Tag Archives: Ruda

15 – 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sherwin, this place is falling apart.”

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

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

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

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

“He was male.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned again to look at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Curiouser and curiouser!” chimed the second horogki.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name it.”

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

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15 – 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am an elf, you twit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will do. Take care.”

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

“You did not call her a bitch!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cut that out,” the Professor growled.

“Pardon?”

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

“People do change, Arachne.”

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

“Then why take the risk?”

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

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

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

“Oh, good. I’m great at those.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How so?” Trissiny demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruda cracked her knuckles loudly.

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

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

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

Ruda cackled. “How long can elves live?”

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

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

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

Merry took a circumspect step backward from her commanding officer.

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny sighed. “Ruda.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, point taken, but what is he?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your funeral.”

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

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

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

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


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

Fortunately, she had what she needed, now.

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

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

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

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

Still, she hesitated.

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

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

Long past time.


“What are you humming?” Ingvar asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you expecting?” Ingvar asked warily.

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Oh, come on, how many times—”

“Just do it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesthri stared at her.

“No questions?” Natchua prompted lightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone froze.

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

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

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

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13 – 49

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“Is he going to be all right?” Raolo asked worriedly, hovering around Oak and the small tanuki cradled in her arms. “I mean, if he made those dents in the brickwork that was a hell of an impact. Should we have moved him? I know if someone has spinal damage it’s very risky—”

“He is a fairy,” the dryad grunted, her irritated tone belying the gentleness with which she had handled Maru. “He’s made of magic, even more than you are, elf. Any physical injuries he gets will mend if given the chance.”

Maru stirred, grimaced, and grasped his head with his paws. “Eeeee-teteteteh…”

“Well, now he’s…ticking,” Addiwyn observed, walking on Oak’s other side. “I’ve no idea if that’s good or bad.”

“I’m glad to see you awake, Maru,” Ravana said from the front of the group. She did not stop walking, but turned her head to speak. “Your aid against that Hand was tremendously appreciated. I am terribly sorry to have left you behind; it was a strategic decision, not a personal one, rest assured. I consider that I owe you for it.”

“Hai, hai,” Maru mumbled, waving vaguely at her. He yawned hugely, displaying rows of needle-sharp teeth, then rolled over in Oak’s arms and snuggled himself into the bemused dryad’s bosom.

“Well,” Addiwyn said with a faint smirk, “and here I’d always heard the Sifanese were famously polite.”

“Tanuki are fairies, after all,” Shaeine replied, absently scratching behind F’thaan’s ears while she walked. “They are polite in the presence of a bigger, more dangerous fairy, and that is about it. With no kitsune on the campus…”

Abruptly, someone materialized on the path in front of them with a shimmer of blue light.

Natchua yelled and hurled a shadowbolt; it impacted empty space in front of the new arrival, the blow causing a spherical arcane shield to become momentarily visible.

“Whoah, cease fire!” the man said, holding up his hands, palms out. He wore an Imperial Army uniform with a Strike Corps insignia in blue. “Friendly! You’re students here, right? Is everyone okay?”

The group paused, studying him warily.

“We are unharmed,” Ravana said after a moment, stepping forward and inclining her head slightly. “With the exception of our tanuki friend, who apparently just needs rest. He is campus staff, as is the lady carrying him; the rest of us are, indeed, students. Please forgive my classmate’s reaction. We have had very bad luck, recently, with uniformed individuals claiming to be acting on orders from the Throne.”

“So I’ve been given to understand,” he said, still holding his hands up. “We’re here to help. Rest assured, my team is acting on the orders of the Throne. The Emperor himself sent us. Major Tavathi of his Majesty’s Strike Corps, at your service.”

“A pleasure, Major,” she replied. “I am Ravana, Duchess of House Madouri.”

“Your Grace.” At her introduction, Tavathi straightened up and saluted. “It’s a relief to find you unharmed—and awake! Can you tell me your situation, please?”

“Can we trust this guy?” Natchua asked, flexing her fingers. “Just because he’s a mage and is wearing a uniform…”

“A fair concern,” Major Tavathi. “Would the rest of my team serve as valid credentials in your eyes?”

“That would be quite adequate, Major,” Ravana said quickly, before Natchua could interject.

Tavathi pointed one finger straight up, and a pulse of blue light shot from its tip, rising twenty yards into the air, where it erupted like a firework.

“What the hell does that prove?” Natchua hissed, rounding on Ravana. “Just because he’s got more people who you just let him signal—”

“There are no analogues for an Imperial strike team,” Ravana said smoothly, “at least not on this continent. The Silver Throne is not gentle in discouraging imitation. And if they are not an Imperial strike team, they will be well within our capacity to demolish.”

At that, Tavathi smiled in clear amusement, but offered no comment.

The group edged backward at the sudden, large swelling of shadow out of nowhere nearby. It receded immediately, revealing three more uniformed soldiers with Strike Corps insignia—in gold, orange, and green, respectively—as well as four men in House Dalkhaan uniforms. One of these fainted on arrival.

“Hey—you can’t just do that!” another squawked. “We’re acting on orders from a bloody Hand of the Emperor! It’s not our fault if—”

“Yes, we know,” the woman with the gold badge said loudly. “Your position is understood, gentlemen. You are not in trouble.”

The team’s warlock shook his head. “Is it mission critical that they not be in trouble? Because unless somebody silences the excuses—”

“Nix the chatter, Weiss,” Tavathi ordered. “I’ve found us what looks like a prime LZ in addition to these locals. Scan and secure this area. Is this satisfactory, your Grace?” he added much more politely to Ravana.

“I believe that will suffice, yes,” she said, having studied the rest of his team while they were talking. “To answer your—”

“Hey!” the boldest of the Dalkhaan guardsmen blustered, stomping forward. “I demand—”

“Shut up,” Tavathi barked at him. The man blinked and actually stepped backward. “My apologies, your Grace. Please, continue.”

“To answer your question,” Ravana repeated, her poise unruffled, “most of the campus’s population is in the Crawl, seeking sanctuary in the Grim Visage. The campus seems to have been under attack by these gentlemen, led by a Hand of the Emperor who appears to have gone renegade.”

“Nonsense!” the Dalkhaan soldier interrupted. “These kids are just…”

Shaeine slipped forward and touched him lightly on the forehead before he could react. The man’s eyes rolled up and he slumped to the ground, unconscious. One of his fellows let out a whimper.

“Thank you!” Weiss exclaimed. Shaeine nodded at him.

“We recently fended off the Hand,” Ravana continued calmly, “and have not seen any soldiers on the uppermost level except those you just brought. There was a Vidian priestess helping him as well. It appears they have all gone to the Crawl to try to extract our classmates.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Tavathi said, saluting her again. “Team, report.”

“No demonic presence nearby,” Weiss said crisply.

“There’s a dryad and a tanuki in this group, of all things,” the woman with the green insignia added, “but no faeries or fae effects in the vicinity.”

“The region is divine-neutral,” the priestess said. “It seems almost like it as deliberately prepared for a teleportation platform. Given Tellwyrn, that’s not improbable.”

“Very good.” Tavathi pulled what appeared to be a pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open; it produced a faint blue glow, though the watch face was hidden from the students by his hand. “Azure One, this is ST39 in the field. LZ secured, ready to port on your signal.”

“Understood, Team 39,” a faintly distorted voice replied from the watch. “Azure One is ready to port, standing by.”

“Incoming.” Tavathi closed his eyes, forehead creasing in concentration. His team moved without orders like precisely engineered dwarven clockwork: the priestess began to glow subtly, directing a gentle stream of divine energy toward Tavathi, where it soaked into the blue spell circle that had spread across the grass from his feet, transmuting divine into arcane power to boost whatever he was doing. The witch and warlock, meanwhile, took up positions flanking them, facing outward and each raising their right hand in preparation to hurl a spell at any threat which might appear.

“Is that a handheld magic mirror?” Addiwyn asked, staring. “I thought that was impossible!”

“Not impossible,” Raolo replied, “just really, really unlikely. You don’t see magic mirrors often because no one’s figured out how to mass-enchant them; they still have to be individually hand-crafted by master enchanters. And they’re fragile because you can’t add any strengthening charms to the glass. So it doesn’t make sense to try to carry one around. But I guess if you’re in the Strike Corps, you’ve got the resources for equipment anybody else could only fantasize about.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty great,” Weiss said cheerfully without looking at them.

“Well, at the least, I guess that’s more evidence they really are Imperial,” Addiwyn said, smirking at Natchua, who just gave her an irritated look.

A faint, crackling hum rose in the air around them, and the group edged away from a spot nearby on the lawn as sparkles of blue light began to manifest there. It was almost half a minute before Tavathi’s spell finished, but finally there came a sharp crackle of displaced air and six Azure Corps battlemages materialized on the campus lawn.

“Tellwyrn is not going to be greatly enthused about this,” Addiwyn murmured, watching them immediately leap into efficient action.

Four of them spread out, defining a region of the lawn which encompassed the groups already present and an adjacent area of empty grass. These were surrounded by faint auras of light, clearly maintaining active shields; rather than watching where they were going, all four had their attention focused upon handheld scrying devices. Once in position at the corners of the space they had claimed, they each faced outward, apparently keeping watch. Meanwhile, the other two set down the hefty backpacks they had holstered and began extracting lengths of metal, crystal, and glass, and quickly fixing them together.

While this was going on, there came another swelling of shadow and a second strike team materialized in the spot where Tavathi had summoned the battlemages. Not wasting a moment on pleasantries, the four of them strode off, keeping in a pristine diamond formation, and began pacing around the outside of the Azure Corps’ perimeter.

“Are we being invaded?” Natchua asked pointedly. “Because I have to tell you, Tellwyrn’s already going to be mad enough…”

“We have our orders,” Tavathi said almost apologetically. Almost. “I can’t say this is going to make Tellwyrn happy, but no, we’re here to help clean up, not take over the campus or anything. I’m not the one in charge here—she’s coming shortly—but as I understand it the plan is to have Imperial interests off the campus and out of everyone’s hair as quickly as can feasibly be done.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, folding her arms.

Shaeine had set F’thaan down to romp around her feet during the preceding chatter, but now picked him up again when he set off toward the apparatus the mages were building. The puppy squirmed and yipped excitedly in her arms, but she held him close, whispering soothingly in elvish while watching the Corps work. F’thaan calmed quickly, and even seemed to follow her gaze. It was obvious, by that point, what they were building: a gate. The mages finished attaching the last large power crystals and one tapped a code into the runic console appended to one of its upright pylons.

Light swirled in the center of the doorway, then coalesced into a flat, glowing sheet. Barely a second later, two men in the black uniforms and long coats of the Imperial Guard rushed through, each with a battlestaff in hand and at the ready. Both immediately stepped to the side and took up flanking positions around the gate. They were followed by two more, who joined them, and then a further four who spread out, positioning themselves as far distant in the Azure Corps perimeter as they could go while remaining inside it; once this last four had spread themselves evenly around the edges, they began a steady counter-clockwise patrol of it, moving in the opposite direction as the strike team patrolling outside.

Next came two Hands of the Emperor, wearing familiar black coats; their outfits were identical to the uniforms of the Imperial Guard except they lacked insignia, decoration, or even color of any kind. They were also not visibly armed, not that that meant anything. Both Hands stepped smoothly to the sides, joining the Guards now watching over the gate.

Yet a third strike team emerged through the gate now, in single file with the cleric in front, maintaining a golden shield as soon as he was clear of the arcane portal. They stepped forward and stationed themselves in a square, holding a small region just beyond the gate itself.

“Omnu’s breath,” Raolo muttered, staring at the multiple concentric rings of the Empire’s finest securing a single patch of the cafeteria lawn. “What the hell do you people need all this for? Who’s coming, the Emperor?”

“No,” Tavathi said, now with a grin. “Not quite.”

He and his team all snapped to attention and saluted, and not a moment too soon: seconds later, Empress Eleanora stepped out of the gate and stopped within the third strike team’s space, slowly turning her head to survey the campus with a faintly upraised eyebrow.

Ravana and Shaeine immediately bowed; belatedly, Addiwyn dropped to one knee. Raolo made an astonished gagging noise, and one of the Dalkhaan guards whimpered again.

“Who’s that?” Oak asked. At some point in the last minute, Maru had vanished from her arms and was now nowhere to be seen.

“Report,” the Empress ordered curtly.

“We have secured those of the local troops we found, your Majesty,” Major Tavathi said. “According to these students, they engaged the renegade and he retreated. The rest of the campus’s population is hiding in the Crawl and they believe he has gone there, along with any other personnel he brought. They mentioned a priestess of Vidius.”

“So, Reich is still here,” Eleanora said, narrowing her eyes. “Very good, Major. You two,” she gestured to the nearby Hands of the Emperor, “take Strike Team 34 into the Crawl, find the renegade, and secure him. That is priority one. If possible, safely extract Lorelin Reich, and order any more House Dalkhaan soldiers and anyone else with him to report back here. Team 37.” She paused only momentarily for them to assemble; the strike team pacing around outside the perimeter shadow-jumped all of ten yards to stand in front of her, saluting. “Search the campus and locate any remaining soldiers, and bring them to this location. They are not to be treated as hostile; they believed they were following legitimate orders from the Throne. But if any resist, do keep in mind that Duchess Dalkhaan is not in the Throne’s good graces at the moment.”

The team saluted again, turned, and jogged off down the path deeper into the campus. The two Hands and the other team had already vanished in a crackle of arcane light.

Finally, the Empress turned to the students, and nodded acknowledgment. “Please, rise. It’s a relief to see all of you well, to say nothing of up and about.”

“It is a relief to be so, your Majesty,” Ravana replied. She and Shaeine only straightened when so bid; likewise, Addiwyn had not risen from her kneel until given permission. A round of bemused glances passed between Oak, Natchua, and Raolo.

After all that, the arrival of Arachne Tellwyrn was downright anticlimactic. She appeared in her usual barely-perceptible puff of displaced air, and tilted her head to stare around at the scene over the rims of her spectacles, ignoring the profusion of spells and battlestaves which were suddenly raised in her direction.

“Well. I knew I’d have a mess to clean up when I got back here, but this specific one is a surprise. Madouri, you insufferable little asp, shall I assume from context that my cafeteria has also been half-demolished?”

“No, just my kitchen,” Oak snorted. “Hi, Arachne.”

“Now, why would you assume I—”

“Miss Madouri, you are welcome to think you’re smarter than I am,” Tellwyrn snapped, “but if you speak to me as if you think that, we are going to have a long discussion about manners which you won’t enjoy at all.”

“Enough.” The Empress’s voice was not raised or given emphasis, but it stifled the discussion like a wet blanket over a campfire. She raised one hand in a casual gesture, and only then did the last strike team and Imperial Guard stand down, lowering the weapons they’d aimed at Tellwyrn. Eleanora’s flat stare had never left the archmage. “The situation here is currently under control, no thanks to you, Arachne.”

“Now, listen here—”

“No. For once, you will listen. We are going to have a conversation about these events, right now. Your office.”

“I have—”

“I. Said. Now.”


Peace was famously the central essence of Omnu’s character. In the aftermath of his touch upon the Rock, it continued to hold sway even as the awe of the god’s visit via his paladin began to give way to the practical necessity of cleaning up the aftermath. It wasn’t that the situation lacked any tension; all the parties present had very recently been in a pitched battle, after all. But calm persisted, and not only due to divine intervention. The leaders of the main factions had made themselves present and set a firm example.

Ayuvesh’s deportment around the King and Queen was downright demure, and that, as much as his firm orders to the remaining Rust cultists, ensured their compliance with the Punaji. By the same token, Rajakhan had made it emphatically plain that the conflict was over and no abuse of prisoners would be tolerated. At first, Anjal herself had paced among the soldiers carefully disarming and securing cultists while the King and Ayuvesh watched from a distance, but after some minutes and no outbreaks of tension, she had rejoined them, followed by Ruda.

There were other watchers, anyway. The very Hand of Avei was present with a small squad of Legionnaires. And while it had been made known that the three scruffy young people accompanying her were from the Thieves’ Guild, no one had bothered to mention that they were all just apprentices. Avei and Eserion were the two gods likely to react the most vehemently to any abuse of power; their simple, observant presence was more of a deterrent than any over threat could have been.

Schwartz had occupied himself with Fross; even after the pixie had recovered her glow, she saw fit to perch on his hand, engaging in an animated conversation with her new friend and Gabriel. They made an odd little tableu in one corner of the courtyard, even Ariel being somehow balanced on her tip, blue runes occasionally flickering as she added to the discussion, which had quickly grown both magical and technical.

Vadrieny was perched like a gargoyle atop the gatehouse, along with both Huntsmen of Shaath. The archdemon had made it plain she was watching them, though she didn’t bother to upbraid Arlund for his performance. Brother Ermon seemed to be doing an adequate job of that.

“And now,” Ayuvesh said finally, breaking a long pause, “this has unfolded the way it must, and we should consider the future.” He turned to Ruda, and bowed deeply. “Princess, I beg that you restore the Elixir.”

She raised her eyebrows. “The what?”

“It is…the source. Of all this.” He raised his mechanical hand and pointed to it with his opposite one. “I brought it out of the ancient factory of the Infinite Order in the vessel provided, but after that it was able to reproduce and expand itself. Tiny traces of the Elixir suffuse us, our workings, the technology that keeps us upright. It was your incursion into that old temple which caused it to abruptly cease working today, and forced me to take this drastic action. We might not even have noticed, immediately, but the machines spoke a warning.”

“Oh.” She sighed softly. “That’d be the nanites. Do you even understand what those were?”

“Yes. Tiny machines, each the size of a molecule, working perfectly in concert.” He managed a wry little smile. “We are a religious order, after all; such institutions lend themselves to a certain…grandiosity of speech. That doesn’t mean I do not know what my elegant terms refer to. We need them, your Highness.”

Ruda glanced at her parents, who watched in silence, then back at him. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you. They’re gone now, for good.”

“I…understand your reluctance to extend trust,” he said carefully. “Nothing is more sensible. But please, Princess, understand our position. The Elixir was not merely a source of power and a weapon. We need it. It is the thing which animates our very bodies. Without it, these limbs and attached machines will function for a while…but there is nothing sustaining them, maintaining them. They will break down, and die. The lucky among us will be left merely without working limbs. Some of my people are kept alive by this technology; it serves in place of hearts and lungs, not just arms and eyes. I will accept whatever provisions you must impose as a fair price, but please, we must have the Elixir. Without it, more will die.”

Ruda closed her eyes for a moment, but when she opened them again, her gaze was resolute. “Then I’m sorry, Ayuvesh, but there’s nothing anyone can do. I wasn’t refusing to help; I am telling you that I can’t. We didn’t destroy anything in that facility, just the opposite. We found the machine intelligence the Elder Gods left behind to watch over it, the one your people tormented till he was too crazy to stop you from taking the nanites in the first place. And we repaired him. You understand what that means? The first thing he did when he was awake and lucid again was shut down your…Elixir. But he didn’t tell us that; he said he wouldn’t do it for us unless we helped repair more of his stuff. So we did, and then he admitted he’d tricked us, and said because of the way he’d been treated he had no more trust for mortals and was going to shut all the doors permanently. Then he teleported us to the surface. That guy, or thing, was the only thing that could have restored your nanites, and thanks to you, he is entirely done with people. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to see him again.”

Ayuvesh stared at her for a long, silent moment. Finally, he bowed his head. “I see.”

“I think it would be a mistake to take ancient Elder God thinking machines at their word,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully. “Especially one with a history of insanity. We will, at the very least, send scouts through the tunnels to the entrance and verify that it is closed.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed, nodding. “And we can leverage what little knowledge we have of the Elders’ technology to see if we can get it open again—without pissing the Avatar off any further, that is. I wouldn’t put it past that asshole to flood the whole place if he gets any more unwanted visitors. We had to ditch that Imperial spook who was the expert on Infinite Order stuff, and I’ve got a feeling we won’t be seeing her again, either. But Locke knows a bit about it, too.”

“Lieutenant Locke’s mandate is pretty much fulfilled,” Anjal pointed out. “She and her squad will be heading back to Tiraas soon.”

Ruda grinned. “If Locke isn’t feeling helpful, we can have Trissiny lean on her. I bet she’d love to make pointy ears jump through a few hoops.”

“I will, it goes without saying, lend any expertise I and my people have to this endeavor.” Ayuvesh bowed, deeply, to all three of them in turn. “I am very grateful that you would extend this much consideration to me and mine, after all that has happened.”

“You are our prisoners,” Blackbeard rumbled. “The Punaji do not abuse those in their power. Besides, the points you made to us were valid. We have common foes, it is clear.”

“The screamlances are not run by nanites,” Ayuvesh said, meeting the King’s gaze with a slight frown. “I don’t know how long they will function, but they won’t break down nearly as quickly as our more…complex parts. I urge you, your Majesty, to hide them away, and let it be widely known that they have been destroyed. They may provide Puna Dara an edge, some day, when she needs it most. But if Tiraas knows that you are keeping such things…”

“If nothing else,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully, “you will make a perceptive advisor.”

“I will be glad to be of service to my country in whatever way I still can.” Ayuvesh shifted his gaze to watch the Punaji soldiers politely guiding the bedraggled remnants of his cult into the fortress. “For whatever time I may have left.”


“You didn’t come directly here from the zeppelin crash,” the Empress stated once they were alone in the Professor’s office.

“Oh?” Tellwyrn’s tone was disinterested. She strolled around behind her desk and flopped down in her chair with a sigh. “And you think that because…?”

“Timing. Just before I left Tiraas, I received a report that Zanzayed the Blue had teleported himself directly into the main Omnist hospital in the city with nine burn victims in tow. The rest was not hard to piece together, especially in light of his and your rather dramatic departure some hours previously.”

“Zanza did that?” Tellwyrn actually chuckled softly. “Well, well. The old lizard’s getting positively soft-hearted.”

“I guess that makes one of you,” Eleanora said pointedly. “In any case, with the immediate crisis over, we can move on to…supplementary business.”

“Do you plan for this to be a long conversation?” Tellwyrn asked, raising an eyebrow. “Because I’m not absolutely positive it is over. I make a point never to take a thing like that on faith until—”

“Spare me, Arachne. The very fact that you found other business before coming back here goes to show you are, if anything, more confident of this resolution even than I. Would you care, for transparency’s sake, to enlighten me as to what you were up to?”

“Is that an official request, or a personal one?” she asked sweetly.

Eleanora stared down at her without expression.

“Oh, fine,” Tellwyrn said after a pause, again adopting a vague smile. “Actually I did teleport straight here from the zeppelin…just not here here. I checked in on matters in the Crawl first.”

“It is supposedly impossible to teleport in or out of there,” Eleanora said with a sigh. “Though it doesn’t really surprise me to find yet another rule that seems not to apply to you.”

“Quite,” Tellwyrn said smugly. “But…yes, things down there are even stranger than they are up here. Strange, but well in hand. Your agents will find their renegade neatly trussed for pickup and most of his lackeys conveniently on hand to come along.”

“Most?”

At that, Tellwyrn frowned. “There was a warlock helping him, who seems to have vanished. It’s easy enough for them to do, of course, but shadow-jumping out of the Crawl also should not be possible, at least for one not properly attuned. But the Crawl is…under new management, so to speak. Its normal security may have gaps. I will be plugging those quickly, but it seems to have given that one all the opportunity he needed. Anyway, I presume you’ll just be chucking this rogue of yours into an incinerator? After all, there’s not much you can—”

“You really are a monster,” Eleanora said disdainfully. “That rogue of ours has been a devoted and priceless servant of the Throne for years. The trouble he’s caused is due to an attack upon the Hands themselves, from which the Throne failed to protect him. We bear a responsibility.”

“Ah,” Tellwyrn smirked. “In that case—”

“In that case.” Eleanora planted her fists on the desk, leaning over it to glare at her. “The Throne has a responsibility, but the fault for this lies with whoever whisked him away behind some kind of dimensional barrier which prevented him from being restored along with the rest of the Hands! I don’t suppose you’d care to offer any insight into who that was?”

Tellwyrn opened her mouth, then shut it. “Oh. Well, I—”

“You went swaggering around, dealing with the problem right in front of you with the maximum force at your disposal, and giving no thought to the long-term consequences. For a change,” she added with blistering sarcasm.

The elf schooled her expression, folding her hands atop the desk. “I have the sudden feeling we are no longer just talking about the current situation.”

“I did harbor a lot of bitterness for a lot of years, Arachne,” Eleanora said in a lower voice. “I’m sure the whole thing was nothing to you, just a way to amuse yourself and indirectly threaten my father.”

“Your father was the one foolish enough to try to make a political point of attacking my school—”

“And so you picked on his child?”

“Nonsense,” Tellwyrn snapped, suddenly straightening up and bringing their faces much closer together. “I showed up uninvited to his fancy party and was a model guest. For someone who was just castigating me for throwing force around, I should think you’d appreciate the tactic!”

“Oh, quite, you very handily made your point about how little ground he had to stand on. And I’m sure the opportunity to expose and humiliate his confused daughter was just icing on the cake. I am deeply ashamed of how much time I wasted wondering whether you were actually interested, or just planning to use me against him. Or what might have happened if you’d stayed to talk the way you offered to. In fact, I rather owe you thanks for breaking into my rooms the other day; it gave me a minor epiphany. It doesn’t matter what you might have done if you’d stayed, or why you bothered at all.” She leaned forward further, eyes narrowing to slits. “Because I was seventeen, you abominable creep.”

Slowly, Tellwyrn eased back in the chair, and let out a soft sigh. She did not lower her eyes, though. “It was just a little harmless flirting, Eleanora. If I hadn’t been called away, that’s all it was ever going to be. Because you were an adolescent, and I’m an asshole, not an ephebophile. It honestly didn’t occur to me how big a deal it would have been to you…”

“I’m sure,” Eleanora said icily.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “Not that I don’t understand in hindsight. That’s a hell of a vulnerable age… Well, regardless. I am sorry.”

Eleanora tilted her head slowly, studying the elf’s face. “You actually are, aren’t you?”

“Not a good look on me, is it?” the Professor said bitterly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“Of course it matters. How much, I can’t say… But it matters. And you aren’t wrong. It was a little harmless flirting, a long time ago. A very minor infraction in the grand scheme of things, which I blew far out of proportion for far too long. It’s left you…a ghost, so to speak, that I need to exorcise.”

Tellwyrn leaned back further in her chair, eyes widening in startlement, as Eleanora smoothly continued forward, actually climbing on top of the desk and bearing down on her with a distinctly predatory glint in her eye.

“Uh…excuse me?” she said incredulously as the Empress rested one hand on the arm of her chair for balance, and boldly grabbed the collar of her vest with the other. She made no move to retreat or push her off, however, just staring in disbelief. “I don’t care what throne you sit on, nobody—”

“If we’re going to discuss the adventures of nobody,” Eleanora said, her voice suddenly falling to a murmur, “I’ve one to add. Nobody turns me down, Arachne.”

“Young woman,” Tellwyrn replied, still not moving, “years of co-ruling the mightiest nation in the world have gone right to your head.”

“It isn’t about power, you blustering fool.” The Empress slid her fingertips along Tellwyrn’s throat, her full lips curling up in satisfaction at the sharp little breath the gesture elicited. Slowly, she slipped her hand around to grasp the back of the elf’s neck. “On the contrary, it’s about knowing who you’re dealing with. No one says ‘no’ to me because I only approach people…who simply aren’t going to.”

Before Tellwyrn could conjure another objection, Eleanora pulled her forward, leaning down to find her lips, and put an end to the conversation.

 

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13 – 48

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“We finally have a bit of luck,” the captain in charge of the guardhouse said while one of his subordinates carried on untying the remainder of their compatriots. “These people don’t think like soldiers; they all just charged off to answer that threat without leaving a rear guard. They don’t even have the sense to keep watch on prisoners. That gives us an opening, and may give us more if we can take advantage.”

Several of the troops were still dazed and the room smelled unpleasantly of vomit; the sonic weapons which had incapacitated them had taken their toll. Fortunately, those had just been used as an initial measure, and then the cultists had methodically gone through and tied them up. Or, rather, one cultist in particular had, with apologies and pauses to make sure no one had suffered unduly from the screamer bomb his compatriots set off.

“How so, sir?” a sergeant asked, flexing her recently unbound wrists.

“That remains to be seen. We must be alert for opportunities, but these yokels don’t know a thing about fighting; all they have are superior weapons. To begin with, I won’t reproduce their mistake. Get staves aimed at the walltop door; I want that stairwell filled with lightning at the first sign of hostile—”

He broke off, spinning to face the grinding noise of wood being scraped against stone. Tallie, who had rescued the two soldiers from the armory below and brought them up to the barracks, had picked up one of the short benches from the tables and was now dragging it across the floor.

“Kid, what the fuck are you doing?” a soldier demanded.

Meesie scampered out of the neck of Tallie’s shirt to perch atop her head, then pointed at him and squeaked furiously.

“Man,” someone whispered. “Even the rodents sass you, Ankhar.”

Meanwhile, not responding to them, Tallie kicked the door to the upper stairwell shut, hauled the bench up against it and propped it at an angle against the latch. She worked it securely into place, tugged at the door to make sure it wouldn’t budge, then turned back to them with a satisfied expression, dusting off her hands.

“There! Door secured, cap’n, sir. Now if you guys’ll show me how to open the actual gate, we can bring in my reinforcements.”

“You’re asking me to take a lot on faith, young lady,” the captain said grimly.

“First, I am a thief, so let’s have no more of that ‘lady’ talk. And second, yes, I damn well am. You can either take it on faith or hunker down here and wait for a miracle. I mean, another miracle, in addition to the one you’d be refusing to let in through the gates to save your castle.”

“Well, sir,” a lieutenant pointed out, “there wouldn’t be much point in her untying us if she wasn’t on our side. And if this is some kind of convoluted backstab, we can always shoot her.”

“That’s logic I can’t refute,” the captain said with a sigh. “All right, get that gate open, and let’s hope the next insanity that comes charging in here is on our side.”

“You know, I like you guys,” Tallie commented, following the two soldiers who turned and headed for the rear stairs at the captain’s order—the same two who’d been stationed down below. “If I survive tonight I’m gonna have to visit Puna Dara again. How’s the food here?”

“Depends,” one of her new companions said, voice fading from the barracks as they descended the stairwell. “You like curry and fish?”


Mandip frowned, walked, and listened. Holding up his screamlance in his only hand, he fired at the end of the hall up ahead. The lightning bolts stopped, and he picked up his pace slightly.

Sure enough, rounding the corner, he found a palace servant slumped against the wall, retching and clutching her head. The screamlances weren’t terribly accurate weapons, but that had its advantages when you didn’t know exactly where an enemy was. This looked to be a maid, someone not accustomed to physical hardship, and the weapon’s effect had done a number on her even with an indirect hit. She had even dropped her wand, which Mandip kicked away.

At his arrival, she snatched a curved dagger from her belt and swung at him. Woozy and disoriented, the woman didn’t actually get near him, but he shot her again anyway. At that range, the screamlance caused her to fall completely over to lie on her back. She barely managed to roll to one side before emptying her stomach.

“I’m sorry,” Mandip said mechanically. “It will pass soon. Try not to move until your head stops spinning.”

He moved on, weapon up, leaving her there. It was the same shallow platitude, word for word, he’d offered to every palace defender he had shot thus far. None of them had seemed appreciative, not that he cared what they thought. Ayuvesh had explained that taking them down without doing harm was essential to the plan, setting up their next step after he reached an accommodation with the Crown, and Mandip had accepted his reasoning.

That didn’t mean he gave a damn about these rich people in their cozy palace, or that he didn’t feel satisfaction in leaving them slumped on the ground in pain. Well, not so much the servants, but still; their lives were easier than they’d ever appreciated. A little suffering would do them good.

On he went, listening to the voices in his built-in communicator. Something was going wrong on the walls; they were under attack. Probably the adventurers who had somehow destroyed the Elixir. Time was short… If those meddling monsters broke through before Ayuvesh could reach a deal with the King, it would all be over. Fortunately, everyone on the network could hear that, too, and it seemed to be going well.

Nothing he could do about it. He kept walking, looking for more people to incapacitate. He was in a richer wing of the palace now, the kind of place he could have fed the Order for weeks by looting for five minutes, but Ayuvesh’s orders were clear and his plan sensible. Not that Mandip had a hand to spare, anyway. Nor would again, unless they could restore the Elixir. His arm had begun to grow back where the dryad had torn it off, but it had stopped, of course, the new metal extensions coming well short of forming another hand.

Well, maybe he could meet some actually rich people and shoot them. Servants and soldiers might be better off than he had been, growing up, but it still didn’t bring any real satisfaction to strike them down. At least they worked, they did something, even if it was just propping up rich bastards. The halls continued to be deserted, though.

Mandip paused next to a door, hearing a sound from within. Someone hiding? His shield was holding just fine, but it would probably be better not to be ambushed from behind. He tucked his screamlance under his stub of an arm awkwardly to grasp the latch and pushed the door open.

This looked like a guest room of some kind. There was nobody present—no one human, anyway. Apparently the noise had been caused by the animal, which was sitting atop the upturned ottoman it had seemingly knocked over. In fact, half the furnishings in the room were overturned. This creature did not appear to be properly housebroken…

Actually, what was that thing? Mandip frowned, leaning into the room to stare. It looked like an overlarge rabbit…with antlers.

It also moved very fast. He didn’t have enough warning to even take his screamlance back in hand, let alone fire it, before the beast lunged across the room and those antlers drove right into his chest.


“I kinda like it when she’s glowy,” Darius huffed, raindrops spraying with each breath. “Makes ‘er easy to find in bad weather.”

Trissiny was no longer trailing golden wings, nor projecting a divine shield, but a residual aura of light still hung around her, making her stand out in the dimness of the storm. She had arrived at the north gate before them, which wasn’t really surprising given the fact that she was mounted.

“Are you guys all right?” she called as Darius, Schwartz, and Layla came running up. Layla skidded in a rain puddle, staring at the new arrivals rather than watching her footing, and Darius barely caught her in time to prevent a fall. “Any word from inside?”

“Good timing!” Schwartz said, waving. His glasses were completely fogged over, but strangely enough he didn’t seem to be having trouble getting around. “Looks like everything’s on schedule, expect that my diversion just finished crumbling. But Tallie and Meesie have rescued all the soldiers, blocked off the upper exit and are getting that gate open. Uh, I gather the south gatehouse is…under control?”

The two groups finished trailing to a stop, eyeing one another speculatively.

“You brought Hershel? Good thinking.” For that being a compliment, Principia’s tone was oddly cool. Her expression was flat, as well.

“Who’re these?” Ruda demanded bluntly. “And what are they good for?”

“They are friends, so keep a civil tongue in your head,” Trissiny replied. “Layla and Darius Sakhavenid are Guild—smart and good in a tight spot. Schwartz is a witch of the Emerald College, he’s our magical support. Well, more of it, I guess. I was not expecting to find you guys here.”

“Jeepers, a dryad!” Schwartz squeaked.

The object of his fascination wasn’t paying him any attention. “Something’s wrong,” Juniper murmured, her voice almost drowned out by the rain. She had turned to stare at the gate. “I can feel…”

“Yeah, a lot’s wrong,” Principia said, patting her on the shoulder. “We’re dealing with it, hun.”

“Oh, my,” Layla breathed, staring up at Gabriel, who sat astride his shadowy horse with scythe in hand, turning his head constantly to scan the surrounding streets. A number of Punaji citizens, not much deterred by the storm, had begun to gather and watch, but so far nobody seemed inclined to intervene.

Darius looked from Layla to Gabriel and back, and then placed a heavy hand on top of her head, forcibly turning her gaze away from the Hand of Vidius.

“No,” he stated. “Absolutely not. You wipe that look off your face, missy. I will drown you in a mud puddle before I—oof!”

“Next one’s going to be below the belt,” Layla snapped, backing up and rubbing her knuckles, much as her brother was now rubbing his solar plexus. “You just worry about your own business.”

Ruda rolled her eyes and strode toward the closed gates. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, Shiny Boots, how the hell did you dig up more bickering adventurers? Till I met these assholes I always thought that was a myth spawned by chapbooks.”

“Paladins attract them,” Principia observed.

The creaking of the gates cut through the conversation and the noise of the rain as they began to swing outward.

“All right,” Ruda said sharply, raising her voice. “We do this smart, people—remember your lessons from the Crawl. Uh, new folks, that means squishy thieves and finger-wigglers stay in the back. We’re going in hard and fast, heavy hitters up—hey!”

Ignoring her, Juniper had pushed through the crack in the gates the second it was wide enough to accommodate her frame, and dashed off across the courtyard toward the fortress. There almost immediately came a scream, the sound of someone being punched—loud enough to be audible from outside—and the peculiar whining of the Rust’s sonic weapons being fired.

Ruda threw her hands up. “Or, just charge the fuck in, I guess! Paladins to the front, ride down anything June leaves standing. Where the fuck is she in such a hurry to get, anyway?”


Their “improved” shields came with quite a downside: they stood up better than any arcane charm to wandfire, but did not block solid objects. A category which included giant devil-rabbits.

Mandip was driven bodily back into the hall by the force of the impact, then staggered further, wheeling all the way across it to slump against the opposite wall, where he stumbled to the ground in shock.

The rabbit had fallen, too, and now turned to glare at him with one evil pink eye while he gaped in astonishment, belatedly becoming aware of the pain in his chest. The tips of the thing’s antlers were bloody.

Mandip cautiously prodded at the wounds with a finger. Blood seeped out, staining his shirt; those antlers weren’t sharp, but given the force with which they’d hit, they had crushed as much a pierced. At least they hadn’t penetrated far.

The rabbit turned toward him, and with a yell, he threw himself sideways. The beast hit the wall directly above him, antlers first, and tumbled down, apparently stunned. It landed partially across Mandip’s legs, and he kicked it off, scrambling away.

His eye caught the glint of something white. There, by the door, lay his dropped screamlance. This little monster had very long ears; if anything would put it out of commission…

It started moving again, getting its feet under it, and Mandip tried to stand up, immediately faceplanting as he had unconsciously attempted to brace himself with his missing arm. Scrambling awkwardly, he managed to lay his hand on the screamlance’s handle and turn to aim it just as the rabbit hopped upright and faced him again.

He fired, point-blank.

And the beast went completely berserk.


Rust had assembled in the courtyard; they were currently in disarray, Juniper having bowled right through their group. Of the eight present, one lay dazed to the side with another helping him up, the rest mostly turned to fire screamlances after the departing dryad. She was wearing one of the Avatar’s earplugs, though, and didn’t appear even to notice. In fact, she showed no interest in them at all, and was in the process of dashing into the fortress itself when her compatriots streamed in through the opened gate.

At their arrival, the cultists whirled, raising weapons. Trissiny and Gabriel reined in their mounts, weapons in hand; Arjen stood stock-still, practically radiating discipline, while Whisper pranced and tugged impatiently at the bit. The pair of them were like contrasting bookends, light and shadow bracketing the princess who strode up to stand between them, rapier unsheathed.

Weapons were aimed, but as the paladins had stopped, the Rust did not yet fire. More of them began to appear from the fortress, coming around from side doors, though two staggered out of the main entry, looking dazed. They had probably encountered Juniper in passing.

Layla and Darius obediently held back, but Schwartz stepped up next to Trissiny. Principia cut off to the side, where the south gatehouse’s lower door had burst open, to join those now emerging. Punaji soldiers and Silver Legionnaires streamed in—a small group, but enough to form a significant flank. As if at this signal, the small inner door of the other gatehouse opened as well, and its complement of soldiers marched out, weapons at the ready.

With them, all but unnoticed in the rain and tumult, came Meesie, scampering across the courtyard to climb Schwartz and take her place upon his shoulder. Fross, meanwhile, zipped over to hover next to Gabriel.

The Rust were visibly frightened, over a dozen of them now in the courtyard; with weapons up, they continued to draw together.

“That’s your mistake,” Ruda said, her voice booming across the open space. “I have major spellcasters here, and troops flanking you from both sides; with you clustering together like that you’ve positioned yourself to get raked by fire from all angles while we’re in no danger of a crossfire. I’m well within my rights, here, to order you all slaughtered like sheep, but you’re still Punaji, even if you are traitorous little shits. And I’m tired of seeing my people die. You surrender now, I will guarantee you get fair treatment.”

They stopped moving immediately, leaving them in a disorganized, staggered formation across the courtyard.

“You’re wrong, Princess,” one cultist near the center said, stepping forward. She was holding a screamlance, but conspicuously pointed it at the ground. “Your weapons are useless against our shields—oh, yes, they work in the rain, unlike arcane shielding charms. You have no defense against our weapons, either. Don’t make this a battle. You will not win it.”

“Bitch, I’m not gonna have a pissing contest with you,” Ruda snapped. “We were just in your secret cavern. We just shut off your little nanite toys, permanently. The Avatar you tortured into insanity was very inclined to be helpful; believe me when I say you don’t have the advantage against me and mine that you did against this fortress’s defenders. If you came here to go out in a blaze of glory, take the first shot. Otherwise, drop them. I’m not asking again.”

“Stop!”

Everyone twisted about, craning their necks, as a fiery streak cut through the rain overhead. Vadrieny arced over the walls, crying out as she ignored the drama unfolding below and made a beeline for one of the other towers, and the lone figure which had risen from behind its battlements.

“Stop! Don’t do it—”

Ignoring the archdemon’s pleas as he did her approach, Brother Arlund loosed the arrow he had drawn back.

The cultist who had addressed Ruda had positioned herself ahead of the group, giving him a clear shot. The shaft pierced cleanly through her neck.

The Rust began shouting in fury even as they fired in all directions. In the next instant, answering fire came from the Punaji soldiers fanned out to either flank of the adventurers, and the courtyard was lit by the glare of lightning upon energy shields.


Mandip had quickly given up trying to fire at the accursed creature; it just kept coming. In less than a minute, he had become a mass of bruises and bleeding gouges, and the psychotic rabbit had thrashed about, bouncing off the walls and ramming him over and over with those pronged antlers. He quit trying to shoot it again and resorted to bludgeoning the beast with his screamlance, which wasn’t having much effect.

Especially not when it got tangled in the jackalope’s horns and wrenched from his grasp.

He’d already tried to flee, and it had chased him. With nothing left but his hand, he grabbed at it frantically on its next lunge. Rather to his own surprise, Mandip got a grip on one of the antlers as it was buried a few inches into his side.

Of course, the little monster thrashed and twisted, threatening to wrench free from his grip. With one one hand to hold, it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to for long.

In pure desperation, he swung it furiously against the wall. Then again, and again.

It was the blood, his own blood, slickening his grasp on the antler that finally slipped it loose, and he staggered back, hunched over in pain, bleeding from dozens of wounds, gasping for breath. The rabbit, though, finally lay still where he had dropped it. Dazed? No… It was bent nearly double in the middle, its back clearly broken.

Mandip drew a ragged breath of relief and stumbled backward. In the act, he lifted his head, and suddenly discovered he was not alone.

The dryad stood barely two yards away. She was not looking at him, though, but at his erstwhile opponent.

“My bunny.”


“There we go,” Toby said, helping the two of them into the gatehouse through its lower door, which was still unlocked. Just off the narrow hall onto which it opened was a small armory, and he carefully maneuvered both his patients inside and toward chairs. In addition to the woman who had fallen from the wall, he had paused to assist the man lifted from his mount by Gabriel’s charge. The scythe’s blade had not so much as nicked him—very luckily, or there would have been nothing even a Hand of Omnu could do—but the man had effectively been hit with a lance in the center of his chest and hurled to the pavement. Toby had fixed the internal bleeding and soothed away his shock, but his ribs would require more specialized seeing to.

“What…now?” the woman asked weakly once she was seated. “We can’t… After this, there’s nothing left for us. They’ll hang us all…”

“All of us,” Toby said, laying a hand on her shoulder, “are going to have to face responsibility for the things we’ve done here today. I have no authority over the Punaji government, but my experience has been that its King and Queen are fair-minded, and I know their daughter is. You have my word, I will do everything I can to ensure you’re treated well. The Crown doesn’t answer to me, but it will at least listen.”

“Thank you,” the man said weakly. He was still hunched forward, arms wrapped around himself.

Toby nodded, reaching out to touch his shoulder and passing a tiny glow of light into him. “Are you in very much pain?”

“Mostly…discomfort,” he gasped. “Long as I don’t move, it’s not too bad. Or breathe too much,” he added with a wince.

“All right. I’ll get a healer out here when I can, a proper one. It sounds like an all-out battle is unfolding out there, though. I don’t know how long this will be. You both seem stable for now. Please stay here; when the soldiers come back in, tell them you surrender and they shouldn’t harm you. The Punaji codes of war mean they’ll bring healers to take care of injured prisoners.”

“Not like we have much choice,” the woman said, not without bitterness.

“Everybody has choices,” Toby said, turning and taking a step toward the door. “I need to go deal with some of them.”

“And our…friends?” the man whispered. “You’ll have to kill them, too…”

Toby glanced back at him, his eyes already glowing. Light rose in the room, not so much as if emanating from the paladin, but seeming to rise from everywhere at once.

“No, I don’t. I have accepted too many compromises recently; that is my error to atone for. I’ve had enough. This is ending, now.”


“Stop! Stop! You must put down your weapons, we have surrendered! That was the plan, you—”

“What is happening?” Anjal demanded. “Can you talk to them, or can’t you?”

“They’re not listening,” Ayuvesh said. For the first time since he had cornered them, he was visibly shaken, even frightened. “I can give orders but unless they obey…”

“If you cannot control your people,” Rajakhan grated, “what good are you? What are your assurances worth?”

Ayuvesh whirled to face him, prompting the two Punaji soldiers and Akhatrya to surge forward. As did the two Rust cultists who had accompanied their leader, but Ayuvesh moved no further and fortunately a brawl did not break out.

“We can all hear one another,” he said sharply. “They can hear my orders, yes, but they are right now being pounded by your daughter’s cavalcade of monster friends, and listening to one of our own being apparently torn apart! Would you lay down your weapons under such conditions? Would your soldiers? Could you make them?”

“Zari,” Rajakhan grunted, then strode forward, pushing past Ayuvesh and ignoring his companions. “Come. Perhaps we can still salvage this.”


The initial rounds of the battle were an exercise in futility; the Punaji’s salvo did nothing except ignite shields around the Rust, while their counter-fire knocked the soldiers out immediately, every one of whom had only just recovered from previously being struck down by sonic weapons. In seconds, they and the Legionnaires were down, wiping out the defenders’ numerical advantage and leaving the Rust facing only the adventurer group.

At that point, the engagement immediately turned against them.

Fross didn’t bother firing lightning bolts, having learned from the example of the Punaji, but simply sprayed the Rust with elemental ice. It steamed violently in the tropical air, but the solid mass was not deterred by their peculiar shields any more than the rain was, and served to knock them down, freeze them momentarily in place, and deprive them of footing.

On the other side of the group, Schwartz began pelting the enemy with fireballs, which were ineffective, and chunks of rock torn up from the very pavement, which did much better. At least until someone nailed him with a sonic shot and he topped over backward, crying out and clutching his ears.

Meesie, however, burst into the form of a pony-sized lion with a roar of fury and hurled herself bodily into the main cluster of Rust. Trissiny charged a split-second behind her, not even bringing her sword into play but simply using Arjen’s bulk to smash the group apart and keep them off-balance. Gabriel spurred Whisper into a run belatedly, but rather than trying to trample anyone, he cantered off to the side, swinging his weapon (which had a much longer reach than Trissiny’s sword) against the cultists as he passed them. The divine scythe was deflected by their shields, apparently counting as energy to whatever function governed them, but it also did far more damage than staff fire, making them spark and flicker, and in several cases collapse entirely.

All the while, more Rust continued to trickle out of the palace, throwing themselves into the fray.

And once the first of them gave up on Ayuvesh’s order to use only the screamlances, the rest swiftly followed suit. Several were carrying weapons that were decidedly more lethal.

An explosion hurled Trissiny from her saddle, some kind of thrown bomb knocking Arjen bodily off his hooves. The man who had tossed it was immediately set upon by Meesie. Trissiny rolled to her feet, finding herself in the middle of a melee, and a blade of some kind attached to someone’s mechanical arm raked her divine shield, causing it to flicker badly. She countered the next one with her sword, the weapons sparking where they connected—that thing was clearly more than just steel.

Punaji soldiers, trying to get up and find targets again in the tumult, were struck by thrown blades, and another bomb went off, apparently hurled at Gabriel but missing and exploding harmlessly in empty space. The next, however, was far too close to the re-forming Legionnaires as they tried to get back into formation, bowling them over and causing someone to scream in pain.

Principia came sliding past them, snatched up a fallen lance, and hurled it with elvish accuracy, striking down the man who’d thrown the bomb. Another turned and raised a screamlance in her direction, and a Huntsman’s arrow struck him right through the arm.

Vadrieny shot across the courtyard, skimming over the battle and skidding to a stop on the ground, where she bodily swept Darius, Layla, and Tallie up into a knot, folding her impervious wings around them. To judge by the ensuing shouts, they were none of them reassured by this, but the archdemon suffered nothing from the theives’ attempts to beat her off, and began slowly but implacably herding them away from the unfolding brawl.

Suddenly, the clouds parted.

From a single gap in the storm cover above came a beam of concentrated sunlight, illuminating the small side door to the north gatehouse, from which Toby had just stepped. His eyes were like pools of light, and gold raced across the ground through the cracks between paving stones from his feet, as if carried by the rainwater.

Light rose further, seeming to climb up from the ground like mist. It almost had a tangible presence; it thickened the very air, bringing stillness, and gradually a distant tone began to pierce through the sounds of battle. Like a flute, or a bell, high and sweet, it hovered just beyond the range of hearing.

All around them, the fighting stilled. People slowly stumbled to a halt, their movements growing sluggish and their gazes unfocused. Within moments, everyone present was standing still, staring in amazement at the Hand of Omnu.

He walked slowly across the courtyard like a living sun. The rain had ceased; above, the blue sky reemerged from behind increasingly wispy clouds as what had been a furious storm cover moments ago burned away as rapidly and unnaturally as it had risen. Light blazed from Toby, covering the courtyard, intense enough it should have been painful to look upon. But there was no pain.

In fact, wounds had already begun to knit together. As everyone stared in shock, arrows and fragments of metal were gently dislodged from flesh, which healed without scarring behind them. Bones realigned, lightning burns evaporated, pierced organs were restored. The only injury which struggled momentarily against the glow was a black gash rent in a man’s chest by Gabriel’s scythe; his flesh had been in the process of crumbling to dust, and the power of death did not easily relinquish its claim. Under so great a concentration of Omnu’s light, however, it finally receded.

There were dead, still lying where they had fallen, but anyone in whom the faintest spark of life had still flickered was now left fully restored.

For a single moment, it seemed as if someone else stood behind Toby, or around and above him; someone whose presence was like the sun itself, powerful enough to drive lesser minds into paralysis simply by being near them. It was a fleeting moment, though, and passed quickly. With it went the overwhelming rush of magic.

It was sunny and balmy in the courtyard in its passing; steam rose from rainwater and pixie ice as it rapidly dissolved under the sun. Everyone simply stood in awed silence, staring at Toby.

“Some of you are defending your homes, or the people you love,” he said, not raising his voice but projecting easily into every corner of the courtyard. “Others were abused and abandoned, just trying to make something of your lives, and trusted the wrong people. Everyone present has made mistakes, but there are no monsters here. That’s enough fighting. Enough.”

Nobody found anything to say, just watching as he stepped across the courtyard and knelt to pick something up.

“Fross,” Toby said more quietly, “I am so, so sorry.”

“Wooooow,” the pixie said weakly. “That was a loooooot of divine power. Way impressive, man. Also, I’d kind of appreciate a warning next time.”

For the first time since they’d known her, her glowing aura was entirely extinguished, leaving only her fuzzy little body lying in his hand. Big black eyes blinked owlishly up at Toby from a little moth’s face; her antennae drooped listlessly, and even her crystalline wings seemed too weak to flutter.

“I didn’t exactly plan the way that went,” he said, eyebrows drawing together worriedly. “Are you okay?”

“Aw, sure, jus’ drained,” the pixie said, weakly lifting a tiny arm to wave. “I am a bottomless well of power! Bottomless, I tell you. But you burn off enough of the top, an’ it takes a while to refill.”

“Thank goodness. Here—you’re a witch, aren’t you?”

Schwartz blinked at being suddenly addressed. “I, uh…yes? How’d you know?”

Very carefully, Toby held out his hand, cradling Fross. “Would you please hold my friend until she can fly again? Hopefully it won’t take long.”

“I—that—why, sure, I’d be honored.” Just as gingerly, Schwartz carefully accepted the little burden. Meesie, having returned to her normal form and normal perch, climbed down his arm to peer closely at Fross.

“Hey, uh… Where are you going?” Ruda asked as Toby turned and strode toward the castle.

“You know better than I what needs to be done here,” he said. “I have more healing to do.”


He didn’t have to search. In that unexpected moment of total communion with Omnu’s presence, he had been shown exactly where to go.

Juniper knelt in the hallway, Jack’s broken body laid across her lap, one hand slowly moving over his fur. All around her lay the ruins of what had been a human being. Blood practically painted the whole area, interspersed with scraps of flesh, bone, organs, and a few pieces of twisted metal.

Toby stepped through it without reaction, ignoring the smell and the squishing under his shoes. He simply walked up to Juniper and squatted on his heels, bringing his face down to the level of hers.

“Wasn’t really fair of me,” she whispered. “It wasn’t…really his fault. You know what Jack was like. There’s a difference between killing somebody and murder, isn’t there?”

“There can be,” Toby replied.

“Understanding why it’s wrong,” she said tonelessly. “And then doing it anyway. Because I wanted him to hurt, and then die. I don’t know what to think, Toby. I don’t feel bad about killing him. I don’t. I do not. He killed my Jack. But…I feel very bad about not feeling bad. It’s stupid. I used to think developing a conscience was just a burden, but now? I think mine doesn’t work right.”

“No.” He reached out and lay his hand atop hers on Jack’s fur. “That sounds about right, June.”

“It doesn’t make it right, does it.”

“No.”

“But…is it at least…understandable?”

He nodded. “Very.”

She closed her eyes. “I can’t do this, Toby.”

“You’ve proven you can,” he insisted softly.

“No, not like this. Is this what it’s going to be like to love something? People are defined by their attachments, by what they love, I keep noticing that. And when one is ripped away like that they break so completely that…everything breaks. I swore I would never kill anybody again. And it just…doesn’t matter now.”

Leaves had begun to sprout in her hair. As she spoke in a dull monotone, tiny tendrils of roots appeared, branching out from beneath her and squirming through the blood.

“I love you all, my friends. And you’ll all die. And it will destroy me. I can’t feel like this anymore, Toby. I’m not strong enough.”

He leaned forward, leaned his weight upon her, wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Then he began to glow.

Juniper gasped sharply. In the divine light, the leaves vanished from her crown, the tiny roots retracting into nothingness. “Stop it, Toby.”

“I can barely understand how hard this must be for you,” he whispered. “Humans, all the rest of us… We learn about loss earlier on. We grow up with it, and we learn that as much as it hurts, we are strong enough.

“No, I’m not,” she said weakly, slumping against him. “It makes me a monster, Toby. I threw away everything I’ve learned… It makes me a killer. I was so stupid to think mortals are weak. You’re stronger than I could ever be. Please let me go. I’m too dangerous.”

“So am I,” he said. “We’re all dangerous, June. Everyone has the power to kill and destroy.”

“Not like me.”

“Not like you,” he agreed, “but still. It’s about choice, and mastering yourself. Something we’ve all been learning how to do for years, and you’ve only just started trying. But we’re all just learning, Juniper.”

“Stop it,” she whispered. “I don’t want to feel better. I just killed somebody. It’s supposed to hurt.”

“Yes, it is. Killing should hurt. Losing Jack should hurt. I’m not trying to make you feel better, June. It needs to hurt; if it doesn’t hurt, it’ll never heal. But it can heal, and you can still do better.”

“I can’t put a life back into the world.”

“That’s right, he’s gone, and it’s your fault, and you will have to deal with that. But you can still do good in the world. Something you loved is gone, but you will still love. I don’t want to take away your pain, June; you need it. I just want you to understand that this moment, this pain, is not the whole world. Leaving the world behind won’t get rid of the pain, or the guilt, it’ll just cut you off from the good you can still do. The happiness you’ll go on to feel.”

“But it’ll make me stop feeling this,” she said plaintively.

“You can’t destroy pain, is the problem. You can only spread it around. If you go, June, then everyone who loves you will feel the way you’re feeling right now.” He shifted, moving his hands to cradle her face and pulling back enough to rest his forehead against hers. Brown eyes met brown eyes from the distance of a soul’s breath. “You don’t want to do that to us. I’m not some sage, June. I’m just a guy who’s been trying to figure this stuff out for a little bit longer than you have. I want to keep figuring it out with you. I just…I don’t want to lose my friend.”

Slowly, he let the light fade, then wink out.

They knelt there in silence. Her transformation, once driven back, did not begin again.

Tears welled in her eyes, began to pour down her face, and the barren emptiness of her expression crumpled into agony.

“I’m so sorry, Toby. I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“I m-miss my b-bunny.”

He pulled her close again, and didn’t let go.

 

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13 – 47

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The mounted cultist turned to see what was bearing down on him, hesitated for a bare instant, then sent his giant mechanical rooster stomping in the other direction as fast as it would go. It immediately encountered an ice slick, lost footing, and skidded across the plaza in a painful-looking tangle of metal limbs, leaving his still-sparking lance to lie on the ground behind him.

“Nice, Fross!” Gabriel shouted, even as Whisper erupted from a burst of shadow and smoke on the wall behind him.

Trissiny didn’t bother to pursue the fallen rider, adjusting the angle of Arjen’s charge to head for the second cultist.

This one was made of sterner stuff.

The cobblestone elemental continued methodically backing up for another charge at the gates, incidentally opening a path between them, and the mechanical insect lunged forward to meet the charging paladin head-on.

Arjen was taller and bigger, but the cultist’s weapon had a longer reach. By accident or design, he rammed its sparking tip into the horse’s chest as they impacted. Arjen bellowed in pain, staggering and barely keeping his footing on the rain-slick pavement; the force of the impact sent him off-course, enough that Trissiny’s futile sword swipe at the spider-rider in passing went nowhere near him.

Both riders arced about as they recovered, wheeling to face one another again. Whatever damage had been done to Arjen he seemed to have shrugged off—no surprise, given the divine energy blazing from his rider. The cultist’s weapon had been bent by the collision, and was now emitting constant sparks from the two spots where it had warped in addition to arcs of electricity from its tip, all of them creating a staticky haze in the rain. He seemed undeterred, however, leveling his crumpled lance and surging forward again.

It was at that point that the Rust holding the battlements above the gatehouse managed to draw a bead on Trissiny.

Immediately she pitched sideways in her saddle, keeping enough of a grip on the reins and with her knees to avoid tumbling off, but slowing Arjen’s loop as he responded to his rider’s distress. The noise of the sonic weapons was oddly muted to those at whom they were not directed, but their shrill whine rose above the voice of the wind and receding thunder.

Even as she struggled to stay mounted, Trissiny’s aura brightened, hardening into an extra layer of divine shielding encompassing both her and Arjen, and the golden wings still unfurled behind her actually extended several feet as Avei’s hand upon her intensified. She was hunched over in clear distress, but tried to straighten Arjen’s course and meet the enemy’s six-legged charge. It was an awkward recovery, though, and even with his bent lance, the cultist had more speed and a more direct angle at their exposed flank.

The goddess’s attention seemingly spared Trissiny the worst of the sonic weapon’s effect, but whatever Avei’s reason, she did not intervene decisively to end the battle.

Fortunately, she was not the only one in a position to do so.

A bolt of black light ripped through the downpour, striking the Rust rider straight in the chest and nearly unseating him. His lance jerked off-target, but his mount did not slacken its speed. Whisper was galloping faster than Arjen, her invisible hooves having no trouble on the slickened pavement, and Gabriel passed Trissiny to meet the attacker in a proper joust, scythe leveled before him.

The man’s life was saved by the fact that the wicked blade did not strike him with its cutting edge; instead, the cap of its pole lifted him clear out of the seat and hurled him several yards backward in an impact that had to have crushed ribs at the very least.

He brought Whisper around in an impossibly nimble pivot; where Arjen had greater strength and endurance than a flesh-and-blood horse, she was more agile than a mountain goat. Trissiny had recovered enough to guide her steed out of the path of the runaway mechanical spider, which clattered past on a course that would eventually lead it to crash into the wall. It was probably gratuitous, then, for Gabriel to chase it down, but he did.

“Fross!” Ruda barked, pointing her rapier at the battlements. Some of the Rust had switched targets, but Gabriel was wearing one of the Avatar’s earplugs and didn’t even seem to notice that he was being fired upon.

“On it!” The pixie streaked upward just as Gabriel slammed the blade of his scythe into the middle of the fleeing mechanical, causing it to immediately burst apart in a profusion of suddenly rusted-out parts, but she slowed in confusion when the attacking cultists abruptly tumbled forward over the ramparts.


The reduced Squad One moved as quickly as they could without making noise that would give away their position, which was quicker than almost any other phalanx in the Legions thanks to the silencing charms Locke had laid on their boots. Even so, with Shahai remaining behind with two of the Punaji troopers who hadn’t recovered enough to be fit, in Lieutenant Laghari’s assessment, for combat, they made a pitifully short line.

Ephanie took a position on the left flank, where she would be able (hopefully) to break away and deal with a cultist who was separated somewhat from their group, firing at whoever was attacking the gate below. Behind the Legionnaires, Laghari led his troops from the front, peeking up over the edge of the trapdoor down into the gatehouse. He wasn’t being rained on directly due to a column-supported roof covering this section of the walls, and the water still blowing through the area didn’t impede visibility too much.

There were six Rust atop this gatehouse, all lined against the battlements with their weapons aimed below, and unaware of what was happening behind them—their last information being that the defending soldiers were incapacitated below.

Unfortunately, someone had warned the north gatehouse, and four more armed Rust were coming. Squad One had barely got into formation when they began shouting warnings to their fellows.

“CHARGE!” Ephanie roared.

Shields up and lances forward, the Legionnaires pounded across two yards of rooftop and slammed into the cultists from behind, just as they began to turn.

Almost the whole group immediately went over the walls, Merry losing her grip on her lance as it was stuck through someone’s midsection. Ephanie broke formation and rushed the outlier barely in time to prevent her from bringing her sonic weapon to bear. Slamming her shield into the woman’s body, she shoved as hard as she could, driving her back against the battlements.

Behind her, the chaos of battle erupted, Merry and Farah going down with shrieks of pain as the Rust’s reinforcements fired sonic weapons into their formation, and then the roar of staff fire as Laghari and his troops burst out of the stairwell, ripping into the intruders with a torrent of lightning bolts. Ephanie couldn’t see the outcome; if the Rust’s shields operated like standard arcane ones, they wouldn’t function in the rain. If not… One way or the other, this was about to be decisively over.

She had to focus on her own fight.

The cultist before her had a metal plate covering one eye with a gap in it, in which a green crystal was set. This did nothing to disguise her furious snarl. Ephanie got her shoulder into the shield and rammed her even harder against the battlements, the position of her body preventing the cultist from getting the sound-thrower aimed at her. It also made it impossible to bring her lance into place, however, so she dropped it and drew her short sword.

Her attempted stab was caught. Of course that would be the side on which her enemy had the metal hand. They struggled for position and for control of the blade, unable to use weapons and reduced to an ugly contest of brute strength. Ephanie was taller and stronger than the average woman, than the average Legionnaire, even, but her foe was part machine, and she was not gaining ground.

The fact that none of her squad had already intervened was a bad sign.

“Um, scuze me, sorry ’bout this…”

She barely had a moment to process the squeaky little voice which sounded from close by, and then she was bodily picked up and moved backward through the air, supported by apparently nothing.

The cultist staggered forward, or started do, and then a little ball of silver light darted in between them and hit the machine-augmented woman in the chest with a tiny bolt of lightning. That was enough to drive her back against the battlements; a second sent her tumbling over to join her fellows.

“Fross!” Ephanie gasped. “Good timing!”

“Thanks, I do what I can!”

She finally could turn to assess the situation, and found it dramatically improved from minutes ago. All three of her women were apparently all right, the two who’d been hit again sitting against the battlements with Nandi making a beeline for them, already glowing. Lightning burns marred the walltop around the Rust who had tried to come from the other gatehouse, every one of whom now lay unmoving in the rain.

“THE STORM CARES NOT!” Laghari bellowed, brandishing his staff overhead. His soldiers roared defiantly in response, and he turned to speak more calmly to his new allies. “Damn glad you ladies were along for this! But there’s no time to rest on our laurels. The bastards are in the Rock—we have to go protect the King and Queen!”

Fross chimed loudly for attention. “I realize that’s your duty and all, but considering what’s about to shake loose down there, you guys may wanna sit this one out.”


“Why the fuck are you brunette?”

Trissiny brought Arjen to a stop, grinning down at Ruda. “Really? That’s the first thing you have to say to me?”

“It looks wrong, and I demand you change it back immediately, and also I am damn glad to see you, Shiny Boots.” Ruda’s return grin was huge, and she punched Trissiny’s booted foot, causing Arjen to snort in annoyance and twist his neck around to give her a look. “This doesn’t look much like you learning to be sneaky in Tiraas with the Eserites, but I can’t say you haven’t got some damn good timing!”

“Triss!” Gabriel barely got Whisper to stop, and she still pranced in place, whinnying excitedly in the rain. “I never thought I would say this, but I wanna hug you! Wait, why are you a brunette?”

“Thanks for the assist, Gabe,” she replied, saluting him with her sword. “I see somebody’s taught you to actually ride instead of let Whisper haul you around like a plough. Is the whole class here?” she added, frowning around as the rest of them came forward. “I don’t see some people I would expect… And one I didn’t.”

“You will never be rid of me, young lady,” Principia said grandly. “I’m like a soulbinder hex, an Imperial tax assessor and a case of the crabs in one svelte, dashing package! Also, you need to dye your hair back the way it was ASAP. You’re starting to look like my mother, and that’s just fucking disturbing.”

“Button your yap, Serg—Lieutenant, before I kick it buttoned.” Trissiny ruined the threat with a broad grin.

“All right, big reunion, lots of stories to catch up, but later,” Ruda interjected. “We’re at war here. Boots, I don’t suppose you know who’s conjured the cobblestones to knock on my front door and how quick that’ll get us into the fortress?”

“Actually, yes, I brought a witch who’s doing that,” Trissiny said, “and our attack on this gate was a diversion. I’ve got Guild people quietly getting into the north gate as we speak.”

“Even better! Let’s haul ass, people, time’s wasting.” Ruda immediately set off around the Rock’s corner tower at a run, the rest of them swiftly falling in behind her. In fact, the two mounted paladins outpaced her swiftly, as did Principia, leaving Toby and Juniper to bring up the rear.

The dryad was the last of them to round the corner, but Toby trailed to a halt after going only a few feet, then turned to stare back at the scene before the gates.

The bedraggled pavement elemental was still beating itself against the wood, but after the damage the Rust had done, it wasn’t making any further progress. In fact, each hit now dislodged more cobblestones than splinters; it was staggering unevenly on each charge, and at this rate would shake itself to pieces long before breaking the gates down.

Two mechanical mounts lay broken on the plaza, which Toby ignored. As he stared at the handful of cultists who had fallen from the walls, one moved weakly.

The Hand of Omnu turned resolutely and strode back to them.

He knelt beside the first person he came to for only a moment, touching the man’s neck with two fingers, then straightened and moved on to the next. Toby moved swiftly down the row, checking for breath, for pulses, and finding nothing until he got to the very last, the one who had fallen off the wall at the farthest edge of their formation.

She tried feebly to push at him with her working hand. The other arm, a metal one, had been bent to the point of uselessness beneath her. Toby gently caught her attempted shove, a faint light rising around him and causing the falling rain in their vicinity to glitter gold.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, the golden glow intensifying in his eyes. “Can you turn your head to the side? If not, try to breathe through your nose. You can choke on rainwater in this position.”

“Wh—why…” she rasped, then coughed, spraying raindrops. He quickly ran his hands over her, palms glowing, and closed his eyes in concentration.

“All right,” Toby said, opening them to look at her seriously. “Looks like you landed on the machine parts. There’s not a thing I can do to fix those, sorry. You haven’t broken your spine or your head, miraculously, but when you hit the ground this…chassis bit that’s connecting the metal arm to your rib cage got shoved into the wrong place, and it’s pressing on your vertebrae and lungs. I’m going to have to move it back before I heal anything. Do you understand?”

“Why…help me?” she whispered.

He just shook his head. “This is going to hurt, a lot. I need you to try to stay focused, all right? It’s okay to yell. Keep your head turned if you can so you don’t choke on rain. Are you ready?”

She stared at him with one frightened eye and a cracked green crystal.

Gently, Toby took her good hand and curled his fingers around hers. “I’m not going to force anything on you, not even healing. You need to know that if we don’t do this now, you’re going to die, and not quickly. You are bleeding a lot. I have to put bones and metal bones in the right place before healing or it will kill you. But if you don’t want me to, I won’t. Understand? It’s your body and your life. You’re in charge here.”

Almost infinitesimally, still holding his gaze, she nodded.

He nodded back. “Ready, then?”

She squeezed her eye shut. “Do it.”

She did a lot more than merely yell, thrashing so badly that he had to pause in his work to hold her down until she could control herself. The woman had a metal collarbone which arced around to cover most of her back, and she had landed on it. Her machine arm was crushed into uselessness and the thick metal brace had been shoved against her spinal column, tearing muscle and skin and threatening to dislodge a lung, and possibly her heart. Forcing it back into an approximation of its proper position was absolutely brutal work.

He finished it as quickly as he was able, though. Toby had crimson stains on his shirt and flecks of blood as far-flung as his face, just beginning to be rinsed away by the rain, by the time he could move on to healing the actual damage. That, he did as rapidly as possible, using precise and careful jets of golden light to knit ligaments, bones, and muscle back together. Simply suffusing her with divine power could have congealed the mess of her torso into a lethal knot.

She lay sobbing through most of it, even as the pain receded under all the divine light. By the time he was done, though, she had stilled, just breathing heavily.

“All right,” he said at last. “You’re going to live. That’s the best I can give you; I’m sorry. I can’t do anything to fix the machines, but fortunately none of them are running your vital organs. Divine light should stave off infection, but you have lost a lot of blood. You need to get food down quickly, and you’ll have to rest a lot. First we’ve gotta get you in out of this rain. They said the other gatehouse was open; there will be medical supplies in there. C’mon, you can lean on me.”

He rose from his knees and started to help her upright, but she caught his hand again, with more strength this time, and made no move to stand, instead staring up at him.

“Why?” she asked a third time.

The golden halo dimmed from around Toby, and he let out a soft sigh.

“…because I live in a world where that’s a reasonable question. Because that won’t change unless someone changes it. Because…I seem to be the only one here.”

She nodded, weakly, and began shifting to rise. He slipped an arm under her shoulders, drenching the sleeve in a mix of rainwater and blood.

“You want to remake the universe,” the woman grunted as they carefully stood. She had to cling to him. “Make your vision reality. I…relate.”

“And what’s your vision?” he asked.

She offered no reply. They simply hobbled off through the rain, toward the gatehouse. Above them, the sky was starting to lighten, and the thunder had all but faded. Water still pounded the city, but the storm was passing.


“Now, we can concoct a story between us how you defeated me,” Ayuvesh said while they stared at him, nonplussed. “Of course I’ll value your input, but I like the sound of you pressing forward against my scream-weapon through sheer force of will. That will greatly impress the palace guards who have been incapacitated by it, and rumors of your inhuman strength will spread through the city! We want you to come out of this securely in power, after all. But I do have a fondness for the old stories of improbable heroics and mighty champions—it’s a known weakness. What do you think, too implausible?”

The King and Queen exchanged a married look.

“It’s a trick, clearly,” Anjal said, folding her arms. “I just can’t spot the snare.”

“Oh, I assure your Majesties it is a trick,” the leader of the Rust replied, his charming smile belying that he was still on his knees with his hands in the air. “I am not playing it on you, however, but rather inviting you to join me in it. I could win this battle, yes…but not the war which would follow. You were never my enemy. That we have been pushed to fight one another tells me the true threat has yet to be revealed.”

“Mm.” Rajakhan grunted, nodding slowly. “You do see it, then, the doom that would befall you if you seized the Rock.”

“Befall me and all of Puna Dara, and soon enough the other Punaji cities,” Ayuvesh said, his expression sobering. “I am not blind, Blackbeard. If my fellows and I took the government… It remains an open question whether we could hold the Rock even against the outrage of the city itself, and the other players who desire the Crown. And if I managed that, what then? Tiraas would never permit this. To prod at that dragon would spell the end of the Punaji as a free people. Whatever else you think of me, believe that I want that outcome no more than you.”

“I usually love hearing traitors spout patriotism when on their knees,” Anjal remarked. “Less so from one who might get up at any moment.”

Ayuvesh did not get up, nor even lower his hands, but his expression hardened. “You created this situation. Never once did I or any of my people even hint at disrupting the order of society or interfering in your rule. I knew where that would lead! We are both leaders, your Majesty, and we are both Punaji. Once a challenge was made, withdrawal was impossible; the only outcome was escalation. You have advanced it faster by unleashing your daughter’s adventurer friends upon us, but this began when you brought that Silver Legion to occupy the streets and stifle our activities. Had you not, my Order would never have made a move against you!”

“That’s a very easy thing to claim now, when you come asking for trust,” Anjal said skeptically. “If we do take your word on that, it means…what? That you only intended to overthrow our culture, not the government, and install yourselves as a religious authority?”

“I preach that each man and woman is their own authority,” he said patiently. “And an overthrown culture usually ends up in ruins; the process of absorbing a new idea, of incorporating it safely, takes generations. That is our aim—permanence. It will not be achieved by toppling what is in place, but by adding to it. And who knows? Perhaps our will would not have been strong enough. If our ideas did not have merit enough to stand upon their own, then by those same ideas, they would have faded away in time. None of that matters now. The truth of this moment is that no, I am not asking for trust.”

Both drew swords and took a step back as he slowly stood up, lowering his hands, but Ayuvesh kept his movements even and calm, and made no further motion once he was back on his feet. His screamlance lay against the wall, apparently forgotten.

“We are a practical people, aren’t we? And so I’ve demonstrated that I can kill you and take your crown at a whim, because simply telling you so would achieve nothing. If you so despise me that you are willing to exchange your lives and the freedom of the Punaji people for assurance that I will be destroyed within the year, well, you have the power to choose that. If not, I offer to place myself and my people at your mercy… Because that is the only way I see for my Order and my nation to survive.” He lifted his chin, staring calmly at them. “Bending the knee is a very small price to pay for that. I know my worth, my value as a living, thinking person. It does me no harm to show humility, if that is what it takes.”

“I see the logic in what you say,” Rajakhan rumbled, lowering his sword. “All of it. It has a reversal, though. Your sham of a surrender would put you in the Rock, with the capability of overthrowing us at any moment. What you are trying to do is install yourself as the power behind the Crown.”

Ayuvesh held up one finger. “A power in addition to the Crown, answerable to it. Have you troubled to learn anything of our teachings, Rajakhan? I think you will find little there to which any Punaji would object. Regardless, I know nothing of running a nation or contending with political struggles. Overthrowing you by subterfuge would be as futile as doing so by force. Puna Dara is blessed to have a good King in these turbulent times. If you will accept the surrender and service of the Infinite Order, you will find us undemanding and, I think, quite useful.”

“How?” The Queen could pack a tremendous weight of cynicism into one word.

“For example,” Ayuvesh said to her, his mouth quirking wryly to one side, “I came out tonight planning to cut my way through the Rock’s gates, and enduring the inevitable losses we would suffer from their defenders. Instead, imagine my surprise at finding myself suddenly approached by a mysterious partner offering to open the gatehouse for us. They were strange people; it was a succubus who slipped in and unlocked the door. Answering to a hooded man who, so far as I know, thinks I could not tell he was a dragon. A green dragon, not a red, and thus a most incongruous leash-holder for a child of Vanislaas. And I have been asking myself, as I’ve made my way through your fortress.” He spread his hands in an eloquent shrug. “What was it that prompted my King to invite a Silver Legion here to lean upon us? What had we ever done to so offend him? And now I wonder what little voice has been whispering in your ear, as well as mine.”

Anjal suddenly bared her teeth; Ayuvesh took a step back as she swung her sword, but the blade clanged uselessly against the corridor’s stone wall.

“Naphthene’s barnacled twat, I told you it was fishy for the Avenists to suddenly offer us intelligence and military support!”

“Don’t blunt your blade, woman, are you a fishmonger’s son playing with his first knife?” Rajakhan, for his part, sheathed his own sword in a decisive gesture. “I told you at the time, the Sisterhood has never in its thousands of years of history tried to steal anyone’s territory or seize temporal power outside of Viridill, and we haven’t done any of the things that have provoked them to overthrow other kingdoms. But!” He held up a hand, forestalling her angry retort. “I think, now, I should have listened to you better.”

“No matter how many times you have that realization, the next time it always comes as a surprise to your wooden head!”

“It’s well that you persist, regardless. Surely you don’t think I keep you around for your charming disposition, dear heart.” The King turned his stare back on a somewhat bemused Ayuvesh, not reacting when his wife slapped the back of his legs with the flat of her blade. “If the Sisterhood has one weakness, it is that they are themselves vulnerable to manipulation. Half the other cults are always running rings around them. Especially the Black Wreath. Who have been astonishingly helpful, of late.”

“Now, that is interesting information,” Ayuvesh said, raising his one eyebrow. “I cannot imagine a green dragon working for or even with Elilial’s servants… But Wreath or not, it’s clear to me that we have an enemy. One who benefits from a weakening of Puna Dara by using me and mine as a weapon against the Crown. The more time we waste, testing our wills against one another, the more they profit. But.” He bowed to them. “If we combine our wills together, in the very act that our enemy must fear most, the universe will bend before us. If you will let me join you.”

 

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13 – 46

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“All right. Caine, heal who you can,” Ruda said, breaking the stunned silence. “Arquin, help him.”

“Um…”

“Yes, I know you suck at it, which is why you’re following his lead. Juniper…do something about that.” She pointed at the huddled form of Milady, turning to her next targets as Toby and Gabriel headed toward the nearest source of pained groans. “Locke, Fross, I need intel. Check at the doors and windows, see what you can see without getting lost in that mess. And that leaves…”

She abruptly bounded onto the crate serving as steps to the improvised dais and from there to the platform itself, prompting a startled squeal from the man now lying flat upon it with his arms over his head.

Ruda bent to seize him by the collar and dragged him bodily to his knees, idly resting the tip of her rapier against the crates in conspicuous view.

“Hi there,” she said with a grin that was far too broad to be sincere. “While my friends try to salvage what they can of your friends, I’m gonna need you to tell me where your other friends toddled off to.”

The man stared up at her, mouth moving convulsively for a moment until he closed it to swallow.

“The ones with the metal appendages,” she prompted, deliberately flexing her wrist and scraping the tip of her sword along the wood near him. “I’m sure you must’ve noticed them.”

“I…” He swallowed again before continuing hoarsely, staring at a point past her shoulder. “I was… They helped me, don’t you see? I was nothing, but they taught me…”

“They picked up a loser at his low point, yes, I understand how religions work.” Ruda gave him a firm shake. “Where are the metal people?”

“My boat sank,” he said mechanically, “my son ran away to Tiraas, I had nothing…”

“HEY.” She hiked him up higher till his face was inches from hers, and his attention focused back on her. “I am not your fucking biographer. Where the fuck did your leaders go? Spit it out!”

This was fortuitously punctuated by a shriek from behind her as Toby set someone’s dislocated shoulder. The flash of golden healing light which followed only served to cast her face in ominous shadow.

Ruda’s prisoner drew a shuddering breath, but then his eyes seemed to come more into focus and he made a small shift which might have been a squaring of the shoulders had he been held in a less awkward position.

“I…can’t,” he said more quietly. “Do what you want. I have many weaknesses, but I’m no traitor.”

“Well, I respect that,” she replied, drawing back her sword arm to lift its tip till it rested against his thigh. “But it makes this really fuckin’ hard, so—”

“Hey!” Principia slipped back in from the side door through which she had departed, leaving it to bang in the wind behind her. “We’re about a block from the palace. It’s hard to hear clearly in this storm but I’m pretty sure the Rock is under attack.”

“It’s bad, Ruda!” Fross chimed, zooming in from one of the upper windows. “She’s right, the castle’s under seige—and I think for the second time! There’s Rust cultists with metal pieces holding the ramparts and someone else is attacking the south gate, I didn’t get a good look at who or what, but somebody is channeling lightning bolts at the Rust on the battlements!”

Ruda drew in a hissing breath through her teeth, then abruptly dropped the cultist. “Congrats, you are now redundant, have a nice life. We’ve gotta move, people. What’s our situation?”

“There’s…not a lot of these people I can still do anything for,” Toby reported somberly. “The good news is nobody who survived had any immediately life-threatening damage, but some of these lightning burns are going to require more complicated treatment than—”

“That’s their problem, then. There’s a hospital four streets away; if you’ve done the triage, we’re done here. Juniper? Is she going to be any use at all?”

“I…have no idea what’s wrong,” Juniper said helplessly, straightening up. She had been kneeling next to Milady, trying to get a response, but the woman had fallen into repetitive rocking and a haunted stare into space. “I can’t find any injury or curse or anything and all the magic in her makes it hard to sniff out… I mean, she smells kinda like me. She’s just gone completely bonkers, it looks like.”

“Battle shock,” Principia said curtly, striding over and squatting on her heels to peer at Milady. The woman in black didn’t seem to notice. “She just slaughtered a room full of people, after all; nobody normal can go through something like that without some kind of reaction. More to the point, the only humans I’ve seen move that way are Butlers. You can’t lose a fight, can you?”

This last was in a lower tone, directed at Milady. She made no reply except to squeeze her eyes shut and begin whispering frantic apologies to no one.

“Excuse me, what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“I think she’s got a fairy curse of some kind,” Principia said, still studying Milady. “It’d explain why she smells like dryads. I knew a guy once who had something similar; he was cursed never to lose a battle.”

“How is that a curse?” Gabriel asked.

“Boy, look at this, and look at that.” Principia pointed first at Milady and then at a stretch of the floor upon which seven dead people were strewn in a mixed swamp of their own blood. “Imagine being forced to retaliate with all your full lethality whenever anybody came at you, and having no control over it. What a nightmare.”

“Well, we’ll have to leave her, then,” Ruda stated, heading toward the front door.

“We can’t do that,” Toby retorted. “Especially not here! She’s helpless, and surrounded by—”

“Aside from being the Princess here,” Principia interrupted, standing, “Punaji is right. She’s a liability. She has been a liability from the beginning, the whole time she was accompanying us into unknown danger with this hanging over her and no word of warning. Bitch could’ve had the effect triggered by anything and slaughtered half of us before we knew what was happening. Leave her, we’ve gotta move.”

“Nobody is not worth helping,” Toby said stubbornly.

“Caine, either come help save my family or fuck off. I don’t have time for this.” Ruda hauled open one of the big front doors, grabbed her hat as a gust of wind immediately tried to rip it away, and stalked out into the storm without another backward look. Principia went right on her heels, and Fross darted after them, Juniper following more slowly and with several uncertain glances back at Milady.

“You can’t tell me this is right,” Toby said, turning to Gabriel. “She just saved our—”

“Toby, you were there. She started that fight, because of that…whatever it was that went off, which she never warned us about. Locke has a point, that’s murderously irresponsible at best. It could’ve killed us all down there; it’s actually a miracle it didn’t.” He glanced down at Milady, then shook his head and turned resolutely toward the door. “No, it isn’t right. It’s not. Sifa’s going to stay and watch over her, but that’s all I can spare. Sometimes you have to choose who to save, Toby. I’m choosing Ruda’s family.”

He rested a hand on Toby’s shoulder for a moment, glanced a last time down at the huddled woman, then turned and followed the others out into the storm.

Toby was the last to go, but go he did.

The group had only been out of sight for a minute, and the surviving Rust were starting to creep toward Milady, when a new figure appeared in the door, sending them fleeing toward the side entrance with a chorus of screams.

The sylph paced across the warehouse with his peculiar gait that was both a stork’s prancing and a snake’s slither, and slowly coiled his long shape around her, huge talons squelching softly in the drying blood underfoot. She didn’t respond.

“Poor, stubborn little hero,” Aradeus murmured, arching a wing protectively over her. “Mmm. You smell of pain buried not deep enough, and good advice not obeyed. You should have gone to see the healer. Always go to see the healer. Well.” He subtly tightened around her, disturbing her balance; she slumped against his silvery body, and he rested his chin atop her head. “Mmm. Great adventures will unfold tonight, but there is no evil to destroy, so I will not fight. I will observe. This is as good a place as any other, hmmm? We will watch this storm pass together.”


The gatehouse’s tiny side door was thick enough to constitute a fortress wall on its own, aside from being the narrowest door she had ever seen. Its odd proportions made it interesting to slip through and get it shut behind her against the howling storm without attracting attention. Tallie paused just inside, letting the water stream off her (it wouldn’t give her away since the whole hallway was likewise wet) and listening.

A faint rustle sounded from the room to her right, but apart from that, nothing. Once she was fairly sure no one had heard, she crept forward.

It was a narrow hall, terminating directly ahead in a stairwell that ascended to, according to Trissiny, a barracks. That would be full of Rust cultists. Though the gatehouse had a matching small door to the interior of the fortress, of course there was no convenient path from that portal to this one, which made sense defensively speaking. If anybody penetrated this entrance they would have to navigate a deliberately illogical route full of corners, stairs, and ideally soldiers, many of the halls in question lined with apertures in the ceiling and upper walls through which the Rock’s defenders could rain punishment on any intruder.

This hall had an ominous profusion of those. Hopefully the Rust hadn’t already found a use for them.

Midway down it along the right wall was a door into what Trissiny had said would be a small armory. Apparently somebody was in there, to judge by the faint scuffling she heard.

Tallie slipped up to the edge of the door, paused for a moment in thought, and then jumped. The narrowness of the hall was her ally; it gave her the perfect amount of space to brace herself across its width. Clambering up to the ceiling, she grabbed the inside of one of the dark holes meant to pour boiling oil or whatever on her, extended her body fully along the ceiling and braced her toes in another, and gingerly lowered her head to peek in through the upper edge of the doorway.

It was a cat burglar’s constant salvation: nobody ever looked up.

The armory was in pretty good order, with no signs of a struggle. That was odd, considering there were two Punaji soldiers and one half-machine man who had to have been one of these Rust characters present. One of the Punaji was bound hand and foot, lying on his side facing the door. The other lay oriented in the opposite direction, with the machine cultist kneeling between him and the entrance, apparently tying off a matching set of bindings.

Tallie hesitated, then lowered her head more fully into the room, enough to be noticeable. Sure enough, the bound soldier’s gaze shifted to her and his eyes widened.

She lowered her free hand, holding herself in place with one hand on an oil loop, one foot in another and the other braced across the hall, and held a finger to her lips. The man stared up at her, but did not otherwise react.

Two friendly soldiers present, and an enemy with his back to the door. Surely she wasn’t going to encounter any situation so fortuitous again. But how to take advantage? Tallie wasn’t a fighter even when accounting for people who weren’t partially made of metal.

Dithering nearly cost her dearly; Tallie snapped her head up at the unmistakable sound of feet running down the stairwell.

The armory had rafters across the ceiling. Trusting the architect not to have been a complete obfuscatory asshole, Tallie shifted herself forward and down at an angle, grabbing the lintel of the door frame with both hands, and swung her whole body feet-first into the room, vaulting straight upward.

Yes, rafters in the right place! She had to shift her angle of attack in mid-swing, but even so got her legs wrapped around a beam with a deftness that pleased her, then swung the rest of the way up to land atop it, out of view of both the door and the cultist below.

She could’ve made that jump by the age of eleven, but the very training that honed her body into a limber showpiece had left her with some habits the Guild had had to laboriously beat from her. Training had paid off, though, and she made her movements economical and silent. The fallen soldier’s eyes tracked her, but the cultist gave no sign he’d heard a thing.

That was all the time she had before the approaching footsteps finished approaching. Another cultist, likewise with a whole limb that looked like some crazy dwarven contraption, but this one a woman.

“Rasul!” she said breathlessly. “Are you still—what are you doing? Just drop a screambell and leave them!”

At the woman’s entrance the soldier who had noticed Tallie shifted his glare to her and did not glance upward, giving no sign of her presence. Eserites weren’t big on prayer, but she offered a silent thanks for meeting friendlies who weren’t complete and utter rubes.

“You’ve heard the sound those things make,” Rasul replied calmly, finishing binding the second soldier’s arms behind his back. “It’s painful, and you can’t tell me it won’t cause permanent damage to the ears if you just leave it on someone. We didn’t come here to be cruel.”

“Well, we don’t have time to be kind,” she snapped. “Somebody is assaulting the south gate—somebody with magic. There’s lightning bolts coming from the sky and some kind of a thing trying to ram the gate down, and the screamlances aren’t doing a thing to it. We have to hold them off until Ayuvesh can finish his work!”

“I see.” Rasul straightened, the joints in his legs—both metal starting from above the knees—clicking oddly, then again as he bowed to the two fallen soldiers. “I’m sorry about this, brothers. You should be all right here; it won’t be long.”

With no more word, he strode out after his comrade, who had already bolted back up the hallway. The man moved with amazing smoothness for somebody whose legs were clockwork.

Tallie listened for the sound of his heavy steps to recede up the stairs before dropping lightly to the floor. Whipping out her belt knife, she knelt next to the second soldier, just because his bound hands were facing her.

She took the precaution of reaching her free hand around to cover his mouth, and a good thing, too, as the sudden contact prompted a yell. The other trooper started to pull himself upright, struggling against his bonds, as Tallie approached his compatriot with a knife.

“Hush up, rubes!” she hissed. “I’m gonna cut you loose, hold still a minute.”

“Not that I’m ungrateful but who the hell are you?” the first man demanded. It was a fair enough question; she obviously wasn’t Rust, but equally obviously wasn’t military or even Punaji.

“I’m with the Thieves’ Guild,” she said quietly, sawing through the just-tied cord as rapidly as she could. “I’ve got more thieves, a Salyrite witch and the Hand of damn well Avei coming to help, but I need to get them inside before they can be much use.”

“Well, fuck me running,” the man she was untying said in amazement.

“Later, sailor,” Tallie grunted. “Business before pleasure. You guys know the layout; I need to get that gate open so my people can hit these assholes from behind. What’s—”

“Uh, first things first,” interrupted the first man she’d seen, his eyes now fixed on a spot at which men had an annoying tendency to stare. “Why’ve you got a glowing rat in your cleavage?”


“This is taking too long. Is it taking too long?” Layla altered her pacing pattern, beginning to orbit the rest of the group instead of stalking up and down in front of them. “How long does it take to break into an impregnable fortress? I should have gone with her, I can move almost as quietly… You’d know if something happened to her, right, Schwartz? You’d tell us?”

“Oy.” As she passed, Darius reached out and seized his sister by the back of her neck. “You can’t possibly think that’s helping him concentrate.”

“It’s all right,” Schwartz said without opening his eyes. “Concentration is as much emotional as intellectual. As long as you lot are squabbling, I know the world is still in order.”

Darius snorted a laugh at that, but Layla just shook him off with a glare and resumed pacing, now chewing her bottom lip.

Schwartz hadn’t bothered with any kind of ritual circle for this, though off to his right was another small improvised altar made from cobblestones pried up out of the streets themselves, this one with a handful of loose crystals of various colors on its top. He was sitting cross-legged, his spine straight and eyes closed, with elbows braced against his sides and both arms extended palm-up. His right hand appeared to be on fire; in his left rested another cobblestone which constantly trembled and twitched as if he were bouncing it, though his hand was not moving.

“Waiting is part of any heist,” Trissiny said calmly, “as well as any military campaign. This is a bit of both. Trust our friend like she does us; we all know what we’re doing.”

“If it was you in there I’d be less worried,” Layla muttered, not slowing. “Or Schwartz. The rest of us are just apprentices.”

“None of you are just anything,” Trissiny said automatically, then let out a soft sigh when Layla scowled at her. “All right, I take your point, but still. Tallie is good. We wouldn’t have let her do this if she wasn’t good enough.”

“Wait—there’s trouble.”

Schwartz suddenly opened his eyes, and Darius winced looking at him. Behind his spectacles, they glowed orange-red, the same shade as Meesie’s fur.

“Trouble where?” Trissiny asked, instinctively grasping her sword. “Do we need to pull her out?”

“Tallie’s okay,” the witch reported. “She’s rescued a couple of soldiers, and the Rust have been drawn off by our diversion; Meesie can’t hear any strange noise weapons nearby. The problem is at the other gate.” He suddenly grimaced and had to close his hands over the cobblestone, which was suddenly trying to jerk fully away from him. “I’m—they’ve—okay, those sound weapons aren’t bothering the elemental but it turns out they’ve got more mundane methods…”

“Stay here and be ready to help Tallie if she needs it,” Trissiny ordered the siblings, drawing her blade. “Sounds like this is my cue.”


The group pulled back together as they neared the fortress. The storm appeared to be on the wane, Naphthene’s fury ebbing off as quickly as it had come; the wind had slackened notably and the lightning was both less frequent and more distant. There was no relief from the downpour, however, and they were all drenched from the moment of stepping outside.

Fross, as usual, darted ahead, shooting around the corner that led their current street onto the open square before the Rock’s south gate. Principia was the first after her, but the rest were not far behind. They all piled to an immediate stop, though, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.

Something was trying to smash the gates like a living battering ram, a low-slung creature about the shape of a crocodile but apparently covered in a shell of stone. Or stones, more correctly, thickly clustered over it like scales. In fact, it was hard to tell details through the rain, but they appeared to be exactly the same color and texture as the cobblestone plaza over which it was charging again.

The weird creature was clearly trying to bash the gate itself in; even as they watched, it backed up and charged forward once more, its blunt head crashing against the outer gates. There was no telling how long it had been at this, but there was already a sizable splintered dent around the spot where the gates met, evidence of repeated pounding. However, the stone monster’s efforts were no longer going so smoothly.

It appeared to be trying to ignore the Rust harassing it and focus on its task, but that was clearly growing more difficult by the moment. A person sitting astride some kind of mechanical mount and carrying a long lance was hassling it relentlessly. The machine he was riding resembled an ostrich with a long tail for balance and a steering stick like an enchanted carriage’s where its head should be. It made an awful clatter as he maneuvered it one-handed, piston-legs pounding into the cobblestones and its joints clacking and emitting gouts of steam.

Its rider swooped around in a wide arc to charge at the stone beast again even as his target backed up for another run at the gate. He lowered his lance and its head sparked alight with arcs of electricity that made an uncontrolled nimbus in the rain. It impacted the side of the creature with enough force to shove it off-balance. The impact was enough to bring the mechanical running-bird up short, and the rider only kept his grip on the lance because it was attached to his metal arm.

Another Rust cultist was nearby on foot, wielding another shock lance with which he continually jabbed and bludgeoned the stone creature. Lacking the speed and weight of the birdlike mount, his blows hadn’t enough inertia to shift it, but that electrified lance head still did damage, each blow causing a spray of stone chips and sometimes dislodging an entire chunk of rock.

While they stared, another mechanical thing suddenly arrived, charging out of a side street to join the fray. This one was like a gigantic insect, six legs clattering noisily as it came. Rather than slamming into the stone beast as it first appeared to be about to do, it skidded to a stop nearby and this second Rust cultist leaped into its seat.

“Okay, these guys and their contraptions are old news,” Ruda said above the noise, “but what the fuck is that thing?”

“There’s a lot of fae magic in that,” Juniper said, squinting through the rain. “Like…it’s mostly fae magic.”

“It’s an elemental,” Principia said slowly. “A pavement elemental. Well, that’s a new one, I’ve gotta say.”

“What’s your call, Princess?” Gabriel asked, turning to Ruda. “Taking down the Rust is a safe bet, but we don’t know whose side the elemental’s on, except that they don’t like it. Is this an enemy-of-my-enemy thing, or do we come down on anyone who’s attacking the Rock?”

Ruda frowned at the scene in silence for a bare moment before responding. “Fuck it, we’ve gotta get in, and it looks like they’ve got control of the gates. My parents are in danger right now, we don’t have time to sort this out. Take down the Rust, and unless that thing attacks us help it get the gates—”

A deep, bellowing whinny cut through the storm and her orders, and yet another bulky figure came charging into the square from a side street. This one came from almost straight ahead, originating off the north side of the fortress’s corner and approaching at an angle that would barely skirt the tower and plow head-on into the melee.

It was a horse—an armored horse, though clearly not mechanical, and ridden by an armored figure. That was all they could perceive through the downpour, until it burst alight. Golden wings flared out from the rider, and her sword blazed with pure divine power as she leveled it at the nearest mounted cultist.

“YEEAAAAAH!” Fross screamed, shooting straight upward and erupting in a burst of silver glitter like a firework. “YOU FUCKERS ARE DONE!”


The Rock was a surpassingly resilient bastion, defensible both within and without. Punaji history being rife with coups and revolutions, those occupying its seat of power made no assumptions about their safety. Even in its deepest interior, the Rock’s corridors abounded with blind turns, choke points, doors as hard to break as the outer gates of some lesser fortresses, and more than a handful of booby traps.

It was also, of course, fully staffed both by soldiers and by civilian Punaji who not only carried weapons but didn’t need much prompting to use them. The joke on the wharves was that a Punaji scullery maid was roughly a match for a Sheng infantryman.

Unfortunately for the current royal family, all these defenses were useless against a foe who cleaved through them without even a proper fight.

What unfolded as the handful of Rust swept through the Rock could not have been called a battle. Punaji defenders were swiftly felled by sonic weapons, collapsing in pain and disorientation usually without even squeezing off a shot. The few who managed to fire on their attackers achieved nothing, wand and staff bolts sparking harmlessly against energy shields which were far more durable than the arcane charms with which they were familiar. Nor did the Rust tie down their vastly inferior numbers by trying to seize and hold any ground; they simply neutralized anyone who got in their way and swept on, making equally short work of any physical barriers in their path with blades extended from their machine arms—blades whose edges glowed as if hot, and which sliced through dense wood faster and cleaner than any saw, slowed only slightly when they encountered metal.

The Rust were clearly not here to capture the Rock. They were searching for something. As scattered and disoriented defenders slowly recovered in their passing, they quickly figured out what.

So did the King and Queen, and as such, they were not caught in any corner or defensible position, clearly having learned better from the example of what befell their troops. This communication suggested the presence of tactical scryers, but that did not matter in the end. Ayuvesh had his own means.

He had directed his people to fan through the fortress in a pincer movement as best they could given its maze of corridors, encircling the Rock and closing in. So it was that he finally snared his targets in a long hallway as they attempted to retreat, doubtless to some secret exit from the Rock itself.

Rajakhan and Anjal were accompanied only by their seneschal and two soldiers, and the latter had been neatly felled by sonic shots from the cultist who appeared at the end of the hall down which they fled. The royal couple turned to retreat while Akhatrya tried (fruitlessly) to hamper the attacker, but it was Ayuvesh himself who met them coming the other way. Through the reports of his people scattered through the fortress, he had been tracking them for some time already.

He had left one of his followers behind at the other end of the corridor to ensure they were not interrupted. Finally, he had his moment.

Both King and Queen bared steel at him, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and glaring without a hint of fear.

“Your Majesties,” he said grandly, gesticulating with his metal hand. “I will not waste our time with insincere pleasantries. My people rage unimpeded through your fortress, completely unhindered by the best you can throw against them. You know by now that your weapons will not prevail against me. I have you cornered and at my mercy. This chase, it would appear, is well and truly over.”

“Do what you came to, but spare me your juvenile gloating,” Blackbeard growled. “The Punaji will not—”

“Forgive me,” Ayuvesh said, holding up his other hand, “for interrupting what I’m sure would have been a memorable speech, but once you have learned what I came for I think you will be glad not to have wasted it upon my unworthy self.”

“Speak, then,” Anjal snapped.

“I mistrust words,” he replied with a smile. “Deeds are what matters in life. Action, and the will to take it. And so!”

He tossed aside his screamlance, to their visible surprise. Their expressions of confusion only deepened when Ayuvesh carefully knelt upon the stone floor, and raised both his hands, metal and flesh, in the air. He bowed his head to them, speaking only two more words.

“I surrender.”

 

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