All posts by D. D. Webb

About D. D. Webb

D. D. Webb is a highly suspicious character who is widely believed to be up to no good. Currently residing in Portland, Oregon, he is the author of one novel, Rowena's Rescue, and the ongoing epic fantasy webserial The Gods are Bastards.

15 – 19

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“Don’t make that face, I’m not saying anything about what any other woman can or should do. Everybody has a perfect right to be angry when some fool is leering.” Ruda pressed a hand to her chest, trying to put on a solemn expression through which a mischievous grin kept cracking. “All I’m saying is that I, for my money, don’t mind it.”

“If your next comment is that it’s actually a compliment…”

“Oh, bullshit, gross dudes are gross and we all know it. I’m a pragmatist above all, is my point, and I’ve noticed men are easily distracted. Especially the dumb ones who cause trouble. If some goon is starin’ at my bajongulars, he’s probably not doing anything I’ll actually need to put a stop to.”

Trissiny heaved a deep sigh. “Ruda, what did we discuss about you making up horrible new slang?”

“Hmm.” Ruda screwed up her face and tapped at her lips with a finger in a decent imitation of Tellwyrn. “Didn’t we decide you were a big ol’ stick in the mud?”

“Yeah, that sounds familiar.”

Now it was Ruda who side-eyed her roommate for a moment before returning her attention to the rocky trail up the mountainside. “Y’know, I’m not sure I like this new and improved you. Used to be I could make you all huffy and frustrated with just a comment. It was reliable, cheap entertainment.”

“The Thieves’ Guild, ladies and gentlemen,” Trissiny said airily. “Ruining your fun for eight thousand years.”

“Yeah, well, don’t get cocky, Shiny Boots. I bet I can still make you stammer and blush. Let’s see, wasn’t I at one point about to describe all the stuff I’m pretty sure Prince Sekandar wants to do with your legs and a crock of butter?”

“For somebody who cares so much about being the baddest girl in the party, it’s awfully bold for you to set up situations that end with me kicking your ass.”

Ruda actually stumbled.

“Wow, I see what you mean!” Fross chimed. “Trissiny never used to win these arguments.”

“Nobody won nothin’!” Ruda barked. “There was a rock! I’m still in this!”

“Sometimes, Ruda,” Shaeine said, projecting serenity like a cloud of perfume, “the only remaining victory is to bear defeat with the utmost grace.”

Ruda half-turned to squint irritably at her, risking another stumble on the uneven path. “You’re just taking advantage of the fact I won’t sucker-punch the most phlegmatic member of the group.”

“And thus my point is proven,” Shaeine said with a beatific smile.

“Shut up, Arquin,” Ruda grumbled, turning her back on the group and in particular his gales of laughter.

Trissiny, smiling, veered over and bumped her roommate lightly with her shoulder. Ruda jostled her back, and then they carried on in silence.

“I’m pretty sure we’re just about there,” said Toby, pointing. “Or is that merely a…random patch of forest in the middle of the mountains?”

Their guides said they were making excellent time through the crags of the Wyrnrange, which meant they should reach their destination at some point today. Evidently the mountains in general had been much quieter since the Conclave of the Winds had formed, but the paths leading to the Desolate Gardens were usually left alone by dragons. According to their guides, that was more out of respect for Ampophrenon the Gold, who led the Order of the Light that maintained the Gardens, than for any pilgrims who wanted to visit. Now, up ahead, a crown of greenery was suddenly visible peeking out from behind a jagged promontory.

“That’s no mere forest,” Sister Elaine replied, giving him a smile. The more personable of the two Order guides sent to escort them, she had mostly taken over interacting with the students while her counterpart, Brother Toraldt, had grown quieter all through the first day and had not actually spoken to them since they broke camp that morning. The dwarf had a very formal way of conducting himself and appeared put off by the banter and general tomfoolery which prevailed among a party that included all three living paladins. Elaine, a human woman who had the broad shoulders of a Legionnaire and clearly was not discomfited after a two-day mountain hike despite her lined face and mostly gray hair, was more laid back in temperament, as she demonstrated again by playing tour guide. “We are, indeed, on the final leg of this journey. What you see is the Great Tree itself, the only known offshoot of the World Tree which is hidden in the Deep Wild. In fact, I believe it is the physical evidence of Naiya’s only contribution to the well-being of mortal people. She sent this sapling in the custody of the dryad Rowan to permanently seal the breach where the great hellgate had been. The Great Tree grows out of what was once the most tainted spot upon this earth, and today is one of the most sacred.”

“I’ve been really looking forward to seeing this,” Juniper said pensively, her eyes fixed on the distant tree’s canopy. Despite the distraction, she seemed to have no trouble finding her footing upon the trail, loose scree and all. Juniper’s very gait had shifted over the summer; she had begun to step softly and deliberately, as if every step was a meditative act. At least, sometimes she did. When caught up in conversation or other distractions the dryad often slipped back into old habits.

“All that is one tree?” Gabriel said, craning his neck to peer upward, and then stumbling over a rock. “Wait, how close are we exactly?”

“That is one tree, Gabriel,” Elaine replied. “It’s not called the Great Tree for nothing, after all. And we are, in fact, not all that close. I’ve not taken a yardstick to it myself, obviously, but I’ve heard it said that the Great Tree doubles the height of the mountain upon which it stands.”

The procession continued more quietly up the last few miles of mountain pass, as the afternoon wore on and even until, finally, the sky began to redden subtly over the peaks to the west. Though they did talk, off and on, the students spent more of their time occupied in peeking around the twists of the ancient trail at the looming tree ahead, when they weren’t concentrating on where to put their feet. At any rate, the joking trailed off considerably, to the point that even Toraldt’s expression grew less disapproving.

He and Elaine remained up in the front, with Ruda and Trissiny alternately abreast of and right behind them, depending upon how wide a given stretch of the trail was. The rest of the students trailed along after, with Principia and Merry bringing up the rear, the latter sweating and somewhat out of breath. Legion physical standards notwithstanding, of the two of them climbing mountains in full armor, only one had elvish stamina.

They could see long before reaching its base that the Great Tree was well-named.

It was believable that it added the height again of the very mountain upon which it stood; very much like a mountain, it spread outward both above and below to form a solid base, its truly titanic root system seeming to thread over a space much wider than the mountain peak. By the time they passed around the final plateau which stood between them and their destination they were already beneath the outermost spread of the Tree’s leaves, and had long since begun to pass by the root system itself.

In fact, on the very last leg of their journey, they found themselves walking between a cliff wall on one side and the bulk of a huge root on the other. The root itself was practically a cliff in dimensions, arcing away to a height on their left that was above the crowns of some lesser trees could reach. Moreover, as they drew fully in sight of the Great Tree’s trunk and base, the path actually shifted until it was upon the root itself, at first partially and then entirely. An L-shaped divot had been cut out of the living wood, leaving a wall to one side and floor beneath, and making the transition seamless. Easier, in fact, as the bark provided good footing and there was no more loose scree upon which to stumble.

“Wait,” Juniper said suddenly, stopping and reaching over to run her fingers slowly along the rough surface of the root wall. “This…wasn’t cut.”

“The Great Tree gives us many blessings,” Elaine said with a smile. “The Order has never had to take an ax to her; the very idea would be abhorrent. She had obligingly grown in patterns that aid us in protecting the sanctity of this place.”

“So the tree did this voluntarily?” Ruda prodded the root with her toe. “Huh. Um, exactly how smart is this thing?”

“I understand you have journeyed both into the Crawl and the Golden Sea?” Elaine asked.

“We have,” Toby replied when no one else did after a pause.

“Then this will be familiar to you,” she said, still smiling. “The Tree does have an intelligence of her own, but a very…diffuse one. In ordinary circumstances, one does not communicate or connect with her at all. And when people have, they described the communion as quite unfathomable. Like talking to someone lightly asleep but still oddly reactive.”

“Sort of like a god,” Trissiny murmured.

That proved too much for Toraldt. “I would hardly suggest that a god of the Pantheon might have so unfocused an intelligence, General Avelea,” he said disapprovingly.

She turned to him with a deliberately mild expression. “It depends a lot upon the circumstances in which one meets them. I am speaking from experience. How many gods have you met, Brother?”

“We had a pretty interesting summer,” Gabriel added, grinning.

Toraldt frowned deeply, but he seemed more puzzled than annoyed; at any rate, he made no further comment.

“Well!” Sister Elaine cleared her throat. “On we go, then.”

The rest of their path was entirely along the conveniently flat surface of massive roots, first upon the one laid down in the canyon trail, and then climbing another which formed a neat bridge up to another plateau that afforded a splendid view of the Great Tree itself. This was clearly the main organizational center of the Desolate Gardens; the root-bridge deposited them in a broad square abutting the edge of the plateau upon one side, with a tall fountain in its center and a ring of weathered stone structures on the other edge. The group gave all that little attention, though, spreading out as soon as they had the room and turning to stare at the Tree which reared up on another flattened peak in the near distance.

Its height was difficult to guess at a glance, simply because they lacked a mental frame of reference for a tree that huge. The trunk rose directly behind the ruins of some ancient castle of black volcanic stone, now half-crumbled and seemingly held up as much by the colossal root system bracing it as by any engineering of its own.

“The Tree herself stands exactly where the Mouth once was,” Elaine said, stepping forward to one end of the line in which they arranged themselves to gaze out at the view. “Or at least, that is where she was planted. Ever since, she has grown in a shape to preserve that fortress; even her trunk itself expanded only toward the other side, to leave clear the space in what was once the courtyard. That is why the trunk seems oddly flat from this angle. Now, you may be assured this place is entirely free of infernal taint, but once upon a time, that fortress was raised by the legions of Hell itself, at Elilial’s own command. It was the citadel and first staging area from which the Third Hellwar was launched. The final battle occurred here, beginning in this very spot: this is the plateau where Lord Ampophrenon marshaled his forces for the last attack. In that courtyard he and those of his allies who survived the engagement confronted Elilial herself, and bargained with the lives of her own captured daughters to ensure her surrender and departure from this world, and the closure of the Mouth. The mortal hosts were not foolish enough to trust in her word alone to keep the gateway shut, of course. It was a rare time of cooperation, when humans, elves, and dwarves all lent their craft to the sanctification of this place, culminating in Rowan’s visit and the planting of the Great Tree. And there she stands to this day, making of what was once the world’s very center of corruption a place, now, of peace and purity.”

Silence fell after she finished speaking, though it held for only a few seconds.

Teal turned toward Shaeine, and the two exchanged a silent look laden with meaning. Teal took the drow’s hand and gently squeezed, then slowly shifted. As usual, Vadrieny rose to stand half a foot taller upon her colossal talons. Shaeine’s slender fingers looked even more delicate, wrapped around those huge black claws, but the archdemon only gave them another, impossibly gentle squeeze, then just as gently released her.

Then she spread her huge wingspan and launched herself skyward. In seconds she had soared away, arcing up and then down into the ruined courtyard of the ancient fortress, where she was lost to sight behind the roots and walls.

“Oh. Oh, dear,” Toraldt fretted. “I’m not sure that’s…”

“Vadrieny is a friend,” said Trissiny. “Now.”

“Can someone truly still be a person they once were, if they have no memory of it?” Juniper asked, staring after Vadrieny and absently scratching the crest of feathers atop Sniff’s head. “Choices make us who we are. As terrible as it must be to lose all of yours, it does mean you can become someone entirely new.”

“What do you think?” Toby asked quietly, stepping up next to Shaeine as she stooped to pick up F’thaan, who was yipping at the distant tree in agitation after Vadrieny’s departure. “Would she prefer to be alone?”

“They need to face this with only one another,” Shaeine said, stroking the little hellhound’s head until he quieted. “But…only for a time. I think that by the time I can reach them on foot, they’ll both want the company of family.”

“You’re going alone, then?” Trissiny asked.

Shaeine turned, her garnet-colored eyes darting across the group. Uncharacteristically, her white eyebrows drew together in a muted expression of consternation, one that would have been barely perceptible on most people but was practically glaring in contrast to her usual reserve.

“This is…difficult. For my people, in the traditions in which I am invested, concepts such as ‘family’ are defined most rigidly and with great formality. But…but to Teal, and to Vadrieny, you are all as precious as blood. I think… I believe they would want to have you nearby.” She hesitated, making a tiny noise as if clearing her throat, though of course Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion never betrayed such discomfiture in public. “Though the reverse of that is that we’ve all just hiked up the mountains for most of the day, and neither would blame you in the slightest if you decided to rest here, first.”

“We’d blame us,” Ruda said firmly.

“’zactly,” Gabriel agreed. “Well said.”

“You all right, June?” Toby asked. “Sorry, not to hover or anything, but the memory of you collapsing in the Sea is kind of burned into my eyes…”

“You’re a good dad, Toby,” the dryad said fondly. “Anyway, yeah, I’m fine. It’s running that does me in; steady movement as actually pretty comfortable. C’mon, our friends need us.”

“I…value all of you,” Shaeine said, still looking strangely uncertain. “Tremendously.”

Her mouth opened once more, as if she planned to continue, then she abruptly turned and stepped onto the root bridge again. The rest of them followed immediately, forming a neat line upon the narrow path and leaving their somewhat bemused escorts behind.

“Well!” Principia said brightly when even Fross’s glow had vanished over the edge of the cliff. “I guess that leaves us to settle in. Which is going to be done where, again?”

“Ah.” Elaine tore her eyes from the spot where the students disappeared. “Well, of course, the Desolate Gardens are meant to be a place of contemplation and spiritual retreat, not a place of comfort. The Order provides necessities for visiting pilgrims, but…not more. You may have noticed the structures behind us have doorways and windows, but neither wood nor glass. They are left that way deliberately. There is space to sleep, but it will be very much like camping. Fortunately, the young ones seemed quite comfortable with that yesterday.”

“That sounds absolutely perfect,” Principia assured her. “I always say too much comfort is bad for people, especially young people. That building over there open? Excellent. C’mon, Lang, let’s stow everybody’s gear and have a spot ready for whenever they get back.”

“I wouldn’t be altogether sure how soon that will be,” Elaine said, again frowning in the direction of the old fortress and the mighty tree which embraced it. “The journey to that spot in particular is… Well, it’s usually the final goal of pilgrims here, not the first. That place is at the center of the Great Tree’s own focus, and swirls with ancient power. Whatever they have come here to find, they will find it there.”

“Leave it to those kids to skip all the preliminary steps,” Merry grunted. “Not to mention leaving all their rucksacks here. I hope they don’t expect me to figure out which belongs to who.”

“Less whining, more hauling,” Prin said cheerfully. “On the double, corporal.”

“Let us help you with those,” Toraldt offered.

“Oh, that’s okay,” she said, already loading her arms with discarded supply bags. “You two’ve done the lion’s share of work getting us here; let a couple of troopers feel useful for a change.”

“How’d you like to feel useful enough for the both of us, LT?”

“What did I just say about whining?”

“Same thing you always say, so as I usual I assumed you didn’t mean it. Since you know it never stops the whining.”

“You’re lucky I find you so harmlessly, ineffectually amusing, Lang,” Principia rejoined, already trotting off toward one of the empty Order structures with her armload of bags. “Hell, you’re lucky anybody does.”

“Seriously, though, LT,” Merry said more quietly as they neared the building, passing out of earshot of their two Order guides. “Aren’t you concerned we’re getting a little…off-mission, here?”

“This is the mission,” Principia replied, stepping into the shadowed doorway. Beyond was an open common room with more dark doorways branching off. There was a fireplace, currently dark and cold but with wood stacked nearby. Old torches sat in iron sconces around the walls; unsurprisingly, there was not a trace of modern fairy lighting. The place was dim, in the little daylight that streamed through its open windows, but at least it was clean.

“Eugh,” Merry grunted, dropping her armload of the students’ belongings in an unceremonious heap. “What do you suppose passes for plumbing out here?”

“It’s astonishing to me how bloody spoiled a soldier on duty can be. A hundred years ago your first task on making camp would’ve been digging your own damn latrines.”

“Last Rock is the mission,” Merry said, resuming both the discussion and her more serious tone. “You might have noticed we’re now about thirty clicks beyond hell and gone from there, LT.”

“I think you underestimate the size of the initial success that was represented by Arachne not teleporting both of us into the sun. She explicitly threatened to toss me through a hellgate if I ever showed my face in Last Rock again.”

“And you still went there?” Merry’s eyebrows shot upward. “You know what’s infuriating? I honestly have never been able to figure out of if you plan everything twelve steps beyond everyone else, or are just reckless and have been lucky this far because it never occurs to anyone you even might be doing something as crazy as you always are. Either one explains you so perfectly.”

“It’s all about knowing your battleground and your enemy, Lang,” Principia said, turning a sly smile on her after depositing her own armful of knapsacks more carefully on the floor. “Arachne fully means those things when she threatens them, but by the time a year has passed she rarely cares enough to be bothered carrying them out. Honestly, the fact she doesn’t carry grudges like a normal elf is one of her more redeeming qualities. Anyway, this is the situation we’re in. This is what we had to do to establish relations with the University as the High Commander ordered, and so here we are.”

“You don’t think it’s significant that Tellwyrn’s first act was to send us as far from her University as she could?”

“This is nothing like as far as she could send us, Lang. We’re with one of her precious student groups, albeit the one that needs us least. Trust me, this is working. Sure, the manner of it isn’t what Rouvad wanted—or what I did—but in life as in war you rarely get what you’d like best. Victory comes from learning how to turn setbacks into opportunities. That’s the key. There’s always some way to take advantage of whatever mess befalls you, if you can only figure out how.”

Merry heaved a sigh, then crossed back to the doorway to peer out at the sunset. “Yeah? I dunno, Locke, it kinda seems like the opposite is happening. I’m sure you’ve noticed these kids appear to want you dead.”

“Do they?” Principia mused, her smile widening.

“It’s…weird.” Merry turned back to her with a frown. “I thought they seemed pretty relaxed about your mutual history in Puna Dara. But then the General and the drow were added to the mix and suddenly I was sure one of the girls was going to push you over a cliff on the way here.”

“Nothing so murderous, I assure you,” Principia said, now openly grinning. “Let me put it this way: they’re kids, I’m an authority figure—to my own surprise—and now they’ve picked up one of their number with an ax to grind. It’s actually a good sign that they’re close enough to absorb one another’s attitudes that quickly, and revealing how they all pick up on Shaeine’s dislike in particular. Even Trissiny, who I’d have thought would step into the role of leader, both because of her own personality and because Hands of Avei generally do. And yet, here we are! Learning fascinating things.”

“Things that might still get you pushed off a cliff.”

“It won’t come anywhere near that.” Principia shook her head. “They’ll find a way to get their own back and feel vindicated. And in fact, I intend to help them.”

“You?” Merry put on a shocked face. “Embrace humility? I will believe that when I see it. Wait, actually, on second thought I might not.”

“You’ve never actually seen me deserve a comeuppance, Lang,” Principia said mildly. “This may not be the kind of thing you’re accustomed to expecting from me, but punishment can be oddly therapeutic when you actually have it coming. We all crave a kind of balance with the world around us, and suffer when we’ve been pushed out of it, even by our own actions. And besides, the revenge of incompetent adversaries can be very profitable!”

“I keep forgetting how absolutely crazy you Eserites are,” Merry grunted.

“Think about it: if there’s some kind of drow honor thing at stake here, it’ll be something formal and complicated. Everything with Narisians is formal and complicated. A way will surface for me to offer some kind of proper amends to Shaeine and her family—and that will form a connection between us. Any connection can be exploited, Lang. It’s like I said: from setbacks, opportunity.”

Merry gave her an openly skeptical look, but didn’t argue any further, just turning back to the door and its view of the Great Tree, where their charges were now on their way to meet, apparently, their destiny.


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15 – 18

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The good news was that they had finally found a way to take some of the attitude out of Taka.

“It might be better if you let it out,” Tholi suggested when she spun away from the group and fell to her knees, covering her mouth with a hand and heaving. “If your body wants to do something, it’s not a good idea to deny it. And the forest can absorb anything you spew.”

Ingvar had been impressed by Tholi today. The young man’s regard for November had increased markedly when she demonstrated that she knew how to build a proper snare and had no fear at all of skinning and dressing the rabbit whose fate had just rendered Taka almost incapacitated. At any rate, he hadn’t launched any barbs at her and had even shrugged off a couple of her own without rising to the bait. He was doing well with Taka, also, not only refraining from mocking her lack of wilderness skill but also not trying to woo her or suggest she should be tending someone’s firepit, as Ingvar would have expected a young man raised in a lodge to do. Tholi was impetuous and hot-headed as only a youth not yet in his second decade could be, but still he was showing surprising depths. Ingvar himself had needed the Rangers and their vision quest to truly confront how wrong the Shaathist cult was about its concept of the world, but so far it appeared his own say-so had been enough for Tholi to take on faith.

“I’m fine,” Taka grumbled unconvincingly after swallowing a couple of times. “I just never… I mean, the insides of animals are supposed to stay on the inside.”

“That’s hard to arrange, if you intend to eat them,” Tholi said, grinning.

“You’ve had meat before, haven’t you?” November added, raising her eyes from her work with the bloody skinning knife still in her hand.

“I don’t need shit from you,” Taka snapped, starting to round on her and just as quickly averting her gaze from the sight of the half-dressed rabbit.

“Whoah, hey.” November raised both hands peaceably, a gesture that was somewhat sullied by the dripping knife in one of them. “I’m not getting on your case, sister. I had just about the same problem the first time I had to do this. I’m just telling you something I was told, that helped me get used to it. If you eat meat, you’re better off knowing firsthand how it turns from a living thing into tasty food. All the steps, especially the nasty ones. Being kept in the dark about harsh truths is for children.”

“Well put,” Tholi agreed.

“Indeed,” said Ingvar, stepping over beside Taka. He had planned to kneel beside her, but she straightened upon his approach, trying to look defiant despite still looking queasy. “This is about being involved in every step of your own existence, having knowledge and respect for the chain of life that sustains you. And yes, parts of that are ugly, which is the point. Everything lives because something else died. The way of the wild demands that those sacrifices be honored.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered. “And the upside is…?”

“Hard to see, from your position,” he replied, smiling. “It’s just difficult and gross when you’re introduced to it the first time. The satisfaction that comes from being a conscious part of the chain is difficult to express in words. A lot of the details of a life connected to life are really only comprehensible through experience.”

“Now, that’s Shaathist mumbo-jumbo if I ever heard it,” she said skeptically.

“I can see how you’d think that,” he said. “Let me just double-check with the least Shaathist person here. November, am I right?”

“He kind of is right, Taka,” she said, addressing herself to the other woman rather than answering him directly. “Though I personally would’ve pointed out that being self-reliant and able to survive on your own is a plenty good deal and not hard to put into words. But…yeah. Food you have to out and get yourself does make you feel, I dunno…linked to life.”

“I’m always astonished at how people fumble around trying to grasp the most basic concepts of existence,” Aspen said.

“That’s the result of people growing up separated from nature,” said Ingvar. “It leaves an absence in us, and that is part of what the way of the wild seeks to repair. You don’t truly know what you’re missing until you confront the lack. But people can and do live getting all their food from markets, with money they earned doing work that brought them into no contact with anything living. That seems like a barren sort of life to me, but I think it’s best not to judge anyone else’s path. I just want to make it clear, Taka, that if you can’t handle this, that doesn’t reflect badly on you as a person. But this kind of thing is going to be central to what we’re doing out here. If it’s not for you, then probably none of this is.”

“I didn’t say I was quitting, did I?” she retorted. Her eyes fell on the rabbit and she flinched, but then visibly steeled herself. “You guys are starting to sound like the Omnists. Well, like the parts of their lecturing I found the least annoying. Appreciating the chain of life is a whole other matter when you’re growing carrots than when you’re gutting fluffy bunnies…”

“It’s true,” Tholi agreed. “Look, don’t force yourself. Getting used to bloody work can take some acclimation; if you want to start by just watching, hey, that’s a place to begin.”

“You’re more laid back about this than I would’ve suspected, listening to you and this one tear into each other,” Taka commented, glancing at November.

“Any Huntsman worth his salt knows how to indoctrinate a woman into his cult,” November said, resuming work on the rabbit. “They always need more women. Can’t imagine why.”

“Is it really that hard to not needle at Tholi?” Aspen asked. “Come on. Half of everything you people say sounds like mad nonsense to me, but do I go and tell you about it every time?”

“Yes, you damn well do!” November exclaimed, earning a laugh from Tholi.

Ingvar was spared having to intervene in yet another argument by the appearance of a flurry of sparks in the air around them. The whole group bolted upright clutching whatever weapons they had at hand, save Rainwood and Aspen, who just watched curiously as streamers of reddish-gold light swirled through the air, fading to a pale green before dissipating.

“What was that?” Tholi demanded.

“Fairies,” said Aspen. “Little ones, not very interesting. I think they were here for him.”

“On the contrary, my dear, that was rather interesting,” said Rainwood, shooting her a smile. “My little friends rarely show themselves to others. I guess they like you.”

“Oh. Well.” November looked nonplussed. “Lucky us?”

“Lucky indeed,” Tholi said reverently. “The messengers of the Mother are a rare honor to behold. Any sign of their favor is a great occasion.”

“As the only one here whose mother she actually is,” Aspen said dryly, “I think you would be pretty disappointed.”

“I wonder what brought that on?” Ingvar kept his tone light, but fixed his stare on Rainwood, who was frowning pensively at the trees around them.

“That’s the other thing that’s interesting,” said the elf. “That was a warning: we are being hunted.” He turned his own gaze fully on Ingvar. “I don’t hear or smell anything dangerous out there. If the spirit guides hadn’t warned me, I would never suspect a thing.”

“So…it’s magical?” November straightened up, subtly shifting her grip on the knife in unconscious preparation to stab someone with it. “What kind of magic threats live out here? Taka, this is your country, isn’t it?”

“I’m from Onkawa, and as I think I’ve mentioned, I like travel on roads, sleep in inns, and work in towns. Hell if I know what kind of creepy-crawlies lurk out here in the boonies.”

“There are ways to conceal ones movements specifically from the senses of elves,” said Tholi. “I know that craft.”

Both women turned openly skeptical looks on him.

“I can’t work that craft,” he hastily clarified, “but I know it. That’s shaman stuff. Anyone raised in a lodge would be aware of it.”

“I’m grateful to your friends for the warning, Rainwood,” said Ingvar, looking around at the trees and deliberately projecting calm. He had found that nervous people would take cues from anyone who appeared to know what they were doing. “If the local Huntsmen wish to pay us a visit, I see no reason why they should not. These are the wilds they hunt; we are only passing through. Come, let’s be about our work. If fellow travelers approach us, so be it.”

“And if they ‘approach’ us by shooting arrows out of the trees?” November demanded.

“I can’t think of a single reason why Huntsmen would do such a thing,” Ingvar replied.

“I can think of several! And no, I’m not just being an Avenist. Aren’t you specifically kind of a Shaathist heretic, Ingvar? What exactly does your cult do to people like you?”

“That’s a question,” Aspen agreed. “This whole project of yours for Shaath is kind of a threat to the people in power in your cult. And the way Tholi describes what’s happening in Tiraas these days, they really like being in power.”

Ingvar deliberately breathed in, and then out.

“Rainwood?”

The elf closed his eyes and his lips began to move in a few silent whispers. As if in response, a slight breeze sighed over the group, carrying an oddly minty scent.

“There,” said Rainwood, opening his eyes and grinning. “Arrows out of the trees will not be a problem. For the record, I think Ingvar is right; that wouldn’t be characteristic behavior for Huntsmen. Still, better safe than pincushioned.”

“Thank you, Rainwood,” said Ingvar, nodding to him. “All right, back to what we were doing. Taka, I suggest you take Tholi’s advice and just watch for now. November, you clearly have that well in hand; Tholi, start on the other rabbit, please.”

“And who’s going to prepare the squirrel, then?” Tholi asked.

“Ugh, why even bother?” Aspen groused. “There’s not enough meat on that thing to have been worth killing it.”

“That was what the snare caught,” said Ingvar, “so that is what we eat. If you don’t care for squirrel, that’s more for the rest of us. Would you like to help, Aspen?”

“I’ve watched you do it enough times,” she said disinterestedly. “And you know I like my meat just as well raw.”

“You also like it just as well prepared, unless you’ve misled me about your preferences. Take Taka’s reaction to heart, Aspen; you’re going to be around people more and more, and even seasoned hunters will be put off if you just bite the head off something.”

“One time I did that!”

“And do you remember what I said, then?”

Aspen stomped over to sit down next to Taka, who eyed her warily, but the dryad just planted her cheeks in her hands and made a production of staring at November, who was again working on the rabbit.

Ingvar lightly patted her hair. “Thank you, Aspen.”

In the end, fortunately, there were no arrows out of the trees. November and Tholi finished preparing their rabbits at about the same time, he being a good bit faster at it than she, and another debate had just begun regarding the fate of the unfortunate squirrel when five Huntsmen of Shaath approached out of the trees. Well, three, accompanied by two youngsters in their teens who had neither longbows nor wolf’s head pins. The five of them moved deliberately, making no effort to hide their approach, and aside from carrying their bows as usual had no weapons drawn. They crossed the space between the treeline and Ingvar’s small hunting camp at a pace which gave the group ample time to put down what they were doing and turn to face their visitors.

“Well, met, brothers,” Ingvar said, nodding once.

“Well met, brother,” replied one of the men, marking himself as the leader among them. Unlike the Rangers they’d met the previous day, who had approached in a neat wedge formation, these were a more casual party; he was actually at one end of what varied between a line and a cluster as they navigated around underbrush. “We’ve heard a certain Brother Ingvar and some…allies of his might be in the area. Would that be you?”

“I am Ingvar,” he replied simply. “I apologize for trespassing on your hunting grounds. We intend to pass through without staying long.”

“There’s game enough for everyone,” the leader replied neutrally. “I am Brother Djinti, master of our lodge. Greetings, daughter of Naiya. You honor us with your presence.”

“That’s what they tell me,” Aspen replied.

“I wonder if we have offended you in some way, Brother,” Djinti said, again focusing on Ingvar. “Is it not custom for a Huntsman new to a forest to present himself at the lodge before hunting in its environs?”

“It is, and I apologize if any offense was given,” Ingvar replied. “You have given me none, and I meant none. As you can clearly see, I am traveling with…well, a rather peculiar assortment of companions, somewhat to my own surprise. I have found it the best policy to avoid introducing them to people unless necessary.”

“Guests are always welcome at a lodge,” said Djinti in the same deliberately calm tone.

“I think that’s for your sake more than ours,” said Taka. “These two fight like a pair of strange cats, and while I haven’t actually seen the dryad eat somebody, we all know they do.”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Taka,” Ingvar said reprovingly.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s very bad of me to say it,” she drawled, folding her arms. “But be honest: am I wrong?”

“Perhaps I take your point after all, Brother Ingvar,” said Djinti, finally cracking a smile. “You do keep unusual company. I am surprised to see this, in truth. I wouldn’t have expected the Shadow Hunters to speak truth to us, especially when they spun a tale such as this, but…here you all are, exactly as described.”

“The Rangers told you we were here?” Ingvar demanded incredulously. “Why?”

“This one’s demanding,” muttered one of the boys, edging closer to his leader and leaning over as if to whisper, but not quite managing to lower his voice. “Djinti, I think this is a woman.”

He was the only Tiraan in the group, the rest being dark-skinned Westerners, and appeared to be at least three years younger than Tholi to judge by the patchy state of his beard.

Djinti gave him a look of long-suffering annoyance with which Ingvar sympathized, having led more than a few youngsters on their first hunts. “Brother Ingvar is twinsouled, Samaan. Close your mouth before you catch a fist in it. I’m not going to protect you from the consequences of any insult you give.”

The lad grunted derisively. “Oh, please, twinsouled. Where I come from, superstitions—”

He staggered froward, Djinti having roundly slapped the back of his head. “If I remember rightly your reasons for fleeing your last lodge, I don’t care to hear any of their superstitions. Brother Ingvar has passed all the trials of manhood Shaath requires, which is more than you can say, pup. Be still while your elders talk. My apologies for the boy,” he added to Ingvar with a deep nod. “He has much to learn, and to un-learn.”

“None necessary,” Ingvar replied. “I’ve shepherded teenagers, too.”

Djinti smiled again, though the expression quickly faded. “I’m concerned to see that the Shadow Hunters spoke at least some truth, Brother. I’m not inclined to give them much credit, but the rest of what they said about you was… Troubling.”

“Oh?” Ingvar tilted his head back. “And what would that be?”

“The story I was fed is that you are traveling the land with your dryad companion, and now these others, trying to dig up ancient secrets from their lodges to discredit your own faith.”

“Is that how they put it,” he mused, narrowing his eyes.

“That’s a lie,” Tholi snapped.

“It’s a misrepresentation,” Aspen corrected. “You could argue that’s what we’ve been doing, but anybody who chose to put it that way is just trying to stir up trouble.”

“I was beginning to suspect it was something along those lines,” Djinti said, nodding. “You understand, Brother Ingvar, the threat of a heretic prowling my forests is something I have to address. Firmly. Perhaps you could explain what you have been doing, and shed some light on why the Shadow Hunters would try to maneuver you into conflict with my lodge?”

“As to that, I have absolutely no idea,” Ingvar said frankly. “Aspen and I have visited several Ranger enclaves over the last year. While their ways are a little strange by the standards of Huntsmen, I found them to be as hospitable as I would expect from any proper lodge, and generally not inclined to court trouble.”

“Well, those guys we met last night sure weren’t friendly,” said Taka. “You must’ve done something to set them off.”

“I wish I understood what,” Ingvar said, frowning.

“I wouldn’t concern myself too much with the opinions of people like that,” Djinti grunted. “What, then, have you been doing with them? These are heretics and degenerates, Brother. They have nothing to teach a true Huntsman of Shaath.”

“On the contrary,” Ingvar replied, “they know a great deal, Brother Djinti. The Rangers collect libraries and practice healing arts as well as walking the wild as we do. Their enclaves are like a proper lodge, mixed with an Omnist and a Nemitite temple. There’s a great deal a true Huntsman could learn from them—provided he doesn’t keep a mind so open his brain is in danger of falling out. I have been taking advantage of their collected knowledge, but I assure you, I do not uncritically accept anything said to me, by anyone. Most especially not someone with an obvious agenda.”

“Mm.” Djinti’s face had gone impassive again; his two fellow Huntsmen were likewise still and completely silent, while the two youths had grown increasingly fidgety the longer the conversation wore on. To someone familiar with Shaathist ways, they presented an image of carefully controlled aggression. “You are not reassuring me, Ingvar, especially as you have not answered my question. What do you seek to learn from the Shadow Hunters?”

Ingvar thought rapidly, keenly aware that every second that passed without him answering was just digging the hole deeper. He was better at politicking than most Huntsmen, which meant he understood very well the importance of not doing so with them. Shaathists would be offended by disingenuous doublespeak even more than outright lies.

And yet, the Rangers had put him in a real bind with this maneuver. In hindsight, he understood very well why Mary had led him on such a roundabout path to the truth. She had been completely right: there was zero chance of him accepting it had it simply been told to his face, and there was just as little chance of it here. Telling these men what he was up to would as good as confirm their suspicions. And they were right, of course; his goal was nothing less than heresy. Pointing out that their entire religion was the true heresy was not going to help his case.

It had to be truth, though, and not just because trying to weasel out of this would antagonize the local lodge. Ingvar had no idea, as yet, how he was going to introduce his new ideas to the Huntsmen as a whole, but that was the ultimate agenda. They had to know the truth, somehow. Throwing them off the scent was worse than useless, it would be progress in entirely the wrong direction.

This was the situation he was in, whatever he wanted. Sometimes nature sent you a juicy elk and the perfect companions for your quest; sometimes you got a squirrel and a group of suspicious Huntsmen.

“I set out from Tiraas guided by dreams,” he said. “Visions sent to me by Shaath.”

“You’re remarkably blessed, then,” Djinti said tonelessly.

“I resisted them for a long time for exactly that reason,” Ingvar agreed. “Who am I, anyway? The idea of an important destiny is no part of what I see for myself. Shaath did not relent, though, and eventually I had to obey. This quest has taken me places I could not have imagined—places I would have specifically refused to go, had I known in advance what was coming. Even now I do not feel that I am someone who deserves an important role in the world; all I want, all I have tried to be good for, is to walk the wilds and be of service to my lodge as it needs me. At every step, though, I keep being forcibly reminded that there are greater powers in this world, and that they expect me to serve as called. I’ve been guided on this quest by the shaman we know as Mary the Crow. And more recently, her younger kinsman,” he added, nodding to Rainwood, who made a face. “That makes two shaman of that line whose spirit guides have pushed them to give me guidance. I was led to Aspen, here, who is a companion I could never have expected to share a journey with. I’ve walked with elves, with the Rangers, with a green dragon and a kitsune of Sifan. Most recently,” he continued, turning to look at November, “and most surprisingly yet, I’ve been prompted by Avei to continue in this quest, the absolute last being whose input I expected, or would have asked for.”

“That’s a lot of eloquent justification,” Djinti said, “which continues not to tell me what you are doing.”

“What I am doing,” Ingvar said evenly, “is facing extremely difficult truths. That is the long and the short of it, Brother. The world is not as we were taught. I’ve learned things about the gods and about Shaath in particular that have shaken me to the foundations of my soul. I’m sorry for my roundabout way of speaking; I don’t intend to mislead. I am simply aware that baldly throwing a shocking truth in someone’s face invites revulsion and not much else. It has taken me all this time to come to grips with the things I have learned, and I still don’t truly know how to face them. I have even less idea how to go about telling anyone else. That is the answer I am trying to find.”

“With the Shadow Hunters,” Djinti said grimly.

“The Rangers, the elves, the University at Last Rock. The Bishop of the Thieves’ Guild, the Sarasio Kid… And now, you. I continue to be constantly surprised at the people I meet and the things I learn from them.”

“Well, perhaps you don’t give us enough credit,” Djinti suggested. “Tell me your frightening truth, Brother Ingvar, and we will see how repulsed I am.”

And there it was. He had already deflected too much, Ingvar realized; there was nothing for it but the plain facts, and whatever disaster he suspected would follow.

But a strange sensation had come over him, a feeling he knew well from other kinds of hunts. A prickling in the spine urging him into action; a certainty that something in him knew the right way to proceed, even if that thing was not his conscious mind. He might be more surprised than anyone by what he did next, but he had faith that it would be the right thing.

“Angthinor the Wise was a liar,” he said simply.

A stir rippled through the five of them. Samaan and one of the full Huntsmen bared teeth angrily; Djinti held up one hand to insist on calm from his fellows, though his attention remained fixed on Ingvar.

“Very well,” he said, “I see why you hesitated to just blurt that out. What, exactly, did the father of our organized faith lie about?”

“Very nearly everything,” Ingvar said, more nervous with each word but still trusting that feeling. “From the nature of wolves and women, to the nature of gods. I have been traveling the world asking questions of every ancient source I can find because the lore I was taught as a Huntsman contains almost nothing true. And the worst part is that I cannot even indulge my own desire to flee from this and go back to my simple life, because the corrupt state of the Huntsmen today has damaged our very god to the point that even Avei weeps for him. We must change, Brother. We must change everything.”

“You—” The Huntsman who had started to lunge forward came to a halt as Djinti again held up a hand.

“Then what the Shadow Hunters said was true,” the lodge master said quietly. “You’ve come here bringing heresy.”

“My brother,” Ingvar replied in just as soft a tone, “you have been raised in heresy. I come bringing the truth.”

Djinti sighed softly through his nose. “You know what I am forced to do with a heretic, Ingvar.”

All three of them drew arrows and nocked them. The light in the clearing shifted gold as November embraced the divine and Tholi drew an arrow of his own.

There it was. That prickle intensified; this was the defining moment. And suddenly, Ingvar understood what he needed to do.

“You’re not going to do anything,” he replied calmly. “You are caught between two of these lies I speak of, Brother, and can’t move in either direction. Because the way of the wild, as you were taught it, ultimately respects nothing but strength. And yet, the other lie insists that you cannot possibly be brought to heel by a man who hides behind a woman’s skirts. But here we are. Aspen?”

She stepped forward, grinning unpleasantly, and began systematically cracking her knuckles.

All five of the Shaathists widened their eyes; the three Huntsmen stepped back once, and Djinti elbowed Samaan back before he could open his mouth again.

“You’re not going to impress me by playing clever word games, Ingvar. I live in a world where warlocks and wizards exist; it isn’t news to me that an honorable man can be undone by unnatural powers.”

“Unnatural?” Ingvar shook his head. “Brother, do you hear yourself? What is more natural than a dryad?”

He let that hang in the air for a few seconds, watching Djinti’s expression darken and those of his companions grow more uncertain, before continuing.

“I can have your entire party—your entire lodge—demolished at a word, without raising a hand myself. You do not even dare to retaliate, because you know what Naiya will do if you so much as scratch my friend. So which is true, Brother Djinti? Is strength and dominance the only final truth? Or is it the place of a woman to submit and surrender?”

“You know well that different rules apply to the fae. And especially to a dryad!”

“But you are not contending with the dryad, Brother; she would take no interest in you at all, if not for me. You are dealing with a fellow Huntsman who lets her stand before him—and yet, still successfully holds your fate in his hand.”

“I can put an end to all this right now,” Djinti snarled, drawing back his arrow and aiming it right at Ingvar’s face. “Your dryad might well kill us all, but your heresy would be stillborn! That might be good enough.”

The expressions of the other four, particularly the two teens, suggested they didn’t necessarily agree with that analysis.

“You are angry, now,” Ingvar said calmly. “It is worth asking yourself why.”

“Enough of your mind games!”

“You are a man of honor and of action, Brother Djinti; if you deemed it justified to shoot me you would have done so, not told me about it. You respect strength and do not fear pain. Nothing here should disrupt the poise of a Hunstman of your rank except the thing I have already said: you are caught between the falsehoods of your doctrine in a way that forces you to confront them. And I know this outrage, Brother, believe me. I know it well. There is nothing more traumatic than having to face the fact that something fundamental to your very identity is false.”

Djinti loosed his arrow. November yelled and Aspen took a step forward, but neither Rainwood nor his spirits intervened. The shaft whistled past Ingvar’s ear to disappear into the foliage behind him. There was no way a hunter of Djinti’s experience could have missed that shot, at that range, unless he had wanted to.

“This is what I bring you,” Ingvar said, taking one deliberate step forward. “I bring pain. The rites of the Huntsmen send us out to face the worst the wild has to offer. Privation, danger, struggle, suffering—because it is by enduring it that we prove we are men, and grow stronger. I bring you a pain like nothing you have ever known, a pain of the mind and the soul, not the body. I’ve been sent to reach into your life and claw away the lies that form every comforting thing you think you know. You’ll suffer for this, Brother; we all will. But just as with any of our rites, those who have the strength within them to endure will emerge from this tribulation wiser and stronger than you could have imagined before.”

He took another step. As one, all five took two steps back from him.

“What I offer you is far worse than heresy, my brothers: I offer you truth. I can promise you two things. Before this is done, you will hate me. And when it is done, you will thank me.”

The Huntsmen continued to retreat, all of them looking uncertainly to Djinti now.

“You’ve called down hell on your own head, Ingvar,” Djinti said, clutching his bow as if for comfort. “I must send to the Grandmaster himself about this. You’ll be the prey of a Wild Hunt before this month is done.”

“Call them, then,” Ingvar replied. “The truth will break them, just as it broke me. But I emerged from my breaking stronger. Will you?”

Djinti held his gaze a moment longer, then finally turned and loped off into the forest, his fellow Huntsmen following. In seconds, even the sound of their passage was gone.

Taka let out a long, low whistle.

“That,” Ingvar said quietly, frowning after the departed Huntsmen, “was far too easy.”

“Easy?” November said incredulously. “You thought that was easy? I thought somebody was gonna die!”

“A simple rhetorical trick shouldn’t have so ensnared him,” Ingvar murmured, eyes narrowed in deep thought. “I have dealt with far too many faithful of many different faiths to believe they would be so easily cowed. Unless…”

“Unless?” Aspen prompted after he trailed off.

Ingvar turned back around to face the rest of the group. “Unless he, and the rest of them, were already primed for it. If they were already grappling with uncomfortable questions, then I could see that small reminder pushing them over the precipice.”

“I keep telling you,” Rainwood said with an amused little smile, “the spirits know what they’re doing. As, in my experience, does Avei. There’s reason all this is coming to a head right now, and right here. I suspect we haven’t begun to learn the full reason yet.”

Ingvar drew in a deep breath and then let it out in a rush, expelling some of the accumulated tension. “Well. If nothing else, that also helps pin down our next step. I want to have a talk with those Rangers, and this time I don’t mean to politely back away if they get shirty. That little ploy was entirely uncalled for.”

“Not to mention downright weird,” Tholi added. “Shadow Hunters approaching Huntsmen that way is just… I never even heard of such a thing. Why the hell is it so important to those clowns to get rid of us?”

“It’s like he said,” November murmured. “If you confront people with a truth they don’t like, they get really nasty.”

“Time enough for that tomorrow,” Ingvar decided. “For now, we hunt.”

“Yes!” Tholi grinned. “We’ll teach them to mess with us!”

“No, Tholi,” he said patiently, “I mean we literally hunt. Two rabbits and a squirrel will not feed six people, especially when one eats like Aspen.”

“I’m glad you said it and not me,” the dryad agreed. “Apparently it’s unseemly for me to want stuff, even if it’s just food.”

“The word is ‘greedy,’” Taka said helpfully.

“Rainwood,” said Ingvar, “please stay here with the girls. Tholi, Aspen, we’ll go bring down some proper game. It shouldn’t be too terribly difficult once we’re not shepherding two neophyte hunters; I’ve seen evidence of a lot of deer in these woods. And that way, there’s one person with each group who neither Huntsmen nor Rangers will be likely to challenge even if they decide to do something rash.”

“Speaking of that,” said November, “this Wild Hunt business sounds…serious. How worried should we be, exactly?”

“For today,” Ingvar said firmly, “we will address the immediate needs of survival. And then, very soon, we are going to have to deal with the question of who is going to be the hunter, and who the prey.”

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15 – 17

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“Pretty,” Jonathan said warily, dividing his attention between the reliquary in Natchua’s hand and Shook, who was still gasping heavily in pain but already trying to drag himself back up to his hands and knees. “And that is…?”

“It’s a Black Wreath reliquary,” Melaxyna said from behind them, making him twitch. “They use them to bind the souls of Vanislaads. That’s the only way to take one of us off the board entirely.”

“Seems like asking for trouble,” he said, frowning. “Anything bound can be unbound. If you want to eliminate something entirely, why not…eliminate it entirely?”

“Doesn’t work,” she said brusquely, her eyes still on the reliquary, which Natchua was now lightly bouncing in her hand. The succubus was still disguised as a human, but had her arms folded defensively and was frowning in naked unease. “If you kill a child of Vanislaas, they just to back to Hell, ready to be summoned again.”

“This craft is not widely known,” said Natchua. “They are exclusively of Black Wreath make. And that illustrates Jonathan’s point: any magical artifact which exists presents a risk of falling into the wrong hands. Like this guy’s, for example.”

“That…is…mine,” Shook snarled, pushing himself fully up to his knees and glaring balefully at her.

“Was yours,” she replied pitilessly. “Now it is mine. You’re an Eserite, I’m sure you understand how that works. However, I still want to know how you came to be in possession of such a thing. I’ve got the funniest feeling the answer to that will end up strangely relevant to my own interests. Ah ah!”

Shook’s wand was still lost in the shadows where he had dropped it, but he abruptly whipped out the lightning wand he had taken from Jonathan minutes ago, moving with a speed and agility which suggested his pained posture just before had been an act. Not that it helped him much, when the wand dissolved into shadow before he could bring to to bear and re-materialized in Natchua’s hand. She handed it back to Jonathan without taking her eyes off the downed enforcer.

He muttered a curse at that, but still seemed remarkably unintimidated, considering he was now cornered, on his knees, and facing an armed man and a warlock. Shook’s eyes flickered between Natchua and Jonathan, and then to Melaxyna, whose head was just visible over Natchua’s shoulder from behind. Then, unexpectedly, he smiled.

Raising his hands, he stood up in a deliberately slow and unthreatening motion.

“Well, how quickly the tables turn, huh? I guess my hunch was right, Jonathan. You do know a little something about the Black Wreath in this neighborhood, don’t you?”

“Wreath?” Jonathan blinked. “Is that what you were after? Sorry, Jeremiah, but you’re still barking up the wrong tree. Natchua here is an…free agent, I guess would be a term.”

“The Wreath is here?” Natchua demanded, clutching the reliquary suddenly. “That complicates…everything. Tell me what you know, Shook.”

His eyes dropped to the reliquary in her hand before returning to her face, and he smiled again. “Well, seems like we’ve got something to offer each other, don’t we? Yeah, the Wreath is here. They aren’t the only ones, either. Whoever you are, you’ve bumbled into more trouble than you can imagine. If you want to know how you can wiggle out of this intact, and maybe even profit from the chaos, you can start by giving me back my property.”

“I don’t care who’s bound in that thing,” Melaxyna said in a tight voice, “a demon is a person. That is a human soul who has already been through Hell, literally. They are not property.”

“Relax, Mel,” Natchua said, still staring at Shook. “We’re not going to cut a deal with this clod.”

“Y’know,” he said, his tone hardening, “if I yell for the guard, this here situation isn’t a good look on you three. People barely need a reason to assume a drow is up to no good.”

She hit him with another shadowbolt.

“Easy,” Jonathan protested as Shook went down once more. “Just because he’s a bastard doesn’t mean we need to be!”

“You’re right, Jonathan, that’s not why we need to be,” Natchua said curtly, turning and gesturing at the mouth of the alleway behind them. There was a momentary darkening of the sunlight, as if she had pulled a curtain across it. “There, we have some privacy. Now we need to have a conversation with our new friend.”

“You’ve already shown me some things today I did not know infernomancy could do,” Melaxyna said warily. “Don’t tell me you can cast a truth spell, too.”

“In fact, I do know a spell for that, but no. That’s in the category of infernomancy that only a demon can perform and not be instantly incinerated.” Natchua studied Shook pensively; he glared right back, now down on one knee and yet looking more like he was coiled to spring than beaten. “For us, a true truth effect would require either divine magic or alchemy. Sadly, I don’t even know the alchemical formula; it was one of those Professor Rafe was forbidden by Tellwyrn to teach us.”

“She forbade that?” Jonathan said incredulously. “His first vacation home, Gabe showed me how to use household cleaners and common enchanting dust to make fire that burns underwater.”

“It’s one of those rules that has to do with the number of nobles at that school,” she said with a thin smile. “Like segregating the dorms by sex. Oh, there was all kinds of alchemical mischief slipped into people’s drinks, but not truth serum. It’s all fun and games until somebody spills a family secret. No, a proper truth effect is beyond my ability, but I can…improvise.”

“You are not going to torture him,” Jonathan said firmly.

“Give me a little credit,” she retorted, shooting him an annoyed look. “I’m not that much of a monster, and anyway, you don’t torture people for information if you want your information to be accurate. Everybody knows that.”

Shook chose that moment of her distraction to lunge forward. He was instantly seized around all four limbs by tendrils of shadow that burst out of the ground around him, and yanked down to lie spread-eagled on the ground with his face against the alley’s dirty floor.

He turned his head to one side and spat. “Worth a shot.”

“I’d have been disappointed if you hadn’t tried,” Natchua agreed. “All right, Mr. Shook, there are two paths open to us from here. One, I can cast a sort of…disinhibition spell. It will basically shut off your mental filter and befuddle you, causing you to babble constantly and lack the mental clarity to concoct a serviceable lie. I don’t want to do that because your stream of consciousness won’t be particularly helpful to me. You don’t want me to do that because we are literally talking about using infernal magic to damage—albeit slightly and temporarily—parts of your brain. Even if I do everything exactly right, which I assure you I will, that’s not good for you at all. The other option, of course, is that you answer my questions quickly and I graciously allow you to leave here unmolested.”

He had to twist his neck uncomfortably to meet her eyes, but he made the effort just to sneer at her.

“So I get fucked over either way? Then I’m sure as hell not going to choose the option that makes your life any easier, you smug darkling cunt. Lemme just take this last opportunity to say fuck you.”

Natchua sighed heavily. “Nobody can ever let me do anything the easy way.”


He hummed to himself as he hunted. It wasn’t generally a wise thing to do, for obvious reasons, but he just couldn’t help it. He had been cooped up and stifled for so damn long, it was positively exhilarating to be back on the chase, even if he wasn’t chasing anything that presented the slightest challenge. Whether one was hunting bunnies or bears, though, Ninkabi was the perfect city for the kind of rooftop-hopping he so enjoyed. It was all tiers, terraces, and spires, so full of interesting opportunities for acrobatics.

Unless, of course, one had to go after a specific target who very sensibly would hide somewhere in the majority of the city that was underground. Not that that would have saved anyone from the likes of him, either, but for now he had the luxury of picking the kind of trouble he was to cause, and naturally he indulged himself in picking trouble that permitted him to bounce around on the roofs.

The elf who these days called himself the Jackal perched atop a chimney, where he would be extremely obvious in his black suit in the morning sunlight to anybody who happened to be looking up. Not that he was concerned; aside from the fact that hardly anyone ever looked up, it well suited his purposes for rumors to circulate about a mysterious figure haunting the rooftops.

From his current spot he had a handy view down at an intersection where two streets crossed one another at a peculiar angle forced by the wedge-like prow of the tower directly across the square from him. So many people! Talking, walking, arguing, laughing, making all kinds of healthy ruckus. All those little bunnies, hopping along and ripe to be snared.

There would be the odd handful of immortals, magic users and aristocrats leavened among them, individuals who could claim to have some actual influence over the course of their lives. By and large, though, humanity existed for the benefit of their betters. Even their own societies were structured to enforce that. And yet, they always threw such a fit when reminded of that simple fact. He never got tired of it.

The Jackal spied what he was after and hopped down, sliding lightly along an angled roof to its edge and pacing along it silently. Below him a pair of city guards on patrol had just moved out of the square and along one of the main streets. He hummed softly as he followed them, skittering and bouncing along rooftops three stories above.

The street bent forty-five degrees once it reached the edge of the island, becoming one of the border avenues guarded on the cliff side by a waist-high wall atop which ran an even taller iron fence. That meant it was one of the major trafficked areas on this particular island, which made his job considerably harder. An opening wasn’t going to occur unless he made one.

Good. After staring at the walls for ages the last thing he wanted was an easy jaunt that’d be over quickly. And so the Jackal prowled, keeping pace with the two guards and delighting in the sense of mounting pressure; he didn’t know what kind of timetable he was under, how long their patrol was, when something might happen that would spoil his opportunity entirely. He just needed two variables to line up: a convenient alley and a lull in the foot traffic.

That confluence occurred almost half an hour later, just as he was beginning to become antsy. Half the street rose in a ramp to the next tier of the island and his targets didn’t follow it, instead going around and under to a quieter section that terminated in a little cul-de-sac against the cliff wall; it was quieter there by far, not to mention shadier.

He abandoned his careful pace to leap over a rooftop and into the yawning chasm of an alley just ahead of the patrolling guards, achieving a midair “landing” two stories above ground with his legs braced across the gap against each wall. Ears attuned to their approach, he waited until they were just before the alley’s mouth before calling out.

“Hello? Anybody! Help!”

Magic was useful, and he made ample use of it, but it did not pay to over-rely on such tools when so many others did. As magic became more and more common, so did counters to most available enchantments and spells. Thus, simple and practical skills became ever more valuable—such as the ability to throw one’s voice.

Hearing, as they thought, a young woman crying out from the far end of the alley, both guards put on a burst of speed and darted in, one igniting a pocket-sized arcane torch to banish the darkness.

From above, the Jackal watched with a wild grin as they slowed, carefully exploring the entirely empty alley. This one was a dead end with only a few doors along it, most having piles of trash and old crates near them. Only two had fairy lamps mounted above and neither was lit at this hour. He noted at the guards were thorough, testing every door—all locked—and pausing to investigate behind every refuse heap large enough to conceal a person before finally deciding there was nothing to find. Conscientious city watchers, that boded well. For the next stages of Khadizroth’s plan, of course, not for these two.

He was just formulating a plan for how to dive upon the pair when the man requested a little privacy. His partner scoffed, but turned and strolled back toward the mouth of the alley while he unbuttoned his trousers and faced the wall behind a stack of crates.

The Jackal almost pouted. That made things easier. It was just dreadfully inconsiderate of them, making it easy. City guards couldn’t be considered a challenge on their best day, and now they had to go and deprive him of an opportunity to apply some rapid problem-solving. It was just rude.

That made him perhaps a little extra vindictive when he lunged straight down at the female guard once she had passed beneath him. Being an elf he was light, lithe, and not particularly muscular, but deftly agile beyond the ability of any human. Even given his lack of weight, he made an impressively effective missile upon dropping two stories at a steep angle. He flexed his knees deeply upon impact of course, which helped absorb the force exerted on his own body but did little to soften the blow upon her back.

It drove the breath right out of her before she could cry out, which was really a redundant benefit for him—a side effect of using her as a cushion, not part of the plan. By the time she could have thought to yell, anyway, he had already reached around and driven his stiletto under her chin, all the way up into her brain.

The Jackal bounced off the twitching body even as she fell, already kicking off the walls in a back-and-forth trajectory deeper into the alley, the impacts he made soundless to human ears thanks to his light frame and especially his skill at this.

He stopped, though, waiting for the man to finish pissing. There were some courtesies guys observed between one another.

The guard was in the process of buttoning up his fly when an arm appeared over his shoulder and, faster than he could have reacted to, ripped a knife still stained with his partner’s blood right through his throat.

The elf swung the gurgling man around to impact against the wall, leaving them face-to-face.

“Shh, easy there,” he murmured solicitously while the man gaped at him and bled, impotently clutching at his throat. “Ah, ah, that won’t help you now. Here, lemme give you a hand.”

He deftly relieved the guard of the wand he’d been trying to bring up—impressive that he still had that much fight in him!—and gently helped ease him down to sit against the wall.

The Jackal retreated just out of reach, squatting on his heels across the alley from the dying man, and smiled benevolently at him as he watched the light fade from his eyes.

Of course he had to stop and savor one of his kills—who knew when he’d get another chance? And it had to be the man, as a matter of personal policy.

During lean seasons when there wasn’t much contract work, the Jackal had long entertained himself in human cities by hunting and slaying serial killers. At first it had been because he sought the challenge of hunting a fellow hunter, but after the very first one his motivation changed to expunging such pitiful filth from his noble profession. They were without exception obsessed, pathetic idiots entirely enslaved by their compulsions, an odd preponderance of them male, and the vast majority of those seemed to have some weird fixation on women. What was worse, they all seemed to think they were somehow getting revenge on the female sex for some imagined slight, failing to realize that their obsession made them more the slaves of womankind than the most henpecked housebroken husband. The whole thing had left the Jackal with a lingering distaste for mutilating or tormenting female targets. Business was business, but he resented anything that made him resemble the saddest, stupidest creeps he had ever encountered.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun once the woman was dead, of course.

Dragging the bodies toward the mouth of the alley was annoying work; humans were heavy. It would all be worth it, though, for the comedic effect. Unfortunately he couldn’t afford to linger and watch, but he could imagine it well enough! He propped them up just beyond the rim of the sunlight, where they made a peculiar hunched shape on the ground that would be just barely visible to a human passerby. They might not be disturbed by curious bystanders, even; it was an open question whether someone would come looking after they failed to report in before somebody else came out of one of those doors to throw more rubbish on the ground. Regardless, he didn’t dally, and barely two minutes later was standing back to admire his handiwork.

He set them up with their backs to the mouth of the alley, leaning against each other, and stuck their hands into each other’s pants, finishing off his little installation by painting smiles upon their faces in their own blood.

Time was wasting, but the Jackal indulged himself in a few minutes simply to giggle in delight. Of course, none of his audience would appreciate either his artistry or his sense of humor. That was what made it funny.

Then he was bounding up toward the rooftops again, kicking back and forth off the looming walls and already thinking ahead.

There were two kinds of city guards, for his purposes: craven bullies who would avoid the hint of any real danger to themselves like the plague, and the other kind. Killing a few of them was exactly how you found out which. Even now, a hundred years after Athan’Khar had ceased to be a danger and more than half that long since the Tidestriders had been pacified, N’Jendo had healthy vestiges of a warrior culture. He strongly suspected the reaction to this was going to be pure fury.

If the Black Wreath were indeed up to something in this area, their lives were about to get significantly more complicated. Along with everyone else’s.

Oh, this was gonna be such fun!


Sherwin yelled and flailed upon Natchua’s sudden entry into his kitchen apartment, actually tumbling off his bed in a heap of blankets.

“Aw, poor tiger,” Melaxyna cooed, slinking around the warlock and diving to coil herself about him. “Sorry we spoiled your nap! You had a busy night, I know.”

“Oh, that, I, uh…” He yawned hugely, rubbing at his eyes while the succubus pressed herself into him from behind. “Well, you’re back! What time is it?”

“It’s not noon yet,” Natchua said briskly, crossing to the kitchen’s other door. “I assume Hesthri is supervising the horogki?”

“Yeah, she offered after I kept yawning,” he mumbled. “Very nice lady, really polite for a demon. How was Ninkabi? Did you guys learn anything?”

“I’ll say,” Melaxyna replied. “Turns out our fearless leader can shadow-jump stuff right out of people’s pockets!”

That seemed to wake Sherwin up, and he turned a suddenly alert frown on Natchua. “What? Really?”

“Is that not normal?” Jonathan asked, shutting the outside door behind himself.

“Hell, no!” Sherwin exclaimed. “For shadow-jumping to work, you have to see your target, be familiar with your destination—and it shouldn’t be possible to shadow-jump an object besides yourself if you aren’t going along!”

“Nothing is impossible,” Natchua said, turning back to him with a thin smile. “Some things are just so difficult they are not worth bothering to try. Fewer things for me than for you. Well! Jonathan, would you please take over watching the hobgoblins? You have some construction experience, so you might be the best candidate for that work anyway.”

“I’m not sure how qualified I am to ride herd on a trio of demons,” he protested.

“Hobgoblins barely count as demons. Think of them as highly-skilled adolescents; they need monitoring because they’re unpredictable and energetic, not aggressive or highly magical. More to the point, a changing of the guard is necessary, based on what we discovered in Ninkabi. Agasti is not someone to be approached with hostile intent. Therefore, we will do the polite thing and show up at his club this evening when it opens. And, of course, the best choice of personnel to crash a nightclub is three hot women.”

Sherwin and Melaxyna exchanged a look, then said in unison, “Uhhh…”

“I’ve already taken steps to insure Mel will pass undetected through his wards,” Natchua said in an amused tone. “I can do the same for Hesthri, as well as disguise her to mundane senses. I do know what I’m doing.”

“Have you noticed this expression we all make every time you say that?” Jonathan demanded. She made a face at him.

“That’s not even the most important thing we discovered,” Melaxyna added for Sherwin’s benefit. “Somebody else is working in Ninkabi—we didn’t get much, but Natchua knows some horrifying brain-damaging spells that made this guy talk and then apparently erased his most recent few memories.”

“Guy?” Sherwin said in alarm. “Spell? Brain-damaging?”

“Evidently,” said Natchua, “the Universal Church has re-formed the Inquisition, and they are hunting the Black Wreath, whom they believe to be active in Ninkabi. We know nothing more than that, save that they are evidently working with a dragon, Khadizroth the Green. Much of what the man babbled was unhelpful, and we hadn’t the luxury of time to interrogate him at length.”

“Holy shit,” Sherwin whispered. “Natchua, that is bad news. Other warlocks is one thing—we are not equipped to fight the Church, especially if they’ve organized another Inquisition, and definitely not a green fucking dragon!”

“We’re not going to fight them,” she said patiently. “Our encounter with one of their lackeys proved useful. I left him lying in an alley reeking of infernal attack. We had to leave in a hurry as fae energies were starting to coalesce on us and you are correct, I absolutely don’t want to mix it up with a green dragon. I could maybe fend off a red or blue, but a green would demolish me. It worked out, though. A fae caster of that skill should be able to heal the man I injured, but not restore the memories I scoured out of his brain. He doesn’t know who attacked him. But they will know it was a warlock…and they’re already hunting the Black Wreath right there.”

“Set our enemies against each other,” Jonathan murmured. “It’s a good strategy. If it all works out the way you’re hoping.”

“I don’t hope, I plan,” she retorted. “There’s no telling how things will shake out in the long run, but this? Today’s events are under control. Shook, and soon Khadizroth and whatever other allies they have, know they crossed a warlock and will naturally turn to the ones they were already after. They will increase pressure upon the Wreath in that area, likely forcing them to make a mistake. And I will be watching Ninkabi to see what happens…and how we can take advantage.”

“Okay, that actually is a good plan,” Sherwin said. “Risky as hell, but, y’know…what isn’t?”

“Hn,” Jonathan grunted.

“It gets better.” Natchua held up her hand, and in a swell of shadow, the reliquary appeared. “Shook was carrying this.”

“Uh…who’s in that?” Sherwin asked warily.

“No one, at present,” Natchua replied with a malicious smile. “But it is attached to the succubus Kheshiri.”

“What?” he squawked. “Are you serious?”

“Has everybody but me heard of this woman?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“Not hardly,” said Melaxyna with a worried frown, “but in certain very specific circles, she’s something of an underground legend. Children of Vanislaas tend to have, um…characteristic obsessions, let’s say. That guy Murgatroyd who’s doing security in Last Rock now? He’s the big name in coping mechanisms; his whole thing is finding ways to channel the itch into something useful that doesn’t make him hurt people. Wrangling Arachne’s students and research fellows should keep him good and occupied. Well, Kheshiri’s deal is…pushing the envelope. She’s all about exploring the outer reaches of what a child of Vanislaas can or can’t do, and then seeing how many ‘can’ts’ she can turn into ‘cans’.”

“What’d she do, that’s so impressive?” Jonathan asked.

“Well,” said Melaxyna, “for starters, she’s a magic user. Not a very skilled one, but Kheshiri has been known to dabble in both infernomancy and arcane enchantment.”

He frowned. “What, is that uncommon? I figured all of your kind would try to use magic.”

“Try, yes,” she said dryly.

“It’s their condition,” Sherwin explained, patting Melaxyna’s hand where it dangled over his chest. “Magic is very detail-oriented work that requires a lot of concentration. Vanislaads get jittery when they try to focus that tightly on anything that isn’t a person or an ongoing scheme.”

“So yes, it’s impressive that Kheshiri can cast spells at even a basic level,” Melaxyna said, nodding. “Also, the reason she’s bound to a reliquary is she assassinated the leader of the Black Wreath, impersonated her, and ran the cult for a couple of weeks back during the Enchanter Wars.”

“Ho…lee…shit,” Jonathan whispered.

“They didn’t even catch on,” Melaxyna added, grinning. “Elilial rumbled her in person. Here’s the thing, Natch: those charms that idiot put on the reliquary? They wouldn’t hold her, not for the two years he claims he’s held that thing. The fact he didn’t tell her what all the restraints were would buy him some more time, but after that long? The only reason she hasn’t weaseled out of his control is she wants to stay there. She is doing something with those people, something of her own design. Probably calculated to find out exactly what she can pull off with the likes of an Archpope and a green dragon looking over her shoulder. And remember, Kheshiri’s two favorite pastimes are setting unreasonably high goals and being underestimated.”

“Well,” Sherwin said slowly, “I guess I can see why someone like that would be an asset to the cause…”

“Oh, hell no,” Natchua said, immediately and firmly. “We are not involving this woman in our group. Mel is a friend, and also the entire roster of Vanislaads I’m willing to trust anywhere near me.”

“Good,” Melxyna said firmly. “I mean, thanks, that’s sweet, but also good. Now twist the cap and put her back in the bottle. That’s one less asset for both the Wreath and the Inquisition to call upon.”

“Will that work from here?” Jonathan asked. “We’re all the way across the continent from Ninkabi.”

“It’s not limited by space,” Melaxyna said. “It’d work from all the way across the world. Go on, Natch, chop chop.”

Natchua was still holding up the reliquary, and now staring at it as if in deep thought. “You know…”

“Oh, no,” Melaxyna groaned, burying her face in Sherwin’s shoulder.

“She doesn’t know what’s happened,” the drow mused, gazing at the rose suspended within the green glass. “Only that someone has her reliquary. Someone she must assume to be the Black Wreath. She has two possible courses of action: double down and hunt them ferociously, or betray her group and try to cut a deal with them. Either will draw them out.”

“Natchua,” Jonathan said quietly, “Ninkabi is a city. People live there. That is not a place for a succubus, let alone one you’ve driven into a panic.”

“The Wreath are always careful not to involve bystanders, the Inquisition cannot afford to, and Kheshiri has not choice but to focus tightly on the obstacle before her. And the instant I don’t like something she does, I can put her away for good.” Natchua’s voice and expression had become faraway and vague, as if she were now talking to herself, or someone else not even in the room. “What was it she said? Ticking time bombs. Foxes with their tails afire, set loose in my enemies’ fields. Let’s see how you like it, you hypocritical old cow.”

She held up her other hand above the reliquary, and the chain dangling from its end lifted toward it as if drawn by a magnet. Then it began to rust right before their eyes…and then decay. The chain itself started to come apart in fragments as Natchua’s infernal magic ate away its arcane charms. In seconds it had entirely disintegrated. Next to go were the metal rings, their charms dying in a series of small sparks and the metal bound to them corroding away to dust in the space of a few moments, to leave the reliquary as it had been originally designed, fully stripped of the extra measures constraining Kheshiri’s actions.

Staring at it, Natchua bared her teeth in a vindictive grin.

“Fly, my little bird.”

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15 – 16

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A short bark of laughter burst from Jonathan, to his own slight surprise.

“I say something funny?” Jeremiah demanded. He still wore an attempt at an easygoing smile, though his eyes and voice had both gone hard.

“No, sorry,” Jonathan chuckled. “Your question just forced me to confront how ridiculous I am. Well, lemme put it this way: what’s the most likely reason for a man to find himself suddenly miles from where he belongs and floundering without properly understanding why?”

“Ahh.” The other man’s expression cleared, even growing into a knowing smile, and he nodded sagely. “A girl.”

Jonathan sighed. “Two of ’em, actually.”

“Hah!” Jeremiah snorted a terse laugh of his own, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nice, brother. That makes you either the luckiest son of a bitch in town, or just the opposite. Maybe both at once.”

“No…I’m leaning toward opposite,” Jonathan mused, staring at the wall behind the cafe’s counter. “The whole thing is altogether more complicated than I ever wanted out of life. Thought I’d found something straightforward and…pleasant. But she wasn’t what she seemed, and then dragged an old flame into it, and now I hardly know what’s going on anymore.”

“That’s how they getcha, y’know,” Jeremiah said sympathetically. “There’s not a damn thing complicated about it until some bitch comes along and makes it that way. Long as you’re all confused and turned around, they’re in control. That’s what it all comes down to: who’s in control.”

Jonathan looked at him sidelong. “That’s a pretty grim outlook on relationships.”

He shrugged, grinning wryly. “It’s a pretty grim world, my friend. Dunno if you’ve noticed.”

“Well, you’re not wrong about that…”

The shopkeeper had come back over, her expression now stonily blank, and Jonathan deliberately kept his own clear of the annoyance he felt. He disliked it on general principles when men were sexually aggressive toward women (and the reverse, though the Avenist sect who were the only women likely to do that in public were rare enough he’d only run across two in his life). This wasn’t just general principles, though; quite apart from interrupting his own information-gathering efforts, the well-dressed stranger had made a thoroughly bad impression, and now Jonathan was part of it. Even if Jeremiah left right now he might well be getting nothing further out of this woman today, or anyone in earshot for that matter.

“What’ll it be?” she asked the new arrival in the terse, toneless voice of merchants everywhere who had not yet decided to lose a sale over their personal dislike of a customer, but didn’t care who knew how close they were.

“I think I’ll have what my new friend here is having,” Jeremiah said with a smirk, slapping Jonathan’s shoulder again. “And what’ll it cost me for a smile from you?”

“More than you can afford,” she said evenly. “It’s ten pennies for a pasty and tea.”

He had already shifted on the stool to reach into his pocket, and now slapped a doubloon down on the counter. “Keep the change, darlin’.”

“I don’t think—”

“What?” he demanded, the hard edge creeping back into his voice. “You don’t appreciate my generosity?”

She glanced at the coin, then back up at his eyes, and took one deliberate step back from the counter. “Coming right up.”

“You’re not much of a people person, are you, Jeremiah?” Jonathan inquired, sipping his own tea.

The man’s eyes cut to him and his expression darkened further, but just for a moment. Then, deliberately, he relaxed, even chuckled softly. “Yeah, well, you’ve got me there. I’ve spent a lot of time cooped up lately with the same few assholes for company. That’s not great for anybody’s social skills, but I guess my current friends like to play rougher than the general population. I should do better at being nicer to honest, hard-working folks out and about. You forgive me, don’t you, honey?” he added to the shopkeeper, again with a broad smirk.

“Sure,” she grunted noncommittally, setting a meat pastry and cup in front of him, then turning to fetch the teapot.

Jonathan kept silent for the moment, nursing the last of his own tea. It would be ideal if he could get some answers for Natchua here, in the first place he looked. He had some slight experience with evading investigators from the first time Hesthri had been part of his life, and plenty since then at being part of a neighborhood, and knew very well that one guy appearing in several places in the same day asking questions about Agasti and Second Chances was likely to spark rumors which someone could follow. Well, if it came to that, he’d hopefully be shadow-jumped safely back to Veilgrad by tonight. Not to mention that sometimes, you just didn’t get the ideal outcome. Most of the time, in fact. Life was about making do with what you were given.

Still, he wasn’t quite ready to give up on this spot…which meant having a reason to stick around here until Jeremiah left. Another cup of tea would do for a start; he held his up in a mute request for a refill when the shopkeeper came by again with the pot for his neighbor, and was gratified that she poured it with a thin smile and no talk of payment. Someone running a business like this was probably sensitive enough to the moods of her customers to observe that he wasn’t enjoying Jeremiah’s company much more than she. A bit less with each passing moment; the man’s last comments had sounded to Jonathan a lot like a coy euphemism for having been in prison.

He gave the fellow a sidelong examination while he munched with apparent satisfaction on his breakfast pasty. The pinstriped suit was clean and fit him well, and while the slicked-back hair just looked shady to Jonathan, it was further evidence that the man cared about his appearance and had money to spend on it. He was neither scrawny nor flabby, unlike the majority of men who wore pricey suits in Jonathan’s experience. In fact, those hands were not only callused, but had an unusual number of scars…

He shifted his gaze back to the far wall, putting the sums together, and hid a grimace behind another sip of tea. Physically strong, moneyed, aggressive streak, signs of a violent past, apparently recently in jail… Great. And wasn’t there some kind of Eserite shrine in Ninkabi? Jonathan wasn’t much for organized religion but he was sure he’d read that somewhere.

“I gather you’re not from this neighborhood, either,” he offered. The shopkeeper had already retreated down to the other end of the counter, but glanced at him and made a face.

Fortunately, Jeremiah appeared not to notice that, pausing to wash down a bite of pasty with a sip. “Why, no, I’m just passing through myself. Looking to get the lay of the land, you know how it is. Never know what kind of information might be important. Though when I hear people chattering about demons, I damn well pay attention to that, as we were just discussing. Speaking of, sounds like I interrupted a very interesting conversation.” He smiled at Jonathan, then shifted his focus to their hostess. “Please, don’t let me stop you. What’s all this about something strange in the neighborhood?” He kept his eyes on her while filling his mouth with another bite of pasty. The man had an unblinking stare that seemed calculated to unsettle.

She had busied herself with a nonsense cleaning task at the far end of the counter; Jonathan opted to come to her rescue. “From what the young lady was telling me, there’s not much to tell. Folks around here seem to think well of Agasti and his club. That speaks well of anyone, but if he’s a warlock and has still managed to get on the neighborhood’s good side, the fella must be the most upstanding citizen in town.”

“Oh, for sure,” Jeremiah said agreeably. “But there’s no way he’s just…left alone to do his business. Guy like that must get checked up on by all kinds of interested parties. Topaz College, Silver Legions…” He still had his gaze pinned on the shopkeeper, and the expression was draining from his face, leaving a blank mask of focus like a prowling cat sighting a songbird. “Black Wreath. What about that, darlin’? How often do you get shifty-looking spellslingers coming through here, asking nosy questions?” A humorless grin cracked his lips. “Like these, for example.”

“This is a safe neighborhood,” she said shortly. “Trendy people come here to spend money, and the city guard keeps a very good presence. I’m sure the Empire keeps an eye on Mr. Agasti.”

“Not what I asked you, is it?” Jeremiah said tonelessly. His food and tea were lying suddenly forgotten on the counter, next to the doubloon she still had not picked up. The intensity of his stare couldn’t be taken for anything but a threat.

“I sell tea and pastries,” she snapped, picking up his hostility. “I don’t know anything about cults or warlocks. If you like gathering rumors, you might try being civil to people.”

“Oh, I get by, trust me,” Jeremiah said in a low tone, flicking his wrist as if adjusting his cuff. Another doubloon slid out of his sleeve, though, and he flipped it into the air, caught it on the backs of his fingers, and began slowly rolling it back and forth. “So let’s try this again, bitch. When I ask you a question, you give me an answer, and we both stay un-ruffled and on our respective sides of the counter.”

“That’s enough of that.” Jonathan was only slightly surprised it was his own voice which had spoken. He had just been thinking it was smarter to stay out of this, and yet he couldn’t muster any regret for intervening. Even though Jeremiah looked to have been about to extract exactly the intel he needed, there were some things that were just not to be tolerated.

The other man turned that flat stare on him, and Jonathan met it without flinching. His lack of fear caused a further tightening of the muscles around Jeremiah’s eyes.

“Friend,” the thug said in the tight voice of someone holding anger barely in check, “I think you wanna stay out of this.”

“I surely do,” Jonathan agreed. “I want to do a lot of things that I can’t. Unfortunately, the way I was raised, a man doesn’t act abusively toward a lady, or allow others to do so.”

Jeremiah curled his lip in a sneer. “Well, there’s your out. A lady isn’t going to be slinging tea in some hole-in-the-wall shop. Lucky for our little friend, here, since I never met an actual lady who didn’t urgently need a bite from a knuckle sandwich, just by default.”

One of the other patrons from the table in the back rose and hurriedly left the shop; the other two men he was with stayed where they were, eyes on their drinks but no longer speaking. Well, good; hopefully the guy could find a nearby guard. Jonathan saw Jeremiah see this, noted the aggravated flare of his nostrils, but he made no attempt to intervene. The man was, at least, professional enough not to cross a major legal line. So far, at least.

“I don’t concern myself with judging anyone else’s character,” he said, meeting Jeremiah’s strained fury with calm. “I concern myself with myself, and that’s all I recommend a man does. There are some kinds of mistakes that make you less of a man, friend. You’re very close to making one now.”

Jeremiah surged up from his stool, seizing Jonathan by the collar and dragging him forward; he kept his own seat, but barely, not struggling.

“Listen here,” the enforcer hissed, “you’re going the right way for an ass-kicking. Is that what you want?”

“No fighting in here!” the woman behind the counter ordered, her voice high-pitched with worry.

Jeremiah started to turn toward her, his expression promising worse than harsh words, so Jonathan moved quickly to recapture his attention.

“Okay, and then what?”

Jeremiah focused back on his face, narrowing his eyes. “What?”

“Let’s say you kick my ass,” Jonathan said evenly. “What comes after that?”

“Are you— What, you’re just gonna sit there and let it happen? You an Omnist or something?”

“I’ve never had much use for religion,” Jonathan admitted, allowing himself a small grin. “Fortunately for you; some Omnists are more dangerous to manhandle than a Sister of Avei. No, I fought in his Majesty’s Army and I’m not one to get pushed around by some punk in a cafe. But still,” he added as the arm holding his collar tightened further, “let’s be realistic. You’re, what, ten years younger than me? I haven’t been in a fight in at least that long; you look like this ain’t even your first one today. You’d probably win that. So, what then? There’s probably a guard heading this way already. Best case scenario, you miss out on the rest of your breakfast. And for what? It’s not like you gain anything from this.”

“Definitely not an Omnist,” Jeremiah sneered. “That’s the kind of limp-wristed pussy talk I’d expect from an Izarite. When someone pushes you, you push back. Sounds like your papa forgot to teach you something important. A man’s nothing if he can’t command respect.”

“So it’s about respect?” Jonathan said mildly. “I think you’re going about that the wrong way, friend. Nobody in here is going to respect you one bit more for roughing me up. They’ll respect you less for laying a hand on the girl. Hell, be honest with yourself. Would you respect yourself any more after that?”

Jeremiah hauled him forward until their noses were nearly touching, forcing Jonathan to grab the edge of the counter to avoid being pulled entirely off balance. “I don’t need life lessons from you, old man.”

“From who, then?” Jonathan countered. “If you’re after respect, son, you’re going about it the wrong way. Respect is earned mutually. All this’ll get you is fear, at best.”

The younger man’s expression was a vicious combination of a sneer and a grin. “Yeah? Well, I guess fear’s enough, for practical purposes.”

“Is it?” Jonathan asked quietly. “Don’t you think you deserve better?”

They were close enough he could feel his breath. Jonathan met his stare, waiting for the punch. He fully intended to give an accounting for himself, but he hadn’t dissembled; he was out of practice and anyway had been better trained with staff and wand than his own fists. He frankly would have bet on Jeremiah if it came to a brawl.

He was actually rather surprised when Jeremiah slowly eased back, relaxing his grip until he had released his collar entirely. Jonathan settled back on the stool, watching him closely still. Sucker-punching someone after faking them into dropping their guard was a classic trick.

The punch still didn’t come, though. Instead, Jeremiah took a full step back and straightened his lapels, then ran a hand over his hair, as if the little grooming ritual helped brush away his incipient rage.

“Y’know,” he said in a much milder tone after a moment, “you remind me of a friend of mine. You a shaman, by any chance?”

“Can’t say I am,” Jonathan replied, raising an eyebrow. “If you’re friends with a shaman, though, my advice would be to listen to him more often.”

“Yeah, that’s his advice, too,” he said wryly.

The shopkeeper cleared her throat. She was holding a full, steaming teapot as if thinking about throwing it or its contents. “All right, buddy, you need to leave.”

Jeremiah gave her a long, cool look, and Jonathan’s first thought was that this was all about to start up again.

Instead, the thug nodded politely to her. “Right you are, miss. Seems I’ve been entirely out of line.” He rapped twice on the countertop with his knuckles. “My apologies for the trouble. You folks enjoy your tea, now.”

Pausing only to give Jonathan a brief, considering look, he turned and sauntered out.

Everyone waited until he had passed beyond view of the front windows to relax. Then Jonathan blew out a heavy breath. “Whoof. Well! Least he’s less of a hothead than some punks that age. I thought for sure that guy was going to start breaking furniture.”

He turned back to the shop’s proprietress just in time to have another pastry slid in front of him, this one a puffy sweet piece dripping with honey and candied almonds.

“On the house,” she said with a warm smile. “I don’t get many white knights in here, and they’re exactly the kind of customers I want to come back.”

“Oh,” he said, actually feeling slightly flustered. “Well. I don’t think I can take a reward for doing the bare basics of the right thing…”

“In that case,” she said, picking up the doubloon Jeremiah had left behind, “your buddy there paid for you. Is that more acceptable?”

“Well, I guess he owes me,” Jonathan agreed with a grin, carefully picking up the sticky bun. “It’s socially incorrect to throttle somebody before dinner. I’m pretty sure I read that in an etiquette manual somewhere.”

She grinned back, leaning on the counter in front of him. “You know what, I think I can see how you ended up with two girls after you, mister.”

He sighed, the smile fading. “Yeah… And at half my present age I might’ve daydreamed about that a bit. Amazing how much pure trouble it turns out to be in practice. Well, anyway! Seems like we were discussing something a little more pleasant before all that noise, but I can’t for the life of me remember what?”

Jonathan took a bite of his free pastry, chewing contentedly and waiting for her to respond. Maybe this would work out after all.


He was lost in thought as he made his way back up the street, hands jammed in his pockets. The sun had risen most of the way toward its zenith and Ninkabi was fully alive, the avenue crowded with shoppers browsing the stores and vendor stalls set up along the sidewalk. A veteran urban dweller, Jonathan navigated through them without really noticing them.

There hadn’t been a lot more to learn about his quarry from the cafe, but he had whiled away most of an hour in far more pleasant conversation after the Eserite had left, both with the owner and a couple of other regulars. The discussion had touched upon Mortimer Agasti and his club a few more times, but did not linger there, and Jonathan hadn’t tried to steer it back. That would have been overplaying his hand, for one, and besides, all the cloak-and-dagger lately had left him missing ordinary chitchat with ordinary folks. It was a nice little reprieve. Who knew when the next chance would be?

Anyway, Natchua and Melaxyna were probably getting all the scuttlebutt they needed from the local magic shops. For his part, Jonathan planned to warn Natchua to lay off a little as soon as he found her again. Agasti was a rich man, a lawyer, and a warlock, three traits which by themselves made a man difficult for common people to like. That he was so well thought of by his neighbors meant he was probably one of the more aggressively decent people in the city. That, or a truly insidious villain, though in Jonathan’s experience people who could actually pull off that act were more likely to be found in chapbooks than real life.

Quite apart from the fact that Natchua and the rest could find themselves in a world of trouble if they riled up the whole city against them, it was starting to seem to him that the best approach in this case was the direct one. If Agasti was harboring this “friendly” khelminash demon, the two of them would probably respond better to an open invitation than to being stalked.

Something sharp jabbed the small of his back through his coat.

“Hello again,” Jeremiah’s voice said pleasantly from just behind Jonathan’s ear.

He came to a stop, slowly turning his head to regard the thug’s smiling face from, again, far too close for his liking.

“Morning,” Jonathan said calmly. “Fancy meeting you again.”

“It’s a smaller town than it seems,” Jeremiah replied. There was a slight tug at Jonathan’s belt as his wand was removed from behind. “Let’s walk and talk, Johnny boy. Just up ahead, alley on your left.”

For a moment, he pondered whether that was an actual wand poking him in the back.

“And what’ll you do if I just start yelling for the police?” he asked.

“Run like hell,” Jeremiah replied. “But it’ll be too late for you to appreciate it. Or, you can do what I fucking tell you, and get to go back to juggling your two girls at the end of the day. That’s the way I prefer, myself.”

“You have a persuasive argument, there,” Jonathan agreed, moving forward. The other man kept pace with him, uncomfortably close, no doubt to conceal from other passersby the fact that he was holding a weapon against him. It was just a few yards, and nobody intervened, nor appeared to notice. Considering a city guard never had showed up at the cafe after one of the other patrons had slipped out in search, he didn’t have high hopes of one coming to his rescue now.

Ninkabi’s alleys were as likely to be tunnels or crevices, in truth, and this was one of those; they were a level down from the uppermost tier of this island. It was even darker in here than in a similar space in Tiraas or Mathenon.

“If you’re just looking to get back at—”

“Oh, let me reassure you on that point.” Jeremiah gave him a sharp push between the shoulder blades. Jonathan staggered forward, but caught himself quickly and turned to face his assailant, hands still in view to his sides. He hadn’t actually been ordered to show them yet, but it was generally wiser to be extra soothing toward a twitchy person brandishing a wand. Which the fellow actually did have, he noted now, a sleek, powerful-looking model that likely cast deadly energy beams instead of arcs of electricity. Jeremiah held it at the waist rather than aiming properly, but at that range he would have to be truly incompetent to miss.

Jonathan didn’t suspect he was.

“No hard feelings,” the enforcer said, grinning. “I respect a man who can talk his way out of a beating. Not my own way, to be sure, but you gotta appreciate skill wherever you see it. Nah, this is just business.”

“Well, I admit I’m perplexed what business we even have.”

“The same, I think.” The man’s smile faded rapidly. “You were in there pumping the locals for information about the local warlock. I might have bought your random stumblebum act if you hadn’t then, as I said, talked our way out of a beating. Got my wheels turning; back where I’m from, they offer actual training in that particular ability. It’s very useful, in my line of work. And then it occurred to me you were sittin’ there chatting about demons, nonchalant as you please. So! Let’s start with who the fuck you are, who you work for and what you’re doing here. Then we’ll move on to whatever you learned from that feisty little piece slinging tea back there.”

Jonathan stared at him. And then, in spite of himself, laughed.

“Is this another one of those things where you just suddenly realized how ridiculous you are?” Jeremiah asked dryly.

“Exactly, yes. Would you believe I’m just a guy with a knack for diplomacy and an unfortunate history of getting tangled up in matters way above my pay grade?”

“Yeah, that’s surprisingly plausible,” Jeremiah agreed. “Are you gonna tell me now you’re not acting on behalf of a more significant player?”

“Well…as to that.”

“Yeah, I thought so. Let’s start with a name.”

“Let’s start with a discussion,” Jonathan countered. “It occurs to me once you get what you need, your incentives aren’t to let me walk out of here having seen your face. It doesn’t really serve me to hurry up and hand over what I know, then, does it?”

The flash of light was almost blinding in the dark alley, but it was constrained enough by the tight beam to leave Jonathan’s eyesight sufficiently intact to discern what had happened. It left a smoking line along the stone wall just to his left.

“That’s what I love about these wands,” Jeremiah said lightly. “Dead quiet. If I decide I’m tired of your crap, I can put a beam through your head at any moment and nobody’s gonna hear a thing. By the time they find your corpse, I’ll be long gone. So let me clarify your position, asshole: the guy with the wands is the guy making the decisions. You want to walk out of here, start by not convincing me you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

“I’d be very surprised,” Jonathan said, in just as dry a tone, “if you’ve ever heard of who I’m with.”

“Oh, I get around. Try me.”

Shadows gathered.

They dispersed instantly, leaving Jonathan disoriented and in a new position, closer to the mouth of the alley and facing Jeremiah from behind. The enforcer was just spinning about in confusion, brandishing his wand, when a streak of bruise-colored energy slammed into him, sending him staggering to the dirty alley floor with his weapon clattering away across the pavement.

He immediately started pushing back upright, his teeth clenched in pain, and a second shadowbolt slammed him back to the ground. This time, he stayed there, gasping.

“In fact, he does know me,” Natchua said, lowering her arm. “His name’s Jeremiah Shook. He spent a week bumming around Last Rock a couple of years ago, till he incited some kind of adventurer riot and got hauled off to the capital in cuffs. I’m very curious what the hell he’s doing here, why he is pestering you, and most especially…”

She gracefully held out one hand, palm up, and darkness coalesced around it. The shadows dispersed to leave her holding a reliquary, an iron-bound tube of green glass with a single rose suspended in its center. It had a newer metal chain and several enchanted rings attached to one end that looked like they had been tacked on after the fact by a different artisan than its maker.

“…just what he is doing with this.”

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15 – 15

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“He is an Izarite, as a matter of fact.”

“Now I’ve truly heard everything,” Shook snorted.

The Jackal brayed his characteristic shrill laugh. “Sonny boy, if you haven’t learned better than to think that by now, you never will!”

“He sounds like an intriguing individual,” Khadizroth said to their hostess, ignoring the two of them.

Branwen Snowe nodded, smiling at the dragon. “Infernomancy is not esteemed by the cult, obviously, but Mr. Agasti has exercised his craft—both of them—in Izara’s service. He is among the few trusted with the creation of shatterstones, and has provided legal services to local temples at no charge. I can personally attest that being a person not widely liked by the Brethren does not preclude being of service to them.”

“Shatterstones,” the Jackal chortled. “That’s got to be the silliest idea anyone’s ever had for defense.”

“I assure you, those things are not to be taken lightly,” Khadizroth murmured.

“More to the point,” added Shook, “what the hell legal services would the Izarites ever need? What kind of asshole sues a temple of Izara?”

“Such things do happen, now and again,” Branwen said ruefully, “but it mostly comes down to the fact that the majority of lawyers look to Avei for patronage. Their faith is not fondly disposed toward ours as a rule.”

The enforcer nodded. “Well, Avenists making trouble is something I definitely understand.”

“You could say it is what brings us all together,” Khadizroth added with a small smile at Branwen.

“To give the Sisterhood credit, I think blaming Basra on them is excessively harsh,” the Bishop replied, smiling back. “Creatures such as she are adept at squirming into organizations and hollowing out a niche for themselves. And it was Avei’s own who drove her out. Really, it was inspiring the way young Trissiny descended upon her. I am not pleased by violence as a rule, but to see an avatar of Avei’s righteous vengeance in action, one cannot help but be impressed.”

Shook and the Jackal snorted in unison.

“I have several times had the same thought,” Khadizroth said to Branwen, continuing to ignore them. The dragon gave her a warm little smile before returning his attention to the city map laid out upon the room’s sole desk. “So. This pattern is suggestive, obviously. What would you say are the chances that this Mortimer Agasti is in league with the Black Wreath?”

“The entire menace of the Wreath is that one can never be certain of that, about anyone,” Branwen replied gravely. “But I am as confident in Agasti’s loyalties as in anyone’s.”

“I dunno this guy but I’m inclined to agree,” Shook added, folding his arms and leaning against the wall. “The one Izarite warlock? Seems a little on the nose. The Wreath never do the obvious thing, even when it would be the smarter thing in their position. I honestly wonder if over-complicating everything isn’t a commandment their religion.”

“Then there is another explanation for the distribution of these sites you have identified around his establishment, your Grace,” Khadizroth mused, studying the map. “May I ask how you acquired this intelligence?”

“These reports come from the Thieves’ Guild,” she said. “My own contact, not the Church’s. Eserites are generally disinclined to respect any central authority; coupled with the general Western distrust for the Universal Church, it is unsurprising that these reports weren’t made available to Basra. I am reasonably sure they won’t be, either, so you needn’t worry about her learning these are not reports of chaos cultist activity.”

“How come the Guild hasn’t moved against ’em, if they know where they are?” Shook asked, his attention more focused upon her.

“Each of these six sites was the source of a single sighting,” Branwen explained, smiling vaguely at him. She had a tendency to appear oddly vapid when not speaking directly to Khadizroth. “A demon sighting, summoning residue, in one case just people in gray robes. Nobody has been harmed, that I have heard of, which makes all the difference. The Guild and the Wreath mutually avoid one another; it gets gratuitously ugly when they fail to, as I have observed since one of my fellow Bishops keeps deliberately setting that up. So long as the Wreath are not actually harming the people of Ninkabi, I don’t expect Eserite intervention. And they likely won’t. Whatever they are up to, the Wreath seldom create civilian casualties, I have to give them that.”

“What’re you thinkin’, K?” Shook asked.

“The obvious possibility is that the Wreath have some designs upon this Mortimer Agasti,” the dragon said, straightening back up and turning to gaze pensively out the office’s window. Branwen had brought them to a nondescript space owned by the Izarite cult, a two-room apartment with a cozy office-like space in which they now stood and a small, adjoining bedroom. “But that, I feel, is the less likely one.”

“The obvious answer’s always the less likely one with these assholes,” the Jackal chuckled. “Jerry hit that nail on the head.”

“I think,” Khadizroth said slowly, “they are using him as cover.”

“Trying to create ‘accidents’ to discredit Mortimer?” Branwen asked, her blue eyes sharp and alert once fixed on the dragon. “It occurred to me that this might be their goal. Their entire calling is to quell and contain demonic outbreaks. If they consider him a danger…”

“Possible, but I rather doubt it. Notably, the Black Wreath move to suppress lone warlocks, yes, but have historically been reluctant to face potential rivals. They go to great lengths to avoid the Topaz College, and flee from red dragons upon sight.”

“You may not’ve noticed, being cooped up with us the last year or so, but people fleeing from dragons ain’t just a Wreath thing,” Shook said dryly. The Jackal burst out laughing in near-hysterics; by this point, even Branwen knew to ignore him.

“Even so,” Khadizroth said, turning to face them again and folding his hands behind his back. “If Mortimer Agasti is a known and liked figure in the city, and closely involved with the Izarite cult, the Wreath are unlikely to have hostile designs upon him. Perhaps in years past they might have, but following their defeats at Tiraas and Veilgrad, their forces are considerably thinned. I cannot believe they would waste effort chasing mockingjays, which raises the question of what they are after in Ninkabi. What would be in character for them is using him as camouflage.”

“Yeah, I could see that,” the Jackal said, still grinning. “So long as they’re close to warlock boy, any miscellaneous demon shit that somebody reports is likely to get blamed on him.”

“The hole in that plan is the warlock himself,” said Shook. “Who better to hunt them down? If I was him, Wreath digging a burrow under my back porch would immediately become my first priority.”

“Mortimer is…quite reclusive,” Branwen said, frowning thoughtfully. “It is entirely possible he has not noticed any infernal presence nearby. Aside from his work on shatterstones, he has not done anything save look after his revenants within the walls of his club in years.”

“Do not forget, also, that the Wreath’s greatest weapon is their stealth,” Khadizroth added. “They can hide even from paladins, even from the gods, and that craft is Elilinist specifically, not merely infernal. A rival warlock might be one of the least likely parties to detect their presence.”

“Okay, so let’s say this theory’s right,” said Shook. “Wreath’s operating in that neighborhood, using this Agasti guy as a cover. What’s our play? Right off the bat I can tell you it’s not a good situation to wade into. Just the fact they were able to pick their own ground gives ’em the advantage. I like the Wreath better when they’re forced to meet on somebody else’s terms. Preferably mine.”

“Well spotted, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gravely, nodding. “Making targets of ourselves is not a winning move. As yet, it is unlikely the Wreath even know we are present and interested in them. That is our greatest advantage.”

“How’s about we make Basra a target?” the Jackal suggested, grinning as usual. “That’s where all this is leading up to anyway, isn’t it?”

“You know, that’s a pretty good idea,” Shook agreed. “If the whole objective here is cutting the legs out from under Basra, it’s a lot less likely to bite us on the ass if it’s somebody else who does it. Trick is setting that up.”

“It may be less tricky than you imagine,” Branwen said softly, “if approached in the right way. Simply introducing Basra to Black Wreath cultists directly will almost certainly result in some manner of explosion.”

“There’s no way she’s dumb enough to just lunge after bait like that,” Shook objected. “Nobody who’s lived that long and achieved what she has is that stupid.”

“Why, Thumper,” the Jackal cooed, “I didn’t know you thought so highly of our fearless leader! How long have you been nursing that crush?”

“First step in dealing with any asshole who needs a takedown is to give them full credit for their capabilities,” Shook said icily. “I made the mistake of not respecting one smarmy cunt once, and it’s the reason I’m stuck out here with you fuckers. I don’t mean to repeat my errors.”

“You may find it an amusing irony, Mr. Shook,” Branwen said lightly, “that Principia Locke has played a major role in cutting Basra Syrinx down to size on multiple occasions. She’s arguably the reason you are both out here.”

Shook went stiff as a plank, sucking in a long breath through his teeth. For a long few seconds, color rose in his face as if he were bout to burst a blood vessel.

Then, unexpectedly, he relaxed, and actually chuckled. “Y’know what? That actually is pretty funny.”

“Hmmm.” They all turned back to Khadizroth to find him smiling slightly, again looking down at the map. “I like this general line of thought. Rather than confront our enemies, let someone else exert pressure upon them. And ultimately, set them against one another without dirtying our own hands.”

“So, basically the thing Justinian does to everybody else,” the Jackal said lightly. “Hey, sounds good! Sure seems to work out okay for him.”

“We aren’t Justinian,” Shook pointed out. “And there’s a notable lack of a middle part in that plan. Pressure them how? And then, arrange that confrontation…how?”

“It is simply too early to lay out the final stages of such a campaign,” said Khadizroth. “The manner in which things develop will determine what pieces are in what position upon the board when the endgame approaches. It is a mistake to over-plan too far in advance, particularly when one knows as little as we do at the moment. Instead, we must seek to apply that pressure, and continue increasing it until an opportunity presents itself to move decisively.”

“What do you propose to do, Lord Khadizroth?” Branwen asked.

“Leverage the assets available to us, to begin with,” the dragon explained. “There are means within the mysteries of fae magic of laying triplines which may catch even the Wreath. I do not propose to set traps for them, but rather signals that will enable me to tell where they have been, and ideally, doing what. Unfortunately it is problematic for me to move about the city. Some things I can do from a distance, using only this map. For others, Vannae can travel more freely.”

“Somewhat,” Shook cautioned. “An elf will create less of an uproar, but they still aren’t common in cities. Especially out here in the West.”

“He can deflect some attention by adopting traditional costume rather than that suit he was wearing before,” Branwen suggested. “Many people cannot tell one elf from another, sadly. And city dwellers in general are somewhat jaded to novel sights. So long as he does not cross his own trail too frequently…”

“Elves can be pretty sneaky when they want to,” the Jackal drawled. “I mean, y’know, so I hear. Damn shifty elves, stealin’ our women and our jobs.”

“Great, more magic bullshit,” Shook grunted. “What’s that leave for us to do?”

“It would be tremendously foolish not to take advantage of the full range of talents available,” Khadizroth assured him. “To begin with, one thing we are equipped to do is draw official attention to this district and hamper the Wreath’s movements. In our own little cell are a Thieves’ Guild veteran, a succubus, and an assassin. If the three of you cannot create a stir that fills this neighborhood with police, no one can.”

“Oooh!” The Jackal sat bolt upright in the chair in which he had been sprawled, positively beaming. “Crime spree!”

“Now, hold on,” Shook interjected. “One of the few actually sacred sites to Eserites is in Ninkabi, and by Snowe’s account the local Guild is already aware of warlocks fucking around in this area. If anything resembling unauthorized crime starts happening consistently, the Guild will move into the neighborhood in force. And that will spook the Wreath into vanishing. Like the Bishop mentioned, they want none of that fight.”

“It will have to be a slow escalation,” Khadizroth agreed. “And ideally, of a nature that stirs up official presence in the entire city. The Wreath may be able to shift their focus away from Agasti’s local aegis, but that will only make them stand out more—and I think they will not leave Ninkabi entirely. There is, after all, a reason they are here.” He shifted to regard Branwen with a thin smile. “I have a theory about that, as it happens.”

“Oh?” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

“I hesitate to comment prematurely. With luck, my efforts with Vannae will yield answers soon.”

“It’s not kind to lead a lady on, Lord Khadizroth,” she said, smiling.

“I hope I shall soon be in a position to make it up to you, my dear.” Khadizroth held her eyes a moment longer before turning back to the others. “So. Given those criteria, what do you think?”

Shook heaved an irritated sigh. “I think that job needs either a much bigger crew or more magic fuckery. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Shiri can whip up something like that, which I got a feeling is why Syrinx doesn’t like me takin’ her out of the HQ. Me, though, I’m not the guy for large-scale manipulation.”

“So,” the Jackal said, his avid grin a sharp contrast to Shook’s dour expression, “crime that torques off the authorities…but slowly…and doesn’t rile the Thieves’ Guild. Oooh, it’s like a puzzle box! I love it! I’m gonna get started right away!”

“Get started on…what, exactly?” Branwen inquired delicately.

“I don’t know!” the Jackal exclaimed with wild glee. “But I have a good feeling about this!”

“Makes one of us,” Shook muttered.

“I apologize for relegating grunt work to you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said, drawing his eyebrows together in a slight frown, “but we must also be attentive to the need to placate the Inquisitor. My work and Vannae’s I can justify to her as hunting cultists, as that will be precisely what we are doing. We already need to concoct some manner of cover that will satisfy her as to what Jack and Kheshiri are up to. Someone needs to be following up on leads the old-fashioned way, if only to have something convincing to report to her.”

Shook heaved a sigh. “Yep, sounds about right. Well, hell, I haven’t made any of my choices with the aim of gettin’ to do the glamorous jobs. And you’re right, K, that bitch as as paranoid as a shaken can of mice. We’d better start digging up some bone to throw her or she’s never gonna let more than three of us at a time out of her sight.”

“Basra is paranoid,” Branwen offered, “but also possesses wide blind spots, and a tendency to get tunnel vision once her attention is fixed on a target. Certain important functions in her brain are just missing. In fact, what’s wrong with her is very similar to what’s wrong with him.” She nodded at the Jackal, who waved back. “If you have developed any skill at managing his antics in the last year, you will find it applicable in maneuvering around Basra.”

“That is good to know,” Shook said, and winked. “Thanks for the tip, B.”

“Now, I don’t think that’s entirely fair,” the Jackal protested breezily. “The woman is one big clenched sphincter rolling along in a ball of ego. At least I know how to have fun.”

“Basra has her amusements,” Branwen said, unsmiling. “She is particularly fond of murder, and of sexually abusing her subordinates. I urge you to be careful in dealing with her.”

“That’s just unsporting, that is,” the Jackal opined. “If you’re gonna sexually abuse someone, it should be at least a rival, if not a superior. Otherwise where’s the satisfaction?”

“You’re a twisted little fuck, aren’cha,” Shook grunted, stepping over to the desk. Ignoring the Jackal making kissy faces at him, he leaned over the map, his eyes darting back and forth across it a few times before he pointed to a specific spot. “This one has a lot more notes next to it.”

“Ah, yes, that’s a little cafe where there have been multiple suspicious sightings,” Branwen said, craning her neck to follow his indicating finger. “Well, three, which is two more than at any other location on the list. But those were three of the earliest; there has been nothing there in months.”

“Eh, this is busywork anyhow,” he said with a shrug, and stepped back from the desk, straightening his lapels. “And that’s where Syrinx will screech at me for not going if I don’t go there, so that’s a handy answer to the question of where to start.”

“I will have familiar spirits watching you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him, “in case you run into trouble. But remember: our ability to rush across the city to your aid is limited. Do be careful. This mission is not entirely a smokescreen, and there’s a real chance of the Black Wreath noticing someone dogging their heels.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shook said with a grin. “That, plus I need to avoid the actual Guild. Thanks for keepin’ an eye out, K, but this ain’t my first rodeo. You guys do your magic shit and…whatever the fuck he’s up to.” He jerked a nod toward the Jackal, then turned and pulled open the front door. “Let me worry about the grunt work. That’s where I shine.”


“I still don’t know if it’s a great idea to split up,” Jonathan protested.

“How much of what we’ve done would you characterize as a great idea?” Melaxyna replied.

“That’s my point exactly. Even relative to all this noise in general, this specific thing doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“It’s a question of dividing our forces most efficiently,” Natchua said quietly. “Melaxyna and I are going to canvas nearby magic shops and practitioners. That is my area of expertise, and let’s be honest, social skills are not. I’m more in need of backup from the manipulator demon.”

“Empathy demon,” Melaxyna corrected primly.

Jonathan sighed, distractedly running a hand through his hair. “Well. I won’t lie, it’s a little reassuring to know you’re consciously aware of that.”

Natchua’s expression soured slightly, but she made no comment on his observation. “The opposite is true of you, Jonathan. You’re better at talking to average, working-class people because you are one. You’re also likable and forthright, and frankly you don’t need supervision.”

“Thanks, I guess,” he said a little wryly.

“I’m not sending out off alone without protection,” Natchua added in a softer voice, her expression growing more solemn. “I have ways of being alerted if you’re in danger, Jonathan. Believe me, I’ve taken steps.”

“Natchua, knowing infernomancy has been done at me is never going to make me feel safer.”

She pressed her lips into an irritated line. “Fine. Good. Don’t feel safe, because you aren’t; none of us are, that is the entire point of this. But either you trust me, or you don’t.”

He stared at her. “Trust? Do…we need to revisit how this all started with you lying to me for months?”

“We both know what happened,” she snapped. “And that I didn’t harm you, or let you be harmed. Either you trust me, or you don’t. It’s a choice, Jonathan. Sometimes the smart thing to do isn’t the right thing.”

“Yeah,” he said quietly, meeting her eyes. “Yeah, fair enough. I guess it’s sure as hell true that none of us are here to do the smart thing.”

Natchua cracked a smile in spite of herself, but just as quickly cleared her throat, smoothing her face. “Right, anyway. We’re off; you find some watering hole to gossip with the locals. Come on.”

She turned and strode to the mouth of the alley, both of them following. They emerged into the morning sun, earning a few curious glances from passersby.

“Yeah, good thing this isn’t suspicious,” Jonathan muttered. “Don’t mind me, I’m just the guy coming out of dark alleys with two—oof!”

Melaxyna flung herself forward, hugging him with her arms around her neck and her feet off the ground. “You be careful, Johnny! This isn’t Mathenon and you don’t know where anything is, and if you get lost we’re not gonna spend the whole day chasing you down! Got it?”

She dropped her heels back to the pavement and gave him a pointed stare from inches away. He stared right back, blinking in shock.

“Never try not to be noticed, that’s shifty as hell,” the disguised succubus muttered, barely moving her lips. “Be noticed doing something ordinary, nobody’ll remember that. All right, get outta here, y’big goon,” she added loudly, reaching up to ruffle his hair and then turning to flounce away.

This time Natchua was left to follow, herself looking bemused.

Jonathan smoothed his hair back into place while walking the other way, peering around. The business day was underway by that point, shops opening and people passing with increasing frequency. He surveyed each storefront in passing, just like any person new to the city and looking for a place to stop in…which was true, ulterior motives or not.

Passing the open door of a small tea shop, Jonathan slowed at the smell of bread and meat from within, suddenly reminded that he’d skipped breakfast, not trusting anything cooked by a succubus. And apparently they were going to be in this city until suitable hours for a nightclub to open…

That decided him. He stepped into the relative dimness, taking in the layout as his eyes adjusted. There were three other patrons sitting at a table in the back, and a young Jendi woman standing behind the counter, just putting a fresh pot of tea on an arcane stovetop.

“Morning, stranger,” she said with a smile as he slid onto a stool at the counter itself. “What’ll it be?”

“Cup of plain tea, please,” he said. “Whatever you’re brewing there is fine. And… Okay, I’m too hungry to be picky. What would you recommend for someone who’s unfamiliar with Jendi food but willing to be adventurous?”

“There’s no high cuisine here,” she replied, grinning. “If you want a good solid breakfast, my pasties are the same meat, cheese and cabbage in flatbread you can get anywhere in the Empire.”

“The same as anywhere in the Empire sounds perfect!”

“Then perfect is coming atcha,” she said, winking and reaching for one of the still-steaming pastries set below glass in the case next to the counter. “It’ll be ten pennies for that and the tea.”

Jonathan was already pulling out his coin pouch and counted out pennies without comment; that was steeper than what a similar meal would cost back in Tiraas, but he’d been living in Mathenon where everything was hellaciously expensive. It was downright refreshing not to be gouged, after living in a city of bankers.

He chewed and drank in silence for several minutes while she attended to another customer. A shopkeeper was the perfect person to pump for information, but Jonathan knew better than to be seen to be pumping; people mistrusted a nosy stranger. For the moment, the food was plenty distracting, considering how hungry he was. The pasty appeared to be full of goat, and spicier than he was used to, but still good. This was good, honest chow, the kind of thing a man needed to fuel a solid day’s work.

For a few minutes he just let himself sit there in a cafe and eat. Just a guy and his breakfast. It was strangely but deeply therapeutic after the repeated upheavals of the last few days. And the last twenty years.

And as luck would have it, the shopkeeper was the one to strike up the conversation, in the end.

“I get mostly people from the neighborhood in here,” she said, returning to Jonathan with a smile and topping off his tea unasked. “You’re a fresh face! And clearly not from nearby.”

“Aw, what gave me away?”

Her grin was a white flash in her dark face, a smile of good humor that warmed her brown eyes. “You just passing through, or settling in?”

“That kind of depends on my luck,” Jonathan said with a sigh, setting down his nearly-finished pastry on his napkin. “You know how it is, a guy’s gotta go where there’s work. I thought I had a job lined up this morning, but that turned out to be somebody playing some kind of prank on me.”

She frowned. “That’s a rough start to the day. What sort of prank?”

“Oh, sent me to a place that’s not even hiring, and frankly…” He frowned, lowering his voice and leaning forward. “It was weird. Kind of scary. You know about a place called Second Chances?”

The shopkeeper’s expression went flat. “They don’t hire, stranger.”

“Yeah, I sure as heck know that now. You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I would swear it was a demon who answered the door. If I wasn’t passing by here and got distracted by the smell of your cooking I’d already be heading to the police.”

“If you’d met a demon who was afraid of being rumbled to the police, you wouldn’t have walked away,” she informed him. “That place is run by Mr. Agasti. Don’t you give him any trouble, he’s a good man.”

Slowly, Jonathan straightened up, setting down the teacup he had started lifting to his lips. “That so?”

“That’s so,” the woman replied, now meeting his gaze challengingly. “Yes, he’s a warlock, and yes, those are demons he’s got working his club. But Mr. Agasti has never hurt a soul, and done a lot of good for Ninkabi. You want to get by around here, you’d better not cause him any grief.”

Jonathan held her eyes for a moment, then nodded and raised his teacup again. “All right, that’s good enough for me.”

She looked slightly taken aback. “Is it?”

He shrugged, swallowed a sip of tea, and picked up his pasty again. “Sure, that hard to believe? I dunno the neighborhood, I’m new in town. It’s not the first neighborhood I’ve ever been to, though. If somebody rouses that kind of defense from the first random shopkeeper I meet, it almost always turns out they’re good people. I dunno how that works, him being a warlock and all, but there’s no reason I need to, is there? Everything’s better when folks mind their business.” He took a bite, smiling as he chewed.

The woman relaxed, and found a smile of her own. “Well, good. Sorry to get tetchy with you. It’s not always somebody new to the area is so down to earth about it.”

“Oh, I believe that,” Jonathan said wryly after swallowing. “Like I said, not my first day dealing with people.” He hesitated in the act of lifting his last bite to his mouth. “You mind indulging my curiosity, though? How’s a guy who summons demons get to be so well thought of by his neighbors? That’s something you don’t see every day.”

“No, that’s true enough,” she agreed, “Mr. Agasti is nothing if not special. Oh, hello there! Two Tiraan boys on the same morning, that’s new. You guys friends?”

Jonathan looked up, meeting the eyes of the man who had just stepped up to the counter from the door, whom he had never seen before. In fact, with one glance he was pretty sure this was not the sort of person with whom he was likely to become friends. The guy wore a suit about five times more expensive than Jonathan’s, had his hair slicked back with an excessive amount of oil, and in general projected a greasy quality he associated with aggressive salesmen.

“Not everybody from the home province is related, sweetheart,” the new arrival said condescendingly, then smiled, deliberately letting his eyes drop to her chest for a moment. “But maybe we can be friends, hmm?”

Her smile had already evaporated. “I’ll be right with you, sir,” she said curtly, then turned and strode off to check on the table at the back.

Jonathan chewed slowly on his last bite, stifling his annoyance. Quite aside from having his information-gathering interrupted right when it was about to pay off, now he was stuck next to the kind of man who urgently needed to have his face punched on general principles. It was enough to ruin the appetite.

The sleazy guy in the suit seated himself right beside Jonathan, regarding him with a smile that went nowhere near his eyes. “Funny conversation I just walked in on. What was all that about warlocks and demons?”

“Couldn’t really tell you,” Jonathan said noncommittally. “I was just about to find that out myself. I’m new to the area, too. If there’s demon stuff going on, that’s the kind of thing you want to find out about sooner than later, am I right?”

“Hell yes, and pun intended,” his new acquaintance agreed, extending a hand. “I’m Jeremiah.”

“Jonathan.” He grasped his hand and shook it firmly. Appropriately firmly, while Jeremiah stared into his eyes and squeezed hard enough he was clearly trying to hurt. One of those guys, if that hadn’t been obvious already. It wasn’t much of a hardship; the guy had decent grip strength, but Jonathan had spent his life working with his hands, and they showed it.

“So, Jonathan,” Jeremiah said in a tone that didn’t quite succeed at being nonchalant, “what brings you to town?”

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15 – 14

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“So…now what?” November asked the next morning.

The group stilled, all turning expectantly to Ingvar.

“With one path closed,” he said slowly, standing and beginning to kick dirt over the last embers of their campfire, “we would naturally move on to the next. Aspen and I have been traveling widely across the continent, seeking answers and wisdom among the elves and the Ranger enclaves. If we were to keep to that pattern, this would be the time to move on to find another of those.”

“There aren’t any groves west of the Wyrnrange,” Rainwood pointed out. “You might find a few pilgrims or hunters around the Deep Wild’s frontier, but this isn’t elf country.”

“There’s more Shadow Hunter lodges, though,” Taka added. “All the way up north along the mountain range, just like the temples I was talking about yesterday.”

“But,” Ingvar said patiently, “I believe it is time to pursue a new course of action. Something more purposeful.”

“Do we really need to?” Aspen asked. “I liked what we were doing.”

“So did I,” he said with a smile. “But the world turns. All living things must be aware of the season and act accordingly. Our circumstances are suddenly different, and I feel it’s time to take more direct action.”

“So,” November repeated, “what do we do now, then?”

“First,” said Ingvar, “we hunt.”

Tholi grinned and Taka grimaced.

“Well, good,” Aspen said irritably. “Since you lot have eaten all our food, I guess we sorta have to now.”

“It’s only right for companions to share,” Ingvar said. “Food for two stretched between six will naturally disappear quickly. It was freely offered, Aspen, so that’s the end of it. Never hold a favor over someone if you gave it without asking payment in the first place. Still, you are right; we weren’t expecting to provide for this many people, and with our stores depleted, we should restock.”

“You guys have any money?” Taka asked. “Because this is the backcountry, but it’s still in the Empire. There’s places where you can buy stuff; I know where most of them are.”

“We hunt,” Ingvar said again, firmly. “There is more at stake than a need for supplies. I am planning for our next steps beyond survival, for the fulfillment of this quest. Rainwood has offered some helpful advice toward that end. That, too, will require hunting. Both to seek out some things we will need, and to engage in the spiritual act of the hunt.”

November grimaced. “Spiritual act? You’re talking about hunting.”

“If you bothered to understand the slightest thing about Shaathist faith,” Tholi said, rolling his eyes, “you wouldn’t even think of asking such a question. To begin with—”

“Hey, I have an idea!” Aspen interjected. “How about Ingvar explains this part? Listening to you two screech at each other stopped being funny after the first five minutes.”

“Again, Aspen is right,” Ingvar said, not troubling to hide his amusement. The dryad preened visibly at the praise while he continued. “The hunt is sacred in Shaath’s faith because it is the ultimate act of participation in the wild. Hunting requires you to immerse yourself in nature, to know and respect it. Approached in the proper way, it encourages you to be grateful for what nature gives, and to give back to it.”

“I see,” November mused. “Fair enough. I’m actually sort of curious to learn more, now.”

“That’s what all of this is about,” Ingvar said, smiling. “And so, we hunt. Let’s head east, into the foothills.”

“All righty, then,” Taka said easily, rising to her feet and beginning to saunter in that direction. “What’re we hunting for, exactly?”

“Uh, we?” Aspen said, raising her eyebrows.

“I mean no offense, Taka,” Ingvar said more politely, “but…why are you still here? Obviously I wasn’t about to chase you off in the middle of the night, but you’ve fulfilled Brother Nandu’s request to guide us here. I thought you would be returning to your own temple.”

“Eh.” She shrugged, turning to lean against a tree. “The temple’s probably better off without me. I was just about to decide Omnism wasn’t for me, anyway.”

“You didn’t seem to fit in there,” November agreed.

“And you want to come with us?” Ingvar pressed, frowning. “I’m not sure you understand what we’re doing.”

“The broad strokes,” Taka said. “This is some kind of Shaathist reform thing you’re up to, right? I mean, I’ll leave if you don’t want me here, but if it’s okay I’d like to stick around, yeah. Maybe this isn’t the path I’m looking for. Then again, maybe it is.”

“We did find our way to her just as you were being guided to new allies,” Rainwood added. “Sometimes a chance encounter is just that. Sometimes it’s not.”

“That’s fantastically helpful, thank you,” Aspen said acidly. The shaman made a grandiose bow in her direction.

Ingvar hesitated a moment longer, thinking rapidly. Taka’s eyes were on him, but so were everyone else’s.

“Very well,” he said. “I can see no good reason to turn away a willing soul. I will ask for respect for our purpose and one another from everyone here, but…” He cast a quick glance over Tholi and November. “…it seems a little two-faced to turn you away based on that when we haven’t really established that respect among those of us already involved.” Both of them looked away, from each other and from him.

“I will do my best to rein in the attitude,” Taka promised solemnly. Ingvar hoped he was imagining the sarcasm behind it.

“Well…I guess we’re off, then,” Tholi said, lifting his bow. “It’s been a while since I hunted with younglings, and they were…well, young. I don’t expect this is going to go hugely well, with a whole bunch of amateurs along.”

“Again,” said Aspen, striding up alongside him as the group began moving off toward the mountains. “Elf, dryad, two Huntsmen. It’ll be fine. It’s just the girls who’ll need some hand-holding.”

Tholi nodded. “Well, Stark, I apologize in advance if I lose patience. Since it’s your first time I’ll handle your share of the cleaning. Taking a blade to a dead animal makes some people queasy, I understand.”

“Haven’t we already been over this?” she retorted. “I’ve been on wilderness excursions. Not to the extent you have, I’m sure, but the whole point was to go out there and not die. You know what there is to eat in the Golden Sea? Animals. That’s about it.”

“Really?” He gave her a legitimately interested look, falling back to walk beside her. “I haven’t had the privilege myself, yet. What sort of game is there in the Golden Sea?”

November looked at him askance, as if expecting a trick, but answered openly. “Mostly the kinds of game you find in the Great Plains in general. Rabbits, antelope, bison. Also coyotes and the odd lion, though those aren’t exactly game.”

“Predators aren’t good for eating,” Tholi agreed, nodding. “Good hunting, though, for trophies!”

“I don’t see the point of killing a living thing if you’re not planning to do anything with it.”

“The point is not to do so unless you have specific need,” he said seriously, and Ingvar marveled to see her turning her head to listen. “There are a number of practical reasons to hunt predators. If they grow too numerous they can wreck an entire ecosystem; Huntsmen develop a close relationship with the wilds in which we hunt, and sometimes protecting them involves recognizing when a species has gotten out of hand and culling a few. We’re also called in when a particularly dangerous specimen starts going after farm animals—or worse, people. That last is a necessity, but I always hate to do it. Big cats, for example, rarely take to attacking humans unless they’ve been maimed by humans and left unable to hunt their natural prey.”

“Not the cats that live on this continent, anyway,” Ingvar interjected. “Tigers have been known to take people.”

“Right,” Tholi agreed, nodding. “But of course, to fulfill that responsibility, Huntsmen have to be trained, and that means occasionally going after predators just to learn how. The trophies we take from those hunts are highly sacred, and are part of many of our rituals.”

“I see,” November said neutrally. “I guess…you lot do serve a purpose.”

“Everyone serves a purpose,” Tholi grunted.

“That isn’t even close to true,” Taka said wryly.

He chuckled. “All right, fair enough. I meant, all the cults. We have arguments between ours that I don’t think we’re ever going to resolve, but even Huntsmen won’t claim that priestesses of Avei are useless. Well…the Huntsmen I respect don’t say such things,” he added more pensively. “Unfortunately, that isn’t all of them… Well, anyway. I’ve heard stories of more exotic things that live in the Golden Sea, have you seen any?”

“Oh, yeah! There are some fae and magical animals out there. Unicorns, of course, but you don’t mess with those unless you wanna be up to your neck in angry plains elves. My class saw a roc, once, but not up close. We chased it off with spells before it could get any ideas. And there are extinct species, too; apparently the space-twisting nature of the Sea also twists time sometimes. Trissiny told me she saw a smilodon out there once—a really big lion with saber fangs, basically.”

“I know what a smilodon is. That’s a rare find! Did she kill it?”

“No, just scared it off. My class once saw a bird that I swear was twenty feet tall!”

“Right, you mentioned the roc.”

“No, this was a flightless bird, like an ostrich. Except ten times the size and pretty barrel-chested, with a mouthful of fangs instead of a beak.”

“Sounds like a tyran,” Rainwood said. “You’re lucky to have been within sight of one of those and lived to tell about it.”

“Yeah, they don’t like being pelted with arcane bolts any more than rocs do, as it turns out. Pretty much any mundane animal will flee from magic, modern or prehistoric.”

“Most animals,” Tholi corrected, grinning. “Don’t ever fire a wand at a honey badger.”

“What’s a honey badger?”

“They have those up in Onkawa,” Ingvar said. “Fortunately not this far south. They’re basically dog-sized rodents that don’t know the meaning of fear. It’s only in the age of modern science that they’re understood to be animals; for centuries people thought they were demons. That was the simplest explanation for that level of aggression.”

“Sooo,” Taka drawled, “what I’m hearing is, I’m the only one here with no hunting experience.”

Tholi turned his head to frown at her. “What? I thought you said you’ve spent your life traveling up and down this mountain range. How have you done that without knowing how to feed yourself?”

“I can feed myself just fine without hunting, thanks for your concern. Do work, get money, buy stuff. You know, like a normal person.”

“We’ll teach you,” Invar assured her, giving Tholi a look that caused the younger Huntsman to shut his mouth. “Knowing and learning the ways of the wild is going to be a central part of what we do as a group. For a while, I expect all our hunts to be at least half training exercises.”

“So basically,” Taka said, grinning, “we’re gonna starve.”

“If our beginners don’t have much luck,” he replied with a smile, “Tholi, Aspen and I will take care of finding game while the rest of you take a break. I promise we won’t reach the end of the day without fresh meat.”

“That was a joke, I wasn’t actually worried. Like Aspen said, more of this group than otherwise knows what they’re doing in the woods.”

“At least somebody listens to me,” Aspen muttered.

“And what about non-food?” Taka continued. “You said we were hunting for something else. Something you expect to find in the mountains.”

“Yes,” Ingvar said more seriously, nodding. “And thank you for mentioning it. Tholi, Aspen, Rainwood, I’d like you to keep your eyes open for signs, as well. As soon as we can, we need to find some wolves.”


The three of them walked down the broad, arched tunnel which passed for one of the city’s underground streets in silence, the noise of traffic and commerce being left far behind along with the sunlight. This, clearly, was a night spot; it being still early in the morning, nobody here was up and about.

“Always wanted to visit Ninkabi,” Jonathan mused. “The architecture is really something else, even more amazing in person than in the paintings I’ve seen. So naturally, first thing we do is go underground.”

Both women looked sidelong at him.

“Yeah, I know,” he said with a tiny grin. “We’re not here to sightsee, anyhow. The irony just jumped out at me. I’m finding myself a little more sensitive to those, these days.”

“Not necessary,” Natchua said. She was carrying her carved ebony staff, but holding it horizontally at her side rather than using it as a walking aid. “Remember, we’re here to gather information. A certain amount of sightseeing is implied in our mandate, so long as we don’t lose focus.”

“Well, good,” he said thoughtfully. “Much as I hate to do the tourist thing, I’d like to see if I can pick something up for Gabriel. I bet he’d love this place.”

“As long as it’s got girls, he would,” Natchua muttered. Suddenly she halted, raisin her staff up to bar their way.

“Problem?” Jonathan was instantly on the alert, one hand coming to rest on the wand holstered at his belt.

“An obstacle, not a problem,” she said tersely, narrowing her eyes as if studying something they could not see. “There are wards across this passage. Infernal wards…more sophisticated than anything I have ever seen. In fact… That’s amazing, I believe these are keyed into an arcane field. I can’t sense it directly, but the infernal magic intersecting with it…”

“What would be the point of that?” Melaxyna asked. The succubus wore the face of a Tiraan woman of average looks, having opted to match herself to Jonathan’s appearance rather than trying to pass for a local.

“Information processing. All magic is information processing, up to a point, but infernomancy is only so useful as an aid to calculations. Arcane magic is excellent for that, though.”

“This is a public street,” Jonathan protested, then glanced around. “Isn’t it?”

“I note that we’re standing even with the last doors on the side walls,” Melaxyna said. “Which means the wards are blocking off the door that’s at the end down there. Second Chances… Looks like some kind of bar.”

“Then that’s our destination,” Natchua observed. “You stay here, Mel, these wards will identify you instantly. And I can’t see the alarm function directly, but you don’t weave permanent wards of this quality and not have one.”

“Won’t they spot you?” the succubus protested.

Natchua grinned. “My presence, yes. Possibly that I’m an elf. But I know things about the craft of magical stealth that even the Black Wreath doesn’t. My magic will not be detected until I decide to make it so. Wait here, you two, and watch each other’s backs. I don’t anticipate trouble, but this is obviously another powerful warlock we’re dealing with, and those are nothing if not unpredictable.”

“Don’t I know it,” Jonathan grunted.

She gave him an unreadable look and then stepped forward, now carrying her staff upright and setting its butt down on the stone floor with every step. Natchua walked slowly, peering about as if taking in every detail of her surroundings.

“Welp, here we are, then,” Melaxyna muttered when the drow had advanced up ahead. “Am I the only one standing her waiting for her to commit the inevitable screw-up that’ll damn us all?”

“Isn’t that the theme of this entire hambrained quest? And I don’t know why you seem to think you’re talking behind her back. You know she can hear you.”

“I have a simple policy about elves,” Melaxyna said primly. “Never say anything behind their backs you wouldn’t say to their faces. Don’t get me wrong, I like the girl. Really, I do, she reminds me of pretty much every person I have liked, historically.”

He glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to Natchua, who was now pacing along one of the walls and examining it closely. “Every person, huh.”

“I’m not really drawn to sly people,” she said, smirking. “It’s idealists who move my spirit. The ones who see an injustice in the world and are so furious at it that they never stop struggling to burn it down. Even if they have barely any plan and no real hope of succeeding, nothing ahead but the prospect of an early grave.” Her smile had faded as she spoke, and by that point she was gazing almost sadly at the drow. “Maybe it is narcissistic, in the end. I was like that, when I was alive the first time.”

“What changed your mind?” Jonathan asked quietly.

She snorted. “Nothing. That’s exactly why I spat on Vidius’s offer of paradise. Why I took Vanislaas’s bargain. I’d seen what the gods were about. You can’t fight gods, not realistically, it’s a hopeless prospect. But I couldn’t face the prospect of not fighting.”

“Mm.” Jonathan turned look back the way they had come, finding no one approaching them from the tunnel’s mouth. “Well, I guess I can’t say I know you all that well, but you don’t really strike me as the do-or-die type. Something must have changed.”

Melaxyna went still, staring ahead with a blank expression that hinted she wasn’t actually looking at anything.

“…maybe,” she answered at last. “We all change over time, even those of us not bound to powers beyond our scope. I guess spending a few centuries as a succubus is enough to warp anybody’s viewpoint. Heh. That also reminds me of our friend up there.”

He turned back to her, glancing at Natchua’s back again before meeting Melaxyna’s eyes. “Really.”

“Girl got burned by trying to use something she couldn’t control. Failed to understand or respect its power, and ended up the way any ignorant person does from playing around with dangerous tools whose use they weren’t schooled in.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Jonathan muttered. “Nothing’s ever gonna make me comfortable with all this infernomancy. Frankly, I think my skepticism is pretty damn well warranted.”

“Infernomancy?” Melaxyna turned a wide-eyed gaze on him. “Oh, that’s what worries me least. Natchua can handle the magic, with the knowledge swimming in her head. That girl is the one warlock in the world I’d trust to avoid blowing us all to bits by mistake.” She shifted again to watch the drow, folding her arms and smiling faintly. “I was talking about sex.”

Jonathan found nothing to say in reply to that. As the silence stretched out, Melaxyna’s smile grew by tiny increments.

It vanished moments later, however, when Natchua brazenly stepped up to the closed door of Second Chances and tried the latch. When it didn’t budge, she rapped sharply upon it with her staff.

“What the hell are you doing,” the succubus hissed. “Kid, no. You are not good at conversational persuasion!”

“Give her a chance to work,” Jonathan murmured. “She’s more savvy than you give her credit for.”

Melaxyna huffed and crossed her arms, but made no response.

Natchua had to rap twice more before anybody answered. The door opened just a crack; whoever was on the other side was concealed by her body, but after a short conversation it clicked shut again and Natchua turned and strode back to them.

“That was illuminating,” she said, wearing a pleased little smile.

“I cannot believe you just knocked on the door,” Melaxyna exclaimed. “I thought we were being stealthy.”

“Too much creeping about is counterproductive,” Natchua replied. “Remember, we are trying to recruit Xyraadi, not ambush her, and definitely not scare her off. So yes, we do need to sniff out where she is hiding, but it’s leading up to approaching her. Something tells me that won’t go over so well if we just leap out of the shadows.”

“Well, you’re not wrong, there,” Jonathan agreed. “So what’d you find out?”

“Second Chances is a popular nightclub, which is closed at this hour. We can come back after sundown like everybody else. It is owned by a certain Mortimer Agasti, who I suspect may be the architect of these fascinating infernal wards all over the place. We’ve got the whole day to see what’s known about this chap here in town.”

“Did you learn anything about Xyraadi?” Melaxyna asked.

“Oh, yes,” Natchua said scathingly. “I walked up and asked if they were keeping a six-hundred-year-old khelminash sorceress squirreled away in the basement. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“I can’t believe I was standing here defending your character a minute ago,” the succubus pouted.

“I can’t believe that’s how you would characterize that exchange. What was really fascinating is that this Agasti fellow has a revenant demon answering his door.”

“Ew.” Melaxyna curled her lip in disgust.

“Actually answering the door?” Jonathan demanded. “Those things are illegal as hell, pardon the pun.”

“One more thing about which to inquire whilst we peruse the local scuttlebutt,” Natchua said, now wearing a distinctly mischievous smile. “Jonathan, stand back, if you would.”

“Him stand back?” Melaxyna said warily. “What’re you up to now?”

“Hold still.” Before the succubus could render another opinion, Natchua gestured with her staff and a spell circle materialized on the floor around her. This one hovered an inch off the ground in roiling black lines which, after existing barely a second, dissolved into mist which swirled up and streamed straight into Melaxyna’s nose and mouth, causing her to double over coughing.

“Excuse me,” Jonathan said incredulously, “but aren’t we standing within a few yards of some incredibly powerful infernal wards?”

“Yes, quite,” Natchua said cheerily, taking Melaxyna by the arm and setting off back up the tunnel. “So let’s clear off before their owner comes to investigate. Now he knows we’re here and sniffing around.”

“Can’t—believe—you little—bitch,” Melaxyna rasped, still gasping.

“You wanna let the rest of us mere mortals in on the joke?” Jonathan demanded, trailing along after them.

“That will get Mel through the wards, when we come back. I’ve already told you,” she said patiently, “Xyraadi is in there, and we want her. But we want to talk with her, not seize her. That will mean some manner of frontal approach eventually, and that is far more likely to succeed if she is already curious about us. Really, despite what absolutely everyone seems to think, I do know what I’m doing.”

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15 – 13

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“Goooood morning!” Melaxyna sang, bracing the huge mixing bowl on her hip and continuing to stir batter even as she waved. “Pull up a seat! First batch of pancakes will be up in two shakes.”

Natchua crept closer, warily examining the area. Last night this had been a second-floor landing where the servant’s stairs from Sherwin’s kitchen apartment had terminated in an open area featuring a now-boarded window. A hallway extended off from it, lined with doors behind which lay the small bedrooms the group had taken over.

Melaxyna had been a very busy demon.

She had dragged in two relatively un-rotted desks from the surrounding rooms and arranged them back-to-back against one wall to form a makeshift table, and acquired three mismatched chairs and a stool to finish the setting. Whether the nails driven into the walls were new or had been there the night before Natchua could not say, but now they had a selection of pots and pans hanging from them. Another desk had been pushed into the corner to serve as a countertop, its surface positively glowing from the thorough cleaning and polishing it had recently received. Next to this stood a barrel of water and the centerpiece of the whole makeshift kitchen: a dented old arcane range upon which batter was sizzling away in a pan.

“I can’t thank you enough for this thing, boss,” Melaxyna nattered on cheerfully, turning back to her cooking with the bowl still braced against her hip. The succubus was, somehow, wearing a frilled apron, which Natchua strongly suspected was more to sell the look she was going for than because she feared splatters. “I had my doubts, but this is better than even a proper wood stove! Do they make something like this that works as an oven?”

“I assume so,” Natchua replied, slowly taking a seat at the table. “I mean, that thing’s not exactly state of the art, Mel. I got it on the cheap from a pawn shop in Vrin Shai. It’s old, doesn’t even have proper heating charms. Just a couple of burners hooked up to power crystals, basically. I’d keep anything flammable clear of it.”

Melaxyna glanced over her shoulder, just far enough that Natchua could see her raised eyebrow. “This was yesterday, after we got back from the vampire’s? What the hell were you doing in Vrin Shai?”

“You asked for something on which to cook. Calderaas is the place for enchanted appliances, but Vrin Shai is the closest major city to Tar’naris. I figured a drow wouldn’t stand out as much there.”

“That stripe in your hair kind of makes that redundant, honey bun. Why don’t you just get a disguise charm?”

“I kept my hood up, and I’m not made of money,” Natchua said irritably. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be buying appliances in junk shops. Is that tea?”

“Self-serve, doll, I’ve got my hands full.”

There was already most of a platter of pancakes on the counter next to the range, with a chipped teapot beside it emitting fragrant steam. Natchua had to retrieve a cup—also chipped—from the nearby crate in which sat a mismatched assortment of crockery. It looked clean enough, and she decided not to quibble about its origins.

“I almost hesitate to point this out,” she said, returning to her seat at the “table” with a cup of what smelled like strong black tea, “but a working kitchen is the one thing this place already had.”

“There is a kitchen, but Sherwin lives there,” Melaxyna replied cheerfully. “Just cos the cold box and fireplace are there doesn’t mean it’s any less his personal apartment. We’re already putting quite a lot of stimulation on a boy who’s been effectively a shut-in for years. You’d better believe I’m making it worth his while,” she said, turning to smirk and wink, “but let’s leave his personal space alone as much as possible. All this is just making do until your own little side project has more of this place shipshape again, but what I could really use, next time you go shopping, is a sink. I’ve heard of an apparatus that conjures water and then banishes the run-off down a portable hole?”

“Those exist and cost more than a modest house, and that’s just to buy. The power that kind of magic consumes requires mag cannon-grade crystals.”

“Honestly, Natch,” the succubus said in exasperation, “I don’t know where this penny-pinching comes from. I know this wreck of a house isn’t the reason you made an ally of Sherwin Leduc, of all people. If you can’t get him to shell out some money for equipment, you just let me know. I guarantee the man whose bed I warm will bankrupt himself to buy me the moon if that’s what I want.”

“See if you can sound more smug when you say that,” Natchua grumbled. “How did you set all this up without anybody hearing?”

“The stealth was the only hard part! I have to amuse myself somehow, y’know—what’s the point of doing something constructive if you’re not putting one over on everybody in the process? First batch is up!”

She moved the steaming platter of pancakes to the table, then bustled about supplying Natchua with a plate and silverware, followed by cracked dishes of butter and jam.

“Sweets for breakfast,” Natchua murmured, generously slathering a pancake with both. “I love the surface.”

“So!” Melaxyna poured herself into the chair across from her and planted an elbow on the desk so she could lean forward, chin in hand. “You didn’t sleep well.”

“I slept fine,” Natchua said curtly. “Mind your business.”

“Oh, pumpkin, please. You’re talking to the succubus who spent the night surreptitiously building a kitchen. I promise you I was very aware what everybody in this house was doing. Monitoring your perimeter is essential for any kind of skulduggery.”

“You are supposed to be entertaining Sherwin.”

“You may rest assured my given tasks are attended to. I entertained his brains out. Twice! And held off more because after that point I was worried I might accidentally kill him. Poor guy, he hasn’t had much in the way of physical activity in a while, has he? We’ll work on building up that stamina.”

“Melaxyna, I don’t want to hear details of Sherwin’s sex life unless they’re specifically relevant to my own business. And I’m only giving you that proviso for the sake of thoroughness, since I can’t honestly think how they ever would be.”

“Relevant to your interests, got it,” the demon said solemnly. “Then I assume you’re already aware that Jonathan and Hesthri slept in the same room.”

Natchua barely managed not to choke on a sip of tea. She did not succeed in suppressing the venom from the stare she directed at Melaxyna. “Everyone is welcome to sleep wherever they like. I’m not anybody’s mother.”

The succubus had the gall to innocently bat her eyelashes. “So you don’t care that all they did was sleep, then? Well, after a long boring talk about their relationship and that peabrained kid of theirs.”

She set down the teacup so hard it sloshed over. “That’s correct, I don’t. And I think I’ve already made clear where I stand on hearing the sordid details of other people’s personal lives.”

Melaxyna gazed at her with a benign smile.

“He was a means to an end, that’s all,” Natchua snapped. “And now, a nuisance. I don’t care.” She stuffed a heaping bite of pancake into her mouth and began chomping on it vindictively.

“Aw, honey,” Melaxyna said kindly, very nearly earning a shadowbolt to the face. “If I weren’t such a nice, cuddly demon, I’d string you along until you were desperate enough to beg for my help. But I’m me, so I’m offering. You gotta talk to somebody about this.”

“I don’t gotta do anything. There’s nothing to talk about. I don’t even know what you’re on about. Just shut up!”

“Natchua, you are seriously the worst possible personality type to take on the kind of surreptitious mission you’ve assigned yourself,” Melaxyna retorted, an undercurrent of frustration threading her tone. “I thought you Narisians were supposed to be composed above all. How do you always manage to make your feelings so glaringly obvious?”

“I never exactly fit in with my own people,” she muttered, viciously sawing off more pancake. “Tar’naris is a festering pit and drow culture in general would best serve the world by exterminating itself. Um. By obvious, you…just mean to someone as perceptive as a succubus. Right?”

Melaxyna sighed, leaned back in her chair, and folded her arms under her bosom. “Oh, honey.”

“Stop that!” Natchua snarled, hurling her fork down. It bounced off the table and then to the floor, leaving behind a thin trail of jam.

The succubus quietly stood, fetched another fork from the crate, and laid it gently beside her plate. Natchua rested both elbows on either side of her half-eaten pancaked and pressed her face into her hands.

“…I don’t have time for this.”

“Nobody ever does, sweetie,” Melaxyna said softly, sitting back down. “That’s just how it works. You’ve gotta find a way to deal, somehow, until you can resolve it one way or another.”

“I’d have to be an idiot to open up to a child of Vanislaas about personal issues.”

“We have a contract, remember? I can’t harm your interests while in your service or after you release me from it. Not to sound ungrateful, Natch, but you have nothing more to offer me. You already got me out of the Crawl; so long as you keep your promise to send me off before you charge into Elilial’s line of sight, I can’t gain anything else from manipulating you.” She paused, then huffed softly. “Besides, you know how the Vanislaad curse works, probably better than anybody who’s not one of us. I’m a person, not some kind of unreasoning mischief machine. Compulsions aside, I have the full range of feelings and capacities. I like you; I’m allowed to do that. I can and have fallen in love, even in my present state. My heart is as subject to breaking as anyone’s. That I can tell you from experience.”

“No, this is foolish anyway. It’s not like anything can happen.” She straightened, resolutely picking up the new fork. “I just need to ignore the whole thing. It’ll get easier with practice.”

“Yes, it will. But easy enough? You’re losing sleep, your temper is fraying, and your every interaction with at least two of the people with whom you’ve locked yourself in a very cramped situation is going to make it worse. How long before this pushes you into a severe mistake?”

Natchua stared down at her pancakes, fork poised over them but not moving. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”

“Cope.” Melaxyna reached across the table to gently grasp her free wrist. “I know you have issues with your upbringing, but you have the mental training to compartmentalize feelings and still yourself against them. You’ve learned that stuff from the cradle. I’m sorry to say it, I know how big a deal it is for you to have separated yourself from Tar’naris, but step one is going to be calling on the skills you already have to get this thing back under control before it causes you to make a fatal blunder.”

Natchua heaved a heavy sigh. “And step two?”

“Step two is to think about this. You are avoiding it, pretending it doesn’t exist, and that won’t work. You need to really sit down and examine yourself, and Jonathan, and Hesthri. Decide what it is you want from each of them. And then, only then, you’ll be able to decide what to do about it. Which is where the hard part begins that you’re not even in a position to begin planning for, yet.”

“Seems easier than that,” Natchua said dully. “I already told you, nothing can happen.”

“That isn’t even slightly true,” Melaxyna said in a particularly wry tone, “and I’m very much afraid you know it. Haven’t I already told you that denial is only going to make this worse?”

“We’ll all be going up in smoke soon enough, so what does it matter! Besides…he’s too old for me.”

“Aw, hon.” Melaxyna squeezed her wrist, then let it go. “You really don’t grasp why the age thing is an issue, do you?”

“Honestly, no, I don’t,” she snapped. “I figured it’s a human thing. We—they don’t have that concern in Tar’naris.”

“Well, you know how Arachne has an inviolable rule against teachers at her school consorting romantically with students?”

“Never understood that, either.”

“And that is because your frame of reference is Narisian. Because to the Narisian way of thinking, everything comes down to power. That may be workable, even necessary, for a society struggling to survive under the pressures they face, but everywhere else it is a horribly bad idea and the inevitable cause of abuse.”

“Abuse describes most Narisian relationships,” Natchua admitted.

The succubus nodded, folding her arms again. “The age thing is about power dynamics. An older person is wiser, usually more materially secure, and often in a position of relatively greater authority. When they get into a romantic relationship with someone who has none of those advantages… Well, there’s no getting around the fact that the dynamic is imbalanced. Age differences by themselves mean very little; it’s the stuff that comes with them.”

Natchua frowned. “But…none of that…”

“Exactly!” Melaxyna said, smiling. “Jonathan Arquin has no authority over you. He doesn’t have your education or resources, he’s paced himself demonstrably under your power just by being here, and there is the ever-looming fact that with a wave of your hand you can transpose his face with his butt and then melt both. The fact that he’s twice your age is not relevant to the power dynamic in your relationship. Honestly, honey, I hope you didn’t take Hesthri’s little jab too much to heart. Him being a paternal figure to you is one of the more wholesome things about your relationship. You are clearly in need of one of those.”

“And how is that not a power issue?”

Melaxyna beamed. “By itself, it totally is. In context? The scales still tip in your favor. It works out not being abusive in the other direction because you look up to him on some level.”

Natchua leaned her head against one hand, scratching her hairline. “Okay, fine. So what is it you’re trying to get me to do about this, then?”

“Not do, just understand. You clearly have it in your mind that this whole thing is hopeless and pointless, and it’s just not. You do have the potential for some happiness with the man. I guarantee he feels exactly as besotted with you, and exactly as conflicted about it, albeit for different reasons.”

“Well, it’s not as if it’s that simple…”

“Oh, indeed, there’s the ex whom you’ve placed right smack in the middle of this whole thing. And since the whole point of all this was to get access to her, it’s not as if you can just get rid of her.” Melaxyna shifted in her seat, her grin widening. “If you decide you want to make a play for your man, you just let me know. I can definitely teach you how to do that. But remember, first things first: you need to take some time and ponder this. Decide what you truly want and be sure before you upend the whole apple cart.”

Natchua blew out another slow breath, frowning at nothing past Melaxyna’s shoulder. In the next moment, though, she straightened up, turning to look behind her. Melaxyna tilted her head and opened her mouth, but Natchua held up a hand.

It was a few more seconds before the sound of hesitant feet on the moldy carpet were audible to non-elven ears, but moments after that, Hesthri appeared around the corner from the hallway, where she stopped to peer around at Melaxyna’s set-up with wide eyes.

“Morning, sunshine!” the succubus said brightly, hopping back to her feet. “Lemme get you a plate. It’s simple fare today, but if you’ve been on Hell rations for years it’ll be a feast. Me, I was just on mushrooms and pork for a while, and I’m still not over the delightful novelty of sugar.”

“I…was a servant in Ankhravtha-Shakhnavrid,” Hesthri said hesitantly, creeping closer. “The conditions weren’t terrible. Well, spartan by the standards of this plane, but I lived comfortably compared to most in Hell.”

“Ah, good,” Melaxyna replied, setting a plate of pancakes in front of the chair next to Natchua. “These are fairly sweet by themselves; try one to see how it affects your tongue before experimenting with the jam, that’s my recommendation.”

“Thank you, Melaxyna,” she murmured, creeping into the chair with a wary look at Natchua.

“Good morning, Hesthri,” she said, putting on a polite little Narisian smile. And hating herself for it, but Melaxyna had been right; the mindset from which she had been running ever since she came to the surface was immediately useful in her current circumstances. “How’s your finger?”

“Oh! You were right, the claw is already growing back.” Hesthri held up the digit in question.

“Good. I’m sorry to have sprung that on you; I had planned to approach the matter with more warning, but circumstances forced my hand. And, aheh, yours.”

“Um.” Hesthri placed her clawed hands on both sides of her plate, not yet reaching for the food. She stared down at it, though, while speaking. “Mistress, if it pleases you, I have a humble request.”

“Where did all this come from?” Natchua asked, frowning quizzically. “When I first summoned you, you had a mouth like a dispeptic dragon.”

Hesthri hunched her shoulders slightly. “That was before I was your servant. I don’t wish to overstep my bounds.”

“Well…please relax a little bit. I’m not comfortable having people bow and scrape at me.”

“You can just sass her the way I do,” Melaxyna suggested, smirking. “She snarls and complains but this one won’t whip or shadowbolt you for speaking out of turn.”

Natchua groaned, rubbing her forehead. “You needed something, Hesthri? And please, my name is Natchua. None of this mistress stuff.”

“Um…understood,” the hethelax said, still peering warily at her but appearing to unclench slightly. “I wonder if you could please obtain hvanthris gloves for me.”

Natchua frowned. “I don’t know that word. You must have found a gap in the knowledge Elilial jammed in my head.”

“Perhaps not, m—Natchua. It is fairly specialized and not really relevant to infernomancy. Some breeds of hethelaxi have permanent, un-retractable claws.” She held up one hand. “Like mine. Hvanthris gloves are made from a kvanvraranth’s hide to fit over them. They give us a tough and soft surface with gripping power very similar to human skin, so we can do delicate work without scratching everything we touch. Many hethelax servants in khelminash society are issued them for various tasks. I…would like to be as useful as possible, while I am here.”

“I see,” Natchua mused. “That sounds like a reasonable request; things on this plane are generally more fragile and less in need of clawing than in Hell. All right, I’ll work on that, though I’m not sure off the top of my head how to do it. If nothing else, I suppose I could summon a kvanvraranth and then a horogki from a bloodline with leatherworking skills…”

“Or,” Melaxyna interrupted, “since you live on a plane of existence with far more abundant and diverse resources, just get her some gloves! Sounds like you’d need some really particular ones that might have to be custom-made, but I’ll eat my tail if something like that isn’t a lot easier to get up here than down there.”

“That’s a point,” Natchua agreed. “I’ll look into this, Hesthri.”

“Thank you very much, m—Natchua.” She swallowed nervously and then finally picked up one of the pancakes on her plate, not bothering with the fork.

Natchua drew in a steadying breath. “Was Jonathan with you last night? I want to check in with him.”

The hethelax visibly flinched. “He is already up and downstairs…Natchua. He said he wanted to get a start on work?”

“Work? What possible—oh, Omnu’s taint.” Natchua shoved abruptly back from the table and stalked into the stairwell.

There were only so many places anyone could go in Manor Leduc. When she found Jonathan, she also found everyone else.

“Yeah, but seriously, what in the name of crap happened to this place?” one of the hobgoblins was demanding as Natchua stepped into the pulverized ruins of the once-grand front hall. The open sky loomed above; barely enough of the outer walls remained to define the shape of the room. Sherwin and Jonathan stood against one of the walls nearest the hallway to Sherwin’s little kitchen apartment, on one of the very few sections of floor that was still both solid and not buried by rubble. The three hobgoblins were clambering around the mess of fallen stone and roof timbers, one of them perched on a broken beam that put her near the two humans and just above their eye level.

“Several years of neglect,” Sherwin said evasively, crossing his arms.

“Neglect?” The horogki straightened up and turned in a full circle, staring with wide eyes around the room. “Man, you neglected the fuck outta this place, boss. Just several years? It woulda took you full-time neglect with a sledgehammer and no potty breaks to do this in a couple years.”

“A sledgehammer and big-ass claws,” added one of the others, holding up a brick with deep, visible scratches.

“Yes, well, after the neglect, there was a sort of…brawl. Between an archdemon and a Rhaazke.”

Broken shingles sprayed as one of the other hobgoblins burst up from beneath the wreckage. She spat out a mouthful of bent nails before grinning at him. “Well, that sounds a bit more like it! Future reference, handsome, when we need to know what happened to something it saves time to lead with the pertinent information.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Sherwin muttered.

“Waugh!” The second hobgoblin had rapidly clambered all the way to the top of the wall before unwisely stepping out onto the upper edge of an empty window frame. It shattered, sending her plunging down into a heap of rotted boards. Jonathan immediately straightened up, taking a step forward, but in two seconds a little red arm emerged from the rubble, waving. “I’m okay!”

Natchua cleared her throat loudly.

“Hey, Natchua!” Sherwin said, turning to her with a grin. “Sleep well?”

“Melaxyna has somehow set up a second kitchen in the upstairs hall,” she said, ignoring that. “And made breakfast.”

“The succubus can cook?” Jonathan asked skeptically.

“In the Crawl, she ran a marketplace and tavern of sorts for years. Level 2 wasn’t exactly high tea with the Empress, but considering what she had to work with it was actually pretty impressive. I do recommend the pancakes. Anyhow, I see you lot have already gotten to work. I admire your initiative, Jonathan, though it’s not clear to me how you intend to contribute.”

“I’ve worked on more than a few construction sites in my day,” he replied. “I’m not as strong or skilled as the girls, here, but being three times as tall has its advantages, too.”

“Four pairs of hands are better than three!” agreed the hobgoblin balanced on the beam in front of him with a cheery grin. Her teeth looked like those of a shark in urgent need of dental care.

“This really was an inspired idea, Natchua,” Sherwin added. “Sorry we didn’t wait for you, but…everybody was up, they were getting antsy, and, well, you know how it is. Oh! May I introduce Staccato, Pizzicato, and Glissando!”

“You named them?” she said incredulously.

“Why’s that such a startling prospect?” Jonathan asked with an edge in his voice. “They’re sapient beings. Don’t they deserve names?”

“Don’t take that tone with me,” she snapped. “That was exactly my point. Didn’t they already have names?”

“Actually, we didn’t,” said Pizzicato—according to where Sherwin had been pointing when giving that name—who was the one perched in front of them. “Where we come from, you earn a name by not dying long enough to be important to the bosses! Gotta say, none of us were really expecting to get there.”

“I see,” Natchua said, frowning. “What language is that? It’s not demonic and doesn’t sound like Glassian.”

“Actually, nobody knows!” he said, grinning. Sherwin in general looked happier and more energetic than she had ever seen him; evidently a night in the arms of a succubus did wonders for the disposition. “It doesn’t conform to any known language and the terms have existed longer than Tanglish by far. It’s musical terminology! They’ve been preserved by the Vesker cult since time immemorial. Bards never explain their business, but some theologians think they’re sacred words devised by Vesk himself.”

“Kinda doubt it!” Glissando said cheerfully, clambering up onto a heap of crushed masonry. “We’re demons, buttercup. If you’d named us sacred god-terms I figure we woulda burst into flames.”

“Wait a sec,” Staccato added, scowling suddenly. “You mean you thought those were sacred god-terms an’ you went and did it anyway?”

“Um.” Sherwin’s smile slipped. “Well, I mean, obviously…it all worked out?”

Jonathan and Natchua sighed in unison, then looked at each other, and then swiftly away.

“Well, anyway,” she said brusquely. “It’s your house, Sherwin, so I assume you can supervise this. Jonathan, acknowledging that you’ve horned your way into this whole affair through blackmail, are you still interested in making yourself useful?”

“I think we’ve established that’s literally what I came in here to do,” he retorted. “But it sounds like you have something specific in mind.”

“Yes, I do: a field trip. I mentioned yesterday that I have a line on another prospect to recruit—my only other promising lead so far, so until I feel more ready to start sniffing after the Black Wreath’s trail, this is our first and presently only priority.”

“By lead,” Sherwin said hesitantly, “you mean…”

“A demon who I have reason to think will be amenable to our cause. According to my sources, a certain khelminash sorceress who has served the Pantheon in the past has resurfaced recently in Ninkabi.”

“Khelminash, hm,” Sherwin mused, frowning. “It’s a pretty big deal for one of those to be on the mortal plane at all. They’re unsummonable; she must’ve come through a hellgate.”

“You can’t summon this species of demon?” Jonathan asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Well, I mean, in theory,” Sherwin said with a shrug. “Just like you can theoretically shoot the Sarasio Kid. Khelminash are the best warlocks in Elilial’s service, and also among the very few demons who usually don’t want to leave Hell. Trying to reach across the planes and grab one is a bad idea. The attempt is basically suicide. Even the Topaz College has never managed to capture a khelminash warlock.”

“Here’s the thing,” Natchua continued. “This one is fairly legendary; she’s actually mentioned in one of the later cantos of the Aveniad. And yes, that makes the timing suspicious, to say the least. Xyraadi supposedly died six hundred years ago.”

“Mm.” Jonathan narrowed his eyes. “What are the chances of these mysterious sources of yours deliberately setting you up for a trap?”

“Not likely, but,” she conceded, “not impossible. That’s something you must always be wary of when getting information from any demonic agent. So this must be approached carefully. Before charging in I want to do some delicate reconnaissance, which means not the full group. Myself, obviously. Melaxyna is the best we have at sneaking around in general. And since we’re going to a major human city, a regular joe like yourself could potentially be useful.”

“I see,” he mused, then nodded. “All right, beats waiting around here. I’m in. Sorry, girls, I’ll have to help you out later.”

“Aww,” Staccato said with a leer. “And here I was lookin’ forward to seeing you with your shirt off.”

He frowned. “Well, that wasn’t about to happen, anyway.”

“Oh, then, never mind,” she said curtly, waving him off and hopping down to the floor. “Do what you want, I yieee!”

The broken floorboards gave out, sending her plunging into whatever space lay below to land on something that crunched loudly.

“I’m okay!” Staccato’s voice floated up to them, followed by a second crash. “…almost completely okay! Who’s got a rope?”

“Right, so,” Natchua said with a sigh, “go get some breakfast and grab your wand. We’re not rushing off in haste, but I want to get started as quickly as possible. The only thing I can be certain of at this juncture is that there’s something fishy going on in Ninkabi.”

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