The alley behind the apartment was less dim than its interior, albeit not by much. Above them, the sky was fading rapidly to orange, though not much of that light penetrated into the narrow space backing the crumbling edifice. Two smaller structures sat behind it, with another thin sliver of navigable space between them, which Joe glanced longingly down as they crept past it. The space was only a yard wide, and it was liberally seasoned with trash. Being Tiraas, the layer of detritus on the floor of the alley had been wet enough long enough to become a layer of homogenized, ill-smelling sludge, with crunchier bits of broken wood and windblown paper sprinkled here and there along the top.
Like an apple cobbler. Peepers had seemed pleased with this metaphor, and even more pleased with Joe’s lack of amusement.
She crept along in near silence, while his boots alternately squelched and crunched; quiet moving had not been part of his education. While Joe kept his wands out and eyes roving, turning frequently to glance behind, above, and at windows they passed for any possible threat, she remained intent on the building they had just exited, peering upward and counting windows.
“Here,” she said softly, coming to a stop. “Straight up.”
Joe didn’t bother to ask if she was sure. He put his back to her and kept moving his eyes, certain they were about to come under some kind of attack. It made no sense to him that the succubus might be the only guardian in the building.
“You can climb it?” he asked, half-expecting nothing but a snarky comment in reply.
She surprised him. “Gods, I hope so. The windowsills help, as does the bad state of this stone… But this was a pretty smooth surface, once. Be sure to glance up now and then, I may need to be caught.”
“If you need to be caught,” he said darkly, “we’ll need to run. Unless you can fall a lot more silently than anyone I’ve ever heard of.”
He glanced at her in time to catch her grin, and then she was off. With one bound she got her feet on the sill of the window. It was bricked up, as was the one on the second floor—apparently there had been ground-floor views when this structure was built—but the third floor, her target, was high enough to see out over the sloped roof of the building behind, and its window was covered with nothing but dilapidated wooden shutters which had once been painted green. Peepers had to press herself flat against the surface; the surviving windowsill gave her a few inches on which to plant her fingers and toes, but nothing more. She stretched upward, groping experimentally toward a crack in the stone above.
“All right, I believe that’s enough of that nonsense.”
He whipped up his wand, aiming at the speaker, and immediately Peepers spoiled his shot, lurching backward off the wall in her surprise and barely managing to land on her feet, right in his line of fire. Beyond his companion’s crouched form, he beheld a person in an all-concealing gray robe, pointing a wand at him.
He had not heard her approach.
“I suggest you put that down, ma’am,” he said. Politely, but firmly.
“No, no, dear, that is not the situation. I am not the one needing to protect a bystander, here.” She adjusted her aim, pointing the wand at Peepers, who froze.
Joe didn’t move, studying her. The robe had a cowl that kept her face in full shadow, but the hand holding the wand was expertly manicured, its nails painted an excessively flashy shade of pink. Her voice was low, and deliberately sultry in a way that was starkly inappropriate in this context. She would be pretty under that hood, he knew. He’d grown up around enough prostitutes to know the type. Even if nature hadn’t blessed her looks, this was someone who would have an expert grasp of cosmetics.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I can disarm or kill you if your finger tightens a fraction. I’d prefer not. Please drop the weapon.”
A throat was cleared behind him, and Joe flattened himself against the wall, bringing up his other arm and aiming his wands in both directions down the alley. Another figure in a gray robe had materialized several yards down, cutting them off. He also was carrying a wand, a mass-produced model with a standard clicker, like his fellow cultist.
Materialized was the word. There had been no sound, nothing to warn of their approach until they were there. Shadow-jumping, then; these were either warlocks or had Wreath talismans.
“Now, young man,” the woman said condescendingly, “you can’t fight in both directions, especially if you’re trying to protect—”
She broke off with a hiss of surprise and pain as a beam of light lanced out from Joe’s wand, ripping the weapon from her hand. A second shot from his other wand simultaneously disarmed the robed man, who actually yelped and stumbled backward.
“Wouldn’t think so, would you?” Joe said. “I did warn you, ma’am.”
“Holy shit,” Peepers breathed.
“Language,” he said automatically. “There are ladies present.”
Peepers glanced at the robed woman, now cradling a singed hand against her chest, and back at him. “Yeah? Where?” He sighed.
Then came the stomping.
“You probably should have surrendered,” the woman said smugly.
Peepers pressed herself back against the wall; Joe didn’t budge, keeping his eyes forward so as to keep both warlocks peripherally in view. Neither of them moved, however, apart from nursing their hands. The footsteps echoing down the side alley were far too heavy to belong to anything human.
The thing that emerged bore out that analysis.
It couldn’t really fit in the alley; its broad shoulders scraped both sides hard, and it couldn’t even raise its arms in the cramped confines. The creature was very roughly humanoid in shape, albeit twice the size of any man Joe had ever seen, with a disproportionately broad chest and stubby legs. And it had no head, just a protrusion at the top of its shoulders; its face was over-large and located in its chest, its fanged mouth hanging below where the ribs would be. It was entirely covered in bronze scales, even its lips; a double ridge of pointed scales extended up over its mouth, making the interior seem a forest of fangs in the brief moment that it hung open. Then it clamped shut, glaring at him through disconcertingly tiny black eyes.
Joe shot it directly in the center of its mass.
The demon growled at him.
“Really should have surrendered,” said the female warlock with unmistakable satisfaction. “A baerzurg’s skin is utterly impervious.”
“Oh?” he said, raising his wands again. “Good. Thanks for the tip, ma’am.”
The next two wand shots took the demon right through what there was of its head. It emitted a hoarse grunt and started to topple backward, immediately wedging itself tight in the narrow alley. Its brawny arms hung limply; smoke drifted up from its eye sockets.
From behind it, the man squalled, “What happened? What’s wrong?”
The woman gaped in silence for three seconds, then raised her good hand. There was no visible effect, but Joe felt the temperature in the air lower slightly.
He pointed a wand directly at her head.
She froze, letting her spell fizzle. In the next second she turned and scrambled all of fives steps away before the dimness of the alley itself seemed to rise up and swallow her.
“What is going on?” the other warlock demanded, kneeling in the muck to peer under the dead baerzurg’s armpit.
“She ran away,” Joe informed him. “In all modesty, you might wanna think about—there ya go.”
The man had risen awkwardly and retreated; in the next second he, too, vanished in improbable silence.
“Holy crap,” said Peepers, staring at Joe. “This really isn’t your first rodeo, is it?”
“Never had to deal with demons before,” he muttered. “I’d rather never again. Can we consider our cover blown and skedaddle, please?”
She sighed heavily. “Yeah, might as well. If they brought out the heavy wands like that, I don’t want to see what happens when they get desperate. C’mon, it looks like that way’s off the table.”
Peepers turned and started off down the alley away from the obstructing demon corpse, Joe right on her heels. They made it all of six yards before the shadows ahead swelled again, and two more figures materialized.
With more agility than he’d expected after seeing her tumble off the wall, Peepers whirled around behind Joe. He raised both weapons.
“I don’t see any need for another dust-up,” he said flatly. “We are leaving. Best for everyone involved if we don’t have to go through you.”
“This kid killed Vhakzud?” the figure in the lead said, craning his head to peer past Joe. “…oh. Oh, I see. That’s actually quite impressive, for several reasons. Anyhow, kid, no. I’m afraid your escape ends here.”
“Don’t let him shoot!” his companion, the woman from before, said somewhat tremulously.
The figure in the lead grinned, faint light glinting off his teeth. In fact, light glinted on other surfaces, along his forehead and shoulders, and lower arms, all of which seemed distorted. In the dimness, even Joe’s perceptions took a moment to make sense of what he was seeing. The fellow had outgrowths of some kind of armor, which seemed natural, or at least melded to his skin. It gleamed faintly like chitin. At any rate, it affected his posture; he kept his knees slightly flexed, his upper body angled forward and his elbows bent, hands dangling in front of him.
“Are you, by chance, another demon?” Joe asked.
“’fraid so,” the self-professed demon replied, still smiling. “Somehow I doubt you’ll take my word that you’re not getting by me the way you did Vhakzud. By all means, go ahead and shoot me.”
“By your leave, then,” Joe said politely, and fired a beam of energy directly into his eye.
“Ow!” the demon protested, twitching his head to the side. “You little twerp, that stings! It’s too dark in here for that kind of light show.”
Joe lowered his weapon a fraction, his own eyes widening. That beam should have been enough to bore a hole through a tree.
“Good trick, though,” the demon went on, blinking his affronted eye. “Baerzurgs have armored skin, so a shot through the eye socket takes out the brain. I am seriously impressed; we’ll have to talk about where you learned to shoot like that. But hethelaxi are just magically invulnerable—no tricks, no gimmicks. So, are we done here, or is there going to be a ruckus that gets you or your ladyfriend injured?”
“Ruckus,” Peepers said immediately. “The hell I’m going anywhere with demons and warlocks. I bet if you keep shooting you’ll find a soft spot.”
“Maybe,” Joe mused.
“I mean over his shoulder,” she said in exasperation, pointing past him at the woman hovering behind the hethelax. At this, she ducked down, concealing herself behind the demon much as Peepers was behind Joe. The two of them exchanged a wry look.
“I’m not much of a scrapper,” the demon confessed. “But the fact is, you can’t harm me, and you can’t stop me. All my employers will want to know is who sent you here and why. With that out of the way, you may as well just leave. Nothing you tell anyone will lead to us, and the Wreath is looking to increase its public profile anyway.” He leaned forward subtly, making no threatening moves. “A quick chat, we get our publicity, you get to spend the rest of your evening not being hexed and beaten on by demons. How is there a downside for anyone in this?”
“Well, you make a persuasive case,” Joe said, nodding.
“We have a deal, then?
“I’m afraid it ain’t really up to me,” he said apologetically. “I’m just the hired wand, I don’t make the rules. The rules are we don’t cooperate with the Black Wreath.”
“Well, that’s a shame,” the demon said with a sigh. “Now somebody’s going to get all mussed. I have to ask, what drives you to be so stubborn?”
“Sheer bloody orneriness, mostly,” Joe confessed, raising both his wands.
The hethelax crouched, bracing his arms apart as if to attack rather than defend against wandshots, but Joe wasn’t even aiming at him.
A spray of white bolts flashed out from each weapon, digging into the walls of the structures to either side of the demon and warlock. Fine beams of light sank deep into the crumbling stone, sending up small clouds of dust and tiny flecks, and followed a split-second later by heavier bursts of power that exploded within the holes just bored. Under the onslaught, the walls gave away, tumbling inward onto the pair.
The hethelax braced both his arms over his head; there came a short scream from the woman, quickly cut off. Empty rooms gaped on both sides of them now, their exterior walls reduced to fragments. Pieces continued to crumble off from above.
Joe turned back toward Peepers, quickly sheathing one wand to tip his hat. “Ma’am, I apologize for the language—”
“Just run!” she exclaimed, grabbing his wrist and dragging him forward.
They had to duck under the dangling arm of the slain baerzurg to get into the alley from which it had emerged, but in the next second they were clear, pelting down the narrow path toward the silent street ahead, neither of them imagining for a moment that this was over.
“What was that?” Carter exclaimed, jumping to his feet at the crash resounding from just below. The entire room shook slightly.
Mogul rose more languidly, stepping over to the window, and pushed up the sash then opened the shutters utterly without hurry. He leaned far out, looking down.
“Ah,” he said in an oddly satisfied tone. “We appear to be under attack.”
“We are?” Carter asked nervously, protectively clutching his notebook to his chest. “By whom?”
“Oh, the usual, I suspect,” Mogul said airily, ducking back in and straightening up. “Well, Mr. Long, it seems we are about to have an adventure!”
“Oh,” the reporter replied carefully, edging back toward the door, “I don’t think…”
“Forgive me if this sounds disrespectful to your profession,” Mogul went on, stepping toward him, “but words are cheap. I brought you here to learn the truth about the Black Wreath. Well, you’ve listened with great patience while I nattered on about this and that, for which I thank you, but you and I both know that my viewpoint is only that. You need facts; your editor will demand hard, objective evidence. Fortuitously, it appears the Church or some of its lackeys have provided you a chance to see them in action!”
“By ‘action,’” Carter hedged, “you mean…”
“I mean,” Mogul said with a canny smile, “you’ll get to find out what the agents of the gods really do to those who commit the egregious sin of not sharing their opinions. In fact, this is absolutely perfect; I couldn’t have asked for a better case in point. Don’t you worry, Mr. Long; you and your pen are far too important to me to take any unwarranted risks. Your person is sacrosanct, I assure you. We’ll not allow you to come to any harm.”
“Well…when you put it that way, this sounds like an opportunity I can’t pass up,” Carter said somewhat reluctantly, but with the eagerness of a hound on the scent beginning to rise again in his face and voice.
“Splendid!” Mogul said cheerily. “It would have gotten all awkward if I’d had to insist.”
The shadows rose and swallowed them up, and suddenly they weren’t there anymore.
“That came from around behind the building,” Weaver said, narrowing his eyes.
“So it did,” said Darling, pausing at the base of the steps up to the apartment’s front door. “Hm…now that we know where the action is, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to get ourselves cornered in this dark maze of hallways, does it?”
“Not that it ever did,” the bard growled. “I suppose you’ll want to go charging blindly into whatever cause that racket, then?
“Oh, don’t be melodramatic, your face’ll stick that way.” Darling hopped lightly back down the steps and brushed past him. “I don’t know these streets as well as some—hardly seemed worthwhile, with them on the docket for renovation. There’s a general grid to the neighborhood that makes a rough sort of sense, though. We’ll make a slightly wider sweep around and approach from a less expected angle.”
“Finally, something distantly resembling logic,” Weaver snorted. “Lead on, then, brigadier.”
“So, what kind of capabilities does your little bugaboo have?” Darling asked, moving down the street at a good clip. He passed the edge of the apartment building and kept going, making for the next alley. “Can’t physically interact with the world, but apparently you can get intel from it?”
“Bugaboo,” Weaver grunted. “Charming. Would you kindly stop with the ‘it’ bullshit? I know you’ve been screwing around with oracles enough to know better. No need to be excessively rude.”
Darling glanced back at him, pointing one finger at his mouth. “This is the face I make when I’m repressing the first six responses that spring to mind. Just for future reference.”
“Duly noted, though I try not to look at your face any more than absolutely necessary.”
“Anyhow,” Darling went on, turning down the alley, “your point is taken. I was simply staying in the habit of using vague terms out of respect for your privacy, but I guess it matters little between just us. So what can she do to aid us in this situation?
“Mostly just keep tabs on what’s up ahead,” Weaver said. “Joe and Peepers are currently running. They’ve—well, Joe has killed a baerzurg and dropped a wall on a hethelax, which I’m sure you know will only slow it down.”
“Attaboy, Joe!” Darling cheered quietly.
“And my companion took out a succubus earlier. No other demons nearby have revealed themselves, but the Wreath in this area are making heavy use of shadow-jumping. In addition to those demons there have been two warlocks that appeared basically out of nowhere. No way to tell what—”
“Wait, stop,” Darling interrupted. “I thought you said she couldn’t touch the physical world? How did she take out a demon?”
“It was a succubus.”
“Oh, good, thank you. Maybe if you repeat it a few more times it’ll spontaneously start making sense.” They emerged into a side street; Darling darted across it to another sheltering alley, Weaver trailing behind him.
“It’s about death,” the bard snapped when they were back under the cover of looming walls. “Most demons are just things stuck on the wrong plane of existence. A Vanislaad is a human soul that’s already died and been condemned to hell. Them being here is fundamentally against the rules. She can send them back. Works for ghosts and undead, too, not that that helps us any.”
“Hm,” Darling mused, filing that away. “Well, giving us a bird’s eye view of the situation is helpful. Speaking of which…?”
“We’ve actually gone past them,” Weaver reported, pointing at the wall. “Back that way, about half a block over. They’re just coming out of an alley.”
“Perfect, I want to come at them from another angle. Anything else she might be able to do? And willing, of course. You know how I hate to impose.”
“Uh huh,” Weaver said dryly. “Actually, now that you bring it up…”
They had just burst out of the long alley into the street when a startled voice sounded from behind them.
Joe and Peepers turned.
“Hi, Carter!” she said, waving cheerfully.
Two figures stepped forward into the light at the very edge of the alley, a dark-skinned man in a dapper white suit, and the reporter from the Herald.
“Why, Mr. Long! You know this young lady? Or is Rupa the lad? Forgive me for jumping to conclusions, but it sounds like a Punaji name.”
“She’s…my editor’s secretary,” Carter said slowly, his forehead wrinkling into a frown as he spoke. “Interim secretary, actually. The real one suddenly took sick…”
“Ah, I can positively see you putting it together,” Mogul said, grinning. He turned to study the two of them; Joe now had a wand pointed at his chest, which seemed to concern him not at all. “You’re a little young to be a Church lackey, my boy. Especially dressed like that. Fashionable, but clearly not a uniform; they typically like to brainwash their kids before anything so outrageous as a sense of personal style develops. And you, my dear! An Eserite? That would suit you being used as a plant. Or perhaps an Avenist? They can be crafty at need, contrary to popular belief.”
“Don’t talk to him,” Joe said, backing away.
“You think?” she shot back derisively.
“Well, now, I consider myself a reasonable fellow.” Mogul took a step forward, his smile growing brittle. “You’ve only murdered one of my companions this evening that I can verify so far. Possibly two, if Hrazthax didn’t manage to shield Vanessa from that little avalanche you created. What I would really like to know is…what happened to my succubus?”
“She just keeled over,” Peepers said honestly. “I think it may have been a heart attack.”
“Look into my eyes,” Mogul said quietly, the mirth fading from his face in an instant, “and take a guess as to how amusing I find that.”
He stepped forward once more, coming to the very edge of the alley.
Light flared up in his path.
Mogul stumbled backward as the glow blazing forth solidified, forming a shape hovering in the mouth of the alley. It was a two-dimensional symbol, a mask with a scythe running through it vertically. There it hovered, its soft golden radiance gently illuminating all of them, the symbol of Vidius cutting off the warlock and reporter from the two fugitives.
“Oh, my,” Mogul said, sounding positively delighted. “How fascinating!”
“C’mon,” Joe said unnecessarily, turning and heading off down the street at a run. Peepers kept pace with him easily.
They both drew up short, though, as they passed a side alley and a voice from within hailed them.
“There you are!” Darling said brightly. “Well done, kids, you’ve smoked them out.”
“This district is lousy with Wreath,” Peepers said accusingly. “I think we’ve walked into a trap.”
“Young lady, as the person who walked into it and forced the rest of us to come in and get you, I think you’re in no position to be taking that tone with me.” Despite his chiding words, Darling was grinning. “Now come on, this way. We’ll talk as we move.”
“Think we can make it back to the main streets?” Joe asked, nodding at Weaver as the four of them set off down the alley toward the next street up. “I bet they won’t get too aggressive with that many witnesses…”
“No, no,” Darling interrupted. “Tactics, my boy, basic tactics. This district is bordered by canals; there are a limited number of bridges in and out. Why chase us around when they can just control the exits? We won’t be on our own indefinitely, but for now, our best bet is not to try to escape. They’ll intercept us at the bridges. If we scurry around and stay hidden in here, though, it’ll be a little while before Embras loses patience and starts trying in earnest to ferret us out. Enough time to try a few tricks of our own, at least!”
“Tricks of what kind, specifically?” Weaver demanded. “Really, don’t keep us in suspense. I’m sure this will be just hilarious.”
“Embras Mogul is a living theatrical streak in a nice suit,” Darling said. In the lead of the party, he grinned ahead into the darkness. It was probably best that none of them could see his predatory expression. “And he has an audience. Hell, that reporter is a proxy for an audience of virtually everyone. I may not know his plans, here, but I know he won’t be able to resist putting on a show.”
“Oh, gods,” Peepers groaned.
“Yup, you guessed it!” Darling interlaced his fingers and flexed them, cracking his knuckles. “I wish we could’ve stopped for popcorn on the way here, kids. This is going to be a spectacle.”
Dinner was strained, awkward, and quiet, the empty place set at the table relentlessly drawing the girls’ attention. Price never set out more places than were needed; they could always tell whether Darling would be there for a meal by whether a meal was prepared for him. Yet, there it sat, growing slowly cold while they finished their own dinner.
Flora and Fauna, though they were encouraged to sit at the table for meals at Darling’s insistence, were still apprentices, expected to be put to work, and ostensibly housemaids to boot; as usual, Price set them to busing their own dishes back to the kitchen. She, as always, had not sat to eat with them. In fact, they had never seen her do anything as mortal as eat. With the master of the house not present, she had not silently presided over dinner, but emerged from the kitchen with her usual impeccable timing as they were finishing up to remove the untouched meal set out for him.
“I must leave you to your own devices for the remainder of the evening,” Price informed them, once the plates were cleaned and drying in the dish rack.
The two elves exchanged one quick glance.
“We’re going with you,” they said in unison.
Price very slowly raised on eyebrow, an expression they had learned to regard with fear, but they both squared their shoulders, staring right back at her.
“You think so?” the Butler asked mildly.
“He’s in trouble, isn’t he?” Fauna demanded.
“We can read between the lines.”
“If you’re going out to help him—which you are—”
“—you can’t be crazy enough to think you’re leaving us behind.”
“You realize,” Price said mildly, “that if you insist on involving yourself in this, you do so in contradiction of the orders of both your Guild sponsor and trainer, and myself, your superior in both the Guild and this household?”
“And you realize we’ll just follow you if you try to leave us, right?” Fauna shot back.
“So long as we are all on the same page,” said Price, then turned and strode into the hall.
The apprentices scurried along after her, grabbing their outerwear from the racks in the foyer in passing.
“This is now a Guild operation,” Price informed them, pausing just before the front door. “Tags only from here on.”
They glanced at each other again.
“Um,” Flora said hesitantly, swirling her cloak around her shoulders in a dramatic swish, “we don’t have tags…”
“And we don’t actually know your…”
Fauna trailed off as Price removed her tailed coat and deftly turned it inside out, slipping it back on. Whether that activated the enchantment or she had touched a hidden rune in the process, her entire outfit melted from the impeccable Butler’s uniform to a casual ensemble of patched trousers, tight blouse and a rakish leather jacket. Settling this back over her arms, she made one swift pass through her carefully coiffed ginger hair with both hands; when her fingers came away, it was slightly, perfectly disheveled, just the finishing touch the disguise needed.
“Savvy,” she said, then pulled open the door and stepped out. She bounced down the steps and crossed the garden in three rangy strides, leaving the elves to trail after her in bemused silence.