Tag Archives: Tinker Billie

Bonus #54: Lightning in a Bottle, part 7

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Unsurprisingly, the Archmage’s portrait had no answer save its smug expression. Rhadid turned and snatched the vial from Admestus’s hand without another word, swiftly yanking out the cork and raising it to his lips.

“Whoah!” the alchemist interjected, raising both his hands. “Baby sips! Not more than a drop at a time, no less than four hours apart. Seriously, that’s pure, concentrated life essence and just a dash of time travel in liquid form. I don’t actually know what it’d look like if you overdosed on that, but I bet it would be hilarious. I mean, more for me than for you, obviously.”

Rhadid paused, giving him a sidelong look. But then he finally put the vial to his lips and very carefully tilted a drop onto his tongue.

His expression as he capped the vial again and slipped it into his pocket was pensive. “…pomegranate?”

“Eh? Eh?” Admestus grinned. “That’d be the life essence. You can’t really taste the time travel, fortunately. That’s more reminiscent of rust and ozone, and in higher doses would give you the farts something severe.”

“I feel no different,” the aristocrat mused. “If you have deceived me or failed in your task, Rafe, odds are we shall both be dead within the hour.”

“Well, an immortality potion that made you, I dunno, glow or levitate or something, that seems like it’d be asking for trouble, right? I thought the idea was to pass for a normal person who just can’t die. Makes you less of a target. Believe me, you’ll notice the difference as soon as something tries to kill you.”

“Or, if you are wrong, not,” said Rhadid. “Your work will be tested rather sooner than I anticipated, Admestus. I examined our surroundings while you were at work, and there appears to be an armory in the next chamber. The equipment is eclectic, antique, and heavily enchanted, but when a squad of vengeful Imperial soldiers is bearing down upon us, that may be just the ticket. Come, we have little time to prepare.”

“Uh, point of order,” Admestus said uncertainly, trailing along behind as Rhadid strode out of the laboratory but not, himself, moving to pass through the door. “I’m not lawyer or anything but surely the ranting of an undead wizard in a dungeon isn’t, y’know, admissible in court?”

“I don’t know why you persist in pretending to be stupid, but refrain from suggesting that I am likewise,” Rhadid snapped, pausing on the balcony outside and turning to stare at him. “Of course whatever just transpired has no legal weight. Thus, the belligerent fool who already detests me and is in command of the Imperial troops here will not want me in a position to argue my case before a magistrate. An inquiry into my mysterious death will be far easier for her to control. They will open with staff fire, not questions.”

“Yeah, but that specifically won’t do you any harm, now,” Admestus pointed out.

Rhadid was silent for a moment, studying him. “And there is what comes after to be considered. I am content for Roscoe to force a confrontation she doesn’t know she will lose for the same reason: whoever survives will decide before the law what happened here. It clearly doesn’t serve me to have Imperial soldiers reporting on my ambitions.”

“So, that little story was…”

“Which,” Rhadid continued in a low voice, “raises questions about the rest of you. One hates to destroy a rare talent such as yours or Professor Ahlstrom’s, Admestus. The soldiers, the gnomes, they matter to no one and won’t be missed. You are of great value to me, and you know I reward my most valuable servants generously. The more my plans progress, the more you will be positioned to profit by it. What say you?”

“Uh, well,” Rafe said with uncharacteristic hesitation, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That’s, I mean, the prospect—”

Rhadid’s rapier completely cleared its sheath faster than the average human eye could have followed. In a narrow doorway with one avenue of retreat, even half-elven reflexes did not defeat those of a swordsman who had trained since he could walk. The slender blade was sunk up to half its length in Rafe’s heart before the alchemist could retreat two steps.

“Hesitation gives answer,” said Rhadid. “I am sorry, Rafe, truly. It will be no end of trouble to find a talent equal to yours. But at least now I know where to bring them when I need…”

Admestus Rafe dissolved before his eyes, disintegrating into a puff of fog, which then dissipated into the air without a trace. Rhadid was left holding a sword on which there was not even a bloodstain.

“Crafty little halfling,” the nobleman said with an appreciative smile. He backed out of the door and sheathed his sword, already turning toward the nearby armory. “Play your games, then, alchemist. Since our host has seen fit to make me the arbiter of this contest, no one is leaving here until it is decided. And remember, old man,” he added, pausing to address the air. “I was never a less than courteous guest. Now my hand is forced, and the outcome of your game will be final. On your head be it.”

He did not notice his coat shifting more than his movement should have made it as he turned to enter the armory chamber.


“Will they be all right?” Eric huffed, trundling along behind Billie. “I know they’re out of sight behind the stacks, but aren’t they a bit cornered?”

“Don’t you worry about those three, Professor, gnomes know what we’re about in a crisis. An’ I’m not about ta leave a companion behind, never fear. We’ll getcha someplace not in the line o’ fire, quick as we can!”

“Yes, as to that, are you sure this isn’t all rather an overreaction? It’s not as if there is any proof the book’s account is true…”

“Aye, an’ there’s no lack o’ precedent for magic talkin’ books ta spew lies, either,” she agreed, glancing over her shoulder at him without slowing. “Leavin’ out the question o’ how believable that story was—which, havin’ met ‘is Lordship, is a lot—there’s the issue o’ why the ol’ wizard woulda spilled those beans.”

“Diristaan did enjoy setting his rivals against each other,” Eric said around gasps for air. “Please, can’t we slow down? Dwarves are not build for speed!”

“Good, cos this ain’t anything resemblin’ speed,” she muttered, but did moderate her pace slightly. “What’s at stake is ‘ow two relevant personalities will react t’that revelation, true or not. One’s a volatile, aggressive twit who I dunno how she got made an officer, one’s a cold ambitious snake who’s just ‘ad ‘is dirty laundry aired, an’ both are packin’ lightning. This is no time ta get casual about—”

“YOU!”

“Aaaaand speak o’ the Dark Lady,” Billie muttered, coming to a halt and raising her hands as the soldiers rounded the balcony corner ahead of them, weapons already leveled. Eric staggered up behind her, wheezing, and doubled over to brace his hands on his knees as soon as they were no longer moving.

“Where are you rushing off to?” Lieutenant Roscoe demanded.

“Findin’ a quiet spot ta wait this out,” Billie said. “Y’mind pointin’ those zappers another way? Bad form, trainin’ yer killsticks on somebody y’don’t actually mean to kill.”

“Where are the rest of those gnomes?” Roscoe snapped, her staff not wavering.

“Already gone,” Billie drawled. “Seriously, lady, we’ve gone this long stayin’ outta Imperial business, why would that change now? You got a treasonous noble on yer ‘ands, fine, it must be Tuesday. That’s a you kinda thing, let’s not involve the bystanders.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Roscoe said grimly, “at least as far as you gnomes go. But he is a member of Rhadid Daraspian’s party, and therefore a person of interest in this. You are under arrest, dwarf.”

Still panting, Eric straightened up slightly. He raised one hand, palm out, mutely begging for a moment to finish catching his breath.

“Oh, aye,” Billie said with scathing sarcasm. “Jus’ look at the fiend in ‘is little tweed suit. Thank th’Pantheon Theasia ‘as you ta protect ‘er from lost academics.”

“She’s quite right, you know,” Rhadid himself called, strolling up the balcony from behind the dwarf and gnome. “Really, Roscoe, picking on the Professor? You are the most trigger-happy excuse for a soldier it has ever been my misfortune to encounter.”

“Daraspian!” she snarled. “In the Empress’s name, you are under arrest for high treason against the Silver Throne! Stand where you are, disarm yourself, and place your hands atop your head!”

He did, at least, come to a stop, giving her and her squad a long, speculative look, but then focused his attention on the others again.

“In seriousness, Billie, where were you running? This whole complex is relatively enclosed; one spot to be caught in the fracas seems as good as the next.”

“Doors on the third level,” she explained. “Y’know, where we came in. There may not even be a floor outside anymore, but I figured, hey, maybe the Manor’ll at least let th’poor Professor sit this one out. He’s its biggest fan an’ ‘as no dog in this race, after all.”

“Ah, that does make sense,” Rhadid said, nodding.

“Enough!” shouted Roscoe. “You will comply, Daraspian!”

“No,” he said calmly. “Your order is unlawful, Lieutenant. You have no case, you have nothing which will stand as probable cause, and the very instant I am in a room with someone higher in your chain of command, you will have no career. Now are you going to belatedly pretend to be something approximating an officer, or are you going to murder me in cold blood in front of witnesses?”

She took two aggressive steps forward, sighting down the length of her staff. “I will not tell you again.”

Rhadid smiled patronizingly. “Yes, you will.”

The blast of lightning made Billie and Eric both throw themselves flat to the ground. They were not faster than the staffshot, obviously, but very fortunately it was a well-tuned weapon with refined direction charms and the blast did not arc off-course to strike either of them despite passing close enough to make their hair stand on end.

Lord Rhadid deliberately adjusted the lapels of his suit, right where it was smoking from the lightning bolt’s impact. Roscoe’s eyes widened and she backed up half a step; one of her soldiers muttered a curse.

“That,” Rhadid said pleasantly, “was the incorrect response.”

With that, he drew his wand and returned fire.

Fortunately for Eric, the very shrill noises he made were covered by the storm of crossfire flashing right above his head. He and Billie were quite effectively pinned down while Rhadid and the soldiers locked themselves into a wild stalemate shooting back and forth across them; the noble’s sidearm was simply not powerful enough to crack multiple military-grade shielding charms, while the full-strength staff shots he repeatedly absorbed were inexplicably ineffective against him, even without the telltale flash of a defensive enchantment to neutralize them. Nothing wearable could have stood up to that kind of assault, anyway, and yet he was totally unaffected.

Billie, undaunted by the destruction flying past overhead, belly-crawled over to the dwarf and tried to shake his shoulder to get his attention. Eric had buried his face against the floor in a panic, though, shielding his head with both his arms. Renewing her efforts in frustration, she found his heavy, sturdy form completely impossible to budge, at least for her strength. Growling curses that were unheard in the tumult, the gnome looked rapidly up and down the balcony; neither combatant seemed about to budge. Rhadid’s suit was a mass of smoldering scorch marks, but the man himself was now grinning in uncontained glee, an unsettling contrast to his normally composed demeanor. Rather than backing away, he began to take small steps toward the soldiers.

Then, suddenly, he staggered. He recovered quickly, but immediately stumbled to the side as if he’d been pushed. His grin turning to a snarl, Rhadid whipped out his rapier with his free hand and swung it in two wide arcs around himself, slicing nothing but air. This marked the first two seconds in which he was not actively firing his wand, and Roscoe shrieked a ceasefire order to her squad.

“Rafe,” Rhadid spat, then abruptly buckled completely, doubling over with a whoof of outgoing breath as if something had struck him in the midsection.

“Rush him!” Roscoe shouted, and the troops surged forward, stamping past Billie and Eric. That proved less than wise, as their active shielding charms prevented them grappling physically with him and Rhadid was the only one present with a bladed weapon. At least it ended the firefight flashing past overhead, however, and Billie surged upright, ignoring the ongoing struggle now that her survival wasn’t at stake.

“Foxpaw’s knickers, if I wasn’t such a sporting type I’d’a ditched your heavy butt already,” she growled, prodding Eric’s shoulder roughly with her foot. “Dungeon’s no place fer a bleedin’ librarian. C’mon, man, we need ta hey!”

The gnome was suddenly hiked bodily into the air by some invisible force. A moment later Eric, despite his weight, found himself pulled half-upright by a grip on his collar and then dragged down the balcony by the same entity causing Billie to hover alongside him.

“Y’mind awfully not doin’ that?” a disembodied voice requested as she squirmed and kicked. “Sorry about the manhandling, but I’m tryin’ to get you guys outta the stew, here.”

“Oh, aye?” She managed to get a grip on the invisible arm holding her, and ceased her thrashing. “Thanks fer the assist, then, but I can walk.”

“Can’t breathe,” Eric wheezed. In fairness, being pulled by the collar from behind did press his tie fairly hard against his throat. In moments, though, they were hauled around the corner of a bookshelf and into a small reading nook with a comfy chair, a lamp, and a window out onto the misty Vrandis pine forest outside.

Eric pulled at his collar, gasping, as soon as the invisible hand was no longer tugging on it, and Billie floated over to the chair to be set carefully upright on the cushions.

“Right,” she said, brushing herself off. “That’s done. An’ you are?”

He flickered into view, lowering a glass vial from his lips. The man’s lean face broke into a grin the moment he had swallowed the potion.

“Owl!” Eric cried, seeming to forget his discomfort. “Light’s grace, I thought you were dead!”

“Sorry for stressing you,” the thief said cheerfully. “You weren’t the one I set out to fool, but there was no way around it, I’m afraid.”

“But…but how?” the dwarf sputtered.

“Funny story! I woke up in that guest room and what should I find in my pocket but a set of clearly-labeled vials of invisibility potions and their antidotes. As I mentioned to you, my ass was the next on Rhadid’s chopping block, so I took the opportunity to set off that big, heavy rock trap in the courtyard and then disappear before he could decide to disappear me.”

Eric paused in rubbing his throat, frowning. “Wait, so… Rafe?”

“Had to’ve been,” Owl said with a shrug. “Guess the boy’s not as daffy as he acts, which I kinda figured.”

“Nobody could function an’ be as daffy as he acts,” Billie remarked.

“I won’t lie,” Owl added, “I was mostly upset to find out he’s a better pickpocket than me. Although I think I’ve just reclaimed the title.”

“But where have you been?” Eric asked. “Surely you weren’t wandering in the Manor alone?”

“Not the whole time, no; even with help, it’s no cakewalk to get around in here.”

Billie raised her eyebrows. “Help?”

“Oh, right,” Owl grinned. “Well, like any good little boy whose daddy’s gone on a bender, I went and fetched an adult. Oh, and speaking of!”

A few telltale azure sparkles of light had appeared in the air, but the whole thing unfolded far quicker than the average teleport spell; Owl barely had time to finish his sentence before the three of them vanished and reappeared elsewhere. They now stood at a corner of the third level of the balcony, within sight of the doors through which they had first entered the library, and there were two more members of the group.

“You found them, well done,” Arachne Tellwyrn said briskly. “I located this one, too, as you can see.”

“Hi, guys!” Admestus said gleefully, waving. “Boy, isn’t this exciting?!”

Eric had only just stood up when the mage teleported them. Now, he abruptly and heavily sat back down.

Below them, the sounds of battle changed in quality as the combatants apparently separated again. The scuffling paused, followed a moment later by the crack and flash of a wand firing, followed by the much heavier reply of a battlestaff, and then another.

“Excuse me,” Tellwyrn said, baring her teeth ominously, and vanished.

They immediately heard her voice again—at a distance, but raised to a screech of fury. Gehirnverweigererin!” Another flash of light burst from the balcony below them, this time clearly not caused by lightning, swiftly followed by the shouting of soldiers and Lieutenant Roscoe shrilly starting to demand something in the name of the Empress, immediately cut off by Tellwyrn roaring at a volume clearly augmented by magic. “Weapons are a privilege, as is life! And you lose both when you start SHOOTING UP A LIBRARY!”

When she reappeared a moment later, all of them instinctively backed away, which was for the good as Tellwyrn arrived with a large armload of books in tow. Scorched, damaged, and in some cases completely falling apart books. They hovered unsupported in the air around her as she got down to work. The battlestaves she had collected from the Imperial soldiers clattered to the ground, unattended.

Walls of blue light snapped into place around them, blocking off the group within an arcane shield, and Tellwyrn sat down on the carpet with a furious mutter of “Hosenscheisserin!” She began poring over the damaged volumes with gentle movements of her hands and harsh flickers of arcane magic, carefully knitting pages back together, wiping away scorch marks, and restoring them bit by bit.

“Wunderbar!” Eric said, clapping his hands in excitement. Tellwyrn ignored him, but the others stared, and he shrugged awkwardly. “It’s Old Stalweiss, you see. Hasn’t been spoken aloud since Diristaan’s day. I took five years of it as an elective in undergrad school!”

“That is the most you thing I can imagine anyone doing,” said Owl.

Below them, still out of sight, there were ongoing crashes and shouts as Rhadid carried on struggling with the soldiers. His wand had not appeared among their confiscated weapons, but there were no more lightning bolts. Clearly, the nobleman had got the message.

“Eh, pardon me fer askin’,” said Billie, “but is there somethin’ more urgent you could maybe be doin’ at this—”

“Be silent or be silenced,” Tellwyrn barked, not looking up from her work.

“Let the woman concentrate, Billie,” Admestus admonished. “Have you ever tried to reconstitute burned paper out of the very atmosphere? Seconds count!”

She threw up her hands and plunked herself down in the opposite corner from Eric.

A tremendous, singular clatter echoed abruptly through the library as thick wooden shutters, bound and braced by iron frames, slammed up out of the floors to lock away the contents of every single bookcase.

“Oh, now you’re protective of the collection,” Tellwyrn muttered acidly while still laboring to restore the damaged books. “This is why there are always hooligans running rampant in your house, you know. You never take care of your things in the first place!”

“Really, though,” Owl said, a bit gingerly. “Should we be…doing something? That officer seems like a bit of a tosser, but between her and Lord Rhadid, she’s not the casual murderer who’s apparently plotting world domination.”

“Oh, please,” Tellwyrn sneered. “I’ll get my hands dirty when something important is going down. There’s always some twit who thinks some magical gewgaw he’s found is going to make him the master of the universe. I should tell you how I got these spectacles sometime. You would not believe what their previous owner was doing. Those clods always end up the same way.”

“Yeah, seriously, we can take a break,” Admestus said cheerfully, rapping on the wall of arcane light with his knuckles and causing ripples of luminescence to spread from it. “We’re all safe and sound in Auntie Arachne’s bubble, and his Lordship specifically is not something we need to be worried about. Speaking as the person who set all this up, take the opportunity to grab a well-earned breather.”

“Set all this up, huh,” Billie said, giving him a very flat look.

“Oh!” Eric perked up. “Does that mean you arranged for Tamara to be here, too? Will we also find her safe and well?”

“Yes and no,” Rafe said with a shrug. “Yes in that she was along because I convinced Rhadypants we needed some muscle and recommended her for the job. And no, her ass is grass, as was the point. That was a really simple potion to brew! Combine Rhadid Daraspian and a tetchy, thick-skulled thug in one sapient dungeon, bring to a low simmer, and hey presto! Rhadid shows his arse right off the bat, and Manor Dire knows what to expect from him.”

They all stared at the half-elf, who gazed back with a placid smile and an arched eyebrow.

“So you were settin’ up yer boss fer this whole fiasco from the beginning?” Billie finally asked.

“Hah!” Rafe straightened up and struck a pose. “Never doubt it! Where there is a villain scheming to overthrow the just and virtuous rule of our fair Empress, there is a Rafe to thwart him! With cunning! With panache! With an exquisitely tight butt in only the most fashionable pants!”

“Your father didn’t belt you nearly enough,” Tellwyrn muttered.

“Why are you like this?!” Eric burst out. “Why can’t you just—just be a— Why aren’t you normal?”

Even Tellwyrn looked up at that, staring at Admestus over the rims of her spectacles. He started to scoff, but then actually subsided, his expression growing more sober under the weight of their combined stares. At last, he shrugged lopsidedly.

“I feel like you’re all fishing for some kind of grand revelation that just isn’t there. Not everybody can be a respected academic who fits in at a glance, Professor. Or a legendary, cantankerous archmage who everybody’s afraid to mess with, also Professor. People see a half-elf and it brings out the asshole in most of ’em. If everyone’s going to draw bullshit conclusions at first sight, things generally go better for me if they’re the bullshit conclusions I want.” He shrugged again. “That’s all.”

“Fact remains,” Owl said, “you deliberately led Tamara here to die. That’s not any different from what Daraspian did to her.”

“Yeah?” Admestus snorted, showing no hint of his usual theatrical ebullience. “Two years ago, Tamara beat the hell out of a fourteen-year-old kid I was tutoring. Stole his alchemy equipment to pawn, threw his textbook in the canal, and made a point of breaking his glasses. I hope Tammykins appreciates being peacefully dead instead of shrunk to three inches tall and left on the kitchen counter in the neighborhood cat lady’s apartment, because that was my first plan. Bitch was the worst kind of useless back-alley thug: the kind even the Guild wouldn’t take. If she hadn’t run afoul of me and Rhadid it was just a matter of time before some Eserite cut off her fingers.”

Owl grunted and shrugged, seeming entirely mollified by that. “All right, fair enough.”

“Hey, the violence seems to’ve died down,” Billie noted. “Who wants ta bet they sat down, ‘ad a nice calm discussion an’ worked out their differences?”

“One human’s coming up the nearest staircase,” Tellwyrn grunted, again focused on the books. “Daraspian, I think.”

Her elvish ears were correct, though it took them a few more seconds to verify it. Rhadid stomped toward them, his face wreathed in a furious snarl.

“You,” he spat, ineffectually stabbing the barrier with his sword. “You little vermin!”

“Well, damn,” Billie drawled, unimpressed. “Somebody needs ‘is nappy changed.”

“Oh, he’s probably just tetchy that I lifted this,” Owl said with a grin, reaching into his coat pocket. He pulled out a glass vial with a lead stopper, containing a sluggish purple liquid.

Rafe began laughing so hard he had to sit down.

With a visible effort, Rhadid suppressed his rage, even taking a moment to sheath his blade, smooth his hair back, and straighten his suit, though that last touch was particularly ineffectual as it was burned almost to shreds by repeated lightning blasts.

“Very well, I see the scales have tipped. You are in a position to make considerable demands of me, and I am in a position to bestow considerable wealth and favor upon each of you. So let us discuss how much we can arrange for you all to profit from giving back what is mine.”

“Ohh, buddy,” Rafe chortled, wiping away tears. “I don’t think you get it, Rhad. You were just shot a bunch of times.”

“Yes, and thanks to your brewing skill, I stand before you unscathed,” the nobleman said evenly. “I am impressed, Admestus. It is therefore worth a great deal to me to recover access to that potion.”

“And anyone actually smart enough to overthrow the Empire and conquer the world would’ve hovered and read over my shoulder instead of prowling around the adjacent rooms. That is a limited anti-death potion, Lordy boy. Limited. All magic is subjective physics—within limits. No alchemist, no wizard, no god can simply wipe away causality. Just…suspend it.”

Rhadid opened his mouth to reply, then utterly froze. The color drained from his face.

“Honestly, I coulda just fed you hemlock, but I really wanted to see if I could actually make that potion. And I wasn’t gonna shed any tears if you stabbed Roscoe; I really don’t care for her attitude.”

“Rafe,” Rhadid hissed, impotently clenching his fists.

Rafe made a production of drawing a pocket watch from his waistcoat, consulting it, and grinning. The snap of the watch’s lid closing carried a note of finality, somewhat spoiled by the alchemist waggling his fingers flirtatiously at his erstwhile employer. “It’s been a party, Rhadid. Tell Tamara I pointed and laughed!”

A single staffshot was enough electricity to inflict severe burns and overload the nervous system. As it turned out, the simultaneous result of several dozen abruptly catching up to someone who had temporarily suspended their effects amounted to a torrent of power that, for one second, glowed like the sun, and left behind little more than bones charred black. What remained of Rhadid Daraspian tumbled against the arcane shield and shattered to fall in jumbled fragments to the balcony floor.

Eric doubled over and was loudly sick.

“Charming,” Tellwyrn grunted. “Does it mean nothing to any of you that this is a god damned library?”

“Welp,” Owl said with a sigh. “Guess that means we’re not gettin’ paid.”


What little remained of the joint expedition to Manor Dire was much quicker and quieter, though not devoid of surprises.

Lieutenant Roscoe was among the three surviving soldiers, barely; at some point she had taken a rapier clear through her torso in three different places. The remains of her squad weren’t in much better shape. Compared to her previous attitude, she was very subdued after Rafe had administered healing potions. After rendering medical aid, the rest of the group left the Imperials to tend to their fallen.

Nobody bothered to say aloud that if Manor Dire was judging them by their ability to handle these events without resorting to brute violence, the gnomes had quite decisively won. Steinway, Woodsworth, and Sassafrass did not re-emerge from wherever they had hidden during the showdown, but Billie, who stuck with the rest of the survivors on their way out of the Manor, blithely assured everyone they were fine.

The next surprise came when the protective shutters over the bookcases abruptly withdrew, to reveal…nothing. Every shelf in the library was completely bare.

Tellwyrn withdrew a bag of holding from inside her vest, peeked inside it, and then smiled the self-satisfied smile of a well-fed housecat. “Ah.”

“Ohh,” Owl drawled while Eric was still groping, aghast, at an empty shelf. “I get it. New University and all, it must take a whole lotta time, effort, an’ money to put together a proper collection for the library. Unless you got a friend who’s about to put his place under new management an’ needs to clear up space on the shelves. That’s what this whole thing was about for you, isn’t it? The sweeping, the five-hundred-year-old dead language only Diristaan would know…”

“Oh, please,” she snorted, “I hardly need to suck up to Diristaan; I taught the boy everything he knew. Well,” she added pensively, “not the bit about achieving immortality by diffusing his consciousness into a non-discrete edifice. It would never occur to me to even contemplate such an asshat thing. Still.” In passing through the library doors, she paused to affectionately pat the door frame. “I always was fond of the lad. It’s been nice, being able to visit here and just relax, when I have time.”

“Aye, well, we gnomes aren’t big inta control an’ dominance,” said Billie. “This whole bit about competin’ fer rights to the place, that was the Manor’s idea, not ours. If me kin are gonna be a bigger presence ’round ‘ere goin’ forward, they’ll just be explorin’ an’ appreciatin’ the house. You of all people’ll be more welcome ‘ere than ever.”

“Oh, good,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “So much for peace and quiet.”

It seemed that Manor Dire was done playing games with them. The path from the library back to the entrance was direct, logical, and took all of ten minutes, without a trap or puzzle to be seen, much less any patches of confusing astral void. With nearly disorienting suddenness, they found themselves back in the long, rustic entry hall, facing the front doors to the mundane world outside.

“I would just like to say,” Eric spoke up suddenly, “that this trip has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me, and…and it has not disappointed, despite all the frankly horrible things we’ve endured in the process. I’m grateful to the Manor and its master for indulging one archaeologist’s curiosity and not punishing his, ah, lack of adventuring qualifications any more than necessary. And it has been both a pleasure and an honor to work alongside each and every one of you.” He hesitated, then smiled. “Even the homicidally unhinged ones.”

“D’aww,” Rafe cooed. “We love you too, big guy!” The half-elf broke off with a yelp as Billie pinched his butt.

“Hey, you,” Tellwyrn said, turning to him. “Want a job?”

Admestus gaped at her.

“I need an alchemy teacher,” she said bluntly. “I caught my longstanding one diddling one of the students, so he’s exploring the reaches of Suffering until she graduates. And I’m not thrilled with the guy I got to replace him. He’s competent and all, but… You’re clearly one of the best there is at what you do, if you managed to brew this.” She held up the nearly full vial of limited anti-death potion.

“Dammit!” Owl exclaimed, clapping a hand over his coat pocket. “I’m the Eserite here! Why the hell am I only the third-best pickpocket?”

“Sounds like a personal problem,” Billie said solicitously. “Are ye gettin’ enough veggies? May be a fiber issue.”

“Just as important,” Tellwyrn continued, ignoring them with her gaze still on Rafe, “you have a proven will to murder the hell out of anyone who harms one of your students. That’s everything I look for in a teacher. I’m willing to fire the chump I’ve got right now if you’re in.”

“Are you kidding?” Rafe squealed. “I am so in I can’t even think of an off-color metaphor, and that’s about a sentence hinging on the word ‘in’ for fuck’s sake! You just tell me when to start and—”

“Semester begins in three weeks,” she interrupted. “You’ll need to do some orientation beforehand. In fact…yeah. You have twenty-four hours to get your ass to Last Rock without my help. Consider that your final interview.”

“Then consider my ass hired!” Wasting not another moment, Admestus Rafe turned and pelted off down the great entry hall of Manor Dire, barely pausing to throw the front doors wide before charging through them and out into the world, leaving only his voice echoing behind. “Onward to glory!”

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Bonus #53: Lightning in a Bottle, part 6

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“Now, this looks somewhat more hospitable,” Lord Rhadid observed upon passing through the door. There was a brief scrum behind him as those assembled clustered together to peek through, followed by a somewhat more exuberant one as everybody eagerly piled into the aperture. The gnomes wormed nimbly through the legs of the taller folk, which mostly consisted of the pushy Imperial soldiers, with Admestus and Eric still bringing up the rear.

The reason for the fervor was that past the doorway, they were back indoors, in architecture that made sense. It was a most impressive layout, in fact.

They emerged on a third-floor balcony which wrapped the entire way around a cathedral-sized chamber entirely lined with bookshelves. Before them yawned the great open space of Diristaan’s library itself, encircled by another balcony on its second level. The walls on all three floors were fully covered by laden shelves; even the banister between them and the drop ahead was a waist-high row of shelves packed with books. Directly in front of them, hovering unsupported above the center of the open space, was a chandelier which put off brilliant golden light. It was unconnected to the ceiling, a floating crystalline orb which glowed like a miniature sun, constrained by bands of rune-marked iron and slowly orbited by irregular chunks of crystal that caught and refracted its light, casting shifting patterns along the bookshelves.

“At last,” Eric breathed after an awed pause. “The library. The sanctum sanctorum! The very beating heart of Manor Dire. To think that I should live to see this…”

“Also, solid ground, with walls an’ everything,” Steinway added. “Not ta downplay the significance o’ this but I’m pretty excited about that part.”

“Sanctorum?” muttered one of Roscoe’s soldiers. “What language is that, even?”

“Truly a grand edifice,” said Lord Rhadid, “and a priceless experience for each of us to have the honor of observing it. Not that I doubt you, comrades, but please do remember the house’s rules and refrain from creating a disturbance, here. Many of these books are rumored to be unique and irreplaceable; a careless act could deprive the world of a treasure beyond reckoning.”

“As his Lordship says,” Lt. Roscoe added to her soldiers, turning her back on Rhadid. “Best behavior, men. I want a maximum of zero damage and antagonism inflicted upon the Manor so long as we’re trusted enough to be allowed in here. I’ll have to rely on you to display our good intentions through actions, since I didn’t grow up with an elocution tutor and am not prepared to extravagantly suck up.”

“Y’know, I’m starting to feel a real kinship with you, Jane,” Admestus said cheerily. “In that it’s really kinda unbelievable that nobody’s shot either of us yet.”

“Give it a week,” Sassafrass suggested.

“Professor,” said Rhadid, turning to Eric. He then paused, and tried again. “Professor Ahlstrom!”

“What?” Eric demanded, wrenching his attention away from a study of the floating chandelier, then blanched and swallowed heavily. “Oh! Oh, my humble apologies, my lord, I was—”

“A forgivable lapse, under the circumstances,” Rhadid assured him with a slight smile. “No harm done. I shall be glad to let you explore the inner chambers at your leisure; in fact, you are undoubtedly the best possible guide for our new associates, here. But first, can you direct us to the alchemy laboratory?”

“Oh, well,” Eric waffled, peering around with wide eyes. “It’s not as if I’ve seen the blueprints! Forgive me, m’lord, but not many have come to this central chamber and emerged, and of those who related their story, none bothered with specific directions. It was implied in multiple accounts that the library itself is a focal nexus of sorts. All of Diristaan’s personal chambers should connect to it directly. We shall simply have to explore these balconies and the various doorways that branch off them. I, ah, presume an alchemy lab will be immediately recognizable when it is found.”

“To me, it will be!” Admestus crowed. “C’mon, slowpokes, let’s meander!”

“Actually I should note that it would be advisable not to become too greedy for knowledge,” Eric cautioned. “Our group came here specifically for the lab and were allowed admittance to this area, so that should be permissible. Likewise for any of you who sought a particular goal; being granted access is tantamount to permission. The Manor will tend to punish any overly ambitious use of its facilities. This is the hardest thing of all for an academic like myself, but do endeavor to restrain your curiosity.”

“Aye, well, we ain’t lookin’ ta plumb the secrets o’ the universe,” said Billie, who had clambered up onto the lower bookcases to look down at the floor three stories below. “I reckon our more general sorta curiosity about the place won’t ruffle the ol’ girl’s feathers.”

“What,” Roscoe asked Rhadid, “exactly do you want with Diristaan’s alchemy set?”

“It is rumored that the Archmage possessed a tincture which could transform jumped-up serving girls who pried into their betters’ affairs into pumpkins,” he replied with a bland smile. “I find I have an imminent use for such a substance. Come along, Admestus.”

“Hey!” she barked as he strode past her. “I’m not finished with—”

“Easy now, lass,” Woodsworth cautioned. “Remember the rules o’ this silly contest. Best behavior, aye?”

“…thank you for the reminder,” she said grudgingly, still fondling her battlestaff and glaring at Rhadid’s retreating back. “Especially since we’re apparently in competition.”

“Aye, an you aren’t winnin’ it so far,” Billie said brightly. “Lookit us, bein’ good neighbors to one an’ all! C’mon, lads, let’s ‘ave us a gander at the surroundings. Care ta come with, Professor?”

“I’m afraid I may not be very good company; there is just so much to demand my attention!”

“No worries, it’s not like we’re after the Manor’s secrets in ‘ere. Followin’ the expert seems like the optimal route for sightseein’.”

“Orders, LT?” the sergeant prompted after both groups had retreated in different directions, leaving the soldiers alone. “Should we follow them?”

“That Daraspian snot is up to something,” Roscoe said softly. “Even more than most nobles, any Daraspian is always up to something. I don’t know what someone like that could possibly want from Manor Dire’s secret lab, but it’s not going to be anything good. Riker, Talvedegh, follow him at a distance and see if you can suss out his intentions. The rest of you, stick with me. We’ll try to stay within sight of the balcony’s edge so you two can find us at need. Move out, people.”


Their goal was on the second floor. Multiple doors branched off from the library on every level; Rhadid and Admestus poked their heads into those they passed in the search for the old Archmage’s alchemy lab. Along the rim of the third level they found a little reading room, the door to the observatory, and a dungeon-like chamber lined with complicated-looking equipment that was probably Diristaan’s enchanting laboratory—all treasures that would turn the heads of many of the world’s most powerful seekers of magic and knowledge, but the two men now on the hunt passed them by with barely a glance. Likewise the room they discovered which was piled almost waist-deep in gold coins, gems, and miscellaneous bits of precious metalwork.

“Well, that has ‘trap’ written just all over it,” Rafe observed, carefully easing the door back shut. “Y’know, I didn’t actually think anybody stored treasure that way. Wouldn’t you want some kind of organizational system so you can actually find things?”

“If one is maintaining an actual treasury, yes,” replied Rhadid. “That arrangement appeals to those who hoard riches for the simple pleasure of owning them. In other words, fools and dragons, of which Diristaan was neither. You are correct, that was a clear snare for the greedy. Come, Admestus, time waits for no one.”

They descended a spiraling staircase attached to one corner of the balcony and there, by luck or the Manor’s aim, found the alchemy lab behind the first door they encountered.

“Oh, baby,” Admestus crooned, running back and forth along a row of tables laden with equipment, gently touching everything he saw. “Oh, yeah. Aw, man, I have always wanted one of these!”

“Focus, please,” Rhadid ordered. He planted himself in the center of the room, away from the equipment tables, shelves of books and scrolls, and glass-fronted cabinets full of reagents which looked as fresh as the day they had been stored five hundred years ago. “We came here for a reason. With what you’ll be paid for this work you can build your own lab just as replete.”

“Rafe never loses focus—oh, my gods, he has a copy of Vanimax’s Miscellany!” Admestus dashed across the room to seize a huge volume with a bejeweled cover.

“Rafe!” Rhadid barked.

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s not all fun and games,” the alchemist replied, setting aside the Miscellany and opening another tome. “I gotta consult the books first thing, here. Not only is this one of the few places the potion you want can actually be brewed, Diristaan was one of the few who had the recipe on file. Handy, that! Between you and me I don’t fancy jotting down the formula and then tottering off to the Deep Wild to set up a field lab. Nah, Manor Dire should be plenty abstract enough for us to bend the rules a bit…”

Rhadid was studying a large portrait hanging opposite the door, depicting a bearded man whose long black hair was shot through with a few almost cosmetic streaks of silver. Archmage Diristaan in this picture looked barely past middle age, and gazed down upon his alchemy lab with a severe expression.

“My thanks for the use of your facilities, sir,” Rhadid said aloud, bowing in the direction of the portrait. “It is an honor as well as a great help. Admestus, you are the specialist, but if there is anything I can do to materially facilitate this process, say so.”

“Yeah, gets a bit maddening just standin’ around watching, eh?” Rafe said, looking up at him with a grin. “Actually, if you wanna help, you can start setting up the bottle. To bring any of this brew out of the house and have it still work it’ll have to be contained in a specially created vial made of the inherent substance of Manor Dire. Luckily I procured us a suitable bit of glass.”

He reached into one of the pouches on his belt and pulled out what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary shot glass, setting it down beside the open book through which he was presently leafing.

Rhadid narrowed his eyes nearly to slits. “Is that… Of course, the glass the servant offered. Rafe, you were warned to take nothing from the house!”

“First,” Admestus said distractedly, his focus on the book, “that’s a bit of glass, not a lootable treasure. Second, I didn’t take it, it was offered freely. Third, I haven’t removed it from the house. And when we do, it’ll be in a wholly different form, one intended for the purpose. I do know what I’m doing, y’Lordship. Over there in the corner, that big jobby on the stone base with what looks like a still on top? That’s an arcane bottle forge—vintage, but you gotta figure ol’ Diristaan didn’t keep equipment around that didn’t do exactly what it was supposed to. Set the glass on that copper plate there so it can be warming up, and I’ll finish forming the vial out of it while the potion’s bubbling here in a bit.”

Rhadid hesitated, studying him, which Admestus appeared not to notice with his nose buried in Diristaan’s old alchemy recipes. He was doubtless not accustomed to being ordered about by his own employees, but he had offered, and the entire point of this expedition had been to get Admestus Rafe into this lab to do what needed to be done. Without comment, he picked up the glass and carried it over to the device indicated.

“Ha-HAH!” Rafe crowed suddenly, straightening up and jabbing his finger at the currently open page.

“You have it?” Rhadid whirled back to him, finally betraying eagerness.

“Oh, we are in business,” the alchemist said avidly. He cracked his knuckles and began rolling his sleeves up.

“And it will work? You are certain this is the potion we discussed?”

“Relax, Lord Bossman, I am all over this. We got one of the world’s greatest laboratories here, and I, let us not forget, am the Rafe himself! Let me loose in this joint and I will plug a stopper in death. Let’s get cookin’!”

They had not troubled to close the laboratory door. Just outside it, two Imperial soldiers eased back from the opening and exchanged a look and a nod. Then one took up a position out of sight next to the doorway while the other set off at a trot to find Lieutenant Roscoe.


The gnomes seemed to find Eric at least as interesting as the house, or at any rate, more entertaining. Billie offered some color commentary as the four of them trailed along in the dwarf’s wake, but for the most part they simply oohed and aahed on cue while he gushed about interesting features and watched with smiling amusement as he lost himself to the excitement of each new discovery.

“It is! It actually is!” the professor exclaimed, actually rushing back and forth in front of the object in question, which they had discovered in a long chamber which seemed to run behind one entire wall of the first floor, lined with an eclectic variety of objects either free-standing, attached to the walls, or displayed behind glass. Between a taxidermied creature that resembled a five-foot-tall bird with fangs and little clawed fingers emerging from the joint of its stubby wings and a suit of battle-scarred silver Avenic armor stood a nondescript, battered-looking cabinet on four legs. There was nothing atop it, suggesting that the thing itself was the display; it looked quite out of place in this hall of exotic trophies, but had agitated Eric more than anything else they had encountered.

“All right, no need ta keep us in suspense,” Billie prompted while he gently ran his thick hands over the edges of the cabinet. “What’ve ye found, then?”

“It’s a Vernis Vault,” Eric breathed. “Surely you’ve heard of them?”

“Aye, that I ‘ave,” Billie said, studying the cabinet with a newfound respect. “Blimey, that’s an ‘ell of a thing an’ no mistake. Though I guess it’s only sense that ol’ Diristaan’d have one a’ these squirreled away.”

“That’s just it!” the dwarf exclaimed. “There is no recorded indication that he did! You must understand, such connections are of the greatest importance in historical accounts. By linking great figures to the important events in which they were involved, the other personages of import they encountered, the rare treasures they possessed… Why, it is from this web of connections that history is made. Especially in periods from which the remaining accounts are fragmentary, and about people like Diristaan who resisted having their lives documented. But Diristaan, owning a Vernis Vault! I can say without boasting that I am among the foremost experts on this house and there has never been any written indication that one of the Vaults might be here! Why, this throws into question entire…”

He trailed off, taking a step back from the Vault and gazing at it in wonder. Then, following a pause, Eric knelt and reached for its latch.

“Hey, now,” Billie warned. “’ave a care, Professor. I realize yer excited but best not t’be pickin’ up things in the obvious treasure chamber. Especially the ones locked away.”

“Oh, good heavens, I know that,” Eric said absently, resting his hand on the latch. “The last thing I plan to do is try to remove anything. But…don’t you want to know?”

“Aye, I’m rather curious at that,” Woodsworth agreed. “What was so important to a chap like Diristaan that ‘e’d want a limitless supply of it, eh?”

Eric drew in a deep breath, making is barrel chest swell further, and as the gnomes all crowded around him to look, finally lifted the latch and swung the door open.

The Vault was empty.

“Of course,” the dwarf said solemnly after a moment’s silent staring. “Of course. What do you get the man who has everything? For someone like the Archmage…”

“Heh, it’s a bit of a letdown, though, innit?” Billie chuckled. “An’ ‘ere I half expected t’find the old boy kept his candy stash in it.”

“All those gadgets o’ yours ‘ave finally gone and irradiated yer brain,” Sassafrass accused, rolling her eyes. “Nobody would put candy in a Vernis Vault.”

“Some people just can’t take a joke,” Billie said to Eric as he gently shut the door again.

“I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m not in a very joking mood,” he rumbled. “All of this is the very fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, one I had never truly hoped to see realized, and each new thing I find is—”

He broke off, having straightened to find that the top of the Vault was no longer empty. Resting upon it, now, was a book.

Even more than the Vault, it looked like something that had no business in a trophy collection. The leather cover was scratched and ragged, its title simply scrawled in ink across a piece of thick vellum stitched to the cover in cruel defiance of every best practice in book-binding. The pages were uneven to the point that several seemed on the verge of falling out.

A light came on. There was a lantern hanging directly above the Vault, which they had not noted as it was dark when they’d come in. Now, a flame flickered to life within it, revealing an inner arrangement of mirrors and shaped shutters that caused it to shine a beam of light straight downward onto the bedraggled old book.

“Now that’s bait, that is,” Steinway said sagely.

“’ere now, what’s that henscratch?” Billie asked, pointing to the cover.

“It’s…Tanglic,” Eric whispered. “That is hand-written…”

“Well, obviously,” she snorted.

“It’s handwriting I know well,” he continued. “Few enough examples survive, but I have pored over them all for countless hours… That is Diristaan’s hand.”

They stared at the book in silence.

“Right,” said Steinway at last. “Bait. Who’s fer backin’ quietly away an—”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Billie held up a finger. “We are guests in here, remember? If th’very master o’ the house wants to tell us somethin’, I’m not gonna be the uncouth arse who turns a shoulder to ‘im. Professor, what’s that say, then?”

“It’s the title, I presume. It says The Book of Fates.”

“Bait,” Steinway insisted. “Ashner’s gloves, Billie—”

“You hush,” she ordered. “Honestly, man, pull yerself together. It ain’t even that yer wrong, that’s just advice fer another circumstance. This ain’t the Crawl an’ we’re not after loot; why the ‘ell would the ol’ boy wanna up an’ drop us down a spike pit when we’re bein’ such well-behaved guests? Professor, you’ve got the longest arms, care t’do the honors?”

Eric reached for the book, then hesitated. “If… I don’t disagree with you, Billie, but your friend also makes a good—”

“Oy vey,” Billie exclaimed. She had to leap upon and cling to the front of the Vault to reach across and flip the book’s cover open, but executed this maneuver without a hint of difficulty.

There was nothing written in the Book of Fates. The moment it was open, blue light surged up from its pages, as if its covers bound between them the view into some oracular pool. Accompanying the light came a voice—not from the book, but from the very air around them. It boomed through the room, through the halls and the library outside, resonating throughout the Manor. The voice of a man just beginning to grow scratchy with age, but still resonant and powerful, and now shimmering with an echoing quality as if to emphasize that it was not a sound made by a living throat.

“Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young man…”


“You’re certain that’s what he said?” Roscoe demanded. “A stopper in death?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the soldier reporting replied. “Riker and I both thought you’d want to know. He’s still there on guard.”

“Sounds too poetic to qualify as intelligence, LT,” her sergeant said in a skeptical tone. “Not to mention that alchemist obviously has multiple screws loose.”

“Yeah, agreed,” she murmured. “Still. An actual potion of immortality? That would be worth risking Manor Dire. If that actually is what Daraspian’s after, we don’t have cause to get on his case about it, though. There’s no law against trying to extend your lifespan.”

The entire squad jumped and spun to cover their surroundings with staves and wands when a voice suddenly thundered out of the very air and walls all around them. High above, the golden chandelier pulsed in time with its words.

“Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young man…who was born a hundred years too early. Later would come an era in which his fathomless hunger for power and prestige would be counted the greatest of virtues, but in his own time, it marked him a villain. Not least because he rose from the ranks of the darkest House of an Empire—a scion of what had once been a great legacy, now reduced to banditry and usury to scrape out a living. But this is not the tale of the fall of House Daraspian.

“Though born into wealth and privilege beyond the dreams of most men, from his earliest youth he stewed in resentment over his lot. Resentment at everything he felt owed, and yet denied. At the mages and witches of his day, gifted with a power of which he lacked the merest spark. At the greater Houses, with their storied histories and seemingly endless treasuries which his own family could only envy. At the elder members of his very House, for possessing rank above his own through no achievement save having, by pure coincidence, lived longer. At the woman upon the Silver Throne, for inheriting absolute rule and wielding it as a flail against the privileges of his own class. At the elves, for possessing by accident of biology the one thing he lacked, through which he could ultimately upend all the injustices he saw as having been piled upon him: endless time.

“Resentment filled him as if it were his very blood—but because he was an ambitious young man, he did not let it consume him, but turned it to fuel. While his relatives schemed and scuffled for dregs of power and handfuls of money, he devoted himself to study and training…and planning. Over time, he assembled a masterwork of strategy which would never be considered, much less taken seriously, by any of his peers, for the sheer scope of its ambition. The ambitious young man, you see, was content with nothing less than absolute dominion—over magic, over an Empire, over the world, over life itself. And so he laid his plans and began to put them into effect. Plans to suborn the powers of magic and those who wielded them to his own will. Plans to reduce those of his own House who would not bow to him. Plans to bring low the other Houses. Plans to topple an Empress, or her heirs, from a Throne. All these things he planned, and began to pursue. But the one thing he lacked was time. For a man can achieve all these things, with care and thoroughness, but not within the space of a man’s life.

“The last and most important thing the ambitious young man needed was freedom—from the passage of time, and from the consequences of failure. A solution to death itself, assurance that he would have the endless years needed to enact all his plans, and survive the assaults that would be thrown against him in response to them.

“This assurance he sought in my house, among my tools. The privilege he earned through guile, ambition, bloodshed, betrayal, and martial skill, all traits I respect. I choose not to deny him—nor to aid him against his first challenges. To me, this is but a story that livens the tedium of endless existence, and gives shape to the choices I will make. And I shall decide them based upon the outcome of this confrontation. This day, Rhadid Daraspian takes a fateful step into the future, which will lead either to his swift unmaking, or to his utter dominion.

“That is the secret. In the Book of Fates, there are only possibilities. It is not fate until it has happened. What will happen now? You who are guests in my home… Amuse me.”

The silence which followed was somehow louder than the voice had been.

It was finally broken by a click and then the low whine of arcane enchantment at work as Lt. Roscoe primed her battlestaff.

“But treason, now,” she said in a tone as satisfied as it was grim. “That, there’s a law against. Fall in.”


The finished potion was innocuous in appearance, compared to many of Rafe’s more exotic brews: simply a thick liquid of a deep, inky purple, without bubbles, steam, or anything to suggest it was a particularly aggressive affront against all laws of mortality and nature. It fit neatly in the thin glass vial produced by the bottle forge out of the Manor’s proffered shot glass. Admestus had held it aloft in reverence when the voice started booming through the chamber, preparatory to handing it over to the man who had commissioned it, and paid for this moment in both gold and blood.

By the time Diristaan’s recitation had ended, the alchemist had discreetly plugged a lead stopper into the vial. His patron, despite his earlier eagerness, had not reached out to take the potion, falling still as he listened to the story spelled out.

Then Rhadid turned to face the portrait, which was smiling at him. A moment ago it had not been.

“Now what petty satisfaction could you possibly have gained from that, old man?”

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Bonus #52: Lightning in a Bottle, part 5

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“You must choose the fate of all here,” the specter instructed, causing several of those present to stiffen in alarm. “Decide now whether you will go forward, or go back.”

“None of us have come all this way to turn tail at the first warning,” Lord Rhadid retorted.

“First warning?” Eric muttered incredulously.

“Retreat now, and you will not be expelled from the Manor,” said the specter. “The master’s house remains open to guests. Go back the way you came, choose a different path, and you may continue to explore these halls at your leisure. In the end, perhaps you will again come to the threshold of the innermost sanctum.”

Rhadid’s eyebrows lowered infinitesimally. “Perhaps?”

“Should you choose to go forward,” the guardian continued, “the way shall be opened for you, but know that you shall hold in your hand the destiny of the Manor itself, and all who are within.”

“This…ain’t the normal run o’ adventures in here, aye?” Billie said warily.

“Indeed, this is entirely without precedent,” Eric agreed. “If I may ask, what is it that makes the difference? Surely such a choice has never been placed before another visitor before.”

“These are interesting times. An unusual confluence of visitors has come to the master’s house: old friends, valued guests, would-be threats, agents of powers great and small. In their words and thoughts the master has seen portents of great things changing in the world beyond, things he deems it unwise to ignore.”

“I say,” Admestus breathed, “does that mean the old wizard himself is still—”

“Mr. Rafe,” Eric interrupted urgently, “whatever Manor Dire’s governing intelligence, it has never appreciated prying inquiries into its nature or business!”

“Curiosity is understandable, Admestus, but do please refrain from insulting our host, however indirectly,” Rhadid concurred, then turned back to the phantasmal figure. He hesitated, studying it; the specter wore robes of a style long associated with the wizards of old, and when it hadn’t shifted to resemble a skeleton or amorphous blur, clearly possessed an equally archetypal long beard. Right on the heels of Eric’s warning, though, would clearly have been a bad time to ask if they had the pleasure of addressing Archmage Diristaan himself, so the aristocrat shifted focus. “It is a heavy choice you lay before us, sir. I understand and respect the need to respond to changing events, but if I might ask, what have we done to earn this honor?”

“A suitable one has come,” the apparition said in its sepulchral voice. “The master has noted, among his visitors, a scion of long association with this house. One who has foreseen a great need, and come here of his own initiative to take action against the advance of fate. It is to this one among you that the question is direction—at this one’s feet is the choice laid. Know that if you press forward, it will be toward the end of this era. All wanderers in this house shall be called together, in competition to determine who shall have custody of this house’s future. Nor will the master yield easily to any passerby. If you choose the confrontation, you will be tested sorely, by every artifice of the Manor and against the ambitions of all who have come here.”

Rhadid half-turned to nod at Billie. “As we have previously established, Ms. Fallowstone, I have no ambition to take control of Manor Dire. I would, however, consider it a fair arrangement indeed to assist the Manor’s future custodians in earning that prerogative, so long as I was permitted to indulge my own smaller, very specific purpose here.”

“I’m beggin’ ya, just call me Billie,” she said with a sigh. “Can’t bloody stand havin’ that whole mouthful thrown around…”

“My apologies, Billie. I’ll make a note of it.”

She turned to her fellow gnomes. “What’d’ye think, lass an’ lads? This ‘ere’s pretty close to everything we coulda ‘oped, but I’m gettin’ a ‘too good t’be true’ vibe off the whole business.”

“A mite sudden, innit?” Sassafrass agreed. “Nothin’ makes me ears prickle like mysterious powers showin’ up ta offer me ‘eart’s desire outta the blue.”

“No reward without risk,” Woodsworth grunted. “You ain’t killed us yet, Billie, I’ll back yer call here.”

“It’s dicey, aye,” added Steinway. “Takin’ all the factors I can see, the deal appears worthwhile t’me.”

“Here’s our pitch,” Billie said, turning back to Rhadid. “Me kin an’ I mean ta preserve Manor Dire as it is, prickly spirit guardians an’ all. All we want is t’be able ta keep visitin’, explorin’ the dangers and earnin’ whatever reward the ‘ouse deems fair, an’ not ‘ave ta worry about the Empire or anybody else tellin’ us we can’t.”

“That would be a wonderful idea,” Eric said fervently. “My lord, this may be the last chance, ever, to preserve this historical treasure in something like its original state! If the gnomes—”

“You needn’t convince me, Professor,” said Lord Rhadid. “It appears to me that our purposes coincide rather neatly, Billie. If you are amenable to formalizing the agreement we previously discussed?” He bent his knees, reaching down to offer her a hand.

“The scion must make the choice,” the spectral custodian said patiently.

“Well, seems like all our ducks are in a row!” Admestus pushed forward, planting his fists on his hips and raising his chin. “Very well, spooky manservant! I, Rafe, do hereby choose: we press forward! Onward to glory!”

“Rafe,” Rhadid said in a tone of strained patience, in the act of shaking Billie’s hand, “this is not the time. My apologies, guardian. My alchemist is quite brilliant, but rather excessively eccentric. I choose to embrace the risk, with complete confidence in my allies and my skills. We shall earn your master’s favor, never fear.”

“The choice is made,” the specter agreed, already beginning to fade from view. “If you have chosen ill, may you not live to regret it.”

“Is it just me or was that a lot more ominous than it needed to be?” Admestus asked. The ghost was fully gone before he finished speaking.

“Eh, spirit guardians in ancient an’ terribly haunted places,” Billie said lightly, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. “There’s a certain etiquette to it all, aye? Rythms an’ formalities t’be observed. Y’get used to it.”

“So, ah…” Eric looked around, then shrugged. “To exactly what forward are we meant to go? This still appears to be something of a dead—oh, there it is.”

Among the floating bits of detritus in the astral void before them were several fragments of a staircase; these now ceased their aimless twirling and drifted closer together, a few matching chunks manifesting out of the ether among them, to form the patchy remnants of a way forward. It was no more a full set of stairs than a skeleton was a person, but looked theoretically climbable by someone willing to hop several wide gaps over an infinite abyss, and not think too much about what was holding the remaining steps up. They continued to bob subtly as if floating in water.

“Well, that looks a right frolic an’ no mistake,” Billie said cheerfully. “Off we go, then, lads!”

“Hadn’t you better—augh!” Eric broke off and covered his eyes as the gnome got a running start and launched herself bodily into space.

“Aw, were you that worried about li’l ol’ me?” Billie cooed at him from the nearest chunk of steps, which had wobbled slightly at her landing but not fallen or drifted out of place. “Yer sweet, fer a dwarf. Looks solid enough, lads! Shall we?”

“Quite, there is clearly no profit in lingering here,” said Rhadid, nimbly hopping up beside her, whereupon the gnome gathered herself to spring to the next (and smaller) bit of architecture. “Take it steadily and don’t rush, everyone.”

Eric swallowed so loudly they could all hear it. “Oh, my giddy aunt… I suppose this is an awkward time to reveal that I’m not at my best with heights.”

“Nobody who’s ever talked with a dwarf before is surprised,” said Steinway.

“Also,” Admestus added innocently, “Does it really count as heights if there’s no bottom?”

Eric groaned and covered his eyes again.

“Admestus, you are wearing on my patience,” Rhadid stated. “That I can forgive, but refrain from making this any harder for your fellows. All right, let’s take it one step at a time. Remember, haste leads to mistakes. We can afford to—”

The groaning of masonry made him cut off, a sound very reminiscent of their earliest mishaps in the lower halls after Tamara had attacked the undead servant. It was clearly coming from the hall behind them rather than the precarious bits of stair they had to climb, which was slightly reassuring for about two seconds. Then, with a tremendous crunch, the most distant patch of corridor visible to them collapsed into fragments of wood and masonry and tumbled away, to reveal another dizzying void behind it where the ballroom should have been.

They wasted a moment gaping back at this before another explosive dissolution of the architecture occurred, shortening the hallway still further. Now what had previously seemed like a solid stretch of corridor terminating in the void was clearly just hanging in it, unsupported, and now the abyss at its other end was drawing steadily closer, one yard of collapsing floor at a time.

“Never mind,” Rhadid said quickly. “Make haste and try not to fall. Let’s clear some room for them, Billie.”

“Way ahead of ya,” she said, which was the literal truth; the gnome was already three fragments of staircase forward from him. Her companions bounded nimbly onto the lowest piece the moment Rhadid cleared it.

“Here, drink this,” Admestus ordered, pressing a vial of what appeared to be swirling clouds into Eric’s hands and momentarily distracting the dwarf from his panicked muttering.

“What in blazes—”

“Featherweight potion,” the alchemist explained. “No offense, but you don’t look too awfully nimble in a hopping-across-the-sky sense. Come on, down the hatch! Time’s a-wasting, and so’s the floor.”

Eric squeezed his eyes shut again, but plucked the stopper and threw the entire contents of the vial down his throat in one gulp.

“That’s the spirit!” Admestus cheered. “C’mon, now, you can do it!”

Leaping onto the floating fragments of masonry was very much like hopping onto an anchored buoy; they shifted and bobbed with the impact but did not move far enough out of place to risk throwing them off. Eric was indeed able to leap farther than his stubby legs and significant weight ordinarily allowed, though he fumbled the first landing, unfamiliar with his newfound lightness. He ended up face-first on the stairs, clutching them with both hands.

Admestus had consigned himself to the rear to encourage Eric forward, but at that leaped up right on top of him, and not a moment too soon; the last pieces of hallway on which they had been standing collapsed into the void right behind him. Now the entire group was stretched across several hovering fragments of wood and stone, surrounded by a gaping abyss of stars in all directions.

“Oy, you all right back there?” Billie called from up ahead. “I don’t recommend dithering! Best we keep a move on ‘fore the house decides t’give us another little poke in the bum!”

“We’re fine,” Admestus called back, waving. “Just a minor case of…dwarf. Come on, ol’ boy, I realize you’re out of your element but she’s right. No time to rest on our laurels.”

“I am quite certain no one here has received anything that could be described as a ‘laurel,’” Eric groaned, but he had already clambered unsteadily back to his feet and gathered himself for the next leap.

He impeded their pace significantly; the rest of the group consisted of gnomes, a half-elf, and a human in the prime of physical fitness, and as such were able to ascend the shattered stairs with good speed. A dwarf, even one dosed with featherweight potion, was simply not built for jumping and climbing. The group grew more stretched out, with Rhadid quickly reaching the front as he was the least inclined to wait, but even the nobleman did not press enough to leave Eric behind entirely. Admestus remained at the back to monitor his progress, and the gnomes shouted encouragement—and, in Billie’s case, threw a rope. Slow as the going was, it seemed that the Manor (or whatever term described this endless nothingness through which they now climbed) wasn’t inclined to nip at their heels as long as they kept moving.

“Any insight where this infernal climb is leading?” Eric asked plaintively, clutching a handy fragment of banister to steady himself while the stairs beneath him ceased rocking from his leap.

“Let’s see…” Admestus leaned past him to peer at the group ahead. “Uh, the short answer is ‘up.’”

“I was afraid of that.”

“House is keepin’ us in suspense,” Sassafrass said from the island just above and ahead of them. “She does that. I reckon our next steps’ll come to us in due time, pardon the pun.”

At that moment, a passing wooden door suddenly opened, revealing a cluster of Imperial soldiers herded together in it. Since the door was tilted at about a forty-five degree angle relative to the group on the stairs, the sight was somewhat disorienting, and not just for them.

“What in Omnu’s name is going on here?!” barked the lieutenant who had gotten short with them previously. Her eyes fell on Rhadid and narrowed to slits. “This is your doing.”

“I don’t know how you could possibly assume that, Lieutenant,” he replied across the emptiness with impressive calm.

“Happens to be true, though, isn’t it?” Admestus called.

“Coincidentally, yes, but there is no realistic way she could know it.”

“What the hell did you do?” shouted another of the soldiers. “The whole house is collapsing! Where in fuck’s name are we?”

“I’ve got half a mind to place the lot of you under arrest!” the lieutenant snarled.

“Oh?” Rhadid mockingly raised an eyebrow. “And how, in your mind, would that scenario play out?”

More pieces of floating architecture had been moving while they argued, and by that point a general shape had begun to form. Half a hallway had appeared in segments, jagged fragments of floorboard attached to sections of wall. It would make for a narrow, wall-hugging crossing with several gaps to jump, complicated by the fact that the broken corridor wound slightly back and forth where its pieces were separated, but it would be very doable in single-file. Disconcertingly, it arced upward at an angle that had it meet the same spot as the newly-formed top of their staircase, which put the two groups on a course to meet at one point with gravity orienting them in two different directions.

In fact, the lieutenant took the initiative in hopping from the floating doorway to the nearest piece of hall, which conveniently began with a wide spot to make landing easier, complete with an upright segment of wall against which she steadied herself before moving forward to make room for her troops. Both she and Rhadid had turned their attention to the place ahead of and above them where the fragmented stairs and broken corridor intersected.

Their destination was assembling itself right before their eyes. Pieces of wood had drifted into union like some crazy jigsaw puzzle to form a jagged but fairly regular area several yards square. More chunks of masonry were floating toward it, coalescing into a decorative stone edifice in the center of the floor. At the same time, visible to them due to the weird angle at which it intersected both their access routes, a stretch of wall folded up at the rear edge of the platform, with a heavy oaken door set in the middle of it.

The last bits of stone slotted into place, forming, of all things, a large decorative fountain. More confusingly still, as soon as it was complete it began to spray water, its basin rapidly filled by the playful streams it shot upward.

And then, from around the frame of the door behind it, a golden glow rose.

“Hey, guys!” Admestus called, pointing. “Nobody quote me on this, but I think that’s where we’re going!”

The last of the Imperial soldiers had landed on their access hall, and now they turned to stare across the yawning gap at the gnomes and remainder of Rhadid’s group strewn along the staircase.

The lieutenant ran a hand unconsciously along her battlestaff and shifted it halfway toward a firing position.

“Don’t even think about it!” Billie ordered, pointing at her. “And don’t you think about it either!” she added, turning her accusing finger on Rhadid, who had unholstered his wand.

“May I remind you, Billie,” he said patiently without taking his eyes off the soldiers, “that this group is very specifically in competition with you?”

“Aye, an’ I’m not a hundred percent averse ta shootin’ somebody into an infinite void o’ stars, but fer th’record I don’t consider ‘bein’ in competition’ a good enough reason, clear?”

“What the hell is all this about competition?” the officer demanded. “What did you do?!”

“For pity’s sake!” Eric bellowed. “There’s plenty of room! Can we all agree to discuss this after we reach something passing for solid ground?”

“The dwarf’s right, LT,” a man wearing a sergeant’s insignia added. “This is nuts enough without having a firefight on top of it.”

She let out her breath in an angry hiss through her teeth, but returned her gaze to Rhadid. “Fine. A truce?”

“Truce implies that we were on violent terms, Lieutenant,” he replied. “Unless you were planning some manner of unlawful assault, I see no reason we need to clarify that point.” With that, he turned and resumed climbing the fragmentary staircase, somewhat faster than before. The officer gritted her teeth, but set off along her own pathway without another word.

Both Rhadid and the lieutenant set an almost unwisely quick pace for the remainder of the trip to the platform. Their slightly bending corridor was an easier trek by far, but the group on the stairs had a significant head start. The more it looked like the two groups were going to reach their destination at about the same time, the faster each of them pushed their pace, until even the soldiers had stopped bothering trying to keep up. The nobleman and the officer arrived alongside the fountain within seconds of each other, whereupon she glared furiously at him with her weapon in hand and he ignored her, turning back to watch the rest of his party members catch up over the next few minutes.

Eric only wasn’t the last to arrive because Admestus kept at the back with him to make sure he didn’t fall, aided by a lifeline Billie had thrown them and some of his own alchemical work. Several of the gaps, including the last one, were enough to make the dwarf balk at jumping, featherweight potion or no. At these, Admestus tipped a solution from a jar he produced from his belt of holding into midair, where it formed into cute little puffy clouds which were not only solid, but squeaked disarmingly when stepped upon. Eric did not seem to find this as amusing as the half-elf did.

He picked up the pace, though, when the lower end of the staircase began to fall apart behind them.

And then they were all there at the fountain, eyes locked and with far too many weapons in hand.

“Explain,” the lieutenant grated. “Now.”

“Since it seems we are going to be traveling together,” Rhadid said politely, “perhaps a belated introduction—”

“I have had enough of your bullshit!” she barked, raising her staff to point right at his face from far too close at hand. “You know what’s going on here, and you’ve as much as admitted you did it. You either give me a solid explanation or I give you a dose of voltage!”

“Do you really think that would hold up at your court martial?” he asked in a mild tone.

“Oh, fer fuck’s sake, ye great knob, don’t goad somebody holdin’ a weapon on ye!” Billie exclaimed. “What is it with nobles an’ havin’ ta be th’big man in charge all the time?”

“That’s pretty much exactly what it is with nobles,” one of the soldiers said in a much more equable tone than his commanding officer’s. “That’s all they are, from top to bottom.”

“This isn’t Lord Rhadid’s fault,” Eric said, a little breathlessly. He had stumbled forward as far from the edge as he could get, to lean on the side of the fountain, but now straightened up and directed himself toward the soldiers. “We found ourselves in a position to…well, I think we created a sort of tipping point, but this is the Manor’s doing. Or Diristaan’s, maybe, it was rather vague. A spectral servant of the house told us the Manor doesn’t like what it’s been seeing of the outside world that visitors have brought here, and has decided to make a change.”

“What kind of change?” the lieutenant asked, her eyes still narrowed. She did, at least, shift her staff to point away from Rhadid.

“It was my impression that the house will make that determination based upon the outcome of whatever happens here,” Rhadid replied.

“Yeah, you mentioned a competition.”

“Basically,” said Billie, “it looks like Manor Dire’s decided to pick a side. Y’know, like your people an’ mine ‘ave been tryin’ ta get it to do fer years now, with no result.”

“Hnh,” she grunted. “Seems like I’d be better off having my men just shoot you all, then.”

“If that were the case, d’ye think I’d’ve stopped ‘is Lordship from zappin’ you one?” the gnome retorted, raising an eyebrow. “C’mon, lady, you ain’t been killed yet; that means you know how this house thinks. It’s never gonna be about brawls t’the death. Ye win the game based on ‘ow ye play it.”

“Intriguing,” Rhadid mused. “Yes, you do have a point, the Manor does seem to rather disapprove of needless violence, does it not? At least, that which it does not cause. Whatever test lies ahead, it is likely to demand careful patience rather than brute force. Imagine, a contest one wins not by eliminating one’s competitors, but by refusing to do so.”

She finally straightened up her battlestaff, resting its butt against the floor. “Then it follows the house’s whole gambit will be trying to set us against each other, and see who cracks first.”

“So,” said Billie, “we win this thing by all agreein’ up front not to go at each other like stray cats in a sack an’ whoever best sticks t’that gets the prize, aye?”

“I feel I should perhaps restate, for the sake of our new arrivals,” Rhadid added, “that my companions and I are not after the prize in question. We only wish to make a brief use of the alchemy laboratory.”

“What makes you think you’ll even get to see that?” the soldier demanded.

“The servant did indicate that this…uh, rather unsettling path was leading us to the innermost sanctum,” Eric offered. “The library, enchanting and alchemy labs, Diristaan’s personal ritual chamber… You know, the ultimate goal of many who have come to this Manor over the years. I had the impression his intention was to push all of us together at that spot to…see what unfolded.”

“Aye, point of order about that,” Billie chimed in. “Didn’t you say y’met Arachne Tellwyrn in here?”

One of the soldiers cursed.

“The servant did say he was gathering everyone,” Rhadid agreed, slowly panning his gaze around at the nothingness beyond their platform. Their approach paths had drifted away, leaving them no avenue of escape save the still-glowing door. “I don’t see her here, however. She may have already left the grounds; a person like this isn’t likely to be constrained by the designs of others.”

The lieutenant drew in a deep breath, then at last nodded curtly. “Roscoe. Lt. Jane Roscoe of her Majesty’s 8th Corps.”

“A pleasure,” Rhadid said courteously. “Well! Shall we proceed, then?”

“We’ll scout through ahead of you,” Roscoe said, taking a step toward the door.

“Now hold on just a second!” Billie said imperiously. “Who said you get t’go first?”

“Perhaps I ought to take the vanguard,” Rhadid offered in a mild tone. “As the neutral party, here. You can each earn credit toward the house’s favor by not shooting me in the back.”

“Hey, yeah!” Admestus added brightly. “The way this’s all panned out, it seems like us and our noble are sorta the arbiters of this here contest! In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, guys, but didn’t the ghostly boy pretty specifically say that?”

The silence which fell was both tense and grim, which did not diminish his beaming smile in the slightest.

“Upon consideration,” Roscoe said tightly, “I think your Lordship is correct. After you.”

Rhadid gave her a smile which was only subtly mocking and, with no further ado, stepped forward and opened the door onto a blaze of light.

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Bonus #51: Lightning in a Bottle, part 4

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By the pattern they had already established, retreating from a challenge always meant a lack of further challenges for a time, but after losing Owl, the quiet began to get downright eerie. For at least two hours, they traveled the corridors of Manor Dire with nothing to do but appreciate the architecture. It seemed that in the absence of puzzles and battles the house did, at least, give them that much to hold their attention; where before there had been little but endless hallways of rough stone and wood, they began to see a much more interesting variety of features. More decorative displays, arched windows looking out over the Vrandis pine forest, a sizable banquet hall, two separate galleries of paintings, a small reading nook lined with laden bookcases, and other homey touches came one after the other as if to prevent them from getting bored.

But that was it. The house was silent, peaceful, unthreatening and almost uninteresting. If not for the fact that they had traveled a maze of corridors that should have taken them over several acres in a building they knew was only a fraction of that size, it might have been any well-preserved manor home from the late Age of Adventures.

The longer this went on, the more the tension weighed on them.

“Oh, man, when the other shoe drops it’s gonna drop hard,” Admestus groaned, staring at a pretty little solarium as if it were about to sprout fangs and eat someone. “Just, collapse a whole wing on top of us. There’s no reason to make us wait this long if it’s not planning something truly dire. Pun intended.”

“It’s difficult to disagree,” Lord Rhadid replied. “Professor, your thoughts?”

“The Manor definitely isn’t above applying psychological pressure,” said Eric. “Obviously I can’t say precisely what it is thinking but as a matter of general history, it is unlikely to drop an inescapable doom upon us unless it specifically desires our destruction, and we would probably know beforehand if it did. As long as we are still guests here, we should expect to be treated more or less as we have been. Tested, but not beyond our ability.”

“And is this silence part of the test?”

The dwarf hesitated, looking around the sunroom and then the hallway outside it as if he could divine the house’s intentions from the wall paneling. “I’m afraid I just don’t know. My gut feeling is that it is… But I have studied the Manor from afar, from centuries of recorded accounts. My knowledge is thorough, but lacks…immediacy. Intimacy. I know about it, but I don’t know it.” He shrugged helplessly. “It may just be giving us a reprieve, since we’ve lost two people in the space of a day.”

Rhadid nodded slightly. “Do not hesitate to give advice if any comes to you. For now, best we proceed. Keep in mind, gentlemen, that the simplest tactical reason to lull an opponent into calm is to spring a surprise upon them. I know it becomes tiring over the long term, but we must not relax our vigilance.”

“Opponent, now?” Admestus grumbled, bringing up the rear as they set off up the corridor again. “And here I thought were were honored guests or something like that.”

“In this of all houses,” said Eric, “that is splitting a hair.”

Fortunately for what remained of everyone’s equilibrium, the house did not keep them in suspense much longer. Only a few minutes after their discussion at the solarium, noises in the corridor up ahead made the group slow. Warning noises: shouts, crashing, and an intermittent loud hiss that might have come from some colossal snake. Clearly something violent was taking place. Though the three naturally hesitated, Rhadid did not stop, and for Eric and Admestus the choice was to follow him into whatever danger it was or be left behind.

The hallway opened onto the second-floor balcony wrapping completely around a sizable ballroom, which was as stark and rustic in design as the rest of the house. Shouts in high-pitched voices grew louder as the group approached, but what most occupied their attention were the sinuous shapes writhing through the air in the wide open space beneath the arched ceiling, occasionally spitting streamers of blue fire at something below.

“Katzil demons?” Rhadid murmured, pausing in the doorway to take stock. “No…these are white. That is not normal.”

“They’re, uh, also kinda translucent,” Admestus added, peeking past him.

“Some artifice of the Manor’s,” said Eric. “Not true demons, but meant to be evocative of them.”

At that moment a whirling bola shot up from the dance floor below, snagging one of the pseudo-katzils right around its midsection. The creature hissed in fury and emitted an abortive spurt of sparks as it was dragged down.

Rhadid crept forward, keeping himself low, and peeked over the banister.

On the floor below were gnomes—in fact, the same four they had met in the Manor’s entry hall the day before. Armed with grapples, nets, that one bola, and in the case of their leader Billie some kind of shoulder-mounted mechanical cannon, they were trying to subdue the flying spectres. Along the wall behind the gnomes were five enormous gilded birdcages, three of which now housed furiously writhing spectral air serpents. Two more stood open, and three gnomes were trying to wrangle the recently-captured specimen into one while Billie harassed the last demon with her device, which shot a metal claw of some kind on a long chain and then retracted it. The sole remaining creature was evading her efforts with little apparent difficulty.

“I see,” Rhadid murmured, his voice barely audible to his two companions in the tumult. “Professor, what are the rules about interfering in another expedition’s Manor experience?”

“I wouldn’t say there are rules as such, my lord. Just, whatever seems the most intelligent and courteous course of action in a given situation. But in this case, I might point out that the gnomes seem equipped for this particular trial while we are—and there he goes.”

The aristocrat abruptly straightened from his surreptitious crouch and strode away down the balcony, keeping pace with the kazil as it spun in erratic patterns. Now, a second gnome had rejoined the fray while his two companions worked to restrain their recent catch and get its cage door shut. This one hurled a weighted net attached to a rope; he and Billie Fallowstone’s claw launcher were having no luck. Not for nothing was this demon the last one free. It seemed to have a preternatural ability to detect and evade projectiles.

But then, swinging wide to avoid the flying net, it passed within a few feet of the balcony. Rhadid whipped out his sword and managed to rake the beast’s side with its tip as it came near.

The furious demon immediately rounded on him, opening its jaws. Rhadid had already drawn his wand, and cut off the blast of flame that was coming by firing a shot, forcing the beast to duck. It darted back and forth in front of the balcony, hissing and striking at him like an airborne snake while he deftly fended it off using the rapier’s long reach.

Unfortunately for the katzil, this performance kept it relatively stationary in a much smaller area, and Rhadid had to fence with it for mere seconds before it was entangled in the next toss of the net. The creature hissed in fury and immediately took off for the ceiling, seeming for a moment as if it might pull the gnome up with it, but then Billie’s claw snagged in the net itself and she added her own weight to the effort to pull it down, followed within moments by the other two gnomes hurling hooked lines to snare their quarry.

Getting the thing into the last cage was a struggle, of course, but one whose conclusion was foregone. While the gnomes went about wrestling their captive into place, Rhadid, pausing only to beckon his companions with an imperious jerk of his head, strode unhurriedly to the other end of the room, where a spiral staircase led from the balcony to the ballroom floor.

Billie herself turned to him with a grin as he approached, trailing Admestus and Eric; her three companions were coercing the struggling specter into its cage with the net and two long poles.

“Well! Thank ye kindly fer the assist, melord!”

“You are welcome,” Rhadid answered, inclining his head courteously. “Though you appeared to have the matter well in hand. I rather think I merely saved you a little time, in the end.”

“Maybe so, but it doesn’t pay to make assumptions,” she said. “Help is help, an’ it’s well-appreciated. This is it, then?” Billie’s expression grew more sober as she took in the dwarf and half-elf following him. “Havin’ a wee bit of a rough trip, are we?”

“It has had its ups and downs,” Rhadid agreed. “You seem to have fared somewhat better.”

“Aye, well, we’re professionals. All due respect, yer Lordship, plumbin’ a dungeon ain’t a good line o’ work fer amateurs to take up.”

“This is far from my first such adventure, though regrettably I cannot say the same for all of my party. At least one proved tragically unsuited for this particular task. Have you encountered any other groups, if I might inquire?”

At that moment the other gnomes got the cage door shut on the furious katzil, and a deep mechanical thunk sounded from beneath the ballroom floor. All five cages sank straight down into it, metal shutters sliding into place after them. At the opposite end of the room, huge double doors swung wide with an excessively loud creak, revealing a broad entry hall beyond.

Billie glanced at this with little interest before returning her attention to Rhadid. “Other groups? Not ‘ardly. Shouldn’t be anybody else in ‘ere ‘cept the Imperials.”

“An’ maybe Arachne, at this time o’ year,” one of her companions added.

“Aye, that’s right. I’m surprised enough you lot managed to get in. The Army ain’t keen to share digs, if ye get me drift.” Billie winked, finally putting down her claw-flinging device; it wouldn’t have been much for any of them to carry, but on a gnome the thing was enormously bulky. “They’ve more or less given up tryin’ ta keep us outta ‘ere, but it’s rare that other tall folk get through their little blockade.”

“I have my ways,” he said vaguely. “Have you run across the Army recently? Any idea how many teams are exploring the Manor at any given time?”

She shrugged. “It’s not often we cross paths with ’em, lucky enough. They ain’t overly enthused t’meet fellow travelers. I get on well enough with the rank an’ file, but the officers… Well, anybody who answers to a bureaucracy tends ta lack a sense o’ humor.”

“Interesting,” Rhadid mused. “We have crossed paths with an Army exploration team, as it happens. We also encountered Professor Tellwyrn, quite early on. I simply wonder how many Imperial or gnomish groups might be present. If it is only one of each, it would seem we’ve met everyone currently visiting the Manor, in a rather short span of time.”

Billie frowned, turning to make eye contact with her companions before answering. “One o’ the first things any large, organized group learns on bein’ introduced to the Manor is it doesn’t much care fer bein’ invaded. We keep it strictly minimal, only one group o’ the Folk in ‘ere at a time, an’ I reckon the Army keeps to the same policy, if it’s managed not ta wear it its welcome entirely by now. You ‘ave ‘ad a run o’ luck, an’ no mistake. Not ta dwell on a painful subject, but that’s a strangely impressive track record fer a group that’s managed t’lose forty percent of itself in one day.”

“Do you think we’d fare better if we stopped pronouncing the letter G?” Admestus asked innocently. “Is that part of your secret?”

“Admestus,” Rhadid warned.

“Aw, let ‘im poke fun, we don’t mind,” Billie said with a grin, raising one hand to wiggle her fingers flirtatiously at the alchemist. “Ain’t often I meet a fellow traveler as aroused by death an’ danger as me!”

“The work you’re lookin’ for is ‘never,’” her nearest companion grunted. “An’ you, I’ll thank ye not to encourage ‘er.”

“In every group there’s some oaf who interrupts conversations,” Billie said to Rhadid.

“When we first met,” he said, “I declined to discuss my reason for being here. I’m willing to reconsider that, if you are amenable to doing likewise.”

“Well, now, that’s interesting,” she commented. “Ain’t like we planned t’pry inta yer business anyhow, no worries on that score. Why the change in ‘eart? Or, I guess more t’the point, why the sudden curiosity?”

“I find myself considering the prospect of joining forces,” Rhadid explained, his neutral expression betraying nothing. “Clearly, that is not a prospect if our ultimate goals prove incompatible. But it seems unlikely to me that they would, as none of my ambitions involve inconveniencing anyone, least of all yourselves.”

Again, Billie angled her head slightly to catch the eye of one of her friends, the one who had interjected a moment ago. Their faces were as inscrutable as Rhadid, but they seemed to communicate something in that brief silence.

“I wouldn’t give that a hard ‘no’ on the face of it,” she said in a thoughtful tone, “though yer not wrong, Lord Rhadid, I’d need a wee bit o’ insight inta just what it is you’re after in ‘ere before weighin’ in on that.”

“I seek Diristaan’s personal facilities,” he said. “Mr. Rafe, whom you have met, is one of the finest alchemists in the Empire, though you would not know it from a conversation with him.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush!” Admestus trilled.

“Gonna brew yerself a potion, aye?” Billie asked.

“I have in mind a project which, yes, can probably not be completed anywhere else. Thus, my goal here is particular and brief. I mean to reach the alchemy lab, do what is necessary, and depart with a minimum of fuss, ideally without incurring the ire of either the Manor or any fellow travelers. To that end, I am willing to go somewhat out of my way to be of assistance to another party, within reason. The path to a specific goal in Manor Dire is always somewhat circuitous.”

“It is that,” she agreed. “Us, though, we don’t much mind wanderin’ about. Life’s in the journey, as they say.”

“So you are not after any destination in particular?”

Billie tilted her head, one of the pointed ear tips emerging from her curls twitching slightly. “Ye might call us…conservationists.”

“Oh?” Rhadid raised his eyebrows. “Is the Manor in danger?”

“Access to it is in danger, at least potentially,” Eric answered. “The great dungeons are vanishing, at least from public use. I mentioned this previously, my lord, if you’ll recall. Gnomes have been moving to colonize them, and the Empire is trying to seize control of them as continual sources of treasure and training for their agents. Manor Dire is a particularly dicey case since, as Ms. Fallowstone pointed out, the intelligence of the house does not welcome mass intrusion. To our new friends, this is a competition for territory.”

“So y’see our problem,” Billie said, nodding. “Possession is nine tenths o’ the law. Even the Empire doesn’t try to oust the Folk from places where we’ve set up shop, but they play a little rough in the race to control such spots in the first place. But y’don’t possess Manor Dire. Even raisin’ the prospect is askin’ fer a big spank upside the head. Best either we or the Imperials can do is maintain a presence ‘ere.”

“Mm,” he mused. “And you seek something to…tip the balance.”

“Well, now, that there’s a potentially double-edged sword, aye?” she said evenly. “’ere’s a scion o’ House Daraspian lookin’ ta do somethin’ mysterious in ‘is ancestor’s secret lab. Fer the likes o’ us, who’re lookin’ ta impress the house, that could be very good or very bad. No offense, yer Lordship, but yer family ‘aven’t actually controlled the Manor since Diristaan’s day, an’ more recently…how t’put this…”

“I think I would be better off not attempting to dissemble,” he said with a thin smile, “at least not while standing within the aegis of a sentient house which is listening to this conversation. House Daraspian’s wealth comes chiefly from smuggling and the drug trade. Where most of the great Houses feud with each other for power, our chief rivalries are with Imperial law enforcement and the Thieves’ Guild. I would offer as a character witness the fact that I persuaded a Guild representative to accompany me on this mission, but sadly, he is no longer with us.”

“My condolences,” Billie said solemnly.

“What I can say,” Rhadid continued, “and what prompted me to thus approach you, is the emergent suggestion that the Manor itself desires this arrangement. It is self-evident that the paths of any group of adventurers would only cross if the house itself desires that they do.”

“An’ your path keeps crossin’ everybody else’s,” she finished.

“And yours, now, twice,” Rhadid said, nodding. “The soldiers were openly hostile to us, and Tellwyrn…how to put this…”

“Tellwyrn pretty much says it all,” the other woman in Billie’s group interjected, grinning.

Billie turned around fully, and the other three focused on her. What followed was silent and swift, little more to outside observation than some twitching of ears and rapid glances, but somehow the gnomes appeared to hold a full discussion and reach a consensus in the space of about ten seconds. Billie turned back to face Rhadid.

“All right then, Lord Rhadid, ‘ow about this? We’re not up fer any kind o’ formal alliance or nothin’, leastwise not with us all bein’ relative strangers. But as none of us ‘as any pressin’ business an’ the only path through Manor Dire is ta wander around, we’re willin’ ta travel alongside an’ ‘elp watch yer backs. Offer insight an’ guidance, y’know, the likes o’ that. It’s no more or less than any decent Folk would do fer any fellow traveler out in a sticky position. Specially some who’ve had a run o’ bad luck such as you lot, apparently. So long as it’s understood that we’re not with you in any permanent sense, an’ may opt ta go our own way again if the situation demands it.”

“Reasonable, and more than fair,” Rhadid agreed. “I am likewise glad to render what aid we may, if the possibility arises. We may even be able to offer you some insight; not to impugn the expertise of gnomes on all things adventurous, but Professor Ahlstrom, here, is a historian specialized in Manor Dire specifically. And of course, should our business demand that we part ways, I am glad that we can do so without acrimony.”

“No worries, we don’t really do acrimony,” she said brightly. “All righty then! Since ye helped us get yonder door open, what see we go ‘ave a look at what’s beyond, aye?”


In fact, there wasn’t much of immediate interest beyond the door, just a broad flight of stairs up to a landing from which one hallway extended, and seemed to stretch on endlessly without even doors leading off it. This quickly began to seem like a resumption of the odd lull Rhadid’s group had experienced before meeting the gnomes, but at least it gave the two parties a chance to get to know one another a bit better.

The other three gnomes introduced themselves as Steinway, Woodsworth, and Sassafrass; whether those were given names or surnames they did not explain, and no one pried. After spending some time flirting with Admestus, Billie moved ahead to chat with Lord Rhadid at the from of the group, and gradually the half-elf and dwarf fell back to trail along at the end.

“Smuggling?” Eric asked in a low voice covered by Billie’s exuberant chatter up ahead. “Drug trading?”

“Two ends of the same business, in fact,” Admestus said brightly, though not as loudly as he usually spoke. “They import the coca leaves, since those don’t grow in the Empire, and refine them into cocaine. Without, I might add, the requisite paperwork and oversight mandated for both those activities. You didn’t quite know what you were hopping into bed with, I take it?”

“The, ah, particulars of Imperial House politics are fairly opaque in the Kingdoms, except to those who make a point of following them… What is cocaine?”

“Happy dust!” Admestus quickly let the broad grin melt from his features. “Well. All joking aside, it’s about the most brain-destroying mess you can put in your face without getting into the kind of alchemical narcotics that’ll get you locked up good and proper. Cocaine isn’t even strictly illegal in the Empire, the Treasury gives trade exemptions for its legal sale. But the fees and taxes on that are so high the Daraspians find it more economical to operate illicitly, even with all the regular scrapping with Imperial Marshals and the Thieves’ Guild this gets them into. The other Houses are really the only market for it, too. Any truly depraved aristocrat party in the Empire owes its fun to House Daraspian. Cocaine is a noble’s drug. Hence why the Treasury tries to tax it oppressively instead of banning it.”

“I guess the Guild wouldn’t like competition,” Eric murmured.

“You shorties really are willing to make the Thieves’ Guild the boogeyman under every bed, aren’cha? It’s actually kind of impressive you were willing to be so polite with poor Owl, in hindsight. No, the Guild isn’t in that trade. Eserites hate drug pushers; they consider them the worst kind of predator. If the Thieves’ Guild catches you hawking narcotics your best bet is to run straight to the police and get yourself tucked away in a nice, safe jail.”

Eric gave him a sidelong glance. “This is the longest I’ve known you to be serious at one time, so far.”

“Yeah, well.” Admestus shrugged. “Guess I’m not feeling quite my usual irreverent self, what with one thing and another.”

“Heads up back there!” Billie called. “Let’s cluster, looks like we’ve got a bit o’ scenery comin’ up.”

Eric drew a deep breath. “This, coming here, has been a lifelong dream of mine. I guess…knowing, intellectually, that delving a dungeon is hazardous can’t really prepare one for the actual experience.”

“True of everything in life, ol’ boy,” Admestus said, not without sympathy. Clapping the dwarf on the shoulder, he strode forward to join the rest of the group at the landing to which they had come.

Beyond it, there was no more house.

“Is this normal?” Lord Rhadid asked, staring at what lay before them.

“Gotta confess, I’ve never seen the like,” Billie admitted.

“I—this is—” Crowding forward, Eric broke off and swallowed heavily. “I fear this is without precedent in all my readings on adventures in the Manor.”

“All right!” Admestus crowed. “We’re special! Champagne and pudding all around!”

Their hallway terminated in a wide area that might have been an intersection of corridors. It was impossible to tell its purpose or even how large it might have been, because the whole thing was broken off. Jagged edges of floorboards extended into space—and space was, indeed, the right word.

Not only was the Manor apparently gone beyond this point, there was no view of the Vrandis countryside either. Before them yawned an infinite abyss, nothing but distant stars and odd swirls of colored nebulae. Pieces of architecture drifted in the vicinity, fragments of walls, floors, and even miscellaneous bits like statuary, suspended in the nothingness as though left over by whatever had ripped this part of the Manor out of existence.

“So,” Rhadid said at last, after they had all stared at this for several full minutes. “This lies at the end of a long hall with no other path available. That was the only exit offered us from the chamber wherein we met. It would seem that as soon as we decided to merge our paths, this outcome was inevitable.”

“Like I said,” Billie mused. “Either very good, or very, very bad. I’m still o’ two minds on it.”

“Well, now what?” Eric asked. “Do we try backtracking? Or… Honestly, it’s beyond me what we might even attempt to do with this.”

“How possible is it the dungeon is just broken?” Admestus asked.

“I don’t know how anyone would even begin to break Manor Dire,” Eric said, shaking his head. “But, just to play Dark Lady’s advocate, the Tiraan Empire once obliterated an entire country with magical weaponry, and I suppose if they decided the gnomes were getting the upper hand in this contest and were not inclined to lose gracefully…”

“I can’t see it,” Woodsworth replied, shaking his head. “We’ve been competin’ with the Empire over dungeons fer years, an’ they’ve been remarkably good sports. Even with Theasia bein’ such an ol’ hawk, Marshals an’ the Army are right courteous so long as they’re not bein’ outright attacked.”

“There is also Tellwyrn,” Eric added. “I suspect the list of things she can’t do is shorter than that of things she can. Though I don’t know why she would want to damage the Manor. She seemed fond of it.”

“I regret not having brought a mage of my own on this expedition,” Rhadid murmured. “It would have been far more useful than my so-called bodyguard… Presuming that the Manor is still constitutionally intact, this must be some manner of test, or challenge.”

“A leap of faith?” Admestus suggested innocently.

Rhadid turned a wry look on him. “Are you volunteering to take that leap?”

“I volunteer the Professor to do it.”

Before Eric could respond to this suggestion, a figure appeared in the space just before them, hovering beyond the shattered floor. The entire group retreated a full step from the specter—for specter it was, a phantasmal shape of pale blue, wearing wizard robes of an ancient style. Its face was difficult to focus on; one moment it seemed it might have been a man with a full beard, but then on a second glance it was a blank mask, or a decaying skull.

Its voice, however, was rich and mellifluous. When it spoke, it seemed that the words resonated from the air all around them.

“The master’s house can offer all that you seek, but the price is dear. Turn back, adventurers. Before you is reward beyond your fantasies, and a cost beyond your nightmares.”

“Welp, you heard the man,” Admestus said, throwing up his hands and turning around.

Rhadid grabbed him by the shoulder before he could take a step. “We have come too far to be deterred now, spirit. Speak your piece.”

“All of you are still welcome guests of the Manor,” the specter replied. “It is in this spirit that I give warning. You will regret the fulfillment of your ambition.” It hesitated before continuing. “But the brave never turn aside when it is wise. Listen, then, if you would test yourselves against your own fate. This is what you must do.”

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Bonus #48: Lightning in a Bottle, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Patreon backer Lluazarg!

The talent assembled was carefully selected for dungeoneering, but in this day and age, actually getting into the dungeon required much more mundane gifts: money and influence. And so the four of them stood carefully out of earshot, as their employer had emphatically instructed, watching Lord Rhadid speak privately with the Imperial soldiers who had just instructed them all to clear off.

Though after the first five minutes, only Owl was still paying attention to his Lordship. Tamara had begun pacing restlessly in the road, and Eric was gazing enraptured at the shape of Manor Dire rising from among the pine trees up ahead. Admestus had begun mimicking each of his companions in turn to pass the time; Owl had ignored him and Tamara had just taken a swing at his head, so now he stood alongside the dwarf, in the same posture, staring at the manor house.

It might have been the home of any rich noble, these days, though for the era in which it was built the lack of any fortifications was unusual. With the pines blanketing its grounds the full spread of the manor itself was hard to discern from this angle, though it was clearly huge. Gabled roofs poked up here and there between the trees, spreading in both directions from the high peak of the central hall, with turrets and towers rising even higher in places. The tallest had a sizable telescope protruding from its domed roof, which would be a rare feature now and had surely been an amazing extravagance when it was installed. The manor itself was perfectly preserved, of course; to look at, it might have been built this year. Only the military presence suggested at a glance that it was more than some aristocrat’s country house.

In addition to the roadblock before the gates, the Army had improvised a barracks in the manor’s old stables, from which the Imperial banner now flew. The road ascended the hill to the house proper, so that even from beyond the gates, most of the manor’s shape was visible above the outer walls and the staff-wielding Imperial soldiers holding the open gateway.

Admestus snuck a sidelong glance down at Eric. The dwarf was so caught up staring at Manor Dire that he had actually dropped his precious satchel.

“Hey,” the half-elf said, nudging Eric’s shoulder with his elbow. “Are we there yet?”

The dwarf turned slowly, blinking in befuddlement, to stare up at Admestus with an expression of disbelief.

“Just ignore him,” Owl advised without shifting his attention from the conversation taking place at the gates. The officer apparently in charge was talking with Lord Rhadid, while the rest watched their group with weapons at the ready. “If you give him attention once he’ll just keep hounding you for it.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Admestus protested, wagging a chiding finger at Owl. “You can’t go giving away my professional secrets, old man! It’s simply not done. There are codes to be observed, don’t you know?”

Taking his own advice, the thief ignored him, keeping his eyes on their patron.

At that moment, Lord Rhadid shook the officer’s hand, looked back down the road at them, and jerked his head once in the direction of the manor. Then he turned his back and strode through the gates toward the house without waiting for them.

“We’re up, Tam,” said Owl, setting off.

“Don’t call me that,” she snapped automatically, ceasing her pacing and coming after them. Eric and Admestus were already on the way, leaving the mercenary to bring up the rear.

The soldiers gave them no problems; the officer was lounging against the gates with his arms folded, while his troops watched the adventurers pass but said nothing. They kept their weapons in hand and most of them stared particularly at Tamara, who was clad in leather armor and carrying enough obvious weapons to strongly suggest some of her bulging belt pouches contained less obvious ones. With a fully laden wandbelt holding two holstered sidearms at her hips and a heavier-duty shieldbreaker wand at the small of her back, plus a battlestaff and greatsword slung across her back from a bandolier filled with extra power crystals and no less than six visible defensive charms pinned to her hardened leather vest, she looked like she might have been able to break their four-person blockade of the gate by sheer force.

“Best of luck in there, kids,” the officer said sardonically.

Admestus halted, turning to the man and waggling his eyebrows. “Give us a kiss for luck?”

The man’s expression didn’t alter until he actually pursed his lips and started making smooching noises. Before anything could ensue from that, Tamara grabbed him by the collar and hauled him bodily up the path.

Lord Rhadid had at least stopped short of entering the Manor without them, and stood before the doors, atop the short flight of steps leading there. As they drew up to the base of the stairs, he turned from inspecting the great double doors to face them, prompting the group to stop. With the exception of Admestus, who added an extra swagger as he placed his foot on the bottom step, prompting Tamara to grab his collar again. For the moment, then, they paused there, giving the nobleman his impromptu dais from which to look down on them. Noblemen, as they all knew, lived for stuff like that.

Rhadid Daraspian was a tall man with the athletic build and sun-darkened complexion of one who liked outdoor sports; though short of middle age, he was already balding, but in a way which gave him a sharp widow’s peak that, if anything, augmented his aquiline features to their advantage.

“Now that we are here,” he stated, “you will all listen once again to a lecture you have already heard. You will do so patiently and attentively. This will be our last chance to review these facts, and they are of paramount importance; if any one of you fails to respect the realities of our situation, it is entirely possible that we will all die—and worse, the years of effort I have devoted toward the arranging of this expedition will have been squandered. Professor Ahlstrom, if you would, please repeat to our fellows the base instructions you have given us for survival and success in Manor Dire.”

Eric cleared his throat and shuffled his feet uncertainly. When Lord Rhadid made no move to yield the position atop the steps, the dwarf contented himself with climbing up onto the first stair and turning to face the rest of them.

“Well, then! As, ah, I’m sure you recall, Manor Dire is the youngest of the great dungeons, having existed for scarcely five hundred years. Many of them date from the time of the Elder Gods at least, but this… Well, it was the home and seat of power of Archmage Direstaan, who is thought to have been the ancestor of House Daraspian.” He turned toward Lord Rhadid and sketched an awkward little bow before continuing. “Basically, it should be treated as the home and demesne of an exceptionally powerful wizard, even in his absence. The house itself has a clear intelligence and a certain…distinctive approach to its treatment of guests. As we explore the Manor, we will be repeatedly tested as it figures out our intentions and capacities. It is of paramount importance that we remain guests of Manor Dire.” Eric paused to clear his throat. “If it begins to view us as invaders, things will go very badly for us, very quickly. So, conduct yourself as you would in the home of any powerful person who you must assume will be aware of anything you do. Don’t damage anything. Don’t steal anything. Even picking up a loose penny could land us in seriously hot water.”

The entire group turned to look at Owl. He didn’t even acknowledge them, the thief simply regarding Eric with a patient expression as he waited for the lecture to continue.

“What we’re looking for is…well, somewhere deep in the house,” Eric continued. “Like all dungeons, Manor Dire contains considerable wealth as well as great danger, but this one is not so easily looted. As I was just saying, anyone who begins picking up treasure in here will be quickly brought to grief. The physical layout of the Manor is malleable as water; we’ll go where it wants us to go. Our goal must be to gain its respect and regard so that it allows us into the innermost regions where the important artifacts are held, and deems us worthy to…” He trailed off, glancing up at Lord Rhadid, who continued to watch them impassively. “To make use of them. Any questions?”

“Yeah.” Tamara made a languid gesture that was only vaguely reminiscent of a student raising her hand in class. “What’s the point of going for the treasure in the deep rooms if we can’t bring it back out with us?”

“The real treasure of Manor Dire is in the use of its facilities, not their extraction,” Eric replied, his voice growing more animated as he warmed to his favorite subject. “Remember, this was the personal citadel of one of the greatest archmages who ever lived. The library in this house is one of the finest in the world. Magnan himself studied here, in Direstaan’s enchanting lab. Likewise the alchemy lab is—” He broke off, glancing once more up at their patron, then changed tracks. “And there’s the observatory! You can see the telescope from the main room, but so far no one who has ventured into the Manor has been granted access to it. That’s arguably the most precious resource within! Direstaan was a pioneer of astroscrying; they say that with the equipment in there, one can count the rings of Drusera and view the moons of Bastila as clearly as modern telescopes can see our own!”

“If nobody’s ever gotten that far,” Admestus asked innocently, “who is this they who says that, and how do you know they aren’t full of it?”

“The observatory is not the goal of this expedition,” Lord Rhadid interjected before Eric had to find an answer. “Are there any other questions? If any of you has a pressing concern you felt uncomfortable raising previously, I encourage you to get it out of your system now, before we are within and subject to the temptation to poke at anything.”

“I’m curious about the composition of this team, m’Lord,” Owl said. “I’m a specialist in traps and locks, Ms. Farahd here is a fighter—those are obvious. I even get the librarian, since he’s such an expert on the house.”

“Archaeologist,” Eric corrected stiffly. “And it is not arrogance to state that I am the foremost expert on Manor Dire among modern academia. I have made it the focus of my entire career!”

“Bet that makes you a blast at parties,” Owl remarked, still deadpan. “Point is, I get why he’s along. But what the hell is with this guy?” He pointed at Admestus without bothering to look in his direction.

“No one is with Rafe,” the half-elf intoned solemnly, spreading his hands in a gesture of benediction. “Rafe…is with you all.”

Tamara drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly through her teeth.

“Thanks to the Professor’s little lapse, there,” Owl continued, “it’s clear enough our goal is the alchemy lab. But seriously. With all due respect, m’Lord, this group is about two-fifths having any business in a dungeon. We’ve got one fussy academic who doesn’t look like he’s ever been outside before, and the kind of clown who’s likely to get killed in a moderately rough bar, let alone one of the great dungeons. And again, m’Lord, I mean no insult, and I’m sure you’ve been taught to use those weapons, but…well, you know.”

Rhadid indeed had both a golden-hilted rapier and a wand hanging from his belt, and the sword at least he carried with the effortless balance of someone for whom the weapon was an extension of himself. The belt, though, encircled a Punaji-style greatcoat that was perfectly tailored to him, its velvet obviously brushed just that morning, and had thread-of-gold embroidery climbing its lapels and halfway up the sleeves. He did not look like someone who belonged on a dungeon dive.

“I take no insult,” Lord Rhadid said mildly. “Would it assuage your concerns, Owl, to know that I am a veteran of expeditions into Venomfont, the Tomb of Sypraxis, and the Screaming Gardens?”

Owl actually blinked three times in rapid succession, the first sign of surprise or discomfiture he had betrayed since joining the group. “Actually, my lord, it does.”

Rhadid nodded curtly. “I understand your concern. With no insult meant to you, let me be clear: Professor Ahlstrom, Admestus, and myself are essential for this expedition. You two are along as insurance, and for the sake of thoroughness. You will be well-paid when our mission is completed—but you will be paid by me, when we return to Tehvaad. There are no looting rights associated with this excursion, and as you have repeatedly been told, succumbing to the temptation will likely doom us all. Is that understood?”

He arched one eyebrow, staring superciliously down at them until everyone verbally acknowledged the instruction.

“Actually, my lord, I have a question,” Eric said meekly. “That bit with the soldiers… Are you sure our presence here is perfectly legal? I realize that Manor Dire is within your House’s traditional holdings, but it’s also within the Tiraan Empire, of course, and…”

“You should be more aware of the legal gray areas surrounding the great dungeons than most, Professor,” Rhadid answered. “The Imperial Army does not want people entering Manor Dire, but it is not illegal for civilians to do so. Between those two facts is a narrow space of leeway which most people wisely hesitate to navigate, but I assure you that the privilege of rank applies so long as you are with me. Possession is, as they say, nine-tenths of the law.”

“Anyway,” Owl added unexpectedly, “the Empire treats the great dungeons more like frontiers than real estate. Theasia’s too clever to claim sovereignty over a piece of territory troops can’t actually hold. They’ll try to stop you going in, but once you’re in, on your head be it.”

“Ah, very good,” Eric said, smiling. “That’s reassuring.”

“Are you entirely sure that word means what you think it means?” Admestus asked.

“Any other questions?” Rhadid inquired pointedly. “This will be your last chance to ask them in safety.”

They glanced at each other in silence. Admestus picked his nose.

“Then we begin,” Lord Rhadid declared. He turned, grasped the door handles with both hands, and pulled the great double doors wide in a grandiose gesture, then immediately strode into Manor Dire without waiting for them.

Inside, the great entry hall continued to be downright humble as dungeons went. Again, it would have served well to show off the wealth of such a home’s owner, though the interior betrayed its age more than the facade. The great hall was very much a relic of the tastes of five centuries prior, all spare stonework and great exposed beams, with only banners, weapons, and hunting trophies as decorations. The light came from torches rather than modern fairy lamps, or even older oil lamps, creating a flickering dimness that cast deep shadows. In fact, it rather resembled a Shaathist lodge.

It was also not unoccupied.

Directly opposite the entry, the hall ended in an enormous hearth, with seats drawn up to it and a plush bearskin rug draped on the floor in front—white, a rare example of the the now-extinct Kharsa bear, which itself would be worth more than a satchel of jewelry. Stairs rose from either side of the broad fireplace to a landing which was hidden behind the wide stone chimney, but there was a comfortable space in front of the roaring blaze. Sitting there, upon the bear rug, were four gnomes.

As one, they rose to their feet, staring down the length of the great hall at the new arrivals.

Rhadid stopped just inside the doors, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, while the rest of his group trickled in behind him and fanned out to either side, peering around at the sparse furnishings and the unexpected fellow adventurers ahead.

Admestus edged to the side of the group, turning his head back and forth to peer up and down the hall while the two groups stared at each other. After the awkwardness began to stretch out, he cleared his throat and flung out one arm to gesture broadly at everything in the most dramatic fashion possible.

“BEHOLD!”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

“Well, right back atcha,” said one of the gnomes, swaggering forward. “You duckies don’t look Imperial, if y’don’t mind me sayin’.”

“Were you expecting an Imperial presence?” Lord Rhadid asked blandly.

“Oh, there’s already an Imperial presence,” she replied, winking. “Least one team workin’ through the Manor as we speak. It’s more we weren’t expectin’ anybody else to make it in here. They’ve mostly given up tryin’ ta stop us from comin’ in, but y’don’t often see the common run of adventurers in a dungeon where they’ve set up shop ’round the entrance.”

“I beg your pardon,” Admestus gasped. “Common run? How very dare—”

“Rafe,” Rhadid interrupted, “shut up.”

“Yes, sir, m’lord, sir. Shutting up, sir, by your will.”

“For my part,” Lord Rhadid continued, inclining his head slightly toward the gnomes, “I’ve no intention of interfering in whatever business you have. Is there going to be a problem here?”

“Oh, now, y’don’t need to worry about us,” she said, grinning amiably and continuing to approach; being in no hurry, it took a while on her short legs. “No honest gnome ever begrudged a fellow adventurer the chance for fun an’ profit! As to whether this is gonna be a problem, that’s rather up to you, innit? Cos the Manor’s fairly discriminatin’ in terms o’ how it handles interlopers, but not too excessively. Could end up bein’ a right nuisance for us if you rile up the house.”

“We fully intend to avoid such an outcome with the greatest care,” Rhadid replied. “I confess I am somewhat more concerned with the presence of Imperial troops, now that I know there is a team within.”

“Aye,” she agreed. Having come within conversational distance of them, the gnome stopped, craning her head back to meet his eyes. Behind, the rest of her group watched in silence from the fireside. “Not the most cautious o’ wanderers, are they? Troopers always wanna poke somethin’ with a battlestaff, an’ then when the inevitable happens, shoot it. I will say, in fairness, this crew’s less slaphappy than most. The Empire’s had their thumb on Manor Dire for a while now; by this point the lackeys they send in have at least some vague idea what the hell they’re doin’. Billie Fallowstone, glad t’know ye!”

She held out her hand, and Rhadid bent forward to shake it firmly.

“Lord Rhadid Daraspian. Charmed, I’m sure.”

“Your Lordship,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “An’ a Daraspian, no less. Here to try an’ assert the ol’ hereditary claim t’the place, if y’don’t mind me askin’?”

He straightened back up, still wearing a thin smile. “I am not inclined to discuss my personal business, though no, I do not mind being asked. I gather the house is fairly quiet at present?”

“Ehh…” She grimaced, and made a wavering gesture with one hand. “Dunno if I’d go that far. She ain’t too stirred up, I’ll say that much. The house’s always a wee bit on edge with this many people stompin’ about. I’d say mind how hard y’put down yer feet an’ odds are you’ll met no trouble, ‘less ye blunder into somebody else’s mess.”

“I thank you for the warning,” he said courteously, inclining his head again. “By your leave, then, I shall wish you good fortune. I am eager to make a start on my own expedition.”

“Aye, no time like the present!” Billie said with irrepressible good cheer, falling into step beside him as Rhadid set off down the center of the great hall. “I wish you the best o’ luck with your quest, then. Winding trails an’ full chests to you all.”

Tamara came to a stop, frowning down at her. “What did you say?”

“It’s an old gnomish benediction, Tam,” Owl explained. “She’s not talking about your chest.”

“But I could, if y’want,” Billie added, waggling her eyebrows.

“Oy, Fallowstone,” one of the other gnomes said with open exasperation. “For once in yer life could ya not agitate the tall folk?”

Rhadid had already turned aside in the wide space around the fireplace, where in addition to the ascending stairs several corridors branched out at ground level. Owl and Eric were already following him, Tamara with a lingering suspicious look at Billie.

Admestus fell to one knee, holding out a hand to the gnome, and was somewhat surprised when she took it; rarely did people obligingly play along.

“Alas,” he declaimed, “that our acquaintance must be so brief, and our parting so swift! Know, fairest maiden, that I shall count the very heartbeats that mark our cruel separation.”

“Oh, baby,” she cooed, hopping nimbly up to straddle his outstretched knee. Billie grabbed him by the cheeks and planted an exuberant smooch right on his lips.

A moment later she was sent tumbling to the floor with a playful squeak when Tamara grabbed Admestus’s collar yet again and hauled him physically away down the hall, not pausing to let him get his feet under himself.

“Wait for me, my darling!” he cried despairingly, extending a longing hand as he was dragged away.

“Till the very stars fall, ‘andsome!” she replied playfully.

“Honestly,” one of Billie’s friends said as he was pulled around the corner, “are you gonna let the poor sod go off thinkin’ you’re a maiden?”

“I guarantee ‘e doesn’t think that,” another replied.

“Listen, dumbshit,” Tamara growled, hiking Admestus upright and setting him roughly on his feet. “I don’t care what the tavern wenches think is cute back in whatever university town it is you come from. You act the cut-up in here, and we all die. So you cut it the fuck out, is that understood?”

“Scuze me, missy, but you’re not the boss of me,” he said imperiously, then leaned around her to stare at the rest of the group, who had finally paused for them. “What about it, boss of me? Shall I cut it the fuck out?”

“Do exercise a modicum of restraint, Admestus,” said Rhadid. “But that was well handled. Now come along, all, time is precious.”

“Well-handled?” Tamara muttered while Admestus skipped past her to join Eric just behind Rhadid. “What the hell?”

“Situation’s a bit different than we expected,” Owl said laconically. “It’s not just a dungeon crawl anymore; now it turns out the gnomes and the Empire are vying for control of the Manor. And we just walked right into the middle of it. I’m not gonna give Asshat the Alchemist credit for doing that on purpose, but it’s prob’ly best if they both think we’re not to be taken seriously, and stick to worrying about each other.”

“Control?” Tamara asked. “Gnomes? What?”

“One of the major factors which characterizes the great dungeons,” Eric explained as they walked, “as opposed to other dangerous ruins that might or might not contain treasure, is their self-regenerating properties. No matter how carefully cleared out, a dungeon always has more hazards—and usually, more rewards for those willing to risk it and strong enough to succeed. This also makes them a consistent source of profit, which is why adventurers keep going into them. Ever since the Enchanter Wars, gnomes have been setting up colonies in great dungeons to continuously delve them for resources. Since Empress Theasia was crowned, the Empire has followed suit, and now there is something of a race on between the two parties to seize control of the various dungeons.” He sighed. “This…may well be the last opportunity for any un-aligned party to explore this one. Manor Dire has a mind of its own and won’t be as easy to suborn, but I fear one or the other group will find a way.”

“All the more reason to finish our business and get out,” said Rhadid, “before either plants a flag, so to speak. Or worse, engages in an outright battle for control with us in the crossfire. Join me, Professor; I believe you are most qualified to determine our course from here on.”

“Uh, yeah,” Admestus added. “We’re walking past an awful lot of doors, here. Shouldn’t we, y’know…look around?”

“That’s one approach,” Eric agreed, looking diffidently up at Lord Rhadid as he trundled along beside their benefactor. “Our objective is to penetrate deeper into the Manor and ultimately reach its laboratories—which will happen when the Manor decides to permit it. We achieve that end by impressing it as worthy guests, which is done by surmounting its challenges and behaving respectfully. We could proceed directly through the halls and wait for challenges to present themselves, or take our time and explore each room we pass. Practically speaking, the end result will be the same, so, really, it’s up to you, m’lord.”

Rhadid came to a stop, forcing the rest to do likewise, and looked around thoughtfully. They were in a wood-paneled corridor with heavy oaken doors along it at intervals; a few yards ahead it ended in a T-intersection. There were no visible windows, but the torches were spaced closely enough to provide adequate light.

“What do you anticipate in the way of challenges, Professor?” he asked.

“Well,” said Eric, “some monsters to fight, eventually, but Manor Dire tends more to favor traps and puzzles. We should be on the alert for surprises, of course. As a general rule, little of danger or consequence will appear this close to the entrance—or rather, this soon after our entry. Distance and location mean little in here; our progress is better judged by the impression we have made upon the Manor. Oh! You should know that bedrooms are generally safe. If the Manor offers us a place to sleep, we can be relatively sure there will be no attacks or shenanigans while we avail ourselves. Food and drink likewise; I know we brought provisions, but the Manor does not drug people except when the potables in question are obviously a component of a puzzle.”

“Puzzles,” Tamara muttered, peering around. “Fucking ridiculous…”

“Let us proceed,” Lord Rhadid decided. “The Manor may test us in whatever way it deems proper. All of you, remember to behave with the appropriate respect.”

He continued on, then turned left at the fork. They followed the corridor in silence for a time, then listening to Admestus’s off-key whistling until Tamara punched him in the ear. Then more silence.

Once it became clear that Rhadid had no intention of exploring any of the doors they passed, the Manor evidently tired of waiting on him to show initiative. The corridor abruptly turned to the right, and a few yards farther on, opened out into a sizable room.

Rounding the corner, the whole group slowed. Up ahead there was brighter, steadier light than the torches provided, along with a rhythmic hissing noise and the incongruous sound of a woman humming. Lord Rhadid gave them a firm look, then resumed course. In moments they had emerged from the hallway into a comfortable sitting room.

It was not luxurious by modern standards, reflecting the same rough sensibilities as the great hall. There was another fireplace, and large stuffed armchairs draped with shaggy bison furs. Along one entire wall ran a glass-topped display case containing skeletons of strange creatures no bigger than a cat; in one corner stood a taxidermied cat bigger than a wolf with enormous fangs the length of a human forearm, while another held a wired skeleton of a creature about the size of a dog which looked like a cross between a bird and a lizard. The fire was not lit, but the row of candles atop the mantle were, as well as two oil lamps set upon end tables next to the armchairs.

A slim woman stood with her back to them, sweeping the floor. The sound of her broom upon the floorboards caused the hiss they had heard. At their entry, she stopped humming, turning to study them critically. The apparent housemaid was, incongruously, a wood elf. For the most part she was attired as such, in a blousy green shirt with a brown vest and trousers above beaded moccasins. Her golden hair was covered by a kerchief such as any human housewife might wear, and she wore a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.

She didn’t talk like a servant, either.

“Admestus Rafe,” the woman said stridently in Tanglish, flinging her broom to the floor and planting her hands on her hips. “Just what in blazes do you think you are doing?”

He straightened up in surprise, blinking, while the others all turned to stare at him again. “Ah… Would I be correct in guessing this is one of those situations where the correct answer isn’t going to cut it? Because the correct answer is ‘doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,’ but I get the feeling you’re fishing for something a bit more—”

“You couldn’t find anywhere else to do an honest day’s work than Manor bloody Dire?” the elf spat. “Do your parents know you’re in here?”

“Admestus,” Rhadid said calmly, “why don’t you introduce us to your…acquaintance?”

“Oh, of course, terribly sorry, m’lord,” he babbled. “You know me, so absent-minded, leave my head behind one of these days. Well! This, of course, is Lord Rhadid Daraspian, my esteemed employer and wearer of the coolest coat I have ever seen in my life. Seriously, look at him! Did you ever see such dapperness? To his left, Professor Eric Ahlstrom, who teaches something or other in some school or other up in Isilond. Or was it Stavulheim? Ah, well, doesn’t matter. These two are just muscle, you can forget about them.”

“I’m gonna strangle him,” Tamara said aloud to no one in particular. “I can see it coming. This whole shitshow ends with my hands around his skinny neck.”

“And everyone,” Admestus continued, gesturing grandly to the elf, “this, of course, is my very good… That is, the most honorable…” Slowly he turned to her, frowning. “Oh, yes, that reminds me. Just who the bloody hell are you?”

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9 – 38

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“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

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Khadizroth physically swelled, drawing in a long breath, his face descending into a deep scowl. “You, Kuriwa, I had minimal patience for to begin with. If—”

“Truce,” Mary said calmly, holding up a hand, palm forward.

The dragon paused and narrowed his eyes. “Truce? Why?”

“Let me second that incredulous question,” added McGraw. “With you bein’ here, finally, this ruckus seems about to take a turn for the beneficial. For some of us, that is.”

“There are some things you should all know before pursuing this matter any further,” Mary said equably, lowering her hand. “If you will kindly give it a minute or two, let the others gather. I’ve had to send help for some myself, but—ah, here they come now.”

Now might have been overstating it for those without the benefit of elvish hearing. Vannae turned his head slightly toward the far end of the square, narrowing his eyes; Khadizroth glanced fleetingly in that direction before focusing his attention back on Mary.

“I am impressed, at the least, with your nerve. That you should presume to speak politely with me after our last encounter…”

“Khadizroth, I will not have this conversation if you plan to contend that your treatment was unwarranted,” Mary interrupted. “Existence is not fair, and people cannot be expected to be scrupulous in their judgment; we are not all Avei, nor Themynra. Your actions have consequences, and you knowingly took a substantial risk by launching a scheme which, frankly, was beneath you on multiple levels. If you wish to discuss the removal of my curse, we can. As soon as you are no longer attached to Justinian.”

“I see,” the dragon said evenly. Vannae scowled deeply at Mary and opened his mouth.

The sound of footsteps came from around the corner at the end of the square. The flaming green silhouette of the Jackal, eerily visible through intervening buildings, dashed toward the corner and whipped around, not slowing as he pelted straight for his compatriots. A second later, the huge panther rounded the corner, sliding on the dusty street, and lunged after him.

The Jackal unashamedly skittered behind Khadizroth; the panther skidded to a halt and glared at the group, tail lashing.

“Raea, please don’t play with that,” Mary said with a smile. “You have no idea where it’s been.”

“Look who decided to show up,” Raea shot back, her expression decidedly unfriendly. “After leaving this whole situation to devolve into carnage, here you are to clean everything up and take credit. As usual.”

“Petulance does not become you, child,” Mary chided gently. “If it makes you feel better, there will be very little credit here for anyone. If you will join us, we are going to have a chat shortly. I’ve had to send some help to escort the last few interested parties to this location.”

“Did you sign off on this?” the Jackal asked, peeking around from behind Khadizroth.

“Regardless of any outstanding personal business between myself and the Crow,” the dragon intoned, folding his arms, “it has been my long experience that it is worth listening when she speaks. I’ll grant a few minutes to hear this…revelation.”

“Oh, good,” said the assassin, brushing fruitlessly at the flames on his sleeves. “Can you do something about this?”

Khadizroth half-turned to glance over him. “Probably. Not here, in the presence of opportunistic hired thugs who I don’t trust not to take advantage of my distraction.”

“That’s a little rich,” Joe protested. “All’s fair in war, as they say. Now we’ve agreed to a truce.”

“This is the first time I have heard you voice such agreement,” Khadizroth replied. “Regardless, complex magics can wait.”

“Oh, sure, I’ll just wait,” the Jackal said sullenly as Raea came to stand next to McGraw, laying a hand on his shoulder. After a moment of no visible effect, the old wizard straightened up slightly and rolled his shoulders as if suddenly freed of stiffness, then smiled and tipped his hat to her.

Everyone shifted to stare at the mouth of a side street when a swirling cloud of dust emerged from it, moving far too slowly to be natural. The cloud slowed and arced back toward the street from which it had come, and for a moment during the shift a vaguely humanoid outline was visible in its form. Then it shifted again, drifting toward Mary, and rippled in an indecipherable series of gestures.

She smiled and bowed to the air elemental from a seated position. “En-shai da.”

The elemental swelled outward and dissipated, a few leftover streamers of dust drifting to the ground.

From the street behind it came Weaver, carrying Billie seated in the crook of his left arm; he had his wand in his other hand, pointed currently at the ground. The bard glanced rapidly around the growing assemblage in front of the well, but spoke to his passenger.

“Quit drinking those, you idiot. You of all people know what the effects of healing potion overdose are!”

“Ah, quit yer maunderin’,” Billie said with a grimace, tossing the vial she had just emptied to the ground. “All the worst times I ever had seem to’ve begun with somebody tellin’ me not ta drink somethin’.”

“And did you ever follow that advice?”

“Course not, what d’ye take me for?” She grinned at his ostentatious sigh, raising her voice to address the others. “Well, what’ve we got ‘ere? Back to talkin’, eh? You wankers had enough?”

“Hello, Billie,” said Mary, finally getting up from her perch and stepping over to them. As Weaver carefully lowered the gnome to the ground, she knelt and placed both hands on Billie’s cheeks.

Billie grimaced, then shuddered, staggering, and apparently would have fallen had Mary not held her up. “Ach! Blech, that tingles. Thanks, though. Feels a lot better.”

“He’s right, you know,” Mary said more severely. “One more vial of that and you’d have had much more serious problems than the internal bleeding. Remedying that was more difficult than what remained of your actual injuries.”

“Well, sorry, yer Crowness, but if you just turn up at the last second, don’t expect ta be handed the easy jobs!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Weaver said dismissively, glaring around the square. “Either someone explain to me why we’re not still killing these assholes, or let’s just resume.”

Khadizroth reached behind himself unerringly and planted a hand over the Jackal’s mouth, just as the assassin opened it. “We are as eager to learn the point of this as you, I’m sure, deathspeaker.”

“Just a moment, please,” said Mary calmly. “Our final guest is arriving.”

She stepped in front of McGraw, Joe, and Raea, crossing the space separating the two groups, and met a large figure emerging from another street.

It was easily eight feet tall and seemed made of stone, which made the silence of its movements deeply incongruous; only upon closer inspection was it apparent that the elemental was not made of solid rock, but slowly shifting sand. In its blocky arms was the unconscious form of Jeremiah Shook.

The sand elemental bent and carefully laid him out on the ground, where Mary knelt to touch his forehead. “Hm, he’s been healed recently. Your work, Vannae? Neatly done.”

“Mary,” Joe said tersely, “that man—”

“Is your diametric opposite in nearly every respect, Joseph, and altogether would have been a better choice for a first nemesis than a dragon.” Mary straightened up, turning her back on Shook, and strode serenely back to her perch on the rim of the well. The elemental, rather than rising again, slowly sank back into the dusty street, leaving no trace of its presence.

Shook twitched once, then sat bolt upright, groping at his belt where his wands should have been and not finding them. He fell still, staring at those gathered in the square through narrowed eyes.

“Come on, really?” the Jackal protested. “No one’s dead? Nobody? You guys suck at this.”

“Okaaaay,” said Shook, ignoring him. “What the hell now?”

“That is what we’re about to find out, apparently,” said Vannae, returning his attention to Mary.

“I have spent the last several days traveling widely,” Mary said, while Shook got to his feet and joined the other members of his party. “Much has been going on behind the scenes, and I’ve been working to determine what, and why, and at whose behest. I had some advance warning of these events, you see, thanks to my own divinations. When the oracles begin to warn of danger, there are always some of us who hear the alert first.”

“Thanks for keeping us in the loop,” Weaver snorted.

Mary raised an eyebrow. “I’ve worked toward the betterment of the world for a very long time before you came along, Weaver, though I would still have included you, had I any reason to believe you would act for the greater good when not being paid. Regardless, there is a point within your griping, whether you intended it or not. There is one secret I knew long beforehand, which I wish I had been present to share with you before you were sent off on this errand. It could have spared us all a great deal of needless fuss and bother.”

She folded her legs beneath herself and regarded them all solemnly. “You were sent here to obtain the skull of Belosiphon the Black—or more accurately, to fight over it. For the last eight hundred and twelve years, the skull has lain in a sealed barrow in the mountains outside Veilgrad, reachable through the city’s ancient catacombs.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Veilgrad?” Shook said incredulously. “Bullshit.”

“Veilgrad,” Mary continued, “has been the scene of all manner of catastrophe in the last few months. Necromancy, werewolf activity, multiple misfired spells. Chaos cultists.” She cocked her head to one side. “Exactly the sort of goings-on one would expect to see in the presence of a major chaos artifact, and which has not been seen here.”

“Well,” McGraw mused, “suddenly I feel a lot less intelligent than I did this morning.”

“So…what, this is a race to Veilgrad, now?” Joe asked. “Then I don’t see what’s different about this encounter. Stands to reason we’d be best advised to prevent each other from settin’ out first.”

“I suspect we are not done being surprised,” said Khadizroth.

“Indeed,” Mary said with a smile. “The skull is now secure, or will be very soon. An extraction team sent from the Universal Church, composed of members of the Holy Legion and spellcasters of multiple schools form the cult of Salyrene, were dispatched in a borrowed zeppelin. Their operation was exquisitely timed; I expect they either have the skull in their hands now, or will within the hour.

“Most interestingly, to me,” she went on, her expression growing more serious, “is the timing. That skull was inside a casket sealed by Salyrene herself. It has endured for centuries and in theory should have indefinitely. This summer, the roof over it was collapsed, cracking the seal—a most interesting development, considering the protections laid upon that place. I would venture to say such a thing could not happen unassisted. This caused the taint of chaos to flood Veilgrad, slowly growing until it became a severe enough threat to alarm the oracles, leading to…all of this.

“So Justinian sent you here,” Mary said, turning to nod at Khadizroth’s group. “Bishop Darling, to whom I spoke just yesterday, researched the oracles’ warnings on his own time, finding the Church’s records to indicate the Badlands as the skull’s resting place. There is no historical reason why they should.”

“Wait,” said McGraw, frowning. “There’s the matter of Imperial Intelligence. Darling looked through Imperial records too, and got the same info. And they’ve sure as hell been a presence in Desolation of late.”

“The inner workings of the Empire are frustratingly opaque to me,” Mary allowed. “Who has done what and why in the halls of Imperial Intelligence I cannot say. But I can interpret the events unfolding as I see them. The new Imperial presence and construction in Desolation, among its other aims, is directly targeted at extending the Rail network to Rodvenheim and Puna Dara—two sovereign states which have emphatically refused to give Tiraas a clear route to their front doors. Now, with adventurers brawling, plains elves prowling and rumors of a major chaos artifact flying about the desolate region where all their territories abut, I rather suspect both governments are under significant pressure, from both within and without, to join hands and impose mutual civilization on this last piece of wilderness.”

She paused to let her words sink in for a moment before driving them the rest of the way with a veritable hammer. “Of course, there is exactly one man who could arrange for the skull to be exposed, you four and your succubus companion to be sent here, and a trail of breadcrumbs laid exactly where Darling would look for it. Now, I’ve said my piece. We can resume this affair to its logical conclusion, which in any outcome involves massive damage, injury, and likely fatalities. Considering who has arranged all this, who is the only party who will benefit from both our groups weakening each other… Well, I find that I, for one, am disinclined to dance for his amusement. I am even less interested in helping the Tiraan Empire advance its foreign policy ambitions. My proposed truce has now seen its purpose fulfilled. I suggest that rather than continuing to fight… This is a good time for us all to walk away.”

The wind whistled emptily over the shattered rooftops of the town, carrying the scents of smoke and ozone. Both groups assembled in the square stared suspiciously at one another, at their own members, at Mary positioned neutrally apart from them.

Then Joe, moving slowly and very deliberately, slipped his wands back into their holsters.

“I said it to begin with,” the Jackal said, still swiping absently and fruitlessly at the green flames limning him. “Whatever problems we’ve got with each other, with Darling or anyone else—and you’d better believe there are going to be a series of reckonings on all those scores—at the end of the day, Justinian’s still the big spider in the middle of this web. And the son of a bitch went and made us forget that for a while.”

“Yes,” said Khadizroth softly. “A fitting reminder why he is dangerous.”

“You don’t have to answer to him,” said Joe.

“Someone does,” Khadizroth replied. “I like him better in my proximity than weaving his schemes behind my back.”

“Aye?” Billie snorted. “How’s that workin’ out for ye?”

Shook grunted. “Pains me to admit it, but the gnome makes a point. We have every fucking one of us just been played like a whole band of fiddles.”

“A veritable orchestra of dupes and patsies!” the Jackal said, grinning. Shook gave him a filthy look.

“Now, I might be mistaken,” said McGraw. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But all this talk seems to be leadin’ toward the conclusion the lot of us have more urgent matters in common than we have reason to fight.”

“You’re not completely right there,” Weaver replied. “The matters in common, yes. But every time we meet, this shit gets more and more personal.”

“I’m sure this has nothing to do with the proclivity of several of you to be gratuitously vicious toward each other,” Raea commented.

“The enemy of my enemy,” Vannae began, and was drowned out by a loud snort from Shook, a peal of hysterical laughter from the Jackal, and a theatrical groan from Weaver.

“Enough.” Khadizroth did not raise his voice, but it nonetheless cut off the noise. “You are all right. We have between us matters which must be settled. However… The Crow is also right. The matters need not be settled right now, and we have in common one figure who would presume to control or destroy all of us. We would be wise not to let ourselves forget that, when next we meet.”

“I can’t help but see the utility in havin’ one group in the Archpope’s camp and one outside it,” said Joe. “If we were willin’ to…compare notes, so to speak. Not to mention that, let’s face it, Darling ain’t a whole lot better. If he’s any better.”

“Darling is as duplicitous a player as the Archpope,” said Mary, “and I think has an even greater capacity for viciousness. The ultimate difference between them, however, is that Darling does not aspire to rule. He is Eserite to his core; his aim is to bring down those who would set themselves above others. That makes him useful, despite his…numerous annoying character traits.”

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning at nothing.

“I accept your recommendation, for now,” said Khadizroth, taking one deliberate step backward. “We will continue to play Justinian’s game because we must. Henceforth, however, we must be very careful not to find ourselves doing his dirty work.”

“Agreed,” Joe replied, nodding. The dragon nodded back.

There were a few more mutters and grunts from various persons, but with that, it seemed the main topic of conversation was exhausted. Mary stood and strolled calmly over to join her own group, as both parties began shuffling backward from each other. They eased away in reverse at first, keeping eyes on their rivals, but gradually, as they neared the edges of the square, everyone relaxed enough to turn around and slip into the streets on opposite sides.

The desolate wind whistled into the space left behind as both groups walked away.

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