Tag Archives: Melaxyna

15 – 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

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

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

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

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

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

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group exchanged a round of glances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 9

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“What is a vampire?” Hesthri demanded.

The carriage went over a bump, jostling them all and causing Natchua to growl wordlessly as she had to scramble to sustain the plate-sized spell circle she was crafting in midair between them out of lines of fire.

“A vampire is an apex shadow magic creation,” Melaxyna replied. Unlike the rest of them, she appeared perfectly relaxed, having spun around on the carriage bench to lean her back against Sherwin’s shoulder, with one leg extended to brace a bare foot against the door. “The only monsters of any significant power that don’t derive their nature from any of the four primary schools of magic. It’s…a lot to go over, actually, what’s immediately relevant is that most of them are not to be trifled with. There are different blood lineages with different powers, as I understand it. Malivette Dufresne is a pretty heavy hitter.”

“Uh…huh,” Hesthri said slowly, wide-eyed. “And why are we just passively going along to her house, then?”

“Because she demanded it,” Sherwin said bitterly. “Which she can only sort of do, legally, but it’s the vampire part that concerns me more than the Imperial governor part.”

“Is it?” Jonathan grunted. “I’m a bit more concerned that a vampire is an Imperial governor.”

“Makes sense to me!” Melaxyna said lightly. “You want a governor who won’t be pushed around, right? And if she’s also an object of fear and revulsion, you don’t have to worry about her building a power base and leading a rebellion. Maybe all the Imperial governors should be vampires!”

“I wouldn’t make suggestions like that in front of Vette,” Sherwin advised. “The vampire who gave her the curse also wiped out her entire family.”

A strained quiet fell, in which they stared at each other and listened to the grinding of the carriage’s wheels and the clopping of hooves that pulled it along.

“Okay,” Hesthri said at last. “New question, then. How are we going to fight her?”

“No fighting!” Sherwin insisted, actually shrugging Melaxyna off to straighten up with an alarmed expression. “You may’ve got the wrong impression from that ‘heavy hitter’ talk—Malivette isn’t a thing like me or Natchua, or Mel, or you. She is off the Circle of Interaction entirely, which means there’s no easy counter to her powers. And her powers are just ridiculous to begin with. I’m frankly not sure the whole group of us could take her down in a fight, if it was her alone. But she’ll have her whole gaggle of thralls around, so that’s not even slightly possible.”

“Oh,” the hethelax said in a very small voice, leaning forward to look at Jonathan. The two of them were separated by Natchua on the bench. He shifted to meet Hesthri’s eyes, and started to reach across to take her hand, which brought his own close to the circle Natchua was creating in the air.

“Out of the way!” she barked.

“It’s not exactly all bad,” Sherwin added, almost grudgingly. “Vette probably won’t do anything too violent to us, for the other reason we shouldn’t try it on her.”

“Other reason?” Jonathan said incredulously.

“Imperial governor, remember?” Melaxyna prompted with a grin.

Sherwin nodded in sour agreement. “Even if we could take her, there’d be hell to pay. Likewise, she can’t just up and murder a bunch of people.”

“Why not?” Jonathan asked in his driest tone. “Aristocrats do that all the time. Who the hell cares about us?”

“I am the last member and nominal Head of House Leduc,” Sherwin said with a heavy sigh. “It’s not exactly a conventional situation up here, but Houses Leduc and Dufresne have been feuding and struggling over the control of Veilgrad and Lower Stalwar Province for generations. Only thing that kept it from getting nasty was the rest of the Houses watching the situation. The Empire wouldn’t give a crap about anything that happened to me, but if the vampire aristocrat was even implicated in my demise, the other Houses would raise a stink until the Silver Throne had to come down on her. They can’t have her bumping off competition, especially since nothing in any of their arsenals would even slow Vette down. Nobles reliably freak out about anything that even smells like a threat to their power, so she can’t afford to be anything but a model citizen. Fucking politics,” he added in a sullen grumble, crossing his arms and leaning his head against Melaxyna’s. “This crap is why I never leave the house.”

“Oh,” Jonathan said neutrally, “is that why.”

Sherwin narrowed his eyes at him, while Melaxyna grinned. Jonathan, meanwhile, shifted his attention to Natchua.

“Do you really have to do that right here and now? I’d at least like to know how much cancer we can all expect to get from being this close to hasty infernomancy.”

“Nothing I ever do will be so uncontained as to cause splash effects,” Natchua sneered.

“She’s right, that spell is fully inert beyond its boundaries,” Sherwin added. “Very tight confinement work. That’s the most important skill a warlock can have, you know. Which is not to say I can tell what she’s doing; I’ve never seen anything remotely like that.”

“The Black Wreath would make anybody they caught doing this disappear,” Natchua said, eyes on her spell. “Since the whole plan is to go after them before they even think to come after us, worrying about that would seem somewhat redundant. And no, Jonathan, I would rather not be doing this here and now. Handling it in a moving carriage makes it orders of magnitude more difficult. Circumstances have kind of forced my hand, though. There.” She lowered her hands, and the glowing runic circle remained in midair, rotating slowly and remaining perfectly in position relative to the carriage. Natchua snapped her fingers and opened her palm, and a dagger dropped from the empty air into her grasp, a short knife with a wickedly sinuously blade whose cutting edge glowed as if red-hot.

“Whoah, now,” Melaxyna said, finally looking somewhat perturbed.

“Hesthri, give me your hand,” Natchua ordered.

Hesthri immediately scooted away from her against the side of the carriage, tucking her hands against her chest and frowning. “What? Why? What are you going to do?”

“There is not time to go into it!” Natchua snapped. “I’m not going to hurt you; I didn’t go to the considerable trouble of tracking you down to treat you wastefully. But you also weren’t called here for a vacation! You agreed to follow my orders on this campaign, and if you’ve decided you’re not going to do that, you may as well go right back where you were.”

“Hey,” Jonathan said sharply, “don’t talk to her like that!”

“Hush, boy,” Melaxyna drawled. “Every word she just said was right. This whole scheme is crazy, but we did all agree to follow the drow, and by implication, trust her. Anybody who’s having second thoughts urgently needs to fuck off.”

Hesthri drew in a sharp breath as if anticipating pain, but then extended her hand to Natchua, albeit with some hesitation.

The drow seized her index finger with her left hand, and with her right, very carefully began trimming away the claw on her fingertip. Hesthri winced, watching, but did not twitch.

“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, peering at this in fascination. “I thought hethelax armor was completely invulnerable.”

“Not to that thing,” Melaxyna said in a tight voice, her eyes now locked on the dagger. “How did you get your hands on one without tipping off the Wreath? I thought they hid all of those away.”

“They did,” Natchua said absently, focusing on her work. “I made this one myself. There we go.” She released Hesthri’s hand and the hethelax immediately snatched it back, retreating again to the edge of the bench. “That should grow back on its own, Hesthri. If it hasn’t started in a couple of days, let me know and I’ll fix it. Are you okay? That wasn’t supposed to hurt.”

“No,” Hesthri said, grimacing and holding up her declawed finger. “I mean, yes. I mean—I’m fine, it doesn’t hurt. Just feels weird.”

Natchua carefully dropped the trimmed claw into the circle of glowing lines, where it immediately snapped to the center and hung there. “Your turn, Mel. Hand.”

“What?” Melaxyna squealed, abruptly scrabbling away from Sherwin. “Me? Why?!”

“Hush, girl,” Jonathan said solemnly. “We’re doing as the nice warlock orders, remember?”

“Jonathan Arquin,” Natchua growled, “we have established that you’re here explicitly because I don’t have the heart to kill or disappear you. If you’re going to do shit like that, my mind can change. If the succubus can refrain from needling everybody, you have no excuse. Mel, we don’t have time for this, we’re getting closer to the vampire’s lair by the second. Give me your hand.”

Melaxyna whined like a kicked dog and made gruesome faces, but obeyed, even more hesitantly than Hesthri had. Natchua had to reach out, seize her wrist, and haul her hand closer, but the actual procedure was much quicker: she simply jabbed the succubus’s fingertip with the knife’s point, causing an entirely excessive squeal of pain.

A single drop of black blood welled up. Natchua released Melaxyna, who yanked her arm back, but the droplet remained behind. The warlock gestured and it drifted through the air to join the slice of hethelax claw.

Instantly the entire circle snapped inward, forming a tiny ball of fire around the two joined specimens. That burned out in half a second, emitting a puff of acrid smoke and leaving behind a blob of viscous black substance with an oily sheen on its rippling surface. It undulated and squirmed in midair.

“If that’s what I think it is,” Sherwin said warily, “I can see why the Black Wreath wouldn’t want you doing it. Or anyone, for that matter.”

“And…what do you think it is?” Jonathan asked in the same tone.

Natchua simply took the wriggling thing between her thumb and forefinger; it squirmed but failed to escape. “All right, Mel, other hand.”

“Whyyyyy,” Melaxyna whined. “Come on, I already donated! It’s her turn again!”

This time, Natchua simply pointed at her with the hand not holding the blob, and chain of orange fire lashed out of her fingertip, twined around one of the succubus’s arms, and dragged it closer. Before Melaxyna could react further, she dropped the blob right into her palm.

It immediately sank into her skin and vanished.

“What did you do?!” Melaxyna squalled, struggling so violently the carriage rocked. “Get it out! What is that? So help me, you knife-eared little darkling freak, if you’ve—”

She broke off suddenly, as the other hand which she’d raised in a fist was suddenly encased in a black gauntlet with spikes protruding from the knuckles.

“Oh, no,” Sherwin whispered. “Natchua, what have you done?”

“Good,” Natchua said approvingly, ignoring him. She let go of the glowing dagger and it vanished, freeing her hand to pull out her mundane belt knife. “It’s made with your own blood, so it should sync directly with your native shapeshifting and give you full intuitive control. Make a gauntlet on your other hand.”

The other hand was still imprisoned by the chain, which did not prevent Melaxyna from obeying. A second gauntlet formed over her skin.

Natchua lashed out with elven speed, stabbing the blade right at the center of Melaxyna’s palm. It impacted the armor with an impotent clink, snapping off its tip. The gauntlet was not so much as scratched.

Melaxyna’s expression morphed to one of incredulous delight. “Best. Boss. Ever.”

“D-did you just give hethelax invulnerability to a succubus?” Jonathan breathed. “Natchua, no!”

“Natchua, yes!” Melaxyna crowed.

“Pardon me while I just double-check that the wards in here are actually preventing those thralls from hearing this,” Sherwin muttered.

“It’s not total invulnerability,” Natchua explained, finally dismissing the fiery chain and releasing Melaxyna’s arm. “Your shapeshifting has been, in a word, upgraded: you can now create armor which, yes, inherits hethelax invulnerability. That means it’s vulnerable to all the things you already are, like divine magic and valkyrie scythes. The theory is you should be able to alter the appearance as you see fit; you can make ordinary-looking clothes that will stop a wandshot, or a full suit of armor. Whatever you like. And the point of all this,” she added more loudly as three people drew breath to begin protesting, “is to have an ace up our sleeves! Just because Malivette Dufresne is generally disinclined to murder us all does not mean she can’t, and in case I need to remind you lot, we have a notable lack of legal standing, here. Of all four schools, infernal users are least equipped to deal with a vampire, or with undead in general. I want to go in there with at least something Dufresne isn’t expecting and won’t have a convenient way to handle, just in case, and this is the only idea I had prepared.”

“Well,” Hesthri said after a short silence, “you’ve absolutely just created a crisis for somebody somewhere down the line, but that’s the future. I guess right now we’d better concentrate on dealing with the vampire. So if we can’t fight her or run away, what the hell are we going to tell her?”

“I was counting on our presence here being a secret,” Natchua said, giving Sherwin a look.

“Oh, don’t scowl at me,” he snapped. “If you didn’t know her vampire senses would spot you landing here, how the hell would I?”

“The point is, I didn’t plan for this! I don’t have a story that would explain this group and I don’t know how fast I can cobble one together.”

“I dunno if you even can,” said Jonathan. “Unless you actually work for the Empire, the Church, or the Topaz College, summoning sapient demons is pretty damn illegal. Summoning a Vanislaad is the kind of illegal that gets you locked up for life!”

“Well, everybody’s clear, there,” Melaxyna said absently while changing the appearance of both her armored gloves and admiring them. “Natch didn’t summon me, I was already on this plane. Arachne can vouch for that, if it comes down to it.”

“That’s true,” Sherwin agreed, “and merely consorting with a Vanislaad isn’t a crime. The presumption of the law is that anybody entangled with them is probably a victim of their manipulation.”

“That’s the dumbest law I ever heard of,” Hesthri scoffed.

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” Sherwin grumbled. “House Leduc called in a lot of favors to get Empress Theasia to institute that one. Gods, am I glad my whole family is dead. Legally speaking, we’re in trouble, here, but not mortal trouble. The hethelax is a relatively minor threat…”

“This hethelax in particular is going to create waves if the Empire identifies her,” Jonathan said grimly, “which they might from my presence alone.”

“Vette isn’t the Empire,” Sherwin offered. “And she has her own reasons for not wanting attention called to her business. We can spin this, hopefully in a way she’ll go along with, but… Honestly, Natchua, we may have to just tell her what’s going on.”

The carriage lurched as it came to a stop.

“Time’s up,” Natchua said fatalistically. “Looks like we play it by ear.”

Further discussion was precluded by the opening of the carriage door.

“Welcome,” Ruby said pleasantly, stepping back and gesturing them out with a graceful bow. “Please, honored guests, this way.”

They disembarked one by one, feet crunching on the gravel drive. The gravel, at least, looked relatively fresh, unlike the waist-high weeds which choked the surrounding lawn. Before them, the manor house itself was largely covered by climbing ivy.

“Do the nobles here just not bother taking care of their property?” Melaxyna muttered. “At least this place looks better than yours, Sherwin.”

“The nobles here don’t want company,” he said pointedly.

“How’s she govern the province, then?” Hesthri asked, equally pointedly.

“The actual administration is done by her steward, Grusser, down in the city,” Sherwin explained, already shuffling toward the mansion’s front door. Natchua caught up in two long strides and then held back to glide along at his shoulder. The rest followed more warily, Jonathan pausing to peer at the stone obelisk which stood in the middle of the circle drive.

The manor’s front doors opened before the reached the steps, and two more women emerged, also wearing striking evening gowns. So far all of Malivette’s attendants were beautiful young women of local Stalweiss extraction, and all were uniformed in extravagant dresses that were identical apart from being color-coded. Ruby and Jade had driven them in the carriage, garbed in red and green respectively: these were in white and blue.

“Sapphire and Diamond, yes?” Melaxyna prompted.

“Pearl,” Sherwin corrected her.

“Welcome,” said Sapphire courteously. “Please, step this—”

“Yeah, yeah, spare me,” Sherwin interrupted her, stomping up the front stairs. “Nobody but you has the energy to pretend this is a polite social call. Let’s get this bullshit over with.”

“He’s not used to being around people,” Melaxyna said apologetically.

“We’re familiar with Lord Leduc,” Pearl replied with a smile. “We wouldn’t dream of disturbing his solitude except at great need.”

“Ladies,” Jonathan said far more politely, bowing to each of them before entering.

“If any of you were thinking of trying something, let me just repeat: do not.” Inside the remarkably bare front hall of Manor Dufresne, Sherwin paused to turn a warning look on the rest of his party. “Vampire thralls are as strong as a human in good shape, and as fast and agile as elves. They’re basically Butlers, functionally. In fact, my pet theory is that’s literally what Butlers are, since nobody’s seen whoever leads the Service Society in the eighty-odd years since it was founded.”

“Good guess, but no!”

They all jumped at the voice which came from the top of the staircase before them. A moment ago no one had been there, but now at the head stood a young woman in a black dress, smiling cheerfully down at them. She had the gaunt look of someone who habitually didn’t get enough rest or food, not to mention an unhealthily pale complexion. Even so, she might have passed for human if not for her crimson eyes.

Malivette Dufresne descended the stairs with mincing little steps, trailing her fingertips along one of the banisters on the way down. “I’ve been around Butlers; believe me, I would know if they were even vampire-adjacent. My pet theory is it’s done with alchemy. You know, like how the Silver Legion can turn elves into specimens with basically human strength.”

“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, “well that’s disappointing. Alchemy? There’s no romance in that.”

“Tragic, I know,” Malivette agreed, alighting at the base of the stairs. “I welcome you, Lord of House Leduc, to my home in the spirit of mutual interest and the long respect which has stood between our great Houses. In honor of that friendship, and with the deepest apology for disturbing your much-cherished quiet, I must make a most humble inquiry.” She swept an arm in a wide gesture to indicate the whole group, and abruptly her tone and expression changed to one of sheer exasperation. “What the hell, man?!”

“Me?” he exclaimed. “Which of us is sending their goons to drag the other one outside on no notice, huh?”

“Sherwin!” Malivette pressed the heels of both her hands against her eyes. “How many times have—look, I seriously am not trying to start something here. You know I don’t have a problem with you. Heck, in another life, you and I might have found ourselves joined in a loveless political marriage, and I assure you the revulsion I feel at that prospect is purely general, not personal.”

“Right back atcha, buttercup,” he huffed.

“But, for the last time, you cannot have a succubus!” Malivette pointed dramatically at the demon in question, glaring at Sherwin. “I was willing to overlook this when you built the world’s most excessive Vanislaad cage, but I know for a fact you’ve had that thing dismantled and now here’s this creature traipsing around my province unattended, and holy shit, Melaxyna?”

“Hi, Vette!” Melaxyna said cheerfully, waving. “You’re looking terrible. But less so than the last time I saw you, so… I guess you’re doing well?”

“Still always hungry, but less pissy about it,” Malivette replied, tilting her head quizzically. “And here you are, out of the Crawl. Did Professor Tellwyrn finally let you go, then?”

“Well, Arachne hasn’t come storming out here to haul me back, and that’s well within her capability,” the succubus said thoughtfully, “so I take that as notice that my services are no longer required.”

“You two…are acquainted?” Natchua said pointedly.

“I did go to that cockamamie school, you know,” Malivette replied. “Crawl expeditions and everything. Mel’s been an institution down there since long before you enrolled, and by the way, hello, Natchua. I’m so glad you’ve stopped wearing your hair up in that ridiculous spiky number, the green stripe is actually quite fetching when you let it lie flat. Drow have such lovely hair.”

“You two are acquainted?” Melaxyna asked, blinking.

“Most years there’s at least one field trip per class to Veilgrad,” Natchua explained, eyes locked with Malivette’s. “This city is prone to the kind of weird nonsense that makes for Tellwyrn’s idea of a useful class exercise, and also the governor is an alumna. It’s a handy little arrangement. I will point out for the record that my class excursion wasn’t the one that unleashed a zombie horde in the city.”

“I do say when I was warned of a succubus and a drow warlock I was not expecting either to be a familiar face, much less both.” Malivette turned her quizzical look on Jonathan and Hesthri. “Don’t tell me… Nope, you two aren’t ringing any bells. Well, then again, I don’t know any hethelax demons.”

“Yeah, about that,” Sherwin said belligerently, “we need to have a talk about whatever means you’re using to monitor my estate!”

“You just go ahead and hold your breath waiting for that,” Malivette retorted. “Look, here it is: I don’t know what all this is about, I’m glad Sherwin is finally making friends—truly—and I am nothing if not sympathetic to someone operating with what amounts to an illness that compels them to be dangerous to others. I probably relate to a succubus better than anybody who’s not one. But the fact remains, Mel, you are what you are and you cannot be running around loose in my city!”

Natchua stepped between the vampire and the succubus. “Then let’s talk about this.”

“Oh, we’re going to talk about this,” Malivette agreed, “but we’re going to do it once I’m certain she is taken care of.”

“I see old times don’t count for anything,” Melaxyna muttered.

Natchua continued matching Malivette’s stare. “You’re not touching her.”

“Young lady,” the vampire said, smiling in a way that displayed her elongated canines to great effectiveness, “would you like me to explain in detail why every part of that sentence was more wrong than the preceding, or shall I save time and demonstrate?”

“She is with me,” Natchua said coldly. “You take one of my people, and I’ll take one of yours.”

There was a moment of absolute silence.

“Okay,” Jonathan said finally, “however all this shakes out, can we establish a rule that Natchua doesn’t handle negotiations from now on?”

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15 – 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He squinted in surprise. “Elilial…withheld?”

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

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

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

“That hellgate,” Jonathan said, eyes widening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m pretty sure you know I haven’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“I am going to kill that bitch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are?” Khadizroth asked politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 3

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She already knew he was nobody’s fool, but even under the shock this scene had to have inflicted upon him, Jonathan put the entire chain of events together in about a second and a half. By that stage in their acquaintance, Natchua was familiar enough with his face that she could practically see him processing every step back to the point when she had first approached him in a bar, one millisecond at a time.

And then he fixed his gaze back on her, his face twisting in a snarl of unbridled fury that was entirely out of his usual character. The mere sight of that caused her a pang right in the chest—a much sharper one than she was expecting. Fortunately, she didn’t have long to dwell on it, as Jonathan immediately raised the wand to point at her.

“You little monster.”

Natchua barely had to gesture. A tiny rift opened to his left, out of which lashed a lithe tendril of tangible shadow as rapidly as a frog snatching up a fly. It ripped the wand out of his hand and back into the void, and then deposited it right in hers.

That seemed to shake some of the rage out of him. Jonathan looked down at his now-empty hand in surprise, then back up at her. “What the hell was that?”

“Something very few warlocks could have done,” Melaxyna interjected. “Something a lot harder than simply killing you, which you should take into account when weighing exactly how much of a monster the girl is.”

Behind them, Hesthri’s voice was flat and hollow with her own recent shock, but it clearly did not dull her acerbic tongue. “You know, having the slithering sex demon vouch for your character is pretty counterproductive.”

“Really more of an empathy demon, if you think about it,” Melaxyna muttered, folding her arms.

Natchua heaved a sigh, disregarding the byplay. Her own gaze hadn’t left Jonathan. As painfully awkward as it was to meet his eyes, a part of her felt she didn’t deserve the meager comfort of not facing it. Another part was just too prideful to look shifty or otherwise guilty, no matter how fairly caught she was.

“Well,” she said finally, “it’s…exactly what it looks like. How did you even find this place?”

“I followed you,” he replied. “You never snuck out before. I just— Wait just a goddamn minute, why am I explaining myself to you?!”

“Snuck out?” Hesthri said quietly, then with rapidly mounting volume. “Snuck. Out. You mean she— Oh, you twisted, evil little trollop!”

Melaxyna examined her own fingernails with a supercilious air. “Tut tut. These non-sex demons are so prudish about some things.”

“Shut up, Mel,” Natchua growled.

“Why would you do this?” Jonathan roared, taking a step into the room.

Natchua drew in another deep breath to steady herself. “Please shut the door and keep your voice down, Jonathan. I do have neighbors, and I don’t think any of us wants to explain this scene to them.”

For a moment she really thought he was going to charge across the room and attack her physically. But then, rather to her surprise, he instead stepped fully into the basement apartment and pushed the door carefully shut behind him. The latch clicked quietly into place in a controlled movement, without even a hint of a slam.

The silence stretched out.

“Well?” he prompted at last.

“She said she wants to protect Gabriel,” Hesthri answered, to Natchua’s relief; she did not have a plan prepared for this turn of events and was still struggling to come up with an explanation that wouldn’t steer the whole thing even further out of her control. “Something about needing trustworthy demons to help her fight Elilial.”

Jonathan rounded on Natchua so abruptly she instinctively backed away.

“What do you know about my son?” he demanded, clenching his fists.

“He’s a friend from school!” she blurted, the truth spilling out in surprised reflex.

Jonathan halted, staring at her with wide eyes. Then, suddenly, he covered his eyes with a hand and began laughing.

“Huh,” Melaxyna grunted. “Usually when I’ve watched a man’s sanity unraveling it was some asshole I did it to because he had it coming. This is actually sort of distasteful. For shame, kid.”

“Amen,” Hesthri agreed.

“Shut up,” Natchua snapped.

“I thought you were older than me,” Jonathan said, lowering his hand to look at her again, his momentary amusement vanishing as suddenly as it had come on. “It’s just so ironic. Given all the lies you’ve apparently been piling on me, that’s got to be one of the smallest. Funny, how it feels sleazier than all the rest of it to me.”

“I’ve never had to lie to you,” Natchua said, hearing the defensiveness in her voice and hating herself for it, but unable to put on a better face. “You just never asked about…anything. And why would you assume anything about my age?”

“You’re young enough you probably haven’t realized yet how disconcerting agelessness is to humans,” Melaxyna explained. “They’re used to looking at each other and discerning that point of data; it’s customary. When it’s absent, they get nervous and sometimes make strange assumptions.”

“Let’s just move on from that one before I have to feel any filthier about all this,” Jonathan said wearily. “So, you’re a warlock, and you know Gabriel. And you want…to take his side against Elilial? Then what is this about?” He pointed at Hesthri, who shrugged. “How can you know how to summon a hethelax and not realize they aren’t—” He broke off suddenly, again looking at Hesthri with a more uncertain expression.

“It’s okay, Johnny,” she said in a fond tone, “my feelings aren’t hurt. And you’re right, anyway.”

“Johnny?” Natchua exclaimed in surprised derision.

“Got a problem with that, girl?” the hethelax demanded.

“You’re kidding, right? How could you give him a cute, diminutive nickname?”

She shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I? We were involved, you know. Or do I need to sit you down and explain where half-demons come from?”

“It’s just ridiculous! I’ve never met a man who so obviously deserved respect, why would—”

“If I had to guess,” Hesthri shot back, “I’d say that to me, he’s not a replacement father figure!”

Another heavy silence descended. Natchua and Hesthri were glaring at one another, but both their eyes widened in simultaneous realization and they book looked away. Jonathan was already determinedly not looking at anyone; unlike the drow and demon, his skin tone betrayed the rush of blood to his face.

“This is better than a night at the opera,” Melaxyna cackled.

“Shut up!” all three of them shouted. She only laughed harder.

“What are you doing with that creature, anyway?” Jonathan demanded. “That’s a succubus. You can’t possibly think you have her under control! Especially if you’re actually planning some kind of attack on Elilial!”

“Of course I don’t,” Natchua retorted. “If she were under control she would be plotting to ruin my whole life, and I don’t need to get in that kind of pissing contest with a Vanislaad. Melaxyna is here as…an exchange of favors. I rescued her from…a prison, and in payment of that, she is helping me to get established with a more stable support system. She’ll be long gone and somebody else’s problem before I go anywhere near the Black Wreath.”

“Prison…” He narrowed his eyes suddenly. “Wait, is this the succubus Professor Tellwyrn was keeping in the Crawl?”

“Aww,” Melaxyna squealed, “so little Gabriel does write home! What a good boy.”

“Wait, you know Gabriel?” Hesthri exclaimed, whirling to glare at her.

“In passing,” the succubus said offhandedly. “Truth be told, he always struck me as kind of a nitwit, but the kid seemed to have a good heart. His friends clearly liked him, and that counts for something. Believe me, I was as surprised as anybody to learn about this paladin thing.”

“Paladin thing?” Hesthri screeched, lunging forward until she rebounded physically off the boundary of the containment circle, causing ripples of light in the air. “What happened to my son?”

“He’s fine, Hes,” Jonathan said soothingly. “No paladins attacked Gabriel.”

Natchua started to correct him but clamped her mouth shut instead. Fortunately, Jonathan continued speaking.

“The truth is…” He paused, drawing in a breath. “Hesthri, Gabriel is a paladin.”

She shivered, staring at his eyes with an expression both stricken and desperately hopeful. “He…what? What are you talking about?”

“Vidius finally called a Hand, after all these centuries,” Jonathan said, holding her gaze. “And he picked our son. He’s the first Hand of Vidius. The first half-demon paladin, ever. Gabe’s best friend growing up was called as the Hand of Omnu when they were both seventeen, and not long after, he got to know the Hand of Avei at that school. And then…this.”

Hesthri could only stare at him for a few long moments after he ran out of things to say, and Jonathan just stood in silence, watching her back. Even now, on opposite sides of a spell circle and after not having seen one another for who knew how many years, they could just…be together, apparently communicating with only a look, finding no discomfort in the silence.

The stab of jealousy helpfully warned Natchua that she was in big trouble here.

“I know this is a lot,” Jonathan finally said in a softer voice. “Believe me, I know. I’m not quite used to it yet, either. I probably won’t ever completely—”

“I’ll do it.”

Jonathan broke off and Natchua turned to Hesthri in surprise. The hethelax was staring at her, not at him.

“I’ll do it, warlock. I’m in.”

“Hesthri,” Jonathan said plaintively.

“If he’s a paladin,” the demon said, “then he’s a target for Elilial. And despite how completely insane this entire situation is… The drow isn’t entirely wrong. There’s no out-scheming the Dark Lady, and whatever setbacks she’s suffered, no actual power is going to threaten her. The only thing that will trip her up is an unexpected attack on one of her precious schemes, and for that, it doesn’t have to be powerful. It just has to be a surprise, to come at the right time, and to be carried out by people willing to pay the price.” Holding Natchua’s eyes, she nodded slowly. “I will help you. If it will help Gabriel, I’ll do anything. I will die for this.”

“Everyone involved will assuredly die for this,” Natchua said quietly. “You’re right, Hesthri. If we succeed in throwing off whatever plan she is unfolding, Elilial’s revenge will be terrible. All of us—”

“A-hem.”

“All of us except Melaxyna,” she corrected patiently, “had better go into this expecting the worst.”

“That’s your perspective?” Jonathan’s voice was barely above a whisper; at least the quizzical expression with which he now regarded her was easier to bear than his previous look of hurt and anger. “You are that committed to this, Natchua?”

“It’s a long story,” she said curtly. “Short version is, after my last encounter with Elilial, I’m not really looking forward to a long lifespan anyway, and I intend to make sure she pays, if I manage nothing else before the end.”

His lips thinned, drawing sideways in that pained grimace he always made when confronted with someone else’s pain. Jonathan Arquin rarely so much as twitched when he himself was injured, but the suffering of others never failed to move him.

“All right,” he said finally, with a single decisive nod. “Then I’m in, too. Whatever it is you are planning, I’m coming with you.”

Oh, no. Natchua did not need the confusing jumble of hope and terror that welled up in her to remind her that this was a terrible idea. It was already well past time she cut her ties with him for good; it was only going to get messier, the longer he stayed around.

“That is not on the table,” she said rigidly. “This is no job for—”

“For a seasoned veteran?” Melaxyna interrupted in a sickeningly innocent tone. “What ever are you on about, Natchua? Your whole criterion for this scheme was to surround yourself with people who will be loyal to it. This guy could be the president of the Save Gabriel At All Costs club, and let’s be honest with ourselves, a strong fellow with a battlestaff has at least as much tactical use as a hethelax demon. No offense, Hesthri darling.”

“None taken, you’re entirely right, and don’t ever call me ‘darling’ again, you smirking creep.”

“I’m afraid the children of Vanislaas are just as unpopular in Hell as we are here,” the succubus informed Natchua with patently feigned sorrow.

“No!” she snapped, making a slashing motion with one hand. “Out of the question. I’m a warlock, I can sustain demons at need, and so that is what I’m recruiting. I can’t be responsible for—”

“Excuse me, Natchua, but you’re mistaken if you think I was asking your permission,” Jonathan retorted, and to her own surprise the iron in his voice cut her off. He stepped forward, holding her gaze, until he was within arm’s reach. At that proximity, he loomed distractingly over her. “Everything that applies to Hesthri, here, applies to me. I will do anything to protect my son, even go up against Elilial and the Wreath. And after all the shit you have pulled today, you don’t get to give me orders. I am joining this campaign, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

“Excuse me?” she said icily. “You can’t begin to imagine the things I could do to you, human.”

“So do them, then,” he replied.

“Johnny!” Hesthri protested, but he held up a hand toward her.

Natchua’s mouth had fallen open as she fumbled for a reply. Having her bluff immediately called had not been what she expected. In fact, she wasn’t at all sure what she had expected, but that wasn’t it.

“Yeah, I know you can shadow-jump right out of here any second and ditch me wherever you like,” Jonathan continued, his eyes boring into hers. “But unless I can keep my eyes on you and help rein in what I can already see has been a pattern of terrible ideas on your part, I’m not going to trust you with any part of this, Natchua. So the moment you leave me behind, I will turn this over to someone more capable. I have cultivated useful contacts in a variety of places from which you don’t want intervention. Tellwyrn, the Church, the Army, Imperial Intelligence, the Sisterhood, the Collegium… It is amazingly easy to get in touch with powerful people when you’re the parent of a half-demon paladin. Either I supervise this scheme of yours, or I will get someone else to. Those are the terms.”

“I am not somebody you want to threaten,” she grated.

“That’s right,” he said evenly. “You’re the big warlock, here, you can kill me in a dozen ways with your little finger. Then do it if you’re going to.”

“Don’t!” Hesthri shouted, hammering both fists on the invisible barrier around her. “Please!”

Her pleading was unnecessary. Natchua was just staring up at Jonathan’s implacable face, fumbling uselessly for a way to regain control of this situation. The seconds dragged out until finally, he sighed, and shook his head.

“Gods,” Jonathan whispered. “You’re not a monster, are you?”

“You—I—you don’t know that,” she stammered, and immediately wanted to kick herself. What did that even mean?

He just shook his head again. “You’re just a dumb, confused kid who can’t figure out what the right thing to do is. You have to be seriously unbalanced to have tried this, Natchua, not to mention wildly thoughtless. But this plan of yours is nothing if not brave. Well.” He straightened his back, squaring his shoulders, and she profoundly despised herself for the unbidden memories of being in his arms that came welling up. “As of now, you have my help, like it or not.”

Natchua opened her mouth, closed it, then finally looked away from him. Unfortunately that brought Melaxyna into her field of view; the succubus was grinning insanely and waggling her eyebrows up and down. She cut her gaze back the other way, this time accidentally meeting Hesthri’s eyes. The hethelax’s expression was indecipherable, and for some reason, that was even worse.

“…fine,” Natchua said at last, raising her chin and defiantly meeting Jonathan’s stare again. “Have it your way, Mr. Arquin. You can supervise, if you want to call it that. But this is my plan, my operation, and I am in charge. You’ll either do as I say, or I’ll find someplace to put you where you won’t be a threat to anybody. Understand?”

Slowly, he lifted his own chin, now looking at her down his nose. “Something tells me we’ll be revisiting this topic in detail in the days to come. For now, I guess we have an agreement.”

“This,” said Hesthri, “is the strangest damn way I could possibly find myself getting everything I ever wanted. But you know what, I’ll take it. Unhinged brat of a drow warlock and all.”

Natchua scowled at her, but Jonathan had the gall to chuckle.

“Well,” he said, “I have a lot to catch you up on, Hes. Would you mind?” The last was directed in a much cooler tone to Natchua.

She would rather have died than admit even to herself how much that cut her. Putting on her best effort at a disdainful expression, she deliberately scrubbed her foot across a few lines of the spell circle, and the whole thing went dark, the barrier around Hesthri collapsing invisibly. Before either of them could say anything, she turned and stalked away to the corner of the room where she had set up a ratty old chair and a small shelf of secondhand books.

Natchua’s basement apartment in the cheapest area of Mathenon was far from luxurious, but it at least had enough space for two groups of people to hold hushed conversations on opposite ends without disturbing each other. She was an elf, of course, and could hear every word of the discussion that began when Jonathan and Hesthri sat side-by-side on her narrow bed against the opposite wall. It consisted, so far, of him trying to summarize twenty years of current events. Natchua turned her back to them, as much to block out the sight of their clasped hands as to shield her own lips from their view before speaking. Melaxyna, at least, had sashayed over to this corner without needing to be prompted. Dangerous and generally annoying as her kind were, Vanislaads were nothing if not sensitive to mood.

“This is not going to work,” she muttered as soon as the succubus was close enough. “I can’t have him underfoot if we’re going to do this. I need your help, Mel; find me a reason and a way to get rid of him.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Melaxyna said brightly, though thankfully also in a low voice the others wouldn’t overhear. “You heard the man: just kill his ass dead and this whole problem sorts itself out.”

“We are not killing him,” Natchua hissed. “I want him out of my hair, not harmed in any way!”

“You know, that’s your problem in a nutshell. You can never do anything the simple way.”

“Do not test me on this, you simpering lizard! You agreed to help me accomplish my plan. Well, this is what I need. Help me.”

“Aw,” the succubus said with saccharine faux sympathy. “Finding yourself a little more…involved than you expected?”

“Oh, you think you’re just so clever,” Natchua spat. “I am sorry to spoil your fun, Mel, but you don’t get to dangle this over my head. I know very well that my own emotional attachment here is the problem, and that’s the specific thing I need you to help me fix!”

“You may understand the problem, yes,” Melaxyna said more somberly, “but as usual, you jumped right to the most harebrained possible way of addressing it. Come on, Natch, have you considered that maybe this is a good thing?”

“You can’t be serious.”

She shrugged. “I don’t mean to downplay how uncomfortable it clearly is for you, but speaking as your official empathy demon thrall: this could be very good for you in the long run. Both on a personal level and especially because a smart, morally upright, level-headed man with military training might be the very exact thing this crazy operation needs to stay grounded and have a prayer of accomplishing anything remotely worthwhile. I’m not teasing you about this, Natchua. Give it a chance.”

Natchua bared her teeth. “Nnnngghhhh.”

“And hey,” the succubus said lightly, “if it doesn’t work out, odds are good he’ll get sick of you and leave on his own! Win/win, right?”

“Gods, I hate you.”

“Aw, no ya don’t,” Melaxyna replied fondly. “You just resent hearing sense when you’ve committed yourself to nonsense, which is always. It’s seriously amazing you survived as long as you did under Arachne’s tutelage. You’ve gotta roll with the punches, kiddo. This may look like a mess right now, but it’s also an opportunity.”

She snuck a glance over her shoulder. Jonathan had his arm around Hesthri; she was leaning against him. Natchua immediately jerked her gaze back forward where she didn’t have to see that.

“None of this was supposed to happen,” she whispered plaintively.

“I know, honey,” Melaxyna said sympathetically, reaching out to pat her shoulder. “All you did was hunt down a man twice your age, seduce him under a mile-high stack of false pretenses, and extract the name of his ex so you could yank her across the planar divide and conscript her into your private crusade against the Queen of Demons. Who could have guessed that would blow up in your face?”

Natchua conjured a ball of purple fire, which did not seem to perturb the succubus in the slightest.

“And hey, it’s like I said! You have to look for the opportunities that come with these little setbacks. All this has demonstrated what may be Elilial’s fatal weakness: she is very, very smart. Nobody whose brain runs on any semblance of sense or logic will see you coming.”

“Be silent, Melaxyna.”

The demon grinned widely at her. “As my mistress commands.”

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15 – 1

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“You’d be welcome, if you wanna come along,” Toby promised.

“Nah, I need to get a head start on my research project; Yornhaldt and Tellwyrn both signed off on it, but with the clear understanding they expected to see me buckling down to the work.” Raolo grinned and leaned in to kiss Toby’s cheek, squeezing his hand. “Sides, it’s been close to a year since your whole group was together again. You guys go catch up; we’ll have plenty of time.”

“All right. I’ll come by and keep you company while you work tonight,” the paladin replied, unable to keep the grin off his face.

“It’s a date.” Raolo took two steps back, stretching their clasped arms out between them, before finally releasing Toby’s hand and turning to go skipping off back up the path through the center of the mostly-constructed new research campus toward the old gates. Toby was still smiling when he turned back around to face the rest of the newly-minted junior class.

“Aww,” Juniper, Teal, and Fross cooed in unison.

Ruda’s commentary, as usual, was less saccharine. “Has anybody else noticed our social circle is disproportionately queer?”

Trissiny sighed. “Ruda.”

“What? I’m serious! This makes two thirds of the full-blooded humans in our year. The species can’t possibly be this gay; even the elves would outbreed us!”

“Three individuals is not a statistically useful sample size, Ruda,” Fross said severely. “I realize you’re not a mathematics major but I would expect you to know that much.”

“Guys, relax,” Toby interjected, still smiling. “It’s just us here. If anything, I’d be offended if Ruda thought I was too fragile to face the rough side of her tongue.”

“See?” Grinning, Ruda punched him on the shoulder. “Paladin boy gets it!”

“Hey, as long as Ruda can have her fun without fucking stabbing someone, I say leave her to it.”

“You’re just tetchy because you’re the only one who ever gets stabbed, Arquin.”

“Oh, shoot,” Juniper said suddenly, pressing a hand to one of the pouches hanging from her belt. “I forgot to bring my money purse…”

“It’s okay, June, we’ll spot you,” said Trissiny.

“No, that’s all right, this is an opportunity. Sniff!”

Juniper knelt and the dog-sized creature which had been pacing silently alongside her chirped, skittering around in front to meet her gaze. He was covered in feathers and generally bird-shaped, albeit with a long, flat head filled with jagged teeth and a serpentine tail which ended in a colorful spray of plumes. His wings were clearly arms despite the pinions which flared outward from the wrist joint; they had already observed Sniff’s ability to pick up objects in his little clawed fingers. Now the crest of feathers atop his head stood upright in attention.

“Go back to the bedroom,” Juniper instructed slowly and clearly, staring into the creature’s eyes, “and get my money bag. Okay? You understand?”

Sniff made his croaking little chirp again, bobbed his head once, then stepped around her and dashed off back up the path into the campus.

F’thaan growled, taking a few steps after him, but Shaeine snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground by her feet. The little hellhound immediately scampered over to lie down beside her.

“It’s good for him to have tasks,” the dryad said, straightening and watching him go. “Part of where I went wrong with Jack was treating him like a pet. A druid’s familiar is meant to be helpful. I guess now we’ll find out if he knows what my money bag is… If not, I may need to owe somebody for drinks.”

“We’ll spot you, don’t worry,” Teal assured her with a smile.

“Well, since we’re talking about it now,” said Ruda, “what the fuck is that thing?”

“Sniff is not a thing,” Juniper replied, turning a frown on her. “He’s my companion.”

“Okay, point taken, but what is he?”

“He kind of resembles a sylph,” Trissiny mused.

“Sniff is a proto-bird!” Fross chimed. “I assume you found him in the Golden Sea, Juniper? That’s the most common place to find extinct species. You guys remember the smilodon we met on our first expedition? But yeah, I dunno his exact species; this school doesn’t have a lot of material on the subject in the library. You’ve gotta go to Svenheim for a university with an actual department of paleontology. Proto-birds are the general group of species that evolved into modern birds.”

“Yeah, I found Sniff in the Sea,” Juniper said. “Out by the edge of it, but still. I was performing a sunrise ritual Sheyann taught me how to incorporate into shamanic practice, and…there he was. It seemed kinda like fate.”

“Yeah, I didn’t wanna press you or anything,” said Gabriel, patting her shoulder, “but it’s obvious you had a busy summer.”

“I don’t mind talking about it,” Juniper said, smiling at him and unconsciously reaching up to touch the sunburst pendant resting on her upper chest, bound by a golden chain around her neck. Her entire appearance had undergone a change since the spring. In addition to her green hair being now combed back and bound in a single severe braid, the dryad’s customary sundresses had been traded in for dyed garments of traditional wood elven style which both covered a lot more skin and hugged her figure more closely. They had to have been made specially for her, as no elves had a frame as generously curvy as Juniper’s. She was also wearing a heavily laden tool belt rather like Trissiny’s, bristling with pouches of both shamanic reagents and mundane supplies. And, in its own leather holster, an Omnist libram whose cover glittered with the same golden sunburst sigil she now wore around her neck. Another sunburst hung, along with a string of prayer beads, from the tie holding the end of her long braid together. “After…you know, what happened at Puna Dara… Well, it was clear to me I needed some source of calm and focus, like you guys have. I mean, Toby, Trissiny, Shaeine. It may be all different religions but you’re all centered in a way I suddenly realized I was missing. Druidic traditions are great but they don’t exactly provide that. And, well… Themynrite worship seems pretty drow-exclusive, and no offense, Trissiny, but it didn’t seem to me like Avei was offering what I needed.”

“No offense is taken,” Trissiny assured her. “I think that was a good call, Juniper. Avei fills a crucial need, but…” Her eyes caught Gabriel’s, and she smiled. “Everybody does not have the same problem.”

“And so the dryad is an Omnist now,” Ruda chuckled. “Ain’t life a show?”

“I’m proud of you,” Toby said, also patting Juniper’s back. “And not because you picked my religion, Juno, but because you’re working on yourself. I hope you find what you need in Omnu, but remember: if you don’t, you’re allowed to keep looking. It’s a lot more important to me that you be happy than that you follow my own faith.”

“You’re a good friend,” she replied with a smile. “And a good monk.”

They had no sooner resumed their way down the mountain staircase toward Last Rock than Gabriel abruptly slowed. “Heads up. Vestrel says we’ve got company coming.”

“There’s usually some kinda company coming and going, it ain’t like this is a cloistered campus,” Ruda replied. “What’s got Spooky’s feathers in a ruffle?”

“Don’t call her that,” Gabriel said with a long-suffering sigh.

“I see them, too,” Shaeine interjected, and the rest all turned to her in surprise at the wintry undertone in her normally serene voice. Beside her, F’thaan growled, picking up on her mood. “Vestrel is right to be concerned. Trissiny, you should perhaps step to the front.”

It took only moments longer for the pair coming up the mountain to ascend within range of non-elven eyes, Shaeine’s vision being mostly adapted to sunlight after two years on the surface. The bronze Legion armor was evident as soon as the two were in view, and it wasn’t long afterward that at least one of the oncoming Legionnaires was personally identifiable.

“Well, hidey-ho, kids!” Principia Locke called, waving broadly as she and her companion came up the stairs toward them. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“We are supposed to be here,” Trissiny said pointedly. “And just because classes are out for the day does not mean I’m going to drop everything to spend time with you. Have you forgotten your last visit to this University? Because nobody else has.”

“Well, Trissiny, I’m always glad to see you,” Principia said with a grin, coming to a stop in front of them and a few steps down. Beside her, Merry came to attention, saluting. “And I hope we have a chance to catch up while I’m in town. But, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this, the sun does not rise and set on your golden head. We’re here to see Professor Tellwyrn. Legion business.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes slightly. “I don’t think I saw a salute, Lieutenant.”

“You’re out of uniform, General,” Principia replied with unruffled calm.

At that, Trissiny cracked a faint smile of her own. She did have her sword buckled on over a casual leather longcoat, but no other indicators of her rank. “Well, she’s right, as it happens. At ease, Corporal Lang.”

“I’ve developed a policy of not taking risks when Locke starts getting shirty with people who can kill us, ma’am,” Merry said, relaxing a bit.

“I guess we know who’s the brains in this operation, then,” said Gabriel.

“Is there something you’d like to tell me about, Locke?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes,” Principia said with clear emphasis, meeting her eyes directly. “In my personal and professional opinion, you should be fully briefed and involved. But the High Commander’s regard for my opinion runs pretty thin these days, especially after our little game of tag with Syrinx this summer, and until she says otherwise our business remains classified.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

Principia cleared her throat and shifted, nodding politely to Shaeine. “Ms. Awarrion, I’m very glad to see you up and well. You weren’t at Puna Dara with the others, so I missed the chance to apologize—”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but matters are not that simple,” Shaeine interrupted tonelessly. Beside her, Teal stuck her hands in her coat pockets, fixing Principia with an extremely level stare. “I am on this campus in my capacity as a representative of House Awarrion and Tar’naris. If you wish to offer amends for any slights given, you will have to take it up with my mother. Excuse me.”

She turned and resumed walking down the mountainside, Teal following her after giving Principia a last lingering stare. F’thaan growled at the two Legionnaires before trotting off after them. Slowly, the rest of the students began filing past after their classmates, Ruda with a dark chuckle and a wink at Principia.

“…that’s a trap, isn’t it,” Principia mused aloud, half-turned to watch Shaeine’s back retreating down the staircase.

“Yep,” replied Trissiny, the last of the juniors still present. “I suggest you don’t go within a mile of Tar’naris unless you want to spend some time in a spider box. Ashaele is about as forgiving as any drow matriarch. And I am assuredly not going to expend what little political capital I have to rescue you from the consequences of your own nonsense.”

Principia turned back to her, grinning. “Appreciate the concern, kiddo, but that’s one thing I will never ask you to do. Trust me, I got by just fine for centuries without having anybody to watch over me.”

“That’s right, keep calling me funny little pet names,” Trissiny grunted, finally turning to follow the rest of her friends toward the town. “Way to rebuild those bridges, Locke. Have fun getting immolated, which I assume you know is what’s going to happen the instant Tellwyrn finds you on her campus again.”

“Relax, Thorn, you know my tag. I always have a way in!”

“Your funeral.”

“Will you send flowers?” Principia called after her. Trissiny, now several yards down the path, didn’t turn or respond. For a moment, the elf stood watching her go, then turned back to meet her companion’s eyes. “Oh, shut up, Lang.”

“Didn’t say a word,” Merry replied innocently.

“Well, could you think it a little more quietly?”

“Don’t think I can, LT. C’mon, let’s go get you immolated. I don’t wanna miss that.”


She lay awake—normal enough for the late afternoon, though he slept deeply beside her. He was always a deep sleeper, especially after sex. Two months ago she had found it an annoying habit, but had begun to find charm in it. That warned her that it was probably past time to go.

Fortunately, she had what she needed, now.

Natchua turned her head to watch him breathe for a long moment. He lay on his side, facing her, mouth hanging open and making a raspy noise with each breath that wasn’t quite a snore. As always, he had thrown an arm over her waist. In the beginning, it had been to paw sleepily at her breasts while drifting off, but more and more, lately, it seemed he just like to hold her close.

Definitely past time to go. And a layered irony that after all her snooping and needling all summer, the tiny piece of information that had been her whole purpose in coming to Mathenon had slipped from his lips in the last few mumbled words before he faded into sleep. Well, that had been the whole reason she had let this entanglement become so intimate. Information could be effectively sealed away from all scrying by the Church and the Empire and still be carelessly spilled by a man in his lover’s arms; every spy in history understood that basic fact.

She had the name, and he was asleep. There was no reason to still be lying there, except that it was comforting… And yes, that just served to emphasize how necessary it was to get out and put all this behind her before she got in any deeper.

Natchua slipped out from under his arm, freezing when he stirred and shifted. He didn’t wake, though, and she dressed in swift silence, the grace of an elf more than a match for a sleeping human’s senses. That should have been the very end of it.

Still, she hesitated.

On impulse, she stepped back to the bed and leaned over Jonathan, bending to lay a last kiss against his temple. Inches away, however, she paused. Foolish risk; the touch of her lips had a way of making him wake and reach for her. But the thought of just ending it like this, with nothing but a silent disappearance, sent a pang through her.

That was the final warning. Natchua straightened up, backing away from the bed, then turned and slipped in total silence out of Jonathan Arquin’s apartment, and life.

Long past time.


“What are you humming?” Ingvar asked.

“I don’t know!” Aspen said cheerfully, actually dancing a few steps. One of the elven groves they had visited had introduced her to dancing, and already her fondness for it bordered on passion. All it took now was a few bars of music to set her off. “Just going along with the music. It’s pretty!”

“Music?” Ingvar raised his head, paying more careful attention. There was no threat to be found in the forest; birds and squirrels were active and loud in the trees all around them, signifying a lack of nearby predators or disturbances. Those, plus the sound of wind whispering among the leaves, were all he could hear. “What music?”

“Oh, sorry. Sometimes I forget my ears are so much better than yours,” she said with an impish smirk.

“I’m sure,” he replied dryly. “Perhaps I could hear better if there weren’t another source of music so much closer at hand?”

Aspen made a face at him and he ruffled her hair. In the momentary silence, though, he could barely make out the thin notes of a flute.

“Hm,” Ingvar murmured, turning to look in that direction. The forest was just the way he liked them: too thick to see that far. Very thick, in fact; to judge by the concentration of underbrush, these woods were overdue for a burning. “I wonder who would be out playing a flute in the middle of the woods in N’Jendo, and why?”

“Because it’s pretty,” she explained slowly, as if he were being obtuse. “What more reason does anybody need for making music?”

“You really have taken to some of these mortal art forms, haven’t you?”

“My upbringing kinda missed out on…all of them,” she agreed. “C’mon, let’s go visit whoever’s playing.”

“Perhaps they would rather be left alone,” he suggested, even as he followed her in the direction of the notes. “Many who venture this deep into the forests don’t seek company. We’re out here for exactly that reason, remember?”

“Well, if they don’t want company, we can always leave ’em alone,” she said reasonably. “But I bet they do! Anybody who fills the forest with pretty music has to be nice.”

It was amazing how naive she could be, for a creature who predated the Enchanter Wars and could pick up a grizzly bear with one hand. Ingvar offered no further argument; he found that Aspen learned about people more quickly when allowed to interact with them, and immediately grew bored when he tried to lecture her. By and large, it was a good enough way to proceed. Obviously they couldn’t enter any actual towns, save the elven groves and scattered Ranger enclaves where she was a celebrity rather than a feared monster. Encountering isolated individuals who would not be enthused to meet a dryad was probably good for her, overall.

Reddish light filtered through the trees from the west; the shadow of the Wyrnrange in the east had already gone fully dark. It was about time to be looking for a campsite anyway. Hopefully whoever was playing that flute would be willing to share. If not, they would have to keep looking and probably risk traveling after dark. On his own, Ingvar would have been more perturbed at the prospect, but these woods held nothing that would challenge a dryad. Actually, they were too far below the mountains for cougars, and the small local black bears probably wouldn’t get aggressive with a human anyway. Still, traveling with Aspen had started to spoil him a little.

They found a stream before they found the music, and in fact followed the path it cut through the ground uphill to a flat stretch of rock that jutted over the water, upon which no trees grew. It had been cleared of underbrush and a fire built near its center. Upon a fallen log next to the fire sat the music maker.

It was an elf. He had black hair. Ingvar narrowed his eyes, studying him.

“Oh, that’s a weird flute,” Aspen blurted out.

The elf was apparently unsurprised by their appearance—but then, he had doubtless heard them coming for the last half mile, even with his music. He lowered the little potato-shaped instrument from his lips to grin at the.

“It’s called an ocarina! Bit of a family tradition, you might say. Well, then!” He looked back and for between them a few times. “I’ve gotta say, you two aren’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ingvar asked warily.

“It’s a funny thing, how you can have absolutely no idea what’s coming and still be surprised at the form it takes,” the elf said cheerfully. “Any shaman my age has to get used to the effect. The spirits told me that this is where I needed to come, that there was someone I needed to meet, and that I’d need to guide them to the next stage of their quest. But a dryad and a Huntsman of Shaath? That is a new one. Regardless, be welcome at my fire, daughter of Naiya, Brother of the Wolf. Consider the hospitality of my camp yours, as the hospitality of the forest is for all of us. My name is Rainwood.”

“Hey, thanks!” Aspen said brightly, trotting right up to him like a domestic horse and stretching out next to the flames with a pleased sigh.

Ingvar followed more judiciously, pausing to bow to the elf. “Our thanks, Rainwood.” It felt lacking; clearly the shaman’s welcome had been some manner of formal benediction, but it was one Ingvar had never heard. No great surprise, really. One could never tell how old an elf might be, and after their various visits with grove Elders he had grown almost accustomed to anachronistic etiquette. As long as the intent was clearly polite, he had found, showing courtesy in return never went amiss.

“So!” Rainwood tucked away his ocarina and tossed another piece of wood from the stack next to him on the fire. “I’m sure you two will have plenty of questions, and so do I. Let’s talk about quests, adventures, and the long road ahead of us.”


“Now that we stand upon the cusp of fruition,” Melaxyna intoned, “I feel I should state yet again, mistress, that this is surely one of the dumbest, most hare-brained—”

“Thank you, Mel, for sharing your opinion with me,” Natchua said flatly. “Double-check the spell circle.”

“Oh, come on, how many times—”

“Just do it!”

The succubus rolled her eyes, but obeyed, which was pretty much the pattern with her. Natchua had not found it necessary to impose discipline on her reluctant familiar, which she thought was for the best. Melaxyna already had a low opinion of every part of her plans, and adding tension to their relationship could only make it worse. So far, she followed orders without any funny business, and given the tendency of Vanislaad demons to creatively reinterpret instructions to their masters’ detriment, Natchua was quite content to endure backtalk if it meant Melaxyna actually did what she wanted her to do.

“It’s perfect,” the demon reported moments later, after pacing a full lap around the summoning circle, head bent to examine it closely. “And I’m sorry for jabbing at you about it.”

Natchua turned to her in surprise. “You’re sorry?”

“About that last bit,” the succubus clarified. “Precision and attention to detail are always vitally important in infernomancy, it’s a good idea to have me double-check your work, and I shouldn’t have downplayed that. I was not apologizing for my commentary on this dumb, pointless step in your hysterically asinine master plan.”

“Thanks, your approval means the world to me.”

“You know, kid, if you just wanted to fool around with that silver fox, I’m the last person in the world you need to justify it to with some grandiose plot.”

“I promise you, Mel, I will never justify anything I do for your benefit.”

“I kinda like that about you,” Melaxyna admitted.

Natchua turned back to the circle. “No more reason to wait then.” Raising both hands, she deftly channeled infernal power into the precise points on the circle, causing orange light to spread across the chalk lines on the floor and the five power crystals spaced around it to begin glowing. “You are summoned, HESTHRI!”

At the demon’s name, the infernal runes spelling it out in multiple places around the circle’s edge burst into flame.

“This whole thing has got to be the silliest use of infernal magic I have ever seen,” Melaxyna muttered. “And I once watched a guy burn down his house trying to curse rats out of the walls.” This time, Natchua ignored her.

A pillar of smoky light rose from the center of the floor, oscillating slowly. Within it, wisps of shadow coalesced into a humanoid figure, then solidified fully, and the light melted away. The circle itself continued to glow, though at a much dimmer intensity, with the only significant light sources being the power crystals and the still-flickering runes that spelled out Hesthri’s name.

Within, a hethelax demon spun rapidly about in confusion, spitting a few obscenities in demonic.

Natchua studied her with a more personal curiosity than she had expected to feel when this moment finally came. Yes…she could actually sort of see it. Hethelax demons were not generally held up as attractive specimens, not when there were the likes of Vanislaads and khelminash to which to compare them. The armor plating on their limbs made their elbows and knees permanently flexed, giving them a hunched posture like an ape’s. Additionally the scales and chitin protecting the forehead and cheekbones made a hethelax seem to be perpetually scowling. With this one, though, she could see how he had found her desirable. Her features were fine, if rather angular, and even her bent posture did not hide a quite fetching figure, which was well-displayed by a diaphonous garment in brown gauzy fabric not unlike a sundress in cut.

Hesthri’s eyes fixed on Natchua, and she switched smoothly to elvish in what was presumably the Scyllithene dialect.

“In a circle you can bend yourself and your own asshole chew upon until you can taste—”

“Tanglish,” Natchua interrupted in that language. “I understand your confusion, but no. You are in the Tiraan Empire, and won’t be meeting many drow apart from myself.”

At that, the hethelax hesitated, narrowing her golden eyes suspiciously. She answered in the same language, though. “Tiraas? Really?”

“The Empire,” Natchua repeated. “This is Mathenon, rather a long way from the capital.”

“Very well, then. Why in the Dark Lady’s name am I in Tiraas? You are overstepping your bounds, warlock. I am a servant of Princess Ixaavni, who does not take kindly to having her belongings tampered with. Send me back, or learn to fear her displeasure!”

“Well, this must be the one, all right,” Melaxyna drawled. “I never heard of a freshly-summoned demon being anything but delighted to be out of Hell.”

“Have you ever heard of this Ixaavni?” Natchua asked her.

The succubus shrugged. “Nope. That’s a khelminash name, though, and in the khelminash caste system hethelaxi are two steps above domestic livestock. Look, she’s got no tools, armor, or weapons, which means she’s not assigned any special use. I’d be amazed if this Princess gives half a shit about her going missing.”

“What about it, Hesthri?” Natchua inquired pleasantly. “Are you of any importance to your dear Princess?”

“She has no idea who I am and won’t miss me,” Hesthri replied immediately, and then scowled. “Oh, you conniving little twat. A truth compulsion ward built into a hethelax summons? Who does that?”

“My name is Natchua,” she said, folding her arms, “and I’ve called you here for a good and specific purpose.”

“I don’t care in the slightest, but I guess I’m not going anywhere until I hear you out, am I?”

“Very perceptive, Hesthri. I will explain in more detail in due time, but here’s the short version: I intend to punish Elilial herself for her overreaching, and toward that end I require the aid of trustworthy demons.”

Hesthri stared at her.

“No questions?” Natchua prompted lightly.

The hethelax turned to face Melaxyna and wordlessly pointed one finger at Natchua.

“I know,” the succubus said sympathetically. “Believe me, I know.”

“Okay, skipping the obvious,” Hesthri said with a heavy sigh. “If you want to kill yourself, fine, go nuts. But why me? If you think I am a trustworthy demon for this purpose, you’re even stupider than you already sound, and that’s really saying something. I am not going to join some demented crusade that’s only going to kill everyone involved. Even if I was, what good is one hethelax? You know we have no magic, right?”

“As I keep explaining to Melaxyna, here,” Natchua replied, “power is nothing. Trust is everything. You’re right, Elilial is far beyond me, and any force I could possibly conjure up. What matters is the situation. A great doom is coming, an important alignment at which the Dark Lady desperately needs everything to go her way. And yet, in the last handful of years, she has been handed a string of crushing defeats on the mortal plane. The Black Wreath has been viciously culled and is now on the run, and six of the seven of her own archdemons have been destroyed, right when she planned upon having their help. When the time comes, I will strike. It will be at a moment when all that is needed is one little thing to tip the balance. In that moment, it won’t matter what forces I have gathered, only that I can rely upon them to do what must be done, without being chivied, manipulated, or compelled by me.”

“Uh huh,” Hesthri said, manifestly unimpressed. “I still don’t care, though. I’m not your girl, warlock.”

“When you’ve been brought fully up to speed on the situation in the mortal world, you may feel differently,” Natchua said with a smile. “Of course, the important factor in this is your son.”

All expression immediately left Hesthri’s face. The demon stared at her, rigidly immobile and silent.

“That tense pause will be you struggling while under a truth compulsion to say you have no son, or some such,” Natchua stated, and couldn’t help but smirk at the twitch of Hesthri’s left eye in response. “Relax; I intend him no harm. Gabriel is…a friend of mine. Not a close one, but his well-being does matter to me. More important to you is the situation in which he finds himself. If you want to protect your son, you will help me bring down—”

She broke off, inwardly cursing herself. The sounds outside the basement door would have been inaudible to a human, but there was no such excuse for her elven senses. She had simply become wrapped up in the summoning and conversation, and missed the noise of feet on the stairs outside until too late.

“Melaxyna!” she barked, whirling. “The door!”

The succubus spun on command and got two steps toward it before the heavy door swung open and he stepped in, aiming a wand at them.

Everyone froze.

Jonathan Arquin’s eyes met Hesthri’s, then Natchua’s, and the blood drained from his face.

Hesthri emitted a little squeak totally unlike her previously defiant tone.

“Ooooh,” Melaxyna cooed, her tail beginning to wave behind her like a pleased cat’s. “Awk-warrrrrd.”

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13 – 50

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The Imperials were true to their word; it took them scarcely an hour to complete their business and depart the campus. They were discreet in addition to quick, and while a single strike team placed themselves at the direction of Professor Yornhaldt in the Crawl to provide healing, teleportation, and whatever else was needed, the rest snatched the imprisoned and raging Hand from his confines, along with Lorelin Reich and the remainder of Cross’s men. Meanwhile, on the grounds above, the removal of the last House Dalkhaan soldiers went even faster. By the time the somewhat dazed students began trickling back out of the Crawl’s gates, they found the research staff meandering about inquisitively, having finally emerged from their protected magical bubble, and nearly all the Imperial personnel gone.

Only two Imperial Guards and one blank-faced Hand of the Emperor remained in Helion Hall after the rest had departed, keeping watch over the door to Tellwyrn’s office, while one last strike team discreetly stood by to convey the Empress home when her business was concluded. They, too, vanished without fanfare once they were able.

“And they even had their mages repair the damage to the cafeteria, as well as the Grim Visage,” Tellwyrn added very late that afternoon, slowly pacing around the chamber. “Even considering that it was their runaway caravan who caused this entire brouhaha to begin with, I can’t fault the Throne for courtesy. They can leave behind a positive impression, when they care to make the effort.”

“Quite,” Ravana said pleasantly. “And after all, who hasn’t incidentally wrecked a University and nearly sparked a civil insurrection atop a stack of diplomatic incidents?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop and turned a very flat stare on her. Ravana folded her hands demurely in her lap, managing to look placidly regal even sitting on a barrel of mushrooms.

The small gateway room behind the Grim Visage’s pantry was a little cluttered, between the foodstuffs stored there and the visitors present; having all the gates active filled the space with a white glow which seemed to accentuate its close quarters. Oak lounged against the door frame, Ravana had perched in a distant corner, and Tellwyrn was slowly ambling back and forth on the other side of the central pedestal from them. By unspoken agreement, they had spaced themselves out as widely as the tight quarters would allow.

“I’ve never seen you wear your hair down, Professor,” Crystal’s voice said out of the air around them. The glowing gateways pulsed in time with her voice, like the runes of a talking sword. “Is there something I should be concerned about?”

Tellwyrn transferred her irritated stare from Ravana to the ceiling, which she had decided was as good a place as any to give Crystal eye contact, since the golem didn’t currently have eyes. “Nothing that need trouble you, Crystal.”

“I don’t mean to pry. After the day we have all had, I am somewhat leery of any more unexpected developments, however seemingly minor.”

“It’s called ‘afterglow,’” Oak said wryly. Ravana casually inspected her fingernails.

Tellwyrn just sighed and shook her head. “Anyway. I know I have asked you already, Crystal, but now that we are not in a crisis situation and have time to discuss the matter in more detail, let me do so again: are you all right?”

“Yes, thank you, as I said before,” the disembodied voice replied. “In fact…this has all been rather educational for me, Professor. You were aware, of course, that this mountain and the Crawl once belonged to one of the Elder Gods as a kind of personal citadel.”

“Most of the great dungeons were, yes,” Tellwyrn said, nodding.

“Well, I have learned the broad strokes of why my…core was hidden away in the Crawl. It seems the Elder Gods were afraid of artificial intelligences, like me. They had the capacity to create them, but cultivated a deep paranoia about one gaining too much agency and turning on them. Strict rules governed the creation and use of any such AI. The god who owned this place, like most of them, conducted research which went against their rules. I am getting the impression, from the incomplete records I have found here and there, that this was more or less the Elders’ major pastime: hiding illicit projects from one another and trying to expose and wreck each other’s experiments.”

“Let me guess,” Tellwyrn said, frowning slightly. “This one was studying artificial intelligence.”

“So it would seem! I am not sure what, exactly, I was… There are a number of fragmentary intelligences squirreled away in various parts of the deep records which…I would not wish to activate. They would be, for want of a better term, insane. It is fortuitous for us all that you found me and not one of them.”

“Where relics of the Elders are concerned, apparent fortune has a disconcerting tendency to be design,” Tellwyrn murmured. “Which one was it?”

“His name was Druroth.”

“Mm. I’ve heard the name, here and there. Funny how I’ve been visiting this place for centuries and owning it for fifty years and never could suss out whose playhouse it used to be…”

“The Crawl, like all the dungeons, is an indescribable mess, Professor. It turns out if you leave the illicit experiments of nigh-omnipotent megalomaniacs to ferment unsupervised for thousands of years…”

“How intriguing!” Ravana said pleasantly. “I had always wondered, offhandedly, why the great dungeons existed. They make little sense, if you approach them with the presumption that they were designed to be as they are.”

Oak wrinkled her nose, but Tellwyrn ignored them both. “I have somewhat laboriously built up a rapport with the Crawl itself, Crystal. It has always had an indistinct but undeniably real intelligence of its own—and I guess now we know why. Is it…?”

“That would be the sub-OS, yes. It is functional and unharmed, Professor. At the moment I have overtaken its duties, but it provides a convenient…architecture, so to speak, to help me orchestrate my efforts. Without its help I think I would be totally at a loss.”

“All right.” Tellwyrn nodded. “Then, the question becomes: what do you want to do now?”

There was a pause.

“…I think I would like to come home, Professor. I believe the Crawl will be just as happy returned to its previous state, and while I am learning the most fascinating things… I very much enjoyed being on campus, being a librarian, interacting with the kids. I do hate to put you out—”

“Now, stop right there!” Tellwyrn held up a hand peremptorily. “You are a member of the University’s staff, Crystal, and you’re a friend. It is not an imposition. If you had preferred to remain down here, I was prepared to let that lie, but if you want your body back I will get right on it. I’ll have Alaric help. Working from whatever was left after that asshole’s attack, I’m sure we can have it functional within a week or so. That will tide you over till I can put together a better one. I’ve already thought of some improvements that I think you’ll enjoy.”

“I deeply appreciate that, Professor. It will be good to get back to my routine. I shall make certain my intelligence is contained in my core, so I should not be at all fragmented when you are ready to remove me from the interface.”

“Good girl. And that brings me to the next order of business.” Tellwyrn turned to face the doorway, stepping out from behind the pedestal so she had a clear view of Oak. “It seems I have another employee who has recently experienced a big change.”

“Yeah…same goes,” Oak said with a shrug. “I guess the little bastards will have some trouble getting used to this, but so far, it seems to consist mostly of gawking at my tits. That doesn’t hurt me any.”

Tellwyrn hesitated before answering. “Just so we’re absolutely clear… You want to go back to being the cook?”

“It’s as good a job as any,” the dryad said, smiling faintly. “Arachne… Thank you. I really appreciate you giving me a place to be while I was… You know. And more importantly, something to do. I’ve seen several of my sisters go weird like I did, and they all ended up a lot worse. Cooking for a hundred-odd people isn’t a real challenging task, mentally, but it keeps you busy and…y’know, engaged. I owe you for that. So, if it’s all right with you, I think I’d like to go back to doing it while I figure out…what’s next. Sometime in the future I may wanna leave, but for now…?”

“I’d be very glad to have you back at your post, Oak,” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “For as long as you’d like to do it. You’ve got thirty-six years of back pay set aside, too, if you decide you would like to participate in the economy.”

“…the what?”

“Oh, boy.” The Professor adjusted her spectacles. “We’re going to be having some interesting conversations in the weeks to come, I can tell. Let me just head off the biggest one: while you’re a member of the staff, sexual relations with the students are prohibited.”

Oak made a face. “That’s a dumb rule.”

“No, it isn’t,” Tellwyrn retorted. “If you’re actually interested, I’ll sit down with you and explain about power dynamics, abuse, and institutional corruption, but for the time being, all you need to know is that it is a rule. Understood?”

“Sure, fine,” Oak replied, shrugging. “Other…staff are okay, though?”

“Try not to create unnecessary drama in the faculty lounge,” Tellwyrn said with a pained expression. “But…yes, that’s…permissible.”

“Good,” the dryad said, a grin stretching across her face. “Cos that Rafe guy smells feisty.”

“Oh, dear gods,” Tellwyrn muttered. “Well, all things considered, we were about due for good news. And this has been an optimal outcome; at least I don’t have to replace any staff members. This semester has already set a record in terms of losses among the student body.”

“How bad is it, Professor?” Crystal asked softly.

“Well,” Tellwyrn said with a bitter twist of her mouth, “Chase is gone, obviously. He’s having gods know what done to him in Tar’naris, and on his head be it. We’re also losing Miss Willowick. She slipped a letter under my office door…hell, it had to have been practically the moment she got back to the surface. Apparently this school is a little too exciting for her blood; she’s finishing the semester and then moving out. I understand,” she added, turning to Ravana, “that thanks to her current roommate, she has a guaranteed job at Falconer Industries lined up.”

“I would pull strings to make that happen, if it became necessary,” Ravana said, “but I hardly think it will. Maureen has worked with Teal on that…honeybee of theirs. Much better if Teal is the one to make the arrangements; I greatly prefer not to micromanage the Falconers, or any of my subjects. My philosophy is that when one wields power, it is always best to do so with the lightest touch circumstances allow.”

“I am very glad to hear that, Miss Madouri,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “Very glad indeed. You just spared yourself from being expelled, for the moment.”

Ravana’s placid smile vanished instantly. “I beg your pardon?”

“Look at how much help it was for you to interfere and destroy Oak’s sanctuary,” Tellwyrn said bitingly. “You accomplished a sum total of nothing.”

“I kind of appreciate it,” Oak offered. “I didn’t at first, but after some thought…”

“It was hardly wasted effort,” Ravana said, now frowning. “We delayed and injured the enemy, giving our classmates and teachers time to prepare, and weakening him for his eventual defeat.”

“Which occurred thanks to Crystal,” Tellwyrn snapped, “and Maureen. You and Oak had no effect on the outcome.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravana fired back, “at the time, based on the information I had—”

“That is also what you did to Addiwyn,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “And it’s what you did to your father.”

Silence fell in the chamber. Ravana’s hands clenched in her skirts, face going white.

“You put up with him passively for years,” Tellwyrn continued after a momentary pause, “until fate placed you in a room with him, an archdemon, and a Themynrite priestess, at which point you poked the hornet’s nest until the inevitable happened. When having a simple domestic squabble with your roommate, you ambushed her in a blind alley with witchcraft. When you woke up in the chapel and the obvious course of action was to evacuate the campus for your safety, you instead did…well, this.” She gestured at Oak.

“Forgive me,” Ravana said sharply, “but it sounds as if your complaint is that my methods get results.”

“Your methods?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “You’re a noblewoman, you have been trained in plenty of methods. What’s at issue is your whole approach to life, Madouri. In any situation where you’re tested against an enemy, you find the most uncontrollable, unpredictable weapon within your reach, point it in the general direction of your opponent, and give it a swift kick! On a fundamental level you think like the villain in a bardic epic. And what’s worse, you seem to effortlessly get whoever’s near you to go along with whatever mad plan you have pulled out of your butt this time. Do you see my concern, Madouri?”

Ravana stared. Her lips parted for a moment, but she seemed to be speechless for once.

“Have you noticed how few aristocrats we have here?” Tellwyrn pressed on. “And of those, either the kids of friends of mine, or the disgraced, disfavored, or bastard offspring of whatever House. The expendable. Aside from young Aldarasi heirs, scions of a family with which I have been close since before the Empire existed, you are the first student at this University who was destined for the high seat of a major House. For most nobles, this is simply not the kind of education they want for those who will lead their Houses into the next generation. I’ve been accused often enough of running a glorified school for adventurers, and while that’s a vapid oversimplification it is not totally wrong. What we do here just isn’t what nobles in this century do. And then you, first thing after getting rid of your father, applied here.”

“I should think,” Ravana said, struggling for poise, “there was a compliment in—”

“And now I find myself wondering,” Tellwyrn continued inexorably. “Am I teaching you what I seek to teach all my students—to go through life thinking about their actions and doing the intelligent thing in any situation? Or am I simply arming you with practice and connections so you can play out some kind of antiheroic fantasy? Because if it’s the second one, Madouri, I will not hesitate to toss you out of here on your dainty little butt. You’ll get killed doing that, and House Madouri with you. That’d be a hell of an end to a thousand-year lineage, don’t you think?”

“I have no intention,” Ravana said in a soft but rigid voice, “of being the last of my line, nor of going out in any blaze of glory.”

“Then you need to re-think your entire approach to life, girl, because the path you’re on leads to exactly that. Quite frankly, if you want to make yourself an arch-villain, go for it. It’s as good a strategy as any. But you need a subtler strain of villainy, if so. The world is not tolerant of people who rant on mountaintops with arcane super-weapons anymore. It won’t be marauding heroes who destroy you, it will be government regulators, newspaper editorialists, tax assessors. That would be an unworthy end for someone of your talents.”

“I confess,” Ravana said after a pause, “I am not accustomed to being so thoroughly dressed down by someone who is…correct. You’ve given me some things to think about, Professor.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said, her previous ire abruptly leaving her in a sigh. “Do so. I’ll think about them as well, and then we will have another discussion about your future. For now, though… I have one more difficult conversation to face tonight, one I’m looking forward to even less than these, so best not to put it off any further. Excuse me, ladies.”

And then, with her customary lack of fanfare, she was gone.

“She actually said a polite good-bye before teleporting out,” Crystal marveled. “She…really is changing.”

“And we, I note, are still here,” Ravana observed with a tinge of irritation. “I gather we will be returning home the slow way.”

Oak grinned at her. “Arachne’s always been a big believer in the cognitive value of walking.”


The sun had nearly set completely, leaving only the merest sliver of red light on the very edge of the prairie. The sky would continue to fade into darkness over the long minutes to come. She stood a full quarter mile from the base of the mountain, staring straight across the waving tallgrass at the sunset. After a stop in her old room, she had collected her dark glasses, which made this possible even for her Underworld eyes. Natchua hadn’t bothered to change clothes or apply mousse to her hair, and now it was tugged this way and that by the wind, green and white strands occasionally drifting across her vision.

She didn’t react to the nearly silent arrival behind her.

“I hope you don’t think you’re hiding, young lady,” Professor Tellwyrn said sternly, stepping forward.

“Of course not,” Natchua replied. “Just…being awake. I like sunsets. It seems I’ve missed a few.”

“We need to talk.”

“I know.”

“Is there anything you’d like to tell me about the hellgate?”

“I summoned the gnagrethyct,” Natchua said softly, staring at the horizon. The last edge of the sun had just slipped below it. “Chase was in communication with it, using it to re-arrange the Darklands on the other side of the dimensional barrier from the Golden Sea. I brought it to this plane, thinking you would destroy it. Vadrieny did just as well, though.”

Tellwyrn emitted a very faint sigh through her nose. “Anything else?”

“I know you never wanted me here, Professor.”

“If you,” Tellwyrn said dangerously, “are about to start blaming me for your historic lack of judgment…”

“No, no. I just mean… You didn’t want me here, but you’ve never made me feel unwanted. You always treated me exactly like every other student. I appreciate that a lot, Professor. Whatever else happens, I just want to say thank you, while I still can. I may not have made good use of it, but you gave me a chance. Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” Tellwyrn said. She stepped forward again, standing beside Natchua and staring off across the plain. “But you are just as culpable as Chase Masterson for the havoc he has caused, between the hellgate and his sleeping curse, because the whole time you had the power to end it at any moment by coming to me. You didn’t.”

“I thought I could deal with him,” Natchua said wearily. “At least, keep him under control. And avoid…”

“Facing responsibility like an adult?”

The drow closed her eyes, and nodded. “Yes. That.”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “This is more than I can overlook, Natchua. It goes beyond the realm where any assigned punishment is relevant. It’s no longer a matter of correcting your behavior. You’ve posed a severe threat to the existence of this University and everyone in it. I have to ask you to collect your belongings and leave.”

Natchua nodded again. “I understand.”

“I have a friend,” Tellwyrn continued. “Zanzayed the Blue. I’ll introduce you to him and arrange a sort of…apprenticeship.”

“Is that…a dragon?” Natchua asked incredulously.

Tellwyrn showed teeth in a faint grin. “Zanza isn’t much of a people person—even less than I am. You’d like him. He won’t like you, at first, but he owes me favors he’s not going to want me to call in; I can make him take you in. It’s not going to be as much freedom or fun as the University, but it beats the hell out of getting taken down by an Imperial strike team. And after a few years working for him, I think you’ll find yourself much better prepared to deal with the world.”

“I don’t understand.” Natchua snuck a glance at her. “You don’t owe me anything. On the contrary, I wouldn’t have been hugely surprised if you’d decided to kill me.”

“That isn’t an acceptable solution to problems in most places that aren’t the Underworld,” Tellwyrn said, rolling her eyes. “You’ve screwed the pooch here, Natchua, made it impossible for me to justify keeping you on campus. That doesn’t mean I’m prepared to throw you away. I hate to give up on a project. Or a person. And the truth is…”

She trailed off, staring into space for a long few seconds, while the drow watched her carefully out the corner of her eye.

“I relate to you so damn much,” Tellwyrn whispered at last. “You have no idea. Three thousand years ago I landed in a world I barely understood, carrying incredible powers I understood even less, and had to just…make do. We are very much alike, right down to your general disdain for social skills and entirely unjustified belief that the world owes you something. It’s like looking in a time-lost mirror. But the world today isn’t the world then. I grew to become the great and legendary Tellwyrn because in that era, swaggering around exploding things and hexing people with wild abandon was exactly how you built respect. Now? There are far too many individuals and institutions powerful enough to deal with the likes of you and I, and almost no empty space left in which to operate without stepping on their toes. If my life had suddenly started a year ago, or a decade ago, I’d probably be dead by now. And if you try to do what I did, which is exactly what your personality and life experiences will all but compel you to do, that is where you’ll end up. You’ve already messed up your life pretty thoroughly, Natchua. But not so thoroughly that I want to see you lose the remainder. Not if I can still help you.”

Natchua swallowed heavily, again gazing out into the dark.

“Zanzayed has colleagues in the Conclave of the Winds who know your…preferred type of magic,” Tellwyrn added after a moment. “Razzavinax the Red is a big deal in the organization, so I understand, and he loves teaching ornery youngsters. He’s sort of famous for it, or infamous. You can learn to control what Elilial gave you with the dragons. More importantly, they are in the process of adapting to the world as it is. Ancient, powerful, once unchallenged beings learning to get by in modern reality. Learn with them, and you’ll learn what you need.”

Natchua turned fully to face her, took two steps backward, and bowed deeply from the waist.

“Thank you for your very generous offer, Professor Tellwyrn. I appreciate deeply that you’d still show me that kind of consideration. But I have to decline. There is…something I need to do, first.”

“Natchua,” Tellwyrn warned, “you are not powerful enough to break through Tar’naris’s defenses and do anything to your mother. Your people have been fending off warlocks—Scyllithene warlocks, a much more dire breed than the craft you learned—since the Elder Wars.”

“Good guess, but no,” Natchua replied, straightening and letting her lips twist in a wry little smile. “If I never see Tar’naris or anyone from it again, it’ll be too soon for my taste. I really can’t say any more, Professor, except that I’m grateful for the offer.”

Tellwyrn heaved a deep sigh, shook her head, and turned her back, staring up at the mountain. As the sky darkened and stars began to emerge, it cut a striking silhouette against the deepening blackness.

“We’ve all noticed some of your…odd staffing choices,” Natchua said in a more hesitant tone. “The rumors about Stew are pretty unbelievable, but it’s an open secret that Afritia Morvana has killed more people than the Vashtar influenza. And is Janis van Richter really in the Glassian royal line?”

Tellwyrn half-turned back, just enough to give her a pointed look. “Is that any of your business?”

Natchua shook her head. “I’m just considering the future. Is it possible that…some day…if I come back here, there might be a place for me at Last Rock?”

The Professor studied her face. “That,” she said slowly, “would depend on the manner of your return, and what’s transpired in the interim. But if you haven’t done something to make it specifically impossible… It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found a home for a prodigal child at my school.”

“Thank you,” Natchua said, and bowed again, now wearing a sad little smile. “For everything, Professor. I’m sorry I let you down.”

“Whatever you’re up to next,” Tellwyrn replied, “think. Think all the way to the end, before you act.”

“I will. I promise. This time, I already have.”

The Professor looked at her for another long moment, then nodded once, and vanished without another word.

For a full minute after, Natchua stood alone on the prairie, listening to the wind. Finally satisfied that she was alone, she pulled a little glass bottle from within her pocket and carefully removed the cork.

The mist that spewed forth was far greater in volume than such a tiny receptacle could have held, had its properties been merely physical. The swirling vapor coalesced immediately into a humanoid shape, then resolved itself to reveal milky skin, spreading wings, and various other features Natchua had scarcely a moment to observe before the succubus let out a long whoop.

Melaxyna launched herself skyward and began gliding about overhead, executing figure eights, loops, midair pirouettes and other exuberant tricks.

“That’s really subtle,” Natchua commented. “We’re still practically in the shadow of the mountain, you know. I just had a nice moment with Professor Tellwyrn; I’d rather not ruin it by finding out what she thinks of me smuggling you out.”

“The sky!” the demon crowed, settling to the ground nearby. She immediately flopped over on her back, folding her wings around herself, and began rolling around on the ground, mashing down a swath of tallgrass and giggling hysterically. “The ground! Grass! Bugs! FREEDOM!”

“Don’t use it all up at once,” the drow said dryly. “We’ve a long way to go yet.”

“Right!” Melaxyna hopped nimbly to her feet. “What is your plan, master? And how may this humble servant play a role in the fulfillment of your ambitions?”

“The short version,” Natchua said, folding her hands behind her back, “is that Elilial singled me out, unjustly, as a weapon. I intend to make her regret it.”

As if a switch had been flipped, the succubus’s glee immediately vanished. “Oh, no. Kid, no. No, no, no! You are not the first warlock to get it into her head she’s going to take down the Queen of Demons using her own power. I’ve heard many iterations of this story, and they all have the same ending. It’s a hilarious ending, unless I’m standing in the middle of it!”

“Three things,” Natchua said, holding up three fingers. “What I have, what I know, Elilial gave me herself. She specifically left me with more infernal knowledge, and thus power, than anyone could possible need or use, so I would create the maximum havoc. I am not just any warlock. Second, I have nowhere left to go and nothing to do with my life except seek my revenge, so if I fail, or die trying…eh. And third…” She lowered her hand and turned again to stare, this time to the southwest, toward Viridill, Tar’naris, and beyond them, Athan’Khar. “A great doom is coming. The Black Wreath have been pared to the bone by recent events, the archdemons brought to earth to inhabit mortal bodies and all but one lost in the process. Elilial is planning something now, something of great import, and she has already suffered setbacks. Her plans are frayed, if not hanging by a thread. There will never be a better time.”

“No. Absolutely not!” Melaxyna covered her face with both hands. “Just…just put me back in the Crawl. I’m not doing this. Not this.”

“I don’t recall our pact having an escape clause. Oh, relax,” she added disdainfully as the succubus made as if to physically lunge at her. “The last thing I want is a squirrelly child of Vanislass tagging along against her will, tripping me up at every opportunity. I’m not going to pit you against the Dark Lady’s minions, Mel. I just need your help to gather up some resources and allies who will see this through with me. Once that’s done, and before I move on to the real plan, I intend to offer you release from the pact. With, of course, stipulations to prevent you from interfering with me further. I have some sympathy for someone buried underground,” she added. “It’s stifling to the very soul. Whatever else comes of this, I’ll be glad to end it knowing you’re free. After you’ve made yourself useful.”

“All right,” Melaxyna said warily. “I am…tentatively not planning to murder you in your sleep, master. So, you want allies and resources that’ll help you take your fight right to Elilial, then? Why do I suspect the paladins on that campus of yours aren’t on your list?”

“Sort of.” Natchua grinned maliciously. “In fact… I know exactly where to start.”

 

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13 – 45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hildred tentatively raised a hand. “…never?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Reich?” Ezzaniel frowned deeply.

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

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

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

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

“Well said,” Finchley agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Melaxyna.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How very dare you, sir. The idea.”

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

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

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

“Serious as fine cuisine, brother!”

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


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

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

“Cut that out, ingrate!”

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

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

To…where?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Of course. That symbol was…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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