“So you did see him again,” Khadizroth said, leaning forward in his armchair to gaze intently at Shook.
“The one time, yeah,” he replied. “He and I had the same idea, for once: took one look at Syrinx losing the last ounce of her shit and even your famous diplomacy barely managing to keep her in check, and we both fucked off in different directions. He went right out the goddamn window. I take it the asshole never bothered to report back in?”
“As of the time Vannae and I departed, no,” the dragon murmured, frowning now. “Jack’s failure to do so indirectly led to that decision. When you vanished and it became clear to Inquisitor Syrinx that her title now amounted to nothing more than house steward for the two of us, I’m afraid she rather…well.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet she rather,” Shook grunted. “Sorry for leavin’ you guys in the lurch like that. At the time, it sure did look like my last opportunity to get my ass outta there in one piece.”
“It’s quite all right, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him with a small smile. “I see how you would have concluded that—and you may well have been entirely right. She might not have exploded had you stayed, but on the other hand… Well, what’s done is done. You’ve acquired valuable intelligence and we’ve extricated ourselves from Syrinx entirely. In a way, it worked out.”
“You don’t intend to return, then?” Branwen asked.
The dragon sighed softly, looking over at Vannae and then Shook again, then shook his head. The two of them were upright in opposite corners of the small parlor in the Bishop’s temporary residence, Snowe herself seated on the loveseat adjacent to Khadizroth.
“I have dealt with people sharing Syrinx’s particular disability a number of times over the years,” Khadizroth stated. “In fact, that is the core of what is wrong with the Jackal, though every manifestation is somewhat unique and naturally he is a distinct aberration from Syrinx, or any other anth’auwa. The outbursts of temper are explosive, but usually brief; most of the time they are quite unemotional and often focused. In Syrinx’s case, they have been coming closer and closer together, and growing more severe with each, which is a major warning sign. As the Inquisition has been shedding personnel and making no progress, her resources and options have continued to close in on her like the walls of a cell. Coming on the heels of her lost career in Tiraas…”
“This is bad,” Branwen muttered. “Steadily increasing pressure is one of the worst things for people like that. They need stimulation and variety to… Someone is going to be hurt.”
“I fear you are correct,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding. “With no outlet for her aggression and no other way to exercise her will, she will seek out or create a target. I deemed it best that this not be Vannae or myself. Unfortunately… I think we must all face the facts that our goals here have ended in failure. The smart thing for Syrinx to do, and the best outcome for everyone, would be for her to return to the Archpope and report the Inquisition’s failure. Any of her other options will bring her swiftly afoul of established powers in Ninkabi. Either way, it would seem our window of opportunity to silence her for good has closed.”
“Well, I dunno,” Shook said dryly. “I figure one of the things Jack is likely to do next, when he gets tired of picking on hapless city guards, is go after his own former team. And of the lot of us, Syrinx is both the most reachable and probably the most interesting physical challenge.”
“Do you really think that’s going to be his next move?” Branwen asked.
“I am glad to report I have zero fuckin’ clue what goes through that nutjob’s brain, Bishop. At his best, he’s only ever kept his crazy at a low simmer with a lid on top. Now? I think the pressure’s just built up till he couldn’t contain it anymore, and he’s just gone off on a wild-ass spree.”
“In this case, I don’t think I agree,” Khadizroth said pensively. “I can scarcely guess what he actually is trying to accomplish, but I suspect it is still goal-directed. Your assessment of the Jackal’s character lines up well with mine, but consider that he has kept it at a simmer for the two years we have known him. Unlike Syrinx, he has shown no pattern of increasing instability. And remember: the entire idea of our group was his. He not only brought us together and made his case for keeping ourselves close to Justinian, but it was he who laboriously laid the groundwork with the Archpope himself beforehand.”
Shook raised his eyebrows, glancing at Branwen. “Uh, K…”
“I think we are past the point of dissembling, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “The good Bishop has made no secret of her loyalties. In the worst case she can report this conversation to Justinian, who I assure you is already well aware that we have only endured his control for our own ends and bear him no goodwill. Now? That, too, appears to have ended in failure. He’s managed to make some use of our abilities and it seems the time has come for us to discreetly depart from his service.”
“So you’re saying he won?” Shook growled.
“I am afraid he has,” Khadizroth agreed, himself baring teeth for a moment in displeasure. “Sometimes, as the saying goes, the bear eats you. Now, at any rate, we are no threat to him and so our antipathy would appear to matter little. We are still here, in a city beleaguered by the Black Wreath, this mysterious cult which Justinian himself set up, and at least three of our own former compatriots gone dangerously rogue. Bishop Snowe is still an ally, at least for the moment, and our list of such has dwindled sharply. Let us all continue to get along.”
“It goes without saying that it would be a mistake to take anything the Wreath said to you at face value,” Branwen added, turning to Shook, “but if they were more or less correct, I consider this evidence that this cult is no longer under his Holiness’s control. I have already made it plain that I disagree with some of his methods—that is, after all, why I’m here—but I cannot believe he would do such a thing as open hellgates in a major city. There is no possible benefit to anyone in such an action.”
“Except, perhaps, an apocalyptic cult,” said Khadizroth. “Several extant hellgates were originally the work of such. If this is indeed what this lot are up to, they appear to be more ambitious than most.”
“Fuck,” Shook said feelingly.
“I understand you gentlemen are all rather short on options,” Branwen said with every appearance of genuine worry, looking at each of the three of them in turn. “Where will you go after this?”
Shook glanced for a moment at Vannae, who met his eyes, and then both turned back to her with matching fatalistic shrugs, both savvy enough not to betray anything by looking to their de facto leader for confirmation. Snowe might be an ally for the moment, but she was still directly in the Archpope’s camp and there was no reason at all for her to know about the other allies Khadizroth had already begun discreetly gathering at his old hidden lair. Even their little pantomime of conceding defeat to Justinian had been a bit of impromptu misdirection; one of the things Shook most enjoyed about working with the green dragon was how on the ball he was about things like that, even stuff he’d only have expected fellow thieves to have practiced. Khadizroth might still be acting against the Archpope out of a sense of duty, but for Shook’s part, he was bound and determined to make something stick to Justinian before all this was over. And it was not over, not as long as they still weren’t dead.
The dragon sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead with one hand and generally making a very convincing show of his quiet despair over this state of affairs. “I hope you won’t judge me too harshly if I choose to procrastinate dealing with that, your Grace. I even dare to hope something may come up while we are addressing the present urgency.”
“Of course,” she said with a warm smile, reaching forward to pat the dragon’s knee. Shook and Vannae again locked eyes, this time sharing a different silent message. “Well, for the time being at least, you are all more than welcome to whatever hospitality I can offer. I guess what we need to figure out now is what to do next.”
“Well, I know both my uses and my limits,” said Shook, folding his arms and leaning against the wall, “and playing brain checkers with the Black fuckin’ Wreath is beyond both. I brought you every detail I can remember, so forgive me if I leave it to wiser heads to suss out how accurate their song and dance was.”
All of them turned to look at Khadizroth.
“I know little of dimensional mechanics,” said Branwen, “and even less of necromancy. It sounds implausible, but…could something of the kind be done, Lord Khadizroth?”
The dragon had folded his hands and was staring into space with his eyes narrowed in thought. “The difficulty in answering that question is that necromancy is not a school of magic. There are several ways it can be approached, utilizing all four schools, most requiring heavy alchemy and minor shadow magic to boot. In theory? The answer is usually ‘yes.’ Magic is applying a localized subjectivity to physical reality. The highest possible application of any school of magic is the transcendence of its limitations. Mastery is often defined as performing any possible task with those originally limited tools.”
“So,” she said, equally pensive in expression, “the question becomes one of psychology and capability rather than magical theory. Can they do this?”
“Well said,” he agreed, nodding to her with a smile. “Unfortunately, we suffer a near total lack of data on this particular cult. I realize you are protective of his Holiness’s secrets, Branwen, but can you shed any light on this?”
“I’m afraid I have already shed what I have,” she said with an apologetic grimace. “I am only reasonably sure that the project was his Holiness’s. The Church has records of them and there are few other organizations which could create such a thing, the other main candidate being the Empire, which is contradicted by the group’s use to attack the Emperor. Circumstantial, but compelling. But that is the best I can offer.”
“Then all we have left to analyze is the Wreath,” Khadizroth mused.
He fell silent, and they all stared at him, the tension in the room creeping upward. The dragon just gazed narrowly at the wall, seemingly undisturbed by the weight of their combined attention.
“Nothing can be certain,” he said at last, so suddenly into the long silence that Shook and Branwen both twitched. “But based upon the available evidence, I am inclined to think they were serious, and at least as much as can be expected, honest.”
“Okay,” Shook said simply. “How so?”
“It is counter-intuitive,” the dragon continued, “but I have found over my long years that when clever people with a penchant for deception tell you something wildly implausible, they are more often serious than not. The logic is there, if you look closely. Deception hinges on fitting a piece of false reality into established patterns so that a victim does not look closely or think deeply. The last thing a deceiver wants is for you to stop and consider what is going on.”
“Hell, I can vouch for that much,” Shook agreed, nodding. “I’m no con artist by trade, but every Guild member knows the basics. You wanna con somebody, you gotta show ’em something that makes sense in their eyes, something they’ll expect.”
“Just so,” Khadizroth said. “And the Black Wreath is more than a rival crew of deceptive operators. They contain demons and prevent the opening of hellgates as a matter of religious duty; it is the reason for what little tolerance is extended to them by mortal governments and the other cults. Be assured, they absolutely would not scruple to take advantage of such events if they were already unfolding and the opportunity existed. But they are on record, very long and consistent record, taking these matters with the utmost seriousness. If they are concerned enough about this to seek help, the most probable explanation is that they need help.”
“That, at least, we can verify,” Vannae said quietly.
“Yes,” the dragon mused, folding his hands in his lap, “now that I know to look for an intersection of necromancy and dimensional warping, I can seek such through the flows of magic. There will be an element of chance at first, but if the Wreath has told the truth about this, once I have found one such and identified the workings used in its creation, I can locate any others with greater ease.”
“And…” Shook deliberately un-clenched his fists, flexing his fingers. “…what happened to me? The Wreath claimed not to have been behind it.”
“About that, I would be less sanguine,” Khadizroth said gravely, turning to him. “They do have reason to deceive you, and no reason not to; if they seek allies and had identified you as connected to the Inquisition, it would hardly serve them to admit they had assaulted you and confiscated Kheshiri’s reliquary. In addition, the alternative is that there is yet another player active in Ninkabi, who is capable of feats of infernal magic which the Wreath have never been able to manage before. That seems implausible…as does the alternative. Remember that Kheshiri was outside the reliquary for a time after its seizure, and for reasons I just went over, the Wreath would have immediately sealed a daughter of Vanislaas had they the means. This is a dangerous dilemma,” he said, leaning forward to gaze intently at Shook. “If there is such an additional party, their presence changes every equation and leaves us blind and vulnerable until we identify them. If not, the Wreath has not only increased their capabilities beyond what I knew, but has proven themselves willing to attack and curse even those to whom they turn as allies.”
“Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t,” Shook said, and blew out a breath of pure frustration.
“Well put,” Khadizroth agreed with a tiny smile of dark amusement. “At the very least, we should keep it in mind as a reminder of two things: the Wreath cannot be trusted, and we do not fully understand what is happening here.”
“So, you tracking our quarry to one of these portal sites is a starting point,” said Branwen. “I can provide transportation, since your movements in the city must obviously be discreet. Beyond that, though? If these people are sufficiently numerous and equipped that even the Wreath is desperate enough to seek help in dealing with them… Even with your aid, Lord Khadizroth, I’m concerned that adding ourselves to the effort is simply…not enough.”
“Who else is there?” Vannae all but whispered.
“Ain’t like we can go to any legitimate authority,” Shook grunted. “What the hell would we tell them? A tale like this…even if the Bishop blows her cover, I figure this is as likely to just damage her credibility as it is to add it to the claim.”
“Well, I can call in aid from the Church,” Branwen said slowly, pausing to chew her lower lip. “But… The Church is already involved in this. And they may not know what this cult is doing or why, but if they think they know, revealing that we are on their tail…”
“We were sent explicitly to hunt this cult,” Khadizroth added, “with the aid of this Inquisition. Two Church-aligned forces which cannot officially be acknowledged to exist, set directly into conflict. As far as the Church goes, all we can know for certain is that the left had doesn’t know the right exists, much less what it is doing. To seek official backup from that source would be, at best, a roll of the dice.”
“Especially since we’re all AWOL from our official backup,” Shook added. “So, can’t count on the Church. The Empire wouldn’t listen to us. What else we got?”
“The Guild?” Vannae suggested, looking at him.
“Leaving out that the Guild would haul me into a dark room for disciplinary thumping before they even thought about listening to what I had to say, we happen to be in one of the worst places for it. Guild presence in Ninkabi is just about as abnormal as it gets this side of Sifan. This is where the Fount of the Fallen is, one of our few actually holy sites. More Eserite priests here than almost anywhere else per square mile…which might be specifically applicable to this problem, sure. But that’s still not many, and there’s a lot less in the way of Guild muscle on hand than in basically any other major city.”
“I face a similar dilemma,” Khadizroth acknowledged, grimacing. “Here it is, an unprecedented moment in history when, for the first time, I could actually call upon other dragons for aid. But only in theory; in practice, I fear the Conclave of the Winds regards me very much as the Thieves’ Guild does you, Jeremiah. Inviting their attention would likely result only in my own removal from the scene. If I could persuade them to lend aid, just the persuading would surely take longer than we can spare.”
“My tribe is long dead and scattered,” Vannae murmured.
“Well, isn’t this cheerful as all fuck,” Shook growled, straightening up. He turned and began to pace up and down one side of the room.
“Are you all right?” Khadizroth asked, suddenly intent on him. “If you feel manic or unsettled, Jeremiah, please let me know. That can be a side effect of the magic that eased your weariness.”
“I’m fine,” Shook said, giving him a tight smile in passing. “Thanks, but this is just my thinkin’ posture. Not that I’m the best thinker in this outfit, but every little bit helps.”
“Very well. Do be sure to get actual sleep when you can, my friend. I can only ease the symptoms of weariness; your brain still needs rest.”
“I’ll get a nap while you’re hunting down necro-portals. Not like I’m any damn use for that. Shit, who else is there? The Wizard’s Guild?”
“Even less likely to listen to us than the Empire,” Branwen said a little morosely. “Oh! The Order of the Light?”
Shook barked a derisive laugh.
“Severely lacking in personnel in this day and age,” Khadizroth said more gently. “And no longer able to defy governments and move with impunity through their territory; that would leave us back at needing to persuade the Empire. I suppose, if we are desperate, I could try sending a telescroll to Last Rock. I understand Arachne has taken to using real world crises as testing grounds for her students. If she took me seriously it might get a party of young adventurers out here. I have found those to be surprisingly effective, when they are not amazingly ineffectual.”
“That’s twice now we’ve reached for solutions from the last century,” Shook grumbled, still pacing. “Is this the point where we officially acknowledge how fucked we are?”
“It’s worse than needing more help,” Branwen said, frowning deeply. “It’s the existing help. Talking of Last Rock… I don’t have privileged access to military records, but I have access to people who do, and I’ve learned that the Black Wreath was allowed to ‘help’ during the chaos crisis in Veilgrad. Apparently they did render material aid, and overall made the whole thing worse by causing more chaos effects with their demon summonings and then deliberately incapacitating all three paladins. And then it seems they tried to steal Imperial equipment as soon as the matter was resolved and only failed in that because the local vampire intervened. You are quite correct, Lord Khadizroth. Even if the Black Wreath helps in good faith, they will find a way to manipulate events and people to further their own goals. Furthering the Wreath’s goals is the absolute last thing I want.”
The dragon drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then reached over to take her hand. “Then the question we must ask ourselves is whether that prospect is worse than the alternative. If they are correct… Twenty hellgates, Branwen. Ninkabi would be a complete and permanent loss. Most of N’Jendo would be rendered uninhabitable.”
Shook came to an abrupt halt. “Hey, your Grace. Two questions. One, you got a pen and paper anywhere around here?”
“Of course,” she said, turning a quizzical frown on him. “Anything you need, Mr. Shook. You have an idea?”
“Probably not a very good one, but I guess we’re down to that point now. Which leads to my second question.” He grinned. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to loan me some money?”
Branwen raised her eyebrows. “That would depend. It might be more practical for me to buy whatever it is you need.”
“Yeah. Yeah, actually now you mention it, that’s absolutely right. Yeah, I’m a dumbass for not thinking of that up front, it’s obviously gotta come from you.”
“It?” she asked pointedly. “From me?”
“Right, it’s like this.” He stopped right behind the couch, leaning both arms against it to stare at the group with a grin even he could feel was a little unhinged. “We’ve got no resources and no credibility among the kinda dangerous people we need—but we all know somebody who does. And he may not wanna hear from most of us, but if we piggyback a little o’ my know-how on some of her Grace’s credibility, I bet we can get some real shit started.”
“I very much appreciate this, Antonio,” Bishop Ferdowsi said, his voice trembling just slightly. “I realize it verges on exploiting our professional connection…”
“Not in the least little bit, Mehmed,” Darling assured him, laying a hand on the older man’s thin shoulder. “This is exactly why we have a Universal Church: to help one another out in situations like this. I will take this directly to Boss Tricks, and we’ll get people on it at once.”
“Please understand, it’s not my intention to get anyone in trouble. We just want the Codex back. It is entirely irreplaceable.”
“It would be easiest and fastest if one of our people had taken it,” Darling said seriously, “since we could just get it back from them in that case. I have to warn you though, Mehmed, that’s a lesser possibility. Guild thieves are not to mess with the other cults unless on the Boss’s direct orders and under exceptional circumstances, and even then it’s usually the Vernisites. That rule is fiercely enforced. But we can still help a great deal. There aren’t so many people in Tiraas who would even want a five hundred-year-old illuminated manuscript, and any of those who are willing to receive stolen property will already be known to us. I’ll lay even odds we find it before the police do.”
“I understand. Regardless, I remain deeply grateful, Antonio, as does the entire Archive.”
“You can assure the Curator that we’re on it,” Darling said kindly. “I’ll head right to the Guild; I was going there anyway this afternoon. Thieves work best at night, so I dare to hope I may have something to tell you by tomorrow.”
He was frowning as he finally parted from the Nemitite Bishop, his steps quickening nearly to the point of breaking the serene gliding gait which helped characterize his ecclesiastical persona. He hadn’t had the heart to say it to the old man, but this was very likely to have been an inside job. Such things usually were, and honestly, who but a librarian would even think to steal a rare scroll? One thing he could be sure of: if this had been some rogue Eserite, he just might tell Flora and Fauna to work them over before Style got a chance. They’d do it, too. All three of them had felt rather protective of the Nemitites ever since that ugly business with Aleesa Asherad.
Darling snapped out of his reverie, focusing his gaze on one of the last people he’d expected to meet in the Grand Cathedral.
“I apologize for disturbing you here, your Grace,” his Butler said crisply. “You received a telescroll at the house, brought by specialty courier, and I deemed it urgent. It came on a Universal Church priority signal, bearing Bishop Snowe’s name, from Ninkabi.”
Darling blinked. It was a forgivable lapse; they were alone in that corridor, Ferdowsi having vanished around a corner in the other direction.
“What the hell is Branwen doing in Ninkabi? She’s supposed to be…” Now that he thought of it, he hadn’t seen her in a few days.
Price produced the scroll from within her coat, folded and flattened by transit. “It is an unusually long communique, your Grace, and only the first line is from Bishop Snowe. The rest is in a Thieves’ Guild cipher, signed by Thumper.”
“What?!” He snatched it from her, raking his eyes across the row after row of scrambled letters as fast as he could without losing the thread. It was an older code and a simple one, but well, if it actually was Thumper, that made sense.
Darling read the while thing again, more slowly, just to be sure he had it right, before finally raising his head to stare at the vaulted marble ceiling.
“Is there even the slightest chance my five adventurer friends haven’t vanished into the Golden Sea by now?”
“They have, at least, vanished from the city, your Grace. Beyond that, I regretably seem to have left my pocket oracle in my other trousers.”
“All right. Welp. I had to head down to the Casino anyway.” Sweet stuffed the telescroll into his sleeve and turned, striding down the hall with no regard at all for Bishoply poise. “C’mon, let’s go ruin Tricks’s entire week. I’ll be damned if I’m the only one who has to suffer.”