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The Shaathists were the last to arrive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingvar looked over at Rainwood, who nodded to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

No, Ingvar, that’s not the lesson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please, Ingvar, remember peace. Don’t…

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

Aspen, NO!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“A sound like…what?” he asked weakly.

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

Even more familiar.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And it’s the same for all of them?”

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

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

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

“You have an idea?” Yornhaldt asked.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 39

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“So you did see him again,” Khadizroth said, leaning forward in his armchair to gaze intently at Shook.

“The one time, yeah,” he replied. “He and I had the same idea, for once: took one look at Syrinx losing the last ounce of her shit and even your famous diplomacy barely managing to keep her in check, and we both fucked off in different directions. He went right out the goddamn window. I take it the asshole never bothered to report back in?”

“As of the time Vannae and I departed, no,” the dragon murmured, frowning now. “Jack’s failure to do so indirectly led to that decision. When you vanished and it became clear to Inquisitor Syrinx that her title now amounted to nothing more than house steward for the two of us, I’m afraid she rather…well.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet she rather,” Shook grunted. “Sorry for leavin’ you guys in the lurch like that. At the time, it sure did look like my last opportunity to get my ass outta there in one piece.”

“It’s quite all right, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him with a small smile. “I see how you would have concluded that—and you may well have been entirely right. She might not have exploded had you stayed, but on the other hand… Well, what’s done is done. You’ve acquired valuable intelligence and we’ve extricated ourselves from Syrinx entirely. In a way, it worked out.”

“You don’t intend to return, then?” Branwen asked.

The dragon sighed softly, looking over at Vannae and then Shook again, then shook his head. The two of them were upright in opposite corners of the small parlor in the Bishop’s temporary residence, Snowe herself seated on the loveseat adjacent to Khadizroth.

“I have dealt with people sharing Syrinx’s particular disability a number of times over the years,” Khadizroth stated. “In fact, that is the core of what is wrong with the Jackal, though every manifestation is somewhat unique and naturally he is a distinct aberration from Syrinx, or any other anth’auwa. The outbursts of temper are explosive, but usually brief; most of the time they are quite unemotional and often focused. In Syrinx’s case, they have been coming closer and closer together, and growing more severe with each, which is a major warning sign. As the Inquisition has been shedding personnel and making no progress, her resources and options have continued to close in on her like the walls of a cell. Coming on the heels of her lost career in Tiraas…”

“This is bad,” Branwen muttered. “Steadily increasing pressure is one of the worst things for people like that. They need stimulation and variety to… Someone is going to be hurt.”

“I fear you are correct,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding. “With no outlet for her aggression and no other way to exercise her will, she will seek out or create a target. I deemed it best that this not be Vannae or myself. Unfortunately… I think we must all face the facts that our goals here have ended in failure. The smart thing for Syrinx to do, and the best outcome for everyone, would be for her to return to the Archpope and report the Inquisition’s failure. Any of her other options will bring her swiftly afoul of established powers in Ninkabi. Either way, it would seem our window of opportunity to silence her for good has closed.”

“Well, I dunno,” Shook said dryly. “I figure one of the things Jack is likely to do next, when he gets tired of picking on hapless city guards, is go after his own former team. And of the lot of us, Syrinx is both the most reachable and probably the most interesting physical challenge.”

“Do you really think that’s going to be his next move?” Branwen asked.

“I am glad to report I have zero fuckin’ clue what goes through that nutjob’s brain, Bishop. At his best, he’s only ever kept his crazy at a low simmer with a lid on top. Now? I think the pressure’s just built up till he couldn’t contain it anymore, and he’s just gone off on a wild-ass spree.”

“In this case, I don’t think I agree,” Khadizroth said pensively. “I can scarcely guess what he actually is trying to accomplish, but I suspect it is still goal-directed. Your assessment of the Jackal’s character lines up well with mine, but consider that he has kept it at a simmer for the two years we have known him. Unlike Syrinx, he has shown no pattern of increasing instability. And remember: the entire idea of our group was his. He not only brought us together and made his case for keeping ourselves close to Justinian, but it was he who laboriously laid the groundwork with the Archpope himself beforehand.”

Shook raised his eyebrows, glancing at Branwen. “Uh, K…”

“I think we are past the point of dissembling, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “The good Bishop has made no secret of her loyalties. In the worst case she can report this conversation to Justinian, who I assure you is already well aware that we have only endured his control for our own ends and bear him no goodwill. Now? That, too, appears to have ended in failure. He’s managed to make some use of our abilities and it seems the time has come for us to discreetly depart from his service.”

“So you’re saying he won?” Shook growled.

“I am afraid he has,” Khadizroth agreed, himself baring teeth for a moment in displeasure. “Sometimes, as the saying goes, the bear eats you. Now, at any rate, we are no threat to him and so our antipathy would appear to matter little. We are still here, in a city beleaguered by the Black Wreath, this mysterious cult which Justinian himself set up, and at least three of our own former compatriots gone dangerously rogue. Bishop Snowe is still an ally, at least for the moment, and our list of such has dwindled sharply. Let us all continue to get along.”

“It goes without saying that it would be a mistake to take anything the Wreath said to you at face value,” Branwen added, turning to Shook, “but if they were more or less correct, I consider this evidence that this cult is no longer under his Holiness’s control. I have already made it plain that I disagree with some of his methods—that is, after all, why I’m here—but I cannot believe he would do such a thing as open hellgates in a major city. There is no possible benefit to anyone in such an action.”

“Except, perhaps, an apocalyptic cult,” said Khadizroth. “Several extant hellgates were originally the work of such. If this is indeed what this lot are up to, they appear to be more ambitious than most.”

“Fuck,” Shook said feelingly.

“I understand you gentlemen are all rather short on options,” Branwen said with every appearance of genuine worry, looking at each of the three of them in turn. “Where will you go after this?”

Shook glanced for a moment at Vannae, who met his eyes, and then both turned back to her with matching fatalistic shrugs, both savvy enough not to betray anything by looking to their de facto leader for confirmation. Snowe might be an ally for the moment, but she was still directly in the Archpope’s camp and there was no reason at all for her to know about the other allies Khadizroth had already begun discreetly gathering at his old hidden lair. Even their little pantomime of conceding defeat to Justinian had been a bit of impromptu misdirection; one of the things Shook most enjoyed about working with the green dragon was how on the ball he was about things like that, even stuff he’d only have expected fellow thieves to have practiced. Khadizroth might still be acting against the Archpope out of a sense of duty, but for Shook’s part, he was bound and determined to make something stick to Justinian before all this was over. And it was not over, not as long as they still weren’t dead.

The dragon sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead with one hand and generally making a very convincing show of his quiet despair over this state of affairs. “I hope you won’t judge me too harshly if I choose to procrastinate dealing with that, your Grace. I even dare to hope something may come up while we are addressing the present urgency.”

“Of course,” she said with a warm smile, reaching forward to pat the dragon’s knee. Shook and Vannae again locked eyes, this time sharing a different silent message. “Well, for the time being at least, you are all more than welcome to whatever hospitality I can offer. I guess what we need to figure out now is what to do next.”

“Well, I know both my uses and my limits,” said Shook, folding his arms and leaning against the wall, “and playing brain checkers with the Black fuckin’ Wreath is beyond both. I brought you every detail I can remember, so forgive me if I leave it to wiser heads to suss out how accurate their song and dance was.”

All of them turned to look at Khadizroth.

“I know little of dimensional mechanics,” said Branwen, “and even less of necromancy. It sounds implausible, but…could something of the kind be done, Lord Khadizroth?”

The dragon had folded his hands and was staring into space with his eyes narrowed in thought. “The difficulty in answering that question is that necromancy is not a school of magic. There are several ways it can be approached, utilizing all four schools, most requiring heavy alchemy and minor shadow magic to boot. In theory? The answer is usually ‘yes.’ Magic is applying a localized subjectivity to physical reality. The highest possible application of any school of magic is the transcendence of its limitations. Mastery is often defined as performing any possible task with those originally limited tools.”

“So,” she said, equally pensive in expression, “the question becomes one of psychology and capability rather than magical theory. Can they do this?”

“Well said,” he agreed, nodding to her with a smile. “Unfortunately, we suffer a near total lack of data on this particular cult. I realize you are protective of his Holiness’s secrets, Branwen, but can you shed any light on this?”

“I’m afraid I have already shed what I have,” she said with an apologetic grimace. “I am only reasonably sure that the project was his Holiness’s. The Church has records of them and there are few other organizations which could create such a thing, the other main candidate being the Empire, which is contradicted by the group’s use to attack the Emperor. Circumstantial, but compelling. But that is the best I can offer.”

“Then all we have left to analyze is the Wreath,” Khadizroth mused.

He fell silent, and they all stared at him, the tension in the room creeping upward. The dragon just gazed narrowly at the wall, seemingly undisturbed by the weight of their combined attention.

“Nothing can be certain,” he said at last, so suddenly into the long silence that Shook and Branwen both twitched. “But based upon the available evidence, I am inclined to think they were serious, and at least as much as can be expected, honest.”

“Okay,” Shook said simply. “How so?”

“It is counter-intuitive,” the dragon continued, “but I have found over my long years that when clever people with a penchant for deception tell you something wildly implausible, they are more often serious than not. The logic is there, if you look closely. Deception hinges on fitting a piece of false reality into established patterns so that a victim does not look closely or think deeply. The last thing a deceiver wants is for you to stop and consider what is going on.”

“Hell, I can vouch for that much,” Shook agreed, nodding. “I’m no con artist by trade, but every Guild member knows the basics. You wanna con somebody, you gotta show ’em something that makes sense in their eyes, something they’ll expect.”

“Just so,” Khadizroth said. “And the Black Wreath is more than a rival crew of deceptive operators. They contain demons and prevent the opening of hellgates as a matter of religious duty; it is the reason for what little tolerance is extended to them by mortal governments and the other cults. Be assured, they absolutely would not scruple to take advantage of such events if they were already unfolding and the opportunity existed. But they are on record, very long and consistent record, taking these matters with the utmost seriousness. If they are concerned enough about this to seek help, the most probable explanation is that they need help.”

“That, at least, we can verify,” Vannae said quietly.

“Yes,” the dragon mused, folding his hands in his lap, “now that I know to look for an intersection of necromancy and dimensional warping, I can seek such through the flows of magic. There will be an element of chance at first, but if the Wreath has told the truth about this, once I have found one such and identified the workings used in its creation, I can locate any others with greater ease.”

“And…” Shook deliberately un-clenched his fists, flexing his fingers. “…what happened to me? The Wreath claimed not to have been behind it.”

“About that, I would be less sanguine,” Khadizroth said gravely, turning to him. “They do have reason to deceive you, and no reason not to; if they seek allies and had identified you as connected to the Inquisition, it would hardly serve them to admit they had assaulted you and confiscated Kheshiri’s reliquary. In addition, the alternative is that there is yet another player active in Ninkabi, who is capable of feats of infernal magic which the Wreath have never been able to manage before. That seems implausible…as does the alternative. Remember that Kheshiri was outside the reliquary for a time after its seizure, and for reasons I just went over, the Wreath would have immediately sealed a daughter of Vanislaas had they the means. This is a dangerous dilemma,” he said, leaning forward to gaze intently at Shook. “If there is such an additional party, their presence changes every equation and leaves us blind and vulnerable until we identify them. If not, the Wreath has not only increased their capabilities beyond what I knew, but has proven themselves willing to attack and curse even those to whom they turn as allies.”

“Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t,” Shook said, and blew out a breath of pure frustration.

“Well put,” Khadizroth agreed with a tiny smile of dark amusement. “At the very least, we should keep it in mind as a reminder of two things: the Wreath cannot be trusted, and we do not fully understand what is happening here.”

“So, you tracking our quarry to one of these portal sites is a starting point,” said Branwen. “I can provide transportation, since your movements in the city must obviously be discreet. Beyond that, though? If these people are sufficiently numerous and equipped that even the Wreath is desperate enough to seek help in dealing with them… Even with your aid, Lord Khadizroth, I’m concerned that adding ourselves to the effort is simply…not enough.”

“Who else is there?” Vannae all but whispered.

“Ain’t like we can go to any legitimate authority,” Shook grunted. “What the hell would we tell them? A tale like this…even if the Bishop blows her cover, I figure this is as likely to just damage her credibility as it is to add it to the claim.”

“Well, I can call in aid from the Church,” Branwen said slowly, pausing to chew her lower lip. “But… The Church is already involved in this. And they may not know what this cult is doing or why, but if they think they know, revealing that we are on their tail…”

“We were sent explicitly to hunt this cult,” Khadizroth added, “with the aid of this Inquisition. Two Church-aligned forces which cannot officially be acknowledged to exist, set directly into conflict. As far as the Church goes, all we can know for certain is that the left had doesn’t know the right exists, much less what it is doing. To seek official backup from that source would be, at best, a roll of the dice.”

“Especially since we’re all AWOL from our official backup,” Shook added. “So, can’t count on the Church. The Empire wouldn’t listen to us. What else we got?”

“The Guild?” Vannae suggested, looking at him.

“Leaving out that the Guild would haul me into a dark room for disciplinary thumping before they even thought about listening to what I had to say, we happen to be in one of the worst places for it. Guild presence in Ninkabi is just about as abnormal as it gets this side of Sifan. This is where the Fount of the Fallen is, one of our few actually holy sites. More Eserite priests here than almost anywhere else per square mile…which might be specifically applicable to this problem, sure. But that’s still not many, and there’s a lot less in the way of Guild muscle on hand than in basically any other major city.”

“I face a similar dilemma,” Khadizroth acknowledged, grimacing. “Here it is, an unprecedented moment in history when, for the first time, I could actually call upon other dragons for aid. But only in theory; in practice, I fear the Conclave of the Winds regards me very much as the Thieves’ Guild does you, Jeremiah. Inviting their attention would likely result only in my own removal from the scene. If I could persuade them to lend aid, just the persuading would surely take longer than we can spare.”

“My tribe is long dead and scattered,” Vannae murmured.

“Well, isn’t this cheerful as all fuck,” Shook growled, straightening up. He turned and began to pace up and down one side of the room.

“Are you all right?” Khadizroth asked, suddenly intent on him. “If you feel manic or unsettled, Jeremiah, please let me know. That can be a side effect of the magic that eased your weariness.”

“I’m fine,” Shook said, giving him a tight smile in passing. “Thanks, but this is just my thinkin’ posture. Not that I’m the best thinker in this outfit, but every little bit helps.”

“Very well. Do be sure to get actual sleep when you can, my friend. I can only ease the symptoms of weariness; your brain still needs rest.”

“I’ll get a nap while you’re hunting down necro-portals. Not like I’m any damn use for that. Shit, who else is there? The Wizard’s Guild?”

“Even less likely to listen to us than the Empire,” Branwen said a little morosely. “Oh! The Order of the Light?”

Shook barked a derisive laugh.

“Severely lacking in personnel in this day and age,” Khadizroth said more gently. “And no longer able to defy governments and move with impunity through their territory; that would leave us back at needing to persuade the Empire. I suppose, if we are desperate, I could try sending a telescroll to Last Rock. I understand Arachne has taken to using real world crises as testing grounds for her students. If she took me seriously it might get a party of young adventurers out here. I have found those to be surprisingly effective, when they are not amazingly ineffectual.”

“That’s twice now we’ve reached for solutions from the last century,” Shook grumbled, still pacing. “Is this the point where we officially acknowledge how fucked we are?”

“It’s worse than needing more help,” Branwen said, frowning deeply. “It’s the existing help. Talking of Last Rock… I don’t have privileged access to military records, but I have access to people who do, and I’ve learned that the Black Wreath was allowed to ‘help’ during the chaos crisis in Veilgrad. Apparently they did render material aid, and overall made the whole thing worse by causing more chaos effects with their demon summonings and then deliberately incapacitating all three paladins. And then it seems they tried to steal Imperial equipment as soon as the matter was resolved and only failed in that because the local vampire intervened. You are quite correct, Lord Khadizroth. Even if the Black Wreath helps in good faith, they will find a way to manipulate events and people to further their own goals. Furthering the Wreath’s goals is the absolute last thing I want.”

The dragon drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then reached over to take her hand. “Then the question we must ask ourselves is whether that prospect is worse than the alternative. If they are correct… Twenty hellgates, Branwen. Ninkabi would be a complete and permanent loss. Most of N’Jendo would be rendered uninhabitable.”

Shook came to an abrupt halt. “Hey, your Grace. Two questions. One, you got a pen and paper anywhere around here?”

“Of course,” she said, turning a quizzical frown on him. “Anything you need, Mr. Shook. You have an idea?”

“Probably not a very good one, but I guess we’re down to that point now. Which leads to my second question.” He grinned. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to loan me some money?”

Branwen raised her eyebrows. “That would depend. It might be more practical for me to buy whatever it is you need.”

“Yeah. Yeah, actually now you mention it, that’s absolutely right. Yeah, I’m a dumbass for not thinking of that up front, it’s obviously gotta come from you.”

“It?” she asked pointedly. “From me?”

“Right, it’s like this.” He stopped right behind the couch, leaning both arms against it to stare at the group with a grin even he could feel was a little unhinged. “We’ve got no resources and no credibility among the kinda dangerous people we need—but we all know somebody who does. And he may not wanna hear from most of us, but if we piggyback a little o’ my know-how on some of her Grace’s credibility, I bet we can get some real shit started.”


“I very much appreciate this, Antonio,” Bishop Ferdowsi said, his voice trembling just slightly. “I realize it verges on exploiting our professional connection…”

“Not in the least little bit, Mehmed,” Darling assured him, laying a hand on the older man’s thin shoulder. “This is exactly why we have a Universal Church: to help one another out in situations like this. I will take this directly to Boss Tricks, and we’ll get people on it at once.”

“Please understand, it’s not my intention to get anyone in trouble. We just want the Codex back. It is entirely irreplaceable.”

“It would be easiest and fastest if one of our people had taken it,” Darling said seriously, “since we could just get it back from them in that case. I have to warn you though, Mehmed, that’s a lesser possibility. Guild thieves are not to mess with the other cults unless on the Boss’s direct orders and under exceptional circumstances, and even then it’s usually the Vernisites. That rule is fiercely enforced. But we can still help a great deal. There aren’t so many people in Tiraas who would even want a five hundred-year-old illuminated manuscript, and any of those who are willing to receive stolen property will already be known to us. I’ll lay even odds we find it before the police do.”

“I understand. Regardless, I remain deeply grateful, Antonio, as does the entire Archive.”

“You can assure the Curator that we’re on it,” Darling said kindly. “I’ll head right to the Guild; I was going there anyway this afternoon. Thieves work best at night, so I dare to hope I may have something to tell you by tomorrow.”

He was frowning as he finally parted from the Nemitite Bishop, his steps quickening nearly to the point of breaking the serene gliding gait which helped characterize his ecclesiastical persona. He hadn’t had the heart to say it to the old man, but this was very likely to have been an inside job. Such things usually were, and honestly, who but a librarian would even think to steal a rare scroll? One thing he could be sure of: if this had been some rogue Eserite, he just might tell Flora and Fauna to work them over before Style got a chance. They’d do it, too. All three of them had felt rather protective of the Nemitites ever since that ugly business with Aleesa Asherad.

“Your Grace.”

Darling snapped out of his reverie, focusing his gaze on one of the last people he’d expected to meet in the Grand Cathedral.

“Price?”

“I apologize for disturbing you here, your Grace,” his Butler said crisply. “You received a telescroll at the house, brought by specialty courier, and I deemed it urgent. It came on a Universal Church priority signal, bearing Bishop Snowe’s name, from Ninkabi.”

Darling blinked. It was a forgivable lapse; they were alone in that corridor, Ferdowsi having vanished around a corner in the other direction.

“What the hell is Branwen doing in Ninkabi? She’s supposed to be…” Now that he thought of it, he hadn’t seen her in a few days.

Price produced the scroll from within her coat, folded and flattened by transit. “It is an unusually long communique, your Grace, and only the first line is from Bishop Snowe. The rest is in a Thieves’ Guild cipher, signed by Thumper.”

“What?!” He snatched it from her, raking his eyes across the row after row of scrambled letters as fast as he could without losing the thread. It was an older code and a simple one, but well, if it actually was Thumper, that made sense.

Darling read the while thing again, more slowly, just to be sure he had it right, before finally raising his head to stare at the vaulted marble ceiling.

“Price.”

“Your Grace?”

“Is there even the slightest chance my five adventurer friends haven’t vanished into the Golden Sea by now?”

“They have, at least, vanished from the city, your Grace. Beyond that, I regretably seem to have left my pocket oracle in my other trousers.”

“All right. Welp. I had to head down to the Casino anyway.” Sweet stuffed the telescroll into his sleeve and turned, striding down the hall with no regard at all for Bishoply poise. “C’mon, let’s go ruin Tricks’s entire week. I’ll be damned if I’m the only one who has to suffer.”

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15 – 2

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“This has been a long time coming,” Darling said with a forgivable touch of grandiosity, “but we are finally here. I realize that in the end I hardly ever sent you all to do much of anything, but my relatively few requests were the sort of carnage that gets more sensible people than us killed, and you handled them all with skill and aplomb.”

“Even the one that ended with my wand in your face?” Joe said innocently.

“I learn to put those little things behind me,” Darling replied, winking. “I’ll be honest, guys: in the beginning I did toy with the idea of drawing out the process of getting your secrets from the Chamber of Truth, just to have access to your skills longer. Events rendered that moot, however. It has taken me this damn long to drag answers out of those hilariously frustrating gadgets on the amount of time per week I was able to devote to it without rousing suspicion from the Archpope. Anyway, here we are. I apologize for the delay, and have been well pleased with your end of the bargain. As of this, we’re square.”

In the brief pause which followed, Price stepped forward from the corner of the parlor in which she had been standing with a silver tray balanced on one hand. Upon it, resting on a lace doily, were five sealed envelopes. The Butler now stepped forward and began to hand them out to the five of them.

“That begs the question,” McGraw drawled, “what next?”

“Aye, it’s been a fair while since we’ve heard a peep outta Justinian or ‘is crew o’ reprobates,” Billie added. “D’ye think he’s given up on that plan o’ his, to recruit an army of adventurers? Cos I can’t ‘elp noticin’ you an’ he both stopped at five each.”

“His Holiness hasn’t deigned to discuss that with me in any detail in some time,” Darling said with a slight frown, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the arms of his chair. “I’m still involved in some of his more sensitive operations, and while he does an admirable job of keeping his various plots separate from each other, I can read between the lines. Thumper and that milquetoast Vannae can’t be much of a challenge to handle, but the succubus and the assassin are both the kind of crazy that starts climbing the walls if not kept constantly entertained. And Khadizroth, from what I’ve learned of him, is exactly the same kind of mind Justinian is.”

“Yes,” Mary agreed quietly, steepling her own fingers. “Charismatic, a natural leader and long-term planner. I have managed to learn almost nothing of his progress while upon Justinian’s leash, but I know him. He will have been, at the very lest, vying for control of that adventurer group, and likely trying to gain some influence among Justinian’s other followers.”

“Right,” Darling nodded, “so in short, those people are inherently less stable than you lot, and also being kept under wraps. Which means managing them has to be a constant nightmare. It doesn’t surprise me much that Justinian has held off on expanding that program. What it does tell me is that he has plans for them still, otherwise he’d have cut his losses long ago.”

“Funny thing about that guy,” McGraw mused. “I’ve crossed wands with all manner of corrupt, powerful bastards, but I don’t think I’ve ever met one who was so much more eager to kill off his own servants than his enemies.”

“Wait, he what?” Billie tilted her head, one ear twitching and the envelope dangling unopened in her hands. “Did I miss something?”

“Elias visits me socially,” Darling said pointedly. “We swap stories. Yeah, you’ve missed some details, but that is definitely one of Justinian’s patterns. At this point I think half the people still in his organization are just there trying to work out what exactly it is he’s up to in the long term. He’s too sly and too capable to be doing the kind of inane chapbook-villain nonsense it looks like he is.”

Price cleared her throat softly, still holding out the last envelope to Mary, who had been ignoring it. At that, the elf glanced over at the Butler, then returned her stare to Darling.

“Thank you, Price, but I think I would rather hear my answer orally.”

“As the actress said to the bishop,” Billie chimed, her eyes now on the contents of her own envelope.

“Is this another of your amusing little games, Mary?” Darling asked in his driest tone. “Did Joe ever tell you guys about the time she drugged us into a surprise vision quest?”

“It was the Rangers doin’ the drugging, to be fair,” Joe added. “But yeah, her idea. All due respect, ma’am, these mysterious antics are less charming than you seem to think.”

“I have never found much utility in charm,” Mary replied placidly.

“We know,” Weaver snorted, scowling at his own letter.

Darling sighed, then shrugged. “Well, if you want. Our dear Ms. The Crow asked for an answer from the oracles on how to finally achieve vengeance against the Tiraan Empire for its crimes against her kin.”

“What?” Joe exclaimed. “Why is that something you wanna hash out in front of everybody?”

“Obvious, innit?” Billie replied cheerfully. “She wants ta watch an’ see whether any o’ us might care t’jump in an’ help ‘er with it! I’ll tell ye straight up, Mary, I’m not gonna shift me bum to protect the Silver Throne, but I also ain’t lookin’ ta start a scrap with it. Empire’s a big ol’ nuisance of an enemy, one I can do without.”

“Ain’t like any of us are renowned for our Imperial patriotism,” McGraw chuckled. “Well, I confess, now my own curiosity’s piqued.”

Mary smiled thinly, still gazing at Darling.

“Right,” he grumbled. “See if I ever spend time writing you a carefully-worded letter again. Well, the short version is, you can’t.”

Slowly, she raised one eyebrow.

“And for your edification,” he continued, pointing at her, “you are the reason this took so damn long. Because I knew that answer wouldn’t satisfy you, so I kept digging. Have you ever tried to drag answers out of an oracle after it told you to bugger off?”

“Yes, in fact,” she said, raising both eyebrows now. “I confess, Antonio, you impress me. That is a significant achievement, for a non-practitioner.”

“Well, I could’ve told you what the oracles told me in the first place if you’d just asked,” he sighed. “Your whole problem is that you are too late. The Empire that wronged you is gone. What was built after the Enchanter Wars uses a lot of the same iconography as the Tiraan Empire that existed before it, and deliberately claims that shared history to give itself legitimacy, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. The old Empire was an absolute monarchy; the new one is a feudal aristocracy with—though the Throne will deny it—a lot of characteristics of a republic in how its bureaucracy is structured. Hell, it’s just political happenstance the capital is in the same place; there was a real chance of the Silver Throne itself moving to Onkawa near the end of the war. In short, lady, you took too long and blew your chance.”

“And,” she said quietly, “is that the answer it has taken you all these months to extract?”

“No, that answer is actually somewhat instructive, though honestly I don’t think it’s any more useful.” He shook his head. “The oracles finally yielded two possibilities for you to pursue, and interestingly enough, both are the same one: take it up with Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” Mary prompted in a calm tone that made everyone else in the room edge warily away from her. Everyone but Price, and Weaver, who was glaring at his letter as if oblivious to everything else happening.

“First option,” said Darling. “Not one that would’ve occurred to me personally, though after a lot of pestering the Book of All Tales finally spat it out. In some older cultures there are entire codes of how to seek vengeance—”

“Don’t Eserites have a code on that, too?” Billie interrupted.

“Yes, and the Eserite advice is in most cases ‘don’t.’ But as I was saying, there is an idea in several ancient creeds that if you are robbed of your revenge by someone killing your target first, you can satisfy the demands of honor by killing that person instead. In your case, Mary, it happens that the person who killed Emperor Avrusham and ended the Ravidevegh Dynasty is still alive.”

“Arachne,” Mary said in a flat tone, “exists in a constant state of needing to have her ears boxed, but she has done nothing for which I would seek her death. And I certainly will not be manipulated into attacking her by the whispers of an old book.”

“That’s a relief to hear,” McGraw drawled. “I don’t think the continent would survive you two goin’ at it for serious.”

“As the actress—”

“Come on, Billie, every time?” Joe interrupted in exasperation.

“And what is this second piece of advice that also points to Arachne?” Mary asked.

“Even sillier,” Darling said, grimacing. “Time travel.”

Everyone turned to frown at him.

“What’s that got to do with Tellwyrn?” McGraw asked.

“Hell if I know,” Darling replied with a shrug. “It raises some intriguing questions, doesn’t it? But that’s what the ruby mirror, the gong of Guan Sho, and the oracular koi all pointed to. Since your chance for revenge is in the past, if you want to achieve it, you must go into the past. And for some damned reason, Tellwyrn’s who you should ask about that.”

“Probably has an in with Vemnesthis,” Weaver grunted, still frowning distractedly at the letter that had been in his envelope. “Her main project for three thousand years was getting an audience with every god there is, and since she eventually stopped it to found the University, apparently she got ’em all. It really wouldn’t surprise me if Arachne was the only living person who could actually talk to the Scions and not get press-ganged or murdered.”

“I see,” Mary murmured, finally lowering her eyes to stare distantly at the low table between them. “…thank you, Antonio. You are right, it is not a satisfying answer. But I respect the effort to which you went in obtaining it. I consider your end of our bargain upheld. In truth…I suppose there is no satisfying answer.” An ironic little smile quirked at her lips, and she lifted her gaze to meet Darling’s again. “A friend told me not long ago that I need to grow up. Perhaps this is confirmation.”

“Aren’t you, what, ten thousand bloody years old?” Billie demanded.

“Less than five, thank you.”

“Oh, aye, a real spring chicken, you are.”

“Jenkins,” Weaver said abruptly, standing up. “A word?”

“Uh…sure,” Joe replied slowly. “You mean in private? I guess so,” he muttered belatedly, rising and following the bard, who was already out of the room. “Scuze us, folks,” he said at the door, turning and nodding to them.

Weaver had retreated all the way to the foyer, where he was standing with his hands jammed in his coat pockets, the rumpled letter half-emerging from one. At Joe’s arrival, he turned from staring out the window by the door.

“I need your help.”

“Oh?” Joe tilted his head. “This have somethin’ to do with your…answer?”

“You mentioned when we first met that you’ve traveled to the center of the Golden Sea,” Weaver said almost curtly.

“With Jenny, yeah,” Joe nodded.

“And I’m given to understand that the center can only be reached by someone who has already been there. Or, apparently, someone traveling with them.”

“That’s what Jenny told me…” Joe narrowed his eyes. “Okay, hold up.”

“I realize you do all right for yourself financially,” Weaver said, his eyes cutting to the large piece of tiger’s eye gleaming in Joe’s bolo tie, “but whatever your price—”

“Now hang on a second, I’m followin’ this trail back to its source,” Joe interrupted, holding up one hand. “Lemme see if I’ve connected these dots right. You need to get to the center of the Sea for some reason, where there is a gigantic, permanent dimensional rift which I know has properties no hellgate or portal does, since Jenny could use it to leave this entire reality. I distinctly remember when Darling was first pitchin’ this devil’s bargain o’ his he said you were lookin’ to spit in a god’s face. And it occurs to me that you’ve got some kinda complicated relationship with a valkyrie, who is not supposed to be on the physical realm by edict of Vidius. I add those things up and the sum is big trouble.”

Weaver inhaled slowly and deeply through his nose, then just as slowly let the breath out. When he finally spoke, his tone was taut but even. “Yes, I suppose it’s all fairly obvious to someone who has the requisite amount of sense. And credit where it’s due, you’ve got more than the minimum, Jenkins. Look, I…don’t know what to say to persuade you. It’s not like I’ve gone out of my way to be friendly up till now. This is the one thing in life I am most determined to achieve, and if what I’ve just learned is correct, you are the one person in the world who can help me do it. The only person who has ever been to the center of the Sea. There’s nothing I won’t pay to secure your aid.”

“Weaver, I’m not tryin’ to gouge you, here,” Joe said, frowning. “This ain’t about money, or payment of any kind. What I gotta debate with myself is whether I wanna spit in a god’s eye. An’ quite frankly, I’m havin’ a hard time findin’ an angle to come at that question that doesn’t end up at ‘no.’”

“There is a heavily moderating factor, if you consider with a bit more care, Joseph,” Mary said smoothly, gliding into the foyer.

Weaver threw up his hands. “Aaaand there she is. I dunno why I even bothered to try and have a private conversation.”

“Yeah, I don’t either,” Darling said from the hall behind Mary. “Give her some credit, she’s the only eavesdropper not trying to be surreptitious. Well, this is none of my business, so I’m gonna visit the kitchen and put together a sandwich. You guys want anything?”

“Y’got any beer?” Billie’s voice piped up from just around the corner.

“The hell kind of establishment do you think I’m running, here?” Darling demanded in an affronted tone. “Of course I’ve got beer.”

“Your previous excursion into the heart of the Sea was at the behest of your friend Jenny,” Mary continued while Darling puttered off to the kitchen and McGraw and Billie crept around the corner, the old wizard at least having the grace to look abashed. “A creature known elsewhere as the Shifter. Were you aware that she has often been associated with Vesk?”

“She has?” Joe frowned. “When? Where?”

“Jenny Everywhere is mentioned obliquely in a number of old stories,” Mary replied, glancing at Weaver. “Going back…a very long way. To my knowledge she has not been directly connected to Vesk. But any being who pops up in multiple unconnected sagas will eventually raise the question of how she is related to the god of bards. And now, one of Vesk’s bards has a need to visit the Golden Sea, to achieve an end of great personal importance to him. Now that he knows this, it also turns out that an established acquaintance of his is the one person who can lead him there.” She smiled and blinked slowly, an expression that made her look remarkably like a pleased cat. “And your ability to do so is the direct result of…given the circumstances, let us call it ‘foreshadowing’…by an unearthly being widely suspected of being an agent of Vesk’s. This project may be an affront to Vidius, but it has implied endorsement from another god of the Pantheon. And those two are not known to crush mortals between them in great clashes. There has been none of that among the Pantheon since Sorash was destroyed.”

“It does sound downright bardic, when she puts it that way,” McGraw mused.

“If you decide to do this,” Mary said, glancing between Weaver and Joe, “I would like to come along.”

Weaver narrowed his eyes. “Why.”

“To see the center of the Golden Sea? Is that not reason enough?”

“Aye, same!” Billie chirped. “That there’s an adventure an’ no mistake! Ashner’s britches, the braggin’ rights! I’d never ‘ave ta pay fer drinks again!”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw added, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But it’s been my observation over the years that the world’s pretty much wall-to-wall danger. Death an’ suffering are around every corner. Comes a point where it doesn’t profit a body to worry excessively about repercussions, long as you don’t rashly seek ’em out. What matters in life is livin’ with honor, and bein’ true to the people who’re true to you. Here’s the truth: we may not get to see Yngrid much, or basically ever, but she’s been around us the whole time Weaver has. She’s pretty explicitly saved our butts, like the first time we fought Khadizroth. Now, if Weaver and Yngrid have gotta offend Vidius to be together…” He shrugged. “In my book, that makes it worth doin’. You want my help, Weaver, you got it.”

Joe drew in a slow breath of his own. “Y’know… I have been wanting to have a second look at that portal. When I was there it didn’t seem like there was much to see except for old ruins and a big magical hole in the world. Knowin’ what I do now, though, and considerin’ the fact that the Golden Sea is widely thought to have a mind of its own, I gotta wonder if there’s somethin’ else there I just didn’t know to look for.” He met Mary’s eyes. “A purple man who lives in the walls. Somebody who I bet could answer some big questions.”

“Did that sound less crazy in yer head before it spilled outta yer mouth?” Billie asked.

“Not really,” Joe said ruefully. “But I stand by it. All right, Weaver, I guess I’ve been swayed, and not by your offer of payment. I’m in.”


“And isn’t this just the most absolutely typical thing?” the Jackal complained stridently from the head of their little procession. The elf was stalking along, taking huge steps and swinging his arms widely in a comical gait that made him resemble a child playing soldier. “Here we are, visiting scenic Ninkabi! The highest and lowest city in the Empire! Famed for its soaring towers and fathomless ravines, for graceful bridges and rooftop gardens! With stunning views of the mighty Wyrnrange, the distant sea, and on a clear day the very forests of Athan’Khar! And where do we end up?” He came to a stop, turning to face the right wall of the hallway along which they were being led, and brandished both hands at is as if casting a spell. “Underground. Under! The fucking! Ground!”

“Yeah, you whining about it makes the whole thing a lot less claustrophobic,” Shook grunted. “Move your skinny ass, wouldja?”

“Oh, it’s always the ass with you, isn’t it,” the Jackal simpered, turning to him. “If you want a peek, handsome, all you gotta do is ask. What, isn’t that pet of yours keeping you adequately drained?”

“If you want his throat slit, master,” Kheshiri purred, pressing herself against Shook from behind, “all you have to do is give the order.”

“I would be so much more alarmed if I didn’t know that was your idea of foreplay,” the elf replied, waggling his eyebrows at her. “How about you and me, sugar tits? You can take any shape, right? Can you do Jerry, here?”

“Enough.”

Khadizroth’s voice, as always, cut off their bickering. The dragon walked at the rear of the line, Vannae hovering silently at his side. The three of them turned to scowl at him as he lowered the hood of his robe to reveal his luminous green eyes.

“You have plenty of time to indulge in your unique banter. Let us not keep our hosts waiting, nor terrorize the staff excessively. Neither is a positive first impression. My apologies, Lieutenant,” he added to the sole Holy Legionary accompanying them, who had stopped several yards ahead and was watching them with a noticeably pale face. “Please, proceed.”

The man swallowed once, visibly. He wasn’t part of the detachment stationed at their headquarters beneath Dawnchapel, and thus not accustomed to them; in particular, he seemed to have trouble keeping his gaze off Kheshiri, and the fact that his eyes held naked fear didn’t stop them from wandering below her shoulders. Which, of course, irritated Shook as much as it amused the succubus.

“Uh, right, um…sir,” the lieutenant said after an awkward pause. “It’s, ah, just through here.”

The right-hand wall at which the Jackal had gestured was, in fact, lined with windows, but there was not much to see. This complex was carved out of the living rock along the lower wall of one of Ninkabi’s canyons, not far above the river itself; the roar of the rapids was actually audible below. What little fading afternoon light remained did not reach down this far, and the only illumination in the hall came from its fairy lamps.

The beleaguered soldier led them the last few yards to the only place there was to go: the hall terminated in a single door. He opened this and then hesitated, dithering. Appropriate protocol called for him to pull it open and stand aside, but the man clearly felt visceral unease at the prospect of the five of them filing past him in close quarters. After a moment’s waffling, he ducked through the door ahead of them and kept going, putting a few yards between himself and the entry.

Kheshiri and the Jackal both snickered. Fortunately, neither said anything.

The room beyond was a conference chamber, predominated by a long table. Their door opened onto the rear end, with the front some ten yards distant to their left. At that end, there was a wooden lectern, currently moved off to the side to reveal a view of the far wall, on which were hung a series of maps of the different levels of Ninkabi.

As soon as they had all entered, the soldier darted back out behind them, putting on an extra boost of speed when the Jackal blew him a kiss. The elf cackled as he slammed the door shut, but everyone else was focused on the other in the room.

Before the wall, a woman with short dark hair stood with her back to them, studying the maps, hands clasped behind her. She wore a long white coat clearly tailored to her lean figure, with a silver-tooled belt from which hung an ornate short sword.

“All right, let’s get the obvious questions out of the way first,” she said brusquely, turning to face the group. Her features were sharp and her expression entirely unimpressed by them, in stark contrast to the frightened Legionary. “During a recent kerfuffle in Tiraas which briefly imperiled the life of the Emperor himself, a sizable cult appeared and engaged in a pitched battle with soldiers and adventurers. I’m told you lot in particular were involved.”

“Oh, hey, I remember those guys!” the Jackal said brightly.

“Do not interrupt me when I am briefing you,” she snapped. “The Universal Church has been trying to identify that group ever since. They were numerous, followed no known doctrine, and appeared evidently from nowhere. There is no record of any such organization operating within the Empire. Obviously, it’s disturbing that such a sizable threat could appear with no warning and vanish without a trace. What few leads have emerged have brought us here, to Ninkabi. You are here to hunt these cultists down, learn everything that can be learned about them, and take whatever action is then deemed appropriate.” She paused, then smiled very thinly. “Until compelling indications otherwise emerge, I will be proceeding upon the assumption that the appropriate action will be to exterminate whatever is left of them.”

“Very well,” Khadizroth said, inclining his head. “But would not an introduction have been a more appropriate place to start?”

“Yes, that is the other thing,” she replied, her smile widening enough to show hints of teeth. “The five of you represent what was not meant to be a long-term project. For…a variety of reasons…it seems his Holiness the Archpope has decided to keep you on. As such, your status must be considered, and your group integrated into the hierarchy of the Church. To that end, his Holiness is resurrecting a long-discarded office of the Church under which—under me—you shall work. One which respects your need for secrecy, and grants broad discretionary powers in dealing with whatever threats may emerge. Welcome, lady and gentlemen, to the Inquisition.”

“Whoah, hang on a sec,” Shook said, frowning. “Those were the witch-hunters from before the Enchanter Wars. I’m pretty sure that shit’s even more illegal than most of what we do.”

“Not to mention…provocative,” Khadizroth murmured. “Reminders of those dark days have a way of calling down preemptive retribution.”

“That is for me to worry about; it’s for you to follow my orders.” The woman paced forward three steps to lean both hands on the table, her grin broadening to become a fierce expression that held more than a hint of a snarl. “I am Grand Inquisitor Syrinx, and as of now, you freaks are mine.”

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Bonus #28: Life’s Work

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Ben Morgan!

Crossing through the grand ballroom was not the most direct or efficient way to reach the solarium which served as the Duchess’s study and private audience chamber, but at this moment, for this purpose, it was the correct way. A household was a living organism, an unfathomably complex machine whose health depended upon countless details from the towering to the infinitesimal. A doctor would study for years to know every medical detail that could be known, and still barely scratch the surface; a hedge witch could immerse herself in lore and familiarity until intuition told her things that medical science could not, yet lack the power to achieve a surgeon’s sometimes miraculous results.

Though they worked upon lives rather than bodies, Butlers had to do both, and more.

There was, sadly, nothing yet which could do for the living body what a Butler could do for a household. But though she was not yet fully accredited, and though this was not truly her household, Price was Butler enough to know where she needed to be. Right now, that was in the grand ballroom just in time to ward off a disaster.

The arrangement would be stunning once completed, but was inherently precarious. The columns had been exquisitely detailed by master artists to resemble carved marble with gilded trim, but were in fact made of cast plaster, and thus too light to be reliably stable, given their height. Placing expensive ceramic urns atop them was just asking for trouble, and while the finished arrangement would be more sturdy, at this stage it was all exceedingly delicate.

Price entered the ballroom just as a young man—a worker from Leineth, not one of the household staff—lost his grip atop a ladder, and in his fumbling to avoid dropping the large and heavy vase in his arms, managed to not only finish dropping it but topple the pillar he’d been about to place it atop.

She surged smoothly into motion, flashing across the ballroom in one second, and vaulted into position. Everything about the situation was spelled out before her, senses taking in details that few would have gathered and mind parsing them into usable data in calculations no one who had not undergone the Treatment could have performed.

Even for a Butler, that was an impossible vertical leap, forcing Price to approach at an angle. One step brought her to the top of the long table which would be laid out with finger foods at the ball. The next, kicking off with all her considerable strength, hurled her into the wall of the ballroom. She hit that like a spring and uncoiled, shooting across the open space in nearly horizontal flight.

Price intercepted the urn as it tumbled; the thing was custom-made for this event, designed to look like a beautiful vase from the perspective of those below the pillars, meaning it had to be more than half as tall as a person and correspondingly broad. Awkward to lift, had she tried to wrap arms around it. Instead, she smoothly caught it with one hand flat under its base, as her other arm and both legs coiled around the pillar.

Using her momentum, Price spun in a full circle around the falling column, arresting her flight and accelerating the column’s own descent. That would have naturally sent the urn flying out of her grip as soon as the rotation ceased, had she not spun her arm to invert its orientation mid-fall, so that once again her flat hand was between the fragile vase and the direction of its momentum. Completing the rotation brought it back to rest upright upon her palm, while she uncoiled her body from the pillar.

Price extended her full height as she descended, positioning herself beneath the plaster column with her feet reaching the floor the second she completed this maneuver, one hand held up above her head to support the tumbling pillar, the other held out to the side with the tall vase balanced upon her palm. She folded her body up again like a spring, this time a collapsing one, absorbing the energy of the fall, and thus ended up with her feet fully on the ground, having prevented either pillar of base from breaking. Quite fortunately, too, as replacing them at this juncture would have been challenging.

Total silence had descended upon the ballroom, all the servants and workmen present staring at her. The entire thing had unfolded before everyone had even noticed the tumble about to occur.

“Ahem,” Price said pointedly, being pinned beneath a mostly-fallen plaster column with her free hand holding up a heavy (and expensive) piece of ceramic.

Her prompting brought servants rushing forward; one man very carefully took the vase from her, while two others got themselves under the pillar, lifted it from her hand, and finished lowering it gently to the floor. Price straightened her coat, turning to address the youth standing atop the nearby latter, staring down at her in frozen horror.

“I will remind you, Master Borson, that your employer regards every aspect of these preparations as an expense without emotional investment. Workmen are more easily replaced than custom-made masterwork ceramic, and distinct in her Grace’s eyes primarily by their ability to feel pain. More caution from you would be advisable.”

“Yes, Miss Price,” he choked. She did not have to waste time staring him down to ascertain that the point was made. The room, the servants present, the state of ongoing preparations, it all factored into the rhythm of the household. It all washed over and through Price—intuitively, cognitively, both and neither, informing her of the state of things. The nascent disaster was thwarted; Borson and the rest of those present would go about their tasks with greater care.

Price turned and continued on to the ballroom’s side entrance without another instant’s delay. A Butler always knew where she was needed, and that was no longer here. Once again, everything was Proper.

By lengthening her stride, she reached the door of the Duchess’s solarium in what was still acceptable time to answer her Grace’s summons. Price tapped twice, at precisely the correctly diffident volume.

“Enter.”

The solarium, like everything Duchess Tiradegh owned or used, was a weapon. At this hour of the morning, sunlight streamed aggressively through it, framing the Duchess herself in her wheeled chair and glaring in the eyes of anyone who stood before her. Price, of course, entered to the exact distance that placed the shadow of the wall across her eyes, protecting them from direct glare. Thanks to the Treatment, she was also not impeded in her assessment of the room and its occupant.

She bowed to the Proper degree. “Your Grace.”

“Ah, Miss Price.” Inara Tiradegh’s voice was only lightly cracked with age; she had been a singer of some fame in her youth, and carried on the hobby her entire life. The old woman, now frail in body though her mind was not a whit less sharp, regarded Price expressionlessly. “How go the preparations?”

“Everything within my purview is on schedule and completed to your Grace’s standards. Yancey, of course, has a more complete knowledge of the state of the household. I can consult him for greater detail, if your Grace wishes?”

“That will not be necessary.” Perfectly neutral, that tone, just like the expression. Inara’s social instincts had been crafted through a noblewoman’s upbringing and honed by decades of ruthless practice; she was a living masterpiece of control. Were Price not a Butler, she would probably be unaware of the old woman’s vivid personal dislike of her. She did not yet know the reason for it, much less while the Duchess had consented to have Price conduct her Trial in this household under Yancey’s supervision, but on both points she had suspicions. “I summoned you here, Miss Price, because I wish to have a conversation.”

“How may I be of service, your Grace?”

“When service is required, I’ll inform you. At this moment, I would simply satisfy my own curiosity.”

Price did not alter her aspect by a hair; even another Butler would not have been able to detect her feelings about this. “Needless to say, your Grace, I am no more authorized than Yancey to discuss the Service Society’s internal business.”

“Oh, spare me,” Inara replied with, finally, the lightest hint of asperity. “Invaluable as Yancey is, I have never found your Society intriguing enough to be personally interested. Avenist alchemists have been turning men into women and elves into humans for centuries; your parlor tricks are more useful, but an order of magnitude less impressive.”

Highly imProper. The Treatment was a far more substantial achievement than the Sisterhood’s work—and both those descriptions broadly mischaracterized their alchemists’ achievements in treating transgender women and bringing elves up to Legion standards of physical strength. More importantly, Inara Tiradegh was well aware of these facts and a known stickler for precision in all things. Price didn’t need to be a Butler to tell she was being deliberately needled here.

“My inquiry is of a more personal nature,” the Duchess continued, regarding Price with a vaguely disinterested expression they both knew to be a lie. “I understand that you are, somewhat unconventionally, an Eserite.”

Ah, yes. As she had suspected.

“If your Grace wishes to have my room and belongings searched, I have no objection,” Price said blandly.

“I would consider such an obvious deflection damning, were Yancey not so fond of doing exactly the same,” Inara said with a wry twist of her lips. “Nor is he the only Butler I’ve met by far. Do they teach you that servile snark at your Society?”

“A good servant must be proficient at all skills relevant to the running of a household, your Grace,” Price replied.

Duchess Tiradegh actually smiled at her. Faintly, but with evident amusement. That fact by itself meant nothing, but Price sensed the emotion was sincere, if grudging.

“What is it, then,” Inara asked, settling subtly backward in her wheelchair, “which prompts a member of the Thieves’ Guild to enter human society in a productive capacity?”

Price did not rise to that obvious bait, either. She did permit herself the indulgence of hesitating, a thing which was done only for effect. A Butler was poised at all times, prepared with the proper response for any contingency. A conversation, like a household, was a thing with rhythms which could be sensed and anticipated, and while talking to the Duchess of House Tiradegh was an entirely different level of challenge from the house servants, even the sly-tongued nobility did not outmaneuver a Butler with words. Delaying for a moment was simply a way of asserting a measure of power—in this case, mirroring the same petty effect achieved by Inara insulting her religion.

“Your Grace is naturally aware of the personal benefit of dedicating oneself to a cause. Being the head of a noble House, your Grace has had such a calling provided from birth.”

“Are you comparing House Tiradegh to the Thieves’ Guild?” Inara inquired in a dangerously polite tone.

“I would never so insult either, your Grace, much less both in the same breath.” The Duchess quirked another faint smile at that, but did not speak again, and so Price continued. “Those not granted such a cause by birth must seek one out. For some, religion is enough. At the core of the Service Society is the belief that it is a fine choice to select, as one’s life’s work, a deserving person. Not everyone can be a force who moves the world. It can be enough to seek out someone who is, and devote oneself fully to their success.”

“Yancey has never spelled it out in those terms,” Inara said in a much more introspective tone. “So. Is that how he sees me, then?” Price did not answer; the question had not truly been directed at her. After a thoughtful pause, the Duchess’s gaze sharpened once more, returning from its brief wander to her own eyes. “You describe your own vocation in terms which would apply to a housewife helping support a factory laborer.”

“A serviceable analogy, your Grace. And were your Grace a factory laborer, a housewife would suffice. A sufficiently interesting person, however, requires a Butler.”

Again, that minute smile. “That’s good flattery, Miss Price. Subtle. At your age I might not have noticed it, and definitely would have missed the underlying mockery.”

“I dared to hope your Grace would appreciate the technique.”

“Yes, quite, and you can desist.” She straightened up in her chair as much as her slightly hunched spine allowed, a subtle signal that the conversation would now turn to business. “I have found no complaint with your work here, Miss Price, and not for lack of trying. At this time, I am prepared to render a favorable report to the Service Society on your performance. I understand that it is Yancey’s endorsement which matters…but that his satisfaction hinges largely upon mine.”

“Your Grace’s understanding is correct,” Price replied neutrally. “I am gratified that I have served adequately.”

“Yes, I’m sure you are,” Inara said dryly. “With all that in mind, Miss Price, I have a specific task for you.”

“I am here to be of service, your Grace.”

“I know. Tonight, at the ball, I will need you to embarrass me.”

Once more, Price hesitated. This time, because the momentary pause would appeal to the Duchess’s sense of dramatic timing. Her own mind was racing over the multitude of possibilities which had exploded from that command, the closest thing a fully trained and Treated Butler experienced to confusion.

“Your Grace?” she asked after the appropriate number of seconds, in the correct tone of polite bafflement.

The Duchess’s satisfied smile said she had done it Properly. “Allow me to explain.”


A woman like Inara Tiradegh never explained herself one bit more than was absolutely necessary, and so Price came away with instructions no more specific than what she was to spill on Lord Reine Daraspian, and when. On the face of it, the reasons a Head of House might want to inflict a minor, slightly embarrassing inconvenience upon a volatile member of a rival House were beyond counting. The majority of them consisted of little more than petty spite. Duchess Inara, however, did nothing without a purpose in mind and a plan in place.

A well-laid scheme was like a conversation, or an organism, or a household. It had rhythms, patterns. Details which yielded themselves both to intuition and to analysis—and therefore, despite any secrecy involved, to a Butler. With the right parts of her mind accelerated by the Treatment and advanced further by the Bargains the Service Society required its full members to make, Price could see somewhat beyond her own relatively tiny role. Possibilities unrolled in every direction, narrowed into a few chains of events of varying likelihood constrained by the other factors already in place. This insight was one of the services Butlers provided their contract-holders, though most of those approved by the Society as business partners were well capable of examining the threads of mortal plots on their own.

She could not read, exactly, the whole of the plan, but it took several potential shapes, most deeply troubling.

Price had gone so far as to push the very limits of what was Proper by taking her concerns to Yancey, only to be rebuffed in his Properly polite but firm manner. She could sense nothing from him, none of the unease he would definitely be feeling if her fears were well-founded—and if they were, Yancey would know in detail. He, however, was a Butler of greater experience than she, and would be well able to conceal his mental state even from another Butler.

Her concern, in truth, was not only for Yancey and his contract. This was her Trial; if it ended in as great a disaster as the Duchess might be actively trying to arrange, that could reflect very badly upon her indeed.

Nonetheless, she went about her duties with all the poise a Butler must exhibit at all times. The preparations were completed, the ball unfolding to the clear delight of the Duchess’s guests. Assisting with the arrangement of social events had all been part of Price’s training, and almost nothing about the early part of the evening proved memorable to her, at least not in the shadow of her nervous anticipation. With two Butlers present to oversee the affair, even with one only on Trial, it could hardly have gone wrong.

At least, not until the point where Duchess Inara Tiradegh intended it to.

Once fully set up, those vases atop the pillars housed plants—vines enhanced by witchcraft from common philodendron and begonias, to form an arboreal network of greenery connecting the vases and the columns. The Duchess had brought in an engineer, rather than a florist, to finalize the arrangement. That was, to say the least, revelatory. More so was what Price could discern about how physical impacts would affect the entire interlaced structure.

And more, still, the way Yancey, at the Duchess’s urging, had casually positioned certain relevant players in the night’s forthcoming drama.

As a minor milestone, Price had already been complicit in a crime this evening, albeit a very, very small one. The Society made clear to its members that service to their contract-holders was considered to supersede adherence to the law; between that and her own religious affiliation, Price had no personal qualms. In this case, even drugging someone’s cup wouldn’t qualify as a crime, given that the dosage in question was non-lethal, generally recreational, and a known indulgence of the person to whom it was administered, and legal precedent established that a host (and their servants) were not to be held responsible for adverse reactions to “mixed drinks” served at a private venue such as this, the responsibility resting upon the drinker to understand what they were imbibing.

These were the sort of obscene technicalities a person had to know, when working for the likes of Inara Tiradegh.

No, the only offense (so far) was in the trafficking; cocaine being a banned substance for which the Imperial Treasury sold exemption licenses, it was legal to own and use it, but not to distribute it to others without acquiring such an exemption, which neither Price nor the Duchess had. Drug trafficking, however, was a white-collar crime of interest to no one but the Treasury even in volumes that involved significant money. This quantity would have been ignored by any Imperial prosecutor, especially with the actual cocaine in an alchemical formulation designed to be dissolved in wine; less than half of the powder was the actual drug.

Price was more concerned that she was being made party to a murder. The Eserite in her wouldn’t mourn the death of anybody in this room save possibly Yancey, and least of all the notoriously corrupt young sot Reine Daraspian, but this was the sort of thing that could damage a person’s career prospects.

Attentive as duty required she be to the festivities, she saw it coming clearly. Yancey’s deft positioning of the already-drunk Lord Reine was accomplished all but invisibly, by leading the man with precisely-positioned trays of snacks and drink; once Price had slipped him the altered wine, the blend of alcohol and cocaine in his system made him as malleable as a sheep—and raised serious ethical questions about whatever alchemist had decided to cook up a way for those two drugs to function simultaneously to the point of enhancing each other.

Few of the other guests marked this, save with the occasional contemptuous glance. The younger Lord Daraspian was known to imbibe worse than wine; it was known, also, that he was here chiefly to be a target, given the relationship between Houses Daraspian and Tiradegh. It was early in the evening; people were still arriving, milling about, chatting, sampling the delicacies laid out, and admiring the decorations. It would be almost another hour before the ballroom would be put to use for dancing. Now, for the most part, people were passing through on their way to the more comfortable chambers next door.

“The ballroom is more active than anticipated at this hour,” the Duchess said offhandedly. “Yancey, instruct the musicians to set up now.”

“At once, your Grace,” her Butler replied, stepping away from the columns, the target, and whatever they had arranged for him.

“…thank you, Yancey,” Inara said after the merest hesitation. Her voice was soft, barely audible through the murmur of chat, the look she gave him superficially even yet loaded with meaning that even Price could barely scratch the surface of.

He actually paused in the act of turning to leave the room, and bowed to her. Deeply. Then finally departed.

It was the realization that she had just witnessed a farewell which collapsed all the possible outcomes of this ploy in Price’s mind. She could see where the young Daraspian stood beneath the arboreal display—and where the aged Duchess had positioned her wheelchair. She was well aware that Inara Tiradegh’s health had been failing for years now, the process accelerating in recent months. She understood the basics of House Tiradegh’s political situation, how its ambitions were impeded by House Daraspian and the fact that the young Lord currently present was the de facto representative of his House at this event specifically because anything done to him would be politically pointless.

And suddenly she knew that she was not involved in a plot to murder Lord Reine Daraspian.

Duchess Inara caught Price’s eye and infinitesimally tilted her head in young Daraspian’s direction. It was not an agreed-upon signal—they hadn’t prearranged one—but to someone with a Butler’s situational awareness the message was explicit.

Very much to Price’s surprise, she found herself considering open defiance. She did not, however, consider it long enough for her hesitation to be outwardly observable.

This was not her contract. Her position here was not such that she had the privilege of questioning the Duchess’s commands. It was not a servant’s place to make such decisions on behalf of their master. Yancey knew what was coming, had accepted it.

So she administered her role in the homicide with poise, as was Proper.

“More wine, my Lord?” Price said diffidently, deliberately sneaking up on Lord Reine with the carafe and startling him into stumbling into her. Twitchy with the stimulant and clumsy with the depressant—truly a diabolical concoction—he was easy to ambush, and in his flailing likely would have knocked her down had she not been a Butler. As it was, avoiding the sweep of his elbow and even protecting the carafe upon the tray would have been simpler than breathing, had that been her duty.

Instead, she neatly arranged for the blow to knock it over, pouring crimson wine straight down the front of his suit, falling to shatter upon the marble floor and splashing his shoes.

“Clumsy goat!” Daraspian snarled as Price retreated two judicious steps.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir—”

“You did that deliberately!”

Obviously, yes; he wasn’t too impaired to have noticed that. Merely enough not to handle it with anything like the grace befitting his station.

“Whatever is all this noise about?” Duchess Inara demanded, deliberately pitching her well-honed voice to cut across what little talk remained in the room after Daraspian’s outburst.

“Excuse me, your Grace,” said Price, “there has been a slight—”

“Your servant attacked me!” he snarled, rounding on the Duchess and nearly toppling over. Price steadied him with one hand and he violently shrugged her off, once more barely avoiding a fall—and snagging his arm in the vines dangling from one of the pillars.

Price could see the shape of the structure, the tension in the vines—far sturdier than those plant species ought normally to be—the shape of the base of the column which would determine the direction it fell. The way Inara had planted her chair so that in turning on her the drunk Lord Reine would entangle himself, and then…

“Oh, don’t be absurd,” she said disdainfully. “She is new, training under Yancey. Price, you fool, get away from there if you’re only going to make a mess.”

Price bowed, stepping back through the columns. Philodendron leaves brushed her coat; she, obviously, did not snare herself in the vines, despite the way they hung in cunning loops rather than the usual dangling strings. Obvious why this was being done so early in the evening; it was only a matter of time before somebody got themselves caught in these.

“You vicious, petty old cow,” Lord Reine spat, taking a lurching step toward the Duchess and absently trying to jerk his arm free. Seemingly fragile vines held him as securely as braided cord; the pillar rocked, the vase atop it teetering very precariously. “You invited me here just to make a spectacle of me!”

“Young man,” the Duchess said in her driest tone, not giving herself away by glancing up at the wobbling column, “I wouldn’t presume to take credit for that which you have achieved on your own. If you cannot behave in civilized society, perhaps you ought to return to your own House.”

“Oh, you’d like that!” he raged, trying to take another step, and reaching the end of the slack he had with those vines. Not paying attention, he gave a final jerk.

Price saw it coming. There were innumerable ways she could have stopped it. Duchess Inara caught her eye once as the column finally began to topple, and a sly little smile flitted across her face.

It was so skillfully done. The column bases were triangular, creating only three lines along which they would inevitably fall if pulled upon. They had been arranged in a very particular orientation, each of them. Inara had planted herself right in the proper line, right at the perfect distance. Lord Reine’s lunge in her direction and furious yank at the vines—so cleverly looped around the column—looked, from the perspective of the onlookers, like a convincingly deliberate act.

Or could be made to, assuming the proper rumors had been planted ahead of time. Price did not doubt for a second that they had.

Just as she did not doubt what the effect would be of Reine Daraspian’s implication in the death of the Duchess of House Tiradegh.

And so she watched, unmoving, as the tower of weighted plaster descended straight onto the smirking old woman’s head.


It was a strange thing, death. She had never liked the old lady in the least, and the feeling had been fully mutual. Price frankly had a low opinion of hereditary nobility in general; her aspiration was to attach her career to someone like the Falconers, people who had earned their wealth and power by making actual contributions to the world. The Eserite in her counted the damage done to two noble Houses as a hilarious success for the human race.

And yet, she couldn’t make herself feel satisfied about any part of this.

The Eserite in her also grudgingly admired Inara Tiradegh’s final gambit. House Tiradegh was no better than any of them, built on the backs of thousands of people who actually did work and lived meaningful lives, unlike the nobles who grew fat from their sweat. But House Daraspian was the next best thing to a crime syndicate themselves; the Guild had rapped its knuckles repeatedly and was widely believed to be the reason for a few untimely deaths within its ranks. But the Daraspians thrived by corruption and bribery, and the Guild could only terrorize so many people at a time—particularly when most of those people were Imperial functionaries. Matters became very different when a young noble of their House was accused of publicly murdering the head of a rival House in a drunken rage.

It was far from certain, yet, whether Reine Daraspian would be convicted. Price didn’t really care what happened to him; the damage was already done. Imperial Intelligence had taken a hand in the investigation, considering the stature of the victim, and was uprooting Daraspian interests right and left, not to mention cleaning out much of the damage they had done to Leineth’s political infrastructure. By the time that finished, Vrandis Province was likely to end up with a whole new government. Sensing weakness, the other Houses had turned on the beleaguered Daraspians, and the Thieves’ Guild had grown increasingly bold throughout Vrandis. In Leineth itself, the Guild was currently being circumspect, since the city was presently crawling with Imperial spooks, but if House Daraspian managed to survive the investigations relatively intact, the Boss was almost certainly going to declare open season on them once Intelligence withdrew.

And that new provincial government was likely to have a Tiradegh named Imperial Governor.

Price could admire it. She couldn’t convince herself that she would miss Inara. Yet this was all so…melancholy.

Sympathy for Yancey was most of it. He had been rigid even by Butler standards ever since that fateful night, and Price had respected his aloofness. She was not naive enough to think that just because she had never liked Inara, no one could; the bond a Butler shared with their contract-holder was, by design, something intimate and even intense. When you made another person your life’s work, the loss of that person must be a complete unmooring of everything in the world that mattered.

It was a sobering thing to think about. Price kept herself nearby, but kept herself contained—her presence an offer of support if it was needed, but not an imposition upon his already raw emotional state. Yancey had not taken it up, and she had not resented it. They had dealt with the investigations and fallout side by side, in professional silence. In grief, there was solace in remaining unshakably Proper.

Yancey was barely middle-aged, far younger than the Duchess. He had to have known, upon taking her contract, that this would be how it ended. Well, not this precisely, but that he would outlive her. Price silently resolved that she would not sign on with someone far different from herself in age. Some Butlers had two or occasionally even three masters over the course of a life’s work, but the Service Society’s ideal was one Butler for one master, for one lifetime.

Now, two weeks after Inara Tiradegh’s final ball, the two of them had at last returned to the Society’s headquarters in Tiraas. It was quiet, as always—the flawless quiet of a household in the most perfect order imaginable. Here, there was nothing not Proper, nothing out of place, no one who did not know their tasks. At least, not now that they had passed through the student training areas into the Society’s far more secretive lower reaches. Students were not permitted down here; even full Butlers did not enter except on specific and official business.

And yet, this was where Master Butler kept his personal office. It was only Proper for his Butlers to be reminded of the full details of their commitments whenever their presence was required before him.

So it was that Price found herself passing the alchemy labs where the Treatment was administered, in many sessions over a span of two years. And then the heavy vault doors to the summoning chambers where the Bargains took place.

Alchemy alone did not a Butler make, for all that it enhanced the body and to a lesser extent the mind. Their true facility came from deals with established agents, beings of each school of magic. Bargaining with fairies had its known risks; deals with demons were even trickier, not to mention extraordinarily illegal. Master Butler’s true genius was in rounding out the circle. It was not clear whether the arcane entities with which she had formed contracts were summoned from elsewhere or actually created for the purpose, but she had been most impressed by the last. Nowhere else had she even heard suggestion that there were consciousnesses out there in the world that stemmed from the divine, save the gods themselves. And yet…

It was the combination that created that which was Proper. Each being demanded its price; their bargains were laid out in a loop such that all costs were paid, but not by the Butler making the Bargains. Each price was parlayed into the next, in a devouring ring like the Circle of Interaction itself. The Society gained its gifts, and paid nothing.

These were the deepest secrets of the Service Society, the sources of power that the world entire would kill to possess. It was not the feared strength or prowess in combat of Butlers which kept the jackals at bay; each Butler was attached to someone of influence, each contract stipulating certain types of support which could be demanded at need. No government or cult dared move against the one organization which had positioned itself to topple any of them, anywhere, under any circumstances.

Master Butler’s brilliance was in forming balance. In creating these networks that sustained and supported themselves. In a very real sense, he was the Service Society.

“Enter,” he called from within his office as soon as Yancey and Price arrived outside the door. They had not even had time to knock.

They did as bade, stepping inside, closing the door, and bowing to exactly the Proper degree.

“Please, sit,” Simeon Butler said with a smile. “Both of you.”

His seat, of course, was much taller than theirs, and even so his head was below their level. For all that, to be in his presence precluded any thought of overpowering him. Price had not known many gnomes, but Master Butler was the single most impressive personality she had ever encountered, not least because even with her training, her Treatment and her Bargains, her senses and accelerated mind could not pin down exactly what it was about him which commanded such instinctive respect. He was simply that far above her level, and always would be. She had never met a dragon, but had read descriptions of the aura of majesty they cultivated; privately, Price suspected Master Butler had found some way to imitate that effect.

“You have my deepest condolences, Yancey,” Master Butler said with pure sincerity. “No matter how many times I have had this conversation, it never grows easier.”

Yancey nodded deeply, almost bowing from his chair. “Thank you, Master Butler.”

“She was a deeply impressive woman,” the gnome said, nodding back. “Well worthy of the Society’s favor. Your service was a credit to her and to us. Even as we share in your loss, Yancey, we welcome you home with honor. Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Yancey only nodded again, this time almost perfunctorily.

“Naturally, the home office is yours until you are ready to resume work,” Master Butler continued more briskly, sensing the mood and ushering the conversation past that painful area. “Simply make your needs known to me and I shall see to it that they are met.”

“If it pleases you, sir,” Yancey replied, “I would like to take part in the education of the students. Whatever vacation time I have accumulated, I would prefer not to redeem at this juncture.”

“I well understand the value of keeping busy,” Master Butler agreed. “Very well, it shall be done. Consult with Crispin at your convenience as to what classes and individuals need instruction. I shall make it known to him that you are to have your pick of available assignments.”

“Thank you very much, Master Butler.”

The gnome nodded to him again, smiling, and then turned to Price. “Well, then! Unusual as it is for me to have two such exit interviews simultaneously, it is also something of a relief in this case. Yancey has reported that your Trial’s results were more than satisfactory—and it seems that one of the late Duchess Inara’s last acts was to send me a glowing recommendation via telescroll. She spoke of you in the highest terms.”

Price raised her eyebrows a tiny fraction that none but a Butler or elf would even have noticed. In this company, under these circumstances, it sufficed to express her pure astonishment.

“Yes,” Master Butler said, his smile widening, “her Grace the Duchess did not make a secret of her lack of personal fondness for you, Miss Price, nor her specific dislike of your religious affiliation. She seemed, if anything, ruefully resentful of her failure to find fault with your performance. It was her belief that your ability to conduct yourself so professionally under such hostility was the mark of a true servant. I concur with that assessment wholeheartedly. And as you have passed your Trial with flying colors, it is my honor and pleasure to welcome you, Sabrina Price, as a full-fledged member of the Service Society.”

Price inclined her head deeply. “Thank you very much, Master Butler. And thank you, Yancey.”

“Congratulations, Price.” Yancey found a smile for her. Strangely, that was the most touching thing of all.

“Now, then,” Master Butler continued, once more growing brisk, “I’ll need a further word with you, Price. Yancey, your reserved chambers are in readiness. Once again, welcome home.”

“My thanks, sir.” Yancey rose smoothly and bowed to the Master, nodded to Price, and then excused himself.

“I want to caution you, Price,” Master Butler said seriously as soon as they were alone, “not to be in a hurry to choose a contract. This is a matter of the greatest seriousness and should not be approached lightly. It is common for newly accredited members of the Service Society to peruse applications for months if not years before making a selection. Most interview with multiple applicants before choosing one.”

“Of course, sir. I understand fully.”

He nodded, reaching over to open the top drawer of his desk, and withdrew a folder. “I am aware that you do, Price, and did not mean to imply any lack of attention on your part. The reminder is simply to assert that I am not applying any pressure to you now. With that said, this is fortuitous timing indeed, as an application has just arrived which made me immediately think of you.”

“Oh?” She glanced at the folder before returning her gaze politely to his own. The Master folded his hands atop it on the desk, regarding her solemnly rather than opening it.

“I realize you have been distracted with the final affairs of the late Duchess Tiradegh. I’m sorry to have to report to you that Bishop Vaade recently passed away.”

Price bowed her head respectfully, murmuring, “We are still here.” It was, in truth, a formality; rank-and-file like herself had little interaction with Bishops or any of the Guild’s higher-ups. Most Eserites wanted nothing to do with authority, even their own. Vaade was a person she was aware of, and that was about it.

“From this unfortunate loss,” Master Butler continued, “have issued a sequence of surprises. It seems that Boss Sweet has selected as her replacement none other than himself. He has stepped down as Boss of the Guild, and just two days ago been confirmed by the Archpope and the new Boss, Tricks, as the new Bishop of Eserion.”

“How…intriguing,” Price said thoughtfully. No exaggeration; that was intriguing. Even distant as she was from Guild politics, she could not help beginning to tease out some of the implications of this.

“Now, it appears that Sweet—or Antonio Darling, as I’m sure you are aware—has never lived lavishly. That is quite typical of Eserites, of course. But now he has purchased a house in Tiraas which befits his new social standing, and hired decorators to furnish in in such a manner as is appropriate for a man of such rank. More interestingly still, Bishop Darling’s first formal act as a ranking officer of the Universal Church has been to commission what appears to be the most in-depth historical study of all recorded encounters with and descriptions of Elilial ever undertaken.” The Master let that hang for a moment before finally unfolding his hands and pushing the folder toward her. “And, as of yesterday, he has submitted an application for a Butler to the Service Society. I thought, Price, you ought to be the first to peruse it.”

Price pulled the folder toward herself and opened it, but though she stared at the page, she did not yet read. Already her mind rushed ahead, finding the shape of it, determining what was Proper in this situation. Sweet was a famously people-oriented person, a man who lived to get his own hands dirty and hated both delegation and ostentation. He liked to be in the streets and trenches, making himself known and doing his best to make everyone else’s jobs easier. He was a lot more popular in the Guild than Boss Catseye had been. This was a striking departure. What could prompt someone to so completely and suddenly reverse all his habits?

He had gone to the Church. He was deliberately re-positioning himself as a man of power and influence. And it seemed he was launching a personal crusade at the Dark Lady.

Intriguing barely began to describe it. This, this was someone to whom, unless he personally proved otherwise, a person could devote their life’s work, and find it a life well spent in deed.

“Thank you very much, Master Butler,” said Price thoughtfully. “I believe I would like to interview Mr. Darling at his earliest convenience.”

The Master smiled. “I thought you would say that.”

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Epilogue – Volume 3

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Warm weather had lingered throughout the continent, to the point that rumors had begun circulating about Ouvis’s displeasure and the Empire’s plans to employ various magical schemes to bring on winter. Any of these could be debunked by theological scholars acquainted with Ouvis’s habits (he had none to speak of) or magicians aware of the possibilities regarding weather control (there were no possibilities; you could manipulate the weather, not control it, and the manipulation was exceedingly inadvisable). Fortunately, the winds turned cold and the first snows began to fall before any of these nascent fears could get out of hand.

In a certain cabin barracks at the Silver Legion’s main fortress in Tiraas, more than a few jokes were made about how perfectly the onset of chilly skies and falling snow coincided with the return of one Bishop Basra Syrinx.

Three weeks later, they weren’t laughing. The housing provided to the Legionnaires of the Ninth Cohort was perfectly adequate—Avenist ethics wouldn’t allow soldiers to be deprived of necessities—but there was a wide distance between adequate and comfortable. The cabin was kept warm enough by the decades-old arcane stove provided, barely. Changing in and out of armor had become something of an ordeal, and all of them had changed bunks to sleep as far from the door and as close to the heat source as possible. Ironically, the much older technology of wood-fired iron stoves would have put off more heat, but in Tiraas, power crystals and enchanting dust were easier to obtain (not to mention store) than firewood, and the Legion quartermasters obstinately refused to spring for a refurbishment. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cabin, it remained cool enough that frost didn’t melt from the outside of the windows.

Thus, Principia got the usual round of unfriendly looks when she threw the door open. Her sunny mood, unsurprisingly, did not improve the reception.

“Gooooood evening, ladies!” she said brightly. “Everybody enjoyed dinner, I trust?”

“Shut that damn door, you maniac!” Merry barked, huddling by the stove.

“First, Lang, I have spoken to you about melodrama. It isn’t that cold. You wait till midwinter; you’ll feel a right fool for complaining about this. And second, we have company, so could you turkeys at least pretend there’s a semblance of a functioning chain of command in this barracks?”

She continued into the room, revealing the other soldier behind her, as the rest of Squad One got to their feet. In the next moment, they all snapped to attention, saluting.

“Bishop Shahai,” Farah blurted. “This is a surprise.”

“At ease, ladies,” Nandi said with a little smile, turning to pull the door closed behind her. “And surely you know it’s no longer Bishop. I was merely keeping the seat warm, as it were, and now its owner has returned to reclaim it.”

“Yes…we know,” Casey said quietly, relaxing her posture. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s, uh, good to see you again.”

“And in armor,” Ephanie added with a smile. “That’ll take some getting used to, Captain.”

“I fancy I’ve grown rather adept at getting used to things over the years, Avelea,” Nandi replied, smiling back and hoisting the rucksack she was carrying over one armored shoulder. “But before we all catch up, I believe Sergeant Locke has some announcements to make.”

“Yes, indeed I do,” Principia went on with the same mischievous cheer, opening the folder of papers she had held tucked under her arm. “Front and center, Avelea!”

Ephanie blinked, but didn’t join in the round of puzzled glances that passed between the others; relaxed as Principia preferred to keep things within their own barracks, she was the most devoted to military decorum among them. As ordered, she stepped forward to the middle of the aisle between bunks, falling naturally into parade rest.

“Ephanie Avelea,” Principia said more solemnly, “you are hereby advanced to the rank of Corporal, with all attendant duties and privileges. Furthermore,” she added, quelling Farah’s excited gasp with a stern look, “I am designating you executive officer of this squadron. Both are effective immediately.”

Ephanie’s lower lip trembled, but only for a second, before she snapped to attention and saluted, fist over heart. Only the lack of a sword, which she wasn’t wearing, diminished the gesture, and that not by much. “Thank you, Sergeant,” she said crisply.

“That’s all you have to say?” Principia asked somewhat wryly.

Ephanie swallowed once. “I… It really is. Thank you.”

“Now, I’m aware that it’s tradition in the military for officers not to bother explaining themselves as a general rule,” Principia went on, sweeping a glance across the rest of the squad, all of whom looked more excited even than Ephanie. “However, we’re a small unit, and within this little family, I want to make sure you all understand where I’m coming from with this.”

“It’s hardly a question, is it?” Farah burst out eagerly. “She has tons more experience than any of us! Weren’t you a Lieutenant, Ephanie?”

“Sides,” Merry added, grinning, “any of the rest of these jokers claiming to be officer material would be good for a laugh and not much else.”

“Stow that kind of talk,” Principia said flatly. “You’ve all got potential I don’t think you’re aware of, and the only reason I don’t ride your asses harder about it is the rest of you have all indicated you’re not planning to stick with the Legions as a career once your contracted enlistment is up. And even so, there are going to be some changes around here in that direction. But yes, back on point. Avelea does have the experience and the know-how, but that’s only half of it. You’re a by-the-books soldier, Ephanie,” she added directly to the new corporal. “And I, to put it mildly, am not. More importantly, you’ve consistently managed to support me with your knowledge of and devotion to the Legion’s principles and regulations, without ever undercutting my authority or butting heads with me.”

“You get the credit for that, ma’am,” Ephanie replied, still saluting. “You’ve always been quick to ask for input.”

“It’s a two-way street, and at ease, woman, for heaven’s sake. The point is, quite apart from your innate qualifications, you’re what I need both backing me up and counterbalancing me.”

“I won’t let you down, Sergeant,” Ephanie promised fervently.

“I know that quite well, Corporal,” Principia said with a grin. “Quite frankly I’ve had this in mind almost since I was promoted, but there have been…details to consider. Which brings me to our next item of business!” Turning, she smiled at Shahai, who was watching the proceedings with a warm little smile of her own. “This had to wait, Avelea, so you could be promoted first to preserve your seniority in the squad—an outdated and perhaps unnecessary little rule, but I’m being very careful to leave no wiggle room for someone to start picking us apart, and you know who I mean.”

She paused for emphasis, and they all gazed back at her in mute understanding. So far, none of them had heard directly from Bishop Syrinx, though Jenell Covrin had been spotted around the temple and adjoining fortress.

“The other thing I’ve arranged required paperwork which needed the approval of High Commander Rouvad, who did not want to give it.”

“Sergeant Locke approached me about this some time ago,” Nandi said, her smile tugging upward further on one side and taking on a sly undertone. “I began a campaign of persuasion upon Farzida as soon as I was able to relinquish the Bishop’s office. It has only borne fruit, finally, today.”

“The voluntary grade reduction for someone of Shahai’s status goes all the way to the top, I’m afraid,” Principia said smugly. “But Shahai has proved her worth—as if we haven’t all seen plenty of evidence of it already—and got her way. Ladies, may I introduce Corporal Nandi Shahai, the newest member of Squad Three Nine One.”

“Bwuh?” Farah said.

“Pick any bunk you like the look of,” Principia said directly to Nandi. “Except Lang’s, of course. Not that I don’t encourage you to push Lang around, but I think she has mites.”

“Oh, look,” Merry said dryly, folding her arms. “She ruined a nice moment. What were the odds.”

“W-welcome aboard…Corporal,” Casey said hesitantly.

“Yes, welcome,” Ephanie repeated. “I think…this is a very good idea, Sarge. She’s perfect for our squad’s assigned objectives.”

“Not to mention the un-assigned ones,” Principia said easily.

The others exchanged another wary look.

“You’ve, um, talked with her about…?” Casey trailed off, looking uncertainly at Nandi.

“Not explicitly, no,” their new squadmate replied, “but it’s exceedingly obvious that you will be contending directly with Basra Syrinx, and sooner rather than later. That she will be coming after you is an unavoidable conclusion—quite apart from the humiliation she suffered right under your eyes, which she won’t forgive, the fact is that your squad is a professional threat to her. Your assigned duties eat into the additional powers and responsibilities she has taken on beyond the standard job of the Bishop. I strongly suspect none of you are complacent enough or foolish enough to let her come without meeting her in kind, and I know Sergeant Locke isn’t.”

Principia beamed like the cat who’d eaten the whole aviary.

“And you’re…okay with this?” Casey asked warily.

Nandi’s smile faded, and she shook her head. “I am not okay in any sense with any part of this, ladies. What I am is in. I’ve been watching Basra Syrinx for a long time, and I know exactly what she represents and means for the Legions and the Sisterhood. Farzida believes she can be controlled and used to good advantage. So, I rather suspect, does the Archpope. I think you and I know better.”

“Nobody at the very top has a good view of what goes on in the shadows,” Principia agreed, nodding. “For now, let’s help the newbie get settled in, here, and then we have a promotion to celebrate! I know a perfect pub—discreet enough to keep us out of trouble, but not too much to be fun. And then…” She grinned wolfishly. “…we start working on our dear friend Basra.”


The office was illuminated only by the dim light of her desk lamp. She didn’t need even that to see; to elvish eyes, the moonlight streaming through the windows behind her was more than adequate for the letters she was writing. It cast a faint, rusty light over her desk, however, and created interesting shadows around the room. The lamp was more for ambiance than anything; she used it to great effect when intimidating unruly students (and sometimes parents), but had come to enjoy it for its own sake, too.

Only the soft scratch of her old-fashioned quill sounded in the room, at least aside from the soft flutter of wings as a small bird landed on the sill outside. Tellwyrn, who of course could hear that perfectly, too, ignored it. She also ignored the increasingly insistent croaking which followed. Only when the sharp, persistent tapping of a beak on the panes started up and refused to stop did she sigh in irritation, blow upon the ink to dry it, and put her quill away.

Spinning her chair around without bothering to get up, she un-latched the window and swung it outward, the bird nimbly hopping aside.

“I’m half-surprised you didn’t just blast it in,” she said acerbically.

“I really cannot imagine why,” Mary replied, swinging her legs in over the sill. She simply perched there, though, not coming the rest of the way inside. “When have you ever known me to do such things? Not everyone suffers from your delusions concerning what constitute social skills, Arachne.”

“From arriving to insulting me in seven seconds,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Sadly, that is not a record. What the hell do you want, Kuriwa? I have a shit-ton of paperwork to get done before I’ll have the chance to enjoy a week’s vacation from the little bastards, and so help me, if you ruin my holiday you’ll leave this mountaintop minus a few feathers.”

The Crow stared piercingly into her eyes, all levity gone from her face. “Where is Araneid?”

Tellwyrn gazed right back. “Who?”

Mary just stared at her.

“You’re not as inscrutable as you like to think, Kuriwa,” Tellwyrn said, idly turning back toward her desk, but not too far to keep her visitor in view. “I know you recognized my name. I knew it the first time we met. And yet, in three thousand years, you have never once asked me about this. So now I have to wonder…” She edged the chair back to face the Crow directly, and leaned forward, staring over the rims of her spectacles. “What just happened?”

“I returned to Viridill weeks ago, on your advice,” Mary replied. “It was good advice, by the way, and you ended up being more right than you knew. I thank you; it proved very good that I was there. Among the interesting things I learned was the repeated occurrence of spider webs as a theme, seen binding and drawing various players in that drama to one another. They were glimpsed only in the medium of dreams, thanks to Khadizroth’s intervention—that is a specialty of his, as you probably remember.”

“Of course.”

“And the matter put me in mind of a conversation I had with Sheyann not long ago,” Mary continued. “I have been noting for a while that wherever an event of significance occurs, particularly on this continent, it seems to be centered around the same few people. The dreamscape, of course, has a way of interpreting complex things in a way that is meaningful to intelligent minds. All this makes me wonder what strings have been tightening around us all that I was simply not in a position to see, before.”

“Spider webs, hm,” Tellwyrn mused.

“And so, I repeat my question,” Mary said, her stare sharp and unyielding. “What is the current location and status of Araneid?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Uh…dead? Undead? Mostly dead? Maybe sort of comatose, with a bit of unborn… It’s not simple, and quite frankly I never understood it well.”

“Go on,” Mary said flatly.

The sorceress twitched her shoulders in an irritated shrug. “You know, you really could have asked me about this in the beginning. It’s not a great secret. Or rather, I suppose I should say I’ve no care for the opinions of those who might want to keep it secret. I just don’t know, Kuriwa. What I know, you now do, and it took all of a moment to tell. I can add a little insight, though,” she said, folding her arms. “The corpse or sleeping body or whatever it is of a god makes a tremendous power source—but only another god would be able to make use of such a thing. To ask about a dead or almost dead deity, look for the living ones who have custody of her. If you want to know what happened to Araneid, ask Scyllith. If you want to get at her now, you’ll have to go through Avei. And in all seriousness, I wish you luck with it. I had just finished washing my hands of the whole sordid affair when we met the first time, and I will not be dragged back in.”

“Hmm,” the Crow mused, finally breaking eye contact and staring thoughtfully at the far wall. “The spider webs are not, after all, definitive proof of anything… But I have taken so long to come back here because I did my own research first. They are strongly associated with Araneid, and not just in myth. You say this goddess is…sort of dead, but not?”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “That’s as good a description as I could come up with, I suppose. Ask at the Abbey if you want to examine the…uh, body. I rather doubt they’d let you, though, and not even you are going to get through those defenses. Get too close to that thing, and Avei will land on you personally.”

“Is it possible,” Mary persisted, “that she could influence events across time? Your description suggests a revival of this Elder is possible. If this happens soon, what are the chances she could—”

“Kuriwa, I don’t know,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I’ve told you that. The magic involved is heinously complex and maybe comprehensible to me, but it was never explained, and I haven’t gone looking. I want out of the whole business. In theory, though? Sure, Araneid probably had that power, back in the days of the Elder Gods. I suspect most of them did. They didn’t have any equivalent of Vemnesthis watching against intrusions like that, and by the way, with him around and on duty she would have to be powerfully subtle to get away with it. Also… This would have to be very closely linked in time. If this is Araneid at work, she hasn’t been at it long. Someone would definitely have noticed before now. Probably someone in this room. Although…” Her expression grew faraway and thoughtful. “If it is within just a few years, though… There’s that great doom I haven’t been able to pin down. Alaric’s research points at an alignment of some kind… But of what we can’t figure out. It’s likely to be in just a few years, however. That could theoretically be a short enough time.”

Mary straightened up, suddenly frowning. “…Arachne, have you seen what is under Linsheh’s grove? I have long assumed that was an early stop on your own research.”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Linsheh and I don’t get along.”

“Yes, your feud made waves I have not managed to ignore, but I’ve heard nothing about it in four hundred years. I had assumed you two made up.”

“Well. For a given value of ‘made up.’ I’m pretty sure I won.” The sorceress grinned. “After her last stunt, I teleported her eldest son’s birth tree out of the grove, had it carved into a collection of exotic marital aids, sold them off in Puna Dara and sent her the receipts. I haven’t heard a peep out of her since, so I declared victory.”

For a long moment, Mary stared at her in utter silence. Then, finally, she shook her head.

“You really are the worst person,” she said in a tone of weary disgust. “In all my ages alive on this world, I have known the sick and depraved, the cruel, the truly evil. But you. There is no soul, living or dead, who is your rival in sheer, pigheaded obnoxiousness.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Tellwyrn said, smirking. “Especially not when you come pecking on my window in the middle of the night smelling like a haystack and with your hair badly in need of a brush. A lady likes to be finessed.”

“If you are investigating what’s coming, particularly if you’re curious about alignments,” Mary said curtly, “you need to look at what is underneath that grove. The answers there could reflect on other things that are of interest to you, as well. And for the love of whatever it is you may love, Arachne, try to mend fences with Linsheh while you’re at it. I don’t know what happened between you or who started it, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse. And we all will need to be able to reach out to one another in the near future, I suspect.”

She paused only to snort disdainfully, then turned and swung her legs out over the other side of the sill.

Tellwyrn watched the crow flap off into the night, frowning pensively.

“Hm… Well, it beats the hell out of paperwork.” She glanced disparagingly at her desk. “Then again, what doesn’t?”


“Have you all lost your goddamn minds!?”

It was well past dark and more than halfway toward midnight; sleet was pounding on the windows of Darling’s house, and the downstairs parlor had its fairy lamps turned as far down as possible, lit chiefly by the fire in the hearth. It was a cozy environment, the kind that would encourage sleepiness, if not for Style stomping up and down the carpet, raging at everyone.

“C’mon, now,” Darling protested. “You can’t possibly fail to see the benefits.”

“I don’t fail to see the benefits of ripping off the fucking Imperial treasury!” she snarled, pausing to glare down at him. “That doesn’t mean I don’t also see how that would bite me right the fuck on the ass!”

“How, though?” Tricks asked mildly. Aside from the circles under his eyes, he looked livelier than he had in weeks; all evening, he’d been growing more jolly as Style grew more irate. “You think the Sisterhood are going to spy on us? Quite apart from the fact they’ve shown no interest in doing that in eight thousand damn years, Style, this is not how you plant a spy. You don’t send a ranking officer of your army up to the enemy’s fortress and say ‘hello there, I would like to come spy, please.’ They’re not thieves, but a divinely-appointed military is definitely clever enough not to do something so thickheaded.”

“This is pretty much exactly what it looks like,” Darling added in the same calm tone. “A damn good idea, far too long coming, with huge potential benefits for both cults. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it first…although, it pretty much couldn’t have come from anyone else.” He grinned at the room’s other, quieter guest.

Style, meanwhile, clapped a hand dramatically over her eyes and groaned loudly. “You do it on purpose, Boss. And you, ex-Boss. You just like to see me suffer. I oughta throttle you both with your own fucking nutsacks.”

“Tea, Style?” Price asked diffidently.

“Don’t fucking start with me, Savvy,” the enforcer warned.

“It is my solemn hope that I do not have to start with you,” the Butler replied with characteristic serenity.

“What she means,” Sweet said with a grin, “is that it’d be politically awkward if she had to finish with you.”

“Style, you’ve been raging up and down for half an hour and generally making the point that this bugs you on an instinctive level,” said Tricks. “Fine, I get that. It’s your job, after all, to watch for threats. But if you’d seen a specific, credible threat here, you’d have said so by now. So with all respect, hun, button it. I’m making my decision: we’ll go ahead.”

Style snarled and kicked the rack of fireplace tools, sending them clattering across the carpet. Price swept silently in to tidy up.

“We’ll have to arrange a disguise, of course,” Darling said more seriously, studying his houseguest. “There’ll be all kinds of a flap if this gets out.”

“How the fuck are you going to disguise that?!” Style shouted.

“This is why I hate you sometimes,” Tricks informed her. “You never listen when I talk about what’s important to me. You don’t change a person’s whole appearance to disguise them, you just change the identifying details. Yessss… We’ll dye her hair, lose the uniform and give her a crash course in not walking like a soldier. It’s not like her face is widely known.”

Style snorted thunderously and halted her pacing directly in front of the chair next to Tricks’s. “Don’t you think for a second,” she warned, leveling a pointing finger, “that I’m gonna go easy on you, trixie.”

Trissiny, who had been silent for the last ten minutes as the conversation continued around her, slowly stood, her eyes never leaving the chief enforcer’s.

“If you insulted me by trying,” she said quietly, “I would lay you out. Again.”

Tricks burst out laughing. “Oh, but this is fantastic! It’s exactly the opportunity both our cults need—I love every part of this! Especially Style’s bloomers being in a bunch, that’s always good comedy.”

“I know where you sleep, twinkletoes!”

Ignoring her, he stood as well, turning to face their guest, and extended a hand. Trissiny clasped it in her own, gauntlet and all.

“It’s decided, then. You may all consider this official.” The Boss grinned broadly, pumping the paladin’s hand once. “Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild, apprentice.”

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The clack of wooden swords echoed across the lawn as the paladin and the drow clashed, circled, danced together and retreated. Other students stood around, each holding practice weapons of their own, but now just standing and watching the duel in the pale light of dawn.

Szith was the more mobile, making full use of her elvish speed and reflexes to get around her opponent. Nimble as she was, however, Trissiny very nearly kept pace with her, and the paladin’s more aggressive style, coupled with her greater physical strength, meant that their actual engagements usually ended with the drow in retreat. As the bout wore on, Szith became increasingly aggressive, being wise enough to realize that letting it become a contest of attrition would benefit her opponent. Trissiny, meanwhile, had clearly developed the skill of thinking multiple steps ahead, and made constant use of feints, false charges and sudden retreats to force Szith to adapt, helping to nullify the advantage of her speed.

The end, when it came, was abrupt and clearly a surprise, even to the contestants. Trissiny suddenly staggered, struck on the arm, and in the next moment reeled again, having been jabbed in the chest by one of her foe’s wooden swords. She took a step back, lowering her own weapon and wincing as she shook her left hand.

“I have bad habits,” she said ruefully, her aura faintly glowing for a moment to wipe away bruises and restore feeling in the arm numbed by Szith’s lightning-fast strike. “Muscle memory still wants me to block with that hand.”

“Indeed,” Szith replied, very slightly out of breath. “Had you been using a shield, I think that would have ended differently.”

She bowed formally in the Narisian style, both swords extended behind her. Trissiny replied with a traditional Avenist salute, fist over heart, blade upright alongside her face.

“Ugh, get a room, you two,” Ruda jeered.

Trissiny shot her an irritated look. “You could be practicing instead of spectating, you know.”

“Nah,” said Gabriel, grinning. “That was well worth seeing! Beats getting my ass kicked any day. And it’s really interesting to see Narisian sword work. The style is…different.”

“Are you not accustomed to watching Lady Shaeine fight?” Szith inquired.

“She doesn’t usually join us,” said November, absently twirling her practice sword. She instantly stilled it when Trissiny glanced at her.

“She also prefers to use magic in the field,” added Toby. “And in Ezzaniel’s classes I feel like she’s made a lot more progress with sword work since enrolling here than she ever did before. I guess combat isn’t a big part of a diplomat’s education.”

“Well, that’s all very interesting,” November said dismissively, turning to Ruda. “C’mon, how about another round? You said you’d help me work on my technique.”

“Mm…nah.” Ruda glanced at the sky. “I think we better pack up and move out. We’ve got classes before too much longer, and I want time to clean up a bit. Last time I went straight from practice to Tellwyrn’s class, she spent the whole goddamn hour making passive-aggressive comments about the way everyone smelled. Are elvish noses really that sensitive?”

“I help!” Scorn shouted, bounding up from where she had been sitting at the edge of the group, then turned expectantly to Teal. “Yes?”

“Sure,” said the bard, smiling at her. “You know where everything goes.”

“Everything!” the demon said enthusiastically, rushing forward to collect practice swords.

The sun was fully up, now, and morning classes would indeed be starting soon. The campus was starting to come alive, the odd student passing by the lawn en route to the cafeteria. Most hardly glanced at them; by this point, their little group had become something of an institution. They could be found on the lawn most mornings, either drilling under Trissiny or Toby’s direction, or practicing various forms of armed and unarmed combat. Since Trissiny and Teal had begun the tradition over a year ago, the roster had grown slowly, but those who made regular appearances had benefited greatly. Professor Ezzaniel himself had praised the progress Ruda and Gabriel had made in class, and November’s single-minded dedication and slavish attention to anything Trissiny directed her to do had advanced her own skill considerably.

“So, Shaeine’s title is actually Lady?” Gabriel asked as he and Ruda rolled up the woven reed mat they used for tumbling, to avoid grass stains on clothing. “I don’t think she’s ever actually mentioned that.”

“Not…exactly,” said Teal, glancing at Szith. “Narisians don’t really use titles; their full names reveal everything about their social standing. Those honorifics are practically a language unto themselves.”

“In this context, though,” said Szith, “and in Tanglish, I prefer to err on the side of courtesy. She is noble born, after all.”

“I’m certain Shaeine wouldn’t insist on the formality here,” Teal said with a smile.

“Perhaps,” Szith replied evenly. “But I am of her culture, and owe respect to her station. Different expectations apply to me than to the rest of you.”

Teal frowned slightly and opened her mouth to speak, but at that moment Scorn returned from dumping practice swords in the duffel bag used for the task and grabbed the one Gabriel had been using from his hand. “Here, give!”

He relinquished the weapon, frowning reproachfully at her. “I see we’re still working on those manners.”

“I am not manners. I am lady.” Scorn tossed her head haughtily, looking down her nose at him. “You are manners!” She turned on her heel and stalked back to the bag, where she tossed the last blade in with far more force than the task required, rattling all the way. Since her arrival on campus, she had begun accumulating cheap costume jewelry, mostly given to her by Teal; the lack of available metal in her home dimension had made her inordinately fond of it. Now the demon glittered and clattered wherever she went.

“Easy,” Trissiny said firmly. “Handle weapons with respect.”

“Well,” Gabriel muttered, lifting the rolled mat with a grunt and slinging it over his shoulder. “I guess that tells us a bit about the nature of nobility in her society.”

“In every society,” Szith murmured.

Trissiny suddenly stilled, turning in a slow half-circle with a frown on her face.

“Problem?” Ruda asked, watching her.

“I… There’s something on the edge of my…” Trissiny trailed off, then looked at Gabriel and then Toby. “Do either of you sense something all of a sudden?”

“Like what?” Toby asked.

“Feels demonic,” Trissiny muttered, looking around again. “Very subtle, though. I can’t quite pinpoint it.”

“I, uh…not really,” said Gabriel with a shrug.

“Maybe it’s just Scorn?” Toby suggested. “It started about when she started moving around just now, right? At least, that’s when you reacted.”

“Sort of. Maybe.” Trissiny’s expression did not ease, and she didn’t stop scanning the area. November looked tense and alarmed, creeping over to stand next to her.

“No,” Scorn said, folding her powerful arms and scowling at Toby. “There is a thing. I feel.”

“Really?” said Teal. “What kind of thing?”

The demon chewed her lower lip for a moment. “Hum…feels…like I know. Trissiny is right, very faint. A slave type.”

Ruda rolled her eyes; Gabriel snorted, earning a glare from Scorn.

“Can you be more specific?” Teal asked gently. It had been established previously that from Scorn’s point of view, all demons except Rhaazke were slaves, or ought to be.

“A hvathrzixk, I think. Yes, think so.”

“Bless you,” Gabriel muttered.

“I don’t know that word,” Teal said, frowning, then glanced at the others. “Demonic pronunciation is largely contextual. I’m not sure what that would be in this situation.”

“That language is way more complicated than it needs to be,” Ruda snorted.

“Yes, it is,” Trissiny agreed. “That’s the point of it.”

“Know word, know word,” Scorn was muttering, rubbing her forehead between her horns. “Know this, I read it up… Ah! Yes, slave of Vanislaas, yes?” She turned to Trissiny. “You feel, yes?”

The entire group stilled, then reflexively moved closer together. Trissiny drew her actual sword, which she had only just buckled back on.

“There is not a Vanislaad here,” Gabriel said firmly. “Their invisibility doesn’t work against valkyries, remember? Vestrel is offended at the suggestion.”

“Are you sure?” Trissiny demanded of Scorn. The demon shrugged.

“Not sure to plant my honor on. Feels like.”

“I’m telling you,” Gabriel began.

“Yeah, yeah,” Ruda interrupted him. “I think somebody better go straight to Tellwyrn with this.”

“Are you sure she ought to be bothered with an uncertainty?” Szith inquired. “She is rather prone to…”

“Mock,” November said tersely. “Oh, the mockery.”

“We got four people here who should be able to sense demons,” said Ruda. “Two say there’s nothing here, two sense something, and one says it’s an incubus or succubus. The discrepancy alone is pretty fuckin’ fishy. I’m telling Tellwyrn.”

“I agree,” Toby said seriously. “Keep in mind that of all the paladins here, Trissiny is most attuned to demonic threats.”

“But Vestrel can see through Vanislaad trickery,” Gabriel protested. “And, let’s face it, Scorn puts off a lot of energy. It messes with my senses a bit. That could be the whole thing by itself.”

“That doesn’t explain her sensing another demon,” Teal objected.

“Like feeling the heat of a candle when one is standing near a bonfire?” Szith added. “Does that not imply a greater likelihood a stealthy demon could hide in her presence?”

A brief silence fell; all of them peered around uncertainly.

“Yeah,” said Trissiny after a moment. “Let’s go get Tellwyrn.”


 

Darling pushed open the door of his study and stepped in, his attention on the letter in his hand. This was his third reading, and it still made him chuckle, even as it made him a tad nervous. Quentin Vex’s complaints were always very subtly couched, and rather ironically phrased. This matter had been slowly simmering ever since the fallout of that mess at the south gate; the spymaster was playing it cool and hadn’t even mentioned it at council meetings. The fact that he was now feeling Darling out for assurances that the Thieves’ Guild was not pursuing some kind of vendetta against Imperial Intelligence meant something else had happened.

Tricks’s orders had been to make it plain that their argument with Marshal Avelea had been only, specifically with her. Grip and Toybox had insisted that they’d done so. Why was Vex getting tetchy now? Some Guild agent must have ruffled another Imp, somehow.

The prospects weren’t good. Either the Boss was up to something else and hadn’t bothered to mention it to Sweet—which was unlikely, but all the more unsettling for that—or some random Eserite had crossed paths with an Imp, not realizing what they were messing with.

These things happened, of course. It would mean no end of headaches, going to the Boss and to Style to figure out what had happened and who had done it; Guild members were not generally expected to keep the management informed of all their activities. Tricks was not going to enjoy the extra work. Style would also complain, though in truth she loved having the excuse to storm and rage and crack people’s heads together. Darling would probably end up having to very, very carefully feel Vex out for details without revealing he had no idea what was up. Then again, maybe it’d be better to just up and ask him; Vex was canny enough that he’d likely read the truth between the lines no matter how Darling tried to obfuscate it, and in that circumstance it might be better to foster a sense of openness.

Of course, headaches or no, this still beat the hell out of the alternative. He knew very well that something was going on in the uppermost levels of the Guild that Tricks wasn’t keeping him in the loop about. And that was fine, generally speaking; he knew better than anyone that there were things the Boss and the Big Guy just didn’t discuss with anyone else. But if those things had begun to impact the Imperial government, Sweet’s life was about to become more interesting than he liked it.

Not to mention how that could weigh on his own plans. Occasionally, lately, he’d begun to experience and unfamiliar longing to take a vacation from all this.

“What, exactly,” he asked aloud, “do you think this is going to prove? I know very well how silent you can be. That’s not in question.”

“Oh, come on!” Fauna complained. She and Flora dropped from the ceiling, landing with simultaneous soft thumps on the carpet. Really, cats would have hit the ground harder.

“How the hell did you know we were there?” Flora demanded.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, flawless performance,” he said, folding the letter and stepping around behind his desk to tuck it in the top drawer. “I know you, though. Most actual marks won’t have that kind of insight into your strategies, though you still need to be prepared for those who do. An actual enemy is never someone you want to take lightly, and they’re the ones most likely to be aware of you. I’ll tell you what, girls; figure out what the tell was and surprise me next time, and I’ll have Price let you off household chores for a week.”

“All right,” Fauna said, grinning broadly.

“We love being bribed!” Flora added with matching enthusiasm.

“They grow up so fast,” he said with a mock sniffle.

Below, the front doorbell chimed. All three of them glanced at the study door.

“Style says you two are doing well, working with the newer apprentices,” he said. “How do you like the work? Some find it boring.”

“It’s actually rather satisfying,” Fauna said. “Learning is good, but teaching’s also fun.”

“And no, we’re not bullying the newbies, which is what you really wanted to ask,” Flora added, smirking.

“Yes, yes,” he said with a smile. “Have you been at the work long enough to’ve noticed how much faster the general pool of apprentices graduates?”

“Not firsthand,” Fauna replied, “but Style’s explained it to us.”

“Personal apprentices serve for much longer periods because they get much more in-depth training from a sponsor.”

“The advantages of that don’t really need to be explained.”

“So no, we’re not resentful of the fact that people from the general apprentice pool have become full Guild members in the time we’ve been studying under you.”

“We’re still getting a better deal.”

“Plus,” Flora added with a wicked grin, “it was rather satisfying when Grip kicked Randy back into the general pool.” She held out a fist, and Fauna bumped it with her own.

“Good,” he said, not troubling to hide his amusement. “I’ll be honest, girls: your skills are already well beyond what the Guild demands of its members, in terms of minimum competence. At this point it’s all specialized stuff. I wouldn’t be offended if you wanted to move forward faster.”

They shared one of those loaded looks.

“We trust your judgment, Sweet,” Fauna said.

“You’ve more than earned that.”

“Besides…we like it here.”

“It’s nice to have, y’know, a home.”

“Omnu’s breath, I’m not gonna boot your butts into the street the moment you graduate,” he said with gentle exasperation. “Soon enough, once you start racking up your own fortunes—and you will—you’ll want space of your own. Till that time, you have a home here. You’re still family.”

Both smiled broadly. Much as he enjoyed word games and dancing around the truth, those little moments of pure, honest feeling were what made all the rest of it seem worthwhile.

A soft rap sounded at the door, and Price pushed it open. Taking in the elves with a glance, she turned to Darling and opened her mouth.

“Your Grace, you have a visitor,” both apprentices intoned in unison, the imitation uncanny.

“I see you have already been informed,” Price said in perfect calm. “As your study is currently infested with rodents who clearly have time to thoroughly clean the kitchen, I have taken the liberty of having him wait in the downstairs parlor.”

“Aww!”

“C’mon!”

“It’s your own fault,” he said severely. “I dunno why you still think it’s a good idea to taunt her. Price, who’ve we got on deck?”

“A Huntsman of Shaath,” she said. “Brother Ingvar, whom I believe you may recall. He insists his business with you is personal.”

Both elves turned to face him in surprise.

“That,” he said slowly, “is fascinating. All right, take ’em away. And make sure they have to keep the eavesdropping subtle.”

“Of course, sir.”

The girls adopted hangdog expressions, which of course had not the slightest effect on Price as she herded them down the stairs and toward the kitchen. He followed more slowly, mentally taking stock. At the moment, having been about to head out on Guild affairs, he was in one of Sweet’s loud, shabby suits. Well, Ingvar had been introduced to him that way, anyhow. Probably best not to surprise him any more than necessary.

He entered the study, finding the Huntsman standing stiffly with his hands folded behind him, examining the nicknacks on the mantle. Ingvar turned swiftly at his arrival, his face calm but, to a veteran observer of people like Sweet, his posture betraying tension. He did not want to be here. Well, considering how some of their previous conversations had gone, that was pretty understandable.

“Brother Ingvar,” Sweet said warmly, striding across the room to offer his hand. The Huntsman took it almost gingerly, though his grip was firm, and he immediately altered his tactics. This one wouldn’t be softened up by charm. “So sorry to keep you waiting,” he said more briskly, though it had only been a few minutes. “I was dealing with my apprentices; you know how young ones can be. How can I help you?”

“I am sorry to intrude, your Grace,” the Huntsman said with stiff formality. Voice and face remained calm, but his posture was still rigid, and one hand kept creeping toward his hatchet. Not a threat; it looked to Darling more like a gesture seeking comfort. Ingvar had either been slightly trained in diplomatic conduct, or had a knack for it that compensated for a lack of training. The two looked very similar. “I shall try not to take too much of your time; I merely have a favor to ask of you.”

“Well, of course,” Darling said smoothly, fading more into a Bishoply demeanor; Sweet was bound to grate on this guy’s nerves, by nature. “Please, have a seat, be comfortable. I’ll be glad to help if I can.”

Ingvar folded himself gingerly onto the loveseat while Darling slipped into his customary chair. He’d considered not offering; the Huntsman would naturally be more comfortable on his feet, but offering a guest a seat was such a universal mark of courtesy that failing to do so would be an insult under virtually any circumstances.

He studied his guest’s face in the moment of silence while Ingvar gathered words; this was clearly a request he was loathe to make, which made it all the more intriguing. Darling had taken the time to do a little research on his particular condition. It wasn’t an issue in Eserion’s service, where people had a very simple, rather limited code of behavior to adhere to and were expected to carry on however the hell they pleased in their personal lives. The cults of Avei, Izara and Vidius all had specific provisions for individuals whose gender didn’t match their sex, however, and conveniently had those doctrines written down, so he didn’t have to have awkward conversations with any of their priests to learn them. Needless to say, their doctrines contradicted one another quite flatly. Still, the reading had given him a little insight, he felt.

Ingvar, at least, clearly had not made use of any kind of body-altering alchemy, which could very well be a Shaathist thing. The Huntsmen did not record their beliefs, at least not where outsiders could read them, but their love of all things natural made it likely they would eschew cosmetic alchemy. There was only so much it could do, anyway. Ingvar’s beardless face could certainly belong on a man, especially given his attire and hairstyle, though it did make him seem younger than he was; Darling guessed him to be around thirty, maybe a tad less. With a simple trick of concentration, however, he could also see the face of a woman with a rather strong jaw and heavy eyebrows. It really did come down to how one chose to perceive what one saw.

“I have been given to understand,” Ingvar said finally, “that you have some contact with Mary the Crow.”

Oh, bloody hell. Honestly. What now?

“My goodness,” he said mildly. “You do know that Mary the Crow is a declared enemy of the state, I assume? That’s not an accusation to throw around lightly.”

“I have no desire to cause you any trouble, your Grace,” the Huntsman said quickly. “I am sorry to bother you even this much. Nothing you say to me will find its way to Imperial ears.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Darling said with a smile. “You’re correct, I do know her. And I also keep Lord Vex appraised of my acquaintance with her and other dangerous individuals. That’s just sensible. He likes to amuse himself by surveilling my house, anyway. What’s your interest in the Crow?”

“I have been troubled, lately, by visions,” Ingvar replied, finally untensing the slightest bit as his gaze focused on a point not within the room. “Repeated and disturbing dreams which… Well, I will not bore you with details. In short, the most recent finally offered me a hint of the way forward, rather than vague warnings. It suggested I seek the guidance of the Crow.”

“I see,” Darling murmured. He did not see, but he could most certainly conjecture. Visions, Mary, and shamanic quests all fit together quite neatly. As a priest and a human, however, shamanic stuff in general was rather over his head. “If I may ask, who directed you to my door?”

Ingvar’s left eyebrow twitched in what looked like it had wanted to be a wry expression before he marshaled it. “Principia Locke.”

Darling had to chuckle at that; for some reason, Ingvar looked mildly offended.

“Sorry, old business. Principia’s name does tend to turn up whenever anything untoward happens; I guess it shouldn’t surprise me by now. That was good thinking, though; you probably knew about the family link there before I did.”

“Is it possible you can put me in contact with Mary?” Ingvar asked, betraying no overt impatience. It was there, though; in his situation, it would have to be.

“Oh, most certainly,” said Darling. “However, you should be aware that the Crow comes and goes like a cat, only far less reliably. I’ll be only too glad to let her know you are looking for her; at that point, she’ll seek you out if she’s interested. What I cannot do is pin her down for you, nor make any kind of appointment. Or guarantee that she’ll be interested in speaking. Or, frankly, give you a timetable. She popped in on my every few days for months, but then in the last half a year I’ve seen her all of three times.”

“I see,” Ingvar said, his shoulders moving subtly in a nearly repressed sigh. “Well. That is not nothing; it’s the first concrete progress I have made in this. I thank you greatly for your assistance, Bishop Darling.”

“Not at all, think nothing of it,” Darling said, waving him away. “Giving aid between faiths is the central duty of my position; we are all allies under the Pantheon’s aegis.”

Ingvar pointedly did not comment on that hollow platitude. “Nonetheless, I feel I owe you a debt for helping me in this.”

“Let’s not forget that you were among those who came to my rescue against the Black Wreath,” Darling said more softly, and more sincerely. “If you must think in terms of debts, consider any favors I do you here a repayment.”

“Very well,” the Huntsman replied with very slight but still evident relief.

Darling rose, suspecting his guest would be glad to terminate this audience without further small talk; the swiftness with which Ingvar followed suit bore out his hypothesis. “I’ve only one method which has worked in the past to get Mary’s attention; I retired it after she tacitly expressed displeasure, but for you, I believe we can trot it out again. Price!”

The parlor door instantly opened, revealing the Butler.

“Ah, there you are! Price, I need you to assemble another scarecrow.”

“Really, sir?” she said with that magical expressionlessness of hers that somehow conveyed withering disapproval in a way that couldn’t be called out.

“A…scarecrow?” Ingvar repeated, looking somewhere between amused and aghast.

“Yes indeed!” Darling said cheerfully. “And you know what, put a silly hat on this one. We can’t have our good friend Mary getting the idea that she should take herself too seriously. That’s terrible for a person’s blood pressure.”

“Your Grace,” Price intoned, “may I respectfully suggest that escalating a prank war with Mary the Crow is among the most ill-advised notions in the history of civilization?”

“Not in front of a guest, you may not,” he said glibly. “Honestly, Price, you’re making the poor man uncomfortable. Who taught you to behave?”

“Oh, uh,” Ingvar stammered.

“Brother Ingvar,” Darling said more warmly, turning to the Huntsman. “Once again, I cannot predict how swiftly I’ll have word for you, or what that word will be, but I’ll be in touch just as soon as anything develops.”

“I…appreciate your help very much, your Grace,” Ingvar said, and Darling couldn’t help feeling amused at his clear discomfort. He felt a little bad about that, though.

Well, it was good that he could feel guilty about such small things. When you didn’t, anymore, you were wandering into territory that he sometimes feared he would find himself in before he knew what had happened.


 

The light autumn wind tasted of rain; it tugged playfully at her hair and the fringes of her sleeves and leggings. She ignored it, perched on the edge of Darling’s roof right where the whole neighborhood could have seen her, if anyone bothered to look up. Humans rarely did.

Mary watched impassively as Ingvar the Huntsman made his way back up the street, moving with an alacrity that suggested eagerness to get well out of this ritzy neighborhood.

“Hmm.”

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“But why dragons?” Merry demanded as they marched. “This is not what we’ve been training for! Damn it, if we’ve been busting all our butts for nothing…”

“You know, I think I had almost exactly this conversation with the Captain, only reversed,” Principia replied, glancing back at her. “Want to know what she said?”

Merry hesitated, then scowled. “That’s a trap, isn’t it.”

“There, see?” Prin said, grinning. “You’re learning. We’ll make a sly operator of you yet, Lang.”

“In all seriousness, though,” Farah piped up, “these orders…”

“Are orders,” Principia said firmly. “We can handle this assignment, and we will. Come on, ladies, we’ve dealt with orders specifically designed to break us. This is going to be more interesting than we’d like, yes, but it’s a real job, and it has a purpose. We’ll do it and do it well.”

“Sarge is right,” Ephanie added. “This is what Avei needs of us. Succeed or fail, there’s honor in the doing.”

“We will not consider ‘fail’ as a pertinent option,” Principia said. “All right, squad, pipe down. We’re approaching range of the Bishop, and I want her to see training and professionalism from us, and nothing else. Forward march, double time.”

They fell silent as ordered, falling smoothly into step. It was a little unusual to be quick-marching through the halls of the temple, but they were Legionnaires in uniform and it was the central bastion of Avei’s influence in Tiraas; no one attempted to interfere with them. The walk was relatively quick, anyway, and within another five minutes they had reached Bishop Shahai’s office.

It was one of the temple complex’s more idiosyncratic rooms, a small chamber four times as long as it was wide and lined with bookcases. Before a remodeling that resulted in the addition of a new wing to the temple, it had actually been a section of outdoor colonnade. Now, one wall—that which had previously been open—had panes of frosted glass between the remaining columns, giving a full view of the carpeted chamber and its numerous books. Those, too, were leftovers, entirely volumes of which multiple copies already existed in the temple’s library. Until Shahai came along, it had been a public space, its glass doors usually standing open and often serving as a spot for quiet reading, prayer or conversation. She had done nothing to make it her own, even to the point of making no objection to others being in the space. Shahai’s easygoing and humble attitude had already made her far more popular than her predecessor.

Not that the bar was set very high.

She was standing with her back to the entrance when Squad One marched in. Even from behind, she was a distinctive figure, slender and with long ears extending to either side of her pale blonde hair. There were few enough elves in the Sisterhood, and fewer still among the Universal Church’s personnel. The white robe of the Bishop’s office was similar to that worn by priestesses of Avei, though ankle-length rather than ending just below the knee, and with wide, billowing sleeves. Over that was the black tabard of her office with the Church’s silver ankh symbol, and over that she had belted on a sword in addition to the golden eagle pin at her shoulder. In contrast to Bishop Syrinx’s extravagant weapon, it was a plain leaf-bladed short sword doubtless straight from a Silver Legion armory.

“Squad One,” the Bishop said, turning to face them with a thoughtful expression. Nandi Shahai had eyes of a unique pale gray. The color itself was unusual among plains elves; its very light shade was a silver that verged on white under the right light. Those eyes flicked rapidly across them as they saluted. “Hm…five of you. That will make most ceremonial formations awkward… All right, Sergeant Locke, you are to position yourself as my personal aide. The rest of you will arrange yourselves as an honor guard. You know the requisite formations.”

It was not a question, but it required an answer anyway.

“Of course, your Grace,” Principia said crisply.

“You have a question, Private Elwick?” the Bishop asked mildly.

Casey blinked her eyes and glanced at Principia.

“Permission granted to speak freely,” Shahai said with a small smile.

Casey cleared her throat. “Ah, well… I don’t mean to question your decisions, your Grace. I was just wondering how important ceremonial formations are, considering what we’re to guard you against.”

“Your attitude is proper,” Shahai said approvingly. “However, it is also a highly pertinent question. If one dragon were to attack me, soldiers, there is precisely nothing you could do about it except die alongside me. We will be meeting, hopefully, four. This is not a military exercise and you will not think of it as such. It’s a different kind of battle entirely, and in diplomacy, a little pageantry goes a long way. For purposes of this assignment, squad, your bearing and conduct is more immediately germane to mission objectives than your skill in combat. You will keep this in mind and behave accordingly.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused.

“And now Private Lang has a question,” the Bishop said, turning to her.

Merry quickly swallowed down a grimace. “Ah, well, case in point, ma’am. I was just surprised that you knew Elwick by name. And now me.”

“I assure you, ladies, I never enter a situation without knowing as many details and variables as can possibly be arranged,” Shahai said, folding her hands behind her back. “Almost everything about this situation is unknowable. It has no precedent, and while three of these dragons are known figures, they are not exactly familiar to any of us. Be assured, I have researched each of you as fully as the short span of time available to me allowed. Pertaining to that, and to your apparent inability to have a thought without expressing it on your face, you four will keep your helmets on when on duty. Locke, to further visually differentiate yourself from the rest of the squad, leave yours off. In fact, leave it here; I want you to keep a hand free.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I trust, further, that you do not lack facial control. Do you know what is expected of a personal aide?”

“I am familiar with the role, your Grace.”

“Good. I will have little in the way of papers to hold or errands to run; your primary role will be to be visually supportive. And as you are assuredly a practiced actor, I want you to convey the impression that we are old and familiar partners, if possible.”

“Yes, your Grace, I believe I can do that.”

“To that end, while I expect you to cultivate proper decorum, you may speak up and contribute to conversations when you deem it in the best interests of the Sisterhood and the mission. I am trusting both your sense and your loyalty, Locke. It is my opinion based on your records that this is warranted; if I prove mistaken, it will reflect on you in the High Commander’s eyes.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“The rest of you, however,” Shahai continued, turning her head to address the remainder of the squad, “will keep fully in character as ceremonial guards at all times when we are at the Conclave embassy, among any dragons or their staff, or on duty pertinent to this mission. I want you to keep your eyes and ears open, and I will seek your opinions in private. In front of the dragons, though, you are scenery. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am!” all four replied.

“If addressed by them,” the Bishop said, her stare growing more intent, “or approached at all, you will politely but firmly redirect their attention to me. Trust me, ladies, you do not want a dragon growing more interested in you. They have a tendency to get what they want, and that has a tendency to disrupt one’s life to an astonishing degree. Whatever else these dragons are up do, I cannot conceive that they have come to Tiraas without expecting to acquire some manner of female companionship.”

“I’m not excessively worried about anyone falling head over heels for me, your Grace,” Farah said with a grin.

“Well, there’s Avelea to consider,” Merry said reasonably. “I mean… Dang. Just look at her.”

Ephanie’s cheeks colored slightly behind her helmet, but she did not otherwise react.

“These are immortals,” Shahai said, unamused. “They have lived to see fashions and standards of beauty shift as often as you have seen the seasons change. You are young, healthy, self-confident and strong-willed; there is a universal attractiveness in that. You will do nothing to attract draconic attention to yourself; you will not encourage it if it exists, and will coldly deflect it should it persist. Is that fully understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” they barked more stiffly.

“A question, your Grace, if I may?” Principia asked politely.

“Of course, Sergeant,” Shahai said, nodding at her.

“I don’t mean to presume; I’m simply trying to get on the same page so I can help with your plans rather than impeding them. By singling out the two elves as obviously dominant members of this delegation, what impression are you trying to send to the dragons?”

“None,” Shahai said, a very faint smile hovering around her mouth. “No impression. In fact, I intend to leave the matter as utterly vague as possible and set them to wondering which of the obvious possibilities is the correct one. Dragons are wise and clever in addition to being powerful; every moment they spend trying to find nonexistent meaning in minutia is a moment they are not spending maneuvering us as they wish.”

Principia permitted herself a smile. “I see. I think, Bishop Shahai, I am going to enjoy working with you.”

“That would, of course, be ideal,” the Bishop said calmly, “but never forget that we are here for duty, not enjoyment. All right, ladies, fall in; it’s time to go pay a visit.”


 

“That was fast,” Darling noted, leading the returning adventurers into the dining room with Price on their heels.

“Yeah, that’s the convenient thing about failure,” Weaver said sourly. “It has a tendency to happen so much faster than success.”

“No sign of Mary at all?”

“Sign, no,” said Billie, “but you were right. She’d been there; Tellwyrn had apparently spent enough time with her lately to grow tired of it. But she’s up an’ fluttered off, and we’ve no idea where to or why.”

“The Professor knows we’re looking, though,” Joe added, “and I think she’ll be helpful if she can. I mean, she’ll point Mary at us if she goes back to Last Rock before coming back here.”

“And,” Weaver added pointedly, “we reached an agreement with regard to the other matter. We now have a prearranged secure place to get rid of the skull. Assuming we can get our hands on the damn thing.”

“That’s one worry down, then,” Darling murmured.

“Where’s McGraw?” Joe asked.

“Got a little antsy, waiting around,” the Bishop replied with a grin. “He went off ahead to Desolation to have a look around.”

“You sent him where?” Joe exclaimed.

“C’mere, have a look,” Darling said, ushering them into the dining room. Flora and Fauna were present, both studying a large map unrolled on the long table. Darling led the group over to this and placed a finger on one labeled dot, the two elves shifting back to make room while the rest crowded around to see, Joe pausing only to tip his hat to the girls. “Desolation is the last stop on the Rail line in the Badlands.”

“I thought it went all the way to the Dwarnskolds,” Billie said. “Isn’t the kingdom of Rodvenheim less hostile t’the Empire than most o’ the rest?”

“Less hostile, yes,” said Darling, nodding while keeping his eyes on the map. “That doesn’t mean they don’t share the traditional dwarven interest in their privacy. The dwarves have a cultural imperative to discourage the kind of melting-pot phenomenon that’s been developing all over the Empire; all sorts of random people having access to their gates doesn’t serve their interests. All right, I actually have further point to make pertaining to that, but first I need to bring you guys up to speed—there’ve been developments in Tiraas while you were out today.”

“Anything good?” Billie asked.

“That remains to be seen,” Darling said, frowning and finally lifting his head to look at them. “Lord Vex briefed me; this is what I was called away for this morning. Today, four dragons landed outside the city.”

“Dragons?” Joe said, his eyebrows shooting upward. “Four?”

“One of each extant color,” the Bishop said, nodding. “They came to announce that the dragons of the Tiraan continent have banded together and formed a government. They are requesting formal recognition and the opening of diplomatic relations.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Weaver said, staring at him.

“The Empire is handling this as slowly as they can, of course,” Darling continued, “but one doesn’t generally say ‘no’ to a dragon. Saying ‘no’ to all the dragons isn’t even on the table. They’ve been granted the use of a small palace that used to belong to some noble, which is already being considered an embassy in all but name. Anyhow, concerning our business, this obviously changes the character of the prophecies.”

“I should damn well think so,” Billie said in awe. “I mean…dragons. The politics o’ this alone… Could that be the chaos the books were goin’ on about?”

Darling shook his head. “The word ‘chaos’ wasn’t used; from the context, it was pretty clearly referring to chaos as a magical phenomenon. And the dragons aren’t necessarily the direct cause of it, but perhaps simply a significant enough event to draw prophecies of their own. This is entirely without precedent in the history of the world. But no, they wouldn’t be dabbling with chaos themselves. As a race, they have better sense.”

“Belosiphon sure didn’t,” Weaver noted.

“As you of all people likely know,” Darling retorted, “it was other dragons who brought him down. That kind of cooperation was rare even then. This… The whole world is changing, right out from under us. I can’t honestly say I still know what I’m sending you into, my friends. I want to raise the prospect of calling this whole thing off, or at least calling a halt until we can find more information, or at least find Mary.”

“Well, now, hang on a tick,” Billie said reasonably. “Even if it’s just chaos… The skull o’ Belosiphon is still out there, aye? An’ if that’s in circulation, it needs to be taken out of it.”

“We also know the Archpope’s other team is active,” Joe added.

“We assumed both of those things,” Darling said, raising a finger. “Our assumptions may not still be valid. The situation is more unpredictable and likely more dangerous than we know.”

“That being the case,” said Weaver, “it sounds to me like McGraw had the right idea. An Eserite once told me if your only available options are probably mistakes, it’s always better to err actively than passively. This seems to me like a good idea to head to the Badlands, get a look around, see if we can find something out and report back. If there’s a chaos artifact loose anywhere in the region, there will damn well be signs of it.”

“I suppose it can’t hurt to look,” Darling said thoughtfully. “…and having said that, I really hope I haven’t just jinxed you. All right, I’m going to trust your judgment on this. Be careful. Kindly don’t attempt anything too assertive until we’ve got more data to work with.”

“If nothin’ else,” Joe noted, “we’ll wanna link up with McGraw, see what he has to say. If I remember my frontier stories, the Badlands are his old stomping ground. The place where he made his legend, in fact. He’s likely still got friends up there.”

“Sounds like a plan t’me!” Billie said cheerfully. “An’ if nothin’ comes of it, we can still come back.”

“More Rail rides,” Weaver grumbled. “Ah, hell with it, too much comfort just makes me soft.”

Darling sighed. “All right, well… Just keep in mind what you’re seeing here, yeah? Desolation is right on the edge of the Badlands; assuming the skull is in that area, it’s not gonna be sitting on a convenient pedestal in town. This is a large stretch of country, and its pretty much the geographic center of nowhere. Your nearest major outposts of civilization are Rodvenheim, Puna Dara and Veilgrad, and none of those are exactly cosmopolitan epicenters. They’re also more than three hundred miles away, each.”

“Are we lookin’ at the same map?” Joe asked, pointing. “Shaathvar is right there.”

“It’s right there across the most impassible mountains on the continent,” Weaver said scornfully. “To get to Shaathvar from the Badlands, you’d have to go back down to Veilgrad and follow the roads up through the Stalrange. There’s a limited number of usable passes.”

“Shaathvar is also the’world’s most ass-backward place with a population o’ more than twenty,” Billie added. “Talkin’ o cosmopolitan epicenters.”

“Before this veers any further off topic,” Darling said firmly, “my point was, if you go adventuring into the Badlands, that’s that. You won’t be getting any more resources or help until you either succeed or quit. So yes, head to Desolation, find McGraw, look around. Please don’t be in a hurry to go haring off. I want everyone to be damn sure of what they’re doing before committing to something like that.”

“Don’t you worry yer pretty li’l head about us, poppet,” Billie said, winking. “We’re professionals.”

“Please don’t call him pretty,” Flora said, grinning.

“He’s vain enough as it is,” Fauna agreed.

Darling gave them an irritated look. “Don’t you two have something to clean?”

“Nope.”

“Not really.”

“Something can be found, if your Grace wishes,” Price offered.

“No, no, let them stay and learn,” he said somewhat gruffly. “That’s what we keep ’em around for, after all. All right, let me clear this out of the way and then we’ll get you guys some dinner.”

“Best we set out as quick as possible,” Billie said, frowning. “Every moment we delay, Khadizroth an’ the Jackal are getting’ ahead of us. Those two arseholes cannot be allowed ta get their ‘ands on the skull.”

“Assuming,” Weaver said, “they’re actually after it…”

“Aye, which we’ll find out by goin’ up there, right?”

“It’s almost dark,” Darling noted. “The Rails aren’t going to running by the time you can get to a station. C’mon, guys, I’m sending you face-first into chaos, conflict and possible death. You can’t reasonably embark until tomorrow morning anyway. Let me offer a little hospitality first, all right?”

“I admit it wouldn’t be amiss,” Joe said, grinning ruefully. “Not that I don’t take your point, Billie, but he’s right. We ain’t walkin’ to Desolation, an’ the Rails only run after dark for Imperial personnel. Might as well spend the night resting up.”

“I’m down for whatever lets me get some sleep before I have to stuff myself into one of those tin-can slingshot piece of crap Rail monstrosities,” Weaver snorted. “Sure, fine, dinner. Thanks for the hospitality, and all. It’ll give us a little more time to plan, anyway.”

“Hooray!” Flora said, beaming. “We never get to have guests!”


 

Later, with no lights outside the window of the parlor except the dim glow of street lamps, the fairy lamps within had been turned down to better allow the fire in the hearth to illuminate the room. It made a pleasing effect, both dimly relaxing and cheery. Darling said in his usual chair, an untouched brandy in his hand, staring into the fire with a dour expression that seemed to defy its best efforts to be uplifting.

With no one left in the house but its occupants, Joe having moved into lodgings of his own following the hellgate crisis, it was still in the evenings, especially when everyone was involved in their own thoughts, as tonight.

“That was really neatly done,” Fauna commented, coming over to sit on the arm of the loveseat near Darling.

“The way you got them to insist on heading out to the Badlands themselves, and think it was their own idea.”

“Very impressive.”

“Don’t just admire,” he said softly, still watching the low flames. “Learn, and be able to reproduce the results.”

A brief quiet fell. The girls sat on either side, watching him without staring, letting the companionable silence stretch out. Finally, Darling sighed softly and leaned forward to set his brandy down on the low table.

“Everything I said to them was true,” he said. “The situation is changed to the point of unknowability, and the only certainty of what I’m sending them into is danger. It’d be one thing if I were still certain we’d find Justinian’s lackeys at work up there… I really don’t have a good feeling about this.”

“But you need boots on the ground,” Flora said. “Weaver was right.”

“For once,” Fauna added with a grin. “Typically, only when he’s quoting Eserites.”

“We’re not going to learn anything by sitting in the city,” Flora continued reasonably. “Justinian’s oracles are still freaking out, and it’s not like there’s intelligence here to be gathered about what’s happening there.”

“All true,” he said, nodding. “But even so, if they were a less capable group of people, I wouldn’t have sent them off like that. There are ethical considerations, girls, always. A little manipulation when it’s useful is one thing; sending good people to risk their lives while I sit in my comfortable warm house is walking a narrow line. On one side of that line is a short road to being exactly the kind of asshole the Thieves’ Guild exists to knock down a peg.” He drew in a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. “As it is… I can’t leave this where it stands. I have got to get them some backup, and some more data to work with. Joe still hasn’t forgiven me for this spring, and honestly I can’t find it in me to blame him. You take care of your people, girls, as much as you do yourself. More, even.”

“You take care of us,” Fauna said softly.

He gave her a small smile. “You’re family—that goes without saying. Other people, though. Anyone useful, or relevant, or just present. Manipulators—which we have to be—run the risk of starting to see everyone as pieces on a chessboard. Always keep your guard up against that. Once you start living that way, you become the enemy. For right now…” He drummed the fingers of both hands against the armrests of his chair. “Goddammit, I am stalled. I’ve got nothing else to give them. Is there any chance you two could find Mary?”

They exchanged a look, then grimaced in unison.

“We’ve…tried, actually,” said Flora.

“None of our own divinations so much as reveal that she even exists.”

“If she were dead or something, we’d be able to tell that.”

“She’s blocking us somehow.”

“Not really surprising. It’s an obvious precaution…”

“And the Crow doesn’t like people sniffing around her business.”

“Which is funny,” Flora added sourly, “since she sure does love to sniff everyone else’s.”

Darling rubbed his chin, again staring into the fire. “And that’s the worst possible area for Eserite backup… Dwarves hate thieves like you wouldn’t believe, the Guild presence in Puna Dara isn’t worth considering. Even if a trustworthy cell were nearby, thieves aren’t necessarily the best people for wilderness work.”

“Plus, they’re all three hundred miles away, or more.”

“But what about that other city, Veilgrad? That’s Imperial, isn’t it?”

“No good,” he said with a wry grin. “Veilgrad is having a werewolf problem at the moment.”

“Werewolves?” Fauna exclaimed, straightening up.

“In the hills around the city,” he said. “It’s come up in security council meetings. They’ve moved a battalion, a strike team and some Intelligence personnel into the city to help keep a lid on things, but as quietly as possible. The Empire doesn’t want word of that getting out. Lycanthropy is contagious enough and scary enough to really spark a panic whenever enough of them gather to form a proper pack.”

“Hm…” Flora stroked her own chin, an unconscious imitation of Darling’s habitual gesture. “Okay… If we can’t get help to them, what if we get them to help?”

“What, now?” he said, blinking at her.

“Well, I mean… Suppose they find Khadizorth and the Jackal and whoever else. It’s likely Justinian has more adventurers working for him, right? What if they could lead them into a trap? Like, in Veilgrad? If it’s full of werewolves and Imps…”

“That’s a trap for everyone,” Fauna pointed out.

“Natural hazards are a trap for whoever doesn’t know they’re there.”

“I like the brainstorming, Flora, but remember, that’s three hundred miles to the south,” Darling said. “Goading someone into a misstep is one thing. You can’t incite a person to chase you that far into that kind of trouble; that’s just giving them time to form a counter-plan.”

“What if…it is just a step, though,” Fauna said thoughtfully. “Remember how they described their fight with Khadizroth? This group knows their way around portal magic. If they could get an enemy through a door they didn’t realize led somewhere else…”

“Like, to Imperials and werewolves,” Flora said, grinning.

“Hm…I could sort of see that working, under the right circumstances,” Darling said, a faint smile growing on his own face. “Still pretty farfetched, but increasingly plausible. I’ll float the notion when they check in. For now, though, I’m still more concerned with finding them some kind of backup. And these dragons raise issues, too.”

“What kind of issues?” Fauna asked.

He sighed heavily. “As you know, we’ve been operating under the assumption that Khadizroth hasn’t spilled your secret to Justinian. He’s clearly working under duress and won’t want to hand the Archpope any useful ammunition. But… A mortal institution gets a dragon on a leash for basically the first time ever, and suddenly the dragons are banding together and demanding to be a presence? No. That is not a coincidence. They know something about Khadizroth’s situation. It’s immediately necessary for us to learn what, because that’ll tell us what they know about you, and what they may want to do about it. Dragons aren’t necessarily interested in headhunters…unless they are.”

“What do you mean, suddenly?” Flora muttered. “That was months ago.”

“Excuse me, I thought I was talking to a couple of elves. To creatures with eternity to plan, putting something this unprecedented together in only a few months is astonishing. Something’s lit a fire under them.”

“How do you know they haven’t been working up to this for years?” Fauna asked.

“Vex had word on that when he brought me up to speed,” Darling said seriously. “Apparently he’s had dragons on his mind a lot for the last few months; they all went off to Sifan and have been talking something over. He hasn’t been able to spy on them, not only because Queen Takamatsu would justifiably take offense at having her guests snooped on, but you just don’t spy on eighteen dragons. But it gives us a time frame for how long they’ve been working on this. Considering who it is, the fact that they put this together so fast…yeah, they know.” He sighed again. “But what do they know? What do they think about it?”

“And…what do we do about it?” Flora asked, frowning worriedly now.

“The coming days are going to be very revelatory, one way or another,” Darling said. “If things go well… Or at least, if they don’t go too badly… There’s a chance I can work this to our advantage. Khadizroth unquestionably brought his fate on himself with his behavior. The Conclave will want him out of the Church’s clutches, but they probably won’t be happy with him, either. Considering that…” He rubbed his chin again, this time with a faint smile playing on his lips. “We just might find allies of the most powerful kind.”

“Or enemies,” Fauna said softly.

Darling nodded, the firelight glinting in his eyes. “This is not going to be boring.”

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