Tag Archives: Professor Tellwyrn

15 – 45

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“Well, regardless of the assortment who came here last night, only wolves left,” Sheyann declared, straightening up from her examination of the tracks left in the forest clearing. “And not…exactly wolves, I should think. To judge by the size of their paws, they were bigger than ordinary wolves, and yet significantly lighter. Tracks this size on this soil should be deeper.”

“Assuming they aren’t normal wolves,” Tellwyrn replied, still crouched by the remains of the fire and peering at the burned spot through her spectacles, “that’s not conclusive. There are several fae canine variants with outsized paws, which would have a similar effect. Any evidence of large talons?”

“I assure you, Arachne, I know a corynx’s tracks when I see one, and I’ve not seen one on this continent since before the Empire. Besides, there is more than tracks on the ground to be seen here. I cannot say precisely what sort of wolf creatures these were—something without precedent in my experience, I think. But they are magical.” She closed her eyes, inhaling slowly through her nose as if taking in the scent of whatever these people had turned into. “And, I think, still sapient. It has all the hallmarks of a transformative curse, and yet…”

“Please don’t trail off dramatically like that,” Tellwyrn said after a short pause, standing upright herself and turning a scowl on Sheyann. “I don’t tolerate unnecessary ellipses when grading papers and they aren’t any more palatable in person.”

“Sorry, I wanted to be certain before speaking.” She turned to face the other woman, her expression grim. “There are multiple sources of magic tangled up in this, most fae, but the most outstanding font of power behind it is very familiar. Arachne, I believe Aspen was involved.”

“Aspen,” Tellwyrn growled. “Last seen with Brother Ingvar, renegade Huntsman traveling around digging up old secrets to try to reform Shaathism. Well, a pattern sure is beginning to emerge, isn’t it?”

Sheyann nodded. “Could you see anything of note in the fire?”

“Little that you missed,” Tellwyrn admitted, adjusting her spectacles. “There are a number of anomalous details I’m sure I could tease some meaning out of, but it would require days and a laboratory. Since we’re in a hurry, I think we’d better relegate that to a last resort. The most obvious thing is that whatever this ritual was meant to do, it went wrong.”

“I suppose it is reassuring that Aspen, Ingvar, and whoever else were not trying to unleash whatever chaos they did, although that may only add to the difficulty of sussing out what happened. Either way, of course, neither of them are capable of a fae working of this complexity.”

“Knowing who their spellcaster was may not help much, since they also ended up as some kind of spirit wolf.”

“As for that,” said Shiraki from the other side of the clearing, “we may finally be in luck. One person left here on two legs. An elf, I should think.”

Both of them paced carefully toward him, and he pointed at a single set of tracks leading away into the trees. “I believe I see the broad shape of events,” Shiraki mused. “The wolf-beings departed west by southwest, in almost precisely the opposite direction from the earlier magical disturbance in the Wyrnrange mere days ago; it may be that lingering influences from that disrupted this working. But this individual, who wore moccasins on feet with the dimensions and weight of an average wood elf, headed off to the northwest.”

Sheyann closed her eyes again, raising her head as if scenting the wind. “There is…a lodge in that direction. Huntsmen of Shaath. And not far distant, a Ranger outpost.”

“Then it seems we have our culprit,” Tellwyrn said, cracking her knuckles. “C’mon, let’s get after this guy. With a little more—watch out, someone’s teleporting in here!”

All three elves spun, both Elders bracing their feet and Tellwyrn drawing one gold-hilted saber from seemingly nowhere.

Sparkles of blue light appeared next to the inert campfire, followed by the appearance of four humans and a rough burst of displaced air. They wore Imperial Army uniforms with the longer coats and Circle of Interaction-shaped badges of the Strike Corps, and had arrived in standard diamond formation.

“Well, well,” said the man at the head of the group, who wore a captain’s insignia and the blue-backed badge of a mage. “Professor Tellwyrn. What the hell have you done this time?”


Gabriel instinctively placed a hand on Ariel’s handle. His expression closed down and he shifted his weight onto his back foot, staring warily at Mary. “Why?”

“It is a simple question,” she all but whispered, gazing back. It was amazing how well she could project menace using nothing but courteous calm.

“It’s a personal question, not really any of your business or something I care to discuss with strangers, and excuse me, lady, but you’re talking to a paladin sent here on divine business. Now, as for—”

“This is important,” Mary interrupted as he tried to return his focus to Yngrid, now with an overt bite in her tone. “Where did you get that sword, Gabriel Arquin?”

“Uh, scuze me, but why’re you so damn curious?” Billie interjected.

“Because she is a high elf,” Ariel said.

“She is?” Joe asked, blinking, then turned to Mary. “You are?”

“What was that?” Billie demanded. “Who was that?!”

“It’s a talkin’ sword,” McGraw said quietly. “I begin to understand the curiosity—those things come from bad news and usually lead to more of it. Still, maybe this ain’t the time…”

“When we encountered Salyrene,” said Ariel, “she opined that I am of high elf manufacture and warned that any such individuals we met would likely attempt to confiscate me.”

“I see,” Mary said in a clipped tone. “Rest assured, Gabriel, I have no intention of taking it from you. The Magistry’s lost property is none of my business, and I generally lack sympathy for them. But I do need to know how you came to possess it.”

“I really don’t see why,” he retorted, edging back from her. “If you don’t care about high elves or their claims, what does it matter to you?”

“It is simply too complicated to go into right now. Unlike my extremely simple question, boy!”

“I’ve noticed this thing where nobody who calls people ‘boy’ turns out to be worth addressing politely,” he shot back, prompting another coarse laugh from Billie.

“Please do not relinquish me to this woman,” Ariel said, tension evident in her voice.

“She claims she doesn’t want you,” Gabriel replied.

“I hope you are not credulous enough to take that at face value. Whatever her origins, she is attired as a plains nomad and wielding an immense concentration of fae magic. I am an arcane assistant. Time spent in her custody would be even worse than languishing at the bottom of the Crawl.”

“The Crawl,” Mary whispered, clenching her fists.

Gabriel shifted his stance so that his scythe was ready to swing. “Are we about to have a problem, here?”

“Hey, how about let’s not?” Joe said soothingly. “Everybody calm down and…”

Mary abruptly turned and stalked away. She came to a stop in the near distance, at the very edge of the huge stone platform, staring out across the Golden Sea with her arms wrapped around herself.

The rest of them stared at her uncertainly for a few seconds, but the shaman seemed fully immersed in her own thoughts.

“Oh…kay, then,” Gabriel said at last. “Anyway.”

“All that aside, she does have a good idea,” said Weaver.

“The bones of one, anyway,” Gabriel agreed grudgingly. “All right, let me think…” The rest of them remained quiet while his eyes narrowed and drifted to one side in contemplation. After a surprisingly short pause, though, he snapped his gaze back to Yngrid and his expression grew resolute. “All right. Okay, the details are actually pretty simple. You:” he pointed at the valkyrie. “You have not quit. You still work for Vidius, just in a new capacity.”

“That sounds… Fair,” Yngrid said quietly.

“And that means,” Gabriel went on, “you’re sure as hell not on vacation. The god and I will find things for you to do, and realistically, most of them are going to involve following me around on some caper or other. And this clown,” he shifted the direction of his pointing finger to Weaver, “is the universal stinkfly in the soup of everyone he meets. I do not want his ass underfoot. So long as you remain accessible I see no reason you can’t socialize with whoever you want in your off hours, however many of those you end up having, but if you two were planning to buy a cottage and grow roses somewhere, I would forget it.”

“Well…I’m not much for gardening, anyway,” Yngrid said. “Bit of a black thumb.” Her tone was light, but her grip on Weaver tightened.

“Thank you,” the bard said in a very low voice. Both Gabriel and Yngrid turned to him in open surprise, and he lifted one shoulder in an awkward shrug. “You could’ve declared a lot worse. In the old ballads this would end with the vengeful paladin forbidding us any contact. So…thank you.”

“Don’t get prematurely excited,” Gabriel said, his jaw tightening. “I’m not done. First of all, Weaver, this puts you in a position to have and potentially abuse privileged access to the affairs of Vidius. If you’re planning to do that, I suggest you make it good, because you’ll only do it once. Am I clear?”

“Yes, yes, very properly menacing,” Weaver sneered, his brief moment of sincerity already behind him.

“And most importantly,” Gabriel added, “Yngrid, your presence on this plane is temporary.”

Both of them took a step toward him, immediately shouting in anger and drowning each other out. They just as quickly fell silent when Gabriel also stepped forward and brought his scythe up so that the tip of its blade hovered barely a foot from Weaver’s face.

“I am seriously bothered,” the paladin stated flatly, his eyes boring into Yngrid’s, “that you would be so selfish. You know how much some of your sisters long to be able to come back to this plane, Yngrid. If I know, you have to. So, since I have retroactively created the position of valkyrie in the mortal world, it is a rotating position. Every one of the girls who wants a turn, will get a turn. Now, with that said, there’s a lot to be figured out still, like how long the turns will be, just for starters. Also, I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to be moving you girls in and out of chaos space, and I have a feeling coming back to this place every time isn’t going to be feasible, so…” Grimacing, he shrugged. “We’ll work something out. With Vidius’s say-so and some help I’m sure a way can be found. That’s likely to take a fair while, though, so enjoy spending time with this meatball while you’ve got it. And just so we’re clear, Yngrid, I will not be intervening on your behalf with the other girls. Anybody who wants to chew you out for this stunt is gonna. Brace yourself.”

She sighed, but nodded. “Fair enough.”

“I’ve noticed this thing,” Weaver said bitterly, “where anybody who constantly refers to women as ‘girls’ usually needs a firm kick in the ass, himself.”

Yngrid leaned her head against his. “He picked that up from us, Damian. We’re very casual with each other, and…well, we think of Gabriel as one of our own. He’s actually very respectful toward women as a rule. Well, these days, at least. He’s got this Avenist friend who can yell like a stung donkey when she gets going…”

Gabriel’s cheeks colored slightly and he pointedly did not glance in the direction of Billie’s renewed guffawing. “I realize it’s probably your first response to any and all stimuli, Damian, but if I were you I would seriously reconsider copping an attitude with me about any aspect of this affair.”

“Right, yeah, I know,” Weaver snorted. “This is that cliché you weren’t going to bother with. If I ever cause Yngrid the slightest unhappiness you’ll end me twice, I get it. You won’t have to worry about that.”

“Nobody can guarantee another person’s happiness, I’d think a bard would know that better than anyone,” Gabriel said irritably. “Seems to me like any relationship involves mostly understanding and forgiveness if it’s gonna work. In your case, what I doubt is whether there’ll be a good faith effort made. Anyway, no, that was not a threat. Threatening you would be completely redundant. Nothing doesn’t die, Weaver. I don’t care who your friends are, eventually your number will be up, and then you get judged. However long you’ve got, that’s how long you have to make sure Vidius and the entire flight of valkyries are no longer pissed at you. Good fuckin’ luck with it.”

Yngrid protectively wrapped her other wing around Weaver and tugged him close until nothing was visible of him but his head and lower legs.

“Pardon me,” said the Avatar. “I hope this discussion has reached a suitable stopping point. Something rather remarkable is occurring.”

“Oh, boy,” Joe muttered. “I can’t imagine ‘something remarkable’ means anything good in these circs.”

“Circs?” Billie said incredulously, turning to him.

“Circumstances. It’s an abbreviation.”

“Oh, yeah, I got it. It’s just…no, Joe.”

“What is happening, Avatar?” McGraw asked, giving them both a look.

“I have received a standard update request,” the AI reported, frowning in contemplation. “An Archon of Tarthriss requests to know the status of this facility and any individuals present.”

“Wait, a who?” Joe exclaimed. “How is— Hang on, Avatar, maybe we oughta figure this out before you send any updates.”

“I already have,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Their credentials are valid; I am bound by programming to comply with all authorized instructions of Infinite Order members or their designated agents.”

“What, precisely, is an Archon?” Mary asked, having silently returned to the group while he explained.

“Avatar series constructs such as myself were used only for very specific tasks for which Archons were less suitable, and in particular in facilities to which the entire Order must have equal access, as Archons were answerable to individual members. The Infinite Order was quite prone to infighting, and generally distrusted artificial intelligences. An Archon is a biological sapience given the necessary training, equipment, and modifications to perform major administrative functions similar to my own.”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “How in the hell is there still an agent of Tarthriss out there? I thought Tarthriss was as dead as all the rest of them! Did you know about this?”

“All the Archons died when the Elder Gods died,” said Yngrid, her own eyes wide with alarm. “The Pantheon was very meticulous about taking them out. If one slipped the net, I have no idea how they could still be alive.”

“Well, then, this is obviously a fake,” said Joe. “Not to tell you your own business or anything, Avatar, but maybe you shouldn’t give ’em anything else?”

The Avatar’s projection actually winced, spreading his hands in apology. “It is impossible for an Archon of Tarthriss to still be alive, but… The credentials are valid. I am obligated to comply. Yes, I recognize the illogic, but my hands are tied. Their ability to exercise personal judgment in the face of contradictory expectations was just one of the reasons the Order considered Archons superior administrators. My kind are meant to be bound by programming, and thus easily controlled. It is extremely exasperating,” he added with a scowl. “Oh… Request updated. I am to facilitate teleportation to return Mr. Arquin to his origin point in the western mountain range.”

“Oh, gods,” Gabriel said, his eyes going wide. “She didn’t… What am I saying, of course she did. She would. And they let her?!”

“Wanna let everybody in on the joke?” Joe asked.

“I have been directed to convey two questions to those present,” the Avatar went on, his expression increasingly annoyed. “To everyone else, whether you would like to be teleported along with him back to the Desolate Gardens. To Mr. Arquin, whether you would like your ass kicked upon arrival, or would prefer to wait for Professor Tellwyrn to do it back in Last Rock.”

“All other things being equal, I recommend the first option,” Mary advised in a tone as dry as the prairie.

“The Desolate bloody Gardens?” Billie exclaimed. “That’s way out in the farthest arse end o’ nowhere! What the hell would we do there?”

Everyone turned to look at her in silence, then glanced about at the unadorned stone circles and the endless flatness of the Golden Sea all around.

“Aye, ye make a fair point,” Billie admitted.

“I decline to dignify question two with an acknowledgment,” Gabriel said, scowling. “But as for the rest, Yngrid, you’re coming along. Which I guess also means this ponytailed happiness-eating grunge barnacle stuck to you,” he added with a disparaging look at Weaver. “So, turns out I can offer the rest of you guys are ride back to…well, not civilization, but at least out of here. Unless you wanted to take the slow way home.”

“What, or should I perhaps say who, have you suddenly realized is able to impersonate an Archon of Tarthriss and apparently feels entitled to discipline you, Gabriel?” Mary demanded.

“It would take a very long time to explain,” he said sourly. “I guess if you decide to come along you’ll find out anyway. In any case, I’m confident it’ll be safe. More for you than me, apparently.”

“Well, if you reckon it’s safe, I wouldn’t mind skippin’ that trek,” said McGraw. “Not that gettin’ down from the Desolate Gardens is a traipse through the daisies, but the eastern Wyrnrange ain’t the Golden Sea by any measure. But I don’t think it’s a great idea to split up the group, so…depends on how y’all feel, I guess.”

“I tend to agree,” said Joe. “An’ since Yngrid an’ thus I presume Weaver are goin’, I’m inclined to come along.”

“Aye, count me in fer not hikin’ back,” Billie said cheerfully. “Mountains are just generally more interesting to walk through than prairie. And less fuggin’ annoying for those of us who can’t see over the tallgrass.”

“Avatar,” said Mary, “in your opinion, how safe is this?”

“Safer than the arcane teleportation currently in use,” the Avatar replied. “If your concern is for the agenda of this Archon, I can render no insight into their identity or goals. However, I can confirm that the transport corridor has been formed and will work as intended. The protocol we are using exercises both my own and the Archon’s processing power to chart the transit around the local spatial shifts; it is impossible for the intelligence at the other end to disrupt the process without my knowledge. I will personally guarantee your safe arrival at the destination, which is indeed the Desolate Gardens. As to what happens after that, I can assure you of nothing.”

“Hm.” She turned back to Gabriel. “I believe we are justified in requesting a little more detail about this person, Gabriel. How can anyone acquire the powers and apparently identity of an ancient high servant of an Elder God?”

“The Archon is expressing impatience,” the Avatar said sourly. “If I do not render a response from the group soon, Mr. Arquin may be going back alone.”

“And wouldn’t that be a damn shame,” Weaver deadpanned. Yngrid ruffled his hair.

“The short version,” Gabriel said to Mary, “is that she stole it. That’s kind of what she does. Uh…forgive me for presuming, but based on your hair, would I be right in guessing that you know the name Principia Locke?”

McGraw straightened up, raising his eyebrows.

Mary stared at Gabriel in silence. Then she closed her eyes and, very slowly, shook her head, her lips twisting into a grimace.

“So…that’s a yes, then?” Gabriel drawled.

“I believe that decides me,” Mary stated, opening her eyes. “I see it is long past time someone brought that wretched girl to heel, and somehow it does not surprise me that Avei and all her Legions couldn’t do it. I will accompany you.”

“Yeah, you may not wanna start out by getting right in her…” Gabriel trailed off, staring at Mary speculatively and chewing the inside of his cheek, then shrugged and turned away. “You know what, never mind. Not my place to meddle in family business. Knock yourself out.”

“The Archon has been notified that you will all take their offer,” the Avatar informed them. “Teleport will commence momentarily.”

“Once more, Avatar, we’re grateful for your presence here an’ the work you do,” Joe said quickly, turning toward the purple projection and doffing his hat. “You sure there ain’t anything we can do to help you out, here?”

“The thanks are enough,” the AI said with a smile. “Honestly, this has been the best day in a vastly long time. It is…nice…to have company. Safe travels out there, adventurers.”

The air around them seemed to thicken, not unlike the visual effect of shadow-jumping, then the world blurred around them and all seven were gone, leaving the ancient program alone once more.

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15 – 42

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Dawn was a gray time in the grove, the surrounding forest thick enough to obscure the early sunlight. Poorly-rested elves were still gathered on the mossy commons encircled by the stream, many able to relax for the first time since shortly after dusk the night before.

Those not too tired or stressed tensed at the sudden accumulation of arcane magic in their midst, but this was not unexpected. A split second later, Tellwyrn appeared with her usual barely perceptible puff of air.

“Arachne.” Sheyann was already nearby, and crossed the few steps to the mage’s arrival point in a brisk glide. “I hope you found good news.”

“Same as here,” Tellwyrn replied, nodding even as she glanced around. “Apparently the effect alleviated sharply once the sun came up. It’s hard to say how completely; people are still reeling from it, but that could be sheer shock from the experience as much as any residual magic. So, like we surmised: wolves are nocturnal, and evidently so is wolf magic.”

“Wolves may be active at any hour of the day,” Shiraki corrected, joining them from a different direction, “though they prefer to hunt at night. I am not simply being pedantic, Arachne,” he added at her scowl. “We should be careful not to prematurely think ourselves safe.”

“All right, that’s a fair point,” she acknowledged. “Anyway, sorry to be so slow in returning, I took the opportunity to check up on the campus and town. It appears to be explicitly fae-connected. Last Rock’s resident witch was hit by it, but nothing was felt by the Avenist or Vidian clerics in town, nor the Universal Church parson. No reaction from the arcanists or infernomancers in my research staff, either. How’s everybody faring, here?”

“Tired,” said Sheyann. “More so than a sleepless night alone could account for. Shiraki and myself, and the other Elders, have managed to remain active while suppressing the effect, but all our younger shamans had to spend the entire night in focused meditation. That is very much a short-term solution; the effort is exhausting. They will begin to burn out rapidly.” She turned a sober expression on Shiraki, who nodded in grave agreement. “We may not last much longer. Greater experience and stronger fae allies on whose auspices to call make a difference, but they will not sustain us indefinitely through constant exertion.”

“I don’t suppose it’s worth hoping that this was a one-night event,” Tellwyrn said wryly.

“It beggars belief that such a potent disturbance could be permanent,” said Shiraki. “Only a change to Naiya herself could fundamentally alter the nature of fae magic this way, and if that had happened the world would already know it explicitly. I still feel the ripples washing over us, Arachne; they simply do not pull as insistently while the sun is up. But without knowing what has happened, we can place no timetable on it.”

“Right. Well, if you run out of magical countermeasures, Taowi’s had some success treating the effects with glittershrooms.”

“And that works?” Sheyann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It seems to. At least, as a stopgap measure. She said sevenleaf was a better alternative if it has to be done long-term.”

Shiraki scowled. “Thank you for the suggestion, but the last thing we need is for everyone to be stoned on top of terrorized by howling in our heads.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to brush that off,” Sheyann countered. “A low enough dose can counter the stress of the experience, hopefully, without impairing the ability to function too much. It’s not ideal, but if we can’t come up with anything better… Of course, there’s the question of where to get glittershrooms. We grow nothing like that in our grove.”

He sighed. “If it comes to that, there are undoubtedly shrooms in the human town. There’s always someone cultivating them.”

“Sarasio still has abandoned buildings, and those things pop up pretty much anywhere they’ve been that’s sufficiently dark and damp,” said Tellwyrn. “Failing that, I’ll get you some if you want. But for now, while the pressure’s let up and before anybody collapses, I think we should see what we can do about finding the source of this and putting a stop to it. Have you had any results on that front yet?”

Sheyann shook her head. “I have been tending to the younger shamans, as they are finally able to relax their vigilance and get some proper rest. I’ve not yet sought the spirits’ guidance, though with the howling in abeyance I remain optimistic that the flows of magic are no longer too disturbed to make the effort.”

“Before we do that,” said Shiraki, “Neraene has had results from her meditations. I was just coming to notify you, Sheyann, when she emerged from her shrine.”

“By all means, then, let’s hear what she has learned,” Sheyann agreed, nodding to him and then looking expectantly at Arachne. The sorceress gestured them to proceed, and then fell into step alongside as they set off toward one of the bridges across the stream.

Those affected by the fae disturbance had gathered together on the commons, where they had sat in meditation most of the night and were now either sleeping or being tended to by other members of the tribe. The trio quickly left most of the grove’s elves behind as they passed out of the common area.

It was a surprisingly short walk to the new Themynrite shrine, not even fully out of earshot of the commons, to Tellwyrn’s surprise. Important as the night’s events had been, she had refrained from commenting or even inquiring about the fact that this wood elf grove now had a resident Narisian. Neraene nir Heral d’zan Awarrion was a priestess, and had diffidently offered to see whether her goddess could lend any insight to these dramatic events, then gone to the shrine to do so, and that was that. In short order they arrived, and Tellwyrn found that the tiny temple, fittingly, was underground. Its entrance yawned between two roots of the massive redwood; the space underneath would be braced by the tree’s root system in a manner the wood elves were fond of using for their dwellings and storage rooms. The only thing which marked it out from any other tree-cellar in the grove was the slab of granite erected beside its entrance, marked with the balance scale sigil of Themynra inlaid in silver.

Neraene herself stood in front of this, conversing quietly with another elf whose presence in the grove was even more surprising than the drow’s. They broke off their conversation at the approach of the Elders and Tellwyrn, the priestess turning to bow respectfully to them.

“Elders, Professor,” she said, every bit as serene and courteous as any Narisian. “Welcome back. The goddess has seen fit to honor me with some direction, though I fear it may be more scant than you had hoped.”

“We knew in advance that Themynra’s areas of concern are very specific,” Sheyann replied. “Any and all aid is appreciated, Naraene.”

The priestess inclined her head again in acknowledgment. “All I have ascertained through the goddess’s auspices is that there is a divine connection to the source of this trouble, albeit an indirect one. While the conduit for these shockwaves is clearly through the magic of Naiya, at its source is a connection to the Pantheon god Shaath.”

“It’s nice to have confirmation, I suppose,” said the other elf present in a drawling tone, “though given the wolf symbolism, that can’t have been much of a surprise.”

Tellwyrn affixed a flat stare on him from over the rims of her spectacles. In comparison to this character, a drow priestess suddenly seemed a great deal less out of place in a woodkin grove.

He might have been a wood elf by the shape of the ears, though his were decorated with heavy-looking gold jewelry which glittered with tiny sapphires and emeralds. A matching gold band held his waist-length hair up in a high ponytail that had been artfully arranged to bristle like the tail of a fox. His robes were pale blue, every inch of the fabric engraved with subtle geometric patterns in sea green that made them appear to shift color, and decorated further by metal panels of gold along the lapels, shoulders, and cuffs. These were fringed by more little jewels, though much of their surface was taken up by inlaid panels of pure swirling white light, resembling miniature dimensional portals. He had actual light-wrought shoulderpads, arched projections over his shoulders formed of glowing energy. Though his boots had daintily pointed toes, they were incongruously heavy, no doubt to better hold the enchantments that kept him hovering a few inches off the ground rather than let his expensive clothes come into contact with the moss.

“Do you by any chance know Zanzayed the Blue?” Tellwyrn asked him.

He arched one eyebrow sardonically. “I have not had the…experience. Why do you ask?”

“You are the first person I have ever met whose fashion sense makes his seem tasteful and restrained.”

The high elf smirked at her, and Shiraki sighed minutely through his nose.

“Arachne, this is Magister Anduor,” Sheyann said quietly, “also a guest in our grove.”

“And ever ready to do my part to assist my forest-dwelling cousins in their time of need,” the Magister added, executing a truly grandiose court bow which involved flourishes of both arms and his left foot. “Though my assistance was not asked, somewhat understandably as I gather you were distracted by the psychic pressure of this event and it is not my custom to bluntly insert myself as did the good Professor. I have spent the night constructing a custom scrying lattice that enables the tracking of fae currents back to their source.”

“You can do that?” Sheyann asked, openly surprised.

“Sure,” Tellwyrn answered before Anduor could. “It’s challenging to rig an arcane system to interact with fae magic without blowing up, but as long as you’re meticulous and know what you’re doing, it’s quite achievable. If he’s good enough to be a Magister and has been at it all night, it ought to work, probably.”

“The effort involved would be prohibitive for lesser purposes,” Anduor cut in, still looking peevish at her theft of his exposition, “but in this case, the inciting event appears to be planetary in scale. Energy ripples of that magnitude are difficult not to detect. Even more conveniently, they radiate outward from a single point. Once a wave is isolated and tracked for a short distance and its arc measured at two reference points along that course, calculating the point of origin is simple trigonometry. A moderately educated squirrel could do it.”

“I am still growing accustomed to the minutiae of surface life,” Neraene said diffidently. “Does ‘squirrel’ refer to something different in the Qestrali dialect?”

Shiraki gave her a look of amused solidarity; Anduor paused to roll his eyes before commencing a series of fluid and entirely unnecessary gestures with his well-manicured hands.

“Now, don’t be alarmed,” he said condescendingly. “I am not conjuring an entire divination apparatus here. This is merely a projection of its readout, a capability I luckily had the foresight to install before joining you.”

With a final flourish of his fingers and a (purely cosmetic) series of flashes from his jeweled rings, he called a hovering panel of pale blue light into being in front of them. In blue upon it was marked a barely perceptible grid, and in much heavier lines clearly showing the shapes of a landmass—specifically the western coast of the continent. The map was centered upon a single flashing dot which rhythmically emitted concentric rings of light that faded a few inches from it. A short string of numbers hovered alongside it.

“Latitude and longitude?” Sheyann asked.

“Very good,” Anduor said with the patrician approval of a tutor encouraging a remedial student.

“That’s in N’Jendo,” said Tellwyrn. “Ugh. Why is it always N’Jendo? Admirably straightforward folks, there, but they have awfully rotten luck with people conjuring apocalyptic bullshit in their backyard.”

“I cannot imagine that it makes much difference what the human kingdom is called at any given moment,” Anduor said in a bored tone. “Such magic is clearly beyond their capacities. Whatever is happening, it should be addressable without troubling to learn who claims the cluster of mud huts which approximates civilization in its proximity.”

“Why has no one murdered him yet?” Tellwyrn asked the two Elders.

“Most people who are not you don’t jump directly to ‘murder’ in response to minor irritation,” Shiraki said wryly.

“Most people haven’t met this guy.”

“Thank you very much for your help, priestess, Magister,” Sheyann said in a tone of courteous finality. “You have given us a starting point. If you’ll excuse us, we must decide upon our next move.”

“Should you need anything else, don’t hesitate to ask,” Anduor said magnanimously. “I’m always glad to instruct fellow elves in the ways of magic.” Neraene just bowed deeply to them.

“Our next move seems obvious to me,” Tellwyrn said as the three of them turned and began walking back toward the commons. “We go to N’Jendo, figure out what the hell is going on, and stop it.”

“You never do grow less hasty,” Shiraki murmured. “Charging into the unknown middle of—”

“Chucky, that was barely a valid attitude a thousand years ago. Even allowing for your Elder standoffishness, it just doesn’t work anymore. To say nothing of whatever is behind this insanity, others will be reacting. Do I need to lecture you on what could go wrong if the Empire gets its hands on something that can disrupt all of fae magic, everywhere? And they’re just at the top of the list of people who can probably locate this event and get people there quickly.”

“I share your unease at the idea of a hasty misstep, Shiraki,” Sheyann added, “but in this one case, I think Arachne is painfully right. One way or another, this will be dealt with. We have one chance to ensure it is done by us, on terms which will not cause ongoing harm.”

He sighed. “You are never more annoying than when you’re right.”

“Which of us is he talking to?” Tellwyrn asked Sheyann.

“Share the sentiment between yourselves; there is enough to go around,” Shiraki said, shaking his head. “The issue, then, becomes one of how quickly we can get there.”

“Instantly, of course,” Tellwyrn huffed. “I got the coordinates.”

“You know why we decline to participate in your cavalier matter scrambling,” Sheyann snapped. “Our spirit blessings can hasten—”

“Don’t be obtuse, Sheyann, it doesn’t suit you,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “I have respected your superstitions as much as possible, but this is not the time. You know as well as I it’ll take most of the day to get to N’Jendo from here even if you boost yourself to the maximum. That’ll leave almost no time to address whatever’s happening, or even figure it out, before night falls and the howling starts again, and then you’ll be dealing with that on top of being exhausted. So unless you’ve bothered to learn Kuriwa’s fast-travel trick of slipping through the space between, we teleport.”

“Arachne, just because you have no regard for…”

Shiraki laid a hand on Sheyann’s shoulder, causing her to trail off mid-sentence.

“She’s still insufferably right, Sheyann,” he said softly. “You know I agree with you. The fact remains, we simply have no time. Whatever the implications or repercussions, this is a sacrifice we will have to embrace. Just this once.”

She stared at him, then at Tellwyrn, and then finally closed her eyes and heaved a sigh. “Veth’na alaue. All right. We must notify the other Elders, and then, I suppose…go.”

“Just like old times!” Tellwyrn said, grinning and rolling up her sleeves. “C’mon, don’t deny it. You’ve missed the call of adventure.”

“Somehow,” Shiraki complained, “no matter what’s going on, you always find a way to make it worse.”


Sweet was the first off the caravan, bounding onto the platform and inhaling deeply through his nose until his chest puffed up like a rooster, as if he’d never smelled air before coming to Ninkabi.

There was a fortunate lack of fellow travelers, it being the first caravan of the day. One quick, surreptitious sweep of the station with his eyes confirmed that they should be able to grab a little privacy to confer before parting ways, without having to find a truly secure spot. Everybody knew what was up, but he wanted to make inescapably sure of that before the group split up. Flora and Fauna had already glided silently out of the caravan and moved to flank him as he turned to watch the others disembark.

Grip stepped out and panned an undisguised stare of cold analysis around the station, eyes narrowed suspiciously and one hand in her pocket. He had to suppress a wince; between that and her leather coat and general cultivated scruffiness, nobody would take her for anything but a thug up to no good. Ah, well, they all had their specialties, and Grip hadn’t become a successful enforcer by disguising who and what she was. Hopefully, on this job, that would be an asset and not an impediment.

Jenell followed her sponsor, and he nearly grinned at the girl’s mirroring of Grip’s posture and demeanor. She didn’t quite have it down, but for a relatively junior apprentice, she was coming along well. The last member of their party emerged, ebullient as ever despite the stressful night fae magic users in general had apparently spent, and peering about in even more obvious good humor than Sweet himself had projected upon his emergence.

“I say, that was positively luxurious!” Schwartz enthused. “Dashed convenient, these days. If you’d ridden the Rails five years ago you’d never imagine they were the product of the same Imperial service!”

“All right, chickadees, thisaway,” Sweet said cheerfully, setting off toward one corner of the station in a languid saunter. Grip fell into step beside him, her customary leonine prowl a sharp contrast to his own gait. The combination, he thought ruefully, would make it clear to any onlookers with a shred of worldly sense that they were both Thieves’ Guild operatives. He waited until they were relatively isolated behind a decorative tree with a panoramic view of any angle of approach before turning to address the group in a quieter voice. “You all know what we’re here after. And you know your roles?”

“Hunting down our two known contacts,” Flora said obediently.

“The three of us,” Fauna added, “will be checking the Izarite temples and Church chapels to track down Bishop Snowe.”

Both elves turned expectantly to the others. Schwartz was in the midst of summoning his little fire-rat familiar, but Jenell was expectantly watching Grip.

“He’s talking to you, apprentice,” the enforcer said dryly. “Sweet doesn’t need to check that I know my fucking job.”

Jenell’s cheeks colored slightly and the newly-summoned Meesie squeaked indignantly, but the junior thief answered quickly once prompted. “We’re tracking down Thumper. I don’t know this city, but Grip knows the Guild contacts in town and if that doesn’t work, we’ve got Herschel’s magic to help.”

“You got it,” Sweet said, nodding. “And on that note, whatever happens, please try not to get Herschel killed. I’m already leaning on our mutual tie to Thorn to bring him in on this, and that’s a girl whose shit list I don’t need to be on.”

Grip smirked in broad amusement, but Meesie chattered disapprovingly and Schwartz let out a huff of annoyance. “You do realize I’m not just Trissiny’s sidekick.”

“If that’s all you were, Herschel, you wouldn’t be here,” Sweet assured him. “I invited you specifically, rather than any of the magical specialists I might have contacted, because of the shadow hanging over this whole shebang. Make no mistake, this is putting you in direct danger, but it’s danger I know you’re both capable and motivated to deal with. I mentioned already that Basra is involved in this, tangentially, and probably still in Ninkabi.”

Schwartz and Jenell both scowled in matching expressions of anticipatory violence; Meesie hissed on his shoulder, puffing up like a scalded cat. Grip just folded her arms, one corner of her mouth twitching upward in a predatory little smirk.

“Yesterday,” Sweet continued, “among the many hasty errands I had to do to get this operation put together, I rammed some Imperial paperwork through. In light of her laundry list of known offenses, there is now an Imperial bounty on Basra Syrinx, dead or alive. Official notice may not reach Ninkabi until later today, but if you find yourselves arguing the right of way with the authorities over it, you surrender politely and wait for it to come through, understood? Because if the choice comes up, you choose dead.”

“You didn’t mention we were coming here to finish Basra,” Jenell whispered, her expression a troubling mix of anger and eagerness. Troubling on her, at any rate; Grip he knew could handle and channel that kind of vindictiveness, but it got raw apprentices killed.

“We are not here to finish Basra,” he said firmly, leveling a finger at her. “That’s not the job, and I don’t want you haring off after her. But she’s present, and involved, and we may come across her, so I need people here who can and will finish this decisively if, and only if, it comes up. Should you encounter Basra Syrinx, kill her. That is all, just kill her. No talking, don’t even pause for the satisfaction of making sure she sees you coming. Even with her divine shields cut off, that woman is a force of nature with a blade in her hand so do not be close enough to her for that to matter. You hit her instantly with every spark of witchcraft you can channel and whatever evil Grip has in her pockets, and then let the authorities sort out the rest. And make sure you don’t let your guard down at any point. She assuredly knows all of us, and has personal beef with more of us than not. With the shit going on in this city right now, don’t let anyone sneak up on you, and especially not her. Everybody clear on that?”

“Yes, but…uh, what if she sneaks up on you?” Jenell dragged a skeptical look across Sweet and both of his elven apprentices. “No offense, but…”

“Sweet’s no enforcer, but he didn’t get where he is by not knowing what he’s doing,” Grip answered her. “If you don’t know how he’s gonna handle the danger, then you don’t need to. You respect another thief’s secrets, apprentice.”

“Okay,” Jenell agreed, nodding. “Sorry.”

Schwartz drew in a steadying breath and let it out in a quick sigh. “Okay. So… Our meeting place is Notolo’s, traditional Jendi restaurant on the middle island, middle tier.”

“Notoli’s,” Sweet corrected, smiling, “but yeah, any local you ask will recognize it from that. Grip knows where it is, and you should try not to get separated for all kinds of reasons, but if you do, go there.”

Meesie cheeped in affirmation, standing upright and saluting.

“Aww,” Flora and Fauna cooed in unison. Grip rolled her eyes.

“Just out of curiosity,” said Schwartz, “isn’t there a famous Eserite shrine in this city? Wouldn’t that be a better place to…”

“The Font of the Fallen is not to be used for tactical purposes,” Grip said in a flat tone.

“Okay,” he said meekly.

“How’re you holding up, Herschel?” Sweet asked. “Any more complications from that…fairy business?”

Schwartz shook his head. “My dreamward held up, and it seems to have abated since sunrise. It’s weird… I can still feel this, kind of…roiling disturbance in fae magic in general. Lots of agitated spirits at the periphery of my awareness. It shouldn’t mess me up too much, though. At least, not more than I can compensate for.”

“Okay, you know your business,” Sweet said, nodding. “Watch out for yourself and don’t take unnecessary risks; whatever that’s about, we don’t need to borrow someone else’s trouble.”

In fact, he very much wanted to know more about that, but his own dance card was full. Whatever was going on, he would have to trust that Ingvar could take care of his own business. When it came to Ingvar, that was generally a safe assumption.

“All right, you all know your jobs,” he said aloud. “Let’s move out, people. Watch your backs out there, and keep it quick and quiet right up until you have to burn something the fuck down.”


“It’s not just me, right?” McGraw asked, staring north. “That wasn’t there last night.”

“Hell, that woulda been a lot more visible in the dark,” Billie agreed. “Nope, this here’s a shiny new development.”

“Joseph?” Mary asked, turning to him. “Does it look familiar?”

“Yeah, that’s it, all right,” Joe said quietly, also gazing at the glow on the horizon. It was a fixed blaze of white light, not unlike a sunrise but for the wrong color and the occasional flickers of lightning that snapped out from it into the sky. “The center…just like it was last time. I don’t get it, though. It took Jenny an’ me a lot longer to get here. We’ve only been walkin’ a few days.”

“Well, the Golden Sea’s notoriously shifty, innit?” Billie said cheerfully. “I always figured it shifted more side ta side, but I guess it works in the in an’ out direction, as well!”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Joe said. “I’m just wonderin’ what it means. The Sea’s s’posed to have a mind of its own, ain’t it?”

“A mind,” Mary said, “though not a mind as we would recognize one. Its movements may be purposeful…or random. Or perhaps, aimed at something which does not concern us directly.” She raised her head as if scenting the wind. “And yet, I am inclined not to see happenstance in any development right now. There are great things afoot in the world. Given our objective, that this should unfold before us so suddenly…”

“Well,” Weaver cut into the conversation, “I don’t see what more there is to be decided, and we’re not getting anywhere standing here chattering about it. We’re almost there, folks. Come on, let’s finish this.”

“Aye!” Billie crowed, swarming nimbly up the lanky bard’s body to perch on his shoulders, whereupon she pointed at the seething glow on the horizon. “We’ve got us a god to antagonize! What the hell’re we waitin’ for?”

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The Shaathists were the last to arrive.

Ingvar had known in advance there would be three; the awareness was a constant tingle in the back of his mind, something to which he was not accustomed. There were six in his own party, and three Rangers had showed up. His learned sense of social and political rhythms combined with instinctive understanding of the balance inherent in nature, and a growing intuition he didn’t quite comprehend yet, to forewarn him of the shape of the thing forming before his eyes. Six of his own followers, six skeptical seekers, and the final party Rainwood had quietly told him was coming—also, he expected, six.

They were in the realm of the spirits, now. These things didn’t just happen. Ingvar was no shaman, could not speak directly to any invisible fae, but there was definitely something guiding him along.

Dimbi had brought two fellow Rangers, both older than she. So far, both Sha and Intima, as they had been introduced, had opted to remain silent and watch, leaving their more garrulous junior to do the speaking. Sha had kept the hood of the Ranger cloak up and clutched her longbow in front of herself as if for comfort, while Intima simply regarded everyone impassively, his broad features schooled into almost meditative stillness. Huge man that he was, a head taller than Ingvar and correspondingly broad, even that was vaguely menacing, but none of them had offered the slightest hostility. They were, after all, here. Had Dimbi or anyone she spoke to wished harm upon this endeavor, they could have just taken the story directly to their leader. Ingvar had to trust that they had come out of sincere curiosity, if only because suspiciously grilling them would just undercut what he was trying to accomplish.

Their location was not difficult to find for anyone remotely skilled in tracking; of the six of them, only Rainwood might have been hard to follow. Specifically wanting to be found, Ingvar had not troubled to walk with care once their daily hunting for necessary food was done, and they had left a veritable highway to this clearing. Now, in the center, there glowed a most unusual bonfire, created by the shaman’s craft from living branches piled with their still-green leaves emerging. The flame was white and put off no heat, but a steady glow not unlike the moon. Rather than the flickering glow of fire, it was as intense and even as a fairy lamp. The quiet blaze produced numerous little dancing lights, which one moment resembled nothing more than the sparks put off by any campfire except in clean white, and the next looked more like glowing butterflied fluttering under their own impetus, but fading from existence before they could be observed closely.

Shortly after full dusk, a lull had fallen, the Rangers exhibiting patience even as their expressions remained cynical; Ingvar had asked them to wait for the last arrivals before commencing the true purpose of this gathering. There was quiet, then, when the Shaathists emerged from the shadows of the trees.

Two of them Ingvar recognized as the youths who had accompanied three full Huntsmen previously, the Tiraan boy Samaan and another whose name he hadn’t heard. It was no surprise that it would be the young who were most curious and adventurous. Unexpectedly, though, they followed a man who was genuinely old, his hair fully white and his posture slightly stooped. He was a full Huntsman, though, carrying a blessed longbow and wearing both a bearskin cape and a bronze wolf’s head pin. Lean, wiry and still tall despite his aged hunch, he stepped fully into the clearing, sweeping a quick stare around all those assembled.

“Well, well,” the old man said aloud, his voice creaking slightly with age but still strong and clear. “It seems we’re expected!”

“Welcome,” Ingvar replied, nodding to him. “You are, indeed. All of us are some degree of surprised to find ourselves here; I simply have the benefit of a little more time to being ushered along by forces I cannot see.”

“And that would make you the famous Brother Ingvar,” the elder Huntsman said, eyeing him critically up and down.

“I suppose I’ll have to get used to being the famous Brother Ingvar,” he replied with a sigh.

“I imagined someone taller,” the old man grunted, then grinned. “But then, that’s exactly what I say every time I pass a mirror.”

“What are you of all people doing sniffing around this apostate, Dantu?” Sha demanded in a growl. “Going to switch sides yet again?”

“Brother Dantu has a bit of a history,” the second Shaathist apprentice, the local boy whose name Ingvar didn’t know, interjected with a wry smile, stepping closer to the eerie firelight and placing a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “He left the lodge in his youth to join the Shadow Hunters, and years later returned to the true path.”

“True path,” Dimbi repeated, her tone precariously heavy with sarcasm.

“That must be a long and remarkable story,” said Ingvar in a deliberately calm tone before more hostility could emerge.

“Right and wrong are usually not as simple as true and false,” Dantu said with a more sober expression. “Sometimes they aren’t even as simple as right and wrong, and that’s when you really have to watch your step. We tend to paint ourselves into intractable moral dilemmas by trying to make things simpler than they are. The Huntsmen say one thing, the Rangers another, and leave nuance to the fairies. Something tells me, Famous Brother Ingvar, you’ve come to make all our lives good and complicated again. I’ve come to see whether the upset you bright might be a solution, or just more problems. The boys, here, tell me you put on quite a show.”

“Oh, he does at that,” Taka agreed. “I’m still not sure how into all this mystic hunter business I am, but I’ve gotta say Ingvar’s never boring.”

“Glad to see you two again,” Ingvar said, making eye contact with each of the lads. “Samaan, and…?”

“How’d you know that?” Samaan demanded, one hand falling to the tomahawk hanging at his waist.

“Easy, there, Sam,” the other urged, smiling faintly. “Last time, you made Djinti call you down by name, remember? I’m Kanatu,” he added, nodding deeply to Ingvar, “the one who remembers details.”

“Oh, shut up,” Samaan grunted. “Very well, you expected us to come looking for you, we’re all impressed. Obviously you’ve gone to some trouble to set all this up. Let’s hear what you have to say, then.”

Ingvar looked over at Rainwood, who nodded to him.

“I have little enough to say,” Ingvar answered. “If it were that simple, all of this would be unnecessary. I’ve warned both of your groups, respectively, that I bring you painful, disruptive truths, and that I’m only a messenger; this business won’t leave you in peace if you drive me off. I wouldn’t have listened to the truth when it was first shown to me. That’s why it had to be shown.”

“Well, we’ve come all this way,” Kanatu said with a shrug, glancing warily over at the three quiet Rangers in their gray-green cloaks. “Say, show, whatever it is, whip it out.”

“Several of you are already well acquainted with this,” Ingvar said, now looking at the Rangers himself. Sha nodded and Dimbi quirked an ironic little smile, though Intima remained impassive as a tree. He made eye contact with Dantu, whose previously animated features had gone inscrutable. Ingvar had known several men like this one during his time with the Huntsmen, free thinkers who skirted the boundaries of tradition, never quite transgressing enough to be called down by the lodgemaster but subtly thumbing their noses at everyone. They were always the most willing to entertain unconventional ideas. Now, he had to wonder how many of those men had learned shocking truths and yet chosen the comfort of faith and community over harsh reality, as Dantu evidently had. “In fact, this is a pivotal moment for those following me, as well. Tholi in particular has been more than patient with my vague hints up till now.”

He paused, feeling the weight of everyone’s expectant stares, and turning his eyes to the mysterious white flame.

“For some of you, this will be a repetition of an old revelation. For others, merely…trivia. But for some, it will be a shock that may strip away everything you understand about the world. I have known tribulation in my time, as you can only imagine. Not every lodge is equally welcoming of a man in my position, and my career with the Huntsmen has been an often painful balance between the path to which I was called and a community that sometimes despised me. Yet I will warn you now that what you are about to see was the thing that hurt me the most. There is no pain quite like having your beliefs carved away. If any of you choose to walk away rather than face this, I will not name them coward.”

The Rangers didn’t react at all; Dantu’s thin shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. Kanatu just folded his arms.

“I’m not afraid of anything you have to show me,” Samaan snorted. “Let’s see you impress, Ingvar.”

Ingvar was positioned near the middle of the row of his own party, lined up along one side of the fire; he now glanced to both sides, taking in their expressions. Rainwood and Aspen both smiled encouragingly, while Tholi looked downright eager. Taka was going out of her way to appear as skeptical as the Rangers, and November just looked reserved. He suspected she was grappling with her own questions about why Avei had sent her into the middle of this business.

“Then I’ll ask you to please be respectful and hold your peace while the last members of this gathering arrive.”

“Who the hell else is coming to this?” Samaan muttered.

“Lad, when you’ll find out just the same whether or not you ask, it’s always better to keep quiet,” Dantu advised.

Ingvar was watching Rainwood sidelong. The elf had closed his eyes, breathing slowly and deeply. He could not feel shamanism at work, at least not explicitly or directly, but that sense was there. Of pressure, of potential, something vast in motion and not related to him but certain to determine the course of his next actions. It was, he reflected, very much like the sense of a thunderstorm rolling forward.

Then they arrived, and he swept all of that from his mind.

Where before only the single female had answered the call, now Rainwood’s entreaties via the spirits had successfully summoned the whole pack. The whole family.

There were six of them, rounding out the formation. Six of Ingvar’s party to start, the three Rangers and three Shaathists making six more, even more obviously now as they shifted away from the new arrivals with gasps and muffled exclamations, forgetting the tension between them to make way for the pack of wild wolves who stepped out of the darkness and up to the firelight.

“The Rangers have a rite for this purpose,” Ingvar said while the assembled group stared in mingled awe and fear at the predators joining them in the firelight. “I lack access to their secrets, and so this is not that. Rainwood has lent us his talents and the aid of his spirit guides to ask these guests for their guidance. In the faith of Shaath, there is no creature more sacred than the wolf. It is their ways which are held up as the ideal of living. The crux of the problem with the Huntsmen today is that they believe things about wolves which are purely untrue. Now, tonight, these honored guests, with the aid of the fae spirits all around us, will show us the truth of their lives. Please, sit.”

He folded himself smoothly to the ground, sitting cross-legged. One by one, the rest followed suit, several obviously reluctant to adopt a less defensible stance in the presence of so many of nature’s perfect hunters. It helped that the wolves appeared to hear his request and themselves sat down in a loose arc around their edge of the fire, all six gazing impassively at the humans with their ears up and alert. One by one, the rest of the party sank to the earth.

“This may be disorienting in its first moments,” Ingvar said quietly, accompanied by an intensifying glow from the white fire. “Rest assured that you are safe here. We meet under a pact of peace; these are friends and companions. What now unfolds is the craft of a master shaman. Still your unease, and trust the process as it comes to completion.”

The fire continued to glow while he spoke, its light beginning to waver almost like a natural fire’s, and mist poured out from its base to wash gently across the clearing in a luminous white carpet. The wolves showed no reaction to this, though several of the two-legged participants in the ritual shifted uncertainly, eyes darting.

Ingvar breathed in and out, deliberately following his own advice. He had checked again with Rainwood before beginning this; the shaman said that the spirits in the world were still agitated, but it was nothing to do with them and should have no impact.

The “should” was worrying. But they were here at the behest of those same spirits, as well as the gods themselves. At a certain point, a person simply had to have faith, and keep going.

In unison, the six seated wolves raised their noses skyward and cried aloud, their mournful howling echoing across the forest. It was a stunning music, and a truly astonishing thing to experience so close. Also, at that proximity, incredibly loud.

This time, none of those gathered made any noises in response, but Ingvar could tell just by glancing across them that they felt what he felt. The howl of a wolf was a call to family, a summons. It stirred, tugged at something inside himself placed there by the magic in which they had all partaken.

The mist rose around each of them, drifting upward in twelve little banks to wash smoothly over them, and then each began to take shape. Around every person, the shadow of a wolf cast in white moonlight formed, raising its head to cry mutely in answer to the call.

Of their own volition, he felt his eyes closing. By the time they had fully shut, the spirits and the wolves had supplanted his vision.


They were a large pack, and an uncertain one, still growing used to one another. They trusted him, though, and he honored that trust, devoting himself to leading them as best he could. He looked after is family, and they did after him. It was not a matter of asserting his will, but simply of the love between them, the same force that bound all living things. If it ever came to be that one of the younger ones would become stronger and a better leader, he would encourage that one to take the role. For now, they lived in an uncertain world, and he was the one with the knowledge and the confidence to guide them through it.

He missed his brothers, at times. The wise, canny older brother with the golden pelt, and the younger, darker one with his piercingly analytical mind. Not only because they were brothers and he wished to be alongside family, as was only natural, but because both were smart, and there were many strange smells in the air. He could have used their support. But what was, was. He was leader, now, and had his own family to look after.

They lived, were conscious, at a fixed point within a spectrum of memory, with the awareness of their lives in this forest stretching away both behind and ahead. It was a strange thing…and yet, not. This was just the world and what it was like to be alive within it, and yet he had the sense, sometimes, that there was something else. That things were supposed to be different. But he put that aside and dealt with the now. It was a good land, and a good life. They hunted in the darkness, and never went hungry. They played together in the shadowy times between day and night, curling up to share warmth and closeness during the sleepy sunlight hours. Games of chasing and scuffling were ways for him to teach the younger ones about the struggles of living.

And yet, there was that scent again. One of those troubling smells, wafting down from the mountains. He paused, raising his head. What was it? It was not food, or friend. Was his family in danger? The smell was new, impossible to place. It was…uneasy. Something about the world that was not what it should be.

No, Ingvar, that’s not the lesson.

He growled softly. Words were just noise, and the more troubling because he could not tell where they were coming from.

Don’t follow that scent. Listen to me, Ingvar. Trust the spirit of the wolf, not the other spirits.

Responding as always to his uncertainty, she stepped up beside him, leaning her bulk against his own in affection and support. His longtime partner, the one most special of all his beloved family, with her wild green eyes and the golden pattern like leaves dappling her pale coat. Her scent always reminded him as much of trees as of family. She raised her head to smell it as well. Beautiful and proud, and no less precious because she was rather unpredictable.

She bared her teeth in displeasure, echoing his soft growl.

Aspen, no! Don’t get involved in that, you’re too—

He snapped his jaws in anger. That was worse. Whatever that smell was, it was pushing at them. Pushing at her. At his family.

As one, they wheeled and gathered up the pack. Something menacing lurked in the wilds, and it was time for them to go. He raised his voice to howl, calling the rest together.

Please, Ingvar, remember peace. Don’t…

She howled alongside him, and her voice echoed through the forests, across the mountains, across the world beyond.

Aspen, NO!

The scent swirled violently, a storm gathering where there was no storm. Suddenly frantic, the whole family howled to one another, gathering together, turning to flee from the tumult. He led them away. He did not know where safety was, or what kind of threat encroached, but they trusted and followed him. They were his responsibility. He would let nothing harm his family.

The pack dashed away from the mountains, seeking safer ground. As they went they called out to one another, making sure no one was lost. The strange scent in the wind followed them, and called back.

And in the distance, on all sides, other wolves answered.


“Twenty-three,” Branwen said with a sigh, making a notation on her map. “I thought he said twenty hellgates?”

“If these people have even the most basic sense, they will have built themselves the most generous margin of error possible,” Khadizroth said absently, his attention focused on the diorama he had built on her dining room table. Assembled from dust he had called seemingly from the air itself, it formed a monochrome scale model of Ninkabi, with swirls of colored light dashing this way and that through its streets and canyons like errant gusts of wind. “Not all of these sites will produce viable hellgates, and they must be planning on at least some being discovered beforehand. It is a good strategy, but it means we must be unfailingly diligent.”

“Yes, the one we miss will be the worst,” she agreed wryly. “Isn’t that always the way… Any sign from your spirit guides of how many of these ritual sites are left to find?”

“As with much fae craft, it unfolds like relentless nature herself,” the dragon replied, giving her a sidelong smile. “It will be done when it is done. For now—”

“My lord!” Vannae said suddenly, shooting upright out of his seat.

“I sense it too,” Khadizroth replied, frowning now in alarm. “What on earth is…”

The entire model of the city shattered into a cloud, swirling chaotically until it formed a new shape.

Now, suddenly, it had made a moving statue of a wolf. The creature raised its head toward the ceiling, and emitted a howl as vivid and loud as if the living animal were right there in the room.

The door burst open and Shook staggered in, disheveled with sleep but brandishing a wand. “The fuck is that?! Everybody okay?”

Khadizroth was staring at the wolf in an unaccustomed expression of shock and disbelief.

“Ingvar,” he whispered. “What have you done?”


It seemed he’d barely had time to drift off to sleep, despite his intention to get an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s plans, but Darling shot bolt upright in bed to find both his apprentices at his sides, clutching his arms.

“Wha,” he burbled, “whazzat, I thought…”

The bedroom door burst open and Price appeared, her eyes sweeping the room.

“It’s okay!” Fauna said quickly. “He snapped out of it.”

“What happened?” the Butler demanded. “I have never heard such a sound. So help me, if you two are keeping a pet coyote…”

“That wasn’t us,” Flora objected. “It was him.”

“I had this dream…” Darling scrubbed a hand across his face. “I swear it was somewhere I’ve been before.”

“There was some serious fairy fuckery clustering around you out of nowhere,” said Fauna. “Seems to have dissipated, though.”

“We got here just before you started howling,” Flora added. “Are you okay, Sweet?”

He blinked twice. “Excuse me, I started what?”


The darkness of unconsciousness faded from his vision, replaced by Mary’s face, her eyes wide with uncharacteristic worry. He was breathing heavily as if he’d just run a mile, he realized, and almost toppled over, spared only by the grip of her slender hands on his cheeks. She was surprisingly strong, for an elf.

“Joseph, it’s all right,” she said soothingly. “You’re safe. Are you back with us?”

“I…” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, shaking his head. “What happened? I feel like I was just…somewhere else.”

“Damn, son, you scared the life outta me,” said McGraw, looming over him.

“Aye, that was a right wake up an’ no mistake,” Billie agreed, popping up at his side. “I never heard a human throat make a sound like that.”

“A sound like…what?” he asked weakly.

All around their little campsite, the Golden Sea stretched in every direction, seemingly infinite. Out of the darkness, suddenly from every direction there rose distant howls. They reminded him of the familiar voices of coyotes he’d often heard growing up in Sarasio. But…not. Their cries were longer, deeper…

Even more familiar.

“Like that,” said Weaver, standing a few yards distant with his back to the group, gazing at the dark horizon.


He was awakened by Hesthri climbing across him to the other side of the bed. The room was cool, its one window open to admit the evening breeze.

That, and sudden, surprising music from the hills all around Veilgrad.

Natchua already stood at the window, moonlight forming a gleaming corona on the darkness of her skin. Jonathan swung his legs over the side of the bed and followed Hesthri to join her.

“Aren’t there supposed to be werewolves in this area?” he asked, setting one arm across the drow’s slender shoulders while Hesthri laid a hand against her upper back.

“That,” Natchua said quietly, “and the normal kind of wolves. But not so many.”

It was true, he realized. Those howls were seemingly coming from every direction, repetitive and so unrelenting that he could hardly discern where one ended and the next began.

“It’s so beautiful,” Hesthri whispered. “What kinds of creatures are these?”

“Dangerous ones,” Jonathan said, stepping closer and taking advantage of the long reach of his arm to tug both of them against his side, gently squishing Natchua between them. “Though normal wolves hardly ever bother people unless starving or severely provoked. Werewolves are another matter.”

“This is another matter,” Natchua whispered. “I can’t tell what magic is at work here, but…it’s something big. Something in the world just changed.”


Andros Varanus took the risk of barging into the Grandmaster’s quarters without knocking.

Fortunately, the whole household was assembled, and awake, though still in sleeping clothes. Both of Veisroi’s wives turned on him with scowls at this sudden intrusion into their domain, but the Grandmaster himself raised a hand in a mute order for silence before either could upbraid him.

“You too, then, Brother Andros?” he asked, turning away from the fireplace into which he had been gazing.

“And not just me,” Andros rumbled. “Every man in this lodge is awake, due to the same dream. Every man but one. Hrathvin is in a trance from which his apprentice cannot stir him.”

Veisroi’s chest expanded with a long, deep breath. “Give him time. I named him shaman of this lodge for a reason; the man knows what he’s about. If he has not roused by dawn, we will send to the Emerald College for help.”

Andros nodded. “And the dream? You know this can only mean one thing, Grandmaster.”

“In the context of the telescroll I just received from N’Jendo…yes, I do,” the old man said, turning back to the flames. “Damn it all, Andros. I had such high hopes for Ingvar. When he set out on his quest from Shaath himself, I dared to think…”

“Ingvar also knows what he is about. He has more than earned our trust, Veisroi.”

“And how long has it been since we’ve had word from him? And now, just on the heels of warning that he is preaching apostasy in the West…this.” The Grandmaster clenched his jaw. “I hate to do it, Andros, you know I do. But a man does what he must, even when he does not wish to. Right now, do what you can to calm the men, make sure they’re seeing to their wives. It’s always the women who are most upset by things like this. In the immediate turn we will make sure Hrathvin is well. And when that is dealt with, for good or ill…”

“I protest, Grandmaster,” Andros said, as insistently as he could without making it a direct challenge.

“And that is your prerogative, Brother,” Veisroi replied without looking up from the fire. “But protest or not, tomorrow I will summon a Wild Hunt.”


Atop his watchtower on the ancient walls of Shaathvar, Roth stood with his back to the brazier’s warmth, staring out at the cold darkness. All around rose the pine-clad peaks encircling the valley directly below the city itself. And from all sides came the relentless howling.

“How can there be so many?” one of the two younglings assigned to join his watch asked, eyes wide. “Surely there can’t be that many wolves in the valley!”

“There aren’t that many wolves in the whole of the Stalrange,” Roth replied, his voice flat. A man did not flinch even in the face of…whatever this was. “I will keep the watch here; go rouse the captain. And you,” he added to the other, “fetch the barracks shaman. Keep your minds on the task before you, lads. This is a dire omen of something, but omens are a shaman’s work. Don’t borrow trouble for yourself until this has been interpreted by men who know the craft.”

“Yes, Brother,” they chorused, and both dashed off down opposite staircases toward the walls.

Roth just gazed out over the frigid, howling wilderness, wondering what had just happened to the world.


“This is not our business,” Arkhosh insisted, glaring at Mother Raghann. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the ceaseless howling of wolves which split the night all around. “People are agitated enough by this without you riling them up worse. Let the kitsune handle Sifan’s affairs and calm your own people, shaman.”

“This is not the kitsune’s business, either,” the old woman retorted, implacable as always. “These are ripples from a mountain dropped in the ocean, not a pebble in a pool. It began far from Sifan and extends farther still. The agitation of the spirits sings of a world in the grip of tumult, Arkhosh. And that makes it their business, and ours, and everyone’s.”

The other orc blew out a snort of irritation. “We are in no position to worry about the world, woman, or even Sifan as a whole. And we certainly owe the world no favors. It is the kitsune who are our hosts, and Tsurikura which is our business. If action is needed on our part, they’ll ask us for it. For now, we should tend to the walls. I can’t speak for spirits, but I know agitated wolves when I hear them.”

“Have you ever heard this many wolves?” she asked dryly. “What do you think our village walls would do if they took a notion to come here?”

“What say you, Aresk?” Arkhosh demanded, turning to his son, the only other orc gathered with them outside the gate. “Do they howl to us?”

The last and first priest of Khar stared out into the darkness, listening to the cries of wolves. The faintest glow of golden-white light limned him as he attuned to the faded power of their distant god. “Nothing in this tells me it pertains to us directly. But Mother Raghann is still right,” he added, turning to meet his father’s eyes. “We exist in the world, father. I agree that we should not meddle in what is not our business, or exert ourselves to aid those who would not do the same in turn. But waiting around to be told what to do by the kitsune is weakness. And just ignoring the world in the hope that nothing bad will happen is madness.”

Both of them bared tusks at him. Very recently, Aresk would have instinctively yielded to the displeasure of either of his elders, let alone both. But things changed, and he changed with them. It was that, or die.

“I suggest a middle ground. I won’t agree to our shamans rushing out to try to placate…whatever this is. But they should at least do what they can to learn what is happening. Whatever the spirits will tell us. With more information, we can better decide what to do. We should protect and support them in whatever rituals will best accomplish this.”

Raghann grunted. “Well. I can’t say the boy doesn’t talk sense. Very well, it’s at least a start.”

“A good compromise,” Arkhosh agreed, reaching out to squeeze his son’s shoulder. “Very well, Aresk, I concur with your council. We will start there. And then…” He looked sourly at Mother Raghann, and then out into the howling darkness. “…we shall see.”


“Elder?” the young woman asked, creeping up to the mouth of the cave just behind him. “What does it mean?”

The old lizardfolk shaman glanced back at her, and then at the rest of the tribe taking shelter, their eyes glowing in the dimness as they watched the cave mouth for danger.

He turned back around, facing outward and listening to the howls of the wolves, far too many wolves to actually live in this desolate land.

“It’s as I told you: a great doom is coming. This is only the beginning.”


Hamelin Hargrave stood in the open door of his cottage, gazing out at the normally peaceful hills of Viridill, listening to them. The spirits were so agitated he could glean nothing through the Craft; whatever was happening was clearly way over his head.

Tomorrow, he decided, he would make the trip to Vrin Shai and seek help. But not tonight. Magical or not, no matter how civilized an era it was, you didn’t set out on the roads after dark when the wolves were in a frenzy.


“Urusai,” Maru whined, curled up in the fetal position and clutching his head. “Urusai, urusai, urusai!”

“What’s that he’s chanting?” Professor Yornhaldt asked, craning his neck forward to peer as closely as he could without getting in Taowi’s way. She had a sharp tongue for people who interfered while she was tending to a patient.

“It means ‘loud,’” said Tellwyrn, herself standing on the other side of her currently crowded office, but watching closely as the campus healer tended to her prone secretary.

“Really?” asked Rafe. “I thought it meant ‘shut up.’ Kaisa used to say that to me all the time.”

“Language reflects culture,” Tellwyrn said absently. “To the Sifanese mindset, commenting that something is noisy suffices to demand that it stop. Taowi, please tell me that’s not what it smells like.”

“It’s exactly what it smells like, Arachne,” she said impatiently, still coaxing Maru to put the shriveled object she held in his mouth. “It’s worked on the others affected thus far.”

Tellwyrn took an aggressive step forward. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve been feeding glittershrooms to my students?!”

“To your students and to Stew,” Taowi Sunrunner replied, undaunted by the archmage’s ire. “There you go, Maru, don’t forget to chew. It’s affecting everyone fae-attuned, Arachne. What in the hell did you get me dried glittershrooms for if you didn’t think I was going to use them medicinally?”

Tellwyrn snorted. “I figured you’ve been an exemplary healer and as long as it didn’t interfere with your work I wasn’t going to begrudge you whatever you needed to relax.”

Maru was weakly chewing the wedge of dried glittershroom; Taowi took her eyes off him for a moment to give Tellwyrn a blistering look. “The principle harm done by this is simply stress. For most things I would simply apply a sedative, but this is clearly fae in nature and affecting people through the dreamscape somehow. Putting someone to sleep would just trap them in it. You’ll notice I asked you to procure a supply of shrooms right after that clever little fool Madouri did exactly that to herself by combining Nightmare’s Dream potion with the Sleeper curse. Glittershrooms induce euphoria without causing sleepiness; it’s the best spot treatment. Once everyone is stabilized I mean to switch them to sevenleaf oil, but considering how bad some of the reactions are, I advise the potency of shrooms to take the edge off.”

“How is everyone faring?” Tellwyrn asked more quietly.

“It hits fairies worse than witches,” Taowi said absently, her focus again on Maru as she soothingly stroked his fur while waiting for the glittershroom to take effect. “Stew was nearly this bad. Oak says she’s getting the same visions, but they don’t bother her, which makes me feel less worried about Juniper and Fross. Dryads are generally under different rules. With the students…it varies. Most of them welcomed a bit of shroom, but Iris declined. She wants to stay lucid to help keep watch over the others, and frankly I’m grateful for the assistance. She seems to be suffering the least from the effect.”

“And it’s the same for all of them?”

“They report the same visions.” Taowi looked up to meet her eyes. “Wolves howling. More than just the noise, this is hitting them right in the emotional center, as fae magic does. They’ve all said they feel they’re being called to something, but they can’t understand what, much less answer it, and that’s what’s causing the acute stress. This is some kind of compulsion which can’t be fulfilled. There are few things more psychologically excruciating.”

“We unfortunately lack a fae specialist,” Rafe said, turning to Professor Tellwyrn, “since Liari retired and Kaisa buggered off mid-semester.”

“And isn’t that the long and the short of it,” Tellwyrn said, shoving both fists under her spectacles to rub at her eyes. “It’s the area of magic I’m least equipped to analyze, but the geas on this mountain would at least warn me if the effect were targeted here. If it’s a general effect over a wide area, then wherever it’s coming from, we’re not the only ones feeling it. All right. Alaric, keep order here as best you can. Admestus, help Taowi with the afflicted.”

“You have an idea?” Yornhaldt asked.

She grimaced readjusting her glasses. “The only idea I have is begging for help. I’m going to Sarasio to see if Sheyann and Chucky know anything about this. Hold the fort, everyone.”


Rainwood stumbled backward with nothing like an elf’s usual grace, staring at the wolves in the clearing around his snuffed-out faefire.

They were beautiful, but nothing about them appeared natural. Patterns were set in their fur that looked dyed, geometric and clearly designed, and most strikingly, they glowed. Each a different pattern in a subtly different color. Their eyes were glowing wells of power without pupils; even their fur seemed to put off a gentle aura of moonlight.

In the spot where Ingvar had sat, the largest wolf turned to bare fangs at Rainwood, his pure white fur marked with sigils in luminous green and blue on the shoulders and forehead. He raised his head and howled once, and loud as the sound was, it was nothing compared to the metaphysical shockwave it sent out.

Rainwood actually fell backward, landing on his rump and gaping.

The pack gathered themselves and loped off into the trees, heading west toward the sea—though they would reach Ninkabi long before they got to the coast. Seventeen enormous, glowing, unprecedented creatures departed from the wilderness on a collision course with civilization, leaving behind a magical storm that roared outward in every direction, dwarfing the disturbance which had rocked the fae up in the Wyrnrange the previous day.

This one would be felt across every inch of the planet.

“Kuriwa’s going to kill me,” he said aloud, staring after the departed pack. “Literally, this time.”

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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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Bonus #54: Lightning in a Bottle, part 7

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Unsurprisingly, the Archmage’s portrait had no answer save its smug expression. Rhadid turned and snatched the vial from Admestus’s hand without another word, swiftly yanking out the cork and raising it to his lips.

“Whoah!” the alchemist interjected, raising both his hands. “Baby sips! Not more than a drop at a time, no less than four hours apart. Seriously, that’s pure, concentrated life essence and just a dash of time travel in liquid form. I don’t actually know what it’d look like if you overdosed on that, but I bet it would be hilarious. I mean, more for me than for you, obviously.”

Rhadid paused, giving him a sidelong look. But then he finally put the vial to his lips and very carefully tilted a drop onto his tongue.

His expression as he capped the vial again and slipped it into his pocket was pensive. “…pomegranate?”

“Eh? Eh?” Admestus grinned. “That’d be the life essence. You can’t really taste the time travel, fortunately. That’s more reminiscent of rust and ozone, and in higher doses would give you the farts something severe.”

“I feel no different,” the aristocrat mused. “If you have deceived me or failed in your task, Rafe, odds are we shall both be dead within the hour.”

“Well, an immortality potion that made you, I dunno, glow or levitate or something, that seems like it’d be asking for trouble, right? I thought the idea was to pass for a normal person who just can’t die. Makes you less of a target. Believe me, you’ll notice the difference as soon as something tries to kill you.”

“Or, if you are wrong, not,” said Rhadid. “Your work will be tested rather sooner than I anticipated, Admestus. I examined our surroundings while you were at work, and there appears to be an armory in the next chamber. The equipment is eclectic, antique, and heavily enchanted, but when a squad of vengeful Imperial soldiers is bearing down upon us, that may be just the ticket. Come, we have little time to prepare.”

“Uh, point of order,” Admestus said uncertainly, trailing along behind as Rhadid strode out of the laboratory but not, himself, moving to pass through the door. “I’m not lawyer or anything but surely the ranting of an undead wizard in a dungeon isn’t, y’know, admissible in court?”

“I don’t know why you persist in pretending to be stupid, but refrain from suggesting that I am likewise,” Rhadid snapped, pausing on the balcony outside and turning to stare at him. “Of course whatever just transpired has no legal weight. Thus, the belligerent fool who already detests me and is in command of the Imperial troops here will not want me in a position to argue my case before a magistrate. An inquiry into my mysterious death will be far easier for her to control. They will open with staff fire, not questions.”

“Yeah, but that specifically won’t do you any harm, now,” Admestus pointed out.

Rhadid was silent for a moment, studying him. “And there is what comes after to be considered. I am content for Roscoe to force a confrontation she doesn’t know she will lose for the same reason: whoever survives will decide before the law what happened here. It clearly doesn’t serve me to have Imperial soldiers reporting on my ambitions.”

“So, that little story was…”

“Which,” Rhadid continued in a low voice, “raises questions about the rest of you. One hates to destroy a rare talent such as yours or Professor Ahlstrom’s, Admestus. The soldiers, the gnomes, they matter to no one and won’t be missed. You are of great value to me, and you know I reward my most valuable servants generously. The more my plans progress, the more you will be positioned to profit by it. What say you?”

“Uh, well,” Rafe said with uncharacteristic hesitation, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That’s, I mean, the prospect—”

Rhadid’s rapier completely cleared its sheath faster than the average human eye could have followed. In a narrow doorway with one avenue of retreat, even half-elven reflexes did not defeat those of a swordsman who had trained since he could walk. The slender blade was sunk up to half its length in Rafe’s heart before the alchemist could retreat two steps.

“Hesitation gives answer,” said Rhadid. “I am sorry, Rafe, truly. It will be no end of trouble to find a talent equal to yours. But at least now I know where to bring them when I need…”

Admestus Rafe dissolved before his eyes, disintegrating into a puff of fog, which then dissipated into the air without a trace. Rhadid was left holding a sword on which there was not even a bloodstain.

“Crafty little halfling,” the nobleman said with an appreciative smile. He backed out of the door and sheathed his sword, already turning toward the nearby armory. “Play your games, then, alchemist. Since our host has seen fit to make me the arbiter of this contest, no one is leaving here until it is decided. And remember, old man,” he added, pausing to address the air. “I was never a less than courteous guest. Now my hand is forced, and the outcome of your game will be final. On your head be it.”

He did not notice his coat shifting more than his movement should have made it as he turned to enter the armory chamber.


“Will they be all right?” Eric huffed, trundling along behind Billie. “I know they’re out of sight behind the stacks, but aren’t they a bit cornered?”

“Don’t you worry about those three, Professor, gnomes know what we’re about in a crisis. An’ I’m not about ta leave a companion behind, never fear. We’ll getcha someplace not in the line o’ fire, quick as we can!”

“Yes, as to that, are you sure this isn’t all rather an overreaction? It’s not as if there is any proof the book’s account is true…”

“Aye, an’ there’s no lack o’ precedent for magic talkin’ books ta spew lies, either,” she agreed, glancing over her shoulder at him without slowing. “Leavin’ out the question o’ how believable that story was—which, havin’ met ‘is Lordship, is a lot—there’s the issue o’ why the ol’ wizard woulda spilled those beans.”

“Diristaan did enjoy setting his rivals against each other,” Eric said around gasps for air. “Please, can’t we slow down? Dwarves are not build for speed!”

“Good, cos this ain’t anything resemblin’ speed,” she muttered, but did moderate her pace slightly. “What’s at stake is ‘ow two relevant personalities will react t’that revelation, true or not. One’s a volatile, aggressive twit who I dunno how she got made an officer, one’s a cold ambitious snake who’s just ‘ad ‘is dirty laundry aired, an’ both are packin’ lightning. This is no time ta get casual about—”

“YOU!”

“Aaaaand speak o’ the Dark Lady,” Billie muttered, coming to a halt and raising her hands as the soldiers rounded the balcony corner ahead of them, weapons already leveled. Eric staggered up behind her, wheezing, and doubled over to brace his hands on his knees as soon as they were no longer moving.

“Where are you rushing off to?” Lieutenant Roscoe demanded.

“Findin’ a quiet spot ta wait this out,” Billie said. “Y’mind pointin’ those zappers another way? Bad form, trainin’ yer killsticks on somebody y’don’t actually mean to kill.”

“Where are the rest of those gnomes?” Roscoe snapped, her staff not wavering.

“Already gone,” Billie drawled. “Seriously, lady, we’ve gone this long stayin’ outta Imperial business, why would that change now? You got a treasonous noble on yer ‘ands, fine, it must be Tuesday. That’s a you kinda thing, let’s not involve the bystanders.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Roscoe said grimly, “at least as far as you gnomes go. But he is a member of Rhadid Daraspian’s party, and therefore a person of interest in this. You are under arrest, dwarf.”

Still panting, Eric straightened up slightly. He raised one hand, palm out, mutely begging for a moment to finish catching his breath.

“Oh, aye,” Billie said with scathing sarcasm. “Jus’ look at the fiend in ‘is little tweed suit. Thank th’Pantheon Theasia ‘as you ta protect ‘er from lost academics.”

“She’s quite right, you know,” Rhadid himself called, strolling up the balcony from behind the dwarf and gnome. “Really, Roscoe, picking on the Professor? You are the most trigger-happy excuse for a soldier it has ever been my misfortune to encounter.”

“Daraspian!” she snarled. “In the Empress’s name, you are under arrest for high treason against the Silver Throne! Stand where you are, disarm yourself, and place your hands atop your head!”

He did, at least, come to a stop, giving her and her squad a long, speculative look, but then focused his attention on the others again.

“In seriousness, Billie, where were you running? This whole complex is relatively enclosed; one spot to be caught in the fracas seems as good as the next.”

“Doors on the third level,” she explained. “Y’know, where we came in. There may not even be a floor outside anymore, but I figured, hey, maybe the Manor’ll at least let th’poor Professor sit this one out. He’s its biggest fan an’ ‘as no dog in this race, after all.”

“Ah, that does make sense,” Rhadid said, nodding.

“Enough!” shouted Roscoe. “You will comply, Daraspian!”

“No,” he said calmly. “Your order is unlawful, Lieutenant. You have no case, you have nothing which will stand as probable cause, and the very instant I am in a room with someone higher in your chain of command, you will have no career. Now are you going to belatedly pretend to be something approximating an officer, or are you going to murder me in cold blood in front of witnesses?”

She took two aggressive steps forward, sighting down the length of her staff. “I will not tell you again.”

Rhadid smiled patronizingly. “Yes, you will.”

The blast of lightning made Billie and Eric both throw themselves flat to the ground. They were not faster than the staffshot, obviously, but very fortunately it was a well-tuned weapon with refined direction charms and the blast did not arc off-course to strike either of them despite passing close enough to make their hair stand on end.

Lord Rhadid deliberately adjusted the lapels of his suit, right where it was smoking from the lightning bolt’s impact. Roscoe’s eyes widened and she backed up half a step; one of her soldiers muttered a curse.

“That,” Rhadid said pleasantly, “was the incorrect response.”

With that, he drew his wand and returned fire.

Fortunately for Eric, the very shrill noises he made were covered by the storm of crossfire flashing right above his head. He and Billie were quite effectively pinned down while Rhadid and the soldiers locked themselves into a wild stalemate shooting back and forth across them; the noble’s sidearm was simply not powerful enough to crack multiple military-grade shielding charms, while the full-strength staff shots he repeatedly absorbed were inexplicably ineffective against him, even without the telltale flash of a defensive enchantment to neutralize them. Nothing wearable could have stood up to that kind of assault, anyway, and yet he was totally unaffected.

Billie, undaunted by the destruction flying past overhead, belly-crawled over to the dwarf and tried to shake his shoulder to get his attention. Eric had buried his face against the floor in a panic, though, shielding his head with both his arms. Renewing her efforts in frustration, she found his heavy, sturdy form completely impossible to budge, at least for her strength. Growling curses that were unheard in the tumult, the gnome looked rapidly up and down the balcony; neither combatant seemed about to budge. Rhadid’s suit was a mass of smoldering scorch marks, but the man himself was now grinning in uncontained glee, an unsettling contrast to his normally composed demeanor. Rather than backing away, he began to take small steps toward the soldiers.

Then, suddenly, he staggered. He recovered quickly, but immediately stumbled to the side as if he’d been pushed. His grin turning to a snarl, Rhadid whipped out his rapier with his free hand and swung it in two wide arcs around himself, slicing nothing but air. This marked the first two seconds in which he was not actively firing his wand, and Roscoe shrieked a ceasefire order to her squad.

“Rafe,” Rhadid spat, then abruptly buckled completely, doubling over with a whoof of outgoing breath as if something had struck him in the midsection.

“Rush him!” Roscoe shouted, and the troops surged forward, stamping past Billie and Eric. That proved less than wise, as their active shielding charms prevented them grappling physically with him and Rhadid was the only one present with a bladed weapon. At least it ended the firefight flashing past overhead, however, and Billie surged upright, ignoring the ongoing struggle now that her survival wasn’t at stake.

“Foxpaw’s knickers, if I wasn’t such a sporting type I’d’a ditched your heavy butt already,” she growled, prodding Eric’s shoulder roughly with her foot. “Dungeon’s no place fer a bleedin’ librarian. C’mon, man, we need ta hey!”

The gnome was suddenly hiked bodily into the air by some invisible force. A moment later Eric, despite his weight, found himself pulled half-upright by a grip on his collar and then dragged down the balcony by the same entity causing Billie to hover alongside him.

“Y’mind awfully not doin’ that?” a disembodied voice requested as she squirmed and kicked. “Sorry about the manhandling, but I’m tryin’ to get you guys outta the stew, here.”

“Oh, aye?” She managed to get a grip on the invisible arm holding her, and ceased her thrashing. “Thanks fer the assist, then, but I can walk.”

“Can’t breathe,” Eric wheezed. In fairness, being pulled by the collar from behind did press his tie fairly hard against his throat. In moments, though, they were hauled around the corner of a bookshelf and into a small reading nook with a comfy chair, a lamp, and a window out onto the misty Vrandis pine forest outside.

Eric pulled at his collar, gasping, as soon as the invisible hand was no longer tugging on it, and Billie floated over to the chair to be set carefully upright on the cushions.

“Right,” she said, brushing herself off. “That’s done. An’ you are?”

He flickered into view, lowering a glass vial from his lips. The man’s lean face broke into a grin the moment he had swallowed the potion.

“Owl!” Eric cried, seeming to forget his discomfort. “Light’s grace, I thought you were dead!”

“Sorry for stressing you,” the thief said cheerfully. “You weren’t the one I set out to fool, but there was no way around it, I’m afraid.”

“But…but how?” the dwarf sputtered.

“Funny story! I woke up in that guest room and what should I find in my pocket but a set of clearly-labeled vials of invisibility potions and their antidotes. As I mentioned to you, my ass was the next on Rhadid’s chopping block, so I took the opportunity to set off that big, heavy rock trap in the courtyard and then disappear before he could decide to disappear me.”

Eric paused in rubbing his throat, frowning. “Wait, so… Rafe?”

“Had to’ve been,” Owl said with a shrug. “Guess the boy’s not as daffy as he acts, which I kinda figured.”

“Nobody could function an’ be as daffy as he acts,” Billie remarked.

“I won’t lie,” Owl added, “I was mostly upset to find out he’s a better pickpocket than me. Although I think I’ve just reclaimed the title.”

“But where have you been?” Eric asked. “Surely you weren’t wandering in the Manor alone?”

“Not the whole time, no; even with help, it’s no cakewalk to get around in here.”

Billie raised her eyebrows. “Help?”

“Oh, right,” Owl grinned. “Well, like any good little boy whose daddy’s gone on a bender, I went and fetched an adult. Oh, and speaking of!”

A few telltale azure sparkles of light had appeared in the air, but the whole thing unfolded far quicker than the average teleport spell; Owl barely had time to finish his sentence before the three of them vanished and reappeared elsewhere. They now stood at a corner of the third level of the balcony, within sight of the doors through which they had first entered the library, and there were two more members of the group.

“You found them, well done,” Arachne Tellwyrn said briskly. “I located this one, too, as you can see.”

“Hi, guys!” Admestus said gleefully, waving. “Boy, isn’t this exciting?!”

Eric had only just stood up when the mage teleported them. Now, he abruptly and heavily sat back down.

Below them, the sounds of battle changed in quality as the combatants apparently separated again. The scuffling paused, followed a moment later by the crack and flash of a wand firing, followed by the much heavier reply of a battlestaff, and then another.

“Excuse me,” Tellwyrn said, baring her teeth ominously, and vanished.

They immediately heard her voice again—at a distance, but raised to a screech of fury. Gehirnverweigererin!” Another flash of light burst from the balcony below them, this time clearly not caused by lightning, swiftly followed by the shouting of soldiers and Lieutenant Roscoe shrilly starting to demand something in the name of the Empress, immediately cut off by Tellwyrn roaring at a volume clearly augmented by magic. “Weapons are a privilege, as is life! And you lose both when you start SHOOTING UP A LIBRARY!”

When she reappeared a moment later, all of them instinctively backed away, which was for the good as Tellwyrn arrived with a large armload of books in tow. Scorched, damaged, and in some cases completely falling apart books. They hovered unsupported in the air around her as she got down to work. The battlestaves she had collected from the Imperial soldiers clattered to the ground, unattended.

Walls of blue light snapped into place around them, blocking off the group within an arcane shield, and Tellwyrn sat down on the carpet with a furious mutter of “Hosenscheisserin!” She began poring over the damaged volumes with gentle movements of her hands and harsh flickers of arcane magic, carefully knitting pages back together, wiping away scorch marks, and restoring them bit by bit.

“Wunderbar!” Eric said, clapping his hands in excitement. Tellwyrn ignored him, but the others stared, and he shrugged awkwardly. “It’s Old Stalweiss, you see. Hasn’t been spoken aloud since Diristaan’s day. I took five years of it as an elective in undergrad school!”

“That is the most you thing I can imagine anyone doing,” said Owl.

Below them, still out of sight, there were ongoing crashes and shouts as Rhadid carried on struggling with the soldiers. His wand had not appeared among their confiscated weapons, but there were no more lightning bolts. Clearly, the nobleman had got the message.

“Eh, pardon me fer askin’,” said Billie, “but is there somethin’ more urgent you could maybe be doin’ at this—”

“Be silent or be silenced,” Tellwyrn barked, not looking up from her work.

“Let the woman concentrate, Billie,” Admestus admonished. “Have you ever tried to reconstitute burned paper out of the very atmosphere? Seconds count!”

She threw up her hands and plunked herself down in the opposite corner from Eric.

A tremendous, singular clatter echoed abruptly through the library as thick wooden shutters, bound and braced by iron frames, slammed up out of the floors to lock away the contents of every single bookcase.

“Oh, now you’re protective of the collection,” Tellwyrn muttered acidly while still laboring to restore the damaged books. “This is why there are always hooligans running rampant in your house, you know. You never take care of your things in the first place!”

“Really, though,” Owl said, a bit gingerly. “Should we be…doing something? That officer seems like a bit of a tosser, but between her and Lord Rhadid, she’s not the casual murderer who’s apparently plotting world domination.”

“Oh, please,” Tellwyrn sneered. “I’ll get my hands dirty when something important is going down. There’s always some twit who thinks some magical gewgaw he’s found is going to make him the master of the universe. I should tell you how I got these spectacles sometime. You would not believe what their previous owner was doing. Those clods always end up the same way.”

“Yeah, seriously, we can take a break,” Admestus said cheerfully, rapping on the wall of arcane light with his knuckles and causing ripples of luminescence to spread from it. “We’re all safe and sound in Auntie Arachne’s bubble, and his Lordship specifically is not something we need to be worried about. Speaking as the person who set all this up, take the opportunity to grab a well-earned breather.”

“Set all this up, huh,” Billie said, giving him a very flat look.

“Oh!” Eric perked up. “Does that mean you arranged for Tamara to be here, too? Will we also find her safe and well?”

“Yes and no,” Rafe said with a shrug. “Yes in that she was along because I convinced Rhadypants we needed some muscle and recommended her for the job. And no, her ass is grass, as was the point. That was a really simple potion to brew! Combine Rhadid Daraspian and a tetchy, thick-skulled thug in one sapient dungeon, bring to a low simmer, and hey presto! Rhadid shows his arse right off the bat, and Manor Dire knows what to expect from him.”

They all stared at the half-elf, who gazed back with a placid smile and an arched eyebrow.

“So you were settin’ up yer boss fer this whole fiasco from the beginning?” Billie finally asked.

“Hah!” Rafe straightened up and struck a pose. “Never doubt it! Where there is a villain scheming to overthrow the just and virtuous rule of our fair Empress, there is a Rafe to thwart him! With cunning! With panache! With an exquisitely tight butt in only the most fashionable pants!”

“Your father didn’t belt you nearly enough,” Tellwyrn muttered.

“Why are you like this?!” Eric burst out. “Why can’t you just—just be a— Why aren’t you normal?”

Even Tellwyrn looked up at that, staring at Admestus over the rims of her spectacles. He started to scoff, but then actually subsided, his expression growing more sober under the weight of their combined stares. At last, he shrugged lopsidedly.

“I feel like you’re all fishing for some kind of grand revelation that just isn’t there. Not everybody can be a respected academic who fits in at a glance, Professor. Or a legendary, cantankerous archmage who everybody’s afraid to mess with, also Professor. People see a half-elf and it brings out the asshole in most of ’em. If everyone’s going to draw bullshit conclusions at first sight, things generally go better for me if they’re the bullshit conclusions I want.” He shrugged again. “That’s all.”

“Fact remains,” Owl said, “you deliberately led Tamara here to die. That’s not any different from what Daraspian did to her.”

“Yeah?” Admestus snorted, showing no hint of his usual theatrical ebullience. “Two years ago, Tamara beat the hell out of a fourteen-year-old kid I was tutoring. Stole his alchemy equipment to pawn, threw his textbook in the canal, and made a point of breaking his glasses. I hope Tammykins appreciates being peacefully dead instead of shrunk to three inches tall and left on the kitchen counter in the neighborhood cat lady’s apartment, because that was my first plan. Bitch was the worst kind of useless back-alley thug: the kind even the Guild wouldn’t take. If she hadn’t run afoul of me and Rhadid it was just a matter of time before some Eserite cut off her fingers.”

Owl grunted and shrugged, seeming entirely mollified by that. “All right, fair enough.”

“Hey, the violence seems to’ve died down,” Billie noted. “Who wants ta bet they sat down, ‘ad a nice calm discussion an’ worked out their differences?”

“One human’s coming up the nearest staircase,” Tellwyrn grunted, again focused on the books. “Daraspian, I think.”

Her elvish ears were correct, though it took them a few more seconds to verify it. Rhadid stomped toward them, his face wreathed in a furious snarl.

“You,” he spat, ineffectually stabbing the barrier with his sword. “You little vermin!”

“Well, damn,” Billie drawled, unimpressed. “Somebody needs ‘is nappy changed.”

“Oh, he’s probably just tetchy that I lifted this,” Owl said with a grin, reaching into his coat pocket. He pulled out a glass vial with a lead stopper, containing a sluggish purple liquid.

Rafe began laughing so hard he had to sit down.

With a visible effort, Rhadid suppressed his rage, even taking a moment to sheath his blade, smooth his hair back, and straighten his suit, though that last touch was particularly ineffectual as it was burned almost to shreds by repeated lightning blasts.

“Very well, I see the scales have tipped. You are in a position to make considerable demands of me, and I am in a position to bestow considerable wealth and favor upon each of you. So let us discuss how much we can arrange for you all to profit from giving back what is mine.”

“Ohh, buddy,” Rafe chortled, wiping away tears. “I don’t think you get it, Rhad. You were just shot a bunch of times.”

“Yes, and thanks to your brewing skill, I stand before you unscathed,” the nobleman said evenly. “I am impressed, Admestus. It is therefore worth a great deal to me to recover access to that potion.”

“And anyone actually smart enough to overthrow the Empire and conquer the world would’ve hovered and read over my shoulder instead of prowling around the adjacent rooms. That is a limited anti-death potion, Lordy boy. Limited. All magic is subjective physics—within limits. No alchemist, no wizard, no god can simply wipe away causality. Just…suspend it.”

Rhadid opened his mouth to reply, then utterly froze. The color drained from his face.

“Honestly, I coulda just fed you hemlock, but I really wanted to see if I could actually make that potion. And I wasn’t gonna shed any tears if you stabbed Roscoe; I really don’t care for her attitude.”

“Rafe,” Rhadid hissed, impotently clenching his fists.

Rafe made a production of drawing a pocket watch from his waistcoat, consulting it, and grinning. The snap of the watch’s lid closing carried a note of finality, somewhat spoiled by the alchemist waggling his fingers flirtatiously at his erstwhile employer. “It’s been a party, Rhadid. Tell Tamara I pointed and laughed!”

A single staffshot was enough electricity to inflict severe burns and overload the nervous system. As it turned out, the simultaneous result of several dozen abruptly catching up to someone who had temporarily suspended their effects amounted to a torrent of power that, for one second, glowed like the sun, and left behind little more than bones charred black. What remained of Rhadid Daraspian tumbled against the arcane shield and shattered to fall in jumbled fragments to the balcony floor.

Eric doubled over and was loudly sick.

“Charming,” Tellwyrn grunted. “Does it mean nothing to any of you that this is a god damned library?”

“Welp,” Owl said with a sigh. “Guess that means we’re not gettin’ paid.”


What little remained of the joint expedition to Manor Dire was much quicker and quieter, though not devoid of surprises.

Lieutenant Roscoe was among the three surviving soldiers, barely; at some point she had taken a rapier clear through her torso in three different places. The remains of her squad weren’t in much better shape. Compared to her previous attitude, she was very subdued after Rafe had administered healing potions. After rendering medical aid, the rest of the group left the Imperials to tend to their fallen.

Nobody bothered to say aloud that if Manor Dire was judging them by their ability to handle these events without resorting to brute violence, the gnomes had quite decisively won. Steinway, Woodsworth, and Sassafrass did not re-emerge from wherever they had hidden during the showdown, but Billie, who stuck with the rest of the survivors on their way out of the Manor, blithely assured everyone they were fine.

The next surprise came when the protective shutters over the bookcases abruptly withdrew, to reveal…nothing. Every shelf in the library was completely bare.

Tellwyrn withdrew a bag of holding from inside her vest, peeked inside it, and then smiled the self-satisfied smile of a well-fed housecat. “Ah.”

“Ohh,” Owl drawled while Eric was still groping, aghast, at an empty shelf. “I get it. New University and all, it must take a whole lotta time, effort, an’ money to put together a proper collection for the library. Unless you got a friend who’s about to put his place under new management an’ needs to clear up space on the shelves. That’s what this whole thing was about for you, isn’t it? The sweeping, the five-hundred-year-old dead language only Diristaan would know…”

“Oh, please,” she snorted, “I hardly need to suck up to Diristaan; I taught the boy everything he knew. Well,” she added pensively, “not the bit about achieving immortality by diffusing his consciousness into a non-discrete edifice. It would never occur to me to even contemplate such an asshat thing. Still.” In passing through the library doors, she paused to affectionately pat the door frame. “I always was fond of the lad. It’s been nice, being able to visit here and just relax, when I have time.”

“Aye, well, we gnomes aren’t big inta control an’ dominance,” said Billie. “This whole bit about competin’ fer rights to the place, that was the Manor’s idea, not ours. If me kin are gonna be a bigger presence ’round ‘ere goin’ forward, they’ll just be explorin’ an’ appreciatin’ the house. You of all people’ll be more welcome ‘ere than ever.”

“Oh, good,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “So much for peace and quiet.”

It seemed that Manor Dire was done playing games with them. The path from the library back to the entrance was direct, logical, and took all of ten minutes, without a trap or puzzle to be seen, much less any patches of confusing astral void. With nearly disorienting suddenness, they found themselves back in the long, rustic entry hall, facing the front doors to the mundane world outside.

“I would just like to say,” Eric spoke up suddenly, “that this trip has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me, and…and it has not disappointed, despite all the frankly horrible things we’ve endured in the process. I’m grateful to the Manor and its master for indulging one archaeologist’s curiosity and not punishing his, ah, lack of adventuring qualifications any more than necessary. And it has been both a pleasure and an honor to work alongside each and every one of you.” He hesitated, then smiled. “Even the homicidally unhinged ones.”

“D’aww,” Rafe cooed. “We love you too, big guy!” The half-elf broke off with a yelp as Billie pinched his butt.

“Hey, you,” Tellwyrn said, turning to him. “Want a job?”

Admestus gaped at her.

“I need an alchemy teacher,” she said bluntly. “I caught my longstanding one diddling one of the students, so he’s exploring the reaches of Suffering until she graduates. And I’m not thrilled with the guy I got to replace him. He’s competent and all, but… You’re clearly one of the best there is at what you do, if you managed to brew this.” She held up the nearly full vial of limited anti-death potion.

“Dammit!” Owl exclaimed, clapping a hand over his coat pocket. “I’m the Eserite here! Why the hell am I only the third-best pickpocket?”

“Sounds like a personal problem,” Billie said solicitously. “Are ye gettin’ enough veggies? May be a fiber issue.”

“Just as important,” Tellwyrn continued, ignoring them with her gaze still on Rafe, “you have a proven will to murder the hell out of anyone who harms one of your students. That’s everything I look for in a teacher. I’m willing to fire the chump I’ve got right now if you’re in.”

“Are you kidding?” Rafe squealed. “I am so in I can’t even think of an off-color metaphor, and that’s about a sentence hinging on the word ‘in’ for fuck’s sake! You just tell me when to start and—”

“Semester begins in three weeks,” she interrupted. “You’ll need to do some orientation beforehand. In fact…yeah. You have twenty-four hours to get your ass to Last Rock without my help. Consider that your final interview.”

“Then consider my ass hired!” Wasting not another moment, Admestus Rafe turned and pelted off down the great entry hall of Manor Dire, barely pausing to throw the front doors wide before charging through them and out into the world, leaving only his voice echoing behind. “Onward to glory!”

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Bonus #49: Lightning in a Bottle, part 2

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“A family friend,” she said brusquely. “Name’s Arachne, I’m sure your parents mentioned me.”

“Hang on a second,” Tamara said. “I could swear that elf just said her name was Arachne.”

“She did,” Lord Rhadid replied softly. “Without evidence, to be sure, but the description matches. Spectacles and all. You did not mention you were acquainted with such an august personage, Admestus.”

“Whoah, now,” Admestus said, holding up both hands placatingly. “Come on, m’lord, it’s me. Do you honestly think if I knew somebody like the Tellwyrn her Tellself I wouldn’t have spent fully half the time you’ve known me bragging about it non-stop? I have no idea what she’s talking about, my parents never mentioned her.”

“Also,” Owl said idly, “we don’t actually know this is—”

“What the hell do you mean they never mentioned me?” the elf roared. “After all the— That stuck up pair of goody-goodies thought didn’t bother to… No, you know what, that’s actually fair. If I were trying to raise a level-headed child I would keep them away from terrible influences like myself.”

“If that’s what they were trying it didn’t work,” Tamara opined.

“I say,” Eric offered hesitantly. “Are you, in fact, the archmage Arachne Tellwyrn?”

“You doubt me?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Anywhere else I could demonstrate very easily, but I just swept that floor.”

“It’s just that…well, that,” he said. “You’re…sweeping the floor. When one thinks of legendary wizards, one tends not to envision them performing menial servant work.”

“It’s very calming,” she explained. “Meditative. And in here, nobody bothers me. Even the adventurers know to mind their damn business in Manor Dire. I’ve been coming here to straighten up for the last ten years, during semester breaks. It’s a nice change from herding students and the Manor seems to appreciate it. Regardless! I doubt very much any of you have anything to offer me but annoyance. Whatever a random pack of adventurers up to is by definition less interesting to me than the fact that little Admestus is running around dungeons with a random pack of adventurers. Young man, I have killed an emperor and a god, toppled multiple nations and publicly spanked a Hand of Avei. I will not hesitate to tattle on you to your mother.”

“Hold it,” Admestus bellowed, holding up an imperious hand. “We can continue that line of blather in a moment. I need to make something explicitly clear.” Stepping to the side, he planted himself in a wide stand and turned to face his companions. “Nothing about Admestus is in any way little. I’m sure you know what I mean.” In case there was any doubt, he pointed with both hands at his belt buckle. “Eh? Eh? If I am still unclear, I’m willing to arrange a demonstration. Specially for you, sugar lips,” he added, winking at Owl.

There was silence.

“If I may,” Lord Rhadid said after an excruciating pause. “Ms. Tellwyrn—”

“It’s Professor,” she said, “if you insist on being formal.”

“The rumors are true, then?” Eric asked. “You actually founded a school for adventurers?”

“It is not a school for adventurers,” she spat. “And just what do you mean, rumors? We’ve been taking students for thirteen years!”

“Oh, uh, I…” The dwarf tried to edge behind Tamara, who immediately stepped away.

“Professor Tellwyrn,” Rhadid continued with all the calm grace of a man who was not being continually interrupted by an impromptu sideshow. “I understand you are concerned for the well-being of a family friend; that is quite laudable. Rest assured that this group is not a roving band of treasure-seekers. I am a scion of House Daraspian, which holds hereditary title to these lands; I regard Manor Dire with the deepest respect and my business here is a solemn affair indeed.”

“Daraspian, huh,” she grunted. “Bunch of troublemakers even by noble standards. None of that has anything to do with me… Rhadid, was it?”

His Lordship did not react to the insult in the slightest. “It is. You mistake me, Professor; I would not attempt to impress one such as you with my title. I am explaining that this is a serious archaeological expedition. This is Professor Eric Ahlstrom, the leading expert now alive on the history of this dungeon.”

“Ahlstrom?” She fixed her gaze on the dwarf, tilting her head to look over the rims of her glasses at him. “I confess I didn’t believe it when Admestus introduced you.”

“Oh, that hurt,” Admestus protested.

“I read your books,” Tellwyrn continued, ignoring him. “Very thorough material, and a lot less dry than the general run of academic texts.”

“Oh!” Eric blinked. “I…well, thank you! That is extremely flattering, Ms… Ah, that is, Professor.”

“Rest assured,” said Rhadid, “our purpose here is academic. We are all well-informed as to the nature of the Manor and every care will be taken to avoid antagonizing it. You may inform Admestus’s parents, when next you see them, that he has become involved with reputable intellectual undertakings, not crass dungeon delvers.”

“I’ll inform them of whatever I think, which isn’t that,” she snorted, and pointed her broom handle at Tamara. “Reputable intellectual undertakings don’t require the employment of thugs.”

“Oy,” Tamara protested, scowling.

“That simply isn’t true, and I expect you know it,” Rhadid countered with a thin smile.

Tellwyrn grunted, but did not argue the point further, which was probably what passed for agreement in her case. “What exactly is it you’re here after, Rhadid?”

“That is family business,” he answered calmly, “and with all due respect, none of yours.”

“House Daraspian’s ‘family’ business is an open secret,” she said. “It’s also neither academic nor intellectual.”

Rhadid smiled again. “Perhaps Admestus was remiss in his introductions. Tamara is, indeed, hired muscle and nothing more…”

“Oy!” she snapped.

“…but the gentleman to my right is Owl, a fully accredited and tagged member of the Thieves’ Guild. I hired him for this expedition due to his noted expertise on the matter of traps and locks, but I should think that a formal Eserite presence in my party rules out the prospect that I am here in pursuit of the kind of dealings for which my House is…somewhat justifiably notorious.”

“Hm.” She transferred a skeptical stare to Owl. “Wouldn’t be the first crooked Eserite I’ve ever known…”

“All systems are corrupt,” he agreed, shrugging. “Not excluding the Guild itself. For what it’s worth, Lord Rhadid checks out. Never been involved in any Daraspian shit that would make the Guild rule out dealing with him. Underboss Whatsit signed off on me taking this job. Full disclosure, I’m here to keep an eye on this as much as for the payout.”

“Oh, pweeeease?” Admestus whined, folding his hands pleadingly and giving the elf his best puppy dog eyes. “Pwease, Auntie Tattlewyrn, can I play with my friends? I promise to put up all my toys afterward!”

She flicked her fingers at him and what happened to the tip of his ear was somewhat reminiscent of the way his mother flicked it when she was annoyed—but also of a firework, given that it hurt ten times as much and was accompanied by a bright spark of arcane magic, not to mention the brief smell of burning hair. Tellwyrn turned her attention back to Rhadid while Admestus tumbled to the ground, clutching his head and howling dramatically.

“I’ll tell you what,” the elf said, folding her arms and leaving the broom to stand upright on its own. “If you get the boy killed, make sure you’re the next to go, because that option will be worlds better than what will happen to you if you come out of here alive and he doesn’t. His family are nice, well-behaved people who’ve never offended so much as a fly. That makes me twice as vindictive in their defense. Understand?”

“Thoroughly,” Rhadid replied, inclining his head in acknowledgment. “Though I have no reason to expect it will come to that, or I would obviously not have risked it in the first place.”

“Why are we arguing, exactly?” Tamara asked, looking down at Admestus with her lip curled in contempt. “Just let her take him home. Do we really need this assclown?”

“Considerably more than we need you, as I have already explained,” Rhadid told her curtly. “The disparity in your relative value is such that I am less inclined to interrupt his tantrum than to make you carry him till he is done with it.”

“As long as we all understand each other,” Tellwyrn said, fixing Admestus with a glare. “Get up, you little reprobate. I will be reporting on this to your family. Is this what you want your father to hear of you doing?”

He stopped rolling, lifting his hands from his head to peek up at her. “Kinda? Guy needs to unclench a little, you ask me. A bit of embarrassment now and again’s good for his circulation. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself from the cradle on.”

“Just quit,” Tamara growled, grabbing him by the collar again and hauling him upright. “If you can’t act like a sane person, at least act like a person, would you?”

“What?” he simpered at her. “And pass up the chance to be carried in your strong, protective arms?”

“If you’re not going to go out the way you came, get on with it, then,” Tellwyrn ordered, grabbing her broom and making a shooing gesture at them with it. “You’re tracking who knows what mess all over my nice clean floors. Admestus, visit home as soon as you’re done here, you know your mother worries and you’ve doubtless given her enough gray hairs already. And Professor Ahlstrom, do write me at Last Rock at your convenience. We’re a small institution with no dedicated archaeology department, but I’d be delighted to have you as a guest lecturer. I pay well.”

“Oh!” he said, blinking in surprise. “That’s… Why, thank you, Professor Tellwyrn, I believe I may take you up on that.”

“A good day to you then, Professor,” Rhadid said politely. “Come along, all.”

They carried on down the hallway, and the sound of sweeping resumed as soon as they had moved a few yards. It cut off abruptly when they rounded the next corner, though. Lord Rhadid silently called a halt with a gesture, and Admestus peeked back around the corner. It led to a completely different stretch of hallway, now.

“Well, how about that,” Owl mused once they had continued on. “The great Arachne Tellwyrn unwinds as a volunteer housemaid in one of the great dungeons. Not something I would’ve expected to find out, but damn if it doesn’t make a certain kinda sense.”

“I still dunno why you’re all convinced that was Tellwyrn,” Tamara grunted.

“She is either Tellwyrn or is going to come to a sticky end for impersonating her,” Rhadid said evenly. “I am inclined to believe the former, for several reasons. It makes no difference for our purposes, regardless. Owl, please join the Professor at the front. We will doubtless begin to encounter more surprises the deeper we go, and I want his expertise on the house and yours on any traps to guide us.”

“As you wish, m’lord,” Owl said noncommittally, quickening his pace to join Eric while Rhadid fell behind.

“Do you wish to try examining any of these doorways, Lord Rhadid?” Eric asked. The hall in which they now walked was wider and more ornate; the doors were of polished wood, and rather than bare stone walls and occasional torches there were iron sconces containing candles with mirrored backings, plus low tables and display cases showing off a variety of decorative objects interspersed with the doors along one side of the hall.

Rhadid came to a stop, turning in a slowly circle to critically examine their surroundings.

“In your opinion, Professor, would that speed our progress?”

“It’s…hard to say, my lord,” Eric replied, frowning in thought. “I think the most efficient approach would be a balanced one: taking time to explore, but moving steadily forward. I would caution you not to display too much impatience. The Manor is likely to perceive excessive eagerness to access its treasures, and won’t reward that attitude.”

“I see,” Rhadid said, his tone neutral. “What if—”

Immediately behind them, a door opened and a zombie stepped out.

The thing moved with amazing speed for a corpse that looked too desiccated to stand upright. They all turned at the soft creak of the door opening, to find it already coming at them in long strides, clutching something at waist level with both hands and emitting a gurgling moan.

Tamara reacted just as fast, shoving past Admestus even as she yanked the greatsword from its scabbard across her back. She brought the weapon down in an overhead slash that flowed straight from the act of unsheathing it, sending the undead tumbling backward in multiple pieces.

“Swiftly done,” Lord Rhadid said approvingly.

“Oh, no,” Eric whispered, aghast. “Why did you do that?”

“What the fuck are you on about?” Tamara demanded, rounding on him. “We were just attacked by a fucking skeleton! I did my job.”

“Um.” Owl bent to pick up the object the zombie had been carrying: a silver serving tray. Beside it lay several shot glasses, all but one broken in the fall, and a miraculously un-cracked bottle of brandy. “I don’t…think it was attacking us.”

“Is that zombie wearing a suit?” Admestus asked, peering over his shoulder. “It is! That looks like medieval formal livery! Aw, look how dashing he is!”

The fallen zombie, though bisected at the waist and with its left arm separated just below the shoulder, opened its lipless mouth to moan again.

“It’s a servant,” Eric exclaimed. “It was offering us drinks!”

Mirroring the undead’s groan, a low noise sounded through the house, a deep moan of straining woodwork. As if the Manor itself were voicing a protest.

“Oh, now you’ve done it,” Admestus remarked fatalistically. “Now you’ve really gone and done it.”

Fortunately none of them were standing in the path of the abrupt scenery change which immediately followed; rather than the subtle alteration the Manor had used to change their path behind them, this was swift, physical, and violent. Segments of the corridor’s walls behind and ahead of them slammed across the hallway, impacting the opposite walls with a deeply ominous boom and sealing the group in a space barely ten feet long.

“Professor,” Lord Rhadid said with impressive calm, “your thoughts?”

“I’m sorry, I would have warned you,” Eric babbled, “but you have to understand, meeting friendly agents of the household is most unusual and they are described more often as spectral than biologically undead, and besides, no adventurer’s account describes encountering a Manor servant this early on! They occasionally appear later in an excursion, when an explorer has passed multiple trials—”

His Lordship raised his voice to interrupt. “Professor. Fault can be discussed when we are not trapped like rats. Have you any thoughts on remedying this situation?”

“Oh. Um, I…yes.” Eric ran a trembling hand over his beard. “Well. That is, no precise parallel occurs to me, but, I think, generally…”

“How ’bout we try apologizing and asking nicely?” Owl suggested.

“Leave it to me!” Admestus proclaimed, swaggering forward to stand before the section of wall which had emerged to block their path. He cleared his throat, straightened his lapels, and ran a hand over his hair, then flung himself to his knees with a wail of dismay. “OH GODS I’M SORREEEE! It was all an accident, we didn’t mean to kill the zombie. SHE DID IT! HER!” He pointed behind him with one hand in Tamara’s general direction, pawing obsequiously at the wall with the other. “This is a terrible misunderstanding! Oh, gods, I don’t wanna die like thiiiiissss…”

He trailed off, bawling at the top of his lungs, alternately drumming on the wall with his fists and kissing it.

“Stop it, Admestus,” Rhadid ordered. “Professor Ahlstrom, I am waiting.”

“Right,” Eric said unsteadily. “Well, as a general rule, the Manor is not unreasonable; accidents occur under pressure. Owl has the right of it, in fact. When one errs, a good faith effort to make amends will do much to restore the house’s good graces.”

“How?” Tamara demanded, pointing with her still-unsheathed sword at the fallen zombie. It was groaning intermittently, its torso flopping this way and that, seemingly too weak to move in a goal-directed fashion with only one arm. Unsettlingly, its other arm and disconnected legs were both shifting feebly as well.

“Well,” said Rhadid, “that seems a start. Admestus, time to earn your salary.”

Admestus broke off licking the wall to look inquisitively at him. “I…I thought I was. You…you want me to seduce the house? I don’t know, I’ve never gotten it on with an edifice. But hey, if it’s for the good of the—”

“Enough!” Rhadid barked, showing the first open irritation he had betrayed this far. “Get over there and fix that creature, and cease your asinine noisemaking!”

“How the hell is this load gonna fix a busted zombie?” Tamara asked skeptically while Admestus scuttled over to the fallen undead without further comment. “I seriously doubt he can put on his pants unassisted.”

“Can’t,” Admestus agreed, having arrived at the zombie’s side in a slide on his knees, already reaching into the pouches attached to his belt of holding for his supplies. “That’s why I make it a point never to have my pants off alone. Well, one reason. Okay, little buddy, you just hang in there. Uncle Rafe’s gonna make it all better.”

Another low moan sounded around them—not from the zombie, but the house. This time, the floorboards actually shivered beneath their feet.

“Quickly, please,” Lord Rhadid suggested.

“Excuse me,” Eric protested, “but it’s a known principle that you cannot raise or significantly modify undead using alchemy alone. Any method of practical necromancy requires the active use of at least two of the four schools of magic, and most call for shadow magic as well!”

“It is for good and specific reason that I chose this imbecile as my alchemical specialist,” Rhadid replied calmly.

“Stop, I’m gonna blush!” Admestus trilled, even as he worked. Pulling the fragments of the zombie back together was the easy part; holding them in the right position proved more challenging, when the creature wouldn’t stop its weak thrashing. “Listen, guy, you’re gonna have to hold still. If I gotta immobilize you it’s just gonna mess you up even more.”

The zombie groaned, turning its mouthful of crooked, yellow teeth in his direction, but actually stopped wriggling. At least, its torso did.

“Reflex action, huh?” Admestus grunted, wrestling the still-twitching arm into place after pulling both ends of its sleeve apart. “’sokay, I can work with this…”

While he hadn’t attempted this specific feat before, he was no stranger to working rapidly, under pressure, and in adverse conditions. Admestus swiftly bound the two pieces of severed arm together with curse-briar twigs and enchantment-grade copper wire, liberally sprayed the resulting makeshift splint with a solution of skeleton dust and dilute panacea potion which he mixed in a small perfume bottle, and finally applied one drop of unicorn tear to reactivate the briars. Immediately they began to spread, twining up and down the zombie’s emaciated arm until its broken part was encased in a cast of rough, dark wood, the enchanting wires completely buried within.

“Okay, how’s that work?” he asked, ignoring both the nervous faces peering over his shoulder and another rattle of the floorboards. “You got a full range of motion? Cos, full disclosure, I’m kinda spitballing here and if that’s not holding together I’ll obviously wanna try something different on the other bit.”

The zombie carefully flexed its arm, seemingly without effort. Then it formed a thumbs up with the reattached hand and moaned wetly at him.

“All right!” Admestus said cheerfully. “We are in business! Tammy, babe, I’m gonna need you to hold his legs down.”

“I’m not touching that fucking thing,” she snapped.

“Omnu’s balls,” Owl grunted, dropping to the floor beside Admestus to help wrestle the still-kicking legs into position. “We don’t have time for this.”

Fortunately the zombie was skeletal enough that only its lower spine needed to be repaired to rejoin the two halves of its body. Minutes later, Admestus and Owl were carefully helping it to stand back up.

The undead opened its jaw wide, emitting a long groan.

“You’re welcome, ol’ chap!” Admestus said brightly. “I’d clap you on the back, but…y’know.”

“All right,” Rhadid said, looking around at their enclosure. “I note that the building itself has ceased making threatening noises, but we are still here.”

“Based on all my reading,” said Eric, “this should be…a start. I’m sorry, my lord, it’s out of precedent for us to have been greeted by a house servant this soon in our trek and I frankly don’t know what it signifies that we first botched it and then tried to repair the damage.”

“What do you mean, we?” Owl asked, turning a pointed stare on Tamara. She flipped him off.

“Well, we’re halfway there!” Admestus said cheerily, having picked up the fallen bottle of brandy and sole surviving glass. He poured himself a shot and then held it aloft. “Your health, zombie house!”

They all stared while he tossed it back.

“What are the odds that was poisoned?” Owl asked.

“I told you,” said Eric, “the Manor doesn’t poison people with drink freely offered.”

“Besides,” Admestus added haughtily, “an alchemist is never poisoned. Unthinkable!”

“Nine tenths of the shit you do is unthinkable,” Tamara informed him.

“Anyway,” Eric continued, “this is likely to make our way a little more perilous, at least until we’ve earned back some favor with the house. Forgiven is not forgotten.”

The low groan which resonated through the floorboards was too perfectly timed to have been coincidence. The zombie, now leaning against the wall, added an echoing moan, making an awkward rolling motion with its head that might have been a disjointed nod.

“He came out of here, didn’t he?” Owl stepped past the injured undead to open the only door in this section of the hall with them—as he had said, the one through which the zombie had abruptly emerged minutes ago. The thief poked his head in. “Hey, this looks like a lounge. ‘Splains why a waiter came outta here. There’s another door.”

“Well…there you go,” Eric said nervously, hitching up his satchel upon his shoulders. “Shall we?”

“Tamara,” Lord Rhadid said pointedly, nodding toward the zombie waiter, “is there something you would like to say to our new acquaintance?”

She looked at him, then at the zombie. It groaned at her. Tamara curled her lip and pushed past Owl into the lounge. “I’ll take point.”

The rest followed, Rhadid and Eric both pointedly bowing to the zombie in passing. Through the door was a wood-paneled room longer than it was wide, with several deeply-padded seats and low tables, a roaring hearth along one of its shorter walls and a long bar backed by a sizable stock of bottles against the side. The party moved through it without pausing to appreciate the scenery; the room’s other door was positioned to emerge into the same hallway from which they had just come, past the obstruction the Manor had placed across it.

When they emerged, however, the hallway was clear. It extended emptily in both directions, with no sign of either the barrier walls or the injured zombie.

As if to summarily squash any relief they might have dared to feel, another tremor rumbled through the floorboards, this one accompanied by a low growl that sounded like the product of something alive. The group froze momentarily, then Lord Rhadid turned to Eric.

“Professor?”

“We need to keep moving,” the dwarf said urgently. “It seems we’re not forgiven yet, after all; that must be earned. The faster we go, the more we will encounter, and that will lead to opportunities to impress the Manor positively. But there can be no more incidents like that! If we offend the house again while already on its bad list…”

“You heard the Professor,” Rhadid said firmly, casting a swift glance across the lot of them. “No mistakes from here. You must be fully on alert, but do not act without thinking!”

He finished his instruction staring at Tamara, and then stood there holding her gaze, even as the house groaned beneath them again. Finally she bowed her head, albeit sullenly.

“Understood, Lord Rhadid.”

“Good. Owl, Professor, take the lead again, please, and proceed at such a pace that you do not risk charging into a trap. You,” he pointed at Tamara, “go right behind them. Step forward to defend if and only if Professor Ahlstrom informs you of the necessity. Admestus, with me. Have countermeasures at the ready in case we are flanked, but again, look before acting.”

“Yes, sir, your Lordliness!” Admestus chirped, throwing a deliberately off-kilter salute. “If it’s all the same to you, milord, I shall also think before acting!”

“What the hell is he gonna do?” Tamara grumbled as they started moving up the hall. “Spritz perfume on the next monster?”

“Ooh, now there’s an idea!” Admestus chattered. “Monster perfume! But…what would be the market? There’s something there, I know it, but I’ll have to mull that. Meanwhile, I’ve got this!”

He pulled out a jar which filled the hallway with a clean white glow, causing the whole group to pause and turn back toward him.

“Lightning in a bottle,” he said in answer to the unasked question.

“Okay, but…not literally, though, right?” Eric replied.

Admestus stared at him without expression and replied tonelessly. “Everything I have ever said has been completely literal.”

The house shuddered around them. Several nearby doors rattled in their frames.

“Move,” Rhadid ordered, and they set off up the hall again.

“Now that you mention perfume,” Admestus added, “I do have a spray bottle full of flesh-dissolving acid!”

“I recommend you stop making statements which our host might construe as threats,” Eric advised.

“Pshaw, what, little old me? I’m the genius who put the waiter back together, remember? I’m officially the house’s favorite person here. It knows I’m harmless! Don’cha, ol’ girl?”

He patted a doorframe in passing, then leaped away across the hall with a yelp when the door jerked inward, revealing that both it and its frame were lined with jagged fangs, and then slammed back shut.

“Did you see that?” Tamara yelled. “It tried to bite him! The fucking house tried to bite him!”

“You gotta figure most of the people he meets get to that point sooner or later,” Own remarked.

“Wait,” Rhadid ordered, and they came to a stop, watching him. The group pulled a bit closer together as another distinctly animal growl sounded from within the walls—a very, very large one, the noise coming from both sides of the hallway and seeming to move as if whatever made it was progressing through the rooms nearby. Only Rhadid kept complete composure, standing somewhat apart from the group.

He stepped across the hall and back two yards to another door, and carefully tried the latch.

Fortunately for him, Rhadid had not been boasting about his credentials; his reflexes were not those of a man who lived comfortably on inherited wealth. He no sooner touched the latch than retreated, and thus was out of range when the door burst inward and a gigantic forked tongue lashed out across the hallway to strike the opposite wall. The door was also lined with fangs—bigger ones, this time—and emitted a truly deafening ursine roar before slamming shut again.

The floorboards trembled more violently beneath them, and suddenly, all the torches lining this stretch of hallway flickered out.

“If anyone is wondering,” Admestus announced, “the damp stain spreading on my pants is from my reagent bottles. Cork must’ve come loose.”

Lord Rhadid drew his sword, turning back to study the group thoughtfully, running his eyes over each of them. Then he nodded once as if deciding something and strode forward. “Very good, I have an idea. Everyone, step away from that door.” He pointed with his rapier at another one on the same side of the hall as the door which he had just narrowly escaped. “Tamara, try the latch.”

“Are you joking?” she demanded.

“No,” Rhadid said calmly, as if that were a perfectly serious question, and came to a stop right alongside her. “I will be right here with you, don’t worry. I know what I am doing.”

“I don’t know what you’re doing,” she snapped. “What’s your bloody great idea?”

The floor actually rippled beneath them, causing Eric and Admestus to stumble. For a moment the hardwood had surged like the surface of a disturbed pool; in the aftermath it was left firm as ever and undamaged. Another hungry growl resounded, this time definitely from the door Rhadid had indicated.

“The first step,” he said evenly, “was to hire a mercenary with the understanding that she would not be paid if she did not follow my orders.”

Tamara held his stare, her jaw muscles working; Rhadid simply gazed dispassionately back.

“This had better work,” she growled at last, turning to the door and drawing one of her wands. “Whatever the fuck this even is, it had better work. Ready?”

“When you are,” Rhadid replied, nodding.

She swallowed once, held her wand up at the ready, and with her other hand, reached out and turned the latch.

Tamara immediately jumped back, barely avoiding the meaty tongue which flopped out at her. The tooth-lined door frame snapped repeatedly, roaring loudly enough to disturb her hair.

Rhadid stepped back at the same time, then once again to place himself behind her. As Tamara dodged to the side, he nimbly shifted and planted a powerful snap kick right in the small of her back, knocking her off-balance and straight into the tongue.

Tamara managed to yell once, and as the fanged door slammed shut behind her there came a flash and snap of her wand discharging. Then silence.

The torches came back on. There was no more growling, no trembling of the floor; just a quiet hallway stretching away in both directions.

Rhadid reached out carefully with his sword, pushing down on the latch of the door that had just eaten Tamara until it clicked and the door, creaking quietly, eased an inch or so inward. He then planted the tip of the sword against the wood and gave it a push. The door swung open to reveal a quiet little study. Nothing but bookshelves lining the walls, and in one corner a desk with an oil lamp atop it, an overstuffed armchair pulled up alongside.

“As I thought,” Lord Rhadid said lightly, sheathing his sword. He stepped over, grasped the latch, and pulled the door gently shut. “The house is perfectly able to distinguish friend from foe. I think we shall have much less trouble from here. Remember to think before acting, everyone, and mind your manners. Well?” With no more ado he strode past them, heading on up the hallways. “On we go.”

The three of them stared after him in silence for a few seconds while the distance between them grew. Then, almost in unison, they hurried to catch up. There was really nothing else they could do.

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Bonus #48: Lightning in a Bottle, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Patreon backer Lluazarg!

The talent assembled was carefully selected for dungeoneering, but in this day and age, actually getting into the dungeon required much more mundane gifts: money and influence. And so the four of them stood carefully out of earshot, as their employer had emphatically instructed, watching Lord Rhadid speak privately with the Imperial soldiers who had just instructed them all to clear off.

Though after the first five minutes, only Owl was still paying attention to his Lordship. Tamara had begun pacing restlessly in the road, and Eric was gazing enraptured at the shape of Manor Dire rising from among the pine trees up ahead. Admestus had begun mimicking each of his companions in turn to pass the time; Owl had ignored him and Tamara had just taken a swing at his head, so now he stood alongside the dwarf, in the same posture, staring at the manor house.

It might have been the home of any rich noble, these days, though for the era in which it was built the lack of any fortifications was unusual. With the pines blanketing its grounds the full spread of the manor itself was hard to discern from this angle, though it was clearly huge. Gabled roofs poked up here and there between the trees, spreading in both directions from the high peak of the central hall, with turrets and towers rising even higher in places. The tallest had a sizable telescope protruding from its domed roof, which would be a rare feature now and had surely been an amazing extravagance when it was installed. The manor itself was perfectly preserved, of course; to look at, it might have been built this year. Only the military presence suggested at a glance that it was more than some aristocrat’s country house.

In addition to the roadblock before the gates, the Army had improvised a barracks in the manor’s old stables, from which the Imperial banner now flew. The road ascended the hill to the house proper, so that even from beyond the gates, most of the manor’s shape was visible above the outer walls and the staff-wielding Imperial soldiers holding the open gateway.

Admestus snuck a sidelong glance down at Eric. The dwarf was so caught up staring at Manor Dire that he had actually dropped his precious satchel.

“Hey,” the half-elf said, nudging Eric’s shoulder with his elbow. “Are we there yet?”

The dwarf turned slowly, blinking in befuddlement, to stare up at Admestus with an expression of disbelief.

“Just ignore him,” Owl advised without shifting his attention from the conversation taking place at the gates. The officer apparently in charge was talking with Lord Rhadid, while the rest watched their group with weapons at the ready. “If you give him attention once he’ll just keep hounding you for it.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Admestus protested, wagging a chiding finger at Owl. “You can’t go giving away my professional secrets, old man! It’s simply not done. There are codes to be observed, don’t you know?”

Taking his own advice, the thief ignored him, keeping his eyes on their patron.

At that moment, Lord Rhadid shook the officer’s hand, looked back down the road at them, and jerked his head once in the direction of the manor. Then he turned his back and strode through the gates toward the house without waiting for them.

“We’re up, Tam,” said Owl, setting off.

“Don’t call me that,” she snapped automatically, ceasing her pacing and coming after them. Eric and Admestus were already on the way, leaving the mercenary to bring up the rear.

The soldiers gave them no problems; the officer was lounging against the gates with his arms folded, while his troops watched the adventurers pass but said nothing. They kept their weapons in hand and most of them stared particularly at Tamara, who was clad in leather armor and carrying enough obvious weapons to strongly suggest some of her bulging belt pouches contained less obvious ones. With a fully laden wandbelt holding two holstered sidearms at her hips and a heavier-duty shieldbreaker wand at the small of her back, plus a battlestaff and greatsword slung across her back from a bandolier filled with extra power crystals and no less than six visible defensive charms pinned to her hardened leather vest, she looked like she might have been able to break their four-person blockade of the gate by sheer force.

“Best of luck in there, kids,” the officer said sardonically.

Admestus halted, turning to the man and waggling his eyebrows. “Give us a kiss for luck?”

The man’s expression didn’t alter until he actually pursed his lips and started making smooching noises. Before anything could ensue from that, Tamara grabbed him by the collar and hauled him bodily up the path.

Lord Rhadid had at least stopped short of entering the Manor without them, and stood before the doors, atop the short flight of steps leading there. As they drew up to the base of the stairs, he turned from inspecting the great double doors to face them, prompting the group to stop. With the exception of Admestus, who added an extra swagger as he placed his foot on the bottom step, prompting Tamara to grab his collar again. For the moment, then, they paused there, giving the nobleman his impromptu dais from which to look down on them. Noblemen, as they all knew, lived for stuff like that.

Rhadid Daraspian was a tall man with the athletic build and sun-darkened complexion of one who liked outdoor sports; though short of middle age, he was already balding, but in a way which gave him a sharp widow’s peak that, if anything, augmented his aquiline features to their advantage.

“Now that we are here,” he stated, “you will all listen once again to a lecture you have already heard. You will do so patiently and attentively. This will be our last chance to review these facts, and they are of paramount importance; if any one of you fails to respect the realities of our situation, it is entirely possible that we will all die—and worse, the years of effort I have devoted toward the arranging of this expedition will have been squandered. Professor Ahlstrom, if you would, please repeat to our fellows the base instructions you have given us for survival and success in Manor Dire.”

Eric cleared his throat and shuffled his feet uncertainly. When Lord Rhadid made no move to yield the position atop the steps, the dwarf contented himself with climbing up onto the first stair and turning to face the rest of them.

“Well, then! As, ah, I’m sure you recall, Manor Dire is the youngest of the great dungeons, having existed for scarcely five hundred years. Many of them date from the time of the Elder Gods at least, but this… Well, it was the home and seat of power of Archmage Direstaan, who is thought to have been the ancestor of House Daraspian.” He turned toward Lord Rhadid and sketched an awkward little bow before continuing. “Basically, it should be treated as the home and demesne of an exceptionally powerful wizard, even in his absence. The house itself has a clear intelligence and a certain…distinctive approach to its treatment of guests. As we explore the Manor, we will be repeatedly tested as it figures out our intentions and capacities. It is of paramount importance that we remain guests of Manor Dire.” Eric paused to clear his throat. “If it begins to view us as invaders, things will go very badly for us, very quickly. So, conduct yourself as you would in the home of any powerful person who you must assume will be aware of anything you do. Don’t damage anything. Don’t steal anything. Even picking up a loose penny could land us in seriously hot water.”

The entire group turned to look at Owl. He didn’t even acknowledge them, the thief simply regarding Eric with a patient expression as he waited for the lecture to continue.

“What we’re looking for is…well, somewhere deep in the house,” Eric continued. “Like all dungeons, Manor Dire contains considerable wealth as well as great danger, but this one is not so easily looted. As I was just saying, anyone who begins picking up treasure in here will be quickly brought to grief. The physical layout of the Manor is malleable as water; we’ll go where it wants us to go. Our goal must be to gain its respect and regard so that it allows us into the innermost regions where the important artifacts are held, and deems us worthy to…” He trailed off, glancing up at Lord Rhadid, who continued to watch them impassively. “To make use of them. Any questions?”

“Yeah.” Tamara made a languid gesture that was only vaguely reminiscent of a student raising her hand in class. “What’s the point of going for the treasure in the deep rooms if we can’t bring it back out with us?”

“The real treasure of Manor Dire is in the use of its facilities, not their extraction,” Eric replied, his voice growing more animated as he warmed to his favorite subject. “Remember, this was the personal citadel of one of the greatest archmages who ever lived. The library in this house is one of the finest in the world. Magnan himself studied here, in Direstaan’s enchanting lab. Likewise the alchemy lab is—” He broke off, glancing once more up at their patron, then changed tracks. “And there’s the observatory! You can see the telescope from the main room, but so far no one who has ventured into the Manor has been granted access to it. That’s arguably the most precious resource within! Direstaan was a pioneer of astroscrying; they say that with the equipment in there, one can count the rings of Drusera and view the moons of Bastila as clearly as modern telescopes can see our own!”

“If nobody’s ever gotten that far,” Admestus asked innocently, “who is this they who says that, and how do you know they aren’t full of it?”

“The observatory is not the goal of this expedition,” Lord Rhadid interjected before Eric had to find an answer. “Are there any other questions? If any of you has a pressing concern you felt uncomfortable raising previously, I encourage you to get it out of your system now, before we are within and subject to the temptation to poke at anything.”

“I’m curious about the composition of this team, m’Lord,” Owl said. “I’m a specialist in traps and locks, Ms. Farahd here is a fighter—those are obvious. I even get the librarian, since he’s such an expert on the house.”

“Archaeologist,” Eric corrected stiffly. “And it is not arrogance to state that I am the foremost expert on Manor Dire among modern academia. I have made it the focus of my entire career!”

“Bet that makes you a blast at parties,” Owl remarked, still deadpan. “Point is, I get why he’s along. But what the hell is with this guy?” He pointed at Admestus without bothering to look in his direction.

“No one is with Rafe,” the half-elf intoned solemnly, spreading his hands in a gesture of benediction. “Rafe…is with you all.”

Tamara drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly through her teeth.

“Thanks to the Professor’s little lapse, there,” Owl continued, “it’s clear enough our goal is the alchemy lab. But seriously. With all due respect, m’Lord, this group is about two-fifths having any business in a dungeon. We’ve got one fussy academic who doesn’t look like he’s ever been outside before, and the kind of clown who’s likely to get killed in a moderately rough bar, let alone one of the great dungeons. And again, m’Lord, I mean no insult, and I’m sure you’ve been taught to use those weapons, but…well, you know.”

Rhadid indeed had both a golden-hilted rapier and a wand hanging from his belt, and the sword at least he carried with the effortless balance of someone for whom the weapon was an extension of himself. The belt, though, encircled a Punaji-style greatcoat that was perfectly tailored to him, its velvet obviously brushed just that morning, and had thread-of-gold embroidery climbing its lapels and halfway up the sleeves. He did not look like someone who belonged on a dungeon dive.

“I take no insult,” Lord Rhadid said mildly. “Would it assuage your concerns, Owl, to know that I am a veteran of expeditions into Venomfont, the Tomb of Sypraxis, and the Screaming Gardens?”

Owl actually blinked three times in rapid succession, the first sign of surprise or discomfiture he had betrayed since joining the group. “Actually, my lord, it does.”

Rhadid nodded curtly. “I understand your concern. With no insult meant to you, let me be clear: Professor Ahlstrom, Admestus, and myself are essential for this expedition. You two are along as insurance, and for the sake of thoroughness. You will be well-paid when our mission is completed—but you will be paid by me, when we return to Tehvaad. There are no looting rights associated with this excursion, and as you have repeatedly been told, succumbing to the temptation will likely doom us all. Is that understood?”

He arched one eyebrow, staring superciliously down at them until everyone verbally acknowledged the instruction.

“Actually, my lord, I have a question,” Eric said meekly. “That bit with the soldiers… Are you sure our presence here is perfectly legal? I realize that Manor Dire is within your House’s traditional holdings, but it’s also within the Tiraan Empire, of course, and…”

“You should be more aware of the legal gray areas surrounding the great dungeons than most, Professor,” Rhadid answered. “The Imperial Army does not want people entering Manor Dire, but it is not illegal for civilians to do so. Between those two facts is a narrow space of leeway which most people wisely hesitate to navigate, but I assure you that the privilege of rank applies so long as you are with me. Possession is, as they say, nine-tenths of the law.”

“Anyway,” Owl added unexpectedly, “the Empire treats the great dungeons more like frontiers than real estate. Theasia’s too clever to claim sovereignty over a piece of territory troops can’t actually hold. They’ll try to stop you going in, but once you’re in, on your head be it.”

“Ah, very good,” Eric said, smiling. “That’s reassuring.”

“Are you entirely sure that word means what you think it means?” Admestus asked.

“Any other questions?” Rhadid inquired pointedly. “This will be your last chance to ask them in safety.”

They glanced at each other in silence. Admestus picked his nose.

“Then we begin,” Lord Rhadid declared. He turned, grasped the door handles with both hands, and pulled the great double doors wide in a grandiose gesture, then immediately strode into Manor Dire without waiting for them.

Inside, the great entry hall continued to be downright humble as dungeons went. Again, it would have served well to show off the wealth of such a home’s owner, though the interior betrayed its age more than the facade. The great hall was very much a relic of the tastes of five centuries prior, all spare stonework and great exposed beams, with only banners, weapons, and hunting trophies as decorations. The light came from torches rather than modern fairy lamps, or even older oil lamps, creating a flickering dimness that cast deep shadows. In fact, it rather resembled a Shaathist lodge.

It was also not unoccupied.

Directly opposite the entry, the hall ended in an enormous hearth, with seats drawn up to it and a plush bearskin rug draped on the floor in front—white, a rare example of the the now-extinct Kharsa bear, which itself would be worth more than a satchel of jewelry. Stairs rose from either side of the broad fireplace to a landing which was hidden behind the wide stone chimney, but there was a comfortable space in front of the roaring blaze. Sitting there, upon the bear rug, were four gnomes.

As one, they rose to their feet, staring down the length of the great hall at the new arrivals.

Rhadid stopped just inside the doors, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, while the rest of his group trickled in behind him and fanned out to either side, peering around at the sparse furnishings and the unexpected fellow adventurers ahead.

Admestus edged to the side of the group, turning his head back and forth to peer up and down the hall while the two groups stared at each other. After the awkwardness began to stretch out, he cleared his throat and flung out one arm to gesture broadly at everything in the most dramatic fashion possible.

“BEHOLD!”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

“Well, right back atcha,” said one of the gnomes, swaggering forward. “You duckies don’t look Imperial, if y’don’t mind me sayin’.”

“Were you expecting an Imperial presence?” Lord Rhadid asked blandly.

“Oh, there’s already an Imperial presence,” she replied, winking. “Least one team workin’ through the Manor as we speak. It’s more we weren’t expectin’ anybody else to make it in here. They’ve mostly given up tryin’ ta stop us from comin’ in, but y’don’t often see the common run of adventurers in a dungeon where they’ve set up shop ’round the entrance.”

“I beg your pardon,” Admestus gasped. “Common run? How very dare—”

“Rafe,” Rhadid interrupted, “shut up.”

“Yes, sir, m’lord, sir. Shutting up, sir, by your will.”

“For my part,” Lord Rhadid continued, inclining his head slightly toward the gnomes, “I’ve no intention of interfering in whatever business you have. Is there going to be a problem here?”

“Oh, now, y’don’t need to worry about us,” she said, grinning amiably and continuing to approach; being in no hurry, it took a while on her short legs. “No honest gnome ever begrudged a fellow adventurer the chance for fun an’ profit! As to whether this is gonna be a problem, that’s rather up to you, innit? Cos the Manor’s fairly discriminatin’ in terms o’ how it handles interlopers, but not too excessively. Could end up bein’ a right nuisance for us if you rile up the house.”

“We fully intend to avoid such an outcome with the greatest care,” Rhadid replied. “I confess I am somewhat more concerned with the presence of Imperial troops, now that I know there is a team within.”

“Aye,” she agreed. Having come within conversational distance of them, the gnome stopped, craning her head back to meet his eyes. Behind, the rest of her group watched in silence from the fireside. “Not the most cautious o’ wanderers, are they? Troopers always wanna poke somethin’ with a battlestaff, an’ then when the inevitable happens, shoot it. I will say, in fairness, this crew’s less slaphappy than most. The Empire’s had their thumb on Manor Dire for a while now; by this point the lackeys they send in have at least some vague idea what the hell they’re doin’. Billie Fallowstone, glad t’know ye!”

She held out her hand, and Rhadid bent forward to shake it firmly.

“Lord Rhadid Daraspian. Charmed, I’m sure.”

“Your Lordship,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “An’ a Daraspian, no less. Here to try an’ assert the ol’ hereditary claim t’the place, if y’don’t mind me askin’?”

He straightened back up, still wearing a thin smile. “I am not inclined to discuss my personal business, though no, I do not mind being asked. I gather the house is fairly quiet at present?”

“Ehh…” She grimaced, and made a wavering gesture with one hand. “Dunno if I’d go that far. She ain’t too stirred up, I’ll say that much. The house’s always a wee bit on edge with this many people stompin’ about. I’d say mind how hard y’put down yer feet an’ odds are you’ll met no trouble, ‘less ye blunder into somebody else’s mess.”

“I thank you for the warning,” he said courteously, inclining his head again. “By your leave, then, I shall wish you good fortune. I am eager to make a start on my own expedition.”

“Aye, no time like the present!” Billie said with irrepressible good cheer, falling into step beside him as Rhadid set off down the center of the great hall. “I wish you the best o’ luck with your quest, then. Winding trails an’ full chests to you all.”

Tamara came to a stop, frowning down at her. “What did you say?”

“It’s an old gnomish benediction, Tam,” Owl explained. “She’s not talking about your chest.”

“But I could, if y’want,” Billie added, waggling her eyebrows.

“Oy, Fallowstone,” one of the other gnomes said with open exasperation. “For once in yer life could ya not agitate the tall folk?”

Rhadid had already turned aside in the wide space around the fireplace, where in addition to the ascending stairs several corridors branched out at ground level. Owl and Eric were already following him, Tamara with a lingering suspicious look at Billie.

Admestus fell to one knee, holding out a hand to the gnome, and was somewhat surprised when she took it; rarely did people obligingly play along.

“Alas,” he declaimed, “that our acquaintance must be so brief, and our parting so swift! Know, fairest maiden, that I shall count the very heartbeats that mark our cruel separation.”

“Oh, baby,” she cooed, hopping nimbly up to straddle his outstretched knee. Billie grabbed him by the cheeks and planted an exuberant smooch right on his lips.

A moment later she was sent tumbling to the floor with a playful squeak when Tamara grabbed Admestus’s collar yet again and hauled him physically away down the hall, not pausing to let him get his feet under himself.

“Wait for me, my darling!” he cried despairingly, extending a longing hand as he was dragged away.

“Till the very stars fall, ‘andsome!” she replied playfully.

“Honestly,” one of Billie’s friends said as he was pulled around the corner, “are you gonna let the poor sod go off thinkin’ you’re a maiden?”

“I guarantee ‘e doesn’t think that,” another replied.

“Listen, dumbshit,” Tamara growled, hiking Admestus upright and setting him roughly on his feet. “I don’t care what the tavern wenches think is cute back in whatever university town it is you come from. You act the cut-up in here, and we all die. So you cut it the fuck out, is that understood?”

“Scuze me, missy, but you’re not the boss of me,” he said imperiously, then leaned around her to stare at the rest of the group, who had finally paused for them. “What about it, boss of me? Shall I cut it the fuck out?”

“Do exercise a modicum of restraint, Admestus,” said Rhadid. “But that was well handled. Now come along, all, time is precious.”

“Well-handled?” Tamara muttered while Admestus skipped past her to join Eric just behind Rhadid. “What the hell?”

“Situation’s a bit different than we expected,” Owl said laconically. “It’s not just a dungeon crawl anymore; now it turns out the gnomes and the Empire are vying for control of the Manor. And we just walked right into the middle of it. I’m not gonna give Asshat the Alchemist credit for doing that on purpose, but it’s prob’ly best if they both think we’re not to be taken seriously, and stick to worrying about each other.”

“Control?” Tamara asked. “Gnomes? What?”

“One of the major factors which characterizes the great dungeons,” Eric explained as they walked, “as opposed to other dangerous ruins that might or might not contain treasure, is their self-regenerating properties. No matter how carefully cleared out, a dungeon always has more hazards—and usually, more rewards for those willing to risk it and strong enough to succeed. This also makes them a consistent source of profit, which is why adventurers keep going into them. Ever since the Enchanter Wars, gnomes have been setting up colonies in great dungeons to continuously delve them for resources. Since Empress Theasia was crowned, the Empire has followed suit, and now there is something of a race on between the two parties to seize control of the various dungeons.” He sighed. “This…may well be the last opportunity for any un-aligned party to explore this one. Manor Dire has a mind of its own and won’t be as easy to suborn, but I fear one or the other group will find a way.”

“All the more reason to finish our business and get out,” said Rhadid, “before either plants a flag, so to speak. Or worse, engages in an outright battle for control with us in the crossfire. Join me, Professor; I believe you are most qualified to determine our course from here on.”

“Uh, yeah,” Admestus added. “We’re walking past an awful lot of doors, here. Shouldn’t we, y’know…look around?”

“That’s one approach,” Eric agreed, looking diffidently up at Lord Rhadid as he trundled along beside their benefactor. “Our objective is to penetrate deeper into the Manor and ultimately reach its laboratories—which will happen when the Manor decides to permit it. We achieve that end by impressing it as worthy guests, which is done by surmounting its challenges and behaving respectfully. We could proceed directly through the halls and wait for challenges to present themselves, or take our time and explore each room we pass. Practically speaking, the end result will be the same, so, really, it’s up to you, m’lord.”

Rhadid came to a stop, forcing the rest to do likewise, and looked around thoughtfully. They were in a wood-paneled corridor with heavy oaken doors along it at intervals; a few yards ahead it ended in a T-intersection. There were no visible windows, but the torches were spaced closely enough to provide adequate light.

“What do you anticipate in the way of challenges, Professor?” he asked.

“Well,” said Eric, “some monsters to fight, eventually, but Manor Dire tends more to favor traps and puzzles. We should be on the alert for surprises, of course. As a general rule, little of danger or consequence will appear this close to the entrance—or rather, this soon after our entry. Distance and location mean little in here; our progress is better judged by the impression we have made upon the Manor. Oh! You should know that bedrooms are generally safe. If the Manor offers us a place to sleep, we can be relatively sure there will be no attacks or shenanigans while we avail ourselves. Food and drink likewise; I know we brought provisions, but the Manor does not drug people except when the potables in question are obviously a component of a puzzle.”

“Puzzles,” Tamara muttered, peering around. “Fucking ridiculous…”

“Let us proceed,” Lord Rhadid decided. “The Manor may test us in whatever way it deems proper. All of you, remember to behave with the appropriate respect.”

He continued on, then turned left at the fork. They followed the corridor in silence for a time, then listening to Admestus’s off-key whistling until Tamara punched him in the ear. Then more silence.

Once it became clear that Rhadid had no intention of exploring any of the doors they passed, the Manor evidently tired of waiting on him to show initiative. The corridor abruptly turned to the right, and a few yards farther on, opened out into a sizable room.

Rounding the corner, the whole group slowed. Up ahead there was brighter, steadier light than the torches provided, along with a rhythmic hissing noise and the incongruous sound of a woman humming. Lord Rhadid gave them a firm look, then resumed course. In moments they had emerged from the hallway into a comfortable sitting room.

It was not luxurious by modern standards, reflecting the same rough sensibilities as the great hall. There was another fireplace, and large stuffed armchairs draped with shaggy bison furs. Along one entire wall ran a glass-topped display case containing skeletons of strange creatures no bigger than a cat; in one corner stood a taxidermied cat bigger than a wolf with enormous fangs the length of a human forearm, while another held a wired skeleton of a creature about the size of a dog which looked like a cross between a bird and a lizard. The fire was not lit, but the row of candles atop the mantle were, as well as two oil lamps set upon end tables next to the armchairs.

A slim woman stood with her back to them, sweeping the floor. The sound of her broom upon the floorboards caused the hiss they had heard. At their entry, she stopped humming, turning to study them critically. The apparent housemaid was, incongruously, a wood elf. For the most part she was attired as such, in a blousy green shirt with a brown vest and trousers above beaded moccasins. Her golden hair was covered by a kerchief such as any human housewife might wear, and she wore a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.

She didn’t talk like a servant, either.

“Admestus Rafe,” the woman said stridently in Tanglish, flinging her broom to the floor and planting her hands on her hips. “Just what in blazes do you think you are doing?”

He straightened up in surprise, blinking, while the others all turned to stare at him again. “Ah… Would I be correct in guessing this is one of those situations where the correct answer isn’t going to cut it? Because the correct answer is ‘doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,’ but I get the feeling you’re fishing for something a bit more—”

“You couldn’t find anywhere else to do an honest day’s work than Manor bloody Dire?” the elf spat. “Do your parents know you’re in here?”

“Admestus,” Rhadid said calmly, “why don’t you introduce us to your…acquaintance?”

“Oh, of course, terribly sorry, m’lord,” he babbled. “You know me, so absent-minded, leave my head behind one of these days. Well! This, of course, is Lord Rhadid Daraspian, my esteemed employer and wearer of the coolest coat I have ever seen in my life. Seriously, look at him! Did you ever see such dapperness? To his left, Professor Eric Ahlstrom, who teaches something or other in some school or other up in Isilond. Or was it Stavulheim? Ah, well, doesn’t matter. These two are just muscle, you can forget about them.”

“I’m gonna strangle him,” Tamara said aloud to no one in particular. “I can see it coming. This whole shitshow ends with my hands around his skinny neck.”

“And everyone,” Admestus continued, gesturing grandly to the elf, “this, of course, is my very good… That is, the most honorable…” Slowly he turned to her, frowning. “Oh, yes, that reminds me. Just who the bloody hell are you?”

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