Tag Archives: Teal

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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15 – 47

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“Here.” Trissiny took two steps to the side and handed the golden cage to Joe, prompting Mary to flap and croak indignantly within. “Would you mind?”

“Uh, sure,” he said uncertainly, taking it from her. “I mean, not at all. What’s…?”

Her hands free, Trissiny stepped forward, cracking her knuckles. In the space of one stride, her gait seemed to shift from her usual stiff bearing to something subtly evocative of a slouch, even though she still stood straight enough to pass for a soldier. The nuance was as impressive for how difficult it was to pin down as for how fast she had drawn it over herself like a cloak.

“And so, here we are,” Trissiny drawled. “The great Keys finally becomes the victim of a con. Spectacularly. When you fail, you don’t fail halfway, do you?”

Principia had returned her focus to the screens orbiting her, but at that glanced again down at Trissiny through a gap between them. Only for a second, though.

“You want to change strategies less abruptly in the future, Trissiny. I’m pleased that you’ve learned to project a front, but doing it so brazenly makes the ploy quite transparent, especially to people who know you. The tactic is sound, your technique just needs refining.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Trissiny said lightly, her smirk not faltering for having been pointed out as a facade. “But don’t change the subject: we’re talking about you, not me. You’d expect a thief a bare few months on from being tagged to fumble now and again, but you’re Principia freaking Locke, the great con artist, centuries-old player of the game and veteran of a thousand capers. You getting utterly bamboozled is actually news worth noting.”

“I am processing a quantity of information that would cause your brain to shut down if you were exposed to it. The idea that I could be bamboozled—”

“I’m talking about what you don’t see, not what you can’t see. Anyway, don’t feel too bad. It would be a story for the ages if you outfoxed a trickster god. Getting outfoxed by one is only natural.”

“If you’re referring to Vesk, that has been dealt with. Thanks to me, whatever he planned for Gabriel was circumvented.”

“That just goes to show that more knowledge isn’t more understanding,” Trissiny snapped. “You were actually smarter before putting that thing on! The Principia I know never claimed to be perfect. She faced her mistakes and tried to fix them. She was confident in her skills, but never so arrogant she assumed no one could beat her. Because she was smart enough to know that overconfidence immediately leads to a fall!”

This earned her another direct look from Principia, this one more lingering. “If you have a compelling theory explaining how Vesk has outmaneuvered me, offer it. That would be relevant, if correct.”

“Think about what happened. He’s been setting you up over the long haul, Keys, starting when he intervened with your squad in Tiraas. That planted the idea in your head that when he meddled, you—and people you cared about—would be exposed to risks and costs to achieve whatever story he was trying to tell. And then he showed up here, just as the Mask was being created, and said…what? The way you described it, he did nothing but mumble dire warnings and portents of great doom. Right when you were here, under enormous pressure. There’s whatever you’re doing for Rouvad that you need to be in good with the University for, Tellwyrn’s threats of revenge if anything happened to us. You trying to rebuild some good faith with Teal and Shaeine, while everybody made you a punching bag for practical jokes. And…we both know every minute you’re around me you’re constantly reminded of how horribly you’ve screwed up our relationship, and how much you want to fix it. Vesk dropped into the middle of that stew and set you to fearing for all of us, and the very next thing you learned was about the Mask and all the trouble it’s bound to be at the center of. You were good and primed to be spooked so hard even your self-control slipped, Prin. And that’s when Gabe was called away, alone, in a move you would easily recognize as a story trope. There’s no way Vesk didn’t know Vidius was going to react that way. Heck, I bet he prompted Vidius to time it when he did.”

“Actually,” said Gabriel, “I don’t think—”

“I do think,” McGraw interrupted, then turned, looking to his own companions for confirmation. “We talked about this amongst us when setting out, remember? We inadvertently brought Mr. Arquin there by helping Weaver un-doom his doomed romance. That was only possible because we had somebody who’d been there before: Joe.”

“And I was there,” Joe said slowly, “at the behest of my friend Jenny, the so-called Shifter, who according to Mary has been associated with Vesk in the past.”

“She works for him directly,” Toby said quietly. “We’ve seen her in Vesk’s own personal citadel.”

“Oi, yer one of ‘is own bards, aye?” Billie asked, punching Weaver in the knee. “Just outta curiosity, did this improbable love story between some random guitar-strummin’ arsehole and a freakin’ extra-dimensional specter o’ death ‘appen ta start off in some kinda bizzare circumstance that mighta been prompted by a certain god?”

Weaver and Yngrid said nothing, but looked at each other, their eyes wide in an expression of realization that was as good as any answer.

“Ho. Lee. Ssssshit,” Gabriel hissed. “That magnificent bastard.”

Mary squawked and fluttered furiously, rattling her cage.

“Well, I will say it makes sense fer a trickster deity to play his games on a particularly grand scale,” McGraw drawled.

“You got conned, Keys,” Trissiny said bluntly. “He got you thinking emotionally instead of with your wits, and then gave you exactly the jab he knew would make you jump. Every Eserite knows that life’s a game: as long as you’re treating it that way, you keep your emotions out of your way and avoid tensing up so bad you can’t react. Vesk put you under every kind of simultaneous pressure he could bring to bear, made you think about what was at stake instead of what you were doing. You stopped playing, for probably the first time in a century, and you immediately lost. Take the lesson, Keys, and stop doubling down on your screwup. You’ve lost; it’s time to walk away.”

Principia had already gone utterly still, her eyes fixed straight ahead and hands suspended in the act of reaching to poke at more screens. As Trissiny finished speaking, even the rotating panels of light around her stilled, fixing themselves in place and ceasing to alter their displays. She hung that way as if frozen in the five seconds of silence which followed, before finally speaking a single word.

“Plausible.”

Trissiny let out a soft breath, releasing tension she’d been concealing. Gabriel and several of the others ventured small smiles of relief, and Mary began muttering unintelligibly to herself in her hoarse avian voice, ruffling her feathers.

“But irrelevant.”

The panels resumed their cycling and Principia went back to glancing about and periodically touching them as if nothing had happened.

“However we came to this point, the situation is what it is. Our intervention is required—”

“Why, though?” Teal stepped forward, her hands jammed in the pockets of her blazer, and looked up at the levitating elf with an openly inquisitive expression. “What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish, Locke? Because you’re supposed to be protecting this student group, and I don’t see how dropping a bunch of adventurers onto us and then sending us into some kind of disaster in N’Jendo is doing that.”

“If you decline to render aid, Mrs. Falconer, I will not compel you. I will be disappointed, but forcing action on your part would defeat the purpose.”

“Hey, don’t get me wrong.” Teal pulled her hands out and held them up in a placating gesture. “I’m all for protecting the innocent. But here’s the thing: I have zero idea who you are and what your agenda is. We’ve just heard a thorough rundown of why you are not behaving or thinking at all like our Lieutenant Locke, not to mention a pretty spooky case study of what can happen when an all-powerful being is allowed to pull strings behind the scenes. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’ll be glad to help if our help is needed, but we don’t know what you’re thinking or what you’re after. Doing anything on orders from you is going to require some trust. Principia has earned some, much to my surprise, but it’s clear whatever we knew or felt about her doesn’t apply to whoever I’m talking with now.”

There was another short pause.

“The concern is not unreasonable,” Principia said curtly. “What would reassure you?”

“Well,” Teal shrugged, “what exactly kind of a thing are you supposed to be? What was the word you guys used…?”

“She’s an Archon, apparently,” said Gabriel. “A chief servitor of one of the Elder Gods. Tarthriss, in this case, according to the Avatar we were just speaking with in the Golden Sea.”

“That fucking thing really can reproduce people from before the Elder War?” Ruda muttered. “Fuck a fuckin’ duck.”

“Reproduce people?” Joe muttered. He got no response, save perhaps the sudden utter stillness of Mary in the cage he was still holding.

“Okay, so, that’s troubling,” Teal said frankly. “You’re a servant of a being who is obviously dead. Whose agenda are you following now?”

“I have already answered that,” Principia replied, impatience entering her tone. “I am acting on orders from Avei.”

“What orders?” Trissiny demanded.

“That is classified. Yes, General Avelea, even to you, unless the High Commander or Avei herself countermands that order. I calculate a high probability of the latter, as your active involvement in this plan would obviously be advantageous.”

“And when Avei set out to doing this,” said Fross, “was she leveraging a certain very clever thief in her employ? Or do you think she was planning on you using an impossibly dangerous magical artifact that didn’t even exist at the time in order to become a long-extinct class of Elder God servitor which it sounds like she herself deliberately wiped off the face of the earth? Cos there’s several jumps in there and they kinda suggest this is not what Avei sent you out to do.”

“Any military commander must know the assets she has in the field in order to deploy them properly,” Shaeine agreed. “If you presume to be acting in Avei’s service, Lieutenant, it is basic sense that in the aftermath of such a drastic development, you should seek out updated orders before acting further.”

“Unfeasible,” Principia stated. “Gods are not so easily approached directly.”

“I can arrange that, you know,” Trissiny pointed out.

“Unnecessary!”

“Unless,” Trissiny drawled, “there’s some reason you don’t want to hear the goddess’s opinion of your actions here.”

“My actions are consistent with Legion doctrine! Operatives in the field are expected to react to changing circumstances and apply their best judgment as necessary.”

“I’m pretty sure there are no Legion doctrines that even try to cover this,” Merry protested. “I mean, Avelea’s not here to correct me, but I’m willing to bet on that.”

“Different Avelea,” Joe explained as Gabriel turned to frown in confusion at Trissiny.

“Leaving aside Legion regulations,” said Trissiny, “you are still an Eserite. Whatever responsibilities you’ve been given, I have to assume you’re Eserite first and foremost. Knowledge is power, Locke, and it follows that absolute knowledge is absolute power. What does power do to people?”

“You will not distract me by quoting—”

“Then forget Eserion and Avei both!” Trissiny shouted. “If you have access to all the knowledge of the Elder Gods, I assume they knew things about psychology that have been long since forgotten. How does power affect the brain, Locke?”

Another silence fell. The rotating panels seemed to glitch, momentarily reversing their course and then freezing for a second. It was hard to tell behind the mini-screens bristling from her crown, but Principia appeared to be frowning slightly.

“I… Irrelevant. I have the full faculties of—”

“Of a chief servant of the most infamously power-mad beings that have ever existed?” Teal finished. “Are you beginning to see why this is a tough sell, Locke?”

“Not to interrupt,” Toby said quietly, “but there’s something I can’t help noticing. A couple of times now, people addressing you have spoken of Principia Locke as if she were a separate person, not party to this conversation. And you didn’t correct either one. Also, you yourself spoke pretty disdainfully of Principia before. Is that even still you in there?”

“I have been improved upon,” she said stiffly.

“Well, I obviously don’t have all the knowledge you do,” Toby replied, “but I don’t think so. I’m not trying to excuse Principia’s flaws, but the truth is I like her. She isn’t all-knowing, but she’s experienced and clever. I’ve developed the impression that I’m probably never going to agree with Principia’s methods of doing anything, but even so, I understood her goals, and they’re good ones. Prin cares about people, and about values, and does her best to do some good in the world, in her own way. I trust that a lot more than some detached information-processing servitor making abstract plans for me and who knows how many other people. And I think I know what Prin would say about someone like that, too.”

“I don’t care what she would say!” the floating elf burst out, audibly agitated now. “You don’t understand. With nothing but a single limited point of perspective, there’s so little you can do, and yet so very much damage you can cause! Principia Locke has ruined everything she ever touched; I can fix it.”

“You shut your FUCKING mouth!” Merry roared. “Locke has fought tooth and nail to protect our squad when everybody else in the world wanted us dead, and she succeeded against the most ridiculous odds! I don’t know who or what you even are and I don’t care. You don’t talk about her that way!”

“I understand,” Toby said, his quiet voice a stark contrast to Merry’s anger. “You got a sudden view of your whole life from a new perspective, and the realization hurt. I really do understand.”

“You understand nothing,” Principia spat. “You have neither the ability to perceive what I do, nor the history of selfishness and destruction I have to—”

“He does, though,” Juniper cut in, stepping forward. “And so do I. Not in the same way as you, any more than Toby and I had the same exact experience, but you’d better believe we get it. The moment of insight when you realize how horrible you’ve been is agony like nothing else I’ve ever imagined. And here’s something else I can tell you about living through that: if you try to run from it, you’ll only make it worse. You have to face what you’ve done, let it hurt, and do better.”

“You don’t understand,” Principia repeated, her voice outright pleading now. All around her, the glowing panels had begun spinning so fast she couldn’t possibly be reading them, for all that her eyes kept darting without resting in one position for an instant. “There’s so much going wrong in the world, but from here I can do something about it! I can at least make up for…”

“Locke,” Merry said, insistently but far more calmly than before. “You can’t save the world. The world is not for saving. Trust me, that’s the thinking of the kind of dumb, chapbook-addled teenager who tries to walk into the Golden Sea to become a hero. That’s what I do understand. The world is always going to be fucked up; it’s supposed to be. If it wasn’t, that would mean nobody had any choices or agency. No flaws means no virtues. A perfect world would be hell. Everything’s a mess, and everybody is supposed to do whatever they can, with whatever they have, wherever they are. You’re not supposed to make yourself some kind of demigod, that’ll just end up adding to the world’s problems. If you try to take away other people’s responsibility to help fix things, you are taking their power to become better.”

“Well put,” McGraw said, tipping his hat to her.

“We’re not going to take orders from you,” Trissiny said quietly. “Not from…this. All of us will do what we can, where we are, using our best judgment, just as Tellwyrn taught us. If you turn yourself into…whatever this is…that’s nothing but a loss. We’ll have lost someone smart and motivated to help just when we need her the most.”

“That’s not fair,” Principia protested. Several of the screens began to wink out of existence, creating gaps in the translucent globe around her.

“It’s not just a loss in the strategic sense,” Trissiny added, lowering her eyes and turning away. “I was just starting to like you a little bit. If you…if the woman I was getting to know is just…gone, now, then… Damn it. I already miss her.” She emitted a short, startled bark of laughter. “I’m just as surprised as you.”

“I just…” The last of the screens vanished. Principia hung there—not just hovered, hung, with her arms dangling at her sides and her head drooping forward in a defeated posture. “I thought I could… It would all be better without the mess I was. Just…intelligence and a plan, and maybe I could make up for everything.”

“Nobody’s not a mess, you goober,” Gabriel said with a wry grin. “That’s normal. It’s healthy. Life’s about embracing your flaws and making strengths of them, not throwing them away. Without flaws, what the hell are you? How are you supposed to improve if you don’t have screwups to learn from?”

“You can’t make up for anything,” Juniper added. “The past doesn’t work that way; it’s done. You have to become a better person and do better things.”

“Take that thing off and come down from there, Keys,” Trissiny said gently. “We need you. While you’re fucking around with magical artifacts, the bastards are out there winning.”

Mary croaked softly.

Principia stared disconsolately at the ground for an interminable moment.

Then, abruptly as if trying to surprise herself before she could react, she grabbed her own face and pulled.

The Mask came free and immediately tumbled from her hands, and she plummeted toward the ground.

Trissiny darted forward with her arms outstretched and Principia tumbled right into them, her head lolling back. Fross swooped in as the Mask of the Adventurer went spinning off to the side, seizing the artifact and making it disappear back into her aura storage before circling back to rejoin the group.

“She’s… I don’t know what’s wrong!” Trissiny said in alarm, gently laying Principia on the ground. “This didn’t happen to anybody else who tried it on!”

The elf was still slumped weakly, but now began to twitch violently, her eyes rolled up into her head.

Shaeine had already darted forward to kneel at Principia’s other side. Reaching out to place one hand on her forehead, the drow closed her eyes, frowning in concentration.

Principia stilled, then let out a heavy sigh and finally relaxed, her head rolling to one side as Shaeine withdrew her hand.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded.

“I put her to sleep,” said Shaeine. “A simple, natural sleep, the only kind I can grant. I do think it’s the best thing for her, Trissiny. I’m not able to interpret thoughts or even emotions, but when I touch someone’s mind that way I do get a general sense of it. A mind, to my awareness, feels much like a deep pool. Something with a serene surface but great depths beneath. Principia’s, just now, was boiling.”

“You two weren’t with us in Puna Dara,” Gabriel said, leaning over them with a worried frown. “The Avatar we met under the city had had his mind stuffed with a constant stream of information. That would make anybody crazy. You just can’t pour unlimited data into a brain that’s not meant to handle it.”

“Will she…” Trissiny cut herself off, swallowing heavily.

“I don’t know,” Shaeine said, reaching out to grasp her hand. “There is no precedent of any kind for this. But I do believe sleep will help her, Trissiny. Dreaming is how the brain sorts away extra information; that is why people begin to go mad if deprived of sleep. She needs to dream. I suspect she will sleep much longer than normal, and I strongly advise that she be allowed to. We should not wake or try to move her until she comes to on her own.”

“And then, we’ll…find out,” Merry whispered, kneeling at Principia’s head and gently smoothing back a lock of black hair that had been disturbed.

“Well,” Juniper offered, “at least we got to her before Vesk got what he wanted. I mean, it’s not much, but it’s a little satisfying that the person who set all this up didn’t get away with it.”

“I would strongly advise against ever thinking you’ve put one over on Vesk,” Weaver said even more sourly than usual. “Sounds like that’s exactly what got her into this situation.”

“Yeah, I have to agree with Grumpypants on this one,” said Gabriel, frowning deeply. “Think about it. If this was a chapbook and suddenly some random-ass thing happened out of nowhere and brought every plotline that was going on into one place for no good reason…well, I’d probably put the book down.”

“Yeah, famous arbiter of literary taste you are,” Ruda said solemnly.

“I just mean,” he snapped, shooting her a look, “Vesk is the actual god of bards. Do you think he’d set up something so hacky and contrived?”

“He’s right,” Teal said grimly. “We talked Locke down before actually getting shunted off to deal with…whatever it is. But now we know there’s something big about to go down in N’Jendo where our help would be useful, and we know there’s somebody in Veilgrad who can help us deal with it. And it’s not like we can just ignore that knowledge, now is it?”

“Not like we can really do anything about it, either,” Fross pointed out. “I’ve been working on learning teleportation but I’m at the level of moving erasers across the classroom. I’m not about to try to send people, especially not over that distance, especially not this big a group, and most especially not people I care about.”

“Try it on Weaver?” Billie suggested. “Fer science!”

“My point is,” the pixie chimed in clear exasperation, “at a walking speed, which is all we’ve got to work with, getting down from here to anywhere is going to take days at least, and that’s after waiting for Locke to wake up. Which might also take days.”

“Now, I’m not real clear on exactly what that mask thing is or does,” McGraw said, “but it clearly helped Prin perform an impossible teleport, and we do still have it—”

“NO!” almost everyone shouted in unison.

“That thing has done quite enough damage,” Trissiny added, gently folding Principia’s limp hands on her chest. “Let’s not borrow any more trouble. If we’re still caught in Vesk’s narrative, I don’t doubt for a moment that something else will come up before we know it. In the meantime, everyone should take a breather while we can. For the moment, at least, everything is back to normal.”

Mary began screeching, squawking, and flapping about in her cage so violently that Joe had to struggle to keep his grip on it.

“Oh,” Trissiny winced. “Right. Almost everything.”

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15 – 46

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It was hard to know where to look first, and that was not even counting the distraction of everyone’s ears popping as they abruptly moved from the Golden Sea to the cooler, thinner air of the mountains. The plateau itself, an ancient plaza surrounded by stone buildings, might have been any moderately well-preserved patch of ruins anywhere, but beyond it was the stark grandeur of the Wyrnrange stretching in all directions, and the incredible shape of the Great Tree commanding the whole horizon to the north.

More immediately present, though, were the people.

The class of 1182 themselves were clustered together in a tight arc facing the teleport’s arrival point, while off to the other side stood a Silver Legionnaire with a corporal’s insignia next to a human woman and a dwarf man in sensible traveling attire. Both groups were easy to overlook, however, in the presence of Principia Locke.

Her black hair was tied back in a sleek tail not wholly unlike a Legion regulation braid, and further constrained by a silvery apparatus resembling a crown fitted most of the way around her skull, its front apertures bristling with tiny translucent panels attached to spidery silver arms, positioned where she could see them peripherally without blocking her forward vision. Patterns of light flickered across the metal band of the crown, and on the metallic trim of her glossy white robes. Whatever material they were made of did not look like fabric, though it moved easily enough; it gleamed as if it were metallic itself, and was further augmented by structural traceries of what might have been steel or possibly mithril, these further augmented in places by tiny lights of various colors. Huge, heavy-looking bracers covered her forearms, also bedecked with lights and set along their backs with long display panels, and her waist was encircled by a thick silvery belt, at the front of which glowed a circular display which cycled rapidly through different colors and inscrutable symbols.

She stood surrounded by a ring of hovering shapes, mostly rectangles with rounded corners, made entirely of pale light and displaying columns of text, symbols, complex diagrams and patterns that looked like maps. Principia kept her eyes on these, deftly manipulating them with tiny movements of her fingers, causing the displays to move about and change content in some pattern comprehensible only to herself.

“What the fuck,” Ruda demanded, summing up what everyone was thinking before getting down to specifics. “Who the fuck are all these yahoos and why are they here? Hi, Joe.”

“Hey, everybody,” Joe said with a wary smile. “Good to see y’all again.”

“Excuse me, but is that a valkyrie?” Fross chimed. “Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen Juniper frightened before.”

“I’m fine,” Juniper said flatly, though she was as rigid as a tree trunk and staring at Yngrid through eyes widened with panic. Sniff, picking up her mood, placed himself in front of his mistress and hissed aggressively at the new arrivals, fanning his wings and head crest.

“Also, why’d you bring the cranky bullying librarian?” Teal added. “I was quite happy pretending he’d vanished off the face of the earth.”

“Me, too,” Weaver said frankly.

“Peace.” Mary stepped forward from the group which had just ‘ported in, projecting her voice in a manner that was both serenely calm and commanded obedience. “Clearly, there is already a tangled web of introductions and explanations that need be made here. I advise approaching this with all due care and precision, one step at a time. And it seems to me the first step should be obvious to us all. Principia, you feckless child, what have you done to yourself?”

“Shut up, Kuriwa, nobody likes you. Gabriel Arquin.” Principia’s delivery was clipped and flat, quite unlike her usual cadence. “Your recklessness staggers the imagination. What could you possibly have been thinking, shunting yourself off to a remote nexus of unfathomable power amid a gaggle of dangerous reprobates in the middle of the events that have been transpiring here?”

“I’d take offense, but damn if she didn’t nail us,” Billie commented.

“Okay, you know what, Locke?” Gabriel snapped. “I’m not one to lecture people as a rule, but I’ve been getting in some good practice recently and I’m in no mood to take this from you of all people. As I suspect Trissiny told you because she got all the common sense in your entire bloodline, I was sent on a mission directly by Vidius. So not only do I not really have the option of turning that down, but it’s not as if I was wandering around in the weeds unattended. Anybody should be able to infer from context that I was fine. And your reaction to this was to go and put that goddamn thing on your face after all the moaning you gave us about what a terrible idea it was? You’re officially the last person allowed—”

“Vidius is going to kill you.”

The simple, stark statement cut through his tirade and brought him up short, mouth slightly open. The entire time, Principia’s eyes had been darting from one point to another on the various floating displays orbiting her; she still did not look directly at him, but as she spoke one of the rectangular light screens shifted to a vertical orientation near her eyeline and displayed what looked like a human silhouette with scrolling notations in a language none of them could read.

“How many paladins have you known, Arquin?” she asked before the tension could mount too much further.

He narrowed his eyes. “Well…just the two. Three, I guess, if I get to count myself.”

“I’ll grant you three, because I’ve still known a number which dwarfs that utterly and every single one of them died for the same reason: being a paladin. Going on missions for Vidius is the thing that will kill you. The very idea that you are safe because you’re on assignment from him will do it faster unless you purge that completely backwards thought from your brain right now and redouble your situational awareness while on the clock. More immediately, the lot of us are standing at the center of a web of connection and prophecy stretching through the very nature of magic itself and eclipsing the scope of the world. You don’t grasp a fraction of the extent, but you should have been adequately warned by the fact that Vesk was involved. You, who have spent more time than most of us recently dancing on his strings. I know you’ve read enough stories to have spotted some of the things it was likely to mean when you left the group on your own in the middle of all this. In the best case scenario, the rest of us would have been forced to ride to your rescue amidst who knows what carnage. At worst, it was a death sentence. To a thing like Vesk, the death of a hero is nothing but proper motivation for whoever’s left.”

“And yet I note that none of that happened,” Gabriel said, now frowning at her warily.

“It did not happen because I broke every rule of principle and basic sense to prevent it,” Principia said tonelessly. “I was right when I warned you not to use this mask, and I was right to make that sacrifice. It takes nothing less than changing all the rules of reality to cheat a god. Especially that one.”

“Mask?” Mary demanded. “What have you done?”

“It’s a long story, Kuriwa,” Trissiny murmured, edging over toward her. “I’ll bring you up to speed—”

“You will not,” Principia ordered. “You know very well that she of all people does not need to get her claws on it.”

“Locke,” Trissiny said, turning directly to her, “I think it’s time you took that thing off. You’ve accomplished what you set out to, and you are starting to sound alarmingly unlike yourself.”

“I should think you would welcome that development,” Principia replied. As she spoke, the ring of hovering screens around her doubled, forming two bands as if flanking the equator of a sphere, rotating slowly in opposite directions. The crown on her head sprouted more tiny sets of arms, projecting a new set of smaller panels around the edges of her eyes. “You have always been correctly skeptical of…myself.”

“I will remind you, Lieutenant,” Shaeine said evenly, “that you specifically asked us to end you if it became apparent that you had lost yourself to the artifact. That conclusion is growing perilously close.”

“Yes, that does sound like something I would say, does it not?” Principia mused, her eyes darting rapidly between screens, fingers flicking them this way and that faster than ever. “Completely sincere, and yet deliberately manipulating your emotions. With no malice, simply a lack of understanding any other way to relate to people. It’s pathetic, if you think about it. In any case, you should disregard that instruction. At the time I did not know the merest fraction of the things I know now. I have much better ideas.”

“That is enough,” Mary stated, beginning to weave her arms about in a dance-like series of movements that caused a gentle breeze to begin playing across the plateau, smelling of moss and wildflowers. “When you are neck-deep in the consequences of your actions, girl, recall that you were warned.”

“Oh, I think not,” Principia said evenly, extending her arms out to the sides to touch her fingertips to screens at opposite points flanking her.

The air pressure abruptly plummeted further, causing everyone’s ears to pop again, and currents of air coalesced around Mary into visible streams of compressed gas. The elf emitted a single, hoarse squawk, and then the entire net of air tightened onto her like a clenching fist and she shrank down to the form of a crow.

Before the bird could take flight, a sphere of light flashed into place around her. This instantly imploded, collapsing just like the streamers of her own hijacked spell of a moment before, but instead of crushing her, it formed a shape. Specifically, a golden birdcage.

All of this coalesced into being at about chest height. Then the cage plummeted to the ground, where it bounced twice and rolled over onto its side, Mary furiously cawing and flapping about inside it.

“I’ve no doubt you will weasel out of that sooner than later, Kuriwa,” Principia announced, “and then surely enact some horrible revenge on me, predictable creature that you are. It will all be more than worth it for the sheer satisfaction of knowing that for one sweet, blissful moment in history, nobody had to put up with any of your bullshit.”

Trissiny darted over to pick up the cage, carefully holding it upright to peer between the bars. This gentler treatment did nothing to lessen the crow’s outraged noise.

A single wedge of silver light flashed into being and stabbed directly at Principia’s face. It dissipated upon crossing the boundary of the screens surrounding her.

“Please do not strain against my defenses, Shaeine,” Principia requested calmly without even glancing at the drow. “I will not harm you, but you risk burnout or mana fatigue by pushing your magic against a superior force.”

McGraw coughed discreetly, stepping forward. “If you don’t mind my askin’, Prin, what kinda superior force are we talkin’ about, here? Not to gloss over the fact that this is a darn sight different from your general bearing the last time we met, but I confess an old professional’s interest in any interesting new form o’ magic.”

“Disingenuousness does not suit you, Elias,” she said tonelessly.

“In point of fact, I’ve found it a more versatile tool than anything in my spellbooks,” he said wryly, “but I won’t begrudge your opinion.”

“She is not using any specific school of magic, but all four and multiple shadow schools in equal measure, performing constant microcalculations to effect physical subjectivity rather than relying on the inherent compensatory attributes of any one magical form,” said Ariel.

“Can ye dumb that down fer those of us who don’t go to Crazy Magic College?” Billie asked.

“In essence,” Principia herself explained, “the unique attributes of each of the four fields of magic on the Circle of Interaction manifest themselves in the characteristic style of magic for which each is known, because magic is a way of bridging the gap between an idea in a sapient mind, and the innumerable calculations and exertions of infinitesimal amounts of basic universal forces on the subatomic level to express that idea in physical reality. Because a biological sapience can neither exert those forces unassisted nor perform the necessary math, each of the four schools expresses spells according to its particular idiom. To bypass these innate restrictions and tendencies and express subjective physics without artificial limitation, one must simply do all the calculations oneself without relying upon the calculator function of the magic fields. That capacity appears to be a function of the persona I am borrowing.”

Mary squawked and rattled her cage so hard Trissiny had to tighten her grip on it.

“She is describing the theoretical ultimate expression of magical practice,” said Ariel. “To my knowledge, this was only theoretical. I have never seen nor credibly heard of any practitioner capable of doing this.”

“Oh, that’s it,” Ruda said quietly. “I just realized what was nagging at me about this. She’s talking just like Ariel. You guys hear it too, right? That inflectionless delivery, the run-on sentences…”

“LT, you’re scaring the hell out of me,” Merry said frankly. “Mission’s over. Please take that thing off.”

“A thought occurs,” said Principia. The rings of screens multiplied again; now there were three, apparently conveying even more information to her. Her feet lifted bodily off the ground and she gradually floated upward to levitate about a yard up in the air. “If the Mask is permanently attached to someone, it is by definition out of play. Since absolute security is obviously impossible, this may be the only way to nullify the inherent danger posed by existence.”

“No, Locke, that turns it into a different kind of danger!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Excuse me, but would I be right in guessing that this borrowed persona works mainly by feeding you information?” Toby asked, stepping up to within a few feet of the barrier of Principia’s light screens.

“Essentially,” she said in a disinterested tone, fixing her attention for a moment on a panel showing what looked like a complex spell diagram. “Not only acquiring data through means beyond mortal senses but processing it at a capacity that would be otherwise impossible.”

“I see,” he replied, frowning. “Prin, I think you should be mindful of what a sudden switch of perspective like that can do to a person. You’re an Eserite, you understand better than anyone how power affects people’s heads. Right now, it looks a lot like you’re turning into exactly the kind of thing you’ve spent your life fighting against, and I really can’t think that’s what you intended.”

“A switch of perspective is a good way to put it,” she said, rising higher into the air. “Suddenly having a bird’s-eye view of my own consciousness is, in a word, humiliating. Princpia Locke is a broken, sideways-thinking creature developing a real conscience disgracefully late in life and even so expressing it through the lens of self-indulgent, self-centered slyness. An arrested adolescent smugly mistaking her own failure to function in a socially normal manner for mental and moral superiority. If she’s not going to have an emotionally healthy connection to anyone, it seems to me logical, not to mention appropriate, to become an entity which does not require them. Clearly no one will miss her.”

Mary’s renewed harsh cawing sounded eerily like agreement.

“I don’t get how you can apparently know everything and not know how wrong that is, Locke,” Merry said, her tone openly hurt. “The people who need you most are fully aware what a piece of work you are. We like you anyway, dumbass. That’s exactly what having a connection to other people means.”

“Locke, if you don’t take that thing off voluntarily, we’ll have no choice but to take it from you,” Trissiny warned.

“None of you have that capacity,” Principia observed. “The chances if all of you act in perfect unison are very small. I calculate this group is not able to coordinate with the necessary precision, anyway. Please do not risk injury by trying, Trissiny. There are significant events developing and all your strength will be urgently needed very soon. I am forming a plan.”

“If she’s able to see everything and do any kind of magic…” Teal looked around at the others, as if someone present might have answers. “How can you counter that?”

“Well, the original Archons all died,” said Gabriel, “so by definition they aren’t invincible.”

“In the old days,” Yngrid said quietly, “Archons were countered by the existence of other Archons, sworn to other gods, with contradicting agendas. They were only wiped out by direct action of the Pantheon, and that only after their patron gods were all gone.”

“You hear that, Locke?” Ruda called. “You’ve got no Elder God backing you up, and you’re this fuckin’ close to pissing off the gods that exist now. Come down from there and quit being a smug, all-knowing dong before you get your ass smote.”

“In the event of divine intervention, I expect confirmation from Avei that I am acting in accordance with her orders and established strategy.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed, echoed by a hoarse croak from the cage in her hands.

“Events and individuals are more connected than I ever imagined, across a scope which it would not have occurred to me to conceive of. Observe.”

Principia shifted her hands rapidly, tapping several points on various rotating screens in passing—five rings of them, now—as if she were activating runic controls.

The light on the plaza grew paler, and suddenly there were thick, tangled steamers of cobwebs binding each of them to one another, and extending off from the mountaintop in all directions. Several of them shouted in alarm and tried to pull away, causing the whole web to shift with them. The effect was purely visible; their movements were not restrained, nor could they physically feel the spider silk.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Principia instructed, tapping screens again. The light returned to normal and the webs faded from view. “I was initially concerned myself, but after a careful analysis I have determined that this effect is not harmful. On the contrary, its purpose appears to be preservation. Though I am unable to determine the origin point of this binding effect as it is temporally out of sync and my own ability to gather information thus is blocked by Vemnesthis’s activities, I calculate that each of us has been saved several times in the last three years from catastrophic and possibly lethal harm by these protections, through means which at the time would have appeared to be coincidence. The existence of time travel as a factor confirms the influence of a god, most likely operating from the future. No one else could circumvent Vemnesthis.”

“You think Avei did this?” Trissiny demanded.

“Perhaps. What I know is that I, personally, have been directed toward a specific end by Avei via the orders of the High Commander, and I now see the opportunity to advance my strategy far more rapidly that I anticipated before, and avert a major crisis in the process.”

The panels had continued to expand until she was now encircled by a full globe of them, hovering well above the level of their heads and rapidly reaching out to touch points on the passing screens in some pattern that made sense only to her.

“The incipient events in N’Jendo must be stopped for obvious humanitarian reasons. The forces assembled here, once connected with those already operating in Ninkabi, should prove more than sufficient. However, I calculate that there is time to gather more, which will not only increase the prospects of success further but will represent major progress in service of Avei’s long-term goal. I believe events in N’Jendo can be safely allowed to progress for a short time further, as Arachne and others are working to stabilize one of the unfolding disasters there. We should intercept her efforts in time to assume credit and absorb Ingvar’s wolf cult, of course, but this will leave us time for a necessary detour first to Veilgrad.”

“Ingvar’s wolf cult?” Joe shouted. “Hang on, you’re gonna need to explain that one!”

“What the fuck do we need in fucking Veilgrad?” Ruda demanded.

“Yeah, we’ve kinda done Veilgrad already,” added Fross.

“Seems rude to burn it down twice,” Toby said gravely.

“I understand all of this is confusing,” Principia said in that disturbingly impassive tone. “Your own perspectives are cripplingly limited. To explain it all would simply take too long. For the time being, you will just have to trust me.”

“Here’s the thing,” Trissiny said, stepping forward with Mary’s cage still in her hands. “I do trust Principia…strange as that sounds, to me. Even acknowledging how generally shifty you are, I know what you value and what your goals are. I know Principia Locke will always try to achieve what she believes is right, and in the end, I mostly agree with the end objective even if I take issue with your means of getting there. I trust you, Locke. Not…this. This thing that mask is turning you into. All systems are corrupt, and you’re becoming the system. Please, Locke, take it off, get your head back together, and then talk to us.”

“Your frustration is natural, Trissiny, but you will have to bear it. There’s just not time for thorough explanations.”

“Then let me put it a different way,” Trissiny said grimly. “Remove that mask. That is an order, Lieutenant.”

Finally, Principia turned her head to look directly at her, staring down her nose from high above through a gap that opened up in the translucent screens orbiting her.

“I’m sorry, General, but I am unable to comply. Not this time.”

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15 – 44

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Trissiny stared out across the edge of the plateau, through the space where he had vanished. Despite his and Schwartz’s conjecture over the summer about the damage that scythe could potentially do to reality, there remained no hint of the slash Gabriel had just carved in the air, just the quiet mountain breeze and the unpleasant but very faint buzzing in her ears caused by the charm he had used to conceal their brief conversation.

She held up the sheet of his enchanting paper, inscribed with a glyph-adorned circular diagram in faintly luminous purple ink; the basic structure of it was comprehensible to her thanks to Yornhaldt’s classes, but her knowledge of enchanting was very general and well below the level of this. And he’d just scrawled it in a few seconds. He was getting really good with these charms. Not for the first time, Trissiny resolved to focus more on her light wielding. It wouldn’t do to use it too much as a crutch, but it was a skill no Hand of Avei had developed to any great extent, and one which would thus take enemies by surprise, provided she was careful not to show it off excessively.

Pretty much the way Gabe used his arcane craft these days.

Raising her eyes to gaze again into the distance, Trissiny absently rubbed one thumb across a clear patch along the edge of the paper. It probably wouldn’t be necessary to destroy it; stable area of effect charms made from such basic materials burned themselves out very quickly, she knew that much about enchanting. The ink’s glow was already starting to fade. Once it went dark, it was just colored ink on paper, good for nothing except possibly as a little keepsake to tuck away…

And then, faster than she could react, it was ripped out of her hand.

Trissiny spun, instinctively reaching for her blade, and found herself almost nose-to-nose with Principia. Or would have been, had the elf’s nose not been turned the other way as she critically examined the charm.

“Sinneck’s silencing glyphward,” Principia mused. “A little sloppy, but he was probably in a hurry and it doesn’t really need to last long, does it? And as usual, you kids missed the broader strategic point under your fancy tricks: you can mask your conversation from the local elf, but the elf will still notice if she suddenly can’t hear your breathing, heartbeats, or anything at all from this little circular patch of ground.” Lifting her eyes to meet Trissiny’s, she deliberately ripped the charm in half, causing the faint buzz to vanish. “Where is he, Trissiny?”

She took her hand off the handle of her sword, deliberately straightening up. “It’s all right, Locke, he’ll be back…as soon as possible.”

“Not what I asked you.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes at the flat tone. Principia was staring at her in a way she never had: like an authority figure demanding an explanation. Even when she’d faced the woman from the wrong side of cell bars, she had never had this attitude. Trissiny immediately decided she didn’t care for it.

“It’s nothing you need to know about, Locke.”

“You are too intelligent for me to need to list all the reasons that’s wrong, but I’ll indulge you. I am responsible for all of you, we are about to leave and this is going to delay our departure, possibly to the point that our guides will declare the window missed and we’ll lose another entire day to this, and this group has ample warning from no less than a god of self-inflicted trouble descending upon all our heads. And now, I find I can’t detect Gabriel Arquin anywhere within the range of my senses. So I’ll ask you once more, Trissiny: where did he go?”

She refrained from gritting her teeth in sheer annoyance at the fact that Principia was right.

“It is a paladin matter, Locke. Vidius needed him for something. Furthermore, he described it as…family business.”

“And you just let him go?” she demanded.

Trissiny frowned more deeply. “Did you not hear me? It’s not as if I had any prerogative to stop him.”

“You know, I can’t help but think back to a certain hellgate incident. Now, I wasn’t there, so stop me if I’m wrong about this, but the version of the story I was told involved two paladins being ordered to stay and fight, and their entire circle of friends refusing to let them do so alone. Ring any bells?”

To her vast displeasure, Trissiny felt color rise in her cheeks. “That was a completely different situation.”

“Yeah, unlike most of your friends you have an actual claim when it comes to butting in on paladin business and a much better chance of surviving it. I’m a better enchanter than Arquin and I can hear the beetles under the stone you’re standing on, Trissiny. So do you want me to chase the little brat down myself, or would you rather spare him the embarrassment and show me which way he went?”

“I doubt even your senses are sharp enough, Locke. When Vidius chooses to help him do it, Gabe can shadow-jump. With that scythe, he can apparently do so into places where it wouldn’t usually be possible.”

Principia clamped her lips into a thin, unhappy line. “I see. And you wouldn’t happen to know where…?”

She shrugged. “Family business, he said. And something Vidius cared about enough to both send him on, and help, which means it’s probably something to do with the valkyries, not his father. Could be anywhere.”

They stared at each other for five seconds before Principia finally spoke.

“Well, Trissiny, this is a real watershed moment in our relationship. First time you’ve disappointed me. I suddenly feel very maternal.”

“Now, you listen here—”

“You should have stopped him, idiot,” Principia shot back, jabbing one finger into Trissiny’s chest. “Failing that, you should have gone with him. At the very least, you should have warned the rest of us something was happening! All of that was well within your power, and glaringly obvious. And yet, here we are!”

“Enough!” she barked. “One more word, Lieutenant—”

“Have you ever even stood in a phalanx? I’m not talking about training, I mean shoulder to shoulder with your sisters while taking enemy fire and facing the real likelihood of losing comrades under your command. Because let me tell you, General, that is a whole different category of experience from the heroic solo warrior paladin shit you’ve been doing.”

“How dare you—”

“We both knew I’m a far better thief, but believe me, I’m as surprised as you to find that I’m a better soldier.”

Despite herself, Trissiny was struck silent. All she could manage to do was stare, her mouth open with her half-formed rebuke forgotten.

“Yes, we have our issues, and they’re nearly all my fault,” Principia went on relentlessly. “And yes, you outrank me. But if you have an iota of sense, Trissiny, you will listen to me when I criticize you. It’s not as if I do it often, and you can really use the benefit of my experience. Especially when it’s over the very real chance one of your friends might get killed from his and your combined goddamned stupidity!”

The elf dropped the two halves of Gabriel’s glyphward and turned on her heel, stalking back toward the half-ruined old building behind them. Trissiny was mortified to observe that the entire rest of her class was assembled in the doorway, watching in silence.

“Where are you going?” she demanded of Principia’s back.

“Where do you think? To fix this.”


“You’re disappointed in me?” Yngrid exclaimed, clutching Weaver tighter. “You, Gabriel, of all people? You know what it’s like, for all of us! Haven’t I done enough in eight thousand years to earn one spark of happiness for myself?”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Gabriel said, holding up the hand not occupied with his scythe and stepping forward. “As far as that goes, I think you’re dead right, and I’ll back you up all the way with the big guy.”

She froze with her mouth open to continue arguing, blinking in confusion. “Oh. Then…?”

“Vidius sent me here and tasked me with bringing you to heel, and that means it’s gonna be done on my terms. And whatever I decide to do will damn well reflect the fact that all of you girls have been worked non-stop for an unfathomably long time, that he’s never had cause to complain about your performance, and that quite frankly Vidius has spent so long paying no attention to your own interests that if he failed to see something like this coming, well, that’s on him.”

Thunder rumbled along the distant horizon to the south. All of them turned to stare in that direction, save the projection of the Avatar, who just cocked one eyebrow in silence.

“And if he has a problem with that,” Gabriel added with a scowl, “he should definitely have thought more carefully before designating me the arbiter of this business. But he did, and I am, and so this isn’t as simple as you just going AWOL, Yngrid. I’ve gotta work out something to do about this, but I won’t stand for you being put upon any further over something so incredibly understandable on your part.”

A tremulous smile flickered over the valkyrie’s features, in sharp contrast to Weaver, who was still clutching her and glaring at Gabriel. A moment later, though, she frowned in confusion.

“I’m…glad to hear that, little brother, but… I’m not sure what you’re upset about, then.”

“Aren’t you?” he demanded. “Come on, Yngrid. You politely toed the line for thousands upon thousands of years, and now you finally decided to buck your duties because of…” He flung out his free hand at Weaver. “Really? Really? This guy? This family-sized tin of hickory-smoked buttholes?”

Billie burst out laughing so hard she immediately fell over, which did not even interrupt Gabriel’s tirade.

“Are you kidding me? Girl, as soon as all this is settled one way or another you and I are going to sit down and have us a long, awkward talk about your taste in men, and wow the fact that you’re hearing this from me of all damned people should shed some light on the depth of your bad judgment here.”

“Oh, I remember this one, now,” Weaver drawled. “Didn’t see him in the library much. Settle a bet for me, Arquin: can you actually read?”

“I’m not even gonna bother threatening you with the cliché, you walking ingrown crotch hair,” Gabriel retorted, causing Billie to begin rolling back and forth, clutching her ribs and absolutely shrieking. “You give her cause to regret this even once, and it ends with one of her sisters standing over you and deciding your eternal fate. I suggest you keep that firmly in mind at all times, you greasy wedge of pepperjack dickcheese.”

“…please…stop…” Billie wheezed desperately. “…can’t…air…”

“Gabe,” Yngrid said, her quiet and earnest tone a stark contrast to everything else going on. “I understand why you think that, but please trust me. You don’t know Damian like I do.”

“Scuze me for insertin’ myself into what sounds like family business,” McGraw said, diffidently tipping his hat, “but I think it’s worth pointin’ out that this fella is a Vesker bard. He lives his life playin’ a role, and the moment you take that for the real man underneath, you’ve fallen for the grift.”

“Yeah, I’m not buying that for a second,” Gabriel said flatly, “and I say that after spending a week of this summer being dragged around by Vesk himself. You wear the mask, you become the mask. If someone acts like an insufferable asshole, that fact alone means they are one, irrespective of their tragic backstory or whatever else.”

Joe cleared his throat. “Hi, Gabe.”

Gabriel glanced at him. “Hey, Joe. Surprised to see you here.”

“Yep, that’s kinda what I wanted to bring up. I know our orbits have only crossed here and there, but the fact is I do think of you as a friend.”

Gabriel raised one eyebrow. “Well, likewise, I guess.”

“I mention it because I can say the same of Weaver, here. Not to argue with your assessment, exactly, but the fact is the man has a whole group of friends who’re willin’ to not only trek to this godforsaken patch of dangerous nowhere—uh, no offense, Avatar.”

“It would be fruitless to take offense at accuracy,” the Avatar acknowledged, nodding wryly to him.

“But,” Joe continued, “also care enough about the big jerk to risk antaognizin’ Vidius himself so he and Yngrid could be together. I get the impression you’re concerned for her well-being, here, so…hopefully that counts for something. Man has the capacity to make solid friendships, and I hope my own judgment means at least a little bit.”

Gabriel heaved a deep sigh, shifting his stance as if he were actually leaning his weight on his scythe. “Well…whatever. Regardless of that, we still have the matter of a rogue valkyrie loose on the mortal plane and my obligation to do something about it.”

“Why?” Yngrid asked bitterly, tightening her grip on Weaver’s arm. “Can’t you just leave us alone?”

“Yngrid,” he said wearily, “you have to know that even if I you were one hundred percent in the right, you are just too dangerous a category of being for it to be that simple. And you’re not completely in the right, are you? Did you ever even ask Vidius for any kind of reprieve?”

“He’d never have agreed to that, and you know it!”

“No, I don’t know it. My experience with him has been largely a process of him trying to be more flexible and less bound by old ideas that don’t work anymore. That’s the only reason I’m here. And whether or not that’s true, the question remains: did you ask?

She looked away, scowling.

“Because if you’d come to me, I would absolutely have spoken up for you,” Gabriel continued. “Hell, your sisters would have, as well. Most of them, anyway. Did you seek anyone else’s help before having Grumpypants McPonytail pull this scheme?”

“It doesn’t matter now, anyway,” she muttered. “What are you going to do about it, then?”

“Lemme just be serious for a sec,” Billie said, still grinning but sitting upright now. “Is lookin’ the other way entirely outta the question, here?”

“Fraid so,” McGraw answered before Gabriel could. “There’s already an actual god watchin’ these shenanigans directly. However this gets resolved, it ain’t gonna just go away if everybody involved agrees to pretend nothing’s up.”

Gabriel lifted the butt of his scythe off the stone floor, beginning to pace back and forth. “As usual, it’s less about the thing itself than the things connected to it. This is going to have wide ranging repercussions. A valkyrie back on the mortal plane is a big deal,Yngrid! The entire rest of the Pantheon is going to be alarmed about this, and they’re just the first. We both know what happened when the last fallen valkyrie ran into the Empire’s forces. Also, apparently you girls are inherently terrifying to dryads, and there are at least two of those interacting regularly with mortal society now! Wait, no, five, that I know of. What happens the first time a dryad accidentally flies into a panic and people are in the way? And for that matter, Yngrid… What about the rest of the girls? You know all of your sisters would want the same chance, if one was available. Did you give any thought to how they would feel after you ditched them?”

Yngrid had pressed herself hard into Weaver’s side, now, wrapping one black wing around him so that they resembled a single dark shape with two heads. Her eyes remained on the ground, refusing to meet Gabriel’s stare.

He stopped pacing and rested the butt of his scythe on the floor again. “Well. Obviously, I don’t have the power to send you back.”

Everyone had the presence of mind not to look at the Avatar, who himself obligingly remained silent.

“Honestly,” Gabriel muttered, “even with all the rest of it… I dunno that I could stomach doing that even if I was able. But Yngrid, we have to do something. Do you have any ideas? Because believe me, I am open to suggestions.”

“Take credit,” Mary said quietly.

He turned a pensive frown on her. “…go on?”

“It is a very old trick of politics, when one is unexpectedly outmaneuvered,” she said in the same soft tone, her expression intently focused. “Claim that whatever transpired was your own idea, and step in to guide its consequences. That will not solve all the issues that may result from this, but it addresses the immediate implications of Vidius having been thwarted by one of his own servants. He—and you—save face and regain the initiative, and you will have gained a powerful agent for your god’s ends who is less constrained than the rest of her sisters.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, his expression growing distant. “You know, I think you might be onto—”

“Young man,” Mary interrupted softly, her eyes fixed on his waist, “where did you get that sword?”


The group parted like waves as Principia strode through them into the building. Merry was still inside, standing with a backpack slung over her shoulder and watching warily, but apparently not having been quite curious enough to push into the crowd of students to stare.

“What exactly do you plan to do?” Trissiny demanded, striding in right on Principia’s heels. “It’s not like you can follow him!”

“No, indeed,” the elf concurred, slowing as she stepped past Merry, almost to the entrance on the other side, which led to the broad plaza in the center of the plateau. “I have neither the know-how nor the magical muscle to track a shadow-jump, much less one going into someplace that required god-driven murderscythe power to penetrate. But someone, somewhere, somewhen, has both those things.”

With her back to them, she held up one hand. In it was the silver-trimmed wooden face of the Mask of the Adventurer.

“Whoah,” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

Her alarm was nothing compared to that of Fross. “WHAT THE HELL? That was in my dimensional storage! My personal—it was basically part of my— How in the name of—”

“I’m a thief,” Principia said flatly, turning to stare at them. “More specifically, I am a damn good thief, and now you know why my tag is Keys and not Dazzling Personality.”

“You do know we are extremely capable of just taking that away from you, right?” Ruda asked in a deceptively mild tone.

“I should damn well hope so,” Principia replied grimly. “Avelea, Punaji, Awarrion.” She pointed at each of them in turn as she continued. “Mad at me, raised to make ruthless decisions, and both. I have no idea what kind of rabbit hole I’m about to crawl down, and I’m going to count on you to put me down at the first firm sign that it’s necessary. I said firm sign, but also the first one. If you see the need, do not wait for me to get positioned to fend you off.”

“Locke, think about what you’re doing,” Toby said, stepping forward. “You were more wary of that thing than any of us, at least at first, and rightly so.”

“And that is the point,” she said patiently. “You kids may think of me as kind of a joke, and that’s fine, but the fact remains I am responsible for you. And remember, our one and only conversation with Arachne on the subject established that I am entirely expendable in this arrangement. This thing should not ever be used in any real-world situation beyond your little trial runs, but sometimes we just don’t get the luxury of doing things as they should be done. If somebody’s gotta get bent over the barrel for this, it’s going to be me and not any of you.”

“Does someone have to be?” Juniper asked. “That can’t be your only idea.”

“Tracking a shadow-jump by itself is among the most complex and advanced magic in existence,” Principia replied, her patient tone beginning to be strained. “And that’s not even touching on the matter of whatever required him to use that scythe to claw open a doorway. This is my only idea, or you could bet your green ass I wouldn’t be doing it.”

“But do you need to follow him?” the dryad persisted. “Gabe can take care of himself, and he knows what he’s doing. He does!” she added a little defensively when everyone else turned to look at her. “He’s not the same guy we started school with two years ago. None of us are.”

“Vesk was here!” Principia shouted. “Fucking Vesk! The patron god of plot contrivances, who regards people’s gruesome deaths as great character development for their grieving loved ones! The last time I took orders from that asshole I came very damn close to losing good women under my command. Other people died under our weapons who absolutely did not need to, and wouldn’t have if he’d just stayed out of it! But it did solve our immediate problem, in the end, and in a much more dramatic fashion than the patient and thorough campaign we’d been gearing up toward. And that is what it comes down to with him, kids. As soon as you find yourself in one of his goddamn stories, you are in it and you’re not going to wiggle out from under his thumb until he’s had a satisfying climax and denouement.”

“Fuckin’ ew,” Ruda muttered.

“The only thing to do,” Principia continued more quietly but just as insistently, brandishing the mask at them, “is lean into it and try to guide the damage in the least awful direction you can. Whatever Gabriel’s involved in now, the timing alone tells me he’s bitten off more than he can chew. I have a feeling this was only ever going to end with somebody using this horrible abomination of yours, and then probably learning an ironic lesson about power and taking the quick and easy path. And as I said, it’s going to be me, is that clear? You just remember what I told you. Be ready to help Gabriel with whatever bullshit we are about to find, and be ready to deal with me if it comes to that.”

She took at deep breath and stared at the mask in her hands with undisguised contempt. “And damn that little shit for making me do this. Somebody please wring his neck for me.”

Then, before anyone could argue further, Principia pressed the Mask of the Adventurer to her face.

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15 – 37

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“Where’d everybody go?”

Teal looked up at Principia’s approach, straightening from her crouched posture at the edge of the cliff. As a young girl she had been nervous of heights, but bonding with Vadrieny had caused that to fade over time, and even reverse, to the point that her parents and even Shaeine protested her habit of lurking on ledges and atop things. But if you could fall all the way from above the atmosphere without suffering ill effects, not to mention being able to fly anyway…why not?

“Nowhere,” she said, unconsciously straightening her coat. “They’re in the building, packing up. Well, that and goofing off, it’s not like we had much to pack. I went. Just wanted to be alone and think for a bit. Which, now that I think about it, you could already tell, right? I mean, you can hear everything happening on this plateau. So why ask me?”

“Halfway there,” Principia said cryptically.

“What?” Teal frowned at her.

“You looked past the surface, but not far enough. Why would I indulge in such a harmless, pointless deception?”

“Sheer force of habit?” Teal said acidly. Then, when the elf just smiled at her for a moment, she spoke again more slowly. “Or it’s just a way to start a conversation and get me talking.”

Principia cocked a finger at her. “Bingo. See, you can spot these things as well as any bard, you’re just not in the habit of it. Anyway. I’ll go spread the bad news to the others, but since you’re here, our departure has been delayed so everybody might as well unpack again. I’ve just spoken with our Order guides and they don’t want to leave until dawn.” She shrugged irritably. “I can see their point. The trail has only a few safe spots to camp and the way they’re spaced out… Well, they’re accustomed to hiking in a certain rhythm for a reason.”

“Did you explain why it was important to go?”

“Explain what?” Principia asked with a wry little grin. “That we have an incredibly dangerous weapon we need to dispose of and I’ve got this feeling it’s gonna be more trouble alone on this barren mountaintop than if we take it back down to where there’s people? I didn’t even get into how we planned to hand it off to Arachne Tellwyrn. Somehow I think that might’ve made them even less sympathetic.”

“That’s…” Teal frowned. “That seems ominous, though logically I can’t put my finger on exactly why.”

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Principia intoned, putting on a sarcastically pompous aspect. “Seriously, though, you’re right. Ordinarily I wouldn’t think it meant anything, but the god of bards his damn self was right here, sticking his fingers into this pie. An arbitrary, barely-justified delay that keeps us isolated in the open for another day has ‘plot device’ written all over it.” She turned her head toward the building in which the other students could be faintly heard having an argument. “I can’t imagine what could happen out of the blue up here, but I’ve got the feeling something’s going to. Well. It’s not like you aren’t the most capable group of people alive when it comes to fielding threats, even without that crazy universal trump card you just created. I better go tell everybody to be ready for…whatever.”

She turned and made it five paces before Teal suddenly called after her.

“Locke, wait. Can you spare a minute?”

Principia paused, half-turning to look back at her with a raised eyebrow. “We’re not gonna be any less stuck here after a minute, sure.”

“You were an adventurer,” Teal said, her words slow as if she were pondering each with care as she spoke. “During the Age of Adventures. You must’ve known a lot of other adventurers, right? I mean, back when they were common and respectable.”

“For a sentence that’s basically not wrong, that one is full of a lot of misconceptions,” Principia said, turning to face her fully again. “You may be overestimating how common and how respectable adventurers were even during their heyday. And as for me, well, I was even less of both than the usual. Also I tended to be a pretty solitary type. Your average dungeon delving party has little use for thieves unless they’re hitting Manor Dire or someplace with a bunch of traps. I’m a con artist, I don’t do traps. But still… Yeah, I knew people. It never paid to stay too far out of circulation.”

Teal nodded, chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment. “Did you ever know any who were pacifists?”

“Sure, that wasn’t uncommon,” Principia said immediately. “Party healers, basically. The majority were clerics, and the majority of those who went adventuring and were more into healing than stabbing were Omnists, Izarites, and Salyrites. Of course, Salyrites will do pretty much whatever they can get away with, but Omnists are explicitly pacifist. Izarite dogma itself isn’t pacifist, but several Izarite denominations are, and have gone through phases where they predominate in the cult.”

Teal’s face had fallen while she spoke, and now she nodded again, a little disconsolately. “Party healers. That’s it?”

“That’s by a wide margin the majority, yeah. Of course, you can pick any adjective and it applies to somebody who called themselves an adventurer at some point, including a lot weirder than ‘pacifist,’ but you asked about people I knew. That’s not a trait I seek out in my friends. I’ve known the odd pacifist who wasn’t insufferably preachy, but that combination of traits seems oddly uncommon.”

Teal made a wry grimace at her, getting a grin in response.

“You’re looking for a role model, then?” Principia said after a momentary pause.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure that must be hilarious to you…”

“Absolutely not,” the elf said with a totally serious expression. She turned fully and walked back over to stand by Teal at the edge of the cliff. “If you’re looking to adopt a given way of operating, modeling someone who mastered it is an excellent starting point.”

“Just a starting point, though,” Teal said quickly. “I obviously need to tailor my own approach, but…it’s hard to know where to begin. I figured following someone’s footsteps would get me pointed in the right direction, until I can figure out my own methods through practice.”

“That’s exactly how you acquire basically any skill,” Principia agreed. “Well, I’m sorry I lack personal connections that would apply to you, but I’ll tell you what. You might find a lot of inspiration in my own favorite trickster heroine, and I’m willing to bet you already know a lot of stories about her. Every young pacifist reads everything they can find about Laressa of Anteraas.”

“Of course,” Teal said, now frowning quizzically. “She was already a great inspiration to me, since I was a little girl. But…did you say trickster heroine? I never really saw her that way.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Principia replied with a wide grin. “Nobody does, not now or in her own day, and that is why she’s my favorite. Peak technique for con artistry is to avoid being known for it; that’s how you keep people off their guard. Then and now, everybody oohed and aahed over her ‘peaceful warrior’ shtick and the spectacle she made of that, and never really caught on to how she schemed rings around them.”

“Really.” Teal was still frowning, but more thoughtfully now.

“For example, you know the story of Safiya’s Shaming, right? It’s one of the most famous.”

“Safiya’s Persuasion, they call it in Calderaas,” Teal said, smiling in spite of herself. “Sure, of course, I always liked that one. Sultana Safiya was planning to invade Akhvaris, but Laressa walked into the Royal Palace and spent three days following the Sultana everywhere she went, reciting from the Aveniad until she abandoned that plan and swore to leave the drow alone.”

Principia was grinning, too. “And how about the Lasher’s Loss? That one’s dear to my heart, for reasons I’m sure you can imagine.”

“I don’t… Wait, no, that’s familiar. Lasher was a Thieves’ Guild boss, right?”

“An underboss in Anteraas, yeah. Basically, Laressa was warned by an oracle—or an insider, depending on which version of the story—that Lasher and his thieves were going to rob the local temple of Avei. So she emptied out the treasury coffer and locked herself in it. When the thieves took it back to their base, they opened it up and boom! Instead of a box of gold, box of paladin.”

“Oh, yeah, I did hear that one!” Teal said, growing more animated by the moment. “Lasher kept her there one night, and by the time he let her go he was so enraptured he asked her to marry him.”

“Again, depends on the version,” Principia said, matching Teal’s mounting excitement in gesture and expression exactly, “but whether or not that happened, it’s a fact that she thwarted a Guild job, was kept overnight at their mercy, and in the morning they let her leave on good terms. Oh, but I know you know about Laressa’s Stand in the Briar Wars.”

“Yes!” Teal exclaimed. “Where she faced down four armies!”

“Every major participant in the war,” Prin said enthusiastically, “armies from Tiraas, Calderaas, Veilgrad and Leineth. They all marched on the plain west of Leineth itself…”

“And they found Laressa there, sitting right in the middle of it in an armchair…”

“Eating grapes and reading a book!”

“And all four generals stood there watching her for an hour…”

Principia laughed aloud. “And then every last one of them turned around and marched the fuck home! And it’s not just the big things like that, either, Laressa was sharp and in control of every one of her encounters. One of her favorite tricks was letting people attack her, doing her Sun Style evasion and deflection thing with just a touch of divine shielding, and let them work themselves into a fury and get worn out doing her no damage while she talked them around to her way of thinking.”

Teal nodded eagerly. “Yeah, I’ve seen Toby do that.”

“It’s a great trick, if you’ve got the skill. But with all respect to Toby, you’ve seen him do half of it. Laressa was also a master of, shall we say, conversational Sun Style. You’ll never persuade someone by proving them wrong, that just makes people dig their heels in. Most thought is emotional more than it’s logical. Changing people’s minds requires salesmanship and manipulation. Laressa was sly enough to do that, while also fighting physically. Honestly, I don’t think there have been many people who even could do the kind of things she did.” Her expression sobered by degrees until she was left with a small, knowing smile. “And it all worked because she decided what people should think about her and made it happen. To the point that even now, her biggest fans think the big deal about her was her pacifism.”

“Wasn’t it?” Teal countered. “Who but a pacifist would even have thought to do such things?”

“Well, for starters, every Avenist ever, if they were smarter and actually meant that high-minded talk about how the art of war applies to all confrontations, not just violent ones. I may be a bit biased here, Teal; I’m no pacifist, but I’m definitely not a fan of violence. It’s wasteful and destructive at best, brings out the worst in people and creates a mess that somebody’s going to have to rebuild from. It is far and away better to accomplish your goals through cleverness and maneuvering than by hurting people and breaking stuff. You can’t achieve that just by showing up and being all serene and peaceful. People who try that are usually the first to die. But it can be achieved with the proper technique, and Laressa of Anteraas had technique in spades.”

“How do you mean?” Teal’s eyes were narrowed in concentration now, as if she could read insight straight from Principia’s face.

“Well, think about just those examples we talked about. Stalking a Sultana through her palace until she buckles sounds like an effort of sheer brute force pacifism, until you read between the lines. There’s a lot of politics, there. Hands of Avei are traditionally given the run of the Palace in Calderaas, but do you really think a crowned head of state would submit to that kind of treatment if she felt it within her power to get rid of the person doing it? You have to understand that whole situation. The core of Calderaas’s army has always been heavy cavalry—basically the worst possible choice for invading a drow city. Safiya was young, inexperienced, and pretty painfully naive, and being given a lot of deliberately bad advice to cause her to blunder severely enough that the Calderaan Houses would be justified in removing her so one of her rivals could take over.”

“By, for example, getting most of the army massacred underground,” Teal murmured.

Principia nodded. “The Aveniad is basically a series of romanticized war stories; it’s laid out to teach lessons in Avenist battle doctrine and military strategy, not so much moral principles. It’s pretty incredible how anybody thinks you can shame someone with that. Laressa used her position to insert herself forcibly into Safiya’s inner circle, and you had better believe they spent the whole time trying to remove her. She fended off physical and political attempts to get rid of her—already requiring a broader skill set than most people will ever have—and protected the young Sultana from the same while giving her a crash course in military and political leadership. Safiya’s advisors had built up her ego til she wouldn’t hear contradiction from anyone, so Laressa spent three days making her realize for herself what was going on. She did all this while dancing around the temper of a spoiled teenager who was in the habit of ordering people who said things she didn’t want to hear out of the city. That whole affair ended with most of Safiya’s inner circle banished or beheaded, and Laressa her most valued advisor. Pacifism, my ass; if I was half that sly I’d be Empress by now.”

Teal was frowning deeply, her eyes slowly tracking from side to side as she formed connections. Principia watched her for a moment before continuing.

“Then there was Lasher. There are so many version of that story specifically because nobody knows what exactly happened between Laressa and the thieves that night. But what is known is just…general knowledge. Eserites have no respect for Avenists, very little sense of humor about having their operations busted up by outside forces, and an immediate strategic need not to let people see inside their hideouts and then leave to tell tales. And let me assure you, the Thieves’ Guild is not impressed by pacifist ideals. Laressa barged into the middle of that and got a bunch of Eserites to embrace her as a friend. I’m pretty sure Hands of Avei have achieved that exactly twice now.”

They both glanced at the building where the other students were still talking, then exchanged a small smile.

“And the Stand?” Teal asked, her expression and tone showing simple curiosity.

“You have to know a bit of background to understand that one, too. Another of Laressa’s tricks—not a favorite, as there are only so many times a body can do this—was to let her enemies beat her. Physically, I mean. But she only did this in public, and after carefully laying the groundwork, so that the outrage at this abuse of the peaceful paladin prompted backlash that soon destroyed whoever had ordered her roughed up. Leineth came later in her career, by which time it was widely rumored that if you harmed Laressa of Anteraas, Avei’s curse would come down on you and cause your utter ruin. Of course, if Avei could be arsed to show up and fight her own battles, she wouldn’t need Hands, now would she? That was all Laressa’s cunning at work. The Stand was the payoff of years of strategy and building a reputation, till entire armies didn’t dare to even try fighting around her.”

Principia turned her head to gaze absently out at the Great Tree in the distance, a little smile playing about her lips.

“In a lot of ways, Laressa of Anteraas was the ultimate bard. She succeeded by carefully crafting a narrative around herself that guided people to fit themselves subconsciously into the roles she wanted. And by all accounts, especially to people she set herself against, she was annoying as hell.”

Teal had to crack a smile at that, but it faltered quickly. “So…within all that, where’s the role of principled pacifism?”

“There’s not a thing in the world wrong with moral pacifism as long as you aren’t stupid about it,” Principia said with a shrug. “Morality is a fine thing for your personal life. Laressa clearly had it in spades, as do you. The main difference between you was the strategic ability to get shit done.”

Teal dropped her eyes.

“Then again, maybe take me with a grain of salt,” Principia added in a lighter tone. “Gods know I’m hardly one of the world’s great moral philosophers. Although… I do have a pet theory I’ve been wanting to bounce off someone for a while.”

“Oh?” Teal said warily.

“It’s a universal principle across every culture: you take care of your group. Loyalty and love for whatever social clusters you belong to is paramount to being a person. I’ve been mulling it, lately, and I have come to think that the closest thing there is to an objective gauge of someone’s goodness is the size of their in-group.”

Teal frowned. “So, what, the better someone is, the more popular they are?”

“Oh, is that vividly not the cause,” Principia chuckled. “No, I mean, the extent of their empathy—where they draw the lines between friend, foe, and uninteresting stranger. So at one extreme end of the spectrum is the Omnist ideal: absolute, universal compassion for all living things, everywhere. There’s a reason even the Omnists consider that an ideal to strive for, not something you can just up and do. I’m pretty sure a person would go crazy from the sheer pressure long before they managed to fully invest themselves in the well-being of everyone and everything alive. And then, at the other end, is what the elves call anth’auwa, someone whose entire group is themselves, with no moral regard for any other person. Good and evil are just points of view in ninety percent of situations where they meaningfully clash; the least subjective measure I’ve been able to find is a count of how many people are so important do you that you would sacrifice your own well-being for their sake. Your family? Village? Nation? Your religion? The whole world?”

“Huh,” Teal grunted, also turning to look out at the Tree now. “I think…I’d have to ponder that for a while. It feels like you might be onto something with that, though.” She turned back to give Principia a sharp look. “So how good a person would that make you, Principia Locke?”

“Not fucking very,” the elf said frankly. “Mostly because I don’t aspire to be any better. According to my little theory, I’m a better person than I was the first time we met, and I’ve gotta tell you I’m not real happy about it. Being invested deeply in other people seems largely an experience of broadened vulnerabilities and the stress of trying to take care of them. Before all’s said and done,” she went on in a softer tone, “I expect to be a better person still, by far. Gods, I am not looking forward to that.”

Teal was still studying her from the corner of her eye, both of them facing the edge of the cliff now but with the human’s head slightly tilted toward Principia, who was now staring at the horizon and chewing pensively on her tongue.

“So you admire people who are crafty irrespective of being moral, then?” Teal said at last.

“Hmm…” Principia made a waffling gesture with her hand. “I admire cunning for its own sake, true. But even being a self-described amoral creature, it’s hard to feel positively toward people who abuse and exploit others, isn’t it? I’m still Eserite at my core. I would say, rather… I admire people who are crafty about being moral.”

“And that’s the hardest thing about dealing with you, of course. It’s so difficult to untangle your good advice from your agenda that just hearing you say something that sounds like good sense makes me question the concept of sense itself.”

“Well, now, that’s its own trap,” Principia said, turning back to her directly. “Being too trusting will lead you into trouble, sure, but second-guessing everything and trying to look for hidden layers of lies in every shadow will cause you to blunder just as badly, and drive you nuts to boot. What’s important is understanding what a person’s agenda is, and keeping it in mind when you analyze their actions.”

“Hm.” Teal folded her arms, making a show of studying Principia. “What am I to think about you, then?”

“Now, now, you know what I’m after,” the elf chided gently. “Same thing I have been since before the first time I crossed your path.” She didn’t look again at the building where Trissiny was currently holed up with the others, but Teal did. “In a way, Teal, the lesson of Principia Locke is exactly the point I was trying to illustrate with Laressa. Whatever it is you’re after in life, if you get greedy and reckless and just charge in, you’ll make enemies and make a mess it’ll take you gods know how long to straighten out. The path to success is careful. The best victory is to find a way for everybody to win—and if somebody needs to lose, better to arrange for them to trip themselves than to walk up and punch ’em in the gob. That’s one of those things that’s regarded as a moral truth by a lot of people, but even to someone like myself without a lot of use for moral truths, it’s just good practical advice. I suspect that at the back of most morality, if you follow it to its original source, is something that a long-ago group of people agreed to do mostly because they got the best results from it.”

Teal nodded slowly. “So. Laressa of Anteraas. Hm… We haven’t had much luck in making the Mask show us specific people on request. But then, relying overmuch on a magical doodad like that is missing the point, isn’t it?”

“You don’t need me to tell you that,” Principia said. “I mean, I’ll tell you anyway just because it bears repeating: don’t mess around with that damn thing any more than you absolutely must. But I give you the credit of assuming you can figure that out for yourself.”

“And I do have at least one friend who probably knows a lot of stories about Laressa,” Teal mused. “And has both an Avenist and Eserite mindset. And who I’d trust more than you, no offense.”

“I’m never offended by good sense.”

“I’m not sure how much your…agenda…makes you a source of good advice, though.”

“Think in terms of what I’m looking to gain,” Principia suggested. “Above all else, I want Trissiny to be okay. To do that, I need the lot of you goobers to be okay; paladins historically don’t accomplish much or live long without their support systems. Their party, in a word. And sure, I could worm my way into your affections and make you uncritically regard me as a trusted source. Ruda and Shaeine would be pretty hard to bring around but I’m confident I could manipulate the rest of you pretty easily.”

“Wow,” Teal muttered.

“But that would be a lesser benefit,” Prin continued with a lopsided grin. “I’m a useful kinda person to have around, in certain specific circumstances. Of far more aid toward the goal of keeping you kids safe would be teaching you how to watch for people like me, and deal with us whenever we pop up. That skill is useful all the time, in every situation. And that even has the ancillary benefit of achieving the first goal; you’ll end up being able to get the best use out of me and my own skills when I happen to be around that way. Always go for the longer goal with the greater benefit, unless your back’s to a wall and you have no better choice. That’s what I fucked up two years ago in Clarke Tower. I got hasty, and greedy, and stupid.” She sighed softly. “And this is what I mean when I say it’s a lot of trouble, caring about people. I am very smart, Teal. Anything that makes me dumb, I have to resent.”

There was a silence, in which Teal frowned at her as if unsure what she was seeing.

“Well, anyway, that was well more than a minute,” Principia said, suddenly brisk. “I’m sure everybody is completely packed up by now, the better to be nice and pissed off at the news I bring. Allow me to go face the music.”

“You do know Shaeine can hear everything we’ve been saying. And I guarantee she’d be paying attention, just from the mere fact that it’s you and me, talking alone.”

Principia grinned and winked. “Then allow me to make a graceful exit. We’re perilously close to talking about my feelings, and I obviously can’t have that.” She backed up two steps before turning to walk toward the others.

“You’re missing the point, you know,” Teal called after her. “Same mistake Toby keeps making. Being connected to people is only exhausting if you insist on being responsible for taking care of everybody. You’re supposed to let the people you love take care of you too, Locke.”

Principia turned around without slowing, walking backwards while she spread her arms in a self-effacing shrug and grinned. “Well, that sounds like one of those pieces of excellent advice I intend not to take. I’ve gotta be my beautiful, flawed self, after all.”

She turned again and strolled the rest of the way to the shadowed doorway, her step a carefree saunter.

Teal stared after her, thinking.

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