Tag Archives: Schwartz

15 – 52

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Once his back was to the temple, Sweet stopped putting so much focus on controlling his expression, allowing a pensive frown to settle on his features. He bounded down the stairs three at a time, perhaps not terribly respectful conduct for visiting a religious sanctuary, but Izarites were hard to offend and his thoughts were already elsewhere.

“Any luck?” Fauna asked as he reached the street level.

“You know, I’m increasingly unsure,” he mused. “Still nobody who’d acknowledge having seen Bran, but this is the third place in a row where I’m starting to get…a mood.”

“Uh oh,” Flora said, widening her eyes. “He’s getting a mood. Where’s Price with a brandy when we need her?”

Sweet playfully swatted the back of her head. “Not my mood, wiseass, from the priests. It’s a pretty subtle thing, just a tension and wariness when I ask after Branwen. I wasn’t convinced I wasn’t imagining it until this place; that dude up there was definitely annoyed by me asking.”

“Huh. Now that’s weird,” Fauna said, also frowning as the three of them set off down the sidewalk, both elves flanking their trainer.

“I didn’t know it was possible to annoy Izarites,” Flora agreed. “We’ve…um, absolutely never tried.”

“Yeah, your not trying has been brought to my attention,” he said dryly. “But the thing is, you’re right, they’re a pretty unflappable lot. And hypothetically, if they were hiding Branwen for some reason, they would definitely not reveal it by betraying emotion when asked. So what’s this about, then?”

“Mmm,” Fauna hummed thoughtfully.

“Wasn’t a rhetorical question,” Sweet clarified. “Let’s hear some theories. Consider it a training exercise.”

The two leaned subtly forward to exchange a glance across him, in one of those brief, silent conversations they were always having. Sweet just waited, keeping to an average walking pace.

“They might react that way,” Flora said slowly, “if someone else had recently been here sniffing around after Snowe.”

“Especially,” Fauna added, “if it was somebody who might make them nervous.”

“Someone like Thumper,” Flora continued, nodding to herself. “Izarites are hard to rattle, but for empaths, being around that guy has to be like getting slapped in the face with a live fish.”

“Nice imagery,” Sweet said with a grin. “Of course, all this is pure speculation, but that was the same thought I had. Glad to hear I’m not the only one following that logic. So, now the question becomes whether this should alter our approach, and if so, how?”

“Well, before you decide on anything, we gathered some new intel for you while you were in there,” said Fauna.

“You two were supposed to be staying within sight,” he reminded them.

“Yes, but there are these wondrous new things called newspapers,” Flora replied sweetly while Fauna handed him one. “I know this must be mind-blowing for someone of your generation, but people actually go out and collect the news! And then they write it down!”

“Y’know what, I’m not even mad. You go ahead and milk this shtick for every drop you can.” Sweet held up the paper and rapidly skimmed the front page article as they walked. “You two’re going to spend a lot longer than I will having people point out how very old you are. Well, this is a hell of a mess. You thinking what I’m thinking?”

They both nodded, their expressions rapidly sobering.

“A bunch of murdered police doesn’t have to be any specific person, by itself…”

“But when we already know the Jackal’s in town, that’s pretty damn suggestive.”

“Plus, the gross things done to some of the bodies.”

“That is exactly that twisted fuck’s sense of humor.”

“Something like this is obviously going to enrage the local cops and trigger a city-wide crackdown,” Sweet murmured, lowering the paper and staring ahead in thought. “That’s too obvious for someone like him not to see it coming. So is it something he’s willing to risk for another purpose, or is it the purpose by itself? Hm. In theory, he answers to Justinian, who I absolutely know is ruthless enough to do such a thing as this, but he’s ruthless with an agenda. I cannot fathom what the hell this accomplishes except making everything he might want to do in Ninkabi a lot more difficult.”

“Makes shady shit difficult for anybody,” Fauna offered.

Flora nodded. “Maybe that was the point? If what Thumper talked about in that scroll was true, it could be beneficial to have an increased police presence.”

“Yeah, but you don’t increase the police presence by reducing the number of police,” said Sweet. “Almost thirty officers so far, if this reporter is right. In a city the size of Ninkabi the local force can maybe absorb that, but…probably not any more. Plus there’s not much in the way of reinforcements available, even if the mayor wants to request them. With the Empire moving to war footing in response to this wolf nonsense, Ninkabi’s getting a detachment like every other city, but after that there are no other soldiers to send. They’ll all be deployed.”

“Thumper was vague,” Fauna mused, “probably cos he doesn’t understand the subject well, but this sounds like more magic bullshit. Could it be related to the wolf dream thing?”

“Worth considering,” Sweet agreed, “but we’re still just speculating. We need some hard info to go with these wild theories. Hmm… Well! You know how I hate to cogitate on an empty stomach. I’m gonna keep heading toward the next temple on the list; think I’ll cut through the alleys across this block…”

“You wanna cut through alleys while there’s a serial killer on a rampage,” Flora said flatly.

“It’s broad daylight and I’m not a cop, and also don’t interrupt. See if you can find a vendor slinging local cuisine, something we don’t see often at home. Tiraas doesn’t import much Jendi food. Catch up when you’ve found us something to nosh while we walk.”

“Really?” Flora protested. “Really? You’re sending us on a snack run?”

“That is correct,” he said piously. “As is no less than your duty to your spiritual guide and guardian.”

“We should dose him with laxatives,” Fauna suggested.

“Nah, he needs to work today. Tempest peppers will suffice.”

“I’m still hungry,” Sweet said in an annoying singsong cadence.

Both elves groaned and rolled their eyes melodramatically, but turned and slouched back up the sidewalk the way they had come, complaining the whole time. Sweet kept to his course, grinning and tucking the folded paper under his arm.

It was impossible not to feel a swell of pride in the girls. When he’d switched to code words they had played along seamlessly, without reacting or breaking character for an instant. Really, he reflected, they might be coming to a point where he just didn’t have much more to teach them. Sponsored apprentices always studied longer than those who rose through the Guild’s general pool, gaining the benefit both of a particular trainer’s in-depth tutelage and access to their existing connections to get the student started on a career. Of course, he’d always have the benefit of greater experience, but there came a point when the baby birds had to leave the nest. Keeping them under his wing longer than they needed to be could be detrimental to them in the long run. It had been nearly three years, which was about typical for a sponsored Guild apprenticeship. And the girls unquestionably knew their stuff. They were at a point where he was quite comfortable treating them as partners on a job, not just pupils.

But when it came to his two apprentices in particular, there were concerns beyond their command of Eserite philosophy and technique. Obviously, he couldn’t keep a pair of headhunters on short leashes forever. He had extra concerns about setting them loose, though. Sweet more than trusted his girls by now. He’d never fully stop worrying about them, though…

Sweet gently pushed that chain of thought aside to be pondered on at a less urgent moment, redirecting his attention to the city as he strolled through it.

He didn’t have his finger on the pulse of Ninkabi as he did in Tiraas, of course, but some things were universal. The tension in the city was evident in the way people walked and spoke to each other—faster and furtively, respectively. Between the police murders and the night spent listening to howling wolves and trying to rouse people taken by the dreams, this place was steadily rising beyond a simmer. It wasn’t boiling over just yet, but there was only so much tension a city could take.

That had to have been the point of the Jackal’s rampage, but…why? Eserite doctrine made it absolutely clear that you did not fuck with cops; the Jackal was no Eserite, but he was also no fool, and that particular creed was fully rooted in pragmatism. Even when the problem being addressed was a corrupt police force, the Guild dealt with that by cutting into the crooked politicians and other rich figures behind them. Directly attacking police was an open invitation to urban war. He had to know this. What did it gain him, or Justinian?

He picked the clearest-looking alley, a fairly wide one which appeared to cut through the entire block to the main street on the other side, and strolled in without slacking his pace. In fact, he lengthened his stride slightly, as if eager to get through it and out quickly. Of course, a darker, dimmer, and more private space would have suited his purpose better, but for the same reason he couldn’t give the impression that’s what he was up to.

Perhaps nothing would come of it, anyway. It was a long shot, banking on the idea that his poking around among the Izarites had already been noticed, but given that the most likely person to have been doing the same recently was Thumper, it wasn’t improbable that that route was being watched. Still, codewords aside, it had been simple truth he’d pointed out to Flora: it was broad daylight and he wasn’t the preferred target of whoever was preying on police in this city.

Still, he didn’t manage to be truly surprised when, far enough into the long alleyway that the streets in both directions were comfortably out of sight, a sphere of golden light sprang into existence around him, ringing like a bell as it repelled a brutal strike.

“Cheating,” the Jackal complained loudly, already skittering backward and switching his grip on his knife to a defensive posture.

“Smarter than you,” Sweet corrected, turning and giving the elf his most shit-eating grin. The divine shield faded from around him in a perfect invitation—particularly admirable, as it wasn’t under his control. They really were ready. “That was a good try, though! Seven out of ten—points for form, even if you flubbed the landing.”

“I just keep wondering,” the Jackal cooed, grinning right back, “going over and over it in my mind. Why the hell has nobody killed you yet? It really is a cosmic oversight.”

“Didn’t we just go over this?” Sweet replied, rolling up the newspaper to wag it at him reprovingly. “Smarter than you. And also than most people, though I guess that doesn’t necessarily follow. Hey, remember that time in Tiraas when I walked right into a trap you’d set and still ended up kicking your ass?”

“Oh, please,” the elf scoffed, “as if I’d be that easily baited—”

He shot forward mid-sentence with no warning, at a speed which suggested his natural elven gifts had been augmented further in preparation for this. Had he been contending with simple human reflexes it might have worked; Sweet couldn’t have sworn he’d have been able to get another shield up in time to avoid a knife to the throat. As it was, though, the Jackal was adroitly kicking off the golden sphere that had snapped back into place by the time he’d realized what was happening.

And then it was pretty much none of his business as two more forms in dark clothing tore into the assassin. Sweet stood placidly behind his bubble—since he couldn’t actually take it down, the thing having been put there by one of the girls—and watched the three elves scrap in the narrow alley.

It really was something to see, not least because his eyes could scarcely follow it. Three slim blonde figures ricocheted about the alley like billiard balls, bouncing wildly off the walls and each other with impossible agility, slashing with knives and the odd beam of light from Flora’s wand. The pair had subdued the Jackal on their last encounter, assassin though he was, and that was before they’d had two more years of Eserite training.

In seconds the assassin saw which was the wind was blowing and retreated straight up, kicking back and forth off the closely-spaced walls without trouble. In fact, Sweet could have done that; what made it impressive was that with Flora and Fauna still trying to bring him down, all three of them made an erratic path up, down, and sideways, before the moving scuffle finally managed to climb over the lip of one of the facing buildings, four stories up.

Sweet was impressed in spite of himself that the Jackal had managed it, with two trained elven street fighters nipping at his heels. Nothing wrong with that; it was generally a better idea to respect an enemy’s skills than to underestimate them.

Then they were gone, and he was left standing there, effectively imprisoned by the shield.

He’d just had time to make an annoyed face when it flickered out. Sweet sighed, shook his head, and turned to continue on his way. A large part of him wanted to reach for the comforting glow of divine light, just in case the Jackal gave his apprentices the slip and doubled back, but it wasn’t as if he’d be able to put up a shield fast enough should it come to that. Sometimes, you just had to trust your crew. And besides, Eserion didn’t encourage his priests to rely overmuch on magic. What was the point of having wits if you made excuses not to use them?

Nonetheless, and though he kept his physical aspect relaxed and focused, he remained actively worried for the next twenty minutes as he made his way back into a public street and toward the next temple on the list. Not just for himself, either. Flora and Fauna were good, and they’d bested the Jackal before… But he was the Jackal.

Sweet was actually a little proud of himself for managing not to react with open relief when the pair of them emerged silently from a narrow alleyway he passed to fall back into step flanking him.

“Let’s see,” he said, putting on a thoughtful expression and pointing to each of them in turn. “One, two…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Fauna groused. “We lost him, obviously.”

“We could’ve got him, or at least finished him off,” Flora added, scowling, “but not without making a big damn mess.”

Sweet nodded. It went without saying that in truth, the Jackal was not a match for the pair of them, or even probably just one, not if they went all out. Whatever enchanting and alchemy he’d used to augment his stealth, speed, and whatever else, a headhunter would tear him apart like a dog catching a squirrel. If, of course, they used the power available to them.

Unfortunately, Flora and Fauna were hamstrung by the need to conceal what they were. They were fully capable of chasing down incubi, but as they’d discovered after a close call last year, they could be evaded by the simple expediency of their target getting lost in a crowd, which was a trick someone might use to escape pursuit even if they didn’t know their pursuers couldn’t afford to show powers in view of the public. That incident had nearly been a disaster; they’d caught the demon’s trail again by sheer luck, and thereafter only summoned Vanislaads for their hunts far out into the wilderness, where the risk of exposure was minimal.

“You made the right call, then,” he said. “All right, I’m calling this. Change of plans; let’s meet up with the others. Even if we haven’t managed to locate Branwen, we’ve got info they’ll need.”


Notoli’s was one of those establishments which catered to a concept more than a crowd: discretion. Its maze-like main floor was laid out in a series of deeply secluded booths and private rooms, tables serviced by waiters who wore tiny bells on their uniform caps so there was no chance of them accidentally sneaking up on any patron’s conversation. It was the preferred meeting place in Ninkabi of not only visiting Eserites, but numerous other parties who did not want their business known.

Quite coincidentally, the food was very good.

Having cut off their own pursuit a bit early, Sweet and the elves were the first to arrive, and secured a quiet corner booth in one of the larger public rooms; he didn’t think absolute discretion would be necessary given their business, and given the presence of such as Grip and, if the other party proved more successful, Thumper, it might be better to have other diners within view to discourage any unfortunate outbursts. Not that he was really expecting it to come to that. His own quarry should’ve been easier to find, and Grip, for all her strengths, was not a tracker.

In his heart of hearts, though he of course kept it to himself, Sweet was therefore a little bit peeved when, after a shorter wait than he’d expected, a waiter escorted no less than five people to his booth.

“Well, well,” he said as soon as the diffident serving man had departed. “This is quite a haul, Grip.”

“It all went much better than expected!” Schwartz said brightly, sliding into the booth without hesitation. “I won’t lie, I was dubious about our prospects, lacking any direct link to Mr. Shook to use for tracking purposes, but the spirit guides came through! Meesie was quite helpful, of course.” His fire-rat familiar sat upright on his shoulder, squeaking proudly. “I hypothesize that the general disruption in ambient fae magic due to recent events may have worked in our favor instead—”

“Yeah, yeah, best witch,” Grip interrupted, not without a small smile. “I’ll buy you a cookie. Now hush up.”

“Thumper,” Sweet added blandly, “you’re looking well, all things considered.”

Shook grunted and slid himself onto a seat, on the opposite side from Schwartz. Jenell had seated herself next to the witch; now Grip sat down on Thumper’s other side, boxing him in. Sweet was impressed in spite of himself. Both enforcers had to understand fully the logistics of their posture, but the usually prideful and cantankerous Shook had let himself be pinned in without protest or even hesitation. Flora, next to whom he was now sitting, eyed him sidelong but kept her peace.

“I’ll tell you what I told Grip,” Shook said flatly. “I know I’ve got some stuff to account for, but I’ll explain myself to the Boss. Not you two goons.”

“I’ve already pointed out that’s not how it fucking works and he knows it,” Grip added in a bored tone.

“Fine, then there’s no need to keep picking at that scab,” Sweet said soothingly, noting the way Thumper was tensing up. “I believe this time we can defer old business, while we deal with fascinating new business.”

He looked pointedly at the last person to join them, still standing there at the head of the table wearing an ash-gray robe and a sour expression.

Thumper cleared his throat. “Sweet, this here’s my very good buddy Bradshaw, on loan from the…” He glanced casually around the room. There were other diners, in other booths, but the place was designed with heavy fabric curtains and numerous potted plants to muffle acoustics. Still, he lowered his voice significantly before continuing. “…Black Wreath. Bradshaw, this is Bishop Darling and his apprentices.”

“Delighted,” Bradshaw stated in a flat drawl that couldn’t be mistaken for anything but hostility.

“Annnnd…” Sweet deliberately tore his gaze from the warlock to meet Shook’s eyes. “You trust this character?”

Grip snorted loudly.

“Trust ain’t the word,” Thumper said, shooting Bradshaw a neutral look. “I am… I’m gonna say about eighty-five percent confident he doesn’t plan to hex my ass, at least until our current mutual business is taken care of. And assuming that goes well, I’m inclined to give him an’ the rest of his buddies a fair head start before I tell any authorities where I last saw ’em. That’s about as warm and fuzzy as it gets around here.”

“Oh be still, my trembling heart,” the warlock said, deadpan.

“Well, all righty then,” Sweet said congenially. “While your credibility is running pretty thin these days, Thumper, I’m willing to extend a little faith. Gods know I’ve made worse deals with worse people, probably for lesser stakes. Please have a seat, Mr. Bradshaw, and let’s talk about what we all might have in common.”

Bradshaw’s mouth thinned into a disgruntled line and he deliberately peered at each of them in turn.

“Oh, sit down,” Grip exclaimed. “Omnu’s balls, it’s not like you can’t just shadow-jump away the second anything happens you don’t like the smell of. And nobody else here is stuffed to the gills with cancer magic. Don’t act like you’re the one making allowances.”

“My goodness, are you always this charming?” Bradshaw snipped. “And all the way over here I thought you were putting on an act for my sake.”

“Oh, she’s rarely this charming,” Shook said wryly.

“Children, please,” Sweet said in exasperation. “Not at the dinner table!”

Bradshaw shook his head, but finally deigned to perch at the very end of the booth seat next to Jenell, who gave him an extremely neutral look.

“Great, all friends!” Sweet said magnanimously. “I’ll open with a question: Thumper, when’s the last time you saw the Jackal, and are you still working with him?”

Shook grimaced bitterly. “Couple days ago, an’ fuck no. Our whole group’s been pared down to the bone. Somebody stole Kheshiri’s reliquary and she’s gone, and now that demented fuck has finally snapped. At least, that’s my theory, since I can’t conceive of a single goddamn productive goal he could have for the shit he’s been doing. Last I heard he’s taken to offing cops. I don’t have to tell you where that kind of horseshit leads. I think two years of acting like an actual fucking person half the time was too much pressure for all the crazy in his head.”

“Well, how about that,” Sweet mused. “Funny story, we just had a brush—”

On either side of him, Flora and Fauna abruptly tensed and started to rise from their seats. Their sudden movement made Bradshaw half-stand himself, turning to stare suspiciously and raising one hand as if prepared to cast.

“Good, you’re all here.”

A chair was slammed against their table, its back impacting the edge hard enough to make the silverware bounce. Basra Syrinx seated herself straddling it, fixing her eyes on Sweet’s and seeming to ignore everyone else present, though most of them had just drawn weapons on her.

“Shut up and listen,” she ordered. “We don’t have much time.”

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15 – 49

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“Nothing here, either?”

“My particular magic isn’t well-suited for locating people,” Bradshaw reminded him. “I could check more definitively, but not without attracting a lot of attention. But even at a cursory glance… I rather suspect they’ve been and gone here, as well. To judge by the decomposition of this…altar…it seems to have been abandoned for several days, at least.”

Shook wrinkled his nose and took another step back from the now-familiar sight (and smell) of the necromantic construction languishing behind the wall of old boxes at the rear of a dead-end alley. More specifically, he stepped to put some distance between himself and the altar’s cloud of flies.

“The fuckers called themselves the Tide,” he muttered, covering his mouth with the hand not holding his wand. “Gonna wash across the world and cleanse all impurity, you know, standard-grade doomsday cult horseshit. For a primal force of destruction, they sure are shy.”

“Must be low ebb,” Bradshaw quipped. “Well, I rather suspect what we’re dealing with are the paltry leftovers after they expended most of their warm bodies in Tiraas. Tactics like these are a much better idea when one is low on resources and personnel.”

“I guess you’d know.”

“Exactly. I am more concerned that a brainwashed cult is capable of this level of planning. It suggests those in charge are still in charge. Justinian was party to that plan to unleash demons in Tiraas and blame the Wreath for it, along with the Imperial government itself, but that was a far more discreet and controlled action; just a few bands of holy summoners calling up demons one at a time. Opening multiple hellgates in a city is above and beyond even by the standards of that.”

“Uh huh,” Shook grunted. He had also been present at that event in Tiraas; in fact, that was the first time he and Bradshaw had crossed paths, and a source of lingering antipathy between them. Shook was the first to admit he’d not exactly had a good vantage from which to see the intricacies of what had happened that night, but he remained skeptical of the Wreath’s claim that it had been the Church and the Empire actually bringing the demons, especially since his own encounter with them had come when the Wreath had tried to break into Dawnchapel to vandalize the temple. “Well, then, I guess we’re back to the same question. Wreck it or leave it?”

“May I see the map?”

Shook handed it over and Bradshaw frowned at the scrawled markings in the dim light that made it down from the overhead gap between the three-story walls that loomed on all sides.

“Mmm,” the warlock murmured. “All right, look here. This is the site we’re at, reached by a straight walk from a main avenue behind us, see? Next one on the list if we proceed in the same pattern is hidden away in a cul-de-sac well behind several warehouses that looks quite impossible to find by accident. I think we’ll clean this site up and leave that one intact after we’ve checked it. And so on, going forward. If we create the impression we’re operating on foot, by a standard search grid, the planners of this will prepare to counter the wrong tactic and be unprepared for us. I don’t want them to know we have your dragon to sniff out all of their locations.”

“Promise you’ll let me be in the room if you ever call Khadizroth ‘my dragon’ right to his face,” Shook said, grinning. “I really don’t wanna miss that.”

Bradshaw gave him an annoyed look over the top of the map. “Shall I take that to mean you concur with my plan?”

“Hey, I’m just the muscle, here. But it sounds like a solid one, yeah. That bein’ the case, you want me to smash this thing up?”

“I can destroy it far more thoroughly with my magic, you know.”

“Yeah, we both know what hellcraft’s good for. But that’ll reveal they got warlocks after ’em, an’ warlocks with a plan pretty much always means you guys in particular. If the thing just gets fucked up with blunt trauma, could be anybody. More discreet that way, right?”

“Hum. I suppose it needn’t be a complete cleansing, under the circumstances. Enough blunt trauma, as you put it, will render this site inoperable.”

“Blunt trauma is what I do best,” Shook said, holstering his wand and cracking his knuckles. “Take over watchin’ our backs, this won’t take a sec.”

In fact, he didn’t relish the thought of laying his hands on that arrangement of rancid meat, bones, twigs, and tainted enchanting dust. Aside from being disgusting, the thing just looked wrong; he suspected that even the urchins who haunted these back alleys wouldn’t have tried to scavenge the power crystals out of the rotting altar. He was half-tempted to just rake it with wandshots, but Shook didn’t need Bradshaw’s protestations to know that discharging even conventional magic into unknown magic was a bad idea.

Casting about while the warlock stepped past him to watch the head of the alley, he fixed his gaze on the one thing there was to work with. Grinning, Shook picked up one of the crates that had been stacked to obscure the altar from the front of the alley and hurled it right into the center of its mass.

The first hit dislodged the carefully-arranged lattice of old sinew-bound bones and scattered a spray of enchanting dust. That probably would have been sufficient, but Shook grabbed a second crate and smashed it bodily down upon the largest remaining cluster of bones. He broke a third over the altar for good measure, only stepping back to dust off his hands when the ritual array was mangled beyond recognition and full of splinters and old nails to boot.

“There,” Shook said, turning back to Bradshaw with a grin. “I can confidently say any asshole coulda done that; nothing about it’ll scream ‘Black Wreath,’ no matter how smart their handlers are. Where to next?”

“Hold this, if you would,” the warlock replied, handing the map back to him. “I want to place and conceal wards on this site. That is about the limit of what infernomancy can do to detect anyone’s comings and goings, but if they do return here to restore this altar it may enable us to catch them.”

“Sure, take your time.” Shook folded the map and tucked it back into his coat pocket, then drew his wand again and positioned himself to keep an eye both on Bradshaw and the distant mouth of the alley.

In the next moment he began edging away as Bradshaw started making broad gesticulations with his hands and conjuring patterns of sullen orange light out of nowhere. The warlock carefully assembled a spell circle in midair while Shook watched, moved it to lie flush against one of the alley walls at head level, then made it disappear from view and took another few moments to stare at the spot where it had been with one hand upraised and fingers twitching minutely, no doubt adding to its layers of concealment.

Shook wasn’t in the least ashamed of his own discretion; staying the hell away from infernomancy being done was universal common sense, not cowardice. If he was a little phobic about it after having had hellcraft done at his own brain recently, well, that was deserved.

Rather than that, Shook found himself surprisingly bothered by the tense silence that stretched out while Bradshaw moved on to begin conjuring another ward against the opposite wall. He just wasn’t accustomed to awkwardness. For close to two years his whole social circle had been small and predictable: the Jackal was an intolerable pain in the ass, Vannae a diffident non-presence, Kheshiri simperingly submissive and Khadizroth beneficently able to get along with anyone. Aside from various unfortunates they’d been sent to smack around and the odd visit from a barely-tolerated authority figure such as Justinian or Syrinx, that had been it.

And before that, he’d worked with Guildmates. Thinking on it now, he actually couldn’t recall the last time he’d been stuck sharing a job with somebody he didn’t know how to talk to. What did you say to a warlock? Especially since Bradshaw, while he kept it professional on the job, had made it clear from the start that he wasn’t pleased by Shook’s very existence, much less his involvement in this project. Not that Shook was much of a social butterfly either, but even he could see that this was going to lead to trouble if they were going to be the mutual points of contact between the Wreath and what remained of the Inquisition.

Bradshaw finished his second ward and Shook perked up, hoping for an incipient end to this, but the warlock instead began casting a third. He sighed. Well, thoroughness was laudable.

“So,” Shook said aloud, looking the other way up the alley and affecting a nonchalant tone. “That Vanessa, huh? What’s her deal?”

“…deal?” The short pause didn’t bode well, but Shook pressed gamely on. In his experience there was one topic over which any two guys could always bond.

“Yeah, I mean, she’s not hard to look at, am I right?” He turned back to Bradshaw, who had his back to him. “You hittin’ that? Be a shame if somebody isn’t.”

“Ah, yes, that’s right. You have been keeping company exclusively with a succubus. I strongly advise you, Mr. Shook, to rid yourself of any habits Kheshiri taught you before attempting to talk to a real woman again. Any woman, but especially one who can hurl shadowbolts.”

Shook clenched his jaw. Then breathed in deeply, and immediately regretted it; days-old necromancy was surely one of the least pleasant things he’d ever smelled. But at least that helped serve to distract him from the surge of anger Bradshaw was trying to rile up.

“Hey, just sayin’,” he replied finally, deliberately keeping his tone mild. “No need to get all defensive, I’m not about to move in on your territory. It can’t make that much of a difference, anyhow. Trust me, I’m in a position to know: succubi may be particularly sly, but in the end those’re just female traits taken to their logical maximum.”

“Is that a fact,” Bradshaw murmured, starting on a fourth ward. How many of those damn things did he need?

“Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. Sly is your bread and butter, right? Somehow I don’t think it’s a coincidence there’s a goddess of cunning, and not a god.”

“Where’re you from, Mr. Shook?” Bradshaw asked, his tone also too light to be natural.

Shook narrowed his eyes at the warlock’s back. “What’s it to you?”

“No, wait, let me see if I can guess. The Stalwar provinces or Mathena, somewhere deep into the new frontier. Am I right?”

Breathe, deliberately…without gagging on the smell. “Oh, please, you don’t need to be a cunning warlock to piece that together. Old gnomish surname on a Stalweiss face means frontier stock. Even so, you’re only partly right. The frontiers in Mathena aren’t new. North of the elven forests, people have been pushed out toward the Golden Sea since before the Empire.”

“Ah, yes, of course. I’m revealing my bias; Bradshaw is also an old gnomish surname, after all. But in Calderaan territory, where I hail from, human settlement north of the Green Belt dates barely to the Enchanter Wars.” The warlock lowered his hands, finally, as the last ward faded from visibility, and turned around, wearing a knowing little smile which Shook didn’t like the look of. “And you, obviously, aren’t from Calderaas.”

“That obvious, huh,” he said as evenly as he could.

“You’re right, we tend to pick up sly people,” Bradshaw said lightly, folding his hands. “That’s a lot easier than recruiting idiots and teaching them to be cunning. And you know something, Mr. Shook, you’re not without a point. There is a definite gender imbalance in who tends to seek out the Wreath.”

“Well, yeah,” Shook replied, even as he braced himself for the other shoe to drop.

“Depending, of course, on where they’re from.” The warlock held his gaze, frank and un-intimidated, even verging on aggressive; this was not at all how Thumper was used to people looking at him. “And in country where Shaathist ideas are ascendant, that usually means women. The Stalrange, Mathena, Thakar, Vrandis. Funny enough, in Avenist territory it’s the opposite. We definitely get more men from Calderaas, Virdill, and Onkawa. People are pretty much people, Shook, and the way people develop depends a lot on the kinds of pressures placed on them growing up. Give people the prerogative to stomp around yelling and getting their way with little effort, and they’ll generally do exactly that. Push people aside and deny them a fair chance to participate in society, though, and they’ll not only develop a tendency to be underhanded but also harbor the kind of resentment that makes them ideal recruits for the likes of us. Or, for that matter, the Thieves’ Guild.” He tilted his head back slightly, as if to study Shook from a different vantage. “You say you find women in general to be as sly as succubi? You know what, I believe you. Even allowing for your extremely obvious biases, yes, I could see that. But that’s no reflection on women, Mr. Shook…or even the women you happen to know. It’s a reflection on the way those women were treated by whatever society produced them. Institutionalized power creates its own downfall, in the end. Brutish authority creates cunning, and resistance. Targeting groups of people for abuse creates deadly enemies. If the Pantheon and their followers were the icons of virtue they like to claim, the likes of us wouldn’t just be unnecessary; we would be impossible. And yet, here we are.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted when he finally stopped talking.

Bradshaw’s mouth twisted in a bitter half-smile. “Deeper thoughts than you’re used to, Mr. Shook? I have to wonder what you thought was going to happen here. Do you commonly find you can persuade people you barely know to embrace your prejudices?”

Breathe. Three heartbeats to inhale, three to exhale, ignore the stench. Emotions were just things; just because this guy wanted him angry didn’t mean he needed to be. In fact, it was a good reason not to be.

“Hell, I was just making conversation,” Shook said at last, and was pleased to find his own voice still light and even. “You wanna know my clever scheme? I was thinkin’, ‘this guy clearly hates my guts and we’ve gotta work together for who knows how long.’ Y’know, in normal places, Shaathist, Avenist, or what-the-hell-ever, guys can usually clear the air by chatting about chicks. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were gonna make a whole thing about it.”

Bradshaw stared at him with the expressionless facade of someone who’d just heard something he did not expect and was too self-contained to betray overt surprise.

“You can’t win a conversation, you know,” Shook said when he didn’t reply. “Everybody’s not trying to play brain chess with you. Is that how you people think all the time? Omnu’s balls, man, that sounds fuckin’ exhausting.”

“Right,” Bradshaw said dryly. “Well. I’m finished here, so unless you have something else to say…?”

“Yeah. Now you mention it, I do.” Keeping his expression flat, Shook took a step forward, bringing himself within punching range of the warlock and enjoying how the man tensed up in response. Bradshaw didn’t quite flinch when he raised his hand, but the way he froze was almost as good. Shook just patted him on the shoulder, though. “You’ve given me some shit to think about, Bradshaw. That was a perspective I did not have. So, thanks. All right, where to next?” he added, stepping back again and deliberately altering his posture to the indolent lounging stance common to Guild enforcers seeking to portray a general rather than specific threat.

“The next altar site, obviously,” Bradshaw said tonelessly. “Map, please?”

“You got it.” Shook fished it out of his pocket and handed it over with a bland smile.

This, he reflected while Bradshaw unfolded and perused the map, was fun. Weirdly, he’d never managed to get the hang of it when people had been actively trying to teach it to him, but now that the trick of it had clicked, it was amazingly satisfying to deny a confrontation to somebody who was openly fishing for one. And he hadn’t lied; Bradshaw’s philosophy on women and underhandedness was troubling and deserved some further thought. Not right at the moment, though. Shook did not have time to be pondering such things while busting necromancers in cooperation with somebody he half-suspected was planning to hex him in the back before this day’s work was done.

“All right, I know the place,” Bradshaw stated at last, folding the map again. “Off we go.”

The darkness swelled, then dissipated, and only the particulars of their surroundings changed. A filthy alley was a filthy alley, and there were only so many kinds of places where one could hide illicit dealings in a major city. He was already resigned to seeing a lot more of these today, with possibly the odd empty warehouse or condemned tenement to break up the monotony.

Both men stiffened upon arrival, however, as this alley was a lot less quiet.

It also wasn’t quite straight; they had to creep forward and peek around a corner to locate the little nook behind several buildings in which the Tide’s portal altar had been concealed. This time, someone had beaten them there. Someone who seemed to be on the same mission, to judge by the way she was busy smashing what remained of the altar with a piece of wood that looked like the headless haft of an ax or sledgehammer.

Actually, upon closer look, this individual probably wasn’t on any mission to speak of: she had matted hair trailing from her head in greasy tangles, filthy bare feet, and wore a stained and ragged dress that was more patches than fabric.

Shook and Bradshaw exchanged a resigned look. Wreath and Guild alike did a lot of their business in shady back alleys, and members of both were well-acquainted with a basic rule of urban living: do not interact with crazy street people. This time, though, it seemed unwise to let this pass without at least investigating.

Shook stepped out into the space in the leonine saunter he’d been taught in his apprentice days, keeping one hand casually tucked in his pocket. “Hey there, li’l lady. Whatcha doin’ that for?”

She spun to face him, wild-eyed, and raised the ax handle like a club. Not, he noted, like someone who’d been actually trained to wield a weapon; her stance was imbalanced and had her weight back on her heels. If she tried to swing that thing at him, he gave it even odds that she’d just fall down, and if not it would be child’s play to dodge and push her over. Luckily she was all the way across the grimy little courtyard and well out of range.

“Easy, there,” Shook said in an unimpressed tone. “No need to get all agitated. What’s your name, doll?”

The woman just stared suspiciously at him, her eyes darting to take in his suit, and then the gray-robed Bradshaw stepping into the alley behind him. Blocking her exit, as it happened. She was, Shook noticed, a fairly young woman. Might not have been bad-looking had she not been smeared with dirt and gaunt from more than a few missed meals.

“Name?” he repeated wryly, giving her a half-smile. “You got one? Most people do, I hear.”

She scowled at him, but straightened up after a moment and shifted her improvised weapon to one hand. With the other she patted the base of her throat, opening her mouth wide.

“Oh,” he said sourly. Mute, naturally. Well, street people usually had something wrong with them our they wouldn’t be on the street; just his luck the one he needed to answer questions, couldn’t. She wasn’t missing her tongue, he saw—also, not only did she have all her teeth, none of them were stained blue from glittershrooms. The girl couldn’t have been on the streets long, then. “Now, what would possess you to go whacking at that heap of evil that way? You take a stick to random piece of black magic and you’re likely to end up cursed to a greasy stain on the walls.”

She narrowed her eyes and brandished the stick again.

“No need to take that tone with the lady, Mr. Shook,” Bradshaw admonished dryly. “That’s what we came to do, after all. At least she’s spared us a little bit of work. He’s not wrong, though,” he added to the woman with the stick, who had lowered it again as he spoke. “Getting physically involved with necromancy is extremely dangerous; I don’t recommend making a habit of this. Was there some reason you felt the need?”

She grimaced almost comically, turning a look of pure disgust on the remains of the altar, and kicked away a stray bone that had fallen near her feet. Then spat on it.

“That’s surprisingly hard to argue with,” Bradshaw said, turning to Shook.

“Yeah, I gotta give her that,” he agreed. The girl, having made her point, had begun sidling toward the alley’s entrance, which the two of them were standing in. Shook gave her a thoughtful look. It was doubtful she’d seen anything, and anyhow, getting info out of her would be a giant pain in the ass. Just an unhinged homeless person who wandered into the wrong alley, most likely; that would make a workable disguise, any number of thieves had used that routine, but it wasn’t the method of this Tide or anyone else who had taken an interest in their business. He sighed, stepped out of the way so she could get by, and pulled a doubloon from his pocket, which he tossed at her. “Here. Go eat something, for fuck’s sake.”

The young woman fumbled to catch it, clearly not being the most coordinated, but once she got the coin in her grip her eyes went wide. Then, to Shook’s great discomfort, they filled with tears.

“Whoah—uh uh! No,” he said sharply, stepping back and reaching out to push her off when she ran at him, arms wide for a hug. “This is a tailored suit, you greaseball. You smell as bad as that voodoo you just smashed. Go on, get outta here. Get some lunch that’s not out of a trash pile.”

She pouted at his rebuke, but seemed to decide it was more than worth the doubloon. Pausing only to blow him a kiss, she skittered past them down the alley, actually skipping with no heed for her bare feet and the refuse-strewn floor.

“That was pointless, you know,” Bradshaw commented as she disappeared around the next corner. “There’s a reason you don’t give money to those people. She’ll most likely just buy cheap booze and shrooms.”

“Yeah,” Shook replied with a soft sigh, jamming both hands in his pockets. “Maybe I’m the asshole here, after all. Old teacher of mine used to say givin’ handouts to people like that is almost as bad as stealing from ’em; makes you feel better about yourself and doesn’t change their situation any. Oh, well, whaddayagonnado.”

“Sounds almost like Vernisite doctrine,” Bradshaw said, smiling wryly. “Charity being cruelty in disguise, and all that. Don’t let Embras hear you talking that way, he’s got a real bug up his butt about them.”

“About bankers? Can’t rightly blame a man for that. Well, anyway, I guess your plan’s bungled now; too late to leave this site intact and convince ’em we missed it. Now what?”

“According to your map, we still have thirty sites to visit; we can still lay out the pattern I described, and one anomalous spot shouldn’t make too much difference. It really was an anomaly, too; that was an unpredictable intervention if I ever saw one. Let me just lay wards again and then we’ll move on.”

He handed the map back to Shook, who accepted it silently.

A moment later, though, he turned from his perusal of the alley back to Bradshaw, frowning. The warlock was staring fixedly at a blank patch of wall, not moving to begin casting his wards.

“Something wrong?” Shook asked.

“There’s…a faint residue,” Bradshaw said slowly. “Maybe nothing important, but it’s definitely divine. Somebody used powerful divine magic here at some point not long ago. I wouldn’t think anything of it in most cases, just some nearby priest casting a blessing, but it’s odd to find in proximity to that pile of horror.”

“Hm.” Shook looked over at the wreckage of the necromantic portal altar, then back down the alley. “You don’t suppose she…”

“I really don’t. That was just some garden-variety human with no magic to speak of, or I wouldn’t have let her go. Had we the luxury of time I’d have wanted to hold and question her just for the sake of thoroughness, but we’re working on a solid strategy already, and there’s no telling how close the Tide is to activating these. We don’t even know what they’re waiting for. I don’t think we can spare a few hours to fish for what’s probably nothing. Let’s just…”

He broke off, whirling, as a tiny streak of fire zipped into the cul de sac from the alley along the ground. Shook whipped out his wand by reflex, but didn’t shoot even as the little glowing thing came to a stop, revealing itself to be a luminous read mouse-like creature almost the size of a small cat. It sat up on its haunches, emitting a series of shrill squeaks, and pointed one tiny paw accusingly at Shook. Then, just as quickly as it had come, turned and bolted back out.

“What the fuck,” Shook wondered aloud, staring after it in mystification.

“Trouble,” Bradshaw said tersely. “That was an extremely sophisticated elemental. Creatures like that don’t just wander around cities, they’re familiars of skilled witches. We need to—”

“Well, well, well. I thought I recognized that voice.”

Shook went rigid, bringing his wand up again just in time for three figures to round the corner. He ignored the two on the sides, even the reedy fellow with the red elemental rat now sitting on his shoulder; the teenage girl on the other side was even more uninteresting. His attention was fully occupied by the one in the middle. The one he knew very well, who was now regarding him with her trademark predatory smirk.

“So glad to see you, Thumper,” Grip said. “All kinds of people are interested in having a word with you.”

He allowed himself a small sigh. “Aw, shit.”

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15 – 42

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Dawn was a gray time in the grove, the surrounding forest thick enough to obscure the early sunlight. Poorly-rested elves were still gathered on the mossy commons encircled by the stream, many able to relax for the first time since shortly after dusk the night before.

Those not too tired or stressed tensed at the sudden accumulation of arcane magic in their midst, but this was not unexpected. A split second later, Tellwyrn appeared with her usual barely perceptible puff of air.

“Arachne.” Sheyann was already nearby, and crossed the few steps to the mage’s arrival point in a brisk glide. “I hope you found good news.”

“Same as here,” Tellwyrn replied, nodding even as she glanced around. “Apparently the effect alleviated sharply once the sun came up. It’s hard to say how completely; people are still reeling from it, but that could be sheer shock from the experience as much as any residual magic. So, like we surmised: wolves are nocturnal, and evidently so is wolf magic.”

“Wolves may be active at any hour of the day,” Shiraki corrected, joining them from a different direction, “though they prefer to hunt at night. I am not simply being pedantic, Arachne,” he added at her scowl. “We should be careful not to prematurely think ourselves safe.”

“All right, that’s a fair point,” she acknowledged. “Anyway, sorry to be so slow in returning, I took the opportunity to check up on the campus and town. It appears to be explicitly fae-connected. Last Rock’s resident witch was hit by it, but nothing was felt by the Avenist or Vidian clerics in town, nor the Universal Church parson. No reaction from the arcanists or infernomancers in my research staff, either. How’s everybody faring, here?”

“Tired,” said Sheyann. “More so than a sleepless night alone could account for. Shiraki and myself, and the other Elders, have managed to remain active while suppressing the effect, but all our younger shamans had to spend the entire night in focused meditation. That is very much a short-term solution; the effort is exhausting. They will begin to burn out rapidly.” She turned a sober expression on Shiraki, who nodded in grave agreement. “We may not last much longer. Greater experience and stronger fae allies on whose auspices to call make a difference, but they will not sustain us indefinitely through constant exertion.”

“I don’t suppose it’s worth hoping that this was a one-night event,” Tellwyrn said wryly.

“It beggars belief that such a potent disturbance could be permanent,” said Shiraki. “Only a change to Naiya herself could fundamentally alter the nature of fae magic this way, and if that had happened the world would already know it explicitly. I still feel the ripples washing over us, Arachne; they simply do not pull as insistently while the sun is up. But without knowing what has happened, we can place no timetable on it.”

“Right. Well, if you run out of magical countermeasures, Taowi’s had some success treating the effects with glittershrooms.”

“And that works?” Sheyann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It seems to. At least, as a stopgap measure. She said sevenleaf was a better alternative if it has to be done long-term.”

Shiraki scowled. “Thank you for the suggestion, but the last thing we need is for everyone to be stoned on top of terrorized by howling in our heads.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to brush that off,” Sheyann countered. “A low enough dose can counter the stress of the experience, hopefully, without impairing the ability to function too much. It’s not ideal, but if we can’t come up with anything better… Of course, there’s the question of where to get glittershrooms. We grow nothing like that in our grove.”

He sighed. “If it comes to that, there are undoubtedly shrooms in the human town. There’s always someone cultivating them.”

“Sarasio still has abandoned buildings, and those things pop up pretty much anywhere they’ve been that’s sufficiently dark and damp,” said Tellwyrn. “Failing that, I’ll get you some if you want. But for now, while the pressure’s let up and before anybody collapses, I think we should see what we can do about finding the source of this and putting a stop to it. Have you had any results on that front yet?”

Sheyann shook her head. “I have been tending to the younger shamans, as they are finally able to relax their vigilance and get some proper rest. I’ve not yet sought the spirits’ guidance, though with the howling in abeyance I remain optimistic that the flows of magic are no longer too disturbed to make the effort.”

“Before we do that,” said Shiraki, “Neraene has had results from her meditations. I was just coming to notify you, Sheyann, when she emerged from her shrine.”

“By all means, then, let’s hear what she has learned,” Sheyann agreed, nodding to him and then looking expectantly at Arachne. The sorceress gestured them to proceed, and then fell into step alongside as they set off toward one of the bridges across the stream.

Those affected by the fae disturbance had gathered together on the commons, where they had sat in meditation most of the night and were now either sleeping or being tended to by other members of the tribe. The trio quickly left most of the grove’s elves behind as they passed out of the common area.

It was a surprisingly short walk to the new Themynrite shrine, not even fully out of earshot of the commons, to Tellwyrn’s surprise. Important as the night’s events had been, she had refrained from commenting or even inquiring about the fact that this wood elf grove now had a resident Narisian. Neraene nir Heral d’zan Awarrion was a priestess, and had diffidently offered to see whether her goddess could lend any insight to these dramatic events, then gone to the shrine to do so, and that was that. In short order they arrived, and Tellwyrn found that the tiny temple, fittingly, was underground. Its entrance yawned between two roots of the massive redwood; the space underneath would be braced by the tree’s root system in a manner the wood elves were fond of using for their dwellings and storage rooms. The only thing which marked it out from any other tree-cellar in the grove was the slab of granite erected beside its entrance, marked with the balance scale sigil of Themynra inlaid in silver.

Neraene herself stood in front of this, conversing quietly with another elf whose presence in the grove was even more surprising than the drow’s. They broke off their conversation at the approach of the Elders and Tellwyrn, the priestess turning to bow respectfully to them.

“Elders, Professor,” she said, every bit as serene and courteous as any Narisian. “Welcome back. The goddess has seen fit to honor me with some direction, though I fear it may be more scant than you had hoped.”

“We knew in advance that Themynra’s areas of concern are very specific,” Sheyann replied. “Any and all aid is appreciated, Naraene.”

The priestess inclined her head again in acknowledgment. “All I have ascertained through the goddess’s auspices is that there is a divine connection to the source of this trouble, albeit an indirect one. While the conduit for these shockwaves is clearly through the magic of Naiya, at its source is a connection to the Pantheon god Shaath.”

“It’s nice to have confirmation, I suppose,” said the other elf present in a drawling tone, “though given the wolf symbolism, that can’t have been much of a surprise.”

Tellwyrn affixed a flat stare on him from over the rims of her spectacles. In comparison to this character, a drow priestess suddenly seemed a great deal less out of place in a woodkin grove.

He might have been a wood elf by the shape of the ears, though his were decorated with heavy-looking gold jewelry which glittered with tiny sapphires and emeralds. A matching gold band held his waist-length hair up in a high ponytail that had been artfully arranged to bristle like the tail of a fox. His robes were pale blue, every inch of the fabric engraved with subtle geometric patterns in sea green that made them appear to shift color, and decorated further by metal panels of gold along the lapels, shoulders, and cuffs. These were fringed by more little jewels, though much of their surface was taken up by inlaid panels of pure swirling white light, resembling miniature dimensional portals. He had actual light-wrought shoulderpads, arched projections over his shoulders formed of glowing energy. Though his boots had daintily pointed toes, they were incongruously heavy, no doubt to better hold the enchantments that kept him hovering a few inches off the ground rather than let his expensive clothes come into contact with the moss.

“Do you by any chance know Zanzayed the Blue?” Tellwyrn asked him.

He arched one eyebrow sardonically. “I have not had the…experience. Why do you ask?”

“You are the first person I have ever met whose fashion sense makes his seem tasteful and restrained.”

The high elf smirked at her, and Shiraki sighed minutely through his nose.

“Arachne, this is Magister Anduor,” Sheyann said quietly, “also a guest in our grove.”

“And ever ready to do my part to assist my forest-dwelling cousins in their time of need,” the Magister added, executing a truly grandiose court bow which involved flourishes of both arms and his left foot. “Though my assistance was not asked, somewhat understandably as I gather you were distracted by the psychic pressure of this event and it is not my custom to bluntly insert myself as did the good Professor. I have spent the night constructing a custom scrying lattice that enables the tracking of fae currents back to their source.”

“You can do that?” Sheyann asked, openly surprised.

“Sure,” Tellwyrn answered before Anduor could. “It’s challenging to rig an arcane system to interact with fae magic without blowing up, but as long as you’re meticulous and know what you’re doing, it’s quite achievable. If he’s good enough to be a Magister and has been at it all night, it ought to work, probably.”

“The effort involved would be prohibitive for lesser purposes,” Anduor cut in, still looking peevish at her theft of his exposition, “but in this case, the inciting event appears to be planetary in scale. Energy ripples of that magnitude are difficult not to detect. Even more conveniently, they radiate outward from a single point. Once a wave is isolated and tracked for a short distance and its arc measured at two reference points along that course, calculating the point of origin is simple trigonometry. A moderately educated squirrel could do it.”

“I am still growing accustomed to the minutiae of surface life,” Neraene said diffidently. “Does ‘squirrel’ refer to something different in the Qestrali dialect?”

Shiraki gave her a look of amused solidarity; Anduor paused to roll his eyes before commencing a series of fluid and entirely unnecessary gestures with his well-manicured hands.

“Now, don’t be alarmed,” he said condescendingly. “I am not conjuring an entire divination apparatus here. This is merely a projection of its readout, a capability I luckily had the foresight to install before joining you.”

With a final flourish of his fingers and a (purely cosmetic) series of flashes from his jeweled rings, he called a hovering panel of pale blue light into being in front of them. In blue upon it was marked a barely perceptible grid, and in much heavier lines clearly showing the shapes of a landmass—specifically the western coast of the continent. The map was centered upon a single flashing dot which rhythmically emitted concentric rings of light that faded a few inches from it. A short string of numbers hovered alongside it.

“Latitude and longitude?” Sheyann asked.

“Very good,” Anduor said with the patrician approval of a tutor encouraging a remedial student.

“That’s in N’Jendo,” said Tellwyrn. “Ugh. Why is it always N’Jendo? Admirably straightforward folks, there, but they have awfully rotten luck with people conjuring apocalyptic bullshit in their backyard.”

“I cannot imagine that it makes much difference what the human kingdom is called at any given moment,” Anduor said in a bored tone. “Such magic is clearly beyond their capacities. Whatever is happening, it should be addressable without troubling to learn who claims the cluster of mud huts which approximates civilization in its proximity.”

“Why has no one murdered him yet?” Tellwyrn asked the two Elders.

“Most people who are not you don’t jump directly to ‘murder’ in response to minor irritation,” Shiraki said wryly.

“Most people haven’t met this guy.”

“Thank you very much for your help, priestess, Magister,” Sheyann said in a tone of courteous finality. “You have given us a starting point. If you’ll excuse us, we must decide upon our next move.”

“Should you need anything else, don’t hesitate to ask,” Anduor said magnanimously. “I’m always glad to instruct fellow elves in the ways of magic.” Neraene just bowed deeply to them.

“Our next move seems obvious to me,” Tellwyrn said as the three of them turned and began walking back toward the commons. “We go to N’Jendo, figure out what the hell is going on, and stop it.”

“You never do grow less hasty,” Shiraki murmured. “Charging into the unknown middle of—”

“Chucky, that was barely a valid attitude a thousand years ago. Even allowing for your Elder standoffishness, it just doesn’t work anymore. To say nothing of whatever is behind this insanity, others will be reacting. Do I need to lecture you on what could go wrong if the Empire gets its hands on something that can disrupt all of fae magic, everywhere? And they’re just at the top of the list of people who can probably locate this event and get people there quickly.”

“I share your unease at the idea of a hasty misstep, Shiraki,” Sheyann added, “but in this one case, I think Arachne is painfully right. One way or another, this will be dealt with. We have one chance to ensure it is done by us, on terms which will not cause ongoing harm.”

He sighed. “You are never more annoying than when you’re right.”

“Which of us is he talking to?” Tellwyrn asked Sheyann.

“Share the sentiment between yourselves; there is enough to go around,” Shiraki said, shaking his head. “The issue, then, becomes one of how quickly we can get there.”

“Instantly, of course,” Tellwyrn huffed. “I got the coordinates.”

“You know why we decline to participate in your cavalier matter scrambling,” Sheyann snapped. “Our spirit blessings can hasten—”

“Don’t be obtuse, Sheyann, it doesn’t suit you,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “I have respected your superstitions as much as possible, but this is not the time. You know as well as I it’ll take most of the day to get to N’Jendo from here even if you boost yourself to the maximum. That’ll leave almost no time to address whatever’s happening, or even figure it out, before night falls and the howling starts again, and then you’ll be dealing with that on top of being exhausted. So unless you’ve bothered to learn Kuriwa’s fast-travel trick of slipping through the space between, we teleport.”

“Arachne, just because you have no regard for…”

Shiraki laid a hand on Sheyann’s shoulder, causing her to trail off mid-sentence.

“She’s still insufferably right, Sheyann,” he said softly. “You know I agree with you. The fact remains, we simply have no time. Whatever the implications or repercussions, this is a sacrifice we will have to embrace. Just this once.”

She stared at him, then at Tellwyrn, and then finally closed her eyes and heaved a sigh. “Veth’na alaue. All right. We must notify the other Elders, and then, I suppose…go.”

“Just like old times!” Tellwyrn said, grinning and rolling up her sleeves. “C’mon, don’t deny it. You’ve missed the call of adventure.”

“Somehow,” Shiraki complained, “no matter what’s going on, you always find a way to make it worse.”


Sweet was the first off the caravan, bounding onto the platform and inhaling deeply through his nose until his chest puffed up like a rooster, as if he’d never smelled air before coming to Ninkabi.

There was a fortunate lack of fellow travelers, it being the first caravan of the day. One quick, surreptitious sweep of the station with his eyes confirmed that they should be able to grab a little privacy to confer before parting ways, without having to find a truly secure spot. Everybody knew what was up, but he wanted to make inescapably sure of that before the group split up. Flora and Fauna had already glided silently out of the caravan and moved to flank him as he turned to watch the others disembark.

Grip stepped out and panned an undisguised stare of cold analysis around the station, eyes narrowed suspiciously and one hand in her pocket. He had to suppress a wince; between that and her leather coat and general cultivated scruffiness, nobody would take her for anything but a thug up to no good. Ah, well, they all had their specialties, and Grip hadn’t become a successful enforcer by disguising who and what she was. Hopefully, on this job, that would be an asset and not an impediment.

Jenell followed her sponsor, and he nearly grinned at the girl’s mirroring of Grip’s posture and demeanor. She didn’t quite have it down, but for a relatively junior apprentice, she was coming along well. The last member of their party emerged, ebullient as ever despite the stressful night fae magic users in general had apparently spent, and peering about in even more obvious good humor than Sweet himself had projected upon his emergence.

“I say, that was positively luxurious!” Schwartz enthused. “Dashed convenient, these days. If you’d ridden the Rails five years ago you’d never imagine they were the product of the same Imperial service!”

“All right, chickadees, thisaway,” Sweet said cheerfully, setting off toward one corner of the station in a languid saunter. Grip fell into step beside him, her customary leonine prowl a sharp contrast to his own gait. The combination, he thought ruefully, would make it clear to any onlookers with a shred of worldly sense that they were both Thieves’ Guild operatives. He waited until they were relatively isolated behind a decorative tree with a panoramic view of any angle of approach before turning to address the group in a quieter voice. “You all know what we’re here after. And you know your roles?”

“Hunting down our two known contacts,” Flora said obediently.

“The three of us,” Fauna added, “will be checking the Izarite temples and Church chapels to track down Bishop Snowe.”

Both elves turned expectantly to the others. Schwartz was in the midst of summoning his little fire-rat familiar, but Jenell was expectantly watching Grip.

“He’s talking to you, apprentice,” the enforcer said dryly. “Sweet doesn’t need to check that I know my fucking job.”

Jenell’s cheeks colored slightly and the newly-summoned Meesie squeaked indignantly, but the junior thief answered quickly once prompted. “We’re tracking down Thumper. I don’t know this city, but Grip knows the Guild contacts in town and if that doesn’t work, we’ve got Herschel’s magic to help.”

“You got it,” Sweet said, nodding. “And on that note, whatever happens, please try not to get Herschel killed. I’m already leaning on our mutual tie to Thorn to bring him in on this, and that’s a girl whose shit list I don’t need to be on.”

Grip smirked in broad amusement, but Meesie chattered disapprovingly and Schwartz let out a huff of annoyance. “You do realize I’m not just Trissiny’s sidekick.”

“If that’s all you were, Herschel, you wouldn’t be here,” Sweet assured him. “I invited you specifically, rather than any of the magical specialists I might have contacted, because of the shadow hanging over this whole shebang. Make no mistake, this is putting you in direct danger, but it’s danger I know you’re both capable and motivated to deal with. I mentioned already that Basra is involved in this, tangentially, and probably still in Ninkabi.”

Schwartz and Jenell both scowled in matching expressions of anticipatory violence; Meesie hissed on his shoulder, puffing up like a scalded cat. Grip just folded her arms, one corner of her mouth twitching upward in a predatory little smirk.

“Yesterday,” Sweet continued, “among the many hasty errands I had to do to get this operation put together, I rammed some Imperial paperwork through. In light of her laundry list of known offenses, there is now an Imperial bounty on Basra Syrinx, dead or alive. Official notice may not reach Ninkabi until later today, but if you find yourselves arguing the right of way with the authorities over it, you surrender politely and wait for it to come through, understood? Because if the choice comes up, you choose dead.”

“You didn’t mention we were coming here to finish Basra,” Jenell whispered, her expression a troubling mix of anger and eagerness. Troubling on her, at any rate; Grip he knew could handle and channel that kind of vindictiveness, but it got raw apprentices killed.

“We are not here to finish Basra,” he said firmly, leveling a finger at her. “That’s not the job, and I don’t want you haring off after her. But she’s present, and involved, and we may come across her, so I need people here who can and will finish this decisively if, and only if, it comes up. Should you encounter Basra Syrinx, kill her. That is all, just kill her. No talking, don’t even pause for the satisfaction of making sure she sees you coming. Even with her divine shields cut off, that woman is a force of nature with a blade in her hand so do not be close enough to her for that to matter. You hit her instantly with every spark of witchcraft you can channel and whatever evil Grip has in her pockets, and then let the authorities sort out the rest. And make sure you don’t let your guard down at any point. She assuredly knows all of us, and has personal beef with more of us than not. With the shit going on in this city right now, don’t let anyone sneak up on you, and especially not her. Everybody clear on that?”

“Yes, but…uh, what if she sneaks up on you?” Jenell dragged a skeptical look across Sweet and both of his elven apprentices. “No offense, but…”

“Sweet’s no enforcer, but he didn’t get where he is by not knowing what he’s doing,” Grip answered her. “If you don’t know how he’s gonna handle the danger, then you don’t need to. You respect another thief’s secrets, apprentice.”

“Okay,” Jenell agreed, nodding. “Sorry.”

Schwartz drew in a steadying breath and let it out in a quick sigh. “Okay. So… Our meeting place is Notolo’s, traditional Jendi restaurant on the middle island, middle tier.”

“Notoli’s,” Sweet corrected, smiling, “but yeah, any local you ask will recognize it from that. Grip knows where it is, and you should try not to get separated for all kinds of reasons, but if you do, go there.”

Meesie cheeped in affirmation, standing upright and saluting.

“Aww,” Flora and Fauna cooed in unison. Grip rolled her eyes.

“Just out of curiosity,” said Schwartz, “isn’t there a famous Eserite shrine in this city? Wouldn’t that be a better place to…”

“The Font of the Fallen is not to be used for tactical purposes,” Grip said in a flat tone.

“Okay,” he said meekly.

“How’re you holding up, Herschel?” Sweet asked. “Any more complications from that…fairy business?”

Schwartz shook his head. “My dreamward held up, and it seems to have abated since sunrise. It’s weird… I can still feel this, kind of…roiling disturbance in fae magic in general. Lots of agitated spirits at the periphery of my awareness. It shouldn’t mess me up too much, though. At least, not more than I can compensate for.”

“Okay, you know your business,” Sweet said, nodding. “Watch out for yourself and don’t take unnecessary risks; whatever that’s about, we don’t need to borrow someone else’s trouble.”

In fact, he very much wanted to know more about that, but his own dance card was full. Whatever was going on, he would have to trust that Ingvar could take care of his own business. When it came to Ingvar, that was generally a safe assumption.

“All right, you all know your jobs,” he said aloud. “Let’s move out, people. Watch your backs out there, and keep it quick and quiet right up until you have to burn something the fuck down.”


“It’s not just me, right?” McGraw asked, staring north. “That wasn’t there last night.”

“Hell, that woulda been a lot more visible in the dark,” Billie agreed. “Nope, this here’s a shiny new development.”

“Joseph?” Mary asked, turning to him. “Does it look familiar?”

“Yeah, that’s it, all right,” Joe said quietly, also gazing at the glow on the horizon. It was a fixed blaze of white light, not unlike a sunrise but for the wrong color and the occasional flickers of lightning that snapped out from it into the sky. “The center…just like it was last time. I don’t get it, though. It took Jenny an’ me a lot longer to get here. We’ve only been walkin’ a few days.”

“Well, the Golden Sea’s notoriously shifty, innit?” Billie said cheerfully. “I always figured it shifted more side ta side, but I guess it works in the in an’ out direction, as well!”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Joe said. “I’m just wonderin’ what it means. The Sea’s s’posed to have a mind of its own, ain’t it?”

“A mind,” Mary said, “though not a mind as we would recognize one. Its movements may be purposeful…or random. Or perhaps, aimed at something which does not concern us directly.” She raised her head as if scenting the wind. “And yet, I am inclined not to see happenstance in any development right now. There are great things afoot in the world. Given our objective, that this should unfold before us so suddenly…”

“Well,” Weaver cut into the conversation, “I don’t see what more there is to be decided, and we’re not getting anywhere standing here chattering about it. We’re almost there, folks. Come on, let’s finish this.”

“Aye!” Billie crowed, swarming nimbly up the lanky bard’s body to perch on his shoulders, whereupon she pointed at the seething glow on the horizon. “We’ve got us a god to antagonize! What the hell’re we waitin’ for?”

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14 – 32

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On a typically overcast, slightly muggy summer day in Tiraas, Basra Syrinx returned to her office to find it gone.

She came to a stop in what appeared to be an empty stretch of hallway in the Temple of Avei, revealing confusion only by looking deliberately up and down. No one was visible nearby; the only noises were from the other end of the hall, where it terminated at a balcony overlooking a sizable atrium not far from the main sanctuary. Most significantly, the door to her office was not where it always was. Nothing but plain wall.

Her expression finally shifted from its usual placid mask to vague annoyance.

Syrinx reached up to run her hand along the wall, then grunted deep in her throat and nodded, finding the frame of the door with her fingers. Slowly she ran her hand along the invisible shape to the latch, which she turned. It was not locked or tampered with and shifted as smoothly in her hand as always, but she did not push it open or step in yet. Instead the Bishop resumed her tactile exploration, dragging her fingertips up the doorframe and along the top.

She disturbed some kind of crunchy dust sprinkled along the top of the door frame. No—not dust. Crushed dried leaves.

“Mm hm,” Syrinx muttered aloud, gripping the golden hilt of her sword with her other hand and continuing to sweep the dust away. Then suddenly, with a soft gasp, she jerked her fingers back, shaking her hand. There was no mark of any kind on her forefinger, but that had sure felt like—

She retreated one step and ignited her aura, flooding the hallway with radiant divine magic.

Immediately the illusion collapsed, the crumbled leaves atop the door frame evaporating into oily smoke, and the tiny elemental perched on the center chattered angrily at her in protest.

“I thought this was an extraordinary effort for a novice prank,” Syrinx said wryly. “Mousie, isn’t it? You’re not the only one who’s bitten off more than they can chew today. Your little buddy Herschel is going to be up way past his bedtime if he means to start trouble with me.”

Meesie hissed at her, puffing up her fur.

Not for nothing was Basra Syrinx an admired blademaster; her sword cleared its sheath faster than most human beings could have visually followed, much less countered, and she swept the blade in a precise arc that would have struck down even that tiny target—had Meesie not been other than human.

Meesie vanished in a puff of sparks as the sword’s tip slashed expertly through her space. Those sparks, instead of dissipating in the air, streamed away down the hall, where they coalesced again into the ratlike shape of the elemental, now perched on the shoulder of Herschel Schwartz, who had been standing there the whole time—not invisible, but simply not catching anyone’s notice until his familiar drew attention to his presence.

“I had honestly given up, boy,” Syrinx said mildly, sheathing her sword. “It’s been, what? A year? And you’re only now getting shirty with me. Please tell me you’ve spent all this time making actual preparations and not simply screwing up your courage. Unless your whole plan is to disappoint me one last time.”

“You know, Basra, that’s your problem in a nutshell. You always go right for the throat. Maybe you should relax, learn to play around a bit. Have some fun with life.” Schwartz’s tone was light, deliberately so. It contrasted with the rest of him—stiff as a flagstaff, shoulders gathered in tension, fists clenched and eyes glaring. Meesie hissed again, tiny flickers of fire racing along her fur.

“This isn’t a chapbook and you’re not a hero,” she said flatly. “You don’t stand there and banter at me. If the next thing out of your mouth is a suitably groveling apology, I will give real thought to not taking a complaint directly to Bishop Throale and having you reassigned to a two-man research temple in Upper Stalwar.”

In answer, he grabbed Meesie and tossed her forward. The elemental landed on the floor halfway between them and suddenly took up much of the hall space, in a leonine form almost the size of a pony. She had, at least, enough restraint not to roar and bring every Legionnaire in the temple running, but bared her teeth at Syrinx and growled. Loudly.

Unfazed by this display, Basra narrowed her eyes, then flicked a glance at the recently-disguised door of her office before returning her focus to Schwartz, ignoring the hulking fire elemental entirely.

“No,” she murmured. “You wouldn’t dare attack me openly—and especially not here. You have far too much intelligence and not nearly enough balls. What are you trying to distract me from, clever boy?”

He’d been prepped for this, but Schwartz was no schemer or politician. He hesitated for a moment, betraying uncertainty, before jutting out his chin and forcing a facsimile of a cocky grin. “Oh, is that what I’m doing? Interesting theory. How willing are you to test it?”

The dramatic effect, such as it was, suffered greatly from Meesie’s sudden reversal to her normal form. It had been much less than a minute; the divine magic saturating the temple put her at a serious disadvantage. Which, of course, underscored the Bishop’s point.

Syrinx quirked one eyebrow infinitesimally, then turned and strode away toward the stairs down to the atrium.

“Hey!” Schwartz shouted at her. “Are you that willing to bet I won’t just shoot you in the back?”

She didn’t bother to inform him that people who actually did things like that rarely gave warning, but she did activate a divine shield. It was a low-energy glow hugging her skin, well below the power of a typical combat shield, but it would conserve her magic and almost certainly suffice for any fae spells done at her, especially in the temple.

Syrinx arrived on the balcony just in time to spot her own aide being escorted through a door on the ground floor below. This wing of the temple, just behind the sanctuary, was mostly offices; that one was behind thick walls with just the one door positioned to provide space for guards to defend it, and used primarily for debriefings and interrogations of a relatively polite nature. Flight or fight risks would be detained in the cells in one of the basement levels. Those loyal to the Sisterhood who had something sensitive to reveal were handled here, where there was ready access to the temple’s main entrance and the medical wing.

“Covrin!” the Bishop snapped, her voice echoing through the columned atrium. All those present, which consisted of the Legionnaires escorting Jenell Covrin and a couple of passing priestesses, turned and craned their necks up at her.

Covrin met Syrinx’s eyes across the distance.

Then, she smiled. A cold, cruel smile, befitting Basra Syrinx herself—and the girl Jenell Covrin used to be before her “mentor” had (as she thought) beaten her into submission. Not acknowledging the Bishop further, she turned and strode through the door, which the nearest Legionnaire shut firmly behind her.

It was at that moment Syrinx registered that she was looking at Squad 391. Principia Locke turned from closing the door to give her the blandest, most placid smile she had ever seen.

The Bishop turned and stalked for the stairs, immediately finding her way blocked.

“Good afternoon, your Grace,” the dark-skinned young man before her said politely. “I wonder if I could have a moment of your time.”

She held onto her professional poise by a thread. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time at the moment. Excuse me.”

Syrinx moved to step around him, and he smoothly flowed aside to block her. Grunting in annoyance, she reached to shove him aside, and her hand impacted a hard surface which rippled with golden light, the shield dissipating immediately in a display of very fine control for a caster so young.

“I’m afraid I must insist,” he said, still in a courteous tone.

“Boy,” she grated, “do you have any idea—”

“I have many ideas,” he interrupted. “I’m Tobias Caine, and I require your attention for a moment, Bishop Syrinx.”

Basra went stock still, staring into his eyes. He gazed placidly back, awaiting her response, but she wasn’t really looking at him. Variables in this equation began to slot into place in her mind.

“I don’t have time for this,” Syrinx said curtly, and barreled right into him, flashing her own shield into place.

Toby was a martial artist and too deft on his feet to be so easily bowled down the stairs, retreating with far more grace than most would have managed in that situation, but the bubble of hard light surrounding her prevented him from making the best use of his skills, most of which relied on having something to grip in order to redirect her movements. He wasn’t without his own brute force methods, however, and before she’d made it two steps he conjured a staff of pure light.

Just like that, her divine shield wasn’t doing her much good, as Toby used his staff skillfully to poke, bat, and shove her backward, as if he were blocking a rolling boulder. This stalemate did not favor Basra; he was physically stronger than she and had vastly greater mana reserves; both staff and shield flickered whenever they impacted, but hers would break long before his.

“I realize you are impatient with this,” he said with infuriating calm while thwarting her efforts to descend as if this were all some sort of game. “But you need to think of your own spiritual health, Bishop Syrinx. Whatever happens next, the manner in which you face it will do a great deal to determine the outcome. Redemption is always—”

Basra abruptly dropped her shield and whipped her sword out, lunging at him.

As anticipated, instinct made him abandon his improvised jabbing and fall into a Sun Style defensive stance, which should have put her at a considerable disadvantage; his staff had much greater range than her short sword and her position on the stairs made it all but impossible to duck under it. That, however, was not her intent. Basra had trained against Sun Style grandmasters, which Toby Caine, for all his skill, was not yet. It took her three moves to position him, feint him into committing to a block for an attack from the right which never came, and then turn the other way and vault over the rail.

She had only been a few feet down the stairs; it was a drop of nearly a full story. Basra had done worse, and rolled deftly on landing with her sword arm held out to the side, coming to her feet barely two yards from Squad 391.

All six women were standing at attention, unimpressed by this. Locke, Shahai, and Avelea had composed features as usual, but the other three looked far too gleeful. Elwick, in particular, Syrinx knew to be more than capable of hiding her emotions. The fierce expression on her face boded ill.

“Step aside, soldiers. That is an order.”

“Mmmm,” Lieutenant Locke drawled. “Nnno, I don’t believe I will. Why? You think you’re gonna do something about it, Basra?”

“Lieutenant!” one of the two priestesses who had paused to watch the drama burst out, clearly aghast. “You are addressing the Bishop!”

“Am I?” Locke said pleasantly. “Well, if she still is in an hour, I guess I’ll owe her an apology. You just hold your horses, Bas. Private Covrin has a lot to go over.” She deliberately allowed a predatory, distinctly Eserite grin to begin blossoming on her features. “With the High Commander.”

Toby had reached the base of the stairs. Above, Schwartz arrived at the balcony rail and hopped up onto it, his robes beginning to rustle as he summoned some air-based magic. A subtle glow rose around Corporal Shahai.

Then another such glow, weaker but unmistakable, ignited around Locke. The elf’s grin broadened unpleasantly.

“Your Grace?” asked the second priestess uncertainly, glancing about at all this.

Basra Syrinx turned and fled.

Toby moved to intercept her, but Syrinx grabbed the shorter priestess by the collar of her robes in passing and hurled the squawking woman straight into him. Schwartz didn’t make it to the ground that quickly and Locke’s squad made no move to pursue, simply holding position in front of the office door. She made it to the atrium’s main entrance with no further opposition, bursting past two surprised Legionnaires standing guard on the other side.

Behind her, the office door opened, and it wasn’t Covrin or Rouvad who emerged to pursue her.

The main sanctuary of the Temple of Avei was crowded at that time of early afternoon, which meant there was an unfortunately large audience of petitioners from all over the Empire and beyond present to see their Bishop come streaking out of a rear door at a near run. This escalated into an actual run when she heard the pounding of booted feet behind her.

“You!” Basra barked at another pair of startled soldiers as she passed, flinging a hand out behind her. “Detain them!”

“Your Grace?” one said uncertainly, and had Basra been in less of a hurry she would have stopped to take the woman’s head off. Figuratively. Probably.

“BASRA SYRINX.”

At that voice, in spite of herself, Basra turned, skidding to a graceful halt.

Trissiny Avelea wasn’t running, but stalked toward her past Legionnaires who made no move to intercept her as ordered—unsurprisingly. The paladin and Bishop weren’t in the same chain of command, but the rank-and-file of the Legions would have an obvious preference if their orders contradicted each other. Trissiny was in full armor, fully aglow, and golden wings spread from behind her to practically fill the temple space. Gasps and exclamations of awe rose from all around, but the paladin gave them no acknowledgment, eyes fixed on Basra.

The Bishop inwardly cursed the learned political instincts which had overwhelmed innate survival instincts; she should not have stopped. As tended to happen when she was confronted with an overwhelming problem, her entire focus narrowed till the world seemed to fall away, and she perceived nothing but the oncoming paladin.

“Trissiny,” she said aloud. “You’ve clearly been listening—”

Those wings of light pumped once, and Trissiny lunged at her with astonishing speed, sword first.

Basra reflexively brought up her own weapon to parry, a divine shield snapping into place around her, and then two very surprising things happened.

First, Trissiny beat her wings again—how were those things functional? They weren’t supposed to be solid!—and came to a halt.

Second, Basra’s shield was snuffed out, untouched. Frantically, she reached inward for the magic, and it simply wasn’t there anymore.

Tiraas was no stranger to storms, but the clap of thunder which resounded right overhead was far greater in power than the light drizzle outside made believable.

“I actually thought you were too clever to fall for that,” Trissiny said, and despite the continuing presence of her wings, it was as if the avenging paladin had melted away to leave a smirking Guild enforcer in silver armor. “You just tried to call on the goddess’s magic right in front of a Hand of Avei who knows what you did. Congratulations, Basra, you’ve excommunicated yourself.”

Amid the crowd, more figures were emerging from that door at the back of the sanctuary. The Hand of Omnu, Schwartz… And all of Squad 391. With Covrin.

Of course. Obviously, Commander Rouvad wouldn’t go to a debriefing room for such an interview, not when she had a highly secure office to which she summoned people regularly. This entire thing… Syrinx realized, belatedly, how she had been baited and conned.

She filed away the surge of livid rage to be expressed later, when she had the opportunity to actually hurt someone. For now, once again she turned and bolted toward the front doors of the temple, past the countless witnesses to her disgrace.

The lack of any sounds of pursuit behind her began to make sense when she burst out onto the portico of the temple and had to stop again.

Another crowd was gathered in Imperial Square; while the figure waiting for her at the base of the steps necessarily commanded widespread attention, he also discouraged people from approaching too closely. At least the onlookers were keeping a respectful few yards back. Including a handful of Imperial military police who had probably arrived to try to disperse the crowd but also got caught up gawking at the Hand of Death.

Gabriel Arquin sat astride his fiery-eyed horse, who pawed at the paving stones with one invisible hoof and snorted a cloud of steam. His scythe dangled almost carelessly from his hand, its wicked blade’s tip resting against the ground. Hairline cracks spread through the stone from the point where it touched.

“There is a progression,” Arquin said aloud, his voice ringing above the murmurs of the crowd, “which people need to learn to respect. When you are asked by the Hand of Omnu to repent, you had better do it. Refuse, and you will be ordered by the Hand of Avei to stand down. That was your last chance, Basra Syrinx. Beyond the sword of Avei, there is only death.”

The crowd muttered more loudly, beginning to roil backward away from the temple. Nervous Silver Legionnaires covering its entrance clutched their weapons, bracing for whatever was about to unfold.

Behind Basra, Trissiny and Toby emerged from the doors.

Syrinx lunged forward, making it to the base of the stairs in a single leap. Immediately, Arquin wheeled his horse around to block her way, lifting his murderous-looking scythe to a ready position. Even disregarding the reach of that thing, it was painfully obvious she was not about to outrun or outmaneuver that horse. Any horse, but this one in particular looked unnaturally nimble.

She pivoted in a helpless circle, looking for a way out. The crowd was practically a wall; behind was the Temple, once a sanctuary and now a place she didn’t dare turn. Trissiny and Toby had spread to descend the steps with a few yards between them. One pace at a time, the noose closed in on Syrinx, the space between the paladins narrowing as the Hands of Avei and Omnu herded her toward the Hand of Vidius, and inexorable death.

Basra had spent too long as a cleric and politician to miss the deliberate symbolism. She could choose which to face: justice, death, or life. Tobias Caine was even gazing at her with a face so full of compassion she wanted to punch it.

She didn’t, though. Instead, Basra turned toward him, schooling her own features into what she hoped was a defeated expression—based on the way people’s faces looked in her presence from time to time, as it was one she’d never had occasion to wear herself. She let the dangling sword drop from her fingers, feeling but suppressing a spike of fury at the loss when the expensive golden eagle-wrought hilt impacted the pavement. Just one more expense to add to the tally of what the world owed her. Ah, well. After today, carrying around a piece of Avenist symbolism probably wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

Syrinx let Toby get within a few feet before bursting into motion.

His own instincts were well-trained, and though he still wasn’t a grandmaster, Basra’s martial skill heavily emphasized the sword. In a prolonged hand-to-hand fight, she might not have proved a match for Toby’s skill—and definitely not now that only one of them had magic to call on.

That dilemma was resolved, as so many were, by not fighting fair.

It took her a span of two seconds to exchange a flurry of blows, carefully not committing to a close enough attack to let him grab her as Sun Style warriors always did, all to position herself just outside the circle the three paladins had formed and push Toby into a reflexive pattern she could anticipate and exploit. Arquin was momentarily confused, unable to swing his great clumsy weapon into the fray with his friends that close or exploit the speed of his mount, but Trissiny—also a highly trained fighter—was already moving around Toby to flank Basra from the other side.

So she finally made the “mistake” that brought her within range of Toby’s grab, and allowed him to seize her by the shoulder and upper arm. And with his hands thus occupied, Basra flicked the stiletto from her sleeve into her palm and raked it across his belly.

Almost disappointing, she thought, how fragile a paladin was. Hurling him bodily into Trissiny was pathetically easy at that point, and in the ensuing confusion of shouts which followed, she dove into the crowd, instantly putting herself beyond the reach of Arquin, unless he wanted to trample a whole lot of bystanders, to say nothing of what that scythe would do to them. He probably didn’t. Even as the helpless sheep failed to do anything to stop her in their witless panic, paladins always had to take the high road.

Basra shoved through the throng in seconds, pelting right toward the only possible sanctuary that still awaited her: the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church.


“Toby!” Trissiny lowered him gently to the pavement; he was bent over, clutching his midsection, from which blood had already spread through his shirt and was dripping to the ground at an alarming rate.

“No light!” Toby managed to gasp as Gabriel hurled himself to the ground beside him. “Not even an aura!”

“He’s right, stomach wounds are amazingly delicate,” Trissiny said helplessly, finishing easing Toby down so he could sit upright. “It may need a surgeon, if you accidentally heal something in the wrong place… We need healers here!” she bellowed.

“Keep to the plan,” Toby grunted around the pain, managing to nod to her.

“I can’t—”

“You do your job, soldier,” he rasped, managing a weak grin. “After her! Triss, we’re surrounded by temples and gut wounds take a long time to do anything. I’ll be fine. Get moving.”

She hesitated a moment, squeezing his shoulder.

“He’s right,” Gabriel agreed, taking up her position to hold Toby upright. “Go, Trissiny!”

“I’ll be back,” she said, and released him, rising and plunging into the crowd after Syrinx.

Help really did come quickly. Barely had Trissiny gone before the Imperial police were enforcing a perimeter around the paladins, and a priestess of Avei had dashed up to them. She knelt and gently but insistently lowered Toby to lie on his back, whipping out a belt knife to cut away his shirt so she could see the wound.

“Seems so excessive,” Toby grunted to Gabriel, who knelt there clutching his hand. “Coulda spared a lot of trouble if we’d just told her the plan was to let her get into the Cathedral…”

“Well, yeah,” Gabe said reasonably, his light tone at odds with his white-knuckled grip on Toby’s hand, “but then she wouldn’ta done it.”

“Oh, right. Inconvenient.”

“You need to hush,” the priestess said in exasperation, her hands beginning to glow as she lowered them to the wound. “And try to hold still, this will hurt.”


Trissiny managed to moderate her pace to an aggressive stride as she crossed the threshold into holy ground. The two Holy Legionaries flanking the door turned to her, but she surged past them without even so much as a sneer for their preposterously ornate armor.

The timing of all this had been very deliberate. A prayer service was in session—not a major one, so the great sanctuary was not crowded, but people were present. Most significantly, the Archpope himself stood at the pulpit, presiding. Justinian liked to stay in touch with the common people, more so than did many of his predecessors, and thus could often be found holding public appearances such as these rather than delegating them to priests. A mid-week afternoon service just didn’t command much draw, however, and the room was filled to barely a tenth of its capacity.

At the moment, nobody was getting any praying done, by the looks of things. Basra Syrinx was no longer in evidence, but her recent passage was obvious, thanks to all the confused muttering and peering around. At the head of the sanctuary, the Archpope himself was half-turned, regarding one of the rear doors into the Cathedral complex with a puzzled frown.

The ambient noise increased considerably when the Hand of Avei strode down the central aisle, sword in hand, the side of her silver armor splashed with blood.

“General Avelea,” Justinian said, turning to face her with a deep, respectful nod. “I gather you can shed some light on these events?”

“Where is Basra Syrinx?” she demanded, coming to a stop even with the front row of pews. It was downright crowded up here, most of the parishoners present desiring to be as near the Archpope as possible. The first two rows were entirely filled, with people who came from the world over, to judge by their varied styles of attire. Just to Trissiny’s left were three Omnist nuns wearing the heavy cowled habits of the Order of the Hedge, a tiny sect which had no presence in the Empire.

“You just missed her,” Justinian replied. For whatever reason, he continued projecting in exactly the tone he used for conducting worship. As did she, making their conversation clearly audible to the room. “She passed through here in apparent panic, demanded sanctuary, and retreated within. Toward her office, I presume. What has happened?”

“Syrinx will be removed from her office as Bishop the moment the formalities can be observed,” Trissiny replied, her voice ringing over the astonished murmurs all around. “She has been cast out of the faith by Avei herself as a betrayer, abuser of the trust of her position, and rapist. Moments ago she compounded her crimes by mortally assaulting the Hand of Omnu. I demand that she be handed over to face justice!”

The muttering rose almost to the level of outcry before Justinian raised both his hands in a placating gesture. Slowly, the crowd began to subside.

“I dearly hope Mr. Caine is being tended to?” the Archpope said with a worried frown.

Trissiny nodded once. “He isn’t so fragile, and healers were at hand.”

“That is a great relief.”

“Yes,” she said impatiently, “and so will be his attacker’s prosecution. Will you have your Legionaries produce her, your Holiness, or shall I retrieve her myself?”

“Justice,” he intoned, “as you know better than most, is not a thing which yields to demands. These are serious allegations, Trissiny. Gravely serious. This situation must be addressed calmly, rationally, and with full observance of all necessary formalities. Frustrating as these things are, they exist for excellent reasons. We cannot claim to dispense true justice unless it is done properly.”

“Please do not lecture me about the core of Avei’s faith, your Holiness,” Trissiny retorted in an openly biting tone, prompting another rash of muttering. “Justice is Avei’s province. Not yours.”

“And yet,” he said calmly, “Basra Syrinx has claimed the sanctuary of this church. I cannot in conscience fail to respect that, on the strength of mere allegation. Even from a person of your own prestige, General Avelea.”

“Am I to understand,” she said, raising her voice further, “that you are refusing to turn over a criminal to Avei’s justice, your Holiness?”

“You are to understand the law of sanctuary,” he replied. “It is observed by all faiths within the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me, your Holiness.” From the front pew near the Omnist nuns, another figure stood, wearing white robes with a golden ankh tabard. Bishop Darling inclined his head diffidently to the Archpope, but also spoke at a volume which was clearly audible through the sanctuary. “I have, personally, defended and protected Basra Syrinx from the consequences of her actions in the past, in pursuit of what I believed to be the higher good. I know you are aware of at least some of this. To that extent, I may be inadvertently complicit in anything she has done now. But a line has been crossed, your Holiness. If she has so violently erred that her own paladin has come after her in this way, I strongly advise against involving the Church in this matter.”

“You know the value I place on your council, Antonio,” replied the Archpope. “But I question whether this setting is the appropriate venue in which to discuss matters of this severity and complexity. General Avelea, would you kindly agree to join me in private to continue this conversation?”

“Some matters do deserve to be discussed in public, your Holiness,” Darling said before she could respond. “I speak in my capacity as Bishop. The Thieves’ Guild stands fully behind Trissiny Avelea in this matter.”

The murmuring swelled again, and once more Justinian raised his hands for quiet. As soon as he had achieved it, however, and before he could take advantage, another voice intruded.

“I concur.” Bishop Varanus rose from the pew next to Darling, towering half a head over the Eserite and turning his fierce, bearded visage on Trissiny. “Basra Syrinx is a rabid animal, and always have been. We all know this, and as Antonio has said, we all share guilt for whatever she has done. We have all failed to do our duty in getting rid of her, and now we see the consequences. Honor demands that this be addressed—now, and not later. In this one matter,” he nodded to the paladin, “the Huntsmen of Shaath stand behind Trissiny Avelea.”

“The Brethren of Izara stand behind Trissiny Avelea,” said yet another voice before the noise could gather too much, and despite her own diminutive appearance, Branwen Snowe could project her voice easily through the hubbub. “Basra is a deeply troubled person. I would prefer that she be offered some manner of help, if any is indeed possible—but if she has offended so severely that her own cult demands justice, this is clearly a matter of the safety of all around her.”

Beside Snowe, an old man with white hair rose slowly from his own seat. Though he looked frail, Sebastian Throale spoke clearly and as powerfully as anyone. “I am only passingly acquainted with Bishop Syrinx and have no personal opinion on this matter. But Trissiny Avelea has personally earned the trust and respect of my own cult—not a small thing, nor easy to do, given the relations we have historically had. If she deems this the right course of action, the Salyrite Collegium stands behind her.”

“I’m not gonna lie, I am astonished that this is even a question,” piped yet another individual, practically hopping to her feet in the pew behind Throale. Bishop Sally Tavaar, all of twenty-six years old, was widely considered a joke by everyone except her fellow Bishops, all of whom were too theologically educated to be less than wary around a bard who acted the fool. “That woman is a detestable cunt and always has been, and you all know it. It’s about damn time somebody did something about it! Only reason nobody has is everyone’s afraid of her, and you all know that, too. It’s just plain embarrassing that an avenging paladin is what it takes to deal with this. The Bardic College stands the hell behind Trissiny Avelea!”

“If I may?” Bishop Raskin was actually new to his post and not a widely known face yet, but he made a point of fully bowing to Trissiny. “These events are not a total surprise. The Hand of Avei has worked closely with those of the other Trinity cults, and I had some forewarning that events such as these might transpire. I have the assurance of Lady Gwenfaer herself that we have nothing but the greatest respect for our fellow paladin, and the Order of Vidius stands firmly behind her.”

Beside him, a slim woman with graying hair rose and inclined her head solemnly. “My colleague speaks truthfully. Omnu’s faith stands behind Trissiny Avelea.”

By that time, stunned silence had descended upon the Cathedral. It was allowed to hang in the air for a moment longer before Justinian spoke.

“Anyone else?” he inquired, slowly panning his serene gaze around the room. Trissiny and the assembled Bishops just regarded him in turn, as did the astonished crowd. It was not every cult of the Pantheon, but it was most of the biggest and most influential. More importantly, it included several which agreed about nothing, ever. This show of unity without the active encouragement of a sitting Archpope—in fact, in defiance of one—was all but unheard of. It might actually have been the first time a Shaathist Bishop ever publicly endorsed a Hand of Avei. Justinian simply continued after a short pause, though. “Very well. I hear and thank you for your counsel, brothers and sisters. Rest assured, your opinions I hold in the utmost regard, and this will weigh heavily on my deliberations on this matter. Those deliberations must occur, however; it is no less than conscience and justice demand. For the moment, sanctuary will be observed.”

“Are you actually serious?” Trissiny burst out. “You would really—”

“Did you believe,” Justinian interrupted, staring evenly down at her from his pulpit, “that aggressive demands and political maneuvering would be enough to eviscerate due process? Is that Avei’s justice, Trissiny?”

It was probably for the best that she had no opportunity to answer.

“BASRA!”

The entire room full of worshipers turned to stare at Jenell Covrin, who came striding down the central aisle in full Legion armor, trailed by Squad 391.

“Come out and face consequences, Basra!” Covrin roared, stomping right up to stand next to Trissiny. “It’s me, Jenell—your little pet. The one you thought a victim!”

“Young lady,” Justinian began.

“I did this, Basra!” Covrin screamed. “I’ve been gathering every secret you tried to bury. I brought them to the High Commander! I BROUGHT YOU DOWN! You can hide from the paladin, but you can’t hide from the truth.”

“Private,” the Archpope said more loudly, “this is not—”

“I DID THIS TO YOU!” Covrin roared, her voice all but rattling the stained glass. “For everything you did to me, I WON! And if you want to try settling it one more time, you’re gonna have to come out and face me. You’ll know how to find me, you bitch! Until then, I. FUCKING. WIN.”

“That is enough,” Justinian said flatly. “Sergeant at arms, please escort this young woman from the Cathedral.”

“Squad, form up!” Trissiny snapped. Instantly, the six members of Locke’s squad pivoted and snapped into a wedge, blocking off the aisle from the Holy Legionaires who had started toward them from the doors. They very wisely slowed as the Silver Legionnaires formed a menacing phalanx bristling with lances.

Four more Legionaries were approaching from the front of the Cathedral, but also did not get far.

“Grip! Duster! Ninetails!” Darling barked.

Instantly, the three Omnist nuns on the front row surged upright, hurling away their voluminous robes to reveal armed women in scuffed leather. All three Guild enforcers flowed into place in a triangle around Jenell and Trissiny, staring down the heavily armored Legionaries, who also came to a nervous halt.

“Come on, Covrin,” Trissiny said quietly. “Nothing else we can do here…for now. We will have to finish this later.”

She half-turned to meet Justinian’s eyes.

The Archpope nodded to her once, and smiled.

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14 – 18

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“You okay, Gabe?” Toby asked in a soft voice.

“Fine,” Gabriel said shortly. At that, Trissiny looked over at him as well. He was staring out across the Rail platform with a fixed little frown creasing his forehead. Following an uncomfortable pause, he explained further, still without looking at them. “Just concentrating. There’s a Vidian magic technique to deflect attention, which I haven’t practiced as much as I should’ve, so it takes focus.”

“Ah,” Toby said, nodding. “Good idea.”

Vrin Shai’s Rail station was outside the city proper. Even in an age when mag artillery made stone walls somewhat redundant, the city’s fortifications were practically a sacrament, given which goddess claimed it as a sacred seat. Though Imperial codes required Rail stations to be located in areas with easy access to city streets, there had never been a prospect of the Rail line itself penetrating the outer defenses. Popular rumor was that the Surveyor Corps, when planning the Rail route and station, hadn’t even bothered to ask. Thus, the walls stood proud, and Rail traffic to and from Vrin Shai involved a rather inconvenient trek.

Trissiny had once again left her armor behind; the central temple was of course proud to hold onto it for a while, though Sister Astarian had seemed somewhat bemused at the Hand of Avei’s preference not to wear it. She had, however, smilingly promised to see about removing what remained of the blinding alchemic polish the steward in Calderaas had applied. In civilian clothes, the five of them might have been any mixed bag of travelers, their only distinctive feature being that Darling, Trissiny and Schwartz made an unusual concentration of Stalweiss descent for this part of the country. Still, Gabriel’s precaution was wise. In their short time in the city, the paladins had managed to make public spectacles of themselves several times; it was hardly beyond possibility that someone might recognize them.

And none of them were in the mood for curiosity seekers.

Darling and Schwartz had stepped off to the side to converse in a low tone; the three paladins simply clustered together on the platform, ignoring and being ignored by the other travelers awaiting caravans. Now, the other two turned and approached them again, causing Trissiny and Toby to look up, though Gabriel continued frowning fixedly into the distance.

The Bishop cleared his throat. “So! Mr. Schwartz has just been telling me that I was much too hard on you three.”

Trissiny sighed. “Herschel…”

“Now, hold up,” Darling said, raising a hand. “The fact is, he’s right.”

At that, even Gabriel looked up, his expression becoming quizzical.

“It’s tricky to find the right…perspective, here,” Darling continued, turning his head to gaze abstractly at nothing, much the way Gabriel had just been doing. “In reality, you’re young. Not only are you bound to make mistakes; you’re supposed to. That’s all part of the process. On the other hand, you three have such a huge weight of importance resting on you that everything you do creates waves that’ll end up affecting more people than you can imagine. In short… You can’t afford to be and do the things that you naturally, inevitably have to. And yes, that is wildly unfair, to which I must say, tough luck. That’s life. But, it’s something I should’ve been more mindful of.”

His eyes snapped back into focus, and he met the gaze of each of them in turn before continuing. “You fucked up, kids. You didn’t think carefully enough and created a big damn mess. But I also fucked up by reaming you out when what you needed was advice on how to not repeat that mistake. For that, I apologize.” He nodded deeply, the gesture verging on a bow. For a moment, the three of them could just stare in silent surprise. Schwartz folded his arms, looking satisfied; on his shoulder, Meesie did exactly the same.

“Well…apology accepted,” Trissiny said at last. “It’s not as if you were wrong, anyway. And your advice and help has been appreciated.”

“Glad to hear it,” Darling replied. “We’ve dwelled enough on what you did wrong, so let me offer the opposing perspective: you saw a problem, and you took action. Thanks to you, Calderaas is getting a bunch of new schools. Which…isn’t the kind of outcome the bards sing of; it’s not flashy, it’ll be years before the results start to show and a generation before it really changes things. But that is still important. Not to mention, you reminded some of society’s worst people that their bullshit does have consequences, which is something they need on the regular. Next time do it more carefully, but…” A faint frown of concern appeared on his own face. “Like Herschel just reminded me, what’s important is taking action. You might mess up and cause problems, but that’s nothing compared to the losses that’ll accrue if you never intervene. I really hope I didn’t scare you away from stepping in when you see a need.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Gabriel said.

A bell chimed twice from nearby, where a large clock was displayed above the ticket master’s stand. The woman behind the counter glanced up at it, then leaned over to speak directly into an arcane apparatus enchanted to amplify sound, making her voice resonate through the station. “Caravan from Madouris is inbound, ETA one minute! Travelers departing for Ninkabi, please assemble on Platform Three! Please remember to make space for disembarking passengers before boarding.”

“That’s us,” Toby said unnecessarily, turning to gaze up the line toward the east.

Trissiny stepped over to Schwartz, and he met her with a hug. Meesie hopped down from his shoulder to hers, spreading her tiny arms and pressing her warm little body to Trissiny’s cheek in an embrace of her own.

“Be careful,” he murmured. “I know you can take care of yourself, but…”

“But it’s good advice, anyway,” she replied, pulling back to smile up at him. “You be careful too, Herschel. Listen to Darling and let him do what he does.”

“I know the plan, don’t worry,” he replied, grinning. “I hate to leave you guys right in the middle of your quest…”

“You need to have things ready in Tiraas when we get there, though,” she said, “and remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Listen to Darling—and Principia, for that matter—but listen…circumspectly. Senior Guild people are good at this kind of plotting, and neither of those’ll screw you over, but that doesn’t mean you should absorb every thought they try to put in your brain.”

“I’m not a complete idiot, you know,” he said wryly.

“Yeah, neither am I. Doesn’t mean neither of us has ever done anything idiotic.”

Flickers of blue lightning began to arc along the Rail line. The caravan appeared over the horizon before anyone could see it coming, throwing up sparks from the line and blue repulsor charms flaring alight in front of its lead car as it slowed. A whine so high-pitched it barely registered to the human ear sounded, as if physics itself were shrieking in protest at the sight of an object decelerating so fast without destroying itself.

Trissiny and Schwartz separated, Meesie hopping back onto her partner’s shoulder with a forlorn little cheep at his sister, and the other two paladins stepped over to them while the caravan’s doors open and dazed-looking passengers began to emerge.

“Take care of yourself, Schwartz,” Gabriel said, slugging him lightly on the shoulder.

“You, too,” the witch replied with a grin. “Don’t make my sister work too hard to keep you alive.”

“Don’t worry,” said Toby, raising an eyebrow. “Somehow it’s always me who ends up doing that.”

“You’ll be fine,” Darling added from behind them. “If this is a Vesk thing, he’ll strain you to the very edge of your capabilities and no further. You’ll come back smarter and harder, right in time for us to take care of business back home.”

“Any last minute advice?” Gabriel asked him. In the near distance, the ticket master started calling for passengers to board. “You probably know as much about Vesk as any of us, at least.”

“Yeah,” Darling said dryly. “Try to have fun, when you can. I hear tell it’s a riot, living through an actual adventure story—right up until you get to the part that’s meant to make the audience cry.”


Ninkabi was a city of terraces and bridges, and the striking contrast of heights and depths. Built along the last stretch of the N’Kimbi River, it was defined by its geography. In truth, within the Empire flatland cities like Mathenon and Onkawa were the exception, rather than the rule; most followed the model of Vrin Shai, Veilgrad, Calderaas, and Tiraas itself, occupying immense stone features which gave them each a distinctive skyline—and a considerable defensive advantage.

The N’Kimbi had carved out a double canyon over the eons, which itself had been somewhat broken by some long-ago seismic event, resulting in a series of waterfalls which descended from the rocky N’Jendo coast into the sea. Ninkabi occupied both banks of the canyon and the long island in the middle, descending the three tiers which had been re-shaped by mortal hands into regular terraces from the jumble of stone which it had been originally. The canyon walls, too, had been carved into and built outward, until the faces of buildings descended almost to the surface of the river, though the lowest two stories were usually unoccupied due to the annual flooding caused by snowmelt in the Wyrnrange. Numerous stone bridges crisscrossed the canyons, both at the surface levels and between openings along their walls, creating a veritable maze that boats couldn’t pass under during the flood season—not that most would have risked the waterfalls, anyway. Up top, Jendi architecture manifested itself in Omnist-style ziggurats and soaring minarets, the city as bristling with towers as it was rent by deep shadows. Within the shade of the many towers, though, the long central island contained numerous gardens, many with ancient, towering trees which added a lushly organic touch to the city’s angular lines.

The outskirts of the city along the canyon were delineated by high walls, of course; Ninkabi itself had rarely been sacked, but most of N’Jendo’s history had been marked by raids back and forth between the country and the orcs of Athan’Khar to the south, and the human nation of Thakar to the north. Those defenses had been tested innumerable times, over the centuries. Even during the long peace since the Enchanter Wars, Ninkabi had followed the example of Vrin Shai rather than Veilgrad; no suburbs had been allowed to spring up outside the walls. The Thakari were allies now and what dwelled in Athan’Khar never came out anymore, but the horrors lurking there discouraged any risk-taking with defenses.

The Rail station was at the highest point on the central island, at its easternmost edge with the looming Wyrnrange walling off the horizon in that direction, and the setting sun casting the rest of the city in orange and gold as it descended toward the sea on the other side. From this angle, they had an excellent view of Ninkabi’s maze of towers, bridges, and canyons. This, even at a glance, was a city of deep shadows. Now their task was to find the right scoundrel lurking in them.

“But before that,” Trissiny said, when they’d stepped to the edge of the Rail platform, “there’s something I need to do while we’re in the city.”

“Oh?” Toby asked. Gabriel, though, was already nodding.

They had to ask for directions, and it was a bit of a hike; what they sought was situated at the base of the second-to-last cliff on the central island, most of the way along the city. The trip involved descending three layers, where they found that there were both switchbacking stairs at the edges of the cliffs and long ramps which passed through tunnels, to allow horses and vehicles to pass between levels. Between this and the bridges, getting around in Ninkabi involved quite a bit of planning and backtracking; those tunnels had to be long enough that to come out at the base of a cliff, you had to enter almost the whole way back along that terrace, nowhere near the stairs.

Upon descending the first staircase, Gabriel successfully bullied the other two into renting a rickshaw to take them the rest of the way, pointing to the setting sun as evidence that they really ought to hurry this up.

They finally arrived, though, at a kind of amphitheater built right into the base of the cliff. The broad, semicircular space within was calm, deeply shadowed beneath both the cliff itself, the tall round walls which separated it, and overhanging boughs of trees which stretched outward from the gardens planted atop those thick walls.

Against the great wall stood the monument which was the focus of this place, a fountain which rose in tiers almost two stories, pouring water down in levels like a ziggurat. Stairs rose almost to its peak, creating access by which people could set down candles along the multiple rims of each level, where little indentations held them upright even against the water. Right now the candles were sparse, leaving the space dim as they were its only illumination.

This was, technically, a Vidian temple, and was watched over by priests of Vidius, but it was neither Vidians nor the general public who came to this place, as a rule. There were no icons displayed, no decorations anywhere in the space except for the inscription carved along the base of the Fount of the Fallen:

WE ARE STILL HERE

It was one of very few places in the world that the generally irreverent Eserites regarded as sacred.

The three paladins entered through an arch along the northern arc of the outer wall, pausing just inside to look around. Few were present, just the Vidian priests in their three alcoves spaced along the inner curve of the wall, and only two people currently visiting the shrine. A woman with Stalweiss coloring, in an expensive-looking silk gown, sat on the lowest edge of the fountain, trailing her fingers in the water and seeming to speak quietly to no one. Halfway up one of the staircases, a dark-skinned man who might have been local had just finished setting a candle in place and lighting it, and now bowed his head, whispering in prayer.

“Welcome,” a voice greeted them quietly from the alcove just a few feet away. It had a stone counter built in front of it, leaving the priest behind partially walled off like a shopkeeper. Shelves lining the back held row upon row of unlit white candles. Currently occupying the space was a Tiraan woman who stuck out somewhat, due to her expensive-looking and obviously tailored suit.

Gabriel frowned at her. “Are…you a priest of Vidius?”

“Oh, not me,” she said diffidently, waving a hand. “I’m just watching this post for a little bit, as a favor to a friend. I work with the Universal Church.” Gold glittered at her sleeves; her cufflinks alone looked pricey enough to be an affront to Eserite sensibilities. Actually, with her short hair and sharp suit, the woman looked a lot like Teal Falconer, with a darker complexion and more expensive tastes.

Trissiny stepped over to the counter. “May I have a candle, please?”

“Of course,” the woman said politely. “It’s two pennies.”

“You charge for these?” she demanded, frowning.

“This is genuine locally-sourced Jendi beeswax,” the woman in the suit replied with a placid smile. “Those bees worked hard to make these for you, and no telling how many keepers got stung in the process. The candles are hand-made by traditional artisans—no factory products here. Two pennies is exceedingly reasonable, especially considering that even a holy site requires some upkeep.”

Trissiny shook her head ruefully, already reaching into her pocket. “Well, when you put it that way, fair enough.” The woman smiled, accepted the coins and handed over a candle with no further comment, and Trissiny turned back to her friends. “I won’t be long.”

“You take as much time as you need,” Toby said firmly. “There is no rush.”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Gabriel added. “Say whatever you need to.”

“Here,” the woman said suddenly, holding out an arcane cigarette lighter to Trissiny. It was as expensive as her suit, crafted of silver with gold embossing and engraved with a stylized V. “There are also matches and lighters for sale here, but you can borrow mine. I don’t recommend using matches anyway; the splashing water doesn’t agree with them.”

“Oh. Thank you very much,” Trissiny said, accepting it. “I’ll bring it right back.”

“Like the boys said, hon, take your time. I’m in no rush, either.”

She headed off to the fountain, and Toby and Gabriel discreetly edged away to stand with their backs to the wall on the other side of the arch. They tried not to stare, but there really wasn’t much else to look at; the woman at the candle stall was also watching Trissiny, wearing a small smile.

Trissiny picked a staircase some distance from the other two Eserites currently at the fountain and climbed, selecting a spot about halfway up. There, she wedged the white candle into one of the slots, lit it with a lighter, and then produced a gold doubloon from inside her sleeve. The paladin kissed the coin before tossing it into the water. Then she paused, bending over her candle, and speaking softly to nothing, like the others.

“His name was Ross,” Gabriel said suddenly, barely above a whisper. Toby looked up at him in surprise. “Evaine collected him. He died protecting Schwartz from wandfire. Trissiny and her other friends were just seconds too late to save him. I think you would’ve liked him, Toby. He didn’t much care for fighting; he was trying to talk his enemy down when she shot him, and he’d been really close to succeeding.” He hesitated, and sighed softly. “Ross was a bard, before apprenticing with the Guild. This whole thing… It’s a constant reminder that can’t be easy for her. I wonder how much of that was deliberate on Vesk’s part.”

“Did…she tell you all this?” Toby asked quietly.

Gabriel shook his head. “Evaine did. She was very impressed. Ross went right to the realm of heroes.”

“Have you told Trissiny?”

“I…no. That’s not exactly an easy thing to bring up, y’know? And I’m really not supposed to be ferrying information between the living and the dead, anyway. There’s a good reason Vidius insists on a solid barrier, there. I was going to tell her and her other Eserite friends anyway, back in Puna Dara, but…” He trailed off, and shook his head again.

“Yeah,” Toby murmured. “Not easy at all. I think she would like to know, though.”

“I’m still wrestling with it. Trissiny is my friend and I want to. But…that would be pretty blatantly playing favorites. If I reassure my own friend about dead loved ones, how do I justify not going around and doing the same for everyone else on the planet? Favorites are something death cannot have.”

“I see the dilemma.” Toby laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing and giving him a very gentle shake. “I’m not sure what the right thing is, there, Gabe. But I’m confident it’ll be what you end up doing.”

“Thanks,” Gabriel said, a little wryly.

The woman in silk had just stood up, turning to go, but she paused with a visible gasp, staring upward. Gabriel and Toby twisted their heads to follow her gaze.

Three stories up, at the edge of the outer wall beneath a tree, stood the blurred but unmistakable shape of a valkyrie, scythe in hand and black wings spread. After a moment, seeing that she’d been noticed, Vestrel stepped backward out of sight of the space below.

“Vidian holy ground,” Toby said thoughtfully. “Hm. Does that just…happen? The way you described events at the temple in Last Rock, I though valkyries had to specifically want to be visible, even there.”

“You know,” Gabriel said, lowering his eyes to frown at nothing, “it occurs to me I’m not actually sure what the rules are about that. It hadn’t seemed important, before, but…maybe I oughta ask Vestrel for a rundown.”

“That might be a good idea. More information is always better than less.”

“Yeah.”

Trissiny, true to her word, didn’t take long. Whatever she had to say to Ross or on his behalf, she was done while the other man on the other stairs was still kneeling. She looked suddenly tired, though more pensive than morose, giving both of them a wan smile while crossing back to the alcove with the lighter in her palm. Toby and Gabriel drifted over to meet her there, all three paladins arriving at about the same time.

“Thanks again,” Trissiny said, handing the lighter back to its owner.

“You are welcome,” the woman replied, inclining her head courteously. “Glad I could help. Now, are you kids about ready to go?”

There was a beat of uncertain silence.

“Excuse me?” Toby asked, frowning. “Go where?”

“Ah, my apologies, I did that in the wrong order. I’m Nell; pleased to meet you.” The woman bowed to each of them in turn, wearing a knowing smile. “We have some friends in common, and I hear tell you’re in town to see Mortimer Agasti and get your hands on one of his treasures. I can help you with that.”

“You said…you work for the Universal Church?” Gabriel asked suspiciously.

“With,” Nell corrected, raising one finger rather like a schoolteacher. “Not for. An easily-missed but very important distinction!”

“And…what’s your stake in this, exactly?” Trissiny demanded.

“Personally?” She shrugged, still with that bland smile. “I gain nothing from it, save the satisfaction of being involved. It’s been a long time since paladins were active in the world and longer still since they were on an honest-to-gods quest. Even if it is just Vesk trying to weave himself a shiny new fairy tale. There’s no way I’d pass up the chance to gawk at this from up close!”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Toby, “are you Vidian or Eserite?”

“Neither,” Nell replied pleasantly. “What I am is well-informed and connected. I know everybody interesting and everything important in Ninkabi. More to the point, I know Mortimer, and that means I can help you get what you want. You should be aware that he sees nobody. No visitors, no petitioners, no nothing. I’m one of very few acquaintances for whom he’ll break that rule. If you want to get a chance to present your case to the man himself without kicking up a ruckus that’ll upset Ninkabi even more than you did Calderaas, you’ll be needing to have me along.”

“You are awfully well-informed,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “How could you possibly know who we needed to talk to? That name was only mentioned—” She broke off, eyes widening again, and glanced down at the lighter, which the woman was still holding in one hand, positioned so its engraved V was facing them.

“Ah, ah, now. A little discretion, please! I’m sure you three understand not wanting to make spectacles of yourselves. It’s just Nell, to my friends.”

Verniselle winked at them, and tucked the lighter away in the breast pocket of her tailored coat.

“We very much appreciate your help…Nell,” Toby said carefully. “Your guidance would be more than welcome.”

“Oh, please don’t start being all formal,” she said, lightly punching him on the shoulder. “Trust me, where we’re going, that’ll only draw exactly the attention you don’t want. All right, kids, if we’re all done here, let’s head out. You’ve got good timing; we should reach Mortimer’s place a bit after dark, if we selectively dawdle. It’ll be open but not too busy yet. Thisaway!”

The goddess of money, merchants and bankers turned and strolled off through the nearest arch, casually flipping a platinum coin that would have bought a lower-end enchanted carriage. There was nothing for the three paladins to do but follow.

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14 – 17

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Like many Eserites, Antonio Darling had a broad dramatic streak; he had also, apparently, had some Vesker training, to judge by his ability to project his voice at a furniture-rattling volume without seeming to strain it.

“What did you guys do?” Schwartz demanded, in perfect unison with Meesie, who squeaked unintelligibly but with precisely the same cadence.

Sister Astarian, who had slipped into the office behind them, now discreetly shut the door and then took Schwartz gently by the elbow. The priestess led him over to a corner of the room, where she leaned close and spoke in a low voice. His eyes progressively widened as she explained.

Meanwhile, Darling was just getting started. “What you kids did matters less than what you didn’t. Look, I’m the last guy you’re going to hear complain about someone standing up to power on behalf of the little guy, but these things have to be done strategically. You boys I can’t speak for and are not my business, but I know for a fact that Thorn has been specifically trained to plan ahead before launching an operation like that! Have you given the slightest thought to what would unfold after you waltzed out of that party?”

“A lot, in fact,” Toby said after a brief pause in which Trissiny seemingly failed to dig up a response. “At the time I accepted the reasoning we were given…but I’m not going to argue with any criticism. That was an awful thing to do to anyone, for any reason.”

“Mr. Caine,” Darling said with a sigh, folding his arms, “I think this conversation will go better if we’re all up front. I do not give a gently used fuck about Lady What’s-Her-Butt. The way the whole affair was described to me, it sounds like the real tragedy is that nobody finished drowning the wretched cow. I am here for entirely practical reasons, pertaining to the unholy mess you kids have unleashed.”

“Now, hold on,” Trissiny protested finally. “That was a sanctioned Guild operation! Underboss Velvet not only cleared the whole thing but participated and led it. If you’re going to take this up with anyone—”

“Oh, you’d better believe I have had words with Velvet,” Sweet barked, and began to pace up and down in front of the room’s desk. “The Calderaan chapter is hers to run as she likes—within reason! And anything involving fucking paladins is pushing the bounds of reason to the point that requires some additional thought, which in this case no one gave. But sure, Thorn, that’s as good a place to start as any. Let me just catch you up on events as they’ve been unfolding while you were off partying with the gods, beginning with Velvet and her crew.”

He stopped pacing and hopped onto the desk itself, where he began swinging his legs in an almost childlike motion while he continued, thumping his heels against the wood in an annoyingly arhythmic manner. “You see, kids, at issue here is the widespread furor that ensues when the Hand of Avei publicly does the most classically Eserite thing imaginable, with a full Thieves’ Guild backup. That sets people talking, raises issues both theological and political, and is generally a big ol’ boot to the bee’s nest. The operation, as far as it goes, was fine and a splendid success from a Guild perspective; Velvet unleashed the greatest terror she could get her hands on to nix a particularly glaring case of corruption and scare those responsible back into their holes for a little while. Rah rah, hip hip hooray, victory for the good guys, and so on. But the Guild also has to deal with the fallout of Trissiny’s involvement, and here’s the thing about that: Cardassa Araadia is a noblewoman herself and an Underboss in the most politically intricate city in the Empire. She knew damn well what she was doing, and she up and did it anyway. That is the kind of recklessness Boss Tricks can’t let pass without delivering, at bare minimum, a fierce chewing out.”

“Not to pour water on all this, but I still don’t see how that part is our fault,” Gabriel said. Unlike the others, he had seated himself in one of the room’s comfortable chairs and was lounging back at apparent ease. “Are we Velvet’s keepers?”

Darling glanced at him, the Bishop’s expression betraying nothing. “Patience, kiddo, we’re just getting started. Now, Velvet and Tricks butting heads would ordinarily not be more than a passing tension, but then your old buddy Webs decided to get involved! You do remember Webs, don’t you, Thorn?”

“Oh, no,” Schwartz muttered from the other side of the room. Sister Astarian stood nearby, listening with her hands folded, their brief conversation evidently finished.

“I’m almost afraid to ask, but…” Toby turned to Trissiny, raising his eyebrows. “Who is Webs?”

“A veteran member of the Thieves’ Guild,” she said, her own eyes widening in dawning horror. “He’s… The kindest way to put it is that he’s a theological purist. He doesn’t much approve of how Tricks runs things.”

Darling thunked both his feet hard against the desk. “And oh, he was just waiting for an excuse like this! He’s just barely begun agitating, so there’s no tell how far he’s going to push this, or even how far he can. Velvet is loudly on the record thinking Webs is a perpetually inebriated turd golem, so he’s not going to find an ally there. But the sequence of events involved, from one limited perspective, Velvet achieving a smashing victory against the nobles of Calderaas and Tricks calling her down for it, and Webs has a lovingly-nurtured network of people who listen to him, including a number who really ought to know better.”

“Hence the tag, I suppose,” Gabriel observed.

“Quite,” Darling said acidly. “And while we’re talking about rifts being rent in cults, Sister Astarian, I wonder if you would be good enough to take over for the next bit? I’m sure you are far more up to date on Avenist business, even despite my recent shouting match on this subject with Bishop Syrinx.”

Schwartz cringed; Meesie hissed, puffing up like an angry cat.

“Thank you, your Grace,” Astarian said, her calm demeanor a stark contrast to Darling’s barely-restrained ire. “One way or another, Trissiny, I had meant to speak of this with you before you left again. The repercussions within the Sisterhood are far more serious than it sounds like they were with the Guild. As the Bishop said, you acted in a very clearly Eserite fashion, with Eserite support, in public. This story has only begun to circulate, but already I have heard from some within both the Sisterhood and the Legion who feel…betrayed.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said in an unusually small voice.

“Make no mistake,” Astarian continued, wearing a gentle expression now, “this will cost you some support within the cult, but it is not all bad. Some of that was support you didn’t need. There are elements within the Sisterhood who have been offended by your Silver Mission initiative, for example.”

“What?” Trissiny straightened up, frowning. “Why?”

“Simple bigotry,” Sister Astarian replied, shaking her head and permitting a faint scowl to flicker across her face. “Oh, they’ll all pretty it up with just the right touch of disingenuous eloquence, but that’s all it comes down to: people with small minds upset by the inclusion of others. I have even heard complaints about your public revelation last year that you are a half-elf. As I said, the worst of the grumbling is of the sort which deserves to be silenced with a heavy boot. But, and this is important, not all of it. You have ardent support within the Sisterhood, as well, and it is from those quarters that I have heard the most shock and disappointment.”

“I see,” Trissiny said quietly, and began chewing her lower lip.

“A cult,” said Darling, “is like a vase, or a nation, or anything else in the world: if you strike a sharp blow to something which had cracks to begin with, it just might shatter. This is something any paladin should think about before they abruptly upend everyone’s expectations, no matter how good the cause.”

“Sound advice,” Toby murmured.

“Thank you, Sister,” Darling said, standing to bow courteously to Astarian, who inclined her head in return. He straightened and turned a baleful look back on the three paladins. “But we’re still just getting started, here. The next big backlash to this has come from Tar’naris.”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “What the— Why would the drow care about anything we do?”

“You were probably not aware of this,” Darling explained, “it isn’t common knowledge. But the Thieves’ Guild has been working closely with House Awarrion and Queen Arkasia’s government to crush the trade in human slaves that still exists there. It’s slow and delicate work, due to the complex politics of the city, and our own minimal ability to act. The Queen and Matriarch Ashaele don’t want the Guild establishing a permanent presence there, and they definitely don’t want their young people—or anyone else—being tempted away from Themynra to join Pantheon cults. Especially ours. So our presence is small and carefully supervised. In essence, human Eserites are scary monsters the Queen can use to terrorize her non-compliant nobles with, when they do things she doesn’t like—such as buying and selling Imperial citizens. It works because she doesn’t overdo it. So guess what immediately happened when the hot news out of Calderaas was of Pantheon paladins and a bunch of Guild thieves busting into a noble’s own sanctuary and torturing her in front of all her friends!”

“Oh, shit,” Gabriel whispered.

“Well said!” Darling snapped. “The short version is that Tricks has pulled all our people out of Tar’naris until we get the all clear to return. Matriarch Ashaele is scrambling to get this under control, Arkasia is seriously reconsidering dealing with us at all, and the other Narisian Houses are exerting pressure on them both to back off. So, congratulations! The slave trade lives another day.”

Toby covered his eyes with both hands.

“But hey!” With a broad grin that failed to touch his eyes, Darling threw up his hands in a melodramatic shrug. “The news isn’t all bad! You kids have yourself a brand new ally, to judge by the fuss Ravana Madouri has started kicking up.”

“Ravana?” Trissiny croaked. “What is she doing?”

“To start with the backstory, she is doing, in a word, populism. In fact, Duchess Madouri has been working pretty closely with the Guild over the last year, to clean out the nest of corruption her father’s regime left behind. An awful lot of the law enforcement in Tiraan Province was in his pocket; she had to resort to desperate measures to drain that swamp. Namely, us.”

“I’d be careful,” Trissiny warned. “Ravana and I aren’t close or anything, but we’ve had enough conversations that… Well, don’t relax around her.”

“Thank you, Thorn,” Darling said with withering sarcasm, “but the Guild somehow managed to function for a few thousand years before you came along. Tricks is not fool enough to jump into bed with a creature like Madouri, no matter how hard she’s working to win over her population. This is a real good time to be a citizen of Madouris or the surrounding country, though. The little Duchess has cut taxes overall, invested in infrastructure and public amenities like school and hospitals, and launched a series of banking initiatives to finance loans for businesses at very favorable interest rates.”

“Uh, hold up,” Gabriel said, raising a hand. “Now, I’m no economicist or nothin’, but I think I see a problem there. How’s she doing all that and cutting taxes at the same time?”

“No, you’re quite right,” Darling agreed, “she’s ramped up expenditures and reduced her income; that can’t go on forever. In her particular case, though, it can go on for a good while. House Madouri has always been rich, what with its lands being around the Imperial capital. Right now it’s richer than it has ever been; her father squeezed the bloody life out of that province for decades, and Ravana has swelled her treasury even further by charging most of his old cronies with corruption and seizing their assets. What she is doing is betting on the long-term prosperity of her province by investing heavily. It’s a gamble that the revenue will raise her back into the black before she spends all her savings. A pretty good gamble, in fact! Fortunes in Tiraan Province are already increasing all around, and Falconer Industries is a tremendous asset for Madouris. And, of course, all of these programs have made her incredibly popular, which brings me back around to my original point. Ravana has spent this summer buying up every newspaper in Madouris, as well as hiring bards, Vidian actors, and some less aboveboard rumor-mongers, and been working to improve her image through those and other outlets. She’d be merely popular if all she did was make life easier for her people; she’s actively keeping them entertained while also running a primitive but pretty effective propaganda machine. That girl is a goddamn hero in that province right now.”

Toby had narrowed his eyes while he listened, and now interjected. “I’ve only heard of national governments doing things like that. Is it common practice for nobles as well?”

“No,” Darling said emphatically. “Nobles only regard other nobles as worth considering, and deal with each other directly. They have a built-in contempt for the people whose work actually supports them. But House Madouri’s name is mud, thanks to the old Duke, and Ravana has no allies of her own rank. She’s making her people her political ally, and her so-called peers have been sneering and laughing at her desperation all year. I’m starting to have a feeling she’ll have the last laugh. All this is relevant to you, though, because in the last few days, that little propaganda outlet has started working overtime to prop up the three paladins of the Pantheon as heroes of the common people.”

“What?” Trissiny practically shrieked.

“Oh, yes,” Darling said with a peculiar kind of grim relish. “The brave and selfless heroes who struck down the corrupt nobles—in fact, the vilest and most corrupt aristocrats in all the Empire! Oh, her papers and bards are milking it. To the point that she’s already drawn the outrage of every House in Calderaas; as I was leaving the city the hot new gossip was House Araadia complaining publicly about House Madouri’s insults. If Ravana doesn’t back off she’s gonna wind up in a feud with the Sultana.”

“But…why would she do that?” Gabriel, despite his almost plaintive tone, was frowning in the pensive manner he did when wrestling with a challenging mental problem. He turned to his classmates. “I’ve never had any indication that Ravana liked us all that much. Certainly not enough to…”

“Don’t look for personal feeling in the schemes of nobles,” Darling advised. “Look for advantage. I can see two obvious reasons: One, this ‘champions of the common man’ narrative dovetails beautifully with her established strategy of courting her populace rather than her fellow nobles, and if she’s willing to push it far enough to actually annoy other Houses it’s a hint that her ambitions may extend beyond restoring House Madouri’s name and prestige. And two, she has plans for you three, and wants you to no only be in an advantageous political position with a wide base of support, but be kindly disposed toward her. This should go without saying, but I will say it anyway because I’ve recently learned not to assume you three jackasses possess an iota of political sense between you: this reflects upon you. You’ve already put yourself on the bad side of a lot of Houses, and Ravana is putting you even deeper in.”

“We didn’t tell her to do that!” Toby exclaimed.

“It’s adorable how you think that matters,” Darling said dryly. “And that, by the way, is the biggest and broadest change you’ve just wrought. Listen, kids: the nobility know exactly what trash they are. Oh, they’ll go on about their privileges and rights and how the demands of their position require certain…you know what, I’m not even gonna bother summarizing the excuses. The point is, they’ll deny it, but they know. It is not an accident that they try to hide their shenanigans from the public eye and put on pretty faces when the likes of paladins are passing by. I don’t think you realize the magnitude of what you just changed. For all of history, a paladin was a wandering force of nature that most people would never encounter. If you were an aristocrat with something to hide, you almost always had warning they were coming, and a modicum of assurance that as long as you kept your worst impulses in check in front of them, they wouldn’t bother with you while there were demons and zombies and whatnot demanding their attention. And then you three came along.”

He hopped back down from the desk and began pacing again, his characteristic poise buried by obvious agitation. All five of them watched him in silence, not even Meesie making a peep.

“Now?” Darling continued. “Now you’ve changed the rules. Now it turns out that paladins might pop up absolutely anywhere, and stick their swords into absolutely anything. Do you have any idea how much the average aristocrat gets up that to would demand a stabbing from the Hand of Avei if they ever had to worry about encountering her? Fucking most of it. And now, suddenly, they actually have to worry about that.”

He stopped, turned, and glared at them. “Do you have even the faintest idea what you’ve done?”

“Um,” Gabriel offered weakly after a short pause, but Darling pushed on before he could say anything more.

“The Guild chapter in Calderaas has the physical means, the personal motivation and a divine mandate to paint the walls of their city with every drop of noble blood therein. Did you read any significance into the fact that they haven’t? It is because, children, the defining trait of being noble is that when someone stabs you, you can delegate the bleeding to a lot of bystanders! Put pressure on the nobility, and they’ll complain over their expensive wine while a whole bunch of peasants get crushed.”

Trissiny had to clear her throat before she could speak. “Princess Yasmeen thought a lot of those nobles would be interested in courting my—that is, the Sisterhood’s favor, after that.”

“Smart woman, that one,” Darling said flatly. “She sure played you three like a goddamn banjo. Yes, she’s absolutely right, some of them will do that. Others will double down, either to dare you to do something about it, or test your willingness and ability to intervene. Others will… Who the hell even knows? There are hundreds of aristocrats in the Empire, and you just introduced a whole world of uncertainty into all their lives. How they react to it will vary enormously by individual. The one constant is that whatever they do, it’s going to affect tens of thousands of people. People will be raised up by suddenly benevolent nobles, or ground down by vengeful ones. You don’t fucking know. You just rolled the dice will countless lives.”

The sudden silence hung over the room with a tangible weight. Only Toby was able to meet Darling’s accusing stare. After a few moments, Schwartz opened his mouth to speak, but the Bishop chose that instant to start again.

“So! To sum up: nascent schisms brewing in at least two and possibly as many as four major cults, the Narisian slave trade reinvigorated, the three of you trapped in an unwilling political alliance with a devious teenage megalomaniac, and vastly unknowable repercussions for uncountable throngs of citizens…and that’s after only three days. The stone you dropped has just barely fallen beneath the surface; there’s absolutely no telling how far the ripples will spread, or what’ll be kicked up when it finally hits the bottom. And that, my dear kids, is why you think carefully before you SHOVE PEOPLE INTO PUNCHBOWLS!”

“Yessir,” Trissiny croaked.

“Trissiny,” Schwartz said abruptly, “I need to talk with you, in private.”

“We’re sort of in the middle of something, Mr. Schwartz,” Darling said pointedly.

“Yes, your Grace, I know.” Schwartz met his eyes for a moment before turning back to Trissiny. “It’s important. Something I realized in the Tower, but I thought it could wait for… But from what you’ve just said, it had better not wait any longer. Uh, Sister, is there some place we could…?”

“This whole corridor is lined with offices like this one,” she said. “There’s another empty one just next door. I’ll show you.”

“Thank you,” he said politely, following her to the door. Trissiny looked at him, then back at Darling, who was staring flatly at her. “This won’t take long, I hope,” Schwartz added, pausing while Astarian stepped out into the hall.

“I…okay. I’ll be right back,” she said to the Bishop. “Don’t yell at them too much, this is mostly my fault.”

“I salute your self-awareness,” he said sourly, “however belated. Like I said, these two aren’t my problem.”

She made no response, just shutting the door behind her.

“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly into the ensuing silence, “I realize we’re…well, you just said it. But since you’re here and all, your Grace, d’you mind if we pick your brain a little bit about…you know, all this?”

“The last thing I’m going to do is discourage you from asking questions or wanting to understand,” Darling said with a sigh, folding his arms and leaning back against the desk. “Go right ahead, I’ll answer whatever I can.”

“What have you heard from our cults?” Gabriel asked. “Is it…as bad as with the Guild and the Sisterhood?”

“I didn’t know how serious it was with the Sisterhood until just now,” Darling pointed out. “I don’t exactly have a direct line into Avenist business. What I know came from Bishop Syrinx, who is a tangled skein of schemes and rage on her best day. So I can’t tell you anything authoritative, except the very broad strokes.”

“The very broad strokes would be appreciated,” Toby said quietly. “You’re right, we should have given more thought to this.”

“Well, I’m aware that you are on a divine mission right now,” Darling said with a sigh. “It’s possible I’ve been harder on you than is entirely fair. But to be honest, I’d rather be unfair than risk you doing more shit like this in the future. If the point is made, though, perhaps I should refrain from chewing on Trissiny any further. This is an old complaint, though,” he added bitterly. “First it was Lor’naris, and then she and a bunch of other apprentices took it into their heads to intervene between the Sisterhood and the Collegium… But I digress. I rather suspect you two have less to worry about than Trissiny does. Particularly from your cults’ respective leadership. Toby, you’re probably fine. The stories out of Calderaas emphasize that you were there using the gentlest methods possible, and even if you had gotten violent, the Dawn Council is far too holy to stir themselves over mere politics.”

“Oh, how I wish that were true,” Toby said with a sigh, “but your point is taken. And appreciated.”

“Lady Gwenfaer,” Darling added to Gabriel, “has such a twisty brain I doubt anybody knows how she truly feels about anything—possibly not even herself. She’ll find a way to make all this work to her advantage, but I can’t predict what she might say to you about it. Vidians, fittingly enough, come in two basic types: you’ve got the actors, death priests, the folks running small country temples… You know, the salt-of-the-earth sort. Those are generally some of the most laid-back and approachable people out there. And then there are the career clerics, the ones who get themselves knee-deep into politics, and are as disparate and irascible a lot as the nobility. They’ll do whatever their individual situations mandate, which will be…unpredictable.”

“Hm,” Gabriel murmured. “What would you suggest if I, say, needed to quell the plotting and infighting in the cult, and generally bring them all to heel?”

“Pick a faction and commit,” Darling said immediately. “Do not try to take on the whole cult, they’ll eat you alive. Before launching yourself into a political battle, you need a base of support and sources of advice. I recommend you familiarize yourself with the various sects within the cult and decide which is least objectionable to you.”

“I’ve just had an idea,” Gabriel said, frowning pensively. “That thing Ravana is doing—”

Muffled by the intervening wall but still loud and clear, they abruptly heard Trissiny’s voice raised in a wordless scream of pure fury. A second later, a heavy thump resounded from the left wall of the room, making the books on that side shift slightly.

The three of them lost a moment in shocked stares, then both paladins bolted for the door. Darling followed them at a more circumspect pace. Sister Astarian was not in evidence outside, apparently having returned to her own duties after showing Trissiny and Schwartz to the other room.

Toby moved ahead in the hall and was the one to wrench open the door. He and Gabriel piled into the entrance, Darling (who was taller than either) peeking over their heads from behind.

Trissiny and Schwartz were face-to-face barely a foot apart; her sword was buried half its length into the desk along the wall behind her.

“Are you okay?” Toby demanded.

“Fine!” Trissiny barked, not looking at him. “Shut the door!”

“Uh,” Gabriel offered, “if there’s anything we can—”

“SHUT IT!”

They did.


“How could you not tell me?” Trissiny demanded in an agonized voice as soon as Toby had closed them in again.

“I should have,” Schwartz agreed immediately, nodding. “I really should, and I’m embarrassed it took the Tower of Salyrene to make me see that. But please understand—all this started with Abbess Narnasia warning me to plan carefully before acting, and then Principia doing the same, and finally Jenell herself demanding I butt out and let her handle Basra… And, well, I didn’t realize I’d let it all turn into procrastination. Hanging back, researching and trying to come up with something clever instead of…of doing what was necessary.”

“Oh, Goddess. Jenell.” Trissiny turned from him, pressing her gauntleted hands over her face. “I did this to her. Her father asked me to get her into the cadet program, and I pulled strings…”

“Don’t do that,” he said quickly, Meesie squeaking emphatic agreement. “You got her into the Legion, that is all. Nobody’s responsible for Basra but Basra.”

“And I knew she was messed up in the head,” she whispered. “Anth’auwa, the word is. Even Rouvad knew.”

“She did, did she.” Schwartz’s voice was suddenly a lot less warm.

“Goddess. She thinks she has Basra under control. I had my doubts about that, but I trusted… No, I didn’t even trust, I let her take responsibility for it. What was I thinking? That woman is such a vicious thing not a Sister under Avei’s banner would be surprised about this. I’m not surprised!” Her laugh held no mirth at all, only bitterness and the raw edge of hysteria. “Hell, this all makes more sense now that I know! Why have we tolerated this?”

“Life’s never as simple as just taking out the bad people,” Schwartz said quietly. “We all just…do the best we can. There are compromises that have to be made, and everybody makes mistakes. Look…whoever has some responsibility for this, and that’s a lot of us, that’s something to be dealt with…I dunno, in prayer, I guess. What matters right now is action, Trissiny. I said the Tower was what made me start thinking clearly about this, but what Darling just said in there has changed the whole issue. Apparently what you did in Calderaas rocked the whole Sisterhood back on its heels. If you suddenly show up in Tiraas and just stick your sword in the Bishop…”

“Oh, Goddess,” she groaned. “You’re right. This is terrible timing. But Herschel, we can’t let this go on any longer, you understand? I met Jenell Covrin, she’s a mean rich girl right out of a trashy novel. She is not a match for Basra Syrinx; that woman’s had plenty of time to work her tentacles into Covrin’s brain. She’s not going to take Syrinx down, whatever she thinks. And knowing all this, I will not tolerate that woman representing Avei’s faith any longer!”

“So…what do you want to do, then?” he asked helplessly. “I will support whatever it is. But I’m way out of my depth, Triss. If you think the right thing is to take her down and hope the Sisterhood survives it, I’ll back you up.”

Trissiny stood, staring at the wall, for a long moment. At least, she looked up at him again. “We’re both being blind. This isn’t our strong suit, Herschel, but we’ve got a resource we can use, here. Come on.”

She grabbed her sword and wrenched it out of the wood with a single yank. He followed her back out into the hall, and through the door into the other study. Toby and Gabriel had sunk into chairs; Darling was perched on the desk again, but stood upon their entry.

“Sweet, I need your help,” Trissiny said as soon as she’d shut the door.

“Saints and ministers of grace preserve us,” he groaned. “What the hell now, Thorn?”

“You’ve just finished emphatically making the point that I am terrible at politics, and I believe you. It’s important to know your own faults, after all. Well, I need to do something that’s going to have major political implications. I need guidance.”

He was watching her with pure wariness. “What, exactly, are you trying to do?”

“I am going to destroy Basra Syrinx.”

Gabriel and Toby both straightened up. Darling didn’t flicker so much as an eyelid.

“Why?” he asked quietly.

“Because I’ve just learned exactly how much of a monster she is,” Trissiny replied, meeting his gaze. “I had no idea it was this bad. She needs to go. The Sisterhood cannot have her in that position any longer. But…after the mess I’ve made already, if I just go in wings blazing and cut her down, there really will be a schism.”

“Have you considered not doing that?” he suggested evenly. “At least until you clean up after your last political mistake? Basra being a seriously warped piece of work isn’t news to anybody, but she’s been Bishop for years and the world hasn’t ended.”

“That option is not on the table,” Trissiny replied. “She goes. If you’re not going to help, then…I guess I’ll have to do my best and let the chips fall wherever they do. But I could really use your advice, Sweet.”

“You sure can,” he said, his shoulders shifting in a quiet sigh, and turned his head to gaze into the distance beyond the room’s wall. “For example, you just blurted all that to somebody who has gone out of his way to protect Basra’s political position, and needs her to stay in it.”

Her breath caught. “…why?” Meesie shrieked in fury and Schwartz had to grab her to prevent a tiny elemental attack on the Bishop.

Sweet looked at Trissiny again, his expression inscrutable. “Because she is the only other person in the Universal Church who knows what a piece of work the Archpope is, and has a willingness to keep him in check. Ah, what a tangled life I lead, having to be loyal to so many factions who only aren’t at each other’s throats because I’m standing between them… Stop making that face, Trissiny, of course I’ll help you. Ethics aside, this changes the whole equation. If Basra has fucked up badly enough to enrage her own paladin to this degree, she’s now a political liability to everyone who currently considers her an asset. And I’m just one of many people who’ll sleep better knowing she’s off the streets. I’ll be glad to have her off what’s left of my conscience, no matter what it ends up costing. All right, then.”

The Bishop rubbed his chin, now staring past them at the door, his eyes already distant. “Objective: take down the Bishop of Avei, in a way that doesn’t finish toppling the already-precarious Sisterhood of Avei or the Thieves’ Guild. Hmm…okay. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with…”

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14 – 16

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“Vesk sent us!” Toby blurted before anything really horrible could unfold.

Salyrene hesitated. Her entire being seemed to still for a moment, freezing in place like a person too startled to move, but accentuated by the iridescent patterns flowing across her skin suddenly stopping, at that moment in a pleasing fractal arrangement of gold and deep green.

Then she smoothly came back to life, her lightwaves flickering into motion and shifting toward orange, while she sighed and made an irritated expression.

“Of course he did. The majority of this intrusion is explained by that alone, but how did you get in here?”

“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly, “we have a divine scythe that, apparently, can cut time and space. Plus we got a hint from Avei. It was Schwartz’s idea!”

The goddess narrowed her eyes slightly at Avei’s name but made no comment on that. “A valkyrie’s scythe doesn’t cut, per se, it kills. Through a very selective application, of course, that can still be used to pierce barriers in a way that doesn’t entirely destroy them, by embodying a mental construct of that which stands in your way and then condemning it to perish. It is the same principle on which the highest applications of infernomancy operate, those only able to be performed by demons.”

“Um…” Gabe drew the long black wand he currently had tucked away in his coat, and extended it to its full scythe form. “It’s not a valkyrie’s scythe, it’s…a divine weapon Vidius made for a paladin. Which is a new development, I’m not surprised you haven’t heard, if you’ve been…uh, away.”

Trissiny swatted the back of his head. Gabe just sighed, and nodded.

“You are exactly as you were described to me, Gabriel Arquin,” Salyrne said. Her tone, fortunately, was amused, and the arcs of light tracing across her skin had changed to a pleasant gold and pale blue, in smoothly flowing patterns without sharp edges. “Who do you think made those weapons? I assure you, it wasn’t Vidius. I remember that one; it belonged to Yrsa.” The pale glow of her eyes flickered subtly, as if she had glanced in a different direction. “Don’t blame Vestrel for not telling you, it is unlikely she would have recognized it. They look quite different in the hands of a different owner. I expect it will be much more versatile in a human’s grasp.”

“Wow,” Trissiny said softly. “You got a hand-me-down divine weapon?”

Gabriel gave her an annoyed look. “How many Hands of Avei have owned that sword?”

“Not one. We borrow it for a while.”

“That scythe,” Salyrene said dryly, “is many times more powerful than your sword, Trissiny Avelea. In fact, it was only because they were assured that neither such devices nor their owners would ever be on the mortal plane that the rest of the Pantheon declined to raise objection when I crafted them for the valkyries. But it seems that in these latter days, ancient proscriptions are being disregarded left and right. And on that subject, what precisely did Vesk send you here to do?”

They glanced at each other uncertainly, taking a silent vote to decide who would speak.

“He tasked us with collecting the pieces of a key,” Toby said after the momentary pause. “There are four, and the clues we got are that they’re in the hands of the princess in her palace, the scoundrel in the shadows, the maiden in her tower, and the monster in its sepulcher.”

“Maiden.” Salyrene made a wry grimace, but the light dancing on her skin accelerated and took on festive patterns of green and silver. “And how many of these pieces have you gathered thus far?”

“Only the one,” Toby said, producing Gretchen’s Dowry from his pocket and holding it up. “Princess Yasmeen of Calderaas had it.”

The little shard of mithril rose from his hands and drifted toward the goddess. She brought her own hands up to either side of it, but did not touch; it simply hung suspended there, within the scope of her grasp. The lights flowing over her faded to a pale white and took on an angular, almost mathematical arrangement.

Gabriel cleared his throat awkwardly after the silence had stretched out for almost a minute. “Do you…recognize it? Uh, my Lady?”

“Infinite Order technology was modular and interchangeable,” she said abruptly. “As any system of technology must be, to serve the needs of a large and advanced society.”

Toby looked uncertainly at the others, getting a series of shrugs in reply. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”

“It means that rather than every device being individually crafted by artisans, they were built of smaller, identical pieces with standardized attachment points,” Salyrene explained. “So that any person with some basic sense who could get access to replacement parts could repair their gadgets, up to a point. Or even configure new ones. This is an Infinite Order device, a Series 6 T2 circuit. Being mithril, every single one ever made still exists. The vast majority are buried and lost in various places, but even so, this is hardly unique. There are three of these on display in the Royal Museum in Svenheim, over a dozen still in various private collections—either as simple curiosities, or set in jeweled housings as this one recently was. There are even a few in service for something like their original purpose, after particularly resourceful wizards worked out what they did.”

She shifted her gaze from the piece of mithril to look at them again, and even as the patterns limning her accelerated and warmed to bright gold, the key fragment floated back down to where Toby could grasp it again.

“I thought you deserved to know, children, that Vesk is not having you reassemble the pieces of some long-lost artifact. He has set you to build something out of components that, while not common these days, are mostly still lying around. It should go without saying that Vesk could pick up all of these much more easily without having to rely on mortal help.”

“Avei said that last part, too,” Trissiny murmured, wearing a frown.

“What does that thing do, when it’s at home?” Schwartz asked in fascination. Meesie tugged warningly at his hair, but he absently brushed her off while gazing avidly at the mithril object now back in Toby’s hand.

“It is a transcension transistor,” she explained. “Hence T2. Basically it controls the flow of magical energy from a source to another device.”

“But it’s made of mithril!” Trissiny protested. “Wouldn’t it completely block magic?”

“Precisely,” Salyrene said, nodding. “This particular circuit is designed to be hooked into a direct source of truly immense magical power, and link it to a very delicate device which would be immediately destroyed by direct contact with such a source. Specifically, an information-processing machine, which would gather data from the power source or possibly deliver instructions to alter it. Or both. Or something else entirely. Those, or at least of a model that could be linked to your Series 6 T2 circuit, there, are not made of mithril, or at least, not entirely. While the Infinite Order built to last, more delicate materials inevitably come to harm with the passage of time. There are very few compatible units still in existence. And yes, I do have one, myself.”

“So the transistor establishes a link,” Schwartz murmured, rubbing his chin pensively, while atop his head Meesie clapped a hand over her eyes in frustration. “But also impedes the flow of magic so that the device on the other end isn’t damaged by the intensity of exposure. Fascinating! What sort of magical source could he possibly want to hook this into?”

“That’s an excellent question,” Salyrene replied, her lights fading to red and slowing to a sluggish crawl across her skin. “There are such incredible fonts of magic left in the world—but this one, specifically, would have to be an Infinite Order machine. And while those still exist, they are all sealed off, first by Naiya locking their access portals and then by her attempts to bury the remaining entrances in various disasters. Those she missed before her consciousness became too diffuse to focus on the task, the Pantheon finished burying.”

“There’s one of those facilities in Puna Dara,” Toby objected. “We were actually in there, briefly.”

The goddess gave him an indulgent little smile. “I assure you, Fabrication Plant One was not built at the bottom of a harbor. But what can be buried can be dug up again, given time and enough effort. Right now, the only thing currently accessible to mortals which would be able to make use of that T2 circuit is the main power source of the old spaceport beneath Tiraas. I hope Vesk doesn’t intend to send you in there. I seem to recall the Empire gets tetchy about grubby little fingers leaving prints all over its favorite toys.”

“I may have had a reminder of that recently,” Gabriel said solemnly. “I don’t suppose you might have a theory on what Vesk wants with this key when it’s finished? It sounds like it would enable him to control something with a lot of power, which the gods went to a lot of trouble to lock away.”

“Let me rephrase that,” said Trissiny. “Can he be trusted with this thing? Because if not, I for one will be very comfortable not bothering you any further about this whole business.”

“Vesk,” Salyrene replied, “is every bit as annoying as you have already discovered, and then some. And I trust him more than most of the Pantheon. Yes, he could cause a lot of trouble if he’s collecting what I think he is—but keep in mind, if he just wanted to cause trouble in this manner, nothing is stopping him. He doesn’t need your help to gather these pieces. Whatever he is doing is at least as much about you as about him.”

“He does have…something of a reputation for pointlessly tormenting people,” Toby said slowly. “Especially paladins.”

“When a bard says hero, they mean victim,” Trissiny quoted.

“From the perspective of the paladins, I’m sure it can seem like pointless torment.” Her tone was grave, the lights flowing over her body slow and pale blue now. “The same can be said of this tower. I do have some sympathy for Vesk, for that very reason. Despite the nuisance he can be while you’re dealing with him, if you embrace the trials he throws in your path you will emerge stronger for the journey. Here, this is what you came for.”

Again, she held her hands apart before her, the blue lights cascading over her skin accelerating to a frenzied pace of oscillation as the goddess channeled magic. Streamers of mist coalesced out of the air, spinning together into a tiny cloud between her palms, which spun like a miniature tornado before abruptly dissipating with a puff and a shower of golden sparks, to leave an object slowly rotating in the air.

Gabriel applauded. Trissiny stepped on his foot. Salyrene, smiling, inclined her head toward him.

Toby reached up to grasp the thing that drifted down to his hand. It was a rounded disc of what seemed to be black glass, encircled by a band of mithril which at one point around its circumference extended blunt little prongs. He paused to bow to Salyrene, glanced at the others, and then carefully brought the two pieces together. The disc fit with perfect ease into the shaft, forming an obvious key shape that now was missing only its teeth.

Eight thousand years after its creators and their whole civilization had been wiped out, it still worked perfectly. A soft chirp of acknowledgment sounded from the key, and the black disc within the mithril housing lit up with a red gleam. After two seconds, it went dark again.

“Hmm,” Gabriel murmured, staring at the half-built key in Toby’s hand with his eyes narrowed. “You said…that piece is a kind of information processing device, right? What information is in it right now?”

“None,” Salyrene said simply, spreading her hands in a slight shrug. “It is a blank template, which is what makes it especially valuable. Few enough of those are still extant and functional; most that survive have instructions hard-coded into them. An unused transtate drive is very rare. In fact, I believe that reveals what your remaining two pieces are. Your key now is missing only the interface dock which should be attached to the other end of the transistor to enable it to be plugged into an Infinite Order machine. I suspect the final ‘piece’ will, in fact, be software. Instructions that will program it to do whatever it is Vesk plans to do with that thing.”

Trissiny drew in a breath and let it out in a soft sigh. “So…the scoundrel and the monster are left. I wonder which will have which part.”

“Your monster will guard the information component,” said the goddess, and her constant lightshow trended to jagged patterns of red and white while she spoke. “Which means you will be facing some nastiness left behind by the Elder Gods at the end of this journey. I conclude this by process of elimination: of the entities which might possess physical scraps of Infinite Order technology and be described as ‘monsters,’ I can only think of dragons, who as a rule do not hang about in sepulchers. Besides, I can tell you your next stop based on the remaining possibility. In the port city of Ninkabi in N’Jendo lives a man named Mortimer Agasti who owns a Series 6 interface dock…and can quite reasonably be called a scoundrel in the shadows. More than that I won’t give away. He will not be hard to find, once you reach the city.”

“Thank you very much, my Lady,” Toby said gravely, bowing to her again. “Both for the gift, and for the information. It has been immensely helpful.”

“You are welcome,” she replied, inclining her head. “Now, Tobias Caine. My sword, if you please?”

“Oh!” He had thrust Athenos unsheathed through his belt; now Toby tucked the key back into his pocket and pulled the sword loose. Holding it by the blade, he offered it up to her, hilt-first. Athenos, for his part, remained uncharacteristically silent.

“This…isn’t exactly on topic,” Gabriel said a little hesitantly, “and may not even be pleasant for me to know, but I have to ask. Lady Salyrene, do you know where Ariel came from?”

Holding Athenos in one hand, the sword looking almost comically small given the size of her current incarnation, Salyrene turned an indulgent smile on Gabriel, her shifting skin taking on shimmering patterns of green and blue. Then, with a soft puff of light, Athenos vanished from view, leaving her hands empty once more.

“I am not in the habit of indulging idle curiosity, Gabriel Arquin, but I do like an enchanter who seeks knowledge even when he knows it won’t make him happy. Far too many people, even magic users who ought to know better, only want to hear what will please them. And indeed, your sword should come with a warning: so long as you carry her, you should try to avoid high elves.”

“That…shouldn’t be a problem,” he said, blinking. “Nobody ever sees high elves. I didn’t believe they really existed until very recently. Uh, might I ask why?”

“Ariel is a Qestraceel original,” Salyrene explained. “Before human wizards learned the vile secret of making talking swords, or at least a clumsy and bastardized version of it, the art was created by the high elves as the most severe punishment they will inflict for any crime. The Magisters of Qestraceel are able to perform the process correctly on a single try. When they judge someone deserving of the ultimate punishment, that individual is executed and their spirit made a template for a talking sword, which then serves the Magisters in whatever capacity they require. It must be a truly legendary tale that explains how Ariel came to be lost in the Crawl, but unfortunately, the long period of dormancy without a user’s aura to power her would have purged her long-term memory. By the law of the high elves, Gabriel Arquin, all such swords are the permanent property of the Magistry, and may never be sold, traded, given, or even loaned. If a high elf sees you with that sword, they will try to confiscate her.”

He lowered a hand to grasp Ariel’s hilt. She, like Athenos, remained conspicuously silent in Salyrene’s presence. “Thank you for the warning. Then…she was made from someone truly…awful.”

“You can’t assume that,” Trissiny said quietly. “Sometimes people do truly awful things in extenuating circumstances. Sometimes innocent people are condemned to terrible punishments by a flawed justice system. If Ariel doesn’t remember and you can’t exactly ask a high elf…better to leave the past buried.”

“Wise words,” Salyrene agreed, nodding to Trissiny. “And you, Herschel Schwartz? I am rather pleased at the opportunity to speak with you. Have you nothing you wish to ask me?”

“Oh,” he squeaked, sounding eerily reminiscent of Meesie. “Me? Oh, I’m just…along. I’m not a paladin, uh, obviously. I’m helping Triss and the boys, that’s all.”

“You do have a knack for stumbling into matters above your head,” Salyrene agreed. “If Vesk is involved in this affair, that alone tells me your presence here is no coincidence. Yes, young man, I am aware of you. I have been since you swore vengeance in my name while striking down a foe with an impressive display of magical skill for such a young witch.”

All three paladins’ heads swiveled to stare at him in shock.

“Hershel!” Trissiny croaked.

“Oh,” he groaned, clapping a hand over his eyes and nearly dislodging his glasses. Meesie, still sitting in his hair, threw her tiny arms wide and squeaked a despairing complaint at the ceiling. “That was… It was the dwarf, Trissiny, the one who was hunting you and the other apprentices. He threatened my family.”

“The little piece of crap had it coming,” the goddess of magic opined, folding her arms and the abstract lights running across her flaring bright orange. “Had you been forced to make good on that threat, Herschel Schwartz, I would have backed you. And then, by necessity, delivered a lesson. I have made it clear that I don’t appreciate being casually invoked, and there must be consequences for that kind of defiance.”

“Thank you, may Lady,” Schwartz said weakly, “for your forbearance.”

She smiled. “Thank you for not forcing me to exercise it, young witch. One hates to have to come down upon such a promising talent. Now, we are both here. How do you like my Tower?”

He hesitated, fussing with his glasses, and Meesie hopped down to his shoulder where she stood up and patted his cheek, chittering an urgent message.

“I…understand the lesson of that trial,” Schwartz said finally, raising his eyes to the goddess again.

“Makes one of us,” Gabriel muttered.

“The point,” Schwartz continued, “is that sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do. To…act against your nature. And…sometimes it’s all going to go to hell anyway, but you still have to do it. Because failing to act at all, just because you don’t like the options…that’s the ultimate sin. It’s the same as choosing defeat.”

“Well done,” she said, nodding.

“And,” he continued, visibly stiffening his spine. Meesie actually punched his face, ineffectually, emitting a long squeal; Schwartz plucked her off his shoulder and held her out in one fist. “And, I think Vesk sent us in here, knowing that specific lesson would be taught to this specific group, because he wanted to deliver that message to you.”

The room perceptibly darkened. Slowly, the patterns of light shifting across Salyrene’s skin began to creep toward a halt, shifting into blue, and then a deeper indigo.

Meesie turned to face Trissiny, still clutched in Schwartz’s grip, and squealed indignantly while pointing at his face.

“I know, Meesie,” she said with a sigh, reaching out to take the little elemental from him. Meesie darted up her arm to rest on her shoulder, where she chattered furiously at Schwartz.

“My Lady,” the witch continued, staring pleadingly up at his goddess, “we’ve missed you. What’s happening out there… It’s amazing. The enchantments that have been developed in the last century, and the way they’ve changed society, the very face of the world… It’s the great fulfillment of the promise magic has always held! Life is so much better in every way… And yes, of course, there are hazards and drawbacks, there’s just no avoiding that, but the progress. It has to be seen to be believed. This is an age of wonders, an age of magic, and you are missing it!”

She had darkened completely, now. The last deep blue had faded, leaving no light upon her form. Salyrene closed her luminous eyes, plunging them back into the dimness of the Tower.

“It is not a small thing,” she whispered at long last, “to lose someone you love. A friend, a family member…someone bonded to you through hardship and endlessly long, shared experience. Not for anyone is it a small thing… But especially not for a being like me, so defined and constrained by the concepts I embody. Take someone precious from a god, and you have taken away a piece of their very being.”

“I think,” Toby said, equally softly, “it’s that way for everyone.”

“Trust me, there is a difference. I know because of how acute the losses were, after our ascension, compared to before. We had been at war with gods; we had all lost loved ones. Many, many times. But once we became gods, to have those we cared for stripped from us… Even when they were not destroyed, only separated. That pain came to define many of us, deeply.

“First it was Naphthene and Ouvis. They are only considered part of the Pantheon today because neither cared enough for what we thought to insist on being left off the roster. That was a painful rejection, from faithful companions so repulsed by what we had had to do that they couldn’t stand the very sight of us any longer. Then, Themynra, for all that she left on gentler terms. Wise, careful Themynra; had we not all been reeling so from the loss, the very fact that her conscience compelled her from the group would have warned us to change our path. And then…Khar, right after her. It was the same way. He understood so much about the hearts of people. There was a moment, then, when the warning was clear. When the Pantheon might have turned out to be something very different.

“And then came Elilial’s betrayal.” She opened her eyes, again bathing them in white light. None of them, even Meesie, dared make a sound. “Thousands of years of religion have twisted the narrative, inevitably. I will tell you the truth: Elilial was beloved to us as any of our number, and she only followed her conscience. What she did… She believed, earnestly, that it was right. But there was too much anger in her to simply walk away, as the others had. No, she had to turn and strike back. I can’t say whether it was purely lashing out in rage or she actually thought we had to be stopped from becoming what we were… But being under attack was something we knew very well. By turning on us that way, she sealed her fate, and our own.”

Salyrene shook her head slowly. Her skin, still unlit, somehow darkened further, all the highlights fading from it as if she were transitioning into a blackness that annihilated any light which dared to touch her, leaving only those glowing eyes in a moving silhouette.

“You likely don’t appreciate the truth of what Khar gave to us over the long centuries that followed. How a god, and a faith, can come to be defined by its opposition. Your Sisterhood, Trissiny Avelea, is the best example imaginable. Avei taught them justice and strategy, but by their opposition, Sorash and Shaath taught them ferocity and hard-heartedness. But Khar, and his orcs, taught them honor. In all the years that Athan’Khar and Viridill fought back and forth across that border, there was respect between them. When the Empire unleashed Magnan’s weapon… Every unit of the Silver Legions in the field, independently and without orders, turned on the Imperial legions, joined ranks with the remaining orcs, and pushed the Tiraan forces all the way out of Viridill. Given enough time, a respected enemy can become the closest friend you have.

“And I…” Her whole shape flickered, wavered, as though she were about to blow away. Even her eyes dimmed. “I lost a friend more precious to me than any. Khar was such a good soul. A teacher, a source of wisdom and comfort to all of us. Always testing and pushing at us, asking hard questions and forcing us to acknowledge our flaws and failures… But always with care, and with a smile, and the offer of a helping hand when it was needed. And then he was gone. Truly, this time, utterly gone.”

She lowered her head to gaze down at her own palms.

“Slain, by my own Hand.”

The silence crushed the very idea of speaking up. From most of them, anyway.

“And what do you think Khar would say about you hiding in this tower for a hundred years?” Gabriel asked.

Toby threw his head back to stare at the ceiling. Schwartz turned to glare incredulously at Gabriel. Trissiny just shoved the leather palms of her gauntlets against her eyes.

“I am sorry,” Gabriel said sincerely when Salyrene’s luminous gaze fixed upon him. “Truly. If you feel the need to smite me or something for saying it… Well, you have to do what you have to, I guess. But Schwartz is right, my Lady. You’re killing yourself, hiding away like this. There’s a new age of enchantment unfolding out there, and the world needs your guidance more than it ever has. Your followers miss you. The other gods miss you. Avei mentioned it, and I’m pretty sure Schwartz is also right about Vesk setting this up at least partly to get your attention. It’s…it’s a whole question, whether Magnan’s crimes were your fault, I wouldn’t know how to even begin answering that. But whether it is or not, you can’t just hide like this. It’s bad for the world and it’s bad for you.”

She stared down at him; he gazed earnestly back, as long as he could, before finally lowering his eyes.

“You are, indeed, exactly as you were described to me, Gabriel Arquin,” Salyrene finally said. “A good heart, a keen mind, and a tongue that is always one step ahead of both.”

“Wow, is that on the nose,” he muttered.

“I suspect you are doing exactly as you were meant,” she said, now with a small smile. The light crept back into her while she spoke, that eerie blackness fading away fully until flickers of luminous design began to appear on her skin again. “Knowing Vidius and the trend of his thoughts over the last few centuries, you are just what I would expect him to call as a paladin: someone who offends and agitates people in a manner they cannot condemn. But this is all ancient history, now, and you all have your quest to return to. Unless the four of you would like to climb my Tower?”

“Thank you very much for the offer but I think we will pass,” Trissiny said firmly.

Salyrene smiled in open amusement, golden sparks dancing across her skin. “Very well. Since I perceive you neglected to arrange your own exit, I will convey you back to the point from which you started.”

“That’s extremely kind, my Lady,” said Schwartz. “And, um… I’m very sorry if we—”

“There is nothing for which you should apologize to me,” she said, glancing between him and Gabriel. “Any of you. And now, your path.”

She gestured languidly with one hand, and another swirling vortex like the portals out of those trial rooms sprang into being at her side. This time, it widened like the rent Schwartz and Gabriel had made in reality to get to the Tower in the first place, its boundaries peeling back from the center to leave a gap surrounded by the whirl of energy. Also like the one Schwartz had made, there was only inscrutable darkness in the center.

“Well, hey!” Gabe said cheerfully, turning to Trissiny. “This is familiar. You wanna go first?”

This time, though, nobody went first; the portal came to them. Salyrene smiled, flicked her fingers, and a most confusing scene ensued; it wasn’t clear from looking whether the portal moved toward them or suddenly swelled to encompass the entire available space. Whatever it was, the effect only lasted a split second before the blackness swallowed them all and then receded, and then they were back in Vrin Shai.

Not quite back where they had started, however. Rather than the basement spell chamber beneath the temple, Salyrene had deposited them on the wide plaza at the very top of the city’s stairs, in front of the great temple and in full view of a stream of pilgrims making their way in and back out.

Also, she had come with them.

The abrupt arrival of four people, one in silver armor and still with a fiery (but cute) elemental on her shoulder, captured everyone’s attention. The ensuing appearance of a twelve-foot-tall luminous goddess was heralded by screams and a significant percent of the onlookers trying to flee, or simply falling to their knees.

“Oh, boy,” Gabriel said, gazing around them while the Silver Legionnaires and attendant priestesses tried to restore some order, apparently less discomifted by the manifestation in their midst. “This is one of those things that’s going to have implications, isn’t it.”

“In truth,” Salyrene replied, making no effort to moderate her voice, “this is the first time in all these thousands of years I have done such a thing. To appear, in person, uninvited, at another god of the Pantheon’s most sacred citadel is, at best, presumptuous and rude. Perhaps Avei should keep this in mind the next time she has an urge to deposit a handful of paladins in my own innermost sanctuary. Speaking of stepping on the prerogatives of other deities, however, I have one last thing for you, children.”

As before, she held apart her hands and conjured something from luminous mist. Also as before, it drifted downward toward Toby, whom the goddess seemed to have identified as the keeper of artifacts within their group. This one was a bottle of twisted, polished green glass which glittered like a jewel in the sunlight, an incongruously ordinary cork sealing its mouth.

“If I know Vesk, which I assure you I do,” Salyrene said while Toby carefully plucked the bottle out of the air, “there will come a moment in your adventure when all seems lost, when all the powers and skills at your disposal are not equal to the danger before you, and your salvation can only come at the sudden intervention of an unexpected ally. He can’t resist that one, it’s a classic. This time, I am not going to let him have the satisfaction. Here is your plot device, heroes. When you are completely out of options—and not before—take the stopper from that bottle, and your help will emerge.”

Holding it carefully in both hands, Toby bowed deeply to her. “Thank you, my Lady. You have been very gracious and aided us tremendously. We will not forget your kindness.”

She just gave him an enigmatic little smile. Then, her expression sobering, the towering goddess tilted her head back to gaze up at the giant statue of Avei which loomed over them all.

And smirked.

“Hmp,” she grunted, and exploded into a million motes of multicolored light, which drifted out like pollen on the breeze before fading away.

Slowly, Gabriel turned from the others to face the murmuring throng now staring at them. “Sooo… Who else is in favor of getting indoors? Like, quickly?”


Sister Astarian, blessedly, was as efficient as ever. Barely did they step inside the temple before she intercepted and whisked the group away out of the public eye.

“You’ve been gone almost exactly two days,” she explained while leading them through its passages. “I’m told that time tends to be highly subjective in places like…well, that. In any case, your timing is impeccable; you have a visitor whom I think you will want to meet.”

“Oh?” Trissiny asked, raising her eyebrows. “A vistor, as in someone who’s not normally attached to the Temple? I’m surprised anyone would come looking for us here.”

“Actually,” Astarian replied, giving her a sidelong glance, “quite a few people have come asking after you; this is the first who in my opinion has any claim on your time. I’ve begun getting reports of your visit to Calderaas. You kids really do like to make waves, don’t you?”

“For the record,” said Gabriel from behind them, “Salyrene showing up here was not our idea. Frankly, even if she’d forewarned us, I can’t imagine how we might have stopped her.”

“Wait,” said Schwartz, who now had Meesie back on his own shoulder. “What did you do in Calderaas?”

“Oh, nothing that will ever have any consequences,” Gabriel said lightly. Toby heaved a sigh.

“Here we are,” Sister Astarian said, coming to a stop before a wooden door, which she pushed open without knocking and gestured them through. “If I acted incorrectly by bringing you to him, don’t hesitate to say so.”

They clustered inside, which was somewhat difficult as Trissiny had stopped in surprise just past the threshold. The room was an office or small study, lined with laden bookshelves and featuring comfortable couches and a heavy desk. At their entrance, its occupant turned from a shelf on the far wall, closing the book he’d been reading and giving them a broad grin.

“Why, there they are! And here I had begun to think I’d been tucked away to be forgotten.”

“Bishop Darling?” Gabriel said, blinking.

“Sweet,” Trissing added in disbelief, “what are you doing in Vrin Shai?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Looking for you lost little ducklings, of course.” He carefully tucked the book back into place and strolled around the desk toward them. “You made quite the impression in Calderaas, kids. And then vanished so suddenly! I confess I was at a loss for a bit there, but then you were thoughtful enough to flash your wings at a minor noblewoman and a politically minded junior priestess, thus ensuring that everybody in the world who even might be curious as to your whereabouts would be able to find you in the time it takes to send one telescroll and ride one Rail line.”

“Ah,” she said with some chagrin. “About that…”

“Yes, about that,” Sweet said, putting on a placid smile that instantly made her hackles rise. “Thorn, we all want to crash a high society party and waterboard the hostess in her own punchbowl. But we don’t actually do this, Thorn. Do you know why?”

“Well, I—”

“Because YOU ARE ABOUT TO!”

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