Tag Archives: Vestrel

14 – 18

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“You okay, Gabe?” Toby asked in a soft voice.

“Fine,” Gabriel said shortly. At that, Trissiny looked over at him as well. He was staring out across the Rail platform with a fixed little frown creasing his forehead. Following an uncomfortable pause, he explained further, still without looking at them. “Just concentrating. There’s a Vidian magic technique to deflect attention, which I haven’t practiced as much as I should’ve, so it takes focus.”

“Ah,” Toby said, nodding. “Good idea.”

Vrin Shai’s Rail station was outside the city proper. Even in an age when mag artillery made stone walls somewhat redundant, the city’s fortifications were practically a sacrament, given which goddess claimed it as a sacred seat. Though Imperial codes required Rail stations to be located in areas with easy access to city streets, there had never been a prospect of the Rail line itself penetrating the outer defenses. Popular rumor was that the Surveyor Corps, when planning the Rail route and station, hadn’t even bothered to ask. Thus, the walls stood proud, and Rail traffic to and from Vrin Shai involved a rather inconvenient trek.

Trissiny had once again left her armor behind; the central temple was of course proud to hold onto it for a while, though Sister Astarian had seemed somewhat bemused at the Hand of Avei’s preference not to wear it. She had, however, smilingly promised to see about removing what remained of the blinding alchemic polish the steward in Calderaas had applied. In civilian clothes, the five of them might have been any mixed bag of travelers, their only distinctive feature being that Darling, Trissiny and Schwartz made an unusual concentration of Stalweiss descent for this part of the country. Still, Gabriel’s precaution was wise. In their short time in the city, the paladins had managed to make public spectacles of themselves several times; it was hardly beyond possibility that someone might recognize them.

And none of them were in the mood for curiosity seekers.

Darling and Schwartz had stepped off to the side to converse in a low tone; the three paladins simply clustered together on the platform, ignoring and being ignored by the other travelers awaiting caravans. Now, the other two turned and approached them again, causing Trissiny and Toby to look up, though Gabriel continued frowning fixedly into the distance.

The Bishop cleared his throat. “So! Mr. Schwartz has just been telling me that I was much too hard on you three.”

Trissiny sighed. “Herschel…”

“Now, hold up,” Darling said, raising a hand. “The fact is, he’s right.”

At that, even Gabriel looked up, his expression becoming quizzical.

“It’s tricky to find the right…perspective, here,” Darling continued, turning his head to gaze abstractly at nothing, much the way Gabriel had just been doing. “In reality, you’re young. Not only are you bound to make mistakes; you’re supposed to. That’s all part of the process. On the other hand, you three have such a huge weight of importance resting on you that everything you do creates waves that’ll end up affecting more people than you can imagine. In short… You can’t afford to be and do the things that you naturally, inevitably have to. And yes, that is wildly unfair, to which I must say, tough luck. That’s life. But, it’s something I should’ve been more mindful of.”

His eyes snapped back into focus, and he met the gaze of each of them in turn before continuing. “You fucked up, kids. You didn’t think carefully enough and created a big damn mess. But I also fucked up by reaming you out when what you needed was advice on how to not repeat that mistake. For that, I apologize.” He nodded deeply, the gesture verging on a bow. For a moment, the three of them could just stare in silent surprise. Schwartz folded his arms, looking satisfied; on his shoulder, Meesie did exactly the same.

“Well…apology accepted,” Trissiny said at last. “It’s not as if you were wrong, anyway. And your advice and help has been appreciated.”

“Glad to hear it,” Darling replied. “We’ve dwelled enough on what you did wrong, so let me offer the opposing perspective: you saw a problem, and you took action. Thanks to you, Calderaas is getting a bunch of new schools. Which…isn’t the kind of outcome the bards sing of; it’s not flashy, it’ll be years before the results start to show and a generation before it really changes things. But that is still important. Not to mention, you reminded some of society’s worst people that their bullshit does have consequences, which is something they need on the regular. Next time do it more carefully, but…” A faint frown of concern appeared on his own face. “Like Herschel just reminded me, what’s important is taking action. You might mess up and cause problems, but that’s nothing compared to the losses that’ll accrue if you never intervene. I really hope I didn’t scare you away from stepping in when you see a need.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Gabriel said.

A bell chimed twice from nearby, where a large clock was displayed above the ticket master’s stand. The woman behind the counter glanced up at it, then leaned over to speak directly into an arcane apparatus enchanted to amplify sound, making her voice resonate through the station. “Caravan from Madouris is inbound, ETA one minute! Travelers departing for Ninkabi, please assemble on Platform Three! Please remember to make space for disembarking passengers before boarding.”

“That’s us,” Toby said unnecessarily, turning to gaze up the line toward the east.

Trissiny stepped over to Schwartz, and he met her with a hug. Meesie hopped down from his shoulder to hers, spreading her tiny arms and pressing her warm little body to Trissiny’s cheek in an embrace of her own.

“Be careful,” he murmured. “I know you can take care of yourself, but…”

“But it’s good advice, anyway,” she replied, pulling back to smile up at him. “You be careful too, Herschel. Listen to Darling and let him do what he does.”

“I know the plan, don’t worry,” he replied, grinning. “I hate to leave you guys right in the middle of your quest…”

“You need to have things ready in Tiraas when we get there, though,” she said, “and remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Listen to Darling—and Principia, for that matter—but listen…circumspectly. Senior Guild people are good at this kind of plotting, and neither of those’ll screw you over, but that doesn’t mean you should absorb every thought they try to put in your brain.”

“I’m not a complete idiot, you know,” he said wryly.

“Yeah, neither am I. Doesn’t mean neither of us has ever done anything idiotic.”

Flickers of blue lightning began to arc along the Rail line. The caravan appeared over the horizon before anyone could see it coming, throwing up sparks from the line and blue repulsor charms flaring alight in front of its lead car as it slowed. A whine so high-pitched it barely registered to the human ear sounded, as if physics itself were shrieking in protest at the sight of an object decelerating so fast without destroying itself.

Trissiny and Schwartz separated, Meesie hopping back onto her partner’s shoulder with a forlorn little cheep at his sister, and the other two paladins stepped over to them while the caravan’s doors open and dazed-looking passengers began to emerge.

“Take care of yourself, Schwartz,” Gabriel said, slugging him lightly on the shoulder.

“You, too,” the witch replied with a grin. “Don’t make my sister work too hard to keep you alive.”

“Don’t worry,” said Toby, raising an eyebrow. “Somehow it’s always me who ends up doing that.”

“You’ll be fine,” Darling added from behind them. “If this is a Vesk thing, he’ll strain you to the very edge of your capabilities and no further. You’ll come back smarter and harder, right in time for us to take care of business back home.”

“Any last minute advice?” Gabriel asked him. In the near distance, the ticket master started calling for passengers to board. “You probably know as much about Vesk as any of us, at least.”

“Yeah,” Darling said dryly. “Try to have fun, when you can. I hear tell it’s a riot, living through an actual adventure story—right up until you get to the part that’s meant to make the audience cry.”

Ninkabi was a city of terraces and bridges, and the striking contrast of heights and depths. Built along the last stretch of the N’Kimbi River, it was defined by its geography. In truth, within the Empire flatland cities like Mathenon and Onkawa were the exception, rather than the rule; most followed the model of Vrin Shai, Veilgrad, Calderaas, and Tiraas itself, occupying immense stone features which gave them each a distinctive skyline—and a considerable defensive advantage.

The N’Kimbi had carved out a double canyon over the eons, which itself had been somewhat broken by some long-ago seismic event, resulting in a series of waterfalls which descended from the rocky N’Jendo coast into the sea. Ninkabi occupied both banks of the canyon and the long island in the middle, descending the three tiers which had been re-shaped by mortal hands into regular terraces from the jumble of stone which it had been originally. The canyon walls, too, had been carved into and built outward, until the faces of buildings descended almost to the surface of the river, though the lowest two stories were usually unoccupied due to the annual flooding caused by snowmelt in the Wyrnrange. Numerous stone bridges crisscrossed the canyons, both at the surface levels and between openings along their walls, creating a veritable maze that boats couldn’t pass under during the flood season—not that most would have risked the waterfalls, anyway. Up top, Jendi architecture manifested itself in Omnist-style ziggurats and soaring minarets, the city as bristling with towers as it was rent by deep shadows. Within the shade of the many towers, though, the long central island contained numerous gardens, many with ancient, towering trees which added a lushly organic touch to the city’s angular lines.

The outskirts of the city along the canyon were delineated by high walls, of course; Ninkabi itself had rarely been sacked, but most of N’Jendo’s history had been marked by raids back and forth between the country and the orcs of Athan’Khar to the south, and the human nation of Thakar to the north. Those defenses had been tested innumerable times, over the centuries. Even during the long peace since the Enchanter Wars, Ninkabi had followed the example of Vrin Shai rather than Veilgrad; no suburbs had been allowed to spring up outside the walls. The Thakari were allies now and what dwelled in Athan’Khar never came out anymore, but the horrors lurking there discouraged any risk-taking with defenses.

The Rail station was at the highest point on the central island, at its easternmost edge with the looming Wyrnrange walling off the horizon in that direction, and the setting sun casting the rest of the city in orange and gold as it descended toward the sea on the other side. From this angle, they had an excellent view of Ninkabi’s maze of towers, bridges, and canyons. This, even at a glance, was a city of deep shadows. Now their task was to find the right scoundrel lurking in them.

“But before that,” Trissiny said, when they’d stepped to the edge of the Rail platform, “there’s something I need to do while we’re in the city.”

“Oh?” Toby asked. Gabriel, though, was already nodding.

They had to ask for directions, and it was a bit of a hike; what they sought was situated at the base of the second-to-last cliff on the central island, most of the way along the city. The trip involved descending three layers, where they found that there were both switchbacking stairs at the edges of the cliffs and long ramps which passed through tunnels, to allow horses and vehicles to pass between levels. Between this and the bridges, getting around in Ninkabi involved quite a bit of planning and backtracking; those tunnels had to be long enough that to come out at the base of a cliff, you had to enter almost the whole way back along that terrace, nowhere near the stairs.

Upon descending the first staircase, Gabriel successfully bullied the other two into renting a rickshaw to take them the rest of the way, pointing to the setting sun as evidence that they really ought to hurry this up.

They finally arrived, though, at a kind of amphitheater built right into the base of the cliff. The broad, semicircular space within was calm, deeply shadowed beneath both the cliff itself, the tall round walls which separated it, and overhanging boughs of trees which stretched outward from the gardens planted atop those thick walls.

Against the great wall stood the monument which was the focus of this place, a fountain which rose in tiers almost two stories, pouring water down in levels like a ziggurat. Stairs rose almost to its peak, creating access by which people could set down candles along the multiple rims of each level, where little indentations held them upright even against the water. Right now the candles were sparse, leaving the space dim as they were its only illumination.

This was, technically, a Vidian temple, and was watched over by priests of Vidius, but it was neither Vidians nor the general public who came to this place, as a rule. There were no icons displayed, no decorations anywhere in the space except for the inscription carved along the base of the Fount of the Fallen:


It was one of very few places in the world that the generally irreverent Eserites regarded as sacred.

The three paladins entered through an arch along the northern arc of the outer wall, pausing just inside to look around. Few were present, just the Vidian priests in their three alcoves spaced along the inner curve of the wall, and only two people currently visiting the shrine. A woman with Stalweiss coloring, in an expensive-looking silk gown, sat on the lowest edge of the fountain, trailing her fingers in the water and seeming to speak quietly to no one. Halfway up one of the staircases, a dark-skinned man who might have been local had just finished setting a candle in place and lighting it, and now bowed his head, whispering in prayer.

“Welcome,” a voice greeted them quietly from the alcove just a few feet away. It had a stone counter built in front of it, leaving the priest behind partially walled off like a shopkeeper. Shelves lining the back held row upon row of unlit white candles. Currently occupying the space was a Tiraan woman who stuck out somewhat, due to her expensive-looking and obviously tailored suit.

Gabriel frowned at her. “Are…you a priest of Vidius?”

“Oh, not me,” she said diffidently, waving a hand. “I’m just watching this post for a little bit, as a favor to a friend. I work with the Universal Church.” Gold glittered at her sleeves; her cufflinks alone looked pricey enough to be an affront to Eserite sensibilities. Actually, with her short hair and sharp suit, the woman looked a lot like Teal Falconer, with a darker complexion and more expensive tastes.

Trissiny stepped over to the counter. “May I have a candle, please?”

“Of course,” the woman said politely. “It’s two pennies.”

“You charge for these?” she demanded, frowning.

“This is genuine locally-sourced Jendi beeswax,” the woman in the suit replied with a placid smile. “Those bees worked hard to make these for you, and no telling how many keepers got stung in the process. The candles are hand-made by traditional artisans—no factory products here. Two pennies is exceedingly reasonable, especially considering that even a holy site requires some upkeep.”

Trissiny shook her head ruefully, already reaching into her pocket. “Well, when you put it that way, fair enough.” The woman smiled, accepted the coins and handed over a candle with no further comment, and Trissiny turned back to her friends. “I won’t be long.”

“You take as much time as you need,” Toby said firmly. “There is no rush.”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Gabriel added. “Say whatever you need to.”

“Here,” the woman said suddenly, holding out an arcane cigarette lighter to Trissiny. It was as expensive as her suit, crafted of silver with gold embossing and engraved with a stylized V. “There are also matches and lighters for sale here, but you can borrow mine. I don’t recommend using matches anyway; the splashing water doesn’t agree with them.”

“Oh. Thank you very much,” Trissiny said, accepting it. “I’ll bring it right back.”

“Like the boys said, hon, take your time. I’m in no rush, either.”

She headed off to the fountain, and Toby and Gabriel discreetly edged away to stand with their backs to the wall on the other side of the arch. They tried not to stare, but there really wasn’t much else to look at; the woman at the candle stall was also watching Trissiny, wearing a small smile.

Trissiny picked a staircase some distance from the other two Eserites currently at the fountain and climbed, selecting a spot about halfway up. There, she wedged the white candle into one of the slots, lit it with a lighter, and then produced a gold doubloon from inside her sleeve. The paladin kissed the coin before tossing it into the water. Then she paused, bending over her candle, and speaking softly to nothing, like the others.

“His name was Ross,” Gabriel said suddenly, barely above a whisper. Toby looked up at him in surprise. “Evaine collected him. He died protecting Schwartz from wandfire. Trissiny and her other friends were just seconds too late to save him. I think you would’ve liked him, Toby. He didn’t much care for fighting; he was trying to talk his enemy down when she shot him, and he’d been really close to succeeding.” He hesitated, and sighed softly. “Ross was a bard, before apprenticing with the Guild. This whole thing… It’s a constant reminder that can’t be easy for her. I wonder how much of that was deliberate on Vesk’s part.”

“Did…she tell you all this?” Toby asked quietly.

Gabriel shook his head. “Evaine did. She was very impressed. Ross went right to the realm of heroes.”

“Have you told Trissiny?”

“I…no. That’s not exactly an easy thing to bring up, y’know? And I’m really not supposed to be ferrying information between the living and the dead, anyway. There’s a good reason Vidius insists on a solid barrier, there. I was going to tell her and her other Eserite friends anyway, back in Puna Dara, but…” He trailed off, and shook his head again.

“Yeah,” Toby murmured. “Not easy at all. I think she would like to know, though.”

“I’m still wrestling with it. Trissiny is my friend and I want to. But…that would be pretty blatantly playing favorites. If I reassure my own friend about dead loved ones, how do I justify not going around and doing the same for everyone else on the planet? Favorites are something death cannot have.”

“I see the dilemma.” Toby laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing and giving him a very gentle shake. “I’m not sure what the right thing is, there, Gabe. But I’m confident it’ll be what you end up doing.”

“Thanks,” Gabriel said, a little wryly.

The woman in silk had just stood up, turning to go, but she paused with a visible gasp, staring upward. Gabriel and Toby twisted their heads to follow her gaze.

Three stories up, at the edge of the outer wall beneath a tree, stood the blurred but unmistakable shape of a valkyrie, scythe in hand and black wings spread. After a moment, seeing that she’d been noticed, Vestrel stepped backward out of sight of the space below.

“Vidian holy ground,” Toby said thoughtfully. “Hm. Does that just…happen? The way you described events at the temple in Last Rock, I though valkyries had to specifically want to be visible, even there.”

“You know,” Gabriel said, lowering his eyes to frown at nothing, “it occurs to me I’m not actually sure what the rules are about that. It hadn’t seemed important, before, but…maybe I oughta ask Vestrel for a rundown.”

“That might be a good idea. More information is always better than less.”


Trissiny, true to her word, didn’t take long. Whatever she had to say to Ross or on his behalf, she was done while the other man on the other stairs was still kneeling. She looked suddenly tired, though more pensive than morose, giving both of them a wan smile while crossing back to the alcove with the lighter in her palm. Toby and Gabriel drifted over to meet her there, all three paladins arriving at about the same time.

“Thanks again,” Trissiny said, handing the lighter back to its owner.

“You are welcome,” the woman replied, inclining her head courteously. “Glad I could help. Now, are you kids about ready to go?”

There was a beat of uncertain silence.

“Excuse me?” Toby asked, frowning. “Go where?”

“Ah, my apologies, I did that in the wrong order. I’m Nell; pleased to meet you.” The woman bowed to each of them in turn, wearing a knowing smile. “We have some friends in common, and I hear tell you’re in town to see Mortimer Agasti and get your hands on one of his treasures. I can help you with that.”

“You said…you work for the Universal Church?” Gabriel asked suspiciously.

“With,” Nell corrected, raising one finger rather like a schoolteacher. “Not for. An easily-missed but very important distinction!”

“And…what’s your stake in this, exactly?” Trissiny demanded.

“Personally?” She shrugged, still with that bland smile. “I gain nothing from it, save the satisfaction of being involved. It’s been a long time since paladins were active in the world and longer still since they were on an honest-to-gods quest. Even if it is just Vesk trying to weave himself a shiny new fairy tale. There’s no way I’d pass up the chance to gawk at this from up close!”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Toby, “are you Vidian or Eserite?”

“Neither,” Nell replied pleasantly. “What I am is well-informed and connected. I know everybody interesting and everything important in Ninkabi. More to the point, I know Mortimer, and that means I can help you get what you want. You should be aware that he sees nobody. No visitors, no petitioners, no nothing. I’m one of very few acquaintances for whom he’ll break that rule. If you want to get a chance to present your case to the man himself without kicking up a ruckus that’ll upset Ninkabi even more than you did Calderaas, you’ll be needing to have me along.”

“You are awfully well-informed,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “How could you possibly know who we needed to talk to? That name was only mentioned—” She broke off, eyes widening again, and glanced down at the lighter, which the woman was still holding in one hand, positioned so its engraved V was facing them.

“Ah, ah, now. A little discretion, please! I’m sure you three understand not wanting to make spectacles of yourselves. It’s just Nell, to my friends.”

Verniselle winked at them, and tucked the lighter away in the breast pocket of her tailored coat.

“We very much appreciate your help…Nell,” Toby said carefully. “Your guidance would be more than welcome.”

“Oh, please don’t start being all formal,” she said, lightly punching him on the shoulder. “Trust me, where we’re going, that’ll only draw exactly the attention you don’t want. All right, kids, if we’re all done here, let’s head out. You’ve got good timing; we should reach Mortimer’s place a bit after dark, if we selectively dawdle. It’ll be open but not too busy yet. Thisaway!”

The goddess of money, merchants and bankers turned and strolled off through the nearest arch, casually flipping a platinum coin that would have bought a lower-end enchanted carriage. There was nothing for the three paladins to do but follow.

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14 – 7

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This, naturally, begat a confused pause.

“Um,” Gabriel finally ventured, “where are we going?”

“On the next leg of your journey,” the god of death replied, smiling vaguely at them with his eyes half-lidded. It was a mild, almost sleepy expression, and something about the contrast of that with who and what he was, plus the sunshine and cheerful people in the near distance, was subtly unsettling. “I was asked to give you a ride, by a mutual acquaintance of ours.”

“Vesk,” Toby guessed unnecessarily.

Vidius inclined his head slightly in Toby’s direction. “Chauffeuring isn’t among my usual duties, but what the hell. Three paladins are worth making an extra trip for, if anyone is. And hey, it’s a chance for us to chat! We get so few. Assuming, of course,” he added, turning to Trissiny, “you’re all coming along.”

She hesitated scarcely a moment longer, then nodded politely and stepped up to climb into the open carriage. “Thank you kindly, Lord Vidius.”

“Please, none of that ‘lord’ nonsense,” he said lightly, waving a hand. “We’re the next best thing to family, as I see it.”

“Family,” Gabriel repeated in a nonplussed tone, still standing there and making no move toward the carriage.

“Well,” Trissiny said, settling down into the surprisingly deep padding of the seat, “I hardly know how to talk to him, which pretty much sums up my experiences with family.” That earned a laugh from the death god up front.

“So you are coming, after all?” Toby asked, himself climbing into the carriage now. Gabriel shrugged fatalistically and clambered up behind him.

“Apparently so,” she replied. “Some good advice I got is sort of stuck in my mind.”

“Ah.” Toby nodded, smiling. “I had a feeling that’s what Rainwood wanted to talk to you about.”

“As a matter of fact it was, but that isn’t what I meant. I’ve heard from several people over the years that the things you don’t try end up being much greater regrets than the things you try that go badly. And besides, the involvement of a god who has some credibility improves the overall outlook of this…quest.”

“Happy to be of service,” Vidius said brightly, and flicked the reins. The carriage lurched into motion as its creepy steeds started forward, and they trundled off up the path toward the park gates. People got out of the way without once seeming to notice it was even there.

“Okay,” said Gabriel, shifting uncomfortably and pulling Ariel into his lap. The bench seats were not designed for people with things attached to the belt. “But…where are we going?”

“All in good time,” Vidius replied. His position on the driver’s seat put his back to them, but his voice carried just fine. “I understand that Vesk and his antics can be rather frustrating, especially from the perspective of any mortal caught up in an affair in which he takes an interest. But I’ll tell you this much: the rest of us in the Pantheon, however we may feel about him personally, choose to accommodate him. The reasons for that are challenging to explain…and often unnecessary. You will likely gain some insight into the matter in the course of following him around. For the moment, though, if you don’t trust Vesk, I’ll ask you to trust me. And Omnu, and Avei, who would already have intervened if they didn’t want you going along with this.” He turned his head, so as to give them a sidelong glance. “This will work out for the best. Even if none of us yet know how.”

Another uncertain silence fell at that, the three paladins studying one another’s faces for cues which were not forthcoming. Toby had seated himself on the front bench, facing backward, and on the opposite side from Vidius so he could still see the god by turning his head. Gabriel and Trissiny were opposite him. Now, both frowned when Toby suddenly straightened up in surprise, his eyes shifting past them.

“Gah!” Trissiny had turned to follow his stare and let out a yelp, then immediately subsided, placing a hand on her chest. “Oh. Sorry, Vestrel, you startled me.”

The valkyrie was perched on the back of the carriage like a gargoyle, her wings arched protectively over them. Apparently proximity to Vidius—or maybe it was the carriage—rendered her visible, but she was still clearly disconnected from the world, a wavery and faded image whose details were completely obscured. The black wings and dark armor, contrasting with a pale complexion and blonde hair, were all that could be discerned.

She also, apparently, could still not speak across the gap. In silence, Vestrel reached forward and very gently patted Trissiny on the head. Or at least, sort of; her hand didn’t quite make contact, and Trissiny couldn’t help stiffening slightly at the sheer eeriness of it.

“Oh, there was also a message,” Vidius said from up front, defusing the awkwardness. “For when you arrive.” He turned again, this time laying his arm across the back of the driver’s seat to look at them directly. “You will need his help.”

“Well…we’re already in the carriage, so I guess that’s taken care of,” Gabriel said, frowning.

“I doubt it means Vidius,” said Toby. “I mean, we are in the carriage. What would be the point of that?”

“I question how much of a point there is in any of this,” Trissiny muttered. “All we know for sure about Vesk’s directives so far is they are deliberately misleading more often than not.”

She glanced to the side, and blinked in surprise. They were trundling down a sparsely-trafficked highway, on a gentle slope that was clearly several miles from Calderaas. Evidently this thing moved much faster when its passengers weren’t paying attention. Which, all things considered, wasn’t surprising. It also meant there was no way of even guessing where Vidius might be taking them. She knew better than to ask again.

“So,” their driver said lightly, “you kids have been doing fairly well for yourselves. This is all uncharted territory, for all of us. A lot changed with your calling; the old routines simply don’t work as they once did. And we gods are nothing if not creatures of routine. We’re all feeling our way in the new world together, but you three, slowly but surely, are acquitting yourselves well. Trissiny in particular.”

The boys both looked at her in surprise, and she blinked.

“…thank you,” Trissiny replied uncertainly.

“I have my biases, of course,” Vidius acknowledged, turning his head again to glance at her. He wore a knowing little smile which was made to look even more sly by his hawkish profile. “You’ve recently gained a great appreciation for duality. More than most Hands ever have; paladins, particularly those of Avei, tend to be rather fixed on one idea. And, of course, you have become more acquainted with death.”

He turned to face forward again, and the silence which fell had a distinct chill. Trissiny stared ahead, at a point past the god’s shoulder.

“You can’t appreciate,” Vidius said after a pause, “how unusual it is that three paladins, two of them five years into their calling, are still so insulated from the effect of death. A Hand of Avei with your seniority, Trissiny, would ordinarily be standing on a veritable mountain of corpses by now.”

“I’ve killed,” she said tersely.

“And even those of Omnu,” the god continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “would be expected to have known the loss of friends. Yours is dangerous work. Of course, the situation is new, as I said. Sending you to Arachne has been a good practice, I think, but not without its downsides. You are a little coddled by the tutelage of such a fire-breathing mother hen.”

“Coddled isn’t a word I would have chosen,” Gabriel said, grinning.

“How many friends have you had to grieve, Gabriel?” Vidius asked mildly, instantly wiping the smile off his face. “I don’t think this is good for you, to be frank. Death and life are intertwined deeply; to live on is to know the loss of those you have loved. You, Trissiny, have only recently become acquainted with death. So far, you could be handling it more gracefully—but you are doing no worse than I might expect. With time and experience you will become better acquainted, and better able to cope.”

She turned to stare out over the side in silence. They were now plowing through a rolling field of stubby tallgrass, the slope of the mountain on which Calderaas stood far behind them.

“I think I’ve killed more than Trissiny,” Toby said, also staring into the distance.

“Hey, that isn’t fair,” Gabriel protested. “You’re still talking about the hellgate? You were the conduit Omnu used to vaporize a lot of demons. Blaming yourself—”

“I don’t think of it in terms of blame,” Toby interrupted. “But I was there, and voluntarily or not, I was the means by which it was done. Demons or not, those were sapient beings—thinking, feeling people. To cause such destruction…” He shook his head slowly. “I’ve grown used to living with it, and I think that bothers me the most. It’s been a year, and I still don’t understand. And…Omnu won’t enlighten me. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”

“Nothing,” said Vidius. “Omnu isn’t displeased with you, Tobias, trust me. He’s just…not very communicative. As a general personality trait, but particularly with regard to his Hands. Your lineage has always had the least personal guidance from your patron. Omnu’s approach has always been to trust his Hands to make the right choices, and encourage them to trust themselves.”

“By not answering simple questions?” Gabriel demanded, frowning.

“Yup,” Vidius said noncommittally. “You’ll note I don’t go out of my way to hold your hand, either, Gabe. But in my humble opinion, Omnu overdoes it.”

“I feel…like I’m not doing so well as a paladin,” Toby said quietly, still staring off at nothing.

“You could be doing better,” Vidius said bluntly. “If I’m any judge. It’s not time to worry just yet, Tobias, but you have room for improvement. Let me tell you this much, as an observer who knows Omnu and has watched you with interest: a big part of the reason the gods call Hands is because we are bound by concept and structure in a way that ‘mere’ mortals are not. A Hand is an agent of action, and of change. You confuse pacifism with passivity, Toby, and that is what predominately holds you back. The world doesn’t respect peace; if you intend to bring piece to the world, understand that you will have to inflict peace where it is not wanted. Learn to assert yourself, boy.”

Toby was frowning by the end of that, but nodded. “Thank you for the advice.”

“Wow,” Gabriel murmured. “After all that, I’m almost afraid to ask how I’m doing.”

Vidius glanced back at him. “Toby and Trissiny represent a departure from established patterns, Gabe. You represent something new entirely. I encourage you to learn from them, and from past paladins, but please don’t try to walk in their footsteps.”

“I…really haven’t been,” Gabriel said, shifting nervously in his seat. “I mean, what I’ve been trying to do is pretty much what you just said.”

“I know. But you could be trying harder.”

Gabe’s expression flinched before he marshaled it. “I…see. How so?”

“For example, your scythe. You haven’t done a lot of experimentation with its capabilities, have you?”

“I note that they weren’t explained to me,” Gabriel retorted with some exasperation.

“That is correct,” Vidius replied calmly. “What do you make of that?”

Gabriel opened his mouth, scowling, then snapped it shut.

“Y’know, it wasn’t so long ago that nothing would have stopped you from spouting the first thought that flittered across your mind,” Trissiny said, and lightly punched him on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you, Gabe.”

“It wasn’t so long ago that your support came with a dose of condescension,” he shot back. “Oh, look! I guess we haven’t all changed too much.”

She just grinned at him and leaned back in her seat.

“The scythe destroys things,” Gabriel continued in a more measured tone. “Just about anything the blade touches. Even magic. That’s… I mean, quite apart from the fact that a divine artifact deserves to be treated with some respect, this thing is incredibly dangerous. It’s not something to just screw around with.”

“Gabriel,” said Vidius, turning again to fix him with a look. “What I’m about to tell you is in response to that, but it also applies well beyond it. Screwing around is your greatest strength.”

“Oh…kay,” Gabriel said slowly, after a momentary pause. “I’m…not sure what that means.”

Vidius chuckled and turned to face forward again. “It’s something to chew on, isn’t it?”

“Or screw around with?” Toby suggested with a smile.

The god laughed. “See? He gets it.”

“This may be none of my business,” Trissiny said hesitantly, “and I’m sorry if that’s so, but… Why now? Why, after eight thousand years, have you suddenly decided to make such an enormous change as calling a paladin?”

Vidius gazed ahead without responding, and they glanced at each other again. The only sounds were the gentle rumbling of the wheels and the creaking of the carriage itself, oddly mundane for a divine vehicle, and the much more exotic ringing of the unearthly horses’ hooves against the ground. They were now wending their way through a forest, a moss-carpeted and well-tended vault of redwoods that had to be an elven grove.

“Have you ever given much thought to religion?” Vidius asked suddenly, just when the quiet had begun to stretch into discomfort. “Not to yours in particular, I know you’ve pondered your specific dogmas. But the thing itself, religion as a phenomenon. What it is, how it works?”

“I’m…not sure I understand the question,” Trissiny said, frowning.

“Sure you do,” he replied easily. “But the answer is ‘no’ and you feel awkward admitting that even to yourself. Don’t back down from such challenges, Trissiny. We are all our own greatest rivals; growth is a process of overcoming your own weaknesses. But yes, religion. Seems peculiar how something can both uplift and destroy people to such a great degree.”

“Well, that’s any tool, though,” Gabriel pointed out. “It’s only as good or bad as what you do with it.”

“Yep, and faith is a powerful tool indeed,” Vidius agreed easily. “But for context. You boys recall the faith of the Infinite Order you encountered in Puna Dara?”

“Ugh,” Gabriel said, grimacing. Toby just nodded.

“Fross mentioned something about that,” Trissiny said. “She disapproved of it pretty firmly.”

“It’s sheer positive thinking,” Gabriel explained. “The idea is that what you think becomes your reality.”

She frowned quizzically. “How is that a religion?”

“Well, it comes with its own cosmology,” said Toby, “which itself is rooted in fact. The Rust cultists talked about arcane physics a lot, how observation determines reality.”

“Ah, yes,” Trissiny said, nodding. “We’ve been over the broad strokes of that in Yornhaldt’s class. So, if they’re correct, what’s the problem?”

“The problem,” Ariel interjected, “is that the entire barrier to widespread understanding of arcane physics is that sub-atomic particles and their interactions are subject to fundamentally different rules than the physics which govern your experience. Such principles describe nothing with which a sapient mind will ever interact under ordinary circumstances. Attempting to apply arcane mechanics to one’s personal life is like trying to shoe a horse with a toothbrush and a wheel of cheese. Those tools are wildly unsuited to that task.”

“That about sums it up, yeah,” Gabriel agreed, grinning. “You’ll have to excuse Ariel. She’s designed to assist with magic, and misconceptions about it irritate her.”

“I am not irritated, I am simply right.”

“And that’s the crux of it,” said Vidius, his hat shifting as he nodded without looking back at them. “That cult was authentic, at least to that extent. That was the official religion of the Infinite Order—the original Infinite Order, the Elder Gods. In fact, they were utterly contemptuous of religion. They didn’t call themselves gods, and got mightily offended when someone did. Which, of course, is why I still do,” he added with a chuckle. “They instituted and spread that faith for the specific purpose of hampering the mortal population of this world. It served the dual goals of impeding actual scientific understanding, and shifting the onus for the plight of every suffering person onto themselves, instead of the megalomaniacal omnipotent beings oppressing them. And yet… It was something that, at its core, they believed in. The Infinite Order came to this world to pursue their great experiment with godhood because of faith. They were scientists, but what impelled them was sincere belief.”

“The…Elder Gods…believed in positive thinking?” Trissiny said slowly, frowning in pure confusion.

“Their driving faith was that the process of evolution was an orderly and purposeful progression,” Vidius explained. “From the great explosion that created reality, to the formation and death of stars, to the formation of planets, to the birth of life from a coincidental chemical reaction, to the process of evolution, to the emergence of sapience, with its capacity to deliberately advance evolution according to plans rather than random chance. They believed the universe was trying to understand itself, and the emergence of intelligent life was the most recent step in the process. They wanted to advance to the next step, and approached the task with great reverence. Who knows, they may even have been right; it explains the universe as well as any other idea I’ve ever heard. Based on what happened next, ascension was obviously not that next sacred step, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the idea. It does demonstrate my point, though. That same faith was used for great advancement and great oppression, by exactly the same people.”

“It’s not exactly a surprise to me that people can misuse religion,” said Trissiny. “I’ve met wonderful and terrible people among the Eserites. Some of the best people I know are Avenists, but I think the very Bishop of the Sisterhood is a dangerous, deviant lunatic.”

At that, Toby and Gabriel both gave her sharp looks, but Vidius nodded.

“And so, my question: What is a religion?”

“What do you think it is?” Toby asked carefully.

“There are many ways to answer that question,” said the god. “To embrace my own idiom, I think that a faith, a true faith, is a duality of two things: a problem, and a solution. A religion which actually provides for the spiritual needs of people must posit what the core problem of mortal experience is, and then offer a way to solve it. And this has been true since long before the emergence of actual gods, going back to the faiths of the old world from which the Elders came. Humanity had faiths before it had actual deities. Faith speaks to something in the core of what it means to be a person.”

“Wait, how does that work?” Gabriel protested. “How did they have religions if they didn’t have gods?”

“Well, perhaps I misspoke,” Vidius said, amusement lightening his voice. “They had gods, all right. They didn’t strictly exist in the physical sense, but they had ’em.”

“What’s the point of a god that’s not even real?” Trissiny huffed.

He glanced back at her. “Anything that makes a difference in people’s lives is real. The gods of the old world were invisible and silent, unverifiable and imaginary, but they were very real. The weight of their presence was deeply felt. It was inevitable, because there were problems, and there needed to be solutions. To the Christians, the problem was sin and the solution was grace. To the Muslims, the problem was hubris, and the solution was submission to the divine.” His shoulders shifted minutely in a little chuckle. “To the Satanists, the problem was corruption in all the other cults, and the solution was mischief and defiance. And so on, and so on. There were more faiths there than there are here. A lack of gods did not mean a lack of problems.”

“Hey.” Grinning, Gabriel nudged Trissiny with an elbow. “Those last guys sound a lot like Eserites.”

“And that is another point,” Vidius agreed, turning his head and nodding at Gabe. “Creating religions was the last thing my brothers and sisters in the Pantheon were after. We sought to bring down the gods, not join or replace them; we simply adapted to the way things turned out, from sheer necessity. We had become beings whose very identities were broadcast throughout the world via the magic which fills it. Dogmas and rituals rose around us over time, rooted in what we each thought was best in life. And our own ideas, like everyone’s, were shaped by the knowledge of those who came before us. There is an iron barrier across your history, children, but you are the heirs of traditions much older than you know. Ancient faiths still resonate through the cults that exist now.

“And that brings us to the world as it is today. We have the Pantheon, guided by gods who acknowledge and—to an extent—respect each other. In a way, this has eased a dilemma which plagued the old world: that everyone does not have the same problem. That the faith which soothes one person’s anguish might be the very cause of someone else’s.”

The carriage was now climbing, the road taking them up a steep incline. All around rose the rolling hills Trissiny remembered from her childhood; they were passing through Viridill.

“Works in theory,” Gabriel said skeptically. “Actual religions, though, don’t tend to be quite so…open minded.”

“Yes,” Vidius agreed, nodding. “The fallacy of the god-shaped hole survives; people of faith tend to assume that what fills the void in their heart must do the same for everyone else’s. Which, unfortunately, isn’t the case. But consider the different gods and cults, and how they approach this. Take the gods which embody simple, straightforward archetypes: Izara, Ryneas, Nemitoth. Love, art, knowledge. Their core duality is quite clear: these are the solutions they offer, to the problem of the lack of whatever it is. Now, have any of you ever heard of an Izarite, Rynean or Nemitite loudly insisting that someone should convert to their faith?”

“Izarites do tend to be awfully preachy,” Trissiny muttered, glaring at the passing hills.

“To an Avenist, I’ll bet,” Toby said in a much milder tone. “There’s a deep and well-known doctrinal divide, there. With all respect, Trissiny, Izarites are just about the most inoffensive people in existence. I think your perception of them simply comes from disagreement.”

She snorted, but didn’t try to rebut.

“Good,” Vidius said from up front, nodding again. “In such simple pillars of faith is a built-in acknowledgment that there are answers they cannot provide. Now, consider some others: Eserites, Veskers…” He hesitated fractionally. “Elilinists. Defiance, narrative, cunning. Less concrete ideals, less simple ones, and designed to address a different sort of problem. Overarching problems, the problems which infect whole societies. These cults also do not presume to be universal; they want only a specific kind of person to join them, and don’t aspire to run anyone else’s life. They are, at their core, oppositional.”

“Solving other people’s problems,” said Gabriel, “whether they want it or not.”

“Exactly,” Vidius agreed. “That’s an aggressive way to live, but not a domineering one. And now broaden it further, to the gods of multilayered concepts. Myself, for one. Avei, Omnu, Themynra, Shaath. Duality and death. Justice, war, femininity. Life, the sun, peace. Those are big things, ideas which span huge swaths of mortal experience; things which are not easy to sort into neat little boxes. Even judgment and the wild… Singular concepts, but what are they? How is a person supposed to separate such sweeping ideas out from other aspects of their lives? They subsume everything. And what else do you notice about those cults in particular?”

“Those,” Gabriel said almost defiantly, “are the ones most likely to tell somebody else how they ought to be living their lives.”

“I’ve never heard a Themynrite say such a thing to anyone,” Trissiny protested.

“Themynra’s worship has a racial component which pretty well precludes that,” said Vidius. “The noteworthy thing there, Trissiny, is that it wasn’t Avei you immediately defended.”

“Okay,” she said with growing irritation. “You’ve made your point, but I still don’t think I really understand why you made it. What’s the lesson, here?”

“Speaking as an Avenist, Trissiny,” he said, “what problem are you trying to solve?”

“Injustice,” she replied immediately. “And that is also speaking as an Eserite; it’s only the methods that differ.”

He let out a whistle. “A tall order. What about you, Toby? What’s the problem, and what’s the solution?”

Toby stared rigidly at the distance, looking quite perturbed. “I don’t…know. That’s not… I was never taught to think of it in those terms. Life is important because we are life. Peace is the optimal condition for living. That’s just…how things are.”

“Mm hm,” Vidius said noncommittally. “And you, Gabriel? What problem and solution do you find in Vidianism?”

“Man, the fuck if I even know,” Gabriel said bluntly. “Almost every Vidian I’ve ever met was fully invested in creating their own damn problem, as best I can see.”

The god turned again in his seat to look at them with a satisfied smile. “And that is why I have called a paladin after all these millennia: to correct what I see as a growing problem. In the world, but specifically within my cult. Because when a faith encompasses potentially everything, its practitioners will try to make it encompass everyone. Because people who think they have all the answers are incredibly dangerous, to themselves and everyone around them. And so, I have given the clever Vidians a paladin who has no idea what the hell he’s even doing, one whom I trust to screw around. Because they know a lot less than they think they do, and they need to be made to appreciate that fact. And so, Gabriel, does everyone else.” He fixed his gaze on his own Hand, expression becoming more severe. “You are called to question, to challenge, and to generally make everyone uncomfortable. I don’t expect you to have all the answers. I expect you to force people to consider the questions.”

Gabriel could only gape at him.

“That,” Trissiny said slowly, “just might make this the single most appropriate choice of Hand in all of history.”

“You just had to sneak in a shot,” he muttered, giving her an accusing look.

This time, it was she who prodded him with an elbow. “It’s a good thing, too, Gabe.”

“It’s something to think about,” Vidius said brightly, turning forward again and giving the reins a pull. “Well, this has been great! I’m glad we had the opportunity to chat. But for now, we have arrived.”

The carriage had pulled to a stop on the street of a city, next to a canal. All around them rose structures of white marble, and the city itself ascended along one side in terraces, falling in the other direction to a double set of high walls and a broad plain beyond. In every other direction, towering mountains arose.

“This is Vrin Shai,” Trissiny said in surprise. “Why are we here?”

“I suspect you’ll find that out quite soon,” Vidius said solemnly. “For now, though, I have to be moving along. The business of death is eternal. Everybody out!”

“Thank you very much for the ride,” Toby said politely, standing. “And…the lesson.”

“Yes,” Trissiny agreed. “I have a feeling I’ll be mulling this conversation for quite a while.”

“That’s the mark of a really good conversation, you know,” Vidius replied, while they all clambered out onto the cobblestones. Vestrel flared her wings and ascended, her vague shape vanishing from sight when she departed the carriage. “I hope you do continue to think, and learn. But such things are interludes in life; eventually, the action picks up again. I hope you’ll be ready.” He touched the brim of his hat, nodding to them. “Take care, kids. I’ll see you again.”

And with that, the god of death flicked the reins, the unearthly steeds began moving, and his carriage rolled off into the crowd.

Its departure left them standing with their backs to the stone wall separating them from a drop to the canal below, looking at the street. And directly in front, revealed by the departure of the carriage, was a man staring right at them.

A man with tousled blonde hair, spectacles, and a scowl, with a glowing rat perched on his shoulder. Both of them had their arms crossed.

Trissiny’s eyes widened. “Oh. Um. Hi, Hershel.”

“Hello, Trissiny,” Schwartz said flatly, then raised his hand. A blast of concentrated wind rose out of nowhere and shoved her right into the canal.

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13 – 27

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Darkness receded into dimness, and most of the group shifted physically, both to fall into balanced stances and to peer around at their surroundings. It was a tunnel, that much was no surprise, but after the few seconds it took to make sense of the view they discovered that the walls were curved lengths of glass, or at least something transparent. The murky landscape outside and the relatively faint light they emitted was due to the view being of the bottom of the harbor. There was little to see except mud and the odd strand of kelp, and at that depth there would have been little sunlight even had it not been storming above. The broken wreck of a ship barely visible through the gloom off to their right helped put it all into perspective.

“Ta dah!” Mogul sang, spreading his arms and grinning at them. “Here’s what I can tell you: the Rust themselves stay away from here, and have for years now. They do try to control the access tunnels so you’d have had some issues pushing through, but this place is dangerous as hell and they’ve long since got what they need outta there. So, you’ll have privacy, at least.”

“And you know this because…?” Ruda turned a scowl on him, fingering the hilt of her sword.

“We keep an eye on them,” he said. “I’ve already been over this. I also warned you that I am not going in there, but it bears repeating: this is where we part ways. Nor am I gonna loaf around out here; I don’t mind doing the odd favor but I’m not a taxi service. You’ll have to make your own way back. Try not to let your friend in the cloak get killed and you should be able to find the path. And with that, I will wish you good luck and bid you farewell.”

He stepped back into the dimness, bowing and doffing his hat, and darkness thickened to encompass him, then dissipated to leave nothing behind.

“How thick would this glass have to be to be…um, solid, under this kind of water pressure?” Gabriel asked, touching his fingertips to the curved, transparent wall.

“I am pretty sure that’s not glass,” Fross replied, “if only because the answer to your question is ‘no.’ Really, I don’t get the utility of making the tunnel transparent, anyway. It’s not like there’s anything to see.”

“If this is part of the original construction, then ‘utility’ probably wasn’t a factor,” Milady said, squeezing past the rest of them in the crowded tunnel to approach the door up ahead. “The Infinite Order liked everything grandiose and extravagant. And also, it may not have been underwater, then. It was Naiya who flooded or buried all their facilities, and that was long after the Pantheon’s uprising. Let’s see…”

The tunnel terminated in a metal wall just beyond them, a smooth surface too glossy to be steel and inset with an unfamiliar sigil. It was encircled by an arc of glass—or otherwise transparent—tubing where it met the arched walls of the tunnel, which emitted a weak purple glow. Nearby, a few small screens were attached directly to the transparent walls, flickering faintly.

Milady stepped up to touch the sigil in the center of the door. Nothing happened.

“Surely you didn’t think it would be that easy?” Principia asked, slipping through the press of bodies more adroitly after her.

“Not really,” Milady replied with a sigh, turning to the nearest screen that was still active. “But it was worth trying. It’s awfully embarrassing to try to pick a lock, only to find it wasn’t locked in the first place.”

“Hah! You’re not kidding. I’ve actually had that experience.”

“You, the great thief?”

“We all start somewhere, kid.”

Principia hovered back slightly, watching, but let Milady fiddle with the screen, the pair of them leaving the students to their own devices. Ruda positioned herself at the rear of the group, facing down the empty tunnel with her sword drawn, while Toby pressed himself awkwardly against the arched wall, trying to get a look at what lay ahead. The angle made that fruitless, unfortunately.

“This place is spooky,” Juniper muttered, wrapping arms around herself. “I know I’ve abused the word in the past, but it’s unnatural. I hope my bunny’s okay…”

“I hope my city’s okay,” Ruda said, absently poking the curved wall with the tip of her sword.

“Uh, maybe don’t do that?” Gabriel suggested. “If it’s reinforced by magic, prodding it with mithril…”

“Yeesh.” Ruda whipped the blade away from the walls and stepped to the center of the tunnel.

“Okay, this doesn’t even constitute security,” Milady said, straightening. Even as she spoke, the purple tube encircling the wall ahead began to glow more brightly. “I think the Rust tried to shut this down without really knowing how it works; they turned off the power to the door but didn’t manage to lock it.”

“Probably didn’t have permission,” Principia said, watching the door. “This thing seems to think Scyllith is using it, so it probably wants her credentials before it’ll do anything too—”

She was cut off when, with a flash of the sigil in its center, the metal door abruptly slid straight downward into the floor, opening an archway into the space beyond. Immediately, an ungodly torrent of noise blasted out, a blended cacophony of thumps like distant thunder and the constant roar of rushing water. Before the group could even begin to make sense of this, or the bare glimpse of a large open space beyond, the noise was overwhelmed by an even louder sound: a shrill burst like nails on a blackboard, causing all of them to cringe back and cover their ears and Principia to fall against Milady with a cry of pain.

And then, a scream.

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” howled an echoing voice from within, and the door slammed shut again. This time, the purple half-ring around it turned a dull red and began pulsing slowly.

For a moment, they just stood there, straightening up and staring. Then Principia laughed weakly.

“Hey, good news!” she said, massaging her long ears with both hands. “We’re in the right place.”

“Hm.” Milady was already back at the panel. “Now it’s locked. Avatar override… Drat, we need a member of the Infinite Order to countermand this.”

“Well, we don’t fucking have one of those,” Ruda growled.

“We might,” Milady said, frowning thoughtfully at the screen. “I’ve previously convinced devices like this that I had Naiya’s permission to use them by getting help from her daughters… But that was with more than one, and with a stable Avatar that was willing to work with me in the first place. I don’t have a better idea, though. Juniper?”

The dryad was already at her side, peering at the screen. “How’s this work?”

“It responds to either touch or speech,” Milady explained. “And the facility should have the ability to sense your connection to Naiya’s transcension field. I mean, magic. Here, I’ve pulled up the door controls. Touch that green rectangle there, please.”

Juniper did so, and received a pleasant chime from the screen in response.

“Access insufficient?” she read from the result. “Rude.”

“If I may?” Gabriel stepped forward, drawing his wand, which then extended to its full scythe form. “Give me a little room if you would, ladies. I would really hate to nick somebody with this.”

Everyone backed up while he approached the door. There was no room in the tunnel to swing the long weapon, but he grasped it just below the blade and, carefully holding its haft out of the way as best he could in the confined space, drove it against the metal.

Incredibly, even with his relatively weak swing, the ragged-looking blade sank fully half its length into the glossy door, right in the middle of the Infinite Order sigil.

Reddish tendrils of oxidation began to spread outward from the rent, deepening as they expanded. Right before their eyes, metal darkened and curled away, beginning to fall in flakes to the ground. Rust spread like a colony of lichen, arms reaching all the way to the edges of the door, and the innermost surface rippling and crumbling to emit the chaotic noise from the facility.

“I…don’t know what that alloy is, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t rust,” Milady said weakly, staring at the door as the ancient metal rotted away.

“Nothing doesn’t die,” Gabriel said in a soft tone which was almost obliterated by the sounds from within. Enough of the door had dissolved that the scythe had come loose, and he set about scraping it against the edges of the hole he had made, encouraging the oxidation to spread further.

“Holy fuck, Arquin,” Ruda exclaimed above the noise emerging from the gap. “And you’ve just been carrying that fucking thing around for the last year?!”

“Perhaps Vidius entrusted it to him because he’s not the sort of person who would carelessly swing it about,” Toby suggested.

“Hey, June, a little help?” Gabriel turned to her with a grin. “I think the rest of this calls for more muscle than I’ve got.”

“Now that I can do,” she said, stepping up and grabbing one edge of the rusted gap he had made. Her first few handholds simply collapsed in her grip, but finally she managed to seize a relatively solid edge and pull. The weakened metal tore away in her grasp, and with a little more tugging she finally ripped a large chunk entirely free, exposing a gap big enough for them to step through.

By that point, there was nothing between them and the clamor inside the facility; it was almost too loud to converse. Gabriel slipped through first, ducking under the bent exposed edge of the torn door, Juniper right behind him. The two stepped forward into the space beyond, forming an advance guard while the rest of their party came through in single file—with the exception of Fross, who zipped in right behind Juniper.

Fabrication Plant One was a vast open space apparently set deep into the floor of the bay; at any rate, they emerged right under the ceiling. In fact, directly above the metal platform onto which they stepped was a transparent dome supported by an artistic lattice of metal filaments, revealing the murky light of the ocean above. Stairs descended from directly in front of them to a series of walkways which mostly extended around the edges of the huge chamber, though one, supported by apparently nothing, stretched out dead ahead to terminate in a machine-lined emplacement right above the center of the room.

Ladders extended down to the open area below, where enormous machines stood upon the floor, or were attached to the walls. Or so it appeared they should be; it was hard to tell, because the chamber was partially flooded. About three stories down, seawater rippled under the glow of the room’s bright lighting. There was little order in the equipment there, as well, further obscuring the architecture. It was not like the mess of lichen-like machine parts that characterized the Rust’s hideaway; all the devices here were built on a much larger scale and mostly at angles, lacking the sense of organic growth. It was still chaotic, though, with screens, cranes, grasping arms, and other devices of inscrutable purpose protruding randomly from the water and poking this way and that, affixed to each other in peculiar arrangements serving no obvious purpose. Some moved in evidently pointless patterns, others emitting various noises of constant motion—and in some cases, impact, as they crashed against each other and the walls, showing no evidence of any governing intelligence.

There were no less than four visible leaks in the walls, all near spots where pieces of machinery were flailing with particular abandon, one emitting sparks from some kind of energy cutter. Streams of seawater of varying size poured into the chamber. Large networks of pipes had been built, lattices chaotically extending over the other equipment, attached to pumps which were taking the water away…somewhere. A number of them had been broken by other machines and were squirting seawater back into the flood.

Oddly enough, once they were out in the open space and not the confined, echoing tunnel, the noise didn’t seem nearly so oppressive. At least, they had no trouble hearing Ruda’s muttered observation.

“What a fuckin’ mess.”

“Whatever we’re going to do, we’d better get to quickly,” Principia noted. “I don’t know how long this has been going on, but sooner or later it’s gonna flood completely. Or maybe just collapse under the water pressure.”

“WHO DARES!” bellowed the voice from before. One of the huge machines extended an arm to grab at another, and ripped free a large transparent panel, then raised this to hover near their platform at an angle. In the large sheet of what was probably not glass there suddenly appeared the translucent image of a man, seemingly made of purple light. He was bald, clad in a tight suit of some kind, and leering at them with wide eyes and bared teeth. “Who dares intrude upon the sanctum sanctorum of the Infinite Order?!”

Milady stepped forward and raised her voice. “We’re here to—”

“Hah! It was a rhetorical question, fool! NONE SHALL PASS!”

The arm abruptly dropped the panel, which splashed into the flood below, and reached down in a different direction, this time seizing another extending arm which held at its tip a spark-spraying arc of energy clearly designed to cut, judging by the singed and sliced-off state of several nearby chunks of metal. The larger arm grabbed it behind the cutting device and yanked; with an appalling screech, the second arm was torn free, its damaged end emitting a gout of sparks and occasional arcs of electricity. The machine raised this up, rearing back in clear preparation to slash at them.

“No, you don’t,” Gabriel snapped, leveling his scythe. Black light blasted from its tip, impacting the improvised weapon and knocking the cutting arm cleanly from its grip to tumble into the floodwaters below. Where the dark energy struck, the original arm began to seize up, its joints ceasing to function as rust spread along them.

“Well played!” cried the eerie voice again, and another transparent panel popped up from below, this one held aloft unevenly by two hovering machines. It bobbed and wove awkwardly about, the poorly-coordinated flyers apparently trying to tug it in different directions, but it was steady enough to give them a ghastly view of the purple man grinning insanely at them. “But I have many weapons in my arsenal, oh yes! SOON YOUR DOOM SHALL—”

They never did find out what to expect of their doom, as one of the flying machines abruptly won the tug-of-war, jerking away and subsequently losing its grip on the display panel, which sailed off to clatter against the wall and then tumble gracelessly down to the water.

“There is a crazy man living in the walls,” Fross reported. “Is that normal?”

“All major Infinite Order facilities have an Avatar,” Milady explained, “an artificial intelligence installed in the machines who runs the place, keeps it in order. The one I’ve dealt with before was the very soul of self-possession; the state of this poor fellow is probably the reason this place is such a disaster, and also how he lost control of whatever it is the Rust are using. I think we need to get to there.”

She pointed ahead, at the central platform. It was a partially enclosed spot, with transparent walls sloping outward such that whoever stood within would have a good view around the fabrication plant’s floor. It had also clearly suffered a great deal of recent construction, most of which was visibly haphazard. Machines had been grafted on, parts of the transparent walls ripped away and some shattered to let beams, wires, and pipes pass through. The large clusters of technology affixed to it were supported by a mixture of pillars rising from the flooded floor below and beams attached to the ceiling above.

The ceiling was mostly transparent; some of them had been bolted right into the clear surface. Several of those attachment points were emitting tiny sprays of water.

“Of course we fucking do,” Ruda said fatalistically.

“It occurs to me,” said Toby, “that crossing that narrow walkway while the crazed Avatar flings pieces of machines at us is going to be…dicey.”

“This one’s got a knack for understatement,” Principia noted.

“Gabriel!” Ariel said suddenly. “Grounding and deflecting charm, applied to the platform, now!”

“What?” he exclaimed. “I can’t just do that without—”

“I can!” Fross chimed, zipping around them in a circle and emitting a blue glow as she did so. A gleaming set of runes appeared on the metal beneath their feet.

Barely a second later, a snake-like protrusion slithered up from one of the nearby banks of machinery, its “head” sparking with unevenly discharged electricity, and jabbed itself against the metal walkway adjacent to them. Immediately, a circular area around them lit up and sparked violently as voltage surged against and around it. Fross’s enchantment held, however, keeping the current being pumped into the metal from reaching them.

“Why, you sneaky bastard,” Gabriel said almost admiringly, taking aim with his scythe again. Another dark blast of energy reduced the metal tentacle to shrapnel and cutting off the voltage.

“Will you stop doing that?!” came the Avatar’s voice from somewhere below them. “Security protocols require that you just DIE already!”

“There’s no way,” said Juniper. “These catwalks are horribly vulnerable. And if we make it there, what then? All he has to do is knock that whole mess down and that’s it.”

“That’s clearly a command center,” said Milady, “and he has obviously augmented it. I think it’s too important to destroy; if we get there…”

“You’re counting on two very uncertain things,” said Ruda. “That you’re right, which we can’t know, and that this guy’s lucid enough not to stab himself in the heart even if that is his heart. Which, from the looks of him, he’s not.”

“Actually,” Principia said thoughtfully, “I suggest we retreat.”

“We can’t fucking leave!” Ruda exclaimed. “We have to fix this shit!”

“I said retreat, not surrender,” the elf replied patiently. “Back up, guys, out into the tunnel. We need to regroup and come up with a plan.”

“Yeah, you’d BETTER run,” the Avatar crowed at them as they clambered backward through the wrecked door. “Flee for your insignificant lives! FLEE MY WRATH!”

“It’s a little disappointing that we can’t slam this,” Juniper said as she climbed through. They went in reverse order, making her the next to last to exit, Gabriel right on her heels with his scythe shortened back to wand form.

“Here’s the thing,” Principia said once they were back outside the immediate range of the mad Avatar’s machinations. “Infinite Order systems are supposed to be decentralized.”

“Of course!” Milady exclaimed. “Some functions may be locked to certain consoles, but there are screens out here. If we can get into them, we can do…something, surely.”

“I thought you said he locked those down,” Ruda snapped.

“Yeah, but he’s crazy,” Fross chimed thoughtfully. “If we can get him to make a mistake…”

“How?” Toby asked.

“Arquin.” Principia turned to him. “I know valkyries are only able to interact with the mortal plane under certain conditions. Can you make those conditions?”

Gabriel frowned, then tilted his head and looked off to the side the way he did when listening to Vestrel.

“…apparently I can,” he replied after a moment. “It’s within the purview of the highest-ranking priests of Vidius, which includes me, and the divine scythe provides a shortcut. What did you have in mind?”

“You said you got the Infinite Order’s computers to recognize you as Naiya by getting her daughters to help,” Principia said to Milady. “We’ve got a dryad, a valkyrie, and a pixie.”

“What does the pixie have to do with it?” Milady asked, frowning.

“Oh!” Juniper straightened up. “Well, she’s sort of a…granddaughter of Naiya. Pixies are created by one of my fallen sisters, Jacaranda.”

Milady blinked. “They are?”

“You think that’ll be enough?” Toby asked.

“Not for anything too complex,” Principia said. “Look, I’m no expert on this technology but I have had brushes with old Elder God machines a handful of times, and I do know one trick that consistently works. If they’re not functioning right, you can reset them.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Ruda demanded.

“Shut them off,” Milady said, her eyes widening, “and then turn them back on. Yes! When these systems boot up, they’ll automatically seek to identify and correct any flaws in their program. If the computer will recognize Juniper, Vestrel and Fross as having Naiya’s credentials, we can trigger an emergency shutdown. That’s an important but simple command, so hopefully they’ll be enough. Then we can deal with the sub-OS and find out what’s wrong with the Avatar!”

“The sub…what?” Gabriel scratched his head.

“Long story,” she said impatiently. “It’s a good idea. What do you need to do to get Vestrel out here?”

He was looking off to the side again. “Okay. Vestrel says a simple invocation will do; apparently these things are connected enough to magic that if she can just brush the mortal plane, it’ll detect her presence. I’ll just need a little space here. Clear a circle, if you would.”

They all backed away while he extended his scythe again and began gesticulating carefully with it, marking a circular area on the floor in front of the door.

“Brace yourself,” Milady said softy to Juniper. “One thing I discovered working with a mix of valkyries and dryads is that for some reason, your older sisters are inherently frightening to your generation.”

“I know a bit about that,” she replied. “Aspen told m—”

Juniper cut herself off, eyes widening, and stumbled backward into Toby. The circle Gabriel had lightly scraped on the floor had begun to glow a faint gold, and a wavering figure appeared in its center. She was translucent and obscured, as if seen through cloudy water, but they could make out the shape of a person garbed in black, with folded wings, carrying a scythe.

“You okay?” Toby asked, bracing Juniper by the shoulders.

“I…yeah,” she whispered, straightening up. “Thanks. That’s just… She’s just…”

“Over here,” Milady said gently, beckoning her. “Fross, you too. I’m hoping Vestrel is close enough to register automatically… I need you to instruct the computer to initiate an emergency shutdown of the Avatar.”

“I…okay.” Juniper edged toward her, eyes never leaving the vague shape of Vestrel within her summoning circle until she reached the screen closest to it. There, finally, she turned away, leaning down toward it. “Um… What was the word? Computer? Computer!” she said more forcefully in response to Milady’s encouraging nod. “I…instruct you to…initiate an emergency…shutdown…of the Avatar!”

Nothing happened.

“Tell it who you are,” Principia muttered urgently.

The dryad cleared her throat. “My name’s Jun—oh,” she said, breaking off as Milady elbowed her. “Right. I am…Naiya!” Juniper winced, mumbling to herself, “that seems really disrespectful to say…”

Abruptly, all the screens changed to a flat white display with the sigil of the Infinite Order in its center.

Beyond, the noise of the fabrication plant did not let up.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Ruda said sardonically. “What was Plan B?”

“Computer!” Fross chimed, zooming straight up to the nearest screen. “We are avatars of Naiya, here because this is an emergency and she is not able to come in person! Check our inherent magic—uh, transcension field connections to verify this! You will need to compensate for a partial translocation to the chaos dimension in the case of the third avatar present. This is an emergency command, due to the obvious state of disrepair of this facility! You will shut down the Avatar and all connected systems immediately.”

“Acknowledged,” an oddly resonant feminine voice suddenly said from nowhere. “User Naiya identified with seventy percent confidence. Confidence sufficient to initiate reboot in safe mode. Rebooting.”

And then, abruptly, the lights in the fabrication plant went off, the machines shut down, and total silence descended.

“How,” Milady asked incredulously of Fross, who was now the only source of illumination, “did you know how to do that?”

“Well, it’s a machine, right?” the pixie replied. “A thinking machine? It stands to reason that a machine which thinks would do so in the most logical way possible. I can kinda relate. That’s how I would’ve preferred to—”

Something enormous landed right on top of the arched transparent ceiling with a deep thud, making all of them jump and several shout. In the faint glow of Fross’s silver aura, they could make out a patchwork of scales and metal plates pressed right against the tunnel walls, all but blotting out the entire view.

“It’s…the serpent,” Ruda said slowly. “Holy shit. Is it…dead? Does that mean we won?”

“I really hope this stuff is a lot stronger than it looks,” Gabriel muttered, reaching out to touch the transparent barrier.

“If it can stand up to the water pressure for thousands of years I don’t think that is going to hurt it,” Fross chimed. “Also, it may not be dead. Some creatures go dormant in bad weather; I don’t know anything about sea serpent biology but we did arrange for that storm in part to make it retreat from the surface. So, hey, at least we’re making progress!”

Milady drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Don’t celebrate prematurely. Now we have to figure out what damaged the Avatar, fix that, turn him back on, figure out what nanites are and how the Rust got them, put a stop to that…”

“And,” Gabriel added, cracking his knuckles, “it occurs to me that with everything shut off, those machines are no longer pumping out the water coming in through those leaks, so we just put ourselves under a very unforgiving deadline. Let’s get to work, guys.”


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10 – 13

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“All right, hear ye and all that shit,” Ruda proclaimed as soon as everyone was seated. “I’m callin’ this meeting of the Class of 1182 to order.”

“And Schkhurrankh,” Scorn added, raising a hand.

“Right, yes,” Ruda agreed. “Class of 1182 and their sidekick, Phlegm the Mighty.”

Suddenly scowling thunderously, Scorn started to rise from her chair.

“Vrash’khai nkh thrimpf,” Teal said softly. The Rhaazke paused, glancing at her guiltily, then sank back down. Teal turned to Ruda, scowling herself, now. “Will you please not mock her? She’s working to adjust.”

“Fuck yes I’m gonna mock her,” Ruda said bluntly. “I mock everybody. She’s supposed to be learning how to get along on this plane, right? Well, she can’t be flying off the handle at anybody who looks at her crosswise.”

“That actually is true, and important to learn,” Gabriel said more quietly, directing himself to Scorn. “Being demon-blooded on this plane means trying extra hard not to make waves. A lot of people barely need an excuse to attack you to begin with.”

“Let them,” Scorn huffed, folding her arms. “I collect they faces!”

“Who has been teaching her words?” Juniper asked, frowning at Ruda.

“I think we need to have a few conversations about this later,” Toby murmured.

“Anyfuckingway!” Ruda shouted. “Before this digressed into a discussion of demon social skills, we were gathered here for a reason!”

“A reason in addition to lunch?” Gabriel asked, picking up his sandwich.

“Arquin, by Naphthene’s pendulous teats, I swear—”

“Yes, yes, fucking stabbed, I know,” he said around a mouthful.

There were several spots around campus with picnic tables, all isolated from each other and most somewhat shaded by trees or buildings. No space had been provided for the entire student body to move an organized meal outside the cafeteria, unless they wanted to lay it out on the lawn, but the outdoor tables represented opportunities for smaller groups to gather for food or study sessions. The sophomores had, at Ruda’s insistent urging, collected lunch from the cafeteria as usual and made their way to a nook close to the alchemy building near the campus’s east wall. Actually, the table here had appeared only a few weeks ago; previously the spot had only held a few trees, one of which had been altered somehow during the first week of classes to look almost anthropomorphic.

When asked about this, Professor Tellwyrn had only said cryptically that anyone seeking to torture classmates should do it their damn selves and not involve innocent shrubbery.

“Here’s the issue,” Ruda said, laying her hands down flat on both sides of her plate and panning a stare around the table. “Trissiny keeps sensing demons.”

“It was just twice,” Trissiny said hastily. “It’s the circumstances that are strange.”

“Right,” said Ruda, nodding. “Both times, other people present who should have been perceptive to a demon felt nothing. The first time, though, Scorn did feel it, and could even identify it by species.”

“Vanislaas child, yes, I remember,” said Scorn, looking bored and still somewhat annoyed. “But that is one time. Last night, you interrupt my sleep for nothing.”

“Right, that’s what I was coming to,” said Ruda. “The difference is, the first time Scorn was right there, while the second, she was five floors down.”

“For stealthy species of demon, such as Vanislaads,” said Shaeine, “that distance would make all the difference in whether a sensitive individual would detect its presence.”

Gabriel raised his hand. “I am being invisibly harangued to insist that there is not and hasn’t been a Vanislaad demon on this campus, and Vestrel is beginning to be insulted at the lack of faith being expressed.”

“Hard to have faith in something you can’t see,” Juniper murmured, absently lowering her hand to pat her jackalope, who was back at Clarke Tower. He had been banned from the cafeteria after charging at Mrs. Oak and demolishing a rack of glasses.

“Isn’t that what faith…is?” Fross chimed.

“Right!” Ruda said loudly, slapping the table for emphasis. “Fuck’s sake, people, I’m starting to empathize with Tellwryn, and that pisses me off. Can’t you lot keep your focus for thirty seconds at a time?”

“Is food time,” Scorn mumbled around an unnecessarily visible mouthful. Everyone averted their eyes. “Better things to do than watch you speech.”

“I see two basic possibilities here,” Ruda went on, ignoring her. “One, to get it out of the way, is that Trissiny’s losing her mind.”

Trissiny sighed.

“Uh,” said Gabriel. “I don’t think…”

“Yeah, I’ve honestly ruled that out immediately,” Ruda continued. “And not just out of personal attachment. If the Hand of Avei were suffering mental disturbances…well, that would create notice. Anything from the Sisterhood discreetly sending people here to collect her to Avei coming down and putting a stop to it. You can’t have your soul hooked up to a deity and them not take note when shit’s seriously wrong with you.”

“That’s more correct than you may realize,” Toby added. “Paladins don’t go insane—there have been observations written on this for centuries. It’s another reason paladins are used as front-line defenders in the case of chaos incidents. That kind of direct mental connection to a deity protects the mind from severe damage.”

“Right,” said Ruda, nodding. “So, unless anybody can think of something I haven’t, we’d best assume that Trissiny and her ‘sense evil’ thingamajig are functioning as intended.”

“What’s your actual idea, then?” Teal asked after a moment, in which there was no sound except chewing.

“Assuming that her senses are working correctly isn’t the same as assuming what they’re sensing is true,” said Ruda. “Senses can be fooled. We’ve got two other paladins to contradict Trissiny’s impressions, and especially Gabe’s valkyries. I get the idea they’re kind of specialized anti-incubus agents. Right?”

“Anti-undead would be more accurate,” Gabriel replied, setting down his sandwich. “Remember that Vanislaads are demonic undead, not true demons. But yes, their extra-dimensional origin makes them especially visible to valkyries, who themselves exist multi-dimensionally. Vanislaad stealth and shape-shifting absolutely do not work against soul reapers.”

“You are suggesting that someone is deliberately sending false positive demon signals to Trissiny?” Shaeine asked, frowning faintly.

“Nothing else makes sense to me,” Ruda replied. “That just leaves the questions of who and why.”

“I should think the how is also a significant concern,” said Ariel.

Ruda sighed. “Arquin, do you have to bring that thing with you everywhere?”

“Funny. I was going to ask Trissiny the same thing, but it turns out this meeting was your idea.”

“She always has a helpful perspective on magical matters,” said Gabriel, “you just have to learn to tune out the other commentary. Speaking of which, Ariel, you have any insight on this? And kindly refrain from irrelevant personal observations.”

“If you would refrain from associating with irrelevant persons, I would have none to make. To answer the question, however, the key issue here is that two other paladins in proximity to Trissiny were not alerted during the first incident. Sending out signals to trigger senses of that kind is rather simple magic, and would not be noticeable to valkyries; Fross could probably do it.”

“Aw, thanks!” Fross chimed. “I don’t actually know a spell for that, but now that you mention it, it seems pretty easy to reverse-enchant from the description…”

“At issue,” Ariel continued, “is that sending such a signal in such a way that it triggered only one specific person’s senses while avoiding others is inordinately complex magic. I can extrapolate arcane, infernal and fae methods of doing such a thing, but all would require significant energy reserves and a highly sophisticated casting. I frankly do not know what to make of the fact that the demon perceived the same signal. Data on Rhaazke is generally lacking on this plane of existence.”

Everyone turned to look at Scorn, who was busily licking the napkins in which she had carried her sandwich, and eying Toby’s half-eaten one. He nudged it away from her.

“Well, the sword’s not wrong,” Ruda admitted. “How is indeed a concern. But to backtrack, I think who and why are still things we should discuss, since we seem to be at a dead end there.”

“The who would explain the why if we knew it, I think,” Teal mused. “Any number of people might want to take potshots at the Hand of Avei. Most of those have motivations built right into their affiliations.”

“Something about that troubles me,” said Shaeine. “In Tar’naris we have a saying: ‘Evil yields only to a greater evil.’”

“Well, that’s grim,” Gabriel commented.

“I believe I understand what she’s getting at, though,” said Trissiny, nodding. “The Avenist proverb is ‘if the wicked feared the righteous, they would be righteous themselves.’ Assuming this is the work of someone with an established enmity to me… I don’t have any personal nemeses, that I know of. And if it’s someone opposed to Avei, it is very strange that they would attack me here.”

“Uh, here’s where you are, though,” Juniper said.

“Perhaps I muddied the issue with my choice of words,” said Shaeine. “My apologies. ‘Evil’ is a somewhat naïve concept most often used to dismiss foreign perspectives. My point, and Trissiny’s if I am not mistaken, is that any of the parties who would be inclined to assault Avei’s interests would also tend to shy away from antagonizing Professor Tellwyrn. Between her and Avei, I would hesitate to guess whose wrath is more fierce, but Tellwyrn’s is indisputably more indiscriminate.”

“This who becomes an increasingly interesting question,” Ruda mused.

“Well, one prospect springs right to mind,” said Gabriel. “I assume you all remember that asshole in the white suit from Veilgrad. He played us all like fiddles—if Malivette hadn’t jumped into that, the whole thing would’ve been a clean Black Wreath victory. Here, we don’t have a vampire backing us up, and even then she pulled it off through sheer element of surprise.”

“That is a significant point,” Shaeine agreed, nodding. “Professor Tellwyrn is, at present, a somewhat static entity, and it has been observed before that she can be maneuvered around. These particular tactics suggest discretion of exactly that kind.”

“And the Black Wreath are excellent candidates for someone looking to start trouble for the Hand of Avei,” said Toby. “What’s curious is that they specifically avoided doing the same to me and Gabe. Seems like they should have just as much of a problem with us.”

“Maybe not,” said Trissiny. “I mean no offense, but Omnu and Vidius aren’t usually represented on the front lines against the Wreath. Avei’s forces are.”

“Hn,” Ruda grunted. “If anything, this makes the motive more obscure, not less. It’s fine and dandy to call this general Black Wreath fuckery, but remember their defining characteristic is they don’t do shit without a plan in place. What do they gain from ruffling Trissiny’s hair?”

“Provocation?” Shaeine suggested.

“I could see them maybe wanting to goad her into making a mistake,” Gabriel said, frowning, “but I can’t see how this leads to that. If I were the Wreath, aimlessly pissing off the Hand of Avei would not be on my agenda. Stop me if I’m wrong, Trissiny, but based on the crash courses Tarvadegh’s been feeding me, the Wreath’s strength is its cunning. In a straight-up fight, hardly any warlock is a match for a paladin, especially one of Avei’s. If it’s them, there’s gotta be something more going on.”

“We don’t have any actual info on that yet,” Ruda cautioned, “but you’re right, Gabe. We’d best be on the alert for something further to develop. Anyhow, while this is a productive theory, remember we haven’t established for a fact that this is the Wreath’s doing.”

“Who else?” asked Teal.

Ruda drummed her fingers once on the picnic table. “Well. There’s one other prospect…maybe. Ravana has a theory.”

Teal stiffened. “When were you talking with Ravana about this?”

“Ravana’s the little blonde one, right?” said Gabriel. “Of the new froshes I’ve only really talked to Iris.”

“Let me backtrack a bit,” said Ruda. “This started with the revival, and Bishop Snowe’s very un-Izarite shot across Tellwyrn’s bow. Then, after the cults packed up and left, there were two extra priests left over—an Avenist and a Vidian.”

“There’s a new Vidian priest?” Gabriel said, straightening up. “I haven’t been really involved at the temple since this weekend…”

“Sister Takli isn’t assigned to the Silver Mission in any official capacity,” Trissiny added. “But she’s staying in Last Rock for awhile, and wanted to volunteer while she’s around. That seemed perfectly admirable to me.”

“Has there ever been a priestess of Avei who randomly moved to town before?” Ruda said pointedly.

“The Mission wasn’t here before,” Trissiny replied. “Neither was I. I thought it was odd, but nothing about it seems sinister. I’m not sure where you’re going with this, Ruda.”

“Well,” Ruda continued, “yesterday there was the play, and the impromptu picnic, where Juniper’s bunny caused a scene, remember? Well, that new Vidian was there, right before, and immediately got involved.”

“What’s your point?” Gabriel asked, frowning.

“I’m repeating a theory, not proposing it,” Ruda replied. “Ravana found the sequence of events suspicious—she wanted to come to the paladins with this, but I asked her not to. That’s just something I prefer to do myself. Honestly, I’ve seen that girl’s type, and she’s trouble; it remains to be seen whether she’s trouble for us or someone else.”

“You have no idea how right you are,” Teal said grimly. Shaeine reached to hold her hand under the table.

“But her theory is that Archpope Justinian is using proxies to move against the University. Agitating the townsfolk, that kinda thing. Remember how Jack suddenly lunged at that guy from a standstill?” Ruda turned to Gabriel. “Arquin, hypothetically speaking, how possible would it be for a Vidian cleric to use a little spark of divine magic to flick a rabbit’s ear, and more cult-specific gifts to make sure no onlookers noticed it?”

“What?” Juniper sat bolt upright in her seat.

“Easy, there,” Toby murmured, patting her arm.

“Hypothetically speaking?” Gabriel pursed his lips, frowning at the table. “It’s the divine spark bit that would be tricky, there, but it could be done with a very small shielding spell. That’s possible, Ruda, but this whole thing seems really tenuous to me.”

“What?” Juniper snarled, rising from her seat. “Are you saying that woman hurt my bunny?!”

“Whoah!” Toby and Teal immediately lunged from both sides, taking her by the shoulders. Not that they were physically strong enough to hold the dryad down, but she at least stopped while Toby continued. “Nobody’s saying that, June. Gabe’s right, the idea is seriously a stretch. Why would a priest do such a thing?”

“Now who is fly off the handle?” Scorn commented, smirking.

“I thought something was wrong!” Juniper growled. “Jack doesn’t just freak out like that for no reason!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Ruda exclaimed. “He does that all the damn time!”

“He really does, June,” said Toby. “Everyone’s noticed it. Haven’t you seen how people leave the area when you bring him around?”

“I hate to have to tell you this,” Gabriel added, “but that rabbit’s a menace.”

“He’s not a rabbit,” Juniper said sullenly, finally letting herself be nudged back into her seat. “He’s a jackalope. There’s a difference. They’re excitable. It’s not his fault!”

“That is correct,” Ariel observed. “Since wild animals cannot be expected to train themselves, it is clearly your fault.”

Gabriel silently stood up, unbuckled the sword from his belt, laid her on the bench and sat on her.

“Thank you,” Ruda said to him.

“I believe I follow Ravana’s line of thinking,” said Shaeine. “If her theory is correct, this priestess’s actions would be consistent—assuming she actually committed such an action instead of simply being present while Jack exhibited perfectly characteristic behavior. Agitating the bunny to create a scene between students and citizens would advance this hypothetical goal. However, that scenario is constructed almost entirely of unverified assumptions.”

“Ravana’s a sly little snake,” added Teal. “If there are political machinations afoot, then it’d be a very good idea to listen to her—she’s probably more of an expert on that than anyone our age has a right to be. But the other side of that is I think she’ll be pretty likely to see hidden motives where they don’t actually exist.”

“Why on earth would the Archpope want to attack the University?” Trissiny exclaimed. “How could he possibly gain from that?”

“I dunno,” Gabriel mused. “Snowe did make that speech—we all saw it. And what she did afterward, or tried to. Plus, Tarvadegh’s warned me to be careful about the Universal Church; Justinian has a reputation for being a smooth operator.”

“He seems pretty popular with the general public,” Teal said, frowning.

“You do understand what a smooth operator is, right?” Ruda said dryly.

“Mother Narny and Commander Rouvad have both said similar things to me, now that you mention it,” Trissiny mused, her expression growing thoughtful.

“No one’s said anything like that to me,” Toby objected.

“It stands to reason that the various cults would have different attitudes toward the Universal Church,” suggested Shaeine. “A defining trait of Omnists seems to be their inclination to get along with everyone. By contrast, Avenists are constitutionally more combative, and Vidians more…subtle.”

“You can say it,” Gabriel said with a grin. “’Two-faced’ isn’t even taken as an insult in the faith.”

“Guys, I think this is wandering off the point,” Fross chimed. “Remember where we started from? Are you seriously going to suggest that the Universal Church is trying to antagonize Trissiny with false fragments of demon aura?”

A short silence fell across the table.

“Yeah, I’m inclined to agree with Fross, here,” said Ruda, nodding slowly. “Figured I should mention Ravana’s ideas; if there’s underhanded fuckery afoot, they’re worth considering. But this kind of shit in particular seems a lot more characteristic of the Black Wreath than the Universal Church. Pretty much by definition.”

“I’m not entirely convinced this Church thing has anything to it,” Teal added. “Though…I may be biased. Ravana Madouri really makes me nervous.”

“At some point, Teal,” said Gabriel, “I think we’re gonna need to hear the story behind that.”

“Regardless of that, she has a point,” said Toby. “Even if Justinian’s as much of a politician as you’re suggesting, and even considering Bishop Snowe’s behavior—which was extremely creepy at minimum, I’ll agree—I can’t see any possible motivation for the Archpope to try to start trouble with the University.”

“You children should make more of an effort to keep up with the news,” Professor Ekoi said brightly. Everyone jumped, staring; she was standing at the head of the table, smiling benignly, and had definitely not been a moment before. The kitsune laid a short stack of newspapers on the end of the picnic table. “There are fascinating things in the headlines today, quite relevant to your discussion. I happened to pick up the fresh editions in Calderaas this morning.”

“What were you doing in Calderaas?” Gabriel demanded.

Ekoi fixed her eyes on him, her smile widening to show her long canines. “On the subject of invasive personal questions, Mr. Arquin, why are your undershorts flying from a flagpole on the main lawn?”

“What?” he exclaimed. “There’s not a flagpole on the lawn. I don’t even know what you’re talking oh gods please tell me you didn’t.”

Ruda collapsed in laughter, nearly sliding off the bench.

“Remember, Mr. Arquin,” Ekoi said solemnly, “manners are miniature morals. You kids may keep those—I think you will find them enlightening. I shall see you in class.”

She turned and sauntered away, tail waving languidly behind her.

“I disavow any knowledge of anything flying from any flagpoles,” Gabriel announced. “On an unrelated subject, you guys know if there’s a shop in Last Rock where you can get clothes on the cheap?”

“Don’t buy cheap clothes,” Teal said, lips twitching. “They just need to be replaced faster.”

“Uh, guys?” Juniper said, holding up the topmost newspaper so they could all see the headline.

“Snowe vs. Tellwyrn?” Teal read aloud. “How does anyone think that’s even a contest?”

“Are they all like that?” Trissiny asked, reaching for the remaining stack.

Ruda grabbed it first, spreading them across the table amidst the remains of their sandwiches. “Looks like…yup. Wow, I wouldn’t have expected one Bishop’s speech to generate this much interest in the newspapers. Was it really that newsworthy?”

“I…guess?” Teal said uncertainly.

“Or,” Shaeine murmured, “someone has exerted influence on the papers to make this happen.”

Another brief silence fell.

“So,” Ruda said, drumming her fingers on top of one of the newspapers, “the Church or the Wreath. Well, they both have a motive, though I still can’t tell what the Church’s is. They clearly are taking aim at the University, though.”

“Is this something we should be worried about?” Fross asked nervously. “I have to admit I’ve sorta skipped politics in my reading. I mean, apart from what we’ve been over in Professor Tellwyrn’s class, which isn’t exactly…current.”

“This is something for Professor Tellwyrn to worry about,” Toby said firmly. “Someone targeting Trissiny is our business.”

“And hers,” Gabriel pointed out. “Come on, you know that’s exactly what she’d say. Don’t you guys think we ought to take this to her?”

“I’m not sure I want to approach her, with the mood she’ll be in when she sees this,” Juniper muttered, still reading the paper.

“We’re not gonna have Tellwyrn’s skirts to hide behind forever,” Ruda snapped. “And we will have many of these same problems. We know the Wreath is after Vadrieny, and from what you guys said about what happened in Veilgrad, that guy seemed weirdly interested in the paladins. It stands to reason the Archpope would have similar interests, whatever it is he’s doin’ here. No, we deal with this.”

“How?” Teal asked.

“Well,” Ruda said thoughtfully, leaning backward and staring absently at the scattered newspapers, “we’re gonna need more information, first. Which of our prospects is actually behind the demon shit getting thrown at Triss?”

“Wreath,” Scorn snorted. “Is obvious. You are stupid?”

“Teal, I’m gonna stab your demon in a minute,” Ruda growled.

“Why is it obvious?” Teal asked Scorn.

The Rhaazke shrugged. “Sword say the hard part being the hiding, yes? Easy spell, but hard to make Trissiny only sense the aura? Well, I sense it too, so is Wreath hiding.”

“What?” Gabriel frowned. “What did she say?”

“Why does that mean it’s a Wreath spell?” Trissiny demanded.

Scorn looked incredulously around the table at them. “I am Rhaazke.”

“Yep,” Ruda said. “Gonna stab her.”

“Scorn,” Gabriel said irritably, “pretend for a moment that you’re from a completely different plane of existence with different rules, and nobody here knows what the hell you are talking about!”

“If I understand correctly,” Shaeine said before Scorn could react to that, “you are saying that the Wreath’s gift of stealth does not work against Rhaazke?”

“How’d you get that outta that word salad?” Ruda exclaimed. “And that’s another thing, Tanglish isn’t demonic. You can’t just mix words together at fucking random!”

“That’s what I thought she said,” Fross chimed.

Scorn sighed dramatically. “You know nothing. Fine, I explain. The goddess, she does not trust demons. They are made by Scyllith, and made to be hard for control. Also some still being loyal to Scyllith. Rhaazke are different; Scyllith throws us out, very long ago. So in Hell, when Elilial takes command, she does not trust demons to be in charge. Her highest…um… What is word?” She turned to Teal. “Servants in charge?”

“Lieutenants?” Teal suggested.

“Llllluuuutennn…” Scorn drawled out the word and gave up halfway through, shaking her head. “You all complain my language is silly.”

“Anyway,” Gabriel prompted.

“Yes, fine, going on. Highest… People being in charge under the goddess, they are the archdemons,” she nodded to Teal, “and some others she makes herself. Very unique beings, not like the demon races. Prince Vanislaas, the Shroudwraith, Kelvreth of the Eyes… Others like them. Not being of Hell’s races, they are loyal to her. Well, our queen, Srkhankhvrithz, she is one of these highest leewww…in charge. But the other Rhaazke, we serve a little lower, but still over the demons. Hell is not our home, we have always hated Scyllith, and the Lady Elilial gives us everything, so we are trusted servants,” she said proudly.

“So…Rhaazke are middleman administrators in Hell?” Ruda said, frowning. “What’s that got to do with you being able to sense through Wreath fuckery?”

Scorn shrugged irritably. “Obviously, we have powers given to do our tasks, yes? We served the Lady before the Wreath was made, and we stand closer to her. Humans are not permitted in Hell, but humans are also not trusted. Some try things, even some Wreath. Rhaazke must be able to hunt through their tricks, yes?” She grinned. “Not all Rhaazke have as many gifts, but I am noble bloodline, being trained for high service. This stealth the Black Wreath has, it is the Lady’s gift, and she decides where it does not work.”

“Fascinating,” said Ariel, slightly muffled under Gabriel.

“If that’s true,” Trissiny said slowly, “we have a perfect counter to the Black Wreath’s greatest weapon.”

“It also means Scorn’s right,” added Toby. “That would explain perfectly why the spell aimed at Trissiny caught her as well. If the concealment was a Wreath stealth that doesn’t work on her… It has to be them.”

“It also means we can beat them,” said Gabriel, grinning fiercely.

“Yes!” Scorn said, smiling back.

“Hang on,” Ruda interrupted. “Scorn, does the Wreath know Rhaazke can do this?”

“Not for them to know,” Scorn said haughtily. “If they know, they can sneak around it, yes? Then is pointless.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Juniper asked.

“She literally just explained it,” said Ruda in exasperation. “After Veilgrad the Wreath know we’ve got a Rhaazke. If they knew their concealment doesn’t work on her, they could compensate. But if Scorn is right, they don’t.”

“Which means,” said Trissiny, her eyes widening, “we have exactly what we need to outmaneuver them.”

“Yes!” Scorn cried, grinning broadly.

“Um,” Toby said, “you do realize that in order to capitalize on this advantage, you’re going to have to keep Scorn near you and…wait for them to strike again?”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, frowning.

“Yes!” Scorn repeated. “We will have fun! We go to classes and visit the town and when the Wreath moves again, we crush them!”

“…great,” Trissiny said weakly.

“Whoah, now, stop,” Ruda interjected. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we need a plan. First, this advantage has to be protected; we can’t let the Wreath learn that Scorn can see through their defenses.”

“Yes, very true,” Scorn said, deflating. “This is secret—Wreath is not to learn.”

“Also,” Teal added, “it’s not clear to me exactly how we can capitalize on this. If the Wreath is just making Trissiny sense the presence of demons that aren’t there, having Scorn sense them too changes…what?”

“Right,” Ruda said, nodding. “We need to come up with a plan.”

“To begin with,” Fross chimed, “I may be able to work out a spell to augment Trissiny’s senses—there has to be a way to track those signals more precisely, rather than just perceiving them. It’ll be really tricky for me to work with divine magic, though…”

“I know a spell for that,” Ariel said from under Gabriel. “Trissiny will have to cast it herself, but I can walk her through the process. After a few weeks of basic schooling in divine spellwork, she hopefully possesses the basic competence.”

“That sounds like a skill I would be interested in learning anyway,” Trissiny agreed.

While they carried on talking, Gabriel surreptitiously shifted, pulling Ariel out from under himself and gripping her by the hilt. Her scabbard hid the patterns of faint blue light that flickered along her blade as he ignited a charm they had worked out previously.

“Vestrel,” his voice echoed from the sword, silently but resonating through the dimensional medium in which the valkyries dwelt.

Invisible to the others, a black-clad figure approached him from behind, spreading one ebon wing protectively over him as she leaned forward. “Something on your mind, little brother?”

He glanced fleetingly up at her with a small smile, quickly enough that his classmates did not notice, absorbed in their discussion. “What do you know about this new cleric in town?”

“Nothing, really. We don’t keep track of them all. Why?”

“There’s something going on. It’s too perfect, more priests arriving just as Bishop Snowe starts trouble with Tellwryn and the newspapers start carrying these tales. Are the girls too busy to do me a favor?”

“Never,” Vestrel said with a grin, affectionately brushing him with her pinions. They didn’t physically connect, of course. “We can spare the time to see what the new priestess gets up to when she thinks no one is looking. The Avenist, too?”

His eyes flickered at Trissiny, who was paying attention to what Toby was saying. “I don’t know… That seems wise, but also like it’d be stepping on Triss’s toes.”

“What she doesn’t know hurts nothing. And if a cleric of her faith is indeed trying to manipulate her…”

“Point taken. If you would, then.”

“Oh, this sounds like it’ll be fun!”

“Stop, back up,” Ruda said sharply in response to Juniper’s last objection. “Nothing just happens without context—just because we’re pretty sure the Wreath is behind these specific events does not mean we can just ignore whatever the hell the Church is up to.”

“Indeed,” Shaeine agreed. “Even if the Wreath are not responsible for the trouble presently being stirred up, trouble can be taken advantage of by anyone. We must not develop blind spots—everything going on here deserves our attention.”

“I’m still lost as to why the Church would attack the University, though,” Toby said, shaking his head. “I just don’t see any benefit in that. And in its own way, the Church is almost as inscrutable as the Wreath; Triss, Gabe and I can probably get some information from them, but you can be sure they’ll stonewall us about anything they’re doing with regard to the University we all attend.”

“Maybe not, though!” Fross chimed. “Can it hurt to ask?”

“Fuck yes it can,” Ruda said firmly. “If they’re playing games with us, letting them know we’re onto them will only make it worse. I can’t see the Universal fucking Church backing down from a challenge.”

“Well,” Gabriel said mildly, “keep in mind that just because we don’t know everything now doesn’t mean we won’t learn more.”

“How exactly are we going to learn more?” Ruda asked, exasperated.

He shrugged. “I’m pretty sure something will come up.”

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8 – 8

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The entire sophomore class appeared in Tellwyrn’s dimly-lit office with a series of small pops, over the course of about five seconds.

“Dammit!” Ruda shouted after getting her bearings. “Can you not at least ask first, woman? What if somebody had been changing?”

“Someone was,” Toby exclaimed, feeling nervously at his clothes. “I don’t know whether I’m less or more disturbed to find myself fully dressed, now.”

“Wow, that’s really impressive,” Fross chimed. “That’s a whole order of magnitude more complex than a standard teleportation.”

“At least twice that,” Professor Tellwyrn said calmly. She was seated behind her desk as usual, framed by the unshuttered windows granting a view of the clear night sky. Only the small fairy lamp above the desk was active, leaving the room mostly in semi-darkness. “Based on my observations of you precious little buggers, I am playing a hunch. Mr. Arquin has just brought something rather unsettling to my attention which, at first glance, seems it should concern only himself and Juniper, but I have the most peculiar feeling I’m about to find that the lot of you will either become involved, or already are.”

“Peculiar feeling?” Juniper said nervously, hugging her jackalope to her chest. Jack hung with his back legs dangling, and to judge by the way he kicked and squirmed, wasn’t enjoying it. Being continually prodded about the head and neck with his antlers didn’t seem to discomfort the dryad. “About something unsettling involving Gabe and me? What’d I do?”

“It appears,” said Tellwyrn, staring at her, “there is a new dryad sniffing around Last Rock.”

“What?” Juniper squawked. “Which?”

“She said her name was Aspen,” said Gabriel.

“Oh!” Juniper brightened considerably. “That’s probably okay, then, she’s really nice.”

“June, I don’t know how to break this to you gently,” he said with a wince, “but she tried to kill me.”

“I’m guessing you talked to her first,” Trissiny said dryly.

Gabe shot her a long look, then sighed. “Look, I know when I’ve provoked someone, and I didn’t. I was very diplomatic. She came here looking for a fight.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Juniper whispered. Jack finally kicked free of her, and she had to lunge after him as he bounded for the door. It was closed, fortunately.

“I actually met Aspen once,” said Fross. “She seemed nice to me, but it was a brief sort of conversation. Why’d she try to kill you?”

“More important,” said Teal, “how did you get out of that situation? You’re obviously not killed, and I think we’d have noticed if somebody nearby had harmed a dryad.”

“I can’t take credit,” he said ruefully, rubbing at his neck with one hand. “This was on the Vidian temple grounds. Soon as she got her hand on my throat, the valkyries chased her off.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“There are valkyries around here?” Trissiny exclaimed.

Wordlessly, Gabriel and Tellwyrn both pointed at an empty space in front of the Vernis Vault with the music player on top. Everyone immediately shuffled back from it.

“There are usually several around the last few months,” Gabriel said. “They sorta rotate in and out; they’ve all got other things to do but it seems like they hang around me in their free time. This is Vestrel; she’s the only actually assigned to help me. She says hello.”

“Hi, Vestrel!” Fross chirped enthusiastially.

“Gods, please tell me I’m not the only one who doesn’t see anybody,” said Ruda.

“Valkyries don’t actually occupy the mortal plane,” Tellwyrn explained. “They can’t even be seen here except on Vidian holy ground and in places where the dimensional barriers have thinned. They also cannot interact physically with anything that’s not…out of place. Undead, ghosts, Vanislaad demons, things like that.”

“So, could they be present, say, around a fresh hellgate?” Ruda asked in an interested tone. “Cos I’ve gotta say, couple of those woulda been really useful this spring. What with tall, dark and creepy clearly hanging around anyway.”

“And incidentally,” Tellwyrn added with asperity, “this fact should not be mentioned in front of Aspen, should any of you find yourselves having a conversation with her. We’ve found one way of scaring her into behaving; she doesn’t need to know its limitations.”

“Why would a dryad be afraid of valkyries, though?” Juniper asked, frowning and stroking Jack’s fur. She had him settled in a more comfortable position in her arms. “Dryads are, like, the ultimate apex predator. Nothing is dangerous to us.”

“You’ve never met a dragon,” Tellwyrn remarked. “We can explore that another time.”

“Also, what’s a valkyrie?”

“If I may, Juniper?” the Professor said acidly.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, flushing.

“Aspen’s stated reason for being here, according to Mr. Arquin, is to look for you. She seems to be under the impression that you’re dead.”

Gabriel sighed, looking over at the others. In nearly perfect unison, most of them stiffened, eyes widening. Shaeine merely tilted her head, raising an eyebrow.

“And there it is,” Tellwyrn said with grim satisfaction. “The oh-so-familiar expression of a bunch of kids realizing exactly how they’ve screwed up. It would almost be satisfying if it weren’t going to result in a whole bunch of unnecessary hassle for me. See, I knew the lot of you were involved with this. All right, spit it out. Why is there a dryad poking around my University believing in Juniper’s alleged demise?”

“Well…” Juniper trailed off, gulped, and bent to set Jack on the floor. He immediately hopped off into a corner away from the group. “I think it’s because of what happened in the Crawl.”

She paused, watching Tellwyrn warily; the Professor simply raised an eyebrow.

“There was this…sort of…room. A complex of halls, more like. It was full of illusions that made us face…um, fears.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “Yes, I read Professor Ezzaniel’s report. That is why I wasn’t more irate at you getting rid of my incubus; I obviously can’t have him sending my students on detours that dramatic. Go on.”

“Well, I…” Juniper swallowed again, glancing at the others. Teal stepped over to squeeze her shoulder encouragingly. “I sort of had to…come to grips with…some stuff. I mean… Well…”

“I don’t need to interrogate you about your emerging conscience unless it’s immediately relevant to the issue,” Tellwyrn said. “You’ve been making positive progress in that regard, Juniper. Kindly skip to the non-stuttering part that explains this fresh brouhaha.”

Juniper sighed and nodded. “I was having trouble dealing with it, so… Shaeine helped me by invoking Themynra’s judgment, which was… Well, Themynra seemed not to condemn me. So I asked Trissiny to do the same thing. With Avei’s.”

Tellwyrn’s eyebrows slowly narrowed; her eyes thinned to slits behind her spectacles. “You didn’t.”

“She insisted,” said Trissiny, standing stiffly at attention.

“You do realize,” Tellwyrn said in a dangerously quiet tone, “that given the average dryad’s habits, that could very easily have resulted in your classmate’s death?”

“I knew the risks,” Juniper said hastily. “I asked her to, Professor. She didn’t want to.”

“Why is it,” Tellwyrn said, ignoring her, “that every time you fail to think something through, Avelea, you nearly end up getting somebody murdered?”

Trissiny flushed and lowered her eyes, offering no comment.

“All right, well,” Tellwyrn said after a moment. “Clearly Juniper’s not dead. Thanks for small blessings. But somehow your fellow dryads now think you are?”

“She…” Juniper paused, sighed, and squared her shoulders. “Avei cut me off from Naiya.”

“Bullshit. That would simply have killed you.”

“That’s what Elder Shiraki said,” she replied. “It wasn’t a complete severing, more of a block. It means…I don’t have Naiya’s protection anymore. Avei thought it would be an appropriate punishment to have me, you know, on my own in the world. I…don’t disagree.” She trailed off, looking at the floor. Toby stepped over to her other side, placing an arm around her shoulders.

Tellwyrn stared at them all in silence for a long moment, then removed her spectacles and carefully folded the earpieces, then set them on the desk. She leaned back, her chair squeaking as it partially reclined, and stared at the ceiling. “No matter how many times I tell you little bastards to think before you act, you continually plunge headfirst into the dumbest damn course of action you can come up with. Now, why is that? And more to the point, how long can this go on before you bring this whole bloody place down around our ears?”

“Asking what you’re talking about is just gonna get me called stupid again, isn’t it,” Ruda said sardonically.

Tellwyrn rubbed at her face with one hand. “During our impromptu class at the inn in Lor’naris, I spoke to you about the nature of the gods. The conditional nature of their agency, and how it is sometimes possible to subvert or manipulate them. Please tell me you remember that?”

“We do,” Shaeine said after a moment when nobody else spoke.

The Professor sighed. “Well, Miss Avelea, that’s what you just did to your goddess.”

“What?!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“The goddess of justice, invoked physically by her chosen Hand, and asked to render judgment on a complex moral case with far-reaching implications?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “She pretty much wasn’t able to refuse. Such judgments are a large part of what she is. And so, you basically coerced Avei the deity into doing something that Avei the mortal strategist of eight thousand years ago would’ve had the sense to not damn well do!”

“Hang on,” Gabriel protested. “I get how this leads to Aspen thinking Juniper’s dead, but isn’t it a little harsh to get on Avei’s case about it? Justice as an absolute concept has to be above the overreactions of random dryads.” Trissiny shot him a look that started out surprised and became grateful.

“I do not give a bowl of chilled rat’s ass consomme about Aspen, and neither does nor should Avei,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Juniper wasn’t cut off from Aspen, except perhaps incidentally. The issue here is Naiya. Naiya, who now thinks Juniper is dead, and either told Aspen about it or quite possibly sent her here to investigate. Please, please tell me I don’t have to spell this out any further? Can you kids not see the potential catastrophe unfolding here?”

“Um?” Juniper raised a hand. “Pardon me for interrupting your tirade, but people keep pointing out to me how Naiya is, uh…not terribly attentive. It’s not something I enjoy hearing but I don’t really have an argument against it, y’know?”

“Juniper,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation, “you know you’re an exceptional circumstance. And the rest of you frankly have no excuse for not having figured this out! Honestly, how many dryads have been sent to attend a school in all of history? How many have been permitted by the Empire to attend said school and move around Tiraan territory? You cannot possibly have failed to put together that Juniper has a higher degree of Naiya’s attention than most of her kind—or so I would have assumed, and yet, here we damn well are!”

“I hardly think that’s fair,” Shaeine said coolly. “Several of us are in unprecedented circumstances, in one way or another, and our interactions have been geared—quite deliberately by you, I might add—toward teaching us to work together more than to intellectually ponder one another’s origins.”

“Also,” Ruda added, “some of us are from places like the sea and deep underground and can reasonably be forgiven for knowing fuck all about fucking dryads.”

“Well, this is an argument we can have at length another time,” Tellwyrn began.

“Why is it the argument gets moved to another time when you’re losing it?” Trissiny demanded.

“Because I’m in charge, Avelea, and on a related note, shut up. Right now we have to deal with this dryad situation which you’ve created. Regardless of how dim it was or wasn’t for you to have helped get Juniper into this state, there is no good reason why I’m only hearing about it now. What you have done is potentially set Naiya and Avei on a course for direct conflict. There are a million possible ways this can play out, and you’d better believe I will be bending my energies toward making sure one of the relatively harmless options is what occurs, but the worst-case scenario is nothing less than the bloody Elder Wars revisited in miniature! Kids… If you have to fuck around with deities, will you at least tell me about it before I find myself with demigoddesses assaulting my students?!”

“I think she’s got us there, guys,” Fross said.

“Whose side are you on?” Ruda muttered.

“…there are sides?”

“All right, enough,” Tellwyrn said, putting her spectacles back on. “I’ve set up wards around Last Rock so I’ll know if and when Aspen returns. It’s not clear to me why she would be especially bothered by valkyries, so I can’t guess how frightened she was or how quickly she’ll come back, but it can be assumed she didn’t hike all the way here from the Deep Wild to be turned back at the first opposition.”

“Wait, when did you set up wards?” Gabriel demanded. “You’ve been sitting right here ever since I came and told you about this.”

Tellwyrn gave him a sardonic look.

“Yeah,” he said with a sigh, “I realized why it was dumb as soon as I said it.”

“Story of your life. Anyway, I’m not leaving it at that; too much potential for bystanders to be harmed. There are people moving about the periphery of the town much of the time, and while the wannabe adventurers can be annoying, I doubt most of them deserve to have a run-in with a pissy dryad. If all goes well, I should have Aspen in hand by morning.”

“She went off into the Golden Sea,” Gabriel said. “Gonna be hard to track her there. And by ‘hard’ I mean ‘technically impossible.’”

“You let me worry about that, Arquin.”

“Please don’t hurt Aspen,” Juniper said worriedly. “She’s really super nice. She’s just upset about me dying, I’m sure she doesn’t mean any harm.”

“She did try to kill me,” Gabriel pointed out.

“Oh, everyone tries to kill you,” Ruda said, grinning. “You’ve gotta stop taking these little things so personally, boy.”

He sneered at her; Trissiny patted him on the shoulder.

“It isn’t even a question of who deserves what degree of manhandling,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “Harming a dryad is off the table, for reasons you all know very well. Odds are good I’m already on Naiya’s shit list, thanks to you brats. That’s just one of the things I will need to learn from Aspen as soon as I have her secured. But no, she will not be harmed in any way. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to take a dryad out of commission without ticking off her mother. It’s not terribly hard if you’re careful.”

“That seems even more ominous, somehow,” Juniper mumbled.

“Anyway, I will come get you as soon as I’ve got her,” Tellwyrn continued. “Obviously, hearing from you will be the first step in settling her down. I’m hoping a lot of this can be made to just go away once she understands you are alive.”

“And once she understand that, I’ll be wanting an apology,” Gabriel added.

“It is unlikely to be so simple,” Shaine pointed out. “We will then have to explain why Juniper appears dead to Naiya’s senses, which, as Professor Tellwyrn has said, could become complicated.”

“I assure you I’ll be getting information from Aspen before I give her any,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “But you’re right, Miss Awarrion. I can’t detain a dryad indefinitely—not safely, anyway, especially when her mother may already be tetchy about this. We’ll have to do something with her. And figuring out exactly what will have to wait until I know more about the situation.”

“So…what else do you need from us, then?” Trissiny asked.

“For now? That should be it. You can all go back to bed, or studying, or more likely wasting time. Whatever you were doing. Juniper, this is important enough that you may be excused from class to speak with Aspen when she’s available. Otherwise, you just keep the rest of your classmates informed, and I will notify you all if I need you for anything. Oh, and Mr. Arquin, you have handled all this rather well. Not that your role was particularly complex or challenging, but it’s pleasing to see you not buggering up a simple task.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” he said flatly.

“All right, everybody be off,” said Tellwyrn, then paused, scowling at the far corner. “…except Juniper, who will be reporting to Stew for cleaning supplies and then back here to remove the essence of rabbit shit from my carpet.”

Self-doubt was a new sensation for Aspen, and she was not enjoying it.

It had been a long day of walking, followed by a stressed, sleepless night. Now, the sun had not yet arrived, but the sky was lightening and taking on the first reddish tinges in the east that signaled the rise of a new day. Aspen didn’t stop in her pacing to appreciate it, much as she hadn’t stopped to rest all night. She didn’t actually feel at all tired; her nerves were still too twinged by the encounter at the human temple.

Really, that was her own fault. She should’ve known better than to confront a human on holy ground. The magic of their gods wasn’t healthy for fairy kind. Still… A priest she could have handled. Those things, though. Nothing could have prepared her for those.

Well, she was gaining some insights into what had happened to Juniper. Not that she intended to stop until she’d found the Arachne and squeezed some answers out of her, but this was progress. If there were things like that around the human town where poor Juniper had been living, no wonder she’d come to grief.

Poor, silly little Juniper. It made Aspen furious even to think of. What must her brief time here have been like, if that was the kind of company she was forced to keep?

She turned and resumed her pacing. After several hours spent wandering aimlessly through the Sea, she’d settled down to a fairly limited spot and had been pacing like a restless lion. By this point she’d worn a track of mashed tallgrass and was simply stalking back and forth on that line.

How was she supposed to get past those things? The sheer horror of them made her shudder even in recollection. Nothing like that had ever existed in the Deep Wild. Surely they weren’t of human origin, for all that she’d found them in that human temple. The truly terrible thing had been the way she could feel them through attuning. Almost exactly like she could feel her sisters, except… Wrong. Backwards. Inverted.

Anti-dryads, that’s what they were, which made no sense. How could something like that even exist? And what were they doing with humans? If this was what humans were up to, the Arachne had been right. Somebody needed to start domesticating them. It seemed Aspen’s warnings had been both wrong and horribly right: Juniper’s mission had been very important, and she had surely come to grief from it.

Poor Juniper…

But what to do?

She reached the other end of her track and was about to turn around again when a face appeared suddenly in the tallgrass right in front of her.

Aspen yelped and hopped backward in surprise. It was a humanoid face—a woman, pretty, with lustrous black hair and almond-shaped eyes. She also had triangular fox ears, which Aspen was fairly sure humans were not supposed to. More to the point, now that she saw the fox-woman, she could feel the torrent of Naiya’s power rushing through her, which she had not sensed a second before. She’d either been hiding or had simply not been there before—which wasn’t too farfetched, considering how the Golden Sea behaved.

“Um,” Aspen said. “Hello?”

The woman smiled broadly, revealing excessively long canines. Aspen smiled tentatively back.

Then a hand flashed out of the tallgrass and slapped her hard across the face.

The dryad could only stare in shock, lifting her own fingers to probe at the four stinging scratches laid across her cheek by the woman’s wicked claws. They were already closing up, of course, but that had hurt.

“Tag!” the fox-woman chirped. “You’re it!”

Then, laughing brightly, she whirled and dashed off into the tallgrass, a bushy, white-tipped tail bobbing behind her.

Aspen let out a roar of fury and charged after her.

She kept a short distance behind her quarry, the laughing woman always just out of reach, so close Aspen could almost grab her tail. She would sprint ahead, then pause, turning to grin and wave until the dryad was nearly on her again, then dart off in another direction.

Despite the frustration of it, and the obvious fact that she was being toyed with, the chase very quickly started to clear her head. Weltering in uncertainty wasn’t good for her; a good chase, though, this she understood. A hunt was exactly what she needed.

At least, for the first few minutes. Quickly, the frustration started building, and the gap between her and the fox-woman grew wider and stayed wider. Was she getting slower? Surely not. She could go forever.

Aspen lunged through a dense stand of tallgrass stalks into a relatively cleared space and paused, looking around. She had been sure the woman was just ahead, but now she couldn’t see anybody. The sky was red with dawn; there was ample light to make out her environs even without borrowing night vision from one of the animals. There was just nobody here.

Then someone off to her left cleared their throat.

Aspen whirled, beholding the woman, who was wearing an ornate silk robe, sitting calmly in an ornately-carved wooden chair which had no business being out here on the prairie, sipping tea from a dainty porcelain cup. A second ago that spot had been empty.

“Good morning,” she said pleasantly. “Allow myself to introduce me: I am Ekoi Kaisa, and you are exceedingly disappointing. Really, is this the best you can do? This almost isn’t even fun.”

Aspen snarled and lunged forward.

Kaisa laughed and dived underneath her own chair in a whirl of silk and bushy tail. Aspen skidded to a stop right next to her and savagely kicked the chair aside.

It burst apart into a spray of blood red maple leaves, which swirled on the air, drifting into the tallgrass all around. Once again, there was no one and nothing else there.

“Stop doing that, you jackass!” Aspen raged, whirling and glaring around.

“Really, there is no need to be rude,” Kaisa said reprovingly from the other end of the clearing. “Just because you’re slow and clumsy doesn’t mean you need to be boorish.”

“I’m gonna chew your ears off!” Aspen yelled, charging at her. The giggling kitsune darted away into the tallgrass.

This time, she led the dryad on a straight dash, eschewing her zig-zagging pattern of before. Aspen growled as her legs pumped at their maximum speed, and even so, the fox-woman was pulling ahead slightly. The dryad, tasting bitter outrage in the back of her throat, tried to pour more energy into her run, but she simply hadn’t been designed for speed. She staggered to a halt, half-doubled over, feeling the ache in her joints.

“And by the way,” said her quarry from just ahead. Aspen lifted her eyes, glaring at the kitsune, who had folded her arms and was staring severely down at her. “What were you thinking, setting foot in a town as naked as a piglet? The disgrace.”

This was ridiculous. The woman was obviously a fairy. Fairies were supposed to respect dryads!

“Do you have any idea who I am?” Aspen demanded, straightening up.

“Why, yes!” Kaisa said with another fang-baring grin. “Your name is Aspen. You are belligerent, pushy, ill-mannered, slatternly and slow.”

Aspen roared in wordless fury and lunged at her again. Kaisa dashed away, cackling in delight.

The kitsune ducked to the side, hopping over a stand of tallgrass that made an impenetrable clump near the ground, passing through its less dense upper fronds with ease. Aspen tried to follow, and the grass stalks springing back from Kaisa’s passing smacked her in the face with the force of a punch. She landed hard on her rump, blinking stars out of her vision.

The vulpine face appeared in the tallgrass, grinning down at her. “I think we can add ‘dense’ to your resume. In both senses of the word.”

Scrambling to her feet, Aspen grabbed a handful of the thickest part of the tallgrass stand and ripped it bodily out of the ground, hurling the whole thing aside.

Kaisa blew her a kiss and darted off again, the dryad right on her heels.

Abruptly they burst out of the tallgrass entirely into a vast cleared space. She skidded to a halt, realizing belatedly that she was back in the environs of Last Rock. The buildings of the town were sprawled dead ahead; there was the huge shape of the mountain, blotting out the sky, and off to one side stood that odd flat temple where she’d run into the things.

In front of her, the fox woman had halted as well, turned to face her, and bowed politely. Straightening up, she waved. “Well, thank you for playing with me! Good-bye.”

“You’re not going anywhere!” Aspen snarled.

“That is correct,” Kaisa said equably.

Then, with a sharp little pop, the world disappeared.

Aspen was suddenly in a room. Square, not large, made of reddish bricks with heavy granite blocks reinforcing the corners and its sole doorframe. There were no windows; the illumination came from those artificial magic lights humans had started using recently. More slabs of granite made up the floor and ceiling. Additional panels of the smooth gray stone were set into the walls at intervals, engraved with glowing blue sigils.

She didn’t need that, or the prickly sensation on her skin of arcane magic at work, to know this was some kind of wizardry. Aspen had materialized three feet off the floor, and wasn’t falling. She kicked, reached for the floor and ceiling, and only succeeded in making herself spin impotently about in midair. Once she stopped flailing, the spell holding her up gradually returned her to an upright position. That was a small courtesy, at least.

When she got her hands on that stupid fox, she was gonna kill her in an unnecessarily messy fashion. For the first time, Aspen was starting to empathize with Larch.

Another little pop sounded, and she found herself face-to-face with the Arachne, who studied her grimly over the rims of her spectacles.

“Hello, Aspen.”

“…aw, crud,” she sighed.

“Well put,” the elf said dryly. “And thank you, Kaisa. That was very neatly done.”

The kitsune leaned out from behind the Arachne, grinning up at Aspen. “I hope you find something more interesting for me next time, Arachne. She’s not clever enough or powerful enough to have been any proper fun. Really, how disappointing. Dryads are such a let-down.”

“Perhaps I should introduce you to Jacaranda sometime,” Arachne said, raising an eyebrow, then turned her attention back to Aspen. “For now, though, you and I are going to have a chat, Aspen. Let’s begin with the matter of you laying your hands on one of my students.”

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