Tag Archives: Khadizroth the Green

15 – 10

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“Natchua, honey,” Malivette said in a deliberately kind and gentle voice, “I hope you’re comfortable being condescendingly spoken to like you’re a child, because my only other response to that kind of talk…well, you’d like that even less. Now, really. Are you sure you want to make this confrontational? Have you maybe not thought this matter through carefully?”

“Of course I haven’t thought it through,” Natchua said bitterly. “I came here with every intention of never interacting with anyone in Veilgrad but Sherwin. If I had my way, everything would unfold without anybody knowing we were ever here, and everybody would have been better off that way. Instead I’m now dealing with you, and no, I don’t have a plan for that. What I have is a lot of infernal magic and a vested interest in protecting these people. That’s what you should keep in mind here, Lady Dufresne. You start messing with my friends and I’ve got exactly one recourse for that, and it won’t leave anybody happy. So instead of that, how about we walk this back a little bit and see if we can’t find a friendly resolution to this…difference of opinion?”

“Uh, Natchua?” Sherwin said warily, glancing around at Malivette’s four attendants, who had fully encircled the group. “Remember just a minute ago when I said very firmly that we do not want to start a fight here?”

“Sounds like she agrees with you, Sherwin,” Malivette remarked, giving him a thin smile. “Right, Natchua? Nobody here wants the outcome of any kind of brawl that might ensue, especially since there’s no such outcome that doesn’t include most or all of you dead. Natchua, I need you to button up your fly and think with your big head for a moment. I’m sure you are very protective of your friends, and that’s admirable and all, but that is a succubus. If you know anything about infernal magic, or if you’re able to read, you understand why she cannot be allowed to run loose. I’m responsible for this city, and this province, and you bringing her here is the kind of thing for which I could legally have already separated you from your skeleton if I had any intention of doing such a thing. Sometimes, kiddo, the right thing to do is back down, acknowledge exactly how you’ve made a gigantic cock-up of the situation, and let the nice Imperial governor contain the incredibly dangerous demon without making this any messier than it already is.”

“Don’t,” Sherwin urged, placing a hand on Melaxyna’s shoulder as she tensed up. “Even the thralls can track you by smell; Vette definitely can. Don’t go invisible or do anything else to set them off.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” the succubus muttered, tail lashing.

“It’s not even that you’re wrong,” Natchua said quietly, still standing between Malivette at the others. “But it is what it is. Melaxyna is not a threat to anyone right now, and won’t be so long as you leave her in my custody.”

The vampire’s scarlet eyes flicked past her to Sherwin. “Your custody, is it? Interesting. If anything, you’re even less qualified for that than he is.”

“She’s a lot more qualified than you may realize,” Hesthri offered.

“We can either come to some kind of compromise,” Natchua insisted, staring her down, “or you can suffer the consequences.”

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“I’m afraid not, Jonathan,” Natchua replied without taking her eyes off Malivette. “That’s all we have to work with, here: the fact that interfering with us would be a lot more trouble than leaving us alone. I don’t want to do this, Malivette, but if you try to separate Melaxyna or any of my people, I’m going to have to stop you. And you may very well win that confrontation, but I can promise you it would cost you dearly. I intend to die elsewhere, do you understand? Not dealing with you. But I intend to die, regardless, and if you force my hand, it’ll be here and now, destroying a wide swath of whatever you may still love in this world. I don’t want to, and it may cost me everything, but I’ll do it anyway because I am way past being backed into a corner. Or you can avoid all this and we can find a compromise. Choose.”

In the short quiet which followed, it wasn’t just the vampires and elves who could hear Jonathan’s teeth grinding.

“Wooooow,” Melaxyna said at last. “I do believe that was the single edgiest thing I’ve ever heard. Did that sound impressive in your head before your mouth fell open? A chapbook author wouldn’t even cram a speech like that into the mouth of their most cliché villain—they’d re-read that and say ‘nah, everybody but consumptive thirteen-year-olds would find this unintentionally hilarious’ and start over. Really, Natchua, a vampire who lives in a crumbling manor with four beautiful maidservants is telling you to tone down the melodrama. You think about that for a moment, and reflect on the direction your life has taken.”

By the end of that, Natchua’s mouth was hanging slightly open. She blinked her eyes three times in rapid succession.

Malivette, meanwhile, clapped her hands together once and rubbed them briskly. “Well! I’ll say this much for this entirely too awkward conversation: now I know who’s responsible for belatedly jamming a spine up Sherwin’s butt, and to my surprise, it’s not the succubus.”

“You really don’t need to be an asshole about this, Vette,” Sherwin complained.

“It’s too easy to be with the effort of not doing it, Sherwin dear. I would like to have a pleasant little chat with the ringleader of this fascinating operation, without the peanut gallery. Girls, make our guests as comfortable as you can for a little bit. If,” she heavily emphasized the syllable, holding up one hand and meeting Natchua’s eyes, “Melaxyna attempts to escape, or does anything else that you judge requires it, kill her immediately. Failing that, she is an esteemed guest and is to be treated as such until I say otherwise.”

“Yes, Mistress,” all four chorused in eerie unison.

“And yet,” Melaxyna mused, “still not the kinkiest party I’ve ever been to.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said pleasantly, “do join me upstairs. I believe we should converse woman to woman without the distraction of all these onlookers.”

“I—”

“Now.” The syllable cracked with the force of a thunderbolt, seemingly through the entire house; the very floorboards shuddered and in the near distance, several doors slammed in emphasis.

Natchua slowly tore her gaze from Malivette’s and nodded at the rest of her group. “It’s all right. Please do as they ask, and be polite.”

“Look who’s telling who to be polite,” Jonathan said flatly. “Keep in mind we’re all still in the building and try not to start a brawl, will you?”

“I did manage to run my own life before you came along, Jonathan,” she said irritably, turning her back on him. “Lead the way, Lady Dufresne.”


Syrinx continued pacing up and down for a few minutes after hearing their report. The rest of them sat in silence in the conference room, watching her.

It wasn’t as if there was much for her to think about, and if this was some kind of power play, it clearly was not working. The three of them had returned to find Syrinx already stewing and both Kheshiri and the Jackal looking serenely pleased with themselves, which as good as said how that inevitable personality clash had played out in their absence. Now, Khadizroth and Vannae sat in matching poses of pure serenity, hands folded atop the table and regarding the pacing Inquisitor in total calm. The Jackal had tipped his chair up on its hind legs, slouching back in it and resting his snakeskin boots on the table. He was unnecessarily cleaning his fingernails with a stiletto and intermittently glancing up at Syrinx, his self-satisfied grin not wavering for a moment. Shook had pulled a chair away from the table and turned it to face the front of the room directly, and now slouched back in it with his legs splayed, watching the Inquisitor with a vague little smile with his head resting in Kheshiri’s bosom while she, standing close behind him, slowly ran her hands up and down his arms.

The Inquisitor’s clear anger was having no effect on its intended targets, and that appeared to be making it worse.

“And that’s all?” Syrinx abruptly demanded, coming to a stop and rounding on them.

“At this time, yes,” Khadizroth said, still utterly calm. “Your lead appears to have been fruitful. The results are slight, this is true, but one cannot expect miracles at the very first step of such an investigation.”

“Something wrong, boss lady?” Shook asked in a milder tone than his voice ever held when he wasn’t being deliberately spiteful. “It was your lead, after all. We met the mark and got results. I dunno why you seem so…tetchy.”

Ironically, that suddenly calmed Syrinx down. She straightened up and the tension melted from her stance, her incipient scowl fading away as she turned a more thoughtful stare upon Shook. He continued to sprawl indolently in his seat, but others in the room more sensitive to undercurrents clearly smelled danger; the Jackal’s blade froze, as did his expression, and he glanced rapidly between Shook and Basra. Kheshiri also stopped the movements of her hands, her fingers clenching on the sleeves of Shook’s coat.

“Quite so,” Syrinx said in a clipped tone, staring blankly at him. “For some reason I expected such a vaunted crew as yours to have achieved more progress, but in hindsight I cannot imagine why.”

“Well, don’t take it to heart, sugar,” he drawled. “We’ve disappointed even smarter people than you.”

Kheshiri’s fingers clawed an iota harder in a silent warning, which he disregarded.

“Mr. Shook,” Basra said, now with a pleasant little smile that made the Jackal’s grin widen slightly in anticipation, “it’s beyond my fathoming why you would even want to get a rise out of me in your situation, but what disappoints me most is that you aren’t better at it. Apparently the Thieves’ Guild doesn’t train its thugs nearly as well as they like to claim. Regardless, you will straighten up. You rely upon his Holiness the Archpope for protection from the Imperial law enforcement and multiple cults you have provoked, including your own. And right now, it is I who will decide how, and indeed whether, that protection will be extended over you.”

He had tensed up, but did not move, and kept his expression deliberately even. “That so?”

“You stand out even in this gaggle of reprobates, Shook,” she stated, planting her fists on the edge of the table and leaning forward to stare down at him. “I know your history. While we are here, I promise you, there will be no preying on or abusing women.”

Shook’s frozen expression suddenly thawed, and then warmed, a dark but genuine smile curling up the corners of his mouth.

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

The Jackal burst out laughing. The room filled with a series of shrill barks of his amusement which may have hinted at the origin of his nickname.

Slowly, Basra straightened back up, her expression revealing nothing.

“In a situation like ours, discipline is a necessity, not a luxury. It is sorely clear how the lack of it has rendered you lot virtually useless. For the duration of your service under my Inquisition, Shook, you will address me as Inquisitor, or ma’am. Is that clear?”

He gave her a lazy mockery of a salute. “Yes sir, ma’am.”

She elected not to push it, instead turning a wry look on the Jackal. “Are you just about done?”

“Wait, wait,” he gasped, holding up one finger with the arm not clutching his ribs. “A-almost…”

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

The elf instantly quieted as if a switch had been flipped, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands atop the table. The sudden display of obedience did not improve Basra’s mood; the look she turned upon the dragon was even more wintry than that which she’d directed at Shook.

“I am not very familiar with this city,” Khadizroth said in a courteously calm tone, bowing his head deferentially to Syrinx. “So I’m afraid I have little useful counsel to offer as regards our next move. We await your orders, Inquisitor.”

She held his emerald stare for a moment, then worked her jaw once as if chewing on the idea of him, and finally turned her gaze on the paper lying near her on the table. Scrawled in Khadizroth’s neat hand upon a sheet of enchanting vellum Vannae had been carrying was the short list of locations in Ninkabi where the contact Basra had sent them to meet had said cultist activity could be found. She picked it up, eyes tracking back and forth as she re-read the few lines.

“What was your impression of the contact in question?” Basra asked suddenly.

Vannae and Shook both turned to look at Khadizroth, who opened his mouth to answer.

“Shook,” Basra said curtly. “I want to hear from you.”

Shook hesitated, glancing at Khadizroth and then back to her with eyebrows raised. “Uh, you sure? As you were just commenting, I’m just muscle, here. Big K’s the—”

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

“Well, yes. You literally just did that.”

“Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said softly. “The Inquisitor is correct. Please don’t add to her difficulties.”

Shook hesitated, then nodded at him. “Yeah, fair enough. My apologies, Inquisitor. Well, there wasn’t a lot to see. Shortish woman, wore Omnist robes with the hood up. Not much of a disguise, since even monks don’t just walk around that way—practically announcing that you’re up to something, walking around like that. But it worked as far as hiding her face, anyway, and it’s not like we came off any less weird, with K having to use practically the same get-up. Acted pretty standard, for an informant who’s not used to playing this game. Skittish, looking over her shoulders a lot. Low-pitched voice, I think might’ve been using a voice-altering charm, but I’m no enchanter. Gave us those locations and then bugged off outta there.”

For the first part of his recitation, Basra had kept a level stare locked on Khadizroth, who was watching Shook attentively, but by the end she had directed her full attention to the enforcer.

“Anything to add to that, either of you?” she asked when he came to a finish.

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

“A good description,” the dragon agreed. “I can confirm the presence of a voice-altering charm. More than that I did not discern, as any such measures would by nature be intrusive, and your orders were to get information without spooking or provoking the informant. I assumed you wished to avoid jeopardizing the source, which of course is wise.”

“Where’d you dig up this alleged source, anyway?” the Jackal asked lazily, now balancing his knife point-down on his fingertip.

“You know as much as you need to,” Basra snapped.

“As you wish,” Khadizroth said diplomatically before the elf could respond. “I certainly understand the operational need to control information. As a rule, the more we know, the more effective we are in the field. I must admit I am curious about your choice of agents to send on this particular assignment.”

“Dragon,” Syrinx said coldly, “understand this now: I will not tolerate your attempts to undercut my authority.”

“I apologize if I have overstepped,” Khadizroth said, bowing to her from his seat. “No disrespect was intended. I simply took you for a kindred spirit, so to speak.”

Basra actually betrayed surprise, straightening up suddenly. “I beg your pardon?”

Khadizroth glanced briefly around the table, then unlaced his fingers to spread his hands in a small gesture of self-deprecation with a wry little smile. “You are not far wrong to call us a gaggle of reprobates. Most of us here have nowhere else to go, and assuredly little other prospect of being of use to the world than in the Archpope’s service. Likewise, we face potential…difficulties…with certain parties we have offended, should we find ourselves outside his protection. Forgive me, but I thought perhaps you could relate.”

Her lips drew back to bare teeth in a nearly feral expression. Khadizroth kept right on speaking with truly impressive control, managing to hastily cut off any response without sounding at all rushed.

“Those of us who have been a bit longer in this situation have rather laboriously learned not to take offense when it is inevitably given; it has doubtless not escaped your notice that this is a group of large personalities stuffed into a small space. Despite the obvious conflicts, we are a surprisingly effective unit when we exercise our various skills cooperatively. It seems to me a woman of your formidable reputation makes a significant addition to an already significant array of talent.”

“You seem to be under a misconception,” Syrinx said icily. “I am not joining your little…club. This operation is mine. You lot are simply an asset which has been assigned to me for my use, at my discretion. The sooner and more thoroughly you internalize that fact, the more smoothly this inquisition will go. And you want it to go smoothly. If it does not, I promise you, it will not be I who suffers for the failure.”

“Of course.” Again, Khadizroth inclined his head respectfully to her. “What is our next move, Inquisitor?”

Basra turned away, again studying the page. She paced up and down the short end of the room twice more before abruptly stopping.

“You were wondering why I dispatched the muscle and not the subtlety to meet with an informant.”

“Seemed like a curious choice,” Shook agreed, leaning his head back into Kheshiri’s cleavage while she began kneading his shoulders. “But hey, what do I know. The muscle just goes where the brain says.”

Basra divided a look of withering contempt between the two of them, which earned her nothing but a flirtatious wink from the succubus.

“I risked acting on the assumption that even you had sufficient wits to follow simple directions and not create a complete debacle out of one short conversation. I’m somewhat relieved to have that faith validated. The choice of you three was because I was uncertain of the identity and origin of this…informant. I preferred to deploy the less fragile talents given the potential risks. We are not going to be friends, let us clarify that up front. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be wasteful with your lives. You are, after all, valuable assets. Except Shook.”

The enforcer’s face tightened, but he threw her another sarcastic salute, not shifting from his comfortable position.

“I don’t know any better than you what any of these places are,” Basra continued brusquely, flapping the page once at Khadizroth. “I am going to check with the Holy Legion’s local personnel and decide on our next target, at which time I will have your next orders. For now… Adequate work, so far. Dismissed.”

The group exchanged a round of glances.

“Is that…military speak?” the Jackal asked, scratching his head. “What’s that mean, exactly?”

“I believe it means we can go,” Vannae offered.

“I think there’s a subext that we’re expected to go,” Kheshiri added.

“Correct.” Khadizroth pushed back his chair and stood; as if at that signal, the rest began rising as well. “It is customary to depart upon dismissal. Come, the Inquisitor has work and we will only be underfoot.”

He led the way to the door, the rest filing out after. Behind them, Basra turned her back, making a show of studying the list again, which did not conceal the seething tension that gripped her form.

Kheshiri at least waited until they were out in the hall with the door shut before commenting. “Now, that one is wound way too tight. Baiting her is so easy it’s not even fun.”

“Maybe don’t, then?” the Jackal suggested, then giggled shrilly. “Aw, who’m I kidding. You do your thing, doll—me, I have a taste for low-hanging fruit. And I’ve been itching to have a go a that one ever since she and a bunch of her Bishop friends ruined my night a couple years back. Actually it was just before I met the rest of you freaks. And now look! Poor little Basra has come down hard in the world.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth said firmly. “This is neither the time nor the place.”

The Jackal snickered, but followed without further commentary as the dragon led them to the common area around which was clustered the small bedrooms they had been assigned.

Vannae carefully shut the door behind them while the group clustered around the couch and two chairs before their small fireplace. Shook opened his mouth to speak, but Khadizroth forestalled him with an upraised hand.

The dragon produced a bottle seemingly from nowhere, a glossy thing of green glass about as tall as a wine bottle but much thinner. Raising it to his lips, he blew once across the top, producing a soft tone, then handed it to Vannae. The elf did likewise, his breath making a brief puff several notes higher in pitch, then turned and held it out to Shook.

The enforcer took the bottle slowly, frowning, and turned a look on Khadizroth. At the dragon’s encouraging nod, he shrugged and also blew across the lip, then handed it to Kheshiri. They all repeated the little ritual, the Jackal last; he pretended to fumble and almost drop it in the act of handing it back to Khadizroth, snickering at Vannae’s abortive motion as if about to dive to catch it.

Ignoring the byplay, Khadizroth held the bottle up to his own lips one more time, but on this round simply whispered something inaudible. Then he held the bottle out at arm’s length and upended it.

Whispers poured out, slithering voices resonating through the small room and gradually rising. As the sounds grew more distinct, their own voices emerged clearly, raised in an argument. Khadizroth gestured outward once with his hands, and the noise suddenly cut off.

“That,” he said, “is what anyone listening from outside the room will hear. For a few minutes, at least, we can speak in privacy.”

“Nice trick,” said the Jackal. “How come you never used that one before?”

“We are usually under tighter observation, especially in Tiraas, and I prefer not to tip my hand any more than necessary where Justinian might see it. Syrinx has fewer skills, resources, and options. Now time is short—while the spell lasts, let me catch you up.”

“So, shall I assume you were less than forthcoming about your encounter with the good Inquisitor?” Kheshiri asked sweetly.

“The person who came to meet us,” Khadizroth reported, “was none other than Bishop Branwen Snowe.”

The Jackal let out a whistle, but the dragon continued before anyone had a chance to chime in.

“There is, indeed, more going on here than we know—and more than Basra Syrinx knows. This cult, as we suspected, was a weapon of the Archpope’s and our mission here a sham. Snowe does not know what, specifically, Justinian intends by sending us all here, but her stated objective is to destroy Syrinx, whom she regards as unstable, dangerous, and a threat to the Archpope’s long-term plans.”

“Which is good and believable,” Shook added, “by virtue of being the simple truth. I never met somebody who so obviously had ‘crazy bitch’ written all over her.”

“And you’re taking Snowe at her word, are ya?” the Jackal asked wryly.

“Hardly,” Khadizroth replied. “She is, at the very least, going against Justinian’s wishes and seeking the downfall of another of his agents. To have achieved even this much progress toward such a goal, she would have to be far too clever to blithely trust the likes of us with her true intentions.”

“This game is getting better by the minute,” said Kheshiri, her tail beginning to sway eagerly behind her. “So Snowe has inserted herself into the Church’s agents out here to pose as Basra’s source, unknown to Basra?”

“Oh, he hasn’t even gotten to the good part yet,” Shook said.

“Snowe claims she has documentation of this secretive cult’s activities that is more thorough than anything any investigation could possibly turn up, if it were a serious mission,” said Khadizroth. “Evidently—and this should surprise none of you—the full details would be quite incriminating to Justinian, and as such she will not share them all. It appears she is, at least on some level, personally loyal to the Archpope. But she is willing to dole out enough tidbits for us to report back to Syrinx, and sustain the impression that we are actually pursuing this sham of an assignment.”

“While we…?” Kheshiri prompted, raising her eyebrows.

“The intelligence we just turned over is, indeed, about cult activity in Ninkabi,” Khadizroth said evenly. “But the cult in question is the Black Wreath.”

“And what,” the succubus said slowly, “is the Wreath doing here?”

“That she didn’t know,” Shook answered. “Seems like it’d be worth finding out, don’t you think?”

“So you want to conduct a real investigation of the Black Wreath while conducting a pretend investigation of this mystery cult?” the Jackal said, an incredulous note creeping into his customary grin.

“While,” Khadizroth replied, nodding, “playing both ends against the middle between Syrinx and Snowe. We need to learn what each of them is really up to, here, since they are clearly neither telling us anything resembling the truth.”

“And,” Shook added, “the most important part: figuring out how we can best use all of these assholes to bring each other down, before one or some or all of them can do it to us. And what do we call that, kitten?” he added condescendingly, swatting Kheshiri on the rump.

Her grin had stretched to resemble the Jackal’s at his most unhinged. “That, master, we call fun.”

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15 – 6

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The darkness receded, leaving them standing in sunlight and the fresh air of the mountains. The group, which had been clustered together in the Mathenon basement in which they had gathered for the shadow-jump, immediately moved a few feet apart. Mostly because several of them didn’t care for being in one another’s proximity, to judge by the grim stares Jonathan and Hesthri leveled at Melaxyna while stepping to the side.

The succubus was clearly unbothered. She rose up onto her toes, stretching her arms above her head and wings out to both sides, then relaxed with a pleased sigh. “Ah, that’s the stuff. Sun, breeze, and birdsong! I think I’ve had my fill of being indoors and/or underground for another lifetime.”

“Where are we?” Hesthri demanded, turning slowly in a circle to take in their surroundings.

“Veilgrad,” Jonathan answered, pointing at the city stretching away from the western foot of the mountainside upon which they now stood. “Or at least, the hills outside it. The city’s unmistakable. That, however, I don’t know about. A better question is: why are we here?”

He added the last with a frown of puzzlement, turning in the opposite direction. Above them at the pinnacle of the trail loomed the overgrown ruins of a manor house.

“That would’ve been a better question to ask before we jumped,” Melaxyna suggested with a simpering smile.

“Mel,” Natchua warned, “do not start picking at him. Or her, or me, or anyone. This group is already one person bigger than I had planned and we will all have plenty of time to get sick of each other in the days to come without professional help.”

“You know she used to wear her hair gelled up in a mohawk?” Melaxyna said, still in that innocently sweet tone. “It looked ridiculous. I’m glad she kept the green stripe, though, that’s actually rather dashing when it’s allowed to lie down properly.”

Jonathan glanced at her only momentarily before returning his focus to Natchua. “Right, well… Belated or not, the answer to my question…?”

Natchua turned and began walking up the road toward the gates of the manor grounds, giving them the option of following or being left behind. “I told you what I am looking for: demons who can be counted on to take action against Elilial, in spite of their own best interests. There are precious few of those, and it’s even harder to track them down since my primary means of doing so is to consult a djinn.”

“Safely, of course,” Melaxyna snickered. “Binding the djinn in question with a contract which prevents her from revealing anything about Natchua or her own plans to anyone. You can guess how much they enjoy that. I have never seen a djinn so piqued as Qadira el-Mafti after Natchua got done lawyering up at her. Of course, there’s no possible way that will ever come back to bite our fearless leader on the ass.”

“I don’t expect to still be alive by the time she finds an opportunity to make trouble,” Natchua said curtly. “Anyway, I have a lead on another prospect, but in the meantime, we are here to secure the other thing this mad little crusade will require: a safe base of operations.”

“Safe, huh,” Hesthri snorted. They had arrived at the head of the mountain road, where the gates still sort of stood. At least the stone pillars flanking them were still there; of the two wrought iron gates, one listed drunkenly from its hinges and the other lay flat on the path inside. Beyond, the spectacle of ruin was even worse than the glimpse visible from below had hinted. Both the long wings of the huge mansion were in terrible disrepair, with virtually every window either boarded up or reduced to a fringe of shattered glass, and the gabled roof was missing fully half its shingles and rent by yawning holes. That was nothing compared to the main entrance hall which stood between them. To judge by the size of its foundation and the height of the one standing corner, it must have been a grand edifice indeed at one point. Now it was merely a huge pile of rubble.

“For all intents and purposes?” Natchua snorted a mirthless little laugh. “Safe enough.”

“Was all this for dramatic effect?” Jonathan asked. “The whole wide approach, I mean. It’s not like there’s a lot to see, here, and it’s probably a better idea not to drop this group out in a public area where anybody might see us arrive. Wiser to bring us in closer to the building, if not inside it. Unless it’s even less safe than it looks, which would be saying something.”

“Nobody ever visits here, I assure you,” Natchua replied, leading them on a long path to the left of the smashed entrance, through the chest-high weeds and brambles which had overtaken the neglected garden. “And the grounds are protected by a very thorough set of infernal wards. Even I couldn’t shadow-jump jump onto the property itself without likely triggering some kind of trap.”

“Even you?” Hesthri drawled, shoving aside a bramble bush without reacting in the slightest to the thorns. “I thought we’d established you’re about the same age as my son. Infernal magic takes time to master, like any kind of magic. Any skill at all, for that matter. More time than you’ve been alive, girl.”

At the rear of the group, Melaxyna laughed aloud. Everyone else ignored her.

“I know very close to everything there is to know about infernal magic,” Natchua stated.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Look, Natchua, this may seem improbable, but we actually were your age at one point. It’s easy to feel like you know everything when you lack perspective on how much there is to know.”

“Do not talk down to me, Jonathan Arquin!” Natchua finally slammed to a halt at the corner of the manor, whirling to glare at him. The rest of the group stopped as well, Melaxyna lurking at the back with a malicious grin, and Hesthri clinging to Jonathan’s arm. That sight did nothing to improve Natchua’s humor. “When I say I know everything about infernal magic, I mean exactly that. Everything except whatever Elilial withheld to maintain some control, which is still more than any red dragon.”

He squinted in surprise. “Elilial…withheld?”

“Tell me, Jonathan, since you’re so old and wise and know so much,” she spat, “what do you think would happen if the goddess of demons cornered two teenage college students and stuffed their brains full of every detail of infernal lore? Do you think there is the slightest chance of them doing anything productive or responsible with that? With the entire school magic most suited to causing destruction and almost nothing else? And what lifespan would you give those two kids, at a guess?”

“Gods,” Jonathan whispered. Hesthri was staring at her in pure horror, now.

“And the best part,” Natchua said with a bitter laugh, “is we were just tools. Professor Tellwyrn was a little too close to her plans, so Elilial introduced a pair of time bombs to her campus.”

“That hellgate,” Jonathan said, eyes widening.

“Yes, that was Chase,” she said. “You think I’m cruel, or unwise, or just weird? Fine, I’ll own that, but I was the success story. He is now in a cell in Tar’naris, drugged to the gills so House Awarrion can keep him pacified while the matriarch devises a suitable torment for his offenses against her and hers. Frankly, that’s a better end than he had any right to expect. It’s a better one than I expect. There’s no life or future for me, do you understand that? You can’t walk around having this kind of power and knowledge without it seeping out to affect every aspect of your life. And you can’t live using infernomancy without causing chaos and gathering enemies.”

She paused, and none of them found anything to say in reply. Even Melaxyna no longer looked like she was enjoying the conversation.

“That’s why I’m doing this,” Natchua said at last, the anger leaking from her in a long sigh. “I am avenging my murder, Jonathan. Sticking some pain to Elilial will be nice, but the real victory will be ensuring that Gabriel and the other paladins survive whatever she’s planning intact and positioned to keep giving her grief for a good long time. And gods, I wish you hadn’t butted in. I wasn’t planning to have to avenge your death as well.” She turned around finally, rounding the corner. “But if you insist on involving yourself, fine. By the time I’m done there’ll be enough vengeance to redress a lot of sins.”

The group followed her in silence the rest of the way, which fortunately was not far. Tucked around at the back of the house was a small side door opening onto a stableyard which was now the resting place of half a dozen disintegrating carriages, all so far gone it was impossible to tell whether they had been horse-drawn or enchanted. Natchua’s warning about wards on the property had apparently been apt; the little door opened when they were still a dozen yards away, and a man’s head poked out.

He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties but prematurely balding, his pale complexion marred by a three-day growth of stubble. Though the stableyard was shaded both by the house and the mountain behind it, he blinked in what sunlight there was as though it were a new experience for him.

“Hello, Sherwin,” Natchua said, waving. “Here they are, as promised.”

“What did you promise this guy, exactly?” Hesthri demanded.

The house’s occupant squinted at them, then pointed at Jonathan. “Who’s this, then? You said two demons, Natchua.”

“This is Jonathan Arquin, who has decided to forcibly insert himself into our business,” Natchua said, giving Jonathan an annoyed look over her shoulder. “Sorry to spring that on you; it was sprung on me. Still, he’s trustworthy and actually probably useful. And not to be snippy but it’s not like you don’t have the room.”

“Room, yes, but rooms…” Sherwin sighed, stepping fully out into the yard and distractedly running a hand over his messy hair. “I’ve cleared out three rooms for you in the south wing. They’re not contiguous, I had to select a few where the floor’s not rotted and there are no major holes in the roof. Oh, well, I’m sure there’s at least one more that can be made to serve. If you’ll vouch for him, I guess that’s fine.”

“Everyone,” Natchua said, stepping aside and gesturing between him and her group, “this is our host. May I present Lord Sherwin, high seat and last scion of House Leduc. He’s more personable than he appears, given time to warm up to you. I’ve been visiting all summer; it’s just a momentary shadow-jump from Mathenon, as you now know. Sherwin, this is the hethelax I told you of. Her name is Hesthri.”

“Delighted, madam,” the scruffy young man said with a perfunctory bow.

“Like…wise,” Hesthri replied warily, doing a very poor job of masking her dubiousness, if indeed she was even trying.

“And this,” Natchua added with a smug undertone, “is Melaxyna.”

“I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you,” the succubus positively purred, sashaying forward with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips that made Hesthri roll her eyes and Jonathan avert his. Sherwin could only gape at her, mouth slightly agape, even as she sashayed up and twined herself around his arm. “Natchua tells me the most delightful things, my lord. Why don’t you show me around your charming mansion?”

“Oh, well, uh,” he babbled, “that is, it’s really more of a wreck…” The rest was muffled as the succubus deftly maneuvered him back inside and swiftly out of earshot.

“As for what I promised him, Hesthri,” Natchua said, watching after them with a sardonic twist of her mouth. “In a word: her.”

“Huh,” Jonathan grunted. “Spy, warlock, crusader, and now pimp. Your resume just keeps getting longer.”

“Jonathan, have you ever tried to make a child of Vanislaas do something they didn’t want to?” Natchua demanded.

“I’m pretty sure you know I haven’t.”

“Oh? The only thing I know about your history with demons is that you clearly have one.” She shifted her eyes to look significantly at Hesthri. “But you’re not wrong: since you aren’t dead or consigned to an asylum, you probably haven’t run afoul of a Vanislaad. So let me just assure you that your concern for Melaxyna’s virtue, while noble, is misplaced. She is fine, and having exactly as much fun as she suggested. If she wasn’t interested in being a carrot for me to dangle in front of Sherwin, I wouldn’t add to my problems by pressing the issue. Anyway, since they will likely be busy for a while, come on in and let’s see if we can find those rooms he talked about. They’ll be the only three without bats and cobwebs, I bet. And since Mel will likely be doing her sleeping in Sherwin’s, three is really all we need.”

“Natchua,” Jonathan said in a firm tone. “Does this poor guy have any idea what he’s getting involved with, here?”

“More than you do,” she shot back. “Sherwin Leduc needs your pity even less than Melaxyna. Next time you write to Gabe, ask him to recount what he and his classmates caught this poor guy doing. Anyway, I assure you, he’s fine with all of this. I won him over by promising…well, in addition to a playful succubus…a worthy objective to fulfill, like-minded people with whom to talk, and at the end of this when Elilial is royally pissed off and everything inevitably backfires on us, death.” She turned a cold shoulder to him and strode into the door. “So, everything in the world he wants.”

The two of them stood in the yard for a few long moments after Natchua had vanished within.

“I am increasingly surrounded by liars, creeps, and perverts,” Jonathan finally said aloud. “So why is it the thought that keeps coming to mind is ‘gods, that poor kid’?”

Hesthri sighed, stepping closer and resting her head on his shoulder. “I’ve missed you so much.”

They followed the others into the crumbling house, since that was all they could do.


“I am going to kill that bitch.”

Shook delivered the threat in a tone which belied its viciousness; solemn and pensive, his forehead faintly creased as he stared off at the distance in deep thought. Still, even spoken in a relatively calm voice, it was a statement which earned him wary looks from a couple of passersby, not to mention his own companions.

“And what sticks out in my brain,” Shook continued in the same tone of contemplation, “is how immediate and obvious that fact was. Sixty seconds of listening to Basra Syrinx talk and I was all, ‘yep, I’m gonna kill this bitch.’ Which got me thinking along some additional lines, there. For one thing, it’s goddamn unbelievable that…our mutual employer…would put us and her in a small confined space and expect anything but bloodshed.”

“The same thought occurred to me,” Khadizroth agreed, pacing along beside him.

“Because that’s the other thing that jumps out at me,” Shook mused. “There’s no fucking way it isn’t mutual. Considering she’s a disgraced ex-Bishop of Avei, that’s gotta be exactly what she thinks about me, Shiri, and Jack. Plus possibly you, depending on what she knows about your history.”

“Should I feel honored to be omitted?” Vannae asked wryly.

Shook snorted. “Van, you’re about as offensive as milk and cookies. If she’s got a problem with you it means she’s racist on top of…whatever else. Not that a cunt like that needs it to be any less cuddly. Fuck are you looking at?”

The last was delivered in a far more aggressive tone to a passing woman who had turned to stare at their conversation. She immediately ducked her head and hurried on past.

“That is not exactly helping us to blend in, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gently.

Shook barked a laugh. “Oh, I don’t think we need to worry about that; blending in isn’t gonna happen. You two are basically a walking museum exhibit. Trust me, I know about invisibility, it’s either can’t see, don’t see, or won’t see. When you have no way of being actually hard to notice, the best you can do is make sure people know to mind their own fucking business.”

Vannae did rather stand out; elves weren’t exactly a common sight in Imperial cities, but most urban dwellers would see them fairly regularly, even if his choice of a human-style suit made him memorable. It was Khadizroth who inevitably drew attention. Taller than either of them, the dragon had been forced to conceal his identity through the use of mundane methods which were impossible not to notice: he wore the heavy robes of an Omnist monk, but with a hood pulled up and overhanging his face deeply enough that as long as he kept his chin down, the glow of his monochrome green eyes was not visible. Hardly anyone walked around wearing an all-concealing hood in modern times, unless they were obviously hiding their features.

“Well, fortunately, it should be less of a concern from here,” said the dragon, veering to their left. “Our route takes us this way, ever farther from the well-trod paths.”

They had been walking along one of the walled border roads that ran along the sides of Ninkabi’s central island, with a fall to the river below on their right and the opposite cliff wall beyond. This was already a less-traveled route, three levels down from the surface of the island above, but now Khadizroth led them into a tunnel road which seemed largely disused, with litter drifted in its gutters and no current signs of occupancy. Even the doors lining it were boarded up.

“This isn’t the first time this has given us trouble,” Shook commented. “You keep saying you can’t disguise yourself with magic and I’m damned if I know why. I thought dragons could do basically anything with magic.”

“Were that true, I would not still be confined by the Crow’s hex,” Khadizroth said evenly. “Dragons are powerful and versatile, yes, but with that come a few…seemingly arbitrary weaknesses. The eyes and hair that distinguish us from mortals at a glance, even in our smaller forms, are an example. It is a side effect of our ability to occupy two forms. That means only two forms, and neither can be obscured.”

Shook grunted. “Seems fishy, how the world’s most powerful spellcasters haven’t found a way around a limitation like that in thousands of years.”

“Ah, but that is it exactly,” the dragon replied with a note of humor now in his voice. “Any of my brethren who devoted themselves to that search would be set upon by the others. We are solitary by nature; the only thing which reliably draws dragons together is the prospect of one of our kind attempting to seize an advantage over the rest. In fact, there have been some who found ways around that petty restriction. Their fate is the reason I’ve never tried.”

“Hm. I wonder how long that’ll stand, with this Conclave of the Winds thing going.”

“A curious question indeed,” Khadizroth said gravely. “They have been…strangely quiet since forming. I surmise that the Conclave is either plotting something which they do not want known, or too paralyzed by infighting to function. Given the nature of dragons, either is believable. I must say,” he added with a sigh, “that functional or not, the Conclave is a more honorable and more strategically viable solution to the problem of ascending Tiraan power than that which I attempted. I only did not try to organize such a thing myself because I never imagined it could be remotely possible. I deeply regret not having the opportunity to be part of it.”

“Mm.” Shook drew one of his wands, glancing around. They were seemingly alone now in the dark tunnel, which had no light at the other end. The only illumination came from a ball of fire Vannae summoned and held above his palm. “Well. Now we’re here, should we address the issue of what obvious bullshit all this is?”

“Do you mean his Holiness setting us to hunt a mystery cult of which he is almost certainly the source?” Khadizroth said wryly. “Or more particularly this tip of Syrinx’s that we are sent to follow?”

“Y’know what, take one of each, I’m a generous kinda guy.” Shook grinned, his teeth flashing in the firelight. “But sure, let’s focus on the immediate. Syrinx’s reasons for splitting up our group are so fucking nonsense it’s downright insulting. I mean, sure, the Jackal tends to stick out, but Shiri is easily the best among us at blending in—and you’re the worst, like we were just talking about. Besides, those are the specific two who should not be confined to a few rooms unless the whole idea is to make them so stir-crazy they give her an excuse to bust out the sword.”

“Basra Syrinx is a noted blademaster,” Khadizroth mused, “but even in hand-to-hand combat I rather think she would not choose to confront the Jackal. His aptitudes too perfectly counter her own. I agree with you, Jeremiah, as to the general thrust of the game being played, but I fear it won’t be so simple as that. This much we can say with relative certainty: our entire mission in Ninkabi is a shallow pretext, and it is likely that the true purpose is to set us against our newly appointed leader.”

“So the question is,” Shook said slowly, “is Syrinx in on it, or were we all just shut in this box together because Justinian wants some of us killed off and doesn’t care which?”

“Well phrased,” the dragon agreed. “The answer to that question will do much to shape the actions we must take in response. Based on what I have learned of Syrinx’s recent history, the Archpope took a political risk in protecting her; it seems unlikely he would then throw her away so swiftly. On the other hand, we have seen that he is inexplicably more eager to cull his own agents than his enemies. What do you think, Vannae?”

“I think,” the elf said softly, “we might consider asking the person following us.”

All three of them stopped and turned, Shook raising his wand. They were deep enough in the darkened tunnel that both ends were lost in shadow; in the flickering light, the shape of another hooded figure approaching from the way they had come was partially obscured.

“That’s far enough,” Shook snapped, taking aim.

The approaching figure raised both hands and spoke in a low, feminine voice. “I mean no harm. I’m the person you were sent to meet. And you are quite right, gentlemen: your task here is a sham, and so is the tip Basra is acting on. She thinks it genuine, though. It was the most convenient way for me to arrange to meet you.”

“And you are?” Khadizroth asked politely.

“A loyal servant of his Holiness the Archpope,” she said, approaching slowly with her hands still up. “But I would draw the important distinction that loyal and obedient are not the same concept. His Holiness is…prone to overestimating his ability to control wild elements, and unfortunately willing to use agents whose involvement will only harm his interests. Sometimes, those of us who believe in his mission and care for his welfare must act…contrary to his wishes. I know who you are—all three of you, and the two who did not come. And I’m here to tell you that between your entire group and Basra Syrinx, it is she who urgently needs to be destroyed.”

Vannae kept his attention on her, fireball upraised; Shook’s wand did not waver, though he and Khadizroth exchanged a meaningful glance.

“Well, madam,” the dragon replied after the tense pause, “you have our attention.”

She finally moved her hands, lowering her own hood to reveal auburn hair and blue eyes set in a pale, heart-shaped face.

“My name is Branwen. It’s well past time we had a talk.”

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15 – 2

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“This has been a long time coming,” Darling said with a forgivable touch of grandiosity, “but we are finally here. I realize that in the end I hardly ever sent you all to do much of anything, but my relatively few requests were the sort of carnage that gets more sensible people than us killed, and you handled them all with skill and aplomb.”

“Even the one that ended with my wand in your face?” Joe said innocently.

“I learn to put those little things behind me,” Darling replied, winking. “I’ll be honest, guys: in the beginning I did toy with the idea of drawing out the process of getting your secrets from the Chamber of Truth, just to have access to your skills longer. Events rendered that moot, however. It has taken me this damn long to drag answers out of those hilariously frustrating gadgets on the amount of time per week I was able to devote to it without rousing suspicion from the Archpope. Anyway, here we are. I apologize for the delay, and have been well pleased with your end of the bargain. As of this, we’re square.”

In the brief pause which followed, Price stepped forward from the corner of the parlor in which she had been standing with a silver tray balanced on one hand. Upon it, resting on a lace doily, were five sealed envelopes. The Butler now stepped forward and began to hand them out to the five of them.

“That begs the question,” McGraw drawled, “what next?”

“Aye, it’s been a fair while since we’ve heard a peep outta Justinian or ‘is crew o’ reprobates,” Billie added. “D’ye think he’s given up on that plan o’ his, to recruit an army of adventurers? Cos I can’t ‘elp noticin’ you an’ he both stopped at five each.”

“His Holiness hasn’t deigned to discuss that with me in any detail in some time,” Darling said with a slight frown, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the arms of his chair. “I’m still involved in some of his more sensitive operations, and while he does an admirable job of keeping his various plots separate from each other, I can read between the lines. Thumper and that milquetoast Vannae can’t be much of a challenge to handle, but the succubus and the assassin are both the kind of crazy that starts climbing the walls if not kept constantly entertained. And Khadizroth, from what I’ve learned of him, is exactly the same kind of mind Justinian is.”

“Yes,” Mary agreed quietly, steepling her own fingers. “Charismatic, a natural leader and long-term planner. I have managed to learn almost nothing of his progress while upon Justinian’s leash, but I know him. He will have been, at the very lest, vying for control of that adventurer group, and likely trying to gain some influence among Justinian’s other followers.”

“Right,” Darling nodded, “so in short, those people are inherently less stable than you lot, and also being kept under wraps. Which means managing them has to be a constant nightmare. It doesn’t surprise me much that Justinian has held off on expanding that program. What it does tell me is that he has plans for them still, otherwise he’d have cut his losses long ago.”

“Funny thing about that guy,” McGraw mused. “I’ve crossed wands with all manner of corrupt, powerful bastards, but I don’t think I’ve ever met one who was so much more eager to kill off his own servants than his enemies.”

“Wait, he what?” Billie tilted her head, one ear twitching and the envelope dangling unopened in her hands. “Did I miss something?”

“Elias visits me socially,” Darling said pointedly. “We swap stories. Yeah, you’ve missed some details, but that is definitely one of Justinian’s patterns. At this point I think half the people still in his organization are just there trying to work out what exactly it is he’s up to in the long term. He’s too sly and too capable to be doing the kind of inane chapbook-villain nonsense it looks like he is.”

Price cleared her throat softly, still holding out the last envelope to Mary, who had been ignoring it. At that, the elf glanced over at the Butler, then returned her stare to Darling.

“Thank you, Price, but I think I would rather hear my answer orally.”

“As the actress said to the bishop,” Billie chimed, her eyes now on the contents of her own envelope.

“Is this another of your amusing little games, Mary?” Darling asked in his driest tone. “Did Joe ever tell you guys about the time she drugged us into a surprise vision quest?”

“It was the Rangers doin’ the drugging, to be fair,” Joe added. “But yeah, her idea. All due respect, ma’am, these mysterious antics are less charming than you seem to think.”

“I have never found much utility in charm,” Mary replied placidly.

“We know,” Weaver snorted, scowling at his own letter.

Darling sighed, then shrugged. “Well, if you want. Our dear Ms. The Crow asked for an answer from the oracles on how to finally achieve vengeance against the Tiraan Empire for its crimes against her kin.”

“What?” Joe exclaimed. “Why is that something you wanna hash out in front of everybody?”

“Obvious, innit?” Billie replied cheerfully. “She wants ta watch an’ see whether any o’ us might care t’jump in an’ help ‘er with it! I’ll tell ye straight up, Mary, I’m not gonna shift me bum to protect the Silver Throne, but I also ain’t lookin’ ta start a scrap with it. Empire’s a big ol’ nuisance of an enemy, one I can do without.”

“Ain’t like any of us are renowned for our Imperial patriotism,” McGraw chuckled. “Well, I confess, now my own curiosity’s piqued.”

Mary smiled thinly, still gazing at Darling.

“Right,” he grumbled. “See if I ever spend time writing you a carefully-worded letter again. Well, the short version is, you can’t.”

Slowly, she raised one eyebrow.

“And for your edification,” he continued, pointing at her, “you are the reason this took so damn long. Because I knew that answer wouldn’t satisfy you, so I kept digging. Have you ever tried to drag answers out of an oracle after it told you to bugger off?”

“Yes, in fact,” she said, raising both eyebrows now. “I confess, Antonio, you impress me. That is a significant achievement, for a non-practitioner.”

“Well, I could’ve told you what the oracles told me in the first place if you’d just asked,” he sighed. “Your whole problem is that you are too late. The Empire that wronged you is gone. What was built after the Enchanter Wars uses a lot of the same iconography as the Tiraan Empire that existed before it, and deliberately claims that shared history to give itself legitimacy, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. The old Empire was an absolute monarchy; the new one is a feudal aristocracy with—though the Throne will deny it—a lot of characteristics of a republic in how its bureaucracy is structured. Hell, it’s just political happenstance the capital is in the same place; there was a real chance of the Silver Throne itself moving to Onkawa near the end of the war. In short, lady, you took too long and blew your chance.”

“And,” she said quietly, “is that the answer it has taken you all these months to extract?”

“No, that answer is actually somewhat instructive, though honestly I don’t think it’s any more useful.” He shook his head. “The oracles finally yielded two possibilities for you to pursue, and interestingly enough, both are the same one: take it up with Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” Mary prompted in a calm tone that made everyone else in the room edge warily away from her. Everyone but Price, and Weaver, who was glaring at his letter as if oblivious to everything else happening.

“First option,” said Darling. “Not one that would’ve occurred to me personally, though after a lot of pestering the Book of All Tales finally spat it out. In some older cultures there are entire codes of how to seek vengeance—”

“Don’t Eserites have a code on that, too?” Billie interrupted.

“Yes, and the Eserite advice is in most cases ‘don’t.’ But as I was saying, there is an idea in several ancient creeds that if you are robbed of your revenge by someone killing your target first, you can satisfy the demands of honor by killing that person instead. In your case, Mary, it happens that the person who killed Emperor Avrusham and ended the Ravidevegh Dynasty is still alive.”

“Arachne,” Mary said in a flat tone, “exists in a constant state of needing to have her ears boxed, but she has done nothing for which I would seek her death. And I certainly will not be manipulated into attacking her by the whispers of an old book.”

“That’s a relief to hear,” McGraw drawled. “I don’t think the continent would survive you two goin’ at it for serious.”

“As the actress—”

“Come on, Billie, every time?” Joe interrupted in exasperation.

“And what is this second piece of advice that also points to Arachne?” Mary asked.

“Even sillier,” Darling said, grimacing. “Time travel.”

Everyone turned to frown at him.

“What’s that got to do with Tellwyrn?” McGraw asked.

“Hell if I know,” Darling replied with a shrug. “It raises some intriguing questions, doesn’t it? But that’s what the ruby mirror, the gong of Guan Sho, and the oracular koi all pointed to. Since your chance for revenge is in the past, if you want to achieve it, you must go into the past. And for some damned reason, Tellwyrn’s who you should ask about that.”

“Probably has an in with Vemnesthis,” Weaver grunted, still frowning distractedly at the letter that had been in his envelope. “Her main project for three thousand years was getting an audience with every god there is, and since she eventually stopped it to found the University, apparently she got ’em all. It really wouldn’t surprise me if Arachne was the only living person who could actually talk to the Scions and not get press-ganged or murdered.”

“I see,” Mary murmured, finally lowering her eyes to stare distantly at the low table between them. “…thank you, Antonio. You are right, it is not a satisfying answer. But I respect the effort to which you went in obtaining it. I consider your end of our bargain upheld. In truth…I suppose there is no satisfying answer.” An ironic little smile quirked at her lips, and she lifted her gaze to meet Darling’s again. “A friend told me not long ago that I need to grow up. Perhaps this is confirmation.”

“Aren’t you, what, ten thousand bloody years old?” Billie demanded.

“Less than five, thank you.”

“Oh, aye, a real spring chicken, you are.”

“Jenkins,” Weaver said abruptly, standing up. “A word?”

“Uh…sure,” Joe replied slowly. “You mean in private? I guess so,” he muttered belatedly, rising and following the bard, who was already out of the room. “Scuze us, folks,” he said at the door, turning and nodding to them.

Weaver had retreated all the way to the foyer, where he was standing with his hands jammed in his coat pockets, the rumpled letter half-emerging from one. At Joe’s arrival, he turned from staring out the window by the door.

“I need your help.”

“Oh?” Joe tilted his head. “This have somethin’ to do with your…answer?”

“You mentioned when we first met that you’ve traveled to the center of the Golden Sea,” Weaver said almost curtly.

“With Jenny, yeah,” Joe nodded.

“And I’m given to understand that the center can only be reached by someone who has already been there. Or, apparently, someone traveling with them.”

“That’s what Jenny told me…” Joe narrowed his eyes. “Okay, hold up.”

“I realize you do all right for yourself financially,” Weaver said, his eyes cutting to the large piece of tiger’s eye gleaming in Joe’s bolo tie, “but whatever your price—”

“Now hang on a second, I’m followin’ this trail back to its source,” Joe interrupted, holding up one hand. “Lemme see if I’ve connected these dots right. You need to get to the center of the Sea for some reason, where there is a gigantic, permanent dimensional rift which I know has properties no hellgate or portal does, since Jenny could use it to leave this entire reality. I distinctly remember when Darling was first pitchin’ this devil’s bargain o’ his he said you were lookin’ to spit in a god’s face. And it occurs to me that you’ve got some kinda complicated relationship with a valkyrie, who is not supposed to be on the physical realm by edict of Vidius. I add those things up and the sum is big trouble.”

Weaver inhaled slowly and deeply through his nose, then just as slowly let the breath out. When he finally spoke, his tone was taut but even. “Yes, I suppose it’s all fairly obvious to someone who has the requisite amount of sense. And credit where it’s due, you’ve got more than the minimum, Jenkins. Look, I…don’t know what to say to persuade you. It’s not like I’ve gone out of my way to be friendly up till now. This is the one thing in life I am most determined to achieve, and if what I’ve just learned is correct, you are the one person in the world who can help me do it. The only person who has ever been to the center of the Sea. There’s nothing I won’t pay to secure your aid.”

“Weaver, I’m not tryin’ to gouge you, here,” Joe said, frowning. “This ain’t about money, or payment of any kind. What I gotta debate with myself is whether I wanna spit in a god’s eye. An’ quite frankly, I’m havin’ a hard time findin’ an angle to come at that question that doesn’t end up at ‘no.’”

“There is a heavily moderating factor, if you consider with a bit more care, Joseph,” Mary said smoothly, gliding into the foyer.

Weaver threw up his hands. “Aaaand there she is. I dunno why I even bothered to try and have a private conversation.”

“Yeah, I don’t either,” Darling said from the hall behind Mary. “Give her some credit, she’s the only eavesdropper not trying to be surreptitious. Well, this is none of my business, so I’m gonna visit the kitchen and put together a sandwich. You guys want anything?”

“Y’got any beer?” Billie’s voice piped up from just around the corner.

“The hell kind of establishment do you think I’m running, here?” Darling demanded in an affronted tone. “Of course I’ve got beer.”

“Your previous excursion into the heart of the Sea was at the behest of your friend Jenny,” Mary continued while Darling puttered off to the kitchen and McGraw and Billie crept around the corner, the old wizard at least having the grace to look abashed. “A creature known elsewhere as the Shifter. Were you aware that she has often been associated with Vesk?”

“She has?” Joe frowned. “When? Where?”

“Jenny Everywhere is mentioned obliquely in a number of old stories,” Mary replied, glancing at Weaver. “Going back…a very long way. To my knowledge she has not been directly connected to Vesk. But any being who pops up in multiple unconnected sagas will eventually raise the question of how she is related to the god of bards. And now, one of Vesk’s bards has a need to visit the Golden Sea, to achieve an end of great personal importance to him. Now that he knows this, it also turns out that an established acquaintance of his is the one person who can lead him there.” She smiled and blinked slowly, an expression that made her look remarkably like a pleased cat. “And your ability to do so is the direct result of…given the circumstances, let us call it ‘foreshadowing’…by an unearthly being widely suspected of being an agent of Vesk’s. This project may be an affront to Vidius, but it has implied endorsement from another god of the Pantheon. And those two are not known to crush mortals between them in great clashes. There has been none of that among the Pantheon since Sorash was destroyed.”

“It does sound downright bardic, when she puts it that way,” McGraw mused.

“If you decide to do this,” Mary said, glancing between Weaver and Joe, “I would like to come along.”

Weaver narrowed his eyes. “Why.”

“To see the center of the Golden Sea? Is that not reason enough?”

“Aye, same!” Billie chirped. “That there’s an adventure an’ no mistake! Ashner’s britches, the braggin’ rights! I’d never ‘ave ta pay fer drinks again!”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw added, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But it’s been my observation over the years that the world’s pretty much wall-to-wall danger. Death an’ suffering are around every corner. Comes a point where it doesn’t profit a body to worry excessively about repercussions, long as you don’t rashly seek ’em out. What matters in life is livin’ with honor, and bein’ true to the people who’re true to you. Here’s the truth: we may not get to see Yngrid much, or basically ever, but she’s been around us the whole time Weaver has. She’s pretty explicitly saved our butts, like the first time we fought Khadizroth. Now, if Weaver and Yngrid have gotta offend Vidius to be together…” He shrugged. “In my book, that makes it worth doin’. You want my help, Weaver, you got it.”

Joe drew in a slow breath of his own. “Y’know… I have been wanting to have a second look at that portal. When I was there it didn’t seem like there was much to see except for old ruins and a big magical hole in the world. Knowin’ what I do now, though, and considerin’ the fact that the Golden Sea is widely thought to have a mind of its own, I gotta wonder if there’s somethin’ else there I just didn’t know to look for.” He met Mary’s eyes. “A purple man who lives in the walls. Somebody who I bet could answer some big questions.”

“Did that sound less crazy in yer head before it spilled outta yer mouth?” Billie asked.

“Not really,” Joe said ruefully. “But I stand by it. All right, Weaver, I guess I’ve been swayed, and not by your offer of payment. I’m in.”


“And isn’t this just the most absolutely typical thing?” the Jackal complained stridently from the head of their little procession. The elf was stalking along, taking huge steps and swinging his arms widely in a comical gait that made him resemble a child playing soldier. “Here we are, visiting scenic Ninkabi! The highest and lowest city in the Empire! Famed for its soaring towers and fathomless ravines, for graceful bridges and rooftop gardens! With stunning views of the mighty Wyrnrange, the distant sea, and on a clear day the very forests of Athan’Khar! And where do we end up?” He came to a stop, turning to face the right wall of the hallway along which they were being led, and brandished both hands at is as if casting a spell. “Underground. Under! The fucking! Ground!”

“Yeah, you whining about it makes the whole thing a lot less claustrophobic,” Shook grunted. “Move your skinny ass, wouldja?”

“Oh, it’s always the ass with you, isn’t it,” the Jackal simpered, turning to him. “If you want a peek, handsome, all you gotta do is ask. What, isn’t that pet of yours keeping you adequately drained?”

“If you want his throat slit, master,” Kheshiri purred, pressing herself against Shook from behind, “all you have to do is give the order.”

“I would be so much more alarmed if I didn’t know that was your idea of foreplay,” the elf replied, waggling his eyebrows at her. “How about you and me, sugar tits? You can take any shape, right? Can you do Jerry, here?”

“Enough.”

Khadizroth’s voice, as always, cut off their bickering. The dragon walked at the rear of the line, Vannae hovering silently at his side. The three of them turned to scowl at him as he lowered the hood of his robe to reveal his luminous green eyes.

“You have plenty of time to indulge in your unique banter. Let us not keep our hosts waiting, nor terrorize the staff excessively. Neither is a positive first impression. My apologies, Lieutenant,” he added to the sole Holy Legionary accompanying them, who had stopped several yards ahead and was watching them with a noticeably pale face. “Please, proceed.”

The man swallowed once, visibly. He wasn’t part of the detachment stationed at their headquarters beneath Dawnchapel, and thus not accustomed to them; in particular, he seemed to have trouble keeping his gaze off Kheshiri, and the fact that his eyes held naked fear didn’t stop them from wandering below her shoulders. Which, of course, irritated Shook as much as it amused the succubus.

“Uh, right, um…sir,” the lieutenant said after an awkward pause. “It’s, ah, just through here.”

The right-hand wall at which the Jackal had gestured was, in fact, lined with windows, but there was not much to see. This complex was carved out of the living rock along the lower wall of one of Ninkabi’s canyons, not far above the river itself; the roar of the rapids was actually audible below. What little fading afternoon light remained did not reach down this far, and the only illumination in the hall came from its fairy lamps.

The beleaguered soldier led them the last few yards to the only place there was to go: the hall terminated in a single door. He opened this and then hesitated, dithering. Appropriate protocol called for him to pull it open and stand aside, but the man clearly felt visceral unease at the prospect of the five of them filing past him in close quarters. After a moment’s waffling, he ducked through the door ahead of them and kept going, putting a few yards between himself and the entry.

Kheshiri and the Jackal both snickered. Fortunately, neither said anything.

The room beyond was a conference chamber, predominated by a long table. Their door opened onto the rear end, with the front some ten yards distant to their left. At that end, there was a wooden lectern, currently moved off to the side to reveal a view of the far wall, on which were hung a series of maps of the different levels of Ninkabi.

As soon as they had all entered, the soldier darted back out behind them, putting on an extra boost of speed when the Jackal blew him a kiss. The elf cackled as he slammed the door shut, but everyone else was focused on the other in the room.

Before the wall, a woman with short dark hair stood with her back to them, studying the maps, hands clasped behind her. She wore a long white coat clearly tailored to her lean figure, with a silver-tooled belt from which hung an ornate short sword.

“All right, let’s get the obvious questions out of the way first,” she said brusquely, turning to face the group. Her features were sharp and her expression entirely unimpressed by them, in stark contrast to the frightened Legionary. “During a recent kerfuffle in Tiraas which briefly imperiled the life of the Emperor himself, a sizable cult appeared and engaged in a pitched battle with soldiers and adventurers. I’m told you lot in particular were involved.”

“Oh, hey, I remember those guys!” the Jackal said brightly.

“Do not interrupt me when I am briefing you,” she snapped. “The Universal Church has been trying to identify that group ever since. They were numerous, followed no known doctrine, and appeared evidently from nowhere. There is no record of any such organization operating within the Empire. Obviously, it’s disturbing that such a sizable threat could appear with no warning and vanish without a trace. What few leads have emerged have brought us here, to Ninkabi. You are here to hunt these cultists down, learn everything that can be learned about them, and take whatever action is then deemed appropriate.” She paused, then smiled very thinly. “Until compelling indications otherwise emerge, I will be proceeding upon the assumption that the appropriate action will be to exterminate whatever is left of them.”

“Very well,” Khadizroth said, inclining his head. “But would not an introduction have been a more appropriate place to start?”

“Yes, that is the other thing,” she replied, her smile widening enough to show hints of teeth. “The five of you represent what was not meant to be a long-term project. For…a variety of reasons…it seems his Holiness the Archpope has decided to keep you on. As such, your status must be considered, and your group integrated into the hierarchy of the Church. To that end, his Holiness is resurrecting a long-discarded office of the Church under which—under me—you shall work. One which respects your need for secrecy, and grants broad discretionary powers in dealing with whatever threats may emerge. Welcome, lady and gentlemen, to the Inquisition.”

“Whoah, hang on a sec,” Shook said, frowning. “Those were the witch-hunters from before the Enchanter Wars. I’m pretty sure that shit’s even more illegal than most of what we do.”

“Not to mention…provocative,” Khadizroth murmured. “Reminders of those dark days have a way of calling down preemptive retribution.”

“That is for me to worry about; it’s for you to follow my orders.” The woman paced forward three steps to lean both hands on the table, her grin broadening to become a fierce expression that held more than a hint of a snarl. “I am Grand Inquisitor Syrinx, and as of now, you freaks are mine.”

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The darkness receded and he was released, immediately spinning away from his captor. The elf took a step back from him, grinning and raising both hands—not a greatly reassuring gesture, as one still held that stiletto and the other the shadow-jumping talisman.

“Welcome.”

Ayuvesh whirled to behold a tall, robed figure approaching him from the corridor ahead. Finding himself apparently not under attack, for the moment, he chanced a glance around at his surroundings. There wasn’t much to see; he stood in a small, perfectly square chamber, unadorned except for a single wrought iron stand in one corner containing a modern fairy lamp which provided the only illumination. The walls, floor, and ceiling appeared to be all of one piece.

He did not know the name of the material, but he had seen it before. It had a grainy texture like rough stone, but reflected light like metal, and was impervious to every tool or weapon he had tested against it. Only the Infinite Order of old had built with this substance.

The figure approaching him reached up and lowered his hood, revealing an angular elfish face with eyes of solid emerald green. His long hair and neat little goatee were the same color.

“We have met before,” the dragon said, “but I regret that circumstances at the time did not permit a proper introduction. I am Khadizroth the Green. You have already met the Jackal. I apologize for the drama; it was an unfortunate necessity. I hope he did not indulge overmuch in…theatrics. He does have that tendency.”

“Yeah, I’m a real stinker,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “But, hey, least I’ve never assembled a child harem out of genocide survivors. Everybody’s gotta draw the line somewhere!”

Khadizroth’s head shifted minutely; Ayuvesh had the expression he was glancing at the elf, but without visible pupils or irises the movement of his eyes was impossible to track. The dragon’s expression did not alter, in any case.

“Where are we?” he asked with all the poise he could muster. “And, if you will indulge me in a second question, why have you brought me here?”

Khadizroth bowed slightly to him. “This is the most secure location I know. I used it as a lair centuries ago, before it was found by an adventurer. This individual and I had an understanding and he never returned here, nor revealed its secret, but nonetheless I moved elsewhere once a single uninvited soul knew of it. That is a dragon’s way. I have kept…an eye, so to speak, on this spot, in case I one day required absolute security, and I can attest it has not been breached since. It is quite safe and quite empty now, I assure you, but it was originally made by the Elder Gods. There is no possibility of scrying or communicating through its walls, except at my instigation from within. Only one who has been here before can shadow-jump inside, and arcane teleportation in and out is quite impossible. That is why your escort paused to engage in that pantomime of murder. He observed, during our previous visit to Puna Dara, that you seem able to communicate with your fellows, likely via those machine augmentations of yours. Once here, that is no longer possible. But now they, like the Punaji authorities, will believe you dead. I apologize for the distress this must cause.”

He bowed again, more deeply.

“I see,” Ayuvesh said slowly. It was, he supposed, a good sign that his abductors were being so forthcoming—at least, so far. “And as for the why…?”

“You’re dead!” the Jackal crowed. “Sorry, kid, nothing personal. Archpope’s orders.”

Ayuvesh turned to examine the grinning elf, not bothering to suppress his disdainful expression. The Jackal pursed his lips and made kissing noises at him.

“This entire situation requires some explanation,” Khadizroth said with much more courtesy. “I will, of course, help you understand everything I may. If you would accompany me?”

He stepped to the side, politely gesturing Ayuvesh forward through the square corridor.

Well, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else he could go. He nodded back to the dragon with equal courtesy and paced forward as indicated. When he drew abreast of Khadizroth, the dragon fell into step beside him.

“There is, in terms of space, not much to see,” Khadizroth said, sounding oddly apologetic. “The cavern has six small outlying chambers, identical to the one we just left—which has been set aside for shadow-jumping in and out. Another is serving for sanitation. In a vault which is as thoroughly sealed as this one, that involves a convoluted arrangement of portable holes and water conjuration devices which requires no small amount of power crystals.”

“How creative,” Ayuvesh said neutrally, reasoning it was safest and wisest not to irritate his host with all the questions racing through his mind.

“The rest we mean to set aside for individuals, as a matter of privacy. When those run out, we will be reduced to erecting barriers to subdivide the main space. Which you now see before you.”

They had just emerged from the corridor onto a wide chamber which was mostly lost in darkness. A ledge of the stone-metal ran along one of its narrow ends; more square corridors opened off this. At intervals were set up iron stands holding fairy lamps, their glow lighting the ledge adequately but not penetrating far into the vast darkness spreading off in the other direction. Ayuvesh stepped forward to peer down; the ledge was about nine feet tall. Off to his left a set of wooden stairs descended do the chamber floor.

“Everything is in a very early state, as you can see,” the dragon explained. “With time and effort it will become much more comfortable. At the moment, however, quarters are unavoidably somewhat spartan.”

“It looks like a vehicle hangar,” Ayuvesh commented. His voice created a faint echo, now that they were standing in the huge main chamber. “Which suggests the main entrance is at the other end; the entire wall would open. I assume it is too buried in a rockslide or some such to function, otherwise all this would have been found ages ago.”

“You are a surprisingly educated man,” Khadizroth observed.

“In a few highly specific areas, I suppose so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “When might I be permitted to rejoin my followers, if it’s not too much to ask?”

The dragon nodded slowly, turning to gaze out into the dark, empty space. To Ayuvesh’s minor discomfiture, the Jackal had followed them out of the corridor and now lounged against the wall nearby, trimming his fingernails with his stiletto and grinning that unsettling grin.

“I cannot give you a definitive answer to that at this time,” Khadizroth said, “though I hope the final answer is not ‘never.’ We must all be prepared for the potential worst-case scenario.”

“Which is?”

“That, I am still trying to determine.” The dragon grimaced bitterly. “You are here, Ayuvesh, because Archpope Justinian has commanded your death.”

Ayuvesh glanced over at the Jackal, who winked. “So I hear.”

“Therefore, you must remain dead, so long is he is aware—and his web stretches far indeed. The only way to ensure that Justinian is kept in the dark is to ensure that the world itself is.”

“The bomb may have been overplaying your hand, in that case,” Ayuvesh opined. “Such a measure is needless overkill for assassination; such a clever man as your Archpope will suspect it was meant to conceal a disappearance.”

“Oh, the bomb was his Holiness’s idea!” the Jackal said brightly. “He doesn’t want the Punaji thinking anybody knew or cared enough about you to send someone into their secure rooms and open your throat. But who knows what’s in all that hardware you’ve got strapped to your chassis, eh? Lacking any other explanation they may conclude you just malfunctioned and blew the hell up!”

“Anyone who thinks that is not giving Rajakhan nearly enough credit.”

“Hey, take it from an old pro.” The Jackal bowed deeply, flourishing his non-knife-holding hand out behind him. “Sometimes it’s just not possible to fully cover your tracks, in which case creating ambiguity and confusion is the next best measure.”

“We, as I presume you have surmised by now, serve the Archpope in a less than open capacity,” Khadizroth said. “Carrying out those of his orders which he does not wish connected to him. Some of such, anyway; he has many hands, most unknown to each other. We do this for two reasons: the Archpope is holding something over each of us, and more importantly, because we prefer to be close to him rather than hiding away in the hope that what he is planning simply fizzles out. Only by remaining active and nearby do we have any chance of creating an opportunity to thwart him.”

“And…” Ayuvesh slowly tilted his head. “What is the good Archpope planning?”

“That,” Khadizroth replied with a deep frown, “is a question which troubles me greatly. A person in his position, pursuing designs of the scale and complexity that he is, should be trying to simplify them. Consolidating power, eliminating rivals, controlling the situation. Justinian, in many ways, seems determined to do the opposite. Most prominently a cornerstone of his strategy appears to be keeping as many of his enemies alive and in positions to pester him as possible. He has repeatedly passed over opportunities to finish off a disadvantaged foe, and even arranged for some to receive much needed strokes of luck after suffering major setbacks. The only blood he seems willing to spill is that of his own agents, when their usefulness has ended.”

“And guess who gets to do the spilling,” the Jackal smirked.

“The heart of the problem with Justinian is that I cannot tell what he is attempting to do,” Khadizroth continued. “His machinations are too careful and too precise to be directed at stirring up simple chaos… But I fail, thus far, to see what other end result they could possibly have. He appears to want as many factions and powers in play as possible, in a state of maximum conflict with one another. Even his efforts to deflect their attention from him appear…begrudging, undertaken only when one becomes a true threat.”

“It looks a lot like he wants the whole world at his throat,” the Jackal mused, tossing his knife in the air and catching it. “Not right now, but at some point in the future. Fuck me if I can see why, though.”

“And so, here you are,” Ayuvesh mused, “tired of taking increasingly nonsensical orders, naturally wondering when it will be your turn upon the chopping block, and beginning to set up the pieces for an act of rebellion.”

Khadizroth nodded to him. “You are as perceptive as your reputation suggests, Ayuvesh.”

“I am as perceptive as any man who still has one working eye,” he replied sardonically. “Nothing about this situation is particularly subtle, now that I am in the middle of it. Let me ask you this: what was the Archpope trying to accomplish by manipulating my cult—and, I presume, the Punaji Crown?”

“The recent events in Puna Dara were only half that story, I’m afraid.” Ayuvesh turned at the new voice, finding himself approached by a man in a neat suit, with a neat beard, who had a Stalweiss complexion but spoke with a Tiraan accent. “A simultaneous debacle unfolded in Last Rock; I had the honor of a much closer vantage than I would have liked for that.”

“Ayuvesh, may I present Willard Tanenbaum, our first new recruit,” Khadizroth said politely. “A scholar of the Topaz College, and recently one of Justinian’s trusted, until he apparently outlived his usefulness and was slated for sacrifice.”

“Along with a great many of my fellows,” Tanenbaum said bitterly. “To answer your question, sir, his Holiness had recently come very close to open conflict with the Silver Throne. He has since been arranging opportunities to work alongside its agents. Purging the ‘corrupt’ from the Pantheon’s cults—specifically, those more loyal to himself than their gods, and no longer necessary to his plans. Setting up your Rust for a fall in order to have his agents build bridges with the Empire and, apparently, the Punaji.”

“All that carnage,” Ayuvesh whispered. “My friends, slain. My nation, brought to the edge of collapse. For a distraction.”

“So, yeah,” the Jackal drawled. “There’s a reason Justinian’s favorite pawns are pretty willing to turn on him.”

Slowly, Ayuvesh shook his head. “I certainly sympathize with your aims, gentlemen, but… I fear I have very little to offer you. These…” He held up his mechanical arm and pinged the nail of his other index finger against its hard surface. “…are now deprived of the essential power that maintains them. They will seize up, and cease to work. I do not know how soon, but it’s more than my arm and leg that are controlled by these machines. When those which replaced my heart fail, so will I. Little time have I left, and for every minute of it I will grow gradually less functional.”

“I am a green dragon,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Regeneration is within my power. It will not be quick, Ayuvesh. It will not be simple, nor easy. But your body can be restored. Your true body, the flesh and bone nature gave you. And indeed…with this done, you will find yourself much less confined. After all, you are very distinctive in appearance. I rather think people will not recall where they have seen you before, if they see you without those modifications.”

Ayuvesh stared at him. Tanenbaum simply raised an eyebrow, while the Jackal balanced the stiletto on his finger by its tip, wearing a manic grin.

“You said Mr. Tanenbaum was the first new recruit,” he said at last. “And I?”

“The second,” Khadizroth replied. “More will come.”

“And what will we do?”

“At this time, I cannot yet tell,” the dragon said patiently. “As I’ve said, it remains a mystery what our devious benefactor is doing, himself. But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become for him. Eventually—in fact, soon, I believe—a point will come…a fulcrum. One spot upon which all will hinge, and a swift, unexpected action will bring him to the ruin he has brought upon so many others. What I propose is that we take steps to ensure that when this happens, we are ready.”

“Ready. Yes. After all…” Ayuvesh nodded. “One can always become more.”


“So that’s the Tellwyrn.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny grimaced. “Please don’t give her a the, her ego is out of control as it is.”

“Well, of all the people on this world, I figure she is entitled,” Darius said, stepping up beside her on the wall. The Rock was awake by that hour of the morning, and her friends had begun to trickle out of their rooms in ones and twos, but whole groups had not assembled yet. They were poking about on their own, processing the events of the last few days in their own way. She was surprised to see Darius of all people up here; strolling the battlements seemed more a way for her to orient herself than he. Nonetheless, here he was.

They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments, watching Tellwyrn, Ruda, and Anjal have a conversation across the courtyard below, near the damaged front door of the Rock itself.

“So,” Darius said finally, “I guess you’ll be going back with the Last Rock people, huh.”

“Oh…not necessarily,” she replied lightly. “I took the whole semester off, so there’s really not much for me to do there. It’s been good to see everyone again, but I’ll see them in the fall. Don’t worry, I still plan to come back to Tiraas with you guys. I need to thank Glory and say goodb—”

“You need to go back where you came from.”

She broke off in surprise, turning to face him. Darius was still gazing down below, his expression empty.

“People like me, like us,” he said quietly, “people who aren’t paladins, or dryads, or witches, or half-demons, or… We get killed for being too close to you lot, and the kind of shit that follows you.”

“That isn’t fair,” she whispered.

“Course it isn’t,” he agreed, shaking his head. “It’s not fair, and it certainly isn’t your fault. It just…is what it is. I read all the same bard stories you did, growing up, I bet. Paladins always have companions, and the companions always die. Because that is what happens when you’re a squishy nobody who gets in the line of fire. That kind of fire. I learned something, yesterday, about how brave I am, and how brave I’m not.” He raised his head and turned to meet her eyes, unflinching. “If it was just me? Right now I’d be asking you to take me with you, wherever the hell you’re off to next. I am quite willing to die from getting into paladin shit I had no business going near. Hell, that’d be a nobler end than anything I’ve got planned for my life. But… It turns out I am not willing to watch that happen to any more of my friends. And definitely not to my little sister.”

He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t put on her armor this morning, nor even her leather coat as a concession to Puna Dara’s climate, and felt his grip clearly through her shirt.

“There’ll always be people willing to die for the cause, Trissiny. Just…do me a favor? Make sure the next guy that happens to knows what he was signing up for, before it happens.”

She flinched.

“Thank you, for everything…Thorn. You’re my hero, and that’s not an exaggeration.” Darius squeezed her shoulder, and gave her an affectionate little jostle. A tiny, sad smile flickered across his features. “Now go home.”

He released her, turned and walked away along the wall, unhurried, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Trissiny stared after him in something like shock. With her head turned to follow him leaving, she didn’t see Tellwyrn look up at her and sigh softly before returning to her own conversation.


Night always fell early on Mathenon, thanks to the Stalrange rising in the west. On this particular night, a storm had come with it—the kind that was all wind, occasional lightning, and no rain. The way weather behaved around the edge of the Great Plains, this wasn’t unusual, either. Nothing was really unusual. Sometimes it hailed in midsummer; the Golden Sea made a mess of air currents. Prairie folk had learned to put their heads down and endure.

All this made it a perfect night to while away in the pub with the gang, drinking and talking, as the sky howled outside.

The Fallen Arms stood in a somewhat rough part of the city, but it wasn’t a rough establishment. Neither boisterous nor dull, it had a dedicated clientele of hard-working men and women who liked to stop in and unwind after a day’s work; they liked stiff drinks, friendly conversation, and not having to deal with any foolishness. In Mathenon, “working class” most often meant accountants, House servants, or fancy private guards. The regulars at the Fallen Arms were a different breed; they worked with calloused hands and strong backs, and it was well within their ability to insist on some damn peace and quiet if some pushy lout wandered in and tried to start something. The proprietor encouraged them to do so.

“Now, don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth,” Roy said with mounting exasperation, pointing an accusing finger with the hand still holding his beer. “I didn’t say anything about joining the Huntsmen, I’ve already got a job. What kinda fool you take me for?”

“All right, fair,” Elsa replied agreeably. “But suppose your boy wanted to run off and join a lodge. What would you say to that, since you like ’em so much?”

“I dunno why you’re rarin’ to start a fight tonight,” Roy grumbled. “All I said was, they got their virtues, see? They ain’t totally without a point. How’d you get to me liking ’em so much from that?”

“I’ve got tits, that’s how,” she retorted. “Every time those pelt-wearing asshats come through town I have to deal with ’em talking down to me in a way you never have to worry about. This ain’t a theoretical exercise to me, Roy, or any woman, it’s you talkin’ out of your ass about stuff you don’t understand.”

“Now, I never said they didn’t have their bad sides, either!” he said, his voice rising defensively in pitch. “Come on, Elsa, you know me better’n that. All I’m saying is, some of that they have to say ain’t completely stupid. They’re all about self-reliance, an’ having respect for nature. What’s the matter with any of that?”

“What’s the matter is the bullshit it comes with!”

“Omnu’s balls, there’s no talking to you tonight,” Roy grunted. “Hey, Jonathan! Settle an argument.”

“No.”

“Yeah, Jon, set this asshole straight,” Elsa chimed in, leaning around Roy to grin at the man seated on his other side at the bar, nursing a beer. “You’re the most level-headed guy here.”

He sighed, and rolled his eyes. “How many times do you think I’m gonna fall for that?”

“Oh, let’s not do this,” Elsa said dismissively. “You love playing the wise old man.”

“What do you mean, old?” he demanded, and she snorted a laugh in response. He had to grin back, despite his efforts to look offended.

Gods, he’d missed this.

Jonathan Arquin regretted none of the decisions he had made in life, even though they had made his lot hard in some ways. Now, though, things were looking brighter. The Church had relocated him out here to Mathenon for his protection, and had arranged a monthly stipend on which he could live very comfortably indeed, and never have to work.

He donated it every month to an Omnist shelter for the poor. Had to funnel it through a Vernisite temple in order to do so anonymously, which meant the Vernisites took a cut—six percent, the bloodsuckers—but that was a small price to pay for not having to explain why and how a man of his humble bearing could make such a generous gift on the regular. And whatever else could be said about bankers, they were admirably discreet people, particularly the religious ones. Meanwhile, he’d gone out and gotten a job.

A man was meant to work, otherwise, what was he good for? Work rooted him in the world, in society, kept him strong and centered and useful. And as an added bonus, it brought him this again, the kinship of other people who labored for a living. People who didn’t know about the demon and the child he’d had with her.

“Yeah, shut her up for me, Jon,” Roy added. “You don’t think the Huntsmen are totally bad, do you?”

Jonathan took a judicious sip of his beer before answering. “I can’t see anybody as totally bad, Roy, and that’s not a point for your argument. Not being an irredeemable monster is the baseline, not something a person gets praised for. Let’s face it, Huntsmen of Shaath are fanatical weirdos on their best day. Nobody who treats women the way they do is worth crossing the street to spit on, you ask me.”

“Thank you!” Elsa exclaimed, while Roy grumbled something and took a swig of his beer. He then sputtered on a mouthful of foam when she smacked him a little too hard on the shoulder. Jonathan almost missed the sound of the door opening in the ensuing playful scuffle, occurring as it did right in his ear.

The spreading silence was what warned him. Though they weren’t loud, or boisterous, the patrons of the Fallen Arms talked, and laughed, and drank. It was a place where people went for good company and good conversation. When the noise faded away, once table at a time, it meant something was up.

He raised his head, turning to examine the new arrival, and found himself staring like everyone else.

Mathenon was a city of merchants, and those who supported them; positioned on the single most important trade route between the inner provinces of the Empire and the mountain paths to Svenheim and Stavulheim, it was mostly inhabited by humans but saw its fair share of dwarves. It didn’t see many drow, however.

She paced slowly across the floorboards, the gnarled ebony staff in her hand making a rhythmic thunk each time she set it down, deep red eyes scanning the room as if searching for something. Dressed in pure black, both her leather trench coat and the robe underneath it, she cut a dark swath through the rustic ambiance the Arms cultivated. Her hair, though, had a streak of livid green dyed down the center, marring the white.

By the time she reached the bar, total silence had fallen upon the tavern, every eye fixed upon the drow woman, which she gave no sign of noticing. Slowly, she glided along the row of stools, feet soundless and only the butt of her staff making noise to mark her passing. She stepped past Jonathan, past Roy, then paused.

Elsa stiffened, but the dark elf turned and went back a few steps, this time stopping right behind Jonathan, who had turned around on his stool to study her direction.

She gave him a slow, insolent once-over, then nodded as if deciding on something.

“You,” the drow ordered. “Buy me a drink.”

Jonathan tore his gaze from her crimson eyes to glance at Roy, who shrugged helplessly.

He cleared his throat. “Lost your wallet, have you?”

One corner of her lips twitched upward. “This isn’t my first visit to the Empire. I know the custom in bars like this. The man buys the woman a drink. Or are you refusing me?”

She raised one snowy eyebrow, the expression somehow challenging.

Jonathan studied her right back, with the same measured impertinence. She was, it occurred to him, quite pretty. But hell, she was an elf; they were all pretty. He hadn’t known a lot of elves, and even fewer drow, certainly not enough to make a mental comparison. It was unnerving, having no idea how old she was. By her looks, she could’ve been barely out of her teens…which meant she was just as likely to be as old as the Empire. What might a creature like this have seen in her life?

“No offense,” he said at last, “but lady… You’re kind of scary.”

The drow tilted her head to one side in an inquisitive gesture, still maintaining eye contact. After another beat of silence, she smiled.

“Perhaps. But you still haven’t refused, I notice. Maybe you like that in a woman?”

He narrowed his eyes very slightly.

She did the same.

“Hey, Eliott,” Jonathan said at last, still looking at the dark elf and not the bartender he was now addressing. “Pour something…sweet, fruity, and pink. With a little paper umbrella if you’ve got any.”

“Sure, Jon,” Eliott said, deadpan. “And for the lady?”

A few chuckles from around the room broke the tension, and the drow herself grinned broadly in mischievous delight. The expression transformed her entire face.

Grinning back at her, Jonathan Arquin experienced the familiar feeling that he was about to make an excellent series of mistakes.

 

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13 – 37

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“So, here’s a question,” Ruda grunted, taking the heavy power cell from Gabriel. “We’ve got two people here with invisible valkyries whispering in their ears, who apparently know how all this shit works. So why the fuck are they both together screwing around with that thing, while all the rest of us are having our slow-ass orders relayed by Mr. Avatar?”

“Hey, you heard the man,” Gabriel said with a grin, and dusted off his hands as he backed away from her. “Worst you guys can do is break the factory and drown us all. If we screw up, we could end the whole world!”

“Neither of those outcomes is remotely likely,” the Avatar said soothingly from the nearest of his floating projections. Talking to him in this state was a little disorienting; as they had scattered to various pieces of the command platform to dismantle equipment under his direction, he addressed them from whatever apparatus was most convenient, which meant there were several purple men displayed in viewscreens and hovering as light sculptures, sometimes more than one talking at once. “I assure you, the software modifications you are making will not destabilize the facility. And the dimensional gate’s full capabilities would have to be accessed very deliberately; it has far too many incorporated failsafes to accidentally activate any kind of rift, stable or otherwise.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ruda said, carefully slotting the power cell into a housing indicated by small flashing lights the Avatar had activated. “Question stands, though.”

“Counter-intuitive as it might appear, I believe this to be the most efficient allocation of our manpower,” the Avatar explained. “Your work is with the installed software, via interface devices which I can access directly and relay detailed instructions, responding in real time to developments as needed. The gateway is a completely separate device, and seems to have been deliberately installed in such a way as to avert my standard oversight measures. Their work is better facilitated by additional—”

“Yeah, yeah, point taken,” she said sourly, stepping back while the Caretaker slipped in with a diffident chime to begin attaching the power cell to the console. “Right, this thing’s being hooked up. What’s next?”

“As soon as the console is powered, it should form the last link in our jury-rigged system to bypass the gateway’s intrusion into my network. It will need to be configured; I will walk you through the process once it is online.”

“You okay?” Toby asked quietly, straightening up from the screen he’d been tapping to lay a hand on Ruda’s shoulder.

“You know, this thing you do,” she said wryly, “how you’re everybody’s mom all the time? That would be really annoying if it was anybody else. But for some damn reason I can’t get mad at you, Caine. And that is also annoying, but I can’t get mad about it either. It’s a recursive loop of stymied pissiness.”

Toby blinked, then grinned and held his arms out. “Hug?”

“Fuck off,” she snorted, but not without grinning in return. “Don’t mind my bitching, I’m just worried about what’s goin’ on up there without us. Faster we get this done, the faster it all becomes moot.”

A few feet away, Gabriel had returned to the gate, where Milady was bent over its attached control screen, eyes narrowed in concentration. The soft background noise of voices drifted by them, from Toby and Ruda’s conversation and the Avatar giving instructions to Fross and Juniper at another part of the machinery.

“Soooo,” he drawled quietly, “since it was brought up, maybe this is a good time to have a chat about valkyries?”

Milady’s lips twitched. The sharp light of the viewscreen emphasized the dark circles under her eyes. She kept her gaze on it, answering him after a short pause.

“You place me in an awkward position, Mr. Arquin. My loyalties being what they are, I cannot go divulging Imperial secrets.”

“Okay, well…” He knelt next to the base of the gateway. It was in two distinct parts: the actual gate, a metal doorway with an attached control screen, and a hefty base in which its power cells were installed, which the Avatar had set him to cannibalizing so they could build extra units to work around the blocks forced into his main system. “Can you at least account for what happened to Yrsa? Valkyries are kind of experts on death; when one of them dies, the others notice.”

“Apparently not,” she muttered. Straightening slightly, she glanced sidelong at Juniper, whose back was turned to them at the other end of the platform. “Are you aware what can happen to daughters of Naiya who are severely traumatized?”

“They transform,” he said, frowning. “Though…I thought that was just dryads.”

“Well, it’s valkyries, too. And, theoretically, I suppose also kitsune, though it’s hard for me to imagine anything really hurting one of those.”

“Met one too, have you,” he said with a grin, which immediately faded. “So…Yrsa?”

“Have you heard the legend of the Dark Walker?”

“Sure, I grew up with the same fairy tales you did, but what’s…” Gabriel trailed off, then straightened up, the color fading from his face. “Oh. Oh, no.”

Milady cleared her throat, glancing up at him. “So…on the one hand, Imperial secrets. On the other is a good friend whom I hate to deprive of access to her own sisters… Is Vestrel here right now? I mean, close by?”

He winced. “Uh, yeah. By the way, you’re decapitated again.”

“Charming,” she muttered. “Well, I am just going to casually mention the words spaceport and gravitational isolation chamber, and if anybody here can make something of that, well, good for them.”

“Oh…kay?”

The purple figure of the Avatar appeared nearby, projected from the closest surface he could access. “How goes it?”

“I found the activation records,” Milady reported in a louder tone. “It’s good news: this gate was last powered up more than fifteen thousand years ago. Last portal activation was never. So your worry about the other side coming through seems to be unfounded.”

“Excellent!” the AI said with a broad smile of relief. “That also bodes well for our immediate work here. As I hoped, the interlopers were using the connector between the actual portal surface and its base rather than the portal itself. The gate’s technology is merely being used to connect the dimensional vortex in the Golden Sea to this structure, which is already nightmarishly complicated. It would have been much worse had there been another rift involved. This means the Caretaker should be able to disconnect them without ill effect. Which is an additional benefit; all of these gates were slated for destruction, but their maker hid an annoying number of them. It is gratifying to be able to remove one from the world.”

“Wait, there are more of these things floating around?” Gabriel placed one hand against the side of the gate. “Just…doorways to other dimensions, built by the Elder Gods?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Have you found where this one goes, Milady?”

“Not yet,” she said, frowning at the screen. “This is the most annoying thing… It doesn’t seem like there’s very much information in this; each piece I find is just a few lines, if that. I bet it could all be just displayed on the desktop. But everything is hidden behind links, and each one wants multiple confirmations before letting you see it…”

“Yes, that sounds like Heilo’s idea of a user interface.”

“Heilo?” She glanced up at the purple hologram. “Let me guess, the Infinite Order member who made these?”

“Correct. Allegedly, his aim was to make them difficult to access for safety reasons, but Heilo also took personal satisfaction in being obstreperous.”

“What kinds of places might it go?” Gabriel asked.

“Heilo devised these gates as a means to solve intractable technological dilemmas. Each has only one destination, because each was formed by scanning possible alternative universes to locate one according to specific criteria. The Infinite Order used them, when they were unable to devise a given technology, to seek out a universe in which the technology already existed and observe it.”

“All the power in the world and they were still lazy, cheating bastards,” Ruda grunted. She had wandered away from her console, waiting for the Caretaker to finish installing the power cell and turn it on.

“That’s absolutely fascinating, though!” Fross chimed exuberantly, zipping around overhead. “Why, it’s confirmation of the many-worlds hypothesis!”

“Not necessarily,” the Avatar cautioned. “It was never entirely clear whether the alternate universes viewed through these gates had an independent existence, or were actually created by the act of viewing them.”

“Oh, come on,” Gabriel exclaimed. “Sub-atomic particles are one thing. How can an entire universe not exist until someone opens a door to it?”

The Avatar’s nearest projection shrugged, even while another called Ruda back to her station and a third continued to walk Juniper through disconnecting something. “Reality gets that way, when you pick it apart in sufficient detail. Are you familiar with the Big Bang theory? According to one interpretation, this universe didn’t exist until a door to it was opened. In any case, these gates should all have been destroyed after use. In addition to their practical application, however, Heilo had a hobby of creating gateways to view universes in which his favorite mythological stories were real. Obviously, the Infinite Order did not tolerate this and had all such dangerous devices destroyed. I think most of the fun for Heilo was hiding them from his colleagues. If you ever encounter another device like this, I strongly urge you to verify that it is inactive and then leave it strictly alone. It would lead either to a dimension inhabited by beings more advanced than the Infinite Order, or given Heilo’s taste in fiction, to someplace chaotic and wildly dangerous.”

“Azeroth,” Milady said suddenly, straightening her back without lifting her eyes from the screen.

The Avatar’s projection, with oddly human body language, stiffened and widened his eyes in visible alarm. “I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t find anything labeled as a destination for the portal, but there’s a folder that says it’s the device’s name. It just says ‘Azeroth.’” She looked up at him. “What’s that?”

He remained still for a moment, though a flicker ran through his form.

“You are certain this gate has never been fully activated?”

“Well, that’s what the records say,” she replied, her eyebrows rising, “though of course I can’t know if anybody has tampered with them…”

“Mr. Arquin, if you would, please take a moment to disconnect all the power cells from that apparatus.”

“Uh…sure, okay.” Gabriel picked up the multi-tool the Caretaker had brought him and bent to begin working on one of the three remaining cells. “Rough neighborhood, I take it?”

“One of the stories I mentioned. Certain entities there might detect a dimensional rift and attempt to cross it, none of whom I wish to meet. That is not my primary concern, however. This gate is among those listed as missing; the world it leads to was not one of Heilo’s personal interests, but Scyllith’s. He built it for her as a gift, attempting to coax a favor in return. Scyllith’s personal dimensional plane is inundated with her personal transcension field, which makes it difficult and dangerous to traverse, even for ascended beings. The gate was hidden there and then never accounted for again. I am relieved, and somewhat surprised, to see she retained enough sense never to open a full portal through it. I cannot, however, explain what it is doing on this plane of existence, much less in my fabrication plant, attached to my systems.”

The others had all stopped work and turned to listen while he spoke; apparently the Avatar was spooked enough by this discovery that his other projections had fallen silent, leaving only the one near the gate speaking. After he finished, there was a pause in which only the rush of water below could be heard. Even Gabriel had halted in the act of detaching one of the power cell’s couplings.

“We knew whoever broke into the facility in the first place was logged in under Scyllith’s credentials,” Milady said slowly, at last breaking the silence. “I had assumed someone had just found them. As…a relic, like all the other Infinite Order junk that’s turned up over the centuries.”

“But this thing was actually in Hell,” Toby added, eyes wide, “and apparently only Scyllith knew where.”

“Elilial has reigned in Hell for eight thousand years,” Fross pointed out. “She could’ve found it, easily.”

“If the Black Wreath were involved in setting this up,” Juniper countered, “why would that Mogul guy have helped us get down here to fix all this?”

Ruda snorted derisively. “The only thing we can be sure of about why the Black Wreath does anything is that they’d lie to us about it.”

“So it was either Elilial or Scyllith,” Gabriel said, shifting from his uncomfortable crouch to sit on the floor next to the power cell, his task apparently forgotten. “Remember the hellgate last year? The demons that came through that weren’t loyal to Elilial. She doesn’t fully control Hell, any more than the Pantheon has absolute control over the mortal plane. I bet Scyllith still has secrets and allies there, even if she’s been banished. And if one of them has access to something like this, plus the ability to cart it through a hellgate somehow to get here…”

“Elilial can’t get through Infinite Order security,” Milady murmured. “Scyllith could. Elilial also can’t just hop between dimensions whenever she wants, it’s known she has to use the hellgates like everybody else. But Scyllith was part of the Order that created the separate dimensions in the first place. If anybody could work around that…”

“Also, Scyllith or someone working for her might know how to build a big, complicated gadget like this,” Fross acknowledged, her glow dimming slightly in alarm. “I don’t think the Wreath would.”

“Scyllith is bound,” Toby insisted. “Elilial stole her throne in Hell, and Themynra and her drow are keeping her imprisoned in the Underworld.”

“And yet…here’s this thing,” Gabriel said, craning his neck to stare up at the dimensional gate. It was such a plain thing to look at, little more than an empty, rectangular doorframe, unadorned and apparently made of stainless steel.

Ruda slammed her fist against the side of a console, making several of them jump. “All right, enough. Yes, this is a big fuckin’ deal and I am pretty goddamn sure we’re gonna be dealing with the implications of this later on, so we’d better not forget it. But right now there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of that. What we can do now is finish fixing the Avatar’s shit, so he can shut off the nanites and kill the Rust. Gods know what’s happening to my city while we sit here maundering. Back to your stations, people, we’ve got work to do.”


Kheshiri was forced to cover her tracks by following one of the wall guards through the gatehouse; she had been drenched in the storm, and the only way to conceal the trail of water she left was by following a trail of water the guards expected to find. Unfortunately, that meant she had to stop in the north gatehouse barracks where the soldier she was stalking had come to rest. The good news was that he had plunked down by the fire to dry himself and his gear.

She was now lurking precariously in the rafters near the brazier. It would’ve been nice if they’d made a proper fire, but Puna Dara was simply too hot at this time of year; the glowing coals were only being used to dry uniforms soaked in the storm, and that only because the arcane heater shoved into a nearby corner was apparently broken. The succubus wasn’t willing to risk filching a towel, not in front of this many people. So she perched there, wings fully spread both for balance and to expose them to the rising heat, while water dripped from her. The occasional drop fell in the brazier itself, but the hissing went unnoticed thanks to the wind outside and the boisterous chatter within.

At least this enforced pause gave her a chance to eavesdrop. Somewhat to her surprise, she actually overheard something useful.

“Sir!” A soldier had entered who was not part of the wall rotation; rather than going to dry off, he had marched up to the officer in charge and saluted. “Message from Lieutenant Laghari in the south gatehouse!”

The local commander, a tall man with a waxed mustache and captain’s knots at his shoulder, kept himself in the barracks with his men instead of squirreled away in an office; at this, he set down the book he’d been reading and turned on the bench to face the dripping trooper who had just arrived. Nearby, conversations faltered as onlookers turned to watch.

“At ease, soldier,” said the captain. “Go ahead.”

“Yes, sir. The squad of Silver Legionnaires from Tiraas are in the south bunkhouse, including an elf. She reported hearing something. The Lieutenant felt you should know.”

“An elf,” the captain said flatly, “heard…something. What kind of a something, did Lieutenant Laghari see fit to mention?”

“She wasn’t sure, sir,” the soldier said crisply, eyes straight ahead. Even Kheshiri could see this captain wasn’t a hardass from the relaxed manner in which his troops chatted around him while not on watch, but there was a certain, universal way about soldiers having to report something even they knew was stupid to a superior officer. “Corporal Shahai reported a possibility that someone was creeping around the gatehouse under magical stealth, but couldn’t be certain. The Lieutenant didn’t feel it warranted further action, but he wanted you to know in case you disagreed. I’m to convey the message and bring back any orders if you have them, sir.”

The captain sighed. “Orders? Well, obviously, be on watch for intruders. But since that is the entire mandate of gate watch duty, I hopefully don’t need to issue orders to that effect. Back to your post, soldier.”

“Yes, sir,” the man said with clear relief. He saluted again, then turned and made for the stairs with incongruous eagerness for someone about to climb up into the kind of storm that blew people off battlements.

“Think there’s anything to that, Captain?” asked a female sergeant hovering nearby.

“Oh, who knows,” the captain said irritably, picking up his book again. “Keep an eye out, regardless. It won’t hurt anything to be extra wary, but I don’t think we need to change our rotation over it. Naphthene’s tits, but Laghari wouldn’t even have humored something like that if the elf in question had been male.”

There was a round of guffaws at this, by which time Kheshiri had already started moving again. She was still dripping, but time was now out. Apart from the elf’s warning, her partners had been waiting longer than they were supposed to, and she didn’t need them getting antsy.

She dropped to the floor, pressed herself to the wall, and crept as rapidly as she could for the door opposite the one she had come in. The layout of this gatehouse was a mirror of the other, so she knew where she was going. The succubus luckily encountered no more soldiers as she descended a narrow staircase to the ground level.

The barracks was on the second floor; down below was an armory and a narrow hall leading to a small, sturdy side door. As with everything in the Rock, it was almost excessively defensible. Slits in the ceiling and upper walls provided soldiers above the ability to fill the space with arrows, wandshots, spells, boiling oil…whatever they had handy. Sections of the wall next to the outer door and the stairwell were cut away, the space beyond filled with stones and angled to create an avalanche that would completely block the hall if the sturdy net covering the opening were released.

Only one side door opened off the hall, into the armory. Kheshiri peeked into this in passing, finding two more soldiers “guarding” the exit by playing cards. Well, they weren’t drinking and their backs weren’t to the door; clearly nobody here expected trouble, but the Punaji soldiers weren’t incompetent. There was a good chance the people she was supposed to let in were not going to get any further than the gatehouse.

Not that that was her problem. She had her job to do, and the offhand satisfaction of knowing somebody was going to die because of it. Who it was didn’t concern her. This petty little religious squabble was even more boring than most such inane affairs.

The small side door was only small in comparison to the main gate; though narrower than the average door, it was a single piece of oak, which she knew to be fully six inches thick and with a hollowed out interior filled with a sheet of steel. It was barred and locked.

Picking the lock took her a few minutes. The Punaji hadn’t grown complacent in the years since anyone had attacked the Rock, so this was a new and well-maintained lock. Fortunately, she’d had ample opportunity to practice during all the downtime lately…

It finally gave with a soft click, and she smirked and tucked her lockpicks back into her bodice. Lifting the bar was the challenging part, for her; it was a bar designed for two men to pick up, and she was a demon designed for stealth, not brute force. Not that she couldn’t have managed to shove it loose, but raising the thing to rest against the wall without creating a noise had her clenching her teeth and concentrating hard to avoid giving herself away with a grunt.

Soon, though, it was open, and she didn’t waste a second to rest on her laurels, or even catch her breath. Opening the door itself was risky, thanks to the noise outside; she waited for a particularly heavy thunderclap to shove it outward and slip through the gap, pushing it shut behind her. The whole maneuver took less than a second.

Outside, there was a broad space between the Rock’s walls and any other structures, which left her exposed. She was invisible, sure, but if anyone had been paying close attention, an invisible person moving through a rainstorm was an eye-catching sight. Nobody was within view, however, and at this angle she wouldn’t be visible from atop the wall. The door was also somewhat sheltered from the wind, which had prevented it from being loudly slammed shut.

Still invisible, Kheshiri shifted into a form exactly like her usual one, minus only the obvious demonic features. Without wings and tail to get caught in the wind, she had less trouble getting across the square. There wasn’t much she could do about her hair being blown around, but at least it didn’t obstruct her vision when it was blown across her face. A fringe perk of invisibility.

As she’d entered the other gatehouse, she had to swing all the way around the corner of the Rock’s outer wall to get back to where the others were. In moments, though, she was there, slipping through the warehouse door.

Inside, dozens of individuals whirled, pointing weapons at the door which had apparently opened and shut by itself. Kheshri popped back into view, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender. She didn’t bother to keep the predatory grin off her face. The local rubes would expect such from the likes of her, and this was the most fun she’d had in weeks.

“It’s about fucking time,” Shook growled, holstering his wand. He shouldered roughly past several Rust cultists and grabbed her by the upper arm in a bruising grip. “What held you up?”

“Sorry, master,” she said, still grinning, well aware of the tinge of madness in her expression and enjoying it. “That was a little more fun than I’d anticipated. There are Silver Legionnaires in the gatehouse I entered, including an elf; she could hear me.”

“You were discovered?” Two figures stood apart from the crowd of cultists; the one who had spoken wore heavy robes, a deep cowl, and a mask below that. The other was half machine, and now fixed her with a piercing stare.

“No,” Kheshiri replied, deliberately leaning into Shook’s touch. By this point she had conditioned him to a specific degree of roughness that she’d led him to believe she enjoyed. Well, she actually did rather enjoy it, but that was beside the point. “I couldn’t mask myself completely from the elf’s senses, but she couldn’t figure out what she was hearing, either. So I went across to the other gatehouse, to be safe. The side door is unlocked.”

“That’s a longer run from here,” Ayuvesh said sharply, shifting his gaze from her to glare at the hooded man with him. “More time for the guards on the wall to see us and react.”

“My girl’s the best at what she does,” Shook stated flatly. “If that was what she could do, it’s all anybody could do.”

The machine-man gave him a long, contemplative look, as if pondering the relative merits of a rodent he had just discovered digging through his trash, and Kheshiri had to concentrate to keep the anticipation from her expression. That was exactly the kind of provocation that could send Shook into a most amusing snit.

The enforcer simply stared back, however, and annoyance rose in her. Apparently Khadizroth’s efforts with him were beginning to bear fruit.

That simply would not do.

“Very well, I take your point,” Ayuvesh acknowledged at last, turning back to the hooded man. “Your people seem quite capable. Since this is now more difficult than we had planned, we could use—”

“Our part in this is finished,” he replied, his mellifluous voice not muffled by his mask. “We have opened the door for you, as agreed. That is already far more than you could have achieved unaided. What you are able to do with this advantage depends upon you.”

“Very well,” Ayuvesh replied after a moment’s pause. “I would thank you for your help, but I suspect we are soon to learn what your motive is for intervening here, perhaps to our detriment. Farewell, then, strangers.”

The hood shifted as the man nodded. Ayuvesh turned his back with no more ado, and strode for the door.

It took time for the dozens of cultists to file out. They went without speaking, though their movements were accompanied by a soft scrape and clatter of metal which was only mostly overpowered by the storm outside. Soon, though, they had all exited the warehouse.

Almost immediately, the sound of alarm bells began.

With a sigh, Khadizroth reached up to push back his hood and lower the mask. “And that is our signal.”

The Jackal popped out of nowhere nearby, wearing his usual borderline insane grin and toying with a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman. “Aw, sure you don’t wanna stay a while? His Holiness’ll just put us back into storage for fuck knows how long.”

“There’s good fun to be had here,” Kheshiri agreed eagerly. “I haven’t seen a coup go down in ages.”

“In that castle,” Khadizroth said quellingly, “is the Hand of Vidius, who is accompanied by at least one valkyrie. You of all people should be anxious to get away from here.”

“Yeah,” Shook agreed. “I’m as stir-crazy as anybody, but this isn’t our problem. Those demented half-metal assholes are going to get themselves killed, and I say good fucking riddance. Better them than us.”

“Oh, I highly doubt we are the only surprise they will spring on the King today,” Khadizroth said dryly. “That Ayuvesh is too lucid a man to attempt something like this unless he believed he could truly gain. But that, as you rightly point out, is now his business. Our part in this is done. Let’s go.”

 

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12 – 51

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“You know the plan, Quentin,” the Empress said the instant he had shut the door behind them. It wasn’t that Imperial Guards weren’t trusted, but security was security. Nearly every door and wall in the harem wing was enchanted for silence at need, which was exactly why they were left open unless someone specifically required privacy. “I assume your part is in motion, now, and you wished to speak to me so urgently about something else—that, or something has gone wrong.”

She gave him one of those looks that seemed like it should be directed over a pair of schoolmarm’s spectacles. He took it as a sign of fondness; Eleanora gave most people looks that would freeze falling water.

“We have a brief window,” he said crisply, “in which Darling is proceeding to his agent’s home to extract his Majesty. And…no, I have not yet given the order for my people to withdraw from the district.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Quentin…”

“Before doing so,” he pressed on, “I would like to discuss doing anything else, your Majesty. If you will clear it, I can arrange a safe escort to another facility.”

“Quentin.”

“We know the Thieves’ Guild is active in the region, and we have now specifically antagonized them on top of their general unpredictability, to say nothing of what his Majesty hoped would unfold in the first place.”

“And,” she said sharply, “by getting my approval for completely eviscerating Sharidan’s plan and wasting all the effort put into it thus far, you are likely to find yourself simply dismissed from your post rather than charged with treason. You feel so strongly about this?”

“I am very good at my job,” he said, the merest hint of sharpness encroaching upon his tone. “You will be hard-pressed to replace me, your Majesty. But ultimately, as difficult a task as it may be, I can be replaced. That is not true of the Emperor! Your Majesty, this is a bad idea.”

“So you said in the first place,” she acknowledged with a sigh. “And yet, here we are.”

“The risk vastly outstrips any potential reward! There is as yet no heir to the Throne, and we’ve only just begun to learn why. It’s unconscionable for the Emperor to jeopardize his safety this way!”

“I note you avoided words like ‘unconscionable’ when making your point to his face,” she said dryly. “And you know as well as I that the end of the Tirasian bloodline would not automatically end the name. I am still of House Tirasian, if even by marriage. I can still have a child.” Her lips compressed momentarily in displeasure at the thought, more of a lapse than she ever showed in public.

“That was before Elilial’s gambit,” Vex snapped, all pretense of decorum lost. “We now know the Tirasian bloodline has not ended, and any hint of impropriety in the succession will inevitably precipitate a crisis. We don’t yet know what play she intends, but that matter is unresolved and must be planned for.”

“Time is wasting while we discuss this, Quentin,” she said. “Darling is on the move, and the Emperor’s orders are not being obeyed.”

“Please,” he begged. “Your Majesty… Eleanora. It’s too much a risk. Please, give the order.”

She regarded him in expressionless silence for a moment. When she spoke, though, her tone was softer than before. “And if I do not, Quentin, will you give it yourself? Defy the Emperor for his own sake and face the consequences it would bring?”

He opened his mouth a fraction, froze, then closed it.

Eleanora took two steps toward him, close enough to reach out and lay a hand on his upper arm. “We wouldn’t be having this argument if you didn’t care about the Empire enough to sacrifice yourself at need, Quentin. You hesitate because you’re uncertain. Because you know, as I do, the truth about Sharidan Tirasian: he needs cold-blooded people like us to support him and moderate some of his impulses and idealistic tendencies—moderate, not thwart. The most irritating thing about being in his service is how often he is right when by all accounts he really should not be.”

It was Vex’s turn to press his lips into a thin line. He let out a long breath through his nose.

“To win when you absolutely ought to lose,” Eleanora murmured. “Isn’t that what they say defined the heroes of old? The trait that separated them from the rabble of mere adventurers.” Her grip on his arm tightened subtly, and threads of the old steel reappeared in her voice. “This is as long as we can delay, Quentin. The signal.”

Vex sighed heavily, a most uncharacteristic display of emotion, but produced a pocket watch from inside his coat and turned the key twice clockwise, once the other way, then three times clockwise again. There was no flash or sparkle, no sound but the gears clicking—much as arcane magic tended to create spectacles, the charms used by Imperial Intelligence’s field agents were very specifically designed for subtlety. The companion devices carried by Vex’s people would convey the signal, and that would be that; his agents would begin withdrawing from the neighborhood, leaving the Emperor apparently unprotected.

“He does this on purpose, you know,” he complained, slipping the watch back into his pocket. “Always has. He enjoys making me worry and chase him around. Don’t deny it, part of the motivation for this whole scheme was nostalgia. Well, he’s not the crown prince anymore, and we all have better things to do than play round-the-bush.”

“That’s right, get it out of your system,” Eleanora said wryly, stepping back and folding her hands in a gesture that would have looked demure on anyone else. “You said Darling bought it. How deeply, do you think?”

“I can’t say whether he was fully taken in or just playing along,” Vex replied, his usual composure falling back into place as if it had never been ruffled. “Our exchange might have been written by a bard, so I suspect the latter. But in either case, he will stay in the area after giving his message. He needs to understand what’s happening, now that he’s neck deep in it. Himself and those two elven apprentices of his, at minimum; I rather think he’ll have other thieves about, too. He gave it nearly a full day after the tip was leaked to his students before acting, and then penetrated my house’s security as if it wasn’t there. The pattern suggests he has been making preparations since last night.”

“And in a sense,” she mused, “Sharidan was more right than he could have known; thanks to Milanda, the Archpope is reeling. He may have the good sense to withdraw, you know. Justinian is nothing if not cautious. This could all come to nothing.”

“Anything could always end in a nice, clean, peaceable nothing,” Vex replied irritably. “I find that possibility is never worth considering.”

“We will have to trust,” she said quietly. “That Sharidan knows what he is doing, that Milanda’s efforts will bear fruit…”

“That Darling knows which side his bread is buttered on, that the Hands are not too compromised… I’m not one of those paranoid fools who think you can never trust anyone, your Majesty. That’s an impossible way to live, and we both know it. But one must act carefully, and trust rationally, and now we are extending far too much trust in far too many directions.”

“And yet, here we are,” she repeated. “It’s done, Quentin; stand ready to act when action is called for. Sharidan knows what he is doing.”

“We all know what he’s doing,” Vex said bitterly, turning and grasping the doorknob. “I deeply hope some of us are wrong.”


“Unprotected?”

“That is what the spirits indicated,” the dragon said in perfect serenity.

Justinian felt an urge to drum his fingers on something. Bad enough Khadizroth had managed to summon him here so quickly; he should not be able to get messages past the usual secure channels, but it seemed the dragon had developed enough pull among the soldiers supposedly watching him that most of them were willing to do him favors. Extravagant ones. That development was no less ominous for having been foreseen; Justinian hadn’t had the trusted troops to spare for rotating his guards even before the assassin had carved half of them to chum. Now, here he was; however the message had gotten through, its urgency was such that he could not ignore it without losing further face by making it plain he was playing petty mind games.

All of which, of course, Khadizroth knew. The time was rapidly approaching when he would have to do something about this.

“I hope,” he said aloud, “you don’t think me foolish enough to leap into rash action based upon this.”

“Indeed not,” Khadizroth replied, nodding gracefully, “I’m well aware of your foresight, your Holiness, and grateful that I don’t have to explain these matters. You understand, of course, the difference between oracular seeing such as I can use and arcane scrying. Precise details about who is where and doing what I cannot give you; only a sense of the state of things. An Emperor of Tiraas being suddenly without protectors, at large in the city…that is a state which swiftly garners the attention of spirits who are already being asked to look in on him. He is not unwatched, but the parties currently with their eyes upon him are…separate.”

“How so?”

“Unaligned,” the dragon said with a thoughtful frown. “Forgive me, I am not trying to be vague. It is always difficult to put into words what was conveyed mentally. Someone is near the Emperor and watching him, but someone not moved either to attack or defend, at least at present. I saw a shadow, a grey shape lurking at a distance without intent. Whoever it is, they likely know more than I about the particulars of the situation.”

Darling and his thieves? The Black Wreath? Foreign agents, like the dwarves who had so nearly upended the city recently? Anyone would take an interest in the Emperor being in play like this, and most of the competent players would watch to see what was happening before committing themselves. Almost the only thing he could rule out was the Rust, who had not spread beyond Puna Dara. Speculation, of course, was pointless—and would have been even if he were absolutely sure Khadizroth could be trusted.

“How very ominous,” the Archpope murmured, putting on a pensive frown of his own. “The pattern of the last week barely makes it believable… But still. This raises a crucial question.”

“Only one?” Khadizroth lifted an eyebrow, and Justinian had to actually concentrate for a moment to be sure he did not betray irritation in his voice or expression.

“One which supersedes the many others, in my opinion,” he clarified. “Why is the Emperor alone and undefended? With so much importance resting upon his safety, and the resources of the Tiraan Empire at his disposal, it seems hard to credit. Is it possible your spirits were…mistaken?”

“I hesitate to call anything impossible,” Khadizroth replied, “but that prospect is one so very unlikely that I find it hardly worth considering. Again, what I do is not scrying; a scryer can be very easily blocked. Only a fae user of enormous age and skill even can interfere with the seeing of an oracle, and then only to the minutest degree. For someone to first perceive, then intercept, and then change the content of spirit messages I have sought out… Hypothetically, for such a thing to happen, it would almost mean Naiya herself had moved against me. Which, of course, is also not impossible but unlikely enough to be dismissed from consideration.”

Arrogant. Dragons were known to be prideful, of course, and justly so, but one as old and wise as this should know better than to assume he could never be countered. Justinian filed this away for later use; first, the demands of the moment.

“If we accept, then, that this is the truth…the question remains: why?” He began slowly pacing up and down the limited space provided by the cramped office, aware of and ignoring the dragon’s gaze following him. “I can think of only two possibilities. Either there is a schism within the Imperial government itself and the Emperor is on the run from his own guardians, or this is a trap intended to lure his enemies out.”

“If it is the first,” Khadizroth said, “the second is also a possibility; it would be a canny move, since only traitorous protectors would be in a position to expect the Emperor to be unprotected.”

“Just so,” Justinian agreed, nodding without glancing at him. “And besides, if it were a trap…the risk involved is astronomical. I cannot believe Sharidan would be so reckless, and I know Eleanora and Vex would intervene if he were.”

“Unless,” the dragon added, “one or both of them had turned against him.”

“Then we are back in the same position,” Justinian said with a humorless smile. “Not impossible, but hardly likely enough to bother considering. Their whole world revolves around him.”

“So the more immediate question,” Khadizroth prompted, “is what are we going to do about this?”

We. Placing himself subtly on equal footing with the Archpope. He betrayed eagerness by asking, though, and not just at the prospect of some action; this was the moment when the Archpope would have to either reaffirm his loyalty to the Emperor, or reveal himself as a traitor with murderous designs on Sharidan’s person.

Oh, yes, Justinian decided he had had just about enough of this. His current crop of adventurers served as the perfect foil for Darling’s team, just what he needed to keep them in play and invested without letting them cause real damage. Darling’s five, however, were the players that mattered; he needed red herrings and chew toys for them, not legitimate rivals, and he’d been of the mind for some time now that he needed to switch this lot out for something more…controllable. Kheshiri and the Jackal were more trouble than they were worth to keep occupied, Shook and Vannae just didn’t perform well enough to merit their status, and Khadizroth was increasingly determined to make himself an actual problem.

So he thought Justinian was in a corner, did he? He was hardly the first.

“This is delicate,” he said aloud. “Very, very delicate. Obviously the risk to his Majesty is severe, and should be mitigated; the loss of a sitting, childless Emperor would cause a shock the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Enchanter Wars, and our society is troubled enough without exposing it to that. Such a disaster must be prevented.”

“It goes without saying,” Khadizroth agreed in a grave tone. Justinian looked up, nodding seriously at him, and they both politely pretended to have forgotten Khadizroth’s recent attempt to cause a far worse shock than that to the Empire.

“However,” Justinian continued, “we must also consider recent events. I’m afraid the Throne is particularly mistrustful of the Church right now, and not nearly enough time has passed for me to soothe over the ripples caused by our misunderstanding. If our people are found to be hovering over the Emperor in his time of vulnerability, Lord Vex will be quite justified in taking it amiss. Frankly he would be remiss in taking any other way.”

“Forgive me,” Khadizroth said with diffidence that poorly suited him, “but I had been operating on the assumption that anyone sent to address this would be…off the books, as it were.”

“At moments like this, it is best not to make assumptions about who knows what,” Justinian said seriously. So Khadizroth wanted his companions sent out on this, did he? Why? “But you’re right. An official Church presence would be clearly antagonistic. Let me pose you a question.” He came to a stop, turning to face the dragon fully. “What of your team? If I sent them to keep watch over the Emperor until he can be secured by his proper guardians…can they be trusted with such a mission, in your opinion?”

“They are…reasonably effective,” Khadizroth said slowly. “I hesitate to use the word ‘competent;’ though they are each good at their respective roles, none of these personalities are well-suited for teamwork, and their competing agendas can raise…issues…in the field.”

“That is my concern exactly,” Justinian agreed. “Some of them in particular, I fear, would view this opportunity to create havoc on a colossal scale as too great a temptation to resist.”

“Mm. No, I don’t believe that is a problem,” the dragon mused. “The Jackal likes his havoc small and personal, and Kheshiri is on a leash whose length and hardiness I have spent much of my acquaintance with Jeremiah verifying. He is not the master of her, whatever he thinks, but his control suffices to keep her from doing anything so destructive as that.”

“And you, of course, cannot go along,” Justinian said with a gentle smile.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Khadizroth replied, grinning. “It spares me the awkwardness of refusing to. With my cousins active in the city, the risk of me doing anything in public is simply too great.”

“I appreciate your insight,” Justinian said. “These divinations of yours. Do you know where the Emperor is, specifically?”

“Specifically, no, but I’m confident I can find him quickly.”

“And can you direct Vannae to do this for you?”

The merest hesitation. “…yes, that should be possible.”

Justinian kept his smile calm, beatific. Vannae, the only one of the crew Khadizroth truly cared about, and was invested in. Putting him at the vanguard should be…revealing. And now to begin applying the pressure.

“Then we must prepare to mobilize the team,” he said solemnly. “I will leave it to you to brief them; I must make other preparations. After all, it seems prudent, in this case, to have someone to watch the watchers. Discreetly.”

“Of course,” Khadizroth said, after another very faint pause, then bowed. “I’ll go gather them immediately, your Holiness.”

“Thank you,” Justinian said warmly. “Your aid to us in these last painful days has been a godsend which cannot be appreciated enough.”

“We all do what we can,” the dragon replied with a good effort at proper draconic inscrutable aloofness. Justinian smiled benignly at his back as he left the room.

Ohh, yes. Chew on that.


“I’ll get it!”

“You stay put,” Lakshmi said quickly, reaching up to grab one of the hands kneading her shoulders as their owner started to pull away toward the door. “You’re in hiding, remember? You can’t possibly be bored enough to risk blowing it after just a couple days.”

“Well, right at this moment, I can’t say that I am, no,” Danny murmured, and she grinned, carefully not looking up at him.

“Sanjay! Door!”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard it,” Sanjay grumped, coming through the living room from the kitchen. He pointed accusingly at them on his way to the front door. “You two keep it above the waist. I’m tryin’ to have an innocent childhood, here.”

“No you aren’t,” she said lazily.

“No, I’m not,” he agreed with a grin, then pulled the door open. “Sweet! Heya! What’s new?”

“Nothing good, kid,” the Bishop said, wearing a grim frown. He leaned forward, peering around the door frame. “Is—ah, good. You!”

“Me?” Danny raised his eyebrows, removing his hands from Lakshmi’s shoulders.

“Yes, you.” Sweet pointed at him. “Out. Now.”

“Whoah, what the fuck?” Lakshmi stood up, scowling. “You don’t just barge into somebody’s home and start barking orders, I don’t care what you were the Boss of.”

“I made you a promise, Peepers. Remember?”

She hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at Danny, who was now expressionless. “I remember.”

“I said,” Sweet continued, his dour expression gradually giving way to carefully-controlled anger, “that if I learned anything which suggested this arrangement was one bit more dangerous than I believed, I’d come right down here and put an end to it. Well, this is me honoring my word.”

“What’s happened?” she said in alarm, again looking back at her guest. “Is he in more danger?”

“No,” Sweet snapped. “No, he is not. It turns out that the people after him are not so much the stalking-through-the-streets kind as the teleporting-right-to-your-door kind, and they have the means to find out exactly where he is the moment they decide to. And despite what I was explicitly told, this has been the case from the beginning. This is danger I would not have dropped on any Guild member knowingly. Promise or no promise, Peepers, I owe you big for doing this to you.”

Lakshmi turned very slowly to face Danny, backing away. By the door, Sanjay was staring, his mouth hanging open incredulously.

“Did you know this?” she asked quietly.

“Matters aren’t as simple as he makes—”

“No!” Sanjay yelled so abruptly and so loudly that his voice cracked. “You don’t give us that noble doublespeak. You answer her question!”

“Did. You. Know. This,” Lakshmi growled. “Did you deliberately put me and my little brother in danger from your problems?”

“Lakshmi—”

“The lady asked you a very simple question, Danny,” Sweet said in a quiet tone which nonetheless cut him off completely. “The only answer it needs is one syllable either way.”

Danny gave him a long, inscrutable look, then turned a different but equally cagey one on Lakshmi. Finally, his shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. He did not avoid her gaze, though.

“Yes. I knew it.”

The silence was excruciating. Fortunately, it was brief.

“You son of a bitch!”

“No!” Sweet streaked across the room the moment she clenched her fists; by the time she flew into action, he got close enough to grab her, and that only because Danny retreated circumspectly behind the sofa.

“Get your fucking hands off me!” Lakshmi raged, struggling ineffectually against the grip on her wrists. “I’m gonna break his fucking head!”

“No, you’re not!” Sweet shouted, and shook her hard enough to momentarily stall her thrashing. “Peepers! Listen to me, you have no idea who this guy is. Harm him and you’re kicking over more trouble than you can imagine. I’m getting him out of here and away, where he’s not a danger to you—or from you, because both of those will hurt you just as bad, trust me.”

She drew her lips back in a snarl. “Trust you. This is all your fault!”

“Yes, that’s right,” he agreed, holding her gaze. “But I haven’t lied to you, nor will I. I thought I was telling you the truth when I said this was safe. I found out it’s not, so I’m putting a stop to it. And I will make this up to you.”

“He’s right, Shmi,” Sanjay said. He was practically quivering with fury, fists clenched at his sides, but aside from the accusing glare he fixed on Danny, he made no move. “Sweet fucked up, but he’s been straight with us. He’s Guild.”

“And he,” Sweet added, jerking his head in Danny’s direction, “lied to the Guild. He’s not walking out of here without consequences, Peepers, that I promise you. Let me protect you from them, at least. It’s the best I can do for you right now.”

She jerked against him once more, but weakly, then suddenly slumped, letting her head hang. After a moment, Sweet released her arms, and they fell limply to her sides.

“Get him the fuck out of my house.”

“Well, you heard her,” Sweet said, turning a totally unsympathetic look on Danny. “Let’s go.”

Danny sighed softly. “If I—”

“Did somebody ask you something?” Sanjay snapped, voice cracking again. “This isn’t a conversation. Fucking go.”

He crossed the room to stand next to his sister, who had lifted her head to stare at Danny. They looked eerily alike, glaring at him with matching venom.

Danny sighed again, then turned and strode unhurriedly to the door, where Sweet stood aside for him in a hostile mockery of politeness. He paused just before stepping out, turning to look back at them again. “For what it’s worth, I—”

“Don’t,” she said icily. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

He hesitated, then nodded once, and stepped out.

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12 – 46

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“First things first.”

He shifted his enormous bulk, and Milanda instinctively tensed, preparing to bolt again—but didn’t, remembering how well it had worked last time. The dragon actually settled to the ground, though, folding his legs beneath himself remarkably like a cat, all while keeping his long, pointed head aimed right at her. His tail, she did not fail to note, swept around in a wide arc to nearly encircle her. At the moment, at least, he appeared more interested in talking than fighting. She allowed herself a moment of optimism.

Then he spoke again.

“You will be silent.”

The voice rumbled in the ground, in the air, in her very being. Milanda was poleaxed, locked rigidly in place. She felt as if all her bones, all her cells, were resonating with the sheer power of his words. It was like gripping an unsealed electrical charm. Her body ignored all her pleas to flee, to fight, to do something.

“You will not reveal me, any word I speak, any action I take, not by word, deed, or omission.”

Silence fell over the dreamscape. Milanda drew in a sharp breath, only belatedly becoming aware that she had stopped breathing at all. She felt…heavy. The sensation was fading rapidly, but it was clear and powerful. A weight, a pressure, as if something had coated her entire skin, pushing in on her from all sides. It drifted from her awareness, though, leaving her wondering…

“The great irony of fairy magic,” the dragon said, this time again in his normal voice, “is that mastery in it increases vulnerability to it, at least in certain forms. A person with no spark of fae power within her is virtually impossible to lay under a geas. By contrast, the more fae magic one commands, the more vulnerable one is to such a geas, if laid by a rival practitioner who knows a way around one’s defenses.” He paused, then snorted irritably, violently ruffling her hair. “Even a dragon may find himself bound by a shaman of sufficient skill…and arrogance. But then there is you. Positively coursing with Naiya’s power, holding no active control over it…not truly understanding it, if I am not mistaken.” He lowered his head slightly, grinning at her, and by this point in the speech Milanda found herself too furious to be as unnerved by the proximity of all those fangs as she had been moments before. “A wide gap in your defenses which it was most unwise to leave open. I surmise you either came by that power though less than honorable means, or the being who granted it to you is not overly concerned with your well-being.”

Anger could be a wonderful thing. Milanda stared coldly up at him, simmering in the outrage that kept her fear at bay, denying him the satisfaction of any display of feeling.

After a moment of silence, the dragon shifted his long neck, tilting his head subtly to one side. “The Archpope’s head of security believes you did not intend to cause harm in the temple. That you were cornered and reacted out of panic. Such a tragic reason for so much death and suffering.”

Damn it. He was certainly adept at whipping her around emotional corners at breakneck speed.

“You do not know me,” Milanda said in the flattest tone she could muster.

“Our acquaintance is, indeed, brief,” he acknowledged. “But you are here, in a realm organized by fae power—the magic of emotion, of states of mind and being. And I, unlike you, am its master. I needn’t read your expression to see the guilt and agony roiling in you.”

She considered, for a moment, just attacking him. A pointless and possibly suicidal gesture, but…

“I think somewhat better of you for it,” the dragon mused. “Not, I expect, that my opinion concerns you overmuch. In any case, we have more immediately practical matters to discuss.” He shifted slightly, drawing his head back—and upward, so that he peered down at her from a much greater height. “The fact that you left my companions unharmed—relatively—suggests you were not looking for them. I quite expect you may find yourself facing us again soon, in which case you ought o be prepared.

“I, of course, am out of your league. Circumstances allowing, I may be inclined to stay my hand when next we meet. It’s the other members of our party you ought to be aware of. You met Jeremiah Shook, whom I’ll ask you to leave be. On his own, he is not a significant power, and is quite easy to manipulate. He is present only because he has control of the succubus Kheshiri, through no merit of his own; without her, I doubt the Archpope will keep him around in any case. In that event, he may be extremely useful to whomever can catch him next. Kheshiri, however, I suggest you bend all your energies to destroying if possible.” The dragon snorted softly, ruffling her hair again. “You may be aware that it is standard practice to trap rather than kill the more dangerous children of Vanislaas, as shuffling them off the mortal coil only sends them back to Hell, doubtless to return later. Kheshiri is a crafty enough beast I would expect her to arrange a return rather quickly. It is my judgment that in the present situation, removing her from the board will suffice. Killing is always easier than entrapment, and she is sly enough that simply forcing her to adapt and re-start her own plans from the beginning is an adequate compromise, if the benefit is taking her out of the equation. If only temporarily.

“Likewise, you faced the Jackal and failed to execute him, which I predict you will live to regret.” Khadizroth shook his head. “That elf is insane in the worst possible way: intelligent, stable but erratic, and utterly devoid of empathy. He is the type of maniac to begin torturing small animals when he is bored. Bless Justinian’s foresight in keeping him well away from children. I control him as best I am able, as does the Archpope, but aside from the wisdom of depriving Justinian of the Jackal’s skills, he needs to be removed from the world.

“And them, of course,” the dragon continued in a softer tone, “there is another shaman in our group, Vannae, whom you did not face last night. Leave him be. He is mine—not loyal to the Archpope, but present only due to circumstance. Vannae serves my interests, not Justinian’s. Moreover,” he added, lowering his head again to stare at her from closer up, “he is my friend. I will repay any harm done to him in kind—as a beginning.”

There was silence again, while she digested this.

“Why?” Milanda asked finally.

Khadizroth smiled. “At present, I serve Justinian…nominally. He has leverage over me which you need not know, but more to the point, my ultimate motivation for placing myself under his authority is simply that I much rather have him where I can watch him, than be at large and know that he is going about his schemes without a check upon his ambitions.”

“There are plenty of checks on his ambitions,” Milanda disagreed.

“Surely, but effective ones? That is another matter. At the core of the problem is that no one truly understands Justinian’s ambitions. Not even I, and I have devoted much of my mental effort in the last year to unraveling them. For the most part, recently, he has used our group as leverage in a variety of small matters—busy work, calculated mostly to keep Kheshiri and the Jackal from going utterly stir-crazy and murdering us all. It’s been some time since we were last deployed to deal with anything of consequence. His pattern makes no sense. Justinian desires control above all else—of that much I am certain. But his method toward achieving it seems to be…cultivating chaos.”

“How do you mean?” Milanda asked warily, increasingly intrigued in spite of herself.

“His use of our group. Those of his other projects which I have managed to observe. The way he continually pits his various enemies against each other, and then intercedes rather than finishing them off. His habit of withholding a killing blow when he has foes at a severe disadvantage. Only last year, he had the entire upper echelon of the Black Wreath at his mercy, and let them go—letting them believe, in the process, that they had escaped and got the better of him. By all appearances, he is trying to cultivate controlled chaos; keeping as many factions in play and at each other’s throats as possible, without ever trying to finally secure his own interests.” The expression on the dragon’s angular face was necessarily hard to read, but even so, Milanda could tell that he looked troubled. “I have long been an opponent of your Empire, which I consider the greatest threat to the world I have seen in all my long years. But of late…I have come to view Archpope Justinian as a much greater hazard. His ambition is totally without limit, he hesitates at nothing to achieve it… And, in the end, I do not understand what he wants. It makes him impossible to predict, or counter. This cannot stand.”

“Then help me,” Milanda said urgently. “Justinian just struck at the heart of the Imperial government, and there will be retaliation. You don’t need to place curses on me to get my aid in this. Undo that, and we can—”

“Forgive me, but I must interrupt you before the rest of this unfolds as it predictably must,” Khadizroth said with dry amusement. “No, young lady, I will not extend trust to someone whose predominant skills are lack of control and mass murder. I will not ally with the Silver Throne, even against a mutual foe such as this, nor will I forget who must be my next enemy when this is addressed—if it can be addressed. The enemy of my enemy, as they say, is still my enemy, but I can work with him if need be. With apologies, the geas stays. It is a basic necessity for me to protect myself. But in the short term, we can make use of one another.”

“But—”

“This is what you need to know right now,” the dragon rumbled. “Wherever the Emperor is hiding, the Archpope now knows that he is not currently administering the government, and has set forces in motion to find them. Out of concern, so he professes, but you and I both know he holds no love for Sharidan, or the Throne. If he finds the Emperor, he will move against him. For the sake of covering his own assets, he will do so using forces which cannot be proved to answer to him.”

“Meaning you,” she said quietly.

“That is my suspicion,” Khadizroth replied. “In that event, you will have your opportunity to thin out the…dangerous elements I just brought to your attention.”

“Or perhaps other dangerous elements,” she retorted.

He grinned. “If you think you can. Do keep in mind the long-term prospects, however. Whatever his ultimate goal, the Archpope’s method heavily relies upon pitting all available parties against each other to keep them from his own throat. You are not the first enemy with whom I have made contact; a web is carefully being formed around Justinian that may snare him, should the opportunity appear for his various foes to turn on him in unison at a moment he does not expect. Do not squander—”

Khadizroth broke off abruptly, raising his head like a startled horse and peering into the distance. Milanda took the opportunity to begin stepping carefully back from him, freezing again when he shifted once more to fix her with those green eyes.

“What interesting company you keep,” the dragon said thoughtfully, and then, with the suddenness of a thunderclap, the dream vanished.


She opened her eyes, fully awake and alert, in her bunk in the barracks.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Milanda said aloud. “…I hope.”

Swinging her legs over the side of the bunk made her reconsider her state of alertness. Her body was leaden, and it felt as her eyeballs were nestled in cups of gravel. She groaned softly in protest.

“Computer, display the time.”

Numbers obligingly appeared on the nearest wall screen, seeming to float in front of the Hawaiian night sky. Well, she’d managed about two hours of sleep, at least. Indeed, she felt a little less exhausted than before, though it was an open question how restful that particular nap had been.

And there was no question of going back to sleep now.

Milanda stood and headed for the barracks doors. They hissed apart to reveal the security hub looking as it always did. The Order’s sterile aesthetic and perpetual brilliant lighting made the place almost disorienting; her body’s inner clock and sense of rhythms were not helped by not being able to see what was day and what was night. Especially given the peculiar hours she’d been keeping lately.

Surprisingly—or perhaps, on second thought, not—Hawthorn was still (or again) present, sitting near Walker by the central computer terminals. They were facing each other and bent forward, clearly in conversation, neither of them messing with any of the screens for once. Both looked up at her entry, the dryad giving her a wave and a smile which Milanda couldn’t help returning. Despite how generally irritating Hawthorn could be, she seemed to have mellowed considerably from their first interaction.

“I expected you to sleep longer,” Walker observed. “How are you feeling, Milanda?”

“What do you know about…” About fairy geases. About dragons.

About anything relevant, damn it!

It was like trying to speak around a mouthful of solidified air. Her half-formed question hung between them, her voice flatly refusing to cooperate. Khadizroth, unsurprisingly, knew what he was about. The resurgent outrage that bubbled up helped to further dispel the lingering fog of weariness, at least.

“Milanda?” Walker prompted, now frowning in concern.

“Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “I had a…weird dream.”

“That’s no surprise, considering. The fabricators can produce medicines which—”

“No,” she said sharply, then moderated her tone. “I mean, no, thank you. The last thing I need right now is to dull my senses with drugs.”

“Generally a wise policy,” Walker agreed. “If you’re awake anyway, Milanda, we seem to have another problem.”

“Oh, gods, how I wish I could be surprised to hear that,” she groaned, finally descending the steps and making her way over to them. “What now?”

“Well, you recall those recent accesses to the facility’s records I told you about?”

“Of course,” Milanda said, shooting Hawthorn a pointed look and getting a scowl in return.

“That’s the problem,” Walker said seriously, following her gaze. “Hawthorn says she didn’t do any of that.”

The dryad folded her arms and stuck out her tongue at Milanda.

“I see,” she said slowly. “And…you’re certain you believe her?”

“Oh come on,” Hawthorn protested. “Seriously? You do realize I’m in the room?”

“Hawthorn,” Walker said quellingly, “let’s keep in mind that Milanda is very tired, her rest having been interrupted by you, and that dryads in general have a well-earned reputation for being flighty. This is not a situation in which there’s any point in taking offense.”

“Yeah, I guess,” the dryad muttered. “Sorry, Milanda.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Milanda replied. “That was rather rude of me.”

“Apology accepted.”

Walker cleared her throat. “That leaves us with the likelihood of another infiltrator, Milanda.”

She sighed, running her fingers through her hair, and discovering that it could do with a wash. “All right. We destroyed the Church’s equipment… Who else might be able to do that?”

“I’ve checked the system records. All of these accesses were physical activations of terminals in the facility.” Walker’s expression was grim. “This is not another remote incursion. If the Avatar is encouraging the dryads to broaden their horizons, we—meaning you, since I can’t get in the teleporter—should go ask them if they’ve been poking around. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise,” Milanda said, a chill working its way up her spine, “we have someone else in here with us. The Hands?”

“Haven’t been down in the last few days, and besides, the doors are still programmed to conceal themselves from them.” Walker, surprisingly, glanced to the side, avoiding her gaze. “I… Milanda, if it turns out to be that, you should know that I—”

“Maybe it was her?” Hawthorn suggested.

They both looked up at her, then followed her pointing finger, then jumped up in unison.

Standing at the top of the stairs opposite the barracks door was a tall woman in a silk kimono. Her head was crowned by a pair of triangular ears, lined with reddish-brown fur which faded at the tips into tufts of black which matched her hair. Milanda had assuredly never been this close to a kitsune before, but by description, they were unmistakable.

The expression with which the fair gazed down at the three of them was imperious, and far from friendly.

“Akane,” Walker whispered.

The kitsune’s eyes snapped to her, and then narrowed.

“Milanda,” Walker said quietly, still watching their guest, “what I was going to say was that I took the liberty of using the teleporter to…broadcast a signal.”

“You can do that?” Milanda hissed.

“Not…exactly. I can’t personally enter them. But I was able to work around one enough to sort of…transmit a fragment of my own aura through the ether. I thought…somebody who knows me might have picked it up and answered. And…here we are.”

Milanda got as far as opening her mouth to ask the obvious question, then shut it in the face of the obvious answer. Walker hadn’t told her she was going to do this because, clearly, Milanda wouldn’t have let her. That was going to be a long conversation—but for another time.

Right now, the kitsune had started moving.

She descended the stairs so smoothly she might have been gliding, and crossed the floor in a few long strides. Milanda and Hawthorn instinctively edged away, but Walker stood her ground. It was to her, specifically, that the kitsune went, eyes fixed and expression unreadable, but intense.

She stopped, an arm’s length away, then reached out and gently placed her hands on Walker’s cheeks, staring at her as if trying to read her mind.

“Yrsa?”

Walker drew in a slightly ragged breath, then managed a smile. “Hello, Akane. It’s been a while, hasn’t—”

And then the kitsune had surged forward, wrapping her up in a tight hug.

“Aww,” Hawthorn cooed, beaming. “Everybody gets to hug Walker. I think she needed it!”

That was as far as she got before one of Akane’s hands snapped out, seizing her ear between thumb and forefinger—both of which were tipped with claws. Hawthorn screeched in protest, trying to pull away, to no effect.

“I assume this is both a very long story and a very good one,” Akane stated, pulling back enough to sweep her supercilious stare across the room and the others present. “Yrsa, be good enough to begin with a quick and compelling set of reasons why I should not immediately shut all of this off, get rid of these two, and reduce that infernal palace of interlopers above to shrapnel.”

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