Tag Archives: Principia

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Adventurers?” High Commander Rouvad uncharacteristically slammed the hefty budget request down on her desk, atop all the other paperwork Principia had assembled. Fortunately, they were alone in the Commander’s office—or perhaps unfortunately, as an audience might have tempered Rouvad’s ire, or at least its expression. “Locke, your orders were to assemble an army!”

“Excuse me, Commander, but they weren’t,” Principia said calmly, standing at attention before the desk. “My orders were to assemble a force capable of defeating any extant military power. Leaving aside that I wasn’t given the time or resources to build a conventional army, especially not one up to modern standards, I don’t actually think one of those would accomplish that directive anyway. I found an approach that will.”

“You think you can counter modern military equipment and strategies using assets that were notoriously impossible to control even before they were obsolete?”

“Precisely, ma’am.”

The High Commander stared at her for a long moment in silence, during which the lieutenant just gazed back, perfectly composed. Rouvad finally sighed, and seated herself in her desk chair, notably not directing Locke to do likewise, or even stand at ease. “All right, Lieutenant. I suppose Avei wouldn’t have deliberately set you this task if it was anything that could be done conventionally. Go ahead, let’s hear your reasoning.”

“The Imperial Army is the most powerful military in the world right now,” Principia said immediately, “and not because of its size, but because of its constant embrace of new techniques and strategies. Most armies stagnate if unused for long periods, but the Tirasian dynasty has funded new enchantments and technologies for the Army’s use, had Imperial Intelligence keep regular reports on methods fielded by other nations, and directed the Army to constantly update itself even over the last century of peace. Thus, I began with the approach of hypothetically neutralizing Tiraan units, and settled on a strategy which will be universally applicable.”

“Adventurers,” Rouvad said, her tone utterly flat.

“Adventurers,” Principia agreed. “The Imperial Army’s greatest strength is its embedded magic users. In the field, infantry units deploy in small squadrons, relying on teleportation to obviate the need for supply trains, stay in communication, and even rapidly position themselves on the field. Using specialized mages, a commander can deploy infantry and mag artillery instantaneously via teleportation, and other specifically trained battlemages provide light magical artillery in the form of a standardized catalog of combat spells. The Army still employs its Corps of Engineers to erect field fortifications, bridges, and the like, but now relies more heavily on the Corps of Enchanters to position shield foci designed to be immediately salvageable even if they are broken by enemy fire. Spells and enchantments are also the source of most of the Army’s current use of traps and munitions. They even use conjured water to keep troops hydrated in the field.

“I think, in analyzing the disparity of capability between the current Silver Legions and the modern Imperial Army, it’s far too easy to view the Army’s advanced equipment and methods as an unequivocal advantage. I certainly fell into that trap with my own alternate weapons program. It misses the equally important fact that these advantages come with a critical drawback. Imperial units can be seriously interfered with by a warlock who neutralizes their enchantments, or a witch who causes them to blow up. They could be brought to a complete halt by coordinated action from both.”

“Asymmetrical warfare is Tiraan operational doctrine, Lieutenant,” Rouvad said impassively. “I hardly think you are going to beat them at that game. You will never assemble anything to compete with the Strike Corps out of antisocial misfits.”

“Yes, Commander, exactly. Trying to match the Army’s sophistication and overall power is a losing game. It’s an arms race, a question of who has the most money and warm bodies to throw at a problem—which aside from its practical drawbacks flies against Avenist doctrine. The strength of modern militaries comes from their systems. Technology, spellcraft, organization. And systems have weak points.”

“Those weak points are known and protected.”

“Protected according to structured doctrine and established methods. An army’s strength is organization; its enemy is chaos. Therefore, I propose to weaponize chaos. During the Age of Adventures, it was well known that experienced adventurers were a serious threat to military forces simply due to their ability to create unexpected hazards, target officers, split formations, and so on. In the absence of adventurers, these weaknesses have only grown. Heavy reliance on arcane magic makes them vulnerable to Circle effects, a weakness the Army has not remedied simply because there are no organized infernomancers of sufficient scope to threaten them, and even demons are as vulnerable to lightning weapons as anyone else. They have never faced any serious threat from witches or fairies simply because those avoid modern civilization precisely due to all the arcane magic. Not to mention that there are other ways of dealing with modern charms. I’ve already got one recruit who could neutralize an entire battalion’s energy shields just by making it rain on them.”

“Yes, the dragon,” Rouvad said, shuffling the papers on her desk and pulling out Principia’s personnel file on Khadizroth the Green. “Goddess preserve us, Locke.”

“There are other structural weaknesses created by the modern world of systems and connections,” Principia continued smoothly. “As Avei teaches us, the aim of warfare is to eliminate your enemy’s ability to wage war. Less than that risks defeat, and more abandons morality. The modern reliance on complex machines and charms creates opportunities to neutralized armed forces before combat occurs. A battlestaff is a device orders of magnitude more complicated and expensive than a spear, and you can break it just by getting dust in its clicker mechanism. And did you know there are exactly three factories in the entire Empire capable of producing power crystals large enough to run mag cannons, or zeppelin engines?”

Rouvad slapped the file down atop the others. “Let us say I consider your point valid, Locke. These…these are your recruits? ULR students? A Shaathist offshoot sect? Archpope Justinian and Bishop Darling’s personal hit squads? A gaggle of warlocks and demons led by a renegade drow? And, again, Locke, the dragon!”

“No, Commander,” Principia said serenely, “that is our recruitment pool. I have signed on Khadizroth the Green, the shaman Vannae, Longshot McGraw, Tinker Billie, the Sarasio Kid and Gravestone Weaver. Those names alone are weapons; most of them are modern legends. We both know it was the bards who decided the outcome of the Enchanter Wars as much as any soldiers. I rather think Xyraadi will take up my offer soon, which would likewise be a boon; she is an established ally of the Sisterhood, with a legend of her own.”

“A khelminash demon,” Rouvad said, rubbing her temples. “You do realize there are spiritual factions within the Sisterhood which consider the very existence of those creatures a living insult to Avei.”

“Yes, Commander, and I am also aware that those spiritual factions fixate on khelminash because they never expect to actually see one, and many of their fellow Sisters forcibly prevent them from picking on the women they actually want to bully. If there is any blowback as a result of this, I will requisition those spiritual factions a regulation spoon so they can eat my entire ass.”

“Watch it, Lieutenant.”

“I do not expect this Brother Ingvar or his followers to join up, which is probably for the best, but I do advise cultivating a relationship with them. His sect is half women and appears to be focused on fixing everything objectionable about Shaathism as its entire point. But that’s a matter for the Bishop, not my division.”

“We don’t have a Bishop, Locke,” Rouvad snapped. “Justinian has refused to confirm two candidates already. Given his spurious reasoning, I am pretty sure he means to just forestall the Sisterhood having representation within the Universal Church as payback for that whole business with Syrinx.”

“That’s above my pay grade, Commander,” Principia said pleasantly.

Rouvad leaned slowly back in her chair, staring up at the elf. “I truly, deeply hope that whatever the goddess wants from your presence proves worth the unmitigated pain in the ass you are, Locke.”

“Only time will tell. We must trust in Avei’s wisdom.”

The Commander shook her head and picked up the budget proposal again. “You asked for a facility in Viridill, specifically.”

“Yes, Commander, a remote one. Given the nature of the First Legion I have proposed, a rural headquarters is optimal both for security and practicality. And its location in Viridill will be important to underscore that this is an Avenist venture.”

“Yes, you made mention of that in this personnel request,” Rouvad said, picking up that document with an even more acid expression. “You want your pick of soldiers from First Squadrons throughout the Legions? This is going to make you even more enemies than your winning personality.”

“I much prefer volunteers, actually. At issue is that only Squad One soldiers are going to be of the kind I can even use, and it’s vital that at least half my personnel be gathered from the Legions, or the civilian Sisterhood. Adventurer guilds were still an active force during the first few decades of my career, Commander, and I’ve seen how they operate. Like any social group, each has its own culture and unique values. This thing is being commissioned by Avei, and needs to be specifically Avenist. In order to be effective, I’m going to have to acquire the best talent available, from wherever I can find it. I need at least their number in Sisters and Legionnaires to maintain the culture of the unit. I rather think the squad commanders won’t mind giving up a soldier or two if it’s made clear that we are assembling a support team for Hands of Avei.”

Rouvad’s expression softened almost imperceptibly. “You indicated that, as well, in writing. Your plan is for the First Legion to be under Trissiny’s command?”

“Under the Hand of Avei’s command,” Principia corrected. “Right now, that’s Trissiny, but there will be more after her. Historically, paladins have very rarely acted alone, and I’ve always found it purely odd that the Sisterhood has not had a dedicated support team for its Hands since the Silver Huntresses. With this unit being formed in response to the changing world, it’s only natural. One woman acting alone, sword-first, isn’t going to get much accomplished in this day and age. Trissiny has done an admirable job of absorbing that lesson already. Not to mention that any Hand of Avei is going to be a more qualified commander than I ever could.”

“Your unit’s not even formed and you’re already trying to weasel out of command.”

“I’ve made no secret that I consider commanding a Legion outside my wheelhouse,” Principia said frankly, “but this is the job and I agreed to do it. It’ll be another year and a half before Trissiny’s done at Last Rock, anyway. I wouldn’t suggest this if I didn’t consider it in the best interests of the mission. The Sisterhood needs a versatile, permanent force directly under its paladins a lot more than it needs me in charge of anything forever.”

“I would hardly suspect Trissiny of trying to undermine me,” Rouvad mused, studying Principia through narrowed eyes, “but after that stunt you two pulled with Syrinx, you and Trissiny in combination… There is already a rift between us that I don’t like. Schisms between Hands and High Commanders have happened in the past, and always to disastrous effect. It can be difficult enough to justify the complexities of politics to a paladin without the likes of you leaning on her from the other direction.”

Principia hesitated, then straightened infinitesimally. “Permission to speak freely?”

Rouvad regarded her in silence for a moment, then her shoulders shifted in a minute sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Trissiny understands the importance and the complexities of politics just fine,” Principia said, holding the High Commander’s gaze. “I won’t attest to how good she is at it just yet, but she’s young and learning. What matters is that she comprehends that someone in your position has to make tough calls and compromises, and I think she’s wise enough to recognize and respect when someone more experienced has to take the reins. If her faith in you was damaged by the Syrinx affair, it’s because you made a bad call. The utility of keeping that woman around was never worth the harm she did, and in the end it was Trissiny who had to clean up your mess. You can’t expect her not to have questions about your leadership after that, Commander. It doesn’t mean it’s unsalvageable. Trissiny is also intelligent enough to recognize that even experienced commanders make mistakes. If you want to mend that rift, you should talk to her, and acknowledge what went wrong.”

Rouvad slowly worked her jaw as if chewing the elf’s words, shifting her eyes to stare at the far wall. Only for a few seconds, though. Suddenly brisk again, she leaned forward in her chair, setting down the personnel request. “Your opinion has been noted, Lieutenant. Moving on, when I gave you permission to offer amnesty and the Sisterhood’s protection in order to recruit key personnel, I was not expecting you to make it a blanket offer to an entire assembly of random would-be adventurers. Which, of course, you knew, and didn’t say that was your intention because you were well aware I’d have squashed that.”

“It was not my intention, Commander, just how the situation transpired. I have made it clear the Sisterhood doesn’t have the legal authority to pardon crimes, and its protection has limits. Though it wasn’t my plan exactly, I think it worked out well. This gives me some wiggle room to apply the offer of amnesty to those who are worth it, and discreetly direct the requisite authorities to any other applicants if it’s deemed necessary.”

“Despite everything, Locke, I can’t find it in me to just blithely assume you know what you’re doing. The fact that you always seem to come out on top is not the same quality as being in control of your own life, much less the unit under your command. But… You have earned at least some trust. And there is always the fact that you were put here by Avei. She, I have to assume, knows what she is about.”

Another pause ensued while she studied Principia’s face. Then Commander Rouvad picked up the pen from its holder, dipped it in her inkwell, and began to sign forms.

“Goddess watch over us all.”


It was the same room in which the three of them had had their last meeting, close to two years ago. Being a basement space in the Thieves’ Guild underground chambers used for clandestine interviews, it was never the most wholesome of spaces, but the atmosphere between them the last time had still been particularly dour. Now, it was oppressively grim.

“And that’s it,” Tricks said softly, his tone giving no indication of his feelings.

Thumper nodded once. “Long and the short of it, Boss. I figure you’ll want me to sit down with Questions for the fine points, but I’m pretty sure that covers everything you need to know right off the bat. Whole thing was just a complete fuckin’ waste,” he added bitterly, dropping his gaze to scowl at the floor. “The whole plan to interfere with Justinian amounted to diddly shit, the Keys situation apparently resolved itself before I ever even ran into her, and all I did for two years was get conned and pushed around by every asshole who gave it a try. Omnu’s hairy balls, I don’t think I’ve ever fucked up that consistently or hard in my life. An’ that’s sayin’ something.”

“It matters that you recognize that,” Tricks said mildly. “I more than half expected you wouldn’t.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s worth a whole goddamn lot,” Style rumbled, “but not nothing.”

“And I’m not ready to completely write off the time you spent answering to Justinian and Syrinx,” Tricks added. “Yes, Thumper, you’ll definitely be having regular sessions with Questions until he’s fully satisfied. There may yet be something buried in that head of yours that you don’t even know is important.”

“Sure, however many sessions he needs,” Thumper agreed, nodding. A skilled interrogator had uses far beyond extracting information from the unwilling; one as talented as Questions was employed just as often to tease out details and secrets from the memories of those who didn’t even know they knew anything of value.

“So, you’ve had an interesting couple of years,” Style stated, striding forward. Thumper tensed instinctively at her approach but made no move even when she stopped, looming ominously over him. “Seen and done some real shit, apparently. But before that, there was the assignment the Guild sent you on out to Last Rock. Way I hear it, there are some teeny-tiny details you failed to report on, particularly with regard to your handling of Keys on site. She shared with us, after you left, exactly what you’d threatened to do to…what was it…ah, yes, motivate her. You wanna dispute that account, Thumper?”

He tensed further, shoulders lifting with an indrawn breath, but the enforcer leaned his head back to meet her eyes. “Nope. Sweet told me what she said. Sounds like pretty much how it went down.”

Style’s foot came crashing down onto the front of his chair right between his legs, missing him by a fraction of an inch and causing him to jump.

“And are you fully cognizant, Thumper,” she said in a sibilant hiss, “exactly why conduct like that is not fucking acceptable under any circumstances, but most especially toward a fellow member of the Thieves’ Guild?”

“I wasn’t…gonna actually do it,” he said weakly. “It was just a bit of…motivational theater.”

“Ohh, Thumper,” Style whispered, reaching down with one big callused hand to very tenderly brush his cheek with the backs of her knuckles. Thumper bit down on his lips, going white with sudden terror. “Taking that at face value, let’s just forget about the monumental failure of enforcer technique that is issuing a threat you don’t intend to follow up on. Hell, we will set aside, just for the moment, the fact that even threatening rape is, according to Avenist, Imperial and Eserite doctrine, an act of sexual assault. Let’s just brush all that under the rug for a moment, here, and address the fact that THAT IS NOT WHAT I FUCKING ASKED YOU.”

She seized his hair and wrenched his head to one side, bending down to bellow directly in his ear. Thumper cringed, grabbing the seat of the chair with both hands and going stiff as a board in her grasp, but made no physical reaction aside from that.

“No, Style, I get it,” he said, his voice tight with pain. “I apologized to Keys, for what that’s worth. It was a shit thing to do and I was way over the line.”

Style held him in place for three more heartbeats, then abruptly released his head and stepped back, staring down at her fingers. “Thumper, why the fuck does your hair smell like oranges?”

“Samivir’s Hair Cream,” he said weakly, lifting one slightly trembling hand to smooth his hair back down into a semblance of order. “For the discerning gentleman, it says on the tin. It doesn’t stay this flat by itself, y’know.”

“We’ve had some pretty interesting correspondence concerning you,” Tricks said idly, lounging back in his own seat in an utterly relaxed posture and regarding Thumper with an expression that was almost bored. “Webs vouches for you, because of course he does. Then again, his story about a succubus manipulating your actions has been corroborated, so… There’s that. Also, before you reported in, Sweet has informed me that in addition to the demon you recently had memory-altering infernomancy done on you, and then more mindfuckery by a green dragon. You understand how all this really muddies the waters when it comes to sussing out your exact degree of culpability for your actions.”

“I don’t think Big K would do me wrong,” Thumper said, frowning. “He’s a good sort, for a fuckin’ scary primordial lizard monster.”

“Which is more or less exactly what someone laboring under a magic dragon whammy would say,” Tricks observed. “I’m calling Glimmer down here from Mathenon to give you a good working over, too. I wanna know exactly what’s been done to your brain in as much detail as possible before we go deciding what to do about it. Meanwhile, we have also received a written communication concerning you, from Keys herself.”

“Oh, I think you’ll get a kick out of this,” Style said with grim amusement when he tensed again.

“Keys,” Tricks stated with a faint, bemused frown, “has requested clemency from us concerning your punishment for anything done by you to her and forsworn any intent to seek restitution.”

Thumper blinked twice. “…huh?”

“In basically any other circumstances,” said Style, “that would mean I’d haul her ass in here for an analysis, because that’s the kind of thing victims of abuse are prone to do for somebody who’s got his tentacles worked into their brain. Now, we all know you’re not that specific breed of asshole and Keys would still be three times as smart as you after getting hit on the head by a whole tree full of coconuts, but still, it’d be policy. But this is Keys, she whose industrious labor over the course of lifetimes to be the greatest possible pain in everyone’s ass I have decided I shall respect. In fact, I’ll go so far as to caution you that she is clearly only doing this to get you to join that asshat adventurer guild she’s running for the Sisterhood, and don’t even get me started on that horseshit, because she wants you under her thumb to torment you at her leisure. Hate to spoil a sister’s grift, but it is, as I’ve mentioned, Keys, so if she wants to piss away her right to restitution, fine and fuck her anyway. But that still leaves us, and you, and what it is that we are going to do about you.”

She planted herself directly in front of him and leaned forward, stretching her lips into a psychotic death’s head grin, and said in a saccharine tone, “Would you like to know what we are going to do about you, Thumper?”

He swallowed once before answering. “It’s pretty heavily on my mind right now, yeah.”

“Well, you’ve got a monumental asskicking coming, that’s for goddamn sure,” Style said, abruptly straightening up and crossing her arms to glare down at him. “Sexual harassment of a Guild member, failure to report in when ordered, and a whole ream of shit that flirts with the boundaries of outright treason. Oh, yeah, you’ve got a foot up the ass in your future. But with each new revelation the curious case of Jeremiah Shook has become more layered, like the world’s most obnoxious shit-soaked onion, until what I recently assumed would be a very satisfying case of me stomping you into an orange-scented stain on the floor has turned into a whole ream of goddamn detective work before we manage to sort out exactly how responsible you are for everything you’ve been blundering around in, and how badly your brain has been fucked with already.

“So I have decided, Thumper, that we are going to give this aaaallllllllll the time it needs. You’re gonna spend as long with Questions and Glimmer as they want, and then a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer still, until the both of them are entire sick of your face and my meddling, because I am not gonna leave a pebble unturned in that greasy-ass head of yours.

“And then, once it has been established beyond all possible hint of doubt exactly what the fuck you’ve done and what you deserve for it… Then, and only then, will I kick your ass. And oh, Thumper, the asskicking I shall rain down upon you will be the crown jewel of my career, an unimpeachable masterwork of retribution.” She raised both her arms as if in benediction, gazing at the ceiling with a nearly rapturous expression. “Your culpability shall be known to the most infinitesimal degree, and you shall be stomped with godlike fucking exactitude. I will smite you with an exquisite fucking symphony of fairness, measuring every blow to the tiniest iota of its positioning and force until you have been punished so flawlessly for your two-year parade of shitheadery that not even your self-involved victim complex will enable you to walk away feeling you’ve been mistreated. Vidius himself shall descend from his throne on high to sit at my feet and learn the ways of fairly judging souls, that’s how precisely I’m gonna pulp you. I shall be a cleansing fire of fists and feet, and you shall emerge with the dross burned away to leave only a sore and chastened, but pristine and new, piece of shit of exactly the caliber the gods half-assedly created you. From the divine instrument of flawless retribution that is my size nine boot, you will ascend, born anew by the baptismal asskicking of Style which will echo down through the ages as a legendary arbiter of the very abstract fucking concept of justice.”

By that point, even Tricks was eyeing her askance. Thumper gaped up at the chief enforcer with his mouth slightly open as she finally lowered her arms, planted her fists on her hips, and grinned down at him.

“And I shall do all of this on your behalf, Thumper, not because you matter to that degree, but because I am sick of your bullshit. Now how’s that sound to you, hm?”

He finally shut his mouth, swallowed once more, then cleared his throat. “I… Yeah, okay. Let’s do that. Sounds pretty good, actually.”

Slowly, Style’s grin faded. “Thumper, I get that you’ve been through some shit, but the one thing I did not expect you to acquire from your travels was a sense of humor.”

“No foolin’, Style, I mean it,” he said, now frowning faintly. “I’ve been… I’ve been looking back at all the shit I’ve ever done over the last few days, and I can’t get away from the fact that I just don’t know what’s what anymore. Kheshiri sure screwed with my head, yeah, but it’s from a lot longer back than that. The farther back I think, the more I realize I’ve been fed a mix of real good advice and complete bullshit, and only listened to about half of each, and now all I know is that a lot of what I thought I knew is bullshit, and I’m not even sure which part. It’s like… Y’know when you go up a staircase without paying attention and don’t count the steps right, so you get to the top expecting more stairs and there’s this second where the whole world’s out of balance cos the floor’s not where you thought it should be? It’s like that, except all the time. And it fuckin’ sucks.

“Khadizroth said something to me about punishment, how’d he put it… Yeah, he told me when you’ve done somethin’ wrong, it puts you kinda out of balance with your whole existence, an’ from a state like that taking a punishment you’ve earned can be, like, medicinal. Puts you back in order with the world. Sounded like the dumbest fuckin’ mumbo-jumbo I’d ever heard at the time, but I dunno anymore. I can’t go on stumbling around with no idea who I am or what’s true or exactly why and how I keep fucking up everything. So… Yeah, Style, let’s go for it. You do what you gotta, I trust you to know what’s fair.”

Both Style and Tricks were staring at him, blank-faced. Thumper looked rapidly back and forth between them, then cleared his throat awkwardly.

“So, uh… Not to change the subject or nothin’, but while I’m here bein’ examined and all, am I allowed to leave the Guild?”

“What the fuck do you think, Thumper?” Tricks asked wryly.

He nodded. “Yeah, fair enough. Can I get people visiting me?”

“Depends on the people, but I don’t really see why not,” said the Boss. “Webs has moved his operation to Tiraas; I’m pretty sure he’ll want to chat with you at the first opportunity. Way I heard it, you owe him an apology, too.”

“Gods, I really do,” Thumper grimaced. “So…and I’m just askin’, here…if Sweet was to do his interfaith thing and could find one willing to come, could I get a priestess of Avei to come here an’ chat with me?”

They both stared at him again, now openly incredulous.

“It’s nothin’ urgent,” Thumper hastily clarified. “Just, y’know, spiritual stuff. Sweet’s got more important shit to do, so if it’s a problem don’t even worry about it. I just got some, uh, questions.”

“I think,” Style mused, “this may take even longer than I thought.”

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15 – 72

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No one would ever call what happened to Ninkabi less than a disaster, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The city was constructed nearly entirely of stone, and so fires had been relatively small, contained, and swiftly doused by magic users. For whatever reason, the specific spells and weapons used by the infernal invaders had not tended to cause large structural collapses, which after the battle helped a great deal to alleviate the need for search and rescue efforts. Being a warren of tunnels and bridges much better known to its inhabitants than invaders, the population, police and civilians alike, had largely survived by making use of countless natural choke points to hide from demons or pin and counter-attack them; fearsome though hellspawn were, the last major demonic invasion had been before the advent of lightning weapons and even the khladesh phalanxes had been unprepared to face wandfire. Perhaps most conveniently of all, especially in contrast to most recorded invasions from Hell, there were no lingering demons to fight; no invasion from Hell had ever been met by a counter-invasion of tiny, relentless fairies. Every demon in the city was gone, either destroyed or fled, by the time the final confrontation with Elilial had been ended, save the few allied with the adventurers.

The Empire’s state of war footing necessarily slowed the deployment of troops to Ninkabi, as there just weren’t large concentrations of them in any one convenient place, but Tiraas did not lack for non-military resources and sent everything it had. More aid came from all quarters as the day went on and telescrolls carrying word of the invasion spread across the Empire. Every cult sent what personnel and resources it could, the Omnists in particular contributing vastly to humanitarian efforts. The Wizard’s Guild lent every available mage to teleport anything and anyone needed to the city from wherever they came, and soon other cities, provincial governments and Houses likewise donated resources. After Falconer Industries dispatched its private zeppelin to transport any injured judged unfit for teleportation or Rail travel to the nearest standing hospitals, its competitors and soon other corporations began clamoring to be seen helping in front of the reporters, beginning with a fleet of trucks from DawnCo.

Tiraas’s allies also responded, with two members of the Conclave of the Winds arriving within an hour of the battle’s end, and pledges came from Rodvenheim, Puna Dara, Tar’naris and Sifan that packages of aid were being prepared for shipment as soon as it was feasible. The Tiraan Empire was richer by far than any of these nations and did not objectively need the help, but word of each such promise brought cheers from the people of Ninkabi when it was announced. During the darkest times, a simple show of solidarity could be as powerful as any helping hand.

In the broader world of politics, everyone everywhere had just been affected by the wolf dreams and unearthly howling, and word was only just beginning to be spread by witches and shamans that that crisis had passed. As much as the powerful liked to network with each other and be seen to make grand gestures, great uncertainty often brought out the best in populations. Generosity toward a stranger in need might not be satisfying in the same way as the destruction of a threat, but it was a means of asserting both power over fate and the virtue that most people liked to think they already possessed.

And of course, from the beginning, the large force of adventurers was there. Most of them had little skill in healing, but there was plenty to be done and none of them hesitated to pitch in. Even the spirit wolves attached to Ingvar’s group went to work sniffing out people trapped by collapsed structures. Ninkabi’s beleaguered residents, desperate and simply spellshocked as so many were, didn’t raise a peep of objection to having dozens of heavily-armed anachronisms running around their city, not as long as they were willing to help.

Two hours after full dark, the city was finally beginning to calm down, with the various relief workers now joining injured and displaced residents in the various hastily improvised shelters, most too simply tired to keep going by that point. Back in the old trading guild hall up near the main gates of the city, where the first concentration of civilians had taken shelter and many of the aid efforts were being coordinated, bedraggled adventurers, soldiers, and volunteers were settling in for some hard-earned rest in the spaces where the citizens had been huddled just a few hours prior, with the full expectation of being back at work with the crack of dawn. By that time, they were all that remained, the actual civilians having gone either back to their homes or off to other, less improvised shelters, leaving this space for administration of relief personnel.

It wasn’t silent, and likely nothing in Ninkabi would be for some hours, but the atmosphere was muted due to sheer fatigue. The knot of people huddled in one corner not far from the broken wall where baerzurgs had torn their way in tried to keep their voices low, though none of them seemed close to sleeping.

“She is, as far as I can tell, completely human,” Shaeine reported, releasing Jackie’s head. “I will caution everyone that I am not a medical professional, however, and I really recommend that she be examined by one of those.”

With Fross having regained possession of the Mask, Jackie had had the benefit of a quick wash, three helpings of Omnist vegetable stew, and a colorful new dress donated by someone in Onkawa, and generally looked a great deal better than she had previously, if still a little hollow-eyed from simple fatigue. She remained animated, though, and begin gesticulating broadly and rapidly in response.

“I don’t…suppose…you know how to write, Jackie?” Juniper asked hesitantly. Jackie grinned at her and nodded.

“We tried that,” Shaeine said, serene as always. She reached around behind herself and retrieved a sheet of paper, on which a crude stick figure had been scrawled, surrounded by equally roughly-sketched little butterflies. Or, upon closer inspection, pixies. “This was the result.”

Jackie raised her chin, beaming with pride.

“But why can’t she talk, then?” Fross asked.

“I can find nothing physically wrong with her vocal apparatus,” said Shaeine, carefully putting the picture back down. “But, again, someone more qualified than I should really check that before we consider the matter settled. Even so, muteness is known to be a possible side effect of mental trauma. She has certainly endured more than her share of that.”

Some of the good humor leaked from Jackie’s face, and Juniper leaned in to wrap an arm around her shoulders. Fross settled down in her hair, which immediately restored her smile.

“I’m honestly more curious why she’s human,” said Trissiny. “I suppose something like that isn’t beyond Salyrene’s power, but… Why?”

Everyone looked at Jackie, who shrugged, grimaced, and rolled her eyes.

“Yep, that’s the look of somebody who’s met a god, all right,” Principia said lightly. “Well, Jackie, now that things are a little more settled here, I’ve got something for you.”

While speaking, she had already been digging in one of her belt pouches, and now produced a golden eagle charm on a twisted chain, which she held out toward Jackie.

“Hey!” Trissiny exclaimed. “Why do you have that?”

“Rouvad issued it to me,” Principia said cheerfully.

“If that’s the case, it’s not yours to give away, Locke.”

“As it turns out,” Principia said, “this was created by a certain Mary the Crone, with whom we are all tediously acquainted. It’s a conversion focus which draws power from the bottomless well of an extremely high-ranked fairy, whom the old lady decided needed to be a little less powerful and so made that to turn some of her energy into divine magic in the hands of whoever has this charm. Specifically, it siphons magic from Jacaranda the Pixie Queen.”

Jackie, who had been frowning quizzically at the pendant, straightened up and stared at Principia.

“So,” the elf continued with a grin, “as far as I’m concerned, this is stolen property which I am now returning to its rightful owner. If it becomes necessary, I’m sure I can have Ephanie look up a suitable interpretation of Legion regulations to back me up on that, but to be quite honest? After that whole mess with Basra, I am far more inclined to work around Commander Rouvad’s politicking and bad judgment than try to persuade her if it’s not absolutely necessary.”

Trissiny looked away, her own expression settling into a grim frown. “I… Should probably not agree with a sentiment like that in the presence of witnesses. Off the record, though, Jackie, I’d say you’re definitely entitled to take that back if you want it.”

“As I understand it,” Principia said as Jackie carefully took the charm from her hands, “you picked up a suite of very basic spells from all four schools in that tower, right? That’d be typical for anybody getting a crash course in Salyrite magic; all their apprentices learn the fundamentals before specializing in one of the Colleges. If my grasp of the theory is correct, that’ll significantly augment your ability to do divine magic without specializing you into it, so you can still cast whatever arcane or infernal spells you know without interference. Don’t get mad if I’m wrong, though. I just do pretty basic enchantments, myself.”

“Will it still work?” Shaeine asked. “She is, after all, no longer a fairy.”

“It still worked today when I was using it to do some spot-healing on rescuees,” Principia said with a shrug. “Don’t ask me why, much less how. We’re into some advanced hoodoo, here; it’s not like there’s a textbook on how twice-transformed dryads work.”

Jackie gently extricated herself from Juniper’s grip, causing Fross to flutter aloft again, and leaned forward to wrap her arms around a startled Principia in a hug.

“Uh…okay, then?” the elf said, gingerly patting her on the back.

“That appears to be her default expression of approval,” Shaeine explained with a small smile. “It might cause issues in my culture, but in absolute terms I believe there are much worse things.”

“Well, you’re welcome,” Principia said, finally squeezing Jackie once and then carefully but firmly pulling herself back. “Tell you what, I know Aspen went outside the gates with those Huntsman pals of hers, but it seems like you three could use some family time before everybody turns in for the night. Something tells me tomorrow’s gonna be almost as long as today.”

“Good advice for us all,” Shaeine agreed, glancing over to the other side of the long room, where Teal was strumming a soothing lullaby on someone’s borrowed guitar for an audience of relief workers slumped in various postures of exhaustion. “I would very much like to spend some quiet time with my own consorts before retiring.”

“I’d really like to check on Sniff and F’thaan,” Juniper said with a sigh, “but I’m sure they’re fine in the Gardens with our guides. For a day or so, at least. C’mon, Jackie, let’s let everybody rest.”

The group parted ways with smiles and muted farewells. Trissiny, catching Principia’s eye, stepped over to the broken wall and carefully picked her way across the rubble to stand in the quieter darkness outside, with the elf right behind her. The air was pleasantly cooler in the alley beyond, though the smell of old garbage and fresher burned demon was not really an over the scent of packed bodies in the trading hall.

“I’d like to check if you caught anything I missed,” Trissiny said softly, “from that ridiculous confrontation in the cathedral. I know a con when I see one, at least in hindsight, and Elilial conned the hell out of all of us.”

“Yes, she did,” Principia agreed, nodding. “I was pretty sure something fishy was up when we got close enough for me to hear her raging at Kuriwa and Natchua like a baerzurg; anything that different from someone’s usual behavior is likely to be some kind of trick. What’s your take on it?”

“An armistice is great and all, though I maintain this one will not hold, and in fact she’s probably already working against the terms on her next sneak attack. But also, I can’t help seeing how she used even her concessions to get what she wants, starting with explaining in detail, to a mixed mob of adventurers, how to kill a god. The cults and the Church have worked hard to suppress that information for centuries. Even Tellwyrn, who has actually done it, refuses to say how; she just told us not to try it.”

“Good advice,” Principia said, grinning faintly. “But…yeah. And did you catch the other part?”

“What do you mean?”

“I think the bigger issue was her dramatic forgiveness of four less-influential gods. In public. With that, she drove a wedge right into the Pantheon.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes in thought. “Surely you don’t think the gods are dumb enough to turn on each other over that?”

“Oh, definitely not. But their mortal followers absolutely are. And I dunno how much Arachne’s taught you about metaphysics, but gods tend to end up agreeing with whatever ideas come to permeate their cults. Now, Naphthene and Ouvis don’t even have cults, and nobody cares what the Ryneans think about anything, but splitting Shaath away from the rest of the Pantheon is a big damn deal. The Huntsmen are firmly behind Archpope Justinian’s politicking, and now this Ingvar character is right here, in the thick of these events, and from what I’ve been able to gather today, trying to stir up a major schism within that cult.”

“That’s…utterly brilliant,” Trissiny said reluctantly. “She can significantly damage Justinian’s support base, and no one will even object. Nobody actually likes the Huntsmen, and a lot of people are already unhappy with Justinian’s maneuvering. Yours truly firmly included. See, this is why I wanted to ask you. I completely missed that.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo,” Principia said, smiling. “Don’t worry, you’ve got no shortage of wits, I’ve just had longer to exercise mine.”

“And even that’s not the bigger deal here,” Trissiny went on. “Nothing’s more in character than Elilial using her own defeat to underhandedly stab at her enemies. I’m a lot more interested in the fact that Vesk, who definitely knows better, deliberately let all this happen.”

“’Let’ isn’t a strong enough word,” said Principia, her jaw clenching momentarily. “Vesk forced that to happen the way it did, and I don’t just mean by running roughshod over you and the dragon and everyone else in that room who damn well knew better than to let Elilial get away with all that. I’ve been in situations before where some deity or other major power was putting a finger on the scales, nudging events to flow in a direction of their choosing. It’s hard to pick out concrete signs of it happening, but when you’ve seen it a few times, you know what it looks like.”

“And that leaves the question,” Trissiny whispered. “Why? Is he turning against the Pantheon? Is this just part of his ongoing quest to thwart the Archpope? I might even be willing to participate in Vesk’s troublemaking if I could only be sure it was toward a good purpose.”

“There is just no way to tell, with a creature like that,” Principia said grimly. “It’s important not to drive yourself crazy trying to second-guess him. Keep your eyes and your mind open and be prepared to think fast, but… You can’t let trickster gods trap you in your own paranoia. I know that all too well, now.”

“Yeah, and to think even after being dragged around by Vesk this summer I still thought of him as just sneaky and annoying. After all this… I really do see why his involvement sent you into such a panic.”

“Well, now, I dunno about panic…

“Locke, I have never seen anyone that panicked, and I suspect I may never again.”

Principia heaved a sigh. “Yeah, well, take it as a warning, then. We’re not going to outsmart either Vesk or Elilial by dealing with them on their own terms.”

She paused suddenly and half-turned to look back through the gap in the wall; after a moment, Trissiny followed her gaze. It was a few seconds longer before Shook appeared in the gap, squinting into the darkness outside. He was quite a mess, his normally slicked-down hair in disarray and his neat suit filthy and torn beyond repair after the day’s fighting and then whatever else he’d been doing all evening.

“There you are,” the enforcer grunted, carefully stepping through the fallen masonry. “Hard to find as usual, Keys.”

“Aw, Thumper, you missed me?” Principia said sweetly. “That’s creepy. Are you here to enlist with Avei, or would you prefer to fuck directly off?”

He stopped in the gap itself, reaching out to brace himself against one of the broken walls, and fixed her with a glare. “You know what, you have got to be the single most insufferable woman I ever had the misfortune to meet. To give you some context on that, Keys, I’ve been hanging out with a fucking succubus. But you are seriously the absolute worst, you smarmy, stuck-up, conniving, backstabbing little—”

“I really hope this is going somewhere worthwhile, Thumper,” Trissiny said in a very even tone.

He broke off, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah. Yeah, it is. I just wanted to say, Keys, that despite all of the above, I…” Shook grimaced as if pained, and swallowed heavily. “I was… Back in Last Rock, I was out of line. I mean, I went way over the line in dealing with you. That was shitty and totally outside my mandate, and… I’m sorry. That’s all I wanted to say to you.”

Principia stared at him in silence, as if confused; Trissiny glanced rapidly back and forth between them, absently resting her palm on the pommel of her sword. As the silence stretched out, Shook grimaced again and awkwardly tried to straighten the ragged lapels of his jacket, then ran a hand over his disheveled hair.

“Thumper,” Principia said finally, “the shit you pulled doesn’t go away with an apology.”

He shrugged in a jerky little motion, averting his eyes. “Yeah, well… Maybe not. May as well take the ‘sorry’ anyway, Keys. You’re owed it, and… That’s all I got for you. So…yeah. Take care.”

He started to turn and navigate back through the mess.

“Seriously, though,” Principia said suddenly, “you looking to sign up? Avei really needs people with adventuring experience, and let’s face it, you really need some major protection from all the people you’ve pissed off.”

Shook turned back to squint at her. “This some kinda practical joke? Cos I wouldn’t begrudge you that, I just like to know where I stand.”

“This is what I’m doing now, Thumper; I am all in with the Legions. I don’t joke about this. I meant what I said in the cathedral. Full amnesty, as long as you can follow the rules.”

“Well, that’s…somethin’ to keep in mind,” he mused. “Gotta pass for right now, though. I’m goin’ back to Tiraas with Sweet an’ the others when the Rails are up again. I got a way overdue report for the Boss, and anyway, you know how Style gets when you delay an asskicking she wants to hand out. Gonna be bad enough already without putting it off any longer.”

“Pff, what’s this ‘taking responsibility for your actions’ BS, Thumper? That’s not a good look on you at all. You go back to the Guild, I give you fifty-fifty odds of walking out alive, at best. I’ve got a place for you if you want it.”

He shook his head, smiling faintly, and turned away. “See you ‘round, Keys. Good work today, Thorn.”

They watched as Shook made his way back into the building, then headed off toward the front doors.

“So,” Trissiny said at last, “you want to explain to me what that was all about?”

“Nope,” Principia grunted, still staring after him.

“I can make it an order, Lieutenant.”

“Trissiny,” she replied, turning to meet her gaze. “I do not want to talk about this with you. Please.”

Trissiny frowned deeply, holding her stare, but after a long moment nodded in acknowledgment. “Very well. All I’ll say is that if you’re going to command forces in Avei’s name, you had better watch out for conflicts of interest. No matter how desperate you are for recruits, don’t hire that guy if you’re going to use it for some kind of revenge against him. How much he might deserve it is beside the point. Power is not to be abused that way.”

“Nah,” Principia said lightly, a faint grin fluttering across her features. “I’m not traumatized over that guy. I’ve been treated worse by idiots whose names I don’t even remember now; I doubt I’ll remember his in fifty years. No, while I was idly thinking of pushing him off a bridge if the opportunity came up, I like this a lot better. Put him in Avei’s service and one of two things will happen: either I will successfully housebreak that weapons-grade POS and it’ll be the ultimate proof of the viability of what I’m doing, or he’ll do the same old shit he always does while surrounded by Legionnaires and priestesses and permanently cease to be anyone’s problem, ever again. Yeah… I’d better make sure Style doesn’t actually kill him. This has potential.”

Trissiny sighed. “And here we go again.”


The security of their improvised base was very much a matter of don’t and won’t see; little explicitly barred anyone from just wandering in, save that it was located in an inconvenient storage room fairly deep in the warren of tunnels below Ninkabi’s cathedral, and that everyone else in the area who was still alive was out tending to survivors. Khadizroth had also hinted that he was directing attention away from the room, which of course was well within the purview of his chosen school of magic. Even so, Darling had no trouble finding his way back there, pushing a cart laden with bread, cheese, jerkey, blankets, bandages, and healing potions.

“Sorry about the wait,” he said quietly upon re-entering the chamber. “There was stew, but no way in hell would that’ve made it down all those damn stairs. I think I got the basics, though.”

“I never doubted you would be able to pilfer adequate materials,” the dragon said gravely.

“Hey, there was no pilfering. Any Eserite who looted aid supplies during a crisis would be asking to have all his fingers amputated.”

“And yet…”

“These are donated for victims of the demon invasion,” Darling said placidly. “Which is exactly who we’re using them for. Some of the donors might take issue with the specific victims we are aiding, is all; no need to poke that bear by telling them. How’s everybody holding up?”

Khadizroth turned to regard the room full of people in gray robes, mostly huddled together along the walls and in the back corner. It was quieter than when Darling had left; there was still audible sniffling, but no one was openly sobbing anymore. Several of the rescued warlocks were rocking back and forth by themselves, or clutching each other for dear life.

“I have addressed every physical injury to my satisfaction,” the dragon said softly, “which of course was always going to be the lesser problem. Even for people as resilient as these, that was a kind of trauma from which recovery simply takes time. Potentially years. To say nothing of the outright nightmarish experience of chaos space’s defenders… There are seventeen of them, Darling. I do not know how many of the Wreath were left before Kuriwa and that drow ambushed them, but it goes without saying that they have just witnessed the loss of numerous comrades.”

The Bishop blew out a soft breath, frowning worriedly. “Damn. Maybe I should’ve requisitioned a few bottles of brandy… Or shrooms.”

“I would not recommend those even as a stopgap treatment for something like this. Right now they are together and safe, and that is a solid beginning to the healing process.”

“Has anybody said anything? I don’t know how long they must’ve been in there. Usually you’ve got quite a bit of leeway before the creepy thingumajigs attack. I’ve spent a bit of time in that zone myself and came out none the worse for wear.”

“We had demons with us,” Embras Mogul said suddenly. He was sitting nearest the door with his back to the wall, one long leg stretched out and the other bent with one elbow resting on his knee. It was by far the most relaxed posture of any of the surviving Wreath, but his head remained bent forward and his eyes wide, staring at seemingly nothing. With his trademark hat missing and his dapper white suit badly torn and stained with blood, he seemed suddenly much older, and a mere shadow of his usual self.

Darling frowned quizzically at him, then turned a questioning look on Khadizroth.

“An average person might last several minutes in chaos space,” the dragon explained quietly. “Someone with basic mental discipline, if forewarned what to expect and what not to do, can linger there for an hour, maybe two, before drawing enough attention to be in danger from the guardians. The unnatural aggression caused by infernal corruption, though… Demons in that space will always provoke an immediate attack. Sufficiently corrupted warlocks, the same. And the nature of chaos space renders shadow-jumping impossible.”

“They were…under assault from the moment they were in there?” Darling breathed. “Holy shit.”

“It is deeply impressive that this many survived,” Khadizroth agreed.

“I am not ungrateful.” Mogul finally raised his bald head to look directly at them, and suddenly the intelligence was back in his eyes. “We owe you big for the rescue. But I’m also not stupid, Antonio. You wouldn’t do something like this without good and specific reasons of your own. And since we know for an empirical fact you’re not above using a demon invasion to kill us off, I doubt it was anything as vague as wanting the Dark Lady to owe you a favor. Not to mention I know enough of your history with this character to be sure you wouldn’t work with him unless you wanted something really badly.”

“Well, it’s not like I can rip open a door to chaos,” Darling said reasonably. “I just figured, anything Mary can do, Khadizroth would be pleased to un-do.”

“Up to a point,” Khadizroth murmured.

Mogul just stared at them, unblinking.

Darling collected a small breadroll, a wedge of cheese and a stick of jerky, and knelt to hand them to Mogul; the warlock accepted the food mutely, not breaking his stare.

“Because that’s what folks do for each other,” Darling said with a smile. “At least, as long as they’re not the kind of bitter enemies who set demons to eat one another as a matter of course. Which, it turns out, you and I suddenly no longer are. In this brave new world, Khadizroth and I decided it actually is a grand idea to have Elilial owe us a solid. Not to mention that there will soon be an urgent need for demon control specialists who aren’t answerable to the Archpope or the Empire.”

Mogul narrowed his eyes.

“I’ll fill you in on the high notes,” Darling promised. “You’re gonna find this hard to believe, Embras old boy, until you’ve heard it verified by Elilial herself, but I’ll get you started at least. In the short time you weren’t on it, the world changed.”

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15 – 71

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“You surrender?” Trissiny said incredulously after everyone had digested that in silence for a moment. “You can’t just… Why on earth would anyone—”

“Why does anyone surrender, General Avelea?” Elilial interrupted with a sardonically lifted eyebrow, her hands still held in the air as if displaying that she held no weapons made her a whit less dangerous. “You’re supposed to be the military strategist here. Surrender is the appropriate action when you are no longer capable of prosecuting a war. My entire organized force present was just wiped out by pixies, because you Pantheon lackeys can never pass up the chance to heap insult upon injury. Kuriwa and Natchua, vicious little knife-eared monstrosities that they are, just tossed everything that remains of my cult into chaos space. You went and maimed my highest general, Avelea.”

“Oh, by all means, cry about that,” Trissiny retorted.

Elilial’s expression grew more grim. “No. No, about that I will claim no vendetta. Kelvreth unleashed his most destructive power against a mass of people including several he knew I was pledged not to harm, and at least one whose well-being is very dear to me. He’s going to stay blind for the foreseeable future; I will not countenance betrayal, nor my subordinates making mockery of my own oaths. Nor do I enjoy the position of owing Omnu a debt of gratitude for correcting that mistake. But the fact remains…” She bared her teeth in a bitter scowl, fangs glinting in the light of the stained glass windows. “I could kill you all, whatever the valkyrie believes. It’s well within my power. Not, however, without harming those I care about and discarding what remains of my integrity, not to mention calling Naiya down on my head. Congratulations, you mongrel horde of scoundrels and thugs. I have no more assets to wield. It has been eight thousand years of ups and downs, but now as the final reckoning looms over us all, it seems I am finally out of this fight, no matter what I would wish.”

She shrugged, hands still raised.

“So. You have my surrender. May you all choke on it.”

“Well, let me make this easier for you, then,” said Trissiny. “No. You don’t get to stop fighting, you miserable old beast. Form up!”

The assembled fighters began to shift forward, but paused when Elilial cleared her throat loudly, putting on a wry smirk.

“Per the Sisterhood of Avei’s doctrines governing the prosecution of war, any offer of surrender in good faith must be accepted, providing the surrendering party disarms and offers no further violence. A commanding officer who orders an attack upon surrendering enemies is subject to immediate court martial with penalties up to and including execution, circumstances depending. That’s article twelve if you need to look it up, Trissiny.”

“’No one negotiates with demons twice,’” Trissiny quoted back. “Sharai the Hammer, fourth chronicle of the Aveniad.”

“Also,” Gabriel piped up next to her, “’no quarter’ is the standard terms of engagement against demons, both for Sisterhood and every national force.”

Elilial smiled pleasantly. “I’m not a demon.”

“Yeah, well…” Gabriel looked her up and down slowly, grimacing. “You’ll do.”

The goddess’s gaze shifted to the side as if scanning for someone in the crowd, and settled on a point by the far wall, nearer a side door to the sanctuary than the front entrance. “Jonathan Arquin!”

Almost everyone turned in that direction, Gabriel and Natchua rapidly and with shocked expressions.

“Very recently,” Elilial went on, “your son deliberately poked me in the rump. Is this how you raised him to treat women?”

At that, most of the eyes present turned back to Gabriel, who went red and began spluttering.

“I—that was—with my scythe! I wasn’t—I was trying to see if it killed her! If anything I stabbed her in the—”

“In the left cheek,” Elilial said archly. “No one’s aim is that bad, young man. Look at the size of me.”

Ruda burst out laughing.

Over the sound of that, the incongruous notes of a lute being strummed echoed in the vast chamber. Out of the crowd as if he’d been in there from the very beginning sauntered a nondescript-looking man in colorful garments of a style a century out of date, complete with a floppy hat trailing a dyed ostrich feather down his back.

“All right, all right, let’s everybody settle down now,” Vesk said lightly, still producing chords from his lute with languid flicks of his wrist. “I do love me a spot of banter, but there’s a time and a place, after all.”

“You,” Trissiny spat, wheeling Arjen around to glare down at the god of bards. “Get the hell out of here before you cause more trouble. You are barely better than she is!”

“I’d have to look up the particulars of the chain of command, General Avelea, but I’m pretty sure I outrank the hell out of you,” he replied, winking.

“Oh, it’s this guy,” Jacaranda said, buzzing lower to scowl at him. “I don’t like this guy.”

“Nobody likes this guy,” Gabriel agreed.

“Hey, now, that’s just unfair,” Vesk protested. “Bards like me!”

“Ehhhhh.” Teal made a waffling motion with one hand.

“All right, that’s enough byplay.” Suddenly he wasn’t just an oddly-dressed man speaking, but a presence projected through the room with psychic force that commanded instant silence. “An offer of surrender has been made by an avowed enemy of the Pantheon. As no other institution represented here has the prerogative, nor the power, to take a goddess prisoner, it falls to a representative of the Pantheon to negotiate the terms of Elilial’s defeat. Or! I don’t suppose you were planning to surrender unconditionally, Lil?” he added, grinning up at her.

“No one,” the goddess said bitterly, “in all of history, anywhere, has ever enjoyed your sense of humor, Vesk.”

“You know, maybe if you gave your foes a little more credit you wouldn’t be in this situation right now, honey bunch. But fine, straight to business. What terms do you offer?”

Her nostrils flared in annoyance while she glared down at him; Vesk continued to placidly strum major key chords on his lute, meeting her ire with a bland smile. Elilial took several long seconds to consider before answering.

“I offer you three concessions,” she said at last, finally lowering her hands. “A complete cessation of hostilities against the Pantheon and all its agents, by me and all those answerable to me, until after the next ascension cycle. The revelation of my full plans for vengeance against the Pantheon. And…” She hesitated, glancing to one side with a disgruntled frown, then drew in a breath as if steeling herself and redirected her fiery gaze to Vesk. “And…my permanent cessation of hostilities against certain members of the Pantheon who…I will now admit…never wronged me. With my public apology, and acknowledgment of fault.”

A stir had rippled through the crowd at each statement, with the largest at the last, but even so they were quiet little disturbances due to the sheer pressure of divinity pushing all those present into stillness.

Some were more resistant than others.

“This is blithering nonsense,” Trissiny barked.

“I dunno, those sound like pretty tempting terms to me,” Vesk mused. “Better than anyone else has ever gotten out of her, anyway.”

“I mean that we are dealing with the literal personification of cunning who will obviously do anything to get out of the corner she is in! There is no possible scenario in which her word can be trusted. The very minute she’s no longer being stared down by you and all of us, she’ll go right back to what she was doing before!”

Vesk shrugged, still smiling. “Her and what army?”

“You cannot seriously think she needs a standing army to be dangerous,” Gabriel protested.

The god struck a minor chord, followed by a light ascending arpeggio. “Your concerns are heard, and they aren’t invalid.”

“But,” Trissiny said bitterly.

He winked at her. “I am going to invoke divine privilege on this one. She’ll abide by the terms; I will personally guarantee it. If she does not, I will personally be accountable to the rest of the Pantheon. Unlike Elilial, I have no convenient way of evading their attention, and Avei barely needs a reason to kick my ass as it is. Does that satisfy you?”

“What do you think?” she snapped.

“Fair enough,” he chuckled, “let me put it another way: does that meet the threshold whereupon you can acknowledge you’re not going to get anything better?”

“That seems unwise,” Toby interjected, the calm of his voice cutting through the argument. “You are placing yourself in a terribly vulnerable position, dependent on the integrity of someone who famously lacks it.”

“I know what I’m about, son,” Vesk said, grinning. “Appreciate your concern, though. Very well, Lil, if there are no objections, I find your terms—”

“This ascension cycle,” Khadizroth interrupted. “When, and what is it?”

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Gabriel added. “After the cycle is vague, even if we knew when that was. How long after? A century? Five minutes?”

“Explaining the basics of ascension cycles is a necessary component of the second clause,” Elilial answered.

“Okay, sure,” he retorted, “but I assume you won’t do that until we come to terms, which leaves us agreeing to what might as well be a blank timetable. No dice.”

“Boy’s got a point,” Vesk agreed, nodding. “A little disclosure for the sake of establishing terms is going to be necessary, Lily my dear. Now there, Trissiny, you see how you can make actual progress by engaging with the process instead of whining about it?”

“And how much progress can I make by taking that lute away and smashing it over your head?”

He blinked owlishly at her. “None, obviously. What would that accomplish?”

“Won’t know until we try,” she replied, baring her teeth in something that was just barely suggestive enough of a smile to be more unsettling than any simple grimace.

“I see why you look to Sharai for guidance,” Elilial said, folding her arms. “That girl was not right in the head, even for a Hand of Avei.”

“If we’re going to do this, answer the question,” Trissiny said, rounding on her. Arjen swished his tail irritably at the repeated turning, but complied. “When is this thing, exactly? And before anyone agrees to any terms, you need to establish how long afterward this truce will hold.”

“I can’t tell you exactly,” Elilial replied, “because that is not a thing which can be known with any precision.”

“Guess.”

The goddess narrowed her eyes.

“She’s right about that much,” said Vesk. “Ascension cycles aren’t on a precise timetable. But generally speaking? Within the next two years, most likely.”

“Oh, that’s some truce you’re offering,” Trissiny sneered.

“You are a mayfly mistaking your eyeblink of an existence for the scope of the world, girl,” Elilial snarled. “I have labored toward this end for eight. Thousand. Years. You don’t even have a mental frame of reference for such a span of time; the very fact of your own fleeting perspective renders you incapable of considering what I am offering to give up. That I have to abandon all my plans with such a short span left only goes to show—”

“Yes, yeah, it’s very sad for you,” Gabriel said loudly, “but you’re the one surrendering, so either give us mayflies something worth our time or we may as well resume pincushioning your ass.”

“What is it with you and my ass, boy?” she replied, causing him to scowl and flush faintly.

“Since eight thousand years is such a vast period of time,” said Trissiny, “I’m sure you won’t object to one thousand years. You grant a millennium of guaranteed peace after this alignment, during which you make no preparatory activity on the mortal plane for the resumption of hostilities.”

“That’s right, Trissiny, you reach for those stars,” Elilial drawled. “I’ll give you a century, in which I and mine will do whatever the hell I please that isn’t overtly hostile.”

“Yes, forget the second clause,” said Toby, then nodded to Trissiny when she turned a frown on him. “Let her make preparations on earth; if she can only make them in Hell, that millennium will end with a new Hellwar.”

“Hm. Good point,” Trissiny grunted. “Fine. But as for your timetable—”

Vesk struck a triumphant chord. “Done!”

“What? No!” Arjen blew out an annoyed snort as his rider turned them both to glare down at the god. “You can’t just—”

“Can, did, and still outrank you,” he said cheerfully.

“Does anyone else think this is all kind of slapped-together for a world-altering historic moment?” Fross chimed, darting back and forth in the air above them.

“That is how they usually occur,” said Khadizroth. “Pomp and circumstance are added afterward by the historians. Solemn gravity in real time is most often in service of the insignificant self-indulgence of large egos.”

“You’d know,” Flora and Fauna said in unison. The dragon sighed, then nodded his head once.

“We have an accord, then?” Elilial asked, staring at Vesk.

“Wait,” Trissiny urged him. “Think about what you are—”

“We have an accord!” Vesk said, strumming a few upbeat chords.

“Well, at least he thought it over,” she growled. “Is it too much to ask that I be allowed to finish a sentence?”

“Tell me about it,” Elilial said with sympathy that earned only a glare in response.

“Actually, my dear,” Vesk said smoothly, “I believe it is your turn to tell us some things. We have a deal, after all.”

“Her only disincentive for breaking this deal is that you, someone she already hates, get punished,” Trissiny said in open exasperation. “This won’t hold starting the second she’s out of sight, so why give it that long?”

“Oh, Trissiny, always so dramatic,” Elilial chided. “On the contrary. Outstanding business between Vesk and myself notwithstanding, we have reached accord in the past. Recently, in fact.”

“Yes,” said Toby. “We were there.”

She smiled down at him. “And I will repay good faith with the same in kind. Vesk, insufferable creature though he is, held up his end of the bargain, taking you three off the hook. You should thank him for that.”

“Excuse me,” said Gabriel, “but we did all the damn work!”

“In ordinary circumstances,” Elilial said more loudly, and suddenly with the intangible weight of her personality commanding silence for her words, “a god cannot simply be killed. To do it requires severing the personality from the aspect—and for most aspects any god has taken, there is just no practical way to achieve this. Khar perished because he was tied to a land and a people which were annihilated. Sorash perished because he was stupid enough to place an incredibly powerful individual with a domineering personality in a position from which she could personally defeat him, thus suborning his aspect of conquest. These are incredibly rare circumstances, virtually impossible to predict, much less arrange. The more vague the concept, the more untouchable the god. How would you destroy duality? The wild? Art? How could you even drive a wedge between these things and their patron deities? From the beginning, my revenge against the Pantheon was simply outside the realm of possibility… Except during the ascension cycle.

“It is a byproduct of the way the Elder Gods created this world and the space around it, the way they folded the dimensions over each other, blocked off our solar system from the rest of the galaxy, and applied the fields of energy that we know as magic. Every eight thousand years, approximately, these amorphous factors align for a brief window in which it is possible for one with the right knowledge, equipment, and power to change the nature of godhood. That is how we killed the Elders, and how I planned to wipe all gods from existence.”

Her smile was a cold and vicious thing, laced more heavily by far with bitterness than humor.

“That is what I was building toward, the intricate plan of thousands of years that you cretins and your allies have wrecked in the space of less than five. Changing the rules so that no one gets to be a god.”

A short silence hung.

“No one?” Toby asked at last. “Don’t you mean, just the Pantheon…?”

Elilial snorted derisively. “I regretted having to harm Themynra, but in the end, it would have been for the best. Scyllith’s very existence is an ongoing crime which urgently needs to be expunged. Naiya’s existence is doing no one any favors, least of all herself. And I…” She grimaced, shaking her horned head. “I have nothing but a singular purpose to hold me here on this world. With it accomplished, why would I want to linger? You don’t need gods, any of you. Gods are things imposed on populations that would be better off commanding their own destinies.”

“Wait,” Trissiny said quietly, staring up at her through narrowed eyes. “You are…”

“As for the rest,” Elilial went on, still curling her lip in distaste, “I can’t defend everything I’ve done, nor will I try to justify any of it. As agreed, though, I will admit to certain specific wrongdoings in pursuing my vendetta. The circumstances around the end of the Elder War and our ascension were chaotic, confusing; some were swept up in events they never desired to be a part of. Some were gathered into the Pantheon’s aegis whom I condemned, unfairly, just because of that association, when in truth they only remained out of desperation to survive in new circumstances they never wanted and could not understand. It was… In truth, it was unjust of me to punish fellow victims of the Pantheon’s actions. And so, to Naphthene, Ouvis, Ryneas, and Shaath, and any who follow them… I am, honestly, sorry. You should have been on my side; I should have tried to reach out to you. I swear that I will never again strike out against you for wrongs that were not yours. It may be that nothing I say or do will ever be sufficient to make amends, but I… Will try. That is a promise.”

This time, the stunned silence lingered as if no one dared to challenge it.

“The bargain is made, and your part upheld,” Vesk said at last, and for once his tone was suitably solemn for the occasion. He nodded deeply toward Elilial, the feather in his floppy hat bobbing. “At least, that which you can fulfill here and now. For the rest… I will trust you to keep to your word.”

“Why,” Trissiny hissed, and was ignored.

“And so at last,” Vesk continued, “there is peace between us. An end to this ancient war, witnessed by all those gathered here.”

“And so it is known when the next war will begin,” she replied, her tone grim. “But for now and until that time… Peace. You are satisfied?”

“Never more so,” he said, grinning. “Go in peace, old friend. And hey, who knows? Maybe during the next hundred years we’ll all manage to work out our differences for good!”

Elilial sneered. “Ugh. You have always been such a pain in the ass.”

A thunderclap shook the cathedral, momentary darkness and a flash of blinding light causing everyone to look away, many shouting in protest. Just like that, Elilial was gone.

So, they discovered after a few moments of looking around, was Vesk.

“So! That sure just happened, didn’t it?” Principia Locke called out, striding out of the crowd and then stepping forward in front of them, clapping her hands to capture everyone’s focus before the mutter of renewed conversation could get out of control. “All right, even with the demons gone, there’s still a city in crisis out there and while many of us don’t have talents suited toward humanitarian work, many do, and many others will be able to find a use for any working pair of hands. I won’t keep you from it long, except to say one thing: Avei wants adventurers.”

“Ex…cuse me?” Joe Jenkins asked incredulously.

“They times, they are changing,” Principia said, smiling lopsidedly. “With the times, war changes, and with war, the Legions. The Sisterhood of Avei is offering recruitment for any who call themselves adventurers and are willing to fight for Avei’s cause, and live by…an admittedly relaxed version of her precepts.”

“Lady, are you nuts?” Taka called out. “Adventurer guilds haven’t been a thing for a hundred years.”

“A gathering of what can only be called adventurers just beat the single largest demon invasion this world has seen since the Hellwars,” Principia replied. “Just because the Age of Adventures is famously over doesn’t mean a new one can’t start; ages are funny like that. If you just like wandering around by yourself being chased out of towns and side-eyed by police because society has no use for heavily-armed nomadic loners, well, you can go on living that way. What I’m offering it housing, resources, funding, allies, protection, and most importantly, purpose. And one thing to sweeten the deal, which I think will prove very enticing to some of you. Right now, at this one time only, the Sisterhood is offering amnesty. We lack the authority to pardon Imperial crimes, but if you join up with Avei, so long as you toe the line and play by the rules, you’ll receive whatever protection the Sisterhood can grant from any past misdeeds. A clean slate. If you think this opportunity is for you, make your way to the Temple of Avei in Tiraas or the Abbey in Viridill and ask for Lieutenant Locke. They’ll make sure you get to me.”

“Well, that sounds good to me!” said a high-pitched male voice, followed by a giggle, and an elf wearing a somewhat bedraggled pinstriped suit came swaggering to the front of the crowd. “I say, sign me the hell up!”

“You,” Khadizroth said coldly, turning to face him.

“Ah, ah, ah, Mr. K, don’t be like that,” the Jackal chided, wagging a finger in the dragon’s face. “You heard the lady! You of all people should be grateful for the offer of a free pass. Consider me your first convert, Prin my darling!” He turned toward the suddenly blank-faced Principia, grinning and throwing his arms wide. “Why, me and all my most recent group of friends would just love to start over in Avei’s service. Ain’t that right, gang?”

A single beam of pure white light burst out of his forehead, flashing across the room to drill a smoking hole in the marble wall of the sanctuary.

The Jackal’s expression froze in a nearly comical look of puzzlement. He blinked his eyes once, and a strangled gurgle sounded in his throat.

He staggered, slumping to his knees, then toppled over onto one side and lay still.

Directly behind him, Jeremiah Shook slowly slipped his wand back into its holster, then raised both his hands in the air, not otherwise reacting to all the weapons suddenly being leveled at him.

“Now, before anybody gets too excited,” he drawled, “let me just explain that that was the assassin known as the Jackal. He’s the shit who’s been murdering police in this city for the last week, for no reason except he could and he thought it was funny. He was also the last known confederate of Basra Syrinx and the main reason she was able to mislead the Army and what remained of the local cops into attacking the only people who could’ve stopped this whole fucking crisis if they’d been allowed to work together. There are several folks here who can vouch for every part of this. So, with that established, I’ll just pose a question.”

He lowered his hands incrementally, still keeping them up and in view.

“Anybody got a problem with that?”

After a moment’s silence, Joe pushed his way through the crowd, wand up and at the ready. He met Shook’s gaze and held it for a moment, then turned, leveled his wand, and put three more beams through the fallen elf’s head.

The Jackal didn’t so much as twitch.

“Just checkin’,” he said finally, holstering his own wand and turning back to tip his hat at Shook. “I’ve learned you can never be too sure with that guy.”

“No,” said Trissiny, pointedly sliding her sword back into its scabbard. “I should have a problem with that, but goddess help me, I do not. All right, that’s enough drama. We don’t know what the fallout from any of this is going to be, but in the immediate term, it doesn’t really matter. There’s a city practically in ruins out there, and countless people who need our help. Everyone move out.”

The whole group responded to her command, for a wonder. Not without a lot of shuffling and muttering, but everyone turned and began moving toward the door.

Khadizroth the Green paused in his own departure as someone caught and tugged on his sleeve. He turned to meet the eyes of Bishop Darling, who leaned forward and pitched his voice low enough that no one but the elves could have overheard through the muffled hubbub.

“Before we join everybody in doing all the good there is to do out there,” Darling murmured, “how’s about you and I go cause one last piece of trouble that only we can?”

Very slowly, the dragon raised one eyebrow.

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15 – 64

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The dazzling glare of the explosion faded, finally revealing the enormous form of Kelvreth of the Eyes.

He seemed to be humanoid in shape, though only his upper body protruded from the great summoning circle below. Even that rose above the buildings flanking the square; had he emerged fully and stood upright, he could have crossed the length of Ninkabi in a handful of strides. The demon was skeletal but not a skeleton, an emaciated figure with iron-like bone protruding here and there where patches of rusty jade colored skin was missing. In some spots, like on his arms, his outer covering seemed entirely gone, leaving just dark bones and strands of greenish tendon holding them together. His chest was thin as if mummified, though seemed almost carved of one piece, with no suggestion of individual ribs revealed by the skin stretched over it. Likewise, his bald head suggested a skull without exactly being one. The great demon’s eyes were shut, the lids oddly clenched as though it took effort to keep them that way. He had two vertical slits for a nose, revealing a flickering green light within as if his skull were full of katzil flame. Kelvreth’s lower face was a single, triangular shape coming to a prominent point at the chin, with no suggestion of a mouth at all.

“It is just a demon,” Trissiny stated, raising her voice enough to be heard by those on the upper plaza but not shouting. “It’s bigger than the others, that’s all. We are a greater threat than Hell came here prepared to face. Stand firm, and charge on my signal.”

Kelvreth moved ponderously slowly, which was probably for the best; given his size, a hasty twitch could have caused untold damage. While lowering the hand with which he’d caught the shatterstone, he raised his skull as if sniffing the air. His other hand remained firmly planted on the ground outside the summoning circle, the position of that arm and his shoulders suggesting he was using it to push himself up and out of the portal.

“He cannot be allowed to fully emerge,” Khadizroth stated. “At all costs, General.”

“Agreed.” Trissiny raised her sword. “Archers—”

Kelvreth had been slowly lifting his other hand again, and now opened it, palm facing them. His lack of a visible mouth did not prevent him from speaking.

“I would parley.”

All of them leaned backward; the demon lord’s voice was projected like a magical force, resonating in the air and, it felt, in their very bones. Those who could conjure divine shields did so, purely by instinct.

Arjen snorted and pawed one heavy hoof against the broken pavement. Trissiny kept her sword pointed at Kelvreth, drawing back her lips in a snarl as she opened her mouth to reply.

Then Gabriel edged Whisper closer to her, and reached out to lightly touch her shoulder.

Trissiny paused, looking over at him, and he silently shifted his eyes for one instant toward the defenders behind them. She glanced back, taking stock.

By the favor of the gods or simply the overwhelming concentration of powerful magic users present, they had avoided taking any fatalities during the preceding battle, but it had not been bloodless. Branwen, Toby, Shaeine, and most of the fae casters were busy healing wounded hunters and wolves, as well as Merry, Ruda, and Grip. No one appeared to need hospitalization but quite a few of their forces were not ready to spring back into a brawl. More people than otherwise were visibly exhausted, though Khadizroth and Shiraki were both directing surreptitious blessings against weariness at people one at a time.

In fact, their numbers were growing rather than the reverse; the nearby civilians had been gathered into the old trading guild hall at one side of the square, where Imperial soldiers and city police were keeping an active presence around the entrances, most of which were also surrounded by drifts of charcoal where demons had been blasted to death. Now, a single squad of troops had marched over to join them, accompanied by a less orderly cluster of Ninkabi police. It wasn’t much, but they were disciplined professionals wielding modern firearms, and made of stern enough stuff that they had stepped forward to fight despite being visibly terrified by the sight of Kelvreth.

Kuriwa was quickly restoring those of her thorn bushes which had been damaged in the battle, and calling forth more; at a glance it was plain she was assembling a defensive line of them across the top of the stairs. Archers, soldiers, and spellcasters were picking themselves up, and half a dozen whispered conversations were taking place as strategies were quickly hammered out.

Trissiny took all this in with a glance, then met Gabriel’s eyes again and nodded once in acknowledgment, whereupon he eased back again. As they were, most of the defenders could still fight, after a fashion, but every second they could buy to get back into fighting order would make a difference. Finally, she lowered her sword.

“Speak, then,” Trissiny called out to the demon lord.

“Where is the Lady Vadrieny?”

“If you have something to say,” she retorted, “you can say it to me.”

“Trissiny Avelea,” Kelvreth said, his voice still like a physical force bearing down on them all. “Already you show more wisdom than most of your elder sisters. I have personal memory of Sharai, who was called the Hammer.” He shifted the upheld hand forward, holding his index finger close enough to reveal that its protruding black claw was broken off, and the edge of its remaining piece deeply marked with a carved symbol that looked like the upper half of an Avenist golden eagle. “Perhaps the only being I have ever encountered who was too stubborn to be manipulated.”

Gabriel grimaced, shaking his head when the demon stopped speaking. “I don’t suppose the term ‘inside voice’ means anything to you?”

“Did you really come all this way to gossip about ancient history?” Trissiny demanded. Arjen snorted again.

“Even if more careful than most, I see a Hand of Avei is still not a creature of patience,” Kelvreth boomed, slowly shifting his skull in a gesture that his closed eyes and lack of mouth made inscrutable. “Very well. I am called here by a desperate plea to the Dark Lady by her Wreath in this realm. They have labored…ineffectually…to prevent this breach. Alongside mortal defenders, is it not so?”

While Kelvreth had been speaking, so had Khadizroth the Green, though in a bare whisper and with his back turned to the demon, seemingly addressing no one as he poured magic from his spread hands to bolster and heal the rapidly organizing defenders. “That is an active summoning, not a portal, and the summoners on this plane are all dead. We needn’t destroy him, simply weaken him enough that he cannot keep holding himself through it. Target his hands. Spread the word.”

Kuriwa, of course, ignored him, being fully occupied with assembling her hedge into a veritable rampart which bristled with thorny vines poised to lash out on one side and blossoms producing puffs of healing pollen on the other. Shiraki, Rainwood, Vannae, Principia, Flora, and Fauna all glanced at him and then spread out, bending close to others to murmur the message. Fross had also been hovering near the dragon, and at his signal zipped over to land on Trissiny’s shoulder, chiming softly.

At Kelvreth’s final word, Khadizroth turned, striding forward through one of the gaps Kuriwa had left in her hedge to stand on Trissiny’s other side from Gabriel.

“The Wreath have indeed been active here,” the dragon informed her. “It was they who first alerted us to the severity of the threat and sought alliance in addressing it. With the Wreath, though, nothing can be assumed. I would not attest that this was not their goal all along.”

“Yes,” Trissiny agreed, nodding to him, “I’ve also cooperated with the Black Wreath. I am well aware how it always ends up.” The dragon gave her the ghost of a smile.

“The Dark Lady does not seek this invasion,” Kelvreth stated. “She does not seek your deaths. The Black Wreath’s incompetence in failing to avert this shall be punished. Now, I and the Lady’s forces have come here to return our kith and kin to where they belong. Our aims coincide. I seek alliance.”

Trissiny drew in a short breath as a hiss.

“Need me to play demon’s advocate, here?” Gabriel murmured.

She shook her head. “No…the benefit is obvious. Everything in me wants to spit in his face, but… You know the effect demons have on me.”

Toby had emerged from the hedge while they spoke, and now stepped up between the other paladins’ mounts, patting Arjen’s shoulder. “We also know you’re in control of yourself, Triss. You worked hard to get that way; don’t discount it.”

“Deliberate as you must,” said Kelvreth, finally planting his other hand on the ground to help hold himself in place. “Time is not on our side, however.”

Trissiny swept her eyes around the skyline of the city as it stretched out before them from the main gates. About a third of the columns of fire which signified an open hellgate had gone dark; clearly the teams she’d sent were still about their work, or at least some of them. Vadrieny and Yngrid were both functionally invincible, and demons would flee from them anyway. In the worst case scenario, they could finish the task alone at the expense of it taking longer. But Ninkabi’s suffering was already obvious. Dozens of plumes of smoke rose in all directions, and the sounds of screams, explosions, and firearms were a distant but constant discordant music. Even once all the gates were shut, there would still be countless demons to round up and put down, and many would escape to spread across N’Jendo. Some would make it beyond; never mind Thakar, who knew what would happen when they got into Athan’Khar?

Barring another direct intervention by a major god, this was already an absolute catastrophe. Could they afford to turn down any help?

“I welcome opinions,” she muttered.

The crow squawked insistently as she descended to stand right in front of Khadizroth.

“I have made bargain with worse monsters than that in the face of lesser disasters,” Kuriwa said, meeting Trissiny’s gaze. “About such dark deals I can tell you this: even when I got exactly what I wanted, I was left to regret it bitterly, for a very long time if not forever. The need is dire, granddaughter, but think carefully about what ends justify what means.”

“Yeah, like she said, we’ve worked with the Wreath,” Gabriel muttered, staring through narrowed eyes at Kelvreth. “They can’t not screw you over, can they?”

“In the worst case scenario,” Khadizroth added softly, “he and his mistress will turn on us at the most inopportune moment they can arrange. That is not baseless conjecture; you know well, General Avelea, that Elilial and her get are noted for doing exactly that. In the best, they will perform faithfully and use the situation to gain a significant foothold in our world. She would never pass up such an opportunity. The goddess of cunning is constrained by her aspect; I am not certain she can refrain from clawing for advantage.”

“If you try to form an alliance with that thing, Trissiny Avelea, you will be remembered as the biggest fool ever to blunder into Avei’s service.”

Gabriel sighed. “Shut up, Ariel.”

“No. I am correct. She doesn’t have to do anything I say, but for such stakes I will give my advice.”

“She’s always at her most annoying when she’s got a point, isn’t she?” Trissiny murmured, half turning her head to chance a split-second glance behind. In just a few minutes, the assembled adventurers and their backup had regrouped, and now a mix of staves, wands, and arrows were being aimed through convenient holes in the hedge, with spellcasters behind them and both wolves and melee fighters standing at the ready in the gaps large enough for a person to walk through. The formation was still assembling; they just needed a few minutes more to get the last fighters healed and bolstered and in position.

It was a defensive posture, she recognized, but it was well-arranged to lay down covering fire while such as paladins, dragons, and dryads lit into Kelvreth.

If it came to that.

“Elilial has repeatedly invaded this plane in force,” Trissiny called to the demon lord. “Your claim that she didn’t direct this latest incursion lacks credibility.”

“My lady acts with purpose, and favors the subtle maneuver,” he replied. “Her invasions were all in the distant past, in a different time. Do you think either world is as it was three thousand years ago? This carnage does nothing to advance the Dark Lady’s plots, and poses risk to them.”

“And as for those plots,” she shot back, “you represent the single least trustworthy individual in existence, monster. Unless you can offer some very compelling reason otherwise, I have to assume you intend to betray and destroy us.”

“Do you?” His tone as not a tone, exactly, as much as it was a force upon the air. It was hard to detect irony, or any emotion. The question might have been sincere.

“That is not a denial.”

“You will believe what you believe, paladin. The question is whether you can afford to fight two foes, when one could have been your ally.”

She clenched her jaw. “Toby, you’re quiet. Not going to advocate for peace?”

“Always,” he said, pressing his own mouth into a bitter line. “Always for peace. And the ugly truth is that peace only exists where it’s enforced. Ideally through subtler and gentler means, but I can’t think of a single one of those that could work here, Triss. Sometimes… Sometimes, you only get peace by silencing those who want war. And he wants war. Even if he’s on our side here and now, helping him will just give credibility and a physical foothold to Elilial. You know what she’ll do with that.”

“This city burns and dies while we dither,” Kelvreth observed, his bony shoulders twisting as he shifted his weight where both hands supported it. The strain was evident in his posture, as if it took constant pressure to keep himself from being sucked back into the other dimension.

“Khelminash are converging on the cathedral site,” Trissiny shouted. “What do they intend to do there?”

There was a momentary pause, the most expressive breach of composure the great demon’s mouthless, eyeless face had betrayed.

“Nothing that will affect you, or our business here.”

“Pretty much tells us what we wanna know, doesn’t it?” Gabriel commented.

She bared her teeth in what was not a smile. “And why would you want to make a pact with us? Your kind always prefer aggression. Unless you’re afraid of the force we represent.”

“You yap at the heels of gods, child. The most ancient among you are but stalks of wheat in a field. You will be a momentary use, or momentary nuisance, to my lady. She has cause to fear nothing.”

“Consider this,” Khadizroth said quietly. “There are two dryads in our ranks, General. In the worst event, if this goes badly enough that Ninkabi is an unsavlageable loss anyway… Elilial is in no way prepared to contend with Naiya in person.”

“I would really prefer not to think about that,” Trissiny muttered, wincing. Naiya’s rage at the loss of one of her daughters could annihilate a city more thoroughly than even demons.

“Think about it,” he urged. “Please don’t aim for that end, but…it is worth being aware of.”

“Eh,” Gabriel said lightly. “I think we can take him.”

“You were right,” Toby added. “He wouldn’t bother talking to us if we weren’t a threat to his plans. And he was also right, Triss: there’s not a lot of time.”

“They are as ready as can be expected,” Kuriwa stated, then fluttered aloft again, winging her way back behind the hedge.

A few more columns of fire had gone out while they talked. That task was underway; once it was done there would only be cleanup. Only two things represented a concentrated threat at this point: Kelvreth himself, and the increasing Elilinist forces converging on the hidden hellgate beneath the Cathedral.

Trissiny raised her chin, and then her voice. “Very well, Kelvreth. If you are truly here to end this invasion, then be advised that the matter is in hand and your assistance is not required. The Tiraan Empire thanks you for the offer, but reminds you that your armed incursion into its territory is not acceptable. In the name of the Pantheon and the Emperor, you and your forces are required to immediately depart this plane of existence. These are the only terms you will be offered.”

“You believe your allies have sufficiently prepared themselves to assault me, then.” It was still impossible to discern humor in his voice itself, but she couldn’t interpret that anyway except with a sardonic touch.

“We have nothing else to discuss, Kelvreth,” she replied. “Go home.”

“Or in Avei’s name, I will face justice?” Again, he raised his hand from the ground, shifting position to brace himself against the other one, to show her his broken, eagle-marked claw. “You do not impress, paladin.”

“No,” she said more quietly, “I guess you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?”

Trissiny urged Arjen forward until he stood at the very edge of the steps, stomping the ground and clearly eager to charge.

“Then how about this?” she called. “In Eserion’s name, take your goons and get the hell off my planet, or I’m gonna fuck you up so bad everyone in Hell will take one look at you and know better than to try this again!”

The short silence following this pronouncement was broken by Grip’s voice from behind the lines. “I taught her that!”

“It matters not. I have delayed you long enough for my Lady’s ends. This farce is no longer necessary.”

And then Kelvreth opened his eyes.

“Don’t look at—” Khadizroth shouted, too late.

They were not eyes, but windows into sheer madness. To meet Kelvreth’s gaze was like staring at the inhabitants of chaos space, like looking into a place where the very rules of reality were so insane and counter to those of the mortal world that simply being aware of them began to peel away layers of the viewer’s sanity.

Even the cavernous sockets in his enormous skull did not contain them. One could not evade Kelvreth’s gaze. Once his eyes were open, they filled the view, filled the sky, filled all of perception, and blasted away all semblance of order.

The three paladins lit up with a furious intensity of divine light, immediately protected by their gods from the psychic onslaught. Khadizroth, Kuriwa, and Shiraki all maintained a semblance of control under the pressure, due to a combination of age, sheer magical strength and familiarity with the emotionally charged nature of fairy craft. All three acted swiftly to propel that calm outward to the others, but it was too late and simply too little.

The carefully rebuilt defensive line of adventurers and soldiers disintegrated within seconds into a massacre as they all turned spells and weapons on one another.

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15 – 63

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Now, they had the full attention of the horde.

No longer focusing on their summoning work, the flying trios of warlocks changed formation, arranging themselves in a staggered line in the air. After the failure of their last barrage against the fae tree’s magic, most did not try that again, though a few infernal spells came screaming downward and either splashed against divine shields or were nullified by one of the powerful fae casters present before they could impact. Splotches of darkness blossomed in the sky, however, as the khelminash shadow-jumped a swarm of katzils in.

The khaladesh ground fighters topped the staircase in a line, this time advancing at a slower pace with a full shield wall raised. Their shields appeared to be mismatched patches of chitin or giant reptilian scales which left wide gaps in their coverage, but the spears protruding between them had wicked obsidian heads; that line presented as much menace as a Silver Legion phalanx.

Before the two forces could close the distance between them, Tinker Billie shot upward on a board oddly reminiscent of the khelminash’s flying discs, except bristling with glowing arcane runes, and took aim with a hefty device which resembled a cross between a very large crossbow and a very small mag cannon. The recoil when she fired it sent her spinning backward into the tree, but the projectile flew straight and true.

It was a firework, apparently one of the heavily compacted ones meant for grand impressive displays in the night sky. At least, the explosion of green sparks was large enough to blast a chunk of the upper steps away, along with every demon in the vicinity. Streaks of green fire smashed against hastily erected silver and golden shields above the defenders, while the khelminash and newly-summoned katzils were forced to hastily maneuver out of the way, many not fast enough.

Most immediately, Billie’s projectile scored a direct hit on the massive hand of Kelvreth. It was flung loose from his grip on the now-shattered stone and immediately the demon’s entire colossal arm was drawn swiftly backwards as if some force pulled him back into the huge summoning circle from which he was emerging.

The explosion made a shambles of the khaladesh line, a task completed by a volley of arrows, only a few of which impacted their irregularly-shaped shields; it seemed the Huntsmen and Rangers’ legendary skill with bows was not exaggeration, and most of those shots slipped through the narrow gaps to pierce demons behind their defenses.

Then the charge of the mortal plane’s defenders struck the beleaguered demon lines and smashed straight through.

Natchua, Xyraadi, and their friends had already vanished in a swell of shadow, the Imperial strike team likewise departing as per Trissiny’s orders. As the situation on the plaza devolved into a mass melee, Vadrieny and Yngrid swooped up and arced toward the city’s north bank, cutting fearlessly through the aerial combatants; Vadrieny had to swerve out of her way to smack into a khelminash platform in passing, as the warlocks were eager to avoid her, but she did at least knock one down. The khelminash were less impressed by Yngrid, at least until she annihilated six of them to dust with two wide swings of her scythe, shrugging off a barrage of infernal spells as if she couldn’t feel them. Then the two were descending into alleys amid the towers of the north bank at the nearest portal site, leaving the main battle behind.

Above the noise of battle, Fross could barely be heard chiming in excitement:

“I’ve been working on this since the last hellgate! You’re not hiszilisks, but you’ll do!”

What she unleashed were jagged arcs of light that struck targets and immediately sprang to another nearby, like the classic chain lightning spell which had been an adventuring mage’s standard since time immemorial. Rather than electricity, though, her streamers were ping-ponging carrier spells bringing intense cold and accompanying puffs of airborne frost. She brought down one khelminash platform due to sheer element of surprise before the others swiftly learned to avoid the bouncing beams, or repel them with bursts of fire. The katzils were another matter; finding themselves suddenly encased in ice, they plummeted into the brawl below, unable to stay aloft. Quite a few hit the ground already dead, as the sudden freezing of a creature in the process of spouting fire caused their abruptly hardened flesh to shatter outright. The khelminash spun about, firing poorly-aimed spells and utterly failing to stop Fross, who due to her size, speed, and color was practically invisible against the daylight sky and would have been nearly impossible to hit even so.

Below, the two mounted paladins were the first to plow into the enemy, hurling them further into disarray. Arjen’s sheer bulk and power trampled the khaladesh fighters effortlessly, which Trissiny capitalized on by directing him straight into anything still resembling a formation she could find on the reasoning that reducing an army to a mob was half the work of defeating it. Her glowing aura singed demons even in passing, and not a single spear penetrated her divine shield. Whisper was much less physically imposing, but faster and more nimble to compensate, and Gabriel had the advantage of a weapon with both a very long reach and horrifying destructive potential. He skirted the edges of Trissiny’s wake, scything through demon soldiers who were reduced to dust and skeletal fragments before they hit the ground.

With the demons totally out of order, the much smaller but more individually powerful ground fighters hit them with devastating force. Darling had snared another katzil and was directing it to strafe any khelminash he spotted who seemed to be trying to give orders. The jaws of spirit wolves, as it turned out, burned demon flesh almost as severely as divine magic, and Ingvar’s pack were instinctively cutting individuals out of the throng to bring them down, while the archers smoothly switched from a massed volley to picking off targets precisely.

An entire row of demons were crushed together between two walls of light, one silver and one gold; as they fell, Shaeine was already turning away from Toby as he rounded on another knot of demons, calling up another flat shield, turning it sideways and slashing into concentrations of khaladesh not unlike Gabriel and his scythe. She had to switch back to shielding herself as a spear of orange fire shot right at her out of the throng, one of the khelminash warlocks knocked from her platform having recovered enough bearing to attack. That ended seconds later with a single stab through the chest, Ruda cackling something indistinct above the din as she yanked her mithril blade out of the sorceress’s heart.

More spectral animals charged into the fray; they still didn’t last very long under so much abuse, but their constantly replenished numbers played their role in turning the tide. While Khadizroth did that from behind the front lines, Rainwood danced about closer to the action, lashing out with spells to strike down demons more directly. Even with his reflexes, he was nearly overcome at one point when he strayed too far from the main group by a squad pulled together under a khelminash warlock’s command apparently for the express purpose of putting a stop to him. The enormous fiery bulk of Meesie in her larger form shattered their would-be phalanx, buying Rainwood necessary seconds to turn on them and finish the job, with Schwartz’s help. Despite their relative positions along the Circle, it took the both of them a tense few moments of magical dueling to bring down the warlock, and even so it was finally decided by Meesie mauling her from behind while she was trying to concentrate.

“How fascinating!” Schwartz shouted over the chaos. “In groups they stick to formalized spell routines, but get one alone and cornered and she gets positively inventive!”

“Making soldiers out of casters,” Rainwood agreed, cutting down the last of his would-be assassins with a lightning bolt. “Rookie mistake.”

Behind them, Khadizroth burned a khelminash platform out of the sky with a burst of pure fae magic of an intensity that even the crafts of all three failed to counter, in response to a rather clever attempt by that group to disrupt his ongoing summoning through Circle effects. They had actually put up a conversion array that was drawing power away from his fae spells to consume their own infernal magic, which they transmuted into arcane in the middle of it, causing his last several creature summons to explosively fail. That was far too creative to have been whipped up on the fly, suggesting these were prepared to deal with powerful fae casters. It would explain the trouble Rainwood and Schwartz had had.

The theory was borne out when two more trios began doing something similar in unison, this time using the explosive arcane-fae reaction to cause painful feedback in his own aura and sharply impeding his own ability to cast. Growing in displeasure, Khadizroth lashed out at one of the platforms, failing to strike them down with his second burst of magic but alleviating the pressure as the attack forced them to break off their efforts and withdraw. In that second, though, two more had swooped in, followed by a third, and the pressure immediately began mounting. They had, he realized, identified who the most powerful caster here was, and made him a priority. That status was debatable, but Kuriwa was presently darting about conjuring thorny bushes out of the very pavement to both ensnare khaladesh in murderous vines and spray puffs of rejuvenative pollen at her allies, which probably didn’t look nearly as impressive to the warlocks as his great tree did.

“PESTS!” the dragon thundered, launching another burst of fae magic. This one fizzled entirely; he now had seven platforms full of khelminash warlocks focusing on him, their spells slowly but surely burning through his defenses.

Nearby, Branwen looked up from healing a fallen Ranger and in the next moment sprang to his side, planting herself and her divine shield between him and two of the warlock platforms. That alleviated their onslaught for a moment, but they just swung wide to cast around her, and Branwen wasn’t adept enough with divine shields to bar more than three times or so the width of her small body. One of the attacking khelminash platforms was shattered out from under them by a burst of Fross’s magic, but in the next moment the pixie swooped away to finish mopping up the katzils, apparently not realizing what was happening.

Khadizroth snarled; at his side, Vannae was similarly beleaguered by the same effect, impeding his attempts to come to his master’s aid, and no one else seemed to have notice their struggle in the midst of the chaos.

Then, in the space of one second, four sprays of three needle-thin bolts of light each lashed out, every one piercing a sorceress directly through the head. They tumbled off their platforms, his magic came roaring back with the sudden lessening of the inhibiting effect, and both Vannae and Branwen sprang in front of him. Before they could take the fight to the last two trios, though, Khadizroth plucked a seed and hurled it. It burst alive even before striking the pavement, roots surging downward while thorny vines reached up, entangling one platform and forcing the last into a desperate retreat.

Khadizroth looked to his left, in the direction from which the wandshots had come, and met Joe Jenkins’ gaze across the battle. The Kid tipped his hat to the dragon, then turned and felled a dozen oncoming khaladesh with another volley of surgical shots. He and McGraw were standing guard over Billie, who was hard at work cobbling together some arcane contraption and giggling maniacally to herself.

Not far distant from them, Toby moved smoothly between attacking demons, neither rushing nor lashing out. He was all but impervious behind a divine shield which he kept molded close to the shape of his body rather than the traditional wide bubble, and his blazing aura burned any that came too close. Being demons, this infuriated them into attacking, and he kept constantly on the move, sliding nimbly around their clumsy advances, maneuvering them into tripping each other up and blundering into attacks by nearby spirit wolves and spectral beasts, or being felled by blessed arrows. Despite his lack of offensive maneuvers, Toby was slowly but surely whittling down the demons’ numbers with his passive strategy, while taking pressure off his allies; so long as he kept himself as a primary target, those willing to attack more aggressively were easily able to take his assailants from behind.

As was demonstrated when his shield and aura suddenly and unaccountably flickered. Out of the throng of soldier demons, a khelminash sorceress appeared, one clawed hand outstretched and teeth bared in concentration as she worked some spell that interacted badly with his divine magic. Toby had only just zeroed in on this new threat when the effect vanished, and the warlocks shrieked in pain. Arcs of scarlet lightning wreathed her, and she stumbled to her knees, twitching in apparent agony.

Grip stalked forward, wearing a truly psychotic grin and holding a fist-sized device which produced the red lightning. She kept the sorceress in the grasp of its effect just long enough to step within arm’s reach before dropping it, giving the khelminash a split second of lucid relief before Grip’s brass-studded cudgel caved her face in.

Sensing another approach, Toby smoothly flowed to the side, preparing another evasive sidestep; it was not another demon coming up from behind, though, but the dragon.

“Mr. Caine,” Khadzroth said, not shouting but projecting his powerful voice through the noise nonetheless. “You are more needed back here. Their advantage is in numbers; if we can avoid taking losses, we will ultimately prevail. We need all available help to shield and heal.”

Toby cast a quick look around the supporters the dragon had gathered. Vannae seemed to have appointed himself guardian of the healers, darting back and forth to attack any demon which came through the larger scrum to strike at them, while Branwen was busily dragging wounded back into the protective aegis of the tree where she could perform emergency healing behind her own shields. Elder Shiraki paced steadily behind the lines, directing currents of fae magic which Toby could tell at a glance were empowering the archers, adding magical effects to their arrows, and further augmenting any melee fighters on whom he could gain a line of sight through the chaos. Flora, Fauna, Principia, Jenell, and Merry were all dueling khaladesh nearby without the aid of any magic of their own, and benefiting from Shiraki’s efforts whether they realized it or not. Weaver paced in an opposite pattern, occasionally crossing Shiraki’s path as he blew steadily into a flute. Toby could barely hear its thin melody over the havoc, but he knew bardsong was as potent as it was poorly understood by those outside Vesk’s cult.

They had studied this, he realized, in Professor Tellwyrn’s class, though he’d not expected to actually see it in person. These were not modern military maneuvers, but classical adventuring tactics: dedicated casters would remain behind the main fighters to heal and buff. It was, just as Khadizroth said, one of the main reasons adventurer teams tended to outlast much larger forces, even more important than their ability to individually hit harder. A smaller group would win through attrition if they just wouldn’t die. And Khadizroth was right: in such a situation, the powers of an Omnist paladin were far better suited to this than fighting on the front lines.

“Right,” he agreed, then raised his voice. “Shaeine!”

“I heard,” she called, emerging from behind one of Mary’s thorn bushes. While pacing gracefully toward him, the drow raised one hand, conjuring a wall of silver light which first rebuffed the khaladesh demon that tried to ambush her and then crushed him flat against the pavement. “A sound strategy.”

“They’re retreating!” Schwartz called. “I think we’ve got them—oh, on second thought, this is bad, isn’t it.”

In the chaotic minutes since the battle had been joined in full, the mortal defenders had utterly devastated the assembled demonic force while taking few and possibly no losses; there were too many archers, spirit wolves, enforcers, and other miscellany for an easy head count amid the chaos, but at least the majority of them were still up and fighting. In military terms that represented an astonishing victory, but was about historically normal for massed adventurers facing the kind of fodder represented by the khaladesh soldiers, who had mismatched and inadequate equipment and were themselves not any physically stronger or more resilient than the average human. It as a more impressive showing against the khelminash warlocks, who were feared even in Hell for their expertise, but the presence of such as paladins, dryads, a dragon, and Kuriwa served as a counter to even that strength, and as Schwartz had observed, khelminash were actually less dangerous while casting formalized spell sequences from formation than when allowed to exercise their creativity and skill as individuals. The platforms had fallen with surprising ease, but each one of the warlocks who survived landing had posed a significant threat to the ground fighters before finally being brought down.

Unfortunately, Schwartz had also correctly identified what this turn of the tides heralded.

The surviving khaladesh soldiers were, indeed, retreating toward the steps down to the lower plaza, which was still hidden from view by the angle. Some of them were still being cut down as they fled—Ruda and Grip both chased after fleeing demons before being reined in by Juniper and Darling, respectively—and Trissiny and Gabriel continued to gallop through their numbers, but most of the defenders took the opportunity to catch their breath, even at the cost of letting the demons regroup. The withdrawal of the khelminash, however, was obviously not just to reorganize. They had fallen back into a rotating formation above their plaza, again channeling their energies at whatever lay in its center.

Kuriwa lit close to the support casters, immediately resuming her elven form. “They are casting a summoning, not a true gate, and for a creature like Kelvreth, their help will be needed to pull him physically through. Billie’s explosive interrupted that effort; if we can stop them now, we may be able to prevent him reaching this plane.”

Khadizroth swept a quick glance around the skyline; already, several of the pillars of fire in each direction had gone dark, and he happened to catch the sudden snuffing of another on the north bank. So the teams Trissiny had sent were still at their work. The strategy was working: so long as demons kept coming here to die, eventually those three groups would cut off all their entry points.

But that left them needing to survive Kelvreth.

“I am less use than I might be, Mary,” he stated, fixing her with a flat stare. “You could remedy that.”

Her expression, as usual, betrayed nothing. “And in this circumstance, I would. It would be an action requiring some long minutes of focused work. Do you want to risk it?”

Khadizroth glanced again toward the stairs, and the khelminash now circling the lower plaza, and at that moment Trissiny’s voice rang out.

“Baerzurgs! Heavy hitters to the fore, casters retreat!”

“Let us revisit this after dealing with the matter at hand,” he said, but she was already taking flight again as he paced forward and various adventurers repositioned themselves at the paladin’s order.

An entire line of baerzurgs topped the steps, thirteen forming a single rank. Worse, they held that formation; clearly, these had been trained in military tactics like the khaladesh. Baerzurgs were all but invulnerable to most attacks save magic, and most commonly fought by charging wildly in. It was rare that they would learn and practice actual maneuvers. The mortal plane had not seen the like since the Hellwars, and then, forces like this had shattered even the most resolute lines of the Pantheon’s servants.

This time, though, the formation only lasted a second after heaving into view, because that was how long it took Arjen to lunge forward, pivot a hundred and eighty degrees on his front hooves, and kick the baerzurg in the line’s center with his powerful hindquarters—thus revealing why the Hands of Avei rode a barrel-chested draft horse instead of a more traditional charger. Even a normal horse could inflict devastating damage with a kick like that; Arjen’s sent the “invulnerable” demon hurtling a good fifteen feet with its armored chest caved in.

The baerzurgs’ discipline didn’t extend to holding formation in the face of that, as both flanking the victim proved by breaking ranks to turn and attack the mounted paladin. Trissiny’s blazing aura already had them smoking; between Arjen’s slashing hooves and her striking with both sword and shield, they held their own, but fending off two hulking demons of that size kept them fully occupied. Gabriel felled another, the wicked blade of his scythe sinking into a baerzurg’s chest without resistance and causing the demon to crumple, but while he was as physically sturdy as they, Whisper’s instinct was to evade rather than stand and she darted away to escape the counterattack of two more of its companions. Meesie struck another baerzurg in a flying tackle that sent them both tumbling down the stairs, and two more were felled by punches from Juniper and Aspen.

Even with these losses, the line kept coming. Five baerzurgs had fallen, two were ineptly chasing Whisper, and Trissiny and Arjen were still dealing with another. As impressive as that was against such infamously durable demons, it left five to charge at the far more vulnerable defenders who had retreated behind the patchy rampart of fae thornbushes to the outskirts of Khadizroth’s tree.

“Shamans, with me!” the dragon ordered, raising his hands.

Kuriwa, as usual, ignored him; she landed behind the demons and struck one in the back with a spear of green light. Shiraki, Schwartz, Rainwood, and Vannae all joined the green dragon, however, in pelting the oncoming demons with a variety of spells that brought their advance to a staggering halt. The assembled archers fired a volley as well, and while their arrows did little against that armor, the fae blessings Shiraki had been casting helped weaken them. In fact, Ingvar, whether by skill or accident, sank a shaft into one baerzurg’s eye, causing it to topple.

“Finish them quickly!” Khadizroth barked. Trissiny had already dealt with the last of her foes and was charging to aid Gabriel, who was finding it hard to both evade the demons’ claws and bring his slightly awkward weapon back into play on horseback. That was, of course, a downside of wielding a scythe, no matter how deadly it might be: farm implements were just not designed for such work. “They are stalling us now; those will not be the last of their forces. Make haste!”

Toby cupped his hands around his mouth, raising his head to the sky. “FROSS! What’s happening down there?”

Seconds later, the pixie came zipping out of the sky; while everything else was going on, she had succeeded in wiping out the summoned katzils. “That summoning circle they’ve got is fully activated and seems to be an open rift now! I’m no infernomancer but if I remember my planar mechanics right that’s not gonna fade if we just erase some lines, it’s gonna have to be actively disrupted. What’s left of the warlocks are casting something directly into it!”

“Kelvreth will require help to pass through,” Khadizroth declared for the benefit of those who had not heard Kuriwa earlier. “Even if we fail to disrupt the circle in time, we can at least slow his arrival by stopping them.”

“He will have help from the other side,” Shiraki pointed out.

“Yes, but every bit helps,” Khadizroth said tersely. “Joseph?”

“Way ahead a’ you,” Joe replied, already taking aim with his wand.

In the next moment he winced, having fired a barrage of precise beams which swerved off course a few yards from any of their targets. “Rats. I think they’re onto me. Y’all, if precision attacks won’t work, we need widespread firepower.”

“I believe he’s playin’ your song, Billie,” said McGraw, who was still standing guard over the gnome and her ongoing project.

“Oi, ye don’t rush genius,” she grunted, pausing in her work to pick up the projectile weapon she had used previously. The device Billie was building resembled a mag cannon, though aimed upward at an angle rather than directly at its target, and she had physically bolted its legs into the pavement. She hastily produced another long tube from within one of her pouches of holding, slotted it into the quasi-crossbow, and tossed the whole thing to McGraw. “’ere, go nuts.”

He had to drop his staff to catch it, but chuckled while raising it to his shoulder and sighting along the weapon’s length. “An’ here I was just thinkin’ it ain’t fair how the rest of us never get to play with your toys.”

The rocket screamed when he pulled the trigger, and McGraw was physically bowled over amid a shower of sparks, coughing at the smoke. Branwen rushed to his side, but everyone else watched the missile as it streaked out over the plaza.

The old wizard’s aim had been true; it detonated right in the middle of the khelminash formation in a colossal shower of blue and gold sparks that was clearly not meant to go off that close to the ground. Every surviving window facing the lower plaza was shattered, and four of the remaining khelminash platforms were blasted right out of the sky. Of the rest, only two managed to retreat unscathed, while one careened into the face of a building and two more went swerving off course, losing several of their riders in the process.

“Fallowstone, how much danger will we be in from whatever you are doing?” Khadizroth demanded.

“Mostly none, long as ye don’t stick yer faces right in the barrel,” she grunted. “Fairies may wanna hang back a wee bit. I’m almost there!”

“Is that a—where did you get that?” Branwen demanded, watching Billie snap an Izarite shatterstone into some kind of glass canister and insert it into the nozzle of her improvised artillery. “Where do people keep getting those?!”

“Take it up with ‘is Graceness over there,” the gnome said cheerfully.

Darling raised his hands hands as Branwen rounded on him. “Hey, it’s not like I put things on the black market! I’m just a middleman, here.”

Trissiny and Gabriel came cantering up to them before Branwen could say anything else.

“We need to press forward,” the Hand of Avei stated, her voice projecting across the crowd. “They failed in their assault because their formation was broken and they were felled individually. We cannot make the same mistake! This group is smaller, but we have enough forces to wipe them out so long as we move in unison. And quickly!”

“Agreed, there is no more time to delay,” Khadizroth added. “We’re with you, General Avelea.”

Then Kelvreth’s hand re-emerged—two, this time. Both gigantic, skeletal claws rose upward and then swept down to both sides as the enormous demon grabbed the ground itself for purchase, in a pose obviously meant to help lever himself up out of the portal.

“Too late,” Joe said fatalistically.

“Oh, we’re not too late,” Billie retorted with vicious satisfaction, yanking a lever on her device. “He is!”

It had already begun to rattle and smoke, but also to produce a fierce golden glow through every crack in its improvised metal housing. Everyone nearby instinctively retreated from the cobbled-together cannon, with the exception of Billie herself. They had barely two seconds to do so. With a THUMP that sent cracks through the pavement for two yards in all directions and cast a puff of glittering golden smoke across the group, it finally fired.

What emerged from the barrel resembled a sunrise. Light blazed forth with an intensity that blinded most of them. The missile arced a disappointing short distance after all that build-up, but Billie had calibrated her weapon well, and its course brought it down right into the center of the circle from which Kelvreth of the Eyes was being summoned. Around it traveled a scintillating corona that incinerated every remaining demon, living or dead, still in the vicinity.

But then, before it struck the ground, the projectile suddenly halted in midair. Its stunning luminosity began to dim, enabling the watchers to belatedly see what had happened; what had begun as a skull-sized projectile was now a seething ball of light almost as big as a carriage, and it was now held in the air within the clawed grip of Kelvreth’s hand.

Then he clenched his fingers, and with a shockwave of thunder that shoved all of them bodily backward and uprooted several of Kuriwa’s magic bushes, the Light was snuffed out. In its wake, the demon general spoke.

“ENOUGH.”

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15 – 54

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“How much do you remember?”

Principia paused while taking a slow sip of the tea she’d been handed, narrowing her eyes slightly as she considered Trissiny’s question.

“I…think almost everything?” she finally offered after swallowing. “The whole sequence of events is pretty much intact in my mind, including me making a big levitating spectacle of myself and you reacquainting me with basic sense, Triss. That part has a hazy quality, though, not unlike the first and last time I tried peyote.” She grimaced as if pained and raised the teacup in both hands to partially obscure the lower part of her face. “If you held a wand to my head I couldn’t explain why I thought any of that was a good idea.”

“A sudden glut of raw data has that effect on people,” Mary stated, outwardly calm. After checking Principia’s vitals she had retreated a few paces, so as not to compete with Trissiny and Merry, who were both hovering protectively closer to the younger elf. “Many of the most foolish actions I have ever witnessed resulted from the combination of abundant information and insufficient emotional maturity.”

“Kuriwa, please,” Trissiny said with a soft sigh. “Locke, is there anything of the information you absorbed that you still have?”

“Hm. Like what, specifically?”

Trissiny scowled. “Can’t you for once just answer a question without being difficult?”

“That isn’t really how brains work, Trissiny,” Mary interjected in a gentle tone. “She’s not a machine, even if she was uncomfortably similar to one while under the Mask’s effect. Information recall follows organic pathways; if there is anything still there, she did not acquire it through the normal means, and it will need connections to follow if it is to resurface. Ask specific questions, and we shall see if anything connects.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured, frowning pensively now. “Sorry, Locke.”

“Thank you, Kuriwa,” Principia said, giving her elder a careful sidelong look.

“You are welcome,” Mary said in a tone layered with meaning. Principia heaved a sigh and buried her nose in her tea again.

“While you were in that Archon fugue, you were saying vague things about plans,” Trissiny prompted. “More people you wanted to recruit and things about to happen that required urgent intervention. And you said both those categories applied to something happening in N’Jendo. Ring any bells?”

Principia squinted again, staring into the distance through the steam of her tea. “N’Jendo… Yes. I remember saying that. But the data…damn, I’m coming up blank. Gods, this is a weird feeling. I do recall talking about that and I sure made it sound important, didn’t I? But the reason for it is just gone. I’m sorry, Trissiny, I don’t know.” She lowered her cup, turning her head to look seriously at Trissiny. “I think the information was probably accurate and not something we should just forget about. I don’t have the details anymore, though.”

“N’Jendo’s a big place,” Merry murmured. “That’s not much to go on.”

Trissiny sighed softly. “I have a couple of friends in Ninkabi, but that’s it. Also, we’re on a class assignment for Tellwyrn. Which is not to say I’m firmly opposed to haring off on our own if the needs is sufficient; gods know we’ve done it before. But this time she’ll be really mad. That might have worse consequences for you than anyone, Prin.”

“Oh, Arachne loves to bluster,” Principia said lightly. “She banks on people always taking it seriously because of all the shit she’s blown up over the years. But nah, her dirty little secret is she’s annoyingly reasonable under all the chest-thumping. If she didn’t vaporize me for breaking into your dorm and drugging your friends that one time, she’s probably not gonna.”

“You,” Mary said very evenly, “Did. What.”

Principia grinned at her, and fortunately, that was the moment Toby entered the room, carrying a steaming bowl.

“Good to see you up and about, Lieutenant,” he said pleasantly, stepping right into the clearly tense atmosphere without hesitation and kneeling to offer Principia the bowl. She was sitting upright with the blanket still over her legs, but otherwise hadn’t moved from where she’d been laid after collapsing. “Juniper suggested I bring you a little something to recharge the ol’ crystals. Sorry, I know hot soup is traditional for recuperating, but we’re on a barren mountaintop with travel rations. Best I could do is porridge with dried fruit.”

“Oh, bless you, young Master Caine,” Principia said, setting aside her mug to accept the bowl with a grateful nod. “You are too pure for this world.”

“Nah, just too pure for the people he hangs around with,” Trissiny said, smiling up at Toby.

He winked and backed away a few steps. “Sing out if there’s anything else you need.”

“We will,” she promised, and he nodded, turned, and departed to the open plaza outside.

“So…” Principia paused in blowing across her porridge. “I wasn’t hallucinating, right? I did stick Kuriwa in a cage?” Merry sighed, shook her head, and rolled her eyes.

The Crow’s shoulders tensed up in a tiny gesture that was oddly reminiscent of a bird ruffling its feathers. “Yes, Principia, you did. I had set that aside while the more urgent matter of your well-being was attended to, but I see you are now feeling up to discussing it.”

Principia grinned at her. “Worth it.”

“Seriously?” Trissiny demanded.

“I have deliberately left you at liberty, child,” Kuriwa said ominously, “because you have, I assumed purposefully, kept yourself at a level of activity that falls below the threshold of impacting the course of world events. And so, unlike most of the rest of our extended family, I reasoned that it would harm little to let you work out your various issues on your own. It appears, now, you intend to insert yourself into important matters with no more maturity than you had a century ago. So I suppose I no longer have the luxury of letting you run around unattended.”

Principia’s grin sharpened until it looked painful. “Even more worth it.”

“Enough!” Trissiny exclaimed. “For the love of—just stop it, both of you.”

“Young woman,” Kuriwa began.

“Don’t you ‘young woman’ me!” Trissiny barked, pointing imperiously at her. “Based on my conversations with every single one of them so far, Kuriwa, I may be your only descendant who actually likes you! Consider that before you decide to try shoving your beak up my nose. I know how you’re accustomed to relating you kin, so let me assure you up front that if you try to push me around I will not hesitate to bring Avei into it in person. Principia knows the error she made. We have established that she wasn’t in her right mind when she briefly inconvenienced you. You’re fine now, so drop it. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold you to the same standard of behavior you ham-fistedly demand of the rest of your family. And you!”

Principia had opened her mouth to speak around a smug smile, but now visibly quailed as Trissiny turned on her.

“What the hell is your problem?” Trissiny shouted. “I do not care how affronted your free-spirited sensibilities are by being lectured, why would you try to pick a fight with someone who can wring you like a dishcloth? Do you want her to smack you around like she does Zanzayed? We just established that you weren’t on her list of people who needed that treatment, and there you go, campaigning for it! Locke, if I hadn’t just seen you clowning around with that mask you made such a production about being too dangerous to touch, I’d have assumed you were smarter than that. And yet, here we are!”

They both stared at her, blinking. Merry held herself rigidly still, hardly breathing.

“Honestly,” Trissiny said, rubbing her face with both hands. “You’re a pair of immortals; I am twenty years old. Why am I the adult in this room?”

“You,” Principia said at last, “are starting to sound eerily like my mother. It is…really disturbing.”

“Eat your porridge,” Trissiny snapped. “I can tell you one difference between us: Lanaera told me most of your arguments were her fault, because she just wasn’t cut out for motherhood. All the problems in our relationship are your doing, Principia.”

Principia hesitated with a spoonful of porridge almost to her mouth, staring at her. “…she said that?”

Trissiny sighed deeply. “Corporal, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“Oh, hey, I just remembered,” Merry muttered, standing upright, “I urgently needed to talk to, uh, one of those weirdos outside about…I dunno, I’ll think of something.”

The room was quiet while she hustled out, and then for a few more seconds thereafter.

“I hate to admit it,” Kuriwa said at last, “but I begin to suspect she gets that level head from the human side.”

“Anton was good people,” Principia agreed after swallowing a bite of porridge. “He deserved better friends than me.”

“Young Herschel impresses me favorably, as well,” the Crow agreed with a faint smile.

Trissiny shook her head and shifted, adjusting her seat to draw her knees up to her chest and wrap her arms around them. “What is Avei’s strategy?”

Principia paused with another spoonful almost to her mouth, staring at her. “You’re asking me?”

“Don’t get cute,” Trissiny ordered. “When you were high on Mask, you said you were acting in accordance with your orders, and with Avei’s strategy. I know nothing of this. What is it?”

“Ah.” She lowered the spoon back to the bowl, glancing sidelong at Kuriwa. “That…was an exaggeration. The orders are Avei’s; the strategy is mine. It’s part of that thing I told you about when we met at Last Rock. On the mountainside, remember?”

“The part you said was classified,” Trissiny said. “Even to me.”

“And as I told you then, I would rather bring you into the loop,” Principia said frankly. “Not just because I don’t care for keeping secrets from you; I think that you specifically would be an important asset to the whole thing. If for no other reason than because I would really like to verify with Avei that I’m doing what she wants. I can’t see any other way to go about the task she set for me, and it’s been my assumption that this is why she wanted me in the Legions in the first place, but… It’s not like we’re on first name terms. I get my orders from Rouvad, who in her warmest and kindest moments deigns to tolerate me and has made no secret that she resents Avei shoving me down her throat.” She grimaced, ducking her head to stare at her porridge. “It’s not like I’m generally very big on authority, as you well know. But…this is important. I wish I could be sure I was doing it right.”

Trissiny watched her in silence for a few more seconds. Principia met her eyes, then sighed and went back to eating.

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny said at last, “would you please give us a few minutes?”

The Crow rose smoothly, nodding at her. “I think it for the best. Call for me if there is anything I can do to help.”

She departed in silence, leaving Trissiny and Principia to study each other.

“I’m not directly in your chain of command,” Trissiny said, “and there are formalities—not to mention political implications—that would come up if I were to officially countermand the High Commander’s orders and insert myself into a classified program. But it’s just us in this room, and we both understand how Eserion’s mindset can complement Avei’s, when necessary. If you think I can help, Prin, tell me what’s going on.”

“Okay.” She set the spoon back in the half-eaten bowl, and turned to set it on the ground next to her cooling tea. “It’s like this.”


She finished her sandwich first. It was a really good sandwich, some of the best food she’d been able to get since arriving in this city—fresh and hot, with juicy meat and vegetables on warm flatbread, not at all like the kind of stuff she found behind buildings. So she made sure to savor it before setting to work, even if this wasn’t the best place for eating. The smell alone spoiled the experience a little bit. Well, she still had money; after handing over the gold coin for the sandwich she’d gotten some silver and bronze ones back. There would be other good food. She was loath to take her eyes off the thing after stumbling across another one, so there she sat, balefully watching it until she had licked the last of the grease from her fingers.

Then, finally, she rose from her seat on an old barrel, stretched, picked up her stick, and went to work beating to pieces and scattering the rancid structure of old bones, flesh, and magic that had been concealed behind a currently shuttered factory.

“Found another one, did you?”

She spun, raising the stick. She recognized that voice. Grinning insufferably at her, the man in the floppy had stepped out of the shadows into the relatively lighter shadows nearby, where the blue sky peeked through the gap between buildings high above.

“You know they’re just going to make more, don’t you?” Vesk said condescendingly. “There are far more capable heroes than you working on this—you ran into a couple, I understand. Well, antiheroes, anyway. These things are going up faster than they can tear them down. At best you’re amusing yourself.”

She threw the stick at him. He didn’t flinch when it bounced off his head. It didn’t even disturb his stupid hat.

“I take it I’m still not forgiven, then,” he said solemnly. “Seriously, I am sorry for the presumption, but you wouldn’t have fared a lot better left out there in the howling wilderness where I found you. Why didn’t you go to the Omnist temple like I suggested? You definitely wouldn’t be scrounging for food; Omnists love feeding people.”

She drew back her lips, opened her jaws, and made a rough hissing noise from the back of her throat, like an angry cat.

“The gods aren’t all like me and Salyrene, you know,” he remarked. “You have to be trying pretty hard to make Omnists hurt you. Hell, most people can’t try hard enough. They’re almost insufferably nice.”

She blasted him with a shadowbolt. He swatted it aside.

“I hope you don’t think you’re spiting me with this stubbornness,” the god said frankly. “I get what I want either way. You’re not gonna work your way out of the ‘mysterious stranger’ role in the time it’ll take events to wash over this city no matter what you do. I was hoping to position you as ‘strange, mute charity case’ for your sake, because I thought you could do with a spot of good luck, but I can work with ‘crazy street person’ just as well.”

She concentrated, gathering power in the form of motes of light out of the air around her. When it was sufficiently formed, she thrust her hands forward and the arcane bolt tore across the alley, filling it with blue light.

He caught that one, then had the audacity to bounce it in his palm like a luminous ball. “The nearest Omnist temple is less than a block from here, due west. That’s down toward the next lower steppe of the city, if you’re disoriented. You don’t even have to do anything; just show up looking like that and they’ll make sure you get a meal, a bath, something clean to wear and a bed if you want it. They can even set you up with work, and work is important for a lot more than making wages. Never underestimate the value of a purpose. But then,” he added, looking past her at the destroyed altar, “maybe you’ve figured that part out on your own.”

Gritting her teeth, she ignited a golden shield of divine light around herself and charged forward to body-slam him.

She bounced right off, staggering for balance, and the god casually tossed her own ball of arcane energy back at her. It impacted the shield in a loud shower of sparks which extinguished both.

“Really?” Vesk asked sardonically. “We can literally do this all day, kiddo. One of us can, at least. Nobody’s gonna be impressed with your Every Salyrite Apprentice Ever package of basic spells—they just prove you don’t know enough of any one type of magic to be actually scary. For heaven’s sake, don’t do any of that at the local police. They are very short on sense of humor at the moment.”

She regained her footing and hissed at him again.

He sighed. “Well, I’ve told you where the temple is. Or… There’s another of these altars about half a block to the south. The alleys made for a deliberately obfuscatory path, but as long as you know the requisite elementary fae magic to go with your other novice tricks, you’ll be able to follow your nose to it now you’ve already encountered two of them.”

The god hesitated, then shook his head and turned to go. “Just be careful. These Tide idiots are trying to avoid direct conflict, but I wouldn’t swear you’re a match for one in your present state. I brought you here because you’ve got every potential for a great destiny. If you just end up getting killed, I will actually feel bad.”

He actually walked away down the alley instead of just disappearing like last time. She shot him in the back with another shadowbolt. It did nothing, of course, but it was satisfying.


Trissiny gazed at the far wall in silence for long moments after Principia stopped talking.

“That,” she finally said, “might work.”

“Well, I thought so,” the elf said petulantly, finishing off the last of her now-cool tea before setting the cup back down next to the empty porridge bowl. “I mean, acknowledging my bias, I could definitely see it working. It’d be nice to have some confirmation, though. I wouldn’t put it past Avei to upbraid me for failing to read her mind. That may be a little paranoid of me, but I’ve not had the best experience within the Sisterhood so far.”

“I will ask her,” Trissiny promised with a fleeting little smile. “Orders aside, I see why you would want to keep that under wraps as long as possible. The whole idea sits right in that sweet spot of being bonkers enough that nobody but you would have come up with it, but plausible enough to others will undoubtedly try as soon as the idea gets out.”

“Yeah, well, I suspect it’ll be out sooner than later,” Principia said, frowning. “Maybe sooner than I’m ready. I know we’re within Shaeine’s earshot, and there is absolutely no way Kuriwa’s not actively listening. She comprehends the concept ‘none of my business’ as well as a horse understands trigonometry.”

“And you were wanting to gather people from N’Jendo and Veilgrad, as well as here, and throw them into some unfolding disaster,” Trissiny murmured. “It makes a lot more sense now.”

Principia blinked. “Wait, Veilgrad? Really?”

“I take it you don’t recall that, either.”

“Now that you mention it, I recall saying the name, but… Veilgrad is full of Shaathists and werewolves. The place is basically a giant miscellany of things that bump in the night. I can see it being a prospect but I wouldn’t wanna go there without a good and specific lead, which no, I don’t have.”

“I know some people there, too, but same problem applies. That’s there, we’re here, and I’m not sure how eager I am to learn what Tellwyrn would do if I went that far afield. She once threatened to chain me and Gabe together at the wrist. I’ve only come to understand how serious she was in hindsight.”

“You could do worse,” Principia said with a sly quirk of her lips.

Trissiny turned a flat stare on her. “We are not that close yet, Locke.”

“Yes’m,” the elf said solemnly.

Trissiny shook her head, and then turned again to stare at the wall, eyes narrowed in thought.

Principia watched her in silence for more than a full minute before suddenly speaking.

“I knew Sabah Aldarasi.”

Trissiny blinked in surprise and turned back to her. “The Hand of Avei who was killed by the Enchanter’s Bane? The way I was taught, that was a big part of the reason Viridill turned on the Empire after it was fired.”

“Yeah,” Principia whispered, herself gazing off into the distance now. “Her, and Sarsamon Tirasian. I knew him as Sarsa, dumbass wannabe adventurer from southern Calderaas. We were kind of a team for a while, there, just as what would become the Enchanter Wars was getting started. That’s incidentally also how I met Arachne, a bit later. Of course, far as we knew, it was just the latest occurrence of the orcs going on one of their crusades across the borders, and some shenanigans in the background where Magnan had a bug up his butt about fae magic and was leaning on both the Emperor and the Archpope to crack down on witches. Chaotic times, but eh…I’d seen worse. The whole world didn’t go nuts until that idiot fired off the Bane. And quite accidentally killed my friend.”

“So,” Trissiny said very quietly, staring at her, “when you heard I’d been called as the new Hand of Avei…”

“Look, I won’t say any part of my judgment at any step of that entire process was sound,” Principia said, wincing. “But that particular moment… Yeah, haring off to Viridill to plow through Abbess Narnasia was a uniquely unwise thing to try. That just triggered something in me I had made myself forget was there.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

“I abandoned them too.” Principia’s expression was completely hollow, eyes far away. “After Sabah… You’ve never been around a Hand of Avei without being one, you can’t know what it’s like. Even if your grasp of history warns you that there’s always a bigger fish, that they always end up meeting something they can’t defeat in the end… A paladin is an inspiring presence. You believe they can do anything, no matter how stupid you know that is. You want to be the best version of yourself you can be to help them, if they welcome you into their circle.”

Trissiny kept silent as if afraid to distract her as the elf carried on in an uncharacteristically haunted voice.

“That was new, to me. And then, boom. She was dead. Just so much fucking dust. Sarsa was a wreck—those two were the kind of irrationally in love that mostly only happens in great adventure stories. Slap slap kiss, it was all very amusing and sweet until it turned into a tragedy. The others… And, well, the whole world started falling apart. The Empire was falling into civil war, three major cults were actively trying to tear down the Universal Church, the Collegium was collapsing as different kinds of magic users started slaughtering each other. Viridill full of orc refugees. It was a time when heroes were desperately needed. Sabah made me believe I could be something truly great. And suddenly she was gone, and I needed to step up. For my friends’ sake, if not the world’s.”

Her shoulders hunched as if she wanted to collapse in on herself.

“So, naturally, I fucked off to Onkawa to get some sun.”

“You’re not a coward,” Trissiny said quietly.

“Don’t—”

“I’d like to think you know by now I don’t do platitudes. I am very well acquainted with your faults, Locke, and cowardice isn’t one.”

“Of course it is,” Principia said bitterly. “I’m not afraid of pain or death, but my own feelings? Oh, that I just can’t face. Onkawa didn’t exactly work out either, shit was going down in every corner of the world and I immediately ended up neck-deep in Black Wreath nonsense, but at least that had nothing to do with me. There was nobody I cared about involved; it was damn well therapeutic.”

They were silent again for another minute. Trissiny just watched her, waiting.

“The only way I knew how to relate to people was the only safe way I managed with my mother and everyone else in the grove,” Principia whispered at last. “Long as I made enough of a pest of myself that nobody wanted me around…well, that was always how it ended up anyway, and I felt better when it was on my terms. I kept moving, didn’t keep any friends around for very long. The Guild is well set up for that kind of lifestyle. Then fucking Sabah came along and ruined everything. I never did manage to completely straighten myself out again after that.”

She glanced up at Trissiny again and then dropped her gaze immediately, avoiding her eyes.

“Part of it…that one child support con, the whole reason you exist… Well, I thought it would be good to have a child. And then I did and it was terrifying beyond the capacity of words to express. You can’t run from that; you can’t just leave them behind. To love someone that way means you will be shattered, completely broken down to your core, if you lose them.”

Principia paused, swallowed heavily, and spoke in a ragged breath.

“So…I got it out of the way, instead of waiting for it to happen to me. Thank the gods Arachne was around, or… I’m just so goddamned sorry, Trissiny. I chickened out, that was all there was to it. What it means to be truly connected to people… The vulnerability is horrifying.”

“Yeah,” Trissiny agreed, nodding once. “I wouldn’t want to live without it, though. Without people to love… What’s the point?”

“I get it, finally,” Principia said with a deep sigh. “My squad… Omnu’s balls, I’m amazed I’ve kept them alive this long. Between Syrinx and dragons and whatever else, it’s been a whole series of incredibly close shaves. And it’s just not gonna work forever. Soldiers die, that’s what they do, and I am going to lose some of those girls way too soon. I mean, I could live with Nandi kicking it, she’s been around forever and still hasn’t gotten over her own lost mate, but the others? They’re just kids. Brave, smart…the kind of heroic dumbshits I was supposed to be if I hadn’t run away instead.”

Drawing in a deep breath, she threw her head back to gaze up at the ceiling.

“What I do not get is why it’s such a relief. Both them, and you. Making peace with what it’s going to mean when someone else is taken from me and deliberately sticking by them anyway. I feel like I could piss myself from terror every moment I’m awake, and yet… I think I like it better this way. Is that normal?”

“Yes, Prin,” Trissiny said, smiling, “you ridiculous two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old child, that is normal.”

Principia lowered her head to meet her daughter’s eyes.

“That’s fucked up.”

Trissiny blinked once, and then began laughing so hard she fell over.

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15 – 53

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“Touch me and she dies.”

Syrinx already had two wands aimed at her, to say nothing of the knives coming out; that sentence bought her a momentary pause.

“You’re gonna sit there and threaten my apprentice right in front of me?” Grip asked in a dangerously serene tone. “Ballsy.”

“Your…? Oh, Covrin’s here.” Syrinx barely glanced at Jenell in passing. “No, I was referring to Ninkabi. Forgive the dramatic phrasing, but you thugs clearly needed encouragement not to shut down your brains entirely. Now, here’s the situation.”

“Really, holding the entire city hostage?” Sweet said with a derisive little smile. “Well that’s…an approach.”

“Don’t pretend to be stupid, Antonio,” she snapped. “You know very well I am not behind the threats here, but without me you haven’t a prayer of thwarting them.”

“Yeah, that’s bullshit,” said Thumper. “She’s got nothin’, not even her crew anymore.”

“I cannot believe we’re still talking to this woman,” Schwartz exclaimed. “Jenell, do you want to do the honors or may I…?”

“I’ve gotten my pound of flesh from her,” Jenell said stiffly, looking away from Basra. “Knock yourself out.”

Syrinx slapped a hand down on the table, rattling the silverware again. “You’ve got nothing. You have neither the necessary forces to head off the coming attack, nor adequate knowledge of where it will come from. The fact that you’ve invited this into your ranks only proves how desperate you are.”

Bradshaw met her sneer with a raised eyebrow. “Well, I have no personal horse in this race, but if the consensus of the group is that we table other business and char Basra Syrinx down to her skeleton, I’m for it.”

“A person with a scrap of self-awareness would take note that others are more willing to ally with the Wreath than herself and reflect on that,” Grip drawled.

Shook snorted a bitter laugh. “Damn, woman, nobody doesn’t hate you. Even I don’t have a hundred percent aggression rating, and that’s literally my job.”

“Your inability to do your job is another topic, Shook,” Syrinx sneered. “Having to deal with me is the tax you lot will have to pay for this one and his cronies splitting my forces. I know that dragon is helping you track down the summoning sites; had he and you not run off on your own I could be sending troops to each one. But they did, so here we are. You can maybe keep tracking down those portal sites, but the cultists will just keep making more, and you quite simply do not have enough warm bodies to throw at them. Sooner than later they’ll have enough up and running to put their plan into motion while you’re still chasing your tails.”

“Troops?” Sweet asked mildly.

“Oh, come on, you know she has nothing of the kind!” Jenell spat. “This is nothing but a ploy to get us off her back so she can prolong her existence another day.”

“She could have easily done that by not coming here,” Sweet pointed out. “It’s not as if anybody here has time to go hunting her down, we’re fully occupied with shit that matters.”

Jenell slammed a fist on the table in an ironic echo of Basra and started to rise from her seat. “I cannot believe you’d even consider—”

“Covrin!” Sweet did not raise his voice, but projected in a sharp tone that cut her off. “If somebody makes you mad enough to go on the attack without thinking, they’re beating you. Basra, you will either wipe that smirk off your face or Schwartz will burn it off.”

Meesie puffed up like a spikefish, hissing, and Schwartz cracked his knuckles, staring at Basra. Jenell sank more slowly back into her seat, deliberately marshaling her expression. Syrinx smoothed her own as swiftly as if a switch had been flipped.

“We’re gonna do this smart,” Sweet announced, again in a tone of calm. “If Basra has something critical to offer, we’ll get all the available info and decide logically what to do. If what she offers isn’t very good—and I mean, incredibly persuasively necessary—she doesn’t leave this room alive. Agreed?”

A few grudging mutters of assent followed, though most of those at the table just watched Syrinx in silence. She herself curled her lip disdainfully, but nodded.

“All right, then,” Sweet said with an unconvincing little smile. “Let’s hear your pitch, Bas. I assume you wouldn’t have risked coming here if you didn’t have something good.”

“I have the one thing you need and do not have,” she replied. “Men who can follow orders. As a designated emissary of the Archpope, I can take direct command of the Holy Legionaries in the city, and have pull with the local police and Imperial Army presence.”

“You seem to be forgetting that both of us didn’t get de-Bishoped,” he said with a pleasant smile. “I also have—”

“This isn’t Tiraas, Antonio,” she interrupted. “Nobody here knows you—and by the looks of it, you came in your Eserite persona, looking to rummage around in the city’s underground. Sure, you can prove your identity and your status…eventually. Except you’re forgetting that the Tiraan Empire is currently in a state of war footing, which means civilians do not have access to the Rails or telescroll network as of this morning. You were probably among the last people to be able to travel freely to get here. And let’s say the local police recognize you: the Eserite Bishop. We all know how much police love Eserites.”

She smirked again, while he regarded her impassively. Flanking him, Flora and Fauna narrowed their eyes to blue slits.

“How’d you find us here so fast, Basra?” Sweet asked lightly.

“That is not among the things you need to know.”

He shifted his gaze. “Mr. Bradshaw, if I might inquire, how much manpower can your group lend to this effort?”

“I trust you won’t be surprised if I decline to share exact numbers,” the warlock drawled. “But it won’t come as a surprise to anyone here that the Wreath is running low on competent and trusted personnel, since you in particular are the lion’s share of the reason for that, Darling. With shadow-jumping we can cover ground quickly, of course. But we have…let us say a bare handful of warlocks on the ground in Ninkabi, and it would be a very hard sell to get Embras to place them directly at the disposal of you or your pet dragon. We all remember well the last time we tried to protect a city from demon attack while you were involved.”

“I suppose I’ll have to accept that,” Sweet said slowly. He studied Basra for a moment, then Schwartz, and finally met Grip’s eyes. She nodded minutely. “All right. As I see it, this is a matter of weighing risks against each other. We can take out Basra since she’s offered herself up on a plate, and embrace the risk that we just won’t have enough people to stop the enemy from opening multiple hellgates, much less find and shut them down in person. We can agree to work with her, for now, and take the risk of whatever bullshit she’s planning to pull harming us or the effort, because it’s not even in question that she’s scheming something.” Syrinx made a sardonic face at him, but didn’t interrupt. “There is also an inherent risk in cooperating with the Wreath, of course. Even when they act in good faith, they never do so without ulterior motives, as they proved in Veilgrad, and as our new friend Bradshaw pointed out they have good and specific reason to feel unfriendly toward yours truly, and by extension now, the rest of you.”

Leaning forward with his elbows on the table, he interlaced his fingers and turned his gaze on Jenell. “In my judgment, these risks are similar in both likelihood and severity—too close to call, even if we knew all the nuances, and the fact that we clearly don’t is another factor. So in cases like this, where the simple practicalities don’t tell us what to do, we must look to our ethics. And with regard to that, while quite a few of us here have reasons to be annoyed at Basra Syrinx, you have by far the biggest claim. So it’s your call, Covrin.”

Jenell blinked twice, then slowly raised her eyebrows. “I…what?”

“If you don’t want the pressure you can pass it right back to me and no one will blame you,” he assured her. “This is not an obligation. But it is your prerogative. You know the situation, the balance of risks. It comes down to whether this is a monster we can work with, and you’re the one with the biggest right to make that call, if you want it.”

She stared at him for a silent moment, then nodded once, turning her gaze back to Syrinx.

Basra had gone completely rigid in her chair, despite her insouciant pose straddling its back, watching Jenell with a complete lack of expression.

“So,” Jenell said quietly after a long pause, “that makes it twice now I’ve held your life in my hand, Basra. I’m officially ahead, now. Isn’t that a hell of a thing?”

Basra’s left eyelid twitched and she drew in a breath to speak.

“Open your mouth and lose an eye,” Schwartz stated flatly. “You don’t need depth perception to make yourself useful.” Meesie growled in agreement.

Shook pointed at him, and then turned the gesture into a thumbs up. Grip shook with almost-silent laughter.

“Well, apprentice,” she chuckled, “I officially approve of your boyfriend, here.”

“Sweet, do you see any practical concern that tips the scales one way or another?” Jenell asked, turning back to him.

He leaned back against the rear of the booth, pursing his lips for a moment in thought. “I suppose…it’s two gambles against one. With Basra, we risk…Basra. Without her, we’re betting that I can drum up some manpower from the police and military by hook or by crook—definitely without the Holy Legion, because I have no pull at all there—and also that the Wreath will come through. I feel like that’s making it sound simpler than it is, is the thing. This city is crawling with extraneous factors. The Jackal is still jacking around and all of this is contingent on Khadizroth behaving himself, which is a hell of a coin to flip.”

The look Jenell gave Syrinx was purely contemptuous, and caused Basra’s eye to twitch again. “Then I say put her to work. The days when she was important enough to risk the safety of a city over are long past. None of this changes the reality of the sword hanging over Basra’s head. She may as well get to survive a little while longer, if it means she’ll be of some use for once.”

Syrinx shifted her head to face Jenell directly, opening her mouth.

Schwartz raised one hand from under the table and blew across it. A thin streamer of dust wafted forward, caught fire, and coalesced into a single needle of flame which then hovered in the air, pointed directly at Syrinx.

She shut her mouth.

“Well, there you have it!” Sweet said magnanimously. “Once again, Bas, you are the lesser evil, a position I know you find comfortable. How soon can you marshal these boots on the ground?”

She rose smoothly, swinging one leg over the chair and retreated a strategic two steps from the table. “I have Holy Legionaries I can send out immediately. Getting movement from city and Imperial forces is going to take some politicking, as you well know. By the time you and your dragon have useful targets, I’ll have forces ready to move.”

“Splendid,” he said, smiling. “And where shall I look for you?”

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Syrinx retorted, her flat expression a contrast to his languid smile. “I can locate you cretins when I need you. I will decide when it is time to link up again. Just do your job with a minimum of your usual screwing around, and maybe we can prevent this city from being burned to the ground.”

She turned and strode out of the room without another word.

“Son of a bitch,” Thumper whispered.

“Yeah, no kidding,” said Schwartz.

“No, not…her in general,” the enforcer said impatiently. “I think… Sweet, this whole thing where our crew was gonna join up with Justinian to keep tabs on him was the Jackal’s idea, though Big K basically took over leading it by the time it all fell apart. It was the Jackal who suggested I get out from under Syrinx’s thumb right before disappearing himself. He’s been carving up the local police, making damn sure there’s a shortage of manpower to protect the city, right when she’s got Holy Legionaries just where we’ll need ’em. And didn’t you start to say you had a brush with him on the way in, just before that bitch somehow found us here? You seein’ what I’m seein’?”

“Why, Thumper, I think you’re onto something,” Sweet said slowly. “And I was just wondering what the hell the Jackal could possibly be playing at. It seems he and Basra are Ninkabi’s newest power couple.”

Schwartz let out a low whistle.

“Soon as this is over,” Grip said in a resigned tone, “we’re gonna have to go on a serious murdering spree.”


“Thanks,” Merry said, accepting the steaming cup from Juniper. The dryad smiled and handed the other mug to Trissiny, who nodded in gratitude as she accepted it.

“How’s she doing?” Juniper asked, carefully seating herself on the floor beside Merry. They had brought Principia into the building where they’d camped the night before and laid her on a bedroll, covered with a blanket and with a portable fairy lamp resting nearby. In the hours since she had collapsed, Mary had checked on her several times, as had McGraw and Shaeine, but for the most part the others had preferred to respect their privacy. Given the various people assembled here, there was no shortage of conversations to be had elsewhere. Only Merry and Trissiny had remained by Principia’s side steadily.

“Asleep,” Merry said tersely, then offered a thin smile. “According to the Crow, that’s the best thing for her now.”

Juniper nodded again. Sniff padded around behind her and gently inserted himself between his mistress and Merry, making a cooing noise deep in his throat. Juniper smiled and leaned her head against him.

“I feel like I get what it must be like for you, Triss,” she said quietly. “At least a little. Not the same situation, but…I’m seeing parallels.”

“What do you mean?” Trissiny asked.

“Family,” the dryad whispered. “The idea being new…and so much more complicated than I would’ve expected.”

“Well, that definitely sounds like my experience of the last couple of years,” Trissiny replied with a wry chuckle.

“I never thought I was an orphan like you,” Juniper said softly, staring over Princpia’s prone form into the fairy lamp. “I had my mother, and my sisters… It was painful, coming to understand that Naiya only ever thought of any of us as basically pets. That my sisters—just like me—were all immature, selfish monsters who’d never had a reason or a chance to actually grow up. Now, there’s pixies and kitsune and valkyries, and they’re all so strange and…in the case of valkyries, terrifying. But…good? It’s an amazing thing, to be loved by someone who actually understands what that means, just because they feel a kinship with you. Even if they’re a bossy know-it-all like Kaisa, or something like Yngrid who makes my blood run cold just looking at her. And that just reminds me what a cruel thing it was for Naiya to design us to have that reaction. It’s all so… It’s a mess. It’s sweet, and bitter, and generally confusing.”

“Yep,” Trissiny said, nodding and staring into her tea. “That hits the nail on the head. I have different weirdos, is all, but that’s exactly the feeling.”

“You guys are actually making me miss my parents,” Merry commented. “The worst thing they ever were was boring.”

“They sound very nice,” Trissiny said solemnly. Juniper laughed, then Merry did, and finally Trissiny herself had to chuckle. Her expression sobered again, though, as her gaze fell once more on Principia’s face. “I hope you don’t have to sympathize with this, too, Juno. It’s kind of a heck of a thing, finding yourself worrying over someone before you’ve been able to figure out how you even feel about them.”

Juniper heaved a sigh. “Sort of too late, there, too. Over the summer, we… I mean, me, Aspen, Fross, and Kaisa, we went back to the pixie grove.”

Trissiny looked up at her. “Oh. To see… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten what her name was.”

“Jacaranda. It’s okay. We, uh…” She winced, then shook her head, causing Sniff to chirp softly in comfort. “Well, it was Kaisa’s idea. It seemed kind of harsh, but honesty harsh measures might be the only thing that could help. Even Kaisa wasn’t sure if it would.”

“The Pixie Queen is fully transformed by trauma, right?” Trissiny asked. “What did Professor Ekoi do?”

“We took her to a place where she could be… Kaisa wasn’t exactly clear. Tested, or treated, or possibly imprisoned? You know, she made it all sound very necessary at the time but in hindsight the more I think about it the less sure I am.”

Trissiny straightened up suddenly, setting her tea aside. “Hang on. This summer we also—that is, me, Gabe, Toby, and my brother Herschel—had to visit the Tower of Salyrene.”

Juniper’s eyes snapped back to her. “You did?”

“The talking sword there said something about a kitsune dropping off a transformed dryad.”

“He did?” Juniper herself perked up in excitement. “Did you see her?”

“Sorry, June, when we were there the place was empty. It was just us and Athenos.”

“Oh.” Juniper deflated just as abruptly, and Sniff rubbed his head against her shoulder. “I…hope that’s good. You didn’t see Petal or Bugsy, either?”

Trissiny blinked twice. “…who?”

“The pixie and the imp. They were in the tower when we got there.”

“An imp? Uh…no, like I said, the place was dead empty. Gabe and I encountered some caplings in one of the testing rooms, and Toby and Schwartz said they had to fight a demon. That was it. Nobody who seemed intelligent enough to talk with us except the sword and then Salyrene.”

Juniper chewed on her lower lip. “I hope that means it helped her and she got out. Though that raises the question of where she is.”

“You guys have really interesting lives,” Merry commented.

Trissiny and Juniper both stared at her, then burst out laughing in unison. After a moment, she had to smile along with them.

“Well,” Trissiny said at last, catching her breath, “I really hope Jacaranda’s okay, Juniper. If she went through the Tower and got out, I’m pretty sure she must be at least better. The way it was described to us, the whole point of that place was tests of intellect, character, magical skill…”

“I sure hope so,” Juniper said with a sigh. “It’d be nice to know what happened to her, is all. I’m not sure how feasible it is to get a message to Kaisa all the way over in Sifan but I’ll ask Professor Tellwyrn about it as soon as we’re back home.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

“And I hope Principia’s all right when she wakes up,” the dryad added.

“Kuriwa seemed pretty sure she would be,” Trissiny said. “Sounded like she just needed some rest.”

“This is jarring,” Merry whispered. “That’s the word. It’s just jarring. This is the least like her I’ve ever seen Locke.”

Both of the others turned their heads to watch her in silence. She stared down at the sleeping elf, her brows drawn together pensively.

“I’ve hated and loved and everything in between this crazy knife ear,” Merry continued at last. “And she’s just always in control. No matter what goddamn thing is trying to kill us on a given week, there she is, all smug and knowing and with a plan. You could look at her and just…just be able to calm down, because Locke was there, and she was working on it, and that was always enough because she always came up with something. The only thing I’ve never seen her pull off before is lose. Whatever happened, she had three schemes in place to meet it, and if something outmaneuvered her even so, she’d pull something else out of her butt and we’d still win, because she’s Principia fucking Locke and that’s what she does.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, also turning her eyes back to the elf.

“Until today,” Merry added in a bare whisper. “Man…she really got twisted around and then smacked down this time, didn’t she? That was… I mean, watching that… I still haven’t sorted out how to feel. Is it weird to be a little bit relieved?”

“No, I think I can understand that one,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a smile. “I’ve seen her vulnerable, too. I think it’s the only reason I’ve been able to give her a chance.”

“It’s still a pretty good record,” Juniper offered. “Getting outmaneuvered by an actual trickster god isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Locke being someone who can scheme her way around anybody except Vesk… That’s plenty impressive.”

“And hey, look at it this way,” Trissiny added with a heartier smile, “maybe it was all part of her cunning plan. Letting herself get outfoxed just so she could look all pitiful in front of us and gain sympathy.”

Merry chuckled, a sound both derisive and rueful.

“Yeah, sure, let’s go with that.”

All of them abruptly leaned forward, setting down drinks, as Principia’s eyes opened. Her voice was hoarse and barely above a whisper, but she still managed a weak grin as she continued.

“I like the sound of it. All according to plan. Omnu’s breath, my head hurts… So, what have I missed?”

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