Tag Archives: Principia

15 – 8

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It took several hours for Sherwin to find her. Not that there were all that many places in Manor Leduc where one could safely go without risking a fall through the rotted floorboards; it simply took him that long to go looking. He had been very much preoccupied.

“Ah, there you are,” Natchua said as he stepped into the room, not looking up. She was inscribing runes on the floor in living fire with movements of her hands, not troubling with chalk and powder. “Upright and hale, I see. Make sure to get plenty of fluids and don’t let her blindfold or tie you up. Not that Melaxyna will do you any actual harm, but a Vanislaad’s idea of fun gets abruptly less fun for everyone else the second they have you completely in their power.”

“I’ll, ah, bear that in mind,” Sherwin mumbled, adjusting his untucked shirt self-consciously as he crept into the room. “This was my… That is, this particular basement chamber…”

“Yes, I know, it was described to me in detail,” she replied. “Sorry I didn’t get to see it with all the holy symbols still installed. That sounds like quite a feat of magical engineering.”

“Right, well… Natchua, why are you summoning hobgoblins in my house?”

“Horogki,” she corrected. “The common name is pretty misleading, they’re more closely related to gnomes than goblins. And not to quibble, but I am banishing one.”

“Was it something I said?” wheedled the specimen in the circle around which she was conjuring runes. He, as well as the two other hobgoblins standing in similar containment circles farther back in the room, was a creature about four feet tall with scaly crimson skin and large ears, as well as orange eyes that glowed around slitted black pupils. Apart from that, they did very much resemble gnomes in build and stature. “I can change! I’m a versatile kinda guy! For you, baby, I can be anything.”

“Yeah, boss, give ‘im a chance!” called one of the others. “Just look how cute he is!”

The male upon whom Natchua was working grinned ingratiatingly, displaying a double row of unevenly jagged shark-like teeth.

“Sorry, no dice,” she said dispassionately, finishing the last lines of the banishing circle and adding a languid flick of her wrist. The central circle in which the hobgoblin stood was consumed by a momentary column of white fire, and then the whole thing was gone, demon and all.

“Awwww,” complained both the remaining two in unison.

“They…speak Tanglish,” Sherwin marveled. “Huh, usually only the smarter demons know mortal languages before summoning. Based on my reading, hob—I mean, horogki are considered basically vermin.”

“Hey, buddy, we can hear you talkin’, ya know,” huffed one of the two remaining demons.

“Genetic memory,” Natchua explained, already inscribing another summoning circle. “I am summoning specifically from a bloodline with prized engineering skills. The Tanglish is a nice bonus, one I wasn’t actually expecting.”

“Engineering skills,” he said, scowling. “I see. Would I be right in guessing that answers my question as to why you are summoning horogki?”

“Sherwin, this place is falling apart.”

“That is how I like it,” he said testily. “It ensures my privacy, which I should think you would particularly want while you’re staying here! You can’t just go fixing up a man’s ancestral home, Natchua.”

“I’m collecting three or four of them at most,” she said, then hesitated. “In fact, on reflection, just three. Believe me, I don’t intent to rebuild the whole place—that front entry hall that Scorn and Vadrieny smashed is probably going to have to stay that way. But honestly, Sherwin, aside from the little nest you’ve built in the kitchen, there’s nowhere in this manor that isn’t, at best, uncomfortably rugged. Most of it is actually dangerous. Horogki from a mechanically-inclined lineage are a better prospect than hiring contractors, in our particular situation.”

“Oooh!” One of the remaining horogki pressed herself forward against the barrier of her binding circle, not seeming to mind the way it sparked all over her. “That sounds like a challenge. Lemme at ‘er, boss!”

“Well, I suppose,” Sherwin muttered grudgingly. “What was wrong with that fellow, then?”

“He was male.”

“Uh…” He took a step backward, eyeing her warily. “Is this a drow thing, or…?”

“It’s the reason summoning them to this plane is so hazardous that even the Black Wreath won’t do it,” she said with a wry smile. “Two month gestation, four years to physical maturity, and genetic memory that ensures they’re born with a working knowledge of life, and a famously…excitable nature. At the rate they breed, horogki can overrun a kingdom in two decades. Hell is so dangerous that they die there at a phenomenal rate; on this plane, almost nothing can check their population except a deliberate and vigorous culling. They’ve been the cause of more Avenist crusades than Vanislaads. So, to ward off that particular problem, I am summoning only one sex.”

“You are no fun,” complained the other horogki. “You’re the living opposite of fun!”

“Get used to it,” Natchua said without sympathy.

“And, uh…any particular reason why females?” Sherwin asked.

“…huh.” She actually hesitated in her work for a second before continuing to scribe the summoning circle. “That is a drow thing, I suppose. Just the bias of my upbringing coming through. It shouldn’t make a difference which sex we use, practically speaking.”

“Ah, that’s a relief,” Sherwin said, grinning. “Y’know, often when a warlock goes out of their way to summon exclusively female demons, it’s because they have…intentions.”

She stopped again, this time turning to give him a long look over her shoulder. “Really, Sherwin?” Natchua turned back and made a show of eyeing the two hobgoblins over speculatively; one tilted her head in confusion while the other grinned and struck a pose. “Are you already bored with Melaxyna? Well, if they don’t mind, I guess I don’t.”

He flushed bright pink. “Now, that’s not what I—”

“I can’t say I would recommend it, though,” she added, resuming work on the circle. “We’re talking about creatures that have about four times a human’s upper body strength, teeth that can dent steel, and a notable lack of impulse control even when not in the throes of…anything that tends to lower the inhibitions. I didn’t take you for such a thrill-seeker.”

“I did not intend…” Sherwin broke off and cleared his throat, his face now fully red. “Uh, never mind that. What went wrong with your summons, then? I assume you didn’t intend to get a male that time.”

“Nothing went wrong, I expected to have to banish a few in the process; this is by nature a coin toss. I would expect you of all people to know that the only summoning spell with a gendered component is for Vanislaads. And really, even that one is only encoding information in the spell that tells them what kind of form to take to best beguile their prospective summoner.”

He blinked. “Wait, what? They’re male and female, aren’t they?”

“They’re shapeshifters, Sherwin,” she said, smirking. “With a noted tendency toward gender fluidity. It’s not known whether that results from the transformation process or Prince Vanislaas prefers to choose souls with that characteristic, but there it is.”

Sherwin blinked again, twice, and tilted his head in puzzlement. “Gender…fluidity? What does that mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” she drawled. “It’s a surprisingly functional trait, in the case of Vanislaads. More than one has slipped the net because their pursuers failed to connect the incubus sighted in the next province over with the succubus they were chasing. It takes a nuanced understanding of stealth to properly leverage that, you know. What people don’t think to look for is just as invisible as what they literally cannot see.”

Sherwin swallowed heavily, his face now pale beneath its coat of stubble. “Um. Does that mean… That is, do you happen to know if Melaxyna…”

Natchua shrugged. “Does it really make a difference, for your purposes? You could ask her, if you’re awfully curious. I wouldn’t, personally. The children of Vanislaas are able to use that particular trait to their advantage because people don’t think about it. Might not be healthy to let one Vanislaad know you’ve been thinking along lines they would all rather you didn’t.”

“Hang on, now, you said you had her under control!”

She turned again to look at him.

“I mean…you know what I meant,” he exclaimed. “In the sense and to the extent that any succubus is ever under control.”

“Melaxyna won’t harm you, or anyone here,” Natchua assured him, turning back to her work. “But she won’t be here forever. Our contract prohibits her from setting anyone else after me or my allies once she’s dismissed, either. I can’t say for certain whether Vanislaad business qualifies under that protection if she decides a given warlock knows too much. They’re not very cooperative creatures as a rule, but…one never knows.”

“Omnu’s balls, you’re a troublesome houseguest,” he grumbled.

Natchua glanced back at him again, grinning. “Be honest, Sherwin. Am I really one whit more troublesome than you fully expected?”

He had to hesitate before answering that one, but then did so with a reluctant grin. “Okay, fair point.”

“So here’s where—hang on. What devilry are you up to this time, Natchua?” Jonathan Arquin demanded, stepping into the room and scowling at the two imprisoned hobgoblins.

“Hey there, cutie!” one called, waving exuberantly.

“It may not look it at first glance,” Sherwin said, “but apparently this is the first step in fixing this place up a little. How’re you settling in, Mr., uh…”

“Arquin,” he said, finally tearing his suspicious stare from the demons to his host. “Jonathan Arquin. It’s quite the, ah, charming home you have, Lord Leduc. I can tell it has a lot of historical value.”

“You can be frank with me, Mr. Arquin, I’m hard to offend,” Sherwin said with a rueful chuckle. “It’s a dump. Honestly, I like it that way. But then, I never expected to have company for any length of time, so…I suppose some repair is in order. Wouldn’t do for somebody to fall through the floor.”

“Okay, I’m getting really curious to poke around this place,” said one of the horogki.

“House Leduc were a rather infamous clan of warlocks, for a long time before being reduced to just Sherwin, here,” said Natchua. “This manor hid secrets of the most dangerous nature before falling into such disrepair that it may be unsafe to walk through. I’d advise against poking around, Jonathan.”

“Curiouser and curiouser!” chimed the second horogki.

“I was looking for you two, not poking around, and Melaxyna told me exactly where to look. You’ve got another guest, Lord Leduc. Someone who is asking specifically for you and Natchua.”

Natchua broke off her scribing and whirled to stare at him. “What? Me? By name?”

“Not by name, no,” Jonathan shook his head. “The lady did ask for the drow warlock, though. That’s a little too on the nose to be a coincidence.”

She turned a scowl on Sherwin. “Nobody outside this house should have the faintest clue where I am, Sherwin, unless you told someone!”

“Come on, Natchua,” he protested. “I literally don’t talk to people. You lot are the first company I’ve had in years. Even my supply deliveries are just left in the stableyard!”

“Well, my shadow-jumps are too good to be tracked, I can guarantee that. The only way anybody would have even spotted us coming in is if… Actually, I can’t even think of a way! Can you imagine how someone would have been monitoring your grounds through means beyond the current magical state of the art?”

“Oh, ssshhhhiit,” he groaned, suddenly clapping a hand over his eyes. “…all right, I know what this is. Come on, we’d better go face the music. And be nice, Natchua. This isn’t gonna be a situation for slinging power around.”

“Most situations aren’t,” Jonathan grunted. Natchua just swept past him, following Sherwin out into the hall and up the stone stairs to the kitchen.

“So, I guess we’ll just wait here then, shall we?” called one of the imprisoned hobgoblins as the three of them departed.

In the kitchen above were two unfamiliar women, one of whom was recognizable on second glance as Melaxyna, minus the wings and tail and with her unnatural coloration swapped out for a stereotypical Tiraan palette. She was sitting on the edge of Sherwin’s rumpled bed with her hair disheveled and a blanket strategically draped over just enough of herself to make it clear she had nothing else on, as though to make a deliberate statement of what she had been doing for the last couple of hours.

The other was tall, young, and as pretty as Melaxyna, a local fair-haired Stalweiss woman clad in a crimson evening gown with a high collar. It made her look aggressively out of place in the converted kitchen apartment, with its stereotypical bachelor mess strewn over every surface. She had taken up a position in the center of the floor, as far as possible from anything which might touch her dress.

“Lord Sherwin,” the new arrival said with a diplomatic smile that did not touch her eyes, turning toward the door as the three of them filed in. “Felicitations; I see you have finally acquired a succubus. Who is not secured in that cage you so laboriously constructed. Do you require a lecture on the unspeakable danger this creature poses to the entire city?”

“Sherwin, honey,” Melaxyna cooed, angling her body toward him and letting the blanket slip a few calculated inches, “who is this person, and may I please kill her?”

“No!” he shouted, waving his hands. “Do not! Any of you, trust me, killing her is not on the table. Best case scenario you’ll end up looking foolish; if you actually managed to harm her we’d all be in deep shit. Now what the hell do you want, Ruby? Or actually, I guess I should ask what the hand up your butt wants, since we both know you haven’t got a mind of your own.”

Ruby finished giving Natchua a long, thorough visual inspection before turning to him with another meaningless smile. “This is some extremely interesting company you are suddenly keeping, Lord Sherwin. Of course, my Lady would under ordinary circumstances not dream of meddling in your business to even the slightest degree. All this begins to look ominous, however. Need I explain why this kind of activity is of immediate concern to the governor of this province?”

“Governor?” Jonathan’s eyebrows shot upward. “This is starting to sound a whole lot less discreet than you described it, Natchua.”

The drow heaved a sigh. “Oh. The governor. Trust me, Jonathan, she appreciates the value of discretion better than anybody.”

“You can assure Malivette that nothing happening here will spill beyond the walls of Manor Leduc,” Sherwin said testily. “Which makes it by definition none of her damn business. Now, if that is all…”

“You can assure her of that yourself, m’lord,” Ruby replied smoothly. “The Lady Dufresne has sent a carriage to convey you and your very fascinating new houseguests to her residence for a polite conversation. She has instructed me to emphasize that her intentions toward you are as always nothing less than friendly, in the spirit of the long detente which has reigned between your two great Houses, and also that this is not a request.”


Their guides had kept them moving well after the customary time for a lunch break, smiling politely but refusing to relent even despite Ruda and Gabriel’s complaints. The reason became clear in the early afternoon when the party reached their designated stopping place, which proved well worth both the wait and the hike.

Just off the winding mountain trail was a grotto where a waterfall plummeted in a series of steps from a high-up spring into a wide pool below, casting the entire tiny stone valley in a cooling mist. The group had broken for a belated meal, and then tarried to rest and rejuvenate themselves.

There wasn’t room in the grotto for anybody to get properly lost, and so they had each wandered to various corners to pass the time without getting out of sight of each other. Their two guides from the Order of the Light had so far been diffident to the point of standoffish, but Toby had finally occupied them both in conversation at the edge of the pool, along with the two Legionnaires. Gabriel and Juniper were engrossed in teaching Sniff to play fetch up and down the path leading from the main pass to this hidden alcove. Ruda had left her hat, coat, and sword on the ground near their supplies and was now playing a game with Fross which seemed to consist of her trying to ice-skate across the pool in her boots, while the pixie created a path of ice inches in front of her and vanished it immediately behind. Needless to say, she was utterly drenched, and laughing so exuberantly it was amazing she hadn’t managed to drown herself.

Trissiny finished climbing the long, winding path up the side of the grotto to one of the tiers of the waterfall, where a smaller pool lay against the cliff wall, some twenty feet up and with a perfect view of the rest of the valley and their relaxing classmates. Teal and Shaeine already sat on the rocks at the edge, trousers and robes respectively rolled up and with their shoes on the rock beside them, dangling their feet in the water while F’thaan splashed ecstatically around their legs, yipping and trying to chase puffs of spray.

“I’m not intruding, am I?” Trissiny asked, having to raise her voice a little due to the sound of the falls.

“Not at all,” Teal called back, waving. “Please, join us.”

She took a careful seat a few feet distant, perching her booted feet on the rim of the pool and resting her folded arms across her knees. Below, Principia glanced up at them and raised one hand in a perfunctory wave before quickly returning her attention to her own conversation. What with the roar of falling water, this was the first time all morning any of them had been within sight of the elf but not the range of her sharp hearing.

“Do you know anything about the Eserite doctrines of revenge?” Trissiny asked aloud.

“No, but I confess I am rather curious,” Shaeine replied. “My sister Nahil has offered some intriguing commentary about Eserites. The Guild’s codes seem quite opaque to outsiders.”

“Very little of it is actually secret,” said Trissiny, lifting one shoulder in half a shrug, “we just don’t talk much with outsiders about Guild business. But revenge… By Eserite lore, there are three criteria a situation has to meet before you should pursue vengeance upon someone: it has to be satisfying, strategic, and safe.”

“Oh?” Shaine smiled faintly, turning her face toward Trissiny. “How intriguing. In fact, it begins to sound similar to Narisian philosophy. Would you elaborate?”

“Revenge,” Trissiny said, gazing distantly at the scene below them, “is only satisfying if the target knows what is happening to them, at whose instigation, and why. Anonymous acts of retaliation can be amusing, but they’re just…not the same. Not really worth the effort, usually. That’s the part that makes it tricky to line up the other two requirements. For it to be strategic, it means there has to be a functional purpose in attacking someone. In the Guild’s case, that usually means a show of force that will dissuade them from causing further trouble. If you don’t arrange the situation carefully and make sure your act is the final one, all you’ll do is kick off an escalating cycle of retaliation. Which plays into the criterion of safe. In fact, I personally always thought it should just be folded into the second one. Basically, don’t seek revenge on anyone if they’re in a position to do it right back at you afterward. So, given how tricky it is to align all those criteria, Eserites—that is, good Eserites who keep to the codes—very rarely end up seeking personal revenge.”

Shaeine nodded slowly, still wearing that faint smile. “I see. We can address the subtext whenever you are ready, Trissiny. It’s not uncomfortable for me.”

Trissiny sighed, glancing up at her and then looking back down at the others. “The way you keep giving Principia a cold shoulder when she tries to apologize to you is honestly fine, Shaeine. That’s the least of what she has coming, and she knows it. Using your energy shields to trip or jostle her every time…might be less so. Whatever else she may be, Principia Locke is Eserite right down to her core. That means she knows when she’s in the wrong, and won’t begrudge you getting a little of your own back. If you push it to the point where she decides you’re the one being abusive, though, you may be courting more trouble than you comprehend. Don’t underestimate her.”

Shaeine studied her in silence for a moment, then turned her head to look at Teal.

“It’s Trissiny, loveling,” Teal said softly, barely audible through the sound of falling water. “We should be open with her.”

The drow closed her eyes and leaned over for a moment, briefly resting the crown of her forehead against Teal’s jaw, then turned back to Trissiny with a smile a few degrees warmer.

“Trissiny, I realize you have a complicated history with that woman, and less attachment to her than to the one who raised you. But these facts remain: she is your mother, you are my friend, and my culture is what it is. She would have to have done far worse to me than the, I admit, relatively minor offense she committed before I would willingly do her serious harm. Rest assured, I have no intention of acting toward her in a way that could reasonably be described as abusive.”

Trissiny nodded, turning an answering smile on her. “Good, I’m glad to hear that. I guess… I don’t really understand, then. I don’t mean any offense, Shaeine, but…this seems petty to me. And you’re one of the least petty people I’ve ever known. That tells me there’s something going on that I’m missing.”

“Oh, I can be a little petty,” Shaeine replied, now with an open if reserved grin. “From time to time. But you’re right, it is not quite so simple as that. Well, let me put it this way. In Tar’naris, we have a saying: the best revenge is to place someone in your power.”

Trissiny frowned thoughtfully. “Then that really sounds like you may be asking for trouble.”

“I’m hardly going to try to enslave her, either,” said Shaeine. “But it’s just as you said, Trissiny: the situation matters. Principia has been nakedly angling to get closer to you as long as we have known her, and I don’t expect that has changed. Now, furthermore, she answers to your High Commander and is on some mission which, I surmise, involves getting on the good side of at least Tellwyrn and possibly all of us. In short, there is no situation in which it will be safe or strategic for her to retaliate against me. The moment she commits to such a feud, a huge swath of everything she wants will go up in smoke.”

“So you think you can mess with her with impunity?” Trissiny said warily. “Shaeine…”

“It’s not that,” Teal assured her. “Look, Triss, as mad as we both were at the time, that was two years ago. It was all remedied in minutes, and everybody is over it. There are no grudges being held here.”

“What there is,” Shaeine added, “is a clever, well-connected, potentially very useful person to know who now finds herself needing to worm her way back into my good graces. I have no intention of harming Principia in the least; I have no specific plans for her, either. What I do know is that my mother would be severely disappointed in me if I squandered an opportunity to leverage the debt of honor she owes House Awarrion for the sake of getting some trifling personal revenge. In short, my little pranks are intended simply to make it clear to Principia that she is not in favor with me.” A mild, self-satisfied smile settled over her features and she leaned back slightly, stretching out her legs and wiggling her toes above the surface of the water. “And then…we will see what she is willing to do to get there. And if I allow myself to enjoy the process just a little, well, the smirking polecat did creep into our home and drug us both.”

“So that’s your game,” Trissiny mused after a thoughtful pause, frowning faintly at the scene below them. Principia was still not looking in their direction.

“Trissiny.” Shaeine turned to her, straightening up and fully sobering her expression. “I meant what I said. This is a matter of seizing an opportunity; it’s not a vengeance I feel a particular need to pursue, nor does my House specifically want anything from Locke. More immediately, I care very much about your feelings, and what you think of me. If you request it, I will instantly drop the entire thing and make no further reference to it. As far as my own feelings go, I have forgiven her long since. A grudge is a heavy thing to carry, and seldom worth the labor.”

“No,” Trissiny said pensively, pausing to chew on her lower lip for a moment. “No, now that I understand what you’re doing… I have no objection to any of this. Sounds like you actually do know what you’re about, and I see no harm in it. With that said, now, I do have a request.”

“Name it.”

Trissiny turned to face her with a sudden grin. “I wanna play, too.”

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15 – 4

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“I suppose it is possible,” Crystal said, her metal footfalls echoing on the path in the early morning quiet. The two of them walked through a rare bank of fog as a passing cloud drifted into the mountaintop, Tellwyrn’s passage as silent as any elf’s. The golem’s new body was actually lighter than her old, it metallic parts being much leaner and in fact designed after a human skeleton, padded on the limbs with lightweight material to fill out the suit she wore. The only shoes which had fit over her spring-loaded metal feet, however, were clumsy galoshes which she found awkward to wear, and so she went barefoot, hence the distinctive metallic sound of her gait. Though Crystal had taken to wearing gloves to conceal her skeletal-looking hands, as their appearance unnerved some of the new students, she once again had a simple steel mask for a face. She claimed it suited her.

“You were linked into that thing as closely as can be,” Tellwyrn prompted. “Is that really all you can tell me? It’s possible?”

“It really is, Professor, I’m sorry. The Crawl’s systems may have been as orderly as dwarven clockwork when they were first designed, but I think that was actually well before the Elder War. Millennia of being used by resident monsters and passing adventurers, adapting and repairing and growing, have made it something that seems very much organic in structure. I could isolate specific pieces of data to examine, but their organizational system made little sense, and the results of trying to perceive the overall whole were frustratingly vague. I can tell you that I don’t recall seeing any structures such as the students described to you, but I also could not swear that the functions of such a device might not have been integrated into the Crawl’s own ancient machinery, somehow. Everything down there is a ten-thousand-year hodgepodge.”

“It’s probably nothing about which we need worry,” Tellwyrn murmured, frowning into the fog around them. “It hasn’t caused any problems in fifty years and with Rowe gone, the Visage is no longer attracting critters from other realities… But these gates would account for that effect so very well, I don’t want to just ignore the possibility.”

“I didn’t hear the paladins’ report, obviously, but the way you described it, Professor, it sounded like Vesk had them all locked away except for the one lost under Puna Dara.”

“I never assume any god has full control over anything they’re supposed to, especially that one. Well, with Elder God crap in general the best policy is usually not to poke at it, so the last thing I want is to start tearing apart the Crawl to look for a putative dimensional gate that only might be down there. Still, I feel a little investigation is warranted. Morning, Andrew.”

“G’morning, Professor, Crystal!” Finchley said as the two of them passed through the inner security gate, lifting a steaming cup. A single fairy lamp glowed in the gatehouse office, illuminating the window through which he greeted them. “The kids have all gone through already. We’ve got a pot brewed if you wanna stop in on your way back. Some jasmine blend from Shengdu, real fancy stuff! Fedora either stole it or won it in a poker game, he was unclear.”

“I may take you up on that,” she said with a smile. “Work first, though.”

“As always. Watch your step going down the mountain, it’s pea soup out there.”

“I am an elf, you twit.”

“Wasn’t talking to you, Professor,” he grinned, unoffended.

“Thank you, Finchley, I will be careful,” Crystal promised, and they proceeded down through the new research campus. At that hour, it was even quieter than the old campus; students on the upper levels were already heading off to classes, but the visiting brains pursuing research projects tended to set more indulgent hours for themselves.

“When everyone’s settled into the new semester and you have time, Crystal, I’d like you to have another look, if you’re willing. With Alaric and Admestus along for safety’s sake, of course.”

“I certainly am, Professor, if you feel it is important. I may have better luck, knowing a specific thing for which to look, but I stress that I’m reluctant to guarantee any results.”

“Of course, this is just due diligence. As I said, it’s unlikely to be a problem if it hasn’t become one before now, but considering the mess that could have resulted from Rowe’s tampering if he wasn’t stopped… You’re certain he’s no longer an issue?”

“No child of Vanislaas is ever not an issue, Professor. They can’t be eliminated, just inconvenienced. I feel comfortable asserting he will have a harder time getting out of where I put him than he ever did escaping from Hell. If Rowe becomes a problem again, it will be for future generations.”

“I’ll take it,” Tellwyrn said with a smile. “All right, thanks for keeping me company; I see my next appointment up ahead. You’d better get the library opened.”

“Of course. Have a good morning, Professor. Let me know when you want me to investigate the Crawl again.”

“Will do. Take care.”

Crystal turned to head back up the path into the main campus, while Tellwyrn continued on down the wide avenue through the terraces of the research complex. In the morning quiet, she could already hear the conversation going on at the lower gate of the University’s expanded property.

“You did not call her a bitch!”

“Bet your sweet bippy I did. Right in front of my captain, the enforcers and the Huntsmen.”

“Bullshit, I don’t believe you. I used to hang out with the Fourth Legion when they were stationed where I grew up and a soldier who pulled that would’ve had the wrath of Avei come raining down on her.”

“Yeah, I think the LT was cursed by a fairy to never have to suffer the consequences of the crap she does.”

“Good to see everyone’s getting along,” Tellwyrn said, coming to a stop in the shadow of the outer gate, where three people in uniform were standing around apparently swapping stories.

“Hey, Professor!” Rook said cheerfully, rendering a singularly half-assed salute. “Morning, you missed the juniors by a few minutes.”

“How nice, they’ve developed the skill of showing up on time, finally,” she said, turning to the two Legionnaires. “That must have been an awkward meeting, Locke. Did you already spill the beans?”

“Oh, we only just got here a minute or two before you, Professor,” Principia replied, her tone suddenly far more polite than the one she’d used to josh around with Rook. Merry stood off to the side, apparently willing herself to be invisible. “Haven’t encountered the kids yet.”

“What amazingly precise timing you have,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “As always. All right, come along, I fear for the village if those little goons are left unattended in it for too long. See you later, Tom, try not to burn the place down.”

“The question is when I’m gonna burn the place down,” Rook said with a broad grin as she passed through the gates, Principia and Merry falling into step behind her. “You want in on the pool? I’m down for the week before graduation! If it involves a talking donkey and not Rafe’s alchemy lab I stand to really clean up.”

“He’s my favorite,” Tellwyrn commented while Rook and the gate receded into the distance behind them.

Principia cleared her throat. “I appreciate how gracious you’re being about all this, Arachne. I promise you won’t have cause to regret—”

“Cut that out,” the Professor growled.

“Pardon?”

“Being all polite and diplomatic, as if you were some kind of grown-up professional. I’ve known you too long, Prin. It’s creepy.”

“People do change, Arachne.”

“People can change. They usually don’t.”

“Then why take the risk?”

Tellwyrn turned her head to give the other elf a very wide grin, then faced forward again and continued walking in silence.

“Now that was a predatory look,” Merry mumbled. “I can’t decide if she wants to eat you or screw you.”

“Read the room, Lang. I think this situation calls for an awkward silence, not banter.”

“Oh, good. I’m great at those.”

To anyone familiar with the town of Last Rock over the last few decades, the view as one descended the mountain into its streets displayed its recent, rapid changes to great effect. The village was larger, with new construction spreading in all directions except up the mountainside itself, and now had even crossed the Rail line in a series of three sturdy footbridges and, a short distance to the south of the town proper, the beginnings of what would be a vehicle-friendly bridge crossing over the Rail. It also had new landmarks, with the flat but distinctive spread of the Vidian temple to the north and the white marble dome and columns of the Silver Mission in the opposite direction near the old road into town from Calderaas, two new windmills on the western edge beyond the Rail line, a new water tower and grain silo, and the jagged framework of what would be a second telescroll tower when its crystal orb was installed.

The three of them walked in silence, gazing out at the spread of Last Rock as they passed beneath the level of the cloud cover, and soon were stepping into its streets. It was sleepy as any rural town at this hour, but a few early risers exchanged polite greetings with Tellwyrn and gave the Legionnaires curious looks, often doing double-takes when they recognized Principia. She was smiling smugly at the trail of staring people they left behind by the time the group had reached their destination: the Rail platform.

New growth was evident here, too. Benches and street lamps had been added around the perimeter of the platform itself, the ticket stand was in the midst of a significant expansion into a proper office, and a newsstand selling papers from Tiraas and Calderaas had been erected at the edge of the street. The hot new rumor around town was that the Surveyor Corps was considering adding Last Rock to the regular travel rotation, instead of requiring caravans there to be specially commissioned.

The new junior class was taking advantage of the recently-installed benches. Teal and Shaeine were seated at one end, leaning against each other, while Juniper stretched out on the rest of their seat; the bench terminated against a lamp post, with another on its other side, where Gabriel sat straddling the wooden seat with his back against the pole, reading a comic. Fross was hovering around the top of the new street light, apparently inspecting the fairy lamp, while Toby and Trissiny stood talking quietly a few feet distant. Ruda paced up and down the edge of the platform, humming the tune of “I’d Hit Sally” under her breath. The animals played under the watchful eyes of Shaeine and Teal, F’thaan gamboling around the end of their bench while Sniff had retreated a few yards to study the young hellhound intently, his head twisting this way and that.

“Now, that’s what I like to see!” Tellwyrn said brightly, striding onto the platform with her escort trailing along behind. “Everybody in place, fully dressed, and mostly conscious, with no need for me to teleport anyone.”

“Don’t lie, you love teleporting people,” Ruda snorted.

“What is that doing here?” Shaiene demanded in a frigid tone.

“I see you all remember Lieutenant Locke,” Tellwyrn said. “One thing at a time, Mrs. Awarrion. Juniper, sit up; I require that my students at least pretend to be awake when I am addressing them. Now! I assume you’ve been clued in by your fellow students about the traditional junior class excursion, but for the sake of thoroughness and because many of your classmates are hysterical liars, I will summarize. You are going to a site in the Wyrnrange known in this era as the Desolate Gardens. This is a location of immense historical significance, currently administered by the Order of the Light, who will be your hosts. It is the location where the Third Hellwar started and ended, the site of the single largest hellgate ever created, which was the source of the demon invasion and the site of the last battle of the war. Now it is a sanctified place of healing, meditation, and retreat.”

“How sanctified, exactly?” Juniper asked. “I assume you wouldn’t send us to a place that would be inherently dangerous for Fross and me…”

“Thank you for crediting me with extremely basic sense, Juniper. Yes, the Desolate Gardens is mostly fine for you. There are powerfully divine-blessed locations on the site, some old chapels and shrines, but also a few spots of fae significance. The Order of the Light, despite its name, isn’t a strictly divine-wielding institution. They have always made heavy use of mages and witches, and even fairy allies.”

“What are we to do there, Professor?” Toby asked.

“This is a free-form exercise, rather like your Golden Sea trips. Rather than survival, however, the point of this trip is to test your mental and emotional balance.”

“How so?” Trissiny demanded.

Tellwyrn smiled vaguely. “Now, now. If I explain everything ahead of time, there is virtually no point in going. The Desolate Gardens are a place where people tend to find…what they need. With you lot, the results should be very interesting indeed. As a side note, it is also the place where Vadrieny and I came closest to encountering one another prior to her enrollment here. We were both present at that last battle, though we did not personally interact. I tell you this,” she added directly to Teal in a more serious tone, “simply to forewarn. I know she has had unexpected memories pop up before, and this is the first time I’m sending you to a place where that’s specifically likely to happen. At this point, Vadrieny has earned trust, and I am not worried. I just don’t want that to sneak up on you.”

“We both appreciate that, Professor,” Teal replied.

“So,” said Gabriel, glancing around the quiet platform, “does this mean you’re going to be our guardian on this trip, Professor?”

Tellwyrn sighed softly and adjusted her glasses. “Right. This is, as I said, a free-form exercise. Usually students are accompanied by one of the dorm guardians rather than a Professor, as the objective is not to pursue academic goals. Your attendant is along more as insurance than leadership, there simply to watch over you in case of some severe injury or other unforseeable disaster. None of which have ever happened on this particular field trip, but as you know my rule about letting students off-campus unattended is inviolable. And besides, if there were going to be an unforseeable disaster it’d be you little bastards who brought it on.”

“Man, you run off and charge one hellgate and everybody gets a fuckin’ attitude,” Ruda snorted.

“I’m sure I needn’t explain all the changes affecting our school, so I won’t,” Tellwyrn continued, “except to say that the research campus is not the end of it by far. For most of its history the University has stood effectively apart from the world, but that’s not going to work for much longer. Rather than lurk on our mountaintop and wait for the world to overtake us, I am taking steps to reach out and be the initiator, or at least active participant, in forging new connections. In the last two years I have been actively in contact with the Imperial government, and since the construction of the research facilities we have made formal academic exchanges with several other universities in the Tiraan Empire, the Five Kingdoms, Syralon, and most recently in the Republic of Sheng-La. Point is, from here on out, we are going to be less and less isolated out here. Students at ULR will have ever more interaction with the wider world. Given the way the world is shaping up and what our students need, I think this will be all to the good.”

“Hang on, now,” said Ruda, looking at Principia. “You can’t be leading up to…”

“Yes, in fact,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “This trip will be an experiment toward that ongoing goal. It will mark the first University excursion overseen by non-University personnel. On your visit to the Desolate Gardens, your assigned chaperones will be Lieutenant Locke and Corporal Lang of the Third Silver Legion.”

All the students immediately began talking at once, most loudly. The exceptions were Ruda, who was laughing so hard she had to slump against the lamp post to brace herself, and uncharacteristically Gabriel, who simply studied Locke in silence.

Tellwyrn let this go on for thirty seconds, and then raised one finger. A thin, piercing whine rose in the air, causing the general furor of complaints to dissolve into a few pained shouts.

“What the fuck?!” Ruda roared the second it cut off. “Naphthene’s tits, you sadistic old bag, I liked it better when you just blew shit up and made loud noises!”

“Dunno, that was a pretty loud noise,” Toby said, still twisting a fingertip in his ear and grimacing.

“It’s year three now, and incredibly, I still have to say this,” Tellwyrn sighed. “Think. Use those brains instead of just reacting. I know your history with Locke; she’s guilty of offenses against you, in particular, for which I have been known to fling people bodily off my mountain. And now I’m placing her nominally in charge of you, out from under my watchful eye. Rather than flying off the handle, read between the lines and see if you can figure out what this means. Anyone?”

“It means,” Gabriel said quietly, still staring at Principia, “you literally don’t care if we kill her.”

In the stillness, Trissiny and Shaeine both shifted their heads in unison to look at him, then at Principia, and finally back at Tellwyrn. Locke herself wore a vague smile which had not faltered during the whole conversation; Merry, now, began edging away from her.

Tellwyrn pointed at Gabriel. “You know, Arquin, I have come to regard you as one of my biggest successes. Not that you’re the brightest star in the firmament by any means, but you are ten times the man you were when you arrived here, and if there’s one thing I like to see in my students, it’s self-improvement. As is becoming a pattern with you, you’ve hit the nail on the head.”

“Interesting,” Shaeine enunciated tonelessly. At that, Principia’s smile finally slipped.

“In the years to come,” said Tellwyrn, “things like this are going to become more and more frequent. I foresee a variety of scenarios in which students at this very exclusive University will be placed temporarily under the guidance of people from other institutions. My intention is to get a feel for how this will work, iron out the kinks, and suss out ahead of time any unexpected problems that may arise. This particular assignment is going to be a test case, and I have chosen it specifically because of the lack of risk involved.”

She began pacing slowly up and down the platform while speaking, hands folded behind her. “Locke came here to reach out on behalf of High Commander Rouvad, who is looking to ingratiate the Sisterhood with my school in pursuit of a new goal of hers, not dissimilar from my own. This makes a perfect low-stakes test case because the Sisterhood has nothing I want. If you kids manage to screw this up beyond all hope of redemption…” She shrugged. “Oh, well.

“The risk is further minimized if I make your class the lab rats in this exercise, for two reasons: one, hardly anything in the world is a severe physical danger to you, so I worry less about your actual safety than most other students. And two, despite some early hiccups, you have grown to be a reliable group. I trust you not to cause trouble that didn’t need to be caused. Those of you who are smirking had better cease immediately. I don’t do flattery and the second I see a need I can give a ten-minute off-the-cuff speech on the crippling character flaws of each and every one of you.”

She stopped speaking and pace, sweeping a gimlet eye across the whole group, under which there was total silence except for a tiny growl from F’thaan.

“And finally,” Tellwyrn continued at last, “there is, as we have mentioned, the curious case of Principia Locke. In a hypothetical worst-case scenario, Rouvad will have to make offended noises if one of her soldiers gets mangled, but in this case they will be less than emphatic. You can always tell where Prin has been because that’s where you’ll find people pissed off at her. I expect you to comport yourselves properly as representatives of this University and not inflict unnecessary trouble upon your chaperones, but let’s face it: if this whole thing ends with Principia’s head rolling into a ditch, nobody’s going to be especially cheesed off at me about it. I would be disappointed at the lack of respect shown to Trissiny’s feelings, should that occur, but even she would get over it pretty quickly. Any disagreement on that?”

This time, she turned to include Locke in her inquisitive stare. Nobody raised an objection, though Trissiny frowned, Merry and Ruda grinned, and Principia and Shaeine had both gone eerily expressionless.

“Very good, then,” Tellwyrn went on briskly. “Locke has your full travel itinerary, though it’s not too involved. You will be going by Rail to the town of Hollowfield; it’s a caravan ride of only a few minutes that’ll put you about equidistant between Mathenon and Stavulheim. There you will be met by representatives of the Order of the Light, who will conduct you on a roughly two-day trip overland through the mountain roads to the Desolate Gardens. As is both traditional and part of the exercise, your time of departure will not be known to you. Locke knows the schedule. As does Lang, who seems a fairly inoffensive person, so if you little buggers can’t behave, at least try to keep one of them alive.”

“Hey, question,” said Ruda, raising her hand. “How come you can’t just teleport us right to the place, like you did in Puna Dara?

“Because too much convenience is not good for you,” Tellwyrn said placidly. “Especially since that incident required me to intervene before you lot could run off without me, and there are consequences for putting me out.”

“Well, I think it sounds like fun!” Fross chimed. “I’ve never gone on a journey into the mountains before! I always felt like we missed out on that in Veilgrad.”

“Ah, ah,” Juniper chided, scowling up at her. “No legs, no opinion on the two-day hike.”

“I’ve got legs,” Fross protested. “And I’d like to see you fly everywhere if you think it’s so easy!”

“If the Golden Sea didn’t kill us, this won’t,” Toby said, firmly but with a smile.

“That’s the spirit!” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “All right, you know what you need to. Locke will be able to reach me in the event of an emergency. Keep in mind her position and if she is forced to remind you of University rules I’ll expect you to listen, but aside from that, she is not actually authorized to order you about. She is hundreds of years old, a veteran Eserite, and apparently a surprisingly competent soldier, so in the event of a crisis, I suggest getting her input. By and large, however, you’re under your own guidance.”

“In the event of a crisis,” said Principia, “I’m not going to try to stop this group from racing to the fore. I understand that’s something of a pattern with them.”

“Oh, naturally,” Tellwyrn replied. “Equally naturally I will still hold you fully accountable for whatever befalls them, whether or not you could have stopped it. That’s the job you signed up for.”

“Of course,” Principia replied with a sardonic grimace.

Ruda cracked her knuckles loudly.

“And with that,” said Tellwyrn, grinning wolfishly, “you are officially on your own, kids. Your caravan will be here at the top of the hour. While you wait, know that I’m going to be enjoying a cup of imported jasmine tea in the comfort of the guardhouse. And I’m not even going to have to walk there!”

At the distance she stood from them, even the tiny puff of displaced air caused by her teleportation was inaudible; she was simply, suddenly gone.

“How long do you think it’s gonna be till she forgives us for Puna Dara?” Gabriel asked. “Seems unfair. We didn’t even succeed in running away, that time.”

Ruda cackled. “How long can elves live?”

“That is the question of the day, isn’t it,” Teal said in an innocent tone, not looking in Principia’s direction. Shaeine silently took her hand, interlacing their fingers.

Principia herself put on a broad smile and clapped her gauntleted hands together loudly, stepping forward to the center of the Rail platform. “Well! Here we are, then, campers. Who’s ready to go on an adventure?”

All of them stared back at her in total silence. Except F’thaan, who growled in tiny dislike.

Merry took a circumspect step backward from her commanding officer.

Undeterred by this chilly reception, Principia opened her mouth to speak again.

A wall of silver light flashed into being behind her and swept forward, shoving her bodily past them and off the platform. The shield dissipated at the edge, though by that point it had built up enough speed to launch her all the way over the Rail line itself.

While Gabriel applauded, Ruda shouted criticism of her landing and Toby hopped down to help her up, Trissiny sidled over to the end of the bench where Shaeine and Teal sat and leaned over to murmur to them.

“Please don’t actually kill her, though.”

“Of course, Trissiny,” Shaeine said immediately, nodding deeply to her. “I would never show such disregard for your feelings. Besides, my mother always taught me that homicide is a lesser revenge.” She paused, turning her head to glance over her shoulder at Principia, who had landed lightly and was now reassuring Toby as to her condition. “I have much better ideas.”

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15 – 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny sighed. “Ruda.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, point taken, but what is he?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your funeral.”

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

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

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

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


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

Fortunately, she had what she needed, now.

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

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

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

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

Still, she hesitated.

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

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

Long past time.


“What are you humming?” Ingvar asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you expecting?” Ingvar asked warily.

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Oh, come on, how many times—”

“Just do it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesthri stared at her.

“No questions?” Natchua prompted lightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone froze.

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

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

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

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14 – 33

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Things looked more optimistic back outside. Imperial Square was still riled up, and the re-appearance of the armored and bloodied Hand of Avei with her mixed escort only stirred the pot further. Trissiny and company ignored the increasingly curious crowds, heading straight for the area in front of the Temple of Avei, where a ring of Silver Legionnaires and Imperial troops had appeared. Both parted before Trissiny without argument, as most of the women accompanying her were also in Legion armor, though a few gave sidelong looks at the three Guild enforcers.

“Toby,” Trissiny said in relief, immediately striding to his side.

He was sitting on the temple steps between Gabriel and a priestess who was in the process of cleaning blood off her hands, a nearby Legionnaire holding a bowl of water for her. Toby looked up and waved at Trissiny, chewing on a bite of the meat pie in his hand. “Triss! Don’t worry, clean bill of health here. How’d it go?”

“You do not have a clean bill of anything,” the priestess said severely. “Shut mouth, open mouth, insert food! He will be fine, General,” she added in a more moderate tone to Trissiny. “It was very fortunately just tissue damage, goddess be thanked. He wouldn’t be up already if I’d needed to stitch any organs. The light can mend flesh, but there is no quick cure for blood loss. He is to eat well and not exert himself for at least two days.”

“Thank you very much, Sister,” Trissiny said fervently.

“I can follow directions, you know,” Toby remarked. “Even without Trissiny’s help.”

“Then you are a rare jewel among men,” the sister replied sardonically.

Gabriel unconvincingly hid a laugh beneath a cough. “Anyway. What’s the news? I don’t see a certain someone in chains…”

Trissiny sighed, casting a sharp look back at the looming edifice of the Grand Cathedral. “No…and apparently you won’t in the near future. The Archpope really dug his heels in to uphold sanctuary for Syrinx. I wasn’t expecting that. And frankly, I don’t know why it was that important to him.”

“You have to consider just what kind of creature Syrinx is,” said Principia. Her squad had, without orders, arranged themselves in a loose inner ring inside the existing circle of soldiers, further separating the group from the crowd outside. The three enforcers had inserted themselves in the circle surprisingly seamlessly. “So much of what she’s gotten away with has been due to playing various forces against each other, with the trade-off of having to rein in her behavior—at least in public. Now? Justinian is the only one protecting her, which means he can keep her on a much shorter leash. There’s nowhere else for her to turn if he chooses to cut her loose. And with the cat out of the bag, she no longer has to hide her ugly streak. Politics aside, he just gained an extremely lethal weapon with its limiters removed. We’d better all expect to see some more considerable damage caused by that woman before someone finally manages to put her down.”

“I don’t know what’s been happening here,” the priestess of Avei interjected, frowning, “but that is the Bishop of the Sisterhood you’re talking about, Lieutenant.”

“Not anymore, she’s not,” Trissiny said sharply.

“She’s the one who made that gash you just mended, Sister,” Gabriel added.

“Should this conversation perhaps be held in a less public setting?” Corporal Shahai suggested.

“The hell with that! At exactly what point are you all going to be done covering for that woman?” Covrin snapped, clenching her fists.

“Easy,” Trissiny soothed. “Discretion is a good habit to be in, Corporal, but in this case Covrin has an excellent point. This entire debacle has unfolded because so many people were willing to protect Syrinx’s secrets. I don’t propose to indulge her any further.”

“What, exactly, did she do?” the priestess asked uncertainly.

“Exactly the same shit everyone’s always known she was up to,” Covrin replied, curling her lip, “but everyone was too chicken to say anything about.”

“All relevant details will be public soon enough, Sister, I’ve made sure of that,” Trissiny interrupted before the priestess could call Jenell down for insubordinate conduct. The paladin put herself physically between them, catching Covrin’s eyes. “For now, there’s the question of what you want to do next. This kind of thing can mess up a career in the Legions, but I’m sure we can straighten it out. If that’s what you want. It’s up to you where you go from here, Covrin. You’ve done more than enough and the Sisterhood has no call to ask you for more. And…I owe you an apology—”

“No, you don’t,” Covrin said adamantly, shaking her head. “Is this about you helping get me into the Legions in the first place? Then I have no quarrel with you, General Avelea. You didn’t do any of this, and you’re the one who came here to straighten it out as soon as you knew. In the entire damn Sisterhood you and Locke are the only people who’ve tried to help me. Thanks for trying, Locke,” she added, turning to Principia. “It wouldn’t have worked, back then, just made me more of a target. But you tried, and I’ll remember that.”

Grip and Shahai both turned speculative looks on Principia, who just nodded back to Jenell. “I’d like to think I could’ve helped, but…hell, you may be right.”

“Then the choice is yours, Covrin,” said Trissiny. “What is it you want to do next?”

She hesitated a bare second before squaring her shoulders and answering. “I…want out. I’m so done with this whole cult. Basra was an open secret, and it keeps sticking out in my mind that the only two people who’ve tried to do anything about her are the only two Eserites in the entire Sisterhood. I am done with this bullshit. I quit.”

“Okay,” Trissiny said calmly, nodding. “Here’s the problem: I’ve checked, and according to Legion regulations this situation isn’t grounds for an honorable discharge, so—”

“Are you serious?!” Jenell exploded, clenching her fists again. “After all that—”

“Kid.” Grip turned fully around and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Let her talk.”

Trissiny acknowledged the enforcer only with a fleeting glance. “…so I’m going to have to go in there and spend some time pulling strings and yelling at people. I have never actually tried to circumvent procedures like this before, so I honestly don’t know how long this is going to take. Meanwhile, Covrin, I’m afraid we’ll need to stash you somewhere. Legion SOP would be to detain you while the situation is sorted out, since even acting on my orders you were technically wildly insubordinate to a superior. I’m assuming you would prefer not to spend any time in a cell?”

Jenell folded her arms. “You assume right.”

“I figured,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a grin. “We did prepare for that, fortunately.”

“Very conveniently,” Gabriel piped up, “we are within spitting distance of the central temples of Omnu and Vidius, as well. I’ve had my people on standby to discreetly take in guests. Not that the Omnists wouldn’t be excellent hosts, I’m sure,” he added, lighly patting Toby’s shoulder, “but if there’s a chance of Legionnaires trying to fetch you before Triss can put a stop to it, you want to be among the Vidians. They can smile pleasantly and make Avenists chase their tails basically forever. Ah, no offense to…everyone present, it occurs to me.”

“Offended would be if that were untrue,” said the priestess, giving him a sidelong look. “As it is, the reminder is just annoying.”

“I doubt it’ll come to that,” Principia added to Jenell, “but it hurts nothing to be prepared. Shahai, Avelea—any insight into regulations that would help, here?”

Ephanie and Nandi exchanged a look. “The General’s correct about the regs,” Ephanie said after a pause for thought. “But…there’s necessarily some leeway in interpretation on some points.”

“I am aware of some precedents,” Nandi added, “which could be made applicable here, with a little creativity.”

“Good. I want you two to accompany and assist General Avelea. The fewer bridges burned, the better,” she added to Trissiny.

“Good thinking, Locke.”

“Do you expect a lot of trouble with this?” Toby inquired. “It seems both reason and justice are on your side, here. Surely the High Commander will agree.”

“The High Commander,” Trissiny said with a sigh, “is the head of a military chain of command, and has had people going around and over her head all day. Her first reaction when I showed her Covrin’s files of evidence on Syrinx was anger at Covrin for hoarding that instead of trying to prosecute it through the system. That’s why I opted to carry out our sting operation without informing her, and she’s not going to be pleased about that. Don’t worry, I will straighten this out, it just may take some doing. All right, Covrin, I know you don’t know Gabriel well but I can attest you’re safer with him than basically anywhere. I’ll get this done as quickly as I can.”

“I appreciate it, Avelea,” Covrin said, her tone much more subdued than previously. “All of it. Everything.”

“So!” Gabe said brightly, looking around. “That’s settled. Now, who wants to loan the Hand of Omnu a shirt?”


The afternoon had worn on by the time Trissiny, far more tired and introspective, crossed the main sanctuary toward the front doors of the temple again. She ignored the whispers that followed her; at least no one dared try to approach her directly. Walking around in bloodstained armor doubtless helped with that. A point came where it was hopeless to try to avoid attention, and one had to settle for managing the impression one made.

To her surprise, Toby was waiting near the front doors. More surprising than his presence was his attire; he had acquired a set of Cultivator formal robes, such as he’d worn at that disastrous party in Calderaas. It was no great mystery where, since the temple of Omnu was right across the Square. Still, even as impressive a figure as he made in those stately garments, it looked almost peculiar. Toby was so much more Toby in the casual, working-class shirts and trousers he preferred.

“You look weary,” he said with a smile as she approached, “but not upset. Is that a good sign?”

“As good as I could have reasonably hoped for,” she agreed, and they fell into step together, exiting the temple. “Everything is…arranged.”

“How bad was it?” he asked quietly.

Trissiny shook her head. “I’m just glad it all happened behind closed doors. Rouvad means well and does her best, but…” She hesitated; they were stepping down from the front stairs of the city now, into the noise of Imperial Square, and the pair of them still made a visual impression that seemed to discourage people from coming closer, despite all the unabashed staring. Still, she pitched her voice a little lower. “It would be very unhealthy for the Sisterhood if the Hand of Avei publicly expressed a lack of faith in the High Commander.”

“Yet you feel it,” he murmured.

“This is not a time for soldiers,” Trissiny all but whispered. “Rigidity and over-reliance on systems are what allowed Syrinx to flourish. What allow Justinian to work his tentacles through the whole Empire. Rouvad is a good woman and a good leader, but she exemplifies those failings, and our…conversation…made it clear that she isn’t about to change.”

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry.” Trissiny threaded her arm through one of his, still gazing ahead even as he looked at her in surprise. “I know it’s a little late now to bring it up, but I am so sorry, Toby. You never owed me anything. It should have been your choice who to tell, and when. No one is entitled to be in your business like that without your consent.”

“It’s okay, Triss,” he said, squeezing her arm. “Honestly, I should have been more open with you. With a lot of people. Not that I don’t agree with your point, in principle, and I’d never tell anyone else how to live their lives, but for me? Keeping silent was never a reasoned decision, just nerves and cowardice. Better to have it done with. Still, I appreciate it. So… Does this mean we’re going to talk about the other thing she dragged into the light?”

Trissiny heaved a soft sigh. “I don’t…see how any good would come of it.”

Again, he gave her a gentle squeeze. “Maybe not. You still need to talk with him.”

“Toby…no, I don’t. You heard Vesk; it would be a mistake to dwell on anything that creature told us. And ours is a solitary path. You know it isn’t always going to be like this, the three of us working together. Paladins live short, dangerous, isolated lives.”

“Who’s to say?” he mused. “Things are changing. This new way works, Trissiny. It works in the world as it is now. I think it would be a mistake to try to judge yourself against the Hands of Avei of ages past. They weren’t equipped to deal with the modern world. To be brutally honest, I’ve read the histories and the Aveniad and it doesn’t seem like a good half of them were mentally equipped for the world they actually lived in.”

Her laugh was somewhat bitter, but still amused. Toby smiled and bumped her gently before continuing.

“That aside, you can’t leave something like that just…hanging. Take it from me. You’ve got to talk this out with him, one way or the other.”

“I…will think about it.”

“Triss…”

“I’ll think about it.”

He sighed. “Okay. Just actually do think about it, and don’t say that simply to stall. Promise me that?”

“All right, you old nursemaid, I promise,” she said, jostling him right back.

“Oh, and Schwartz turned up,” he said with a grin. “I actually feel sort of bad; he tried to join us outside the temple but the soldiers wouldn’t let him through.”

“What? Oh, Hershel.” Trissiny covered her eyes with her free hand. “He could’ve just yelled!”

“Herschel? Yell? When people are conducting delicate healing and then having serious discussions? He would never. He caught up with us at the temple, though, and Covrin was glad to see him. I hate to sound mercenary,” he went on more solemnly, “but was it worth butting heads with Rouvad and possibly damaging your relationship? Surely Covrin would have been okay…”

“I wasn’t trained intensively as a priestess,” Trissiny said, “but I was educated in the basics. One of the matters that often comes down to Avenist clerics to handle is helping victims of abuse. One of the first things you do with such a victim is give her back her power. Give her choices to make, even small ones, and then see to it that what she says, goes. Covrin has been horribly failed and in fact betrayed by the Sisterhood. I can’t have it impose on her any further.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Good. Well, that sort of comes to the reason I came to meet you. Covrin’s not at the temple anymore.”

She came to a halt; they were more than halfway across the Square at that point. “What? Where? Is she all right?”

“If anything, I think she’s even safer,” Toby said dryly. “She carried on making decisions as soon as you were gone. You might actually get a kick out of this…”


“Thanks, Denise,” Grip said, depositing a stack of coins on the counter and handing one of the sweet rolls to Jenell. “Keep the change.”

“You know, you really don’t have to keep buttering me up, Tessa,” Denise replied with a smile. “Randy’s crap wasn’t entirely your fault, and you’re already one of my best customers even without tips!”

“Lady, nothing I do is to appease my guilty conscience,” the enforcer said flippantly, already backing out of the enclosed pastry stand. “Don’t have one. You just keep making the best shit in town and I’ll keep coming back. Deal?”

“See you next time, then,” the baker said, waving as the two women ducked back out into the falling twilight. The fairy lamps had just come on while they were under the little stand’s awning, adding a clean glow to the dimness.

“You seem so…nice,” Jenell said, staring at Grip and not yet taking a bite of her sweet roll.

“Yeah? You seem so…surprised.”

“Well, the way everyone reacted when you offered to, y’know, take me in… It seemed like even the other enforcers were scared of you.”

“Nah, Duster’s a pal of mine and Ninetails is a particular kind of crazy that makes her pretty much impervious to my charms.” Grip took a bite of her roll, ambling down the street in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and Jenell finally did likewise. They chewed in silence for a bit before the older woman swallowed and continued. “An enforcer works through fear. The entire Guild does, even those who walk a subtler path than I do. That’s the point of us, to give the bastards something to be afraid of so they stay in line. The most important thing about using fear as a weapon is not to do so indiscriminately. Mad dogs get put down. People have to know that you’re dangerous, but they also have to know that you’re only dangerous under specific conditions, and that you won’t come after ’em unless they make it necessary. That’s the entire point, kiddo. We exercise fear to get results, not because it’s fun to scare people.”

Jenell nodded seriously, chewing away at her treat with a pensive frown. “I hope this isn’t gonna cause you trouble.”

“I love trouble,” Grip said frankly.

“I mean…of the serious kind. Until General Avelea gets the Sisterhood squared away…”

“That’s Thorn to you, apprentice. And as for the Sisterhood, Farzida Rouvad can kiss my ass. I almost wish I’d be getting the chance to tell her so myself, but if I know my girl, by the time Thorn is through applying her boot up and down that temple every living soul within will know the score. Nah, don’t worry about it. Everything’s probably sorted out by now, and even if there are snags, it’ll be fine.”

“Seems like a delicate line to walk,” Jenell murmured. “A lot of the things you say, I can imagine Basra saying.”

“I believe that,” Grip agreed, nodding. “I’ve known people like Syrinx. You’ll know more of them, if you stick with this. The difference is that you’ll be able to deal with them in the future. I’ll be frank, kid, you fucked up in multiple directions with that one. You should have let Keys help you—she’s twice as smart as Syrinx on her worst day. You should’ve leveraged that witch boy you’re so fond of, or your acquaintanceship with Thorn’s fellow apprentices. Trying to finish Syrinx yourself was a mistake, and even if that weren’t true, the way you went about it was doomed if Thorn hadn’t intervened.”

“Well, what the hell would—”

“Peace, child, I am still talking.” Jenell subsided immediately under Grip’s level stare. “Everything you did wrong was a matter of technique. And technique, Jenell, I can teach you. Technique I wouldn’t expect you to have known without that training. What matters is what was already inside you: the spirit, the will to stare your own tormentor in the face and say ‘fuck you, this ends with one of us destroyed.’ That you have to have to begin with. You’ve got it, girl. If you can just shut up and learn, I will turn you into a force that will scour the Basra Syrinxes of the world away like the grime they are and not even chip your fucking nails.”

Jenell nodded again, seeming unable to find words. Her expression conveyed it all, a blend of resolution and eager ferocity that made Grip smile.

“But there has to be a difference,” the enforcer went on, “between us and them. Syrinx hurt whoever she had to, to get whatever she wanted. We hurt people as well—badly, at times. The how and the why are hugely important, or we’re nothing but another group of monsters. You understand why we hurt people?”

Jenell hesitated, opened her mouth, then closed it again. She glanced sidelong at Grip to find the enforcer watching her closely. “I… No, never mind.”

“You looked like you were about to say something, there.”

“It’s… Probably not the right answer.”

“Jenell, it’s your first day as an apprentice. Your first hour. In a couple weeks I’ll start expecting you to know right answers. Right now I want to hear what you think.”

Jenell stared ahead, a glare at some unseen enemy descending over her features, but she nodded. “We hurt people, because some people just need to be hurt.”

The silence stretched out, until she nervously snuck another peek at Grip. To her surprise, the other woman was regarding her with an inscrutable little smile, her sweet bun dangling forgotten from her hand.

“Kid,” Grip said, patting Jenell firmly on the shoulder, “this is gonna work out.”

They continued on into the lights and shadows of the city, soon vanishing from view amid the press of people, machinery and magic that was Tiraas. Behind, outside Denise’s pastry stand, another figure chuckled, watching the pair fade with distance.

“Well, I’m glad somebody gets to walk away with a happy ending,” Vesk said aloud, turning back around with a grin and a wink. “But don’t you worry, I’ve seen to it the benefits will keep racking up. Oh, I didn’t help much with the paladins’ little gambit back there. Sure, the whole plan was mine, but for a fella like me, that was nothing. The tricky part was making Trissiny think she’d thought it up, but that girl needs the boost in confidence when it comes to her scheming skills. The only thing preventing her from being as crafty as her mother is her belief that she’s not. As for the rest? Sure, Darling could’ve arranged for all those Bishops to be present at that inconspicuous little prayer service, but I did it without expending any of his political capital—and he’s gonna need that in the coming days. I also tipped off a few reporters to be in the audience, more importantly. Between that and my own bards, the story that’s already spreading will be shaped by careful hands. By this time next week, they’ll be calling her Trissiny the Uniter, and all the political damage she did to her cult in Calderaas will be mended, and then some. The Sisterhood may have lost its Bishop to a painful scandal, but they’ve gained a hero—one who’s revered by far more than their own cult. And you all know how much I love a hero!”

“Oi.” Denise emerged from within the stall, wearing a grim expression and tapping a rolling pin against her palm. “Look, you’re not hurting me any, but I am trying to run a business here. I can’t have a guy in a doofy hat talking to himself in front of it. If you’re not gonna buy anything, clear off.”

Vesk looked over at her, blinking, then turned back the way he was facing.

“And what of all the faces we’ve met in passing? Like Denise the pastry chef, here. Or the Jenkins brothers, the feuding families of Sarasio? Ansheh in the Golden Sea, Lars Grusser the mayor of Veilgrad? Was Brother Ingvar always fated to become a hero in his own right, or did he wander too close to the web and get snared? Everyone is the hero of their own story, after all. But straying across the paths of the real Big Damn Heroes can be just the thing that elevates today’s bit character to the next episode’s protagonist. Who knows what our very own Denise might be called upon to do tomorrow? Heroism loves a humble beginning!”

“Hey,” Denise insisted. “If you need a place to stay the night, I can point you to an Omnist shelter. Or do I need to yell for the police?”

He winked at her. “But that, of course, is another story.”

With that, Vesk turned and sauntered away down the street in the opposite direction from Grip and Jenell, whistling an optimistic tune that hadn’t been heard aloud in some thirty thousand years.

Denise watched suspiciously to make sure he was leaving, then snorted, shook her head, and went back into her pastry stand. “This damn town…”

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14 – 32

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On a typically overcast, slightly muggy summer day in Tiraas, Basra Syrinx returned to her office to find it gone.

She came to a stop in what appeared to be an empty stretch of hallway in the Temple of Avei, revealing confusion only by looking deliberately up and down. No one was visible nearby; the only noises were from the other end of the hall, where it terminated at a balcony overlooking a sizable atrium not far from the main sanctuary. Most significantly, the door to her office was not where it always was. Nothing but plain wall.

Her expression finally shifted from its usual placid mask to vague annoyance.

Syrinx reached up to run her hand along the wall, then grunted deep in her throat and nodded, finding the frame of the door with her fingers. Slowly she ran her hand along the invisible shape to the latch, which she turned. It was not locked or tampered with and shifted as smoothly in her hand as always, but she did not push it open or step in yet. Instead the Bishop resumed her tactile exploration, dragging her fingertips up the doorframe and along the top.

She disturbed some kind of crunchy dust sprinkled along the top of the door frame. No—not dust. Crushed dried leaves.

“Mm hm,” Syrinx muttered aloud, gripping the golden hilt of her sword with her other hand and continuing to sweep the dust away. Then suddenly, with a soft gasp, she jerked her fingers back, shaking her hand. There was no mark of any kind on her forefinger, but that had sure felt like—

She retreated one step and ignited her aura, flooding the hallway with radiant divine magic.

Immediately the illusion collapsed, the crumbled leaves atop the door frame evaporating into oily smoke, and the tiny elemental perched on the center chattered angrily at her in protest.

“I thought this was an extraordinary effort for a novice prank,” Syrinx said wryly. “Mousie, isn’t it? You’re not the only one who’s bitten off more than they can chew today. Your little buddy Herschel is going to be up way past his bedtime if he means to start trouble with me.”

Meesie hissed at her, puffing up her fur.

Not for nothing was Basra Syrinx an admired blademaster; her sword cleared its sheath faster than most human beings could have visually followed, much less countered, and she swept the blade in a precise arc that would have struck down even that tiny target—had Meesie not been other than human.

Meesie vanished in a puff of sparks as the sword’s tip slashed expertly through her space. Those sparks, instead of dissipating in the air, streamed away down the hall, where they coalesced again into the ratlike shape of the elemental, now perched on the shoulder of Herschel Schwartz, who had been standing there the whole time—not invisible, but simply not catching anyone’s notice until his familiar drew attention to his presence.

“I had honestly given up, boy,” Syrinx said mildly, sheathing her sword. “It’s been, what? A year? And you’re only now getting shirty with me. Please tell me you’ve spent all this time making actual preparations and not simply screwing up your courage. Unless your whole plan is to disappoint me one last time.”

“You know, Basra, that’s your problem in a nutshell. You always go right for the throat. Maybe you should relax, learn to play around a bit. Have some fun with life.” Schwartz’s tone was light, deliberately so. It contrasted with the rest of him—stiff as a flagstaff, shoulders gathered in tension, fists clenched and eyes glaring. Meesie hissed again, tiny flickers of fire racing along her fur.

“This isn’t a chapbook and you’re not a hero,” she said flatly. “You don’t stand there and banter at me. If the next thing out of your mouth is a suitably groveling apology, I will give real thought to not taking a complaint directly to Bishop Throale and having you reassigned to a two-man research temple in Upper Stalwar.”

In answer, he grabbed Meesie and tossed her forward. The elemental landed on the floor halfway between them and suddenly took up much of the hall space, in a leonine form almost the size of a pony. She had, at least, enough restraint not to roar and bring every Legionnaire in the temple running, but bared her teeth at Syrinx and growled. Loudly.

Unfazed by this display, Basra narrowed her eyes, then flicked a glance at the recently-disguised door of her office before returning her focus to Schwartz, ignoring the hulking fire elemental entirely.

“No,” she murmured. “You wouldn’t dare attack me openly—and especially not here. You have far too much intelligence and not nearly enough balls. What are you trying to distract me from, clever boy?”

He’d been prepped for this, but Schwartz was no schemer or politician. He hesitated for a moment, betraying uncertainty, before jutting out his chin and forcing a facsimile of a cocky grin. “Oh, is that what I’m doing? Interesting theory. How willing are you to test it?”

The dramatic effect, such as it was, suffered greatly from Meesie’s sudden reversal to her normal form. It had been much less than a minute; the divine magic saturating the temple put her at a serious disadvantage. Which, of course, underscored the Bishop’s point.

Syrinx quirked one eyebrow infinitesimally, then turned and strode away toward the stairs down to the atrium.

“Hey!” Schwartz shouted at her. “Are you that willing to bet I won’t just shoot you in the back?”

She didn’t bother to inform him that people who actually did things like that rarely gave warning, but she did activate a divine shield. It was a low-energy glow hugging her skin, well below the power of a typical combat shield, but it would conserve her magic and almost certainly suffice for any fae spells done at her, especially in the temple.

Syrinx arrived on the balcony just in time to spot her own aide being escorted through a door on the ground floor below. This wing of the temple, just behind the sanctuary, was mostly offices; that one was behind thick walls with just the one door positioned to provide space for guards to defend it, and used primarily for debriefings and interrogations of a relatively polite nature. Flight or fight risks would be detained in the cells in one of the basement levels. Those loyal to the Sisterhood who had something sensitive to reveal were handled here, where there was ready access to the temple’s main entrance and the medical wing.

“Covrin!” the Bishop snapped, her voice echoing through the columned atrium. All those present, which consisted of the Legionnaires escorting Jenell Covrin and a couple of passing priestesses, turned and craned their necks up at her.

Covrin met Syrinx’s eyes across the distance.

Then, she smiled. A cold, cruel smile, befitting Basra Syrinx herself—and the girl Jenell Covrin used to be before her “mentor” had (as she thought) beaten her into submission. Not acknowledging the Bishop further, she turned and strode through the door, which the nearest Legionnaire shut firmly behind her.

It was at that moment Syrinx registered that she was looking at Squad 391. Principia Locke turned from closing the door to give her the blandest, most placid smile she had ever seen.

The Bishop turned and stalked for the stairs, immediately finding her way blocked.

“Good afternoon, your Grace,” the dark-skinned young man before her said politely. “I wonder if I could have a moment of your time.”

She held onto her professional poise by a thread. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time at the moment. Excuse me.”

Syrinx moved to step around him, and he smoothly flowed aside to block her. Grunting in annoyance, she reached to shove him aside, and her hand impacted a hard surface which rippled with golden light, the shield dissipating immediately in a display of very fine control for a caster so young.

“I’m afraid I must insist,” he said, still in a courteous tone.

“Boy,” she grated, “do you have any idea—”

“I have many ideas,” he interrupted. “I’m Tobias Caine, and I require your attention for a moment, Bishop Syrinx.”

Basra went stock still, staring into his eyes. He gazed placidly back, awaiting her response, but she wasn’t really looking at him. Variables in this equation began to slot into place in her mind.

“I don’t have time for this,” Syrinx said curtly, and barreled right into him, flashing her own shield into place.

Toby was a martial artist and too deft on his feet to be so easily bowled down the stairs, retreating with far more grace than most would have managed in that situation, but the bubble of hard light surrounding her prevented him from making the best use of his skills, most of which relied on having something to grip in order to redirect her movements. He wasn’t without his own brute force methods, however, and before she’d made it two steps he conjured a staff of pure light.

Just like that, her divine shield wasn’t doing her much good, as Toby used his staff skillfully to poke, bat, and shove her backward, as if he were blocking a rolling boulder. This stalemate did not favor Basra; he was physically stronger than she and had vastly greater mana reserves; both staff and shield flickered whenever they impacted, but hers would break long before his.

“I realize you are impatient with this,” he said with infuriating calm while thwarting her efforts to descend as if this were all some sort of game. “But you need to think of your own spiritual health, Bishop Syrinx. Whatever happens next, the manner in which you face it will do a great deal to determine the outcome. Redemption is always—”

Basra abruptly dropped her shield and whipped her sword out, lunging at him.

As anticipated, instinct made him abandon his improvised jabbing and fall into a Sun Style defensive stance, which should have put her at a considerable disadvantage; his staff had much greater range than her short sword and her position on the stairs made it all but impossible to duck under it. That, however, was not her intent. Basra had trained against Sun Style grandmasters, which Toby Caine, for all his skill, was not yet. It took her three moves to position him, feint him into committing to a block for an attack from the right which never came, and then turn the other way and vault over the rail.

She had only been a few feet down the stairs; it was a drop of nearly a full story. Basra had done worse, and rolled deftly on landing with her sword arm held out to the side, coming to her feet barely two yards from Squad 391.

All six women were standing at attention, unimpressed by this. Locke, Shahai, and Avelea had composed features as usual, but the other three looked far too gleeful. Elwick, in particular, Syrinx knew to be more than capable of hiding her emotions. The fierce expression on her face boded ill.

“Step aside, soldiers. That is an order.”

“Mmmm,” Lieutenant Locke drawled. “Nnno, I don’t believe I will. Why? You think you’re gonna do something about it, Basra?”

“Lieutenant!” one of the two priestesses who had paused to watch the drama burst out, clearly aghast. “You are addressing the Bishop!”

“Am I?” Locke said pleasantly. “Well, if she still is in an hour, I guess I’ll owe her an apology. You just hold your horses, Bas. Private Covrin has a lot to go over.” She deliberately allowed a predatory, distinctly Eserite grin to begin blossoming on her features. “With the High Commander.”

Toby had reached the base of the stairs. Above, Schwartz arrived at the balcony rail and hopped up onto it, his robes beginning to rustle as he summoned some air-based magic. A subtle glow rose around Corporal Shahai.

Then another such glow, weaker but unmistakable, ignited around Locke. The elf’s grin broadened unpleasantly.

“Your Grace?” asked the second priestess uncertainly, glancing about at all this.

Basra Syrinx turned and fled.

Toby moved to intercept her, but Syrinx grabbed the shorter priestess by the collar of her robes in passing and hurled the squawking woman straight into him. Schwartz didn’t make it to the ground that quickly and Locke’s squad made no move to pursue, simply holding position in front of the office door. She made it to the atrium’s main entrance with no further opposition, bursting past two surprised Legionnaires standing guard on the other side.

Behind her, the office door opened, and it wasn’t Covrin or Rouvad who emerged to pursue her.

The main sanctuary of the Temple of Avei was crowded at that time of early afternoon, which meant there was an unfortunately large audience of petitioners from all over the Empire and beyond present to see their Bishop come streaking out of a rear door at a near run. This escalated into an actual run when she heard the pounding of booted feet behind her.

“You!” Basra barked at another pair of startled soldiers as she passed, flinging a hand out behind her. “Detain them!”

“Your Grace?” one said uncertainly, and had Basra been in less of a hurry she would have stopped to take the woman’s head off. Figuratively. Probably.

“BASRA SYRINX.”

At that voice, in spite of herself, Basra turned, skidding to a graceful halt.

Trissiny Avelea wasn’t running, but stalked toward her past Legionnaires who made no move to intercept her as ordered—unsurprisingly. The paladin and Bishop weren’t in the same chain of command, but the rank-and-file of the Legions would have an obvious preference if their orders contradicted each other. Trissiny was in full armor, fully aglow, and golden wings spread from behind her to practically fill the temple space. Gasps and exclamations of awe rose from all around, but the paladin gave them no acknowledgment, eyes fixed on Basra.

The Bishop inwardly cursed the learned political instincts which had overwhelmed innate survival instincts; she should not have stopped. As tended to happen when she was confronted with an overwhelming problem, her entire focus narrowed till the world seemed to fall away, and she perceived nothing but the oncoming paladin.

“Trissiny,” she said aloud. “You’ve clearly been listening—”

Those wings of light pumped once, and Trissiny lunged at her with astonishing speed, sword first.

Basra reflexively brought up her own weapon to parry, a divine shield snapping into place around her, and then two very surprising things happened.

First, Trissiny beat her wings again—how were those things functional? They weren’t supposed to be solid!—and came to a halt.

Second, Basra’s shield was snuffed out, untouched. Frantically, she reached inward for the magic, and it simply wasn’t there anymore.

Tiraas was no stranger to storms, but the clap of thunder which resounded right overhead was far greater in power than the light drizzle outside made believable.

“I actually thought you were too clever to fall for that,” Trissiny said, and despite the continuing presence of her wings, it was as if the avenging paladin had melted away to leave a smirking Guild enforcer in silver armor. “You just tried to call on the goddess’s magic right in front of a Hand of Avei who knows what you did. Congratulations, Basra, you’ve excommunicated yourself.”

Amid the crowd, more figures were emerging from that door at the back of the sanctuary. The Hand of Omnu, Schwartz… And all of Squad 391. With Covrin.

Of course. Obviously, Commander Rouvad wouldn’t go to a debriefing room for such an interview, not when she had a highly secure office to which she summoned people regularly. This entire thing… Syrinx realized, belatedly, how she had been baited and conned.

She filed away the surge of livid rage to be expressed later, when she had the opportunity to actually hurt someone. For now, once again she turned and bolted toward the front doors of the temple, past the countless witnesses to her disgrace.

The lack of any sounds of pursuit behind her began to make sense when she burst out onto the portico of the temple and had to stop again.

Another crowd was gathered in Imperial Square; while the figure waiting for her at the base of the steps necessarily commanded widespread attention, he also discouraged people from approaching too closely. At least the onlookers were keeping a respectful few yards back. Including a handful of Imperial military police who had probably arrived to try to disperse the crowd but also got caught up gawking at the Hand of Death.

Gabriel Arquin sat astride his fiery-eyed horse, who pawed at the paving stones with one invisible hoof and snorted a cloud of steam. His scythe dangled almost carelessly from his hand, its wicked blade’s tip resting against the ground. Hairline cracks spread through the stone from the point where it touched.

“There is a progression,” Arquin said aloud, his voice ringing above the murmurs of the crowd, “which people need to learn to respect. When you are asked by the Hand of Omnu to repent, you had better do it. Refuse, and you will be ordered by the Hand of Avei to stand down. That was your last chance, Basra Syrinx. Beyond the sword of Avei, there is only death.”

The crowd muttered more loudly, beginning to roil backward away from the temple. Nervous Silver Legionnaires covering its entrance clutched their weapons, bracing for whatever was about to unfold.

Behind Basra, Trissiny and Toby emerged from the doors.

Syrinx lunged forward, making it to the base of the stairs in a single leap. Immediately, Arquin wheeled his horse around to block her way, lifting his murderous-looking scythe to a ready position. Even disregarding the reach of that thing, it was painfully obvious she was not about to outrun or outmaneuver that horse. Any horse, but this one in particular looked unnaturally nimble.

She pivoted in a helpless circle, looking for a way out. The crowd was practically a wall; behind was the Temple, once a sanctuary and now a place she didn’t dare turn. Trissiny and Toby had spread to descend the steps with a few yards between them. One pace at a time, the noose closed in on Syrinx, the space between the paladins narrowing as the Hands of Avei and Omnu herded her toward the Hand of Vidius, and inexorable death.

Basra had spent too long as a cleric and politician to miss the deliberate symbolism. She could choose which to face: justice, death, or life. Tobias Caine was even gazing at her with a face so full of compassion she wanted to punch it.

She didn’t, though. Instead, Basra turned toward him, schooling her own features into what she hoped was a defeated expression—based on the way people’s faces looked in her presence from time to time, as it was one she’d never had occasion to wear herself. She let the dangling sword drop from her fingers, feeling but suppressing a spike of fury at the loss when the expensive golden eagle-wrought hilt impacted the pavement. Just one more expense to add to the tally of what the world owed her. Ah, well. After today, carrying around a piece of Avenist symbolism probably wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

Syrinx let Toby get within a few feet before bursting into motion.

His own instincts were well-trained, and though he still wasn’t a grandmaster, Basra’s martial skill heavily emphasized the sword. In a prolonged hand-to-hand fight, she might not have proved a match for Toby’s skill—and definitely not now that only one of them had magic to call on.

That dilemma was resolved, as so many were, by not fighting fair.

It took her a span of two seconds to exchange a flurry of blows, carefully not committing to a close enough attack to let him grab her as Sun Style warriors always did, all to position herself just outside the circle the three paladins had formed and push Toby into a reflexive pattern she could anticipate and exploit. Arquin was momentarily confused, unable to swing his great clumsy weapon into the fray with his friends that close or exploit the speed of his mount, but Trissiny—also a highly trained fighter—was already moving around Toby to flank Basra from the other side.

So she finally made the “mistake” that brought her within range of Toby’s grab, and allowed him to seize her by the shoulder and upper arm. And with his hands thus occupied, Basra flicked the stiletto from her sleeve into her palm and raked it across his belly.

Almost disappointing, she thought, how fragile a paladin was. Hurling him bodily into Trissiny was pathetically easy at that point, and in the ensuing confusion of shouts which followed, she dove into the crowd, instantly putting herself beyond the reach of Arquin, unless he wanted to trample a whole lot of bystanders, to say nothing of what that scythe would do to them. He probably didn’t. Even as the helpless sheep failed to do anything to stop her in their witless panic, paladins always had to take the high road.

Basra shoved through the throng in seconds, pelting right toward the only possible sanctuary that still awaited her: the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church.


“Toby!” Trissiny lowered him gently to the pavement; he was bent over, clutching his midsection, from which blood had already spread through his shirt and was dripping to the ground at an alarming rate.

“No light!” Toby managed to gasp as Gabriel hurled himself to the ground beside him. “Not even an aura!”

“He’s right, stomach wounds are amazingly delicate,” Trissiny said helplessly, finishing easing Toby down so he could sit upright. “It may need a surgeon, if you accidentally heal something in the wrong place… We need healers here!” she bellowed.

“Keep to the plan,” Toby grunted around the pain, managing to nod to her.

“I can’t—”

“You do your job, soldier,” he rasped, managing a weak grin. “After her! Triss, we’re surrounded by temples and gut wounds take a long time to do anything. I’ll be fine. Get moving.”

She hesitated a moment, squeezing his shoulder.

“He’s right,” Gabriel agreed, taking up her position to hold Toby upright. “Go, Trissiny!”

“I’ll be back,” she said, and released him, rising and plunging into the crowd after Syrinx.

Help really did come quickly. Barely had Trissiny gone before the Imperial police were enforcing a perimeter around the paladins, and a priestess of Avei had dashed up to them. She knelt and gently but insistently lowered Toby to lie on his back, whipping out a belt knife to cut away his shirt so she could see the wound.

“Seems so excessive,” Toby grunted to Gabriel, who knelt there clutching his hand. “Coulda spared a lot of trouble if we’d just told her the plan was to let her get into the Cathedral…”

“Well, yeah,” Gabe said reasonably, his light tone at odds with his white-knuckled grip on Toby’s hand, “but then she wouldn’ta done it.”

“Oh, right. Inconvenient.”

“You need to hush,” the priestess said in exasperation, her hands beginning to glow as she lowered them to the wound. “And try to hold still, this will hurt.”


Trissiny managed to moderate her pace to an aggressive stride as she crossed the threshold into holy ground. The two Holy Legionaries flanking the door turned to her, but she surged past them without even so much as a sneer for their preposterously ornate armor.

The timing of all this had been very deliberate. A prayer service was in session—not a major one, so the great sanctuary was not crowded, but people were present. Most significantly, the Archpope himself stood at the pulpit, presiding. Justinian liked to stay in touch with the common people, more so than did many of his predecessors, and thus could often be found holding public appearances such as these rather than delegating them to priests. A mid-week afternoon service just didn’t command much draw, however, and the room was filled to barely a tenth of its capacity.

At the moment, nobody was getting any praying done, by the looks of things. Basra Syrinx was no longer in evidence, but her recent passage was obvious, thanks to all the confused muttering and peering around. At the head of the sanctuary, the Archpope himself was half-turned, regarding one of the rear doors into the Cathedral complex with a puzzled frown.

The ambient noise increased considerably when the Hand of Avei strode down the central aisle, sword in hand, the side of her silver armor splashed with blood.

“General Avelea,” Justinian said, turning to face her with a deep, respectful nod. “I gather you can shed some light on these events?”

“Where is Basra Syrinx?” she demanded, coming to a stop even with the front row of pews. It was downright crowded up here, most of the parishoners present desiring to be as near the Archpope as possible. The first two rows were entirely filled, with people who came from the world over, to judge by their varied styles of attire. Just to Trissiny’s left were three Omnist nuns wearing the heavy cowled habits of the Order of the Hedge, a tiny sect which had no presence in the Empire.

“You just missed her,” Justinian replied. For whatever reason, he continued projecting in exactly the tone he used for conducting worship. As did she, making their conversation clearly audible to the room. “She passed through here in apparent panic, demanded sanctuary, and retreated within. Toward her office, I presume. What has happened?”

“Syrinx will be removed from her office as Bishop the moment the formalities can be observed,” Trissiny replied, her voice ringing over the astonished murmurs all around. “She has been cast out of the faith by Avei herself as a betrayer, abuser of the trust of her position, and rapist. Moments ago she compounded her crimes by mortally assaulting the Hand of Omnu. I demand that she be handed over to face justice!”

The muttering rose almost to the level of outcry before Justinian raised both his hands in a placating gesture. Slowly, the crowd began to subside.

“I dearly hope Mr. Caine is being tended to?” the Archpope said with a worried frown.

Trissiny nodded once. “He isn’t so fragile, and healers were at hand.”

“That is a great relief.”

“Yes,” she said impatiently, “and so will be his attacker’s prosecution. Will you have your Legionaries produce her, your Holiness, or shall I retrieve her myself?”

“Justice,” he intoned, “as you know better than most, is not a thing which yields to demands. These are serious allegations, Trissiny. Gravely serious. This situation must be addressed calmly, rationally, and with full observance of all necessary formalities. Frustrating as these things are, they exist for excellent reasons. We cannot claim to dispense true justice unless it is done properly.”

“Please do not lecture me about the core of Avei’s faith, your Holiness,” Trissiny retorted in an openly biting tone, prompting another rash of muttering. “Justice is Avei’s province. Not yours.”

“And yet,” he said calmly, “Basra Syrinx has claimed the sanctuary of this church. I cannot in conscience fail to respect that, on the strength of mere allegation. Even from a person of your own prestige, General Avelea.”

“Am I to understand,” she said, raising her voice further, “that you are refusing to turn over a criminal to Avei’s justice, your Holiness?”

“You are to understand the law of sanctuary,” he replied. “It is observed by all faiths within the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me, your Holiness.” From the front pew near the Omnist nuns, another figure stood, wearing white robes with a golden ankh tabard. Bishop Darling inclined his head diffidently to the Archpope, but also spoke at a volume which was clearly audible through the sanctuary. “I have, personally, defended and protected Basra Syrinx from the consequences of her actions in the past, in pursuit of what I believed to be the higher good. I know you are aware of at least some of this. To that extent, I may be inadvertently complicit in anything she has done now. But a line has been crossed, your Holiness. If she has so violently erred that her own paladin has come after her in this way, I strongly advise against involving the Church in this matter.”

“You know the value I place on your council, Antonio,” replied the Archpope. “But I question whether this setting is the appropriate venue in which to discuss matters of this severity and complexity. General Avelea, would you kindly agree to join me in private to continue this conversation?”

“Some matters do deserve to be discussed in public, your Holiness,” Darling said before she could respond. “I speak in my capacity as Bishop. The Thieves’ Guild stands fully behind Trissiny Avelea in this matter.”

The murmuring swelled again, and once more Justinian raised his hands for quiet. As soon as he had achieved it, however, and before he could take advantage, another voice intruded.

“I concur.” Bishop Varanus rose from the pew next to Darling, towering half a head over the Eserite and turning his fierce, bearded visage on Trissiny. “Basra Syrinx is a rabid animal, and always have been. We all know this, and as Antonio has said, we all share guilt for whatever she has done. We have all failed to do our duty in getting rid of her, and now we see the consequences. Honor demands that this be addressed—now, and not later. In this one matter,” he nodded to the paladin, “the Huntsmen of Shaath stand behind Trissiny Avelea.”

“The Brethren of Izara stand behind Trissiny Avelea,” said yet another voice before the noise could gather too much, and despite her own diminutive appearance, Branwen Snowe could project her voice easily through the hubbub. “Basra is a deeply troubled person. I would prefer that she be offered some manner of help, if any is indeed possible—but if she has offended so severely that her own cult demands justice, this is clearly a matter of the safety of all around her.”

Beside Snowe, an old man with white hair rose slowly from his own seat. Though he looked frail, Sebastian Throale spoke clearly and as powerfully as anyone. “I am only passingly acquainted with Bishop Syrinx and have no personal opinion on this matter. But Trissiny Avelea has personally earned the trust and respect of my own cult—not a small thing, nor easy to do, given the relations we have historically had. If she deems this the right course of action, the Salyrite Collegium stands behind her.”

“I’m not gonna lie, I am astonished that this is even a question,” piped yet another individual, practically hopping to her feet in the pew behind Throale. Bishop Sally Tavaar, all of twenty-six years old, was widely considered a joke by everyone except her fellow Bishops, all of whom were too theologically educated to be less than wary around a bard who acted the fool. “That woman is a detestable cunt and always has been, and you all know it. It’s about damn time somebody did something about it! Only reason nobody has is everyone’s afraid of her, and you all know that, too. It’s just plain embarrassing that an avenging paladin is what it takes to deal with this. The Bardic College stands the hell behind Trissiny Avelea!”

“If I may?” Bishop Raskin was actually new to his post and not a widely known face yet, but he made a point of fully bowing to Trissiny. “These events are not a total surprise. The Hand of Avei has worked closely with those of the other Trinity cults, and I had some forewarning that events such as these might transpire. I have the assurance of Lady Gwenfaer herself that we have nothing but the greatest respect for our fellow paladin, and the Order of Vidius stands firmly behind her.”

Beside him, a slim woman with graying hair rose and inclined her head solemnly. “My colleague speaks truthfully. Omnu’s faith stands behind Trissiny Avelea.”

By that time, stunned silence had descended upon the Cathedral. It was allowed to hang in the air for a moment longer before Justinian spoke.

“Anyone else?” he inquired, slowly panning his serene gaze around the room. Trissiny and the assembled Bishops just regarded him in turn, as did the astonished crowd. It was not every cult of the Pantheon, but it was most of the biggest and most influential. More importantly, it included several which agreed about nothing, ever. This show of unity without the active encouragement of a sitting Archpope—in fact, in defiance of one—was all but unheard of. It might actually have been the first time a Shaathist Bishop ever publicly endorsed a Hand of Avei. Justinian simply continued after a short pause, though. “Very well. I hear and thank you for your counsel, brothers and sisters. Rest assured, your opinions I hold in the utmost regard, and this will weigh heavily on my deliberations on this matter. Those deliberations must occur, however; it is no less than conscience and justice demand. For the moment, sanctuary will be observed.”

“Are you actually serious?” Trissiny burst out. “You would really—”

“Did you believe,” Justinian interrupted, staring evenly down at her from his pulpit, “that aggressive demands and political maneuvering would be enough to eviscerate due process? Is that Avei’s justice, Trissiny?”

It was probably for the best that she had no opportunity to answer.

“BASRA!”

The entire room full of worshipers turned to stare at Jenell Covrin, who came striding down the central aisle in full Legion armor, trailed by Squad 391.

“Come out and face consequences, Basra!” Covrin roared, stomping right up to stand next to Trissiny. “It’s me, Jenell—your little pet. The one you thought a victim!”

“Young lady,” Justinian began.

“I did this, Basra!” Covrin screamed. “I’ve been gathering every secret you tried to bury. I brought them to the High Commander! I BROUGHT YOU DOWN! You can hide from the paladin, but you can’t hide from the truth.”

“Private,” the Archpope said more loudly, “this is not—”

“I DID THIS TO YOU!” Covrin roared, her voice all but rattling the stained glass. “For everything you did to me, I WON! And if you want to try settling it one more time, you’re gonna have to come out and face me. You’ll know how to find me, you bitch! Until then, I. FUCKING. WIN.”

“That is enough,” Justinian said flatly. “Sergeant at arms, please escort this young woman from the Cathedral.”

“Squad, form up!” Trissiny snapped. Instantly, the six members of Locke’s squad pivoted and snapped into a wedge, blocking off the aisle from the Holy Legionaires who had started toward them from the doors. They very wisely slowed as the Silver Legionnaires formed a menacing phalanx bristling with lances.

Four more Legionaries were approaching from the front of the Cathedral, but also did not get far.

“Grip! Duster! Ninetails!” Darling barked.

Instantly, the three Omnist nuns on the front row surged upright, hurling away their voluminous robes to reveal armed women in scuffed leather. All three Guild enforcers flowed into place in a triangle around Jenell and Trissiny, staring down the heavily armored Legionaries, who also came to a nervous halt.

“Come on, Covrin,” Trissiny said quietly. “Nothing else we can do here…for now. We will have to finish this later.”

She half-turned to meet Justinian’s eyes.

The Archpope nodded to her once, and smiled.

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Epilogue – Vol. 4

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The High Commander’s office was deep enough in the temple that the sound of thunder penetrated it, but even the fiercest rain was muted by intervening walls. It was not thundering now, and the dreary patter of Tiraas’s usual weather made no sound within—at least, not to the humans. Commander Rouvad and Squad One were left in silence.

She had not directed them to stand at ease, or in fact said anything since their arrival. For over a full minute, Rouvad just studied them with a quizzical little frown, as if struggling to figure out what she was looking at. For such a famously self-possessed woman, it was an unusual expression. Almost alarmingly so.

“Well,” the High Commander said at last. “Another mission completed, and with a nearly optimal outcome. I had a secondary reason for sending you there and placing you in charge, Lieutenant Locke. My intention was to give you the chance to become familiar with the other special forces squadrons, and get them accustomed to you. And, more specifically, to taking orders from you. Yet, all other squads have nothing to report of your interactions except that they arrived in Puna Dara to find you there, looking insufferably pleased with yourself, and reporting that the entire matter was settled.”

She paused again, her mouth twisting to one side in a sardonic half-grimace that was far more characteristic of her.

“Anything to add to that, Lieutenant?”

Principia cleared her throat. “I am extremely pleased with the performance of my squad, Commander, but the situation placed us entirely in a supplementary role. I believe our assistance was useful, but ultimately it was adventurers who settled the crisis in Puna Dara. I cannot take credit, individually or on behalf of my unit. And I am always insufferably pleased with myself, ma’am, it wasn’t situationally specific. If I’ve done something to offend any of the other squad leaders, I’ll owe them an apology.”

“You may be the most irritating presence in all my Legions, Locke, but you’re far from the only large personality, particularly among the special forces. Had you given offense, I’m sure I would be hearing about it. No, they are simply left in the same position they were to begin with: wondering just who and what you are and why I would put you in command. And as usual, you’ve managed to make a wreck of my careful planning without seeming to realize you were, and while fulfilling the letter of your orders to perfection. It’s an incredible talent you have, Locke.”

She inhaled deeply, shoulders rising, and let out the breath in a heavy sigh.

“You once had the gall to take me to task about the state of the Silver Legions’ combat readiness. You were not entirely incorrect, either. I certainly have not failed to notice that we are trained and equipped to fight the wars of two centuries ago. Nobody has, Locke; you weren’t clever for pointing it out. If anything, you underestimated the issue. The Silver Legions have not stagnated since the Enchanter Wars, we have regressed. The Legions which beat the Imperial Army at the borders of Viridill fought with battlestaves and magical artillery—primitive compared to those of today, but still. They also made heavy use of what, in any other organization, would be called adventurers. The last, lingering remnants of the Silver Huntresses and the old League of Avei. Those are truly gone, now, their only heirs the Legion special forces you didn’t get the chance to work with in Puna Dara recently.

“Today’s Silver Legions serve a different purpose than did those of a hundred years ago. When we are sent to fight, it is against the same universal evils we always have. Demon infestations, renegade warlocks, necromancers, the odd outbreak of aggressive fae… The methods of wars past still work against them, as do our corps of priestesses wielding Avei’s light. In some ways, these events are relics of a world that is slipping further into the past every day. Apart from that, the Legions remain a calming influence, a reminder of Avei’s presence. It assuages the fears of many, and dissuades others, like the Huntsmen of Shaath, from becoming too aggressive in areas where we maintain a presence. In the century since the Enchanter Wars, we have specialized in very specific kinds of war—and they do not include grand interstate conflicts. The Silver Legions have not, since that time, acted against any mortal government by force of arms. And because of that, we are welcomed nearly everywhere…despite the memory of the war in which we were instrumental in bringing down the world’s mightiest empire. The nations of the earth permit our presence because we bring stability, and do not threaten their power. And so we are a universal force without having to fight for an inch of the ground we hold. Politics: the continuation of war by other means.”

She paused, frowning slightly, then inhaled a slow breath as if steeling herself for something. “This was not a strategy instigated by any High Commander. It was a command directly from Avei.”

Rouvad stood, suddenly, and paced out from behind her desk to stand in front of it, studying each of them in turn as she continued.

“Avei’s orders were that this measure must be unequivocally genuine. No surreptitious preparations or great secrets: the draw-down of the Silver Legions was to occur in exactly the manner it appeared on the surface. Naturally rumors arose at first that this was a ploy, but they have faded with time. No hint has ever emerged that the Silver Legions are engaged in any hidden program to suddenly bring forth unexpected power, because no such program has existed. The only way to guarantee that a thing will not be found is to guarantee that it is not to be found.

“You have all heard rumors of the First Silver Legion?”

She paused, watching them. One by one, they nodded, as it became clear the Commander was actually waiting for a response.

“That rumor persists throughout the Legions,” Nandi said finally. “It always has.”

“It is a real thing,” said Rouvad, turning her back on them to stare at the wall behind her desk, on which was hung a map of the continent. “But not in the manner people suppose. Avei commanded the designation of First Legion be reserved, as we do for first cohorts within each Legion and first squadrons within each cohort, for special forces. The First is to serve as a military force that can actually take on any known opponent and win. And it does not exist. The First Legion is not training in secret; it is waiting to be called, at the goddess’s command.”

Rouvad’s tight braid shifted slightly back and forth as she shook her head infinitesimally, still looking away from them.

“Gods don’t commonly speak to their followers, and ours is no exception. I have rarely had orders directly from Avei during my tenure. One concerned you, Locke, as you know but I presume your squadron does not. Do they?”

“If so,” Principia said carefully, “they didn’t hear it from me. You ordered me not to reveal that, ma’am.”

“So I did. You do generally stop short of open disobedience, don’t you? Well, ladies, for your edification, when this one showed up here with her rap sheet longer than the history of some nations, transparently angling to get close to her estranged paladin daughter, my inclination was naturally to toss her out on her dainty ear. It was at Avei’s direct order that she was allowed to enlist.”

The entire rest of the squad turned their heads to stare at Principia in disbelief.

“Attention,” she snapped. Five pairs of eyes immediately faced front again.

Rouvad turned, looking across their line with faint amusement on her features. It faded immediately.

“The goddess has given orders again. What I am about to tell you is, until further notice, a secret of the highest order. You will reveal it to no one. So far as the Third Legion’s chain of command is to know, your squad will be answering to me directly in pursuit of a classified project, which is true, and your status is not otherwise changed. That project is the creation of a secret military unit within the Silver Legions capable of contending with and defeating any rival force which exists upon this planet. Avei’s orders come with a warning: a great doom is coming. She anticipates it will be less than two years before this force must be put to the test. That is how long you have, Locke.

“For the time being you will remain ostensibly assigned as you presently are. Known only to yourselves and to me, however is your new designation: Squad 111. The First Legion is raised, ladies. Whatever is coming…it is nearly upon us.” She shook her head again. “May the goddess watch over us all. Any questions? Locke?”

“You…that…” For once, it appeared Principia had nothing to say. She swallowed heavily and tried again. “To clarify… You expect me to bring the Silver Legions forward a hundred years? In less than two? In secret?”

“I frankly don’t know what to expect,” Rouvad replied, with open bitterness. “Do you imagine this fills me with confidence, Locke? Do you really think I would choose to place this burden on your scrawny shoulders? But I am overruled. Here’s a great secret for you, perhaps more secret to some than to others: the gods are not always right. But they unquestionably know a great deal that we do not. And I trust Avei. Not merely as a divine being, but as an individual. From my survey of history and my personal experience with our goddess, I believe she knows what she is doing, even when no one else does. Let me tell you, this tests that belief. Tests, but does not break or even bend it.

“You will answer directly to me in this, Locke. I am not advancing you to the rank of General, that would be ridiculous. I expect you to continue showing the proper decorum and respect toward your superior officers—the fact that you technically command a Legion now does nothing to change that expectation. Whatever and whoever you need, if it’s within my power, is yours. Everything goes through me, you are not to go off on your own or cut me out of the loop. But you will have my unconditional support, and are entitled to every resource I can muster for your project. Beyond that… The means by which this shall be done is left entirely to you. Understand?”

“This is impossible,” Principia breathed.

“No, Locke, you are impossible,” Rouvad said sourly. “This is merely the ludicrous, pestilential millstone round the neck you have been to countless souls over the last two and a half centuries. I bet it surprises you as much as me to learn that your career has been actually leading up to something. Regardless, you will doubtless have questions and require clarification, but I believe you had better take time to compose yourself before bringing them, otherwise they are unlikely to be pertinent. For now, dismissed.”

They stood there, Principia with her mouth half-open in a totally uncharacteristic expression of baffled shock. The rest of her squad were varying degrees of stunned and alarmed; all had shifted their heads slightly to look at her sidelong.

“You are dismissed, ladies!” Rouvad barked.

Principia jumped physically, then sketched a salute. Ephanie, at the other end of the line, turned to open the door. They filed out in silence, the weight of the High Commander’s stare seeming to push them physically from the office. It didn’t let up until Ephanie shut the door behind them.

The hall, fortunately, was deserted for the moment.

“Sooo.” It was Merry who finally broke the silence. “Szaravid, you’re the historian here. On a scale of the Enchanter Wars to the Second Hellwar, how boned would you say we are, exactly?”

“The Second Hellwar didn’t leave a single functioning kingdom anywhere on the continent,” Farah said faintly. “It won’t be anywhere near that bad. I mean, it can’t. Surely?”

“Cut the chatter,” Ephanie ordered. “The LT is scheming.”

They turned their attention on Principia, who was indeed staring into space, but not with the lost look she’d worn moments before. Her eyes were slightly narrowed, darting this way and that as if studying a large, complex diagram none of them could see. Noting positions, charting connections, extrapolating…

“Okay,” she said, and nodded slowly. “All right. I have an idea.”


By now, the Archpope’s seclusions were a known habit, and his personnel knew better than to try to dig him out when he was sequestered in prayer. He actually did sequester himself in prayer, at least enough to be seen doing it and preserve the legitimacy of the claim. But the habit served most importantly to earn him time to vanish into the catacombs beneath the Grand Cathedral and pursue the various projects which demanded his personal attention. Those no one else could be allowed to see.

On this occasion, he passed through the labyrinthine passages and numerous barriers by rote, knowing every turn, every combination, every step to avoid setting off a trap, and came before a simple metal doorway with a small glass panel set into one of its upright columns. The maze Justinian had created beneath the Cathedral would have been a very irresponsible thing to leave for his successor, did he not specifically plan that there would not be another Archpope after him.

The panel blazed alight at his touch, emitting a soft white glow. He submitted his palmprint, traced a pattern with his fingertip, tapped one corner in a specific rhythm, entered a fourteen-digit alphanumeric code, and played three bars of a melody on the one-octave piano keypad which appeared at the final stage. Only after all that did the door truly come alive, filling with a luminous panel of inscrutable blue light.

Time was precious. Justinian stepped through it without pausing even a moment, despite the enormity of the step he was taking. He had grown accustomed to this particular miracle.

That was related to the matter which so troubled him now.

He emerged on a walkway of spotless, gleaming metal, extending hundreds of feet ahead and broad as a city avenue, lined with a waist-high balustrade along which softly glowing panels were spaced, providing gentle illumination. In fact, the path was curved, but on such a scale that it appeared perfectly straight from the perspective of any person standing upon it. Ahead, it terminated against a coliseum-sized structure which extended downward, like a massive, inverted tower. He did not step to the side to look over the edge; aside from being a disturbing view, he knew what he would see.

Nothing, straight down, for countless miles until far below, at the center of the moon, was the mass shadow engine—now more a phenomenon than a structure. The awesome power source which provided not only the energy that had once ignited magic itself on the world, but the gravity which governed the very tides.

He did pause to look upward, as he always did, at the transparent panel which formed the ceiling over this walkway. Above it stretched infinite space. It was good timing; at the moment, he could also see the world of his birth and all his careful plans, half-hidden by the moon’s shadow.

There seemed no specific sound, save for the soft yet omnipresent ambient hum of powerful machines functioning at low power—unusual, in this century, but distinctive to those who knew it—yet mere seconds after Justinian’s arrival a whirring began. From the huge complex at the other end of the path, a small form rounded the corner of its open doorway and came whizzing toward him on nimble little wheels. It veered from side to side in excitement as it approached, emitting a pleasant series of chimes and brandishing its multiple insectoid arms in the air.

Justinian smiled as he paced forward to meet it with a measured step, pausing when the Caretaker unit intercepted him. It wheeled around him in a full orbit in its glee before stopping, and he placed a hand atop its upper protrusion.

“Hello, CT-16. It’s good to see you again. I am afraid the pace of events keeps me from visiting often, but it is always pleasant to meet you.”

The little golem chimed happily back, ducking out from under his hand to whirl around him once more, then fell in beside him as he continued forward toward the huge structure.

Justinian allowed the smile to melt from his features as he walked beside the Caretaker.

“It has been bad, recently,” he said, staring ahead at the complex they approached. “This last week… My plans continue to develop apace, with no further major upheavals. It seems I have even gained some ground. The price, though, is bitter. Many who have seen the value of my ideas and shown loyalty to me because of them…sacrificed. Apprehended by the government and their lives and careers greatly disrupted. And those are the more fortunate. Others have perished…in unfortunate events when the Empire came for them, in violence at the hands of that creature Tellwyrn…”

He sighed softly, and closed his eyes for a moment without slowing his pace. The Caretaker made a whirring little series of chimes and produced a brush on one of its arm tips, and gently stroked his sleeve in a comforting gesture.

“And poor Ildrin,” Justinian whispered. “Loyal, trusted Ildrin, who has served me with such diligence. I killed her, CT. Oh, I was nowhere nearby. But I maneuvered her into a desperate position, orchestrated the systematic loss of all her support, left her isolated and vulnerable, knowing just how this would act upon her psyche… And then stranded her in a situation with a group of angry Eserites and a vengeful paladin. The outcome was mathematical. It doesn’t matter who held the blade, the blood of a faithful friend is on my hands.” For just a moment, his normally controlled features twisted in disgust. “Because she was no longer useful. Because knowing as much as she did made her a liability. Because it was…strategic.”

He slowed, swerving to the side, and finally come to a stop, planting his hands on the rail and leaning over it, head hanging. The Caretaker sidled up beside him, chiming questioningly in concern.

“I feel it coming on,” Justinain said, opening his eyes and gazing down into empty space. Before him was a perspective the human mind had not evolved to see; it was dizzying, disorienting. The infinite abyss extended down to a swirling mass of light and shadow, the size of a continent and which his mind wanted to believe couldn’t be anything like that in scope. All around, more complexes extended downward from the outer crust of Luna Station, which curved away in all directions.

“I was so passionate when I began this,” he said into the void. “So full of indignation at what the gods have done to us. I have learned…sympathy. For them, for their choices, even for the costs they have inflicted on the world in the name of protecting their power. They were hopeless rebels who rose up to oppose omnipotent beings—just as I am now. And it begins so easily. One compromise, then another, and so on, and each makes the next easier. The cost not so painful. The guilt…more distant. Already I have reached the point where it does not hurt…enough. Not enough, CT. All this, Ildrin alone, this should make me weep. Yet I see only the place it served in the larger plan. This is the sign that I should stop. I am no longer the pure-hearted idealist who began this. I no longer trust myself with the work.

“And yet…and yet, I have no choice. There is no one else who can take up the task. If I leave it now, it will all have been for nothing. The work still needs doing; all these sacrifices cannot have been wasted. The best I can do, anymore, is loathe what it is making me.”

Surreptitiously, the Caretaker grasped his robe firmly with two of its arms.

Justinian smiled, reaching around to pat the golem’s top again, and straightened up, away from the drop before him. “Thank you, my friend, but you needn’t worry. I don’t desire to rest. I do not deserve peace. No…there is only the work, now. But I’m afraid, CT. I am so very terrified that by the time I come to the end of this, even if I succeed… That I will have become a monster who absolutely cannot be allowed to have the power it will grant me. And this hideous cycle will only begin again.”

He stepped back, and raised his head further, again looking up at the arch of space ahead. The world had risen, its edge now clipped by the rim of the skylight. In minutes more it would pass out of view.

“I wonder,” he whispered, “if they ever reached this point? If they faced the knowledge that they needed to stop…but could not afford to?”

Man and golem stood that way, silent, for long moments of contemplation.

At last, Justinian began walking again, resuming his course, and the Caretaker came with him, finally releasing his robe.

“I appreciate you, my little friend,” he said. “Confession is very healing; it is no accident it plays a role in Izara’s faith, and several others. There is simply no one else to whom I can unburden myself, anymore.” He patted the Caretaker again. “Few and fleeting as these meetings of ours are, they are precious to me. If I could not admit to someone how much all this troubles me… I believe I would be lost already if not for you. Thank you.”

The golem chimed pleasantly in reply, again reaching up to gently grasp his sleeve in one of its metal appendages.

“I shall do my utmost,” Justinian said gravely, “to make the outcome of my labors worthy of your trust. I know you waited alone for a very long time. Your first masters began in pursuit of science and the ultimate truth of the universe, and fell to vicious insanity. The Pantheon sought justice, freedom, and a new hope for all the people of this world…and look what they immediately did. The cycle must break, CT. I hope against hope I shall be the one to do it. That you will not have to be disappointed yet again.”

The Caretaker just chimed soothingly, and stroked his arm again with the brush.

They were silent until they reached the broad opening into the complex, the massive round tower of metal descending into a spire that aimed at the moon’s terrible core.

“More immediately,” Justinian said in a thoughtful tone as they descended a long ramp, “I find that I have made fundamental errors which I must now correct. I underestimated how difficult it will be to keep all these various factions and foes stirring for the time it will take, without allowing them to destroy me. They are more capable than I anticipated, this is true. But more significantly, I failed to account for so many sharing information. Far too many are starting to realize who sits behind all their troubles. I blame Vesk,” he added wryly. “In the bardic epics, fairy tales, even the modern chapbooks and comics, enemies never talk to each other—at least, not openly. And now I find myself greatly threatened because so many of my opponents have simply had conversations, like adults. Foolish of me, unforgivably foolish.”

They rounded a curve, the ramp switching back down; this part of the complex had been built to be navigable by wheeled servants like CT-16. Ahead, an opening appeared at the end of the arched passageway.

“That can be dealt with,” Justinian said, frowning deeply now. “At the cost of causing more stains on my soul, and more pain and havoc for who knows how many other souls who have done nothing to deserve it. But…I cannot see any other way. They must all turn on me in the end, but not yet. It isn’t time yet, and I can be easily overthrown, still. If I am to postpone this reckoning until the right moment, I must give the heroes and villains and meddlers in general something else upon which to focus for a time.”

They emerged from the tunnel onto a balcony which ringed a circular space with no floor; below was only the infinite drop. From the dome arching overhead extended machines which projected suspensor fields holding up the object in the center of the open space. The thing itself was fully encased in a rectangular brick of transparent material, almost as clear as the air and visible only by its corners, but incredibly hard and a disruptor of transcension field energy besides. Not despite but because of its open plan, this spot was the most secure space in the solar system to keep a highly dangerous object. If the suspensors shut off for just a second, the thing they held would plummet straight down to the annihilating force of the mass shadow event, which nothing could survive.

“And so,” Justinian said grimly, stepping forward to grasp the rail before him and stare at the thing he had secreted away here, “I will regret that there is no one left in a position to forgive me for this. I must…unleash something upon them all.”

Within the clear block, the long skull, larger than he was, seemed carved of ebony. Justinian stared at the huge, empty eye sockets, meeting without flinching the knowing grin of Belosiphon the Black.

“Something great. Something terrible.”

 

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13 – 51

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The sun set on a city overtaken by festivity. The Punaji so loved a good storm under any circumstances that they were frequently followed by parties, but as soon as this one had faded, hundreds of citizens had descended upon the Rock, quite a few carrying weapons. Even Naphthene’s fury had not been enough to stop the spread of rumor, and it seemed widely known that the castle was under attack. The King himself had addressed the public quickly.

From there, a celebration was all but inevitable. It was a political move to solidify the Crown’s standing in the aftermath of having beaten an enemy, but also a very necessary release of tension which the city badly needed. Soon all of Puna Dara seemed to be partying, though the festivities were centered on the Rock, where the fortress doors had been opened and food and drink brought out into the courtyard. Cracked doors, lightning burns and broken masonry only served to accentuate the celebrant atmosphere; Punaji most enjoyed a party when it felt particularly earned.

The noise and hubbub served another purpose: it provided a distraction and cover in which the Rust could be carefully locked away. Ayuvesh continued to be cooperative and the rest of his people followed his lead; the King and Queen weren’t greatly concerned about them attempting to resist or break out. Rather, it was important for their sake that they be put out of the public eye and securely held, so they did not become the target of vigilantism. Not a small part of the relief spurring the city-wide festival night was due to the removal of the Rust from the streets. Some of its un-augmented members, those driven out of their dockside warehouse headquarters, remained unaccounted for, but a lot of the survivors of Milady’s rampage had been found and brought to the Rock, where it would be determined if they were to be charged with anything.

Of the Imperial spy herself, there was no sign. The royal scouts who investigated the warehouse did report very strange tracks left in the drying blood, which remained unexplained until Ruda happened to mention them to Schwartz.

“You brought a fucking sylph into my city?!” she exclaimed moments later.

“Aradeus is a friend,” he retorted, “perfectly trustworthy. And he was extremely helpful! If not for him bringing us up to speed on the situation here, I doubt we would have made it to the Rock in time to assist the defenders!” Meesie, as usual, squeaked agreement, nodding her tiny head from her perch on his shoulder.

“That’s true enough,” Trissiny added with a smile. “We’d probably still be out scouting. Of course, we didn’t realize when we ‘ported out here in such a hurry that you lot were on site.”

“Oh, sure, it’s only the most infamously dangerous kind of fairy there is, but hey, you’re a special kind of witch! You can keep it under control!”

“Every part of that is more wrong than the preceding,” Schwartz said irritably. To begin with, he had been somewhat overawed by Ruda, who despite standing a head and a half shorter than he tended to fill a room with her personality—not to mention that he’d never encountered royalty before. The effect had faded quickly once she started talking, and cursing. “First of all, sylphs are merely incredibly strong, nearly invulnerable and prone to violence.”

“Fucking merely!” she snorted.

“Which,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “doesn’t even place them in the top ten most dangerous fairy species. More importantly, you do not control a fairy, especially one like that. Aradeus, as I said, is a friend, and I have learned to trust both his judgment and composure. And oh, look, I was right! He helped, he left, and you wouldn’t even have noticed had I not told you he’d been here.”

“Boy, are you talking back to me?” Ruda demanded, folding her arms. “I’ll have you know I am the fucking Princess in this country.”

Behind her, Trissiny was busy ruining the effect with a broad grin.

“Yes, well,” Schwartz said stiffly, “I guess that explains why you so badly needed to be talked back to.”

Ruda narrowed her eyes to slits, and managed to keep that expression for almost five seconds before giving up and letting out a laugh. To Schwartz’s amazement and Meesie’s shrill annoyance, she punched him on the shoulder. “I like this one, Boots! We should take him back to school with us.”

“Ah…well, I’m afraid my secondary schooling is complete,” Schwartz said, a little bemused, “and Last Rock has no graduate program as yet. But I wouldn’t mind visiting, sometime. The things one hears about that place…”

“Aren’t the half of it, I guarantee.” Ruda glanced to the side, and sighed. “Aw, dammit, made eye contact with Mama. Scuze me, I’ve gotta go pretend to be a civilized person for a few minutes.”

She grabbed a random bottle from the nearest table while sauntering off toward her parents, tilting it up and taking a long swig.

“She’s making a good start on it,” Darius observed.

The Rock’s banquet hall was laid out with raised sections along both sides, reached by stairs and partially hidden behind colonnades, clearly designed to facilitate private conversation during large gatherings. Trissiny and her friends from Tiraas had quickly gathered there, being themselves in a much less festive frame of mind than the rest of the gathering. Singly and in small groups, her other classmates had come by to catch up. Ruda was the last, and by that point Tallie and the Sakhavenids seemed to be slightly in shock.

“So…” Tallie ventured after a moment, “what’s that Boots business?”

Trissiny gave her a deadpan look, lifting one eyebrow. “What boots?”

“Oh ho, so it’s something she doesn’t want to discuss.” Tallie grinned wickedly. “I wonder which of your adventure buddies I should shmooze to get the details? Hmm, I bet that Gabriel guy would fall for the ol’ fluttering eyelashes trick.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla held up a finger. “Down, girl. Dibs, remember?”

“I will not hesitate to dunk your head in a sink until you drop that,” Darius informed her.

“So, you’re planning to visit Last Rock, now?” Principia said casually, strolling up to them from the banquet floor below. “I only caught the tail end of that conversation.”

“You can hear every conversation in the room,” Trissiny stated flatly. “And now that we know which one you were listening to, I have the funniest feeling you could quote the entire thing back to us from beginning to end.”

“Rapid memorization is a neat parlor trick,” the elf said with an unabashed grin. “But sorry, I’m a little rusty. It’s been a good few years since I actually attended a party. Shame, too, the Punaji throw a good one. So! You two still getting along well, I see,” she said casually, lounging against a pillar and glancing from Schwartz to Trissiny. The position she had chosen placed her shoulder to the others, at whom she had not even glanced.

Darius cleared his throat. “We’re here, too!”

“Well, I’d like to think I’m a useful sort of person to know,” Schwartz said, frowning at Meesie, who was cheeping in inexplicable excitement. “So are the apprentices, here—all of them. Besides, when you’ve been through something hairy with someone, it tends to form a bond.”

“Oh, I am well aware of that,” Principia said, her tone suddenly very dry, and turned to the others. “So tell me! Have you lot noticed any sparks flying between these two?”

“Excuse me?!” Trissiny barked. Tallie burst out laughing so hard she had to slump against the wall.

“Uh, no,” Darius said primly. “Come on, she’s like my brother and Schwartz here is pretty much the living incarnation of a book. I think it would make me physically ill to picture that.”

“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed, while Meesie laughed so hard she had to grab his ear to avoid tumbling off his shoulder. It somewhat spoiled the indignant pose he was trying to put on. “This ‘Aunt Principia’ thing you’ve been trying out with me is wearing a little thin! Just because you knew my father does not give you the right to meddle in my personal business! Besides, as you well know, I’m already—”

He broke off, blushing. Tallie, whose laughter was just beginning to settle down, was set off again and this time Darius had to catch her. Layla, uncharacteristically quiet, was studying the rest of them with her eyes slightly narrowed.

“How did you know his father?” Trissiny asked. “Was he involved in Guild business, too?”

“No, nothing like that,” Principia replied lightly. “Anton was a skilled enchanter who had a prairie boy’s disregard for other people’s rules. I met him looking for someone to do some barely-legal charm work that was beyond my skill, and kept him in my address book for more after that worked out so well. Got to where he’d accompany me on a little adventure now and again. This was long after ‘adventuring’ was a respectable pastime, so we didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. Also, he was your father.”

Total silence descended on their alcove like a hammer. Tallie’s lingering chuckles were cut off and she stared at the elf; only Layla didn’t look visibly shocked, nodding slowly with a thoughtful expression. Schwartz and Trissiny gaped at Principia, then at each other.

Meesie gathered herself, then leaped from Schwartz’s shoulder to Trissiny’s, where she reached up to pat her cheek, squeaking affectionately.

“Funny how things work out,” Principia mused, now wearing a little smile.

“Funny,” Trissiny choked.

“Funny ironic, not funny amusing. I spent the longest damn time puzzling out how to tell you that. I even went out to visit Hershel’s mom, see what she said.”

“You did what?!” Schwartz screeched.

“And after all that,” Principia said with a sigh, “here it is, just dropped into the conversation like a wet fish. But hell, I do know what tends to happen when two attractive young people go through a few life-or-death situations together, and that needed to be nipped in the bud.”

“There was nothing to nip!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“And now there won’t be,” Principia said placidly. “Back in the day, adventurers were an oddly interrelated but private group; you’d see the same dozen or so people over and over again, go through hell and back shoulder to shoulder with them, and then go your separate ways without really learning anything about their lives. And it was like that for enough generations that various people’s kids would run into each other… Well, I’ve actually seen long-lost siblings accidentally hook up more than once. That kind of misunderstanding is only funny when it happens to people I don’t care about.”

“Every time we have a conversation,” Trissiny stated, “I feel like I gain a little more appreciation for you, and a lot more for the woman who actually raised me.”

Principia grinned. “Well, I’ll take what I can get.”

“Yes, that’s the story of your life, isn’t it?”

“I’m already nostalgic for this morning,” Darius said, “when the paladin thing was the big shock. Gods, what is it with you? Paladin in two cults, related to elves and bloody dragons, friend of royalty, and now you’ve even got a mysterious orphan brother. Knowing you is like being in a fuckin’ opera. How long are we gonna be peeling this onion?”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “I wish I knew. Two years ago, I was an orphan. It was much simpler.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a thing to say right in front of your mom,” a man remarked, strolling up to them and casually rolling a coin across the backs of his fingers. “Hey there, Prin. Heck of a party, isn’t it?”

“Uh, hi,” Principia said, straightening up. “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

Her face showed clear surprise and uncertainty, an unfamiliar expression on her given how she avoided revealing weakness. The others glanced between her and the new arrival uncertainly; she wasn’t alarmed, clearly, just startled.

“Nobody ever expects to see me!” he said grandly, tossing the doubloon back and forth between his hands. “That’s rather the point, don’cha think?” He was, like many members of the Guild, a very unremarkable person, dressed in slightly shabby clothes, with long features, shaggy hair, and a complexion that hovered somewhere between Tiraan and Punaji.

“This was a private conversation until very recently,” Layla observed. “Lieutenant Locke, would you care to introduce us to your acquaintance?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” he said with an amused grin, “how’s about you make the introductions? And then you kids can just follow me. Strictly speaking I only need her Paladinship, here, but I bet the rest of you will wanna come along.”

“Come along to fucking where?” Darius demanded. “Who is this clown?”

Principia cleared her throat. “Hey, keep it in your pants, kid. This is the Big Guy.”

There was a beat of silence, broken by Schwartz drawing in a deep, sudden breath.

“Wait, wait,” Tallie protested. “I must be remembering wrong. I thought Big Guy was what they called the god.”

“They do it because I hate the term ‘god,’” he confided, winking. “It’s one of those words that just encourages people to place too much stock in it and not do for themselves. That is not how I want you lot carrying on, see?”

“Yes, Tallie, you’re correct,” Principia said warily. “Big Guy is what they call the god. And stop making faces at me,” she added in annoyance to the divine subject of her faith. “You also don’t like people to pussyfoot around and not call things what they are.”

“Ehh…except in certain circumstances, but fine, I’ll grant you that,” Eserion replied cheerfully. “Now come along, kids! We don’t wanna be late. It’s rude to keep people waiting, don’cha know.”


They followed him through the corridors of the Rock in awed silence, a marked contrast to the god himself, who chattered on amiably at the head of the group. Principia strolled at his side, seemingly un-intimidated and bantering right back. Periodically they would pass soldiers or castle servants, but aside from a few curious looks, no one troubled them. Eserion’s outfit was as scruffy and out of place as the three apprentices’, and Schwartz as always drew stares in his Salyrite robe with a ratlike fire elemental on his shoulder, but it seemed Trissiny and Principia in uniform lent the group enough credibility to pass unchallenged.

The general course they took led upward and in, and through corridors that grew increasingly rich the longer they went on; the Rock was a militaristic fortress through and through, not given to excess or indulgence, but the farther they walked, the more frequent tapestries, carpets, and ornamental touches became. Finally, Eserion brought them to a wide door in the center of a currently unoccupied hallway, threw it open with a grand gesture, and swaggered inside. The rest followed with a bit more circumspection.

It was a bedroom—a very large and rather lavishly appointed one, whose décor ran heavily to old flags and weapons. The group barely glanced around at it, though, being more focused on the people waiting for them.

Style was pacing up and down with even more than customary annoyance; on their arrival, she turned to face the door, folding her brawny arms and glaring. Boss Tricks was busy rifling through a chest of drawers and scarcely glanced up at them. Bishop Darling stood near the foot of the huge four-poster bed, juggling three brass wine goblets. Empty ones, fortunately.

“Uhh…” Darius leaned around Trissiny to stare. “Is this one of those things where I’m supposed to ask the obvious questions to move this along, or is it a ‘shut up and listen’ kind of thing?”

“Lemme see if I can guess the first two!” Darling said airily while Eserion shut the chamber door behind them. “This is the personal bedroom of the King and Queen, and we are here for the same reason all of you are: because the Big Guy felt our presence was important.”

“Yeah,” Style snorted, “because none of us have any fucking thing important to be doing right now!”

“Oh, un-clench ’em for half a second if you can manage, Style,” said the Boss, pulling out something crimson and silken from a drawer. “This is the only vacation we’ve had in years. Why, Anjal, you saucy vixen!”

“You cut that shit out immediately,” Style barked, crossing the room in two strides and smacking him upside the head with nearly enough force to bowl him over. “If you’re gonna steal, steal—otherwise, keep your greasy little fingers out of a woman’s underwear drawer. That is creepy as fuck, Tricks.”

“Gotta side with her on this one, Boss,” Sweet added. “And not just because I’m more scared of her than you.”

“All of you, put that crap back where you found it,” Eserion said. “You, too, Sweet. Anjal and Rajakhan are good sorts, the kind of leaders we should encourage, not punish.”

“Excuse me?” Layla raised a hand. “What, if I may ask, are we doing in here, then?”

“It’s tradition!” Eserion proclaimed, turning to her with a broad smile. “This ceremony is always held in illicit quarters. There’s not much in the way of sacred ground for the Guild; we perform this rite someplace illegally broken into.”

“Uhh…rite?” Tallie hadn’t stopped peering around since she’d come in. “What rite?”

“A graduation ceremony,” Principia said softly.

“Indeed!” Tricks said, still rubbing his head as he ambled over to join them. “For obvious reasons, it’s usually just the apprentice and trainer—but hell, this is a special circumstance. I guess the Big Guy figured it was an appropriate occasion to make an exception and bring family and friends.”

He nodded across the room, and they turned to behold a fourth person waiting, a tall woman in an Imperial Army uniform with no insignia. Despite her imposing height and figure, she was surprisingly unobtrusive, standing still in a shadowed corner and observing without comment.

“Who’s that?” Darius stage whispered to Tallie, who shrugged.

Trissiny and Principia both came to attention, but the woman shook her head at them and raised a hand. “At ease.”

“So…graduation?” Layla asked, turning back to the Boss.

“Indeed! The question is…for whom?” He grinned at them and perched on the edge of a dresser. “Here’s where we stand. You kids have been around for about the length of time and learned about the level of skill we mandate for apprentices. Somebody who hasn’t picked up a permanent sponsor for more in-depth training at that point is usually required to either join the Guild as a full member, or leave the apprentice program. Style says your progress is such that if you want to be tagged and join up, we’ll allow it today. But! I’m sorta giving away the surprise, here, but while we were putting our own house back in order after you lot poofed off to Puna Dara, Glory announced her intention to take you on as apprentices, if you were all willing.”

“Wh—all of us?” Tallie demanded, blinking. “But she’s got an apprentice. Hell, Rasha’s a perfect match for Glory. I dunno what the hell she’d want with any of us.”

“It’s not traditional,” Tricks agreed. “And that tradition does exist for a reason: a single apprentice gets more focused attention and a better education. Glory’s argument, though, was that you lot are good kids and good prospects for the Guild, and the reason you haven’t been picked by anyone is politics not your fault and beyond your control. I happen to think she’s right on all points, there. And besides.” He winked, grinning. “If there is one thing we are not, it’s excessively bound by rules.”

“Not totally unprecedented, anyway,” Style grunted. “Especially with this one, recently.”

Sweet did not quail under her stare, but shrugged. “Hey, my girls come as a set. I don’t think I’d have had the heart to split ’em up, even if I thought that was remotely possible.”

“That leaves us another case, though,” said Eserion, his expression finally serious. “Our girl Trissiny isn’t fated for a long apprenticeship with a full Guild member. And after the events of today, putting her back in with the general pool of apprentices is…probably not the best idea. So that brings us to this crossroads. Style, you are the closest thing she’s had to a trainer, in your capacity as overseer of the general apprentices. It’s up to you to decide if she’s ready.”

Style stepped forward, eyes fixed on Trissiny and her expression unreadable. The rest of the group instinctively shuffled away, clearing a space for them to regard one another. Principia stepped over to stand next to Sweet, gazing at Trissiny with the intensity of someone barely controlling a strong emotion.

“I’ve had to fill this role for a lot of prospects, over the years,” Style said. “Mostly little fuckheads who couldn’t cut it with a real sponsor. There’s always a reason; we’ve had a few I just barely considered worth keeping in the Guild, but also some who were just plain unlucky, like you little bastards. Shit happens; some folks just don’t get a fair shake. This…is one of the second kind.” Eyes still locked on Trissiny, she nodded slowly, and folded her arms. “Her skills aren’t great, but she’s always impressed me with her eagerness to learn more. A good thief never lets up on that; practice doesn’t end when your apprenticeship does, that’s when it gets started in earnest. No, the only question was always her attitude. I understand she came to us specifically in search of our mindset, our philosophy. It takes some good self-awareness to realize you need that kind of change, but even so, I spent a while doubting she was ever gonna get that through her head.”

She paused, narrowed her eyes for a moment, and then, incongruously, grinned.

“But fuck me if she didn’t manage it. What’d you learn, girl?”

“Don’t call me ‘girl,’ you big ape,” Trissiny shot back immediately, earning a round of grins and chuckles from the senior Eserites present, including the one she’d just insulted. “I’ve learned a lot… But if you’re asking about the big questions, mostly the skill of watching, planning, thinking. Acting through maneuver instead of force. Supposedly I learned that lesson growing up; the Sisterhood takes it as an aphorism that war is deception. All conflict demands strategy.” She glanced aside at the uniformed woman, who just nodded in encouragement. “The Guild made it real to me, though. And…that’s given me perspective, too. At first I thought I’d come here to learn a new way of thinking, but really, what I needed was to truly grasp the way I always should have been. I was brought up to think the Guild and the Sisterhood were at cross purposes, but I’ve come to understand how very alike their aims are. And these differing ideas about how to reach those aims aren’t an accident. Both orders have their blind spots. It’s inevitable; there’s just no escaping that.” She paused, then smiled. “All systems are corrupt. And that’s why we have a goddess of war and a god of thieves in the same Pantheon; so we can watch each other’s backs. Society needs justice, and sometimes, justice needs help from the shadows, because where there’s a system, there’ll be someone who’s found a way to exploit it.”

Style nodded, her eyes glinting. “Yeah, you’ve done fine, kid. Now, there’s no litany or ritual, here. Almost all of the Guild’s actual rituals are performative—things we do to remind everybody else that we’re here, that we’re watching, and that they’d better not fuck up around us. This, here, is about you; nobody benefits from either trainer or apprentice reciting lines memorized by rote. You have to understand who and what we are as Eserites, and you have to express that understanding in a way that’s true to your own identity. As your trainer, I judge you ready—or ready enough. Are you ready to swear your oath to Eserion and his Guild?”

Trissiny nodded deeply. “Whatever happens here, even if you’d decided to throw me out, I plan to live my life fighting of what the Guild and the Sisterhood believe.”

“Good. And what do you swear?”

She straightened up, resting her left hand on the pommel of her sword. “To fight whoever needs fighting, to protect whoever needs protecting. To uphold the spirit of justice, but to recognize that laws don’t have all the answers. To watch closely, and think carefully, and do my best to act in the right way to achieve the results I need. I have already sworn to oppose corruption and evil in all its forms as a soldier. I’ll promise you, now, to always remember that I am an enforcer. That standing against the darkness isn’t always enough; sometimes, you have to make sure the darkness is too afraid to make the first move. That, I will swear. The darkness will fear me.”

Style tilted her head up, regarding Trissiny down her long, twice-broken nose. One corner of her mouth twitched slightly in the ghost of a lopsided smile. “Eh… It’ll do.”

Principia lost the battle, letting a huge grin of fierce pride spread across her face.

“What’s her tag, Style?” Eserion asked.

Style studied the paladin thoughtfully for a long moment before speaking. “Kid, you have been an unrelenting thorn in my ass from the moment you marched into my Guild. Until you have to be responsible for a whole organization I don’t think you’ll ever realize how truly obnoxious that is, having somebody underfoot who just never fucking stops. I’ll admit, there were times I was strongly tempted to try and beat that out of you. But that stubborn, irritating persistence isn’t a flaw—it only looked like one because you had some stupid ideas cluttering up your brain. We’ve made a start on fixing that, enough that I’ve come to trust you’ll still work to keep fixing it. And meanwhile, I trust that you’ll keep doing what I saw you do today: never fucking stop. You won’t win all your battles, and no matter how much power you’ve got to swing around, there’ll always be someone you just cannot take down. But what I know is that you won’t be walked over. Every son of a bitch who tries to stomp on you is gonna hurt for it, and hurt every moment that you’re digging at them. That’s what I expect from you, Trissiny: win or lose, you will never let the bastards forget you’re there, or walk away without paying.”

She paused, then nodded deeply and intoned in a suddenly sonorous voice. “Kneel, Trissiny Avelea.”

“What?” Trissiny frowned. “Kneeling doesn’t sound like—oh, screw you, Style.”

Sweet let out a delighted cackle; Principia’s grin widened to the point that it looked painful.

Style just smirked. “You’d be surprised how many fall for that. Ah, well, I guess it was too much to hope for. Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild in truth, Thorn.”

Trissiny pursed her lips. “…I am never going to be able to escape thinking of you talking about your ass, now.”

“Remember, this is your very identity we’re talking about,” Eserion said. “Your trainer plays an important role in this, but them picking your tag is a tradition, not a law. If you really hate it, you’re entitled to decide how you’ll be tagged.”

“No.” Trissiny nodded at Style, her mouth twisting up in a slight, sardonic expression. “No, you know what? I like it. Thorn. Yeah, I think that suits me just fine.”

 

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