“Nothing here, either?”
“My particular magic isn’t well-suited for locating people,” Bradshaw reminded him. “I could check more definitively, but not without attracting a lot of attention. But even at a cursory glance… I rather suspect they’ve been and gone here, as well. To judge by the decomposition of this…altar…it seems to have been abandoned for several days, at least.”
Shook wrinkled his nose and took another step back from the now-familiar sight (and smell) of the necromantic construction languishing behind the wall of old boxes at the rear of a dead-end alley. More specifically, he stepped to put some distance between himself and the altar’s cloud of flies.
“The fuckers called themselves the Tide,” he muttered, covering his mouth with the hand not holding his wand. “Gonna wash across the world and cleanse all impurity, you know, standard-grade doomsday cult horseshit. For a primal force of destruction, they sure are shy.”
“Must be low ebb,” Bradshaw quipped. “Well, I rather suspect what we’re dealing with are the paltry leftovers after they expended most of their warm bodies in Tiraas. Tactics like these are a much better idea when one is low on resources and personnel.”
“I guess you’d know.”
“Exactly. I am more concerned that a brainwashed cult is capable of this level of planning. It suggests those in charge are still in charge. Justinian was party to that plan to unleash demons in Tiraas and blame the Wreath for it, along with the Imperial government itself, but that was a far more discreet and controlled action; just a few bands of holy summoners calling up demons one at a time. Opening multiple hellgates in a city is above and beyond even by the standards of that.”
“Uh huh,” Shook grunted. He had also been present at that event in Tiraas; in fact, that was the first time he and Bradshaw had crossed paths, and a source of lingering antipathy between them. Shook was the first to admit he’d not exactly had a good vantage from which to see the intricacies of what had happened that night, but he remained skeptical of the Wreath’s claim that it had been the Church and the Empire actually bringing the demons, especially since his own encounter with them had come when the Wreath had tried to break into Dawnchapel to vandalize the temple. “Well, then, I guess we’re back to the same question. Wreck it or leave it?”
“May I see the map?”
Shook handed it over and Bradshaw frowned at the scrawled markings in the dim light that made it down from the overhead gap between the three-story walls that loomed on all sides.
“Mmm,” the warlock murmured. “All right, look here. This is the site we’re at, reached by a straight walk from a main avenue behind us, see? Next one on the list if we proceed in the same pattern is hidden away in a cul-de-sac well behind several warehouses that looks quite impossible to find by accident. I think we’ll clean this site up and leave that one intact after we’ve checked it. And so on, going forward. If we create the impression we’re operating on foot, by a standard search grid, the planners of this will prepare to counter the wrong tactic and be unprepared for us. I don’t want them to know we have your dragon to sniff out all of their locations.”
“Promise you’ll let me be in the room if you ever call Khadizroth ‘my dragon’ right to his face,” Shook said, grinning. “I really don’t wanna miss that.”
Bradshaw gave him an annoyed look over the top of the map. “Shall I take that to mean you concur with my plan?”
“Hey, I’m just the muscle, here. But it sounds like a solid one, yeah. That bein’ the case, you want me to smash this thing up?”
“I can destroy it far more thoroughly with my magic, you know.”
“Yeah, we both know what hellcraft’s good for. But that’ll reveal they got warlocks after ’em, an’ warlocks with a plan pretty much always means you guys in particular. If the thing just gets fucked up with blunt trauma, could be anybody. More discreet that way, right?”
“Hum. I suppose it needn’t be a complete cleansing, under the circumstances. Enough blunt trauma, as you put it, will render this site inoperable.”
“Blunt trauma is what I do best,” Shook said, holstering his wand and cracking his knuckles. “Take over watchin’ our backs, this won’t take a sec.”
In fact, he didn’t relish the thought of laying his hands on that arrangement of rancid meat, bones, twigs, and tainted enchanting dust. Aside from being disgusting, the thing just looked wrong; he suspected that even the urchins who haunted these back alleys wouldn’t have tried to scavenge the power crystals out of the rotting altar. He was half-tempted to just rake it with wandshots, but Shook didn’t need Bradshaw’s protestations to know that discharging even conventional magic into unknown magic was a bad idea.
Casting about while the warlock stepped past him to watch the head of the alley, he fixed his gaze on the one thing there was to work with. Grinning, Shook picked up one of the crates that had been stacked to obscure the altar from the front of the alley and hurled it right into the center of its mass.
The first hit dislodged the carefully-arranged lattice of old sinew-bound bones and scattered a spray of enchanting dust. That probably would have been sufficient, but Shook grabbed a second crate and smashed it bodily down upon the largest remaining cluster of bones. He broke a third over the altar for good measure, only stepping back to dust off his hands when the ritual array was mangled beyond recognition and full of splinters and old nails to boot.
“There,” Shook said, turning back to Bradshaw with a grin. “I can confidently say any asshole coulda done that; nothing about it’ll scream ‘Black Wreath,’ no matter how smart their handlers are. Where to next?”
“Hold this, if you would,” the warlock replied, handing the map back to him. “I want to place and conceal wards on this site. That is about the limit of what infernomancy can do to detect anyone’s comings and goings, but if they do return here to restore this altar it may enable us to catch them.”
“Sure, take your time.” Shook folded the map and tucked it back into his coat pocket, then drew his wand again and positioned himself to keep an eye both on Bradshaw and the distant mouth of the alley.
In the next moment he began edging away as Bradshaw started making broad gesticulations with his hands and conjuring patterns of sullen orange light out of nowhere. The warlock carefully assembled a spell circle in midair while Shook watched, moved it to lie flush against one of the alley walls at head level, then made it disappear from view and took another few moments to stare at the spot where it had been with one hand upraised and fingers twitching minutely, no doubt adding to its layers of concealment.
Shook wasn’t in the least ashamed of his own discretion; staying the hell away from infernomancy being done was universal common sense, not cowardice. If he was a little phobic about it after having had hellcraft done at his own brain recently, well, that was deserved.
Rather than that, Shook found himself surprisingly bothered by the tense silence that stretched out while Bradshaw moved on to begin conjuring another ward against the opposite wall. He just wasn’t accustomed to awkwardness. For close to two years his whole social circle had been small and predictable: the Jackal was an intolerable pain in the ass, Vannae a diffident non-presence, Kheshiri simperingly submissive and Khadizroth beneficently able to get along with anyone. Aside from various unfortunates they’d been sent to smack around and the odd visit from a barely-tolerated authority figure such as Justinian or Syrinx, that had been it.
And before that, he’d worked with Guildmates. Thinking on it now, he actually couldn’t recall the last time he’d been stuck sharing a job with somebody he didn’t know how to talk to. What did you say to a warlock? Especially since Bradshaw, while he kept it professional on the job, had made it clear from the start that he wasn’t pleased by Shook’s very existence, much less his involvement in this project. Not that Shook was much of a social butterfly either, but even he could see that this was going to lead to trouble if they were going to be the mutual points of contact between the Wreath and what remained of the Inquisition.
Bradshaw finished his second ward and Shook perked up, hoping for an incipient end to this, but the warlock instead began casting a third. He sighed. Well, thoroughness was laudable.
“So,” Shook said aloud, looking the other way up the alley and affecting a nonchalant tone. “That Vanessa, huh? What’s her deal?”
“…deal?” The short pause didn’t bode well, but Shook pressed gamely on. In his experience there was one topic over which any two guys could always bond.
“Yeah, I mean, she’s not hard to look at, am I right?” He turned back to Bradshaw, who had his back to him. “You hittin’ that? Be a shame if somebody isn’t.”
“Ah, yes, that’s right. You have been keeping company exclusively with a succubus. I strongly advise you, Mr. Shook, to rid yourself of any habits Kheshiri taught you before attempting to talk to a real woman again. Any woman, but especially one who can hurl shadowbolts.”
Shook clenched his jaw. Then breathed in deeply, and immediately regretted it; days-old necromancy was surely one of the least pleasant things he’d ever smelled. But at least that helped serve to distract him from the surge of anger Bradshaw was trying to rile up.
“Hey, just sayin’,” he replied finally, deliberately keeping his tone mild. “No need to get all defensive, I’m not about to move in on your territory. It can’t make that much of a difference, anyhow. Trust me, I’m in a position to know: succubi may be particularly sly, but in the end those’re just female traits taken to their logical maximum.”
“Is that a fact,” Bradshaw murmured, starting on a fourth ward. How many of those damn things did he need?
“Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. Sly is your bread and butter, right? Somehow I don’t think it’s a coincidence there’s a goddess of cunning, and not a god.”
“Where’re you from, Mr. Shook?” Bradshaw asked, his tone also too light to be natural.
Shook narrowed his eyes at the warlock’s back. “What’s it to you?”
“No, wait, let me see if I can guess. The Stalwar provinces or Mathena, somewhere deep into the new frontier. Am I right?”
Breathe, deliberately…without gagging on the smell. “Oh, please, you don’t need to be a cunning warlock to piece that together. Old gnomish surname on a Stalweiss face means frontier stock. Even so, you’re only partly right. The frontiers in Mathena aren’t new. North of the elven forests, people have been pushed out toward the Golden Sea since before the Empire.”
“Ah, yes, of course. I’m revealing my bias; Bradshaw is also an old gnomish surname, after all. But in Calderaan territory, where I hail from, human settlement north of the Green Belt dates barely to the Enchanter Wars.” The warlock lowered his hands, finally, as the last ward faded from visibility, and turned around, wearing a knowing little smile which Shook didn’t like the look of. “And you, obviously, aren’t from Calderaas.”
“That obvious, huh,” he said as evenly as he could.
“You’re right, we tend to pick up sly people,” Bradshaw said lightly, folding his hands. “That’s a lot easier than recruiting idiots and teaching them to be cunning. And you know something, Mr. Shook, you’re not without a point. There is a definite gender imbalance in who tends to seek out the Wreath.”
“Well, yeah,” Shook replied, even as he braced himself for the other shoe to drop.
“Depending, of course, on where they’re from.” The warlock held his gaze, frank and un-intimidated, even verging on aggressive; this was not at all how Thumper was used to people looking at him. “And in country where Shaathist ideas are ascendant, that usually means women. The Stalrange, Mathena, Thakar, Vrandis. Funny enough, in Avenist territory it’s the opposite. We definitely get more men from Calderaas, Virdill, and Onkawa. People are pretty much people, Shook, and the way people develop depends a lot on the kinds of pressures placed on them growing up. Give people the prerogative to stomp around yelling and getting their way with little effort, and they’ll generally do exactly that. Push people aside and deny them a fair chance to participate in society, though, and they’ll not only develop a tendency to be underhanded but also harbor the kind of resentment that makes them ideal recruits for the likes of us. Or, for that matter, the Thieves’ Guild.” He tilted his head back slightly, as if to study Shook from a different vantage. “You say you find women in general to be as sly as succubi? You know what, I believe you. Even allowing for your extremely obvious biases, yes, I could see that. But that’s no reflection on women, Mr. Shook…or even the women you happen to know. It’s a reflection on the way those women were treated by whatever society produced them. Institutionalized power creates its own downfall, in the end. Brutish authority creates cunning, and resistance. Targeting groups of people for abuse creates deadly enemies. If the Pantheon and their followers were the icons of virtue they like to claim, the likes of us wouldn’t just be unnecessary; we would be impossible. And yet, here we are.”
“Huh,” Shook grunted when he finally stopped talking.
Bradshaw’s mouth twisted in a bitter half-smile. “Deeper thoughts than you’re used to, Mr. Shook? I have to wonder what you thought was going to happen here. Do you commonly find you can persuade people you barely know to embrace your prejudices?”
Breathe. Three heartbeats to inhale, three to exhale, ignore the stench. Emotions were just things; just because this guy wanted him angry didn’t mean he needed to be. In fact, it was a good reason not to be.
“Hell, I was just making conversation,” Shook said at last, and was pleased to find his own voice still light and even. “You wanna know my clever scheme? I was thinkin’, ‘this guy clearly hates my guts and we’ve gotta work together for who knows how long.’ Y’know, in normal places, Shaathist, Avenist, or what-the-hell-ever, guys can usually clear the air by chatting about chicks. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were gonna make a whole thing about it.”
Bradshaw stared at him with the expressionless facade of someone who’d just heard something he did not expect and was too self-contained to betray overt surprise.
“You can’t win a conversation, you know,” Shook said when he didn’t reply. “Everybody’s not trying to play brain chess with you. Is that how you people think all the time? Omnu’s balls, man, that sounds fuckin’ exhausting.”
“Right,” Bradshaw said dryly. “Well. I’m finished here, so unless you have something else to say…?”
“Yeah. Now you mention it, I do.” Keeping his expression flat, Shook took a step forward, bringing himself within punching range of the warlock and enjoying how the man tensed up in response. Bradshaw didn’t quite flinch when he raised his hand, but the way he froze was almost as good. Shook just patted him on the shoulder, though. “You’ve given me some shit to think about, Bradshaw. That was a perspective I did not have. So, thanks. All right, where to next?” he added, stepping back again and deliberately altering his posture to the indolent lounging stance common to Guild enforcers seeking to portray a general rather than specific threat.
“The next altar site, obviously,” Bradshaw said tonelessly. “Map, please?”
“You got it.” Shook fished it out of his pocket and handed it over with a bland smile.
This, he reflected while Bradshaw unfolded and perused the map, was fun. Weirdly, he’d never managed to get the hang of it when people had been actively trying to teach it to him, but now that the trick of it had clicked, it was amazingly satisfying to deny a confrontation to somebody who was openly fishing for one. And he hadn’t lied; Bradshaw’s philosophy on women and underhandedness was troubling and deserved some further thought. Not right at the moment, though. Shook did not have time to be pondering such things while busting necromancers in cooperation with somebody he half-suspected was planning to hex him in the back before this day’s work was done.
“All right, I know the place,” Bradshaw stated at last, folding the map again. “Off we go.”
The darkness swelled, then dissipated, and only the particulars of their surroundings changed. A filthy alley was a filthy alley, and there were only so many kinds of places where one could hide illicit dealings in a major city. He was already resigned to seeing a lot more of these today, with possibly the odd empty warehouse or condemned tenement to break up the monotony.
Both men stiffened upon arrival, however, as this alley was a lot less quiet.
It also wasn’t quite straight; they had to creep forward and peek around a corner to locate the little nook behind several buildings in which the Tide’s portal altar had been concealed. This time, someone had beaten them there. Someone who seemed to be on the same mission, to judge by the way she was busy smashing what remained of the altar with a piece of wood that looked like the headless haft of an ax or sledgehammer.
Actually, upon closer look, this individual probably wasn’t on any mission to speak of: she had matted hair trailing from her head in greasy tangles, filthy bare feet, and wore a stained and ragged dress that was more patches than fabric.
Shook and Bradshaw exchanged a resigned look. Wreath and Guild alike did a lot of their business in shady back alleys, and members of both were well-acquainted with a basic rule of urban living: do not interact with crazy street people. This time, though, it seemed unwise to let this pass without at least investigating.
Shook stepped out into the space in the leonine saunter he’d been taught in his apprentice days, keeping one hand casually tucked in his pocket. “Hey there, li’l lady. Whatcha doin’ that for?”
She spun to face him, wild-eyed, and raised the ax handle like a club. Not, he noted, like someone who’d been actually trained to wield a weapon; her stance was imbalanced and had her weight back on her heels. If she tried to swing that thing at him, he gave it even odds that she’d just fall down, and if not it would be child’s play to dodge and push her over. Luckily she was all the way across the grimy little courtyard and well out of range.
“Easy, there,” Shook said in an unimpressed tone. “No need to get all agitated. What’s your name, doll?”
The woman just stared suspiciously at him, her eyes darting to take in his suit, and then the gray-robed Bradshaw stepping into the alley behind him. Blocking her exit, as it happened. She was, Shook noticed, a fairly young woman. Might not have been bad-looking had she not been smeared with dirt and gaunt from more than a few missed meals.
“Name?” he repeated wryly, giving her a half-smile. “You got one? Most people do, I hear.”
She scowled at him, but straightened up after a moment and shifted her improvised weapon to one hand. With the other she patted the base of her throat, opening her mouth wide.
“Oh,” he said sourly. Mute, naturally. Well, street people usually had something wrong with them our they wouldn’t be on the street; just his luck the one he needed to answer questions, couldn’t. She wasn’t missing her tongue, he saw—also, not only did she have all her teeth, none of them were stained blue from glittershrooms. The girl couldn’t have been on the streets long, then. “Now, what would possess you to go whacking at that heap of evil that way? You take a stick to random piece of black magic and you’re likely to end up cursed to a greasy stain on the walls.”
She narrowed her eyes and brandished the stick again.
“No need to take that tone with the lady, Mr. Shook,” Bradshaw admonished dryly. “That’s what we came to do, after all. At least she’s spared us a little bit of work. He’s not wrong, though,” he added to the woman with the stick, who had lowered it again as he spoke. “Getting physically involved with necromancy is extremely dangerous; I don’t recommend making a habit of this. Was there some reason you felt the need?”
She grimaced almost comically, turning a look of pure disgust on the remains of the altar, and kicked away a stray bone that had fallen near her feet. Then spat on it.
“That’s surprisingly hard to argue with,” Bradshaw said, turning to Shook.
“Yeah, I gotta give her that,” he agreed. The girl, having made her point, had begun sidling toward the alley’s entrance, which the two of them were standing in. Shook gave her a thoughtful look. It was doubtful she’d seen anything, and anyhow, getting info out of her would be a giant pain in the ass. Just an unhinged homeless person who wandered into the wrong alley, most likely; that would make a workable disguise, any number of thieves had used that routine, but it wasn’t the method of this Tide or anyone else who had taken an interest in their business. He sighed, stepped out of the way so she could get by, and pulled a doubloon from his pocket, which he tossed at her. “Here. Go eat something, for fuck’s sake.”
The young woman fumbled to catch it, clearly not being the most coordinated, but once she got the coin in her grip her eyes went wide. Then, to Shook’s great discomfort, they filled with tears.
“Whoah—uh uh! No,” he said sharply, stepping back and reaching out to push her off when she ran at him, arms wide for a hug. “This is a tailored suit, you greaseball. You smell as bad as that voodoo you just smashed. Go on, get outta here. Get some lunch that’s not out of a trash pile.”
She pouted at his rebuke, but seemed to decide it was more than worth the doubloon. Pausing only to blow him a kiss, she skittered past them down the alley, actually skipping with no heed for her bare feet and the refuse-strewn floor.
“That was pointless, you know,” Bradshaw commented as she disappeared around the next corner. “There’s a reason you don’t give money to those people. She’ll most likely just buy cheap booze and shrooms.”
“Yeah,” Shook replied with a soft sigh, jamming both hands in his pockets. “Maybe I’m the asshole here, after all. Old teacher of mine used to say givin’ handouts to people like that is almost as bad as stealing from ’em; makes you feel better about yourself and doesn’t change their situation any. Oh, well, whaddayagonnado.”
“Sounds almost like Vernisite doctrine,” Bradshaw said, smiling wryly. “Charity being cruelty in disguise, and all that. Don’t let Embras hear you talking that way, he’s got a real bug up his butt about them.”
“About bankers? Can’t rightly blame a man for that. Well, anyway, I guess your plan’s bungled now; too late to leave this site intact and convince ’em we missed it. Now what?”
“According to your map, we still have thirty sites to visit; we can still lay out the pattern I described, and one anomalous spot shouldn’t make too much difference. It really was an anomaly, too; that was an unpredictable intervention if I ever saw one. Let me just lay wards again and then we’ll move on.”
He handed the map back to Shook, who accepted it silently.
A moment later, though, he turned from his perusal of the alley back to Bradshaw, frowning. The warlock was staring fixedly at a blank patch of wall, not moving to begin casting his wards.
“Something wrong?” Shook asked.
“There’s…a faint residue,” Bradshaw said slowly. “Maybe nothing important, but it’s definitely divine. Somebody used powerful divine magic here at some point not long ago. I wouldn’t think anything of it in most cases, just some nearby priest casting a blessing, but it’s odd to find in proximity to that pile of horror.”
“Hm.” Shook looked over at the wreckage of the necromantic portal altar, then back down the alley. “You don’t suppose she…”
“I really don’t. That was just some garden-variety human with no magic to speak of, or I wouldn’t have let her go. Had we the luxury of time I’d have wanted to hold and question her just for the sake of thoroughness, but we’re working on a solid strategy already, and there’s no telling how close the Tide is to activating these. We don’t even know what they’re waiting for. I don’t think we can spare a few hours to fish for what’s probably nothing. Let’s just…”
He broke off, whirling, as a tiny streak of fire zipped into the cul de sac from the alley along the ground. Shook whipped out his wand by reflex, but didn’t shoot even as the little glowing thing came to a stop, revealing itself to be a luminous read mouse-like creature almost the size of a small cat. It sat up on its haunches, emitting a series of shrill squeaks, and pointed one tiny paw accusingly at Shook. Then, just as quickly as it had come, turned and bolted back out.
“What the fuck,” Shook wondered aloud, staring after it in mystification.
“Trouble,” Bradshaw said tersely. “That was an extremely sophisticated elemental. Creatures like that don’t just wander around cities, they’re familiars of skilled witches. We need to—”
“Well, well, well. I thought I recognized that voice.”
Shook went rigid, bringing his wand up again just in time for three figures to round the corner. He ignored the two on the sides, even the reedy fellow with the red elemental rat now sitting on his shoulder; the teenage girl on the other side was even more uninteresting. His attention was fully occupied by the one in the middle. The one he knew very well, who was now regarding him with her trademark predatory smirk.
“So glad to see you, Thumper,” Grip said. “All kinds of people are interested in having a word with you.”
He allowed himself a small sigh. “Aw, shit.”