Tag Archives: Teal

16 – 15

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The group which set out from the townhouse, in the end, was six strong. Only Darling and Trissiny were specifically needed for their planned business at the Temple of Avei; of the rest, only Rasha had a personal stake in the outcome. The other three apprentices, though, had clamored to come along, what with the alternative being essentially to twiddle their thumbs at home. Glory, having spent years laboriously building a web of connections centered on her own house, by far preferred to conduct business from the middle of it—especially, as she smugly reminded them, now that she had a flock of apprentices to do her bidding. As Trissiny was glad to spend time with her old friends again and Darling had opined that even apprentice thieves would be handy to have around, that settled the matter.

Their plans were thoroughly de-Railed almost the moment they all reached the sidewalk.

“Look alive,” Tallie said from a bit ahead of the group as they all clustered outside the gate. “We’ve got a… Wait, is that Flora?”

The figure approaching was just distant enough to be a confusing sight, before they recognized the slim, blonde elf surrounded by her black cloak, billowing amorphously in the winter breeze, one hand upraised to wave at them as she came forward at a near-run.

“It is,” Darling said tersely, pushing past Tallie to meet the oncoming elf. “Flora! What happened to Fauna? Is she okay? Are you okay?”

Flora slowed, lowering her hand and frowning quizzically with her head tilted as she entered conversational range. “What? Of course. Two people can cover more ground when they…y’know, cover more ground. I’m fine, she’s fine, I just came here looking for you.”

“You’re sure?”

At that, she scowled outright. “Is it seriously a cause for panic to see me alone? Surely you didn’t think we were biologically connected at the hip.”

Darling paused, then turned to Trissiny and the others, raising his eyebrows. “Well, gee, I dunno, why don’t we ask the jury? Kids, did you think they were connected at the hip?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Maybe not biologically…”

“Man, you look weird on your own. Kinda lopsided. Were you always that tall?”

“All right, yeah, fine, you’re all hilarious,” Flora huffed. “Believe it or not, I didn’t run across town to enjoy your awkward comedy stylings. I’m glad I caught you, and still together. Thorn, Sweet, there’s been an incident you two in particular are gonna want to come see to.”

“Oh, so I guess our original plan is just yow!”

Trying to trot around the group so he could address Flora more directly, Darius abruptly lost his footing and ended up flat on his back in the slush filling the gutter.

“Darius!” Layla exclaimed, kneeling beside him. “Are you all right?”

“I’ve just had an important realization,” he said, staring at the overcast sky. “People who are not elves should not run on ice.”

“Seriously, kid, leave it to the professionals,” Flora said, visibly unimpressed. “Your slapstick isn’t any better than your wordplay.”

“Can you elaborate, maybe?” Trissiny asked. “What kind of incident are we talking about?”

“Well, first things first,” Flora replied, grinning. “Nobody panic, everyone’s all right. Even the dog.”


Trissiny summoned her armor during the trip across the city, and it was immediately useful upon arriving. A Bishop and the Hand of Avei got a lot of leeway in most places, and the pair of them were able to get deep into a police barracks based on rank alone, though they discovered upon reaching the crowded conference room which was apparently the whole debacle’s center of operations that rank only got so far.

“What the hell is all this now?” demanded the tall woman who seemed to be in charge, a gray-haired soldier wearing a captain’s insignia. “Who do you—actually, no, I don’t care. All of you, clear out. None of this is any of your business.”

“Excuse me, Captain,” Trissiny said mildly, “but I think I outrank you.”

That did not help.

“And I think,” the captain retorted, glaring, “my youngest kid is older than you, Avelea, and has more experience in actual soldiering. Your Imperial rank is honorary, and a courtesy for when there’s a dragon that needs slaying, which is the opposite of what’s going on here. As if it wasn’t bad enough to have half my station tied up in what should’ve been a simple snatch-and-grab case report, I’m now up to my stripes in Guild laywers, Falconer lawyers, Madouri lawyers, and just before you came, an official communique from this goddamn Elven Confabulation!”

“Confederacy,” a younger soldier holding a clipboard corrected softly. The captain made a slashing motion at him with one hand, her attention still fixed on Trissiny.

“I don’t know what stake the Sisterhood thinks it has in this, but go tell them to think otherwise, General. The absolute last thing I need right now is you stomping around. And if you have an issue with my failure to yield to your rank, feel free to take it up with my superiors. Go get a head start on the paperwork while I deal with this.”

Trissiny blinked once, then swept her eyes quickly around the various people in the room. The captain and her apparent aide were the only two Imperial soldiers present. Shaeine and Teal sat in chairs at the table, the former looking regal and aloof as she tended to when displeased, the latter holding F’thaan in her lap; the hellhound’s ears perked up when he looked at Trissiny, but otherwise he appeared mostly nervous, leaning heavily into Teal. The rest of the individuals already there were in suits, and apparently where the aforementioned lawyers, only one of whom she recognized.

“Madouri lawyers?” Trissiny asked finally. The captain outright bared teeth at her choice to ask questions rather than leave, but Teal piped up before an argument could break out.

“Somebody informed Ravana, who has more of a stake in this than I expected,” she explained, soothingly stroking F’thaan’s head. “Apparently she’s got an established relationship with the Thieves’ Guild. So does my family. Neither of us should’ve been targeted by the Guild.”

“I see. And which…”

“Yo.” The most disheveled of the three attorneys raised one hand, grinning at her. “Your gal pals here have a dispensation from House Madouri to be keeping that hellhound, so obviously there are questions of jurisdiction when they bring it into Tiraas but the order is still valid, because I’m here to make it valid if anybody wants to pick a fight. And just look at you! Hand of Avei, that’s the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen. You still hanging out with those chuckleheads? Where’s the fat guy?”

“Hello, Ms. Savaraad,” Trissiny said patiently. “I didn’t know you worked for House Madouri.”

“I’ve done work for the Duchess and the Guild, hence my being here.”

“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” Tallie piped up.

“Would be if they were at cross-purposes, but her Ladyship’s position is that this unprovoked insult by the Thieves’ Guild is clearly some kind of misunderstanding and I’m here to make sure it’s all resolved amicably on all sides.” Bird managed to make the sentence both cloyingly sweet and bitterly sarcastic.

“That doesn’t seem like your specialty,” Tallie observed.

“Who the hell are you people?” the captain bellowed.

“Oh, don’t mind us!” Darius said, raising his hands. “We’re just the Paladin Pity Squad, here because the General felt bad about ditching us to handle business.”

Darling laid a hand on his shoulder, leaning over to murmur, “A police station’s not the worst place to get a chip on your shoulder, son, but it’s in the top five.”

“This is Bishop Darling, from the Guild,” Trissiny explained in a deliberately calm tone. “He has enough rank with them to give orders, and is very skilled at smoothing things over.”

“Consider me at your disposal, Captain,” Darling said, inclining his head courteously. “We are sorry to just descend on you in the middle of this, but I promise you we’re here to lessen your headaches, not add to them. And this lot are Guild apprentices, who don’t strictly need to be involved. They can fetch tea, and otherwise stash themselves somewhere out of the way.”

Surprisingly, the captain seemed somewhat mollified by that. “Well, finally. Someone with pull and sense. That doesn’t explain your interest in this,” she added, turning the force of her glare back on Trissiny.

“Also here to help,” she said. “I agree with Savaraad and the Bishop: this needs to be calmed down, not kicked further.”

“Uh huh. And you can just wave your magic sword and make that happen?”

“Maybe not that simply,” she acknowledged, smiling, “but I bet I can get them to talk.”

The captain narrowed her eyes again. “Of all the problems I’ve got right now, him talking is the least urgent.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, I was briefed on the move getting here. You’ve got two Guild thieves who used an infernal weapon, which means you very much need to find out where that came from and plug the source. This job was bungled, but they were obviously working with some inside information to know where and how to hit their targets, and considering those targets and the fact that the thing failed—really, couldn’t have succeeded—there’s at least a possibility this is all politically motivated. If Intelligence isn’t breathing down your neck to suss out who set this in motion, they will be within the hour. And since these guys are Guild, they’ve been cooperating up to a point but refusing to yield any information. Am I more or less right?”

Though her eyes were still narrowed, by the end of that the captain’s expression was more thoughtful than angry. “And you think you can get answers, is that right?”

“No guarantees, but I believe so.”

“Paladin,” she warned, “if you think you’re going to come into my station and beat up a prisoner—”

“I said get answers, not a confession,” Trissiny interrupted. “I’m assuming we want accurate intel and not desperate fabrications, right? Nobody professional uses torture to get information.” She glanced over at Darling, who nodded once in encouragement. “I know the right questions to ask a Guild thief, Captain, and I think hearing them from me in this armor will make your boys reconsider the position they’re in.”

“Boy, singular,” the captain grunted. “I’ve got the bag man in lockup. Your friends here did a real number on the driver. Healers tell me he should pull through just fine, but not before spending some time in the hospital.”

Trissiny looked over at them, frowning in concern. “You okay, Teal?”

“Mrs. Falconer is the victim, here,” one of the lawyers interjected, “and is under no obligation to answer questions to law enforcement.”

“She’s a friend, not law enforcement,” Teal said with a sigh.

“Ma’am, given the role she is taking here and your own—”

“That will do,” Shaeine stated, quiet but utterly implacable. The attorney clamped his mouth shut, giving the drow an openly annoyed look from behind.

“I’m not having a great day, Triss,” Teal said wryly, “but it could be a lot worse. F’thaan’s okay, and we’re both unharmed. If you think you can help settle all this mess, I’d be grateful.”

“House Madouri’s in favor of this,” Bird said cheerfully. “The Duchess has the utmost confidence in General Avelea. She filed a brief about it and everything.”

“My clients are not,” snapped the remaining lawyer, who by process of elimination had to represent the Thieves’ Guild. “I object to—”

“No, you don’t!” Darling exclaimed, raising both hands in a pacifying gesture. “It’s fine. General Avelea is known and trusted by the Guild. She is not going to mistreat our people or break any laws. Getting all this straightened out quickly is in everyone’s best interest. We’re not throwing anybody under the wheels here.”

The Guild lawyer studied him suspiciously for a moment, then grudgingly nodded, apparently already familiar with Darling’s position. “Objection withdrawn.”

“Well,” the captain said resignedly, “I guess it’s not like you can make this any worse. All right, Avelea, you get a shot. I will be watching, though, and I don’t want to see any funny business. This is an Imperial Army station, not an Avenist temple.”

“I don’t really do funny business,” Trissiny said solemnly, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb at Tallie, Darius, Rasha and Layla. “Ask them, they’ll tell you.”


Like most government structures in the city, the station itself was centuries old, but the interrogation room was obviously a modern renovation, complete with one of the newest features in police work which Murgatroyd Fedora had boasted was one of his inventions: a wall of glass enchanted to be a simple mirror from this side, but transparent from the other and blocking sound in only one direction. Behind it would be the captain and whoever else she judged needed to be privy to the ensuing conversation.

The thief sat on one side of the table to which his wrist manacles were chained, looking slumped and annoyed but not particularly cowed. He looked up when the door opened, and his eyebrows shot upward in surprise at the sight of Trissiny in her silver armor, but just as quickly his expression closed down again. He just stared at her as she pulled out the other chair and sat down across from him.

“So, it’s Rake, right?” she inquired. “Where are you from?”

His eyebrows drew together slightly, but he said nothing.

“I ask because I was told there was a guy tagged Rake here in Tiraas a couple of years ago, but apparently he got into some bad business with the Imperial government and ended up dead. Bishop Darling tells me there’s more recently a Rake operating out of Madouris. That you?”

“You talked to the Bishop?” he asked finally.

“Yep. The thing about that is, if you work in Madouris, you’re under Pizzazz. Right?”

Rake squinted at her in silence.

“And everybody in Madouris should know that the Falconers are strictly hands off,” she continued, holding his gaze. “Have been since Underboss Rogue’s time, and Pizzazz has upheld that. You could maybe argue that doesn’t hold here in Tiraas, but I’ve never met an Underboss who had a lot of patience for rules lawyering.”

“You meet a lot of Guild Underbosses?” he asked.

“A few,” she said noncommittally. “So, Rake. Whose big idea was this job?”

His face went blank again.

“Here’s the thing,” Trissiny continued, folding her gauntleted hands atop the table. “I’m sure you remember the big flaming demon who demolished you when you tried to kidnap her pet.”

He twitched.

“Her name is Vadrieny. Ever heard of—ah, I see you’re fairly well read. Yes, that Vadrieny, the Ravager of the Third Hellwar, last living daughter of Elilial. It’s a very long story, but she is currently incorporeal and sharing the body of the Falconer heiress. This isn’t a secret, you understand, just something those in power have not encouraged to get around. Anybody connected enough to set up this job and prep you for it would have been aware of that. So quite apart from the fact that they sent you to piss off arguably the most murderous creature in existence, who you never had the slightest chance of escaping from, you—a representative of Eserion—just broke the historic truce between Elilial and the Pantheon. So, good job on that.”

Rake swallowed heavily.

“In more local news,” Trissiny went on, “the other owner of that dog is the daughter of the Matriarch of the Narisian noble family who handles Tar’naris’s diplomacy. Yeah, you attacked a diplomat, which by itself would be grounds for the Throne to offer your head to Tar’naris on a plate in appeasement. But somehow, you arranged for that to not even be the worst part, since you pulled this job right as this Confederacy thing is kicking off, relations between the Empire and the elves are tense and very uncertain, and nobody has any patience for shenanigans. This is when you chose to commit a major diplomatic provocation.”

He had gone almost white, but still said nothing.

“Shaeine and Teal are personal friends of mine,” she stated evenly. “I have petted that dog. So yes, Rake, I won’t lie: I kind of want to punch you until your whole face is concave, let me just admit that up front. But I want to reassure you that I’m not going to do that. Even in the worst case scenario, if you continue to be obstreperous, you’re not going to get any further grief from me. You know the Guild’s codes on revenge. Beating you up wouldn’t solve any problems or make me feel better, and definitely won’t serve to discourage another incident like this, since we both know you’re not the one who had the bright idea in the first place.”

“You’re…pretty well-informed about Guild stuff,” Rake said warily. “Wait, is it true you infiltrated the apprentices last year?”

“Please don’t make me remind you who’s asking the questions here, Rake,” Trissiny said pleasantly. “That is just such a drizzt.”

He blinked in confusion.

“I think it’s better, in cases like this, to deal in positive reinforcement. So in fact, Rake, I’m going to offer to do what I can to protect you from the multiple world powers you’ve just pissed off. Right now you’ve got House Madouri, Falconer Industries, Imperial Intelligence and the Elven Confederacy wanting a piece of your hide. That would be pushing well beyond the bounds of what the Guild can protect you from just by itself, but taking into account the fact you just undercut Pizzazz’s authority by flouting the rule against ripping off the Falconers—and come on, that was a company carriage you robbed—odds are very good you’re not going to get even that much protection.”

“I don’t need—” He caught himself mid-sentence, clamping his mouth shut again.

“Don’t need Pizzazz to back you up?” she finished, watching him carefully. “Well, you must be pretty confident in your backer, then. Confident they can shield you from…well, do you really need me to recite the list again?”

Rake’s eyes darted from one side of the room to the other, settling for a moment on the mirrored wall and then back on her face.

“You should really think about this, though,” Trissiny added in a mild tone. “Your backer sent you right into Vadrieny’s claws. Considering how much intel you obviously had to plan this job? I’d say it’s even odds whether they just didn’t know what the stakes here were…or deliberately sent you to die like a stray dog in the street. Functionally, Rake, it doesn’t really matter, does it? That’s someone who either can’t protect you, or just isn’t going to bother. I think you really need my protection right now.”

She let the silence hang for a moment while he slumped lower in his chair.

“But for that, I’m going to need a name.”

He swallowed again.

“Jasper, too.”

“Excuse me?”

“My partner. They had to take him to the healers. If I tell you who sent us, you have to promise you’ll look after him, too.”

“You have my word,” she said, nodding her head once. “What I can do, I will.”

Rake fidgeted for a moment, grimaced, and then burst out, “It was Tricks!”

Trissiny blinked once, slowly, and then shook her head. “Rake. I believe I made it fairly clear that I don’t actually like you that much, correct? I am still willing to help you, but not out of the goodness of my heart; you need to help me first. Telling me fairy tales isn’t helping me.”

“I swear to you,” he babbled, “it was Boss Tricks himself who sent us. That’s the only reason we were willing to go after a Falconer target—yeah, we know about Pizzazz’s deal with the Duchess and FI, only the Boss himself can overrule that! Tricks didn’t just give us permission, this was his whole idea. He planned it, every step, had us rehearse it till he was satisfied we could pull it off.”

“Boss Tricks,” Trissiny said flatly, “does not pull half-assed schemes or make wildly stupid mistakes. He definitely doesn’t throw away the lives of Guild members to make some kind of point. That rules out every explanation for Tricks being behind this, which leaves me to conclude that you’re wasting my time.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Rake exploded, desperation audible in his voice. “I don’t have explanations! Gods help me, I trusted the bastard—we both did, or we wouldn’t have done this. I will swear on anything you want—I’ll go under with a mind-priest or take truth potion. I’m not lying, paladin! This wasn’t our idea. This job was a sanctioned Guild operation!”

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16 – 14

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“Uniforms?” Trissiny had gone perfectly still in her chair, listening to whoever currently spoke (mostly Rasha, though Glory and Sweet had chimed in with clarifications) with narrowed eyes and her full attention, her cooling tea forgotten in her hands. “What can you tell me about the quality of them?”

“Ah…” Rasha glanced guiltily at Glory. “This is embarrassing. Fabric, cut, and fashion details in general are part of my education, here, but I have to confess that in the moment I didn’t even think to examine them.”

“Observing minutia while under stress is an important skill, Rasha,” Glory said with a gentle smile, “but not one in which you have yet been trained. Don’t reproach yourself.”

“In any case, if I might interject?” Sweet added. “I suspect their fashionability isn’t what Thorn was curious about. I’ve seen these Purists here and there around the temple all week, and I can at least attest that they are actual uniforms, not somebody’s slapped-together costume collection. They fit, they match, and they’re solidly constructed. About on a par with the Sisterhood’s own uniforms, I’d say.”

“Then someone with serious resources is bankrolling this,” Trissiny murmured. “Equipment doesn’t just tumble out of the ether.”

“They are clothes, though,” the Bishop offered. “Not in the same league as Silver Legion armor.”

“But they include chain mail under the tabards,” Rasha added, “and metal-backed bracers. And their swords all match, and aren’t like Legion swords.”

Trissiny had let her gaze drift toward the wall, frowning, but now zeroed back in on her. “Can you describe them?”

“Longer,” Rasha said. “Bigger, overall. Longer blades, handles, and crossguards. Oh, and I remember they had heavy… What’s that part called, at the other end of the handle?”

“The pommel. Yeah, a bigger blade needs a heavier one to balance the sword, and if it’s heavy enough it can be almost as dangerous as the blade, at least in skilled hands.”

“Straight blades, too,” Rasha added, now narrowing her own eyes in thought. “Long and straight, not with the curved sides Legion short swords have.”

Trissiny nodded once. “I suppose it’s too much to hope anyone’s seen these used in combat.”

“I have a feeling if the Purists had been actually fighting with people, you’d have been one of the first to hear about it,” Sweet said, grinning.

“Damn, girl, curb that bloodlust,” Darius added reprovingly.

“It’s not that I want people to take swords to each other,” she said, shooting him an annoyed look. “That’s dueling equipment. Longswords, chain mail tunics, wrist bracers. There is an Eagle Style combat form that utilizes such tools, but it’s the kind of thing blademasters learn, and that’s through the civilian Sisterhood; Legionnaires don’t usually train in it. If these women are walking around carrying weapons they don’t actually know how to use, that’s grounds to call them down doctrinally.”

“I can only imagine what a grave sin that is in Avei’s service,” said Layla.

“It’s not so much grave, in and of itself,” Trissiny replied, “as an indication that you don’t respect weapons or warfare and are engaged in behavior that gets soldiers killed if you do it in an actual military situation. Someone who gets that reputation can forget about advancing through either the Sisters or the Legions. Anyway, I was thinking more about the alternative. If these women have just been gathered together and issued equipment by someone with deep pockets, that’s one thing. If they have received training, this could be a real problem.”

“Well, I can tell you they haven’t been trained in anything they’d need to actually accomplish what they’re allegedly here to do,” said Sweet. “Both from what I’ve personally seen and what I’ve heard from other Guild members who’ve had business in the Temple lately, these Purists are rapidly making themselves even less popular than they were to begin with. Smart religious radicals try to build a widespread power base before making a move, and are adept at recruitment. These are hostile and full of themselves and leaving a trail of pissed-off fellow Avenists wherever they go.”

“It sounds like someone’s using them as a meat shield, then,” Trissiny murmured, again staring at the far wall. “Or a distraction. Whatever the scheme is, they aren’t the main play.”

“This probably goes without saying,” Sweet added, “but we all know who has access to the necessary resources to gather together a bunch of fringe weirdos and issue them full kits of equipment, and a specific interest right now in creating trouble for the Sisterhood of Avei. Yes?”

Everyone nodded, expressions grim.

“You know the worst part?” Tallie said softly, staring at the window. “Everything we went through so those Justinian loyalists could be brought to justice, and all of that, all of it, was just him…cleaning house. Now, here we are again, with more Church loyalists. And apparently, they’re also expendables he’s just throwing at us.”

“Someone should really look into cutting his throat,” Layla said primly.

“I know the feeling,” Sweet said with a sigh. “I danced on his string for a good long while, told myself I was doing the smart thing by staying close to him… Hell, maybe I was right and it’s this show of defiance that’s the mistake. No sense crying over spilt milk now. I bring this up because we also know of someone who would be well-versed in Avenist philosophy, and uniquely qualified to train them in an esoteric dueling form.”

“It takes years to actually train in any martial art,” said Trissiny. “Besides, of all the things I heard about Syrinx during her tenure, there was never so much as a hint that she had Purist sympathies.”

“I don’t think Basra actually has any theological opinions, or opinions about anything but herself and what was best for her. I just mean she’s got the inside knowledge to set this specific thing up, and we know she’s on the leash of our primary suspect.”

“Yeah, point taken,” she said, nodding at him. “So the question is, what to do about this?”

“Didn’t we answer that up front?” Darius asked. “Clobber ‘em. Apparently, nobody’ll even mind.”

Trissiny just frowned again. “I smell a trap.”

“I agree,” Glory said before any of her apprentices could chime in again. “Unpopular as the Purists may be, there will still be consequences if they are undone by any abrupt or violent means. At minimum, it will be a further disruption within the Sisterhood at a time when they can ill afford such. And that is the course of action most likely to be taken by either a Hand of Avei or the Thieves’ Guild—the two parties most directly goaded into this by singling out Rasha for attack.”

“Surely you’re not suggesting we should just leave them alone?” Rasha exclaimed.

“That’s also a trap,” said Sweet, idly swirling his teacup and staring down into it. “Good instincts, Glory; I’m inclined to agree. This whole business puts all of us between the ol’ rock and hard place: either let asshole fanatics run loose, or come down on them hard. Either one means, at minimum, further weakening of the Sisterhood, and possibly also whoever is involved in dealing with them. You can bet there will be other agents in place and poised to react to either move.”

“So, we have to widen the net,” said Tallie. “Find the string-pullers behind all this and lean on them.”

“That will take time,” Rasha objected. “Time while all of this is unfolding. It’s almost as bad as deciding to let the Purists run rampant.”

“At minimum,” said Trissiny, “I need to talk to the High Commander and others within the Sisterhood; it’s certain they’ll have more intel that we don’t yet. But as a general rule, if your enemy maneuvers you into picking between two options that both serve them…”

“You do something else,” Rasha said, a grin lighting up her face. “Any ideas, Thorn?”

“In point of fact,” Trissiny said, her answering smile more than a little malicious, “I have a really good one.”


The main streets of Tiraas were always at least somewhat congested, even in the middle of the night or under pounding rain. Currently neither condition prevailed, but traffic was moving even slower than usual, thanks to the winter; snow had of course been cleared off the streets, but it was still cold enough that any standing moisture turned to ice, especially where the salt-spreaders had missed a spot, and there were deep banks of slush in the gutters. Allegedly, some of that stuff glowed in the dark in the industrial districts, thanks to the precipitation gathering up loose mana on its way to the ground. Teal had seen this phenomenon around her family’s factories, though it wasn’t evident in the daylight and anyway, they were not driving through any factory neighborhoods.

She much preferred to drive her sleek little roadster, but it had no rear seating and would have been cramped with both of them and F’thaan, and impossible to give Trissiny a ride in. Anyway, it wasn’t as if she could really unleash its motive charms in city traffic, not to mention that the overpowered racing carriage wasn’t the best vehicle for teaching a new driver. It all worked out for the best, as the company showpiece she was borrowing was a luxury model with built-in radiator charms that kept the interior pleasantly warm and the windows free of frost and fog despite the winter chill.

“Whoof,” Teal grunted, grimacing, as F’thaan poked his head forward between their seats, panting excitedly. At that proximity, his sulfurous breath was overpowering. She reached up to cradle his chin with one hand, scratching at his cheek for a moment while he leaned ecstatically into her touch, his tail thumping against the back seat, then gently pushed him backward. “Sit, F’thaan.”

The hellhound whined softly in protest, but obeyed. Despite being a little over-exuberant with youth, he was well-trained and obedient. Shaeine brooked no lack of discipline in her household.

Glancing to the side, Teal caught her spouse’s garnet eyes studying her, Shaeine’s face wreathed in a warm little smile that all but forced a similar look onto her own face.

“What?”

“I love to watch you drive,” Shaeine murmured, reaching over to rest a hand on Teal’s knee. “So much power, such a sophisticated machine, and you control it so deftly it seems you’re not even thinking about it.”

Teal’s grin widened of its own volition. As the carriage had just pulled to a stop at an intersection while the well-bundled soldier in the middle directed the traffic from the cross-street forward, she gently took Shaeine’s hand in her own and raised it to kiss the backs of her fingers. That was more intimacy than Narisian manners allowed in public, but as another perk of driving a vehicle designed for the comfort of the rich rather than speed and power, the windows were charmed to be opaque from the outside.

“Comes with practice,” she murmured, lowering their clasped hands but not releasing Shaeine’s yet. She wouldn’t need to handle the throttle until they were directed to start moving again. “Don’t worry, you’ll get there; I bet you’ll find you have a knack for it.”

“I wasn’t worried about that,” Shaeine murmured, squeezing her fingers lightly and rubbing her thumb across the back of Teal’s hand. “I do indeed have a knack for combining a delicate touch with just the right amount of force. As I believe you are aware.”

“You just like to see me blush,” Teal complained, inadvertently obliging.

The elf’s laugh was low, throaty, and entirely unsuitable for public, but she relented. “Actually, after seeing these streets, I am somewhat concerned about the status of the place you chose for me to practice. Is it going to be as slick as this? Learning to drive on ice seems less than ideal.”

“Yeah, the weather sure didn’t do us any favors,” Teal agreed, leaning forward to look up at the overcast sky. “I was hoping the dry winter would hold for a while, but that was probably too much to ask of Tiraas. We may have to make alternate plans if we get there and it’s too terrible, but actually it might be okay. The fairground is a huge gravel lot, and last night it snowed without sleeting, so it should still have decent traction.”

“Well, in the worst case scenario, I’m sure we can find a way to pass the—”

She was interrupted by a loud thunk against her side of the carriage, which set F’thaan to barking furiously. Both of them turned to behold an object stuck to Shaeine’s window: an innocuous-looking black stone dangling from a short chain whose other end was attached to a small adhesive charm that now kept it in place. Alongside them, the carriage in the next lane had its side window swung open to reveal the driver, whose face was mostly concealed by a cap and a thick scarf.

Teal leaned forward again to stare at him around Shaeine. “Did he just—”

Then the other driver raised a wand to point at them.

She couldn’t summon a full shield while constrained by the carriage, but Shaeine instantly lit up in silver with a protective corona that might or might not have stopped a wandshot at that range, prompting a yelp of protest from F’thaan. The surge of divine magic triggered a reaction from the device stuck to their carriage: the black stone immediately lit up with orange runes, but only for a fraction of a second before the entire thing exploded, shattering the window and causing Shaeine to jerk away toward teal with a muted outcry as her aura flickered out.

The carriage itself went silent and still as the surge of infernal power shorted out its enchantments.

“Shaeine!” Teal shouted, hurling herself across the front seat to shield the drow with her own body.

The driver of the other carriage leaned out his window slightly to fire the wand—fortunately not at them, but at an angle across the side of their vehicle, such that the lightning bolt smashed a burning scar along its lacquered paneling and destroyed the latch holding the rear door closed.

Immediately the other carriage’s rear door swung open and a second man leaned out. He moved with amazing speed, as if this motion had been drilled to perfection. Yanking the Falconer carriage’s broken door out of the way, he leaned in, seized F’thaan by one leg, and jerked backward.

The carriage spun forward into traffic in defiance of both the oncoming vehicles and the policeman directing them, ignoring both the officer’s piercing whistle and alarm bells being yanked by multiple other drivers. It accelerated around the corner, nearly skidding into a mailbox on the icy streets, and vanished out of view just as the rear door swung shut behind a still-yelping F’thaan.


“Can’t you shut that beast up?” Jasper shouted over the noise of the ongoing fight in the back seat.

“You just drive!” Rake shouted back as he struggled to fend off the infuriated demonic hound. The job had been meticulously planned and both of them, not just Rake, wore armored gloves and thick cloth padding under the sleeves of their winter coats, the better for handling a hostile dog. Jasper didn’t risk taking his eyes off the road, but to judge by the noises coming from behind him, Rake was having more difficulty than expected wrestling the hellhound into place. He’d brought a stun prod, but before it could be used he had to get the creature at least arm’s length away. Apparently the hound was fully determined to get its jaws around him.

Navigating around slower-moving vehicles in the slushy streets was hard enough without that going on. It seemed like every minute course correction sent the carriage into a slight skid; were he not such an experienced getaway driver he’d undoubtedly have wrapped them around a lamp post already. Still, that very nearly happened as the whole carriage lurched to one side, accompanied by a bellow from Rake as both bodies hit one door.

“Get it the fuck under control!” Jasper shouted.

“Concentrate on your job, asshole! Son of a bitch, mutt, you don’t settle down I’m gonna blow your—”

“Don’t you fuckin’ dare!” he snapped, eyes still on the road. “Dead things don’t breathe! No hellhound breath, no payday. Just break a couple of its legs if you can’t—”

It wasn’t that he failed to see the streak of fire plummeting from the sky, there simply was not enough time to react. The thing impacted the street with a force that smashed a crater in the very pavement. Yelling incoherently, Jasper did his best, avoiding the instinct to slam on brakes which on icy streets would have been fatal. He just didn’t have the space or time to go into a controlled skid around it, though, only managing to turn the carriage into a sideways slide so that struck the burning figure at an angle rather than head-on.

Good thing, too, as the person he ran over proved as immovable as a petrified oak. The entire carriage crumpled around her, one whole fender and front wheel obliterated by the impact and the windscreen reduced to a spider web of cracks. He was hurled forward and felt his ribs crack as they impacted the shipwheel. Had he struck her directly at that speed the thing probably would have been smashed right through him.

All Jasper could do was sit there, struggling to breathe against the agony. Not that he had much time even for that.

The creature reached forward, clawed hands punching through the windscreen as if it wasn’t there. One wrapped fully around his neck, and in the next moment he was yanked bodily out, through the remains of the windscreen and possibly the dashboard itself, to judge by how much it hurt. His vision swam and darkened as he very nearly blacked out from the pain, perceiving nothing but swirling colors and a roaring in his ears for an unknown span of seconds.

There was no telling how long it was or even if he ever fell fully unconscious, but the world swam back into focus, accompanied by pounding anguish from what felt like more of his body than otherwise. He heard screams, the frantic barking of the damn dog, running feet, alarm bells, and the distant but rapidly approaching shrill tone of a police whistle.

And right in front of him, a demon. She was a woman with hair of fire, eyes like burning portals into Hell itself, and blazing orange wings that arched menacingly overhead. In addition to Jasper, she now held Rake in a similar position, one set of murderous talons wrapped around each of their necks.

Dangling Jasper off to one side, she pulled the gasping Rake forward to stare at him from inches away, in a voice that sounded like the song of an entire choir despite its even, deadly calm.

“Excuse me. Did you just kick my dog?”

Rake had been clutching the hand holding him up, uselessly trying to pry it away. At that, he lost his grip and went limp, eyes rolling up into his head.

Jasper had lost his grip on his wand at some point, but he never went anywhere without at least two. The second was holstered at his side, fortuitously reachable by the arm that still worked. Despite the pain screaming from every part of him, he managed to claw it loose, trying to bring it up in a wavering grip.

The demon shifted her attention to him at the motion, just in time to find the tip of the wand pointed at her face.

Jasper tried to issue some kind of threat or warning, but found his voice muffled by the grip on his throat.

To his astonishment, the demon leaned forward, opening her mouth, and bit down on the end of the wand.

Instead of biting it off, though, she dropped the unconscious Rake, grabbed his wand hand with her now-freed talon, and mashed the clicker down.

Lighting blazed straight into her mouth, setting off a nimbus of static at that range which made his clothes and every hair on his body try to stand upright, not to mention sending painful arcs of electricity in every direction. It was the backlash of sheer heat burning his hand right through his heavy glove that made him choke out a strangled scream against the grip on his neck. It felt like his fingers were being burned right off.

Jasper didn’t get the courtesy of being dropped, unlike his partner. She simply tossed him away like an old rag; he flew most of the way across the street and hit the icy pavement with an audible crunch of something that felt important. This time, he definitely blacked out.


By the time the military police made it to the scene, Vadrieny had gathered F’thaan into her arms, stroking his fur and murmuring soothingly. He finally stopped barking when she picked him up, though he was whining and trembling violently. Checking him over as best she could, she found he didn’t appear to have broken limbs or any other serious injury, though of course at the first opportunity he’d get a much more careful inspection with Teal’s softer, clawless hands.

The cop who arrived was on foot, and in fact appeared to be the crossing guard from the last intersection. He had run the entire way, blowing non-stop on his whistle, and yet appeared barely out of breath, a testament to the fitness of the Imperial military police. He also had his wand out by the time he got here and skidded to a stop in a patch of loose salt, barely avoiding a fall, wide eyes taking in the scene.

Wrecked carriage, shattered pavement, two nearby bodies, and a flaming demon cuddling a horned dog in the middle of the street. She had a feeling this wasn’t covered in basic training.

“Don’t—you just… Put your hands where I can see them!” the officer barked, taking aim at her with the wand and quickly regaining his poise.

Vadrieny tucked the shivering hellhound against her body, wrapping one wing protectively around him and turning slightly to further put her pet out of the line of fire. She kept her head turned around to fix the officer with a stare, and slowly raised one eyebrow.

“…or?”

The man swallowed visibly.

Behind him, a carriage emerged from the mess of halted vehicles, actually driving up on the sidewalk to get around them. It was a late-model Falconer, with one side smashed and burned by wandfire, which explained only part of the difficulty it seemed to be having. The thing moved in awkward little surges at the direction of someone not familiar with how its throttle worked, veering drunkenly on the slick street, and actually went into a full skid when it tried to stop. Fortunately, it wasn’t going fast enough to do more than spin sideways before it ran out of momentum, still several yards from the soldier, who nonetheless sidestepped further away.

Shaeine emerged from the driver’s side, stepping forward toward the policeman with her hands raised disarmingly.

“Ma’am, get back!” he snapped.

“It’s all right, officer,” she said soothingly. “There is no danger, and everything is under control. I am extremely sorry for this disturbance, but I assure you, no one is being threatened here. All of this can be explained.”

His eyes shifted from her to Vadrieny and then back, incredulity plain on his face.

“The explanation,” she added ruefully, “might not be…short.”

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16 – 12

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The carriage eased smoothly up to the curb, a sleek and expensive model that would have looked entirely suitable for this wealthy neighborhood except for the Falconer Industries logo on its doors marking it a company vehicle. One of those doors swung open and Trissiny slid out, pausing the second her boots had met the pavement to point accusingly back into the rear seat.

“No! Sit.”

Behind her, F’thaan retreated, sitting down on the seat as instructed—with a whine of protest, but he did it.

“Good boy,” the paladin said with a smile, reaching in to scratch the demonic hound between his horns. He wasn’t quite full-grown, still possessing the lankiness and boundless energy of the puppy he’d been not long ago, but he had most of the height he would grow into, making it a very good thing that one of his owners was a strict disciplinarian.

“We’ll be back to pick you up at four,” Teal said from the driver’s seat as Trissiny finally stepped back, pushing the carriage door shut.

“Thanks again,” she replied cheerfully. “You two enjoy your day!”

“You, as well,” Shaeine said, favoring Trissiny with a rare smile of real warmth. Since their ritual at the Desolate Gardens, the drow had been generally more open with members of their group, but even still she was normally restrained in public.

Enchantments hummed back to full power as Teal guided the carriage forward and on up the street, and Trissiny turned to cross the short garden path with long strides, still smiling in anticipation.

The townhouse’s door opened exactly two seconds after her knock, revealing the familiar countenance of Glory’s Butler, who greeted her with a shallow bow and a small smile of genuine welcome. “Good morning, Ms. Avelea. It is a pleasure to see you again.”

“Hello again, Smythe,” she replied. “How’s everyone?”

“Quite well, as they will tell you at more length.” He stepped back, bowing and gesturing her gracefully forward. “Please, come in. And brace yourself.”

Trissiny had just stepped through the door and barely registered his warning before a whoop echoed off the marble and hardwood of the foyer and she was tackled from above.

But pure reflex she spun, gripping the person who’d just landed on her and tossing her in a flawless shoulder throw, which the acrobat negated by jackknifing her entire body around Trissiny’s and landing squarely on her back.

“Oof! Tallie, come on!”

“What is this?” Tallie demanded, clinging to Trissiny by wrapping her legs around her waist and grabbing two handfuls of her hair. “No, no, this won’t do it all! It looks wrong. Change it back immediately!”

“That’s its natural color, you goon. And don’t pull on it, what’s wrong with you?”

“It just isn’t right on you! You’re just so brunette, right to your core.”

“What does that even mean?”

“C’mon, let’s get you to a salon, my treat.”

“Oh, honestly, Tallie,” Layla sniffed, sauntering into the foyer from the nearby sitting room, “is there nothing you won’t nitpick? I quite like it, blondes are just so exotic. Hello, Trissiny!”

She stepped forward to wrap her arms around Trissiny in a hug, deftly slipping them in between Tallie’s grip.

“Hi, Layla,” Trissiny said resignedly, patting her back. “Good to see you, too. Is there some trick to getting her off?”

“Glory has had some luck with dog biscuits. Honestly, unless she starts gnawing your ears it’s simplest to just wait for her to get bored.”

“Wow, you just put on a show wherever you go, don’cha,” Darius drawled, leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed. That lasted for one second until Rasha, who had plenty of room to slip through the door, nonetheless bumped him out of position in passing.

“Which part of this do you think was my idea?” Trissiny demanded, spreading her arms wide I a helpless gesture accentuated by the two young women clinging to her. “What, nobody else wants to pile on, too?”

“Excuse me,” Darius said haughtily, “but some of us remember how to be ladylike.”

“It’s true, he’s an inspiration to us all,” Rasha added, grinning broadly. “Gods, it’s good to see you again! Or it will be, I guess, when I can see all of you. Don’t listen to the wench, I love your hair. The blonde goes a lot better with your complexion.”

“I’m surrounded by traitors,” Tallie exclaimed, currently trying to braid Trissiny’s hair while still clinging to her like a monkey. “Tasteless traitors!”

“You know, until this moment, I’ve honestly never in my life spared a thought for how my hair looks,” Trissiny huffed.

“That’ll be the Avenist upbringing,” Layla replied solemnly, having finally released her and stepped back. “Don’t you worry, we’ll fix that. Just wait till I teach you how to contour!”

“Hey, wait a second,” Tallie protested. “Why am I the wench?”

“We all ask ourselves that, Tallie,” said Darius.

Smythe cleared his throat discreetly. “Glory and the other guest await in the green parlor. If you would follow me?”

“Well, I’d sure like to,” Trissiny said pointedly. “Wait, other guest?”

“Sorry to steal your thunder, Triss,” said Rasha. “This one was unexpected. Well, to us, anyway. I’m never sure how much Glory knows in advance.”

“And Glory likes it that way,” Layla added.

“Miss Tallie,” Smythe said diffidently, “I’m sure you don’t want another lecture about using the floor like everyone else.”

“This comes up a lot, does it,” said Trissiny.

“It’s usually about her clambering around on the ceiling,” Darius explained.

“I am unappreciated in my time,” groused Tallie, finally hopping down. “One day you’ll all be sorry!”

“Every day, hon,” Rasha assured her.

Trissiny found herself chuckling as they filed through the door into the parlor, herself in the middle of the line with Smythe bringing up the rear. “I’ve really missed you guys.”

In the green parlor, Glory was ensconced gracefully in the thronelike armchair with the high back, positioned before the windows and between two small potted fig trees, a bit of carefully arranged theater which was all part of her skill at controlling the room. True to form, she did not rise—no one who occupied an actual throne did so to greet a visitor—but leaned forward slightly with a smile of such warmth that her welcome was unmistakable.

“Thorn! It’s a delight to see you again; we’ve all been so looking forward to your visit. And your hair! That color is so fetching on you. Or I gather it was, before that unfortunate attempt at a braid. Tallie’s work?”

“Am I gonna have to take offense here?” Tallie demanded.

“Take two,” said Rasha, “and check back with us if the swelling doesn’t subside.”

“Thank you for inviting me, Glory,” Trissiny said, reaching up and grimacing as she tried to pull the braid loose with her fingers. “It’s good to see you, too! And also…” She turned toward the other person in the room, raising her eyebrows.

“There she is!” Sweet said brightly, waving in welcome with the hand not occupied with a small plate of butter cookies. “It has been a hound’s age, Thorn! Always a relief to see you haven’t been murdered yet.”

“Give it a week, it’s the holidays. All my enemies are on vacation. I didn’t realize you missed me this much, Sweet.”

“Alas,” he declaimed, “my normal roguish charm and Glory’s excellent cookies may give the wrong impression! But no, I’m afraid this is not a social call. For I am Sweet, crasher of parties and rainer upon parades!”

“Tooter of his own horn, yes, we’re all familiar with your resume. What can I do for you?”

“Why don’t we all make ourselves comfortable if we’re going to talk business?” Glory suggested in that skillful manner of hers which had the force of a command despite being light and gentle in tone. “I’ll not have a guest in my home pestered when she’s not even had something warm to take the chill off.”

Smythe was smooth to the point of being ephemeral, breezing through their formation like a hospitable ghost with such efficiency that by the time all five of them found their way into seats, each was carrying a plate of cookies and a cup of spiced tea.

“For serious, though, I am sorry to butt in on this,” Sweet said in a less playful tone, nodding to Trissiny and then Glory. “I know this is the big reunion and all, and I hate to make you talk business the second you’re in the door. Unfortunately, my job is about six times as difficult without the structure of the Church bureaucracy to help me along, and I’ve gotta grab what I can get.”

“What’s going on with that, by the way?” Trissiny asked. “I know why there’s still not an Avenist Bishop; Justinian’s dragging his heels on confirming any candidates. How long is the Guild planning to boycott the Church?”

“Oh, man, that’s a big question,” he said, grimacing. “Unfortunately, it’s basically a siege at this point. Tricks was hoping the embarrassment of having a member cult deliberately cut ties—which is unprecedented since the Enchanter Wars—would push Justinian into making some concessions, but he stood his ground, and now that the shock’s good and worn off, he is in exactly the same position he was before, but we can’t change course without so completely losing face that he’d have the permanent upper hand in every subsequent negotiation.”

“The other outcome we hoped for has also not materialized, despite Sweet’s efforts,” Glory added, nodding to the Bishop. “None of the other cults have seen fit to join us and the Avenists in solidarity.”

“Not that we don’t have sympathy,” said Sweet, “or even allies, but… Well, of the other cults that are skeptical of Justinian and inclined to agree with us, it’s not enough for them to want to disadvantage themselves, especially after they’ve seen how the Guild has been frozen out. In the last few months, Gwenfaer has taken to deliberately interfering with Justinian’s plans to the point he has personally called Bishop Raskin down on the carpet, but even so, Raskin remains at his post. I can relate; there’s a lot of advantage in maintaining access. That’s exactly why I stuck by his side for as long as I did. This was a risky maneuver, which…didn’t exactly work out for us.”

“There is also the case of the Izarites,” said Glory, pursing her lips in disapproval. “The Brethren have grown downright cold toward the Church, but Bishop Snowe herself is deep in Justinian’s pocket. At this point, it’s more likely that High Priestess Delaine will dismiss her from her position entirely than direct her to withdraw from the Cathedral. And she is reluctant to do even that, both to avoid the disadvantages the Guild and Sisterhood currently suffer, and because Izarites are traditionally very hands-off with their Bishop.”

“So what I’m hearing is the Pantheon cults are mostly a bunch of spineless chickenshits, that about right?” Tallie inquired.

“Some of ‘em,” Sweet said with clear amusement. “Some just have no care for politics, and many of those that do espouse the practice of keeping one’s enemies close.”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “What a mess. I can’t help feeling some of this is my fault.”

“The Sisterhood’s situation, maybe,” Sweet said frankly. “But you did the right thing. After what we learned, there was just no ethical way to leave Basra where she was. In hindsight I am not proud of the years I spent making use of her, even given all the hints of what a warped piece of work she could be.”

“Well,” Trissiny said with a small grin, “use is one thing. In Ninkabi I did convince her to give me a hand.”

Darius choked on his tea.

“Yes, that must’ve been embarrassing for her,” Sweet said solemnly. “To have victory within her grasp, and then…”

“I guess her grip on the situation wasn’t as firm as she thought.”

“Y’might say you beat her to the punch!”

“Really, you two,” Glory said disapprovingly.

“Uh, what am I missing, here?” Tallie asked, glancing back and forth between them in confusion. Rasha leaned over and whispered in her ear; in the next moment she burst out laughing so hard Layla preemptively confiscated her teacup before it could spill.

“Well, anyway,” Trissiny said, suppressing her smile, “I gather all this wasn’t what you wanted to talk about.”

“No indeed,” said Sweet, leaning forward to set his cup down on the low table before his chair. “So, Underboss Pizazz informs me that you’re staying with Duchess Madouri over the break.”

“Yes, that’s so,” she said warily. “Is that…a problem?”

“Oh, not at all,” Sweet reassured her. “You’re not in any trouble, don’t worry. But Tricks and Pizazz are both curious about some points, and you being here is a handy opportunity for me to get a few questions answered, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, I don’t see why I would,” Trissiny said, shrugging. “I’m under no obligation to keep Ravana’s secrets. Actually, I don’t think I know any of her secrets.”

“Wait, hang on,” Darius interjected, “I need to clear something up, here. Am I to understand that the Underboss of Madouris is called Pizazz?”

“A thief’s tag is a sacrament, apprentice,” Glory said coolly. “One attached to someone who knows multiple ways to kick your ass. Aside from proper decorum, you should consider whether someone who got to be a city Underboss with a moniker that makes people laugh is worth offending.”

“Noted,” he mumbled.

“The Guild’s leadership in general is quite curious about the Duchess,” Sweet continued, “being that she is a newer face in the political scene and already notably unpredictable, and especially due to her being far more willing to work with us than practically any sitting noble.”

“Really?” Layla asked, visibly intrigued. “The Duchess Madouri cooperates with the Guild? Who initiated that?”

“She did, in fact,” said Sweet. “After she took over the province, her first act was to start dismantling her father’s old network of corrupt cronies who were running it into the ground. A good thing to do, of course; equally of course, the network of corrupt cronies didn’t care to get dismantled. The Duchess found that deploying law enforcement was a lot slower, pricier, and less certain than informing the Guild in detail of what these bastards had been doing and how to reach them, and then making sure that neither the courts nor the papers took an interest in anything that followed.”

“Damn,” Darius muttered. “Sounds…actually like a pretty good ally.”

Trissiny made a face. “Ehhh…”

“And that is Tricks’s position exactly,” Darling stated, pointing at her and nodding. “That girl is…well, she’s a case, all right. We’re very interested in gaining some insight into her. She sensibly keeps everyone at arm’s length, but every hint that emerges points to a pretty spooky individual who is very good at maintaining a positive public reputation. You can see why we’re anxious to get a perspective from someone who knows her personally, good ally or no.”

“I think Ravana is…useful,” Trissiny said slowly. “Cooperating with her up to a point could be very beneficial indeed, but I wouldn’t recommend trusting her outright. You should be wary of what she might do. Which, I suppose, is exactly what the Boss and Pizazz have been doing. Guess that doesn’t add much, does it?”

“Well, you’re the one on a first name basis with her,” Sweet said, giving her an encouraging nod. “Any deeper insight to offer?”

Trissiny frowned at the window for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “This may not make much sense, but… Well, I actually had a fairly deep conversation with Ravana just last night, and the impression I was left with was that I’d probably consider her an absolute monster if I hadn’t seen glimpses of the little girl who grew up alone and unloved.”

“No contradiction there at all,” he said immediately. “That is exactly how monsters get made.” Glory nodded in silent agreement.

“She’s got this peculiar philosophy she’s developed,” Trissiny continued, “about how being a just and generous ruler is purely the act of a far-thinking pragmatist, with no room for sentiment. Honestly, I think Ravana truly wants to be a good person and do the right thing, but has to try to rationalize decent actions to herself to fit with her self-image as a ruthless tyrant, because she’s got it into her head that kindness is for fools and suckers.”

“Oh, come on,” Tallie scoffed, “nobody could be that twisted in the brain and function.”

“Well, don’t take my word for it,” Trissiny said dryly, “let’s check with the actual nobles in the room.”

Darius and Layla were both already nodding.

“Oh, I could absolutely see an aristocrat ending up that way,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have never seen that specific mindset in person, but it really isn’t hard to imagine someone working themselves around to that perspective.”

“You have to understand what it is like, growing up with all that privilege, all those expectations and luxury and power,” Layla said more pensively. “You have to find a way to justify it, and as you get old enough to see what the world and other people are like, that grows progressively harder. Stupid individuals, of course, go through life never questioning anything, but those with an ounce of wit? Well, one of two things happens: they either double down on their self-obsession, or have to reach some kind of…accommodation. Some run away from it, like Darius and I; others build up a mental framework for their world that makes it seem fair and right that they enjoy their position, and then naturally get violent when that cage is shaken. People assume nobles are just arrogant and greedy—and make no mistake, they are—but the truth is that unless they reject their positions, they have to find a way to feel right, and justified. Otherwise their entire world doesn’t make sense anymore. And anyone will fight like a cornered animal if you try to take away their comfortable understanding of reality.”

“All that sounds like a lot of reasons why I should feel pity for the poor little rich kids,” Tallie said, her voice dripping skepticism.

“Layla makes a very good point, in fact,” Glory said softly. “I have observed that very pattern during my long association with the various rich and powerful of Tiraas. Empathy, Tallie, is a potent weapon you should never hastily discard. Only when you understand someone’s mind and can feel their heart can you truly destroy them.”

Rasha nodded thoughtfully.

“This is actually pretty helpful,” Sweet mused. “Maybe not in the most immediately strategic sense, but knowing the shape of the girl’s mindset helps me get a feel for where we stand. I did notice she backed off on pushing that narrative about you three paladins being the new heroes of the people not long into the new academic semester, Thorn. Your doing?”

“Oh, you’d better believe we all leaned on her about that,” Trissiny said, grimacing.

“Huh,” Darius grunted. “Reading those papers, I thought you were in cahoots with her about it.”

“Everyone did,” Rasha said softly. “That, obviously, is why she did it.”

“Overall, I’m getting the impression you’re not overly fond of her,” said Sweet, watching Trissiny closely.

“In a personal sense? Honestly, no.”

“Hm. If you don’t mind my asking, why agree to spend the holidays with her, then?”

“She’s been pushing for it pretty much all semester,” she said, frowning ruminatively. “Most of us have other things we usually do during breaks, but Ravana was really set on having the whole group together off-campus. Ultimately, everybody had their own reasons for agreeing. I was…well, curious. All the nobles I know are either Last Rock fringe cases, deliberate self-exiles like Layla and Darius, or absolute vicious deviants who live permanently up their own butts, like that arrogant naga Irina Araadia. It’s like Glory said: you can’t really fight someone unless you understand them. Looking at the world now, I’m getting the impression I am going to end up butting heads with as many entrenched politicians as warlocks and necromancers and whatnot. Ravana is a convenient opportunity to observe the species up close.”

“The species,” Layla sniffed. “Very nice.”

“Accurate, though,” Darius said, grinning.

“Ah, so this is a learning opportunity for you, as well,” Sweet chuckled.

“A very wise approach,” Glory said approvingly.

“Overall,” Trissiny went on, “nothing I’ve seen makes me think Ravana is going to be a threat to the Guild’s interests. She has nothing like an Eserite mindset, but I think that in general she’ll be inclined to do what’s best for the people of her province, even if her reasons are a bit squirrelly. But I’d caution the Boss and Pizazz never to take that for granted. I don’t think the woman actually has any moral scruples; she actively disdains the idea of them. If she decides something is in the best interests of her duty, well, no moral consideration is going to make her even hesitate. But she does take that duty seriously.”

“All very good to know,” Sweet said, nodding. “Thanks for dishing with me, Thorn, that kind of insight is well worth me coming down here. Pizazz will be glad to hear your thoughts, too. But anyway!” he said, slapping his knee and leaning back, “with that out of the way, I understand there’s another interfaith matter closer to home everybody wanted to bring up with you. Rasha?”

“Rasha?” Trissiny turned to her, raising her eyebrows.

Rasha sighed softly. “Yes, well. I assume you’re familiar with the Purists?”

“Purists?” The paladin’s eyebrows rose further. “Wait, with a capital P? Did you have a brush with one of those ninnies? I am so sorry, Rasha. Quite honestly, nobody has much patience for them. If you just passed their name and location to Grip and let nature take its course, I don’t think anyone in the Sisterhood would even complain.”

A tense silence fell over the room. Trissiny looked at each of them in turn, then sighed grimaced and leaned forward to set down her cup and saucer on the table.

“All right, sounds like I’d better hear the long version. Who do I need to clobber this time?”

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16 – 5

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“And this is the Sanhevid Suite, where you’ll be staying,” Ravana announced, coming to a stop in the center of the wide common area, planting herself beside a marble statue of a hooded woman wielding a bow and gazing sternly at some distant horizon. “Doors to either side of the hearth behind me lead to the residential area, where there are more than enough bedrooms for everyone. Beyond that, both halls open onto a small library with attached reading room and office. To the left, here, beyond the colonnade, is a solarium opening onto a private courtyard, with the dining hall adjacent. Kitchen, laundry, and servant’s quarters are in the basement; someone will be on staff at all hours, and the enchanted bell in each bedroom activates a signal in the kitchen, so do not hesitate to summon someone for anything you need, at any time. I do hope you’ll be adequately comfortable.”

“Wow,” Gabriel said simply, looking wide-eyed around the great hall of the Sanhevid Suite, which apparently counted for a small mansion in its own right. It was a two-story affair, with windows on the second floor admitting sunlight to complement the fairy lamps attached to each of the marble pillars. The place was laid out very much like a Shaathist lodge, a long area strewn with furniture extending from huge doors on one end to an enormous hearth on the other, though the décor ran toward marble, velvet, and gilt-framed paintings rather than hunting trophies.

“Adequately?” Toby added, grinning. “Ravana, this is… Well, it’s nicer than most of the places Tellwyrn’s made us stay on trips.”

“Most?” Gabriel gave him an incredulous look. “This is nicer than anyplace we’ve stayed. By orders of magnitude.”

“Um, ex-fuckin’-cuse me,” Ruda retorted, “but I distinctly recall putting you ingrates up at my house on one of those trips.”

Gabriel smiled sweetly at her. “I know what I said.”

“Arquin, how long’s it been since I fucking stabbed you?”

“Let us remember that we are guests here,” Shaeine interjected smoothly, “and refrain from getting hethelax blood on any of the furnishings. According to Professor Rafe, it is rather acidic.”

“It’s fine, there’s a courtyard,” Gabriel assured her. “Honestly, Ravana, I’m just a kid from the wrong side of Tiraas. I think I’m gonna be afraid to touch anything in here.”

“Ah, I take your point,” she mused, nodding. “Hm… How about this?”

Ravana stepped over to the nearest column, where a frosted glass vase full of out-of-season tulips rested atop a decorative plinth at its base. Picking up the delicate vessel in one hand, she regarded it critically for a moment, then turned and hurled it across the room.

It was a good throw; the crystal unerringly struck another marble column, where of course it shattered, strewing flowers, water, and glass fragments across a wide area. Everyone stared at it in disbelief, then turned those looks on Ravana herself, who had immediately folded her hands demurely at her waist, looking self-satisfied.

“I know that to some of you, servants are in and of themselves an unseemly indulgence,” she said lightly, “but do keep in mind that everyone working in this manor is paid from the House treasury, as I have reduced taxes to ease the burden on local business my father created. Any materials used in cleaning or repair are purchased nearby. I do ask that you please refrain from burning the place down, but short of that? The worst thing you can possibly do is contribute to the local economy. Keep that in mind, Gabriel, and please don’t hesitate to make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can.”

“You have a striking way of making a point,” Trissiny observed.

Ravana’s smile increased fractionally, and she inclined her head. “I have learned from the best.”

“Are we…still in the same house?” Juniper asked hesitantly, pulling her head out of the doorway to the solarium she’d circumspectly been investigating while everyone talked, Sniff silently at her heels as always. “It sounds like this ‘suite’ is bigger than most people’s houses.”

“Ah, yes, hence my uncertainty,” said Ravana. “This would ordinarily be used as guest quarters for visiting nobility and their own households. I believe its size is adequate to your group, but it is not in keeping with formal etiquette to house disparate individuals here. All things considered, and given that placing you each in separate rooms of a quality suitable to your stature would have made it logistically difficult for you all to find one another, I took the risk of presuming you would not be overly concerned with the formalities. If I have erred, I humbly apologize, and of course can make any alternate arrangement of your choosing. There are abundant private rooms, of course, or I can set you up as a group in one of the outlying guest houses. Or, if you prefer a familiar touch of whimsy, a suite of tavern rooms on the grounds.”

“Your first instinct was correct, Ravana,” Teal assured her with a faint smile. During the last year, she had either gotten over her antipathy toward the Duchess or learned to conceal it, and now appeared quite at ease in Madouri Manor. “This is more than comfortable enough, and we wouldn’t dream of putting you to any more trouble. Right, everyone?”

“Indubitably!” Fross chimed, swooping back into the room. “Guys, you have got to see that library! There’s a complete edition of the Encyclopedia Viridici!”

“Isn’t that one notoriously unreliable?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes, because it hasn’t been printed in six hundred years! It’s not even in intelligible modern Tanglish!”

“Hold on, back up,” Gabriel requested, still blinking at Ravana. “Did you say you have a tavern…in your house?”

“Three, on the grounds,” she said placidly. “Madouri Manor as it stands today was the original fortified city of Madouris. As the Lower City spread beyond its walls, the larger structures around the citadel became the residences of lower nobility. Then the Outer City rose around the second ring of walls, and gradually my ancestors encouraged the other families to gentrify the Lower City, eventually leaving these grounds for House Madouri and the city and provincial government alone.” She paused, grimacing prettily. “Unfortunately, my more recent ancestors pushed even those out, leaving the Manor as the largest private residence in the world, a testament to excess that even a Sheng Emperor would have thought a bit much. I have been migrating government offices back into the grounds; you would not believe how hobbled the local bureaucracy has been, simply due to being scattered across the city. Of course, you have the run of the Manor; you will be able to tell what structures serve official purpose. It should not be hard to avoid getting in anyone’s way. Feel free to patronize the taverns, if you like. I am quite serious about encouraging you to take advantage of any available amenities, everyone. It is the least I can do, as I fear I shall perforce be a somewhat negligent hostess.”

“This is your idea of negligent?” Ruda snorted, flopping down on a gilt-armed sofa. “Damn, girl. I’m scared to see what it looks like when you get generous. Be honest, you ever drowned somebody in champagne?”

“Oh, it’s not the accommodations,” Ravana said, smiling. “Those I can provide. It’s just that this is necessarily a working vacation for me. While attending school, my ability to manage the province is hampered by distance, even in this modern age of telescrolls and Rails. I must make full use of the time I have at home to attend to as many affairs as can be squeezed in. Rest assured, I shall make every effort to attend to you, but it won’t be as much as I’d like, so the least I can do is provide ample comfort and entertainment during your stay.”

“I see,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Well, we don’t want to get in your way, then…”

“You are anything but in my way,” Ravana said firmly. “I have been quite looking forward to showing you all around my city. Scorn and the other girls from the Wells will be arriving by tonight, and I mean to have a proper welcome banquet with everyone. Indeed, I find myself eager to consult the political minds among you on the newest issue with the elves.”

“Do understand that neither Teal nor I can render comment in any official capacity,” Shaeine began.

“Please.” Ravana held up one hand, still smiling. “You are my guest, Shaeine, I will not have you put on the spot or otherwise discomfited. If you’d like to chat about it, I would obviously love to hear your take. If not, that is the end of it. It’s very important to me to maintain personal connections beyond the political. Bad enough I can’t publicly associate with Sekandar anymore, I’ll not have any tension raised between Houses Madouri and Awarrion.”

“Wait, what happened with Sekandar?” Gabriel asked. “I thought you two got along well.”

“Oh, we do, but unfortunately his mother is…out of sorts with me. Being a well-bred Calderaan boy, Prince Sekandar obviously cannot gainsay her in public, so our conversations at school have been somewhat abridged in the last few months. It’s dreadfully tedious, but such are politics.”

“Ravana,” Teal asked in the chiding tone of a teacher interrogating a child over a broken vase—while, herself, standing practically in the shards of a broken vase— “what did you do to the Sultana?”

Ravana shrugged daintily. “I have simply been a good neighbor to the people of Last Rock while enjoying their hospitality. I furnished several small business loans to residents, after the fashion I have found so productive here in Madouris. Sadly, her Excellency has chosen to take this as a territorial infraction. I do say she is overreacting somewhat.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. “You, the sitting governor of another province and rival Great House, began an economic program obviously modeled on the means you used to secure your influence in Madouris, in a fringe territory over which the Sultana has nominal but little real control, probably causing her to lose face in front of the other Houses of Calderaas, who at their most congenial are a pit of underfed alligators. And you’re surprised she was miffed?”

“I said that her Excellency overreacted,” Ravana replied, lifting her nose, “not that she was entirely without a point.”

“Yeah, I’d get on top of fixing that if I were you,” Gabriel suggested. “Sekandar’s a swell guy and all, but if Princess Yasmeen is anything to go by you do not want the Aldarasi women on your case. I think even you may not be rich enough to shrug that off, Ravana.”

“Mildly sexist,” Trissiny stated, giving him a pointed look, “but regrettably apt.”

He bowed grandly to her.

Ravana herself drew in a breath, causing her thin shoulders to rise, then let it out slowly, sweeping a languid and incongruously warm smile around the group. “Now, this is exactly why I was so grateful you all agreed to visit me over the holidays. I am surrounded by legions of yes-men at home; nobody outside of school dares talk back to me. It’s no wonder my father entirely lost his sense of proportion.”

The front door of the Sanhevid Suite clicked discreetly shut, and the group shifted to look that way as Ravana’s Butler came gliding swiftly across the floor toward them.

“Your pardon, my Lady,” Yancey said, bowing to her. “The contacts in N’Jendo with whom you were corresponding concerning the Harpy affair have arrived.”

Poised as always, Ravana betrayed her incredulity only by a momentary pause, and the most infinitesimal lift of one eyebrow, before replying. “How?”

“It appears a telescroll signaling their acquiescence to your last suggestion arrived while you were welcoming our guests, my Lady. Veilwin intercepted and read it, and took it upon herself to teleport to Jennidira to retrieve them. I have made them comfortable in the Azure Parlor.”

Butler training was truly a rival for a noble upbringing in terms of facial control; Yancey managed to convey his withering disapproval of this Veilwin’s presumption without altering his expression a hair beyond the strictly polite.

“I see,” Ravana said, pausing to press her lips into a thin line. “Well. Speak of the Dark Lady. Or…can we even say that anymore?”

“I think I’d rather we did,” said Trissiny. “Elilial is neither dead nor neutered, and undoubtedly is already at work encouraging the world to forget what a monster she has always been. Let’s not oblige her.”

“Duly noted,” Ravana agreed, nodding to her. “Well! It seems it has begun. I am terribly sorry to abandon you all so abruptly, but this matter won’t wait. I shall do my utmost to join you and the others for dinner; this should not occupy me beyond the afternoon. In the meantime, Yancey will see to all your needs.”

“Hey, don’t you worry about us,” Ruda said lazily from the sofa, on which she was sprawled lopsidedly with one leg thrown over its arm. “Go on, be the boss lady. See ya at dinner.”

“And thank you again for having us,” Toby added.

“The pleasure is entirely mine,” Ravana assured them, inclining her head deeply. “Do excuse me, then.”

She turned and glided out, Yancey on her heels. The Butler held the suite’s door for her with a bow, then slipped out behind the Duchess and pulled it shut after them.

“So, uh…” Fross darted over to swoop across the mess of the shattered vase. “Should we…call somebody about this? Cos I could probably clean it up pretty easily but I’m not sure if that’s, like, rude to the servants or what.”

“Hmm.” On the other side of the chamber, Gabriel ambled toward a matching vase and reached for it.

“No, Gabriel!” Trissiny shouted, charging to intercept him.

Teal slipped an arm around Shaeine’s waist; F’thaan, already tired from the day’s journey, was draped asleep across the drow’s feet. “And to think I was afraid we’d have a dull holiday.”


In any other house, the Azure Parlor would have been considered a ballroom. A relatively small and intimate one, suitable for parties of no more than two dozen, but still. The majority of its floorspace was taken up by a sunken area reached by steps down from the carpeted main floor, where the dancing surface itself was a mosaic depicting a cloudy sky. Its matching domed ceiling was a far more intricate fresco of a blue dragon, painted nearly to scale and coiling in on himself as though twisting about in midair in a pose that just barely crammed his entire sinuous length into the available space.

Ravana’s new guests had remained on the upper portion, where seats and refreshment tables were distributed. They had been generously served; on one of the tables were laid out trays of tea, hot mulled cider, and warm pies of both meat and fruit in portions that would have provided a full meal for more than the three of them. The woman in the group was sipping a mug of cider, but other than that the refreshments appeared untouched. Still wearing their fur-lined winter cloaks, all three were standing, and staring upward at the ceiling fresco.

Veilwin was slouched in an armchair off to one side in a posture that clashed with her elegant brocaded dress, munching on a slice of cherry pie.

“Zyndirax the Blue was an off-again, on-again paramour of Duchess Tamira Madouri,” Ravana said, gliding into the room. “I suspect the scandal was the sole cause of her interest in him; she did love to ruffle people’s feathers. Welcome to Madouri Manor, Brother Ingvar and guests! I most humbly apologize for keeping you waiting. The truth is that I was not expecting you to visit me so soon.”

She shot a sidelong look at her Court Wizard, who snorted (spraying crumbs in the process) and pointed a forkful of pie at her.

“You said you were on a tight schedule for the next two weeks,” the elf said accusingly. “Made a whole production of it, big speech and everything. Remember? We’re all to chip in an’ try to smooth things along. Well, I cut off some corners and saved you some time. You’re welcome.”

Veilwin was the only elf Ravana had ever seen with dark circles around her eyes, and they had never diminished in the time she’d known her. As usual, her gown was of expensive silk brocade, and free of any tear, stain, or wrinkle due to the considerable enchantments laid upon it, which contrasted starkly with the mussed state of her blonde hair. Now, she also had crumbs all over half her face, which somehow suited her.

“I assure you, we are not put out,” Ingvar interjected, striding forward with a warm smile. “It’s a great pleasure to see you again, your Grace. Especially conscious.”

“Ah, ah,” Veilwin chided with her mouth full, wagging the now-empty fork. “It’s ‘my Lady.’ The Duchess is trying to retire the ol’ Grace thing, says it’s old-fashioned. She’s a modern girl, is Ravana.”

“Veilwin,” the Duchess said with a too-wide smile, “do you recall our discussion about you speaking in front of guests?”

Veilwin grunted and tucked silently back into her pie.

“Yes, I understand this is not the first time we have met,” Ravana said, accepting Ingvar’s outstretched hand and inclining her head in response to his bow. “As those events were relayed to me, I owe you my life.”

“I did little…my Lady,” he demurred. “Anyone would have carried an unconscious woman out of a battlefield.”

“I assure you, it was not a small thing to me. A Madouri pays her debts.”

“I would consider it a grave dishonor to claim a debt over something so morally obligatory, my Lady,” Ingvar said gravely, then smiled again. “But perhaps it can be a starting point for a positive relationship.”

“Well said,” she agreed, smiling back. “Now, I see you have met my Court Wizard. I also apologize for whatever Veilwin said and/or did before I was able to intervene.”

Behind her, Veilwin snorted again.

“I have no complaints, my Lady,” Ingvar said tactfully. “We hunters have straightforward manners ourselves. Allow me to introduce my friends, Dantu and Dimbi.”

They nodded in turn, clearly uncertain of the formalities involved in meeting a Duchess; Ravana inclined her head politely to each of them in response, allowing her amusement to tinge her smile. Dimbi was a young woman, Dantu a surprisingly old man, and both were Westerners, probably locals from the area around Ninkabi where Ingvar and his followers had been roaming in the months since the battle. Though Dimbi was visibly uncomfortable in these opulent surroundings, the white-haired Dantu seemed quite at ease, and even intrigued by everything he saw.

“A pleasure,” she said. “And on the subject of beginning a positive relationship, there is the matter concerning which I reached out to you.”

“Yes, indeed,” Ingvar said, his expression sobering. “I confess, Lady Madouri, I was surprised to learn you had involved yourself in this at all. I mean no offense by that, of course. You have been extremely generous, and I thank you for what you’ve done.”

“But you are uncertain about my motives?” she prompted, then smiled gently. “Please, Brother Ingvar, don’t worry, no offense is taken. We are what we are: myself a scheming noble, and you too intelligent not to know a scheming noble when you meet one. I would never be so churlish as to be affronted by a person possessing basic common sense. We have time to delve into my reasons for stepping in; for now, I suspect you must be very eager to meet the Harpies. I know they will be very glad indeed to finally meet you.”

“That is certainly true,” he agreed. “Are they here, then?”

“Not in the city, no; it didn’t seem the wisest place to house them. Rest assured, I have made sure to provide for their safety and comfort. I’ll take you to them now, if you’re amenable.”

“Very much so,” he said, allowing the eagerness to touch his voice.

Ravana smiled again, then half-turned. “Veilwin, take us to the lodge, if you please.”

The sorceress sighed through her nose and swallowed a bite of pastry. “I am almost finished with my pie.”

“You are finished with it,” Ravana corrected. “You may order anything you want from the kitchens later. It’s not as if I don’t feed you. It’s time to work.”

“Ugh.” With ill grace, Veilwin tossed her plate down onto the table and the fork after it, then stood, absently brushing crumbs off her face. “Fine, if you’re in such a damned hurry.”

She strode toward the group, raising one hand as she went, and blue light began to flicker within her eyes. Matching sparks snapped in the air around them, accompanied by a faint whine of gathering arcane energy.

“Uh, hang on now,” Dimbi said nervously, “is she really—”

Veilwin snapped her fingers, the arcane light flashed, and the five of them vanished.


The distant sounds of birds calling from the nearby rainforest were barely audible over the murmur of breeze and the waves. It was a gorgeous day, cloudless and just cool enough that the unimpeded sun did not feel too hot. Such weather was rare, as this was usually the rainy season; it likely wouldn’t last more than an hour or two. From her chosen lounge chair on the beach, she had a view of the wide central bay of the Tidestrider archipelago, with the forest-clad peaks of mountainous islands rising all around the horizon. During the summer months, the lodge she was renting would have housed several groups of the vacationing wealthy, but now the winter chill assured her solitude. The first peace and quiet she’d had in months.

The lounge chairs were arranged in pairs, with low wooden tables between them; she had piled hers with books. Mostly novels, though the volume currently open in her hands was a treatise on bardic archetypes printed in Glassian. Tellwyrn’s eyes had stopped tracking back and forth across the page for the last few minutes; she just held the book up almost like a shield, scowling at it and listening to the crunch of footsteps in the sand steadily encroaching upon her privacy.

“I just can’t get over how warm it is,” Eleanora Sultana Tirasian marveled aloud, setting a tray bearing a pitcher and two glasses on the table next to the book pile and folding herself gracefully into the second lounge chair. “Isn’t this place at more or less the same latitude as Ninkabi?”

“Ocean currents,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “Tropical water comes straight down the west coast from the equator. You’re from Onkawa, there’s no way you don’t know that. You also had to be aware I noted your battlemages porting in all around. This had better be pretty damn good, Eleanora. I am on vacation.”

She finally looked over at her, then raised her eyes in surprise. Tellwyrn was wearing a loosely-fitted kimono, but the Empress of Tiraas, she now observed, had clad herself in a skimpy traditional Tidestrider garment—traditional, at least, in the warmer latitudes to the north—which showed off far more of her dark skin than she ever did in public.

“Yes, Arachne, I know,” Eleanora said with a smug smile. “Terrible vengeance if I disturb it, and so on, and so forth.”

“Do you know how much time off I get a year?”

“Of course I do, the academic year is common knowledge. Do you know how much time off I get a year? None, Arachne. The answer is zero.”

“Oh, yes, your life is so very dreary,” Tellwyrn sneered. “In your extravagant palace, where you spend each night in the arms of a different beauty gathered from across the Empire. My heart bleeds.”

“I only have three regular mistresses at the moment,” the Empress said lightly, pouring tropical punch into both glasses. “Sharidan keeps only four. You know, it’s surprisingly difficult to collect them, even with the resources at our disposal. Women beautiful enough to catch my eye, but also with enough intellect and character to be worth talking to…well, they tend to get jealous and competitive with one another, which we obviously can’t have. There just aren’t that many candidates who meet all the right criteria. A life of power is such a lonely one…”

“You do realize that you being Empress is the only reason you don’t get punched more often, right?”

“Obviously. So, have you heard about the elves?”

“No, and fuck ‘em. Nobody likes elves. Stuck-up pricks.”

Eleanora chuckled. “They’ve announced a unified government. A permanent alliance of Tar’naris, every forest tribe on the continent, twenty-nine participating plains tribes, and Qestraceel.”

“Bullshit,” Tellwyrn snorted. “The drow have been sending out feelers for, what, a year? Two? It’ll take ‘em a century to get even a quarter of that roster off their asses.”

“Yes, that is more or less everyone’s analysis. And yet, they’ve gone and done it. You can imagine the shockwaves this has created.”

“Is this you trying to make small talk due to being unable to discuss anything except politics, or are you actually going to try to convince me to cut short my vacation? Answer carefully, Eleanora.”

“Yes.” The Empress held out one of the glasses to her, smiling slyly. “You know, Quentin suspects you are a high elf.”

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh, and finally slapped her book down on the table, but made no move to accept the drink. She just glared mulishly at the Empress.

“I don’t get to take vacations,” Eleanora repeated, the levity fading from her expression. “And I most especially can’t now, Arachne, not with this crisis unfolding. So consider my position. I do need your help, which means disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. I don’t have the power to compel you, and persuading you means not disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. You see my dilemma?”

“So,” Tellwyrn drawled, “you are going to crash my vacation, because buttering me up is your only viable option, and thus you get to finagle a beach vacation for yourself out of a political disaster. I am, grudgingly, quite impressed.”

“How often do you think doing my duty to the Empire will require me to loaf about in a resort with the single most interesting woman I’ve ever taken to bed?” Eleanora rejoined, the self-satisfied smirk returning to her face. “I can hardly afford to pass up this chance, you see.”

“And what if I just decide to tell you everything I know about the high elves right away? That’s what you’re fishing for, right? I know you don’t think I’m in good with any of the other kinds.”

“Well,” the Empress mused, “I suppose that would be the absolutely ideal outcome for me. And I confess, if you pick this of all moments to be agreeable and compliant for once in your life I will be rather pissed off.”

The elf finally accepted the outstretched glass. “I’m not a high elf, Eleanora. At least, not that I know of. I went to Qestraceel to find out. It didn’t go well.”

“I see. Then…?”

“Yes, I do know quite a bit about them. And in keeping with my general ‘fuck the elves’ policy, I find I’m quite amenable to dishing on them to the Empire. Provided, of course, that I am sufficiently buttered up.” She lay back in the reclining seat, smirking herself and lifting the glass to her lips. A second later, she grimaced. “Eugh. I hate coconut.”

Eleanora shook her head, lounging back in her own chair. “You have got to be the most disagreeable person I’ve ever met.”

“Oh, come on. That’s not even close to true, and you know it.”

The Professor reached out with her glass, the Empress clinked her own against it, and they both gazed placidly out across the waves.

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15 – 77

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“And you know what the really surprising thing is? I’m not even angry.”

Tellwyrn had swiveled her desk chair sideways and leaned it back as far as it would go, practically lounging in it with herself in profile relative to the students crowding her office. The fingers of her left hand drummed a slow and steady beat against the desk; with her right she held up the Mask of the Adventurer, slowly turning the innocuous-looking artifact this way and that and watching how the afternoon sunlight from her broad window gleamed along its understated silver decorations.

“Barely surprised, even stranger,” she mused, studying the mask. “Oh, a little bit, sure. A person doesn’t have something like this dropped on their desk and not spend a few moments pondering what, in general, the fuck. But it’s really striking how quickly that faded into this vague yet all-consuming sense of ‘yeah, that sounds about right.’”

“I can’t decide if we’re being insulted or let off the hook,” Gabriel muttered.

“I’ll take the one if it comes with the other,” Juniper muttered back.

“Hell, there’s a nice compliment in there if ya squint,” Ruda added, grinning.

“It has to be said that I’m not without responsibility in this,” Tellwyrn continued, turning the mask over to examine its inner face. “You certainly went and did exactly what I instructed, didn’t you? I think I can be forgiven for failing to anticipate this outcome, but really. The combination of you lot, that location, and vague instructions to have a spiritually meaningful experience? Yeah, I’ll own it, on a certain level I was sort of asking for this. Not sending a proper University guardian with you, even. I swear I thought that was a good idea but now I’m sort of grasping for the reason why.”

“Locke performed…adequately in that role,” Trissiny reported. She had changed out of her armor, but was standing at parade rest with only her sword buckled over her leather coat to identify her rank. “She’s jumpier than I would have expected under certain kinds of pressure, but I can’t fault her intent, or results. It all worked out.”

“Yes,” Shaeine agreed, “upon balance I believe your experiment can be considered a success, Professor. Though you may, in the future, want to personally escort groups which present a similar set of risk factors as ourselves.”

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn said with a scowl, still not looking at them, “I find I’m less annoyed about this thing than by the lot of you fucking off two provinces away to throw yourselves into a battle. Surprised? No. But by the same token, I know this is a conversation we have had before. More than once.”

“It was necessary,” Toby said in perfect calm. “I am sorry we broke your rules, Professor. In a case like that, however… We always will.”

“Mm.” She lifted her other hand to grasp the Mask by both its edges and brought it down toward her face.

All of them inhaled sharply, going wide-eyed and rigid.

Tellwyrn stopped moving, then half-turned her head to smirk at them.

The whole group let out their suspended breaths in unison, followed by Ruda emitting a slightly strained chuckle.

“You’re a bad lady,” Gabriel accused.

“I’ll tell you what.” Tellwyrn gently laid the Mask down on her desk and swiveled the chair forward to face them directly, straightening up in the process. “This is a one-time offer, don’t expect it to become general policy. But on this one occasion, if you can satisfy me that this was a successful educational experience, I will consider the lesson imparted and we can proceed without any further punishment. So?” Planting her elbows on the desk bracketing the Mask, she interlaced her fingers and stared at the group over them. “What did we learn?”

There came a pause, while several of them turned to peer uncertainly at one another.

“Consider it a group effort,” Tellwyrn prompted dryly. “I don’t care which of you comes up with an answer, so long as I’m satisfied that it’s one you’ve all absorbed.”

“We should be more respectful of the unpredictable things in this world,” Shaeine said softly. “Of magic, in particular, but generally. There can be severe consequences for assuming that the rules will always apply.”

“Yeah…that’s a really good way to put it,” Toby agreed, nodding. “From everything we know about the rules of magic, there was no reason to think this exact thing would happen, but it was reckless to think nothing of this nature could.”

“It’s not so much we didn’t think it could as it wouldn’t have occurred to us, or any sane person,” said Ruda. “But…damn. No more fucking around with mixed magic in sacred sites. It coulda been a shit ton worse.”

“It is sort of ironic,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “For most of my lifetime, it would have been the baseline assumption of everyone, magic user or not, that much about magic was unknowable and not to be trifled with. Then along come I, to drive away the cobwebs of ignorance and instill you all with methodical thinking. Lo and behold, it worked, and here you are lacking fear of the unknown, when that is the exact quality that would have kept you out of this mess. It’s enough to make a person reconsider their whole life.”

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Fross chimed.

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “That’s Nemitite doctrine. Have you been reading the theology textbooks now, Fross?”

“Yes, Professor, they make for really great light reading when I want a change of pace from magical theory. Also super helpful! A lot of stuff people do makes more sense when I understand the underlying philosophies that inform their behavior. But anyway, what I mean is, I don’t think your ultimate project here is wrong, not at all. Knowledge is never not better than ignorance. I guess we just hit a point where we got a little too full of our fancy University education and failed to respect the amount of ignorance we still had.”

“Well said,” Trissiny agreed.

“All right,” Tellwyrn said, finally cracking a faint smile. “That’s a good lesson indeed, and I am satisfied that you’ve absorbed it. All things considered, it worked out well. Whatever else happened, this thing enabled you to do a lot of good. Needless to say, if you ever again demonstrate a failure to consider the ramifications of tampering with unknown powers I will descend upon the lot of you like the personified wrath of Avei with a caffeine habit and a toothache. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.

“Which leaves us with…this.” She leaned back again, picking up the Mask. “The thing itself.”

“Really sorry to dump this on you, Professor,” Teal said earnestly. “But, well, Mr. Weaver said you might be the best person to look after it, and I can really see the sense in that.”

“Oh, yes,” Tellwyrn said, now staring expressionlessly at the Mask. “I can take it, sure. Chuck it in the vault with the rest of the collection, can do. Ever since I started making it my business to get the really dangerous crap permanently out of everyone’s hands, nobody’s come close to even finding where I stored it all, much less cracking my defenses. Course, I never had a god make a stab at it before.”

“You…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at the others. “Is a god after that, in particular?”

“Well, you tell me, Avelea,” Tellwyrn replied. “Since it seems like Vesk was at least ankle-deep in the creation of this thing and then up to his balls in everything that happened afterward. You three should know what he’s like, after this summer.” She pointed at Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel in turn. “Imagine you’re in a story. In a story, if there’s a big fancy magical sword that gets its own entire chapter of exposition, that thing is getting stuck in somebody before the third act climax. Probably after being the object of its very own epic quest.”

“But it…sort of was stuck in somebody,” said Juniper. “Uh, metaphorically, I mean. The mask was used in the battle; it gave Jacaranda her power back and that pretty much decided the whole thing.”

“Ah, yes,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “When you put it that way, the fact that there are pixies spread across half of N’Jendo now is indirectly your fault, as well.”

“What, you got a problem with pixies now?” Ruda asked, grinning. “Are you gonna take that, Fross?”

“She’s right,” Fross said quietly. “That is going to cause some real big problems.”

“So, yes, the Mask was used,” Tellwyrn said, “and it was a deciding factor in what can be understood as the big story arc running at the time. Hopefully… Hopefully that will be enough. The problem is the scale of it. What you’ve got here is the kind of thing that alters the destinies of nations for centuries to come, not a single event. At least, that’s how it would be in fiction. I’ll hide it away as best I can, because what else am I going to do? But I can’t help wondering exactly what’s going to happen to bring it back out again.”

“Okay, that’s already giving me a headache,” Ruda complained. “You sound like a fuckin’ bard. The world doesn’t run on fucking story logic!”

“Anything Vesk has his hand on this heavily is going to run at least somewhat on story logic,” Trissiny said, frowning deeply. “It would be a good idea to try to think in those terms, if you find him in your proximity. Which is annoying beyond belief because I am not good at it.”

“I’ll try to give you some pointers,” Teal promised.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Tellwyrn agreed. “In fact, in lieu of proper punishment, I have extra homework for you lot after this. I want you to go to the library, ask Crystal for copies of The Myth Eternal by Ravinelle d’Ormont, and write a three-page essay predicting possible next events resulting from your field trip, which you will justify citing the text’s description of tropes and narrative structure. This is a group project; I want you to compare notes and each turn in an individual essay describing a different outcome. On my desk by Friday.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to punish us if we answered your question!” Gabriel protested.

“Yes, Mr. Arquin, and as I said, this is not a punishment,” Tellwyrn said sweetly. “Would you like one of those instead?”

“Uhhh…”

“Irrelevant, because this is what you’re doing. All right, all of you out. Go rest, be in class as usual tomorrow. And see if you can try not to kick any more colossal metaphysical hornet’s nests for at least a week or so, hmm?”

Several of them sighed, but they turned and began filing out.

“Has anybody else noticed that something terrible happens to every city we go to?” Fross chimed as she drifted through the open door.

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Ruda agreed. “You fuckers are never visiting me at home again.”

“Correlation is not causation, Ruda,” Shaeine reminded her.

“I dunno,” said Gabriel as he shut the door behind them. “I feel like ‘Causation’ could be the title of our biography…”

Tellwyrn stared at the closed office door for a few moments with a bemused little frown, then leaned back in her chair, folded her arms, and glared down at the Mask.

It stared innocently back.


He was apparently the last to arrive.

“So I see this isn’t to be a private meeting,” Bishop Darling said pleasantly, gliding forward toward the base of the stairs in the Archpope’s personal prayer chapel. For once, Justinian was already standing at the base of the steps instead of waiting dramatically at the altar up a story-tall flight of steps, framed by the towering stained glass windows, one of which concealed the door to his secret chamber of oracles.

Bishops Snowe and Varanus were present, of course; that was almost a given. This was where the Archpope had most often assembled his inner circle of four—now three—Bishops. What was unusual was the presence of guards, two Holy Legionaries standing at attention to either side of the stairs, and Colonel Ravoud himself waiting behind the Archpope at parade rest.

“Antonio,” Justinian said gravely, inclining his head. “Thank you for coming. I’m sure you have much to tell me.”

“Mmm… No, I really can’t think of anything,” Darling answered, standing before him still with that serene Bishoply smile in place. Branwen gave him a wide-eyed look, Andros remaining inscrutable as ever behind his bushy beard.

“I confess that surprises me,” said Justinian, not sounding surprised in the least. “Especially after Branwen brought such an exhaustive report.”

“Why, precisely,” Darling agreed. “I’m sure she handled it just fine. And now, I believe there are some things you want to tell me.”

“You believe so?” Justinian asked in just as mild and pleasant a tone.

Darling smiled beatifically at him. “There had damn well better be.”

All three soldiers shifted their heads to stare right at him, Ravoud stiffening slightly.

Justinian’s eyes shifted past him to the door he had just come through, which now opened again. “Ah, good. The final necessary party to this conversation. Thank you for joining us, Basra.”

Keeping his pleasant smile firmly in place, Darling turned slowly to face her. In neither Church nor Avenist attire, she wore severe black garments which, he realized on a second glance, were a color-reversed version of Ravoud’s white Holy Legion dress uniform. The only insignia was a golden ankh pinned over the left breast. The dark color incidentally served to emphasize the white bandages peeking out from her left sleeve. An ornate gold-hilted short sword hung at her belt; well, that style of weapon only required one hand, after all.

Branwen drew in a sharp breath through her nose; Andros folded his arms, grunting once. Basra pulled the door shut behind her, then paced carefully toward them across the ornate carpet, her dark eyes fixed on Darling.

“Bas!” he exclaimed in a tone of jovial delight, spreading his arms wide. “How perfectly lovely to see you again! We have so much to catch up on!”

A practiced flick of his wrist brought the wand up his sleeve shooting out into his palm. She was still most of the way across the room; even with her trained swordswoman’s instincts Basra had time only to widen her eyes and stop moving before he’d brought it up and fired.

The crack of lightning was deafening in the acoustically designed chapel. A blue sphere of light ignited around her, the shielding charm of a sufficient grade to absorb the close ranged wandshot without flickering.

Basra bared her teeth in a snarl and dashed right for him, clawing her sword loose as she came. Darling shot her twice more before the pound of heavy boots on the carpet made him shift position to face the nearer of the Legionaries, who was bringing his ornate halberd down with the clear intent of barring them from reaching each other.

Darling grabbed the haft of the weapon with his free hand and spun, using his weight and the man’s own momentum to send him staggering right into Basra’s shield. It was disgustingly easy. Honestly, why had Justinian campaigned so hard to have his own private military if this was all he did with them? Not only was a halberd a hilariously dated weapon, the clod was using it indoors and obviously had no idea how, to judge by how easily it was taken from him.

It was heavy and unwieldy, and he had no chance of doing anything effective with it one-handed, but fortunately the quality of the Holy Legion remained constant; Darling was easily able to sweep it into the second soldier’s feet, sending the man stumbling to the ground. He hadn’t even tried to jump. It was an open question whether he physically could have in that ridiculous lacquered armor, but he’d done nothing except try ineptly to change course as the slow and heavy polearm came arcing at him. Never mind halberd technique, these guys hadn’t been trained in the very basics of hand-to-hand combat. What the hell was the point of them?

“Antonio,” Justinian protested in a tone of patrician disappointment.

“Be with you in a moment, your Holiness,” he said cheerfully, dropping the halberd.

Basra had just shoved the stumbling Legionary off her, and now received three more swift shots. Still the shield held; that thing was military grade. She was closer now, though, and lunged at him again with a feral snarl.

The shield was even phased to allow her to attack through it, which was cutting edge and really sophisticated charm work. Unfortunately for Basra, his more old-fashioned tricks were just as good. Her sword didn’t even draw sparks as it raked across the divine shield that flashed into being around him.

“Should’ve stayed down,” he informed her, winking. “It suited you.”

She made a noise like a feral cat and stabbed at him again, ineffectually. He fired back, the impact of the wand creating a burst of static and the sharp stink of ozone at that range. Basra stumbled backward, blinking the effects of the flash away from her eyes.

A thump and clatter sounded from behind him, and he re-angled himself to check the scene without letting Basra out of his field of view. The tableau told a story at a glance; Justinian looking exasperated, Branwen openly amused, Ravoud flat on his back on the stairs and Andros just lowering the arm with which he’d clotheslined the Colonel when he had tried to join the fray.

“Really?” Justinian said disapprovingly. “I would have hoped you two would try to reason with him, at least.”

“We are completely behind you, your Holiness,” Branwen assured him. “Rest assured, the moment Antonio begins doing something inappropriate, we will restrain him.”

“Eventually,” Andros rumbled.

Darling grinned and shot Basra again.

A wall of pure golden light slammed into place across the entire width of the chapel. It was a solid construction at least a foot thick, easily the most impressive Lightworking Darling had ever seen.

As rarely as they were called upon to exercise it, one could easily forget that a sitting Archpope was at least one of the most powerful divine casters in the world. Once in a while, one had found cause to demonstrate it, such as Archpope Sairelle’s famous binding of Philamorn the Gold.

Darling shot it, just to be sure. No effect.

“Enough,” Justinian stated, hand outstretched and glowing. “Antonio, I understand your frustration—”

“I am well aware that you do,” Darling stated, turning to stare at him with the pretense of conviviality gone from his features. “And I’m aware that you are aware that ‘frustration’ is in no way the word.”

“This of all moments is no time for you to succumb to impatience,” the Archpope said soothingly. “It is no secret that we have all acted upon complex agendas, Antonio. For this long, at least, we have all been able to relate to one another like—”

“Ah, yes, that’s really the thing, isn’t it?” Darling said with a bitter grin. “Because as we all know, I’m Sweet of the thousand agendas. Whose side is he on? The Guild, the Church, the Empire? I’m the guy who can smile nicely at everybody and play every side against the middle, committing to none. And I, I, am now officially done with this. That fact alone should warn you just what kind of line you’ve crossed, Justinian.”

Ravoud had bounded back to his feet, stepping away from Andros, and now strode forward, pointing accusingly at him. “You will address his Holiness as—”

“Pipe down, Nassir,” Darling ordered. “When I need someone to get humiliated by the Last Rock Glee Club I’ll tag you into this.”

“Please, Colonel,” Justinian said gently, making a peaceful gesture with his free hand. Ravoud clamped his mouth shut, looking anything but happy, but stepped back and folded his arms, glaring at Darling. “We have been through a great deal together, Antonio. I will not downplay the severity of recent events, but surely you do not think that now of all times it behooves you to throw everything away.”

“Do you know how many people died in Ninkabi?” Darling demanded. “Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question. Nobody knows, because they are still finding bodies. And oh, what a perfect storm of factors had to align to make that catastrophe happen! Basra here, Khadizroth and his crew, the Tide. Every one of them your pawns, Justinian.”

“And yet,” the Archpope said softly, “not even the first time I have been complicit in the mass summoning of demons into a major city under siege. Though as I recall, it was someone else’s plan, the last time.”

So he was willing to admit to that in front of Ravoud and these incompetent non-soldiers of his? Interesting.

“Oh, don’t even try it,” Darling retorted with open scorn. “Tiraas was a series of small controlled summonings by professionals, with the full oversight of the Imperial government. In Ninkabi twenty hellgates were indiscriminately opened after your pet assassin went on a murderous rampage to cull the local police. The fact you’d even bother making that comparison shows you have no argument to make, here.”

Justinian lowered his hand, and the wall of light vanished. On its other side, Basra still clutched her sword and glared at him, but didn’t move forward again.

“So this, finally, is the price of your conscience?” the Archpope asked in utter calm. “It is steep indeed, Antonio.”

“Oh, is that what you think is happening here? My moral outrage compelling me to make a brave stand? I would have thought you knew me better by now, Justinian. I’m more than sleazy enough to stick right to all manner of perfidy just to keep a close eye on it. I’d have walked out on you long ago if I was going to do it out of anger or disgust. But you have burned way too many bridges with a single torch this time. You cannot keep a lid on the details of what happened in Ninkabi, not now that most of your own enforcers have run off to who knows where with all their knowledge. This rat is leaving this ship, Justinian, unless you can give me a compelling and immediate reason to think you can survive the backlash coming your way and guarantee that nothing like this ever happens again.”

“And what would satisfy you?” Justinian inquired.

“For starters?” Darling pointed at Basra without looking in her direction, keeping his gaze locked on the Archpope’s. “Kill her.”

“That is a trap,” Justinian replied before Basra could react. “A rhetorical snare, Antonio. You seek to manufacture an excuse to do what you wish and blame my unreasonable refusal, knowing very well that I cannot give any such cruel order.”

“There is absolutely no reason not to,” Branwen stated.

The Archpope shifted to look at her, his eyebrows lifting incrementally. “Branwen…”

“I know you believe you can control that creature, your Holiness,” she said, giving Basra an openly contemptuous glance. “Or at least, want to believe you can. I cannot imagine how you could still think so after the last week.”

“I have been saying it for years,” Andros grunted. “A rabid animal should be put down, not put on a leash. Events continue to prove me ever more correct.”

“The events in motion are greater than any of you can yet realize,” Justinian said softly. “Basra still has a role to play. As do you all.”

“One thing hasn’t changed, Antonio,” Basra herself sneered, stalking forward. “Anything you believe you can do, I can still do better.”

He turned slowly to face her. Then, suddenly grinning, Darling held up both his hands and began to applaud.

Andros let out a hearty boom of laughter, and Basra lunged at him with her sword again.

“Basra.”

The Archpope’s voice brought her to an immediate halt. She glared at Darling with her face a mask of truly psychotic hatred, literally quivering with the desire to attack, but she did not move.

“Of this I assure you,” Justinian stated. “Every bitter price I have levied, every sin with which I have stained my soul, is in service to a greater good which will be worth the cost when it has done. Too much has been paid, now more than ever, for us to stop. This must be seen through to its end, or all of this suffering has been for nothing.”

Darling turned back to him. “Boss Tricks demands all the assurances I just asked of you, Archpope Justinian. Until they are produced, the cult of Eserion will choose to manage its relationships with the rest of the Pantheon directly, forgoing the mediation of the Universal Church. So, bye.”

He turned and walked right past Basra toward the door.

“You know, it wasn’t Eserion who saved you.”

Darling slowed to a stop, but did not turn around, and Justinian continued.

“I had a similar experience, Antonio. I witnessed something the Pantheon prefers to keep far from mortal knowledge. I survived only by the intervention of another god, one who questioned the injustice of keeping their secrets at the expense of so many lives. That is what happened to you, is it not? And so much of the course of your life has proceeded to its current point because you believed it was Eserion the defiant who shielded you. Eserion allowed you to think so, but it was not he.”

Still, Darling didn’t turn, subtly rolling the wand between his fingers.

“Will you really throw away all those years of searching,” Justinian asked softly, “when you are so near to the end? The time is fast approaching for all questions to be answered. You have labored with such industry and cleverness to obtain these secrets, Antonio. I would hate for you to come so close only to miss them.”

“Okay.” Darling turned halfway, just enough for the Archpope to see his face. “Let’s hear it, then. Spill the big secret, tell me what the gods are hiding and what really happened at the end of the Elder War. I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

“You of all people,” Justinian said, spreading his hands slightly at waist height to indicate those gathered near him, “understand that this is no place or time for such revelations. But soon, Antonio.”

“Yeah, well, see, that’s the thing,” Darling said, smiling again. “I don’t need you for that, either. Not anymore. Oh, and Baaaasra,” he added in a saccharine singsong, widening his smile to a wolfish grin as he turned it on her. “You can’t hide in here forever. You know it as well as I; you’ll go gibbering mad if you even try to keep yourself so confined. I will be seeing you again. Real soon.”

He turned his back on the silent assemblage and strode out, kicking the chapel door open, then kicking it again to close.

It shut behind him with a boom of echoing finality.

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15 – 70

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The silence hung, a teetering weight that threatened to crush them all when it finally toppled. But only for a moment.

“Child,” Elilial finally said, her voice at once quiet and projecting with an unearthly power that fairly rattled skeletons, “there is a lot going on here that you don’t understand.”

Vadrieny half-turned and lifted one wing to glance over her shoulder at the two elves behind her. “Natchua and Kuriwa did something to piss you off. I’m guessing deliberately.” She turned back, fixing the goddess with her stare and baring her fangs. “I’m also guessing in retaliation for things you did to them. So now you plan to retaliate right back, yet again. I gather you’re not aware that Natchua is Shaeine’s cousin?”

Elilial had opened her mouth to interrupt, but hesitated at that, a flicker of unguarded emotion crossing her face for a bare instant before it closed down again. “In the very broad strokes, sure. It’s the details of—”

“The details are where you drag the truth to be executed by a thousand tiny cuts without saying anything that can be called out as a lie.”

Again, the goddess looked momentarily startled. “What did you say to me?”

“They tell me I was always something of a thug,” Vadrieny growled, flexing her claws. “I get the impression you’re not used to me understanding things, or calling out your bullshit. But I’ve been at a school the last few years, mother—a good one, run by someone who can physically push me around and has zero patience for bullshit in any form except her own. Two years and change, mother, that’s what it took to make a thinker of Vadrieny the brute. And that just makes me wonder why you apparently never tried.”

“Think we should give them some privacy?” Natchua murmured to Kuriwa. The elder gave her a sidelong glance, then returned her attention to the unfolding drama, saying nothing.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Elilial stated, her body language shifting subtly to convey a silent threat, though her tone remained starkly even. “You have never been easy to handle, child, but I did better than anyone else could have. And I will not have the entirety of our relationship casually dismissed by someone who doesn’t even remember it.”

“And whose fault is that?” Vadrieny snarled, snapping her wings once.

Elilial took one step forward, her hoof impacting the marble floor with a sound that echoed through the cathedral. “I am pursuing answers to that right now, child. Whoever interfered with—”

“Oh, someone else is always to blame, aren’t they?” the archdemon spat in disgust. “No responsibility for the one who put us all in that position in the first place.”

“How dare you?” the goddess thundered, taking another step. This one hit the ground hard enough to send cracks radiating out through the marble. “I am the very reason you—”

“YOU ARE THE REASON I DON’T HAVE SISTERS!” Vadrieny screamed back.

Elilial froze, her whole face a mask of shock and rage. The two locked eyes, glaring with an infernal intensity that seemed to hum physically in the air.

“You’re unraveling right in front of us, Lily-chan,” a new voice said far more calmly.

Everyone present looked up at the black shape which floated serenely in through the window Vadrieny had just smashed. She circled down to the floor like a falling leaf, scythe dangling almost casually from one hand.

“Go away, little vulture,” Elilial snapped. “This is family business, and none of yours.”

“The business of death always follows your footsteps, Lily-chan,” Yngrid said lightly as she lit on the ground.

“Desist calling me that,” the goddess exclaimed. “Which one are you, even? I’m fairly certain your master won’t be pleased to find you on this plane.”

“You know why she’s the goddess of cunning?” Yngrid inquired, turning to face the other three and directing a cold shoulder to the deity. “With the ascension, their aspects formed out of whatever concept was foremost in their personal identities. This one started out as a petty thief. She used to break into Naiya’s laboratories, looking for drugs.”

“…drugs,” Kuriwa repeated in a complex tone that hovered between amusement and disbelief.

“Mother caught her, of course,” Ygrid said with a grin. “Every time. And then made her play shogi until she won a game, and let her go. It wasn’t until later when she recommended Lily-chan to Avei’s little resistance group that we realized Naiya had been training her to circumvent Infinite Order security systems.”

“Enough!” Elilial exclaimed, bending forward to reach for Yngrid. “Be silent or be silenced, you little pest!”

In the next moment she had jerked back with an audible gasp, clutching the hand which the valkyrie had just raked with her scythe. The gash it left wasn’t like the marks of Vadrieny’s claws; it blazed with golden light and didn’t close up nearly as quickly.

“Impetuous, violent, aggressive,” Yngrid lectured, wagging the scythe at the goddess. “You are not acting like yourself at all. The Lily I remember would never have confused me with a twenty-year-old boy playing with a hand-me-down weapon. My sisters have reaped scarier things than you. Or did you forget why Rauzon cast us out in the first place?”

“Are you following any of this?” Natchua muttered to Kuriwa.

“It would be easier if you’d hush,” the shaman hissed back.

“This kind of ambush is well beyond Natchua’s extremely limited intellect,” the goddess sneered, still cradling her hand. The cut was healing, gradually but visibly, though it continued to blaze with loose divine magic. “My own daughter, Kuriwa? Even Scyllith would be impressed by the sadistic streak you’ve developed.”

“Imagine,” Kuriwa replied evenly, “to have offended the vast swath of people you have and still assume I am behind every measure of retribution levered against you. Flattery will not spare you my further vengeance, you hateful old thing.”

“She didn’t bring us,” Vadrieny agreed.

“I brought them,” a new voice added, its owner popping into existence alongside the others with no further fanfare.

“What next?” Elilial exclaimed. “Who do you…”

She trailed off into silence, staring quizzically down at the new arrival, who was covered from crown to toes in a suit of gnarled, glossy black armor that looked like demon chitin; it clung close enough to display a very feminine figure, also adding segmented links to protect her tail and cover its tip in an oversized stinger, though it left her spiny wings bare.

Then it faded, seeming to melt back into her milky skin to reveal her true features, and the grim stare she leveled up at the goddess.

Natchua gasped. “Mel?! You were supposed to go somewhere safe!”

“I couldn’t, though,” Melaxyna said, giving her an apologetic little smile before resuming her flat glare at Elilial. “I’ve remembered some things, in the course of trying to dissuade you from this idiot, lunatic crusade of yours. Making yourself the enemy of a deity is every bit as bad an idea as I kept trying to persuade you, Natchua. And it forced me to recall the days when I, as nothing but a feeble mortal woman and then a disembodied spirit, spat in the faces of Izara, Avei, and Vidius in that order, for no better reason than that they were fucking wrong. And I had to ask: when did I become such a pitiful coward?”

“Is that so much worse than a pitiful ingrate?” Elilial retorted. “Everything you have, everything you are, is thanks to me! You should be dead, but because of my generosity, you survive to pursue your revenge. I even granted you freedom to do so in your own manner, when it would have been so very easy to keep you and all of your brethren on a tight leash. Most of my advisors and generals continually urge me to do just that, and yet…”

“And yet,” said Vadrieny, “your generosity always takes the form of using someone else as a disposable tool in your own schemes.”

“You were supposed to be better!” Melaxyna shouted before the goddess could respond. “All your talk about standing up to the gods and their injustice, and what are you? For millennia you’ve cut a swath of destruction across the mortal plane, slaughtering who knows how many innocents in the name of your glorious revenge. You’ve not even tried to alleviate the suffering of all the demons—that is, the people who are native to your own home, because they’re ever so much more useful in their current state! The Pantheon are murdering, hypocritical tyrants, but you are not different. If you can’t clear even that bar, you and your whole rebellion are just pointless. And you’ve never even really tried.”

“I will tolerate a lot from my last daughter,” Elilial breathed, her soft voice at odds with the oppressive darkness which coalesced in the dome above her. Smoky night descended on the cathedral’s open space, leaving her towering form a stark shadow limned by the faintest haze of hellfire and her luminous eyes blazing high above. “But not from a recalcitrant creature of my own creation with delusions of significance. I hope you enjoyed your little outburst, Melaxyna. It was your last.”

“Then fucking do it!” Melaxyna spat, flaring her wings aggressively. “That’s the other thing I learned from Natchua: you don’t need to be a god to wound a god, you just need to hit unexpectedly at the right moment, and be willing to face the consequences. It seems like you would’ve known that, when you were fighting the Elder Gods! Well, you may have forgotten, but I haven’t. Do your worst. I am done bending my neck to gods that just betray me.”

“Before you do your worst,” Vadrieny said evenly, moving to plant herself between Elilial and Melaxyna, “I will warn you once: you don’t touch anyone here, unless you want to find out exactly how much damage I can do to you. Maybe I can’t finish you off, but I swear I will never stop until I either find a way or you do it to me.”

The darkness receded somewhat, and the shape of Elilial’s burning eyes shifted, hinting at consternation. “Vadrieny… No matter what you do to me, I will never harm you. You have to believe that.”

Vadrieny snorted, and then faded, flames and claws receding to nothing.

Teal Falconer adjusted the lapels of her suit and the Talisman of Absolution pinned there. “Yeah, she doesn’t wanna talk to you anymore. But let me just add a point of argument: Vadrieny was wrong about one thing. We do have sisters. Heral and Nahil don’t replace anyone who’s lost, but they have the advantage of a mother who requires them to do their familial duty without spending their lives like pennies at a carnival.”

She arched one eyebrow superciliously as a collective indrawing of breath sounded from the others present. Natchua let out a low whistle.

Elilial’s expression reverted straight to fury, and the oppressive darkness gathered in intensity once more. “Teal,” she hissed. “Of all those from whom I would expect a little gratitude.”

“Thank you for the puppy,” Teal said solemnly. “I love him. And especially, thank you for bringing my Shaeine back to me. With that established, you are being a colossal prick right now, and playing the guilt card when I’ve literally just caught you about to murder one of my friends and another of my friends’ annoying grandmother is a really cheap move.”

With ponderous speed, the giant shape of the goddess bent forward through the looming darkness, bringing her face down closer to peer at Teal through narrowed eyes as if seeing her for the first time.

“You,” Elilial said slowly, “are sassing me.”

“Would you rather go back to the clawing?” Teal asked wryly. “Because that’s not off the table.”

“You,” Elilial repeated. “Sweet little Teal, the perennially passive, who makes a full-time career of taking Vesk’s name in vain. All these years you’ve idolized bards while never living up to the trope, and now this… This is the moment you pick to start acting like one?!”

Teal tucked her thumbs into her pockets, shifting to a cocky, lopsided stance, and grinned. “Well what, I ask you, is more bardic than being a pain in the villain’s ass at the most inconvenient possible moment?”

Elilial straightened back up far more quickly. “I have just about had enough of you mortals and your nonsense. I won’t see any harm done to my daughters, but—”

“Don’t even finish that threat,” Yngrid said scornfully. “There’s nothing you can do to me, and Vadrieny and I can hurt you enough to put a stop to whatever else you might try. You’ve lost this one, Lil.”

“Honestly,” Natchua added, “flying into such a rage over people rightly pointing out what an asshole you are. Your options here are to back the fuck off or embarrass yourself with more sheer pettiness.”

“Begone, creature,” Kuriwa said with withering disdain. “You are beaten. Take it with some grace, for once.”

“Well, if I am so beaten,” Elilial hissed from within her cloud of pitch darkness, glaring fiery rage down at them, “I will just have to deliver a last lesson to several of you on why I am not to be trifled with by presumptuous ticks.”

A single ray of light pierced the darkness, a scintillating beam that shimmered with every hue of the rainbow within a fierce glow of pure white, and impacted the goddess square in the face. It erupted in a cloud of sparkling glitter which banished her unnatural darkness as neatly as if someone had flipped the switch on a fairy lamp.

Elilial staggered backward, actually coughing and waving sparkling clouds away from her face, causing the million tiny motes of light to swirl around her. She was now covered from her horns to her waist in a glimmering coating of pixie dust.

“REALLY?” the goddess roared in sheer exasperation.

“Hey, is this her?” inquired a new voice, belonging to the creature which had just zipped in through the broken window and now hovered in midair right in front of Elilial. Garbed in a resplendent gown of pastel hues, she might have passed for an elf, if not for her exceptionally long ears, purple hair, and the buzzing dragonfly wings which held her aloft. “Sure looks like her. Are we fighting her, or what?”

“Oh, I also rounded up some more help,” Melaxyna said innocently.

“Uh, actually,” Natchua answered, “I think we’re mostly just telling her off at this point.”

“Oh, well, okay then,” the fairy said agreeably, then buzzed closer to Elilial’s face, leveling an accusing finger at her. “Hey, you, are those your demons out there? What’s the big idea with that? Have you seen the mess they made? This is a city, you jackass! People live here!”

Elilial blinked once, then snorted loudly, causing a puff of glitter to shoot out from her face. She snapped her fingers and abruptly the mess coating her vanished. “What the hell are you supposed to be?”

“My friends call me Jackie,” the fairy said haughtily, “but to you, I’m the fuckin’ Pixie Queen. I don’t know what you’re eeeeyaaaaugh what is that?!”

She suddenly buzzed away from Elilial, circling higher in the dome and pointing a finger at Yngrid.

“It’s okay!” Melaxyna called. “She’s on our side!”

“Actually, Jacaranda,” Yngrid added, “I’m your older sister.”

“The nuts you are!”

“It’s a long story,” the valkyrie said soothingly. “I’ll explain it when we have more time.”

“ENOUGH!” Elilial shouted. “What is with you people!? I am the goddamn goddess of hellfire, and I can’t even finish a sentence in here!”

“No, you’re the goddess of cunning,” Yngrid said more soberly, “and like I said, you are doing a very poor job of that right now. You don’t act at all like yourself, Lily.”

“What part of this perfidy is out of character?” Kuriwa sneered.

“All of it,” the valkyrie replied. “The shouting, the magical theatrics. She was always so composed, always pointedly pleasant even to her foes. Playful, and fond as a bard of wisecracks. Not to downplay the very real enmity here, but… She is not well. Not at all.”

“Want me to zap her again?” Jacaranda offered.

“Better to take the opportunity to finish her off,” Natchua added.

“You think it’s so easy to kill a god, you arrogant speck?” Elilial spat.

“It’s not,” said Yngrid. “Destroying a god means severing them from whatever empowers their aspect. Exactly how to do that depends on the aspect; speaking as the resident expert on death, even I wouldn’t know where to begin killing cunning.”

“But if, as you say, she is trapped in a pattern of behavior that is anything but cunning,” Kuriwa said softly, “perhaps this is an opportunity.”

“Oh, just try it, Kuriwa,” the goddess hissed. “I would love nothing more.”

“Does seem odd she’s letting us talk at her instead of attacking or retreating,” Melaxyna murmured. “You’re right. Something is wrong here.”

“I’m not the only one standing here talking,” Elilial retorted, spreading her arms wide. “Well? Since my dear offspring is so adamant that I not destroy you, the ball is in your court. Care to try your luck, any of you? Or am I not the only one who needs to cease posturing and walk away?”

The cathedral’s doors burst open, and the first thing that came through was the towering shape of a woman in silver armor astride a barrel-chested horse.

“Oh, yes,” Melaxyna said pleasantly. “When I said I gathered more help, I wasn’t talking about the fairy.”

Trissiny rode her steed straight toward the confrontation at the center of the open space. Ninkabi’s cathedral was laid out in a circular, open plan unlike the long rows of benches common in Tiraan churches; there was ample room for the crowd of people who followed her in to spread out, quickly positioning themselves to cover almost half the chamber. They had all come: students, enforcers, hunters, wolves, elves, miscellaneous adventurers, and now a sizable contingent of Imperial soldiers, local police, the members of three strike teams, and even a smattering of hastily-armed citizens of Ninkabi.

“If I heard that offer right,” Trissiny called, her voice ringing through the chamber as she stood at the head of her army, “I will take you up on it.”

“Of course you would,” Elilial replied with heavy condescension.

“Even gods cannot flit between the planes willy-nilly,” said Yngrid. “Hell is sealed; she requires a gate to escape there. I don’t know what keeps her in this corporal form, aside from possible simple stubbornness, but as long as she holds it…”

“One does not simply slay a goddess,” said Khadizroth the Green, stepping up alongside Trissiny. “But with a sufficient force, one can perhaps…”

“Beat the living hell out of her?” the paladin finished with a grim smile.

He quirked one corner of his lips in agreement. “At least until she has had enough.”

Elilial clenched her fingers into fists, setting her face in a snarl of barely-contained rage. Again, the darkness gathered, like a storm cloud forming in the cathedral’s dome, this time accompanied by an unsettling sound like claws across the fabric of reality just outside the range of hearing, a noise that was more sensation than noise. Within the blackness, her glaring eyes blazed with increasing intensity until they were too bright to face directly.

Khadizroth shifted aside as Gabriel and Toby moved up alongside Trissiny, both mounted; Roiyary stood as placid as a daisy against the sheer weight of evil pressing down on them, while Whisper pranced and pawed, eager to charge. Golden light rose from all three paladins, expanding until it pressed the darkness back.

Behind them, weapons and spells were readied, wolves bared teeth, and over a hundred mortals positioned themselves to have the clearest line of fire at the dark goddess. Not one person moved to retreat.

Then, unexpected, it all began to fade.

The darkness receded, the fiery light of Elilial’s gaze dimmed, and even her clenched posture slowly relaxed while it became more visible out of the disappearing shadows. Trissiny narrowed her eyes in suspicion, not relaxing in turn, but the goddess just continued to draw down her display of menace until there was nothing left of it.

Just the towering form of the Queen of Demons, staring down at her would-be attackers with a slight frown of contemplation, her horned head tilted quizzically to one side.

Then, just as suddenly, she smiled, and shifted her arms.

A stir of preparation rippled through those assembled as shields ignited and weapons were raised further, but still Elilial did not attack.

In fact, moving with deliberate slowness, she raised both her hands into the air alongside her head.

“All right,” said Elilial. “I surrender.”

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15 – 48

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“Still?” Gabriel protested.

“This thing is some serious shit,” Ruda grunted, shifting position. “There, think I got it.”

The mithril blade of her rapier did cause the bars of the cage to dissolve, as they had guessed upon concluding that the thing was actually made of magic. Unfortunately, that meant it couldn’t be simply wedged into them to weaken it, as the slender blade could make contact with a maximum of four bars at a time, and on being touched they disintegrated, causing the blade to drop.

And the bars to re-form. That was the kicker; made of solid magic as it was, the relative ease of breaking the bars made no difference as they regenerated instantly. Joe’s wandshots made no lasting impact and the group had been unwilling to risk any less precise spells or energy attacks with Mary trapped inside. Even so, it was easy to make individual bars crumble, thanks simply to the unique arsenal in the group’s possession. The trick was getting them to stay that way.

Now Gabriel, Ruda, and Yngrid were huddled awkwardly around the cage, with the mithril rapier and both valkyrie scythes carefully positioned to press against as much of its outer surface as they could manage. They had made three small gaps in the cage’s coverage, and it still remained otherwise solid.

“Maybe if you move the scythes so they’re nullifying one continuous stretch of the bars?” Fross suggested, fluttering closer to inspect the two patches that had rusted away to nothing and failed to restore themselves so long as the reaper weapons remained in position.

“This is not as easy as it looks,” Yngrid said irritably. The long hafts and curved blades of her and Gabriel’s weapons made arranging them that way physically difficult, especially with the need to keep three people huddled around the tiny cage holding them there. And, most importantly, the need for everyone present to avoid touching one of those blades.

“Wow, that must be really challenging then,” Fross chimed innocently, “cos it doesn’t look easy at all.”

“Anyway, don’t think that’d help,” Gabriel muttered. “We can make gaps in the bars, but then the scythe blades are in those gaps, and she sure as hell doesn’t wanna touch those.”

Mary croaked desultory agreement, ruffling her feathers.

“What if she grabs the mithril?” Juniper suggested from behind them. “Maybe that would cure the transformation?”

“Bad idea,” said Gabriel. “You don’t wanna see what would happen if somebody suddenly expanded to twenty times their size while surrounded by unbreakable metal bars. We’d all be standing in a puddle of elf noodles.”

Mary began squawking in a constant staccato rhythm.

“We are working on it, Kuriwa,” Trissiny assured her. “I’m sorry, I know that can’t be comfortable, but it would be worse if we just tried to hammer that thing with spells.”

“Actually, that may be worth a try,” said Ariel. Mary’s squawks increased in pitch and volume.

“You have an idea, partner?” Gabriel asked tersely.

“The cage is both recycling its own expended energy and drawing ambient power to sustain itself; the intensity of both processes increases the more pressure is put upon it, and after the addition of the rapier those currents of magic have grown unstable. I believe a careful application of brute force at this juncture may shatter it entirely.”

“Sure doesn’t look like it’s givin’ up the ghost,” Ruda growled.

“Sophisticated magics intended for purposes of security rarely betray their weaknesses at a glance. That is rather the point of them.”

Mary squawked shrilly.

“Could you stop?” Gabriel snapped. “That isn’t helping! Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of shaman?”

“I don’t think she can actually use much in the way of magic in that form,” McGraw noted. “Never seen ‘er do it. For that matter, my friend Raea has an animal form, too, an’ she’s always limited herself to fangs an’ claws while usin’ it.”

Mary chattered at him angrily.

“Well, I’m sorry if I’m blowin’ your secrets,” the old man said wryly. “Unfortunately for you, I like you too much not to help get you outta that thing. You’ll just have to forgive me.”

“Aye, well, if it’s brute force we need,” Billie began, reaching into her pockets with both hands.

Everybody yelled at her so loudly that no individual exhortations were distinguishable.

“I never get to have any fun,” the gnome grumbled, turning away in a sulk.

“Well, let’s either come up with something or take a goddamn break,” Ruda complained, still hunched over the cage to hold her rapier in place in a careful posture that didn’t interfere with Gabriel or Yngrid, or bring her into contact with either scythe. “I’ve got cricks in places I didn’t fuckin’ know I had, here.”

“The original problem still applies,” Toby pointed out. “We can’t just pour magic at that thing while she’s in there…”

“I believe that if we sacrifice some power for precision, we still have methods at our disposal,” said Shaeine. “Allow me to try something.”

A silver sphere slightly smaller than the cage appeared above it, then pressed downward. The shield bubble flickered and sparked from the pressure, continuing to push itself against the cage until the brass bars trembled. There was no other visible effect.

“That is further destabilizing the flow of restorative magic,” Ariel reported. “An additional source of pressure may finish breaking the spell entirely.”

“Well, then, let’s try this again,” said Joe, drawing his wands.

There was a tangle of bodies arranged all around the cage, but tiny gaps existed between them, and that was all he needed. Rather than attempting to explain this and reassure everyone, he shot first, dispatching two clean beams of light into the cage itself. One, the angles being what they were, only struck and disintegrated a single bar, but the second he was able to position such that the beam pierced two on its path through.

“What the fuck!?” Ruda shouted. “Watch what you’re—oh, hey.”

For those not immediately clustered around the cage, the first sign of success was the crow herself shooting upward out of the group, cawing triumphantly. Ruda, Gabriel and Yngrid all stepped back, carefully disentangling their weapons, just quick enough to afford the rest of those assembled a last sight of the cage, which now lay in metallic strips stretched outward from its base as if it had burst open at the top, unfurling its bars like a flower. In fact, it died rather like a flower, the strands of brass curling up and rusting away to dust before their eyes, until seconds later the last scraps had dissolved to nothing.

Mary spent this fleeting moment circling overhead, evidently just because she could, before settling to the ground. By the time everyone turned from the spectacle of the disintegrating magical cage, she was an elf again. Shifting to face the group directly, Mary curved her upper body forward in a gesture that fell between a deep nod and a shallow bow.

“Thank you very much for the assistance, children.”

“Oh, I’m sure you woulda gotten out of there eventually,” Gabriel remarked, shrinking his scythe down to tuck away in his pocket, a performance Yngrid watched with a small frown. “Prin seemed to think so, anyway.”

“In all likelihood, yes, but I am no less grateful nonetheless. I find nothing enjoyable about languishing in a cage for any period. Now, with that addressed, there are more important matters.”

She turned and strode toward Principia, who was still laid out on the cracked pavement, now draped by a blanket and with Merry sitting by her head. At Mary’s approach, the other Legionnaire rose to her feet, eyes narrowing.

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny said, moving to intercept her, “I don’t think what Locke needs right now is more punishment.”

Mary actually stopped, raising an eyebrow at the paladin. “The concept of punishment, Trissiny, is only applicable to people who understand precisely what is happening to them and why. Tormenting an unconscious victim is nothing but pointless sadism. I have my faults, but I hope you don’t think that is among them.”

“Right,” Trissiny said vaguely. “Just checking.”

“On the contrary,” Mary continued in a lower tone, taking the last steps to Principia’s side and sinking to her knees, “I am concerned chiefly for the girl’s well-being. Everything else aside, what she just went through was clearly traumatic for multiple reasons, not least of which that having excess data pumped into an unprepared brain can damage it significantly. The magelords of Syralon have been known to use that as a punishment before even they outlawed the practice as too cruel.”

There was a constant and usually soft whistle of wind across the plateau; as Mary reached out to place her fingertips along the side of Principia’s face, it shifted in tone. The effect was subtle, likely expressing itself as a subconscious sense of harmony to some of those present, but those with acute hearing or musical training could discern that the voice of the wind itself had shifted to a flawless three-tone harmony in major key.

“My thanks again, priestess,” Mary said, turning her head toward Shaeine with another deep nod. “Your instincts were correct, and your quick action likely saved her from serious harm. Her mind is undamaged, but still struggling to process the sheer volume of material. I can aid her recuperation by way of an elemental blessing that will purge foreign contamination. This is usually meant as a counter to curses and the like; adapting it for this purpose may be tricky. Please give me quiet in which to concentrate. Mind magic is the province of the divine, and achieving these effects through the fae requires great exactitude.”

“Okay, well, I’ll ask everybody’s forgiveness in advance because this is a pretty ruthless thing to suggest,” said Gabriel, raising both his hands in a gesture of surrender, “but maybe that’s not the best course of action? As long as Locke’s not in urgent danger, we should think about letting her have some extra time to sleep if it means she wakes up with that knowledge intact. To say nothing of the immediate stuff going on, like whatever she was warning us about in N’Jendo and Veilgrad, the sheer scope of knowledge…”

“That is ruthless, Gabe,” Toby said with a frown. “Who knows what kind of strain that’s putting on her, even with Shaeine’s help?”

“He’s not wrong,” Mary said curtly, “and the suggestion has merit, but in this case it is not up for discussion. Principia is a child of my own blood. And while her actions here have added up to possibly the single most wrong-headed thing I have ever seen anyone do, it was nonetheless a courageous act, undertaken to protect young people under her care. I will not suffer her to be permanently harmed for it. Besides, I want her good and lucid when I am explaining to her in exquisite nuance the depth of her poor judgment.”

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so the difference is she’s one of yours, so you’re throwing all greater concerns out the window and claiming privilege?”

Mary had lowered her eyes to stare fixedly at Principia’s face. Now she lifted her gaze to meet Ruda’s, impassively. “Correct.”

McGraw cleared his throat. “Don’t pull that thread, miss. Sometimes you just gotta make allowances for people who can blast you over the horizon.”

“Yeah, thanks for the advice, but we all have a history class with one of those,” Fross chimed.

“All right, fair enough,” Ruda said with a shrug. “I gotta mention, Boots, your granny reminds me of Naphthene.”

“Ouch,” Trissiny drawled.

While they chattered, the light around Principia had gently shifted, taking on a pattern of shadows over the prone elf as if waves were being reflected about her. Merry was frowning in unease, alternately at this and at Mary, but had not yet decided to intervene. Quite suddenly, though, Mary straightened up, her eyes widening, and the light vanished.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded, turning toward her.

“Well,” the Crow mused, raising one eyebrow and gazing down at Principia in renewed interest. “Never mind, I suppose.”

“Never mind?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What, is she…?”

“She’s fine,” Mary assured her. “Better by far than I expected, in fact. It appears that she is being taken care of. Further intervention by me will not be necessary. Nor would it be welcomed.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“With this no longer a cause for immediate concern, there remains another matter we urgently need to address,” Mary said seriously, straightening up and turning toward her. “What exactly is that mask, and where did it come from?”

The tension increased palpably as the assembled students stared either at her or at Trissiny. No one answered.

“In all my many years,” Mary continued after a short silence, “I have never observed an artifact that could reproduce a powerful being from the age of the Elder Gods, in the person of whoever used it. I infer from your brief mentions of the subject that it can grant its wearer the gifts of a variety of persons. I am also, being attuned to the currents of fae magic, not unaware that some event of world-altering significance occurred in this vicinity a few days ago. The dots are not difficult to connect. I think you children had better start explaining yourselves.”

“Yeah, we’ve kinda made peace with that,” Juniper said. “The explaining, I mean. When we get home to Last Rock, Tellwyrn’s probably gonna chew us into mulch. I don’t really think we need to explain anything to you, though.”

“No offense intended,” Toby added.

Mary half-turned to stare pensively at the Great Tree rising in the near distance for a moment. “I suppose the sequence of events which led to this point is less important than that which must follow. With regard to that, however, there is the future to consider.” She turned her stare on Fross. “You still have that mask. What, precisely, is your plan for it? I should hardly need to tell you that such a thing cannot simply be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised.”

“Oh. Really?” Ruda turned to direct a wide-eyed stare at her classmates. “Hey, guys, turns out that fuckin’ thing can’t be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised. Holy shit did we miscalculate! Maybe we shouldn’t pawn it, after all.”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said quietly, “don’t. Not with this one.”

“Uh, yeah, ‘scuze me,” Joe added. “Mary, I know these folks, an’ there ain’t a thing wrong with their intelligence.”

Weaver snorted very loudly.

“I have a high opinion of Trissiny’s faculties in general,” Mary replied, “and her tacit endorsement of the rest of this group counts for a lot, in my view. All other things being equal… But things are not. I can imagine no sequence of events which would lead to the creation of that artifact which does not presuppose that Principia’s complete lapse of all sense and reason was not the first to take place here recently.”

“It was Arquin’s idea, just for the record,” said Ruda.

“I don’t care whose idea it was,” Mary said, her voice rising slightly. “I care what is done about it. This, I am aware, is the last thing an independent group of young people ever wants to hear from anyone—”

“Don’t say it,” McGraw warned. She ignored him.

“—but you had better let me take it.” Mary turned to stare expressively at Principia. “Before it causes even worse harm than it already has.”

Joe pinched the bridge of his nose and grimaced into his fist. Billie puckered her lips as if to whistle, but produced no sound, just glancing around at everyone else present. Yngrid gripped the haft of her scythe in both hands, looking warily at Gabriel.

All eight students just stared impassively at Mary.

“With stakes like this,” she said softly, “make no mistake, I will not hesitate—”

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny interrupted, “please believe that I’m very grateful for all the help you’ve given me. I love you and have absolutely no intention of ever causing you any upset. And you are not, under any circumstances, getting your hands on that mask.”

The Crow sighed very softly. “Can we not find room to negotiate on that point?”

“If you’re thinking about trying to take it by force,” Gabriel said evenly, “think a lot more carefully. None of us is capable of sticking you in a cage, lady. All we’ve got is sharp objects and massive firepower to hit you with.”

“And none of us wants to do that,” Shaeine added. “You are honored kin to Trissiny, who is precious to all of us. The safety of the world, and the responsibility for actions we have set into motion, must supersede those concerns, however.”

“Yeah, so, please don’t push us on this one,” said Fross.

“The safety of the world,” Mary said, a tinge of bitterness creeping into her voice. “What, then, is your idea to ensure it?”

“We’re gonna give it to Professor Tellwyrn,” Juniper replied.

Mary clenched both fists; the very breeze around them suddenly blew colder. “That is absolutely—”

“The single best idea I’ve ever heard out of these twerps,” Weaver interrupted. “You weren’t there, Mary, but the rest of us have already been through this, back during the Belosiphon affair. When faced with the question of what to do with an impossibly dangerous artifact that nobody could ever be allowed to have, the least terrible solution we could come up with was letting Tellwyrn have it.”

“Arachne,” Mary spat. “That reckless, aggressive, thoughtless—”

“You want things, Kuriwa,” Trissiny said. “Tellwyrn may be all of that and worse, but she also has no ambition. All she wants to do is sit on her mountain and teach. She has everything in the world she’s after. You? You’ve got plans and an agenda. If you had the Mask, there’s no question that you’d use it toward your ends. This is not about us thinking Tellwyrn would find a better use for it. This is because she would have no use.”

“It is incredible to me that you could believe that,” Mary retorted. “I have known her a great deal longer than any of you, and trust me—”

“Arachne Tellwyrn is a creature of vastly more discretion and restraint than basically anyone gives her credit for,” Yngrid interjected. “Even my sisters know of her… Well, actually, some of that’s secret. But for what it’s worth, I agree. She’s already got too much power to be tempted by a thing like that and nothing she would actually want to do with it.”

Weaver stepped up beside the valkyrie, sliding an arm around her waist. “And it’s academic, besides. Tellwyrn already has a whole collection of dangerous objects of about this caliber, which nobody’s seen hide nor hair of since she got them. We know she can be trusted to hide things and not touch them.”

“No,” Mary snapped, “you know she can be trusted so far. None of you have seen Arachne backed into a corner, desperate, or enraged beyond reason. I have. The best I can say about it is that in the past, she had no such collection of horrors upon which to draw. And now you want to add to it?”

“Yeah, okay, but…why are you better?” Teal asked.

Mary turned to her. “For better than four thousand years, I have walked this world doing my best to protect it.”

“Good fuckin’ job,” Gabriel snorted. “Cos as we all know, nobody’s ever terrified by the name Mary the Crow.”

“They talked about you in the grove, when I was there,” Juniper added. “The Elders made it sound like you really only bother to protect the elves. Actually…they didn’t sound super grateful for your help.”

“They really aren’t,” Trissiny said quietly. “I’ve mostly heard about it from my grandmother, and a story from one source can be inaccurate, but the way Lanaera tells it the only people who are less happy to have Kuriwa’s sudden help than the elves in general are her own descendants in particular.”

“I see her elevation to grove Elder has done nothing to blunt that nest of brambles Lanaera calls a tongue,” Mary grated.

“Mary,” Joe said gently, taking a step forward. “Look, I dunno anything about you and other elves. What I know is that all of us have learned to trust you.” He gestured toward the rest of his party with one hand. “You’ve saved all our butts more than once, and I for one really appreciate having the benefit of your experience. I feel like I’ve learned an incredible amount from you.”

“But?” Mary prompted bitterly.

“But,” he echoed with a slow nod. “I think Trissiny’s right. Nobody needs to have that mask, not if it does the kind of stuff we just saw. It ain’t a question of who’s got a better purpose for it. It should go to somebody who’ll lock it away an’ forget about it. And Tellwyrn’s the only name that comes to mind.”

“Esteemed elder, forgive my frank speech, but we must call this what it is,” Shaeine said solemnly. “Your perspective is understandable: for ages you have labored hard and done your best, making difficult choices to guide the world to the best outcomes you could manage. You have learned in that time to rely only on yourself. It is understandable that you are reluctant to trust anyone else with possession of such power, accustomed as you are to the assumption that if you want something done right, you must do it. Am I wrong?”

“I cannot say that you are,” Mary replied, mastering her expression.

“And that’s fair,” Teal agreed, nodding. “But…everybody thinks that about themselves. We are each one of us the hero in our own story. But to pull back and look through the perspectives of others… Does your record of actual achievements really suggest you’re the most qualified to take on a burden like that?”

“I begin to wonder,” she said stonily, “if I am wasting my time trying to talk about this with you.”

Gabriel drew his wand back out. “I really hope that wasn’t meant the way it sounded.”

“Kuriwa.” Trissiny stepped forward until she was a few bare feet from Mary, staring her in the eye. “Let me be clear: I don’t know whether or not you have the physical capacity to seize that mask from us, but even if so, that would only be the beginning. If I have to press the issue, the next time I do so it will be with Lanaera, Rainwood, and Zanzayed, plus anyone of our bloodline they know who would think it a valuable use of their time to humble you and take an artifact of power out of your hands.”

“Child,” Mary said sardonically, “if you think to get more than two of our family to tolerate one another’s company for more than an hour, much less cooperate toward a common end, I sincerely wish you luck.”

“You haven’t managed it,” Trissiny replied softly, “because you’ve never been able to offer them the one goal on which they would all agree: thwarting you.”

They locked eyes, and slowly, Mary’s wry expression melted away to a flat stare of displeasure.

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so even her own descendants would rally to mess her up over this? And you wanna go and claim you’re the most competent person who could be trusted with that mask? Fuck you, lady.”

“Hey, now, maybe we should all take it easy,” McGraw said soothingly, tucking his staff into the crook of his arm so he could raise both hands peaceable as he stepped forward. “Mary, given the disparity in our levels of experience, I’ve never tried to pitch myself as your equal, but with all due respect, I reckon there’s one area of understanding where your agelessness leaves you at a disadvantage.”

Mary finally tore her eyes away from Trissiny’s to turn a weary grimace on him. “Oh, do tell.”

“There comes a point,” he said, “where a person’s just gotta acknowledge that their time has passed. That the best use o’ their talents is in offering the benefit of their years to the younger generation, steppin’ back and lettin’ ’em take over.”

“Aye, ain’t that more or less exactly what grove Elders do?” Billie added.

“That’s what Tellwyrn’s done,” Juniper said softly.

“As much as any group of kids I’ve ever met, I reckon these know what they’re about,” McGraw continued, nodding at the students. “I ain’t sayin’ everything they do’s gonna be the right call or that they won’t mess up and create havoc now’n again. But if you’re gonna try to fix that, well, you’re not just dealin’ with this one specific situation anymore. You’ll have set yourself up to straighten out somethin’ absolutely fundamental to the world, and honestly, even your talents ain’t equal to that task.”

Mary stared at him for a moment, then at Trissiny, then Gabriel, and finally at the comatose form of Principia.

“This conversation is not over,” she said abruptly. “But…you have all given me some important things to ponder. Thank you, again, for helping me out of that trap.”

She turned away from them and strode off. The entire group stared in silence as the ancient elf went right up to the edge of the plateau, facing the Great Tree in the distance, and squatted on her heels in a posture not unlike a roosting bird. There, she fell still.

“So,” Brother Toraldt said loudly from the far edge of the gathering, “shall I infer that we are yet again not going to depart today?”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

Sister Elaine sighed, even as she stifled a small smile, and patted the dwarf on the shoulder. “Come, Toraldt, we may as well go unload the packs again.”

“Again,” he huffed, but turned and followed her around the corner of the nearest building. The rest of the group watched in silence until their two Order of the Light guides were once more out of sight.

“Okay, I’ll be honest,” Fross stage whispered. “I completely forgot they were here.”

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