Tag Archives: Juniper

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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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15 – 62

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The swell of darkness deposited her at the very edge of the plateau, and she immediately dropped to a crouch, grimacing and trying to get her bearings despite the unpleasant prickle of magic. It was everywhere here, the divine and fae—both the schools of power that sought to erase her just by existing.

Xyraadi instinctively wove a net about herself to push back against the forces gnawing at her, igniting a barely visible corona of light in her vicinity. The plateau ahead of her was dotted with old structures that looked to be on the verge of falling apart. Apparently Mortimer had been right; the Order of the Light in this century must be teetering on its last legs if it allowed one of its most sacred sites to look like this. It actually didn’t look as if anyone was here, or had been in decades.

But there was the Great Tree, rising in the near distance from the spot where the Maw itself had once been opened. She had never been here before, obviously, but the Tree had been ancient even in her time, famously grown from a sprig of the World Tree found deep within Naiya’s domain of the Deep Wild. Even at this distance, the wind in its leaves seemed to whisper. Xyraadi had the very distinct impression that the Tree was unhappy to see her here.

“As it ever was,” she murmured, raising her hands with fingers spread to cast a spell circle around herself. “Let’s all kill the nice demon who’s trying to help, can’t let any of the rest of them get the idea they might be able to turn against the Dark Lady. That would be just awful.”

Three concentric rings of light solidified about her at waist level, marked with indicator arrows; they shifted and swayed like the needle of a jostled compass before settling down to point in the general direction of the Tree, helping her home in on what she had come here to find.

“All right, then,” Xyraadi murmured to herself, taking two cautious steps forward.

That was when a streak of orange fire burst upward from behind one of the structures ahead, and she froze. The fireball ascended straight up before spreading her wings and slowing.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi whispered, staring up at the archdemon who was now staring at her. “Why did it have to be that one?”

Vadrieny let out a piercing shriek that echoed from the mountains all around and hurled herself forward in a dive.

“Wait!” Xyraadi shouted, waving her hands overhead. “Truce! I’m a fr—”

She didn’t take the risk of waiting to see whether the force of fire and claws shooting at her planned to break off at the last second, instead shadow-jumping a few feet away. She still felt the hot breeze stirred up by the archdemon’s passing.

Vadrieny banked skillfully on one fiery wingtip, pivoting back around for another pass.

“My name is Xyraadi! I know—”

This time she jumped a good twenty feet distant to evade the next diving attack.

“Would you cut that out?” she exclaimed as Vadrieny recovered and swooped widely around for another pass. “I want to talk! In the name of Avei, truce!”

Arcane magic prickled nearby and by sheer instinct she reached out with one hand and clawed it away.

“Rude!” exclaimed a shrill little voice, followed by a swell of nauseating fae energy and then a barrage of icicles.

Xyraadi melted them before being shredded by their wicked points, shadow-jumped again to evade another swooping attack by Vadrieny, and sourly reflected that this was going about as well as she’d dared hope. On the one hand, her reflexive dismantling of whatever that arcane spell had been might have saved her life, but on the other it probably counterindicated her claims to have come here in peace.

She still couldn’t see who had cast either that or the fae ice spell, either. Nor could she detect any invisibility nearby.

Then a white ball of light darted past, momentarily more visible against an old stone wall than it had been against the daylit sky, and she narrowed her eyes.

A pixie?

“Truce!” she shouted again. “Would you please listen—”

Vadrieny’s screech cut her off, and Xyraadi thought very seriously about just knocking the archdemon out of the sky. She could definitely do that; it wouldn’t even harm her. Damaging a creature like that was beyond her power, but messing up her flight path wouldn’t be difficult. But that would be the unequivocal end of any conversation.

“I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS!” she shrieked, jumping yet again to evade a wide-area blast of ice. “I NEED YOUR HELP!”

Hoofbeats approached with astonishing speed, and she resignedly whirled to face whatever the new threat was.

The new threat looped around her, though, waving his scythe in the air and not at her. Between the scythe, that green coat and especially the shadow-wrought mare on which he rode, Xyraadi had to admit that Gabriel Arquin cut a dashing figure.

“Stop! It’s okay!” he yelled. “She’s a friend, we know her!”

More hoofbeats, and she took the risk of stopping her evasive maneuvers to turn and see. Trissiny’s silver-armored steed was not as fleet or nimble as Gabriel’s, leaving her a few seconds behind.

“This is Xyraadi, we met her over the summer!” Trissiny shouted at the sky, as both paladins guided their mounts closer to hover protectively around her. “She’s a long-standing ally of the Sisterhood.”

“And she saved my butt,” Gabriel added. “Plus all my other parts.”

“Well, okay,” squeaked the tiny ball of light, drifting over to hover near Gabriel. “But she messed up my barrier spell pretty hard. That did not feel good! Have you ever had a a spell you were shaping torn apart mid-invocation? That crap stings!”

“Well, if you were doing magic at her, what do you expect?” Gabriel asked, grinning.

“Wait a moment,” Xyraadi exclaimed. “Was that pixie doing arcane magic?”

Then Vadrieny hit the ground right in front of her, talons sinking into the ancient stone with an unsettling crunch. The archdemon folded her arms but not her wings, staring mistrustfully.

“I suppose it really shouldn’t surprise me that you two managed to befriend a khelminash sorceress,” she said, her voice like a choir. “Are you absolutely sure she’s trustworthy? Her people are among my mother’s staunchest allies.”

“She’s earned my trust,” Trissiny said firmly. “Xyraadi, are you all right?”

“I haven’t been incinerated, thank you for asking,” she replied, straightening her robe. “So this has already gone better than I anticipated.”

“I assume something seriously urgent is happening if you came looking for us here, of all places,” Gabriel said, soothingly patting his mount’s neck. The shadow-maned mare was clearly not pleased by Xyraadi’s presence, turning to snort angrily at her with ears laid flat back.

“Yes, exactly,” Xyraadi agreed quickly. “I will explain as much as I can, but we have not the luxury of time. Ninkabi is under severe threat and we urgently need the aid of paladins…” She looked quickly between Vadrieny and the pixie. “…plus whoever else you trust to help.”

More figures were approaching, led by, of all things, an elven woman with black hair wearing bronze Avenic armor. And, to Xyraadi’s surprise, a crow, which lit on the ground nearby and suddenly wasn’t a crow anymore.

“Xyraadi,” she said, tilting her head. “I confess, I never expected to see you again.”

“Kuriwa,” she answered warily. “Still alive, then? Well…good. The more help, the better.”

“Help for Ninkabi,” said the other elf, coming to a stop beside the Crow. “Just out of curiosity, have you been spending any time in Veilgrad recently?”

Xyraadi blinked twice in surprise. “Now, how in the world did you know that?”

Trissiny heaved such a heavy sigh that her armor rasped softly. “Locke, I have a feeling we may be about to break the terms of our field trip and leave the area.”

“I am struggling to contain my astonishment,” Locke answered with a grimace that did not look surprised in the least.

Toby pushed forward out of the gathering crowd, giving Xyraadi a welcoming smile that quickly faded into a more serious expression. “Let’s let her speak, everyone, she took a serious risk by coming here. Xyraadi, how bad is it?”


She set them down in the same nondescript alley where they had originally confiscated Kheshiri’s reliquary from Shook, and immediately it was clear that things were already worse than expected.

The first sounds to greet them were screams and wandshots, prompting Hesthri and Jonathan to raise weapons and shift into a triangular formation with their backs against Natchua’s.

“Oh, this is bad,” Natchua muttered, raising her head and narrowing her eyes in concentration. “I can feel… Kheshiri, get a look at the immediate area.”

The succubus shifted to invisibility even as she unfurled her wings, shooting upward and ruffling their clothes with the backdraft.

“No organized resistance near here,” Jonathan muttered, squinting at the mouth of the alley. “I hear staff and wand fire, but just piecemeal. Soldiers would fire in a volley. Natch?”

“There are demons everywhere,” she whispered, her eyes now closed in concentration. “Plus… Fuck. We were right. Multiple open hellgates. Omnu’s breath, there are so many I can’t focus enough to count them. Plus…”

She opened her eyes and turned, the others instinctively pivoting to keep their formation intact. That left all of them looking directly at blank walls, but no one relaxed.

“There’s something big happening in that direction,” Natchua stated. “I think… It’s not a hellgate, exactly, but it’s putting off energy that’s similar enough but distinct. I think someone is trying to summon something. Something large, and powerful.”

Kheshiri popped back into view, hitting the ground just behind them. “This is bad, mistress. This city is under a full-scale invasion. It’s not just randos fleeing from Hell through the gates, either, I saw khelminash in formation on those flying discs of theirs.”

“Flying discs?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“Battlefield superiority,” Hesthri murmured. “Three warlocks on a mobile platform, raining spells from above.”

“Plus,” Kheshiri continued, “khaladesh troops, also marching in formation rather than rampaging around. These are Elilinist forces, and they’re organized. But, there are also some of the other kind; just in this area I saw khaladesh fighting with ikthroi and shadowlords.”

“They brought their feuding here?” Natchua breathed. “Oh, no, I do not think so. Well, Kheshiri, seems your big idea about this all being a trick was way off the mark.”

“I maintain my reasoning was sound,” the succubus said, scowling, “but yep, I obviously called that one wrong. Mistress, there is just plain nothing we can do about this mess. No matter how big and bad a warlock you are, this will require organized forces to clean up, lots of them. We need to get out of here.”

“You will shut your mouth and do as you’re told,” Natchua snapped. “Did you get a look at the cathedral?”

“Yes, the spire’s visible from here,” Kheshiri said, her tail lashing in agitation. “That’s going to be an even tougher nut to crack than we thought, because the Dark Lady’s followers had the same idea. The biggest concentrations of them are converging on that area.”

“Typical,” Natchua muttered. “Well… I guess I owe you two yet another apology. After all that, instead of going after Elilial herself… I’m sorry, but I have to do something here. I have to.”

“Natchua, you might just be the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met,” Hesthri said fondly, looking over her shoulder. “Imagine, apologizing to us for dropping your crazy revenge to protect people.”

“It does seem like a sudden waste of a lot of preparation,” Kheshiri commented.

“Oh, shut up,” all three of them chorused.

“Right, that’s enough standing around,” Natchua added. “Charms on, weapons up. Kheshiri, stay invisible and reconnoiter; kill any demons you have an opportunity to assassinate without risking yourself, but focus on watching our perimeter and bring me any new information that comes up.”

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Kheshiri said sourly, then shot upward and faded out again.

Natchua strode boldly out of the alley into an ongoing firefight, the others flanking her.

Immediately, arcs of lightning flashed across the street in front of her as one woman in a police uniform rapidly retreated, firing her service wand fast enough to risk overheating it. The gnarled, sinewy black shapes of shadowlords already lay smoking on the street, thanks to her and a man with a battlestaff leaning out the door of a nearby pawn shop, but at least a dozen more were still upright and charging forward, their attention grabbed by the show of resistance.

As the trio emerged from their landing alley, a squad of khaladesh demons, graceful and deceptively dainty humanoid figures with clawed feet, thick tails, and curling horns, charged out of a side street and right into the rabble of shadowlords.

Both armed humans, and now a third from a second-story window, continued firing indiscriminately into the ensuing melee, at least until Natchua put a decisive stop to it.

She gestured upward in a lifting motion with both hands, fingers clenched into rigid claws, and an entire forest of bruise-colored energy tendrils sprang out of the very pavement, entangling every brawling demon on the street. Natchua lifted them twenty feet into the air and then slammed the lot back down so hard their bones shattered. The shadow tentacles didn’t stop there, ripping straight through their victims as they vanished back into the ground and leaving them strewn about in pieces, which immediately began to disintegrate into charcoal.

“Holy shit,” exclaimed the policewoman, turning to point her wand at Natchua.

“You need to get people inside,” Natchua barked. “Gather up whoever you can and retreat to a defensible position. Fight only if you must! Demons are pathologically aggressive, and will be drawn to attack anybody who’s violent. Try to hide as many people as you can rescue.”

“Who the hell are you?” the officer shouted back, not lowering her wand.

“The lesser evil,” Natchua said, and turned her back to look down the street in the other direction. “I gather that’s where the cathedral is.”

She could see flying platforms like Hesthri had described, each with three slender figures balanced atop it. They seemed to move in triangular wedges of three platforms each, and dozens were converging on the spire of Ninkabi’s cathedral from the air. Down the street right in front of her, another small company of khaladesh rounded a corner and began moving in their direction. In addition to the khelminash warlocks, the sky was cluttered with the sinuous forms of katzil demons, diving into clusters of buzzing hiszilisks and scorching them to char with gouts of green fire.

“The succubus called it: that’s a much bigger mess to wade into than we were expecting,” Jonathan noted, raising his staff to point at the khaladesh now loping toward them. “Still wanna try for it?”

“Yes…just not yet,” Natchua decided. “It’s not impossible, it’s still the primary target, but we need Xyraadi and the paladins. And the rest of their group; that entire class are serious heavyweights. Let’s hope she can find them quickly.”

She moved her hands in front of her body as if shaping a globe out of clay, and in the space between them a single point of light sparked into being. Natchua abruptly jerked her arms to both sides and it shot forward, bursting alight and casting off beams of white light in all directions as it sped right at the oncoming demons. They tried to break ranks and dodge, but not fast or far enough; it struck the street amid their formation in an explosion that left a crater and seared fragments of khaladesh strewn about the street.

Natchua turned and pointed in the opposite direction. “That way, toward the front gates of the city. See those flying khelminash? I don’t know what they’re trying to conjure up, but I’ll bet putting a stop to it is a good use of our time.”

“We’re right behind you,” Hesthri promised.

They set off up the street at a run, cutting down stray demons with lightning and shadowbolts on their way toward whatever the greater evil was.


Branwen, to the surprise of the rest of them, was the first to step out into the square.

She paused, the others clustering behind her, to take in the scene. Pillars of fire decorated the skyline in ever direction, and from all of them demons were emerging, either swarms of wasp-like hiszilisks or sinuous katzils. There were no other portal altars within view, denying them the sight of whatever land-bound demons were coming out, but even those had already made it into the square.

Ninkabi had been on high alert, which was the only reason the carnage was not a complete massacre. Even the heavier-than-usual police presence was quickly being overwhelmed by ikthroi and shadowlords streaming out of several side streets piecemeal. Fortunately, the two types of demons seemed to pause and attack each other as often as not, but even so, there were already bodies lying on the pavement, and swooping katzils were making it difficult for the police to organize.

Branwen threw out her hand, and a streamer of golden light flew forth, lashing out to wrap around the neck of a passing katzil. It hissed and bucked as she hauled it down to the ground, but stilled upon being drawn into arm’s reach.

“Shhh, shh,” Branwen soothed, actually patting the demon on its beak. She continued to stroke the infernal animal’s scales as the loop of holy magic shifted, forming a collar that hovered about its neck without touching. Then she took one step to the side and gestured again, and her snared katzil shot upward, where it began making wide passes around the front of the historic trading guild hall, where beleaguered officers were trying to herd civilians inside. Bursts of green fire incinerated any other demons trying to get too close.

“Did you ever get around to more than the basic holy summoner training, Antonio?” she asked.

“Not to the point of actually summoning, but I think I remember how that trick goes,” he said, throwing out another tendril of light and seizing a katzil that was in the process of fleeing from Branwen’s thrall. This one struggled more as he reeled it downward. “Vanessa, get out of here.”

“You want to send the warlock away?” Khadizroth asked pointedly.

“Now’s a good time for the Wreath to do what they do,” Darling grunted, still struggling with his quarry. “We’d best stay here and help, but they need to be hunting down and closing those damn gates! Unless you can shadow-jump, K, that’s a job of the highly mobile casters who can sense demon magic directly.”

“You’re right,” Vanessa said bitterly. “I don’t know how much we can do about this, but Embras will have more information. You three… Try not to die.”

Shadows gathered and whisked her away.

“Demons will be drawn to whatever resists them the most fiercely,” Khadizroth stated, striding forward into the square. “The trading hall seems a serviceable place to hide the civilians, as the police have already discovered. Therefore, we shall draw attention elsewhere. Come.”

“Yes, sir,” Darling drawled, finally getting his demon under control. He hadn’t done this since the attack on Tiraas, but the divine spell worked just as well as it had then. Unfortunately, a katzil was about the most potent type of demon he was able to control, and the holy summoner who had instructed him had warned that a skilled warlock or spellcasting demon would be able to disrupt his link, and if he lost control of a thrall it was likely to immediately attack him with near-suicidal rage.

He and Branwen flanked the dragon, directing their katzils to sweep the surrounding area clear of shadowlords and ikthroi, while Khadizroth casually hurled glowing leaf-pods to the ground which caused the spectral shapes of animals to burst into being. Though they looked fragile, they were constructs of pure fae magic, and the stag, bear, and lion he summoned immediately tore into the nearest demons with devastating effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the three of them were drawing more attention. The western edge of the square was a broad flight of steps down to another, lower square on the next level of the city as it descended toward the first waterfalls. Something was clearly happening there; flying discs carrying khelminash sorceresses were moving in a slow circle, their warlocks directing streams of orange spellfire into some working they were creating on the paved area below. They clearly did not welcome the kind of intrusion a dragon and two priests represented, as a whole company of khaladesh demons immediately surged up the stairs and charged at them.

Khadizroth continued calling up spirit animals to harry the miscellaneous demons on the upper square as he led the way further from the trading hall. As he had predicted, most of the demons already up there were now following them.

Unfortunately.

There was a sufficient concentration that even the fae workings he’d left were beginning to vanish; despite being an excellent counter for demons, they clearly were as fragile as they appeared, and the infernal-addled beings now on the attack did not hesitate to throw their lives away piling onto the translucent shapes. The sheer numbers were overwhelming them.

“Not to overwork you, Khaddy,” Darling grated, guiding his katzil to strafe the front line of khelminash closing on them, “but we could use something bigger…”

“Try to buy me time,” the dragon ordered.

They managed to decimate the first line of the attackers with aerial fire before the next rank harpooned both katzils to the ground. Their golden chains flashed out of being upon the demons’ death. Darling and Branwen exchanged a flat look, and both of them lit up with divine shields. All around them, the last four remaining spirit animals trampled the last of the loose ikthroi; their cousins had managed to deplete a good five times their number, but now both sides of the melee were almost exhausted.

Khadizroth was busy drawing a spell circle on the pavement with a leafy branch he had pulled out of nowhere. Branwen planted herself in front of him; Darling drew his wand and fired shot after shot into the khaladesh, which only seemed to make them madder.

A bare three yards before the charging demons piled into the priests’ shields, Khadizroth paused in his work to gesture. Cold wind rose around them, suddenly carrying with it bladelike autumn leaves, and ripped into the phalanx. The fae-driven leaves tore through flesh and armor alike, slaughtering the demons even as the wind bowled them bodily over backward.

In seconds, the entire force was decimated.

“I feel like we’re redundant here,” Darling commented to Branwen.

“You are not,” Khadizroth replied before she could, already back at work on his circle. “Every second I am distracted from this is precious. Damn Kuriwa and her curse, but I cannot work as fast as I should.”

“We’ll be…oh, bollocks,” Branwen cursed uncharacteristically.

The next wave to charge at them was only five demons, but these were a good eight feet tall, writhing masses of tentacles and heavy pincers stomping forward on heavy legs.

“Well, hey, smaller numbers’ll be easier for us to block, as long as the shields hold,” Darling said lightly, shooting one of the things twice. The wandshots slowed it, but that was all. He couldn’t even see its face, if it had one. “I don’t suppose you can command this particular caliber of ugly?”

“Khroshkrids,” she said curtly, “and no. Try to burn that one down before they get here; I think we can stop four with our shields alone. They hit hard but are not very durable.”

Indeed, the fifth wandshot made the targeted khroshkrid stumble to one knee, and two more caused it to slump over, twitching. Unfortunately, even before the rest reached them, another squad of khaladesh topped the stairs at a run.

Darling gritted his teeth, pouring energy into his shield in anticipation of the impact of tentacles and claws. Even with the intermittent pace of reinforcements from the khelminash up ahead, they were soon going to be overwhelmed just by sheer numbers. “K, may need to interrupt you again—”

Of all things, a white wolf dashed past him. Then another, and suddenly there were over a dozen of them swarming forward, great glowing beasts which charged fearlessly at the hulking demons.

“Oh…kaaay,” Darling said, blinking. “I don’t get it, but I’ll take it.”

He had never actually seen wolves take down large prey in the wild, but these clearly fae beasts showed how the power of the pack was more than a match for a moose or bear. They snarled and lunged, distracting and infuriating the demons while others dashed in behind to hamstring and bring them down.

Then one of the wolves about to be trampled flashed white and became a slim young woman with short dark hair, planting herself in a kneeling position with one arm upraised. A divine shield flashed into place around her, as well as a hardlight construct in the shape of an Avenic shield in her grasp. Both shields soaked up the blow of the descending pincer; she didn’t even flinch. It created the opportunity for two more wolves to flank the khroshkrid, savaging its legs to pull it down, and then another wolf flashed as it approached at a run, changing to the shape of a woman with pale green hair who rammed into it with her shoulder.

Under the dryad’s onslaught, the demon was utterly pulverized, its fragments already drying to charcoal as they sprayed the oncoming khaladesh behind.

Then more people were darting past Darling from the city’s open gates, a mixed group of cloaked Rangers and Huntsmen of Shaath, skidding to a halt to draw bows.

The first volley of arrows ripped the oncoming khaladesh apart. By the time they’d fired a second volley, the attackers were done.

One particularly large white wolf loped up, changing to human form as it approached. A form Darling recognized.

“Antonio,” Ingvar said with a grim smile. “I am surprised at how unsurprised I am to find you in the middle of this.”

“I get blamed for everything,” Darling complained. “Ingvar, I’ve got a rousing chorus of ‘what the fuck’ I wanna sing you later, but for now I am just damn glad to see you and all the rest of this…I don’t even wanna know, do I?”

“What exactly is the situation here?” Ingvar asked, turning to scowl at the flying khelminash sorceresses.

Two wood elves, one with a goatee and the other with short black hair, had also approached; the bearded one spoke. “Lord Khadizroth, if we might assist?”

“Please,” the dragon said fervently. Both stepped up beside him, raising hands and adding streams of pure fae energy into the glyphs he was embossing on the pavement.

An arcane sparkle in the air heralded the arrival of an Imperial strike team, led by a mage who took one look at the situation and shouted, “What in shit’s name?!”

“Hellgates,” Branwen reported. “Lots of them.”

“Well, that explains it, all right,” said Tholi. “This looks to be a challenging hunt, Brother.”

Everyone whirled, the various hunters raising weapons, as the shadows swelled out of nowhere right next to them, but what materialized was Vanessa, along with Grip, Thumper, Vannae, Schwartz, Jenell, Flora, and Fauna.

“Omnu’s balls, you were not kidding,” Thumper stated, drawing his wands and staring at the nearby demons. Vannae immediately scurried over to join Khadizroth and the other elves, followed a moment later by Schwartz.

“Young lady, I thought I told you to go find your fellow warlocks,” Darling said severely to Vanessa.

“Luckily for you, old man, you’re not the boss of me,” she replied with a thin smile. “I told you three not to die, and as I expected, you were doing a piss poor job of it. Here are your buddies; try to manage a little longer this time, cos this is all the reinforcements you’re getting.”

She sketched a mocking salute and shadow-jumped out.

“I like her,” Grip remarked. “Prolly gonna end up punching her teeth out before all this is settled, of course.”

“Incoming,” the warlock attached to the strike team reported in a clipped tone. Another phalanx of khaladesh was topping the stairs, this one much larger. Hunters drew arrows again and the four Imperials readied spells.

Before they could attack, the demons were hit from the rear by something which exploded with the force of a mag cannon burst. Khaladesh were hurled into the air like dolls, those who weren’t incinerated outright in the initial impact. Only those at the edges of the formation survived, but as quickly as they regained their footing and tried to turn on their attackers, they were felled by a barrage of staff fire and shadowbolts.

Whatever had dared to skirt their formation finally drew the full attention of the khelminash sorceresses, and one platform broke from the group, the warlocks turning to pelt the area with fireballs.

Their platform was seized by a single giant tentacle of shadow-magic which sprang up from the ground below and yanked it out from under them, then while all three plummeted screaming to the ground, whipped about to smack it against the next in the formation.

While the warlocks were forced to turn and subdue that, three figures dashed up the stairs, hesitating only momentarily before making a beeline for the group assembling around Khadizroth.

“Hold,” Ingvar called, raising one hand. “These don’t smell of enmity.”

“Excuse me, they don’t fuckin’ what?” Thumper demanded.

The drow woman in the lead waved frantically at them as she approached, the staff-carrying man and woman behind her half-turning as they ran to take potshots at the khelminash.

“We have to stop them!” Natchua shouted. “Whatever fairy magic you’re doing here, pour it into the middle of—”

She broke off, whirled, and reached out with both hands, just in time. One of the khelminash trios had just conjured up a carriage-sized ball of fire and hurled it in their direction. Natchua swept her hands to one side, and it veered off course to slam into the unoccupied middle of the upper square.

“What?” Captain Antevid demanded. “What are they trying to do?”

It seemed the khelminash had decided to suspend their operations, though, and most of the flying discs broke off, coming in their direction. A dozen points of multicolored light appeared around them as infernal spells were gathered.

“Khad, now would be a good time!” Darling shouted.

“Yes,” Khadizroth agreed, striding into the center of his meticulously-arranged spell circle while Schwartz and the elves backed hastily away. The dragon stomped one foot upon the spiraling central rune.

Seven tree trunks of luminous white wood sprang from the ground all around him, shooting upward and bending in the middle to twine into a single colossal tree. It shot skyward, branching out in all directions and spreading its canopy over the entire square. Pale green light shone from the white tree’s fern-like leaves, filling the air with a healing, floral scent and the soft sound of whispers.

At the sheer intensity of fae magic which roiled out across the square, the incipient attacks of the warlocks fizzled, the foremost disc wobbling and then careening drunkenly to the ground to crash against an abandoned carriage. The woman with Natchua gasped and buckled to her knees, clutching her chest, and as the drow and Jonathan whirled to catch her, a flickering outline of another person intermittently betrayed itself behind them.

“Hey, is she okay?” Branwen asked, raising one hand. “I can—”

“No!” Natchua and Jonathan shouted in unison.

“That is a demon, wearing an arcane disguise charm,” Khadizroth stated. “Hethelax, I believe. Hello, Kheshiri.”

Shook’s head snapped around. He clenched his fingers on his wands, but pressed his lips together into a line and said nothing.

“Excuse me,” said Schwartz, “but at this point I’d say we’ve worked with enough friendly warlocks—well, maybe not friendly, but clearly allied…”

“Yes, I concur,” Khadizroth said, nodding and raising a hand. Immediately Kheshiri’s outline vanished again and Hesthri straightened up, gasping for breath. “My apologies. We are in no position to turn away any potential allies, I fear. This tree will buy us a moment of sanctuary, but by the same token it makes this spot a target, and I cannot say with certainty how long it will last against a prolonged assault. We must use this time to formulate a plan.”

“Hey, you guys should really see this,” called Jenell, the only one among the growing group clustered under the dragon’s tree who was turned to face Ninkabi’s front gates instead of the beleaguered city beyond them.

Being mounted, Trissiny and Gabriel were the first to arrive, with Vadrieny and Yngrid swooping in above while Fross darted about the paladins. Behind them came the rest of their class at a run, accompanied by Principia and Merry in full armor, lances at the ready.

“As I live and breathe,” Darling cackled. “Hey! I thought you lot were on vacation!”

“Dunno whatcher talkin’ about,” Billie called back, riding on McGraw’s shoulders as their group brought up the rear. “This here’s where the demon invasion is! What the hell did ye think was my idea o’ fun?”

Mary fluttered down to settle on Darling’s shoulder, where she ruffled her feathers and croaked in irritation.

“You said it,” he replied sympathetically.

“Somehow, your Grace, it just ain’t a surprise to find you here,” McGraw drawled. “Really seems like it should be, but it is not.”

“Why do people keep saying that to me?”

“People have met you,” Grip replied.

“General!” Khadizroth called, striding forward out of the group toward the new arrivals, ignoring Juniper and Aspen as they ran squealing right past him to hug.

“Holy shit, is that guy a dragon?” Ruda asked.

“These hellgates are conjured through some highly improvised combination of necromancy and modern enchanting equipment,” Khadizroth said, ignoring her and fixing his attention on Trissiny. “Each is beneath one of those columns of fire. They are numerous, but fragile, and highly unstable. We’ve found that destroying the altars to which they are synced on this plane will cause a backlash that destroys the other side as well. So long as we reach them all before they stabilize and become permanent, we can shut all of this down.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said, nodding to him. “That’s the best news I could hope for. Natchua! Xyraadi says you know something about the source of this?”

“There’s an ancient facility under Ninkabi’s central cathedral,” Natchua called, striding forward through the crowd. “Apparently there’s some kind of sealed hellgate there. We think that’s where the Tide cult that created this mess is concentrated. So do the demons; a lot of them are heading in that direction.”

“Will shutting that down shut all of this down?”

“It is far too late for that,” Khadizroth said gravely. “There are too many gates, and not all under Elilinist control. Before we can even begin cleaning up the demons, every one of these portals must be destroyed.”

“There are both Elilinist demons and various other factions coming through,” Natchua added. “Don’t get me wrong, there are no allies here. They all need to die. But they’re working on culling each other, which helps a little bit.”

“All right,” Trissiny said, turning Arjen to face the city and the stairs down to the lower plaza. “First things first…”

Before she could go further, the assembled flying khelminash began to chant, loudly enough to be clearly audible to those clustered under the tree. They spoke in alternating groups, one syllable each.

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“Mes dieux, non,” Xyraadi groaned, pressing one hand against her forehead crest.

“Wait a second,” Branwen exclaimed. “They’re not saying—”

The chant rose, the assembled masses of khaladesh demons gathered below the flying sorceresses adding their voices. Around them, a sullen red glow had begun to rise from whatever the warlocks had been crafting upon the square.

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“Kelvreth of the Eyes,” Vadrieny stated. “Elilial’s chief general. One of the greatest demons in existence.”

“Oh, good, that’s all,” said Weaver, deadpan. “For a sec I was worried.”

“ALL RIGHT!” Trissiny roared, raising her sword into the air and projecting above the noise. “I want three groups of highly mobile fighters to destroy those portals! Vadrieny and Yngrid take the north bank, strike team take the central island, Natchua’s group the south bank. You will move as quickly as you can from one portal site to the next. Shut them down, and only fight as much as you must to protect yourselves.

“We do not have the forces to contain the city or even gather up civilians—the best thing we can do is draw attention from them. Demons are compelled to attack anything which attacks them, so you will demand their attention! Hit every infernal thing you see with everything you have. No quarter, no hesitation, and maximum destruction! We will press west till we reach the cathedral, slaughtering every invader in our way, and drawing the rest to face us. The best thing we can do to protect the city is to buy the defenders time by forcing every demon to turn and face the most destructive force here: US.”

A tremendous pulse burst out from the lower plaza, sending a gust of wind and sheer kinetic energy across the city, pushing all of them bodily backward a half-step. The branches and leaves of the dragon’s tree rustled, whispering in protest.

Below them, a single, skeletal arm rose, by itself twenty feet in length, formed seemingly of gigantic iron bones bound together by pulsing green sinews. Its clawed hand came to rest upon the top of the stairs between the plazas, and the assembled demons’ chanting rose to a frantic pitch as they chorused Kelvreth’s name over and over.

“Tall fella, ain’t he?” McGraw said laconically, puffing on a cigarillo.

“Pushing ourselves against that will definitely suffice to gather their attention,” Shaeine observed, her expression eerily serene.

Hunters drew arrows, soldiers and enforcers readied weapons, casters of all four schools began charging spells, and a dozen wolves raised their melodic voices to howl a fierce counterpoint to the demonic chanting.

“We are not going to charge at the warlord of Hell,” Trissiny thundered, drawing her lips back in an animal snarl. She brandished her blade and burst alight, golden wings flaring. “WE GO THROUGH HIM!”

Arjen trumpeted as they galloped forward, and with a combined roar, the assembled forces with her hurled themselves into motion, charging into Ninkabi and straight into the teeth of Hell.

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15 – 53

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“Touch me and she dies.”

Syrinx already had two wands aimed at her, to say nothing of the knives coming out; that sentence bought her a momentary pause.

“You’re gonna sit there and threaten my apprentice right in front of me?” Grip asked in a dangerously serene tone. “Ballsy.”

“Your…? Oh, Covrin’s here.” Syrinx barely glanced at Jenell in passing. “No, I was referring to Ninkabi. Forgive the dramatic phrasing, but you thugs clearly needed encouragement not to shut down your brains entirely. Now, here’s the situation.”

“Really, holding the entire city hostage?” Sweet said with a derisive little smile. “Well that’s…an approach.”

“Don’t pretend to be stupid, Antonio,” she snapped. “You know very well I am not behind the threats here, but without me you haven’t a prayer of thwarting them.”

“Yeah, that’s bullshit,” said Thumper. “She’s got nothin’, not even her crew anymore.”

“I cannot believe we’re still talking to this woman,” Schwartz exclaimed. “Jenell, do you want to do the honors or may I…?”

“I’ve gotten my pound of flesh from her,” Jenell said stiffly, looking away from Basra. “Knock yourself out.”

Syrinx slapped a hand down on the table, rattling the silverware again. “You’ve got nothing. You have neither the necessary forces to head off the coming attack, nor adequate knowledge of where it will come from. The fact that you’ve invited this into your ranks only proves how desperate you are.”

Bradshaw met her sneer with a raised eyebrow. “Well, I have no personal horse in this race, but if the consensus of the group is that we table other business and char Basra Syrinx down to her skeleton, I’m for it.”

“A person with a scrap of self-awareness would take note that others are more willing to ally with the Wreath than herself and reflect on that,” Grip drawled.

Shook snorted a bitter laugh. “Damn, woman, nobody doesn’t hate you. Even I don’t have a hundred percent aggression rating, and that’s literally my job.”

“Your inability to do your job is another topic, Shook,” Syrinx sneered. “Having to deal with me is the tax you lot will have to pay for this one and his cronies splitting my forces. I know that dragon is helping you track down the summoning sites; had he and you not run off on your own I could be sending troops to each one. But they did, so here we are. You can maybe keep tracking down those portal sites, but the cultists will just keep making more, and you quite simply do not have enough warm bodies to throw at them. Sooner than later they’ll have enough up and running to put their plan into motion while you’re still chasing your tails.”

“Troops?” Sweet asked mildly.

“Oh, come on, you know she has nothing of the kind!” Jenell spat. “This is nothing but a ploy to get us off her back so she can prolong her existence another day.”

“She could have easily done that by not coming here,” Sweet pointed out. “It’s not as if anybody here has time to go hunting her down, we’re fully occupied with shit that matters.”

Jenell slammed a fist on the table in an ironic echo of Basra and started to rise from her seat. “I cannot believe you’d even consider—”

“Covrin!” Sweet did not raise his voice, but projected in a sharp tone that cut her off. “If somebody makes you mad enough to go on the attack without thinking, they’re beating you. Basra, you will either wipe that smirk off your face or Schwartz will burn it off.”

Meesie puffed up like a spikefish, hissing, and Schwartz cracked his knuckles, staring at Basra. Jenell sank more slowly back into her seat, deliberately marshaling her expression. Syrinx smoothed her own as swiftly as if a switch had been flipped.

“We’re gonna do this smart,” Sweet announced, again in a tone of calm. “If Basra has something critical to offer, we’ll get all the available info and decide logically what to do. If what she offers isn’t very good—and I mean, incredibly persuasively necessary—she doesn’t leave this room alive. Agreed?”

A few grudging mutters of assent followed, though most of those at the table just watched Syrinx in silence. She herself curled her lip disdainfully, but nodded.

“All right, then,” Sweet said with an unconvincing little smile. “Let’s hear your pitch, Bas. I assume you wouldn’t have risked coming here if you didn’t have something good.”

“I have the one thing you need and do not have,” she replied. “Men who can follow orders. As a designated emissary of the Archpope, I can take direct command of the Holy Legionaries in the city, and have pull with the local police and Imperial Army presence.”

“You seem to be forgetting that both of us didn’t get de-Bishoped,” he said with a pleasant smile. “I also have—”

“This isn’t Tiraas, Antonio,” she interrupted. “Nobody here knows you—and by the looks of it, you came in your Eserite persona, looking to rummage around in the city’s underground. Sure, you can prove your identity and your status…eventually. Except you’re forgetting that the Tiraan Empire is currently in a state of war footing, which means civilians do not have access to the Rails or telescroll network as of this morning. You were probably among the last people to be able to travel freely to get here. And let’s say the local police recognize you: the Eserite Bishop. We all know how much police love Eserites.”

She smirked again, while he regarded her impassively. Flanking him, Flora and Fauna narrowed their eyes to blue slits.

“How’d you find us here so fast, Basra?” Sweet asked lightly.

“That is not among the things you need to know.”

He shifted his gaze. “Mr. Bradshaw, if I might inquire, how much manpower can your group lend to this effort?”

“I trust you won’t be surprised if I decline to share exact numbers,” the warlock drawled. “But it won’t come as a surprise to anyone here that the Wreath is running low on competent and trusted personnel, since you in particular are the lion’s share of the reason for that, Darling. With shadow-jumping we can cover ground quickly, of course. But we have…let us say a bare handful of warlocks on the ground in Ninkabi, and it would be a very hard sell to get Embras to place them directly at the disposal of you or your pet dragon. We all remember well the last time we tried to protect a city from demon attack while you were involved.”

“I suppose I’ll have to accept that,” Sweet said slowly. He studied Basra for a moment, then Schwartz, and finally met Grip’s eyes. She nodded minutely. “All right. As I see it, this is a matter of weighing risks against each other. We can take out Basra since she’s offered herself up on a plate, and embrace the risk that we just won’t have enough people to stop the enemy from opening multiple hellgates, much less find and shut them down in person. We can agree to work with her, for now, and take the risk of whatever bullshit she’s planning to pull harming us or the effort, because it’s not even in question that she’s scheming something.” Syrinx made a sardonic face at him, but didn’t interrupt. “There is also an inherent risk in cooperating with the Wreath, of course. Even when they act in good faith, they never do so without ulterior motives, as they proved in Veilgrad, and as our new friend Bradshaw pointed out they have good and specific reason to feel unfriendly toward yours truly, and by extension now, the rest of you.”

Leaning forward with his elbows on the table, he interlaced his fingers and turned his gaze on Jenell. “In my judgment, these risks are similar in both likelihood and severity—too close to call, even if we knew all the nuances, and the fact that we clearly don’t is another factor. So in cases like this, where the simple practicalities don’t tell us what to do, we must look to our ethics. And with regard to that, while quite a few of us here have reasons to be annoyed at Basra Syrinx, you have by far the biggest claim. So it’s your call, Covrin.”

Jenell blinked twice, then slowly raised her eyebrows. “I…what?”

“If you don’t want the pressure you can pass it right back to me and no one will blame you,” he assured her. “This is not an obligation. But it is your prerogative. You know the situation, the balance of risks. It comes down to whether this is a monster we can work with, and you’re the one with the biggest right to make that call, if you want it.”

She stared at him for a silent moment, then nodded once, turning her gaze back to Syrinx.

Basra had gone completely rigid in her chair, despite her insouciant pose straddling its back, watching Jenell with a complete lack of expression.

“So,” Jenell said quietly after a long pause, “that makes it twice now I’ve held your life in my hand, Basra. I’m officially ahead, now. Isn’t that a hell of a thing?”

Basra’s left eyelid twitched and she drew in a breath to speak.

“Open your mouth and lose an eye,” Schwartz stated flatly. “You don’t need depth perception to make yourself useful.” Meesie growled in agreement.

Shook pointed at him, and then turned the gesture into a thumbs up. Grip shook with almost-silent laughter.

“Well, apprentice,” she chuckled, “I officially approve of your boyfriend, here.”

“Sweet, do you see any practical concern that tips the scales one way or another?” Jenell asked, turning back to him.

He leaned back against the rear of the booth, pursing his lips for a moment in thought. “I suppose…it’s two gambles against one. With Basra, we risk…Basra. Without her, we’re betting that I can drum up some manpower from the police and military by hook or by crook—definitely without the Holy Legion, because I have no pull at all there—and also that the Wreath will come through. I feel like that’s making it sound simpler than it is, is the thing. This city is crawling with extraneous factors. The Jackal is still jacking around and all of this is contingent on Khadizroth behaving himself, which is a hell of a coin to flip.”

The look Jenell gave Syrinx was purely contemptuous, and caused Basra’s eye to twitch again. “Then I say put her to work. The days when she was important enough to risk the safety of a city over are long past. None of this changes the reality of the sword hanging over Basra’s head. She may as well get to survive a little while longer, if it means she’ll be of some use for once.”

Syrinx shifted her head to face Jenell directly, opening her mouth.

Schwartz raised one hand from under the table and blew across it. A thin streamer of dust wafted forward, caught fire, and coalesced into a single needle of flame which then hovered in the air, pointed directly at Syrinx.

She shut her mouth.

“Well, there you have it!” Sweet said magnanimously. “Once again, Bas, you are the lesser evil, a position I know you find comfortable. How soon can you marshal these boots on the ground?”

She rose smoothly, swinging one leg over the chair and retreated a strategic two steps from the table. “I have Holy Legionaries I can send out immediately. Getting movement from city and Imperial forces is going to take some politicking, as you well know. By the time you and your dragon have useful targets, I’ll have forces ready to move.”

“Splendid,” he said, smiling. “And where shall I look for you?”

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Syrinx retorted, her flat expression a contrast to his languid smile. “I can locate you cretins when I need you. I will decide when it is time to link up again. Just do your job with a minimum of your usual screwing around, and maybe we can prevent this city from being burned to the ground.”

She turned and strode out of the room without another word.

“Son of a bitch,” Thumper whispered.

“Yeah, no kidding,” said Schwartz.

“No, not…her in general,” the enforcer said impatiently. “I think… Sweet, this whole thing where our crew was gonna join up with Justinian to keep tabs on him was the Jackal’s idea, though Big K basically took over leading it by the time it all fell apart. It was the Jackal who suggested I get out from under Syrinx’s thumb right before disappearing himself. He’s been carving up the local police, making damn sure there’s a shortage of manpower to protect the city, right when she’s got Holy Legionaries just where we’ll need ’em. And didn’t you start to say you had a brush with him on the way in, just before that bitch somehow found us here? You seein’ what I’m seein’?”

“Why, Thumper, I think you’re onto something,” Sweet said slowly. “And I was just wondering what the hell the Jackal could possibly be playing at. It seems he and Basra are Ninkabi’s newest power couple.”

Schwartz let out a low whistle.

“Soon as this is over,” Grip said in a resigned tone, “we’re gonna have to go on a serious murdering spree.”


“Thanks,” Merry said, accepting the steaming cup from Juniper. The dryad smiled and handed the other mug to Trissiny, who nodded in gratitude as she accepted it.

“How’s she doing?” Juniper asked, carefully seating herself on the floor beside Merry. They had brought Principia into the building where they’d camped the night before and laid her on a bedroll, covered with a blanket and with a portable fairy lamp resting nearby. In the hours since she had collapsed, Mary had checked on her several times, as had McGraw and Shaeine, but for the most part the others had preferred to respect their privacy. Given the various people assembled here, there was no shortage of conversations to be had elsewhere. Only Merry and Trissiny had remained by Principia’s side steadily.

“Asleep,” Merry said tersely, then offered a thin smile. “According to the Crow, that’s the best thing for her now.”

Juniper nodded again. Sniff padded around behind her and gently inserted himself between his mistress and Merry, making a cooing noise deep in his throat. Juniper smiled and leaned her head against him.

“I feel like I get what it must be like for you, Triss,” she said quietly. “At least a little. Not the same situation, but…I’m seeing parallels.”

“What do you mean?” Trissiny asked.

“Family,” the dryad whispered. “The idea being new…and so much more complicated than I would’ve expected.”

“Well, that definitely sounds like my experience of the last couple of years,” Trissiny replied with a wry chuckle.

“I never thought I was an orphan like you,” Juniper said softly, staring over Princpia’s prone form into the fairy lamp. “I had my mother, and my sisters… It was painful, coming to understand that Naiya only ever thought of any of us as basically pets. That my sisters—just like me—were all immature, selfish monsters who’d never had a reason or a chance to actually grow up. Now, there’s pixies and kitsune and valkyries, and they’re all so strange and…in the case of valkyries, terrifying. But…good? It’s an amazing thing, to be loved by someone who actually understands what that means, just because they feel a kinship with you. Even if they’re a bossy know-it-all like Kaisa, or something like Yngrid who makes my blood run cold just looking at her. And that just reminds me what a cruel thing it was for Naiya to design us to have that reaction. It’s all so… It’s a mess. It’s sweet, and bitter, and generally confusing.”

“Yep,” Trissiny said, nodding and staring into her tea. “That hits the nail on the head. I have different weirdos, is all, but that’s exactly the feeling.”

“You guys are actually making me miss my parents,” Merry commented. “The worst thing they ever were was boring.”

“They sound very nice,” Trissiny said solemnly. Juniper laughed, then Merry did, and finally Trissiny herself had to chuckle. Her expression sobered again, though, as her gaze fell once more on Principia’s face. “I hope you don’t have to sympathize with this, too, Juno. It’s kind of a heck of a thing, finding yourself worrying over someone before you’ve been able to figure out how you even feel about them.”

Juniper heaved a sigh. “Sort of too late, there, too. Over the summer, we… I mean, me, Aspen, Fross, and Kaisa, we went back to the pixie grove.”

Trissiny looked up at her. “Oh. To see… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten what her name was.”

“Jacaranda. It’s okay. We, uh…” She winced, then shook her head, causing Sniff to chirp softly in comfort. “Well, it was Kaisa’s idea. It seemed kind of harsh, but honesty harsh measures might be the only thing that could help. Even Kaisa wasn’t sure if it would.”

“The Pixie Queen is fully transformed by trauma, right?” Trissiny asked. “What did Professor Ekoi do?”

“We took her to a place where she could be… Kaisa wasn’t exactly clear. Tested, or treated, or possibly imprisoned? You know, she made it all sound very necessary at the time but in hindsight the more I think about it the less sure I am.”

Trissiny straightened up suddenly, setting her tea aside. “Hang on. This summer we also—that is, me, Gabe, Toby, and my brother Herschel—had to visit the Tower of Salyrene.”

Juniper’s eyes snapped back to her. “You did?”

“The talking sword there said something about a kitsune dropping off a transformed dryad.”

“He did?” Juniper herself perked up in excitement. “Did you see her?”

“Sorry, June, when we were there the place was empty. It was just us and Athenos.”

“Oh.” Juniper deflated just as abruptly, and Sniff rubbed his head against her shoulder. “I…hope that’s good. You didn’t see Petal or Bugsy, either?”

Trissiny blinked twice. “…who?”

“The pixie and the imp. They were in the tower when we got there.”

“An imp? Uh…no, like I said, the place was dead empty. Gabe and I encountered some caplings in one of the testing rooms, and Toby and Schwartz said they had to fight a demon. That was it. Nobody who seemed intelligent enough to talk with us except the sword and then Salyrene.”

Juniper chewed on her lower lip. “I hope that means it helped her and she got out. Though that raises the question of where she is.”

“You guys have really interesting lives,” Merry commented.

Trissiny and Juniper both stared at her, then burst out laughing in unison. After a moment, she had to smile along with them.

“Well,” Trissiny said at last, catching her breath, “I really hope Jacaranda’s okay, Juniper. If she went through the Tower and got out, I’m pretty sure she must be at least better. The way it was described to us, the whole point of that place was tests of intellect, character, magical skill…”

“I sure hope so,” Juniper said with a sigh. “It’d be nice to know what happened to her, is all. I’m not sure how feasible it is to get a message to Kaisa all the way over in Sifan but I’ll ask Professor Tellwyrn about it as soon as we’re back home.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

“And I hope Principia’s all right when she wakes up,” the dryad added.

“Kuriwa seemed pretty sure she would be,” Trissiny said. “Sounded like she just needed some rest.”

“This is jarring,” Merry whispered. “That’s the word. It’s just jarring. This is the least like her I’ve ever seen Locke.”

Both of the others turned their heads to watch her in silence. She stared down at the sleeping elf, her brows drawn together pensively.

“I’ve hated and loved and everything in between this crazy knife ear,” Merry continued at last. “And she’s just always in control. No matter what goddamn thing is trying to kill us on a given week, there she is, all smug and knowing and with a plan. You could look at her and just…just be able to calm down, because Locke was there, and she was working on it, and that was always enough because she always came up with something. The only thing I’ve never seen her pull off before is lose. Whatever happened, she had three schemes in place to meet it, and if something outmaneuvered her even so, she’d pull something else out of her butt and we’d still win, because she’s Principia fucking Locke and that’s what she does.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, also turning her eyes back to the elf.

“Until today,” Merry added in a bare whisper. “Man…she really got twisted around and then smacked down this time, didn’t she? That was… I mean, watching that… I still haven’t sorted out how to feel. Is it weird to be a little bit relieved?”

“No, I think I can understand that one,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a smile. “I’ve seen her vulnerable, too. I think it’s the only reason I’ve been able to give her a chance.”

“It’s still a pretty good record,” Juniper offered. “Getting outmaneuvered by an actual trickster god isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Locke being someone who can scheme her way around anybody except Vesk… That’s plenty impressive.”

“And hey, look at it this way,” Trissiny added with a heartier smile, “maybe it was all part of her cunning plan. Letting herself get outfoxed just so she could look all pitiful in front of us and gain sympathy.”

Merry chuckled, a sound both derisive and rueful.

“Yeah, sure, let’s go with that.”

All of them abruptly leaned forward, setting down drinks, as Principia’s eyes opened. Her voice was hoarse and barely above a whisper, but she still managed a weak grin as she continued.

“I like the sound of it. All according to plan. Omnu’s breath, my head hurts… So, what have I missed?”

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15 – 48

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“Still?” Gabriel protested.

“This thing is some serious shit,” Ruda grunted, shifting position. “There, think I got it.”

The mithril blade of her rapier did cause the bars of the cage to dissolve, as they had guessed upon concluding that the thing was actually made of magic. Unfortunately, that meant it couldn’t be simply wedged into them to weaken it, as the slender blade could make contact with a maximum of four bars at a time, and on being touched they disintegrated, causing the blade to drop.

And the bars to re-form. That was the kicker; made of solid magic as it was, the relative ease of breaking the bars made no difference as they regenerated instantly. Joe’s wandshots made no lasting impact and the group had been unwilling to risk any less precise spells or energy attacks with Mary trapped inside. Even so, it was easy to make individual bars crumble, thanks simply to the unique arsenal in the group’s possession. The trick was getting them to stay that way.

Now Gabriel, Ruda, and Yngrid were huddled awkwardly around the cage, with the mithril rapier and both valkyrie scythes carefully positioned to press against as much of its outer surface as they could manage. They had made three small gaps in the cage’s coverage, and it still remained otherwise solid.

“Maybe if you move the scythes so they’re nullifying one continuous stretch of the bars?” Fross suggested, fluttering closer to inspect the two patches that had rusted away to nothing and failed to restore themselves so long as the reaper weapons remained in position.

“This is not as easy as it looks,” Yngrid said irritably. The long hafts and curved blades of her and Gabriel’s weapons made arranging them that way physically difficult, especially with the need to keep three people huddled around the tiny cage holding them there. And, most importantly, the need for everyone present to avoid touching one of those blades.

“Wow, that must be really challenging then,” Fross chimed innocently, “cos it doesn’t look easy at all.”

“Anyway, don’t think that’d help,” Gabriel muttered. “We can make gaps in the bars, but then the scythe blades are in those gaps, and she sure as hell doesn’t wanna touch those.”

Mary croaked desultory agreement, ruffling her feathers.

“What if she grabs the mithril?” Juniper suggested from behind them. “Maybe that would cure the transformation?”

“Bad idea,” said Gabriel. “You don’t wanna see what would happen if somebody suddenly expanded to twenty times their size while surrounded by unbreakable metal bars. We’d all be standing in a puddle of elf noodles.”

Mary began squawking in a constant staccato rhythm.

“We are working on it, Kuriwa,” Trissiny assured her. “I’m sorry, I know that can’t be comfortable, but it would be worse if we just tried to hammer that thing with spells.”

“Actually, that may be worth a try,” said Ariel. Mary’s squawks increased in pitch and volume.

“You have an idea, partner?” Gabriel asked tersely.

“The cage is both recycling its own expended energy and drawing ambient power to sustain itself; the intensity of both processes increases the more pressure is put upon it, and after the addition of the rapier those currents of magic have grown unstable. I believe a careful application of brute force at this juncture may shatter it entirely.”

“Sure doesn’t look like it’s givin’ up the ghost,” Ruda growled.

“Sophisticated magics intended for purposes of security rarely betray their weaknesses at a glance. That is rather the point of them.”

Mary squawked shrilly.

“Could you stop?” Gabriel snapped. “That isn’t helping! Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of shaman?”

“I don’t think she can actually use much in the way of magic in that form,” McGraw noted. “Never seen ‘er do it. For that matter, my friend Raea has an animal form, too, an’ she’s always limited herself to fangs an’ claws while usin’ it.”

Mary chattered at him angrily.

“Well, I’m sorry if I’m blowin’ your secrets,” the old man said wryly. “Unfortunately for you, I like you too much not to help get you outta that thing. You’ll just have to forgive me.”

“Aye, well, if it’s brute force we need,” Billie began, reaching into her pockets with both hands.

Everybody yelled at her so loudly that no individual exhortations were distinguishable.

“I never get to have any fun,” the gnome grumbled, turning away in a sulk.

“Well, let’s either come up with something or take a goddamn break,” Ruda complained, still hunched over the cage to hold her rapier in place in a careful posture that didn’t interfere with Gabriel or Yngrid, or bring her into contact with either scythe. “I’ve got cricks in places I didn’t fuckin’ know I had, here.”

“The original problem still applies,” Toby pointed out. “We can’t just pour magic at that thing while she’s in there…”

“I believe that if we sacrifice some power for precision, we still have methods at our disposal,” said Shaeine. “Allow me to try something.”

A silver sphere slightly smaller than the cage appeared above it, then pressed downward. The shield bubble flickered and sparked from the pressure, continuing to push itself against the cage until the brass bars trembled. There was no other visible effect.

“That is further destabilizing the flow of restorative magic,” Ariel reported. “An additional source of pressure may finish breaking the spell entirely.”

“Well, then, let’s try this again,” said Joe, drawing his wands.

There was a tangle of bodies arranged all around the cage, but tiny gaps existed between them, and that was all he needed. Rather than attempting to explain this and reassure everyone, he shot first, dispatching two clean beams of light into the cage itself. One, the angles being what they were, only struck and disintegrated a single bar, but the second he was able to position such that the beam pierced two on its path through.

“What the fuck!?” Ruda shouted. “Watch what you’re—oh, hey.”

For those not immediately clustered around the cage, the first sign of success was the crow herself shooting upward out of the group, cawing triumphantly. Ruda, Gabriel and Yngrid all stepped back, carefully disentangling their weapons, just quick enough to afford the rest of those assembled a last sight of the cage, which now lay in metallic strips stretched outward from its base as if it had burst open at the top, unfurling its bars like a flower. In fact, it died rather like a flower, the strands of brass curling up and rusting away to dust before their eyes, until seconds later the last scraps had dissolved to nothing.

Mary spent this fleeting moment circling overhead, evidently just because she could, before settling to the ground. By the time everyone turned from the spectacle of the disintegrating magical cage, she was an elf again. Shifting to face the group directly, Mary curved her upper body forward in a gesture that fell between a deep nod and a shallow bow.

“Thank you very much for the assistance, children.”

“Oh, I’m sure you woulda gotten out of there eventually,” Gabriel remarked, shrinking his scythe down to tuck away in his pocket, a performance Yngrid watched with a small frown. “Prin seemed to think so, anyway.”

“In all likelihood, yes, but I am no less grateful nonetheless. I find nothing enjoyable about languishing in a cage for any period. Now, with that addressed, there are more important matters.”

She turned and strode toward Principia, who was still laid out on the cracked pavement, now draped by a blanket and with Merry sitting by her head. At Mary’s approach, the other Legionnaire rose to her feet, eyes narrowing.

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny said, moving to intercept her, “I don’t think what Locke needs right now is more punishment.”

Mary actually stopped, raising an eyebrow at the paladin. “The concept of punishment, Trissiny, is only applicable to people who understand precisely what is happening to them and why. Tormenting an unconscious victim is nothing but pointless sadism. I have my faults, but I hope you don’t think that is among them.”

“Right,” Trissiny said vaguely. “Just checking.”

“On the contrary,” Mary continued in a lower tone, taking the last steps to Principia’s side and sinking to her knees, “I am concerned chiefly for the girl’s well-being. Everything else aside, what she just went through was clearly traumatic for multiple reasons, not least of which that having excess data pumped into an unprepared brain can damage it significantly. The magelords of Syralon have been known to use that as a punishment before even they outlawed the practice as too cruel.”

There was a constant and usually soft whistle of wind across the plateau; as Mary reached out to place her fingertips along the side of Principia’s face, it shifted in tone. The effect was subtle, likely expressing itself as a subconscious sense of harmony to some of those present, but those with acute hearing or musical training could discern that the voice of the wind itself had shifted to a flawless three-tone harmony in major key.

“My thanks again, priestess,” Mary said, turning her head toward Shaeine with another deep nod. “Your instincts were correct, and your quick action likely saved her from serious harm. Her mind is undamaged, but still struggling to process the sheer volume of material. I can aid her recuperation by way of an elemental blessing that will purge foreign contamination. This is usually meant as a counter to curses and the like; adapting it for this purpose may be tricky. Please give me quiet in which to concentrate. Mind magic is the province of the divine, and achieving these effects through the fae requires great exactitude.”

“Okay, well, I’ll ask everybody’s forgiveness in advance because this is a pretty ruthless thing to suggest,” said Gabriel, raising both his hands in a gesture of surrender, “but maybe that’s not the best course of action? As long as Locke’s not in urgent danger, we should think about letting her have some extra time to sleep if it means she wakes up with that knowledge intact. To say nothing of the immediate stuff going on, like whatever she was warning us about in N’Jendo and Veilgrad, the sheer scope of knowledge…”

“That is ruthless, Gabe,” Toby said with a frown. “Who knows what kind of strain that’s putting on her, even with Shaeine’s help?”

“He’s not wrong,” Mary said curtly, “and the suggestion has merit, but in this case it is not up for discussion. Principia is a child of my own blood. And while her actions here have added up to possibly the single most wrong-headed thing I have ever seen anyone do, it was nonetheless a courageous act, undertaken to protect young people under her care. I will not suffer her to be permanently harmed for it. Besides, I want her good and lucid when I am explaining to her in exquisite nuance the depth of her poor judgment.”

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so the difference is she’s one of yours, so you’re throwing all greater concerns out the window and claiming privilege?”

Mary had lowered her eyes to stare fixedly at Principia’s face. Now she lifted her gaze to meet Ruda’s, impassively. “Correct.”

McGraw cleared his throat. “Don’t pull that thread, miss. Sometimes you just gotta make allowances for people who can blast you over the horizon.”

“Yeah, thanks for the advice, but we all have a history class with one of those,” Fross chimed.

“All right, fair enough,” Ruda said with a shrug. “I gotta mention, Boots, your granny reminds me of Naphthene.”

“Ouch,” Trissiny drawled.

While they chattered, the light around Principia had gently shifted, taking on a pattern of shadows over the prone elf as if waves were being reflected about her. Merry was frowning in unease, alternately at this and at Mary, but had not yet decided to intervene. Quite suddenly, though, Mary straightened up, her eyes widening, and the light vanished.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded, turning toward her.

“Well,” the Crow mused, raising one eyebrow and gazing down at Principia in renewed interest. “Never mind, I suppose.”

“Never mind?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What, is she…?”

“She’s fine,” Mary assured her. “Better by far than I expected, in fact. It appears that she is being taken care of. Further intervention by me will not be necessary. Nor would it be welcomed.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“With this no longer a cause for immediate concern, there remains another matter we urgently need to address,” Mary said seriously, straightening up and turning toward her. “What exactly is that mask, and where did it come from?”

The tension increased palpably as the assembled students stared either at her or at Trissiny. No one answered.

“In all my many years,” Mary continued after a short silence, “I have never observed an artifact that could reproduce a powerful being from the age of the Elder Gods, in the person of whoever used it. I infer from your brief mentions of the subject that it can grant its wearer the gifts of a variety of persons. I am also, being attuned to the currents of fae magic, not unaware that some event of world-altering significance occurred in this vicinity a few days ago. The dots are not difficult to connect. I think you children had better start explaining yourselves.”

“Yeah, we’ve kinda made peace with that,” Juniper said. “The explaining, I mean. When we get home to Last Rock, Tellwyrn’s probably gonna chew us into mulch. I don’t really think we need to explain anything to you, though.”

“No offense intended,” Toby added.

Mary half-turned to stare pensively at the Great Tree rising in the near distance for a moment. “I suppose the sequence of events which led to this point is less important than that which must follow. With regard to that, however, there is the future to consider.” She turned her stare on Fross. “You still have that mask. What, precisely, is your plan for it? I should hardly need to tell you that such a thing cannot simply be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised.”

“Oh. Really?” Ruda turned to direct a wide-eyed stare at her classmates. “Hey, guys, turns out that fuckin’ thing can’t be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised. Holy shit did we miscalculate! Maybe we shouldn’t pawn it, after all.”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said quietly, “don’t. Not with this one.”

“Uh, yeah, ‘scuze me,” Joe added. “Mary, I know these folks, an’ there ain’t a thing wrong with their intelligence.”

Weaver snorted very loudly.

“I have a high opinion of Trissiny’s faculties in general,” Mary replied, “and her tacit endorsement of the rest of this group counts for a lot, in my view. All other things being equal… But things are not. I can imagine no sequence of events which would lead to the creation of that artifact which does not presuppose that Principia’s complete lapse of all sense and reason was not the first to take place here recently.”

“It was Arquin’s idea, just for the record,” said Ruda.

“I don’t care whose idea it was,” Mary said, her voice rising slightly. “I care what is done about it. This, I am aware, is the last thing an independent group of young people ever wants to hear from anyone—”

“Don’t say it,” McGraw warned. She ignored him.

“—but you had better let me take it.” Mary turned to stare expressively at Principia. “Before it causes even worse harm than it already has.”

Joe pinched the bridge of his nose and grimaced into his fist. Billie puckered her lips as if to whistle, but produced no sound, just glancing around at everyone else present. Yngrid gripped the haft of her scythe in both hands, looking warily at Gabriel.

All eight students just stared impassively at Mary.

“With stakes like this,” she said softly, “make no mistake, I will not hesitate—”

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny interrupted, “please believe that I’m very grateful for all the help you’ve given me. I love you and have absolutely no intention of ever causing you any upset. And you are not, under any circumstances, getting your hands on that mask.”

The Crow sighed very softly. “Can we not find room to negotiate on that point?”

“If you’re thinking about trying to take it by force,” Gabriel said evenly, “think a lot more carefully. None of us is capable of sticking you in a cage, lady. All we’ve got is sharp objects and massive firepower to hit you with.”

“And none of us wants to do that,” Shaeine added. “You are honored kin to Trissiny, who is precious to all of us. The safety of the world, and the responsibility for actions we have set into motion, must supersede those concerns, however.”

“Yeah, so, please don’t push us on this one,” said Fross.

“The safety of the world,” Mary said, a tinge of bitterness creeping into her voice. “What, then, is your idea to ensure it?”

“We’re gonna give it to Professor Tellwyrn,” Juniper replied.

Mary clenched both fists; the very breeze around them suddenly blew colder. “That is absolutely—”

“The single best idea I’ve ever heard out of these twerps,” Weaver interrupted. “You weren’t there, Mary, but the rest of us have already been through this, back during the Belosiphon affair. When faced with the question of what to do with an impossibly dangerous artifact that nobody could ever be allowed to have, the least terrible solution we could come up with was letting Tellwyrn have it.”

“Arachne,” Mary spat. “That reckless, aggressive, thoughtless—”

“You want things, Kuriwa,” Trissiny said. “Tellwyrn may be all of that and worse, but she also has no ambition. All she wants to do is sit on her mountain and teach. She has everything in the world she’s after. You? You’ve got plans and an agenda. If you had the Mask, there’s no question that you’d use it toward your ends. This is not about us thinking Tellwyrn would find a better use for it. This is because she would have no use.”

“It is incredible to me that you could believe that,” Mary retorted. “I have known her a great deal longer than any of you, and trust me—”

“Arachne Tellwyrn is a creature of vastly more discretion and restraint than basically anyone gives her credit for,” Yngrid interjected. “Even my sisters know of her… Well, actually, some of that’s secret. But for what it’s worth, I agree. She’s already got too much power to be tempted by a thing like that and nothing she would actually want to do with it.”

Weaver stepped up beside the valkyrie, sliding an arm around her waist. “And it’s academic, besides. Tellwyrn already has a whole collection of dangerous objects of about this caliber, which nobody’s seen hide nor hair of since she got them. We know she can be trusted to hide things and not touch them.”

“No,” Mary snapped, “you know she can be trusted so far. None of you have seen Arachne backed into a corner, desperate, or enraged beyond reason. I have. The best I can say about it is that in the past, she had no such collection of horrors upon which to draw. And now you want to add to it?”

“Yeah, okay, but…why are you better?” Teal asked.

Mary turned to her. “For better than four thousand years, I have walked this world doing my best to protect it.”

“Good fuckin’ job,” Gabriel snorted. “Cos as we all know, nobody’s ever terrified by the name Mary the Crow.”

“They talked about you in the grove, when I was there,” Juniper added. “The Elders made it sound like you really only bother to protect the elves. Actually…they didn’t sound super grateful for your help.”

“They really aren’t,” Trissiny said quietly. “I’ve mostly heard about it from my grandmother, and a story from one source can be inaccurate, but the way Lanaera tells it the only people who are less happy to have Kuriwa’s sudden help than the elves in general are her own descendants in particular.”

“I see her elevation to grove Elder has done nothing to blunt that nest of brambles Lanaera calls a tongue,” Mary grated.

“Mary,” Joe said gently, taking a step forward. “Look, I dunno anything about you and other elves. What I know is that all of us have learned to trust you.” He gestured toward the rest of his party with one hand. “You’ve saved all our butts more than once, and I for one really appreciate having the benefit of your experience. I feel like I’ve learned an incredible amount from you.”

“But?” Mary prompted bitterly.

“But,” he echoed with a slow nod. “I think Trissiny’s right. Nobody needs to have that mask, not if it does the kind of stuff we just saw. It ain’t a question of who’s got a better purpose for it. It should go to somebody who’ll lock it away an’ forget about it. And Tellwyrn’s the only name that comes to mind.”

“Esteemed elder, forgive my frank speech, but we must call this what it is,” Shaeine said solemnly. “Your perspective is understandable: for ages you have labored hard and done your best, making difficult choices to guide the world to the best outcomes you could manage. You have learned in that time to rely only on yourself. It is understandable that you are reluctant to trust anyone else with possession of such power, accustomed as you are to the assumption that if you want something done right, you must do it. Am I wrong?”

“I cannot say that you are,” Mary replied, mastering her expression.

“And that’s fair,” Teal agreed, nodding. “But…everybody thinks that about themselves. We are each one of us the hero in our own story. But to pull back and look through the perspectives of others… Does your record of actual achievements really suggest you’re the most qualified to take on a burden like that?”

“I begin to wonder,” she said stonily, “if I am wasting my time trying to talk about this with you.”

Gabriel drew his wand back out. “I really hope that wasn’t meant the way it sounded.”

“Kuriwa.” Trissiny stepped forward until she was a few bare feet from Mary, staring her in the eye. “Let me be clear: I don’t know whether or not you have the physical capacity to seize that mask from us, but even if so, that would only be the beginning. If I have to press the issue, the next time I do so it will be with Lanaera, Rainwood, and Zanzayed, plus anyone of our bloodline they know who would think it a valuable use of their time to humble you and take an artifact of power out of your hands.”

“Child,” Mary said sardonically, “if you think to get more than two of our family to tolerate one another’s company for more than an hour, much less cooperate toward a common end, I sincerely wish you luck.”

“You haven’t managed it,” Trissiny replied softly, “because you’ve never been able to offer them the one goal on which they would all agree: thwarting you.”

They locked eyes, and slowly, Mary’s wry expression melted away to a flat stare of displeasure.

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so even her own descendants would rally to mess her up over this? And you wanna go and claim you’re the most competent person who could be trusted with that mask? Fuck you, lady.”

“Hey, now, maybe we should all take it easy,” McGraw said soothingly, tucking his staff into the crook of his arm so he could raise both hands peaceable as he stepped forward. “Mary, given the disparity in our levels of experience, I’ve never tried to pitch myself as your equal, but with all due respect, I reckon there’s one area of understanding where your agelessness leaves you at a disadvantage.”

Mary finally tore her eyes away from Trissiny’s to turn a weary grimace on him. “Oh, do tell.”

“There comes a point,” he said, “where a person’s just gotta acknowledge that their time has passed. That the best use o’ their talents is in offering the benefit of their years to the younger generation, steppin’ back and lettin’ ’em take over.”

“Aye, ain’t that more or less exactly what grove Elders do?” Billie added.

“That’s what Tellwyrn’s done,” Juniper said softly.

“As much as any group of kids I’ve ever met, I reckon these know what they’re about,” McGraw continued, nodding at the students. “I ain’t sayin’ everything they do’s gonna be the right call or that they won’t mess up and create havoc now’n again. But if you’re gonna try to fix that, well, you’re not just dealin’ with this one specific situation anymore. You’ll have set yourself up to straighten out somethin’ absolutely fundamental to the world, and honestly, even your talents ain’t equal to that task.”

Mary stared at him for a moment, then at Trissiny, then Gabriel, and finally at the comatose form of Principia.

“This conversation is not over,” she said abruptly. “But…you have all given me some important things to ponder. Thank you, again, for helping me out of that trap.”

She turned away from them and strode off. The entire group stared in silence as the ancient elf went right up to the edge of the plateau, facing the Great Tree in the distance, and squatted on her heels in a posture not unlike a roosting bird. There, she fell still.

“So,” Brother Toraldt said loudly from the far edge of the gathering, “shall I infer that we are yet again not going to depart today?”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

Sister Elaine sighed, even as she stifled a small smile, and patted the dwarf on the shoulder. “Come, Toraldt, we may as well go unload the packs again.”

“Again,” he huffed, but turned and followed her around the corner of the nearest building. The rest of the group watched in silence until their two Order of the Light guides were once more out of sight.

“Okay, I’ll be honest,” Fross stage whispered. “I completely forgot they were here.”

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15 – 47

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“Here.” Trissiny took two steps to the side and handed the golden cage to Joe, prompting Mary to flap and croak indignantly within. “Would you mind?”

“Uh, sure,” he said uncertainly, taking it from her. “I mean, not at all. What’s…?”

Her hands free, Trissiny stepped forward, cracking her knuckles. In the space of one stride, her gait seemed to shift from her usual stiff bearing to something subtly evocative of a slouch, even though she still stood straight enough to pass for a soldier. The nuance was as impressive for how difficult it was to pin down as for how fast she had drawn it over herself like a cloak.

“And so, here we are,” Trissiny drawled. “The great Keys finally becomes the victim of a con. Spectacularly. When you fail, you don’t fail halfway, do you?”

Principia had returned her focus to the screens orbiting her, but at that glanced again down at Trissiny through a gap between them. Only for a second, though.

“You want to change strategies less abruptly in the future, Trissiny. I’m pleased that you’ve learned to project a front, but doing it so brazenly makes the ploy quite transparent, especially to people who know you. The tactic is sound, your technique just needs refining.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Trissiny said lightly, her smirk not faltering for having been pointed out as a facade. “But don’t change the subject: we’re talking about you, not me. You’d expect a thief a bare few months on from being tagged to fumble now and again, but you’re Principia freaking Locke, the great con artist, centuries-old player of the game and veteran of a thousand capers. You getting utterly bamboozled is actually news worth noting.”

“I am processing a quantity of information that would cause your brain to shut down if you were exposed to it. The idea that I could be bamboozled—”

“I’m talking about what you don’t see, not what you can’t see. Anyway, don’t feel too bad. It would be a story for the ages if you outfoxed a trickster god. Getting outfoxed by one is only natural.”

“If you’re referring to Vesk, that has been dealt with. Thanks to me, whatever he planned for Gabriel was circumvented.”

“That just goes to show that more knowledge isn’t more understanding,” Trissiny snapped. “You were actually smarter before putting that thing on! The Principia I know never claimed to be perfect. She faced her mistakes and tried to fix them. She was confident in her skills, but never so arrogant she assumed no one could beat her. Because she was smart enough to know that overconfidence immediately leads to a fall!”

This earned her another direct look from Principia, this one more lingering. “If you have a compelling theory explaining how Vesk has outmaneuvered me, offer it. That would be relevant, if correct.”

“Think about what happened. He’s been setting you up over the long haul, Keys, starting when he intervened with your squad in Tiraas. That planted the idea in your head that when he meddled, you—and people you cared about—would be exposed to risks and costs to achieve whatever story he was trying to tell. And then he showed up here, just as the Mask was being created, and said…what? The way you described it, he did nothing but mumble dire warnings and portents of great doom. Right when you were here, under enormous pressure. There’s whatever you’re doing for Rouvad that you need to be in good with the University for, Tellwyrn’s threats of revenge if anything happened to us. You trying to rebuild some good faith with Teal and Shaeine, while everybody made you a punching bag for practical jokes. And…we both know every minute you’re around me you’re constantly reminded of how horribly you’ve screwed up our relationship, and how much you want to fix it. Vesk dropped into the middle of that stew and set you to fearing for all of us, and the very next thing you learned was about the Mask and all the trouble it’s bound to be at the center of. You were good and primed to be spooked so hard even your self-control slipped, Prin. And that’s when Gabe was called away, alone, in a move you would easily recognize as a story trope. There’s no way Vesk didn’t know Vidius was going to react that way. Heck, I bet he prompted Vidius to time it when he did.”

“Actually,” said Gabriel, “I don’t think—”

“I do think,” McGraw interrupted, then turned, looking to his own companions for confirmation. “We talked about this amongst us when setting out, remember? We inadvertently brought Mr. Arquin there by helping Weaver un-doom his doomed romance. That was only possible because we had somebody who’d been there before: Joe.”

“And I was there,” Joe said slowly, “at the behest of my friend Jenny, the so-called Shifter, who according to Mary has been associated with Vesk in the past.”

“She works for him directly,” Toby said quietly. “We’ve seen her in Vesk’s own personal citadel.”

“Oi, yer one of ‘is own bards, aye?” Billie asked, punching Weaver in the knee. “Just outta curiosity, did this improbable love story between some random guitar-strummin’ arsehole and a freakin’ extra-dimensional specter o’ death ‘appen ta start off in some kinda bizzare circumstance that mighta been prompted by a certain god?”

Weaver and Yngrid said nothing, but looked at each other, their eyes wide in an expression of realization that was as good as any answer.

“Ho. Lee. Ssssshit,” Gabriel hissed. “That magnificent bastard.”

Mary squawked and fluttered furiously, rattling her cage.

“Well, I will say it makes sense fer a trickster deity to play his games on a particularly grand scale,” McGraw drawled.

“You got conned, Keys,” Trissiny said bluntly. “He got you thinking emotionally instead of with your wits, and then gave you exactly the jab he knew would make you jump. Every Eserite knows that life’s a game: as long as you’re treating it that way, you keep your emotions out of your way and avoid tensing up so bad you can’t react. Vesk put you under every kind of simultaneous pressure he could bring to bear, made you think about what was at stake instead of what you were doing. You stopped playing, for probably the first time in a century, and you immediately lost. Take the lesson, Keys, and stop doubling down on your screwup. You’ve lost; it’s time to walk away.”

Principia had already gone utterly still, her eyes fixed straight ahead and hands suspended in the act of reaching to poke at more screens. As Trissiny finished speaking, even the rotating panels of light around her stilled, fixing themselves in place and ceasing to alter their displays. She hung that way as if frozen in the five seconds of silence which followed, before finally speaking a single word.

“Plausible.”

Trissiny let out a soft breath, releasing tension she’d been concealing. Gabriel and several of the others ventured small smiles of relief, and Mary began muttering unintelligibly to herself in her hoarse avian voice, ruffling her feathers.

“But irrelevant.”

The panels resumed their cycling and Principia went back to glancing about and periodically touching them as if nothing had happened.

“However we came to this point, the situation is what it is. Our intervention is required—”

“Why, though?” Teal stepped forward, her hands jammed in the pockets of her blazer, and looked up at the levitating elf with an openly inquisitive expression. “What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish, Locke? Because you’re supposed to be protecting this student group, and I don’t see how dropping a bunch of adventurers onto us and then sending us into some kind of disaster in N’Jendo is doing that.”

“If you decline to render aid, Mrs. Falconer, I will not compel you. I will be disappointed, but forcing action on your part would defeat the purpose.”

“Hey, don’t get me wrong.” Teal pulled her hands out and held them up in a placating gesture. “I’m all for protecting the innocent. But here’s the thing: I have zero idea who you are and what your agenda is. We’ve just heard a thorough rundown of why you are not behaving or thinking at all like our Lieutenant Locke, not to mention a pretty spooky case study of what can happen when an all-powerful being is allowed to pull strings behind the scenes. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’ll be glad to help if our help is needed, but we don’t know what you’re thinking or what you’re after. Doing anything on orders from you is going to require some trust. Principia has earned some, much to my surprise, but it’s clear whatever we knew or felt about her doesn’t apply to whoever I’m talking with now.”

There was another short pause.

“The concern is not unreasonable,” Principia said curtly. “What would reassure you?”

“Well,” Teal shrugged, “what exactly kind of a thing are you supposed to be? What was the word you guys used…?”

“She’s an Archon, apparently,” said Gabriel. “A chief servitor of one of the Elder Gods. Tarthriss, in this case, according to the Avatar we were just speaking with in the Golden Sea.”

“That fucking thing really can reproduce people from before the Elder War?” Ruda muttered. “Fuck a fuckin’ duck.”

“Reproduce people?” Joe muttered. He got no response, save perhaps the sudden utter stillness of Mary in the cage he was still holding.

“Okay, so, that’s troubling,” Teal said frankly. “You’re a servant of a being who is obviously dead. Whose agenda are you following now?”

“I have already answered that,” Principia replied, impatience entering her tone. “I am acting on orders from Avei.”

“What orders?” Trissiny demanded.

“That is classified. Yes, General Avelea, even to you, unless the High Commander or Avei herself countermands that order. I calculate a high probability of the latter, as your active involvement in this plan would obviously be advantageous.”

“And when Avei set out to doing this,” said Fross, “was she leveraging a certain very clever thief in her employ? Or do you think she was planning on you using an impossibly dangerous magical artifact that didn’t even exist at the time in order to become a long-extinct class of Elder God servitor which it sounds like she herself deliberately wiped off the face of the earth? Cos there’s several jumps in there and they kinda suggest this is not what Avei sent you out to do.”

“Any military commander must know the assets she has in the field in order to deploy them properly,” Shaeine agreed. “If you presume to be acting in Avei’s service, Lieutenant, it is basic sense that in the aftermath of such a drastic development, you should seek out updated orders before acting further.”

“Unfeasible,” Principia stated. “Gods are not so easily approached directly.”

“I can arrange that, you know,” Trissiny pointed out.

“Unnecessary!”

“Unless,” Trissiny drawled, “there’s some reason you don’t want to hear the goddess’s opinion of your actions here.”

“My actions are consistent with Legion doctrine! Operatives in the field are expected to react to changing circumstances and apply their best judgment as necessary.”

“I’m pretty sure there are no Legion doctrines that even try to cover this,” Merry protested. “I mean, Avelea’s not here to correct me, but I’m willing to bet on that.”

“Different Avelea,” Joe explained as Gabriel turned to frown in confusion at Trissiny.

“Leaving aside Legion regulations,” said Trissiny, “you are still an Eserite. Whatever responsibilities you’ve been given, I have to assume you’re Eserite first and foremost. Knowledge is power, Locke, and it follows that absolute knowledge is absolute power. What does power do to people?”

“You will not distract me by quoting—”

“Then forget Eserion and Avei both!” Trissiny shouted. “If you have access to all the knowledge of the Elder Gods, I assume they knew things about psychology that have been long since forgotten. How does power affect the brain, Locke?”

Another silence fell. The rotating panels seemed to glitch, momentarily reversing their course and then freezing for a second. It was hard to tell behind the mini-screens bristling from her crown, but Principia appeared to be frowning slightly.

“I… Irrelevant. I have the full faculties of—”

“Of a chief servant of the most infamously power-mad beings that have ever existed?” Teal finished. “Are you beginning to see why this is a tough sell, Locke?”

“Not to interrupt,” Toby said quietly, “but there’s something I can’t help noticing. A couple of times now, people addressing you have spoken of Principia Locke as if she were a separate person, not party to this conversation. And you didn’t correct either one. Also, you yourself spoke pretty disdainfully of Principia before. Is that even still you in there?”

“I have been improved upon,” she said stiffly.

“Well, I obviously don’t have all the knowledge you do,” Toby replied, “but I don’t think so. I’m not trying to excuse Principia’s flaws, but the truth is I like her. She isn’t all-knowing, but she’s experienced and clever. I’ve developed the impression that I’m probably never going to agree with Principia’s methods of doing anything, but even so, I understood her goals, and they’re good ones. Prin cares about people, and about values, and does her best to do some good in the world, in her own way. I trust that a lot more than some detached information-processing servitor making abstract plans for me and who knows how many other people. And I think I know what Prin would say about someone like that, too.”

“I don’t care what she would say!” the floating elf burst out, audibly agitated now. “You don’t understand. With nothing but a single limited point of perspective, there’s so little you can do, and yet so very much damage you can cause! Principia Locke has ruined everything she ever touched; I can fix it.”

“You shut your FUCKING mouth!” Merry roared. “Locke has fought tooth and nail to protect our squad when everybody else in the world wanted us dead, and she succeeded against the most ridiculous odds! I don’t know who or what you even are and I don’t care. You don’t talk about her that way!”

“I understand,” Toby said, his quiet voice a stark contrast to Merry’s anger. “You got a sudden view of your whole life from a new perspective, and the realization hurt. I really do understand.”

“You understand nothing,” Principia spat. “You have neither the ability to perceive what I do, nor the history of selfishness and destruction I have to—”

“He does, though,” Juniper cut in, stepping forward. “And so do I. Not in the same way as you, any more than Toby and I had the same exact experience, but you’d better believe we get it. The moment of insight when you realize how horrible you’ve been is agony like nothing else I’ve ever imagined. And here’s something else I can tell you about living through that: if you try to run from it, you’ll only make it worse. You have to face what you’ve done, let it hurt, and do better.”

“You don’t understand,” Principia repeated, her voice outright pleading now. All around her, the glowing panels had begun spinning so fast she couldn’t possibly be reading them, for all that her eyes kept darting without resting in one position for an instant. “There’s so much going wrong in the world, but from here I can do something about it! I can at least make up for…”

“Locke,” Merry said, insistently but far more calmly than before. “You can’t save the world. The world is not for saving. Trust me, that’s the thinking of the kind of dumb, chapbook-addled teenager who tries to walk into the Golden Sea to become a hero. That’s what I do understand. The world is always going to be fucked up; it’s supposed to be. If it wasn’t, that would mean nobody had any choices or agency. No flaws means no virtues. A perfect world would be hell. Everything’s a mess, and everybody is supposed to do whatever they can, with whatever they have, wherever they are. You’re not supposed to make yourself some kind of demigod, that’ll just end up adding to the world’s problems. If you try to take away other people’s responsibility to help fix things, you are taking their power to become better.”

“Well put,” McGraw said, tipping his hat to her.

“We’re not going to take orders from you,” Trissiny said quietly. “Not from…this. All of us will do what we can, where we are, using our best judgment, just as Tellwyrn taught us. If you turn yourself into…whatever this is…that’s nothing but a loss. We’ll have lost someone smart and motivated to help just when we need her the most.”

“That’s not fair,” Principia protested. Several of the screens began to wink out of existence, creating gaps in the translucent globe around her.

“It’s not just a loss in the strategic sense,” Trissiny added, lowering her eyes and turning away. “I was just starting to like you a little bit. If you…if the woman I was getting to know is just…gone, now, then… Damn it. I already miss her.” She emitted a short, startled bark of laughter. “I’m just as surprised as you.”

“I just…” The last of the screens vanished. Principia hung there—not just hovered, hung, with her arms dangling at her sides and her head drooping forward in a defeated posture. “I thought I could… It would all be better without the mess I was. Just…intelligence and a plan, and maybe I could make up for everything.”

“Nobody’s not a mess, you goober,” Gabriel said with a wry grin. “That’s normal. It’s healthy. Life’s about embracing your flaws and making strengths of them, not throwing them away. Without flaws, what the hell are you? How are you supposed to improve if you don’t have screwups to learn from?”

“You can’t make up for anything,” Juniper added. “The past doesn’t work that way; it’s done. You have to become a better person and do better things.”

“Take that thing off and come down from there, Keys,” Trissiny said gently. “We need you. While you’re fucking around with magical artifacts, the bastards are out there winning.”

Mary croaked softly.

Principia stared disconsolately at the ground for an interminable moment.

Then, abruptly as if trying to surprise herself before she could react, she grabbed her own face and pulled.

The Mask came free and immediately tumbled from her hands, and she plummeted toward the ground.

Trissiny darted forward with her arms outstretched and Principia tumbled right into them, her head lolling back. Fross swooped in as the Mask of the Adventurer went spinning off to the side, seizing the artifact and making it disappear back into her aura storage before circling back to rejoin the group.

“She’s… I don’t know what’s wrong!” Trissiny said in alarm, gently laying Principia on the ground. “This didn’t happen to anybody else who tried it on!”

The elf was still slumped weakly, but now began to twitch violently, her eyes rolled up into her head.

Shaeine had already darted forward to kneel at Principia’s other side. Reaching out to place one hand on her forehead, the drow closed her eyes, frowning in concentration.

Principia stilled, then let out a heavy sigh and finally relaxed, her head rolling to one side as Shaeine withdrew her hand.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded.

“I put her to sleep,” said Shaeine. “A simple, natural sleep, the only kind I can grant. I do think it’s the best thing for her, Trissiny. I’m not able to interpret thoughts or even emotions, but when I touch someone’s mind that way I do get a general sense of it. A mind, to my awareness, feels much like a deep pool. Something with a serene surface but great depths beneath. Principia’s, just now, was boiling.”

“You two weren’t with us in Puna Dara,” Gabriel said, leaning over them with a worried frown. “The Avatar we met under the city had had his mind stuffed with a constant stream of information. That would make anybody crazy. You just can’t pour unlimited data into a brain that’s not meant to handle it.”

“Will she…” Trissiny cut herself off, swallowing heavily.

“I don’t know,” Shaeine said, reaching out to grasp her hand. “There is no precedent of any kind for this. But I do believe sleep will help her, Trissiny. Dreaming is how the brain sorts away extra information; that is why people begin to go mad if deprived of sleep. She needs to dream. I suspect she will sleep much longer than normal, and I strongly advise that she be allowed to. We should not wake or try to move her until she comes to on her own.”

“And then, we’ll…find out,” Merry whispered, kneeling at Principia’s head and gently smoothing back a lock of black hair that had been disturbed.

“Well,” Juniper offered, “at least we got to her before Vesk got what he wanted. I mean, it’s not much, but it’s a little satisfying that the person who set all this up didn’t get away with it.”

“I would strongly advise against ever thinking you’ve put one over on Vesk,” Weaver said even more sourly than usual. “Sounds like that’s exactly what got her into this situation.”

“Yeah, I have to agree with Grumpypants on this one,” said Gabriel, frowning deeply. “Think about it. If this was a chapbook and suddenly some random-ass thing happened out of nowhere and brought every plotline that was going on into one place for no good reason…well, I’d probably put the book down.”

“Yeah, famous arbiter of literary taste you are,” Ruda said solemnly.

“I just mean,” he snapped, shooting her a look, “Vesk is the actual god of bards. Do you think he’d set up something so hacky and contrived?”

“He’s right,” Teal said grimly. “We talked Locke down before actually getting shunted off to deal with…whatever it is. But now we know there’s something big about to go down in N’Jendo where our help would be useful, and we know there’s somebody in Veilgrad who can help us deal with it. And it’s not like we can just ignore that knowledge, now is it?”

“Not like we can really do anything about it, either,” Fross pointed out. “I’ve been working on learning teleportation but I’m at the level of moving erasers across the classroom. I’m not about to try to send people, especially not over that distance, especially not this big a group, and most especially not people I care about.”

“Try it on Weaver?” Billie suggested. “Fer science!”

“My point is,” the pixie chimed in clear exasperation, “at a walking speed, which is all we’ve got to work with, getting down from here to anywhere is going to take days at least, and that’s after waiting for Locke to wake up. Which might also take days.”

“Now, I’m not real clear on exactly what that mask thing is or does,” McGraw said, “but it clearly helped Prin perform an impossible teleport, and we do still have it—”

“NO!” almost everyone shouted in unison.

“That thing has done quite enough damage,” Trissiny added, gently folding Principia’s limp hands on her chest. “Let’s not borrow any more trouble. If we’re still caught in Vesk’s narrative, I don’t doubt for a moment that something else will come up before we know it. In the meantime, everyone should take a breather while we can. For the moment, at least, everything is back to normal.”

Mary began screeching, squawking, and flapping about in her cage so violently that Joe had to struggle to keep his grip on it.

“Oh,” Trissiny winced. “Right. Almost everything.”

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15 – 46

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It was hard to know where to look first, and that was not even counting the distraction of everyone’s ears popping as they abruptly moved from the Golden Sea to the cooler, thinner air of the mountains. The plateau itself, an ancient plaza surrounded by stone buildings, might have been any moderately well-preserved patch of ruins anywhere, but beyond it was the stark grandeur of the Wyrnrange stretching in all directions, and the incredible shape of the Great Tree commanding the whole horizon to the north.

More immediately present, though, were the people.

The class of 1182 themselves were clustered together in a tight arc facing the teleport’s arrival point, while off to the other side stood a Silver Legionnaire with a corporal’s insignia next to a human woman and a dwarf man in sensible traveling attire. Both groups were easy to overlook, however, in the presence of Principia Locke.

Her black hair was tied back in a sleek tail not wholly unlike a Legion regulation braid, and further constrained by a silvery apparatus resembling a crown fitted most of the way around her skull, its front apertures bristling with tiny translucent panels attached to spidery silver arms, positioned where she could see them peripherally without blocking her forward vision. Patterns of light flickered across the metal band of the crown, and on the metallic trim of her glossy white robes. Whatever material they were made of did not look like fabric, though it moved easily enough; it gleamed as if it were metallic itself, and was further augmented by structural traceries of what might have been steel or possibly mithril, these further augmented in places by tiny lights of various colors. Huge, heavy-looking bracers covered her forearms, also bedecked with lights and set along their backs with long display panels, and her waist was encircled by a thick silvery belt, at the front of which glowed a circular display which cycled rapidly through different colors and inscrutable symbols.

She stood surrounded by a ring of hovering shapes, mostly rectangles with rounded corners, made entirely of pale light and displaying columns of text, symbols, complex diagrams and patterns that looked like maps. Principia kept her eyes on these, deftly manipulating them with tiny movements of her fingers, causing the displays to move about and change content in some pattern comprehensible only to herself.

“What the fuck,” Ruda demanded, summing up what everyone was thinking before getting down to specifics. “Who the fuck are all these yahoos and why are they here? Hi, Joe.”

“Hey, everybody,” Joe said with a wary smile. “Good to see y’all again.”

“Excuse me, but is that a valkyrie?” Fross chimed. “Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen Juniper frightened before.”

“I’m fine,” Juniper said flatly, though she was as rigid as a tree trunk and staring at Yngrid through eyes widened with panic. Sniff, picking up her mood, placed himself in front of his mistress and hissed aggressively at the new arrivals, fanning his wings and head crest.

“Also, why’d you bring the cranky bullying librarian?” Teal added. “I was quite happy pretending he’d vanished off the face of the earth.”

“Me, too,” Weaver said frankly.

“Peace.” Mary stepped forward from the group which had just ‘ported in, projecting her voice in a manner that was both serenely calm and commanded obedience. “Clearly, there is already a tangled web of introductions and explanations that need be made here. I advise approaching this with all due care and precision, one step at a time. And it seems to me the first step should be obvious to us all. Principia, you feckless child, what have you done to yourself?”

“Shut up, Kuriwa, nobody likes you. Gabriel Arquin.” Principia’s delivery was clipped and flat, quite unlike her usual cadence. “Your recklessness staggers the imagination. What could you possibly have been thinking, shunting yourself off to a remote nexus of unfathomable power amid a gaggle of dangerous reprobates in the middle of the events that have been transpiring here?”

“I’d take offense, but damn if she didn’t nail us,” Billie commented.

“Okay, you know what, Locke?” Gabriel snapped. “I’m not one to lecture people as a rule, but I’ve been getting in some good practice recently and I’m in no mood to take this from you of all people. As I suspect Trissiny told you because she got all the common sense in your entire bloodline, I was sent on a mission directly by Vidius. So not only do I not really have the option of turning that down, but it’s not as if I was wandering around in the weeds unattended. Anybody should be able to infer from context that I was fine. And your reaction to this was to go and put that goddamn thing on your face after all the moaning you gave us about what a terrible idea it was? You’re officially the last person allowed—”

“Vidius is going to kill you.”

The simple, stark statement cut through his tirade and brought him up short, mouth slightly open. The entire time, Principia’s eyes had been darting from one point to another on the various floating displays orbiting her; she still did not look directly at him, but as she spoke one of the rectangular light screens shifted to a vertical orientation near her eyeline and displayed what looked like a human silhouette with scrolling notations in a language none of them could read.

“How many paladins have you known, Arquin?” she asked before the tension could mount too much further.

He narrowed his eyes. “Well…just the two. Three, I guess, if I get to count myself.”

“I’ll grant you three, because I’ve still known a number which dwarfs that utterly and every single one of them died for the same reason: being a paladin. Going on missions for Vidius is the thing that will kill you. The very idea that you are safe because you’re on assignment from him will do it faster unless you purge that completely backwards thought from your brain right now and redouble your situational awareness while on the clock. More immediately, the lot of us are standing at the center of a web of connection and prophecy stretching through the very nature of magic itself and eclipsing the scope of the world. You don’t grasp a fraction of the extent, but you should have been adequately warned by the fact that Vesk was involved. You, who have spent more time than most of us recently dancing on his strings. I know you’ve read enough stories to have spotted some of the things it was likely to mean when you left the group on your own in the middle of all this. In the best case scenario, the rest of us would have been forced to ride to your rescue amidst who knows what carnage. At worst, it was a death sentence. To a thing like Vesk, the death of a hero is nothing but proper motivation for whoever’s left.”

“And yet I note that none of that happened,” Gabriel said, now frowning at her warily.

“It did not happen because I broke every rule of principle and basic sense to prevent it,” Principia said tonelessly. “I was right when I warned you not to use this mask, and I was right to make that sacrifice. It takes nothing less than changing all the rules of reality to cheat a god. Especially that one.”

“Mask?” Mary demanded. “What have you done?”

“It’s a long story, Kuriwa,” Trissiny murmured, edging over toward her. “I’ll bring you up to speed—”

“You will not,” Principia ordered. “You know very well that she of all people does not need to get her claws on it.”

“Locke,” Trissiny said, turning directly to her, “I think it’s time you took that thing off. You’ve accomplished what you set out to, and you are starting to sound alarmingly unlike yourself.”

“I should think you would welcome that development,” Principia replied. As she spoke, the ring of hovering screens around her doubled, forming two bands as if flanking the equator of a sphere, rotating slowly in opposite directions. The crown on her head sprouted more tiny sets of arms, projecting a new set of smaller panels around the edges of her eyes. “You have always been correctly skeptical of…myself.”

“I will remind you, Lieutenant,” Shaeine said evenly, “that you specifically asked us to end you if it became apparent that you had lost yourself to the artifact. That conclusion is growing perilously close.”

“Yes, that does sound like something I would say, does it not?” Principia mused, her eyes darting rapidly between screens, fingers flicking them this way and that faster than ever. “Completely sincere, and yet deliberately manipulating your emotions. With no malice, simply a lack of understanding any other way to relate to people. It’s pathetic, if you think about it. In any case, you should disregard that instruction. At the time I did not know the merest fraction of the things I know now. I have much better ideas.”

“That is enough,” Mary stated, beginning to weave her arms about in a dance-like series of movements that caused a gentle breeze to begin playing across the plateau, smelling of moss and wildflowers. “When you are neck-deep in the consequences of your actions, girl, recall that you were warned.”

“Oh, I think not,” Principia said evenly, extending her arms out to the sides to touch her fingertips to screens at opposite points flanking her.

The air pressure abruptly plummeted further, causing everyone’s ears to pop again, and currents of air coalesced around Mary into visible streams of compressed gas. The elf emitted a single, hoarse squawk, and then the entire net of air tightened onto her like a clenching fist and she shrank down to the form of a crow.

Before the bird could take flight, a sphere of light flashed into place around her. This instantly imploded, collapsing just like the streamers of her own hijacked spell of a moment before, but instead of crushing her, it formed a shape. Specifically, a golden birdcage.

All of this coalesced into being at about chest height. Then the cage plummeted to the ground, where it bounced twice and rolled over onto its side, Mary furiously cawing and flapping about inside it.

“I’ve no doubt you will weasel out of that sooner than later, Kuriwa,” Principia announced, “and then surely enact some horrible revenge on me, predictable creature that you are. It will all be more than worth it for the sheer satisfaction of knowing that for one sweet, blissful moment in history, nobody had to put up with any of your bullshit.”

Trissiny darted over to pick up the cage, carefully holding it upright to peer between the bars. This gentler treatment did nothing to lessen the crow’s outraged noise.

A single wedge of silver light flashed into being and stabbed directly at Principia’s face. It dissipated upon crossing the boundary of the screens surrounding her.

“Please do not strain against my defenses, Shaeine,” Principia requested calmly without even glancing at the drow. “I will not harm you, but you risk burnout or mana fatigue by pushing your magic against a superior force.”

McGraw coughed discreetly, stepping forward. “If you don’t mind my askin’, Prin, what kinda superior force are we talkin’ about, here? Not to gloss over the fact that this is a darn sight different from your general bearing the last time we met, but I confess an old professional’s interest in any interesting new form o’ magic.”

“Disingenuousness does not suit you, Elias,” she said tonelessly.

“In point of fact, I’ve found it a more versatile tool than anything in my spellbooks,” he said wryly, “but I won’t begrudge your opinion.”

“She is not using any specific school of magic, but all four and multiple shadow schools in equal measure, performing constant microcalculations to effect physical subjectivity rather than relying on the inherent compensatory attributes of any one magical form,” said Ariel.

“Can ye dumb that down fer those of us who don’t go to Crazy Magic College?” Billie asked.

“In essence,” Principia herself explained, “the unique attributes of each of the four fields of magic on the Circle of Interaction manifest themselves in the characteristic style of magic for which each is known, because magic is a way of bridging the gap between an idea in a sapient mind, and the innumerable calculations and exertions of infinitesimal amounts of basic universal forces on the subatomic level to express that idea in physical reality. Because a biological sapience can neither exert those forces unassisted nor perform the necessary math, each of the four schools expresses spells according to its particular idiom. To bypass these innate restrictions and tendencies and express subjective physics without artificial limitation, one must simply do all the calculations oneself without relying upon the calculator function of the magic fields. That capacity appears to be a function of the persona I am borrowing.”

Mary squawked and rattled her cage so hard Trissiny had to tighten her grip on it.

“She is describing the theoretical ultimate expression of magical practice,” said Ariel. “To my knowledge, this was only theoretical. I have never seen nor credibly heard of any practitioner capable of doing this.”

“Oh, that’s it,” Ruda said quietly. “I just realized what was nagging at me about this. She’s talking just like Ariel. You guys hear it too, right? That inflectionless delivery, the run-on sentences…”

“LT, you’re scaring the hell out of me,” Merry said frankly. “Mission’s over. Please take that thing off.”

“A thought occurs,” said Principia. The rings of screens multiplied again; now there were three, apparently conveying even more information to her. Her feet lifted bodily off the ground and she gradually floated upward to levitate about a yard up in the air. “If the Mask is permanently attached to someone, it is by definition out of play. Since absolute security is obviously impossible, this may be the only way to nullify the inherent danger posed by existence.”

“No, Locke, that turns it into a different kind of danger!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Excuse me, but would I be right in guessing that this borrowed persona works mainly by feeding you information?” Toby asked, stepping up to within a few feet of the barrier of Principia’s light screens.

“Essentially,” she said in a disinterested tone, fixing her attention for a moment on a panel showing what looked like a complex spell diagram. “Not only acquiring data through means beyond mortal senses but processing it at a capacity that would be otherwise impossible.”

“I see,” he replied, frowning. “Prin, I think you should be mindful of what a sudden switch of perspective like that can do to a person. You’re an Eserite, you understand better than anyone how power affects people’s heads. Right now, it looks a lot like you’re turning into exactly the kind of thing you’ve spent your life fighting against, and I really can’t think that’s what you intended.”

“A switch of perspective is a good way to put it,” she said, rising higher into the air. “Suddenly having a bird’s-eye view of my own consciousness is, in a word, humiliating. Princpia Locke is a broken, sideways-thinking creature developing a real conscience disgracefully late in life and even so expressing it through the lens of self-indulgent, self-centered slyness. An arrested adolescent smugly mistaking her own failure to function in a socially normal manner for mental and moral superiority. If she’s not going to have an emotionally healthy connection to anyone, it seems to me logical, not to mention appropriate, to become an entity which does not require them. Clearly no one will miss her.”

Mary’s renewed harsh cawing sounded eerily like agreement.

“I don’t get how you can apparently know everything and not know how wrong that is, Locke,” Merry said, her tone openly hurt. “The people who need you most are fully aware what a piece of work you are. We like you anyway, dumbass. That’s exactly what having a connection to other people means.”

“Locke, if you don’t take that thing off voluntarily, we’ll have no choice but to take it from you,” Trissiny warned.

“None of you have that capacity,” Principia observed. “The chances if all of you act in perfect unison are very small. I calculate this group is not able to coordinate with the necessary precision, anyway. Please do not risk injury by trying, Trissiny. There are significant events developing and all your strength will be urgently needed very soon. I am forming a plan.”

“If she’s able to see everything and do any kind of magic…” Teal looked around at the others, as if someone present might have answers. “How can you counter that?”

“Well, the original Archons all died,” said Gabriel, “so by definition they aren’t invincible.”

“In the old days,” Yngrid said quietly, “Archons were countered by the existence of other Archons, sworn to other gods, with contradicting agendas. They were only wiped out by direct action of the Pantheon, and that only after their patron gods were all gone.”

“You hear that, Locke?” Ruda called. “You’ve got no Elder God backing you up, and you’re this fuckin’ close to pissing off the gods that exist now. Come down from there and quit being a smug, all-knowing dong before you get your ass smote.”

“In the event of divine intervention, I expect confirmation from Avei that I am acting in accordance with her orders and established strategy.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed, echoed by a hoarse croak from the cage in her hands.

“Events and individuals are more connected than I ever imagined, across a scope which it would not have occurred to me to conceive of. Observe.”

Principia shifted her hands rapidly, tapping several points on various rotating screens in passing—five rings of them, now—as if she were activating runic controls.

The light on the plaza grew paler, and suddenly there were thick, tangled steamers of cobwebs binding each of them to one another, and extending off from the mountaintop in all directions. Several of them shouted in alarm and tried to pull away, causing the whole web to shift with them. The effect was purely visible; their movements were not restrained, nor could they physically feel the spider silk.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Principia instructed, tapping screens again. The light returned to normal and the webs faded from view. “I was initially concerned myself, but after a careful analysis I have determined that this effect is not harmful. On the contrary, its purpose appears to be preservation. Though I am unable to determine the origin point of this binding effect as it is temporally out of sync and my own ability to gather information thus is blocked by Vemnesthis’s activities, I calculate that each of us has been saved several times in the last three years from catastrophic and possibly lethal harm by these protections, through means which at the time would have appeared to be coincidence. The existence of time travel as a factor confirms the influence of a god, most likely operating from the future. No one else could circumvent Vemnesthis.”

“You think Avei did this?” Trissiny demanded.

“Perhaps. What I know is that I, personally, have been directed toward a specific end by Avei via the orders of the High Commander, and I now see the opportunity to advance my strategy far more rapidly that I anticipated before, and avert a major crisis in the process.”

The panels had continued to expand until she was now encircled by a full globe of them, hovering well above the level of their heads and rapidly reaching out to touch points on the passing screens in some pattern that made sense only to her.

“The incipient events in N’Jendo must be stopped for obvious humanitarian reasons. The forces assembled here, once connected with those already operating in Ninkabi, should prove more than sufficient. However, I calculate that there is time to gather more, which will not only increase the prospects of success further but will represent major progress in service of Avei’s long-term goal. I believe events in N’Jendo can be safely allowed to progress for a short time further, as Arachne and others are working to stabilize one of the unfolding disasters there. We should intercept her efforts in time to assume credit and absorb Ingvar’s wolf cult, of course, but this will leave us time for a necessary detour first to Veilgrad.”

“Ingvar’s wolf cult?” Joe shouted. “Hang on, you’re gonna need to explain that one!”

“What the fuck do we need in fucking Veilgrad?” Ruda demanded.

“Yeah, we’ve kinda done Veilgrad already,” added Fross.

“Seems rude to burn it down twice,” Toby said gravely.

“I understand all of this is confusing,” Principia said in that disturbingly impassive tone. “Your own perspectives are cripplingly limited. To explain it all would simply take too long. For the time being, you will just have to trust me.”

“Here’s the thing,” Trissiny said, stepping forward with Mary’s cage still in her hands. “I do trust Principia…strange as that sounds, to me. Even acknowledging how generally shifty you are, I know what you value and what your goals are. I know Principia Locke will always try to achieve what she believes is right, and in the end, I mostly agree with the end objective even if I take issue with your means of getting there. I trust you, Locke. Not…this. This thing that mask is turning you into. All systems are corrupt, and you’re becoming the system. Please, Locke, take it off, get your head back together, and then talk to us.”

“Your frustration is natural, Trissiny, but you will have to bear it. There’s just not time for thorough explanations.”

“Then let me put it a different way,” Trissiny said grimly. “Remove that mask. That is an order, Lieutenant.”

Finally, Principia turned her head to look directly at her, staring down her nose from high above through a gap that opened up in the translucent screens orbiting her.

“I’m sorry, General, but I am unable to comply. Not this time.”

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15 – 44

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Trissiny stared out across the edge of the plateau, through the space where he had vanished. Despite his and Schwartz’s conjecture over the summer about the damage that scythe could potentially do to reality, there remained no hint of the slash Gabriel had just carved in the air, just the quiet mountain breeze and the unpleasant but very faint buzzing in her ears caused by the charm he had used to conceal their brief conversation.

She held up the sheet of his enchanting paper, inscribed with a glyph-adorned circular diagram in faintly luminous purple ink; the basic structure of it was comprehensible to her thanks to Yornhaldt’s classes, but her knowledge of enchanting was very general and well below the level of this. And he’d just scrawled it in a few seconds. He was getting really good with these charms. Not for the first time, Trissiny resolved to focus more on her light wielding. It wouldn’t do to use it too much as a crutch, but it was a skill no Hand of Avei had developed to any great extent, and one which would thus take enemies by surprise, provided she was careful not to show it off excessively.

Pretty much the way Gabe used his arcane craft these days.

Raising her eyes to gaze again into the distance, Trissiny absently rubbed one thumb across a clear patch along the edge of the paper. It probably wouldn’t be necessary to destroy it; stable area of effect charms made from such basic materials burned themselves out very quickly, she knew that much about enchanting. The ink’s glow was already starting to fade. Once it went dark, it was just colored ink on paper, good for nothing except possibly as a little keepsake to tuck away…

And then, faster than she could react, it was ripped out of her hand.

Trissiny spun, instinctively reaching for her blade, and found herself almost nose-to-nose with Principia. Or would have been, had the elf’s nose not been turned the other way as she critically examined the charm.

“Sinneck’s silencing glyphward,” Principia mused. “A little sloppy, but he was probably in a hurry and it doesn’t really need to last long, does it? And as usual, you kids missed the broader strategic point under your fancy tricks: you can mask your conversation from the local elf, but the elf will still notice if she suddenly can’t hear your breathing, heartbeats, or anything at all from this little circular patch of ground.” Lifting her eyes to meet Trissiny’s, she deliberately ripped the charm in half, causing the faint buzz to vanish. “Where is he, Trissiny?”

She took her hand off the handle of her sword, deliberately straightening up. “It’s all right, Locke, he’ll be back…as soon as possible.”

“Not what I asked you.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes at the flat tone. Principia was staring at her in a way she never had: like an authority figure demanding an explanation. Even when she’d faced the woman from the wrong side of cell bars, she had never had this attitude. Trissiny immediately decided she didn’t care for it.

“It’s nothing you need to know about, Locke.”

“You are too intelligent for me to need to list all the reasons that’s wrong, but I’ll indulge you. I am responsible for all of you, we are about to leave and this is going to delay our departure, possibly to the point that our guides will declare the window missed and we’ll lose another entire day to this, and this group has ample warning from no less than a god of self-inflicted trouble descending upon all our heads. And now, I find I can’t detect Gabriel Arquin anywhere within the range of my senses. So I’ll ask you once more, Trissiny: where did he go?”

She refrained from gritting her teeth in sheer annoyance at the fact that Principia was right.

“It is a paladin matter, Locke. Vidius needed him for something. Furthermore, he described it as…family business.”

“And you just let him go?” she demanded.

Trissiny frowned more deeply. “Did you not hear me? It’s not as if I had any prerogative to stop him.”

“You know, I can’t help but think back to a certain hellgate incident. Now, I wasn’t there, so stop me if I’m wrong about this, but the version of the story I was told involved two paladins being ordered to stay and fight, and their entire circle of friends refusing to let them do so alone. Ring any bells?”

To her vast displeasure, Trissiny felt color rise in her cheeks. “That was a completely different situation.”

“Yeah, unlike most of your friends you have an actual claim when it comes to butting in on paladin business and a much better chance of surviving it. I’m a better enchanter than Arquin and I can hear the beetles under the stone you’re standing on, Trissiny. So do you want me to chase the little brat down myself, or would you rather spare him the embarrassment and show me which way he went?”

“I doubt even your senses are sharp enough, Locke. When Vidius chooses to help him do it, Gabe can shadow-jump. With that scythe, he can apparently do so into places where it wouldn’t usually be possible.”

Principia clamped her lips into a thin, unhappy line. “I see. And you wouldn’t happen to know where…?”

She shrugged. “Family business, he said. And something Vidius cared about enough to both send him on, and help, which means it’s probably something to do with the valkyries, not his father. Could be anywhere.”

They stared at each other for five seconds before Principia finally spoke.

“Well, Trissiny, this is a real watershed moment in our relationship. First time you’ve disappointed me. I suddenly feel very maternal.”

“Now, you listen here—”

“You should have stopped him, idiot,” Principia shot back, jabbing one finger into Trissiny’s chest. “Failing that, you should have gone with him. At the very least, you should have warned the rest of us something was happening! All of that was well within your power, and glaringly obvious. And yet, here we are!”

“Enough!” she barked. “One more word, Lieutenant—”

“Have you ever even stood in a phalanx? I’m not talking about training, I mean shoulder to shoulder with your sisters while taking enemy fire and facing the real likelihood of losing comrades under your command. Because let me tell you, General, that is a whole different category of experience from the heroic solo warrior paladin shit you’ve been doing.”

“How dare you—”

“We both knew I’m a far better thief, but believe me, I’m as surprised as you to find that I’m a better soldier.”

Despite herself, Trissiny was struck silent. All she could manage to do was stare, her mouth open with her half-formed rebuke forgotten.

“Yes, we have our issues, and they’re nearly all my fault,” Principia went on relentlessly. “And yes, you outrank me. But if you have an iota of sense, Trissiny, you will listen to me when I criticize you. It’s not as if I do it often, and you can really use the benefit of my experience. Especially when it’s over the very real chance one of your friends might get killed from his and your combined goddamned stupidity!”

The elf dropped the two halves of Gabriel’s glyphward and turned on her heel, stalking back toward the half-ruined old building behind them. Trissiny was mortified to observe that the entire rest of her class was assembled in the doorway, watching in silence.

“Where are you going?” she demanded of Principia’s back.

“Where do you think? To fix this.”


“You’re disappointed in me?” Yngrid exclaimed, clutching Weaver tighter. “You, Gabriel, of all people? You know what it’s like, for all of us! Haven’t I done enough in eight thousand years to earn one spark of happiness for myself?”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Gabriel said, holding up the hand not occupied with his scythe and stepping forward. “As far as that goes, I think you’re dead right, and I’ll back you up all the way with the big guy.”

She froze with her mouth open to continue arguing, blinking in confusion. “Oh. Then…?”

“Vidius sent me here and tasked me with bringing you to heel, and that means it’s gonna be done on my terms. And whatever I decide to do will damn well reflect the fact that all of you girls have been worked non-stop for an unfathomably long time, that he’s never had cause to complain about your performance, and that quite frankly Vidius has spent so long paying no attention to your own interests that if he failed to see something like this coming, well, that’s on him.”

Thunder rumbled along the distant horizon to the south. All of them turned to stare in that direction, save the projection of the Avatar, who just cocked one eyebrow in silence.

“And if he has a problem with that,” Gabriel added with a scowl, “he should definitely have thought more carefully before designating me the arbiter of this business. But he did, and I am, and so this isn’t as simple as you just going AWOL, Yngrid. I’ve gotta work out something to do about this, but I won’t stand for you being put upon any further over something so incredibly understandable on your part.”

A tremulous smile flickered over the valkyrie’s features, in sharp contrast to Weaver, who was still clutching her and glaring at Gabriel. A moment later, though, she frowned in confusion.

“I’m…glad to hear that, little brother, but… I’m not sure what you’re upset about, then.”

“Aren’t you?” he demanded. “Come on, Yngrid. You politely toed the line for thousands upon thousands of years, and now you finally decided to buck your duties because of…” He flung out his free hand at Weaver. “Really? Really? This guy? This family-sized tin of hickory-smoked buttholes?”

Billie burst out laughing so hard she immediately fell over, which did not even interrupt Gabriel’s tirade.

“Are you kidding me? Girl, as soon as all this is settled one way or another you and I are going to sit down and have us a long, awkward talk about your taste in men, and wow the fact that you’re hearing this from me of all damned people should shed some light on the depth of your bad judgment here.”

“Oh, I remember this one, now,” Weaver drawled. “Didn’t see him in the library much. Settle a bet for me, Arquin: can you actually read?”

“I’m not even gonna bother threatening you with the cliché, you walking ingrown crotch hair,” Gabriel retorted, causing Billie to begin rolling back and forth, clutching her ribs and absolutely shrieking. “You give her cause to regret this even once, and it ends with one of her sisters standing over you and deciding your eternal fate. I suggest you keep that firmly in mind at all times, you greasy wedge of pepperjack dickcheese.”

“…please…stop…” Billie wheezed desperately. “…can’t…air…”

“Gabe,” Yngrid said, her quiet and earnest tone a stark contrast to everything else going on. “I understand why you think that, but please trust me. You don’t know Damian like I do.”

“Scuze me for insertin’ myself into what sounds like family business,” McGraw said, diffidently tipping his hat, “but I think it’s worth pointin’ out that this fella is a Vesker bard. He lives his life playin’ a role, and the moment you take that for the real man underneath, you’ve fallen for the grift.”

“Yeah, I’m not buying that for a second,” Gabriel said flatly, “and I say that after spending a week of this summer being dragged around by Vesk himself. You wear the mask, you become the mask. If someone acts like an insufferable asshole, that fact alone means they are one, irrespective of their tragic backstory or whatever else.”

Joe cleared his throat. “Hi, Gabe.”

Gabriel glanced at him. “Hey, Joe. Surprised to see you here.”

“Yep, that’s kinda what I wanted to bring up. I know our orbits have only crossed here and there, but the fact is I do think of you as a friend.”

Gabriel raised one eyebrow. “Well, likewise, I guess.”

“I mention it because I can say the same of Weaver, here. Not to argue with your assessment, exactly, but the fact is the man has a whole group of friends who’re willin’ to not only trek to this godforsaken patch of dangerous nowhere—uh, no offense, Avatar.”

“It would be fruitless to take offense at accuracy,” the Avatar acknowledged, nodding wryly to him.

“But,” Joe continued, “also care enough about the big jerk to risk antaognizin’ Vidius himself so he and Yngrid could be together. I get the impression you’re concerned for her well-being, here, so…hopefully that counts for something. Man has the capacity to make solid friendships, and I hope my own judgment means at least a little bit.”

Gabriel heaved a deep sigh, shifting his stance as if he were actually leaning his weight on his scythe. “Well…whatever. Regardless of that, we still have the matter of a rogue valkyrie loose on the mortal plane and my obligation to do something about it.”

“Why?” Yngrid asked bitterly, tightening her grip on Weaver’s arm. “Can’t you just leave us alone?”

“Yngrid,” he said wearily, “you have to know that even if I you were one hundred percent in the right, you are just too dangerous a category of being for it to be that simple. And you’re not completely in the right, are you? Did you ever even ask Vidius for any kind of reprieve?”

“He’d never have agreed to that, and you know it!”

“No, I don’t know it. My experience with him has been largely a process of him trying to be more flexible and less bound by old ideas that don’t work anymore. That’s the only reason I’m here. And whether or not that’s true, the question remains: did you ask?

She looked away, scowling.

“Because if you’d come to me, I would absolutely have spoken up for you,” Gabriel continued. “Hell, your sisters would have, as well. Most of them, anyway. Did you seek anyone else’s help before having Grumpypants McPonytail pull this scheme?”

“It doesn’t matter now, anyway,” she muttered. “What are you going to do about it, then?”

“Lemme just be serious for a sec,” Billie said, still grinning but sitting upright now. “Is lookin’ the other way entirely outta the question, here?”

“Fraid so,” McGraw answered before Gabriel could. “There’s already an actual god watchin’ these shenanigans directly. However this gets resolved, it ain’t gonna just go away if everybody involved agrees to pretend nothing’s up.”

Gabriel lifted the butt of his scythe off the stone floor, beginning to pace back and forth. “As usual, it’s less about the thing itself than the things connected to it. This is going to have wide ranging repercussions. A valkyrie back on the mortal plane is a big deal,Yngrid! The entire rest of the Pantheon is going to be alarmed about this, and they’re just the first. We both know what happened when the last fallen valkyrie ran into the Empire’s forces. Also, apparently you girls are inherently terrifying to dryads, and there are at least two of those interacting regularly with mortal society now! Wait, no, five, that I know of. What happens the first time a dryad accidentally flies into a panic and people are in the way? And for that matter, Yngrid… What about the rest of the girls? You know all of your sisters would want the same chance, if one was available. Did you give any thought to how they would feel after you ditched them?”

Yngrid had pressed herself hard into Weaver’s side, now, wrapping one black wing around him so that they resembled a single dark shape with two heads. Her eyes remained on the ground, refusing to meet Gabriel’s stare.

He stopped pacing and rested the butt of his scythe on the floor again. “Well. Obviously, I don’t have the power to send you back.”

Everyone had the presence of mind not to look at the Avatar, who himself obligingly remained silent.

“Honestly,” Gabriel muttered, “even with all the rest of it… I dunno that I could stomach doing that even if I was able. But Yngrid, we have to do something. Do you have any ideas? Because believe me, I am open to suggestions.”

“Take credit,” Mary said quietly.

He turned a pensive frown on her. “…go on?”

“It is a very old trick of politics, when one is unexpectedly outmaneuvered,” she said in the same soft tone, her expression intently focused. “Claim that whatever transpired was your own idea, and step in to guide its consequences. That will not solve all the issues that may result from this, but it addresses the immediate implications of Vidius having been thwarted by one of his own servants. He—and you—save face and regain the initiative, and you will have gained a powerful agent for your god’s ends who is less constrained than the rest of her sisters.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, his expression growing distant. “You know, I think you might be onto—”

“Young man,” Mary interrupted softly, her eyes fixed on his waist, “where did you get that sword?”


The group parted like waves as Principia strode through them into the building. Merry was still inside, standing with a backpack slung over her shoulder and watching warily, but apparently not having been quite curious enough to push into the crowd of students to stare.

“What exactly do you plan to do?” Trissiny demanded, striding in right on Principia’s heels. “It’s not like you can follow him!”

“No, indeed,” the elf concurred, slowing as she stepped past Merry, almost to the entrance on the other side, which led to the broad plaza in the center of the plateau. “I have neither the know-how nor the magical muscle to track a shadow-jump, much less one going into someplace that required god-driven murderscythe power to penetrate. But someone, somewhere, somewhen, has both those things.”

With her back to them, she held up one hand. In it was the silver-trimmed wooden face of the Mask of the Adventurer.

“Whoah,” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

Her alarm was nothing compared to that of Fross. “WHAT THE HELL? That was in my dimensional storage! My personal—it was basically part of my— How in the name of—”

“I’m a thief,” Principia said flatly, turning to stare at them. “More specifically, I am a damn good thief, and now you know why my tag is Keys and not Dazzling Personality.”

“You do know we are extremely capable of just taking that away from you, right?” Ruda asked in a deceptively mild tone.

“I should damn well hope so,” Principia replied grimly. “Avelea, Punaji, Awarrion.” She pointed at each of them in turn as she continued. “Mad at me, raised to make ruthless decisions, and both. I have no idea what kind of rabbit hole I’m about to crawl down, and I’m going to count on you to put me down at the first firm sign that it’s necessary. I said firm sign, but also the first one. If you see the need, do not wait for me to get positioned to fend you off.”

“Locke, think about what you’re doing,” Toby said, stepping forward. “You were more wary of that thing than any of us, at least at first, and rightly so.”

“And that is the point,” she said patiently. “You kids may think of me as kind of a joke, and that’s fine, but the fact remains I am responsible for you. And remember, our one and only conversation with Arachne on the subject established that I am entirely expendable in this arrangement. This thing should not ever be used in any real-world situation beyond your little trial runs, but sometimes we just don’t get the luxury of doing things as they should be done. If somebody’s gotta get bent over the barrel for this, it’s going to be me and not any of you.”

“Does someone have to be?” Juniper asked. “That can’t be your only idea.”

“Tracking a shadow-jump by itself is among the most complex and advanced magic in existence,” Principia replied, her patient tone beginning to be strained. “And that’s not even touching on the matter of whatever required him to use that scythe to claw open a doorway. This is my only idea, or you could bet your green ass I wouldn’t be doing it.”

“But do you need to follow him?” the dryad persisted. “Gabe can take care of himself, and he knows what he’s doing. He does!” she added a little defensively when everyone else turned to look at her. “He’s not the same guy we started school with two years ago. None of us are.”

“Vesk was here!” Principia shouted. “Fucking Vesk! The patron god of plot contrivances, who regards people’s gruesome deaths as great character development for their grieving loved ones! The last time I took orders from that asshole I came very damn close to losing good women under my command. Other people died under our weapons who absolutely did not need to, and wouldn’t have if he’d just stayed out of it! But it did solve our immediate problem, in the end, and in a much more dramatic fashion than the patient and thorough campaign we’d been gearing up toward. And that is what it comes down to with him, kids. As soon as you find yourself in one of his goddamn stories, you are in it and you’re not going to wiggle out from under his thumb until he’s had a satisfying climax and denouement.”

“Fuckin’ ew,” Ruda muttered.

“The only thing to do,” Principia continued more quietly but just as insistently, brandishing the mask at them, “is lean into it and try to guide the damage in the least awful direction you can. Whatever Gabriel’s involved in now, the timing alone tells me he’s bitten off more than he can chew. I have a feeling this was only ever going to end with somebody using this horrible abomination of yours, and then probably learning an ironic lesson about power and taking the quick and easy path. And as I said, it’s going to be me, is that clear? You just remember what I told you. Be ready to help Gabriel with whatever bullshit we are about to find, and be ready to deal with me if it comes to that.”

She took at deep breath and stared at the mask in her hands with undisguised contempt. “And damn that little shit for making me do this. Somebody please wring his neck for me.”

Then, before anyone could argue further, Principia pressed the Mask of the Adventurer to her face.

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15 – 34

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Teal lowered the mask from her face once again, frowning pensively down at it. The inner surface lacked the silvery decoration, leaving nothing but a blank wooden surface with cursory holes for the eyes and mouth.

“Still not Foxpaw?” Fross chimed after a moment.

“I don’t…know,” Teal said slowly. “There’s not really any way to know, is there? It’s worked every time, so far, but heck, there have to have been people besides Ashner Foxpaw who were smart enough to play word games. Merry, you sure you weren’t…”

Merry raised her hands in a gesture of innocence; despite this being at least the fifth time she’d been asked, she had yet to grow exasperated by the questioning. On the contrary, she seemed to be concerned mostly with establishing that she’d done nothing wrong. It was a subtle thing, but her tacit position that even using the Mask of the Adventurer was a sketchy action had cast a further pall over the group’s experimentation.

“All I was thinking was that there had to be someone who could match Tellwyrn for power, and if the Mask does what it seems to, it should be able to recreate them. That was the entirety of my thought process. Maybe it just threw up Tellwyrn because no one else can beat her.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not true,” Trissiny murmured, also staring at the mask in Teal’s hands. “More importantly, Tellwyrn’s pretty sure that’s not true. She’s mentioned it, now and then, how even the most powerful and immortal people get along by not picking the wrong fights.”

“Perhaps the semantics are important,” Toby suggested. “Corporal Lang wanted something to match Tellwyrn, not defeat her. After all, if you want to beat a powerful mage, you need an equally powerful warlock, or a more powerful witch.”

“Yeah, well, forgive me if I’ve had about all the fuckin’ semantics I can stomach for a while,” Ruda grunted, sitting down on the ancient paving stones and pulling a bottle of bourbon out of her coat.

After Merry’s use of the Mask—since which she had adamantly refused to touch it—they had spent hours exploring its subtler capabilities. By unspoken agreement, Teal continued to serve as the test case, while the rest of the group took turns applying intellectual pressures rather than physical ones. It turned out the Mask was able and willing to assist with these challenges as well, and nothing they’d produced had managed to stump her as long as she was wearing it—though, at Fross’s insistence and accompanied by a shrill lecture about scientific procedure and the importance of control groups, Teal hadn’t donned the Mask to meet any challenge until she failed to come up with an adequate solution on her own, which had ruled out several of their efforts.

In general, these transformations were less dramatic, not only involving less moving about but fewer and subtler costume changes, and no conjured weapons or tools. In a few cases, they could only tell that the Mask was active because it wasn’t visibly in evidence while being worn.

The first two Omnist koans used up most of an hour, because it turned out that when one tested a question that was designed to have no answer against an artifact that provided an answer to anything, the result was a profoundly involved spiritual conversation. Toby, Juniper, and Teal had certainly seemed invested in their long discussion about what it meant that the way which could be known was not the way, but Ruda had finally broken under the pressure and loudly demanded they try something else.

More concrete challenges were answered more directly, not to mention faster. Trissiny’s challenge had taken the longest of those remaining, as well as being one of the few which created a costume change, though even the paladin couldn’t identify the military uniform Teal had been wearing when she provided answers to a series of military exercises and dilemmas. This had involved the two of them kneeling in the dust and scratching diagrams of troop positions on the ground. In the end, Trissiny had come away looking slightly shaken at Teal’s borrowed military ingenuity; according to her, those were problems on which Silver Legion officer candidates were tested to gauge the flexibility of their thinking and capacity to make inventive use of meager assets. They were supposed to be as impossible as Toby’s koans.

Fross, by contrast, had been so delighted by the answers provided to her probing questions into advanced arcane mechanics and theoretical physics by the robed wizard Teal channeled in response that Ruda had had to insist yet again on ending their session. In this case, it was because she wanted to try something of her own. Bringing up Merry’s channeling of Tellwyrn, she had posed Teal a series of questions and challenges taken directly from Foxpaw’s Exploits in an attempt to see whether the Mask could channel the archetypal master thief. The results of that had rather frustrated her. Teal had taken the Mask off and put it on several times over the course of that conversation, creating clear changes of her approach to these hypothetical dilemmas each time, and it turned out that a series of ancient thieves, bards, and miscellaneous tricksters mostly responded to being interrogated by turning the game around on the one asking questions. After Ruda had lost patience, demanded a straight answer, and been serenaded with a new verse of “I’d Hit Sally” featuring herself in reply, had stomped off in a huff.

“I had…” Gabriel trailed off, frowning, then shook his head when they all turned to look at him. “Never mind. Probably not a good idea.”

“Well, don’t let that stop you,” Trissiny said with a smile. “Screwing around is your greatest strength.”

His lips twitched in a reluctant reciprocation of her amusement. “Yeah, well, I was just thinking. It seems to me that this specific thing we’re doing here might have more important possibilities than the Mask’s ability to imitate dangerous people. I was just considering trying to stump it with a couple of intractable strategic problems I’ve been wrestling with, and it occurred to me that it would be amazingly practical if that thing could actually solve those for me. And from there… Think about it, this is way more than a weapon. It potentially turns its wearer into an oracle who can answer any question to which someone, at some point, knew an answer.”

“Isn’t that kinda what Fross tested?” Ruda asked.

“Not exactly!” chimed the pixie. “I was more asking for deeper comprehension and precise methodology than actual physical understanding. The tricky thing about arcane physics is that the underlying concepts are predicated on an entirely different physical logic than that which sapient minds evolved to process. The actual answers to those questions are known, otherwise it wouldn’t have been a valid test to ask them; we’d have no way to check the results! It’s just, that stuff is really hard to learn.”

“So we could still actually test that, then,” Toby said. “It sounds worth a try, at the very least.”

Teal frowned, slowly turning the Mask over in her hands.

“Are you all right?” Shaeine asked softly, stepping up next to her. “You don’t need to be the test case every time, love. Or we could stop.”

“No…” Teal lowered one hand from the Mask to gently take Shaeine’s, giving it an affectionate squeeze. “Actually, I was just thinking, myself, about the potential of this thing. This has been a lot more instructive than combat tests. My own entire problem has been…learning to find my own false face. You know, project a mask I can use as a mask to both protect myself and take on challenges in a way that’s not… Well. Teal ducking and hiding or Vadrieny smashing everything. A middle ground between those extremes is such a mess to figure out that it just makes more sense to obviate the entire thing by creating a character to use. The way Vidians do, and Veskers are supposed to.” She hefted the Mask of the Adventurer, frowning quizzically at it. “Every time I put this on, get a new angle from which to see the world, I feel like I’m getting one step closer to my own goal.”

“Well, we don’t mind you being the one to test it,” Juniper said, looking around at the others. “Right? Especially if it helps you. Helping with that specific issue is kinda why we did that whole ritual in the first place, isn’t it? And anyway, I don’t mind admitting that thing scares me. I don’t want to put it on. The absolute last thing I need is more power.”

“Yeah, that’s my concern,” Teal agreed, nodding at the dryad. “I am way too prone to lean on crutches when they’re available. Testing this thing out is helping me, but… Guys, I hope you don’t think this is cowardly, but I don’t want to be its guardian. I don’t want the option of just whipping it out as soon as things are tough.”

“I think that’s extremely wise, Teal,” Toby said, smiling at her.

“Hey, Fross,” said Trissiny. “Would it harm either you or the Mask to put it in your aura storage?”

“I don’t really see how,” Fross replied, bobbing up and down in thought. “I store magical objects in there all the time, and there’s no bleed effect with each other or my own aura. Clearly, we can’t actually know until we try it, and that object is orders of magnitude more powerful than anything else I’ve ever held onto. But in principle, yeah, that should work fine.”

“Well, if you’re willing to take on the responsibility,” Trissiny said, “and if no one else objects, how about we have Fross hang onto it when we’re not experimenting? That aura storage of hers seems like the best way to keep anyone else from being able to steal it from us. And more important, Fross is the most rational person I know. No disrespect meant to any of you, but I can’t think of anybody I’d trust more with something that dangerous. Myself included.”

“Hell, I don’t think you’ll get any argument from anyone here,” Ruda said, grinning and toasting the pixie with her bottle.

“Wow,” Fross said, as the others all nodded agreement. “I’m really honored, guys. And sure, I don’t mind. If it does cause me a problem we might have to revisit this, but yeah, I’ll definitely tuck it away. But first, weren’t we going to test Gabriel’s question?”

“That’s right,” Teal agreed, raising the mask toward her face.

“Wait!” Fross zipped around her in a circle. “Control group, remember? He’s gotta ask the question first!”

“Oh, right. Okay, Gabe, let’s hear it.”

He regarded her every bit as seriously as if he were actually consulting an oracle, a slight frown of sheer focus creasing his forehead. “How can you block a telepath… No, an incredibly powerful telepath, one who can no only read thoughts but read information right out of reality itself. How can you prevent someone like that from seeing your mind?”

Trissiny and Toby both stiffened as he spoke, eyes widening in comprehension. Ruda glanced speculatively at each of them, but the rest of the group just regarded Gabriel in puzzlement.

“Okay, yeah,” said Teal after a pause. “I have absolutely no idea. That’s a doozy of a test case. Let’s see, then…”

Still holding Shaeine’s hand, she lifted the Mask to her face again with her other, and in a short whirl of energy was left wearing a loose, slightly ragged robe of brown and maroon, with a hood pulled forward far enough to obscure her eyes.

“The question is, Gabriel Arquin,” Teal asked with a knowing grin that was not exactly unlike herself, but not the sort of face she would make under these circumstances, “who is you?”

“Do you mean…who are you?” he replied, blinking.

Teal’s new robe shuffled softly as she shook her head. “Who is asking the question? Do you wish to know how such a thing might be done by anyone, or by yourself specifically?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Why does it matter?”

“The essence of deterring a telepath is not to create a wall to keep them out, for they will only take that as a challenge. It is to create an illusion, a superficial layer of false thought to distract them, and prevent them from looking deeper. No matter how powerful the enemy, once they have seen what they expect, they will rarely look a second time. The mental discipline this demands is vast. People train for lifetimes to hone their minds this way. But for you? There are answers within the berserking blood of the hethelax—”

“Bad idea,” Ariel interjected, the first she had spoken since they had begun the ritual at dawn. “Self-enchantment, taking advice from mysterious warlocks, taking advice from poorly-understood magical artifacts; this is in fact a whole stack of bad ideas.”

“Aren’t you a poorly-understood magical artifact?” Gabriel countered, placing a hand on her hilt.

“Not in the least. Just because you cannot make a talking sword does not mean the method isn’t fully a matter of record. That thing, by contrast, is an entire mystery and as far as I can tell an object completely without precedent. Tampering with your own mental and magical underpinnings at its suggestion would be terrifyingly reckless.”

“I happen to agree,” Teal said, barely an instant after she pried the Mask off her face again. “That one was…that was uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure that was some kind of warlock. And anyway, Ariel’s right. Getting theoretical knowledge from it is one thing, since it’s apparently the knowledge of people from the past. But that very fact means we have no way of vetting who they are or what agenda they had, or what might result from following their suggestions.”

“So in other words,” Gabriel said, still clutching Ariel as if for comfort, “the oracular powers that Mask presents might be just as dangerous as its combat powers.”

A short silence fell in which they all frowned in thought.

“Well, if we’re done playin’ around for now,” Ruda said at last, “I guess that brings us to the real question, here: what the fuck are we gonna do about that thing?”

Teal turned to meet Shaeine’s eyes, and the drow nodded minutely to her, squeezing her hand.

“Hey, Locke,” Teal called. “What do you think we should do with the Mask?”

They were far from alone on the plateau, though their various companions and minders were mostly providing them with some space. Sniff and F’thaan were both asleep nearby, having been up most of the night along with their respective masters, and their two Order of the Light guides were lurking on the periphery, watching the group from the entrance of the old building in which they were encamped. Merry had brought them up to speed on events, having designated herself the party’s gofer, likely as much to keep busy as anything. Principia had settled down on a rock near enough to the group that she could have heard their conversation even without an elf’s ears, but had not spoken to them since. She was currently stripped to her tunic and breeches, having occupied her hands in thoroughly checking, cleaning, and oiling her armor. Now, she set down the rag and pauldron she was holding, turning to face them directly.

“Here’s a question: what can you do with it?”

“What the fuck kinda question is that?” Ruda demanded. “Is that another one of those koans?”

“Not exactly, except in the sense that the point of it is to have you consider the implications, rather than provide me with an answer. What you’ve got there is an instant win card for any possible conflict. What do you plan to do with it, exactly? I think Juniper so far has come closest to the heart of the matter. Do any of you need more power?”

“Ruda sort of does,” Fross offered. “I mean, in relation to the rest of us, at least.”

“Oh, the absolute fuck I do,” Ruda snorted. “I can’t imagine anybody more weak or stupid than a person with a gimmick that automatically wins all their fights for them. You learn by failing, and you grow by being challenged. You lot can do what you like, but I will have to lead a nation, and I can’t let myself get soft by leaning on a crutch like that.”

“And that is a very smart outlook,” Principia agreed, nodding. “What about the rest of you? No judgment, there are no wrong answers. Do any of you feel you need that artifact, or have any particular plans to use it?”

“I…sort of,” Teal said softly after a short pause. “But just the way I said. It’s useful for me as a tool for self-exploration, but I’m specifically alarmed by the possibility of coming to depend on it. Overall I can’t shake the feeling that this thing is bad news.”

“I’m hearing a lot of good sense, here,” Principia said with clear approval, “which is very reassuring after the absolutely harebrained stumblebumblery by which you created that chunk of madness in the first place. Anyone else? Does anyone have a need or desire to use the Mask?”

She let the silence hang while they glanced at each other.

“Good,” the elf said finally, nodding again. “Then if you’re not going to use it, the question becomes: who should?”

“I cannot help but think,” Shaeine said softly, “the obvious answer to that is no one. I am uncertain that any person could be trusted with such power. I say that as one whose House and nation would be very eager indeed to control it. As we were responsible for creating the Mask, I feel we must be responsible for keeping it out of the wrong hands.”

“Yeah, the thing is,” said Juniper, grimacing, “are there any right hands?”

“I tend to agree with Shaeine,” said Gabriel. “We’ve all got people we trust and causes we support. But… That is a hell of a trump card. Does anyone deserve to have that kind of power?”

“More troubling to me is what power does to people,” Trissiny added. “Corruption is only the beginning of it. By entrusting the Mask to someone we respect, we might well be condemning them to a slide into madness.”

“I think that’s an unnecessarily dramatic way to put it, but in principle I don’t disagree,” said Ruda.

“So.” Principia folded her arms on her knees, leaning toward them with an intent expression. “You don’t want to use it, or give it away. That leaves taking it out of circulation. And that is complicated by how very much absolutely everyone who learns of that thing will want it.”

“Well, I mean, who even knows?” Gabriel asked. “It’s not like we’re gonna take out a newspaper ad.”

Principia pointed at the distant Great Tree. “That is one of the most powerful nexi of fae and divine magic in existence. You just stood at the base of it and did…this. Given the nature of oracular divination? Every witch and shaman in the world above a certain threshold of capability just lifted their heads to sniff the air, even if they don’t know why. The strongest among them will definitely have a general shape in mind of what happened here—and even if it’s just ‘something incredibly powerful was just created,’ that’s enough. Not to mention the existence of actual oracles, and the fact that they tend to end up in the hands of major governments and the Universal Church. It is not impossible that some highly motivated people already know exactly what you’ve got there. Maybe not likely, but at the very least, the hints are already spreading.”

“Oh,” he said quietly.

“And that’s only the beginning,” Principia went on, shifting to glance at the dwarf and human still keeping a respectful distance from them.

“Hey, now,” Ruda protested. “I’m not saying those two’re the kind of people I’d invite to my poker game, but they don’t strike me as squealers.”

“You have to think in terms of connections, and obligations,” Principia said seriously. “They are members of the Order of the Light. They cannot fail to report something like this to their Order.”

“The Order has fallen far from relevance since the Enchanter Wars,” Shaeine pointed out.

“The Order,” Principia continued relentlessly, “is nominally led by Ampophrenon the Gold. He is a founding member of the Conclave of the Winds. The draconic government is a formal ally of the Tiraan Empire, and I have personally twice seen its members cooperating closely with Imperial Intelligence.”

“Well, then, just, fuck, that’s all,” Ruda said feelingly.

“And don’t forget, Vesk was here when you were doing this. Just because they didn’t make their presence specifically known doesn’t mean the other gods aren’t just as aware. At minimum, the four to which the paladins are connected will know. Gods have their own agendas and aren’t very communicative as a rule; it may be that most of them wouldn’t share news of something like this with their cults. But Vesk, himself? Everything he came here to do, he could have done anonymously and in silence. Instead, he couldn’t resist putting in an appearance just to be mysterious at me—the very definition of a pointless exercise. Gods are constrained by their nature and their aspects. Vesk is well known for doing things for absolutely no other reason than that a rollicking good story will result. Which, for everyone not a bard, means a sequence of barely manageable disasters.”

Silence answered her as they all considered this. Principia stared at them, her expression revealing nothing of her thoughts.

“It sounds like it might be best if we destroyed it,” Juniper said at last in a small voice. “Gabe? Maybe that scythe of yours—”

“If you destroy the Mask, two things will happen,” Principia interjected. “First, the absolutely unfathomable amount of energy contained in it will all be released at once, and I don’t care how supposedly invulnerable anybody here is, there’s a very good chance nobody would survive that. Or what would happen to any who did; that kind of uncontained magic of all four schools and shadow besides can do hellaciously unpredictable things. Second, there would be pieces of it left, whether fragments or just dust, and there’s absolutely no telling what those would do, much less where they might end up. It is possible to safely dispose of artifacts like that, but you’re back to the issue of power and the temptation thereof. Any magic users who could handle that task, like the cult of Salyrene or the Wizards’ Guild, might very well want to possess that thing badly enough to risk pissing off the nine of you.”

“You’re a real ray of sunshine, you know that?” Gabriel commented.

“You goobers accidentally created the ultimate superweapon. I will stop pointing out what a fucking mess this is just as soon as it stops being urgently necessary.”

“That’s a lot of things we can’t or shouldn’t do with the Mask,” Teal said pointedly, “but I asked you what you thought we should do.”

“And this is me answering,” Principia replied with the ghost of a smile. “The absolute last thing you need is someone to hold your hands, kids. I’m just guiding you in the right direction, here. You already know what you should do with it.”

“Tellwyrn,” Toby said softly.

“Whoah, hang on,” Ruda objected. “I like Tellwyrn as much as anybody, but come on. Does she of all people need something like this?”

“No, she doesn’t need it,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “Maybe…that’s why she can be trusted with it.”

“Here’s what I know,” Principia added. “I entrusted Arachne with the Mask of Calomnar a hundred years ago and nobody’s heard a whisper of that damn thing ever since. She can be trusted to hide dangerous artifacts away where no one can get at them.”

“Whoah, wait a sec,” Gabriel exclaimed. “What the hell were you doing with the Mask of Calomnar?”

“Getting the hell rid of it, is what.” Principia grimaced, rubbing her palms on her tunic as if at the memory of a greasy sensation. “I wouldn’t have gone near that thing at all, but I was in Onkawa when it popped into circulation nearby, and a particularly squirrelly succubus was that close to getting her hands on it. Obviously I couldn’t just let that happen; I have to live on this planet too. Arachne was…a friend of a friend, at the time, and someone pointed out to me as both trustworthy and powerful enough to handle a thing like that. And like I said, that was back during the Enchanter Wars; time has proven it was the right thing to do. She’s powerful enough to be able to contain such things, savvy enough not to mess with anything too dangerous to handle, and arguably so powerful that more power doesn’t tempt her. Give it to Arachne, and nobody else after the thing will even have a chance.”

Another pause fell, in which they digested this advice.

Then Fross let out a chiming little laugh. “Oh, wow… And I was just hoping we might be able to resolve this without her finding out about it. Man, she’s really gonna kill us this time, guys.”

“You did the thing; it’s time to take your medicine like big boys and girls.” Principia turned again to look at the distant Tree. “I just hope there’s time enough to get to her. The clock started ticking the moment that Mask was created, maybe before. I wouldn’t think anyone could reach us here before we return to Last Rock, but… It’s a new world, kids, and nobody knows all the rules, yet.”

She did not add that Vesk himself had predicted a new Age of Adventurers to be spawned from this day’s work. There was little point in spooking them further; they couldn’t do much to be more prepared than they already were. Depending on the powers already assembling, it might have been too late before they began.

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15 – 31

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Principia never did get that nap, and it was starting to look like she wasn’t going to.

The kids reappeared barely an hour past sunrise, trooping in a loose cluster through the pass leading to the ramp up to the Order’s plateau base. Unable to settle down despite Merry’s harrumphing, Principia had maintained a watch toward the old fortress, and given her eyesight was the first to see them as they came around the rocky outcrop which blocked view of the path beyond. She narrowed her eyes in concentration; a swift headcount revealed no one missing, even the pixie. To judge by their pace and general demeanor, they didn’t appear to have suffered any catastrophe or even disappointment, despite Vesk’s dire maunderings.

On the other hand, they were carrying something which put off a magical aura nearly as blinding as the god’s had been. And it was definitely something, not one of them. Artifacts housing that colossal degree of power were incredibly rare, with good reason. Given the nature of her own career, though, Principia Locke had had her hands on several of them over the years.

Nothing good had ever come of it.

“See ’em?” Merry asked, trailing off in a yawn as she came to stand by Principia’s shoulder. Even the human should have been able to spot the seven figures rounding the pass if she focused, though she probably couldn’t distinguish individuals at that distance. Principia considered calling her down for over-relying on elven gifts which she might not always have access to, then decided to postpone that decision until she determined whether this was going to become a habit.

“Everybody seems fine,” she said quietly, nodding. No need to relay any more detail just yet…

She focused, mentally sifting through the vast wealth of sounds available to her sensitive ears. It was easier up here in the mountains, as there simply wasn’t a whole lot going on relative to an urban environment or one with denser wildlife. At that range she had to concentrate, and the echoes off the stone walls were more an impediment than the faintness of distance, but the voices of the students weren’t excessively hard to pick out.

“I bet it would work,” Teal was saying animatedly. “I mean, as long as you don’t go overboard on the magic, there has to have been someone who could handle that kind of attack!”

“When it comes to the martial arts, there’s always a greater master,” Toby agreed.

“Let’s try it, then!” Teal said, coming to a stop and turning to face him. Narrowing her eyes, Principia could make out the shape of the thing she was holding. A mask? It was clearly the focus of all the barely-contained power that blazed against her senses.

“What’re they saying?” Merry demanded practically right in her ear.

“Shh,” Principia urged, marshaling her irritation. “Let me listen.”

“…not the best idea,” Trissiny was saying in response. “We left the Tree for a reason, remember? No reason to try this right here in the middle of nowhere when there’s a nice flat plateau with our camp up ahead.”

“Yeah, I’m eager to experiment, too,” Fross’s squeaky voice agreed, “but there’s a time and a place. But aw, man, the possibilities! There’s gotta be some limit, surely you can’t just reproduce a paladin or something, that requires a god. But can it do a dragon? Or, say, a dryad?”

“Yeah, well, if we’re gonna wait on the scientific method to reach a better location, let’s go on and reach it,” Gabriel urged. Principia could just see him making shooing motions at the stalled group from the rear. “Hup hup, resume march, go on.”

Juniper muttered something that even Prin couldn’t make out at that distance, prompting a gale of laughter from Ruda.

She sighed, blinked, and rolled her shoulders, discovering that she’d been unconsciously leaning forward to squint at the distant group. Not exactly subtle, but then there was no call to be surreptitious up here.

“Problems?” Merry inquired when Principia’s eye fell on her.

“That remains to be seen,” she mused. “I’m guessing probably. Doesn’t appear urgent, though. Still, I have the strangest feeling nobody up here’s gonna be getting much rest once they get back. How’re the two from the Order?”

“Still asleep, last I checked, but that was a bit ago. I wouldn’t expect them to be for much longer, people from monastic traditions get in the habit of being up as early as soldiers.”

“Yeah, or more so. And the fire?”

“Burning low, but I didn’t let it go out. Figured the kids would be wanting some breakfast. I definitely do, and I note they let theirs die hours ago.”

“Attagirl. I’ll fetch a bucket from the well if you’ll break out the tea. Best make it good and strong. Something tells me everybody here’s gonna need some picking up before too long.”

“Wow,” Merry said, unimpressed. “Cryptic, ominous, and pushy. Do you have to be such a goddamn elf all the time?”

“Ow. My feelings.” Principia lightly shoved her. “That is the single rudest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“Yeah, that’s a lie,” Merry retorted, grinning.

A few feet to their right, F’thaan suddenly stirred, lifting his head to sniff the air. His little tail began wagging furiously and he let out an excited yap, then bounded off toward the ramp, yapping all the way.

Principia considered collecting him, then decided he’d be fine. There was no one else up here in the mountains, and she detected no nearby animals any bigger than he. Plus, letting him run to meet his keepers might give them leverage to complain about her neglecting him, which they would enjoy and she could use as a conversational hook.

Juniper’s pet also stirred, watching F’thaan go. He straightened up his neck, crest rising in alertness, and turned his head toward the distant path, but did not move to follow the hellhound. After all, his mistress had told him to stay with Principia.

“Good boy, Sniff,” Prin said, stroking his feathers. “You’re a good whatever the hell you are. All right, Lang, let’s heave to. There’s probably time to get a pot of tea and some porridge ready by the time we get to learn what kind of apocalypse we’re in the middle of this time.”


They were still in a good mood when they reached the ruins in which the party was encamped. The more meditatively inclined among them—Toby, Trissiny, and Shaeine—were quiet, as usual; somewhat more surprisingly, so was Juniper, who had generally struck Principia during the trip so far as working hard to think before acting. Pensive or not, though, they were in good spirits, as evidenced by Shaeine giving her a single disinterested glance without any of the put-on hostility she’d been projecting since Last Rock. Both arcane sciences majors were practically abuzz with curious energy, and Teal was more excited than Principia had ever seen her, even with an exhausted little hellhound tucked in the crook of her arm. Most interestingly of all, Ruda was quiet and openly pondering, her eyes narrowed and expression far away. Principia took that as the most significant sign by far; the Punaji princess was thrice as sharp as she usually let people notice, and it said a lot both that something was occupying her mind and that she was too occupied by it to bother pretending otherwise.

“Is that tea I smell?” Toby asked, smiling at her as the group filed onto the plateau, where Principia was awaiting them at parade rest. Sniff finally broke discipline, rushing past her to rejoin Juniper, who knelt to ruffle his feathers affectionately and murmur to him.

“Yep,” she replied. “Lang should just about have some breakfast ready, too. Whatcha got there, Falconer?”

Teal’s ebullience cooled noticeably, though not to the extent of resuming her offended act. She did glance at Shaeine, receiving a small but warm smile in reply. Very interesting; nothing had changed relative to their situation, so if the pair had decided to drop it, that suggested some manner of profound emotional experience causing them to reconsider things in general.

“No offense, Lieutenant, but I’m not sure it’s any of your concern,” Teal replied, cool but not hostile.

“You can’t offend me,” Principia said gently, planting a seed of thought which she looked forward to harvesting. Let them chew on that for a while. “And I’m not looking to butt into your business. But I just had a surprise visit from a god of the Pantheon uttering dire warnings about whatever you’ve been up to, so I think I’m within my rights to be a little concerned.”

That got their attention, all right.

“Which god?” Gabriel demanded.

“Vesk.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said sourly, “great.”

“What did he have to say?” Toby asked in a more even tone.

“Being Vesk, very little that seemed worth the effort of saying, let alone showing up in person. Cryptic chunnering about great change about to happen in the world and you lot doing something over there that was to play a role in kicking it all off.”

“So in other words,” said Trissiny, “as usual he was just being annoying.”

“Now, be fair,” said Toby, “I don’t think Vesk does anything just to be annoying. He sure does manage to work it in every single time, though.”

“We aren’t all paladins, you know,” Principia said. “I’m not accustomed to having personal conversations with gods. Interestingly, it’s the second time in as many years that one felt a need to pay me a visit. The nature of narrative being what it is, if there’s a third I’m gonna be genuinely alarmed. Anywho, he also mentioned that he was present in part to exert some influence on your mysterious project to ensure it went well. With the implication that it could have gone very badly.”

“Oh.” Teal looked down at the wooden mask she was still holding with the hand not occupied by her dog. “I’m…not sure how I feel about that. Vesk had a hand in this?”

“Sobering,” Gabriel agreed. “But…it does sort of make sense, if you think about it.”

“Yeah, he’s kinda laid a claim to…wow, half this group, right?” Fross agreed. “In one way or another. And there was kind of a narrative component to that whole ritual.”

“You don’t trust me,” Principia said matter-of-factly.

They all turned impressively blank stares on her.

“Surely you cannot find that a surprise,” Shaeine said quietly. Certainly not friendly, but she continued not to be aggressive.

Principia grinned in response. “I confess I’d be more than a little concerned if you did. This one, at the very least, I would expect to know better.” She pointed at Trissiny, who pursed her lips in discontent at the gesture. “Well, the question needn’t be resolved this very instant. Let’s go settle in for some nourishment while you lot ponder how involved I already am and to what extent you feel I can be useful to you.”

She gave them a final vague smile as she turned to lead the way back to the campfire.


Principia could still hear their discussion, of course; separating herself and Merry from the group by ten yards to eat their breakfast separately made no significant difference to an elf’s hearing. But they knew that, and more importantly, they knew she knew they knew it, so there was no hint that she was trying to put one over on them. Besides, the hurried debate revealed nothing of interest, being entirely about whether she could and ought to be consulted on any of these matters.

Despite her efforts at detachment, Principia could not help being somewhat warmed by the fact that it was Trissiny who spoke most firmly in favor of asking her input. Sure, the girl made certain to clarify that she wasn’t moved by any personal attachment, and Prin altogether could have done without the reminder that she had none. But Trissiny had a proper Eserite’s understanding of the facts, how even an untrusted individual could be relied upon to behave consistently with their goals and personality, and therefore predicted so long as you knew what those were. She also did a good job of succinctly relating that to the group, aided by Ruda and Shaeine, who as nobles had been similarly trained practically from the cradle.

This tension was, of course, not the relationship she desired with Trissiny. It would have been a fatal blunder to push for more, though, and so as fiercely as she loved her daughter, and more so with every new thing she learned about her, Principia kept herself to the distance Trissiny mandated, letting her take the lead. And if that hurt, well, it wasn’t as if she didn’t royally deserve to be hurt after what she’d done. It all worked out, one way or another.

In the end, it was Fross who came buzzing over to them.

“Hi!” the pixie chimed. “So, I guess you heard all of that.”

“I assume that was directed at you, LT,” Merry said wryly.

“I’m not much of a proper elf, but we get good at minding our own business,” Principia said offhandedly. “So what’s the word?”

“If you’re up for it, Lieutenant Locke, we’d like to consult you on a matter pertaining to the Age of Adventures. Since you’re the only person here who lived through it.”

Interesting. Keeping her expression even, Principia set aside her teacup and rose from her seat. “My time is yours.”

Her expression remained even while Gabriel quickly recounted what they’d done and where the mask had come from, though it required the full two centuries of her experience at projecting a false calm under pressure. Honestly, after all the chaos these kids had been dumped into already, all the responsibility they’d been taught pertaining to their power and place in the world, they’d still done this? Gone to one of the most magically significant sites on this blighted earth, deliberately invoked every considerable metaphysical power to which they were connected, and then not only performed a sacred ritual they barely understood, but improvised it.

Well, to be fair, she’d had nearly as interesting a youth and still had been years older than they were now before she’d learned to think more than two paces beyond the tip of her nose. She also remembered enough about being that age to understand that they’d just get their backs up if bawled out the way they deserved to be. If only Arachne had managed to figure that out after fifty years of shepherding teenagers, maybe this whole situation wouldn’t have transpired in the first place.

“I see,” Principia said when Gabriel finished, looking at the Mask of the Adventurer, which had been set on the ground in the middle of the group. She thought she’d said it quite neutrally, but must have slipped, to judge by the way Trissiny and Toby looked abashed, and Ruda’s nostrils flared in annoyance. “So, I gather you’ve done some basic investigation into what, exactly, that thing does?”

“Well,” Trissiny said, frowning, “long story short, it makes you an adventurer.”

“Uh huh. And…that means…?”

“Well, if you don’t know, who the hell does?” Ruda cackled.

“There’s not much point in asking for her opinion if we’re gonna be difficult about explaining the situation,” Juniper said. Ruda stilled immediately, giving the dryad a slightly incredulous frown.

“I’m the only one who’s tried it on so far,” Teal said, picking up the mask and turning toward Principia. “When you put it on, you change. You get the full…attributes, I guess, of an adventurer. Their complete skills, whatever magic they could do, and the physical weapons and armor they used most effectively. I think these are actually taken from adventurers who once lived, not just made up by the Mask, because of the way it…decides. From the eight of us who contributed a mask to it, it seems to pick one as a kind of basic archetype and then tunnel backward through this haze of experiences until it settles on one. That feels like it takes a while when you’re going through it, but they tell me it’s almost instantaneous when watched from outside.”

“It’s using us as a kind of sorting algorithm!” Fross said excitedly. “Isn’t that fascinating?”

“Hm,” Principia grunted noncommittally, because it was that or fall over. If that thing did what Teal claimed, it was in the running for the most powerful magical artifact in existence. Whoever possessed the Mask of the Adventurer could do… Hell, there was nothing they couldn’t do. There was no one who could stop them. That fact alone made her skeptical; the idea that they had created such a thing by accident was just too ridiculous to bear. “And what adventurer did it turn you into, precisely? Might’ve been someone I know.”

“It didn’t give me any names or identifying details,” Teal said almost apologetically, “just the package of skills and relevant equipment. Oh, but it’s a different one each time! It depends on the situation, and what kind of… Well, actually, it might be easier to demonstrate than explain. Hey, Fross, let’s try you as a combatant again, that one was pretty dramatic.”

“You got it!” the pixie chimed, swirling up into the air. The rest of the group backed away as Teal and Fross squared off, Principia and Merry judiciously removing themselves a dozen paces or so.

“We found it works better to let the other person make an aggressive move first,” Teal explained to them, “that way the Mask knows what’s up and what to do about it. Okay, Fross, you’re up!”

“Sorry in advance if this hurts!” Fross replied, then conjured five points of burning arcane light in the air around herself.

Teal raised the Mask of the Adventurer to her face, and there ensued a split-second whirl of light and energy as if she were buffeted by a magical whirlwind. It resolved nearly instantly, though, leaving her with her hands free, no visible sign of a mask on her face, and attired very differently. She now wore a black robe with elaborate silvery trim and embroidery and holding a staff longer than she was tall, carved of gleamingly polished bone and tipped by fist-sized chunk of faceted obsidian.

Fross unleashed the five nascent arcane bolts, and Teal made a single, almost contemptuous gesture with her staff. All five, each representing enough firepower to punch through a castle door, veered off-course, sliding straight into the head of that staff, whereupon they vanished.

The pixie then fired a blast of pure elemental ice, which splattered fruitlessly against a shield of white light that enveloped Teal.

“Okay, better leave it there,” Teal suggested. “It’s not that I don’t have control, but this isn’t just magic—it’s skills and patterns of thought, including reflexes. I’m concerned if I’m put in real danger I might accidentally hurt you.”

“Good thinking,” Fross agreed, fluttering back down from the altitude she’d assumed to her usual head height. “I would prefer not to get hexed, even in the name of science!”

Teal reached up to her face and grasped the sides, as if taking hold of an invisible mask, then pulled her hands forward. Another brief whirl later, she was again holding the Mask of the Adventurer and wearing her customary suit. Turning to Principia with a grin, she raised her eyebrows. “Well? What do you think?”

“Holy shit,” Merry whispered.

“Corporal,” Principia said sternly.

“Sorry, ma’am. But in my defense…” She gestured at Teal. “Holy shit.”

“Back when I was living in Last Rock,” Principia said noncommittally, hoping Shaeine wasn’t able to hear the pounding of her pulse in her throat, “the Black Wreath tried to recruit me to smuggle you some books on diabolism and get you interested in the topic. I gave them to Trissiny, but they obviously thought you’d have an aptitude in that direction, which just makes sense. Are you sure you haven’t been studying anti-arcane craft on your own?”

“I certainly have not,” Teal retorted, now with an offended frown. “Anyway, you saw that shield—that’s no infernal craft. Actually I’m not sure what sort of magic all that was. It wasn’t the same thing the Mask gave me last time I sparred with Fross. None of it felt familiar.”

Principia’s question had been irrelevant cover for her own mounting unease; she knew exactly what that had been. A few of her least favorite adventures had left her able to immediately recognize the uniform and combat technique of a Scyllithene shadow priestess, something there was no possible way Teal Falconer could have learned.

“Of course,” she said mildly. “No insult meant, I’m just in the habit of reaching for logical explanations before outlandish ones.”

“That is an admirable mindset!” Fross chimed. “But there’s no reason we can’t demonstrate further, if that’d help.”

“Yeah, this one was pretty good,” Ruda chortled, drawing her sword and stepping forward. She adopted a ready stance, the tip of the rapier pointed at Teal’s heart. “En garde, bard!”

Teal raised the mask even as she danced forward, and the swirl of its magic instantly resolved into a swirl of Teal’s body as she spun into the reach of Ruda’s blade, batting it nimbly aside and seeming to flow around the pirate until she ended up, less than a second later, holding her immobilized in a headlock.

She was unarmed, now, but wearing what Principia recognized as the traditional garb of the Radiant Dawn, the Omnist sect from Shengdu which had originally devised and disseminated the Sun Style. They had been extinct since the Sheng civil war thirty years ago.

“Oh, bullshit!” Ruda squalled, struggling ineffectually. “Last time it made her this awesome assassin thing with these wicked daggers, all done up in black leather. Get the fuck off me, Falconer!”

“Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know,” Trissiny said while Teal released Ruda and then removed the Mask again. “The question I keep coming back to is whether this is drawing from everyone who ever lived and fought during the Age of Adventures, or just the ones who were at that mountain top at the last battle of the Third Hellwar. I know there were a lot of them present, but history doesn’t record most of their identities.”

“Yeah, from a wider perspective adventurers stop being specifically interesting when you gather more than a handful of them in one place,” Principia said lightly. “Then they’re just a hilariously undisciplined army. Okay, so, first question I have is whether that would even work for anyone else. You said only Teal has tried it—given how it was created, there’s a chance it only works for the eight of you. Or nine, however Teal and Vadrieny count for this exercise. The only way to test that is for someone else to try it on.”

A stillness fell over the group and their expressions all became very flat as they turned a united stare on her.

“And I suppose,” Shaeine said softly, “you would like to try it yourself.”

“Well, there wouldn’t be much point in that, now would there?” Principia replied in her mildest tone. “I’m already an adventurer from the Age thereof. Actually, I think there’s an open question whether it would work for me even if it does for others outside your group, but that seems like one of the least important things for us to be settling, here. Say, Lang?”

“Whoah, now,” Merry said, backing up a step and raising her hands even as she turned an alarmed look on the Mask Teal was holding.

“Easy there,” Principia soothed. “I am not going to order you to put that damn thing on your face. Actually, I’m not sure I even can order you to subject yourself to risky magical experimentation—”

“You can’t,” Trissiny clarified.

“—but I wouldn’t anyway. In this case… It would help us all out if you tried, at least once. I don’t see any reason to think that Mask is dangerous to the person wearing it.”

Merry drew in a deep breath, absently scrubbed her palms against the divided leather skirt of her armor, and finally sighed. “I…hell, okay. Sure, if you think it’s safe, I’ll give it a shot.”

“It is specifically extremely unsafe,” Principia cautioned as Teal stepped forward, holding out the Mask. “Just not to you, we think. Remember what Teal said; a package of skills comes with a package of instincts. You can reflexively hurt someone if you let them take over, so keep a cool head.”

“Right. Got it.” Merry actually grimaced as she accepted the Mask from Teal, holding it gingerly by the edges.

“Uh, are we sure this is a good idea?” Gabriel asked.

“As someone who has witnessed Corporal Meredith Lang at her very stupidest moments,” Principia said solemnly, “I still trust her with my life.”

“That’s good enough for me,” said Trissiny.

“All right, then,” Gabe agreed, nodding. “Triss’s say-so is all I need.”

“Let’s not do magic at her, though,” Ruda said, raising her sword again. “That seems like it’s asking for trouble.”

“Actually, Ruda,” Toby interjected, stepping forward. “Would you mind if I cut in? She’s a Silver Legionnaire, after all. A sword duel is already well within her existing skill set.”

“What, you don’t think I can take a Legionnaire in a fight?” Ruda demanded.

“I think you know very well I respect your skills and are now trying to get a rise out of me,” he said with a beatific smile.

Ruda grinned, stepping back and sheathing her rapier. “Yeah, yeah, lemme have my fun.”

“This will not put you in any physical danger, Corporal,” Toby said politely to Merry. “I will come at you with both my magic and martial arts, but neither has an offensive application. My intent will be only to subdue you. Fair?”

“Yeah, that helps a little, I guess,” she muttered, fingers working nervously at the edges of the Mask as she raised it toward her face. “Okay, bring it on.”

He flared to light, projecting a bright aura, and conjured a staff of pure golden energy. Toby flowed toward Merry as she pressed her face into the Mask of the Adventurer.

In the next moment, following the distinctive swirl of energy, she was surging backward with an equally fluid motion. Gone was her Legion armor; instead she wore an incongruous formal suit, with a black tailcoat and gray trousers.

A Butler uniform.

Toby swept the staff at her knees and Merry, moving as fast as an elf, hopped onto it, using the barely momentary foothold upon the improvised weapon as a launching point to land a flying kick right on his face.

Even his reflexes were barely fast enough, even with his response requiring only thought and not a movement of the body. Toby’s staff vanished as he snapped a golden shield of light into place around himself, scarcely in time to avoid being stomped unconscious.

Merry didn’t miss a beat, turning the aborted kick into another launching motion, this time bounding straight upward. She landed right on top of his shield, the contact with her shoes causing it to fizz and sparkle at that point and making the entire sphere visible with the strain.

Toby whirled this way and that, tried to knock her or throw her off, to no avail. She deftly sidestepped his jabs at her feet, moving in tiny and precise steps no matter which way he tried to sling her, riding the bubble like a trained circus animal balancing on a ball. Every second she was physically in contact with the shield put more strain upon it, hastening its demise.

The paladin deliberately dropped the shield rather than waiting for her to wear it out, hurling himself to the side as he did so. Merry plunged straight down and flexed her knees slightly on landing, arriving back on the ground in a perfect parade rest pose.

She paused, straightened her bowtie, and then folded her hands behind her back, waiting impassively for him to attack again.

Toby stared at her, then raised his hands. “Okay, enough.”

“Holy fuck,” Ruda muttered.

Merry probed experimentally at her face with both hands, finding purchase and then pulling the Mask off herself. In the next moment, holding it, her expression morphed into sheer awe. “Whoah.”

“It would be bad enough if that thing only reproduced the skills of one of the eight of you,” Principia said. “But apparently it can give any package of known skills and powers to any person who puts it on. Okay, I am really not in the habit of taking a lecturing tone with any living person, even the ones I really should—ask Lang if you doubt me—so take that as a sign of how serious this is. Do you kids have any idea what you’ve done?”

They all stared at the mask now dangling from Merry’s hands, their expressions at least revealing that they were finally beginning to ponder the implications as well as the possibilities.

Principia blew out a breath of sheer incredulity. “Well. I’ll say this: Arachne is going to secretly be very proud while she’s murdering you all to death.”

“Hey, look on the bright side,” Merry offered with a sudden grin, and raised the mask to her face again.

After the whirl of energy, she was wearing brown trousers and a matching vest over a green shirt, and very distinctive golden-rimmed spectacles. Smirking, she snapped her fingers and teleported to the other side of the group. “After this? Maybe you don’t need to worry about what Tellwyrn will think.”

“Lang,” Principia said in her very calmest tone, “take that thing off.”

Merry’s expression stilled, then suddenly grew alarmed. She grasped at her face and practically clawed the Mask off, drawing a breath of relief when it was away. With no further prompting she strode to Teal and practically shoved the Mask back into her hands.

“Oh, boy,” Gabriel said softly. “This…is gonna have some consequences, isn’t it.”

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