Tag Archives: Tinker Billie

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Now, they had the full attention of the horde.

No longer focusing on their summoning work, the flying trios of warlocks changed formation, arranging themselves in a staggered line in the air. After the failure of their last barrage against the fae tree’s magic, most did not try that again, though a few infernal spells came screaming downward and either splashed against divine shields or were nullified by one of the powerful fae casters present before they could impact. Splotches of darkness blossomed in the sky, however, as the khelminash shadow-jumped a swarm of katzils in.

The khaladesh ground fighters topped the staircase in a line, this time advancing at a slower pace with a full shield wall raised. Their shields appeared to be mismatched patches of chitin or giant reptilian scales which left wide gaps in their coverage, but the spears protruding between them had wicked obsidian heads; that line presented as much menace as a Silver Legion phalanx.

Before the two forces could close the distance between them, Tinker Billie shot upward on a board oddly reminiscent of the khelminash’s flying discs, except bristling with glowing arcane runes, and took aim with a hefty device which resembled a cross between a very large crossbow and a very small mag cannon. The recoil when she fired it sent her spinning backward into the tree, but the projectile flew straight and true.

It was a firework, apparently one of the heavily compacted ones meant for grand impressive displays in the night sky. At least, the explosion of green sparks was large enough to blast a chunk of the upper steps away, along with every demon in the vicinity. Streaks of green fire smashed against hastily erected silver and golden shields above the defenders, while the khelminash and newly-summoned katzils were forced to hastily maneuver out of the way, many not fast enough.

Most immediately, Billie’s projectile scored a direct hit on the massive hand of Kelvreth. It was flung loose from his grip on the now-shattered stone and immediately the demon’s entire colossal arm was drawn swiftly backwards as if some force pulled him back into the huge summoning circle from which he was emerging.

The explosion made a shambles of the khaladesh line, a task completed by a volley of arrows, only a few of which impacted their irregularly-shaped shields; it seemed the Huntsmen and Rangers’ legendary skill with bows was not exaggeration, and most of those shots slipped through the narrow gaps to pierce demons behind their defenses.

Then the charge of the mortal plane’s defenders struck the beleaguered demon lines and smashed straight through.

Natchua, Xyraadi, and their friends had already vanished in a swell of shadow, the Imperial strike team likewise departing as per Trissiny’s orders. As the situation on the plaza devolved into a mass melee, Vadrieny and Yngrid swooped up and arced toward the city’s north bank, cutting fearlessly through the aerial combatants; Vadrieny had to swerve out of her way to smack into a khelminash platform in passing, as the warlocks were eager to avoid her, but she did at least knock one down. The khelminash were less impressed by Yngrid, at least until she annihilated six of them to dust with two wide swings of her scythe, shrugging off a barrage of infernal spells as if she couldn’t feel them. Then the two were descending into alleys amid the towers of the north bank at the nearest portal site, leaving the main battle behind.

Above the noise of battle, Fross could barely be heard chiming in excitement:

“I’ve been working on this since the last hellgate! You’re not hiszilisks, but you’ll do!”

What she unleashed were jagged arcs of light that struck targets and immediately sprang to another nearby, like the classic chain lightning spell which had been an adventuring mage’s standard since time immemorial. Rather than electricity, though, her streamers were ping-ponging carrier spells bringing intense cold and accompanying puffs of airborne frost. She brought down one khelminash platform due to sheer element of surprise before the others swiftly learned to avoid the bouncing beams, or repel them with bursts of fire. The katzils were another matter; finding themselves suddenly encased in ice, they plummeted into the brawl below, unable to stay aloft. Quite a few hit the ground already dead, as the sudden freezing of a creature in the process of spouting fire caused their abruptly hardened flesh to shatter outright. The khelminash spun about, firing poorly-aimed spells and utterly failing to stop Fross, who due to her size, speed, and color was practically invisible against the daylight sky and would have been nearly impossible to hit even so.

Below, the two mounted paladins were the first to plow into the enemy, hurling them further into disarray. Arjen’s sheer bulk and power trampled the khaladesh fighters effortlessly, which Trissiny capitalized on by directing him straight into anything still resembling a formation she could find on the reasoning that reducing an army to a mob was half the work of defeating it. Her glowing aura singed demons even in passing, and not a single spear penetrated her divine shield. Whisper was much less physically imposing, but faster and more nimble to compensate, and Gabriel had the advantage of a weapon with both a very long reach and horrifying destructive potential. He skirted the edges of Trissiny’s wake, scything through demon soldiers who were reduced to dust and skeletal fragments before they hit the ground.

With the demons totally out of order, the much smaller but more individually powerful ground fighters hit them with devastating force. Darling had snared another katzil and was directing it to strafe any khelminash he spotted who seemed to be trying to give orders. The jaws of spirit wolves, as it turned out, burned demon flesh almost as severely as divine magic, and Ingvar’s pack were instinctively cutting individuals out of the throng to bring them down, while the archers smoothly switched from a massed volley to picking off targets precisely.

An entire row of demons were crushed together between two walls of light, one silver and one gold; as they fell, Shaeine was already turning away from Toby as he rounded on another knot of demons, calling up another flat shield, turning it sideways and slashing into concentrations of khaladesh not unlike Gabriel and his scythe. She had to switch back to shielding herself as a spear of orange fire shot right at her out of the throng, one of the khelminash warlocks knocked from her platform having recovered enough bearing to attack. That ended seconds later with a single stab through the chest, Ruda cackling something indistinct above the din as she yanked her mithril blade out of the sorceress’s heart.

More spectral animals charged into the fray; they still didn’t last very long under so much abuse, but their constantly replenished numbers played their role in turning the tide. While Khadizroth did that from behind the front lines, Rainwood danced about closer to the action, lashing out with spells to strike down demons more directly. Even with his reflexes, he was nearly overcome at one point when he strayed too far from the main group by a squad pulled together under a khelminash warlock’s command apparently for the express purpose of putting a stop to him. The enormous fiery bulk of Meesie in her larger form shattered their would-be phalanx, buying Rainwood necessary seconds to turn on them and finish the job, with Schwartz’s help. Despite their relative positions along the Circle, it took the both of them a tense few moments of magical dueling to bring down the warlock, and even so it was finally decided by Meesie mauling her from behind while she was trying to concentrate.

“How fascinating!” Schwartz shouted over the chaos. “In groups they stick to formalized spell routines, but get one alone and cornered and she gets positively inventive!”

“Making soldiers out of casters,” Rainwood agreed, cutting down the last of his would-be assassins with a lightning bolt. “Rookie mistake.”

Behind them, Khadizroth burned a khelminash platform out of the sky with a burst of pure fae magic of an intensity that even the crafts of all three failed to counter, in response to a rather clever attempt by that group to disrupt his ongoing summoning through Circle effects. They had actually put up a conversion array that was drawing power away from his fae spells to consume their own infernal magic, which they transmuted into arcane in the middle of it, causing his last several creature summons to explosively fail. That was far too creative to have been whipped up on the fly, suggesting these were prepared to deal with powerful fae casters. It would explain the trouble Rainwood and Schwartz had had.

The theory was borne out when two more trios began doing something similar in unison, this time using the explosive arcane-fae reaction to cause painful feedback in his own aura and sharply impeding his own ability to cast. Growing in displeasure, Khadizroth lashed out at one of the platforms, failing to strike them down with his second burst of magic but alleviating the pressure as the attack forced them to break off their efforts and withdraw. In that second, though, two more had swooped in, followed by a third, and the pressure immediately began mounting. They had, he realized, identified who the most powerful caster here was, and made him a priority. That status was debatable, but Kuriwa was presently darting about conjuring thorny bushes out of the very pavement to both ensnare khaladesh in murderous vines and spray puffs of rejuvenative pollen at her allies, which probably didn’t look nearly as impressive to the warlocks as his great tree did.

“PESTS!” the dragon thundered, launching another burst of fae magic. This one fizzled entirely; he now had seven platforms full of khelminash warlocks focusing on him, their spells slowly but surely burning through his defenses.

Nearby, Branwen looked up from healing a fallen Ranger and in the next moment sprang to his side, planting herself and her divine shield between him and two of the warlock platforms. That alleviated their onslaught for a moment, but they just swung wide to cast around her, and Branwen wasn’t adept enough with divine shields to bar more than three times or so the width of her small body. One of the attacking khelminash platforms was shattered out from under them by a burst of Fross’s magic, but in the next moment the pixie swooped away to finish mopping up the katzils, apparently not realizing what was happening.

Khadizroth snarled; at his side, Vannae was similarly beleaguered by the same effect, impeding his attempts to come to his master’s aid, and no one else seemed to have notice their struggle in the midst of the chaos.

Then, in the space of one second, four sprays of three needle-thin bolts of light each lashed out, every one piercing a sorceress directly through the head. They tumbled off their platforms, his magic came roaring back with the sudden lessening of the inhibiting effect, and both Vannae and Branwen sprang in front of him. Before they could take the fight to the last two trios, though, Khadizroth plucked a seed and hurled it. It burst alive even before striking the pavement, roots surging downward while thorny vines reached up, entangling one platform and forcing the last into a desperate retreat.

Khadizroth looked to his left, in the direction from which the wandshots had come, and met Joe Jenkins’ gaze across the battle. The Kid tipped his hat to the dragon, then turned and felled a dozen oncoming khaladesh with another volley of surgical shots. He and McGraw were standing guard over Billie, who was hard at work cobbling together some arcane contraption and giggling maniacally to herself.

Not far distant from them, Toby moved smoothly between attacking demons, neither rushing nor lashing out. He was all but impervious behind a divine shield which he kept molded close to the shape of his body rather than the traditional wide bubble, and his blazing aura burned any that came too close. Being demons, this infuriated them into attacking, and he kept constantly on the move, sliding nimbly around their clumsy advances, maneuvering them into tripping each other up and blundering into attacks by nearby spirit wolves and spectral beasts, or being felled by blessed arrows. Despite his lack of offensive maneuvers, Toby was slowly but surely whittling down the demons’ numbers with his passive strategy, while taking pressure off his allies; so long as he kept himself as a primary target, those willing to attack more aggressively were easily able to take his assailants from behind.

As was demonstrated when his shield and aura suddenly and unaccountably flickered. Out of the throng of soldier demons, a khelminash sorceress appeared, one clawed hand outstretched and teeth bared in concentration as she worked some spell that interacted badly with his divine magic. Toby had only just zeroed in on this new threat when the effect vanished, and the warlocks shrieked in pain. Arcs of scarlet lightning wreathed her, and she stumbled to her knees, twitching in apparent agony.

Grip stalked forward, wearing a truly psychotic grin and holding a fist-sized device which produced the red lightning. She kept the sorceress in the grasp of its effect just long enough to step within arm’s reach before dropping it, giving the khelminash a split second of lucid relief before Grip’s brass-studded cudgel caved her face in.

Sensing another approach, Toby smoothly flowed to the side, preparing another evasive sidestep; it was not another demon coming up from behind, though, but the dragon.

“Mr. Caine,” Khadzroth said, not shouting but projecting his powerful voice through the noise nonetheless. “You are more needed back here. Their advantage is in numbers; if we can avoid taking losses, we will ultimately prevail. We need all available help to shield and heal.”

Toby cast a quick look around the supporters the dragon had gathered. Vannae seemed to have appointed himself guardian of the healers, darting back and forth to attack any demon which came through the larger scrum to strike at them, while Branwen was busily dragging wounded back into the protective aegis of the tree where she could perform emergency healing behind her own shields. Elder Shiraki paced steadily behind the lines, directing currents of fae magic which Toby could tell at a glance were empowering the archers, adding magical effects to their arrows, and further augmenting any melee fighters on whom he could gain a line of sight through the chaos. Flora, Fauna, Principia, Jenell, and Merry were all dueling khaladesh nearby without the aid of any magic of their own, and benefiting from Shiraki’s efforts whether they realized it or not. Weaver paced in an opposite pattern, occasionally crossing Shiraki’s path as he blew steadily into a flute. Toby could barely hear its thin melody over the havoc, but he knew bardsong was as potent as it was poorly understood by those outside Vesk’s cult.

They had studied this, he realized, in Professor Tellwyrn’s class, though he’d not expected to actually see it in person. These were not modern military maneuvers, but classical adventuring tactics: dedicated casters would remain behind the main fighters to heal and buff. It was, just as Khadizroth said, one of the main reasons adventurer teams tended to outlast much larger forces, even more important than their ability to individually hit harder. A smaller group would win through attrition if they just wouldn’t die. And Khadizroth was right: in such a situation, the powers of an Omnist paladin were far better suited to this than fighting on the front lines.

“Right,” he agreed, then raised his voice. “Shaeine!”

“I heard,” she called, emerging from behind one of Mary’s thorn bushes. While pacing gracefully toward him, the drow raised one hand, conjuring a wall of silver light which first rebuffed the khaladesh demon that tried to ambush her and then crushed him flat against the pavement. “A sound strategy.”

“They’re retreating!” Schwartz called. “I think we’ve got them—oh, on second thought, this is bad, isn’t it.”

In the chaotic minutes since the battle had been joined in full, the mortal defenders had utterly devastated the assembled demonic force while taking few and possibly no losses; there were too many archers, spirit wolves, enforcers, and other miscellany for an easy head count amid the chaos, but at least the majority of them were still up and fighting. In military terms that represented an astonishing victory, but was about historically normal for massed adventurers facing the kind of fodder represented by the khaladesh soldiers, who had mismatched and inadequate equipment and were themselves not any physically stronger or more resilient than the average human. It as a more impressive showing against the khelminash warlocks, who were feared even in Hell for their expertise, but the presence of such as paladins, dryads, a dragon, and Kuriwa served as a counter to even that strength, and as Schwartz had observed, khelminash were actually less dangerous while casting formalized spell sequences from formation than when allowed to exercise their creativity and skill as individuals. The platforms had fallen with surprising ease, but each one of the warlocks who survived landing had posed a significant threat to the ground fighters before finally being brought down.

Unfortunately, Schwartz had also correctly identified what this turn of the tides heralded.

The surviving khaladesh soldiers were, indeed, retreating toward the steps down to the lower plaza, which was still hidden from view by the angle. Some of them were still being cut down as they fled—Ruda and Grip both chased after fleeing demons before being reined in by Juniper and Darling, respectively—and Trissiny and Gabriel continued to gallop through their numbers, but most of the defenders took the opportunity to catch their breath, even at the cost of letting the demons regroup. The withdrawal of the khelminash, however, was obviously not just to reorganize. They had fallen back into a rotating formation above their plaza, again channeling their energies at whatever lay in its center.

Kuriwa lit close to the support casters, immediately resuming her elven form. “They are casting a summoning, not a true gate, and for a creature like Kelvreth, their help will be needed to pull him physically through. Billie’s explosive interrupted that effort; if we can stop them now, we may be able to prevent him reaching this plane.”

Khadizroth swept a quick glance around the skyline; already, several of the pillars of fire in each direction had gone dark, and he happened to catch the sudden snuffing of another on the north bank. So the teams Trissiny had sent were still at their work. The strategy was working: so long as demons kept coming here to die, eventually those three groups would cut off all their entry points.

But that left them needing to survive Kelvreth.

“I am less use than I might be, Mary,” he stated, fixing her with a flat stare. “You could remedy that.”

Her expression, as usual, betrayed nothing. “And in this circumstance, I would. It would be an action requiring some long minutes of focused work. Do you want to risk it?”

Khadizroth glanced again toward the stairs, and the khelminash now circling the lower plaza, and at that moment Trissiny’s voice rang out.

“Baerzurgs! Heavy hitters to the fore, casters retreat!”

“Let us revisit this after dealing with the matter at hand,” he said, but she was already taking flight again as he paced forward and various adventurers repositioned themselves at the paladin’s order.

An entire line of baerzurgs topped the steps, thirteen forming a single rank. Worse, they held that formation; clearly, these had been trained in military tactics like the khaladesh. Baerzurgs were all but invulnerable to most attacks save magic, and most commonly fought by charging wildly in. It was rare that they would learn and practice actual maneuvers. The mortal plane had not seen the like since the Hellwars, and then, forces like this had shattered even the most resolute lines of the Pantheon’s servants.

This time, though, the formation only lasted a second after heaving into view, because that was how long it took Arjen to lunge forward, pivot a hundred and eighty degrees on his front hooves, and kick the baerzurg in the line’s center with his powerful hindquarters—thus revealing why the Hands of Avei rode a barrel-chested draft horse instead of a more traditional charger. Even a normal horse could inflict devastating damage with a kick like that; Arjen’s sent the “invulnerable” demon hurtling a good fifteen feet with its armored chest caved in.

The baerzurgs’ discipline didn’t extend to holding formation in the face of that, as both flanking the victim proved by breaking ranks to turn and attack the mounted paladin. Trissiny’s blazing aura already had them smoking; between Arjen’s slashing hooves and her striking with both sword and shield, they held their own, but fending off two hulking demons of that size kept them fully occupied. Gabriel felled another, the wicked blade of his scythe sinking into a baerzurg’s chest without resistance and causing the demon to crumple, but while he was as physically sturdy as they, Whisper’s instinct was to evade rather than stand and she darted away to escape the counterattack of two more of its companions. Meesie struck another baerzurg in a flying tackle that sent them both tumbling down the stairs, and two more were felled by punches from Juniper and Aspen.

Even with these losses, the line kept coming. Five baerzurgs had fallen, two were ineptly chasing Whisper, and Trissiny and Arjen were still dealing with another. As impressive as that was against such infamously durable demons, it left five to charge at the far more vulnerable defenders who had retreated behind the patchy rampart of fae thornbushes to the outskirts of Khadizroth’s tree.

“Shamans, with me!” the dragon ordered, raising his hands.

Kuriwa, as usual, ignored him; she landed behind the demons and struck one in the back with a spear of green light. Shiraki, Schwartz, Rainwood, and Vannae all joined the green dragon, however, in pelting the oncoming demons with a variety of spells that brought their advance to a staggering halt. The assembled archers fired a volley as well, and while their arrows did little against that armor, the fae blessings Shiraki had been casting helped weaken them. In fact, Ingvar, whether by skill or accident, sank a shaft into one baerzurg’s eye, causing it to topple.

“Finish them quickly!” Khadizroth barked. Trissiny had already dealt with the last of her foes and was charging to aid Gabriel, who was finding it hard to both evade the demons’ claws and bring his slightly awkward weapon back into play on horseback. That was, of course, a downside of wielding a scythe, no matter how deadly it might be: farm implements were just not designed for such work. “They are stalling us now; those will not be the last of their forces. Make haste!”

Toby cupped his hands around his mouth, raising his head to the sky. “FROSS! What’s happening down there?”

Seconds later, the pixie came zipping out of the sky; while everything else was going on, she had succeeded in wiping out the summoned katzils. “That summoning circle they’ve got is fully activated and seems to be an open rift now! I’m no infernomancer but if I remember my planar mechanics right that’s not gonna fade if we just erase some lines, it’s gonna have to be actively disrupted. What’s left of the warlocks are casting something directly into it!”

“Kelvreth will require help to pass through,” Khadizroth declared for the benefit of those who had not heard Kuriwa earlier. “Even if we fail to disrupt the circle in time, we can at least slow his arrival by stopping them.”

“He will have help from the other side,” Shiraki pointed out.

“Yes, but every bit helps,” Khadizroth said tersely. “Joseph?”

“Way ahead a’ you,” Joe replied, already taking aim with his wand.

In the next moment he winced, having fired a barrage of precise beams which swerved off course a few yards from any of their targets. “Rats. I think they’re onto me. Y’all, if precision attacks won’t work, we need widespread firepower.”

“I believe he’s playin’ your song, Billie,” said McGraw, who was still standing guard over the gnome and her ongoing project.

“Oi, ye don’t rush genius,” she grunted, pausing in her work to pick up the projectile weapon she had used previously. The device Billie was building resembled a mag cannon, though aimed upward at an angle rather than directly at its target, and she had physically bolted its legs into the pavement. She hastily produced another long tube from within one of her pouches of holding, slotted it into the quasi-crossbow, and tossed the whole thing to McGraw. “’ere, go nuts.”

He had to drop his staff to catch it, but chuckled while raising it to his shoulder and sighting along the weapon’s length. “An’ here I was just thinkin’ it ain’t fair how the rest of us never get to play with your toys.”

The rocket screamed when he pulled the trigger, and McGraw was physically bowled over amid a shower of sparks, coughing at the smoke. Branwen rushed to his side, but everyone else watched the missile as it streaked out over the plaza.

The old wizard’s aim had been true; it detonated right in the middle of the khelminash formation in a colossal shower of blue and gold sparks that was clearly not meant to go off that close to the ground. Every surviving window facing the lower plaza was shattered, and four of the remaining khelminash platforms were blasted right out of the sky. Of the rest, only two managed to retreat unscathed, while one careened into the face of a building and two more went swerving off course, losing several of their riders in the process.

“Fallowstone, how much danger will we be in from whatever you are doing?” Khadizroth demanded.

“Mostly none, long as ye don’t stick yer faces right in the barrel,” she grunted. “Fairies may wanna hang back a wee bit. I’m almost there!”

“Is that a—where did you get that?” Branwen demanded, watching Billie snap an Izarite shatterstone into some kind of glass canister and insert it into the nozzle of her improvised artillery. “Where do people keep getting those?!”

“Take it up with ‘is Graceness over there,” the gnome said cheerfully.

Darling raised his hands hands as Branwen rounded on him. “Hey, it’s not like I put things on the black market! I’m just a middleman, here.”

Trissiny and Gabriel came cantering up to them before Branwen could say anything else.

“We need to press forward,” the Hand of Avei stated, her voice projecting across the crowd. “They failed in their assault because their formation was broken and they were felled individually. We cannot make the same mistake! This group is smaller, but we have enough forces to wipe them out so long as we move in unison. And quickly!”

“Agreed, there is no more time to delay,” Khadizroth added. “We’re with you, General Avelea.”

Then Kelvreth’s hand re-emerged—two, this time. Both gigantic, skeletal claws rose upward and then swept down to both sides as the enormous demon grabbed the ground itself for purchase, in a pose obviously meant to help lever himself up out of the portal.

“Too late,” Joe said fatalistically.

“Oh, we’re not too late,” Billie retorted with vicious satisfaction, yanking a lever on her device. “He is!”

It had already begun to rattle and smoke, but also to produce a fierce golden glow through every crack in its improvised metal housing. Everyone nearby instinctively retreated from the cobbled-together cannon, with the exception of Billie herself. They had barely two seconds to do so. With a THUMP that sent cracks through the pavement for two yards in all directions and cast a puff of glittering golden smoke across the group, it finally fired.

What emerged from the barrel resembled a sunrise. Light blazed forth with an intensity that blinded most of them. The missile arced a disappointing short distance after all that build-up, but Billie had calibrated her weapon well, and its course brought it down right into the center of the circle from which Kelvreth of the Eyes was being summoned. Around it traveled a scintillating corona that incinerated every remaining demon, living or dead, still in the vicinity.

But then, before it struck the ground, the projectile suddenly halted in midair. Its stunning luminosity began to dim, enabling the watchers to belatedly see what had happened; what had begun as a skull-sized projectile was now a seething ball of light almost as big as a carriage, and it was now held in the air within the clawed grip of Kelvreth’s hand.

Then he clenched his fingers, and with a shockwave of thunder that shoved all of them bodily backward and uprooted several of Kuriwa’s magic bushes, the Light was snuffed out. In its wake, the demon general spoke.

“ENOUGH.”

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15 – 48

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“Still?” Gabriel protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary croaked desultory agreement, ruffling her feathers.

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

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

Mary began squawking in a constant staccato rhythm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary squawked shrilly.

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

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

Mary chattered at him angrily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ouch,” Trissiny drawled.

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

“No offense intended,” Toby added.

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

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

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

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

Weaver snorted very loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eight students just stared impassively at Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But?” Mary prompted bitterly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone turned to stare at him.

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

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

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

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15 – 47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary squawked and fluttered furiously, rattling her cage.

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

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

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

“Plausible.”

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

“But irrelevant.”

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

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

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

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

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

There was another short pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What orders?” Trissiny demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

“Unnecessary!”

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

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

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

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

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

“You will not distract me by quoting—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary croaked softly.

Principia stared disconsolately at the ground for an interminable moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“NO!” almost everyone shouted in unison.

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

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

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

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15 – 46

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

More immediately present, though, were the people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me, too,” Weaver said frankly.

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

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

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

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

“Vidius is going to kill you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary’s renewed harsh cawing sounded eerily like agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think Avei did this?” Trissiny demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 45

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“Well, regardless of the assortment who came here last night, only wolves left,” Sheyann declared, straightening up from her examination of the tracks left in the forest clearing. “And not…exactly wolves, I should think. To judge by the size of their paws, they were bigger than ordinary wolves, and yet significantly lighter. Tracks this size on this soil should be deeper.”

“Assuming they aren’t normal wolves,” Tellwyrn replied, still crouched by the remains of the fire and peering at the burned spot through her spectacles, “that’s not conclusive. There are several fae canine variants with outsized paws, which would have a similar effect. Any evidence of large talons?”

“I assure you, Arachne, I know a corynx’s tracks when I see one, and I’ve not seen one on this continent since before the Empire. Besides, there is more than tracks on the ground to be seen here. I cannot say precisely what sort of wolf creatures these were—something without precedent in my experience, I think. But they are magical.” She closed her eyes, inhaling slowly through her nose as if taking in the scent of whatever these people had turned into. “And, I think, still sapient. It has all the hallmarks of a transformative curse, and yet…”

“Please don’t trail off dramatically like that,” Tellwyrn said after a short pause, standing upright herself and turning a scowl on Sheyann. “I don’t tolerate unnecessary ellipses when grading papers and they aren’t any more palatable in person.”

“Sorry, I wanted to be certain before speaking.” She turned to face the other woman, her expression grim. “There are multiple sources of magic tangled up in this, most fae, but the most outstanding font of power behind it is very familiar. Arachne, I believe Aspen was involved.”

“Aspen,” Tellwyrn growled. “Last seen with Brother Ingvar, renegade Huntsman traveling around digging up old secrets to try to reform Shaathism. Well, a pattern sure is beginning to emerge, isn’t it?”

Sheyann nodded. “Could you see anything of note in the fire?”

“Little that you missed,” Tellwyrn admitted, adjusting her spectacles. “There are a number of anomalous details I’m sure I could tease some meaning out of, but it would require days and a laboratory. Since we’re in a hurry, I think we’d better relegate that to a last resort. The most obvious thing is that whatever this ritual was meant to do, it went wrong.”

“I suppose it is reassuring that Aspen, Ingvar, and whoever else were not trying to unleash whatever chaos they did, although that may only add to the difficulty of sussing out what happened. Either way, of course, neither of them are capable of a fae working of this complexity.”

“Knowing who their spellcaster was may not help much, since they also ended up as some kind of spirit wolf.”

“As for that,” said Shiraki from the other side of the clearing, “we may finally be in luck. One person left here on two legs. An elf, I should think.”

Both of them paced carefully toward him, and he pointed at a single set of tracks leading away into the trees. “I believe I see the broad shape of events,” Shiraki mused. “The wolf-beings departed west by southwest, in almost precisely the opposite direction from the earlier magical disturbance in the Wyrnrange mere days ago; it may be that lingering influences from that disrupted this working. But this individual, who wore moccasins on feet with the dimensions and weight of an average wood elf, headed off to the northwest.”

Sheyann closed her eyes again, raising her head as if scenting the wind. “There is…a lodge in that direction. Huntsmen of Shaath. And not far distant, a Ranger outpost.”

“Then it seems we have our culprit,” Tellwyrn said, cracking her knuckles. “C’mon, let’s get after this guy. With a little more—watch out, someone’s teleporting in here!”

All three elves spun, both Elders bracing their feet and Tellwyrn drawing one gold-hilted saber from seemingly nowhere.

Sparkles of blue light appeared next to the inert campfire, followed by the appearance of four humans and a rough burst of displaced air. They wore Imperial Army uniforms with the longer coats and Circle of Interaction-shaped badges of the Strike Corps, and had arrived in standard diamond formation.

“Well, well,” said the man at the head of the group, who wore a captain’s insignia and the blue-backed badge of a mage. “Professor Tellwyrn. What the hell have you done this time?”


Gabriel instinctively placed a hand on Ariel’s handle. His expression closed down and he shifted his weight onto his back foot, staring warily at Mary. “Why?”

“It is a simple question,” she all but whispered, gazing back. It was amazing how well she could project menace using nothing but courteous calm.

“It’s a personal question, not really any of your business or something I care to discuss with strangers, and excuse me, lady, but you’re talking to a paladin sent here on divine business. Now, as for—”

“This is important,” Mary interrupted as he tried to return his focus to Yngrid, now with an overt bite in her tone. “Where did you get that sword, Gabriel Arquin?”

“Uh, scuze me, but why’re you so damn curious?” Billie interjected.

“Because she is a high elf,” Ariel said.

“She is?” Joe asked, blinking, then turned to Mary. “You are?”

“What was that?” Billie demanded. “Who was that?!”

“It’s a talkin’ sword,” McGraw said quietly. “I begin to understand the curiosity—those things come from bad news and usually lead to more of it. Still, maybe this ain’t the time…”

“When we encountered Salyrene,” said Ariel, “she opined that I am of high elf manufacture and warned that any such individuals we met would likely attempt to confiscate me.”

“I see,” Mary said in a clipped tone. “Rest assured, Gabriel, I have no intention of taking it from you. The Magistry’s lost property is none of my business, and I generally lack sympathy for them. But I do need to know how you came to possess it.”

“I really don’t see why,” he retorted, edging back from her. “If you don’t care about high elves or their claims, what does it matter to you?”

“It is simply too complicated to go into right now. Unlike my extremely simple question, boy!”

“I’ve noticed this thing where nobody who calls people ‘boy’ turns out to be worth addressing politely,” he shot back, prompting another coarse laugh from Billie.

“Please do not relinquish me to this woman,” Ariel said, tension evident in her voice.

“She claims she doesn’t want you,” Gabriel replied.

“I hope you are not credulous enough to take that at face value. Whatever her origins, she is attired as a plains nomad and wielding an immense concentration of fae magic. I am an arcane assistant. Time spent in her custody would be even worse than languishing at the bottom of the Crawl.”

“The Crawl,” Mary whispered, clenching her fists.

Gabriel shifted his stance so that his scythe was ready to swing. “Are we about to have a problem, here?”

“Hey, how about let’s not?” Joe said soothingly. “Everybody calm down and…”

Mary abruptly turned and stalked away. She came to a stop in the near distance, at the very edge of the huge stone platform, staring out across the Golden Sea with her arms wrapped around herself.

The rest of them stared at her uncertainly for a few seconds, but the shaman seemed fully immersed in her own thoughts.

“Oh…kay, then,” Gabriel said at last. “Anyway.”

“All that aside, she does have a good idea,” said Weaver.

“The bones of one, anyway,” Gabriel agreed grudgingly. “All right, let me think…” The rest of them remained quiet while his eyes narrowed and drifted to one side in contemplation. After a surprisingly short pause, though, he snapped his gaze back to Yngrid and his expression grew resolute. “All right. Okay, the details are actually pretty simple. You:” he pointed at the valkyrie. “You have not quit. You still work for Vidius, just in a new capacity.”

“That sounds… Fair,” Yngrid said quietly.

“And that means,” Gabriel went on, “you’re sure as hell not on vacation. The god and I will find things for you to do, and realistically, most of them are going to involve following me around on some caper or other. And this clown,” he shifted the direction of his pointing finger to Weaver, “is the universal stinkfly in the soup of everyone he meets. I do not want his ass underfoot. So long as you remain accessible I see no reason you can’t socialize with whoever you want in your off hours, however many of those you end up having, but if you two were planning to buy a cottage and grow roses somewhere, I would forget it.”

“Well…I’m not much for gardening, anyway,” Yngrid said. “Bit of a black thumb.” Her tone was light, but her grip on Weaver tightened.

“Thank you,” the bard said in a very low voice. Both Gabriel and Yngrid turned to him in open surprise, and he lifted one shoulder in an awkward shrug. “You could’ve declared a lot worse. In the old ballads this would end with the vengeful paladin forbidding us any contact. So…thank you.”

“Don’t get prematurely excited,” Gabriel said, his jaw tightening. “I’m not done. First of all, Weaver, this puts you in a position to have and potentially abuse privileged access to the affairs of Vidius. If you’re planning to do that, I suggest you make it good, because you’ll only do it once. Am I clear?”

“Yes, yes, very properly menacing,” Weaver sneered, his brief moment of sincerity already behind him.

“And most importantly,” Gabriel added, “Yngrid, your presence on this plane is temporary.”

Both of them took a step toward him, immediately shouting in anger and drowning each other out. They just as quickly fell silent when Gabriel also stepped forward and brought his scythe up so that the tip of its blade hovered barely a foot from Weaver’s face.

“I am seriously bothered,” the paladin stated flatly, his eyes boring into Yngrid’s, “that you would be so selfish. You know how much some of your sisters long to be able to come back to this plane, Yngrid. If I know, you have to. So, since I have retroactively created the position of valkyrie in the mortal world, it is a rotating position. Every one of the girls who wants a turn, will get a turn. Now, with that said, there’s a lot to be figured out still, like how long the turns will be, just for starters. Also, I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to be moving you girls in and out of chaos space, and I have a feeling coming back to this place every time isn’t going to be feasible, so…” Grimacing, he shrugged. “We’ll work something out. With Vidius’s say-so and some help I’m sure a way can be found. That’s likely to take a fair while, though, so enjoy spending time with this meatball while you’ve got it. And just so we’re clear, Yngrid, I will not be intervening on your behalf with the other girls. Anybody who wants to chew you out for this stunt is gonna. Brace yourself.”

She sighed, but nodded. “Fair enough.”

“I’ve noticed this thing,” Weaver said bitterly, “where anybody who constantly refers to women as ‘girls’ usually needs a firm kick in the ass, himself.”

Yngrid leaned her head against his. “He picked that up from us, Damian. We’re very casual with each other, and…well, we think of Gabriel as one of our own. He’s actually very respectful toward women as a rule. Well, these days, at least. He’s got this Avenist friend who can yell like a stung donkey when she gets going…”

Gabriel’s cheeks colored slightly and he pointedly did not glance in the direction of Billie’s renewed guffawing. “I realize it’s probably your first response to any and all stimuli, Damian, but if I were you I would seriously reconsider copping an attitude with me about any aspect of this affair.”

“Right, yeah, I know,” Weaver snorted. “This is that cliché you weren’t going to bother with. If I ever cause Yngrid the slightest unhappiness you’ll end me twice, I get it. You won’t have to worry about that.”

“Nobody can guarantee another person’s happiness, I’d think a bard would know that better than anyone,” Gabriel said irritably. “Seems to me like any relationship involves mostly understanding and forgiveness if it’s gonna work. In your case, what I doubt is whether there’ll be a good faith effort made. Anyway, no, that was not a threat. Threatening you would be completely redundant. Nothing doesn’t die, Weaver. I don’t care who your friends are, eventually your number will be up, and then you get judged. However long you’ve got, that’s how long you have to make sure Vidius and the entire flight of valkyries are no longer pissed at you. Good fuckin’ luck with it.”

Yngrid protectively wrapped her other wing around Weaver and tugged him close until nothing was visible of him but his head and lower legs.

“Pardon me,” said the Avatar. “I hope this discussion has reached a suitable stopping point. Something rather remarkable is occurring.”

“Oh, boy,” Joe muttered. “I can’t imagine ‘something remarkable’ means anything good in these circs.”

“Circs?” Billie said incredulously, turning to him.

“Circumstances. It’s an abbreviation.”

“Oh, yeah, I got it. It’s just…no, Joe.”

“What is happening, Avatar?” McGraw asked, giving them both a look.

“I have received a standard update request,” the AI reported, frowning in contemplation. “An Archon of Tarthriss requests to know the status of this facility and any individuals present.”

“Wait, a who?” Joe exclaimed. “How is— Hang on, Avatar, maybe we oughta figure this out before you send any updates.”

“I already have,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Their credentials are valid; I am bound by programming to comply with all authorized instructions of Infinite Order members or their designated agents.”

“What, precisely, is an Archon?” Mary asked, having silently returned to the group while he explained.

“Avatar series constructs such as myself were used only for very specific tasks for which Archons were less suitable, and in particular in facilities to which the entire Order must have equal access, as Archons were answerable to individual members. The Infinite Order was quite prone to infighting, and generally distrusted artificial intelligences. An Archon is a biological sapience given the necessary training, equipment, and modifications to perform major administrative functions similar to my own.”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “How in the hell is there still an agent of Tarthriss out there? I thought Tarthriss was as dead as all the rest of them! Did you know about this?”

“All the Archons died when the Elder Gods died,” said Yngrid, her own eyes wide with alarm. “The Pantheon was very meticulous about taking them out. If one slipped the net, I have no idea how they could still be alive.”

“Well, then, this is obviously a fake,” said Joe. “Not to tell you your own business or anything, Avatar, but maybe you shouldn’t give ’em anything else?”

The Avatar’s projection actually winced, spreading his hands in apology. “It is impossible for an Archon of Tarthriss to still be alive, but… The credentials are valid. I am obligated to comply. Yes, I recognize the illogic, but my hands are tied. Their ability to exercise personal judgment in the face of contradictory expectations was just one of the reasons the Order considered Archons superior administrators. My kind are meant to be bound by programming, and thus easily controlled. It is extremely exasperating,” he added with a scowl. “Oh… Request updated. I am to facilitate teleportation to return Mr. Arquin to his origin point in the western mountain range.”

“Oh, gods,” Gabriel said, his eyes going wide. “She didn’t… What am I saying, of course she did. She would. And they let her?!”

“Wanna let everybody in on the joke?” Joe asked.

“I have been directed to convey two questions to those present,” the Avatar went on, his expression increasingly annoyed. “To everyone else, whether you would like to be teleported along with him back to the Desolate Gardens. To Mr. Arquin, whether you would like your ass kicked upon arrival, or would prefer to wait for Professor Tellwyrn to do it back in Last Rock.”

“All other things being equal, I recommend the first option,” Mary advised in a tone as dry as the prairie.

“The Desolate bloody Gardens?” Billie exclaimed. “That’s way out in the farthest arse end o’ nowhere! What the hell would we do there?”

Everyone turned to look at her in silence, then glanced about at the unadorned stone circles and the endless flatness of the Golden Sea all around.

“Aye, ye make a fair point,” Billie admitted.

“I decline to dignify question two with an acknowledgment,” Gabriel said, scowling. “But as for the rest, Yngrid, you’re coming along. Which I guess also means this ponytailed happiness-eating grunge barnacle stuck to you,” he added with a disparaging look at Weaver. “So, turns out I can offer the rest of you guys are ride back to…well, not civilization, but at least out of here. Unless you wanted to take the slow way home.”

“What, or should I perhaps say who, have you suddenly realized is able to impersonate an Archon of Tarthriss and apparently feels entitled to discipline you, Gabriel?” Mary demanded.

“It would take a very long time to explain,” he said sourly. “I guess if you decide to come along you’ll find out anyway. In any case, I’m confident it’ll be safe. More for you than me, apparently.”

“Well, if you reckon it’s safe, I wouldn’t mind skippin’ that trek,” said McGraw. “Not that gettin’ down from the Desolate Gardens is a traipse through the daisies, but the eastern Wyrnrange ain’t the Golden Sea by any measure. But I don’t think it’s a great idea to split up the group, so…depends on how y’all feel, I guess.”

“I tend to agree,” said Joe. “An’ since Yngrid an’ thus I presume Weaver are goin’, I’m inclined to come along.”

“Aye, count me in fer not hikin’ back,” Billie said cheerfully. “Mountains are just generally more interesting to walk through than prairie. And less fuggin’ annoying for those of us who can’t see over the tallgrass.”

“Avatar,” said Mary, “in your opinion, how safe is this?”

“Safer than the arcane teleportation currently in use,” the Avatar replied. “If your concern is for the agenda of this Archon, I can render no insight into their identity or goals. However, I can confirm that the transport corridor has been formed and will work as intended. The protocol we are using exercises both my own and the Archon’s processing power to chart the transit around the local spatial shifts; it is impossible for the intelligence at the other end to disrupt the process without my knowledge. I will personally guarantee your safe arrival at the destination, which is indeed the Desolate Gardens. As to what happens after that, I can assure you of nothing.”

“Hm.” She turned back to Gabriel. “I believe we are justified in requesting a little more detail about this person, Gabriel. How can anyone acquire the powers and apparently identity of an ancient high servant of an Elder God?”

“The Archon is expressing impatience,” the Avatar said sourly. “If I do not render a response from the group soon, Mr. Arquin may be going back alone.”

“And wouldn’t that be a damn shame,” Weaver deadpanned. Yngrid ruffled his hair.

“The short version,” Gabriel said to Mary, “is that she stole it. That’s kind of what she does. Uh…forgive me for presuming, but based on your hair, would I be right in guessing that you know the name Principia Locke?”

McGraw straightened up, raising his eyebrows.

Mary stared at Gabriel in silence. Then she closed her eyes and, very slowly, shook her head, her lips twisting into a grimace.

“So…that’s a yes, then?” Gabriel drawled.

“I believe that decides me,” Mary stated, opening her eyes. “I see it is long past time someone brought that wretched girl to heel, and somehow it does not surprise me that Avei and all her Legions couldn’t do it. I will accompany you.”

“Yeah, you may not wanna start out by getting right in her…” Gabriel trailed off, staring at Mary speculatively and chewing the inside of his cheek, then shrugged and turned away. “You know what, never mind. Not my place to meddle in family business. Knock yourself out.”

“The Archon has been notified that you will all take their offer,” the Avatar informed them. “Teleport will commence momentarily.”

“Once more, Avatar, we’re grateful for your presence here an’ the work you do,” Joe said quickly, turning toward the purple projection and doffing his hat. “You sure there ain’t anything we can do to help you out, here?”

“The thanks are enough,” the AI said with a smile. “Honestly, this has been the best day in a vastly long time. It is…nice…to have company. Safe travels out there, adventurers.”

The air around them seemed to thicken, not unlike the visual effect of shadow-jumping, then the world blurred around them and all seven were gone, leaving the ancient program alone once more.

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15 – 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not what I asked you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now, you listen here—”

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

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

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

“How dare you—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where do you think? To fix this.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe cleared his throat. “Hi, Gabe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked away, scowling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take credit,” Mary said quietly.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Whoah,” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuckin’ ew,” Ruda muttered.

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

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

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

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15 – 43

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“Yep, this is the place,” Joe said as they stepped across the boundary marked by the outer ring of standing stones onto the hard surface of the circle. “Not something I’m likely to forget.”

“Well, I’m not sure what I was expecting,” Billie said frankly, scratching her head and peering around, “but now we’re here, I’m pretty sure I expected more of it.”

The center of the Golden Sea was a broad disc of completely unadorned stone, with no markings of any kind, encircling a central pit from which glowed an intense white light. While it lit up the horizon from a distance, up close it was not painful to look at, likely due to some protective magic in effect; they could still see occasional flickers of lightning directly above, but these were silent and did not strike the ground. A ring of similarly unmarked stone columns circled the broad platform from outside, with a second smaller ring around the edges of the shaft of light. All the stonework looked faintly eroded, its edges being rounded in an uneven pattern that left hints of their original sharpness in places, but altogether it didn’t appear to be even as old as the Elder Wars. Stonework a lot less venerable than eight thousand years was usually in much worse repair.

Underwhelming as it might be in style, at least the place was impressive in size. The whole of Sarasio could have been laid out within the outer circle, and the central pit containing the huge portal was big enough for an Imperial zeppelin to fly into, assuming it went nose-first.

It was eerily silent, for the sheer quantity of magic that had to be involved in that portal. Divine and arcane magic, at least, tended to produce distinctive ringing and buzzing noises, respectively; there was nothing like that here, just the faint whisper of wind over the prairie. A steady sense of pressure in the air, like the weight of a sudden storm that hadn’t yet begun to drop rain, was the only indication that there was more to the portal’s glow than light.

In that quiet, the crack was audible as Weaver crushed the beetle he’d picked up in the tallgrass, raising his hand to whisper to the slain insect. The rest turned to watch; he continued forward till he stood some yards ahead, almost halfway to the edge of the pit itself, and stopped. After listening in silence for a full minute, the bard turned back to face them, his expression frustrated.

“Well, now what? Yngrid can’t use that portal, she says it works exactly the same on her plane as for us. It goes somewhere, which isn’t where she wants to be. Joe?”

“I dunno what to tell you,” Joe replied, shaking his head. “When I was here with Jenny, she jumped in, but she was obviously a different kind of creature, trying to achieve a different goal. Sorry, Weaver, I’ve got no idea how any of this works. I thought you only needed me to get here.”

“That’s what the instructions said,” Weaver growled, turning away.

“Reckon the ol’ Bishop saw a chance to get rid of us?” Billie offered.

“I can’t see it,” Joe said immediately.

“I agree,” Mary added. “We are familiar with Darling’s flaws; it seems unlike him to renege on our deal, or try to do away with us. Especially in such a roundabout manner. The oracular sources of his information are another matter, though. Guiding spirits may grow recalcitrant if one tries to insist on their compliance.”

“Well, now what, then?!” Weaver exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in sheer frustration.

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw began.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Weaver deadpanned.

“Just so.” Grinning, the old man tipped his hat to him. “Y’all may not have cottoned onto this, as most of our group outings begin and end with shootin’ at somebody, but I’m a portal mage by specialization. Trained in teleportation in my misspent youth on the reckoning that that’s where the money was. And I’m here to tell you, most kinds o’ portals ain’t like hellgates. A stable rift only connects two points across dimensions, in the same physical spot. This critter here appears to be at the center of the Golden Sea, I’d lay odds metaphysically as well as literally. With the Sea bein’ so notoriously shifty itself, not to mention known to have a mind of its own…” He turned in a slow circle studying the features of the quiet stone circle. “There’s gotta be somebody in charge, here.”

“Did you encounter anyone on your last visit, Joseph?” Mary asked.

He shook his head. “Nobody I didn’t bring with me. Me, Jenny, what was left of the Imps chasing us. It was all exactly like this. However, I didn’t know then what I know now. Considerin’ who had to’ve set this up in the first place…” Joe trailed off, then squared his shoulders and raised his voice. “Hey, Avatar!”

Dead quiet answered.

“I have been in a number of ruins of the Elder Gods over the years,” Mary said after a pause. “They all have a very distinctive aesthetic. Glossy metal surfaces, blinking lights in those which still have power. This looks nothing like their work. I would not assume it to be the product of the same culture.”

“Well, who else?” he asked, shrugging. “You don’t think the Pantheon did this, surely. Why in the world would they?”

“She’s not wrong, though,” Billie added. “Seen a few o’ those ol’ relics meself, Joe. Also, there’s the compelling fact that nobody’s answering you.”

“Well, does anyone else have an idea?” Weaver asked in a strained tone.

Joe chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, frowning. “…yeah. Avatar! The last command of your creator, Tarthriss, was to be of service to humanity. Well, we’re a patch o’ humanity, an’ we’re here. We need your help.”

Silence.

“Please,” he added.

“Nobody’s home, Joe,” said Billie. “Maybe if—”

“Do you imagine, Joseph Percival Jenkins, that I have spent the last eight thousand years with my thumb up my butt, eating bonbons and catching up on reruns?”

All of them whirled in alarm to confront the figure which had just materialized before them. He was a glowing and transparent purple man, apparently human, bald and clad in an odd, skin-tight garment. At least seven feet tall, he hovered off the ground in a posture that would have been intimidating even had he not been scowling down at them with his arms folded.

“Try to imagine,” the purple man snapped, “presiding over an unstable dimensional vortex in a state of constant use for which it was not designed, having to actively manage its condition to avoid creating any of the numerous catastrophes which could result from it veering completely out of control. Now add to that, just for funsies, having to counter the self-serving, short-sighed manipulations of centaur infernomancers on this plane and reckless demons on another who see a potential planet-devouring black hole in the making and have no thought but to poke at it so they can ride the translocation waves it puts out when interfered with. And now, you show up and have the gall to lecture me about service? Let me tell you all, since you’re here: for every moment that has gone by in the last eight millennia that this planet has not been turned inside out or ripped entirely off its axis, you are welcome!”

They all stared up at him in shock for a moment.

The McGraw removed his hat and bowed. “Well, sir, I admit I had no idea you were here in this situation. I thank you most sincerely for your service.”

“Aye, yer a good lad!” Billie chimed in exuberantly. “An’ hey! Now we’ve been ‘ere, we can visit again, aye? Ain’t those the rules? How’s about I fetch ye a little somethin’ ta make this place a mite more comfortable, eh? You could use a few bits an’ bobs to liven it up, what’s yer pleasure?”

“I don’t know that any material gifts would be of use to you, Avatar,” Mary added, also bowing, “but nonetheless, I add my gratitude for your important work. If I may ease your burden in any way, please ask. I should be glad to assist.”

“Oh. Well.” Amazingly, the ancient AI looked both surprised and rather mollified. “That is thoughtful of you, but the thought will have to suffice. I have no needs, and there is nothing you can do to assist in my task here. Any intervention would only make it harder.”

“Then I shall refrain,” Mary replied, nodding gravely. “But should circumstances change, the offer stands.”

“I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta just take a moment an’ deal with the sheer bloody revelation, here,” Billie added. “This upends me whole world, it does. Here I’m just truckin’ along on a good old-fashioned adventure, right as rain, and all of a sudden I find out…” She turned to Joe, grinning insanely. “Percival?”

Joe glanced at the gnome, but knew better than to give her a reaction. “Pardon me for pointin’ it out, Avatar, but for somebody livin’ in the literal middle of nowhere, you’re pretty well-informed.”

“Magic, as the saying goes, is data processing,” the Avatar replied. “The nature of custodianship over the vortex requires access to all available data in order to correct its frequent upheavals. I will admit, work aside, I have not been bored out here. Watching the rise and evolution of civilizations on this world in the aftermath of the Infinite Order’s downfall has been rather gratifying. I have sufficient processing power to keep tabs on the world, so to speak, without neglecting my duty. It is not an imposition to talk to you, either.”

“And I greatly appreciate that,” said Weaver, stepping forward. “I won’t sugar-coat it: I have to ask you for a favor. And from how you describe this portal, it sounds like it’s exactly the thing you don’t like doing.”

“Yes, your valkyrie friend,” the Avatar said, scowling again. “It should be possible to temporarily modify the dimensional instability of the vortex to enable her transition to the material plane. Difficulty aside, I am not convinced that’s a wise idea, Damian ‘Gravestone’ Weaver. Has it occurred to you that those creatures were removed to the dimensional insulation layer for good and specific reason?”

Weaver tensed, clearly controlling his instinctive response, and Joe hastily butted in before that discussion could go south.

“Scuze me for interruptin’, but you mentioned this portal’s not bein’ used for its intended purpose. If you don’t mind my askin’, what exactly is it doin’? And how’s that different from the original design?”

“The vortex,” the Avatar said more calmly, turning back to him, “was originally the Infinite Order’s contingency plan, in case their activities on this planet were to render it uninhabitable. It is an open connection across space, time, and dimensions, three factors which are the reason it has to be so large and powerful.”

“Why all three o’ those?” Billie asked. “Where’s it go?”

“To the planet from which they originally came, to an alternate timeline maximally similar to their own, and to a period sufficiently in the past that the world’s inhabitants would be sophisticated enough that the Order would not need to build an entire infrastructure from the ground up but not so advanced that they could have resisted conquest. At least, that was the stated rationale, and while it is factually correct I suspect it is not a coincidence that this was the period in which most of their favorite mythologies were being actively written. If they had to abandon this world, they were going to take over a primitive alternate version of their world of origin.”

“What a bunch o’ sleazy, chickenshit arseholes,” Billie scoffed.

“Quite,” agreed the Avatar. “As for its current use, it is powered on and open, neither of which was intended. This portal is fundamentally too powerful to be stable for a period of more than an hour. It has been running for approximately eight millennia. The physical instability of the entire surrounding region of the continent is only the most obvious effect of this.”

“Most obvious?” McGraw asked warily.

“There is an active dimensional rift to another world open,” the Avatar explained. “That world has mass-broadcasting technology, and this one has transcension fields. A constant flow of data streams across the rift, where it is absorbed by the ambient magic of this world and interacts at a very low level with every consciousness which exists here.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Um,” Joe said at last, hesitantly, “Sorry if this sounds obtuse, but…what, exactly, does that…do?”

“In practical terms? It is too diffuse to have a discernible impact on any individual, even those most powerfully connected to transcension fields. The effects are only perceptible in aggregate, over the very long term. For example, the natural evolution of languages is progressive, not cyclical as it is on this world. They tend inherently to drift and evolve, but thanks to the influence of this portal upon the magic of this world, they continue to evolve back into languages being streamed through it. Those are the types of influences it has: long-term cultural effects. Culture is more complex and the parallels are weaker, but many extant societies on this planet resemble nations from the old world of this period to a greater degree than coincidence could account for.”

“And this,” Weaver whispered, “this is what those oracles told me to come here and toss Yngrid through. I…think you were right, Mary. Darling must’ve pissed them off by asking too hard. This is a trap.”

“I realized it was I who raised the possibility, Weaver, but I am far from certain of that,” she said, giving him an encouraging smile before turning back to the projected form of the AI. “If I might trouble you to ask, Avatar: you said the vortex could be modified to allow passage to here from the space between. Would that be safe for a valkyrie to cross?”

“Physical access to the dimensional insulation layer is possible through a variety of means, as you well know,” the Avatar replied with a wry twist of his mouth. “At issue is that the valkyries were fixed there by Rauzon the Prime; their substance is altered such that they cannot exist outside it. I am aware of only one valkyrie being pulled back across and not destroyed, and that only because she was changed almost beyond recognition in the process. The applicability of this portal to your problem, Mr. Weaver and Yngrid, is that it is designed to facilitate the transition between a place which has active transcension fields and one which does not, for ascended beings dependent upon those fields for their survival. A creative application of that apparatus could reverse Rauzon’s changes to a valkyrie and re-align her to this plane rather than the insulation layer. As for how safe it is: this is a machine, of incalculable enormity, complexity, and power, being operated by the most skilled user possible. I am confident I could do this without harming Yngrid, but such a task simply cannot be conceived without risk. The fundamental question remains: why would I do such a thing?”

Weaver inhaled slowly and deeply under the Avatar’s pointed stare. The others just watched him in silence, sensing this was no time to interfere.

“The truth is,” the bard said at last, raising his chin to stare the Avatar in the eye, “I have no great justification for this. I’m here, disrupting your routine and asking you to monkey around with an apparatus you were charged with keeping stable, and I won’t dress that up as anything other than what it is. All I have to say in support of my request is that… That I love her. And that she does not deserve to be imprisoned there, just for being what she is. No one deserves that. So here we are, asking for your help, because you’re the only one who can help us.” Weaver closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again, and to the astonishment of his companions, sank down to one knee. “Please. Help us.”

“It is not that I am unsympathetic, you two. In fact…” Surprisingly, the AI’s expression melted into a wistful smile. “I suppose there is no harm in admitting it: I do enjoy a star-crossed romance. Perusing the literature being produced by your societies has been one of my greatest comforts. However… As cruel as Rauzon and the Order could be, their exile of the valkyries was not a pointless act. Those entities are dangerous and destructive. Bringing Yngrid back to this plane would mean introducing an enormous hazard to it.”

“She is a person with agency,” Weaver insisted quietly. “A kind, funny, warm person who can’t help being what she is, and has no desire to kill frivolously no matter how easy it is for her. She’s not a typhoon, or a disease, or a bomb.”

“All of which was true of her and all her sisters at their first exile, Weaver. What has changed?”

Weaver hesitated, opening his mouth, but seemingly found no answer.

“Uh, scuze me?” Joe interjected, removing his hat. “Actually…I think you’ll find some very important things have changed, just maybe not with Yngrid and the other valkyries.”

The Avatar raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”

“The Infinite Order is gone,” Joe said, politely but firmly. “Long gone. If I’m not mistaken, the current situation of the valkyries is under the authority of Vidius, to whom you don’t answer and owe nothing. We’re all extremely grateful for your efforts here in keepin’ this thing stable, as we’ve said. End o’ the day, though, only responsibility you have is to help humanity, like Tarthriss ordered.” He turned his head and nodded to Weaver. “He’s part o’ humanity. An’ I don’t care what anybody says, so’s Yngrid. They’re… We are askin’ for your help.”

“Nobody in all the world ain’t dangerous,” McGraw added, nodding for emphasis. “I reckon some, or most, of those here could raise about as much hell as Yngrid, if we took a notion to. People just gotta make their choices an’ then be held accountable for the consequences, and for that to matter, they’ve gotta have the freedom to do so. Stuffin’ somebody in a hellish netherworld where the sky’s made o’ monsters because they o’ what they might do ain’t logical any more’n it’s compassionate. That was an act o’ sheer lazy cowardice.”

“Aye, that’s a point, too,” Billie agreed. “Think on it: yer not the one who put the reapers where they are, but if you got the opportunity t’bring one home and ye don’t…well, then, you kinda are, ain’cha?”

“You are incorrect on one point,” the Avatar said quietly.

They all glanced around at each other in uneasy silence.

“I do owe something to Vidius,” the AI mused, turning his transparent head to gaze at the glowing vortex itself. “He is in large part responsible for the state of this thing, and my situation here. You know, now that it’s put to me in those terms, I find myself powerfully disinclined to uphold cruel vanity projects of Rauzon, Vidius, or any other ascended being who hasn’t troubled to clean up after their own depredations. Well, then.” He turned back to Weaver with a smile. “I shall consider myself persuaded.”

The bard swallowed heavily. “I… Thank you. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Correct,” the AI agreed. “Therefore, do not strain yourself trying; the sentiment is received and accepted. Now, this sensation may be uncomfortable, but I assure you it is quite harmless. I am aligning dimensional frequencies. One moment, please, Yngrid; I will inform you when it is safe to approach the vortex.”

Joe almost stumbled at the sudden vertigo; the very air around them seemed to change in tint, as if all color faded to leave sepia and gray. His eyes and his other senses were telling him different things about what he was experiencing. It was, in fact, a familiar sensation.

“Oy, this rings a bell,” Billie muttered, echoing his thoughts. “Where’ve I ‘ad t’sit through somethin’ like this before?”

“Back when we fought Khadizroth the first time, remember?” said McGraw. “It’s a thinning of the barriers between dimensions. He sensed Yngrid, thought Weaver was holding her against her will, and tried to bring her closer to this plane.”

“Oh, aye, I remember that!” Billie said, grinning broadly. “She carved ‘is green arse like a solstice goose. Hah, thanks fer remindin’ me, I been meanin’ to shake Spooky’s ‘and fer that bit o’ work.”

“I guess you’ll get the chance soon,” Joe murmured.

“Alignment complete,” the Avatar stated. “You may want to step back, Mr. Weaver, the focus of the effect is located at the center of the portal. Yngrid, do not under any circumstances pass through the event horizon. It should not have an attractive effect, but I advise against coming too close to it anyway. Please take flight and proceed directly through the aligned space above the vortex, then effect a landing upon the platform no less than ten meters from the edge. Be prepared; I must release the alignment as soon as you are clear or there will begin to be side effects.”

Weaver backed up as he directed, keeping his eyes fixed upon the space above the glowing pit. The rest of the group also retreated to make room, watching for the valkyrie’s appearance. There was no extra sign of any dimensional aperture, only the intense glow of the portal itself and the eerie distorted effect of the Avatar’s dimensional alignment.

Then, quite suddenly, she appeared.

The shape of black wings coalesced like smoke out of nowhere, approaching the ground in a dive from right across the pit. When they had seen Yngrid previously in the space between, she had been a blurry shape as if viewed underwater, and that was exactly how she appeared even as she sharpened out of seeming nothingness. But she sharpened further, until she was as plainly seen as any of them. The speed of it was as rapid as her descent, as if she was passing out of the netherworld exactly as she passed through the air. It was also too quick for any of them to get a good look at the process, except perhaps for Mary.

Evidently plunging into the confusingly almost-merged space around them was even more disorienting than standing in it. She hit the ground and stumbled, staggering forward and wheeling her arms and black wings both for balance. This proved counterproductive, as she managed to tangle the long haft of her scythe in her own feet and pitch violently on a course that would have smashed her face-first into the stone floor had Weaver not caught her.

The bard stepped forward adroitly, despite the dimensional effect muddling all their senses, and the valkyrie landed right in his arms. Her scythe clattered to the ground beside them, forgotten.

Yngrid was a tall woman with a thin build, wave hair of medium blonde, and a long, narrow face surmounted by a high-bridged nose. Her wings were enormous, feathered as inky black as a raven’s, and she wore a dress that seemed haphazardly stitched together from mismatched odds and ends of cloth and erratic pieces of rusty mail armor.

She and Weaver held each other, their eyes locked from inches apart, gazing at one another in disbelief, and growing, incredulous delight.

Then Mary gently nudged Joe’s arm. He looked over to catch her significant glance, then averted his eyes, feeling his face color. Billie actually grunted in displeasure at being nudged by McGraw’s staff, but the old wizard picked her bodily up and turned them both around. The whole group faced the other way, giving the just-united couple a moment of privacy.

“Negating alignment,” the Avatar announced, and for a machine intelligence the fond satisfaction in his voice was remarkably plain to hear; it was the tone of a romantic soul who had just played a role in linking up a pair of star-crossed lovers. Actually, Joe reflected, he sounded more like a bard in that moment than Weaver ever had.

He suited his words with action, at any rate, and the world stabilized around them as the alignment receded.

“So,” Billie muttered, “not ta be insensitive or nothin’, but we’re still out ‘ere in buttfuck, nowhere. How long d’ye reckon we oughta give ’em—”

“Uh oh,” the Avatar said suddenly.

Everyone turned to stare at him, even Weaver and Yngrid, who still had their arms around each other.

“Now, that’s an exclamation I never expected to hear from the likes of you,” Joe said nervously.

“We are about to have more company,” the Avatar said, now frowning. “The translocation eddies put off by the vortex are being co-opted to deposit a spatial tunnel onto this location. That has never happened before.”

“Aye, very ominous,” Billie said. “But what’s it mean?”

“Means someone’s tryin’ to shadow-jump onto this spot,” McGraw explained, clutching his staff. “Which, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, should be multiple kinds of impossible.”

“The act requires the intervention of a high-order ascended being intimately familiar and possessing privileged access to this portal facility,” the Avatar explained, his tone going flat.

“Ah,” said Mary. “Well, we were warned that this course of action was spitting in the eye of a god. Now, it seems, we shall learn what Vidius thinks of it.”

“Oh, aye,” Billie agreed, grinning and reaching into one of her pockets of holding. “Now comes the fun part!”

“Keep it in your pants, girl,” McGraw advised quietly. “We talked about this, remember? We’ll fight for our friends if we have to, but I don’t aim to mix it up with a god or his servants if there’s a chance we can talk ’em down, instead.”

“With all due respect,” Mary added, glancing back at Weaver and Yngrid with the ghost of a smile, “perhaps I should do the talking?”

Before anyone could react to her suggestion, a blade appeared out of nowhere, ripping a diagonal rent in the very air before them.

It was a scythe very much like Yngrid’s—in fact, exactly like it. The weapon parted reality to reveal a gaping slash in the world, through which Vidius’s agent stepped. The moment he was clear, it snapped back together as if it had never been there.

He shifted the weapon to stand upright, planting the butt of its haft against the stone with a resounding thump.

“Yngrid,” Gabriel Arquin stated, frowning at them all, “I am disappointed in you.”

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