“I guess the most obvious question is, why now?” Carter settled back into the chair he had been offered, pencil poised over his notepad. His interviewee had perched on the edge of the bed, there being no other furniture in the little room. “Why is the Wreath suddenly interested in speaking openly?”
“Why, because you think this is unprecedented,” Mogul replied, steepling his fingers and smiling over them. It was a knowing smile, but not an overtly sinister one. That summed up his whole aspect; he didn’t threaten, but something about him always hinted at the level of control he had over the situation. The deliberate, slightly exaggerated way he moved his long limbs was evocative of a large spider. “There have, at various times in history, been enclaves of open Elilinist belief, whole societies dedicated to our faith, practicing their beliefs in broad daylight before their neighbors. Odd villages here and there in most parts of the world in most eras, but at times, entire kingdoms, and once, an empire worthy of the name. I don’t suppose you knew that, did you?”
“I did not,” Carter admitted, jotting down shorthand and refraining from saying he still wasn’t sure he knew it.
Mogul’s smile widened, his expression suggesting he understood what was in the reporter’s mind. “Let me begin by giving you some advice, Mr. Long. Once your paper has run your article, report immediately to Imperial Intelligence and turn yourself in for questioning. Once there, volunteer for any kind of mental scrying they want to do and positively fall over yourself to answer questions. I am not a source who needs protecting; hiding from my enemies is my entire way of life. You, on the other hand, will need to ingratiate yourself with the law.”
“Well, I’m not particularly worried about that,” said Carter. “The Writ of Duties—”
“Yes, yes, that is precisely my point. The Tirasian Dynasty makes it a point to be reasonable in its rule. Take advantage of that. If you fall, instead, into the hands of the Universal Church… Well, it’s likely that’ll be the last anyone sees of you.”
“The Church isn’t in the habit of accosting journalists,” Carter said with a smile. “Really, I appreciate your concern…”
“Rare is the journalist who has had the opportunity you are enjoying right now,” Mogul replied, that knowing smile still hovering around his lips. His eyes, though, were direct and intent. “You have no idea what the gods and their pawns do to people who truly threaten their interests. You don’t know because they are very good at doing it. Yes, right now you’re thinking this is exactly the kind of paranoid propaganda you would hear from a man in my position. Right?”
“In my line of work, one learns not to be judgmental,” Carter replied. “The point is to report on the facts, not to promote opinions about them.”
“Very laudable,” Mogul said, grinning now. “Here are some facts, then. Members of the Black Wreath set themselves up to oppose the greatest powers in existence, and live under the constant threat of imprisonment, injury and even death if exposed. Have you never wondered why?” He tilted his head, beginning to drum his fingertips against each other. “There’s no glory in what must be done in secret. There is assuredly no pay in it. Sure, one can accrue great power as a warlock, but the Wreath practice diabolism chiefly with an eye toward containing it; our summoners suffer a much lesser rate of damaging infernal corruption than those employed by the Church or the Strike Corps, or any other organization, for that matter. Chiefly because containing demons without permitting them to spread corruption is central to our calling. Why, then, do we do this?”
“You tell me,” Carter suggested, keeping his tone carefully mild. “That is why you asked to meet with me, correct?”
“I don’t oppose the gods because I’m a rebel, Mr. Long. I’m a rebel because I oppose the gods. Because once I understood the truth about the Pantheon, I could not live with my conscience while giving them the support of my prayers.”
Carter leaned forward. “And what is the truth?”
“The entire truth, I’m afraid, I can’t tell you. But there are things it is time for you—and your readers—to know. It is, as I’ve said, not without precedent for the Wreath to operate openly, though the Church has gone to great lengths to bury those facts.” He grinned, and winked. “But I encourage you not to take my word for it. The records may be destroyed or hidden, but there are living immortals who remember Elilinist kingdoms. There was one on this continent as recently as twelve centuries ago, in the foothills where Calderaan Province abuts the Stalrange.”
“Dragons and elder elves don’t have a reputation for being approachable,” Carter noted wryly.
Mogul grinned again and nodded. “True, true. But who better to approach them than a professional interviewer? If you want to start with an easier search, though, you might direct your attention to Last Rock. The good Professor Tellwyrn has some fascinating things in her University’s library, and she enjoys tweaking the establishment’s nose enough that she might show them to you. But for the moment, let’s focus on the here and now.”
He shifted, unfolding his legs and re-crossing them the other way, then settled himself with one hand on his knee, the other resting on the bed. His expression was suddenly much more serious.
“Four years ago, in locations scattered across the Empire, seven teenage girls spontaneously combusted. Only one survived. The Black Wreath was involved in creating this situation, for which we owe an apology to those poor children and their surviving loved ones. That is overdue, but the opportunity hasn’t exactly arisen before now. I hope you’ll convey it in your paper.” Mogul’s eyes narrowed. “But had our plans unfolded as they should, those girls would all be alive today. Alive, healthy, happy, and with nothing to fear from anyone, ever again. I believe the world, and especially their families, deserves to know the whole truth about that incident. If I knew which god of the Pantheon murdered those children to protect their secrets, believe me, I would tell you.
“Allow me to explain.”
“Your Grace, you have a—”
“Trouble,” Weaver announced, shouldering roughly past Price into the study. She gave his back a very calm look.
“Indeed,” the Butler said. “As I was saying, you have a trouble. It insisted upon seeing you immediately.”
“Sounds dire,” Darling remarked, removing his feet from the desk and setting aside the novel he’d been holding. In fact, he had been practicing his knife work, due to the lack of opportunities for proper exercise lately, and had affected an indolent pose upon hearing the footsteps approaching his door. “Is Peepers okay?”
“Last I saw her, probably,” Weaver said. “She’s gone off following some journalist who she thinks is going to an assignation with the Wreath. Or so I mostly put together, from what Jenkins said. This is third-hand intel. What I know is that she’s run off after this guy and Jenkins went off after her.”
“Hmm, that could be trouble indeed,” Darling mused. “Joe isn’t exactly trained for discreet operations.”
“Sounds like a good thing to have considered before assigning him to discreet operations,” Weaver observed.
Darling grinned at him. “Watching from across the street isn’t discreet operations, Weaver, it’s babysitting. Anyhow, it was always my assumption the Wreath would spot anyone we sent to tail them. Hence you two; if this was to be done through spying alone, I’d have just sent Peepers. I doubt they’re prepared for the Kid, if it comes to rough stuff. Where are they?”
“No idea,” Weaver said bluntly. “I can lead you to them in a more or less straight line, but you can probably guess where the line ends better than I. You know this city.”
“Ah, yes, your…that. Just a moment, let me think.” Darling frowned into the distance, drumming his fingers on the desktop while he rapidly sifted through facts, probabilities and options. Price remained as calmly aloof as ever; Weaver began tapping his foot in ostentatious impatience before half a minute had passed.
“All right, then,” Darling said abruptly, standing up and rummaging through his upper desk drawer for items which he began tucking into his coat pockets. “Let’s go give them a hand, shall we?”
“You want to… Just us?” Weaver frowned. “If they run into real trouble with the Wreath, it might we smarter to round up some of the others.”
“Time is more important than firepower,” Darling replied, tucking throwing knives into his sleeves. “It’ll take too long to gather McGraw and Billie. Mary might turn up anyway; I’m never sure when she’s watching, but it’s probably best to assume it’s just us. Anyhow, I’m not worried about that. We have you and Joe, remember?”
“Against an unknown force of possible Black Wreath warlocks and demons?” Weaver stared at him. “Who the hell knows what they’ve got waiting for us?”
“Only one way to find out,” Darling said breezily, stepping around from behind the desk and brushing past him. “Price, I’m going out.”
“If I’m not back by dinner, you know what to do.”
“Very good, sir.”
He lengthened his stride in the upstairs hall and practically bounded down the steps, making for the front door. He was in one of the Bishop’s nicer suits, so it wouldn’t be too shocking for the neighbors to see him leaving this way.
Weaver followed at a slightly less efficient pace; Darling had to pause and wait for him at the end of the garden path.
“What’s the plan if we don’t come back, then?”
“Plan?” Darling shrugged, smiling vaguely. “I guess we’ll improvise.”
“Not us, I mean what contingencies did you set up with your Butler? That bit about her knowing what to do.”
“Oh, I haven’t a clue. There’s no plan, per se. Price always knows what to do, though.”
He’d have dearly loved to see Weaver’s face right at that moment, but he wasn’t about to spoil the effect by turning around to look.
Joe rounded the corner of the stairwell, slightly out of breath but doing his best not to pant or otherwise make needless noise. There was no telling who or what was lurking in the abandoned complex. Quite apart from the darkness and dust, if his quarry’s quarry had come for the reasons they suspected, there was certain to be something very dangerous here. Multiple somethings, in all likelihood.
Fortunately, Peepers was right in front of him, and had finally stopped moving. She was a good distance down the hall, partially shrouded in darkness, kneeling before one of the room doors and clearly trying to listen at the keyhole.
Glancing up at his arrival, she made a sideways slashing motion with her hand, then urgently beckoned him forward.
Joe paused, trying to even his breathing, before stepping slowly out of the stairwell, heading toward her. He decided to interpret her sign language as “be quiet, but come here,” for want of a better idea. She was once again intent on the door, apparently ignoring him. He approached with a blend of relief at having found her and annoyance at her antics, which in turn made him feel a little chagrined. She was, after all, doing her job; his was to watch her back. It might have been nice if she’d make it a little easier for him…but then again, it might not have been possible.
Peepers stood as he neared and stepped toward him, away from the door.
“They’re in there, all right,” she reported very quietly, barely above a whisper, “but I can’t hear a thing. They keyhole isn’t blocked, I can see through it, but no sound comes out.”
“What’s the plan, then?” he asked, just as softly. “I don’t suppose you can read lips?”
Her mouth tightened. “Can’t see them clearly enough.”
“Then…you want to back out? We know the guy’s meeting with the Wreath…”
“This isn’t evidence,” she whispered fiercely. “It’s some fellow in a white suit, not a Wreath robe. I need to hear what they’re saying in order to get what I need.”
“But you can’t,” he said reasonably. “And if we just hang around out here, we’re sure to be discovered. When they come out, if nothing else. If they just got here, they’ll be a while. I think the best thing to do is to go get reinforcements and try to take the Wreath guy into custody.”
“There’s a window in the room,” she said, turning and heading back toward the stairwell. “I’m gonna try to get to it and see if I can hear in.”
“Wh—if they silenced the keyhole, you don’t think they’ll have thought of the window?”
“It’s a third floor window. Probably why he chose this room. I’m a Guild agent; I can get up the side of a building, especially one as old and crumbly as this. Yes, Joe, I know what you’re going to say, but I have to try. If it doesn’t work, we’ll retreat, get Darling. Where’s Grumpypants, by the way?”
“Oh, well, then. Everything’s taken care of. C’mon.”
His exasperated sigh was cut off by, of all things, a soft giggle. They both whirled, and at what they saw, Peepers edged behind him and Joe whipped out both his wands.
She was a woman of incredible beauty, wearing an improbable leather bustier and a skirt that barely deserved the title, falling well short of her knees and slitted to the waist on one side. Joe appreciated a pretty girl as much as anyone—though he always endeavored to do so politely—but in this case, he was far more interested in her eerily white complexion, scintillating jade eyes, and the half-furled bat wings with which she blocked off the corridor.
“Oh, shit,” Peepers whispered.
“Are you children lost?” the succubus asked solicitously. Her sculpted lips were curved up in a gentle smile, but those eyes were far too wide, exhibiting a glee that verged on insanity. Joe edged back, pushing Peepers behind him and training his wands on the demon. “You shouldn’t root about in condemned buildings, you know. It’s dangerous. Why, the whole floor could fall right out from under you.”
“Shoot her,” Peepers hissed.
At that, the succubus laughed again, and abruptly vanished into thin air. Joe hesitated; he could fire at her position, but there was no telling where she would be. Did the room’s silencing work both ways? Were the soft hisses of his wands enough noise to get its occupants’ attention? He’d never had to use them under a need for silence before.
“Did you seriously just hesitate to kill a demon because it was a woman?” Peepers growled. “I never thought I’d hear myself say this to anyone, but if we survive tonight I am gonna drag your ass to an Avenist service, boy.”
Joe didn’t bother replying, scanning the whole hall rapidly. They could go invisible, check. They could shapeshift, which wasn’t really relevant here. Could they shadow-jump? Were those wings functional, and was there room for her to fly? For being on a job involving the Black Wreath, he had lamentably failed to study up on demons. He could feel the air currents in the corridor, enough to suggest there were bodies moving, but despite his mind converting perceptions into hard information, none of his senses were acute enough to pinpoint an invisible person. He’d probably hear and feel it if she tried to fly, but the hallway was wide enough for her to walk past if she was careful. He glanced back at the stairs, then back at the room. Peepers whimpered into his coat. The demon hadn’t carried any visible weapons, but…
The soft sound came from behind them, by the stairwell. They both whirled again, staring.
The succubus was visible again, no more than two yard distant, but she was gaping at them with a shocked expression. A small wound had appeared in the center of her upper chest, just above her bulging cleavage, trickling black blood. As they stared, the demon slumped forward, falling to her knees and then landing face-down on the ragged old carpet. Joe and Peepers hopped backward to avoid her.
There was silence for a long moment.
“Is it…is she faking?” Peepers whispered finally.
Joe could only shake his head. The succubus had landed gracelessly, with her wings flopping limply to either side; one was half-propped up against the wall. He couldn’t see any benefit to her in playing dead, unless she was just toying with them. Of course, the children of Vanislaas were known to do that. On the other hand, there was the wound in the center of her back, opposite the one in front and much larger. It looked a lot like a triangular blade had run her straight through. Even if it had severed her spine, though (and it appeared to have entered an inch to the left), that shouldn’t have caused instant death. He had seen how long it sometimes took people to succumb to mortal wounds. Or were demons different?
He stepped carefully around Peepers, ushering her back with one arm, and was only dimly surprised when she submitted to the protective gesture. Joe leaned closer, keeping one wand trained on the felled succubus, peering at the stab wound. The edges of it were severely discolored, blackened and peeling away, with dark streaks running visibly through her veins beneath. The whole area looked decomposed, as if on a corpse dead at least a week, rather than seconds.
He had seen wounds like this before.
“She’s not faking,” he said, straightening up and looking somewhat nervously around. There was no one and nothing visible in the dingy hall except himself and Peepers.
“What the hell happened?” she demanded.
Weaver’s familiar was supposedly unable to interact with things on the physical plane. Khadizroth had only run afoul of it by thinning the barriers between dimensions. Then again, demons were from another plane. Did they carry with them some trait which made them vulnerable to it? He knew nothing of demonology.
“I appreciate the help,” he said aloud, tugging his hat politely in what he could only hope was the right direction. “If you’re inclined to continue assisting, you may need to take point. I can finish most demons, I think, but not as quietly.”
“Who are you talking to?” Peepers asked, a note of panic rising in her voice. “What is happening?”
“Weaver’s invisible friend,” he said. “It can’t ordinarily touch things. Are demons different, maybe?”
She swallowed so hard he could hear it. “Taking this job wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done, was it.”
“Well, I couldn’t really say, ma’am. What else have you done?”
Peepers huffed softly. “Well…we’re here. Let’s head down and around back.”
“You still want to try listening in? We know there are demons around now! What are the chances that was the only one?”
“Pretty good, I’d say,” she replied, creeping past him and stepping carefully to avoid treading on the felled demon’s wings. “We didn’t see any on the way up, right? And the Wreath clearly wants this to be discreet. An invisible shape-shifter is the ideal guard for an assignation like this. Keep alert, though, I wouldn’t want you to be taken by surprise again.”
Joe had to concentrate very hard to withhold the response that welled up. Following her to the stairs, he was a lot less careful about stepping on the succubus’s wing.
“I should’ve known,” Darling commented. “There are so many places in the city where you could hold a discreet meeting, it didn’t occur to me to choose the most obvious. People who live by subtlety don’t typically go for the obvious anything. On the other hand, this isn’t only about subtlety, is it? If something goes sour, an entire empty neighborhood makes for a great battlefield.”
“Do you never tire of hearing yourself talk?” Weaver growled.
“Well, not so far, but who can say what the future holds?”
He snorted, then lifted his arm to point. “Should be that one. The big building next street over, you can see the top above the roofs here.”
“The old tenement? Looks unsafe,” Darling noted cheerfully, adjusting his course toward a side alley.
“I seriously don’t get what you intend, here,” Weaver said, jamming his hands in his coat pockets and peering balefully around them. The neighborhood had been empty only for a few days, but was already severely dilapidated, not that it had been in sterling condition to begin with. With no residents, it was totally at the mercy of scavengers and vandals; it seemed that whatever wasn’t broken was covered in graffiti. Despite this evidence that vagrants had spent time here, there was no sign of them now, nor of anything living apart from themselves. The contrast, especially in light of what they were approaching, had chilling implications.
“We’re going to walk into a totally unknown situation, just the two of us,” Darling said lightly.
“Yes! That, right there! Would you kindly quit screwing around and tell me what you’re planning? This couldn’t more obviously be a trap!”
“First step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence. Yes, yes, I get what you mean. And yes, a trap is one possibility; the other is that our quarry doesn’t know we’re coming, and us strolling up to them will kick the hornets’ nest.” He glanced over at Weaver, his expression finally growing more serious.
“You want to provoke a confrontation?” the bard said, staring at him. “Again, I’m lost. You really want to pick that fight with nobody but us two, Joe and Peepers? Against a group of the Black Wreath with completely unknown capabilities?”
“You and Joe are probably more than they’re prepared to deal with,” Darling replied, “I was serious about that. Here’s the thing, though: there are traps, and then there are traps. You can lay out everything precisely so that your enemy experiences the effect you want them to suffer… Or you can calculate the general lay of the land, and lead them into a situation you can control. If the Wreath is prepared for us, we’ll be stepping into the first one. But we are bringing with us the second. Listen, if it does come to violence, I want you to focus on ensuring everyone’s survival. If they run, we’re not chasing them; if they come at us with something we can’t handle, then we run. But if it turns into any kind of pitched fight or hostage situation, what we’re going to do is dig in and hold out. Don’t fight excessively hard not to be taken prisoner.”
“You’re counting on a rescue,” Weaver said slowly. “That Butler? What is she going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Darling said with a grin. “And as such, any scrying directed at me can’t reveal it. But Price is resourceful—they don’t make just anyone a Butler. I also have allies in this city, lots of them. Both friends of my own, and when it comes to the Wreath, far more powerful forces willing to intercede.”
“A counter-trap.” Weaver sighed, scowling heavily. “Really, this is the big idea? Heading into a totally unknown situation against an unknown foe with a possibility of unknown reinforcements coming if we take too long about it? This is insane.”
“No, it’s a risk,” Darling demurred. “A calculated one, and believe me, I have not survived this long by not knowing what risks are worth taking. Bear in mind I also know things you don’t, here, and I have excellent reason for keeping those under wraps for the time being. Whatever you think about my regard for your safety, Mr. Weaver, you can trust I wouldn’t be putting my own skin on the line if I weren’t confident of my chances. Just remember what I said. Stay alive, and don’t get too hungry for blood.”
“If that’s what you want, spending our entire prep session pissing me off isn’t your best approach.”
Darling turned to him and winked. For just a second, he thought Weaver was going to shoot him.
They emerged from the alley into another empty street. The sun was sinking toward late afternoon; the street lights weren’t on yet (and probably never would be in this particular district), but the light was beginning to take on an orange tinge. The two men paused, glancing up and down the street. In the distance they could hear the traffic of Tiraas, but all around them was deathly silence. It was as if a patch of ancient ruins had been transplanted into the heart of the Imperial capital, so out of place was the quiet.
Weaver withdrew a tiny cage of mesh wire from within his coat, no bigger than a cigar case.
“Ladybugs?” Darling said, peering at it and raising an eyebrow. “That’s a new one. What are those for?”
The bard just gave him a contemptuous sidelong look, very carefully flipping open the small catch on one corner of the cage, holding his hand over it so as not to release the captives within. He jimmied the thing until he had dropped one ladybug into his palm, then shut it again. And with that, he crushed the insect against the side of the cage, lifting it to his mouth to whisper inaudibly.
“Gross,” Darling observed.
Weaver ignored him, ending his muttering, wiping his hand off on his coat and slipping the tiny cage back into his pocket. “All right, they’re in there, both of our people still alive. There was at least one demon, now dead.”
“Smashing!” Darling said cheerfully, setting off across the street. “Let’s go tempt fate, shall we?”
Weaver followed, muttering to himself. Audibly, this time. Darling was impressed by the number of languages in which he could curse.