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No one would ever call what happened to Ninkabi less than a disaster, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The city was constructed nearly entirely of stone, and so fires had been relatively small, contained, and swiftly doused by magic users. For whatever reason, the specific spells and weapons used by the infernal invaders had not tended to cause large structural collapses, which after the battle helped a great deal to alleviate the need for search and rescue efforts. Being a warren of tunnels and bridges much better known to its inhabitants than invaders, the population, police and civilians alike, had largely survived by making use of countless natural choke points to hide from demons or pin and counter-attack them; fearsome though hellspawn were, the last major demonic invasion had been before the advent of lightning weapons and even the khladesh phalanxes had been unprepared to face wandfire. Perhaps most conveniently of all, especially in contrast to most recorded invasions from Hell, there were no lingering demons to fight; no invasion from Hell had ever been met by a counter-invasion of tiny, relentless fairies. Every demon in the city was gone, either destroyed or fled, by the time the final confrontation with Elilial had been ended, save the few allied with the adventurers.
The Empire’s state of war footing necessarily slowed the deployment of troops to Ninkabi, as there just weren’t large concentrations of them in any one convenient place, but Tiraas did not lack for non-military resources and sent everything it had. More aid came from all quarters as the day went on and telescrolls carrying word of the invasion spread across the Empire. Every cult sent what personnel and resources it could, the Omnists in particular contributing vastly to humanitarian efforts. The Wizard’s Guild lent every available mage to teleport anything and anyone needed to the city from wherever they came, and soon other cities, provincial governments and Houses likewise donated resources. After Falconer Industries dispatched its private zeppelin to transport any injured judged unfit for teleportation or Rail travel to the nearest standing hospitals, its competitors and soon other corporations began clamoring to be seen helping in front of the reporters, beginning with a fleet of trucks from DawnCo.
Tiraas’s allies also responded, with two members of the Conclave of the Winds arriving within an hour of the battle’s end, and pledges came from Rodvenheim, Puna Dara, Tar’naris and Sifan that packages of aid were being prepared for shipment as soon as it was feasible. The Tiraan Empire was richer by far than any of these nations and did not objectively need the help, but word of each such promise brought cheers from the people of Ninkabi when it was announced. During the darkest times, a simple show of solidarity could be as powerful as any helping hand.
In the broader world of politics, everyone everywhere had just been affected by the wolf dreams and unearthly howling, and word was only just beginning to be spread by witches and shamans that that crisis had passed. As much as the powerful liked to network with each other and be seen to make grand gestures, great uncertainty often brought out the best in populations. Generosity toward a stranger in need might not be satisfying in the same way as the destruction of a threat, but it was a means of asserting both power over fate and the virtue that most people liked to think they already possessed.
And of course, from the beginning, the large force of adventurers was there. Most of them had little skill in healing, but there was plenty to be done and none of them hesitated to pitch in. Even the spirit wolves attached to Ingvar’s group went to work sniffing out people trapped by collapsed structures. Ninkabi’s beleaguered residents, desperate and simply spellshocked as so many were, didn’t raise a peep of objection to having dozens of heavily-armed anachronisms running around their city, not as long as they were willing to help.
Two hours after full dark, the city was finally beginning to calm down, with the various relief workers now joining injured and displaced residents in the various hastily improvised shelters, most too simply tired to keep going by that point. Back in the old trading guild hall up near the main gates of the city, where the first concentration of civilians had taken shelter and many of the aid efforts were being coordinated, bedraggled adventurers, soldiers, and volunteers were settling in for some hard-earned rest in the spaces where the citizens had been huddled just a few hours prior, with the full expectation of being back at work with the crack of dawn. By that time, they were all that remained, the actual civilians having gone either back to their homes or off to other, less improvised shelters, leaving this space for administration of relief personnel.
It wasn’t silent, and likely nothing in Ninkabi would be for some hours, but the atmosphere was muted due to sheer fatigue. The knot of people huddled in one corner not far from the broken wall where baerzurgs had torn their way in tried to keep their voices low, though none of them seemed close to sleeping.
“She is, as far as I can tell, completely human,” Shaeine reported, releasing Jackie’s head. “I will caution everyone that I am not a medical professional, however, and I really recommend that she be examined by one of those.”
With Fross having regained possession of the Mask, Jackie had had the benefit of a quick wash, three helpings of Omnist vegetable stew, and a colorful new dress donated by someone in Onkawa, and generally looked a great deal better than she had previously, if still a little hollow-eyed from simple fatigue. She remained animated, though, and begin gesticulating broadly and rapidly in response.
“I don’t…suppose…you know how to write, Jackie?” Juniper asked hesitantly. Jackie grinned at her and nodded.
“We tried that,” Shaeine said, serene as always. She reached around behind herself and retrieved a sheet of paper, on which a crude stick figure had been scrawled, surrounded by equally roughly-sketched little butterflies. Or, upon closer inspection, pixies. “This was the result.”
Jackie raised her chin, beaming with pride.
“But why can’t she talk, then?” Fross asked.
“I can find nothing physically wrong with her vocal apparatus,” said Shaeine, carefully putting the picture back down. “But, again, someone more qualified than I should really check that before we consider the matter settled. Even so, muteness is known to be a possible side effect of mental trauma. She has certainly endured more than her share of that.”
Some of the good humor leaked from Jackie’s face, and Juniper leaned in to wrap an arm around her shoulders. Fross settled down in her hair, which immediately restored her smile.
“I’m honestly more curious why she’s human,” said Trissiny. “I suppose something like that isn’t beyond Salyrene’s power, but… Why?”
Everyone looked at Jackie, who shrugged, grimaced, and rolled her eyes.
“Yep, that’s the look of somebody who’s met a god, all right,” Principia said lightly. “Well, Jackie, now that things are a little more settled here, I’ve got something for you.”
While speaking, she had already been digging in one of her belt pouches, and now produced a golden eagle charm on a twisted chain, which she held out toward Jackie.
“Hey!” Trissiny exclaimed. “Why do you have that?”
“Rouvad issued it to me,” Principia said cheerfully.
“If that’s the case, it’s not yours to give away, Locke.”
“As it turns out,” Principia said, “this was created by a certain Mary the Crone, with whom we are all tediously acquainted. It’s a conversion focus which draws power from the bottomless well of an extremely high-ranked fairy, whom the old lady decided needed to be a little less powerful and so made that to turn some of her energy into divine magic in the hands of whoever has this charm. Specifically, it siphons magic from Jacaranda the Pixie Queen.”
Jackie, who had been frowning quizzically at the pendant, straightened up and stared at Principia.
“So,” the elf continued with a grin, “as far as I’m concerned, this is stolen property which I am now returning to its rightful owner. If it becomes necessary, I’m sure I can have Ephanie look up a suitable interpretation of Legion regulations to back me up on that, but to be quite honest? After that whole mess with Basra, I am far more inclined to work around Commander Rouvad’s politicking and bad judgment than try to persuade her if it’s not absolutely necessary.”
Trissiny looked away, her own expression settling into a grim frown. “I… Should probably not agree with a sentiment like that in the presence of witnesses. Off the record, though, Jackie, I’d say you’re definitely entitled to take that back if you want it.”
“As I understand it,” Principia said as Jackie carefully took the charm from her hands, “you picked up a suite of very basic spells from all four schools in that tower, right? That’d be typical for anybody getting a crash course in Salyrite magic; all their apprentices learn the fundamentals before specializing in one of the Colleges. If my grasp of the theory is correct, that’ll significantly augment your ability to do divine magic without specializing you into it, so you can still cast whatever arcane or infernal spells you know without interference. Don’t get mad if I’m wrong, though. I just do pretty basic enchantments, myself.”
“Will it still work?” Shaeine asked. “She is, after all, no longer a fairy.”
“It still worked today when I was using it to do some spot-healing on rescuees,” Principia said with a shrug. “Don’t ask me why, much less how. We’re into some advanced hoodoo, here; it’s not like there’s a textbook on how twice-transformed dryads work.”
Jackie gently extricated herself from Juniper’s grip, causing Fross to flutter aloft again, and leaned forward to wrap her arms around a startled Principia in a hug.
“Uh…okay, then?” the elf said, gingerly patting her on the back.
“That appears to be her default expression of approval,” Shaeine explained with a small smile. “It might cause issues in my culture, but in absolute terms I believe there are much worse things.”
“Well, you’re welcome,” Principia said, finally squeezing Jackie once and then carefully but firmly pulling herself back. “Tell you what, I know Aspen went outside the gates with those Huntsman pals of hers, but it seems like you three could use some family time before everybody turns in for the night. Something tells me tomorrow’s gonna be almost as long as today.”
“Good advice for us all,” Shaeine agreed, glancing over to the other side of the long room, where Teal was strumming a soothing lullaby on someone’s borrowed guitar for an audience of relief workers slumped in various postures of exhaustion. “I would very much like to spend some quiet time with my own consorts before retiring.”
“I’d really like to check on Sniff and F’thaan,” Juniper said with a sigh, “but I’m sure they’re fine in the Gardens with our guides. For a day or so, at least. C’mon, Jackie, let’s let everybody rest.”
The group parted ways with smiles and muted farewells. Trissiny, catching Principia’s eye, stepped over to the broken wall and carefully picked her way across the rubble to stand in the quieter darkness outside, with the elf right behind her. The air was pleasantly cooler in the alley beyond, though the smell of old garbage and fresher burned demon was not really an over the scent of packed bodies in the trading hall.
“I’d like to check if you caught anything I missed,” Trissiny said softly, “from that ridiculous confrontation in the cathedral. I know a con when I see one, at least in hindsight, and Elilial conned the hell out of all of us.”
“Yes, she did,” Principia agreed, nodding. “I was pretty sure something fishy was up when we got close enough for me to hear her raging at Kuriwa and Natchua like a baerzurg; anything that different from someone’s usual behavior is likely to be some kind of trick. What’s your take on it?”
“An armistice is great and all, though I maintain this one will not hold, and in fact she’s probably already working against the terms on her next sneak attack. But also, I can’t help seeing how she used even her concessions to get what she wants, starting with explaining in detail, to a mixed mob of adventurers, how to kill a god. The cults and the Church have worked hard to suppress that information for centuries. Even Tellwyrn, who has actually done it, refuses to say how; she just told us not to try it.”
“Good advice,” Principia said, grinning faintly. “But…yeah. And did you catch the other part?”
“What do you mean?”
“I think the bigger issue was her dramatic forgiveness of four less-influential gods. In public. With that, she drove a wedge right into the Pantheon.”
Trissiny narrowed her eyes in thought. “Surely you don’t think the gods are dumb enough to turn on each other over that?”
“Oh, definitely not. But their mortal followers absolutely are. And I dunno how much Arachne’s taught you about metaphysics, but gods tend to end up agreeing with whatever ideas come to permeate their cults. Now, Naphthene and Ouvis don’t even have cults, and nobody cares what the Ryneans think about anything, but splitting Shaath away from the rest of the Pantheon is a big damn deal. The Huntsmen are firmly behind Archpope Justinian’s politicking, and now this Ingvar character is right here, in the thick of these events, and from what I’ve been able to gather today, trying to stir up a major schism within that cult.”
“That’s…utterly brilliant,” Trissiny said reluctantly. “She can significantly damage Justinian’s support base, and no one will even object. Nobody actually likes the Huntsmen, and a lot of people are already unhappy with Justinian’s maneuvering. Yours truly firmly included. See, this is why I wanted to ask you. I completely missed that.”
“Ain’t my first rodeo,” Principia said, smiling. “Don’t worry, you’ve got no shortage of wits, I’ve just had longer to exercise mine.”
“And even that’s not the bigger deal here,” Trissiny went on. “Nothing’s more in character than Elilial using her own defeat to underhandedly stab at her enemies. I’m a lot more interested in the fact that Vesk, who definitely knows better, deliberately let all this happen.”
“’Let’ isn’t a strong enough word,” said Principia, her jaw clenching momentarily. “Vesk forced that to happen the way it did, and I don’t just mean by running roughshod over you and the dragon and everyone else in that room who damn well knew better than to let Elilial get away with all that. I’ve been in situations before where some deity or other major power was putting a finger on the scales, nudging events to flow in a direction of their choosing. It’s hard to pick out concrete signs of it happening, but when you’ve seen it a few times, you know what it looks like.”
“And that leaves the question,” Trissiny whispered. “Why? Is he turning against the Pantheon? Is this just part of his ongoing quest to thwart the Archpope? I might even be willing to participate in Vesk’s troublemaking if I could only be sure it was toward a good purpose.”
“There is just no way to tell, with a creature like that,” Principia said grimly. “It’s important not to drive yourself crazy trying to second-guess him. Keep your eyes and your mind open and be prepared to think fast, but… You can’t let trickster gods trap you in your own paranoia. I know that all too well, now.”
“Yeah, and to think even after being dragged around by Vesk this summer I still thought of him as just sneaky and annoying. After all this… I really do see why his involvement sent you into such a panic.”
“Well, now, I dunno about panic…”
“Locke, I have never seen anyone that panicked, and I suspect I may never again.”
Principia heaved a sigh. “Yeah, well, take it as a warning, then. We’re not going to outsmart either Vesk or Elilial by dealing with them on their own terms.”
She paused suddenly and half-turned to look back through the gap in the wall; after a moment, Trissiny followed her gaze. It was a few seconds longer before Shook appeared in the gap, squinting into the darkness outside. He was quite a mess, his normally slicked-down hair in disarray and his neat suit filthy and torn beyond repair after the day’s fighting and then whatever else he’d been doing all evening.
“There you are,” the enforcer grunted, carefully stepping through the fallen masonry. “Hard to find as usual, Keys.”
“Aw, Thumper, you missed me?” Principia said sweetly. “That’s creepy. Are you here to enlist with Avei, or would you prefer to fuck directly off?”
He stopped in the gap itself, reaching out to brace himself against one of the broken walls, and fixed her with a glare. “You know what, you have got to be the single most insufferable woman I ever had the misfortune to meet. To give you some context on that, Keys, I’ve been hanging out with a fucking succubus. But you are seriously the absolute worst, you smarmy, stuck-up, conniving, backstabbing little—”
“I really hope this is going somewhere worthwhile, Thumper,” Trissiny said in a very even tone.
He broke off, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah. Yeah, it is. I just wanted to say, Keys, that despite all of the above, I…” Shook grimaced as if pained, and swallowed heavily. “I was… Back in Last Rock, I was out of line. I mean, I went way over the line in dealing with you. That was shitty and totally outside my mandate, and… I’m sorry. That’s all I wanted to say to you.”
Principia stared at him in silence, as if confused; Trissiny glanced rapidly back and forth between them, absently resting her palm on the pommel of her sword. As the silence stretched out, Shook grimaced again and awkwardly tried to straighten the ragged lapels of his jacket, then ran a hand over his disheveled hair.
“Thumper,” Principia said finally, “the shit you pulled doesn’t go away with an apology.”
He shrugged in a jerky little motion, averting his eyes. “Yeah, well… Maybe not. May as well take the ‘sorry’ anyway, Keys. You’re owed it, and… That’s all I got for you. So…yeah. Take care.”
He started to turn and navigate back through the mess.
“Seriously, though,” Principia said suddenly, “you looking to sign up? Avei really needs people with adventuring experience, and let’s face it, you really need some major protection from all the people you’ve pissed off.”
Shook turned back to squint at her. “This some kinda practical joke? Cos I wouldn’t begrudge you that, I just like to know where I stand.”
“This is what I’m doing now, Thumper; I am all in with the Legions. I don’t joke about this. I meant what I said in the cathedral. Full amnesty, as long as you can follow the rules.”
“Well, that’s…somethin’ to keep in mind,” he mused. “Gotta pass for right now, though. I’m goin’ back to Tiraas with Sweet an’ the others when the Rails are up again. I got a way overdue report for the Boss, and anyway, you know how Style gets when you delay an asskicking she wants to hand out. Gonna be bad enough already without putting it off any longer.”
“Pff, what’s this ‘taking responsibility for your actions’ BS, Thumper? That’s not a good look on you at all. You go back to the Guild, I give you fifty-fifty odds of walking out alive, at best. I’ve got a place for you if you want it.”
He shook his head, smiling faintly, and turned away. “See you ‘round, Keys. Good work today, Thorn.”
They watched as Shook made his way back into the building, then headed off toward the front doors.
“So,” Trissiny said at last, “you want to explain to me what that was all about?”
“Nope,” Principia grunted, still staring after him.
“I can make it an order, Lieutenant.”
“Trissiny,” she replied, turning to meet her gaze. “I do not want to talk about this with you. Please.”
Trissiny frowned deeply, holding her stare, but after a long moment nodded in acknowledgment. “Very well. All I’ll say is that if you’re going to command forces in Avei’s name, you had better watch out for conflicts of interest. No matter how desperate you are for recruits, don’t hire that guy if you’re going to use it for some kind of revenge against him. How much he might deserve it is beside the point. Power is not to be abused that way.”
“Nah,” Principia said lightly, a faint grin fluttering across her features. “I’m not traumatized over that guy. I’ve been treated worse by idiots whose names I don’t even remember now; I doubt I’ll remember his in fifty years. No, while I was idly thinking of pushing him off a bridge if the opportunity came up, I like this a lot better. Put him in Avei’s service and one of two things will happen: either I will successfully housebreak that weapons-grade POS and it’ll be the ultimate proof of the viability of what I’m doing, or he’ll do the same old shit he always does while surrounded by Legionnaires and priestesses and permanently cease to be anyone’s problem, ever again. Yeah… I’d better make sure Style doesn’t actually kill him. This has potential.”
Trissiny sighed. “And here we go again.”
The security of their improvised base was very much a matter of don’t and won’t see; little explicitly barred anyone from just wandering in, save that it was located in an inconvenient storage room fairly deep in the warren of tunnels below Ninkabi’s cathedral, and that everyone else in the area who was still alive was out tending to survivors. Khadizroth had also hinted that he was directing attention away from the room, which of course was well within the purview of his chosen school of magic. Even so, Darling had no trouble finding his way back there, pushing a cart laden with bread, cheese, jerkey, blankets, bandages, and healing potions.
“Sorry about the wait,” he said quietly upon re-entering the chamber. “There was stew, but no way in hell would that’ve made it down all those damn stairs. I think I got the basics, though.”
“I never doubted you would be able to pilfer adequate materials,” the dragon said gravely.
“Hey, there was no pilfering. Any Eserite who looted aid supplies during a crisis would be asking to have all his fingers amputated.”
“These are donated for victims of the demon invasion,” Darling said placidly. “Which is exactly who we’re using them for. Some of the donors might take issue with the specific victims we are aiding, is all; no need to poke that bear by telling them. How’s everybody holding up?”
Khadizroth turned to regard the room full of people in gray robes, mostly huddled together along the walls and in the back corner. It was quieter than when Darling had left; there was still audible sniffling, but no one was openly sobbing anymore. Several of the rescued warlocks were rocking back and forth by themselves, or clutching each other for dear life.
“I have addressed every physical injury to my satisfaction,” the dragon said softly, “which of course was always going to be the lesser problem. Even for people as resilient as these, that was a kind of trauma from which recovery simply takes time. Potentially years. To say nothing of the outright nightmarish experience of chaos space’s defenders… There are seventeen of them, Darling. I do not know how many of the Wreath were left before Kuriwa and that drow ambushed them, but it goes without saying that they have just witnessed the loss of numerous comrades.”
The Bishop blew out a soft breath, frowning worriedly. “Damn. Maybe I should’ve requisitioned a few bottles of brandy… Or shrooms.”
“I would not recommend those even as a stopgap treatment for something like this. Right now they are together and safe, and that is a solid beginning to the healing process.”
“Has anybody said anything? I don’t know how long they must’ve been in there. Usually you’ve got quite a bit of leeway before the creepy thingumajigs attack. I’ve spent a bit of time in that zone myself and came out none the worse for wear.”
“We had demons with us,” Embras Mogul said suddenly. He was sitting nearest the door with his back to the wall, one long leg stretched out and the other bent with one elbow resting on his knee. It was by far the most relaxed posture of any of the surviving Wreath, but his head remained bent forward and his eyes wide, staring at seemingly nothing. With his trademark hat missing and his dapper white suit badly torn and stained with blood, he seemed suddenly much older, and a mere shadow of his usual self.
Darling frowned quizzically at him, then turned a questioning look on Khadizroth.
“An average person might last several minutes in chaos space,” the dragon explained quietly. “Someone with basic mental discipline, if forewarned what to expect and what not to do, can linger there for an hour, maybe two, before drawing enough attention to be in danger from the guardians. The unnatural aggression caused by infernal corruption, though… Demons in that space will always provoke an immediate attack. Sufficiently corrupted warlocks, the same. And the nature of chaos space renders shadow-jumping impossible.”
“They were…under assault from the moment they were in there?” Darling breathed. “Holy shit.”
“It is deeply impressive that this many survived,” Khadizroth agreed.
“I am not ungrateful.” Mogul finally raised his bald head to look directly at them, and suddenly the intelligence was back in his eyes. “We owe you big for the rescue. But I’m also not stupid, Antonio. You wouldn’t do something like this without good and specific reasons of your own. And since we know for an empirical fact you’re not above using a demon invasion to kill us off, I doubt it was anything as vague as wanting the Dark Lady to owe you a favor. Not to mention I know enough of your history with this character to be sure you wouldn’t work with him unless you wanted something really badly.”
“Well, it’s not like I can rip open a door to chaos,” Darling said reasonably. “I just figured, anything Mary can do, Khadizroth would be pleased to un-do.”
“Up to a point,” Khadizroth murmured.
Mogul just stared at them, unblinking.
Darling collected a small breadroll, a wedge of cheese and a stick of jerky, and knelt to hand them to Mogul; the warlock accepted the food mutely, not breaking his stare.
“Because that’s what folks do for each other,” Darling said with a smile. “At least, as long as they’re not the kind of bitter enemies who set demons to eat one another as a matter of course. Which, it turns out, you and I suddenly no longer are. In this brave new world, Khadizroth and I decided it actually is a grand idea to have Elilial owe us a solid. Not to mention that there will soon be an urgent need for demon control specialists who aren’t answerable to the Archpope or the Empire.”
Mogul narrowed his eyes.
“I’ll fill you in on the high notes,” Darling promised. “You’re gonna find this hard to believe, Embras old boy, until you’ve heard it verified by Elilial herself, but I’ll get you started at least. In the short time you weren’t on it, the world changed.”