Tag Archives: Principia

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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15 – 48

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“Still?” Gabriel protested.

“This thing is some serious shit,” Ruda grunted, shifting position. “There, think I got it.”

The mithril blade of her rapier did cause the bars of the cage to dissolve, as they had guessed upon concluding that the thing was actually made of magic. Unfortunately, that meant it couldn’t be simply wedged into them to weaken it, as the slender blade could make contact with a maximum of four bars at a time, and on being touched they disintegrated, causing the blade to drop.

And the bars to re-form. That was the kicker; made of solid magic as it was, the relative ease of breaking the bars made no difference as they regenerated instantly. Joe’s wandshots made no lasting impact and the group had been unwilling to risk any less precise spells or energy attacks with Mary trapped inside. Even so, it was easy to make individual bars crumble, thanks simply to the unique arsenal in the group’s possession. The trick was getting them to stay that way.

Now Gabriel, Ruda, and Yngrid were huddled awkwardly around the cage, with the mithril rapier and both valkyrie scythes carefully positioned to press against as much of its outer surface as they could manage. They had made three small gaps in the cage’s coverage, and it still remained otherwise solid.

“Maybe if you move the scythes so they’re nullifying one continuous stretch of the bars?” Fross suggested, fluttering closer to inspect the two patches that had rusted away to nothing and failed to restore themselves so long as the reaper weapons remained in position.

“This is not as easy as it looks,” Yngrid said irritably. The long hafts and curved blades of her and Gabriel’s weapons made arranging them that way physically difficult, especially with the need to keep three people huddled around the tiny cage holding them there. And, most importantly, the need for everyone present to avoid touching one of those blades.

“Wow, that must be really challenging then,” Fross chimed innocently, “cos it doesn’t look easy at all.”

“Anyway, don’t think that’d help,” Gabriel muttered. “We can make gaps in the bars, but then the scythe blades are in those gaps, and she sure as hell doesn’t wanna touch those.”

Mary croaked desultory agreement, ruffling her feathers.

“What if she grabs the mithril?” Juniper suggested from behind them. “Maybe that would cure the transformation?”

“Bad idea,” said Gabriel. “You don’t wanna see what would happen if somebody suddenly expanded to twenty times their size while surrounded by unbreakable metal bars. We’d all be standing in a puddle of elf noodles.”

Mary began squawking in a constant staccato rhythm.

“We are working on it, Kuriwa,” Trissiny assured her. “I’m sorry, I know that can’t be comfortable, but it would be worse if we just tried to hammer that thing with spells.”

“Actually, that may be worth a try,” said Ariel. Mary’s squawks increased in pitch and volume.

“You have an idea, partner?” Gabriel asked tersely.

“The cage is both recycling its own expended energy and drawing ambient power to sustain itself; the intensity of both processes increases the more pressure is put upon it, and after the addition of the rapier those currents of magic have grown unstable. I believe a careful application of brute force at this juncture may shatter it entirely.”

“Sure doesn’t look like it’s givin’ up the ghost,” Ruda growled.

“Sophisticated magics intended for purposes of security rarely betray their weaknesses at a glance. That is rather the point of them.”

Mary squawked shrilly.

“Could you stop?” Gabriel snapped. “That isn’t helping! Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of shaman?”

“I don’t think she can actually use much in the way of magic in that form,” McGraw noted. “Never seen ‘er do it. For that matter, my friend Raea has an animal form, too, an’ she’s always limited herself to fangs an’ claws while usin’ it.”

Mary chattered at him angrily.

“Well, I’m sorry if I’m blowin’ your secrets,” the old man said wryly. “Unfortunately for you, I like you too much not to help get you outta that thing. You’ll just have to forgive me.”

“Aye, well, if it’s brute force we need,” Billie began, reaching into her pockets with both hands.

Everybody yelled at her so loudly that no individual exhortations were distinguishable.

“I never get to have any fun,” the gnome grumbled, turning away in a sulk.

“Well, let’s either come up with something or take a goddamn break,” Ruda complained, still hunched over the cage to hold her rapier in place in a careful posture that didn’t interfere with Gabriel or Yngrid, or bring her into contact with either scythe. “I’ve got cricks in places I didn’t fuckin’ know I had, here.”

“The original problem still applies,” Toby pointed out. “We can’t just pour magic at that thing while she’s in there…”

“I believe that if we sacrifice some power for precision, we still have methods at our disposal,” said Shaeine. “Allow me to try something.”

A silver sphere slightly smaller than the cage appeared above it, then pressed downward. The shield bubble flickered and sparked from the pressure, continuing to push itself against the cage until the brass bars trembled. There was no other visible effect.

“That is further destabilizing the flow of restorative magic,” Ariel reported. “An additional source of pressure may finish breaking the spell entirely.”

“Well, then, let’s try this again,” said Joe, drawing his wands.

There was a tangle of bodies arranged all around the cage, but tiny gaps existed between them, and that was all he needed. Rather than attempting to explain this and reassure everyone, he shot first, dispatching two clean beams of light into the cage itself. One, the angles being what they were, only struck and disintegrated a single bar, but the second he was able to position such that the beam pierced two on its path through.

“What the fuck!?” Ruda shouted. “Watch what you’re—oh, hey.”

For those not immediately clustered around the cage, the first sign of success was the crow herself shooting upward out of the group, cawing triumphantly. Ruda, Gabriel and Yngrid all stepped back, carefully disentangling their weapons, just quick enough to afford the rest of those assembled a last sight of the cage, which now lay in metallic strips stretched outward from its base as if it had burst open at the top, unfurling its bars like a flower. In fact, it died rather like a flower, the strands of brass curling up and rusting away to dust before their eyes, until seconds later the last scraps had dissolved to nothing.

Mary spent this fleeting moment circling overhead, evidently just because she could, before settling to the ground. By the time everyone turned from the spectacle of the disintegrating magical cage, she was an elf again. Shifting to face the group directly, Mary curved her upper body forward in a gesture that fell between a deep nod and a shallow bow.

“Thank you very much for the assistance, children.”

“Oh, I’m sure you woulda gotten out of there eventually,” Gabriel remarked, shrinking his scythe down to tuck away in his pocket, a performance Yngrid watched with a small frown. “Prin seemed to think so, anyway.”

“In all likelihood, yes, but I am no less grateful nonetheless. I find nothing enjoyable about languishing in a cage for any period. Now, with that addressed, there are more important matters.”

She turned and strode toward Principia, who was still laid out on the cracked pavement, now draped by a blanket and with Merry sitting by her head. At Mary’s approach, the other Legionnaire rose to her feet, eyes narrowing.

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny said, moving to intercept her, “I don’t think what Locke needs right now is more punishment.”

Mary actually stopped, raising an eyebrow at the paladin. “The concept of punishment, Trissiny, is only applicable to people who understand precisely what is happening to them and why. Tormenting an unconscious victim is nothing but pointless sadism. I have my faults, but I hope you don’t think that is among them.”

“Right,” Trissiny said vaguely. “Just checking.”

“On the contrary,” Mary continued in a lower tone, taking the last steps to Principia’s side and sinking to her knees, “I am concerned chiefly for the girl’s well-being. Everything else aside, what she just went through was clearly traumatic for multiple reasons, not least of which that having excess data pumped into an unprepared brain can damage it significantly. The magelords of Syralon have been known to use that as a punishment before even they outlawed the practice as too cruel.”

There was a constant and usually soft whistle of wind across the plateau; as Mary reached out to place her fingertips along the side of Principia’s face, it shifted in tone. The effect was subtle, likely expressing itself as a subconscious sense of harmony to some of those present, but those with acute hearing or musical training could discern that the voice of the wind itself had shifted to a flawless three-tone harmony in major key.

“My thanks again, priestess,” Mary said, turning her head toward Shaeine with another deep nod. “Your instincts were correct, and your quick action likely saved her from serious harm. Her mind is undamaged, but still struggling to process the sheer volume of material. I can aid her recuperation by way of an elemental blessing that will purge foreign contamination. This is usually meant as a counter to curses and the like; adapting it for this purpose may be tricky. Please give me quiet in which to concentrate. Mind magic is the province of the divine, and achieving these effects through the fae requires great exactitude.”

“Okay, well, I’ll ask everybody’s forgiveness in advance because this is a pretty ruthless thing to suggest,” said Gabriel, raising both his hands in a gesture of surrender, “but maybe that’s not the best course of action? As long as Locke’s not in urgent danger, we should think about letting her have some extra time to sleep if it means she wakes up with that knowledge intact. To say nothing of the immediate stuff going on, like whatever she was warning us about in N’Jendo and Veilgrad, the sheer scope of knowledge…”

“That is ruthless, Gabe,” Toby said with a frown. “Who knows what kind of strain that’s putting on her, even with Shaeine’s help?”

“He’s not wrong,” Mary said curtly, “and the suggestion has merit, but in this case it is not up for discussion. Principia is a child of my own blood. And while her actions here have added up to possibly the single most wrong-headed thing I have ever seen anyone do, it was nonetheless a courageous act, undertaken to protect young people under her care. I will not suffer her to be permanently harmed for it. Besides, I want her good and lucid when I am explaining to her in exquisite nuance the depth of her poor judgment.”

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so the difference is she’s one of yours, so you’re throwing all greater concerns out the window and claiming privilege?”

Mary had lowered her eyes to stare fixedly at Principia’s face. Now she lifted her gaze to meet Ruda’s, impassively. “Correct.”

McGraw cleared his throat. “Don’t pull that thread, miss. Sometimes you just gotta make allowances for people who can blast you over the horizon.”

“Yeah, thanks for the advice, but we all have a history class with one of those,” Fross chimed.

“All right, fair enough,” Ruda said with a shrug. “I gotta mention, Boots, your granny reminds me of Naphthene.”

“Ouch,” Trissiny drawled.

While they chattered, the light around Principia had gently shifted, taking on a pattern of shadows over the prone elf as if waves were being reflected about her. Merry was frowning in unease, alternately at this and at Mary, but had not yet decided to intervene. Quite suddenly, though, Mary straightened up, her eyes widening, and the light vanished.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded, turning toward her.

“Well,” the Crow mused, raising one eyebrow and gazing down at Principia in renewed interest. “Never mind, I suppose.”

“Never mind?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What, is she…?”

“She’s fine,” Mary assured her. “Better by far than I expected, in fact. It appears that she is being taken care of. Further intervention by me will not be necessary. Nor would it be welcomed.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“With this no longer a cause for immediate concern, there remains another matter we urgently need to address,” Mary said seriously, straightening up and turning toward her. “What exactly is that mask, and where did it come from?”

The tension increased palpably as the assembled students stared either at her or at Trissiny. No one answered.

“In all my many years,” Mary continued after a short silence, “I have never observed an artifact that could reproduce a powerful being from the age of the Elder Gods, in the person of whoever used it. I infer from your brief mentions of the subject that it can grant its wearer the gifts of a variety of persons. I am also, being attuned to the currents of fae magic, not unaware that some event of world-altering significance occurred in this vicinity a few days ago. The dots are not difficult to connect. I think you children had better start explaining yourselves.”

“Yeah, we’ve kinda made peace with that,” Juniper said. “The explaining, I mean. When we get home to Last Rock, Tellwyrn’s probably gonna chew us into mulch. I don’t really think we need to explain anything to you, though.”

“No offense intended,” Toby added.

Mary half-turned to stare pensively at the Great Tree rising in the near distance for a moment. “I suppose the sequence of events which led to this point is less important than that which must follow. With regard to that, however, there is the future to consider.” She turned her stare on Fross. “You still have that mask. What, precisely, is your plan for it? I should hardly need to tell you that such a thing cannot simply be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised.”

“Oh. Really?” Ruda turned to direct a wide-eyed stare at her classmates. “Hey, guys, turns out that fuckin’ thing can’t be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised. Holy shit did we miscalculate! Maybe we shouldn’t pawn it, after all.”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said quietly, “don’t. Not with this one.”

“Uh, yeah, ‘scuze me,” Joe added. “Mary, I know these folks, an’ there ain’t a thing wrong with their intelligence.”

Weaver snorted very loudly.

“I have a high opinion of Trissiny’s faculties in general,” Mary replied, “and her tacit endorsement of the rest of this group counts for a lot, in my view. All other things being equal… But things are not. I can imagine no sequence of events which would lead to the creation of that artifact which does not presuppose that Principia’s complete lapse of all sense and reason was not the first to take place here recently.”

“It was Arquin’s idea, just for the record,” said Ruda.

“I don’t care whose idea it was,” Mary said, her voice rising slightly. “I care what is done about it. This, I am aware, is the last thing an independent group of young people ever wants to hear from anyone—”

“Don’t say it,” McGraw warned. She ignored him.

“—but you had better let me take it.” Mary turned to stare expressively at Principia. “Before it causes even worse harm than it already has.”

Joe pinched the bridge of his nose and grimaced into his fist. Billie puckered her lips as if to whistle, but produced no sound, just glancing around at everyone else present. Yngrid gripped the haft of her scythe in both hands, looking warily at Gabriel.

All eight students just stared impassively at Mary.

“With stakes like this,” she said softly, “make no mistake, I will not hesitate—”

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny interrupted, “please believe that I’m very grateful for all the help you’ve given me. I love you and have absolutely no intention of ever causing you any upset. And you are not, under any circumstances, getting your hands on that mask.”

The Crow sighed very softly. “Can we not find room to negotiate on that point?”

“If you’re thinking about trying to take it by force,” Gabriel said evenly, “think a lot more carefully. None of us is capable of sticking you in a cage, lady. All we’ve got is sharp objects and massive firepower to hit you with.”

“And none of us wants to do that,” Shaeine added. “You are honored kin to Trissiny, who is precious to all of us. The safety of the world, and the responsibility for actions we have set into motion, must supersede those concerns, however.”

“Yeah, so, please don’t push us on this one,” said Fross.

“The safety of the world,” Mary said, a tinge of bitterness creeping into her voice. “What, then, is your idea to ensure it?”

“We’re gonna give it to Professor Tellwyrn,” Juniper replied.

Mary clenched both fists; the very breeze around them suddenly blew colder. “That is absolutely—”

“The single best idea I’ve ever heard out of these twerps,” Weaver interrupted. “You weren’t there, Mary, but the rest of us have already been through this, back during the Belosiphon affair. When faced with the question of what to do with an impossibly dangerous artifact that nobody could ever be allowed to have, the least terrible solution we could come up with was letting Tellwyrn have it.”

“Arachne,” Mary spat. “That reckless, aggressive, thoughtless—”

“You want things, Kuriwa,” Trissiny said. “Tellwyrn may be all of that and worse, but she also has no ambition. All she wants to do is sit on her mountain and teach. She has everything in the world she’s after. You? You’ve got plans and an agenda. If you had the Mask, there’s no question that you’d use it toward your ends. This is not about us thinking Tellwyrn would find a better use for it. This is because she would have no use.”

“It is incredible to me that you could believe that,” Mary retorted. “I have known her a great deal longer than any of you, and trust me—”

“Arachne Tellwyrn is a creature of vastly more discretion and restraint than basically anyone gives her credit for,” Yngrid interjected. “Even my sisters know of her… Well, actually, some of that’s secret. But for what it’s worth, I agree. She’s already got too much power to be tempted by a thing like that and nothing she would actually want to do with it.”

Weaver stepped up beside the valkyrie, sliding an arm around her waist. “And it’s academic, besides. Tellwyrn already has a whole collection of dangerous objects of about this caliber, which nobody’s seen hide nor hair of since she got them. We know she can be trusted to hide things and not touch them.”

“No,” Mary snapped, “you know she can be trusted so far. None of you have seen Arachne backed into a corner, desperate, or enraged beyond reason. I have. The best I can say about it is that in the past, she had no such collection of horrors upon which to draw. And now you want to add to it?”

“Yeah, okay, but…why are you better?” Teal asked.

Mary turned to her. “For better than four thousand years, I have walked this world doing my best to protect it.”

“Good fuckin’ job,” Gabriel snorted. “Cos as we all know, nobody’s ever terrified by the name Mary the Crow.”

“They talked about you in the grove, when I was there,” Juniper added. “The Elders made it sound like you really only bother to protect the elves. Actually…they didn’t sound super grateful for your help.”

“They really aren’t,” Trissiny said quietly. “I’ve mostly heard about it from my grandmother, and a story from one source can be inaccurate, but the way Lanaera tells it the only people who are less happy to have Kuriwa’s sudden help than the elves in general are her own descendants in particular.”

“I see her elevation to grove Elder has done nothing to blunt that nest of brambles Lanaera calls a tongue,” Mary grated.

“Mary,” Joe said gently, taking a step forward. “Look, I dunno anything about you and other elves. What I know is that all of us have learned to trust you.” He gestured toward the rest of his party with one hand. “You’ve saved all our butts more than once, and I for one really appreciate having the benefit of your experience. I feel like I’ve learned an incredible amount from you.”

“But?” Mary prompted bitterly.

“But,” he echoed with a slow nod. “I think Trissiny’s right. Nobody needs to have that mask, not if it does the kind of stuff we just saw. It ain’t a question of who’s got a better purpose for it. It should go to somebody who’ll lock it away an’ forget about it. And Tellwyrn’s the only name that comes to mind.”

“Esteemed elder, forgive my frank speech, but we must call this what it is,” Shaeine said solemnly. “Your perspective is understandable: for ages you have labored hard and done your best, making difficult choices to guide the world to the best outcomes you could manage. You have learned in that time to rely only on yourself. It is understandable that you are reluctant to trust anyone else with possession of such power, accustomed as you are to the assumption that if you want something done right, you must do it. Am I wrong?”

“I cannot say that you are,” Mary replied, mastering her expression.

“And that’s fair,” Teal agreed, nodding. “But…everybody thinks that about themselves. We are each one of us the hero in our own story. But to pull back and look through the perspectives of others… Does your record of actual achievements really suggest you’re the most qualified to take on a burden like that?”

“I begin to wonder,” she said stonily, “if I am wasting my time trying to talk about this with you.”

Gabriel drew his wand back out. “I really hope that wasn’t meant the way it sounded.”

“Kuriwa.” Trissiny stepped forward until she was a few bare feet from Mary, staring her in the eye. “Let me be clear: I don’t know whether or not you have the physical capacity to seize that mask from us, but even if so, that would only be the beginning. If I have to press the issue, the next time I do so it will be with Lanaera, Rainwood, and Zanzayed, plus anyone of our bloodline they know who would think it a valuable use of their time to humble you and take an artifact of power out of your hands.”

“Child,” Mary said sardonically, “if you think to get more than two of our family to tolerate one another’s company for more than an hour, much less cooperate toward a common end, I sincerely wish you luck.”

“You haven’t managed it,” Trissiny replied softly, “because you’ve never been able to offer them the one goal on which they would all agree: thwarting you.”

They locked eyes, and slowly, Mary’s wry expression melted away to a flat stare of displeasure.

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so even her own descendants would rally to mess her up over this? And you wanna go and claim you’re the most competent person who could be trusted with that mask? Fuck you, lady.”

“Hey, now, maybe we should all take it easy,” McGraw said soothingly, tucking his staff into the crook of his arm so he could raise both hands peaceable as he stepped forward. “Mary, given the disparity in our levels of experience, I’ve never tried to pitch myself as your equal, but with all due respect, I reckon there’s one area of understanding where your agelessness leaves you at a disadvantage.”

Mary finally tore her eyes away from Trissiny’s to turn a weary grimace on him. “Oh, do tell.”

“There comes a point,” he said, “where a person’s just gotta acknowledge that their time has passed. That the best use o’ their talents is in offering the benefit of their years to the younger generation, steppin’ back and lettin’ ’em take over.”

“Aye, ain’t that more or less exactly what grove Elders do?” Billie added.

“That’s what Tellwyrn’s done,” Juniper said softly.

“As much as any group of kids I’ve ever met, I reckon these know what they’re about,” McGraw continued, nodding at the students. “I ain’t sayin’ everything they do’s gonna be the right call or that they won’t mess up and create havoc now’n again. But if you’re gonna try to fix that, well, you’re not just dealin’ with this one specific situation anymore. You’ll have set yourself up to straighten out somethin’ absolutely fundamental to the world, and honestly, even your talents ain’t equal to that task.”

Mary stared at him for a moment, then at Trissiny, then Gabriel, and finally at the comatose form of Principia.

“This conversation is not over,” she said abruptly. “But…you have all given me some important things to ponder. Thank you, again, for helping me out of that trap.”

She turned away from them and strode off. The entire group stared in silence as the ancient elf went right up to the edge of the plateau, facing the Great Tree in the distance, and squatted on her heels in a posture not unlike a roosting bird. There, she fell still.

“So,” Brother Toraldt said loudly from the far edge of the gathering, “shall I infer that we are yet again not going to depart today?”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

Sister Elaine sighed, even as she stifled a small smile, and patted the dwarf on the shoulder. “Come, Toraldt, we may as well go unload the packs again.”

“Again,” he huffed, but turned and followed her around the corner of the nearest building. The rest of the group watched in silence until their two Order of the Light guides were once more out of sight.

“Okay, I’ll be honest,” Fross stage whispered. “I completely forgot they were here.”

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15 – 47

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“Here.” Trissiny took two steps to the side and handed the golden cage to Joe, prompting Mary to flap and croak indignantly within. “Would you mind?”

“Uh, sure,” he said uncertainly, taking it from her. “I mean, not at all. What’s…?”

Her hands free, Trissiny stepped forward, cracking her knuckles. In the space of one stride, her gait seemed to shift from her usual stiff bearing to something subtly evocative of a slouch, even though she still stood straight enough to pass for a soldier. The nuance was as impressive for how difficult it was to pin down as for how fast she had drawn it over herself like a cloak.

“And so, here we are,” Trissiny drawled. “The great Keys finally becomes the victim of a con. Spectacularly. When you fail, you don’t fail halfway, do you?”

Principia had returned her focus to the screens orbiting her, but at that glanced again down at Trissiny through a gap between them. Only for a second, though.

“You want to change strategies less abruptly in the future, Trissiny. I’m pleased that you’ve learned to project a front, but doing it so brazenly makes the ploy quite transparent, especially to people who know you. The tactic is sound, your technique just needs refining.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Trissiny said lightly, her smirk not faltering for having been pointed out as a facade. “But don’t change the subject: we’re talking about you, not me. You’d expect a thief a bare few months on from being tagged to fumble now and again, but you’re Principia freaking Locke, the great con artist, centuries-old player of the game and veteran of a thousand capers. You getting utterly bamboozled is actually news worth noting.”

“I am processing a quantity of information that would cause your brain to shut down if you were exposed to it. The idea that I could be bamboozled—”

“I’m talking about what you don’t see, not what you can’t see. Anyway, don’t feel too bad. It would be a story for the ages if you outfoxed a trickster god. Getting outfoxed by one is only natural.”

“If you’re referring to Vesk, that has been dealt with. Thanks to me, whatever he planned for Gabriel was circumvented.”

“That just goes to show that more knowledge isn’t more understanding,” Trissiny snapped. “You were actually smarter before putting that thing on! The Principia I know never claimed to be perfect. She faced her mistakes and tried to fix them. She was confident in her skills, but never so arrogant she assumed no one could beat her. Because she was smart enough to know that overconfidence immediately leads to a fall!”

This earned her another direct look from Principia, this one more lingering. “If you have a compelling theory explaining how Vesk has outmaneuvered me, offer it. That would be relevant, if correct.”

“Think about what happened. He’s been setting you up over the long haul, Keys, starting when he intervened with your squad in Tiraas. That planted the idea in your head that when he meddled, you—and people you cared about—would be exposed to risks and costs to achieve whatever story he was trying to tell. And then he showed up here, just as the Mask was being created, and said…what? The way you described it, he did nothing but mumble dire warnings and portents of great doom. Right when you were here, under enormous pressure. There’s whatever you’re doing for Rouvad that you need to be in good with the University for, Tellwyrn’s threats of revenge if anything happened to us. You trying to rebuild some good faith with Teal and Shaeine, while everybody made you a punching bag for practical jokes. And…we both know every minute you’re around me you’re constantly reminded of how horribly you’ve screwed up our relationship, and how much you want to fix it. Vesk dropped into the middle of that stew and set you to fearing for all of us, and the very next thing you learned was about the Mask and all the trouble it’s bound to be at the center of. You were good and primed to be spooked so hard even your self-control slipped, Prin. And that’s when Gabe was called away, alone, in a move you would easily recognize as a story trope. There’s no way Vesk didn’t know Vidius was going to react that way. Heck, I bet he prompted Vidius to time it when he did.”

“Actually,” said Gabriel, “I don’t think—”

“I do think,” McGraw interrupted, then turned, looking to his own companions for confirmation. “We talked about this amongst us when setting out, remember? We inadvertently brought Mr. Arquin there by helping Weaver un-doom his doomed romance. That was only possible because we had somebody who’d been there before: Joe.”

“And I was there,” Joe said slowly, “at the behest of my friend Jenny, the so-called Shifter, who according to Mary has been associated with Vesk in the past.”

“She works for him directly,” Toby said quietly. “We’ve seen her in Vesk’s own personal citadel.”

“Oi, yer one of ‘is own bards, aye?” Billie asked, punching Weaver in the knee. “Just outta curiosity, did this improbable love story between some random guitar-strummin’ arsehole and a freakin’ extra-dimensional specter o’ death ‘appen ta start off in some kinda bizzare circumstance that mighta been prompted by a certain god?”

Weaver and Yngrid said nothing, but looked at each other, their eyes wide in an expression of realization that was as good as any answer.

“Ho. Lee. Ssssshit,” Gabriel hissed. “That magnificent bastard.”

Mary squawked and fluttered furiously, rattling her cage.

“Well, I will say it makes sense fer a trickster deity to play his games on a particularly grand scale,” McGraw drawled.

“You got conned, Keys,” Trissiny said bluntly. “He got you thinking emotionally instead of with your wits, and then gave you exactly the jab he knew would make you jump. Every Eserite knows that life’s a game: as long as you’re treating it that way, you keep your emotions out of your way and avoid tensing up so bad you can’t react. Vesk put you under every kind of simultaneous pressure he could bring to bear, made you think about what was at stake instead of what you were doing. You stopped playing, for probably the first time in a century, and you immediately lost. Take the lesson, Keys, and stop doubling down on your screwup. You’ve lost; it’s time to walk away.”

Principia had already gone utterly still, her eyes fixed straight ahead and hands suspended in the act of reaching to poke at more screens. As Trissiny finished speaking, even the rotating panels of light around her stilled, fixing themselves in place and ceasing to alter their displays. She hung that way as if frozen in the five seconds of silence which followed, before finally speaking a single word.

“Plausible.”

Trissiny let out a soft breath, releasing tension she’d been concealing. Gabriel and several of the others ventured small smiles of relief, and Mary began muttering unintelligibly to herself in her hoarse avian voice, ruffling her feathers.

“But irrelevant.”

The panels resumed their cycling and Principia went back to glancing about and periodically touching them as if nothing had happened.

“However we came to this point, the situation is what it is. Our intervention is required—”

“Why, though?” Teal stepped forward, her hands jammed in the pockets of her blazer, and looked up at the levitating elf with an openly inquisitive expression. “What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish, Locke? Because you’re supposed to be protecting this student group, and I don’t see how dropping a bunch of adventurers onto us and then sending us into some kind of disaster in N’Jendo is doing that.”

“If you decline to render aid, Mrs. Falconer, I will not compel you. I will be disappointed, but forcing action on your part would defeat the purpose.”

“Hey, don’t get me wrong.” Teal pulled her hands out and held them up in a placating gesture. “I’m all for protecting the innocent. But here’s the thing: I have zero idea who you are and what your agenda is. We’ve just heard a thorough rundown of why you are not behaving or thinking at all like our Lieutenant Locke, not to mention a pretty spooky case study of what can happen when an all-powerful being is allowed to pull strings behind the scenes. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’ll be glad to help if our help is needed, but we don’t know what you’re thinking or what you’re after. Doing anything on orders from you is going to require some trust. Principia has earned some, much to my surprise, but it’s clear whatever we knew or felt about her doesn’t apply to whoever I’m talking with now.”

There was another short pause.

“The concern is not unreasonable,” Principia said curtly. “What would reassure you?”

“Well,” Teal shrugged, “what exactly kind of a thing are you supposed to be? What was the word you guys used…?”

“She’s an Archon, apparently,” said Gabriel. “A chief servitor of one of the Elder Gods. Tarthriss, in this case, according to the Avatar we were just speaking with in the Golden Sea.”

“That fucking thing really can reproduce people from before the Elder War?” Ruda muttered. “Fuck a fuckin’ duck.”

“Reproduce people?” Joe muttered. He got no response, save perhaps the sudden utter stillness of Mary in the cage he was still holding.

“Okay, so, that’s troubling,” Teal said frankly. “You’re a servant of a being who is obviously dead. Whose agenda are you following now?”

“I have already answered that,” Principia replied, impatience entering her tone. “I am acting on orders from Avei.”

“What orders?” Trissiny demanded.

“That is classified. Yes, General Avelea, even to you, unless the High Commander or Avei herself countermands that order. I calculate a high probability of the latter, as your active involvement in this plan would obviously be advantageous.”

“And when Avei set out to doing this,” said Fross, “was she leveraging a certain very clever thief in her employ? Or do you think she was planning on you using an impossibly dangerous magical artifact that didn’t even exist at the time in order to become a long-extinct class of Elder God servitor which it sounds like she herself deliberately wiped off the face of the earth? Cos there’s several jumps in there and they kinda suggest this is not what Avei sent you out to do.”

“Any military commander must know the assets she has in the field in order to deploy them properly,” Shaeine agreed. “If you presume to be acting in Avei’s service, Lieutenant, it is basic sense that in the aftermath of such a drastic development, you should seek out updated orders before acting further.”

“Unfeasible,” Principia stated. “Gods are not so easily approached directly.”

“I can arrange that, you know,” Trissiny pointed out.

“Unnecessary!”

“Unless,” Trissiny drawled, “there’s some reason you don’t want to hear the goddess’s opinion of your actions here.”

“My actions are consistent with Legion doctrine! Operatives in the field are expected to react to changing circumstances and apply their best judgment as necessary.”

“I’m pretty sure there are no Legion doctrines that even try to cover this,” Merry protested. “I mean, Avelea’s not here to correct me, but I’m willing to bet on that.”

“Different Avelea,” Joe explained as Gabriel turned to frown in confusion at Trissiny.

“Leaving aside Legion regulations,” said Trissiny, “you are still an Eserite. Whatever responsibilities you’ve been given, I have to assume you’re Eserite first and foremost. Knowledge is power, Locke, and it follows that absolute knowledge is absolute power. What does power do to people?”

“You will not distract me by quoting—”

“Then forget Eserion and Avei both!” Trissiny shouted. “If you have access to all the knowledge of the Elder Gods, I assume they knew things about psychology that have been long since forgotten. How does power affect the brain, Locke?”

Another silence fell. The rotating panels seemed to glitch, momentarily reversing their course and then freezing for a second. It was hard to tell behind the mini-screens bristling from her crown, but Principia appeared to be frowning slightly.

“I… Irrelevant. I have the full faculties of—”

“Of a chief servant of the most infamously power-mad beings that have ever existed?” Teal finished. “Are you beginning to see why this is a tough sell, Locke?”

“Not to interrupt,” Toby said quietly, “but there’s something I can’t help noticing. A couple of times now, people addressing you have spoken of Principia Locke as if she were a separate person, not party to this conversation. And you didn’t correct either one. Also, you yourself spoke pretty disdainfully of Principia before. Is that even still you in there?”

“I have been improved upon,” she said stiffly.

“Well, I obviously don’t have all the knowledge you do,” Toby replied, “but I don’t think so. I’m not trying to excuse Principia’s flaws, but the truth is I like her. She isn’t all-knowing, but she’s experienced and clever. I’ve developed the impression that I’m probably never going to agree with Principia’s methods of doing anything, but even so, I understood her goals, and they’re good ones. Prin cares about people, and about values, and does her best to do some good in the world, in her own way. I trust that a lot more than some detached information-processing servitor making abstract plans for me and who knows how many other people. And I think I know what Prin would say about someone like that, too.”

“I don’t care what she would say!” the floating elf burst out, audibly agitated now. “You don’t understand. With nothing but a single limited point of perspective, there’s so little you can do, and yet so very much damage you can cause! Principia Locke has ruined everything she ever touched; I can fix it.”

“You shut your FUCKING mouth!” Merry roared. “Locke has fought tooth and nail to protect our squad when everybody else in the world wanted us dead, and she succeeded against the most ridiculous odds! I don’t know who or what you even are and I don’t care. You don’t talk about her that way!”

“I understand,” Toby said, his quiet voice a stark contrast to Merry’s anger. “You got a sudden view of your whole life from a new perspective, and the realization hurt. I really do understand.”

“You understand nothing,” Principia spat. “You have neither the ability to perceive what I do, nor the history of selfishness and destruction I have to—”

“He does, though,” Juniper cut in, stepping forward. “And so do I. Not in the same way as you, any more than Toby and I had the same exact experience, but you’d better believe we get it. The moment of insight when you realize how horrible you’ve been is agony like nothing else I’ve ever imagined. And here’s something else I can tell you about living through that: if you try to run from it, you’ll only make it worse. You have to face what you’ve done, let it hurt, and do better.”

“You don’t understand,” Principia repeated, her voice outright pleading now. All around her, the glowing panels had begun spinning so fast she couldn’t possibly be reading them, for all that her eyes kept darting without resting in one position for an instant. “There’s so much going wrong in the world, but from here I can do something about it! I can at least make up for…”

“Locke,” Merry said, insistently but far more calmly than before. “You can’t save the world. The world is not for saving. Trust me, that’s the thinking of the kind of dumb, chapbook-addled teenager who tries to walk into the Golden Sea to become a hero. That’s what I do understand. The world is always going to be fucked up; it’s supposed to be. If it wasn’t, that would mean nobody had any choices or agency. No flaws means no virtues. A perfect world would be hell. Everything’s a mess, and everybody is supposed to do whatever they can, with whatever they have, wherever they are. You’re not supposed to make yourself some kind of demigod, that’ll just end up adding to the world’s problems. If you try to take away other people’s responsibility to help fix things, you are taking their power to become better.”

“Well put,” McGraw said, tipping his hat to her.

“We’re not going to take orders from you,” Trissiny said quietly. “Not from…this. All of us will do what we can, where we are, using our best judgment, just as Tellwyrn taught us. If you turn yourself into…whatever this is…that’s nothing but a loss. We’ll have lost someone smart and motivated to help just when we need her the most.”

“That’s not fair,” Principia protested. Several of the screens began to wink out of existence, creating gaps in the translucent globe around her.

“It’s not just a loss in the strategic sense,” Trissiny added, lowering her eyes and turning away. “I was just starting to like you a little bit. If you…if the woman I was getting to know is just…gone, now, then… Damn it. I already miss her.” She emitted a short, startled bark of laughter. “I’m just as surprised as you.”

“I just…” The last of the screens vanished. Principia hung there—not just hovered, hung, with her arms dangling at her sides and her head drooping forward in a defeated posture. “I thought I could… It would all be better without the mess I was. Just…intelligence and a plan, and maybe I could make up for everything.”

“Nobody’s not a mess, you goober,” Gabriel said with a wry grin. “That’s normal. It’s healthy. Life’s about embracing your flaws and making strengths of them, not throwing them away. Without flaws, what the hell are you? How are you supposed to improve if you don’t have screwups to learn from?”

“You can’t make up for anything,” Juniper added. “The past doesn’t work that way; it’s done. You have to become a better person and do better things.”

“Take that thing off and come down from there, Keys,” Trissiny said gently. “We need you. While you’re fucking around with magical artifacts, the bastards are out there winning.”

Mary croaked softly.

Principia stared disconsolately at the ground for an interminable moment.

Then, abruptly as if trying to surprise herself before she could react, she grabbed her own face and pulled.

The Mask came free and immediately tumbled from her hands, and she plummeted toward the ground.

Trissiny darted forward with her arms outstretched and Principia tumbled right into them, her head lolling back. Fross swooped in as the Mask of the Adventurer went spinning off to the side, seizing the artifact and making it disappear back into her aura storage before circling back to rejoin the group.

“She’s… I don’t know what’s wrong!” Trissiny said in alarm, gently laying Principia on the ground. “This didn’t happen to anybody else who tried it on!”

The elf was still slumped weakly, but now began to twitch violently, her eyes rolled up into her head.

Shaeine had already darted forward to kneel at Principia’s other side. Reaching out to place one hand on her forehead, the drow closed her eyes, frowning in concentration.

Principia stilled, then let out a heavy sigh and finally relaxed, her head rolling to one side as Shaeine withdrew her hand.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded.

“I put her to sleep,” said Shaeine. “A simple, natural sleep, the only kind I can grant. I do think it’s the best thing for her, Trissiny. I’m not able to interpret thoughts or even emotions, but when I touch someone’s mind that way I do get a general sense of it. A mind, to my awareness, feels much like a deep pool. Something with a serene surface but great depths beneath. Principia’s, just now, was boiling.”

“You two weren’t with us in Puna Dara,” Gabriel said, leaning over them with a worried frown. “The Avatar we met under the city had had his mind stuffed with a constant stream of information. That would make anybody crazy. You just can’t pour unlimited data into a brain that’s not meant to handle it.”

“Will she…” Trissiny cut herself off, swallowing heavily.

“I don’t know,” Shaeine said, reaching out to grasp her hand. “There is no precedent of any kind for this. But I do believe sleep will help her, Trissiny. Dreaming is how the brain sorts away extra information; that is why people begin to go mad if deprived of sleep. She needs to dream. I suspect she will sleep much longer than normal, and I strongly advise that she be allowed to. We should not wake or try to move her until she comes to on her own.”

“And then, we’ll…find out,” Merry whispered, kneeling at Principia’s head and gently smoothing back a lock of black hair that had been disturbed.

“Well,” Juniper offered, “at least we got to her before Vesk got what he wanted. I mean, it’s not much, but it’s a little satisfying that the person who set all this up didn’t get away with it.”

“I would strongly advise against ever thinking you’ve put one over on Vesk,” Weaver said even more sourly than usual. “Sounds like that’s exactly what got her into this situation.”

“Yeah, I have to agree with Grumpypants on this one,” said Gabriel, frowning deeply. “Think about it. If this was a chapbook and suddenly some random-ass thing happened out of nowhere and brought every plotline that was going on into one place for no good reason…well, I’d probably put the book down.”

“Yeah, famous arbiter of literary taste you are,” Ruda said solemnly.

“I just mean,” he snapped, shooting her a look, “Vesk is the actual god of bards. Do you think he’d set up something so hacky and contrived?”

“He’s right,” Teal said grimly. “We talked Locke down before actually getting shunted off to deal with…whatever it is. But now we know there’s something big about to go down in N’Jendo where our help would be useful, and we know there’s somebody in Veilgrad who can help us deal with it. And it’s not like we can just ignore that knowledge, now is it?”

“Not like we can really do anything about it, either,” Fross pointed out. “I’ve been working on learning teleportation but I’m at the level of moving erasers across the classroom. I’m not about to try to send people, especially not over that distance, especially not this big a group, and most especially not people I care about.”

“Try it on Weaver?” Billie suggested. “Fer science!”

“My point is,” the pixie chimed in clear exasperation, “at a walking speed, which is all we’ve got to work with, getting down from here to anywhere is going to take days at least, and that’s after waiting for Locke to wake up. Which might also take days.”

“Now, I’m not real clear on exactly what that mask thing is or does,” McGraw said, “but it clearly helped Prin perform an impossible teleport, and we do still have it—”

“NO!” almost everyone shouted in unison.

“That thing has done quite enough damage,” Trissiny added, gently folding Principia’s limp hands on her chest. “Let’s not borrow any more trouble. If we’re still caught in Vesk’s narrative, I don’t doubt for a moment that something else will come up before we know it. In the meantime, everyone should take a breather while we can. For the moment, at least, everything is back to normal.”

Mary began screeching, squawking, and flapping about in her cage so violently that Joe had to struggle to keep his grip on it.

“Oh,” Trissiny winced. “Right. Almost everything.”

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15 – 46

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It was hard to know where to look first, and that was not even counting the distraction of everyone’s ears popping as they abruptly moved from the Golden Sea to the cooler, thinner air of the mountains. The plateau itself, an ancient plaza surrounded by stone buildings, might have been any moderately well-preserved patch of ruins anywhere, but beyond it was the stark grandeur of the Wyrnrange stretching in all directions, and the incredible shape of the Great Tree commanding the whole horizon to the north.

More immediately present, though, were the people.

The class of 1182 themselves were clustered together in a tight arc facing the teleport’s arrival point, while off to the other side stood a Silver Legionnaire with a corporal’s insignia next to a human woman and a dwarf man in sensible traveling attire. Both groups were easy to overlook, however, in the presence of Principia Locke.

Her black hair was tied back in a sleek tail not wholly unlike a Legion regulation braid, and further constrained by a silvery apparatus resembling a crown fitted most of the way around her skull, its front apertures bristling with tiny translucent panels attached to spidery silver arms, positioned where she could see them peripherally without blocking her forward vision. Patterns of light flickered across the metal band of the crown, and on the metallic trim of her glossy white robes. Whatever material they were made of did not look like fabric, though it moved easily enough; it gleamed as if it were metallic itself, and was further augmented by structural traceries of what might have been steel or possibly mithril, these further augmented in places by tiny lights of various colors. Huge, heavy-looking bracers covered her forearms, also bedecked with lights and set along their backs with long display panels, and her waist was encircled by a thick silvery belt, at the front of which glowed a circular display which cycled rapidly through different colors and inscrutable symbols.

She stood surrounded by a ring of hovering shapes, mostly rectangles with rounded corners, made entirely of pale light and displaying columns of text, symbols, complex diagrams and patterns that looked like maps. Principia kept her eyes on these, deftly manipulating them with tiny movements of her fingers, causing the displays to move about and change content in some pattern comprehensible only to herself.

“What the fuck,” Ruda demanded, summing up what everyone was thinking before getting down to specifics. “Who the fuck are all these yahoos and why are they here? Hi, Joe.”

“Hey, everybody,” Joe said with a wary smile. “Good to see y’all again.”

“Excuse me, but is that a valkyrie?” Fross chimed. “Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen Juniper frightened before.”

“I’m fine,” Juniper said flatly, though she was as rigid as a tree trunk and staring at Yngrid through eyes widened with panic. Sniff, picking up her mood, placed himself in front of his mistress and hissed aggressively at the new arrivals, fanning his wings and head crest.

“Also, why’d you bring the cranky bullying librarian?” Teal added. “I was quite happy pretending he’d vanished off the face of the earth.”

“Me, too,” Weaver said frankly.

“Peace.” Mary stepped forward from the group which had just ‘ported in, projecting her voice in a manner that was both serenely calm and commanded obedience. “Clearly, there is already a tangled web of introductions and explanations that need be made here. I advise approaching this with all due care and precision, one step at a time. And it seems to me the first step should be obvious to us all. Principia, you feckless child, what have you done to yourself?”

“Shut up, Kuriwa, nobody likes you. Gabriel Arquin.” Principia’s delivery was clipped and flat, quite unlike her usual cadence. “Your recklessness staggers the imagination. What could you possibly have been thinking, shunting yourself off to a remote nexus of unfathomable power amid a gaggle of dangerous reprobates in the middle of the events that have been transpiring here?”

“I’d take offense, but damn if she didn’t nail us,” Billie commented.

“Okay, you know what, Locke?” Gabriel snapped. “I’m not one to lecture people as a rule, but I’ve been getting in some good practice recently and I’m in no mood to take this from you of all people. As I suspect Trissiny told you because she got all the common sense in your entire bloodline, I was sent on a mission directly by Vidius. So not only do I not really have the option of turning that down, but it’s not as if I was wandering around in the weeds unattended. Anybody should be able to infer from context that I was fine. And your reaction to this was to go and put that goddamn thing on your face after all the moaning you gave us about what a terrible idea it was? You’re officially the last person allowed—”

“Vidius is going to kill you.”

The simple, stark statement cut through his tirade and brought him up short, mouth slightly open. The entire time, Principia’s eyes had been darting from one point to another on the various floating displays orbiting her; she still did not look directly at him, but as she spoke one of the rectangular light screens shifted to a vertical orientation near her eyeline and displayed what looked like a human silhouette with scrolling notations in a language none of them could read.

“How many paladins have you known, Arquin?” she asked before the tension could mount too much further.

He narrowed his eyes. “Well…just the two. Three, I guess, if I get to count myself.”

“I’ll grant you three, because I’ve still known a number which dwarfs that utterly and every single one of them died for the same reason: being a paladin. Going on missions for Vidius is the thing that will kill you. The very idea that you are safe because you’re on assignment from him will do it faster unless you purge that completely backwards thought from your brain right now and redouble your situational awareness while on the clock. More immediately, the lot of us are standing at the center of a web of connection and prophecy stretching through the very nature of magic itself and eclipsing the scope of the world. You don’t grasp a fraction of the extent, but you should have been adequately warned by the fact that Vesk was involved. You, who have spent more time than most of us recently dancing on his strings. I know you’ve read enough stories to have spotted some of the things it was likely to mean when you left the group on your own in the middle of all this. In the best case scenario, the rest of us would have been forced to ride to your rescue amidst who knows what carnage. At worst, it was a death sentence. To a thing like Vesk, the death of a hero is nothing but proper motivation for whoever’s left.”

“And yet I note that none of that happened,” Gabriel said, now frowning at her warily.

“It did not happen because I broke every rule of principle and basic sense to prevent it,” Principia said tonelessly. “I was right when I warned you not to use this mask, and I was right to make that sacrifice. It takes nothing less than changing all the rules of reality to cheat a god. Especially that one.”

“Mask?” Mary demanded. “What have you done?”

“It’s a long story, Kuriwa,” Trissiny murmured, edging over toward her. “I’ll bring you up to speed—”

“You will not,” Principia ordered. “You know very well that she of all people does not need to get her claws on it.”

“Locke,” Trissiny said, turning directly to her, “I think it’s time you took that thing off. You’ve accomplished what you set out to, and you are starting to sound alarmingly unlike yourself.”

“I should think you would welcome that development,” Principia replied. As she spoke, the ring of hovering screens around her doubled, forming two bands as if flanking the equator of a sphere, rotating slowly in opposite directions. The crown on her head sprouted more tiny sets of arms, projecting a new set of smaller panels around the edges of her eyes. “You have always been correctly skeptical of…myself.”

“I will remind you, Lieutenant,” Shaeine said evenly, “that you specifically asked us to end you if it became apparent that you had lost yourself to the artifact. That conclusion is growing perilously close.”

“Yes, that does sound like something I would say, does it not?” Principia mused, her eyes darting rapidly between screens, fingers flicking them this way and that faster than ever. “Completely sincere, and yet deliberately manipulating your emotions. With no malice, simply a lack of understanding any other way to relate to people. It’s pathetic, if you think about it. In any case, you should disregard that instruction. At the time I did not know the merest fraction of the things I know now. I have much better ideas.”

“That is enough,” Mary stated, beginning to weave her arms about in a dance-like series of movements that caused a gentle breeze to begin playing across the plateau, smelling of moss and wildflowers. “When you are neck-deep in the consequences of your actions, girl, recall that you were warned.”

“Oh, I think not,” Principia said evenly, extending her arms out to the sides to touch her fingertips to screens at opposite points flanking her.

The air pressure abruptly plummeted further, causing everyone’s ears to pop again, and currents of air coalesced around Mary into visible streams of compressed gas. The elf emitted a single, hoarse squawk, and then the entire net of air tightened onto her like a clenching fist and she shrank down to the form of a crow.

Before the bird could take flight, a sphere of light flashed into place around her. This instantly imploded, collapsing just like the streamers of her own hijacked spell of a moment before, but instead of crushing her, it formed a shape. Specifically, a golden birdcage.

All of this coalesced into being at about chest height. Then the cage plummeted to the ground, where it bounced twice and rolled over onto its side, Mary furiously cawing and flapping about inside it.

“I’ve no doubt you will weasel out of that sooner than later, Kuriwa,” Principia announced, “and then surely enact some horrible revenge on me, predictable creature that you are. It will all be more than worth it for the sheer satisfaction of knowing that for one sweet, blissful moment in history, nobody had to put up with any of your bullshit.”

Trissiny darted over to pick up the cage, carefully holding it upright to peer between the bars. This gentler treatment did nothing to lessen the crow’s outraged noise.

A single wedge of silver light flashed into being and stabbed directly at Principia’s face. It dissipated upon crossing the boundary of the screens surrounding her.

“Please do not strain against my defenses, Shaeine,” Principia requested calmly without even glancing at the drow. “I will not harm you, but you risk burnout or mana fatigue by pushing your magic against a superior force.”

McGraw coughed discreetly, stepping forward. “If you don’t mind my askin’, Prin, what kinda superior force are we talkin’ about, here? Not to gloss over the fact that this is a darn sight different from your general bearing the last time we met, but I confess an old professional’s interest in any interesting new form o’ magic.”

“Disingenuousness does not suit you, Elias,” she said tonelessly.

“In point of fact, I’ve found it a more versatile tool than anything in my spellbooks,” he said wryly, “but I won’t begrudge your opinion.”

“She is not using any specific school of magic, but all four and multiple shadow schools in equal measure, performing constant microcalculations to effect physical subjectivity rather than relying on the inherent compensatory attributes of any one magical form,” said Ariel.

“Can ye dumb that down fer those of us who don’t go to Crazy Magic College?” Billie asked.

“In essence,” Principia herself explained, “the unique attributes of each of the four fields of magic on the Circle of Interaction manifest themselves in the characteristic style of magic for which each is known, because magic is a way of bridging the gap between an idea in a sapient mind, and the innumerable calculations and exertions of infinitesimal amounts of basic universal forces on the subatomic level to express that idea in physical reality. Because a biological sapience can neither exert those forces unassisted nor perform the necessary math, each of the four schools expresses spells according to its particular idiom. To bypass these innate restrictions and tendencies and express subjective physics without artificial limitation, one must simply do all the calculations oneself without relying upon the calculator function of the magic fields. That capacity appears to be a function of the persona I am borrowing.”

Mary squawked and rattled her cage so hard Trissiny had to tighten her grip on it.

“She is describing the theoretical ultimate expression of magical practice,” said Ariel. “To my knowledge, this was only theoretical. I have never seen nor credibly heard of any practitioner capable of doing this.”

“Oh, that’s it,” Ruda said quietly. “I just realized what was nagging at me about this. She’s talking just like Ariel. You guys hear it too, right? That inflectionless delivery, the run-on sentences…”

“LT, you’re scaring the hell out of me,” Merry said frankly. “Mission’s over. Please take that thing off.”

“A thought occurs,” said Principia. The rings of screens multiplied again; now there were three, apparently conveying even more information to her. Her feet lifted bodily off the ground and she gradually floated upward to levitate about a yard up in the air. “If the Mask is permanently attached to someone, it is by definition out of play. Since absolute security is obviously impossible, this may be the only way to nullify the inherent danger posed by existence.”

“No, Locke, that turns it into a different kind of danger!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Excuse me, but would I be right in guessing that this borrowed persona works mainly by feeding you information?” Toby asked, stepping up to within a few feet of the barrier of Principia’s light screens.

“Essentially,” she said in a disinterested tone, fixing her attention for a moment on a panel showing what looked like a complex spell diagram. “Not only acquiring data through means beyond mortal senses but processing it at a capacity that would be otherwise impossible.”

“I see,” he replied, frowning. “Prin, I think you should be mindful of what a sudden switch of perspective like that can do to a person. You’re an Eserite, you understand better than anyone how power affects people’s heads. Right now, it looks a lot like you’re turning into exactly the kind of thing you’ve spent your life fighting against, and I really can’t think that’s what you intended.”

“A switch of perspective is a good way to put it,” she said, rising higher into the air. “Suddenly having a bird’s-eye view of my own consciousness is, in a word, humiliating. Princpia Locke is a broken, sideways-thinking creature developing a real conscience disgracefully late in life and even so expressing it through the lens of self-indulgent, self-centered slyness. An arrested adolescent smugly mistaking her own failure to function in a socially normal manner for mental and moral superiority. If she’s not going to have an emotionally healthy connection to anyone, it seems to me logical, not to mention appropriate, to become an entity which does not require them. Clearly no one will miss her.”

Mary’s renewed harsh cawing sounded eerily like agreement.

“I don’t get how you can apparently know everything and not know how wrong that is, Locke,” Merry said, her tone openly hurt. “The people who need you most are fully aware what a piece of work you are. We like you anyway, dumbass. That’s exactly what having a connection to other people means.”

“Locke, if you don’t take that thing off voluntarily, we’ll have no choice but to take it from you,” Trissiny warned.

“None of you have that capacity,” Principia observed. “The chances if all of you act in perfect unison are very small. I calculate this group is not able to coordinate with the necessary precision, anyway. Please do not risk injury by trying, Trissiny. There are significant events developing and all your strength will be urgently needed very soon. I am forming a plan.”

“If she’s able to see everything and do any kind of magic…” Teal looked around at the others, as if someone present might have answers. “How can you counter that?”

“Well, the original Archons all died,” said Gabriel, “so by definition they aren’t invincible.”

“In the old days,” Yngrid said quietly, “Archons were countered by the existence of other Archons, sworn to other gods, with contradicting agendas. They were only wiped out by direct action of the Pantheon, and that only after their patron gods were all gone.”

“You hear that, Locke?” Ruda called. “You’ve got no Elder God backing you up, and you’re this fuckin’ close to pissing off the gods that exist now. Come down from there and quit being a smug, all-knowing dong before you get your ass smote.”

“In the event of divine intervention, I expect confirmation from Avei that I am acting in accordance with her orders and established strategy.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed, echoed by a hoarse croak from the cage in her hands.

“Events and individuals are more connected than I ever imagined, across a scope which it would not have occurred to me to conceive of. Observe.”

Principia shifted her hands rapidly, tapping several points on various rotating screens in passing—five rings of them, now—as if she were activating runic controls.

The light on the plaza grew paler, and suddenly there were thick, tangled steamers of cobwebs binding each of them to one another, and extending off from the mountaintop in all directions. Several of them shouted in alarm and tried to pull away, causing the whole web to shift with them. The effect was purely visible; their movements were not restrained, nor could they physically feel the spider silk.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Principia instructed, tapping screens again. The light returned to normal and the webs faded from view. “I was initially concerned myself, but after a careful analysis I have determined that this effect is not harmful. On the contrary, its purpose appears to be preservation. Though I am unable to determine the origin point of this binding effect as it is temporally out of sync and my own ability to gather information thus is blocked by Vemnesthis’s activities, I calculate that each of us has been saved several times in the last three years from catastrophic and possibly lethal harm by these protections, through means which at the time would have appeared to be coincidence. The existence of time travel as a factor confirms the influence of a god, most likely operating from the future. No one else could circumvent Vemnesthis.”

“You think Avei did this?” Trissiny demanded.

“Perhaps. What I know is that I, personally, have been directed toward a specific end by Avei via the orders of the High Commander, and I now see the opportunity to advance my strategy far more rapidly that I anticipated before, and avert a major crisis in the process.”

The panels had continued to expand until she was now encircled by a full globe of them, hovering well above the level of their heads and rapidly reaching out to touch points on the passing screens in some pattern that made sense only to her.

“The incipient events in N’Jendo must be stopped for obvious humanitarian reasons. The forces assembled here, once connected with those already operating in Ninkabi, should prove more than sufficient. However, I calculate that there is time to gather more, which will not only increase the prospects of success further but will represent major progress in service of Avei’s long-term goal. I believe events in N’Jendo can be safely allowed to progress for a short time further, as Arachne and others are working to stabilize one of the unfolding disasters there. We should intercept her efforts in time to assume credit and absorb Ingvar’s wolf cult, of course, but this will leave us time for a necessary detour first to Veilgrad.”

“Ingvar’s wolf cult?” Joe shouted. “Hang on, you’re gonna need to explain that one!”

“What the fuck do we need in fucking Veilgrad?” Ruda demanded.

“Yeah, we’ve kinda done Veilgrad already,” added Fross.

“Seems rude to burn it down twice,” Toby said gravely.

“I understand all of this is confusing,” Principia said in that disturbingly impassive tone. “Your own perspectives are cripplingly limited. To explain it all would simply take too long. For the time being, you will just have to trust me.”

“Here’s the thing,” Trissiny said, stepping forward with Mary’s cage still in her hands. “I do trust Principia…strange as that sounds, to me. Even acknowledging how generally shifty you are, I know what you value and what your goals are. I know Principia Locke will always try to achieve what she believes is right, and in the end, I mostly agree with the end objective even if I take issue with your means of getting there. I trust you, Locke. Not…this. This thing that mask is turning you into. All systems are corrupt, and you’re becoming the system. Please, Locke, take it off, get your head back together, and then talk to us.”

“Your frustration is natural, Trissiny, but you will have to bear it. There’s just not time for thorough explanations.”

“Then let me put it a different way,” Trissiny said grimly. “Remove that mask. That is an order, Lieutenant.”

Finally, Principia turned her head to look directly at her, staring down her nose from high above through a gap that opened up in the translucent screens orbiting her.

“I’m sorry, General, but I am unable to comply. Not this time.”

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