Tag Archives: Scorn

12 – 18

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“Sorry I’m late!”

Teal tossed something to Ruda as she entered the spell lab before crossing to join Shaeine by the wall. The two shared a reserved smile, shifting their hands to briefly touch the backs against each other, while Juniper looked on with a sappy smile.

“You’re not even the last one here, and holy hell, did you drive?” Ruda was examining the object Teal had thrown her: a set of control runes for an enchanted carriage, their engraved sigils putting off a fierce blue glow, attached to a small bronze fob.

“Nah, that’s my tardy note,” Teal said, grinning. “I was helping Maureen with our project; we got hung up applying the control enchantment, and kept at it because if you leave that half done, you pretty much have to start over. Jokes on us, cos we flubbed it somehow and have to start over anyway. Those are the runes we were trying to use.”

“Oooh, yeah, they’re not supposed to glow like that,” Fross commented, fluttering closer. “Huh, that’s really peculiar. What went wrong?”

“I actually don’t know,” Teal confessed. “Neither does Maureen. But when it comes to enchanting, I pretty much just know theory and she was following along from the book…”

“Are they gonna blow up?” Ruda asked, showing no alarm at the prospect of holding a potentially explosive spell misfire.

“Nah, there’s not enough juice in those to make a good firecracker,” said Teal. “They’ll probably just glow until they burn through their stored power. Don’t toss ’em in a spell circle or anything, though. Mis-enchanted gadgets can be unpredictable if you add them to half-finished spells.”

“Hell, I wouldn’t be going near something like that anyway,” Ruda said, carefully tucking the fob into one of the buttonholes on her coat, where the glowing runes hung to just above her belt. “Thanks, T! Cheap, tacky and potentially dangerous. Best jewelry I’ve ever gotten!”

“I figured you’d like it,” Teal said, winking. “Speaking of which, Fross, d’you think you could give us a hand alter when we try to apply control enchantments again? I think it’ll go better with an actual enchanter on hand.”

“I would be glad to help, however!” Fross darted back and forth in midair as she often did to punctuate a point. “I would suggest you ask Gabe first. He’s a specialized enchanter while I’m a more general arcanist, and also he really likes being included and having his skills acknowledged, which, y’know, everybody does, but personally I don’t feel I need the validation and Gabe’s still working through some stuff.”

“That is very perceptive, Fross,” Shaeine said with a warm little smile, “and very kind.”

“Thank you! I try to be both of those things!”

“It’s a good idea,” Teal agreed, again brushing Shaeine’s hand with hers. “Thank you, Fross, I’ll mention it to him.”

“After the meeting, if you please,” Ruda said. “We’re already running a bit behind, and I prefer to get this business out of the way as soon as possible. That is, if the rest of our—well, it’s about fucking time.”

The lab door opened again, and Gabriel himself entered, followed closely by Toby. Gabe paused in the doorway, his gaze zeroing in on the glowing control runes hanging just over Ruda’s belt buckle. After a moment, he grinned broadly.

“Yarr! It’s drivin’ me nuts!”

“Arquin, so fucking help me—”

“Whuh?” Juniper blinked. “I don’t get it.”

“Old joke,” Gabriel explained. “So a pirate walks into a bar, and there’s a ship’s wheel hanging from his belt buckle—”

He broke off and ducked, Ruda having yanked a bottle of beer from within her coat and hurled it at his head. The bottle came to a stop midair before reaching him, however.

“Hey, don’t make a mess in the spell lab,” Fross said reproachfully, levitating the bottle gently to the floor. “We’ll have to clean it up before we leave.”

“Silly as always, I see,” Scorn grumbled, stepping in after Toby and as usual having to duck to get her horns under the door frame.

“Oh…hi, Scorn,” Ruda said, frowning up at her. “Wasn’t expecting you to come.”

“I invited her,” Toby said firmly. “Considering what you wanted to discuss, I think she could contribute very well. And besides, we could stand to make more of an effort to spend time with her.”

“You know what they say,” Gabriel agreed, nudging Scorn with an elbow, which barely reached up to the base of her ribs. “You bust it out of a psycho holy sex dungeon, you buy it!”

The Rhaazke looked down her nose at him, nostrils flaring once in a silent snort of irritation. “Are you lot going to be like this the whole time, again? Always jokes and prodding each other when you should be focusing?”

“Hey, don’t knock it,” Ruda said easily. “Bickering helps us concentrate.”

“It’s a bonding exercise!” Fross proclaimed. “I was uncertain at first too but as long as everybody knows each other and trusts there’s no malice it’s actually pretty fun! You should feel free to join in!”

“Except don’t pick on Shaeine,” Gabriel said solemnly. “She’s classy. Everybody else is fair game.”

Scorn grunted. “If you say so. Fine, then. You are short and not good with women.”

“Ehhh…” Gabriel made a waffling motion with his hand. “A decent effort. Ruda, care to critique?”

“Points for being on the nose,” Ruda said seriously. “That was a good hit; Arquin’s manly ego makes a splendid target. It’s all about context, though. You’re meant to fire one off at the appropriate moment in the conversation, not just out of the blue like that.”

“Sounds unnecessarily complicated,” Scorn huffed.

“Nah, you’ll get there,” Ruda said, grinning. “Stick with us, we’ll have you bantering like a pro in no time.”

“I’m even less sure I want to stick with you now,” Scorn grunted.

“And there you go!” Gabriel crowed. “She comes back with a splendid riposte!” The Rhaazke just looked at him in confusion.

Shaeine cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right, we’re actually here for a reason, for once,” Ruda said in a much less jocular tone. “I’m sure you lot were wondering why I wanted to talk in one of the spell labs. The reason is this is probably the most secured and private place on campus available to us aside from our dorms, and we can’t have the whole group in either of those, unless we slip Gabe and Toby sex change potions first.”

“That’s actually a lot more complex than a simple potion! There’s a whole course of alchemical treatment involved, which takes days if not weeks, and it should really only be undertaken with the supervision of an expert alchemist and a healer, preferably a fae practitioner—”

“Fross.”

“…aaaand I’m being pedantic and going off on a tangent. Sorry.” The pixie drifted a few feet lower, her glow dimming bashfully. Ruda gave her a grin before continuing.

“Tellwyrn, in her dubious wisdom, has asked us to keep an eye on the campus while she fucks off to Sifan, and ideally nab this Sleeper asshole. We need to talk strategy.”

“Wait, Tellwyrn what?” Scorn exclaimed.

“It’s actually really unexpected,” Juniper said, nodding. “I’m still surprised. And intimidated, and kind of honored.”

“We may jabber and fool around, but we get stuff done,” Gabriel said to Scorn. “That, or we get chased by centaurs or tricked by the Black Wreath. Y’know, six of one…”

“And this raises another point,” Ruda said, fixing her gaze on the Rhaazke. “Scorn, on reflection I think Toby has a good point: you’ve earned our trust, you’re smart and powerful, and I think you’re an asset here. So, you know, welcome to the gang. With that said, this is the kind of thing which should not leave this room, hence us talking in a magically sealed space that can’t be eavesdropped on.”

“Easily,” Shaeine corrected in a quiet tone. “Most of our fellow students could not penetrate the defenses on one of Tellwyrn’s spell labs. It would be a mistake to make assumptions about what the Sleeper can or cannot do.”

“Point,” Ruda agreed, nodding at her.

“I’m glad you’re doing well at making friends,” Toby added to Scorn, “but with something like this, Ravana Madouri in particular…”

“There is good sense in that,” Scorn grunted. “Ravana is very clever. Very clever. But she is the kind of clever that tricks itself as often as others. I think she would agree, anyway. I have noticed her best trait is she does not lie about what she is, even to herself.”

“And this is no time for people to be playing politics, which is what Ravana would fucking do even if she decided to help, and we all know it,” Ruda said firmly. “So, glad we’re all on the same page, there. Now, Fross and June and I have been talking and we’ve got an idea.”

“Yes!” Fross chimed, shooting straight up to the ceiling in excitement. “Okay, so, remember when we were chasing spectral demons and I set up a hybrid arcane/divine detection grid over the town?”

“I remember that not turning out so well,” Scorn commented.

“Yes, true, but not really germane to the point; the grid worked perfectly, and in fact accidentally enabled me to dig up some more detail on something it found than I expected. So I’ve been refining that and I think I’ve improved on it in a way we can use to catch the Sleeper!”

“A detection grid over the campus?” Gabriel asked, his interest clearly raised. “No offense, Fross, but what do you think you can do that Tellwyrn hasn’t? She’s got the ley lines rigged so she can temporally scry, and there’s a very powerful fairy geas active…”

“But we have something Tellwyrn doesn’t!” Fross chimed excitedly.

“An excessively high opinion of ourselves?” Gabriel asked, grinning.

“A tendency to wreck things?” Toby added wryly.

“Really great hair!” Ruda chortled.

“Tellwyrn has all that,” Scorn pointed out.

“We have a dryad,” Juniper said smugly.

“Uh, point of order?” Teal raised a hand. “Tellwyrn also has a dryad. The same one. I mean, wouldn’t she have already asked you to help, Juno?”

“She did,” Ruda pointed out.

“I mean, specifically, if there was a way she in particular could.”

“That Tellwyrn didn’t think of a way does not mean one does not exist,” Shaeine observed. “Your idea, Juniper?”

Juniper sighed. “The thing is…the last time she let me help, I made a mess of it. I think that’s probably made her a little wand-shy. Besides, Tellwyrn is a mage; she doesn’t think in terms of mixing schools, or using different ones. Fross and I have worked something out that should let us… Well, Fross is better at explaining it.”

“Okay, so!” the pixie resumed. “First of all, we’re reasonably sure the Sleeper is a warlock.”

“Why?” Scorn demanded.

“Sure might be overstating it, but there’s evidence,” said Ruda, beginning to tick points off on her fingers. “First, some asshole inexplicably opens a hellgate—a major infernal accomplishment. Then, Tellwyrn hires a kitsune, pretty much the most dangerous and powerful kind of fairy there is, to teach at the campus. Then, nothing at all happens; not a peep from any hypothetical warlock. Then, the kitsune storms off in a huff, and immediately this Sleeper bullshit starts up. So, no, we can’t prove anything, but the sequence of events strongly suggests this is a warlock, and the same one who pried that hellgate open.”

“Hmm.” Scorn narrowed her eyes, but nodded after a moment. “Logical. Okay, go on, pixie.”

“Right, so detection networks,” Fross continued. “Do you guys know anything about dryad attunements?”

A round of blank glances was exchanged around the room.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Juniper said, frowning thoughtfully, “because the whole experience is beyond words; I think that’s a large part of the point of it. But it’s something we can do, a way of sensing our surroundings, and especially magic and other fairies. I’m connected to it at all times, but not always actively; it takes focus to consciously sense what’s happening around me. I don’t usually do it, because my range covers pretty much the whole mountain, and other fairies kind of find it disruptive.”

“It’s, uh, sort of like suddenly having an extra sense,” Fross added, “and immediately using it to detect some massive, powerful creature standing right next to you. A little disconcerting.”

“Sorry,” Juniper said, wincing. “But…massive? Really?”

“I mean, uh, your magical profile! Not physically.”

“Massive, no,” Scorn said, suddenly grinning. “They are pretty hefty, but let’s be reasonable.”

Gabriel and Ruda dissolved in laughter; Teal covered her eyes with a hand. Juniper just shook her head.

“Anyway,” Toby said loudly.

“Right, yes,” Fross went on. “Since, as you know, it turns out I myself am basically a small fragment of a dryad’s consciousness given independent agency, I can connect to this attunement with Juniper’s help. What’s more important, I am an anomaly. Fairies are simply not supposed to be able to use arcane magic. I know Jacaranda wouldn’t have deliberately made me that way, and frankly if she’d wanted to, there’s no way she would know how. Even Tellwyrn doesn’t fully understand how it works; I sure don’t.”

“Which means,” Juniper said with a satisfied smile, “it’s an effect that can’t be predicted or countered.”

“How does that help us?” asked Shaeine.

“What I’m gonna do,” Fross said eagerly, “is work on a spell with Juniper that’ll let me broadcast a very small but steady amount of arcane magic through the fairy attunement!”

“Now, I’m not in the magic studies program,” said Toby, “but I do know my Circles. That sounds like a great way to blast everything off the top of the mountain.”

“We’ve tested this on a smaller scale before bringing it up with you guys,” said Juniper. “It works. Fross intuitively blends the arcane and fae; she can extend the effect. And even if that didn’t work, it’s a very small amount of arcane power. If the came into conflict, the fae would just snuff it out. The attunement is powerful.”

“To what end, though?” Gabriel asked.

“We know the Sleeper and his curse are effectively undetectable,” said Ruda. “We also know that the Sleeper was willing to tangle aggressively with November, but fled from Tellwyrn. That’s the profile of someone who relies on stealth, but can be overpowered if caught. And we, my fellow magnificent bastards, have the juice to beat the hell out of just about anybody we can manage to pin down.”

“I’m not talking about blazing with random arcane energy,” Fross added. “Since we can’t detect the Sleeper directly, I’m gonna make a way to catch him. The spell I mean to use will be a tiny, trace amount of arcane magic spread across the whole mountain, small enough nobody should be able to perceive it except me, since I’m the source. More importantly, I will have it rigged to be immediately consumed by any infernal magic it encounters, as per the Circles of Interaction. Even that way, it’s so small the infernal caster in question shouldn’t be able to sense it; it won’t be enough power to actually do anything.”

“So,” Gabriel said, comprehension dawning on his face, “if anybody uses infernal magic anywhere on the mountaintop…”

“It will burn a hole in Fross’s field,” Scorn interrupted eagerly, “where she can know it but he cannot.”

“And so,” Juniper said with smug satisfaction, “it won’t matter how invisible the Sleeper is. We’ll know he’s there, and we’ll land on him.”

“Ingenious,” Teal marveled.

“I see only one downside,” Shaeine said quietly. “This plan hinges on someone else being a victim of the Sleeper’s attack.”

“Not necessarily,” Toby mused. “Wherever he or she is getting this power, the Sleeper’s a very potent warlock—and as a student, someone quite young. I bet you anything they’ll be experimenting; that’s probably the whole point of this sleeping curse, or at least part of it. There’s no reason they wouldn’t be, if they can hide it completely, even from Tellwyrn.”

“Exactly,” Ruda said, nodding. “The pattern of events suggests they were afraid of Ekoi; their activities were probably suspended while she was here. They’ll be branching out now, trying stuff to see what they can pull off.”

“And even if she does curse someone else,” Scorn said with an unpleasant grin, “then we will have her. And then she will tell us how to fix them. Or if not us, she will very much tell Tellwyrn when she is back.”

“Solid points, all,” Shaeine agreed, nodding. “Very well. I think this is a good plan.”

“And the rest is boilerplate,” Roda said briskly. “Fross and June will have to handle the magic; what we need to put together is a plan of attack. We’ll have to be on site from wherever we are pretty much immediately once Fross sounds the alarm.”

“Hm…that presents a logistical muddle,” Teal mused, rubbing her chin. “Also, we’ll need to be very careful it’s the actual Sleeper we’re jumping on. None of the other students are openly warlocks, but several in the magic program use small amounts of infernal energy for various experiments…”

“If I may?”

They all pushed back against the walls with a series of surprised shouts, Ruda and Gabriel both drawing weapons. Inspector Fedora grinned unrepentantly at them, seemingly not in the least perturbed by the show of force. He had just appeared there, standing against one wall, without the door having opened.

“Really, kids, settle down. And future reference? If you’re gonna be up to this kind of duggering of skulls, you need to get in the habit of thoroughly sweeping your meeting places. Before you get to the actual meeting.”

“What are you doing in here?” Scorn snarled, balling her fists.

“Easy now!” Fedora held up a hand, palm out. “I was eavesdropping, obviously. That’s a good plan, I think it’s got every chance of working. And I believe I can help you with that last bit.”

“Why the hell would we trust you?” Ruda demanded, still holding her rapier pointed at him.

“I really can’t advise strongly enough that you don’t do that,” Fedora replied, grinning. “Trust is earned, kids; I haven’t had time to earn it, and full disclosure? Not planning to. But you can work with people you don’t trust. Hell, if anything, trust is a handicap. You’re much better off dealing with people on the basis of clearheaded knowledge of what they want and how they think, rather than some emotional attachment to the idea of them being on your side.”

“How did you just appear there?” Teal snapped.

“He was invisible, obviously,” said Ariel, her runes flickering. Gabriel held her also pointed at the Inspector.

“It’s a neat trick,” Toby said.

“It’s an entirely standard part of their repertory, in fact,” the sword said; Fedora watched her with an evidently delighted grin, offering no interruption as she continued. “The Imperial government may of course employ whoever it wishes. The same goes for Professor Tellwyrn, though quite frankly I am disappointed that she would allow this foolishness to continue. The rest of you, however, should think long and carefully before agreeing to cooperate with an incubus.”

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12 – 14

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Despite the late hour, Darling was alert and energetic even without the aid of strong tea, much less coffee. The sense of a new and interesting game suddenly afoot did wonders for his personal motivation. Price claimed his addiction to intrigues was worse than anything he could eat, drink, or smoke. If it kept him upright, moving, and sharp close to midnight after a long day, though, he wasn’t going to complain. Particularly as his current adventure was a response to an urgent summons by Imperial Intelligence. Whatever this was, he didn’t want to go into it at less than his best.

The neighborhood through which he strode was quiet at this hour, and in fact quite safe, being an upscale place occupied chiefly by pricier businesses and thus heavily patrolled. He was probably the scruffiest person it had seen all day, attired presently as Sweet the thief rather than the Bishop, but luckily there were no soldiers immediately in sight to question him. Not that he couldn’t talk his way out of that, but it didn’t do to keep the Imps waiting.

His steps slowed briefly as he passed through an intersection, glancing down the side avenue, only a few blocks into which he had twice found the Elysium.

Nah.

The address he had been given was an Imperial safe house, which of course he knew despite no such explanation being included in the message summoning him. In fact, this was one of the safe houses he wasn’t supposed to know about, not that he planned to enlighten whoever he met. Darling liked Vex well enough and meant no ill toward his department or the regime it served, but just coexisting with a man like Vex necessarily meant hoarding whatever advantage he could secure.

He stepped into a back alley, which was actually clean; the space had been designed as a service entrance for the three buildings clustered around it, and rich folks had their standards. The good ones applied the same standards to spaces occupied by their servants. He strode smoothly past the first two doors, well aware that his approach had to be observed, and grasped the handle on the third without bothering to knock.

The door opened instantly and silently, and he slipped through, pulling it shut behind him. There was no one present to greet him, leaving him to choose between going down a darkened hallway and descending a narrow flight of stairs. Light and faint voices came from the bottom of the steps, so that way he went.

It occurred to him in passing that this would be a fantastic place for an ambush. His message had come from an Imperial functionary he knew, though, and Vex had no reason to pull a stunt like that. Still and all, he tucked his fingertips into his sleeves, where he had throwing knives concealed.

A moment later, he removed them, upon stepping into the room at the bottom of the stairs and seeing who awaited him. Quentin Vex himself was present, lounging against the wall; General Panissar stood near the door in full uniform. The third man was dressed casually, in a suit that had seen no wear and was of good quality but clearly not tailored for him; it had probably been procured from some department store particularly for this exercise. Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, Emperor of Tiraas, assuredly did not have any such garments in his own wardrobe.

“Please don’t,” the Emperor said quickly when Darling started to kneel. “The formalities have their place, Darling, but there’s nobody here to impress. Let’s not bog this down with ceremony, shall we?”

“As you wish, your Majesty,” he said diplomatically, straightening up and adjusting his lapels. He glanced at Vex, then Panissar, then back at the Emperor. “Well, here we are, then! I didn’t even know what to expect and I’m still alarmed. Shall I assume the Emperor isn’t nearly as unprotected here as he looks?”

“Obviously,” Panissar said with disdain. “I’d feel better if I could have brought a few Imperial Guards, but the situation being what it is…”

“My people are keeping watch,” Vex said with a yawn. “My best people. Blanketing the district with them would risk drawing eyes, which is exactly what we don’t want. A handful of my top operatives represent more effective power than a platoon, anyway.”

“Are you gonna let him talk to you like that?” Darling asked Panissar, who snorted derisively. “Sorry, I don’t know a better way to lighten the atmosphere of impending doom. What’s going on, how bad is it, and how can I help?”

“To begin with,” Sharidan said seriously, “anything and everything discussed here is Sealed to the Throne.”

He paused for acknowledgment, and Darling nodded deeply in a gesture that verged on a bow.

“The situation is this,” the Emperor continued. “Something has interfered with the Hands of the Emperor. All of them are exhibiting mental instability, coupled with the sudden possession of powers they never had before.”

“Holy shit,” Darling whispered. “Ah…excuse me.”

Sharidan actually smiled. “Not at all; I’d say that is the correct reaction.”

“We are working to contain this situation,” said Vex. “Intelligence and the Army are both shifting assets to strengthen protection of the Imperial family, and monitor any ongoing projects in which Hands are participating. As discreetly as possible, of course; as effectively as can be done without informing the assets in question of the nature of the problem. It may not prove feasible, but ideally we can resolve this before it turns into a crisis.”

“Hang on,” said Darling. “The Hand who usually sits on the council with us. Is he still at Last Rock?”

Vex gave him a sleepy, mirthless little smile. “Indeed. Verification of the problem has come from that quarter; we’re aware of the potential for escalation, there, and watching it carefully.”

“Professor Tellwyrn has been helpful and surprisingly restrained,” Sharidan agreed.

“Excuse me,” Panissar growled, “but in the version of events I was told, the woman broke into the Imperial Palace, assaulted one of the Empress’s companions and vandalized her bedroom.”

“In the course of delivering a friendly warning, yes,” Sharidan replied, smiling. “Which, for her, was helpful and surprisingly restrained. She bypassed an annoying bureaucracy in order to deliver a message, and I can’t say I don’t sympathize with the impulse, irksome as her methods are. Last Rock isn’t the worry, here; I am. The Hands surround and follow their Emperor above all else. Their current instability is a grave threat; one has already tried to arrest Eleanora. It has been decided,” he continued with clear displeasure, “that the best response in this situation is to remove me from a position where I can do anything to help.”

“Your Majesty knows why,” Vex replied calmly, “and clearly are in agreement. It’s not as if we could force you to comply, nor would.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Sharidan said with a sigh. “I do know. I don’t have to like it, though. For the time being, in any case, the Empress will maintain the government.”

“You need a place to hide,” Darling guessed.

“Exactly.” The Emperor nodded. “Which is why we asked you here, your Grace.”

He frowned. “Don’t you have safe houses?”

“Many. All of them, however, are known to the Hands,” Sharidan replied. “They will be able to find me anyway, given the need, but not as easily as if I am in a place unknown to them. Each Hand can sense my direction and approximate distance from their position, but that’s it. Getting to me will take time, and involve figuring out a route, gauging the situation…”

“And if one or more start moving in his direction, we’ll know,” Vex added. “This operation will involve me posting agents to watch both his Majesty and the Palace, and any other Hands in circulation. As soon as one makes a move at the Emperor, we’ll intervene to extract him. Unfortunately, Hands have unrestricted access to all of Imperial Intelligence’s assets, including the power to give orders to my personnel with the Emperor’s own authority. They can find any of our bolt-holes nearly as easily as they can the Throne’s own.”

“We are addressing this as best we can,” said the Emperor, “by keeping the agents in question in the field with orders not to report back until they are told otherwise. The Hands, meanwhile, have been informed that all of this is a gambit on my part to flush out a conspiracy. Which is roughly true; they simply weren’t told they were its target. The downside of needing to keep them pacified is that I cannot curtail their authority while we work. This should suffice for a while to keep them away, but if the emotional instability they’ve begun to demonstrate worsens, one or more is likely to make an irrational move.”

“This whole situation is disastrously unstable,” said Darling. “I trust something is being done to rectify the root problem?”

The Emperor sighed. “Clearly, something has interfered with the magic powering the Hands. Unfortunately, there are no specialists on that particular…arrangement. I have sent someone I trust to attempt to address it, but… It may not be possible.”

“I hope you have a longer-term plan in that case, your Majesty,” Darling said.

Sharidan nodded. “She is to attempt a repair if it can be done; if not, her instructions are to destroy the entire system.”

“Can that be done?”

“Anything can be destroyed,” the Emperor said softly. “Whether that proves feasible in this instance is another matter. She will do what she can, and we have other plans ready to be activated if she fails, which are not germane to our discussion here.”

“What you need,” Darling said slowly, “is someone who can hide you in the city, using resources and personnel not known to the Imperial government, close enough to the Palace but also far enough that you can either return to it or flee it on very short notice.”

“Exactly,” Panissar grunted. “Hence you. Despite your known tendency to play all ends against the middle.”

“I won’t waste anyone’s time denying that, but in a case like this…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.I’d say this is no time for games. Far, far too much would come unraveled if something happened to the Emperor. Speaking of which, first things first: you gentlemen have probably already decided this and were maybe about to make a point of it to me, but under no circumstances can any Thieves’ Guild or other personnel be told who he is, much less why he’s hiding.”

“We are firmly in agreement,” Panissar snorted.

Darling nodded. “With that established… Yes, this shouldn’t actually be too hard. Any number of people either owe me favors or would love to do me one, and for Eserites, someone needing a no-questions place to crash where they’re encouraged to stay away from the windows isn’t an odd circumstance at all. I’ll have to winnow it down to people who can be both trusted and relied on. To do that, I’ll need to put my ear to the ground for a bit, find out who is or is not currently in a bad situation we don’t want to be near. Also not unusual for Eserites. What’s our timetable, here?”

“That will ultimately be determined by his Majesty’s agent,” said Vex. “The base situation will be resolved when she does so, one way or another. I will say, however, that having a bunch of physically overpowering, highly-ranked government officials slowly growing more and more unhinged will escalate this into either a massive crisis or a cluster of smaller ones, sooner than later. I give this no more than a week before it devolves into a disaster we will be hard-pressed to contain. Current problems aside, if the Emperor is out of sight for longer than that, political tensions will begin to form which could impair the government’s function on their own. Coupled with the Hands…”

“A week.” Darling rubbed his chin in thought. “This is gonna be a no-sleep night for me, then. Let me head back to the Guild and rule out some options; I want to be sure what we’re stepping into before we take the Emperor near it.”

“Is your Guild involved in a lot of things that physically dangerous in the city?” Panissar demanded.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Darling said with a shrug. “But a lot of what the Guild is involved in could be instantly escalated into a dangerous mess by putting the Emperor and Vex’s watchers anywhere near it. The underworld functions on a delicate balance, gentlemen; that’s what keeps it from affecting the lives of most citizens who don’t seek it out. If we’re going to do anything to affect that balance, we’ll do it carefully, especially given the stakes. This, I assume, is one of those spots the Hands know about?”

“Indeed,” Sharidan said, nodding. “And in theory should be safe; all of this is an added precaution, because we expect more than fear that some of them will act rashly, in spite of my orders. It should suffice for a while, though.”

“All right,” Darling replied. “A while is all I need. I’ll have something more permanent for you by morning.”


The entrance to the Wells was an unassuming sight, disguised as a small shed. Still, when the door opened, all three leaped to attention and saluted, Rook after twitching as if stung by a wasp.

Ravana stepped out, looking calm and composed as usual, if inquisitive, and swept a curious look across them. Behind her, two of her classmates followed, Scorn having to duck to get through the doorway and make room for Szith.

“Gentlemen,” Ravana said mildly. “Good evening. When Afritia said I had visitors, I confess I rather expected some of my classmates.”

“Your Grace!” Moriarty practically shouted. “We humbly thank you for taking the time to speak with us an apologize profusely for this imposition and the late hour!”

“At ease,” Ravana said with clear amusement. “All the way at ease, Private Moriarty. We’ve known each other only briefly, but it has been enough for me to be certain you would not trouble me were the matter not important.”

Behind her and to either side, the drow and demon mutely folded their arms in an eerily identical posture, framing the diminutive Duchess with the subtlest hint of menace.

Rook cleared his throat, dropping his salute. “Thanks, Duchess Madouri. And, uh, all due respect, but you can probably expect a little more bowing and scraping, ‘cos the plain truth is we came to ask a favor of you and you probably can’t even imagine how uncomfortable that is, oh gods I’m really sorry to bother you.”

She actually laughed softly. “Perhaps you’d better blurt it out before Moriarty suffers a cardiac event, then. Mr. Finchley, I have several times had the thought that your porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. Would you care to take over?”

Finchley froze, blinking. “P-porridge, your Grace?”

“An old Stalweiss fable,” she said ruefully. “My apologies, I do have something of a predilection for esoteric allusions.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, I’m sure it’s just one of your many charming—”

“What do you want?!” Scorn barked, making all three jump backward.

“Scorn, please,” Ravana said in the same tone of mild amusement. The demon just grunted. Szith raised one eyebrow.

Finchley took a deep breath, clearly steeling himself. “Your Grace, we would like to ask your help in acquiring legal counsel.”

“Interesting,” Ravana mused. “For what purpose?”

“Getting early discharge from the Army!” Rook blurted.

“Under circumstances which are, in the best possible interpretation, highly suspicious,” Moriarty added.

Ravana stood silently for a few seconds, taking the time to examine each of their faces in detail, before speaking. “I do say that is unexpected. Forgive me if I presume, gentlemen, but it has been my observation, in the course of our admittedly brief interactions, that all three of you find great pride and satisfaction in serving in his Majesty’s army, even if politics beyond your control have relegated you to an irrelevant backcountry nonsense post which negates any possibility of career advancement.”

“Oh, there were never any hard feelings about that,” Rook chuckled. “It’s not like any of us was gonna have career advancement anyhow. Moriarty’s the only one who even knows any regulations, and he literally cannot shoot the broad side of a barn. Funny story, we tested that.”

“After you got me drunk,” Moriarty snarled, “and let us not waste the Duchess’s time!”

“Here’s the thing, your Grace,” Finchley said. “There’s a Hand of the Emperor on campus, and the short version is, he’s gone crazy. Even Professor Tellwyrn is alarmed by how he’s been acting. But he’s a man with absolute authority. At the end of the week, if she hasn’t fixed this Sleeper problem to his satisfaction, he’s going to try to punish her by…disappearing us.”

“He used the actual words ‘never seen again,’” Rook added, gulping.

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but…how would that punish Professor Tellwyrn?”

“It wouldn’t,” Moriarty replied, “in any way, shape, or form.”

“Finchley wasn’t kidding,” Rook added. “The man is completely off his nut.”

“So that’s our predicament,” said Finchley. “The ultimatum is probably impossible for Professor Tellwyrn to meet—she’s doing her best about it anyway, so what was even the point? And when it doesn’t happen, well… I mean, theoretically, he could just be reassigning us…”

“Our posting here is a political matter, though,” Moriarty said glumly. “We’re supposed to be out of the way. Us being stationed in the capital might have…um, repercussions.”

“Plus,” said Rook, “not to harp on this, but this guy is seriously unhinged. There is absolutely no telling what he’ll do with us. And legally? He can do any damn thing he wants.”

“How does a lawyer help you, then?” asked Szith.

“That is simple enough,” said Ravana. “The Empire is not an oligarchy, despite constant attempts by families such as mine to make it so. In a society of laws, the law can be used to challenge power on its own terms. In this case, by pressing suit over their treatment and securing early discharge on the grounds of abusive treatment by superiors, they create records, and attention. A threat like this would have to be carried out quietly; by making that impossible, they pull at least a few of its teeth. His only counter would be to declare this a matter of national security, which would bring the eyes of Imperial Intelligence onto his own misconduct. Seeking legal counsel of the kind I could connect you with is actually a very good idea, gentlemen, as it would take more than the common run of lawyer to pull this off. I am more concerned by your allegation that a Hand of the Emperor has become unstable. The implications are positively staggering.”

“Even I find it hard to believe,” Szith agreed. “The Hands are legendary. Their position and stability seems immutable.”

“A society is basically a collection of things we agree to believe,” Finchley said quietly. “It’s…a shape we give to what would otherwise be chaos. These things seem immutable until the moment they come crashing down, and we have to face the fact they only ever existed because everybody said so.”

Ravana cocked her head to the right, regarding him with a suddenly thoughtful expression. “Very insightful, Mr. Finchley.”

Finchley coughed awkwardly, flushing. “I, ah, well… My dad’s in the Wizard’s Guild. I grew up listening to wise old educated people chatting about life over tea.”

“I do believe my House attorneys could do what you wish,” she mused. “The first step would be to file injunctions protecting you from reprisal while you physically remove yourselves from the clutches of your superiors.”

“You can get permission to go AWOL?” Rook said in apparent delight.

Ravana gave him a vulpine smile. “With the right lawyer, Mr. Rook, one can do whatever one likes, and acquire permission retroactively. That isn’t even much of a trial, as it is within both the letter and the spirit of several laws aimed at protecting soldiers from exactly this sort of abuse. The real challenge would be contesting the orders of a Hand, which are the same as those of the Emperor, for all intents and purposes. That command cannot be gainsaid. It would have to be…interfered with, misdirected, undermined, sabotaged. Which, of course, is also within the purview of a truly good lawyer.” Her smile widened. “By which, of course, I mean a truly evil one.”

Finchley drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Your Grace, I know this is a vast imposition, but we’re desperate. Could you…?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s totally out of the question,” she replied, and continued when they all visibly deflated. “Not for lack of willingness to help on my part, gentlemen, but my House is still in hot water with the Silver Throne as it is. I have made progress during the last half year, but I am far from the point where I can afford to have my House attorney’s spit in a Hand of the Emperor’s eye.”

“I see,” Finchley said morosely. “Well. Again, your Grace, we’re sorry to have bothered you.”

“Now, just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand, again smiling very faintly. “I cannot afford to have my House attorneys step into this, which is exactly why I cultivate contact with highly effective, highly disreputable legal firms in both Tiraas and Madouris. One never knows when an inconvenience such as this will arise. I can put you in touch with the perfect person by telescroll. However,” she said quickly as all three perked up and Rook opened his mouth, “no one fitting that description can be simply approached from the street, as it were. Such a firm will require an introduction from an established client, and proof that their rather significant remuneration is assured.”

Rook blew out a sigh. “Welp, there’s that. Like the man said, m’lady, we’re sorry for bothering you.”

“You three have quite the penchant for getting ahead of yourselves,” Ravana said with amusement. “I’ll take care of everything. The telescroll office is closed, but I can have orders dispatched and funds procured by noon tomorrow. By dinner, we can have you on a caravan to the capital, out of this Hand’s immediate reach, and with the support of a powerful ally.”

“Your Grace, we cannot ask you to do that,” Moriarty said firmly.

“Man, we literally just asked her to do that,” Rook retorted, jabbing him with an elbow.

Moriarty stepped away from him, setting his jaw. “Asking for help from her personal lawyers is asking for a big favor—that’s bad enough. Asking her to pay for some lawyer in Tiraas… That’s asking for money. A lot of money. It’s out of the question!”

“We are, of course, deeply grateful for the offer, your Grace,” Finchley said, making a shushing motion at them. “I have to tell you, though, the three of us combined have basically no prospect of ever being able to pay you back.”

“I’m not in the habit of loaning money,” Ravana replied, “except after negotiating a suitable interest rate and securing collateral. You may consider this a gift, gentlemen. A favor for friends, if you will.”

“I…see,” Finchley said slowly. “I’m… Forgive me, I don’t wish to be rude, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d care about us all that—”

“Finchley!” Moriarty shouted, aghast. “Do not insult the Duchess!”

Ravana actually laughed. “Oh, not at all, Private Moriarty. I’d suggest a little more circumspection when speaking to nobles in the future, Mr. Finchley, but your point is well taken indeed. It is rare that powerful aristocrats pause their own business to grant expensive favors to passing acquaintances. When you see that, you should always look for the hidden agenda.”

“I, uh…oh.” Rook looked over at the others. “Um, can you guys think of anything safe to say to that? Because I got nothin’.”

“In this case, you may be assured it is nothing that will bode ill for you,” Ravana said, smiling. “Scorn, you are developing a decent mind for politics. Can you see the advantage for me in this?”

“I really, really can’t,” Scorn admitted, scowling. “These boys, I like them well enough, but they aren’t good for much.”

“And that’s our epitaph right there,” Rook said, grinning.

“This situation with the Hand,” Szith said softly, “cuts to the very heart of the Imperial government. Something of great import must be happening in Tiraas, something which will cause ripples of change. If you ignore it, it will wash over you, and perhaps push you under. If you pick a side, you run the risk of being wrong. But if you intervene subtly, you can deny involvement if ends badly, but take credit if it ends well.”

“Bravo, Szith,” Ravana said approvingly. “You have good political instincts, yourself.”

“In Tar’naris, one needs those to survive,” the drow replied, face as impassive as always. “The mighty are often not careful where they place their feet. One must be adroit to avoid being stepped on.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, turning her sly little smile on the three baffled-looking soldiers, “indeed one must.”

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12 – 9

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“Afternoon!”

Scorn frowned, looking sidelong at the man who approached her with a greeting and a cheery wave. “I don’t know you. What are you doing here?”

“And it’s nice to meet you too, Scorn,” he said amiably, falling into step beside her. Considering her legs were three quarters the length of his entire body, he had to practically jog to match her pace, but for all that he kept his knowing smile in place and seemed not at all out of breath, or otherwise discomfited. “It is Scorn, I assume? I mean, I flatter myself that if there was somehow another Rhaazke demon attending this or any Imperial university, I’d know about it. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.”

She came to an abrupt stop, turning to glare down at him.

“This is not an Imperial university,” Scorn stated, “and Professor Tellwyrn says I am allowed to throw reporters off the mountain. There is a sign posted by the gates this semester. You consent to these terms by coming in here.”

“Yes, I saw,” he said, his grin actually widening slightly. “Real classy. But no, I’m not a reporter. Inspector Fedora, Imperial Intelligence.” He turned back his lapel momentarily, flashing a silver gryphon badge at her.

“I do not need to talk to Imperials,” she said sharply. “Tellwyrn does not answer to the Empire. I am a student here.”

“Well, Scorn, there are needs, and then there are needs,” he said lightly. “You can blow me off, sure, but I think you’ll find—”

He made no effort to dodge as she bent forward and grabbed, nor did he resist, passively allowing her to hike him off the ground by the neck. The Inspector dangled in her grasp, regarding her sardonically, while she glared and bared her fangs.

“Listen closely, annoying tiny man,” Scorn growled. “You are bothering me, and I don’t have to hkraasf it. I get a little annoyed with you, maybe I just toss you off the mountain. I get very annoyed, I take you to Professor Tellwyrn and you learn all about not being a dumbass on her lawn.”

“I’m here at Tellwyrn’s invitation, if that matters to you,” he said, his voice only slightly strained by the grip around his neck.

Scorn narrowed her eyes. “That is the bull shit.”

Fedora huffed a soft laugh. “By all means, go ask her. And as for you and I and questions, this isn’t even about you, Scorn. I’m looking for answers about the sleeping curse.”

“I know nothing of that!” she barked.

“Good,” he replied, smiling disarmingly. “Then we needn’t have a problem. Mind setting me down?”

She stared at him a moment longer before complying, more abruptly than was necessary.

“Thanks,” he said without a trace of irony, straightening his coat. “Here’s the thing, Scorn: I’m not really considering you as a significant suspect. But the facts are, we’re looking at infernal magic as a very likely vector for this thing, and it’s of a craft and style which is hitherto unknown and has so far defeated the efforts of some of the best magic users alive to even examine it. And here you are, the world’s only resident Rhaazke. A hitherto almost unknown demon species, known to be extremely powerful, both physically and magically. You see why this is—”

“I know nothing about that!” she snarled, taking an aggressive step toward him.

Fedora just looked placidly up at her. “Okay, I believe you. But I answer to Imperial Intelligence, as I said, and think about how all this looks to them. If I can’t bring them something, some kind of alibi for you, you’re likely to end up as a major suspect no matter what I say. And I’ve gotta warn you, young lady, getting aggressive with the first person who comes asking you questions about this makes you look guilty as hell. So how about we help each other out, here?”

She bared her teeth and drew in a deep breath as if preparing to start shouting, but quite suddenly the tension drained from her powerful shoulders, and she squinted suspiciously.

“You believe me? Why?”

“Motive,” he said promptly. “Personality. Circumstance. There’s no benefit to you and substantial potential loss in stirring up trouble here, and if you were the type to do so just for shits and giggles, it’s hard for me to credit that it would’ve taken you this long to start. No, this is a formality. But I do need some details from you, Scorn. And who knows? Somewhere in your extra-dimensional knowledge of magic, there may even be a tidbit we can use to put a stop to whoever’s casting this curse.”

“What if they come at you next?” she demanded.

Fedora’s smile widened to a broad, distinctly malicious grin. “You really are an innocent, aren’t you, Schkhurrankh? Or at least, you’re no mastermind.”

“If you are just to insult me,” she began.

“Look at me,” he ordered. “Look closely. Use your senses. Get a good whiff.”

She was already inspecting him with more attention than before, and at that, her eyes suddenly widened and she took a step back, hands balling into fists.

“Yeah,” Fedora drawled, “let’s just say I am not particularly worried about being struck by the Sleeper. Now. Why don’t we stroll over to someplace a bit quieter—”

“I have class,” she said curtly, stepping backward again.

“Oh?” The Inspector raised an eyebrow. “It’s rather late in the afternoon for—”

“I have extra classes,” Scorn snapped, “tutoring. Because I missed the last semester of classes, and also twenty years of knowing how this world is work—how it works. I have to catch up. I am going to my teacher now. After, I will find Professor Tellwyrn and as if you are allowed here and I am to answer your questions. If she say yes, then we will talk. If she say no…” Scorn leaned down till her slitted eyes bored into his from less than a foot away. “I will pull all your limbs off like an ant, and watch you try to squirm around. Yes? Good.”

“It’s a date,” Fedora said, tipping his hat to her.

She snorted nearly hard enough to loosen it, then turned and stalked off down the path.

“Be seeing you real soon, princess,” he murmured, watching her go.


“Smile, dear,” Eleanora murmured, squeezing his arms.

Sharidan gave her a sidelong look. “About what?”

Her own lips quirked in faint amusement, prompting a responding smile from him. In truth, it was not their wont to go about beaming with beneficence. Their public facades were very carefully crafted: he maintained an aspect of serene calm, while she carried herself with sternness hinting at the possibility of incipient executions. Good guard, bad guard. The “smile” thing had been a joke, but she was right. He’d been allowing weariness and worry to creep into his expression, and that would not do.

“Are you all right?” she asked even more softly.

He squeezed her hand in return. “Yes, just a little overtired. I didn’t sleep well.”

“Then do so tonight,” she said, still softly, but firmly. “You know you can’t let yourself—”

“Yes, I know.” He patted her hand, giving her another small smile.

Their entourage as they returned to the harem wing of the Palace was as small as usual, which was still not insignificant. Simple protection mandated escort by one Hand of the Emperor and four Imperial Guards, arranged in a defensive formation surrounding the Imperial couple; this deep inside the Palace, they were purely practical, not an honor guard. Not that he had ever been attacked this deep in the palace, but his grandfather had, and that at the instigation of an Archpope less powerful and hostile to the Throne than the current one. A steward also accompanied them a few steps ahead, and two servants in the rear, just in case they should happen to need something between the throne room and their private apartments. Not all the weight and authority of the Silver Throne was able to put a stop to some customs; Sharidan had ended several of his mother’s more excessive practices, but his seneschal had flatly put his foot down on the subject of even risking the Emperor’s momentary discomfort when hundreds of individuals were actively employed to see to the running of the Palace. At Eleanora’s wry observation that they were at least helping fuel the economy, he had given in.

The steward picked up his pace, moving ahead to open the doors to the harem wing for them. The two Imperial Guards standing at attention to either side saluted, but did not otherwise stir, as was proper. Sharidan nodded to each of them in passing; they kept their eyes ahead and made no response, also as was proper. Truthfully, there was nothing obliging him to acknowledge military personnel only doing their duty, and it wasn’t as if he paused to speak with every soldier in every formation he passed. In his opinion, though, failing to show basic regard for people serving him when he was that close was what made the difference between a healthy reserve and the kind of aloofness which made rulers dangerously out of touch.

The grand entrance hall of the wing was clearly a seraglio in the old style, with a sunken middle lined with rugs and cushions, and a profusion of potted plants and hanging curtains arranged to grant privacy. The harem’s original designers had doubtless envisioned this space with concubines lounging decoratively about, and to be sure, under some previous rulers this had been the case. Sharidan and Eleanora, however, didn’t keep enough women between them to fill the room, and none of their paramours were merely decorative. The wing also housed a library, gymnasium, and even a small observatory, not to mention rooms where visiting officials could be entertained. To share a bed with the Emperor or Empress, one was expected to be sharp of mind and useful to the Imperial administration.

At the moment, only Milanda was present; the current acknowledged favorite, she took it upon herself to act in a wifely manner toward him in the privacy of this wing, where Eleanora let that facade drop. She now stepped forward with a smile and a graceful curtsy, and Sharidan had to smile back, taking her hand and laying a gentle kiss upon her knuckles.

“Welcome back, my lord,” she murmured.

Eleanora cleared her throat. “His Majesty,” she said pointedly, “has seen fit to exhaust himself in the service of his people. He requires to fully rest this evening.”

“I shall see to it that he does, your Majesty,” Milanda replied demurely, earning a nod of acknowledgment. She was only demure with Eleanora, who generally approved of but did not personally like her. Not for the first time, Sharidan counted his blessings that he enjoyed as much peace as he did in his home.

Eleanora had stepped away, giving him a final pat on the shoulder, and now glided toward the hall leading to her own rooms. Milanda slipped her arm through his, looking coquettishly up at him through her lashes in a way which made his blood begin to warm. She had a very effective way of ensuring he slept well, and to judge by the way she pressed herself to his side, she clearly planned to get an early start.

He had absolutely no intention of disobliging her. But first, last, and always, he was still Emperor.

“The matter of—”

“Will keep,” Eleanora said with clear exasperation, stopping and turning to give him a look. “The elves, the dwarves, the Sifanese, the Wizard’s Guild, the bards, that absurd business in Last Rock, and all the thousand other things going on are being attended to. Sharidan, I love the responsibility you feel toward your people, but I grow tired of explaining that you serve them poorly by wearing yourself down. You employ the best people alive to administer your Empire. They will manage all the ongoing situations while you have a well-earned respite; if something arises which demands your attention, they will come to inform you. They are all of them competent enough to know such a situation if it appears.” She tilted her head forward as if to look at him over nonexistent spectacles, and once again he regretted confiding the effect on him that gesture had had when his mother had habitually done it. “Let it be.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sharidan said wryly, turning to the servants waiting by the door toward his own chambers and slipping an arm around Milanda’s waist. “Some wine and fruit, please. Oh,” he added, shifting toward the Hand of the Emperor standing guard a few feet away, “and in the case of the ongoing operation in Rodvenheim, with all respect to my lady wife, I decline to wait for Lord Vex’s judgment to decide I should be informed. The moment word of progress appears, it is to be brought to me.”

The Hand’s face abruptly snapped toward him, scowling. “It is being tended to!” the man barked. “We know our duty. Have patience.”

Silence and total shock descended.

The Hand turned again to resume his constant, blank-faced survey of the room, as if a threat my spring out of any shadow—and as if nothing had just transpired. Everyone else, however, stared at him. Sharidan and Eleanora, as much politician as feeling human being by that point in their careers, kept impassive, though in the glance they exchanged he discerned her shock as clearly as his own. Milanda was a veteran courtier herself, and maintained her own outward equanimity, but her sudden stiffness against him told a different story. The Imperial Guards present had all shifted stance, wide-eyed and uncertain, and two had half-raised their staves. The servant about to leave to fetch the Emperor’s wine and fruit had frozen, gaping at the Hand of the Emperor in horror.

Hands did not speak to their Emperor that way.

They simply did not.

“Of course,” Sharidan said pleased by the mildness of his tone, then turned and added offhandedly to the servant. “Oh! Bring a carafe of coffee, as well.”

He squeezed Milanda, even as he met Eleanora’s resigned stare. He had no idea what this meant, but it meant something, and it was clearly not a thing he could afford to ignore.

Rest would have to wait.


Afternoon was fading into dusk as they neared the town.

“I’m telling you, it’s too late,” Aspen said petulantly. “Humans are fussy about their diurnal rhythms. You can’t just visit them during sleeping time, they get all grumpy.”

“Yes,” Ingvar said, giving her an amused smile and reaching out to pat her back. “Yes, I think you’re right. Well, I really thought we were making better time. Here we are, though.”

“How come you think faster time’s better time?” she asked. “We came here, we got here. There’s plenty of tomorrow to go say hello. The elves were right, humans are way too obsessed with being speedy. Time’s just time, is all.”

“Elves, like you, have forever in which to live,” he said. “We have to do things while we can.”

The look she shot him was filled with sudden dismay, and he found himself feeling uncomfortable under her regard. It wasn’t the first time, lately. It was simple fact that she could live more or less indefinitely, while he had only the usual span of decades, but Aspen seemed to be having trouble with the idea. Darling’s warning about the nature of her growing attachment to him sprang once more to the forefront of his mind.

“So,” he said, more to fill the silence than anything, “would you like to go into town and get a room for the night?”

“Is that a joke?” she asked, her momentary unhappiness gone in the scathing tone she so enjoyed employing with him. “Dryads aren’t allowed in human towns, as people keep reminding me, and you know very well both of us are more comfortable in the wilderness than in beds.”

“Once again, you’re right,” he said solemnly, rather enjoying the satisfaction on her face. She loved being right, and loved even more having him acknowledge it. “The tallgrass isn’t quite the wilderness either of us prefers, though. I miss trees.”

“Present company excepted?” she asked with a grin.

“Of course.”

“Yeah, well… Still beats being under a roof.”

“I have to agree,” he replied, hitching up his pack, then turned his back on Last Rock and the looming mountain beyond it. “Well. Let’s backtrack a little bit, then. If you’re going to camp close to a town, I find it’s best not to camp too close. People range about, and it can be awkward if they trip over you in the dark.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” she muttered, following him.

They were content with silence and each other’s company, by this point in their travels together. It wasn’t any particular attunement to her that enabled him to sense her mood, though; Aspen wore her every passing feeling right on her face. As they walked and the tallgrass blazed red around them with the deepening sunset, she gazed glumly at the ground in front of her feet, a pensive little frown now and again flickering across her features.

“It’ll be all right,” Ingvar said quietly. “Trust me. She’s your sister. She’ll understand. Just from what you told me, I’m certain she loves you.”

“I’m…not worried about that,” Aspen said, then heaved a deep sigh. “It isn’t her. It’s me. I… She was right, Ingvar. Juniper was right about all the stuff I called her crazy over. I just don’t know how to face her.”

He moved closer and draped an arm over her shoulders. She leaned against him, not slowing their pace.

“Then don’t think of it as facing her,” he advised. “I bet the first thing she’ll do is hug you. Everything will seem simpler after that.”

“I guess.” He felt her nod against his shoulder. “Not just that, though. We’re going to see the Arachne. Nothing about that is gonna be comfortable. Never is.”

He chuckled. “Well, I’m sure you’re right on that point.”

He wasn’t in a position to see her smile, but he knew she did, and it lightened his own mood.


She saw him coming, of course. Approaching visitors were high on the list of things she instructed the system to inform her of. Naturally, she had to order the panel to go dark in preparation for his arrival. For the first time she regretted it; there had never before been anything ongoing which was worth paying attention to. Obviously, though, letting him observe her using the system was out of the question. If they ever found out she could, her only source of diversion would dry up. They didn’t have a lot of control over the sub-OS, but they could probably influence it enough to lock her out.

The hiss of the facility’s inner door was just audible from her cell, as were his gradually approaching footsteps. Moments after entering, Sharidan Tirasian passed into her view from the approach corridor. It had been beyond her just what the practical effects of the ongoing tweaks to the jury-rigged dryad/Hand system would be, but to judge by the Emperor’s expression, they had begun. It wasn’t often that he visited without one of his pets actually with him.

“Trouble?” she asked mildly.

He stopped, turning his head just enough to study her. She never usually spoke to him. This was risky, hinting that she had access to information in here, but it was worth it for the sudden, clear discomfiture she inflicted. She didn’t even care to play mind games with people as a rule. That was what they got for locking her up with nothing to keep herself entertained.

A politician born and raised, he was impressively impassive; she could not at all follow his train of thought based on his expression, and she’d observed enough people over the millennia to have a pretty good read on human emotions.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked suddenly, and she had to admit she was impressed. The clever boy had actually managed to surprise her.

“No,” she said with a shrug. “You could give me things to make me comfortable. You’d have to open the cell, though.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Hmm.” Languidly, she blinked. “You actually are, aren’t you? Such a sweet boy. Not at all like your predecessor.”

His unreadable eyes remained on her for a bare moment longer, then he turned without a word, proceeding down the hall toward the dryads.

She began pacing as soon as he was gone. The panel, of course, she left dark, and would until he was safely out of the facility and in the elevator back to his palace. Still… This was only beginning. Something really interesting was bound to come of all this, sooner or later.

Her chance was coming, she could feel it.

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10 – 30

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“It was simply an attack of opportunity,” Lord Vex informed the Imperial couple, who were both studying the newspapers laid out on their breakfast table. “Embarrassing Bishop Snowe won’t yield any significant dividends, and anyway she quickly regained control of the crowd. I’ve had my people in Vrin Shai keeping track of her whole group; one saw the opportunity last night and took it, which I approve. The significant aspect of this is that it demonstrates she is there on her own, not on assignment from the Archpope.”

“How so?” the Emperor inquired.

“She was unaware of the content of those newspapers,” Vex replied. “After the effort that had to have gone into placing the Archpope’s agenda into them, seeing stories run that so neatly countered it is a serious matter, and Justinian is too smooth to have failed to notice, or to be so easily tripped up. He would not permit anyone operating on his agenda to be so out of touch. Thus, Snowe is assisting Syrinx for her own purposes.”

“Hm,” Eleanora mused. “And what do you make of that?”

“It’s too early to tell anything definitive, or useful. At present, my general policy toward Syrinx is to leave her alone.”

“You considered it established that she was deep in Justinian’s camp the last time we spoke of it,” the Empress said sharply.

“Indeed, your Majesty,” Vex answered, “but we must consider why each of his inner circle are there. Snowe is personally and ideologically loyal to Justinian, Varanus speaks loyally for a cult which also backs the Archpope, and Darling is playing all factions against each other for his own purposes. He and Syrinx are the angles I will use when it is time to act against Justinian directly; that woman has no true interest in anything but herself. For that reason, I choose not to risk antagonizing her at this time. The recent trouble that caused her to be exiled to Viridill indicates she still has a vindictive streak.”

“With regard to that,” said the Emperor, finally looking up from the newspaper, “your report on the matter suggested an internal Avenist shake-up that might end with Shahai or Locke permanently fulfilling Syrinx’s role. Does that factor into your calculations?”

“Very much so, your Majesty. If Syrinx ends up retaining her position, it won’t do to irritate her; if she does not, it’s not worthwhile to invest in her. Frankly, I would prefer either of the elves you mentioned, but we will work with whatever resources are available. It is far too early to consider moving openly and aggressively against Justinian, but when that time comes, turning the cults against his Church will necessarily be a central aspect of the plan. Having the Avenists and Eserites positioned to strike at the heart of his organization will serve us well on that day.”

“It seems to me,” said Eleanora as she pushed aside the paper to reach for her teacup, “that getting these stories into the papers is a far greater victory than anything involving Snowe. This was admirably quick work, Quentin.”

“Thank you, your Majesty,” he said with a languid little smile. “And I concur with your assessment. Momentarily tripping up Bishop Snowe was merely one sign of our success, and one of the less important.”

“How did you counteract Justinian’s influence on the newspapers?” asked the Emperor, smiling thanks at Milanda when she stepped forward to refill his teacup.

“Justinian thinks in terms of power and force,” said Vex. “He has leveraged several factors to maintain a hold on the papers: their near-infiltration by the Black Wreath, the protection of the blessings the Church provided after that, and especially the financial benefit of their association with Bishop Snowe. A newspaper only looks monolithic from the outside, however, and the print media as a whole barely do at all. It is not in their nature to all point in one direction; there is significant infighting within each editorial staff, and deep rivalries between papers. A good many editors and reporters rather resent their reliance on Snowe, and virtually everyone resents having the Archpope dictate to them.” He smiled and blinked slowly, a distinctly catlike expression. “Intelligence services and newspapers have in common that we attract Veskers; as many as half my staff are affiliated with that faith. I am in a firsthand position to know that there is little bards hate more than being told what to say. Rather than trying to attack Justinian’s influence on the papers directly, I have simply had my people place the information we want disseminated in front of elements within the media whom I have identified as particularly resentful of the Church’s heavy hand.”

“Elegantly done,” the Emperor said with approval, picking up the paper again. “And these? The two lead stories are interviews with this Punaji weather-witch and the dwarven inventor. Surely that wasn’t all…”

“Indeed not, your Majesty. They were simply the two whose stories most quickly got out, which has as much to do with luck as anything I did. We targeted and nudged a selection of carefully chosen University graduates.”

“Among that crowd,” Eleanora pointed out, “there are likely several who saw immediately what you were doing.”

“I don’t doubt it, your Majesty. They can also see where their own interests lie; some may be curious enough to come to Tiraas, exploring these political currents, but I anticipate no hostile action toward us. Others will get their stories out there in the days to come, as they and various reporters follow the trails of breadcrumbs I’ve placed between them.”

“Is it your intention to replace Justinian’s hold on the newspapers with our own?” Sharidan asked.

“That would be quite difficult, your Majesty, and in my opinion also a mistake. As I said, it is not a natural state of affairs for every paper to tell the same story in the same voice. The great masses of people will think whatever they are told to think by whoever they respect most, but those who are clever enough to influence the game will have taken note of the recent spate of attacks on the University, and realized it signified an organized campaign. For now, it better serves our interests to re-assert the natural back-and-forth between differing opinions among the media. I will, of course, be taking steps to promote this theme among those who speak up on behalf of the University; I chose these candidates carefully to suggest it.”

“Yes, I noticed that,” Sharidan agreed. “Both of these seemed to go on at some length about how their noble-born and otherwise powerful classmates benefited from associating with commoners like themselves.”

“Indeed, your Majesty. A good propaganda campaign establishes a narrative; that’s why bards are so attracted to the business, I suspect. The story we are telling here is an egalitarian one about elevating common folk into heroes, and teaching the more highly-born to appreciate the lot of the common man. I am assisted in this in that it happens to be more or less true; it was probably not her intention, but Professor Tellwyrn has liberally seeded her student body with some rather humble voices, and their influence has been noted in the conduct of many of the University’s noble-born graduates. Nor did she invent the tactic. Your Majesties are aware that history’s more successful noble lineages, like the Punaji royal family and House Madouri, have always taken steps to keep themselves integrated with their subjects.”

“The Madouris are simply more careful than most aristocrats about inbreeding,” the Empress said with mild distaste. “They breed their children with the same care they do racing thoroughbreds. Still, your point is well-taken.”

“How do you intend to proceed?” the Emperor inquired, pausing to take a sip of tea.

“For the time being, as is,” said Vex, folding his hands behind his back. “Though I am observing and managing it somewhat, the rest of this campaign will be an organic process of the University alumni I contacted coming forward and adding their voices to the debate. More direct action may become appropriate depending on what the Archpope does, but for now, things proceed satisfactorily. However, there is the other matter about which I asked to speak with you. An opportunity has unexpectedly arisen to rap Justinian’s knuckles far more sharply.”

Sharidan and Eleanora exchanged a glance, then leaned froward in unison. “Do tell,” said the Emperor.

“First thing this morning, I received a communication from Professor Tellwyrn. Much to my surprise, she was, in fact, relaying a message from Gabriel Arquin.” Again, that feline smile spread across Vex’s features. “I believe your Majesties will like this.”


“What is this stuff?” Trissiny asked warily, frowning into the cup of thin black liquid Ruda had just poured for her. A large pot of the stuff sat next to the plate of sandwiches on their breakfast table, filling the air with an unfamiliar but delightful scent.

“It’s called coffee,” Ruda said cheerfully. “And it smells a hell of a lot better than it tastes. But it’s a powerful stimulant that makes black tea look like water. I figured some of us would be grateful for the boost, since some of us were up late knocking over and then fixing up the town, before Arquin requested everybody meet for an early breakfast.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Gabriel said, wincing. “We need to have a pretty important discussion, and as soon as possible… But by the time we got back to campus last night, everybody was pretty dead on their feet. And also, not everybody was present.”

“I note you did not invite any of the freshmen,” Shaeine observed.

“Yeah,” he nodded, “and we may wanna bring them up to speed, depending on what we decide here. But I thought, for now, it’d be best to keep this between us.”

“Hlk!” Everyone turned to stare at Teal, who was in the process of setting down her cup and making a face. “…sorry. It’s not the first time I’ve had coffee, but it always takes me by surprise. I mean, that smell, and then it tastes like a mud puddle under a salted turd factory.”

“I like it!” Scorn proclaimed, holding out a suddenly empty cup. “Almost like home! You are too afraid of strong flavors in this world. More, please?”

“Uh…” Ruda eyed the towering demon up and down warily. “I’m not sure that’s a great idea…”

“It’s probably fine,” said Fross. “She’s got a lot of body mass, and anyway the kinds of adaptations that make creatures resistant to infernal corruption also makes them less susceptible to mind-altering stimuli in general, so Rhaazke likely have a high tolerance.”

“By the same token,” said Ruda, “I’m not sure I want to see a Rhaazke on a coffee high.” She poured Scorn another cup, however.

“I’m really sorry I wasn’t there to help, Triss,” said Fross. “I sensed it when the wards were triggered, but something was really off about… Oh, uh, I guess Gabriel should go first, since he asked for the meeting. But this may be urgent, too, so we should talk about it before we go to class.”

“Duly noted,” said Gabe, who had touched neither his sandwich nor his coffee. He folded his arms on the table, drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “All right, well… I guess I have to start by apologizing. I did something pretty stupid. And we came scarily close to somebody getting hurt because of it.”

“Note the lack of gasps following that confession,” Ruda said dryly.

“Ruda,” said Toby, frowning at her. “Quit. Okay?”

“Fine, fine. Spit it out, Arquin, how bad did you fuck up this time.”

Gabriel tightened his mouth for a moment, then raised his eyes to look at all of them. “Okay, well… The truth is, I’ve been keeping information back from you. I know more than I’ve let on about what’s happening around here.”

“Why?” Juniper asked, frowning.

“Mostly because…I thought some of you would be mad about how I was getting it. I’ve, uh, asked the valkyries to follow people around and report on what they were doing.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed, her eyes darting nervously about. “Follow people? Us?”

“No, no!” Gabriel said hastily. “None of you, don’t worry. But, um… The two new priestesses in town. Lorelin Reich and Sister Takli. And…the Black Wreath warlocks who’ve been messing with us.”

A short silence descended, in which they all stared at him.

“Annnnd,” Ruda drawled at last, “the excellent reason we’re just now hearing about this would be…?”

“It’s not an excellent reason,” Gabriel said glumly, “it’s a dumb one, and I only did it because I wasn’t thinking it through. Yesterday I went to talk with Val about it, because I really didn’t like keeping things from you guys and it was weighing on me even though it had seemed like the right thing for a while, and… Well, he kind of pointed out that by controlling information I was trying to control the group. Which…was a shitty thing to do. I was just afraid somebody would do something abrupt and get hurt, and didn’t stop to consider what a jackass I was being by making assumptions like that and having the gall to manipulate you. So… I’m sorry, everyone. That was stupid as hell. I didn’t mean any insult or harm, I just messed up.”

“Okay,” said Ruda with a shrug. “Apology accepted. What’d you learn?”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Um, what?” Gabriel asked uncertainly.

Ruda raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I see how it is. Ruda’s the temperamental one who cusses everybody’s ear off over the slightest thing, right? So that’s what you’re expecting here.”

“Uh, that’s kind of true, though,” Fross pointed out.

“Fine, you want details?” Ruda planted an elbow on the table and pointed at Gabriel. “You, Arquin, are a dumbass. You never think this shit through and you’re always fucking up one thing or another. But here’s the deal I’ve noticed about you: it’s never malicious, and it’s always an exciting new way of fucking up.”

“That’s fantastic, thanks,” he muttered.

“It is pretty fuckin’ fantastic, and shut your grumblehole till I finish. You make new and different mistakes because you don’t repeat the old ones. You learn. Annoying as it frequently is to clean up after you… Hell, you’re doin’ constantly better and you try. Can’t fairly ask a lot more than that of anybody, now can we?”

“Not for the first time,” Shaeine observed, “Ruda’s viewpoint is surprisingly insightful. I cannot say I don’t somewhat resent your actions, Gabriel; I had thought that by this point there was more trust between us.”

“I’m sorry,” he said miserably. “I’ll make it up to you, somehow.”

The priestess gave him one of her warm little smiles. “I am sufficiently confident of that to let go of the matter and trust it will happen.”

“Agreed,” Toby said firmly. “I’m glad you’re doing better, Gabe, but seriously. Do not try something like that again. Failing to share information in dangerous situations is what gets people badly hurt, or worse.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said, nodding. “Agreed. Again, I’m sorry.”

Another lull fell; several of them shifted to look at Trissiny, who was staring fixedly at Gabriel. She finally glanced aside, meeting their glances, then shook her head and spoke in an oddly quiet tone. “Ruda’s right.”

“Well,” Gabriel said with a hesitant grin, “thank—”

“What did you learn?” she interrupted.

He broke off, staring at her, then blinked and cleared his throat. “Right, well… Okay, there are two things that I think are important. First of all, the Wreath have been a little careless because they’re used to stealth magic and shadow-jumping away. The stealth can work on my girls, but valkyries can actually follow a shadow-jump, which I don’t think the Wreath knows. They’ve been watching conversations that took place where the Wreath thought they were in private. And apparently, they don’t mean us any harm.”

“That is difficult to credit,” Shaeine observed.

“Not very so,” Scorn disagreed, gesticulating with her again-empty coffee cup. “We have here Vadrieny and Teal, yes? They are very important to the Wreath. Not to be trusted, these warlocks, but they will not do harm to us on purpose. Manipulate us, yes.”

“That’s…pretty much the long and the short of it, actually,” said Gabriel slowly, giving Scorn a thoughtful look. “What they’re trying to do is goad us into chasing them so they can lead us into learning things about the Universal Church.”

“That does fit,” Toby said pensively.

“It worked,” Trissiny muttered, staring at the table.

“Here’s the thing, though,” Gabriel went on. “I think Tellwyrn is allowing this.”

“What?” Juniper frowned heavily. “You’ve gotta be kidding. You know how Tellwyrn gets when people threaten her students!”

“However,” Shaeine countered, “if they are specifically not threatening us, and in fact trying to help us learn something…”

“Oh, I could totally see that,” Fross chimed. “I mean, c’mon, think about the things she has us do. We keep getting sent into politically volatile situations to try and fix them, not to mention dangerous stuff like the Crawl and the Golden Sea. And these are supposed to be educational excursions. Tellwyrn wouldn’t be shy about letting the Wreath play around with us, as long as she had some control.”

“And she does,” Gabriel agreed. “Specifically, she’s got Professor Ekoi riding their tails. There was a bit of a lull before last night while the warlocks tried to figure out just what Ekoi was and what to do about it. It seems they actually managed to speak with her, though, and apparently reached some kind of agreement, because…” He trailed off, wincing. “Well, then there was last night.”

“So,” Teal said, frowning deeply, “we can consider this…a University-sanctioned activity?”

“How utterly typical,” Trissiny growled.

“Tellwyrn, it sounds she is a good teacher,” Scorn observed. “The world is not easy, even a soft one like this. Best to learn hard things in hard ways, while there is someone to watch over and keep you safe, yes? Then when you go out to the world, you are not surprised by how hard it hits.”

“I believe that is Tellwyrn’s educational philosophy precisely,” said Shaeine.

“Let’s back up for a moment,” said Toby. “Gabe, you said the Wreath are trying to lead us by the nose into something about the Universal Church?”

“Well, that’s the other thing,” Gabriel said grimly. “You remember our last discussion about this, after Bishop Snowe’s little stunt? We decided the Archpope was being sneaky, but he was probably a lower priority than the Wreath. Well, Vestrel and her sisters had been keeping tabs on those two new priestesses, as I said. First off, both of them are Universal Church loyalists, sent here specifically by Justinian.”

“How certain are you of that?” Trissiny asked quietly.

“Takli has a magic mirror,” he replied. “It’s connected to another one in the Cathedral in Tiraas; Aelgrind actually watched her communicate with a handler back there. Aside from that, though, she hasn’t done anything; her assignment is to try to bring you around to the Archpope’s side, Triss.”

“Really,” Trissiny said, scowling. “And she thought yelling at me would accomplish that?”

“Under the circumstances, I could see that being a valid opening move,” said Shaeine. “You grew up in the military, Trissiny; I would assume that being spoken to sharply about your mistakes is not an unfamiliar experience for you. A campaign such as that would take considerable time. She probably expects to build a relationship with you over the course of months or years.”

“Creepy,” Juniper muttered.

“Yeah, Takli’s… Honestly, that may be creepy, but it worries me less,” said Gabriel seriously. “The real problem is Lorelin. Guys… In all honesty, I think the Wreath has a point, here, in that she’s worse than anything they’re doing.”

“Here,” Toby said firmly. “Whatever she’s done may be worse than they’re doing here. Never forget who the Black Wreath are or what they’re capable of.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said ruefully, “I think that may be part of what tripped me up. I wanted to wait and see what they and she did, and I thought you guys would insist on going after them directly…”

“Oh, for fuck’s fucking sake!” Ruda burst out. “Arquin, what did this woman do?”

“Right, sorry,” he said, grimacing. “Well… At the higher levels of Vidian formal casting are varieties of misdirection and emotional influence that are almost like fae magic. I’ve just barely started studying this stuff; I’m nowhere near being able to do it, but I know what it is. Well, Lorelin has an apparatus set up in her private chamber that lets her extend her influence over the whole town.”

“Ohhh, I don’t think I like where this is going,” Fross whispered.

Gabriel nodded grimly. “It wasn’t specifically meant to harm, just to aid in Justinian’s propaganda campaign. The effect she’s been trying to put into place is meant to make people more emotional, more susceptible to manipulation.”

“So,” Teal said slowly, “for example… If a paladin went chasing a demon through the town, people who might otherwise take that in stride…”

“That fucking asshole,” Ruda snarled. “A priest is supposed to serve people! You don’t fucking do that to a whole town full of people!”

“I say we go right to Tellwyrn with this,” said Juniper decisively. “Last Rock may not be exactly her domain, but that could affect the students, too!”

“Actually, I already went to Tellwyrn,” said Gabriel. “The scrolltower office was closed last night, and anyway, I thought it as a little sensitive for public transmission… So I asked her to get a message to the Imperial government.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Shaeine said approvingly. “Whoever else is affected by this Lorelin Reich’s actions, that was an abusive and highly illegal magical effect to place over a whole town full of Imperial civilians.”

“Sorry for not including you guys in that,” Gabriel said hastily, “but I wanted to get it done as quick as possible, and everybody was already off to bed at that point. And yeah… I want to go down there and punch her teeth in as much as everybody else, but in this case I think it’s better to do it properly. Tellwyrn agreed. She was, uh, much less condescending than usual about it.”

“I think you still should do something,” said Trissiny. “Or say something at least, before the Empire takes over. You’re the Hand of her god.”

“True,” Gabriel admitted, frowning in thought.

“Um, I think I have something to add to that,” said Fross. “Okay, Trissiny, this is about what I was going to tell you—last night when the wards went off, the signal was really strange. It was a false demon trace, like we suspected, but there were elements to it that looked peculiar.”

“Dangerous?” Trissiny asked, frowning.

“Actually, no, not that I could see. That’s why I didn’t come help; I know you can take care of yourself and I didn’t think you were in any danger. It seemed more important to figure out what was happening, because there were layers to that spell that were clearly aimed at more subtle effects.”

“What did you learn?” asked Shaeine.

“Well!” The pixie bobbed up and down twice. “First I recognized an energy signature in the spell matrix that really jumped out at me, because the only place I’ve ever seen before is in Juniper’s aura.”

“Wait, what?” the dryad exclaimed, straightening up in alarm.

“Specifically in the block in your aura. It’s a frequency that relates somehow to Avei. See, I don’t detect divine magic directly but its presence can be inferred from how fae and arcane energies are changed by it. Took me most of the night to unravel this and study it properly, but I’m pretty sure what I found is… Okay, there’s that energy signature, right? Only it’s set up with a disruptive counter-frequency.”

“Wait, you’re saying the Black Wreath has the ability to disrupt my connection to Avei?” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Oh, no, absolutely not, that’d never work. You could maybe do that to a priest, but if you did it between a deity and her paladin, Avei would notice and step right in, which is exactly what the Wreath doesn’t want. No, it doesn’t try to sever your connection to her, but… Um, for want of a better term, agitate it. It really puzzled me, because it seemed like what it would do is diffuse her influence more broadly through your own aura. I don’t really know the specifics of how you’re linked to her, but that seems like, if anything, it would make you more in tune with her, not less.”

“Of course,” said Scorn, shrugging when everyone turned to look at her. “The Wreath, they are wanting to get a reaction, yes? Well, Trissiny is a trained warrior—maybe not crafty, but also not stupid. So if they can make her more like the big angry goddess and less like the soldier, maybe she is more easy to manipulate.”

“That’s…absolutely horrifying,” Toby breathed. “Have they always been able to do this?”

“Surely not,” said Trissiny, her eyes wide. “It has to be a new spell. I mean, if the Black Wreath could do that… Someone would have noticed before now.”

“How, though?” Gabriel asked. “Think about it. Detecting this required them to be doing it in proximity to a custom made divine-arcane fusion detection ward, under the direct attention of a mage who, being fae, is naturally sensitive to emotionally manipulative magic. How many times do you think those circumstances have lined up? And quite frankly, almost nobody gives Fross credit for being as smart as she is; it probably wouldn’t even occur to them that she could isolate and figure out that element in their spell.”

“It would be an extremely sensible spell for the Wreath to employ,” Shaeine said quietly. “Virtually no warlock is anything resembling a match for a paladin, particularly one of Avei. Yet, Hands of Avei have fallen to the Wreath in years past, usually through trickery. Any measure that could make a Hand more susceptible to their ploys would be immensely valuable to them.”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Trissiny whispered.

“And that is why you don’t turn your back on the Wreath,” Toby growled. “Whatever their intentions right now, they are still capable of doing things like this. They must absolutely not be trusted.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed, “but the fact remains… After these events, we pretty much can’t deny that the Archpope is also on our enemies list. Him and them, they’re apparently after the same thing: they want control of the paladins.”

“Bring them,” said Scorn, raising her chin. “Everybody bleeds the same!”

“It’s not as simple as that,” said Shaeine, nodding to her, “but at the core of that sentiment is truth. We must be prepared to contend with anyone and everyone who means us harm.”

“Uh, guys?” said Juniper hesitantly. “I know it’s kind of anticlimactic and I hate to break this up, but…we have class. We’d better get moving or we’ll be late for Tellwyrn. And she barely needs an excuse to be a jerk anyway.”

Gabriel sighed and slid off the bench. “Yeah… Well, needless to say, we aren’t done talking about this.”

“Agreed,” said Toby, rising as well. “We know what we’re dealing with, now; we need to decide on a course of action.”

They got to their feet with some stretching and groaning—it had indeed been a very long night for several of them.

“Gabriel,” Trissiny said quietly, catching his sleeve as they stepped into the rear of the line that straggled off toward Helion Hall. “Did you really think I would charge face-first at the Wreath if you told me this was going on?”

He winced. “I really wasn’t thinking in conscious terms, Triss. I’m sorry, nothing personal was meant—it was just a knee-jerk reaction. And it wasn’t just about you!”

“The rest of our class is two pacifists, two fairies, a diplomat and a competent combat strategist,” she said woodenly. “If you thought somebody was going to fly off the handle and do something violent, that pretty much leaves me, doesn’t it?”

“I didn’t—”

“And you didn’t even have to think about it,” she added, staring ahead at Toby’s back.

“Triss,” he said miserably, “this isn’t a reflection on you. I was an idiot. Please don’t be mad…”

“I don’t…think…I am,” she murmured. “I’m honestly not sure what I think. I’m…honestly not sure I’d have any right to be mad, after last night.”


There was a small rooftop terrace at the edge of Helion Hall’s large central dome, where a little round table and chair were attached to the stone roof. No stairs or other access led to it, which was hardly a barrier to many of those who dwelt on this campus. It was a signal, though: Professor Tellwyrn did not desire to share her private breakfast nook. Fortunately, most of the students never even learned it was there, otherwise a good many of them would have taken that for a challenge.

She sipped the remainder of her tea, watching the sophomore class trickle toward the building from the terrace below.

“I am extending a great deal of trust, Kaisa,” she said quietly.

“So you are!” Ekoi replied cheerfully, stepping out from behind her, where she had definitely not been a moment before. “And don’t think I haven’t noticed. I’m so proud of you!”

“I’ll accept certain risks as necessary,” Tellwyrn said bitingly, “but let’s keep the recklessness to a minimum, shall we? Last night was probably the first time in all of history that dragging Mabel Cratchley into a problem actually helped it.”

“That’s because of the dragging, Arachne,” said Ekoi, perching on the edge of the table. “You always drag people, or push them, or threaten them. If you do it properly, people will do what you want without once suspecting it wasn’t fully their own idea.”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “I am still not sanguine about this. Whatever assurances were given by this Mogul character, or Elilial herself, tolerating the Wreath’s presence here is an invitation to disaster.”

“Not, I maintain, if we manage them with care. Arachne,” the kitsune said more gently, “this will work. You’ve made progress with Trissiny, but, in truth, you’re the wrong person to reach her; you are just too much like her. I have been guiding young minds longer than you have existed—at least, as far as we know. Believe me, I know how to get through to her.”

Tellwyrn sighed. “All right, it’s not as if you haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt. But when Avei comes stomping down here to throw one of her divine fits about me letting the Wreath play with her paladin, you can talk to her. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a class.”

She vanished with a soft pop of displaced air, leaving behind the empty teacup.

Kaisa shifted her body to peer down at the approaching students, her tail waving eagerly.

“It’s a date.”

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10 – 29

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A constant background noise of angry mutters filled the square, but for a moment at least, it was still. Wilson cowered under the glow of active battlestaves, the townspeople held position, and the students stood as if frozen in place.

“Teal,” Sekandar said very quietly, “this would be a good time to show your other face, I think.”

Vadrieny shifted her head, fixing Scorn with a fiery stare, and said softly, “Be still.” In the next moment, however, she withdrew, flaming wings and claws vanishing to leave Teal still holding the towering Rhaazke by one arm. Scorn looked unhappy, her jaw clenched, but she obeyed the archdemon’s last command.

A man stepped to the side from the thick of the crowd, seizing the young boy by the arm and bodily tugging him backward, scowling and mouthing an obvious reprimand that was inaudible to the students from beneath the constant babble. Rook drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively, keeping his grip on his staff but sagging physically in relief to the point that the weapon drifted down to aim at the ground.

In that moment of comparative calm, Ravana cleared her throat and stepped forward, attempting to push between Finchley and Rook. When neither man budged and she failed to exhibit the necessary physical strength to force them to, she cleared her throat again, more loudly, and spoke in a well-practiced, resonating voice that projected across the square despite the angry buzzing of the townsfolk opposite.

“Gentlemen, if you will not lower your weapons, kindly power them down, at least? It’s clear to me that we are suffering from a series of misunderstandings. I have no intention of bringing any formal charges against Mr. Wilson. We do not punish people for having opinions.”

Rook and Finchley paused, glancing at each other, but Moriarty immediately relaxed his grip on his staff’s clicker, causing the electric glow limning its business end to fade. Rook followed suit a moment later, and all three shifted their grips to aim the weapons skyward.

The square grew quieter; while the crowd kept up a low, disaffected murmur, the shouting ceased. More people continued to trickle in through side alleys, but they all slowed and peered around on arrival, the additional numbers seeming not to add to the overall tension.

“Very good,” Ravana said with an approving smile. “Now—”

At that second, Trissiny and Gabriel dashed into the square from the direction of the town’s edge, both skidding to a stop and staring at the scene.

Immediately, shouting resumed, louder and angrier than before.

“There she is!”

“What the hell’s wrong with you, girl?!”

“You know how—”

“Repent!”

“Goddammit, Carl!”

“All y’all, settle, let ‘er explain—”

“Please!” Trissiny shouted, raising her hands—which was not as calming a gesture as she seemed to mean it, since she was still holding her sword. “Everyone, please! Is anybody hurt? Did anyone notice something alarming or odd tonight?”

“Y’mean, aside from you?” a woman shouted derisively, prompting a chorus of agreement.

“Triss,” Gabriel said, “I don’t think…”

“Listen to me!” she shouted. “There was a demon in this town tonight! It’s very important that everyone make sure they and their neighbors are unharmed and unaffected.” This had a slight calming effect on the crowd, but angry mutters continued. “If you feel at all unwell or out of the ordinary, please go to the church or the Vidian temple to speak with a priest; symptoms of infernal attack can be—”

“Is that why you broke down the Saloon’s door, you hooligan?” barked an older man in a ragged hat.

Trissiny visibly gritted her teeth. “I was trying—”

“You can’t just warn people about danger, you gotta run around scarin’ folks half to death an’ breakin’ down doors?!”

“Listen to me—”

“You knocked over my front fence! Who’s gonna fix that?”

“Stop,” Szith ordered, thrusting a fist in front of Sekandar when he tried to push forward. “Defending her will only make this worse. We need to disengage, all of us.”

Indeed, Gabriel appeared to be trying to persuade Trissiny to back away, though his muttered pleas were swamped by the slowly increasing roar of the crowd.

“That. Is. ENOUGH!”

Gabriel and Trissiny both jumped apart, whirling to face the stooped figure that emerged from the alley behind them. Finally, actual quiet descended on the scene, broken only by scattered murmurs. She hobbled forward, dragging herself along on two canes, and a veritable chorus of sighs rose from the citizens of Last Rock, accompanied by many rolled eyes and shaken heads.

“Evenin’, Miz Cratchley,” someone said in a tone of ostentatious resignation, earning a few titters.

“I never saw such a sad display,” Mabel Cratchley declared, pulling herself to a stop just inside the square and glaring furiously. “What’s got into you people? Where are the good, solid folk who who’ve weathered prairie storms and elf raids since before that mountain had anything on it but flowers? A hundred years and more Last Rock has stood here, since before the Empire bothered to extend its protection over us, and we’ve stood our ground on our land just the same. We’ve relied on nothing but each other and the gods, and lived to remember it. We earned our lives out here, through work, faith, and god-given skill. And now…now, I find y’all standing around, fixing to throw a fit because of a few bruises and broken fence latches? What, you got shoved and shouted at, and now you have to whip up a mob?” She pointed one cane at the prone form of Wilson, teetering momentarily on the other. “I expect such from fools such as that. I thought better of the rest of you!

“What would make you happy?” the old woman continued, taking another shaky step into the square. The now-quiet crowd actually pressed backward, as if physically driven by the force of her outrage. “There was a demon in our town. A demon! And you’re all pitching a fit because someone rushed down here to warn you, and chase it off? Have every last one of you lost your minds? We have the incredible blessing of a paladin in our midst to protect us, a Hand of a goddess herself, and you’re all complaining? You’d like it better if she left you to see your children corrupted and strangled in their beds, is that what I’m hearing?”

She planted both canes firmly in the dirt, then laboriously straightened her spine, drawing herself up to a surprisingly considerable height to glare at the silent throng. “I’ve no shortage of complaints with that woman and her school. You’ve all heard them. I’ve argued with many of you, and I have never been shy to criticize those who needed it, be they honest Last Rock folk, the Calderaan governors, the Empire, the University, whoever! Yes, I’ve known my share of grievances. But in my eighty-six years until this night, I have never been ashamed of my neighbors.”

The silence was crushing.

Every person in Last Rock had heard Mabel Cratchley complain, and more than otherwise had felt the swat of one of her canes on their backsides while growing up, and been prodded by them many times since. But not a soul present had ever before heard her voice quavering on the edge of tears as it was tonight.

“I can’t even look at you.” The old woman drew in a deep, shaking breath, sinking back down into her customary stoop, then laboriously began turning back the way she had come. “Ms. Trissiny, if the gods have any regard for the opinion of one old woman, then by the time I’ve finished my prayers this night, Avei will know there is one soul in Last Rock who is grateful that she watches over us.”

“Here.” Trissiny sheathed her blade and stepped quickly over to Ms. Cratchley’s side. “Let me help you home, ma’am. It’s late.”

“Bless you, child, but I know my way. You’ve better to do than waste your time on the likes of me.”

“The demon’s gone.” Trissiny’s voice was low and calm, but in the silence left by Ms. Cratchley’s speech, it echoed across the square. “And a paladin is not more important than anyone else. We serve, that’s all.”

The old woman started to speak, then simply cleared her throat and nodded mutely, allowing Trissiny to take her by one arm.

Everyone watched in silence as they retreated back down the alley, till they were lost in the shadows and the soft shuffling of Ms. Cratchley’s feet faded away.

Then Ravana took advantage of her escorts’ distraction to slip between them and out into the square.

“Well, then,” she said briskly, “I understand there was some incidental damage done during Trissiny’s ride through the town? Doors, fences, the like? Why don’t we see if we can help set things straight?”

“Aw, now, you don’t need to trouble yourselves,” a man at the front of the crowd said, doffing his hat, while others shuffled and muttered awkwardly behind him.

“Nonsense,” said Sekandar, pushing his way forward with a smile. “It’s late, and everyone will be wanting to get to bed as quickly as possible; best to get these things squared away.”

“Aye!” Maureen agreed brightly, stepping forward and tugging Iris by the hand; Rook gave up on trying to hold the students back and moved aside, making a wry face. “That’s what neighbors do fer each other, after all!”

The students began shifting forward in unspoken agreement, with the exception of Shaeine, who caught Scorn’s hand and leaned up to murmur to the demon. The townsfolk continued mumbling and shuffling, but without hostility now. Their ranks opened up, letting the students move among them, where Ravana and Sekandar led the way in asking for directions to any property damaged during Trissiny’s ride.

“S-so,” Wilson said tremulously, “that’s that, then? I, uh, reckon I oughtta go apologize to the young lady. Don’t rightly know what got into me…”

“Same as always, isn’t it?” Finchley said rather archly. His expression softened when Wilson slumped his shoulders, lowering his gaze to the ground. “We on for poker as usual on Wednesday?”

“Don’t see why not!” the older man agreed quickly, nodding in eagerness. “Lemme just see if I can get the lady’s attention real quick—”

“You’ll have to do that another time, Wilson,” Moriarty said firmly. “Right now, we’re going to the Sheriff’s.”

“What?” Wilson gaped at him. “B-but she said—”

“She said she would not press charges,” Moriarty replied. “She did not direct us to rescind arrest, and there remains the matter of you interfering with a soldier of the Empire in the protection of an Imperial governor by means of physical assault.”

“Omnu’s balls, Wilson, you’re lucky we know you,” Finchley said in exasperation. “You don’t grab a soldier’s weapon. Ever.”

“Any other trooper in the Empire woulda shot your ass dead in the street,” Rook agreed, “and the inevitable inquest would’ve backed them up. Now, c’mon, let’s go explain to Sam why you’re a towering dumbass. That’s pretty much his usual Monday night, anyway.”

They led the shamefaced man off toward the town center, while the now-blended group of citizens and students dispersed through the side streets.

Behind them all, Scorn scowled heavily at nothing in particular. After a long moment of sulking, she childishly stomped one clawed foot on the ground before turning to stalk back in the direction of the University campus.


“All right,” Basra said, planting her fists on her hips. “This was not what I was expecting.”

There were two Silver Legions currently based in Viridill, the Second on constant patrol through the province and the Fourth encamped in Vrin Shai itself. Soldiers of the Fourth were now spread through the city, forming cordons around each of its multiple canals. So far, though, they were only standing there, enforcing a safe distance between what was in those canals and the citizens who had come out to gawk at it.

Water elementals were clearly visible, amorphous beings formed of the canal water itself, changing shape as they jumped about on the surface and seeming to vanish entirely when they submerged beneath it. They spent an awful lot of time up in the air, though, most splashing each other and shooting jets of water here and there, and occasionally at any people they happened to catch sight of. A few of the onlookers were still soaked from such incidents during the elementals’ first appearance, but by this point, most of those targeted were Legionnaires now standing resignedly in wet armor.

In addition to the near-constant noise of splashing, the elementals had voices which were now audible almost everywhere in the city. They were high-pitched, unearthly, and spoke in no language anyone understood, but they were also unmistakably laughing. Or, more often, giggling.

It seemed all they wanted to do was play.

Basra and her party had edged up to the perimeter enforced by the soldiers, studying the scene, with the exception of Ami, who was keeping a respectful distance and a protective grip on her guitar. A sudden squirt of water shot out of the canal, scattering against the golden shield that flashed into place around Basra and incidentally spraying Schwartz, who squealed rather girlishly and skittered backward.

“Is it possible we were mistaken about the elemental at the house?” Ildrin asked. “I mean…we started in on it almost before it could do anything. These seem harmless enough… Maybe it just wanted to talk.”

“That thing was eight feet tall and built like an ogre,” Ami said from behind them. “It clearly had the brute force to be a danger, and the subtlety to penetrate our defenses without effort. The choice of messenger was the message. Specifically, a threat.”

“Exactly,” said Basra. “Schwartz, you’re certain there are no other elementals called up in the city? Just these…things?”

“I was twenty minutes ago,” he said, wiping off his glasses on the sleeve of his robe. “My divination spread is back at the house… But no, this was what I detected arriving, this and the one specimen that, ah, visited us.”

“The situation is tentatively considered under control,” said the Legionnaire wearing a captain’s insignia who stood nearby, having been grabbed and quickly interrogated by Basra upon their arrival. “At the moment we’re awaiting the arrival of sisters from the temple; General Ralavideh has ordered something called a…frog-in-a-pot maneuver.”

“What does that mean?” Basra demanded.

“I’ve no idea, your Grace,” the captain said with long-suffering patience. This was far from the first very pointed question the Bishop had shot at her. “I’m not a cleric.”

“It’s a reference to the old metaphor,” said Schwartz, now soothingly stroking Meesie, who seemed agitated by all the wetness in the vicinity. “You know, how you can boil a living frog slowly if you increase the heat in its pot by increments, but it’ll jump out if you try to do it all at once? Same applies to using divine magic to neutralize elementals. If you just flare up at them, they’ll be able to tell you’re weakening them, and react to that. If you start very gently, though, and gradually increase the power, you can progressively weaken them until they just…fall apart.”

“Hm,” said Branwen, chewing her lower lip and frowning at the occupied canal. “Offhand I can think of several problems with that plan…”

“Yeah,” Schwartz agreed, nodding. “With all respect to the general and the Sisterhood, I don’t think that’s going to work. For one thing, these are all over the whole city. You’d need an army of priests to cover the whole space to do it all at once; if you did it sequentially, canal by canal, it’d take days. And that’s assuming the elementals stayed gone once banished—what’s happened here is there were charms evoked in the water itself, which means they’re likely to reappear once it’s not being actively channeled at.”

“You could compensate for that by blessing the canals,” Ildrin offered.

“Yes,” Schwartz agreed, “theoretically. But there’s another problem; doing this maneuver requires divine casters to call up and hold a constant stream of energy. You pretty much can’t not do that without risking serious burnout. I, uh…honestly, this sounds to me like something to do when you lack better options.”

“We have our orders,” the captain said stiffly. “I’m sure the general has everything under control.”

“The canals are full of water elementals,” Basra snapped. “Whether or not they’re presenting an active threat, this whole city is very much not under control. Schwartz, are these things as harmless as they seem?”

“You mean potentially?” He shrugged helplessly. “I mean, if they all attacked, that’d be a big problem. And I don’t see what’s stopping them… But, like, tactically speaking, if they were going to do that, wouldn’t they have done it at first, when they had the element of surprise?”

“Maybe this shaman really isn’t trying to start a fight,” Jenell mused.

“The other elemental incidents throughout the province were definitely hostile,” said Basra. “Not nearly as violent as they could have been—in fact, they did seem to specifically avoid causing unnecessary harm. But still hostile. This is a departure.”

“And, again,” Ami added, “that rock elemental was not a friendly thing to send us, whether or not it was planning to bash all our brains in.”

Before anyone could respond to that, another Legionnaire in soaking wet armor came dashing up, saluting. “Captain Veiss! New orders from the general.”

“Ah, good,” the captain said, pointedly turning her back on Basra, whose increasingly sharp questions she’d been enduring with steadily diminishing patience. “We’re ready to begin?”

“No, ma’am,” the soldier replied. “The operation is suspended; new orders will be coming shortly. You’re to hold position, keep the civilians away from the elementals. Bishop Syrinx,” she added, turning to Basra. “That’s…you, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Basra replied. “Ralavideh has orders for me, as well?”

“A request, ma’am,” the messenger said diplomatically. “She would like you to join her to discuss new developments in this situation as soon as possible.”

“Excellent,” Basra said with clear satisfaction. “At the temple?”

“No, ma’am, she’s set up a field command post at a square in a more central location in the city. I’ll guide you.”

“Lead on,” the Bishop replied, glancing aside at the rest of her party with a wry lift of one eyebrow. “Well, fall in, troops. It seems we’re going visiting.”

They had gone right to the nearest canal from their house, which fortunately was, itself, not far from the center of the city. To reach General Ralavideh’s temporary headquarters, they only had to travel a few blocks and descend one tier. It was a mostly uneventful trip, though it required some navigating around rubbernecking residents. So far, no curfew had been declared, and nothing was preventing curious citizens from standing around gawking at the unusual sights; the Legionnaires seemed to mostly be keeping them away from the canals by sheer presence. Silver Legionnaires were very much respected in Vrin Shai.

There was a brief delay when they had to cross a canal and their guide warned them that anyone traversing the bridges could expect to be liberally splashed. Basra had quickly vetoed the use of divine shields, lest it agitate the elementals, but then Ami had flatly (and dramatically) refused to risk getting her guitar wet. Ultimately they had trooped across, Branwen holding a compact little shield over their bard, while the rest of them got soaked. For the remainder of the trip, Schwartz worked some of his own magic to dry them (and their grateful escort) off, while everyone rather irritably gave Ami a cold shoulder.

A market square just beyond the bridge had been overtaken by the Fourth Legion; their guide led them past an outer perimeter of soldiers into an orderly beehive of activity, making straight for a cluster of folding tables which seemed to be the center of the whole operation. As they approached, Basra lengthened her stride, passing their escort and striding right up to the General.

Ralavideh was a Tiraan woman in her fifties, short and stocky in her armor, with graying hair trimmed close to her head. She was surrounded by a dozen people, a mix of senior officers, priestesses of Avei, and off to one side a small knot of civilians in diverse attire. She turned away from a cleric upon Basra’s arrival, nodding in greeting.

“Ah, Captain Syrinx—good, I was hoping one of my messengers would find you.”

“Thank you for including me, General,” Basra replied. “I’m long since discharged, though, you needn’t address me by rank. What’s the situation?”

“At this moment,” said Ralavideh, “we have an unprecedented annoyance in Vrin Shai, but the situation appears not to be dangerous. That doesn’t mean we intend to leave it as is; the Governor agrees with me that these beings need to be removed as swiftly as possible. Right now our focus is on doing so without escalating the situation. Have you anything to contribute to our knowledge of the, for want of a better word, enemy?”

“Not of these specifically,” Basra said, nodding to Schwartz. “My elemental specialist, here, had detection wards over the city and hasn’t identified any other incursions, though we were visited by a large rock elemental at our temporary base.”

“Hm,” the General mused, frowning down at a map of Vrin Shai on the table before her. “Then I’m not the only one who knows the Abbess set you on the hunt for this elementalist. Well! In addition to wanting your perspective, we have unexpected help who also asked to see you as soon as possible.”

Indeed, as she was speaking, a man with a familiar bearded face stepped forward, trailed by the other assorted civilians who had been clustered together at one corner of Ralivedeh’s command post. “Your Grace! Good to see you again!”

“Mr. Hargrave,” Basra replied, nodding. “I confess I hadn’t expected to meet again so soon.”

“Yes, I’ve made…well, it’s a long story,” he said seriously. “These are some of the people I went to speak with. Over a dozen have come to Vrin Shai with me; Abbess Darnassy said we could find you here.”

“You brought Viridill’s witches here?” Basra asked, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

“Well, not all of them, by any means,” Hargrave clarified hastily. “You see, it’s—”

General Ralivedeh cleared her throat pointedly.

“Right,” Hargrave said quickly. “Priorities. They were going to try neutralizing the elementals with priestesses, which would have been quite risky and probably ineffective. Now that we’re here, the rest of my friends have fanned out through the city to begin laying preparations, and we’re going to deal with this matter first of all. Barring any further upsets, I believe we can have all this cleared away in a few hours. Tomorrow, though, I’d like to have a lengthy conversation about what we’ve learned.”

“Excellent,” she said emphatically. “Can you use another caster? Schwartz, make yourself useful.”

“Glad to!” the Salyrite said cheerfully, stepping forward. “Actually, I may have some fresh data to add to your findings—I had a good, solid ward network overlaying the city before all this started up, and I was able to detect…”

He melted into Hargrave’s gaggle of witches and they drifted off toward the canal in the near distance, talking among themselves.

“That’s been the theme of the evening,” Ralavedeh said with an annoyed twist of her mouth. “I’m glad they came along, but you know what it’s like working with civilians. Takes a constant effort to know what they’re doing and make sure they don’t screw up my chain of command.”

“I do know,” Basra agreed. “Well, for the time being it seems I’m a little superfluous, here…”

“Actually,” said the General, “since you brought your whole group, I wonder if I could borrow them for a bit?” She turned, nodding to the others. “I understand Bishop Snowe and a trained bard have joined you—we’ve a use for talents exactly like that.”

“Oh?” Basra raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Ami asked dryly. “Or do you intend to just leave this mob to its own devices?”

Beyond the perimeter marked by the Legionnaires, a noisy and energetic crowd were circulating, talking and gesticulating eagerly. No one seemed particularly agitated, though, and while their general noise didn’t yield any specific conversational threads at this distance, it didn’t sound angry.

“I would hardly call that a mob,” Basra began.

“Well, that doesn’t mean you just ignore them,” Branwen said in mild exasperation. “This is what you wanted us for, General?”

“If you’re able and willing,” Ralavedeh replied, nodding. “Citizens of Vrin Shai are a respectful people as a rule, and they trust the Legions, but you simply cannot drop an event like this on top of thousands of civilians and expect it to stay calm indefinitely. Fortunately this happened at dusk; provided we can get it squared away before business hours begin tomorrow, we can hopefully avoid any serious unrest. For now, I would like any help possible in keeping a lid on this.”

“Hm,” Ami mused, absently tuning her guitar and frowning at the onlookers. “That’s hardly the whole population of the city. Nor even a significant percentage…”

“It’s a start, though,” Branwen said with a smile. “Come, Bas, let’s see if we can’t put people’s minds at ease.”

She glided off toward the edge of the square opposite the bridge without waiting for anyone’s approval, apparently not seeing the scowl Basra directed at her back. Ildrin, Ami, and Jenell, who had seen it, followed at a more circumspect distance.

At the other end, the plaza terminated on a broad staircase only four steps tall. It was a short enough drop that they could plainly see the people milling around below it, built mostly for decoration and to prevent wheeled vehicles from entering the market square. Legionnaires were guarding the staircase, however, keeping the civilians isolated in the wide street below.

The crowd focused its attention on the top of the stairs as Branwen arrived, taking a position near the center between two soldiers, who looked quizzically at her and then at a nearby officer. Apparently having been told what to expect, the lieutenant gestured them away, and they shifted to the very edges of the staircase, distancing themselves from the Izarite Bishop. By that point, a few scattered cheers had broken out and people surged forward eagerly, smiling up at Branwen.

“Well, what a night this is!” she said, her light voice projecting skillfully out over the crowd, and earned a laugh from her audience. “I’m a guest here, myself, so please don’t take anything I say as an official pronouncement. General Ralavedeh has very kindly allowed me to speak to you—which works out well for everyone, as I’m sure you know how much I love to hear myself talk.”

During the laugh which followed this, Ami mused aloud, coincidentally having placed herself close enough to Basra to be audible to her, “My, she’s actually rather good at extemporizing, isn’t she? Somehow, I’d though all her speeches were the work of Church handlers.”

“What I can tell you,” Branwen continued as soon as it was quiet enough again, “is that the Sisterhood of Avei has matters well in hand. At this point, it’s not yet certain what is happening or why, but there is no indication that anyone is in any danger. And should these…peculiar visitors take a turn toward hostility… Well, in that event, I find I am still not overly concerned. This is Vrin Shai, after all!”

She beamed proudly down at them, waiting for the cheers to subside before continuing. “It’s hardly a secret that the cults of the Pantheon don’t all see eye-to-eye, and indeed, my faith has its frictions with Avei’s. If I must be surrounded by an invasion of strange elementals, though, I can honestly say there is no one among whom I would rather find myself. Yes, the Sisters of Avei are indeed fearsome in battle, and the presence of all these Legionnaires makes me feel much safer. But there’s far more to it than that! Avei is a goddess who places great trust in people. For all of the Sisterhood’s history, she has encouraged people to find their own courage, to hone their skills, and the result is what you see around you! An invincible city, filled with an unconquerable people, living under the aegis of a goddess who has led them to be the most they can be!”

More cheers, this time slower to subside. Branwen nodded and smiled encouragingly, but before she opened her mouth to speak again, there came a shout from near the front of the crowd. The speaker hadn’t waited for silence, and so most of the words were lost, but the Bishop was apparently close enough to make them out clearly. All that was clearly audible from Basra’s position behind her was “Last Rock.”

Apparently, Branwen was not the only one who’d heard the words. The crowd’s voice faltered into confusion, cheers and applause continuing from various quarters, while others who had been close enough to hear broke off their adulation, murmuring.

“It’s hardly kind to cast aspersion on the people of the frontier,” Branwen said with an artful hint of reproach. “In fact, I was in Last Rock very recently, and I found them to be a most admirable folk as well. They have had a different journey through history than you, and were shaped by different pressures, but I rather think they would cope well with a situation such as this, too. The prairie breeds hardy and adaptive folk.

“If anything, the comparison should only encourage you! For all their strengths, the folk of Last Rock lack a great gift that Avei has bestowed on you: leadership and examples which come from within, not from above. You live with and among the Sisterhood—the Legionnaires rise from within your own families, proving the potential of a whole population. No one sits high atop a mountain, grooming rogue adventurers and denying you a place among them.”

She paused for more reaction again, but this time the result was clearly not as she expected. The onlookers frowned, glancing at one another in apparent confusion—at least, some of them. Quite a few tittered, and open laughs sounded from several direction. Branwen hesitated, for the first time betraying uncertainty.

“So, your Grace,” called a male voice from near the front, the same voice which had shouted about Last Rock. “I take it you haven’t seen today’s papers?”

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10 – 28

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The gentler slope of the mountain was challenging but not too arduous to climb on foot, but that same angle made for a rather frightening descent when one was pounding down it on horseback at a full gallop. Nonetheless, Arjen’s every step was sure and unfaltering, even when he leaped over the switchbacking stone path that crossed the slope multiple times. He was, after all, no ordinary horse. Trissiny rode low in the saddle, keeping her body angled forward in defiance of the instinctive urge to lean backward against the slope, trusting her steed to manage the way and focusing fully upon the ephemeral sensation she was tracking.

She could feel it in the same subtle way as her customary ability to sense evil, a grating, tingling sense of alarm in the back of her mind. Now, however, augmented by Fross’s wards, there was direction to it. Trissiny could have pointed to each of the arcane wards set up in the streets of Last Rock, and could feel the connections between them. It was like a giant spider web, in a way; the links between the wards, and the threads of magic connecting them to her own divine senses, hummed when touched. Now, she was the spider, able to interpret those patterns of motion to pinpoint exactly where they were stemming from. That had to be an effect of the spell, since she didn’t have such powers of discernment ordinarily; she could barely sense magic, and had never been able to interpret patterns this way before.

The transition from slope to flat ground was jarring at the speed at which they took it, but Arjen handled it smoothly by gathering himself and leaping the last few yards, landing heavily at the start of the street that ran through Last Rock. It was evening, and despite the falling dusk, people were still up and around on the sidewalks; they all stopped what they were doing and stared at the paladin’s arrival. In fact, the number of them standing around suggested that her approach had been watched at least part of the way down the mountainside.

Trissiny wasted not a second before urging Arjen forward, charging down the street at a gallop. “Clear the way!” she bellowed, trusting the horse not to trample anybody. As it was, a few people who were unwisely still in the road had to scamper aside, a couple with shouted imprecations, which she ignored.

Demonic taint was like a beacon, searing at her subtler senses rather than her eyes. She could feel the incubus—assuming it was the same kind of thing that had disturbed her before; unlike Scorn, she wasn’t able to distinguish between demon species by aura alone. This time, though, she also had the network of wards pointing her onward. It wasn’t as if she could see the creature, not enough to make out its shape, but its presence, and its location, were given away completely.

It was up ahead, and on the move, zigzagging about the street as if dodging around people.

Trissiny and Arjen charged after it, the horse’s speed and straight course rapidly closing the distance. People saw her coming, fortunately, though they weren’t all equally adroit at getting out of the way. One man in the process of pushing a wheelbarrow across the road yelped at the sight of the mounted paladin barreling right at him and fled, arms over his head, leaving Arjen to leap over his barrow rather than waste precious seconds dodging around.

They rounded a corner, thundering down a slightly narrower side street, and at that pace reached the outskirts of the town in moments. She still couldn’t see anything in the roads, but she had felt the several ward points as she passed them, and could sense the disturbance leading her own. Up ahead, though, loomed the new Vidian temple. The demon seemed to be heading right for it.

Trissiny reined Arjen back to a canter, then gradually came to a stop, staring ahead through narrowed eyes. It was still there…but not fleeing, now. It seemed, instead, to be simply drifting. Still toward the temple.

Why would a demon head for holy ground? It made no sense.

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doin’, young lady?!” a man shouted, stomping up the road behind her.

“My duty,” she said curtly, not taking her eyes off the fixed point up ahead. Something was wrong here… “Keep back. There is a demon nearby.”

“Demon…” The middle-aged townsman paused, peering around uncertainly. Several other residents of Last Rock crept forward behind him, a few within earshot and most giving her distinctly unhappy looks. “I don’t see nothin’ like that.”

“That’s why they’re dangerous,” Trissiny said.

Suddenly, the target ahead moved, zipping off around the side of the Vidian grounds. She started to spur Arjen after it, but then hesitated, sensing its course, and instead guided him the opposite way. Indeed, as she swept around the temple in a wide arc, the invisible presence in front slammed to a halt, having been attempting to circle around it and head back into the town. It abruptly reversed course, arcing back the way it had come, with Trissiny in hot pursuit.

“Clear the road!” she roared as Arjen rounded the amphitheater. This time, the townsfolk were quicker to obey.


“I almost feel bad,” Embras Mogul confessed, his cheerful grin belying the claim.

“Guilty?” Kaisa asked mildly, her tail waving slowly in the wind.

“Not so much that, as embarrassed,” he replied. “This is just more fun than it ought to be. Seems a little petty, doesn’t it?”

He made another smooth motion with his hands, holding them palms down and with fingers shifting in complex patterns, as if he were manipulating the strings of a marionette. Perched as they were at the base of the church’s steeple, it left him no hands free to hold his balance, but the use of infernal magic was, itself, a balancing act at all times. Embras was surefooted enough not to worry about a fall, but still leaned back against the steeple itself for safety’s sake.

“There’s no harm in enjoying one’s work,” she said lightly. “Especially if one’s work encompasses an invigorating chase. Games are meant to be fun, after all. Now, if you unnecessarily taunted or abused your prey after finishing your hunt, that would be beneath you.”

“Quite so,” he agreed. “Not to mention, in this case, bringing me afoul of our agreement that the girl would be unharmed.”

“Yes, indeed,” Kaisa said solemnly. “There is that.”

“Well, I suppose there’s an element of satisfaction in the long history behind this moment,” Embras murmured, smiling coldly as he watched Trissiny chase the phantom demon trace he was puppeteering far below. “Eons of relations between our respective faiths end up either this way, or with swords and fire. I do believe I like this better. Dance for me, little paladin.”


The demon swerved partway down the street, abruptly diving through the doors into the Saloon. Arjen skidded to a halt at Trissiny’s direction, the paladin flinging herself from his saddle before he fully stopped and charging through the swinging doors.

It was a fairly typical night at the establishment, most of the tables occupied and with Jonas Crete currently plucking out a cheerful tune on the old pianoforte. Every conversation in the place abruptly stopped at her entrance, as did the music, and everyone turned to stare; she had burst in hard enough to make both doors slam against the walls to either side.

The presence was there. It had paused just in front of the stuffed grizzly bear, as if taunting her. Trissiny pivoted on one boot and charged at it, sword out, and her aura blazing to life.

Her blade cut a golden arc through the space where she sensed the demon, cleaving a slice from the bear’s belly in the process. A split-second too late; she felt she might have been close enough to nick it, and indeed it seemed to move unevenly as it fled, but move it did, fast enough that she had clearly not finished it off. The invisible demon skittered away toward the doors to the kitchen.

“Hey!” Jonas shouted, jumping upright hard enough to knock over the piano bench at the sudden damage to his bear. “Kid, what the sam hill are you doin’?!”

“Everyone remain calm and in your seat,” Trissiny barked, whirling to race toward the back door as fast as her boots could carry her. “There is a demon in this room.”

A babble of excited, frightened, and irate voices broke out at that.

“A demon? Where?”

“I don’t see no demon.”

“Bullshit!”

“Keep yer head down, you idjit, the paladin knows her business!”

“Repent!”

“Aw, shuddup, Carl.”

“Now, hold it!” Jonas shouted, rushing to intercept her as she reached the kitchen doors. “That’s off limits to customers—”

“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said curtly, grasping the door handle, “but I don’t have time for this.”

“Look, miss, this here’s my bar, and I got rules. You don’t have the right—”

“I’m very sorry,” she said. Finding the door locked, and not pausing to wonder how that could possibly work with the saloon obviously in business, she drew on pure divine light as Professor Harklund had taught, letting it fill and invigorate her, and slammed her armored shoulder into the door.

Trissiny felt the distinct electric shock of an enchantment breaking as the door burst off its hinges, and shrugged it off, charging through into the kitchen beyond. Jonas Crete followed on her heels, now shouting imprecations, which she also ignored.

There was a lot of arcane energy in this room, enough to slightly dampen her own aura; no wonder a demon would flee here. The usual fixtures of a kitchen were present, as was a lot of enchanting equipment at whose function she couldn’t even guess. Standing by the sink, a portly middle-aged woman whirled, gaping at her in shock.

Trissiny lunged after the invisible presence, which was making for the rear door. It turned at the last second, though, shooting sideways; she skidded to a halt and lunged around the island stove in the center of the room, seeking to flank it. The thing was faster than she, faster than anything merely biological possibly could be. It backtracked again, dodging around, her, and she pursued, her shield catching a pot full of something and sending it crashing to the floor in passing.

Jonas was still blocking the kitchen door; the demonic presence went back out the way it had come, apparently right through him, which seemed not to phase him at all.

“Move,” Trissiny barked, charging after it.

“That is it!” Jonas bellowed in pure fury, leveling an accusatory finger at her and seemingly unperturbed by the sight of an oncoming paladin. “You park your ass right there, girl, I am gettin’ the Sheriff—”

“MOVE!” Trissiny roared, golden wings flaring into being behind her. Jonas actually staggered backward in surprise, but didn’t get quite all the way out of the doorway. She had to catch him with her shield and shove him against the wall to push past.

The demon had taken full advantage of her momentary distraction to zip back out into the street. Trissiny went after it in a straight line, ignoring all obstacles in her way, which involved shouldering four men roughly aside and bounding onto and over a table, disrupting a poker game and multiple tankards of beer.

She charged out, whirling to pursue the presence on foot, and leaving behind a maelstrom of shouting and cursing.


“What on earth?” Teal asked, frowning. The sound of a galloping horse had been present only briefly, but the shouting which had followed had not died down. In fact, it had seemed to move around, to judge by the way the distant babble had waxed and waned. The students at their picnic had ignored it for a couple of minutes, but by this point, all of them had stopped eating and were frowning toward the end of the alley.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Sekandar said.

“Doesn’t sound like nothing from here,” Iris replied, her tone slightly nervous.

“Trissiny,” Shaeine said softly.

Ravana’s eyes cut to her, the Duchess’s expression growing guarded. “Pardon?”

“They are shouting about her,” Szith confirmed, “those I can make out over the hubbub. She… I’m not sure what she did, but it appears to have upset quite a few people.”

“Those were some loud hoofbeats,” Maureen agreed. “Coulda been that honkin’ great horse a’ hers, I guess. What’d she do ta mix up the locals, though? She’s one a’ the calmer sorts on campus.”

“That very much depends on the situation,” Shaeine said, shifting as if to rise from her chair.

“She is chasing demons!” Scorn exclaimed, actually standing up. “We must go help!”

“Stop!” Ravana said sharply. “Whatever she did has clearly agitated the residents; let us not add to the chaos.”

“Your Grace, permission to go investigate,” Finchley said crisply, stepping forward.

“Please do,” Ravana replied, nodding to him. Teal, meanwhile, had taken Scorn by the arm, attempting to tug her gently back into her chair.

“I have to agree with Scorn,” Sekandar said, frowning now. “If there is a demon in the town, and Trissiny is after it—”

“I’m not certain that actually is a demon,” Shaeine said softly, her eyes following Finchley until he rounded the corner. “I think… This may develop into a serious problem.”


She had hopped astride Arjen again to charge down a narrow side street, causing two women in bonnets to shriek and press themselves against a picket fence, one actually tumbling backward over it into someone’s yard, but Trissiny remained on target, ignoring all distractions. Following her quarry, she dismounted in another flying leap, landing in a garden and pursuing over another fence, around the corner of a house, and through a back gate which she accidentally knocked off its hinges in her hurry to get through. She did not stop to acknowledge the questions, demands and insults that came hurling after her.

Her aura blazed to life and she hurled a blast of pure divine energy forward, swamping the thing as it leveled out in a garden path and she got a clear shot at it. Indeed, it faltered, staggering drunkenly to one side and the size of its presence in her senses diminishing markedly. That was a horribly inefficient attack, however; the divine did not lend itself easily to such spells. She also couldn’t keep up the stream of energy for more than a second, and as soon as she was forced to let up, the demon strengthened again and zipped forward. In fact, it seemed almost to be pushed ahead by the force of her aura.

And this time, it shot right through someone’s front door into a house.

A second later she was after it, yanking the door open and charging in without hesitation.

“Stay where you are!” she barked at the astonished family sitting around the fireplace. “You’re in danger—head for the chapel as soon as I’m gone!”

She tore past them, into a cozy kitchen and out through a back door, which she left standing open behind her.

The next fence she had to vault hid an older man, who had been sitting amid a small stand of rose bushes into which she plummeted, relaxing in a rocking chair. She was forced to adjust course mid-leap, grabbing the fence with her shield hand and barely avoiding slamming her armored bulk into him. Unfortunately, this caused her to land right on a rose bush, and even more unfortunately, the demon put more distance between them, swerving around the side of the house and toward a street beyond.

“Sorry!” she shouted in passing, her aura flashing and healing away the multiple tiny scratches she had accumulated apparently over every inch of skin not covered by her armor. Roses did not make for a friendly place to land.

“My garden!” the man howled behind her, hurling his walking stick ineffectually. “You hooligan!”

Trissiny vaulted over the front garden gate, tore past the cottage and launched herself into Arjen’s saddle beyond, immediately spurring him forward and down the side street.

The demon seemed to be tiring; at least, it wasn’t keeping ahead quite as fluidly, now. Arjen kept creeping up on it, the invisible presence momentarily faltering and then regaining ground in little bursts rather than at an even speed.

Trissiny barely registered the sound of hoofbeats coming up from behind, not acknowledging the second rider until he pulled abreast of her.

“Trissiny, stop!” Gabriel shouted. “You’re going to cause a riot!”

“You can’t sense it?” she replied, eyes fixed on her invisible quarry. “Just follow me, it’s right there!”

“There is nothing there!” he insisted. “Listen to me, you’re being played!”

They rounded a corner, Whisper falling momentarily behind as they charged past the edge of the little town into open space. Up ahead, the marble columns of the small Silver Mission rose up out of the prairie, the Rail line stretching into the infinite distance behind it. Once around the corner, though, Whisper proved faster than Arjen, and Gabriel urged her forward.

A moment later, he actually guided his steed directly in front of her, turning sideways and forcing Arjen to skid to a halt to avoid plowing into them.

“Get out of the way!” Trissiny shouted in fury.

“Will you listen to me!” he bellowed back. “Trissiny, you have to stop, this is not what it seems to be.”

Her eyes widened, and she turned her gaze from him, peering around in dismay. “What—no! It’s gone!”

“Triss, I’m trying to tell you—”

She heeled Arjen forward around him, trotting in a circle in front of the Mission grounds and looking about frantically. “It was right here, but it’s gone! Just…gone. You made me lose it!”

“That is not all you’ve lost!”

Both paladins turned to face the speaker, a dark-skinned woman with her hair in a multitude of bead-decorated braids, wearing the white robes of a Sister of Avei and a thunderous scowl.

“Young woman, get in here this second!” the priestess snapped. “And you, too, boy. Now.”

“There’s a demon—”

“Enough!” Sister Takli shouted. “I don’t care what rank you have, you silly girl, you are causing a disaster! Get yourself off the street and into the Mission. Immediately, before you make this even worse!”


“Aaaand there we are,” Embras said in satisfaction, flourishing both his hands in an unnecessarily showy gesture as he snuffed out the spell mimicking a demon for Trissiny’s senses. “Brought to a halt at the Silver Mission, as directed. And now, I’m very eager to learn how you plan to extricate her from this fracas.”

He turned expectantly, then blinked his eyes in surprise. Where the kitsune had stood moments before, there was only the faint wind, leaving him alone upon the steeple.

“Huh,” he mused. “So that’s what that feels like. Vanessa’s right, that’s just irritating.”


“It’s not good,” Finchley said seriously. “The whole town’s in an uproar. It looks like she dashed through basically…well, everything. There’s people everywhere, all of ’em mad as hell… Your Grace, none of us have done civil disturbance duty, but it was covered in basic. This is exactly the kind of thing that can get really ugly.”

“I see,” Ravana mused. “How unfortunate… I believe it’s best that we keep our heads down for the time being. This will all be quieted soon enough; the Sheriff in this town is most admirably efficient.”

“What are you talking about?” Scorn exclaimed. “There is demon, Trissiny is chasing, people are in danger! We go to help!”

“There is a better than even chance that there is not actually a demon,” said Shaeine. “We discussed the theory that a false trace was being used to taunt Trissiny, remember?”

“She is not stupid,” the Rhaazke retorted. “If she does this, there is a real problem!”

“Maybe,” said Teal, frowning. “Remember what Malivette said? Hands of Avei apparently get…like coursing hounds, almost, around demonic energy. If she’s being manipulated anyway…”

The conversation broke off at a sudden swell of shouting from the town only a few dozen yards distant, the upraised voices obviously furious. They had stepped away from their table, toward one end of the alley, and now turned in unison to frown in the direction of the bellowing.

“This is too risky,” Moriarty said curtly. “Your Grace, I must respectfully insist that we retreat to the campus. We can’t protect you from an angry mob.”

“I am deeply gratified by your concern, Private Moriarty,” Ravana said, giving him a kind smile and placing one delicate hand on his arm. “And for future reference, that will be the last time you use the word ‘insist’ when addressing me. I cannot imagine we are in danger from—”

She broke off abruptly as Szith drew her sword and held the sinuously curved blade in front of her face, its edge pointed at the ground.

“Ravana,” the drow said in a tone just short of outright anger, “I will speak to you as a warrior and the daughter of a line of warriors going back millennia. Whatever titles you hold, you do not outrank your bodyguard unless you wish to die. He is entirely right; this is a ceremonial guard. They are not equipped or prepared to contain a riot. And if we are forced to defend ourselves against angry townspeople, the political repercussions will be an absolute disaster. We retreat—now. Do I need to carry you?”

Ravana stared up at her in uncharacteristically open surprise, blinking her eyes twice, before visibly gathering herself. “Yes. Well… Upon consideration, I believe I see your point. Forgive me, Private Moriarty. Ah…this way?”

“That leads to the prairie outside the town,” said Sekandar, frowning back at the opposite end of the alley. “We’ll be less likely to run into angry townsfolk there…but it’ll take a lot longer to circle around than the other way.”

“We are to run?” Scorn said plaintively. Teal reached up to pat her on the shoulder.

“Other way’s faster, but riskier,” Rook said tersely. “If we turn right here instead of heading out to the main square, then left, we’ll come out at the little square around the well. It’s a straight shot to the mountain stairs from there. Deeper into the town, though.”

“Most of the noise I hear is coming from the other direction,” said Sekandar, turning to Ravana. “I think it’d be better to take the faster path.”

“I concur,” she said, nodding. “Very well, let’s be off. Gentlemen, if you would?”

Rook and Finchley both saluted her, stepping to the head of the group as they set out, Moriarty waiting to fall behind and bring up the rear.

They moved in tense silence around the first corner, speeding up at another surge of angry shouting from behind them. Coming to a stop at the mouth of the alley leading out into the little plaza surrounding Last Rock’s central well, Finchley held up a hand to stop them while Rook carefully peered out.

“It’s clear,” he said quietly, then hesitated. “Ah…wait. Voices… Man, they’re passing by awfully close.”

Indeed the sound of furious shouting was clearly running adjacent to their route now, close enough that the orange flicker of torchlight was visible against the walls of the other side street opening onto the well yard.

“Go,” Ravana said quietly, having finally picked up the soldiers’ urgency. “We can’t hide here; make for the other side.”

The group moved in unison at her order, stepping out into the yard and making their way rapidly to the right, where the mountain loomed up beyond only a few more buildings.

They made it halfway before a dozen people burst into the square from the opposite side, two carrying torches, and all shouting.

Both groups came to a stop, staring at each other.

“Aww, shite,” Maureen muttered.

“Hey, you!” the man in the lead shouted, stalking toward them.


The interior of the Silver Mission was laid out somewhat like an Avenist temple in miniature, but with more informality. The white marble was softened by rugs and wall hangings, the windows were plain glass instead of stained, and there was no statue of Avei nor weapons displayed. Padded benches were set along the walls, and rather than a dais at the back of the main room, there were doors into the other rooms at the rear of the structure.

Trissiny looked quizzically around, still tense and on edge from her chase. “Where’s Sister—”

“Out trying to clean up the mess you were just busy making,” Sister Takli snapped, “along with, no doubt, Father Laws and the Sheriff. What were you thinking?”

“I was pursuing a demon!” Trissiny shot back. “That’s my calling!”

“You tore up half the town, damaged who knows how much property and accidentally assaulted at least two people that I know of, and that’s just what I know from listening to the shouts and talking to the young woman who fled here in a panic after you apparently demolished the Saloon!”

“Nothing’s demolished,” Trissiny said, affronted. “It was barely—”

“Well, you scared the waitress there badly enough that she fled to the Silver Mission,” Takli retorted. “She’s now hiding in the back, thanks to you. Trissiny, running through a town shouting about demons is bad enough even if you manage to do it without smashing through people’s property and kicking them out of your way!”

“What would you have done?” Trissiny shouted at her. “Just leave everyone in danger from a demon attack because it’s not convenient—”

“It’s called grand strategy!” Takli roared back. “You know this! You’ve had the finest strategic education the Sisterhood can provide—or so I thought! There is more to your calling than just destroying unclean things. You are part of something much greater than yourself, and your actions have consequences that reach far beyond yourself. Do you have any idea how much damage you just did? To the Sisterhood, to the University? To the Church, even? The Hand of Avei stampeding through a town like a madwoman is not acceptable!”

“How dare you lecture me!” Trissiny snarled. “Who are you, anyway? I wasn’t called by the goddess herself to have to explain myself to some—”

“If you are going to act like an undisciplined child, General Avelea, I will treat you as one! Either go for that sword or sit yourself down and take your medicine!”

“HEY!” Gabriel shouted.

“WHAT?” both women snarled in unison, rounding on him.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said, “and I’m also sorry to drag us back out there, considering as mad as everyone is bound to be at you right now, Triss, but according to Vestrel there’s something happening on the other end of town that we had better go deal with.” Seemingly unfazed by their glares, he drew Ariel and turned to stride to the door. “Now.”


“What the hell is wrong with you kids!” Wilson shouted, stomping right up to the group and pointing an accusing finger at Ravana, who stood between and somewhat behind Rook and Finchley. “You think you can just do whatever the hell you want in this town?”

“Pardon me, sir,” she said calmly, “but perhaps you have us mistaken for someone else? We were having a quiet dinner until just minutes ago.”

“Oh, sure,” he sneered. “Walk around with your nose in the air all you want, but as soon as folk start tellin’ you off for it, suddenly you don’t know nothin’ about any trouble!”

“Wilson, calm your ass down,” a man in the group behind him said in exasperation. “Them kids weren’t anywhere near the ruckus; you know which one done it. It’s not like she ain’t distinctive.”

“They’re all alike!” Wilson raged, pressing forward and glaring at Ravana, who merely regarded him with a curious expression. “Well, I don’t aim to—”

He broke off, finding himself staring at the tip of Finchley’s staff, the soldier having stepped directly in front of him.

“Sir,” said Finchley coldly, “if you want to pick fights with paladins, that’s on your head, but I’ll have to insist that you step away from the Duchess.”

“Duchess, bah,” Wilson snarled, curling his lip. “I’m just about done takin’ shit from snotty brats I wouldn’t hire to wipe my boots.”

“You are addressing the sitting governor of Tiraan Province,” Moriarty said sharply, pressing through the students to join the others. “Back away.”

“I don’t see you makin’ me!”

“Wilson, you idjit!” a woman exclaimed. “Boys, don’t pay him no mind, you know how he is.”

“Ma’am, this is a different matter,” said Finchley, not taking his eyes off Wilson. “We are on duty, protecting Lady Madouri. You all need to disperse. Now.”

“Now, you just hold your horses,” another man said, stepping forward with a scowl. “Ain’t nobody here doin’ any harm. You got no call to order us around in our own town.”

“Gentlemen, please,” said Ravana, attempting to crane her neck to be seen around the soldiers. “Let us all step back and calm ourselves; there is no need for any—”

“Boy, you get that damn thing outta my face!” Wilson snapped, grabbing the end of Finchley’s staff and jerking it sideways.

Instantly, two more staves were thrust directly into his face, both suddenly bursting alight with charged energy ready to fire; at that range, the static made his hair stand up.

“ON THE GROUND!” Rook roared with uncharacteristic ferocity. “HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!”

“You are under arrest!” Moriarty bellowed. “For interfering with a functionary of the Tiraan Empire and assaulting an Imperial soldier! These are military charges—any resistance can and will be met with deadly force!”

“Wait!” Sekandar shouted fruitlessly. “Men, stop!”

Wilson, meanwhile, had had the bluster apparently spooked right out of him. Wide-eyed and suddenly ashen-faced, he dropped to his knees, whimpering incoherently and placing his hands atop his head.

Behind him, though, the other townspeople were pressing forward, most of them glaring and muttering angrily.

“This is turning very bad,” Scorn growled, trying to push forward.

“Stop,” Teal ordered, catching her arm.

“I will not stand here and be pushed and yelled by these!” the demon grated, shrugging her roughly off.

With a burst of orange flame, Vadrieny emerged, seizing the Rhaazke by the shoulders. “Stop at once before you make this worse!”

“Oh, love,” Shaeine whispered mournfully.

“We’re under attack!” Wilson wailed, throwing himself face-down in the dirt.

A furious outcry rippled through the crowd at Vadrieny’s sudden appearance, complaints and threats jumbling together too rapidly to be discerned from one another.

“This is your final warning!” Moriarty shouted, leveling his staff at the crowd. “Citizens, you will disperse immediately!”

And then, at one edge of the group, a boy of about twelve stooped and picked up a rock.

Rook took aim at him with his own weapon, even as his face went sickly pale.

“Oh, shit,” he whispered.

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10 – 27

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“What are you doing?” Scorn demanded suspiciously, drawing back her lips to bare fangs and scowling at Rook.

He skittered back a step, eyes widening. “I—oh, uh, I was just… I mean, it’s not like they trained us for honor guard duty, I was just trying to be polite…”

“Armed man sneaking up on my behind is being not polite,” the demon snapped.

“Scorn.” Ravana’s voice was gentle and soft, but nonetheless stilled the growing confrontation. “He’s correct, that was a polite gesture. It’s a custom, here, for a man to hold a lady’s chair for her as she sits.”

“…oh.” Scorn rolled her shoulders once, then nodded curtly at Rook. “Thank you, then, for custom.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied, still edging backward.

Ravana cleared her throat very softly, catching Scorn’s gaze and raising one eyebrow.

The demon drew in a deep breath, swelling menacingly, then let it out in a sigh. “I am sorry for snapping at you. I misunderstood.”

“No offense taken at all!” he said with forced cheer, retreating all the way to the wall. “Enjoy your dinner.”

“Wow,” Teal murmured. Shaeine gave her a sidelong little smile; Maureen grinned and winked.

“Is a good custom anyway,” Scorn added, seating herself. “Man showing respect to a woman. We do not have that at my home. Maybe I start it when I go back.”

“It’s actually a complicated question whether chivalrous gestures like that are respectful or just sexist,” Teal mused. “Or both.”

“Such cultural practices are often difficult to parse in such simple terms,” said Shaeine. “We have many such customs in Tar’naris, and while we largely eschew discriminatory practices that cause unnecessary strife, I must acknowledge that many of them are quite openly sexist.”

“Well, not everything discriminatory is overtly disruptive, necessarily,” Sekandar remarked.

“Indeed,” the drow replied, nodding to him. “In fact, I have had several very interesting conversations with Trissiny about this very subject.”

“If by ‘interesting’ ye mean ‘long,’ I don’t doubt it,” Maureen said cheerfully.

Sekandar hid a smile behind a discreet little cough. “By the way, where is Trissiny? I thought you were going to invite her, Ravana.”

“I did indeed,” the Duchess said serenely. “Invitations were extended to, among others, all three paladins and Princess Zaruda. Unfortunately, that forms a roster entirely of people who have no interest in dinner parties. In frankness, while I would have welcomed anyone who chose to attend, I mostly made the offer so that no one would feel excluded.”

“Ah,” the prince replied, keeping his expression even. Iris sighed softly, glancing down at her hands in her lap.

“I’m afraid the rest of the sophomore class begged off, citing prior commitments,” Ravana said calmly. “But no matter! We are here, and have the place to ourselves. It promises to be an enjoyable evening.”

The place in question was one of the closest things Last Rock had to a back alley: the space between the rear of the Ale & Wenches and the warehouse behind it, which was town property communally used by local businesses for storage. Ravana had somehow arranged for it to be not only scrupulously cleaned, but decorated with tasteful paper lanterns and bunches of hanging flowers. Their table and chairs were of the folding variety, but the tablecloth was a rich brocade. And the food was better than anything served in the A&W. They could hear (and smell) the town clearly, and had a clear view of more back buildings in one direction and the prairie in the other, but a little care had somehow transformed this spot into a peculiar kind of outdoor dining room.

“So,” Scorn said carefully, peering around, “this is a…formal occasion?”

“Oh, not particularly,” Ravana said airily, reaching for the basket of rolls. “I use the term ‘dinner party’ somewhat euphemistically. Really, more of a picnic.”

“Okay, good,” Scorn said, nodding. “I am… There are customs, yes? I don’t know them.”

“Precisely,” Ravana agreed, smiling and glancing over at Teal. “Consider it an opportunity for us to get to know one another better, without the pressure of expectations. And you can get some practice toward dining customs without any stakes.”

“I am not being laughed at,” Scorn said, dragging a scowl around the table.

“Most certainly not,” Sekandar agreed gallantly. “I’m sure no one here would dream of it.”

“Anyone who does will be asked to leave,” Ravana stated. “Which is why I was careful to invite only people who I trust not to do any such thing.”

“And notably,” Iris added, smugly pouring herself a glass of wine, “our other roommate is absent.”

“I begin to wonder if your fixation on Addiwyn isn’t making things in our room worse, with all respect,” said Szith. “I know her flaws as well as you, but she has been notably quiet since the first week of classes.”

“Well, of course,” Iris said acidly. “Since her behavior in the first week was utterly psychotic, that isn’t setting much of a bar, now is it.”

“She did save yer life in the Golden Sea trek,” Maureen pointed out.

“I’m sure that was just reflex,” Iris muttered.

“Granted, I wasn’t as close at the time,” said Sekandar, “but I never met anyone whose reflexes include grabbing a manticore by the tail to prevent it from stinging someone.”

“This roommate,” said Scorn. “I think I have met her. She is the rude elf?”

“That sums her up perfectly,” Iris agreed.

“Hm.” The demon nodded. “Why do you let her to act this way? Best to have things out, openly. If she is being mysterious and nasty, force a confrontation. Then you get the truth!”

A short silence fell.

“I quite agree,” Ravana said after a moment. “In fact, I said so at the time.”

“Aye,” Maureen added wryly. “An’ we tried that. Didn’t go so well.”

“Sometimes forcing a confrontation is the last thing you should do,” Teal said gently. “Um…on another note…are we really just gonna make the guys stand around while we eat?”

“We are on duty,” Moriarty said crisply from the other end of the alley. “Per the statutes governing use of Imperial soldiers by the Houses, our current arrangement with the Duchess constitutes a binding—”

“What he means,” Rook interrupted with a grin, “is that if her Grace wants to pay us to stand around, then stand we shall. You kids have fun, don’t worry about us. Frankly, I feel like we’re gettin’ away with something as it is. Not likely you’re in any danger in this town.”

“Why did you feel the need to hire them on as security, if you don’t mind my asking?” Shaeine inquired.

“I am not concerned for my physical safety, considering the company,” said Ravana, calmly buttering a roll. “Given the tensions in Last Rock, of late, I thought an official Imperial presence might keep things…calm.”

“Well, that’s a good thought, but maybe going a little overboard,” Iris remarked. “Nothing ever happens in this town.”

Teal and Shaeine exchanged a look, but said nothing. At the other end of the alley, Finchley turned to glance at his compatriots.

Rook leaned over and nudged Moriarty with an elbow. “Permission to mention the hellgate?”

“Oh, shut up,” Moriarty muttered.


“No trouble at all,” Tarvadegh assured him, “It’s not like there are any temple ceremonies at this hour, and I tend to stay up late reading, anyway. My time is yours. What’s on your mind, Gabe? Made a breakthrough on that shadow-casting?”

“Actually, this isn’t about training,” Gabriel said slowly, pacing down the center aisle of the underground Vidian sanctuary and finally sinking down onto a bench. “I… Well, I sort of wanted to talk. Are you available in your, y’know, priest-like capacity?”

“Absolutely,” Tarvadegh replied, sitting beside him. “Is this…something you can’t discuss with your friends?”

Gabriel sighed heavily and slumped forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Well…it’s about them, is the thing. Sort of.”

“Okay.” Tarvadegh just nodded, then waited silently for him to continue.

“What if…you knew something?” Gabriel said finally. “Something important…maybe even urgent. Something that affects the people closest to you, and…something you weren’t sure you could tell them?”

“Well, there are a lot of ‘somethings’ in that hypothetical,” the priest replied. “A whole lot depends on the situation. Gabe you don’t have to tell me any details that may be sensitive, rest assured. I’m here to help if I can, though.”

“The thing is…we’ve always been a group, y’know?” Gabriel sighed and absently drew Ariel, turning the sword over and over in his hands. “Maybe not at first, we had to learn to work together… But as things are, we’re a unit. My first instinct is always to trust the group, to bring them stuff like this so we can plan, but… I dunno, I have this feeling that it would be a bad idea in this case. The specific problem in question, I’m afraid, might provoke a, uh, fearful, ignorant reaction.”

“How so?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.

Gabriel glanced over at him. “…this is confidential, right?”

“Absolutely,” the priest said immediately. “Assume that Vidius hears anything you have to say here, but confession is sacred in all faiths I know of. I wouldn’t reveal your thoughts even to Lady Gwenfaer.”

“Well, there’s some heavy stuff going on,” Gabriel said, watching the light flicker dimly across Ariel’s blade. “The…Black Wreath is sniffing around us. Rather aggressively. And yeah, that sounds like exactly the kind of thing I should warn somebody about, right? Except… Based on what I know, I really think it’s smartest to take a step back and let them, for now. And…that would be a really, really hard sell. Even Toby probably wouldn’t go for that; Trissiny would absolutely lose her mind. Teal and Vadrieny have their own issues with the Wreath, and after what happened in Veilgrad, we’ve all got cause to be nervous about them. But I’m also thinking about Veilgrad, and the Wreath, who they are and what they want. And in this case…they are specifically not trying to hurt us. They seem to be trying to provoke a reaction.”

“That sounds like a rather hostile action in and of itself,” Tarvadegh observed.

Gabriel nodded. “But I’ve got indication their motive may actually be helpful… And there are other things. Professor Ekoi is circling them like a hawk, which I’m pretty sure means Professor Tellwyrn knows about this, too. And neither of them has done anything. What I think… I think the right thing to do would be to quietly watch and see what they do. And I think my friends will insist on going on the attack. And…I think that would be a disaster.”

“Can I ask a few questions?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.

“Sure, of course.”

“I suspect I know this already, but what source of information do you have that your classmates don’t?”

Gabriel grimaced. “Yeah, well…that’s another thing. I think certain issues may come up about the fact that I’m having valkyries spy on people. Do you… This isn’t some kind of abuse of my position, is it, Val?”

“I doubt you have to worry about that,” the cleric assured him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t really make the reapers do anything—if they choose to help you, take it as a sign of their favor. And additionally, anything you do involving them is all but guaranteed to have the god’s attention, so be assured he would let you know if he disapproved.”

“Okay, good.” Gabriel sighed, nodding. “That’s actually quite a relief.”

“Whether it’s an abuse of anyone’s trust is another matter,” Tarvadegh continued. “A paladin’s role is a martial one more often than not, and there are circumstances in which gathering intelligence is necessary and appropriate. Especially against the Black Wreath.”

“And…” Gabriel paused to swallow. “…what about certain new priestesses of Vidius and Avei who may have moved to the town recently?”

For a long moment, Tarvadegh stared at him in silence. Finally, he leaned back, his expression growing thoughtful.

“I’ve not been in a hurry to introduce you to some of the more complex inner workings of the cult,” he said at last. “Since our earliest practice sessions, it’s seemed to me that you do better being yourself first and a Vidian second. There must be a reason Vidius called our first paladin from outside the faith. But as a general rule, Gabriel… This kind of thing is not at all unusual within our ranks. The doctrine of masks and false faces makes trust a thing that we perceive differently than most others. We don’t value it less—if anything, we value it more. But within the cult, there is an expectation that no one is going to tell you the full truth about themselves, their ambitions, or their activities. If you’re spying on a priestess of Vidius, for whatever reason… Well. Without saying anything personal about the woman in question, just by virtue of her position, she’s probably done as much to others.”

“Have you?” Gabriel asked, frowning slightly.

Tarvadegh gave him a grin. “Yes, of course. Though for future reference, that’s a question you’ll probably want to avoid asking people outright.”

“Yeah, that occurred to me as soon as I said it,” Gabriel agreed, wincing.

“And as I said, if you’re using valkyries to do this, you would be told if Vidius disapproved of your activities. If anything, I’m encouraged to see you taking some initiative with intelligence-gathering. Now, spying on a priestess of Avei is another matter. To my knowledge, the Avenists have no craft that could detect a valkyrie’s presence, but for future reference, absolutely do not try that on a Salyrite.”

“Noted.”

“And be wary of the likely repercussions if you are discovered. The only cults that actively spy on the Sisterhood are the Black Wreath and the Thieves’ Guild. You have probably heard from Trissiny what they think about that.”

“Yep,” he said ruefully.

“But back to your original question,” Tarvadegh said in a more serious tone, again squeezing his shoulder. “First, let me say that I’m very glad to see you thinking carefully before acting. Honestly, Gabriel, in general I’ve observed that you thinking of yourself as thoughtless is more of a fault of yours than actually being thoughtless, though thoughtlessness is still a real issue you have. I, uh, sort of lost control of that sentence. Need me to re-phrase?”

“No, I think I got it,” Gabriel said, grinning. “And you’re pretty much not wrong.”

“Okay, good,” Tarvadegh replied with a smile. “So yes, I’m glad you’re thinking about this first. However, the main reaction I take from it is that you don’t seem to respect your friends very much.”

Gabriel straightened up, his eyes widening, and stared at Tarvadegh in mute dismay.

“Think about it,” the priest went on gently. “These are some of the most dangerous people in the world—and, as you have seen firsthand, some of the most effective. Sure, they have their foibles. Just from your own descriptions, I know of several, and yes, I can see how the information you’re withholding could generate some rather strident reactions from several of them. But ultimately, none of them are stupid, and you aren’t without flaws. Gabriel, when you decide to determine who knows what, you’re effectively trying to control what people do. And that means you’ve placed yourself at the head of the group—a group which you’re now trying not even to lead, but to manipulate.”

“But…but…” Gabriel clenched his jaw, swallowed heavily, then lowered his eyes.

“And,” Tarvadegh said kindly, “I know that isn’t what you intend. Honestly, as a Vidian paladin…well, you’re unprecedented, but if someone had told me ten years ago there would be a Vidian paladin, I’d have pictured someone doing exactly that. The problem here, as I see it, is that your actions are in conflict with your ethics and your desires. I think you’ve stumbled into this box accidentally, not out of a desire to control the situation. That, in my opinion, is the root of your problem.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said quietly. “That’s…wow. Holy crap, I’m an asshole.”

“As we were just saying,” Tarvadegh said wryly, “you’re a little thoughtless. People make mistakes. Whether or not you’re an asshole is a function of what you do next.”

“Right. You’re right.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Yeah, I have to tell them everything. I should’ve just done that from the beginning…crap, this is gonna be a difficult conversation.”

“The important ones usually are.”

“Thanks, Val. This…was exactly what I needed to hear.”

“Well, that’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Tarvadegh said with a grin. “That’s a joke. They don’t actually—”

He broke off and both of them looked at the ceiling as the sound of hoofbeats thundered by overhead.

“What the…” Gabriel frowned. “It’s after dark, who’d be…” He trailed off, glancing to the side at the invisible figure which had just dived in from above. “Oh, shit. Trissiny.”


“Bishop Syrinx, may I have a word with you?”

Basra glanced over at Ildren, who had just emerged from the rear door of their borrowed townhouse, but did not pause in stretching. Against the far wall of the rear courtyard, Jenell also glanced up, then immediately resumed packing away their practice swords and surreptitiously rubbing the several bruises she’d just acquired.

The house, though its décor was purely Viridill, was built in the Tiraan style, which meant a short public garden in the front, by the street, and a walled courtyard behind. Since this particular house sat on a corner, bordered by streets on two sides, it was less private than some—they could hear the traffic outside from the courtyard, and there was no telling what anyone had thought of the sounds of two women going at each other with wooden swords for the last hour.

“Certainly,” Basra said after leaving her to stew for a calculated moment. “I’m about to head inside, though; make it quick, if you please.”

Ildrin glanced over at Jenell. “In private, please?”

“I’m willing to indulge you, but not the point of going out of my way,” Basra said brusquely. “And Covrin is my assistant; she’s likely to end up hearing anything you have to say, anyway. I have a habit of venting to her about the various time-wasters I’ve had to deal with in the course of a day.”

Ildrin clenched her jaw for a moment. “…fine. What is your problem with me? I hardly know you, but I came here to offer my assistance when asked, and you have been nothing but dismissive and hostile.”

“Very well, you want the simple truth?” Despite her claim to be on the way inside, Basra turned and strolled over to a stone bench set against the courtyard’s far wall, seating herself. “Working where I do, in the Universal Church, dealing largely with the results of Archpope Justinian’s various…agendas…I have incidentally become acquainted with a number of individuals whom he considers useful and trustworthy. Yours is a name that has repeatedly come to my attention, both in the Church itself and from sources within the Sisterhood. You have a well-established reputation, Sister Falaridjad, as someone interested in Justinian’s cause as much as Avei’s. If not more so.”

“That is a false dichotomy and you know it!” Ildrin exclaimed. “I have never been anything but loyal to Avei and the Sisterhood. But yes, I see a great deal of sense and virtue in the messages that the Archpope has put forth during his tenure, and I’d like to think that’s reflected in my actions. So why is this a problem?” She took a step forward, pointing an accusing finger at Basra. “You have the same reputation, and far more than I! I’d say anyone in the Sisterhood or the Legions would contend you’re as much Justinian’s creature as Rouvad’s. I’ve heard more than a few rumors that’s the reason you’re now out here. What, exactly, is your problem with me?”

“I have no problem with you,” Basra said in perfect calm. “I barely know you, nor have any particular interest in you. My problem is with a Universal Church element meddling in this matter. From the Sisterhood’s perspective, intervention by the Church is not appropriate unless called for. From mine…” Her voice and expression abruptly hardened considerably. “If Justinian or you have any thoughts of ‘helping’ me make a name for myself out here to restore Commander Rouvad’s high opinion of me, any attempt to do so would horribly backfire. And then I will be angry.”

“Your Grace,” Jenell said, staring at a spot in the far corner of the courtyard, where dust had begun to swirl upward in a slow spiral that had nothing to do with the very faint movements of air that drifted over the walls.

“Furthermore,” Basra barreled on, making a silencing gesture at Jenell, “Justinian, at least, is wise enough to know that any attempt by him to intervene would only worsen matters. Which means you’re either here on your own initiative, or far more likely, this is Branwen’s idea. Allow me to let you in on a secret, in case you haven’t noticed: Branwen is an idiot. Letting her graduate beyond serving Izara flat on her back has been a sad waste of the only use she has.”

Ildrin narrowed her eyes. “Whatever issues the two of you have, she has the same reputation among Church-related circles. She’s trusted, and loyal to his Holiness. So, yes, when she approached me about this, I was glad to offer my services.”

Basra snorted. “I’ll consider my point made.”

“Ma’am?” Jenell said in alarm, having put down the practice swords and picked up her metal one. The dust column had silently swelled to a height greater than a person, and was coalescing slowly into a humanoid figure.

“Fine, whatever!” Ildrin exclaimed. “You can still control the situation—it’s not like I’m going to run around trying to slay elementals behind your back! Just give the orders and I’ll follow them; that was the job I signed on for. There is no reason for you to be so hostile! I came here in good faith. Does it matter to you at all how this affects me?”

Basra stared blankly at her. Jenell started to speak again, but the Bishop made a swatting gesture in her direction. “Of course. Sure, of course your perspective matters. But not at the expense of the mission. I’ve told you already, Falaridjad, just be ready; when trouble arises, you’ll get your chance to prove yourself.”

“And in the meantime,” the priestess said bitterly, “I’m to continue being treated like a—”

“Basra!” Jenell barked.

Basra snapped her head sideways to glare at her, and in the next moment was on her feet, falling into a ready stance. Jenell threw her sheathed sword, which she deftly caught and drew, tossing the scabbard down onto the bench.

Despite being formed from dust, the massive figure’s slow movements made a soft grinding of stone against stone, and indeed it looked, now, like it was assembled from irregular chunks of rock. Towering over eight feet tall and proportioned in a way that would have been imposing even had it not been made of boulders, the elemental dwarfed both them and the courtyard itself. As Jenell backed up toward Basra, it turned to face the three women. The lower of the slabs of rock that formed its head shifted, opening up an obvious mouth, and a deep rumble sounded from within.

“Well, Falaridjad, now’s your chance,” Basra said quietly. “Don’t make any moves to agitate it, but on my signal, I want you to draw as much divine energy as you can. Weakening it is the only chance we have against that thing.”

“Will that be enough?” Jenell asked, her voice trembling.

“We are about to find out,” Basra said, apparently in total calm. “Try to circle around, slowly, toward the door. If this doesn’t work, we’ll have to run, and it can’t fit…”

She trailed off as the door to the house opened and Ami came strolling out, strumming a soft tune on her guitar and looking perfectly unconcerned. She ambled out into the courtyard, beginning to sing a lilting tune in elvish.

The rock elemental had been shifting toward the three women, its posture clearly aggressive, but suddenly it went quiet, turning to focus on the bard. Another rumble sounded from within, but this time a very soft one; it took one ponderous step toward her, then sank slowly down onto its knees, peering down at her.

Ami smiled calmly up at it, continuing to play, but the words of her song changed.

“Oh, don’t stop planning on my account,

You were really going strong!

Get an idea and please spit it out—

I can’t keep this up for long.”

“Okay…same plan applies,” Basra said. “Move toward the door, slowly so as not to agitate it. Talaari can back inside last, and it’ll be trapped out there.”

“I’m pretty sure that thing can beat down the wall and get out into the city,” Ildrin said tersely.

“And we’ll deal with that,” Basra replied. “but first we have to survive, and that means not being trapped in a box with it.”

The back door abruptly banged open again and Schwartz came skittering out, Meesie clinging to his hair. “Your Grace! Bishop Syrinx! My wards have picked up a major elemental ohhhhh, shit.”

He slid to a halt, frozen and staring up at the elemental, which had turned its head to peer at him, beginning to straighten up.

Ami’s fingers danced nimbly across her strings, and her voice glided upward into a deft arpeggio that seemed almost to fill the courtyard with light. The elemental turned back to face her, seeming to relax again, and shuffled forward a couple of grinding steps, bending closer.

“Ah, good, our specialist,” Basra said sharply. “Schwartz, do something about this.”

“Right,” Schwartz said weakly, staring up at the elemental, then physically shook himself. “Right! I can…yes, I think I can banish it. How did that thing get in here?”

“It didn’t start like that,” Jenell said. “It formed from dust.”

“Dust to stone! That’s amazing! Whoever summoned this must be—ah, yes, right, on topic. Yes, I can still banish it, provided it’s in a weakened state. Ladies, when I give the word, I’ll need you to channel as much raw divine energy at it as possible—but not until I’m prepared! That will make it very angry.”

“Covrin, go get Branwen out here,” Basra said curtly. Jenell darted through the door into the kitchen without another word.

Schwartz, meanwhile, knelt on the ground and pulled several small pouches and vials from within his sleeves, while Meesie scampered down his arm to cling to his hand. “Ami, can you keep it in that position, please? I’ll just need a couple of minutes.”

Ami didn’t even glance at him, nor allow her relaxed posture and kind smile to waver, but switched again to a stanza in Tanglish.

“I hardly have it on a leash!

Be quick about it, Schwartz.

Fine control’s outside my reach.

Nothing rhymes with Schwartz.”

“Warts?” Ildrin suggested; Basra made a slashing motion at her.

Schwartz, meanwhile, had picked Meesie up and bodily dipped her in a bag of powder, held her up to whisper into her twitching ear, then set her back down. The fire-mouse immediately dashed toward the towering elemental, leaving behind a trail of sparkling powder on the ground. Upon reaching it, she began running around it, first in a simple circle, then in more complicated patterns. Gradually, a full spell circle began to form around the elemental’s feet, positioned so that it was entirely inside it, and Ami was just barely within its outer edge.

“Don’t!” Basra said urgently when Ami took a half-step back. “It’s fixated on you, Talaari; it’ll follow you. Retreat when we’re ready to move.”

The bard made no response, continuing to play, sing, and gaze placidly up at the rock elemental.

It made another soft rumble, then reached over with one huge, clumsy hand to grab a small rose bush from nearby. This it ripped right out of the ground, and set down next to Ami.

Meesie’s powder was not running out, fortunately, but it took the tiny elemental time to weave in and out, forming the circle. Schwartz kept his eyes focused on her, expression intent; Ami played on, and Basra stood with her sword at the ready, a half-step in front of Ildrin, whose eyes darted nervously about.

Jenell ran back out the kitchen door, trailed a half-moment later by Branwen, who stared at the scene intently but without apparent alarm.

“Schwartz?” Basra said quietly.

“Almost,” he murmured, beckoning. Meesie dashed back to him, and he gave her a small handful of nuts, which she stuffed into her mouth, making her cheeks bulge comically. “Just another moment…”

Meesie ran back to the spell circle, and made a quick but halting trip around it, pausing every few feet to retrieve an acorn from within her mouth with her nimble front paws and place it in a specific spot on the circle. The whole time, Ami kept up her singing.

The effect was clearly beginning to waver, however. The elemental made another rumbling sound, shifting as if in a shrug. It began clambering back upright.

“Schwartz,” Basra said urgently. For the first time, Ami glanced aside at him, betraying nervousness.

“Done!” he said, as Meesie dashed back toward him. “Swamp it with light and I’ll do the rest!”

“On my signal,” Basra said rapidly, “you two join me at the edge of that circle, and you get out of there, Talaari. Three…two…now!”

She rushed forward, her aura flaring alight, with Branwen and Ildrin flanking her. Ami skittered backward, keeping up her strumming for good measure, but between that and the sudden wash of divine energy, the elemental’s calm was effectively shattered. It threw up one arm to shield its head from the glow, letting out a low, awful roar of displeasure.

Shifting its body around, it drew back its other arm, clearly preparing a devastating punch at Basra, Branwen and Ildrin.

“Herschel!” Jenell cried.

“Got it!” he said, planting his hand, palm-down, on the very edge of the trail Meesie had made toward the elemental, the one feeding into the circle itself.

Rather than anything rising up from the circle, a column of white light slammed down from the sky, filling the space defined by the spell circle and momentarily blotting out the elemental from sight. It let out another unearthly roar, and suddenly the light vanished.

Where it had stood, there was only dust. It didn’t hold together even for a second, collapsing to the ground and washing over them in a cloud that seemed to fill the courtyard. All six staggered backward from it, coughing and spluttering, Ami trying to hold her guitar overhead and out of reach of the tide of grit.

In seconds, however, the dust dissipated as well, seeming to melt back into thin air. Only a few swirls of powder were left on the ground, in and around the remains of Schwartz’s banishment circle. A double handful of fragrant mint leaves drifted on the air, settling gradually to the ground.

Branwen caught one. “What on earth…?”

“Oh, ah, that’s mine,” Schwartz said awkwardly. “Well, I mean, you’re welcome to have it, if you want, but that was conjured by my… That is, it’s perfectly safe! All my doing, nothing to do with whoever called that thing here.”

“Good work, all of you,” Basra said, lowering her sword to her side. “Especially you, Schwartz, and you, Talaari.”

“All in a day’s work,” he said modestly.

“Well, I do have a few uses, if I may say so,” Ami replied with a smug smile. “Don’t think of me as just the bitch with the nice ones.”

“Oh!” Scwhartz’s eyes widened. “Bishop Syrinx! I came out here to tell you—it wasn’t just here! I detected multiple elementals appearing—all over the city!”

In the sudden silence that fell over the courtyard, they finally took note of the sounds drifting in from outside. The normal mild clamor of early evening traffic had been replaced by a distant but distinct cacophony of crashing, splashes, and screams.

“Stop!” Basra barked as Ildrin whirled to dash for the courtyard’s side door. “Running out there with no plan will only make things worse. Back into the house, grab any weapons or supplies you need, and meet at the front door in two minutes. We will find what’s going on and put a stop to it, but in an organized fashion. Go!”

They all turned and moved toward the door, following the Bishop, who suited her words with action by being the first one through. Jenell paused and backtracked a moment to retrieve Basra’s scabbard from the side bench where it still lay.

“You, ah, might want to be careful with the b-word, Ami,” Schwartz said, following the bard in at the tail of their procession. “Avenists really don’t like it.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, turning to give him a coy smile. “Ildrin definitely didn’t, I could tell. But Bishop Syrinx, who is never too shy to express her displeasure about anything? Not even a hint that she’d noticed.” She turned forward again, her smile only broadening as she stepped back into the shadows of the house. “Interesting, is it not?”

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10 – 23

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“That’s…heavy stuff,” Gabriel said slowly, frowning into the distance. “And by the way, am I the only one noticing a pattern here? Deities seem unusually interested in our social circle.”

“I had the same thought,” Teal agreed. “And…honestly, it’s a little unnerving. I mean, not that we haven’t all been treated well by various gods, but in the stories…”

“In the stories,” Ruda finished, “when the gods start paying undue attention to you, it’s usually either the cause or the effect of you being utterly fucked.”

“So that’s true in Punaji stories, too?” Teal asked.

Ruda grinned. “Gods are gods, Teal. It’s been eight thousand fuckin’ years. People everywhere have pretty much figured out to stay outta their damn business.”

The group was nominally moving, but at a pace more conducive to conversation than getting anywhere. They had paused in a bench-lined alcove sheltered by oak trees, most of them consumed by curiosity over Teal’s late arrival to class and what had caused it. Now, with that story told, the students were occupied with digesting and discussing the details of her encounter, and only incidentally making their way toward their next class.

“Well,” Juniper mused. “The last one made a new paladin. So…maybe that’s what he wants from you, Teal!”

Teal groaned, covering her eyes with a hand.

“I think, with all respect to everyone present,” Shaeine said softly, “I would not prefer that outcome, either.”

“There’s never been a Vesker paladin before,” Fross chimed, fluttering slowly about their heads. “On the other hand… There’s never been a Vidian paladin till now, either. And when Vidius came to the campus this spring, he kind of implied he wasn’t the only god looking to expand his repertory, didn’t he?”

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard something like that,” Toby added. “When Omnu called me, he stated outright that the Pantheon had all been reconsidering the state of the world, and that was why they’d held off calling paladins for thirty years.”

“Avei said the same at my calling,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully.

“I really don’t think that’s it,” Teal said fervently, “and I’m fairly sure that’s not just the voice of wishful thinking. Honestly, he seemed more critical of the way I’ve been doing than anything else.”

“It’s kinda funny a god would show up out of nowhere just to nitpick,” Juniper pointed out. “I mean, the paladin thing makes some sense, right? Also, sorry if I’m being dense, but I’m not sure I get why you’re so down on the idea. It seems to come with a lot of advantages.”

“Paladins tend not to live very long,” Trissiny said in an extremely neutral tone.

“Well, but she’s got Vadrieny!” Juniper said brightly. “So, hey, maybe that’s the whole point. An un-killable paladin!”

“Nothing’s un-killable,” Gabriel said rather darkly.

“Hell yes!” Ruda crowed, brandishing a bottle of scotch. “Paladins all around! Everybody gets a divine calling! Fuck yeah, I can be the new Hand of Naphthene!”

“Um, excuse me,” Gabriel said, “but isn’t she the one who doesn’t like anybody, doesn’t give a shit about anything, sometimes sinks ships even when they’ve made the right offerings, smites people for praying to her, and cursed your entire family?”

“Exactly!” Ruda replied, grinning madly. “It’s perfect for me!”

“I don’t really think so,” he said, regarding her pensively. “That’s just chaotic dickery. You’re an invested, goal-directed asshole. It seems like a basically different kind of a thing.”

“Anyway!” Teal said firmly. “Seriously, why ever Vesk has decided to take an interest in me, I really don’t think that’s it. Especially with my situation with Vadrieny. Vesk is not impressed by brute force; that’s the whole point of being a bard. He, uh, didn’t sound very impressed by my ability to do without brute force, either…”

“The more we contemplate this,” said Shaeine, “the more obscure his intentions appear. I am reminded that it is generally so, when discussing the plans of the gods. For the time being, perhaps it would be more productive to simply consider Vesk’s advice, and act upon it insofar as it is possible. You have our full support in this, Teal,” she added more softly.

“Hell yeah,” Ruda agreed. “All joking and theorizing aside, we’ve got your back.”

“In theory,” Juniper said thoughtfully. “I mean… Based on what it seems he was talking about, I, uh, kinda suck at that, too.”

“Now, that is a potential reason Vesk might take a firm interest in our resident bard,” Trissiny suggested. “If you consider us as an adventuring party in one of his stories… There are three paladins, a cleric and a demigoddess among us—we’re a group who might reasonably attract the interest of any deity. And subtlety has not exactly been our strong suit.”

“Ballroom dancing isn’t our strong suit, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Subtlety is the realm in which we have collectively set new standards of failure and ineptitude.”

“Right, so it’s something we can work on,” Gabriel said seriously. “As a starting point, perhaps we could all refrain from fucking stabbing each other.”

“Arquin,” Ruda said sardonically, “if you’re gonna keep trotting that old thing out, I might just have to arrange for it to be fresh and applicable again.”

Toby sighed.

“Hey, Teal!”

They all straggled to a stop as Scorn came stomping up the path, waving. It had taken a few weeks of getting to know the demon before people stopped being alarmed by that approach, but despite the appearance that she was trying to punish the earth with her claws, she was probably not walking that way out of anger. It was just her gait.

“Hi, Scorn,” Teal replied, waving back. “What’s up?”

The Rhaazke came to a stop in the path in front of them, wearing an uncharacteristically pensive frown. “Where you were just now? You have a class, yes? Right before now?”

“Yes, magic with Professor Ekoi,” Teal said slowly. “I was late, though, because… Well, that’s a long story. Why, were you looking for me?”

Scorn shook her head impatiently. “You are always in this class, this time of day? It’s known?”

“Well, the schedule’s public,” Teal said. “Why do you ask?”

The demon let out a short breath through her nose, looking off to the side, then narrowed her eyes. “Tell me… Hellhound breath. The hounds, they are from my place—very hard to get here, yes? Almost impossible, like me?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Gabriel. “Did…you want a pet? I mean, I can see how a reminder of home would be nice…”

“Ooh!” Fross bobbed up and down in excitement. “Melaxyna has two down in the Crawl! They’re crazy strained for resources down there, I bet we could get her to trade for something!”

“I rather suspect that Professor Tellwyrn has already ruled that out,” Shaeine said calmly, “considering the value of those creatures, and the fact that several of our fellow students are appallingly mercenary.”

“No, no!” Scorn waved a hand impatiently. “I don’t need, I am asking about the breath. Hard to get here, yes? It is expensive?”

“Hellhound breath is illegal to possess or trade in the Empire due to its use in high-level necromancy and the necessity of category one demonic trafficking to obtain it,” Fross recited. “The substance has unparalleled powers of awakening, and aside from its necromantic utility has—”

“I know what is the breath,” Scorn exclaimed in exasperation. “I have four at home! They are stay in their kennel at night so I can have sleep. I am asking, it is rare here? Very rare? Very expensive?”

“Oh, sorry, I guess you would know that,” Fross said, chagrined. “Um, yes, then. It’s rare, and expensive.”

“How expensive?” Scorn pressed. “Say, amount in a bottle the size of a pea. This costs what? You could buy a building with?”

“Um…sorry,” the pixie replied somewhat awkwardly. “I do like to diversify my studies, but the economics of magical contraband isn’t something I’ve found a need to investigate.”

“Scorn, what’s going on?” Toby asked. “Why do you need hellhound breath?”

“I don’t need,” Scorn said brusquely, turning her attention back to Teal. “You do not like Ravana Madouri, right?”

Teal drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh. “Ah. This is all beginning to make more sense.”

“Glad you are having sense made,” Scorn said in visible annoyance. “Meanwhile, I am asking question which is not answered!”

“Scorn,” Trissiny said pointedly, “calm. We talked about this.”

“Yes, when you will not take me to town,” the demon shot back, scowling at her. “Your talk is boring, Trissiny.”

“Having you leave the mountain requires special permission from Professor Tellwyrn,” Shaeine said, “which she would not give if you approached her in a state of anger. The attempt would likely set back your progress in gaining her trust. This was all explained.”

“Well, I am understand a few things better now,” Scorn said. “I leave the mountain today, just now.”

“What?” Teal shouted, almost overwhelmed by similar outbursts from several of the others.

“Not very far off,” Scorn said quickly, making a dismissive gesture with her hand. “Not into the town. There is a spot at the bottom of the mountain, yes? Sort of still on it, I guess, actually. There is a nice hill and shady trees and boulders and stuff.”

“Wait, you went down to the make-out spot?” Gabriel said, his eyebrows climbing abruptly. “I am suddenly very alarmed, and oddly intrigued.”

“If you act on either of those feelings, I may be forced to emulate Princess Zaruda with regard to your foot.”

“Shut up, Ariel!” several people chorused, including Scorn.

“What were you doing down there?” Toby demanded. “Scorn, you know the rules, and the risks. If you aggravate Professor Tellwyrn we may not be able to protect you!”

“I am not need protected!” Scorn shot back, baring her teeth.

“Enough.” Teal’s voice was firm, but flat, and cut through the argument like a shut door. “I have a feeling I know, generally, where this is headed. Were you with Ravana, Scorn?”

“Ravana, yes, and Iris. I am not say her last name; not sure I can do it right. Anyway, I was asking.” She frowned again, gazing at Teal’s face. “You do not like Ravana. She is say… Um, well, I am not sure how much I trust what she says. She has ideas that are make me think. But you I trust, Teal, and Lady Vadrieny. I am concerned to know why you dislike her.”

“Ravana,” Teal said in a slow, careful tone, her eyes never leaving Scorn’s, “is extremely devious, highly intelligent, highly driven and ambitious, and… I don’t think she really has any moral scruples. At all. She definitely doesn’t regard other people with much personal feeling. She’s a very dangerous person.”

“Wait, really?” Gabriel said. “Ravana, the cute little blonde one?”

Trissiny turned very slowly to stare at him.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” he huffed. “That is neither the dumbest nor the most offensive thing I’ve ever said.”

“This week, even,” Toby said dryly.

“Thanks for chiming in, there, bro.”

“And for all that,” Teal said in a softer tone, now frowning at the ground, “I don’t think I’ve been entirely fair to her. We…met under extremely stressful circumstances. It’s entirely possible part of what I feel toward her is based on that, rather than on her.”

Shaeine stepped closer, shifting her hand to press the back of it against Teal’s.

“Do you think,” Scorn said thoughtfully, “she would lie to harm me?”

Teal ruminated for a moment, then shook her head. “I think…that’s the wrong question, Scorn. Yes, she’s capable of harming you, or anyone else, but what’s more important is why. In my opinion, the way she acts toward people is not based on any personal feeling for them, but…cold logic. A calculation of what she feels is most in her best interests.”

“Hm,” the demon said, nodding contemplatively. “That is not really honorable. But maybe is not dishonorable, depends how it is done with.”

“That’s actually a pretty damn salient analysis,” Ruda commented. “An’ I think you’re right, based on my own conversations with the girl. Ravana Madouri is a born stateswoman. She’s not gonna hurt anybody for no reason, but if she has a reason, she won’t hesitate for an instant.”

“I thought she seemed sweet,” Gabriel mumbled.

“Of course she fucking did, Arquin,” Ruda said scathingly. “That’s what they do.”

“Scorn,” Teal said, “what does hellhound breath have to do with me being in class and you talking with Ravana just now?”

“There is class for younger scholars,” Scorn replied. “Alchemy with Admestus. Ravana is bribe him to cancel, so she can talk with me—hellhound breath in a bottle, size of a pea, she says. And I am thinking, what is worth to her to talk with me in one time she knows you will not be there? So I want to know how much is hellhound breath worth.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered. “I mean, I don’t know black market economics any better than Fross, but hellhound breath is one of the rarest magical reagents there is. I’m pretty sure a pea-sized bottle of hellhound breath is worth more than a pumpkin-sized ball of platinum. That stuff’s right up there with mithril.”

“I have to say it’s somewhat alarming she’d consider it that important to get her hooks into Scorn without us around,” Trissiny said, scowling and absently fingering her sword.

“Bear in mind,” said Shaeine, “that a thing’s value is a function of various factors. Its rarity and utility, yes, but also the facility with which it can be traded—which in this case, I gather, is not easy. A House as ancient and wealthy as Madouri is likely to have unimaginable treasures in its vaults. If Ravana already owned such a substance and had no intention of performing necromancy, she might not consider it as severe a loss.”

“That’s reasonable and probably true,” said Juniper, “but it’s also just speculation.”

“Quite right,” Shaeine agreed, nodding to her. “I was merely pointing out that we do not know her means, motivations…anything, really. There is also the fact that she stands to gain by cultivating Professor Rafe’s favor, both during her academic career and afterward. He is one of the world’s foremost alchemists.”

“Hm,” Scorn said, folding her arms and tapping one clawed foot. “Ravana wants to be friends with me. She says she can teach me to…um. Behave better. More like is supposed to do on this planet.”

“I thought we were doing that,” Trissiny said, sounding slightly affronted.

“I’m not sure I can say how well we were doin’ it,” Ruda said dryly.

“Also, I thought you were from the same planet on a different dimensional resonance?” Fross added.

“Augh!” Scorn exclaimed, grabbing her horns dramatically. “Again! Always you do this, all the time! You people are never just having a talk on the subject, it always goes around with arguing and jokes till I am not remember what I was talk about!”

“Annoying, isn’t it?” Ariel agreed.

“Well, I think they’ve got us there, guys,” Fross chimed.

“I am talk about Ravana,” Scorn said insistently. “I am ask what you think, because you have my trust. It is…safe? I should take her advice?”

“Hmm,” Teal murmured.

“Yes,” Ruda said, catching her eye, then turning to Scorn with a decisive nod. “Yeah, I think a lot of what you can learn from Ravana Madouri would help you hugely with what you need to know about the world. But.” She pointed a warning finger at the demon. “You keep it firmly in mind at all times that anything that girl does, she does because she sees an advantage in it for herself.”

“In fact,” Teal said, raising her gaze to meet Scorn’s, “I agree. And I think I will join you, Scorn. We both have a lot we could learn from a scheming noblewoman. She clearly wants to teach, for whatever reason… And I think we’ll be a lot better off not letting her separate us to do it.”


“Home again, home again!” Embras said cheerily, strolling up to the broad door of the barn. The shadow of the mountain kept Last Rock relatively cool at this time in the afternoon, but this one structure, out beyond the edge of town, was half in direct sunlight. It was also, despite being clearly repaired and stocked with hay, currently disused and apparently unoccupied.

“Yes, looks cozy,” Vanessa said absently. “Embras, exactly how heavy a deflection did you lay over this barn? Quite apart from that damned kitsune, it’s not smart to make assumptions about what Tellwyrn can or can’t pick up on.”

“Relax, I am a constant work in progress,” he replied, turning his head to wink at her. “Each day I pick up new tricks. In this case, I spent the morning sniffing around that shiny new Vidian temple. The deflection over this spot currently looks exactly like their method—augmented with our own particular brand of misdirection till I bet Vidius himself would think his people did it.”

“I’m not sure it’s to our advantage to have Vidius sniffing around here to see why his priests are hiding barns,” she muttered. Embras patted her on the shoulder.

“It doesn’t have to hold long, Nessa. In fact, it specifically needs to be penetrable in a few hours. And as I’ve said before, I have plans in place for Tellwyrn’s intervention.”

She sighed, but offered no further complaint as he slid the door open.

“Ah, good timing,” Bradshaw announced inside, straightening up from the spell circle he had just finished inscribing in the middle of the dirt floor. “Nessa! How’re you holding up?”

“Well,” she said, limping in as Embras stepped aside, gallantly gesturing her forward. “Tired, but satisfied. Calderaas is under control—we’ve inevitably lost some political capital, and I had to spend some rather more literal capital to wrangle some irate acquaintances, but I judge the city safe to move in again. A little more time to rebuild our connections the organic way and it’ll be almost as good as new. How about you guys? I gather from our fearless leader, here, that the trip to Puna Shankur was productive.”

“Quite,” Bradshaw agreed, pacing in a slow circle around his spell diagram and peering down at it. “Hiroshi sends his regards. Yes, it went well once we were out of Mathenon, where Embras felt the need to further detour what was already a detour so he could grouse about the Vernisites.”

“Excuse me, that was hardly a detour,” Embras said haughtily. “Hiroshi asked as we were passing. It cost us not a second to have a discussion while walking.”

“Oh, you and those Vernisites,” Vanessa said with wry fondness. “What were they doing this time?”

“Trading stocks,” Bradshaw replied.

“Embras, that’s been going on for centuries,” she said in exasperation.

At that, Bradshaw lifted his head, frowning. “It has?”

“Sure, among themselves,” Embras snorted. “Behind closed doors, with their cronies, their bankers and guilded merchants. Now they’re peddling stocks in special exchanges, involving the general public, who have no idea what they’re dabbling in.”

“Yes,” she said, deadpan. “The temerity, expanding the ability of the common people to participate in and profit from the wider economy. Those fiends.”

“People profit from participating in what they understand,” he shot back. “Do you think the average, cobbler, farmer or factory worker knows a damn thing about stock trading? How to analyze a company for risks and reward? Pah! All they’re doing by opening that up to the public is promising people the prospect of big winnings and raking in the dough because they’re the only ones who know how the system truly works! It’s exactly like that casino the Eserites run, except they at least are only picking on the wealthy and corrupt. Those Vernisites milk the whole economy—they cheat everyone, even those who don’t play their games. You mark my words, by the end of the century they’ll be replacing coins with bank notes so they can artificially inflate the value of the currency itself!”

“Really, Embras?” Bradshaw said wearily. “Are we so lacking in problems that you have to spin conspiracy theories?”

“Well, you’ve certainly got a point there,” Embras agreed. “Best to keep our minds on the task at hand. How close to prepared are we, Bradshaw?”

“This has been done, theoretically, for half an hour,” the warlock replied, now walking around the circle in the other direction. “I have been double, triple and quadruple checking it. This is not simple spellcraft we’re talking about, here.”

“By all means,” Embras said, “be certain. I trust your expertise implicitly—we don’t proceed if you’re not confident the spell will work.”

“Oh, I’m confident,” Bradshaw said, sighing. “At least, I can’t find any errors in my casting. It’s just…this plan.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa said softly. “We are talking about tweaking the nose of a demigoddess arch-fae, under the nose of a grouchy archmage.”

“We’re not tweaking anything,” Embras said patiently. “Assuming Bradshaw has arranged this thing to my specifications—which I don’t doubt he has—I think she’ll be rather flattered by the attention.”

“Just…don’t forget the risks,” Vanessa murmured.

“Never.”

“You have the item?” Bradshaw asked, straightening again.

“Right here.” Embras produced an envelope from within his jacket, its seal of black wax embossed in the shape of a spiky wreath. “Do you need to add it yourself?”

“No, there’s no great ceremony involved,” Bradshaw demurred. “And it’ll be better with your personal touch. As long as you place it at the proper time. If you’re certain you wish to be the focus of the attention you’re drawing…”

“Very good, then,” Embras said. “That being the case, I believe we’re just putting off the inevitable, now.”

Vanessa heaved another sigh and shuffled back a few steps to position herself by the door.

“All right,” Bradshaw said, nodding. “Stay alert, then. As complex as this is, it’s not going to take long to execute. Your part shouldn’t require very specific timing, so long as you don’t jump in too soon, but keep in mind aspects of that stage of the spell are designed to degrade gradually. No point stretching things out.”

“Of course. On your lead, then.”

“All right,” he repeated, visibly steeling himself. “Here we go.”

Bradshaw made no apparent physical move at the spell circle; for a warlock of his caliber, a pointed thought was enough.

At first, only the six lesser circles inscribed around its outer edge lit up, the lines forming them gleaming white. Inner rings from each rose bodily off the ground to rise into the air, where they hovered about four feet up. Below, the six small circles shifted in color to an eerie purple, and the first demonic forms began to emerge.

The katzils hissed in displeasure, as they were prone to do—these were wild creatures called straight from Hell, not tamed pets trained to behave. As they were forced upward through the invisible columns marked by their little summoning circles, the glowing rings above narrowed. At the moment when each katzil’s head passed through one, it snapped into place around the demon’s neck, solidifying into a black collar of gleaming metal, richly inscribed with spell runes in elaborate demonic script.

It took only a few moments for all six demons to emerge. As soon as all were caught and collared, the runes around the lesser circles physically shifted, and shadows rose up from nowhere—rather a disorienting sight, happening as it did in the middle of a glowing spell diagram—swallowing up the demons. A moment later, there was no sign that they had ever been there.

“That’s incredible,” Vanessa murmured. “Just that you can do that much, for one thing. If you could summon and control a demon with one spell…”

“Those won’t hold them long,” Bradshaw said absently, watching his spell circle closely as the inner ring slowly glowed to life, its own binding runes altering into a new pattern and the outer summoning circles melting away entirely. “Those collars will, in fact, kill the beasts within a few hours.”

“But the controls on them!”

“Yes, they’ll keep them from harming anyone, and the shadow-jumps will direct them away from people. Each will be impelled to sniff around a different type of bait; at least one is bound to catch the kitsune’s nose. But they’ll leave six trails back here, and we know she can follow shadow-jumps. All right, the remaining circle is re-configured. Embras, you’re up.”

“Right you are,” Embras said, stepping forward and extending the envelope. His sleeve shimmered as he thrust his hand into the area defined by the spell circle, but it caused him no evident discomfort. When he had the envelope positioned in the center of the space above the circle, he paused, standing utterly still and gazing in silence at it for a long moment.

“I’m exhausted,” he said finally, his voice suddenly soft and every bit as weary as his words claimed. “The last year has been a constant chain of screw-ups. The last four years, but it’s been escalating badly. Ever since the summoning of the archdemons was intercepted, and we lost them… All those years of planning gone up in smoke, to say nothing of the Lady’s heartbreak. We’re the Wreath; we lay our strategies in advance and act when we have control of the board. Since that day, we’ve been forced to react, to adapt, and it shows. We are not doing well. It was bad before, but since Tiraas this spring… I very much fear that was the deathblow for us. We’ve been running, fighting, making do with guerrilla tactics when we should have been moving pieces into place to dominate our endgame. It’s been centuries since the Black Wreath suffered so many failures and setbacks in such swift succession. Each day I find new reasons to be proud of our people, but I cannot escape the fear that now, after eight thousand years, I will be the one to let the Lady down when she needs us the most.”

In the aching silence which followed, the nigh-inaudible hum of magic at work was barely discernible at the edge of hearing.

Then, all at once, Embras released the envelope and stepped back away from the spell circle, briskly dusting off his hands.

It hung there, suspended in midair, while the circle morphed again, first shifting to a deep red, then re-configuring its runes till it was nothing but a single ring of crimson light. Finally, the circle shrank inward upon itself, vanishing into a coin-sized spot, and winked out entirely. Above it, the envelope melted from view, leaving the barn looking empty and totally mundane.

“Embras,” Vanessa said softly, gazing at him with a pained expression.

“I… I thought you were just going to…invite her,” Bradshaw said hesitantly.

“Nonsense,” Embras said brightly, his tone as light as ever now, as though his last speech had never occurred. “That spell wasn’t designed to carry a verbal message, merely the sense of one to a creature with fae gifts of perception. You both know that school of magic is the best at parsing and representing emotions. Well, she’ll notice the katzils, follow the shadow-jumps back here, decode the vanished circle as she did the last one and find our written invitation, ready and waiting! No sense adding another request for her presence. Fairies rarely do what they’re asked, and never what they’re told. A gift of real emotion, though?” He turned to them and winked, grinning. “A sensation of vulnerability, from a master of shifting facades such as myself? That will get her attention, and sweeten the offer to the point she won’t be able to resist. If you’re dealing with a foe clever enough to see through any trap you can lay, the quality of the bait is of paramount importance.”

“Is it truly that bad?” Vanessa asked quietly.

Embras’s expression sobered slightly. “You know better than most how bad it is. Both of you. But we’re still who we are, and we still have assets not yet brought to bear. It’s far from hopeless—and remember, this is not over until we have the gods of the Pantheon in chains at the Lady’s feet.”

They both nodded, expressions resolute, and Embras nodded back.

“For now, my friends, time we move out. Remember, no shadow-jumping till we’re a safe distance away—don’t want her following us. Until our invitation is delivered…there’s nothing to do but wait.”

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10 – 20

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“If this is to prank on me, I strangling you,” Scorn warned.

Iris sighed; after the fifth repetition of these threats in which their fulfillment failed to materialize, they were notably less unnerving. “Well, you didn’t have to come, Scorn. It was an invitation, not a command.”

“No one is give me command!”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Iris said, rolling her eyes. Positioned as she was in the front, her eyes were safely out of Scorn’s field of view. She didn’t lack for confirmation that the demon was following, between her heavy footfalls and the constant rattle of her various bangles, bracelets and necklaces.

Fortunately, they were nearing their destination. Iris had veered as far to the right as possible on the way down the mountain, which of course forced them to hike through the grass rather than using either of the convenient paths, but the mountain’s broad base made it possible to reach the bottom without actually stepping into Last Rock—and bringing Scorn into Last Rock seemed like a bad idea, considering the loud arguments which had ensued when Trissiny had ultimately refused to take her there yesterday. There was, in fact, a very faint trail worn through the grass here; it wasn’t nearly as commonly used as the paved paths, but marked the route taken by student groups headed into the Golden Sea. In theory, that happened only once a semester, but University sanctioned trips were far from the only reason students left the campus without going into town.

“Right around here,” Iris said, glancing back at the towering demon with a forced little smile as they reached the level of the prairie. For the most part, the gentler side of the mountain eased smoothly into the ground, but there was an upthrust outcropping of rock, here, separating the grassy slope from the base of the mountain’s craggy and nearly vertical northwestern face. Scorn just snorted, but kept following.

Once around the natural barrier, however, their destination was apparent. The ground swelled here, rising slightly into a low hillock abutting the mountain’s base; a small thicket of stubborn bushes and stunted trees clung to the edge of the rocks, creating several hidden little spots which were favored canoodling spaces for students and townies alike. Far above, the alarming spectacle of Clarke Tower extended from the peak of the mountain; considering the slight elevation, this area had a beautiful view out into the infinite horizon of the Golden Sea, unmarred by the town.

A table had been set up on the little hill. Not a portable, folding table; it was a dainty little thing, relatively, but carved from solid oak and had clearly taken some doing to bring out here. A white linen cloth was laid over it, a subtle bouquet of flowers in its center, and a bottle of wine set to one side, surrounded by empty wineglasses and a plate of small cookies. Two matching carved chairs sat nearby, as well as a sturdier armchair.

“Ah, ladies!” Ravana Madouri said, waving to them as they appeared. “There you are! Please, join us. Scorn, I’m so glad you agreed to come—it’s such a pleasure to see you. Please, make yourself comfortable!”

Iris glided forward and settled herself daintily into the wooden chair beside Ravana’s, leaving the larger one for their guest. Scorn approached more slowly, enough that she barely rattled, studying the setup through narrowed eyes.

“What is this?” she demanded. “Why out here? You can have snacks on the school. If you are to luring me out for a trick…”

“Oh, nothing so sinister, I assure you,” Ravana said with a light laugh. “It’s just that alcohol is prohibited on campus—and as I have discovered, that is a rule one cannot simply break, and it’s a crime to waste a good vintage trying. No, one must unfortunately venture down here to the surface, as it were, to enjoy a glass of wine, which is one of civilization’s truest gifts. And as it seemed unwise to escort you into the town itself without the blessing of your friends, this was the only feasible way to include you! Don’t worry, it was no trouble at all.”

Scorn arrived at the table but made no move to seat herself, still squinting suspiciously. “Why you are not have class?”

“Introduction to Alchemy with Professor Rafe is scheduled for this hour,” Ravana said primly. “The Professor has suddenly canceled class, leaving us with a free period.”

Scorn frowned. “He is cancel…why?”

“Because,” Ravana said with a calm smile, “I bribed him to, with a pea-sized vial of hellhound breath. Believe me, that is the largest quantity obtainable without hiring mercenaries and spilling significant blood, and even that much cost more than any structure on the campus. Please, Scorn,” she added in a gentler tone. “Sit down.”

Finally, her uncertain expression calming only slightly, the demon lowered herself into the armchair with a last soft clatter of beads. Despite the way it dwarfed the other furniture present, it was barely serviceable to contain her, and creaked in protest under her weight.

Ravana, meanwhile, busied herself prying the cork from the wine bottle and pouring a judicious measure into each glass. “I think you’ll enjoy this vintage. I understand you have a preference for strong flavors—this is actually an elven wine, and they have different priorities. Grove vintages aren’t favored by most wine snobs in Imperial society, though I fear I must disagree with them. It is rather sweeter than one generally prefers in a red, true, but also has a distinctive yet subtle tartness which human vintners are rarely able to produce, and offsets the flavor beautifully, preventing it from becoming cloying. I believe the disdain shown by so many of my fellow enthusiasts is little more than bitterness that our race hasn’t managed to reproduce such flavors.”

Having finished pouring, she set aside the bottle and picked up her own glass, pausing to sniff it before taking a tiny sip and closing her eyes momentarily to savor the drink. Iris followed suit more slowly, her reproduction of Ravana’s behavior slightly halting and punctuated with glances at the other girl.

Scorn grunted and snatched up the remaining glass, tipping its contents into her mouth in one go. She swallowed convulsively, a trickle of scarlet liquid escaping to run down her chin. “Hn! Good stuff. Weak, but pleasing for taste.” Absently, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, smearing traces of wine across both her skin and the numerous bracelets on that arm.

Watching her, Ravana winced as if pained.

“So, thank you for booze,” Scorn said brusquely, slamming the delicate wineglass down on the table hard enough to set it rocking. “Now you are tell me what you really want, yes? Or going to think I am suddenly nice by you for no reasoning?”

Iris frowned. “Um…what?”

“Your Tanglish needs some work, still, Scorn,” Ravana said calmly after another dainty sip of her wine. “There seems to be nothing wrong with your intelligence. Why is it you haven’t attempted to further your command of the grammar?”

The Rhaazke leaned forward over the table, baring her fangs. “Listen here, tiny girl. I am not come all the way down the mountain at being insulted by little vrekhshentmi. Maybe if your tongue is not better behave, I pull it off you. Yes?”

“Now, that is an interesting proposal.” Ravana set down her wineglass and folded her hands in her lap, regarding the towering demon in perfect serenity, while Iris stared up at her in clear alarm. “Let us pursue that hypothetical action. Suppose you ripped my tongue out. What would happen then?”

“You being quiet,” Scorn snorted, settling back in her chair.

“Of course, briefly,” Ravana said, nodding. “And after that?”

“After?” The demon shrugged in annoyance. “Who is care after? Is done.”

“Well, first of all,” said Ravana, “Iris here would apply healing magic to ensure I did not bleed to death. Unless, of course… Well, this is your scenario—would you prevent her from doing so?”

Scorn was frowning down at her in increasing confusion now. “I—what? Why I care? No, she can do…”

“All right, then,” Ravana continued. “First, on-the-spot healing, and then I would have to leave the campus for tissue regeneration treatments. It is dicey work, repairing severe damage to delicate organs, but actually regenerating a limb removed wholesale is comparatively easy. Expensive work, of course, as one has to contract a very competent fae healer, who are not common among humans, but for someone with access to my resources, not a hardship. So! All told, this would cost me some severe pain and a few weeks of missed schooling—and, of course, a ruined dress, as blood is highly unfriendly to fabric—and then I would be right back where I was, no worse for the wear.”

Scorn’s eyes narrowed to slits. “So?”

Ravana smiled coyly. “But that’s just me. What do you think would happen to you while all this was going on?”

The demon stiffened. “If you are to threaten me—”

“Please.” Ravana held up a hand. “I’ve not intention of doing anything to you at all. We are merely discussing a hypothetical scenario—which you proposed, I might add. Indulge me for a moment. In this scene, you have just brutally assaulted me. What happens to you immediately after that.”

Scorn clenched her hands on the arms of the chair, shifting nervously. “I don’t—why is matter?”

“Well, there is the issue of your friends,” Ravana said ruminatively. “I rather think Teal, and by extension Vadrieny, might be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. Miss Falconer has a low opinion of me, I fear. Trissiny, though… I cannot say how she would react to such a thing, but I highly doubt you would enjoy it. Of course,” she carried on over Scorn’s nascent objections, “all that would very likely be moot. After such an attack upon a student of the University, Professor Tellwyrn would immediately descend upon you. Immediately, and with terrifying finality.”

“All right, fine,” Scorn huffed, folding her arms and slumping back into the armchair hard enough to rock it momentarily backwards. “I not kills you, or rip off your tongue. Happy, then? We can put down the talk?”

“Forgive me, but you have misunderstood my intention,” Ravana said calmly. “I am not attempting to shut you up, Scorn; after inviting you all the way down here for wine, I am quite interested in having a conversation with you. Do try the cookies, by the way—they are a rather cheap mass-produced brand, but I confess I enjoy them immensely. Once in a while, even craven industrialists stumble upon a perfect recipe. I anticipate with great glee feeding these to some of my peers who would not ordinarily deign to eat anything not prepared by a private chef. But to continue! Let us carry this hypothetical in a different direction. Suppose the University were not overseen by a nigh-omnipotent and infamously disagreeable archmage. In the aftermath of your theoretical assault, and in the absence of such an overweening power, what follows?”

“This is the point of what?” Scorn demanded, glaring at her and not reaching for the cookies. Iris was ignoring her own wine, now, eyes fixed firmly on Scorn and one hand slipped into the pocket of her dress, which the demon fortunately did not notice.

“At that point,” Ravana continued, ignoring her query, “you would find yourself contending with, immediately, Imperial law enforcement. Trissiny would be legally entitled and perhaps doctrinally compelled to destroy you—I am not entirely certain about Avenist policies or how much leeway she has to make such decisions, much less what she would decide. You would most certainly be branded a living hazard by the Empire and probably immediately attacked. Whether you can stand up to a basic Army unit, Scorn, I am quite certain you are not a match for a strike team.”

“I am not come here for being threatened!” Scorn shouted, starting to rise from her chair.

“Sit down,” Ravana said. Her voice was quiet, her expression flat, but there was such utter finality in her tone, a complete faith that she would obeyed, that Scorn found herself back in her chair before deciding to go there. “You are not being threatened, Scorn. No one is going to hurt you. I am making a point. But very well, I think you are not without a point yourself. Going on to elucidate all the powers—the Empire, the cults, the Universal Church, not to mention House Madouri—which would descend upon you if you attacked me would swiftly become tedious and repetitive. And, yes, somewhat hostile. So let’s dispense with all that, shall we?”

“What is you want?” Scorn snarled.

“Why, isn’t it obvious?” Ravana replied with a sweet smile. “I want us to be friends.”

Scorn stared at her for a long moment, then turned incredulously to Iris.

“Oh, she’s serious,” Iris said, her lips twitching in suppressed amusement. “Believe me, I’ve been there. But yes, this is just what she’s like. If you want my advice, pay attention; she’s usually going somewhere worthwhile with these things.”

“Thank you, Iris,” Ravana said, smiling warmly at her before turning her attention back to Scorn. “What little I know of your homeworld and culture come thirdhand at best, Scorn. I have been forced to chat with Trissiny, Zaruda and others to seek information, as Teal is unfortunately disinclined to speak with me socially.”

“Why is Teal not like you?” Scorn asked, peering at her suspiciously.

“Presuming that you mean why does Teal not like me,” Ravana replied, “it’s quite simple: Teal Falconer is an extraordinarily kind, compassionate, and basically decent person.” She smiled, thinly and somewhat sadly. “And I am…to put it gently…not. She was in a position to see my character firsthand not so long ago, and I fear it rather distressed her. But again, we digress. At issue is you, and how well you are faring here.”

“I am do just fine,” Scorn huffed.

“Are you?” Ravana raised an eyebrow. “You are supposed to be learning about this world and fitting in, are you not? What have you done toward that goal?”

“I fit in!”

“Scorn,” Ravana said gently, “no, you don’t.”

“Listen, you—”

“Please, calm yourself. I’m not trying to insult you; I am offering to help.”

Scorn paused, a suspicious frown again descending over her features. “And you are help me…why?”

“I’m going to tell you a very great secret.” Ravana picked up her wineglass but simply toyed with it slowly, watching the crimson liquid shift about within and not lifting it to her lips. “In this world, Scorn, no matter what strength you possess, no matter your capacity to impose your will upon others or cause destruction, the truest and most consistent path to power is to show kindness. To provide for others, to accumulate favor. Placing people in your debt, building alliances…”

She trailed off as Scorn’s derisive laughter echoed over the prairie. “Are you drink too much of this grog? Power is power! Being nice is nice—is a…don’t know word, a nice thing, a, uh…”

“Luxury?” Iris suggested.

The demon shrugged. “Is a thing for doing when you have extra means, can afford to waste time for fun.”

“Yes, that’s a luxury,” said Iris.

“And that is the core of your problem,” Ravana said with a satisfied little smile. “Power in Hell, and presumably the sub-dimension from which you come, is about strength. Power in this world is about connection.”

“Connection?” Scorn’s frown deepened.

“The links between things.”

“I know what is word means!”

“You know the definition, yes,” Ravana agreed, “but you don’t seem to comprehend this point. In this world, Scorn, the abundance of resources has led to an abundance of people. Large populations require increasingly elaborate systems to support them. That is why we have complex laws, and political and economic structures far more sophisticated than anything you are used to. With me so far?”

“Go on,” Scorn said, nodding and still frowning.

“At issue, then,” Ravana continued, “is that when dealing with any person or any thing, one cannot simply calculate that person as a function of their own strength. You have seen spider webs since coming here, have you not?”

“Bah!” Scorn snorted. “Piddly little things, you call spiders. Good for snack, not scary. Where I am from there are spiders that are eating my kind if we are stupid around them!”

“And they hunt with webs?” Ravana prompted.

“Yes, webs, sticky thread, why is that matters?”

“It is a metaphor one encounters in Eserite literature, and one which I find explains the world better than any other I have heard. You can view each person as an intersection in such a web—tied to countless other things by multiple threads, and each of those things are linked to more things, and so on and so on, far beyond the point where one can see. By applying force to one such nexus, one causes the entire structure to shift, to vibrate…”

“And maybe,” Scorn said more softly, “to bring the spiders.”

“Precisely!” Ravana grinned at her in evident delight. “That, I think, is what you fail to understand about this world—being richer makes it more complicated. You seem accustomed to getting your way by applying force. Now, you are in a much denser web, and any power you exert in any direction is likely to cause vibrations that you cannot predict. In your position, it seems the wisest thing you could do would be to devote yourself to understanding this web as best you can. That, indeed, is the wisest thing anyone in this world can do. Those who have done it can be easily differentiated from those who have not: we are the ones who rule.”

Scorn’s face had not lost its pensive frown; she now stared off into space past Ravana’s head.

“You are sound a little like my mother,” she said at last.

“I take that as high praise,” Ravana said gravely.

“It is. This, you talk about kindness… You are make more threads, yes? Things, people connecting on you, who protect you.”

“They said you were intelligent,” Ravana said with satisfaction. “I am pleased to see they did not exaggerate.”

Scorn peered closely at her. “And this is how people becoming powerful in this world?”

Iris snorted softly, earning a sharp look from Scorn.

“In a way,” Ravana mused, “it is the essence of all power…but it is a truth not grasped equally well by all. Oh, anyone in a position of authority must necessarily provide some service for those beneath them, or they will not be permitted to retain their position for long. Governments exist, I firmly believe, for the benefit of those governing, but they do so by providing for the governed, and failing to remember this inevitably leads to their replacement. Those who are powerful and wise act in a way that does not look immediately different from compassion. It may be morally right to care for those beneath you, but that hardly matters to people like me.” She smiled, a distinctly feline expression. “Any sufficiently examined self-interest is indistinguishable from altruism.”

“Hum,” Scorn muttered. “Well. Is nice, I guess… You are make one mistake, though.”

“Oh?” Ravana raised an eyebrow. “Please, enlighten me.”

“I am not interested very in being power.” The demon started to rise from her seat with a soft rattle of costume jewelry. “Thank you for drinks, and interesting talk.”

“And are you interested in enjoying your life?” Ravana asked mildly.

Scorn froze. “What? Why?”

“Here’s the rub, concerning the difference between your people and mine,” she continued in a light, conversational tone. “By any reasonable standard, we are better than you.”

The demon again narrowed her eyes. “You are trying to make me angry?”

“Perhaps that was poor phrasing,” Ravana said thoughtfully. “Yes, it would be more accurate to say we are better off. I mean, look at yourself! Physically, you are an incredibly powerful specimen, compared to most earthbound races. I understand you have a substantial gift for magic, as well, and you certainly do not lack for intellect, as we have already discussed. If you are a typical example of your kind… I rather suspect that if the Rhaazke occupied a realm as abundant, peaceful and prosperous as this one, they would by now have achieved things beyond the ambitions of the mortal races.” She tilted her head to one side, studying Scorn thoughtfully. “But they haven’t, because—through no fault of their own—they don’t. You are here, however. If you are not interested in having power over others… Well, honestly, that is probably for the best. As I’ve told Iris before, the quest for power can become an all-consuming thing that leaves you little time to truly experience all that is good in the world. Since you don’t choose to embark upon that quest, doesn’t it seem you ought to do your best to fully enjoy what there is, here? If nothing else, don’t you owe it to all those of your kin who shall never have the opportunity?”

“I am still not know where you are talking,” Scorn said, but sank back down into her seat.

“Well, let me back up a step, then. In enjoying a pleasing experience, do you believe that more is better?”

“Of course,” Scorn snorted. “Always, is simple.”

Ravana nodded. “And that speaks of a mindset accustomed to scarcity. If you have few opportunities to savor good things, and must compete with numerous others for them…well, naturally, it would seem the only reasonable thing to do would be to grab at everything you can get your hands on and wring every last ounce of benefit from it you can, before someone comes along and takes it from you.”

“And now,” Scorn said, staring piercingly at her, “you are going to explain why it is different here, yes?”

The Duchess smiled broadly. “Again, you show your perceptiveness! And you are correct. Excessive, thoughtless self-indulgence is one of the most obvious signs of weakness a person here can display.”

“Weakness,” Scorn said flatly.

“Consider the thing in context,” Ravana continued, still unfazed by the demon’s annoyed expression. “Where one’s ability to act effectively is a function of one’s ability to choose one’s actions with care, any ill-considered grabbing motion can backfire just as severely as an unwise attack. Gluttony is considered a sin in some faiths—and I have often had the observation that what the religious call sins are generally just harmless behaviors which become dangerous when taken to excess. And so, among people on this plane, restraint is honored far more than indulgence.”

“Restraint,” Scorn said, her expression unchanged.

“The person who drinks too much and loses control is regarded with contempt,” Ravana said, gazing up at her. “The one who eats too much and becomes obese, likewise. Or the one who indulges excessively in sex, or drugs, or something as relatively harmless as a niche hobby. Not because others do not have the same drives, but because a balanced person understands that such self-indulgence is a failure of character. The drunkard, the glutton, the dissolute wastrel, they lead lives of misery. By fixating upon a simple pleasure which is within their reach, they cut themselves off from the experience of all the other joys life could offer—including the companionship of others, often, as doing this makes them objects of ridicule.”

“I am not follow your changes of talk,” Scorn said. “What is this to do with me?”

“Really,” Ravana said mildly. “Can you not think of anything you have pursued to the point of losing control? Of not experiencing fully because you’ve grabbed at quantity rather than quality?” She held up her wineglass, swirling the liquid within and gazing thoughtfully at it. “Tell me, can you appreciate the beauty of a gem more when it shines alone, or when it is buried in a pile of others?”

Scorn froze, her eyes widening in an expression of painful realization. “You are…say… To have too much of a thing, it makes people to mock you?”

“Well,” Ravana mused, “rarely when you can hear them, but yes…”

The demon grimaced in sudden revulsion, grabbing a handful of the necklaces and beads hanging over her chest.

“Stop!” Ravana barked, raising her voice for the first time. Scorn froze as the young Duchess leveled a finger at her. “You are about to allow others to control you, Scorn, and I won’t stand for that. You are better, and deserve better.”

“Who is control me?” Scorn asked plaintively.

“All those whose opinions you care about enough to change your own behavior. If you throw away your jewelry, you’ve as much as declared your willingness to be bound by their whims. And people will take advantage of that.” Her eyes bored into the demon’s, her expression serious and intent now. “Since you disdain the pursuit of power…how will you stop them? If your own strength is expressed through sheer force, how can you contend with those who manipulate using subtlety? That’s the real issue, Scorn, the great and painful fact of life. Even if all you want is to be left alone, and to enjoy your own existence… Well, if you’re not able and prepared to contend with people who choose to understand the arts of power, they simply won’t let you.”

“But…” The Rhaazke gulped, looking lost. “What about… How am I do…”

“In this case,” Ravana said in a suddenly more gentle tone, “if you’ll accept my advice, there’s a fairly simple strategy to employ. Remove one item of jewelry every…let us say, three days. Gradually diminish what you wear, so that the change is not immediately noticeable. It will clearly be a natural trend in your own tastes, and you can thus arrive at a state that will not invite the derision of others, without ever hinting to them that they had any power to sway your actions.”

Scorn swallowed again and nodded, settling back in her chair. “And you…teach me more? Of how to…to do this?”

“I am willing to,” Ravana said, turning a smile upon Iris and getting one in return. “It’s a new course for me, but I have learned a great deal by showing Iris, here, some of the tricks of the powerful and cunning. I had thought, at first, that doing so would be incompatible with any kind of happiness…but I’ve come to appreciate how these things can improve every aspect of one’s life. The same aptitudes that lead to power are those which heighten the sweetnesses of mortal experience.”

“How is this?” Scorn asked uncertainly.

“Well. Perhaps you would be willing to indulge me in a little experiment?” Ravana picked up the wine bottle again and poured more into Scorn’s glass. “Let me show you something. Take a very small sip of the wine, and hold it on your tongue for a moment. Then, before swallowing, pause and inhale through your nose.”

“What in crap?” Scorn exclaimed in exasperation. “How are we get to this from— Are you trying to choke me or just make me look stupid?”

Ravana smiled in amusement, showing only a hint of teeth. “Trust me,” she said quietly.

Scorn pursed her lips, staring at her in suspicion, then shook her head and picked up the wineglass. For a moment, she peered distrustfully at it, then sighed, shrugged, and very carefully tipped a small amount of wine into her mouth. Then she paused, lowering the glass, and breathed in deeply.

Her eyes widened, an expression of surprise and unexpected pleasure washing over her features.

Watching her, Ravana settled back in her own chair, folded her hands, and smiled.

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10 – 17

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Tellwyrn paused in chewing when the newspaper was slapped down on the table inches from her plate. She then resumed and swallowed her bite of fish before even looking up.

“You know, Emilio, there are countries in this world where you can be summarily dismissed for approaching your employer that way. Or beheaded.”

“Have you seen this, Arachne?” Professor Ezzaniel demanded curtly.

“No, of course I haven’t,” she said, delicately cutting off another piece of trout without even glancing at the paper. “I make a determined effort to have no idea what’s going on in the world, especially right after a Bishop of the Universal Church starts taking public potshots at me, and of course, you are the only person on this campus clever enough to think of bringing me a newspaper of course I’ve seen it. Let me eat in peace, damn you!”

“I have sufficient restraint not to interrupt classes for this, thank you,” Ezzaniel replied calmly. “It’s not as if we never discuss business over lunch. And this is most definitely business.”

“Pshaw,” Rafe snorted from the other end of the table. “How bad can it be? I wasn’t even mentioned.”

“Gods and ministers of grace preserve us,” Yornhaldt rumbled into his beer.

“Exactly!” Rafe cried. “I mean, really. They’re looking for embarrassing dirt on the University and don’t even hint at me? Bunch of amateur dilettante hacks, is all.”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said without rancor, “shut up.”

“Oh, that’s what you always say.”

“And it never works, but I continue to hold out hope. And the rest of you—yes, I see you gearing up to argue—just relax and eat, will you? Mrs. Oak did not slave away over a hot stove just so you could ignore today’s excellent main course in favor of gossip.”

The faculty lounge in Helion Hall was not full, many of the professors preferring to eat alone in their classrooms or living quarters (or the cafeteria, occasionally), but as usual several of the staff had assembled there. Including Professor Yornhaldt, who despite his protestations of enjoying his sabbatical, had become markedly more sociable since returning to the campus and finding himself with no academic duties.

“I am not one to get worked up about anything in the press ordinarily,” Ezzaniel said with a deep frown, “but I just received a telescroll from Marjorie Darke’s mother. She paid the extra fee to have a runner bring it up to me directly from the scrolltower office.”

Taowi Sunrunner looked up from her own plate, raising an eyebrow. “The scrolltower employs a runner now?”

“It turns out Silas Crete occasionally employs his granddaughter,” Ezzaniel said to her, “who incidentally has begun to reek of cigarettes since I last spoke with her, which I suspect is related. Regardless, this has officially reached the point where the kids’ parents are getting nervous.”

“Lady Annabelle Darke,” said Tellwyrn, cutting herself another piece of fish, “has nothing going for her except far too much inherited money and a surname that her grandfather was dashing enough to get away with and which just sounds laughably pretentious on anyone else. Marjorie is only here because Sebastian Darke and I did some jobs back in the day—which turns out to be lucky for all of us, as that kid’s the first one in the line who’s got some of the old man’s spark. The point being, we are officially hearing from the slow-witted, easily agitated demographic. Don’t rush to join them, Emilio.”

“I’m well aware of the Lady Annabelle’s shortcomings,” Ezzaniel said, seating himself across the table from her. “I am paying attention to her because the woman is a weather vane. Not an admirable character trait, but it does make her a useful sign of which way the social winds are blowing this week. It’s going to get worse, Arachne. This is in all the papers.”

“Really, you’ve read all the papers that came out this morning?” she mused, eying him languidly. “Who was teaching your classes, then?”

“Arachne!” he exclaimed in exasperation.

“Calm yourself, Emilio,” Yornhaldt urged, reaching across to pull the paper toward himself. “Just because she is calmly eating lunch doesn’t mean she is ignoring the issue.”

“I prescribe a calm meal as the go-to treatment for many minor ailments,” Taowi added.

“It’s like this,” said Tellwyrn, finally setting down her fork. “Yes, I am aware that this is a concern. No, I am not going to run around in a panic, or in any other way interrupt my routine. The day I deprive myself of an excellent plate of fish over clumsy politicking by the likes of Justinian, I will probably drill a hole to the planet’s core and let out all the molten iron out of sheer spite.”

“From anyone else I would assume that to be empty hyperbole,” Ezzaniel said warily. Rafe cackled around a mouthful of steamed vegetables. “Anyway, isn’t it a leap to pin this on Justinian? It was Snowe who made that speech, and she’s definitely got contacts in the papers. Almost all of them run her column.”

“Branwen Snowe,” said Tellwyrn, “despite being possessed of considerable gifts—”

“They are very nice,” Rafe said, nudging Yornhaldt with an elbow.

“—has never had an original thought in her life,” Tellwyrn continued. “Sorry to disabuse you of this notion that I am sitting obliviously atop an ivory tower, Emilio, but I have been keeping track of political, social and theological trends. This secular humanism Snowe has been spouting for the last few months is a direct extension of ideas the Archpope has been promoting with more circumspection. And the fact that she’s an Izarite Bishop in and of itself signifies that she’s his creature; the followers of Izara regard Church politics as an unnecessary burden, and fob those positions off on people they want to get rid of.”

“If anything, that makes it worse,” Ezzaniel said with a scowl.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes, gesticulating disparagingly with her (fortunately almost empty) teacup. “There is not a damn thing Justinian can do to me or this University except earn my ire, and he’s far too savvy not to know it. This isn’t directed at us, Emilio. He’s using it for some other purpose. That is why I’m not rushing to take action. It would be rash to blunder into any plan without understanding what’s actually going on, and that has yet to be revealed. What is fascinating to me is that Justinian isn’t the first source of these up-with-people notions he and Snowe have been propounding. It’s point-for-point Black Wreath theology.”

“Oh, dear,” said Rafe. “How villainous. Do you think we should assassinate him?”

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“Yes, you did, and may I just say your persistence in the face of impossible odds is one of the things I admire about y—”

His voice abruptly stopped, though his mouth kept moving. Rafe paused, blinking, and tried to speak again, then turned a scowl on Professor Yornhaldt, who smiled innocently back even as he lowered his casting hand.

“Thank you, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“My pleasure,” Yornhaldt replied while Rafe dug in his belt pouches for the anti-magic potions he always kept on hand.

“Arachne,” said Taowi, “you seem to be trying to reassure us, but each revelation you drop about Archpope Justinian is only more alarming than the last. Now you suggest that he’s involved with the Black Wreath?”

“Hardly,” Tellwyrn snorted. “If anything he’s been more persistent than his last three predecessors in hounding them. No, those ideas are basically good ones, I’ve always thought so. There are cults within the Pantheon that have similar priorities, notably the Eserites and Veskers. It has never been Church doctrine, though, far from it. Justinian’s not with the Wreath, but he’s up to something that he knows the general public is likely to be leery of. Hence designating a scapegoat. It’s the oldest trick in the book, when you want a great mass of people not to notice what you’re actually doing to them.”

“You’re very calm, considering you speak for the scapegoat in question,” Yornhaldt noted.

Tellwyrn shrugged, picking up her fork and resuming work on her fish. “Even if I considered this a crisis, I’ve never found freaking out to be a useful strategy for anything. It’s not a crisis, though, and even so I’m not ignoring it. Just stay the course, ladies and gentlemen—if you have any more irate communications from parents, handle them as best you can while I deal with this.”

“Why would we be fielding communications from parents?” Taowi inquired. “In fact, come to think of it, why did Lady Annabelle send that directly to you, Emilio?”

“I may have incidentally encouraged her to think of me as a sympathetic ear,” Ezzaniel said noncommittally.

“What he means,” Rafe said with a deranged leer, “is that he nailed her. Good on you for not boasting, old man! I would. She’s quite the hottie for a dame her—”

He fell abruptly silent again, paused, and then snatched a handful of vegetables from his plate and hurled them at Yornhaldt. They splattered across a shield of blue light that appeared around him.

“Boys,” Taowi said scathingly. “Cease that immediately. And clean it yourselves!”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “As I was saying, I am dealing with this. I’m not going to ignore it, but managing public opinion is a task outside my usual skill set. As such, and since I have no afternoon class, I am going to seek the counsel of an expert. But not, I repeat, until I finish my lunch.”


 

“Well, well, wouldja look at that,” Ruda drawled. “Arquin’s figured out the dog-in-the-park trick.”

Scorn came to a stop, frowning at the scene on the lawn before them. “Trick? Is for what?”

“Is for gettin’ girls,” Ruda said, grinning.

“Getting…” The demon blinked her eyes. “Where is dog? That is thing… The word I am told is ‘horse,’ yes?”

“Barely,” Trissiny murmured.

Gabriel was, indeed, surrounded by several girls, including most of those from the freshman class, as well as Hildred and a couple of seniors. As they watched avidly, with a variety of high-pitched noises of approval, he drew back his arm and hurled the branch he was holding the length of the lawn.

Whisper’s invisible hooves were soundless on the grass as she charged after it; her ephemeral mane and tail streamed behind her, leaving a wispy trail of smoke like the exhaust of a dwarven engine. She skidded to a halt by the stick and picked it up in her teeth, pausing to prance a few steps in place before trotting back to her master, head held high.

“I have never seen a horse play fetch,” Trissiny said.

“I think you had the right of it, Boots,” Ruda replied. “That thing’s just barely a horse. Hey, maybe Arjen would like a game of fetch!”

“He wouldn’t,” Trissiny said curtly, walking forward again. Ruda and Scorn trailed after her, the pirate chuckling.

“Oh, c’mon, have you ever tried? Or do you just treat him like a big, armored carriage for your convenience?”

Trissiny let out an irritated snort. “Arjen doesn’t need to eat and exists in a state of perpetually perfect grooming, but I still brush him and give him apples. I am not neglecting my horse just because I don’t play fetch with him. Horses don’t do that!”

“And yet…” Ruda grinned.

“I thought we’d established that Whisper is barely a horse.”

“Well, hello to you too,” Gabriel replied, the girls having drawn close enough to be heard by the end of that comment. Whisper nickered a greeting.

“Don’t make that face, Arquin,” Ruda said lightly. “You’ve apparently just finished demonstrating she’s at least part puppy.”

“Yeah, she’s fun, isn’t she?” he said, grinning up at Whisper as he stroked her nose. She whinnied in delight, bouncing once in place, very much like an overeager dog. Szith, Maureen and Ravana all took a couple of steps back from her at this; the “puppy” in question was still big enough to crush someone if she moved too carelessly.

“She is pretty,” Scorn breathed, stepping forward and reaching out with one clawed hand to pat the horse.

Whisper immediately bellowed in outrage and reared up, slashing at the Rhaazke with her front hooves. Scorn yelped and bounded backward, and the rest of Gabriel’s audience scattered in fright, even Iris, who had been stubbornly sticking by his side.

“Whoah, whoah!” he exclaimed, fearlessly stepping in front of the rearing horse and reaching up to pat her on the neck. “Easy, girl. Be nice to Scorn, she’s a friend. Easy, now.”

“Your dog-horse is a butt!” Scorn shouted, baring her teeth. Whisper thrust her head over Gabriel’s shoulder and snorted disdainfully, ears laid back.

“And you be nice, too,” he snapped, pointing at her. “Whisper is from the divine plane—she’s not going to take to a demon easily, or quickly. You have to be patient with animals. She’s very smart; as long as you’re not a jerk to her, she’ll come around.”

“Why am I being not the jerk?” Scorn snapped, stomping a foot childishly. “I being the nice and horse stupid dog get rrhaash k’thavkh nhak drroughn!”

“Scorn,” Trissiny said firmly, “Tanglish.”

The demon swelled up in fury. For a moment she tremble with repressed anger, clenched fists vibrating at her sides, then she whirled and stomped away. “Bah! Not being my problem, your horse is cannot behave! Come on, we go see the town. Find your demon trails!”

“Oh, that sounds like a great fuckin’ idea with her in this mood,” Ruda muttered.

“Come, paladin!” Scorn shouted, stopping and turning to glare over her shoulder.

Trissiny folded her arms, braced her feet, and stared at her.

For just a moment, it seemed like Scorn was on the verge of another outburst. After a moment, however, she drew in a deep breath and spoke in a slightly less furious tone. “Will you please to come, yes?”

Trissiny sighed and shook her head, but strode off toward the demon. “We’re not going off this campus unless you calm down, Scorn. It’s going to be enough of a challenge to introduce you to the townspeople, especially with all this newspaper nonsense going around. Animals don’t like demons, and you absolutely cannot react this way every time something snarls at you.”

“I being am calm!”

“Then why are you shouting?”

“I NOT ARE SHOUTING!”

Whisper snorted again, pawing at the ground. Her hooves weren’t visible, but nonetheless tore up a clump of grass.

Gabriel let out a low whistle, patting Whisper on the nose. “Well, none of that was encouraging.”

“What was that about demon trails?” Szith inquired. “I’m not certain that was translated correctly… But she did sense the same demon Trissiny did. Are they actually hunting for one?”

“Honestly, all that worries me less than the dialect,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, still petting Whisper and gazing in the direction in which Trissiny and Scorn had gone. “Her Tanglish hasn’t made any progress in a while.”

“Well, give the girl a bit o’ credit,” Maureen said reasonably. “She’s only been learnin’ it a handful o’ weeks, aye? I’d say she’s doin’ pretty well, considerin’ that.”

“That’s the thing,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “She does speak it pretty well for being new at it… But most of that progress she made in the first week. It was crazy how fast she picked up the language. Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with Scorn’s intelligence, quite the opposite. But then she just quit. She’s been talking that way ever since.”

“Why d’you think that is?” Iris asked, gazing at him with wide eyes while patting Whisper’s neck. Behind her back, Hildred repressed a grin, winking at Maureen.

“Mm,” Gabriel mused, finally turning back to face the rest of them. “I grew up in Tiraas, which is a big melting pot of a city. People from all over settle there, including lots of immigrants. And you can kind of tell the degree of investment someone puts into fitting in. There were people from outlandish places like Shengdu and Glassiere who had basically no accent after just a couple of years, because they were constantly working to improve their diction. And then there were those who still speak this barely comprehensible pidgin Tanglish after living here for decades and raising their children in Imperial culture, who just couldn’t be bothered.”

“Languages do not come to all with equal facility,” Szith noted. “They are much easier to learn if one starts young.”

“That’s true,” Gabriel acknowledged, nodding to her.

“I think I see what he’s getting at, though,” said Ruda, frowning. “And it’s a good point. There comes a point where someone decides they’ve learned enough for their purposes and just doesn’t fuck with it anymore. Arquin’s right, Scorn’s as sharp as a tack when she wants to be. It’s a real issue if she’s just not gonna worry about improving her Tanglish now she’s gotten mostly understandable, most of the time. She’s supposed to be proving she can fit in and make her way on this plane. Proving it to Tellwyrn, who doesn’t accept ‘meh, good enough’ as a valid attitude from anybody.”

“What’s going to happen to her if she doesn’t learn to fit in?” Iris asked.

“Not sure,” Gabriel mused. “I highly doubt it’ll be pretty, though.”

“I think we might wanna bring this up with Teal,” Ruda said to him. “Scorn’s doin’ okay with listening to people in general, but Vadrieny’s still the only one she seems actually motivated to please.”

Behind them, Ravana was still gazing down the path the paladin and demon had taken, her expression deeply thoughtful. After a moment, a faint smile crossed her features.

“Hmm.”


 

The central temple of Vesk in Tiraas was a deliberate study in contrasts. Most of it was built in rounded patterns, a rather chaotic arrangement of white marble towers and domes, surmounted by a minaret wreathed by a spiraling staircase, atop which musicians would perch to entertain the entire district on days considered holy to the Veskers—who considered any occasion holy when they could get away with creating a spectacle. Its uppermost great hall, however, was almost like a Shaathist lodge in design and layout, right down to its enormous exposed timbers. It had better lighting and a sloping tile roof, but even its décor seemed deliberately evocative of the Huntsmen’s aesthetics, with old instruments and weapons prominently displayed in place of animal trophies. Along its walls, between the windows, stood statues of various gods of the Pantheon, Vesk himself notably not among them.

Despite being called the great hall and serving as the center of the temple’s own society, it was actually not meant to be accessible to the general public. The temple’s entrances led to public spaces outside its various theaters and performance halls—the areas used by the bards for their own purposes were reached by networks of spiraling, deliberately confusing hallways, which themselves were peppered with barriers ranging from simple locked doors to enchanted alarms and force fields, and a couple of rather whimsical booby traps. It took quite some doing to reach the great hall, which was why everyone congregated there looked up in surprise when it was entered by someone not of the faith.

By the time she had crossed it to the dais at its far end, those who recognized Professor Tellwyrn had whispered her name to the others, which of course explained the matter of how she’d gotten in. The bards began drifting toward her, eagerly anticipating a show. There was nothing they loved like a good show.

Master Harper Roundol was seated on the dais, having been in conversation with two other bards. They all broke off, staring, as the legendary elf made a beeline for them. At her approach, all three rose and bowed respectfully.

“Professor,” Roundol said, straightening back up and absently stroking the neck of his guitar. “This is an unexpected honor! What can we do for you?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop in front of the dais, planted her hands on her hips, and looked him up and down. Then she studied the other two bards for a moment, and finally glanced around the hall.

“Um,” the Master Harper prompted.

She pointed at his guitar. “Can I see that for a moment?”

Roundol protectively tightened his grip on the instrument. “Ah… Might I ask why—”

In the next instant, with barely a puff of displaced air, it was out of his hands and in hers.

“Perfect, thank you,” Tellwyrn said briskly. “Stand back.”

Grasping the guitar by the neck, she lifted it over her head. The sound of wordless protest that tore free from the high priest’s throat was almost musical in its poignancy.

A hand grabbed Tellwyrn’s wrist from behind.

“That instrument,” said Vesk, gently but firmly taking it from her, “is an absolute masterwork. It has passed through the hands of seven of my high priests, cherished by each as if it were a child. The wood from which it’s made is simply not attainable anymore; in addition to being possibly the finest example of its craft to be found, anywhere, it is one of the most sacred objects in the world which is not actually overlaid with divine blessings. And in utterly typical fashion, here I find you threatening to smash it, just to get my attention.”

With another soft breath of air, the guitar was back in its owner’s hands, and Roundol lost not time in retreating from the elf, glaring reproachfully at her as he clutched it protectively to his chest. The god, incarnated as usual in his nondescript form, completely with absurd floppy hat, smiled thinly as Tellwyrn turned to face him. “For once in your interminable existence, Arachne, as a personal favor to me…”

And suddenly layers of reality peeled back, Vesk’s presence filling the temple and beyond. Without seeming to change physically, his very identity blazed forth with such sheer pressure that lesser mortals were driven back against the walls and to the floor, even before he bellowed in a voice that seemed it should have cracked the mountain.

“WOULD. YOU. PLEASE. NOT?!”

“You know, I like this much better than the last time I had to seek you out,” she said smugly, folding her arms. “This is altogether a lot easier when I don’t need your full cooperation. And much, much quicker.”

The god’s awesome presence retreated as quickly as he had brought it forth, leaving only an apparently mortal bard scowling at the Professor. “I suggest you watch that attitude, missy. The Pantheon has several excellent reasons for tolerating your shenanigans—that doesn’t mean each of us has endless patience. You can fulfill your most important purpose in the world just as well sealed away in a dimensional bubble as you can running around on your own. Arguably a lot better, in fact. Several suggested it, after that nonsense you tried to do in the Deep Wild.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Tellwyrn said with a grin. “Remember, I’m the one who’s spent a full human lifetime researching each of you megalomaniacal fuckers. I know who can be pushed, and exactly how far.”

The assembled bards watched all this avidly; with the reality-rending grandstanding apparently over, they seemed mostly interested in the conflict and not unduly impressed by the presence of their primary object of worship. Vesk and Tellwyrn stared flatly at each other from mere feet apart, she smirking, he scowling.

“Oh my gods!”

The new voice belonged to a young woman with somewhat unruly dark hair, who came skittering into the great hall as if late for her own wedding, the lute case slung over her shoulder bouncing against her as she pelted forwards. “Ohmygodsohmygodsohmygods!”

She skidded to a stop barely before crashing into the glaring pair. “Professor Tellwyrn, Arachne, oh gods this is so awesome, it’s such an honor, I’m a huge fan!”

Tellwyrn turned to stare at her. “What.”

“I’ve read all the stories about you, even the ones that are obvious lies because honestly those are the funniest. You have the best stories! I’ve wanted to meet you ever since I first heard the Plavoric Epics recited—I sat through the entire Saga of the Third Hellwar sung in Sheng because nobody performs it anymore just for the parts at the end where you came in. You’re the reason I became a bard! This is just, wow, I can’t even… Will you sign my face?”

“That’s weird,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “You’re weird. Go away.”

“Eeee heeheehee!” The girl actually did a little jig, clapping her hands in pure delight. “Classic Tellwyrn!”

“Kelsey,” Master Harper Roundol said gently, taking her by the shoulders from behind and starting to pull her away. “The Professor is here on business with Lord Vesk. Let’s give them a moment to chat before she vaporizes somebody. Or worse, my guitar.”

“Oh, she’d never do that,” Kelsey protested, still staring avidly at Tellwyrn. “I mean, the second one—she blasts people to dust all the time, but she’s super respectful of valuable art. She’ll threaten to break things but like in the battle with Almophriscor the Red she only lost cos they were fighting in his lair and she kept pulling her punches to avoid damaging his hoard, he had basically the world’s best collection of marble statuary, and after that he was so impressed he let her stay there to recuperate and even gave her…”

“Yes, yes,” Roundol said soothingly, dragging her bodily back to the dais. “Shush.”

“There, y’see?” Tellwyrn said smugly, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at Kelsey. “Research. You should give it a try, Vesk; I bet you’d be less vulnerable to obvious and transparent ruses.”

The god heaved a sigh. “What do you want, Arachne?”

“To seek your inimitable advice,” she said. “I trust you have noticed the issues I’m having with your Archpope. I must say I’ve never been the target of a campaign of slander that I actually had to care about before.”

“I am not getting rid of Justinian for you,” Vesk said with the ghost of a smile. “And get with the times, Arachne. Slander is spoken—or sung, for that matter. Printed slander is called libel.”

“I don’t need him gotten rid of,” she said in exasperation. “There’ll always be another one. You’re the expert on manipulating public opinion. Don’t think I’ve forgotten how you helped us to both dismantle the Empire during the Enchanter Wars and put it back together afterward. You owe me, Vesk, both for that business and for wasting sixty years of my time!”

“I never told you to do any of that,” he complained. “See, this is why nobody’s happy to see you when you visit—apart from all the smashing, I mean. All this blaming everybody for failing to contend with your various bullshit. You’re like an emotionally abusive old mother. Have you been hanging out with Naiya much lately, by any chance?”

“Actually…wait, that’s right. It was sixty-three years.”

The god of bards groaned dramatically and massaged the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “If I help you, will you cease harassing my clergy and bugger off?”

“That is the deal I was offering, yes,” she said with a feline smile.

“Fine. Loath as I am to encourage this behavior, your problem really is so incredibly simple it almost pains me to see you floundering with it. Honestly, Arachne, the fact that you don’t have better people skills after three thousand years of this has got to be history’s greatest failure of character.”

“Less character assassination, more practical advice,” she said sharply.

“Justinian’s campaign is a political one,” Vesk said, staring intently at her face now. “Political campaigns are never won—they are only lost. Right now, the attention is on you, as is the onus to refute or validate his accusations. In that position, you have no winning moves. Honestly, your policy of ignoring him could conceivably be used against you, but it might also be your safest way to go. If, however, you decide to actually engage with this issue, what you need to do is make the matter about him, not about you.” He leaned forward, gazing deep into her eyes, and spoke with deliberately excessive emphasis. “And if that is what you intend, then I am not the one you should be speaking to.”

“All right, all right,” she said, leaning back as if he had bad breath. “Point taken. Really, I’d have expected less ostentatious delivery from you of all people.”

“Well, forgive me,” he said sardonically, straightening back up. “I may not be the best at research, but I have met you, after all. Seriously, though, that was all you wanted? Any number of political operatives could have told you that much.”

“Yes, no doubt,” she said with a smile. “But I don’t trust any number of political operatives.”

“And there it is,” Vesk said, shaking his head and smiling ruefully. “The real reason I continue to tolerate your crap. For being such an apparent brute, you do know how to pluck the right strings.”

“I had some good teachers,” Tellwyrn replied cheerfully. “All right, then! Seems I’ve some more planning to do. As you were, ladies, gentlemen…and bards.”

She turned her back on the deity and strolled off toward the door through which she had entered, leaving most of her audience looking incongruously delighted at the spectacle they had just witnessed. Except, of course, for the Vesker high priest, who was again clutching his guitar protectively and giving her back a resentful look.

“Arachne,” Vesk said in a suddenly knowing tone. “You realize that since you think it’s acceptable to show up at my place and take liberties with my people, I’m going to consider that a mutual arrangement.”

“Well, it’s past time, I’d say,” she replied, pausing to glance back at him with a raised eyebrow. “Honestly, I do my best, but there are things that girl needs to learn that I’m just not a good person to teach her. Just try not to disrupt my class schedule too much, please.”

She resumed her path toward the door, and almost got there before being intercepted by Kelsey.

“So, hey, since you’re here, I would love to chat a bit, hear some stories, maybe buy you a drink? Wouldja like to hear the song I’m composing? It’s about you!”

“Oh, I would,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, brushing past her, “but I’m very busy doing absolutely anything except that.”

“My treat! I’ll take ya to the best restaurant in town! Fancy a hundred-year-old scotch? Or a quick screw? Or a slow one? Honestly I’m not even into women—or skinny people, for that matter—but it’d just be such an honor—”

“Young woman, you are one more ill-advised comment from being transformed into something small and edible.”

“Ma’am, that would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”

“You’re a creepy little snot, aren’t you?”

Roundol approached Vesk, staring thoughtfully at the door through which the two women had just vanished. “M’lord, do you think we ought to go do something about that? The poor girl’s setting herself up for more trouble than I think she understands.”

Vesk grunted. “She’s survived three thousand years of trials and tribulations, Tamelin. She’ll survive Kelsey. Probably.”

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