“I need someone to say how quiet it is,” the Jackal murmured, easing back into the alley from having peeked around the corner. He turned to grin at the rest of them. “You know. So I can make the obvious rejoinder.”
He was met by a cluster of unimpressed expressions.
“It’s too quiet,” he clarified, seeming on the verge of bursting into laughter.
“You see what I have to deal with?” Shook muttered to Joe. “Every day with this crap.”
“My heart bleeds,” Joe retorted. “Although, to be fair, that was just the once.”
They all ducked at the sudden gust of wind that swooped into the alley. Seconds later, a stack of old crates a few yards back shook slightly, and Kheshiri popped back into view atop it, wings still spread from her glide.
“Well?” Shook demanded.
“It’s a trap,” the succubus reported.
“Didn’t we already know that?” Rook stage whispered. Moriarty nudged him with the butt of his staff, scowling.
“No, no, this is good news,” Kheshiri continued, grinning, as she folded her wings against her back. “It was supposed to be a trap, but it’s been neutered. The guy in charge is gonna try to ambush us right out there on the street, he’s got his people positioned packed into alleys and a couple ground-floor rooms in the surrounding area. But! The Thieves’ Guild have finally got off their butts and been moving, too, and they do quick and quiet a lot better than these guys. They’ve ambushed several of the shadow-jumpers and have been blocking doors. I don’t think they’ll be able to contain the whole horde, there are still at least a couple scores of ’em, but Mr. Big Shot out there is gonna be very underwhelmed when he tries to spring his ambush.”
“How, exactly, do you know this guy’s in charge?” Joe demanded.
“Because he’s the only one I can sense,” she said condescendingly. “I told you the others are on drugs—all I get from them is…fuzz. They’re like a sea, not like individuals. The ones using magic, though, and this guy, they’re alert and focused. And this one’s standing still, not shadow-jumping around, which makes him in charge. We take him out—”
“You can read minds?” Finchley blurted out in horror.
“Not quite,” Danny murmured. “Children of Vanislaas can sense desires, though. It’s an intuitive thing. I never heard of one making such tactical use of the skill, though…”
“I’m a piece of work,” Kheshiri said smugly. “Right, master?”
“That’s my girl,” Shook said, then snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground by his feet. The demon obediently hopped down from her crate and went to heel with an unnecessarily slinky gait, deliberately turning to brush her bust against Finchley’s chest as she squeezed past and causing him to turn nearly scarlet.
“As a point of general reference,” said Joe, “you guys trust the demon because…?”
“People make such a fuss about trust,” the Jackal mused, shaking his head woefully. “We work as a group because we all know what we want and what we’re like. And Kheshiri will be in deep shit if anything excessively bad happens to her precious master, there. Considering we’re not only in mortal danger but surrounded by Guild enforcers who specifically want to haul his ass away in chains, she’ll behave herself. And she’s right; if we’ve identified the leader, and he thinks he has the upper hand but doesn’t, this is our chance to finish this.”
“Undead,” Vannae said weakly. He had regained some of the color in his cheeks, but was still having trouble breathing, apparently.
“Ah, yes,” the Jackal said, “that. When I said ‘undead,’ I didn’t mean skeletons and zombies. He’s got some real nastiness waiting in the wings. Soon as his trap fails to go off, he’ll drop that hammer, so we’ve gotta finish this fast.”
“Vampires?” Finchley squeaked.
“Kid, if there was a vampire after us, most of this group would be dead already,” the Jackal said disdainfully. “Constructs. Big ones. Constructed undead are pretty fragile, but they hit hard. Better by far if we put a stop to this before they come into play.”
Rook cleared his throat. “Uh, doesn’t it seem likely the thieves will attack him once that starts? Him and possibly us, since we’re with Shook?”
“Fuck my life,” Shook muttered. Kheshiri snuggled against his side, and he absentmindedly patted her rear.
“Yep,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Well, what’re you jokers all standing around for? This beehive ain’t gonna kick itself!”
“I—I don’t know!” Maureen said frantically, clearly on the verge of tears. “I wasn’t—it all looks the same, it’s just grass and I can’t see over it—”
Sheyann stepped over to the horse and reached up to lay a hand gently on Maureen’s leg. The gnome broke off, choking back a sob, then blinked down at the elf.
“One breath at a time,” the Elder said, radiating calm. Maureen nodded, hiccuping again, and squeezed her eyes shut, clearly reaching for self-control. Sheyann shifted her attention to Whisper’s other rider. “Gabriel, did you happen to take note of your surroundings?”
“’Fraid I have the same problem, uh, Elder,” he said, frowning around at the horizon. “I was distracted trying to find the girls, and…this all looks the same to me. I came north toward the Sea, so it’s this general area…”
“It’s here,” said Wyrnst, who was barely visible through the tallgrass, being a foot shorter than its average height. “It’s fading fast, but…there’s a characteristic smell about this, so to speak. Infernal magic was used…not quite here, but across the dimensional barrier from this spot. I’ve encountered similar in the aftermath of major summonings. From what I know of how the Golden Sea works, it could cause the same residue. Can you sense anything?”
“Agitation,” Haunui murmured, gazing out across the tallgrass. “The wind speaks of its anger. They call this a sea?”
“We know that’s how centaurs navigate,” said Tellwyrn, striding forward to join Sheyann. “Shift the Darklands, cause a corresponding shift on this side of the barrier, at least until the tension builds up and the whole system randomizes itself. But that’s within the Sea, and we’re a good half a mile from the border. Sheyann, you’re older than I; have you ever heard of someone reaching out of the Sea to suck someone in like this?”
The Elder shook her head, patting Maureen’s leg one last time and then taking a step north, toward the endless horizon, where the last red light of sunset was fading. “Centaurs are not ambitious warlocks; I doubt any would think to try such a thing. I do feel it, now that I focus…but it’s strange. It’s not what I… Give me a moment, please. I must concentrate.”
She folded her legs under herself right where she stood, sinking smoothly down to kneel and consequently all but vanishing into the tallgrass. Gabriel gently nudged Whisper away, giving the Elder a respectful space in which to work.
Haunui glanced down at her, then up again at the horizon. “I will help if I can, but I do not understand this land. Nor the depth of your craft.”
“There are few elemental spirits anywhere on this continent that don’t know Sheyann,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “and few people anywhere who are more skilled at what they do. If she wants to try something, we’ll probably get the best results by leaving her to it.”
“She’s out there,” Maureen whimpered.
“And we will find her,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “Sheyann is, as usual, right. Right now the best thing you can do is take care of yourself, Maureen. Try to find some calm.”
“Should…I go back for some of the others?” Gabriel asked uncertainly. “I mean, since Whisper and I have the speed, here.”
“To retrace the Sleeper’s steps, we need infernomancy and shamanism,” Tellwyrn replied. “That’s who I brought along, Arquin—and before you suggest it, Embras Mogul is already more involved in this whole business than I like.”
“Wasn’t gonna,” he muttered.
“Mr. Wrynst,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the dwarf, “I realize this is out of your element, but can you detect anything else?”
Wrynst stroked his chin ruminatively. He was clean-shaven and altogether looked the part of the modern dwarf; his formal robes were well-tailored, suggesting a business suit in their style and cut to accentuate rather than conceal the blocky shape of his physique.
“Not without more to go on,” he said at last. “As I said, the traces are fading rapidly, even while we stand here. The problem is that there wasn’t actually a rift opened. I can track a shadow-jump or dimensional transfer if I can get at it, but this accursed mirroring effect obscures the traces I’d need to read. The real action happened in Hell, not here. If either of our shaman can coax the Sea to oblige us, that’ll be another matter. Rifts are even easier to follow in the context of other nearby rifts, so long as you’ve a head for the math—and have the right tools. I have both, of course! The Golden Sea makes the ultimate sextant in that regard; most theorize there is a massive dimensional nexus of some kind at its center, which both causes the instability in the region and is the reason the Sea doesn’t let anybody get at its heart. But, again, that’s little help because the shifting we’re trying to follow is merely a reflection of something that happened in another universe, and I’ve neither the senses nor the instruments to perceive something like that in the necessary detail.”
“The winds are angry,” Haunui repeated morosely. “I expect no help from them.”
“Thanks for that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh.
“The Sea will help us,” Sheyann said suddenly, opening her eyes and standing. “I must remain here, to keep communication open. The mind of the Sea is normally unreadable…but it seems Iris reached it.”
“She said please,” Maureen whispered. “Over and over. I didn’t know who she was begging…”
“The child will be a truly remarkable witch, in the fullness of time,” Sheyann said gravely, “provided we are able to rescue her. She touched the Sea itself, its consciousness, something no shaman I have ever known has been able to do.”
“Iris has gifts apart from her craft,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “I don’t invite just any teenage witch to my school. You have an expression that says there’s a downside, Sheyann.”
“The consciousness of the Golden Sea is…rather like a god, in some respects,” Sheyann explained, nodding. “It is a consciousness, but not like ours. In the way it is approached, it’s like a machine, responding predictably to a few narrow stimuli and ignoring most others. While gods will sometimes make their thoughts known, however, the Sea never has that I know of. Iris left traces that I can follow. However…”
“Here it comes,” Tellwyrn muttered.
Sheyann gave her an irritated look without pausing. “This is delicate. I sense compliance toward Iris, as well as resentment at the Sleeper. I don’t understand what Iris did, exactly, and cannot reproduce it; the Sea will not comply with me. To do this, I will have to skirt the line between cajoling the Sea’s distant mind in the wake of Iris’s touch, and coercing it to cooperate, as the centaurs do. One false step will backfire catastrophically.”
Tellwyrn drew in a breath, and let it out in a short sigh. “I know your skill, Sheyann. If anyone can do it…”
“I would not suggest such a risk if I didn’t think I could,” the Elder replied gravely. “That is not the problem. I must maintain a reflection, in Mr. Wrynst’s words, of what was done before.”
“What’s that mean?” Gabriel exclaimed.
“The Sleeper’s passage was separate, and invisible to me,” Sheyann said. “I can retrace the grip that seized Iris and Maureen. But two were taken, and only two can follow.”
“Sometimes,” Tellwyrn growled, “I honestly hate magic.”
Immediately upon exiting the alley, they put together the best formation they could. Shook and Kheshiri stepped to one side of the opening, the Jackal and Vannae to the other, while Joe paced out in the center, wands in hand. Behind him, Danny emerged, and the three soldiers swiftly clustered around him as soon as they had space to do so, brandishing staves at the empty street.
“Fuckin’ creepy,” Shook muttered. “Haven’t even heard any alarm bells…”
They all whirled to face the shadows which swelled in the center of the street ahead. The darkness receded, revealing three figures in gray robes which obscured their faces.
“Grandiose,” Kheshiri said skeptically. “You only needed one caster to shadow-jump. You’re sacrificing strategic value for—”
“We are the rising tide,” a gravely voice interrupted her.
“Which one’s talking?” Finchley whispered.
“I will bet you a year’s pay it’s the one in the middle,” Rook muttered back.
The Jackal barked a laugh. “No bet.”
“We will sweep away the unworthy,” the voice continued, and finally the figure in the middle stepped forward to raise his arms skyward. “The very stones are worn away by the tide!”
“Fascinating,” said Danny, craning his neck to peer over Moriarty’s shoulder. “Excuse me, but what god are you with? I don’t recognize that rhetoric.”
“You cannot stop the—”
The cultist’s proclamation was cut short by a lightning bolt. It was an imperfect shot, coming at an awkward angle; the electric discharge struck the figure to his left indirectly, arcing to graze him. He toppled backward to the street with a squeal, while his compatriot fell silently, robe smoking. The other cultist jumped backward, and vanished in an abrupt swell of shadow.
The rest of them had whirled to face the direction from which the shot had come, with the exception of the Jackal, who flung his arms wide in a gesture of frustration.
“Oh, come on! I was gonna murder that guy! Goddammit, I never get to kill anybody anymore…”
Sweet hopped down from the second-floor fire escape, landing in a deep crouch, then straightened, still aiming a wand.
“Still alive?” he said to the fallen cult leader, who was emitting shrill moans of pain. “Splendid, I have some friends who’re looking forward to kicking your ass in meticulous detail. Flora! Fauna! Why do I not hear—ah, there we go.”
A bell began tolling not far away, followed by another, and then a third more distantly, the city’s chain of alarm bells finally coming to life to signal the emergency.
“Sorry, boss!” shouted a feminine voice from the roofs above the street. “We’re not miracle workers, you know!”
“Flesh and blood can only move so fast,” another added.
“Yeah, yeah,” the thief muttered, sweeping his gaze across the group. “Joe, you picked a perfect time to show up. Everybody all right?”
“Quite well, thank you,” Danny said pleasantly.
“Well indeed,” the Jackal said, grinning. “The man himself! It’s been a while.”
“It’s gonna go much worse for you than the last time if you attempt any of the bullshit you’re contemplating,” Sweet said curtly, striding over to the fallen cultists. He kicked the leader, eliciting another cry of pain. “You. I don’t know who you fuckers are, but you are going to explain, and then have things explained to you. You do not do this horseshit in my city. By the time I finish—”
He jumped back at the resurgent rise of shadows. Six more robed figures had appeared on either side of the street from the cluster of people present, arranged in a pair of matching triangles.
“Summoning formations!” Joe barked, snapping his wands up. He dropped the three on their right with a round of blindingly fast shots.
Shadow-jumping was an extremely rapid process, though, and by the time he’d turned to the other cluster, they had done their work. The shadows which swelled up obscured that entire half of the street momentarily. When they receded, the three cultists had vanished with them. What remained behind was at least twelve feet tall.
“Oh, by the way,” the Jackal said helpfully. “Undead.”
It was proportioned like a centaur, with a humanoid torso rising from a four-legged base, and made from bones. Not that it was a skeleton; it had been built from haphazardly-collected bones forming a lopsided structure, held together with bolted lengths of iron and pulsating greenish strands of tissue rather like misplaced ligaments. Atop its torso was a single, normal-sized human skull. If not for the overall horror of the thing, its tiny head might have looked comical.
The accompanying smell was truly unspeakable.
Rook squeaked, Finchley retched, and Moriarty shot it. He actually hit it, too, the blast of lightning sending charred bone fragments flying and causing electricity to crackle visibly along the iron pieces lining its structure. The only tangible result of this was to catch the construct’s attention. It turned far more smoothly than such an awkward-looking thing had any right to, facing them directly.
Joe dispatched a rapid series of shots, burning hole after hole through the thing’s tiny head until the skull finally dissolved completely in broken fragments.
This accomplished nothing. The construct ignored him entirely, charging at the group with the speed of an angry bull.
The three soldiers shoved Danny back into the alley, leaving the rest of the group to dive out of the way. It crashed against the side of the building with an awful clatter, breaking chunks of masonry and sending large pieces of bone and iron to the sidewalk.
“Look how fragile it is!” Kheshiri shouted from above. “We can wear it down!”
Joe, Sweet, and the elves had gotten out of the way, Vannae moving far more deftly than his previous show of weakness had suggested he could. Shook was slower, and got accidentally kicked in the monstrosity’s charge and sent skidding across the pavement. Kheshiri dived to the ground, landing over him with her wings protectively spread.
Lightning blasted out of the alley’s mouth; with the construct pressed against the opening, there was no way they could miss, and bolts of energy ripped pieces of it loose. They broke off firing as the thing adjusted itself to reach into the alley with one enormous arm. It was thankfully too big to fit inside, but it had a long enough reach that they were forced to retreat to avoid being grabbed.
Sweet and Joe fled to the opposite side of the street, where the thief let fly with indiscriminate shots from his wand, raking more and more pieces off the monster, while the Kid surgically shot out metal joints one at a time. After just a few seconds of this, the monster sagged slightly to one side, beginning to lose some of its structural integrity. It stumbled further when the Jackal darted up and slammed a long blade into the knee of one of its back legs, wrenching it loose and causing it to slump sideways, that leg disabled.
Moving less adroitly now, the construct shifted to face the rest of them, just in time to take another barrage of lightning out of the alley to its central mass.
“Hold your fire!” Kheshiri shouted. The succubus dived straight down from the sky, striking the monster’s shoulder with both feet and all her weight, then bouncing off and gliding away. The impact knocked its arm loose entirely, leaving it with just the one reaching into the alley.
“Shit!” Shook yelped from up the street. “Shit shit!”
They turned, barely catching the end of another swell of shadows from that direction as the cultists jumped back out, leaving behind a second construct built along the same lines as the first.
“What?” Sweet protested. “How? Where were they keeping them?”
“With multiple shadow-jumpers, coulda been in Sheng-la for all the difference it makes,” Joe said grimly, swiveling and unleashing a barrage of wandfire at the thing as it came barreling up the street at them. “Gotta catch the—look out!”
They had to dive out of the way again, back toward the first monster, which was still trying to move, but able to do little but thrash now, all of its limbs having been disabled by the various adventurers. The new arrival slammed against the apartment building opposite, shattering windows and demolishing a set of decorative eaves; Joe and Sweet barely got out of its way in time to avoid being crushed.
A figure swathed in black plummeted from the roof above, cloak billowing behind her.
“Flora, no!” Sweet shouted.
“Flora, yes,” the elf snapped from right next to him, grabbing his arm and tugging him away. “You let the heavy-hitters deal with this crap.” Fauna planted herself between him and the second monster, brandishing long knives in both hands.
“Wait a sec,” Sweet protested, though he didn’t struggle against her tugging. “If you’re—who is that? Who else wears a cloak?!”
The black figure whirled and swarmed across the construct’s massive body like a temporally accelerated monkey, moving with speed and deftness that even an elf could not match—not to mention strength. Striking with hands and feet, it swiftly and precisely knocked loose strategic pieces of iron while clambering over the monster and evading its grasp. In barely ten seconds, it accomplished what a gaggle of armed fighters hadn’t managed to do to the first construct, which was still feebly wriggling, now lying across the street itself after the last barrage of staff fire had knocked it away from the alley. The new construct, however, collapsed to the pavement in pieces. Something fundamental in its body had clearly been destroyed; it entirely disintegrated, none of its components even attempting to move.
There was a momentary pause in which the only sound was the ongoing alarm bells, followed by another massive swell of shadows out of nowhere, immediately pierced by three beams from Joe’s wand. The shadow abruptly dissipated, leaving three robed figures lying dead in their wake.
“That is enough a’ that,” Joe growled.
Kicking aside a piece of arm as long as she was tall and lowering her hood, the figure in black turned to face the rest of the street. On the ground and stationary, she was revealed as a pretty young woman with dark hair.
Across the way, Shook, Kheshiri, the Jackal, and Vannae, who had just attacked an undead monstrosity five times their collective size without flinching, shouted in panic and scrambled away toward the nearest open alley.
Face set in a predatory glower, the woman shot after them, fast as a pouncing lion.
Roughly pushing aside Finchley, who was trying to hold him back, Danny emerged from their hiding place, giving the still-twitching necromantic construct a wide berth, but showing no sign of unease. On the contrary, his voice and bearing radiated a command which, surprisingly, stopped everyone in their tracks. The woman skidded to a halt, whirling to stare at him, and the four she’d been pursuing hesitated in spite of themselves.
“We’ve won here,” Danny said firmly. “No more. No turning on each other, and no revenge. Let them be, Milanda. I owe them.”
She let out a short breath, then charged at him, cloak flaring behind her.
Moriarty whipped up his staff at her and Danny punched him in the face, and then she was on him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head against his chest.
Feet came pounding up the street, and Joe whirled to aim wands, which he immediately lowered.
Five soldiers skidded to a halt, weapons raised, staring around incredulously.
“What in the goddamn hell?” demanded the sergeant at the head of the group. “Weapons down! NOW!”
“Coulda used you gentlemen ’bout ten minutes ago,” Joe muttered, holstering his wands.
“Officers,” Sweet said pleasantly, obligingly dropping his wand and raising his hands over his head. “This is…” He paused, glancing around at the dead bodies, the damaged walls, multiple lightning burns, and shattered remnants of two giant constructs of bone, one still trying to get up. “Well! This is probably more or less exactly whatever the hell it looks like.”