Tag Archives: Maureen

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 – 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 – 31

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Instinct could be trained, and in gnomish children, it was; a parent’s first task was to replace fight-or-flight panic with automatic decision making. Maureen did not even have to think about the situation or overcome her shock and horror. With a weapon suddenly pointed directly at her, she burst into motion, and the act of doing so snapped her back to cogent awareness.

She bolted to the side, whipping around the corner of the shelves and deliberately setting off in an unpredictable zig-zag course. Thanks to Arachne Tellwyrn’s peculiar sensibilities, the library was laid out in a deliberately confusing fashion; when complained to about this she either made vague statements about knowledge being the reward of effort, or just cackled. Now, the architectural obstinacy might have saved Maureen’s life.

The Hand came after her, of course, and she listened to his every step. He was fast for a human, but necessarily less agile than she, and not as familiar with the twists and erratic turns of the stacks. Maureen’s mind caught up, and she deliberately brought strategy to the forefront—both to survive and to push aside unproductive fear and grief over Crystal. Evading humans was often a matter of getting into places they physically couldn’t, and as per her Aphorisms she had scouted everything on the campus for usable scenery to exploit. The Hand clearly had better-than-normal senses, based on how adeptly he kept after her, but she stayed ahead. It became easier after she darted across the central aisle of the main room into what students called the Old Stacks, even though every wing of the library had been built simultaneously. Here, the bookcases were of a baroque style, built on tall, clawed feet that made a space beneath them which was very handy for hiding things in, or rolling under if you were a gnome.

Maureen went three rows back until she made the transition from marble to carpeted floor, planning as she went. Reaching into her Pack, she produced a length of iron pipe she’d found among the blacksmith’s scraps and not yet devised a use for. Hearing the Hand closing on her location, she took aim between the stacks and, in one of the basic moves she’d trained in from early childhood till she could perform it perfectly under pressure, hurled the object in an overhand spin.

It hit the carpeted ground and bounced forward end over end, almost as if rolling. The rhythm of its ends striking the carpet as they moved away closely mimicked the impact of gnome feet in a run. It was a standard trick and wouldn’t fool any gnome, but tall folk fell for it almost every time unless they were in the habit of chasing gnomes. And tall folk who made a habit of chasing gnomes did not tend to linger upon the mortal coil any longer than necessary.

She crouched and held her breath. The Hand paused, and then took the bait, heading off to Maureen’s right. Still not breathing and moving with great care for stealth, she slipped around the nearest corner in the opposite direction just in time to avoid his sight.

Silence slowed her, but not by much. In her first Youngling Games she had taken the ribbon for balancing stealth and speed, and though she was a wee bit out of practice, it remained one of her specialties. In a way, Maureen was the perfect gnome for this situation, having tailored her personal adventuring strategies for avoiding and escaping trouble rather than pummeling it. The powers of Hands of the Emperor were kept deliberately vague, but they were known among the Folk as beings who should not be taken on directly.

With her ears flat back, listening for pursuit, she detected the Hand’s awkward movements as he began prowling more carefully among the Old Stacks, while she slipped across the library’s main atrium toward its invitingly open front door, her softboots silent on the polished marble floor. Designed after wood elf moccasins, they featured untextured leather soles which could be slapped roughly down to create a sharp tapping noise on most surfaces; this made it all the more surprising that they could also, with a more careful step, be used to walk in near-total silence. Maureen’s great-uncle Tomkins had famously snuck up on a plains elf once.

Not until she had passed through the door and whipped around it to press herself against the front of the building did she indulge in a breath again.

It wouldn’t take him long to discern that she’d left the library. She should be putting space between herself and here…

This. This was exactly why her folks had sent her off to this cockamamie school, and why she’d wanted to flee weeks ago. It was a great education, great teachers, mostly fine classmates and already she’d made valuable friends, but… Light’s own goggles, she didn’t want adventure. A quiet workshop with a steady paycheck, that was the life, and gnomish sensibilities be damned. Now…

…now, her hand was in her Pack, and she only belatedly realized her fingers had closed around the handle of an arcane welding torch. The Hand’s modified weapon was apparently meant for short range, judging by the fact that he hadn’t fired it after her, or used it to destroy the stacks providing her cover.

Maureen wanted nothing to do with any adventures, but now her face settled in a grim scowl, and she drew the torch from her Pack. Life wasn’t about what you wanted, it was about what you did with what you had.

She had a murdering bastard and a welding torch.

Carefully, she peeked her head around the door frame, one ear extended to listen. The sodding great lummox had actually gone deeper into the library, to judge by the faintness of his sounds…

“Whoah, whoah!”

Maureen jumped and jerked back around, igniting the torch and stepping back. The towering figure just looked at it quizzically, showing no fear of a heat source meant to melt steel, then turned her frown back on Maureen.

“Scorn!” she hissed, shutting the torch off. “What’n—how’d ye sneak up on me? Yer the size of a barn! I didn’t know ye could turn invisible!”

“No, can’t,” the demon said, studying her quizzically. “I can do a thing that makes people to not notice me. It’s not easy though, lots of energy and total concentration needed. Also even harder here, where I am the world’s only Rhaazke. People notice me very easy. But we are told to evacuate to the Crawl and I am seeing strange men on the campus who don’t belong. I figure, best be safe. Looks like you met some, too.” She glanced again at the torch. “Best not, Maureen. Crystal will not be happy about fighting in the books.”

Maureen felt her face crumple, and she lowered her hand. “Scorn, Crystal…” Unbidden, the fresh images flashed across her vision again. Crystal rising off the ground, twisting in obvious pain, her metal plates stretching to reveal… Her eyes widened. “Crystal. That’s it. Crystal!”

“Hey!” Scorn exclaimed as the gnome scuttled back into the library. Maureen ignored her, dashing straight across the atrium into the stacks.

Almost immediately, he re-appeared in front of her, holding out his modified wand.

“You are not an Imperial subject,” the Hand grated, baring teeth. “If you surrender peacefully and provide intelligence, I can see—”

“Up yers,” Maureen snapped, dashing around a corner at full tilt. She came immediately to a silent halt—a difficult move, as inertia wanted to push her forward into a telltale skid or crash that would reveal her intentions to a pursuer. This, too, she had practiced.

Sure enough, the Hand came barreling around the corner right behind her, and Maureen hurled her entire weight into a pinpoint punch that hit the side of his knee. She felt and heard something important give in the joint, and he went crashing against the nearest wall of books with a howl. Before he could finish falling, she was running again.

Choosing a straight path this time, she made it back to her corner in seconds, eyes already scanning the ground.

Yes. There it way, lying amid a ring of scorch marks on the carpet, exactly where she remembered seeing it fall. While the rest of the golem’s body had been violently ripped apart, one piece had descended straight to the ground, glowing as if shielded. Cursing herself for not paying enough attention or connecting the dots at the time, Maureen dashed past, snatching up the rectangular chunk of what looked like quartz mounted in a bronze housing, and ran back for the exit.

Once again, the Hand blocked her path. He was on his feet, which was impressive considering that blow would have crippled an ordinary human (healing powers?). Also, his snarl was wider, and this time he seemed disinclined to talk, leveling his wand.

Maureen didn’t slow, and he didn’t look behind him. Consequently it came as an apparent surprise to him when his neck was seized by a single hand large enough to wrap the fingers around it fully.

Scorn casually picked the Hand up and hurled him away; he crashed to the ground a good ten yards distant, knocking over a bookcase in the process. Maureen never slowed, aiming to dart between the Rhaazke’s legs on her way back to the door.

She didn’t protest, however, when Scorn scooped her up in one hand and set off for the front of the building herself.

“Sorry if this is insulting for gnomes,” the demon grunted as they shot back out into the open. “Your whole stride is as long as the circumference of my grip and we need to get—oh, isn’t this good.”

They were indeed making much better time, each of Scorn’s bounds covering several yards, but now she skidded to a halt, claws tearing gouges in the grass.

“These’d be some o’ the ones you mentioned, then,” Maureen said quietly, clutching the piece of crystal to her chest.

“All right…ladies,” one of them men before them said, slowly eyeing Scorn up and down. “If that’s the right term. We’re gonna have to take you into custody, in the Emperor’s name.”

They wore uniforms, but not those of the Imperial Army, and really did not much resemble soldiers. All three were middle-aged at least; the one in the center had solid gray hair and a potbelly straining at his slightly threadbare coat. The man who had addressed them wore an eyepatch and had a thick carpet of stubble from not having shaved in at least three days. Altogether he looked so much like a villainous Eserite from a chapbook it was almost as if he was trying to. They all held staves, though, and two of them were pointed right at Scorn and Maureen.

“This campus is private property,” Scorn informed them. “We are students, and you are not supposed to be here.”

“Yeah, well, we’re actin’ on orders from his Majesty the Emperor,” the paunchy man in the middle stated, grinning. “This ain’t likely to be private property much longer, not that that’s for the likes of you or I to fret over. Now, we don’t have time to pussyfoot around, so this is your last warning. Come along quiet-like, or get shot down.”

“Ah, yes?” Moving slowly and very carefully, as if not to spook them, Scorn bent and lowered Maureen gently to the ground. The one with the eyepatch smirked and the man in the center grinned more broadly still.

Then Scorn, with a speed that would have been astonishing for her bulk even had she not just set them up with her slow movements, seized the two on either side of the little formation by their collars and slammed them all bodily together. The older one was knocked to the ground, losing his grip on his staff, but she hiked the other two up and, turning left and then right, hurled them with all her strength.

One slammed against the wall of the gymnasium two stories up and then flopped to the ground like a broken doll; the other clipped a tree in passing, which sent him into a spin. He vanished into a hedge a good thirty yards away. Neither had a chance to scream.

Scorn leaned forward over the remaining man, grinning more to display her fangs than because she was amused. Gaping up at her, he tried to crab-walk backward as her shadow descended over him.

“You,” she said, “and what army?”


“There’s the last two,” Yornhaldt said in obvious relief. “And…company, I see.”

“Now, Scorn,” Fedora said solicitously as the Rhaazke came to a stop before them, “a pet is a big responsibility! I know he’s cute and all, but are you sure you’re ready for—”

“You are worse than Teal’s friends!” Scorn barked. “You’re not the funny character in a story, and this is no time for your silly. We are invaded, and this fool will tell us intelligence!”

Her prisoner, who had been frog-marched here with both arms twisted behind his back and the wrists trapped in just one of her large hands, sneered and spat on the ground. Scorn ignored this, simply flexing her knees and helping Maureen clamber down from her shoulder with her free hand.

The gates of the Crawl stood open, and Professors Rafe and Yornhaldt stood to one side of them, along with Fedora. Moriarty had taken up position at the other side, staff in hand, and now focused his attention on Scorn’s prisoner, though he did not raise his weapon. That would have put both students in his line of fire.

“Fair enough,” Fedora said easily. “Fine work, Scorn. You got through all right, then? Any trouble?”

“I think the other two he was with might be dead,” she grunted. “This one seemed sort of in charge, though. He will have answers if any of them do. And Maureen saw the Hand of the Emperor.”

“Not telling you shit,” the captured man grated with impressive defiance, considering Scorn’s grip on his twisted arms now had him bent almost double. Judging by the way his knees were buckling, he wasn’t flexible enough for that position.

“Yeah, you will,” Fedora said cheerfully, “and you know it. Just a question of how long it takes, is all.”

Yornhaldt sighed. “We should continue this discussion below, then. We’ve done all we can up here, and apparently hostiles are overtaking the campus.”

Fedora scowled at him. “Professor, we can’t just leave the kids in—”

“We have no time, Murgatroyd,” Rafe said with uncharacteristic seriousness. “We cannot transport unconscious students across the campus while it’s under attack. The protections on that chapel are damn near absolute; they’ll be okay.”

“Nothing is ever gonna make me trust a passive set of magical defenses over having my eyes and hands on the scene,” Fedora growled.

“Yes, any defensive measures can be cracked,” Yornhaldt agreed. “But I activated the chapel’s wards myself and verified that they are all functioning. The time it would take someone to get through them is much longer than it will take Arachne to return, at which point it becomes moot. I don’t take risks with the kids’ welfare, Murgatroyd. I would not leave them there if they were not as safe as we could make them, but Admestus’s assessment of the situation is correct. You two are the last,” he added to Scorn and Maureen. “Bradshaw and Magelord Tyrann have secured the research fellows in their new meeting hall; it is apparently out of phase with this reality and unapproachable until the Magelord decides the coast is clear.”

“It’s in phase enough for him to issue taunts,” Moriarty grumbled. “Rook thought he was hilarious, which is proof positive of unprofessional conduct…”

“I don’t care whose feelings get hurt as long as he can keep the research staff safe,” Fedora said, grinning. “Truth be told, I like that guy. Did you two see Stew or Crystal? We directed them to the fellows’ hall, but…”

“Sir,” Maureen said miserably, stepping forward. She held up the slightly scorched piece of quartz. “Th-the Hand, he… He got Crystal. I salvaged what I could. This piece was…it was protected, somehow, seemed important. I’m just hoping…”

Rafe, Yornhaldt, Fedora, and Moriarty fell silent, and their faces changed in perfect unison. First sobering, then turning icy glares upon the prisoner.

“Serves you freaks right,” the man grated.

“I don’t recognize that uniform,” Fedora commented flatly. “Looks like House livery, though. Whom do you serve, soldier?”

“You deaf?” he spat. “You’re not getting shit out of me!”

“I respect that,” Fedora replied, nodding. “Scorn, please break his arms.”

“WaitwaitwaitwaitWAIT!” the soldier squalled, growing progressively more shrill as Scorn tightened her grip. “Stop, I’ll talk!”

“Oh, splendid,” Fedora said pleasantly. “Last Rock University thanks you for your cooperation. We’ll get to that in just a moment, though, there’s something we need to do, first. Scorn, I believe I just gave you a task.”

She grinned and tightened her grip again.

“Desist,” Yornhaldt said flatly over the man’s renewed yowling. “Enough, Scorn. And you ought to know better,” he added to Fedora, who shrugged.

“Tellwyrn would think it was funny.”

“She isn’t here. Carry on your interrogation without undue violence, please. Maureen,” he added in a gentler tone, giving her a smile. “May I see that?”

Swallowing heavily, Maureen stepped up to him, raising the piece of crystal in both hands. Yornhaldt took it from her with extreme care, slowly turning it over in his grip, studying it from all sides with a pensive frown. Behind him, Fedora had leaned in to speak to their prisoner in a low tone, while Scorn kept him firmly pinned and Rafe looked on. Moriarty, apparently considering all this under control, constantly scanned their surroundings, holding his staff ready to be upraised.

“You did very well,” Yornhaldt said at last, smiling at her. “You said this piece looked protected?”

“Aye, she…” Maureen paused and had to swallow again. “He used some kind o’ energy-overloadin’ device on ‘er. Just…it just pumped power straight into ‘er, till she swelled up an’ couldn’t take it.”

“Part of the magekiller’s toolkit,” Yornhaldt said soberly. “A standard wand’s shots are no match for a standard wizard’s shield, but that modification works exactly as you describe. Most spells will go off explosively if fed too much power. It has its drawbacks, like the short range and very limited charge, but I can see how someone like Crystal would be exceptionally vulnerable to it. Please, go on.”

“Aye, well… She exploded, Professor. Bits went just…all over. ‘cept that piece, it kinda floated down. I… I was near panickin’ at the time, this happened right in front o’ me an…”

She trailed off, and Yornhaldt transferred the last piece of Crystal to one of his thick hands, so he could lay the other gently upon her shoulder. Maureen drew in a steadying breath and raised her head again.

“But when I paused fer thought, I remembered seein’ it. That bit, there, was mostly protected from the blast. Obviously she was made with interior defenses to preserve that in case o’ some disaster, so I thought… Well, I mean, I hoped.”

Yornhaldt nodded. “The enchantments upon this are beyond me, Maureen, but I can tell it is a data storage device of astounding complexity and depth. If there were any piece that could contain Crystal’s memory and personality, I should think this is it.”

“Then… Then she’ll be okay?” Maureen asked tremulously, hope rising in her. “We can fix ‘er? Well, I mean, Tellwyrn can?”

“I was not part of Crystal’s construction,” he cautioned, “and I do not understand these enchantments. I won’t promise you any outcome, Maureen. But it’s just as I said: if there is any part from which Arachne can restore Crystal, this is it. You did the best thing possible by retrieving it. Here: please keep this safe until this crisis is resolved.”

“Oh, but,” she protested as he held the object out to her. “Shouldn’t you hang onto it? Wouldn’t that be better?”

“Until we have secured the campus and Professor Tellwyrn is back,” he said, “my job will be to defend the students from whoever attacks them, and yours will be to stay safe. She is better off with you, Maureen. You have amply proved that already.”

Reverently, she accepted the crystal back from him and hugged it to her chest, nodding. Her throat was suddenly too tight to speak.

Then, the quiet was rent by a sharp crack, followed by a scream of pain, and then sobs.

Yornhaldt whirled to glare at the prisoner, who now hung limply from his captor’s clawed hands.

“Scorn!”

Holding the man’s un-broken arm in one hand, she pointed with the other at Fedora. “He told me to.”

“Murgatroyd!”

Fedora pointed at Rafe. “Admestus said I could!”

“’strue, I did,” Rafe agreed. “C’mon, if we decide he doesn’t deserve to suffer, we can always fix him. Ooh, or I can do experiments on him! Arachne never lets me test potions on the students!”

The paunchy man wailed louder.

“Anyway,” Fedora said, raising his voice, “we did learn some—”

“Sir!” Moriarty barked. “Movement ahead! Multiple incoming, wearing the same uniform as this guy.”

“All right, enough,” Yornhaldt snapped. “Everybody into the Crawl. It seems our battle has just begun.”

 

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13 – 30

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“Somehow, we always end up skulking in alleys,” Layla muttered.

“We’re thieves,” Tallie retorted. “Some cliches exist for a reason. Shall I take the chitter-chatter to indicate you’ve got that thing open?”

“Almost,” Layla said, her attention still focused on the lock.

“On the subject of cliches,” Jasmine said from a few feet away, “it is too quiet. Whoever else is in there, we know they’re accompanied by Silver Legionnaires, who would know to post lookouts. Especially if they were up to anything illicit. Especially since they had to know we’d be in pursuit!”

“They didn’t necessarily know that,” Darius replied from the other end of the alleyway; he and Jasmine were positioned to either side of the house’s kitchen door, keeping watch in both directions. “No reason to assume they understand how Meesie works. If she was smart enough and fast enough, they may not’ve noticed her.”

“That isn’t very comforting,” Jasmine said, even as she soothingly stroked Meesie. The little elemental, having led them to this house, had not un-tensed for a moment, and was glaring at the door, chattering softly. “It’s all conjecture, and anyway, they still should have posted lookouts. Something’s not right. I mean…aside from the obvious.”

Both turned at the soft, distinctive click.

“This,” Layla said in clear satisfaction as she extracted her picks from the door, “is a better lock than belongs on a townhouse in a neighborhood like this.”

“No surprise there,” Tallie muttered. “So, do we…go in?”

Meesie squeaked a shrill affirmative, squirming out of Jasmine’s hand to bounce to her shoulder and point insistently at the door.

“Wait,” Jasmine insisted. “Guys, I’m not just being paranoid. This isn’t right. There’s no explanation for there not being guards; if there are no guards, their role is being fulfilled by something else. We are chasing magic-users. If there are wards, we’ve likely already tripped them, but that’s the least of our concerns. There may be traps. Do I even have to tell you how ugly magical booby traps can get?”

Layla sidled uneasily away from the door she had just jimmied open, while Darius backed up from his end of the alley to join them.

Meesie had led them only a few blocks, to a residential neighborhood somewhat less rich than Glory’s, to judge by the size of the townhouses and their lack of garden space, but just as quiet and discreet. They had cased this one carefully, finding it locked, quiet, and apparently unoccupied; they’d done a somewhat hasty job of it due to trying to avoid notice. There were people out in the main street, and nothing would draw the attention of locals in an area like this faster than a gang of shifty youths peeking into windows and trying door handles. Now, they were gathered in a dim space behind the house with their backs to another just like it—hopefully one from which no one was looking out a window.

Now, even as Layla retreated from the door, Jasmine and Darius closed in on the group, and they all stared at it for a silent moment.

“Well, it’s not like we’ve got any other options,” Tallie said finally. “They’ve got Schwartz and probably Ross; we can’t leave this. Jas, you seem to know more about this than the rest of us. We gotta go in there, so what’s the best thing we can do to prepare?”

Jasmine frowned, drew in a deep breath, and opened her mouth to answer.

“For starters, pay attention.”

All of them whirled, Jasmine bracing herself for a fight. An instant later, she had to shift to snatch Meesie, who charged down her arm and hurled herself bodily at the speaker, squealing furiously.

“What the hell are you doing here,” Tallie demanded, “and holy shit, why does the mouse hate you so much?”

Basra Syrinx glanced disinterestedly at Meesie, who was struggling in Jasmine’s grip, then swept her eyes across the group, finally shifting to peer at the back door of the house.

“It was an unpardonably foolish mistake to stop carrying those scrying bafflers once you got the dwarves off your case,” she said curtly. The Bishop clearly had not slept; her eyes were sunken and her short hair was lank and greasy. Despite that, she did not seem any more irritable than usual, even when shooting a pointed stare at Jasmine as she continued. “The Sisterhood of Avei had taken pains to be able to locate you, missy. Getting access to the tracking charms was just a matter of throwing my political weight around. It’s a good thing I went to the Temple first instead of back to Sharvineh’s place. Where is the rest of your group?”

“Glory, Rasha, Smythe, and Ami are…elsewhere,” Jasmine reported, frowning at Basra and shifting her other hand to help restrain Meesie. “Glory was following up on your progress and they all went with her. The Legionnaires sent to guard the house after the squad from last night apparently abducted Schwartz. Ross is also missing; we’re assuming they either got him too, or he followed them and…well, in that case, they probably got him anyway.”

“Oy.” Darius poked her in the back. “Why the hell is the Sisterhood tracking you? What’d you do, steal a temple idol? Sucker-punch the Hand of Avei?”

She shrugged him off, still watching Syrinx and soothingly stroking Meesie, who had settled down to vibrate furiously, no longer struggling. “I take it your efforts to corral the conspirators didn’t go off without a hitch.”

“No, due to my own High Commander,” Basra snapped, scowling in disgust. “Thanks to her squeamishness about letting outsiders take custody of Sisters, a bunch of them slipped the net. This is also the cause of your problems, as the holes she created in our dragnet not only let Avenist conspirators get through but tipped them off that we were coming, which is how you ended up with corrupt Legionnaires set to guard you. Now you know who to thank. Regardless, did you little snots even notice the emblem of the Topaz College on the front of this house?”

Jasmine sucked in a breath and Layla cringed. Tallie just frowned. “Uh, the what?”

“It’s discreet, but Eserites of all people should know to look for it,” Basra stated. “It’s there to warn the kind of people who mess with other people’s houses not to. This is the home of a Salyrite warlock. That’s the kind of magic you’re facing.”

“The nasty kind,” Darius muttered. “Typical.”

“But it also presents solutions.” The Bishop turned her back on them and strode away. Without thinking, they all fell into step behind her, listening as she rounded the corner and headed back up the side of the house toward the street. “The composition of forces we have is uniquely suited to handle a warlock—if Schwartz isn’t dead and we can get him back into play. He’s a pinhead even by the standards of young men in general, but he is a very competent witch, and his magic will swiftly demolish a warlock’s. And then, there is me.”

Jenell Covrin stood guard at the front of the house, watching people passing by on the street, several of whom slowed to study their group as they went. The Legionnaire looked over at them, but turned back to her vigil immediately with no further reaction.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” Basra stated, bounding up the front steps in a single hop. “I will go in the front and draw attention; you little sneaks go back around to the rear entrance, give me a few minutes to make myself the focus of whatever happens, and then proceed with whatever it was you were trying. That has something of a chance to work if you’re not the sole recipient of whatever reaction ensues. Have Jasmine walk in front and your chances improve further. You need to find Schwartz, quickly, and take care of whatever hold they’ve got on him. With that done we should be in the clear.”

“Hang on,” Tallie protested. “What if he’s drugged? It’s not like we can—”

Basra suddenly flared alight, a golden corona flashing into being around her. Immediately, a series of pops and crashes sounded from within the house, followed by a sharp, acrid smell. Her glowing aura eclipsed the front of the building, and had clearly interacted badly with infernal wards on the inside.

She drew her sword with a flourish, and the blade itself began to glow furiously. Basra brought it up overhead, deftly reversed her grip, and drove the tip into the top edge of the latch fixture where it was set in the wood. A burst of orange fire puffed out of the keyhole as if a tiny infernal explosion had been set off within, and the door itself began to blacken and smoke. The Bishop, ignoring this, yanked back and forth on the blade, and moments later had wrenched the latch entirely free of its mountings, causing the door to jerk open a few inches. Her sword was a pretty and clearly expensive piece, but obviously as sturdy as a crowbar.

“So, hey, thanks for hearing us out and taking time to plan,” Tallie said sourly.

“Wards are tripped,” Basra stated. Behind her, Jenell drew her own weapon and stepped forward. “The peanut gallery back there will be fetching the police. Tick tock, kids.”

With that, she yanked the door all the way open and stepped into the warlock’s house, sword first.


“That’s blackmail!” Ruda snarled.

“I apologize,” the Avatar said, sounding quite sincere. “I do not mean to underplay the seriousness of your concerns. In fact, the security breach in question is of the greatest magnitude; nanites loose on the planet’s surface present a potential catastrophe. But in order to deal with this, I must reassert control over my own systems, and with that I require aid. It is a question of task prioritization.”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said, stepping up behind Ruda and placing his hands gently on her shoulders. “It sounds like he’s got a point. Let’s try to be logical about this. If we could just ask a few questions to clarify, Mr. Avatar?”

“Most assuredly,” the man of purple light said with a smile. Unlike his previous flat appearance in the screens, his translucent form was now projected in midair by one of the nearby machines. “No honorific is needed, by the way. If your customs require a personal form of address, I am known by my designation, Zero Two.”

“Ah…okay,” Toby said carefully. Ruda, meanwhile, pulled away from him, grumbling, but did not speak up again. “Then, I guess the most urgent questions are what do you need us to do, exactly, and why can’t you have your golem here do it?”

The Caretaker chimed disconsolately, changing its face to a sad one.

“Also,” Milady added, “who messed all this up in the first place?”

“Apt questions, all,” the Avatar said, nodding. “In short, my core system has been interrputed and a link interposed directly into my central processing network, requiring the information flow which constitutes my personality to be routed through the devices you see here. This is a direct link to the gate to Alt Earth One. As a result, data being broadcast from that world—which is a more advanced society than yours and transmits vast quantities of data—is interjected directly into my mind. This, obviously, is…distracting.”

“Holy crap,” Fross chimed. “No wonder you went crazy!”

“Significant program corruption is the inevitable consequence of this, yes,” he said soberly. “My memory is able to store the entire Internet of the period, but having to sort through it anew every second puts a massive strain on my processors. I believe I can remain lucid long enough to help you conduct repairs; as best as I have been able to determine, it took my previous iteration years to degrade to the point that I began to so badly mismanage this facility. But as for the question of who did this, I do not know. Extreme data corruption has occurred, making it difficult for me to extract useful information from my former self’s memories. At a glance, however, I find the lack of specific data on that point suggestive, and suspicious. Some data would inevitably be lost, but I think this was deliberately deleted. Unfortunately, the overall corruption has made it all but impossible to determine how, by whom, or for what purpose. I will of course reconstruct the surviving data to the best of my ability, but that will take time, and I suspect the saboteur covered their tracks too well.”

Milady muttered a soft curse.

“And as for why you need our help?” Ruda said pointedly.

“Ah, yes. I need someone able to interface with the consoles for me. I have been locked out of certain relevant functions, which complicates this. Simply shutting off these machines, or pulling them out, would likely destroy me entirely. That would swiftly result in the destruction of this facility and have unknowable repercussions for the nanites loose above. Ordinarily I should be able to bypass this device in several ways, but those methods have all been disabled. I require the aid of sapients to re-activate them and disable this parasite apparatus so it can be dismantled.”

“That still doesn’t explain why the golem can’t do it,” Gabriel objected.

“Actually it does,” Ruda said grudgingly. “Look, Arquin, all the doodads we’ve seen require you to either talk to ’em in a voice or touch ’em with fingers, right? Well, the Caretaker hasn’t got either of those things, just bells and claws. The Elder Gods were the prototypical fucking assholes who set the mold we Punaji have had to deal with for centuries. If you wanna keep somebody enslaved, you gotta make sure they have no means of ever becoming anything more.”

The Caretaker let out a soft chime, then suddenly rolled across the alcove toward Ruda. She shied backward, but the little golem kept coming, gently pressing its squat bulk against her and wrapping two of its limbs around her gently. One patted her back.

“Uh…okay,” she said uncertainly, awkwardly patting the top of the golem in response.

“I have a question!” Juniper raised her hand. “What’s nanites?”

The Avatar hesitated before answering. “This topic is highly classified… But the proverbial ship has well and truly sailed, it seems. Nanites are molecule-sized machines which are deployed in swarms of millions. They work in unison to accomplish tasks.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, absently watching Ruda gently disentangle herself from the Caretaker’s hug. “And…how come everybody’s so scared of them?”

“Think,” Principia said wryly. “Think about it real hard.”

“Well, we know they can turn people in o machine hybrids,” Toby said slowly, “cause machine parts to grow over stuff like moss…”

“And act like a disease to take out enemy troops,” Gabriel finished, wincing. “Yikes, point taken. And if they’re not even magical, most of our methods of countering them wouldn’t work.”

“Finally, a cooperative Avatar,” Milady murmured. “Walker said ours shut off whole chunks of the entertainment database to hide references to them once she started asking questions.”

“Yes, that is also what I would do, were the situation other than what it is,” the Avatar agreed. “But it is clear you have a need to understand. The Infinite Order were paranoid about some forms of technology, but the power of nanites they knew firsthand. On Earth, they acquired permission to colonize this world by assembling a complete record of the evolution of life using their temporal viewing technology. They were not highly thought of, so this service was vital in securing the colonization license. Earth was at that time in the process of rebuilding from global environmental catastrophe, and this knowledge was priceless in its applications toward reconstructing the biosphere.

“Upon coming here, they did exactly that. The Order first constructed Luna Station, then retreated there, secured the planet itself in a temporal bubble and unleashed nanite swarms to spend the next several billion years of vastly accelerated time to replicate the process of evolution as it had occurred on Earth. Nanites guided the development of life according to this pre-established pattern by intervening constantly on the cellular level, in a planet-wide, coordinated process. The result, when the process reached its endpoint and the planet’s temporal state was re-aligned with the universe, was an organically evolved biosphere ninety-six percent identical to Earth’s. This gave them a familiar environment with which to work.”

There was a momentary silence, in which only the hum of machinery and the rush of water was heard.

“That,” Ruda said finally, “has got to be the most grandiose, overblown, unnecessarily fucking complicated means anybody in the history of the universe has ever used to accomplish any task.”

“Sounds like something they’d do,” Milady said with a sigh.

“The universe is incomprehensibly vast and almost entirely unknown,” replied the Avatar, “but…your point is well taken. The Infinite Order were very interested in the scientific discoveries incidentally gleaned from this process. And, it must be said, in being able to boast that they had done it.”

“Yeah, so, clearly we can’t have those things running loose, especially not working for the Rust,” Fross agreed. “Also, what’s Luna Station?”

“Upon their arrival here, the Infinite Order removed this planet’s three natural satellites and constructed its current artificial one in the same configuration as Earth’s moon. It consists of an outer crust of habitable indoor space surrounding a mostly hollow area with a dark matter generator at its core, which not only provided the necessary power for the early stages of the Ascension Project, but also exerts the gravitational pull that reproduces the tidal forces exerted upon Earth by Luna.”

“Wait, the fucking moon is—no, stop.” Ruda covered her eyes with a hand, slightly dislodging her hat. “No more vast revelations, I can’t deal with this shit right now. We’ve got more immediate concerns, people.”

“Yeah, keeping it a bit more on point,” Gabriel agreed, “let’s fix all this crap before the place floods.”

“About that, you need not worry,” the Avatar reassured them. “Fortunately, the Fabrication Plant’s teleportation array is on a lower level and is completely submerged. I am constantly teleporting large blocks of water out to sea; I can do this much faster than it is coming in. The flooding is under control. Other systems over which I still have control are re-enforcing the damaged areas to prevent a collapse due to water pressure. You are no longer in physical danger here. But I do require urgent aid to dismantle this disruptive construction so I can regain full control and then deal with the nanite problem.”

“All right, sounds good,” Toby said, cracking his knuckles. “What do you need us to do?”


“There you are.”

Maureen started guiltily, peeking over the top of the large book she had in her lap. It was a hefty dwarven engineering text, designed to be left open on a reference desk and not held; the size of the thing nearly obscured her body.

“Ah…here I am,” the gnome said, smiling tentatively at Crystal, who had approached the dim corner of the library stacks in which she had tucked herself away. “Were ye lookin’ for me?”

“I have been conducting a sweep of the library; your name is still on the unaccounted list,” the golem librarian said seriously. Her diction and elocution had improved recently with some of Tellwyrn’s last modifications, but her face was still a blank metal mask. “I gather you skipped classes this morning, or you would know about the campus-wide state of alert.”

“Alert?” Maureen lowered the book carefully to the floor and wiggled out from under it at the same time. “What’s goin’ on?”

“I do not know, exactly, but students are all instructed to report to the Crawl immediately,” Crystal said.

“Wait, the Crawl? What the blazes do we need—”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” the golem said patiently. “But it is general knowledge that the Crawl has a single, defensible entrance, which leads directly to the Grim Visage, a zone in which violence is impossible. It is not hard to surmise that Professor Tellwyrn perceives immediate danger, to have issued this order. Campus security has been trying to round up the students for the last hour. I need to finish checking over the library; you need to report to the Crawl as ordered. Professor Ezzaniel is there to coordinate, along with Mr. Fedora. They will direct you further.”

Maureen swallowed heavily. “I…this… This is why I was hidin’ in the corner. I dunno how much more o’ this I can take.”

“I understand, Maureen,” Crystal said gently. “It has been a very stressful few weeks. But for now, you need to go. The Crawl is safe, and you’ll be with the rest of the students and most of the fac—”

She broke off and started to turn; Maureen barely glimpsed the black shape which had suddenly materialized out of nowhere behind the librarian, and then before Crystal could finish pivoting to face it, she froze.

Light blazed out from the openings in the golem’s joints, along with a high-pitched keening of enchantments being strained to the breaking point as far too much power was poured into them. Crystal actually rose slowly off the ground, arching her back in apparent pain. Her body continued to stretch, the gaps between solid segments widening and glowing ever brighter as if some tremendous force was being exerted from within.

Maureen dropped the book and scrambled backward into the corner. She had room, there, to escape around one end of the nearest row of shelves, but for the moment she only stared in horror.

With a shrill grinding noise, the metal plates themselves began coming apart, arcs of static snapping between them, revealing filaments, pieces of crystal and other interior workings of the golem’s body, barely visible within the brightness.

A shriek finally burst forth—a sound in Crystal’s actual voice, not the noise of metal and magic being tested beyond its limits.

And with a tremendous shockwave that knocked over the shelves and slammed Maureen against the wall, her body exploded. Fragments of metal peppered the entire area, a piece barely missing the gnome’s head.

Behind her, still holding up the illegally modified wand which he had used to overload the golem, stood a balding, hawk-faced man in a long black coat.

“There is but one punishment for treason,” he said, pointing the device at her. “In the Emperor’s name.”

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13 – 24

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“Morning,” Jasmine said mildly as Tallie shambled into the kitchen, blinking blearily.

“My ten-year-old self would hate me for asking this,” Tallie replied, pausing to smother a yawn, “but how come I gotta come in here after some food? Glory and Smythe both seem to love playing host. I figured there’d be something laid out in the dining room.”

“You missed them,” Jasmine replied. She was leaning against the kitchen cabinets, idly practicing rolling a coin across the backs of her fingers; at this point she could do it as smoothly as any Guild veteran. It had been harder for her to learn to lean against things rather than standing at parade rest, and her posture still looked a bit affected. Too stiff in the shoulders to be a believable ruffian’s slouch. “Glory left first thing this morning to do some errands and check up on things—she’s got contacts to…uh, contact, both official and less so. Pretty much all of her household went along. Rasha to learn, Smythe for protection because she is still an item of interest to violent conspirators, and Ami…” she grimaced. “Actually I’m less sure about that.”

“To shmooze,” Layla said primly. The only other person present, she was seated at the kitchen table, working on a plate upon which she had assembled slices from the bread, cheese, and summer sausage laid out. “Ami is quite the career girl, and Glory is the best opportunity she’s ever had.”

“This morning has been an interesting experiment in who gets up when, without Style stomping through the dormitories kicking random beds,” Jasmine asked with a grin. “Ross has been through and out; Schwartz came in for some tea and I seriously think he was sleepwalking the whole time. No sign of Darius yet.”

“An’ you’re up, of course,” Tallie grumbled, shuffling over to the table and plopping herself into a seat before reaching for the sausage. “I’ve got no explanation for this one.”

“That’s because you never listen to me,” Layla scoffed. “Little rich girl can’t possibly have anything worthwhile to say.”

“No, no,” Tallie moaned, weakly flapping a hand at her. “No sniping till I’m properly awake. Unfair. What about that thing where all our lives’re in danger, huh? We know anything about that? The Bishops got it all squared away?”

“I think that’s the lion’s share of what Glory went to find out,” Jasmine said more seriously, then straightened up. “The second shift of Legionnaires Syrinx called for came to relieve the others less than an hour ago. This looked like less than a half squad, so hopefully things are simmering down. I know we’re all gonna get stir crazy, but the Bishops were right; better to stay put while this is cleaned up by the professionals. I’m going to go check on the others.”

“Good idea,” said Layla. “Ross was talking about going outside to flirt with the Legionnaires.”

Tallie straightened up, blinking in surprise. Jasmine hesitated in the act of heading for the door, turning a wary look on Layla. “…I thought he was joking. I mean, come on. Have you ever known Ross to flirt with anybody?”

Layla arched an eyebrow. “Have you ever known him to joke?”

Jasmine stared at her for a moment, then shook her head. “Bloody hell,” she muttered, hurrying out through the dining room.

“Are they making the troops stand outside, still?” Tallie asked blearily after swallowing a bite of sausage. “Just cos it hasn’t snowed in a week doesn’t mean it’s balmy out there.”

“They’re troops, that’s what they do,” Layla replied with an indifferent shrug. “Those last night declined offers to come in. And rightly so; they can’t very well guard the house against intruders if they’re not watching for people to approach.”

“Ah, yes, right,” Tallie said, eyes on the sandwich she was now making of cheese and sausage folded into a slice of bread. “Gods know we can’t have those little people acting above their station.”

Layla gazed at her in silence for a moment, then shook her head. “Tallie, I have refrained from rising to your bait because I know enough about my own social class to assume your antipathy is well earned. Let me just ask you this, though: have I, personally, ever acted toward you as if I thought you were somehow lesser than myself?”

“Yes,” Tallie said immediately, still looking at her sandwich. “First day we met, when you showed up in that preposterous fuckin’ carriage.”

“Fair enough. And…since?”

Tallie slowly chewed a bite while Layla regarded her in silence. After she finished and just sat there, staring at her food for a moment, the younger girl sighed and opened her mouth to continue.

“You’re a lady,” Tallie said suddenly. “Look…you’re right, it’s not really fair. You’ve been okay to me, just like anyone else in our little group. But your brother goes out of his way to be as much of an oaf as a boy can; he reminds me of the roadies from the caravan growing up. You, though, you’re just so…everything I associate with people looking down their noses at me. Even when there’s no malice behind it, I can’t help…reacting.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Layla mused after pausing to consider. “I’m not sure it’s fair, though. I would say that Jasmine is as ladylike in her conduct as I.”

“Jasmine isn’t a lady,” Tallie said immediately. “Truthfully…I dunno what the hell she is. She gives off some weird signals sometimes; only thing I know is she’s trying hard to fit in with us mere mortals. Maybe that’s the difference. I’ve got a category I can fit you in, fair or not, and it’s not exactly a pretty one. Jas is just Jas, in a class of her own.”

“Well, as to that,” Layla said with a faint smile, “I’ve been disappointed, I’ll confess, at not having someone to snipe at Ami with behind her back. I love Jasmine, too, but she’s not very good at…girl things.”

“Boy, ain’t that the truth,” Tallie replied, grinning and finally meeting her eyes. “I honestly don’t think she understands why anyone would dislike Ami.”

“She was raised Avenist,” Layla huffed. “I half wonder if she doesn’t try to sneak glances like the boys do and is just better at hiding it.”

“After sharing a dorm with Jas I am pretty sure she’s not into girls,” Tallie said dryly. “Anyhow, don’t you worry about dearest Ami; let her have her spotlight while she can. As my mom used to say: the bigger they are, the farther they fall.”

Layla was unfortunately in the process of taking another bite and nearly choked, doubling over with laughter.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Tallie said lightly, lounging back and tipping her chair up on two legs. “This is fun. Jas’d just lecture us about body-shaming a fellow woman.”

“Give me credit for recognizing a lost cause,” Jasmine said, striding back into the room. Tallie and Layla both straightened up guiltily, but met each other’s eyes with a conspiratorial little shared smile. Jasmine, however, looked worried. “No one panic yet, but I think we have trouble.”

Both of them instantly sobered, Tallie rising from her chair. “Is everybody okay?”

“I haven’t made a complete sweep of the house,” Jasmine said quickly, “didn’t even get upstairs. But I did poke my nose outside, and the Legionnaires are gone. The whole squad; none of their assigned positions are attended. That is not normal procedure; they should have notified someone if they were being recalled.”

“Did you happen to see any of the boys?” Layla asked, her eyebrows drawing together.

Jasmine shook her head. “I wanted to warn you two something might be up; I haven’t gone looking yet. Darius is probably still asleep, but I want to make sure Ross and Schwartz are—”

“Do you hear that?” Tallie interrupted.

All three of them froze, listening. In the ensuing silence, the noise was plain, if faint; a rapid, almost frantic scratching sound, like claws on wood.

Layla twisted around in her chair. “It’s coming from over there. The door!”

She rose while the others whisked past her, both automatically falling into the rapid, silent movement drilled into them by Guild trainers. All three girls clustered around the kitchen’s back door; it had a glass panel looking out onto Glory’s walled-in garden. The glass was partially obscured by frost, but still, they could tell no one was standing outside.

Tallie crouched, shifting her head closer to the door, then lifted her face to the others and pointed at a spot at the very bottom, where the noise was coming from. Jasmine and Layla both nodded acknowledgment; there was no lock or mechanism there that anyone would be trying to pick, which ruled out one immediately threatening possibility. The three moved silently, as if they had rehearsed the maneuver: Tallie retreated to one side where she had open space and braced her legs to spring in any direction, Layla backed across the room to cover the dining room door, and Jasmine shifted into position next to the outer door, placing her hand on the latch.

She looked at the others, getting a nod of confirmation from each of them, before yanking it open and stepping back, ready to face whatever was there.

A tiny red blur zipped into the kitchen, going straight for Jasmine’s leg, and scaled her in seconds while her poised stance dissolved into hopping and flailing. Not until the passenger arrived on her shoulder, reaching up to grab her ear with tiny paws, did she stop after finally getting a good look.

“Meesie?”

The little elemental squealed frantically, hopping up and down on Jasmine’s shoulder and tugging at her face.

“What’s she doing?” Tallie exclaimed. “I’ve never seen her act like that before. Course, I haven’t spent a lot of time—”

“Tallie,” Layla interrupted, stepping forward, “think. This can only mean one thing.”

Tallie’s eyes widened and the color drained from her cheeks, but it was Jasmine who spoke, accompanied by Meesie’s plaintive little wail.

“They’ve got Schwartz.”


By popular demand, Maureen had wheeled the device out of its housing to work on it; she had only a short break between classes, but between inspiration having struck after seeing the vehicle in action last night and the attention she was getting, she had found a pretext to roll it out and make a few adjustments. There was a much bigger audience than usual, a dozen students having wandered over to admire the machine and its creator.

“But it even looks like a wasp,” Hildred was saying animatedly. “Look how it’s body’s all round, there, and that narrow bit at the end fer the stinger!”

“I suggested calling it the Hornet,” Chase said grandiloquently. “It even makes a sound like an enormous buzz when it’s in motion! But Miss Buzz-kill here pooh-poohed that idea.”

“You lot an’ yer chapbook fantasies,” Maureen grunted, swinging the access panel closed and wriggling out from under the machine. Its rear hover charm was online, holding it off the ground, but the motive enchantments had been disconnected while she made adjustments; now, she re-engaged the controls. It did not hum to life, which would require an extra step, and there was no use in wasting the power crystals anyway. “Wasp this an’ hornet that, tryin’ ta make my girl inta somethin’ fierce an’ mean. She’s not a weapon, okay?” Slowly, she stepped along the length of the vehicle, trailing her fingertips affectionately over its curved lines. “Maybe yer onta somethin’ with that insect talk, though. She’s efficient, beautiful, an’ a hard worker. My little Honeybee.”

Chase clapped a hand over his eyes. “Oh, come on. That has got to be the most—”

“Chase Masterson.”

Most of the assembled students shied backward, some with exclamations of startlement, at the appearance of a craggy-faced, balding man in a long black coat right in their midst. At being addressed, Chase whirled to stare at him, and then blinked.

“Oh. Well, hi there,” he said, nonplussed. “You know, I realize technically Hands are supposed to represent the Emperor in a personal capacity, but nobody’s ever told me the right formal address. Is it your Majesty? Cos that just seems disrespectful to the actual—”

The Hand of the Emperor smoothly drew a wand from his pocket and shot him, twice, point blank.

The students surged back further, most of them shouting now; two divine shields and one blue arcane one flared into being, and Iris thrust a hand into the pocket of her dress. All of them immediately froze, however, staring.

Chase was unharmed; both lightning bolts had sparked fruitlessly against a glowing orange spell circle which had flashed into being—standing vertically, midair, unlike any such circle they had ever seen—between him and the Hand. It faded instantly from sight, but too late to avoid being observed.

“What the—” Hildred swallowed heavily. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“I have.” Iris’s upper lip had drawn back in an animal snarl, and she withdrew a clenched fist from her pocket, trailing a faintly luminous green dust. Her glare, though, was fixed on Chase, not on the wand-toting Hand.

“There is a lesson here for you, students,” the Hand said flatly, also staring at Chase with his weapon still at the ready. “In how quick and easy it is to do what Arachne Tellwyrn has failed to for two months. Masterson, among the Sleeper’s offenses for which you can be held responsible is the assault of duly appointed ambassadors from Tar’naris, an allied power. That does not necessarily but can carry a charge of high treason, at the officiating Magistrate’s discretion. I can assure you, young man, the Grand Magistrate in charge of your case will find it appropriate to charge you with the capital crime.”

“We can save them the trouble!” Iris snarled, and Szith pounced bodily on her, wrapping both arms around her roommate to inhibit her from throwing her handful of now-smoking dust.

“Stop,” the drow hissed. “If you assault a Hand of the Emperor, even inadvertently, that is also a capital offense!”

“Heed her,” the Hand advised, glancing at Iris. “Once again, Ms. An’sadarr, you demonstrate why your people are such valued allies.”

“You didn’t do it this way just to lecture me, though,” Chase said thoughtfully. Incongruously, he was wearing a fascinated smile, as though an intriguing puzzle were unraveling right before his eyes. “No, this doesn’t make sense at all. This isn’t about little ol’ me, is it?”

“Inspector Fedora offered you a position with Imperial Intelligence,” the Hand said to him, ignoring the increasingly angry mutters of the students, who had started to press closer around them. “He is no longer in a position to make such offers, but I am. Your stupidity has terminated your life as a free agent, Masterson, but you do have better options left than the headsman. The Empire has made use of nastier pieces of work than you, by far.”

“You can’t be serious!” Gilbert Moss shouted, trying to shove forward and rebounding fruitlessly off Anoia’s divine shield.

“Oh, I see,” Chase mused, grinning broadly now. “And if I’d rather not be an Imperial lackey?”

“Your anonymity was your only shield, you little fool,” the Hand said curtly. “Tellwyrn can demolish you in a heartbeat, once she knows who to attack. So can the Empire. Serve, or die. Unlike Tellwyrn, we always have a plan in place before acting. Report to Tiraas, and you will be immediately found and given instructions. Or try to run. It will be a short hunt.” He looked pointedly at Iris, who had stopped struggling with Szith to glare pure hatred at them both. “I’d think quickly, if I were you.”

And then the Hand was simply gone, as if he’d never stood there.

Chase cleared his throat, putting on a bashful expression and shrugging. “Well! This is awkw—”

With a unified roar, they surged in on him, so fast he barely managed to shadow-jump away.


The docks were, if anything, more crowded than usual, though a great deal less busy. Many of the citizens of Puna Dara were clustered along the wharves, muttering and staring out at the great serpent still making slow laps around the center of the harbor. Most of the activities at which they would normally be busy had been suspended.

Being Punaji, there were a few risk-takers among them, and several boats had attempted to launch throughout the day. No one had actually been attacked, yet, because even those reckless souls had had the sense to head back to the docks once the serpent broke off its aimless patrol to move slowly in their direction. So far, no ships had been launched, and a handful of royal privateers who had been outside the harbor when the serpent appeared were maintaining position beyond the lighthouses, warning approaching vessels away.

The people watched their livelihoods slowly wither while the monstrosity lurked, and their mumbling grew increasingly angry. Notably, no Rust cultists had dared show their faces near the wharves today. The dockside warehouse where they made their public home, usually open to all, was buttoned up tight and had been since well before dawn.

Near midmorning, a cry went up on the docks, engendering at first some confusion and then more shouts as people pointed; most of the onlookers, expecting the source of trouble to come from out in the harbor, looked the wrong way initially and had to be directed toward the sky.

She descended slowly on broad wings of pure flame. Vadrieny made a pass over the docks, then circled around and swung in lower, executing another sweep before gliding in a third time, this time clearly making to land. It was an approach obviously designed to make her intentions clear and give people the chance to get out of the way, which they did. She set down gently, pumping her wings and creating a rush of warm air over the onlookers who pressed back from her, before settling lightly to the dock. As soon as she had landed, the flame and overlarge claws withdrew, leaving behind only a girl in deep red Narisian robes, her brown hair in an oddly shaggy style as if it had been cut short and then left to grow out for a few weeks.

She had set down near the southern end of the shallow arc of the docks, on a pier at which only local fishing boats were tied up. Teal turned in a slow circle, taking in the muttering crowds, the beast in the harbor, and the surrounding geography, and then set out inland. She strode off the pier and onto the solid ground of the city, making straight for an open-fronted fishmonger’s shack.

“Good morning,” she said politely to the wary-looking old man seated behind the counter.

“You too,” he said slowly. “So, uh…that fiery bit, there. What’s that about?”

She hesitated before answering. “That was the archdemon Vadrieny. Last surviving daughter of Elilial.”

“And…she’s gone, now?”

“No,” Teal said evenly, touching the Talisman of Absolution pinned to the front of her robes. “Still here.”

“Mm.” He grimaced. “Daughter of Elilial, that’s exactly what we need right now. You can’t go pick on somebody else? Puna Dara’s got enough problems.” His eyes cut past her; he had a perfect view, between the wharves, of the augmented sea serpent moving along its slow, endless sweep.

“Actually,” she said, “we’re here to do something about that. I guess business must be pretty slow today, huh?”

“That your idea of a joke?” the fishmonger demanded.

“No, sir,” she replied, her tone polite. “I’m hoping you’ll be willing to part with a whole barrel of chum. I figure it won’t be much of a hardship if nobody’s fishing today.”

For a moment, the man just stared at her. “You’re…going to get rid of the beast…with a barrel of chum.”

Some of the onlookers had drawn closer; the people of Puna Dara were not as easily intimidated as the average run of civilians, and with Vadrieny not actually in evidence several dozen were emboldened enough to have stepped within earshot by that point.

“Well, there are steps involved,” Teal explained. “Dealing with the serpent may take time, but we can force it down from the surface and neutralize the Rust cultists who summoned it, at least temporarily, by bringing on a storm.”

More muttering began, on all sides. Teal ignored this, smiling calmly at the fishmonger. He, for his part, just stared.

“You want,” he said at last, “to cause a storm. With a barrel of chum.”

“Yes.”

“…kid, I get the impression you’re new in town.”

“What gave me away?” she asked with a faint smile. “Is it the accent?”

He shook his head. “You don’t cause storms. They just come. Naphthene does what Naphthene wants, and the storm cares not. Welcome to Puna Dara.”

“How about this?” Teal pulled a wallet from one of the pockets of her robe and began flicking through its contents; it was a thin thing, containing only paper money. “Sell me a barrel of chum, and if this doesn’t work out, you’ll have done some business and got to see the last daughter of Elilial look foolish. Win/win, isn’t it?”

She produced the smallest denomination of bank note she had and held it up, smiling.

He stared at her for another two heartbeats before turning his eyes to the note. It was for twenty Imperial decabloons—the better part of a year’s take at his little bait shack.

“Lady,” the fishmonger said in mounting exasperation, “I do not have change for that.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Teal set the note down on his counter. “Share with your neighbors, help offset the lost business from that creature. So, my chum?”

The man looked truly flummoxed, but with a sigh, he carefully picked up the bank note—gingerly, as if holding the most valuable object he had ever touched, which was possibly the case. “Just so you know, all sales here are final.”

“Of course.”

“…right. So…chum’s right here. I’ll just…uh, you want some help carrying this to…wherever? I can call my son over…”

“That’s quite all right. May I?”

At her polite request, he shrugged, then lifted the hinged board separating his counter from the street. Teal stepped behind, gripped the edges of the open barrel he indicated, and picked it up without effort.

The barrel stood as high as her waist and was filled to within inches of the top with fish guts and other effluvia, kept behind the counter to discourage seagulls. Teal appeared as unbothered by the smell as she was by the weight, which a strong man would have been hard-pressed to hoist alone. She held it carefully at arm’s length, away from the front of her robes.

“Thanks,” she said lightly, trundling back out onto the street bordering the wharves. “Pleasure doing business. Now, if I’m not mistaken, I think I saw a little shrine to Naphthene just up that way as we were gliding in. Is that right?”

His eyes widened. “You’re not thinking of…”

“You can come watch, if you want,” she said, turning and setting off down the docks.

Her gait was a little awkward, holding the barrel out in front of herself, but she moved at an average walking pace, which gave the ever-growing crowd plenty of time to get out of her way. Those who hadn’t been close enough to observe the exchange at the bait shack were warned off by the smell as a barrel of half-rotten fish parts made its way along the wharves. Even as they cleared a path, however, the locals followed along, muttering in increasing curiosity over what this clearly possessed, oddly polite foreigner was up to.

Not too far distant from the bait stand, there was indeed a small shrine to Naphthene built adjacent to the water, between two piers. It was a simple thing, the goddess of the sea having no formal cult, just a waist-high circular base of stones, mostly filled with rounded pebbles from the harbor or nearby beaches. A single large, rounded rock stood upright from the middle of it, carved with the trident sigil of Naphthene and turned to face out to sea. Around it, atop the sea stones which made its nest, had been laid a thick melange of shells, fish hooks, coins, and little trinkets, offerings of appreciation and supplication, which were universally ignored—but still offered. Naphthene did not answer prayers, but she was sometimes known to punish the lack of them. It was not visible from the docks, but there would be a pile of similar little treasures in the water directly under the shrine. When the space in the shrine itself became too full, its offerings would be tipped into the sea. No one in this city dared pilfer from the fickle goddess.

Teal approached this directly, and the crowd’s muttering became more urgent as they perceived her intent; most of them began backing away more expeditiously, eager not to be within range of whatever was about to happen.

“Lady, no,” a young boy exclaimed, waving to get her attention. “The goddess cursed the whole royal family cos a prince pissed on one of those shrines! An’ that was by accident!”

Still holding the reeking barrel, Teal paused and turned to give him a calm smile of acknowledgment.

“I,” she said with a faint edge to her tone, “am not a prince.”

Then she effortlessly lifted the barrel, tipped it up, and dumped its entire load of rotting filth over and into the sea goddess’s shrine.

Fish entrails and old pieces no longer fit for human consumption poured down in a rank slurry, quickly filling the space inside the shrine and spilling over it to splatter on the ground. People began turning to flee outright—some, at least. Others gazed on, wide-eyed, apparently unable to tear themselves away from what was sure to be a spectacle.

Immediately, a ripple appeared in the harbor, halfway out to where the serpent lurked, and shot toward the shrine as if something just beneath the surface were heading landward at an incredible speed. At the sight of this, more of the onlookers fled, and even the most stubborn judiciously backed away from the edge of the water.

The surge hit the shore, and erupted in a veritable geyser, blasting the shrine and Teal hard enough to bowl anyone over and sweep them out to sea. Indeed, several of those closest lost their footing in the backwash that rushed back into the harbor, and nobody within earshot avoided getting soaked. Fortunately, no one was sucked out into the ocean. The only one standing close enough to the sea goddess’s little slap had been its target, Teal.

But when the water receded, Teal was gone; Vadrieny stood there, clawed hands braced on the edges of the shrine, talons sunk right into the stone of the harbor wall below for purchase. Her blazing wings and hair hissed, water rapidly burning away to steam and dissipating in the moist air.

Flaring her wings outward, Vadrieny released her hold and hopped up, landing nimbly with her talons on the edges of the shrine. It had been blasted clean by the spray, fish guts and offerings both swept away to leave only stone. While the drenched onlookers stared in horror, the daughter of Elilial deliberately raised one clawed foot and slammed it down, crushing the central rock and obliterating the sigil of Naphthene.

Vadrieny sank her claws into the stone with a crunch, leaned forward to glare out to sea, spread her wings and arms wide—claws fully extended in an obvious threat—and screamed, jaws stretching wider than a human mouth was physically meant to open, baring her full complement of fangs. The unearthly howl blasted forth with enough physical force to make the water ripple back from the destroyed shrine; everyone nearby clapped hands over their ears, many crying out in protest. They were unheard, of course. Nothing was heard except the roar of a challenge from the infernal demigoddess.

In the distance, the entire horizon turned black.

The ocean itself changed color, and began to heave; white foam appeared, accompanying a sudden rise of wind whistling straight ashore. The sky itself thickened, thunderheads appearing seemingly from nowhere and spreading out from that ominous line of clouds. Already flickers of lightning appeared along the leading edge of the storm, flashing nearly constantly, though it was still too far out to sea for the thunder to be audible.

Still, but not for long.

Vadrieny turned and hopped down from the wrecked shrine, putting her back contemptuously to the storm. Immediately, lightning snapped out of the still-clear sky overhead, arcing into the harbor and sending a crack of thunder booming across Puna Dara, a herald of the tempest rapidly on its way. The archdemon did not even flinch.

“I suggest you all get ready,” she said over the rising howl of the wind. “It’s coming fast.”

 

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13 – 23

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“It isn’t that you’re wrong, Mr. Mosk,” Tellwyrn said, pacing slowly up and down her dais as she usually did while lecturing, “it is a question of detail. The difference between an educated person and an uneducated one is comprehension; both perceive the same basic reality, in this case that the Age of Adventures is trailing to a halt and has been for centuries now, but you are studying to become the sort of people who can name specific causes, understand how those factors interact, draw insights from them and then apply those to current and future events.

“Specifically, in this case, we are covering the end of the Age of Adventures to illustrate a rather uncomfortable and little-appreciated but vitally important fact that underpins all societies.” She came to a stop, resting a hand on the lectern, and regarded the class over her spectacles. “The single, unavoidable, core reality which separates an organized state from primitive, tribal societies, is that the state holds a monopoly on violence. Police forces exist to enforce this internally, and armies externally. A state which fails to maintain this monopoly has failed to exist, and is by definition already in the process of collapsing by the time this effect can be widely observed. An organized state only exists when it is the sole entity within its purview whose exercise of force is considered legitimate.”

The door at the rear of the classroom opened and Colonel Azhai slipped inside, quietly pushing it shut behind her and taking a position against the upper wall. Almost every head in the room turned at her arrival, and several students twisted around fully to stare up at the visitor.

A shrill whistle followed by small explosions seized everyone’s attention; Tellwyrn had pointed one finger upward, which had spouted a small display of fireworks.

“Class is still in session,” she said peevishly, “and I am down here.”

The Professor waited for everyone to fully focus upon her again, and then a few seconds longer just to make her point, before continuing.

“With regard to the adventurer problem, it is important to consider that for most of recorded history, human civilizations have been islands built around useful clusters of resources; on most continents and especially this one, a combination of limited populations and abundant hazards have kept the borders of nation-states from pressing against each other. To take what is now the Tiraan Empire as an example, there was a time when Calderaas existed a two-month ride through bandit-infested no man’s land from the Tira Valley or Viridill, and much longer to any of the dwarven kingdoms. Constant pressure existed on all states in the form of marauders from Tar’naris, from Athan’Khar, from the dozens of dungeons, centaur and plains elf raiders from the Golden Sea, the odd fairy excursion from the Deep Wild… Even from other groups of humans, as the Stalweiss, Punaji and Tidestriders regularly molested any of their neighbors who neglected their defenses for a moment. In this era, adventurers served a vital role in legitimizing the states from which they launched. They exerted counter-pressure, thinning out these aggressive agents at their source without requiring kings to institute expensive military action. They also appropriated wealth from these targets, which then bolstered local economies, and served to keep trade routes clear simply by traveling along them and representing hazards that most bandits wouldn’t try. I trust you can all, by this point in the semester, explain what changed that? Miss Fillister.”

“Human populations expanded,” the girl called upon replied, lowering her hand, “and all of those external threats were eventually pacified, one way or another.”

“Precisely,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod. “The role of population is very understated in most modern discussion of the adventurer problem. Everyone knows there is not much left for adventurers to do; few appreciate the importance to them of having a place in which to do it. While there were broad gaps between states, blank spots on the map and regions considered too dangerous to settle, adventurers were useful in keeping the hazards therein from encroaching upon established kingdoms. They aided the legitimacy of states by keeping violence outside their borders. But when all the borders come together, when there are no more gray areas outside the law, the opposite happens. Adventurers doing what they do within the purview of a state’s authority are an inherent challenge to that authority, because so long as people are committing violence, for any reason, it means the local government has failed to assert itself. Thus, the government is forced to either assert itself harder, or collapse. For a time, when the dungeons began drying up and rogue societies were either contained, destroyed, or folded into the Empire, some adventurers tried turning to vigilantism. They were landed on harder than those who flocked to the frontiers. Yes, Miss Willowick?”

“Talkin’ of current events,” Maureen said, lowering her hand, “ain’t this sorta what’s goin’ on in Puna Dara right now? Rumor is, the local government’s facin’ the prospect of a change, if it can’t keep its own house in order.”

“That’s an excellent example,” Tellwyrn agreed.

“And…in Last Rock?” Maureen said more hesitantly. “Like…last night, fer example. I know we’re only technically within Calderaan Province here, an’ the Sultana’s writ runs pretty thin. But if there’s t’be mobs an’ chases an’ whatnot…”

“An interesting point,” Tellwyrn said, beginning to pace again. “Last Rock is a somewhat unusual case, due to my presence and this University’s. A better example would be the ongoing expansion of wand regulations in frontier towns throughout the Great Plains. In the decades since their initial settlement, private ownership and use of firearms was considered a widespread necessity given the hazards represented by the Golden Sea. More and more, though, laws are changing; the situation in Sarasio was something of a tipping point, showing that heavily-armed residents are more of a danger to one another now than centaur or plains elf raiders. Not coincidentally, it took an event which directly challenged the Empire’s authority to provoke a wave of reforms. All of which are potential topics for your homework! Next class, I want a two-page essay from each of you on a current application of this principle, covering an example of your choice: discuss a modern situation in which a state’s success or failure to assert control of violent action within its borders reflects upon its overall stability. And with that, we’re out of time for today. Class dismissed.”

She remained by the lectern, watching placidly, while they all gathered their books and filed out, several exchanging greetings with the Colonel on their way to the door. Azhai was a woman of reserved and formal bearing, but compared to some of the fellows assembled at the new research division of the school, she was not standoffish with students and had already garnered a positive reputation.

Once the last of the pupils had shut the door behind them, she finally strode down to the dais, where Tellwyrn was waiting with a mildly quizzical expression.

“My apologies, Professor,” Azhai said. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your class.”

“Nonsense, you were perfectly decorous,” Tellwyrn said, dismissing that with a wave of her hand. “Maintaining focus in the face of extremely slight distraction is just one of the basic life skills I have to teach these kids, since so many of their parents clearly couldn’t be arsed. What can I do for you, Colonel?”

Azhai drew in a slow breath, frowning in thought. “I wanted to let you know in person that I’ve been recalled. I’m to abort my assignment here and depart Last Rock.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn replied, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I must say you will be missed. I confess this surprises me, Colonel. Have you been told anything about a replacement? I am assuming, here, that the Empire’s interest in my program has not abruptly ceased. I’ve not heard so much as a hint of this from Tiraas.”

“That’s…the thing, Professor,” Azhai said, a grim note entering her tone. “No, I was not given any instructions regarding my successor. I have also not heard so much as a rumor from the Azure Corps that the Throne has changed its position on you and your research program. Staying in touch with Tiraas from out here is a bit of an undertaking, as I’m sure you know, but I have been doing my best to remain on top of the rumor mill. Everything I have heard suggests that the University is in good standing with the Empire, and with Intelligence in particular. Furthermore, Professor… Forgive me if I seem to be dancing around certain topics, but I was explicitly instructed not to reveal details of my reassignment to you.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn repeated in a low drawl. “How extremely mysterious.”

“Off the record,” said Azhai, glancing at the door. “As I am no longer on duty here, and in the interest of casual conversation… I transferred to the Azure Corps from the Corps of Enchanters, Professor; I have no shortage of personal experience working with special forces. When you’re not attached to one of the regular corps, you tend to gain some insight into the politics behind the Army. There are lots of factions wanting to make use of forces with special skills, and some which simply resent the special corps and like to throw petty inconveniences our way when they can get away with it. You learn to watch for certain red flags… And I am seeing a lot of those today. Being told to abandon a mission and vacate the premises but not given instructions on where to report next. The sudden reversal of policy from Command—and most damning, orders to keep this hushed from the Azure Corps’s brass and Intelligence. Professor, somebody, somewhere, is up to something they should not be, and which I seriously doubt is being undertaken with the Empire’s best interests in mind.”

“I appreciate you offering me your insight on this, Manaan,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “I understand there are risks to you in doing so. Rest assured you can count on my discretion.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Azhai said, nodding in reply, a hint of relief passing across her features. “Understand that I like it here, I support your program and I was very much looking forward to the research we were about to undertake. My loyalty, though, is to my Emperor. And as a soldier I will follow orders, but if those orders aren’t for the Emperor’s benefit…”

“You don’t have to justify anything to me,” Tellwyrn assured her. “Assuming all this gets resolved soon and the Empire’s participation in my research initiative continues, I’ll hope to see you back here. You will always be welcome.”

“I’ll hope to be back,” Azhai said fervently. “In the meantime… I have been ordered to be packed and out of Last Rock by tonight.” She tilted her head forward, staring into Tellwyrn’s eyes with as much emphasis as she could muster.

“Thank you for keeping me in the loop,” Tellwyrn replied, patting the shorter woman on the shoulder. “I had better not detain you any longer if you’re on a tight schedule. And don’t worry about me, Colonel, you take care of yourself for now.”

“Worrying about you seems presumptuous, somehow,” Azhai said wryly. “Just… Take care of the kids, Professor. I mean that in a general sense, of course.”

“Oh, I always take care of my kids,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “I mean that as generally or specifically as the situation requires, and you might pass it along to whoever needs to hear it.”

“I will. Here’s hoping to see you again soon, Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Safe travels, Colonel Azhai.”

Tellwyrn waited until she had departed the classroom before snapping her fingers. Maru popped out of midair nearby, dropping a foot to land lightly on the dais.

“If you must do that, you could at least teleport me directly onto the ground,” the tanuki complained. “I know you do this on purpose, Professor.”

“Maru, I should hardly have to remind you that we met when you tried to drop me into a spike pit,” she retorted. “You don’t get to fuss about these little jokes.”

“Ah, but my fussing about them is half the fun,” he said, grinning widely. “For you, I mean.”

Tellwyrn did not smile in response. “I brought you here because making Fedora vanish out from in front of whoever he’s pestering right now would be the fastest possible way to reveal that something’s up. I may have secured a brief head start, which could be squandered if whoever’s watching this campus realizes I know. Find that incubus and both of you haul ass to my office as quick as you can without drawing attention. Whatever’s going down, it’s going to be tonight.”


“I see your hunt was successful,” King Rajakhan stated as he strode into the room, his daughter on his heels. Ruda paused to kick the door shut, her eyes also on the guest perched on a chair at the end of the conference table.

The Queen and the rest of the sophomores were scattered around the table, Juniper playing with Jack in one corner and Teal in another, experimentally plucking at a sitar—which, to judge by the results produced, she had never played before. Principia lounged next to the door, making a show of cleaning her fingernails with a dagger. Most of them, overtly or not, were monitoring the woman garbed in black, including a climate-inappropriate cloak, who was seated in a prim posture with her hands on her knees, watching them all calmly.

“My business also went well, husband, thank you for asking,” Anjal said archly.

The King grunted. “I always assume your efforts meet with success, wife. I can’t be so safe about all of these.”

“Flatterer,” she accused, but with a smile.

“So what’s the story with this one, then?” Ruda asked, scowling at the woman in black.

“She came along quietly enough,” Gabriel reported. “And in fact she’s been quite willing to help. That is, with anything we ask that’s not explaining who she is, or who she works for.”

“Also, she’s got an invisible friend.” Juniper looked up from her jackalope at the ensuing silence, finding everyone staring at her. “You guys didn’t notice? She does the same exact thing Gabe does when Vestrel’s talking. Tilting her head to listen and staring at nothing for a second.”

“Well, how about that,” Gabriel drawled, turning fully to face their guest. “Anything you wanna add, Milady?”

She cleared her throat. “I don’t suppose you would believe I was talking to another valkyrie.” Her accent was Tiraan, her voice with the precise diction of an educated person.

“Do you find that funny?” he asked coldly. “Because I guarantee, you’re the only one.”

“Yeah, an’ this standoffishness isn’t gonna work,” Ruda added, glaring and ostentatiously fondling the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “Way I heard it, your fuck up sank negotiations with the Rust and spooked them into releasing that fucking thing in the harbor. I wanna know just who the hell you think you are, in detail.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I don’t want to tell you your business, Ruda, but consider that there may be an advantage in leaving it vague.”

“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” she exclaimed, rounding on him.

“Well, I mean, it’s pretty likely she’s from the Imperial government,” Fross chimed, swooping around the woman in black in a wide circle. “I mean, gosh, look at all these enchantments. She’d have to be an archmage to make this gear herself, which I don’t think she is. That means it was probably supplied by a government, and not a dinky little poor one.”

“Like ours?” Anjal said dryly.

“Oh.” The pixie dimmed, fluttering lower. “I didn’t mean…”

“And that’s the point,” Toby said quickly. “If she is Imperial, as seems overwhelmingly likely, there are benefits to everyone having some deniability. As soon as we all officially know the Empire has been unilaterally acting here and making a mess of it to boot, the Crown will pretty much have to respond to that, right? Which will create a whole slew of new complications.”

“As things stand,” Anjal added grimly, “we can avoid wrestling that shark, and make it damn clear to the Empire that we know and don’t appreciate this, without being forced to do so through formal channels. Listen to the boy, Zari, he has surprisingly good political instincts for an Omnist.”

Toby returned her smile. “Actually, your Majesty, that little theater we put on earlier helped me work through a spiritual problem with which I’ve been grappling.

“Happy to be of service,” Anjal said, tipping her hat. “But back to the point at hand. You two haven’t missed much, yet, but the revelations so far are not small. Apparently we have an ancient hideaway of the Elder Gods buried underneath the middle of the harbor.”

The woman in black cleared her throat as everyone focused on her again. “Yes, a fabrication plant—a place where they made their machines.”

“That explains some stuff about the Rust, doesn’t it,” Gabriel muttered.

“And you know this…how?” Rajakhan demanded.

“All the facilities of the Elder Gods were sealed at the end of the Pantheon’s uprising,” she explained. “And then, after that, they were all buried underground or sunk underwater by Naiya, probably to keep Scyllith from getting at the resources in them if she ever got out of the hole Themynra has her in. Some, though, have subsequently been re-opened by various mortals. I have worked closely in one of these. You might say I’m the closest thing available to an expert on the Infinite Order’s technology. I mean the real Infinite Order,” she added. “The actual Elder Gods, not these Rust idiots.”

“They’re idiots,” Teal muttered from her corner, plucking a discordant twang. “Who got caught screwing around in their tunnels and borked our mission there?”

The woman sighed. “Fair enough. I’m sorry; I tripped an alarm I failed to see coming. But back to the point at hand, the Order’s machines have the ability to connect to each other and communicate over long distances. It was severely diminished when the Pantheon shut off the transcension field linking them, but it can still be made to work in a limited capacity.”

Gabriel scratched his head. “Trans what?”

“A kind of magic. The point is, I learned from another of these systems elsewhere, weeks ago, that the fabrication plant in Puna Dara had been opened and accessed. Actually, this was done ten years ago.”

“Ten years,” Anjal muttered.

“It gets worse,” the woman in black warned. “The Infinite Order’s machines and facilities require their personal input to be re-activated. The one here was opened under Scyllith’s credentials.”

“Ffffffuck,” Gabriel whispered.

“Now, nobody panic,” Toby said hastily. “If Scyllith were loose, problems would be a lot worse than the Rust and a lot more widespread than Puna Dara.”

“That’s correct,” the woman agreed, nodding. “It’s far more likely that someone got hold of her credentials somehow and used that. There are ways; I have some experience with them.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Juniper said. “If you need one of the Elder Gods to open these things and you’ve opened one, whose credentials are you using?”

She sighed, making a resigned face. “Naiya’s.”

“And how did you do that?” the dryad demanded.

“By recruiting some of her daughters to help,” she said wearily. “Dryads and a kitsune.” The woman frowned suddenly, looking to the side. “I do not think that’s a good idea. No, seriously, that’s just going to agitate… Okay, fine, but there’s still security to—”

“Have you utterly lost it?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Invisible friend, remember?” Juniper said, gathering Jack into her arms and standing up. The jackalope’s behavior had indeed improved; he hardly struggled at all. “This is good, though, it’s finally something we can verify. Which dryads? What kitsune?”

“I don’t know how we can verify that part,” Fross objected. “We only know one kitsune and she’s not exactly available to ask.”

The woman in black was frowning now, staring into the distance. After a moment, she sighed heavily. “All right, fine. I said all right! I don’t… Oh, whatever, it hardly matters now, anyway. Apple, Hawthorn, and Mimosa,” she finally answered, turning to Juniper.

The dryad let out a low whistle. “Well. Aspen told me those there are in Tiraas.”

“Mm hm,” Anjal grunted, scowling. “Tiraas.”

The woman in black sighed again. “Fine, fine, on your head be it. And I am being requested to convey a message.” She turned to Gabriel. “For Vestrel. Yrsa would like her to know that things were hard for a long time, but she is doing well, now. She sends her love.”

“Okay, what the hell was that?” Gabriel demanded after a short pause. “Vestrel is completely freaking out. And not in a good way, Milady. If that scythe were tangible on this plane you would be headless right now.”

“I told you so,” the woman muttered, rubbing unconsciously at her neck.

“Are we seriously calling her Milady?” Ruda snipped.

“Well, she won’t tell us her name, and it’s as good as—” Gabriel broke off, wincing. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to explain that some more. And no more of this cagey—”

“If I may?” Everyone turned to look at Principia, who had raised a hand. “With apologies to Vestrel, this sounds like family business. And if there’s one thing I know about family business, it’s that it is messy. We really have much more urgent things to discuss; valkyrie drama is going to have to wait for now. It sounds like what we’ve gotta do is break into an Infinite Order facility and destroy it. I’ve been in those before; this is not a small undertaking.”

“Not destroy it,” Milady said quickly. “In fact, the opposite. The Infinite Order are using something called nanites to do what they do. I don’t know what those are, but I do know it’s a prohibited technology; the Order sealed it and even blocked records that explain them. Which means if the Rust have got them out and working, they have disabled the security in that facility. There should be an intelligent system governing it, which has to have been seriously messed with for this to have happened. If we can get to that and repair it, we may be able to completely disable them.”

“Intelligent system,” Principia grunted. “And you say it’s broken. When an intelligence breaks, that’s called madness. I do not look forward to trying to wrangle an insane Avatar.”

Milady’s gaze snapped to the elf. “How do you know what an Avatar is?”

Principia grinned at her. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, pumpkin.”

“Enough,” Rajakhan growled. “You say we have to fix this thing. How do you propose to do this, not even knowing what’s wrong with it?”

“That’s the hard part,” Milady admitted. “I’ve done so before, but it took days, and we have no choice but to go in blind. It is in no way going to be easy. But this is not like repairing a machine; it has more in common with…counseling. These are thinking, feeling things with personalities.”

“I may be able to help with that,” Toby said slowly. “Though I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up.”

“Juniper’s help will also be invaluable,” Milady said. “She is a link to Naiya, which may help get us access. And I think Principia had better come,” she added reluctantly. “Anyone who knows anything about Infinite Order systems will be useful.”

“Someday I’ll learn not to open my goddamn mouth,” Principia said philosophically. “Oh, who’m I kidding? No, I won’t.”

“Before that,” Gabriel interjected, “we have to get into this place. Something tells me the Rust isn’t going to be enthused about that prospect.” He was still scowling at Milady, clearly having picked up some of Vestrel’s agitation. “How do we even find the way there?”

“I can guide you,” said Milady. “My…counterpart has a complete map of the tunnels and mineshafts all around Puna Dara and can convey directions to me in real time. Several of them link up to the corridor the Rust have dug connecting to the old fabrication plant. There are a number of paths that avoid areas they traffic.”

“So we need to distract them,” Anjal said, suddenly grinning. “We are already working on that. Rajakhan has been exhorting the people while I worked on the powerful; Puna Dara itself is going to turn on the Rust.”

“If you can provide me with some disguise charms,” Principia added, “something to make my squad look like locals, I can furnish a more focused distraction. Like, outside that warehouse that they’re using for their public face. Five people who start screaming and throwing rocks can turn an angry crowd into a mob in seconds.”

“What you are talking about,” Rajakhan grated, “is dangerous almost beyond comprehension. To everyone involved.”

“I comprehend the danger, your Majesty,” she said seriously. “The offer stands, if you decide the risk is worthwhile. But I agree—if somebody has a better idea, that would be excellent.”

“It’s too bad the weather’s nice,” said Fross. “The Rust’s mechanical augmentations are metal and run on electricity; rain will impede them. Maybe not much, but every little bit helps.”

“Maybe more than a little, actually,” the King said, frowning. “We have noted, in monitoring them, that they avoid going out in storms. Most Punaji love rough weather—it was a notable pattern of behavior.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we can afford to wait around for a storm,” Ruda snorted. “Fross is right, the weather’s gorgeous and gonna stay like that for at least a while. We can’t afford to fuck around; every minute that thing is in the harbor, the city’s economy is hemorrhaging, to say nothing of how it’s riling up the populace. And while we’re on the subject, distracting the Rust is only part of the issue. If we’re going to be out in the harbor, the sea serpent’s a factor, too. Not to mention that it could attack the city if the Rust feel too threatened.”

“A nice, big storm would solve that problem as well,” Fross offered. “It’s still subject to the laws of physics, even if it’s designed to withstand mag cannon fire. With the water agitated it will be unable to navigate and will have to go to the bottom to avoid getting beached. It might be forced to leave the harbor entirely.”

“Fross,” Ruda said with strained patience, “it is not storming. It is not going to storm any time soon, and no power in creation is going to make the weather change. Trust me, that’s in Naphthene’s hands, and Naphthene does not give a shit. That is the core reality of Punaji life. Talking about storms is wishful thinking.”

A suddenly loud twang chimed from the corner, making Principia wince.

“So,” Teal said slowly, “a storm would temporarily neutralize the sea serpent and the cultists, and since the Punaji like harsh weather, might actually help the public move against the Rust. Do I have all that right?”

“Teal, what did I just fucking say?” Ruda exclaimed.

Teal carefully set the sitar down and stood, adjusting her robes. “That we can’t conjure up a storm. All due respect, Ruda, but… I bet I can.”

 

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Jasmine allowed herself a sigh of relief as she set the empty canape tray down on the kitchen counter. None of the others were present; given the sudden availability of free “help,” Glory had not troubled to bring in staff for this event. Ami and Schwartz were circulating among the guests (with differing degrees of skill), but the lady of the house had not hesitated to put the Guild apprentices to work. That left Smythe to handle the cooking, a skill none of the rest of them possessed.

“Well, this hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared,” she said aloud, adjusting the collar of her still jacket. Actually the livery the Butler had found for them didn’t bother her; it reminded her of dress uniform. Layla and Darius, likewise, seemed to find it hilarious to be dressing as servants, but Tallie in particular was not enjoying the role. As usual, it was hard to tell what Ross thought.

“Do not mistake caution for virtue,” Smythe advised, glancing at her with a faint smile but not turning from the sauce he was stirring. He manned the stove without the benefit of an apron, but his uniform was, of course, spotless. Butlers did not make mistakes. “Many of those men and several of the women have fondled waitresses in other venues. No one invited to one of Tamisin Sharvineh’s events, however, would be foolish enough to mistreat working-class people in the home of a prominent Eserite.”

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I just meant that I’m not as terrible at this as I could be. It’s my first time serving appetizers at a society party. Believe it or not,” she added dryly.

The Butler gave her another glance; his expression relaxed subtly, conveying the aspect of a calm smile without actually moving his lips. It was incredible what the man could communicate with his face. “A military upbringing confers many traits which are crucial in domestic service, notably punctuality, discretion, good posture, and the capacity to behave deferentially toward worthless people. Alone among your friends, I would gladly provide you references toward another position.”

“I have other plans, but I appreciate that,” she said with amusement. He nodded, turning back to his sauce. “Will you need me to take another tray?”

“Not yet. Your compatriots have that in hand. There is a rhythm and a balance to social events; madame prefers her hospitality to seem generous but not excessive. It is a subtle reminder to the powerful individuals present that on Eserion’s ground, even they may go hungry.”

“That’s slightly terrifying,” she observed. “But I’m amazed how you can be so aware of the situation from back here in the kitchen.”

“I am a Butler,” he explained. “It might be wise for you to circulate, however. Ostensibly to see if a guest needs anything, but more significantly to keep an eye on the house. With so many present, opportunities for mischief abound.”

Jasmine frowned. “You don’t think the conspirators would attempt something here, surely? Even the Svennish intelligence service didn’t dare attack this house.”

“The Svennish intelligence service are professionals. Your adversaries have thus far abducted Eserite apprentices practically from the Guild’s doorstep, attempted to unlawfully imprison the same under the very nose of the Sisterhood, and employed intrusive scrying spells on a witch sufficiently powerful to detect and counter them. Reckless or incompetent foes present their own dangers, Jasmine. They may be more easily beaten once confronted, but a person unburdened by strategic sense might attempt almost anything.”

“I see your point,” she said, then deliberately smoothed her expression. “I’ll make the rounds, then.”

Smythe shifted to give her another nod before going back to his stirring, and she slipped back out.

It was odd, she reflected while navigating the busy townhouse, how none of the guests appeared to notice her. When she was carrying food, they would select bites without acknowledging her, as though an unattended tray were floating past. Smythe had lectured the group about the invisibility of servants (she really hoped Tallie’s resentment toward nobles wasn’t already bubbling over), but to Jasmine’s mind the Guild’s doctrine had more to teach about this phenomenon. She wondered, while climbing the servant’s stairs in the back, whether this qualified as “don’t see” or “won’t see.” A bit of both, she decided; for the most part, ignoring servants simply seemed the thing to do, and they had no trouble detecting the canapes and cocktails. But then, after overhearing snippets of conversation, she was starting to suspect that some of these people didn’t regard those below their station as actual people.

And these were Glory’s guests? It was downright horrifying to imagine what must be going on in the houses of the city’s nobility. This party had done more to impart a good Eserite’s resentment of those in power than weeks of Lore’s lectures.

Apparently no one wanted anything, and most of the guests were fully occupied with one another, or clustered in the central salon where Glory was holding court; at any rate, she was not stopped on her way around the lower floor. She did pass Ross holding a tray of drinks, and received a blank-faced nod from him. Technically a breach of Smyth’s rules of servant conduct, but she wasn’t about to rat him out. Her rounds were uninterrupted until she passed the bathroom door on the second floor rear hallway, not far from the servant’s stairs.

It opened so abruptly she had to take a step back to avoid being struck, but did not swing wide. Layla squeezed through the crack and instantly pushed it shut behind her.

“Jasmine,” she hissed. “Thank the gods. That guest this is all about, Carruthers Treadwell? He’s a gnome, right?”

Jasmine tilted her head curiously. “Treadwell? Yes, Schwartz said he was.”

“A little paunchy?” Layla continued in a furious whisper, glancing surreptitiously about in exactly the way Style had told them not to do. “White hair, big mustache…?”

“That I can’t tell you; Glory’s been monopolizing him and I haven’t met the man yet. Apparently he didn’t want to come and she had to apply persuasion, and just winked when I asked what that…” Jasmine trailed off, suddenly frowning. “Why? Did he corner you in the bathroom or something? Layla, even if we need his help you do not have to put up with—”

Layla grabbed her arm, and Jasmine focused on her face, suddenly paying closer attention. The girl had always had an aristocrat’s composure even before the Guild’s coaching in the fine art of lying, but she was two shades paler than normal, her eyes wide and lips pressed into a stressed line. She glanced up and down the empty hall once more, then stepped aside, pulled the door open just a crack, and jerked her head urgently toward it.

Taking the hint, Jasmine shut her mouth and immediately slipped inside, making room for Layla to follow. By the time the younger girl had pulled the door shut behind them, she had already forgotten she was there.

The gnome sat against the wall next to the ornately cast porcelain toilet, eyes staring vacantly at a point near the ceiling. His black tuxedo jacket did not reveal stains, but the white shirt beneath was now more crimson than white, and the blood spreading from around him had rendered the carpet a total loss.

They stared in stunned silence before Layla managed to speak in a thin, tight voice.

“It’s surreal. The one thought I cannot get out of my head is it does not seem there could physically be that much blood inside a gnome. Isn’t that surreal?”

Jasmine blinked, swallowed, shook her head once, and straightened her spine. “Right. Right. Okay. Layla, get Glory. No!” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily in thought. “You can’t push through that crowd to get her attention, that’ll kick the beehive for sure. Go to the kitchen, get Smythe. He will get Glory and she’ll direct our next steps. I’ll stay here and make sure nobody else finds…this.”

“Right. Yes. I’m on my way.” Layla seemed energized at having direction, and grasped the door handle again.

“And be careful,” Jasmine added, turning to her suddenly. “This can’t possibly be a coincidence.”

“Yes, I know,” Layla said, drawing a deep breath. “Whoever’s after us is in this house, and now we know how far they’re willing to go. And that they can get around Glory’s wards. I’ll be quick.”

No sooner had they slipped back into the hall than Layla shot off toward the rear staircase at the fastest pace that would not draw attention. Jasmine planted herself in front of the door, falling automatically into parade rest.

Layla had only been gone a minute before a well-dressed man strolled up, drink in hand, and paused to give her an inquisitive look. “Excuse me?”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” she said with a deferential little smile. “This one is out of order.”


They went for the slope itself, Maureen stubbornly clinging to her basket of metal—she was not about to relinquish her haul to whatever nonsense this was—but made it only a few feet up the slope before the roar of the crowd abruptly ceased. Naturally, she didn’t slow. When fleeing a pursuer, it was a fatal mistake to sacrifice footing and control to look back; any gnome knew that.

Unfortunately, Chase Masterson had not had the benefit of a gnomish education.

He immediately skidded to a stop, turning in the process to see what made the change, which proved to be a more complex maneuver than he could handle while running up a steep slope. Or, knowing him, probably at all. He slipped on the grass, one ankle twisting out from under him, and went tumbling to the ground, immediately rolling downhill.

Even more unfortunately, a great towering human-sized lummox rolling down the mountain at her from barely more than her height ahead proved an obstacle Maureen could neither vault over nor dodge around. The impact bowled her right over, causing her to lose her grip finally. The basket went tumbling away, strewing scrap metal across the grass.

Being knocked down and rolled upon did not phase her, but for that, she punched him as hard as she could manage in whatever piece of the big oaf it was that currently blocked her vision.

“Ow! My kidney!” Chase scrambled away, but stopped before rising back to his feet, staring back down at the town. “…huh. What the hell’s got into them now?”

The erstwhile mob seemed to have abruptly lost its impetus. Suddenly, it had ceased to be a seething organism and had become a dozen or so prairie townspeople, standing around and staring at each other in confusion, as if unsure what they were doing or why. Silence gradually gave way to subdued muttering.

“Dunno,” Maureen grunted, hopping nimbly back to her feet. “Their problem, an’ I’m out before it becomes ours again. An’ you owe me a basket o’ metal bits, y’great clodhoppin’ galoot!”

“Oh, sure, blame me,” he said cheerfully, scrambling back upright and following her into a dash. They set off up the slope at an angle this time, heading for the stone stairs and their more certain footing. “Surely you don’t think I caused a mob?”

Maureen didn’t spare him a glance. “I dunno, Chase. Did you cause a mob?”

“Well, not that I know of!” he replied with an exuberant laugh. “But let’s face it, if there’s an angry mob and I’m in the same town, there’s at least even odds that somehow—”

“Just bloody well run!”


“Hey!” Fred protested as the shed door was yanked open, whirling to face the intruder. He had to lower his gaze; whoever had interrupted them was about half his height.

“What’s this? What’s all this, now?” wheezed a reedy little voice. “What’re y’all doin’ in my garden shed?”

“Your…” Fred stared, blinking in astonishment. The voice was an old man’s, one he didn’t immediately recognize. “Your… Mister, I think you’re a mite turned around.”

“Don’t you lecture me, sonny boy!” the intruder said shrilly, and Fred stumbled at a sharp jab to his thigh. A moment later he stumbled back again, throwing up a hand to protect his eyes against the brilliance that had suddenly erupted. The tiny old man lifted an old-fashioned oil lamp to illuminate the interior of the shed. Even without the hunch that bent him nearly double, he was short, his head entirely bald with incongruously huge tufts of white hair erupting from his ears, face so lost in wrinkles that his eyes were completely obscured beneath bushy brows. He jabbed at Fred again with a gnarled cane, though this time Fred held his ground; if he backed up any further he’d stumble over Lorelin, who was still seated in meditation. The old man prodded him once more, shaking his lamp aggressively. “This here’s my tool shed, an’ I don’t take kindly to trespassers, nosirree I don’t!”

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

That was apparently the wrong answer, and earned him a whack on the hip. For such an apparently frail old fellow, he could swing that cane hard.

“Don’t you correct me, y’little hoodlum! I know my rights! Eighty-seventeen years I’ve worked this farm, an’ I know every inch of it! This here’s my garden toolshed, sure as my name’s Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee! My poor wife’s buried right behind it, an’ my dog too, Vidius rest both their souls! But not the cat, little bastard never did an honest day’s work in his furry life.”

Rubbing his thigh, Fred snuck a glance back at the priestess, who did not react to the invocation of her god, either. She was still concentrating; his job, after all, was to see she wasn’t interrupted. He shifted position, planting himself between the old man and Lorelin. “Now see here, mister, this here shed’s in an alley behind the Saloon, there ain’t no way…” He trailed off, frowning, then leaned forward. “Hang on. Do I know you? I ain’t never seen you ’round town…”

He really should have expected the ensuing whack to the skull, he reflected when he could think again. In hindsight, it was obvious. When his ears stopped ringing, he found he’d barely caught himself against the wall of the shed. That and…oh, no.

Lorelin grunted, almost sending Fred entirely to the ground in the process of crawling out from under him. The old man was still ranting, shaking his lantern at them.

“…never heard such disrespect, in my day, young ‘uns had a proper regard for their elders, yes sir they did! Why, when I fought off the elves with my trusty lightnin’ staff, even they wasn’t so rude! Elves got proper respect for their elders, yes they do! ‘Mr. McGee,’ they said t’me, ‘beggin’ yer pardon but we’re here to pillage yer farm, if y’please.’ An’ I served ’em tea before I shot ’em all in the face in alphabetical order with lightning, cos in my day we had us a little thing called manners!”

“I’m unsurprised you don’t recognize him, Mr. Carson,” Lorelin said, straightening and brushing off her shirt. “This creature is some kind of fairy.”

“You’re some kinda fairy!” McGee shouted, whacking Fred again. “I never heard o’ such—”

The light that blazed from behind Fred was by a wide margin more blinding than the lamp, and made him distinctly grateful he wasn’t looking in its direction. The pure golden glow of divine magic pulsed outward, and at its impact, Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee seemed to blow away as if made of dust, leaving behind a shape that made even less sense.

Fred locked eyes with the four-foot-tall raccoon dressed in robes for a moment. Then the creature had the temerity to giggle.

Then it darted forward, dropped to the ground, and bit him on the ankle.

Fred yelled and stumbled over backward, once again collapsing atop Lorelin. This time he bore them both fully to the ground, again breaking her concentration. The light vanished, plunging them once more into oppressive darkness.

“I’m sorry!” he stammered, scrambling off her and accidentally kicking her in the process. “Gods, I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry about it, Carson.” Her voice, oddly enough, seemed amused. “It seems this may not be as easy as we were expecting.”

“What the hell is that thing?!”

“I’ve no idea; fairies are over my head.” His vision was gradually adjusting; he could make out a shifting shadow as she altered her position. “But we have our mission, and it looks like yours is no longer the easy part. Do your best to keep him off me, if you please.”

She fell still, and silent, apparently sinking back into meditation. In the ensuing silence, Fred heaved himself upright, lurched over to the door, and swung it shut, pressing himself against it.

The distinct scrabbling of little clawed feet scampered across the roof above them, followed by a shrill and distinctly insane giggle. And then a whimper, which Fred only belatedly realized had been himself.


Whatever caused the lull lasted only moments, and then with a roar, the crowd was after them again.

“Bloody ‘ell, are they gaining?” Maureen protested just as they reached the stairs.

“Well, yeah, their legs alone are taller than you,” Chase pointed out, a little breathless. He had pulled ahead, and now paused, turning back to her. “I could’ve left you behind, but Tellwyrn would turn me into an entire new dumbass-leather wardrobe. Her words, not mine. Oh, fine, I guess I have to do everything around here.”

“Don’t you dare!” she squawked, smacking him and jumping away as he bent and reached for her.

“Ow! You pint-sized idjit, do you want to get torn apart by a mob? Come here!”

“You can barely carry yer own weight, the way yer gaspin’!” Maureen skittered wide, departing the staircase to circle around him outside his reach. The distraction had cost them; she chanced a glance down the mountain, and the inexplicably enraged humans were rapidly gaining.

“Dammit to hell and back in a handbasket,” he complained, huffing as he followed her and lacking the sense to shut up when he was clearly not in good enough shape to be running up mountains in the first place. “This better actually be my fault somehow! If I get killed and it’s not because of something I did, everybody I care about is gonna lose the pool I have going. Best thing I could leave for ’em, not like I’ve got anything worth putting in a will…”

Only when he trailed off for breath did she note the sound. She had never heard it so distantly before, but Maureen knew that sound.

“No,” she breathed.

The lights came into view ahead and above them, a sharp blue glow that descended the mountain right at them at a frightening speed, the noise growing louder. It was a hum both deep and shrill, that seemed to exist somewhere on the boundaries of hearing.

“What the fuck now?” Chase demanded. “I really hope that’s help. Is that help? It doesn’t look like help. Doesn’t sound like help, either…”

“No, no, no!” Maureen wailed, putting on a burst of speed. “No, she’s not ready yet! She’s not done! Aye, she runs but I’ve the whole stabilizing matrix to install!”

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

It angled away from the staircase, swerving wide to avoid striking them, and immediately began wobbling, which caused Maureen to cry out in panic. No surprise; stabilizing matrix or no, there was nobody alive who had any practice at driving that thing at all, much less down a mountainside at breakneck speed.

Even without practice, Szith’s natural elven balance and agility made a world of difference. She turned the machine entirely sideways till it was sliding horizontally down the slope, its single wide wheel ripping up and spewing a veritable fountain of grass and sod. The arcane blue fairy lamps mounted to its round bronze shell flashed as their beams swept across the two astonished students, then the angle changed, leaving the vehicle backlit by the glow of the levitation charms holding its tapering tail aloft. Szith leaned upslope in its saddle, planting one booted foot on the ground and ripping up another streak of grass as she manually slowed and controlled the descent.

It was unfair, Maureen reflected, how elves were just naturally good at everything. She knew for a fact the drow had never even ridden a horse, much less a…well, she hadn’t quite got around to naming it yet.

The arcane rider’s approach made even the mob trail to a halt, gaping in astonishment. The wheeled vehicle wobbled violently as Szith fought for control, and for a horrifying moment Maureen was certain the whole thing was going to flip over and roll the rest of the way down the mountainside. The drow (and the levitation charm) prevailed, however, and the whine of its motive charms surged as she gave it a boost of power. More dirt flew and it surged back into motion, getting its wheel firmly under itself. Having slid all the way past them now, she angled it back uphill and came after them.

Szith actually leaned out of the saddle, holding one arm out and scooping Maureen up into her lap even as she squeezed the brakes, skidding to a halt. And nearly toppling over again as the vehicle wobbled and swerved in the process.

“Gently!” Maureen squawked. “Ya gotta guide ‘er gently, she’s not got the balance fer this stop-an’-go!”

“On!” Szith barked, pulling to a halt next to Chase.

“Oh, hell yes!” he crowed, vaulting onto the saddle behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Gently!” Maureen wailed, to no avail. Szith shifted her grip on the handlebars, relaxing the brakes and twisting the throttle forward, sending Marueen’s project into another skid as she poured far too much power far too fast into their acceleration, causing the gnome to regret showing her how the controls worked even though this was very likely saving her life.

But it stabilized quickly, and they shot upward far faster than Maureen had ever climbed this mountain, rhythmically bouncing as the big wheel crossed over the switchbacking paved path. In just moments, the University gates hove into view.

“I WANT ONE!” Chase bellowed, and Maureen really wished she was in a position to push him off.


“Gotcha,” Fedora whispered savagely, peering through the spyglass. Even in a form which lacked his wings and tail for balance, even perched at the top of the church’s steeple in the stiff prairie breeze, he held his stance easily, quite enjoying the dramatic way his trench coat billowed behind him. Up ahead and far below, a single figure in a black coat stood at a distance from both the town and the now-puzzled mob which had staggered to an impotent halt a scant few dozen yards up the mountain.

The Inspector ignored them as he had the pulse of divine light which had briefly illuminated the alley behind the Saloon. Maru had done his job, and nothing Lorelin Reich had in her bag of tricks was going to more than inconvenience the tanuki. For that matter, Fedora had probably better go collect him before her efforts made that game too much fun. Fairies tended to lose themselves in the hunt, and all the University needed right now was for Tellwyrn’s personal secretary to turn somebody into a tree stump.

“It was a good play,” he said aloud into the wind as the Hand of the Emperor shifted to glare at his defeated lynch mob, bringing his familiar profile into focus. “Create a ruckus, threaten students, bring Tellwyrn down here to intervene. If you did your job well enough, she might go overboard, give you an excuse to rile the town further. At the very least, you’d test her, see how she reacted to being poked. But you didn’t count on a dashing, demonic voice of reason to summon student help and persuade the boss lady to butt out, now didja. And now it is Fedora who has seen the face of the enemy! You lose this round, cupcake. What shall we play next?”

His triumphant grin vanished as the Hand of the Emperor abruptly turned to stare directly at him.

“No,” Fedora muttered, lowering the spyglass. It was dark, there was a good quarter of a mile between them. Even an elf could barely have made him out, perched on the steeple. “There’s no way…”

The Hand vanished momentarily from view as he suddenly sped back into the shadow of Last Rock’s buildings. Then he reappeared even more dramatically, having vaulted from the ground onto a rooftop. He proceeded onward, leaping from roof to roof faster than a jungle cat, and making straight for the church.

“Oh, shit.”

 

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