The Wizards’ Guild occupied a broad tower, one of the tallest structures in Tiraas, situated in (oddly enough) the financial district. It was close enough to the Imperial Casino that it hadn’t taken them long to get here on foot; having Trissiny in full armor at the head of the group had made the trip considerably faster, as nobody wanted to impede the Hand of Avei, especially when she was moving at a brisk stride and wearing a scowl.
Now, as the group reached the top of the long staircase to the entrance, they finally slowed. It had been a significant climb; the actual door was on the third floor, on a wide balcony suspended above the base of the stairs, which wrapped all the way around the tower.
“Just excessive, is what it is,” Schwartz huffed once they eventually reached the entrance. “Wizards, always having to make a spectacle…”
“Shh,” Tallie muttered, nudging him. “I think they can hear you.”
Flanking the broad doors were two golems made of brass and crystal engraved with glowing arcane runes. The things were eight feet tall, proportioned not unlike gorillas, and deliberately turned their small heads to track the visitors’ movement.
“It’s all right,” Schwartz said, despite his own suddenly worried expression. “They can’t really be…that is, weaponized golems are illegal in the Empire, surely…”
Trissiny had paused to glance back and make sure everyone was still present, and gave him an encouraging little smile before stepping forward again. She strode right up to the doors, paying the towering golems no mind.
At her approach, one of them reached across and pulled one of the doors open. The other bowed politely.
“Wow,” Darius said as they filed past, into the tower. “Wonder if they would’ve done that for us?”
“Probably not for me,” Schwartz murmured, reaching up to pat Meesie for comfort, but fell silent despite the questioning looks Layla and Tallie gave him.
They had arrived in a sizable foyer with marble floors and columns, the walls paneled in mahogany—and marred by erratic chips and old scorch marks. A once-expensive but now slightly battered desk sat immediately to the right of the door, with a glowing contraption perched on one corner which seemed to consist of levitating gears and pulleys that turned endlessly around without actually touching one another. Benches padded in shabby red velvet lined the wall on the opposite side.
There was a constant soft rustle of paper from books, scrolls, and individual sheets which zipped back and forth overhead, passing in and out of small tubes which extended from the walls near the ceiling.
“Good afternoon,” said the supercilious-looking man behind the desk, raising his eyebrows at them. “Welcome to the Honorable Guild of Wizards. May I help you?”
“Yes, please,” Trissiny said crisply. “I apologize for the short notice, but we need to commission a teleportation for five people to Puna Dara.”
“Five people and one class two fire elemental,” Schwartz added, leaning around her and raising one finger. Meesie squeaked in affirmation, nodding. He met Trissiny’s questioning look with an apologetic shrug. “Sorry to cut in, but details like that are relevant in teleportation.”
“Quite so,” agreed the man behind the desk. Though it would not have seemed possible moments ago, his eyebrows had somehow ascended further. He studied them each in turn, eyes lingering on Trissiny’s armor and Schwartz’s green robes; the two of them made a surprising contrast to the three casually-dressed apprentice thieves. “That is some considerable distance… Forgive me, but have you made arrangements ahead of time for this?”
“I’m afraid not,” Trissiny replied. “This is an emergency.”
“I see. That is difficult…” He pursed his lips momentarily, then nodded. “I will see what I can arrange. Please excuse me briefly, General Avelea. You and your companions may wait here.”
With no further ado, the man turned and strode away at a rapid pace, departing the foyer into the large chamber beyond and turning the corner out of sight. Past the columns around which he had disappeared was a cathedral-like round space, far too large to have fit inside the tower they had just climbed all the way around to get in here.
Schwartz blew out a short breath. “Well! I hope me being along isn’t going to make this difficult…”
“Why the hell would it?” Darius asked bluntly. “I mean, you’re just about the nicest guy we know.”
“Anymore,” Tallie whispered.
Everyone fell silent. Layla closed her eyes.
After a moment Schwartz cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, it’s a question of…history. I, ah, might not have worn the, uh, official robes of my cult had I known this day would bring me to the Wizards’ Guild.”
“Bad blood, there?” Tallie asked. Her tone was barely interested, but Schwartz nodded, obviously glad for the excuse to keep talking.
“It all goes back to the Enchanter Wars. You know how that started, of course.”
She frowned slightly at that, turning to him with more focus. “The Enchanter Wars? Sure. The Empire bombed Athan’Khar with the Enchanter’s Bane, half the provinces seceded in protest, the Emperor was dethroned, House Tirasian took over, Horsebutt the Enemy invaded and Sarsamon united the rebel provinces again to repel the Stalweiss. Who went on to settle the Great Plains and that’s why the Empire extends all the way to the Golden Sea now. Just ‘cos I’m not a noble or a paladin doesn’t mean I dunno basic history.”
“Nobody’s saying that, Tallie,” Darius said with a sigh. “Nobody here has ever said that to you. We’re all hurting, here. Don’t take it out on Schwartz.”
She lowered her eyes. “Right. Yeah. Sorry.”
He smiled, and patted her gently on the shoulder. Meesie scampered down his arm to do the same, which earned a small grin from Tallie.
“I think he was talking about Magnan. Right?” Trissiny had stepped a bit away from the group, staring ahead in the direction the greeter had gone, but now turned back to the rest of them.
“Right, yes,” Schwartz said, nodding. “Magnan the Enchanter, the last Hand of Salyrene. The whole shebang was basically his fault. He built the Bane, he pressured the Emperor to use it… And he also caused the religious war that made all the rest of it possible.”
“Religious war?” Tallie frowned again. “Okay, I’ll admit I hadn’t heard about that one. Nobles, paladins? Fill me in?”
“Well, the provinces didn’t just up and secede,” said Layla. “Viridill did, and the Silver Legions crushed the Imperial forces sent to retake it. The Sisterhood provided military support to other rebel groups, the cult of Vesk launched a nationwide campaign of propaganda to encourage revolt, and the Thieves’ Guild started selectively sabotaging and assassinating Imperial interests to weaken the regime. The cults were very much involved in the Enchanter Wars.”
“What’d Magnus have to do with that?”
“Magnan.” Trissiny’s voice was soft, and tired. “He was the most brilliant wizard of his age, and also a dangerously unstable man. He was obsessed with fae magic and fairies, thought the whole business was inhuman, somehow, and should be prohibited. Eventually he amassed so much political influence in the Empire and the Universal Church that he got the Emerald College nullified and expelled from Salyrene’s cult, and got the Empire to ban fae magic entirely. That caused a schism within the Collegium, and within the Church. The Colleges all took sides, and the cults took sides. Avei, Eserion and Vesk sided with the witches, which put them against the Empire.”
“Actually it wasn’t college against college, in my cult,” Schwartz added, “which is how it all comes back to the original question. Magnan listened too much to his sycophants and overestimated how much support he had. When he started hunting down witches, most of the Sapphire College itself turned on him. It was…well, it was a huge mess, during the Wars and for a while after. It’s why there are secular traditions of magical study, now, and why the numbers and influence of the Collegium has never fully recovered. Also why Salyrene never called another Hand. A lot of witches and mages both felt she had betrayed or failed us, and turned away from the faith. The mages who just wanted to continue their research without the goddess’s oversight left this continent to found Syralon, while…”
“While those who fought back against Magnan went on to found the Wizards’ Guild, right here in Tiraas, beholden to no god but the mortal mind.”
All of them straightened and turned to face the speaker, who approached them briskly from the great open chamber beyond, flanked by the man from behind the desk and half a dozen other people. All of them wore suits, of various degrees of stylishness, formality, and cleanliness; the woman in the center, who had addressed them, was by far the best-dressed, in a clearly tailored black suit with a bolo tie inset with a luminous blue gem. She was old enough that her narrow face was deeply lined, her short hair entirely white, but she moved and spoke with the vigor of a much younger woman.
“We still have old tensions with the Salyrites, yes,” she said, coming to a stop and smiling wryly, “but a witch of the Emerald College, of all people, will find welcome here. I am Fareena Raasvedh, Archmage of the Guild, and it seems I am suddenly transported to a past age! Here there’s a Hand of Avei on my doorstep, asking for magical assistance for herself and her adventuring party.”
“Holy shit, she’s right,” Darius muttered. “We’re an adventuring party. Does anybody else feel like we’ve suddenly switched to a whole different type of story?”
“Shut up, you oaf,” Layla hissed. “Don’t banter in front of the Archmage!”
“I realize this is asking a lot,” Trissiny said to Raasvedh. “Especially on such short notice. We need to get to Puna Dara as quickly as possible, and teleportation is by far the quickest way; there isn’t even a Rail line any closer than Desolation. I’m afraid I don’t have on me the kind of funds this commission would normally require, but the Sisterhood will of course compensate—”
“Now, that we don’t even need to discuss,” Archmage Raasvedh said with a grin, holding up a hand. “It would be an absolute honor to help the Hand of Avei in smiting whatever thing it is you’re hunting. Just because we’re agnostics around here doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you do for the world.”
“No, just a moment,” said one of the wizards accompanying her, a man only a few years younger with a long beard and bushy eyebrows, which now lowered in a frown. “Five people, to Puna Dara? That’s a substantial commission, Fareena, you can’t just—”
“My gods in bloomers, Tanaquin, really?” the Archmage exclaimed, turning a scathing look on him. “If your licorice and tobacco budget is so strained, I will personally pay you for your labors. Anybody else?”
“Yo!” The youngest woman in the group, whose dress shirt was buttoned askew and lacked a tie, raised a hand. “If you’re paying out of your own pocket—”
“Shut up, Lessa,” Raasvedh grunted, turning her back on them. “I am pretty curious about all this, General. What’s going on in Puna Dara that’s so urgent? And you are, after all, traveling with a Salyrite. It seems like it would be easier to have Collegium mages ‘port you. They’re almost obligated to aid a paladin without charge, are they not?”
Trissiny hesitated, glancing back at the others. “It’s…a long story. I suppose you’re aware of the ongoing crackdown of Universal Church loyalists being rounded up by the government and their cults?”
“Mm.” Raasvedh’s lips curled up in a catlike expression. “I don’t know if you’ve read Stalweiss philosophy, General Avelea, but I have been following the news and meditating upon the concept of schadenfreude. Heard of it?”
“I was not aware Stalweiss philosophy was even a thing,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Those are the people we’ve been dealing with, and they were doing a lot worse than just thinking the Archpope has some good ideas.”
“Obviously, or the government wouldn’t be involved. Beyond vague whispers of treason, I’ve not heard what, specifically, these alleged conspirators are up to.”
“We’ve had at least one Salyrite hounding us already,” Trissiny said bluntly. “Possibly more. A friend of ours was murdered this morning by members of my own Sisterhood. My faith in the faithful is very thin right now. Until everyone’s house has been thoroughly cleaned, I’m not inclined to trust any of the cults.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” the Archmage said, her expression immediately sobering. The only mage with her who wore a hat immediately removed it respectfully; the messy young woman at the edge of the group looked like she might actually cry. “Not to pry, but you think these people are up to something else in Puna Dara?”
“I think most of these people are patsies who have been abandoned now that they’re no longer useful,” Trissiny replied. “But the person behind them is up to something in Puna Dara.”
“Say no more,” Raasvedh said, nodding sharply. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have work to do. General, if you and your friends will step right this way? The main chamber here is what we use for mass teleports.”
They followed her out of the foyer into the broad, domed space beyond. The floor was engraved with concentric rings, each elaborately marked by runes, making multiple spell circles of varying size and purpose. More enchanted equipment was positioned around the edges of the space, some of it extending overhead toward the middle of the chamber; much of this was immediately identifiable as scrying devices, consisting of mirrors, telescopes, and constantly-changing maps. It probably would have taken a wizard to understand the purpose of all the various banks of crystals, glass, wire and metal. Or perhaps a witch, to judge by the way Schwartz avidly stared around at everything.
Despite the chamber being broader than the tower itself, arched doorways opened off it in multiple directions, leading to halls which extended into the distance beyond sight, lined with more doors. Several wizards passed in and out of these, though as the Archmage and her companions took up positions around the circle and scrying equipment, they hurriedly got out of the way. Several lingered in the doorways to watch, eyeing Trissiny in particular and whispering to each other. To judge by what they wore, the Wizards’ Guild had a most peculiar dress code. Everyone wore suits, but the majority were shabby, out of style, and markedly disheveled.
The five of them clustered not far into the room, trying not to feel awkward as they were abruptly being ignored. Schwartz craned his neck about, lips moving soundlessly as he studied the machinery and whispered to himself, but the rest were left to just…stand.
“I get what you mean, Darius,” Tallie muttered. “Man, all this magic shit is over my head…”
“Apologies, the Archmage is a very…task-oriented person,” said the sharply-dressed man who had greeted them at the door with a faint smile. He had just finished activating a bank of power crystals next to a huge scrying mirror at which two of his colleagues were already working. “Your request requires some considerable planning. We have more than sufficient power reserves here that a five-person teleportation across the continent will not be a hardship, but this demands absolutely precise data before we act. In any kind of teleportation, precision is paramount. The consequences of the slightest mistake are…exceedingly ugly.”
“Uh, yes,” Darius said emphatically, nodding. “I’m in favor of whatever doesn’t get us turned into soup or stuck halfway through a wall.”
“The soup thing is practically unheard of,” the man replied with a faint smirk, turning to join his associates at the mirror.
“Practically?” Layla said shrilly.
“A little wizards’ humor,” Schwartz said, patting her lightly on the back. “Really, I dunno what it is about arcane magic, but they’re more macabre even than the warlocks. Anyway, he’s right, stuff like that hardly ever happens. Most teleportation accidents involve re-materialization errors that leave pieces out or accidentally integrate their subject with an unforeseen object in the landing area. A complete physical breakdown like he described can really only occur if the data stream is interrupted by a dimensional rift of some kind—a chaos event, or hellgate, or accidental intersection with a shadow-jump in progress. The odds of that—”
“Schwartz, man, I love you,” Darius said seriously, “but shut the hell up. Right now.”
Layla had squeezed her eyes shut and appeared to be whispering to herself.
“Ah…sorry. I was just trying to be reassuring. The point is, any such thing is extraordinarily unlikely! That’s the reason for all this preparatory work they are doing. I mean, with magic, nothing is truly impossible, but only in the rarest circumstances does a standard teleport result in—”
“Hey.” In contrast to the unfolding argument, Tallie’s voice was almost imperceptibly soft. She had edged away from the others to where Trissiny was standing a little distant from the group, staring into space, and nudged her armored side with an elbow. “I see you there, brooding. Don’t do that, your face’ll freeze that way.”
Trissiny sighed softly, not looking at her. “Sorry.”
Tallie tilted her head slightly, studying the other girl’s face in profile. “You don’t need to apologize to me.”
“I didn’t just mean—”
“I know, Jas, I’m not an idiot.” She sighed and folded her arms, now looking to the side. “Look, I’m past the point where I might have been mad at you keeping secrets. We’ve all had…more important stuff to feel, today. Anyway, nothing’s really changed. You were always right, it was none of my business, and I definitely see why you kept it to yourself.” She cracked a grin, turning to look at the paladin again. “Hell, if anything I feel a little better. Secrets mostly bug me because I’m afflicted with insatiable curiosity; it’s a challenge, anything I don’t know. Sort of like…I needed to prove I wasn’t stupid by figuring out the truth. Well, ‘secret Hand of freakin’ Avei’ is one I was just never gonna guess. Honestly, how could I? So, not my fault.”
There was silence for a moment before Trissiny replied. “You’re right, personal business is just that. That isn’t what I meant. Everything that happened today is my fault, and we both know it.”
“Bullshit.” Her voice was loud enough to cut off the bickering going off a few feet away. Tallie stepped closer, Trissiny turning to face her in surprise. “What, you get your shiny armor and your high horse back and suddenly you think you get to be responsible for all of us? No, uh uh. With all due respect, General, screw you. We make our choices and we face the consequences, all of us. I am not a side character in someone else’s story, not even yours.”
“I could have ended that at any time,” Trissiny replied, still quietly. “Or before it got to that point. It was me keeping secrets that—”
“You know what, if I thought you were to blame, I’d blame you. You know damn well I would. Jas—Trissiny, I killed Ross.”
“What?!” Trissiny took a step toward her, clearly aghast. “Tallie, no—”
She reached out, but Tallie stepped back out of range. “Come on, you were there! That priestess shot him by accident. Ross was right: she wasn’t a murderer, didn’t have that in her. She was trying to psych herself up to do it while he was trying to psych her down, and he was a lot more persuasive. But then I stood up, which made the soldier yell, which made her jump and squeeze the clicker. Me. I did it.”
“Tallie,” Trissiny said miserably. Behind Tallie, the others stared in silence.
“And you bet your shiny ass I will spend a lot of nights crying over that,” Tallie said flatly, her eyes already shining with moisture. “There’s no way not to feel what you feel. But you know what? I am not going to brood, or wallow. It was a fucked up situation. We made mistakes, all of us, and it went horribly wrong. But goddamn it, we tried. We did our best. Ross deserves better than for any of us to just shrivel up. Mistakes are to be learned from, not curled up around. And that goes for you too, Ms. Fancy Paladin. Yeah, I believe you fucked up, you probably could have done something different, maybe better. So don’t do that next time. But you loved Ross just as much as any of us and you didn’t mean for this to happen.”
She stepped forward again, and held out her hand.
“No fucking brooding, Jasmine. For Ross’s sake. We learn, and we’ll do better next time. We’re not gonna wallow like losers. If you can’t do that on your own, then make it a pact between us. Shake on it.”
Trissiny stared, her own eyes bright. After a moment, though, she reached out and clasped Tallie’s open hand with her own.
“…a pact, then. You’re right, Tallie, mistakes are to be learned from. When’d you get to be so much wiser than me?”
“Pff, don’t act like that’s new.” Despite the tears glittering in her eyes, Tallie cracked a grin. “It’s called an upbringing. I love you guys, but you’re a bunch of fucking rubes, always have been.”
They all turned to find Archmage Raasvedh standing two yards away, hands folded before her.
“Sorry to interrupt, but there is a slight problem.”
“A problem?” Trissiny hastily scrubbed a hand across her eyes, not seeming bothered by the metal-plated gauntlet. Tallie, though, winced slightly, flexing the fingers she had recently squeezed. “How slight?”
“There appears to be a massive storm in Puna Dara right now,” Raasvedh reported. “This makes our business far more complicated. Ordinarily you would want to be teleported to an open space, which would be a matter of picking any unoccupied one which would fit the needs of your insertion. However, this is a ‘raining sideways’ kind of storm. Water passing through the space is a catastrophic thing to materialize into, and that doesn’t even account for flying debris. The wind itself, even if it was bone-dry… Point being, these are the worst possible conditions to ‘port into.”
“Wait…does that mean you can’t do it?” Darius asked, frowning.
Raasvedh shook her head. “Merely that it’s a little more complicated. We’re going to have to scry for a suitable indoor space. In Puna Dara, that’ll most likely mean a dockside warehouse. And that means trespass via magic, which is a big enough offense in the Empire. I don’t know the actual laws offhand, but the Punaji in general are very big on both privacy and business.”
“The warning is appreciated,” Trissiny said, inclining her head politely. “We will take extra care not to disrupt anything when we arrive.”
“Well, that’s great and all,” Raasvedh said dryly, “but with my Guild being responsible for doing this, we have liability.”
“Ah. Yes, of course. As it happens, Princess Zaruda is a very close friend of mine. If anyone’s feathers are ruffled, I’m sure we’ll be able to smooth it over. And if not, I will personally assume all responsibility.”
“Fair enough,” said the Archmage with a little smile. “That’s all I needed to hear. There’s another thing you ought to know: this storm isn’t natural.”
Trissiny frowned. “Not natural? How?”
“It doesn’t match with the surrounding weather patterns, which means it was summoned very abruptly and will also blow itself out pretty fast. But we checked the vicinity and found a colossal amount of unfocused divine residue out to sea which explains where it came from. This particular storm is an act of the gods. Or, far more likely, a god in particular: Naphthene.”
“Huh,” Darius grunted. “Any idea why she’d hit Puna Dara with a storm?”
“There is absolutely no telling,” Schwartz said, shrugging. “Naphthene hasn’t even got priests, and she’s rather notoriously…touchy. She just does things like this sometimes. It could be something as simple as somebody spilling chum on one of her harbor shrines. It’s not likely to be anything to do with us,” he added, turning to address Trissiny.
“Is the origin of the storm relevant to your calculations for the teleport?” Trissiny asked the Archmage.
“It won’t make a difference what caused the weather,” Raasvedh said with a grin. “But you’re charging into the place after rebel cultists; it sounded like the kind of detail you’d want to know, going in.”
“Quite right. Thank you for informing us.”
“That reminds me, though,” Raasvedh said thoughtfully. “You know Arachne Tellwyrn quite well, don’t you, General?”
Trissiny hesitated. “I…doubt whether anyone knows Tellwyrn well. I see her often enough, though.”
“Well, that’ll do. There is a little favor you could do for me, if you are so inclined.”
“Oh?” Trissiny’s tone was openly wary, but Raasvedh just grinned more broadly.
“I’m a tremendous fan. If you could get me her autograph, that would be fantastic.”
“Oh,” Trissiny said in relief. “Well… That’s the kind of request that makes her curse and start throwing fireballs, but it’s not like I haven’t survived worse. I’ll definitely ask her; it’s the least I can do. In fact, if you’re interested, I might be able to arrange for you to meet her.”
“Oh, gods, no. I’m a fan because we’re far too similar in temperament; one of us would end up dead.”
“That would be you, Archmage,” Lessa called cheerfully from across the room. “Tellwyrn has beat up Zanzayed the Blue with her bare hands at least twice!”
“I’m gonna polymorph that girl into a barnacle one of these days,” Raasvedh muttered. “Thanks, General. Now if you kids will move toward the center circle, please, we’re locating an insertion point for you; we’ll let you know when we’re ready. Any particular needs we should watch for?”
“Discreet,” Trissiny said. “We’d prefer to be able to get out without being noticed, to scout the situation before acting.”
“Well, thanks to the storm, that part will be easy. Even the Punaji will be indoors in a mess like this.” The Archmage turned back toward her colleagues at the nearby scrying mirror, who were muttering to each other and pointing at images appearing in the glass. “You may have trouble scouting, though…”
“Close, personal friend of the Princess,” Tallie muttered as they made their way toward the center as directed. “Knows Arachne fucking Tellwyrn. Honestly, shit like that is gonna take more getting used to than the armor, Jasmine.”
“Tellwyrn’s always teleporting people everywhere without any planning,” Trissiny said, shaking her head. “I never appreciated how impressive that actually is, I guess. Mostly it’s just obnoxious.”
“Not to mention presumptuous and highly rude,” Schwartz said with a frown. “Some cultures object to teleportation on religious and/or philosophical grounds.”
“And it’s Trissiny,” Layla added primly. “Respect cover, Tallie, you know that. When she’s not disguised you don’t throw around her cover name.”
“Yeah, yeah. Trissiny. What kind of name is that, anyway?”
“Elvish,” said the paladin with a wry grimace. “It means ‘silk tree.’”
“Wow.” Darius mimicked her expression. “I’m really starting to understand why you don’t get on with your mom.”
“You’ve noticed I have a sword now, right?”
“All right!” Raasvedh called to them. “We have an insertion point! A half-empty warehouse just off the waterfront, no sapients or active magic inside. Are you ready?”
“As we’ll ever be,” Schwartz replied, glancing at the others. Meesie hopped onto his head and grabbed a firm grip of blonde hair, flattening herself against his skull.
“Then godspeed, kids,” the Archmage said, raising her hands.
The lines on the floor around them flared a piercing blue-white, a shrill whine rose at the very edge of hearing, and then with a sharp electric crackle, the world vanished around them.