Tag Archives: Rowe

13 – 45

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“You went and tattled on me?” Professor Yornhaldt said with uncharacteristic exasperation, the result of his last several minutes spent trying to chivvy the students gathered in the rear hall into groups while simultaneously arguing with his colleagues. “Mister Finchley, really.”

“Whoah, now. First of all!” Fedora smoothly inserted himself between Yornhaldt and Finchley, pointing two fingers at his own eyes. “You got a problem with one of my boys, Prof, you take it up with me. And second, you’re goddamn right he went an’ tattled. Good man, Finchley. Oy, Emilio! Were you seriously gonna let him do this?”

“Rest assured, I argued against it,” Professor Ezzaniel said dryly, leaning against Radivass’s stand with his arms folded. “But Alaric has seniority here, and Arachne’s absence does not make this a democracy.”

“I am tired of this debate,” Yornhadt said irritably. “With the sanctuary effect compromised—” He broke off momentarily as Fedora darted forward, trying to punch him in the nose. The incubus’s fist, of course, halted inches away. “Yes, Murgatroyd, I know, but we have also verified that it is beginning to weaken! The students’ safety is of paramount—”

“Okay, here’s your problem,” Fedora interrupted. “First rule of any engagement: know your enemy.” Ezzaniel nodded emphatically, but did not interject as the Inspector continued. “You’re thinking like a wizard, and if we were dealing with a wizard, I’d rely entirely on your judgment, Professor.”

“We are dealing with a warlock, which in terms of—”

“The warlock’s a stooge, at best,” Fedora said dismissively.

“Forgive me,” Yornhaldt snapped, “it seems I keep trying to speak while you are interrupting. Murgatroyd, I don’t even know what that fog effect is, which means this individual—”

“It’s called the Fog of War, and it’s a closely guarded Salyrite secret,” Fedora retorted, ignoring Yornhaldt’s exasperated sigh at being cut off yet again. “You don’t wanna know what I had to go through to learn that spell even exists. The Topaz College is very careful not to bust that out where the Black Wreath might see it and figure out the trick. Which is beside the point: don’t worry about that warlock! He or she is hired muscle, period. The man in charge is that Hand of the Emperor, and he does not think like a wizard, he thinks like an operative. His enemy is in a secure, virtually untouchable position, so rather than bash his head on that in some kind of magical pissing contest he’ll maneuver to get us out, and that is what we are seeing! Fog blinding us, demons coming at the front door and our invincible magic protection on the fritz. He’s made going out the back the most attractive option, which means… Anyone?”

“Means that’s what he wants us to do,” said Gilbert Mosk, who stood at the forefront of the students unabashedly listening to this exchange.

“Bingo!” Fedora crowed. “And when do you do what your enemy wants you to do?”

Hildred tentatively raised a hand. “…never?”

“I was looking for ‘fucking never,’ but I’ll accept that, Hil.”

“Actually,” Ezzaniel said mildly, “if you know more than your enemy it is a very strong ploy to make them think—”

“Thanks, Emilio, but you can stop helping.” Fedora folded his arms, leering at Yornhaldt. “Ergo, sending students out the back is the last bloody thing we should be contemplating, here!”

“It’s not that I don’t respect the logic of your arguments,” Yornhaldt said stubbornly. “I understood and acknowledged all that when Emilio was pointing it out a moment ago! But we must consider the stakes. I cannot, in good conscience, keep the entire student body pinned down in a position we know is not secure!”

“Alaric, he’s right.” Professor Ezzaniel’s calm tone was like a bucket of water on the increasing heat of the argument. “You are thinking like a mage. There are only two entrances to the Grim Visage, both small and accessible only by narrow bridges. Even if the sanctuary effect fails entirely, this is a phenomenally defensible structure. To abandon it would be folly.”

Yornhaldt dragged a hand over his lower face, heaving a deep sigh. In the momentary pause, the sound of the back door clicking shut captured everyone’s attention.

“Conover!” Fedora barked at the young man who had just slipped back inside. “What the goddamn hell do you think you were doing out there?!”

“Having a look,” Jerome said, unfazed by the demon’s ire. “I thought you might want to know, Inspector, you were right. We’re flanked; someone is coming up the bridge toward the door. And it’s Lorelin Reich, so it’s obviously a trap.”

“Reich?” Ezzaniel frowned deeply.

“Okay, how ’bout this.” Fedora turned back to Yornhaldt, tucking his thumbs behind the lapels of his rumpled trench coat. “Before we risk any kids either way, how’s about me and the boys go have a look-see? If there’s a trap, better it springs on us than the students. Fair?”

Another pause fell, in which Yornhaldt nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful.

Behind Fedora, Moriarty nudged Rook. “You’re not going to complain about having traps sprung on us?”

“The way I see it,” Rook replied philosophically, “we were always gonna die to something ridiculous and right out of a particularly half-assed chapbook. If we gotta go, I’d rather go doin’ my damn duty and protecting the kids. Wouldn’t you?”

“Well said,” Finchley agreed.

“Chapbooks.” Moriarty tilted his head. “…you can read?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Rook retorted, grinning broadly.

“Now, now, boys, save some for the villains,” Fedora said cheerfully, making a line for the rear door. “If we’re gonna play it up like it’s story time, you always banter in front of the enemy. Fall in, let’s go lick the strange glowing gem!”

“From anyone else, that’d be a figure of speech,” Rook commented as he brought up the rear, Fedora having already vanished through the doorway into the fog beyond. “You would not believe the shit this guy keeps in his pockets, though…”

“Hang on,” Rafe said suddenly when the last of the campus guards had vanished outside. “If I’m here, and Alaric’s here, and Emilio’s here, and our entire security department is now out there, who’s guarding the front?”

He was answered by shouting and the clatter of booted feet from the door to the Visage’s main commons, followed in just moments by the crack of lightning.


Most of the students present in the common room lost seconds to confusion and panic, but the very moment the front door burst open, Szith and Scorn both surged into action, placing themselves in front of the stairs to the second level, the Rhaazke with arms stretched and claws bared, the drow with her short sword upraised in a fighting stance.

Men in the shabbily-maintained livery of their House barreled inside in complete disorder, bellowing and brandishing battlestaves, and from the moment of their arrival, total chaos reigned.

The intruding soldiers pointed weapons threateningly, shouting orders—most of which were contradictory, demanding that students come quietly, back away, put their hands up, lie down, and more. Some seemed to just be shouting, wordlessly. In no semblance of a formation, they staggered into the room, quite accidentally blocking the door as the sheer press of their comrades pushed them further inward and to the sides.

At the same time, the University students began sorting themselves in response. Some clearly outperformed the invaders in terms of poise, and within seconds a ragged defensive line had stretched to either side of Scorn and Szith, consisting of eight youths wielding either blades or magic. Three shields, two of golden divine light and one of arcane blue, partially blocked them off from the troops. Behind them, though, more of their classmates either panicked or simply froze, some rooted in place and others streaming away toward the merchant hall were the professors were gathered, or toward the stairs to the rented rooms.

In the cacophony of shouts and scuffles, there was no telling who fired the first shot or why, but it was only seconds before one of the Dalkhaan guards discharged a staff. Immediately, lacking any better plan, the rest followed suit, and the din of screams rose amid the cracks and explosions of lightning.

The Grim Visage was still a sanctuary against significant violence, and no lightning bolt struck flesh. The effect had limits, however, and it was only moments before the magical shields were battered down by lightning bolts. Nor was the onslaught harmless, even aside from the panic it induced. The stone walls and furniture were not immune to violence, and it seemed that ricochets did not count as attacks to the sanctuary effect. Splinters and sharp chips of rock went flying, a few inevitably striking people.

The stink of smoke and ozone filled the air, and not a coherent word could be discerned between Szith and Scorn trying to get their fellows into order and the increasingly panicked raving of the armed men now spraying the whole room with lightning.

Amid the carnage, a hand seized Maureen and hauled her bodily to her feet. In the press of bodies she was pulled several yards before managing to twist around and see who had her.

Melaxyna tugged the gnome free of the crowd by the banister and pushed her toward Sarriki, pointing toward the door behind the bar, and then shoved Sekandar, whom she had also pulled along, in the same direction, before diving back into the fray to round up a few of the more panicked students.

Maureen was glad enough to be led along. At least someone was in charge, apparently.

By the time a wall of solid blue light slammed across the front of the common room, effectively isolating the attacking soldiers, Melaxyna and Sarriki had retreated into the pantry with five rescued students.


“I’m gonna go ahead and assume this isn’t what it looks like,” Fedora called, as he sauntered out onto the bridge. “Because it looks like I can have my boys here blast you right off into space and there’s not a damn thing you could do about it. But nah, surely a smooth operator like you would never put herself in such a vulnerable position.” He grinned nastily, coming to a stop, and tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Unless she was takin’ orders from a psycho who would totally put her and everybody else working for him in that position.”

He and the three campus guards had advanced just beyond the range of the Fog of War, to a widening of the bridge which gave Finchley and Rook—the better shots, though not by much—room to spread out a bit and sight along their weapons to either side of Fedora, while Moriarty behind them kept an eye on the surrounding ledges and bridges which bedecked the vast slanted central chamber of the Crawl.

Ahead of them, Lorelin Reich likewise came to a stop, keeping her hands upraised. She paused, studying the four of them, before answering.

“I guess this is the proper place for me to bluster in return. Would you mind awfully if we advanced a bit past that point? I am somewhat pressed for time.”

“Well, I have all the time in the world,” Fedora drawled. “What with my defensible position and clock ticking down till mama bear comes home. But sure, guest’s privilege! What’s on your mind, doll?”

Slowly, Reich lowered her hands. “Here’s the situation: we are ordered to capture your entire student body.”

Fedora leaned slightly to one side, pretending to peer around behind her. “…we?”

“Myself,” she replied, “a little more magical support, and a handful of soldiers.”

“Uh…huh. And you plan to do that…how, exactly?”

“As things stand,” she said in an even tone, “I don’t see any way that is possible. We are, you understand, required by the firmest of commands to assist our patron in this endeavor. To refuse would be nothing less than treason. To fail, however, is another matter.”

“This is starting to veer in an interesting direction,” he remarked. “Do go on.”

“Understand that I can’t simply surrender, or retreat,” Reich continued. “My…employer…has stepped away to attend to an urgent matter on the surface. In his absence, I will of course do my utmost to fulfill the commands he has left. It is my opinion that the utmost I can do in this situation is try to reach a compromise with our targets.”

“Hmmm.” Fedora made a show of stroking his chin, tilting his head back to gaze upward in a pantomime of deep thought. “Quite the pickle you’re in, there, hun. Now, I’m gonna assume you’ve got something good and nasty pointed my way right now, so I won’t be so blithe as to ask how any of that is my problem, but as negotiations go, your position—”

“Boss!” Rook said suddenly. “Watch it!”

He had appeared behind her in total silence. At the soldier’s warning, Fedora snapped his attention back forward and Reich whirled in shock to behold the Hand, where he had simply not been a moment ago. His suit was ragged and torn, stained with grass, and had pieces of glass and wood stuck in it here and there. Though no sign of injury lingered on his exposed skin, drying blood streaked from the top of his bald head down half of his face. It lent an even wilder aspect to his expression, which was very nearly feral.

“Sir,” Lorelin gasped, immediately adopting a tone and posture of relief. “Thank the gods, I was almost out of option—”

With a single backhanded blow, the Hand sent her hurtling off the bridge.


Melaxyna turned from the door, where she had poked her head out through the curtain. “Okay, that’s calmer for the moment. The wizard has cut off those idiots, but between them and your little friends throwing spells back at ’em, that shield of his is under fire from both sides. It can’t stand up long, no matter how much mojo he’s got. Sarriki, let’s get these kids back into the basement until this settles down.”

“The others?” Sekandar asked, holding Szith’s saber at the ready. “Can we get anyone else back here?”

Melaxyna shook her head, approaching him, and also spread her wings; their full span nearly filled the pantry, encouraging the group toward the back door which Sarriki was in the process of unlocking. “They’re either champing at the bit to fight or have buggered off outta there. I realize you ducklings are big damn heroes in your own world, but take my advice: let the grown-ups settle this while you’ve got grown-ups around to settle things for you. All too soon you won’t anymore.”

“I’m just as happy ta sit this out,” Maureen said emphatically, still clutching Crystal’s core fragment to her chest as she gladly retreated through the rear door into the lower chamber.

She’d never been down here before, but Teal had described it to her; this didn’t look anything like she’d been told. Of course, much of that had been due to Rowe’s attempt to subvert the Crawl, but whatever hodgepodge of stolen and cobbled-together magics he had assembled had long since been cleared out. The chamber was octagonal and bordered by what looked like doors with stone frames. No, metal. No…

In spite of her anxiety, Maureen had to step closer to one, reaching out to touch it while the rest of the group streamed past her. It was metal, though its deep gray color and matte texture resembled stone at a casual glance. It was the material of the gates themselves that was more interesting; Teal had said they were like windows into different parts of the Crawl, but whatever power had animated them seemed to be turned off, now. They were simply panels of black. Featureless black which devoured all light and felt like nothing when she carefully prodded at one with a fingertip.

At least it smelled okay down here. The new management was clearly using this as an extension of the pantry to house more expensive foodstuffs that weren’t as readily available in the Crawl, including dried meat and herbs, which made the air pleasantly fragrant compared to the tavern above. There were bags, barrels, and casks to provide a decent range of surfaces on which to sit, of which most of the rather shocked students quickly took advantage. Sekandar took up a position near the stairs, saber in hand, while Sarriki slithered around checking on the others and Melaxyna planted her fists on her hips, surveying the room with an annoyed expression.

There was a stone structure in the center, like an altar. It was taller than Maureen, and apparently built right into the floor. She stepped over to it, studying the odd geometric markings inlaid along its sides.

At the back, facing away from the door, she paused, finding a small rectangular slot just above her eye level. There was a subtle marking right below it which seemed familiar. The whole arrangement jogged something in her memory…she had the feeling she had seen this recently. But Maureen’s recent memory was largely a melange of panic and shock.

“Tsk,” the succubus muttered. “Well, we know this place is of some kind of central significance to the Crawl, after what Rowe was doing down here. Seems like there should be something we could use to defend the Visage from attack, if we only knew how it worked. Sarriki, did any of that asshole’s little pet project survive in some closet?”

“Yes, Sarriki, why don’t you enlighten us.”

Even Sekandar had turned to regard the succubus as she spoke, and now gasped, backing away from the steps and the figure who had appeared in the doorway.

It was Melaxyna.

She held her position, blocking the exit, and fixing a gimlet stare on the other version of herself in the room. The first Melaxyna straightened slowly, staring back, then glancing over at Sarriki.

“Interesting,” the naga mused. “Before this gets too dramatic, let me just remind everybody that at a close enough range, I can smell the difference. Who wants to come get a kiss first?”

“Oh, don’t bother,” the Melaxyna in the door said disdainfully, still glaring at her counterpart. “Of all the weaselly horseshit I might have expected you to try, Rowe, I have to admit this was not on the list.”


“Back! Back away from them, retreat to the merchant hall!” Professor Ezzaniel strode unflinching into the din, grabbing students and bodily moving them away from the soldiers and the already-faltering shield between them. “Domingue, you will cease throwing fireballs at that immediately. Everyone move back past the door!”

“I don’t know how well combat potions will work with this sanctuary dingus, but I can’t throw these until we get the kids out of range,” Rafe said from near the bar. “Hang tight, old man, just a bit longer…”

Yornhaldt’s teeth were gritted in concentration, but he managed to reply. “What…is that?”

“Just a sleeping gas, should put ’em down easy enough. And it’s heavier than air, so we should be safe on the second level. Anything more aggressive I’m afraid the sanctuary will block.”

The dwarf nodded curtly. “You may have to throw through staff fire. This is going down any moment…”

“Scorn,” Ezzaniel was shouting from below, “so help me, if you do not get us all killed here I will fail you. All of you, get back!”

“Didja ever regret not taking a nice, quiet research job?” Rafe asked.

Despite the tension causing the tendons in his neck to stand out, Yornhaldt managed a grin. A tight, strained one, but still. “Did you?”

“How very dare you, sir. The idea.”

Then, with a grunt, the mage slumped forward and the arcane shield collapsed. Emboldened, the soldiers began firing again in earnest, now also pushing forward toward the stairs.

“Aw…shit fire,” Rafe growled, resting his free hand on Yornhaldt’s shoulder and hefting a bottle of potion with the other. “EMILIO! Don’t let them get up the stairs! Draft who you have to, but keep them below our level.”

“Are you serious?” Ezzaniel exclaimed, flinching as he was sprayed with stone chips from a nearby explosion of staff fire against the wall.

“Serious as fine cuisine, brother!”

Ezzaniel didn’t bother to castigate him further. “Scorn! Szith! Get back here! Forget everything I just yelled at you, we are holding this line!”


She didn’t even scream as she fell, too shocked by the suddenness and the blow to her face. And then, seconds into the infinite descent, by having her fall suddenly slowed as she was seized from behind.

Reflexively, Lorelin ignited a divine shield, and there was a yelp from above her.

“Cut that out, ingrate!”

Habit took over. Had to think clearly, had to be someone else in this situation. Find a new mask, someone who would not panic while plummeting to her death. Calm did not come over her, but thanks to years of practice, she managed enough of a facade of calm to fool even herself, mostly. Repressing reflex, she dropped the shield.

Immediately, Fedora grabbed her again, and their fall slowed and became more horizontal. The incubus groaned alarmingly, and as a downside of the more lucid mask she was wearing at the moment Lorelin realized that his wings wouldn’t enable him to fly with her weight tugging on them, but it seemed he could at least manage a glide.

To…where?

The central shaft of the Crawl was dotted with ledges, bridges, and tunnels, but none were conveniently in front of them. Of course.

Fedora tried to bank, but did so too suddenly, and his wings folded up under the pressure. Lorelin shrieked as they shot straight downward again for a few seconds before the demon could get his wings open and steady once more.

“If this doesn’t end up saving my life,” she said tremulously, pitching her voice over the rush of passing air, “I want you to know I still appreciate it!”

“If it doesn’t end up saving your life soon, I’m dropping your ass,” he grated. “I’ve got men up there facing that monster and I care about them a lot more than you!”

“Then—” she started to ask why he was bothering, but instantly thought better of it.


“Everywhere,” the Hand snarled, “I am surrounded by treason. From every corner!”

“Aw, shut your fuckin’ yap,” Rook growled, and fired.

“FOR THE EMPEROR!” Finchley bellowed, doing likewise.

Their eyes didn’t want to make sense of what transpired next; the Hand seemed to flow around the lightning bolts that ripped toward him point-blank. Rook managed to squeeze off another shot before their target was somehow upon them.

He grabbed Rook’s staff, and the soldier had the presence of mind to let it go rather than engage in a tug-of-war with a being far stronger than himself on a narrow footbridge.

“Down!” Moriarty shouted from behind them, leveling his own weapon. Finchley dropped to the floor, but Rook wasn’t fast enough.

The Hand seized him by the throat, hauling him around in front to stand squarely in Moriarty’s sights. Rook grasped at his arm with both hands, trying to claw the man’s grip loose, but the effort was as futile as trying to dig up an oak tree.

“Fire at will, Private Moriarty,” the Hand sneered, locking eyes with his prisoner. “By all means, give your comrade a quicker end than I will. In fact, all of you, feel free to spare one another the full punishment for your betrayal. Whichever is last to go shall suffer the retribution meant for all three. Well? Who’s going to—”

Rook released his arm and jabbed him right in both eyes with his index fingers.

With a roar, the Hand hurled him off into space.


Of course. That symbol was…

Maureen held up the rectangular piece of quartz she had been clutching. In the distance, the volume of crackles and explosions increased as the battle in the tavern picked up again. Near at hand, the first Melaxyna was slowly easing back to the side of the pedestal, bringing her even with Maureen’s position. The gnome, though, stared at the engraving on the metal capping one end of the crystal. It matched. And holding them side by side, she could see how neatly the thing would fit in that slot.

“Now, let’s nobody go and get too excited,” the nearest Melaxyna said soothingly. “We’re still under sanctuary, remember?”

“And it had limits even before it was under attack,” replied the other succubus. “You may remember, Rowe. A nice, slow application of force can slip by it. Or—”

Suddenly, a hand came to rest on Maureen’s head, fingers curling into her hair. “Ah, ah, ah,” the demon clutching her cooed. “I do remember, cupcake. But there are some here who haven’t seen it yet!”

She did the only thing she could think of, and shoved the crystal into the slot.

Sekandar whirled, taking aim with the saber. “Take your hands off her.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” And suddenly, it was Rowe’s voice again; Melaxyna’s shape melted away to reveal him. “Sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, my little eclairs. Now then, we’re all going to have a nice, calm—”

The entire structure trembled. All around them, tiny lights appeared from hidden crevices in the walls between the gateways, which themselves suddenly shifted to display a pure, glowing white.

Heaving a sigh, Rowe roughly twisted Maureen’s head up to meet her eyes. “All right, kid. What did you just—”

Suddenly his grip was torn loose form her hair and the incubus was bodily hurled across the room by an unseen force to impact one of the white gates. Upon striking its surface, he slipped neatly through and vanished.


Rook unabashedly screamed, a long, high wail that echoed in the vast cavern, even as he curled himself into a fetal position. Not until he had fully run out of breath did he process the fact that he wasn’t actually falling.

Cracking one eye open, he peeked out from under his arms. He was lying on his side, in midair, a few yards from the bridge on which Finchley, Moriarty, and the Hand were all staring at him in stupefaction.

Further inspection revealed that he was resting upon a square panel of pure white light, suspended in midair.

“Oh,” he said weakly. “Well. All righty, then.”


“You made it,” Lorelin gasped as soon as he released her, slumping to hands and knees on the transparent panel onto which Fedora had just dropped her. This afforded her a dizzying view of the horrific drop still stretching out below, but at least it felt solid, which was a great step up from her situation of a moment ago. “Thank you. Oh, gods, thank you.”

“Uh…yeah, sure.” Standing behind her, Fedora tilted his hat back so he could scratch his head, turning in a slow circle to peer around them. “Yeah, I’ll take credit for this. Why the hell not?”


It wasn’t silence, but the quiet which descended upon the common room felt like it after the incredible noise which had just reigned. The blue beams of light which sprang up from the floor produced a deep, arcane-sounding hum that filled the room. More importantly, however, they each seized one of the intruding soldiers, forcing him bodily into a stiff, upright position, and held him.

The assembled students and professors stared, dumbfounded, at their suddenly imprisoned foes. The soldiers’ expression were of pure terror, but it seemed they couldn’t move anything but the muscles in their faces.

Battlestaves littered the floor where they had been wrenched out of hands by some invisible force and dropped.

Slowly, Rafe lowered the arm he’d been in the process of hauling back to toss his bottle of sleeping gas. “Well…damn, old man. I did not know you could do that.”

Still panting from mental exertion, Professor Yornhaldt had to swallow heavily before he could answer. “I can’t.”


The Hand blurred, then snapped back into focus, and suddenly his expression was of pure shock at finding himself unable to shift space. In the next moment it got worse.

He was jerked physically upward as if on an invisible string, and in midair, six square panels of light identical to the one supporting Rook appeared around him. These, however, snapped together to form a cube, catching him in the air.

“AND JUST WHAT,” Crystal’s voice thundered through the Crawl, “DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING TO MY KIDS?”

 

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13 – 43

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“I warn you,” the man on the crates said, his voice rising, “we will defend ourselves if need be! Lay down your weapons and state who you are, and what you’re doing here!”

Ruda grasped the hilt of her rapier, but Toby placed his own hand on the pommel before she could draw it.

“We were teleported here against our will,” he stated, his voice not upraised but projected well enough to be audible to all the armed onlookers. “Sorry for intruding like this, but you probably know it’s dangerous to ‘port someone into a storm. I guess we should be grateful that purple guy bothered to find us an indoor space at all.”

The speaker lowered his arms fractionally, squinting down at them. None of the surrounding people lowered their own weapons.

“Purple…guy?” he said after a momentary pause.

“Oh, man is it a long story,” Gabriel chimed in. “Seriously, you wouldn’t believe most of it anyhow. Didn’t you say you guys were the Infinite Order? As in, the Rust people?”

“That…is not a name we prefer,” replied the speaker. His tone seemed calmer now, at least. “For the last time, put those weapons down. If you truly mean no harm, you’ll come to none here. We always offer shelter during storms to those in need. But you can’t just teleport in here, heavily armed!”

“Everyone else is armed,” Fross pointed out.

“I don’t know you people, and—is that a pixie?”

“Yes, I am a pixie, and I prefer not to be referred to as ‘that,’” she said irritably.

“My name’s Toby.” His voice was the same: calm, low, but spoken from the diaphragm with a strength that cut through the burgeoning argument. “These are my friends, and we actually don’t have any business with you. If you’d kindly just make a path to the nearest door, we’ll be out of your hair.”

“Daksh?” said someone from the surrounding crowd. “Maybe we ought to let them out. If they’re here by accident, letting ’em leave solves the problem.”

This earned a few mutters of agreement, but another voice piped up in response. “You can’t be serious! Tonight of all nights, you’re gonna let armed adventurers just wander off?”

“Peace, Sayur,” the man on the improvised dais said quellingly, but his critic didn’t so much as pause.

“What if they’re out to interfere? I say we disarm them and hold them!”

The mutters this time were louder, and several people on the front of the crowd pressed forward. The whole throng began moving; the group had landed in a clear space between them and the dais, but now people at the edges started creeping forward on the sides to fully surround them.

“Don’t,” Milady said sharply. “Please, stop.”

“Hey, you guys with the staves might wanna refrain,” Principia added in a more aloof tone. “You don’t encircle someone with ranged weapons in close quarters, guys. You’re just setting up a crossfire that’ll kill your friends.”

“Is that a threat?” someone from the crowd snapped.

“Enough!” Daksh shouted. “All of you, cut it out. The elf is correct, back up with those things. You lot, I’m afraid this has already gone too far. You will now be disarmed.”

“Uh, Daksh?” someone else said warily. “I don’t know. I think that’s a dryad.”

“Yes, I am,” Juniper said, raising her hand.

“Question!” Ruda lifted her own. “What makes tonight special? And a follow-up, if I may: if you guys are the Rust, where’s all the people with the metal pieces?”

Silence fell, all mutterings cut off. Wind howled around the building, and a flicker of lightning through the windows cast a brief, eerie illumination over the scene. Now the faces around them had gone grim. Grips on weapons were adjusted, and no one moved to retreat by an inch.

On the dais, Daksh sighed. “I suppose that tears it. If you truly are here by accident and not to interfere with us, I will owe you all an apology. But for now, we must be certain. Vishal, collect their weapons.”

“Don’t do it,” Milady warned, her eyes wide with obvious fear. “Please, you need to step back.”

This only made the man who came forward focus on her first. He was an unremarkable-looking Punaji man, in a somewhat threadbare greatcoat over a workman’s clothes, and holding a wand which he now trained on her.

“I apologize, miss,” he said in a deep voice, “but with garments like that, I will need to search you. I will have a woman do it if you prefer, but right now I need you to place your hands on top of your head.”

“Don’t,” she repeated shrilly.

“Hey, easy,” Principia murmured, touching the back of her cloak.

“She’s got a point, though,” Ruda snorted. “I’m already tired of pretending to indulge these yahoos.”

“When we stop pretending to indulge them,” Toby said in a low tone, “a lot will inevitably die. I would rather have as little blood on my hands as possible. Rebellious or not, these are your people, Ruda.”

“Now, please,” Vishal said in a louder tone, straightening his wand arm. “I have to insist. Hands on your heads, all of you. I do not want blood on my hands, either.”

“Don’t point that at me,” Milady hissed. “Put it down.”

“You are making it impossible to believe your good intentions,” the man replied. “I will not ask you again.”

In a tiny movement almost impossible to notice in the dim warehouse, his index finger moved to rest on the clicker.

Milady surged forward with nearly elven speed. Vishal fired the wand by sheer reflex, and the impact of the lightning bolt on her shield charm at that range overloaded it in one hit, causing a blue flash that momentarily blinded everyone nearby.

Toby’s reflexes were only a hair slower; even as he blinked away the aftereffects of that arcane pulse, he brought down a golden hemisphere over the group. Over most of them, at any rate; Milady was already outside its radius.

Somehow, during the second they had all been blinded, Vishal had ended up on the floor with his head twisted the wrong way, and Milady had flung herself bodily into the crowd, where she immediately began proving Principia’s warning. The suddenly panicking Rust sympathizers tried to turn on the whirling dervish in their midst, swinging swords and discharging firearms, and haplessly destroying each other while she darted, untouched, through them.

Immediately, the warehouse was full of screams and lightning bolts, creating a havoc which drowned out even the storm.

Toby gritted his teach, squeezing his eyes shut in concentration. The divine shield over them continued to ripple and spark as it was repeatedly struck by arcs of electricity.

“Fross,” he grated, falling to one knee, “help.”

“Helping!” the pixie shouted, and zipped straight upward. Her silver glow flickered, let out a pulse of light, and somehow she phased through the shield to hover above it, where she immediately began spraying arcs of pure ice in a circle. Her work was frequently interrupted by the need to replace pieces of the growing wall as they were pulverized by staff shots, but within moments she had them encased in most of an igloo.

“What the hell was she thinking?” Ruda exclaimed, trying to peek through a hole blasted in the ice wall before Fross quickly refilled it. The pixie had stopped building the wall a few feet above head height, to focus on repairing the damage caused by all the violence going on.

“That looked like a panic reaction,” Juniper said, then hurriedly jumped away as a body slammed into the wall next to her. Between the ice and the golden shield, it was nothing but a vague shadow.

“I don’t think so,” Principia started to add, cutting off at another explosion of lightning and ice near her head.

“Can I help, Toby?” Gabriel asked. “I can barely make a divine shield over myself, but I think I can feed you more energy?”

“Thanks, I think we’ve got it,” Toby replied, his voice much less strained. “I’ve been practicing, but I’m still not Shaeine. Fross is doing most of the work now; I’m just keeping this up in case two shots hit in the same spot before she can patch it.”

“Okay, well, Milady’s ass is dead,” Ruda said bluntly. “In a couple more seconds this is gonna stop and any of the Rust who’re still alive will not be in a surrendering mood. Arquin, since that staff of yours is so much more destructive than any of us realized until an hour ago, how wide can you swing it?”

“This is a divine weapon, Ruda,” he retorted. “Just because it can murder people in large numbers doesn’t mean it’s going to. Do you know what happens when paladins abuse their god-given powers? Because I’ve had that made extremely clear to me, and trust me, you don’t wanna be standing nearby.”

“Goddammit, Arquin, do you think I wanna see all these tax-paying assholes reduced to chum right in front of me? I don’t have time for your squeamishness, those machine fuckers are off doing something right now, and—”

“Kids!” Principia said sharply. “Shush.”

In fact, relative quiet had descended. The storm still raged, but the only lightning was from outside, now. Wind and water were blowing into the warehouse through multiple holes shot in its walls, but it seemed the violence was over.

“Uh, guys?” Fross said quietly from above them. “I think you can come out now. This is… You’ve gotta see this yourselves.”

They glanced at each other warily, but Toby finally let the shield drop. Gabriel raised his wand overhead, fully extending it into scythe form, then lightly brought it down to tap the upper edge of the ice wall. Immediately the entire thing crumbled to fragments, many no bigger than snowflakes. No one bothered to focus on this display, however, as they all stared around the warehouse.

It was in ruins, obviously, thanks to all the wild shooting. The smells of ozone, burning wood and scorched flesh hung heavy in the air, as did the groans of the wounded. Those of the cultists not dead were huddled around the edges of the room, sheltering behind any piece of furniture they could find. There was no telling how many had managed to hide, but at least twenty were dead or dying.

In the middle of the floor, Milady was curled up into a ball with arms around her knees, rocking back and forth on her heels, heedless of the blood squelching under her, and sobbing quietly.

“What,” Ruda whispered, “the fuck.”


The action on the bridge had calmed considerably. The warlock’s fog still hung over the Grim Visage, but his summoning installations had all been destroyed by stray staff fire or petered out by now, and with the lack of anything to shoot at, the soldiers perched in the great face’s eye-windows seemed to have grown tired of wearing down their power crystals. Between the fog and the patchy layer of charcoal littering the bridge attesting to all the minor demons which had died there, the scene was even creepier than the Crawl ordinarily had to be.

But at least, for the moment, it was calmer.

“All right, fuck this, I’m out,” proclaimed one of the Dalkhaan House guards clustered nervously at the base of the stairs. Shouldering his staff, he turned and began climbing.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going, Carsten?” another snarled. “The fuck I’m sittin’ here while you fuck off to—”

“Then quit your bellyachin’ and come with, Faisal,” the first man snapped, pausing and half-turning to glare down at him. “This is bullshit. We were told we’d be chivvying some disobedient college kids into order, breaking up a protest or some piddly crap like that. I never signed up for demons and warlocks and adventurers and fucking dungeon delving. This shit gets guys like us killed! And that Hand of the Emperor is so fucking crazy you can smell it on him. No, fuck this. I am out.”

He turned again and began stomping off up the staircase once more. Amid the nervous muttering from the soldiers left behind, a couple more shifted in the direction of the opening above.

All froze, however, when Captain Cross suddenly stepped around the corner ledge. Without saying a word, he snatched the staff held by the nearest soldier, planted himself at the base and took aim up the staircase.

“Carsten!” one of the men shouted.

Before Carsten could even turn again, Cross shot him in the back.

At that range, the firepower of a battlestaff was inescapably deadly. Carsten was flung about five more steps upward by the impact, losing his grip on his own weapon. Upon landing, though, he began rolling back down the steps.

Men pressed and shuffled out of the way, making no move to intercept the body that came tumbling down. Carsten’s corpse finally slid to a stop at the bottom, right before Cross’s boots. His staff bounced a couple of times before rolling the rest of the way, and came to a rest with one end atop its erstwhile owner.

Cross neatly transferred his weapon to one hand, nudged a toe under Carsten’s battlestaff, kicked up upward and caught it.

“Well?” he said grimly. “Anybody else wanna take a walk?”

Shocked silence answered him. A moment later, the assembled men flinched back as a couple more lightning bolts blasted outward from the Visage, those within apparently having heard the staff fire. Passing through the Fog of War, none of them went near the bridge. Even so, the troops huddled backward away from the noise, with the exception of Cross. With his back to the incoming fire, he did not appear even to have noticed it.

“All right, then,” the Captain drawled after a sufficient pause. “New orders, boys: across the bridge and into the building.”

“Now, wait just a goddamn—” The man who’d spoken fell silent as Cross leveled one of the staves at him.

“I get where you’re coming from,” Cross said flatly. “Really, boys, I do. You’re a sorry lot of assholes on your best day, and I don’t tell you that enough. This is over your pay grade, and not what you signed up for. Well, tough titties, ladies. This is the shit we’re all in up to our necks. If we’re dumb enough to run, we’re traitors to the Throne itself, and there’s nowhere in the Empire for us to run to. So let’s have no more of that.” He disdainfully nudged Carsten’s body with one foot. “You get the urge to bolt, you just keep in mind that what you’d be running toward is a lot worse than what you’re running from.

“But here’s the good news, lollipops! The big muckety-mucks that Hand stuck us with want us across the bridge and in that building to hold the doors. That’s because that jiggery-pokery they were doing before was to convince the people inside that the sanctuary effect is broken—but it’s not. Serious violence is still impossible in the Grim Visage. So! You stay here, you might get hit by a stray shot, or whatever the hell crawls up out of the depths. You try to leave, you’ll have that Hand hunting you down and it’ll be a miracle if you live long enough to regret it. Right now, boys, the only safe place for us is right where we’re ordered to be: in the sanctuary zone, forming a wall of bodies preventing the students from coming through those doors. Once we’re inside, it doesn’t matter who those kids are or what powers they have: there’s not a thing they can do.”

He let that hang for a moment, then smiled thinly, raising his chin.

“So if you want to be certain of living through this, girls, get your asses moving.”

Another moment stretched out, while the men stared uncertainly at him, at the Fog, at each other.

Cross let out a heavy sigh, and fired one of his staves into the air. “MARCH! MOVE MOVE MOVE! DOUBLE-TIME IT, YOU MAGGOTS!”

At that, finally, they stumbled into motion, heading straight up the bridge toward the Visage. It was at a pace far short of double time, but at least they were going. Most of them cast wary glances at their captain in passing, but Cross ignored them, except to toss his borrowed staff back to the man from whom he’d taken it, just hanging on to Carsten’s.

“Never heard you cuss that much at one time, Captain,” a boy hardly out of his teens offered as he passed. “I think I like you better like this.”

“Son, I don’t give a damn. Move your ass and don’t you eyeball me!” With the last of them finally on the bridge and heading toward the door, he stepped onto the path behind them, chivvying them along. “Eyes front, you daisy-pickers! First man who so much as looks back at me gets one right in the butt! And I don’t mean like you do back in the barracks!”

Trailing along at the end of the loose straggle which no officer in any military would have deigned to call a formation, he allowed himself a wide, gleeful, borderline psychotic grin before schooling his features back into the more staid expression customary for Captain Cross.


“Shaeine, you will have to be our primary point of both defense and attack,” Ravana lectured briskly as they climbed the stairs to the uppermost terrace. “Of all of us, your magic alone poses a potential impediment to a Hand of the Emperor. Remember, we need not incapacitate him on our own, but if he arrives before we reach our destination—”

“I understand,” Shaeine said, adjusting her grip on F’thaan, who it seemed was growing tired of being carried. “With respect, Ravana, I don’t believe I require coaching on how to best apply my only combat specialty.”

“Quite right,” Ravana said lightly. “Natchua, you represent our most destructive form of offensive power, but do keep in mind that you are uniquely disadvantaged against this foe.”

“Yes, I know,” the drow snapped.

“I am aware that you do,” Ravana replied. “I don’t want you to think you are useless, however. If we are caught in a pitched engagement with this enemy, remember that our goal is to buy time and keep moving, and the capacity to destroy the landscape can be very helpful in that regard. Any disruptions or barriers you can create may tip the balance. Under the circumstances, I believe Professor Tellwyrn will forgive us for any property damage. If not, I will compensate her.”

“I see,” Natchua said, apparently mollified.

“Raolo, the same goes. You may feel your arcane skills less developed, but sorcery is very useful for creating barriers.”

“I will do my best to keep it in mind, your Ladyship,” he said gravely. Ravana half-turned while walking to give him a coy little smile.

“Addiwyn, feel free to use your tongue.”

“I beg your pardon?” Addiwyn drawled.

“You and I may lack magic, but keep in mind that our aim is to delay and befuddle, not destroy. If circumstances so dictate, that wicked little shiv between your lips may prove a useful weapon indeed.”

“You needn’t patronize me, Ravana,” the elf said dryly. “In this particular situation I’m fairly happy not to be included.”

“I have patronized you enough times, Addiwyn, that I would expect you to know the difference by now.”

“Okay, but this whole plan,” Raolo interjected. “I don’t know. You’re making some big assumptions…”

“I know things you do not,” Ravana replied, eyes forward. “Trust that I wouldn’t risk my own life on an uncertain gambit. You had the opportunity to flee; the time for questioning is past.”

They were on the wide lawn on the uppermost terrace by now, the space bordered by Helion Hall, the cafeteria building, and the astronomy tower. It was commonly used by students as a gathering place, and sometimes by faculty to hold public addresses. Coincidentally, it was at this spot last year that the class ahead of them had made their stand against the hellgate.

The walk here from the chapel ordinarily took minutes, but Ravana had led them on a circuitous route through the campus, avoiding the main walkways and relying on the elven hearing of her companions to evade contact with patrolling guards. It was hard to tell how many troops were present; she insisted that House Dalkhaan was tiny and couldn’t possibly have that many guardsmen, much less be able to spare enough levies for a venture like this to really pose a threat, but they kept having to duck behind or through buildings.

Natchua had suggested simply attacking any invading soldiers they encountered, but was overruled.

Since they’d not only left injured enemies behind at the chapel, but sent Reich specifically to get the Hand’s attention, it was reasonable to conclude they were now being actively hunted. This development had unfolded much faster than any of them had anticipated, though.

Now, there was no more room for sneaking; the stairways to the uppermost terrace were all out in the open, and they would have to cross the broad lawn to reach their destination. Ravana had not slowed by a hair, striding boldly across the green without glancing to the left or right.

She had to stop very suddenly when the Hand of the Emperor appeared right in front of them.

His arrival was like no shadow-jumping or arcane teleportation any of them had ever seen. Indeed, it didn’t appear that he actually arrived; in a way, it was as if he had always been standing there, and they had only suddenly noticed his presence.

They had to slam to a halt nearly within arm’s reach of the man, with an abruptness that might have sent most of their classmates reeling. They, however, were four elves and Ravana Madouri. They simply stopped, without loss of poise.

“Ah,” Ravana said mildly. “We were just discussing you.”

The Hand studied her closely, his eyes slightly narrowed but otherwise without expression. He was the same indeed who had come to visit Professor Tellwyrn in the days before most of them had been cursed, a man of ordinary olive Tiraan complexion, with craggy features and a balding head. Like all Hands of the Emperor, though, he had previously been silent discretion personified. Now, his very stance practically vibrated with tension. There was an intensity to his very presence that could not be taken as anything but a threat.

“You have been incapacitated,” the Hand said abruptly after considering them in silence. “I will not condemn any of you for what you do not know. Arachne Tellwyrn is guilty of treason against the Tiraan Empire—”

“Arachne Tellwyrn is not a citizen of the Tiraan Empire,” Ravana said smoothly. “She is roughly thrice its age.”

The Hand stared daggers at her, getting a placid little smile in reply.

“…and this University is to be seized in the name of His Majesty the Emperor and closed,” he continued finally. “Students are directed to vacate the premises. Unless you intend not to comply peaceably with this order, there is no reason you need be in trouble here.”

“It was Tellwyrn herself who once pointed out to me a thing which had escaped my notice before,” Ravana said mildly. “The foundation of all statehood is a monopoly upon violence. A state which cannot exercise the sole prerogative of force is not a state. By issuing a proclamation and orders which you do not have the power to enforce, you have struck a grievous blow to the legitimacy of the Silver Throne. For shame.”

By this point, his eyes were slits, and the tension in his frame had somehow increased further. Addiwyn and Raolo both took judicious half-steps backward, but the two drow simply stood flanking Ravana and staring flatly back. F’thaan had stopped wriggling in Shaeine’s grip, but growled at the Hand.

Ravana’s pleasant little smile did not falter for an instant.

“Your actions here will reflect upon more than yourself,” the Hand stated. “As representatives of the sovereign city-state of Tar’naris, and of the House of Madouri, there will be repercussions if you intend to defy the orders of the Emperor upon territory held by Tiraas.”

“Let me see this order,” Ravana replied. “I will obey a legal edict from the Silver Throne. Which, as I’m sure I need not remind you, are always to be available in written form when presented to a Head of House, such as myself.”

“I am a Hand of the Emperor,” he grated. “I speak with his Majesty’s voice! And I have spoken.”

“House Madouri stands with the Silver Throne,” she replied, smile suddenly gone. “Unequivocally. It is clear to me that you do not. I name you traitor, and I will not permit you to harm the interests of my Emperor.”

He held her gaze, boring down upon her with the full weight of his power, which seemed to hang about him like an aura. Ravana simply stared back—cold, haughty, supremely confident in her will, as if she were lecturing a disobedient housemaid. After a long pause, the Hand finally inclined his head.

“So be it.”

 

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“And herrrrre we are, my little lollipops!” Rowe spun to face them and flared his wings dramatically, sketching a bow. “I present to you: the rear entrance of the Grim Visage!”

Tanenbaum and Reich inched warily toward him, craning their necks to peer around at the vista he indicated.

“All the way down there,” the priestess said resignedly.

“Well, you can’t deny it’s a hell of a view!” Rowe said merrily. His ebullient good cheer hadn’t diminished since they’d summoned him, which was beginning to make Tanenbaum nervous. Vanislaads were great ones for not letting on what they were really thinking, so odds were it was all an act, but still. A child of Vanislaas in this good a mood boded ill for…well, everyone.

The Visage itself was still shrouded in his Fog of War, obscuring a band of space around the great central structure which covered its entrances and windows. It was easy enough to tell where the back door had to be, though; of the network of narrow stone bridges and tiny islands which arched unsupported over the seemingly infinite drop below, only one led straight to the rear of the Visage itself.

“That’s gonna be a rough descent,” stated Cross, the House Dalkhaan guard captain accompanying them. Rowe made way for him as he came to the front of the group, kneeling to frown down at the path ahead. The incubus had led them through a series of tunnels and wall ledges to a vantage above the level of the Visage, which afforded them a very convenient—and terrifying—view. “Rough approach, rather. Lot of exposed space to travel, zero cover, awfully easy to fall off… No way in hell I’d try to lead men in an attack on that if the people inside weren’t behind that…cloud thing.” He glanced up at Tanenbaum. “You doing okay with that? Is it gonna hold up?”

“That’s not hard,” the warlock replied, “don’t worry. Infernal spells don’t run out of power the way arcane ones do, so long as the caster can concentrate. This one I only need to touch up every few minutes, not channel it constantly, which is optimally efficient. It will hold until I’m shot, or fall asleep, or something along those lines.”

“This grows more cheerful by the moment,” Reich muttered, glancing back at the troops. Immediately, she did a double-take. “Hey! Where are all the men?”

Tanenbaum and Rowe turned to follow her stare, finding most of their contingent of guards absent. Only three remained, hanging back by the entrance where the tunnel through which they’d come opened out onto this ledge.

“Sent ’em back,” Captain Cross replied, not looking up from his grim survey of the scene below. “They’re ordered to return to the main bridge and hold that position in case the students try to sortie.”

“Do you honestly expect that crew, unsupervised, to hold up against an attack?” Reich demanded scathingly.

“No,” Cross said, his tone even, “I expect them to immediately desert and fuck off back up the stairs, those that don’t manage to fall in the chasm. I’ll deal with any survivors later, assuming I’m one too. The issue is the mission. We’re to try to apprehend rebellious college students, on narrow bridges over a drop straight to Hell—this would be a nightmare even if half those students weren’t magic and the other half nobles. Those galoots were nothing but a hindrance. Let’s face it, at the first sign of trouble, one would panic and start shooting, and then the rest would join in, and it’d be an absolute disaster. Best we could hope for at that point is to be among the dead and not have to face the aftermath.” He finally raised his eyes from studying the path to glance back at the three remaining troopers. “These I trust to follow orders and keep their heads.”

Tanenbaum, Reich, and Rowe all stared at the soldiers, who stood just barely out of earshot of their low conversation, murmuring among themselves. Well, two of them were, the pair of gray-haired men who were clearly older than Cross—who himself was obviously past the customary age of retirement. The third and tallest was at least of fighting age, but not in fighting shape. Though big, his head was noticeably too small for his body, with tiny, close-set eyes and a jaw which hung perpetually open. At the moment, he was staring into space and picking his nose.

“These,” Tanenbaum said flatly. “These are the cream of the crop.”

Rowe cackled and slapped him on the back. “Well, it’s like they say! You go to war with the army you’ve got, not the army you want.”

“Of that crop? Yes.” Cross turned back to the view, ignoring the incubus. “Steiner and Jafar may be long in the tooth, but they’re soldiers—I mean actual soldiers, who’ve served the Duchess as long as I have. Back in our day, there was actual training, and the House guard didn’t take just anybody. And Big Jim is… Well, he’s exactly what he looks like, but he’s good at following orders, and nothing makes him panic. Big, strong, and calm is what’s best for this mission, mark my words.”

“Consider them marked,” Reich said with a sigh. “Well, since we’re here, does anybody have any ideas how we are actually going to apprehend these students? There are over sixty of them. Even if they choose to come along quietly, and they won’t, it’s a logistical nightmare. And disregarding the material threat the students represent, those professors are among the most dangerous people in the Empire.”

“Ezzaniel won’t be terribly dangerous unless he gets close,” Tanenbaum murmured, rubbing his bearded chin with a thumb. “Yornhaldt and Harklund are highly skilled casters, the most immediate threat. Plus Rafe and Morvana. Never underestimate a versatile alchemist. I fear you are correct, Ms. Reich. I had hoped our…patron would have rejoined us by now. He’s the only one who has any idea what the plan is, here.”

“I wonder,” she said quietly, “if that’s not giving him rather too much credit. Has it occurred to you, gentlemen, that since we’ve been brought here with specific forces in a specific situation which can’t really do anything except deploy offensive power against these civilians… Perhaps that is precisely what he intends?”

“Hn,” Cross grunted. “You reckon so? Commit high treason or open fire on a bunch of kids. That’s a thinker. Can’t say I envy you two. Me, I’m old, I know I’ve served well, an’ I’d just as soon not linger to see House Dalkhaan wither away like I know it’s going to. If it comes time for an unwise act of conscience, I’d rather be able to give a good account for myself to Vidius than even my Emperor. For a couple of young career—hey!” He had turned his head again to look at them, but now straightened up, raising his staff, and stared around the ledge. “Where the hell is that demon?”

Reich whirled, glancing about rapidly, and then whispered something very unladylike. The three soldiers were still lounging in the tunnel a few yards away, but there was no sign of Rowe anywhere.

“Oh, he’s quite gone,” Tanenbaum said fatalistically. “The summonstone bound him to lead us to the back entrance of the Grim Visage. That done, he had no bindings and is a free incubus.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be a warlock?” Reich exclaimed. “Couldn’t you have done anything?”

“Yes, in fact.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “I could monitor his infernal presence while it was within range of my own aura, which I did, all the way up the tunnel after he decided to slither off. By this point he’s out of range, and I deemed it best to let him go. Captain Cross has the right of it.” He nodded to the captain. “At this point, it’s a question of who we do and do not want involved in this unfolding debacle, and an incubus is in the second category. Holding one of those creatures against their will is, itself, a fiendishly challenging prospect, and not a task I wish to undertake whilst trying to untangle the knot before us. He was bound to either try to escape or attack us, and since he chose the first option, I say let him go. Hopefully he will choose to make himself Tellwyrn’s problem and not ours.”

“Hopefully!” Reich covered her face in her hands. “We’re going to die down here, aren’t we?”

“I flatly refuse to do so,” Tanenbaum said firmly. “As to what we are going to do… Of that, I am less certain. But I don’t think the Hand is coming back any time soon, and the University people will already be probing at the Fog, assuming he was correct and they plan to escape through the rear. Whatever we’re going to do, we need to figure it out and be about it. Immediately.”


“What is it?” she demanded as he suddenly banked left, veering to the west. At that altitude and speed the wind was enough to silence any voice, but of course they both had acute senses further augmented by arcane means; she didn’t need to raise her tone. “Do you see the zeppelin?”

“I see a zeppelin,” Zanzayed replied. His voice, high-pitched for the draconic depth and power it held in this form, required little help from her magic to be audible even with the air streaming past. “It’s the first we’ve encountered since we passed Madouris, so I dearly hope this is our quarry.” The dragon twisted his head up to grin at her sidelong. “Not that I don’t enjoy palling around with you like the old days, Arachne, but after a few millennia of practice sailing over the countryside loses much of its romance.”

“We never palled around,” she snapped, lifting a hand to hold her spectacles by their frame. “You annoyed me and I kicked your ass, repeatedly, with minor variations. Lower your head so I can see, you clod.”

He barked a noise which she had long since learned to recognize as a chuckle, though it tended to make other mortals faint—which was most of the reason he ever did it in mixed company.

It had taken years of practice and fiddling around to discover the spectacles’ various properties, and she still couldn’t be sure she had them all down, but the binocular effect had been one of the first powers she had unlocked. It was particularly potent for her as these had been designed with human vision in mind; at their fullest magnification she could see the rings of Carrie when it was at the right place in the sky. The glasses’ magic interfaced neatly with the consciousness of the wearer, fortunately, enabling her to zoom in on a moving target even while riding another.

The zeppelin ahead flew the Imperial flag, a silver gryphon on a black field. It was running no signal flags, however. The thrusters were going at full speed—all the thrusters, both the elemental wind tunnels and mechanical propellers. That was significant; no zeppelin pilot would burn through power crystals like that except in an emergency, and right now most of the fleet was doing exactly that over on the west coast to ferry typhoon relief. The only important things happening around the inner frontier, so far as she knew, were at her University. On its current heading the airship wasn’t heading for Last Rock, at least not directly. The course was right, though, if the pilot aimed to swing wide to the west and avoid Calderaas on the way to the Golden Sea.

“Well?” Zanzayed asked impatiently. “You’d best be very sure that’s the right ship, Arachne. This is dicey enough business as it is, even with Vex’s go-ahead; there’ll be no end of hell to pay if I’m involved in attacking a Tiraan aircraft on legitimate Imperial business.”

“Why, Zanza, you are getting downright cautious in your old age.”

“You would be too if you were sharing a manor house with Puff. He can lecture for days on end! That is not an exaggeration.”

“I know, I tried to steal a sword from him, once. Hush a moment, let me scry.”

Thorough scrying required specialized equipment, of the sort that couldn’t feasibly be set up on a dragon’s back in flight. What she could manage with her own skills and her spectacles would be cursory at best, but not for nothing was she Arachne Tellwyrn.

“It’s them,” she said two minutes later, a smile of predatory satisfaction creeping across her face.

“You’re sure?” Zanzayed lifted his head again to give her a sidelong look, once more ruining her line of sight. “What method did you use?”

“Simple: remote viewing and lip-reading. Not hard at all at this range.”

He had started to lower his head again, but now jerked it back up to twist around fully and stare at her—incidentally causing him to begin drifting off-course to the north. “You can read lips?”

“Zanzayed, I am three thousand years old. I can read lips, speak five dead languages, juggle, raise prize-winning pumpkins, weave a tapestry, and my mint chocolate souffle has been known to induce spontaneous orgasms. You pick things up left and right, just by living! That is, unless you devotedly do nothing with your life but chase skirts and devour hors d’oeurve.”

“Mint chocolate souffle, eh? Now that’s a combination—”

“Watch where you’re flying!”

The airship was now close enough to be visible to the naked eye—hers and Zanzayed’s, anyway, not a human’s. They were not within range to be spotted unless the occupants happened to have a spyglass trained on their six o’clock. Not impossible, considering they were fleeing the Imperial capital in a stolen military vessel.

Zanzayed lowered his head and straightened out his course, then began pumping his wings. He smoothly increased in both speed and altitude, gaining on the zeppelin and rising quickly above its crew’s field of view. Some models had observations posts on top, but this was an older troop transport, and would be blind to anything approaching from above its gas envelope.

Below them, knobby hills interspersed with patchy forests and flattish stretches marked the no-man’s land where the mountains of Viridill, rolling hills of Calderaas, woodlands of the Green Belt and prairies around the Great Plains melted into each other. It wasn’t good farmland and had been largely ignored except by shepherds, even the elves retreating south over the last millennium as humanity carved roads and then Rail lines through this territory. This, actually, was the perfect place to intercept their target. It could have been problematic, bringing it down over inhabited country.

“What’s the plan, then?” the dragon boomed, leveling off a good fifty yards above the ship and continuing to close in. “Remember, I’m just the transportation, here. Rebels or no, a representative of the Conclave can’t be torching Imperial interests.”

“I have it well in hand, thank you. Bring me right above the airship.”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” He gave her another amused look with one sapphire eye. “Say, the frames of those things are mostly wood, right? Have to be, metal is way too heavy. I wonder if you could polymorph the whole shebang, like you did to that ship in the Isles that one time? That was empty; I’ve always wondered what would happen if you ‘morphed something with a bunch of people inside.”

“That was a high elven caravel, numbskull; you know those things are functionally living beings. Just because it’s mostly organic doesn’t mean you can polymorph it. You just concentrate on flying and let me do the tricky part. I need to dispatch these interlopers and get back to my campus, not indulge your horsing around!”

He snorted a laugh, producing an actual puff of fire and smoke which quickly dissipated in the wind. They were right above the zeppelin by that point, and actually beginning to overtake it as Zanzayed did not lessen his speed. “I remember when you used to be fun, Arachne.”

“I was amnesiac that day,” she said, and hurled herself off his back.

Tellwyrn neatly straightened herself out, tucking her arms against her sides and shooting right at the zeppelin head-first. After a life as long and full of adventure as hers, one tended to pick up the knack of plummeting from the sky, what with one thing and another. Elven agility helped, but elven weight did not; the wind buffeted her about like a kite. This was just one of the reasons she heavily preferred trousers to skirts.

Still, she had judged her jump to perfection, requiring only minimal course adjustments, and none needing magic. The zeppelin’s huge silvery bulk grew as she shot straight down toward its starboard edge, about a quarter of its length back from the nose.

She spun herself around to fall feet-first and yanked one of her gold-hilted sabers out of the pocket dimension in which she kept it, swiftly reversing her grip and then raising it overhead in both hands.

The blade pierced the fortified silk with satisfying ease. Tellwyrn’s momentum carried her down and dragged the sword through the outer envelope, leaving a long tear in her wake. She applied an efficient little charm to keep it in her grip (and keep it from yanking her arms off) when it snagged as it struck one of the long inner balloons of gas.

That slowed her rapidly, though; even her downward velocity wasn’t enough keep her going, given her meager weight. The last thing she needed was to end up pinned to the side of this thing while it spewed gas and gradually drifted lower. Not with Zanzayed there, he’d never let her live it down. Tellwyrn lowered one hand from the sword to gesticulate downward, applying an invisible tether to the world itself to tug her toward the ground. She released it almost immediately, the boost of speed having done its work.

A bit too well; she had to privately admit to misjudging that spell by a hair. Well, it wasn’t as if she executed this maneuver often. If there ever came a second try, she’d undoubtedly nail it perfectly. But at the moment, the pull wrenched her harder than she’d meant, and she lost her grip on the sword and went tumbling away from the side of the zeppelin.

It was enough, though. The tear was made, and it didn’t have to be a large one.

Tellwyrn went tumbling through space, allowing herself to be spun by momentum and the wind, gathering magic in her fist to execute a compound spell: a simple fireball enhanced with a few augmentations to make it fly straight and true for a much longer distance than they normally did.

She was already well below the level of the zeppelin when she had it ready and her spin brought her around to face upward and at it. Tellwyrn extended a finger in a contemptuous gesture, and fired the prepared streak of flame unerringly into the rent she’d just gouged.

In the next second her tumble had shifted it out of her field of view again, but she could hear the flames catch. And by that point she had more pressing concerns.

Tellwyrn straightened out her fall, spreading her arms and legs to level herself out, facing the onrushing earth. Of course, Zanzayed could easily swoop in and catch her, but she knew him too well to expect that. He’d be far too amused watching her extricate herself from this situation.

A straightforward featherweight spell wouldn’t do any good, given the momentum she’d built up. Instead, she formed an arcane shield around herself, then layered additional spells onto the blue sphere. Lines formed across its surface, and then the spaces between them flattened out, leaving her encased in a faceted shape with numerous hexagonal faces. She poured energy into them, and the facets began blazing to life, directing pure kinetic force.

This was tricky; she’d just made this up on the fly—literally. Well, she had at least half a minute to practice.

Tellwyrn got the hang of it quite quickly, beaming force from multiple facets in a balanced pattern to first stabilize and control her descent, and then project more powerful beams straight downward against her velocity. It was just like walking a tightrope, really, a trivial feat for any elf. In fact, it was her own main column of energy that posed the real challenge, not the actual fall; balancing atop a pillar of force while gradually lessening it as she descended was an order of magnitude more complex than balancing atop a lamp post blindfolded, drunk, and with a monkey scampering around her shoulders.

Now, that had been a hell of a solstice party.

By the time she came within five yards of the ground she was drifting practically like a leaf, and had diminished the main thrust surface down to nothing, only exerting force through the facets keeping her bubble upright. This really was a horribly inefficient spell; rarely had she bled off so much raw power so quickly. It sure was fun, though.

Finally, she dropped the bubble entirely and fell the rest of the way.

Going down at an angle, she hit the ground in a slide, rolled to her feet, and began casually brushing mud off her clothes.

Behind her, the zeppelin, now entirely consumed with by flame, crashed to the earth. Lucky the whole area was visibly soggy from recent rain; that thing was still likely to cause a few fires.

Oh, well.

Zanzayed came down almost on top of her, at which she didn’t bat an eye. As expected, he transformed at the last possible moment and applied a much simpler levitation spell than she had used, floating the rest of the way down in a dramatic pose that emphasized the fluttering of his preposterously ornate robes.

The dragon opened his mouth to speak, but Tellwyrn forestalled him with an upraised hand. Then she stepped to the side, and held out her arm.

Her sword shot out of the sky like a missile, its handle slapping neatly into her palm. She had, obviously, applied a charm to prevent the pulverizing damage that should have caused, but it still hit with enough momentum to spin her completely around. She pivoted neatly on the ball of her foot, twirling the saber and then sheathing it in its extradimensional scabbard.

“I knew the dwarf who first designed those things, you know,” she stated primly. “We were drinking buddies. Once the early ones went into production, I told them to fill the damn things with helium. But nooo, nobody listens to the millennia-old archmage. Helium is expensive. Helium requires arduous mining, or complex transmutation, but you can park a college student on a riverbank with an alchemy set and have ’em distill hydrogen right out of the water for pennies an hour. And look what happens! I’ll bet even this doesn’t convince them to start using the non-flammable gas.”

“No bet,” he said dryly. “And speaking of unnecessary volatility, just off the top of my blue head I can think of eight simple spells you could have cast to obliterate that thing without so much as standing up. Do you just make a point of plunging to your doom every so often because it amuses you to watch doom panic when it sees you coming?”

“I remember when you used to be fun, Zanza,” she said, grinning.

“No, you don’t,” he retorted petulantly. “Well, that’s that taken care of, anyway. Why do our dates always end with something on fire?”

“I guess we’re not too old to go dancing after all,” Tellwyrn replied. “Thanks for the lift, Zanza. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bit more treason to commit today.”

“Nothing in moderation with you, as always.”

She smirked, winked, and vanished, the tiny pop of displacement fully drowned out by the ongoing destruction of the zeppelin nearby.

Zanzayed shook his head and turned to study the inferno, and the rapidly-disintegrating structure of the airship within it. Then he snorted loudly and shook his head.

“Well! At least the day wasn’t wasted. Now I can properly rub Razzavinax’s nose in it. The temerity, calling my marshmallow conjuration charm indulgent and pointless. Once again, Zanzayed laughs last!”

 

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“Down!”

The captain seized Tanenbaum from behind and yanked him backwards, ruining his concentration. Consequently, he didn’t get a good look at the object which impacted the bridge in front of him, but had the man not flung them both flat to the floor, the burst of force which erupted from it might well have hurled him off the edge.

Ears ringing, Tanenbam scrambled backward, bringing up one hand and casting by reflex. The first shadowbolt splashed harmlessly against the great overhanging nose of the Grim Visage, but the next he had the presence of mind to aim straight at one of the eye-windows.

The wrong one, unfortunately. It was the other eye which sparked a second later, and in the next moment a wall of sparkling blue light appeared across the bridge in front of them. He frowned; surely Yornhaldt knew better than to try to hold a shield like that against a warlock.

Then it started moving along the bridge toward them, and he understood. The shield sparkled violently along its base, where moving contact with the stone was constantly eroding its integrity. It would last seconds at best under that abuse, but it wouldn’t take any longer than that to sweep them all off into space. The Hand had done his vanishing trick at the first attack, but to judge by the very unprofessional screaming behind him, the soldiers had come to the same conclusions he had. Their captain was shouting orders, trying to goad them back into shape, but Tanenbaum gave that no thought.

Hoisting himself upright, he held his ground, reaching out with his mind and seizing the magic. It resisted—or rather, its caster did. Alaric Yornhaldt was no pushover. The Circles were as they were, however, and while Tanenbaum could not fully appropriate a spell with such a skilled wizard actively maintaining it, harnessing and burning off its power to fuel an infernal working was well within the scope of his skill

The moving shield buckled and disintegrated from one side even as it came on. The thing tingled unpleasantly as its dissolving edge passed over Tanenbaum, and its last vestiges actually made it far enough to shove a few of the retreating troopers behind him, to judge by the cursing, but within moments it had fully bled away.

He didn’t wait to channel more power into it, unleashing the spell the moment its arcane parent collapsed. A cloud of darkness coalesced out of the air right in front of the Visage, a discoloration in reality which the brain tried to process as a mist or fog at first glance; it took closer concentration to discern that there was no physical obstruction of the light, but an altering of the way the mind perceived that stretch of space.

The next spell that came through was a simple arcane bolt, and it flew wide of them, smashing a crater in the cavern wall far above and to their right. That would be no more than a test shot; Yornhaldt would definitely recognize what he was looking at.

Another object came arcing out of the first window. No, actually, a whole cluster of them, glittering in the Crawl’s reddish light as they came. Rafe had quickly adjusted, then, flinging indiscriminate handfuls of potion vials now rather than trying to aim through the fog. Three of them struck the bridge and shattered, while the rest tumbled off into the distance below.

Tanenbaum didn’t know what was in the greenish mist that puffed out, and didn’t want to learn, especially when it began drifting singlemindedly in his direction. He had to hold his focus on the small dimensional rift he wrenched open in midair off to the side of the bridge; even more than most infernal gateways, that one would lead to disaster if left unattended. There was no atmosphere in the place to which it led, and a wind kicked up as the local air began pouring through the gap. He held it just until the mist was sucked inside, then slammed the portal shut. Only then, finally, did he retreat.

The rest had withdrawn all the way to the entrance, huddling at the base of the stairs. The Hand and the troop’s captain stood, watching with narrowed eyes, while the remainder of the soldiers unabashedly hid behind them. Omnu’s breath, at least one of them was crying. Tanenbaum was no military man, but this had to be the sorriest lot of so-called soldiers in the Empire. It did not speak well of their chances here that this was what their benefactor had to work with.

Didn’t really reflect well on him, either, for that matter.

“Thank you,” he said fervently to the captain, who nodded back.

“Well done,” the Hand stated in his clipped tone. “What is that distortion you created?”

Lightning bolts began erupting from both eyes, all flying wild. There was another series of shouts and the soldiers began trying to retreat up the stairs, ignoring their commander’s imprecations.

They all froze, however, when the Hand turned to look at them.

“The Fog of War,” Tanenbaum explained. “All but impossible to dispel, though it will fade naturally, and quite quickly. No one can aim true through it, and it blocks scrying. I can—”

“Good. Extend it fully around the central structure. How long can you maintain it?”

“Ah…well, indefinitely, in theory, as long as I am able to concentrate. I will have to renew it every few minutes, and the bigger the area, the—”

“Do so. In between reinforcing the fog, I want you to summon demons and whatever else you have onto the bridge; make sure the front of that structure is under constant assault.”

An errant staff shot impacted the edge of the opening right beside them, spraying them with tiny chips. Their armed escort retreated with yet another chorus of screams, and Tanenbaum reflexively covered his face with his arms. The Hand didn’t so much as twitch an eye.

“Ironic,” he grunted. “Those three nincompoops are a bigger threat, now, than the wizard or the alchemist. That cloud can’t make their aim any worse. Captain, get these weaklings into order immediately. As soon as our target’s view is fully obscured, we will be navigating around the edge of the cavern to the rear entrance.”

Tanenbaum, as directed, was already focusing on expanding the Fog, but he risked a glance at the man commanding them. “Was this…planned?”

“Surely you didn’t really think I expected you to bring down the sanctuary effect.” Disdain weighed down his tone. “Maybe with a team of spellcasters and a week to work. No, our time is limited and as long as they are in sanctuary, all they have to do is sit there. Our task was to make them believe it would not protect the students. That done, the professors will go on the offensive to keep us pinned here while they begin evacuating through the rear.”

“I see,” Tanenbaum said, eyes forward. “Sir, with all due respect, I might be more helpful if you would explain up front what you plan to—”

“Do not press me, Mr. Tanenbaum. You know what you need to, when it is necessary for you to learn. That is all.”

“Yes, sir.”

Applying the Fog of War around the other side of the great central structure was a mental effort, anyway, so there was no point in keeping his eyes fixed on it. As such, he turned warily along with the Hand and their escort as the sound of running feet came down the stairwell toward them.

Lorelin Reich stumbled the last few steps, badly out of breath and leaning against the wall; she tried to skid too quickly to a stop upon drawing close enough to become aware of the lightning bolts flashing around the cavern in front of them, and might have fallen the rest of the way down had the captain not grabbed her.

“Why, Reich, do I suspect you are not bringing me good news?” the Hand snarled, cutting off her thanks.

She swallowed heavily and pressed a hand to her chest, speaking around gasps for air. “Sir…the targets woke up…on their own. Opened the chapel, took out my escort… I barely got away.”

“How?” he snarled.

Reich shook her head, swallowing again. “Don’t know. They had a young hellhound… Knew what was happening on campus. I suspect Elilial intervened, but can’t prove—”

“Did anyone else appear on the campus?”

“Not that I saw,” she said, beginning to get her gasping under control. “No sign of Tellwyrn or any movement from the town. Sir, the students headed for the uppermost level, where Tellwyrn’s office is. I suspect—”

“I see I must do everything myself,” the Hand sneered. “Tanenbaum, you have your orders. I have to go deal with this; get these men around behind the Visage and intercept the students as they retreat.”

“Sir, I don’t know the layout of the Crawl. Nobody but University students has been down here in fifty years!”

“Fortunately for us all, I have made preparations for the more obvious ways this mission can go wrong, including this one. You will know what to do with this.” He didn’t appear to reach into a pocket, but the hand he held out to Tanenbaum now held a small, reddish crystal wrapped in brass wire, with a rune-etched strip of parchment trailing from its end. “Use it as soon as you are ready to move, and waste no time.”

“I…yes, sir,” he said uncertainly. “With all respect, though, things like this are more trouble than…”

Tanenbaum lifted his eyes from the crystal to find the Hand gone. On the stairs, the captain had bullied his men into a semblance of order. Reich was pressed against the wall, as far from errant staffshots as she could reasonably get. And, he noted, did not seem even slightly winded now that their leader was not there.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to pull his strings like that?” he demanded.

“I don’t appreciate the insinuation, Mr. Tanenbaum,” she said archly. “What, exactly, is that thing?”

“Well.” He closed his fingers around it. “Let me put it this way. If you’d been thinking he couldn’t possibly make this situation any more chaotic, you are about to be disappointed.”


Principia let the crane lift her to within a few feet of the access ladder and hopped nimbly the rest of the way, grasping the bottom rung, swinging herself up and scampering squirrel-like to the catwalk. The little Caretaker golem chimed companionably at her as it trundled past on some errand; she gave the thing a pat on the head and strode off along the walkway toward the central branch that led to the administrative platform.

Even before drawing close, she could hear the shift in mood; this group bantered as badly as any group of adventurers she’d run with in the old days, the Imperial spook notwithstanding, but now they’d fallen almost silent. Stepping into the enclosed complex, she could see dour expressions. Thoughtful, rather than shocked or sad, but still…

“All right, what happened?” she demanded.

“Hey, Locke,” Gabriel said, turning to give her a fleeting smile. “We’re almost done. Actually we are done; the Avatar’s just finishing up some kind of internal task which I’m sure I wouldn’t understand even if he explained it.”

“Uh huh,” she said, absently squeezing water from the hem of her shirt. “And you lot have gone all gloomy because…?”

“Not gloomy,” Toby said. “It’s… We’ll explain later, it’s not urgent. We just learned of…well, like I said, later. Are you okay?”

“Me?” She waved a hand. “Fine, fine, just wet. But for the record, next time someone else who can squeeze into tight spaces, hold their breath underwater for several minutes and knows the basics of Infinite Order gadgets can do the really fun swimmy-squeezy-button-pushey job.”

“Damn.” Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “I guess we’ll have to start soliciting resumes.”

“The hardware bypasses are stable and configured correctly,” the Avatar reported. He seemed to have shut down most of his projections, and was speaking to them from a single image displayed in the largest screen present. “Excellent work, all. Gateway technology disconnected. The external trascension blocker disrupting my immaterial circuits is now offline—thank you kindly, Lieutenant Locke. Process rerouting complete. This should be it; I am placing firewalls around the intrusive systems. Please stand by.”

“And, uh,” Juniper said nervously, “just to reiterate, the worst-case scenario isn’t collapsing the whole place, right?”

“That was the purpose of your and Fross’s work, Juniper, which you performed correctly. I anticipate no such problems but given the condition of this facility I would not make such an attempt without failsafes.”

He stopped suddenly, and his projected image closed its eyes, and actually heaved a sigh. This thing had much more organic mannerisms than the AI she had met before.

“Firewalls in place. Re-routing fully functional. It is a jury-rigged system, and will not hold indefinitely, but everything is functioning. Thank the maker, I can think clearly again.” The Avatar opened his eyes and smiled broadly. “And more immediately, thank you. All of you. Thanks to your help, the Caretaker and I will be able to perform more detailed repairs in the days to come. I anticipate it should not take more than a month, conservatively, to restore Fabrication Plant One to optimal condition. I am immensely grateful for your intercession.”

“A month!” Fross chimed excitedly, zipping back and forth above their heads. “Wow! That’ll be really impressive work—this place is a wreck. No offense.”

“None taken, I assure you. It is a fair assessment.”

“Right, great, you’re welcome and congratulations,” Ruda said, tipping her hat. “Now, I think we had an agreement?”

“Quite right,” the Avatar said more briskly, his image nodding in her direction. “While we have been working, I have perused the records of the nanite swarm released on the surface. Whoever did this seems to have had some appreciation for the potential danger they represented, as they were programmed with some critical impediments. The size of the swarm was carefully constrained, and has been at maximum for several months. With nearly half its number removed from the city above and maintaining the disabling effect upon the sapients it infected, the swarm’s current controllers have had very few resources upon which to draw, relatively speaking. Their construction in the nearby tunnels has been nearly halted for that reason. It appears they diverted most of the swarm’s capability in recent weeks to constructing weapons.”

“Weapons?” Toby exclaimed in alarm. “The kind the Elder— The Infinite Order used?”

“It is not as bad as it could be. Another of the constraints placed upon the nanites prevented them from constructing anything too deadly, but it seems the Rust have stumbled upon one of the Order’s favorite non-lethal crowd-control devices. They are equipped with sonic blasters.”

“And… Those do exactly what they sound like, I suppose?” Milady said. “Pun not intended.”

“Yes,” the Avatar replied seriously. “They use sound waves to induce pain, disorientation, and nausea in victims. Such equipment was issued to the Order’s mortal personnel to neutralize organized resistance among their slave populations. These weapons are not lethal, but will fully incapacitate an average human. Their effects are more pronounced upon those with extremely sensitive hearing,” he added, shifting to look directly at Principia.

“Shit,” she whispered. “Nandi…”

“In gratitude for your assistance,” the Avatar continued, “I have had my few operational fabricators working on something for you to counter this. Ah, here we are.”

As he spoke, the Caretaker came zipping back up the catwalk toward them, weaving slightly in excitement. In two of its metal claws was clutched a small black box. Ruda grabbed this unceremoniously as soon as the little golem came close enough, and flipped up its lid.

Toby was nearest, and craned his neck to see what was inside. “Oh. Earplugs? Well…that makes sense.”

“They are a little more advanced than that,” the Avatar explained. “Each person need insert only one; they will counter any and all destructive frequencies of sound when used. These devices will naturally lose effectiveness over time, so I suggest you try to resolve your business quickly.”

“Right, got it,” Ruda said, snapping the lid shut. “Thanks for the gift, and the advice. And now, shutting off the nanites…?”

“Be advised that the Rust’s machinery and physical augmentation is designed to be somewhat self-reliant,” he cautioned. “In the absence of the nanite swarm their enhancements cannot maintain themselves and will gradually cease to function, but it will be days at least before this effect becomes noticeable, and much longer before it becomes significant. The artificial limbs should operate for months or years before breaking down fully.”

“Then time is clearly a factor,” Ruda said with clear impatience. “So would you please shut them the fuck down, already?!”

“Quite so.” The Avatar’s projection had schooled his features to careful neutrality, and now folded his hands in front of himself. “Security protocols being what they are, the unleashing of a nanite swarm is a crisis of the highest priority, superceding even the dire condition of this facility itself. As such, my first act upon having been reset, even prior to addressing you, was to send the self-destruct signal. The soldiers incapacitated will already be well on the way to recovery, and the Rust have no more means of maintaining their equipment or producing more. The nanties are permanently removed from the world.”

A pause fell, in which they all stared at him, several with mouths slightly open.

“You,” Ruda began in an incredulous whisper. “You son of a BITCH!”

Ending on a roar, she whipped her rapier from its sheath and took a step toward the central cluster of machinery.

“Whoah!” Principia shouted, grabbing her arm while Toby just as quickly seized the other one. “Kid, do not stick a shaft of metal into electrical equipment, no matter how much it deserves it!”

“I understand your displeasure,” the Avatar said gravely.

“Oh, do you,” Gabriel snapped. “Hey, guys, it’s all okay. He understands!”

“Let him explain,” Juniper interjected. “Come on, that much is fair.”

“I apologize for deceiving you,” said the Avatar. He was calm and almost aloof, now, seeming more in possession of himself without the intrusion of the gateway’s data on his system. “Your resentment is entirely reasonable. I greatly appreciate the assistance you have rendered. All I ask is that you consider my perspective. The last visitors to this facility stole technology and unleashed a nanite swarm; the last visitors before that had grievously sabotaged my very being in order to make this subsequent abuse possible. I urgently required sapient assistance, and the available data strongly discouraged extending trust to intruders of unknown origin and intent. I believe you have proved yourselves now, but at the time…”

“Fuck it, we don’t have time for this,” Ruda snarled, pointing the rapier at his image. She had, at least, ceased struggling against Toby and Principia. “I have to go finish saving my city. But now that I know you’re down here, sparky, you had better believe we are gonna talk about this in the near future!”

“I beg your pardon,” the Avatar replied, sounding genuinely apologetic, “but no, we will not. As soon as you are safely away from the facility, I will seal the entrance and destroy the access tunnel. As a result of these events, protocols give me cause to institute a permanent lockdown, of a priority neither surviving member of the Infinite Order can supercede. You are the last sapients who will visit this facility.”

“But…but why?” Fross sounded positively crushed. “All the knowledge here!”

“For precisely that reason,” the Avatar said solemnly. “I am considering more than just the recent abuses my facility and I have suffered. The Infinite Order themselves came to this world to pursue science and what they felt was the highest application of technology, toward fulfilling the ultimate purpose of sapient life and the universe itself. Instead, they almost immediately fell to abusing the tremendous power they gave themselves in the process. And even prior to that, the human race devastated the world upon which it was born—not through malice, but simple carelessness. Through the irresponsible use of technology, pursuing short-term desires at the expense of all rational planning. That is the critical weakness of organically evolved sapients: they are driven by desires which serve their survival as primitive animals, but once they elevate themselves to greater capability, those same drives push them to self-destruction.

“My creator left me with a final instruction before he chose oblivion over further corruption: to be of service to humanity. It is my conclusion that humanity’s descendants cannot be trusted with its technology, any more than their ancestors could. When given access to it, they have immediately set to making weapons and attacking one another in pursuit of political ambitions. I judge that the best service I can provide the sapients of this world is to remove their access to a source of knowledge which they will only use to hurt themselves.”

“Don’t do this,” Milady said quietly. “There’s more to us than that. The Infinite Order failed in many ways, and modern people do to, but you can’t mistake the failure for the totality!”

“All systems are corrupt,” Principia added. “That doesn’t mean you give up on the systems. It doesn’t mean you give up at all. Acknowledging fault is the first step, not the last.”

“It has been eight thousand years, and your advancement until quite recently has been minimal. In half that time, your ancestors progressed from bronze tools to nearly rendering their world uninhabitable. Conditions on this world seem to promote a kind of stasis, and that is clearly for the better. If you are to progress to the point of self-destruction again, I refuse to be the cause.” The projection shook his head. “The teleport array is fully functioning; I will provide you with rapid transit back to your city, so that you may finish your business as efficiently as possible. It is the least I can do, in gratitude for your help.”

“You can’t seriously think we’re gonna step into one of your fucking hell-gadgets after the shit you’ve pulled,” Ruda grated. “Thanks for the offer, but no thanks.”

“Stepping will not be necessary. It was not an offer.” The Avatar’s purple form bowed to them in his screen; nearby, the Caretaker chimed sadly and waved with one of its spidery arms. “I thank you deeply for your help, and wish you success in your endeavors, children of humankind. We will not meet again.”

There was no more warning than the faintest buzz of energy around them, and then the entire group was suddenly no longer there.


“Well, at least it’s working,” the captain muttered, watching lightning bolts flash around the front of the cavern. “Don’t they ever get tired of wasting their power crystals like that?”

“They’re trying to keep us pinned and distracted, not kill us,” Lorelin replied. “It nearly worked, if you’ll recall. I’m more worried about Tanenbaum getting tired.”

“Thanks, but that’s more a concern for mages,” he said, putting the finishing touches on his summoning circle. “Warlocks don’t run out of power. In the worst case scenario, we make…mistakes.”

“Yes, I know my Circles, thank you,” she said flatly. “That is exactly what worries me.”

“And this is why I enjoy working with casters of other schools,” he replied, giving her a pleasant smile. “It is most reassuring, having a cleric of your skill at hand.”

They had retreated around the edge of the central cavern, a nail-biting trip which had involved sidling along a narrow ledge and passing through a tunnel, but had re-emerged onto a flat space off to the right of the entrance, where they had an excellent view of the abortive battle taking place on the bridge in front of the Grim Visage. Tanenbaum had set up a permanent summoning gate which was periodically spewing forth imps, katzils, and the occasional khankredahg—the standard attack demons for someone just looking to raise a little hell. Under ordinary circumstances he would never have considered such an action; such permanent gates invariably attracted the interest of more sapient demons. This one wouldn’t stand under its own power for much longer, anyway, and he was actually surprised none of the wild staffshots, arcane spells, and alchemical bombs being hurled from the front of the Visage had yet destroyed it.

Now Tanenbaum, the captain, and Reich stood on the flat ledge, the first space they had found that could hold a summoning circle, while the soldiers had piled into the tunnel behind them, which (according to the sign conveniently posted on the wall) led to a goblin warren. In theory this was just for the sake of space, but Tanenbaum suspected the captain preferred to keep these men confined in quarters from which they couldn’t flee. The fact that none of them had tried it already was even more surprising than the fact that none had fallen into the chasm or been struck by a stray lightning bolt.

“Before you finish that,” Reich said pointedly, “are you going to tell us, finally, what that thing does?”

Tanenbaum straightened up, holding out the bound crystal the Hand had given him, and glanced at the entrance.

“Pretty sure the boys aren’t in earshot,” the captain said wryly. “I’ll tell you right now, though, we can’t keep going like this. Those nitwits are an inch from panicking, and I’ve got a hunch whatever you’re about to do isn’t gonna help.”

The warlock sighed, and bounced the crystal once on his palm, then knelt to place it in the designated spot at the edge of the circle. “This is a summonstone. It carries the true name of a demon, along with specific instructions for it. By summoning the creature through this crystal, one brings it to this plane unbreakably bound to the terms outlined in the stone’s spell.”

“I do say that sounds like a good idea, if one absolutely has to meddle with demons,” Reich remarked, now watching the circle warily. Its lines had begun to glow, signifying its activation. “Don’t you want them under control?”

“It is the second worst way to summon a demon, after just letting them loose with no constraints whatsoever.” Tanenbaum stepped back from the circle, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That stone can only encode very simple instructions, and only of a few types, and it precludes placing any other binding or agreement on its target while its terms are not yet fulfilled. You bring a demon to this world bound to complete a single task, in other words. Once that is done, it is completely out of anyone’s control.”

“Oh.”

That was as much time as they had for conversation before the summons completed. Unlike a more typical summoning, it came all at once when it finally discharged. A column of orange light blazed up from the circle, forcing them to look away, and when it receded seconds later, a figure stood in the middle.

A lean, alabaster-skinned figure with wings and a tail, and devastatingly handsome features.

“Greetings, and my apologies for the abrupt summons,” Tanenbaum said politely as the incubus turned in a circle, staring at his surroundings. It always paid to be polite to these creatures, even beyond his belief that politeness was an absolute virtue in and of itself. It might not help, but the lack of it invariably harmed; children of Vanislaas always carried grudges if they felt slighted. “This is a complicated situation, and I am truly sorry to have placed you in this position. Rest assured, it was not my idea—or that of anyone present. If you can see your way to cooperating with us beyond the strictures…”

He trailed off, bemused, as the incubus literally collapsed in laughter. Clutching his midsection, the demon doubled over, and then actually slumped to the ground and began rolling on his own wings, howling in mirth and thumping the stone floor with a fist.

“So…” Lorelin drawled, having to raise her voice slightly above the noise. “That summonstone was keyed to this specific fellow’s name?”

“Ah, yes,” Tanenbaum replied, till frowning in puzzlement at the cackling incubus.

“Would you care to venture a guess why our benefactor wanted, in particular, a crazy one?”

“Misery loves company?” the captain suggested.

Tanenbaum cleared his throat pointedly. “I don’t think there’s any call to speak harshly of anyone—present, or not. It is often not wise to give offense. Especially—”

“Now, now!” Quite abruptly, the incubus broke off laughing and vaulted upright, though he still grinned at them with a wild glee which any warlock would shudder to see on the face of one of his kind. Vanislaads were only that happy when they’d found a way to unleash absolutely maximum havoc. “Let’s nobody get all worked up on my account! Rest assured, my dear saucy tarts, I have thick skin. So! You have summoned Rowe, and now here he is.” He bowed gracefully, flaring his wings until they sparked against the edges of the containment circle. “Just what the hell are you little muffins up to?”

 

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6 – 31

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Sarriki finally entered the room proper, her eyes coldly fixed on Teal. There was something animalistically intent in that gaze, like a hungry coyote focusing on an inattentive rabbit. For all of that, and the naga’s generally alien appearance, Teal felt no fear. It was partly her knowledge of the sanctuary effect in the Visage, partly the fact that whatever a naga might do to a human, there were few things on or below the earth which posed a serious threat to Vadrieny, but partly—perhaps, even, mostly—the sense that she understood what was happening here. That sense had brought her to this juncture; it hadn’t misled her so far.

She lifted the snake flute the last few inches to her lips and began to play.

At the first thin, reedy note, Sarriki froze, her eyes widening. She still stared at Teal, but the menace was abruptly gone from her face, replaced by a complex expression. Wonder, longing, sorrow, too many emotions for her features to easily process. When Teal glided into the notes of the unlocking melody inscribed on the walls of the naga shrine, however, Sarriki finally let her eyes drift closed. Slowly, she eased her head backward, listening.

Then she began to dance.

It was a sinuous motion, unsurprisingly. She rose higher (the ceiling in the kitchen was remarkably spacious), supporting her weight on a smaller portion of her long tail, first swaying gently from side to side. As the melody progressed, her whole spine began to undulate subtly, shoulders tilting back and forth, arms rising to move gently with the rhythm. A human woman would have been moving her hips seductively to achieve that kind of sway, but on the naga, Teal couldn’t help noticing the motion did not seem sexual.

At least, until Sarriki shifted her gyrations to roll her body slowly from back to front, rather than side to side, letting her hands trail behind her. Teal very nearly missed a breath, but managed not to falter. She hadn’t actually noticed it before, but Sarriki was beautiful. Both in the alluring way a woman is beautiful, and in the wild manner of an animal. Or perhaps, she simply hadn’t been before, until she felt a reason to be. Suddenly, the resemblance was there; the statues in the shrine were no longer just a vaguely remembered face, but a familiar one.

Her dance grew more complex, the languid undulations of her arms growing more precise and choreographed, her simple swaying developing into gyrations that coiled her around herself, keeping her tail moving so that it looked at certain moments as if she were balancing upon a single loose knot of serpent coils. The fins decorating her head flared rhythmically, and even finger motions began to appear as ever more precision and rhythm worked its way into the motions of her hands.

Teal reached the end of the fairly short melody and simply launched into it again. Sarriki showed no signs of halting in her dance; somehow, the idea of ending her music was unthinkable.

The bard simply let the notes flow through her and out of her. It wasn’t a familiar piece in the way of the tunes she had known and practiced all her life, but she remembered it well, and it was beautiful, powerful enough on its own to command the spirit and take her drifting away as all truly good music did. Out the notes poured, seeming to hold enough life of their own that they demanded only a small share of her concentration. She was free to stare, over the sinuous flute and her own shifting fingers, at the dance of the naga.

Sarriki never once opened her eyes, fully immersed in the music and the motions of her own body. She swayed, wound and wove around herself, practically gliding in place. Her face expressed silent rapture the entire time.

Teal almost didn’t notice the song was coming to an end on the second repetition, but Sarriki’s motions directed her attention to it, drawing to a nearly frenzied peak upon the last sounding of the theme, her whole spine arched and hands thrown backward, and then, as the final notes sounded, she rolled her body forward, coils sliding out from beneath her, and finished on a kind of bow. Lifted high off the ground on a portion of the tip of her tail that seemed too small to support her, she had most of her length arched for balance, her upper body actually hanging forward with her head pointed toward the ground, arms up and crossed, facing down. Forefingers and thumbs extended, pinkies half-curled, the other fingers tucked against her palms. It was odd how that little detail so caught Teal’s attention.

For a moment there was silence, the music echoing in their minds after it no longer echoed in the room, as music did.

Slowly, Sarriki straightened herself out, settling her coils back to the floor and lifting her head; Teal gently lowered the flute at the same motion, almost as if they were connected by strings that moved them unison. Finally, the naga opened her eyes.

One tear slid from the inner corner of each. She didn’t move to wipe them away.

“We had such festivals,” she all but whispered. “Even in the naga courts, resources are not plentiful. No feasting, no over-burning of fuel…nothing you would probably recognize as a party. But such joy. The music, the chants, artworks created…and dancing. Oh, how we danced. How we danced. On those precious days, I could come down from my high pedestal and join in. I did so love to dance that way, for my consorts.”

She fell silent. Teal opened her mouth, finding only then that she had no idea what to say. Somehow, something fell out of her lips anyway.

“You were beautiful.”

“I was,” Sarriki murmured, a smile curling her mouth. Her eyes were still far away. “Oh, I was.”

“What happened?” Teal asked quietly.

The naga drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. It made her whole, long body arch slightly. “Many things. It’s a long story, as dull to recite as it was painful to live through. You should be glad, for the sake of your party, that I am here and not where I’m supposed to be, bard. Why are you not where you should be? The others walked into what they must have thought would be a fight. That demon of yours would be useful.”

“Vadrieny doesn’t use lethal force, out of consideration for me. And…anyway, this seemed more important.”

“More important.” Sarriki sighed again, wistfully this time. “At least to one of us, yes. I had never thought to hear that melody again. Once, I might have been furious at you for raising the memory. Now… Now, I feel I owe you greatly.” Finally her eyes swam back into focus, fixing on Teal’s own. “Where did you learn it? You can’t have traveled all the way down to the courts.”

“There’s…a shrine,” Teal said carefully. “Not close, but not that far down. It held the waystone the others used to get to Level 100.”

“A waystone? In my shrine?” For just a moment, anger creased the corners of Sarriki’s eyes, but just as suddenly she relaxed, letting out a rueful chuckle. “Ah, yes… Arachne. She does redecorate as she sees fit, does she not?”

“I’ve noticed that, yeah.”

“Well, speaking of that.” She began to slither forward again, and Teal instinctively shifted aside, circling away from her. The naga didn’t attempt to corner her, though, gliding past to stop in front of the door. “I owe you something, and I owe nothing to that incubus. Yes, I believe I shall help you after all.”

“You…have the keys?” Teal asked carefully. Sarriki wore a simple, stark vest of leather that had no pockets and fit her torso very tightly, with nothing on her lower body. It was hard to imagine where she might be carrying keys.

The naga shook her head, glancing over her shoulder at Teal in amusement. “These locks aren’t my work. This represents the fruits of years of obsessive labor by Rowe. Amid all the junk that percolates through this tavern, once in a while we find a few real treasures. Any that have to do with sealing or locking things, he appropriates. Over a decade he’s been at it. Never mind the locks you can see, this door is secured by magics you should fear to stand too close to. It just might be the most impenetrable door in the entire Crawl, now.”

“Oh,” Teal said, deflating. “Well, if you can tell me where to—”

She broke off as Sarriki languidly waved a hand over the edges of the door. One by one, locks snapped open and popped loose, some tumbling to the floor. In seconds, every impressive fixture securing the door shut was disarmed, falling harmlessly away. As a final touch, the latch itself turned, seemingly on its own, and the door eased a few inches open with a soft squeak.

“How…did you do that?” Teal inquired.

“Clever people are not necessarily wise people,” Sarriki murmured, smiling down at the door handle as she reached out to grip it. “Rowe is quite the smooth operator…but.” She snorted softly. “After years of lording it over his little domain, he’s allowed himself to think he truly rules the roost, forgetting that he stays in place because Arachne chooses to allow it. It doesn’t occur to him that he bosses me around because I let him. And once he decided all those drow who trickle through aren’t useful to his plans, he stopped bothering to wonder why they keep trying to sneak up to the University. Heh.”

She pulled the door fully open, revealing a staircase housed in a narrow corridor that descended into darkness, cut roughly from the surrounding stone. The naga turned her head to smile coldly at Teal. “How do I dismantle locks in my own Crawl? Please. Your friends are hard-hitters, but you are not the biggest, baddest thing that ever came adventuring in these depths. I have faced scores of those, and crushed them all.” She turned back to the doorway, hiding her expression from Teal. “And if hauling terrible drinks for sentient detritus and sucking up to a smarmy sex demon is the price I must pay for never having to do that again… I’ll take it, and consider it a bargain.”

Sarriki slithered forward, ducking to vanish into the stairwell. Her voice echoed back, somewhat muffled. “Come on, bard. See what you’ve won.”

Teal waited until the tip of the naga’s tail was well out of reach before following. Both because it would have been awkward to step on it in the dark, and because it gave her a moment to compose her features.


“So…” Fross said. “He’s the boss? That’s kinda anticlimactic. If Melaxyna was relegated to Level 2, what’s this guy got?”

“I? Boss of the Descent?” Grinning down at them, Rowe leaned against the stone Naga Queen’s head, dragging the backs of his fingers sensuously down the curve of her cheek. “If that’s the case, this is a terrible likeness. Happens every time I pose for a statue. They never get my good side. Or my legs.”

“Where is she, then?” Toby asked calmly.

“Well, she isn’t here, so I guess that means your little adventure is at an end,” Rowe replied, still smirking. “No boss, no prize. You’re only the second group to even get this far, and they walked out empty-handed, too, for the same reason you’re about to: you cheated.”

“We did not!” Juniper snapped.

“We kinda did, though,” Ruda said more thoughtfully. “But there’s a difference between cheating and cheating. The Crawl allowed this. Hell, it encouraged this.”

“Oh, you poor little truffles,” Rook said, shaking his head sadly. “Arbitrary distinctions between shenanigans that do and don’t count? Long build-ups to disappointing conclusions? Doing everything right and getting nothing for your efforts? Welcome to reality.”

He hopped down from the statue’s shoulder, fanning his wings to catch the air, and settled lightly to the ground in front of them. “The Crawl isn’t the world, kids, at least not to you. The poor bastards who have to live down here are one thing. The adventurers of old who’d come through looking for fortune and glory, they were something else again. But you? You’re on a field trip. This is a class exercise, with abundant safeguards in place to keep you from getting too badly killed. You’re floating along on a personal feather pillow, thanks to the Crawl and Tellwyrn. So be grateful this hasn’t gone worse for you. I told you the simple truth: life is disappointment. You get an object lesson in that inescapable fact without the agonizing consequences that usually accompany it. Be grateful, my little cream puffs. You’ve won the greatest prize of all.” He grinned, widely and unpleasantly. “Education!”

“Uh huh,” said Ruda, glancing around at the others. “So, do we all agree this asshole’s completely full of it?”

“He’s got a point, though.”

“Fross!” Ruda exclaimed.

“Oh, no, he’s totally trying to scam us,” the pixie clarified hastily. “I’m just saying, he’s got some good points in there. Removed from the present context, and maybe with the cynicism toned down a bit, it’s stuff worth thinking about.”

“The most effective way to lie is with a cunningly misrepresented truth,” Trissiny said flatly.

“She’s quoting doctrine again,” Ruda stage whispered. “You can tell. She’s using that voice.”

“This is fantastic,” Rowe said merrily. “Have you kids considered giving up this adventuring bit and going onto the stage?”

“Welp, if there’s no prize and this is all an exercise in disappointment, I say we fuck him up on general principles,” Ruda suggested, drawing her sword.

“No,” Gabriel said suddenly. Everyone turned to look at him; his eyes were still fixed on Rowe, his expression penetrating. “This isn’t that kind of game.”


The stairwell wasn’t long, but it was uneven and angled just enough to hide what lay below from view of the upper door. At the bottom, Sarriki continued forward, gliding into the space, but Teal had to stop on the lowest step, just staring around.

It was oddly disorienting, as if the outdoors had been crammed into an indoor space. What she suspected were the boundaries of the room were defined by a ring of standing stones, ancient-looking and carved with spiraling glyphs that meant nothing to her. There was a slightly domed ceiling, apparently a natural one to judge by its stalactites. The floor, too, looked like a cave feature, relatively flat but far from even, and bisected erratically down the middle (roughly), with half the room set about a foot higher.

The door was apparently set in one of the thick, square stone pillars; the ring they defined left the space with seven “sides.” None of these were walls, though. They appeared to be completely open, except that they opened onto totally different places.

“You can’t pass through them,” Sarriki said, slithering in a slow circuit of the chamber. “Rowe can, because of the sneakery he’s been up to down here. I possibly could; I have considerable favor amassed with the Crawl. But to you, despite how this all must seem, they’re only windows. You can look, but you can’t touch. I’m not certain what would happen if you tried. I don’t recommend it.”

Teal finally stepped down, staring around in awe. One of the spaces between the pillars showed her friends, facing off against Rowe himself in what was unmistakeably a Descent level. Level 100, assuming the waystone they’d retrieved worked as advertized. Apparently so; this chamber and Rowe’s alleged ability to use it explained his presence there. The other views were different; one looked out on the slanting main cavern of the Crawl, one on some kind of subterranean lake. Two showed what were clearly cities, one of these a cramped warren of scavenged pieces of everything from giant shells to fragments of metal and hides, swarming with goblins; the other was a more graceful and carefully built complex, with at least a foot of water standing in its floor, through which naga slid. Upon a closer inspection, the effect lost some of its power. There was no sound, no smell or breath of air from any of these views, which took away much of their realism.

Teal gave them all a rather cursory look, except for the one showing her classmates, who seemed just to be talking with the incubus for now. Other objects in the chamber deserved attention; it was a peculiar combination of pantry and reliquary. She made note of the barrels and racks of wine bottles, hanging haunches of meat and bundles of herbs tied to stalactites above, and meager sacks of grain. These, in the Crawl, must be the true wealth of the hidden chamber, but more relevant to her interests were the precious objects displayed on stands against each of the pillars. Weapons, clothing, goblets both plain and bejeweled, statues, pieces of jewelry, several objects whose purpose wasn’t clear despite their obvious quality of workmanship… All of these she might have expected to see in a treasure room somewhere, but here they were all rigged together in some kind of absurd network. Bent, dented and corroded lengths of copper pipe, trailing wires, glass rods, even rune-inked coils of paper were stretched all over the room like a vast, utterly demented spiderweb, arching above to give space to walk between them.

“The objects themselves have been gathered from all over the Crawl, over the course of years,” Sarriki said, coming to a stop and smiling faintly. “The rest of this, the…connectors? Mostly from your fellow students. In the modern world, it seems enchanting paraphernalia is relatively cheap and widely available. There’s basically nothing college students won’t do for free beer, even if it tastes like foot fungus.”

“The point of beer isn’t the flavor,” Teal said absently, studying the network. “That’s what good wine is for.”

A semester and a half with Professor Yornhaldt hadn’t prepared her to decipher much of what she was seeing, but in the overall shape of it, a clear purpose emerged, made even clearer by a few key details.

The box she recognized from Tellwyrn’s description; it sat open and empty against the base of a pillar, beside a rough stone plinth on which stood an ornate vase, wired to the network. The contents of the box were also recognizable. In the center of the room, a low table of stone sat, with a large, chipped scrying crystal on one corner. In the middle, though, were the sword and dagger. They were sleekly curved and actually quite similar in design to the black sword labeled Ariel, though their hilts were of hammered gold, the leather wrapping them a soft brown, bound in silver wire. Each weapon was balanced on its tip on the stone table, held aloft by the wires, pipes and filaments connecting them to the network. The network of which they, clearly, were the center.

“How much power,” Teal mused aloud, “would it take to forcibly manipulate the Crawl?”

“Roughly, give or take…all of it,” Sarriki said with a humorless grin. “The key, as I’m sure you can deduce, is the extremely magical pair of items in the middle there, which also have a very strong connection to Arachne.”

“The Crawl’s favorite person.”

“Just so. And I,” Sarriki said, spreading her arms wide, “am their guardian. I decide who wins the Descent and gets to retrieve the sword and dagger. And Rowe knew just what I wanted.”

“That doesn’t seem like much of a challenge to suss out,” Teal said frankly. “It sounds like being a dungeon boss sucks. Anyone would want a way out. Melaxyna sure does.”

“Ah, yes. Melaxyna.” Sarriki shrugged. “Long as I keep my freedom, it matters little to me who gets to swagger around the Grim Visage calling him- or herself the boss. One child of Vanislaas is more or less the same as another. But then again… Perhaps Mel is more of a people person. To judge by Level 2, she certainly seems to be more of an organizer. Of course, she is not supposed to leave the Descent; it’ll take her some time to weasel her way out of there, but I’ve no doubt she’ll manage.”

“But why?” Teal asked. “What is the point of all this? It’s an impressive setup, sure, but I don’t understand what it does.”

“What it does is confer a measure of power over the Crawl onto its owner,” Sarriki replied, lightly brushing a length of wire with her fingertips. The entire network shivered slightly. “What it’s meant to do, if he can ever get it to work properly, is provide a way out. Incubi and succubi fare poorly when confined. The Visage isn’t normally a place that draws visitors from other planes of existence, or even other dungeons. The arrival of misplaced gnomes and dimensionally-lost ogres is due entirely to our friendly bartender’s meddling. Likewise the tendency of nosy drow to pop up; there’s not an actual, physical opening to the Underworld in the Crawl. Rowe wants an escape; Mel wants to take it from him. But he hasn’t managed to make it work.”

“Melaxyna,” Teal said slowly, “has made herself something of a specialist on Crawl-based portal magic. Or at least she employs them.”

Sarriki nodded. “Perhaps it would be best if she didn’t find anything down here she could use to finish Rowe’s work.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Teal said grimly. She stepped up to the table, reached out with both hands and grabbed the sword and dagger.

Pulling them free brought the entire structure crashing down.


“You think this is a fucking game?” Ruda demanded.

Gabriel nodded, still staring at Rowe. “Of course it is. Or at the very least, it’s an exercise. It’s like he said: the Crawl isn’t real life. Different rules apply.”

“We can stand here chatting about it until we’re all out of oxygen,” Rowe said cheerfully. “It won’t change the facts. The game is over. You played well; you’re assured a better than decent grade, I expect. Time for you kids to leave.”

“What are you getting at, Gabriel?” Trissiny asked.

“Remember Teal’s theory? So far, she was dead on. Now, here we are, with no Naga Queen and no sign of Tellwyrn’s treasure. Just this guy, popping up in a place he has no business being.” Gabriel tucked his hands into his coat pockets, smiling coldly at the incubus. “I think he cheated.”

“Nonsense,” Rowe snorted. “You get to cheat, up to a point—for all the good it did you. You’re students. This is all arranged for your benefit. Me, the others who call this delightful dungeon our home? We just live here. There’s not cheating, because there are no goals.”

“Which makes the fact that you cheated especially bad, doesn’t it?” Gabe asked. “Let’s look at this logically. The boss and the treasure are gone, in clear contradiction of the Descent’s pattern. Rowe is here—which not only shows that he can get into places where he’s not supposed to be, but shows he has a good reason to come. He’s now in a room with a powerful band of adventurers who showed up expecting to have to kill whatever they found. Why take the risk?”

“Because,” Shaeine said softly, “if we came and found nothing, we would naturally have investigated. In all modesty, we are a fairly capable group when we pull together and focus. Upon investigating, we might have found what we sought… Unless someone were here to convince us there was no point.”

“Oh, is that what this is?” Rowe asked, grinning. “By all means, then, investigate! Sniff around the empty chamber to your little hearts’ content. Admire the portraits and statuary. We’ve all got nothing but time.”

“So what do we do about it?” Toby asked, studying the incubus through narrow eyes.

“We could always just kill him,” Trissiny suggested.

“We wait,” said Gabriel, pulling his hands out of his pockets and folding his arms.

“Wait?” Juniper frowned. “On what?”

“On the person who figured this out first. Teal knows what she’s doing. I bet you anything she’s within inches of the treasure right now.”

“You’re pinning all your hopes on the party’s bard?” Rowe’s grin had reached insane proportions. “You kids really haven’t studied the histories of adventurers, have you?”

“I most certainly have!” Fross declared in an affronted tone.

“If you’re right and she was right,” Trissiny said, “she’d also be within inches of the Naga Queen.”

“That doesn’t sound promising!” Rowe chirped.

“She is in the Visage, under sanctuary,” Shaeine said calmly. “She is practically impossible to harm. And I have absolute faith in her ability to solve this. However, we are missing an obvious preparatory step.”

Rowe yelped as a wall of silver light appeared behind him, shoving him forward; his wings smoked slightly where it impacted them. As he stumbled, flaring wings and pinwheeling arms for balance, the wall arced forward, reshaping itself into a bubble with him inside it.

“Oh, this is cute,” he snorted. “Really mature. Let’s harass the bartender now that he’s out of sanctuary.”

“Ruda,” Shaeine said evenly, “you still have the Level 2 waystone?”

“You bet your sweet ass I do,” Ruda said, grinning.

“Then I believe we have a bounty to collect. Link arms, everyone.”

“Hey, now,” Rowe said, beginning to look more serious. “You kids are better than that. Nothing warrants that kind of—”

“Will he be ported along inside that bubble?” Toby inquired.

“I believe one of us will need to be touching him,” Shaeine replied as the group moved together, setting themselves in order to use the waystone. “It prevents a minor logistical problem, as he seems likely to be uncooperative.”

“You’ve got bigger problems than that,” Rowe said sharply. “Keep in mind who you morsels are dealing with. The Crawl likes me. I came down here to offer you a friendly hand. You’re going to turn on me? Think very carefully about your prospects for getting safely back out if you go and do something like that.”

“He talks a lot, doesn’t he?” Juniper said.

“Is he wrong, though?” Trissiny asked, frowning. “The Vanislaad are nothing if not manipulative, and he’s had plenty of time to work on the Crawl. What if—”

The entire room trembled once, then a low groaning rose up from all around, as if the very stones of the Descent were grinding against each other.

“What the fuck now?” Ruda demanded, gripping the waystone with one hand and reaching for her rapier with the other. With Gabriel holding one of her arms from behind and Toby the other, she had little chance of actually drawing it, much less fighting.

The room began to change.

Beams of light suddenly shone down from above, spotlighting each of the marble statues of the students. All around the rim of the chamber, the murals faded to black, and then new pictures formed. Each of them featured Rowe. Each depicted a different kind of torture.

“Answers that question,” Gabriel said, grinning.

“Well,” the incubus said fatalistically, “shit.”

“That’s my girl,” Shaeine whispered.

Juniper, who was at the end of the chain of linked arms, stepped forward, bending the whole group as she approached the silver bubble.

“Now wait a second,” Rowe said nervously.

“Nope, don’t think so,” the dryad replied in a cheerful tone. “Shaeine, can I have a hole, please?”

“That’s what she said,” Ruda cackled.

“Thanks!” the dryad said, thrusting her arm through the saucer-sized gap that appeared in the bubble. Rowe tried desperately to evade her, even going so far as to press himself against the bubble opposite her groping hand. That proved to be a mistake; they could hear the sizzle of him impacting Themynra’s power. The incubus yelped and lurched back forward, right in time for Juniper to clamp a hand on his upper arm.

The shield flickered out of existence.

“Happy birthday, Melaxyna,” Ruda said cheerfully, tracing her finger along the glyph in the waystone.

One and all, they vanished.

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6 – 30

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“Are you sure you should be confronting this guy?” Carter asked as they strode rapidly along the rooftop. “And no, I’m not making a tactical suggestion; this is in my professional capacity of looking for information.”

“Duly noted,” Mogul said with a grin. “I’m curious about the question, however. This chap and his various lackeys have attempted to spy on our interview and then assaulted and killed my personnel when confronted about it. While I happen to have a miscellaneous handful of warlocks and demon thralls in the area, this seems like an ideal opportunity to have a word with him.”

“But the djinn strongly advised you not to. I’m just puzzled that you’d ignore his advice after summoning him to ask for it.”

There came a pause in the conversation when they reached the edge of the building. The darkness swelled around them, and then they were stepping onto the next roof over, two stories up and thirty feet away across a broad street. Carter stumbled again, but less dramatically; he was growing more accustomed to the disorientation.

“Mr. Long,” the warlock said as they resumed walking, “I’ve just spent much of the afternoon making the case to you that the Black Wreath are not at all as you believe them to be. With that established, let me just emphasize that demons are every bit as dangerous as you’ve always been told, and worse. That is why the Wreath is important, because believe me, no one else who tries is adept at handling them without creating a mess. Making allowances for individual personalities, they are highly aggressive. Infernal magic has that effect on any form of life it corrupts. Now, djinn aren’t able to physically interact with the world, which doesn’t diminish their propensity to cause trouble; it only limits the methods by which they can do so.”

The roof along which they were walking wasn’t another flat top like the previous one; their path was a lip of stone along the edge of a steep incline shingled in ragged old slate tiles. They came to the corner, where the path was interrupted by a decorative finial, and Carter had to accept a hand to navigating his way over the smooth slope and back onto even ground on the other side. It was an apparently L-shaped structure, to judge by the long distance it stretched out on the side ahead. Embarrassing as it might be to be handed about like a lady in silks and slippers, Carter wasn’t too proud to admit he needed the assistance. Despite the excitement of this assignment, he was keenly aware of being out of his element. His avuncular suit and briefcase didn’t lend themselves to nocturnal rooftop shenanigans.

“Ali and I have a well-negotiated contract,” Mogul continued as they moved on again. “He doesn’t lie to me and answers direct queries with a minimum of obfuscation. But beyond the simple answers to my questions, in the realm of his personal opinions and asides? You’re damn right I ignore his advice. It’s calculated to trip me up, without exception. Either with the goal of weaseling out of our contract, or just to create general mayhem.”

“But…if he can’t lie…”

“And what did he say, exactly?” Mogul grinned and winked. “That I would learn humility? Come on, what does that mean? You have to be eternally on guard when negotiating with demons. Any demons, but particularly the crafty ones. Sshitherosz, djinn, Vanislaad, all the schemers. They’ll promise you your own doom in a frilly dress, and you’ll step right into it if you make the mistake of paying too much attention to the frills. The exact wording gets you every time.”

“That sounds…exhausting,” Carter mused.

“Warlocks and lawyers, Mr. Long,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Warlocks and lawyers. Ah, here we are. You may want to keep back, we’re about to have some company.”

They had come to the end of the building, where there was a small rooftop patio. Raised beds held sad-looking old dirt and the twisted skeletons of small shrubs. Mogul hopped down from their improvised walkway and positioned himself against the bannister looking over the square below, beckoning Carter over to join him.

In the next moment the shadows gathered and took shape in the lee of the overhanging roof, then receded, leaving two figures standing there. One, dressed in obscuring gray robes, was hunched over with an arm across its midsection, supported by the other, which was clearly some kind of demon. Armored plates covered its forehead and limbs.

“Ah, still breathing,” said Mogul. “I’m glad to see that.”

“I had to confiscate her potion belt,” noted the demon. “She may have already taken more than the safe dosage.”

“It hurts,” the robed figure rasped, her voice taut with pain. “Inside. Bricks landed on my back… Think I have ribs broken. And lower.”

“That’s bad,” Mogul said, frowning, “especially if you’ve been chugging potions on top of internal bleeding. You know better, Vanessa. Hrazthax, get her to a healer. You two are out of this evening’s events.”

“You sure you won’t need me here?” the demon asked.

Embras waved a hand. “She’s urgent, and by the time you got back this would all be over. Be careful, though. Speak to Ross on your way out and have him pass along the word: anyone with a Vanislaad thrall needs to send it away, and everybody watch for holy symbols popping up in surprising places. There’s a reaper on the loose.”

Hrazthax frowned heavily. “A reaper? A real one? Just on patrol, or… It’s not good if Vidius is taking an interest in this.”

“You let me worry about that,” Mogul said firmly. “Take Vanessa’s talisman and get her to help. And when you find Ross, tell him to get everyone organized; our quarry is heading to the intersection of 31st East Street and Alfarousi Avenue. Don’t impede them; get everyone set up and ready to spring at that location, on my command.”

“Got it,” said Hrazthax, nodding. “But what about—”

Vanessa groaned and slumped against him.

“Go.”

The hethelax nodded to Mogul once more and took something from Vanessa’s hand, which she relinquished without argument. There came a few soft clicks as he manipulated it one-handed, and then the shadows welled up again, swallowing them.

“Busy, busy,” Mogul said, straightening his lapels. “Ah, well. When things go the way I want them to, I have the damnedest time keeping myself entertained. Ironic, isn’t it? This way, if you please.”

One shadow-jump later, they were on yet another rooftop across the street, and heading toward…Carter didn’t know what. The district was like an island of quiet and darkness. On all sides, not too far distant, the lights of Tiraas blazed like a galaxy come to earth, and at this altitude the sounds of carriage traffic and periodic Rail caravans were audible, but immediately around them was desolation. He doubted he could have navigated this jumble of broken-down structures even with the streetlights working, but Embras seemed to know where he was going.

“What’s a reaper?” Carter asked, regretting having put his notebook away. Ah, well, he wasn’t great at writing while walking at the best of times, and would likely have broken his neck trying to do it while navigating rooftops.

“Grim reaper,” Mogul said as they moved, “soul harvester, valkyrie. You’ve surely heard of them under one name or another.”

It took the journalist a few seconds to gather his thoughts before he could reply.

“Well… I must say, this night is going to leave me without things not to believe in.”

Embras grinned at him. “Oh, they’re very real, but you can be forgiven for not knowing it. The Vidians don’t encourage people to ask about them, and really, nobody on the mortal plane is likely to interact with one at all unless they dabble in necromancy. It’s the reapers who usually get sent to shut that down. Oh, and Vidian exorcisms? All theater. If the death-priests want a spirit laid to rest, they put on a big show to make you think they’re being useful while a valkyrie quietly gets rid of it. Warlocks only need to know about them because they have the same authority over incubi and succubi—which, as you may know, are human souls who are not supposed to be on this plane.” He shook his head and chuckled. “Vlesni is going to wring every ounce of pathos out of this anecdote she possibly can. I hear tell getting sent back by a reaper is…uncomfortable.”

“Do you really think you can intercept your opponent if he’s got an invisible spirit working with him?” Carter asked, glancing around somewhat nervously.

“Intercept him? I’m going to do no such thing.” Mogul stopped at the edge of the current roof, one long leg raised with the foot propped on the low wall surrounding it, and grinned at him. “We’re meeting him at the end. The man’s going excessively out of his way to spell out a message. I really ought to let him finish it, don’t you think? That’s just good manners.”


“Where the hell are we going?” Weaver snarled. “And don’t feed me that bullshit about just wasting time. You keep insisting on taking specific routes!”

“Lang—“

“Child, I swear by Omnu’s hairy third testicle I will shoot you right in the fucking mouth.”

“Settle down, good gods,” Darling reproved. “And yes, Weaver, you’re right, we are heading for an intersection a few blocks up.”

“Great, well, you should know there are warlocks and demons moving parallel to us in the same direction. We’re either walking into an ambush or being escorted by a mobile one.”

“Okay, how do you know this stuff?” Peepers demanded. “Where are you getting intel?”

“He’s got a spirit companion,” Joe explained.

“I want one. You have any idea how valuable that would be in my line of work?”

“You wouldn’t get along,” Weaver grunted.

“Don’t even ask,” added Joe, “it just gives him an opportunity to be standoffish and coy about it. He loves that.”

“About how many?” Darling interrupted.

Weaver cocked his head as if listening for a moment before replying. “Nine warlocks. Six of them have companion demons of various kinds. No incubi or succubi. And…a guy in a white suit almost straight behind us on the rooftops. With Peepers’s friend.”

“He’s not my friend,” she said with a sigh. “Never was, probably sort of hates my guts now.”

“Shame,” Weaver said, grinning nastily. “He was cute. Ah, well, guess you’re destined to be an old maid.”

“Joe, please shoot him in the foot.”

“Maybe after we deal with the demons.”

“You’re not wrong,” said Darling, “we are heading somewhere. There’s a small square up ahead close to the bordering canal of this district. That street leads straight to one of the bridges out.”

“The ones you said not to go near because they’d be guarded?” Joe asked.

“Yup!” Darling didn’t slacken his pace in the slightest; none of them were having trouble keeping up, though Peepers was starting to look a little haggard. “But it’s been enough time, approximately. I hope. I chose this particular bridge to approach because it leads to the most direct route toward the main temple of Shaath.”

“And…that is relevant…why?” Peepers asked.

“This must all be part of that plan he doesn’t have,” said Weaver, rolling his eyes.

“The Wreath has both oracular and divinatory sources of information,” Darling said lightly. “Many warlocks can use enough arcane magic to scry, and there are demons who trade information for favors. Any plans we made could be found out and countered, heading up against what we were.”

“There are methods to block both of those,” Joe noted.

“Yes,” said Darling, nodding, “and when I have time to arrange a real campaign against the Wreath, with Church and Imperial support, you better believe I’ll be using them. On the fly like this, though, there’s a loophole that can be exploited: they can’t scry a plan that doesn’t exist.”

“Not having a plan doesn’t strike me as a great plan,” Peepers muttered.

“I know the board,” Darling said more quietly, “and I know the pieces. I set in motion the ones most likely to lead to the result I want. Plans are nice, kids, but sometimes they’re a luxury you can’t afford to count on. If you know what’s going on, and if you’re a little lucky, you can tell more or less how things are going to play out. Even arrange them the way you want, sometimes.”

The other three glanced at each other.

“This is not how I wanted to die,” Peepers sighed.

“Oh?” said Joe. “How did you?”

“Of sex-induced heart failure on top of a gigolo in my eighties, wearing a fortune in jewels and nothing else. And drunker than any woman has ever been.”

He flushed deeply and didn’t manage to form a reply. Weaver actually laughed.

“And,” Peepers said in a more subdued tone, “certain my little brother was going to be taken care of…”

“He’ll be fine,” said Darling soothingly. “We will be fine.”

“You are so full of it,” Weaver snorted.

“Yeah.” Darling glanced over his shoulder and winked. “Luckily I keep enough of it on hand to throw into my enemies’ eyes. It’s always worked so far.”

“Ew,” said Peepers, wrinkling her nose.

“I think that metaphor got away from you,” Joe added.

Weaver shrugged. “Eh, they can’t all be winners.”

“Oh, shut up, all of you. We’re almost there. Mouths shut, eyes open, and be ready to fight or flee.”


“Of course,” Andros rumbled to himself, staring across the canal at the darkened district up ahead. “What better place? I’m a fool for not thinking of it.”

“Holy shit, that all looks abandoned,” Flora marveled. “How long has it been like this?”

“Less than a week,” said Savvy. “It’s not going to be left this way long, but while it’s there… Yes, it really is an ideal venue.”

They had stopped in the shade of two warehouses flanking the road which became a bridge into the condemned district. The spirit wolf had come unerringly here, then halted, glaring ahead with his hackles raised. He growled quietly until Andros rested a hand on his head.

Ingvar and Tholi immediately set to prowling around, investigating, with Flora and Fauna following suit after a moment. The elves, after peering in every direction, nimbly shimmied up lamp posts and perched improbably atop the fairy lights, peering ahead into the district. The two Huntsmen kept their attention chiefly on the ground, tracking back and forth.

“Cities,” Tholi muttered disparagingly. “Nothing leaves tracks.”

“Not easy tracks,” Ingvar said in a more even tone. “And the rains wash away what little there is very quickly. These are not elk, Tholi; be sure you are not following the wrong kind of spoor. Look.”

He had crossed to the foot of the bridge and knelt, drawing his hunting knife and carefully scraping it across the pavement.

“Infernal magic isn’t useful for stable area-of-effect spells, unlike arcane wards,” Ingvar said, holding up the knife. “It is anchored to something physical. In this case, the paving stones.”

The tip, where he had dragged it against the ground, was now spotted with rust. Even as they all stared, the reddish stain crept up the blade another half an inch.

“Infernal wards cause rust?” Fauna asked, frowning down at them.

“The weapons of Huntsmen are blessed by the Mother,” said Andros, glaring over the bridge.
“They do not decay, nor suffer damage from the elements. Heat, cold, moisture… Such an effect is the result of magical corruption. They are here, and they have warded this bridge against intrusion.” He began to glow subtly.

“What mother?” Flora asked.

“Honestly,” said Savvy, pointing at the wolf. “Have you ever seen divine magic used for anything like that? Most of the Huntsmen’s arts are fae in nature. I really need to explain this? I was almost certain you two were elves.”

“I don’t like you out of uniform,” Fauna announced.

“Enough,” Andros growled. “What can you see from that vantage?”

“Movement,” Flora said, peering into the dark district. “Through windows and gaps in walls, mostly. There’s activity directly ahead, hidden behind things. People moving inside buildings.”

“Without lights,” said Ingvar, nocking an arrow to his bow. “That’ll be the Wreath. Once we go in there it will be increasingly hard to track our quarry. They won’t appreciate our presence.”

“Let them come,” Tholi said, grinning savagely. Behind him, Ingvar rolled his eyes. “I just hope the Eserite we’ve come to rescue isn’t dead. If he’s running around in there with warlocks and demons after him… Doesn’t look good, does it?”

“Darling would die swiftly in our wilds,” Andros said, “but we fare almost as poorly in his. The man is adaptable and this is his city. He chose to enter there. I will believe he has fallen when I’ve buried him. We proceed.”

“Agreed,” Savvy said crisply, deftly smoothing her hair back with both hands. She shrugged out of her coat, reversed it and swept it back on, and just like that the illusion vanished, leaving the immaculately attired Butler straightening her tie.

“Uh,” Fauna asked, “what was the point of that, then?”

“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding approvingly. “There are few enough Butlers in the city that some know all their faces, and their masters. Best not to advertize that Bishop Darling has run into trouble.”

“Wait!” Flora said suddenly, straightening. “I see people coming into the square— It’s him! And the others!”

“And more coming out of hiding,” Fauna added. “In robes. With demons.”

“Then this is the time,” Andros declared, starting forward and raising his bow. The spirit wolf stalked at his side. “Ingvar, Tholi, strike down the demons. I will attend to any infernal arts used against us.”

“And the people?” Ingvar asked. “The warlocks?”

Before he had finished speaking, Price strode forward onto the bridge, gliding smoothly down its center. Flora and Fauna leaped from their perches, landing on either side of the Butler. The three of them walked without apparent hurry, but at a pace that devoured the distance between them and Darling.

“That,” said Andros with a grim smile as he stepped forward after them, “appears to be attended to.”


Teal staggered slightly upon materializing, but quickly caught her balance and straightened, self-consciously smoothing her coat.

“That’s a neat trick,” Sarriki noted, pausing as she slithered past with a tray of empty mugs, bound for the bar. “You shouldn’t be able to teleport into here. Are you even a wizard?”

“Not using arcane magic, no,” the bard said with a smile, holding up a waystone. “But the Crawl’s methods work just fine.”

The naga cocked her head to the side. “I thought you kids couldn’t afford to buy from Shamlin.”

“Shamlin has decided to return to the surface,” Teal explained. “As such, he was quite interested in Tiraan bank notes. Where’s Professor Ezzaniel?”

“Here,” he said from the second level of the bar. “And what are you up to, Miss Falconer? It is not generally wise to split up the party.”

Teal tilted her head back, staring mutely up at him for a moment. “It’s funny how you’re supposed to be evaluating our progress down here, yet you haven’t been around for any of it. You just sit here drinking and chatting with the other patrons.”

“Since you make such a point of my absence, what makes you think you know what I’ve been doing while not under your eyes?” Ezzaniel leaned one arm against the railing and smiled down at her.

Teal stared at him thoughtfully, then glanced at Sarriki, who chuckled and set about pulling herself up the steps.

“It’s not like you to nakedly evade a question like that, Professor,” she said quietly.

Ezzaniel raised an eyebrow. “I assure you, Miss Falconer, everything is attended to. Professor Tellwyrn has made appropriate arrangements for you to be graded fairly.”

“I don’t doubt she has. Where is Rowe?”

The Professor shrugged. “I don’t much wonder about him when he is not in front of me. He is entertaining company, but in a rather exhausting way. One does get tired of always keeping a hand on one’s purse strings.”

She turned from him and bounded up the stairs in two long leaps, then paused, glancing around. The Grim Visage was fairly quiet at the moment. A lone drow man was nursing a drink in the far corner; he nodded politely to her as her gaze fell on him. A small party of five goblins were conversing quietly next to the fireplace. Not far away, Sarriki was clearing dishes and trash off an empty table.

Teal squared her shoulders and strode past the naga, straight through the curtained doorway next to the bar.

She paused only momentarily in the kitchen beyond, quickly taking in its meager furnishings and stored food at a glance, then stepped across the floor to study the door opposite the exit. It was secured with multiple locks. Unlike most of the rusted, battered and apparently recycled equipment the students had seen in most parts of the Crawl, these looked new. Clean, strong, and highly effective. Teal didn’t need to start tampering with them to know there was magic at work, too. This door would not be opened by someone who wasn’t entitled.

“You know, you’re not supposed to be back here.”

She turned slowly to look at Sarriki, who stood framed in the doorway, her arms braced against it on both sides.

“My friends are going directly to Level 100,” she said quietly.

“Oh?” The naga smiled, a bland, languid expression. The light framing her wasn’t bright enough to make her features difficult to see, but it was sufficiently darker in the kitchen than in the bar that the contrast made for good dramatic effect. “Excellent. I had a feeling, you know. And I’ve just won a bet. If they manage to beat the boss, I’ll be absolutely rolling in it.”

“The going theory,” Teal went on, “is that the final boss of the Descent is the Naga Queen.”

“Interesting idea. My people mostly live far below, you realize. It’s rare that any of us climb to this level.”

“Mm hm. It would fit, though, wouldn’t it? She’s easily the most formidable personality in the Crawl… One possibly powerful enough the Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t want to leave her running around at liberty.”

Sarriki shrugged. “Whatever. Your friends are hard-hitters; they have as good a chance as anyone. I’m fairly confident of my odds.”

“You have more at stake here than a bet, don’t you?” Teal asked softly.

The naga’s eyes hardened. “Little girl, it is seldom wise to stick your nose into other people’s business. Now, if you’re hungry, kindly come back out front and I’ll make you something. This area is not for patrons.”

“Where’s Rowe? It’s odd for him not to be around. With Melaxyna placing bounties on his head, it’s not exactly safe for him to leave, is it?”

“Child,” Sarriki said sharply, “I’m losing patience. There’ll be no fighting in here, but you’ll find there is a lot I can do to make your stay in the Visage and the Crawl unpleasant if you disrupt the peace in my bar. Now, for the last time, out.”

“Actually,” said Teal, stepping aside and pointing at the locked cellar door, “I need to get through here.”

Sarriki actually laughed, loudly. “Oh, you silly little thing. That is not going to happen.”


They were familiar with the drill by now, after making extensive use of Melaxyna’s portal and waystone. Immediately upon landing, the students unlinked arms, Fross zipping out from under Ruda’s hat, and fell into formation, weapons up, eying their new surroundings carefully.

It was definitely the Descent. The distinctive proportions of the room were right, and the staircase behind them was just like those they had seen dozens of times before. It was the contents of the room that made them all straighten, staring.

“Well,” Toby said after a moment, “I don’t know what I was expecting.”

The wall were covered with masterfully painted murals, all depicting in exquisite detail their adventures through the Crawl thus far. The scenes blended one into the next as they marched around the walls, but everything was familiar, if portrayed somewhat more dramatically than the events had actually occurred. Juniper laughing in delight as she hugged a capling, Trissiny standing at the foot of the throne with Melaxyna smirking down at her, the whole group in disarray and being chased by boars, Gabriel studying an invisible maze with an expression of intense thought while the others ostentatiously bickered around him, the group lined up facing a row of chessmen. The scenes continued, wrapping around the chamber and showing the details of every step of their journey through the Descent, though they did not portray anything from before or after that. Nothing of the Grim Visage, the complex of dream-inducing mists, Shamlin’s grotto or the Naga Queen’s shrine.

There were statues, too, nine of them. Towering marble depictions of the students lined an avenue straight toward the opposite end of the chamber, each over eight feet tall even without the plinths on which they stood. At the far end, rather than another staircase downward, there was a semicircular indentation in the wall, in which stood an even larger statue, this one of the Naga Queen.

Of the Queen herself, there was no sign.

“I kind of wish I had one of those lightcappers,” Juniper mused. “Remember, from Tiraas? I mean, just look at these portraits! Makes me feel kinda proud, y’know?”

“Maybe we can come back with one?” Gabriel suggested.

“Unlikely,” said Fross. “This was all arranged for us on this visit. I bet it’ll all be blank as soon as we leave.”

“Experience is by nature a transient thing,” Shaeine said quietly.

“Only one direction to go,” Trissiny said, stepping forward. Ruda fell into step right beside her, the others quickly following suit.

They came up short a moment later, before they’d gone ten feet, when the sound of clapping began to echo throughout the chamber. Slow, rhythmic, and coming from only a single pair of hands, it resounded sourcelessly from the stone on every side, leaving them peering around again, weapons raised.

He materialized then, fading from invisibility into view atop the Naga Queen’s statue, where he was perched on her stone shoulder. Rowe continued to applaud, smirking down at them.

“Well done, kids. Well done. I congratulate you on your highly improbable victory.”

“Son of a bitch,” Gabriel murmured, not noticing the sour look Trissiny shot him. “Teal was right.”


“I have a theory,” Teal said, drawing the snake flute from within her coat. “One I’ve been working on since we came here. A lot of the pieces to the puzzle were hard to find, but several of the more important ones fell into place for us just recently.”

Sarriki had fallen still, eyes fixed on the flute. Her expression was purely hungry. Teal raised the instrument toward her lips.

“Let’s see if we can come to an understanding, your Majesty.”

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6 – 19

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“Y’know,” Gabriel mused, “when I pictured going on a dungeon adventure, I somehow imagined there would be more stabbing and less…accounting.”

“I don’t see you doing any accounting,” Ruda remarked, not looking up from her spreadsheet. While the others at the table had bowls of stew in front of them, she had only a bottle of rum wedged between her legs and papers fanned out on the table before her, a collection of charts, receipts, maps and several bearing columns of her own mysterious notation. “Unless you wanna pitch in, belay the complaining.”

“Whoah, hey,” he protested. “It was just an observation! I wasn’t complaining.”

“Mm. Well, forgive me for assuming. It’s you, after all.”

“It’s too early in the day for me to be the butt of the joke,” he muttered sullenly, dragging a piece of stiff bread through his stew to soften it. The “bread” was not baked, but rendered alchemically, somehow, from mushrooms. Juniper had pronounced it fairly nutritious, but it took considerable softening to be chewable, and never quite got to the point of palatability.

“Never too early,” Ruda said, grinning at her paperwork as she tallied.

“He didn’t actually do anything that time,” Trissiny remarked.

“He will, though. Best to settle up in advance.”

“That’s true.”

“You guys suck,” Gabriel grumbled.

“Yep, there it is,” said Trissiny, spooning up another mouthful.

Juniper entered the main bar from the market area, yawning. “Hey, guys. Morning.”

“You were up early,” Trissiny said.

“Too early… I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep again. Went for a walk. Thanks,” she added as Toby set a bowl in front of the empty place and began ladling stew into it.

“You went for a walk?” Fross exclaimed. “In the Crawl? That’s dangerous!”

“Well, I didn’t leave the Visage,” Juniper replied, seating herself. “Ooh, the stew has tubers! Are we splurging?”

“Ruda says we can afford it,” said Fross. “So…you’ve been walking around the Visage for half the night? I’m, uh, confused.”

“Nah, I met Radivass, who couldn’t sleep either. She’s got a little place behind her stall, offered me some tea. We got to talking, and then making love.”

“Thanks for the update,” said Ruda, pulling another sheet of paper over and beginning to jot figures without looking up.

“Yeah, I usually try to think more about people’s privacy, but she was pretty into letting people know she ‘nailed’ me.” Juniper shrugged, blowing on a spoonful of hot stew. “It’s weird how people get about sex. I mean, it’s companionship and pleasure and pretty good exercise. What else do you need? Maybe folks would enjoy it more if they got out of their own heads a little.”

“Sound advice,” Trissiny said gravely.

“Good morning,” said Shaeine as she and Teal entered the bar, the latter with a broad smile.

“Morning!” Fross chirped. “Yay, everyone’s here! Pull up a chair, there’s plenty of stew.”

“Ah, yes. The famous stew,” Teal said with a grimace, holding out a chair for Shaeine.

“It’s good stew this time though!”

“Relatively,” Gabriel clarified.

“We’re indulging a little bit,” said Toby. “It’s got some tubers we bought, some of our pork and actual spices. Nothing fancy, but…”

“Fancy is relative,” Shaeine said calmly.

“Exactly.”

“All right!” Ruda set down her pen decisively. “We’re doin’ good.”

“We’re doing well,” Fross corrected.

The pirate drummed her fingers once on the table. “Fross…”

“Right. Sorry. Go on.”

“We are, as I say, doing well,” Ruda said, giving the pixie a pointed look. “Better quality of loot the farther down we go, though we begin to run into a slight bottleneck in terms of time and effort spent on disposing of it; not as much market for higher-value items, vendors can never be sure when they’ll be able to unload some things and so we can’t always get fair value. But still! We are putting away a substantial amount of gold once it’s converted to liquid assets.”

“Awesome,” Gabriel said, grinning.

Ruda nodded. “So, I’m gonna recommend we start spending money more aggressively.”

“Um…” His face fell slightly. “Why’s that?”

“Let’s keep in mind what we’re down here for,” Ruda said firmly. “We’ve gotta get to the bottom of the Descent, get Tellwyrn’s crap and then we can go home. Making money is nice and all, but that’s not our job. The assets we’re accumulating should be leveraged here where we most need the leverage.”

“We have been slowing down slightly,” Trissiny mused. “I noticed yesterday. We’re still making consistent headway and none of the puzzles have stumped us for long, but the fighting is getting harder.”

“I think it’s going well!” Juniper said brightly. “The tactics you’ve been teaching us are really solid, Triss. I feel like we’re getting better at it the more we practice!”

“We are,” Toby agreed, “but it’s also true that the threats are growing harder to batter through.”

“And battering through threats is exactly where we can turn money into advantage,” said Ruda, nodding. “The enchanted weapons and armor the Crawl is giving us are nice and all, but there’s more we can do to up our performance. There are alchemists who can provide some very good enhancers, and there’s a lot more we could be doing with enchantment. No offense, Gabe, but you’re not on Radivass’s level, or even Khavibosh.”

“That’s fair,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve got tricks that are helpful down in the levels, but permanently augmenting gear is beyond me.”

“There are other items available for purchase that could prove helpful,” Shaeine remarked. “Even things as simple as camping gear and serviceable clothing.”

“And better food,” Juniper added. “Nobody’s getting nearly malnourished yet, but right now Fross and I are the only ones running at our physical peak. You guys need nutrients that you can’t get from pork and mushrooms.”

“Better food will cost more than the rest of that combined,” Toby murmured.

The dryad shrugged. “Like I said, it’s not urgent. But it’s something you’re gonna want to look into before much longer. Nobody’s gonna starve in three weeks, but a properly nourished person is happier and more effective than somebody subsisting on scavenged crud. We need vegetables.”

“So, yeah,” said Ruda. “The challenges are starting to slow us down, and it’s only gonna get harder as we go deeper. At the same time, we’re getting more disposable income. There are vendors in the Visage and on Level 2 who can help gear us up; I think the time has come to take full advantage. The financial policy should be to spend according to our means. We’ve got no reason to save up.”

“I have at least a general idea how we’re doing financially, though I’m clearly not up to Punaji standards of accounting,” Gabriel said with a grin. “And there’s still a range of things in both places that are beyond us. Not everything on display was in our price range, and Shamlin, Radivass and that twitchy sshitherosz on Level 2 have all hinted they’ve got even better stuff that’s not on display.”

“Which twitchy sshitherosz?” Trissiny muttered.

“Right,” Ruda said patiently, “so there’s room to grow. I’ve got a feeling there will be, right till the end.”

“I agree,” said Toby. “I’m in favor of spending the time and money on caution. Better prepared is just better.”

“Ruda’s right!” Fross chimed. “This is how dungeons are supposed to work! The deeper you go, the harder it gets, but you get better equipment to deal with it!”

“Right, then. Any questions? Arguments?” Ruda waited for a few seconds, then grinned and took a swig of her rum, reaching for a bowl with the other hand. “It’s looking like a somewhat abbreviated day of adventuring, then! I suggest we take our time shopping both here and with the demons before we get into the Descent proper.”

“Does that mean you’re giving each of us an allowance to spend?” Gabe asked, grinning.

“It means,” she said, giving him a look, “I will help you shop, those of you whose judgment I don’t trust to know what gear you really need and can afford. Which is pretty much just you.”

He sighed. “You are just never gonna let up, are you?”

Ruda grinned at him and scooped up a spoonful of stew. “Well, that depends on you, doesn’t it?”


“And there they went,” Rowe said, peering through the door into the long merchant wing of the Grim Visage. He turned back to Professor Ezzaniel with a grin. “You’ll be wanting into the back room to keep tabs, then?”

“Later,” Ezzaniel said, keeping his eyes fixed on the go board on the table between them. It was already more than halfway through, lines of white and black stones marching across the grid, seeking to flank and encircle one another. “There’s no need to monitor their every little move. I’ll be notified if something goes badly wrong.”

“My, aren’t we trusting,” the incubus said.

Ezzaniel placed a black stone. “They’re fine. The whole point of this exercise is for the kids to learn how to be effective without someone lurking over their shoulders to supervise. I must say I had my doubts about this particular batch, but they appear to be making even better progress than Arachne had hoped.”

“Yes, quite the team of terrors and titans, so I hear,” Rowe mused, setting down a stone. “Who knows? They could even get to the bottom of your little mystery. Or maybe the Crawl will throw up enough challenges at the lowest levels to bar them like all the other groups. Firepower and magical invulnerability aren’t everything.”

“Mm.” Ezzaniel lifted his eyes to catch Rowe with his head turned, winking at a group of three drow, two women and a man, just then filing through the door into the merchant wing and the exterior door beyond. The last woman through turned and gave the incubus a sly smile before slipping out. “Well. You’re too good to let me catch you plotting what that looked like, so may I assume it wasn’t directed at my students?”

“Oh, nonsense,” Rowe said breezily, turning his attention back to the board. “Honestly, Emilio, I’m surprised at you, leaping to conclusions that way. Of course it was directed at your students. Those three have been lurking around for days and I’m beginning to have a bad feeling about them. Always do, when drow from the depths get too cozy up here. The last thing I need is them trying to creep up to the University grounds and bring Arachne down, causing me headaches.”

“I see,” Ezzaniel said flatly.

“Oh, don’t make that face,” Rowe chided, grinning. “You just said they’re a capable group. It’ll cost them little time and hardly any effort to demolish a trio of snooping Scyllithenes for me. And they could use the extra experience and loot. Everybody wins!”

“I suppose there’s a compliment in that,” Ezzaniel said with a sour twist of his mouth. “When you decide to really interfere it won’t be with anything so…mundane.”

“Pfft, why should I want to interfere with your little ducklings?” Rowe asked innocently. “They have enough to worry about.”


Gabriel groaned, blinking. He was…down? He hadn’t fallen, exactly. Hands and knees, looking at a stone floor. He didn’t remember falling. Didn’t hurt, wasn’t dizzy…nothing to explain why he was down here.

Carefully, he straightened up, peering around. Behind him was a stone wall, towering up into darkness; an obvious doorframe was set into the wall, but there was no door within it, only more neatly mortared blocks. Experimentally, he reached back and rapped on it, then pushed a few of the bricks. No…just stone.

The space was almost like a hall, in that it seemed to be longer than it was wide. It was plenty wide, though, about like one of the streets of Tiraas on which he had grown up. Worse, it was filled with mist. Tendrils of fog slowly uncurled close to him, slightly obscuring his view of the nearby walls and reducing the distance to nothing but a white void.

He was alone. What had happened to the others?

Checking his pockets, he found everything in place. His wands were holstered, his various supplies in each of the coat’s magical compartments.

Gabe turned in a complete circle, pondering. They had set out from the Visage, gone to the Descent, spent some time buying supplies in Level 2…then paid their silver and stepped into Melaxyna’s dimensional gate, allegedly to be ported down to Level 43 to continue their campaign. Then…

Nothing. On previous trips, stepping through the portal had been like stepping from one room to another, completely devoid of flash or identifying sensation. He couldn’t remember anything happening after the last one; he had merely stepped through the gate along with his classmates, and then…he was here.

“Guys?” he said hesitantly, then steeled himself and raised his voice. “Toby? …Trissiny? Fross!”

He didn’t even make an echo. Well…that had probably been too much to hope for.

“Wherever you are, Trissiny,” he muttered, “looks like you were right about the demons. I really, really hope I get to hear you say ‘I told you so.’”

Squaring his shoulders and straightening his coat, Gabriel did the only possible thing left to him and stepped forward into the mist.

He quickly found it to be magical in nature. Not arcane, he would have sensed that, and clearly not divine, as it did him no harm. But it didn’t respond to the charm he sketched out and laid down, which should have dispelled fog and any obscuring effects in its vicinity. Natural fog, anyway, but any relatively persistent magical effect would have overridden his simple charm. Infernal magic trumped arcane, but fae magic countered it… Then again, there was also the possibility that it wasn’t true magic in the sense he was used to thinking of it, but a genius loci at work. Within a sufficiently powerful one, the will of the place was absolute law. This clearly wasn’t the Descent—the proportions of the walls were all wrong—but could it still be the Crawl?

He did manage to arrange a light for himself, anyway. A rolled up and properly inscribed sheet of his spellpaper produced a blue glow from one end, just like a small torch. It didn’t penetrate far into the mist, but it made him feel better.

Gabriel proceeded carefully, keeping alert and constantly scanning around. The fog itself didn’t offer him anything to look at, but he stayed close enough to one wall to keep it in view—which necessitated drifting ever nearer to it the farther in he got, as the mist seemed to thicken with every step. It was all he could think of, though, to avoid getting hopelessly turned around.

Which was why he noticed immediately when the wall began to change. Vague shapes started appearing in the stone, as if carved or built that way; a few more yards down, they grew clearer, and then clearer still. Doors, corners, front steps and the blunt shapes of windows. Then, further down, more elaborate touches, light fixtures, details of stonework, window of actual glass and doors of wood, rather than their mere shapes cut in plain stone. Gabriel judged that he was deeper down this passage than any of the Descent’s levels was long by the time it became clear that he was walking along a street. The architecture was familiar, not specifically but generally; this particular street was one he’d never seen before, but he had a very strong sense that he was back home in Tiraas.

The appearance of the figure out of the mist in front of him—on what was now clearly a sidewalk—was quite sudden in comparison to everything else, so much so that he skidded to a stop, barely repressing a yelp. What started as a vague patch of darkness coalesced into a humanoid form—in fact, a human one. She stepped lightly into the glow of his makeshift torch, streamers of fog being scattered from her twirling parasol.

Gabriel’s eyes widened. “What—no. No, absolutely not.”

“Well,” she said, pouting. “That’s very nearly enough to hurt my feelings. I should think you’d be a little glad to see me, after all this time.”

“Why the hell would I be—you know what, no. I am not doing this. This isn’t real, you aren’t here, this is the Crawl messing with my head.”

“All right, Gabriel, I’ll play along.” Still idly spinning the parasol in her neatly gloved hands, Madeleine smiled, angling her body in that way she had which put forth the best details of her profile. “This isn’t real, neither of us is here. You still have to deal with it, one way or another. This time, darling, it doesn’t look like running away will be an option.”

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