The lock was no more than a formality; it had never needed to be. No one skilled in the bypassing of locks would have attempted to break through this particular one. As such, the soft scratching of lock picks at work went on for a fairly short time before the tumbler gave, the latch turned and the door was pulled silently open.
It was so late it was early; well beyond midnight, the first gray lightening of dawn not yet visible, but not far off. There were lights in the street, but they were dim and far apart, the residents of this neighborhood preferring that their rest not be disturbed overmuch by the omnipresent glow of Tiraas. The three figures who entered were barely silhouetted against the gloom outside, and all but vanished in their gray robes when they pulled the door shut behind themselves. Stepping warily, tense and as silent as they could manage, they passed through the foyer and into the hall, spreading out to fill the narrow space and studying their surroundings. Moonlight streamed in through upper windows in the tall space, which rose a full two stories. The hall was cast in a faint glow, pale, but adequate for human eyes.
Behind them, the relatively narrow space separating the hall from the foyer was narrowed still further by decorative molding just above head height. It was still a considerable gap, however; Price’s legs were spread widely, one foot braced against each inch-wide ledge. She studied the intruders dispassionately as they passed beneath, then lifted herself lightly by the toes, snapped her legs together and dropped to the ground.
Between her cat-like landing and the construction of her shoes, one of the Service Society’s trade secrets, she landed in total silence, behind the oblivious trio.
“Good morning, gentlemen.”
They whirled to face her, and the two on either side immediately fell, gurgling and gasping, with throwing knives embedded in their throats. The man in the center wasted seconds staring in shock, which cost him dearly.
Price launched herself forward, and belatedly he reacted, throwing up a hand. Enormous whip-like black tendrils lashed out from within his sleeve, limned by a sickly purple glow. She changed course mid-run, kicking off the wall to the opposite side of the hall. The demonic tentacles followed, but remained always an instant behind her, tied as they were to the reflexes of the caster. They smashed against the wall just after she bounced off it, then again on the opposite side, crushing glossy wood paneling and shredding wallpaper, and then the Butler was upon the warlock.
Launching herself off the wall from mere steps away, she grabbed the collar of his robes with both hands and flipped over him, somersaulting in midair to plant both feet against his back and kick, shoving herself forward and sending him tumbling face-first to the floor, his magical weapons vanishing instantly. Price landed in a smooth roll and was immediately on her feet again, whirling to face the fallen warlock.
Much less gracefully, he scrambled over onto his back, throwing out his hand desperately in her direction.
As he tried to call up his tentacle spell again, the charm she had planted on his collar erupted. A multilayered thing, it unleashed a blast of pure divine energy, cutting off his spell and slamming him to the ground, and also laid a light fae blessing over him. Neither was powerful enough to hold on its own, at least not for long, but it was plenty adequate to put a warlock momentarily out of commission.
“Now, then,” Price said evenly, “we can discuss the matter of who sent you.”
“T-tell you nothing,” the warlock rasped, scrambling backward from her in a desperate crab-walk.
Two slim figures burst out of the side hall, skidding to a stop at Price’s peremptorily upheld hand. Ignoring Flora and Fauna, she stepped forward between the two slain warlocks, bearing down on their last companion.
“As I hope you are aware, when I have finished you will converse avidly on any subject I choose to raise,” she said calmly. “Your only input shall be into what transpires before we reach that point.”
He came up against the wall, pressing his robed hands together before him and glaring up at her. “Have your little victory, then! It doesn’t matter. A great doom is coming, whether you are ready for it or not!”
“You are not, one presumes, referring to yourself,” Price said, raising one eyebrow sardonically.
Joe came staggering in, wearing a long nightshirt but with a wand in each hand. Flora and Fauna grabbed him from either side before he could bring up his weapons.
Price paused, tilting her head to study the felled warlock as he began to convulse. In seconds, he had actually begun frothing at the mouth.
“Ah,” she said. “Dear me.”
The Butler knelt and pried the man’s hands apart, revealing a brass-bound syringe pressed into his wrist, the plunger fully depressed and its contents emptied.
“Too late?” Darling asked, striding down the stairs.
“Indeed, sir,” she said. “My apologies. This device matches the description from the Tellwyrn incident in Hamlet.”
“Hm,” he noted, coming to a stop between the three youths and the three slain warlocks. The last one’s convulsions were already trailing off. Darling wore a hastily-donned robe over his silk pajamas; his feet were bare and the condition of his hair suggested recent proximity to a pillow. He seemed fully awake and alert, however. “Drat. I liked them better when they were too chicken to carry suicide measures.”
“This sorta thing happen often?” Joe asked carefully.
“Not in the least,” said the Bishop, shaking his head. “These numbnuts just declared war on the Thieves’ Guild, coming here; that’s not a mistake anyone’s ever made twice. It’s pretty alarming. The Black Wreath hasn’t openly scrapped with the Guild in centuries. Why now?”
Price discreetly cleared her throat. “If I may, your Grace, they did not approach the Guild itself. I believe you identified yourself to a representative of theirs in Hamlet, suggesting you were on Imperial business?”
“Yes,” he said slowly, frowning. “That was months ago, though… But if they’re finally aiming to clean up that loose end, the others would also…” His eyes widened, a quick calculation taking place behind them. “Oh, gods, Branwen.”
“We can help!” Fauna said eagerly.
“Just tell us where to go,” Flora added.
“Right. Yes.” Darling whirled to face them. “Split up. One of you go to the Casino, one to the Cathedral. Let the Guild and the Church know what’s happened here. Approach carefully; if the Wreath is attacking them, too, do not engage. Come back here in that event and secure the house.”
Their faces fell. “But we can help—”
“I know you can handle yourselves,” he said, adding pointedly, “You can help by not placing yourself in a position where anyone has to see how well you can handle yourselves. Clear?”
“Yes, sir,” they chorused somewhat glumly, but both turned and strode off to their rooms to get dressed.
“Ah,” Joe said tentatively, reflexively making awkward motions at his sides as he attempted to holster his wands in sheathes that weren’t there, “anything I can do?”
“Back to bed,” Darling ordered, already moving toward the front door. “You’re still disabled.”
“I’m practically as good as new,” Joe said somewhat rebelliously.
“Kid, you’re ready for action when that mother hen of a Crow declares you are. That way, nobody gets turned into a newt. If you can’t sleep, help Price and keep an eye on the house. I’ve gotta get to Bishop Snowe’s house, and pray I’m not too late…”
“Your Grace,” Price said pointedly, “if this attack was carried out with the Wreath’s characteristic forethought, and the other Bishops were indeed targets, the strikes are likely to have been simultaneous. You are very unlikely to reach Bishop Snowe before any putative warlocks.”
“Yes,” he said impatiently, his hand on the latch. “All the more reason—”
“All the more reason,” she interrupted firmly, “to take the time to approach carefully. Beginning, perhaps, by putting on shoes.”
Darling sighed heavily in annoyance.
“I merely suggest, of course,” Price said humbly. “If your Grace wishes to do battle with the Black Wreath without pants on, that is your Grace’s prerogative. Doubtless they will find it tremendously amusing.”
“You are severely annoying when you’re right, Price,” he said curtly, turning and stomping past her toward the stairs, peevishly kicking one of the slain warlocks as he went by.
“Yes, sir,” she said calmly, folding her hands behind her back and watching him go. Joe, wisely, had retreated down the hall toward his own room in search of clothes.
Alone with the bodies, Price surveyed the hall, finally permitting herself a small frown of annoyance as she studied the shattered wall paneling.
“I just polished that.”
“She’s insane,” Gabriel mumbled around a yawn. “What freaking time is it, anyway?”
“Approximately one minute later than the last time you asked,” said Toby with a smile.
“But why here?” he whined, yawning again as he tugged open the heavy front doors. “Why now? And why couldn’t she have just told us to be up early? And for fuck’s sake, why does she have to wake people up that way?! I don’t care if it was an illusion, I swear I’ve got water in my shoes.”
“Gabe, I realize you’re not exactly at your best right now, but stop and consider that you’re asking why Professor Tellwyrn does what she does. Do you really expect to get anywhere with that?”
“Crazy,” Gabriel groused, stepping into the library and leaving Toby to catch the door on his own way in. “I expect to get crazy. It’ll be a nice change from sleep-deprived.”
“And I see we’re last to the party as usual,” Toby said amiably, waving at those assembled in the main entryway. “Morning, ladies.”
“It’s not morning until there’s sun, for the record,” Teal grumbled. “G’night, Toby.”
“I’ve been here all night!” Fross said brightly. “It’s a great time to get some out-of-class research done. Nobody bothers me.”
“That’s because we need sleep,” Gabriel moaned.
“Yes, I know! I have kind of an unfair advantage, which I sometimes feel a little guilty about, but it’s not like I can help it. If you want, Gabe, I can help you study any time! We’re in the same degree program, after all!”
“I’ll file that away for grah!” Catching sight of the figure that had just appeared behind the receptionist’s desk, he stumbled backward against the doors, apparently coming fully awake in a wide-eyed panic. “What the hell is that?!”
“Tellwyrn’s experimental golem,” said Ruda, who was lounging in one of the reading chairs, sipping from a bottle of bourbon.
“She has a name,” Fross said reproachfully. “Hello, Crystal!”
“Good morning, Fross,” the golem said politely. At first glance, she resembled a slim woman in elaborate armor, if the armor in question were banded in gold, embossed with arcane runes and inset with pale blue crystals. It didn’t add the bulk that armor would have, though, but outlined her own slight frame, a metal suit of skin. From the gaps at the joints, muted blue light streamed out, occasional puffs of mist emerging when she moved. Her face was an eerily lifelike but expressionless steel mask, its eyes empty holes opening onto an intense blue glow. “Good morning, students. May I help you find anything?”
“I don’t think so,” said Trissiny, who looked more alert than most of her classmates. “Professor Tellwyrn told us to meet her here.”
“Ah, very good,” Crystal replied.
“What’s she doing here?” Gabriel stage-whispered.
“She’s the head librarian now,” Fross replied. “And really, you can talk to her yourself, she’s right there. You’re being rude, Gabe.”
“Sorry,” he said with a grimace, then turned to Crystal and repeated himself. “Uh, sorry. I was just…startled.”
“It’s quite all right,” the golem replied. “I expect there will be an acclimation period. It has already extended further than I had calculated. My initial data seems to have been in error.”
“What happened to Grumpypants McPonytail?” Toby asked.
“Weaver?” Fross fluttered in a circle around his head. “He’s been gone for weeks. Seriously, how have you not noticed this before now?”
“We try to stay out of the library,” said Gabe, grimacing.
“But—but—but you’re university students! You need to use the library!”
“We need to stay away from that crankety-ass freak, is what,” Gabe replied. “Although if he’s gone, I’ll probably start spending more time here. Why does nobody ever tell me anything?”
“Combination of factors, really,” said Ruda, beginning to tick off points on her fingers. “We don’t think about you when you’re not here, you’re not all that important, nobody likes you…”
“That’s playing a little rough, Ruda,” Trissiny said, frowning.
Her roommate snorted loudly. “Oh, come on. You tried to kill him.”
“I think you lost the right to throw that at me when you stabbed him!”
“I just love my life,” Gabriel said to no one in particular.
“What did happen to Weaver?” Toby asked hastily.
“He felt the call of adventure!” Fross proclaimed.
There was a moment of silence as they all stared at her.
“What does that mean?” Juniper asked finally.
“I don’t know,” the pixie admitted. “That’s what Professor Tellwyrn said when I asked her. And then she laughed. You know that kind of mean laugh, like when somebody says something silly in class and she spends five minutes making fun of them?”
They all nodded in unison.
“Mr. Weaver is on indefinite sabbatical,” Crystal said into the silence. “And I am detecting a buildup of translocative arcane energy focused on this spot, characteristic of a scrying spell and minor dimensional fold, so I infer you are—”
They never got to hear the rest, as with a sharp pop the scenery changed.
The students dropped about half a foot to the grass—except Fross, of course—with varying degrees of grace. Ruda landed on her butt, cursing; Teal had to flail her arms for balance until Shaeine steadied her. Gabriel very nearly fell over sideways.
“Goddammit!” he shouted. “Why? Why must you do that?”
“Three reasons,” Professor Tellwyrn said brightly. “It’s the most efficient way to get around, it serves the purpose of protecting the surprise, and your suffering amuses me. Note, Arquin, that that was not a plural ‘your.’ Nobody else suffers with quite the distinctive self-pity you have. It’s inspiring, really.”
“I hate you.”
“I don’t care,” she said, still cheerfully. “Good morning, students, and welcome to your midterm test!”
“Why are we on the quad?” Toby asked, peering around.
“Because I just teleported you here. You’re not at your quickest first thing in the morning, are you, Mr. Caine?”
“I wonder what would happen if we all rushed her?” Trissiny asked grimly.
“Fuck that, I’ve had enough pain in my ass already today without getting teleported into the sun,” Ruda grumbled, discreetly rubbing her bum.
“As for why I asked you to meet up at the library,” Tellwyrn continued, “you might say it’s tradition. I like to send the kids off on their freshman delve as unprepared as possible, so as to simulate the real conditions faced by your adventuring forebears, which were often woefully spontaneous. Thus, a cheap and simple misdirection. Your goal is in there.”
She turned and pointed to the wooden gates set into the terrace wall opposite the gazebo, beside which they stood. On command, they swung outward with a hideous groan of hinges badly in need of oiling. Behind that was an iron portcullis, which slid into the ground almost as soon as it was revealed, leaving nothing between them and a broad stone staircase down into darkness.
“That’s the Crawl,” Ruda said softly.
Tellwyrn rolled her eyes. “You kids really aren’t at your best without your precious beauty sleep, are you? Yes, Miss Punaji, that is the Crawl. Any other blindingly obvious observations you’d like to share with the class?”
“In a few hours,” said Ruda, “the sun will rise, I’ll have breakfast, and at some point after that I’ll begin to care what the fuck you think. Meanwhile, you can shove it sideways.”
“All right, enough folderol,” Tellwyrn went on more briskly. “Professor Ezzaniel will be your accompanying faculty member on this excursion. Rafe usually does the freshman delve, but I try not to inflict him on a class more than once a year if I can help it. Also, after he stuck his fingers into your Golden Sea excursion, I’ve lost some faith in his objectivity. Ezzaniel, at least, I can trust to leave you all to die if that’s what you deserve.”
Professor Ezzaniel, who had been standing behind her so quietly they hadn’t even noticed him in the dimness, stepped forward, raising an eyebrow and glancing at Tellwyrn after that last remark. He was in his usual open-collared suit, with his customary saber belted at his waist and a simple knapsack flung over one shoulder. It was a plain leather affair, not the enchanted carpet bag in which he kept the practice weapons for their martial arts class.
“Your assignment,” Tellwyrn continued, “is to retrieve a treasure from below. It is a rectangular wooden chest, bound in brass and embossed with floral patterns, in which reside a matched sword and dagger set of elven make. Professor Ezzaniel will be along to observe; he will not aid you or interfere in your actions. It is upon his observations that I will determine your grade. Actually retrieving the chest is not essential; most freshman groups don’t. The last party which succeeded was nine years ago; this particular treasure has been down there for that long. If you do manage to fetch it back, though, the group gets an automatic A on the exercise, which will comprise a substantial chunk of your grade for the semester, and the individual who gets it gets to keep it.”
“A sword and dagger?” Gabriel scoffed. “Sounds like a consolation prize.”
“Those were my personal weapons for a good many years,” Tellwyrn said, giving him a long look. “They are older than the Empire and heavily enchanted. If none of that impresses you, Arquin—and based on your performance in combat class, I rather suspect it won’t—if you get your hands on those, you can quite possibly buy your way into the nobility.”
“Always did enjoy getting consolation prizes,” he said thoughtfully.
“Hang on,” Trissiny protested. “We don’t have any supplies! No food, no equipment, only Ruda and I have weapons…”
“Yes, Avelea, that’s the point,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “As I explained moments ago. You’ll find the Crawl an exemplary arbiter of fates. If you are intelligent, if you deserve to survive, it will provide more than adequately for you. If not, it’ll see to it you meet whatever end most befits you. All right! You have three weeks.”
“Three weeks?” Teal demanded, wide-eyed.
“Three weeks,” said Tellwyrn. “Good gods, you kids are like an echo today. You can come back as soon as you get the sword and dagger, but if you haven’t got them in three weeks, your Professor will call short the assignment and lead you back to the surface. All right, that’s more than adequate jibber-jabber. Begin!”
She smirked, snapped her fingers, and vanished with a quiet pop.
“I think we shoulda rushed her,” Gabriel mused.
Professor Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Come along, then, students,” he said, and with no more ado strode into the darkness of the Crawl.
There was nothing left for them to do but follow him.
Naturally, he didn’t approach the house head-on. The open front door would have warned him away, if nothing else. Luckily, Branwen’s neighborhood—a wealthier one even than his own—gave him plenty of above-ground territory on which to prowl, and the elaborate houses on all sides were easily climbable. There was only one close enough to her house to be worth the trouble of ascending, but the gardens had suitably high walls separating the lots. It was from the top of this structure that he got his first glimpse into Branwen’s own sprawling garden, positioned behind her house, and determined it was safe to descend.
Darling landed deftly in a leafy bush, which would have been very uncomfortable for some, but he had long since mastered the knack. Brushing leaves from his coat, he carefully paced forward, studying the surrounding carnage. Blood spattered the walkway, with here and there pieces of bodies. They weren’t too widely distributed; he could mentally piece them together easily enough to determine that there were three of the robed figures, just as there had been at his house.
Branwen sat silently on the stone lip of a reflecting pool, a fourth body pulled half into her lap. It was of an older woman, looking almost asleep from the waist up. Her legs were crushed, mangled completely, and a veritable pond of blood surrounded the pair. Branwen gazed vacantly down at the woman, stroking her white hair with one hand.
“Branwen?” he asked quietly, creeping closer.
“Tieris has been with my family her whole life,” the Izarite said quietly. “She practically raised me. It’s so…absurd. It just seemed she would always be there.”
“Bran, I’m so sorry,” he said, carefully seating himself beside her.
“You too, then,” she murmured. “…thank you for thinking of me, Antonio. You should have gone to help the others, though.”
Darling frowned. “I—Bas and Andros? Well, they’re both surrounded by cult members. I know you were out here alone…”
“And you thought I was helpless and useless and would need rescue,” she said. There was no emotion in her voice, only a deep exhaustion.
“It wasn’t a complaint. You think what I want you to think. So does everyone else.” She reached behind her to trail her fingers through the water.
Something rose up from within.
Darling bounded to his feet and danced backward, staring. The creature that crawled, dripping, out of the pool was the size of an alligator and had a head shaped very like one, though its scaled body was more like a bulldog’s in proportion. Steam rose from its flaring nostrils.
They were mistakenly called hellhounds, by people who had never seen a real hellhound. Kankhradahg demons were favored tools of the Black Wreath: easily summoned, easily controlled, and not intelligent enough to be rebellious. Usually.
Branwen scratched the demon under its chin; it closed its red eyes, beginning to purr softly.
“Wreath summoners don’t always take good care of their charges,” she said in that same dull tone. “Their victims, really. This fellow wasn’t treated well at all. It just took a little persuasion, and just the right kind of blessing to break his former master’s control…”
“That’s…impressive,” Darling said carefully, keeping his eyes on the apparently contented demon. Gods, she had her delicate little hand just inches from those teeth…
“This is about Hamlet, isn’t it? Only reason they would do something like this, antagonize our cults and the Church this way. You should have gone to the others, Antonio. Those who came here underestimated me. Whatever they sent at the Huntsman and the Legionnaire will be intended to finish off more powerful targets.”
“Well,” he said after a moment, “I suppose you’re not wrong. Unfortunately it’s a little late now.”
“Yes,” she said softly. “What will be, will be. Looks like we won.”
Branwen gathered up the body of her servant in her arms, leaning over her, and finally began to weep.