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For the previous two days, Nyoque's existence had been extremely exciting. Out of nowhere, a mysterious and unknown conspirator had upended nearly all of its plots, eliminating or unmasking its thralls at every turn and sabotaging its carefully-orchestrated blackmail webs with uncanny precision. Each counter-move Nyoque made was deftly avoided, pre-empted, or reversed with great skill; it had almost been sad when the endgame began, as each participant maneuvered the other towards a final confrontation. However, Nyoque was holding a sizable set of trump cards, and had been carefully anticipating and orchestrating events in such a way that each defense or response to its actions set up a second, hidden objective, which its opponent thus far seemed unaware of. As each stepped confidently into the trap the other had prepared for it, Nyoque was certain that it would come out on top, but there was always an unavoidable element of risk when its personal presence was involved. It savored this, as it savored all aspects of its plotting.

It might have surprised Nyoque to know that it had encountered such nebulous and fleeting opposition because its opponent, for large stretches of time, simply did not exist; Linduin's accelerated mentality came into being, constructed its next move, and then dissolved after each computational block, leaving Linduin's waking mind only the most critical and inscrutable instructions possible to prevent him from making any attempted alterations or improvements. As a result, Nyoque was always one step behind in each interaction, which was the only reason Linduin was still alive; a large number of deadly traps had closed on places he had rather serendipitously failed to be at, which would not have been the case at all if he had had any idea what he was doing. Linduin's instruction for this, the final phase, had been very specifically written with a highly particular goal in mind: locating and identifying the real identity of whoever was behind all these plots. Neither version of Linduin knew what a rakshasi was, nor were they knowledgeable regarding any of its capabilities, so this was likely to be messy.

Cheis stepped forward as the secretary, choking on Linduin's note, spat it out forcefully onto the desk. Cheis, fearing an infohazard kill directive, snatched it up and opened it; it simply read, in childish scrawl, "YOU WILL NEVER CATCH ME". Grimacing, she stomped up the stairs, following the blood spatters and other impossible-to-miss indicators of the culprit's trail, which led directly to the seventh floor. She had to expend a bit of power to revitalize her body around the fifth, cursing her advancing age; there had been a time when Cheis of Veraleigh could have eaten ten flights of stairs for breakfast without requiring the aid of so much as a fork.

At the top of the stairs, Linduin executed the last of his instructions; he stripped off his bloody cloak, cast a camouflage enchantment upon himself, and burst through the door; his final instruction was to throw the cloak upon whoever was in the room (which, as his actions up to this point should have ensured, would be his enemy, but he knew nothing of this). Had all gone according to plan, this would have created a good deal of confusion when the guards, undoubtedly hot on his trail, arrived. However, his plan encountered a very serious setback when he saw the inhabitants of the room.

Cheis, barely thirty seconds behind him, slammed through the door and screeched to a halt as well. The seventeen other inhabitants of the room were equally surprised, consisting as they did of the Ciel'sa Archmage, the eleven other members of the Most High Arcane Council, five duly appointed procedural witness clerks, and the two accused: Pellamin Pearsson and Umbria DaMoura.

***

Galar Kayle slept for more than two days, recovering from the overexertion of a week's forced march subsisting entirely on vitalization magic. When he finally awoke, delirious with dehydration and starving, he spent a good bit of time ranting about his failures in life and his spiritual woes, but Velinaer didn't remotely speak his language and wasn't paying much attention to him, so he was spared the embarrassment of his confessions. When he did finally notice that Galar was awake and raving, Velinaer realized that he was somewhat poorly equipped to support a living creature on his voyage; he had brought no food or fresh water for Sleepy Ninja Guy and that was obviously going to be something of a problem. He managed to desalinate some seawater in the cavity of his skeletal horse's skull and have it pour out like a sort of drinking fountain, which was pretty hilarious to watch in action, but food was a different sort of problem; he tried to catch a fish with his hand, but it died on contact and melted for some reason, finally cluing him in to the fact that he was apparently capable of some sort of touch-of-death thing; this was somewhat horrifying but also extremely cool, and Velinaer lost a good half-hour in vivid fantasies of himself acting like some kind of badass while people died for the fatal sin of daring to touch his august person.

Eventually, however, he realized he still needed to keep Glowing Spear Boy from starving, and hit upon the bright idea of having his jujoram go out and catch some fish while they sailed. This seemed to work well enough, and he was able to use a hacky old thermal excitation enchantment he'd learned in college (originally used to cook pastries and soup) to at least heat the fish enough to make them somewhat palatable and kill as much bacteria as he could. Unfortunately, the lack of plates meant that he had to have his zombie serve the food to Ninja Guy, which had to be super awkward since it was made of out his dead wife, but he had no other options, so... tough luck, he supposed. Galar, as usual, completely misunderstood all this and wept anew at these circumstances, pouring out his heart and expressing his many regrets to what he thought was Meloria's spectre, returned to life as a sort of moral goad for his past transgressions. The jujoram, being essentially a complex assembly of dweomer, calcium, and organic chemistry, had no opinion.

The good news was that they were making excellent time on the open waters; they had more than halved the distance between them and the igg and Velinaer expected to catch it within the next several hours. They had also passed a worryingly large number of shipwrecks and other signs of unpleasantness, but Velinaer was fairly sure none of those were his fault and absolutely sure that none of them were his problem. His primary concern, overriding pretty much everything else, was that he was now getting a faint signal from an active node somewhere ahead; if he could establish communications, he might be able to finally call for help and get out of this mess. More importantly, however, the igg seemed to also be heading for the node, which was probably less than ideal.

Teledemonics, as a discipline, was primarily concerned with exactly two things; keeping a network functional and preventing a containment failure. In the history of the science up to his lifetime, there had been exactly two high-profile containment outbreaks; one had taken out the southern continent, and the other was responsible for there being only one moon nowadays. Unbeknownst to him, there had also been a third sometime shortly after his entombment, which was why Shul Aran was now a fifty-mile black stain at the bottom of an ocean and not, say, a thriving metropolis fueled by advanced thaumaturgy. Velinaer wasn't entirely sure exactly what scope of problem would occur if the igg managed to create an uplink to the cathectic realm, but he was quite certain it would be, at minimum, deadly for him and everyone sharing the planet; and if existence was really lucky, it might just stop with this planet.

***

"Oh, it's y-you," stammered Ulbert Malbruggen, Archmage of Ciel, "I, um, wasn't sure if you'd be attending." He was really supposed to be making some sort of pronouncement of doom or something of that nature, but Ulbert Malbruggen wasn't very good in social settings.

"Ulbert," acknowledged Cheis, infuriating everyone present with her disrespectful mode of address. "Since I'm here, somebody wanna tell me what this is all about?"

One of the other council members, a stick-thin brunette woman with a face like a horse and a nervous habit of twirling her ponytail around her finger, stepped forward. "It's treason, of course. You should know, after all -- aren't you supposed to be heavily implicated in all of this?"

"Treason." Cheis's tone could have frozen liquid nitrogen. Yulbia Vandroit had not exactly been her gal-pal during her previous stay here.

The other council members, all influenced to greater or lesser degree by Nyoque, nodded in unison. Another council member, a fat smooth-faced man with a blonde bowl cut, gestured dismissively. "Of course. The failure to respond to our summons in a timely fashion, the lack of appropriate progress reports, the... shall we say, uncharacteristically lax pace of your work... they all seem suspicious, wouldn't you agree?"

Cheis of Veraleigh was never patient at the best of times. This particular brand of complete bullshit, being levied as it was against her and her friends (she wasn't entirely sure they were her friends, it was complicated, she still really didn't like Umbria but that wasn't her fault, fuck, why was everything so difficult) was bad enough; but for it to be so levied by people who had obviously been complicit in her alarmingly recent capture and torture and maiming was at least triple her capacity for fuckery. She rolled up her sleeves, which caused Pellamin to wince; he was acutely aware of exactly how bad a sign it was.

Cheis wasted no time at all. "Let me set you straight on something, Magelord Gallarisi. If I wanted to be treasonous to your little circle-jerk suckparty of a shadow government, I would do it by setting your pretentious, degenerate town on fire, not by maliciously failing to scramble fast enough when you snap your greasy little fingers. Somebody in this room is out to get me, there's been an intrusion downstairs by someone who just killed all of your guards and ran into this room, and I don't particularly give a shit what you think of my recent work performance."

"T-technically, you just ran into this room," pointed out Archmage Ulbert. "So it could have... been you who killed all the guards."

Cheis rolled her eyes so hard that Umbria's palms began to sweat. "Yes, that's right dumbass, I murdered everyone downstairs and ran up here to tell you about it." She threw her hands up in exasperation. "Are all of you so inbred that you can't see what's happening?"

"That's enough," snapped Yulbia. "You have disrespected this council for the last time. Under the charge of suspicion of treason, you have failed to make any defense, insisting only on giving us an encore of your crass, uncultured behavior yet again. I pronounce you guilty, and levy the council's sentence of death upon you." She raised her staff, sending a bolt of lightning at Cheis without preamble.

What happened next was a bit difficult for other people to follow. To Cheis and the other members of the council, there was what one might euphemistically call a small dust-up; Cheis reflected Yulbia's lightning bolt back at her, which Yulbia deflected to the side at the last moment. The errant bolt struck Undermagus Boimaz LaCroix directly in the groin, which tossed him back against the wall with a crash and shattered most of his bones; he survived, but wished very much that he hadn't. The rest of the council, interpreting this as an attack on their sovereignty, launched their own bellerophrastic assaults, which Cheis counterspelled or absorbed without so much as a gesture or utterance thanks to a series of proactive triggers she had set up before coming here. She then informed them in no uncertain terms that she did not agree with their judgment and wished to appeal it.

To the nonmagical observers, what appeared to happen was that Cheis of Veraleigh bitch-slapped a lightning bolt back at its source, spread her arms in a two-fisted rude gesture towards the council, and bellowed "Come at me, motherfuckers!"

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AMBLE

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