Tag Archives: Sherwin Leduc

16 – 17

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“Well…this changes matters.”

Darling nodded, staring ahead across the street with a slight frown. Though they were clearly the subject of attention, standing in front of a police barracks with Trissiny in her silver armor, they enjoyed the slight privacy of distance; passersby in Tiraas were generally adept at minding their own business, and few people anywhere would be eager to approach a paladin with that look on her face.

“I gotta check with Tricks, obviously,” Darling said abruptly after a loaded pause.

“Okay,” she agreed, but slowly. “And…if he…?”

“Everything we do next depends on what he has to say,” said the Bishop, finally turning to face her. “If Rake was on the up and up, I doubt Tricks will deny it. If he does… Well, that’ll have implications that we then have to deal with. In the likelier outcome, I’ve got enough pull to demand to know what he’s thinking with this. Tricks doesn’t do things without good reasons, Thorn, and we better know what the hell they are before charging ahead.”

Trissiny nodded. “Sounds like sense to me. I guess…this means we split up, for now.”

He emitted the tiniest huff of almost-laughter. “Yeah, ‘fraid so. You don’t have much say with Tricks and he’s not likely to appreciate being questioned with you in attendance. And your business at the Temple had better not wait any longer.”

“Gotta wonder if this isn’t exactly the play,” Darius commented from where he was leaning indolently against the station’s wall in a manner that would have him immediately picked up by the first passing soldier had he not been with Trissiny.

“Surely you don’t suggest Tricks works for…you know who,” Layla objected.

“I bet lots of people who don’t work for you know who end up doing his dirty work, regardless,” said Tallie. “Without knowing it, or even against their will.”

“Let’s not get too deep into speculation,” Darling warned. “Big mistake, to form theories when you don’t have the facts yet. Then, when the facts come, your brain’ll tend to try to fit them into your theories rather than the other way round. You may not be wrong, though,” he added, nodding at Darius. “Eyes and ears open, kids. We can’t be paralyzed by indecision, but don’t forget there’s some real shit afoot.”

“Shit afoot, nice turn of phrase,” said Tallie, grinning. “Sure does look like we’ve stepped right in it.”

“I know Sweet’s off on Guild business, and I’m not the boss of you,” said Trissiny, turning around to address the apprentices, “but I would appreciate it if you all stuck with me for now.”

“You want us at the Temple of Avei?” Darius demanded, raising his eyebrows. “Wow. I thought you were just humoring us.”

“No, Darius,” she snapped impatiently, “you were just pretending to think that because it gives you another excuse to act huffy. If what you want is to be left behind, keep that up, because I haven’t got time to hold the hand of a big boy who shouldn’t damn well need it.”

“Tooooold yoooooouuu,” Layla sang sweetly.

“The issue,” Trissiny continued more evenly, “is that Rasha’s presence is going to be necessary for the plan, and I may have to spend some time squirreled away with the High Commander or elsewhere that I can’t bring her along. After what happened last time, I’ll feel better with someone else on hand to watch her back.”

“I can take look after myself, you know,” Rasha pointed out. “I managed last time.”

“Yes, and you can do it better with friends behind you,” Tallie replied, patting her shoulder. “Thorn’s right; this isn’t a dig at you, it’s basic sense.”

“Not that I encourage you kids to pick a fight in the Temple,” said Darling, “but it is true that bullies like these Purists are much less likely to try to ambush someone moving in a group. Any predator will try to isolate prey before striking. All right, let’s burn mileage before we burn any more daylight. I’ll swing back by Glory’s this evening and hope to catch you so we can compare notes.”

“Right, same goes,” Trissiny replied. “If either of us can’t make it, Glory can make sure everyone’s up to date.”

“Now, remember, Sweet,” Layla said sternly, “as with most nights, Glory is having company this evening. Scruffy characters like you had better come in the servants’ entrance.”

“Just for that,” he said, winking, “I’m gonna take the sewer access, wipe my boots on the carpet, and tell her you told me to do it. Don’t try to sass the master, princess. All right, kids, work fast and stay safe. Catch up with you as soon as I can.”

They separated, heading in opposite directions up the sidewalk toward their respective next confrontations.


Kheshiri was still laughing after half an hour, though at least her initial hysterics had subsided to intermittent giggle fits that allowed the rest of them to converse. A look into her aura had informed Natchua that, while the initial outburst of hilarity was purely genuine, by this point she was just being deliberately annoying. That, Natchua was inclined to indulge. Enabling the Vanislaads to make pests of themselves helped take the edge off, reducing the risk of them doing something truly disruptive.

“It’s the weirdest damn thing,” Jonathan commented, gazing abstractly into his cup of tea. “After all the weird shit we’ve stumbled into and through since this summer, seems odd that this would be the thing that gives me pause. But…here we are.”

“This really bothers you more than all the…well, everything?” Natchua looked pointedly at Kheshiri, currently rolling about on the floor in front of the fire like a cackling dog, and the much more laid-back Melaxyna, who stood behind Sherwin’s chair, massaging his shoulders and cradling his head against her chest.

“The thing about demons,” Jonathan mused, “is that they just are what they are. They don’t get a choice, and can’t reasonably be any better. And even despite that, some of them choose to be better, and succeed.” Staring into space now instead of his tea, he reached to one side without looking, and Hesthri took his proffered hand. “As incredibly hard as it is for ‘em, they do. Nobles, now… Nobles are pretty much the opposite, in every respect.”

“Your point is well-taken, but that’s a little more grim than the reality,” said Melaxyna. “Nobles, like most mortals, are as good or bad as their upbringing and the choices they make. At their worst, they are no more monstrous than any mentally defective violent criminal, just more destructive due to their power. But the good ones are potentially enormous forces for good in the world, by the same token.”

“Honestly, Jonathan, I am inclined to see it the way you do,” Natchua said softly, stepping over to crouch by his chair. He finally focused on her at that, smiling, and she leaned her head against his knee with a sigh. Jonathan had more than a little Avenist in him and had initially been uneasy about the symbolism of having a woman he cared for sit by his feet, but Natchua found comfort in the position and had eventually brought him around. Even if she was still obviously the one with the power here, it was a relief to feel protected for a little while. “From everything I’ve read, Narisian nobility may not be any worse than the Imperial kind, relative to the two societies… But that just means they’re twice as vicious and underhanded on average, Tar’naris being the festering pit it is. Every instinct I have bridles at the idea.”

“I don’t want you to make a decision like this on my account,” he said quickly, setting his tea down on the table to stroke her hair, and then letting his hand rest lightly on the back of her neck, the way she liked.

“You are going to be a big part of any decision I make,” she replied. “Not the only part, but you matter a lot to me. I want to know how you feel before I do anything important.”

“I feel…wary,” he admitted. “Having had a few minutes now to think about how I feel, I’m starting to realize that much of my unease is due to the fact that I think you’d actually be a better noble than most. And as selfish as it sounds, it’s a little alarming because I have no idea how I would fit into that.”

“Well, look at it this way!” Sherwin said brightly. “You two could get married, and then you’d both be nobles. And hey, then Gabriel technically would be, too. I bet a paladin could get a lot of political use out of that.”

Everyone turned to stare at him except Kheshiri, who set off on another round of cackling, actually slapping one hand against the floor. Sherwin’s smile faded under their scrutiny and he shrank slightly in his chair, pushing his head back into Melaxyna’s chest as if to hide in her cleavage.

“Sherwin, honey,” the succubus murmured, squeezing his shoulders, “it’s a bit inconsiderate to put that kind of pressure on someone else’s relationship. Especially in public.”

“Oh, uh,” he stammered, “I didn’t… That is, I’m sorry if…”

“This is one of those things that you’ll only make worse by trying to fix, Sherwin,” Natchua said, not unkindly. “Hesthri, you’ve been quiet.”

The hethelax stepped closer, folding herself down to sit cross-legged practically on top of Jonathan’s feet, close enough to Natchua to reach out and place a hand on her knee. “That’s because I don’t think you’re going to like what I have to say.”

“And when has that ever stopped you?” Natchua retorted.

“When the matter is serious,” Hesthri said, gazing at her without reciprocating her levity, “and your feelings are on the line. I think it’s good for you to be regularly knocked off your high horse, Natch, but I never want to be the cause of real upset, not over something important.”

“I care what you think, too,” Natchua said, reaching out to clasp the clawed hand Jonathan wasn’t currently holding. “If it’s something important enough to worry you, I definitely need to hear it. I can take a rebuke, Hes.”

“Then I think you should do it,” she said frankly.

Natchua blinked once, then closed her eyes and turned her face slightly so that it was half-buried in Jonathan’s thigh. “Why do any of you think I would be good at this? I mean, specifically, why? I am not fishing for compliments or validation, here, I just don’t get it. I am just so very Natchua. It’s inconceivable to me that I would be good in this position. Am I really the only one?”

“I suspect,” said Hesthri, squeezing her fingers, “because all of us here are as suspicious of aristocracy as you are, for one reason or another, and that makes the very fact that you’d be such an unconventional choice comforting. But it’s not like I’d suggest any old fool off the street should be thrust into that position, even if I loved that fool as I do you. I think that Malivette hit the nail on the head, lovely. You would be good for Veilgrad, and Veilgrad would be good for you. Both those things have already been the case; this is really just formalizing it.”

“It’s because you’re such an apex asshole, mistress,” Kheshiri interjected suddenly. She had rolled herself around and was now stretched out on her belly facing them, chin propped up on her hands and grinning in continued glee. “You make your decisions based on pure principle, and your principles amount to protecting people from abuse if you can, and avenging them if you can’t. Your preferred strategy for doing this is always something so irrationally conceived and convolutedly executed that nobody ever manages to stop you. That, mistress, is precisely the profile of a reformer who comes along to burn all the bullshit out of a crooked system. ‘Natchua the Noble’ is one of those ideas no sensible person would think of on their own, but once it’s presented, damn if it doesn’t make an eerie kind of sense! It’s a classic Natchua idea, in other words.”

“That…is…actually quite well said,” Jonathan said slowly, studying Kheshiri, who winked up at him. “Puts my thoughts into words much better than I would have.” Hesthri nodded.

“That’s what succubi do,” Sherwin chuckled. “Well. Among other things.” Melaxyna bent forward to kiss the top of his head.

Natchua regarded Kheshiri sidelong, taking in her delighted expression and the magical signature which revealed the actual mental state it hid. She was in this habit for the obvious reason of trying to head off resistance and defiance from the succubus, but more and more lately, Kheshiri had regarded her with ever-increasing warmth and attachment. Something about that was even brighter and fiercer, now. Natchua couldn’t quite put a label to the demon’s feelings toward her, but they were intensely positive. Somehow, that was more unsettling than if the Vanislaad had meant her harm.

“Well,” she said aloud, “I have more thinking on it to do. Vette and Ravana want to move fast, for the sake of political shock value, but I am at the very least going to sleep on it. I’m interested in hearing more from all of you, too, if you have thoughts. For now, that’s not the only crisis brewing. Shiri, I have work for you.”

“Ooh!” Kheshiri executed a deft gymnastic maneuver by which she flowed from a lounging position to sitting upright without ever fully straightening up, the furor of delight behind her eyes only increasing at the attention. “I’m all yours, my mistress!”

Natchua winced at the phrasing, on purpose. Letting the succubus needle her and get reactions helped scratch that itch. “I’ve got the Black Wreath sniffing around me, and so far I can’t tell what the hell they actually want. They said revenge, but their actions don’t make sense in that context. You’re the Wreath expert, here. The way I heard it, you actually took them over a century ago.”

“Ah, good times,” Kheshiri said reminiscently. “I miss Onkawa. But yes, mistress, I recognize the pattern you’ve described. It’s a standard ploy: they are keeping you both in the dark and under pressure. The goals are variable—could be just trying to see what you do when stressed and confused, or they might be trying to weaken you in preparation for the real play.”

“I see,” Natchua murmured. “It does make more sense in that light. So as long as they retain the ability to move about mysteriously…they retain the upper hand. Even trying to figure out their movements slips me deeper into the trap. Hm. How would you suggest defeating a plan like that?”

“Now, just a moment,” Jonathan interrupted. “Not to doubt your expertise, Kheshiri—or reproach you for asking advice, Natch, that’s a very good habit to be in. But remember what we were just discussing about you and your plans? The Wreath are legendary schemers; facing them on their own terms seems like a bad idea. Better to retaliate with something they wouldn’t and can’t expect. If there was ever a time for a Natchua plan, this is it.”

“Yes, it is,” Hesthri agreed softly, but with a mischievous fervor in her expression.

“I do have insights, if you wish them, mistress,” Kheshiri added, “but I like the direction of Jonathan’s thoughts here. I would be delighted to see how you’d screw with Mogul and his crew.”

“How I would…” Natchua trailed off, frowning into space and barely feeling Hesthri’s gentle squeezing of her hand, or Jonathan subtly massaging the back of her neck in his grip. “So the game is to create confusion and pressure, then? You know what, I kind of love it. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

She snapped her eyes back into focus, finding Kheshiri grinning at her with a level of glee that verged on the psychotic. For once, Natchua found the expression, rather than alarming as usual, exactly what she wanted to see.

“First thing tomorrow, Shiri, you and I are going to have a prowl around Veilgrad with our respective knowledge of Wreath tactics and Elilinist magic. I don’t need to know what they’re planning, just where they’ve been and might be again. And then… If Embras Mogul thinks he’s pissed at me now, he’s about to learn how much worse things can always get.”


“All these…are not skilled enchanters?” Magister Danoris asked, visibly aghast. He did not go so far as it lean over the catwalk’s railing, but clutched it as if it were holding him up as he gazed down at the factory floor below.

“Well, yes and no,” Geoffrey Falconer answered in the same energetic tone with which he’d been playing tour guide since their arrival. Though in many ways he lived up to the stereotype of the absent-minded intellectual, Falconer was as intrigued as any expert in arcane magic would be at meeting high elves, and always pleased to show guests the workings of his factory. “Naturally we do employ quite a few enchanters by specialty, but the whole point of the assembly line is to make production as efficient as possible. We’ve set it up as best as possible to minimize the need for magical expertise; fully seventy percent of the positions along the line are manual. Some of those do require an application of magic, but using the standard inks and dusts—which we of course manufacture in house, from our own mana turbines. That increases the available hiring pool. We pride ourselves on paying well here at FI, but unskilled labor is still much cheaper than employing enchanters.”

“And these…laborers…will produce self-motivated vehicles?”

“Twenty an hour,” Falconer said proudly.

“How sophisticated are your horseless carriages?” Danoris demanded.

“It depends; we have a range of products. The higher-end models have more features, obviously, but they also require more specialized attention from enchanters and other artisans. This assembly line happens to be producing our most basic model, the FI-320. Full seating for four passengers, weatherproof wheel charms, maximum speed of forty miles per hour, and fully rechargeable power crystals—”

“I wish to inspect one of these vehicles.”

“Of course,” Falconer said, his good cheer seemingly undiminished by Danoris’s abrupt tone, though his fellow Magister shot him a reproachful look which he did not see. This was not even the first such grimace Ravana had observed, simply by hanging back and studying her guests as intently as they did the factory facilities.

Magisters Danoris and Talvrin had accompanied her on the tour while Veilwin systematically drained a bottle of wine in the lobby, along with two of their Highguard escort, leaving the other two soldiers and Magister Eveldion to oversee proceedings back at the Manor. So far, Ravana hadn’t teased out any differences in rank; Danoris and Talvrin had the same title, and while Danoris generally took the lead, that might just reflect the differences in their personalities as there had been no giving or taking of orders between them. Talvrin let him talk, but did not show much in the way of deference, preferring to walk somewhat apart and study their surroundings on her own time.

“What is a mana turbine?” she now asked.

“Ah, those are actually the very foundation of Falconer Industries,” Geoffrey said animatedly. “Also called mana wells, they are essentially just electrical generators situated on a ley line nexus, which produce steady quantities of the raw dust which can then be refined into various grades of enchanting powders, and further mixed with alchemicals to make enchanting inks that can be used to inscribe enchantments on spell parchment. We both use these in house on our own products, and sell the raw materials directly through outlet shops. FI started when the Enchanter’s Bane shifted ley lines enough that a major nexus formed on real estate my family owned; our activities here tugged them further so that there are now two smaller nexi nearby, which we also control. There are turbines on each. In fact, the nearest is just at the other end of this factory! Would you like to see it firsthand?”

“Yes, we would!” Magister Danoris snapped. Again, Magister Talvrin cast an irritated glance his way. This time, she caught Ravana’s eye. The Duchess gave her a bland smile.

“Right this way!” Geoffrey said, leading the way along the catwalk.

Their course took them to the end of it, down a metal staircase to the factory floor, and through a door at its end. The hallway beyond extended past the building itself, well-lit by both fairy lamps and broad windows which revealed the domed structure to which it led, some fifty yards distant.

Ravana let herself fall to the rear, studying her guests as they strode along, and only deduced halfway down the hall that the Magisters were engaged in conversation the whole time. They spoke in the minutest exhalations that only an elf could hear, but the argument irritated Danoris enough that he turned his head to scowl at Talvrin, enabling her to see his lips move.

She made a mental note to learn to read lips. Somehow it had never come up, but in the moment, Ravana could only castigate herself for overlooking such a clearly useful skill.

The door into the mana turbine was both locked and guarded, though of course the factory’s owner was not impeded by these things in the slightest. He led them through, and into the huge round chamber beyond.

They emerged onto another catwalk surrounding the circular pit dug fully ten yards into the ground, where the machinery of the mana well itself whirred ceaselessly, its mechanical arm spinning and filling the very air with static.

“This chamber is bristling with both conventional lightning rods and the best grounding charms available!” Geoffrey practically shouted over the noise as he led the way around the perimeter of the room toward the glass-walled control booth. “There is basically no chance of electric shock, though with the turbine running at this capacity there’s obviously a lot of static! This way, please, the booth is charmed against both the noise and the electricity.”

The elves were visibly grateful to be shut inside the calm and quiet of the control booth, even the two soldiers. Two enchanters in hard hats and coveralls embroidered with the FI logo gawked at their guests; their employer and even Ravana they knew by sight, but the high elves were well worth staring at even among dignitaries. They seemed both reluctant and relieved when Mr. Falconer himself asked for privacy in the booth, taking his seat before the runic control panel as they slipped back out.

“Is it always so…extreme?” Danoris demanded once the six of them were again alone, fingering one of his long ears.

“Actually, no!” Geoffrey said brightly. “This turbine is the smallest and oldest still in service, and borderline obsolete. We’ve perfected a method of producing much higher-grade mana powder which will enable the creation of far more sophisticated and powerful enchantments. Well, actually, we already have the capacity to make those enchantments, but dedicating a new turbine to mass-producing that quality of dust will finally make them economical and thus more widely available. But it’ll require completely dismantling the turbine and building a new one, which will of course seriously cut down our production while it’s being done. So! We’ve installed heavy-duty safeguards in here to ensure there won’t be any kind of magical event when the machinery breaks, and are running it round the clock at four hundred percent capacity to build up a backlog of dusts. Once it gives out, we’ll replace it with the upgrade.”

Both Magisters looked distinctly alarmed at that.

“Ah, but I don’t mean to sound boastful,” Geoffrey added with a wry grin. “Obviously, none of the magic we’re doing here is anywhere near on a par with what you’re used to back home.”

“Obviously not,” Danoris said dismissively, even as he frowned in clear worry through the noiseproof enchanted windows at the overworked turbine. This time, Talvrin didn’t bother to express disapproval at his rudeness. She was also frowning at the same sight, though more pensively.

Ravana looked rapidly between them and chanced a glance at the Highguard who had each positioned themselves to cover one of the booth’s doors; both were likewise studying the mana well. This, she decided, was the moment to strike.

“Naturally,” the Duchess stated in a light and airy tone, “our magical capability itself is not the source of the Magister’s worry.” Danoris whirled to glare at her, but she just carried on speaking with a blithe smile. “Rather, it is the fact that he came here expecting to see fur-wearing primitives in stone castles, with scarcely one individual in ten thousand an arcane user. And before the Enchanter Wars, that might have been the case. Tell me, how much has Qestraceel changed in the last hundred years? The last thousand?”

All the elves were staring at her now, Danoris in open anger, Talvrin with eyes narrowed intently. Geoffrey Falconer also watched her with a knowing little smile. Ravana quite liked Geoffrey, in large part because he liked her. Not that she craved his approval in and of itself; he had been present when she’d finally gotten rid of her father. While Teal had been deeply unnerved by that event, Geoffrey took grim satisfaction in the unmaking of the Duke who had caused him so many headaches over the years. Ravana respected pragmatism, and his appreciation of revenge.

“Young woman,” Danoris began.

“It must be quite a thing,” she said sweetly, “to be winning a race by default, and only realize you have competition when you feel its breath upon your neck.”

Danoris did not like that at all, and it showed all over his face. Talvrin remained thoughtfully focused upon Ravana, though for the moment, neither spoke.

“It seems to me,” she mused aloud, stepping forward to look out over the mana well herself, “that we have a great deal more to offer one another beyond today’s specific business. Clearly, your unparalleled mastery of the arcane makes your people a font of wisdom from which mine would be both honored and delighted to learn. And even if we can reciprocate little along the same lines, it is obviously advantageous for you to have a weather eye upon the state of human advancement.”

“That,” said Danoris, recovering some of his hauteur, “is hardly worth the—”

“You are by far the most inept politicians I have ever seen,” Ravana informed him, causing the Magister to stammer in incoherent offense. “You control your emotions no better than children. Every thought you have is displayed far in advance of expressing it. Were we truly at cross purposes, your transparent predictability would render the briefest conversation a strategic victory for me. How fortunate that I am not ill-disposed toward you!”

“Most fortunate indeed,” Magister Talvrin said quietly.

“If this is the way even the ranking dignitaries of the Qestrali comport themselves,” Ravana continued, staring aimlessly out the window, “it goes without saying that the Narisians have taken you for a ride in every negotiation between your peoples thus far. I am, as you have cause to be aware, on unfriendly terms with certain factions in Tar’naris; I’ve had cause to grow adept at handling them. I should be delighted to assist my new friends from Qestraceel in getting the better of any further dealings with the drow. And while I am a loyal and devoted subject of the Silver Throne, I would not consider it to be against the Empire’s interests to assist such valued comrades in mitigating the utter spanking your delegates are undoubtedly receiving in Tiraas even as we speak.”

Danoris physically swelled up, which was downright comical given his thin build and the way his ostentatious hovering shoulder armor shifted with the motion. Less amusing was the way his fingers twitched hungrily; for a moment, Ravana thought he might cast some spell at her out of sheer outrage. The much more composed Talvrin turned her head to stare at him.

After a few seconds, however, the Magister composed himself with a visible effort. It took him another heartbeat to put on a small and insincere smile, but he managed, for the first time, to direct a shallow bow toward Ravana.

“Perhaps,” the elf said with obviously strained courtesy, “there is potential for…useful intercourse between us after all…my lady Duchess. Once this day’s work is settled to everyone’s mutual satisfaction, I should be…willing…to discuss further…business. With you.”

Ravana regarded him sidelong, thankful she’d taken the risk of annoying Natchua earlier in the day to press her for details of her encounter with the Highguard squad she had disabled. There were political differences between them, and in fact, they apparently had formal means of addressing these in the field. It was time to take the second risk.

She turned to face Magister Talvrin directly and inclined her head. “It would be my pleasure, not to mention and unmatched honor, to develop a direct relationship between House Madouri and the Magistry of Qestraceel. For such a privilege, I should naturally do my utmost to be as accommodating and useful a friend as I am able. On one condition, of course.”

“Oh?” Danoris grated, further aggravated at being given the cold shoulder.

Ravana pointed at him with one hand, keeping her gaze fully on Talvrin. “This individual is never to be in my presence again. I am certain that so ancient and graceful a civilization as yours must have countless members who are able to conduct themselves appropriately in the presence of a Duchess. I therefore see no reason I should be subjected to the company of those who do not.”

“Now, see here!” Danoris barked.

“Such a trifling request is more than reasonable, Lady Madouri,” Magister Talvrin assured her with a broad smile. “I can only apologize for any offense my colleague has caused you thus far. I shall be glad to ensure that you see only the better face of our society henceforth.”

“Talvrin!” he exploded.

Geoffrey had turned his back to all of them by that point and was pretending to be absorbed in the dials and levers of the booth’s runic control panel.

“I mean no offense,” Ravana said pleasantly, “but I am honestly curious how such an obviously sophisticated civilization ends up with such boorish individuals in positions of power.”

Danoris had gone scarlet in the face; it was the first time she had seen an elf do that.

“Qestraceel all but runs itself,” Talvrin explained. “Manual labor is done by autonomous constructs—what you call golems. More physical functions than otherwise are performed by fully automated enchantments. The city’s functions need maintenance more than they need actual oversight. Even much of the necessary decision-making is handled by intricate and permanent data processing spells running sophisticated algorithms. In addition, our culture prizes above most other concerns its ancient and direct lineage; our society began immediately following the Elder War and more than a few Qestrali elves remember that time. Thus, political power tends to accrue those who have seniority and magical aptitude, rather than…people skills.”

“Magister Talvrin!” Danoris shouted shrilly. “The Magistry will hear of your divulging of our secrets to outsiders!”

“And then,” she shot back, whirling on him with a fierce scowl, “they will hear about how you made a spectacle of every weakness we possess before Imperial nobility, and the measures I was forced to take to keep said nobility positively disposed toward us and disinclined to hostility! You have rendered your presence diplomatically offensive, Magister Danoris. It would be appropriate for you to absent yourself from further engagements, or at the very least, remain silent.”

“Witnessed,” both Highguard stated, in unison and with audible satisfaction. Falconer’s shoulders quivered and he hunched further forward over the console.

Danoris looked as if he might vibrate through the floor.

“After all,” Talvrin continued, turning back to Ravana with a gracious nod, “the Duchess impresses me as a pragmatic woman who would rather benefit from our friendship than initiate needless friction.”

“Oh, very much so,” Ravana agreed brightly. “Revenge, as the Eserites say, is a sucker’s game. I look forward eagerly to a bright future. As friends.”

Eventually, she actually would have to teach them some of the sly circumspection a politician absolutely needed to survive on the surface; it wouldn’t be long after that before they adapted their own. But for a while, at least, there was much more candy to be taken from these babies.

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16 – 13

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They were met at the gates of Madouri Manor by an actual Butler, who introduced himself as Yancey and provided their escort into the house itself, where they were to meet the Duchess.

Compared to its counterparts in Veilgrad, Madouri Manor seemed more like the capital of a nation than the residence of a noble family. Uniformed guards stood at attention flanking the entrance despite the cold, and inside, the trappings were almost decadently lavish, with white marble columns and wall facades interspersed with suits of armor and tapestries, while from the towering ceiling hung banners in the House colors of crimson and gray. The great entry hall itself resembled a throne room, and seemed large enough to contain the entirety of Dufresne Manor.

“This place is ridiculous,” Sherwin grumbled, slouching along with his hands jammed deep in his pockets, partly against the chill; no amount of wealth made it practical to heat a space that size in the dead of winter. “Is this supposed to be a mansion or a cathedral? The Madouris were always full of themselves, even for nobles.”

“Sherwin,” Malivette said evenly, “try, if you are able, to imagine a person with basic manners and social skills. And then, for today, pretend to be that person.”

“How about you kiss my ass, Vette?” he suggested. “You’re the one who was so damn determined to make me come here today. Now you can live with it.”

Though he was facing away from her, she flashed her fangs. “Are you sure you want my mouth near anything sensitive, Sherwin?”

“Lay off him, you smug lamprey,” Natchua ordered. “All Sherwin wanted was to stay in his house and not bother anybody. That’s probably in everybody’s best interests. If you’re gonna keep dragging him out places, you can at least not bully him about it.”

“Thank you!” Sherwin exclaimed.

Perhaps fortunately, there was no time for further byplay, as they had drawn close enough to their hostess to be addressed.

Ravana Madouri herself stood before the centerpiece of the long hall, which was not actually a throne but a bronze statue of some ancient Duke of Madouris, atop a marble base itself taller than the human average, on the front of which was carved the crest of House Madouri; Ravana had, doubtless not by accident, positioned herself so that the coat of arms perfectly framed her golden head.

“Duchess Malivette,” she said graciously, inclining her head. “Duke Sherwin. It is an honor to finally meet you both. And Natchua! How wonderful to see you again.”

“I thank you for your magnanimity, Duchess Ravana, in agreeing to host us,” Malivette replied, inclining her head to exactly the same degree. “I apologize profusely for thus imposing upon you; my deepest gratitude to you for agreeing to this meeting.”

“It is no imposition at all,” Ravana assured her. “It suits me perfectly, as I’m afraid I cannot afford to be long away from Madouris while I have time home from Last Rock, and in any case hospitality is one of the great joys of my life.”

“Yo,” Sherwin grunted. “Seriously, just call me Sherwin. My House is barely a thing anymore, and good damn riddance to it.”

“Of course, Sherwin,” she said smoothly. “I’m so glad to be on such good terms already! Please, you must call me Ravana.”

“Hi, Ravana,” Natchua said a bit tersely. “Long time, no see.”

“I do hope you can stay long enough for us to catch up, Natchua!” Ravana said with an apparently sincere smile. “I believe the last time we spoke was during all that excitement when the campus was invaded.”

“Excitement is one word,” she agreed, then turned her head toward Sherwin. “Not to change the subject, but I didn’t know you were a Duke! You should’ve told me, I feel like I’ve been rude all this time.”

“You have,” he said frankly. “That’s why I like you, rudeness is more my speed anyway. Seriously, it’s just Sherwin. Say Duke and then my last name, Natchua. Go on, say it out loud.”

She didn’t, but paused to consider for a moment, then grinned. “Ah. I see your point.”

“I have a suitable chamber prepared for us to converse in private,” Ravana said politely, “if you would be so good as to accompany me. Natchua, will you be joining us?”

“Oh, I’m just the transportation,” Natchua said quickly. “Last thing I want is to intrude on noble business. If you’ve got a servant’s lounge or something where I can hang out until it’s time for Vette and Sherwin to go home, that’d be just dandy.”

“Actually, since you’re here, why don’t you come with?” Malivette suggested brightly. “I hadn’t planned on you being along for this trip, Natch, but I bet you’d be very interested in the discussion! In fact, the outcome might be important to you, too.”

Natchua turned to stare at her, sucking her lips back in between her teeth and biting down. The vampire just smiled innocently back.

“Yep,” she said after a moment, shifting her gaze to Ravana. “Figures. You two’ll get along great. Didja know, last time we met Ravana and I were both curse victims, and she somehow convinced our whole party to go torture a dryad instead of running away from a battle like sensible people. It was every bit as asinine as it sounds, but in the heat of the moment she starts talking and the next thing you know, you’re doing whatever harebrained thing she suggested and damn if it doesn’t seem to make perfect sense at the time.”

“Oh,” Sherwin said dourly. “One of those.”

“I apologize for that, and in advance for everything else Duke Leduc is going to say,” Malivette said sweetly, ignoring his twitch. “He is not accustomed to being outside his bedroom, or speaking to anyone except demons.”

“Oh, but this all works out splendidly,” Ravana said, her pleasant good cheer undiminished. “I should be delighted to have Natchua join us. In fact, if you don’t mind, I would like to include my lady in waiting, unless your business is too sensitive. May I present Daina Antevaan. Daina, these are the Duchess Malivette Dufresne of Veilgrad, Duke Sherwin Leduc, and my old school friend Natchua.”

Another woman approached from the shadow of a colonnade lining the great hall, a statuesque blonde who had hair a shade darker than Ravana’s and stood head and shoulders taller than her Duchess.

“It is an honor,” she said tonelessly, the brief greeting hinting at an accent that was neither Imperial nor Stalweiss. Her blue eyes fixed on Sherwin, narrowed slightly.

“The pleasure is ours, of course,” Malivette replied. “The matter I wish to discuss is somewhat sensitive, Ravana, but anyone who has your trust has my own. We don’t object in the slightest. Right, Sherwin?”

“I seriously don’t care about any of this,” he complained, looking somewhat unnerved by Daina’s continued appraisal of him, which was both intense and icy. “I’m just here because Vette is pushy, and she hasn’t even bothered to tell me what the big deal is yet. All of you do what you want.”

“Splendid,” Ravana said brightly. “If you would accompany me, then? I have had refreshments laid out for us.”

She turned and led the way toward a towering archway opening onto another long columned hall, this one far more compact than the great entryway but just as lavish in décor. Before following, Natchua, who had been staring bemusedly at Daina, suddenly gasped.

The blonde woman finally tore her eyes off Sherwin to meet Natchua’s gaze, and they stared at each other in tense silence for a moment.

Malivette finally cleared her throat. Pausing only to glance at her, Daina inclined her head once in acknowledgment, then turned and glided off after Ravana, who had paused under the arch to wait for them.

The party proceeded after their hostess in silence, even Sherwin apparently cowed by the tension in the air. It was a terse few minutes, which served to further accentuate the sprawling size and confused layout of Madouri Manor, but they finally came to another tall oak door with an arched top, currently standing open to reveal an ornately appointed sitting room far larger than was necessary for their small group. Ravana came to a stop next to the door and gestured them inside, still smiling.

Natchua drifted to the back of the procession, save only Yancey, who trailed diffidently along with several yards of space between him and the guests. Upon coming abreast of the door and their smiling hostess, instead of turning to enter the room, Natchua grabbed Ravana by the upper arm and kept going, stepping forward till the two of them were just out of sight of those within.

Yancey was on top of her almost as if he’d teleported, but he only placed himself nearby and pointedly within her field of view, holding off from any more direct action at a subtle hand gesture from Ravana.

“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” Natchua growled in a low tone, leaning forward. Malivette could probably still hear her, but at least Sherwin would be kept out of the loop.

Ravana, looking only mildly bemused at this treatment, raised one eyebrow. “I’m afraid you’ll need to be considerably more specific, Natchua.”

“I’m talking about putting Scorn in a room with Sherwin Leduc!” she hissed. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Oh, drat,” the young Duchess said with a little pout. “You can tell that easily? And after all the effort it took to design a disguise ring that would work on her; Rhaazke seem somewhat resistant to applied enchantments.”

“Wh—no, I’m sure it’s fine, I’m the best warlock you’ll ever meet. That is not the point, Ravana!”

“What I am playing at, in your words,” Ravana murmured, matching Natchua’s low volume but with considerably more calm, “is testing her restraint. She is justifiably repulsed and enraged by the sight of him, and given Malivette’s presence, is unlikely to successfully harm him in the worst case scenario. Really, it’s an ideal opportunity!”

Natchua tightened her grip and tugged the girl forward, baring her teeth. “People are not toys for you to experiment on for your amusement, Duchess.”

At that, Ravana’s pleasant expression abruptly cooled, and she finally grabbed Natchua’s hand with her free one and pried it off her arm. “Toys, is it? Scorn is one of the more physically and magically powerful individuals in the world at present, but arrived on this plane with a notable lack of nuance, subtlety, and self-control. With my help, over the last year, she has been gaining these qualities, and doing an excellent job, I might add. I am turning her into someone neither I nor anyone else could hope to control, because she is my friend, and I want what’s best for her. Everyone deserves to live free and empowered, yet most people never will. If I failed to share what I know of the method with someone important to me, that would be treating them like a toy. And given that you are blatantly using Sherwin himself for free room and board, Natchua, you should perhaps pause and consider your prerogatives before you begin flinging accusations.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes to slits. “If not for me, Sherwin would still be hiding in his room. I’m the reason your little campaign to draw him into your politics has yielded anything at all.”

“Why, there, you see?” Ravana said primly, suddenly all smiles again. “It’s just as I said. We do what we can for those close to us, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable for them. And now, I believe we are keeping the others waiting.”

So saying, she nodded once, then stepped around Natchua and the door and glided in.

Yancey remained behind, watching Natchua impassively until she threw up her hands in frustration and followed the blonde Duchess into the parlor.

“There you are, I was beginning to worry,” Malivette said with deceptive mildness as Natchua perched beside her on the loveseat she’d chosen. A cozy arrangement of furnishings surrounded a low table on which was laid out a tea set complete with platters of sandwiches and scones. Sherwin was sprawled in an armchair with a disgruntled expression, while Scorn in the guise of Daina Antevaan perched on the edge of another seat in an almost excessively ladylike posture. She had finally broken off her grim stare at Sherwin, her eyes now tracking Natchua. Rhaazke hearing was no better than human, and Natchua had sensed no infernomancy at work in here, so the demon shouldn’t have caught any of her quick conversation with Ravana, but she was definitely sharp enough to know something was up. Malivette leaned toward Natchua, regaining her attention, and murmured, “Remember what I said to Sherwin about social skills? Same goes.”

“Remember what he said back to you?” Natchua muttered in reply. The vampire had the temerity to flutter her eyelashes at her.

“I must, woefully, apologize for the state of my hospitality, Malivette,” Ravana said once they were all seated, an ironic statement as Yancey was already deftly distributing tea. Without having to ask, he gave Natchua a cup with exactly as much honey as she liked. “In point of fact, more than one of my ancestors regularly played host to vampires, and there is a unique human blood cookbook among my steward’s hereditary effects. Unfortunately, it seems to presume means of acquiring the essential ingredient which were not ethical even then, and most definitely are not legal now.”

“On the contrary, I’d be a bit disturbed if you had provided me refreshments,” Malivette replied with a wink. “Don’t you worry, I get plenty to eat.”

“No, you don’t,” Sherwin grunted. “Look at you, Vette, you’re like a scarecrow. Those four thralls are enough to keep you alive without sucking any of them dry, and that’s about it.”

“That’s a very cheerful thing to bring up in mixed company, Sherwin, thank you,” she said with a tiny sigh. “Daina” shifted her stare back to him, thinning her mouth in overt dislike. “Under the circumstances, I hope you won’t be offended if I come right to business.”

Ravana glanced at Sherwin and then Natchua, her polite little smile widening to the point of real amusement. “Perhaps that would be best.”

“I’m for it,” Sherwin mumbled around a bite of cucumber sandwich.

“I’m going to narrate a bit,” Malivette continued, “for the benefit of those who haven’t been raised in the traditions of the aristocracy. Sherwin and Ravana doubtless know all this background detail, but it will help our newcomers to follow along.”

“Hey, works for me.” Sherwin took a loud slurp of tea, then waved his cup vaguely at her. “If I ever knew any of that shit I’ve worked hard to forget it.”

“The three houses of Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri are in the same predicament, certain specific details aside,” Malivette said, no longer paying him any overt attention. “Our bloodlines are reduced to a single individual each, with no heir available. In this situation, the meanest cobbler in the Empire can legally adopt someone to hand down whatever possessions he may have upon death, but as part of the reforms which followed the Enchanter Wars, the Houses are constrained in this ability. Most of those reforms actually expanded the powers of the aristocracy at the expense of the Throne, but this was an example of the Great Houses acting to enable themselves to…cull the weak, as it were. Once a noble House has been reduced to the point that it cannot perpetuate its own bloodline, it is forbidden from adding new members to the family through adoption. Thus, faltering Houses are encouraged to die off so that their rivals can more easily scavenge their remains.”

“Good fuckin’ riddance,” Sherwin grunted. A short silence fell, in which everyone turned to stare at him, and he had the grace to blush and straighten up a bit. “I mean, ah… I’m sure you both come from very nice families, I was just referring to my case. Nothing good has ever come out of House Leduc and nobody’ll miss us.”

“Daina” opened her mouth, Ravana shot her a piercing sidelong look, and she shut it silently.

“The adoption of new heirs can be done,” Malivette continued, disregarding the byplay, “but there are checks upon it. For any of the three of us to designate a new family member and heir to our legacies would require the approval of either the Silver Throne itself, or two other Great Houses. This, unfortunately, will not be forthcoming in our case. Though Ravana and myself have both worked diligently to prove our loyalty to the Throne, there is no advantage to House Tirasian in helping us to perpetuate our lineages when the Emperor benefits far more from keeping us subservient and dependent. And it goes without saying that none of the other Houses in the Empire want any of us to continue, least of all any of the Great Houses.”

“Uh, scuze me?” Natchua raised a hand, and Malivette nodded graciously to her. “What exactly is a Great House? I didn’t realize there was a hierarchy.”

“There is always a hierarchy,” Ravana said with dark amusement. “Those who are by nature obsessed with power tend to be…well…obsessed with power. Specifically, a Great House is one which holds an Imperial governorship. As the Imperial provinces are each on average the size of most nations of the world and mostly used to be independent kingdoms, they are effectively the families of kings and queens, subordinate only to the Emperor himself.”

“And there,” Malivette said with a grin, “is a loophole. Because, by the law, a Great House is one which holds or has held provincial rule.”

“Yes, like House Dalkhaan,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “You remember those thugs in ill-fitting livery who assaulted the University, as we were just reminiscing, Natchua? Guardsmen of House Dalkhaan, which by that point was nothing but a single bitter old woman presiding over a desiccated husk of a legacy. Yet because one of her ancestors was a Sultana of Calderaas, she was entitled to style herself a Duchess.”

“Oh!” Natchua turned to Sherwin. “And that’s why you’re a Duke! Because the Leducs and Dufresnes have been trading rule of Veilgrad back and forth for centuries.”

“Fat lot of good it did ‘em,” he grumbled.

“Ravana already knows the direction of my thoughts,” Malivette said with a coy smile. “You hinted at this from your earliest correspondence. But I believe, by now, you all understand what I now suggest.”

“Even though all three of your Houses lack allies,” Daina said softly, “you can form an alliance yourselves. Override the prohibition on adoption, designate heirs, and secure the continuation of your families, if not the actual bloodlines. Will that not invite retaliation?”

“None of us have much to fear from the other Houses,” Malivette stated. “Another point we have in common is that we have been left in peace by them because every sensible, self-interested noble family in the Empire fears to antagonize any of us, with some justification. I share a border with the holdings of House Daraspian, and even they haven’t dared try to stick their grubby fingers into Veilgrad. And I am but the newest monster of the trio; House Leduc has spent centuries demonstrating that to draw their ire is lethally dangerous. House Madouri’s reputation is a trifle less specifically fearsome, but it is still the single richest and longest-reigning House in the Empire, and not known to deal gently with rivals.”

“That leaves the Throne, though,” Natchua commented. “Can’t imagine Sharidan will be pleased about you going behind his back. Uh, just let me know if I’m talking too much, I realize this is none of my business.”

“On the contrary, Natchua, I’m quite pleased to see you taking an interest,” Malivette reassured her. “And yes, you are right. This suggestion is, by nature, somewhat antagonistic toward the Throne. But, as I said, the Dufresnes and Madouris of this age are established allies of House Tirasian, and this is not a direct attack upon its power—merely an assertion of independence, one which the Emperor is in no position to begrudge. I believe we can soothe any ruffled feathers through continued demonstrations of loyalty. Especially if we can bring House Leduc into the fold.”

“Right, well, I’m out,” Sherwin said shortly. “I don’t mind doing you two a favor; you seem like decent sorts, the both of you, at least as far as nobles go. Just lemme know when you’ve got all the paperwork and I’ll sign whatever. But House Leduc needs to die.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Malivette said, turning a serious expression on him. “Like it or not, Sherwin, Veilgrad needs the Leducs.”

“Bullshit,” he snorted. “I am by far the most benign member of my family since the conquest of the Stalrange, and let’s face it, the best thing that can be said about me is I’ve only ever harmed demons. Nobody fucking needs the Leducs.”

“There has been a balance in Veilgrad,” she said, her soft voice a pointed contrast to his gruffness, “one whose importance has only truly become clear to me since it was broken. We had the upright and righteous Dufresnes to reassure the people and provide guidance, and the sinister and dangerous Leducs to exert pressure on those who would encroach on our domain, not to mention the horrors that have a tendency to arise in the region. Let’s face it, our corner of the Empire is unusually prone to… Things that bump in the night. The vampire who destroyed my family may have been from one of the deadliest lineages, but lesser breeds have plagued the area for centuries. The werewolf problem has been ongoing for at least as long, there is a long tradition of necromancers infesting the area, and the mountain forests nearby are prone to coughing up some of the more disturbing breeds of fairy found on this continent. Not to mention that we are caught right between Avenist and Shaathist territory, with all the tension that implies, and the Daraspians aren’t the only house down in Vrandis who like to do the kind of business that spills trouble over into other people’s backyards. Veilgrad has always benefited from having its dark protectors, even as it has from its nobler family of leaders. I, finding myself alone, have tried to do both, and… I have to acknowledge, my hold is slipping. The chaos crisis was only the worst example, not by far the only one.”

There was silence in the wake of her soft admission, Ravana looking solicitous and even Sherwin frowning at the vampire in thought.

“My steward, Lars Grusser,” Malivette continued after a moment, “already effectively runs the province. He is both competent and popular, a reassuring presence who fills exactly the role that House Dufresne traditionally has. By adopting him into the House itself and continuing its name and holdings, I would only be legally legitimizing the de facto state of affairs. Ravana, of course, is still young enough to have plenty of time to produce an heir the old-fashioned way, but in the interim, having a designated successor will help to stabilize her rule.”

Ravana nodded once.

“And Sherwin,” Malivette went on, turning back to him.

“No,” he growled. “The last goddamn thing I want is more Leducs around.”

“Upon adopting an heir,” Malivette pressed, “you can immediately abdicate the High Seat and go back to enjoying your privacy while they handle the actual business of being Veilgrad nobility.”

“Anybody who might want that position absolutely can’t be trusted with it,” he snorted.

“He’s got a point,” Natchua agreed. “Not to rain on your parade, Vette, but take it from the world’s foremost expert: warlocks are a lot more trouble than they’re worth.”

“Ah,” Malivette said with a knowing smile. “But imagine if there was an ideally suitable candidate! Someone able to continue House Leduc’s tradition of infernomancy. Someone already known, liked, and trusted by the people. Someone well-regarded throughout the Empire and held in esteem by the Throne itself. Someone who has already shown care and concern for Veilgrad’s people, and involved herself in the community. Someone who, umprompted, is has even taken it upon herself to restore Leduc Manor to its former glory.” Her smile broadened, showing off her fangs. “Someone who, just as an added bonus, is functionally immortal.”

“Now just a goddamned minute,” Natchua squawked.

“Hmm,” Ravana murmured, turning an expression of delighted fascination upon the drow.

“And let me put it to you this way, Sherwin,” Malivette crooned, ignoring Natchua’s spluttering. “Tell me which would more enrage the ghosts of your parents: to let House Leduc quietly fade from the world, or to hand over their entire legacy to an irascible, stateless, juvenile dark elf?”

He, in turn, shifted to study Natchua. A malicious smile slowly blossomed on his face, followed by an exact replication of Ravana’s tone. “Hmm.”

“Sherwin, you backstabbing little earwig!” Natchua shouted.

“You even sound like my mother,” her replied, grinning openly.

“This is the single worst idea I’ve ever heard!” the drow exclaimed, waving her arms frantically. “I mean that, and I’m the one who deliberately picked a fight with Elilial! I am the last person who needs to be in charge of a province!”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Natchua,” Malivette said in a cooler tone. “It is still House Dufresne, not House Leduc, which rules Lower Stalwar Province. But that is just my point: the things you have already been doing for the city all this autumn are exactly what good non-ruling nobility should do.”

“I was just bored!”

“You were bored, and so you spent your time and resources making people’s lives a little better, in whatever ways were available to you. That’s exactly what people want in an aristocrat, and what so few aristocrats actually do in practice.”

“I—that—you—this isn’t—fucking—”

“Natchua,” Malivette said, softly and more seriously. “To be frank, not only do I think you would be good for the province, but I think this is exactly what you need.”

“You should see about sucking some of that blood directly to your brain!”

“There is your immediate problem with the Confederacy and House Dalmiss,” the vampire said relentlessly. “Right now you are stateless and thus vulnerable. You pretty much can’t apply for normal Imperial citizenship; all that demon-summoning is not going to be looked on positively, war hero or no. As an isolated exile, you’re one lapse in security from suffering whatever vengeance your erstwhile Matriarch sends at you next. But as the Duchess Leduc, you would be untouchable. Even if the Throne and the other nobles actively despised you—which, let’s be honest, isn’t unlikely—they would not tolerate such an assault upon Imperial aristocracy. The powerful will always protect their own position first and foremost.”

“Yeah, well… I mean, in theory, but I still don’t…”

“More to the point,” Malivette continued more gently, “I think this would be good for you. You had one purpose that was keeping you going, one you weren’t expecting to survive past its completion, and then… It was done, and here you still are. I know you’ve been floundering, Natch, trying to find your place. You’ve found it in Veilgrad. This is just making it official.”

“This is a little more official than I had in mind!”

“Welp, you’ve sold me,” Sherwin said cheerfully. “The more I hear about this, the more I like it.”

“Goddammit, Sherwin!” Natchua snapped.

“Hey, Natch, lemme pitch you the point that changed my mind,” he said, grinning. “Just take a moment and imagine your mother’s expression when she hears about this.”

That brought Natchua up short, staring at him with her mouth slightly open. After two heartbeats, she closed it, struggling against a small smile. “Well… Okay, that’s a pleasing thought, but…”

“I quite like this idea!” Ravana said brightly. “I do feel, though, that I may owe you an apology, Natchua.”

The drow narrowed her eyes, shifting them to the blonde Duchess. “Oh? What’d you do this time?”

“I am sorry to hear you have been having trouble from House Dalmiss,” Ravana said earnestly. “I confess, I may have been somewhat responsible for provoking them. You see, the Narisian slave trade has ensnared several of my citizens into involuntary servitude to various members of your former House. I felt that Matriarch Ezrakhai could do with a practical lesson in empathy on this matter. As such, I have her daughter in my dungeon.”

Everyone stared at her in dead silence.

“It is a very comfortable dungeon,” Ravana insisted. “I had it thoroughly renovated before installing anyone. I subscribe to the modern philosophy that there is more to be gained by showing consideration to political prisoners than by making them suffer needlessly. Of course, it may all be moot if Ezrakhai proves to be stubborn and I have to begin mailing her fingers and ears, but still. The principle of the thing, you understand.”

The silence continued for three more seconds, and then Natchua burst out laughing so hard she slid right off the loveseat.

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16 – 11

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Natchua was a warlock and an elf; she could both feel the shape of the spells around her, and instantly discern in precise detail their velocity and direction. Instinct alone told her none of the shadowbolts were aimed at her, and held her in place, as several passed close enough to possibly graze her if she were to move.

Instinct only went so far, of course; she did not in the least trust the Black Wreath to be firing off combat spells in her vicinity, and had reflexively summoned the matrix of a shadow well which would draw all of them off course and absorb their energy to be cast back at their creators. Summoned, but did not deploy. In the blindingly rapid thought of that moment, she chose to refrain, prompted by what impulse she could not have precisely articulated. Perhaps this was the quality Elilial had insisted was her innate cunning, the tendency Natchua had to make snap decisions that appeared ludicrous at first glance but ultimately worked out in her benefit, a knack for intuitively making enormously complex calculations based on data of which she wasn’t even consciously aware.

Or maybe she was just impulsive and improbably lucky thus far and sooner than later it was all going to bite her lethally on the ass. Elf or no, Natchua couldn’t think fast enough to ponder this in any detail during the split second in which spells were flying all around her, she just made her choice and was immediately proved right.

Every one of the dozen shadowbolts converged on one of three spots in a rough triangular formation around her, farther out than the ring of Wreath warlocks, and at every impact spot there burst a surge of disrupted arcane magic.

Natchua lashed out with her own craft the instant they were revealed, and none too fast; with their ambush foiled, she was immediately the target of two abortive arcane spells and one physical assault, all of which she neutralized with a combination of shadow tentacles and an on-the-fly reworking of her shadow well to draw off and convert arcane energy.

The entire thing had taken less than a second, and left her standing in the center of a ring of robed cultists, holding three elves in the secure grip of dark tendrils of energy. They were wood elves, to judge by their ears, but in addition to being arcanists were dressed in the most preposterous costumes she’d ever seen. It appeared to be armor of some kind, but was made of a combination of gold and panels of apparent glass which scintillated with blue light. All three were now glaring furiously at her, an emotion to which she could relate.

“And what the fuck is this now?” Natchua demanded, using her tentacles to gratuitously shake the elf closest to the center of her field of view.

“Why, if I’m not very much mistaken,” Embras Mogul drawled with a self-satisfied grin, “these would be a sampling of the famed and mysterious high elves! Higher than most, if they thought ambushing a warlock with arcane spells was a good idea. Hell, what with the year I’m havin’, I wouldn’t turn down a nibble of whatever shroom these three are on.”

She bared her own teeth in displeasure, meeting the glare of the nearest high elf and not enjoying her thoughts on the subject. While living among humans, Natchua had been coasting on her superior reflexes and agility, but in this case, that advantage tipped the other way. These were also elves, and not only that, but clearly trained military; they were undoubtedly faster and more precise than she, even encumbered by armor. She hadn’t had the slightest hint they were sneaking up on her. No warlock, no caster of any kind, could prevail if they were taken out before they could even form a spell.

Mogul and his Wreath had in all probability just saved her life, and she was not enjoying the realization.

“I’ll deal with you in a minute,” Natchua informed her captives, then turned her glare on Mogul, whose grin did not diminish. “What’s all this about, then? Decided to give up on your revenge?”

“Oh, not in the least,” he assured her, his smile again altering subtly to hint at the snarl of a cornered animal. “Given our history, I simply didn’t enjoy being in your debt. But as for that, we’re square again, and can no resume our discussion of your murderous cruelty and what’s going to happen to you as a result. But while we’re here and on the subject…” Mogul’s grin faded and he tilted his head slightly. “I cannot help being curious. I’m sure you were aware our own skills were heavily dampened by the proximity of a chaos effect. Quite frankly I don’t think we could have extricated ourselves from that situation once it welled up. Why did you shadow-jump us out of the catacombs? Would’ve been far easier to take advantage and finish what you started in Ninkabi.”

Natchua pursed her lips for a moment before answering. “Yeah, well… Since you brought up Ninkabi, the truth is I felt kinda bad about it.”

“You felt,” said the female warlock who’d chewed her out last time, “bad. You felt bad. About stuffing us all in chaos space to die?”

“Well, wouldn’t you?” Natchua asked sweetly.

“Bitch, it is inconceivable that no one’s murdered you yet.”

“People keep trying, but I guess I’m just that much better than all of you.”

“Listen, you—”

“You listen,” she snapped, leveling a finger at the hooded woman. “I stand by every word I said to you in that tomb. What happened to you was no worse than you deserved, and apparently less than you deserved since so many of you survived it. But with that said, the whole maneuver was a matter of what I could physically do in that moment to take you off the board. Upon consideration… That is not something I would choose to do to anybody if I had the luxury of better options or time to plan. So, yeah, you had it coming and I have no patience for your complaints, but it still didn’t sit right with me. Thus, moving you out of range of a chaos effect that, yes, I knew you couldn’t escape yourselves. Besides,” she added begrudgingly, “you did go to all the trouble of warning me there was chaos in those catacombs. It was only fair.”

Mogul’s head shifted slightly as he met Vanessa’s gaze, and then another of his comrade’s, all of their eyes hidden by either hoods or hat brim. “Excuse me,” he said at last, “we did what?”

“Oh, don’t play coy,” Natchua scoffed. “You’re the Wreath, nobody listens to you. So if you want to give someone an important message, you use your overly convoluted Elilinist thinking to lead them into a position to discover it themselves while thinking they’re actually fighting you. And since your whole performance down there didn’t make a damn lick of sense, it was obvious.”

“Huh,” Mogul grunted. “Well, I do follow your logic—and yes, we’ve done that exact thing more than a few times. But no, Natchua, we had no idea there was any lingering chaos energy under or near Veilgrad. I assure you, after our own experiences, none of us want to go within leagues of that shit.”

“Right,” she drawled. “You’re gonna pitch to me that that grandstanding spectacle you put on instead of ambushing me like a sensible person was your real, actual plan? You, servants of the goddess of cunning, went about your vengeance in the one way absolutely guaranteed not to work? Mogul, I don’t get too worked up about people trying to murder me, that’s just business as usual, but if you keep implying I’m stupid our relationship is only gonna go further downhill.”

“I am honestly curious to see how much farther down we could possibly go,” he replied, shoving his hands in the pockets of his suit and adopting a slouched posture. “So, hey! Seems we’re all on track for even more interesting days ahead. Anyway, you scratched my back, I scratched yours, and now we can resume plotting each other’s demise, as the gods intended. Catch ya later, buttercup.”

He snapped his fingers once, and the whole group vanished again, the swelling darkness of their shadow-jumps slightly out of sync compared to the simultaneous departure they’d had when Natchua had removed them from the catacombs.

“Can you believe that guy?” she demanded of the angry-looking high elf still thoroughly ensnared off the ground in the grip of her shadow tendrils. All three had been trying to do some arcane craft or other during the entire conversation, all of which she passively siphoned away before it could form into actual spells. “Like I’m gonna swallow that he really thinks in terms of favors. Bullshit squared, I tell you. If you’re gonna scheme at someone right to their face you should at least admit it! That’s just polite, am I wrong?”

The high elf narrowed his eyes to slits and curled his lip back in a sneer. One of his compatriots began trying to struggle violently until Natchua directed the tentacles to hike her up in the air and shake her roughly.

“Well, anyway,” she said, folding her arms. “What the fuck is your problem? I dunno what makes you think you can go around assaulting people in Imperial territory but you are gonna spend the next little while learning in detail how wrong you are.”

“Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss,” he finally spoke in elvish, “you are wanted for multiple crimes against the Elven Confederacy, including but not limited to trafficking with demons, embezzlement of House Dalmiss funds, and assault of Confederate diplomats. By the authority of the Highguard you are placed under arrest. Do you submit to the law?”

She stared at him in silence. Somewhere in the near distance, a lone winter songbird began to add a desolate cheeping to the quiet of the snowy forest.

Natchua gestured with one hand and the tentacles lifted him higher, then deliberately turned him upside down and brought him closer, until she was staring into his green eyes from inches away.

“Buddy,” she said, “part of that was more ridiculous than the rest of it, but I can’t for the life of me decide which.”

“You’re only digging your own grave, warlock,” he grated around clenched teeth. “Resisting lawful arrest and assaulting Highguard will add exponentially to the charges against you. In the end—”

A shadow tentacle stuffed itself in his mouth. To judge by the bulging of his eyes, this pleased him even less than his treatment up till that point.

“I tell you what,” she said with a pleasant smile, “if this is gonna become a legal matter, why don’t we go consult an expert?”

The shadows swelled around them again, and then all four were gone, leaving behind only a wide disturbance in the snow.


“My, my, my,” Malivette crooned. The vampire turned to her right, swiveling her head to keep her eyes fixed on the three captive high elves, still fully ensnared by shadow tendrils now emanating from a dark patch on the floorboards around Natchua’s feet, and began pacing slowly in that direction. “My, my, my, my.”

Coming to a stop, she paused, then turned back the other way and meandered along in reverse, folding her arms behind her back and still watching the elves. “My, my. My, my, my, my.”

Malivette reached the opposite apex of her course, slowly turned again, and started back the other way once more. “My, my—”

“How long does this usually take?” Natchua asked of the Duchess’s escort. Jade lifted a finger to her lips, and Ruby winked at her.

Despite the stark lack of adornment in Dufresne Manor’s entry hall, the vampire’s household had managed to make an impressive display for Natchua’s prisoners, with the black-clad Malivette herself pacing the room like a caged lion. Behind her stood Ruby, Sapphire, Pearl, and Jade in their matching jewel-toned gowns, evenly spaced in a line and holding identical positions with their hands folded demurely at the waist.

“Always the spoilsport, Natchua,” Malivette chided her. “Well, then! I know the Tiraan Empire does not have a unilateral extradition treaty with the Elven Confederacy. I know this because the Tiraan Empire has no treaties with the Elven Confederacy. I know this because the Elven Confederacy has existed for about five minutes and the hot new gossip out of Tiraas these days is how both governments are still informally negotiating the terms under which they’ll start formally negotiating formal negotiations. Thus!”

She stopped her pacing in the exact center of her handmaidens’ formation, framed by Sapphire and Pearl, and batted her eyelashes coquettishly at the captive Highguard.

“By process of deduction, I conclude that your mission is strictly off the books. And therefore, your government is in no position to make any objections if the three of you just disappear. Or are found in well-gnawed pieces in a nearby bear’s den. Y’know, six of one.”

“Is this monster supposed to intimidate us, warlock?” the male high elf sneered at Natchua. “Try harder.”

“You are in the presence of her Grace the Duchess Malivette Esmerelda Dufresne,” Pearl’s voice rang through the hall, “High Seat of House Dufresne, Lady Protector of Veilgrad and Imperial Governor of Lower Stalwar Province, subordinate in this domain only to the Silver Throne itself. You will speak when instructed and not otherwise.”

He didn’t look much impressed by that, but at least he shut up. The two women with him gave him pointed looks, as best they could while trussed up in shadow and suspended in midair.

“Tell me,” Malivette inquired airily, “what would happen to three uninvited interlopers in Qestraceel who took it upon themselves to attack and attempt to abduct a resident? Hmm?” She sidled forward, tilting her head to one side and thrusting her face right into his, crimson eyes widened psychotically despite her smile. “Hmmmmmm?”

He curled his lip in apparent revulsion, but answered her in Tanglish, thickly accented by grammatically correct. “Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss is not a citizen of Veilgrad or the Tiraan Empire. She is a citizen of the Elven Confederacy and bound by its laws, and culpable for crimes committed against it.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said sweetly, “with no surname or honorifics, is not a citizen of your made up Confederacy, having renounced her citizenship in Tar’naris before said Confederacy existed. She is a guest I have personally made welcome in my province.”

He narrowed his eyes. “The warrant is valid. You are interfering with the lawful business of the Highguard, which is unwise.”

“And there it is!” Vette suddenly hopped backward and resumed casually pacing up and down the room. “What’s at the root of it all. The presumption. The attitude, inherent both in your conduct and the sheer unmitigated brass of your superiors, that you are entitled to do what you wish, where you wish, because nobody can stop you. Look around yourselves, my little goslings. You are well and truly stopped.”

The Highguard clamped his mouth shut and stared at her in obstinate silence.

“It’s time to negotiate,” one of his companions suddenly said in elvish.

He tried to turn to glare at her, but couldn’t quite rotate himself around far enough. “We do not negotiate with savages or abominations.”

“I challenge by the authority of high law,” she replied. “Let us be judged by tribunal. Witness this.”

“So witnessed,” said the other woman in a resigned tone.

Rather than seeming angered by this defiance, the man in the center frowned pensively, and again tried to turn toward her. This time, Natchua obligingly rotated him just enough. “Are you certain, officer?”

“I would not disrupt command on mission save in absolute certainty, seeker-captain,” she replied solemnly.

He worked his jaw as if chewing that for a moment, then nodded once. “The benefit of your experience is valued, officer. Your recommendation will be followed.”

She nodded back. “I withdraw my challenge.”

“Witnessed,” said the third with clear relief.

“The warrant specifies the legal status of the accused,” he said, turning his attention back to Malivette and switching again to Tanglish. Natchua shifted him again to make it less awkward. “She is a citizen of Tar’naris, and thus, now a citizen of the Confederacy, as citizens of all member states are as of its formation. This renunciation is on record, but not relevant. Tar’naris has no established policy for the renunciation of citizenship; the concept apparently does not exist in Narisian law or tradition. The only Confederate member state with such doctrine is Qestraceel, which recognizes renunciation as a personal choice but maintains the prerogative of law enforcement over renunciate citizens as it becomes necessary. Thus, her legal status is that of a Confederate citizen and subject to the Highguard’s authority. This would only be in question had she applied for and received citizenship in another state, but we have verified that this is not the case.”

“Well, that’s all fine and good,” Malivette said dismissively, “not to mention highly debatable, but nobody here is arguing any of that.”

“Uh, excuse me,” Natchua exclaimed.

“Natch, hush,” the vampire said. “Let me work. At issue here is the Highguard’s prerogative to act without my or the Silver Throne’s permission in Veilgrad. To wit: there is none. You are not on Confederate territory, and thus you are not enforcing laws, but breaking them. You, active military personnel, are going around committing trespass and assault with intent to abduct.” She leaned forward again, simpering. “Under certain conditions, precious, that is an act of war.”

“The Empire is not going to go to war over this little reprobate,” he said with naked contempt. “If you feel your privileges have been stepped upon…Duchess…you may lodge a complaint with the Magistry—” He broke off, grimaced fleetingly, then composed his expression and continued. “I mean, with the High Council. Or, more likely, request that the Empire do so. But let’s be honest: this is an ill-behaved, unpleasant, demon-trafficking young troublemaker, and had her fellow warlock criminal friends not intervened, we would have successfully extracted her without any notice or inconvenience on your part. No one would have cared. Is your personal pride worth allowing a criminal to run loose?”

“Natchua, please refrain,” Malivette said pleasantly as Natchua swelled up and sparks of purple light began to flicker along the tentacles, to the visible alarm of the two female Highguard. “I think I see what the confusion here is. C’mon, I wanna show you something I think you’ll be very interested in. Do bring them along, Natch honey!”

The Duchess abruptly exploded into a swarm of shrieking bats, prompting all three high elves to try to cast something arcane, which of course was immediately drained away to nothing by Natchua’s secure hold over them. The bats whirled away around behind the staircase, disappearing into a hallway that led deeper into the Manor.

Sapphire curtsied diffidently. “This way, if you please?” Turning, she set off in the same direction, at a much more sedate pace.

Pausing only to give the Highguard captain a baleful look, Natchua followed, dragging her three prisoners along. The other three of Vette’s attendants brought up the rear, in single file.

Partway down the hall, a door opened just as Sapphire passed it, and a man’s tousled head emerged. “What’s all the… Natchua?”

“Sherwin?” she exclaimed, coming to a stop and blinking at him. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m allowed to visit people, you know,” he said irritably.

“Well, of course you’re allowed. Hell, I’m proud of you. I was just surprised, is all. You hate… Everything.”

The Lord of House Leduc snorted, stepping out into the hall to peer up at the three armored elves being dragged around by shadow tentacles like a trio of disgruntled balloons. “So, uh… What’s all this, then?”

“Long story,” she answered. “Short version: assholes. Sorry, I better move it along, I’m keeping Vette waiting.”

“Well, Vette’s keeping me waiting,” he groused, shoving the door closed with more force than it deserved. “I may as well come see what’s so damn important it’s holding everything up.”

“The more the merrier,” Natchua said cheerily, setting off again after Sapphire, and gave the Highguard captain a playful jostle. “Right, chuckles?”

He did not dignify her with a response.

Sapphire paused at another open door and gestured them politely though. Sherwin slipped in ahead of Natchua, who “accidentally” bumped all three floating elves against the door frame while following. With the five of them plus Malivette and a sprawling bundle of energy tentacles in the room beyond, it was rather cramped, being a fairly cozy office.

“Hi, Sherwin,” the Duchess said pleasantly, reaching out to ruffle his hair until he ducked away, growling. “Sorry to keep you waiting, this just came up. Shouldn’t take a—”

“What the hell are these doing here?” Natchua shouted, pointing accusingly at the wall. “I told Jonathan to throw these damn things out!”

The entire wall was covered by newspaper clippings, each one framed and under glass as if it were a rare portrait. All were headlines about her.

“Yes,” Malivette said, smirking, “and because that was silly and you are an irrational goober who likes to break things, Jonathan sent them to me so they’d be safe.”

“I’m gonna throttle that man!”

“You had better make a point to get down on your knees in front of that man before he realizes how much better he can do than you, y’little… What was the word you used?” She peered up at the Highguard captain. “Ah, yes, reprobate. I dunno, sounds a little…grandiose, don’t you think? Seems to me jackass is a better fit.”

“Malivette,” Natchua warned.

“And by get down on your knees,” the vampire continued seriously, “I am referring to—”

“Vette, I live with two succubi,” she snapped. “I do not need single entendres spelled out for me.”

“What the fuck is even going on here?” Sherwin asked, scratching his head.

“Quite so!” Malivette agreed, suddenly brisk. “As you can see, dear guests, these are newspaper headlines from the past four months, all about our dear alleged fugitive. You can read Tanglish, yes? Good, good. Now, you’ll note quite a few are just local interest pieces. Natchua judges pumpkin pie contest, Natchua comments on this or that thing somebody needed a quote for on a slow news day, Natchua transports ex-Shaathist refugees to Viridill, Natchua donates to the new Nemitite library, Natchua endorses local brewery… Oh, ew, a pale ale? Somebody seriously needs to explain beer to you, girl.”

“I will not have my taste in beverages critiqued by an overly self-satisfied deer tick!”

“Omnu’s breath, is this what you’ve been doing all autumn?” Sherwin asked. “This is, like, politician stuff. You do know there’s no elected council in Veilgrad, right? I don’t think there’s been an elected anything in the Empire since Theasia got a bug up her ass about that mess in Shengdu.”

“Hey, I get bored cooped up in the house all the time, Sherwin. Not everybody’s a self-imposed shut-in. And, y’know what, fine, I’ll admit it: I like attention. You don’t think I was born with green hair, do you?”

“Now, being such worldly and intelligent individuals,” Malivette continued solemnly, “you can no doubt infer from this alone that Natchua is somebody important enough locally that not only does she get invited to do stuff like this, but the newspapers consider it…well, in a word, news. And if you’ll kindly direct your attention to the full pages occupying pride of place here in the center, you can tell why!”

The vampire gestured grandly at the largest of the framed papers, while Natchua sighed churlishly and rolled her eyes.

“These are the big exploits that made her name. The speech that rallied Veilgrad together and averted a mob, and most especially her heroics at the Battle of Ninkabi. Yes, that’s right: you were sent here to arrest the woman who personally decimated the Black Wreath and played a pivotal role in forcing Elilial’s surrender to the Pantheon.”

“Wait, that’s what these are here for?” Sherwin rounded on the elves, scowling thunderously. “You were trying to haul off my friend and guest? Where the fuck do you get off?”

“Ah, yes, I should mention,” Malivette added in a solicitous tone, “this is Lord Sherwin Leduc, the head of the other major House in Veilgrad.”

By that point, the captain was staring, wide-eyed, at the wall, seeming to see something far beyond it; something which alarmed him. Both his comrades were still reading papers, their eyes darting rapidly and expressions increasingly unnerved.

“So let me see if I have this right,” Malivette said, watching the three elves closely. “You are, of course, well aware that House Dalmiss is taking advantage of the Confederacy’s formation to have the Highguard bring in their dirty laundry. You are obviously not best pleased about this, but at the end of the day, you’re professionals with a sense of honor; you follow your orders and do your duty with skill and pride, regardless of what you may feel about any of the politics involved. What you did not realize is that House Dalmiss has severely misled you about the situation. Far from a no-name nobody who won’t be missed, Natchua is an Imperial war hero and beloved local celebrity. Her unilateral seizure by the Confederacy would severely antagonize the Silver Throne, provoke an enormous backlash of anti-elven sentiment—mostly in Veilgrad and Ninkabi, but likely spread throughout the Empire—and earn you the undying enmity of two Imperial Houses. I don’t know whether it’s Matriarch Ezrakhai herself or just Nassra who pulled strings to make this happen, but you deserve to be aware that she is using you to pursue her own obsessions in a manner that very nearly caused you to ignite a major diplomatic incident, exactly when your nascent government can least afford one.”

She folded her hands at her waist and smiled beatifically at them. Sherwin crossed his arms, still glaring, and Natchua raised a sardonic eyebrow.

The three elves were silent for a moment, looking at the newspaper clippings, then at Natchua. Finally, the captain turned his head to one side and spoke softly in elvish.

“I welcome perspective, officers.”

“None of this perforce invalidates the warrant,” the more talkative of his subordinates replied, “but it is materially crucial intelligence which High Command should have been given before deploying forces. I recommend we withdraw, report, and request new orders.”

“Concurred,” the laconic one added.

“Duchess Due Freen,” the captain said in Tanglish, his tone suddenly a great deal more respectful, even as his accent mangled her name, “we apologize for this intrusion into your domain. It seems we have been misinformed as to the situation. I respectfully request our release so that we may explain these facts to our superiors and avoid any further misunderstandings of this nature.”

“There, see? All friends again,” Malivette beamed. “And hey, it worked out for everybody! You avoided causing a crisis and learned some valuable facts, and we got three shiny sets of Highguard armor! A nice trophy each for Natchua and myself, plus a spare for Imperial Intelligence to analyze. Cheers all around!”

“Absolutely out of the question,” the captain barked, his newly-acquired politeness instantly vanishing. “The surrender of Highguard property under any circumstances is not on the table!”

“Here’s the thing,” she answered with a silky smile that made Sherwin give her a nervous sidelong look. “I’m glad you got this Natchua business sorted out, don’t think I’m not. But there remains the matter of you being here in the first place because you presume you can do as you like in our lands. That, my darlings, is what is not on the table. We are at a great moment in history, a dawning of a glorious new age, and all feeling our way in the brand new world unfolding before us. Since you charming Qestrali are not accustomed to dealing with us backwater Imperials, let me just get us all started by establishing a very important fact you will need to keep firmly in mind:”

Her smile abruptly vanished.

“This is our land. And if you trespass in my domain, there will be consequences.”

The vampire let that hang in the air for a beat while the captain worked his mouth soundlessly, then just as abruptly plastered a sunny smile back on her face, showing off her fangs.

“Now, then, that’s all settled! Natchua, dear, be a lamb and give our new pals a quick ride to Fort Vaspian so they can report in.”

“See you ‘round, chickadees,” Natchua said with a smirk, and snapped her fingers again. Darkness gathered momentarily in the room, and then both it and the shadow tendrils dissipated. The three elves were gone, and three sets of golden armor clattered noisily to the floor.

“Tut tut,” Malivette clicked her tongue. “Saph, honey, I’m sorry to drop this on you, but would you be ever so kind as to sort these out? I’m afraid this business has already made us late for an important appointment.”

“Of course, Vette,” the vampire’s handmaiden replied, smiling placidly. “It’s no trouble.”

“Ooh! Natch, it’s lucky you’re here.” Malivette turned to Natchua with an eager look that made the drow take a step backward. “Sherwin tells me you’ve got the very remarkable knack for shadow-jumping to places you’ve not previously been!”

“What of it?” she asked warily.

“It’s just that Sherwin and I have a state visit we can’t afford to miss. House business, you understand. And what with all this unexpected hoopla, we’ve gone and missed our caravan!”

“We could just not fuckin’ do it,” Sherwin suggested.

Malivette batted her eyes at him. “Sherwin. Dear. We discussed this, remember?”

“Blackmailer,” he muttered sullenly.

“Uh…yeah,” Natchua said, glancing back and forth between them. “That’s no trouble. I can’t just send someone that way, though, I’ll have to come with.”

“Why, that’s perfect!” Malivette chirped, clapping her hands. “Then you can hang about with us and provide a ride home, too. Oh, don’t worry, it’ll be good to get out of town for a day, and I just know our hostess will be delighted to show you the most lavish hospitality in Madouris. Actually, now that I think of it, you know Duchess Ravana personally, don’t you?”

Natchua sighed heavily. “Yep. Yeah, there it is. That’ll teach me to think this day can’t get any more annoying.”

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15 – 75

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Everyone immediately adopted a combative stance—which in Sherwin’s case, meant fleeing around the corner of the building. The rest of them readied spells, weapons, and shields, both succubi vanishing from sight.

“Oh, please.”

The goddess’s voice was derision itself; she made a single, languid flicking motion with one forefinger. Natchua and Xyraadi’s conjured infernal spells were instantly snuffed out, Jonathan and Hesthri’s arcane weapons and shield charms simply vanished from existence, and Melaxyna and Kheshiri both popped right back into view, looking stunned as if they’d each just been punched between the eyes.

“My armistice is with the Pantheon, governing my relations to them and their followers,” Elilial lectured. “It is worth keeping in mind that you assholes don’t work for any god or cult. I can do whatever I like with you, and no one will be able to call me oathbreaker.”

Natchua drew power for a catastrophic burst of pure destruction which surely would have caved in half the house, had Elilial not effortlessly neutralized it before it could form properly.

“By the same token,” she went on, “I should think it clear by now that you’d all be well and truly suffering if I’d come here for revenge. When I said I wanted a word with you, Natchua, that wasn’t a coy euphemism. It is time—past time—for you and I to have a polite conversation. In private.”

“You’re not taking her anywhere,” Jonathan grated, stepping in front of her.

“You’re sweet, Arquin,” Elilial said condescendingly. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring her right back.”

Before he or Natchua could say anything else, their whole surroundings changed.

Natchua spun in a circle, conjuring a nascent shadowbolt, but just held it for the moment; this time, the goddess didn’t interfere. She was now alone with Elilial, which was of course her most immediate concern.

“What have you done with—”

“Absolutely nothing,” the horned goddess said with a vague little smile of amusement. “They’re standing right where they were, freaking out about you. It’s we who’ve moved. Welcome to the grand entrance hall of Leduc Manor!”

It was definitely the entryway of a wealthy house in an Imperial style; Natchua had only ever seen it with the ceiling, floor, and most of the walls collapsed, but with the resemblance pointed out she could see the familiar shapes of its boundaries, windows, and the grand staircase sweeping up to a second-floor landing. This place was fabulously rich, draped with heavy velvet curtains, exquisite paintings, ornately embroidered carpets strategically placed upon the polished hardwood floor and marble busts of various members of the House. Being used to Leduc Manor in its current state, it was easy to forget that House Leduc had once had a great deal of money. Actually, still did; it was just that Sherwin didn’t care enough about anything to maintain his home.

“As it was, of course,” Elilial mused, her hooves clopping on the floorboards as she paced slowly across the hall, inspecting the furnishings. “Don’t worry, we have not traveled in time. The last thing I need after this day’s work is Vemnesthis climbing up my ass. He just might be the worst of the lot, but at least he’s never interfered with me personally, and that’s how I prefer it. No, this is…a little space all our own, where we won’t be interrupted.”

From which there would be no escape, she did not have to add. Natchua slowly straightened from her battle-ready crouch and let the shadowbolt fizzle.

“Well, fine then, here we are. Spit it out.”

Elilial was studying a painting of a supercilious-looking human of Stalweiss stock, her back to her guest. “I’m not sure how much Arachne understands about the nature of gods, but I know there are important things she’s not told you. You know, when we killed off the Elder Bastards, we weren’t even trying to become gods? Well, most of us, anyway; I have my suspicions about Vidius. The thing was done by changing the rules of godhood itself. Adding new limits and boundaries which the Elders were already well outside, and rendering them suddenly unable to exist. I told you and the rest of those anachronisms about the importance of aspects today.”

She finally turned around, favoring Natchua with a bland little smile. Natchua just stared icily back.

“It is also true, and this is the part they’ve really worked to keep quiet, that gods are influenced by the consciousness of anyone who draws on them for power. A single worshiper channeling divine magic won’t make any impression on a deity during their lifetime, but a whole society? That’s another matter. We tend to…drift. Change, evolve, subject to the beliefs of those who believe in us.”

Natchua frowned slightly in thought, beginning to be interested in spite of herself.

“Of course,” Elilial continued, “there’s an important counter to this effect which is necessary for us to retain some hold on who we are: paladins. Individuals imbued with a potent spark of a god’s essence have a much more significant impact on us. By choosing paladins with care, we avoid the subtle influence of the masses.”

“Most gods don’t even have paladins,” Natchua objected. “Themynra doesn’t. Vidius only just started… Salyrene hasn’t in a century.”

“Avei, Omnu, and Salyrene call their mortal anchors ‘paladins’ and send them out to be front-and-center in world events, yes. I promise you, though, every god who still exists and hasn’t gone utterly mad or been twisted beyond recognition has done so by having someone in whom they’ve entrusted a fraction of their identity. The ones who keep the details secret are probably smarter. Smarter than I was, anyway.” She turned back toward the side of the chamber, now staring sightlessly at the window. “Mine… Mine were my daughters.”

Natchua drew a deep breath slowly, connecting those dots.

“So perhaps you better understand the state I was in,” Elilial said after a pause. “My anchors slain, except for one whose memories were wiped away, attached to a blundering quasi-pacifist and developing a severe resentment toward me. My core believers, first whittled down to a fraction of their former strength during a years-long process that put them under constant tension and terror, and then finally cast into a place where I could feel no connection to them at all. You have never known me as…myself. Just a shamefully fumbling thing, deprived of most of what made me who I am, not yet aware how defeated I already was, awkwardly careening toward an inevitable catastrophe.

“Very little of what I have done in the last few years can even be counted as cunning, honestly. That whole scheme with you and Chase… Well, I suppose it wasn’t a terrible idea, strategically speaking, but it’s not at all how I have preferred to operate all these years. Reckless, unnecessarily cruel. And right at the end, there, marching demons into Ninkabi under cover of the invasion. I could’ve ended that in Hell, you know, it would have been much simpler to turn my forces on the invaders gathering around those hellgates before they opened. But no, in my desperation, I used such a last-minute brute-force measure that even my own high priest argued with me. Poor Embras… A better servant than I have deserved, of late. Arachne tried to warn me, a couple of years ago in Sarasio, but I was already too far gone to listen. I’m afraid I got a lot worse before I got better.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I see it all now,” Natchua sneered. “None of this has been your fault! You were just crazy from magical bullshit. I’m sure if you go explain it all politely to the Pantheon they’ll understand.”

“Mmmmmm,” Elilial hummed, pursing her lips. “It’s tricky, you know? A god is a vast intelligence, but also a limited one, and one of the few things we cannot clearly see is just how much agency we have. How much of what I do is truly mine? For my part, at least, I prefer to err on the side of taking responsibility.”

“How noble and self-effacing you are.”

“Oh, my reasons are cynical.” She shifted slightly to give Natchua a wry smile sidelong. “When agency and control is at a premium, you have to seize whatever you can. Blaming others for your mistakes can make you feel better, but it keeps you in the role of a victim. It’s better by far to assume responsibility, even for things that aren’t strictly your fault. A failure is an opportunity to improve yourself, if you own it.”

“Thanks for the advice. We done here?”

“I’m offering you explanations, not excuses. I just thought you deserved to understand why some of the things that I’ve done to you happened. It isn’t meant to justify anything.” She turned to face Natchua fully, and to the drow’s surprise, bowed. “With all that said, here’s the truth: I really fucked you over, and you didn’t deserve it. What I did to you was an entirely hypocritical abrogation of my own principles, and I’m ashamed to have used you and your buddy to cause such wanton destruction, especially while I’m always spouting off about the evils of the Pantheon. It probably helps nothing, but here it is: I’m sorry, Natchua.”

“I don’t need an apology from you,” Natchua spat. “As far as I’m concerned, I got mine when I demolished your cult and made you publicly bend your neck to Vesk. That was more satisfying than anything you could possibly say.”

The goddess regarded her in silence, her face expressionless.

Natchua folded her arms. “So you can go ahead and smite me now. Like I told you in Ninkabi, nothing you do to me is gonna un-kick your ass.”

“I have absolutely no intention of harming you, Natchua,” Elilial said mildly. “Ever. I brought you here to explain a few things, including that. Have you ever given any thought to the nature of cunning?”

Natchua threw up her hands, turned, and flounced over to a low velvet-upholstered settee with gilded accents, then flopped herself down onto it and stared mulishly at the goddess.

“People generally have the wrong idea about cunning, and I won’t lie: I’ve gotten great mileage out of that fact.” Elilial began to pace slowly up and down in front of the stairs, the sound of her hooves on the floor alternating as she walked off and on the strip of carpet running toward the door. “Talk about cunning and most people envision some mastermind pulling strings from the shadows, always staying ten steps ahead of everyone else and controlling every factor. That’s a complete fantasy, of course. Absolute control is a laughably preposterous idea. If a plan has more than three steps, they cease to be steps and become items on a wish list. Even if you reduce those notions to a believable level of possibility, that’s describing strategy, not cunning. That’s not what keeps the fox ahead of the hunters.

“Cunning is the quality of not only thinking more deviously than one’s rivals, but doing so quickly, while always in motion ahead of them. It is strategy and duplicitousness coupled with reaction time, the ability to execute a plan by reflex without having to actually form it first. A person is cunning when their instinctive response to a threat outmaneuvers everyone else’s carefully-laid schemes.”

She paused in the middle of the carpet, then turned and came back a few steps to lean against the endcap of the banister, regarding Natchua with a knowing little smile.

“I would say that right now, in the world, there are two people who most exemplify the concept of cunning, apart from myself, and I regret to acknowledge that neither is even in my cult. Archpope Justinian is the perfect exemplar of the more cautious brand. That man has meticulously arranged an entire continent as a game board to suit his ends, positioning himself to defeat every opponent who arises before they realize they’re playing.”

“Sounds like that deep-thinking strategy you were just saying doesn’t count as cunning,” Natchua replied, affecting a bored tone.

“On the contrary, that is exactly why Justinian has outfoxed all the countless people attempting to do the same thing,” the goddess said with a wink. “While they labor to set everything up just so, he patiently and quietly watches the whole, constantly reacting to every development as it happens and gently nudging things where he wants them to go. Not overreaching, careful not to betray his hand, but always watching, always acting. While they scheme and try to plan too many steps ahead, he remains eternally in motion. Some of them are players, many only pieces; he has established himself as the board itself.”

“Why don’cha marry the guy if you love him so much?”

“Oh, you know how it is,” Elilial replied, shrugging airily. “So often one finds oneself at cross-purposes with fascinating people and thus sadly deprived of the opportunity to befriend them. Plus, there is also the nagging little detail that he murdered my daughters.”

For the space of three words, she made her full presence felt, a psychic pressure of darkness and hellfire that conveyed unfathomable depths of rage without putting it on full display. Natchua warily sat upright, gathering her focus to form another spell if necessary.

Immediately, though, the moment passed, and Elilial straightened up and resumed her languid pacing.

“Then there’s the other kind,” the goddess went on, “the cunning of the fox. The aggressive kind that runs and pounces and eternally confounds both its pursuers and prey. I confess a personal fondness for that manifestation of my aspect; it’s a lot more reminiscent of how I used to be, back in the day when we were fighting the Elders. The fun kind of cunning that mostly looks like insanity or stupidity until you happen to notice in hindsight that this one particular maniacal idiot always seems to come out on top somehow. Every daffy thing they do inexplicably creates exploitable opportunities for themselves, and unmanageable chaos for everyone else.”

She paused in strolling away, glancing back over her shoulder with a smirk.

“I would say the person who most exemplifies that quality is you, Natchua.”

For one beat of silence, Natchua gaped at her.

Then she burst out laughing so hard she slumped over on the settee. Elilial turned around fully, watching patiently while Natchua rolled about, clutching her ribs, and finally tumbled off onto the floor.

“Yes, yes, everyone’s been telling you how reckless and capricious you are,” the goddess said with wry fondness, watching her. “It’s not even that they’re wrong, but let’s be real: here you are, having outmaneuvered the very goddess of cunning herself. You’re not the first to have pulled that off in eight thousand years, or even in the last five, but it places you in very rarefied company.”

“You are so full of it,” Natchua wheezed.

“I’ve quite enjoyed backtracking to check up on your progress,” Elilial said, grinning now. “Part of me regrets that I neglected to be watching you at the time, but it all worked out; obviously if I’d known what you were up to I’d have put a stop to it, and then we would both be thoroughly screwed. But you just keep doing these absurd things and then, somehow, winning! Recruiting Hesthri and Jonathan Arquin was a move nobody with an ounce of classical strategic sense would have made, and look how well that paid off. Releasing Melaxyna, likewise; everybody knows not to mess about with succubi, and you should know it better than most. But you trusted your instincts, and here you are. You brought Kheshiri to heel, Natchua. My own Wreath failed to do that; the last time she reared up on this plane I had to deal with her myself after she caused my cult nearly as much damage as you just did. And how did you subdue the most infamously wily succubus in existence?”

Natchua snorted and sat upright, leaning back against the settee. “That? I beat the shit out of her. You call that cunning?”

“You beat the shit out of her,” Elilial repeated, enunciating slowly, “which is something nobody would think to try on a succubus. Everyone knows it doesn’t work at best, and is counterproductive at worst. But you found a way to make such an overblown, dramatic production of whooping her ass that she as close to fell head-over-heels in love with you as that creature is capable of feeling about anyone. True, we’ve yet to see how long you can maintain your grip on her leash, but that promises to be just as much of a hoot.”

The mirth had slid from Natchua’s face now, replaced by an increasingly uncertain frown. It was Elilial’s turn to fold her arms, again grinning down at her and slouching against the banister.

“Duchess Malivette Dufresne is as good a schemer as they come, and she had a deft web woven around you before you even saw her fingers moving. And it all fell apart in one moment because it just never occurred to her that a stateless practitioner of forbidden magic on the run would even consider making herself a public figure. One little speech, and you pulled her fangs harder than anybody has since her University days.

“You’re the real deal, Natchua. Your issue is not that you’re stupid; I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that you’re not crazy. What you are is crazy like a fox. You’ve spent the last month proving it at the expense of people who are by any objective measure a lot smarter than you. That is what I like to see.”

Slowly, Natchua dragged herself upright, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. “Now, hold on a second. When you said you needed a… A paladin, or anchor, to stabilize your personality…”

Elilial’s grin widened.

“You seem a lot more stable now than you did in the…”

The goddess raised one eyebrow.

Natchua brandished an accusing finger at her.

“No. Fuck you! Don’t even fucking think about it, you sick old sack of lies!”

“Well, it seems I owe you another apology,” Elilial said with a sigh that failed to sound repentant. “I came here to notify you, not ask your permission. I had my little moment of clarity back there in the cathedral when I realized exactly how thoroughly I’d just been thwarted by a pesky drow I had dismissed as an overreaching idiot doomed to destroy herself. I finally realized exactly what had happened to me, and what I needed to do to repair myself. So I did it, right then and there.”

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Well, the least I can say is, it’s working,” the goddess said, her expression finally sobering. “At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that you might deserve to know. But you’ve made me remember what it’s like to live under the heel of oppressive deities, to need to fight back. I would probably have been better off leaving you in ignorance, strategically speaking. It’s just that… A point comes when no amount of strategy substitutes for ethics.”

“You can just fucking undo it right now, then!” Natchua raged.

Slowly, Elilial shook her horned head. “I’m sorry, but no. I was unraveling, Natchua. I was most of the way into my transformation into an unheeding monster, and worse, an idiot. I can’t go back to that. This time I will admit it up front: I am doing this to you without your consent, because I need to. And whatever I have to do to make it up, I will. But I don’t have a choice.”

“I fucking hate you.”

“Fair,” the goddess acknowledged. “Look at it this way: I am handing you the literal key to my fate. You can definitely find a way to use this in your revenge against me. If you decide that’s what you still want to do.”

“So what, you think I’m going to lead your new Black Wreath? Fuck you, I’m not helping you.”

Elilial tilted her head to one side, considering. “I think…I would rather you didn’t. If that’s what you decide you want, I guess we can revisit it, but you’re really not the type I look for in a cultist, my dear. Anyway, no; I don’t need anything else from you, Natchua. Your life is your own, now. Live it in the way that seems best for you. That is all I need you to do, and I’ll accept whatever repercussions that has for me. You could do a lot of good in the world, or a lot of harm. Or if you just wanna help Sherwin rebuild his mansion and settle in with your little harem, you can do that, too. The world is your oyster. And speaking of that, I guess I’d better send you back to the gang before they panic too hard and do something unfortunate.”

“Don’t you dare—”

“If you ever find yourself in need of help, Natchua, call on me. I certainly owe you.”

“Wait!”

Unsurprisingly, she didn’t wait. As before, there was no discernible effect of transition; she was just suddenly back where she had been, in the dark outside the ruins of Leduc Manor, surrounded by her agitated loved ones and Kheshiri. This time, with no demon goddess in sight.

“Natchua!” Hesthri bawled, immediately throwing her arms around the elf’s neck and clinging to her. Jonathan was a split second behind, wrapping them both up in a hug, and despite her own agitation Natchua deliberately sank herself into their grasp. She desperately needed it right at that moment. Somewhere off to the side, Xyraadi was babbling excitedly in Glassian.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Kheshiri exclaimed after a span of seconds that was not nearly enough. “What happened? Mistress, what did she do to you? Are we going after the old bitch for Round 2?”

“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua mumbled into Hesthri’s cheek, finally raising her head to stare at the sky between the nearby pines. “Shit. Fuck a fucking… Okay, okay, don’t panic. I can use this. It’s like she said, there has to be a way I can use this against…”

“Natch, are you okay?” Jonathan asked insistently.

She was still staring at nothing, muttering to herself. “I know, I know it’s not what any of you signed on for, it’s basically the worst case… Okay, this is not a crisis. I know there has to be something…”

“Hey.” He finally released her, pulling back enough to raise her chin with one hand and bring her eyes to his. “Natchua, whatever happened, we’re here. We’ve got your back, and we will get through this. Together.”

“Yes,” Hesthri agreed, still hugging her close and pausing just long enough to press a kiss against her cheek. “Just tell us what she did, and we will deal with it.”

“Talk to us, mon amie,” Xyraadi agreed. “We are still in this fight! What did she do to you?”

Slowly, Natchua dragged her gaze around the group, making eye contact with each of them in the darkness.

“Apparently,” she said at last, “I’m the new Hand of Elilial.”

The wind whistled through the pines; in the near distance, an owl hooted disconsolately. At least there were no wolves howling.

Then Kheshiri began to laugh. In seconds she was screeching in absolute hysteria, folding herself to the ground to pound weakly at the driveway with one fist.

Melaxyna grabbed at her own face with clawed fingers, dragging them slowly down to her chin in a gesture of exasperated despair.

“Natchua, no!”

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15 – 74

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Many of his companions were deeply uncertain about the prospect of Ingvar going off into the woods alone with the Bishop of the Huntsmen, he could see it plainly on their faces. They trusted him enough not to protest overtly, though, when he gave last-minute instructions for them to finish setting up camp and hold steady until his return. For his part, Ingvar was not concerned about his safety. He trusted Andros, and it was more than just an emotional attachment. Even if the day came when the two of them were declared enemies—which was, he was forced to admit, a possibility—Andros Varanus would never do something so dishonorable as try to ambush him in the dark under cover of friendship.

Besides, they really couldn’t stroll far enough that Rainwood wouldn’t hear everything happening, and he more than suspected that at least one or two of the highly capable wilderness trackers accompanying him were going to shadow their footsteps in the darkness. If the same thought occurred to Andros, he made no outward sign.

“Huntsmen and Shadow Hunters,” Andros said suddenly after they had walked in silence till the flickering of nascent campfires was no longer visible through the trees. The darkness was nearly absolute but this was a settled and well-traveled land, a proverbial stone’s throw from a major city; in this forest, it was comfortable to walk in the dark simply by taking slow, small steps to avoid landing in rabbit holes or tripping on roots. At least for experienced woodsmen such as they. “Men and women alike. A dryad, an elf of the line of the Crow. A couple of others to whom I could put no easy label. It is… Quite an assemblage. A thing straight out of the Age of Adventures. And all these people follow you, Ingvar?”

“They follow Shaath,” he replied quietly.

Andros kept his eyes ahead in the darkness; his face, barely glimpsed by occasional beams of moonlight through the leaves, revealed nothing. “And yet, you have not brought them back to any lodge of the Huntsmen, to answer to the Grandmaster.”

Ingvar inhaled silently before answering. “Because those two things would be mutually exclusive.”

He knew even saying it that way was throwing down the gauntlet, but they were both Huntsmen; dissembling did not become them.

Yet, despite his expectations, Andos did not react as if challenged. “What makes you think so?”

“The word of Shaath himself,” Ingvar answered. “We bought him a few moments of clarity today. There were…unintended side effects.”

“I should say so,” Andros rumbled. “The world reels from your side effects, Brother.”

“The howling should be silent now, but…”

“What’s done is done. Do you know there are still riots in Shaathvar?”

“It does not surprise me,” Ingvar said softly. “There will be more, Brother. By Shaath’s will.”

The Bishop half-turned his head to look sidelong at him through the dark.

“The howling will be silent, but not the dreams. By our god’s own power, all who pray to him or invoke his name will know the truth of the wolf pack whenever they sleep.”

Andros’s burly shoulders shifted in a heavy sigh. “You should have let the old wolf sleep, Brother. It would have been kinder.”

Kinder?” Ingvar came to a stop, turning to face him directly. Andros did likewise, his deep-set eyes glinting in the dark. “He was chained. The very god of the wild, chained like a goat for slaughter! He suffered every moment of it, and all because of us. Of all of us, his loyal Huntsmen! Brother, we have been lied to.”

“Do you remember what I said to you, years ago in Tiraas?” Andros asked, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “It was the first time I took you with me to the Vidian temple. You were frustrated by all their circuitous doublespeak, as any reasonable man would be. But you understood all their underhanded implications, and were savvy enough to hold your own tongue until we were out of their earshot. I said that showed you had a knack for politics, and you took offense.”

Ingvar recalled that day well. From another man he might have called this apparent change of subject a deflection, but such was not in Andros’s nature. He did not speak unless his words were going somewhere to the point.

“You said,” he replied slowly, “that it was a sacrifice. A thing that must be done, on behalf of those who would never thank or respect those of us who saw to the Huntsmen’s political affairs. That it was only for those who could pursue what was right, in defiance of every other desire, for no better reason than because it was right. Because it was necessary, even if at times it seemed…”

He trailed to a halt in the middle of reconstructing that long-ago speech, as another layer of meaning clicked into place given the context of this conversation.

“You knew,” he breathed. “You already know. Who else? The Grandmaster?”

“What have you learned?” Andros asked.

“I believe I asked you first, Brother,” Ingvar retorted, holding onto his own poise by a thread. All this time…

“I know a number of things that you did not, when you set out on your quest,” said Andros. “Looking at you now, knowing even just hints of what you have been up to over the last year, I suspect you’ve learned many things that are unknown to me still. I am only curious how much, if anything, I still need to explain.”

“Did you know that gods can be imprisoned by belief?” Ingvar snapped. “Not just Shaath, all of them wear the chains of their own cults. But they have means of countering this effect; what is unique about Shaath is that these were turned deliberately against him. Did you know that Angthinor the Wise was a liar?”

“Ah.” Andros nodded once. “That I knew, yes. Do you know why Angthinor did what he did?”

That brought Ingvar up short, for it was the one crucial piece of the puzzle he had never been able to learn, and the one that troubled him the most. Angthinor had been a true Huntsman, in fact the very last. He had walked with Shaath, known him not only as a distant figure of reverence, but as a brother. How could he have betrayed him so?

Andros interpreted his silence as the invitation it was.

“Unique among the Huntsmen of his day, Angthinor had a broader field of vision than a simple hunter,” the Bishop said, turning and beginning to walk very slowly back the way they had come, in the general direction of the hill and the camp. Ingvar kept pace alongside, listening. “He was a healer and a scholar as well as a warden of the wild, not unlike the Shadow Hunters of today. You’ve learned much of their ways, I expect. He understood a great deal about what was happening in the world beyond his beloved forests. And most importantly, he was a man such as all Shaathist politicians have had to be ever since: one who recognized right, and necessity, and did not shirk from duties he found painful.”

“Duties,” Ingvar repeated incredulously.

“The struggle between right and wrong is easy,” Andros said evenly. “Only the most craven and pathetic fail to make that choice. A man is tested when he must choose between right and right, when the only option before him is what manner of evil must be accepted. Angthinor made his choice. I have made mine; you have made your own. Only the gods can say if we chose rightly… And, given what you say, perhaps not even them.”

“What greater evil was Angthinor avoiding by doing this?”

“As with the worst evils, one whose victims were blameless. Shaath had no part or responsibility in the travails that wracked the world in those days. Angthinor acted to correct a great imbalance kicked up by Avei, Sorash, and Arachne Tellwyrn.”

In spite of himself, Ingvar froze in surprise. Tellwyrn? He’d found her rather personable and willing to be helpful, if a bit brusque. One could well forget, meeting the woman in person, that she was a contentious figure who stood astride a wide swath of history.

“There were two gods of war in the days before Angthinor’s time,” Andros continued, drifting a bit to the south. He was either heading for the road or taking a roundabout path back to the camp. “Avei was goddess of strategy, Sorash of conquest and violence. They had other philosophical differences, of course: one the protector and champion of women, and one of men. Combined with their other aspects, they set between them the relationship between men and women that has lingered to this day. The one, seeking dominance through craft and cunning, the other through force and sheer strength of will and character. It was certainly not ideal, as it still isn’t…but it was a balance. And then Tellwyrn came along and killed Sorash.”

Andros heaved a heavy sigh, powerful enough to make his beard flutter.

“This is not well-remembered by historians. The Huntsmen have worked carefully to erase it over the centuries, leaning on the Universal Church to lean on the Nemitites, hounding the Shadow Hunters to relinquish certain accounts in their libraries. It doesn’t surprise me that you have not yet heard this account, Brother. Knowledge is not so easily wiped away; you would have found it eventually, but not within a year of looking. The remaining accounts are well buried.”

“Accounts of what?”

“Of what happens to a world when the goddess of womankind is abruptly without a rival,” Andros said bitterly. “Despite their protestations, the Avenists are not champions of gender equality. The Izarites and Vidians both embrace that principle, and you know the contempt the Sisterhood has toward them for it. You know better than most the hypocrisy of Avei’s followers. How hard they work to ease the transitions of twinsouled women, while they cast people like you out into the wild to fend for themselves.”

“I have added knowledge to my training as a Huntsman, Brother, not over-written it. I hardly need a lecture on what is wrong within the Sisterhood of Avei.”

“Then perhaps you can imagine what goes wrong with a world in which there is no check upon Avei’s excesses,” Andros rumbled. “Within a century, it was a world ruled by queens. In more nations than otherwise, a man without a wife had little to no place in society, and one with a wife needed her to make any decision governing his own household. The inciting event for Angthinor himself was being told by the circle of wise women who looked after his own village that herb lore, healing, and the chronicling of the seasons was their work, unsuited for a man. That he, a chosen champion of the wild god himself, should mind his place.”

He fell silent, teeth glinting in the moonlight as he bared them, the two of them emerging from the treeline into a clearing. Off to their right, Ingvar could see the hill with the two campfires atop, casting irregular shadows as people moved about them.

“It sounds,” he said, heading in that direction, “much like what we tell women within our faith, now.”

“And so,” Andros said, weariness weighing heavily on his voice, “there is balance again. Angthinor restored what was lost, at the expense of the god he loved most. Because objectively, his was the weakest and least significant god of the Pantheon, save only Naphthene. Because Shaath had never played a role in guiding the shape of civilizations, and thus, he could still be made to. It has not been a perfect solution, Brother. It was a choice that still deserves to be mourned. But it was made, and for good reason. And those of us who know this secret have upheld it, by the same logic. Even though we grieve the same injustice you do. We accept the chains upon our god, for those chains ensure the freedom of all mankind.”

“Do you not see, Brother?” Ingvar asked, his voice rough with emotion. “Regardless of his intentions, it was not the right choice. An injustice is not corrected by an opposite injustice!”

“And whose is the purview of justice?” Andros asked pointedly. “Even the Avenists will not let one person be both judge and prosecutor. To whom can you appeal for justice when the source of justice itself is the source of your oppression? All that could be done was to push back against her.”

“Perhaps that was true, then,” Ingvar breathed. “But today, Brother, the world has changed.”

“Indeed, you might well have made all this thoroughly moot.”

“I don’t mean that. Hours ago I stood with a host of warriors from all across this Empire and beyond while Elilial formally surrendered to the Pantheon. And, as a last parting shot, revealed to all of us exactly how to kill a god.”

Andros stopped walking, turning to face him, his bushy eyebrows rising in a mute question.

“A god can be destroyed when they are severed from their aspect,” Ingvar said, meeting his stare intently. “Do you understand what this means, Andros? Angthinor did not thwart Avei; he squandered the only chance to punish her tyranny for good. If her aspects are called into conflict with one another, she can finally be hurt. If she devotes herself to injustice and will not recant, even Avei can be made to pay the price.”

Andros was silent, his eyes now narrowed in thought. Ingvar watched him consider it quietly for long moments, until finally the Bishop turned and mutely resumed walking, this time heading straight for the camp.

“Veisroi intends to call a Wild Hunt against you,” he said abruptly after a dozen steps. “I convinced him to hold off until I could try to persuade you. I gather, Brother, that you have no intention of turning away from the path you’ve chosen.”

“I am not Angthinor,” Ingvar stated, “and this is not Angthinor’s world. My choice is simply between right and wrong. I stand with Shaath and with the truth. I will not be swayed by threats.”

“If you were,” Andros said, nodding, “that would be the first thing in all of this that would make me think less of you, Brother.”

They passed through the last of the trees ringing the hill and began climbing its bare sides back to the campsite, curious faces already gathering to watch them come.

“You must know—even the Grandmaster must—that getting rid of me would not make this end,” Ingvar said as they ascended the last few yards. “The dreams will not stop. The truth can no longer be suppressed, Brother. Veisroi can try to scapegoat us if he wants, but it will only add to his problems.”

“Perhaps,” Andros mused, coming to a halt at the edge of the firelight. “But remember, Ingvar, that Veisroi is both hunter and politician. He too clever to destroy you outright. So long as he has you to point at and call enemy, he believes he can maintain his grip on the Huntsmen.”

“And on you?” Ingvar asked quietly.

There was silence, as Andros met his gaze for several seconds, then turned his head to look around at Ingvar’s assembled followers. Finally, he turned back to Ingvar directly and inclined his head, once.

“I wish you good fortune, Ingvar. Whatever else must come between us in the future, you have nothing but my highest respect. To me, you shall always be a Brother. And truly, I hope that you succeed.”

“But,” Ingvar said softly, “you will not join us?”

Slowly, Andros shook his head. “The world you seek to make is a better one, a world I would very much like to live in. But even with all you have gathered to your cause, I do not believe you can succeed. You are not the first, and will not be the last. There are many things I have seen in the hidden archives which convince me your cause is doomed. I will mourn you, Ingvar, when you fall, as I would any brother of mine. But I must remain behind to ensure the world does not fall with you.”

Ingvar let out a soft sigh. “The world has already changed, Brother. Truth can no longer be fought as it has been in the past. Veisroi does not understand this, and that is why he will fail.”

“Warn your friends, the Shadow Hunters,” Andros advised. “If the Grandmaster cannot rally enough support against you to suit him, they make a very convenient target.”

“They are called the Rangers,” said Ingvar, “and it is time for the Huntsmen to address them as such. I know it is convenient for the Grandmaster to have a mocking epithet to throw at them, and so that is the first of his weapons I shall take away. From now on, we are the Shadow Hunters, and it’s a name he and his followers will come to fear.”

Andros nodded once, then held out his hand. One last time, Ingvar clasped it in his own.

“My fortune smile on your hunts, Brother,” Andros said.

“Walk in peace with the wild, Brother,” Ingvar replied.

Then Andros released him, and with no more ado, turned and strode back down the hill, heading for the road.

“So…we’re the Shadow Hunters now?” Taka asked skeptically once the Bishop had disappeared into the trees. “I’ve gotta say, it sounds a little… What’s the word? Contrived? Melodramatic?”

“Pompous,” November suggested.

“I’d just have gone with ‘silly,’” Tholi grunted.

“I was hoping we’d be the Wardens,” Dimbi added. “That’s got a ring to it!”

“Oh, I kinda like that one,” Aspen agreed.

“Well, the Rangers have carried both names for centuries and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm,” Ingvar said with a thin smile, still watching the point where Andros had disappeared into the darkness. “Labels can be weapons, as I just said. Just because we’re confiscating one of Veisroi’s doesn’t mean we have to take it to heart.”

“Don’t listen to the naysayers, Ingvar, I thought you handled that very well.”

There was a general yelling and scattering as everyone whirled to face the person in the middle of their camp who had definitely not been there a moment ago. Even the wolves fled, whining and circling around behind their two-legged companions.

The reaction of spirit wolves was the only indication of anything fundamentally wrong, aside from the fact that they all recognized her. Unlike her previous performance in Ninkabi, she had no towering presence or metaphysical weight, no aura pressing down on their consciousness. She was just a lone woman, albeit one with dusky crimson skin, horns, and hooves.

Tholi nocked an arrow and drew it back, taking aim straight at her heart.

“I’m curious, Tholi,” Elilial said in a pleasant tone, “and this is a serious question, no fooling. Suppose you shot me with an arrow. What do you think would happen next?”

Tholi’s expression took on a sickly cast as he found himself in the classic dilemma of either losing face by backing down or starting a fight he had no prayer of winning. Generally, Ingvar preferred to let young men get themselves out of that crevice and learn the hard way not to get back in it, but this was no time to take risks.

“Don’t waste your arrows, Tholi,” he said, stepping in front of the young man and directing his gaze at the queen of demons. “What do you want?”

“Why, the same thing I always want,” she said lightly. “To use you in my schemes. Pay attention, everybody, I’m going to teach you a trick.”

“No, thank you,” Ingvar said firmly. “We want nothing to do with infernal craft.”

“Oh, good heavens, no,” Elilial replied, grimacing. “Can you even imagine? The last thing this poor beleaguered world needs is more unprepared fools playing around in Scyllith’s toolbox. No, if you lot take to dabbling in infernomancy—and seriously, don’t—you won’t learn about it from me. On the contrary, I think you’ll find this rather wholesome. Why don’t you come over here, little friend?”

This last was not directed to him, but off to the side. Ingvar followed her gaze to behold a bobbing ball of cyan light drifting closer at her urging.

“Me?” the pixie chimed uncertainly.

“No need to be shy,” Elilial said, beckoning him and smiling. “I wanna show you something. Are you up for a little game?”

“Ooh! I like games!” All his hesitation abruptly gone, the pixie shot forward, swirling eagerly around her.

“That’s the spirit!” she said cheerfully. “Now, I’m pretty sure this is a game you’ve already played, but personally, I never get bored with it. Everybody stand back, we’re gonna have another round of Destroy the Demon!”

She held out one hand, palm up, and clenched it into a fist, and just like that, a sulfur-reeking rift opened on the ground for a split second, just long enough to discharge a snarling khankredahg demon.

Again, everyone except Ingvar and Aspen retreated, most shouting in alarm, but Elilial just pointed at the snapping brute even as it whirled on her. “Go get ‘im!”

“Yay!” the pixie cried happily and zipped forward, stunning the khankredahg with a miniature arc of lightning.

In the next moment, he was swirling eagerly around the demon, siphoning away magic and making the increasingly frantic creature shrivel right before their eyes.

“Surprising little creatures, pixies,” Elilial said to Ingvar and the others while watching this macabre spectacle. “Some of the most vicious predators in existence. They mostly eat each other, but… I don’t know what that screwloose firecracker Jacaranda did differently this time, but the pixies she made today aren’t culling one another like her previous batches did. In fact, though I haven’t yet looked closely enough to ascertain how, I’m pretty sure there are more of them than there were this afternoon. Even so, an awful lot of those out there already have a taste for demon, and their instincts compel them to go straight for the kill.”

“What exactly are you suggesting to us?” Ingvar asked, beginning to suspect he already knew.

“They didn’t get every demon,” Elilial said, sourly twisting her mouth. “Mostly just mine. The ones that fled Ninkabi were the others, the invaders I was trying to mop up. Hundreds made it out and are spreading in all directions. Most won’t last long; the Empire and the Pantheon cults are actively hunting them, and there are also lots of wild pixies hereabouts. But quite a few are good at keeping themselves hidden. Something has to be done about that.

“My Black Wreath have always served the purpose of cleaning up stray demons and warlocks on the mortal plane, but as of today, the Black Wreath functionally does not exist. Someone has to pick up the slack. So the question is, Ingvar: is your struggle with the Huntsmen going to be a purely political one, and purely for the sake of putting yourself in power instead of Veisroi? Because I certainly won’t judge you if so; it goes without saying I have no respect for that guy. But on the other hand, if you want your little reform movement to stand for something more…” She gestured languidly. “There’s work to be done. There are demons to slay, there are perfect shiny attack dogs fluttering around all over just waiting to be tamed and put to work, and now you know how easy that is. If you wanna get a head start on making a name for yourself, you know what to do.”

“I don’t trust you,” he said flatly.

“Well, obviously,” she replied, grinning. “I wouldn’t be bothering with you if you were an idiot. All I can promise you here is that I’m not asking you for anything and you won’t be hearing from me again. If you want to take up the charge against the demons, that’ll suit my purposes splendidly. If not, I’ll find somebody else. Think it over, Shadow Hunters. Hm.” She screwed her face up pensively. “You know, now that you pointed it out, that name does seem a little overwrought. Ah, well, that’s your business, not mine. I have another urgent appointment tonight, so I won’t keep you any longer. Good hunting!”

She snapped her fingers and vanished in an entirely unnecessary shower of crimson sparks.

“It’s a trap,” Tholi said immediately.

“How?” Taka demanded.

“Aw, is she gone?” the pixie chimed, drifting over toward them. Behind him was nothing but a patch of charcoal where the demon had apparently been drained of every spark of its life essence. “Shoot, now how’ll I know if I won?”

“It sure looks to me like you did,” Ingvar said with a smile. “What’s your name, little friend?”

“Name?” The pixie zipped about in a tight circle as if momentarily agitated. “I dunno, I’ve never thought about it. I don’t think pixies have names.”

“I know one who does,” Ingvar said gravely. “Everyone deserves a name.”

“You think so? Well, that sounds pretty neat! What should my name be?”

“Names are serious business,” said Ingvar. “We should talk for a bit, and think about it. Your name is important and we don’t want to rush it. Would you like to stay here with us tonight?”

“Well sure!” the little fairy chimed. “I like you people! And your wolves are fluffy and shiny, my two favorite things!”

“Um,” Rainwood cleared his throat. “That appears to be a lightning pixie. Just saying…”

“Yes, please refrain from zapping anybody,” Ingvar requested.

“Well, sure, I wouldn’t do that. It seems to hurt people. You guys are my friends!”

“Yay,” Aspen deadpanned.

“Let’s get some rest while we can,” Ingvar said, turning to the others. “I will take the first watch, along with our new friend here. We’ll try to talk quietly. Everyone sleep fast and hard, for dawn comes early. And with it, we hunt.”


The eldritch shadows departed and it wasn’t a whole lot brighter in their absence, except behind and far below them where the lights of Veilgrad extended out into the prairie from the foot of the mountains.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi groaned, gazing up the path at the dim shape of Leduc Manor. “Look how much more uphill there is! Natchua, we really must rebuild the ward network so we can shadow-jump directly in.”

“It’s on the to-do list,” Natchua assured her, patting Hesthri’s back. The hethelax leaned against her for a moment, but said nothing. She had been quiet since her and Jonathan’s conversation with Gabriel, and Natchua was torn between wanting to know exactly what had happened and not wanting to rip open any more scars tonight. “Well, standing here groaning isn’t getting us to bed any faster.”

She set off up the path, and everyone followed. Neither succubus took flight, though they could have made it to the house in seconds; Natchua suspected they just weren’t emotionally capable of passing up any crowd that might be a source of juicy gossip.

“Natchua,” Xyraadi said suddenly, her voice more serious, “now that we are… Well, now that it’s over, I am thinking very seriously of taking Lieutenant Locke up on her offer. I do not know how to not be fighting. And it would be good to work with the Sisterhood again. That Trissiny Avelea impresses me greatly; she is already a much wiser paladin than Trouchelle ever was.”

“I think that sounds like a good use for your abilities,” Natchua said with a smile. “You certainly don’t need my permission to do anything, you know. I appreciate you letting me know, though.”

“Of course, I would not abandon a friend and ally without a word.”

“I think that was a shot at you, Mel,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

“Cheap, tiresome, low-hanging fruit,” Melaxyna replied in a bored tone. “Bring your A-game or don’t talk to me at all.”

Xyraadi glanced back at the succubi momentarily. “I mention it also because I thought you might consider the offer yourself, Natchua. You, and any of us here.”

“I…” Natchua hesitated, looking at Jonathan. “I never thought about…”

“The idea has its good and bad points,” he mused. “It would be something to do. I have to say, I’m startled to find this whole campaign of ours over. I thought for sure that’d only happen over everybody’s dead body.”

“Hence why I mention it,” Xyraadi agreed. “A sudden lack of purpose is bad for the spirit, take it from one who knows. I am not saying you have to do what I do, but it is a possibility to consider.”

“Hard pass,” said Kheshiri. “I’ve done all the work under priests I care to, and the last Avenist I met was gibbering batshit insane.”

“You’ll do as you’re told,” Natchua said automatically. “And I…will consider it. But just to reiterate: not one of you—except Kheshiri, whose ass I own—is beholden to me. I brought you all out here to do something, and… Well, to my surprise as much as anyone’s, it’s done now.”

“I will go where you go, pretty one,” Hesthri said, slipping and arm around her waist.

“Same goes,” Jonathan chuckled and pressed against the hethelax’s other side. He was sufficiently larger than them that he managed to drape his own arm around both her shoulders and Natchua’s.

“Yes, there’s also that,” Melaxyna said lightly. “It’s been good to put on my dusty old Izarite hat after all these centuries. I have a lot of work still to do, making a functioning person out of Sherwin. And I confess, I might not have encouraged the three of you to have a go at it if I’d known you weren’t all going to die within a few days.”

“Excuse me?!” Natchua exclaimed.

“You took relationship advice from the succubus?” Jonathan added incredulously.

Hesthri gently poked a chitin-armored elbow into his ribs. “You weren’t complaining when she had her mouth—”

“Public!” he interrupted, jostling her.

“From the good succubus,” Natchua clarified.

“Do you mean good as in morally, or as in superior?” Kheshiri demanded. “Because you’re wrong either way, but I do like things to be clear.”

“Oh, not to worry,” Melaxyna chirped, waving her tail happily. “You three are a surprisingly stable unit, for a tripod. A bit more guidance and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make this work as long as you like with no further help. Trust me, I’m a professional.”

“And yet,” Xyraadi murmured, “not even the weirdest group of friends I have ever had.”

They topped the last rise in the path and slowed to a stop, finding Lord Sherwin himself sitting on the front steps of the manor amid all the construction materials despite the late hour.

“Sherwin?” Natchua asked as he jumped to his feet. “What are you still doing up?”

“Natch, everybody,” he said urgently. “The hobs are already hiding—you’d better get out of here before she—”

The manor’s doors burst open, and framed within them, backlit but a halo of seething orange flame, stood Elilial.

“There you are, you little beast,” she said, pointing one clawed finger at Natchua. “I want a word with you.”

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The darkness receded, leaving them in the more brightly-lit basement storeroom under Branwen’s borrowed townhouse. Immediately, weapons and spells were aimed at them, then just as quickly relaxed when those present saw who had arrived.

“All right, what happened?” Grip demanded in an exasperated tone.

“Now, why would you assume something happened?” Sweet retorted, grinning. “What, can’t six people abruptly shadow-jump in after deciding not to gather everyone here without y’all assuming something’s gone terribly wrong?”

“Well,” Khadizroth said evenly, “if you feel relaxed enough to joke, I gather the situation is not urgent.”

“You’d think that, but no,” Grip snorted. “Apprentice, this is an important piece of Guild lore: sometimes it is both necessary and appropriate to punch the Bishop in the nuts.”

“Basra happened,” Branwen interjected before Sweet could reply. “You know those soldiers she was going to gather and bring to our location? Well, she certainly did that, as we discovered when they began shooting down the door. They had also blocked shadow-jumping somehow; we escaped through a basement tunnel and came back here as soon as we were far enough from the effect for Vanessa to use her magic again. Are you all right?” she added solicitously to the warlock. “If it is anything like teleportation, moving this many people must be tiring.”

Vanessa just curled her lip slightly and stepped away to join Bradshaw against the far wall.

Meesie, for once not on Schwartz’s shoulder, came scampering out of the stone scale model of Ninkabi on which she was setting and arranging tiny glowing seeds, squealing and pointing accusingly at them.

“I trust I don’t need to interpret that?” Schwartz said dryly.

“Kid,” Grip replied in the same tone, “with all respect to your pet fire-mouse, you never need to interpret.”

“You’re both Bishops, which is more than can be said about Basra anymore,” Schwartz said, glancing at Grip but still facing the new arrivals. “It might have taken some doing, but surely you could have explained…”

“And that is why they opened with shooting,” Sweet said with his good cheer undiminished. “Not only do Bran and I have official standing, we’re both quite good at talking our way out of confrontations, and Basra knows this about us. Whatever she told the troops, they were in a ‘shoot first and ask questions never’ kinda mood. Flora and Fauna overheard some chatter about the Wreath. Mighta been awkward if they’d gotten close enough to see Vanessa’s robes.”

“Well,” Schwartz suggested, “maybe that’s an opportunity. If we can get word to the soldiers, and prove she lied, she’ll be vulnerable!”

“She won’t be with them,” Sweet said, ruefully shaking his head. “Remember, thanks to me, Basra is wanted by the Empire. I made damn sure the local authorities were notified of this, since I came here more than half expecting to find myself standing over her smoking corpse explaining it to the cops. No, she’ll have mobilized the Holy Legion and used them to plant a lever under the police and the military.”

“This is my fault,” Jenell whispered, clenching her fists. “If I hadn’t told you to…”

“Now, let’s have none of that, apprentice,” Sweet said, his smile finally fading. “I told you at the time, it’s not your responsibility. This is on me. Hell, I even instructed everybody to kill that twisted bitch on sight, and then I went and let her maneuver us again. I was right the first time, and if we do get a glimpse of her again, go right for the jugular. But for now, this is the situation we’re in.”

“Where is Embras?” Vanessa asked.

“At the secure space,” Bradshaw replied, “seeking to commune with the Dark Lady. Our magical work here is not done, but it is trending in such a direction that Embras thought playing that trump card had become a better use of his time than continuing to work here.”

“Oh, that doesn’t sound promising,” Shook muttered.

“Bad, is it?” Sweet asked.

“Worse,” said Khadizroth, finally turning away from Flora and Fauna, who had been staring fixedly at him since their arrival. He made a soothing gesture in Vannae’s direction, prompting the shaman (who had looked like he wanted to charge them) to retreat to a corner of the room opposite the two warlocks. “Our additional avenues of inquiry have not borne fruit yet, but thanks to Mr. Schwartz’s knowledge of new developments in Salyrite practice that even I was not aware of, we have managed to refine the sophistication of our existing divinatory methods. So I cannot tell, exactly, how long it has been going on, but in examining these portal sites through this new lens, we have found that their energy output is rapidly increasing.”

“Not consistently or uniformly,” Schwartz added. “It’s quite fascinating, really! We have been trying to nail down a pattern, in case that might point us to a source, but so far it seems pretty random. We’re working with the idea that something on the other side is probing at them. It’s as if they’re wandering around, looking at all these nascent portals to find which ones will be easiest to pry open.”

“Excuse me,” Shook snapped, “but which part of that doesn’t sound like those fuckers are about to blow?!”

“That was the conclusion to which Mr. Mogul came,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Hence his departure. I begin to share his assessment. At this point, our time might be better spent on urgent damage control rather than investigation.”

“Yeah,” Shook said bitterly, “except the warm bodies we need to fuckin’ do that are out trying to murder our asses instead of looking for demon portals.”

“As to that,” the dragon mused, shifting his attention to Darling, “a thought occurs. Syrinx’s duplicity has, indeed, painted a large target on you—specifically, I should think, upon the Bishops. There are ways to leverage being a target.”

Sweet grinned broadly at him. “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, K-man?”

Khadizroth nodded. “For once, Bishop, I believe so.”


“Ready,” Jonathan reported, stepping into the kitchen with Hesthri at his side. “As we’ll ever be, anyhow.”

Natchua smiled at them both even as she looked them over. “Wow. Where’d you get all that stuff?”

Both were carrying lightning weapons; in addition to Jonathan’s personal Army-issue staff which he’d brought from Mathenon, Hesthri had a battlestaff propped over her shoulder and both wore wand belts with, in addition to holstered wands, clipped-on shielding charms and enough extra power crystals for any conceivable firefight. Hesthri’s staff was a bit heavier than his, and looked fancy, with a rich mahogany varnish, a baroque silver-plated clicker mechanism and fanciful engraving around its handholds and butt end, complete with silver inlay.

“Ah, well, you know,” Sherwin answered modestly, “I just figured, they are sort of, if you squint at it sideways, in the employ of House Leduc. At least, I believe my lawyers can make that case in the very unlikely event that the Throne takes issue with me opening my House armory to civilians.”

“Oh,” Hesthri said worriedly, “is that…illegal?”

“Significantly less than you being here at all,” Jonathan said, leaning over to plant a kiss on her forehead plating.

“The reorganization after the Enchanter Wars included a lot of laws about who’s allowed to have what sort of soldiers,” Sherwin said with a shrug. “I can’t say I give a damn, I just try not to draw Sharidan’s attention. That ship may have sailed, though. I see you found enough that’s still in working order, Arquin? Like I said, it’s all been collecting dust for a good fifteen years.”

“Yes, and that took its toll, but fortunately your House armsmaster knew what he was doing, back when there was one,” Jonathan replied. “A lot’s pretty decayed but the only problems with this stuff was drained charges, and luckily there were plenty of power crystals still magnetically sealed. These are some nice shielding charms,” he added, producing another from a belt pouch that looked identical to the ones on his and Hesthri’s belts and tossing it to Natchua. “Not cutting edge anymore, but way better than what we had when I was in the service. Reactive shielding; you prime it by pressing the rune, there, and then it’ll ignite whenever any source of energy gets too close to you. Including kinetic energy, so it’ll block spears and arrows, too. These suckers even work in the rain.”

“Why aren’t they more commonly used, then?” Natchua mused, turning it over in her hands.

“Because even twenty years later they’re still expensive,” he said, grinning. “That’s why they’re so bulky, too; takes not only shielding magic but a detection array and some really sophisticated logic controllers. Intelligence and the Imperial Guard use ‘em, and some of the richer House guards, but they’re not practical for a whole army. Back when these were made they were worth more than a Falconer carriage.”

Sherwin shrugged. “Sounds about right. My family never kept many troops, but those they had always had to be the best of the best. More for showing off than for any actual fighting.”

“I don’t know why you think I need a shielding charm, anyway,” Hesthri said sardonically. “Or have you really gone all this time without noticing I’m a hethelax?”

“And as such,” he said firmly, “you are vulnerable to divine magic. An arcane shield is the best counter to that.”

“Neat!” Kheshiri said brightly from her chair by the fireplace. “Where’s mine?”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Logistically speaking,” said Natchua, “you are a spy, not a brawler. If anybody ends up shooting at you at all, you’ve already failed. Are you planning to fail me, Kheshiri?”

“Why, that could never possibly happen, my mistress,” the succubus simpered. The muted amusement pulsing through her aura heightened slightly; evidently she was not truly worried.

The small sound of a throat being cleared interrupted Natchua’s pondering before she could wonder too much about Kheshiri’s motivations. All three of the hobgoblins had just crept into the kitchen; the other two seemed to be trying to hide behind Pizzicato, who herself appeared to be physically trembling. “Uh, so,” she squeaked, then paused to clear her throat again before continuing in a more normal (though still strained) tone, “scuze me if this is, y’know, presumptuous, but… Do we get fancy magic weapons, too?”

Natchua blinked. “What? You aren’t coming. There are likely to be hostile warlocks and demons, and who knows what else. You girls are here to fix the house, I’m not sending you into that bedlam.”

She froze in astonishment as they all rushed forward and embraced her legs from all sides, leaving her standing amid a waist-high hobgoblin huddle.

“Um?” Natchua asked.

Then they broke and scurried back out of the room in a tiny stampede, leaving her staring after them in confusion.

“What the hell was that about?”

“It was about Hell,” Hesthri said, stepping up next to Natchua and sliding an arm about her waist. The drow absently hugged her back, leaning against the demon’s warm frame while she listened. “In any tribe or colony or city-state or whatever that has horogki, whenever there’s a large-scale battle they get sent in first.”

Nathua frowned. “That’s bonkers. I can’t imagine hobgoblins are very effective shock troops.”

Hesthri shook her head. “They’re thought of more like…ammunition. Natch, you are far and away the best boss any of those young ladies ever dreamed they might have.”

“Doesn’t sound like that’s a high bar to clear,” she muttered. “All right…wait, where’s Mel?”

Sherwin cringed. “Oh, ah…yeah. She…asked me to tell you goodbye.”

Natchua instinctively squeezed Hesthri, who squeezed her back. Jonathan stepped over to them and rested a hand comfortingly on her shoulder.

“Just…goodbye?” she asked, forcibly keeping her tone even. “That’s it?”

He nodded. “I’m afraid…yeah. I don’t think she’s one for drawn-out farewells. I gave her an old heirloom of the House, a Wreath shadow-jumping talisman, so she could go whever she wants to be. Sorry if that was presumptuous, Natchua, I just felt… Well, hell, I owed her that much. I’m really gonna miss her,” he added with a dreamy sigh.

“Pathetic,” Kheshiri sneered. “What child of Vanislaas sneaks away right when things are about to get really interesting?”

“Most of them,” Natchua shot back, “and on that note, shut up.”

“I don’t want to make this worse,” Jonathan said quietly, “but we are talking about a succubus now on the loose in the world, with that magic armor you gave her and apparently now a jumper charm as well. That’s gonna be a nightmare for somebody down the line.”

“Melaxyna…is a friend,” Natchua said tightly. Both he and Hesthri squeezed in closer at her tone in silent comfort. “I’m under no illusions about what she is, but Sherwin’s right. I owe her that much.”

“Even though she left you?” Hesthri asked quietly.

“Our pact was very much up front. She was only going to stay with me until I could gather more allies and resources, and she was to be free to get away from any fighting before I launched any kind of attack on Hell’s forces. And now…here you all are, and here we are, heading into exactly that. Mel kept up her end, and even warned me not long ago that she would be leaving soon. She’s played fair. I just…wish I could’ve said goodbye.”

“Right, well,” Sherwin cleared his throat awkwardly. “I didn’t wanna ask, but… I notice you came back missing someone, as well.”

“Yes,” Natchua agreed briskly, gently disentangling her arms from around Jonathan and Hesthri. “Xyraadi is also getting us some help. There aren’t many people out there who even can storm the kind of citadel we may need to, but fortunately she knows just the ones.”

“Who does she know, apart from…” Jonathan trailed off, his eyes widening. “Oh.”


“The good news,” Xyraadi said with a heavy sigh, “is that they are not in this Last Rock.”

“That is good news,” Mortimer agreed, leaning over to study the diagram wrought in lines of shifting orange light atop the obsidian surface of the scrying table. “They may or may not have mentioned you to Tellwyrn, but even in the best case scenario a khelminash shadow-jumping into the vicinity of her school would be asking for an instant and lethal response.”

“C’est incroyable,” she muttered. “Arachne Tellwyrn, running a school. If I am unlucky enough to see this firsthand I think I will still not believe it. But that brings be directly to the bad news. This site, the location of the great hellgate that caused the Third Hellwar and the blessed tree…”

“The Desolate Gardens?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Oh, dear.”

“I don’t suppose,” Xyraadi said, grimacing, “that this site is, in this century, administered by someone a bit more easygoing than the Order of the Light?”

“I’m afraid not,” Mortimer replied sympathetically. “The Order is not what it was in your day, though. Frankly it’s not much of anything anymore, in terms of its relevance to world events, but it is not dead and still looks after the Desolate Gardens. I believe it is a usually quiet place; they do not station any soldiers there anymore. Likely no more than a few priests.”

She heaved a sigh. “Merde alors. A few priests will be bad enough…”

“You have three paladins who remember and will speak for you, my dear,” he reassured her. “It is a bit outside my own effective radius, but if you will kindly handle the shadow-jumping, I shall be glad to—”

“Mortimer, no,” she said firmly but with a smile, turning to face him and placing a slender hand on his shoulder. “As far as such people as that will be concerned, you are just a warlock, no different from me in terms of telling friend from foe. It makes no sense at all for us both to risk the wrath of the Order. The danger is here, in Ninkabi; a warlock who knows the city as well as you may be exactly what it needs in the very near future.”

“I dislike leaving you to face such a risk on your own,” he said with a grimace, reaching up to pat her fingers. “But you are right. And as I said, if you can find Arquin, Avelea, and Caine, they will vouch for you.”

“Yes, that will be the real challenge, n’est-ce pas? All I have to do is shadow-jump into one of the most sacred places on earth, with a deep and dire history of demonic activity, administered by militant clerics who will attack me on sight with lethal intent and listen to nothing I have to say, and hope I can find the right holy people before being burned to ash.”

The old man closed his eyes, wincing. “I dearly wish I could say that was an overly dramatic assessment…”

“Oh, it is suitably dramatic, yes,” she said, smiling. “But not all bad. Very much like old times, in fact. Ah, I find I have missed the call of adventure! If I do not see you again, Mortimer, know that I have been deeply grateful for your friendship over these last weeks. It has made all the difference in the world to me.”

“And to me, as well,” he replied, smiling. “So let us decide here and now that this is not a goodbye. Whatever befalls, there and here, we have many more interesting conversations ahead of us.”

“It is a date.” The demon leaned forward gently to press a light kiss to his cheek, then stepped back and vanished in a swell of shadows.


They bounded across the landscape like silver gusts of wind, the wolves forming a tight arrowhead formation with their various human companions dashing alongside. Rangers and Huntsmen alike shared space, their numbers mingling without tension and without separating back into their distinct groups. Though they still wore the unique regalia of each order, an unspoken threshold had been crossed in their allegiance. They now followed Ingvar, right into the teeth of an evil for which they did not yet have a name, nor anything but his word that it lay ahead.

Even the Rangers’ animal companions kept up with the impossible pace set by the pack, all of them spurred on by the fae blessings laid over them. Across fields, through forests and over streams, the expanded pack moved faster than a diving falcon. Though they avoided any roads on which they could have proved it, they cleanly outpaced even the newest enchanted carriages; galloping horses could not have kept pace with them. Fae magic could do only so much to speed travel, and it was no shadow-jumping or teleporation, but they would reach their destination far sooner than unaided mortal legs could have achieved, whether those legs came in groups of two or four.

The pack slowed, following Ingvar’s lead, as they reached the apex of a ridge and that destination finally lay before them.

Wolf and human, elf and hound and lynx, they straggled to a halt, staring at the descending landscape ahead. The sea was out of sight in the distance, the river to their left, just beginning to flow deeper into its rocky bed in what would become the plummeting canyons and waterfalls of Ninkabi far ahead. The city itself stood at the very edge of view, its famed spires a jagged monument rising against the afternoon sky.

The wolf in the lead shifted to regard the elf who paced forward to stand next to him, then in a flash of light stood on two legs once more.

“This is a great gift, Elder Shiraki,” Ingvar said, nodding deeply to him.

Shiraki shook his head. “Twas within thee that the power dwelt, young hunter. I serve merely as a guide. Thou needst not my guidance to perform this work again; now that he has seen it done, Rainwood can awaken the blessing of speed, and extend it to thy brethren. With time and practice, mayhap thou canst learn to perform this feat without a shaman’s aid.”

Darkness swelled to their right, and the strike team materialized alongside them on the ridge.

“Dare I hope you’re only coincidentally heading in this general direction?” Captain Antevid asked in an even more sardonic tone than usual. “Because you lot are pointed right at an Imperial city of significant size.”

Ingvar raised his head; he did not sniff the air, though his face stilled in concentration.

“Ninkabi, yes,” he said quietly. “Whatever gathers there is evil of a depth I have never encountered before. It blemishes this land, and threatens the city and wild alike. We will suffer no desecration of this world,” he added, raising his voice. “We hunt!”

Wolves howled in response, and he was lunging forward even as he returned to a four-legged form in a flash of concentrated moonlight. They were off, dashing toward the distant city in league-eating bounds that carried them swiftly from sight.

“They hunt,” Antevid sighed. “Well, then! I guess you get to visit home a little earlier than planned, Lieutenant Agasti.”

Maehe clenched her jaw, then gestured with both hands, raising shadows around the team and whisking them away.


The small group materialized in a dingy space barely reached by the sunlight, strewn with old trash.

“Ah, home sweet home! If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all: filthy alleys, just like mama used to make,” Sweet said, inhaling deeply through his nose. Immediately he coughed and turned to scowl at the necromantic altar attracting flies against one wall. “Phew! That’s new, though. Guess we’re in the right place. Help me out, Vanessa, where are we relative to…anything?”

“The city’s most prominent square isn’t far in that direction,” she said, nodding at the stone wall next to them. “This is the back of the historic merchant guild hall along its north side. It’s the widest open space in Ninkabi, just inside the city’s main gates, and heavily trafficked. If you want attention, it won’t be hard to get from here. If you’re sure you are prepared for what the results of that attention will be,” she added skeptically, panning her eyes across the three of them.

“Our plan does rest upon assumptions not quite proven,” Khadizroth acknowledged, nodding to her. “One, that the soldiers will be wise enough not to attack a dragon on sight, and two, that if they are not so wise, their attempts to do so will be ineffective.”

“And three,” Branwen added, “that Antonio and I can talk some sense into them while they’re taken aback. If these soldiers have been told to look for warlock craft, showing them this should divert their attention.” She directed a displeased look at the reeking altar of bones.

Vanessa shrugged. “Well, your funeral. Just so there’s no ambiguity, if this turns into a shooting match I will be instantly leaving you all here.”

“You’re an absolute dear to be concerned,” Sweet said gallantly, “but don’t you fret on our behalf. Now, I believe we need to ask you for one final favor.”

“Yes, I remember the plan,” she said, stepping back and kneeling, chalk in hand, to begin drawing a summoning circle on the pavement. “I’m going to call up a katzil. That should be sufficient to draw attention.”

“Kind of small, aren’t they?” Branwen asked.

“Oh, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of fellow demonologists,” Vanessa said acidly. “They’re only small when seen from below. Which is often, because they fly and spit green fire. Trust me, a katzil will draw eyes. If there’s already a legion of troopers in the city looking for demons to slay, this’ll bring them running.”

“Stop,” Khadizroth said suddenly, turning from his perusal of the altar to frown at her unfolding diagram.

“I thought we decided time was a factor, here,” Vanessa retorted, continuing to draw.

“Stop!” he repeated, stepping forward and smudging out part of her work with one foot. “Your circle is interacting with—”

A shockwave of heat blasted across them, sending old newspapers fluttering about the alley. A hole opened in the air above the bone altar, a shimmering space of uncertainty that seemed to overlook some fiery abyss. Above that, a single column of wavering fire shot skyward, taller than a minaret.

All three humans backed away, instinctively throwing up arms over their faces against the furnace-like heat, Branwen and Sweet snapping divine shields into place as well. Only Khadizroth stood against the blaze. With a single contemptuous gesture, he sent a torrent of floral-scented wind into the portal with the force of a hammer.

The altar was shattered, pieces spraying across the walls, and instantly the portal snapped shut, the flame and light disappearing.

“It seems,” Khadizroth commented in the ensuing stunned silence, “destroying the altar suffices to snuff out the portal even once it has opened. That makes sense. Hellgates can usually be closed if it is done before they have the chance to stabilize. This suggests that whatever holds them open on the other side is even more fragile than these, otherwise it would have to be closed from both ends. This slapdash infernomancy seems frail enough that the shock of a unilateral disruption does the trick.”

“Good to know,” Sweet said, tilting his head back and pointing. Though the alley’s shape cut off most of their view of the sky, they could see two more columns of fire beyond its ends, directly to the west and east. The distant hubbub of traffic and crowds audible from the other side of the old guild hall had suddenly begun to prominently feature screams. “I’m afraid that information is about to be very pertinent.”

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15 – 38

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No one ever made it more than a few steps into an Izarite temple without being approached by a priest, but given the way he looked by that hour of the morning, Shook couldn’t blame them for being particularly on the ball. He was still in a tailored suit, at least, and had made sure his hair was still slicked back with the aid of his pocket comb and the tin of Sly’s Gentleman’s Cream he always carried—plus a judicious use of his reflection in store windows—but after the night he’d had, he was unshaven, hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, and teetering on his feet. As such, he didn’t even make it fully in the door before a priestess materialized seemingly out of nowhere and gently took him by the arm.

“Welcome,” she said in a soft tone, leading him to the side out of the doorway. “This is a safe place; you can rest here. We’ll take good care of you. What’s your name?”

“Uh…call me Jerry,” he stammered, embarrassingly unprepared for that simple question. With, by this point, Syrinx and her bullshit Inquisition doubtless added to the list of people hunting for his head, which already included the Sisterhood and the Guild, neither his full name nor his tag were safe things to throw around. Of course, in the last couple of years he’d almost never had to interact with the general public, except briefly and in passing, and usually Kheshiri had handled that.

“Jerry,” the woman said, smiling up at him warmly as though she were genuinely delighted to make his scruffy acquaintance. His customary annoyance at the two-faced trickiness of women in general started to well up, but he deliberately pushed it away. She was Izarite, after all; the expression was probably genuine. They were a bunch of feather-headed nutbars, but it was impossible to hate them for it. “I’m Nakhi, and I’m so glad you came. Come sit with me for a moment, and let’s talk.”

“Yeah, about that.” He planted his feet, causing her also to stop, still with a light grip on his arm. “I’m not lookin’ for the usual run of TLC, here. Who’s in charge of this temple?”

Nakhi looked quizzically up at him, stepping closer. “Brother Lokoru is the head priest, but he’s usually not up at this time of morning. We keep unconventional hours here, as you may have heard. But I’ll be more than glad to help you with anything, Jerry. Whatever’s going on, I can tell it has you under a lot of pressure. You’re in exactly the right place to have that turmoil relieved. That is what we do in Izara’s name, after all.”

She gave him that warm, gentle smile again, and he noted she was actually sort of pretty. Not a woman he’d have looked twice at on the street, but Izarites had a way about them; something about that relentless kindness of theirs was irresistibly attractive regardless of what they looked like.

“Thank, doll,” he said, gently extricating his arm from her grip. “Look, I know you got a job to do and I’m sure you’re good at it, but I’m gonna have to pass on having that turmoil relieved. I’m still using it. Can you maybe answer a couple questions about Izarite business in Ninkabi?”

“Well…it depends on the questions,” the priestess replied, her expression growing concerned. Exactly like a nurse whose patient wouldn’t take their medicine. “Obviously, we place a high value on privacy here. I would never repeat anything you shared with me in confidence, and I can’t betray any other guest’s confidence to you, either. But the cult itself doesn’t have many secrets. I meant what I said, Jerry: if there’s anything I can do to help you, then that’s what I’m here for. Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Omnu’s balls, was he in some kind of trouble. Nothing she could actually help with, though, and trying would likely just land him in hot water with the Church or one of the Pantheon cults with which he was already having problems.

“If there was some higher-up in town,” he said, evading the question, “some big important Izarite personnel from the capital, and they were being discreet and didn’t want their presence known, what’d be my best chance of meetin’ up with ’em?”

Nakhi blinked twice. “I’m…not sure I understand the question, Jerry. If somebody important were here and specifically wanted to avoid being known or seeing anyone, then it sounds like you couldn’t meet them. And I probably couldn’t, either, for that matter. I’m definitely not aware of anybody like that being in Ninkabi.”

“And if you were, you couldn’t tell the likes of me, anyway. Well, it was worth a try. Thanks anyway.”

“Are you looking for someone in particular, Jerry?” she asked. “We just don’t have a lot of celebrities or important officials within the Brethren. I can’t think of anybody who might match your description other than High Priestess Delaine or Bishop Snowe, and they’re both in Tiraas.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said, forcing a grin. “Sorry to waste your time, sister. Have a good one.”

He turned to go, but she reached out and caught his arm again. Anger surged; he did not appreciate being grabbed.

“Are you sure you won’t stay and talk for a while?” Nakhi asked, her voice as tender as a doting mother’s. “Whatever else is going on, Jerry, it’s obvious you could do with some rest, and probably a hot meal. We can provide both. And even if you weren’t looking to unburden yourself, I bet you’d be amazed at the difference it can make.”

Fucking whore, exactly like all the rest of them, looking to ferret out whatever secrets she could exploit. Izarites were supposedly empathic as a gift of their goddess; she had to be aware of how angry she was making him, but there was no sign on her face of any concern. As if to prove she was operating on some hidden agenda…

Breathe. Let it go.

Everyone is absolutely out for themselves, Sweet’s advice whispered in his memory, but you have to put yourself in their perspective, think about what they want. People are social animals, Thumper. You’d be amazed how many of their selfish agendas will actually impel them to do nice things for others and except nothing in return.

She was an Izarite. This was her hidden agenda. Losing his cool over this was his own weakness, exactly the thing his teachers had tried to get him past, and Kheshiri had worked so hard to exacerbate. It was past time he paid due honor to the men who’d been actually trying to help him.

“I appreciate it, honey,” he said, once more removing her hand from his arm as gently as he could. She didn’t resist, giving him no reason to handle her at all roughly. He patted her hand once before letting it go. “You’re a sweetheart, but you don’t have what I need. Take care, now.”

Shook turned and strode back outside into the sunlight before she could try again to dissuade him, not slowing his steps to a more typical walking pace until he had rounded the temple’s corner and was pacing down its length on the sidewalk.

It wasn’t much of a play, but it was the best he could think of on short notice. It was pretty clear that going back to the Inquisition wasn’t an option. With Kheshiri run off and the Jackal himself evidently having snapped under the pressure of his own scheme, to say nothing of that rabid loon Syrinx now holding the reins, he had to face the fact that this entire keep-tabs-on-the-Archpope plan had gone belly up without producing any results.

That pretty much left him with Khadizroth as the only person to turn to. He already knew it was within K’s power to locate him in the city, and didn’t know why he hadn’t yet done so, though he could think of several possibilities. The least dismal was that the dragon was just too preoccupied keeping Syrinx from burning Ninkabi the fuck down to come looking; it was also possible he knew Shook had spent the night with the Wreath and assumed the worst about him. That left him with one, more slender hope.

Khadizroth was of the opinion that Snowe was a much cleverer operator than she let on, and Shook respected his opinion highly. She’d pretty much have to be, anyway, to have come out here in order to put Syrinx down—itself a worthy goal in his view. He was gambling that she was sufficiently on the ball to make sure she’d be informed of interesting developments in whatever city she was in. Such as a scruffy person matching his description sniffing around for her at Izarite temples, for example.

He pulled out the pamphlet he’d acquired at a small Universal Church chapel, which gave the addresses of all the temples of Izara in Ninkabi, double-checking the next on the list. Yep, he was heading the right way, at least if his recollection of the street layout was solid.

Now there wasn’t much left but to hope Snowe found his trail before the Inquisition, the Guild, or the Avenists did. Or the Wreath. Or the Jackal, since the gods only knew what that demented fuck was up to right now and given his personality, killing off his former allies was an ample likelihood. Or this mysterious necromantic cult of Justinian’s, since that was evidently a real thing and was actually up to big trouble in this city.

Nothing could ever be easy, could it.


It was her own fault for leaving Kheshiri unsupervised for five minutes, Natchua reflected when she returned to the kitchen to find everyone assembled and the whole group in the process of exploding.

The entire story was obvious at a glance. The bit players had carefully removed themselves to three corners of the room: the three hobgoblins huddled together with their heads down in one, Sherwin in another watching the unfolding show as avidly as a theater patron during the fight scene, while Xyraadi perched daintily on a stool near the fireplace, sipping tea from a cracked mug with the aloof aspect of someone who wanted something to occupy her hands and mouth a lot more than she wanted tea.

It was just in front of the hall door, opposite the external door through which Natchua and Melaxyna emerged, that the real drama was playing out. Jonathan and Hesthri faced each other across the gap, he with his fists clenched and apparently on the verge of lunging at her, she just looking resigned. Natchua was in no way worried about that; aside from Hesthri’s physical invulnerability, she knew Jonathan Arquin would never get any closer than that to striking someone he cared about, especially a woman. That it had gone this far was a testament not only to how upset he was, but how suddenly the provocation must have come on, clearly before his prized self-control had a chance to re-assert itself.

And between them, just far enough back in the doorway not to obstruct their view of each other, Kheshiri looked confused and worried, glancing back and forth as if this outcome were a complete surprise to her. Given who and what she was, that was unlikely to be fooling anyone. It was certainly not fooling Natchua, who could read the malicious glee coursing through her aura like a newspaper headline.

Well, Mel had warned her Kheshiri’s campaign would begin with deliberately making a nuisance of herself.

“Oh dear,” Kheshiri said worriedly, wringing her hands. “Should…I not have said anything? I’m sorry, I don’t know all the history here…”

Jonathan tore his eyes from Hesthri to turn an incredulously furious stare upon Natchua. “Is this true?”

“Is what…” He physically swelled, and she broke off, shaking her head. “No, Jonathan, I am not being disingenuous. I’m pretty sure I know what this is about, but since the rogue succubus obviously started it, I’m not willing to assume.”

“That’s what this is about,” Hesthri said quietly. “And yes, Jonathan, it’s true.”

Amazingly, he managed to puff up even further, his face flushing almost crimson with the pressure of not lashing out. At least he managed to keep it strictly verbal.

“What is wrong with you?” he roared, addressing himself to the ceiling.

Natchua chose to assume, regardless, that it was directed at her.

“Well, if I knew the full answer to that, I’d already be at work fixing it, now wouldn’t I?” she asked wearily. “Nothing you don’t already know about, really. And I did try to warn you.”

“Nothing is wrong with me,” Hesthri said, her voice still soft. “Not now that I’m with you, and safe from my former mistress, and able to help Gabriel. All of it thanks to Natchua. What’s more,” she added in a firmer tone, stepping forward to compel his attention, “a lot less is wrong with Natchua than either she or you thinks, and none of it able to be addressed by carrying on this way. This isn’t how I wanted to you find out, obviously, but I was also not going to hide it from you, Jonathan. Since this is how it’s begun, though, let’s talk about it.”

“You want to talk.” He clutched his head for a moment, fingers clenching into bloodless claws. “…no. This is more shit than I can deal with.”

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said urgently as he rounded on Kheshiri. “Please, you can’t—”

“Later,” he snapped, not looking at her. “I can’t even look at you right now. Get out of the way!” he roared at Kheshiri, who quailed backward, still blocking the door.

The nigh-hysterical mirth roiling in her aura rose to such a pitch that Natchua was honestly impressed she managed to keep acting, but indeed she did, quivering and stammering and giving a very good impression of a woman too panicked by the sight of the man cornering her even to flee.

Natchua wasn’t sure what would result from the succubus continuing to antagonize Jonathan right now, but was not about to indulge her. A simple extension of her will caused the shadows to flicker and gather, sweeping Kheshiri away to stand at the opposite side of the room, well out of his path.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said as he stomped out down the corridor toward the ruined great hall. She only spoke his name, though, not raising her voice or trying to call him back.

“Mistress, I’m so sorry,” Kheshiri burbled frantically, “I didn’t realize—”

“Silence,” Natchua ordered with neither emphasis nor inflection. “I’ll deal with you in a moment. Melaxyna, would you please go make sure Jonathan doesn’t do anything…unwise?”

“He will not,” Hesthri stated, turning to her. “And he definitely doesn’t want to be hovered over. Just let him calm down on his own time.”

“I agree,” Natchua replied. “Which is why I asked Melaxyna, whose presence he won’t detect if she doesn’t wish it. I trust Jonathan, but I’ve never seen him that angry, and the woods around Veilgrad are not safe even by the standards of woods in general.”

Hesthri nodded at that, as did Melaxyna, pausing only to squeeze Natchua’s shoulder once. She slipped across the room, diverting momentarily to the corner to peck Sherwin on the cheek, then departed silently into the hallway, fading to invisibility as she went.

“Xyraadi,” Natchua said, turning to the khelminash, with a deep bow of her head, “this is more menial than the work you’re used to, I know, but can I ask you to supervise the horogki’s work today?”

“Pas de probleme,” Xyraadi assured her, rising smoothly and setting her cup on the mantle. “After helping Mortimer in Second Chances, I fancy I have acquired a knack for administration.”

“Oh, uh, about that, boss lady,” Pizzicato squeaked. Natchua turned to find her hunched as if expecting to be kicked; Glissando and Staccato were actually trying to hide behind her. “We, uh, sorta need some quality time with Mr. Moneybags, here. We gotta see about orderin’ some stuff to work with—stone, lumber, glass, tools, nails an’ shit. Cleanup’s well and good and a lotta that rubble is reusable but not even we can rebuild a house outta good intentions and slobber.”

“That’s Lord Moneybags, actually,” Natchua corrected her, smiling in spite of herself.

“Hey, just Sherwin’s fine,” he demurred. “The House of Moneybags doesn’t stand on formality. What’s left of it. And anyway, uh, I don’t really know what to tell you. I have my lawyers arrange for my supplies and stuff. If I need something in particular that’s not on the regular delivery I have them order it. If you just write down what you need…”

“I can certainly attend to that myself,” Xyraadi said, smiling. “If you girls will just tell me what you need, I shall arrange a full list for Sherwin to deliver to his steward.”

“Oh,” Pizzicato croaked, looking less than reassured. “Well, then. Great. Okay.”

“Is there a problem?” Natchua asked.

All three of them suddenly straightened up, frantically waving. “No, no! No problem! Everything’s fine and dandy!”

“There is not a problem,” Hesthri interjected, “but I see why they would fear otherwise. Girls,” she went on more gently, turning to the hobgoblins, “Xyraadi is not like the other khelminash. She fled from their cities and from Hell itself to come here and live free of them. I have found her to be kind and entirely reasonable; she won’t treat you the way the mistresses back home did. Right?” she added, turning a pointed look on Xyraadi.

“Oh, absolutement,” Xyraadi agreed hastily. “I apologize, ladies, for failing to consider your perspective. I, of all people! No, we are all five of us exiles from the same nightmare, are we not? And good riddance to it. I see no reason we cannot all be friends; it is not a hard thing to treat one another with a little basic respect.”

“Xyraadi has my trust as well,” Natchua added, seeing that the three hobs looked less than convinced. It would likely take time and exposure to bring them around; she just needed to apply a little encouragement to get them started. “But if anyone here has any problem with anyone else, you bring it right to me and I will take care of it. Okay? You’re not slaves here. It’s not possible for you to leave and roam this plane, I’m afraid, but if you wanted to go back to where you came from, I’ll arrange it.”

That prompted another round of frantic demurrals, and Hesthri winced.

“I’m sorry,” Natchua said ruefully, “that sounded like a threat, didn’t it? I promise it wasn’t. Don’t worry, girls, I’m not going to banish you unless you ask me to. I just mean, this is a small community and we need to get along. So long as everybody pulls their weight, I will make sure you’re treated as well as I can reasonably arrange. Fair?”

“Come, why don’t you show me what you have done so far?” Xyraadi suggested, smiling at the quailing hobgoblins and gesturing toward the door. “I would be delighted to hear your plans for the ongoing repairs.”

“Hes,” Natchua said, “would you mind going along? Not that I think they need more supervision, but they might feel better with you there.”

“Not at all. In fact, I’d be grateful to have something to do with myself right now.” She gave Natchua a warm smile before gently shepherding the still-uncertain horogki toward the great hall.

Sherwin cleared his throat as Xyraadi followed them out. “Well! I guess I’ll, uh…”

“That’s okay, Sherwin, it’s your room, after all. Don’t put yourself out; I’ll just get the rest of this mess out of your hair. Come, Kheshiri.”

The sunlight wasn’t as glaring as it had once been; the actual shadow spell to protect her eyes from the brilliance hadn’t been part of the repertory of infernomacny Elilial had given her, but it had been easy enough to work out. She didn’t even need dark glasses anymore.

“Mistress, I apologize,” Kheshiri said demurely. “It seems I misread the situation and spoke out of turn. If any trouble has resulted—”

“Yes, I know,” Natchua interrupted in a disinterested tone. Narisian reserve didn’t exactly prepare her for this kind of playacting, but she made do by trying to channel the attitude she felt best fit her needs: Tellwyrn’s. One of Tellwyrn’s specific attitudes, in fact, the slightly irritated dismissal she showed to problems that were only just barely worth addressing. As if this pivotal conversation with this highly dangerous individual were a fleeting annoyance, beneath her attention. “You’ve only seen me using brute force to solve problems, so you assumed that was the only trick I had, and therefore assumed you’re smarter than I. And that was fine, while you were an unwanted stray I had to gather up. Now, however, I have a task for you, and so it’s time for you to learn some things.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri murmured. “I will be glad to serve you in any way I can, mistress.”

Her expression, now, was surprised and intrigued, and for once the emotion in her aura was exactly the same.

The thing was, Kheshiri absolutely was smarter than she, and had to at least suspect it. But if she thought Natchua was dim enough not to recognize the disparity in their scheming ability, she might relax her efforts enough to make a mistake. Plus, by taking a leaf out of Hesthri’s book and abruptly changing her entire demeanor every so often, apropos of nothing, she might stave off the succubus from getting a true handle on her actual personality.

Gods, this was going to be exhausting.


By the time early afternoon rolled around, Shook was seriously considering trying to catch a nap in an alley like some kind of bum. Keeping moving the whole day was exactly the exhausting icing his already exhausting cake did not need; after visiting every Izarite temple in Ninkabi to sow the necessary seeds of suspicion, he had carried on a gradual circuit of the city, pacing between the temples in the hope that anybody who came looking for him would be less likely to catch him unawares as long as he was moving. If he got the first look, he could meet up with Snowe or Vannae if it was one of them, or flee from anyone else. But gods, he was about ready to drop right where he stood. It wasn’t like this was his first all-nighter, but it also wasn’t as if he were as young as he’d once been.

And ultimately it didn’t even work. He was shambling along, too out of it even to register where he was going anymore, much less what was happening around him, when a luxury enchanted carriage driven by a man in nondescript livery pulled up to the curb alongside him.

One of its windows swung outward, and Branwen Snowe’s face appeared in the gap. “May I offer you a ride, Mr. Shook?”

He was too tired to hesitate or even upbraid himself for being snuck up on after all his preparations. He just turned toward the carriage and grasped the door handle, Snowe already retreating along the seat. Shook clambered in and slumped against its plush cushions, only belatedly remembering to pull the door shut.

“Gods, am I glad to see you, lady,” he said as the carriage pulled smoothly back into traffic. “How’d you find me?”

“Khadizroth has been instrumental in tracking you. I must say, though, your plan to draw my attention was impressively clever. I’ve already had several confused reports of your movements. I’d like to think that even without our dragon friend, I would have been sharp enough to locate you.”

She smiled, and it was even better than the smiles he’d been getting from Izarite priests all morning, for all that it had that same ineffably gentle Izarite quality to it. The difference, he figured, was that Branwen Snowe was also out and out gorgeous, and clearly worked at it. None of the others had worn cosmetics, or applied more to their hair than water and a comb. She looked like she was on the way to one of her book signings or public addresses. He’d known plenty of women like this; they always looked that way.

“So K’s with you,” he said wearily. “Good. Makes this a lot easier.”

“Yes, it will be good to have everyone’s information in the same room,” she agreed. “I gather you must have had a very interesting night. And Khadizroth will be able to update you on events within Basra’s Inquisition since you slipped out.”

Shook grunted. “I bet Syrinx is about ready to chew her fuckin’ foot off.”

“She was close to that point before all this started.”

Despite the fatigue, he studied her face closely. “I guess that’s the best news you’ve had all week, right? You must really hate the bitch to go to all this trouble.”

Snowe sighed very softly, turning her blue eyes to the passing scenery outside the window. “Even if I were inclined toward hate…no. That seems like an emotion for enemies. Other people. Basra Syrinx is just a mad, deadly thing which has run amok for far too long. All I feel is pity for those she has harmed, and…remorse. This summer I stood in the Grand Cathedral while the paladin of her own faith demanded she be brought to justice, and heard the fellow Bishop whose opinion I respect the most point out something which has stayed with me ever since: all those of us who tolerated Basra because she was politically useful, even knowing what a monster she is, are complicit in her crimes. Her destruction is redemption, to me. That’s all.”

“I can respect that,” he said, nodding and letting his eyes close of their own accord. Shook was just too bone-weary to dissemble; that actually was a sentiment to which he could relate. “Oh…right. You’d best not bring me to whatever safe house you’re using, Bishop. Among the shit I need to bring everybody up to speed on, I spent the night with the Black fuckin’ Wreath. I’d bet my left nut they’re still tracking me. They damn sure can, and they’d be pretty stupid not to.”

“I see,” she said, turning back to him with her eyebrows raised. “Well… Thank you for the warning, but we must go where we are going regardless. That is where Khadizroth awaits us. After that, however, I’m confident he can erase any trace the warlocks can lay upon you, and my own roots in this city are shallow. We can move to a new, safer location easily enough.”

He just nodded. Sounded like good sense.

“I’m proud of you, Mr. Shook,” she said quietly.

He opened his eyes. “Excuse me?”

“I know nothing except what I cannot help but sense,” Snowe said, again giving him that Izarite smile. “But it is…familiar to me. You are a man struggling with inner demons, and slowly but surely, rising above them. Forgive my presumption; I just wanted you to know that I honor the effort.”

Shook stared at her for a moment. It seemed that this was the sort of thing that usually made him angry. Right at that moment, though, he just didn’t have the energy.

He leaned his head against the window and let his eyes drift shut again.

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