Tag Archives: Lorelin Reich

Bonus #45: The Masks We Wear, part 2

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Being saddled with Reich began immediately.

“I’m curious, Tarvadegh,” she said as soon as they were in a private corridor outside the innermost sanctuaries of the temple in which Gwenfaer lived and from which she governed the cult. That wasn’t hard to arrange; the underground complex was sprawling and easy to get lost in unless you knew your way around. Finding a hallway with no one else in it was usually much easier than finding another person. There were countless possible routes to the exit, and Val had followed Reich simply because she had chosen to set their path and he didn’t feel like engaging in a pissing contest with her. “Vistirian is an old teacher of the Lady’s. Raskin is one of her favorite hands with which to reach into people’s pockets. I, of course, know why I am useful to her. But you—and I mean no offense by this—I’ve never heard of before today. How did you come to be a confidant of Lady Gwenfaer?”

He gave her a sidelong look of appraisal. Reich was wearing a mask of calm, open curiosity, which he took for an honest one as it was the sensible attitude in her situation. Had she tried to play coy, he might have been annoyed. He was wearing a similar mask himself, but now switched it—to a coy, slightly smug one he’d modeled off a burlesque dancer on whom he’d had an unhealthy crush as a teenager.

“Oh, didn’t you know? I’m her secret bedtime boy toy.” Pause for comedic timing, as his actor friends had taught him. “She likes it in the pooper.”

Reich switched back to her disapproving schoolmarm mask.

He showed it right back to her.

“Are you being difficult for a specific reason, Tarvadegh, or do you have a defective personality?”

“Eh.” He made a waffling motion with one hand.

“If you consider it in poor taste for me to ask your credentials without offering mine, that’s fair. For my part—”

“I know who you are, Reich,” he said, switching to a mask of weary acceptance, one inspired by his various ministrations to the grieving over the years.

“Ah.” Her own mask changed again, back to the serenely inquisitive one, and this time he knew it had to be much less sincere. “And you don’t approve of me. You aren’t the first. Which part troubles you, if I might inquire?”

“I’ll warn you up front: my sense of humor is wasted on most people…”

“Yes, you did warn me of that up front, didn’t you? Rather vividly.”

“…and that is the last personal detail I am interested in sharing, Reich. If you will kindly leave me alone, I will do my utmost to make this partnership as efficient and painless as I can, the better to end it sooner. Deal?”

“Hmm…I’m not sure I can meet those terms,” she mused. The farther this conversation progressed the more clear it was she was using that mask of calm to conceal her actual feelings, and Val resolved not to take it for a sincere one again even if it seemed situationally appropriate. “We are dealing with enough uncertainties without me having to work hand-in-glove with one more—not to mention that I cannot help being vaguely nervous about partnering with a man who seems familiar with my record, when the same is not true in reverse. One does hate to be at a disadvantage. Meet me halfway, Val. We all respect privacy; throw me a bone and I promise not to gnaw on your ankles.”

She wasn’t wrong, he had to acknowledge. He was letting his own aversion affect his conduct, and far too easily. That was not going to work if they were to actually get anything done.

“My acquaintance with the Lady is personal,” he said, putting on a mask of blank indifference to match hers of blank curiosity. “Regardless of my actual skill or utility, she trusts me.”

“Yes, it would have to be so,” she murmured, “if you’re comfortable making wisecracks like that scarcely out of her earshot. So, that’s the way it is. I’m the competent one and you’re the reliable one.”

He gave her another look out the corner of his eye, mask still in place. She matched it.

“See, Val, I can make jokes, too.”

“Think of me as your reflection, Lorelin. I have basically your skillset, with an opposing philosophy.”

“How intriguing,” she mused. “I wonder why the Lady wants two specialists in Vidian mind magic to tease the Bishop out of his hole and pick a teacher for young Master Arquin.”

“Gwenfaer knows what she is doing.” He permitted himself a sigh, a small one that did not break his current mask. “In my experience, everyone else will find out what she’s doing when it’s too late to stop her, and not a minute sooner.”

Reich had the audacity to laugh. “Well, then. While we make our way to the Cathedral, we may as well brainstorm. Who do you think ought to be the boy’s teacher?”

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Hmm…” She chewed her bottom lip pensively, which had to be purely performative; Val was already certain the woman constantly kept up enough layers of masks to conceal any hint of her actual thoughts. “That’s an interesting idea… I’m not sure I would be the best candidate, though. Young people wear on my patience.”

“I wonder what that feels like,” he said innocently.

She laughed, and he did not ignite a divine shield and bash her into the wall. So far, so good.


The Grand Cathedral, needless to say, was a kicked beehive. The Universal Church was hard at work both assisting in the city’s recovery and coordinating the efforts of the various cults doing the same, not to mention dealing with a sudden influx of Huntsmen of Shaath, who had an unfortunate tendency to cause problems when suddenly introduced to urban environments. The halls of the Cathedral complex were intermittently tricky to navigate simply due to all the people rushing back and forth, some of whom were carrying heavy loads of supplies. On the upside, chaos was a boon to discretion. Two priests could pass through all that furor without attracting the slightest notice, which under those circumstances was for the best.

The traditional offices of the Vidian Bishop were a suite of two rooms, rather than the single large one most Bishops were assigned. Val caught Lorelin shooting him a speculative look when he led the way there, doubtless wondering why a street-level priest such as himself would be so familiar with the section of the Cathedral where such august personages worked.

It was a given that she’d deliberately let him see her wondering, too. This was going to wear him out; having to think this way was a big part of why he hated dealing with the political movers and shakers. Not that he couldn’t do it, he just resented the necessity.

They entered without knocking, as was customary. The first room was square and, while not overly large, not cramped even with the rows of bookshelves lining two of its walls and the desk taking up much of another, next to the door into the inner office. Behind the desk sat a young woman in formal gray robes marking her an acolyte. She did not have the hood or ceramic mask on; they rarely did outside the temple of Vidius itself. Non-initiated tended to find that formal getup aggressively creepy, and Vidians were nothing if not willing to adjust their outer appearances to achieve a desired effect.

“Good day,” she said politely, and with some trepidation—clearly too new to the cult to have a proper command of the Masks yet. “I’m afraid Bishop Querril is secluded in prayer at the moment.”

“Yes, so we have heard,” Reich said from behind a pleasantly formal mask. “I am Lorelin Reich; this is Val Tarvadegh. We were sent by Lady Gwenfaer to speak with the Bishop. This is urgent.”

The girl’s eyes widened and she swallowed. “Oh. Um, I’m afraid…his Grace…”

“How many times have you been yelled at already this morning?” Val asked, letting a mask of patronly amusement slide onto his features. It was one he had cultivated for dealing with street children. Getting it just right had taken some work; it was tricky to convey openness and good humor with no hint of condescension.

“I’ve stopped keeping count,” the acolyte said, clearly warming to him somewhat, though not enough to look substantially less guarded.

“Why on earth would anyone yell at you?” Lorelin asked.

“Not everyone looks at a situation and tries to reason out all the factors at play to decide where best to spend their efforts, Lorelin,” Val said. “In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s just our cult. An awful lot of people will throw the most appalling tantrums at even the slightest setback.”

“Even the kind of people who would have business with a Bishop?” she demanded, adopting a skeptical mask. Val had suspected she was putting on a show for the acolyte, here, and that confirmed it. Lorelin Reich unequivocally did not need the nuances of human social interaction explained to her.

“Especially those,” he replied, playing along. “Important people aren’t used to having their way blocked by underlings.”

“Well, I’m very sorry we have to add to your burdens, then,” Lorelin said, turning a kindly mask upon the acolyte. “Unfortunately, the Lady commands, and she outranks even his Grace.”

The poor girl swallowed again. “I, um, wasn’t notified you were coming. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be difficult, but going against the Bishop’s express orders without confirmation from the cult…”

Reich smiled and opened her mouth, and while Val didn’t doubt she could shmooze this girl into doing whatever she might possibly ask, he decided he did not want to spend the whole afternoon playing this game. His fellow cleric closed her mouth again, turning to him in surprise when he simply stepped past the desk and reached for the latch to the inner office door.

“Oh! Sir!” the acolyte fretted.

“Don’t worry, I will personally assume full responsibility,” he said, adjusting his kid-friendly mask with a roguish wink. “You can feel free to tell his Grace I threatened you or something, it wouldn’t be the worst rumor about me swirling around.”

“I’ll just bet,” Lorelin muttered, which he ignored, pushing the door open and stepping through.

Like many ranking Vidians, Alonsius Querril had a taste for the dramatic. His private space was laid out more like a temple than an office, with its walls lined by heavy velvet drapes reminiscent (no doubt deliberately) of stage curtains, and a dais against the wall opposite the door surmounted by a large idol of the cult’s mask-and-scythe sigil sculpted in wood and polished to a glow. The Bishop’s actual desk was tucked away in the corner least visible from the door, half-hidden behind a folding screen.

Querril himself was on his knees, head bowed, before the idol with his back to them. He did not move upon their entry, though he immediately spoke.

“I hope you manipulated your way past my aide instead of bullying her. She’s a studious child with a good heart.”

“I agreed to let her decide how it went down,” Val replied.

“Tarvadegh,” Querril said in an openly fatalistic tone. He finally rose ponderously to his feet, his once-impressive height somewhat blunted by a slight hunch that had come with age, and turned to lay a gimlet stare upon them that hardly seemed to bother with a mask. “And Reich. These truly are the end times.”

“That being the case, I am somewhat surprised to find you still sequestered in here, your Grace,” Reich replied smoothly. Tarvadegh noted with amusement that her mask was now as close to true blankness as could be. Bishop Querril had a reputation as a fussy old man, but he had not attained his role without being infamously incisive. She at the least feared that his perception would be more than a match for her deflection. Which was probably the case.

“Oh?” Querril was no Gwenfaer, but his masks were both smooth and deep; it took some real focus to discern the artifice behind the full force of personality he turned upon Reich now, his disapproval a very nearly physical force that filled the office. “I suppose you feel I ought to be out there inciting rebellions just to turn them in to the Empire for reward money? Or embezzling Sultanate treasury funds? Keeping the grand old tradition of frontier witch hunts alive?”

“You are familiar with my resume,” she said, still blank-masked. “How very flattering. I am comfortable with disapproval of my methods, your Grace, but the fact remains that this cult’s activities, including the exorbitant salary of its Bishop, are funded in part by my efforts. At the end of the day I do my job, even when it is unpalatable.”

“Shut up, Reich,” Querril ordered. “Today of all days, I am not going to listen to moralizing from an Eserite who picked the wrong cult to rise through. Yes, I’m sure Lady Gwenfaer must want me back at the temple in the worst way, to have sent you two out here to shake the branches. What I am not sure of is how concerned I am with that.”

“This is a historic moment for our faith,” Val insisted quietly. “Omnu’s breath, man, a paladin! After eight thousand years, we get a Hand of Vidius. To be alive at a time like this!”

“A half-demon paladin,” Querril said, suddenly projecting exhaustion so persuasively Val found himself actually wondering whether it was a mask. The Bishop turned his back on them again, slowly sinking down to his knees before the idol. “You two, and likely Gwenfaer as well, only see the situation and how to exploit it. Not one of you, I guarantee, has paused to think on what this means.”

“It means that the cult is facing an unprecedented crisis,” said Val, “and nobody has time for this, Querril. You are needed.”

“And you need a new partner, Val,” the Bishop grunted, adjusting his legs to kneel more comfortably. “Playing the bad guard doesn’t suit you.”

“That’s the least of the reasons I need a new partner,” he muttered.

“I would be offended, but neither of you are wrong,” Reich added. “Fine, I will take over the role. This is not acceptable, your Grace. You are the Bishop of our faith, at a time when we desperately need both leadership and a practiced hand to interface with other cults which, unlike ours, know how to handle a paladin. You can play the stubborn old man on your own time. Right now, Lady Gwenfaer has given her orders, and we are here to see them carried out.”

“Just think how much it’ll embarrass the cult if I have the Holy Legion carry you two out,” Querril replied with his back still to them. “Lady Gwenfaer and Archpope Justinian each have the privilege of removing me from my position if either finds my service unsatisfactory. Until that time, this is my office, and I wish to be secluded within it. I have praying to do. As do we all, not that I expect the likes of you to bother. Good day.”

Val and Reich met each other’s eyes, silently weighing the pros and cons of trying to push this further. After a pause, he shook his head, and she nodded minutely in agreement.

“I guess we’ll leave you to it, then, your Grace,” Val said, reaching for the door latch.

“Take some time to contemplate,” Reich added, pausing before following him out. “This is not concluded, but there is a…grace period. We also have to deal with others who don’t face the future on their knees.”

She shut the door firmly.

The acolyte behind the outer desk sighed. “He’s not coming out, is he.”

“Oh, one way or another, I guarantee he is,” Val replied. “But apparently not right at this particular moment, no.”

“Thank you for your help,” Reich said politely the girl, her assertiveness of a moment before completely obscured behind a smiling mask. “Please make sure his Grace is well. This is a very stressful time for him, it seems.”

“I do what I can,” the Bishop’s aide said sadly. “Gods watch over you both.”

They stopped, out in the hall, finding it much quieter than before. There was activity at the intersection in the near distance, but the space around them was presently free of people.

“Well, that leaves us our other project while he gets his head in order,” Reich said. “What do you think, Val? Since we’re here, is there anything we can do toward that while at the Cathedral or—what are you staring at?” She turned to follow his eyes, then frowned back at him, finding nothing at the end of the hall toward which he was fixedly peering.

“Still and invoke,” Val said quietly, the first words of a mantra that Vidian clerics of their specialization would have heard countless times during their training.

Reich moved to follow his eyes again, this time imposing a meditative state upon her mind and channeling the slightest amount of divine magic in just the right way, a preparatory measure that did virtually nothing on its own save to make the practitioner, for all intents and purposes, a tiny patch of Vidian holy ground, a necessary first step toward a number of more complicated workings.

Then she actually gasped. Val didn’t bother trying to guess whether the betrayal of surprise was genuine or an act; he could drive himself crazy trying to unravel her constant performance, and there were much more interesting things to focus on right now.

Both of them moved to the other side of the hall and pressed their backs to the wall, giving the valkyrie room to pass. Nothing could be seen of her expression, or indeed of most of her; there was just a blurred, watery shape swathed in black, with huge ebon wings. The scythe was crystal clear by comparison, and even knowing it couldn’t physically touch them, both gave her even more room than respect demanded. They both knew exactly what that weapon could do.

Val thought the valkyrie might have turned to look at them in passing, though it was impossible to say for certain as she didn’t slow down. At the very least she had to have discerned that they could see her. She walked by, though, and only stopped in front of the door to the Bishop’s office.

There, she gripped her scythe just below the blade, and deliberately sliced at the door latch once. The scythe, of course, passed right through the solid matter with no effect.

Then she turned and continued on, folding her wings to a more compact shape as she stepped out into the landing where there were other people. They both stared until she had descended the stairs out of view.

“What do you make of that?” Val asked quietly.

“It’s a portent, obviously,” Reich replied in the same tone. “Of what, I can’t even guess. It’s not as if we didn’t already know great matters are afoot, and if she was trying to communicate something to us you’d think it would have been less deliberately cryptic.”

“I can’t imagine what else that was about,” he said. “There’s nobody else here who can even see her. Querril probably can, but she didn’t even go in. And I’m certain she wasn’t surprised that she failed to actually cut the door out of the wall.”

“How did you notice her?” Reich asked, gazing at him with a speculative mask. “Do you just walk around open to channeling all the time?”

“That sounds exhausting,” he said with a shrug. “I just had a feeling. I try to pay attention to those. Well… I’d say keep your senses open in case any more come to visit, but for now I don’t think we can do anything else about it. You were voicing an idea that has merit: what can we learn while we’re here at the Cathedral?”

“Ah, yes,” she said, switching deftly back to her standard mask of open politeness as if this business were in any way settled. “I was thinking the Arquin boy isn’t even Vidian; we might have good luck picking someone accustomed to working outside the cult.”

“You sure you don’t want the job?”

“More so all the time. We are here, and you seem familiar with Bishop Querril. Do you know of any other priests of the Brethren attached to the Cathedral who might make good prospects?”

“Querril’s entire staff consists of that poor beleaguered teenager in there,” Val replied. “I can think of a couple of possibilities, but… Okay, how about this. What say we pump a few outsiders for perspective? You must be acquainted with several of the other Bishops.”

“Well, Syrinx, but I don’t want to involve her in our business.”

“No kidding,” he agreed fervently. Everybody who dealt with religious politics in Tiraas had at least some idea about Bishop Syrinx. “I’m on good terms with the Eserite Bishop, and he’s a fantastically useful person for just such times at this, but he’ll be out in the city on a day like today. I do have some friends among the Church’s parsonage, though…”

“And I helped arrange employment for a few officers in the Holy Legion,” she said, putting on a knowing mask. “Let’s have a few casual conversations, see if anyone feels particularly positive about a priest of the Brethren and cross-reference any such names with people we know.”

“Good,” he agreed. “In fact, let’s split up. We’ll cover ground faster that way, plus we can meet back here in an hour and rattle Querril’s cage again. Maybe if we make it clear we’re not going to leave him alone he’ll get tired of trying to hide in there.”

“You just can’t wait to get rid of me,” she said, adding coy amusement to her mask.

He mimicked it as precisely as he was able. “Yes, but it’s also a good plan. Unless you have a better?”

“No, that works out, I think. Both your contacts and mine are probably better not being brought into contact with one another. I’ll see you in an hour, then, partner.”

He nodded politely, then turned and walked in the opposite direction to the one in which she set off. Val went to the end of the hall, then turned around and came right back, sinking into a meditative state as he moved.

Reich was fully out of sight by the time he reached the office door, and he was fully immersed, holding onto both divine magic and his mental projections that pushed away the attention of other unguarded minds. True invisibility was well beyond the scope of Vidian mind magic, but they got excellent mileage out of not being noticed.

Actually getting into the office was the hard part, and a barrier only passable by someone of Val’s skill; lesser practitioners could not sustain the illusion of somebody else’s problem while manipulating physical objects. But he opened the door and shut it behind him without the acolyte looking up from whatever she was frantically scribbling. It was feasible since she was the only person in the room, and he could focus his attention upon her directly, pushing hard against her awareness and nudging her attention firmly into her task.

Crossing the office without her noticing was a breeze, and after another brief spurt of intense focus to deflect her while opening the inner door, he was safe.

There was really no point in keeping up the effort once in the inner office. Val Tarvadegh was better at this than Alonsius Querril had been at his age—he knew this, having asked people who would know—but he wasn’t at the level necessary to outmaneuver a highly experienced practitioner.

“Of course it is not news to me that you’re up to something, Tarvadegh,” Querril said without turning around. “But I find that considerably less off-putting than the other one being up to something. Is that why you ditched her?”

Val considered telling him about the valkyrie, then decided to leave that for leverage in case he needed it later in the conversation.

“Why are you really hiding in here, Querril?”

“I told you already, boy.”

“And you seemed to be of the opinion I misunderstood. Which was true. So explain it to me.”

The old man’s shoulders shifted in a quiet sigh. “Or?”

“I realize we aren’t close, your Grace, but you know my reputation well enough to be aware I have not begun to be annoying.”

That brought a tiny huff of amusement, and Querril finally turned. He didn’t stand, this time, but awkwardly shuffled around to sit down with his back against the idol, stretching his skinny legs out on the steps of his dais.

“What do you think it portends that Vidius has done this, now?”

“Change.”

“What kind of change?”

“Honestly?” Val shrugged, letting his face set a mask of what he was really feeling: annoyance, mild confusion, worry. Trying to hide his true mask from Querril was probably wasted effort. “I haven’t had time to maunder on it and I frankly am glad of that. I’m not a philosopher, your Grace, I talk to people and do things. Gwenfaer gave me a task, so I’m doing it, and so much the better.”

“That’s not a bad way to be,” Querril allowed, “but keep in mind what the Veskers always say: every fault is a virtue taken to an extreme.”

“The Veskers are talking about characters in epic poetry, Querril. That’s all they ever talk about.”

“And what do you think these masks we wear are, if not characters? You’re a priest, Tarvadegh. Some prayer and contemplation is inherent in your vocation. Don’t neglect it.”

“All right,” Val said, shrugging again. “For now, let’s agree that I’m somewhat neglectful. Correct me. I mean specifically.”

Querril closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the idol. “People are going to focus on the demonblood thing. I’ve no doubt some consider that the cause of my own unease. That was an inspired move by Vidius; something like that can’t help but seize everyone’s attention. It’s a mask, Tarvadegh. It conceals the important part. The bit he doesn’t want us to see coming.”

“I’m in suspense, here.”

“The boy is not Vidian.” The Bishop opened his eyes, and there were tears in his lashes. Val had the sudden irrational thought that the anguished expression on the old man’s face was not a mask at all. “He knows nothing of our traditions. He has no grounding in the Vidian mindset. A half-demon boy, growing up on the streets of Tiraas with no religion, yet with enough principle or just smarts to stay out of the Black Wreath’s clutches. A friend of an orphan monk who would become the Hand of Omnu. A student of Tellwyrn’s. Place yourself in the position of a god, Tarvadegh, and don’t worry about the presumptuousness of it. You, a deity, have chosen someone like this to be the first-ever paladin of your cult. Why would you do this?”

Val slammed a mask of serenity down on his features just to keep the sudden realization from knocking him over.

Querril was watching him knowingly. “There, see? You do get it, when you take a moment to try. What is it the Eserites are always saying about systems?”

“We aren’t Eserites,” Val said woodenly.

“The really terrible thing about Eserites is that they aren’t wrong. What we are, Tarvadegh, is corrupt. A corrupt system. You wouldn’t have come so easily to that conclusion unless you already understood this. Every cult suffers from a tendency to attract the absolute last people it needs; you’ve met them all. The Avenists who just want to stick swords in people, the Vernisites who just want to get rich, the Shaathists who just want to abuse women. Eserites who only care about stealing, Veskers… You know, I’m sure that if your religion centers on being an annoying little twit there must be a way to do it wrong, but I can’t imagine how. The point stands, anyway. There are also Vidians who are so obsessed with their maneuvers and games of power that those have become the end, and not the means.”

“Not all of us,” Val protested. “You make it sound worse than it is. We’re nothing if not balanced.”

“Balanced,” Querril grunted. “No, boy, I make it sound exactly as bad as it is. Of all those faiths, all the members thereof who do their religion wrong… Do any of the other ‘bad’ cultists consist of half the cult?”

The silence hung between them.

“We’re about to be culled,” Querril said at last, hanging his head. “And we need to be. We deserve to be. I have given my life to this faith, and now at the end, I have to accept that we have failed our god so catastrophically that he feels the need to take a scythe to us. Let an old man pray, Val Tarvadegh. What else is left to me, now?”


“Poor Lorelin is going to be so hurt that you left without her,” Gwenfaer said with playful reproof when he reported back to her alone.

“She’ll live,” Val said bluntly. “Probably. I don’t care either way. In the end, we didn’t manage to drag Querril out of his hole because, as it turns out, he’s the only one here who is right.”

“Is he?” She tilted her head, blinking prettily like a slightly simple-minded schoolgirl, and he had never been so tempted to grab the head of his faith by the shoulders and shake her until her perfect hairdo came undone. “Well, that gives some perspective to the other task I set you, does it not? It seems all the more important that young Gabriel Arquin should have a teacher who also understands this problem, and the severity of it. Especially since, as we now agree, that is likely to be the major thrust of his duties to Vidius.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Gwenfaer, but that’s your problem now. If I had the skills or the right mindset to help the Hand of Vidius start cleaning house around here I’d have been doing it for years already. You know very well the opinion I have of some of the sleazers we keep on the payroll. But I don’t, so I’m going to go right back to doing what I can with the people who actually matter out there, and keep my head far enough down that it doesn’t roll when the scythe starts swinging!”

“Oh, that’s all right, Val,” she simpered, patting him on the cheek. “Don’t you worry, I’ve already selected teachers for Gabriel.”

He hesitated, allowing overt suspicion to taint his mask. “Teachers? Plural?”

“Of course, darling, we are still Vidians, after all! We must have a matched pair of everything. Gabriel needs an honest, principled teacher worthy of his trust, and an example of the problems infesting the Brethren. He must learn from both. I believe I picked out perfect specimens of each for him, but for thoroughness’s sake, I arranged a little test for them. And wouldn’t you know it, they both went and did exactly what I expected them to!”

“…oh, no. No, you don’t, you rotten bitch!”

“Don’t be such a fusspot, Val,” she said fondly, reaching up to ruffle his hair. “You’re great with kids. And Vestrel approves of you! That is not a small thing at all.”

“I do not want to go to Last Rock! Have you ever been there?”

“I know for a fact that you haven’t.”

“It’s exactly like every dreary little dustball of a town, except with dozens of wannabe adventurers and that screeching pyromaniac Tellwyrn! The worst of both worlds!”

“And what could be more Vidian than that?”

“I cannot believe you would willingly inflict Lorelin Reich on those poor yokels!”

“Where but in Tellwyrn’s shadow could I rely on dear Lorelin to behave herself for a few months, until Gabriel is ready to bloody his scythe on his first target?”

He could only stare at her, barely keeping his mask in place. She didn’t do it often, but now, Gwenfaer let him have a peek through the facade at the calculating mind beneath all her antics. It was there in the glint of her eye, the wry set of her lips.

“…is it that bad, Gwenfaer? Do we really need to be…culled?”

“Oh, Val.” She took his face in both her hands, and wonder of wonders, managed to make the gesture sweetly comforting without a hint of condescension. “However bad it is or is not, you’re one of the good ones. I can assure you of that. You won’t be the one called on to swing the scythe; your task is to uphold the good, not destroy the bad. There’s no one I would rather count on to do it.”

Slowly, he drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh that ruffled her bangs.

“Well… Damn it all. I guess I’d better go pack.”

“That’s the spirit! Bring me something exotic back from the frontier!”

“I hate you,” he stated.

Lady Gwenfaer rose to her tiptoes to kiss his cheek again, though she was tall enough that she didn’t actually need to. “And you obey me anyway. That’s why you’re my favorite.”

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Bonus #44: The Masks We Wear, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Fernando Freitas!

“There,” Val said finally, lowering his arms. The golden light in that dingy alley receded as the other clerics followed his example and let it ebb away. “That’s about all we can do here, but it should be enough.”

“More than,” the Avenist agreed, nodding and rolling back her left sleeve, which had come loose during their casting. “A brute force approach works fine for that kind of simple cleansing. We were seeing no reaction for at least the last minute. This is just mundane scorched carbon now. Charcoal.”

They all paused, frowning down at the smudge and piles of black detritus stretched across the alley floor which had been a crocodile-sized demon minutes ago.

“Still,” the Avenist added thoughtfully, “I don’t think we should just leave this here. In theory it’s safe, but I wouldn’t want somebody to put it in their stove or something.”

“Oh come on,” the Izarite said with a weary little laugh. “Surely nobody would do anything that stupid.”

The other three just turned to look at her.

“Yeah, I know,” she said sadly after a momentary pause.

“Well, then, this calls for more mundane tools,” the Omnist said briskly, turning back to face the mouth of the dead-end alley. “I’ll see if one of the adjacent shops will loan a broom and dustpan…”

He trailed off and they all turned at the sound of booted feet. A woman in bronze armor marched toward them, at least three more following. The narrow walls made it hard to judge the size of the squad.

“Everything all right here?” she asked. “Someone claimed there was a demon back here still.”

“Good timing, Sergeant,” said the priestess of Avei. “There was, but it’s taken care of.”

“It was just a canker-dog, and already injured,” Val added, stepping aside so the Silver Legionnaires could see the smudge and pointing down at it. “Cleansing finished it off. We were just discussing cleanup.”

“It’s pronounced khankredahg,” the Avenist cleric corrected softly.

“Ah, thank you,” Val said, turning to her with a polite nod and donning his stereotypically priestly mask, all beatific serenity. The monk of Omnu gave him a sidelong look that said he caught the irony, but there was no point in explaining the joke to an Avenist, and even less in getting openly sarcastic about it.

“Very good, we can take over that,” the sergeant said briskly. “I’m sure the four of you have much better things to do. Private Sola, bring up some cleaning supplies.”

The nearest soldier saluted her and trotted back to the mouth of the alley.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” the Sister said, nodding to her.

“Of course, ma’am.”

The other three followed her back to the main street, the Legionnaires pressing themselves to one wall of they alley to make a path for them. The damage here was heavier than in most places; this had been one of the sites of an actual skirmish, evidence of which lingered in smashed windows, broken shingles, and fallen shop signs. The charcoal corpses of slain demons had by now been cleared off the sidewalks, but there were still black scorch marks where stray wandshots had raked the storefronts.

It was also more active than such a sleepy street would ordinarily have been at this hour of the morning, and not merely with commerce. Shop owners were cleaning up and repairing their stores as best they could—actual repair crews were in high demand today. Like most of the city, too, it was under much heavier patrol. The rest of the squad from the Third Legion was distributed around the vicinity, talking with the locals and checking the alleys for more stray demons. A few Imperial soldiers were just disappearing up the street as the four priests emerged from the alleyway.

“What is with all these Huntsmen?” the Avenist cleric asked as a group of five bearded men in leather and fur walked past, carrying longbows. Some unfriendly looks were exchanged between them and the nearby Legionnaires, though nothing worse than that; clearly everyone had the sense to stay on task today of all days. “I’ve seen more today across three streets than I thought there were in the entire province.”

She and the other two all turned questioning looks on Val, and he changed masks to a more pensively focused one, just to keep the sardonic look off his face. Naturally, when something fishy was up, everybody looked to the Vidian. Explaining that he wasn’t one of those Vidians would either be wasted effort or just ignite a particularly unproductive theological discussion.

“I’ve been running on the assumption there’s a lot more going on here than any of us have been told,” Val said aloud. “In fact, I’m hoping that my cult has patched together some more intelligence on it—some of the higher ups are very good at that—but I set out with the dawn this morning and I’ve been doing spot healing and cleanup all day. If more is known, it’s not by me, yet.”

The monk leaned his head back to study the cloudy sky. “Hm. Now you mention it, it’s nearing noon. Have any of you eaten?”

“You look exhausted, sister,” the Avenist added, turning to the Izarite. She was right; the girl’s robe was smeared with ash, her cheeks were sunken and her eyes were practically pits. “You’ve been at work longer than the rest of us, haven’t you?”

“Oh…since the announcement last night,” the girl replied with a strained little laugh which served to emphasize her youth relative to them. She couldn’t have been much more than a novice. “It’s fine, there’s too much need—”

“Self-sacrifice is only noble up to a point,” the monk said, doing that distinctly Omnist thing where he could cut someone off mid-sentence without ever seeming less than politely gentle. Val had tried repeatedly to form a mask of that over the years and never pulled it off; he suspected it relied on that aura of peace they were rumored to have. “You can help no one if you drive yourself to collapse.”

“He’s right, you know,” the Avenist agreed. “I didn’t realize it was this late in the day. There is still much to do, but I think we should all find temples to rejuvenate ourselves before continuing. The cults probably know more by now, too,” she added, nodding to Val. “It’s a good time to check in and get new marching orders.”

“I agree,” he said, then turned to the young Izarite, adopting a mask he’d made from studying Omnist monks, a kindly but firm one which ineffably projected wisdom that made people reluctant to challenge him. “And the brother is right, you really need to get some rest. There’s plenty of suffering for us to address without adding your own.”

She sighed heavily. “It’s not that I don’t know you’re right, it’s just…”

“Come with me,” the Avenist ordered, slipping an arm through the younger woman’s and turning her to head up the street. “There’s a Legion post two blocks from here with an emergency medical station and kitchen active. We’ll get the news and get some food, and if the medic on site clears you for more service…”

She led the unprotesting priestess away. The monk gave Val a smile, and a shallow bow. “Be careful out there.”

“I’m never anything but,” Val promised, mimicking the gesture. “Be sure to take your own advice, friend.”

They parted in the same way they had met: without ado, without even exchanging names, just seeing the need and getting to work.

Tiraas was reeling from the Black Wreath’s attack, but was far from broken. As Val made his way back toward Imperial Square, he saw plentiful evidence of the damage, and the personnel both Imperial and religious out in force to help, but also signs that at least some of the capital’s citizens were stubbornly going about their business as normally as they could. Shops were open, factory antennae alight, and enterprising vendors were hawking in places they ordinarily did not, to take advantage of the additional crowds.

Including one he was particularly glad to see.

“Rip!” Val called, raising a hand and allowing a natural mask to slide over his features; the relief he felt at finding the boy unharmed and hard at work didn’t need any careful presentation. Sometimes it really was best to let the face do what it wanted. “Am I glad to see you!”

“Hey, Val!” the paperboy replied cheerily, flashing him a broad grin that showed two missing teeth. “Figured you’d come along sooner or later! Buy a Lancer? Extra edition, all that’s known about the Wreath’s dastardly assault and the freshest news from the frontier besides!”

“Yeah, you can spare me the spiel.” Val was already handing over the coins. “Not like I’m going to pass up the news on a day like this. You look okay. Is your family well?”

“Everybody’s fine, thanks to Ma bein’ such an old worrywart,” Rip reassured him while handing back a newspaper. “We spent the whole night huddled inside, not even goin’ near the windows. Pa’s already back at work an’ Lorinda went down to the Omnist temple to help out.”

“Glad to hear that. You keep your head down till things settle a bit, will you?”

“The hell you say,” the boy replied cheekily. “EXTRA! SPECIAL EDITION! BLACK WREATH ASSUALTS TIRAAS AND LAST ROCK! GET YOUR NEWS HERE, FOLKS, IF IT’S KNOWN, THE LANCER KNOWS IT!”


The central temple of Vidius was, naturally, a far more somber place today. Strictly speaking, Val didn’t have to pass through the public areas of the underground complex to reach his destination, but he did anyway. It was a point of principle for him not to distance himself from the experiences of the people. Vidians ministered to a lot of the most fun and gaiety civilization offered, their god being the patron of actors, but also to those touched by death. A good life was a balanced life. A person who sought only pleasure and avoided even glimpses of pain would become unhinged. Val Tarvadegh, though he was not a death priest by vocation, never avoided them or their work. To be a calming presence among the grieving was part of what it meant to be Vidian.

There were many grieving today.

Not as many as there could have been, in a city which had been invaded by demons during the night. Even as he passed funerary processions, occupied viewing rooms, heard the weeping and saw survivors clutching each other for support, he could not help tallying up the impact and offering silent gratitude to the gods that the harm had not been greater. These mourning vaults had been filled to greater capacity by the last typhoon. Clearly, the damage had been far lighter than it had any right to be.

Which was just one of the things of which he’d started keeping a mental tally that did not add up.

He was joined by another welcome face as he retreated further into the temple complex. Sayid was an older man and one of those within the Brethren whom Val trusted most, a priest whose vocation was ministering to the grieving, and who had been responsible for Val’s own training in that aspect of their faith in his youth. Though the Brethren had no formal uniform, Sayid was dressed as he usually did, in the manner most death priests in Tiraas adopted, with a tightly-cut long black coat such as Vidius was often depicted wearing. Allegedly, that was how their god most often manifested himself, when he did, but of course few among his faithful had ever seen that, or ever would.

Sayid was wearing the very mask he had taught Val years ago, the one Val had automatically assumed upon passing through the halls of mourning while they were in use. It held sympathy, openness, the offer of a calm presence and support if it was needed. Truly held those things; this was not a superficial mask. Sayid had hammered that point home back then. Unless they truly cared for those who needed them, and were willing to offer ministry when it was called for, they had no right to name themselves clerics. It was far more than divine magic that made a priest.

“You look tired,” the older man said quietly once they were deep enough in the corridors to be out of earshot of anyone grieving loved ones. “Been rushing around the city putting out fires, if I know you, Tarvadegh. How is Tiraas coping?”

“Well,” Val said, shifting his mask to one which revealed a hint of his uncertainty. “Much better than I feared. There are indeed fires to put out—you’ve been doing the same here, old friend. Overall I’m surprised by how superficial a lot of the damage appears. The cults are all active, as is the government, and a lot of the people seem determined to get right back to work.”

“Good for them.”

Val held up the newspaper he was still carrying. “Information is still sketchy, but the Silver Throne is already claiming to have dealt a mortal blow to the Black Wreath during this. Imperial Intelligence claims much of the Wreath’s leadership were captured or killed in the fighting. Of course, you know what that means.”

Sayid grunted, his own mask changing to project his skepticism. “Means the capital wasn’t razed to the ground and the Wreath is not in a position to put out its own press release. The Throne all but has to declare victory here, if they can at all get away with it.”

“I’m hoping there’s more word here, by now,” Val said, not changing his mask. The look of calm, slightly suspicious uncertainty still suited his purpose, at least here, before a trusted friend. “I know you’ve been doing important work, Sayid, but have you gleaned any important news?”

“Have I ever,” Sayid said, and his mask changed to a countenance that made Val immediately wary. Whatever Sayid had learned, he didn’t know what it signified and expected trouble at the very least. The older priest gave him a significant look, and Val nodded, falling silent.

They proceeded without speaking till they reached the circular doors into the inner sanctuary, the parts of the temple where only initiates of the Brethren were permitted. Rather than the mask and scythe sigil of Vidius, the doors were made in the shape of an even more ancient symbol, a circle divided by a sinuous line to form two curving teardrop shapes, one black and one white, eternally chasing each other. The gray-robed novice standing watch over the doors bowed to them, her face hidden behind a mask—a literal one of ceramic, as Vidian clergy wore in some ceremonial duties, or when they were new enough that their tutors had not vouched for their mastery of the Doctrine of Masks. A face which could not control itself should not be seen.

As soon as the round door had slid shut behind them again, Sayid halted right inside the sanctuary, taking Val’s sleeve and leaning close. His mask was still one of excitement, worry, intensity. “Tarvadegh, everything is changed. Vidius has called a paladin.”

For the first time since his own initiation, Val Tarvadegh slipped. For just a split second, his mask tumbled away to reveal naked shock, before he composed himself. Sayid simply put on a mask of understanding. Under the circumstances, it was a forgivable lapse.

He shuffled mentally through the obvious questions, of which there were far too many.

“I know little,” Sayid said while Val scrambled to get his thoughts in order. “As you said, there’s been much more important work than hobnobbing with the rumor-mongers down here. All I know is he’s one of the kids at that cockamamie school out in Last Rock, apparently a close friend of the Hand of Omnu.” He hesitated—mostly for dramatic effect, as the mask he put on expressed. “The boy is a half-demon.”

Val allowed his own mask to revert to a natural one, now that he’d mastered his shock. An expression of awe and trepidation was entirely appropriate. “Omnu’s breath. I bet the vultures down here are going absolutely insane.”

Sayid nodded, assuming a mask of wry amusement. Even beyond the natural Vidian predilection for duality, it was a truism that there were two kinds of people among the cult. The way they were described varied widely, but everyone understood what the kinds were. There were the clerics who went out and did the work of ministering to people going about their lives, and then there were the clerics whose primary vocation consisted of maneuvering for power.

Though Val (and Sayid, and most who shared their outlook) privately sorted them into groups of “ambitious” and “useful,” it had to be acknowledged that the other kind—the vultures, as he had just called them—were far from useless. They may have had self-serving motives, but not exclusively so; after all, any Vidian worth his salt would be working on at least two objectives with any given action. The cult itself thrived in large part due to the funding and influence they secured by maneuvering among nobles, royals, and the other rich and mighty in society.

Complex their aims and natures might be, but manipulators and schemers needed the constancy of intricate systems in which to operate. Now? A Vidian paladin? A half-demon Vidian paladin? There was absolutely no guessing how many careful ploys had just been permanently upended.

Val couldn’t deny feeling a spark of satisfaction at that prospect, though of course he kept it concealed behind his mask.

“Speaking of,” Sayid murmured, and Val, following his gaze, had to switch to an almost dishonestly serene mask to suppress the fatalism he suddenly felt. Another gray-robed novice was making a beeline toward them from the opposite side of the long sanctuary, where she had clearly been watching the door. “I warned you not to cozy up to that woman, boy. Told you she was destined for great things. Now look. Every time anything happens…”

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Val said innocently. “It may not be a message for me. Perhaps you’re being excommunicated.”

Sayid gave him a scathing look that barely counted as a mask.

“Val Tarvadegh?” the novice inquired with proper diffidence, stopping before them and bowing slightly.

“Yes,” he said simply, turning to her wearing his clerical mask of serene benediction.

“There is a meeting in progress in the Outer Sanctity; Lady Gwenfaer wishes your attendance as soon as you return to the temple.”

“I guess I’m safe for another day,” Sayid said, wearing Val’s own mask of serenity rather than his customary one.

Val just turned the look on the older man without bothering to change it. Would’ve served the old coot right if he’d stuck out his tongue, but he wasn’t about to set such a bad example in front of a novice. “Thank you, acolyte. I will attend the Lady directly.”

The girl bowed again, retreating, and Sayid patted him encouragingly on the back. Val nodded to him and set off for the innermost depths of the temple, putting on a mask he used almost exclusively for events such as this: calm, no nonsense, not aggressive but unwilling to suffer fools. He had crafted it after the example of an Avenist cleric he knew. When he couldn’t avoid being drawn in by Gwenfaer and her ever-rotating circle of hangers-on, it was the closest he could manage to keeping himself unscathed.


“Do we even know what kind of demon he is?” a priestess he didn’t know was exclaiming with open exasperation when he joined the meeting underway.

“Half-demon,” said Tarkan Raskin from behind a mask which projected calm so aggressively it was clearly a deliberate rebuke at those who failed to. Val didn’t know Raskin intimately, but he was one of the upper-circle maneuverers whom he respected the most, a man who enjoyed his games of connivance but was more interested in the cult’s goals than furthering his own temporal benefit. “And no, so far we know very little beyond what the god has revealed to Lady Gwenfaer. Gabriel Arquin is known to have been a friend of Tobias Caine in his youth, so there are records available to follow up and we’ll be doing so as quickly as we can. For now, though? We know he’s a boy, so he’s not half khelminash. That’s the extent of our intelligence.”

“They could put that on your tombstone,” the woman replied acidly. Raskin looked directly at her without replying verbally, though he shifted his mask to a condescending parent’s disdain toward a misbehaving toddler.

Arquin, hm. Val didn’t recognize the surname; it might have been Tiraan, Western, possibly even Stalweiss. Gabriel was an old but not very popular given name. This still told him very little.

“Val!” Gwenfaer gushed, rising to her feet and gliding across the room toward him. He put on a deliberately long-suffering mask, which she ignored, swooping right up and kissing him lightly on both cheeks, a greeting used by absolutely no one outside Glassiere except Gwenfaer Maalvedh.

The Lady Gwenfaer was tall, blonde, and one of those women whom it was impossible to tell how voluptuous she was because every movement of her body and article of clothing in her wardrobe was part of a contrivance to make her seem more so. Her face was improbably free of even the tiniest lines for someone in the descending half of her forties. That mane of luxuriant golden hair was impeccably styled, as always, in tousled waves which suggested she had just climbed out of bed; her robes were also very deliberately cut to evoke a hastily-donned dressing gown, hint of cleavage and all.

She insisted she was Old Tira, not Stalweiss in descent. While it was a matter of record that there had been a race of pale, fair-haired humans in the Tira Valley before the modern Tiraan had begun moving in from Calderaas (in fact, Tanglish was thought to descend from their language), they had been gone for centuries. It was a purely laughable claim, and that was Gwenfaer all over. Her goofy affectations and overt vampishness were both masquerades not held in favor among the Brethren of Vidius, where they were considered Vesker stereotypes. Val had never met anyone else in the faith who tried to leverage either; Gwenfaer was surely the only one who made a practice of both.

She was also the most intelligent person he knew, and it frankly scared him that he had no idea how deep her capacity for ruthlessness went. Nobody ascended to the leadership of the Brethren unless they were a person to take with the utmost seriousness.

“Welcome, Val,” said the other blonde woman present when Gwenfaer had drawn back enough that he could see the room again. “Are we awaiting anyone else, my Lady?”

“This should be it for now,” Gwenfaer said, wearing a dreamy little smile. Alone among the Vidians Val had known, she had a knack for making her expressions look like the uncontrolled emotional flickering of the uninitiated. Others had remarked on it; Vidians could generally recognize each other simply by their facial control, but not the Lady Gwenfaer. He suspected there was some secret branch of their cult’s attention-deflecting magic involved in it. “Lorelin, would you be a dear and catch him up for me?”

“There hasn’t been much established so far,” the other priestess said, nodding respectfully to Val with a mask of pleasantly aloof friendliness in place. “I believe you heard Tarkan’s clarification just now. Vidius has called a Hand, he is a half-demon attending Tellwyrn’s University, and a friend of the Hand of Omnu. The only thing you’ve missed is that Bishop Querril has placed himself in formal seclusion in the Grand Cathedral at this news.”

“Oh, dear,” Val murmured, adopting a mask of perplexed concern to avoid having to respond directly to Lorelin Reich. If Raskin was his idea of a good ambitious Vidian, she was the opposite. In his opinion the Brethren would be better off if someone stuffed Reich full of pine cones, bent her in a circle, and strung her up as a solstice wreath.

“Of all the bloody times for one of his snits,” huffed the priestess who had been sniping at Raskin a moment ago. She was the oldest of them, white-haired and clearly fond of aggressive masks. “Querril has always been more of a theological purist than is good for him; I’m frankly impressed he received this news without having a literal stroke.”

“Are we absolutely certain he hasn’t?” Lorelin asked from behind a mask of concern so obviously insincere it was clearly meant as a joke. “That is a downside to seclusion, of course. Poor Bishop Tannehall was dead in her office for almost two days before anyone discovered she wasn’t praying.”

“We should be so lucky,” the old woman grunted.

“Really, Tassie,” Gwenfaer chittered, a picture of vapid reproof. “This is hardly the time.”

“Not to mention that Bishop Querril’s long service to the Brethren merits some respect,” Raskin added, “no matter how annoying many of us find him.”

“Tassie, was it?” Val inquired politely.

“Not to you, boy,” the woman retorted. “Tasselin Vistirian. And you are…?”

“Val Tarvadegh,” he replied, putting on a mask of such ostentatious politeness that the reproof was implicit. Raskin smiled thinly at him.

“So!” Gwenfaer clapped her hands, affecting a delighted and somewhat vacant smile. “It seems to me we have two immediate objectives. Or rather, the countless problems before us can be sorted into two neat categories: the internal and external.”

“Imagine,” Val said, adopting a mask of pure sincerity. “Vidians dividing an issue neatly in two.” Reich and Vistirian gave him looks wearing masks so similar they might have been modeled on the same disapproving schoolmarm.

“Oh, Val,” Gwenfaer tittered. “But yes! We are very much in the dark. Tarkan, you’ve made a start at tracking down information on this Gabriel Arquin?”

“I have set some inquiries in motion, my Lady,” Raskin said respectfully. “I dare hope there may be some answers waiting for me by the time this meeting is ended. I’ll get more as soon as I am able to devote my own energies to the task.”

“Splendid, splendid, we’ll need to know everything we can. No detail is too extraneous! Bring me any scrap you can dig up.”

“As you will, my Lady.”

“But that isn’t the only thing on which we must gather intelligence. I don’t have to tell all of you that the official line spouted by the Empire and the Universal Church about this Wreath attack does not entirely hold up. Under any circumstances I wouldn’t want to be kept in the dark, but last night’s events culminated directly in our god naming a paladin for the first time in history, and choosing a specific individual guaranteed to precipitate a theological crisis.”

“That’s a truly remarkable coincidence,” Reich observed.

“Isn’t it, though?” Gwenfaer said pleasantly. “The people in this room I know I can rely on—even if you have to do things others might not approve of.” The four of them so pointedly avoided looking at each other that the entire room practically throbbed with unvoiced speculation. “I am dividing these responsibilities among you. Tarkan, Tassie, I need you to sniff out secrets among the city. Find everything that can be known about Gabriel Arquin, and what he has to do with what happened last night—what really happened, and why and how the truth is being hidden from us.”

“A tall order,” Vistirian murmured, adopting a mask of disgruntled contemplation. Val had the stray thought that she might have modeled it off a librarian; he had seen Nemitites make that exact face whenever someone raised a voice in one of their libraries. “For one thing, some of the other cults are riled up even more than the situation calls for. This city is absolutely crawling with Huntsmen of Shaath, which is truly inexplicable. And the Thieves’ Guild is far more active than I would have expected.”

“There, see?” Gwenfaer beamed. “You have a start! Work together on this—and do try to get along.”

“I will see what I can do,” Raskin replied with a mask that was as close to expressionless as Val had ever seen. Vistirian gave him an openly sardonic look.

“That leaves the other half: the internal.” Gwenfaer turned her wide smile upon Val and Reich.

“I can only imagine how stirred up the entire cult is right now,” he said.

“I doubt you can,” Reich murmured, and he put on a particularly bland mask of politeness. Was he really going to have to work with this woman?

“Oh, my, yes, but that isn’t what I need you two to deal with,” Gwenfaer said earnestly. “I really cannot have the Bishop losing himself to a crisis of faith at a time like this. Do something about him, won’t you?”

“Like what?” Val demanded.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something,” she simpered. “I have complete faith in you both! And there is also the matter of young Gabriel himself. After all, he’s now one of us! And we’re definitely going to have to do something about him.”

“You want us to go to Last Rock, my Lady?” Reich asked, shifting her mask to reflect uncertainty.

“Dear me, no, I need you both at hand! But someone has to train the boy, after all. He’s not even Vidian by upbringing; believe me, if there were any of those at Last Rock, I would know it. Therefore, I want you two to sniff out and nominate a teacher for our new paladin. We must find someone to serve as Gabriel’s tutor and guide, someone to teach him our doctrines and our ways, and nurture his development. Someone we can trust to administer the needs of the Brethren without interfering in whatever exciting thing Vidius is planning! Because oh, my, yes, our god is clearly having a little fun at our expense.”

“Fun.” Reich turned a blank mask upon Val. “Yes…this will be fun, won’t it?”

He heaved a sigh. “Oh, yes, Lorelin, I’m very much afraid it will.”

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13 – 45

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“You went and tattled on me?” Professor Yornhaldt said with uncharacteristic exasperation, the result of his last several minutes spent trying to chivvy the students gathered in the rear hall into groups while simultaneously arguing with his colleagues. “Mister Finchley, really.”

“Whoah, now. First of all!” Fedora smoothly inserted himself between Yornhaldt and Finchley, pointing two fingers at his own eyes. “You got a problem with one of my boys, Prof, you take it up with me. And second, you’re goddamn right he went an’ tattled. Good man, Finchley. Oy, Emilio! Were you seriously gonna let him do this?”

“Rest assured, I argued against it,” Professor Ezzaniel said dryly, leaning against Radivass’s stand with his arms folded. “But Alaric has seniority here, and Arachne’s absence does not make this a democracy.”

“I am tired of this debate,” Yornhadt said irritably. “With the sanctuary effect compromised—” He broke off momentarily as Fedora darted forward, trying to punch him in the nose. The incubus’s fist, of course, halted inches away. “Yes, Murgatroyd, I know, but we have also verified that it is beginning to weaken! The students’ safety is of paramount—”

“Okay, here’s your problem,” Fedora interrupted. “First rule of any engagement: know your enemy.” Ezzaniel nodded emphatically, but did not interject as the Inspector continued. “You’re thinking like a wizard, and if we were dealing with a wizard, I’d rely entirely on your judgment, Professor.”

“We are dealing with a warlock, which in terms of—”

“The warlock’s a stooge, at best,” Fedora said dismissively.

“Forgive me,” Yornhaldt snapped, “it seems I keep trying to speak while you are interrupting. Murgatroyd, I don’t even know what that fog effect is, which means this individual—”

“It’s called the Fog of War, and it’s a closely guarded Salyrite secret,” Fedora retorted, ignoring Yornhaldt’s exasperated sigh at being cut off yet again. “You don’t wanna know what I had to go through to learn that spell even exists. The Topaz College is very careful not to bust that out where the Black Wreath might see it and figure out the trick. Which is beside the point: don’t worry about that warlock! He or she is hired muscle, period. The man in charge is that Hand of the Emperor, and he does not think like a wizard, he thinks like an operative. His enemy is in a secure, virtually untouchable position, so rather than bash his head on that in some kind of magical pissing contest he’ll maneuver to get us out, and that is what we are seeing! Fog blinding us, demons coming at the front door and our invincible magic protection on the fritz. He’s made going out the back the most attractive option, which means… Anyone?”

“Means that’s what he wants us to do,” said Gilbert Mosk, who stood at the forefront of the students unabashedly listening to this exchange.

“Bingo!” Fedora crowed. “And when do you do what your enemy wants you to do?”

Hildred tentatively raised a hand. “…never?”

“I was looking for ‘fucking never,’ but I’ll accept that, Hil.”

“Actually,” Ezzaniel said mildly, “if you know more than your enemy it is a very strong ploy to make them think—”

“Thanks, Emilio, but you can stop helping.” Fedora folded his arms, leering at Yornhaldt. “Ergo, sending students out the back is the last bloody thing we should be contemplating, here!”

“It’s not that I don’t respect the logic of your arguments,” Yornhaldt said stubbornly. “I understood and acknowledged all that when Emilio was pointing it out a moment ago! But we must consider the stakes. I cannot, in good conscience, keep the entire student body pinned down in a position we know is not secure!”

“Alaric, he’s right.” Professor Ezzaniel’s calm tone was like a bucket of water on the increasing heat of the argument. “You are thinking like a mage. There are only two entrances to the Grim Visage, both small and accessible only by narrow bridges. Even if the sanctuary effect fails entirely, this is a phenomenally defensible structure. To abandon it would be folly.”

Yornhaldt dragged a hand over his lower face, heaving a deep sigh. In the momentary pause, the sound of the back door clicking shut captured everyone’s attention.

“Conover!” Fedora barked at the young man who had just slipped back inside. “What the goddamn hell do you think you were doing out there?!”

“Having a look,” Jerome said, unfazed by the demon’s ire. “I thought you might want to know, Inspector, you were right. We’re flanked; someone is coming up the bridge toward the door. And it’s Lorelin Reich, so it’s obviously a trap.”

“Reich?” Ezzaniel frowned deeply.

“Okay, how ’bout this.” Fedora turned back to Yornhaldt, tucking his thumbs behind the lapels of his rumpled trench coat. “Before we risk any kids either way, how’s about me and the boys go have a look-see? If there’s a trap, better it springs on us than the students. Fair?”

Another pause fell, in which Yornhaldt nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful.

Behind Fedora, Moriarty nudged Rook. “You’re not going to complain about having traps sprung on us?”

“The way I see it,” Rook replied philosophically, “we were always gonna die to something ridiculous and right out of a particularly half-assed chapbook. If we gotta go, I’d rather go doin’ my damn duty and protecting the kids. Wouldn’t you?”

“Well said,” Finchley agreed.

“Chapbooks.” Moriarty tilted his head. “…you can read?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Rook retorted, grinning broadly.

“Now, now, boys, save some for the villains,” Fedora said cheerfully, making a line for the rear door. “If we’re gonna play it up like it’s story time, you always banter in front of the enemy. Fall in, let’s go lick the strange glowing gem!”

“From anyone else, that’d be a figure of speech,” Rook commented as he brought up the rear, Fedora having already vanished through the doorway into the fog beyond. “You would not believe the shit this guy keeps in his pockets, though…”

“Hang on,” Rafe said suddenly when the last of the campus guards had vanished outside. “If I’m here, and Alaric’s here, and Emilio’s here, and our entire security department is now out there, who’s guarding the front?”

He was answered by shouting and the clatter of booted feet from the door to the Visage’s main commons, followed in just moments by the crack of lightning.


Most of the students present in the common room lost seconds to confusion and panic, but the very moment the front door burst open, Szith and Scorn both surged into action, placing themselves in front of the stairs to the second level, the Rhaazke with arms stretched and claws bared, the drow with her short sword upraised in a fighting stance.

Men in the shabbily-maintained livery of their House barreled inside in complete disorder, bellowing and brandishing battlestaves, and from the moment of their arrival, total chaos reigned.

The intruding soldiers pointed weapons threateningly, shouting orders—most of which were contradictory, demanding that students come quietly, back away, put their hands up, lie down, and more. Some seemed to just be shouting, wordlessly. In no semblance of a formation, they staggered into the room, quite accidentally blocking the door as the sheer press of their comrades pushed them further inward and to the sides.

At the same time, the University students began sorting themselves in response. Some clearly outperformed the invaders in terms of poise, and within seconds a ragged defensive line had stretched to either side of Scorn and Szith, consisting of eight youths wielding either blades or magic. Three shields, two of golden divine light and one of arcane blue, partially blocked them off from the troops. Behind them, though, more of their classmates either panicked or simply froze, some rooted in place and others streaming away toward the merchant hall were the professors were gathered, or toward the stairs to the rented rooms.

In the cacophony of shouts and scuffles, there was no telling who fired the first shot or why, but it was only seconds before one of the Dalkhaan guards discharged a staff. Immediately, lacking any better plan, the rest followed suit, and the din of screams rose amid the cracks and explosions of lightning.

The Grim Visage was still a sanctuary against significant violence, and no lightning bolt struck flesh. The effect had limits, however, and it was only moments before the magical shields were battered down by lightning bolts. Nor was the onslaught harmless, even aside from the panic it induced. The stone walls and furniture were not immune to violence, and it seemed that ricochets did not count as attacks to the sanctuary effect. Splinters and sharp chips of rock went flying, a few inevitably striking people.

The stink of smoke and ozone filled the air, and not a coherent word could be discerned between Szith and Scorn trying to get their fellows into order and the increasingly panicked raving of the armed men now spraying the whole room with lightning.

Amid the carnage, a hand seized Maureen and hauled her bodily to her feet. In the press of bodies she was pulled several yards before managing to twist around and see who had her.

Melaxyna tugged the gnome free of the crowd by the banister and pushed her toward Sarriki, pointing toward the door behind the bar, and then shoved Sekandar, whom she had also pulled along, in the same direction, before diving back into the fray to round up a few of the more panicked students.

Maureen was glad enough to be led along. At least someone was in charge, apparently.

By the time a wall of solid blue light slammed across the front of the common room, effectively isolating the attacking soldiers, Melaxyna and Sarriki had retreated into the pantry with five rescued students.


“I’m gonna go ahead and assume this isn’t what it looks like,” Fedora called, as he sauntered out onto the bridge. “Because it looks like I can have my boys here blast you right off into space and there’s not a damn thing you could do about it. But nah, surely a smooth operator like you would never put herself in such a vulnerable position.” He grinned nastily, coming to a stop, and tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Unless she was takin’ orders from a psycho who would totally put her and everybody else working for him in that position.”

He and the three campus guards had advanced just beyond the range of the Fog of War, to a widening of the bridge which gave Finchley and Rook—the better shots, though not by much—room to spread out a bit and sight along their weapons to either side of Fedora, while Moriarty behind them kept an eye on the surrounding ledges and bridges which bedecked the vast slanted central chamber of the Crawl.

Ahead of them, Lorelin Reich likewise came to a stop, keeping her hands upraised. She paused, studying the four of them, before answering.

“I guess this is the proper place for me to bluster in return. Would you mind awfully if we advanced a bit past that point? I am somewhat pressed for time.”

“Well, I have all the time in the world,” Fedora drawled. “What with my defensible position and clock ticking down till mama bear comes home. But sure, guest’s privilege! What’s on your mind, doll?”

Slowly, Reich lowered her hands. “Here’s the situation: we are ordered to capture your entire student body.”

Fedora leaned slightly to one side, pretending to peer around behind her. “…we?”

“Myself,” she replied, “a little more magical support, and a handful of soldiers.”

“Uh…huh. And you plan to do that…how, exactly?”

“As things stand,” she said in an even tone, “I don’t see any way that is possible. We are, you understand, required by the firmest of commands to assist our patron in this endeavor. To refuse would be nothing less than treason. To fail, however, is another matter.”

“This is starting to veer in an interesting direction,” he remarked. “Do go on.”

“Understand that I can’t simply surrender, or retreat,” Reich continued. “My…employer…has stepped away to attend to an urgent matter on the surface. In his absence, I will of course do my utmost to fulfill the commands he has left. It is my opinion that the utmost I can do in this situation is try to reach a compromise with our targets.”

“Hmmm.” Fedora made a show of stroking his chin, tilting his head back to gaze upward in a pantomime of deep thought. “Quite the pickle you’re in, there, hun. Now, I’m gonna assume you’ve got something good and nasty pointed my way right now, so I won’t be so blithe as to ask how any of that is my problem, but as negotiations go, your position—”

“Boss!” Rook said suddenly. “Watch it!”

He had appeared behind her in total silence. At the soldier’s warning, Fedora snapped his attention back forward and Reich whirled in shock to behold the Hand, where he had simply not been a moment ago. His suit was ragged and torn, stained with grass, and had pieces of glass and wood stuck in it here and there. Though no sign of injury lingered on his exposed skin, drying blood streaked from the top of his bald head down half of his face. It lent an even wilder aspect to his expression, which was very nearly feral.

“Sir,” Lorelin gasped, immediately adopting a tone and posture of relief. “Thank the gods, I was almost out of option—”

With a single backhanded blow, the Hand sent her hurtling off the bridge.


Melaxyna turned from the door, where she had poked her head out through the curtain. “Okay, that’s calmer for the moment. The wizard has cut off those idiots, but between them and your little friends throwing spells back at ’em, that shield of his is under fire from both sides. It can’t stand up long, no matter how much mojo he’s got. Sarriki, let’s get these kids back into the basement until this settles down.”

“The others?” Sekandar asked, holding Szith’s saber at the ready. “Can we get anyone else back here?”

Melaxyna shook her head, approaching him, and also spread her wings; their full span nearly filled the pantry, encouraging the group toward the back door which Sarriki was in the process of unlocking. “They’re either champing at the bit to fight or have buggered off outta there. I realize you ducklings are big damn heroes in your own world, but take my advice: let the grown-ups settle this while you’ve got grown-ups around to settle things for you. All too soon you won’t anymore.”

“I’m just as happy ta sit this out,” Maureen said emphatically, still clutching Crystal’s core fragment to her chest as she gladly retreated through the rear door into the lower chamber.

She’d never been down here before, but Teal had described it to her; this didn’t look anything like she’d been told. Of course, much of that had been due to Rowe’s attempt to subvert the Crawl, but whatever hodgepodge of stolen and cobbled-together magics he had assembled had long since been cleared out. The chamber was octagonal and bordered by what looked like doors with stone frames. No, metal. No…

In spite of her anxiety, Maureen had to step closer to one, reaching out to touch it while the rest of the group streamed past her. It was metal, though its deep gray color and matte texture resembled stone at a casual glance. It was the material of the gates themselves that was more interesting; Teal had said they were like windows into different parts of the Crawl, but whatever power had animated them seemed to be turned off, now. They were simply panels of black. Featureless black which devoured all light and felt like nothing when she carefully prodded at one with a fingertip.

At least it smelled okay down here. The new management was clearly using this as an extension of the pantry to house more expensive foodstuffs that weren’t as readily available in the Crawl, including dried meat and herbs, which made the air pleasantly fragrant compared to the tavern above. There were bags, barrels, and casks to provide a decent range of surfaces on which to sit, of which most of the rather shocked students quickly took advantage. Sekandar took up a position near the stairs, saber in hand, while Sarriki slithered around checking on the others and Melaxyna planted her fists on her hips, surveying the room with an annoyed expression.

There was a stone structure in the center, like an altar. It was taller than Maureen, and apparently built right into the floor. She stepped over to it, studying the odd geometric markings inlaid along its sides.

At the back, facing away from the door, she paused, finding a small rectangular slot just above her eye level. There was a subtle marking right below it which seemed familiar. The whole arrangement jogged something in her memory…she had the feeling she had seen this recently. But Maureen’s recent memory was largely a melange of panic and shock.

“Tsk,” the succubus muttered. “Well, we know this place is of some kind of central significance to the Crawl, after what Rowe was doing down here. Seems like there should be something we could use to defend the Visage from attack, if we only knew how it worked. Sarriki, did any of that asshole’s little pet project survive in some closet?”

“Yes, Sarriki, why don’t you enlighten us.”

Even Sekandar had turned to regard the succubus as she spoke, and now gasped, backing away from the steps and the figure who had appeared in the doorway.

It was Melaxyna.

She held her position, blocking the exit, and fixing a gimlet stare on the other version of herself in the room. The first Melaxyna straightened slowly, staring back, then glancing over at Sarriki.

“Interesting,” the naga mused. “Before this gets too dramatic, let me just remind everybody that at a close enough range, I can smell the difference. Who wants to come get a kiss first?”

“Oh, don’t bother,” the Melaxyna in the door said disdainfully, still glaring at her counterpart. “Of all the weaselly horseshit I might have expected you to try, Rowe, I have to admit this was not on the list.”


“Back! Back away from them, retreat to the merchant hall!” Professor Ezzaniel strode unflinching into the din, grabbing students and bodily moving them away from the soldiers and the already-faltering shield between them. “Domingue, you will cease throwing fireballs at that immediately. Everyone move back past the door!”

“I don’t know how well combat potions will work with this sanctuary dingus, but I can’t throw these until we get the kids out of range,” Rafe said from near the bar. “Hang tight, old man, just a bit longer…”

Yornhaldt’s teeth were gritted in concentration, but he managed to reply. “What…is that?”

“Just a sleeping gas, should put ’em down easy enough. And it’s heavier than air, so we should be safe on the second level. Anything more aggressive I’m afraid the sanctuary will block.”

The dwarf nodded curtly. “You may have to throw through staff fire. This is going down any moment…”

“Scorn,” Ezzaniel was shouting from below, “so help me, if you do not get us all killed here I will fail you. All of you, get back!”

“Didja ever regret not taking a nice, quiet research job?” Rafe asked.

Despite the tension causing the tendons in his neck to stand out, Yornhaldt managed a grin. A tight, strained one, but still. “Did you?”

“How very dare you, sir. The idea.”

Then, with a grunt, the mage slumped forward and the arcane shield collapsed. Emboldened, the soldiers began firing again in earnest, now also pushing forward toward the stairs.

“Aw…shit fire,” Rafe growled, resting his free hand on Yornhaldt’s shoulder and hefting a bottle of potion with the other. “EMILIO! Don’t let them get up the stairs! Draft who you have to, but keep them below our level.”

“Are you serious?” Ezzaniel exclaimed, flinching as he was sprayed with stone chips from a nearby explosion of staff fire against the wall.

“Serious as fine cuisine, brother!”

Ezzaniel didn’t bother to castigate him further. “Scorn! Szith! Get back here! Forget everything I just yelled at you, we are holding this line!”


She didn’t even scream as she fell, too shocked by the suddenness and the blow to her face. And then, seconds into the infinite descent, by having her fall suddenly slowed as she was seized from behind.

Reflexively, Lorelin ignited a divine shield, and there was a yelp from above her.

“Cut that out, ingrate!”

Habit took over. Had to think clearly, had to be someone else in this situation. Find a new mask, someone who would not panic while plummeting to her death. Calm did not come over her, but thanks to years of practice, she managed enough of a facade of calm to fool even herself, mostly. Repressing reflex, she dropped the shield.

Immediately, Fedora grabbed her again, and their fall slowed and became more horizontal. The incubus groaned alarmingly, and as a downside of the more lucid mask she was wearing at the moment Lorelin realized that his wings wouldn’t enable him to fly with her weight tugging on them, but it seemed he could at least manage a glide.

To…where?

The central shaft of the Crawl was dotted with ledges, bridges, and tunnels, but none were conveniently in front of them. Of course.

Fedora tried to bank, but did so too suddenly, and his wings folded up under the pressure. Lorelin shrieked as they shot straight downward again for a few seconds before the demon could get his wings open and steady once more.

“If this doesn’t end up saving my life,” she said tremulously, pitching her voice over the rush of passing air, “I want you to know I still appreciate it!”

“If it doesn’t end up saving your life soon, I’m dropping your ass,” he grated. “I’ve got men up there facing that monster and I care about them a lot more than you!”

“Then—” she started to ask why he was bothering, but instantly thought better of it.


“Everywhere,” the Hand snarled, “I am surrounded by treason. From every corner!”

“Aw, shut your fuckin’ yap,” Rook growled, and fired.

“FOR THE EMPEROR!” Finchley bellowed, doing likewise.

Their eyes didn’t want to make sense of what transpired next; the Hand seemed to flow around the lightning bolts that ripped toward him point-blank. Rook managed to squeeze off another shot before their target was somehow upon them.

He grabbed Rook’s staff, and the soldier had the presence of mind to let it go rather than engage in a tug-of-war with a being far stronger than himself on a narrow footbridge.

“Down!” Moriarty shouted from behind them, leveling his own weapon. Finchley dropped to the floor, but Rook wasn’t fast enough.

The Hand seized him by the throat, hauling him around in front to stand squarely in Moriarty’s sights. Rook grasped at his arm with both hands, trying to claw the man’s grip loose, but the effort was as futile as trying to dig up an oak tree.

“Fire at will, Private Moriarty,” the Hand sneered, locking eyes with his prisoner. “By all means, give your comrade a quicker end than I will. In fact, all of you, feel free to spare one another the full punishment for your betrayal. Whichever is last to go shall suffer the retribution meant for all three. Well? Who’s going to—”

Rook released his arm and jabbed him right in both eyes with his index fingers.

With a roar, the Hand hurled him off into space.


Of course. That symbol was…

Maureen held up the rectangular piece of quartz she had been clutching. In the distance, the volume of crackles and explosions increased as the battle in the tavern picked up again. Near at hand, the first Melaxyna was slowly easing back to the side of the pedestal, bringing her even with Maureen’s position. The gnome, though, stared at the engraving on the metal capping one end of the crystal. It matched. And holding them side by side, she could see how neatly the thing would fit in that slot.

“Now, let’s nobody go and get too excited,” the nearest Melaxyna said soothingly. “We’re still under sanctuary, remember?”

“And it had limits even before it was under attack,” replied the other succubus. “You may remember, Rowe. A nice, slow application of force can slip by it. Or—”

Suddenly, a hand came to rest on Maureen’s head, fingers curling into her hair. “Ah, ah, ah,” the demon clutching her cooed. “I do remember, cupcake. But there are some here who haven’t seen it yet!”

She did the only thing she could think of, and shoved the crystal into the slot.

Sekandar whirled, taking aim with the saber. “Take your hands off her.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” And suddenly, it was Rowe’s voice again; Melaxyna’s shape melted away to reveal him. “Sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, my little eclairs. Now then, we’re all going to have a nice, calm—”

The entire structure trembled. All around them, tiny lights appeared from hidden crevices in the walls between the gateways, which themselves suddenly shifted to display a pure, glowing white.

Heaving a sigh, Rowe roughly twisted Maureen’s head up to meet her eyes. “All right, kid. What did you just—”

Suddenly his grip was torn loose form her hair and the incubus was bodily hurled across the room by an unseen force to impact one of the white gates. Upon striking its surface, he slipped neatly through and vanished.


Rook unabashedly screamed, a long, high wail that echoed in the vast cavern, even as he curled himself into a fetal position. Not until he had fully run out of breath did he process the fact that he wasn’t actually falling.

Cracking one eye open, he peeked out from under his arms. He was lying on his side, in midair, a few yards from the bridge on which Finchley, Moriarty, and the Hand were all staring at him in stupefaction.

Further inspection revealed that he was resting upon a square panel of pure white light, suspended in midair.

“Oh,” he said weakly. “Well. All righty, then.”


“You made it,” Lorelin gasped as soon as he released her, slumping to hands and knees on the transparent panel onto which Fedora had just dropped her. This afforded her a dizzying view of the horrific drop still stretching out below, but at least it felt solid, which was a great step up from her situation of a moment ago. “Thank you. Oh, gods, thank you.”

“Uh…yeah, sure.” Standing behind her, Fedora tilted his hat back so he could scratch his head, turning in a slow circle to peer around them. “Yeah, I’ll take credit for this. Why the hell not?”


It wasn’t silence, but the quiet which descended upon the common room felt like it after the incredible noise which had just reigned. The blue beams of light which sprang up from the floor produced a deep, arcane-sounding hum that filled the room. More importantly, however, they each seized one of the intruding soldiers, forcing him bodily into a stiff, upright position, and held him.

The assembled students and professors stared, dumbfounded, at their suddenly imprisoned foes. The soldiers’ expression were of pure terror, but it seemed they couldn’t move anything but the muscles in their faces.

Battlestaves littered the floor where they had been wrenched out of hands by some invisible force and dropped.

Slowly, Rafe lowered the arm he’d been in the process of hauling back to toss his bottle of sleeping gas. “Well…damn, old man. I did not know you could do that.”

Still panting from mental exertion, Professor Yornhaldt had to swallow heavily before he could answer. “I can’t.”


The Hand blurred, then snapped back into focus, and suddenly his expression was of pure shock at finding himself unable to shift space. In the next moment it got worse.

He was jerked physically upward as if on an invisible string, and in midair, six square panels of light identical to the one supporting Rook appeared around him. These, however, snapped together to form a cube, catching him in the air.

“AND JUST WHAT,” Crystal’s voice thundered through the Crawl, “DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING TO MY KIDS?”

 

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13 – 41

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“And herrrrre we are, my little lollipops!” Rowe spun to face them and flared his wings dramatically, sketching a bow. “I present to you: the rear entrance of the Grim Visage!”

Tanenbaum and Reich inched warily toward him, craning their necks to peer around at the vista he indicated.

“All the way down there,” the priestess said resignedly.

“Well, you can’t deny it’s a hell of a view!” Rowe said merrily. His ebullient good cheer hadn’t diminished since they’d summoned him, which was beginning to make Tanenbaum nervous. Vanislaads were great ones for not letting on what they were really thinking, so odds were it was all an act, but still. A child of Vanislaas in this good a mood boded ill for…well, everyone.

The Visage itself was still shrouded in his Fog of War, obscuring a band of space around the great central structure which covered its entrances and windows. It was easy enough to tell where the back door had to be, though; of the network of narrow stone bridges and tiny islands which arched unsupported over the seemingly infinite drop below, only one led straight to the rear of the Visage itself.

“That’s gonna be a rough descent,” stated Cross, the House Dalkhaan guard captain accompanying them. Rowe made way for him as he came to the front of the group, kneeling to frown down at the path ahead. The incubus had led them through a series of tunnels and wall ledges to a vantage above the level of the Visage, which afforded them a very convenient—and terrifying—view. “Rough approach, rather. Lot of exposed space to travel, zero cover, awfully easy to fall off… No way in hell I’d try to lead men in an attack on that if the people inside weren’t behind that…cloud thing.” He glanced up at Tanenbaum. “You doing okay with that? Is it gonna hold up?”

“That’s not hard,” the warlock replied, “don’t worry. Infernal spells don’t run out of power the way arcane ones do, so long as the caster can concentrate. This one I only need to touch up every few minutes, not channel it constantly, which is optimally efficient. It will hold until I’m shot, or fall asleep, or something along those lines.”

“This grows more cheerful by the moment,” Reich muttered, glancing back at the troops. Immediately, she did a double-take. “Hey! Where are all the men?”

Tanenbaum and Rowe turned to follow her stare, finding most of their contingent of guards absent. Only three remained, hanging back by the entrance where the tunnel through which they’d come opened out onto this ledge.

“Sent ’em back,” Captain Cross replied, not looking up from his grim survey of the scene below. “They’re ordered to return to the main bridge and hold that position in case the students try to sortie.”

“Do you honestly expect that crew, unsupervised, to hold up against an attack?” Reich demanded scathingly.

“No,” Cross said, his tone even, “I expect them to immediately desert and fuck off back up the stairs, those that don’t manage to fall in the chasm. I’ll deal with any survivors later, assuming I’m one too. The issue is the mission. We’re to try to apprehend rebellious college students, on narrow bridges over a drop straight to Hell—this would be a nightmare even if half those students weren’t magic and the other half nobles. Those galoots were nothing but a hindrance. Let’s face it, at the first sign of trouble, one would panic and start shooting, and then the rest would join in, and it’d be an absolute disaster. Best we could hope for at that point is to be among the dead and not have to face the aftermath.” He finally raised his eyes from studying the path to glance back at the three remaining troopers. “These I trust to follow orders and keep their heads.”

Tanenbaum, Reich, and Rowe all stared at the soldiers, who stood just barely out of earshot of their low conversation, murmuring among themselves. Well, two of them were, the pair of gray-haired men who were clearly older than Cross—who himself was obviously past the customary age of retirement. The third and tallest was at least of fighting age, but not in fighting shape. Though big, his head was noticeably too small for his body, with tiny, close-set eyes and a jaw which hung perpetually open. At the moment, he was staring into space and picking his nose.

“These,” Tanenbaum said flatly. “These are the cream of the crop.”

Rowe cackled and slapped him on the back. “Well, it’s like they say! You go to war with the army you’ve got, not the army you want.”

“Of that crop? Yes.” Cross turned back to the view, ignoring the incubus. “Steiner and Jafar may be long in the tooth, but they’re soldiers—I mean actual soldiers, who’ve served the Duchess as long as I have. Back in our day, there was actual training, and the House guard didn’t take just anybody. And Big Jim is… Well, he’s exactly what he looks like, but he’s good at following orders, and nothing makes him panic. Big, strong, and calm is what’s best for this mission, mark my words.”

“Consider them marked,” Reich said with a sigh. “Well, since we’re here, does anybody have any ideas how we are actually going to apprehend these students? There are over sixty of them. Even if they choose to come along quietly, and they won’t, it’s a logistical nightmare. And disregarding the material threat the students represent, those professors are among the most dangerous people in the Empire.”

“Ezzaniel won’t be terribly dangerous unless he gets close,” Tanenbaum murmured, rubbing his bearded chin with a thumb. “Yornhaldt and Harklund are highly skilled casters, the most immediate threat. Plus Rafe and Morvana. Never underestimate a versatile alchemist. I fear you are correct, Ms. Reich. I had hoped our…patron would have rejoined us by now. He’s the only one who has any idea what the plan is, here.”

“I wonder,” she said quietly, “if that’s not giving him rather too much credit. Has it occurred to you, gentlemen, that since we’ve been brought here with specific forces in a specific situation which can’t really do anything except deploy offensive power against these civilians… Perhaps that is precisely what he intends?”

“Hn,” Cross grunted. “You reckon so? Commit high treason or open fire on a bunch of kids. That’s a thinker. Can’t say I envy you two. Me, I’m old, I know I’ve served well, an’ I’d just as soon not linger to see House Dalkhaan wither away like I know it’s going to. If it comes time for an unwise act of conscience, I’d rather be able to give a good account for myself to Vidius than even my Emperor. For a couple of young career—hey!” He had turned his head again to look at them, but now straightened up, raising his staff, and stared around the ledge. “Where the hell is that demon?”

Reich whirled, glancing about rapidly, and then whispered something very unladylike. The three soldiers were still lounging in the tunnel a few yards away, but there was no sign of Rowe anywhere.

“Oh, he’s quite gone,” Tanenbaum said fatalistically. “The summonstone bound him to lead us to the back entrance of the Grim Visage. That done, he had no bindings and is a free incubus.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be a warlock?” Reich exclaimed. “Couldn’t you have done anything?”

“Yes, in fact.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “I could monitor his infernal presence while it was within range of my own aura, which I did, all the way up the tunnel after he decided to slither off. By this point he’s out of range, and I deemed it best to let him go. Captain Cross has the right of it.” He nodded to the captain. “At this point, it’s a question of who we do and do not want involved in this unfolding debacle, and an incubus is in the second category. Holding one of those creatures against their will is, itself, a fiendishly challenging prospect, and not a task I wish to undertake whilst trying to untangle the knot before us. He was bound to either try to escape or attack us, and since he chose the first option, I say let him go. Hopefully he will choose to make himself Tellwyrn’s problem and not ours.”

“Hopefully!” Reich covered her face in her hands. “We’re going to die down here, aren’t we?”

“I flatly refuse to do so,” Tanenbaum said firmly. “As to what we are going to do… Of that, I am less certain. But I don’t think the Hand is coming back any time soon, and the University people will already be probing at the Fog, assuming he was correct and they plan to escape through the rear. Whatever we’re going to do, we need to figure it out and be about it. Immediately.”


“What is it?” she demanded as he suddenly banked left, veering to the west. At that altitude and speed the wind was enough to silence any voice, but of course they both had acute senses further augmented by arcane means; she didn’t need to raise her tone. “Do you see the zeppelin?”

“I see a zeppelin,” Zanzayed replied. His voice, high-pitched for the draconic depth and power it held in this form, required little help from her magic to be audible even with the air streaming past. “It’s the first we’ve encountered since we passed Madouris, so I dearly hope this is our quarry.” The dragon twisted his head up to grin at her sidelong. “Not that I don’t enjoy palling around with you like the old days, Arachne, but after a few millennia of practice sailing over the countryside loses much of its romance.”

“We never palled around,” she snapped, lifting a hand to hold her spectacles by their frame. “You annoyed me and I kicked your ass, repeatedly, with minor variations. Lower your head so I can see, you clod.”

He barked a noise which she had long since learned to recognize as a chuckle, though it tended to make other mortals faint—which was most of the reason he ever did it in mixed company.

It had taken years of practice and fiddling around to discover the spectacles’ various properties, and she still couldn’t be sure she had them all down, but the binocular effect had been one of the first powers she had unlocked. It was particularly potent for her as these had been designed with human vision in mind; at their fullest magnification she could see the rings of Carrie when it was at the right place in the sky. The glasses’ magic interfaced neatly with the consciousness of the wearer, fortunately, enabling her to zoom in on a moving target even while riding another.

The zeppelin ahead flew the Imperial flag, a silver gryphon on a black field. It was running no signal flags, however. The thrusters were going at full speed—all the thrusters, both the elemental wind tunnels and mechanical propellers. That was significant; no zeppelin pilot would burn through power crystals like that except in an emergency, and right now most of the fleet was doing exactly that over on the west coast to ferry typhoon relief. The only important things happening around the inner frontier, so far as she knew, were at her University. On its current heading the airship wasn’t heading for Last Rock, at least not directly. The course was right, though, if the pilot aimed to swing wide to the west and avoid Calderaas on the way to the Golden Sea.

“Well?” Zanzayed asked impatiently. “You’d best be very sure that’s the right ship, Arachne. This is dicey enough business as it is, even with Vex’s go-ahead; there’ll be no end of hell to pay if I’m involved in attacking a Tiraan aircraft on legitimate Imperial business.”

“Why, Zanza, you are getting downright cautious in your old age.”

“You would be too if you were sharing a manor house with Puff. He can lecture for days on end! That is not an exaggeration.”

“I know, I tried to steal a sword from him, once. Hush a moment, let me scry.”

Thorough scrying required specialized equipment, of the sort that couldn’t feasibly be set up on a dragon’s back in flight. What she could manage with her own skills and her spectacles would be cursory at best, but not for nothing was she Arachne Tellwyrn.

“It’s them,” she said two minutes later, a smile of predatory satisfaction creeping across her face.

“You’re sure?” Zanzayed lifted his head again to give her a sidelong look, once more ruining her line of sight. “What method did you use?”

“Simple: remote viewing and lip-reading. Not hard at all at this range.”

He had started to lower his head again, but now jerked it back up to twist around fully and stare at her—incidentally causing him to begin drifting off-course to the north. “You can read lips?”

“Zanzayed, I am three thousand years old. I can read lips, speak five dead languages, juggle, raise prize-winning pumpkins, weave a tapestry, and my mint chocolate souffle has been known to induce spontaneous orgasms. You pick things up left and right, just by living! That is, unless you devotedly do nothing with your life but chase skirts and devour hors d’oeurve.”

“Mint chocolate souffle, eh? Now that’s a combination—”

“Watch where you’re flying!”

The airship was now close enough to be visible to the naked eye—hers and Zanzayed’s, anyway, not a human’s. They were not within range to be spotted unless the occupants happened to have a spyglass trained on their six o’clock. Not impossible, considering they were fleeing the Imperial capital in a stolen military vessel.

Zanzayed lowered his head and straightened out his course, then began pumping his wings. He smoothly increased in both speed and altitude, gaining on the zeppelin and rising quickly above its crew’s field of view. Some models had observations posts on top, but this was an older troop transport, and would be blind to anything approaching from above its gas envelope.

Below them, knobby hills interspersed with patchy forests and flattish stretches marked the no-man’s land where the mountains of Viridill, rolling hills of Calderaas, woodlands of the Green Belt and prairies around the Great Plains melted into each other. It wasn’t good farmland and had been largely ignored except by shepherds, even the elves retreating south over the last millennium as humanity carved roads and then Rail lines through this territory. This, actually, was the perfect place to intercept their target. It could have been problematic, bringing it down over inhabited country.

“What’s the plan, then?” the dragon boomed, leveling off a good fifty yards above the ship and continuing to close in. “Remember, I’m just the transportation, here. Rebels or no, a representative of the Conclave can’t be torching Imperial interests.”

“I have it well in hand, thank you. Bring me right above the airship.”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” He gave her another amused look with one sapphire eye. “Say, the frames of those things are mostly wood, right? Have to be, metal is way too heavy. I wonder if you could polymorph the whole shebang, like you did to that ship in the Isles that one time? That was empty; I’ve always wondered what would happen if you ‘morphed something with a bunch of people inside.”

“That was a high elven caravel, numbskull; you know those things are functionally living beings. Just because it’s mostly organic doesn’t mean you can polymorph it. You just concentrate on flying and let me do the tricky part. I need to dispatch these interlopers and get back to my campus, not indulge your horsing around!”

He snorted a laugh, producing an actual puff of fire and smoke which quickly dissipated in the wind. They were right above the zeppelin by that point, and actually beginning to overtake it as Zanzayed did not lessen his speed. “I remember when you used to be fun, Arachne.”

“I was amnesiac that day,” she said, and hurled herself off his back.

Tellwyrn neatly straightened herself out, tucking her arms against her sides and shooting right at the zeppelin head-first. After a life as long and full of adventure as hers, one tended to pick up the knack of plummeting from the sky, what with one thing and another. Elven agility helped, but elven weight did not; the wind buffeted her about like a kite. This was just one of the reasons she heavily preferred trousers to skirts.

Still, she had judged her jump to perfection, requiring only minimal course adjustments, and none needing magic. The zeppelin’s huge silvery bulk grew as she shot straight down toward its starboard edge, about a quarter of its length back from the nose.

She spun herself around to fall feet-first and yanked one of her gold-hilted sabers out of the pocket dimension in which she kept it, swiftly reversing her grip and then raising it overhead in both hands.

The blade pierced the fortified silk with satisfying ease. Tellwyrn’s momentum carried her down and dragged the sword through the outer envelope, leaving a long tear in her wake. She applied an efficient little charm to keep it in her grip (and keep it from yanking her arms off) when it snagged as it struck one of the long inner balloons of gas.

That slowed her rapidly, though; even her downward velocity wasn’t enough keep her going, given her meager weight. The last thing she needed was to end up pinned to the side of this thing while it spewed gas and gradually drifted lower. Not with Zanzayed there, he’d never let her live it down. Tellwyrn lowered one hand from the sword to gesticulate downward, applying an invisible tether to the world itself to tug her toward the ground. She released it almost immediately, the boost of speed having done its work.

A bit too well; she had to privately admit to misjudging that spell by a hair. Well, it wasn’t as if she executed this maneuver often. If there ever came a second try, she’d undoubtedly nail it perfectly. But at the moment, the pull wrenched her harder than she’d meant, and she lost her grip on the sword and went tumbling away from the side of the zeppelin.

It was enough, though. The tear was made, and it didn’t have to be a large one.

Tellwyrn went tumbling through space, allowing herself to be spun by momentum and the wind, gathering magic in her fist to execute a compound spell: a simple fireball enhanced with a few augmentations to make it fly straight and true for a much longer distance than they normally did.

She was already well below the level of the zeppelin when she had it ready and her spin brought her around to face upward and at it. Tellwyrn extended a finger in a contemptuous gesture, and fired the prepared streak of flame unerringly into the rent she’d just gouged.

In the next second her tumble had shifted it out of her field of view again, but she could hear the flames catch. And by that point she had more pressing concerns.

Tellwyrn straightened out her fall, spreading her arms and legs to level herself out, facing the onrushing earth. Of course, Zanzayed could easily swoop in and catch her, but she knew him too well to expect that. He’d be far too amused watching her extricate herself from this situation.

A straightforward featherweight spell wouldn’t do any good, given the momentum she’d built up. Instead, she formed an arcane shield around herself, then layered additional spells onto the blue sphere. Lines formed across its surface, and then the spaces between them flattened out, leaving her encased in a faceted shape with numerous hexagonal faces. She poured energy into them, and the facets began blazing to life, directing pure kinetic force.

This was tricky; she’d just made this up on the fly—literally. Well, she had at least half a minute to practice.

Tellwyrn got the hang of it quite quickly, beaming force from multiple facets in a balanced pattern to first stabilize and control her descent, and then project more powerful beams straight downward against her velocity. It was just like walking a tightrope, really, a trivial feat for any elf. In fact, it was her own main column of energy that posed the real challenge, not the actual fall; balancing atop a pillar of force while gradually lessening it as she descended was an order of magnitude more complex than balancing atop a lamp post blindfolded, drunk, and with a monkey scampering around her shoulders.

Now, that had been a hell of a solstice party.

By the time she came within five yards of the ground she was drifting practically like a leaf, and had diminished the main thrust surface down to nothing, only exerting force through the facets keeping her bubble upright. This really was a horribly inefficient spell; rarely had she bled off so much raw power so quickly. It sure was fun, though.

Finally, she dropped the bubble entirely and fell the rest of the way.

Going down at an angle, she hit the ground in a slide, rolled to her feet, and began casually brushing mud off her clothes.

Behind her, the zeppelin, now entirely consumed with by flame, crashed to the earth. Lucky the whole area was visibly soggy from recent rain; that thing was still likely to cause a few fires.

Oh, well.

Zanzayed came down almost on top of her, at which she didn’t bat an eye. As expected, he transformed at the last possible moment and applied a much simpler levitation spell than she had used, floating the rest of the way down in a dramatic pose that emphasized the fluttering of his preposterously ornate robes.

The dragon opened his mouth to speak, but Tellwyrn forestalled him with an upraised hand. Then she stepped to the side, and held out her arm.

Her sword shot out of the sky like a missile, its handle slapping neatly into her palm. She had, obviously, applied a charm to prevent the pulverizing damage that should have caused, but it still hit with enough momentum to spin her completely around. She pivoted neatly on the ball of her foot, twirling the saber and then sheathing it in its extradimensional scabbard.

“I knew the dwarf who first designed those things, you know,” she stated primly. “We were drinking buddies. Once the early ones went into production, I told them to fill the damn things with helium. But nooo, nobody listens to the millennia-old archmage. Helium is expensive. Helium requires arduous mining, or complex transmutation, but you can park a college student on a riverbank with an alchemy set and have ’em distill hydrogen right out of the water for pennies an hour. And look what happens! I’ll bet even this doesn’t convince them to start using the non-flammable gas.”

“No bet,” he said dryly. “And speaking of unnecessary volatility, just off the top of my blue head I can think of eight simple spells you could have cast to obliterate that thing without so much as standing up. Do you just make a point of plunging to your doom every so often because it amuses you to watch doom panic when it sees you coming?”

“I remember when you used to be fun, Zanza,” she said, grinning.

“No, you don’t,” he retorted petulantly. “Well, that’s that taken care of, anyway. Why do our dates always end with something on fire?”

“I guess we’re not too old to go dancing after all,” Tellwyrn replied. “Thanks for the lift, Zanza. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bit more treason to commit today.”

“Nothing in moderation with you, as always.”

She smirked, winked, and vanished, the tiny pop of displacement fully drowned out by the ongoing destruction of the zeppelin nearby.

Zanzayed shook his head and turned to study the inferno, and the rapidly-disintegrating structure of the airship within it. Then he snorted loudly and shook his head.

“Well! At least the day wasn’t wasted. Now I can properly rub Razzavinax’s nose in it. The temerity, calling my marshmallow conjuration charm indulgent and pointless. Once again, Zanzayed laughs last!”

 

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13 – 39

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“Down!”

The captain seized Tanenbaum from behind and yanked him backwards, ruining his concentration. Consequently, he didn’t get a good look at the object which impacted the bridge in front of him, but had the man not flung them both flat to the floor, the burst of force which erupted from it might well have hurled him off the edge.

Ears ringing, Tanenbam scrambled backward, bringing up one hand and casting by reflex. The first shadowbolt splashed harmlessly against the great overhanging nose of the Grim Visage, but the next he had the presence of mind to aim straight at one of the eye-windows.

The wrong one, unfortunately. It was the other eye which sparked a second later, and in the next moment a wall of sparkling blue light appeared across the bridge in front of them. He frowned; surely Yornhaldt knew better than to try to hold a shield like that against a warlock.

Then it started moving along the bridge toward them, and he understood. The shield sparkled violently along its base, where moving contact with the stone was constantly eroding its integrity. It would last seconds at best under that abuse, but it wouldn’t take any longer than that to sweep them all off into space. The Hand had done his vanishing trick at the first attack, but to judge by the very unprofessional screaming behind him, the soldiers had come to the same conclusions he had. Their captain was shouting orders, trying to goad them back into shape, but Tanenbaum gave that no thought.

Hoisting himself upright, he held his ground, reaching out with his mind and seizing the magic. It resisted—or rather, its caster did. Alaric Yornhaldt was no pushover. The Circles were as they were, however, and while Tanenbaum could not fully appropriate a spell with such a skilled wizard actively maintaining it, harnessing and burning off its power to fuel an infernal working was well within the scope of his skill

The moving shield buckled and disintegrated from one side even as it came on. The thing tingled unpleasantly as its dissolving edge passed over Tanenbaum, and its last vestiges actually made it far enough to shove a few of the retreating troopers behind him, to judge by the cursing, but within moments it had fully bled away.

He didn’t wait to channel more power into it, unleashing the spell the moment its arcane parent collapsed. A cloud of darkness coalesced out of the air right in front of the Visage, a discoloration in reality which the brain tried to process as a mist or fog at first glance; it took closer concentration to discern that there was no physical obstruction of the light, but an altering of the way the mind perceived that stretch of space.

The next spell that came through was a simple arcane bolt, and it flew wide of them, smashing a crater in the cavern wall far above and to their right. That would be no more than a test shot; Yornhaldt would definitely recognize what he was looking at.

Another object came arcing out of the first window. No, actually, a whole cluster of them, glittering in the Crawl’s reddish light as they came. Rafe had quickly adjusted, then, flinging indiscriminate handfuls of potion vials now rather than trying to aim through the fog. Three of them struck the bridge and shattered, while the rest tumbled off into the distance below.

Tanenbaum didn’t know what was in the greenish mist that puffed out, and didn’t want to learn, especially when it began drifting singlemindedly in his direction. He had to hold his focus on the small dimensional rift he wrenched open in midair off to the side of the bridge; even more than most infernal gateways, that one would lead to disaster if left unattended. There was no atmosphere in the place to which it led, and a wind kicked up as the local air began pouring through the gap. He held it just until the mist was sucked inside, then slammed the portal shut. Only then, finally, did he retreat.

The rest had withdrawn all the way to the entrance, huddling at the base of the stairs. The Hand and the troop’s captain stood, watching with narrowed eyes, while the remainder of the soldiers unabashedly hid behind them. Omnu’s breath, at least one of them was crying. Tanenbaum was no military man, but this had to be the sorriest lot of so-called soldiers in the Empire. It did not speak well of their chances here that this was what their benefactor had to work with.

Didn’t really reflect well on him, either, for that matter.

“Thank you,” he said fervently to the captain, who nodded back.

“Well done,” the Hand stated in his clipped tone. “What is that distortion you created?”

Lightning bolts began erupting from both eyes, all flying wild. There was another series of shouts and the soldiers began trying to retreat up the stairs, ignoring their commander’s imprecations.

They all froze, however, when the Hand turned to look at them.

“The Fog of War,” Tanenbaum explained. “All but impossible to dispel, though it will fade naturally, and quite quickly. No one can aim true through it, and it blocks scrying. I can—”

“Good. Extend it fully around the central structure. How long can you maintain it?”

“Ah…well, indefinitely, in theory, as long as I am able to concentrate. I will have to renew it every few minutes, and the bigger the area, the—”

“Do so. In between reinforcing the fog, I want you to summon demons and whatever else you have onto the bridge; make sure the front of that structure is under constant assault.”

An errant staff shot impacted the edge of the opening right beside them, spraying them with tiny chips. Their armed escort retreated with yet another chorus of screams, and Tanenbaum reflexively covered his face with his arms. The Hand didn’t so much as twitch an eye.

“Ironic,” he grunted. “Those three nincompoops are a bigger threat, now, than the wizard or the alchemist. That cloud can’t make their aim any worse. Captain, get these weaklings into order immediately. As soon as our target’s view is fully obscured, we will be navigating around the edge of the cavern to the rear entrance.”

Tanenbaum, as directed, was already focusing on expanding the Fog, but he risked a glance at the man commanding them. “Was this…planned?”

“Surely you didn’t really think I expected you to bring down the sanctuary effect.” Disdain weighed down his tone. “Maybe with a team of spellcasters and a week to work. No, our time is limited and as long as they are in sanctuary, all they have to do is sit there. Our task was to make them believe it would not protect the students. That done, the professors will go on the offensive to keep us pinned here while they begin evacuating through the rear.”

“I see,” Tanenbaum said, eyes forward. “Sir, with all due respect, I might be more helpful if you would explain up front what you plan to—”

“Do not press me, Mr. Tanenbaum. You know what you need to, when it is necessary for you to learn. That is all.”

“Yes, sir.”

Applying the Fog of War around the other side of the great central structure was a mental effort, anyway, so there was no point in keeping his eyes fixed on it. As such, he turned warily along with the Hand and their escort as the sound of running feet came down the stairwell toward them.

Lorelin Reich stumbled the last few steps, badly out of breath and leaning against the wall; she tried to skid too quickly to a stop upon drawing close enough to become aware of the lightning bolts flashing around the cavern in front of them, and might have fallen the rest of the way down had the captain not grabbed her.

“Why, Reich, do I suspect you are not bringing me good news?” the Hand snarled, cutting off her thanks.

She swallowed heavily and pressed a hand to her chest, speaking around gasps for air. “Sir…the targets woke up…on their own. Opened the chapel, took out my escort… I barely got away.”

“How?” he snarled.

Reich shook her head, swallowing again. “Don’t know. They had a young hellhound… Knew what was happening on campus. I suspect Elilial intervened, but can’t prove—”

“Did anyone else appear on the campus?”

“Not that I saw,” she said, beginning to get her gasping under control. “No sign of Tellwyrn or any movement from the town. Sir, the students headed for the uppermost level, where Tellwyrn’s office is. I suspect—”

“I see I must do everything myself,” the Hand sneered. “Tanenbaum, you have your orders. I have to go deal with this; get these men around behind the Visage and intercept the students as they retreat.”

“Sir, I don’t know the layout of the Crawl. Nobody but University students has been down here in fifty years!”

“Fortunately for us all, I have made preparations for the more obvious ways this mission can go wrong, including this one. You will know what to do with this.” He didn’t appear to reach into a pocket, but the hand he held out to Tanenbaum now held a small, reddish crystal wrapped in brass wire, with a rune-etched strip of parchment trailing from its end. “Use it as soon as you are ready to move, and waste no time.”

“I…yes, sir,” he said uncertainly. “With all respect, though, things like this are more trouble than…”

Tanenbaum lifted his eyes from the crystal to find the Hand gone. On the stairs, the captain had bullied his men into a semblance of order. Reich was pressed against the wall, as far from errant staffshots as she could reasonably get. And, he noted, did not seem even slightly winded now that their leader was not there.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to pull his strings like that?” he demanded.

“I don’t appreciate the insinuation, Mr. Tanenbaum,” she said archly. “What, exactly, is that thing?”

“Well.” He closed his fingers around it. “Let me put it this way. If you’d been thinking he couldn’t possibly make this situation any more chaotic, you are about to be disappointed.”


Principia let the crane lift her to within a few feet of the access ladder and hopped nimbly the rest of the way, grasping the bottom rung, swinging herself up and scampering squirrel-like to the catwalk. The little Caretaker golem chimed companionably at her as it trundled past on some errand; she gave the thing a pat on the head and strode off along the walkway toward the central branch that led to the administrative platform.

Even before drawing close, she could hear the shift in mood; this group bantered as badly as any group of adventurers she’d run with in the old days, the Imperial spook notwithstanding, but now they’d fallen almost silent. Stepping into the enclosed complex, she could see dour expressions. Thoughtful, rather than shocked or sad, but still…

“All right, what happened?” she demanded.

“Hey, Locke,” Gabriel said, turning to give her a fleeting smile. “We’re almost done. Actually we are done; the Avatar’s just finishing up some kind of internal task which I’m sure I wouldn’t understand even if he explained it.”

“Uh huh,” she said, absently squeezing water from the hem of her shirt. “And you lot have gone all gloomy because…?”

“Not gloomy,” Toby said. “It’s… We’ll explain later, it’s not urgent. We just learned of…well, like I said, later. Are you okay?”

“Me?” She waved a hand. “Fine, fine, just wet. But for the record, next time someone else who can squeeze into tight spaces, hold their breath underwater for several minutes and knows the basics of Infinite Order gadgets can do the really fun swimmy-squeezy-button-pushey job.”

“Damn.” Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “I guess we’ll have to start soliciting resumes.”

“The hardware bypasses are stable and configured correctly,” the Avatar reported. He seemed to have shut down most of his projections, and was speaking to them from a single image displayed in the largest screen present. “Excellent work, all. Gateway technology disconnected. The external trascension blocker disrupting my immaterial circuits is now offline—thank you kindly, Lieutenant Locke. Process rerouting complete. This should be it; I am placing firewalls around the intrusive systems. Please stand by.”

“And, uh,” Juniper said nervously, “just to reiterate, the worst-case scenario isn’t collapsing the whole place, right?”

“That was the purpose of your and Fross’s work, Juniper, which you performed correctly. I anticipate no such problems but given the condition of this facility I would not make such an attempt without failsafes.”

He stopped suddenly, and his projected image closed its eyes, and actually heaved a sigh. This thing had much more organic mannerisms than the AI she had met before.

“Firewalls in place. Re-routing fully functional. It is a jury-rigged system, and will not hold indefinitely, but everything is functioning. Thank the maker, I can think clearly again.” The Avatar opened his eyes and smiled broadly. “And more immediately, thank you. All of you. Thanks to your help, the Caretaker and I will be able to perform more detailed repairs in the days to come. I anticipate it should not take more than a month, conservatively, to restore Fabrication Plant One to optimal condition. I am immensely grateful for your intercession.”

“A month!” Fross chimed excitedly, zipping back and forth above their heads. “Wow! That’ll be really impressive work—this place is a wreck. No offense.”

“None taken, I assure you. It is a fair assessment.”

“Right, great, you’re welcome and congratulations,” Ruda said, tipping her hat. “Now, I think we had an agreement?”

“Quite right,” the Avatar said more briskly, his image nodding in her direction. “While we have been working, I have perused the records of the nanite swarm released on the surface. Whoever did this seems to have had some appreciation for the potential danger they represented, as they were programmed with some critical impediments. The size of the swarm was carefully constrained, and has been at maximum for several months. With nearly half its number removed from the city above and maintaining the disabling effect upon the sapients it infected, the swarm’s current controllers have had very few resources upon which to draw, relatively speaking. Their construction in the nearby tunnels has been nearly halted for that reason. It appears they diverted most of the swarm’s capability in recent weeks to constructing weapons.”

“Weapons?” Toby exclaimed in alarm. “The kind the Elder— The Infinite Order used?”

“It is not as bad as it could be. Another of the constraints placed upon the nanites prevented them from constructing anything too deadly, but it seems the Rust have stumbled upon one of the Order’s favorite non-lethal crowd-control devices. They are equipped with sonic blasters.”

“And… Those do exactly what they sound like, I suppose?” Milady said. “Pun not intended.”

“Yes,” the Avatar replied seriously. “They use sound waves to induce pain, disorientation, and nausea in victims. Such equipment was issued to the Order’s mortal personnel to neutralize organized resistance among their slave populations. These weapons are not lethal, but will fully incapacitate an average human. Their effects are more pronounced upon those with extremely sensitive hearing,” he added, shifting to look directly at Principia.

“Shit,” she whispered. “Nandi…”

“In gratitude for your assistance,” the Avatar continued, “I have had my few operational fabricators working on something for you to counter this. Ah, here we are.”

As he spoke, the Caretaker came zipping back up the catwalk toward them, weaving slightly in excitement. In two of its metal claws was clutched a small black box. Ruda grabbed this unceremoniously as soon as the little golem came close enough, and flipped up its lid.

Toby was nearest, and craned his neck to see what was inside. “Oh. Earplugs? Well…that makes sense.”

“They are a little more advanced than that,” the Avatar explained. “Each person need insert only one; they will counter any and all destructive frequencies of sound when used. These devices will naturally lose effectiveness over time, so I suggest you try to resolve your business quickly.”

“Right, got it,” Ruda said, snapping the lid shut. “Thanks for the gift, and the advice. And now, shutting off the nanites…?”

“Be advised that the Rust’s machinery and physical augmentation is designed to be somewhat self-reliant,” he cautioned. “In the absence of the nanite swarm their enhancements cannot maintain themselves and will gradually cease to function, but it will be days at least before this effect becomes noticeable, and much longer before it becomes significant. The artificial limbs should operate for months or years before breaking down fully.”

“Then time is clearly a factor,” Ruda said with clear impatience. “So would you please shut them the fuck down, already?!”

“Quite so.” The Avatar’s projection had schooled his features to careful neutrality, and now folded his hands in front of himself. “Security protocols being what they are, the unleashing of a nanite swarm is a crisis of the highest priority, superceding even the dire condition of this facility itself. As such, my first act upon having been reset, even prior to addressing you, was to send the self-destruct signal. The soldiers incapacitated will already be well on the way to recovery, and the Rust have no more means of maintaining their equipment or producing more. The nanties are permanently removed from the world.”

A pause fell, in which they all stared at him, several with mouths slightly open.

“You,” Ruda began in an incredulous whisper. “You son of a BITCH!”

Ending on a roar, she whipped her rapier from its sheath and took a step toward the central cluster of machinery.

“Whoah!” Principia shouted, grabbing her arm while Toby just as quickly seized the other one. “Kid, do not stick a shaft of metal into electrical equipment, no matter how much it deserves it!”

“I understand your displeasure,” the Avatar said gravely.

“Oh, do you,” Gabriel snapped. “Hey, guys, it’s all okay. He understands!”

“Let him explain,” Juniper interjected. “Come on, that much is fair.”

“I apologize for deceiving you,” said the Avatar. He was calm and almost aloof, now, seeming more in possession of himself without the intrusion of the gateway’s data on his system. “Your resentment is entirely reasonable. I greatly appreciate the assistance you have rendered. All I ask is that you consider my perspective. The last visitors to this facility stole technology and unleashed a nanite swarm; the last visitors before that had grievously sabotaged my very being in order to make this subsequent abuse possible. I urgently required sapient assistance, and the available data strongly discouraged extending trust to intruders of unknown origin and intent. I believe you have proved yourselves now, but at the time…”

“Fuck it, we don’t have time for this,” Ruda snarled, pointing the rapier at his image. She had, at least, ceased struggling against Toby and Principia. “I have to go finish saving my city. But now that I know you’re down here, sparky, you had better believe we are gonna talk about this in the near future!”

“I beg your pardon,” the Avatar replied, sounding genuinely apologetic, “but no, we will not. As soon as you are safely away from the facility, I will seal the entrance and destroy the access tunnel. As a result of these events, protocols give me cause to institute a permanent lockdown, of a priority neither surviving member of the Infinite Order can supercede. You are the last sapients who will visit this facility.”

“But…but why?” Fross sounded positively crushed. “All the knowledge here!”

“For precisely that reason,” the Avatar said solemnly. “I am considering more than just the recent abuses my facility and I have suffered. The Infinite Order themselves came to this world to pursue science and what they felt was the highest application of technology, toward fulfilling the ultimate purpose of sapient life and the universe itself. Instead, they almost immediately fell to abusing the tremendous power they gave themselves in the process. And even prior to that, the human race devastated the world upon which it was born—not through malice, but simple carelessness. Through the irresponsible use of technology, pursuing short-term desires at the expense of all rational planning. That is the critical weakness of organically evolved sapients: they are driven by desires which serve their survival as primitive animals, but once they elevate themselves to greater capability, those same drives push them to self-destruction.

“My creator left me with a final instruction before he chose oblivion over further corruption: to be of service to humanity. It is my conclusion that humanity’s descendants cannot be trusted with its technology, any more than their ancestors could. When given access to it, they have immediately set to making weapons and attacking one another in pursuit of political ambitions. I judge that the best service I can provide the sapients of this world is to remove their access to a source of knowledge which they will only use to hurt themselves.”

“Don’t do this,” Milady said quietly. “There’s more to us than that. The Infinite Order failed in many ways, and modern people do to, but you can’t mistake the failure for the totality!”

“All systems are corrupt,” Principia added. “That doesn’t mean you give up on the systems. It doesn’t mean you give up at all. Acknowledging fault is the first step, not the last.”

“It has been eight thousand years, and your advancement until quite recently has been minimal. In half that time, your ancestors progressed from bronze tools to nearly rendering their world uninhabitable. Conditions on this world seem to promote a kind of stasis, and that is clearly for the better. If you are to progress to the point of self-destruction again, I refuse to be the cause.” The projection shook his head. “The teleport array is fully functioning; I will provide you with rapid transit back to your city, so that you may finish your business as efficiently as possible. It is the least I can do, in gratitude for your help.”

“You can’t seriously think we’re gonna step into one of your fucking hell-gadgets after the shit you’ve pulled,” Ruda grated. “Thanks for the offer, but no thanks.”

“Stepping will not be necessary. It was not an offer.” The Avatar’s purple form bowed to them in his screen; nearby, the Caretaker chimed sadly and waved with one of its spidery arms. “I thank you deeply for your help, and wish you success in your endeavors, children of humankind. We will not meet again.”

There was no more warning than the faintest buzz of energy around them, and then the entire group was suddenly no longer there.


“Well, at least it’s working,” the captain muttered, watching lightning bolts flash around the front of the cavern. “Don’t they ever get tired of wasting their power crystals like that?”

“They’re trying to keep us pinned and distracted, not kill us,” Lorelin replied. “It nearly worked, if you’ll recall. I’m more worried about Tanenbaum getting tired.”

“Thanks, but that’s more a concern for mages,” he said, putting the finishing touches on his summoning circle. “Warlocks don’t run out of power. In the worst case scenario, we make…mistakes.”

“Yes, I know my Circles, thank you,” she said flatly. “That is exactly what worries me.”

“And this is why I enjoy working with casters of other schools,” he replied, giving her a pleasant smile. “It is most reassuring, having a cleric of your skill at hand.”

They had retreated around the edge of the central cavern, a nail-biting trip which had involved sidling along a narrow ledge and passing through a tunnel, but had re-emerged onto a flat space off to the right of the entrance, where they had an excellent view of the abortive battle taking place on the bridge in front of the Grim Visage. Tanenbaum had set up a permanent summoning gate which was periodically spewing forth imps, katzils, and the occasional khankredahg—the standard attack demons for someone just looking to raise a little hell. Under ordinary circumstances he would never have considered such an action; such permanent gates invariably attracted the interest of more sapient demons. This one wouldn’t stand under its own power for much longer, anyway, and he was actually surprised none of the wild staffshots, arcane spells, and alchemical bombs being hurled from the front of the Visage had yet destroyed it.

Now Tanenbaum, the captain, and Reich stood on the flat ledge, the first space they had found that could hold a summoning circle, while the soldiers had piled into the tunnel behind them, which (according to the sign conveniently posted on the wall) led to a goblin warren. In theory this was just for the sake of space, but Tanenbaum suspected the captain preferred to keep these men confined in quarters from which they couldn’t flee. The fact that none of them had tried it already was even more surprising than the fact that none had fallen into the chasm or been struck by a stray lightning bolt.

“Before you finish that,” Reich said pointedly, “are you going to tell us, finally, what that thing does?”

Tanenbaum straightened up, holding out the bound crystal the Hand had given him, and glanced at the entrance.

“Pretty sure the boys aren’t in earshot,” the captain said wryly. “I’ll tell you right now, though, we can’t keep going like this. Those nitwits are an inch from panicking, and I’ve got a hunch whatever you’re about to do isn’t gonna help.”

The warlock sighed, and bounced the crystal once on his palm, then knelt to place it in the designated spot at the edge of the circle. “This is a summonstone. It carries the true name of a demon, along with specific instructions for it. By summoning the creature through this crystal, one brings it to this plane unbreakably bound to the terms outlined in the stone’s spell.”

“I do say that sounds like a good idea, if one absolutely has to meddle with demons,” Reich remarked, now watching the circle warily. Its lines had begun to glow, signifying its activation. “Don’t you want them under control?”

“It is the second worst way to summon a demon, after just letting them loose with no constraints whatsoever.” Tanenbaum stepped back from the circle, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That stone can only encode very simple instructions, and only of a few types, and it precludes placing any other binding or agreement on its target while its terms are not yet fulfilled. You bring a demon to this world bound to complete a single task, in other words. Once that is done, it is completely out of anyone’s control.”

“Oh.”

That was as much time as they had for conversation before the summons completed. Unlike a more typical summoning, it came all at once when it finally discharged. A column of orange light blazed up from the circle, forcing them to look away, and when it receded seconds later, a figure stood in the middle.

A lean, alabaster-skinned figure with wings and a tail, and devastatingly handsome features.

“Greetings, and my apologies for the abrupt summons,” Tanenbaum said politely as the incubus turned in a circle, staring at his surroundings. It always paid to be polite to these creatures, even beyond his belief that politeness was an absolute virtue in and of itself. It might not help, but the lack of it invariably harmed; children of Vanislaas always carried grudges if they felt slighted. “This is a complicated situation, and I am truly sorry to have placed you in this position. Rest assured, it was not my idea—or that of anyone present. If you can see your way to cooperating with us beyond the strictures…”

He trailed off, bemused, as the incubus literally collapsed in laughter. Clutching his midsection, the demon doubled over, and then actually slumped to the ground and began rolling on his own wings, howling in mirth and thumping the stone floor with a fist.

“So…” Lorelin drawled, having to raise her voice slightly above the noise. “That summonstone was keyed to this specific fellow’s name?”

“Ah, yes,” Tanenbaum replied, till frowning in puzzlement at the cackling incubus.

“Would you care to venture a guess why our benefactor wanted, in particular, a crazy one?”

“Misery loves company?” the captain suggested.

Tanenbaum cleared his throat pointedly. “I don’t think there’s any call to speak harshly of anyone—present, or not. It is often not wise to give offense. Especially—”

“Now, now!” Quite abruptly, the incubus broke off laughing and vaulted upright, though he still grinned at them with a wild glee which any warlock would shudder to see on the face of one of his kind. Vanislaads were only that happy when they’d found a way to unleash absolutely maximum havoc. “Let’s nobody get all worked up on my account! Rest assured, my dear saucy tarts, I have thick skin. So! You have summoned Rowe, and now here he is.” He bowed gracefully, flaring his wings until they sparked against the edges of the containment circle. “Just what the hell are you little muffins up to?”

 

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13 – 38

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The Crawl shuddered.

The rumble was low, but it echoed through the vast slanted cavern, accompanied by the distant clatter of falling rocks and a few small plumes of dust that drifted down from above. And, moments later, by fearful mumbling from the ill-equipped soldiers gathered on the stone bridge which arched down to the entrance of the Grim Visage.

“Steady,” said their captain, his voice nearly as gravelly as the Crawl’s.

“Focus,” snapped the Hand of the Emperor a moment later.

Willard Tanenbaum did not lift his eyes from the great carved face that gave the Visage its name, despite the sweat dripping from his brow. “Sir… The Crawl is known to have a sentience of its own.”

“A rudimentary and diffuse intelligence, mechanistic and barely aware,” the Hand said curtly, also staring at the Visage. To the observers behind them, the two men seemed simply to be standing there, frowning; the subtle magic they worked made no visible effect, aside from the minor seismic reactions it was beginning to provoke. “Like a god’s. In fact, rather like a sleeping bear. Keep focused, work slowly and steadily, and don’t jostle it. We can finish our work and be gone before it wakes, if we’re careful.”

“Tiptoeing around a bear is one thing,” Tanenbaum replied, still without breaking his stare. “Carving a hole in the wall of its den without waking it, in the short time it’ll take Tellwyrn to get back here—”

One of the rough-looking soldiers cursed—in Glassian, oddly enough—and turned to bolt back toward the exit. He froze with a yelp, finding himself face-to-face with the Hand who had an instant before been in front of him, next to the warlock.

“So long as we are not incompetent,” the Hand said icily, staring at the would-be deserter without expression, “it will work. So long as we are not cowardly, we will not be summarily tossed off the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

Another faint rumble sounded from the depths. The men pressed closer together, the one faced down by the Hand retreating frantically into their midst.

“Clear,” Tanenbaum said after a short pause. The Hand kept his gaze on the men for a moment longer, then stepped to the side, moving around them to rejoin the warlock.

“Sir.” The captain stepped out of the group to meet him. “The Duchess sent us for what we were told was a simple police action on a college campus.”

“Are you protesting your treatment, Captain?” the Hand asked quietly, a dangerous sibilance creeping into his tone.

The soldier did not react. He was clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest of his command, possibly the only one among them to whom the word “soldier” truly applied, though in most militaries he would have been considered too old for active duty.

“I’ll serve however I’m ordered, sir,” the Captain replied evenly. “And I’ll shoot any man who deserts right in the back before he gets ten paces, as we did in the old days. But I warn you, sir, this isn’t the old days, and this isn’t the Imperial Army, nor even the House guard that trained me. These boys are not a group I would pit against adventurers and monsters, or whatever else is coming outta there, sir. They’ll not stand up to that, no matter what you or I threaten ’em with, sir, begging your pardon.”

“It won’t come to that,” the Hand said, relaxing somewhat. “Keep your men in line, Captain; all they’ll be needed for is to keep the retreat orderly, as we’ll have prisoners in tow. I have all of this under control.”

He stepped past the officer, rejoining Tanenbaum, and no one who doubted his assurance was daft enough to voice it. Even when the Crawl rumbled another sleepy protest.


“You tryin’ to catch flies?” one of the guards sniggered.

His companion finished his long, luxuriant yawn before turning to give him a rude gesture, earning another coarse laugh in reply.

In front of them, a few feet away, Lorelin Reich lowered her arms, turned around, and stared at them.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the first man said unrepentantly. The one who’d yawned, at least, cleared his throat and straightened to a semblance of attention.

“Do you have any idea how difficult this is?” the priestess demanded.

“Not really, no.” He shrugged, and scratched the side of his neck. “No offense, I can’t actually see you doing anything. Just standing there in front of the door.”

She had, in fact, been at it for over half an hour now, standing and staring, occasionally making hand gestures. The campus chapel’s magical defenses were visible to the naked eye: the walls and door were slightly blurry, as if seen through murky water, and a few inches in front of that was an almost transparent layer of blue light, cast by an arcane shield. Lorelin’s guards, in truth, weren’t giving her enough credit; what she was doing had caused both of these effects to occasionally flicker or ripple.

Nothing of import had happened, though, and the two men were clearly losing patience. They were typical examples of the troops the Hand of the Emperor had found, which was to say, unimpressive. Neither of these was one of the aging House Dalkhaan regulars, but the younger, scruffier generation of hirelings whom very few Houses or militaries would have taken. Both were in need of a shave and some long posture drills, and one was so overweight he couldn’t button his uniform coat. At least neither had so much as leered at her. Fading and decrepit or no, Dalkhaan was still a House of Calderaas, and Calderaas was Avenist country. Men with such habits weren’t drawn to military service there. Not even a “military” slovenly enough to accept these dregs.

“Then take my word for it,” Lorelin said patiently, “it is difficult. I would appreciate it if there were no distractions.”

The man she was speaking to put on a mulish look and opened his mouth, doubtless to complain, but the yawner jabbed him in the hip with the butt of his staff.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, nodding.

She nodded back, and turned again to face the chapel. That was undoubtedly as much acquiescence as she was going to get.

Before she could even raise her arms again, there rose a shrill whine at the very edge of hearing, like a particularly large mosquito in the ear. It ended suddenly, followed by the complete disappearance of the force field around the chapel. A second later, the building seemed to solidify before them as it shifted back into phase with the world.

“Hey,” the yawning man said brightly, “it worked!”

Lorelin had her back to them and so didn’t conceal her expression, frowning at the doors in consternation.

Fortunately, she was standing at the base of the three steps leading up to those doors, and so was not close enough to be struck when they suddenly burst open.

Both guards raised their staves, one fumbling so badly he nearly dropped it, to take aim at the group who appeared in the chapel’s doorway. Two drow women stood at the forefront, one in formal robes and holding a puppy of all things, the other with a green streak dyed through the center of her hair.

A wall of silver light snapped into place across the top step. Lorelin shifted backward away from them.

“All right, hold it right there,” one of her guardians said. “Let’s not go and do anything rash, kids. You’re not in trouble, but you need to move off the campus, by the authority of the Emperor. Let’s lower the magic, nice and easy, now.”

“If you do lower the shield,” the green-haired drow said to her companion, “I can kill all three of them before they can fire.”

“Ugh, no, you can’t,” a female plains elf just behind her snorted. “All he has to do is squeeze that clicker—”

“Okay, that’s enough of that kind of talk,” the guard snapped. “You don’t want the trouble that’ll come from defying an Imperial edict, much less attacking troops operating under the Emperor’s banner.”

Lorelin shifted to look back at them, then up the stairs again at the students. Another elf, a woodkin this time, had pushed forward between the two drow, and whatever he had just conjured formed a blue glow from his clenched fist.

Of course, she was aware of the identities of everyone who was supposed to be in that chapel. What were they doing awake?

She held up a hand, and a golden sphere formed around the two troops, sparkling in the sunlight.

“There, see?” the more talkative of the two smirked. “You’re not the only one who can—”

Lorelin clenched her fist and the shield bubble contracted abruptly, slamming both men against each other. One discharged his weapon, which sparked blindingly against the inside of the sphere. It immediately widened again, leaving them staggering.

She clenched the bubble three more times in rapid succession, smacking the pair together until one of the staves cracked and both men were too dazed to stand unaided, then released the shield entirely.

One of them immediately flopped to the grass, unconscious from an unfortunate impact of his head against a staff. The other stumbled woozily, clutching his own skull with both hands.

A rod of pure golden light appeared in Lorelin’s grip. Not bothering with any further finesse, she lifted it overhead and slammed it down atop the distracted soldier’s head. The lightworking dissipated at such sharp contact with solid matter, but not before doing its job; he dropped like a sack of beans.

She turned back to scowl at the five students, who were now staring in confusion through Shaeine’s shield.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Lorelin said testily.

“Yeah, I just bet you—wait a second.” Raolo pointed accusingly. “You did that!”

“That chapel,” she said, “was phased out and shielded, with both effects somehow tied to the powerful fae geas laid on this mountaintop. I was tasked with cracking those defenses using my skill at divine magic, based on a very brief demonstration of how the geas could be interfered with. Frankly, I’m far from certain I could have opened that door if my life depended on it, but at the very least, I could have stalled for hours.” She held out her arms in an exasperated shrug. “But then you had to go and open it up yourselves! And now here you are, out in the open where he can get at you.”

A human girl—that would be the young Duchess Madouri—slipped through the cluster of elves to position herself at the forefront of the group.

“Stalled?” she asked in a tone of mild interest.

“All right, listen,” Lorelin said, heaving a short sigh. “It’s too complicated to explain the whole thing right now. Professor Tellwyrn is temporarily absent, and your campus is under attack. Most of your classmates have been evacuated into the Crawl, where they should be safe, at least for the short term. Tellwyrn will be back before too long, and I’ve contacted Imperial Intelligence. Help is coming. But for right now, with you outside the protections of that chapel, you’re in more danger than any of the rest of the students. You need to get off the campus, quickly. Don’t go to the town, the— He has allies in Last Rock, and didn’t bring them up here, so I know they’re waiting below. You’re college kids, I’m sure you know someplace in the area to hide yourselves from official eyes? Don’t tell me where, just get there.”

“Just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand in a peremptory gesture to forestall both Lorelin and her fellows, Natchua and Addiwyn both having opened their mouths. The effect was somewhat ruined by Shaeine’s puppy leaning over to snuffle at her upraised hand.

Lorelin blinked, and squinted. Was that a baby hellhound? Well…that answered one question, and raised a whole host of others.

“Who, exactly, is leading the attack on the University?” Ravana asked calmly, lowering her hand out of the puppy’s reach.

“There’s no time—”

“Natchua, are you able to send a shadowbolt through any shield she can conjure?”

“Not directly,” the drow replied with a tiny, unpleasant smile. “But I know a dozen ways to crack a divine shield in less than four seconds. Then shadowbolts.”

“You see, madam,” Ravana said in that condescendingly pleasant tone aristocrats apparently learned in the nursery, “all we know is that you were engaged in trying to dig us out of our protected chapel and have a predilection for turning on your allies. There is little ground for trust, here. You will have to offer more than vague hints.”

Lorelin let out a long, slow breath, controlling her expression. In the tension of the moment, she had actually not considered the sheer physical danger of her situation, but one of the drow was a fellow light-wielder of some skill, and apparently the other was a warlock. And, as Ravana pointed out, they had no reason to trust her. In this situation, they might well decide that blasting her was a preferable option to walking away.

Well, she’d handled worse. Unlike the Hand, at least these could be reasoned with. Hopefully. How much did they know? Best to play it safe, for now.

“About a month ago,” she said, deliberately glancing up the path to display nervousness, “the Hands of the Emperor began acting strange. Paranoid, aggressive, showing sudden magical abilities they’d never had before. Within a week they were back to normal, with the exception of one. He had been working with Tellwyrn on…your situation. Now, for whatever reason, he is obsessed with her and completely out of his mind. The Empire won’t acknowledge one of their Hands has gone rogue, so he is still acting with the Throne’s full authority until they can get here and put a stop to him. He is behind the attack on the campus, and is down in the Crawl with a Salyrite warlock, trying to dig your classmates out of the Grim Visage.”

She could tell already, even before she finished explaining: they knew. Ravana and Shaeine kept impassive, as she would expect from noblewomen, but Raolo and Addiwyn exchanged a satisfied glance and Natchua nodded slightly. Someone had not only awakened them with a fresh source of hellhound breath, but brought them up to date. Her instinct had been correct: trying to prevaricate would probably have led to a barrage of shadowbolts.

Belatedly, it occurred to Lorelin the only likely source of up-to-date intelligence and hellhounds who could get in and out of Tellwyrn’s heavily-defended chapel without disrupting its wards. Well, Shaeine was involved with Vadrieny’s host, after all…

“Listen to me.” She glanced once more in the direction of the Crawl, affecting subtly more nervous body language. “I realize that for students at what amounts to a school for adventurers, being asked to stand down is tantamount to a challenge, but you need to think strategically. This Hand is a complete lunatic; the only troops he’s brought are losers like these.” Lorelin nudged one of her erstwhile guards with a foot, prompting a soft moan. “The other Church contact working for him here is as wary as I am; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called for help, too. Fighting this guy will only escalate matters. There’s no actual way he can win here; all he can do is cause damage. Please get yourselves out of the area so you don’t become that damage.”

Lorelin stared pleadingly up at them. Had it just been the surface elves or Natchua, she’d have put on the mask of a reasonable authority figure, but the two noblewomen made it complicated. They wouldn’t acknowledge any authority on her part, and would be suspicious of too much earnestness. Just a touch of fear and vulnerability should hopefully do the trick…

“Well?” Addiwyn prompted after a pause in which they all just watched her, as if by staring hard enough they could read her intentions. “Are we trusting her or not? She did tell the truth…as far as we know.”

“Trust is a stronger word than I would choose,” Ravana said, glancing at Shaeine as if for confirmation. “But…yes. Fact-checking aside, she is correct on one point: escalation is a concern. An unstable man with the powers of a Hand of the Emperor can cause incalculable damage, not least because he will not act strategically. His very presence here proves this; there is no possible victory in assaulting the University.”

“So…we run, then,” Raolo said with a sigh. “Well, I don’t like it, but it’s sense. I know a place—”

“I will be proceeding with the plan I outlined for you,” Ravana said smoothly.

“Of course you bloody will,” Addiwyn muttered.

“Now, see here!” Lorelin did not have to augment the frustration in her voice.

“If any of you wish to follow the Vidian’s advice and flee, I will not judge you ill,” Ravana stated, stepping forward and turning to face them, the motion neatly placing her at the head of the group and physically excluding Lorelin from the discussion. “Mistaking strategy for cowardice is the mark of the defeated. It is only sensible to secure your welfare. However, the woman is correct: while the Hand cannot win, here, he can cause damage. Our classmates will be in the Grim Visage, and he will be interfering with the Crawl as he taught her to do here. If he can overcome the sanctuary effect, he will be in a confined space with a large group of people, many of whom are physically quite powerful. He will be taken down, but in that situation, it will inevitably be a bloodbath.”

“That is a big ‘if,’” Raolo pointed out, then craned his neck around Ravana to address Lorelin. “Hey, you! What are the chances he can actually do that?”

“…I have no idea,” she said honestly, pausing to think for only a second. “I don’t understand the magic involved, and I don’t know the capabilities of Hands even before they’re…interfered with, or malfunction, or whatever happened to him.”

“Very well, then,” Ravana said briskly. “I will proceed. I welcome anyone who chooses to join me and will not begrude any who would rather retreat. You,” she added, turning to indicate Lorelin with a curt nod, “will report to this Hand, inform him that we have broken out and are on the way to the uppermost terrace of the University to pursue some plan against him. That happens to be the literal truth, by the way, in case you are actually in his pocket. If he cannot get through the Visage’s defenses, we lose nothing by making him run around wasting time. If he can, this will save the lives of many of our classmates.”

“Except you will have a Hand of the Emperor after you!” Lorelin exclaimed. “If you’re expecting your warlock friend to help—”

“The imperviousness of Hands to warlock magic is precisely how it is known among the nobility that they are fae-powered,” Ravana said condescendingly. “Don’t you worry, I know what I am doing.”

“How did you know she’s Vidian?” Raolo asked.

“That’s Lorelin Reich,” Addiwyn sneered. “The one Arquin chased out of town.”

“I recognized her, yes,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Also, it is generally a safe thing to assume of a cleric who is as adept an actress as this one. Now, there is no more time to waste.”

With that, she glided the rest of the way down the stairs, turned right, and headed off up the path toward the upper campus. After the barest pause, the rest of her fellow Sleeper victims followed. Every one of them.

Lorelin watched them go for a long, incredulous moment, then threw up her hands in frustration, turned, and stalked off in the direction of the Crawl, leaving two bruised bodies on the ground behind her.


“Prince Sekandar, can I ask you to keep this safe for me?”

He sighed, but reached out to accept the scabbarded saber. “If you like, Szith. I’m never going to convince you to just call me Sekandar, am I?”

“I’m sure it speaks well of you, in your culture, that you make yourself so approachable,” she said, her face a mask of Narisian calm. “In my culture, the habit of excessive familiarity with one’s betters can be lethal. In a few short years, I will return there, and after Natchua’s…performance…I suspect my conduct will be scrutinized closely.”

“You don’t want that sword, then?” Scorn asked. “It is the bigger one. More powerful, yes?” The Rhaazke sat on the stairs, one arm draped over Maureen. Generally she didn’t enjoy being physically dominated by her classmates, but under the circumstances, Scorn’s towering protective presence was as comforting as Iris on her other side, murmuring to herself and rubbing some dried leaves between her fingers. They smelled pleasant; Iris claimed what she was doing would have a calming effect on the pub’s occupants.

The more than a hundred refugees from the University filled the place to capacity, and had already displaced most of its usual crowd. The tension could have been cut with a knife, but so far it had stayed relatively calm. Maybe Iris actually was helping.

“Do you recall when Matriarch Ashaele visited the campus?” Szith said, putting on one of her tiny smiles. “The guards she brought with her carried sabers like these.”

“Yes, I remember,” Scorn said impatiently. “Powerful swords, like I said.”

“Power is not without is disadvantages. This is a better weapon.” The drow rested a hand on the pommel of her short sword, which was still belted at her waist. “A saber must be swung in wide arcs, which handicaps it in close quarters, and makes formation fighting very difficult. For organized infantry combat, you want short swords—like this one, or those the Silver Legions carry. For precisely that reason, Narisian House guards are not permitted to own them. They may only carry the saber, which is a dueling weapon. Aristocrats and their protectors are trained in a ritualized style of formal combat which leaves them no match for an organized infantry. I am a soldier of House An’sadarr, sworn to fight for the Queen and Tar’naris. Thus, I have a weapon which is better suited to these tight quarters.”

“Interesting stuff,” Maureen said, nervously turning over the chunk of decorated quarts which was (hopefully) the heart of Crystal in her hands. “An’ Sekandar, here, is also trained in Narisian dueling?”

“Well, no,” the prince said with a smile, “but also sort of yes. Up here on the surface, a saber is more of a cavalry weapon—and Calderaan cavalry is rightly famous, if I do say so myself. We also have a dueling style which uses it. Probably not the way Szith was taught, but I can manage not to cut my own leg off, if this comes to a fight. Hopefully,” he added, turning to the drow again with a more sober expression, “it won’t come to that. If I understand how the Visage works, it can’t.”

“One always hopes battle will not come,” she said, shifting her gaze to the front of the tavern. “One always assumes that it will, and prepares accordingly.”

The doors were shut and had been barricaded with furniture, but Melaxyna and Fedora both perched on the second-floor windows which were set in the eyes of the great face that gazed outward at the Crawl’s entrance. Neither of them was putting on any pretense; though his rumpled suit, coat, and hat contrasted with the ragged piece of hide she wore as a dress, both were in fully demonic form, complete with alabaster-pale skin and crystalline eyes—and, more relevantly, wings and tails. These provided an aid to balance, as there was no actual place to sit in front of those windows, leaving them precariously clinging to narrow sills.

A sharp whistle turned every head in the room; Xsythri, Melaxyna’s hethelax henchoman, had clambered up onto the rail near the group on the stairs and was waving frantically for her boss’s attention.

The succubus heaved a dramatic sigh, then shoved herself off the wall and glided the short distance down. Fedora did not follow, but kept his head turned and attention fixed on their conversation, disregarding whatever he was watching outside.

“We’ve got a problem, boss lady,” Xsythri began.

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Melaxyna said sourly. “We’re out of mushroom beer again.”

“Of course not, you know we can’t give that to student—no, dammit, worse than that! I just had to break up a little scuffle in the market room.”

Melaxyna’s lashing tail suddenly went still. “…how bad a scuffle?”

“Not bad,” Xsythri said, eyes wide and worried. “Very minor, just some jostling from being too close together. Somebody threw a punch and that went nowhere, cos of the sanctuary effect.”

The succubus heaved a deep breath, turning her head to stare sightlessly at the front of the tavern again. She couldn’t see out the windows from this angle, but by that time they all knew the Hand was out there with some of his new lackeys, doing something.

“Why’s that a problem?” Iris asked warily, opening her eyes and pausing in her soft chant. “Sounds like an inevitable little nothing, in a situation like this.”

Melaxyna shifted again to give the witch a long look, then abruptly whirled, wings flaring out for balance, and punched Xsythri in the face.

Her fist stopped an inch from the hethelax’s nose, a soft ripple in the air marking the sanctuary effect’s protection.

“Oh, nice,” Xsythri snapped. “That’s great, boss, thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah, so…we’re protected, right?” Iris prompted. “Ow! Hey!”

Melaxyna had struck again, this time lightly flicking Iris’s ear with a fingertip.

“The sanctuary effect,” the succubus stated grimly, “is absolute. All violence—all violence—is impossible within the Grim Visage.”

Under the demon’s stare, Iris stopped rubbing at her ear, her eyes going wide. Sekandar let out a long breath, and a soft growl rumbled deep in Scorn’s throat.

“But now,” Melaxyna said, again turning to face the entrance, “the effect is…relative. Whatever the hell that guy is doing out there, it’s starting to work.”

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13 – 33

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“Excuse me, but I consider this issue too central to table, even to discuss related matters,” Magister Eranis said, leaning forward over the round table. “The nature of Tar’naris’s ties with the humans is fundamental to this entire proposal. And, indeed, of theirs with you. What expectations will they have of each of our peoples, following this? The Empire is too large a beast to be tiptoed around.”

“I concur,” Elder Caminae added, the beads dangling from her ears rattling softly as she nodded. “It is the humans who have pushed us all to so dramatically break with precedent and tradition; there is no sense in denying it. We must address this. It is at the core of the entire discussion.”

“Forgive me, I was not proposing to avoid the issue,” Ashaele said politely, still calm and unruffled despite the frustratingly circular nature of most of their discussion thus far. In fact, most of the delegates had remained admirably poised, and willing to forgive the little slights and missteps that inevitably resulted from having multiple cultures represented. Only Eranis had shown overt signs of tension, but whenever the Magister had begun to show open irritation, one of his Highguard had leaned forward to whisper in his ear, so lightly that even the other elves present could not hear what was said. Whatever the reminder, it had always prompted Eranis to regain his composure. That alone made it worth tolerating the two armored soldiers, when none of the other delegates had brought an escort.

This was the first time in three millennia a high elf of his rank had left the reclusive strongholds of his people, and the first time one had ever visited a drow city. That fact alone would have been historic, but this gathering consisted of Ashaele and Queen Arkasia herself, a Magister of the high elves of the Dwarnskolds (the Spine, as they called it), and seven Elders from various plains and forest tribes. Every moment that passed in civil conversation was a virtual miracle. Ashaele liked to think each of them took the same encouragement from this fact that she did. Something more than simple necessity was keeping the stiff-backed pride of ancient elves in check here.

“I did not infer a suggestion that you were, Matriarch,” Elder Tamaar replied before anyone else could jump in. Somewhat to Ashaele’s surprise after the way this forest Elder in particular had resisted her diplomatic approaches for years, Tamaar had proved one of the greater moderating influences at the table. “Let us be mindful of the difficult nature of this discussion and not perceive insult or manipulation where none is meant.”

“Indeed,” Elder Ehshu added, turning to Caminae and nodding. Despite both being plains elves, they had not agreed on much so far. “And I see wisdom in Ashaele’s suggestion, anyway. We have not forgotten Tiraas and will not ignore it, but there are countless matters we must discuss. Might it not serve the discussion itself to turn it to a less contentious topic, for now? The thornier issue may yield to compromise if approached later from a place of agreement, rather than from the frustration of the last hour.”

“I suppose,” Eranis conceded with a displeased clench of his thin lips. “So long as it is understood that we cannot ignore this.”

“Just as you say, Magister,” Ashaele said courteously. “We cannot ignore the matter of Tiraas, and I think none of us gathered here are foolish enough to try. I only raised the more pedestrian subject of passage rights because… Well, Elder Ehshu phased it more gracefully than I.”

She nodded to Ehshu, who smiled and inclined his head in return.

They had assembled upon the uppermost terrace of House Awarrion’s well-defended estate. Between the position and the presence of arcane wards (of Tiraan make) which prevented those outside from eavesdropping but allowed them to hear the sounds of the city, the delegates were uniquely well-positioned to discern the shouts which began to sound from the surface gate region.

All of them turned to look, several half-rising to get a better view, and as such they all saw the streak of fire which soared out of the great cavern’s entrance tunnel and arced up over Tar’naris itself. The city was not dark even to human eyes, but it was certainly dim enough that the archdemon’s burning wings were an illumination no one could have missed.

“There is no cause for alarm,” Ashaele said quickly, and fruitlessly. As Vadrieny clearly headed straight for House Awarrion, several of the delegates and both of Eranis’s Highguard drew weapons, and the Magister himself began conjuring something which produced a faint arcane whine at the very edge of elven hearing. Of course, all the shouts were from the city below; the An’sadarr soldiers and other House guards patrolling Tar’naris’s defenses had been told about Vadrieny.

Ashaele did not permit herself a sigh, but wanted to as she watched Vadrieny approach—carrying a human boy in her talons, for some reason. And to think Shaeine had been the impulsive hothead in the family. Truly, she was gaining a new appreciation for Nahil’s deliberate, strategic obstreperousness.

Unfortunately Vadrieny did not see as well as an elf, and so approached the upper terrace directly, and came close enough that several of the delegates had defensively aimed arrows, tomahawks, and spells at her before she realized there was a meeting in progress. Immediately she twisted her wings, arcing away in a wide loop, and settled gently onto a lower terrace of the House.

Ashaele noted with approval that she had selected a less-than-convenient landing spot for the sake of keeping herself within view of the upper terrace, so those present could see her ensuing harmless conduct. They were unrefined, but Teal did have good political instincts. Talent which could be shaped.

“I apologize for the interruption,” she said smoothly. No one was looking at her; everybody was watching the archdemon’s form retreat to leave a young human woman with brown hair to drop her prisoner unceremoniously to the rooftop. Already a House priestess and five guards had converged upon them, but not aggressively. The sight of Awarrion personnel behaving so clearly deferentially toward the intruder made those with drawn bows lower and relax them. Ashaele continued, keeping her tone calm and nonchalant to further defuse the tension. “It seems my daughter has brought me something. She can wait; please, do not concern yourselves.”

“Ah, yes,” Eranis said, still staring down at Teal. “Your…daughter. Of course. Silly of me not to note the resemblance.”

That earned him a few chuckles, and the hum of nascent magic vanished from the air. All those who had reacted un-tensed visibly, lowering weapons, though they continued to watch with open curiosity as, under Teal’s direction, the House guards took up obviously aggressive positions guarding the human boy, one binding his hands behind his back. Ashaele was quite curious about that, herself.

“Perhaps this is fortuitous,” Queen Arkasia said suddenly, commanding everyone’s attention. She had mostly preferred to listen rather than talk, trusting Ashaele to present Tar’naris’s interests rhetorically, and alone of those present had not moved or otherwise reacted to Vadrieny’s arrival. “Were we not just agreeing that it is sometimes better to retreat from a contentious problem and approach it later with a fresh perspective? We all understand the issues, and what is at stake here. I believe that by this point each of us has a working grasp of the others’ perspectives.” The Queen rose smoothly from her seat, prompting those still seated to do likewise. “I propose we have a recess to allow Ashaele to address House business. Several of you expressed interest in viewing our agricultural caverns; I would be most pleased to show them to you. And when we reconvene, perhaps new solutions will be on the tip of someone’s tongue.”

“I had very carefully not expressed such an interest,” Magister Eranis replied with a wry smile, then bowed to the Queen. “I salute your perceptiveness, your Majesty. Indeed, I am quite curious to see what the Tiraan have done there.”

“And I have, indeed, wondered how you can grow plants so well underground,” Elder Shaire added with a pensive tilt of her head.

“Well, I thought the idea made sense on a smaller scale and I think it makes even more on a larger,” Elder Ehshu agreed. “By all means, let us take a break. I think it will do our discussion good in the long run.”

Ashaele bowed deeply to Arkasia, who gave her a small nod in response. As protocol required, the Matriarch waited politely behind, allowing all of the delegates to file down the stairs after the Queen. Only when she had the rooftop to herself did she finally turn and make for the other staircase.

It would not do for the Matriarch of the House to be seen hurrying, especially with such important negotiations in progress, but she did not dawdle. It was a scant two minutes later that she re-emerged upon the lower terrace to find Teal standing with her hands folded in a very serviceable posture of Narisian patience. She had even taken time to fix her hair, which had grown long enough that flight did it no favors.

“Mother,” she said in elvish, bowing.

“Wow, you actually call her that,” the blonde human added. Behind him, Commander Vengnat yanked subtly on the cord binding his wrists, causing him to stumble.

“Teal,” Ashaele said, raising an eyebrow.

“This,” Teal explained, nodding in her prisoner’s direction, “is Chase Masterson. Also known as the Sleeper.”

“Accused!” he clarified.

“Indeed,” Ashaele said grimly, studying the boy in more detail. He seemed a very unremarkable specimen for a human. Young, of Stalweiss stock, a bit on the scrawny side… And looking strangely at ease considering his predicament. In fact, he grinned and peered around at the scenery as though he were a tourist being guided through the House. Ashaele had an immediate suspicion, which Teal promptly verified.

“He is anth’auwa, and apparently granted knowledge of infernal magic by Elilial. I…confiscated him from Tellwyrn in Tiraas.”

“That sounds like a longer story,” Ashaele observed, still studying Masterson, who was failing to look appropriately intimidated or contrite. “Do you expect reprisal from the Professor for that?”

“Are you kidding?” Masterson scoffed. “She let you go and you know it. Tellwyrn’s got a thousand ways to—”

“Commander, I am not interested in the prisoner’s input at this time,” Ashaele stated calmly.

“Be silent until spoken to,” Vengnat ordered in Tanglish, giving the boy another yank.

“Based on what I heard of their conversation,” Teal continued, “it seems Tellwyrn laid some kind of magic effect on him to block his ability to cast spells.”

“Can I just remind everyone that all these are just accusations?” Masterson said with a broad grin. “Seriously, this has been a big misunderst—”

Vengnat punched him right in the mouth, sending him reeling to the floor.

“This,” Ashaele mused, staring down at the boy, “is going to be more complicated than I had hoped. Very well. Commander, remove him to the lowest dungeon. I want him held under the strictest warlock protocols.”

“At once, Matriarch,” Vengnat said crisply, then grabbed Masterson by his collar and dragged him bodily away. The other guards present immediately fell into step behind them.

“I didn’t realize he understood elvish,” Teal murmured as the procession vanished into the House. “What are warlock protocols, if I may ask?”

Now that they were alone, Ashaele finally permitted herself a soft sigh. “Drugs, Teal. Binding a person’s magic that way is the province of fae craft, or of all three of the other schools working in concert. I don’t know which Tellwyrn used, but I suppose it should not surprise me that she has unexpected talents. But no such bond will hold forever, not with a skilled caster working at it from within. We have only priestesses and the very occasional wizard; we cannot reproduce that craft. Keeping a warlock of great skill prisoner means we cannot trust passive wards or Themynra’s blessings upon his cell. We will have to keep him in a mental state from which he cannot work magic.”

“I see,” Teal said softly, frowning.

“I don’t think you do, entirely,” Ashaele replied, stepping over to place an arm around her shoulders. Teal leaned into her as she continued. “We will extract whatever information we need from him to lift the sleeping curse, have no fear of that. It should not take long. But justice, what I spoke of to you in Last Rock… That, now, is likely to be a longer process than we would like, daughter. Him being anth’auwa is deeply relevant; it may mean he is less culpable for his actions, or possibly more so. That condition manifests in innumerable patterns. He will have to be very thoroughly examined by priestesses trained in such psychology.”

“But how are we going to psychoanalyze someone who is drugged—oh. I see.”

“Yes.” Ashaele nodded, and rubbed her shoulder. “Yes…this makes justice very complicated. But it is still justice, and I will not see Shaeine deprived of it. I will see that whatever time is needed will be taken. Resign yourself, daughter, to a process. Narisian justice strives to be swift, but we may be denied a quick closure. There is no telling how long this may drag on.”

“I understand, Mother.” Teal sighed softly, and gently pulled away. “I’m very sorry for interrupting your meeting.”

“You acted rightly, Teal,” Ashaele said, giving her a smile. “That meeting is a secret of the highest order, however. You are not to breathe a hint even of its existence. To anyone. There are no surface elves visiting Tar’naris.”

“Understood.” She stepped back enough to bow respectfully. “I am sorry I can’t stay, but I left my friends in the middle of a very difficult situation in Puna Dara to bring Chase here. In fact, I have reason to believe a mutual enemy revealed him to me specifically to remove Vadrieny from that situation. I must return as quickly as possible.”

“Then make haste, daughter. And remember.” Ashaele reached out to squeeze her shoulders briefly with both hands, smiling. “I love you, and I am proud of you. You’ve done very well by your House.”

Teal smiled in reply, reaching up to grasp her hands for a moment, and then stepped back again.

She actually leaped straight upward, Vadrieny emerging in a rush of flames a few feet off the ground. One pump of the blazing wings sent her shooting toward the cavern’s ceiling, and then she arced away, back toward the city gates.


“House fucking who?”

“House Dalkhaan,” Sekandar repeated, still studying the man’s uniform while Miss Sunrunner set his arm. “And…that’s actually a pretty good description, Inspector. They used to be a big deal; there was a Dalkhaan Dynasty in Calderaas centuries ago. The House has declined, though, and these days there’s nothing left of it but the old Duchess.”

“Huh,” Fedora grunted. “Why would this Duchess Dalky-whatsit want to send troops to our campus?”

“It’s a Hand of the Emperor barking orders, my man,” Rafe pointed out. “He can command any House troops to do whatever damn thing crosses his mind.”

“Not…exactly,” Sekandar said with a wince. “There are limits on Imperial power, especially since the Enchanter Wars…”

“Yeah, well, more immediately,” said Fedora, “this Hand is not acting with the Imperial government behind him and he knows it. He’ll be reaching out specifically to people who might be sympathetic to what he’s trying to do—which is pursue an irrational vendetta with Professor Tellwyrn. So, with regard to that!” He turned back to Sekandar, raising his eyebrows. “Any insight, your Princeliness?”

“Two reasons,” Sekandar immediately replied. “Duchess Irmeen hates my mother, and she has nothing to lose. Houses Dalkhaan and Aldarasi have been rivals for generations, and enemies since the Enchanter Wars. But now, the Duchess’s children have all died, and she’s in her eighties. When she passes on, so does her entire legacy.” He shrugged, turning from Fedora to Rafe and Yornhaldt. “Arachne Tellwyrn has been a friend to House Aldarasi since long before the University. I don’t even know what the source of her attachment is, but she apparently really liked one of my ancestors. Irmeen is a spiteful old bag with barely two dozen House troops left, not a one of them under forty or in fighting shape. If somebody offered her a chance to stab blindly at a friend of my mother’s, I can’t imagine she would pass it up. What is Mother going to do about it? Or even Tellwyrn? The old lady’ll be dead soon anyway, and House Dalkhaan with her.”

“Well, then, that’s actually good news,” Fedora said brightly. “If that’s all the manpower this guy can bring to bear…”

“It’s what we’ve seen thus far,” Yornhaldt cautioned. “And we don’t even know when he gathered them up, or what he’s been doing with his time. Don’t assume he has no other allies.”

“Obviously,” Fedora replied with ostentatious patience. “But it’s significant that these are the caliber of people he’s calling on. What was it you said, Aldarasi? Not a one under forty or in fighting shape?”

“They’re a blend of Dalkhaan veterans who should have retired long since, and riffraff no other guard force would employ,” Sekandar said, nodding. “And it’s not as if the Duchess has the budget or the inclination to keep them trained up, or properly equipped…”

“There, y’see?” Fedora said cheerily to Yornhaldt. “These aren’t elite troops, or even passable troops; they’re warm bodies to throw at a problem. Aren’cha!” He leaned forward to grin obnoxiously at the portly man in House Dalkhaan livery, who was grimacing and experimentally prodding at the sling into which Miss Sunrunner had just finished settling his arm.

“You take a step back, mister,” Sunrunner said dangerously. “Don’t think for a moment that Arachne won’t hear about this. You let a student deliberately maim a man in University custody!”

“’Maim’ is a strong word,” Rafe protested. “Look how quick you fixed him!”

“Sides,” Fedora added merrily, “Tellwyrn’ll think it was funny.”

“Yes, I know.” She stood up and folded her arms, glaring at him. “But by the time I’ve finished chewing her ear off, there will be consequences, no matter how funny she thought it was. Ask Admestus if you doubt me.”

“It’s true,” Rafe said solemnly. “Even the great Tellwyrn is no match for Taowi’s powers of wet blanketry once she gets going.”

Fedora sighed. “All right, all right, we’ll burn that bridge if we all survive to reach it. The point is, everyone’s down here—well, everyone we could get down here—and the actual forces the enemy’s placed on campus are a big bucket o’ nothin’. That means he’ll be bringing some other leverage to bear. Everybody across the bridge; let’s all be safely in sanctuary before we find out what else the asshole has up his sleeve. Come on, chop chop.”

The group had been huddling in the alcove where the deep staircase from the Crawl’s entrance finally opened onto its vast, slanted main chamber. Scorn and Maureen had already crossed the bridge ahead into the Grim Visage, at Fedora’s direction; the Rhaazke’s long stride and the gnome’s willingness to be carried had enabled them to reach the tavern far in advance of the rest of the group, who were prodding their injured prisoner along. As ordered, they had sent Sekandar and Miss Sunrunner back to meet them. Now, with her first aid done and Sekandar having identified the man’s uniform, there was no more reason to delay.

The man actually whimpered as he was led out onto the bridge, closing his eyes and refusing to look at the impossible drop all around them, but at least he didn’t try to dig his heels in. The group split in two as they went, with Yornhaldt and Ezzaniel falling back to match the prisoner’s pace. Sunrunner, of course, stayed right by his side, urging him gently along. Fedora sauntered on ahead, Sekandar in tow.

As such, they were the first to enter the Grim Visage itself, finding the place densely packed with the over a hundred students, teachers, and other personnel currently on campus. Some had obviously departed up the stairs to the rooms, or into the broad market space beyond the common area, but there was still barely room to squeeze into the tavern’s main floor.

Which didn’t stop its proprietress.

“What the fuck!?” Melaxyna screeched, launching herself from the balcony to glide down to the entrance, where she landed atop a table near the door.

“Well, hi there, Mel!” Fedora said cheerfully, doffing his hat. “It’s a bit of a long story. See, the campus—”

“I know all about that, you ass, you think I haven’t been talking to the dozens of kids who’ve suddenly descended on my bar?” She planted her fists on her hips and glared down at him, wings unfurled menacingly and tail lashing. “What in shit’s name are you doing here?”

“He’s the head of campus security,” Hildred offered from her perch on the arm of a chair by the fireplace.

Melaxyna went entirely still, even her tail. Her eyes narrowed to slits.

“The answer to your next question, doll,” Fedora said smoothly, “is that I sucked up to Tellwyrn outrageously, and I bet you did something to gratuitously piss her off. As, I presume, did Rowe. Sound about right?”

The succubus snorted, but folded her arms and adopted a surly expression. “Well, fine. I can needle you about that later. Exactly how goddamn long do you expect to keep my tavern crammed to the gills with these kids? They’ll eat every scrap in the place in ten minutes flat, if I know college students. Which I damn well do, being a permanent stop on their bi-annual fucking tour!”

“Hopefully not long,” Fedora assured her with a wink. “We just need to hold out till Tellwyrn gets back to deal with the clown making a ruckus up top. She knows better than to dawdle, and it’ll likely be short work once she gets home. Meanwhile, we just need to keep the students in the Visage for the sake of the sanctuary effect, where they’ll be safe.”

“Uh huh,” she said skeptically. “Because it’s not like nobody’s ever found a way to fuck with the Crawl’s permanent effects before. Like I did in Level 2, for example, or Rowe did with the entire fucking place.”

“Yeah, but you were down here for years, both of you,” Fedora said dismissively. “That guy’s got hours, at most. What could he possibly do?”

Half a dozen people scattered about the room simultaneously let out loud groans.

“And those,” Sekandar helpfully informed the Inspector, “are the bardic studies majors.”


“Well, this is very mildly diverting,” Magelord Tyrann said from the other side of the barrier, inspecting his fingernails, “but do you think you will be done soon? We are in the middle of very important research.”

As if on cue, a man with wild hair, a long face, and a dark Punaji complexion leaned around the corner of the doorway behind him.

“Hey, Tyrann! We’re all playing charades now. Since you missed your turn in the last round of go fish we’re lettin’ you go first. C’mon, you’re gonna miss it!” Chortling, he vanished back into the administration building of the University’s new research campus.

Tyrann smiled thinly at the audience before him, his image only slightly distorted by being out of phase with physical reality, along with the structure behind him in which the University’s entire research staff were presently assembled. “I suspect there is no game of charades,” he confided in a dry tone. “Prince Raffi simply has the most incredible sense of comedic timing of any man I have ever known.”

“OI! What’d I tell you about callin’ me prince!”

Accompanying the yell from within, a beer bottle came sailing out through the door. It slowed in midair, drifting to hover next to Tyrann’s shoulder. The Magelord calmly plucked it from the air and took a dainty sip, still watching his would-be assailants with a superciliously arched eyebrow.

“Do you have it?” the Hand of the Emperor growled in a strained tone, his eyes fixed on Tyrann.

“I…yes, sir,” Lorelin Reich said warily, glancing between him and the other man who had recently joined them. “That is, I can sense the disruption well enough, and it is similar enough to Vidian arts…”

“I, too, can detect the general shape of what you are doing, sir,” Willard Tanenbaum said with equal unease. “Working a thumbnail into the cracks in the fairy geas upon this mountain, as it were. Most impressive. But sir, that is a Magelord of Syralon. With all due respect, I don’t believe we are going to break this phasing with him actively maintaining it…”

“You’re too kind,” Tyrann said wryly, lifting the beer bottle at him in a toast.

“I am only minimally interested in these cretins,” the Hand said shortly, his demeanor changing as he relaxed whatever magical effect he had been concentrating upon. “What matters is that you two paid attention to what I was doing, so as to be able to imitate it via your respective schools of magic.”

“It is a fairy geas, sir,” Tanenbaum said diffidently. “My arts are uniquely un-suited…”

“I’m aware,” the Hand said curtly, turning around. “But there are…”

He trailed off upon catching sight of the two House guards standing watch a few feet distant. One was leaning upon his battlestaff in a nigh-suicidal mockery of firearm safety, while the other industriously picked his nose.

“FALL IN!” the Hand roared, setting off uphill toward the main campus. Both men jumped and scurried to trail along behind the little procession, Reich and Tanenbaum flanking the Hand on the way up. The man leading them had acquired a limp in the last few minutes, somehow, which they did not ask about. Both had learned very early on that asking questions was both pointless and unwise. “I don’t care about those fools back there. My concern is the students. Right now there are defenses similar to those upon that building covering the campus chapel, and a spot deep within the Crawl; both contain students. Neither has a magic user actively defending it, and won’t so long as Tellwyrn is absent from the campus, so our window of opportunity is limited. Reich, I want you to bring that chapel back into phase and disable its sanctuary charms. Can you?”

“Without having inspected it… I mean, I believe so, sir. So long as I don’t have to argue the right of way with a Magelord or something similar.”

The Hand nodded once, curtly. “Do it, and retrieve those paralyzed students; I want them in my custody before we leave. Tanenbaum, you’re with me. We are going to go fishing deep below. There is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat.”

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