Tag Archives: Vlesni

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Ingvar was accustomed to relatively quiet evenings in Aspen’s company, their natural rhythms attuned to the cycles of the world around them, and so they were rarely up past dark. It was well into the night, now, and the group remained awake around a hearty fire, but he had decided to leave them to it since they were conversing with apparent harmony and goodwill—traits sorely needed in this fractious group. It was the first promising sign that they could get along and simply find some enjoyment in each other’s company. He decided that was worth more than a couple of hours of sleep.

When Rainwood had stepped over to whisper to him earlier, the rest of the group was mostly too engrossed in Taka’s current anecdote to notice, though Aspen turned her attention to him. Upon rising, Ingvar paused to murmur an explanation to her. Tholi looked up curiously, but Ingvar demurred the attention with a gesture, and so he and the shaman were able to slip off into the trees without disturbing the party.

He returned minutes later at a far more deliberate pace, striding forward to stand in the firelight at the edge of the group. At this entrance, the others all shifted their attention to him with expressions of curiosity.

“I have something important to show you,” Ingvar stated. “Please remain seated. And above all else, remain calm. You are in no more danger here than you create. Be peaceful, and peace will reign.”

“That is pretty ominous,” November commented.

He smiled. “I’m serious, though. Trust me.” Pausing only to sweep a look around at each of them, Ingvar then stepped aside, positioning himself so that he could see both the firepit, the four of them clustered by it, and the spot in the trees from which Rainwood now silently emerged.

The shaman slipped back into their little clearing and immediately moved off to the side, bowing low in the direction of the gap between trees from which he’d come. After a momentary pause, another shape slowly emerged out of the darkness.

There was a sharp indrawing of breath from multiple throats and a rustle as several of them shifted as though to jump up.

“Peace,” Ingvar murmured, keeping his voice low but projecting it firmly. The group stilled at his reminder, watching in wide-eyed silence as she came.

The firelight reflected in her eyes as she approached, a huge dark shape slipping out of the night with two burning points directed at them. In silence, she padded forward, her footfalls precise and stealthy but still audible against the carpet of grass and fallen leaves due to her sheer weight. One deliberate step at a time, the wolf emerged into the circle of light, ears upright and alert; as she came into the illumination, the dark shape she had seemed at first coalesced, revealing the mottled gray and brown coloring of her pelt.

She stopped, just at the perimeter of the light, where they could see her clearly. For several seconds, there was only the sound of the crackling fire, and the crickets in the woods outside. The wolf stared at them, shifting her head only minutely to focus on each of them in turn.

Then, ears still on the alert, she sat down on her haunches.

Taka drew in an unsteady breath. “It’s huge.”

“She,” Ingvar corrected quietly.

“She is like a pony!”

“Not quite,” he said with an amused little smile. “But they are not dogs. Domestication does a great deal to change an animal.”

“To call wolves,” Tholi whispered. “Only the most blessed among the Huntsmen’s shaman have this skill.”

“Wolves are not to be called,” Ingvar said firmly. “And a Shaathist shaman so blessed has not been known in so long that I, and many others, suspect that is nothing but an old story. She has agreed to come visit us. Remember: this is her land, not ours. Her family lives and hunts here. They know the nearby Rangers, and the Huntsmen of the lodge, and keep their distance. Wolves and people have no business with one another. We do not belong in each other’s homes. Only through the auspices of a skilled shaman,” he turned and bowed toward Rainwood, “can they be asked to join our company for a short time. And it is never more than a request. Of the pack which lives in these woods, only she decided to come.”

“Why?” November asked in a bare whisper. The wolf shifted her head to look at her directly.

“That is her business,” he said. “I can tell you this much, though. There are a number of myths about the world’s creation that seek to explain wolves; Aspen and I have gathered a few in our recent travels. The Huntsmen have their own story… Which I have learned, to my own very great chagrin, is a falsehood.” Tholi’s head snapped around to stare at him, but Ingvar simply continued in the same even tone. “I think the story told by the elves is the most likely to be true. They claim that it happened on another world far away, that none of our kinds are native to this world but were brought here by the Elder Gods. In their version, in the unthinkably ancient past, the first humans all lived as we are tonight: in small bands, hunting to survive off the land, clustering around their tiny fires at night. Over countless years, they tamed and bred wolves, developing them into the dogs we have today, creatures uniquely responsive to human beings because they were made for and by human companionship. But it all began with exactly what you see here.” He turned toward the wolf, inclining his head deeply to her. She looked at him then resumed her slow study of the rest of the group while he spoke. “One who was curious, and brave, and willing to extend a little trust. We will not be domesticating our visitor tonight, I can tell you that much. But you should also know this moment for what it is: a moment that, if we chose to make it so, could start this ancient process anew. This is a rare thing, a pivot point which we could seize, and initiate the process of making a slice of the wild our own.”

He hesitated, letting the pause hang.

“What makes us who we are, who we have gathered to become, is that we shall not do this, even as we respect the possibility.”

Ingvar shifted his focus to study each of them in turn, as the wolf was doing. The three humans looked exactly as he hoped, now that the initial shock had abated: all three were gazing at the wild creature avidly, their faces matching pictures of awe and wonder. Even, he was faintly surprised to observe, Taka. Perhaps the gods had indeed sent her to this group on purpose. Aspen, of course, was much less impressed by a wolf, but was regarding the creature with an expression of calm thought, her head cocked to one side as she did when mulling over something he had just explained to her.

“There is an awkward dichotomy to Shaathism,” Ingvar continued after the pause, again turning to regard the great beast among them. “Outsiders to the faith often use it to deride the Huntsmen. Shaath is the god of the wild, and so it is the wild that we take as both mission and guidance. We revere the example of the wolf—or at least, the Huntsman claim to, though they suffer from several severe misconceptions about wolves in the process.” Again, Tholi glanced sharply at him, but resumed gazing at the wolf as Ingvar kept going. “But that always leads back to the question: at what point must we stop being wild, and be tamed? If we truly immersed ourselves in the way of the wild to the utmost degree, we would simply be running naked through the woods scavenging for berries. Obviously, the Huntsmen do not seek to do this. And though I have been called specifically to correct them to the path from which they’ve strayed, I have no intention of doing so, either.”

He paused, drawing in breath and just looking at the wolf, drinking in her presence. She moved her head again, meeting his eyes.

“This is the balance the Huntsmen seek…that we must seek. If you, living in this moment, can feel the weight, the sacredness of what you are experiencing, then this is a path you can walk. This is what it means to be guardians of the wild. We sit here with our fire and our weapons, our clothing and our magic, our complex language and philosophies. But we do so out in the wild space, knowing—and respecting—that we are not the masters here. We invite the wild to sit at the edge of our fire, and are honored by her presence.

“We are not wild, nor tamed. We stand between two things and apart from both. Protecting them, from themselves and from each other.”

He fell silent, and no one spoke this time. The night stretched out, none of them willing to interrupt the reverence of the moment.

Until, fittingly, it was interrupted from outside. In the distant darkness, a single voice arose: the long, lonely howl of a wolf. Immediately it was followed by another, and then a third, singing together in harmony.

Right in front of them, the wolf at the edge of their firelight raised her own head and howled in reply. That close, her voice was almost piercing, but it was no less musical for that. She let out a single long note, ending it on a soft warble.

Then she stood up, turned around, and padded off into the darkness, in the direction of the family calling her back.

All of them stared into the night after the departing visitor, while wolves continued to cry from deep in the darkness beyond.

“We will meet her again,” Ingvar said quietly. “We have business with three packs in this area before it’s time for us to move on: the Huntsmen, the Rangers, and the wolves. Now that we are acknowledged by all three, we can truly begin tomorrow. It is from the wolves that we, and the other two, must learn the truth of the wild. It is a truth that I suspect they will not like. But they will hear it.”

The group were silent, listening to the wolves cry.

“I thought demonology and necromancy were completely separate things,” said Shook.

“Distinct, yes,” replied the stocky warlock introduced to him as Bradshaw, “but if by ‘completely separate’ you mean there are zero points of overlap, then no magical disciplines are completely separate, not even the four cardinal schools. Ultimately it all comes back to subjective physics—”

The woman, Vanessa, cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right,” Bradshaw said hastily. “Point being, what we are looking at here is soul magic. That’s not so much a school of magic in itself as a category of things you can do with magic—like necromancy itself, which you can do with infernomancy or fae craft most easily. There are some well-known uses of souls in infernal magic, notably the creation of incubi and succubi. Or those half-assed revenant things the local back-alley warlock is so fond of,” he added with a disparaging scowl. “Soulcraft is also well-known to the caster demons, too. Human souls barred from paradise by Vidius end up in Hell and only a very few impress Prince Vanislaas enough to become his children; the rest tend to get snapped up for use in spells by the khelminash or vrardexi.”

“I am torn between flattery that you think I understand any of this, and annoyance that you seem to think I give a shit,” Shook informed him.

Bradshaw blinked at him once and then turned to Mogul. “Embras, are you absolutely sure we need this clod alive?”

“Let’s show a bare minimum of courtesy to our guest, now,” Mogul said, grinning. “Think of it as setting an example.” The voluptuous, under-dressed woman clinging to his arm tittered, and Shook barely managed not to flinch. What with his recent experiences he was even more jumpy around succubi than a sensible person would be ordinarily. If anything, the fact that Vlesni was more overtly vampish than Kheshiri made him less alarmed by her. It was the innocent, well-behaved facade he feared.

“So,” he said pointedly, pushing down a surge of anger over Bradshaw’s crack at his expense, “these guys are using necromancy to get souls to power their magic?”

“Souls aren’t a power source,” Bradshaw said in a long-suffering tone that would’ve gotten anybody else punched. Shook might have punched him anyway, had there not been two other warlocks and a demon present. “They’re… Ugh. Comparing them to golem logic controllers is horribly inadequate and feels disrespectful, but the principle applies. A soul can process information, which is basically what casting a spell is, and serves as a focus point enabling the use of magic. The ability of a conscious being to observe and determine a reaction is key in any magical effect.”

“What about passive enchantments?”

“Those were made by a conscious caster, the effect is just delayed and tied to secondary stimuli. With a soul, you can do several interesting things. Attach it to something you want to animate, for example, or boost your own spells by adding what amounts to a secondary focus so it’s as if you are two casters working in concert, rather than one. What this does, as near as we can tell by examining the half-made array, is a kind of portal magic.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted, studying the spell circle scrawled in dried blood upon the warehouse floor. Empty warehouse: the best friend of anyone up to urban skullduggery. It was an open question whether the person who owned the place had any inkling what was going on here, much less whether they were complicit, but he didn’t bother to ask. This was the Black Wreath, they had undoubtedly seen and covered all the angles well in advance. “So. Basically, these guys are doing some kind of ritual sacrifice to make portals. Neat, I didn’t know that was possible.”

“All other things being equal, it should only be possible in theory,” said Mogul, patting Vlesni’s hand and then disentangling her from his arm to step forward and join them at the edge of the circle. “Here’s the fundamental problem with soul magic and necromancy in general: it is stepping very directly and aggressively on Vidius’s toes. Theoretically you can achieve almost any end with almost any type of magic, if you’re creative enough and powerful enough. The limits of possibility with necromancy are mostly unexplored, though, because as soon as you start doing necromancy on any significant scale you’ll find yourself ass-deep in valkyries.”

“And pause for dramatic effect,” Shook said dryly when Mogul did just that. “Next you’re gonna explain how these guys are doing this without pissing off Vidius. Oh, sorry, were you waiting for me to ask that?”

“Why is he here, again?” Bradshaw demanded.

“Oh, calm down,” Vanessa said with an amused little smile. “I like him. Or at least, I would if I knew a little bit less about his personal history.” She winked at Shook, who curled his lip. Vanessa was pretty enough, but he couldn’t get an idea what kind of figure she had thanks to that dumpy gray Wreath robe. Thinking back to Alan Vandro’s advice about women, he was keeping his focus on the fact that she could snap her fingers and boil his blood where he stood. In an ironic way, the conscious effort of reinforcing Vandro’s teachings above the habits Kheshiri had spent the last two years encouraging was helping to keep him grounded and alert.

“That is, indeed, the bloody knife in this little mystery,” Mogul drawled, showing no signs of annoyance at Shook’s attitude. “The last major necromantic event was that disaster at Veilgrad last year, which was caused by a chaos cult. Chaos, of course, fucks up all calculations by its very nature and can indeed be used to obscure the gaze of the gods. Once the Hand of Vidius was on-site, that place was swarming with soul reapers putting down skeletons. Last one before that was Tethloss the Summoner, who we killed because the son of a bitch had somehow got his mitts on a tome of Black Wreath spellcraft and was using our own workings to hide himself from the gods.”

“Hey, I remember that guy,” said Shook, interested in spite of himself. “I was up in Thakar when he got done in. I seem to recall it was the Fourth Legion that did it.”

“Pfft, they cleaned up his lingering summons. Which we left for them, as housekeeping is the proper duty of the Silver Legions once the real work is out of the way.” Mogul waved one hand in a languid gesture of dismissal. “No, the point is that when you see an organized use of necromancy, it always hinges upon some mechanism for hiding its use from Vidius. In this case, we have not identified the specific one, at least not precisely. What we have is circumstantial indication of who is behind this, and that provides a hint.”

“The Tide shall wash away impurity,” Bradshaw intoned, pointing to an arc of demonic runes scrawled around the edge of the circle. “This outer ring of text is in demonic, but it’s not spellcraft; it appears to be just dogma. And mostly gibberish, but…”

“But,” Mogul continued, “it fits. You are here ostensibly to hunt the cult that tried to kill the Emperor and was using some pretty damn advanced necromancy right in the middle of Tiraas.”

“We have no information on who or what that cult is,” Vanessa added, “which is incredibly suggestive. Nobody knows anything about these people, even the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. You know how hard it is to raise up an entire religion full of suicidal shocktroopers without anybody noticing? The very idea is ridiculous. It can be done, in theory, if you’ve got access to the huge amount of resources to keep the whole group—of hundreds, apparently—in total isolation. Plus a willingness to aggressively recruit—by which I mean borderline abduct and then brainwash—a lot of the kind of back-alley undesirables whom nobody will miss from cities all across the Empire. The Universal Church is one of the very few organizations with that kind of funds, and Justinian is probably the first Archpope since Sipasian who has cultivated enough personal loyalty from his clergy that enough of them would be willing to do something so skeevy and keep it under wraps.”

“And,” Mogul finished, nodding, “we’ve known for a while now that Justinian has some means of deflecting the notice of the Pantheon gods from some of his pet projects. Therefore this Tide is his creation.”

“Hn,” Shook grunted. “We more than suspected that already, but it’s nice to have a chain of evidence leading to it.”

“Circumstantial evidence, of course, but still,” Mogul agreed. “And that leads us to you, and as my dear friend Bradshaw keeps incredulously demanding, why I am bothering to bring you into the loop.”

“Pretty curious about that, myself,” Shook admitted. Bradshaw nodded emphatic agreement.

“Let me ask you this,” Mogul said to him in a less jocular tone. “Was the Jackal aware of any of this before he started his killing spree?”

“Well, I sure as fuck wasn’t, and I don’t think any of the rest of my crew were,” Shook said thoughtfully, “though Syrinx obviously has information she’s keeping from us. I don’t think Jacko was ever out of our sight before today enough to pick up details but…fuck if I know. Why?”

“Because this is the only example we’ve found of this Tide actually trying to do something magically constructive. Every previous indication was merely the site of a ritual sacrifice, where they murdered someone in a back alley to capture their soul. You said the Jackal is trying to rile the police; what he’s doing looks an awful lot like what the Tide were doing, only they were at least trying to be careful. He’s being the opposite.”

“Maybe,” Shook said reluctantly. “I have no reason to think so, specifically. That explanation does make sense, but honestly that twisted fuck might just as well be doing this because he thinks it’s funny.”

“What charming company you keep,” Bradshaw said flatly.

Shook pointedly turned to look at Vlesni and then back at him. “You don’t get to criticize, petunia.”

“The reason I’m showing you this,” said Mogul, “is so you can go back and inform your cronies. Because it doesn’t seem they have any idea what is happening here, and they really need to. Not that I trust most of your lot to buckle down and do what’s sensible, but you and Khadizroth, at least, I believe have that much basic intelligence. Plus that other elf who follows him around. Victor, was it?”

“Vespa,” Vanessa corrected.

“Vincent,” said Bradshaw.

“Close enough,” said Shook.

“This isn’t about trust, you see,” Mogul continued. “Syrinx, the Jackal, and Kheshiri neither know sense when it bites them on the nose, nor would they let it restrain them from scheming for their own advantage even if they recognized it. You, Khadizroth, and I think Snowe are another matter. I don’t mean to underplay the many, many currents blowing here, but this is more important.”

“Yeah?” Shook said warily, again reminding himself how dramatically untrustworthy these people were. It was an important reminder; Mogul was a very compelling speaker when he tried to be. “What the fuck is this, specifically?”

“That,” said Mogul, pointing to the scrawled circle, “is incomplete, but it is clearly intended to use a captured soul to open a dimensional portal, and its guidance runes are scribed in demonic. We have identified a dozen ritual murder sites where souls have been stolen and are assuming there are at least twice that out there since we haven’t once caught one of these bastards in the act. When I said twenty hellgates, Thumper, I wasn’t just trying to give you an example of the scale of the problem. I strongly suspect that that is the literal, specific plan.”

Shook let out a long, low whistle. “Why the fuck would anybody want to do a dumbass thing like that?”

“As for these Tide people, there’s this bit about washing away corruption,” said Bradshaw, wrinkling his nose as he stared down at the circle. “That’s bog standard doomsday cult horseradish. The world is corrupt, the world must be cleansed, yadda yadda. The kind of thing the ignorant think we set out to do.”

“But they’re just pawns,” Vanessa said quietly.

“What concerns me here is Justinian’s motivations,” Mogul agreed. “Unleashing huge amounts of random destruction is the desperate act of someone who considers himself cornered and urgently needs to upset the whole board. Believe me, I know. I’ve found myself repeatedly backed into that corner in the last few years. Why do you think I was willing to put a creature like Kheshiri into the hands of a creature like you?”

“No offense taken,” Shook said flatly.

Mogul grinned at him, but his expression just as quickly sobered. “What worries me, old boy, is what it means if Justinian feels he’s in that position. He’s one of the most powerful men in the world, and if we’re reading this right, he is willing to burn down a major city and unleash demons across half of N’Jendo just to create a distraction. The question is why, and no possible answer isn’t terrifying.”

“A great doom is coming,” Bradshaw murmured.

“Or,” said Shook, “to put it less pretentiously, shit’s about to get real.”

Merry emerged from the darkened old structure to creep up behind Principia. Trying to keep quiet was simple respect for their surroundings and the late hour; she was under no illusion that she was capable of sneaking up on an elf.

“I’ll take over,” she said softly, coming to a stop at the lieutenant’s shoulder.

Principia shook her head slowly, still staring across the flat plateau at the place where the eight students and their animal companions were arranged around the bonfire they’d built. “That’s okay, Lang. Go back to sleep, I’ve got this.”

“You need sleep too, LT.”

“Less urgently. I’m an elf.”

“Yeah, an elf who forgets I’ve got Shahai to fact-check your bullshit stories with. You need less food and air, not less sleep.”

“That sideways-eared race traitor,” Principia grumbled without rancor.

“Prin,” Merry said very quietly. “Go rest. Nothing’s gonna happen here. I can keep watch.”

“You know what they’re doing?”

Merry shifted her gaze to the students. The eight of them had arranged themselves in an equal formation around the bonfire, and were still awake despite it being well past midnight. Since coming back from the tree yesterday and arranging themselves thus, they hadn’t kept any specific pattern, for the most part staying in their assigned places, though they all moved around a fair bit. Sitting and kneeling in a variety of meditative postures, in some cases pacing (or in Fross’s case, hovering) back and forth in apparent thought. Occasionally they had crossed to one another’s positions for quiet exchanges, though they always returned to their assigned places.

Right now, Toby and Juniper were talking softly with their heads together, the only two currently out of position. Teal and Shaeine were both kneeling, eyes closed, facing each other across the distance between their specific spots around the edge of the firelight, F’thaan belly-up and fast asleep in the drow’s lap. Gabriel lounged on the ground, frowning at the horizon, while Trissiny stood at parade rest, staring at the Great Tree in the near distance with her hands behind her back. Ruda was pacing back and forth, absently swishing her jeweled rapier through the air and muttering to herself. Fross, for a wonder, was actually sitting on the ground at the moment, almost invisible in the firelight.

“Can’t say I do,” she said at last, “though it sure does look a lot more goal-directed than most of what they’ve done since Last Rock.”

“It’s a vigil,” Principia said quietly. “This is some Vidian thing Arquin suggested. They are going to do a ritual at dawn. Dusk and dawn are the powerful moments in Vidian ritual magic, boundaries between the two phases of the day. But first, an all-night vigil. It’s time to watch, to contemplate…to prepare.” She paused, then finished in a whisper. “I’m not sure what exactly they are keeping watch for, but I’m holding my own. I am not going to sleep, Lang. You may as well; there’s no sense in both of us being up all night. I’ll get a nap tomorrow, while they’re off at the tree.”

Merry stood behind her for several drawn-out seconds, studying the University students thoughtfully. Then she stepped forward and sat down at Principia’s side.

The elf shot her a sidelong frown. “Corporal…”

“I’m gonna crawl way out on a limb and guess they didn’t ask you to keep watch over them tonight,” Merry stated. “This is more one of those things you get to do because you avoided them telling you not to by not asking permission, right?”

Principia made an annoyed grimace at her.

Merry leaned over to bump the elf with her shoulder. “I’m not asking you, either.”

Principia shook her head, but didn’t protest any further. The plateau was quiet, then, as they all kept their vigil.

Dawn as always brought warmth, which was confusing when she opened her eyes, because it was not dawn. Yesterday she’d been awakened by sunlight streaming through the window right onto her bed, as the ramshackle old room in Leduc Manor lacked shutters, or even curtains. The sky outside was still just barely gray, though, at least an hour before sunrise. But it was so warm…

Hesthri stirred in her arms, and Natchua went fully rigid as memory and wakefulness crashed down on her. The demon mumbled in her sleep, burying her face back in Natchua’s collarbone. She was so warm, and surprisingly soft where she wasn’t armored, the texture of her skin smooth but patterned, almost like a snake’s. All of her skin, pressed close to all of Natchua’s.

The two of them entangled on one side of the wide bed, because the other was still a big damp patch where they’d…

Natchua squeezed her eyes shut again as if that would blot out the evidence of her most recent stupidity.


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10 – 15

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“What is she doing?” Bradshaw asked, watching the pixie bob in place at the intersection. A few of the passing townsfolk seemed to have the same question, to judge by the stares they gave her. Some shied away from the bouncing ball of silver light, but clearly Fross was a known quantity in Last Rock, to judge by the number of cheerful greetings she received and returned. Notably, no one actually asked what she was up to. Apparently it was expected that University students would be a little odd.

“This is the fourth place she’s done it, whatever it is,” Embras replied, lounging against the side of the general store. “I didn’t happen to see her place the first one, but I could detect the spell; I’ve been following her since number two. Notably, she’s placing them in a grid around the periphery of the town—it’s a little hard to tell, Last Rock is so small, but I believe she’s covering each point where streets and alleys meet that’s surrounded by the town itself. Nothing out in the prairie, it’s aimed at quartering the village. They’re detection wards, that much I can see at a glance. I’d like your assessment unclouded by my theorizing, though; you are my acknowledged superior in spellcraft. That’s why I poked at you so urgently to jump down here.”

“Hmm…” Bradshaw rubbed at his chin, studying Fross, then glanced up and down the street. “You want to stay and watch where she puts the others first?”

Embras shook his head. “They’re detectable; we can follow up on that later. Best to keep a distance from her, methinks. Follow me, I’ll show you the first one. It’s also the most isolated, which is convenient.”

He straightened, brushing dust from the shoulder of his white suit, and led the way back toward the periphery. Both warlocks passed other people in the street, weaving around them as they went; though the citizens of Last Rock also stepped aside as they would have for anyone else on the sidewalk, none actually noticed their presence.

“Here we are,” Embras said, arriving at a currently unoccupied intersection. It was a T-crossing, where a narrow street terminated against the wall of a large stone barn that had been repurposed for storage, and neither of the other facing buildings had doors nearby. The street itself was mostly there as a boundary between structures, and had no pavement. “Passive and personal silencing only, please; I don’t want to risk casting a concealment over this thing until we’re certain what it does.”

“Good call,” Bradshaw murmured, beginning to pace in a circle around an invisible spot in the center of the intersection. “It’s a ward, all right. And in fact, it looks to be specifically geared toward detecting stealthed demons.”

“How fascinating!” Embras said, smiling broadly in delight. “You don’t suppose she could actually tag us with this?”

“Heavens, no. Far better mages than Fross have tried with no luck; nothing here is a threat to the Lady’s gift. Still, though…”

“Good work?” Embras prompted after he trailed off.

“Mm. Pretty good, yes. In fact, better than that. It’s not the best spellcraft of it’s kind I’ve seen by any stretch of the imagination… But considering this was done by a second-year student arcanist, it’s actually downright amazing. That pixie’s going to be a fearsome sorceress once Tellwyrn and Yornhaldt get done with her.”

He paused and knelt, peering closely at something on the ground, then carefully produced a small lens from an inner pocket of his robe and studied it.

“Hmm hm hmmmmm. This is very tight for student work. Unpolished—there are significant gaps in the frequency coverage, the kind of thing I’d expect from someone who doesn’t know the most probable ways an infernal spell would be hidden. But what she does cover is quite carefully woven. There’s a care and attention to detail there…”

“My goodness, you’re starting to sound positively enamored,” Embras said with amusement.

Bradshaw ignored him. “With the exception of an intersection lattice, here, clearly attuned to divine magic. That’s left wide open. It’s clearly intended to make this ward detectable to someone using a divine perception spell, and that’s necessarily going to create a gap in the ward’s structure. She left it more open than it needs to be, though. Inexperience, or she may be uncertain of the skills of whatever light-wielder is going to be making use of this.” He straightened up slowly, still frowning at the invisible ward.

“So…Trissiny, then.”

“Or Arquin,” Bradshaw countered, “who is, himself, an amateur arcanist. Or Caine; keep in mind we still don’t understand what’s going on there. That trick he pulled in Veilgrad is not part of the paladin’s general repertory. However…” He sighed. “Looks like you were right, Embras. They are working together on this. After Veilgrad I really didn’t think they’d pull together that fast.”

“I told you at the time,” Embras replied, “we didn’t divide them, they did. Splitting off the paladins was a tactical decision. It was a bad one, but it was deliberate and not indicative of friction in the ranks, which makes all the difference here. I wouldn’t have taken this approach if I wasn’t confident the others would rally around Trissiny. A Hand of Avei stampeding through the town is no use to anyone who’s not selling insurance; now we’ve a group to work with, several of whom have an education in politics, strategy, and magic. There are handles there that can be manipulated, hooks that Trissiny herself lacks. The question,” he mused, beginning to pace back and forth, “is just which of them we’re working with. The whole sophomore class, that’s a given. But there are all of a hundred people up on that mountain, students and staff, and a community that size is tightly knit by necessity. We lack solid data on a lot of them.”

“This reinforces the point I made in the first place,” said Bradshaw. “If we are dealing with the whole class, you’d better be extremely careful. And what are you going to do when Tellwyrn gets wind of this? They may have told her already.”

“What little they know to tell her isn’t damning, and won’t be,” Embras said. “Don’t worry, I have plans in place for Tellwyrn. Layer upon layer of plans; you don’t make assumptions or take risks with a wild card like her. But no, you’re right—the rest of this campaign calls for exceedingly light touches. We shall be faultlessly polite and playful with the little dears. No direct interference, just signals to point their attention where we want it.”

“So, no more chaining them to trees,” Bradshaw said dryly.

“That was a different matter and you know it,” Embras retorted, pointing a finger at him. “And so do the paladins. Even if Omnu proved interested in countering the disruptors—and really, who could have predicted that?—detaining them that way was for their own good. They won’t admit it, but they understood. No, in an ideal world, the rest of this will unfold on its own, without us needing to take the risk of doing anything at all. We’ve seen Justinian’s plants gearing up their own bags of tricks, and we’ve now got the students with eyes sharp and backs up. Hopefully they’ll do most of our work for us.”

“Snort,” Bradshaw said, deadpan. “This is my disdainful snort. Feel my disdain.”

“Yes, yes,” Embras acknowledged with a grin. “Nothing’s ever that easy. This, I’m afraid, is where the fun part begins; we’ll need to keep a careful watch on those two priestesses, and poke at the kids in such a way that it brings their noses across whatever trails those leave. Gonna be dicey, I won’t lie.”

“We’re still too blind for this,” Bradshaw complained, folding his arms. “We have only general profiles of many of those students and none at all of a lot of them. Only the sophomores and the professors are known quantities. So many ways this can go wrong.”

“Yes,” Embras agreed, nodding. “I’ve already consulted Ali, which is good for starting points. He was full of smug warnings about us becoming the targets of a foxhunt, but aimed me at the most likely interlopers. The new freshman girls, interestingly enough.”

“Hmm.” Bradshaw narrowed his eyes. “Yes, I can definitely see Domingue sticking her nose into this. She is not a fan of ours.”

“I’m honestly more concerned about the Lady Madouri and the drow,” Embras mused, gazing absently at the spot where Fross’s ward was laid. “That girl’s a vicious little snake even by the standards of the aristocracy, and this year’s drow is an An’sadarr—a soldier.”

“Very little scares me less than soldiers.”

“A soldier on her own for you to play games with? No, that’s too easy to be any fun. Here, though, we’re dealing with one who’s been trained specifically to contend with a nastier brand of warlocks than us—and even I don’t want to cross spells with a Scyllithene shadow priestess if I can help it—in the context of far more clever and resourceful individuals who will be actively trying to expose us. I really don’t fancy finding myself in an enclosed space with an irate Narisian guardswoman.”

Bradshaw sighed. “Embras… You know I trust you, but are you sure this is worth it?”

“This is the game, now,” Embras said quietly. “Us and Justinian. We can’t rush the timing till the alignment, and with Snowe’s campaign it’s clear what he’s aiming at—which we already suspected. This is about setting up the board, Bradshaw. We need to arrive at the endgame prepared to beat him there, but we also have to let him get there. And he has to let us get there for the same reasons, and with the same considerations. Yes, this was an attack of opportunity, but it’s too perfect. If we can damage his credibility with the paladins, we’ll have won a significant coup.”

Bradshaw opened his mouth to reply, then abruptly stilled and turned to stare at the corner of the old barn. Embras simultaneously straightened, following his gaze.

A moment later, Vanessa limped around the corner, her face drawn in a tight frown of worry.

“Oh, good, you’re here too,” she said by way of greeting, then turned to the high priest. “You’d better get back to Calderaas, Embras. We have a problem.”

“Can you be a little more specific?” he said.

“I’ve spent the morning fielding irate messages from about half our contacts in the city,” Vanessa replied. “They’re rather steamed to find that you’ve been clumsily spying on them.”

“Excuse me, I’ve what?” Embras raised both eyebrows in surprise. “Clumsily? Them’s fightin’ words.”

“They’re complaining that your personal succubus has left a wide trail around their homes and places of business,” she said grimly. “Then they started comparing notes, and it took me so long to prevent that from bursting into chaos that I’ve only just had the chance to cast a few divinations of my own. Vlesni’s tracks are all over the city, Embras. Quite glaringly. It looks like she spent last night futzing around just about every safe house and ally we have in Calderaas, and none of them knew it until they awoke this morning. Naturally, they are not taking it well. About half haven’t discovered it yet—it’s going to be messy when they do. This could well cost us our foothold in the city if it’s not fixed.”

“What the hell?” Bradshaw exclaimed. “Vlesni? Blatant tracks? Even if she’d turned on us, Embras, she’s too good to make such a mess. What could she possibly be up to?”

“Why, isn’t that an excellent question,” Embras replied thoughtfully. “Vanessa, can you kindly nominate a good site for us to investigate that is not currently swarming with pissed-off individuals demanding explanations we don’t have?”

“The nook behind Halisar’s,” she said immediately. “He left the city yesterday. Embras…where is Vlesni?”

“Another excellent question,” he said. “The nook it is. Let’s go have us a little look-see. Not that I doubt you, Nessa, but this is all hard to credit.”

“Oh, I know exactly how you feel,” she said darkly, taking a step back from them. The thin shadow cast by the barn bent, leaning forward, swelling and darkening, and in the next moment she was gone. Bradshaw and Embras rippled immediately afterward, vanishing as well.

In their absence, there was a brief pause, and the shadow shifted a fourth time.

The three warlocks emerged from the darkness in a hexagonal cul-de-sac approached only by one alley, which itself was so cluttered with stacks of broken crates and other detritus that the path there wound through a veritable maze. Walls on all sides rose at least three stories, casting the space in perpetual shadow; old, nigh-inscrutable graffiti lined its walls. The runes hidden within those messages were all but undetectable, both because of the pattern of the fading paint, and because they were partly inscribed in invisible ink. A single door stood in one wall, and several crates and boxes scattered about made convenient if impromptu seats. Despite its quite deliberate atmosphere of disuse and squalor, the area was uncommonly clean.

“All right, here we are,” said Embras, straightening his suit jacket. “Care to point me at—never mind, I think I see it.”

He took a few steps toward the door, staring through narrowed eyes, Vanessa and Bradshaw following along behind. For a moment, all three studied the door and the wall around it.

“That’s…most peculiar,” Embras mused at last. “Most peculiar. She doesn’t leave traces that overt in places she’s actually been. I find Vlesni so useful to work with largely because she is discreet, even for a succubus.”

“Well?” Vanessa folded her arms. “Let’s hear what she has to say for herself.”

“Quite right,” Embras replied, turning back to face the center of the nook, and snapped his fingers.

The demon appeared soundlessly, glancing around in mild surprise overlaid with boredom.

“Really, Embras,” she protested lazily. “A little forewarning is courteous. One of these days you’re going to catch me in the bath.” Grinning, she rose up on tiptoe and stretched her arms above her head, the catlike gesture serving to marvelously highlight her figure. “You know if you want a good look, you need only ask.”

“Vlesni, my dear,” Embras said mildly, “where’ve you been?”

The succubus lowered her arms, frowning slightly. “What? Why? Did you need something? If you called, I didn’t hear it. That’s never happened before…”

“Answer the question, if you please,” he replied.

“All right,” she said with a shrug. “Right then I was in Ninkabi, watching the local cell as you asked. They’re still not doing anything remotely interesting, by the way, but by the dictates of the bitch goddess Irony I’m sure that’ll start up immediately now I’m gone.”

“And before that?” he said. “Last night?”

Vlesni frowned now. “Last night? I was at the Black Isle, in Razzavinax’s library.”

“Did you do anything of interest?”

“Not terribly. The good books are locked up and I’m not about to mess with his wards; he took Rizlith with him to Tiraas, so there’s not much to do there except read. There’s still stuff worth reading, but that gets dull so quickly.” She smirked. “I did manage to wrangle a threesome with a couple of the students to pass an hour or so. Since you’re so interested in my personal life, there are two of them I’m getting accustomed to that, with various others. The magical anonymity adds a certain spice for them. These two are siblings, neither even aware the other is even at the academy. Next time I’m gonna get ’em in bed together. Of course, I’ll never be able to tell them I got them to boff, Razz’d have my wings for that, but I’ll know.” She grinned fiendishly, twitching her tail like a contented cat. “It’s the little things in life, don’t you agree?”

“Can we please,” Vanessa said in a strained tone, “never, ever hear about her sex life again?”

Vlesni’s grin widened. “It’s all right, Nessa dear, you were drunk. That totally doesn’t count. Ask anyone.”

“Shut up, Vlesni,” Embras said softly, immediately regaining the succubus’s full attention. “Look at that door. Tell me what you see, and then explain it.”

She frowned at him, then shifted her gaze to study the door as directed. Bradshaw had already stepped over to it and was peering about through his lens. Vlesni’s expression melted to one of shock, then morphed to fury; she dashed past Embras, placing her hands against the wall and feeling around the pitted brickwork.

“What the fuck?” the demon snarled. “What—who did this? How? How did they do this? Embras!” She whirled on him, fists clenched and wings fanning out in a menacing display. “Explain!”

“I believe that’s what I just asked you to do,” he said. “It’s not just here, Vlesni. There are traces like this all over Calderaas. Just about everywhere in the city where we can go and feel slightly safe—or could, until this morning. Our friends and contacts who live under your brand new shadow are not pleased.”

“You think I did this?” she screeched. “Me? How? Why? Embras you can’t think—I have no explanation for this! I don’t understand how it could happen!” Tail lashing in agitation now, she seemed almost on the verge of tears.

Embras studied her calmly, visibly unimpressed. “And yet…there it is.”

“Embras!” she wailed. “You know I wouldn’t risk undermining you like this. You think I want to go back to Hell? If I’d been sneaking around on you I’d have a good cover story! I—this—this is insane! I have no idea what—how—who…”

“That actually is a solid point,” he mused.

“Unless that’s what she wants you to think,” Vanessa said skeptically. Vlesni shot her a baleful glare.

“Embras,” said Bradshaw, “look at this. Look at the way this energy is distributed. The quantity of it is purely absurd; Vanislaads don’t leave traces like this unless they bleed all over something. And see where it’s spread?” He pointed with his lens. “Along the walls, the door frame, over the door. Unless you think Vlesni has been running around the city scent-marking walls like a stray cat…this was planted.”

“Even if she were working against us,” Vanessa said grudgingly, “this would be an utterly idiotic thing to do. A priest would be able to pick up on these traces, they’re so outstanding. She’s got a giant target painted on her forehead, now. I cannot see her taking a risk like that for anything.”

Vlesni snarled wordlessly, quivering with rage.

“Yes,” Embras said, nodding slowly. “Yes, I’m inclined to agree. This costs us—one of our most subtle agents has just had her ability to move severely limited. Which, by itself, explains the why of it.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a thumb, staring at the marked door. “But…how? And by the same token, who? To do something like this, a person would first have to find discernible traces Vlesni had left—itself a tall order—and then somehow reproduce them. I confess I don’t even know a spell that can do such a thing. Bradshaw?”

“Sure you do,” Bradshaw replied. “Not exactly like this, but we were just doing basically the same to Trissiny Avelea. The difference is, that was the tiniest whisper of a trace, and it took a physical sacrifice from Vlesni to do it. This… Someone did the opposite, working from the merest hint of her residue to produce sizable quantities. That is the mind-boggling part. I don’t know any infernal craft that could do such a thing. The Lady could, a couple of the archdemons could have. Prince Vanislaas surely could. But those are inherent gifts, not any spellwork. Also, Elilial and Vanislaas have much better things to do than footle around Calderaas making life difficult for their own servants.” He shook his head. “I’m at a loss.”

“This is your fault!” Vlesni screeched, pointing accusingly at Embras. “You and that damned paladin-taunting spell of yours! So help me—”

“What?” Embras said flatly, staring at her. “No, really. Go on and finish that sentence, Vlesni. I’m curious.”

She pantomimed a throttling motion at him, baring her teeth.

“Embras, take it easy,” Vanessa said reprovingly. “She’s no more irritating than most of her kind, and she’s also got a point. I would be very surprised if this weren’t connected to that business somehow. It’s all too convenient.”

“Foxhunt,” Bradshaw said suddenly.

Embras turned to him. “What’s that?”

“Remember, you were telling me about Ali’s warning?” Bradshaw said, staring intently back. “You used the word ‘foxhunt.’ Was that his word, or yours?”

“His,” Embras said slowly. “I noted it at the time. It’s not a word that comes up in general conversation, and Ali does love his wordplay.”

“Oh, forsaken gods,” Vanessa whispered. “Embras, Tellwyrn brought a kitsune onto that campus.”

Vlesni groaned and sagged against the wall. “Just put a wandshot in my head right now. Let’s not drag this out.”

“Could a kitsune do something like this, is the question?” Embras asked, again frowning at the wall.

“That’s…a very good question,” Vanessa replied. “It’s hardly clear what they can do. I only know of a handful of instances of them ever leaving Sifan.”

“Are we jumping to conclusions?” Bradshaw asked cautiously. “The connection seems rather specious.”

“No, it fits,” Embras said. “We’ve got a mean and impressively impossible prank on our hands, the sudden proximity of a powerful fairy of unknown capability—whose students we are actively taunting—and Ali’s warning to link the two. Trust me, I know him; the only thing he loves more than sneaky wordplay is sneaky wordplay that’s only obvious in meaning when it’s too late.”

“Well,” said Bradshaw, tucking the lens back into his robe, “if that fox-woman is capable of doing something like this, it goes without saying that she’s a nasty piece of work. The complexity of this, the power necessary… She clearly ranks close to Tellwyrn herself as a threat.”

“And she’s the newest faculty member, of course,” Embras murmured. “The one about whom we know almost nothing.”

“Right,” Bradshaw said worriedly. “I think we’d better fix that immediately.”

“Quite so,” Embras replied, suddenly brisk. He clapped his hands together, then rubbed them vigorously. “All right! To arms, people. Vanessa, I’m delegating the mess in Calderaas to you, with apologies. This is where your talents shine, however. I want your silver tongue put to work smoothing all these ruffled feathers.”

“Well, that was an entertaining visual,” Vlesni muttered.

Embras ignored her, still addressing himself to Vanessa. “Do what you have to to keep everyone happy—the local cell is under your command for purposes of this assignment. However, before that, I want you to jump to Rodvenheim and get Svalthram in on this. We are obviously being hunted, and I’m not going to risk you without insurance. Explain the situation to him, and make sure he’s looking over your shoulder the whole time.”

“Svalthram?” she queried, raising her eyebrows. “Well, it can’t be said that you’re not taking this seriously.”

“Oh, I am dead serious,” he said darkly. “Anybody tries to take advantage of this to move against you, I want them put down viciously.

“Very well,” she agreed. “I’m on it. I’ve been on it most of today already; hopefully I’ve laid sufficient groundwork already to keep this from swelling any further.”

“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “Meanwhile, we face the simpler but no less daunting of rustling up some solid information about kitsune, and Kaisa Ekoi in particular.”

“Ekoi Kaisa,” Vanessa corrected him. “They put the surname first in Sifan.”

“Quite right, thank you.”

“I’m not sure it’s all that daunting,” Bradshaw objected. “There’s a language barrier, but Sifan’s only a moment away by shadow-jump—I’m sure they have libraries…”

“No!” Vanessa cried in alarm. “Absolutely not, you don’t just go to Sifan and start poking around—especially about kitsune, of all things! There’s a reason we don’t have cells there!”

Bradshaw blinked in surprise. “I thought… It was my understanding the reason was none of the cults have a solid presence there. We’re not exactly useful where there are no Pantheon gods to oppose.”

“It’s not that simple,” Embras explained. “Religion in Sifan is…different. Many of the cults are indeed completely absent, including ours. It’s positively crawling with Eserites and Veskers, but they answer to the Queen as much as to their own organizations, if not more so. There’s a local Avenist sect that has no actual ties to the Sisterhood at all. And not to put too fine a point on it, Bradshaw, but kitsune and similar local phenomena are also part of the reason we don’t act there. We have no business in the place, and there are things in the Twilight Forest which would hunt us like rabbits. No… In general I prefer firsthand information, but in this case, we had better stick to what can be gleaned about kitsune from Tiraan sources. Asking prying questions about anything related to demons, fairies, or anything remotely sensitive is a quick way to get a visit from what passes for the local Thieves’ Guild. And if you think the Guild in Tiraas is nasty, just hope you never have to contend with the shinobi. There’s a very good reason all our Sifanese members were recruited after leaving the Eternal Kingdom itself.”

“Hm.” Bradshaw frowned pensively. “Is Hiroshi still in Puna Shankur?”

“If he’s not, the cell there will know where he went,” Vanessa replied. “That’s probably our best starting point, though, you’re right. Puna Shankur itself is off the beaten path and outside Tiraan authority, and Hiroshi is remarkably well-read.”

“Someone has a crush,” Vlesni muttered, too sullen still to be properly snide. Vanessa ignored her.

“Embras,” Bradshaw said, “until we’re on better footing with regard to this, Last Rock…”

“Way ahead of you,” Embras said fervently. “That will have to manage itself for a day or two at least, until we know what we’re dealing with, and how to deal. I’m not taking chances with an unknown quantity this apparently dangerous.”

“And if it turns out we can’t deal?” Bradshaw prompted insistently.

Embras sighed. “Then… Yeah, I’m afraid we’ll have to consider dropping that campaign, if this fox-woman proves too much to contend with. It’s a priceless opportunity, but after Darling’s hilarious little prank in Tiraas this spring, we cannot afford to risk people. Bad enough we don’t have time to rebuild our numbers before our date with Justinian. For now, we’ve got our assignments. Let’s hop to, people. Vlesni, you’d better stick with me for a while, at least until Vanessa manages to cover your tracks.”

“They aren’t my tracks,” the succubus snarled. “And hell yes, I’m with you. If this kitsune can be killed…dibs.”

She remained blissfully unaware of the tip of the scythe hovering mere inches from the back of her skull, the slightest cut with which would have removed her instantly from the mortal plane.

Alydren loomed invisibly over them, staring balefully down at Vlesni, whose image was glaringly sharp to her even across the watery barrier between planes. Regretfully, the valkyrie pulled back her scythe, mindful of the strategy of the situation. Alarming the warlocks by dispatching their pet succubus would mean she wouldn’t learn anything further. For now, she waited. Watching.

Vanessa was the first to depart; Alydren studied the dimensional pathways carved by her shadow-jump for a moment, but turned her back on them to follow Embras, Bradshaw and Vlesni. They were going after more information on the fox-goddesses. That, in her estimation, was much more interesting.

For several reasons.

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“This is too soon.”

“Bradshaw, you are turning into a regular old nanny,” Embras replied, not looking up from the diagram he was scrawling on the ground.

“Let me remind you what happened to us the last time you decided to get too aggressive,” Bradshaw said sharply, nodding at Vanessa, who just folded her arms. “I’m not blaming you, Embras, but keep in mind you’re working with people who have earned some caution.”

At that, Embras did raise his head, his expression serious. “I wasn’t being condescending when I suggested you two sit this out, you know. Lady knows, you’ve gone above and beyond the call lately. And frankly, aside from having earned a break, there’s the matter of it being in the best interests of the organization to have you fully rested and recuperated…”

“We’re both still in fighting shape,” Vanessa said tersely. “For a given value of ‘fighting,’ anyway.”

“The kind we usually do,” Bradshaw added. “Which doesn’t involve the sort of bear-poking you’re doing right now. But leaving that aside, Embras, I’m not just being conservative or cautious. Speaking as a fellow strategist, I believe this is too soon. I’d leave her alone for a bit—at least a day or two—to let this morning’s event settle to the back of her mind. The next one will have more impact that way.”

“Well, you aren’t wrong,” Embras acknowledged, kneeling again in the flattened tallgrass to resume work. He was using nothing more than his finger now, the enchanting dusts, sigils and charms all having been laid; a thin stream of bruise-purple energy was slowly scoring lines where he pointed it, adding to the already considerable complexity of the circle. “Under other circumstances, that’s exactly the approach I would take, too. However, we haven’t the luxury of a luxurious, drawn-out game this time. There’s a timetable here, and I’m not sure exactly where the numbers lie just yet. I want the girl good and spooked now, before she can convince herself it was her imagination, so she stays that way. We’ll have to adjust the schedule on the fly as things develop. Not ideal, I know, but we make do. All right, I think this is done. Nessa, Vlesni, kindly double-check my work?”

Vanessa silently limped over to him and began perusing the sigil through narrowed eyes, her head moving slowly as she studied each aspect of it in detail. The fourth member of their party sashayed forward to join her, unfurling her wings and re-folding them about her shoulders as a kind of cloak. Such little displays were as natural as breathing for the succubus, but were notably unaccompanied by comment this time. Vlesni had been unusually quiet all evening.

Bradshaw cast a grim look at the distant form of the mountain rising up from the flatness all around them. They were right at the edge of the effective range of the spell Mogul was crafting; the towering feature that gave Last Rock its name was a thumb-high blot on the horizon, both the town below it and the University at its peak invisible in the falling twilight.

“What kind of schedule?” Bradshaw asked, turning his attention back to Mogul, who was watching Vlesni pace slowly in a circle around the diagram.

“I’ve been thinking,” Embras said slowly.

“That could be good or very bad,” Vanessa commented without looking up. Not so long ago she’d have been moving around the circle like the succubus, but her leg didn’t appreciate unnecessary walking.

“Yes, yes,” Embras said. “Laugh it up. But seriously, now. We’ve been over the improbability of Justinian’s apparent plans, here. Turning Last Rock against Tellwyrn would barely inconvenience her. It makes a little more sense, though, if you consider it as the first step of a longer game. Turning the world against her might cause her annoyance, even impediment, but it won’t stop her operations. She’s just not the kind of personality or creature to care overmuch what people think, and unlike most governments and heads of institutions, has no need to concern herself with public opinion.”

“So that’s still wasted effort on Justinian’s part,” said Bradshaw.

Embras nodded. “And Justinian does not waste effort. However, one thing he could do by stirring up ill feeling that would hurt her greatly is turn the students against the University.”

Vanessa looked up at that, frowning. “Do you think he could?”

“Not the way he is so far,” Embras replied, “but it’s been established that these are obviously the opening moves of something more complex. That is both the dilemma and the solution, my friends. Not knowing the shape or nature of Justinian’s plans, we’re in the dark as to the schedule of events. But this creates an opportunity we cannot afford to waste. Whatever the exact details, the general form of his plan is clearly disharmony, division, and discord. Others can take advantage of that.”

“You surely don’t think you can turn the University students to our side,” Bradshaw protested.

“We could, but nah. There are nearly eighty of them; we could unquestionably gather up a few, but not the specific ones I want. Those are going to take some careful handling.”

“Again with the paladins,” Bradshaw grunted, folding his arms.

“Yes, the paladins,” Embras said implacably. “Think what Justinian must be after. Tellwyrn isn’t enough of a hazard to him that he would risk making her one unless he had a specific goal in mind. And there are some very interesting individuals on that campus with whom he already has fingerholds. Specifically, the same ones we are interested in. The paladins, and our dear Vadrieny.”

“The paladins are the least likely to give you so much as the time of day,” Vanessa scoffed. “And Vadrieny has made it plain she wants nothing to do with us. Amnesia clearly did wonders for her disposition, but it’s not made her any easier to handle.”

“And that, my dear, is our advantage,” Mogul said, raising a finger and grinning. “Those three owe much more to their own cults than the Church; he has to win their favor, and their loyalty, specifically to himself to get anywhere. He has to win—we just have to not lose.”

“I see,” Bradshaw said slowly, frowning. “Well, some of it. If you can discredit Justinian while putting us in a positive light… We don’t need to convert them to come out on top. I’m still not clear on how this leads to prodding at Avelea this way.”

“I don’t want to convert them,” said Embras. “Then their patrons would just kick them to the curb, and what use would they be after that? Even Vadrieny; the Lady has made it clear she wants the girl staying on campus and out of danger as long as possible. No, I want those kids questioning everyone. Us, the Church, their own gods. And the best part is, I cannot imagine Professor Tellwyrn objecting to that goal.”

“This looks good to me,” Vlesni said curtly, coming to stand next to him.

“Agreed,” said Vanessa, taking a few uneven steps back from the spell circle. “If you intend to do this, let’s get on with it.”

“Very good,” he said cheerfully, producing a heavy hunting knife out of thin air. Its pommel was hammered into the bronze wolf’s head that symbolized Shaath’s cult.

“I’m still waiting to hear the story behind that thing,” Bradshaw noted.

“Vlesni, my dear, you’re up,” Embras said, holding out a hand to her.

The succubus wrapped her arms and wings around herself, and looked away at the mountain on the horizon. “We’re too close to that place. I don’t do valkyries, not after last time. We had an agreement, Embras.”

“There are no valkyries here,” he said patiently. “I went well out of my way to chart the area from multiple dimensions. They don’t patrol the region, just come and go. Seems they like to visit their new Hand when they’ve nothing better to do, is all. And speaking of hands, dear, I’ll need yours.”

“I’m not so sure I like this,” Vlesni complained. “Why can’t you summon up someone else for these things? Last thing I want is that paladin getting the scent of my blood in her nose.”

“Vlesni,” Embras said, his tone just perceptibly harder. “You know I like to lead with a gentle hand, my dear, but that doesn’t mean you don’t obey. You get to run around on the mortal plane so long as you follow my rules, and make yourself useful. If that deal is no longer working for you, just say the word.”

For a bare instant, the succubus fixed him with a sly, calculating look. Then she sniffed dramatically and extended her hand, palm down and wrist limp, as if expecting a kiss on the knuckles.

“You don’t need to get all huffy,” she huffed, languidly raising one forefinger. The nail spontaneously grew till it curled a good three inches outward.

“That’s my girl,” Mogul said cheerfully, taking her hand and swiftly but carefully cutting free the overgrown nail with the fae-blessed Huntsman knife.

Mogul stepped over to the spell circle, knelt, and very carefully laid the demon’s fingernail in the center of one elaborately glyphed ring positioned at the edge of the overall design.

Instantly the entire thing glowed purple. Then, as if being sucked down a drain, the lines and glyphs began to crawl free of their place on the ground, inching toward the circle containing the severed nail. Only one spot seemed to resist: directly opposite that circle was a rendition of Avei’s eagle sigil, bound by another inscribed ring, which now began to glow a dull red and let off sparks in protest.

Its resistance finally gave, however, and the entire thing swirled into the point around Vlesni’s fingernail and vanished.

For an instant, all was silent.

The final discharge of the elaborate spell was an anticlimactic puff of purple smoke, which swirled into an off-center twister no bigger than a mule, and sailed off in the direction of Last Rock, vanishing from view as it did so.

“And that’s that!” Embras said brightly, clapping his hands. “All right, folks, let’s clean up the site—full scrub, no stone unturned, you know the drill. I’m sure you know better than to assume the Lady’s stealth works on Tellwyrn, especially after she got her hands on those materials Locke stole from us. I can’t imagine why she’d be sniffing around out here, but it pays not to make assumptions.”

“And while we’re going that,” Bradshaw said pointedly, then stopped, looking over at Vanessa. “No, you don’t, Nessa! Sit down, we’ll take care of this.”

“I am not an invalid,” she said sharply.

“You kind of are, though,” Vlesni commented. Embras snapped her fingers, and the demon obligingly fell silent, still wearing a placid smile.

“Bradshaw’s right,” said Embras. “All assets should go where they are most useful, and your skills at the moment don’t include repeatedly bending over. Vlesni, don’t you dare.”

“Oh, please,” the demon said scornfully. “Way too easy.”

“As I was saying,” Bradshaw continued, while kneeling to slowly run his palms over the apparently featureless dirt where the spell circle had been moments ago, “this would be a great time for you to explain how goosing Trissiny Avelea with pieces of Vanislaad aura leads to turning her against Justinian.”

“Well, now, just playing to type,” Mogul said innocently, bending to repeat Bradshaw’s motions on the other side of the erstwhile circle. “If you read the old epics, the really popular songs and stories about paladins, a sort of pattern emerges. It begins to seem that, whatever their stated goals, the purpose of a paladin’s enemies is always the same in the long run.” He grinned broadly as he worked. “To make her a hero.”


Veilgrad wasn’t much of a travel destination these days; the Empire had taken steps to prevent gawkers from impeding the repairs to the city. Said repairs seemed to mostly be done at this point, to judge by the condition of buildings they had passed today, and the number partially encased in scaffolding. Still, Ingvar suspected that Darling’s connections were a major reason they’d been able to secure a ticket to Veilgrad so quickly. On the upside, it was nice and quiet, particularly now, on the upper floor hallways of the inn in which they were staying.

Darling followed him past the door of the room he was sharing with Joe, and Ingvar, having already said his goodnights, steadfastly ignored him, opening his own door and stepping through in the hope that the Eserite was simply on his way back down to the common room for a nightcap.

“So!” Darling said, his chipper voice as usual dashing all of Ingvar’s hopes. “You know the chair trick, right?”

Ingvar stopped, turned, and stared at him. “The chair…trick?”

“Let me show you!”

Darling slipped past him into the room, and even as he bristled at the presumption, Ingvar had to respect the man’s physical adroitness. Not many people could maneuver around him so neatly—but then again, perhaps the could and simply didn’t try to. Most people gave Huntsmen a respectful berth.

The thief had already picked up the ladder-back chair which was one of the few items of furniture in Ingvar’s room. “C’mon, shut the door so I can demonstrate.”

Ingvar gave him a considering look before complying. Something about shutting himself in this small room with the man put him on edge.

Darling stepped past him, set the chair down on its back two legs and wedged it in so it was lodged directly under the door handle.

“There!” he said, giving the door a jiggle to demonstrate. “Snug as a bug. It’s damn near impossible to open a door from the other side with the chair in place like that—anybody who wants in that badly will pretty much have to break it down, and in pieces. Physics is a wonderful thing.”

“I see. Thanks for the tip,” Ingvar said tersely, only un-tensing slightly when Darling removed the chair. Being blocked in the room with the man had been even worse.

Rather than opening the door to leave, however, Darling turned to face him, his expression serious.

“It wasn’t a random suggestion. I’m pretty sure we were followed today.”

“Followed?” Ingvar tensed further, a hand straying toward his tomahawk. “By whom?”

Darling shook his head. “I didn’t get a good look.”

“Well…how many?”

“Not sure… It was just an impression I had. The sense of increasingly familiar shapes out of the corner of my eye, conveniently behind us whenever I happened to glance, and absent when I looked specifically.”

Ingvar was torn between the urges to laugh and to cuff him about the ears. “That’s it? Really, that’s all?”

“It’s instinct, Ingvar,” Darling said, seemingly unperturbed by his tone. “Instinct is just the summation of a thousand tiny observations and calculations you could never consciously do. You of all people should know to trust it. Or are you going to tell me that when you’re out hunting, you don’t have a grasp of the forest? Doesn’t nature talk to you at all, if you know how to read the signs?”

“You’re equating the hunt with this…premonition you had?” Ingvar said skeptically.

“They’re exactly the same thing,” Darling replied with a faint smile. “Cities are my woods, Ingvar, and stalking people through them was my bread and butter long before I got promoted into playing mind games with the powers that be. When I have a feeling that I’m being followed, I’ve learned it means I’m being followed. And when I can’t get a solid look at the person doing the following, that means they’re good.”

“Hm,” Ingvar grunted, frowning. With it all explained like that, it did make sense. He understood the value of instinct very well—better, he felt, than the Eserite, for he didn’t feel a need to explain it away as unconscious calculation. It had come as a surprise that Darling of all people would understand the instincts of hunter and prey, but there, too, he was right. Who better to know such dynamics in the city than a thief?

“I’m not going to rule out random pickpockets, or some unknown new party,” Darling continued, “but I can’t help thinking the only people we know expressed an interest in our group today were those three Huntsmen. And we know who they’re interested in.” He patted the back of the chair. “So…chair trick. May it serve you well.”

“I see,” Ingvar mused, then nodded. “Thank you. I’ll put that to good use. Will you two be okay?”

Darling grinned. “I almost hope I get to see someone try to sneak up on the Sarasio Kid on this trip. Sleep well, Ingvar.”

After he had finally slipped out, pulling the door shut behind him, Ingvar stared at it in thought for a long moment.

He propped the chair in place as Darling had shown him, then went to collect his satchel. Everything was packed exactly where he could lay hands on just what he needed; it was the work of moments to extract a few lengths of rawhide cord and small tin discs. Working them into a snare alarm took only a moment, the motions well-practiced. Arranging them on the window was only slightly trickier; its latch was designed to be minimally obtrusive, and Ingvar was used to setting this on convenient lengths of twig and branch, not angular surfaces against which they’d lie too flat to chime. He did get it rigged up, however, and tested his handwork to ensure that anyone opening the window would unavoidably cause the chimes to jangle loudly together. Perfect.

After a moment’s thought, he arranged a second such alarm on the chair propped against his door. He couldn’t see any way to open it from the outside, but considering who had told him to do that…

It never hurt to be sure.


The room filled with golden light; Ruda was on her feet before being fully awake, snatching up her sword from beside the bed and only belatedly pulling it from its scabbard. Trissiny was already up, naked blade in hand, glowing like the sun. The paladin turned this way and that as if looking for something. Barefoot, dressed only in the plain shift in which she slept and with her hair pillow-mussed, she was quite a sight.

“What is it?” Ruda finally demanded. “Boots? Say something, you are wigging me the fuck out, here.”

“Demon,” Trissiny said tersely.

Ruda tightened her grip on her sword. “Like before?”

“Just like before.” Trissiny turned in a slow circle, panning her gaze around the room. “It’s…gone. I only felt it for a moment… Hang on.”

She frowned in concentration, and the glow around her expanded gradually, until it filled the room.

“Hey, be careful with that,” Ruda chided. “If you incinerate yourself, they’re gonna say I murdered you. Triss? Seriously, stop. There’s nothing here.”

Trissiny sighed and nodded, relaxing slightly. The light around her diminished to the normal scale of her divine shield, then further, till she was barely glowing. “I didn’t imagine it.”

“Didn’t say you did.” Ruda padded across the room to the switch by the door, igniting the fairy lamp. “But after that display, we can be certain nothing’s in here. Or out in the hall, or in the bathroom. Unless that glowy shit is stopped by walls?”

“It isn’t,” Trissiny said tersely.

“Right, then.” Ruda glanced down at her own pajamas, then over at her hat hanging from the bedpost and scabbard lying against the wall where she had flung it. “So what happened?”

“I’m not crazy,” Trissiny muttered to herself. “I know I felt…”

“Boots, if you were crazy, Avei would damn well take notice. Whatever’s going on, that’s not it. Look…last time, Scorn felt it too.”

“Right,” Trissiny said vaguely, then her gaze focused. “Right. You’re right. Let’s go check on her.”

Ruda followed her out into the hall and down the stairs, their steps utterly silent on the luxuriant carpet.

Trissiny hesitated outside the fairies’ door, but continued past when no sound emerged from within. Fross didn’t actually sleep, but she used her nights to study, which Juniper claimed didn’t bother her. Since reshuffling the rooms after their first semester, they had developed a comfortable rhythm, which had taken time to re-establish after Jack was added to the picture. Everyone had been extra careful around that door this semester. The jackalope didn’t appreciate being awakened, and those antlers hurt.

The next door down opened as they neared it, however, and Shaeine slipped out, garbed in a black nightdress.

“What’s amiss?” she asked.

“I felt another demonic presence,” Trissiny replied. “I don’t suppose you…?”

“Nothing like that,” the drow replied with a faint frown. “I heard you two coming down, is all. At this hour and as fast as you are moving, it seemed unlikely to have been in search of a midnight snack. Are you going to wake Janis?”

“May not be much point in that,” Ruda said. “We’re gonna check with Scorn. Last time she had the same sense Trissiny did…”

“Good thinking,” Shaeine agreed, gently pulling her door shut.

“Uh…” Ruda glanced at it. “Just for the record, she listens to Teal…”

“She listens to each of us,” Shaeine said firmly. “I think it is best not to get her used to interacting politely only with one person. And Teal needs her sleep.”

“All right,” Trissiny agreed. “Come on.”

The stairwell terminated into the living room downstairs; getting to the basement from there meant creeping down the hallway past the kitchen and Janis’s door. There was no door blocking the steps that led down into the giant, hollowed-out floating stalactite on which Clarke tower perched, which meant Scorn lacked some of the privacy the tower’s other residents enjoyed, but she had never objected to that. Vadrieny had hinted that privacy was at a premium in her home dimension anyway.

The basement room, blessedly, had no windows. Aside from its leveled floor, it could have been a natural cave, the walls rough-hewn. Stored barrels and trunks had been rearranged to make a sleeping area for the Rhaazke; she was presently curled up in it, having chosen to construct a huge nest of quilts and pillows, propping the bed she’d been provided up on its end against one wall to serve as a rack for clothes and her large collection of cheap jewelry.

They continued to step quietly, but Scorn (as they had previously discovered) was apparently accustomed to being snuck up on, and rose as they filed into the room. Trissiny let her golden glow flicker out, leaving the room lit only by the small fairy lamp Scorn used as a nightlight. The demon had never given any indication of being afraid of the dark; she seemed to find it a sign of wealth and privilege to have a light on all the time while she slept.

Which she did in the nude. It didn’t bother her to be visited in that state, and after the initial surprise, no one but Teal was particularly flustered by it.

“What?” Scorn demanded irritably. “Is late. Am sleeping.”

“Did you feel a demon nearby just now?” Trissiny asked.

Scorn snorted. “I feel nobody in my bed. Boys not allowed, remember? Yes?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Trissiny said, her cheeks coloring slightly. “This morning, you sensed a demon when I did. I just had the same feeling—exactly the same. You didn’t sense anything?”

“No,” Scorn said with a huge yawn which showed off her jagged teeth alarmingly. “Why you were up to sense?”

“I…wasn’t,” Trissiny admitted. “It woke me up.”

The demon rolled her eyes. “You have a dream. Good night, let everyone else have some.”

“I really don’t think—”

“Night!” Scorn flopped back down on her pillows, face-first, and said something else which was too muffled to be understood.

“Well…thanks anyway,” Trissiny said with a sigh. Stifled but still ostentatious snoring began to emerge from the demon’s nest. Shaking her head, Trissiny turned back to the stairs. “I’m not crazy.”

“No, you aren’t,” Shaeine agreed. “No one has suggested otherwise.”

“They will, though,” Trissiny said glumly. “When you start sensing things no one else can…that’s just not a good sign. Maybe it was a dream. Feeling that…thing…out of nowhere this morning… Well, that’d give anybody nightmares.”

They had navigated back up to the darkened living room, where Ruda stopped. “That was no nightmare, Boots.”

Trissiny frowned at her. “How would you know? You have insight into my dreams, now?”

“Fuck yes I do,” Ruda retorted. “I’ve slept in the next bed over for a year and a half now. You get nightmares, you know that? They tend to wake me up. But never anything like that. That was pure, divinely inspired fight or flight. Something real happened up there.”

“Do you think we are in any danger?” Shaeine asked.

“I don’t…know,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Both times, it was just the sensation, quickly gone.”

“First,” said Ruda, “I can’t picture an actual demon getting past Tellwyrn’s wards unless invited, like Scorn or Vadrieny. Or Gabriel, even. Second, supposing one found herself in this tower—and it’d have to be a her, or the charm would keep it out—she’d be locked in with a crew of women who individually are a match for most things and collectively for damn near anything. No demon clever enough to penetrate the outer defenses would wanna be in that position. Nah…we’re not under attack.” She turned to look at Trissiny. “Both times this shit has been targeted at you, Boots.”

“You do believe me, then?” Trissiny seemed half grateful and half disbelieving.

“Triss, I’ve got a pretty firm handle on your flaws by now,” Ruda replied with a grin. “You’re judgmental and not the most socially adept person when it comes to people. When there’s battle or evil shit afoot, though, I trust your instincts. They’ve saved all our asses more than once.”

“I agree,” Shaeine said, nodding.

“This is what I don’t like,” Ruda continued, her features falling into a scowl. “If we accept that Trissiny’s reactions are real, and that this doesn’t seem to be a physical threat to us… The logical conclusion is that somebody is deliberately fucking with you.”

“Who would do something like that?” Trissiny demanded. “And why?”

“I think we had better devote some serious thought to those questions,” Shaeine said, her forehead infinitesimally creased in one of her faint frowns, an expression that indicated severe worry. Whether they had grown accustomed to her or she had begun to open up slightly, her classmates had become more perceptive of her subtle displays of emotion.

“Whoever it is,” Ruda growled, “they’re gonna fuckin’ quit it. First we find them, and then we explain it to ’em.”

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