The darkness receded, leaving them standing in sunlight and the fresh air of the mountains. The group, which had been clustered together in the Mathenon basement in which they had gathered for the shadow-jump, immediately moved a few feet apart. Mostly because several of them didn’t care for being in one another’s proximity, to judge by the grim stares Jonathan and Hesthri leveled at Melaxyna while stepping to the side.
The succubus was clearly unbothered. She rose up onto her toes, stretching her arms above her head and wings out to both sides, then relaxed with a pleased sigh. “Ah, that’s the stuff. Sun, breeze, and birdsong! I think I’ve had my fill of being indoors and/or underground for another lifetime.”
“Where are we?” Hesthri demanded, turning slowly in a circle to take in their surroundings.
“Veilgrad,” Jonathan answered, pointing at the city stretching away from the western foot of the mountainside upon which they now stood. “Or at least, the hills outside it. The city’s unmistakable. That, however, I don’t know about. A better question is: why are we here?”
He added the last with a frown of puzzlement, turning in the opposite direction. Above them at the pinnacle of the trail loomed the overgrown ruins of a manor house.
“That would’ve been a better question to ask before we jumped,” Melaxyna suggested with a simpering smile.
“Mel,” Natchua warned, “do not start picking at him. Or her, or me, or anyone. This group is already one person bigger than I had planned and we will all have plenty of time to get sick of each other in the days to come without professional help.”
“You know she used to wear her hair gelled up in a mohawk?” Melaxyna said, still in that innocently sweet tone. “It looked ridiculous. I’m glad she kept the green stripe, though, that’s actually rather dashing when it’s allowed to lie down properly.”
Jonathan glanced at her only momentarily before returning his focus to Natchua. “Right, well… Belated or not, the answer to my question…?”
Natchua turned and began walking up the road toward the gates of the manor grounds, giving them the option of following or being left behind. “I told you what I am looking for: demons who can be counted on to take action against Elilial, in spite of their own best interests. There are precious few of those, and it’s even harder to track them down since my primary means of doing so is to consult a djinn.”
“Safely, of course,” Melaxyna snickered. “Binding the djinn in question with a contract which prevents her from revealing anything about Natchua or her own plans to anyone. You can guess how much they enjoy that. I have never seen a djinn so piqued as Qadira el-Mafti after Natchua got done lawyering up at her. Of course, there’s no possible way that will ever come back to bite our fearless leader on the ass.”
“I don’t expect to still be alive by the time she finds an opportunity to make trouble,” Natchua said curtly. “Anyway, I have a lead on another prospect, but in the meantime, we are here to secure the other thing this mad little crusade will require: a safe base of operations.”
“Safe, huh,” Hesthri snorted. They had arrived at the head of the mountain road, where the gates still sort of stood. At least the stone pillars flanking them were still there; of the two wrought iron gates, one listed drunkenly from its hinges and the other lay flat on the path inside. Beyond, the spectacle of ruin was even worse than the glimpse visible from below had hinted. Both the long wings of the huge mansion were in terrible disrepair, with virtually every window either boarded up or reduced to a fringe of shattered glass, and the gabled roof was missing fully half its shingles and rent by yawning holes. That was nothing compared to the main entrance hall which stood between them. To judge by the size of its foundation and the height of the one standing corner, it must have been a grand edifice indeed at one point. Now it was merely a huge pile of rubble.
“For all intents and purposes?” Natchua snorted a mirthless little laugh. “Safe enough.”
“Was all this for dramatic effect?” Jonathan asked. “The whole wide approach, I mean. It’s not like there’s a lot to see, here, and it’s probably a better idea not to drop this group out in a public area where anybody might see us arrive. Wiser to bring us in closer to the building, if not inside it. Unless it’s even less safe than it looks, which would be saying something.”
“Nobody ever visits here, I assure you,” Natchua replied, leading them on a long path to the left of the smashed entrance, through the chest-high weeds and brambles which had overtaken the neglected garden. “And the grounds are protected by a very thorough set of infernal wards. Even I couldn’t shadow-jump jump onto the property itself without likely triggering some kind of trap.”
“Even you?” Hesthri drawled, shoving aside a bramble bush without reacting in the slightest to the thorns. “I thought we’d established you’re about the same age as my son. Infernal magic takes time to master, like any kind of magic. Any skill at all, for that matter. More time than you’ve been alive, girl.”
At the rear of the group, Melaxyna laughed aloud. Everyone else ignored her.
“I know very close to everything there is to know about infernal magic,” Natchua stated.
Jonathan cleared his throat. “Look, Natchua, this may seem improbable, but we actually were your age at one point. It’s easy to feel like you know everything when you lack perspective on how much there is to know.”
“Do not talk down to me, Jonathan Arquin!” Natchua finally slammed to a halt at the corner of the manor, whirling to glare at him. The rest of the group stopped as well, Melaxyna lurking at the back with a malicious grin, and Hesthri clinging to Jonathan’s arm. That sight did nothing to improve Natchua’s humor. “When I say I know everything about infernal magic, I mean exactly that. Everything except whatever Elilial withheld to maintain some control, which is still more than any red dragon.”
He squinted in surprise. “Elilial…withheld?”
“Tell me, Jonathan, since you’re so old and wise and know so much,” she spat, “what do you think would happen if the goddess of demons cornered two teenage college students and stuffed their brains full of every detail of infernal lore? Do you think there is the slightest chance of them doing anything productive or responsible with that? With the entire school magic most suited to causing destruction and almost nothing else? And what lifespan would you give those two kids, at a guess?”
“Gods,” Jonathan whispered. Hesthri was staring at her in pure horror, now.
“And the best part,” Natchua said with a bitter laugh, “is we were just tools. Professor Tellwyrn was a little too close to her plans, so Elilial introduced a pair of time bombs to her campus.”
“That hellgate,” Jonathan said, eyes widening.
“Yes, that was Chase,” she said. “You think I’m cruel, or unwise, or just weird? Fine, I’ll own that, but I was the success story. He is now in a cell in Tar’naris, drugged to the gills so House Awarrion can keep him pacified while the matriarch devises a suitable torment for his offenses against her and hers. Frankly, that’s a better end than he had any right to expect. It’s a better one than I expect. There’s no life or future for me, do you understand that? You can’t walk around having this kind of power and knowledge without it seeping out to affect every aspect of your life. And you can’t live using infernomancy without causing chaos and gathering enemies.”
She paused, and none of them found anything to say in reply. Even Melaxyna no longer looked like she was enjoying the conversation.
“That’s why I’m doing this,” Natchua said at last, the anger leaking from her in a long sigh. “I am avenging my murder, Jonathan. Sticking some pain to Elilial will be nice, but the real victory will be ensuring that Gabriel and the other paladins survive whatever she’s planning intact and positioned to keep giving her grief for a good long time. And gods, I wish you hadn’t butted in. I wasn’t planning to have to avenge your death as well.” She turned around finally, rounding the corner. “But if you insist on involving yourself, fine. By the time I’m done there’ll be enough vengeance to redress a lot of sins.”
The group followed her in silence the rest of the way, which fortunately was not far. Tucked around at the back of the house was a small side door opening onto a stableyard which was now the resting place of half a dozen disintegrating carriages, all so far gone it was impossible to tell whether they had been horse-drawn or enchanted. Natchua’s warning about wards on the property had apparently been apt; the little door opened when they were still a dozen yards away, and a man’s head poked out.
He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties but prematurely balding, his pale complexion marred by a three-day growth of stubble. Though the stableyard was shaded both by the house and the mountain behind it, he blinked in what sunlight there was as though it were a new experience for him.
“Hello, Sherwin,” Natchua said, waving. “Here they are, as promised.”
“What did you promise this guy, exactly?” Hesthri demanded.
The house’s occupant squinted at them, then pointed at Jonathan. “Who’s this, then? You said two demons, Natchua.”
“This is Jonathan Arquin, who has decided to forcibly insert himself into our business,” Natchua said, giving Jonathan an annoyed look over her shoulder. “Sorry to spring that on you; it was sprung on me. Still, he’s trustworthy and actually probably useful. And not to be snippy but it’s not like you don’t have the room.”
“Room, yes, but rooms…” Sherwin sighed, stepping fully out into the yard and distractedly running a hand over his messy hair. “I’ve cleared out three rooms for you in the south wing. They’re not contiguous, I had to select a few where the floor’s not rotted and there are no major holes in the roof. Oh, well, I’m sure there’s at least one more that can be made to serve. If you’ll vouch for him, I guess that’s fine.”
“Everyone,” Natchua said, stepping aside and gesturing between him and her group, “this is our host. May I present Lord Sherwin, high seat and last scion of House Leduc. He’s more personable than he appears, given time to warm up to you. I’ve been visiting all summer; it’s just a momentary shadow-jump from Mathenon, as you now know. Sherwin, this is the hethelax I told you of. Her name is Hesthri.”
“Delighted, madam,” the scruffy young man said with a perfunctory bow.
“Like…wise,” Hesthri replied warily, doing a very poor job of masking her dubiousness, if indeed she was even trying.
“And this,” Natchua added with a smug undertone, “is Melaxyna.”
“I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you,” the succubus positively purred, sashaying forward with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips that made Hesthri roll her eyes and Jonathan avert his. Sherwin could only gape at her, mouth slightly agape, even as she sashayed up and twined herself around his arm. “Natchua tells me the most delightful things, my lord. Why don’t you show me around your charming mansion?”
“Oh, well, uh,” he babbled, “that is, it’s really more of a wreck…” The rest was muffled as the succubus deftly maneuvered him back inside and swiftly out of earshot.
“As for what I promised him, Hesthri,” Natchua said, watching after them with a sardonic twist of her mouth. “In a word: her.”
“Huh,” Jonathan grunted. “Spy, warlock, crusader, and now pimp. Your resume just keeps getting longer.”
“Jonathan, have you ever tried to make a child of Vanislaas do something they didn’t want to?” Natchua demanded.
“I’m pretty sure you know I haven’t.”
“Oh? The only thing I know about your history with demons is that you clearly have one.” She shifted her eyes to look significantly at Hesthri. “But you’re not wrong: since you aren’t dead or consigned to an asylum, you probably haven’t run afoul of a Vanislaad. So let me just assure you that your concern for Melaxyna’s virtue, while noble, is misplaced. She is fine, and having exactly as much fun as she suggested. If she wasn’t interested in being a carrot for me to dangle in front of Sherwin, I wouldn’t add to my problems by pressing the issue. Anyway, since they will likely be busy for a while, come on in and let’s see if we can find those rooms he talked about. They’ll be the only three without bats and cobwebs, I bet. And since Mel will likely be doing her sleeping in Sherwin’s, three is really all we need.”
“Natchua,” Jonathan said in a firm tone. “Does this poor guy have any idea what he’s getting involved with, here?”
“More than you do,” she shot back. “Sherwin Leduc needs your pity even less than Melaxyna. Next time you write to Gabe, ask him to recount what he and his classmates caught this poor guy doing. Anyway, I assure you, he’s fine with all of this. I won him over by promising…well, in addition to a playful succubus…a worthy objective to fulfill, like-minded people with whom to talk, and at the end of this when Elilial is royally pissed off and everything inevitably backfires on us, death.” She turned a cold shoulder to him and strode into the door. “So, everything in the world he wants.”
The two of them stood in the yard for a few long moments after Natchua had vanished within.
“I am increasingly surrounded by liars, creeps, and perverts,” Jonathan finally said aloud. “So why is it the thought that keeps coming to mind is ‘gods, that poor kid’?”
Hesthri sighed, stepping closer and resting her head on his shoulder. “I’ve missed you so much.”
They followed the others into the crumbling house, since that was all they could do.
“I am going to kill that bitch.”
Shook delivered the threat in a tone which belied its viciousness; solemn and pensive, his forehead faintly creased as he stared off at the distance in deep thought. Still, even spoken in a relatively calm voice, it was a statement which earned him wary looks from a couple of passersby, not to mention his own companions.
“And what sticks out in my brain,” Shook continued in the same tone of contemplation, “is how immediate and obvious that fact was. Sixty seconds of listening to Basra Syrinx talk and I was all, ‘yep, I’m gonna kill this bitch.’ Which got me thinking along some additional lines, there. For one thing, it’s goddamn unbelievable that…our mutual employer…would put us and her in a small confined space and expect anything but bloodshed.”
“The same thought occurred to me,” Khadizroth agreed, pacing along beside him.
“Because that’s the other thing that jumps out at me,” Shook mused. “There’s no fucking way it isn’t mutual. Considering she’s a disgraced ex-Bishop of Avei, that’s gotta be exactly what she thinks about me, Shiri, and Jack. Plus possibly you, depending on what she knows about your history.”
“Should I feel honored to be omitted?” Vannae asked wryly.
Shook snorted. “Van, you’re about as offensive as milk and cookies. If she’s got a problem with you it means she’s racist on top of…whatever else. Not that a cunt like that needs it to be any less cuddly. Fuck are you looking at?”
The last was delivered in a far more aggressive tone to a passing woman who had turned to stare at their conversation. She immediately ducked her head and hurried on past.
“That is not exactly helping us to blend in, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gently.
Shook barked a laugh. “Oh, I don’t think we need to worry about that; blending in isn’t gonna happen. You two are basically a walking museum exhibit. Trust me, I know about invisibility, it’s either can’t see, don’t see, or won’t see. When you have no way of being actually hard to notice, the best you can do is make sure people know to mind their own fucking business.”
Vannae did rather stand out; elves weren’t exactly a common sight in Imperial cities, but most urban dwellers would see them fairly regularly, even if his choice of a human-style suit made him memorable. It was Khadizroth who inevitably drew attention. Taller than either of them, the dragon had been forced to conceal his identity through the use of mundane methods which were impossible not to notice: he wore the heavy robes of an Omnist monk, but with a hood pulled up and overhanging his face deeply enough that as long as he kept his chin down, the glow of his monochrome green eyes was not visible. Hardly anyone walked around wearing an all-concealing hood in modern times, unless they were obviously hiding their features.
“Well, fortunately, it should be less of a concern from here,” said the dragon, veering to their left. “Our route takes us this way, ever farther from the well-trod paths.”
They had been walking along one of the walled border roads that ran along the sides of Ninkabi’s central island, with a fall to the river below on their right and the opposite cliff wall beyond. This was already a less-traveled route, three levels down from the surface of the island above, but now Khadizroth led them into a tunnel road which seemed largely disused, with litter drifted in its gutters and no current signs of occupancy. Even the doors lining it were boarded up.
“This isn’t the first time this has given us trouble,” Shook commented. “You keep saying you can’t disguise yourself with magic and I’m damned if I know why. I thought dragons could do basically anything with magic.”
“Were that true, I would not still be confined by the Crow’s hex,” Khadizroth said evenly. “Dragons are powerful and versatile, yes, but with that come a few…seemingly arbitrary weaknesses. The eyes and hair that distinguish us from mortals at a glance, even in our smaller forms, are an example. It is a side effect of our ability to occupy two forms. That means only two forms, and neither can be obscured.”
Shook grunted. “Seems fishy, how the world’s most powerful spellcasters haven’t found a way around a limitation like that in thousands of years.”
“Ah, but that is it exactly,” the dragon replied with a note of humor now in his voice. “Any of my brethren who devoted themselves to that search would be set upon by the others. We are solitary by nature; the only thing which reliably draws dragons together is the prospect of one of our kind attempting to seize an advantage over the rest. In fact, there have been some who found ways around that petty restriction. Their fate is the reason I’ve never tried.”
“Hm. I wonder how long that’ll stand, with this Conclave of the Winds thing going.”
“A curious question indeed,” Khadizroth said gravely. “They have been…strangely quiet since forming. I surmise that the Conclave is either plotting something which they do not want known, or too paralyzed by infighting to function. Given the nature of dragons, either is believable. I must say,” he added with a sigh, “that functional or not, the Conclave is a more honorable and more strategically viable solution to the problem of ascending Tiraan power than that which I attempted. I only did not try to organize such a thing myself because I never imagined it could be remotely possible. I deeply regret not having the opportunity to be part of it.”
“Mm.” Shook drew one of his wands, glancing around. They were seemingly alone now in the dark tunnel, which had no light at the other end. The only illumination came from a ball of fire Vannae summoned and held above his palm. “Well. Now we’re here, should we address the issue of what obvious bullshit all this is?”
“Do you mean his Holiness setting us to hunt a mystery cult of which he is almost certainly the source?” Khadizroth said wryly. “Or more particularly this tip of Syrinx’s that we are sent to follow?”
“Y’know what, take one of each, I’m a generous kinda guy.” Shook grinned, his teeth flashing in the firelight. “But sure, let’s focus on the immediate. Syrinx’s reasons for splitting up our group are so fucking nonsense it’s downright insulting. I mean, sure, the Jackal tends to stick out, but Shiri is easily the best among us at blending in—and you’re the worst, like we were just talking about. Besides, those are the specific two who should not be confined to a few rooms unless the whole idea is to make them so stir-crazy they give her an excuse to bust out the sword.”
“Basra Syrinx is a noted blademaster,” Khadizroth mused, “but even in hand-to-hand combat I rather think she would not choose to confront the Jackal. His aptitudes too perfectly counter her own. I agree with you, Jeremiah, as to the general thrust of the game being played, but I fear it won’t be so simple as that. This much we can say with relative certainty: our entire mission in Ninkabi is a shallow pretext, and it is likely that the true purpose is to set us against our newly appointed leader.”
“So the question is,” Shook said slowly, “is Syrinx in on it, or were we all just shut in this box together because Justinian wants some of us killed off and doesn’t care which?”
“Well phrased,” the dragon agreed. “The answer to that question will do much to shape the actions we must take in response. Based on what I have learned of Syrinx’s recent history, the Archpope took a political risk in protecting her; it seems unlikely he would then throw her away so swiftly. On the other hand, we have seen that he is inexplicably more eager to cull his own agents than his enemies. What do you think, Vannae?”
“I think,” the elf said softly, “we might consider asking the person following us.”
All three of them stopped and turned, Shook raising his wand. They were deep enough in the darkened tunnel that both ends were lost in shadow; in the flickering light, the shape of another hooded figure approaching from the way they had come was partially obscured.
“That’s far enough,” Shook snapped, taking aim.
The approaching figure raised both hands and spoke in a low, feminine voice. “I mean no harm. I’m the person you were sent to meet. And you are quite right, gentlemen: your task here is a sham, and so is the tip Basra is acting on. She thinks it genuine, though. It was the most convenient way for me to arrange to meet you.”
“And you are?” Khadizroth asked politely.
“A loyal servant of his Holiness the Archpope,” she said, approaching slowly with her hands still up. “But I would draw the important distinction that loyal and obedient are not the same concept. His Holiness is…prone to overestimating his ability to control wild elements, and unfortunately willing to use agents whose involvement will only harm his interests. Sometimes, those of us who believe in his mission and care for his welfare must act…contrary to his wishes. I know who you are—all three of you, and the two who did not come. And I’m here to tell you that between your entire group and Basra Syrinx, it is she who urgently needs to be destroyed.”
Vannae kept his attention on her, fireball upraised; Shook’s wand did not waver, though he and Khadizroth exchanged a meaningful glance.
“Well, madam,” the dragon replied after the tense pause, “you have our attention.”
She finally moved her hands, lowering her own hood to reveal auburn hair and blue eyes set in a pale, heart-shaped face.
“My name is Branwen. It’s well past time we had a talk.”