“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.
“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”
“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.
“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”
“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”
Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.
“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”
“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”
“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”
“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.
Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.
“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”
“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”
“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”
“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”
“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.
“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”
“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”
“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.
“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”
“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.
“Me, too,” Juniper added.
“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”
“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”
“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.
“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.
“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”
“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”
“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”
“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.
“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”
“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.
“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”
“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”
“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.
“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”
He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”
“Get the hell out.”
“Aye aye, fearless leader!”
Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”
“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”
The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.
Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”
“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”
“You know exactly what I mean.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”
“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”
Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”
“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”
“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”
“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”
Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”
“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”
“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.
Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”
Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”
“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.
“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”
“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”
“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”
“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”
“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”
Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.
Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.
The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.
“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”
“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”
“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”
“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.
“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”
“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”
Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.
“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”
With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.
Shook began cursing monotonously.
“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.
Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”
The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.
“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”
The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”
“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”
She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”
“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.
“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”
“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.
“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”
“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”
Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”
“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”
“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”
The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”
“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”
“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”
“Give it time,” he murmured.
“Message?” Vannae inquired.
“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”
“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.
Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”
“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”
“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”
“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.
“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”
“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”
“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”
“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”
“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”
“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”
“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”
“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”
Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.
Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…
Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.
She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.
It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.
The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.
“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”
“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.
The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”
“Would that make you happier?”
“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”
“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”
“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.
“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”
Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”
“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”
Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”
“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.
“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.
Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”
“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”
“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.
“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”
“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”
“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”
“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”
“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.
“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”
“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.
“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”
“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”
“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”
“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”
“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”
Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.
“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”
“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”
“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”
“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”
“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.
“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”
“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.
“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”
“They seem pretty evenly matched…”
“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”
“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”
“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”
“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”
“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”
“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”
“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”
“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”
“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”
He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”
“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”
“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.
“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”
He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”