“She wasn’t pleased that I chose to bring it up,” Rima said, pushing the door shut. “However, with that already done and well-received, she is in favour of going ahead with it.”

“So what will ‘it’ entail?” Jisarr asked. “I don’t know how much of it I’ll be able to understand, but I am curious.” He was sitting on the cushioned seat he’d used for reading, now placed in the middle of the room rather than at the wall.


There’d be no difficulty on his part this time; Jisarr’s heart was pounding before he reached Dren’s door, an uncomfortable tightness growing in his clothing by the time Dren hesitantly opened it in answer to his knock. There was a deep yearning in the smaller man’s eyes now, a need grown almost painful; and though he felt a pang of guilt for leaving Dren alone while that need built up, anticipation of the forceful climax that it heralded made him tremble.


It was a bizarre mix of new and familiar. Kob had never set foot in this inn before, yet it was just like others he’d been in – comfortably warm, dimly-lit by candles under tinted glass globes at each table, the furnishings plush and well-carved rather than the ramshackle benches and trestle tables at most common inns. The bartop was gleaming, polished mahogany; the patrons held quiet conversations under the strains of the bard’s lute and her soft singing.

Rather than being a place for the masses to come for a decent and affordable meal, this was a place where people of means could conduct discreet business – and in any big city, there was some business that was discreet by nature. Practitioners of the sort Kob had sought out knew of each other; even across sea and desert, the token of the Silver Serpent of Sharktooth Bay carried some weight, when its bearer knew the right names. And while Kob had never acquired a taste for ostentation, he’d long since passed the point where a meal at a place like this was an expense worth noting; he could afford the polite measure of treating his contact to a good meal.


It was still a mercenary camp; there was a fundamental order to the place that the bivouacs of larger units lacked. And with several bands in the same space, far from succumbing to the disorder of those larger units, the divisions were only strengthened. Stepping from one band’s section of the camp to another’s brought a distinction as plain as that between night and day, even more so than that between the inside of the camp and the world beyond its border.

Gone, though, was the expectant tension. The work they’d been mustered for was done, and done well, by gods and ancestors and whatever else the disparate fighters held dear. None of these bands would never truly relax their discipline, not while they were still mustered – that discipline was part of what had made them the best, the most-esteemed, the most-sought-for warriors in the land. Sentries still watched the camp, looking outward, keeping an eye on the interior, even minding the skies. Officers and small cadres of armed fighters still roamed the camp and kept the peace.

But the mood in the camp was one of celebration. Freed captives, brought in for assessment and treatment by the mercenaries’ healers, now rested with their rescuers, and those who had not greatly suffered for their ordeal celebrated with them. Bands that had been wary and distrustful of one another had worked together and come to respect each other, and now, though each band had its district, the mercenaries all roamed freely between those districts, whether as residents or welcome guests.


Tension spread through the camp in the returning scout’s wake. She’d passed the challenges, and the guards at the edge of camp knew the cat and her mission; none sought to impede her. One of the skirmishers brought her a waterskin, which she drank from as she hustled; other than that, everybody stayed out of her way.

She reached the command tent without a word spoken since answering the sentries’ challenges, and the duty guard lifted the flap for her the moment she came into view. So it was that she ducked through and was still panting from her run when she found herself under the scrutiny of four very different people, no two of the same race, never mind the same insignia – the commanders of four different mercenary companies in joint council. Her salute wasn’t entirely regulation-crisp, but nobody in the tent much minded


The rider glowered past his mount’s head as the beast trundled down the packed dirt road, eight sets of claws churning up little clods of dust. Neither of them had a countenance that brooked argument; the man had passed beyond surly long ago and was now downright thunderous, and while his hand was nowhere near the sword at his hip, still nobody wanted to impede the wearer of that crest when he was looking so incensed – it was known far and wide that Davion del Torim was very quick to find his sword when the need arose, and while he was also known as a kind, fair-hearted man, that made his palpable fury all the more frightening. None wanted to be seen as in his way when he was in that mood, lest he see violence as an expedient way past.

As for his steed, Winter was a full-grown gerwuhl hob, nearly as well-known as his rider. Most people who rode gerwuhlen instead of some more placid beast rode jills, in small part because the males were substantially bigger and thus harder to maintain and feed, but mostly because they could be so vicious, and in a species that could already be almost disturbingly clever about escaping restraints and the like, a vicious streak was the last thing anyone wanted to risk. Winter was a deadly fighter in his own right, with cruel weapons tipping each of his numerous limbs and jaws that could break through a man’s thighbone with scarcely a pause. Nobody wanted to feel his bite any more than that of his namesake.

It was a strange day when that wolverine-like countenance was the less surly-looking of the pair, and the gate guards instantly decided they wanted no part of it. Davion was familiar enough to them as to need no interrogation, and he had a royal exemption from the usual queries anyway; they just hauled the turnstile out of his way to let him pass, and Winter churned through the gate without breaking stride.

Davion kept his silence until the guards and everyone else were out of earshot, and only then did he start cursing. It was under his breath, but it went on for some time, with an extensive vocabulary that would have surprised most people who’d ever met him. Winter endured it stoically, just bearing his rider along the road with his usual steady, rolling gait.


Krall hadn’t seen either face in two seasons. Before that, though, they’d had more than five years in close company and shared deeds; he’d have instantly recognized either of them, never mind the conspicuous pairing. Seeing them now, the bear’s heart leaped with joy.

He started making his way through the crowd, taking care, even now, not to push. He was a big man among a big race; he could have forced his way through if there had been true and urgent need. Courtesy was an old habit, though, and one he would not lightly set aside – no matter how eager he was to meet those two again, that did not an emergency make.

The drake – whose wings, even furled, gave him enough personal space to have a clearer view – was first to see him; turning, waving, then twisting to give his human companion a nudge and say something to him, excited. Then both of them were working along the crowd’s edge to where there was a bit more room.


Hakenteri had used every curse word he knew in four different languages and was starting over. It took a while – partly because the gryphon was cursing under his breath as he flew, rather than with full dedication, but mostly because one didn’t spend five years in active service with the Highmoor Legions, and more time beyond that in training, without picking up some of the essential skills.

False leads, inaccuracies, late arrivals, missing details – nobody had ever told him that serving as the Legion’s eyes and ears in other lands would be easy, but this was getting downright ridiculous.

The place he’d left behind with the first of those muttered curses was the eighth he’d investigated since starting this particular mission. It was supposed to have been as straightforward as a spy-courier’s duties ever got – get in, meet the contact, hear the report, confirm it, get home. And that would have been that; the five years he’d sworn to serve would be done and he could move on to civilian life. Which, unlike most of his kind, he had serious prospects for; he’d had no intention of re-enlisting.

That had been at the start of spring. It was the height of summer, now.

Hakenteri didn’t begrudge the extra time – truly. It would have been nice to be done months ago as expected, but he’d had no intention of leaving a task unfinished. The real problem was that this particular task seemed tailored for maximum frustration.


Before the first word was written, the Red Lady was there to watch over the land.

Through the ages She had kept Her vigil unbroken, guarding Her people from those that dwelt beyond the world. She taught the ways of battle to the first wardens, that they may stand guard against the dangers of this world even as She did against those of others, with the stern counsel that to use Her arts to take that which was not theirs would be to break Her covenant. The land was bountiful, and there was plenty in it to provide for all Her people.

From time to time, horrors from beyond the world tried to sneak past Her vigilance and take plunder. She never wavered in Her watch; always She was there, and the people would marvel as She did battle in the sky or among the waves or astride the rolling plains, sometimes battling hosts of unquiet dead, or restless spirits of the elements, or other things too bizarre to name or even describe, striking with bow or spear, turning blows on a buckler carved from the first tree ever felled.


Hakenteri drifted on the edge of an uneasy doze, awash in a dull ache of pain.

He’d have been happy never to know how much of an improvement that could be. But improvement it was over how he’d been, what felt like mere moments ago but in truth was much of a day. When he’d been brought into this little den, he’d been exhausted, half-starved, and in genuine agony – from first the burns, then the arrow through his right wing, then all too many broken bones and a host of lesser bruises from when he’d hit the ground.

That had been bad. He’d barely been aware of anything but the pain, hadn’t known that healers were at hand until the pain had faded into merciful oblivion; at that point, he’d succumbed to his fatigue and sunk into oblivion as well.


For the dedicated administrator, there was always something to do.

Privately, Shiezma Vlande knew that an administrator was what she was, at heart. She delighted in making things happen, things that no one person could ever have accomplished alone. She took joy in efficiency. The politics of the Legeriat were mostly a distraction to her; at best they could show her where things needed to be done better, but more often they were in the way.

Still, if she wasn’t ideally suited to a Legeriator’s mantle, it was the post she held, and she wore it better than some of her colleagues did. And some aspects of it did appeal to her; enough to bring her to the Red Chamber even today, when no council was scheduled, to do some research and make plans. Truth be told, it was actually kind of restful, getting the chance to do this work without a whole muddle of politicians pestering her and getting in her way.

Which made it that much more of a surprise when the door creaked open and admitted another person. And all the more so when that person was not one of her oh-so-esteemed fellow Legeriators at all, but a short Orren man whose fine, dark robes made for sharp contrast against his pure-white fur and ice-blue eyes.


In a land much-marked by canyons and cliffs, the Godswatch Heights were the greatest rise of all. The main Temple of Caarok perched up there, a short way back from the cliff’s edge, hence the name. It wasn’t the grandest temple – that title belonged to the Temple of the Three, at the heart of the city below. But it was plenty grand, and it was there that Caarok Himself spent most of His incarnate existence. To scale the cliffs was the last step on a pilgrim’s path to seek audience with Him and possibly enter His personal service. It was a harrowing climb, a test of skill and resolve, but it was one that could be done.

Kalim knew all this – most people did, who knew much of anything about the Three. It was one thing, though, to know a collection of truths. It was quite another to be standing at the foot of the Godswatch Heights, to see them stretching up, it seemed, to the scant clouds in the lightening sky. Here, it was not so easy to remember that people had made the climb successfully; much easier to recall those that had failed – especially those that had fallen from the cliff face and met their end. There had certainly been a number of such.

Up to this moment, Kalim had thought himself ready. He was athletic – strong, agile, and limber. He had been climbing things since he was a boy, much to his mother’s despair, and after the first year and a few tumbles from smallish trees, he’d not fallen. Not even when he’d moved on to mighty ancient trees and then, indeed, cliffs. He was a good climber.

And yet he was fairly certain that most who’d tried and failed had thought themselves good climbers as well. This wasn’t a tree in his family’s yard; this was the highest, craggiest cliff in the land. No other challenge he’d faced could be its equal. How could he say for certain that they’d all prepared him for this?


It had all been going so well.

They’d got in with nobody the wiser. With physical access, Jessen had been able to break into their network without breaking a sweat, and she’d made a few careful gaps in security that let them all move to the deeper levels of the complex, down to the laboratory area. Then she’d cracked that network and pulled the research and development data. It had taken Navik several anxious minutes to sort through it all and narrow it down to what they wanted – testing data and plans for the ten-kilo package that now rested in his pack. It should have had an explosion-resistant crate and full NBC hazard sealing, but so long as it didn’t go off, all that wouldn’t be an issue; so for now, the shock-proof case the device now rested in would have to do.

These people hadn’t been setting out to make a weapon, but that was hardly reassuring; once they’d seen the potential of this little thing, they’d turned it into a terrifyingly effective weapon indeed. And knowing what they had planned for it, it was all the more important that Navik’s team get the prototype out of their hands and the plans back to Central Command.


The battle had settled into an elaborate, deadly dance.

They’d been at this for hours; both sides had taken losses, and it was small comfort to Darin Krell that “only” two on his side hadn’t disgorged active emergency beacons for search-and-rescue teams to retrieve. That was still two pilots he wouldn’t see at debriefing, assuming he got that far. Two families now missing loved ones. With the battlespace still too hostile for SAR to actually get in there, there was plenty of opportunity for that number to get worse, one way or another.

And that was just this particular engagement. Skirmishes had been going on for three days now, with no decisive changes on either side; either group could get reinforced anytime, but nobody had yet.

Nobody wanted more casualties, at this point. They spent most of their time outside direct engagement range and conserved their dwindling missile stocks. Even when the two forces came close together, everybody was more worried about staying alive than scoring hits, and that went for both sides.

Unfortunately, fatigue was setting in. Tired people slipped up, and when the stakes were this high, even a tiny slip could be fatal.


For the few minutes it took to walk back to his apartment, Damien Collier kept half-expecting the wolf next to him to disappear – to turn out to have never have been there after all; just a daydream, a figment of an overactive imagination.

Seriously, what were the odds? Naomi Peltier had been his great high school sweetheart – maybe not the first girl he’d dated, but the first one he’d really clicked with. They’d given each other their virginity – anxious to do it right, he’d studied up, thanks in large part to a guide he’d found online that had been targeted at curious teens and somehow not been shut down for “providing pornography to minors;” he thought it had gone okay, a positive experience for both of them, even if it had involved more giggling than actual passion. That had come later, as they got used to each other, and they’d had it in spades. Neither of them had been plagued by the jealousy that seemed to break apart so many of their fellow dating students. They’d compared notes about their attractive peers; Damien rather suspected that Naomi had a touch of the bi, too, whether or not it was enough to actually act on like his had turned out to be.

Then, with their passion still burning ever-brighter, he’d been dragged across the country by Dad’s promotion. He hadn’t had any means of contact that wouldn’t be lost in the move; she’d given him her email – but apparently her family had recently changed providers and she’d given him the old one. All he got in response to his “here I am” mail had been a bounce. He’d got permission for a long-distance call, only for that to be a wrong number. And with Naomi’s dad a teacher who’d rather not be pestered in off-hours by random students – or the irate parents of same – their number wasn’t in the phone book.

That had been hard. He’d tried not to show it to anyone, but suddenly being without even that distant connection to her had left him reeling and off balance. School had been a struggle; teachers and parents alike had chalked it up to just getting used to the different expectations of a new school, but the truth was that for a little, he just couldn’t be bothered to care enough to put in his best work.


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