“It fits all too well,” Khadizroth murmured, narrowing his eyes to emerald slits of concentration. “In hindsight, I can only condemn myself for failing to anticipate such a development. The entire project of monitoring and interfering with Justinian from within his organization was the Jackal’s idea, and it must be said that our success has always been…limited. Evidently he decided to start over with a different set of co-conspirators.”
“Let’s be honest,” Shook said dryly, “the fact that you and not he ended up calling the shots more often than not had to’ve been at least a factor.”
“Syrinx is an odd choice of ally, considering the assassin threw away some far superior candidates in the process,” Bradshaw remarked.
“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” said Shook, deadpan.
The warlock grimaced at him. “That woman is notoriously unstable and has so grievously offended so many powerful people already that her continued survival is an affront to the laws of probability. And this, if you have not noticed, is a dragon.”
“Indeed, theirs is hardly a match made in heaven,” Khadizroth agreed. “Syrinx and the Jackal have in common that they are creatures of pure self-interest, willing to advance the goals of others only so long as they advance their own by so doing. Ultimately, that places them at permanent cross-purposes, since his goal is explicitly to thwart Justinian in tightening his control over the world, and Syrinx has burned every bridge until Justinian’s protection is the only thing keeping her alive. It is clearly a temporary union, and a reminder that we have merely gained some insight into the underlying mystery, not solved it. Well, in any case.” He turned back to Shook directly. “I am glad you succeeded in having a peaceful discussion; frankly it surprises me that you received a response this quickly, and especially that Darling would come here himself. Was there any sign of the others?”
“Nope, and when I asked about ’em, the news wasn’t great,” Shook said with a sigh. “Sweet says that group might do work for him again in the future, but aren’t formally answering to him anymore and are currently off on some personal business way out of contact. He mentioned the Golden fuckin’ Sea, so I guess we can write that possibility off. Not that it breaks my heart. I’m still not sure why you were actually hoping to get those assholes involved.”
“Our personal grievances with them notwithstanding,” Khadizroth said pensively, “Jenkins, McGraw, and Kuriwa have always evinced personal integrity and a willingness to act for the greater good. The bard and even that ridiculous gnome always seemed willing to follow their lead.”
“And let’s be honest,” Bradshaw added, “at this point we all seem to be taking it as given that we’re in no position to be picky about allies.”
Shook snorted a short laugh of agreement, while Khadizroth nodded gravely to him.
“What of those he did bring?” the dragon asked.
“Grip’s one of the Guild’s best,” Shook answered. “Or worst, depending on how you slice it. I would describe her as a fuckin’ creepy monster, and I say that as a mark of respect. They also brought his and her apprentices—three, between them, and that’s not nothing but I wouldn’t count apprentices for much.”
“I know Darling’s students quite well,” Khadizroth said softly. “Their skills are considerable, though… Well, as we have said, allies are in short supply and beggars can’t be choosers.”
“There was also a witch,” Shook added. “Salyrite kid, name of Schwartz. Looked kind of reedy and bookish, not somebody I would’ve picked for a job like this. Just from that short conversation, though, I could tell he’s got some real deadly spells under his belt, and seems to have a real mad-on for Syrinx.”
“At this point, I’d be astonished to learn that anyone doesn’t,” said Bradshaw.
“Schwartz,” Khadizroth mused. “Interesting. I glimpsed him only in passing, but during the Viridill affair he appeared to be working for Syrinx.”
“Yep, I guess that’d do it,” Shook chuckled. “Sure worked for us.”
“He was the reason they were able to find us so quickly,” Bradshaw added in a more serious tone. “He was able to track Shook based on nothing but that telescroll Bishop Snowe sent with his message. My familiarity with fae magic is only passing, but isn’t that an extremely tenuous connection on which to zero in?”
“Indeed, the boy sounds quite talented,” Khadizroth said slowly. “Now that I am reminded of Viridill, a thought occurs: that entire chain of events was instigated by the Archpope for the specific purpose of lifting Basra Syrinx out of disgrace by arranging for her to do something heroic in the eyes of the Sisterhood.”
There was a beat of silence while they processed this.
“Mother fucker,” Shook said at last.
“Succinctly put,” Khadizroth agreed with a faint smile. “It’s not as if we don’t know this Tide cult is Justinian’s creation. That may be a positive sign, in fact. While those events doubtless appeared out of control and potentially apocalyptic to onlookers, based on the response of the Empire and the Sisterhood, the truth is they were carefully orchestrated—by me, principally—to minimize collateral damage.”
“You’ll forgive me if I’m reluctant to trust the kindness of Justinian’s wizened heart,” Bradshaw snapped. “Or need I remind you what he—and Darling—did in Tiraas during the hellgate crisis?”
“And us!” Shook added helpfully.
“You need not,” Khadizroth assured him. “I merely suggest that we consider all angles and refrain from panic. And on that note, while you gentlemen were out, we have made some progress here, as well. Please, come with me; the others are waiting below, and some of this will be easier to show than to tell.”
He led them toward the stairs of Branwen’s borrowed apartment, which was sizable enough to qualify as a townhouse—at least because it had a second floor and, apparently, a basement. Khadizroth himself had not answered the front door, for obvious reasons, but Vannae had already drifted off in this direction in his discreet way after letting them in.
It wasn’t a large basement, but fortunately had come unfurnished and not storing any of the household goods which would normally clutter such a space, and so worked well enough for the purposes to which it was currently being put. Though Khadizroth bore it with his usual equanimity, Shook and Bradshaw both wrinkled their noses upon descending the steps right into the acrid smell of rot.
“What the fuck—oh, you brought one of those things here,” Shook grunted, drawing a handkerchief from within his suit to hold over his nose and mouth. “In fuck’s name, why?”
“Are you serious?” Embras Mogul asked in a mild tone. “We’re trying to figure out every detail we can about these devices and you’re confused that I’d move one to a controlled space for study? Tricky thing about you, Shook, is I’m never sure when you’re playing dumb and when it’s the genuine article.”
Shook started to breathe in slowly and immediately regretted it, but at least that paused him long enough to push aside his instinctive reaction and deliberately un-tense his shoulders. “You mean the great and wily Black Wreath is havin’ trouble figuring me out? Dear fucking diary. You managed to learn anything from that, then?”
The necromantic altar was looking a little worse for wear, set up on a pair of crates pushed together at one end of the basement; it had partially collapsed, no doubt due to a combination of being delicately constructed mostly of body parts and spare wood, and having been moved across the city. Even if done by shadow-jumping, some dishevelment was inevitable.
“A bit,” Mogul answered. “I brought this one here in case Khadizroth could extract some more detail from it than my people; we’ve got another one in a different location.”
“How did you gentlemen fare today?” Branwen asked. She actually had a bandanna wrapped around her lower face to protect against the stench. Necromancy in an enclosed space was an assault on multiple senses.
“Progress on our intended project was interrupted early on, but the day did yield fruit,” said Bradshaw. “Bishop Darling has graced Ninkabi with his presence, and brought some reinforcements. Not what I gather you were hoping, but something, at least.”
“Antonio is here?” She perked up visibly, despite the improvised mask.
“Not here,” Shook clarified. “In the city, though. In other news… You’re not gonna like this, Bishop, but Sweet and the rest of us have agreed to a…how to put this…”
“We’re back in bed with Syrinx,” Bradshaw said flatly, addressing himself to Mogul. “The short version is that with this group out from under her thumb she has no investigative ability to speak of, especially magically, and even with two Bishops we do not have access to the sheer manpower and resources it will take to clean these up, or even find them all, to say nothing of rounding up the Tide themselves.”
“You don’t need to justify it to me, Bradshaw,” Mogul said with a thoughtful expression. “It is the logical move.”
“And so Basra manages to make herself too necessary to immediately get rid of, the better to sink her claws into everyone’s business and hold on,” Branwen said, her blue eyes eloquently unhappy. “Because that is what she does. I hope I don’t need to point out that she is definitely planning to twist this whole situation toward her own benefit?”
“We’re not morons,” Shook retorted. “I mean, your Grace. Yeah, I don’t doubt she is, but that’s mutual as hell. I got the distinct impression half the people with Sweet specifically want her ass dead even more than you do, Miss Snowe. Sweet’s good at handling people, he’ll keep ’em under control, but a lot of folks here are lookin’ to take her down if they can swing it without knocking over the whole applecart.”
“Including yourself?” she asked in a tone of simple curiosity.
He shrugged. “I don’t have half the personal grudge with Syrinx I’m startin’ to get the impression everybody else does, but I know an evil bitch when I meet one. If the opportunity presents, yeah, I’d put a wandshot through her eye. Can’t really deny that somebody fuckin’ needs to already.”
She nodded once, and though it was hard to tell with the cloth over her face, he had the impression she was satisfied with that answer. “Antonio didn’t come here with you, then?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, grimacing behind his handkerchief. “The Jackal tried to whack him on the way into town and got chased off.”
Branwen’s eyebrows rose sharply. “Antonio fought off the Jackal?”
“Sweet may be more of a talker than a fighter, but he didn’t get where he is in life by bein’ easy to cut down. Point is, suspiciously soon after that, Syrinx came right to us. We got to putting some hints together, and…”
“The Jackal is still working with her,” Branwen said, her eyes widening. “Of course.”
“Damn,” Shook said approvingly. “Ain’t just a pretty face, are ya?”
She winked at him.
“So we returned here via shadow-jump,” Bradshaw finished impatiently, “so as not to lead either of them to this location. The witch was under the impression that he and you, Khadizroth, would be able to find one another given a little mutual cooperation, if you’re willing to offer it. We have a meeting place to carry an answer back to the Eserites when you have one.”
“That is sensible,” Khadizroth said, nodding. “There are many advantages to keeping these groups separate, and we can mitigate the drawbacks by actively coordinating. I will provide you a token which should enable a competent witch to find me, when you are ready to return. In the meantime, gentlemen, we should bring you up to speed on our own findings, as well.”
“It isn’t good.” Mogul’s tone was as grim as the hard line into which he set his mouth. “Examining these things closely has turned up some more spooky details, but notably not the one I was most curious about. How much do you know about hellgates, Mr. Shook?”
“Why in fuck’s name would I ever need to know anything about hellgates?”
“You mean, aside from the present situation?” Mogul shook his head. “No, sorry, your point is taken. It’s not germane knowledge for most people, luckily. See, the tricky thing about hellgates is you can’t just unilaterally pry one open. They require at least two summoners, one working from each side of the dimensional barrier. To open a hellgate, you not only need to be a pretty competent warlock—”
“Or portal mage, in theory,” Bradshaw commented.
“Yes, yes,” Mogul said irritably, “and also to be in close contact with an equally skilled demon on the other side to coordinate your efforts. That is exactly why they are rare and idiots aren’t prying more open every damn day.”
“Now, wait a second,” Shook protested. “How the hell does that work if these assholes are squirreling these thingies away in apparently every corner of the city… Oh. Yeah, I think I see the problem.”
“Yup,” Mogul drawled. “We have no idea who’s working this on the other side, or how they’re planning to do their part. Some of the possibilities are actually somewhat optimistic. For instance, if they’re deliberately casting a wider net than necessary in the hope that their demon accomplices can find some of the targets, that’d mean not all or even most of these things will actually open. Maybe not more than one.”
“Hell, are we absolutely sure these fuckwits know they can’t open a gate by themselves?” Shook asked. “What if they made a couple dozen because they don’t know why it doesn’t work and just keep trying?”
“Speculation,” said Mogul, “and, I fear, overly optimistic. Not that it’s impossible, but given what’s potentially at stake here I’m still going to plan as best I can for the worst case scenario.”
“Yeah, that’s probably smart,” Shook agreed with a sigh.
“I’m so glad you approve,” Mogul said solemnly, tipping his hat. “Because according to Khadizroth and Vannae’s ongoing efforts, the news is worse than we feared.”
“While you two were out,” said Khadizroth, “we have continued searching via magical means. We have thus observed the number of gate altars continuing to grow.”
“What?” Shook exclaimed. “More? How the fuck many of these things do these freaks need?”
“I get the impression these people don’t grasp the concept of overkill,” said Bradshaw.
“It does present a potential opportunity,” Khadizroth said, “though it also adds considerably to the legwork necessary to shut these sites down. Vannae is upstairs designing a spell we think may be able to catch them in the act of setting up a new altar. If we react fast enough, with a shadow-jumper on hand, we might be able to seize some of their personnel and extract answers more directly. I have also gained insight into the specific mechanism through which they are using necromancy to create dimensional portals, though I have yet to devise a practical use for this knowledge. In theory, with more experimentation, this may yield a method to interfere with the process on a wide scale, though that as yet eludes me.”
“What have you found?” Bradshaw asked.
“In short, they are using death itself as a vector,” Khadizroth explained. “There are several mechanisms through which death links the mortal plane with Hell. The damnation of souls rejected by Vidius, the creation and passage of Vanislaad demons—which, in fact, is how Mr. Mogul first discovered this angle, as there are elements of the incubus summoning spell worked into the basis of the apparatus. Some of the bones and tissues used in its construction are human; we think human sacrifice may be an element in their creation.”
There was a particularly gloomy pause.
“I guess,” Shook said slowly, “with Jackass whittling down the police, they’re both short on manpower and too focused on his bullshit to notice some extra folks going missing. Fuck. This has got to stop.”
“Think so, do you,” Bradshaw muttered. Shook gave him a sidelong glare, but declined to rise to the bait.
“Of course, that presents obstacles,” Branwen added. “Divine ones, specifically. Either of those avenues risks the attention of Vidius or Elilial. Well, at the very least, valkyries or Prince Vanislaas, which should amount to the same thing given what’s at stake. I am assuming, of course, that Mr. Mogul is being forthright with us on the subject of his goddess’s involvement in this.”
“Hey, say what you will about us, but the Wreath has always worked to keep the planes separate and demons on their own side,” Mogul retorted. “The kind of breach we’re potentially looking at here would rival what the Dark Lady achieved during each of the Hellwars, and since she is specifically not planning something like that, this kind of disruption would be as bad for her plans as anyone’s. My goddess doesn’t enjoy being pestered by followers who’ve failed in their tasks any more than the Pantheon’s, but during today’s work I’ve come to the conclusion I have no choice but to petition her directly for aid. I just am not sure enough that we’ve got the means to shut this down before it all activates, and… If I have to embarrass myself in front of her to avert something like this, so be it.”
“Will she help, do you think?” Khadizroth asked.
Mogul tilted his head forward so that the wide brim of his had concealed more of his face. “I can’t imagine she wouldn’t do something. But as to the form that help would take… You never can tell with gods, can you? A lot depends on what exactly is on the other side of the gate. Last I heard there was a khelminash city in this general region on the other plane, which is both good and bad. The khelminash are loyal to Elilial and will send forces to secure the site at her order. But Hell is…well, it’s hell, and since khelminash territory is the safest to be had, lots of unaligned demons will be populating any area where they live. If it was a single gate, they could secure that, no problem. But with multiple portals opening, they’ll come up against the same issue we are.”
“Not enough warm bodies to throw at the problem,” Shook muttered.
Mogul nodded silently.
“I had just come to the conclusion that I’d better take this to the Imperial and city authorities,” Branwen said with a sigh. “Farfetched as it is, I am still a Bishop of the Universal Church. They cannot simply brush me off.”
“Syrinx is already doing exactly that,” said Shook. “Might be best to let her handle it, your Grace.”
She gave him an extremely level look.
“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” he said, raising the hand not holding his kerchief in place in a gesture of surrender. “Nobody’s saying she’s not a twisted, sadistic fuck who deserves a knife in the neck. But speaking as another one of those, you gotta give us credit for the particular things we’re actually good at. Syrinx is probably a better choice for haranguing people into action when they don’t want to go, and her position with the Church is more martial than yours. Or any Izarite’s, no offense.”
“I hardly take offense at that,” Branwen murmured. “I mislike putting Basra in a key position, is all.”
“Don’t blame you,” he agreed. “But we are bumpin’ up against shit out of options here. Hey, you know your strengths better than me; do what you think is best. I’m just offerin’ my thoughts.”
“Worth considering, I guess,” Mogul commented. “You ready for the worst news yet?”
“There’s more?” Shook groaned. “Fuck. Well, don’t keep us in suspense.”
“What we have not managed to find in this altar or the other one is an activation mechanism,” said Khadizroth before Mogul could answer. “They are functionally operational as is. Well, the intact ones; there will be no demons out of this one, or those you have already disrupted. Once set up, they are simply waiting for activation, which evidently will have to come from the other side.”
“So,” Shook said slowly, “you’re telling me that since we don’t know what the fuck is going on in Hell, these things could pop open and start spraying murder-crazy demons at literally any moment?”
“Too much fatalism is as bad as too much optimism,” Mogul cautioned. “Remember, the issue is we don’t know what’s happening in Hell, yet. I’d advise against making extreme predictions in either direction. The fact it hasn’t started already strongly indicates there’s something holding back the activation of the gates.”
“So you’re telling me,” Shook repeated more loudly, “these things could start spraying demons at literally any moment?”
Mogul hesitated, then nodded once. “Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m telling you.”
Shook dragged a hand roughly down his face. “Fuck.”
“Soooo,” Bradshaw said, “I gather we should rendezvous again with Darling and his coterie? If they’re going to be useful, it sounds as if this is all information they will need.”
“I’d like to come with you,” Branwen said, stepping forward. Khadizroth looked over at her, then nodded slowly.
“Then let us all pray our fortunes improve quickly,” the dragon said, “but pray while continuing to work. The gods help those who help themselves.”
“Hey, you’re talking to a thief,” Shook said, grinning. “Helping myself is my strong suit.”