Much as the children of Vanislaas favored the subtle approach, there was a time and a place. With a renegade Hand of the Emperor bounding toward him at impossible speed, Fedora dropped all camouflage and shot skyward. No one was close enough to see the revealed bone-white perfection of his skin, his crystalline irises or blue-tinged hair, but the wings and tail would have made quite a stir, had anyone been watching. He ascended as fast as those wings could propel him—not specifically to avoid notice, though it would be a nice perk. He had more urgent matters on his mind.
The Hand, however, moved with equally unnatural velocity. Even as Fedora rocketed off the steeple, he landed on the roof of the general store and instantly bounced in a high arc toward the church. The Hand impacted the side of the steeple near its peak, almost exactly where the incubus had been standing, and kicked off again, pushing himself skyward in a wide parabola that would send him crashing back to the outskirts of town from a horrifying height, and stood no realistic chance of catching the airborne demon.
He flung one hand forward and up as he ascended, though, aiming right at Fedora’s rapidly-vanishing tail.
The wash of magic that burst forth was invisible, and mostly fae in nature. It quickly dissipated in the air; Hands of the Emperor were phenomenally deadly in close combat, but had little in the way of flashy magic to throw around. That fistful of raw energy was too unfocused even to qualify as a spell, and barely reached Fedora before flickering out into nothingness. What it did have, however, was sheer power, and “barely” was enough.
Vanislaad were limited to human-like forms in their shapeshifting, and one of the drawbacks of a human form was that nature had never intended it to fly. Fedora’s flight was far more magical than aerodynamic—enough so that when a wash of unfocused fae magic rushed over him, temporarily suppressing the power of his demonic nature, his wings abruptly discovered that they were trying to hold aloft a creature far too heavy and entirely the wrong shape for soaring through the sky.
He tumbled and flopped midair, cursing and frantically flapping his beleaguered wings like a singed moth. Fedora managed, after some struggle, to right himself and get rearranged into an awkward glide, but the fact remained he was going nowhere but down. At least he had enough wingspan to manage a descent that would put him down out of range of the town, and without forming a crater upon impact.
The effort so absorbed him, however, that he failed to realize his position relative to his pursuer.
Just as Fedora was leveling out his fall, the Hand came arcing back down from the apex of his final leap. The incubus’s midair struggles had shoved him far to the side of his descent, inevitably, but he craned his head as he fell, studying the angles.
Then he vanished as though slipping through a crack in midair. Instantly he reappeared, still falling and at exactly the same angle and speed, but now directly above the gliding Inspector. It wasn’t a precise hit—given the forces and speeds involved, that would have been truly uncanny—but it put him close enough to reach out and, as he passed, grab Fedora’s extended tail just above its spaded tip.
The demon let out another aggravated yelp as he was abruptly yanked downward. “Oh, how are you possibly—”
The Hand of the Emperor, not in a conversational mood, swung him around in a complete circle as they plummeted, releasing at exactly the right moment to send him hurtling downward at far greater than terminal velocity.
This time Fedora managed to right himself faster, largely through luck, and snapped his wings back out to their full extent. There was no possibility of another saving glide, however; he was heading down far too fast and at far too steep an angle. Curling himself into a defensive ball with the exception of the wings, outstretched in a desperate makeshift parachute, he came slamming down onto the roof of the barn which stood on the outskirts of Last Rock.
Onto, and through.
The incubus crashed through the timbers, bounced off the edge of the hayloft and hit the ground in an agonized heap, trailing bedraggled wings which flopped over him in a mess of snapped bones and ripped sails.
It took priceless moments for the pain to recede enough for him to think. The Vanislaad were among the least physically powerful demons, but hardy in their way; what did not immediately kill him would right itself in time, and far faster than humans healed. Not fast enough to get him out of the present danger, however.
What broke him from his reverie was a second impact, which caused the entire barn to shake and one corner to partially collapse as something hit it. Timbers and planks fell, luckily far enough from him not to add further injury, but the noise galvanized his attention enough to take inventory.
Broken…lots of things broken. An arm, a leg—no, both legs—wings completely out of commission. Ribs, apparently most of them. Not his spine, good; that wouldn’t paralyze him the way it could a human, but there was only so much muscle and tendon could do around a fractured core. Even luckier, he had avoided hitting anything skull-first. Fortunately none of his internal organs actually did anything—except, less fortunately, ache and bleed when subjected to this caliber of abuse.
After a momentary pause, the wreckage of the corner of the barn began shifting insistently, causing the whole structure to groan in protest. Hands of the Emperor were nothing if not physically hardy. That fall wouldn’t be good for anybody, but the bastard had assuredly been damaged less than Fedora, and would heal much faster.
Marshaling himself, he faded into invisibility and began scuttling away to hide behind a stack of straw bales. With one arm and two legs broken, this was utterly excruciating, but having pushed through the initial shock, he managed to embrace the sensation, forced it to sharpen his mind rather than fogging it. Pain wasn’t preferable to pleasure—at least, not to him, though he’d known incubi and even the odd mortal who felt otherwise—but children of Vanislaas sought out extreme sensations as a matter of course. If they went too long without feeding the itch, whatever stimulated the nerves could provide partial relief.
He managed to conceal himself behind both his native shroud of invisibility and the physical obstruction of the straw, which would hopefully buy a few seconds; he was sure the Hands had extra senses, though of what nature he did not know. Fedora carefully rummaged in the inner pocket of his trench coat with his un-broken hand. The bag-of-holding spell had, of course, shielded the contents from damage and yielded up exactly what he was reaching for. Bless modern enchantment; this situation would’ve been an immediate death sentence fifty years ago.
He reflected wryly, as he flicked off the cork and downed a vial of healing potion imbued with pure infernal magic, that he might have outsmarted himself here. All this ruckus would’ve already been resolved had he not persuaded Tellwyrn to hang back and watch rather than “saving” the day as per her distinctive idiom. Well, it had been the right call, and he’d outmaneuvered the Hand’s gambit. Now he just had to survive the son of a bitch long enough to tell her what she was up against.
Fedora took some tiny satisfaction from the groans that accompanied the Hand’s self-extrication. Precious seconds ticked by, in which they both rapidly improved in condition. The Hand’s innate magic straightening out the comparatively minor injuries he’d suffered, Fedora’s potion working far more rapidly on him. Rapidly or not, though, it was working on much greater damage to a much more fragile vessel. He’d no immediately useful basis of comparison to the Hand’s condition, but best to assume the man would be in better shape than he by the time he couldn’t afford to stall any longer.
That time was fast approaching.
Teeth gritted against the urge to gasp—luckily he did not actually have to breathe—while several bones shifted excruciatingly back into position, he took stock of his surroundings. No exits in the back half of the barn, of course. To reach either the front or side doors he’d have to go back out in the open. Was he faster than a Hand of the Emperor? In this condition, no. In his optimal shape…based on what he’d seen tonight, also no.
He’d just have to be smarter, then.
Easier said than done; brains couldn’t do much without usable options. Fedora quickly discarded extraneous details, fixing upon two of immediate importance: invisible or no, his crawl back here would have left a trail in the dust which the Hand would find sooner than later, and there was exactly one discreet exit from this position.
His arm and leg bones were in their right configuration but still somewhat fractured, which meant that while he could haul himself up the steep ladder into the hayloft, he could not do so in silence. Bracing himself on it and trusting his invisibility, he pulled his battered body upright, peeking over the strawbales and watching the Hand for his moment, already reaching once more into his coat pocket.
As he’d thought, the Hand paused in his pacing, bending over to watch the trail Fedora had left on the ground. That put him seconds at most from pursuing, but also gave the incubus his opening.
He withdrew his hand and hurled the vial he’d just grabbed over the man’s bent head, straight into the wrecked corner of the barn.
It was one of his favorite alchemical explosives: not terribly powerful, but extraordinarily clean. No fire, no light, not even heat or a puff of smoke, just a burst of pure kinetic energy when the vial broke and the solution encountered air. The blast sent broken planks tumbling again, and caused the whole barn to creak ominously. More importantly, it made the Hand whirl to face this new threat, giving Fedora time to scuttle up the ladder with the speed of a spooked squirrel.
He had barely enough mental wherewithal to collapse as gently and silently as possible when he reached the top. Kelvreth’s lashes, that had fucking hurt. Yep, the broken arm was well and truly broken again—and now the effects of his infernal healing potion were fading, so it was gonna stay that way for the immediate term. He didn’t dare take another vial; just the amount he’d already used was risky in the presence of a fae-attuned creature like the Hand. His legs, fortunately, just hurt. Like Hell itself, he thought authoritatively, but at least they were somewhat functional again.
Fedora lay stretched out, wings awkwardly flopping beside him while they continued stitching slowly back together—he might manage one more awkward glide tonight, but he wasn’t flying anywhere—and concentrated on listening and not breathing. The potion helped a bit but he still felt weakened by fae exposure. Or maybe it was just pain. The barn shuddered again due to something the Hand did, but the man was already on the prowl again. Also, there were sounds from within the town, rapidly approaching: footsteps and voices. Whether anybody had noticed them soaring through the air was unknowable at this point, but thanks the the Hand’s efforts at stirring up a mob, plenty of people were out and about to hear two man-sized projectiles plummet to the ground, and the state of this barn would quickly reveal where they had landed.
He lifted his head, again taking stock. Good, he was slightly less cornered now. There was a wide loading window up here, with a sturdy bar extending outward conveniently lined with rope. Why the hell would—oh, lifting hay bales into the loft, of course. If he was going to stay out here in the sticks he needed to familiarize himself better with prairie life. More immediately important, that provided a neat exit. He could also go over the front edge of the hayloft, back to the floor and out one of the exits; the Hand would soon find his trail again, which would lead to the ladder, which would keep him facing away from the front of the barn.
That would require split-second timing, speed he wasn’t sure his battered legs were up to, and would put him out facing the town, right in time for whatever crowd was coming to get here—depending on how Maru was doing, possibly under the effect of mob-maddening Vidian jiggery pokery.
Yeah, that really was not a choice.
Moving as fast as he could without compromising stealth, he stood and crept to the window. Its bottom was even with the floor, which luckily meant one less thing to climb. More importantly, the coast was clear. Fedora grasped the rope with his good arm and hopped out.
Only instinct honed by centuries of cat-and-mouse games like this one saved him.
Before he had consciously processed the noise below him, he’d reflexively yanked upward, hauling his feet and tail out of range of the Hand’s grasp as the man hopped from below. Fedora swung all the way up and landed atop the beam in a crouch; both legs screamed in agony, but they held. For the moment. One was quavering, though, and he knew another maneuver like that was going to send him to the ground.
He peered over the side of the beam; the Hand of the Emperor glared up at him. Clever bastard hadn’t followed his trail at all. To get out here he’d have needed to exit the barn from the side and circle all the way around…which meant he had anticipated Fedora’s reactions and plans in detail, right in the moment.
Well, that was good and fucking ominous.
They stared at one another in silence for a moment, and Fedora was again pleased with himself for cultivating such a disheveled appearance; it neatly concealed the fact that he himself was physically a wreck. The Hand wasn’t so lucky, his usually pristine black coat being torn half off him. Even the fringe of hair surrounding his bald head was sticking out in all directions like a bird’s nest.
Fedora thought as fast as he’d ever thought in his life. Then, powering through the howling pain, he first straightened up and darted forward along the beam, then instantly pivoted and shot back the other way, bounding onto the roof of the barn.
He had a clear shot to the mountainside from the barn’s rear, but that would put him in the position of trying to outrun the Hand on open ground, which he was in no shape to do; his wings weren’t up to flying again, either. This way set him back facing Last Rock and all its hazards, but the poorly-planned little town made a neat obstacle course even before all the construction going up on multiple sides.
Of course, that unwise maneuver immediately caused one of his legs to buckle, exactly as he’d feared it would. Fedora managed to land on the sloping roof, barely, and it was all his frantic scrabbling could do to stop a calamitous slide right over the side. He managed to land on top of his right wing, further ensuring its uselessness—and adding to the pain, of course, though that was a drop in the bucket at this point.
Gritting his teeth, he forced himself upright, stepping carefully on legs which blazed with agony at every step, turning to make for the front of the roof and the town. Maybe he could jump as far as a nearby rooftop, and probably break his leg again, but he had to do something and there’d be only seconds before—
Fedora stopped, staring. The Hand was already standing on the roof, right at the front edge, straddling the very peak.
“Y’know what?” the incubus said aloud. “Just, fuck you, that’s all.”
“Treason,” the Hand said flatly, taking a measured step forward, “applies to citizens of his Majesty’s realm. Despite the fact that you are absent without leave from your sworn duties and in league with an enemy of the Empire…” His lip curled in a contemptuous sneer. “Well, no one should really be surprised, should they?”
Fedora shuffled along the edge of the roof, making slowly for the peak even as the Hand made slowly for him. He couldn’t betray his intentions by glancing down—the moment he moved with any speed, the man would be on him like a pouncing cougar—but if he got to the center of the roof it would be a straight drop back to the protruding beam below. And probably more broken bones, and then he’d still have to make it to the ground and somehow away…
Well, at this point, his every desperate gambit was just to survive a few more seconds. Chain enough of those successes together and he’d be golden.
“Intelligence, of course, anticipated this when they brought you in,” the Hand continued, pacing toward him. “It was not merely expected, but planned. Eventually, when you were no longer worth keeping, it would be necessary to put you down. I suppose Lord Vex will be disappointed that he doesn’t get the satisfaction himself, but that’s what he gets for failing to keep you under control in the first place.”
He was at the peak. Tallest point of the roof, making the drop even worse; in hindsight, maybe he’d have been better off just dropping straight to the ground from a lower height. Orange lamplight illuminated the far edge of the barn and the Hand’s silhouette, signaling the arrival of Last Rock’s citizens.
Maybe the Hand would refrain from physically tearing him apart in public? No, a Hand could legally do anything he liked, and with Fedora’s wings still on display they wouldn’t even object… He tried to shapeshift, which brought nothing but another spike of pain. Probably the combination of fae magic, physical trauma and infernal medicine, in that order.
Would Tellwyrn bother to summon him back from Hell? That wasn’t in his contract… He had a suspicion she didn’t value his services nearly that much just yet, especially not after how displeased she’d been with this night’s work.
The Hand was almost close enough to grab now, and smirking, which was somehow the worst thing tonight. It was bad enough getting outmaneuvered, without the asshole rubbing it in.
“You probably thought you were going to get away with it, didn’t you?” The man twisted his mouth, baring teeth in a truly unsettling expression; there was a grin in there, but also a sneer, and still that smirk, all beneath eyes too wide and with pupils too narrow. The insanity could practically be smelled at this distance. “Now you know otherwise. Nothing defeats the Tiraan Empire.”
“In the Enchanter Wars, pretty much everybody did,” Fedora said sweetly, and “accidentally” twisted his foot on the edge of the roof, flailing his arms for effect as he plummeted. Well, if this was how it ended, at least he got the last word.
The Hand lunged for the edge, then immediately skidded to a stop, staring in disbelief as Fedora bounced right back up, still spinning and flailing. It was an open question which of them was more startled.
Then the big, soft thing he’d impacted ascended above the rooftop, and the Hand actually stepped back, glaring in consternation. Fedora came down again, bouncing once more, but the next time on his descent he managed to catch one of the blimp’s ears on his way toward the ground, and clung there, dangling and trying to ignore the blistering pain in his shoulder.
It wasn’t even the size of the smallest zeppelins, but the huge balloon could have lifted a carriage easily. More distinctively, it had four tiny paws along its rim, a fluffy striped tail hanging from the rear…and an enormous grin facing the Hand, which Fedora was now dangling close enough to see up close.
Maru opened his mouth, puckered his giant lips, and blew possibly the biggest, wettest raspberry anyone had ever heard.
Exactly like a rubber balloon with the air being let out, it produced a blast of wind which sent the Hand of the Emperor tumbling all the way back across the barn’s roof, and the tanuki balloon with its battered passenger shooting away in the opposite direction on a crazy course that bounced them what felt like halfway across the sky and back.
Given Fedora’s condition by that point, it was hardly a surprise that he lost his grip.
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS?!” he shouted more at the universe than at Maru as he found himself plummeting out of the air for the second time in the last few minutes, this time without the benefit of working wings.
Then he was grabbed again—by the collar, now, rather than any portion of his anatomy. Awkward as that was, it was still a step up from his recent treatment.
Fedora craned his neck to peer upward, finding Maru grinning down at him. Back in his normal-sized raccoon form, now, and hanging from what appeared to be a bamboo-and-paper parasol painted with Sifanese calligraphy, which somehow kept them both floating aloft.
“If you find this excessively uncomfortable,” the tanuki suggested, “I could return you below to try the diplomatic approach. Your new friend could greatly benefit from the lesson you just learned about premature monologues.”
“I know what you’re doing,” Fedora accused. “You think you’re too cute for anybody to get pissed at you.”
“Oh, is that what I’m doing?” Maru’s grin widened. He had an awful lot of white, needle-like teeth. “What baffles me the most in all this is how your hat is still on your head.”
Fedora grinned back, reached up, and carefully extracted a long hatpin, holding it aloft for him to see.
“Ah. A fashionable ladies’ accoutrement, is it not?”
“Also a serviceable improvised weapon, and two make a decent set of lockpicks. Never underestimate a fashionable lady, bub.”
“A shame you did not get the chance to use it on our associate down there!”
“And don’t think I wasn’t gonna! If he’d—”
It said something about the night he was having that the sudden disappearance of the entire world was far from the most shocking transition he’d experienced recently. The empty sky vanished from around them, replaced with the domed roof of Helion Hall, and Fedora found himself unceremoniously dumped to the floor, where he lay in a disgruntled heap. Maru lit neatly atop the little table which made the centerpiece of Professor Tellwyrn’s personal little patio, accessible only by teleportation.
“I sincerely hope you two are pleased with yourselves,” she grated. “That way somebody is!”
“Now, now, give the fuzzball a break,” Fedora suggested, raising his least injured arm to hold a finger aloft. Gods in bloomers, he hurt everywhere. “This is a college town, and a magical one at that. I’m sure Maru’s performance will just go down as the new student prank to beat. Hell, Chase Masterson was in town, I have no doubt he’ll take credit when nobody else steps forward.”
She took two steps to loom over him, leaning over to accomplish the feat of staring at him over the rims of her spectacles—not easy to do, given their respective positions. “And what do you have to say about your perching atop the bloody church like a self-important gargoyle?”
He found a new reason to wince. “Ah. So you were watching.”
“In fairness to Murgatroyd,” Maru said diffidently, “that is somewhat redundant, is it not? Gargoyles by nature, almost by definition—”
“Urusai!” she barked. Maru subsided, a satisfied little smile lingering on his sharp muzzle.
“So it wasn’t as clean as anybody woulda liked,” Fedora grunted, finally forcing himself into a sitting position. “Aaaiee—yow, that hurts! Fuck, I feel like the china shop after the bull got through…”
“You engaged a Hand of the Emperor in hand-to-hand combat,” Maru observed, “and are not dead. Nor even dismembered! All things being equal, I believe that counts as a resounding success.”
“What he said!” Fedora agreed quickly, pointing at Maru but keeping his eyes on Tellwyrn. “Look, Prof, this was messier than I hoped and I know it goes against your grain to hang back while other people do the heavy lifting, but we won tonight! The kids are home safe, the enemy didn’t get to make a spectacle of you, which had to’ve been the bulk of what he was after, and we succeeded in turning the scheme around on him. Now he’s got nothing to show for it, you haven’t shown your hand, and we know who our enemy is!”
“A Hand of the Emperor,” she said more quietly.
“The same one from before,” he replied, nodding. “My official connections with Intelligence are cut off, but I keep my ear to the ground. There was plenty of rumor about the Hands going wonky a few weeks back, but it’s widely known they’re stable again. Except…they seem to have missed a spot. That guy was not playin’ with a full deck.”
“Even I know Hands are famed for their discretion and efficiency,” Maru added. “This one cost himself a victory by engaging Murgatroyd in a futile display of wordplay. Really, standing around on the cusp of his victory and making a speech instead of finishing the job. Can you imagine anyone being so unutterably foolish? Not to mention cliché.”
“I know where you sleep, fuzzball,” Fedora warned.
The tanuki turned to him and bowed. “I am very flattered, but you are too tall for me. Also, Tellwyrn-sensei, there is more. This Hand is working with a Vidian priestess, Lorelin Reich. It was she who used her arts to stir up the town against the students.”
Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath through her nose. “Reich. Back in Last Rock. Well, well. Just when I could actually use Arquin for once, and I’ve sent him off to Puna Dara.”
“It might not hurt to let yourself trust the kids a little more,” Fedora said, starting to rise. He changed plans halfway through, easing himself into the little chair she kept by the table with a wince. “Nnnnf… But yeah. Szith made a damn fine show of herself tonight. I tolja she would. That girl’s been training to be a noble’s bodyguard since she was big enough to pick up a sword. If there’s one person up on this mountain who can be relied on to extract somebody from a mob—”
“All right, point taken,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “Not unconditionally agreed, but you can stop harping on it. We had better deal with what’s coming next.”
“Yeah,” Fedora said, frowning. “Yeah… There’s a downside to victory. It narrows the enemy’s options, forces them to move faster. I’m afraid we may not have as much time to prepare, now. Now that we know who he is, whatever that Hand does next, he’s gonna have to do soon.”
“Sir, I’ll take responsibility for this,” Lorelin said formally, folding her hands behind her back. “When that creature engaged us, I instructed Mr. Carson to hold it at bay while I kept concentrating on my own task. That was a mistake; it was far too much for him to handle. Maybe if I’d dealt with it, I could have resumed focusing the crowd and prevented it from intercepting you later.”
The Hand gazed at her in chilly silence for a moment, then transferred his look to Fred Carson, who flinched. He hadn’t fared nearly as badly as the Hand himself, whose clothes were still in tatters; Fred’s coat was a mass of scrapes and rents from the creature’s tiny claws, though Lorelin’s healing had washed away his actual wounds and hopefully neutralized any fae nonsense that might have lingered on him. Even she was somewhat disheveled after scuffling about in the toolshed. The sole fairy lamp in the basement in which they met was an older model, and cast a flickering light that did none of them any favors.
“Do you know what that thing was, Reich?” the Hand asked finally.
Slowly, she shook her head. “No, sir, I don’t. Some manner of fairy. I’ve never heard of one that looked like an overlarge raccoon.”
Fred swallowed heavily. “N-no, sir. That is t’say… I mean, I ain’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard from my trips up the mountain that Tellwyrn’s got a critter like that workin’ for her. I…shoulda thought of it. Plumb didn’t occur to me till after it’d left us. S-sorry.”
The Hand finally shook his head. “This was not your fault, Carson. Nor yours, Reich. We were simply…outmaneuvered. It happens.” He reached forward to lay a hand on Fred’s shoulder, ignoring the flinch the gesture prompted, and gave him a light squeeze. “You have served your Emperor well, never fear; sometimes, we simply don’t win. What matters is learning from defeat and applying the lesson. Next time it will be different. For now, Carson, go home, get some rest. I will need to call upon you again soon.”
Fred’s departure was accompanied by much bowing and stammering. He had barely shut the cellar door behind him before Lorelin turned to the Hand and spoke.
“Sir, I have to ask. By designating the gnome as the primary target, were you trying to avoid setting off a major confrontation?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “What are you talking about?”
“I mean…a dangerous one. Something that could have caused major damage to the town and not involved Tellwyrn.”
“Talk sense, Reich,” he snapped. “That Masterson boy is possibly the least dangerous thing on that mountain, and not even the most annoying.”
She stared, her Vidian mask of control slipping slightly to permit surprise to peek through. “You…don’t know…?”
Lorelin swallowed. “I assumed you were… Well. I have no up to date word from my contacts in Intelligence, as you ordered, but I was briefed on the situation unfolding in Last Rock. Your first mission here, and Fedora’s, in response to the Sleeper outbreak. Sir… There is something you should know about Chase Masterson.”