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“Do we really have to go already?” Aspen whined. “I like these people! They’re nice!”

“Do mean that in the sense that they actually are nice, or just that they fed you?” Ingvar replied dryly without slowing his pace.

“There’s no reason it can’t be both. Anyway, it’s afternoon! This is just about the worst time to be leaving a safe place to sleep, we’ve only got a few hours of travel time before dark.”

“There are hardly any unsafe places to sleep when you travel with a dryad,” Rainwood pointed out merrily.

“More important,” Ingvar added before Aspen could make another comment, “it is because these people are nice that we are taking ourselves and our very disruptive business away from their temple.”

“Oh.” Aspen scowled, turning her head to direct the expression over her shoulder. “Good, then. At least I know who to blame.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Tholi muttered. November, trailing along behind him at the end of the group, at least had the sense to keep her own mouth shut.

“It was pretty bad,” Ingvar stated. “When your shouting match can be heard through stone walls, you are officially not fit for civilized company. And I say that as someone who, like any Huntsman, does not have an excessively high opinion of civilized company. It isn’t hard to show some extremely basic consideration for other people. I can’t fathom any reason for two adult humans to be screaming like children in the front hall of monks who have offered them hospitality.”

“All right, all right!” Tholi exclaimed. “That was…a lapse. How long am I going to be hearing about it?”

“I’ll treat you in the manner your actions up to the moment have earned, Tholi. If you wish to be treated differently, every moment is an opportunity to begin building a new impression.”

“I’m just so glad all these people are coming with us,” Aspen groused. “I was getting real tired of all the peace and quiet when it was just the two of us.”

“Well, the good news is your sarcasm has improved greatly. I would never know you hadn’t been doing it your whole life.”

“Thanks a lot, Ingvar,” she demonstrated. “Why is the elf still here? I thought your spirit thingies just wanted you to bring us to the temple and…these two.”

“Evidently not,” Rainwood said. He was walking on the other side of Ingvar from her, a jaunty spring in his step that clashed with everyone else’s mood. “It’s a funny thing, spirit guidance; sometimes, the things it tells you to do are so downright odd as to seem like terrible ideas. I don’t mind admitting it took me longer than the average human lives to begin trusting my guides every time, but more than once my life has been saved by following guidance that at the time sounded suicidal. I’ve no idea where this merry adventure is leading us, but the word from the spirits is that my part in it is not over! Ah, and here’s our other new acquisition.”

“Other?” Aspen looked over at him with a frown, then forward again, and came to an abrupt stop. “Oh, no.”

“Oh yes, I’m afraid!” Rainwood said brightly, swaggering on ahead.

“Who’s that?” November asked in a stage whisper. “What’s the problem?”

They had descended the terraces of the Omnist temple complex in a different direction than the one from which they had come, and were now nearing the outer border on the road leading north west. A few yards ahead of them, on the edge of the lowest stone terrace, sat the same grouchy young woman who had first led them to the ziggurat. She was now perched in an indolent pose, kicking her legs against the retaining wall, and had traded her monk’s robe for a colorful tunic-like garment that was popular throughout N’Jendo and Thakar.

“There you are,” she said, hopping down to the road with a grunt. “I hear you’re off to the Shadow Hunter lodge next, right?”

“You hear that, huh?” Aspen said warily.

“I grew up in this hick-ass backwater, so I know where just about everything is,” the girl said. “I’ll take you there. My name’s Taka Mbino.”

“Nice to meet you again,” Ingvar said politely. “I’m—”

“Pretty sure I remember everybody,” Taka interrupted, grinning. “The great and famous Ingvar, Aspen the dryad, Rainwood the elf with the especially improbable name. And those two who obviously are too childish to matter.”

“Hey!” November protested. Tholi just scowled, adjusting his grip on his longbow.

“Yeah, thanks, but we’ve got an elvish shaman,” said Aspen. “Pretty sure we can find the way.”

“It’s no trouble,” Taka assured her, still grinning. There was a mocking cast to her features that few people had used with Aspen, to her visible annoyance. “It’s about time I moved on from here anyway. I gave Omnu a fair chance and I mean the big guy no offense, but I’m coming to the conclusion that this place is not for me. Maybe the Shadow Hunters are a better option.”

“Okay, fine,” Aspen snapped, “I’ll just come right out and say it. We don’t like you, Taka Mbino. You’re rude and snotty and full of yourself. I tried, Ingvar,” she added, turning to him. “I was polite and subtle at first, you saw me do it!”

“Uh huh,” Taka drawled. “And are you upset because I hurt your feelings, or because you don’t want the competition for the role of bitchy drama queen in the group?”

Aspen’s jaw fell open. For once, she appeared to have been rendered silent.

“You, uh, do realize this is a dryad, right?” November said hesitantly. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to take that tone with somebody who can tear you in half the long way.”

“A daughter of the Mother is owed some consideration,” Tholi agreed, nodding reproachfully.

“I’ll keep it in mind. Welp, daylight’s burning. It’s this way.” Taka turned her back and set off up the road.

“What do the spirits say about this?” Ingvar asked quietly.

Rainwood just winked at him and set off following the young woman. Ingvar heaved a sigh, patted Aspen soothingly on the back, and followed. The dryad was growling to herself as she fell into step beside him, but at least she did so.

The other two started walking after a short pause, as well, but they both remained a few paces behind, where it was relatively safe.


Manor Dufresne was not laid out with guests in mind, these days. There seemed to be very little furniture in the public rooms and almost no decoration. Nonetheless, it did feature a dining room, and Malivette’s four thralls were quick to seat their reluctant visitors and kept them well-plied with tea, cookies, and as the time stretched on toward the dinner hour, sandwiches and soup. The four of them were never less than gracious hostesses, which at least somewhat offset Sherwin’s reminder that they were a significant physical danger, and the fact that they were, effectively, holding the group against their will.

When the door to the dining room abruptly opened and Natchua poked her head in, Melaxyna was the first on her feet.

“Well?” the succubus demanded, hands clenching.

“We’re leaving,” Natchua said tersely. “Come on.”

Pearl cleared her throat, gliding forward. “Your pardon, but…”

“It’s quite all right, lovey!” Malivette cooed, appearing in the doorway behind Natchua with her chin practically resting on the drow’s shoulder. “So sorry to keep you all waiting so long! We’ve had a lovely chat and come to a series of understandings. Melaxyna, dear, I do apologize for all the rough talk earlier. I’m ever so glad that this isn’t going to turn unpleasant after all!”

“Oh, well then,” Melaxyna said tonelessly. “As long as you’re sorry and glad, I guess what’s a death threat or two between friends?”

“I realize you’re mocking me but in all seriousness that is a very healthy attitude to take in this situation,” Malivette replied, nodding solemnly. Natchua, giving her a peevish look over her shoulder, edged out of the way while the vampire continued. “I meant it when I said I empathized with you, y’know. People are about as excited to see a vampire move into the neighborhood as a succubus, and for a lot of the same reasons. With the shoe on the other foot I’m sure you’d have reacted exactly the same. At least, if you were seriously looking after the welfare of the city. But that’s all in the past now!” she added, beaming delightedly at them.

“Wait, really?” Jonathan asked. Standing with his hand protectively behind Hesthri with his hand on her shoulder, he looked mostly confused by this turn of events. “Just…like that? After just…talking? Is that really all it took?”

“Dunno what you mean ‘just like that,’” Sherwin groused. “We’ve been kicking our heels in here over an hour…”

“And why are you arguing, she is letting us go,” Melaxyna hissed.

“I guess I’m just surprised,” he said, frowning. “Natchua, is everything all right?”

“Everything is wonderful,” the drow spat. “Now come on. I think we have imposed on the Lady Dufresne’s hospitality quite enough for one day.”

“Hear, hear,” Sherwin grunted, shoving himself away from the table with poor grace and stalking toward the door.

The rest of them followed, subtly encouraged by the herding motion of Malivette’s four companions gathering at the opposite end of the room. Their hostess and Natchua had both already retreated into the broad entrance hall onto which the dining room opened.

“And don’t you worry a bit about my hospitality,” Malivette nattered on, looping her hand into Natchua’s elbow as they walked toward the front doors. “My door is always open, and there are so few who would even want to take advantage! That goes for you, too, Sherwin. I know you’re a houseplant by choice, but seriously, you’d be welcome.”

He sighed heavily and produced a rusty pocketwatch from his trousers, looking at its face and then giving Natchua a very pointed stare.

“Anyway, now that we know we have actual things to talk about, I do hope you’ll pop by again.” Malivette affectionately bumped Natchua with her hip on the last word. The drow sighed and gently but insistently disentangled her arm, stepping away from the vampire.

“Seriously,” Jonathan said, frowning, “are you okay, Natchua? Keeping a succubus near a city isn’t a small matter. I hope you didn’t have to do anything too…”

“Nothing,” she interrupted. “It’s just as she said, we talked and reached an understanding. And now I really would like to be moving along.”

“Yeah, so,” Sherwin said, frowning himself now, “I’m glad Mel’s safe, then. Did you—”

“Sst!” Natchua rounded on him, baring her teeth.

“If this is about the hobgoblins,” Malivette said kindly, “I don’t care about that, so long as you stick to your plan of only summoning females. Very clever solution, that! And really, Sherwin, you could use the help. What would your family say if they saw the state you’ve let their manor come to?”

“Oh, who cares,” he exclaimed. “Good riddance to them. I’m not absolutely certain, Vette, but I’m reasonably sure they had a hand in what happened to your family.”

“No.” The cheer faded from her expression rather abruptly. “Have you been carrying that all these years? See, this is why I think we should talk more. No, Sherwin, that wasn’t their doing.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “Well. I guess…I’m glad to hear that. Not like I was close to your folks or anything, but the gods know they were better people than mine. Not that that’s setting a high bar.”

“I’m serious, Sherwin,” she said, her smile returning and looking all the more sincere for being smaller. “Visit me. But for now, I imagine you’re feeling a little overstimulated; this has to be more social interaction than you’ve had in the last year. Yes, you’re all clearly eager to be heading back, and I’ve already delayed you too long. My sincere apologies for the inconvenience, but the important thing is we got it all sorted in the end! Ruby, Jade, would you bring the carriage back around, please?”

“No need,” Natchua said curtly, gesturing the others toward her. “We’ll see you around, Vette.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Natch,” the vampire said, as brightly as ever. The last thing they all saw as the shadows rose up around them was her waving cheerily.

The darkness fell away to reveal late afternoon sunlight and the clean air of the mountains, with Manor Leduc’s ruined bulk rising in front of them. Sherwin heaved a deep sigh and immediately slouched off, heading for the half-overgrown path around the corner toward the old kitchen entrance.

“Whew,” Melaxyna exhaled. “I could have done without that. My kind like room to maneuver, not being tucked away under guard. Are you sure you’re okay, Natchua? You probably had it worse than any of us.”

“I appreciate everyone’s concern, but I wish you’d all drop it,” Natchua said in a strained tone. “It was fine. We talked. I’d have preferred keeping Malivette and everyone else out of my business, but sometimes you have to compromise. And I learned some interesting things today.”

“Oh?” Jonathan asked warily.

“I learned that drow are not edible to her kind,” she said, turning and following after Sherwin at a much more sedate pace. He had already disappeared around the corner. “And apparently vampires can drink demon blood, but it works more like a drug than food. I learned that vampirism is exceedingly difficult to cure even for modern alchemical science. I learned that Ravana bloody Madouri has been making political overtures to both Malivette and Sherwin, which surprises me not in the least given that sneaky little egomaniac’s idea of a good time. I even learned a good deal I didn’t particularly need to know about why she has four attendants instead of three or five and what exactly she does with them. It was all very educational.”

“Uh…huh,” he said, frowning at her back. “Well, sorry for prying, I guess. I can’t help feeling a little responsible for any, um, compromises you had to make, since it was all our necks on the line…”

“Compromises?” she snorted, glancing over her shoulder at him. “I said I’d try to protect you and I meant it, Jonathan. That doesn’t mean my first act in a crisis would be to offer my neck to a vampire on your behalf.”

“Well, that wasn’t…” He grimaced, glancing to the side, and thus missing Hesthri urgently shaking her head to ward him off this line of conversation. “I just meant, well, it was obvious enough from those four women what sort of personal company that vampire prefers, and… Not to be indelicate, but we pretty well know that you’re willing to—”

Natchua slammed to a stop and whirled so fast her streaked hair flared out behind her. Jonathan Arquin was nobody’s coward, but at the expression on her face he actually backed up a step, instinctively moving one arm partly in front of Hesthri.

The very sunlight seemed to fade, as if the drow’s fury were leeching brightness from that piece of the world. Shadows lengthened around them, followed by an unintelligible whispering at the faintest edge of hearing that was barely distinguishable from the now-vanished sound of wind through the grass.

Just as quickly, it all faded away. The sound and light returned abruptly to normal, and the rage melted from Natchua’s features. Followed, apparently, by most of her energy, as her shoulders slumped and she dropped her head to stare at the ground.

“Well, look at that,” she said dully. “Turns out I have absolutely no right to even be angry about that remark. Go…rest up, Jonathan. This mess has delayed us a whole day and I have another prospect to look up first thing tomorrow.”

Natchua turned and trudged away, visibly dispirited, even from behind. The rest of them stood as if rooted until she had rounded the corner into Sherwin’s kitchen apartment.

“Very nice,” Melaxyna finally said, veritably dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“I don’t need criticism from you,” Jonathan retorted with a scowl. “I was just… Never mind, she’s right. Doesn’t matter, not my business.”

“Oh?” The succubus leaned toward him, sneering. “Then why so protective, and why do you care what she does, or with who?”

“What kind of idiot wouldn’t care about the well-being of a warlock he’s agreed to follow arou— Hey!”

He shied back, but not fast enough to prevent her from lashing out to smack the side of his head. She moved almost like an elf when she wanted.

“Next time you get an armored hand,” Melaxyna threatened. “You want to care about Natchua’s well-being? Try not hurting her, you dumbass. Honestly, I didn’t see it till right now but you are so Gabriel Arquin’s father. He clearly didn’t get it from this one!” She pointed at Hesthri, who had kept her mouth firmly shut through the entire discussion.

“Oh, please,” he said stiffly. “I’m here to look after Hesthri, not…her. We know for a fact she was only ever using me.”

“You absolute fucking idiot,” Melaxyn said, shaking her head. “Have you really never had a girl fall in love with you? Pfeh.” The succubus turned and flounced off after the warlock, leaving the two of them behind.

Hesthri sighed softly, but then pressed herself against Jonathan’s side, slipping an arm around his waist in half a hug. He draped his own around her shoulders unthinkingly, still staring ahead with a blank expression. She just looked up at him in silence until he suddenly laughed.

“So that’s where he got it from!”

“He?”

Jonathan shook his head. “Toby Caine reports that our son has amazingly good luck with women, provided he’s not trying to. Apparently it’s the trying that trips him up. Hes… I don’t even know what to say. This whole mess—”

“None of this is your fault,” she interrupted, reaching up to rest her clawed fingertips gently on his lips. “I know what she did and why. You’re not to blame for having feelings. Natchua is to blame for…doing this. I am out of Hell, free from your government and Church and facing a possibility of seeing my son again; I can’t find it in me to complain too hard about all the downsides that have come with it. Honestly, I can’t even blame the girl for having emotions herself, or failing to understand them. It’s her mess, but we were young and blind ourselves once.”

“I seem to recall that,” he replied, looking down at her with a wry little smile.

“Me, too.” Hesthri smiled back at him, though the expression faded a moment later. “Johnny… Remember what happened to us when we assumed nothing as intangible as feelings was going to trip us up? This thing with Natchua is not your fault, but it’s also not going to go away if we just ignore it.”

He closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath. “…yeah. Damned if I know what the hell to do now, though.”

“You may be a little too close to the situation, my dear. Maybe…take a step back, and let me try?”


As a consequence of traveling into a mountain range from the east, the sun had slipped out of sight far earlier in the evening—late afternoon, really—than the group from Last Rock were accustomed to. Their guides had insisted on calling a halt due to the dark, and though none of them were anywhere near sleepy yet, the day of hiking had left them well ready for a rest. Camp had been made on a smallish ledge which provided them sufficient room not to worry about falling off, but not room to wander too far from each other.

And yet, Principia had managed to be rebuffed by enough cold shoulders to find herself drifting away to the very edge of the firelight. As with everything, she bore this with good humor and no sign of resentment, even as Merry was drawn into the group around the fire, sitting between Ruda and Juniper and chattering animatedly with both.

A shape detached itself from the small crowd throwing shadows along the cliff wall behind them, stepping toward her with both hands carrying laden plates of cornbread and baked beans.

“Hungry?”

Given the Legion schedule of mealtimes and her own frugal magic use, it could well be years before Principia needed to eat again. She was not, of course, about to make an issue of that.

“Why, aren’t you thoughtful! I’m surprised, though. I thought it was Toby who made a point to look after everyone.”

“I am nothing if not a gentleman,” Gabriel said, grinning and offering one of the plates. “Shut up, Ariel.”

“I didn’t—”

“You were going to, and don’t. Please, allow me.” He actually bowed as she took the plate, then bent to brush dust and loose scree off an uneven little lip of stone against the wall behind them before gesturing for her to sit.

“A gentleman indeed,” Principia replied, perching on the edge and smiling up at him. “Which, no offense, doesn’t exactly square with your reputation.”

“Yeah, that’s the bane of my existence,” he said solemnly, sitting down beside her. “I can deal with the demon prejudice and the gossipy newspaper stories and all the silly rumor-mongering, but I wish everybody would stop repeating facts. Hope you like cornbread, by the way, because there’s going to be plenty left over. Most of this group won’t touch the stuff. Apparently they had a bad experience in the Golden Sea, once.”

“You’ve gotta learn to let these things go,” she said sagely, scooping up a bite of baked beans with the tin fork that came with the plate. “If I turned up my nose at everything that had ever been used against me at some point or another I’d starve. So, Gabriel, if you don’t mind a little nosiness, what makes you so willing to come hang out with the local pariah? As you noted, Toby I understand…”

“A little nosiness?” he mused, looking at her sidelong with a small smile, idly pushing beans and cornbread around on his plate. “Impressive restraint. In your position I’d be going whole hog and demanding everyone’s backstory.”

“Seems unfair,” she acknowledged after swallowing the bite. “Since I don’t really intend to recount my whole history. Of course, there’s the fact that we literally don’t have time for that…”

“Shaeine is your problem,” he said, now gazing at his friends around the fire. “She’s the most reasonable person I’ve ever known and I don’t think is even that vindictive. But you have to understand the Narisian mindset. Shaeine as a person is a distinct entity from Shaeine the daughter of her matriarch; the one can forgive little offenses, while the other has to insist on repercussions for shit done to her. Besides, not much is more important to Narisians than their reserve. Slipping her something that took that away, in public, is a far more serious insult than it would be to basically anybody else.”

“I see,” she murmured. “That’s…all fair.”

“Teal will follow Shaeine’s lead, of course,” he continued in a pensive tone, his gaze now faraway in thought as if he were lost in this mental exercise. “As will Vadrieny. I hardly think you need to worry about being torn in half by an archdemon, though. She’s a little impulsive, but above all Vadrieny cares for Teal, who hates violence.

“Trissiny is likely to back Shaeine in this. Apart from her own issues with you, those two have a unique bond, in this group. Not the closest bond, that would obviously by Shaeine and Teal. But they’re both devout, composed, and value all the things that implies. And they both have a slight cultural bias—not a really bad one!—against males, thus why Toby doesn’t get the same benefit of that sisterhood. If you want Triss back on your side, you will need to persuade Shaeine.”

He paused, shrugging idly, and had a bite of cornbread. Principia just chewed in silence, watching him as if she didn’t dare to interrupt.

Gabriel continued after swallowing. “Toby is everybody’s friend. Fross is not going to bother you; she hates practical jokes. She’s making good progress at grasping humor but she doesn’t really get the difference between attacking somebody playfully and aggressively, and I don’t think Fross is capable of harming anyone she doesn’t fully think deserves it. Juniper is trying to be a good Omnist now, and is scared of her own propensity for violence, anyway. You’ll have no trouble from her.

“Ruda…” He trailed off, then grinned. “Hell if I know. She values loyalty, fighting, playing rough, standing on your own, and freedom. That leads to some weird combinations of values. Ruda’s always doing stuff that I would never have expected but then in hindsight makes perfect sense. So far Shaeine’s just been tripping and poking at you, but if this keeps up Ruda might join in or butt out entirely or maybe try to get her to back down. I have no damn idea. It’s always an adventure with her.”

Principia had given up all pretense of eating now, just watching his face. She let the silence hang for a few moments before speaking in a carefully neutral tone.

“That’s a very thorough report, Gabe. And what about the last person it’s missing?”

“Well! I’m not really objective about that, am I?” He turned a grin on her, setting his fork down on his plate. “Tell you what: after Puna Dara, I bet a smart lady like you has a pretty good measure of me anyway. And you’re also a hobbyist enchanter, right? So I bet you’ll have plenty of time to suss out where I stand on this whole thing while you’re figuring a way off that adhesive charm you just sat on. G’night, Lieutenant.”

He stood up with no more ado and sauntered off back to the fire.

Principia watched him go for a moment. Then she experimentally shifted. Her hips had barely an inch of leeway to move and wouldn’t rise at all off the stone. The elf grinned and leaned back against the cliff wall, spearing a bite of baked beans.

“Well. She’s got a good group of friends, anyway. Excellent.”


“Whew,” McGraw grunted, glancing back at the town. “Not to carp on about it, but why that town? I’m pretty sure I mentioned I am specifically unwelcome in Last Rock.”

“Aw, y’big baby, it’s fine,” Billie said cheerfully, slapping his thigh. “We didn’t get arrested or blown up, which is my standard fer a successful visit. Oy, this tallgrass is a towerin’ pain in the arse! I can’t see fer shite. Who wants t’give the gnome a piggyback ride?”

“What, all the way to the center?” Weaver snorted. “Dream on. Just keep making noise so we don’t lose you.”

“You wanna get from Tiraas to the Golden Sea frontier, Last Rock is the most direct route,” Joe said, pushing strands of tallgrass out of his way. “Anyway, no harm came of it. Which is good; it was enough of an ordeal getting this one into the caravan.” He grinned and flicked the tail of the nigh-omnipotent immortal hitching a ride on his shoulder. Mary didn’t deign to transform back and make a comment, though she did turn and peck him on the ear. “Ow. So, I take it spending the night in the inn back there is off the table? Cos not to complain, but it’s not more’n two hours before dusk. Basically the worst possible time to be headin’ out on a camping trip.”

“Everyone in this group is either perfectly comfortable sleeping rough, or actually prefers to,” Weaver grunted. “Under the circumstances I figure we can afford to cater to McGraw’s irrational fear of that poor little town.”

“A pissed-off archmage ain’t an irrational fear,” McGraw retorted. “Least, I wouldn’t call her that to her face.”

“Almost a shame,” Joe said lightly. “I was sorta lookin’ forward to explorin’ back there. Man, that place has changed—an’ fast! Sarasio’s havin’ kind of a boom the last year or so, too, but nothin’ like that.”

“Sarasio doesn’t have a world-famous University,” said McGraw. “These little frontier villages rarely get the luxury of stasis, Joe. They either wither away or grow into somethin’ more. Progress marches on.”

“Aye, lotta marchin’ goin’ on here, innit?” Billie said. “Ey, Joe, how’s about ye lend me yer other shoulder?”

“Why’s it always me?” he complained.

“Cos Elias is old an’ delicate an’ Damian’s a fuckin’ grouch.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Weaver grunted, and suddenly bent over in the tallgrass. One short scuffle and a whoop from Billie later, he reappeared with her riding on his shoulders. “Omnu’s balls, you just like to complain, I swear.”

“Oh, an’ that doesn’t describe you to a ruddy T, eh?”

He strode through the tallgrass and the falling dusk in silence for a few yards, holding her ankles and staring ahead at the distant horizon.

“Listen… All of you. Not that I want to make a whole thing of this, but—”

“Aw, come off it,” Billie said fondly, patting his head. “Breakin’ character fer one minute won’t kill ye. We’ll all still know yer a ruddy asshole come sunup.”

Weaver came to a stop, and the others did likewise. He regarded each of them for a moment in the fading orange sunlight.

Then he actually smiled. The unaccustomed expression transformed his whole face.

“Thanks. All of you.”

McGraw and Joe both tipped their hats in silence. Mary croaked and ruffled her feathers.

Then, as one, the group turned and marched off again, heading north toward the frontier and the unconquerable wilderness beyond.

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15 – 2

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“This has been a long time coming,” Darling said with a forgivable touch of grandiosity, “but we are finally here. I realize that in the end I hardly ever sent you all to do much of anything, but my relatively few requests were the sort of carnage that gets more sensible people than us killed, and you handled them all with skill and aplomb.”

“Even the one that ended with my wand in your face?” Joe said innocently.

“I learn to put those little things behind me,” Darling replied, winking. “I’ll be honest, guys: in the beginning I did toy with the idea of drawing out the process of getting your secrets from the Chamber of Truth, just to have access to your skills longer. Events rendered that moot, however. It has taken me this damn long to drag answers out of those hilariously frustrating gadgets on the amount of time per week I was able to devote to it without rousing suspicion from the Archpope. Anyway, here we are. I apologize for the delay, and have been well pleased with your end of the bargain. As of this, we’re square.”

In the brief pause which followed, Price stepped forward from the corner of the parlor in which she had been standing with a silver tray balanced on one hand. Upon it, resting on a lace doily, were five sealed envelopes. The Butler now stepped forward and began to hand them out to the five of them.

“That begs the question,” McGraw drawled, “what next?”

“Aye, it’s been a fair while since we’ve heard a peep outta Justinian or ‘is crew o’ reprobates,” Billie added. “D’ye think he’s given up on that plan o’ his, to recruit an army of adventurers? Cos I can’t ‘elp noticin’ you an’ he both stopped at five each.”

“His Holiness hasn’t deigned to discuss that with me in any detail in some time,” Darling said with a slight frown, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the arms of his chair. “I’m still involved in some of his more sensitive operations, and while he does an admirable job of keeping his various plots separate from each other, I can read between the lines. Thumper and that milquetoast Vannae can’t be much of a challenge to handle, but the succubus and the assassin are both the kind of crazy that starts climbing the walls if not kept constantly entertained. And Khadizroth, from what I’ve learned of him, is exactly the same kind of mind Justinian is.”

“Yes,” Mary agreed quietly, steepling her own fingers. “Charismatic, a natural leader and long-term planner. I have managed to learn almost nothing of his progress while upon Justinian’s leash, but I know him. He will have been, at the very lest, vying for control of that adventurer group, and likely trying to gain some influence among Justinian’s other followers.”

“Right,” Darling nodded, “so in short, those people are inherently less stable than you lot, and also being kept under wraps. Which means managing them has to be a constant nightmare. It doesn’t surprise me much that Justinian has held off on expanding that program. What it does tell me is that he has plans for them still, otherwise he’d have cut his losses long ago.”

“Funny thing about that guy,” McGraw mused. “I’ve crossed wands with all manner of corrupt, powerful bastards, but I don’t think I’ve ever met one who was so much more eager to kill off his own servants than his enemies.”

“Wait, he what?” Billie tilted her head, one ear twitching and the envelope dangling unopened in her hands. “Did I miss something?”

“Elias visits me socially,” Darling said pointedly. “We swap stories. Yeah, you’ve missed some details, but that is definitely one of Justinian’s patterns. At this point I think half the people still in his organization are just there trying to work out what exactly it is he’s up to in the long term. He’s too sly and too capable to be doing the kind of inane chapbook-villain nonsense it looks like he is.”

Price cleared her throat softly, still holding out the last envelope to Mary, who had been ignoring it. At that, the elf glanced over at the Butler, then returned her stare to Darling.

“Thank you, Price, but I think I would rather hear my answer orally.”

“As the actress said to the bishop,” Billie chimed, her eyes now on the contents of her own envelope.

“Is this another of your amusing little games, Mary?” Darling asked in his driest tone. “Did Joe ever tell you guys about the time she drugged us into a surprise vision quest?”

“It was the Rangers doin’ the drugging, to be fair,” Joe added. “But yeah, her idea. All due respect, ma’am, these mysterious antics are less charming than you seem to think.”

“I have never found much utility in charm,” Mary replied placidly.

“We know,” Weaver snorted, scowling at his own letter.

Darling sighed, then shrugged. “Well, if you want. Our dear Ms. The Crow asked for an answer from the oracles on how to finally achieve vengeance against the Tiraan Empire for its crimes against her kin.”

“What?” Joe exclaimed. “Why is that something you wanna hash out in front of everybody?”

“Obvious, innit?” Billie replied cheerfully. “She wants ta watch an’ see whether any o’ us might care t’jump in an’ help ‘er with it! I’ll tell ye straight up, Mary, I’m not gonna shift me bum to protect the Silver Throne, but I also ain’t lookin’ ta start a scrap with it. Empire’s a big ol’ nuisance of an enemy, one I can do without.”

“Ain’t like any of us are renowned for our Imperial patriotism,” McGraw chuckled. “Well, I confess, now my own curiosity’s piqued.”

Mary smiled thinly, still gazing at Darling.

“Right,” he grumbled. “See if I ever spend time writing you a carefully-worded letter again. Well, the short version is, you can’t.”

Slowly, she raised one eyebrow.

“And for your edification,” he continued, pointing at her, “you are the reason this took so damn long. Because I knew that answer wouldn’t satisfy you, so I kept digging. Have you ever tried to drag answers out of an oracle after it told you to bugger off?”

“Yes, in fact,” she said, raising both eyebrows now. “I confess, Antonio, you impress me. That is a significant achievement, for a non-practitioner.”

“Well, I could’ve told you what the oracles told me in the first place if you’d just asked,” he sighed. “Your whole problem is that you are too late. The Empire that wronged you is gone. What was built after the Enchanter Wars uses a lot of the same iconography as the Tiraan Empire that existed before it, and deliberately claims that shared history to give itself legitimacy, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. The old Empire was an absolute monarchy; the new one is a feudal aristocracy with—though the Throne will deny it—a lot of characteristics of a republic in how its bureaucracy is structured. Hell, it’s just political happenstance the capital is in the same place; there was a real chance of the Silver Throne itself moving to Onkawa near the end of the war. In short, lady, you took too long and blew your chance.”

“And,” she said quietly, “is that the answer it has taken you all these months to extract?”

“No, that answer is actually somewhat instructive, though honestly I don’t think it’s any more useful.” He shook his head. “The oracles finally yielded two possibilities for you to pursue, and interestingly enough, both are the same one: take it up with Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” Mary prompted in a calm tone that made everyone else in the room edge warily away from her. Everyone but Price, and Weaver, who was glaring at his letter as if oblivious to everything else happening.

“First option,” said Darling. “Not one that would’ve occurred to me personally, though after a lot of pestering the Book of All Tales finally spat it out. In some older cultures there are entire codes of how to seek vengeance—”

“Don’t Eserites have a code on that, too?” Billie interrupted.

“Yes, and the Eserite advice is in most cases ‘don’t.’ But as I was saying, there is an idea in several ancient creeds that if you are robbed of your revenge by someone killing your target first, you can satisfy the demands of honor by killing that person instead. In your case, Mary, it happens that the person who killed Emperor Avrusham and ended the Ravidevegh Dynasty is still alive.”

“Arachne,” Mary said in a flat tone, “exists in a constant state of needing to have her ears boxed, but she has done nothing for which I would seek her death. And I certainly will not be manipulated into attacking her by the whispers of an old book.”

“That’s a relief to hear,” McGraw drawled. “I don’t think the continent would survive you two goin’ at it for serious.”

“As the actress—”

“Come on, Billie, every time?” Joe interrupted in exasperation.

“And what is this second piece of advice that also points to Arachne?” Mary asked.

“Even sillier,” Darling said, grimacing. “Time travel.”

Everyone turned to frown at him.

“What’s that got to do with Tellwyrn?” McGraw asked.

“Hell if I know,” Darling replied with a shrug. “It raises some intriguing questions, doesn’t it? But that’s what the ruby mirror, the gong of Guan Sho, and the oracular koi all pointed to. Since your chance for revenge is in the past, if you want to achieve it, you must go into the past. And for some damned reason, Tellwyrn’s who you should ask about that.”

“Probably has an in with Vemnesthis,” Weaver grunted, still frowning distractedly at the letter that had been in his envelope. “Her main project for three thousand years was getting an audience with every god there is, and since she eventually stopped it to found the University, apparently she got ’em all. It really wouldn’t surprise me if Arachne was the only living person who could actually talk to the Scions and not get press-ganged or murdered.”

“I see,” Mary murmured, finally lowering her eyes to stare distantly at the low table between them. “…thank you, Antonio. You are right, it is not a satisfying answer. But I respect the effort to which you went in obtaining it. I consider your end of our bargain upheld. In truth…I suppose there is no satisfying answer.” An ironic little smile quirked at her lips, and she lifted her gaze to meet Darling’s again. “A friend told me not long ago that I need to grow up. Perhaps this is confirmation.”

“Aren’t you, what, ten thousand bloody years old?” Billie demanded.

“Less than five, thank you.”

“Oh, aye, a real spring chicken, you are.”

“Jenkins,” Weaver said abruptly, standing up. “A word?”

“Uh…sure,” Joe replied slowly. “You mean in private? I guess so,” he muttered belatedly, rising and following the bard, who was already out of the room. “Scuze us, folks,” he said at the door, turning and nodding to them.

Weaver had retreated all the way to the foyer, where he was standing with his hands jammed in his coat pockets, the rumpled letter half-emerging from one. At Joe’s arrival, he turned from staring out the window by the door.

“I need your help.”

“Oh?” Joe tilted his head. “This have somethin’ to do with your…answer?”

“You mentioned when we first met that you’ve traveled to the center of the Golden Sea,” Weaver said almost curtly.

“With Jenny, yeah,” Joe nodded.

“And I’m given to understand that the center can only be reached by someone who has already been there. Or, apparently, someone traveling with them.”

“That’s what Jenny told me…” Joe narrowed his eyes. “Okay, hold up.”

“I realize you do all right for yourself financially,” Weaver said, his eyes cutting to the large piece of tiger’s eye gleaming in Joe’s bolo tie, “but whatever your price—”

“Now hang on a second, I’m followin’ this trail back to its source,” Joe interrupted, holding up one hand. “Lemme see if I’ve connected these dots right. You need to get to the center of the Sea for some reason, where there is a gigantic, permanent dimensional rift which I know has properties no hellgate or portal does, since Jenny could use it to leave this entire reality. I distinctly remember when Darling was first pitchin’ this devil’s bargain o’ his he said you were lookin’ to spit in a god’s face. And it occurs to me that you’ve got some kinda complicated relationship with a valkyrie, who is not supposed to be on the physical realm by edict of Vidius. I add those things up and the sum is big trouble.”

Weaver inhaled slowly and deeply through his nose, then just as slowly let the breath out. When he finally spoke, his tone was taut but even. “Yes, I suppose it’s all fairly obvious to someone who has the requisite amount of sense. And credit where it’s due, you’ve got more than the minimum, Jenkins. Look, I…don’t know what to say to persuade you. It’s not like I’ve gone out of my way to be friendly up till now. This is the one thing in life I am most determined to achieve, and if what I’ve just learned is correct, you are the one person in the world who can help me do it. The only person who has ever been to the center of the Sea. There’s nothing I won’t pay to secure your aid.”

“Weaver, I’m not tryin’ to gouge you, here,” Joe said, frowning. “This ain’t about money, or payment of any kind. What I gotta debate with myself is whether I wanna spit in a god’s eye. An’ quite frankly, I’m havin’ a hard time findin’ an angle to come at that question that doesn’t end up at ‘no.’”

“There is a heavily moderating factor, if you consider with a bit more care, Joseph,” Mary said smoothly, gliding into the foyer.

Weaver threw up his hands. “Aaaand there she is. I dunno why I even bothered to try and have a private conversation.”

“Yeah, I don’t either,” Darling said from the hall behind Mary. “Give her some credit, she’s the only eavesdropper not trying to be surreptitious. Well, this is none of my business, so I’m gonna visit the kitchen and put together a sandwich. You guys want anything?”

“Y’got any beer?” Billie’s voice piped up from just around the corner.

“The hell kind of establishment do you think I’m running, here?” Darling demanded in an affronted tone. “Of course I’ve got beer.”

“Your previous excursion into the heart of the Sea was at the behest of your friend Jenny,” Mary continued while Darling puttered off to the kitchen and McGraw and Billie crept around the corner, the old wizard at least having the grace to look abashed. “A creature known elsewhere as the Shifter. Were you aware that she has often been associated with Vesk?”

“She has?” Joe frowned. “When? Where?”

“Jenny Everywhere is mentioned obliquely in a number of old stories,” Mary replied, glancing at Weaver. “Going back…a very long way. To my knowledge she has not been directly connected to Vesk. But any being who pops up in multiple unconnected sagas will eventually raise the question of how she is related to the god of bards. And now, one of Vesk’s bards has a need to visit the Golden Sea, to achieve an end of great personal importance to him. Now that he knows this, it also turns out that an established acquaintance of his is the one person who can lead him there.” She smiled and blinked slowly, an expression that made her look remarkably like a pleased cat. “And your ability to do so is the direct result of…given the circumstances, let us call it ‘foreshadowing’…by an unearthly being widely suspected of being an agent of Vesk’s. This project may be an affront to Vidius, but it has implied endorsement from another god of the Pantheon. And those two are not known to crush mortals between them in great clashes. There has been none of that among the Pantheon since Sorash was destroyed.”

“It does sound downright bardic, when she puts it that way,” McGraw mused.

“If you decide to do this,” Mary said, glancing between Weaver and Joe, “I would like to come along.”

Weaver narrowed his eyes. “Why.”

“To see the center of the Golden Sea? Is that not reason enough?”

“Aye, same!” Billie chirped. “That there’s an adventure an’ no mistake! Ashner’s britches, the braggin’ rights! I’d never ‘ave ta pay fer drinks again!”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw added, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But it’s been my observation over the years that the world’s pretty much wall-to-wall danger. Death an’ suffering are around every corner. Comes a point where it doesn’t profit a body to worry excessively about repercussions, long as you don’t rashly seek ’em out. What matters in life is livin’ with honor, and bein’ true to the people who’re true to you. Here’s the truth: we may not get to see Yngrid much, or basically ever, but she’s been around us the whole time Weaver has. She’s pretty explicitly saved our butts, like the first time we fought Khadizroth. Now, if Weaver and Yngrid have gotta offend Vidius to be together…” He shrugged. “In my book, that makes it worth doin’. You want my help, Weaver, you got it.”

Joe drew in a slow breath of his own. “Y’know… I have been wanting to have a second look at that portal. When I was there it didn’t seem like there was much to see except for old ruins and a big magical hole in the world. Knowin’ what I do now, though, and considerin’ the fact that the Golden Sea is widely thought to have a mind of its own, I gotta wonder if there’s somethin’ else there I just didn’t know to look for.” He met Mary’s eyes. “A purple man who lives in the walls. Somebody who I bet could answer some big questions.”

“Did that sound less crazy in yer head before it spilled outta yer mouth?” Billie asked.

“Not really,” Joe said ruefully. “But I stand by it. All right, Weaver, I guess I’ve been swayed, and not by your offer of payment. I’m in.”


“And isn’t this just the most absolutely typical thing?” the Jackal complained stridently from the head of their little procession. The elf was stalking along, taking huge steps and swinging his arms widely in a comical gait that made him resemble a child playing soldier. “Here we are, visiting scenic Ninkabi! The highest and lowest city in the Empire! Famed for its soaring towers and fathomless ravines, for graceful bridges and rooftop gardens! With stunning views of the mighty Wyrnrange, the distant sea, and on a clear day the very forests of Athan’Khar! And where do we end up?” He came to a stop, turning to face the right wall of the hallway along which they were being led, and brandished both hands at is as if casting a spell. “Underground. Under! The fucking! Ground!”

“Yeah, you whining about it makes the whole thing a lot less claustrophobic,” Shook grunted. “Move your skinny ass, wouldja?”

“Oh, it’s always the ass with you, isn’t it,” the Jackal simpered, turning to him. “If you want a peek, handsome, all you gotta do is ask. What, isn’t that pet of yours keeping you adequately drained?”

“If you want his throat slit, master,” Kheshiri purred, pressing herself against Shook from behind, “all you have to do is give the order.”

“I would be so much more alarmed if I didn’t know that was your idea of foreplay,” the elf replied, waggling his eyebrows at her. “How about you and me, sugar tits? You can take any shape, right? Can you do Jerry, here?”

“Enough.”

Khadizroth’s voice, as always, cut off their bickering. The dragon walked at the rear of the line, Vannae hovering silently at his side. The three of them turned to scowl at him as he lowered the hood of his robe to reveal his luminous green eyes.

“You have plenty of time to indulge in your unique banter. Let us not keep our hosts waiting, nor terrorize the staff excessively. Neither is a positive first impression. My apologies, Lieutenant,” he added to the sole Holy Legionary accompanying them, who had stopped several yards ahead and was watching them with a noticeably pale face. “Please, proceed.”

The man swallowed once, visibly. He wasn’t part of the detachment stationed at their headquarters beneath Dawnchapel, and thus not accustomed to them; in particular, he seemed to have trouble keeping his gaze off Kheshiri, and the fact that his eyes held naked fear didn’t stop them from wandering below her shoulders. Which, of course, irritated Shook as much as it amused the succubus.

“Uh, right, um…sir,” the lieutenant said after an awkward pause. “It’s, ah, just through here.”

The right-hand wall at which the Jackal had gestured was, in fact, lined with windows, but there was not much to see. This complex was carved out of the living rock along the lower wall of one of Ninkabi’s canyons, not far above the river itself; the roar of the rapids was actually audible below. What little fading afternoon light remained did not reach down this far, and the only illumination in the hall came from its fairy lamps.

The beleaguered soldier led them the last few yards to the only place there was to go: the hall terminated in a single door. He opened this and then hesitated, dithering. Appropriate protocol called for him to pull it open and stand aside, but the man clearly felt visceral unease at the prospect of the five of them filing past him in close quarters. After a moment’s waffling, he ducked through the door ahead of them and kept going, putting a few yards between himself and the entry.

Kheshiri and the Jackal both snickered. Fortunately, neither said anything.

The room beyond was a conference chamber, predominated by a long table. Their door opened onto the rear end, with the front some ten yards distant to their left. At that end, there was a wooden lectern, currently moved off to the side to reveal a view of the far wall, on which were hung a series of maps of the different levels of Ninkabi.

As soon as they had all entered, the soldier darted back out behind them, putting on an extra boost of speed when the Jackal blew him a kiss. The elf cackled as he slammed the door shut, but everyone else was focused on the other in the room.

Before the wall, a woman with short dark hair stood with her back to them, studying the maps, hands clasped behind her. She wore a long white coat clearly tailored to her lean figure, with a silver-tooled belt from which hung an ornate short sword.

“All right, let’s get the obvious questions out of the way first,” she said brusquely, turning to face the group. Her features were sharp and her expression entirely unimpressed by them, in stark contrast to the frightened Legionary. “During a recent kerfuffle in Tiraas which briefly imperiled the life of the Emperor himself, a sizable cult appeared and engaged in a pitched battle with soldiers and adventurers. I’m told you lot in particular were involved.”

“Oh, hey, I remember those guys!” the Jackal said brightly.

“Do not interrupt me when I am briefing you,” she snapped. “The Universal Church has been trying to identify that group ever since. They were numerous, followed no known doctrine, and appeared evidently from nowhere. There is no record of any such organization operating within the Empire. Obviously, it’s disturbing that such a sizable threat could appear with no warning and vanish without a trace. What few leads have emerged have brought us here, to Ninkabi. You are here to hunt these cultists down, learn everything that can be learned about them, and take whatever action is then deemed appropriate.” She paused, then smiled very thinly. “Until compelling indications otherwise emerge, I will be proceeding upon the assumption that the appropriate action will be to exterminate whatever is left of them.”

“Very well,” Khadizroth said, inclining his head. “But would not an introduction have been a more appropriate place to start?”

“Yes, that is the other thing,” she replied, her smile widening enough to show hints of teeth. “The five of you represent what was not meant to be a long-term project. For…a variety of reasons…it seems his Holiness the Archpope has decided to keep you on. As such, your status must be considered, and your group integrated into the hierarchy of the Church. To that end, his Holiness is resurrecting a long-discarded office of the Church under which—under me—you shall work. One which respects your need for secrecy, and grants broad discretionary powers in dealing with whatever threats may emerge. Welcome, lady and gentlemen, to the Inquisition.”

“Whoah, hang on a sec,” Shook said, frowning. “Those were the witch-hunters from before the Enchanter Wars. I’m pretty sure that shit’s even more illegal than most of what we do.”

“Not to mention…provocative,” Khadizroth murmured. “Reminders of those dark days have a way of calling down preemptive retribution.”

“That is for me to worry about; it’s for you to follow my orders.” The woman paced forward three steps to lean both hands on the table, her grin broadening to become a fierce expression that held more than a hint of a snarl. “I am Grand Inquisitor Syrinx, and as of now, you freaks are mine.”

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Bonus #54: Lightning in a Bottle, part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, that little story was…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“YOU!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhadid smiled patronizingly. “Yes, you will.”

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

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

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

With that, he drew his wand and returned fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…but how?” the dwarf sputtered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billie raised her eyebrows. “Help?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rafe began laughing so hard he had to sit down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric doubled over and was loudly sick.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admestus gaped at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus #53: Lightning in a Bottle, part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give it a week,” Sassafrass suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rafe!” Rhadid barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vault was empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, obviously,” she snorted.

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

They stared at the book in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Bonus #52: Lightning in a Bottle, part 5

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

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

“First warning?” Eric muttered incredulously.

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

Rhadid’s eyebrows lowered infinitesimally. “Perhaps?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric groaned and covered his eyes again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What in blazes—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was afraid of that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, you mentioned a competition.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the soldiers cursed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus #51: Lightning in a Bottle, part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And is this silence part of the test?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Admestus,” Rhadid warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My condolences,” Billie said solemnly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond it, there was no more house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A leap of faith?” Admestus suggested innocently.

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

“I volunteer the Professor to do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus #48: Lightning in a Bottle, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Patreon backer Lluazarg!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was also not unoccupied.

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

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

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

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

“BEHOLD!”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t talk like a servant, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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