“Catacombs, huh,” Toby mused, absently tapping his fork against his plate. The morning’s cloud cover had been pushed away by wind and sun, and it was bright and pleasantly warm on the pub terrace overlooking the square. The general mood at the table did not reflect this. “Well, I suppose that explains a few things. If there’s some core of chaos cult activity, that accounts of how these smaller cults keep popping up and getting busted, and why they all have the same consistent pattern.”
“And how they’ve been keeping their heads down, literally,” Ruda added, “though the question remains why the Empire hasn’t caught ’em yet. I dunno how familiar they are with the catacombs, but they can’t be unaware of it. It defies reason to think the Imps missed something so obvious.”
“They’re the ones who just got their central base raided,” Juniper pointed out.
“Yes,” Trissiny agreed, “which is just another of the things about this situation which don’t add up. The local Imperial forces are seriously underperforming against this threat, which means they are either hamstrung in ways that have been hidden from us…”
“Or the enemy is a lot more competent than they’ve let on,” Fross finished.
“Exactly,” Trissiny said, nodding.
They fell quiet, all frowning at their food. Around them came the babble of conversation from the busy pub, but at the students’ table there was only the rhythmic tapping of metal against crockery.
Gabriel reached across and placed his hand on Toby’s fork.
“Uh, sorry,” Toby said with a grimace, putting it down.
“Well, that was our morning,” Ruda said, leaning back in her chair and folding her hands behind her head. “How ’bout you guys? Anything turn up?”
“I can’t say we had a very productive time,” Toby admitted. “We tried hard with those guys, but…” He trailed off, glancing at Juniper.
“They were just broken,” she said. “In the head. I mean, the Imperial guards said they were all crazy, but I’ve noticed when humans say that about someone it usually means they haven’t tried to understand them, but… This time, no. They were crazy. Not one of them could hold a coherent train of thought.”
“That’s a fairly common result of looking too hard at the things that live where chaos comes from,” Trissiny murmured. “It can occur simply from prolonged exposure to chaos energies, but… It’s more likely we’re dealing with some kind of rift, anyway. Hm, how many were there?”
“Seven in the jail,” Fross reported. “We talked to all of them. Well, tried to talk to them. I mostly just ended up feeling sad for them. The warden said there had been four others who died in custody. He didn’t know how many other cultists there may have been originally.”
“Well, sounds like you thought to ask,” Ruda said approvingly.
“It could be important!” Fross chimed. “The less information you have, the more you should try to obtain.”
“Have you heard anything from…you know?” Gabriel asked Teal.
She grimaced. “Not a word. And I have to admit I’m a little glad about it, no matter how much we need the information.”
“Good,” said Trissiny.
“The morning was not unproductive, however,” said Shaeine. “We’ve made arrangements for Scorn to have a proper wardrobe. Perhaps not a large one, but there are limits to what a tailor can produce on short order, and anyway, she does not appear much troubled by vanity.”
“I think she’ll be happy enough not to go around dressed in curtains,” Teal added with a small smile. “It was almost a bust, though. The tailor thought we were playing some kind of prank at first.”
“Why,” Ruda asked lazily, “because you’re a girl dressed like a boy and a drow placing a rush order for clothes for a seven-foot-tall woman built like an ox?”
“It was altogether less troublesome than getting Scorn’s measurements,” Shaeine said serenely. “In any case, the craftswoman we employed was admirably professional after being shown bank notes drawn on the Imperial treasury under the name Falconer.”
“So we’re the only ones who didn’t get anything actually done, then?” Juniper sighed.
“You ruled out a possibility,” said Shaeine. “Disappointing as it may have seemed, that is a vital step.”
“Are you not planning to eat that?” Gabriel asked Ruda, pointing at her mostly untouched plate.
“I had a little snack earlier, as you may recall. Help yourself.”
“Awesome.” Grinning, he pulled it over and tucked in. “You know what, I really like the local food. Does Malivette feed you guys as well as this?”
“It’s a little fancier,” said Trissiny. “Pearl is quite the chef. I think she enjoys having a full house to cook for.”
“And it’s always good to make our hostesses happy,” Juniper said pointedly, “since I don’t think Sapphire is going to forgive you for yesterday, Triss.”
“Um, excuse me?”
They all turned to regard the waitress, who was standing a few feet distant, visibly nervous. She gingerly held out a small roll of parchment, bound by a twist of black twine. “This was delivered for, um, the young lady with short hair.”
“Heh,” Ruda chuckled. “They could’ve just said to take it to the weirdo table and you’d know just where to go, right?”
The girl’s cheeks colored deeply. “I, um… Here you go.” Ducking forward, she set the parchment on the edge of their table, shoulders hunched as if she expected to be struck. “Enjoy your lunch.”
They watched in silence as the waitress scurried off back into the pub. People at other tables were staring, now, averting their gazes only when the students met them.
“Good work, Princess Social Skills,” said Gabriel.
“Gimme that.” Ruda yanked her plate back. “I’m hungry now.”
“Have they lost their minds?” Teal breathed, picking up the roll of parchment. The black twine which bound it had been woven with tiny strands of some kind of dried vine, making an unmistakeable wreath. “I thought these people were supposed to be subtle.”
“What do they have to say?” Toby asked.
Teal slipped the tiny wreath off, crushed it in her fist and stuffed it in her coat pocket. She unrolled the parchment and frowned. “Flower stall, one o’clock. Well, that’s…terse.”
“The less said to and by them, the better,” Trissiny grunted.
“One o’clock.” Teal produced a watch from an inner coat pocket, winced, and started to rise. “Whoof… Assuming they mean the flower stall over by Malivette’s warehouse, we just have time to get there—”
“You sit your butt back down, Falconer,” Ruda ordered. “Finish your lunch. They can wait.”
“You do know who we’re talking about, right?” Gabriel demanded. “Maybe we don’t wanna get pushy with them.”
“That is exactly what we wanna do,” Ruda said firmly. “You remember what that imp said, Teal? These people are obligated to look after Vadrieny, and therefore you, for religious reasons, and at least some of ’em aren’t happy about it. Undoubtedly others will be trying to see if they can work Vadrieny into whatever plans they’ve got. Well, the ideal thing would be to have no contact with them at all—”
“These are expert manipulators,” Trissiny agreed sharply. “The only way to win at their games is not to play.”
“Excuse me, Triss, I must’ve been trying to talk while you were interrupting.” Ruda gave her roommate a baleful look before returning her attention to Teal. “It’s about managing expectations. As far as we want these fuckers to think, we’re the spoiled, buffoonish princess and her weirdo friends who they have to accommodate now and again. Being a little difficult is exactly the approach we want to take.”
“I think there’s good logic in that,” Toby said. “I don’t generally make plans with an eye toward manipulating or inconveniencing people, but with that caveat this makes sense to me.”
“I tentatively agree,” Shaeine said slowly. “If we cannot avoid interacting with these…individuals, making ourselves uninteresting and disagreeable might be our best fallback position.”
“Okay, but we’re still talking about the Bla—” Gabriel broke off, glancing around the terrace; no one was nearby, or seemed to be trying to listen in, but he lowered his voice anyway. “I’m stuck on the point where trying to play mind games with them of all people seems like a fantastically bad idea.”
“This isn’t mind games, Arquin,” Ruda snorted. “Believe me, I’ll show you mind games sometime, just so you’ll know the difference. Finish your lunch, everybody. No rush.”
Despite Ruda’s insistence, no one except Juniper had much of an appetite after that, and the dryad was self-conscious about eating while everyone else sat around and watched. They made their way out fairly shortly following the delivery of the note, and found their way back to the alley behind the warehouse, arriving at the flower stand a little less than half past one.
The eight of them were apparently more excitement than that sleepy little street was accustomed to seeing, to judge by the way everyone stopped in their business to stare. The students ignored them, following Teal straight to the stand against the back wall of the warehouse, where stood the same person as before.
“My, you do travel in style,” Vanessa said mildly, not pausing in her work. She was busily wrapping bouquets of flowers together with lengths of ribbon. In fact, her cover was either an actual hobby of hers or she took it very seriously, to judge by the artfully arranged bunches she had already bound together and hung. “A whole party! I suppose I should feel honored.”
“I will say this once,” Trissiny snapped, stomping up to the front of the group. “At the first hint that you intend—”
“At the first hint that you intend anything remotely rough, including finishing that threat, I will be gone before you can snap off a prayer,” Vanessa said with a wintery little smile. “I have no time for games and no intention of getting into any manner of scrap with you, Trissiny. Is this how you treat everyone to whom you come for help?” She transferred her gaze past the paladin, frowning at Gabriel. “Young man, you look like you’ve just found your long-lost sister or something. Which, for the record, you have not, I assure you.”
He closed his mouth and gulped, but didn’t diminish the wideness of his eyes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… It’s just that… Well, you look an awful lot like…uh, someone I know. Knew. Used to know.”
Toby was frowning at the woman, too; at this exchange, Trissiny narrowed her own eyes, taking a more deliberate look at the warlock.
“Okay,” said Vanessa, nonplussed. “So, Miss Falconer, I take it all these people have your confidence, and we can speak freely?”
“Absolutely. Ah, that is, with regard to them.” Teal glanced pointedly up and down the street. “Should we maybe go someplace a little more private to have this conversation? There’s a way into the warehouse here…”
“Young lady, you really should learn to pay more attention,” Vanessa said with a smile. “Do you not notice the sudden lack of interest everyone seems to have in us? Do you recall anyone raising an outcry yesterday when I shadow-jumped right out from under your nose? No one will notice us until I see fit to be noticed. And no, Trissiny, before that look on your face blossoms into commentary, none of them are harmed, or being touched in the slightest by infernal magic. In fact, your staring Vidian friend here undoubtedly knows the trick and can explain it.”
“With regard to our inquiries, then?” Shaeine prompted.
“Ah, yes. That.” Vanessa tilted her head. “I suspect I know the answer, but how did you manage to get a Rhaazke up here? Are you positive that’s what you have?”
“We’re sure,” Teal said firmly. “And we didn’t get her here. We rescued her from Leduc Manor.”
Vanessa sighed heavily and rolled her eyes. “Leduc. Right. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had the impression someone ought to finish wiping out that family. But getting into Hell and opening yet another dimensional portal would seem to be well above little Sherwin’s capabilities…”
“He didn’t,” said Teal. “He summoned her directly here. Apparently he was trying to get a succubus, and ran afoul of a chaos effect.”
“Mm. Chaos. Yes, that’s about the only thing that could explain it.” Vanessa narrowed her eyes. “So Leduc deliberately tried to summon a child of Vanislaas?”
“We lay about fifty-fifty odds he’ll try again,” Ruda said, leering.
“No, he will not,” the warlock said firmly. “The Wreath will not have those creatures running around the mortal plane. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, children. We’ll deal with Leduc.”
“Enough!” Trissiny exclaimed. “We didn’t come here to give you information. What can you do about the Rhaazke?”
Vanessa sighed. “Sending her home would mean, first, traveling through a hellgate. I’m afraid no one in the Wreath will or can help you there. Apart from the minor matter that doing so is straightforward suicide, it is explicitly forbidden by the Black Lady herself.” She shrugged apologetically at Teal. “You of all people can perhaps arrange an exception, if you were to ask her. But she’s the only one who can help you with that, now.”
“You’re refusing to help?” Juniper said. “I thought you had to help Vadrieny.”
“In any way we can,” Vanessa replied. “What you’re asking is, as I said, prohibited, and for excellent reason. Traffic between the planes in general is disallowed. The Wreath only keep demons we have caught here, and only those which prove amenable to control; we don’t summon our own familiars from Hell. The reverse is true: we don’t go into Hell, nor allow anyone else to if we can prevent it.”
“How come?” Fross asked.
“That dimension has extremely scarce natural resources,” Vanessa said, continuing to bunch flowers. “Very little metal of any kind, and even the stone is…well, it’s not exactly stone as we’d recognize it. There’s some megafauna, which provide the only building and crafting materials that are widely available. We don’t want people going into Hell because we don’t want them taking stuff with them. Just the clothes on your backs would be worth a fortune down there—that would’ve been true five hundred years ago, but with enchantments as common as they are now, every item you bring down there is conferring a vast advantage on someone. And nobody in the infernal realms needs any advantages. The Lady is taxed keeping them under control as it is.”
“Oh, that’s just fuckin’ silly,” Ruda snorted. “How much damage could one person’s effects do to an entire dimension?”
“You do realize it is possible, in theory, to travel to the divine plane from here?” Vanessa said, raising an eyebrow. “The gods try to prohibit that for exactly the same reason. You, paladin.” She wagged a bouquet at Trissiny. “You have an un-killable horse which doesn’t need food or sleep and will come to you at a moment’s thought, anywhere you might happen to be. A sword, shield and armor that will stand up to virtually any power, and which you can also summon across the entire world if you chose. All of those things originate from the divine plane. Do you honestly believe it’s never occurred to anyone to try to get there and acquire more stuff like that?”
She let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “The gods very carefully restrict access. That is one of the reasons they don’t let departed souls communicate back down here if they can prevent it. The same reason we don’t let demons get their claws on the kinds of things we have. Knowing such things exist is one thing; seeing them can provide inspiration to challenge the barriers that keep them from you. No, the Wreath doesn’t go through hellgates, nor allow anyone else to. Even the Empire doesn’t do that, except to send in strike teams and close one. All policies by everyone remotely sane with regard to Hell center on keeping it as isolated as possible. Even if we were willing to make an exception like this, none of the mortal Wreath have the authority.” She shook her head. “Ask Elilial, if you truly wish. That’s all you can do.”
“So…we’re stuck with this creature?” Trissiny exclaimed.
“It could be a lot worse, as you know very well,” Vanessa said dryly. “A Rhaazke is just about the only sentient demon we wouldn’t consider a crisis just for being in this realm. She’s as mentally stable as anyone, and in fact can handle infernal magic without being an automatic hazard to herself or her environs. Teach her the language and the customs, try to keep her out of trouble. I should think several of you could relate to a fish so dramatically out of water.”
“But…what about her family?” Fross asked in a small voice. “They must be so worried…”
Vanessa pursed her lips. “What’s her name?”
Teal rolled her jaw once before replying very carefully. “Schkhurrankh.”
“Schkhurrankh.” Vanessa mouthed the name once more after speaking it. “I will pass that along to our high priest, who can request a message be sent. If the plea comes from Vadrieny, I’m certain Elilial will arrange it. We can let Schkhurrankh’s family know she is all right, and open the question of sending her back home.”
“Thank you,” Teal said feelingly.
Vanessa smiled and made a little half-bow from her seat. “I am pleased to be of service.”
“That’s one thing addressed,” Trissiny said shortly. “What do you know about the attack on the Imperial barracks?”
“Ah, yes. That.” Vanessa shook her head. “I am instructed, against all established policy, personal experience and instinct, to be forthcoming with you about that. Yes, the Black Wreath did move on the barracks to secure those experimental weapons.”
“You injured and very nearly killed a lot of good people for that,” Trissiny growled. “Give the weapons back.”
Vanessa smiled coldly. “We don’t have them.”
“I do not have the patience for—”
“That being the case, kindly let me get a word in edgewise and this will all go much faster.” Vanessa raised an eyebrow archly, shifting on her stool. “I was not personally involved in this, but I’ve been brought up to speed. Running around in carefully-timed adventures isn’t really my thing these days.” She patted her hip. “I understand, however, that the planned robbery was basically a work of art. Weeks of observation and strategy, multiple agents committed, the whole thing carefully designed to create a perfect sequence of distractions and disruptions in the base’s security so our people could grab the weapons and get out, leaving no trace and nobody so much as disheveled.”
“Sounds like you fucked up,” Ruda observed.
“Yes,” Vanessa said with an annoyed grimace. “Because the second we launched our initial distractions, someone else hit the place. Very, very hard. The Wreath’s opening move was calculated to draw away the personnel who would ordinarily respond to an emergency and neutralize the equipment available to those remaining, so when some louse firebombed the infirmary, the soldiers were at a much more severe disadvantage than they would ordinarily have been.” She sighed. “In the ensuing chaos, the Wreath aborted and withdrew. Whoever tried to blow the place up ended up getting the prototypes.”
“Who?” Teal demanded.
“It seems,” Vanessa replied, “there are chaos cultists active in this city. They are the only agents we have identified who even could be responsible, of the interested parties at work in Veilgrad. Malivette has no motive to do this and can’t risk antagonizing the Empire. Likewise for the Huntsmen. The Shadow Hunters and the local Thieves’ Guild lack the capacity. Justinian’s Church would definitely not hesitate to injure troops and steal from the Empire, but the Church has been slowly abandoning Veilgrad over the last several months; I assure you we have investigated that carefully, and the very few remaining agents he has in the city are simple priests, not operatives.” She tapped her just-finished bouquet against the stall’s counter in irritation. “So, we don’t yet know who perpetrated that debacle, but our standing assumption is that chaos-worshiping fools were behind it. They have apparently been a persistent nuisance in Veilgrad recently.”
“In fact,” Teal said slowly, “we just met one.”
“Specifically,” Ariel added, “we met one in the company of a very large, very potent necromantic construct which had to have been the result of considerable labor and resources. The only thing he could think to do with such an important asset was to hurl it at two paladins, who dispatched it effortlessly. These are not long-term planners, or strategists of any kind. Chaos devotees never are; their religious practices have a deleterious effect on higher brain functions.”
“Ariel’s right,” Trissiny said. “Pitting those cretins against the Empire would be a joke. It’s far more likely that you’re simply lying to us.”
“Yes, I’m certain it seems that way to you,” Vanessa said sardonically. “Never mind the damage that would do to the relationship we are trying to cultivate with Vadrieny.” She pointedly turned away from Trissiny, addressing herself to Teal. “We need not pretend that we are all friends, or that we want all the same things over the long term. Right now, though, you can add the Black Wreath to the list of everyone else who wants what you want: to cut down whoever is doing all this to Veilgrad. Our strength is your strength, lady.”
“I think we’d better head over to the barracks,” said Toby. “If nothing else, we know a little more, now. Colonel Adjavegh should be told about this—all of it. The cultists in the catacombs, the involvement of the Wreath.”
“Whoah, there,” said Ruda. “We’ve got sources to protect, remember? Adjavegh doesn’t know we know about his experimental weapons.”
“Well, here’s our explanation right here,” said Gabriel, jerking his head toward Vanessa. “As far as he needs to know, we just learned about it from her.”
“Let us not discuss plans in front of the warlock,” Trissiny exclaimed.
“You seem to be moving on in your campaign,” Vanessa said calmly. “Shall I take this to mean you have no further questions for me at this time?”
“For now, no,” said Teal. “If I think of anything…”
“You have only to ask.”
“Okay, I have to know,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Miss…uh, Ms., ma’am… Do you know someone named Madeleine? A relative, maybe?”
“Young man,” Vanessa said calmly, “I am disinclined to spark hostilities with paladins under any circumstances, and as Vadrieny’s friend you are entitled to a measure of respect from me. But if you go prying into my personal life, I will not hesitate to hex you. Any lady would.”
“That’s all right, forget it,” Toby said hastily before Gabriel could reply. “Thank you, Vanessa, for the information.”
“Of course,” the warlock said with a languid smile, still bunching and sorting her flowers. “I am only pleased to help in any way I can.”