” Tallie said, eyes on the sandwich she was now making of cheese and sausage folded into a slice of bread. “Gods know we can’t have those little people acting above their station.”

Layla gazed at her in silence for a moment, then shook her head. “Tallie, I have refrained from rising to your bait because I know enough about my own social class to assume your antipathy is well earned. Let me just ask you this, though: have I, personally, ever acted toward you as if I thought you were somehow lesser than myself?”

“Yes,” Tallie said immediately, still looking at her sandwich. “First day we met, when you showed up in that preposterous fuckin’ carriage.”

“Fair enough. And…since?”

Tallie slowly chewed a bite while Layla regarded her in silence. After she finished and just sat there, staring at her food for a moment, the younger girl sighed and opened her mouth to continue.

“You’re a lady,” Tallie said suddenly. “Look…you’re right, it’s not really fair. You’ve been okay to me, just like anyone else in our little group. But your brother goes out of his way to be as much of an oaf as a boy can; he reminds me of the roadies from the caravan growing up. You, though, you’re just so…everything I associate with people looking down their noses at me. Even when there’s no malice behind it, I can’t help…reacting.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Layla mused after pausing to consider. “I’m not sure it’s fair, though. I would say that Jasmine is as ladylike in her conduct as I.”

“Jasmine isn’t a lady,” Tallie said immediately. “Truthfully…I dunno what the hell she is. She gives off some weird signals sometimes; only thing I know is she’s trying hard to fit in with us mere mortals. Maybe that’s the difference. I’ve got a category I can fit you in, fair or not, and it’s not exactly a pretty one. Jas is just Jas, in a class of her own.”

“Well, as to that,” Layla said with a faint smile, “I’ve been disappointed, I’ll confess, at not having someone to snipe at Ami with behind her back. I love Jasmine, too, but she’s not very good at…girl things.”

“Boy, ain’t that the truth,” Tallie replied, grinning and finally meeting her eyes. “I honestly don’t think she understands why anyone would dislike Ami.”

“She was raised Avenist,” Layla huffed. “I half wonder if she doesn’t try to sneak glances like the boys do and is just better at hiding it.”

“After sharing a dorm with Jas I am pretty sure she’s not into girls,” Tallie said dryly. “Anyhow, don’t you worry about dearest Ami; let her have her spotlight while she can. As my mom used to say: the bigger they are, the farther they fall.”

Layla was unfortunately in the process of taking another bite and nearly choked, doubling over with laughter.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Tallie said lightly, lounging back and tipping her chair up on two legs. “This is fun. Jas’d just lecture us about body-shaming a fellow woman.”

“Give me credit for recognizing a lost cause,” Jasmine said, striding back into the room. Tallie and Layla both straightened up guiltily, but met each other’s eyes with a conspiratorial little shared smile. Jasmine, however, looked worried. “No one panic yet, but I think we have trouble.”

Both of them instantly sobered, Tallie rising from her chair. “Is everybody okay?”

“I haven’t made a complete sweep of the house,” Jasmine said quickly, “didn’t even get upstairs. But I did poke my nose outside, and the Legionnaires are gone. The whole squad; none of their assigned positions are attended. That is not normal procedure; they should have notified someone if they were being recalled.”

“Did you happen to see any of the boys?” Layla asked, her eyebrows drawing together.

Jasmine shook her head. “I wanted to warn you two something might be up; I haven’t gone looking yet. Darius is probably still asleep, but I want to make sure Ross and Schwartz are—”

“Do you hear that?” Tallie interrupted.

All three of them froze, listening. In the ensuing silence, the noise was plain, if faint; a rapid, almost frantic scratching sound, like claws on wood.

Layla twisted around in her chair. “It’s coming from over there. The door!”

She rose while the others whisked past her, both automatically falling into the rapid, silent movement drilled into them by Guild trainers. All three girls clustered around the kitchen’s back door; it had a glass panel looking out onto Glory’s walled-in garden. The glass was partially obscured by frost, but still, they could tell no one was standing outside.

Tallie crouched, shifting her head closer to the door, then lifted her face to the others and pointed at a spot at the very bottom, where the noise was coming from. Jasmine and Layla both nodded acknowledgment; there was no lock or mechanism there that anyone would be trying to pick, which ruled out one immediately threatening possibility. The three moved silently, as if they had rehearsed the maneuver: Tallie retreated to one side where she had open space and braced her legs to spring in any direction, Layla backed across the room to cover the dining room door, and Jasmine shifted into position next to the outer door, placing her hand on the latch.

She looked at the others, getting a nod of confirmation from each of them, before yanking it open and stepping back, ready to face whatever was there.

A tiny red blur zipped into the kitchen, going straight for Jasmine’s leg, and scaled her in seconds while her poised stance dissolved into hopping and flailing. Not until the passenger arrived on her shoulder, reaching up to grab her ear with tiny paws, did she stop after finally getting a good look.

“Meesie?”

The little elemental squealed frantically, hopping up and down on Jasmine’s shoulder and tugging at her face.

“What’s she doing?” Tallie exclaimed. “I’ve never seen her act like that before. Course, I haven’t spent a lot of time—”

“Tallie,” Layla interrupted, stepping forward, “think. This can only mean one thing.”

Tallie’s eyes widened and the color drained from her cheeks, but it was Jasmine who spoke, accompanied by Meesie’s plaintive little wail.

“They’ve got Schwartz.”


By popular demand, Maureen had wheeled the device out of its housing to work on it; she had only a short break between classes, but between inspiration having struck after seeing the vehicle in action last night and the attention she was getting, she had found a pretext to roll it out and make a few adjustments. There was a much bigger audience than usual, a dozen students having wandered over to admire the machine and its creator.

“But it even looks like a wasp,” Hildred was saying animatedly. “Look how it’s body’s all round, there, and that narrow bit at the end fer the stinger!”

“I suggested calling it the Hornet,” Chase said grandiloquently. “It even makes a sound like an enormous buzz when it’s in motion! But Miss Buzz-kill here pooh-poohed that idea.”

“You lot an’ yer chapbook fantasies,” Maureen grunted, swinging the access panel closed and wriggling out from under the machine. Its rear hover charm was online, holding it off the ground, but the motive enchantments had been disconnected while she made adjustments; now, she re-engaged the controls. It did not hum to life, which would require an extra step, and there was no use in wasting the power crystals anyway. “Wasp this an’ hornet that, tryin’ ta make my girl inta somethin’ fierce an’ mean. She’s not a weapon, okay?” Slowly, she stepped along the length of the vehicle, trailing her fingertips affectionately over its curved lines. “Maybe yer onta somethin’ with that insect talk, though. She’s efficient, beautiful, an’ a hard worker. My little Honeybee.”

Chase clapped a hand over his eyes. “Oh, come on. That has got to be the most—”

“Chase Masterson.”

Most of the assembled students shied backward, some with exclamations of startlement, at the appearance of a craggy-faced, balding man in a long black coat right in their midst. At being addressed, Chase whirled to stare at him, and then blinked.

“Oh. Well, hi there,” he said, nonplussed. “You know, I realize technically Hands are supposed to represent the Emperor in a personal capacity, but nobody’s ever told me the right formal address. Is it your Majesty? Cos that just seems disrespectful to the actual—”

The Hand of the Emperor smoothly drew a wand from his pocket and shot him, twice, point blank.

The students surged back further, most of them shouting now; two divine shields and one blue arcane one flared into being, and Iris thrust a hand into the pocket of her dress. All of them immediately froze, however, staring.

Chase was unharmed; both lightning bolts had sparked fruitlessly against a glowing orange spell circle which had flashed into being—standing vertically, midair, unlike any such circle they had ever seen—between him and the Hand. It faded instantly from sight, but too late to avoid being observed.

“What the—” Hildred swallowed heavily. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“I have.” Iris’s upper lip had drawn back in an animal snarl, and she withdrew a clenched fist from her pocket, trailing a faintly luminous green dust. Her glare, though, was fixed on Chase, not on the wand-toting Hand.

“There is a lesson here for you, students,” the Hand said flatly, also staring at Chase with his weapon still at the ready. “In how quick and easy it is to do what Arachne Tellwyrn has failed to for two months. Masterson, among the Sleeper’s offenses for which you can be held responsible is the assault of duly appointed ambassadors from Tar’naris, an allied power. That does not necessarily but can carry a charge of high treason, at the officiating Magistrate’s discretion. I can assure you, young man, the Grand Magistrate in charge of your case will find it appropriate to charge you with the capital crime.”

“We can save them the trouble!” Iris snarled, and Szith pounced bodily on her, wrapping both arms around her roommate to inhibit her from throwing her handful of now-smoking dust.

“Stop,” the drow hissed. “If you assault a Hand of the Emperor, even inadvertently, that is also a capital offense!”

“Heed her,” the Hand advised, glancing at Iris. “Once again, Ms. An’sadarr, you demonstrate why your people are such valued allies.”

“You didn’t do it this way just to lecture me, though,” Chase said thoughtfully. Incongruously, he was wearing a fascinated smile, as though an intriguing puzzle were unraveling right before his eyes. “No, this doesn’t make sense at all. This isn’t about little ol’ me, is it?”

“Inspector Fedora offered you a position with Imperial Intelligence,” the Hand said to him, ignoring the increasingly angry mutters of the students, who had started to press closer around them. “He is no longer in a position to make such offers, but I am. Your stupidity has terminated your life as a free agent, Masterson, but you do have better options left than the headsman. The Empire has made use of nastier pieces of work than you, by far.”

“You can’t be serious!” Gilbert Moss shouted, trying to shove forward and rebounding fruitlessly off Anoia’s divine shield.

“Oh, I see,” Chase mused, grinning broadly now. “And if I’d rather not be an Imperial lackey?”

“Your anonymity was your only shield, you little fool,” the Hand said curtly. “Tellwyrn can demolish you in a heartbeat, once she knows who to attack. So can the Empire. Serve, or die. Unlike Tellwyrn, we always have a plan in place before acting. Report to Tiraas, and you will be immediately found and given instructions. Or try to run. It will be a short hunt.” He looked pointedly at Iris, who had stopped struggling with Szith to glare pure hatred at them both. “I’d think quickly, if I were you.”

And then the Hand was simply gone, as if he’d never stood there.

Chase cleared his throat, putting on a bashful expression and shrugging. “Well! This is awkw—”

With a unified roar, they surged in on him, so fast he barely managed to shadow-jump away.


The docks were, if anything, more crowded than usual, though a great deal less busy. Many of the citizens of Puna Dara were clustered along the wharves, muttering and staring out at the great serpent still making slow laps around the center of the harbor. Most of the activities at which they would normally be busy had been suspended.

Being Punaji, there were a few risk-takers among them, and several boats had attempted to launch throughout the day. No one had actually been attacked, yet, because even those reckless souls had had the sense to head back to the docks once the serpent broke off its aimless patrol to move slowly in their direction. So far, no ships had been launched, and a handful of royal privateers who had been outside the harbor when the serpent appeared were maintaining position beyond the lighthouses, warning approaching vessels away.

The people watched their livelihoods slowly wither while the monstrosity lurked, and their mumbling grew increasingly angry. Notably, no Rust cultists had dared show their faces near the wharves today. The dockside warehouse where they made their public home, usually open to all, was buttoned up tight and had been since well before dawn.

Near midmorning, a cry went up on the docks, engendering at first some confusion and then more shouts as people pointed; most of the onlookers, expecting the source of trouble to come from out in the harbor, looked the wrong way initially and had to be directed toward the sky.

She descended slowly on broad wings of pure flame. Vadrieny made a pass over the docks, then circled around and swung in lower, executing another sweep before gliding in a third time, this time clearly making to land. It was an approach obviously designed to make her intentions clear and give people the chance to get out of the way, which they did. She set down gently, pumping her wings and creating a rush of warm air over the onlookers who pressed back from her, before settling lightly to the dock. As soon as she had landed, the flame and overlarge claws withdrew, leaving behind only a girl in deep red Narisian robes, her brown hair in an oddly shaggy style as if it had been cut short and then left to grow out for a few weeks.

She had set down near the southern end of the shallow arc of the docks, on a pier at which only local fishing boats were tied up. Teal turned in a slow circle, taking in the muttering crowds, the beast in the harbor, and the surrounding geography, and then set out inland. She strode off the pier and onto the solid ground of the city, making straight for an open-fronted fishmonger’s shack.

“Good morning,” she said politely to the wary-looking old man seated behind the counter.

“You too,” he said slowly. “So, uh…that fiery bit, there. What’s that about?”

She hesitated before answering. “That was the archdemon Vadrieny. Last surviving daughter of Elilial.”

“And…she’s gone, now?”

“No,” Teal said evenly, touching the Talisman of Absolution pinned to the front of her robes. “Still here.”

“Mm.” He grimaced. “Daughter of Elilial, that’s exactly what we need right now. You can’t go pick on somebody else? Puna Dara’s got enough problems.” His eyes cut past her; he had a perfect view, between the wharves, of the augmented sea serpent moving along its slow, endless sweep.

“Actually,” she said, “we’re here to do something about that. I guess business must be pretty slow today, huh?”

“That your idea of a joke?” the fishmonger demanded.

“No, sir,” she replied, her tone polite. “I’m hoping you’ll be willing to part with a whole barrel of chum. I figure it won’t be much of a hardship if nobody’s fishing today.”

For a moment, the man just stared at her. “You’re…going to get rid of the beast…with a barrel of chum.”

Some of the onlookers had drawn closer; the people of Puna Dara were not as easily intimidated as the average run of civilians, and with Vadrieny not actually in evidence several dozen were emboldened enough to have stepped within earshot by that point.

“Well, there are steps involved,” Teal explained. “Dealing with the serpent may take time, but we can force it down from the surface and neutralize the Rust cultists who summoned it, at least temporarily, by bringing on a storm.”

More muttering began, on all sides. Teal ignored this, smiling calmly at the fishmonger. He, for his part, just stared.

“You want,” he said at last, “to cause a storm. With a barrel of chum.”

“Yes.”

“…kid, I get the impression you’re new in town.”

“What gave me away?” she asked with a faint smile. “Is it the accent?”

He shook his head. “You don’t cause storms. They just come. Naphthene does what Naphthene wants, and the storm cares not. Welcome to Puna Dara.”

“How about this?” Teal pulled a wallet from one of the pockets of her robe and began flicking through its contents; it was a thin thing, containing only paper money. “Sell me a barrel of chum, and if this doesn’t work out, you’ll have done some business and got to see the last daughter of Elilial look foolish. Win/win, isn’t it?”

She produced the smallest denomination of bank note she had and held it up, smiling.

He stared at her for another two heartbeats before turning his eyes to the note. It was for twenty Imperial decabloons—the better part of a year’s take at his little bait shack.

“Lady,” the fishmonger said in mounting exasperation, “I do not have change for that.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Teal set the note down on his counter. “Share with your neighbors, help offset the lost business from that creature. So, my chum?”

The man looked truly flummoxed, but with a sigh, he carefully picked up the bank note—gingerly, as if holding the most valuable object he had ever touched, which was possibly the case. “Just so you know, all sales here are final.”

“Of course.”

“…right. So…chum’s right here. I’ll just…uh, you want some help carrying this to…wherever? I can call my son over…”

“That’s quite all right. May I?”

At her polite request, he shrugged, then lifted the hinged board separating his counter from the street. Teal stepped behind, gripped the edges of the open barrel he indicated, and picked it up without effort.

The barrel stood as high as her waist and was filled to within inches of the top with fish guts and other effluvia, kept behind the counter to discourage seagulls. Teal appeared as unbothered by the smell as she was by the weight, which a strong man would have been hard-pressed to hoist alone. She held it carefully at arm’s length, away from the front of her robes.

“Thanks,” she said lightly, trundling back out onto the street bordering the wharves. “Pleasure doing business. Now, if I’m not mistaken, I think I saw a little shrine to Naphthene just up that way as we were gliding in. Is that right?”

His eyes widened. “You’re not thinking of…”

“You can come watch, if you want,” she said, turning and setting off down the docks.

Her gait was a little awkward, holding the barrel out in front of herself, but she moved at an average walking pace, which gave the ever-growing crowd plenty of time to get out of her way. Those who hadn’t been close enough to observe the exchange at the bait shack were warned off by the smell as a barrel of half-rotten fish parts made its way along the wharves. Even as they cleared a path, however, the locals followed along, muttering in increasing curiosity over what this clearly possessed, oddly polite foreigner was up to.

Not too far distant from the bait stand, there was indeed a small shrine to Naphthene built adjacent to the water, between two piers. It was a simple thing, the goddess of the sea having no formal cult, just a waist-high circular base of stones, mostly filled with rounded pebbles from the harbor or nearby beaches. A single large, rounded rock stood upright from the middle of it, carved with the trident sigil of Naphthene and turned to face out to sea. Around it, atop the sea stones which made its nest, had been laid a thick melange of shells, fish hooks, coins, and little trinkets, offerings of appreciation and supplication, which were universally ignored—but still offered. Naphthene did not answer prayers, but she was sometimes known to punish the lack of them. It was not visible from the docks, but there would be a pile of similar little treasures in the water directly under the shrine. When the space in the shrine itself became too full, its offerings would be tipped into the sea. No one in this city dared pilfer from the fickle goddess.

Teal approached this directly, and the crowd’s muttering became more urgent as they perceived her intent; most of them began backing away more expeditiously, eager not to be within range of whatever was about to happen.

“Lady, no,” a young boy exclaimed, waving to get her attention. “The goddess cursed the whole royal family cos a prince pissed on one of those shrines! An’ that was by accident!”

Still holding the reeking barrel, Teal paused and turned to give him a calm smile of acknowledgment.

“I,” she said with a faint edge to her tone, “am not a prince.”

Then she effortlessly lifted the barrel, tipped it up, and dumped its entire load of rotting filth over and into the sea goddess’s shrine.

Fish entrails and old pieces no longer fit for human consumption poured down in a rank slurry, quickly filling the space inside the shrine and spilling over it to splatter on the ground. People began turning to flee outright—some, at least. Others gazed on, wide-eyed, apparently unable to tear themselves away from what was sure to be a spectacle.

Immediately, a ripple appeared in the harbor, halfway out to where the serpent lurked, and shot toward the shrine as if something just beneath the surface were heading landward at an incredible speed. At the sight of this, more of the onlookers fled, and even the most stubborn judiciously backed away from the edge of the water.

The surge hit the shore, and erupted in a veritable geyser, blasting the shrine and Teal hard enough to bowl anyone over and sweep them out to sea. Indeed, several of those closest lost their footing in the backwash that rushed back into the harbor, and nobody within earshot avoided getting soaked. Fortunately, no one was sucked out into the ocean. The only one standing close enough to the sea goddess’s little slap had been its target, Teal.

But when the water receded, Teal was gone; Vadrieny stood there, clawed hands braced on the edges of the shrine, talons sunk right into the stone of the harbor wall below for purchase. Her blazing wings and hair hissed, water rapidly burning away to steam and dissipating in the moist air.

Flaring her wings outward, Vadrieny released her hold and hopped up, landing nimbly with her talons on the edges of the shrine. It had been blasted clean by the spray, fish guts and offerings both swept away to leave only stone. While the drenched onlookers stared in horror, the daughter of Elilial deliberately raised one clawed foot and slammed it down, crushing the central rock and obliterating the sigil of Naphthene.

Vadrieny sank her claws into the stone with a crunch, leaned forward to glare out to sea, spread her wings and arms wide—claws fully extended in an obvious threat—and screamed, jaws stretching wider than a human mouth was physically meant to open, baring her full complement of fangs. The unearthly howl blasted forth with enough physical force to make the water ripple back from the destroyed shrine; everyone nearby clapped hands over their ears, many crying out in protest. They were unheard, of course. Nothing was heard except the roar of a challenge from the infernal demigoddess.

In the distance, the entire horizon turned black.

The ocean itself changed color, and began to heave; white foam appeared, accompanying a sudden rise of wind whistling straight ashore. The sky itself thickened, thunderheads appearing seemingly from nowhere and spreading out from that ominous line of clouds. Already flickers of lightning appeared along the leading edge of the storm, flashing nearly constantly, though it was still too far out to sea for the thunder to be audible.

Still, but not for long.

Vadrieny turned and hopped down from the wrecked shrine, putting her back contemptuously to the storm. Immediately, lightning snapped out of the still-clear sky overhead, arcing into the harbor and sending a crack of thunder booming across Puna Dara, a herald of the tempest rapidly on its way. The archdemon did not even flinch.

“I suggest you all get ready,” she said over the rising howl of the wind. “It’s coming fast.”

 

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12 – 59

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The sunset had gone unnoticed, as the night blazed with hellfire.

For a half mile all around, the tallgrass had been scoured to ash, and even beyond that, fallout from various spells burned merrily. The stars were obscured by an ugly blend of airborne ash, greenish clouds of some residue from a misfired hex, and the angry glow of portals and dimensional rents both half-formed and fully blaring infernal energy onto the scene. All around lay the corpses of demons, those which hadn’t already crumbled to charcoal when the magic left them, interspersed with fresh craters and clumps of jagged obsidian one of the two warlocks had called up to make the landscape nearly impossible to navigate.

Still, they fought on, and at this point only one was growing tired.

Their styles were virtually opposite. The Sleeper was on his fourth suit of armor and the most haphazard yet, as he was continually battered by Iris’s spells and had to re-arrange his defenses under ever-increasing pressure. Whether or not he still cared about concealing his identity, some manner of magical protection was absolutely essential for survival in the hellscape they had created, and so he was still warded, but down from his earlier hulking carapace to a human-sized shroud of greenish flame, hastily fixed into conventionally styled plates of armor. He summoned demons, cast circles which either blocked her path or spat out hostile magic, used curses to alter the terrain with clouds of dust, darkness, and even a patch of slowed time.

The Sleeper had (almost) all the knowledge of the queen of Hell herself, and he was barely slowing her down. He would long since have given up and fled if his opponent had let him.

Iris had virtually no style, not technique at all. She did basically nothing but hurl fire and shadow, and yank open dimensional rents which devoured his spells and occasionally spat more fire and tendrils of darkness to impede his way. He called up demons, and she effortlessly blasted them to ash. His summoning circles went haywire at her merest glance, flickering out, exploding dangerously, or even altering to unleash horrific magical backlash on their creator. Curses, area-of-effect attacks, even direct damage spells she easily unraveled, neutralized, or hurled right back at him, without even seeming to realize what she was doing. Every time he tried to run, shadowy tendrils snared him, or a new rip appeared in reality, unleashing a blast of force that hurled him back toward her. That was still gentler than what happened when he attempted to shadow-jump, a prospect upon which he had given up early in their duel.

The fire-armored Sleeper finished obliterating the obnoxious tentacles of shadow which had impeded his last escape attempt and turned to face her once more. Iris paced forward with a measured stride, face still twisted in a snarl of animal fury. Her dark skin and white dress were both liberally stained with ash, but neither had suffered so much as a burn or scrape.

He gesticulated with both arms, and all around her, a ring of thirteen spell circles formed out of the air, glowing flame-orange with infernal runes. The very air within them thickened, darkened, the charred ground beginning to bubble.

Iris made a slashing motion with one hand, and five of the circles on that side shattered like glass; the rest, destabilized, began to misfire, causing the shadows to dissipate and the aggressive decay to spread outside their boundary. Even as she strode forward beyond their range and the remaining circles collapsed, he was already conjuring again.

The orb of flame which descended from the sky at a steep angle was the size of a house, and moving at such an impossible speed it was almost upon her seconds after its first appearance over the horizon; Iris was already pointing at it before it came into view, and a mere two yards from impacting her it struck an invisible barrier and rebounded, arcing through the air to strike the ground scarcely twenty yards away. The roar and shockwave of the explosion blasted everything in the vicinity clear, momentarily obscuring the whole scene.

The Sleeper, relatively secure behind his armor, seized this opportunity to flee again. As before, he didn’t make it more than two steps. This time, rather than the multitude of shadow tendrils which had grabbed him previously, a single tentacle burst from the ground, coiling around his ankle, and whipped him through the air to slam him against the ground.

“Well, you got your way,” Iris said, stalking forward. “Proud of yourself? Are you happy? Is this what you wanted to see?!”

He tried to roll to his feet to face her, and the tentacle yanked him away again, smashing him to the ground a few yards away in the other direction. The shadowbolt he had barely formed went careening harmlessly into the sky.

The Sleeper, still alert despite the impacts, unleashed a blast of fire at the tentacle holding his leg, just in time for another to grab his arm and whirl him away again. This one whipped him back and forth, smashing him hard on the ground three times in three places yards apart before finally giving him a break.

This time, he just lay there, apparently stunned. And this time, Iris finally closed the gap.

Seething darkness appeared over her hand like a gauntlet as she bent to grasp him by the neck. Iris straightened up, hefting the Sleeper bodily upright, a feat for which she likely lacked the physical strength; more tendrils of shadow sprang up from the ground, snaring his limbs and helping to push him upward.

“Might as well keep your secrets,” she said coldly, glaring at the inscrutable mask of flame. “We’ll find out who you were when somebody doesn’t show up for class tomorrow.”

“Need…me…” His voice was weak, clearly male, disguised this time by fatigue, smoke inhalation, and possibly the grip of the dark gauntlet around his throat. Even without his earlier pretentious vocal effect, it was unrecognizable. “I can fix—”

“Professor Tellwyrn is the greatest mage in the world, you little stain,” she snarled. “Your curse won’t last much longer, anyway.”

The air around them rippled again, and Iris turned her head in the direction from which the wave had come, raising a hand. Two figures had appeared upon the charred landscape nearby, neither of them demons.

“Miss Domingue, I presume?” the dwarf said politely. “Your Professor sent us. Dear me, what a mess,” he added, peering around at the destruction and ongoing infernal radiation.

“This must cease,” added his companion, a tall Tidestrider man with an octopus tattoo along his right arm.

A sharp crack sounded, and the Sleeper’s armor began to fragment. Fractures appeared and spread across it, white lines interrupting the dance of the green flames, making them resemble reflections in a broken mirror.

“No, you don’t,” Iris snapped, squeezing harder. A thin film of purple shadow coalesced over his body, even as the fractures deepened and spread further.

“Oh dear,” said the dwarf. “A little closer, Haunui, if you please. This is going to be tricky.”

He made a lifting motion with both hands, and four square basalt columns thrust upward from the ground around them in a square formation, trailing lengths of black chain from their upper edges. They rose to a height of seven feet, all the while the lengths of chain reached for each other as if magnetic. Within seconds, they had formed an impromptu cage.

“What is this?” the Wavespeaker demanded. Before Wrynst could reply, the Sleeper exploded.

The noise alone was enough to knock a person bodily over; the concussion of the blast made the cage shudder, to say nothing of the wash of white-hot flame with raked away a foot of topsoil in all directions. It was over quickly, though, leaving Iris holding a handful of nothing.

“No,” she whispered, staring at her black glove even as it dissipated. There was no sign of the Sleeper at all; nothing had survived in the vicinity except Wrynst’s cage, which had only barely endured. Lengths of chain broke away and fell like pieces of dried-up vines, and one of the square columns, cracked across its middle, toppled over.

“An inverted containment spell,” Wrynst said matter-of-factly as Haunui pushed his way out of the now-limp chains. “Only effective against infernal power, but rather impressive, if I say so my—”

He was cut off by Iris’s scream of pure frustration. She sank to her knees, then toppled forward, slamming both her fists into the ground.

“I had him! I was so close!” She began rhythmically punching the earth, kicking up puffs of ash with each blow. “All of this was for nothing. Years of work, my whole life, gone for nothing!”

“Child.” Haunui had strode over quickly, and now knelt in front of her. “Nothing is gone.”

“LOOK AT THIS!” she screamed at him, throwing her arms wide.

As far as they eye could see in every direction, the golden tallgrass was gone; flickers of fire still raged along the horizons. There were several impact craters still, though the other detritus of their fight had been destroyed by the final destructive spells she and the Sleeper had unleashed. The sky was all but hidden by a sick mockery of the northern lights, seething rents in reality from which tongues of flame and eye-wrenching darkness seeped all around.

“This is all I’m good for,” Iris said, suddenly toneless. Her arms fell limply to her sides. “I was just fooling myself. First time it came down to it, this is—”

Haunui grasped her face gently in both hands, capturing her attention.

“The tide comes and goes, beyond our power to affect,” he said, holding her gaze in perfect calm. “The wind blows as it will, bringing what it will. The world turns, the clouds change. We are specks adrift on the surface, hefted by powers we cannot contest. This is true.”

“Excuse me,” said Wrynst from a short distance away, “but this whole area is massively unstable. We had really better—”

“The one thing that is yours to command,” Haunui continued, ignoring him, “the one thing, is your own hand on the tiller. The world will do with you whatever it does. You, and only you, decide who you are.”

“I can’t,” she whispered. Tears streamed down her cheeks, washing over his callused fingers. “I can’t do this. I lost it all.”

The shaman smiled gently. “Child, I hear the spirits around you still. They do not abandon you so quickly; no friend does. Still your mind, as you were taught. Reach out, and find them still there.”

“But…”

“Reach,” he insisted. “You are your choices, not your gifts. Reach out. Make a choice.”

Iris heaved in a shaking breath, swallowed heavily, and closed her eyes.

“I really must insist we go,” Wrynst said nervously. “Sheyann was unsure how long she could sustain the link anyway, and we are surrounded by active and uncontrolled dimensional rifts. Now, please!”

“We will heal them,” Haunui said, not looking up from Iris’s face. “Patience, warlock. What was done will be undone. What was destroyed, remade. The magic of the earth and the wind holds sway here, not the magic of the nether.”

Wrynst threw up his hands in a hopeless gesture, turning and stomping back toward the point at which they had first appeared.

Haunui closed his own eyes. Light blossomed along his tattoo, the inked tentacles glowing brilliant green along his arm and back. For achingly long moments, he and Iris knelt in the dust, eyes closed, while hellfire flickered hungrily in the destruction all around them.

A faint whisper of wind rose.

The first changes were too slight and too slow to be noticeable, but they swiftly grew in speed, and strength. The glaring rents in the sky began to close, shrinking to points and lines until finally the last flickers of fire and shadow vanished. Reality reasserted itself, the corruption of the infernal shrinking away. Finally, after scarcely a minute had passed, the last of them were gone, and the stars shone again unimpeded.

Iris drew another breath again, shaking from a withheld sob, but a smile blossomed on her face.

“They do not forget so quickly,” Haunui repeated. “Come, there is more to do.”

It took a few minutes longer, but finally the first green shoots began to appear. Once they initially manifested, they grew quickly, rising and spreading. In another ten heartbeats, the fires in the distance had flickered out and a veritable carpet of pale green spread around them. As the two knelt, concentrating in silence, the tallgrass continued to blossom, pushing its way upward.

The rate of its growth slowed as rapidly as it had first accelerated, and all too soon came to an apparent stop. It was nowhere near as well-developed as the usual grasses of the Sea, rising barely knee-high, and the green of new shoots rather than the golden amber of the mature tallgrass…but it was there, spreading away in all directions over what had been a battlefield torn by flame. Dips in the landscape still marked the craters left by spells of destruction, but they were covered by a green shroud of new growth.

From somewhere nearby, impossibly, came the chirp of a cricket.

Haunui let out a long sigh, at last opening his eyes, and lowering his hands from Iris’s face. “These things go in cycles, as you know well. Ash is good for the ground. Look.”

She finally opened her own eyes, meeting his gaze, then following it to a point on the ground between them.

A single red flower rose from the soil amid the blades of new tallgrass, a cluster of cone-shaped blossoms shifting slightly in the faint breeze. The old symbol of regrowth after fire, the versithorae, a bloom that only rose from ashes. A sign of the earth’s forgiveness.

“As I live and breathe,” Wrynst marveled, gazing around. “You actually did it… Total infernal nullification. I’d never have thought such a disaster could be cleaned so quickly.”

“A choice was made,” Haunui said gravely, finally standing up. He held a hand down to Iris.

After a moment, she tore her gaze from the flower and looked up at him. Her dark eyes were clear, despite the tracks left by tears through the dust on her cheeks. Finally, she accepted his hand.

“Thank you.”

He nodded to her, once, then turned back to the warlock. “And now, we had better go. It does not do to keep an Elder waiting.”

Wrynst sighed and rolled his eyes. “Well, if you’re certain you’re finished here.”

“We’re done,” Iris said in a small voice. “Let’s go. Please.”


“Uh, Professor,” Gabriel said nervously, “if you don’t mind my asking—”

“Because, Arquin,” Tellwyrn said, “some problems are not best solved by exercising force. If I thought Iris in danger you had better believe I would be there myself. The situation, however, is that she needs to be rescued from the Golden Sea, not the Sleeper. We need the best shaman and the best warlock to navigate the shifts inflicted upon it. That means Wrynst and, with Sheyann forced to stay here and hold the path open, Haunui. Trust me,” she added grimly, “I’m not worried about the Sleeper hurting her. I guarantee he is regretting forcing Iris Domingue into a corner right now.”

“Um,” he said carefully, “…okay.”

Gabriel had dismissed Whisper, who tended to quickly grow restive with nothing to do. Now they all stood in the tallgrass at the outskirts of the Sea, waiting. Sheyann knelt on the ground, eyes closed and lips moving constantly in a silent soliloquy; nearby, an unceasing rustle moved back and forth through the tallgrass where Maureen paced, muttering to herself. Tellwyrn and Gabriel simply stood, she staring fixedly at the horizon, he fidgeting.

“Actually,” he offered after a terse silence, “I was going to ask—”

“They’re coming,” Sheyann said suddenly, relief audible in her voice, as well as fatigue. Maureen darted toward them, pushing amber stalks roughly aside.

Reality itself heaved, the ground seeming to roll like the tide, without actually displacing the grass or any of them standing upon it. The undulation carried three figures, though, and deposited them right in front of the group.

“Iris!” Maureen wailed, throwing herself forward.

Iris, filthy and clearly exhausted but apparently unharmed, knelt to catch her, wrapping the gnome up in a hug and rocking slightly back and forth.

Tellwyrn quickly joined them, bending down to rest a hand on Iris’s shoulder, heedless of the ash staining her dress.

“Iris,” she said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, “are you all right?”

Iris nodded, swallowed, and finally looked up. “I’m not hurt. Professor… I’m sorry. I almost had him, but—”

“None of that,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “I’m responsible for protecting you, not the other way round. I’m sorry. What’s important is that you are okay. We’ll finish dealing with the Sleeper very soon, I promise you.”

“I’m not absolutely certain he got away, though,” Wrynst added, straightening his robe. “That effect he unleashed… It might have been a ploy to conceal a shadow-jump, or it may honestly have been his destruction, whether self-inflicted out of spite or resulting from the damage you did. Either way, it was a desperate maneuver. You really had him on the ropes, young lady.”

“Keeping us in the dark would be just like him,” Gabriel chimed in, then added fervently, “I am damn glad to see you back safe, Iris. We were worried sick.”

She actually twitched, her eyes falling on him and widening in shock. Iris opened her mouth, but no sound emerged.

Maureen’s shoulders jerked slightly, and she finally drew back, grinning. “Oh, aye, that reminds me. Before I forget to tell ye, Gabe’s here. He’s the one who came to fetch us; hasn’t left ever since, not till we were sure you were safe.”

“I—uh—I mean…thank you,” Iris said weakly, ending on a squeak.

Tellwyrn sighed, straightening. “Sheyann? Are you all right?”

“Quite well, thank you, Arachne,” the Elder said smoothly. “That was by no means easy, but far from the most tiring thing I have ever undertaken. Most instructive, as well. You know, I may have gained some insight into Kuriwa’s trick of traveling between places.”

“Now, why the hell would you want to do a damn fool thing like that? Let Kuriwa play footsie with unspeakable horrors if she wants. I thought you had more sense.”

Sheyann raised an eyebrow, but smiled faintly in amusement. “I allowed you to teleport me for this escapade of yours, Arachne; I expect to be spoken to with a bit more restraint. At least for a while.”

“Yes, you’re right. Sorry.” Tellwyrn sighed heavily, and grimaced. “I’ve been quickly using up my store of restraint over the last two days.”

“In fact, you’ve been doing quite well,” Sheyann replied, gliding over to pat her on the shoulder. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed. You have conducted yourself very nearly like a person with normal, basic social skills. It may seem an odd thing to say, Arachne, as I certainly have no claim to responsibility for you, but I am…proud.”

Tellwyrn glared at her. Then, incongruously, her lips twitched, and she emitted a soft snort that was clearly the lesser part of a laugh.

“Well…all right. We’ve got a crowd back at Last Rock to reassure, most of you will be needing some food and rest, and I owe a series of explanations to several people. Most urgently, Iris had better get into a bath and then bed. Let’s move this out, people. Wrynst, Haunui, I thank you very sincerely for helping to protect my student.”

“Oh, no need for that, Professor,” Wrynst said cheerfully. “This beats the daylights out of laboratory work. I’m having a smashing old time!”

Haunui just nodded gravely.

They started slowly, Iris having to detach herself from Maureen and push upright with obvious weariness, but soon enough the little procession got underway, heading back toward Last Rock. Tellwyrn stood aside, letting them all pass before finally bringing up the rear, alongside Gabriel, who had hovered nearby.

“So, Professor,” he said in a low tone, nodding at Wrynst and Haunui a few yards ahead of them. “What I was actually going to ask… Who are those guys?”

She sighed. “Later, Arquin. Tomorrow, you’re going to learn a lot of things, some of which will explain the presence of all the…guests I brought with me. More immediately… Gather your comrades when we reach the town, if you would. Before people start scattering to the winds and spreading rumors, there are some things you’ll need to understand.”

He followed her gaze past Haunui’s shoulder, to where Iris was trudging along, slumped with exhaustion, then nodded silently.

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12 – 55

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“I feel like I’m very bad at this,” Iris grunted, shoving stalks of tallgrass aside out of her face. “This is like the Golden Sea trip, but…worse.”

“How worse?” Maureen asked more softly. She was walking in front, creating a little furrow in the tallgrass, which helped Iris navigate, but also resulted in stalks constantly whipping back at her.

“I don’t know, I’m just grousing. Are you sure this is necessary?”

“I’m not sure o’ much, truth be told, not with regard t’this situation here. I know me tactics, though. What we’re doin’ is the general shape o’ the right thing. Just wish I could tell whether th’warnin’ got through, an’ how much good it did…”

“Well, we could tell if we went back to town…”

“Iris.”

“I know, I know.”

Maureen stopped, turning to peer up at her. “Can ye see anything? Any sign o’ progress?”

Iris turned, shading her eyes with a hand to study the distant town. They were moving around its periphery at just beyond the normal range of human earshot—at Maureen’s suggestion, close enough that the drow or other elves could find them quickly, but not near enough anybody—or anything—was likely to stumble across them by accident. Her view was impeded but not blocked by the tallgrass, which was just about eye height to her. The mountain soared skyward in plain view, of course, but Last Rock itself was little more than a collection of slate roofs.

“Not really,” she reported. “I can’t see people, or…anything. Just the tops of buildings. Um…wait, actually I have an idea. Can you find us a…is it called a clearing if it’s grass and not trees? Something relatively flat where I have some room to work.”

“Can I find us a clearing?” Maureen asked pointedly. “Pardon me fer pointin’ it out, but you’re the one with the view up there.”

Iris heaved a sigh. “Right. Sorry. It’s just…you’re good at tracking and wilderness craft, I thought you might be able to…I dunno.”

“I think you’re thinkin’ of elves,” the gnome said with a wry smile.

“Trust me, that’s not what I’m thinking of,” Iris muttered. “But anyway, while we’re stopped, surely this isn’t the whole plan? We can’t just run around in the prairie forever.”

“We could run around till it blows over a mite, aye, but that ain’t the plan, no. Just tryin’ to avoid blunderin’ into any beasties till we can figure out what’s what. I’ll admit we’re at a wee bit of a disadvantage in that regard, ‘less somethin’ really interestin’ happens in town…”

“Right. Okay. Then that brings me back to my idea.” Iris turned in a slow circle, seeing nothing but the town and mountain in one direction and infinite grass everywhere else. “Well, I don’t think anybody actually owns this grass, and if they do, I’ll just owe them an apology. We’re not gonna find a clear spot any time soon, I bet, so I’ll have to make one. C’mere, please, and stand close to my legs.”

“What’re ye up to, then?” Maureen asked a little nervously, obeying. She pressed her back against Iris’s side, where her head barely came up to her roommate’s hip.

“In theory, nothing that would hurt a person, but I don’t like to take risks.”

She breathed in slowly, deeply, straightening her spine and letting her eyes drift closed. After a moment’s concentration, Iris folded both her hands in front of her as if in prayer, and held that pose.

“Um,” Maureen whispered, peering up at her. “Is somethin’ supposed to—”

She broke off with a squeak as Iris suddenly dropped her left hand to her side and made a slashing motion with her right.

In front of them, a wide swath of tallgrass tumbled to the ground, neatly severed in an arc about an inch from the topsoil.

Iris opened her eyes, and then grinned. “Oh, that was even cleaner than I hoped! I’ll have to remember that one.”

“Remember? Y’mean you improvised that? I thought fae magic was all…rituals and components, aye?”

“Not all. There’s a big place for those things.” Iris stepped forward and knelt in the flattened space she had created, where the fallen tallgrass made a serviceable carpet. “But simple elemental work, such as using pure air like I just did…well, it’s more like building a relationship. Get close enough to the spirits, and they recognize you. Befriend them, and they’ll sometimes do you quick little favors.”

“Spirits, huh.” Maureen glanced nervously around, hovering at the border of the cleared space. “What sort? About how many are there, y’know, hereabouts? Helpful against demons, y’think?”

“It depends.” Iris had reached into her pocket pulled out a vial of dirt, which she sprinkled in a careful circle about the width of a dinner plate, then began adding pinches of other things taken from smaller pouches also concealed in her dress, which clearly had bag-of-holding spells on its pockets. “Some places…old places or sacred ones, mostly…have their own spirits. Others…well, with elementals, they kind of don’t exist until you pay attention to them. A discrete elemental you have to sort of make, but less formal kinds aren’t so much an objective part of the environment, but kind of an expression of your interaction with it.”

“So…these spirits are inside yer own ‘ead…an’ ye still ‘ave to sweet-talk ’em.”

“I dunno about you, but the inside of most people’s heads doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Iris muttered. “Gimme a minute, I have to concentrate on this part.”

She closed her eyes, and began making motions with her hands that were reminiscent of a potter shaping clay on a wheel. Fittingly, the dirt circle she had cast on the ground began to rise and stretch, slowly forming itself into a shallow earthen bowl. Iris let out a soft sigh once this was done and opened her eyes again, then reached in and with great delicacy extended one finger toward its center.

Her fingertip touched a point in the middle, about the height of the brim, and ripples spread out from the empty air. Just like that, it was no longer empty, but filled with impossibly clear water, visible only where it shimmered from her touch.

“Now that is a right nifty trick,” Maureen said, creeping closer.

“That’s the easy part,” Iris muttered, shifting from her kneeling position to sit cross-legged on the ground in front of the bowl. “Now I look for information. This isn’t like arcane scrying; it’s not a machine that does what I tell it to. But I can ask it for answers, and get a sense for the general…shape of things. To answer your question, witchcraft is very good against demons. Asking about demons is one of the more reliable things; the spirits sense them easily, and don’t like them. Let me just focus for a little bit.”

Maureen studied her face, and then the gently rippling surface of the bowl, and then her face again. Iris simply frowned in concentration; the surface of the bowl continued to ripple, revealing nothing except, apparently, to its creator. The gnome opened her mouth once, then thought better of speaking, and took a judicious half-step backward to give her room.

“It wasn’t just the one,” Iris whispered, eyes fixed on the bowl. “They’re…all around the town. Encircling it. Except…” She suddenly flung one arm out, pointing. “There!”

Maureen followed her finger, and winced. “Um… You’re pointin’ at the whole shebang over there, Iris.”

Iris blinked, and looked up. “…oh. Right, yes. Sorry. I meant, there are demons around the town except at the point where the mountain’s base touches the outskirts.”

“Aye…stands t’reason,” Maureen agreed, nodding slowly. “I doubt the Sleeper wants t’risk gettin’ Tellwryn into the middle o’ whatever the hell he’s doin’ now.”

“Yes. And, by the way, speaking of the Sleeper.” Iris made an expansive gesture with both hands, and her bowl collapsed, disintegrating back into a ring of dirt, now somewhat unevenly distributed after its little adventure. Of the ephemeral liquid which had been in the bowl, there was no sign. “Witches and warlocks…well, all other things being equal, the witches usually have the advantage, as you well know, but for that very reason a powerful enough warlock can almost always tell when there’s fae magic being used in the vicinity. So if the Sleeper happens to be nearby and paying attention…”

“Say no more,” Maureen said, already moving. “Let’s shake a leg.”

“Right behind you.” Iris rose and set off after her, and in seconds they were again proceeding through the tallgrass, making a wide arc around the north of the town toward the point where it abutted the foot of the mountain. This time, the human pushed ahead and led the way, the better to be able to navigate now that they weren’t simply proceeding away from Last Rock.

“This is good,” Maureen said to herself as they walked. “Aye, we can work with this. We get t’where we’re not bargin’ into a demon blockade, an’ we can get a look an’ decide whether t’jump in or retreat again.”

“I’m not retreating any more,” Iris said grimly. “I think you were right, though, it would’ve been a mistake to tackle that ourselves, alone. But once we make the town, we can link up with the others. There are probably students down there, plus the Rockies and those drow. They aren’t helpless, and they’ll be even better off with us.”

“Aye,” Maureen said, frowning worriedly. She chewed her lower lip in thought, lost for a moment in her own worries. “Uh. Look, what if—”

Maureen, thinking rather than looking, walked right into Iris’s knee with a grunt. “Oof! What’s that about? See somethin’?”

“No,” Iris whispered. She had frozen in place, and now looked back and forth frantically. “I—no. Nothing! I don’t see…”

“What’re ye on about?” Maureen demanded, growing increasingly nervous.

“The town! The mountain, it’s—there’s nothing there! Everything’s gone!”

“What?! How’s that possible? Lemme up!”

Iris, moving slowly, bent down, offering a hand. Maureen was far more nimble, and swarmed up the human like a squirrel, eliciting several grunts of protest before getting herself situated on Iris’s shoulders.

They were standing, alone, in the apparent middle of an infinite sea of golden tallgrass.

“Bollocks,” Maureen declared after a period of stunned silence. “No, this is…this is wrong. It can’t be like this. What do the spirits say?”

“They’re not the town gossip, I can’t just…” Iris turned in a slow circle, not minding the way Maureen grabbed her hair for purchase. “…oh, no. I just had a thought. Exactly…how close to the mountain is the Golden Sea?”

“No, no, that’s not it,” Maureen said, shaking her head vigorously. “I don’t think we were that close, but anyway, doesn’t matter. Remember ‘ow the geas works? We’re initiates o’ the Unseen University. Any time we’re near the edge, we’ll come out right were we can see th’mountain.”

“Unless it shifted us farther into the Sea…”

“It doesn’t! It doesn’t work like that! Professor Ezzaniel said!”

“Did you ever talk to the sophomores about their trip?”

Maureen started to shout something exasperated, but broke off, gritted her teeth for a moment, and replied in a calmer tone. “I did, yes, a couple times. Why?”

“They had trouble with centaurs,” Iris said woodenly. “When Teal and Trissiny told me the story…they said centaurs move the Sea. They’re warlocks. They reach through to the Darklands on the other side of the dimensional divide, and move that, and the Golden Sea shifts in response. They said it doesn’t like that, and retaliates eventually, but it works, at least at first.”

“Oh, kick me up the stairs,” Maureen groaned, pressing a hand over her eyes. “Yer thinkin’ a certain other warlock may’ve picked up that trick?”

“I also asked Trissiny about the hellgate incident last year,” Iris said, her tone growing increasingly grim. “The hellgate had to have been opened from both sides. The Darklands on the other side were shifted so there was a hiszilisk hive practically next door to the campus. The Sleeper has to have been the warlock who did that, so we know he can do this.”

There was silence, again, while Iris turned in another slow circle, just for hope’s sake. Nothing came of it; they were still surrounded by nothing but tallgrass, waving gently under the setting sun, stretching away to a perfectly circular horizon.

“Okay,” Maureen said at last. “It’s…it’s not all bad, then, aye? We can…we can ‘ead downhill, that’ll take us back outta the Sea eventually. No matter ‘ow far in we are. Yer a witch, I’m a gnome, we can survive outdoors fer a bit. We’ll come out near the campus. Most important, the Sleeper can’t get to us ‘ere. Nobody can navigate in the Sea. Even Tellwyrn can’t teleport in an’ outta here, Ezzaniel warned us about that, remember? Now which way’s downhill, can ye tell?”

“Maureen,” Iris said wearily, “someone can navigate in the Sea. We’ve already established—”

A sudden breeze blew over them, disturbing the tallgrass, and with it, a shadow drifted over the golden stalks all around, as if cast by a cloud scudding by overhead.

There were no clouds.

“Right. Yep. That’s on me, I’ll own that,” Maureen said glumly. “Just had to open me mouth.”

Another gust of wind blew, accompanied by another shadow. This time, the hissing sound of the air was accompanied by the soft, yet unmistakable, rhythm of breath. It fell silent, then came again, blowing a third sourceless shadow across them, and in the wind was a clear, sibilant laugh.

“Get down,” Iris said tersely. The gnome immediately pushed herself off, leaping to the ground. The moment she had, Iris dropped to her own knees, bending forward amid the tallgrass and working her hands stubbornly through the thick clusters of its bases, seeking dirt.

A deeper shadow fell over them. The sun was setting in the west, casting the sky and the grass around in deepening red; now, something suddenly stood between them and it, creating a small eclipse.

Maureen swallowed heavily. “Iris, I don’t think hidin’ is gonna work…”

Iris had screwed her face up in concentration, whispering something constantly to herself. Her fingers found purchase between the stands of tallgrass, sinking as deep as she could force them into the loam.

Another breath of shadow washed across them. The laugh that accompanied it was deeper, huskier. To their west, only yards distant, only hidden by the thickness of the grass around them, there came the crunching thump of something very large taking a step.

“Iris,” Maureen hissed frantically, pressing herself against the human’s side and shaking her. “Get a grip! We need yer magic here!”

“Please,” Iris whispered, clenching her teeth as if in pain. “Please, please, please—”

Another step. Then another. The sky darkened, faster than the mere sunset could allow for. There came a deeper chuckle, accompanied by yet another footstep, laid down by something larger than a human, crushing a swath of grass beneath it.

“That’s not helping!” Maureen squeaked, jostling Iris as forcibly as she could, to no apparent effect. “Iris, please!”

“Please!” Iris echoed frantically, pushing her hands deeper into the dirt. “Please please…”

“Ohhhh, Maaaaaurrrreeeeeeeeeennnn…”

The voice was at once deep as a dragon’s and breathy, brushing lightly across them like another breath of the wind. It was followed by a rumble of deliberately sinister laughter.

Maureen’s squeal of sheer terror was muffled only by Iris’s shoulder, against which she had pressed her face.

Suddenly, Iris’s head snapped up and she opened her eyes. A desperate breath escaped her, and then a final whisper.

“Thank you.”

The world wrenched.

Maureen squawked as she was bucked right off the ground as if by an earthquake. Innate agility and early childhood training took over, and she landed nimbly on her feet despite her panic, quickly casting around for friend and foe alike.

She was, once again, alone. No sign of Iris, nor of the shadow falling over them.

“Oh, no,” she groaned. “Not—”

The approaching sound of hoofbeats coming at a flat-out gallop made her dive back to the ground with a wail, covering her head with her arms.

“Maureen!”

The horse skidded to a stop nearby, snorting, and at the familiar voice, the gnome raised her head again in desperate hope.

“Maureen!” Gabriel called once more, while Whisper whinnied and pawed at the dirt. “I heard your voice! Where are you? I can’t see a thing in this crap. Is Iris with you?”

“Gabriel!” She bounded upright and lunged in the direction of his voice. He was closer than she’d expected, and she found herself shooting directly underneath the horse. “Gabe! Down ‘ere!”

“Oh, thank the gods,” he said, swinging a leg over Whisper’s back and dropping heavily to the ground, staggering slightly on landing. “Are you okay? Are you alone? Did you meet any demons?”

“Never mind that, ‘ow’d ye find us? Didja ‘ave to come far into the Sea?”

Gabriel paused in the act of drawing Ariel to slash tallgrass out of his way, frowning at her. “What? Into the Golden Sea, you mean? We’re not nearly that close to it, the border’s gotta be half a mile north of the town.”

“The…” She stared up at him in dawning horror, then spun around. She was far too short to see any sign of Last Rock through the thick tallgrass, but the mountain itself reared up, unmistakable and unavoidable at that distance.

It took a long moment of silent staring for understanding to crash down on her.

“Oh, Iris. Oh, no.”


The witch straightened up slowly, her expression resolute and calm, and carefully dry-washed her hands, brushing dirt off her fingers without getting any on her white dress. In silence, she watched the Sleeper come.

One slow, plodding step at a time, he approached, his form blotting out the sunset. He towered over her, fully encased in armor formed of scintillating shadow, so thick it was effectively a second, much larger body. The bruise-colored figure would have been taller and burlier than Scorn. Spiky growths protruded from the crown and shoulders, like the natural defenses of some grotesque beetle. His eyes were two pinpricks of flame within an otherwise featureless mask.

The Sleeper stopped, flexing enormous, clawed hands at his sides. He was tall enough they were visible to her through the upper reaches of the tallgrass.

“Oooonnnly enough power to save one?” His voice was as obviously obscured as his body, and as melodramatic, hidden within layers of sibilance and reverberation. At least, after the first word, he seemed to give up on the deliberately drawn-out delivery he had used to taunt Maureen. “Noble. Brave. My compliments.”

“Fine,” she whispered, flexing her own fingers at her sides.

“Pleasant dreams, little witch,” the Sleeper mocked, ponderously raising one massive hand toward her, palm out.

The sleeping curse that had defied warlocks and archmages alike stretched across the space between them.

Iris raised her own hand and caught it.

Out of thin air came form, as pure magic took on a shape, an impossibly complex structure of crystalline fractals the shade of amethysts. The curse immediately splintered and began to fracture as its non-infernal elements spun out of it suddenly frozen structure, arcane and shadow magic spinning away in little puffs of mist and light. The remainder shattered, dust and inert shards tumbling to the ground between the stalks of grass.

The Sleeper lost some of his melodrama in sheer surprise, rearing backward in shock and then having to stagger to catch his balance, apparently unused to moving so suddenly in that massive form.

Iris bared her teeth in a snarl. “Fine.”

He recovered, raised a hand again, and hurled a more conventional shadowbolt at her.

She slapped it out of the way, sending the blast of dark magic into the ground nearby, and flung another right back at him.

The Sleeper was less adroit in his movements; the bolt struck him dead in the center of his massive chest, though it had little effect on the thick armor. He staggered backward again, but recovered and gesticulated.

Tallgrass burst into flames as a summoning circle sprang up directly between them. The creature which rose up from it was a lopsided amalgamation of tentacles and pincers, covered in overlapping plates of chitin. It raised several limbs, each tipped with either claws or waving tendrils, emitted a burbling noise, and charged at Iris. The demon was almost as tall as the armored Sleeper; each of its footsteps shook the earth.

She made a grasping motion with one fist, seizing a handful of reality and wrenching a small hole in it.

A ripple of vibration and noise blasted out from the tiny rift, the ear-splitting sound of existence itself shrieking in pain, and a gout of absolutely pure and intensely concentrated infernal magic blazed forth.

The demon was adapted to infernal magic, of course; all its kind were inherently resistant to it. But nothing could have stood up to that blast of pure entropy. The creature exploded with the force of a bomb, not a single piece larger than a mote of dust surviving, most projected away with a speed that sent them half a mile before either combatant could blink.

The Sleeper hesitated only an instantly longer, then turned and bolted.

Shadows swelled around his huge form, but before they could thicken, another screaming rent in the fabric of creation spread open directly in front of him. Tentacle-like tendrils of purple shadow lashed out from the rift, grasping at nothing and sweeping away the energy of his attempted shadow-jump. More coiled around his huge limbs, then still more, all tightening, pulling… The impenetrable armor groaned in protest, and began to crack.

He let out a roar of sheer frustration, and a ripple of white-hot hellfire pulsed out in all directions, reducing a perfect circle around him to ash. The rift endured, pulsing angrily, but the tentacles of darkness were blasted away.

The Sleeper spun back around, drawing back one arm, and hurled an orb of blazing destruction in the direction of Iris.

She caught the pumpkin-sized fireball with one hand and chucked it dismissively over her shoulder. The impact behind her caused a shockwave that should have hurled her through the air, but it succeeded only in ruffling her dress. Her form was limned in shadow, not armored like his, but clearly protected with infernal magic, despite the well-known fact that infernal magic had no protective application.

The blackened ground around them served as a perfect arena for the two arch-warlocks.

The Sleeper took a step back, then leaned toward her, clearly uncertain whether to fight or flee.

Iris bared her teeth again, and raised her hands. Fire and shadow coalesced out of the air around her, streamers of it shifting forward, weaving into a pattern that promised carnage and unimaginable pain.

“Have it your way,” she snarled, and unleashed Hell.

 

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“This was a good idea,” Gabriel murmured, looking around the square.

“Course it was!” Professor Rafe replied breezily. “It was Matriarch Ashaele’s—good ideas are the only kind that lady has! Reassure the townies, mend some fences or bridges or what-have-you that needs mending, give everybody some very much needed opportunity to unwind. You don’t get to be literally the most senior diplomat on the planet without picking up a trick or two!”

The event set up on the square next to the Rail platform had arisen quickly enough to pass for impromptu, but it had been organized with flawless efficiency that suggested considerable planning. Striped awnings had been erected around the periphery of the space along two sides, with tables and chairs borrowed from the A&W in front of the tavern itself; people were congregating quietly at the tables, partaking of food laid out on stands under the shade. There were tin plates, cups, and utensils, and in fact all the necessary details had been thought of, even those that would seem counter-intuitive to subterranean dwellers, such as pest-repelling charms. Everything was free for all, and had been purchased from local businesses, right down to the farrier’s son playing the guitar over by the telescroll office.

As parties went, it was rather subdued, the space being at least half occupied by drow, who were naturally quieter in their manners than Last Rock was used to. After Ashaele’s initial arrival, which bodyguards and priestesses, a second caravan had arrived with civilian personnel from House Awarrion, who had done the lion’s share of the organizing for this event. Though the townspeople in attendance largely seemed somewhat wary of their new guests, it was a polite wariness, escalating to downright friendliness in many cases. Most of the conversations taking place around the square were between Narisians and Imperials. Nonetheless, the Sheriff and Ox were both visibly present, holding themselves aloof and keeping a careful watch. As were several stony-faced armored drow bearing sabers.

“Looking for trouble?” Gabriel asked, still in a low tone and giving Toby an inquisitive look. His fellow paladin had, for the second time in as many minutes, panned his gaze around the square, wearing a faint frown.

“Trouble, no,” Toby replied. “Szith said Iris came down here earlier. Before the picnic was set up, even… I’m a little worried, about her and Maureen. Those two are pretty sensitive, and their dorm’s been hit especially hard by all this…stuff.”

“Look at you, everybody’s dad,” Gabe said with a grin, patting him on the shoulder.

Toby sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s nothing. There are other things to do in town, and not everybody likes crowds.”

“I’m a little surprised not to see Szith here, now you mention it,” Juniper added.

“Szith has responsibilities,” Professor Yornhaldt rumbled. “And, being the exceedingly conscientious young lady she is, feels responsible for far more than she actually is. The presence of so many Narisians might be a factor.”

“Poor kid,” Juniper said, frowning.

“Your concern speaks well of you, Juniper,” Yornhaldt said with a smile. “I’m sure she would appreciate a kind word when you see her next.”

He and Rafe were watching the event as closely as the Sheriff and the Awarrion House guards, though their mandate was limited to making sure none of the students in attendance partook of the free beer available—despite the fact that both professors had mugs of it in hand. The three sophomores had gravitated toward them on one edge of the square after a few minutes of aimless circulation, and now the small group simply stood aside, watching, while Juniper sipped from a cup of punch and Gabriel intermittently gnawed a drumstick.

“Okay, so,” Gabriel said after a pause, in an even softer tone than before. “This may be an inappropriate thing to say, considering the circumstances…”

“Have you considered not doing so, for once?” Ariel suggested.

He slapped her hilt lightly. “I gotta be me. Really, though. Did you guys notice that Shaeine’s mom is impossibly gorgeous? Even for an elf.”

Toby sighed again. “Gabriel.”

“Oh, yeah,” Juniper agreed, nodding. “You’re very correct. About both parts. Not really the time, Gabe.”

“The dryad is criticizing your sense of social propriety. You have officially reached peak Arquin.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” he said sullenly. “It’s not like I was talking loudly.”

“Gabriel, my man, I’m a little disappointed that I need to point this out,” Rafe said archly. “Drow. Elves. The ears. Nothing you say out loud is gonna go unnoticed on the other side of the square.”

Gabriel’s cheeks darkened slightly and he ducked his head for a second, before catching himself and straightening up defiantly. “Yeah…well… Narisians. They’re very respectful of private conversations. You’ve heard Shaeine talk about it.”

“Mm hm,” Yornhaldt grunted. “Now if only everyone would be respectful of their feelings.”

“No offense was taken, I assure you.”

All five looked up in surprise at being addressed. A drow woman with short hair had approached them, wearing a simple lizard-scale breastplate over a dark red tunic, rather than the full armor of the guards; she carried a long knife at her belt instead of a saber. She stopped a respectful conversational distance away and bowed courteously.

“I am Vengnat eyr Vrainess n’dur Awarrion, subcommander in the lower House guard, off-duty for this excursion. It is an honor and a distinct pleasure.”

She bowed again, though less deeply, at each of their introductions, the whole time wearing a polite little smile such as Shaeine often did.

“I wonder, Mr. Arquin,” she said when everyone was introduced, “if you are familiar with the particulars of the House system of Tar’naris?”

“I…am aware that it exists,” he said hesitantly. “Sorry, but to be honest, I have my hands full understanding Imperial politics most of the time. Despite Shaeine’s noble efforts, the details of Narisian government are mostly over my head.”

Vengnat’s smile widened fractionally. “Please don’t feel bad—we are not all diplomats, after all. Well, to put it simply, we are drow. We have our Houses and our intrigues, our jockeying for advantage; it is, in many ways, intrinsic to our kind. However, the governance of Tar’naris is far more civilized than that of our deeper-dwelling Scyllithene cousins. Queen Arkasia devised the current House system to end infighting.”

“Oh, yeah! That much I know,” he said, nodding. “Every House has a particular role in the running of the city, so attacking another House damages the city itself. Any infighting would be outright treason, so it doesn’t happen.”

“It very rarely happens,” she corrected, still smiling. “Very rarely indeed, and that largely because we have found other outlets for our competitive impulses, which is as valuable in heading off conflict as punishing transgressors. Specifically, rather than for power, advantage, or wealth, the Houses of Tar’naris compete vigorously for prestige.”

“How so?” Juniper asked.

“Mr. Arquin’s observation was a perfect example,” Vengnat explained. “Matriarch Ashaele is widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful women in Tar’naris. It is a trait with virtually no practical application, contributes nothing to the running of the House…but it’s a point of pride. That is the kind of thing around which our little intrigues are built in this era. So, while we are accustomed to hearing our Matriarch praised in somewhat more gracious terms, the observation itself supports a minor point of honor for us. And after all, those of us present were made aware that plain speech is a trait of the plains dwellers in which they take pride.” She bowed to Gabriel, her smile widening another hair. “On behalf of House Awarrion, I accept and thank you for the compliment in the spirit in which it was intended.”

A few yards away, one of the gray-robed priestesses looked in Gabriel’s direction and deliberately smiled.

“Oh,” he said awkwardly. “I, uh, that’s… Well, you know. Um.”

“Perhaps you should take the opportunity to learn about diplomacy from these drow, Gabriel. Though it is very fortunate that you have a career already established.”

“Ah, yes,” he said sourly, “I forgot to introduce Ariel, whose constant commentary on my social skills is a never ending source of irony.”

“What an intriguing weapon,” Vengnat said, studying the sword. “The design is clearly elvish, though it is surprising that elves would conduct the kind of rituals which are necessary to create a talking sword.”

“Drow would,” Ariel replied. “Hands off.”

“Hey!” Gabriel snapped. “I put up with your sass, but do not insult visiting diplomats!”

“Oh, not to worry,” Vengnat assured him. “I am, as I said, not on duty for this trip. Any conversations I have are strictly personal and I am not properly a diplomat in any case. Besides, I do know a bit about weapons such as Ariel, here; certain allowances must be made for their conduct.”

“You’re off duty for the whole trip?” Toby asked curiously. “Forgive me, but…”

“What am I doing here?” If anything, Vengnat seemed even more amused. “The Matriarch’s second daughter requested off-duty personnel from a variety of specializations to attend in a strictly social capacity, to circulate politely with the residents.” She nodded toward Nahil, who was holding court in the opposite corner of the square, having surrounded herself with most of Last Rock’s more well-to-do women. “I am a House guard by profession, but we are all expected to develop some skill in diplomacy, and I was particularly interested in the opportunity to mingle with Tiraan in their own environment. It’s a chance I rarely have at home.”

“I dunno if this qualifies as the average Tiraan environment,” Rafe mused. “Still and all, we’re damn glad to have you!”

“I’m impressed,” Toby added with a smile. “For someone who’s not even a diplomat by focus, your Tanglish is amazingly fluent. You barely have an accent!”

“Not to mention a better vocabulary than some of our classmates,” Juniper added.

“I appreciate that very much,” Vengnat said, bowing to each of them. “The language is rather counter-intuitive for me; it’s gratifying that my efforts have paid off. And I am, of course, honored to serve my House in the capacity in which I was trained, but I aspire to a more varied life than a simple soldier’s.”

“Hey, I’m glad some good came of all this,” Gabriel added, smiling at her. “Always good to make new friends! Maybe we could show you around while you’re here.”

She turned a much more direct look on him, and took one step closer. “I’m very glad you suggested that, Gabriel. Nothing would please me more.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rafe snorted. “Be sure to get a good look at the saloon, and the Rail platform, and the scrolltower before you leave the town. Whoop, there we go! Tour over.”

Yornhaldt heaved a sigh. “Admestus.”

“What? It’s a nice little town, but let’s face it. Everything interesting’s up on the campus.”

“I would not dream of disturbing Professor Tellwyrn’s school,” Vengnat said smoothly, her eyes still on Gabriel’s. “And you may find Last Rock provincial, but to me, everything is new and endlessly fascinating. For instance, I have at some personal expense secured a private room in that establishment just yonder—considering the number of my colleagues present, it required calling in a few favors, but it was a worthwhile investment. Everything is made of wood. I can’t tell you how much that fascinates me, we so rarely see it in Tar’naris.”

“Huh,” Gabriel said, grinning. “It’s funny, how you don’t think of things like that until confronted with them. The simplest stuff is radically different in other places.”

“Precisely,” Vengnat said with a smile which was downright warm. “Wood furniture, cotton fabrics. The bed alone is a work of art, to my eyes. Why don’t you let me show it to you? At length,” she added, her voice dropping to a subtly huskier register, “and in detail. I have the whole evening free.”

Gabriel gaped at her; his chicken leg fell from suddenly limp fingers. Juniper grinned, seemingly on the verge of bursting into laughter, while Rafe and Yornhaldt exchanged a long look. Toby sighed softly through his nose, though his expression was amused. Vengnat kept her crimson eyes fixed on Gabriel’s, one graceful white eyebrow slightly arched in invitation.

“Um,” Gabriel said carefully after a long pause. “I, uh, am…let’s just say, not the most perceptive person. You know, socially. Forgive me if I misunderstand, but…”

“All is forgiven,” Vengnat said smoothly, smiling up at him again. “Forgive me, but concessions to local culture aside, there are certain things I’m simply not accustomed to saying any more…explicitly.”

“Ah. Yes. Well, then. I would be honored to…show you around. Not to mention delighted, of course.” He bowed politely to her, then turned to the others. “Well! Sorry to abandon you, guys, but I can hardly neglect a guest in our lands. If you’ll excuse me…”

“No extra credit for stuff that just falls into your lap,” Professor Rafe said severely, then extended his arm, hand clenched. “I am, however, obligated to offer you a manly fist bump.”

“That was real classy, Professor,” Toby said a few moments later, as they all watched Gabriel and the drow stroll toward the tavern, arm in arm. “Maybe I’m being paranoid, but that was kinda…sudden. Is there maybe another agenda at play, here?”

“Pff, nothing paranoid about it,” Rafe said glibly. “Drow culture being what it is, her ulterior motive’s pretty obvious. So long as Gabe has the sense to swallow the contraceptive I just slipped him, nothing’ll come of it. Really, though,” he added with a sudden frown. “This is verging on ridiculous. How does that kid keep stumbling ass-backward into the most exquisite piece of ass on display wherever he happens to be?”

“Why, thank you, Professor!” Juniper beamed.

“I’m serious! The chase is meant to be just that—you’ve gotta have a challenge to appreciate the conquest properly! He’s gonna come away with some pretty messed up ideas about women if this keeps up, ‘specially with Trissiny not here to kick his butt for him.”

Yornhaldt grunted into his beer. “Hmph. Hard to imagine where he’s learning it from, Admestus.”

“I kinda do wish Trissiny was here,” Juniper said with a sudden frown.

Toby sighed. “Yeah. Not that I think she cares how Gabe spends his time, but with this Sleeper thing going on…”

“That’s more what I mean, Triss is the one who knows about military strategy. I bet she’d understand what that means immediately.”

“What?” He straightened up, following her pointing finger.

“All the Narisian guards just suddenly moved while we were talking,” said Juniper. “See, three are covering Shaeine’s sister, over there, and the rest went up the street. Isn’t the Matriarch up at the town hall, with Teal and the mayor?”

Yornhaldt frowned deeply, turning to set his half-empty pint on a nearby table. “Well spotted, Juniper. Adventuring rule of thumb, students: if anything is happening, the elves will hear it first. I suggest we keep alert and prepare ourselves. Something…interesting…may be coming.”


“Y’know, you don’t have to settle all this right now,” Iris suggested gently. “Today, even. I’m not trying to rush you, Maureen, don’t worry. But maybe come back at this when you’re not so upset?”

“I…actually don’t feel upset, really, anymore,” Maureen said, kicking her legs in the empty space between them and the ground, and gazing at the horizon. “I really appreciate ye stayin’ with me, Iris. You were right, it helps a lot to have somebody listen. Anyhow,” she added with a sigh, “I reckon I have decided. Lettin’ fear make me choices, leavin’ me friends behind in danger… That’d make me not just a bad gnome, but a bad person. I’m not goin’.”

Iris nodded, and squeezed her shoulder. “Okay. I’m glad to hear it.”

“…d’ye mind if I stick around ‘ere for a while, though?”

“Of course not. Whatever you need.”

“I don’t really feel up to much company,” Maureen said, giving her a quick little smile, then jerked her head at the platform and square across the Rail some yards behind them. “But it sounds like they’ve got a full-on picnic goin’, up there. If you wanna go, I won’t be upset. You’ve helped me a lot just by stickin’ around this long.”

“Oh, well.” Iris shrugged, kicking her own legs—which, being much longer, resulted in her shoes scraping through the dirt. “I’m…not much for parties, generally. I pretty much get my fill of crowds in class and in the cafeteria.”

“Aye, I get that.” A sly glint appeared in the gnome’s eye, and she winked. “But you know… Gabriel might be there. I bet he’s the sort who loves gatherings.”

Iris heaved a deep sigh. “Ugh. I’m starting to think I should just forget the whole thing, stay away from him. If I can’t muster the guts to just…” She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t even know what.”

“Well, it can’t hurt ta hang around with ‘im a bit more! These things ‘ave a way of comin’ up on their own, if ye give ’em an opportunity.”

“Oh, come on, what would I do? Just walk up and proposition him?” Iris snorted. “He’d never go for that. Probably think I was some kind of a…a hussy.”

Maureen tilted her head, giving the human a long, thoughtful look. “…y’don’t actually know all that much about boys, do ye?”

“Oh, what would you—”

Turning toward her, Iris broke off abruptly, going rigid and grabbing Maureen by the shoulder.

“What? What’s the…” The gnome turned to follow her gaze, and gasped, scrambling up onto the bench.

“Easy!” Iris hissed. “Be calm, don’t do anything sudden.”

“What is that?!”

The creature was proportioned like a monkey and the size of a large goat, with a wedge-shaped head and jagged spines running down its back. Its eyes were sunken pits, the sides of its lips seeming to form its teeth—in fact, the thing looked like its whole hide was made of bone, rigid and the color of old ivory. It had an ugly, wasp-like stinger protruding from its bony rump, and enormous claws on each fingertip. As they watched, it snuffled around the base of the footbridge nearby, butting its head against the ground as if trying to bury itself.

“That’s a rozzk’shnid,” Iris said very quietly.

“Th’feck…” Maureen gulped audibly. “Seein’ as that’s a word made o’ sneezes an’ phonetic insanity, I assume it’s a demon?”

“Yes. Don’t worry—they’re stone deaf, and practically blind in sunlight. I don’t know what kind of idiot warlock would summon such a thing onto the prairie in the afternoon, but it’s easily dealt with.” Moving slowly and carefully, she stood and took a step to the side, positioning herself with a clear line of sight at the demon.

“Wait!” Maureen hopped off the bench after her, rushing over to grasp Iris’s leg. “Wait. Yer a witch—didja sense anything bein’ summoned?”

Iris had raised her hands, preparing to cast something, and now lowered them slightly, frowning. “No. Not a thing.”

“Aye. An’ I don’t ‘ear an outcry, from any o’ the students or drow priestesses right up there on the platform, so it was summoned subtle-like. That’s a good warlock, not one who’d pluck the wrong demon fer the wrong job.”

“The Sleeper,” Iris growled.

“Likely, aye,” Maureen said, still watching the rozzk’shnid, which seemed more interested in finding a patch of shade for its eyes than anything going on around it. “The Sleeper lays traps. He knows us. We can’t afford t’do the obvious thing—which’d be to attack that critter. It’s a trick somehow, I know it.”

“Well, what do you suggest?” Iris hissed.

Maureen swallowed. “Back away fer now.”

“I don’t run from demons!”

“There’s a difference between runnin’ away and retreat! Take it from somebody who was about t’do the bad one a wee bit ago. One’s an act o’ cowardice; the other’s a strategy. Look, we’re a gnome an’ a witch; we’re safer’n anybody out on the prairie. Heck, if we get to the Golden Sea, we’re home free. Somethin’ tells me the town’s about to get real interesting.”

“We can’t just go,” Iris insisted. “We have to warn everyone, at the very least!”

“Iris, that square’s full o’ drow,” Maureen said with a grim little smile. “I know the range of elvish hearing, trust me. Lemme just reiterate fer clarity that there’s a feckin’ demon sniffin’ around the square, an’ likely others, almost certainly summoned by an arsehole warlock who loves ‘is schemes an’ everybody needs ta deal with this as careful an’ quiet as they can. Nobody go off alone, or lash out rashly. There, everybody’s warned.”

Iris’s fingers actually twitched, as if desperate to begin hurling magic. “Maureen…”

“This is personal for you, isn’t it?” Maureen whispered. “Not just the Sleeper, but…demons. Warlocks.”

The human bared her teeth. “They live only to destroy. It should be personal for everyone. You need to listen to Trissiny on this subject, when she comes back.”

“Well, talkin’ o’ Trissiny, she’s a strategist. She’d never endorse lungin’ into a trap or doin’ the reckless thing. We’re not gonna let him win, Iris, an’ that means not doin’ what he wants. Come on. Step back, an’ we’ll come at this from another angle. One ‘e won’t expect.”

Iris hissed in pure frustration, but allowed the gnome to tug her gently away from the shelter and deeper into the tallgrass, leaving behind the demon at the edge of a crowded square, on which the drow were already quietly surging into motion.

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