The fully detailed model of Ninkabi, from minarets to canyon depths, hovered in the center of Mortimer Agasti’s study, wrought of pale orange light that was too steady to truly resemble fire, though the dozens of points of purple light scattered throughout it did flicker and pulse. At a gesture from Xyraadi, the model began to slowly rotate in place, giving them all a view of the miniature city from every angle.
“Of course,” Xyraadi said after a weighted pause, “I will have to jump to one of these to be sure, but I can find no error in my analysis of the spells. Mortimer?”
“No, your work is perfect,” the old laywer said, slowly shaking his head, eyes fixed on the model. “I understand why you were confused at first; it’s not like any other portal spell I’ve ever seen. Clearly unconventional methods. But ultimately the effect of a dimensional warp is obvious. The only natural parallel is the gravitational field of the earth itself, or the sun. None of these have found a matching indentation on the other side and so can’t bridge the dimensional barrier, yet, but what they are is unmistakeable. Gods be merciful,” he added in a near whisper. “There must be almost forty of them.”
“According to Kheshiri,” said Natchua, “this is most likely the work of a shadow cult called the Tide, surreptitiously orchestrated by Archpope Justinian. She has a theory about what those actually are.”
All three warlocks turned to look at the succubus, who smiled as if pleased by the attention.
“I still don’t think the intention is to open any actual hellgates,” she said. “Mind you, it is just a theory, but I’m confident in my reasoning. Have I ever told you, Mistress, about the Belosiphon affair?”
Agasti straightened up, his eyebrows drawing together in consternation. “Did you say Belosiphon?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied with relish, her tail beginning to sway. “In point of fact, his skull. Justinian sent me and the rest of his little adventuring party to retrieve it from its resting place up in the Badlands, and quite deftly manipulated Bishop Darling into doing likewise with a rival team he was financing. There was a lot of guerrilla-style back-and-forth, and though I missed out on the final showdown, I understand it was quite the spectacle. Flattened most of a town.”
“Are you saying the Archpope has his hands on the skull of Belosiphon the Black?” Agasti demanded.
“Oh, yes, but as it turns out, he always did, it was never seriously contested, and that is my point. The damn thing was in Veilgrad the whole time—that was why it had that chaos crisis—and he was just using the oracular portent that business kicked off to test two groups of fighters against each other to see how we performed, possibly thin our numbers a bit, and experiment with how well he could plant information to lead Darling on a mockingjay hunt. That is what Justinian does.”
“You suspect these gates are a ruse,” Agasti said thoughtfully.
She nodded. “Justinian likes to control every detail from behind the scenes. A demon invasion is something he couldn’t possibly control. But the appearance that one might be imminent? I mean, Xyraadi may be an exceptional warlock, but she detected this from the other side of the Empire. Others must have spotted it, not least the Inquisition, who are specifically looking. Having the Tide create a credible threat and manipulating several rival factions to move in and destroy them, and probably ‘accidentally’ erase any trace that could link the Tide directly to him? Now, that would be a classic Justinian plan.”
“I see,” he murmured. “Well. Your reasoning seems consistent, but considering the potential stakes, I am not inclined to dismiss the possibility of at least some of these gates being activated.”
“Especially not at the word of a succubus?” she retorted with a wry smirk.
“Correct,” Agasti replied, unfazed. “Also, a person does not attain and hold a position like Archpope while pulling off the sort of schemes you describe by being predictable. Trust me, I speak as an old man who has avoided the long list of people who’ve wanted to knock me down a peg for a good few decades. Never assume a clever man will continue doing the same things he’s done before. Often enough, the point of establishing a pattern is purely to feint one’s enemies into a misstep.”
“True enough,” she conceded lightly. Natchua glanced sidelong at the succubus, noting the surge of sheer irritation that pulsed through her aura. That particular emotion could be in response to any number of things; without having insight into Kheshiri’s actual thoughts, it didn’t reveal much.
“Then the only obvious course I can see is to shadow-jump to each of these sites and try to destroy the portals, one at a time,” Xyraadi said, frowning. “With so few of us, that may be…impractical.”
“Not least because somebody is skulking about in alleys making these things,” Natchua added. “I’m confident you or I are more than a match for whatever bargain-basement warlockery is at play, here, but getting into a magical fight with any rival infernomancer raises its own risks. I doubt very much that you would be able to talk your way out of being apprehended by cult or Imperial personnel, Xyraadi.”
“By the same token, it’s not as if we can report this to the authorities,” the khelminash replied.
Kheshiri cleared her throat. “Cut off the head, and the serpent dies. I can tell you where Syrinx and my old crew are hiding out. They may have gathered more intelligence in the last couple of days, maybe even on where this group is based.”
“What would you say are the odds of that?” Natchua asked.
The succubus smiled, an expression full of malicious amusement. “Frankly, slim. Syrinx is a cornered animal and the rest are alternately falling apart from internal pressure and busy playing political games between Syrinx and Snowe.”
“If we are willing to risk a fight,” said Xyraadi, “apprehending one of the cultists creating these portals could yield results.”
“Unlikely,” Kheshiri retorted. “The Tide in Tiraas weren’t much for talking. The shadow-jumping leaders were a little more coherent but the lot of them were dosed up with something that kept them almost pathologically focused.”
“Well, we have to do something!” Natchua exclaimed.
Agasti inhaled slowly through his nose, staring at the model of the city with both hands clasped atop the crystal head of his cane. He let out the indrawn breath in a single muffled burst of a sigh.
“There is already a hellgate in Ninkabi.”
All three turned to stare at him.
“Excuse me, did you say in?” Natchua asked. “That can’t— Cities have been abandoned due to having one of those too close, let alone inside the walls!”
“This is a secret of the highest order,” he said solemnly, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “One of those secrets kept in part because it is so old. And that, as it happens, is how I happened upon it. My rather unique career has led me to comb through suppressed and nearly forgotten archives of lore with a particular bent for anything pertaining to infernomancy as it is dealt with in history and law. N’Jendo has a long-abandoned but very interesting historical association with the warlock’s craft that almost no one knows about anymore. But yes, Natchua, this gate is within the city proper—and in fact, is part of the reason there is a city here. You may have noticed that ‘across a pair of canyons’ is an odd and awkward place to build a metropolis.”
“Go on,” she said warily.
“Centuries ago,” Agasti narrated, his gaze growing unfocused, “N’Jendo was a land pressed on all sides by enemies. The orcs regularly attacked in force from Athan’Khar, Tidestriders raided from the coasts, there were constant border skirmishes with the tribes in Thakar, and even the Deep Wild occasionally coughed up some fairy madness. Occasional help came through the passes from Viridill, but the Sisterhood then was also pressured by Athan’Khar and Tar’naris, and even the Tira Valley in those days was a morass of warring city-states that demanded their attention. Our distant ancestors turned to dark bargains and desperate measures to protect themselves. In small ways at first, but as the early, careful warlocks met with some success, they eventually moved on to creating a gate, deep within an island plateau separated from the rest of the land by the river canyons. A fortress-temple complex was erected over it, and then, given its secure location, the local amenities necessary to service something like that. Then teaching and training facilities to which other tribes would send warriors and magicians…” He smiled humorlessly, still staring at the floating model without seeming to really see it. “The actual tribal dialect is long extinct, but in my research I encountered mention that the name Ninkabi originally meant something like ‘necropolis.’”
“City of death,” said Kheshiri. “I like it!”
“Of course you do,” Natchua muttered.
Agasti sighed again, and lifted his head, meeting Natchua’s eyes. “Well, I’m sure the full history was very interesting; even the surviving fragments I was able to dig up were quite the ride. But it’s not germane to our concerns, so I’ll summarize, and I suspect you can guess how it goes anyway. The ancient Jendi initially had great success in destroying their enemies; that is the lion’s share of what infernomancy is good for, after all. And then, once it was good and too late, they began to learn the costs. The resolution involved an entire crusade from Viridill, with concurrent missions by the Omnists up in Onkawa. Of course, as you’re aware, an established hellgate cannot simply be closed, and it was decided that trying to seal off and bury the portal would lead to disaster, positioned as it was in a highly defensible position that a demon horde would love to get their claws on. The fortress complex remained inhabited and used, and eventually, the same process occurred; the devastated city was rebuilt in order to provide for its needs. And ultimately, as the secret of what was hidden under it was deliberately suppressed, it evolved into a typical modern city, albeit one with somewhat fanciful architecture owing to its position.”
“I don’t see how something like that could be forgotten, even if established powers tried to make it so,” Xyraadi protested. “Minor hellgates can often be dismissed with a cursory watch, if they are not easily accessible from the other side, but something like what you describe? If factions in Hell knew there was a valuable position on the mortal end they would never cease pressing to retake it. The Sisterhood would practically have to establish a permanent war front around it.”
“In this case,” he said, “the gate itself was…plugged, somehow, by the then Hand of Salyrene. I have not been able to find any record of the method used, and believe me, I looked. Alas, my investigations were hampered by the need not to tip off the Nemitites what I was digging up. In the course of my career I have several times found it necessary not to reveal how much I know; being aware of certain dangerous secrets would give certain entrenched powers the excuse they’ve longed for to land on me. But yes, the gate is…not sealed, I don’t think, but subject to some magical effect that prevents it being a prospect from the other side. Apparently something that required that singularly powerful spellcaster to accomplish, as it hasn’t become standard practice in shutting down hellgates elsewhere. And even so, the site is not buried or abandoned. Its oversight was jointly administered by secretive elements within the Avenist and Salyrite cults. The most recent documentation I found of the gate’s existence was from nearly three hundred years ago, when its administration was handed off to the Universal Church.” He hesitated. “That was when Ninkabi’s central cathedral was built.”
“Oh, let me guess,” Natchua groaned.
Agasti nodded. “Right on top of it.”
“Hmm hm humm hm hmmmm,” Kheshiri murmured, half-stifling a grin by chewing on her lower lip. “You know, just for the sake of argument, if I were going to train and house a super-secret cabal of drugged-up disposable shock troops who know some basic infernomancy, an ancient hidden underground fortress around a secured hellgate would be—”
“Yes, we get it, thank you,” Natchua snapped. “Well, great. That sounds like an incredibly promising lead, but what the hell are we going to do about it? It’s not like any of us can even walk into a Universal Church cathedral, much less root around in its basement looking for a secret and no doubt heavily fortified door to Hell. Something like that would be as close to warlock-proof as anything in the world could possibly be.”
“We are back to needing allies,” said Xyraadi.
“Well, there’s the Inquisition,” said Kheshiri, “but in my opinion that would be a major roll of the dice. Khadizroth and the gang would move on such a facility if they could, but Syrinx is working for Justinian, after all. And I strongly suspect the purpose of putting her in charge of that group is to see how many of them die as a result. I wouldn’t swear she’s actually assigned to do what she claims to be, and I definitely would not assume she’s interested in doing what Justinian wants rather than using him as a cover for her own antics.”
Natchua absently dragged her fingers through her hair, turning away to begin pacing in thought. “Nobody in any position of authority would listen to us. Mortimer, surely you have connections in the government?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “A fellow in my position could never survive without them. But those are strings not easily pulled. It would take some doing to get any action initiated—and more importantly, time.” He turned his eyes back to the model of Ninkabi, with its dozens of incipient hellgate sites flickering angrily. “I hesitate to assume we have enough time. Unfortunately I don’t have a better idea.”
“I don’t suppose you happen to know of an ancient secret back way into this hidden fortress?” Kheshiri chirped. Agasti just gave her a sardonic look.
“Merde alors,” Xyraadi said with a heavy sigh. “All right… Natchua, you are either going to like this very much or not in the least little bit. I know just who we can call on for help.”
The safehouse wasn’t much less tense for being less crowded. After Bradshaw had shadow-jumped back to Branwen’s Izarite-supplied borrowed residence with Schwartz, Grip, and Jenell in tow, another Wreath agent had been dispatched to serve as the point of contact with the Eserite holdout. Vanessa was less overtly displeased to be there than Bradshaw had been, but she elevated aloofness to an art form, blithely rebuffing even Branwen’s attempts to strike up a conversation. The warlock simply lounged in the most comfortable chair in the front room of the townhouse, reading a penny dreadful and seemingly ignoring the rest of them.
Flora and Fauna lurked in the same room, ostensibly keeping a surreptitious watch out the front windows but making no real effort to conceal that they were taking turns keeping an eye on Vanessa, who continued to ignore them. Shook paced through the house’s rooms and corridors very much like the caged animal he felt like. Branwen, after striking out with Vanessa, had set herself up in the kitchen and begun baking cookies, of all things, filling the room with soft humming and the clatter of utensils against mixing bowls. Sweet just wandered about with a lot less nervous energy than Shook, making idle chitchat with whoever was nearby and even including Vanessa in some of his jokes. She ignored that, too.
There had been a brief period in the early afternoon when it was quiet in the townhouse, as Sweet and his apprentices had gone to the local Guild headquarters to bring the Underboss up to speed on the situation and Shook had hidden himself in a bedroom, disliking Vanessa’s chilly company and not trusting Branwen to make small talk without adding layers of skillful manipulation which he knew himself ill-equipped to outwit.
Now, though, the tension was beginning to simmer, and neither Branwen’s homey act nor Sweet’s lighthearted banter were doing much to diminish it. Any time they were in proximity, the mutual dislike between Shook, Vanessa, and the two elves was like a tangible weight in the air, not lessened by their refusal to engage in overt backbiting.
It was a combination of desperation and boredom that drove Shook to meander over next to Vanessa’s chair and speak to her. “Can I ask you a question?”
She looked up from her book at him and raised one eyebrow, and already that was not going the way he’d expected. The woman had given Branwen a single snide comment and Sweet a couple of disinterested grunts before ceasing to react to them at all; he had honestly not anticipated any response.
“No,” she said evenly before he could speak again, “I will not retrieve your succubus for you.”
Shook grimaced reflexively at the very unpleasant mix of emotions that idea brought up. Unpleasant not least because a part of him still desperately wanted Kheshiri, and no amount of knowing better and despising his own weakness made that little whining voice shut up.
“That is absolutely the last thing I want, thanks,” he said quickly.
“No, I will not summon you another succubus.”
“I don’t want a fucking succubus!” he exclaimed. “I’m lucky I survived the last one!”
“No,” she drawled, “I will not go to bed with you.”
He paused, closed his eyes for a moment, and deliberately breathed in and out. “Look, lady, if the answer is ‘fuck off, I don’t wanna talk to you,’ that’s fine. Understandable, even. You can just say so, no need to make a production of it.”
She stared at him inscrutably for two more heartbeats, and then, to his surprise, closed her book. “What’s on your mind, Thumper?”
Well, shit, he hadn’t actually thought this conversation would be allowed to happen. Shook straightened his lapels unnecessarily, hating himself for being nervous and awkward like some damn teenage virgin, but having come this far he wasn’t about to compound his weakness by running away.
“Hypothetically,” he said, looking at the front window rather than her face, “as a woman, I mean… If some guy had been, uh, checkin’ you out and you didn’t really appreciate it, would… I mean, if you hadn’t even noticed. Would you feel better if he apologized, or wouldja rather just not know?”
The silence stretched out. A moment later, Shook had to look away from the window because the two elves stationed there had turned to stare incredulously at him. He brought his gaze back to Vanessa’s face, which he found chillingly devoid of expression.
She let the awkwardness hang for another handful of seconds before speaking.
“Are you drunk?”
“I wish,” he muttered. “Sorry to bother you.”
Shook jammed his hands in his pockets and turned to retreat. To his chagrin, Sweet was now in the room, standing just inside the door from the kitchen munching on one of Branwen’s fresh cookies. He was holding another, which he offered as Shook slouched over to join him.
“Thanks,” he muttered, accepting it. Still warm; Shook didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, but you couldn’t turn down fresh homemade cookies right out of the oven. “Y’know, talking to women is a lot easier when it doesn’t matter what they think.”
Flora and Fauna both turned to look at him again; he’d kept his voice deliberately low, but they were elves. Shook hid his expression behind a big bite of cookie. It was some kind of citrus and spice confection, surprisingly delicious. He couldn’t decide whether it was incongruous or incredibly appropriate that Branwen Snowe could make great desserts.
Sweet shrugged and swallowed the bite he was chewing. “You do realize where you’re getting tripped up is thinking that talking to women isn’t exactly like talking to everyone else.”
Shook pondered that while chewing. He finally swallowed, then nodded. “Yeah, that tracks. With that in mind, I stand by my observation.”
A faint smile of amusement flickered across Sweet’s mouth. “Still an enforcer at heart.”
“Yup.” Shook nodded slowly, staring at the front door but not really seeing it. “And will be til I die.”
Sweet studied him sidelong, nibbling a bit more of his cookie before speaking again. “Apropos of nothing, Thumper, when you were last hanging out with Khadizroth, did he do any significant magic at you?”
“Oh, anything,” he said, shrugging. “Just curious.”
“Well…” Shook hesitated, but couldn’t see any reason to dissemble. “There was that night right after I was attacked and lost the reliquary. He used fae magic on me for cleansing, which I figure’s a damn good deal when you’ve been fucked up by warlock shit.”
Vanessa glanced at him sidelong before returning to her book.
“And,” Shook added, frowning in recollection, “I think after that… Yeah, he did a little something to help me sleep. I was pretty worked up, which I think is understandable. K gave me some mojo for calm and rest.”
“I see,” Sweet mused.
Shook frowned at him. “But seriously, why do you ask?”
“Well… When somebody’s had powerful fae magic done at ‘em and then starts showing surprisingly rapid shifts in—”
“Hey, Sweet,” Flora interrupted, turning from the window, “I think we’ve got trouble.”
Sweet immediately straightened and strode across to them; Vanessa set down her book, watching. “What kind of trouble?” the Bishop asked.
Fauna had leaned over to press her ear against the curtained window; Flora took a step away, speaking just quietly enough to be plainly heard. “Large groups of people moving into the buildings opposite us, and both sides of the street out of view of the windows. We figured that was the troops Syrinx was going to bring us… But then, they started talking.”
“It is the troops Syrinx was bringing,” Fauna reported. “Local police, Imperial Army, Holy Legion. She went all out. And…the officers are giving last-minute orders to take this place by force.”
Vanessa shot to her feet, tossing the book aside. “Exactly how much can elves hear?”
“It’s less about what sounds they can detect than how well they can pick out individual noises from the background, especially in a city,” Sweet said, apparently calmly. “You sure, girls?”
“It’s a bit garbled at this distance,” Flora replied. “But…”
“Yeah,” Fauna said, turning from the window to give him a grim look. “We’re sure. They’re primed to storm a Wreath stronghold, specifically.”
“Oh, look,” Branwen said bitterly from the doorway behind him. “Basra helped.”
“Yep,” Sweet chuckled. “That was a bad call on my part. Well, ladies, battle stations, if you please.”
Flora grabbed the fairy lamp fixture by the door and yanked it sideways, causing a loud THUNK to echo through the room as heavy bars hidden in the door frame slid out from above and below into slots in the steel-reinforced door itself, securing it in place. Fauna gave the curtain cord two short tugs and then a carefully measured three-second pull, and a low hum of arcane magic rose in the room, shielding charms in the window frames buzzing to life to reinforce the glass.
A Guild safehouse’s defenses were designed along a “don’t see” philosophy; with the door and window precautions engaged, the fastest way in would be to break down unguarded sections of the walls. Nearly all attackers would waste time trying to force open what were usually the weakest parts of a house’s outer walls.
“Don’t beat yourself up, Sweet,” said Shook. “Your decision made sense at the time. I thought so, and I’m otherwise totally down for the ‘kill Syrinx’ plan.”
“Of course it did,” Branwen said wearily. “This is what she does. In the moment, in that situation, while she was being calm and controlled and her skills were useful, it made perfect sense to let her help. And then this happens.”
“Well, spilled milk,” Sweet said cheerfully. “Vanessa, how many people can you shadow-jump at a time?”
Vanessa was already frowning heavily. “I…can’t, Darling. My shadow-jumping is blocked. That requires some major magical intervention.”
“Why, Basra, you sly minx,” he murmured. “That’s it, I’m definitely killing her next time I have eyes on her, I don’t care if it’s in a room with Justinian himself. But that’s then; this is now! Any measures that block shadow-jumping are pretty targeted, as the large-scale ones like we used in Tiraas a couple years back tend to draw a lot of attention. We just need to get you some distance from this spot. Come along, folks!”
“You want to…hide in the basement?” Vanessa asked warily, even as she trooped along in his wake with everyone else down the kitchen stairs.
“Don’t forget, this is a Thieves’ Guild safehouse!” Sweet replied, still with evident good humor. “Just let me…ah, I believe this is it.”
In the wine cellar, he crossed directly to the far wall, flicked a small fairy lamp on and then back off, and pulled one dusty bottle off a rack.
Immediately, the section of brick wall to which the rack was attached slid backward with a low rumble, leaving a dark gap with another staircase descending into the unknown.
“How did you know that?” Branwen exclaimed. “How much time do you spend in this city, Antonio?”
“Some features are standardized up to a point,” he said, winking. “Come along, down we go. It’ll take them a while to get into the house once they’re ready to move, so we should have a bit of a head start. By the by, on that subject, I don’t suppose any of you happen to hail originally from Ninkabi?”
“Are you serious?” Shook demanded. “Sweet, you’re talkin’ to two elves and the four palest people on this side a’ the mountains.”
“Hey, you never know! We’re all one big happy Empire, after all. I suppose,” he added wryly, “that means none of you happen to know your way around the tunnel system under this city.”
They all stared at him in silence.
From above there came a percussive crash as a lightning weapon was fired at the heavily reinforced front door.
“Welp!” Sweet said brightly, ducking into the tunnel, “I guess this’ll be an adventure.”