Tag Archives: Juniper

16 – 35

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The grounds of Dufresne Manor had been transformed, which was good, because they had urgently needed it. Its gravel drive had been freshly smoothed, of course, but far more strikingly was that its broad lawns, formerly choked by waist-high weeds as part of Malivette’s deliberate effort to make her property look uninviting, was now neatly trimmed at the regulation three inches above soil level. That, of course, was only the beginning; the entire property had been laid out with tables of food, an outdoor stage where entertainment would be provided, and hung with House crests and banners in the colors of Houses Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri. Pumpkin-sized apparatuses of crystal floated above the grounds, providing both light and heating charms that kept the environs comfortable despite Veilgrad’s lethal midwinter chill. That alone had been a staggering expense, but for aristocrats, wildly grandiose displays of wealth and power were not an indulgence but a necessity for survival. No one who walked the halls of power lacked enemies, and enemies would pounce upon any perceived weakness.

Natchua wished they would go ahead and pounce so she could vaporize somebody. All this pomp and ceremony was wearing on her nerves.

Every culture had its rituals, and so there was a procedure for events such as this. Guests had begun to arrive, and had been trickling into the protected warmth of the grounds for over half an hour, with servants (Ravana’s on loan, as the hostess employed no staff save her four vampiric thralls) collecting winter coats at the gates. A string quartet played on the stage, more servants distributed food and drink, and the arriving lower nobility and other guests circulated with one another at apparent ease, but by the customs of Imperial aristocracy, the party had not officially begun.

The three Duchesses—Natchua’s adoption and Sherwin’s abdication had been an anticlimactically quiet affair which took place earlier in the day, in an office with lawyers—stood atop the steps to the Manor itself, each beneath a hanging banner bearing her House’s crest. They just stood there, the picture of poise, waiting until they judged the grounds had filled enough to start the party properly. At that point, they would descend and begin to circulate themselves; until then, the guests kept their distance—even the various Last Rock invitees, who had had to have the proprieties explained to them just like Natchua—and made an effort not even to stare at their hostesses, at least not openly. Natchua had asked whether they couldn’t do this part sitting down, and been informed that that was only appropriate for provincial rulers, and Malivette and Ravana had abstained from seats so as to make a show of their support for her by not putting her in a subordinate position.

Natchua couldn’t decide if this was better than Narisian rituals or much worse. She was still hung up on the fact that she was now an aristocrat, and in fact a rich and very powerful one. Nothing about it felt real.

“Well, well,” Malivette murmured as the three stood there like graceful statuary. “Irana Daraspian actually showed up. She must smell opportunity.”

“You invited a Daraspian?” Ravana replied equally softly but with scorn weighing her voice.

“All of them; they’re my neighbors. I didn’t imagine any would show. Irana heads a minor branch of the House down in Anteraas. Well, bluff called! Now we shall have to be warm and welcoming, and follow up with diplomatic and business opportunities for her, the scheming little bitch.”

“Even I know the Daraspians are trouble,” Natchua said at the same low volume. “What’s the worst case if we make this one unwelcome? I thought you said anybody who actually showed up would be lower nobility, not powerful enough to matter.”

“Our whole gambit here required us to move fast,” Malivette replied. “This necessitated incredibly short notice for the party. To invite nobility to a social event with less than a day’s notice is an insult; the dignity of the more powerful Houses demanded they snub us.”

Ravana picked up the explanation when she paused for breath. “To insult someone and then make it worth their while is a power move; to heap insult upon insult with no recompense is asking to be ganged up on by minor players who wouldn’t dare attack us on their own. Tonight we shall either gain significant influence among these lesser Houses or make a lot of enemies we don’t need, based on how we treat our guests.”

“What she’s saying, Natchua—”

“Yeah, yeah, be nice to the nest of vipers. I survived in Tar’naris as a farming peasant, I know how to avoid insulting the overbred wealthy.”

“How reassuring,” Ravana said with an audible smile.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Malivette added, “I saw the first one today. From a distance, of course.”

“First…?” Ravana shifted her head subtly to regard her sidelong.

“A young woman in the city. She had bleached her hair white and dyed a green stripe down the center.”

“What— Oy, that’s my thing!” Natchua snapped, barely remembering to remain still and not too loud while Ravana laughed quietly.

“You’re a celebrity, dear,” Malivette said with more than a touch of condescension. “If you’re going to cultivate a unique and striking appearance, people are going to imitate it.”

“Do try to enjoy it; this is the fun part,” Ravana chuckled. “If it becomes a trend, it will inevitably run its course and then you will find yourself the target of mockery for continuing to express a fashion which has fallen from vogue.”

“That is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of.”

“Then you need to get out more,” Malivette said merrily. “If it makes you feel better, those colors look repulsive on a human.”

“Why on this blighted earth would that make me feel better?”

“Mm, that one’s Irana Daraspian, yes?” Ravana interjected. “In the red gown and with that thing in her hair?”

“It’s called a tiara, Ravana,” Malivette explained. “Yes, that’s she.”

“It is an asinine affectation and in the days when they were a sign of rank a bottom-feeder like her would be asking for a flogging by wearing it. But now I see she has found friends. And if I am not mistaken, those simpletons are trying to bully Juniper.”

“Lady Sarideh and Lady Volsten,” Malivette said. “I didn’t know they knew each other. Those are both new Houses, elevated after the Enchanter Wars. Little more than merchant syndicates that own some land. Still, there’ll be no end of paperwork if Juniper does them like they’re asking for.”

“June is very serious about her religion,” Natchua said, “and she’s not the kind of Omnist who’s into martial arts. She’ll speak politely to them until she gets tired of it and then walk—yep, there she goes.”

Across the lawn, the disinterested dryad had turned and strolled away from the three noblewomen with no outward sign of discomfiture. Unlike her ever-present pet Sniff, who raised his crest and hissed loudly, causing Lady Volsten to shriek and accidentally hurl her champagne glass. A ripple of laughter spread through the surrounding party guests.

“I cannot fathom what those three were trying to achieve,” Ravana murmured wonderingly.

“Juniper is prettier than they are, and has more powerful friends,” Malivette explained. “Thus, they went on the attack to cut her down. You surprise me, Ravana. This is Rich Girl 101.”

“I’m afraid my upbringing was rather…isolated. My understanding of noble society more heavily emphasized coercion and the thwarting of assassins than forming social ties.”

“That explains everything just so very well,” the vampire muttered.

Natchua’s lips curled in a reminiscent smile and she softly recited, “Two is the optimal number of hench wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch.”

“See?” Malivette said. “Even the surly drow knows this stuff better than you. We have got to bring you to more parties, Ravana.”

“Why two?” the Duchess Madouri demanded, still quietly but indulging in a tone of overt annoyance. “It seems to me that in any form of warfare, even social, the greater one’s forces, the better.”

“One follower is just a friend hanging out with you,” Natchua explained. “More than that, and you start having problems managing the pack, plus the risk increases of one aspiring to unseat your position.”

“None of my friends behave that way,” Ravana said, frowning. “It sounds exhausting and self-defeating.”

“If you’re referring to your roommates, they’re all working-class people and thus more generally sensible than nobles,” Natchua agreed. “Anyway, did you see how those other two flanked Daraspian, one to each side? Social threat display. You can target one victim with that for good effect, while keeping the group small enough to maneuver through crowds, and best of all it emphasizes who’s in command.”

“I am more than a little disturbed to learn how much you’re absorbing from those succubi of yours,” Malivette commented.

Ravana glanced sidelong down their own formation, where Malivette, as the hostess, stood in the center.

“Oh, well played, Vette.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirl,” the vampire said smugly.

“What the hell?” Natchua suddenly hissed, her eyes fixing on the gates and the figures which had just stepped through them. “What are they doing here?”

“Easy,” Malivette soothed. “Remember, poise. Don’t let them unsettle you.”

“Which one of you invited her?”

“Neither of us know the drow, I assumed it was you.”

“I sent announcement messages to my mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai stating that House Dalmiss was specifically unwelcome here—”

“Nice,” Malivette said with an approving grin. “Power move.”

“—but I definitely didn’t reach out to her!”

Ravana cleared her throat softly. “That is my friend Magister Talvrin, who is here at my invitation, and I gather, her surprising choice of plus one.”

The two women who had just stepped into the grounds caused a wide ripple of reaction from the assembled minor nobility. Of them, Talvrin was by far the most ostentatious, wearing a gown that appeared to be woven from shimmering streamers of azure light. A heavy golden mantle hovered six inches off her shoulders, trailing another light-woven cape down her back, and above her head floated a bejeweled circlet which slowly rotated in the air.

At her side, looking spartan by comparison in her dark formal robes, was Matriarch Ashaele of House Awarrion.

“Do you suppose she’s naked under that lightshow?” Malivette wondered.

“You know she can hear us, right?” Natchua muttered.

“Yup.”

Just below them, a man approached the steps a shade closer than was strictly proper given that the Duchesses had not officially started the festivities. Lars Dufresne, formerly Grusser as recently as that morning and now legally Malivette’s son despite being roughly her age, glanced pointedly around at the crowd and then gave his head of House a significant look with his eyebrows raised. Notably, he had spent the last several minutes discreetly gathering the attendees who the Duchesses knew from Last Rock; they had now arranged themselves in a staggered formation that at a glance looked like nothing but people standing around chatting but which nonetheless formed a bulwark between the steps and the crowd beyond.

“Your man has a deft hand at these maneuvers, Malivette,” Ravana said with clear approval. “I see why you chose him.”

“I am so glad Sherwin didn’t want to come,” Natchua muttered.

“And I believe he’s right,” Malivette decided. “Come, ladies. It’s time to face the music.”

As one, they stepped forward and down the stairs. The entire party responded, everyone shifting to face them and breaking into polite applause as the three heads of House finally set foot on the ground and began, officially, to mingle.

Thanks to Lars’s tactics, they were first met by friendly faces which protected them from the fortune-seekers beyond. Most of those closest by were the guests currently staying at Ravana’s mansion, though a few others from the school itself had turned up in response to the belated invitations.

Professor Rafe inhaled deeply, his thin chest swelling as he prepared to deliver his customary greeting.

Malivette pointed one finger at him. “So help me, little man, I will drain you like a shot of bourbon.”

At Rafe’s side, Professor Yornhaldt drove a blocky elbow into his waist, eliciting a grunt. “Thank you for thinking of us, ladies, this is just the diversion the winter break needed. Arachne said she might drop by later.”

“Meaning,” Rafe added, “she’ll only show up when she can make a grand entrance and be the center of attention.”

“Oh, good,” Ravana said cheerfully, “something to look forward to.”

Natchua, meanwhile, had gravitated toward the current junior class, those who had come, her eyes flicking to Trissiny’s extra guest.

“Teal and Shaeine have an important event in Madouris tonight,” Toby said to her, “and Ruda stayed to support them.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Natchua assured them. “This was stupidly short notice and it’s very good of you all to have come. I really appreciate it.”

“Wow,” said Gabriel, “not even noble for a day and somebody’s already taught her manners.”

“Trissiny,” Natchua said pleasantly, “if Gabe’s gonna act like this all night I may loan you one of the punchbowls.”

The Hand of Avei heaved a sigh. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?”

“Yeah, people are so dramatic,” Natchua agreed with a solemn nod. “You waterboard one person in public and everybody gets an attitude.”

“This is a great party, Natchua! Congratulations on everything!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I never would’ve expected this but I really hope it works out well for you! Do you think Vette would mind if I examined these levitating constructs? They’ve got several really powerful static enchantments that you don’t often see combined but the overall structure is quite elegantly designed! I promise I won’t break one!”

“I…guess that’s…and she’s gone,” Natchua said, watching Fross’s glow disappear as the pixie zoomed right into the corona of light around one of the floating sources of heat and illumination. “So! If I had to guess, you must be Bishop Darling.”

“That I am,” he said with a gallant bow, taking her hand and raising it gracefully to his lips. “My heartfelt congratulations on your ascendance, Duchess Leduc. This is precisely the kick in the pants to Imperial nobility that Eserites like myself love to watch unfold.” Straightening back up, he winked as he released her hand. “Tell me, before I embarrass myself, what’s your policy on social flirting?”

“That’s…very flattering, your Grace,” she said with a smile of surprised amusement, “but I’m not on the market.”

“Oh, good heavens no, I’m way too old for you anyway. Sometimes the fun of a chase is not the catch, though. Have you ever seen a dog running after an enchanted carriage and then looking lost and confused when it stopped?”

“Wow,” she said. “You were not kidding, Trissiny. I think I owe you an apology.”

Darling turned a sidelong look on Trissiny. “Oh? Scale of one to ten, Thorn, how offended should I be?”

“How offended do you want to be?” she retorted. “I’m flexible.”

“Anyway,” said Darling, “I understand you wished to have a private chat later, your Grace, which would of course be both an honor and a pleasure. More the former than the latter, don’t worry! But I wouldn’t dream of monopolizing your time so early in the evening.”

“What’s this, now?” Malivette inquired, sliding into the conversation. “And a good evening to you, Bishop Darling, how absolutely lovely to see you again.”

“Duchess Dufresne! You’ve done an absolute wonder with this place, I swear I didn’t recognize it.”

Natchua glanced rapidly between them and then smirked. “Well, discretion aside, Malivette is my dear friend and political ally, and I wouldn’t dream of going behind her back. Vette, Trissiny was good enough to bring the Bishop at my request. I wanted to see about bringing the local Guild presence back up to a full complement for a city this size.”

Malivette was holding a wineglass. Her grip did not visibly shift, and her already-bloodless fingers didn’t whiten when flexed anyway, but abruptly a hairline crack appeared on it. “Did you, now?” she inquired in a saccharine tone that made most of the onlookers take a step back.

“Why, my dear Duchess,” Darling said smoothly, “I do hope this is not an unwelcome surprise! If you have some…specific objection to an Eserite presence in your city, I should be only too happy to convey it to Boss Tricks. I’m sure he would be most intrigued to hear exactly why.”

The vampire turned her pleasant smile upon him, saying nothing. He smiled right back, not yielding an inch.

“As much as I’m tempted to see how this plays out,” Natchua interjected, “you need to settle down, Vette. You’re the one who set up our whole alliance of Houses, here. You’re surely aware that Ravana has already thrust herself into the middle of the Shaathist schism on the reformist side, and how that places us with regard to the Universal Church. Whatever else Eserites do, right now strengthening ties with the Thieves’ Guild is just good sense.”

“After tomorrow,” Toby interjected in a tone of calm that seemed to almost forcibly leech some of the tension from the air, “that position will also bring you into alignment with the three Trinity cults. I don’t pretend to understand the undercurrents here, but Natchua is correct. It’s an advantageous position.”

“Perhaps we should indeed have a nice, discreet chat about this,” Malivette said. “I trust you won’t mind if I tag along, your Grace?”

“Why, your Grace, if Duchess Leduc doesn’t object, nothing ever makes me happier than the company of yet another charming young lady,” he said smoothly.

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said, staring at him. “How do women not stab you? I would get stabbed, acting like that.”

“Yeah, you probably would, Gabe,” Darling agreed. “The secret is to pick your targets. It’s actually not difficult to avoid pestering people who won’t find it funny.”

Trissiny smiled mischievously. “And yet…”

“You hush it,” Gabriel ordered. “Anyway, Natch, I don’t see, um…”

“Jonathan’s inside, hanging out with the servants in the kitchen,” she said. “He was almost as put off as me at the thought of having to hobnob with nobles, and since I’m the only one who actually has to I didn’t have the heart to insist he join me out here. And Hesthri is here. Over there, by the buffet. She’s wearing a disguise ring and serving canapes.”

Gabriel straightened up, scowling. “You made her serve food?”

“Her idea,” Natchua clarified grinning at him, “and she thought it was hilarious. I mostly went along because I was curious whether you’d forget you were supposed to be all suspicious of her and get offended on her behalf. Thanks a lot, by the way, now I owe Jonathan a doubloon.”

He stared at her, blinking repeatedly, while Trissiny and Toby looked elsewhere and did a poor job of not laughing out loud.

“Anyway,” Natchua said, nodding as gracefully as she could manage to everyone, “please excuse me for scampering off, but I need to go have a…less pleasant conversation. I’ll chat with you soon, Bishop Darling. And all of you, I hope. I’ll probably be in desperate need of better company before this night is over.”

“I don’t know about better,” Toby said with a smile, “but we can probably do less stressful. Break a leg, Natch.”

She smiled at him and turned away. The expression slid off her face, replaced by a grim stare as she strode straight for Talvrin and Ashaele.

Watching her go, Darling let out a low whistle. “I wonder if it might be safest to remove ourselves from the fallout radius?”

“Natchua has her issues, but she’s not some kind of wild animal,” Gabriel said grudgingly. “It’s not like she’ll— What the hell?”

All of them turned as their group was approached by a fifth, Malivette having already slipped away to join Ravana in speaking with some of the others from Last Rock. The paladins and Bishop all raised their eyebrows in surprised response to their new arrival’s welcoming smile.

“Good evening, children. Antonio,” she said, nodding her head courteously.

“Branwen,” said Darling, staring at her. “Well, well. I was…specifically not expecting you.”

“How the hell’d you get in here?” Gabriel demanded. “There’s no way you were invited.”

“It’s a funny thing, celebrity,” Bishop Snowe replied with a benign smile. “When one is a Bishop of the Universal Church and a well-known columnist and public speaker, one seldom encounters servants willing to risk turning one away.”

“Mm,” Toby murmured blandly. “When you put it like that, it stands to reason. I guess you don’t even strictly need to be a busty redhead anymore.” Trissiny and Gabriel both turned to him in utter surprise; Darling clenched his lips to suppress a grin.

Bishop Snowe was not in the least put off, just smiling mischievously at Toby. “No, that’s purely for my own enjoyment, although it doesn’t hurt. That’s here, though. The guardians of Madouri Manor are made of more disciplined stuff; that tends to be the case in any household overseen by a Butler. Regardless, I don’t plan to remain long enough to wear out my welcome. Speaking of invitations, I am only here to deliver one, in a manner of speaking. Antonio, would you excuse us for a moment?”

Darling raised one eyebrow, and then turned to the paladins. “What do you think? Shall I excuse you for a moment?”

“We like him more than you,” Trissiny said curtly to Snowe. “What do you want?”

“As you wish,” she replied with a gracious bow of her head. Then she straightened and her intonation shifted to a formal, even ceremonious declamation as she held her head high. “Hands of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, by the ancient compact of the Universal Church which binds together the faiths of the Pantheon in common cause, you are summoned by his Holiness Archpope Justinian to his presence.”

They all stared at her in astonished silence.

“Not right this minute, of course,” Branwen continued, abruptly reverting to her pleasantly casual demeanor. “Please, take your time and enjoy the party; I understand the new Duchess Leduc is rather counting on your support. But this evening, afterward, his Holiness awaits you at the Grand Cathedral. I fear it will be rather late by then, but perhaps it’s for the best. With most of the world asleep, you should have a greater expectation of privacy.”

“And for what possible reason would we wish to accommodate him?” Toby asked at last.

“He doesn’t actually have the authority to command us,” Trissiny added, “and quite frankly I’m disinclined to create the impression that he can.”

“It is an invitation,” Branwen said gently, “not a command. But I cannot imagine why you would want to decline, in all honesty.”

“Yes you can,” Darling replied in apparently perfect calm. “Don’t play games like that with this lot, Bran, it’s really not helping your case.”

“Very well, my apologies,” she said, nodding her head again. “I of course cannot speak for his Holiness’s inner thoughts; I know only what he has told me. And in all honesty, he does take actions which I neither understand nor approve of. But I remain loyal to his cause, because he has earned that trust from me. I suppose, however,” she went on in a musing tone, “that if I were in his position, I would consider your unfolding plot to politically attack him and preemptively set you up to discredit yourselves by refusing a perfectly reasonable invitation to talk in favor of partying with your warlock drow friend. In what amounts to a battle of public appearances, such things do matter a great deal.”

They all stared at her again, once more reduced to silence.

“On the other hand,” Branwen said pleasantly, “perhaps I am just employing reverse psychology to nudge you in the direction I want. I suppose it must be a dilemma.”

“Gabe,” said Trissiny, staring at the Izarite Bishop, “fetch me a punchbowl.”

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16 – 29

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“It’s not as urgent a crisis as that,” Ingvar assured her. “My people are pretty accustomed to rough sleeping arrangements and close quarters; we hardly know what to do with ourselves in a place as lavish as this. That goes for the Harpies, too. And it seems the lizardfolk like to cluster together even tighter. I keep getting the impression they would pile themselves in twelve to a room even if the lack of space didn’t mandate it.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” said Ravana, gazing down at the dense throng of scaly bodies milling about the great hall of her ancestral hunting lodge.

“That just means this is stable in the very immediate term,” he cautioned. “This many people, in this little space, representing two distinct groups with little reason for mutual trust… It’s going to become an issue sooner than later. And more immediately, we are out of food. Our guests aren’t going to starve, they seem to have carried their own winter provisions, but we opened our stores to help facilitate trust and settle them in, and well…”

“I will see that you are resupplied immediately,” Ravana promised. “Foodstuffs, and anything else you need. And obviously, this is not a permanent solution. Before doing anything with them, however, I must decide what to do with them, and that is a decision I judge myself not yet sufficiently informed to make. What have you learned about their intentions and reason for being out here in such numbers in the winter?”

The lodge had been designed for aristocrats and thus possessed a number of highly specific architectural features such as the one she and Ingvar were currently using: a small balcony shaded by heavy curtains—really more like an opera box—overlooking the great hall. From this vantage, the nobles of House Madouri could stand at the edge of the rail, as they were now, and be seen gazing down upon their domain from on high, with the added benefit that the carefully designed acoustics of the spot would keep their conversation private from those below.

“All I’ve gotten definitively is that this is some kind of religious pilgrimage,” Ingvar reported, staring down at the two hundred or so lizardfolk below—less than half those currently housed in the lodge. His Shadow Hunters were moving carefully through the crowd, both to see if any help was needed and to generally keep order. The spirit wolves, unsurprisingly, had refused to have anything to do with such a dense crowd indoors and were all outside in the snow. “And that… Well, that kind of inherently puts a stop to learning more. The lizardfolk’s religious practices are private. No doubt there are Nemitite records that could help me gain some insight, but this situation is too tense to be left simmering while I engage in a lengthy research project. I’m sorry I don’t have a better report for you, my Lady. In my opinion, more suitable housing needs to be found for these people before we seek a permanent solution. That is, unless you wish to just let them go about their business. They made it this far without disturbing anyone…”

“Any insight as to how they’ve managed to come this far, undetected?”

“’The safe way is the slow way,’” he quoted with a wry grimace. “Or so they’ve repeated when asked. What they are doing and why are apparently spiritual concerns, and therefore not for discussion with outsiders, but in talking with various individuals I’ve been able to pick up some details about what they’ve already done. Bits of stories about shamans contacting all the tribes across the western part of the Empire, and some interesting notes about who didn’t come. Apparently every tribe sent about half its members, leaving enough back home that the human authorities wouldn’t notice their sudden absence.” He hesitated, his frown deepening. “My lady, this is just a hunch, but I’m increasingly getting the impression that the lizardfolk were the first of the insular races to organize this way. But while the dragons and elves made a big production of it as soon as they were in a position to do so, these seem to have been careful not to reveal what they were doing. I think they’ve been working up to this for a few years, at least.”

“They are just standoffish enough for that to work,” Ravana mused. “It bodes ill for their intentions, that they devoted such effort to secrecy. On the other hand, the fact that they allowed you and your followers to herd them in here suggests the opposite. You could not have compelled them, had they chosen to resist. I mean no disrespect…”

“You gave none,” he said quickly. “You’re quite right, my lady, we had no chance of forcibly rounding them up like this. In fact, they’ve been most cooperative…at least, until I start asking what they are doing.”

“They’re looking to join the Empire.”

Both of them turned to face the speaker who approached from behind, in some surprise but no alarm; with Yancey standing guard at the entrance to the box, there was no chance of being ambushed from that direction. Juniper strolled up, accompanied by her pet bird-lizard, which Ravana studiously ignored. In truth she found Sniff more alarming than the huge spirit wolves, though it had to be said that he was better-behaved than Juniper’s previous pet.

“How do you mean?” Ingvar asked, stepping aside to make room for the dryad at the rail with them.

Juniper leaned against it, gazing downward in a posture that caused her Omnist medallion to slide out of the neck of her dress and dangle. As usual, she was wearing an elven-style beaded robe that was better suited for the summer, but the cold and snow outside didn’t seem to bother her.

“Just what I’ve put together from what the shamans have said,” she explained. “More than one has mentioned rallying under the black banner. One guy said their only hope for salvation was beneath the gryphon’s wings.”

Ravana and Ingvar hesitated at that, glancing at each other. True, the Imperial flag was a silver gryphon on a black field, but…

“Sounds awfully vague,” Ingvar ruminated, “but it’s more than I was able to get out of them. What’s your secret?”

“My secret is their religious practices are shamanistic,” Juniper said, shooting him a playful smile. “People who are into fae magic are usually delighted to chat with a dryad.”

“Oh? I wonder why Aspen hasn’t been able to get anything out of them, then.”

“Do you?” she asked dryly. “You’ve been hanging around with Aspen for a while now, Ingvar. I’m sure you’ve noticed she is not exactly a people person.”

“I can hear you!” Aspen’s voice floated up from the floor below.

Juniper leaned farther over the rail, shouting back, “Yeah? And when you can refute me, you know where I’ll be!” There was no audible response to that, and she straightened back up, smirking.

“And here I thought this spot afforded privacy,” Ravana sighed.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Juniper reassured her, “dryads aren’t elves. Our sensory acuity is variable, and consciously controlled. Aspen being able to hear us up here just means she was deliberately eavesdropping. Nobody else except your wizard should be able to overhear.”

“We had a lizardfolk classmate,” Ravana said pensively, still staring down at the crowd. “She graduated last year. Lriss was always so cosmopolitan, downright urbane; well-dressed, well-spoken, and as witty as any socialite I have ever met, particularly when she was deflecting questions about her people without giving offense. Last Rock does famously draw exceptional individuals, but I cannot find it in me to believe the lizardfolk are less intelligent than anyone else. Their withdrawal from the society of others is their choice, and they still visit and trade in cities. Two hundred years ago, they were a common sight in adventuring parties. As such, I am forced to consider this…facade of primitive tribalism no more than that. These people know what the Empire is, and how it works. To set out for its heart while camouflaging their intentions behind mystical doublespeak signals unequivocal hostility.”

“That is one interpretation,” Ingvar said, “but I don’t think the likelier one, my lady, with all due respect.”

Ravana turned her head toward him, raising an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I may not understand the lizardfolk religion, but I’m very familiar with religion itself, as a broad concept. Among other things, it encourages people to express themselves in grandiose, poetic terms, even when it would serve them better to speak plainly. These people are far away from everything they know, with apparently nothing but their faith to cling to. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t couch everything in ritualism and pageantry.”

“Hm… You do have a point, Sheriff. Who is in charge among them?”

Ingvar and Juniper both pointed without hesitating.

“The fellow sitting by that fireplace, with the shawl and the kinda cracked-looking scales,” Juniper answered. “I think that’s what they get instead of going gray.”

“He gives all the orders among them,” Ingvar added. “What’s interesting is he doesn’t have a name.”

“You mean…he refused to give it to you?”

“No, he was very clear about this,” the hunter disagreed, shaking his head. “He has no name. That’s also something of significance in their religion which, of course, he refused to explain. He did hint that he gave up his name for the sake of this…whatever it is they’re doing. The others just call him Elder.”

“Well, then!” she said briskly, stepping back from the rail, “named or not, I know where to start. Come, let us go have a word with the gentleman.”

Yancey fell into step beside and just behind her as she emerged into the hallway. Veilwin, lounging against the wall and sipping from her horrific-smelling flask, gave Ravana a challenging look and refused to budge, all of which Ravana of course ignored. No possible good could have resulted from involving the surly elf in the conversation she planned, anyway. With Ingvar and Juniper following, she led the way briskly through the halls and staircases that brought them back to the main floor, and then the great hall itself.

Only the upper hall itself had been free of crowds; immediately after that, they began to encounter clusters of lizardfolk refugees. Ravana simply strode forward at the same measured pace, her head held high even though it came barely to the shoulder of most of the guests in her lodge. Without exception, they got out of her way, several bowing and murmuring apologies at which she nodded graciously.

The effect continued to work even in the dense crowd in the great hall, resulting in a constant ripple as she strode forward through a cleared space that opened itself around her with every step. As a result of that, by the time she reached her target, he was already upright and watching her approach. The last thin curtain of bodies parted to reveal the sight of him, standing slightly hunched with age and leaning upon at all staff from the top of which hung several bird skulls and one softly glowing crystal on leather cords.

“Greetings, Elder,” Ravana said politely, and though she did not raise her voice, it caused silence to ripple outward, snuffing out the muttering which had been caused by her own arrival. “Welcome to Tiraan Province and to this household. I am the Duchess Madouri, mistress of these lands. You have my apologies for the paltry accommodations, and my tardiness in greeting you. I came as soon as I was informed I had guests.”

“Duchess.” The shaman thumped his staff once upon the floor, and then bowed deeply to her. The gesture was ponderous, whether because that was just how they did it or because of his age, she didn’t know, though the way the two nearest lizardfolk watched him and edged forward protectively suggested the latter. “The People are grateful for your hospitality, and sorry to impose upon you. We are, in all our dealings, fair. We shall seek to repay your kindness in whatever way we are able, when the times allow it. For now, rest assured that we will relieve you of the burden of our presence very shortly.”

“It is no burden,” she replied in a tone which brooked no argument. “To extend kindness toward guests is among the most basic expectations placed upon all decent people, and I assure you, I can afford to host you. I am sorry for these cramped accommodations; I will find you something better as quickly as I can. As for your leaving, that remains to be seen.”

The softest of collective sounds fluttered through the onlookers, a concerted indrawing of breath.

The elder shaman made a clicking noise with his tongue, and a pair of filmy inner eyelids flickered over his yellow eyes for an instant. “We have tarried too long, Duchess, and it was never our intention to disturb you.”

“Or make yourselves known to me?” she replied with a thin smile. “That is the issue precisely, Elder. To surreptitiously cross my lands with such a large host is not neighborly behavior, with all due respect. I’m afraid your presence here, and your manner of conducting yourself, requires an explanation. What do you intend to do in the capital?”

At that, a swell of indistinct murmuring rose from the crowd, which was quelled in an instant by another thump of his staff.

“For the People, I apologize,” the Elder intoned, again bowing to her. “We have done and would have done no harm to you or yours, Duchess. If our crossing has done you insult, amends shall be made. For that, and for the slight we inflict by leaving now. But leave we must. A great doom is coming; the People have prepared as best we are able. Now is the time to act. There must be no more hesitation.”

“I fear you misunderstand,” Ravana said evenly. “I am a servant of the Silver Throne. As such, I am tentatively inclined to aid you further, if I may. Whatever benefits the Empire benefits me, and if you seek to pledge yourselves to my Emperor, I am duty bound to protect and assist you. Thus, at the very least, I shall inform his Majesty of your coming.”

Another, louder stir of voices resulted from that, again silenced by a thunk of the staff. Ravana kept speaking as though she had not been interrupted.

“However, you travel surrounded by a fog of uncertainty. I cannot send hundreds of people of unknown intention toward the seat of the Empire. As much as I would be pleased to aid your cause if it proves right that I do so, should it be true that you mean harm to my Emperor, your journey ends here and now.”

This time, there was no muttering. In fact, the silence was as chilling as it was sudden.

“Uh, Ravana?” Juniper muttered.

“So,” Ravana stated, folding her arms regally, “with apologies for pressing you, Elder, I am forced to demand that you explain yourselves.”

His thin chest swelled with a slowly drawn breath, and then his shoulders slumped as he let it out. “Already too much has been revealed, young Duchess. I swear to you, upon my forsaken name, upon the hopes of my People, on pain of severance from my every familiar spirit if I deceive, that we intend no harm to you or to Tiraas. More than that, I may not reveal to you. You have my apologies if I give insult, but this is absolute. Too much is at stake, and too much of our secrecy already compromised.”

“I thank you for that assurance,” she said solemnly, nodding her head once. “But I suspect you know well, Elder, that to a person in my situation, it cannot be enough.”

“Can it truly not?” he asked wearily.

She shook her head. “I know nothing of you or your spirits. You have your duty, and I respect that, but by the same token I have mine. The House of Madouri safeguards the lands around the Imperial capital, and has for a thousand years. To send a horde of strangers straight to the Emperor’s doorstep in ignorance of their intentions would be an utter betrayal of that responsibility. I cannot abrogate my duty in such a manner.”

He lowered his head for a moment. “Ah. To have come to such an impasse. The spirits did not forewarn that we would find allies or enemies here, only that we risked crossing the path of more able hunters than have watched these lands before. You do not know you can trust the People, Duchess; I understand. It is reasonable. If only the People knew we could trust you, this could be resolved.”

“Neither you nor I have time to dawdle here indefinitely,” she replied, “but I can spare the time for you to be certain, Elder. Surely you have the means.”

The old shaman regarded her pensively for a moment, blinking his inner eyelids once more. Then he thumped his staff yet again.

“So be it. By your leave, Duchess, I shall seek wisdom. For the patience you extend, I am grateful. Ilriss, Fninn. Prepare the way.”

A muted flurry of movement ensued as the lizardfolk rearranged themselves and Ravana stood immobile in her place. Ingvar and Juniper both drew closer to her; Sniff, on the contrary, separated himself from his mistress’s leg by a few feet, flattening his head crest and fanning his wings in a display from which the nearby lizardfolk wisely backed away. By that point, half a dozen of Ingvar’s people had joined them, including Aspen and three of the Harpies Ravana recognized, and they now arranged themselves in a protective cluster around her.

The Elder, meanwhile, had slowly stepped over to the fire and seated himself before it, his back to the flames and his tail curved around himself. Two of his nearest companions, probably the two he had named, positioned themselves on either side of him, each tossing a handful of some herbal powder into the hearth which made it splutter and produce a fragrant smoke. He appeared to be surrounded chiefly by other shaman, to judge by the way several of those nearest began to hum deep in their throats and thump their tails against the marble floor, quickly creating a rhythm that filled the air as did the scented smoke. In the midst of it, the Elder closed his eyes, breathing in deeply.

“What are you doing?” Juniper hissed at Ravana from inches away. “Who knows what’s going to happen if he does random magic at you? This could all blow up in our faces!”

“Nonsense,” Ravana said serenely, not troubling to lower her voice. “He is a shaman. When needing to ascertain whether he can trust me, he will naturally call upon his familiar spirits. And since fae divination is famously impossible to deceive or thwart, I know what they will tell him. One who lives a life of integrity need never fear the revelation of her true character.”

Ingvar’s own expression was guarded, but he shot her a long look at that.

The Elder was now rocking slowly back and forth, holding his staff horizontally in his lap. The herbal-scented smoke from the hearth had drifted forward and actually begun to form a halo around his head. That was the only clear sign of magic being done, at least until he suddenly opened his eyes. Only the outer eyelids; the translucent inner ones remained closed, revealing a muted green glow from beneath them.

Falling still and sitting bolt upright, the Elder spoke in a voice that suddenly echoed as if others were speaking in unison.

“Little hunting spider, spinner of grand and sprawling webs. Far too eager to strike, and with venom far too cruel.”

The muttering that rose from the surrounding lizardfolk was distinctly unhappy at that. The Shadow Hunters drew closer together around the Duchess, watching them warily. Ravana herself simply stood, impassively gazing at the old shaman.

“And yet,” he whispered, his soft voice cutting off the speech of the others like a blade. “And yet.”

He closed his eyes, bowing his head, and for almost a full minute, there was expectant silence.

“And yet,” the Elder said suddenly, lifting his snout again, “there is a cold honor in her. Yes. Faithful to her word, loyal to her master, generous to the weak. Destroyer and protector both, changing to suit those deserving of either spirit.”

He opened his eyes once more to reveal the green film, then blinked them rapidly, causing the glow to fade. The Elder shook his head, beginning to slump sideways until one of his attendants lunged to catch him. All around, the humming and drumming of tails trailed to a halt.

Finally, the old shaman opened his eyes fully, revealing their normal yellow, slightly clouded by age. Leaning on his companion, he gazed up at Ravana with an expression of sheer bemusement, and spoke with a voice that was just his own again, not shared by any familiar spirits.

“There is…there is no moderation in you, child. Omnu’s grace or Scyllith’s fury, with nothing in between.”

“Thank you for that assessment,” Ravana said with a noblewoman’s meaningless smile. “Back to the matter at hand, did you learn what you needed to?”

He sighed again, but nodded ponderously, and then actually smiled. “Yes… Yes, in truth. You are not the weaver against which we were cautioned.”

Another muted hubbub rose, this one excited and speculative, and thankfully not angry in tone.

Ingvar leaned closer to Ravana, speaking in a low near-growl. “And what if their intent had been hostile? My lady, we are in the middle of them.”

“If they meant harm,” she replied, “you would be dead, and I would never have learned of this. Sometimes one must take a risk, Ingvar. Every risk I take is calculated with care, I assure you.”

“Yes!” said the Elder, planting his staff against the ground and using it to heave himself upright, ignoring but not rejecting the assistance of his attendants. “Risk, yes. Your pardon, Duchess, for my skepticism. Everything has been with the utmost caution, the greatest care. Too much is at stake: the fates of the People, of the Empire, of all life upon this earth. But you have indulged me, and thus I am sure you are not our enemy. I must assure you of the same. In all our dealings, the People are fair.”

“I am relieved to hear it,” she said, smiling. “Shall we retire to a more comfortable setting to talk, Elder?”

“My old bones will bear me up a while longer,” he demurred, shaking his head. “Too much time is lost already. The omens have warned us of a great doom for some time now, little Duchess. We have consulted the spirits with great care, and learned of the shadow of a great spider, spinning webs across every possible future. Hence, my worry. But you are not that spider. In fact, you may be one who will aid us against it. The beast has laid strands of its web over every fate, and that is why the People have acted with such great care, in such meticulous silence and stealth, as we go to place ourselves before the Emperor. The spirits warned us that only thus will we avert disaster. The spider sees much…but not all. Even a spider may be plucked from its web by a wasp which does not disturb the strands. The People are no great force, in either magic or might, but we may yet save the future simply by arriving at the center of the web without touching it. What the spider does not see, it does not guard against.”

A year ago, Ravana might have disdained that idea; her whole philosophy of action was centered upon finding and deploying the greatest concentration of force possible at the enemy’s weakest point. And yet, what he described was the exact strategy Natchua had recently used to humble Elilial. The weakness of schemers—such as herself—was that even the best plan was vulnerable to any variable for which it had failed to account. Even a weak blow could be lethal, if it arrived unseen, and struck the right spot.

And so she nodded, slowly, considering his words. “A sound plan, Elder. Yes, I see why you were so concerned with the element of surprise.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding back. “We shall have only the one chance to avert catastrophe. Let us speak, then, of the great doom that is coming.”

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16 – 5

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“And this is the Sanhevid Suite, where you’ll be staying,” Ravana announced, coming to a stop in the center of the wide common area, planting herself beside a marble statue of a hooded woman wielding a bow and gazing sternly at some distant horizon. “Doors to either side of the hearth behind me lead to the residential area, where there are more than enough bedrooms for everyone. Beyond that, both halls open onto a small library with attached reading room and office. To the left, here, beyond the colonnade, is a solarium opening onto a private courtyard, with the dining hall adjacent. Kitchen, laundry, and servant’s quarters are in the basement; someone will be on staff at all hours, and the enchanted bell in each bedroom activates a signal in the kitchen, so do not hesitate to summon someone for anything you need, at any time. I do hope you’ll be adequately comfortable.”

“Wow,” Gabriel said simply, looking wide-eyed around the great hall of the Sanhevid Suite, which apparently counted for a small mansion in its own right. It was a two-story affair, with windows on the second floor admitting sunlight to complement the fairy lamps attached to each of the marble pillars. The place was laid out very much like a Shaathist lodge, a long area strewn with furniture extending from huge doors on one end to an enormous hearth on the other, though the décor ran toward marble, velvet, and gilt-framed paintings rather than hunting trophies.

“Adequately?” Toby added, grinning. “Ravana, this is… Well, it’s nicer than most of the places Tellwyrn’s made us stay on trips.”

“Most?” Gabriel gave him an incredulous look. “This is nicer than anyplace we’ve stayed. By orders of magnitude.”

“Um, ex-fuckin’-cuse me,” Ruda retorted, “but I distinctly recall putting you ingrates up at my house on one of those trips.”

Gabriel smiled sweetly at her. “I know what I said.”

“Arquin, how long’s it been since I fucking stabbed you?”

“Let us remember that we are guests here,” Shaeine interjected smoothly, “and refrain from getting hethelax blood on any of the furnishings. According to Professor Rafe, it is rather acidic.”

“It’s fine, there’s a courtyard,” Gabriel assured her. “Honestly, Ravana, I’m just a kid from the wrong side of Tiraas. I think I’m gonna be afraid to touch anything in here.”

“Ah, I take your point,” she mused, nodding. “Hm… How about this?”

Ravana stepped over to the nearest column, where a frosted glass vase full of out-of-season tulips rested atop a decorative plinth at its base. Picking up the delicate vessel in one hand, she regarded it critically for a moment, then turned and hurled it across the room.

It was a good throw; the crystal unerringly struck another marble column, where of course it shattered, strewing flowers, water, and glass fragments across a wide area. Everyone stared at it in disbelief, then turned those looks on Ravana herself, who had immediately folded her hands demurely at her waist, looking self-satisfied.

“I know that to some of you, servants are in and of themselves an unseemly indulgence,” she said lightly, “but do keep in mind that everyone working in this manor is paid from the House treasury, as I have reduced taxes to ease the burden on local business my father created. Any materials used in cleaning or repair are purchased nearby. I do ask that you please refrain from burning the place down, but short of that? The worst thing you can possibly do is contribute to the local economy. Keep that in mind, Gabriel, and please don’t hesitate to make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can.”

“You have a striking way of making a point,” Trissiny observed.

Ravana’s smile increased fractionally, and she inclined her head. “I have learned from the best.”

“Are we…still in the same house?” Juniper asked hesitantly, pulling her head out of the doorway to the solarium she’d circumspectly been investigating while everyone talked, Sniff silently at her heels as always. “It sounds like this ‘suite’ is bigger than most people’s houses.”

“Ah, yes, hence my uncertainty,” said Ravana. “This would ordinarily be used as guest quarters for visiting nobility and their own households. I believe its size is adequate to your group, but it is not in keeping with formal etiquette to house disparate individuals here. All things considered, and given that placing you each in separate rooms of a quality suitable to your stature would have made it logistically difficult for you all to find one another, I took the risk of presuming you would not be overly concerned with the formalities. If I have erred, I humbly apologize, and of course can make any alternate arrangement of your choosing. There are abundant private rooms, of course, or I can set you up as a group in one of the outlying guest houses. Or, if you prefer a familiar touch of whimsy, a suite of tavern rooms on the grounds.”

“Your first instinct was correct, Ravana,” Teal assured her with a faint smile. During the last year, she had either gotten over her antipathy toward the Duchess or learned to conceal it, and now appeared quite at ease in Madouri Manor. “This is more than comfortable enough, and we wouldn’t dream of putting you to any more trouble. Right, everyone?”

“Indubitably!” Fross chimed, swooping back into the room. “Guys, you have got to see that library! There’s a complete edition of the Encyclopedia Viridici!”

“Isn’t that one notoriously unreliable?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes, because it hasn’t been printed in six hundred years! It’s not even in intelligible modern Tanglish!”

“Hold on, back up,” Gabriel requested, still blinking at Ravana. “Did you say you have a tavern…in your house?”

“Three, on the grounds,” she said placidly. “Madouri Manor as it stands today was the original fortified city of Madouris. As the Lower City spread beyond its walls, the larger structures around the citadel became the residences of lower nobility. Then the Outer City rose around the second ring of walls, and gradually my ancestors encouraged the other families to gentrify the Lower City, eventually leaving these grounds for House Madouri and the city and provincial government alone.” She paused, grimacing prettily. “Unfortunately, my more recent ancestors pushed even those out, leaving the Manor as the largest private residence in the world, a testament to excess that even a Sheng Emperor would have thought a bit much. I have been migrating government offices back into the grounds; you would not believe how hobbled the local bureaucracy has been, simply due to being scattered across the city. Of course, you have the run of the Manor; you will be able to tell what structures serve official purpose. It should not be hard to avoid getting in anyone’s way. Feel free to patronize the taverns, if you like. I am quite serious about encouraging you to take advantage of any available amenities, everyone. It is the least I can do, as I fear I shall perforce be a somewhat negligent hostess.”

“This is your idea of negligent?” Ruda snorted, flopping down on a gilt-armed sofa. “Damn, girl. I’m scared to see what it looks like when you get generous. Be honest, you ever drowned somebody in champagne?”

“Oh, it’s not the accommodations,” Ravana said, smiling. “Those I can provide. It’s just that this is necessarily a working vacation for me. While attending school, my ability to manage the province is hampered by distance, even in this modern age of telescrolls and Rails. I must make full use of the time I have at home to attend to as many affairs as can be squeezed in. Rest assured, I shall make every effort to attend to you, but it won’t be as much as I’d like, so the least I can do is provide ample comfort and entertainment during your stay.”

“I see,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Well, we don’t want to get in your way, then…”

“You are anything but in my way,” Ravana said firmly. “I have been quite looking forward to showing you all around my city. Scorn and the other girls from the Wells will be arriving by tonight, and I mean to have a proper welcome banquet with everyone. Indeed, I find myself eager to consult the political minds among you on the newest issue with the elves.”

“Do understand that neither Teal nor I can render comment in any official capacity,” Shaeine began.

“Please.” Ravana held up one hand, still smiling. “You are my guest, Shaeine, I will not have you put on the spot or otherwise discomfited. If you’d like to chat about it, I would obviously love to hear your take. If not, that is the end of it. It’s very important to me to maintain personal connections beyond the political. Bad enough I can’t publicly associate with Sekandar anymore, I’ll not have any tension raised between Houses Madouri and Awarrion.”

“Wait, what happened with Sekandar?” Gabriel asked. “I thought you two got along well.”

“Oh, we do, but unfortunately his mother is…out of sorts with me. Being a well-bred Calderaan boy, Prince Sekandar obviously cannot gainsay her in public, so our conversations at school have been somewhat abridged in the last few months. It’s dreadfully tedious, but such are politics.”

“Ravana,” Teal asked in the chiding tone of a teacher interrogating a child over a broken vase—while, herself, standing practically in the shards of a broken vase— “what did you do to the Sultana?”

Ravana shrugged daintily. “I have simply been a good neighbor to the people of Last Rock while enjoying their hospitality. I furnished several small business loans to residents, after the fashion I have found so productive here in Madouris. Sadly, her Excellency has chosen to take this as a territorial infraction. I do say she is overreacting somewhat.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. “You, the sitting governor of another province and rival Great House, began an economic program obviously modeled on the means you used to secure your influence in Madouris, in a fringe territory over which the Sultana has nominal but little real control, probably causing her to lose face in front of the other Houses of Calderaas, who at their most congenial are a pit of underfed alligators. And you’re surprised she was miffed?”

“I said that her Excellency overreacted,” Ravana replied, lifting her nose, “not that she was entirely without a point.”

“Yeah, I’d get on top of fixing that if I were you,” Gabriel suggested. “Sekandar’s a swell guy and all, but if Princess Yasmeen is anything to go by you do not want the Aldarasi women on your case. I think even you may not be rich enough to shrug that off, Ravana.”

“Mildly sexist,” Trissiny stated, giving him a pointed look, “but regrettably apt.”

He bowed grandly to her.

Ravana herself drew in a breath, causing her thin shoulders to rise, then let it out slowly, sweeping a languid and incongruously warm smile around the group. “Now, this is exactly why I was so grateful you all agreed to visit me over the holidays. I am surrounded by legions of yes-men at home; nobody outside of school dares talk back to me. It’s no wonder my father entirely lost his sense of proportion.”

The front door of the Sanhevid Suite clicked discreetly shut, and the group shifted to look that way as Ravana’s Butler came gliding swiftly across the floor toward them.

“Your pardon, my Lady,” Yancey said, bowing to her. “The contacts in N’Jendo with whom you were corresponding concerning the Harpy affair have arrived.”

Poised as always, Ravana betrayed her incredulity only by a momentary pause, and the most infinitesimal lift of one eyebrow, before replying. “How?”

“It appears a telescroll signaling their acquiescence to your last suggestion arrived while you were welcoming our guests, my Lady. Veilwin intercepted and read it, and took it upon herself to teleport to Jennidira to retrieve them. I have made them comfortable in the Azure Parlor.”

Butler training was truly a rival for a noble upbringing in terms of facial control; Yancey managed to convey his withering disapproval of this Veilwin’s presumption without altering his expression a hair beyond the strictly polite.

“I see,” Ravana said, pausing to press her lips into a thin line. “Well. Speak of the Dark Lady. Or…can we even say that anymore?”

“I think I’d rather we did,” said Trissiny. “Elilial is neither dead nor neutered, and undoubtedly is already at work encouraging the world to forget what a monster she has always been. Let’s not oblige her.”

“Duly noted,” Ravana agreed, nodding to her. “Well! It seems it has begun. I am terribly sorry to abandon you all so abruptly, but this matter won’t wait. I shall do my utmost to join you and the others for dinner; this should not occupy me beyond the afternoon. In the meantime, Yancey will see to all your needs.”

“Hey, don’t you worry about us,” Ruda said lazily from the sofa, on which she was sprawled lopsidedly with one leg thrown over its arm. “Go on, be the boss lady. See ya at dinner.”

“And thank you again for having us,” Toby added.

“The pleasure is entirely mine,” Ravana assured them, inclining her head deeply. “Do excuse me, then.”

She turned and glided out, Yancey on her heels. The Butler held the suite’s door for her with a bow, then slipped out behind the Duchess and pulled it shut after them.

“So, uh…” Fross darted over to swoop across the mess of the shattered vase. “Should we…call somebody about this? Cos I could probably clean it up pretty easily but I’m not sure if that’s, like, rude to the servants or what.”

“Hmm.” On the other side of the chamber, Gabriel ambled toward a matching vase and reached for it.

“No, Gabriel!” Trissiny shouted, charging to intercept him.

Teal slipped an arm around Shaeine’s waist; F’thaan, already tired from the day’s journey, was draped asleep across the drow’s feet. “And to think I was afraid we’d have a dull holiday.”


In any other house, the Azure Parlor would have been considered a ballroom. A relatively small and intimate one, suitable for parties of no more than two dozen, but still. The majority of its floorspace was taken up by a sunken area reached by steps down from the carpeted main floor, where the dancing surface itself was a mosaic depicting a cloudy sky. Its matching domed ceiling was a far more intricate fresco of a blue dragon, painted nearly to scale and coiling in on himself as though twisting about in midair in a pose that just barely crammed his entire sinuous length into the available space.

Ravana’s new guests had remained on the upper portion, where seats and refreshment tables were distributed. They had been generously served; on one of the tables were laid out trays of tea, hot mulled cider, and warm pies of both meat and fruit in portions that would have provided a full meal for more than the three of them. The woman in the group was sipping a mug of cider, but other than that the refreshments appeared untouched. Still wearing their fur-lined winter cloaks, all three were standing, and staring upward at the ceiling fresco.

Veilwin was slouched in an armchair off to one side in a posture that clashed with her elegant brocaded dress, munching on a slice of cherry pie.

“Zyndirax the Blue was an off-again, on-again paramour of Duchess Tamira Madouri,” Ravana said, gliding into the room. “I suspect the scandal was the sole cause of her interest in him; she did love to ruffle people’s feathers. Welcome to Madouri Manor, Brother Ingvar and guests! I most humbly apologize for keeping you waiting. The truth is that I was not expecting you to visit me so soon.”

She shot a sidelong look at her Court Wizard, who snorted (spraying crumbs in the process) and pointed a forkful of pie at her.

“You said you were on a tight schedule for the next two weeks,” the elf said accusingly. “Made a whole production of it, big speech and everything. Remember? We’re all to chip in an’ try to smooth things along. Well, I cut off some corners and saved you some time. You’re welcome.”

Veilwin was the only elf Ravana had ever seen with dark circles around her eyes, and they had never diminished in the time she’d known her. As usual, her gown was of expensive silk brocade, and free of any tear, stain, or wrinkle due to the considerable enchantments laid upon it, which contrasted starkly with the mussed state of her blonde hair. Now, she also had crumbs all over half her face, which somehow suited her.

“I assure you, we are not put out,” Ingvar interjected, striding forward with a warm smile. “It’s a great pleasure to see you again, your Grace. Especially conscious.”

“Ah, ah,” Veilwin chided with her mouth full, wagging the now-empty fork. “It’s ‘my Lady.’ The Duchess is trying to retire the ol’ Grace thing, says it’s old-fashioned. She’s a modern girl, is Ravana.”

“Veilwin,” the Duchess said with a too-wide smile, “do you recall our discussion about you speaking in front of guests?”

Veilwin grunted and tucked silently back into her pie.

“Yes, I understand this is not the first time we have met,” Ravana said, accepting Ingvar’s outstretched hand and inclining her head in response to his bow. “As those events were relayed to me, I owe you my life.”

“I did little…my Lady,” he demurred. “Anyone would have carried an unconscious woman out of a battlefield.”

“I assure you, it was not a small thing to me. A Madouri pays her debts.”

“I would consider it a grave dishonor to claim a debt over something so morally obligatory, my Lady,” Ingvar said gravely, then smiled again. “But perhaps it can be a starting point for a positive relationship.”

“Well said,” she agreed, smiling back. “Now, I see you have met my Court Wizard. I also apologize for whatever Veilwin said and/or did before I was able to intervene.”

Behind her, Veilwin snorted again.

“I have no complaints, my Lady,” Ingvar said tactfully. “We hunters have straightforward manners ourselves. Allow me to introduce my friends, Dantu and Dimbi.”

They nodded in turn, clearly uncertain of the formalities involved in meeting a Duchess; Ravana inclined her head politely to each of them in response, allowing her amusement to tinge her smile. Dimbi was a young woman, Dantu a surprisingly old man, and both were Westerners, probably locals from the area around Ninkabi where Ingvar and his followers had been roaming in the months since the battle. Though Dimbi was visibly uncomfortable in these opulent surroundings, the white-haired Dantu seemed quite at ease, and even intrigued by everything he saw.

“A pleasure,” she said. “And on the subject of beginning a positive relationship, there is the matter concerning which I reached out to you.”

“Yes, indeed,” Ingvar said, his expression sobering. “I confess, Lady Madouri, I was surprised to learn you had involved yourself in this at all. I mean no offense by that, of course. You have been extremely generous, and I thank you for what you’ve done.”

“But you are uncertain about my motives?” she prompted, then smiled gently. “Please, Brother Ingvar, don’t worry, no offense is taken. We are what we are: myself a scheming noble, and you too intelligent not to know a scheming noble when you meet one. I would never be so churlish as to be affronted by a person possessing basic common sense. We have time to delve into my reasons for stepping in; for now, I suspect you must be very eager to meet the Harpies. I know they will be very glad indeed to finally meet you.”

“That is certainly true,” he agreed. “Are they here, then?”

“Not in the city, no; it didn’t seem the wisest place to house them. Rest assured, I have made sure to provide for their safety and comfort. I’ll take you to them now, if you’re amenable.”

“Very much so,” he said, allowing the eagerness to touch his voice.

Ravana smiled again, then half-turned. “Veilwin, take us to the lodge, if you please.”

The sorceress sighed through her nose and swallowed a bite of pastry. “I am almost finished with my pie.”

“You are finished with it,” Ravana corrected. “You may order anything you want from the kitchens later. It’s not as if I don’t feed you. It’s time to work.”

“Ugh.” With ill grace, Veilwin tossed her plate down onto the table and the fork after it, then stood, absently brushing crumbs off her face. “Fine, if you’re in such a damned hurry.”

She strode toward the group, raising one hand as she went, and blue light began to flicker within her eyes. Matching sparks snapped in the air around them, accompanied by a faint whine of gathering arcane energy.

“Uh, hang on now,” Dimbi said nervously, “is she really—”

Veilwin snapped her fingers, the arcane light flashed, and the five of them vanished.


The distant sounds of birds calling from the nearby rainforest were barely audible over the murmur of breeze and the waves. It was a gorgeous day, cloudless and just cool enough that the unimpeded sun did not feel too hot. Such weather was rare, as this was usually the rainy season; it likely wouldn’t last more than an hour or two. From her chosen lounge chair on the beach, she had a view of the wide central bay of the Tidestrider archipelago, with the forest-clad peaks of mountainous islands rising all around the horizon. During the summer months, the lodge she was renting would have housed several groups of the vacationing wealthy, but now the winter chill assured her solitude. The first peace and quiet she’d had in months.

The lounge chairs were arranged in pairs, with low wooden tables between them; she had piled hers with books. Mostly novels, though the volume currently open in her hands was a treatise on bardic archetypes printed in Glassian. Tellwyrn’s eyes had stopped tracking back and forth across the page for the last few minutes; she just held the book up almost like a shield, scowling at it and listening to the crunch of footsteps in the sand steadily encroaching upon her privacy.

“I just can’t get over how warm it is,” Eleanora Sultana Tirasian marveled aloud, setting a tray bearing a pitcher and two glasses on the table next to the book pile and folding herself gracefully into the second lounge chair. “Isn’t this place at more or less the same latitude as Ninkabi?”

“Ocean currents,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “Tropical water comes straight down the west coast from the equator. You’re from Onkawa, there’s no way you don’t know that. You also had to be aware I noted your battlemages porting in all around. This had better be pretty damn good, Eleanora. I am on vacation.”

She finally looked over at her, then raised her eyes in surprise. Tellwyrn was wearing a loosely-fitted kimono, but the Empress of Tiraas, she now observed, had clad herself in a skimpy traditional Tidestrider garment—traditional, at least, in the warmer latitudes to the north—which showed off far more of her dark skin than she ever did in public.

“Yes, Arachne, I know,” Eleanora said with a smug smile. “Terrible vengeance if I disturb it, and so on, and so forth.”

“Do you know how much time off I get a year?”

“Of course I do, the academic year is common knowledge. Do you know how much time off I get a year? None, Arachne. The answer is zero.”

“Oh, yes, your life is so very dreary,” Tellwyrn sneered. “In your extravagant palace, where you spend each night in the arms of a different beauty gathered from across the Empire. My heart bleeds.”

“I only have three regular mistresses at the moment,” the Empress said lightly, pouring tropical punch into both glasses. “Sharidan keeps only four. You know, it’s surprisingly difficult to collect them, even with the resources at our disposal. Women beautiful enough to catch my eye, but also with enough intellect and character to be worth talking to…well, they tend to get jealous and competitive with one another, which we obviously can’t have. There just aren’t that many candidates who meet all the right criteria. A life of power is such a lonely one…”

“You do realize that you being Empress is the only reason you don’t get punched more often, right?”

“Obviously. So, have you heard about the elves?”

“No, and fuck ‘em. Nobody likes elves. Stuck-up pricks.”

Eleanora chuckled. “They’ve announced a unified government. A permanent alliance of Tar’naris, every forest tribe on the continent, twenty-nine participating plains tribes, and Qestraceel.”

“Bullshit,” Tellwyrn snorted. “The drow have been sending out feelers for, what, a year? Two? It’ll take ‘em a century to get even a quarter of that roster off their asses.”

“Yes, that is more or less everyone’s analysis. And yet, they’ve gone and done it. You can imagine the shockwaves this has created.”

“Is this you trying to make small talk due to being unable to discuss anything except politics, or are you actually going to try to convince me to cut short my vacation? Answer carefully, Eleanora.”

“Yes.” The Empress held out one of the glasses to her, smiling slyly. “You know, Quentin suspects you are a high elf.”

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh, and finally slapped her book down on the table, but made no move to accept the drink. She just glared mulishly at the Empress.

“I don’t get to take vacations,” Eleanora repeated, the levity fading from her expression. “And I most especially can’t now, Arachne, not with this crisis unfolding. So consider my position. I do need your help, which means disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. I don’t have the power to compel you, and persuading you means not disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. You see my dilemma?”

“So,” Tellwyrn drawled, “you are going to crash my vacation, because buttering me up is your only viable option, and thus you get to finagle a beach vacation for yourself out of a political disaster. I am, grudgingly, quite impressed.”

“How often do you think doing my duty to the Empire will require me to loaf about in a resort with the single most interesting woman I’ve ever taken to bed?” Eleanora rejoined, the self-satisfied smirk returning to her face. “I can hardly afford to pass up this chance, you see.”

“And what if I just decide to tell you everything I know about the high elves right away? That’s what you’re fishing for, right? I know you don’t think I’m in good with any of the other kinds.”

“Well,” the Empress mused, “I suppose that would be the absolutely ideal outcome for me. And I confess, if you pick this of all moments to be agreeable and compliant for once in your life I will be rather pissed off.”

The elf finally accepted the outstretched glass. “I’m not a high elf, Eleanora. At least, not that I know of. I went to Qestraceel to find out. It didn’t go well.”

“I see. Then…?”

“Yes, I do know quite a bit about them. And in keeping with my general ‘fuck the elves’ policy, I find I’m quite amenable to dishing on them to the Empire. Provided, of course, that I am sufficiently buttered up.” She lay back in the reclining seat, smirking herself and lifting the glass to her lips. A second later, she grimaced. “Eugh. I hate coconut.”

Eleanora shook her head, lounging back in her own chair. “You have got to be the most disagreeable person I’ve ever met.”

“Oh, come on. That’s not even close to true, and you know it.”

The Professor reached out with her glass, the Empress clinked her own against it, and they both gazed placidly out across the waves.

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15 – 77

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“And you know what the really surprising thing is? I’m not even angry.”

Tellwyrn had swiveled her desk chair sideways and leaned it back as far as it would go, practically lounging in it with herself in profile relative to the students crowding her office. The fingers of her left hand drummed a slow and steady beat against the desk; with her right she held up the Mask of the Adventurer, slowly turning the innocuous-looking artifact this way and that and watching how the afternoon sunlight from her broad window gleamed along its understated silver decorations.

“Barely surprised, even stranger,” she mused, studying the mask. “Oh, a little bit, sure. A person doesn’t have something like this dropped on their desk and not spend a few moments pondering what, in general, the fuck. But it’s really striking how quickly that faded into this vague yet all-consuming sense of ‘yeah, that sounds about right.’”

“I can’t decide if we’re being insulted or let off the hook,” Gabriel muttered.

“I’ll take the one if it comes with the other,” Juniper muttered back.

“Hell, there’s a nice compliment in there if ya squint,” Ruda added, grinning.

“It has to be said that I’m not without responsibility in this,” Tellwyrn continued, turning the mask over to examine its inner face. “You certainly went and did exactly what I instructed, didn’t you? I think I can be forgiven for failing to anticipate this outcome, but really. The combination of you lot, that location, and vague instructions to have a spiritually meaningful experience? Yeah, I’ll own it, on a certain level I was sort of asking for this. Not sending a proper University guardian with you, even. I swear I thought that was a good idea but now I’m sort of grasping for the reason why.”

“Locke performed…adequately in that role,” Trissiny reported. She had changed out of her armor, but was standing at parade rest with only her sword buckled over her leather coat to identify her rank. “She’s jumpier than I would have expected under certain kinds of pressure, but I can’t fault her intent, or results. It all worked out.”

“Yes,” Shaeine agreed, “upon balance I believe your experiment can be considered a success, Professor. Though you may, in the future, want to personally escort groups which present a similar set of risk factors as ourselves.”

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn said with a scowl, still not looking at them, “I find I’m less annoyed about this thing than by the lot of you fucking off two provinces away to throw yourselves into a battle. Surprised? No. But by the same token, I know this is a conversation we have had before. More than once.”

“It was necessary,” Toby said in perfect calm. “I am sorry we broke your rules, Professor. In a case like that, however… We always will.”

“Mm.” She lifted her other hand to grasp the Mask by both its edges and brought it down toward her face.

All of them inhaled sharply, going wide-eyed and rigid.

Tellwyrn stopped moving, then half-turned her head to smirk at them.

The whole group let out their suspended breaths in unison, followed by Ruda emitting a slightly strained chuckle.

“You’re a bad lady,” Gabriel accused.

“I’ll tell you what.” Tellwyrn gently laid the Mask down on her desk and swiveled the chair forward to face them directly, straightening up in the process. “This is a one-time offer, don’t expect it to become general policy. But on this one occasion, if you can satisfy me that this was a successful educational experience, I will consider the lesson imparted and we can proceed without any further punishment. So?” Planting her elbows on the desk bracketing the Mask, she interlaced her fingers and stared at the group over them. “What did we learn?”

There came a pause, while several of them turned to peer uncertainly at one another.

“Consider it a group effort,” Tellwyrn prompted dryly. “I don’t care which of you comes up with an answer, so long as I’m satisfied that it’s one you’ve all absorbed.”

“We should be more respectful of the unpredictable things in this world,” Shaeine said softly. “Of magic, in particular, but generally. There can be severe consequences for assuming that the rules will always apply.”

“Yeah…that’s a really good way to put it,” Toby agreed, nodding. “From everything we know about the rules of magic, there was no reason to think this exact thing would happen, but it was reckless to think nothing of this nature could.”

“It’s not so much we didn’t think it could as it wouldn’t have occurred to us, or any sane person,” said Ruda. “But…damn. No more fucking around with mixed magic in sacred sites. It coulda been a shit ton worse.”

“It is sort of ironic,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “For most of my lifetime, it would have been the baseline assumption of everyone, magic user or not, that much about magic was unknowable and not to be trifled with. Then along come I, to drive away the cobwebs of ignorance and instill you all with methodical thinking. Lo and behold, it worked, and here you are lacking fear of the unknown, when that is the exact quality that would have kept you out of this mess. It’s enough to make a person reconsider their whole life.”

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Fross chimed.

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “That’s Nemitite doctrine. Have you been reading the theology textbooks now, Fross?”

“Yes, Professor, they make for really great light reading when I want a change of pace from magical theory. Also super helpful! A lot of stuff people do makes more sense when I understand the underlying philosophies that inform their behavior. But anyway, what I mean is, I don’t think your ultimate project here is wrong, not at all. Knowledge is never not better than ignorance. I guess we just hit a point where we got a little too full of our fancy University education and failed to respect the amount of ignorance we still had.”

“Well said,” Trissiny agreed.

“All right,” Tellwyrn said, finally cracking a faint smile. “That’s a good lesson indeed, and I am satisfied that you’ve absorbed it. All things considered, it worked out well. Whatever else happened, this thing enabled you to do a lot of good. Needless to say, if you ever again demonstrate a failure to consider the ramifications of tampering with unknown powers I will descend upon the lot of you like the personified wrath of Avei with a caffeine habit and a toothache. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.

“Which leaves us with…this.” She leaned back again, picking up the Mask. “The thing itself.”

“Really sorry to dump this on you, Professor,” Teal said earnestly. “But, well, Mr. Weaver said you might be the best person to look after it, and I can really see the sense in that.”

“Oh, yes,” Tellwyrn said, now staring expressionlessly at the Mask. “I can take it, sure. Chuck it in the vault with the rest of the collection, can do. Ever since I started making it my business to get the really dangerous crap permanently out of everyone’s hands, nobody’s come close to even finding where I stored it all, much less cracking my defenses. Course, I never had a god make a stab at it before.”

“You…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at the others. “Is a god after that, in particular?”

“Well, you tell me, Avelea,” Tellwyrn replied. “Since it seems like Vesk was at least ankle-deep in the creation of this thing and then up to his balls in everything that happened afterward. You three should know what he’s like, after this summer.” She pointed at Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel in turn. “Imagine you’re in a story. In a story, if there’s a big fancy magical sword that gets its own entire chapter of exposition, that thing is getting stuck in somebody before the third act climax. Probably after being the object of its very own epic quest.”

“But it…sort of was stuck in somebody,” said Juniper. “Uh, metaphorically, I mean. The mask was used in the battle; it gave Jacaranda her power back and that pretty much decided the whole thing.”

“Ah, yes,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “When you put it that way, the fact that there are pixies spread across half of N’Jendo now is indirectly your fault, as well.”

“What, you got a problem with pixies now?” Ruda asked, grinning. “Are you gonna take that, Fross?”

“She’s right,” Fross said quietly. “That is going to cause some real big problems.”

“So, yes, the Mask was used,” Tellwyrn said, “and it was a deciding factor in what can be understood as the big story arc running at the time. Hopefully… Hopefully that will be enough. The problem is the scale of it. What you’ve got here is the kind of thing that alters the destinies of nations for centuries to come, not a single event. At least, that’s how it would be in fiction. I’ll hide it away as best I can, because what else am I going to do? But I can’t help wondering exactly what’s going to happen to bring it back out again.”

“Okay, that’s already giving me a headache,” Ruda complained. “You sound like a fuckin’ bard. The world doesn’t run on fucking story logic!”

“Anything Vesk has his hand on this heavily is going to run at least somewhat on story logic,” Trissiny said, frowning deeply. “It would be a good idea to try to think in those terms, if you find him in your proximity. Which is annoying beyond belief because I am not good at it.”

“I’ll try to give you some pointers,” Teal promised.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Tellwyrn agreed. “In fact, in lieu of proper punishment, I have extra homework for you lot after this. I want you to go to the library, ask Crystal for copies of The Myth Eternal by Ravinelle d’Ormont, and write a three-page essay predicting possible next events resulting from your field trip, which you will justify citing the text’s description of tropes and narrative structure. This is a group project; I want you to compare notes and each turn in an individual essay describing a different outcome. On my desk by Friday.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to punish us if we answered your question!” Gabriel protested.

“Yes, Mr. Arquin, and as I said, this is not a punishment,” Tellwyrn said sweetly. “Would you like one of those instead?”

“Uhhh…”

“Irrelevant, because this is what you’re doing. All right, all of you out. Go rest, be in class as usual tomorrow. And see if you can try not to kick any more colossal metaphysical hornet’s nests for at least a week or so, hmm?”

Several of them sighed, but they turned and began filing out.

“Has anybody else noticed that something terrible happens to every city we go to?” Fross chimed as she drifted through the open door.

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Ruda agreed. “You fuckers are never visiting me at home again.”

“Correlation is not causation, Ruda,” Shaeine reminded her.

“I dunno,” said Gabriel as he shut the door behind them. “I feel like ‘Causation’ could be the title of our biography…”

Tellwyrn stared at the closed office door for a few moments with a bemused little frown, then leaned back in her chair, folded her arms, and glared down at the Mask.

It stared innocently back.


He was apparently the last to arrive.

“So I see this isn’t to be a private meeting,” Bishop Darling said pleasantly, gliding forward toward the base of the stairs in the Archpope’s personal prayer chapel. For once, Justinian was already standing at the base of the steps instead of waiting dramatically at the altar up a story-tall flight of steps, framed by the towering stained glass windows, one of which concealed the door to his secret chamber of oracles.

Bishops Snowe and Varanus were present, of course; that was almost a given. This was where the Archpope had most often assembled his inner circle of four—now three—Bishops. What was unusual was the presence of guards, two Holy Legionaries standing at attention to either side of the stairs, and Colonel Ravoud himself waiting behind the Archpope at parade rest.

“Antonio,” Justinian said gravely, inclining his head. “Thank you for coming. I’m sure you have much to tell me.”

“Mmm… No, I really can’t think of anything,” Darling answered, standing before him still with that serene Bishoply smile in place. Branwen gave him a wide-eyed look, Andros remaining inscrutable as ever behind his bushy beard.

“I confess that surprises me,” said Justinian, not sounding surprised in the least. “Especially after Branwen brought such an exhaustive report.”

“Why, precisely,” Darling agreed. “I’m sure she handled it just fine. And now, I believe there are some things you want to tell me.”

“You believe so?” Justinian asked in just as mild and pleasant a tone.

Darling smiled beatifically at him. “There had damn well better be.”

All three soldiers shifted their heads to stare right at him, Ravoud stiffening slightly.

Justinian’s eyes shifted past him to the door he had just come through, which now opened again. “Ah, good. The final necessary party to this conversation. Thank you for joining us, Basra.”

Keeping his pleasant smile firmly in place, Darling turned slowly to face her. In neither Church nor Avenist attire, she wore severe black garments which, he realized on a second glance, were a color-reversed version of Ravoud’s white Holy Legion dress uniform. The only insignia was a golden ankh pinned over the left breast. The dark color incidentally served to emphasize the white bandages peeking out from her left sleeve. An ornate gold-hilted short sword hung at her belt; well, that style of weapon only required one hand, after all.

Branwen drew in a sharp breath through her nose; Andros folded his arms, grunting once. Basra pulled the door shut behind her, then paced carefully toward them across the ornate carpet, her dark eyes fixed on Darling.

“Bas!” he exclaimed in a tone of jovial delight, spreading his arms wide. “How perfectly lovely to see you again! We have so much to catch up on!”

A practiced flick of his wrist brought the wand up his sleeve shooting out into his palm. She was still most of the way across the room; even with her trained swordswoman’s instincts Basra had time only to widen her eyes and stop moving before he’d brought it up and fired.

The crack of lightning was deafening in the acoustically designed chapel. A blue sphere of light ignited around her, the shielding charm of a sufficient grade to absorb the close ranged wandshot without flickering.

Basra bared her teeth in a snarl and dashed right for him, clawing her sword loose as she came. Darling shot her twice more before the pound of heavy boots on the carpet made him shift position to face the nearer of the Legionaries, who was bringing his ornate halberd down with the clear intent of barring them from reaching each other.

Darling grabbed the haft of the weapon with his free hand and spun, using his weight and the man’s own momentum to send him staggering right into Basra’s shield. It was disgustingly easy. Honestly, why had Justinian campaigned so hard to have his own private military if this was all he did with them? Not only was a halberd a hilariously dated weapon, the clod was using it indoors and obviously had no idea how, to judge by how easily it was taken from him.

It was heavy and unwieldy, and he had no chance of doing anything effective with it one-handed, but fortunately the quality of the Holy Legion remained constant; Darling was easily able to sweep it into the second soldier’s feet, sending the man stumbling to the ground. He hadn’t even tried to jump. It was an open question whether he physically could have in that ridiculous lacquered armor, but he’d done nothing except try ineptly to change course as the slow and heavy polearm came arcing at him. Never mind halberd technique, these guys hadn’t been trained in the very basics of hand-to-hand combat. What the hell was the point of them?

“Antonio,” Justinian protested in a tone of patrician disappointment.

“Be with you in a moment, your Holiness,” he said cheerfully, dropping the halberd.

Basra had just shoved the stumbling Legionary off her, and now received three more swift shots. Still the shield held; that thing was military grade. She was closer now, though, and lunged at him again with a feral snarl.

The shield was even phased to allow her to attack through it, which was cutting edge and really sophisticated charm work. Unfortunately for Basra, his more old-fashioned tricks were just as good. Her sword didn’t even draw sparks as it raked across the divine shield that flashed into being around him.

“Should’ve stayed down,” he informed her, winking. “It suited you.”

She made a noise like a feral cat and stabbed at him again, ineffectually. He fired back, the impact of the wand creating a burst of static and the sharp stink of ozone at that range. Basra stumbled backward, blinking the effects of the flash away from her eyes.

A thump and clatter sounded from behind him, and he re-angled himself to check the scene without letting Basra out of his field of view. The tableau told a story at a glance; Justinian looking exasperated, Branwen openly amused, Ravoud flat on his back on the stairs and Andros just lowering the arm with which he’d clotheslined the Colonel when he had tried to join the fray.

“Really?” Justinian said disapprovingly. “I would have hoped you two would try to reason with him, at least.”

“We are completely behind you, your Holiness,” Branwen assured him. “Rest assured, the moment Antonio begins doing something inappropriate, we will restrain him.”

“Eventually,” Andros rumbled.

Darling grinned and shot Basra again.

A wall of pure golden light slammed into place across the entire width of the chapel. It was a solid construction at least a foot thick, easily the most impressive Lightworking Darling had ever seen.

As rarely as they were called upon to exercise it, one could easily forget that a sitting Archpope was at least one of the most powerful divine casters in the world. Once in a while, one had found cause to demonstrate it, such as Archpope Sairelle’s famous binding of Philamorn the Gold.

Darling shot it, just to be sure. No effect.

“Enough,” Justinian stated, hand outstretched and glowing. “Antonio, I understand your frustration—”

“I am well aware that you do,” Darling stated, turning to stare at him with the pretense of conviviality gone from his features. “And I’m aware that you are aware that ‘frustration’ is in no way the word.”

“This of all moments is no time for you to succumb to impatience,” the Archpope said soothingly. “It is no secret that we have all acted upon complex agendas, Antonio. For this long, at least, we have all been able to relate to one another like—”

“Ah, yes, that’s really the thing, isn’t it?” Darling said with a bitter grin. “Because as we all know, I’m Sweet of the thousand agendas. Whose side is he on? The Guild, the Church, the Empire? I’m the guy who can smile nicely at everybody and play every side against the middle, committing to none. And I, I, am now officially done with this. That fact alone should warn you just what kind of line you’ve crossed, Justinian.”

Ravoud had bounded back to his feet, stepping away from Andros, and now strode forward, pointing accusingly at him. “You will address his Holiness as—”

“Pipe down, Nassir,” Darling ordered. “When I need someone to get humiliated by the Last Rock Glee Club I’ll tag you into this.”

“Please, Colonel,” Justinian said gently, making a peaceful gesture with his free hand. Ravoud clamped his mouth shut, looking anything but happy, but stepped back and folded his arms, glaring at Darling. “We have been through a great deal together, Antonio. I will not downplay the severity of recent events, but surely you do not think that now of all times it behooves you to throw everything away.”

“Do you know how many people died in Ninkabi?” Darling demanded. “Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question. Nobody knows, because they are still finding bodies. And oh, what a perfect storm of factors had to align to make that catastrophe happen! Basra here, Khadizroth and his crew, the Tide. Every one of them your pawns, Justinian.”

“And yet,” the Archpope said softly, “not even the first time I have been complicit in the mass summoning of demons into a major city under siege. Though as I recall, it was someone else’s plan, the last time.”

So he was willing to admit to that in front of Ravoud and these incompetent non-soldiers of his? Interesting.

“Oh, don’t even try it,” Darling retorted with open scorn. “Tiraas was a series of small controlled summonings by professionals, with the full oversight of the Imperial government. In Ninkabi twenty hellgates were indiscriminately opened after your pet assassin went on a murderous rampage to cull the local police. The fact you’d even bother making that comparison shows you have no argument to make, here.”

Justinian lowered his hand, and the wall of light vanished. On its other side, Basra still clutched her sword and glared at him, but didn’t move forward again.

“So this, finally, is the price of your conscience?” the Archpope asked in utter calm. “It is steep indeed, Antonio.”

“Oh, is that what you think is happening here? My moral outrage compelling me to make a brave stand? I would have thought you knew me better by now, Justinian. I’m more than sleazy enough to stick right to all manner of perfidy just to keep a close eye on it. I’d have walked out on you long ago if I was going to do it out of anger or disgust. But you have burned way too many bridges with a single torch this time. You cannot keep a lid on the details of what happened in Ninkabi, not now that most of your own enforcers have run off to who knows where with all their knowledge. This rat is leaving this ship, Justinian, unless you can give me a compelling and immediate reason to think you can survive the backlash coming your way and guarantee that nothing like this ever happens again.”

“And what would satisfy you?” Justinian inquired.

“For starters?” Darling pointed at Basra without looking in her direction, keeping his gaze locked on the Archpope’s. “Kill her.”

“That is a trap,” Justinian replied before Basra could react. “A rhetorical snare, Antonio. You seek to manufacture an excuse to do what you wish and blame my unreasonable refusal, knowing very well that I cannot give any such cruel order.”

“There is absolutely no reason not to,” Branwen stated.

The Archpope shifted to look at her, his eyebrows lifting incrementally. “Branwen…”

“I know you believe you can control that creature, your Holiness,” she said, giving Basra an openly contemptuous glance. “Or at least, want to believe you can. I cannot imagine how you could still think so after the last week.”

“I have been saying it for years,” Andros grunted. “A rabid animal should be put down, not put on a leash. Events continue to prove me ever more correct.”

“The events in motion are greater than any of you can yet realize,” Justinian said softly. “Basra still has a role to play. As do you all.”

“One thing hasn’t changed, Antonio,” Basra herself sneered, stalking forward. “Anything you believe you can do, I can still do better.”

He turned slowly to face her. Then, suddenly grinning, Darling held up both his hands and began to applaud.

Andros let out a hearty boom of laughter, and Basra lunged at him with her sword again.

“Basra.”

The Archpope’s voice brought her to an immediate halt. She glared at Darling with her face a mask of truly psychotic hatred, literally quivering with the desire to attack, but she did not move.

“Of this I assure you,” Justinian stated. “Every bitter price I have levied, every sin with which I have stained my soul, is in service to a greater good which will be worth the cost when it has done. Too much has been paid, now more than ever, for us to stop. This must be seen through to its end, or all of this suffering has been for nothing.”

Darling turned back to him. “Boss Tricks demands all the assurances I just asked of you, Archpope Justinian. Until they are produced, the cult of Eserion will choose to manage its relationships with the rest of the Pantheon directly, forgoing the mediation of the Universal Church. So, bye.”

He turned and walked right past Basra toward the door.

“You know, it wasn’t Eserion who saved you.”

Darling slowed to a stop, but did not turn around, and Justinian continued.

“I had a similar experience, Antonio. I witnessed something the Pantheon prefers to keep far from mortal knowledge. I survived only by the intervention of another god, one who questioned the injustice of keeping their secrets at the expense of so many lives. That is what happened to you, is it not? And so much of the course of your life has proceeded to its current point because you believed it was Eserion the defiant who shielded you. Eserion allowed you to think so, but it was not he.”

Still, Darling didn’t turn, subtly rolling the wand between his fingers.

“Will you really throw away all those years of searching,” Justinian asked softly, “when you are so near to the end? The time is fast approaching for all questions to be answered. You have labored with such industry and cleverness to obtain these secrets, Antonio. I would hate for you to come so close only to miss them.”

“Okay.” Darling turned halfway, just enough for the Archpope to see his face. “Let’s hear it, then. Spill the big secret, tell me what the gods are hiding and what really happened at the end of the Elder War. I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

“You of all people,” Justinian said, spreading his hands slightly at waist height to indicate those gathered near him, “understand that this is no place or time for such revelations. But soon, Antonio.”

“Yeah, well, see, that’s the thing,” Darling said, smiling again. “I don’t need you for that, either. Not anymore. Oh, and Baaaasra,” he added in a saccharine singsong, widening his smile to a wolfish grin as he turned it on her. “You can’t hide in here forever. You know it as well as I; you’ll go gibbering mad if you even try to keep yourself so confined. I will be seeing you again. Real soon.”

He turned his back on the silent assemblage and strode out, kicking the chapel door open, then kicking it again to close.

It shut behind him with a boom of echoing finality.

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15 – 67

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe made no reply except to keep shooting.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those fuckers need a hobby,” Ruda complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All three of them turned to study her curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruda lowered her sword. “…huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 65

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Both mounted paladins did the best thing they could do in that situation: attack.

Whisper, nimble as a mountain goat, bounded down the steps and Gabriel went right for Kelvreth’s hand, as Khadizroth had instructed. Trissiny, however, went straight forward.

Arjen launched himself off the top of the stairs in a far more powerful leap than it seemed he should have been able to perform, arcing through the air right at Kelvreth’s enormous bulk. Even with his preternatural strength, it didn’t carry him all the way, but at the apex Trissiny leaped free from the saddle, golden wings flaring as she hurtled sword-first right at the gigantic demon’s face.

Kelvreth had already twitched visibly as Gabriel’s scythe raked a gash in his wrist, but clearly one did not become arch-general of Hell without being made of stronger stuff than the average being; even the valkyrie weapon did not destroy him outright, nor even his hand. Instead, Gabriel flung himself from his saddle and, on foot, brought the scythe down in an overhead swing to impale the great clawed hand and nail it right to the pavement below, into which the blade sunk with no apparent resistance.

What Kelvreth thought about this was not immediately clear, as that was also the moment Trissiny landed on his face, driving her sword up to half its length in the spot between his eyes.

The demon emitted a non-verbal bellow of pain that made the very air around them shiver, rearing backward. His eyes were still open, and pouring their maddening effect out onto the world, but with them no longer gazing directly at the group atop the stairs the impact was lessened.

Toby chanced a quick look around at the chaos in which he now stood.

Khadizroth was visibly struggling with the effects, his teeth bared and emerald eyes narrowed in focus, but the dragon stood firm and was casting something which he presumably believed would help. He and Toby were the last two in front of Kuriwa’s hedge; the glimpses Toby could gather through it of what was happening behind were appalling.

The Bishops were still together, Bishop Snowe’s face streaked with blood where she had clawed at her eyes. Darling was thrashing and snarling, being held down by his two elven apprentices, who for some reason were still lucid. They had Guild training in grappling and Darling was too far gone to remember his, but they were still elves and also having to fend off the other thrashing bodies in the vicinity; they looked constantly on the verge of losing their grasp on him.

Evidently the dryads were also immune, to judge by Juniper, who was trying to keep herself physically between Ruda and a huge spirit wolf who clearly wanted to fight each other and was taking physical abuse from both in the process. Fortunately Ruda had lost her rapier, so neither had any power to physically hurt the dryad, but that left Juniper with her hands full trying to protect one person in a mass melee.

The entire plaza was a discordant choir of screams, both of pain and rage, and unhinged laughter. Weapons were being fired—a stray wandshot sparked off Toby’s divine shield even as he glanced around—and the sounds of more mundane violence were borne out by passing glimpses of people struggling through gaps in the hedge. There were bodies on the ground, and already puddles of blood.

Icy mist and sleet pounded down on the whole crowd as Fross tried to pacify them the only way she could. It wasn’t a bad idea, given the effect cold had on living bodies, but in the short term the slickened ground was going to make things even worse. At least Fross apparently shared the fairy immunity to Kelvreth’s power.

All this Toby took in with one sweep of his eyes before turning back to look again at the great demon and his two fellow paladins, just in time to see Kelvreth dislodge Trissiny and toss her aside. He couldn’t see Arjen at all; a leap like that probably would have killed a mortal horse or broken his legs, but at worst Arjen would just return to the divine plane, ready to be re-summoned. Gabriel, concluding that holding the demon’s hand down was not helping, ripped his scythe free and began to hack at it wildly, while Kelvreth ponderously reached for him with the other hand, now that he was done swatting Trissiny away.

Khadizroth grated something in a strained voice that Toby couldn’t quite make out, but at that moment he was in no state to answer the dragon’s orders anyway.

He was about to lose close friends, if he had not already, and this utter smashing of the defenders signaled the probable end of Ninkabi, especially on the heels of the revelation that Elilial did have a plan in play here, and a goal for the city. If ever there was a moment for panic, this was it. And so, having trained in the meditative arts since he could talk, Toby emptied his mind purely by well-practiced instinct. He did not struggle against the emotions that pounded at him, or acknowledge them at all, simply letting them flow by. Because this time, he also knew what was coming next.

And there it came.

The by-now-familiar torrent of power rose, like standing in the middle of a sunrise, as Omnu responded to his paladin’s intense peril with his own direct touch. Toby had lived through this holy nova enough times now to know that it was more than just a wild blast of divine light; it could be sophisticated and subtle, carefully healing some even as it annihilated others, and all the while protecting himself from the normal consequences of channeling that much power. And why not? With the mind and will of a god at work so directly, what would be impossible?

But this time, in addition to knowing the nova well enough not to be taken by surprise, Toby knew a lot more about the nature of gods. He emptied himself of distraction and emotion, but not of will or purpose. As the monks had taught him back home, making himself the bed of a river—immutable and serene even as it channeled incredible currents, not a thing to be struggled against, but providing a shape to the flows of thought and of magic. He opened himself to accept the god’s presence, mindful of what a god was: an imprisoned intelligence, bound by its aspects and by the will of those who believed in it. Especially of that god’s paladin.

And this time, Tobias Caine decided what would be the will of Omnu.

Light poured across the upper part of the city, searing away the infernal effect of Kelvreth’s gaze in its first burst and burning against even that titanic demon. Trissiny, Gabriel, and now Khadizroth were all hacking away at him, though the struggle had been turning against them until Omnu’s direct touch pushed it into a stalemate, Kelvreth clearly weakened and trying to protect himself from the glare while also fending them off. The madness was also burned away from the onlookers, leaving them amid the wreckage they’d just made of themselves and each other.

In a way, it was like a microcosm of magic itself: subjective physics, a vast and intricate mechanism by which one person’s idea was crafted into reality, one sub-atomic reaction at a time. With the direct presence of a god as an intermediary, Toby could both sense the situation around him and direct the power with a sophistication that normally would have been utterly beyond his capabilities.

First, he directed the light to avoid harming any of the fairies present despite Circle effects, which was fiendishly complicated work if you were crafting a spell by hand but quite easy for the mind of a god. It would have been nice if Omnu had shown such consideration for Fross and Juniper back in Puna Dara, though. Toby let that thought drift away; it was unimportant, and resentment was good for exactly nothing.

Then, most important, he healed.

The injuries were already both widespread and considerable, many beyond the ordinary means of medicine either magical or mundane. They were washed away in a second, bodies repaired and bolstered beyond their original state to a condition of maximum possible health. Then, a generous—but not excessive, it would not do to addle anyone—touch of the peace of Omnu upon minds that had just been through trauma enough to scar anyone. They were going to need that peace, starting immediately.

But there were others beyond healing.

Several wolves lay dead, and many others Toby did not know, archers and soldiers and police. There was no spark of life in Longshot McGraw, or November. Or Shaeine.

He breathed, letting the power flow through him in the rhythm of his own breath. In, out, bringing calm, balance. Emotions of an intensity that should have buckled him to his knees floated away, disregarded.

Making himself a bastion of serenity, Toby reached deeper into the power. What could a god not do?

Repairing mortal bodies was simplicity itself, even if the spark had left them. The Light did not restore them in quite the same way in this condition, it required deliberate and specific manipulations of matter, but that was well within Omnu’s power.

He pressed further, finding within the god’s presence all the knowledge he needed to do what he meant to. The dimensional barriers thinned, and Toby was examining, through Omnu’s consciousness, the flows of data that made up magic itself—and beneath them, the more primal morass of numbers and forces that was physical reality. He pulled back from that; what he sought wasn’t quite at that level. People who perished within a transcension field did not instantly or completely cease to exist, for a mind was information, and the field was made to recognize and respond to it. The impressions were still there.

It was just a matter of restoring their connections to the physical shell.

At this, finally, Omnu stirred against him. As always, the god communicated only in vague impressions, feelings. This was too far. Loss must be accepted; death was part of life. This was breaching fundamental truths that even the gods knew to respect. For trespassing on Vidius’s domain in this way, the consequences could be dire.

The anger that welled up rivaled the preceding grief in its intensity. After all Toby had been through trying to understand and form a relationship with his god, usually being brushed off, this was what finally made Omnu talk to him? To try to thwart him when he needed that power the most?

That emotion also flowed away, barely noticed. He had no use for it. The process was, in fact, easier in this state, as he could clinically see the role emotion played in human cognition. Separating one strand of mental activity out from another became as simple as sorting beads by color.

Instead, Toby met the god’s resistance, accepted and embraced it. Made it part of himself, of what he was doing. He was the riverbed; he was the serenity which determined the shape of that power. In perfect calm, without resistance or engagement, he overcame the reluctance of the god and continued right on with what he was doing.

And Omnu, mechanistic old thing that he was, fell silent. In the serene and absolute confidence of his paladin acting in an ascended state of mind, his will became what Toby decided it should be.

This shed some light on what had happened to Shaath, as well as why Naphthene feared and hated the idea of being worshiped, but Toby had no time for such introspection. He was here to work.

With his consciousness thus expanded, he noted two black-winged shapes shouting imprecations at him in Esperanto as they fled from the blaze that now leaked into their space between spaces, seizing the shapes of mortal souls before they could dissipate further.

It had only been seconds, all of this intricacy transpiring in eyeblinks thanks to the entirely different relationship Toby had to time itself while in this state, but seconds mattered. He could see there had been some degradation. Very slight, though. Probably, as they were, they would be fine.

He decided there was no reason to settle for “fine.”

Some of the restoration could be done by gleaning data straight from the transcension fields into which those souls were trying to dissipate, but there were elements that did not yield to such reconstruction. Instead, he had to walk them backward through time itself, just for a few heartbeats.

No Scions of Vemnesthis appeared to chastise him. Evidently they could tell when even they were outmatched.

Gently, in meticulous detail, he re-ignited the biological processes of each body, every chemical reaction in each brain, and stitched every consciousness right back into place, bonded to their mortal forms in exactly the manner they had been previously.

Eyes opened, hearts beat, and breaths were gasped.

Toby finally gave them all a tender but firm dose of Omnu’s peace. They were definitely going to need it.

Less than ten seconds had passed while he unmade the worst the general of Hell could do. Now, Toby was still in the grip of Omnu’s power, and free to deal with Kelvreth directly.

He stepped forward, descending the stairs in a serene glide with his hands folded before him, eyes wide open and blazing with pure divine light. Kelvreth glared down at him.

Toby’s golden gaze met the torrent of unfiltered insanity, and pushed it back.

“Paladins,” Kelvreth growled, and under the overwhelming pressure of Omnu’s presence, all the power had been stolen from his voice; it seemed all he could do to project words. “You wield magic tricks you cannot hope to understand. You do not impress any more than she, Tobias Caine!”

Toby paced slowly to the foot of the stairs and stopped, staring up at Kelvreth. Khadizroth had snared one of the demon’s arms in a thorny vine seemingly made from green light, which was trying to pry it up and loose from its grip on the ground. Trissiny and Gabriel were slashing away at his other. Gradually but surely, the demon’s grasp on this plane was slipping.

“You achieve nothing,” Kelvreth grated at him. “It is the wont of mortals to struggle against inevitability. I have come to bring my Lady’s plans to fruition. You will not—”

“I have come to bring peace.”

Tobias and Omnu spoke as one, and Kelvreth of the Eyes was struck down by the force of it.

With an ephemeral roar of pain, he fully lost his grip, and was immediately pulled deep into the half-stable portal. Still determined to maintain what hold he had on the mortal plane, Kelvreth managed to grab the edges of his summoning circle with the fingertips of one hand, bracing the forearm of the other on the ground even as the rest of him slipped deeper. Only his head and one shoulder still emerged from the portal.

“Can you ward me against being pulled into that portal?” Trissiny asked, striding up to Khadizroth.

The dragon finally looked somewhat disheveled by these exertions, but even under such circumstances his equilibrium was already restoring itself.

“If necessary,” he said, his tone asking a question. “A variant of a craft I know to temporarily bar hellgates should secure you for longer than that portal can sustain itself.”

“Good. Please do so.”

“Even with protection, General, you propose a risk. Is this important?”

“I made a promise,” Trissiny said grimly. “Promises must be kept.”

Khadizroth nodded immediately at that. “Exceedingly true; we are nothing without our honor. Very well, General, proceed and I shall guard you.”

She nodded back in thanks, then strode right toward the circle, breaking into a run as she crossed the last few yards. For the second time, Trissiny leaped forward to land bodily on Kelvreth’s face.

Kelvreth growled, shifting his head and almost knocking her loose. Trissiny planted her boots in the slits that made up his nose, actually grabbing the edge of his eye socket with her free hand for support as he tried to tip her off. At some point she had dropped her shield, but still had her sword in hand and was blazing with enough of power to easily protect her from whatever of his gaze managed to eke out past Omnu’s light.

Examined up close, it was difficult to tell what his eyes were, exactly. They might have been swirling portals, or flat stretches of glowing surface. Even protected by the light of the gods, that intensity of infernally powered pure insanity did not easily yield itself to analysis.

Trissiny let go, rearing back and raising her sword in her right hand. In her left, a second sword appeared, identical in shape to the original but formed out of hardened divine light.

“I warned you,” she stated, and plunged both blades straight into Kelvreth’s eyes.

The demon’s scream seemed to be trying to tear at reality itself, and likely would have been almost as maddening as his gaze if not for the constant pressure of all three Trinity gods having their attention fixed here. Kelvreth tried to toss his head to dislodge his attacker, but Trissiny had immediately twisted her swords inside his eye sockets and was now using them to hold herself in place and hang on despite his efforts.

Whatever magic animated him was incredibly complex, and surely capable of restoring itself—up to a point. That point did not extend to combating Avei’s direct touch. Kelvreth twitched and thrashed involuntarily in addition to his struggles as ancient spells inside him unraveled, the magic animated his dread gaze being permanently seared away one layer at a time, causing an internal torrent of explosions that made him heave in agony. Trissiny snarled at him, clinging on and pouring Avei’s power into his shattered eyes. Already the light of them had given away to smoke.

“You’ll need a new name,” she grated. “Kelvreth the Blind. Now go tell Elilial she’s next!”

He finally relented, raising his hands to try to grab her, and with the loss of his grip, the incomplete summoning collapsed. Kelvreth was sucked straight down into what was suddenly a flat stretch of pavement, vanishing from view and from their plane of existence. The final disintegration of such a powerful summoning produced an explosive shockwave that sent Trissiny hurtling away and bodily knocked down everyone present, even Khadizroth. Everyone except Toby, who did not even close his eyes in the face of it.

Only when the demon’s departure was final did Omnu’s grace begin to recede. Toby closed his eyes, then opened them again with their golden glow gone. It was…heady. Even in the aftermath of riding that towering current of divine power, he felt as if he’d been dosed with coffee, or something stronger.

A hand took his, and he turned to meet Shaeine’s garnet eyes. Heedless of the crowd now approaching them from behind, she wrapped her arms around Toby in a hug. He just held her back.

It was good to be alive.

“Yeah, so,” Ruda’s voice came out of the sea of murmurs now rising, “first question that springs to my mind: why the fuck did none of you wise old ancients warn us about that guy’s fuckin’ eyeballs? I coulda really used some advance fucking notice of that!”

“To my knowledge, that creature has never been on the mortal plane before,” Kuriwa replied, pacing forward to inspect the remnants of the summoning circle. “Everything known about Kelvreth of the Eyes was hearsay brought by demons, which are notoriously unreliable. Even so… His gaze was said to pacify and compel demons, rendering them lucid despite the infernal corruption and forcing them to obey his commands. Kelvreth’s eyes, according to what little I knew, were a leading reason Elilial has been able to turn rabbles of demons into armies. I was not expecting…that.”

“Nor I,” Khadizroth agreed. “Else I most certainly would have given warning.”

“Huh,” Ruda grunted, seeming at least somewhat mollified. She strode up out of he approaching crowd, cocking her head to give the dragon a skeptical look. “So how come you shouted not to look when he opened ‘em?”

“Yes, please forgive me if I gave offense,” Khadizroth replied, bowing to her. “Many long years of experience with adventurers have left me with the habit of shouting obvious common sense.”

“Oh, up yours,” she said without rancor, grinning. Khadizroth, evidently familiar with Punaji, smiled back rather than taking insult.

“Hand of Omnu,” the dragon said, turning to Toby with a more serious expression, “first of all, my deepest thanks. That was a thing the likes of which I have never seen. Can you do that…at will?”

“No,” Toby said immediately. “No, that is not something I can do except in very severe circumstances. And even so… I’m not sure it’s a good idea to exercise that much power even when it’s possible.”

“Look alive, folks,” Joe called, striding forward and pointing at the sky ahead of them. “We seem to’ve gone an’ made ourselves popular.”

Where they had previously been swarming around the distant spire of the cathedral, a large force of flying khelminash warlocks had peeled away and was heading right for them. Evidently, as Joe had pointed out, they took the defeat of their feared general with the utmost seriousness.

“Wait,” Schwartz called out suddenly. “Where’s Trissiny?”


She had likely been out only a few seconds, Trissiny concluded as her vision swam back into focus. Brief unconsciousness aside, she was disoriented; her last clear memory had been of tumbling through the air, and then…

Right now she was slumped against a large wooden desk which had evidently been smashed by the impact of…well, her, apparently. In front of her was a set of double doors, likewise burst open by the blow. Beyond them was a street, and beyond that another wall of buildings, not the square.

Apparently, she’d been launched over a city block and into the next street, where she and her bubble of divine protection had bowled straight into this structure and come to rest here. That was enough of a calamity to have killed even a paladin, had she not at the time been deep in the grip of Avei’s power, both protected behind an invulnerable shield and pumped to the gills with healing magic.

Thank the goddess for survival, but even so, she felt like she’d been beaten all over.

Wincing, Trissiny started to struggling upright, then fell back with a grunt of pain. Instead, she fell back on lessons taught by Professor Ezzaniel, Taowi Sunrunner, and Shaeine. Check for injuries before moving… Shaeine’s instruction in divine diagnosis greatly expedited the process; Trissiny wasn’t yet good enough to sweep others with any great accuracy, but she could scan her own body using the spell.

Nothing was broken, aside from a few cracked ribs. She was bruised…basically all over. Mild concussion. All in all, nothing a little more divine magic wouldn’t fix.

She channeled it slowly and carefully, directing the flows of power to where they were needed and being careful to avoid either divine burnout or mana fatigue. Thanks to Avei’s grace and her elven heritage, neither seemed to be looming close. Good, she could be back in fighting shape in a few minutes. Regrouping with the others was of the utmost importance.

Trissiny stood again, still wincing in pain, but managing this time. It would take a few more minutes to fully heal all this, healing not being her specialty, but with her ribs and skull seen to she could at least stand up and look around. Actually, she appeared to be in some kind of museum. Hopefully all she’d broken was the reception desk and not an exhibit…

Instinct and Avei’s continued attention slammed her divine shield into place at full strength, causing her already-bruised brain a moment of disorientation which cost her dearly. That shield had just withstood a duel with a lord of Hell and a subsequent fall from the sky, but what hit it now smashed it utterly, the backlash snuffing out her divine magic entirely and sending her hurtling ten feet.

Trissiny’s already bruised body impacted a pillar and bounced off; she couldn’t do anything but lay there, stunned and struggling to regain her breath. At least now she could see what had snuck up on her, though.

On one hand she wore a golden gauntlet that glittered with jewels, some cracked, and others spitting intermittent sparks and tiny arcs of arcane energy. In the other she held an Avenic shortsword with an elaborate golden hilt. On her face was the wild, sadistic grin of someone who presently saw no reason to put up a pretense of sanity.

“Why, hello, Trissiny,” Basra Syrinx purred, striding forward and raising her sword. “Oh, you can’t imagine how much I’ve been looking forward to this.”

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15 – 63

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Now, they had the full attention of the horde.

No longer focusing on their summoning work, the flying trios of warlocks changed formation, arranging themselves in a staggered line in the air. After the failure of their last barrage against the fae tree’s magic, most did not try that again, though a few infernal spells came screaming downward and either splashed against divine shields or were nullified by one of the powerful fae casters present before they could impact. Splotches of darkness blossomed in the sky, however, as the khelminash shadow-jumped a swarm of katzils in.

The khaladesh ground fighters topped the staircase in a line, this time advancing at a slower pace with a full shield wall raised. Their shields appeared to be mismatched patches of chitin or giant reptilian scales which left wide gaps in their coverage, but the spears protruding between them had wicked obsidian heads; that line presented as much menace as a Silver Legion phalanx.

Before the two forces could close the distance between them, Tinker Billie shot upward on a board oddly reminiscent of the khelminash’s flying discs, except bristling with glowing arcane runes, and took aim with a hefty device which resembled a cross between a very large crossbow and a very small mag cannon. The recoil when she fired it sent her spinning backward into the tree, but the projectile flew straight and true.

It was a firework, apparently one of the heavily compacted ones meant for grand impressive displays in the night sky. At least, the explosion of green sparks was large enough to blast a chunk of the upper steps away, along with every demon in the vicinity. Streaks of green fire smashed against hastily erected silver and golden shields above the defenders, while the khelminash and newly-summoned katzils were forced to hastily maneuver out of the way, many not fast enough.

Most immediately, Billie’s projectile scored a direct hit on the massive hand of Kelvreth. It was flung loose from his grip on the now-shattered stone and immediately the demon’s entire colossal arm was drawn swiftly backwards as if some force pulled him back into the huge summoning circle from which he was emerging.

The explosion made a shambles of the khaladesh line, a task completed by a volley of arrows, only a few of which impacted their irregularly-shaped shields; it seemed the Huntsmen and Rangers’ legendary skill with bows was not exaggeration, and most of those shots slipped through the narrow gaps to pierce demons behind their defenses.

Then the charge of the mortal plane’s defenders struck the beleaguered demon lines and smashed straight through.

Natchua, Xyraadi, and their friends had already vanished in a swell of shadow, the Imperial strike team likewise departing as per Trissiny’s orders. As the situation on the plaza devolved into a mass melee, Vadrieny and Yngrid swooped up and arced toward the city’s north bank, cutting fearlessly through the aerial combatants; Vadrieny had to swerve out of her way to smack into a khelminash platform in passing, as the warlocks were eager to avoid her, but she did at least knock one down. The khelminash were less impressed by Yngrid, at least until she annihilated six of them to dust with two wide swings of her scythe, shrugging off a barrage of infernal spells as if she couldn’t feel them. Then the two were descending into alleys amid the towers of the north bank at the nearest portal site, leaving the main battle behind.

Above the noise of battle, Fross could barely be heard chiming in excitement:

“I’ve been working on this since the last hellgate! You’re not hiszilisks, but you’ll do!”

What she unleashed were jagged arcs of light that struck targets and immediately sprang to another nearby, like the classic chain lightning spell which had been an adventuring mage’s standard since time immemorial. Rather than electricity, though, her streamers were ping-ponging carrier spells bringing intense cold and accompanying puffs of airborne frost. She brought down one khelminash platform due to sheer element of surprise before the others swiftly learned to avoid the bouncing beams, or repel them with bursts of fire. The katzils were another matter; finding themselves suddenly encased in ice, they plummeted into the brawl below, unable to stay aloft. Quite a few hit the ground already dead, as the sudden freezing of a creature in the process of spouting fire caused their abruptly hardened flesh to shatter outright. The khelminash spun about, firing poorly-aimed spells and utterly failing to stop Fross, who due to her size, speed, and color was practically invisible against the daylight sky and would have been nearly impossible to hit even so.

Below, the two mounted paladins were the first to plow into the enemy, hurling them further into disarray. Arjen’s sheer bulk and power trampled the khaladesh fighters effortlessly, which Trissiny capitalized on by directing him straight into anything still resembling a formation she could find on the reasoning that reducing an army to a mob was half the work of defeating it. Her glowing aura singed demons even in passing, and not a single spear penetrated her divine shield. Whisper was much less physically imposing, but faster and more nimble to compensate, and Gabriel had the advantage of a weapon with both a very long reach and horrifying destructive potential. He skirted the edges of Trissiny’s wake, scything through demon soldiers who were reduced to dust and skeletal fragments before they hit the ground.

With the demons totally out of order, the much smaller but more individually powerful ground fighters hit them with devastating force. Darling had snared another katzil and was directing it to strafe any khelminash he spotted who seemed to be trying to give orders. The jaws of spirit wolves, as it turned out, burned demon flesh almost as severely as divine magic, and Ingvar’s pack were instinctively cutting individuals out of the throng to bring them down, while the archers smoothly switched from a massed volley to picking off targets precisely.

An entire row of demons were crushed together between two walls of light, one silver and one gold; as they fell, Shaeine was already turning away from Toby as he rounded on another knot of demons, calling up another flat shield, turning it sideways and slashing into concentrations of khaladesh not unlike Gabriel and his scythe. She had to switch back to shielding herself as a spear of orange fire shot right at her out of the throng, one of the khelminash warlocks knocked from her platform having recovered enough bearing to attack. That ended seconds later with a single stab through the chest, Ruda cackling something indistinct above the din as she yanked her mithril blade out of the sorceress’s heart.

More spectral animals charged into the fray; they still didn’t last very long under so much abuse, but their constantly replenished numbers played their role in turning the tide. While Khadizroth did that from behind the front lines, Rainwood danced about closer to the action, lashing out with spells to strike down demons more directly. Even with his reflexes, he was nearly overcome at one point when he strayed too far from the main group by a squad pulled together under a khelminash warlock’s command apparently for the express purpose of putting a stop to him. The enormous fiery bulk of Meesie in her larger form shattered their would-be phalanx, buying Rainwood necessary seconds to turn on them and finish the job, with Schwartz’s help. Despite their relative positions along the Circle, it took the both of them a tense few moments of magical dueling to bring down the warlock, and even so it was finally decided by Meesie mauling her from behind while she was trying to concentrate.

“How fascinating!” Schwartz shouted over the chaos. “In groups they stick to formalized spell routines, but get one alone and cornered and she gets positively inventive!”

“Making soldiers out of casters,” Rainwood agreed, cutting down the last of his would-be assassins with a lightning bolt. “Rookie mistake.”

Behind them, Khadizroth burned a khelminash platform out of the sky with a burst of pure fae magic of an intensity that even the crafts of all three failed to counter, in response to a rather clever attempt by that group to disrupt his ongoing summoning through Circle effects. They had actually put up a conversion array that was drawing power away from his fae spells to consume their own infernal magic, which they transmuted into arcane in the middle of it, causing his last several creature summons to explosively fail. That was far too creative to have been whipped up on the fly, suggesting these were prepared to deal with powerful fae casters. It would explain the trouble Rainwood and Schwartz had had.

The theory was borne out when two more trios began doing something similar in unison, this time using the explosive arcane-fae reaction to cause painful feedback in his own aura and sharply impeding his own ability to cast. Growing in displeasure, Khadizroth lashed out at one of the platforms, failing to strike them down with his second burst of magic but alleviating the pressure as the attack forced them to break off their efforts and withdraw. In that second, though, two more had swooped in, followed by a third, and the pressure immediately began mounting. They had, he realized, identified who the most powerful caster here was, and made him a priority. That status was debatable, but Kuriwa was presently darting about conjuring thorny bushes out of the very pavement to both ensnare khaladesh in murderous vines and spray puffs of rejuvenative pollen at her allies, which probably didn’t look nearly as impressive to the warlocks as his great tree did.

“PESTS!” the dragon thundered, launching another burst of fae magic. This one fizzled entirely; he now had seven platforms full of khelminash warlocks focusing on him, their spells slowly but surely burning through his defenses.

Nearby, Branwen looked up from healing a fallen Ranger and in the next moment sprang to his side, planting herself and her divine shield between him and two of the warlock platforms. That alleviated their onslaught for a moment, but they just swung wide to cast around her, and Branwen wasn’t adept enough with divine shields to bar more than three times or so the width of her small body. One of the attacking khelminash platforms was shattered out from under them by a burst of Fross’s magic, but in the next moment the pixie swooped away to finish mopping up the katzils, apparently not realizing what was happening.

Khadizroth snarled; at his side, Vannae was similarly beleaguered by the same effect, impeding his attempts to come to his master’s aid, and no one else seemed to have notice their struggle in the midst of the chaos.

Then, in the space of one second, four sprays of three needle-thin bolts of light each lashed out, every one piercing a sorceress directly through the head. They tumbled off their platforms, his magic came roaring back with the sudden lessening of the inhibiting effect, and both Vannae and Branwen sprang in front of him. Before they could take the fight to the last two trios, though, Khadizroth plucked a seed and hurled it. It burst alive even before striking the pavement, roots surging downward while thorny vines reached up, entangling one platform and forcing the last into a desperate retreat.

Khadizroth looked to his left, in the direction from which the wandshots had come, and met Joe Jenkins’ gaze across the battle. The Kid tipped his hat to the dragon, then turned and felled a dozen oncoming khaladesh with another volley of surgical shots. He and McGraw were standing guard over Billie, who was hard at work cobbling together some arcane contraption and giggling maniacally to herself.

Not far distant from them, Toby moved smoothly between attacking demons, neither rushing nor lashing out. He was all but impervious behind a divine shield which he kept molded close to the shape of his body rather than the traditional wide bubble, and his blazing aura burned any that came too close. Being demons, this infuriated them into attacking, and he kept constantly on the move, sliding nimbly around their clumsy advances, maneuvering them into tripping each other up and blundering into attacks by nearby spirit wolves and spectral beasts, or being felled by blessed arrows. Despite his lack of offensive maneuvers, Toby was slowly but surely whittling down the demons’ numbers with his passive strategy, while taking pressure off his allies; so long as he kept himself as a primary target, those willing to attack more aggressively were easily able to take his assailants from behind.

As was demonstrated when his shield and aura suddenly and unaccountably flickered. Out of the throng of soldier demons, a khelminash sorceress appeared, one clawed hand outstretched and teeth bared in concentration as she worked some spell that interacted badly with his divine magic. Toby had only just zeroed in on this new threat when the effect vanished, and the warlocks shrieked in pain. Arcs of scarlet lightning wreathed her, and she stumbled to her knees, twitching in apparent agony.

Grip stalked forward, wearing a truly psychotic grin and holding a fist-sized device which produced the red lightning. She kept the sorceress in the grasp of its effect just long enough to step within arm’s reach before dropping it, giving the khelminash a split second of lucid relief before Grip’s brass-studded cudgel caved her face in.

Sensing another approach, Toby smoothly flowed to the side, preparing another evasive sidestep; it was not another demon coming up from behind, though, but the dragon.

“Mr. Caine,” Khadzroth said, not shouting but projecting his powerful voice through the noise nonetheless. “You are more needed back here. Their advantage is in numbers; if we can avoid taking losses, we will ultimately prevail. We need all available help to shield and heal.”

Toby cast a quick look around the supporters the dragon had gathered. Vannae seemed to have appointed himself guardian of the healers, darting back and forth to attack any demon which came through the larger scrum to strike at them, while Branwen was busily dragging wounded back into the protective aegis of the tree where she could perform emergency healing behind her own shields. Elder Shiraki paced steadily behind the lines, directing currents of fae magic which Toby could tell at a glance were empowering the archers, adding magical effects to their arrows, and further augmenting any melee fighters on whom he could gain a line of sight through the chaos. Flora, Fauna, Principia, Jenell, and Merry were all dueling khaladesh nearby without the aid of any magic of their own, and benefiting from Shiraki’s efforts whether they realized it or not. Weaver paced in an opposite pattern, occasionally crossing Shiraki’s path as he blew steadily into a flute. Toby could barely hear its thin melody over the havoc, but he knew bardsong was as potent as it was poorly understood by those outside Vesk’s cult.

They had studied this, he realized, in Professor Tellwyrn’s class, though he’d not expected to actually see it in person. These were not modern military maneuvers, but classical adventuring tactics: dedicated casters would remain behind the main fighters to heal and buff. It was, just as Khadizroth said, one of the main reasons adventurer teams tended to outlast much larger forces, even more important than their ability to individually hit harder. A smaller group would win through attrition if they just wouldn’t die. And Khadizroth was right: in such a situation, the powers of an Omnist paladin were far better suited to this than fighting on the front lines.

“Right,” he agreed, then raised his voice. “Shaeine!”

“I heard,” she called, emerging from behind one of Mary’s thorn bushes. While pacing gracefully toward him, the drow raised one hand, conjuring a wall of silver light which first rebuffed the khaladesh demon that tried to ambush her and then crushed him flat against the pavement. “A sound strategy.”

“They’re retreating!” Schwartz called. “I think we’ve got them—oh, on second thought, this is bad, isn’t it.”

In the chaotic minutes since the battle had been joined in full, the mortal defenders had utterly devastated the assembled demonic force while taking few and possibly no losses; there were too many archers, spirit wolves, enforcers, and other miscellany for an easy head count amid the chaos, but at least the majority of them were still up and fighting. In military terms that represented an astonishing victory, but was about historically normal for massed adventurers facing the kind of fodder represented by the khaladesh soldiers, who had mismatched and inadequate equipment and were themselves not any physically stronger or more resilient than the average human. It as a more impressive showing against the khelminash warlocks, who were feared even in Hell for their expertise, but the presence of such as paladins, dryads, a dragon, and Kuriwa served as a counter to even that strength, and as Schwartz had observed, khelminash were actually less dangerous while casting formalized spell sequences from formation than when allowed to exercise their creativity and skill as individuals. The platforms had fallen with surprising ease, but each one of the warlocks who survived landing had posed a significant threat to the ground fighters before finally being brought down.

Unfortunately, Schwartz had also correctly identified what this turn of the tides heralded.

The surviving khaladesh soldiers were, indeed, retreating toward the steps down to the lower plaza, which was still hidden from view by the angle. Some of them were still being cut down as they fled—Ruda and Grip both chased after fleeing demons before being reined in by Juniper and Darling, respectively—and Trissiny and Gabriel continued to gallop through their numbers, but most of the defenders took the opportunity to catch their breath, even at the cost of letting the demons regroup. The withdrawal of the khelminash, however, was obviously not just to reorganize. They had fallen back into a rotating formation above their plaza, again channeling their energies at whatever lay in its center.

Kuriwa lit close to the support casters, immediately resuming her elven form. “They are casting a summoning, not a true gate, and for a creature like Kelvreth, their help will be needed to pull him physically through. Billie’s explosive interrupted that effort; if we can stop them now, we may be able to prevent him reaching this plane.”

Khadizroth swept a quick glance around the skyline; already, several of the pillars of fire in each direction had gone dark, and he happened to catch the sudden snuffing of another on the north bank. So the teams Trissiny had sent were still at their work. The strategy was working: so long as demons kept coming here to die, eventually those three groups would cut off all their entry points.

But that left them needing to survive Kelvreth.

“I am less use than I might be, Mary,” he stated, fixing her with a flat stare. “You could remedy that.”

Her expression, as usual, betrayed nothing. “And in this circumstance, I would. It would be an action requiring some long minutes of focused work. Do you want to risk it?”

Khadizroth glanced again toward the stairs, and the khelminash now circling the lower plaza, and at that moment Trissiny’s voice rang out.

“Baerzurgs! Heavy hitters to the fore, casters retreat!”

“Let us revisit this after dealing with the matter at hand,” he said, but she was already taking flight again as he paced forward and various adventurers repositioned themselves at the paladin’s order.

An entire line of baerzurgs topped the steps, thirteen forming a single rank. Worse, they held that formation; clearly, these had been trained in military tactics like the khaladesh. Baerzurgs were all but invulnerable to most attacks save magic, and most commonly fought by charging wildly in. It was rare that they would learn and practice actual maneuvers. The mortal plane had not seen the like since the Hellwars, and then, forces like this had shattered even the most resolute lines of the Pantheon’s servants.

This time, though, the formation only lasted a second after heaving into view, because that was how long it took Arjen to lunge forward, pivot a hundred and eighty degrees on his front hooves, and kick the baerzurg in the line’s center with his powerful hindquarters—thus revealing why the Hands of Avei rode a barrel-chested draft horse instead of a more traditional charger. Even a normal horse could inflict devastating damage with a kick like that; Arjen’s sent the “invulnerable” demon hurtling a good fifteen feet with its armored chest caved in.

The baerzurgs’ discipline didn’t extend to holding formation in the face of that, as both flanking the victim proved by breaking ranks to turn and attack the mounted paladin. Trissiny’s blazing aura already had them smoking; between Arjen’s slashing hooves and her striking with both sword and shield, they held their own, but fending off two hulking demons of that size kept them fully occupied. Gabriel felled another, the wicked blade of his scythe sinking into a baerzurg’s chest without resistance and causing the demon to crumple, but while he was as physically sturdy as they, Whisper’s instinct was to evade rather than stand and she darted away to escape the counterattack of two more of its companions. Meesie struck another baerzurg in a flying tackle that sent them both tumbling down the stairs, and two more were felled by punches from Juniper and Aspen.

Even with these losses, the line kept coming. Five baerzurgs had fallen, two were ineptly chasing Whisper, and Trissiny and Arjen were still dealing with another. As impressive as that was against such infamously durable demons, it left five to charge at the far more vulnerable defenders who had retreated behind the patchy rampart of fae thornbushes to the outskirts of Khadizroth’s tree.

“Shamans, with me!” the dragon ordered, raising his hands.

Kuriwa, as usual, ignored him; she landed behind the demons and struck one in the back with a spear of green light. Shiraki, Schwartz, Rainwood, and Vannae all joined the green dragon, however, in pelting the oncoming demons with a variety of spells that brought their advance to a staggering halt. The assembled archers fired a volley as well, and while their arrows did little against that armor, the fae blessings Shiraki had been casting helped weaken them. In fact, Ingvar, whether by skill or accident, sank a shaft into one baerzurg’s eye, causing it to topple.

“Finish them quickly!” Khadizroth barked. Trissiny had already dealt with the last of her foes and was charging to aid Gabriel, who was finding it hard to both evade the demons’ claws and bring his slightly awkward weapon back into play on horseback. That was, of course, a downside of wielding a scythe, no matter how deadly it might be: farm implements were just not designed for such work. “They are stalling us now; those will not be the last of their forces. Make haste!”

Toby cupped his hands around his mouth, raising his head to the sky. “FROSS! What’s happening down there?”

Seconds later, the pixie came zipping out of the sky; while everything else was going on, she had succeeded in wiping out the summoned katzils. “That summoning circle they’ve got is fully activated and seems to be an open rift now! I’m no infernomancer but if I remember my planar mechanics right that’s not gonna fade if we just erase some lines, it’s gonna have to be actively disrupted. What’s left of the warlocks are casting something directly into it!”

“Kelvreth will require help to pass through,” Khadizroth declared for the benefit of those who had not heard Kuriwa earlier. “Even if we fail to disrupt the circle in time, we can at least slow his arrival by stopping them.”

“He will have help from the other side,” Shiraki pointed out.

“Yes, but every bit helps,” Khadizroth said tersely. “Joseph?”

“Way ahead a’ you,” Joe replied, already taking aim with his wand.

In the next moment he winced, having fired a barrage of precise beams which swerved off course a few yards from any of their targets. “Rats. I think they’re onto me. Y’all, if precision attacks won’t work, we need widespread firepower.”

“I believe he’s playin’ your song, Billie,” said McGraw, who was still standing guard over the gnome and her ongoing project.

“Oi, ye don’t rush genius,” she grunted, pausing in her work to pick up the projectile weapon she had used previously. The device Billie was building resembled a mag cannon, though aimed upward at an angle rather than directly at its target, and she had physically bolted its legs into the pavement. She hastily produced another long tube from within one of her pouches of holding, slotted it into the quasi-crossbow, and tossed the whole thing to McGraw. “’ere, go nuts.”

He had to drop his staff to catch it, but chuckled while raising it to his shoulder and sighting along the weapon’s length. “An’ here I was just thinkin’ it ain’t fair how the rest of us never get to play with your toys.”

The rocket screamed when he pulled the trigger, and McGraw was physically bowled over amid a shower of sparks, coughing at the smoke. Branwen rushed to his side, but everyone else watched the missile as it streaked out over the plaza.

The old wizard’s aim had been true; it detonated right in the middle of the khelminash formation in a colossal shower of blue and gold sparks that was clearly not meant to go off that close to the ground. Every surviving window facing the lower plaza was shattered, and four of the remaining khelminash platforms were blasted right out of the sky. Of the rest, only two managed to retreat unscathed, while one careened into the face of a building and two more went swerving off course, losing several of their riders in the process.

“Fallowstone, how much danger will we be in from whatever you are doing?” Khadizroth demanded.

“Mostly none, long as ye don’t stick yer faces right in the barrel,” she grunted. “Fairies may wanna hang back a wee bit. I’m almost there!”

“Is that a—where did you get that?” Branwen demanded, watching Billie snap an Izarite shatterstone into some kind of glass canister and insert it into the nozzle of her improvised artillery. “Where do people keep getting those?!”

“Take it up with ‘is Graceness over there,” the gnome said cheerfully.

Darling raised his hands hands as Branwen rounded on him. “Hey, it’s not like I put things on the black market! I’m just a middleman, here.”

Trissiny and Gabriel came cantering up to them before Branwen could say anything else.

“We need to press forward,” the Hand of Avei stated, her voice projecting across the crowd. “They failed in their assault because their formation was broken and they were felled individually. We cannot make the same mistake! This group is smaller, but we have enough forces to wipe them out so long as we move in unison. And quickly!”

“Agreed, there is no more time to delay,” Khadizroth added. “We’re with you, General Avelea.”

Then Kelvreth’s hand re-emerged—two, this time. Both gigantic, skeletal claws rose upward and then swept down to both sides as the enormous demon grabbed the ground itself for purchase, in a pose obviously meant to help lever himself up out of the portal.

“Too late,” Joe said fatalistically.

“Oh, we’re not too late,” Billie retorted with vicious satisfaction, yanking a lever on her device. “He is!”

It had already begun to rattle and smoke, but also to produce a fierce golden glow through every crack in its improvised metal housing. Everyone nearby instinctively retreated from the cobbled-together cannon, with the exception of Billie herself. They had barely two seconds to do so. With a THUMP that sent cracks through the pavement for two yards in all directions and cast a puff of glittering golden smoke across the group, it finally fired.

What emerged from the barrel resembled a sunrise. Light blazed forth with an intensity that blinded most of them. The missile arced a disappointing short distance after all that build-up, but Billie had calibrated her weapon well, and its course brought it down right into the center of the circle from which Kelvreth of the Eyes was being summoned. Around it traveled a scintillating corona that incinerated every remaining demon, living or dead, still in the vicinity.

But then, before it struck the ground, the projectile suddenly halted in midair. Its stunning luminosity began to dim, enabling the watchers to belatedly see what had happened; what had begun as a skull-sized projectile was now a seething ball of light almost as big as a carriage, and it was now held in the air within the clawed grip of Kelvreth’s hand.

Then he clenched his fingers, and with a shockwave of thunder that shoved all of them bodily backward and uprooted several of Kuriwa’s magic bushes, the Light was snuffed out. In its wake, the demon general spoke.

“ENOUGH.”

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