They made excellent time; the Butler was half a head shorter than the elves and had shorter legs to match, but she stayed in the lead the entire time, not quite compelling them to rush. Not being the swiftest members of a group was an unfamiliar experience for them. It wouldn’t have been wise to run, though. Three women walking through the city was not a sight interesting enough to draw attention, but matters became different when two of them were elves, and more different still when one of the elves wore a sweeping cloak and the other a suit of black leather with ostentatiously displayed daggers. Running would have set the police on them.
“You are two Thieves’ Guild apprentices,” Price said as they rapidly crossed one of the city’s oldest districts under a darkening sky. She kept her eyes straight ahead and her voice to a bare whisper, but of course they could hear perfectly. “You are elves. That’s all. No matter what we end up seeing tonight, you will keep a sense of context in mind. Show the world anything beside what they expect of you and it’ll create trouble for all of us. Especially the Bishop. The kind of trouble from which there’s no coming back.”
“If it comes to an emergency—” Flora clamped her mouth shut as Price half-turned her head to give her a flat look.
“Why are we coming here?” Fauna asked in audible disgust.
“The Bishop has made it clear that with regard to the business at hand, the Guild can’t be considered reliable,” Price replied flatly. “And it should be obvious why we’re not going to the Empire for help. If you have a better idea, the time to say so was when we were leaving the house. Now hush.”
With that, she set off up the long staircase to the city’s main temple of Shaath, in bounds that consumed three steps at a time. The apprentices fell silent as ordered, following her.
At the top, a bearded man in ceremonial leathers, carrying a longbow, nodded politely to them. “Welcome, girls. Can I help you with—”
“Nope,” Price said curtly, sailing past him. He raised his eyebrows, turning to watch the three women vanish inside, but made no further comment and didn’t pursue.
“Odd how polite he was,” Flora murmured. “I’d have expected—”
“Hsst!” Price snapped, making a beeline for the only group of people present. The dim, barbarically ornate sanctuary was quiet at this hour, with only two Huntsmen in attendance. They stood at the far end near the large wolf statue, apparently doing nothing but talking quietly, their poses relaxed. Either they were simply stopping for a chat or Shaath didn’t require much formality from his ceremonial guards.
Both turned as the Eserites approached, expressions curious but not unfriendly. The older one had no beard; the younger had only the earliest scruffy stages of one, and appeared not much past fifteen. The beardless elder opened his mouth to speak, but Price beat him to it.
“I need to speak with Bishop Varanus.”
“All right,” the Huntsman said, in a deep but evidently female voice. “Why is that, and who are you?”
“You can call me Savvy, and it’s about Bishop Darling. There’s a problem. An urgent one.”
“Mm.” The Huntsman eyed her up and down, then flicked a cool gaze over Flora and Fauna. “I see. Tholi, go find the Bishop and bring him here with all haste.”
The boy took one step toward the rear door of the hall, then hesitated. “And…what shall I tell him?”
“The truth,” replied the Huntsman, giving him an irritated look. “There are three Eserites here asking for him, and it’s to do with that blonde poof.”
“Got it,” he said with a grin, then darted off.
“You’re Brother Ingvar?” Price—Savvy—inquired.
“Mm hm. So he remembered my name? I’m surprised.”
Savvy shrugged, took three steps backward and leaned against a carved pillar, producing a coin from within her sleeve, which she began rolling across the backs of her fingers. “Everyone makes mistakes, Huntsman. Only a fool doesn’t learn from them.”
“That’s very wise,” Ingvar replied in a completely neutral tone. “Can I get you ladies anything while you wait? It won’t be long, but I would have guests be comfortable in our lodge.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather not be comfortable,” Savvy said, keeping her gaze on the coin. It flashed in the dim light of the braziers as she manipulated it. “I’ll be comfortable when all this is settled.”
“As you like,” Ingvar said mildly, turning an inquiring gaze on the two elves. When they shook their heads, he nodded to them politely and folded his arms, staring down the length of the hall at its opposite door.
“I’m a little surprised by the reception,” Fauna said after nearly a minute’s silence. “I expected…subdued hostility.”
“Oh, and why’s that?” Savvy asked quietly. Ingvar flicked his gaze over to them, but didn’t join in the conversation.
“Well, it’s not as if our cults get along,” Flora said.
“And everyone knows how Shaathists are about women,” Fauna added.
“Apparently you don’t. Shaath always needs women.” Savvy made the coin vanish into her sleeve and straightened up, dividing a long look between them. “Your training has been mostly on practical matters, but you need at least a basic grasp of the theologies of the other cults. Particularly the ones we tend to butt heads with. The Huntsmen are always looking to recruit women. A successful man in this faith is one who can afford to provide for two or more wives; just by the numbers, they need to have more women than men in their ranks. The bar is set accommodatingly low for female converts to Shaathism, but men have to prove a great deal before being allowed to join a lodge from outside the faith. You can walk into any Shaathist lodge, anywhere, and if you don’t mind a generally condescending attitude toward your faculties, you’ll have no cause for complaint about your treatment. Now, if you marry a Shaathist, your ass is his to do with as he pleases. But for an unattached female, a lodge is probably as safe a place to seek shelter as an Avenist temple. Creepy and not pleasant, but safe.”
“Huh,” Flora said, sounding flummoxed.
“Relating to that,” Savvy added with a faint smirk, “spend any amount of time around here and you will be courted. Aggressively.”
“Tholi is newly raised to the rank of Huntsman,” Ingvar chimed in with an amused smile, “and looking for his first wife. Give him an hour or so to decide which of you he wants and you’ll see what she means. It’s a rare honor for a Huntsman to claim an elf maid for his own.”
“Him and what army?” Fauna said, baring her teeth and placing a hand on the hilt of her dagger. Ingvar laughed.
At that moment, the rear door opened again and Bishop Varanus himself emerged, crossing to them with long strides, Tholi trailing along behind. Andros wore traditional leather, with a pelt of some spotted animal hanging from his shoulders like a cape; he carried a longbow in one hand, and a heavy knife and hatchet hung at his belt. He came to a stop next to them, studying the three.
“What is this about, then?” he asked without preamble.
“Bishop Darling went off about four hours ago with a companion, tracking two other allies of his through metaphysical means,” Savvy reported crisply. “The two in question were pursuing a nest of the Black Wreath. He left instructions to seek help if he wasn’t back by dinner, which he was not. So here we are.”
Andros drew in a long breath through his nose and let it out quickly. “How many Wreath? Of what potency? With what demonic allies?”
“Everything I know, I’ve just told you,” Savvy said evenly.
“And you cannot go to your Guild with this?”
“The Guild’s skills are not most applicable here,” she replied, “and besides, the Bishop believes they are compromised by the Wreath. I have no idea where he is, only that he is certainly in some trouble. We need trackers.”
Andros grunted in agreement. “Antonio is a dismal excuse for a fighter. What possessed him to chase a bear into its den?”
“The allies he’s with are far from weak.”
“Gravestone Weaver and the Sarasio Kid.”
Tholi’s eyes widened and he bit back a curse. Ingvar simply lifted an eyebrow, watching Andros.
The Bishop himself stroked his beard once with the hand not occupied with his bow, frowning. “There is a limit to what powers the Wreath can bring to bear within the city. Hn…very well. If Antonio has been delayed, he is presumably in danger, and requires assistance. Hopefully those allies will suffice to hold out. Come.”
He turned and strode off toward the front door. Price immediately fell into step behind him, followed by Ingvar. Tholi and the elves brought up the rear, eying one another warily.
“Is this…all?” Flora asked. “This is the only help you’re bringing?”
“There are few Huntsmen in residence, and mustering them will take time we cannot spare,” Andros replied curtly. “Ingvar is one of the lodge’s finest, and Tholi…can run ahead, beating the bushes.”
Ingvar grinned, and Tholi devoted a self-defeating amount of effort to not looking sullen.
“And what about you?” he countered, glaring at Flora. “Three women is the only thing you offer your Bishop in a time of need?”
“This woman is a Butler,” Andros said.
“I don’t see a uniform,” Tholi snipped.
“You don’t see the world,” Ingvar replied calmly, and the youth fell silent, flushing.
“And these two are only partially trained,” Andros continued, “but you should know that elves are never to be taken lightly.”
Sweeping outside, he paused at the top of the steps, turning to face them. “I need something of Antonio’s.”
Price instantly produced a strip of cloth from inside her coat, handing it to him. The four Huntsmen, including the one watching the door, paused to regard the paisley silk scarf with identical expressions, then Andros raised two fingers to his mouth and let out a long, sharp whistle.
A shape formed seemingly out of thin air, a bluish-white discoloration upon the world, as if it were an invisible presence wreathed in frost. It was a wolf, standing waist-high on the Huntsman who had summoned it, eyes glowing like blue candle flames and a faint but steady mist trailing off its fur. Andros held the scarf in front of its nose.
“Find this lost friend,” he said softly, tucking his bow under his arm to stroke the ghostly animal’s neck.
The wolf made a soft whuff, then whirled and bounded down the steps. It paused at the bottom, looking up at them, its aspect clearly impatient.
“And now,” Andros said with a grin, “we hunt.”
Joe fired off another warning shot, blasting a spray of rubble from the corner of the building up ahead. “I confess it’s downright liberating, doing something like this in a civilian-free landscape for which I won’t be held financially liable.”
“Yeah, something about this city is just asking to be shot to hell,” Weaver said tersely; he held a wand in one hand and his flute in the other. He’d not distributed earplugs, so hopefully he was planning to rely on the former, not the latter. “Did you get it?”
“Nope,” said Joe, keeping his gaze on the now-smoking corner around which the demon had retreated. “Just scared it off.”
“Means there’s a warlock behind it somewhere,” said Darling. “Katzils are smart, but not sentient; once on the hunt it wouldn’t retreat unless ordered to.”
“Cat and mouse it is, then,” Joe murmured, tearing his eyes from the corner to peer warily about.
“Guys, we might all die out here,” said Peepers solemnly, “so…just so we don’t go out with any unfinished business, I want you to know I hate you all.”
“Aw, somebody’s not having fun,” Darling said, grinning at her. “Relax, Peepers, we’re gonna be fine. Think of it as a great game—the great game. You know your catechism, surely.”
“I’m fully comfortable thinking of theft, espionage and extortion as games,” she snapped. “That I was trained for. I did not apprentice myself to the Thieves’ Guild because I wanted to be chased around by fucking demons.”
“And warlocks!” Weaver said helpfully.
“Hate. You. All.” She viciously kicked a chunk of fallen masonry out of the road. “Except maybe Joe. Mostly because he’ll let me slap him upside the head if we survive this.”
“Excuse me?” Joe said, affronted. “What did I do?”
“Come now, vaudeville while we move, please,” Darling said, setting off for a side alley.
“Let’s keep going to the next alley,” Weaver said. “That one’d put us straight down the line of sight of that demon’s last known position.”
“Oh, it could be anywhere by now,” Darling breezed. “Worry about the demons when you see them. This really is a game, guys. It cannot go on long and it can’t involve a huge amount of force. It’s only a matter of time and not much of that before the Empire or the Church realizes this district is blockaded with infernal magic. The Wreath doesn’t deal in brute force tactics; whatever they’ve fielded against us will be fine for chasing around a ragtag band of misfits, but not enough to stand against an Imperial strike team or squad of Silver Legionnaires. Keep moving, keep alert, and we’ll get through the night just fine.”
Weaver actually walked backward a few paces as they proceeded down Darling’s selected alley, peering up the street where the katzil demon had last been seen. “Fine, whatever. I still think going straight would have been safer. We’re backtracking toward where we shot at that guy with the staff. Likely to be more Wreath in the vicinity.”
“When we don’t know where the Wreath may be, assume they could be anywhere!” Darling said cheerfully.
“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.
“Then why this alley?” Weaver demanded.
Darling turned his head and grinned at him.
Carter staggered as the latest swell of shadows deposited them on another rooftop, bracing himself against the low wall surrounding its edge. A figure in gray robes, accompanied by a hulking, crocodile-like demon—a khankredahg, that’s what they were called—prowled the streets below.
“How’re you holding up, Mr. Long?” Embras Mogul asked solicitously. “Shadow-jumping itself is perfectly harmless to the body and spirit, I can assure you, but I know any kind of rapid teleportation can be disorienting. Particularly if one isn’t used to it.”
“I’m…fine,” Carter said, straightening and taking a breath, and finding that he more or less was. “This is…well, not what I was expecting.”
“We aim to entertain,” Mogul said with a grin and a bow. “And now, if you don’t mind a momentary respite from the action, I’m going to offer you the chance to see something even most warlocks never manage to behold.”
“Oh?” Carter reflexively pressed himself back against the wall. It was a four-story drop, but he’d never had a problem with heights. He had what he felt was a perfectly reasonable aversion to demonology, though.
“All this running around, stalking shadows and shooting around corners is very exciting, to be sure,” Mogul said, reaching into his inner coat pockets. He produced an ancient-looking clay bottle and set it upright on the flat rooftop, then pulled forth a handful of fine gray powder, which he trailed around it, forming a circle. “However, I find that I’ve somewhat lost my taste for playing games for their own sake as I grow older. Our visitors are proving to be exactly the kind of delightful challenge I enjoy when I don’t actually have anything that needs to get done, but this isn’t the night for it. Here we are, wasting your valuable time and keeping me from my beauty rest. So! I’m arranging a little shortcut. It’s cheating, really; takes a lot of the fun out of the game. A man must do what he must, though. You know how it is.”
As he chattered, he had knelt beside the bottle and its boundary of powder—which was lying remarkably flat despite the light wind over the rooftop—and begun augmenting the circle with a piece of chalk, adding glyphs and embellishments whose meaning was completely lost to Carter. He flipped to a new page in his notebook, though, and began making a sketch, leaving out the glyphs. Writing down demonic symbols, especially summoning symbols, seemed like an invitation to trouble.
“Since we have a moment to breathe,” he said while they both worked, “may I ask about what we saw in that alley? That was obviously the symbol of Vidius, who isn’t known to be very proactive in combating Elilial. Or, at least, he doesn’t have that reputation among most mortal laypeople. I guess everything looks different from the Wreath’s perspective. What could create an effect like that, if there wasn’t a Vidian priest nearby?”
“Well, for starters, that neatly answered the question of what happened to my succubus,” Embras mused, continuing to draw on the floor. “This has been a night of firsts for us all, Mr. Long. Suffice it to say there are much more dangerous things than demons prowling this night. But not to worry! You and I are perfectly safe. I don’t have much to fear from holy symbols, which are about the worst that Vidius’s little pets can throw onto the mortal plane, though I don’t fancy trying to walk through one and having to replace most of my personal effects as a result. It’s all terribly inconvenient, though. Now I have to re-summon Vlesni, and she’s always such a pain about it.” He looked up at Carter and winked. “She’s a sweet girl, really, just can’t resist the opportunity to be a pain in the butt. The children of Vanislaas are like that, as you may have heard. She’s forever trying to sneak her friends through, as if I need extraneous demons cluttering up the place. Believe me, Mr. Long, you never want a demon around that you haven’t fully planned for, and prepared the means to both control them and get rid of them when you’re done.”
“I must say the most surprising thing to me is how responsible you seem to be about diabolism,” Carter remarked. “The last time I heard this much talk about safety measures I was interviewing a professional wandfighter.”
“Betcha I have more reason to worry than he did,” Mogul said glibly. “Worst thing you can do with a wand is kill somebody. All right, now, prepare to feast your eyes!”
With a dramatic flourish, he plucked the lead stopper from the upright bottle and stepped back.
A thick mist immediately poured out, curling upward and filling the air with the scent of spices and an ocean breeze. The smoke coalesced, rapidly taking the shape of a man—or at least, the upper half of one. Below the waist he trailed off into a swirling funnel of smoke, the tail of which poured into the mouth of the bottle. Above he was shirtless, muscular, and bald as a melon. And, at the moment, grinning broadly.
“Finally,” he said, his voice resonating as though heard down a long tunnel.
“Getting antsy, are we?” Mogul said, grinning in return. “Now, you know how I like to solve things for myself. If I weren’t in such a hurry—”
“Oh, Embras, you know I don’t care about that,” the smoke-creature interrupted. “But I do keep an eye on you, and I did so desperately want to see the look on your face when this one was explained to you.”
“Is that a djinn?” Carter breathed.
“It most surely is,” Embras said brightly. “Mr. Long, may I present Ali Al-Famibad, an old acquaintance and colleague of mine. Ali, this is Carter Long, noted journalist.”
“Indeed, I quite enjoyed your column, when it was circulating,” the djinn said, bowing elaborately to Carter, which was a very peculiar sight given his lack of legs.
“I…you… Well, it’s news to me that the Herald is distributed in Hell,” Carter said weakly.
Ali let out a booming laugh. “My good man, I am, after all, a djinn! Knowledge is what I do. Knowledge is what I am. And I rather miss your opinion column, I must confess. Naturally the position as reporter makes better career and financial sense from your standpoint, but when dealing with the facts you tend to suppress that sly wit of yours. ‘Tis a loss to the world.”
“Why…thank you,” Carter said, bemused.
“Glad as I am to see you all getting along,” Embras interjected, “I have a little problem, Ali.”
“Ah, yes, your Eserites.” Turning back to him, the djinn grinned broadly, an expression with more than a hint of cruel mockery. “I have advised you time and again not to antagonize Eserion’s followers—they play your little games as well as you, and with less courtesy. As a case in point, you’ll be wanting to know where the good Bishop Darling and his friends will poke their heads up next, yes?”
“Quite so,” Embras replied, then turned to Carter. “By the way, Mr. Long, Ali and I have a long-standing and fully enforceable contract. Should you ever find yourself in a position to ask a favor of a djinn, or any sentient demon, don’t. The loopholes will get you every time. It’s not only a joke that lawyers make the best warlocks.”
“I can’t really see that coming up,” Carter said, “as until two minutes ago I thought djinn were a myth. But thanks for the advice.”
“Here it is, then,” Ali boomed, and dissolved. He swirled about above the circle as a cloud of smoke for a moment, before resolving his shape into a visual representation of the district. The demon’s voice echoed sourcelessly out of the diagram. “And here is the path taken from your meeting point by the Bishop.”
A golden mote flared to life near one edge of the diorama, which did indeed resemble the nexus of streets where Carter remembered seeing them, or so he thought; it was very hard to align the map with his recollection of the area from the ground. The mote moved off rapidly down the tiny streets, leaving behind a glowing thread of gold tracing the path taken by the Bishop and his party.
Its form almost immediately was apparent. It was somewhat distorted by the angular nature of the paths they were obliged to take, conforming to the street grid, but there were enough alleys of various dimensions to give Darling enough free reign, it seemed. The golden thread traced out, in oddly blocky cursive script, a brief message.
“Well,” Mogul said after a moment of silent perusal. “I do say that seems rather…gratuitous.”
“How does he know the streets that well?” Carter marveled.
“It says ‘fuck you!’” Ali crowed from within the diagram. They didn’t need to see his face to know he was grinning. “Or it will when he gets to the end.”
“Yes, I can read Tanglish, thank you,” Mogul said dryly.
“How does he know the streets?” the djinn continued. “He is the streets. You’re one of the best operators it has ever been my privilege to know, Embras, but you’ve let your perceptions of Antonio Darling be colored by your first encounter with him, in a tiny town where you were in your element and he was wildly out of his. You’ve skillfully sealed off this district, which is the only way for you to safely tangle with that man in the streets of Tiraas. Know this, Embras Mogul: the next time you do, you’ll learn humility.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Mogul said solemnly. “So the question is, does he expect to be intercepted at the end of his little script? What trick might be prepared there? Or… You know what, no.” He shook his head. “You can drive yourself nuts playing ‘does he know that I know that he knows.’ No, I do believe I’m fed up with this foolishness. Come Mr. Long, let’s bring this to a conclusion.”
The three-dimensional map dissolved back into smoke, and then re-formed in the shape of the djinn’s upper body. Still smiling unpleasantly, he bowed again. “I have rendered my advice, Embras Mogul. Thus is our contract upheld. Ignore my counsel at your peril.”
“Thank you, I believe I shall.” Mogul bent forward and stuck the plug back in the bottle. Above it, the djinn dissipated instantly into the air, taking with him the exotic scent of whatever incense it was. “After all,” the warlock added, picking up the bottle and straightening, leaving the summoning circle inscribed on the floor, “life without peril is just too easy to be worth it. Don’t you think so, Mr. Long?”
Carter very much did not agree, but found himself with no safely polite way to say so.