The Abbess’s office was rigidly orderly and scrupulously clean, yet there was an indefinable air of comfortable shabbiness about it. Her possessions—books, wall-hung maps, furniture, old weapons, Avenic sigils—were all old and well-used, bearing the marks of long life. The room itself was no larger than it needed to be, small enough to be cozy with Narnasia herself present and two guests on the other side of her desk.
They remained politely quiet as the arthritic old Abbess eased herself into her chair with a soft sigh, then folded her arms on the desk and regarded them shrewdly.
“Sister Leraine,” she said, “how serious were you about making this project of yours an interfaith initiative? If you truly just came here to sell enchantments, now is the time to tell me.”
“I was quite serious,” Leraine said with a small smile, seemingly unperturbed by the Abbess’s direct tone. “Doing business is certainly part of my mandate here, but I meant what I said about the ethical ramifications of this project. The Sisters of Avei are the only possible market for enchantments such as this, which is why we’ve brought you a demonstration in such an early phase.”
“That was an early phase?” Basra demanded, her eyebrows rising.
“Those charms were deceptively simple, in fact,” said Leraine. “The thing does little more than hover and whirl, really. The more difficult work is all part of general advancement in arcane golem craft—getting the device to recognize and respond to sentient interaction. Obviously, combat is one area in which such enchantments can be vigorously tested. But as I was saying, it’s a risky line of study to pursue, as you both pointed out. We are always looking to refine our practice of magic, but must also be mindful of safety. Whether the Sisterhood sees this device as too dangerous to acquire would be a major indication of whether we should refine it further.”
“Mm,” Narnasia murmured, staring piercingly at her. “I must give this some thought and prayer before rendering an opinion. I must say that my initial reaction is largely negative. That device of yours makes me uneasy.”
“I cannot disagree,” Leraine said frankly.
“As you are here, though,” the Abbess continued, “if you are willing to help us with another matter, I would like to consult your cult’s expertise.”
“Oh?” The Salyrite tilted her head. “I’ll be glad to help if I can.”
“None of this is secret,” said Narnasia, glancing over at Basra. “Secrecy isn’t really possible and wouldn’t serve anyone, anyway. Nonetheless, I would prefer that neither of you spread the story too widely just yet. I’d rather manage the situation as well as possible from the outset.”
“Naturally,” said Leraine, her tone openly curious now. Basra simply nodded.
Narnasia sighed softly before continuing. “For the last two weeks, throughout Viridill Province, there have been a series of incidents with elementals.”
Leraine narrowed her eyes. “Elementals? Really? Summoned by whom?”
“That is the troublesome part,” Narnasia replied. “No culprit has been identified, but the incidents have occurred in every part of the region.”
“What makes this a situation?” Basra asked. “There have always been elemental sightings in Viridill.”
“Specifically,” said Narnasia, “in the southernmost regions, along the Athan’Khar border. Sightings, not attacks, and they never make it past the Imperial and Silver Legion defenses there.”
“Attacks?” Leraine said sharply.
“Thus far,” said Narnasia, “there have been no serious injuries, merely some scuffles and property damage. People have the sense to stay away from an elemental, or any kind of fairy, when it appears.”
“Back up,” Basra said rather curtly, ignoring or not noticing the Abbess’s disapproving look. “Again, why is it strange that elementals should be appearing? I thought they were by definition a natural phenomenon.”
Narnasia looked at Sister Leraine, raising an eyebrow.
“They normally don’t inhabit this plane,” Leraine replied, shifting in her seat to face Basra more directly. “Some of the stronger, older elemental spirits have been here long enough to be essentially native, but they come from the elemental planes, Naiya’s realm.”
“I thought Naiya’s realm was the Deep Wild…”
“That,” said Leraine, nodding, “and a few other, similar places. The elemental planes can be summoned from, but not accessed directly; why remains an open question. We don’t know the exact nature of Naiya’s relationship to those planes, or what goes on in them. It’s not even certain that they are naturally occurring dimensions, or how many there are. I consider it notable that the only two Elder Goddesses to survive the Pantheon’s rise had dimensional fallbacks to rely upon, though Scyllith subsequently lost her hold on Hell. But yes, an elemental would only be on the mortal plane if someone called it here. You said the damage has been minor,” she said, turning back to the Abbess. “These are smaller spirits, then?”
“Small and easily banished,” Narnasia replied. “However, that is not the disturbing part. Basra, in the cupboard to your left are several rolled maps. One of those on top is bound with a braided red leather thong. Would you please bring that over here and lay it out on the desk?”
Basra nodded to her, and stood to open the cupboard in question. She swiftly extracted the indicated map and rolled it out flat with an expert touch, while Narnasia placed inkwells, pens and books on its edges to hold it flat.
“I have begun marking the incidents here, after the third day of them occurring,” she said, pointing to several notations on the map of Viridill Province. “They’ve not happened every day since, but regularly enough. Note that they are concentrated neither in population centers or in isolated areas, as one might expect. Disruptions here, here and there along roads, and all along the river. Then, most disturbingly, these two back-to-back events. A wind elemental harassed several farmhands here, near the eastern border, not far from a Silver Legion outpost. Legionnaires and priestesses were dispatched from there to contain it. Then, while they were away dealing with that, a fire elemental ignited a blaze in the outpost itself. Small and easily contained, but that is not the point.”
“Disrupting supply and communications chains,” Basra said, her eyes narrowing. “Diverting troops before attacking fortifications. These are military tactics.”
“You’re right,” Leraine said, visibly alarmed. “That is deeply disturbing. Elementals do not think along those lines; if they are doing anything so sophisticated, someone is directing them. But…who would try to attack Viridill? And with such minor forces?”
“That’s what I intend to learn,” Narnasia said, settling back in her chair with a faint wince. “The situation here with regard to elemental magic is complicated by Viridill’s history. This land has been the center of Avei’s faith since its founding; temples, shrines and hallowed ground are everywhere. Large swaths of the country are simply inaccessible to all but the most powerful fairies. On other areas, however, we have more than the usual number of practicing witches in the population, enough that various small fae crafts have become part of the local rural culture. Only Salyrene’s cult,” she said, nodding respectfully to the Sister, “did more to shelter victims of the witch hunts decades ago.”
“And that because the Sisterhood was only interested in protecting female victims,” Basra added, folding her arms. Narnasia gave her a sharp look, but did not rise to the bait.
“What does the governor say about this?” Leraine asked quickly.
“Governor Tamshinaar chooses to defer to the Sisterhood on this matter,” Narnasia replied, again ignoring Basra’s faint smirk. “As it stands, this amounts to a series of nuisances, which is why I prefer to address it myself if possible. If the situation grows more serious, I may be forced to contact the High Commander and the Universal Church.”
“No reason to trouble the Empire with this,” Basra said gravely.
It was no secret that the Imperial Governor of Viridill Province was a figurehead. The Imperial Army in the region was entirely concentrated along the Athan’Khar border in the south, and answerable directly to Tiraas, not the local government. Viridill was administered by the Sisterhood of Avei, patrolled by the Silver Legions, and funded by the tithes of Avenists the world over. The land was not precisely holy, but its association with Avei and her faith was ancient. Few kingdoms throughout history had attempted to take it by force, and only one Tiraan Emperor. The example made of him had dissuaded any subsequent attempts. The province’s inclusion in the Empire was a historically complicated matter, but the Silver Throne mostly left Viridill to tend to its own affairs.
“This is the reason I raise the topic with the two of you,” Narnasia said, giving Basra a final warning look. “If we are to deal with the problem before having to involve higher authorities, I need, first of all, magical expertise pertaining to fairies and the fae arts. I’m afraid the Sisterhood is lacking this.”
Leraine was nodding before she finished speaking. “I will be glad to lend a hand, Abbess. Neither of the attendants I brought for the demonstration are witches, but there are several Salyrites in the province whom I trust, and who practice fairy arts. I can consult with them. I assume, at this juncture, that you would rather I not involve our central cult?”
“I’ll defer to your judgment on that point, of course,” Narnasia said diplomatically. “Any help you care to offer is appreciated. The other issue is more mundane, but more complicated. I cannot believe, considering their history, that any of Viridill’s witches are responsible for something this absurd, but nonetheless, they must be investigated. Circumspectly.”
“The purges were over a generation ago,” Basra pointed out. “Many of those living in the province now are the children or grandchildren of the original refugees. Who knows what they think of anything? Growing up under a religion’s influence can cause people to bitterly hate the cult in question, in the wrong circumstances.”
“Indeed,” said Narnasia, momentarily tightening her mouth. “Finding the attacker will require a very specific set of skills. It calls for someone clever and relentless, with experience in interfaith cooperation and the political skills to do all this without antagonizing the general populace or Viridill’s resident magic users. Captain Syrinx, you are uniquely qualified to take the lead in this investigation.”
Basra’s face remained even, almost impassive. “Of course, I am glad to serve in any way I can.”
“Of course,” Narnasia said, equally expressionlessly. “I will have a page deliver what documents I have on the matter to your quarters.”
“There is no need to trouble your staff, Abbess,” Basra said smoothly. “My aide can do any fetching and carrying. It’ll be good for her to have work; I’m afraid she is being wasted out here.”
“I’ve several times had that thought myself,” Narnasia noted. “As soon as we have a witch on hand to assist you, you can begin.”
“In that case,” said Leraine, rising from her seat and bowing, “I will proceed immediately to the temple and summon help. The, ah, individual I have in mind is a man. I trust that won’t be a problem?”
“Whyever would it?” Narnasia asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Despite what you may have heard,” said Basra wryly, “no sensible Avenist objects to men who are well-behaved.”
“Of course,” Leraine said with a small smile. “Thank you for your trust in this, Abbess Darnassy. After all the Silver Legions have done to defend our temples, and others, it’s an honor to be able to help in return.”
“And I thank you for your willingness to do so, sister,” Narnasia replied. “I shall look forward to working with you further.”
Basra rose as well, and held the door open for Leraine. The Salyrite paused in it to bow again to the two Avenists, then strode out in search of her two aides. Basra glanced back at the Abbess once, then made to follow.
“A moment, Captain Syrinx. Shut the door, if you would.”
Raising her eyebrows, she did so, turning back to Narnasia.
“It is impossible not to notice,” the Abbess said, staring penetratingly at the Bishop, “that this situation is practically tailored to someone of your very specific skill set. As you are here for the specific purpose of proving your reliability…”
“I have had cause to wonder how you expected me to prove that, collecting dust in this abbey,” Basra replied calmly, folding her arms.
“Really? You have trouble seeing why dealing with novices and paperwork demonstrates an even keel? I hadn’t thought you so short-sighted, Basra. In any case, such a perfect opportunity for you to redeem yourself falling out of the blue like this is…curious.”
“I could take that for an accusation, Abbess,” Basra said flatly.
Narnasia slowly shook her head, her eyes remaining locked on her guest’s. “I don’t suspect you of engineering this, don’t worry about that. I can’t begin to imagine how you even could, and I do credit you with enough intelligence not to do something so overtly treasonous. However, this is almost certainly the work of some outside agent, of which you know quite a few. Tell me frankly, Basra: do you think anyone could be carrying out these attacks in order to expedite your return to Tiraas?”
Basra frowned, her eyes shifting to the side in thought. After a moment, she shook her head. “I can’t see it. I’ve my share of friends and allies, yes. Several might be motivated to arrange for my return. A few could be reckless enough to do something as ham-fisted as interfering with Avenist operations. I can imagine no points of overlap between those two groups, however. I can promise you this,” she added, a scowl falling over her face. “If anyone has set all this up for that or any reason pertaining to me, this will be the last time they even consider butting into the Sisterhood’s business.”
“Very well,” Narnasia said, nodding. “I’ll assemble some reports for Private Covrin to bring you. Thank you, Captain.”
“Ma’am,” Basra said respectfully, giving the Abbess a half-bow, before turning and leaving the office.
Out in the hall, she stalked back toward her own chambers, not noticing the three novices who turned and fled at the sight of her expression. Basra’s eyes narrowed to slits, focused on a point miles away, in Tiraas.
Full dark had fallen over the prairie by the time they left the tent. Professor Tellwyrn had let them stay until Bishop Snowe was wrapping up her speech before hustling the two of them out into the night, waving Juniper and Fross back when they started to follow. She led them around the corner of the huge big top, ignoring curious looks from those outside, the two puzzled paladins trailing after her.
“Where are we going?” Gabriel demanded. “What’s the big idea?”
“Kids,” the Professor said with a sigh. “When I teleport you around, you complain. When I let you walk, you complain, and also it takes forever. Sometimes I think I just can’t win with you lot.”
“You’re the one who decided to go into teaching,” he muttered.
“I think the revival’s organizers are using that for administration,” Trissiny said, noting the smaller tent toward which Tellwyrn was leading them. It had been set up amid the tallgrass off to the side of the big one, positioned so that it wasn’t visible from the town. Nobody except the revival’s staff had any reason to come around here, and indeed, no one was in evidence now.
“They were,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “I’m borrowing it. C’mon, in you go.”
She held open the flap, gesturing them through.
“Hey, guys,” Toby said, waving as they arrived. The other person present hopped up from his seat on a trunk, doffing his hat politely.
“There you are,” Gabriel said to Toby. “Hi, Joe! What’re you two doing hiding out here?”
“I am eagerly awaiting the answer to that question,” Joe said, giving Tellwyrn an inquisitive look as she let the flap fall closed behind her.
“All right, all right, settle down,” Tellwyrn said as if she were addressing an unruly classroom instead of four people. “Now, I’ve had the story from Mr. Jenkins, here, of why you lot scrolled him to come from Tiraas. Despite your assignment in Veilgrad being over, you seem to be pursuing the matter.”
“Joe!” Gabriel protested.
Joe blinked twice. “I, uh… Was I not s’posed to tell her?”
“I’m pretty sure hiding it from her wouldn’t be a great idea,” Trissiny said, giving Gabriel a look.
“And also wouldn’t work,” Toby added with a grin.
“Now, I’m the last person to discourage a sense of responsibility in my students,” Tellwyrn said more loudly, folding her arms. “I’m glad you care about the city and its fate as more than an academic exercise. However, I think the lot of you—and yes, that includes you, Joseph—could stand to be reminded of your proper perspective. Yes, you are paladins and have a duty. However, that duty is principally here, to your education. Your patrons—goddammit, Trissiny, I’m not going to quibble semantics so wipe that look off your face—have sent you here for the purpose of opening your minds and getting you some real-world experience in relative safety before sending you off to a lifetime of battles. Your job is to focus on that. And you,” she added severely, pointing at Joe, “I will thank not to encourage them.”
He swallowed, anxiously turning his hat over and over in his hands. “I will keep that firmly in mind, ma—erm, Professor.”
“Do you at least understand why we would be seriously concerned about this?” Trissiny said sharply.
“Sure,” Tellwyrn said. “However, again, you lack perspective. First of all, the fact that Archpope Justinian is manipulating events to his own advantage isn’t, in and of itself, necessarily significant.”
“Are you kidding?” Gabriel burst out, barely beating Trissiny to the punch. “He might just as well have bombed Veilgrad with that—”
“Did he unleash the power of the skull?” Tellwyrn interrupted, glaring at him. “Or did he simply make use of an event already transpiring to further his goals? Do you have any way to know?” She paused, slowly dragging her gaze across them, before continuing. “Understand that the Archpope is, above all else, a politician. His job is to keep balance between the various member cults of the Universal Church. He is, ultimately, a power broker. Manipulation is a central part of his job. This is not to say that he isn’t necessarily into something he shouldn’t be, but the fact that he’s being clearly a weasel is not necessarily cause for concern. If a sitting Archpope had gone bad, the gods would surely be the first to know. And you lot would be their likely first line of defense. If you weren’t told by them to stick your noses in, that’s your first indication that you should think about leaving it well enough alone.
“Furthermore and perhaps more significantly,” she added, her expression growing darker, “there is the fact that you were directed to follow up this lead by the Black Wreath. Honestly, kids, when you find yourself doing what they tell you to do, you have screwed up at some point.”
“Now, hang on,” Joe protested. “It ain’t like I’m in the Black Wreath.”
“I’ve never suspected that for a moment, Joseph,” she said more calmly to him. “That’s not the point. The Wreath are even more manipulative than the Archpope, by a wide margin. Much of their best work is done without dirtying their own hands. Can you not see the advantage to the Wreath in setting paladins of the Trinity against the Church itself?”
She paused to let that sink in before continuing. “And now, we have a Universal Church bishop putting on a big show in town, and you three, of all people, are being awfully standoffish about it. Caine doesn’t even bother to show up, and Arquin and Avelea, neither of you the poster children for forethought and restraint, are suspicious enough of her to keep a safe distance.”
“What’s that mean, of all people?” Gabriel asked, sounding affronted. “I don’t have much of a history with the Church, if you’ll recall. Not a good one, anyway.”
“On the other hand,” said Trissiny with a suspiciously straight face, “Bishop Snowe is remarkably pretty, and remarkably buxom.”
Gabriel stared at her in shock, then whirled to glare at Toby, who had burst out laughing. Joe glanced rapidly between them, looking uncertain.
“I’ll consider my point made,” Tellwyrn said with a hint of satisfaction. “For your information, I have my own reasons to be suspicious of both Justinian and Snowe. I most certainly will not discourage you from gathering information and thinking about all of this. Always, always think. You three keep in mind your situation and your responsibilities, however. If your gods decide you need to cut short your schooling and go tend to something else… Well, we’ll address that when it happens. Since it hasn’t, you keep your minds where they belong and don’t go butting into religious politics that don’t concern you directly. Clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Gabriel said resignedly; Trissiny and Toby nodded.
“That’s all, basically,” Tellwyrn said more calmly. “Just think fully before committing yourselves to any action. Don’t insert yourselves into situations you don’t understand. Keep your minds on the present, and you’ll do fine.”
“That’s excellent advice for all occasions!” Branwen Snowe said brightly, pushing in through the tent flap.
Joe shot back to his feet, Toby doing the same. Trissiny and Gabriel turned to stare at her in surprise.
“This is a private conversation,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “Or was until very recently.”
“Of course,” the Bishop replied, smiling serenely at her. “I’ll try not to intrude too much. I just couldn’t leave town without making sure you had taken no offense at my sermon.”
“Bet you could’ve,” Tellwyrn said dryly.
“I understand,” Snowe continued, still in perfect calm and with a pleasant smile, “how some of my remarks might have been construed as directed at you. I just want to assure you, Professor, that I hold you in the highest—”
“Young woman,” Tellwyrn interrupted, “you seem to have mistaken yourself for someone whose opinion matters. It’s a not-uncommon side effect of sudden fame. I am not offended by anything you said any more than I concern myself in general with it. Good night.”
“Well, what a relief that is,” Snowe replied, cool as ever, though Joe and the paladins were all looking increasingly wary and edging away from the two of them. “It would be a shame to sour you on the subject of—”
“Snowe, when I want to talk to the hand up your ass I’ll go to Tiraas and see him in person. Now go away.”
“Of course,” the Bishop said wryly, then turned to the others and inclined her head deeply. “Well, however briefly, it has been a great pleasure to meet all of you. Yourself included, Mr. Jenkins; your adventures are already the stuff of legend! Toby, Trissiny, Gabriel, I dearly hope you will visit me next time you are in—”
Once again she broke off mid-sentence, this time because Tellwyrn was suddenly holding a saber against her neck.
“Professor!” Toby exclaimed, aghast.
“Archpope Justinian,” Tellwyrn said to Snowe in deadly calm. “Imperial law enforcement. Your legions of adoring fans. Izara. These are just some of the people who will not do jack shit to me if I take your head off your shoulders right now in front of three paladins. Annoying me is one thing, girl. You will not interfere with my students.”
“That is going too far, even for you,” Trissiny snapped, her hand falling to the hilt of her own sword.
Bishop Snowe neither moved nor altered her expression except to raise an eyebrow. “But hardly out of character, now is it?”
“I was going to let you cling to the bit of privacy,” Tellwyrn said coldly, “but no, you had to get clever. Kids, I’m sure you are all aware that Izarite clergy are known for their ability to sense the desires and emotional needs of others. This one has an additional gift: the ability to reach out through that sense, to influence those desires, and subtly nudge people’s feelings and perceptions in a direction of her choosing. It’s actually not uncommon in natural empaths who go into Izara’s service, but the Izarite cult itself are very leery of the idea. They don’t encourage such behavior; it’s all but taboo. Regardless, I suggest you be very mindful of your feelings in the presence of Branwen Snowe.”
“Can…she do that to…a whole crowd?” Gabriel asked, unconsciously stroking Ariel’s hilt.
“Why go against her cult’s wishes?” Trissiny added, frowning.
“What am I, her biographer?” Tellwyrn exclaimed in annoyance. “I know the effect when I see it done right in front of me. And neither that nor any other magical manipulation is going to be imposed upon my students, unless the person doing the imposing has a death wish. Is everyone present explicitly clear on that point?”
“Someday, Arachne,” Snowe said very evenly, “you are going to meet something you cannot simply bully your way through.”
“Oh, most assuredly,” Tellwyrn said with an unpleasant grin. “But you are not that thing, buttercup.”
“You really are one of the more profoundly unhappy people with whom I have ever been in close proximity,” the Bishop said, very slowly taking a step back, away from the sword. Tellwyrn led the blade fall to her side, watching her go. Branwen nodded briefly to the rest of them. “It was a pleasure to meet you all. Blessings upon you.”
She turned, lifted the tent flap, and slipped silently out.
After a moment of contemplating the closed flap, Tellwyrn twirled her saber and made a motion as if sheathing it at her waist; the blade vanished from her hand. “Education is everywhere, kids. Always look for the lesson in any experience. All right, enjoy the rest of the festival. I guess I can count on you three not to get converted, if anyone. Avelea, you may want to rein in November; she was making a scene down at the Silver Mission again a few minutes ago.”
With no more fanfare or farewell, she vanished, only the faintest pop of displaced air marking her departure.
Gabriel sighed, still staring at the tent flap. “Never fails. I meet a really attractive woman who’s just my type and she turns out to be kind of evil.”
“Not to mention too old for you,” Trissiny said dryly.
“So!” He turned to the confused-looking Joe, grinning broadly. “Joe, how come you don’t visit more often?”