Tag Archives: Rupa the Summoner

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“I haven’t done anything wrong!” Rehvad Salimon protested, his voice growing shrill.

“Master Salimon,” Ravana said in a calm and not unkind tone, “there is no one truly innocent. We all have something upon our conscience. The only person who makes such a blanket protest of innocence is, quite obviously, laboring to conceal guilt.”

He gaped at her for one fishlike moment, then began stammering. “I—but that—what does—”

Keeping her expression even as always, Ravana inwardly rebuked herself. It was a pointless observation, which a man less intimidated and out of his depth would naturally dismiss for the silly philosophical time-wasting it was. Playing such mind games with someone like this was purely self-indulgent, and needlessly cruel.

“More specifically,” she went on, cutting off his fumbling protests, “I should remind you that it is not customary for miscellaneous citizens to have a personal audience with their Duchess in the preliminary stages of an investigation. I am well aware of your role in organizing that lamentable incident outside Falconer Industries. Of greater import, I am aware that you did so at the instigation of the Universal Church, in exchange for a monetary bribe.”

“That’s not a crime!” he burst out, and then went pale. “I mean—that is, I don’t know what… My concerns about that archdemon were perfectly valid! Our concerns.”

The man was visibly sweating now. Ravana stared at him in silence. It was a favorite trick of Tellwyrn’s, one she’d not had an opportunity to learn before Last Rock. When her father had wanted to unsettle someone, he blustered and threatened. Cold silence was far more deadly to an already-burdened conscience, and easier to deliver with dignity.

This room was carefully chosen for such a purpose, a small office lined with dark-stained oak paneling and deep blue wallpaper that made it feel close, even claustrophobic, especially with five people present. Mr. Salimon occupied an uncomfortably small wooden chair in the center of the room, with two House Madouri guards looming behind him in positions flanking the door. Ravana sat across from him, in a comfortable armchair designed to evoke the aspect of a throne, Yancey standing like a solemn statue at her left. It was an interrogation chamber, designed for exactly this use, and all the more intimidating for a middle-aged shopkeeper like Salimon for being in Madouri Manor rather than a police barracks. Soldiers and police officers in the Empire scrupulously followed the letter of the law and handled citizens with care under the Tirasian Dynasty’s rules, with the occasional exception of Imperial Intelligence. The Madouris, on the other hand, were known to make inconvenient people vanish.

He drew in a deep and slightly shaky breath, making a deliberate effort to square his shoulders, and raised his chin. “I believe that the Writ of Duties requires me to be represented by a qualified attorney before any judgment is rendered.”

Ravana lifted one eyebrow. “Of course. Master Salimon, our purpose here is to determine the details of what happened. It has not yet been decided that you are to be charged with any crime. Should it come to that, you will of course have access to a lawyer of your choosing, or be provided one by the state if you are unable to secure such services on your own. Why?” She subtly leaned forward, holding her gaze on his. “Is there something to which you would like to confess that would require a trial?”

Even more color leached from his cheeks. That was the only reply he managed to produce.

“So,” Ravana continued more briskly, “as a key witness in this ongoing investigation, you will naturally be our guest here until the matter is brought to a conclusion, one way or another.”

“Y-your Grace,” he said weakly, “I…I mean, my Lady… I have a family.”

She frowned in reproach. “Good heavens, man, we are hardly going to torture you. This is the twelfth century, and we are all professionals here. You will be interviewed at whatever duration the specialists I employ deem necessary, and until they are finished, housed here when not speaking with them. Comfortably, Master Salimon, not in a dungeon cell. With all due respect, I imagine my humblest guest chambers are more salubrious than your own home. Simply cooperate with your interviewers to the greatest extent you can, and this matter can be resolved with the utmost speed.”

“But I…” He wrung his hands, staring pleadingly at her. “Please, Lady Madouri, you must understand I only meant to do what was right.”

“And make some easy coin in the process?”

Salimon cringed. “It—it was just that—”

“These are the details you should explain at length when asked. Now you must excuse me, Master Salimon, as I have many other engagements today.”

“I beg you, Lady Madouri—”

“That will be all.”

The guards immediately stepped forward and helped their guest to rise and make his way to the door. Politely, even gently, but no less firmly for that. Ravana had taken pains to ensure that her House Guard understood the distinction.

When the door clicked shut behind them, leaving herself and Yancey alone in the chamber, she allowed her expression to descend into a flat stare at the wall.

“He is a small business owner,” she said aloud after nearly a minute of silence. “A lifelong resident of Madouris. Born and raised.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Yancey replied. “A bootmaker. His shop is not large, but rather successful.”

“And that,” she whispered, “due to one of the business loans furnished by my treasury, before which he was a cobbler in a factory. I consigned everyone I loved to the headsman to rescue this province, Yancey. Opened my House’s wealth and resources to improve my people’s lives to the greatest extent I could—and with amazing success, if I may boast, in only two short years. Now, here I find one of the most direct recipients of my generosity, paid in my family’s blood, trying to stab me in the back. For a handful of doubloons. I begin to understand why the powers of this world still insist on resorting to torture, despite centuries of accumulated knowledge to show how ineffective the tactic is. There’s an appeal to the simplicity, is there not? If the subject won’t comply, hurt them until they do.”

“Torture is indeed an extremely effective tool for securing compliance, my Lady,” the Butler said diffidently. “It is sadly counterproductive when used to acquire valid information.”

“And even so,” Ravana hissed, her fingers tensing into claws on the arms of her chair, “it is tempting. So very tempting, when the subject in question is an infernally presumptuous ingrate.”

Two heartbeats of silence ensued before Yancey discreetly cleared his throat. “Veilwin and Barnes have both successfully attached magical traces to the priority targets Barnes’s spirits identified. The ‘bigger fish,’ as he put it. Lord-Captain Arivani also has his best men observing their movements. It is my understanding, my Lady, that those are the anticipated sources of intelligence on his Holiness’s connections in the province. Mr. Salimon’s detention is more designed to provide a pretext for your upcoming declaration, and convince the Archpope that we have failed to identify his true agents. If we do not truly expect to garner worthwhile information from Mr. Salimon… Strictly speaking, it would seem not to matter what befalls him here.”

With a Butler’s customary subtle precision, he managed to express the suggestion without voicing it directly.

Ravana continued staring at the wall in silence for another long moment before very slowly shaking her head. “Such self-indulgent brutality all too quickly becomes a habit, Yancey, and I have seen firsthand what that habit in a leader does to a realm. No… I fear I have already indulged myself to excess, here. The wretch will be handled with all due care and then thrown back to his sad little life when he’s no longer useful. Perhaps that, at least, will teach him some caution, if not virtue.”

“Very good, my Lady.”

She could not fault him for the suggestion, for all that it ran against her practices and stated policies for the running of her province. In truth, this entire interview had been unnecessary; nothing about Salimon’s case had required her personal attention, and indeed only took time away from the actually professional interrogators she employed, not that she expected them to get anything useful from him anyway. All of this was simply because she’d wanted to look him in the eye, see the man and hear his excuses for aiding the enemies of his Duchess. Ravana had expected nothing from him, and still come away disappointed. From Yancey’s point of view, it was a purely logical extrapolation to suggest she might wish to vent her ire on the little toad of a man—and Yancey, of course, would not venture an opinion on the subject one way or another. Whatever his mistress chose to do, he would see done with the greatest efficiency.

Ravana did not have that luxury. As a leader, she had to make better choices. The monster within her that eternally snarled for vengeance must remain leashed, until there were more fitting targets upon whom to loose it.

And in fact, only for minutes longer. She was about to declare total war upon a worthy target indeed.

“Time?” she asked crisply, rising from the chair.

“The reporters you invited have begun gathering, and will be ready when you appear to deliver your address,” he replied smoothly, the Butler of course not needing to consult any messengers or even a watch to know the exact status of any project within his domain. “As you requested, my Lady, only journalists from Madouris have been summoned, though we have not limited the conference to representatives of papers under your direct control. The paladins will begin delivering their own speeches within the hour.”

“I hope they took my advice,” she murmured.

“It appears so, my Lady. All three will make their announcements in a staggered order, to avoid drawing attention from one another, and build political momentum.”

“Good. And we have magical oversight to notify us when the last paladin announcement is complete?”

“Yes, my Lady. Veilwin expressed her displeasure at the need for her to remain sober for the duration.”

“She will live, provided she does not antagonize her employer much further.” Timing would be important; Ravana had suggested to the paladins that they would achieve a greater effect by chaining their formal announcements one after another rather than delivering them simultaneously, and she planned to launch her own as soon as they were finished to further extend the chain, and avoid stepping on their toes. Against the right kind of foe, a rapid succession of blows could be more devastating than a single more powerful one.

Ravana swept toward the door and her much anticipated date with full-scale conflict, but hesitated with her hand upon the latch. “And Yancey, make arrangements for me to have a fencing tutor during my vacations from Last Rock. Professor Ezzaniel believes I am not without talent, and… I suspect this seething desire to pummel the crap out of someone is going to become a recurring part of my life. I should cultivate a properly graceful means of expressing it. As befits a Lady.”

She emerged in a split-second surge of darkness as usual, and immediately had multiple destructive spells aimed at her. For a given value of “immediately;” Natchua had the dual advantages of faster-than-human reflexes and preparation, since only she had known in advance the precise timing of her arrival. Infernal countermeasures were already sizzling at her fingertips before the stepped out of the shadows onto the rooftop, and had assembled mental preparations to neutralize or reverse every hex the other warlocks conjured before they could attack.

But they didn’t. After a tense second, most of them released their gathered energies, and the few holdouts kept their spells in a suspended low-power state. Natchua, frankly, was disappointed. Her life would be so much simpler if they would just throw down honestly so she could put a final end to all this. And yet, here they were.

“Only you weirdos would hold a picnic on a rooftop in Veilgrad at midwinter,” she snorted, folding her arms and looking down her nose at the assembled Black Wreath.

“Like it?” Embras Mogul asked cheerfully, gesturing around. They had dragged—or more likely shadow-jumped—a wooden table and several benches up here, and even set up a grill. None of the warlocks appeared to be cold, which meant they hadn’t actually done any serious infernomancy, as that would destabilize most commercially available arcane heating charms. No, it appeared they were simply relaxing in the open air, working their way through a big cauldron of mulled cider and sandwiches made of grilled sausage and a horrible local specialty called sauerkraut which Natchua didn’t care to be within smelling range of. “I’m surprised more people don’t do this, what with modern warmth charms. Hot food and cold air make for a delightful contrast! Rupa, get the Duchess a sandwich.”

“The Duchess can get her own fucking sandwich,” retorted a Punaji woman before taking a long draught of cider.

“No, thank you,” Natchua sniffed. “I don’t suppose the owners of this building even know you’re up here?” She was answered by a variety of disdainful expressions. For once, and for whatever reason—likely having to do with eating and drinking—the Wreath had their hoods down. They were a collection of humans of various ethnicities; Natchua wasn’t sure she liked seeing all their faces this way. Wiping them all out would feel easier if they could be dismissed as formless robed mooks.

“Really, how many flat rooftops are there in Veilgrad?” Mogul retorted. “They’re practically asking for it. We should demand payment for clearing off the snow; that’s exactly why they build those steep gabled roofs around here, you know.”

“I guess I can’t fault your inventiveness when it comes to finding new ways to get my attention.”

“Yes, that’s right, Natchua,” he replied with gratuitously heavy-handed sarcasm. “Everything we do revolves around you.”

She folded her arms, refusing to rise to that bait. “Well, here I am. So go ahead, Mogul, do your gloating. Don’t hold back, let’s get it all out of your system up front.”

He actually hesitated with a sandwich halfway to his mouth, staring at her through slightly narrowed eyes. Several of his fellow cultists were regarding her with similar expressions, those who weren’t scowling outright.

“Gloating,” Mogul said slowly, rolling the word around as if to taste it.

“Are you really going to make me start?” Natchua demanded. “You know what, fine, whatever gets this done with faster. I’m big enough to admit when I’ve been beaten. So congratulations, you called my big bluff. I’ll own up to it: the thought genuinely never crossed my mind that you would actually grovel in public. I wouldn’t have. So, you win. And now I’m stuck with you freaks, because no, my word means too much for me to renege on a public promise, even to…you. I’m sure I have many long years of you finding ways to torture me with it to look forward to.”

She grimaced right back at their scowls, only belatedly noting that some of those scowls had melted into expressions of confusion. Natchua glanced back and forth at the displeased warlocks whose picnic she had crashed; now, for some reason, they mostly looked bemused or suspicious, as if trying to figure out what she was up to. Mogul himself was just staring at her with a curious blank face, sandwich still held halfway to his mouth.

“Well?” she prompted. “That’s it. If you were hoping for more, you’re gonna be waiting a long time. I just said I’m not willing to humiliate myself any—”

Natchua broke off again as Embras Mogul burst out laughing, then just stared while he appeared to fall into outright hysterics. Dropping his sandwich, the high priest of Elilial staggered into the picnic table, only haphazardly managing to slide onto a seat rather than tumbling to the frozen rooftop along with his spilled bread and sausage. Even the other Wreath were watching him with varying degrees of confusion and alarm, Vanessa stepping closer and reaching out but then hesitating, as if unsure how to deal with this.

“Does he often…?” Natchua gestured vaguely at the cackling warlock. Nobody answered her, except with a few spiteful stares.

“Y-y’see,” Mogul wheezed, removing his omnipresent hat and tossing it carelessly down on the table. “You see what she’s doing, though?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Natchua huffed. “What is it you think I’m doing now?”

“Not you,” he snorted, his laughter cutting off as abruptly as it had begun. “No, Natchua my dear, you pegged me right in the first place. I’m right there with you; I’d sooner chew off my own foot, if the alternative was making a degrading public spectacle of myself. Only a direct command from the Dark Lady could make me even consider such a thing.” He bared his teeth at her in an expression very much like a fox in the kind of trap that could only be escaped by the means he’d just suggested. “And so it was.”

Natchua narrowed her own eyes, feeling a chill down her back that was unrelated to the cold air. She had suspected at the time, having felt that moment of Elilial’s dark attention in the moment before the man had buckled to the ground. “I really don’t know how you can still trust her enough to do such a thing, after all that’s happened. Much less why she would see any advantage in humiliating you like that.”

“Why, that’s exactly what I just realized,” he replied, grinning bleakly up at her. “It’s a classic trick—but then, simple tricks are the best tricks. If you want mutually hostile people to get along, you give them a mutual enemy. And for people who are all, to varying degrees, averse to being ordered around, there’s no more tempting enemy than someone in authority over them. You see?”

She did see, but found nothing to say, for once.

“I don’t believe it,” one of the warlocks growled.

“That’s too…” Vanessa trailed off mid-sentence, as though unsure what she’d actually meant to say.

“It fits, though,” Mogul said, still staring up at Natchua. “It has to be said there’s not a shred of trust here, nor even amity. You know, what with all the murder and torture and ambushing and all.”

“I don’t believe you,” Natchua managed at last, echoing one of Mogul’s own followers. “I can believe Elilial would be cruel enough to make you humiliate yourself, but not for no point. There’s no reason she would care enough whether we get along. There’s no reason we need to.”

“I think you know better,” he replied, his stare again gone flat and expressionless. “There’s a new paradigm brewing; none of us know what the new order will shape up to be. But the Dark Lady isn’t one to just let things happen without applying her own finger to the scales. And obviously, whatever plans she has are better off with her cult and her paladin able to work together.”

Wind whistled over the rooftop, carrying with it the sounds and smells of the bustling city laid out around them.

“So,” Natchua said at last, “you do know about that.”

“Oh, come on, why did you think we were here?” he scoffed, spreading his arms. “Our only business with you should have been a quick and lethal ambush. But we had to know, Natchua. What other question could there have been, except why. In all of recorded history, even we have no hint there was ever a Hand of Elilial. And she chooses an enemy? Someone who did to us what you did? Of all the possible prospects, why you?”

It would be so easy to seize that opportunity to say something spiteful, or simply deflect the question, but something stayed her impulse. They were all starting at her with an intensity which, if it didn’t exactly bring down the masks, said this question was absolutely sincere, and pivotal. That was only understandable, even if she couldn’t see the raw aspect of their faces. Natchua had been trying to pay attention to this feeling, and while she didn’t feel she’d made much progress in understanding it, she had learned to at least recognize these moments of decision, when an unknown impulse prompted her to do something that seemed irrational. So far, these had turned out better for her than she had any right to expect. This time, it pushed her to simply be straightforward with the Black Wreath.

“She said I was cunning,” Natchua answered him, fixing her eyes on Embras’s and ignoring the intent stares of the other warlocks—and not, of course, relaxing her defenses for an instant, just on the chance one of them got agitated and then impulsive. “Apparently the archdemons were her equivalent of a paladin, and with them all gone and Vadrieny effectively against her, she needed something to fill the gap. It didn’t make sense to me why an avowed enemy was a good choice, either, but…here we are. Cunning, she said. I got the impression your cult has been disappointing in that regard. Clever and deceitful rather than cunning. She spent some time lecturing me about the difference.”

She hesitated, once more glancing around; Mogul remained expressionless, but some of the other warlocks were starting to look angry again. On that, she couldn’t exactly blame them.

“As for what’s really going on, I couldn’t tell you,” Natchua snorted. “The whole thing was a crock of bullshit. I have no idea what her game is, but honestly. Cunning? I know my faults, thank you, and I’m not stupid enough to swallow that. I’m impulsive and lucky, that’s all. Whatever game Elilial is playing, I guess she didn’t feel the need to bring you into the loop either, and I’m afraid I can’t help. Cunning, my gray ass.”

“Hm,” a bearded man grunted from one side of the group, shifting his eyes to stare pensively out over Veilgrad’s skyline rather than at her.

“I know that grunt,” Mogul said with a sigh, turning back to him. “That is the grunt of forbidden wisdom. Well, come on, Bradshaw. Let’s not keep us in suspense.”

Bradshaw’s eyes focused on him, and then he glanced again at Natchua. “Are we giving explanations to the…her, Embras?”

“The her has deigned to be forthcoming with us,” Mogul acknowledged. “And it does seem we are stuck with one another for the time being. Let’s hear what you know.”

The other warlock’s nostrils flared once in a silent sigh which connoted annoyance, but he did turn back to Natchua. “What you did at Ninkabi was…or at least, could be interpreted as a ritual called an Offering of Cunning. Someone who out-maneuvers the Black Wreath in open combat and then…” He paused, gritting his teeth so hard the expression was visible even behind his beard. “Well, the spirit of the thing calls for withdrawing at that point before delivering a deathblow. You technically didn’t kill anyone with your own hands, though your next actions certainly were the next worst thing. For whatever reason, it seems the Dark Lady chose to interpret that as an Offering of Cunning. The reward is a personal audience with her, in which the successful offerer is allowed to ask questions and receive truthful answers.”

“That’s the first I ever heard of that nonsense,” she assured him. “I really was just trying to kill you and ruin her day.”

“Yes, well, the last time we got an Offering of Cunning was two years ago and at that time, none of us had heard of it, either, including Embras. Understand that for most of the Wreath’s history, our core operations have been concentrated on this continent, as with most of the Pantheon cults. And that led to a dramatic change in the nature of our operations a century ago, as the Wreath was damaged almost as badly as the Empire during the Enchanter Wars.”

“I didn’t know you fought in the Enchanter Wars,” Natchua admitted, beginning to be intrigued in spite of herself.

“Ugh,” Vanessa grunted, folding her arms.

“Oh, I assure you our forebears did their level best to stay out of that mess,” Mogul said wryly. “Unfortunately, other parties taking advantage of the chaos took their own toll. The Wreath’s leadership at the time was entirely wiped out by… Well, actually, your friend Kheshiri could tell you that story far better than I, as she was neck-deep in it.”

“You lost the right to complain about Kheshiri when you let her out of her bottle in the first place.”

“I have to give you that one,” he agreed. “Anyway, your pardon, Bradshaw. Please continue.”

“The point,” said Bradshaw, “is that the Wreath keeps a mostly oral tradition; few of our secrets were ever written down. That loss of important personnel cost us a great deal of our magical and ritual knowledge, and so the Wreath subsequently pivoted from a largely mystical to a mostly political organization. A lot of its more esoteric knowledge was left lost. After the battle at Tiraas two years ago when we were abruptly reminded of the Offering of Cunning, I’ve been focusing on digging up what I can of the Wreath’s past mystical traditions. Ironically, the best sources now are hidden archives of the Pantheon cults recording their various observations. It’s been slow, but I have turned up a number of fascinating things.”

“One of which you just recognized,” she said.

“The grunt of forbidden wisdom,” Mogul said solemnly. “Go on, Bradshaw, lay it on us.”

“I know of cases like yours,” Bradshaw explained, now studying Natchua through narrowed eyes, his stare more analytical than angry. “Not exactly like it; I’ve seen no record of the Dark Lady gifting someone the way she did you and that Masterson boy. But the old Wreath used to deliberately do a similar thing, using the auspices of greater djinn. Actually that practice had fallen by the wayside long before the Enchanter Wars, as it was more risky than rewarding. Given the kinds of people who’d be selected for a task like that, the circumstances in which the risk was considered warranted and what usually happens when a greater djinn is invoked, it was mostly a recipe for losing key personnel exactly when they were needed most. When it did work, though, the warlock could gain, all in one moment, vast knowledge of the infernal.”

“Sure, no great mystery there,” Natchua said with a shrug. “Obviously a more powerful warlock is more useful.”

“It wasn’t about power,” Bradshaw said irritably. “It has never been our way to go head-to-head with our enemies. Even if we weren’t heavily outnumbered in every contest, we serve the goddess of cunning. And cunning was always the point. A person who was abruptly gifted a vast command of infernomancy would usually become almost preternaturally devious. Able to think faster than any of their foes, taking actions that seemed nonsensical at the time but always seemed to work out to their advantage.”

That, finally, brought Natchua up short. She narrowed her own eyes to slits, and at last nodded grudgingly. “…go on?”

“Subjective physics,” the one called Rupa said thoughtfully. “What’s that old expression, Hiroshi, the one the Salyrites like to use?”

“Magic,” replied a man with Sifanese features in a soft tone, “is data processing.”

“That’s basic magical theory,” Vanessa agreed. “Magic isn’t about power; the power comes from mundane universal principles. Magic is…information. It bridges the gap between what conscious minds can conceive and sub-atomic phenomena, and then performs the vast calculations necessary to produce physical effects based on ideas.”

Bradshaw nodded. “If you already have the right personality type…say, an aptitude for lateral thinking, that probably wouldn’t manifest well before you received the gift. Would I be right in guessing your antics mostly caused you embarrassment and trouble before your first encounter with the Dark Lady, Natchua?”

She managed not to cringe at the forcible reminder of her behavior during her first years at Last Rock. “That’s…not inaccurate.”

“Some people are just dumb,” Bradshaw continued, raising an eyebrow. “Or thoughtless, or overly aggressive, or any number of other things. But sometimes, people who act unpredictably or unwisely are just trying to extrapolate too much from their surroundings. Sometimes, if gifted with a great deal of magic, the gaps are filled in. They start to draw information from sources even they aren’t consciously aware of, and process it faster and in ways most people can’t. Their actions appear random, but they are instinctively led by…magic. Data processing.”

“Huh,” she said, blinking. “I guess…people with odd magical mutations do exist. Tellwyrn sort of collects them. November, Fross, Iris…”

“Yes, I’m sure you’d like to think of yourself as a unique and beautiful snowflake,” Bradshaw said with a disdainful sneer, “but no, I’m not talking about anything so interesting. It’s simply one possible effect of being suddenly inundated with magical knowledge the way you were, and it explains your subsequent pattern of blundering and failing your way into ever-greater success better than…well, anything.”

“Why am I just now hearing about this?” Mogul demanded.

Bradshaw turned back to him with a shrug. “It’s just a theory, Embras. Another possibility is that she hasn’t actually succeeded at anything and is being used by more powerful figures for their own ends. This Duchess business is definitely an example of that. And after all, it’s usually wise to look for mundane explanations before exotic ones. We don’t know, but…given her description of what the Dark Lady said, it’s at least a possibility.”

“If our fate is to be tied to hers anyway,” Hiroshi said softly, “perhaps it behooves us not to allow rival powers to manipulate her too badly.”

To judge by their displeased expressions, none of the other warlocks were enthusiastic about that idea. But no one offered a word of rebuttal; the fact was, he was right. The same held true from Natchua’s perspective. As little as she liked any of these…people, she had given her word, in public. As long as they were willing to toe the line, they now had the right to demand her protection.

She and Embras studied each other in mutual reluctance. Despite the animosity here, this was the situation they were in. They could either struggle further, or try to make the best of it.

“Okay,” Natchua said grudgingly, “I see what you mean. She is a manipulative one, huh. Why are you so eager to be jerked around like this?”

“You’ve never devoted yourself to a cause greater than your own life, have you,” he replied, and it wasn’t really a question. “I could explain, but the result would only be another argument with no winner. You’ll come to understand in time, or you won’t.”

“That’s super fucking helpful, thank you.”

Mogul grinned unrepentantly. “Well, then… What now?”

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9 – 30

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True to Raichlin’s word, the Shadow Hunters had no trouble keeping up with Arjen, at least for most of the trip. He wasn’t built for speed as horses went, but still considerably outstripped the average human running pace, and sustained a full gallop far longer than even an average horse could have—especially considering how many passengers he carried. Still, the paths through the foothills outlying the city were roundabout, and their journey included only two pauses, to allow Gabriel and Toby to dismount and approach an active graveyard, and by the time they reached their apparent destination, whatever magic the Hunters used to augment their physical abilities was clearly stretched thin. Frind got her to the gates of another cemetery, but there had to stagger to a halt and doubled over, gasping.

She dismounted as soon as Arjen stopped, stepping over to her guide. The others had accompanied the other paladins, leaving them the only two left; after her danger sense had gone particularly berserk at each of the other sites, and to a lesser degree throughout the journey, Trissiny was more than ready to get to work with her sword. She paused, however, to place a hand on Frind’s shoulder and lay a simple blessing upon him.

“I’m sorry, that’s the best I can do,” she said as the hunter’s breathing evened and he straightened up. “It should help, but I’m not trained as a proper healer.”

“It does help,” he said with a grateful smile. “Considerably. I’m about magicked out for the time being, but you still have my bow.”

“Good,” she said, releasing him and drawing her sword. “Hang back, then. Don’t hesitate to jump in if you see an opportunity, or a need, but let me take point here.”


It was an open question whether the locals walled off their graveyards out of cultural custom or because events like this had some precedent, but every site they had visited thus far had been built along the same plan. Trees and the roofs of some of the grander mausoleums were visible over the walls, but from without the cemetery looked a lot like the grounds of Dufresne Manor: concealed behind a high granite wall, with a wrought iron gate.

The gate was wide open, though, and Trissiny stepped through it with her shield upraised, Frind right behind her.

This place had been utterly devastated.

It was laid out on a rambling plan, a little more than an acre square, with a single winding path traversing the grounds and the odd pine tree and standing tomb rising from the otherwise flat plain of grass and headstones. The cemetery would doubtless have been a peaceful sight, normally, but now every visible grave had been disturbed, the earth around them puckered up like pimples where bodies had clawed their way free. Mausoleum doors had been smashed open from the inside; some had proved too sturdy for simple zombies to escape, and were emitting very disturbing noises. The undead were everywhere, but by this point, only a relative few were still moving. The rest were scattered about, mostly in pieces, and many badly charred. Long swaths of the grass had been scorched black, one of the trees was knocked over and another still smoldered.

The swooping, serpentine forms of katzil demons spiraled through the air above the cemetery, at least half a dozen of them. Mouths and eyes glowing with green fire, they dived and blasted undead before retreating out of range. To judge by the destruction they had wrought, it seemed to be an effective tactic. The last few zombies were apparently being mopped up even as Trissiny and Frind arrived.

Two other figures were present, both in robes. A bearded man with a filthy, unkempt beard, dressed in filthy, unkempt robes that had once been crimson, lay sprawled nearby upon the front steps of a mausoleum that had been partially crushed by a fallen pine, unconscious or dead. In a small cul-de-sac near the center of the graveyard, at the midpoint of the path, stood another figure in robes of ash gray, its back to the entrance.

“Stop!” Trissiny shouted, charging forward. “Keep your hands where I can see them! One infernal spell and it’ll be your last!”

“So,” said the warlock, in a feminine voice with a distinct Punaji accent. “Here I’ve been busting my ass, risking the well-being of my pets, to clean up this mess and protect the citizens from undead. Now that the hard work is done, along comes the Hand of Avei, shouting threats and demands. The history of the world in a nutshell.”

“Your demon-summoning is destabilizing the entire area!” Trissiny shot back. “There’s an active chaos rift somewhere in Veilgrad, you fool—what you’re doing is causing random teleportation throughout the city.”

“Yes, I know,” the warlock said, turning to face them. Her cowl kept her face in shadow. “Sloppy, unfocused…not at all how I prefer to operate. But orders are orders. And hey, it got you here.”

A golden light sprang up around Trissiny and she fell into a partial crouch, keeping her shield up and facing the warlock. “You did all this just to get my attention?” Behind her, Frind knelt, placing a sturdy granite tombstone between himself and the robed woman, and nocked an arrow.

“Your attention, or one of the other paladins,” the woman said mildly, turning to beckon one of the swooping katzils. It dived to her, nuzzling at her fingertips for a moment, then twined affectionately about her body. “Or Vadrieny’s, maybe. There were plans in place for any response you made. And, of course, to deal with that.” She gestured at the felled cultist. “Aside from the trouble he was causing here, he had something we want.”


White light flashed, something slammed into Trissiny from behind, and her divine shield winked out. She staggered forward, nearly losing her balance. Frind straightened up, taking aim at the warlock with his bow, but she was faster; a burst of sickly purple energy caught him right in the upper chest, sending him bowling over backward.

“We’re calling them divine disruptors,” another voice said cheerfully from the gates behind them. “Oh, the Imperial enchanters doing the actual developing had their own name. Just a string of numbers, really—can you imagine that? No passion, no soul. Really, toys like this are better off in our hands. At the very least, out of the hands of idiot chaos worshipers.”

Trissiny pivoted and retreated to one side, keeping both figures in view. The new arrival was a dark-skinned man in a dapper white suit with a wide-brimmed hat; he ambled forward, a peculiar object held lightly in one hand. It appeared to be based upon a standard Imperial battlestaff: a simple length of glossy wood with a clicker mechanism about halfway along its length. Large crystals were mounted at each end, though, one spherical, one a trapezoid, and there was a spiraling triple helix of gold twisting along half its length between the clicker and the sharp-tipped gem.

He came to a stop a few yards distant and tipped his hat with the hand not holding the weapon. “Well, well. Trissiny Avelea. You know, you’re my first paladin! Back in the old days, your predecessors and mine faced off in some truly dramatic contests, or so the lore tells us. But where are my manners? Embras Mogul, high priest of Elilial, most humbly at your service.”

“Charmed,” she snapped. “Surrender peacefully and I’ll see you’re well treated.”

“Ah, yes, or you’ll call down the wrath of Avei on me, is that it?” Mogul grinned. “By all means, do. Let’s see some of that divine light.”

Trissiny braced her feet and retreated another step, her eyes darting to keep both warlocks and the swirling katzils in view. They seemed to have polished off the last undead and now twirled in the air above the woman in gray.

“You mask your confusion quite well; my compliments,” said Mogul. “But allow me to clear up the mystery. The reason you are finding yourself unable to use magic right now is you’ve only got the one kind, and you were just zapped with one of the Army’s experimental anti-divine weapons.” He brandished the modified staff at her, grinning. “Which we just retrieved from this clown over here. I’m sorry to say they’ll never manage to mass-produce these; quite apart from the expense of the materials—this is actual gold, and the crystals are natural and worth a fortune themselves—the spells have to be individually laid by a witch of considerable skill. Also, the thing is damnably heavy. You have any idea what this much gold weighs? But look who I’m talking to, you’re running around in armor all the time.”

“Frind?” Trissiny asked tersely, glancing over at the felled Shadow Hunter.

Mogul lifted his head enough to make his frown visible beneath the brim of his hat. “How hard did you hit him, Rupa?”

“He should be fine,” said the other warlock. “Just stunned. A little singed, perhaps. Nothing a quick healing won’t fix.”

“Ah, good. One hates to leave unnecessary corpses in one’s wake,” Mogul said lightly. “All righty, then! I’m sure you are aware, young lady, that your weapons and skills are not going to help you against multiple katzil demons without divine power to call on, so I believe this is over unless you’re absolutely committed to the idea of getting yourself hurt. Be so good as to surrender.”

“I will see you damned first,” Trissiny grated.

He sighed. “Well, there are just so many responses to that. I’ve a lot of things I’d like to discuss with you, in fact, but unfortunately this town is still coming apart at the seams, and I simply do not have time. Tell you what, we’ll catch up in more detail after Veilgrad is secured. For now, however—”

Trissiny saw Rupa turn and raise her hand, and got her shield into position, but the shadow bolt knocked her physically backward even with its aid. She braced herself and absorbed the second one more easily, but was abruptly yanked off her feet by chains that twined around her boots. More lashed out from behind her, entangling her arms and suddenly yanking her backward. With a yell of protest, Trissiny was hurled backward thirty feet, losing her grip on her sword and shield, and slammed against the trunk of the one undamaged pine.

The few moments she hung there, too stunned to struggle, were all the chains needed to wrap themselves around her and the trunk a few more times, securing her firmly in place.

“Well, that’s that,” said Mogul. “Rupa, kindly put those away? Thank you.”

He paced slowly forward as the woman beckoned the katzils toward her one by one, making each disappear as soon as it reached her. The warlock in white came to a stop a few feet from the bound paladin and tipped his hat.

“Now then! We’ve not personally tested these things out, of course, but based on the Army’s research notes, the effect is quite temporary. As strong a connection as you have to the divine, your powers should return within the hour. Give or take. It’s vague, obviously.”

“Goddess,” Trissiny whispered, writhing against her bonds.

“Oh, she can’t hear you,” Mogul said grimly. “At least, not yet. We’ll be taking our leave, now. Your friend over there ought to be coming ’round before too much longer; whether he wakes or you regain your magic first, one or the other should be able to get you out of those chains. You’re in no long-term danger, then, but this will suffice to keep you busy while we go assist your friends in town.”

“Wait!” Trissiny shouted as he turned. “Wait… You can’t just leave us here! What if the undead return? Or whatever else is roaming these hills?”

“There’s an old saw about omelets and eggs I keep having to repeat to people,” Mogul said, looking over his shoulder at her with a smile. “Want to hear it?”

“Just…leave me something, all right? I’m obviously no threat to you, anyway.” She jerked her head toward where her weapons had fallen. “My sword. Just put it in reach for me. If you’re as serious as you people claim about wanting to help, you’ll give me that much.”

“Mm,” he mused, glancing at the fallen weapon. “Well, why not? I don’t see the harm in that, and you do make a good case.”

Mogul stepped over to the sword, transferring his divine disruptor to his left hand, then knelt and wrapped his fingers around the hilt.


It could only barely be called daylight, and nothing resembling a true dawn had occurred, but in the time it took Squad One to cross the city, the dull gray of early morning lightened to a paler gray. The streets were still shrouded in fog, and the fairy lamps had been left alight to compensate. As the morning drew on, more lights blossomed from windows. People were about on the sidewalks, but fewer of them than usual by far, and vehicular traffic remained very low.

It was merely odd for most of the trip; by the time they reached the south gate, it had become downright disturbing.

The eastern and western gates of Tiraas opened onto bridges that arched across the canyon to towns on the opposite shores. The north gate opened onto the city’s main harbor. The south gate, though, was the smallest and the least used. It was the city’s seaward access, but considering that the city was perched on the Tira Falls hundreds of feet above the sea, little use came of that. There was a landing outside the south gate, accessed by broad flights of stairs that switchbacked up the cliffs, soaked by the spray of the falls the entire way, to a small fortified port built on an artificial peninsula that placed its docks beyond the rapids. The entire structure was strictly used for Imperial business, and not often at that. The city’s actual maritime traffic was done through Anteraas, which lay close enough to be seen from the walls of Tiraas on a clear day.

The gates were usually quiet, then, but not this quiet. And they were definitely not supposed to be without visible guards.

Unlike their northern, eastern, and western counterparts, it was quite normal for the huge southern gates to be shut; it was actually rare for them to be opened. General traffic wasn’t permitted on the platform outside. There were, however, smaller doors set to either side of it, opening onto passages through the fortified gatehouse, which were usually guarded.

No soldiers were in evidence at either this morning.

Principia came to a halt in front of one of these. They were double doors, sturdy enough to withstand a battering ram, but with a cast bronze facing that formed an Imperial gryphon. She grasped the latch and pushed. The well-oiled hinges made not a sound as the door swung inward. It wasn’t even locked.

“Sarge,” Ephanie said tensely, “let me just point out that we are alone out here. Our backup will be wondering where we are, but we left them no way to know. The only person who knows we’re here is Vesk.”

“That might be his idea of helping us,” said Farah. “If you actually spend any time talking with Veskers, they’ve got ideas about the role of tropes and archetypes in real life. In the stories, the heroes always seem to face their ultimate test alone…”

“We’re not heroes,” Ephanie said shortly. “We’re soldiers.”

“And this is not our ultimate test, ladies,” Principia added. “Stay calm, remember your training, and be ready. Vesk sent us out here for a reason, and there’s nothing to suggest that his reasons don’t align with Avei’s. The two rarely have much to do with each other, but I’ve never heard of them being in conflict. Have you?”

Farah, to whom she had spoken directly, shook her head.

“Remember, these are civilians we’re dealing with,” Principia went on. “When confronted with a show of force, they’ll most likely scatter. No idea how many there’ll be, but we are not interested in mowing down the lot of them. Based on what Vesk said, this may be a shot at the movement’s leadership. First priority is our safety; if we can identify and capture the leader without jeopardizing that, do so. Other prisoners are secondary objectives—desirable, but we can pass up the chance if it means avoiding unnecessary danger. All right, this is it: keep quiet and stay focused.”

Principia paused before stepping into the tunnel, knelt and twisted a protruding rivet on her boots, looking pointedly at the others as they did so. All four repeated the procedure with their own, then followed her in. Their footsteps, thanks to the enchantments she had laid on the boots, were completely silent.

It was a broad tunnel, highly arched, and intended for vehicle traffic. Fairy lamps lit it brightly; the walk was lined with niches containing statues of gods, Emperors, and rearing gryphons. These corridors were a primary way by which visiting dignitaries entered the city, and were meant to be impressive. The length of it was a testament to the thickness of the walls, and the size of the fortified gatehouse which surrounded the main gates themselves. Other doors branched off to their right, doubtless into the fortress complex.

There were no soldiers on the inside, either.

“How did they do this?” Merry muttered.

“Quiet,” Principia said curtly.

The doors at the other end of the tunnel were left slightly ajar; voices could be heard from outside. The squad halted at a signal from Principia a few feet back from the doors. She crept forward alone, carefully peering out and keeping as much of her body as possible out of view of the crack.

The platform was thronged with people, easily more than two dozen. They were clearly a well-to-do crowd, to judge by the quality of their attire; suits and corseted gowns were the norm. Everyone was clustered together, facing the far edge of the platform, where a lone figure stood on the stone rail separating safe footing from a terrifying drop to the rapids below, framed by a sea of stovepipe hats and more fanciful ladies’ bonnets.

She was a woman, though dressed in trousers and boots; she wore a corseted bodice over a wide-sleeved blouse, all in dramatic black and red. A mask shaped like a dragon’s skull shielded her face, leaving only her eyes visible, and she wore a peculiar half-cape draped over one shoulder and crafted to look like a dragon’s wing.

No, upon closer examination, it actually was a severed wing. It concealed her right arm, leaving the left side of her body visible. On that side, a long saber of elven design hung from her belt.

“It’s not yet time to reveal everything,” the woman was in the process of declaring. “Our supporters would be in severe danger if their names became known at this juncture. But what more evidence do you need?” She spread her arms wide, her grisly half-cloak fluttering in the breeze. “This is the greatest city in the world, and I have cleared one of its main gates of all guards in order to host this meeting. We have allies at the highest level, my friends—you are not alone in your courage or conviction. What more convincing do you need?”

“The head of a dragon on a plate,” a voice called out, followed by laughter, but its tone was not jeering. In fact, the masked and cloaked figure planted her fists on her hips and laughed right along. She had this crowd well under control.

“One thing at a time, brother,” she chided, her voice carrying easily above the roar of the falls. “Obviously we cannot descend on this Conclave in force. But history tells us that dragons can die. They can, and like all things, they will!”

The leader pumped her fist in the air at this, and was met by a roar of approval from her followers. More fists were brandished skyward.

“And that’s all we need,” said Principia. “Avelea?”

Ephanie stepped up next to her. The sergeant nodded, and each of them kicked the door in front of which they stood.

The double doors burst open and Squad One swarmed out, falling into shield wall formation just beyond the opening.

The crowd whirled with shouts and shrieks of surprise, revealing for the first time that all of them wore skull-styled masks like their leader. Quite a few of them produced wands from sleeves and coat pockets.

“All right, that is enough of that nonsense,” Principia barked. “Disperse, citizens. You in the outfit, you’re under arrest. Place your hands on your head and step down here.”

“Sergeant Locke,” said the woman, folding her arms. “Well. This is…disappointing. You are supposed to be safely across the city chasing a red herring.”

“I’m not going to repeat the order, lady. Down here, now, or we will exercise force!”

A murmur rippled through the crowd, but that was all. No one moved to disperse, and the leader made no hint she intended to comply with Principia’s orders.

“Sarge?” Merry murmured. “I sense a lack of scattering.”

“How did you know where to find us, Locke?” the woman asked.

“Don’t you worry about that,” Principia shot back. “Last chance. I have two more squads in reserve, and allies from the Thieves’ Guild moving into position. You do not want to force a confrontation here.”

A few cries of alarm went up at that, but they were quickly stifled by the woman in the cloak.

“You’re bluffing,” she said, loudly and flatly. “I know Silver Legion tactics and formations, too, and you would not have charged out here, leaving the other exit unsecured, if you had any more personnel to back you up. The Thieves’ Guild are still at the warehouse, aren’t they? Last chance yourself, Locke; who did send you here?”

“Vesk did,” Principia retorted. “You are in way over your head.”

“Still bluffing,” the woman said, shaking her masked head, “and desperately, now. I regret this, Sergeant, deeply. I’m sure you ladies have served well, but you’ve butted into something I can’t allow you to carry tales about, and this after I made careful preparations to keep you out of exactly this kind of danger. Brethren, those of you who have wands, use them.”

“But Dragonsbane,” a man protested, “they’re Silver Legionnaires!”

“And as such,” the leader said sharply, “not equipped to contend with modern energy weapons. I would rather capture one and find out who told them of this meeting, but that isn’t going to be possible. If anyone knew they were here, they wouldn’t have come alone. And their armor means once they go over the falls, they’ll never be found.”

“I signed up with this to battle dragons,” another man said belligerently, “not the Legions!”

“We’re not here to harm our fellow humans,” a woman added, followed by a murmur of agreement.

“And what will happen if they are allowed to reveal your involvement to the authorities?” Dragonsbane asked. “The Conclave has spies everywhere; you know this. The Empire will only arrest you; the wyrms will send agents after your loved ones—”

“That’s bullshit and you have to know it!” Casey barked. “And where did you get that wing from? Look at the size of it—that could not have come from a mature dragon. You’re walking around dressed in a child’s body parts!”

“Actually, that’s a wing from a dire cave bat,” Principia said. “They’ve got one in the telescroll office in Last Rock. Listen, people: none of you are guilty of anything except her. Disperse now, and you will not be pursued, arrested, or otherwise interfered with.”

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” said Dragonsbane. “I wish you hadn’t done this, Sergeant, but now it’s us or you.” She raised her left arm dramatically from beneath her cloak. In her hand was a wand.

“Lock shields!” Principia barked.

In the next instant, the masked woman fired.


“I like this sword,” Mogul said, straightening up and hefting it. “It’s, what’s the word…unpretentious.” He tossed the blade upward; its pitted surface flashed dully in the sunlight as it twirled once before landing neatly in his hand again. “One of the most powerful magical artifacts in the world, and at a glance you’d never know it for more than a random piece of junk. There’s humility in that, know what I mean? I respect it. That kind of humility is one of the few redeeming virtues of Pantheon worshipers—it’s the trait whose absence marks what seems to be so very wrong with most of you.”

Gravel crunched beneath his shoes as he strode back over to Trissiny. Stopping two yards away from her, he knelt and drove her sword point-down into the ground just out of what would be her reach if her arms were free, then straightened, and smiled. She could only gape at him in shock.

“You are not clever, Trissiny,” Mogul said flatly. “That doesn’t need to be a fatal flaw. Hands of Avei have done some truly amazing things, and all without acquiring a general reputation for cunning. Stick to your strengths and you’ll be fine. Those strengths, just for your edification, do not include tricking people. Your friend Mr. Arquin, now, that one’s going to be trouble. Quite the versatile chap—I think he might be more dangerous without divine magic. Of course, upon learning the straits in which you and Mr. Caine would be left, he agreed to behave himself. Most admirable.”

He turned, walked a few steps away, and paused. “Oh, and incidentally, a couple of my compatriots are going to remain to keep an eye on you. Invisibly, of course; can’t have you giving them a hard time when you get yourself free.”

“Haven’t you done enough?” she asked bitterly.

Mogul let out a soft laugh. “Goodness sakes, young lady, they’re not here to interfere with you at all—quite the opposite. It all goes back to your own argument about the vulnerable position in which I’ve placed you. Upon consideration, I find that my level of personal bastardry doesn’t extend to leaving a teenage girl tied up and helpless in woods infested with zombies and werewolves. They’ll keep any creepy-crawlies from descending on you or your friend till you can stand on your own two legs again. And with that, I must bid you good day.”

He tipped his hat to her again, then vanished in a rush of shadows. Beyond him, Rupa the summoner had already done the same.

Trissiny was left chained to the tree in the ravaged graveyard, staring at her sword.

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