Tag Archives: Andros Varanus

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Principia caught Ephanie’s eye and tilted her head significantly. The other private straightened up and stepped to the side, where the elf joined her.

Farah was busy tending to the girl’s injuries, which were extremely minor—no more than abrasions from the cords that had bound her wrists and ankles. She wasn’t even bruised, as far as they could see without further disrupting her clothing. She mostly appeared frightened, which was reasonable. Casey knelt beside her, murmuring encouragingly and keeping a steadying hand on her shoulder. Merry stood to one side, lance in hand and eyes constantly roaming.

“What do you think?” Principia asked softly.

“I don’t know what to think,” Ephanie replied in the same tone. “I can’t imagine her story being true, for reasons we’ve been over. But I don’t know how she got in that bag if it wasn’t, or why she would lie.”

Principia studied the shaking young woman critically. The girl lifted her eyes, noticing her stare, and quickly averted her gaze.

“This whole thing stinks,” she murmured. “She didn’t place herself in that bag, obviously. I’m sure the Sisters would have words with me about victim-blaming, but I’m inclined to regard that girl as an accomplice in whatever we’re being herded into.”

Ephanie nodded, her expression dour.

They rejoined the group as Farah was helping the erstwhile captive to her feet.

“Can you tell us what happened, ma’am?” Casey asked. “I know this has been a hard day for you, but we need as much detail as you can remember if we’re going to help the others.”

“I…it was…” She broke off, swallowing, then nodded. “I’ll try.”

“What’s your name?” Farah asked gently.

“I’m Ami. Ami Talaari. I’m a student at the bardic college in Madouris.”

“That’s a good few miles from here,” Principia noted, raising her eyebrows. “Were you abducted from there?”

Ami shook her head. “No, I wasn’t far from here. At least, I don’t think… I was camping in the woods. It’s part of bard training, we do that regularly, but this was my first solo camp. Ah, where are we now, exactly?”

“Half a day’s walk from Tiraas itself, maybe a little more,” Casey replied, pointing. “That way, east by southeast. Or, there’s a longer but safer route; just head due south a couple of hours until you reach the highway and follow that back to the city. Don’t worry, we’ll take you there.”

“But the other girls!” Ami said, her eyes widening. “You can’t leave them!”

“We’re not going to,” Farah said firmly. “Please go on. How did you come to be in this bag?”

Ami swallowed again, closing her eyes and shuddering. “I was just walking, you know, practicing navigating, and they popped up out of nowhere. There were four, all Huntsmen. With the fur and leather, you know, and the bows?”

“Out of nowhere?” Merry asked, still scanning their surroundings.

“Well, I didn’t see or hear anything until they were right on top of me. I guess professional Huntsmen are more capable in the woods than an apprentice bard.”

“Go on,” Casey said encouragingly.

Ami wrung her hands in front of her, keeping her eyes down as she continued. “They wouldn’t talk to me. Just slapped me when I tried to yell or even talk, pushed me along ahead with those bows. They put a blindfold on me so I couldn’t see… It was at least an hour like that, I got completely turned around. But we came to some kind of camp. At least, I could hear more men, and other girls. Crying, mostly.” She swallowed heavily and drew in a shuddering breath. “They hit us again when we tried to talk to each other. Then they put me in that bag, and I could hear the other girls struggling as they were being tied up, too. They brought me out here and…left. That was the last I heard until you came along.”

Casey nodded solicitously. “Well, you’re safe now. We’ll take you back—”

“But the others!” Ami said, raising her head and staring up at her in alarm.

“We will rescue the others,” Farah said firmly, “but we’re not about to abandon you here in the forest, after all you’ve been through.”

“Can you give us any idea which way their camp might be?” Casey asked.

Ami shook her head. “I was in the bag when… I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

“It’s okay. We have trackers, we’ll find ’em. For now, we need to escort you back—”

“But who knows how long they have!” Ami said tremulously. “I don’t even know what they were doing with us. You can’t leave the others that long, they may be gone before you can come back with reinforcements!”

“You want to come with us, then?” Merry asked mildly.

The girl blanched, shaking her head violently. “I can find my own way back, it’s no problem. South to the road, you said?”

“Yes,” Farah said slowly. “But—”

“Got it, that’s easy,” Ami said hastily, taking a step to the side. “South is…this way?”

“Right,” said Casey.

“Good, I’ll be safe once I reach the highway. Please hurry, you have to help the others! And thanks again!”

The five Legionnaires stood watching her as she vanished into the shady distance. The forest was well-cleared of underbrush; there wasn’t much to impede their view of her until she was lost among the trees.

“Well,” said Casey, “that was an abrupt exit. So!” She turned to face the others. “Shall we count all the ways that was full of shit?”

“That story was more holes than story,” Ephanie said, glaring after Ami. “She wasn’t blindfolded and hadn’t been beaten.”

“I’ve only had the basic first aid courses,” Farah added, “but I’m pretty sure she had not been tied in that bad all that long.”

“And Huntsmen wouldn’t use their bows to push someone,” Ephanie said as an afterthought. “Their equipment is fae-blessed and highly personal; they treat it with respect.”

“Seems really peculiar that she’d be so eager to go off alone into the woods after that alleged experience,” Merry commented. “Not to mention the insistence that we go after the other girls right now, specifically without going for reinforcements.”

“Have you found something?” Ephanie asked Principia, who was prowling around the tree to which Ami had been tied, studying the ground.

“Well, the tracks don’t explicitly contradict her story,” the elf said, eyes still down. “At least, not all of it. She was put in the sack here, not dragged here in it.”

“She never said dragged,” Merry pointed out. “Might have been carried.”

“There are two sets of tracks leading to this tree, and one matches her shoes,” Principia replied, pointing at the ground in the direction Ami had vanished. The others peered at the earth, then at each other, having failed to discern any clear footprints—the ground was dry and the springy moss and ground cover not conducive to leaving traces. “Plus… here’s where it was done, against the side of the tree there. And it doesn’t prove anything, strictly speaking, but I do not see signs of a struggle. She got in the bag willingly.”

“Could’ve been under duress,” said Merry. “Just to play demon’s advocate.”

Principia nodded. “So, two possibilities. There is a very slim chance that we are actually dealing with rogue Huntsmen in these woods, but a much greater likelihood that this is a trap aimed at us specifically, in which case that girl has at least one accomplice.”

“Presumably others,” Farah said grimly. “Wouldn’t be much of a trap for the five of us if it’s just one.”

Prin nodded again. “In either case, we need to assume there are hostiles up ahead.”

“What if we broke off here?” Merry suggested. “We’ve got a story from one witness which we can tell is a load of crap. Doesn’t the fact that we know it’s a trap give us cause not to charge into it?”

Ephanie sighed and shook her head. “The fudged details in Ami’s story are consistent with the kinds of things traumatized witnesses often come up with. Considering what’s at stake—half a dozen women allegedly abducted—we’d be considered derelict of duty at least if we didn’t investigate.”

“There is also the fact that this whole thing is stupid and an obvious setup,” Principia added. “If Syrinx can arrange to have us sent out on this bullshit, she can arrange to cast it in the worst possible light if we refuse to go for it. We’d better press on. Remember what I said, ladies: there’s a risk of physical harm, here, but also a very good chance this is a subtler kind of snare. Making us look bad would be more consistent with Syrinx’s pattern and better serve her goals than roughing us up. Still, be ready for anything.”

“Be ready for anything, she says,” Merry groused. “I think that’s the most meaningless statement ever uttered. How can you be ready for anything?”

Principia grinned at her before turning to study the ground again. “All right, well… The tracks come from this way, but after Ami was tied to the tree, they head off to the north… Avelea, fold up that bag and bring it along, will you? It’s evidence at minimum.”

“On it.”

“We’ve got our path before us, then, ladies,” Principia said, slinging her shield over her back. “Stay alert, call out if you spot anything. Keep in loose formation, but don’t spread out too far. Let’s move out.”

As they progressed through the trees, more signs appeared. Principia mentioned and pointed to other tracks in the vicinity, some crossing the one they followed, though only Ephanie could discern any of these, and not all of them. However, there appeared traces which were apparent to all of them in the form of more Shaathist talismans hung on the trees.

“This is alarming,” Ephanie said as they paused to study one of these. “I’m almost certain they’re genuine. Locke, do they have magic in them?”

“Yup, same as the first one.”

Ephanie frowned. “If we’re assuming no actual Huntsmen are working here… Just who has Syrinx hired and how did they get their hands on all these?”

“Can you tell anything about the pattern in which they’re placed?” Casey asked.

“It’s not necessarily done in a specific pattern,” said Ephanie. “Mostly just to define an area… I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here, though, or we wouldn’t keep spotting them unless we happened to be skirting the perimeter of whatever’s going on…”

“Not impossible,” said Principia, pointing to the barely discernible path of crushed undergrowth she had been following. “We’re following this guy.”

“Also, that assumes this is an actual Shaathist operation,” said Farah, “which I thought we weren’t assuming.”

“Right,” said Ephanie. “But this means there are actual Shaathists at the back of this somewhere. Either corrupt enough to give out their talismans, which I can’t see happening…”

“Or going to be very pissed off when they find out about this?” Casey suggested. Ephanie nodded, her jaw set.

“Keep alert, ladies,” Principia murmured. “Theorizing is fine, but don’t forget to watch the trees.”

Merry rolled her eyes, but nobody offered a reply. They followed her in silence, dutifully scanning the forest. There seemed to be nothing in the vicinity but songbirds.

Less than five minutes later, Principia came to a sudden halt, staring around.

“Um,” said Farah. “Are we there yet?”

“The trail ends here,” Principia said, frowning.

“What do you mean, it ends?” Merry demanded.

“Just that,” the elf said, exasperated. “It ends. Stops. There is no more trail.”

“Are you sure you were following an actual trail, city elf?”

“Yes,” Prin said curtly, now bending forward to carefully examine the underbrush. “Stay back, don’t trample anything…”

“How could the trail just end?” Casey asked. “I mean… There’s nobody here.”

Farah craned her neck back, peering into the trees above them.

With a sigh, Principia straightened up. “Well, there’s a simple enough explanation. Teleporting or shadow-jumping would do it. I was looking for some sign of either, but… It’s actually rare that they cause any after-effects to the environment, and teleportation only leaves arcane traces for a few minutes.”

“Shit,” Merry muttered. “You’re sure there was a—”

“Yes, I’m sure there was a trail!”

“Why go this far from the tree where they tied up Ami and then suddenly teleport out?” Ephanie asked, frowning.

“No telling,” Prin said, then sighed heavily. “But assuming that’s what happened, and I don’t have a better idea, it means there was a mage involved in this. Or a warlock.”

“Portal mages come pretty cheap these days,” said Casey, “especially the less-than-reputable kind Syrinx would have to bribe to scry on us.”

“Well,” said Principia, “we have a couple of options, ladies, and both involve backtracking. We can go back and try one of the trails that crossed this one, which could be anybody at all… Or we can go all the way back to the tree where Ami was and follow her tracks and this one to wherever they came from in the first place.”

“Come on, that’s not a choice,” Merry said derisively. “Second option’s the only one that makes any sense.”

Casey heaved a sigh. “Well… Time’s wasting, girls.”

Indeed, the afternoon was beginning to fade by the time they returned to the tree still carrying scraps of cord which had held up the wilderbag. Principia stopped there, looking critically around.

“I’ve got a feeling we do not want to be out here doing this after dark,” she said.

“Agreed,” Ephanie said emphatically.

“Hang on,” Prin said, narrowing her eyes and turning to stare off into the woods. “Quiet for a moment, please.”

They waited while she stood stock-still, peering into the distant shadows, then suddenly started forward.

“You hear something?” Farah guessed, falling into step behind her.

“Some kind of struggle up ahead,” Prin reported. “Stay alert.”

“We never stopped,” Merry grumbled. “Too much staying alert is going to make my face freeze this way…”

“I bet you’re a joy to serve a night watch with,” Ephanie commented.

The squad fell silent as they proceeded, catching Principia’s intent mood. They naturally slipped back into loose formation, moving through the forest in a rough arrowhead with the elf at its point.

Several minutes before catching sight of it, they could hear sounds from up ahead, in a rather creepy parallel of their initial discovery of Ami’s wilderbag. There was no voice this time, however, and as they came in sight of it through the screen of trees, they found another hanging wilderbag thrashing far more violently than Ami’s had been.

The squad stopped within ten yards of it, studying the bag intently. As they watched, it squirmed again, straining the cords binding it to the tree.

“See or hear anyone else nearby?” Casey asked in a whisper.

Principia shook her head. “Huntsmen have ways around elvish senses. So do the Black Wreath.”

“Gods, don’t borrow trouble,” Merry groaned. “Syrinx and the Huntsmen are enough. Why would the—”

“I was just making the point that my senses may be sharper, but they aren’t infallible,” Principia said shortly. “Come on, same as before. Watch for any traps or ambushes, but don’t dawdle.”

Again she led the way, approaching the bag cautiously with her squadmates fanned out, weapons aimed at the surrounding forest.

“Take it easy in there,” Principia said quietly. “We’re here to help.”

The bag only thrashed harder. She glanced around at the others, then slung her shield on her back, planted her lance and drew her belt knife. When she touched the bag, however, its squirming redoubled, forcing her to step back.

“Calm,” Prin urged, frowning. “We’re with the Silver Legions. Hold still and I’ll have you out of there in a minute.”

If the message was even heard, the prisoner gave no sign, only thrashing harder. She narrowed her eyes, studying the wilderbag. “Avelea… Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“Can you be more specific?” Ephanie asked, glancing over at her but immediately returning her gaze to the forest.

“I…don’t think this is a person in here. The way it’s moving… Would actual Huntsmen put a live animal in one of these bags?”

“Sure, there are several rites that call for that. It would make a lot more sense than putting women in them.”

“Hm… Have a care, ladies, I’m not sure what’s about to come out of here.”

Tucking her knife back into its sheath, she shimmied lightly up the tree and out onto the branch to which its drawstring was tied, seemingly unhampered by her armor. A few quick strokes severed the cords, loosening the top of the wilderbag.

It was still tied to the tree, but no longer secured at the top. Almost immediately, the thrashing of the bag’s occupant wrenched open its mouth, and a pair a flailing hooves attached to slender legs appeared.

“Yikes,” said Casey, backing away. “Good call, Locke.”

“Should we—” Farah broke off as the fawn got its head out, managing to hook one long foreleg over the lip of the wilderbag. From there it only had to flail for a few more moments before finally dragging itself free and tumbling gracelessly to the ground.

The four Legionnaires on the ground backed further away, Principia remaining on her perch up above, as the fawn rolled to its feet. It took one look at them and bounded off into the woods.

“Aww,” Farah cooed, gazing avidly after the creature. “It’s adorable!”

“You are such a girl,” Merry commented.

An arrow thunked into the tree next to her head.

Reflex took over; instantly they all had shields and lances up, falling into formation facing the direction from which the arrow had come. Afternoon was fading into early evening; the shadows beneath the trees had deepened, revealing nothing of their attacker.

Then Principia hit the ground beside them, her own shield already out; no sooner had she landed than another arrow slammed into it.

“We’re flanked!” she snapped. “Crescent! Form up on the tree!”

She snagged her lance out of the earth and slipped into their line even as it bent backward, wrapping them into an arc with the thick old oak at their backs. It was a purely defensive formation; keeping their shields locked together in a convex arc that tight crammed them so closely together that none had room to draw swords, or even thrust with their lances. This was done only when taking fire from multiple directions, to buy a squad time to identify their attacker’s positions and adjust their formation accordingly. Unfortunately, the size of their squad severely limited their options; five women simply couldn’t form a shield wall large enough to protect in multiple directions.

“You dare?” roared a voice out of the darkness. Another arrow slammed into Ephanie’s shield, followed by more, striking them from three directions.

“Three angles of attack,” Ephanie said tersely. “On my signal, form a long wedge—Locke, you’re point, aimed at the center—” She broke off with a grunt as another arrow thudded into her shield. “Then step left past the tree and retreat. Ready?”

“Wait,” Farah said tersely. “Try talking to them, Avelea! You know something of their ways, don’t you?”

“These can’t actually be Huntsmen—”

Principia hissed in displeasure as an arrow slipped through a minute gap in their shield wall, grazing her helmet. “They’re not elves, and nobody else still handles bows this accurately.”

“Hold your fire!” Ephanie shouted. “Parley!”

“You can parley with the damned, slattern!” snarled the voice which had first spoken.

Immediately after that proclamation, a ghost wolf bounded out of the trees, landing before them with its hackles raised, snarling.

“We mean you no harm!” Ephanie tried again.

“You defile our hunt, and dare claim that?” demanded another voice. Finally, a figure emerged from the dimness. It was a Huntsman of Shaath, all right, or at least appeared to be. He wore a ragged pelt over his sturdy leather armor, carrying a bow with arrow nocked and aimed at them. Beneath a snarling cap made from a bear’s head, his bearded face was painted with lines of green and black.

“Oh, shit,” Principia whispered. “I see what she did.”

“What?” Merry demanded.

“Those who defile the hunt shall become the hunted!” bellowed the first voice, its owner appearing. He was an older man, his beard more than half-gray, but looked no less sturdy than the other, and if anything, more angry. He also had a bow trained on their tiny formation. Around them, other figures began to materialize from the woods.

“Girls,” Principia said tersely, “I need you to trust me, here. If you value your lives, do as I do.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Merry grated.

Principia raised her voice. “We surrender!”

With that, she lowered her shield, dropping her lance, and placed her hands atop her helmet.

“We what?” Merry snarled.

Ephanie immediately followed suit, however, dropping her weapons and putting her hands on her head. The Huntsmen slowed, a few of them narrowing their eyes to study the Legionnaires suspiciously.

Farah and Casey exchanged a wide-eyed stare, then slowly followed Principia’s example. Merry was the last, cursing under her breath the whole time. “So help me, Locke, if this gets us killed I’m haunting your ass…”

The five Legionnaires were already down on one knee due to their defensive posture, having braced shields against the ground. With their weapons down, they were in an obviously submissive position, and keenly aware of their vulnerability. At the range into which the encircling Huntsmen now stepped, even their armor might not have stopped one of those arrows, and these archers were more than capable of aiming for exposed flesh through the gaps.

There was also the ghost wolf, which still snarled, but had yet to attack.

The older man stalked forward, baring his teach in a furious growl. “None of your tricks, Avenist harlots! Draw your blades and die like warriors.”

“Stop!” shouted another voice.

From the half-dozen Huntsmen now encircling the Legionnaires, a much younger man stepped forward. Indeed, “man” might have been a generous description; he was clearly well under twenty, with a short and patchy beard. He, too, had an arrow nocked, but unlike his compatriots, his bow was aimed at the ground and not drawn.

“Hold, Grauvan,” the youth ordered. “They surrendered.”

“We are not Avenists, pup!” the old man spat. “We do not accept terms from deviants and defilers. Those who defy the Wild die beneath its fangs!”

“This is my rite,” the young man shot back, stalking right up to him. “That was my catch they despoiled.”

“You be mindful of your elders, boy!” the gray-bearded one roared, turning to face him. “You are in no position to challenge me!”

“I will not be party to the killing of disarmed, kneeling women!” the youth shouted right back, stomping forward and pushing himself into his elder’s face. “Before I see Shaath’s honor defiled this way, I will put an arrow in you myself!”

“You dare offer—”

“ENOUGH!”

Silence fell, and two more figures entered the scene.

The assembled Huntsmen respectfully made way for them, most finally lowering their weapons, though one kept the five Legionnaires covered. A tall, powerfully built man strode straight into the middle of the scene, followed by a beardless fellow, both also carrying bows.

“It seems I am barely in time to prevent a true disgrace,” the tall one growled. “Well spoken, Tholi. Grauvan, you are justly rebuked by the lad—think on that. That we are not soldiers does not entitle us to be monsters. There will be no violence toward surrendered enemies.”

“As you say, Brother Andros,” Grauvan said curtly, stepping back from him. He did not lower his head or eyes, though, holding Andros’s gaze with his own.

The Bishop stared right back at him for a long moment before turning to the young man. “Explain this display, Tholi.”

“We came upon these women interfering with my hunt,” the youth reported, casting a contemptuous glance at the five kneeling Legionnaires. “They destroyed my wilderbag and freed the offering I had placed within. Grauvan and Rhein fired upon them, they made a defensive posture, and then surrendered.” He glanced over at them again, this time more critically. “Apparently without injury.”

Andros turned to study the soldiers. “Do you contest this account?”

“No, your Grace,” Principia said immediately. “However, there’s—” She broke off as he peremptorily held up a hand.

“Remove your helmets,” the Bishop ordered.

Principia did so immediately, prompting murmurs from the gathered Huntsmen as her ears were revealed, followed more slowly by her squadmates. This time, Ephanie was the last to comply.

Andros fixed his gaze on her specifically, a heavy frown falling over his features.

“Ephanie,” he said in a deep tone of patrician disappointment. “Does Feldren know where you are?”

“With all respect, your Grace,” she said stiffly, “it is no longer Feldren’s concern what I do. Or yours.”

“Hnh,” he grunted. “That is clearly not the case if you are interfering in the rites of the Huntsmen. You, girl.” He returned his stare to Principia. “Explain yourself, quickly.”

“We were dispatched to this forest,” she said immediately, “to investigate rumors that Huntsmen had been abducting women.”

“Lies!” Grauvan burst out. Andros held up a hand to silence him, nodding at Principia to continue.

“Earlier today,” she said, “we found a young woman suspended from a tree in a wilderbag—”

“This is slanderous filth! I will not—”

“You will be silent!” Andros roared, turning the full force of his glare upon Grauvan. “I will hear their account before I judge it. Go on, girl.”

“She was in a bag,” Principia said, keeping a careful eye on the bristling Grauvan. “When we cut her loose, she claimed to have been abducted and held against her will by Huntsmen, along with several other women.” Angry murmurs rose from the other men present.

“And where is this girl now?” Andros demanded.

“Absent,” Principia said flatly. “In fact, she was oddly insistent on leaving, alone, as soon as she was freed. Your Grace… We were regarding this assignment as a mere formality to begin with. As Private Avelea explained, the idea that Huntsmen would be taking women was highly improbable.”

“To say the least,” Andros rumbled, giving Ephanie another look.

“The girl we rescued,” Principia went on, “made us revise our assumption. She claimed to have been abused in ways for which she bore no marks, and the fact that she was eager to go off alone in the forest among allegedly predatory Huntsmen was telling. It’s our opinion this is all some kind of trick.”

A few moments of quiet fell, in which mutters were exchanged among the Huntsmen present. Andros simply frowned, studying Princpia in silence. The beardless man who had accompanied him paced forward slowly, examining the kneeling women with a more calm expression than any of his compatriots wore.

Finally, Andros nodded as if coming to a conclusion, and spoke. “Men, lower your weapons. Girls, you may stand, and take up yours.”

“You don’t believe this fairy tale?!” Grauvan burst out.

Andros gave him another withering look. “Know your enemies, Grauvan, and do not assign faults to them that they don’t possess out of your own dislike. That is the path toward defeat. For all their failings, the Silver Legions are not prone toward elaborate intrigues, or deceitfulness in general.” He returned a more contemplative gaze to the five soldiers as they slowly straightened up and retrieved their lances and shields, the last Huntsman having lowered his bow. “I find it no stretch to believe they were tricked. These girls are not our enemy, men. Furthermore, upon realizing their mistake, they offered a proper show of submission, which shows honor and an unusual degree of good sense for Legionnaires.”

“Nice to be appreciated,” Merry muttered sullenly. Ephanie gave her a sharp look and shook her head.

“I don’t know whether this trap was aimed at the Legion or the Huntsmen,” Andros continued, his face falling into a deep scowl, “but whoever the target, someone has taken the Huntsmen of Shaath for fools. This urgently requires correction. Tholi!”

“Yes, Brother Andros?” the young man replied.

“I’m afraid fate has spoiled your rite; it will have to be redone another time. For now…”

“For now,” Tholi said, a grin breaking across his features, “we hunt?”

Andros nodded firmly. “We hunt.”

“WE HUNT!” roared the assembled Huntsmen in unison. As one, they turned and formed into a loose ring, surrounding the five Legionnaires.

“Oh, good,” Farah mumbled warily, “they hunt.”

“Peace,” Ephanie murmured. “Don’t be provocative.”

“Come,” Andros said curtly to the soldiers. “We will return to Tiraas, and seek out the one who has arranged this. Do you know who might attempt such a prank?”

The two groups set into motion, eying each other warily as they walked. The Huntsmen remained in a wider ring, ranging before, behind and to the sides of the group and keeping the Legionnaires encircled in their center.

“That’s a deceptively complex question, your Grace,” Principia said carefully.

He grunted. “No, it isn’t.”

“What I mean,” she said, “is that we’re in a rather tense position. Making anything that might amount to an accusation could have severe consequences for us. Especially since we don’t have evidence to prove one.”

Andros glanced at her. “I am no stranger to the politics of Tiraas, girl. Anything you say to me will go no further. Give me a direction in which to hunt, and I will find the tracks you need. I infer, from your guarded comments, that you know such a direction?”

Prin glanced over her shoulder at her squadmates. Ephanie nodded encouragingly.

“Just out of curiosity, your Grace,” Principia said, “are you acquainted at all with Bishop Syrinx?”

Andros’s frown deepened into a truly fearsome scowl. He drew in a long breath and let it out in an explosive sigh that ruffled his beard.

“So,” he growled, “the plot thins.”

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8 – 18

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“If Avelea has the map,” Merry grumbled, “why is Locke in the lead?”

“Seriously?” Farah gave her a wide-eyed look over her shoulder. “Really? We’re walking in the woods, and you don’t want the wood elf to lead?”

“That,” Merry said accusingly, pointing at Principia, “is a city elf. Deny it, Locke!”

“How about just leaving me out of your little sideshow routine?” Principia suggested.

“Really, though, I mean it. Why is the person with the map not navigating? Knowing how to find your way through the woods doesn’t mean knowing how to find your way to specific coordinates.”

“I already told her where we’re going,” Ephanie remarked from the back of their little column. “And all of you, for that matter. If Locke knows the way, I’m fine with her leading.”

“It isn’t hard,” Principia said reasonably. “I’m quite familiar with these forests, anyway. Being a city girl, and specifically an Eserite city girl, I’ve had all kinds of good reasons to know how to disappear from Tiraas or Madouris in a hurry.”

“Finally, an explanation I can believe,” Merry muttered. “I guess if you’re a hundred years old, you can’t help picking up a few tricks.”

“Two hundred and forty-eight,” Principia corrected. “Wait, no… What year is it? Oh, right, then yes. Two hundred forty-eight.”

Casey let out a low whistle.

“That is so weird to think about,” Farah said in an awed tone. “You were around before the Consolidation. You were alive and working during the Age of Adventures!”

“There’s a lot of difference of opinion concerning when that ended,” Prin commented. “It was already winding down when I started out. Not everybody’s convinced it’s over yet, either. I have it on good authority that some people still go adventuring in the Golden Sea.” She turned to grin at Merry.

“Not smart people,” Merry said with a sigh.

“Shouldn’t much matter who has the map, anyhow,” Casey added. “We’ve all had wilderness survival training.”

“You’ve all had very basic wilderness survival training,” Principia said disdainfully. “I am minimally confident you could manage not to get killed in these extremely tame woods in the time it would take you to reach a settlement. In a real wilderness, what they teach in basic won’t get you very far.”

“Yep, we Legionnaires are constantly being set up for horrible death,” Merry groused. “Oh, no, wait, that’s just this squad.”

“And that’s just basic training,” Ephanie added. “There’s plenty of advanced training available for scouts and others. You have to qualify for that, though, and have a reason you need it.”

“Is that where you learned?” Prin asked.

Ephanie frowned. “Pardon?”

“C’mon, I’ve seen you checking trees for moss, and I know what those herbs you stopped and picked are for.”

Ephanie pursed her lips in displeasure, then sighed. “I…no. I had some training from… From other sources. Yeah, you’re right, though, I’m confident I’d be okay alone in the woods.”

Principia glanced back at her. “That being the case, why don’t you let somebody else hold the map? If we should happen to get separated, it makes sense to add an extra advantage to whoever doesn’t have those skills.”

“That’s a pretty good idea,” Ephanie said, producing a folded sheaf of paper from one of her belt pouches. She lengthened her stride, moving up in the formation, and handed it to Farah. “Here.”

“What? Me?” Farah frowned, but accepted it. “Thanks…I guess. I’m a little bothered you think I’m the most helpless person here.”

“It’s not that,” Ephanie said with a smile. “Locke’s a wood elf and Lang was a frontier adventurer. I figure they have less need. Plus, you and Elwick tend to stick together, so giving it to one of you has a better chance of aiding both.”

“Oh. Well. I guess that makes sense.”

“If it makes you feel better,” Merry said sardonically, “I’m just as helpless in the woods as you are. I was heading into the Golden Sea. The total number of trees there is between zero and one, depending on whether the World Tree is a real thing.”

“It is,” said Prin, “but it’s in the Deep Wild, not the Golden Sea.”

“Well, I guess the knife-ear would know.”

“Whoah,” Casey said, frowning. “Let’s not with the racial slurs, okay?”

“There are regulations about that,” Ephanie added.

“Don’t say that to a plains elf unless you want a tomahawk up your ass,” Principia said, grinning back at them, “but I’m not much bothered by it. Usually when someone insults me, it’s a lot worse and a lot more deserved. That’s just friendly joshing as far as I’m concerned.”

“Do they actually do that with tomahawks?” Merry asked curiously. “Up the ass?”

“Yes,” Principia said solemnly. “Then they scalp you and do a rain dance around their teepees while the squaws make wampum—”

“All right, all right, I was just asking! No need to be a bitch about it.”

“Gendered insults,” Ephanie said mildly. “Also addressed in regulations.”

“There are no regulations in the woods, Avelea.”

“…that’s so wrong I’m actually at a loss how to begin responding to it.”

“Point to Lang, then,” Principia said cheerfully, coming to a sudden stop and then changing course, heading into the trees to their right. “C’mere, there’s fresh water up ahead. It’s nearing noon and we’re a ways off from our search zone yet. Good time to break for rations before we’re in potentially hazardous territory.”

“I don’t hear any water,” Casey said, though she followed Prin without hesitation.

“You also don’t have ears as long as your foot,” Farah said with a smile.

“Yes, okay, fine. Well, the good news is, that’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever said.”

“Today, even.”

“Oh, up yours.”

They reached a small stream within minutes, but Principia led them onward along its banks until they came to a flat slab of well-worn rock extending partially over it. There was a ring of blackened stones arranged in its center, with fallen logs encircling it as obvious seats; the evidence of a fire wasn’t recent, but hadn’t been there long enough to have been completely washed away by the region’s persistent rains. This was clearly a popular campsite.

The five Legionnaires were in good shape for hiking, but it was still with groans of relief that they seated themselves. They had well-stuffed belt pouches rather than backpacks, so there wasn’t reason to put down their supplies, but this was the first opportunity they’d enjoyed in several hours to set aside their lances. Farah removed her shield, but the others left theirs slung on their backs.

While they chewed dried meat, Casey picked out a small runed charm from her pouch, turning it over in her hand and studying the markings. “This is it, right? The tracking thinger?”

“Yup,” Principia said, idly scanning their surroundings. There was not much to see except trees; the cheerful sound of birdsong and the rushing of the stream below made it a remarkably pleasant place for lunch.

“It’s about noon,” Casey murmured, looking up at the sky through the gap in the trees around them. “Captain Dijanerad said she’d be sending someone out after us as soon as she cleared up the mess with our orders…”

“The captain is not going to rescue us,” Principia said quietly. “We’re on our own out here, ladies.”

“How hard can it be?” Farah asked, frowning. “I mean… Avelea was right, this mission is nonsense. Surely someone in command will see that.”

“That is exactly the problem,” Principia said with a sigh. “It’s blatant nonsense, which means it should, in theory, be simple enough to get it scrubbed out through the chain of command. Therefore, the captain will do that, and run into whatever roadblock Syrinx put up to stop her from succeeding. Because Syrinx is definitely clever enough to do that. The mission is a trap for us; the foolish nature of it is a bait-and-switch trick aimed at the captain.”

“She’s always backed us up before,” Merry pointed out.

“Shahdi Dijanerad is a solid woman and a good soldier,” Principia said. “If we were going into a battle, I’d be glad to do it under her command. But when it comes to shady maneuvering, she just doesn’t have the right mindset to take on Syrinx. I’m just hoping whatever the Bishop’s doing back there is only designed to slow her, not to get her in actual trouble.”

“Again,” said Merry, “she managed before…”

“She had Covrin sneaking her intel before,” Prin said darkly. “I have to say I wasn’t best pleased to learn that. I’d been thinking the captain was savvy enough to hold Syrinx off, but if she was just getting help from a spy… I don’t know. The point is, that’s back there and we’re out here.”

“Locke’s right,” said Ephanie. “Even if Dijanerad manages, it’s best to keep our minds on this situation rather than counting on some outside influence to save us.”

“Which brings us back to the big question we’ve all carefully avoided discussing,” said Casey with a grimace. “Save us from what?”

“Anything we could say about that would be pure conjecture,” said Principia. “So it’s best not to. Keep a clear mind and don’t get attached to any theories; we’ll have a better chance of facing whatever it is that way.”

“Elwick does make a good point, though,” Merry said seriously. “This isn’t Tiraas. There’s nobody out here to witness anything that happens to us. If Syrinx’s stake in getting rid of us is as serious as Darling suggested, we could very well be in actual physical danger, here.”

Principia shook her head. “She won’t go that far.”

“She is fully capable of ordering us killed, or…anything else,” Casey said, grimacing.

“Psychologically, yes, I don’t doubt she is,” Principia agreed. “But the situation isn’t that simple, from her point of view. As I’ve mentioned, these are old and well-traveled woods. The Imperial foresters probably go over every inch of the province every few years. Think what would happen if a squad of Silver Legionnaires went missing around here. Everyone would be sent out to search for us, not just the Sisterhood. Anything dangerous enough to take down five Legionnaires this close to the capital would be an immediate security issue to the Imperial government. There would be no way to hide the bodies that Avenist scouts and Imperial scryers wouldn’t be able to track down.”

“The bodies,” Merry muttered, wrapping her arms about herself. “That’s just fuckin’ lovely.”

“She can’t risk drawing that kind of attention. No, this is more of the same,” Principia said, frowning. “We’re probably in more physical danger—whatever she’s got set up out here is likely something that could hurt us. It would make sense for her to have arranged something to justify this asshat mission after the fact. It’s probably more character assassination, though, not the literal kind. Syrinx isn’t yet cornered hard enough to try something that risky.”

“What do you think she has waiting out here?” Casey asked, staring intently at the elf. “You’re the craftiest of us, Locke. What would you do if you were Basra?”

Prin shook her head again. “No idea. No data. She doesn’t scheme like an Eserite, either; she’s underhanded, but has a very Avenist approach. Find the enemy, smash the enemy. There’s no sense of flair or playfulness like a good Eserite con would have. Anyhow, with the world as her potential arsenal… Just too many options.” She shrugged. “This could be something as simple as having us waste a day wandering in the forest to demoralize us. Since we have good reason to expect a trap, that’s gonna be plenty demoralizing on its own, and if nothing happens, it could serve to soften us up for the real hit later on.”

“Uh huh,” Merry said with a scowl. “And does anybody really think that’s all it is?”

Farah sighed. “About how far are we from our destination?”

“Less than another hour on foot,” said Prin. “From there…”

“It’s a fairly sizable chunk of territory,” Ephanie added. “Standard search protocol would have us split up to comb the area.”

“Yeah, we will not be doing that,” Principia said firmly.

“If it’s another dereliction of duty kind of trap,” Merry began.

“I don’t care,” said Prin. “Should that happen, I’m comfortable taking punishment for failing to adhere to search protocols if it means Syrinx explaining why and how she found out we did. We are not going to set ourselves up to get picked off one-by-one.”

“Even though you don’t think she’s going to try that?” Farah asked.

“Even then,” Principia replied with a grim nod. “We have to make plans based on available information, but any assumptions about what an enemy is or isn’t willing to do should be considered tentative. Any disagreements?”

There were none.


 

He walked in no hurry, simply enjoying the quiet, the openness, the harmony of being surrounded by natural things. In the wild, even a lesser wild such as this, the point was not to get somewhere, but to be somewhere. It disappointed him, the span of minutes it always took to immerse himself in it after departing the pressure of humanity in the city. In his youth, it had been the other way around.

If not for these regular excursions into the forest, Andros sometimes feared he would truly lose himself.

But Tiraas was a crowded and complicated memory, by now, its tensions seeping from him and into the earth. He and his companion walked along over the moss and grass, beneath swaying boughs, listening to the voices of birds and of the wind. They spoke little and only at need; Huntsmen did not fill nature’s stillness with chatter. Talking was for when there was something to say.

They came to a break in the trees, where the land rose up in a small ridge. A low, rounded ridge, to be sure; the ancient hills of the Tira Valley were gently rolling things except along the very edges of the canyon through which the River Tira flowed. Andros stopped, standing still and feeling the mild wind caress his hair and beard. They hadn’t yet gotten around to any actual hunting, the alleged purpose of this trip. But then, it wasn’t as if they needed meat or hides. The hunting was simply a way to reconnect with nature. There were other, smaller ways, and it was worth pausing to savor them.

Ingvar came up stand next to him, gazing down the incline before them to the forest below with the same expression of calm that Andros felt on his own face. He was good company—a good Huntsman, and a good agent even in the treacherous currents of city politics, which was a large part of why Andros had offered him the honor of joining his hunt. Ingvar was a solid enough companion that his beardless face was slightly jarring, though Andros had learned to look past it to the man within. He had succeeded admirably despite his disability. Indeed, that was another mark of a good Huntsman: the men of Shaath turned opposition into strength.

And so, he was a man with whom to enjoy a hunt in the forest, but also a useful tool who’d proven himself able to navigate the politics of Tiraas without losing sight of his own tie to the wild. A contact Andros was taking pains to cultivate. Even here, politics…it was maddening. Still, it was what it was. Complaining was for women clucking around the hearth. A man’s role was to take on the world as it came to him.

“It’s not the true wild,” he mused. “But after the city…”

Ingvar smiled faintly, nodding. “Tiraas makes me miss Mathena Province. I never thought anything could.”

“Unfortunately, your inconvenience is the lodge’s gain,” Andros rumbled. “You’ve done very good work these last months.”

Ingvar smiled slightly more broadly, turning toward him and giving a shallow bow. Then they moved off, down the hill and back into the trees.

They were far enough in, now, that Andros began to look around in seriousness for signs of game. The Imperial foresters had long ago wiped out the bears and wolves of the region, but populations of deer, rabbits and fowl remained. In fact, they thrived, lacking any predators but humans. The meat they provided was important to citizens in rural areas, but even with the native hunters active year-round, the Huntsmen of the city found plenty of prey for their rites and recreational hunts. Rabbits and deer in particular were fecund creatures, requiring substantial pressure from predators to keep their numbers in balance.

It was doctrine for Shaath’s followers that the definition of a tamed land was that all the significant predators were sentient. Such lands were not considered esteemed places to live, by any means, but Huntsmen who found themselves there were expected to do their part to maintain the balance.

Unfortunately, the two Huntsmen were interrupted before finding any promising tracks.

Both men drew to a stop as a black bird fluttered down from the forest canopy, alighting on a low branch just above their heads and cawing furiously.

Ingvar reflexively lifted his bow, but did not nock an arrow, peering at the crow through narrowed eyes. They weren’t good eating, and were very clever; killing crows was done only ceremonially or when individual birds decided to make pests of themselves, as the species sometimes did. On a general hunt, they should be left alone. Still, it was unusual that such a bird would draw such attention to itself, as Ingvar now commented.

“Strange behavior for a crow.” He grasped his bow at one end and used it to poke at the bird. “Shoo!”

The crow hopped deftly to one side, evading the desultory thrust, then turned its head toward Andros and made a disgruntled sound in its throat.

“Very strange,” Ingvar said, frowning. “No wild creature would just stand there…”

“Some corvids might, if they are used to people,” Andros mused, staring at the bird through narrowed eyes. “I think, however, that I know this particular crow. Do I not?”

She bobbed up and down twice, cawed once, then took wing, fluttering off ahead to land on a bush some yards distant. The crow turned back toward them, cawing furiously.

“It wants us to follow,” Ingvar guessed. He turned a questioning expression to Andros. “You say you know this bird. Do you trust it?”

“No,” the Bishop said firmly. The crow clucked to itself in exasperation, ruffling its feathers and staring beadily at them. “No… However, if it is who I think, I have come to no grief and in fact some profit by following her.”

The crow cawed again, hopping up into the air, then fluttered about in a small circle before landing back on the bush and croaking insistently at them.

“Not what I had planned for this outing,” Andros said with a sigh, “but fate cares not for our plans. Come, Ingvar, I think it will prove important to see what she wants.”

They moved off, deeper into the woods, the crow pointedly keeping just in sight ahead of them.


 

“Is it…authentic?” Farah inquired, peering at the talisman.

“You’re asking us?” Merry exclaimed. “You have more book learning than probably the rest of us combined.”

“Not in Shaathist iconography!”

“It’s authentic,” Ephanie said quietly. “At least… It’s accurate. Huntsmen on ritual hunts use these to mark territory in which they’re active. It would take a cleric of Shaath or wildspeaker to interpret this, though. I can’t even tell if it’s magically active.”

“It is,” Principia said. “Or att least, there’s a fae charm on it, but I can’t tell what it does. I do arcane enchantment.”

The talisman pinned to the tree in front of them resembled a small elven dreamcatcher in design: it was a wooden disk, carved with a wolf’s head pictograph, with strings of beads and feathers trailing below it.

“This is creepy,” Merry muttered. “Either Basra’s got resources in places a bishop of Avei has no business being, or there are actually Huntsmen up to something in this area. Avelea… Is there any chance this mission is for real? Could they actually be kidnapping women?”

“The idea is insane,” Ephanie said curtly. “Wife-stealing is a real tradition, but it’s centuries dead. No lodge would do such a thing; an individual Huntsman might, if he were isolated from his fellows for too long, but that’s a good way to become the target of a Wild Hunt. Grandmaster Veisroi is too politically minded to allow any of his people to endanger the whole faith that way.”

“Plus there are the practical concerns,” Principia mused. “Women going missing is the kind of thing that attracts notice, and this is a heavily patrolled area. A Huntsman who went this rogue would have a very brief encounter with a Tiraan strike team before he got around to marking territory.”

“And he wouldn’t mark territory if he were doing something obviously illegal and guaranteed to provoke the local lodge,” Ephanie added, poking the talisman with the tip of her lance. “These are used for ritual hunts. If it’s a true example of its kind, it means there are multiple Huntsmen in the area, and doing something spiritually significant, not just camping in the woods like they like to do.”

“If they were abducting women,” Casey said, frowning, “wouldn’t that be spiritually significant to them?”

“In theory, I suppose,” Ephanie said grudgingly.

“The more I learn of this, the less I like it,” Merry growled.

“Hsst,” Principia said suddenly, straightening up and turning to frown into the distance.

“Did you just hsst me, woman?”

“Will you hush? I hear something! Let me listen.”

They all fell silent, Merry with a scowl, watching their elven companion as she stared fixedly into the trees.

“Come on,” Prin said abruptly, starting forward.

“What do you hear?” Ephanie demanded as she followed.

“Not sure, but it could be a voice. Sounds distressed. Everyone stay alert.”

The range of elven hearing was uncanny; it took many long minutes to draw close enough that the sounds were audible to all five of them, but eventually they did. The squad instinctively drew closer together, falling into formation and fixedly scanning their surroundings as they approached the source of the noise. They were guided as much by the quieting of birdsong as by the sound itself; clearly something up ahead was alarming the local wildlife.

Past a fallen log, over a tiny brook and at the far edge of a small clearing, they came to a stop, staring at a large leather bag tied to a tree. It was bound to the trunk with braided cords, the leather drawstring holding its top shut being fixed to an overhanging branch above. The bag was old, dyed in now-faded but stereotypical Stalweiss motifs of stylized animals, and several charms were affixed to it and the cords holding it.

It was also squirming faintly and emitting the kind of muffled noises a person might make while trying to talk through a gag. The voice, though heavily dampened, was clearly feminine.

“This screams ‘trap,’” Merry muttered.

“It’s a wilderbag,” Ephanie whispered. “Used in some kinds of ritual hunts. Fresh game will be put in it and hung up to attract bigger predators to the meat. Depending on the ritual, the point may be to get at the predators themselves, or to leave it up for a set time and see whether any come for it.”

“There aren’t any predators big enough to go for that in this area,” Principia murmured. “Avelea, if wife-stealing were still an active practice, might a woman be put in one of those bags?”

“It’s sure big enough,” Casey said.

“I don’t know,” Ephanie said, scowling at the writhing sack. “Like I said, it’s a dead custom. I don’t know what the actual practices were. But based on what those bags are used for, I can’t see any reason for it.”

“You know a lot about Shaathist practices,” Farah observed. Ephanie made no reply.

“Well, it doesn’t sound like an animal,” said Casey. “It’s obviously a human woman in there.”

“Or an elf,” Merry pointed out.

“An elf would wriggle out of that without making a loud fuss,” said Principia.

“Ugh, fine, or a dwarf or gnome. You know what I meant.”

Prin nodded, her attention still on the wilderbag. “Well, bait or not, we obviously can’t leave a woman tied up in that thing. Let’s do this smart, ladies. Fan out, approach in a trapground spread, outliers keep weapons up and eyes on the flanks and rear. I’ll take point. Agreed?” She turned to look around at them, waiting till they all nodded. “All right, let’s move.”

The squad armed themselves, moving forward with shields and lances up. Principia, in the front and center of the wide formation, alone kept her shield over her back, drawing her sword and holding her lance in the left hand. The five of them approached the wilderbag in a trapezoidal formation, spread far enough that any trap sprung was unlikely to ensnare them all, facing all directions and ready to call an alarm if they were attacked.

She had to hop to do it, but severing the cords binding the top of the bag to the branch above took Prin only a second. The bag began wiggling and squealing even harder at that, but the slumping of its upper edge wasn’t enough to reveal its contents. After glancing around at the others, who were still watching the forest all around, she sheathed her sword and reached up to tug the remaining drawstring loose and pull the bag open and down.

It revealed the sweaty, gagged face of a young woman with dark hair plastered in streaks to her forehead, eyes frantic but blinking in the sudden light.

“Take it easy,” Principia said soothingly, “we’re with the Third Silver Legion. Hang on, I’ll get that off. Hold your head still, now.”

She had to plant her lance in the ground and draw her belt knife to cut away the gag, but in seconds, the girl was spitting out the wad of cloth that had been held by it in her mouth, and gasping for breath. She was apparently local, a human of Tiraan coloration, not much more than twenty and rather attractive.

“Oh, thank the gods. Please, get me down from here before they come back!”

“Before who comes back?” Ephanie asked tersely while Principia got to work on the cords.

“Huntsmen,” the captive babbled. “There are others! All over this forest! I don’t know what they want, but they have half a dozen of us! Please, you’ve got to save everyone!”

Principia made no comment, continuing to cut the bag loose. The other soldiers glanced at each other uneasily.

“Sounds positively textbook,” Farah said quietly. “Imprisoned young women, villainous kidnappers, and heroic Legionnaires to the rescue. It’s right out of a bard’s story.”

“And that,” Casey said grimly, “is how you know we’re being played.”

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8 – 15

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The hatch opened with a hiss, sliding upward, and Sheyann stepped lightly out, moving to the side to allow the other passengers to disembark. None seemed in a hurry to do so; lacking her relfexes and agility, most of the human passengers had been badly slung about by the Rail ride. The new caravans, she had been told, were a great deal safer and more comfortable than the old, thanks to the addition of safety harnesses, an apparent luxury of which she had not availed herself. Her fellow travelers had thus been furiously jolted against their own bindings, probably hard enough to bruise, while she had nimbly shifted in place, bracing herself against the walls and opposite bench at need.

The design of the Rail caravans was a puzzle. The ingenuity that led to their creation could surely have made them safer in a variety of ways, so why had it not been done? Despite the maunderings of Shiraki and some of his ilk, Sheyann had never found humanity to be institutionally stupid, incompetent or obstreperous—at least, not more than any other race, and never on a huge scale for any length of time, without suffering the inevitable consequences. The Empire had made the Rails this way for a reason. She couldn’t guess what, but the possibilities were rather ominous.

Only two people had been in her compartment, and they only because the other seats had filled. Sheyann was not offended by their reluctance to sit with an elf in obviously tribal attire; her own people’s reclusiveness had plenty to do with the problem. With any luck, the ongoing meetings between tribes and with the Narisian representatives would move toward remedying the issue, if they did not exacerbate it first.

She studied the station carefully. Despite Tiraas’s greater importance to the Empire, it was much smaller than its counterpart in Calderaas, though no less busy. Of course, that was due in part to its more efficient design. Tiraas had four Rail depots, two corresponding to each of its landward-facing gates, while Calderaas had only the one central terminal. Also, the city itself was physically smaller, constrained as it was by the available space on the island.

“Need any help, miss?” a slightly graying, slightly portly man in an Imperial Army uniform asked politely, tugging the brim of his cap in her direction. Beside him, a younger woman in the same uniform regarded her with a neutral expression. She never had bothered to learn what the different Tiraan insignia meant, but presumably the elder human was the superior officer.

“In fact,” she said, deciding this was as good a starting point as any, “I am looking for someone in the city. A Bishop of the Universal Church.”

The older officer raised his eyebrows. “Oh? What business would an elf have with the Church?”

Sheyann gazed at him in silence, wearing a small, fixed smile.

“No business of anybody’s but hers,” the female soldier said, nudging her companion with an elbow, and Sheyann mentally revised their relationship. The insignia wasn’t the same, but they were either very comfortable together or quite close in rank.

“Yes, right, of course,” the man said hastily. “Well, miss, the Bishops are a disparate lot; they all have their own business to attend to. I’d say your best bet is to look either at the Grand Cathedral or the central temple of whichever faith your Bishop represents. You may not find him—uh, or her—there, but there’ll likely be someone who can point you to them.”

“I see,” she said gravely, nodding. “Thank you. Would you know where the central temple of the cult of Eserion is located?”

At this, the two soldiers exchanged a look, their expressions growing almost imperceptibly grimmer.

“I could point you to the location,” the man said slowly, “but the Eserites aren’t going to let anyone into their actual temple. You could try your luck at the casino they run above it, but… They also don’t like people asking questions on their property. And…with all due respect, miss, you’d rather stand out.”

“I see what you mean,” she said thoughtfully. “Well. The warning is certainly appreciated.”

“I’d really suggest trying your luck at the Cathedral,” he went on in a more welcoming tone, turning to point at the great glass wall along the front of the station, beyond which was a busy street. “Just go outside onto the avenue, hang a left and keep walking uphill till you reach the city center. You can’t miss the Cathedral; it’s the building that isn’t the Palace and isn’t plastered with the insignias of Avei or Omnu.”

“By which he means,” the woman said dryly, “it’ll be the one on the left. North side of Imperial Square.”

“Yes, of course, right,” the man said, giving her a slightly exasperated look.

“Thank you very much,” Sheyann said courteously, bowing to them. “You have been tremendously helpful.”

“All part of the job, ma’am,” the man replied with a smile, tipping his cap again. “Welcome to Tiraas. I hope you enjoy your stay.”

She smiled, nodded, and glided off toward the exit. Even with the noise of the crowd and the Rail caravans washing over her, she could plainly pick out their voices as the throng closed behind her.

“Are you sure that was all right?” the woman asked. “Some random elf just tumbled out of the fairy tree, doesn’t know the first thing about the city, has business with the bloody Thieves’ Guild, and you point her right at the Church?”

“Omnu’s breath, Welles, you need to read fewer novels and more of your encounter manual. She’s not going to scalp somebody; elves are exactly as savage as anyone else, no more, no less. And she wanted the Eserite Bishop, not the Guild. If she wanted the Guild she’d no need to beat around the bush. Talking with Eserites isn’t illegal. Plus, she was polite. Always refreshing to see a young person with some respect, unlike some I could name.”

“She’s an elf, Lieutenant. She could be older than you.”

“Nah, the old ones are more standoffish. They hardly even breathe. Trust me, I’ve been around elves. I can tell.”

Sheyann permitted herself a smile of amusement as she slid through the crowd and out the doors into the Imperial capital.

There she had to stop, staring.

She had grown steadily accustomed to the faint, unpleasant buzz of arcane magic everywhere since passing through Calderaas. Tiraas, though, was…taller. Buildings seemed piled atop each other, climbing skyward in a way it would never have occurred to her to construct a dwelling. Many of them were taller than trees. Not to mention that a good few in the distance were surmounted by towers bearing the flickering orbs of telescroll transmitters, or branching antennae which crackled with artificial lightning. Artificial lights were everywhere, lit even in the day due to the gloomy sky overhead, some hovering in midair rather than supported by poles. Vehicles passed in the street, only a few drawn by animals. The horseless carriages emitted a thin hum of magic at work, their voices blending together into a constant, oscillating whine that bored unpleasantly into her ears.

So much they had done, in such a short time. So much glory and progress…such potential for carnage.

Her work with the other tribes and the drow was even more urgent than she had realized. The ancestors send that they were not already too late.

Sheyann turned left and set off down the sidewalk at a brisk pace.


 

Even in the relative quiet of the Grand Cathedral, Sheyann drew suspicious looks. She ignored them as she had all the others, pacing slowly down the central aisle of the enormous sanctuary, her moccasins silent on the threadbare carpet. It looked like it had been expensive, but this room must see vast amounts of traffic. It was a suitably vast space for it, the ornately carved stonework and beautiful stained glass almost lost beyond the cavernous emptiness.

Nearly her entire grove could have been squeezed into this room. And if she was any judge, it was far less than half the total volume of the cathedral complex.

There were two smaller aisles on the other sides of the long rows of pews; only a few people slipped between the benches to walk there rather than having to pass her, but they were not subtle about it. One woman made the action quite ostentatious, her nose firmly in the air. Most of the people present, however, either paid her no mind or just nodded quietly to her. This place, it seemed, encouraged a quieter way of being, which came as a relief after the city, the Rails, and the other city. What a day this was turning out to be; she was already thinking fondly of the relative serenity of Arachne’s University.

A few people strolled, admiring the stained glass, while several dozen more were scattered throughout the pews in individual prayer. At the front of the chamber, though, was an open area below the wide steps to the main dais towering over it all. Looming behind it was a huge golden statue of the Universal Church’s ankh symbol, with behind that towering stained glass windows depicting Avei, Omnu and Vidius, with the other gods of the Pantheon represented around their borders. Sheyann gave this ostentation only a glance, however, before turning toward a smaller lectern tucked off to the side, at which stood an officious-looking Tiraan human in the long black coat of a Church parson.

She waited calmly while he finished speaking with a well-dressed woman, politely declining to hear their conversation. This, a basic social skill in elven societies, seemed to be quite above the capability of most humans. They finished within a few minutes. The woman jumped and gasped softly when she turned and beheld Sheyann standing there.

The Elder gave her a smile and a deep nod, and got only a wary look in return before the woman scurried off.

The parson was regarding her with more calm, but not any kind of friendliness. Of course, a cleric would comport himself with serenity. That he was not seemingly interested in reaching out to her gave Sheyann a sense of how this conversation was going to go.

“May I help you?” he asked politely.

“I would like to speak with Bishop Antonio Darling,” Sheyann replied, folding her hands.

A beat of silence passed. The parson’s expression did not waver, but the pause communicated his surprise quite effectively.

“And whom may I tell Bishop Darling is seeking him?” he finally inquired.

“He does not know me,” Sheyann said. “I was directed to him by a mutual acquaintance.”

“And…with regard to what do you wish to see him?”

“That business is personal,” she said evenly.

“Ah,” the parson said, lowering his eyes to shuffle a few pages on his lectern. Sheyann didn’t need to see his hands to know he was creating meaningless background noise. “Your pardon…madam…but as I’m sure you can understand, the Church must safeguard the time and attention of its highest officials. So, you do not know Bishop Darling, yet you have unnamed personal business with him?” He raised his eyes, re-affixing his polite smile. “I don’t suppose you can offer anything more than that?”

“The rank of Bishop…” she mused. “It exceeds your own?”

He blinked, then his lips twitched in a quickly repressed smile. “Ah…considerably, yes.”

“And yet, you seem to be making judgments concerning the use of his time,” she said, matching his emptily courteous tone exactly. “Why not, instead, tell me where I might find him, and if he does not wish to speak with me, allow him to make that determination himself?”

The parson’s lips thinned, irritation finally beginning to show on his face. “And you are?”

“I am Elder Sheyann.”

“I see.” He fussed pointlessly with the papers again. “Well, Elder, Bishop Darling is not here. He is an extremely busy man, between his various responsibilities to the Church, to his own cult and the Imperial government. I can have a message conveyed to him if you like.” The faint smile returned, noticeably smug now. “I cannot, however, make any guarantees about how quickly he will receive it.”

Sheyann permitted herself a small sigh. “Perhaps my time would be better spent making inquiries at the Imperial government. I am given to understand the Empire boasts a generally competent bureaucracy. To which office, specifically, should I direct my attention?”

“I’m sure I do not know,” the parson said, all pretense of friendliness gone from his face now. “As you so kindly pointed out, Elder, it is not my place to monitor the comings and goings of the Church’s Bishops. Perhaps if you had specific business with him, of which he was made aware beforehand, you might find this encounter more productive.”

Behind her, a passing man suddenly stopped, turning toward them.

“Which Bishop are you looking for, shaman?”

She turned, studying the new arrival. He was huge—barrel-chested and towering head and shoulders over her, his hair slightly unruly and much of his face and chest hidden by a luxuriant beard. Sheyann did not need to see the wolf’s-head brooch pinned to his shoulder to know him for a priest of Shaath; she could feel the faint tug of fairy energies floating about him, mixing incongruously with the divine. Most interestingly, he wore a white robe under a tabard, a uniform she had already been prompted to watch for.

“Antonio Darling,” she replied, “of the cult of Eserion.”

The Shaathist Bishop raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Are you acquainted with him, sir?” she asked politely.

“Antonio and I have worked together.” He bowed respectfully. “I am Andros Varanus, Huntsman of Shaath and a fellow Bishop. Your quarry is not present now, and he ranges widely. There are places where you can wait for him without likely being kept too long.”

“So I have been told,” she said mildly. “Government offices and the Thieves’ Guild’s casino.”

“The Imperial offices are closing soon for the day,” he replied, his beard twitching with a hidden expression she could not identify. “And the thieves would entertain themselves by making you wait for no reason, or send you out to hunt mockingjays. However, I can direct you to Bishop Darling’s home. He will likely be returning there soon, and his Butler provides excellent hospitality, even in his absence.”

Ah, a Butler. What an interesting man this Darling was shaping up to be. Also, that answered one of her newfound questions about this fellow’s willingness to assist her; a Butler’s presence would mean even a mysterious visitor such as herself would be unlikely to pose a threat.

“You are extremely helpful, sir,” she said, bowing in return. “Forgive me, but I am unaccustomed to such courtesy from Huntsmen. Those I have met seemed rather put off at being forced to address a woman.”

At that, even his beard could not hide Varanus’s sneer. “Some men, even in Shaath’s service, are weak of mind. Not all follow Shaath’s ways; it is a weak-willed man indeed who feels threatened by the existence of other ideas. A Huntsman should be many things, but never weak. I will provide you with Antonio’s address, shaman. Paper and a pen,” he added curtly to the parson, who immediately scrambled to produce the requested objects.

“Thank you,” Sheyann said moments later, studying the names and numerals on the sheet of paper she had just been handed. “Hm…forgive me, but this street name. Where will I find this?”

Varanus blinked, then his beard rippled in a short exhalation that might have been the lesser part of a laugh. At the least, his eyes crinkled in amusement. “You are new here, then. Forgive me, I should have considered that. I am even now on my way out of the city, and expect to be gone for some time. More paper,” he added to the parson in a flat tone which made her suspect he had overheard more of their earlier conversation than he let on, then turned back to her with a more respectful expression. “I will draw you a map.”


 

Darling paused inside his front door, as was his custom, letting out a sigh and luxuriating for a moment in the quiet.

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned. “You have a visitor.”

He scowled and opened his mouth to deliver a complaint, but she swiftly raised one finger to her lips, then pointedly tapped the upper edge of her ear. He was tired; it had been a long day even before he’d met with Principia’s squad, and the subsequent unpleasant conversations at the Guild had left him drained. It took him an embarrassing two seconds to catch her meaning.

An elf? What the hell now?

“Well, by all means, let’s not keep them waiting any longer,” he said lightly. “The downstairs parlor?”

“Of course, your Grace.”

He didn’t allow himself to sigh as he stepped past her. An elf would hear even that. He’d developed a rather nuanced understanding of the range of their senses over the last year.

The reasons for this were also present in the downstairs parlor, in their severe black frocks that went with the guise of housemaids. Flora and Fauna weren’t doing anything in particular, however, just standing against the far wall, staring flatly at their visitor in a manner that made his hackles rise. The new elf, in turn, was regarding them with a similarly direct look, which she did not lift immediately upon his entry. Only after a few heartbeats did she turn to face him.

She was a wood elf, her ears a different shape than his apprentices’, and dressed in stereotypical costume, a simple green skirt and blouse dyed with shifting patterns, and a plain leather vest over that. Her moccasins were elaborately beaded, but looked well-worn, and she carried a belt with a large horn-handled knife as well as several heavy pouches. Well, no tomahawk; that was something, anyway.

“Good evening,” he said cheerfully. “I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting; I had simply no idea anyone was here to see me!”

“Not at all, your Grace,” she replied in a calm tone, bowing without taking her eyes off his face. “I apologize for my abrupt appearance. I will try not to take any more of your time than I must.”

“Nonsense, you’re a guest; my time is yours, Miss…?”

“Sheyann,” she said, still staring at him with an even look that was beginning to be unsettling. “I was directed to you by Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” he asked mildly, increasingly intrigued. “And you are…a relative of hers?”

Sheyann raised one eyebrow. “We are all of us kin, Bishop Darling. The mightiest dragon and the meanest algae all rose from common ancestors, in the infinite mists of the deep past. With that said… No. No, I am not. However, Arachne and I have an acquaintance in common, whom I find myself needing to contact and not knowing how. Apparently you are the last to have had regular interaction with her.”

Darling sighed in spite of himself. “Oh, don’t tell me…”

The elf nodded. “You would know her as Mary the Crow.”

“Yes, that’s what I was afraid I would know her as.” He chuckled wryly, shaking his head. “Well, it’s bad news that I’m the likeliest contact, as I’m not sure how much help I can be. I do speak with Mary on a semi-regular basis, but she decides when and where.”

“I see,” she said, permitting herself a small smile. “I somewhat anticipated that; it would be consistent with her general patterns. If I may ask, how recently have you seen her?”

“Quite recently, in fact, no more than two days ago. I don’t actually know why; she popped in on me at the Temple of Izara, hovered around for a few minutes and took off. I couldn’t even tell you what that was about. I’ve learned not to ask.”

“And…you have no way of contacting her directly?”

Darling grinned. “Well. I’ve twice got her attention by placing a scarecrow on the roof. The third time, though, it disappeared and then I didn’t see her for two weeks.”

“A…scarecrow.”

“An improvised one,” he admitted. “I’m afraid we sacrificed some of my old clothes and one of Price’s favorite brooms, not to mention that lovely pumpkin Flora and Fauna here had such fun carving.”

She smiled broadly at that, her eyes creasing with genuine amusement. “I am somewhat embarrassed that I never thought of that.”

“If I might ask a prying question,” he said, “does Mary know you, Sheyann?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, her smile fading. “We have been acquainted for a long time.”

“I see. Well, I find that Mary seems to keep herself appraised of my comings and goings. Not in any great detail—I hope—but she does always seem to know when someone especially interesting comes to my door. It’s possible she’s already aware you’re here, or will be soon.”

“Hm… That, too, would be characteristic of her. Well, then.” She bowed again. “I will take no more of your time this evening, Bishop Darling. It seems I had best make arrangements to stay the night in the city, and possibly for some nights to come. It would be better if I were able to find and speak with her quickly, but… One must, unfortunately, make allowances for the Crow.”

“That one must,” he agreed gravely, nodding. “If it helps, I will certainly tell her you’re looking, should she happen to visit me again.”

“I would appreciate that,” she said politely. “And I may call on you again if my quest is not immediately fruitful.”

“By all means, feel free! My door is always open.”

Ushering her out was a blessedly quick affair; elves, he had found, were not prone to linger over small talk and needless pleasantries. Darling ordinarily enjoyed small talk and needless pleasantries, but it was getting late and he was just as glad to get the mysterious elf out of his house.

After seeing her to the door, he made his way back to the parlor and watched through the window as Sheyann departed down the street. Only when she was out of view did he turn back to Flora and Fauna, who had remained unmoving the entire time.

“All right. Just what was that about?”

“She was looking for Mary the Crow,” Fauna said woodenly.

“Don’t get smart with me when I’m looking for simple,” he snapped. “And don’t look at me like that, I know damn well you can tell the difference. You and that woman were glaring at each other like a box of strange cats.”

“She knows,” Flora said darkly. “About us. What we are.”

That brought him up short. “You’re sure? She said as much?”

“Not in terms that would hold up in court,” Fauna said, scowling. “But she hinted strongly and made it pretty plain.”

“I don’t know how she can tell,” Flora added. “Even a shaman shouldn’t be able to just spot it like that!”

“No need to reach for magical explanations when mundane ones will do,” he said wearily, dropping himself into the armchair. “Price! Fetch me a—oh, bless you.” He took the brandy from her proffered tray and downed half of it. “Mhn, that hits the spot. Anyway, she came from Tellwyrn, who you said was able to sniff you out as well.”

“Don’t know how she did it either,” Fauna said sullenly.

“So did Mary, for that matter,” Darling mused. “Tellwyrn is to mages what Mary is to shamans; best not to assume anything about the limits of either of them. In fact, this is what concerns me. Now we’ve got an elf foofling about my city who not only knows a secret that could get us all sent to the gallows, but learned that secret because she is apparently a trusted link between Tellwyrn and Mary. Just there being a link between those two is going to cost me some sleep.”

“What do you want to do?” Flora asked quietly.

He sipped the brandy once more, frowning at the far wall. “…is it too late for you to tail her?”

Fauna shook her head. “We can track her down easily enough. In fact, it’s probably best to give her a bit of a head start. Less likely she’ll be looking for us that way.”

“We can also hide from her, no matter what kind of shaman she is,” Flora added. “But if she actually meets with the Crow… Well, it’s like you said. No telling what she can or can’t do.”

“We actually snuck up on her once…”

“…or so we thought. There’s no guarantee she didn’t let us.”

He nodded. “Well, be careful, but do your best. I’d like you to keep an eye on Miss Sheyann while she’s in town—find out who she talks to, what she says to them and what she does about it. If the Crow becomes a factor, be discreet. Don’t get confrontational with that one.”

“We’re not idiots,” Fauna muttered. “Though for the record I think we could take her.”

Flora nudged her with an elbow. “Not without outing ourselves and wrecking a whole lot of real estate.”

“Please don’t do that,” he said fervently. “This is a priority for now, though; there’s too much at stake to leave it unattended. I’ll speak with Style and have your training appointments for tomorrow put on hold.”

“We’ll head out, then,” Fauna said, grinning.

“Wait.” He held up a hand. “While we’re here and discussing risky business, there’s something else I want to bring up with you. It’s been a good few months since you told me your spirits would probably be satiated for close to a year. How’re we doing on that?”

The elves exchanged on of their fraught looks. “Some…faint twinges,” Flora said reluctantly. “It’s nowhere near a dangerous level yet. We’d tell you long before it got to that point.”

“Attagirl,” he said, nodding. “I mention it because something’s come up that may be relevant to that, at least potentially. The Guild’s ongoing search for Thumper has hit a wall in Onkawa. Webs is holding it up.”

“Who’s Webs?”

Darling sighed, idly swirling his drink. “An operations man, and Thumper’s Guild sponsor and first trainer. He’s being difficult, to the surprise of absolutely no one. His loyalties have always been more to his personal contacts than the organization. Webs is…a theological purist. He’s got a loudly poor opinion of the Guild’s current structure.”

“A renegade?” Flora asked, intrigued.

Darling shook his head. “An objector. Tricks mostly leaves him alone; I encouraged him. The Guild needs dissenting opinions to keep its management honest and on their toes. It becomes inconvenient at times like this, though, when we need specific cooperation and he’s of the opinion we don’t deserve it. Right now, he’s trying to pitch the idea that Thumper’s presence in Onkawa and the shitstorm left in the wake thereof were due to a succubus called Kheshiri.”

Both elves perked up visibly. “A succubus?” Fauna asked.

“Webs is covering for Thumper, that much is certain,” Darling said, leaning forward, “but the succubus’s presence there has been confirmed by other, more trusted sources. This bitch is bad news, even for a demon. She’s got thick files with both the Church and Imperial Intelligence. Even the Black Wreath has put an effort into getting her out of circulation in the past. It doesn’t seem to have stuck. What the hell she is doing with a goon like Shook is a complete unknown, but there are no possibilities that aren’t terrifying.”

“Vanislaad demons are good hunting,” Flora whispered. “The spirits were very happy with that incubus you got for us.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the issue from one angle,” Darling said grimly, pausing to take a much-needed sip of his brandy. “From another… If this Kheshiri is the piece of work it seems like she is, it might take a pair of headhunters to bring her down. Should it come to that, I want you two ready.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Fauna said with a predatory smile. “We always are.”

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The Dawnchapel held so much history and significance that its environs, a small canal-bordered district now filled with shrines and religious charity facilities, had taken on its name. Originally the center of Omnist worship in the city, it had been donated to the Universal Church upon its formation and served as the Church’s central offices until the Grand Cathedral was completed. More recently it had done duty as a training facility and residence for several branches of the Church’s personnel, and currently mostly housed Justinian’s holy summoner program.

It was a typical structure of Omnist design, its main sanctuary a sunken amphitheater housed within a huge circle of towering standing stones, of a golden hue totally unlike the granite on which Tiraas sat, imported all the way from the Dwarnskolds along the northern rim of the continent. Once open to the sun, its sides had long ago been filled in with a more drab, domestic stone, which was later carved into niches that now housed statues of the gods. Its open top had been transformed into a dome of glittering stained glass, one of the architectural treasures of the city. Behind the circular center rose a ziggurat, topped with a sun shrine which had been left as a monument sacred to Omnu in gratitude for the gift of the temple itself. Most of the offices, storage rooms and other chambers were either underground or inside the pyramid.

The circular temple sat on a square plot of land, forcing the furtive warlocks to cross a measure of open territory before they could reach its entrance. They went unchallenged, however, and apparently unnoticed; this part of the city was as eerily silent and empty tonight as the rest. Still, despite the lack of opposition, only Embras Mogul strolled apparently without unease.

Two khankredahgs and two katzils accompanied the party, which had to be momentarily soothed as they crossed onto holy ground. They had been warded and phased against it, of course, but this ground was holier than most, and the demons were not immune to the discomfort. There were two hethelaxi escorting the group, both of whom bore the transition without complaint. That was it for demon thralls, the more volatile sentient companions having been dismissed back to their plane rather than risk the outbursts that would result from bringing them here.

Even peering around for onlookers, they failed to observe the small, faintly luminous blue figure which circled overhead.

Mogul himself laid his hand upon the bronze latch of the temple’s heavy front door and paused for a moment.

“Warded?” Vanessa asked tersely. “Cracking it with any kind of subtlety will take too long… Of course, I gather you want to make a dramatic statement anyway?”

Mogul raised an eyebrow, then turned the latch. It clicked, and the door opened smoothly, its hinges not uttering a squeak.

“There’s overconfident,” Mogul said lightly, “and then there’s Justinian.”

He gestured two gray-robed warlocks to precede him inside, accompanied by one of the katzils and the female hethelax.

The sanctuary was not completely unguarded, but the outcry from within was brief.

“Who are—hel—”

The voice was silenced mid-shout. Mogul leaned around the doorframe, peering within just in time to see the shadows recede from a slumping figure in Universal Church robes, now unconscious. His attention, however, was fixed on the hethelax, who was frowning in puzzlement.

“Mavthrys?” he said quietly. “What is it?”

“It’s gone,” she replied, studying the interior of the sanctuary warily. “The sensation. Not quite un-consecrated, but… Something’s different.” Indeed, the katzil inside had grown noticeably calmer.

“Justinian’s using this place to train summoners,” said Bradshaw. “Obviously it’ll have some protections for demons now.”

“Omnu must be spinning in his grave,” Vanessa noted wryly, earning several chuckles from the warlocks still flanking the entrance outside.

They all tensed at the sudden, not-too-distant sound of a hunting horn.

“What the hell?” one of the cultists muttered.

“Huntsmen,” Embras said curtly, ducking through the doors. “They won’t hunt in the dens of their own allies. Everyone inside, now.”

As they darted into the temple, the spirit hawk above wheeled away, heading toward a different part of the city.


“This is so weird,” Billie muttered for the fourth time. “And I have done some weird shit in my time.”

“Yes, I believe I read of your exploits on the wall of a men’s bathhouse,” Weaver sneered, taking a moment from muttering to his companion.

The gnome shot him an irritated look, but uncharacteristically failed to riposte. They all had that reaction when they glanced at the figure beside him.

In the space between spaces (as Mary had called it), the world was grayed-out and wavering, as if they were seeing it from underwater. The distortion obscured finer details, but for the most part they could see the real world well enough. This one was more dimly lit than the physical Tiraas, but apart from being unable to read the street signs (which for some reason, apart from being blurred, were not in Tanglish when viewed form here), they could navigate perfectly well, and identify the figures of Darling and his two apprentices, and even the little black form of the Crow as she glided from lamp to lamp ahead of them.

None of them had been able to resist looking up at the sky, briefly but long enough to gather an impression of eyes and tentacles belonging to world-sized creatures at unimaginable distances, seen far more clearly than what was right in front of them. Mary had strongly advised against studying them in any detail. No one had felt any inclination to defy the order.

The weirdness accompanying them was far more immediately interesting to the group. She was wavery and washed-out just like the physical world, but here, they could see her. Little of the figure was distinct except that she was tall, a hair taller even than Weaver, garbed entirely in black, and had black wings. She carried a plain, ancient-looking scythe which was as crisply visible as they themselves were, unlike its owner. Weaver had stuck next to his companion, carrying on a whispered dialogue—or what was presumably a dialogue, as no one but he could hear her responses. The rest of the party had let them have their privacy, for a variety of reasons.

The winged figure subtly turned her head, and Joe realized he’d been caught staring. He cleared his throat awkwardly and tipped his hat to her. “Ah, your pardon, ma’am. I didn’t get the chance to thank you properly for the help a while back, in the old apartments. You likely saved me and my friend from a pair of slit throats. Very much obliged.”

The dark, silent harbinger of death waved at him with childlike enthusiasm. It was nearly impossible to distinguish in the pale blur where her face should be, but he was almost certain she was grinning.

“Oddly personable, ain’t she,” McGraw murmured, drawing next to him as Weaver and his friend fell back again, their heads together. “That’ll teach me to think I’m too old to be surprised by life.”

“Tell you what’s unsettling is that,” Billie remarked, stepping in front of them so they couldn’t miss seeing her and pointing ahead. Several yards in front of the group, Darling and the two elves were engaging a group of Black Wreath. Their demon companions were clearly, crisply visible, while the warlocks themselves appeared to glow with sullen, reddish auras. As per their orders, the party was hanging back, allowing the Eserites to handle things on their own until they were called for. In any case, it didn’t seem their help was needed. Darling was glowing brightly, and making very effective use of the chain of white light which now extended from his right hand. As they watched, it lashed out, seemingly with a mind of its own, snaring a katzil demon by its neck and holding the struggling creature in place. In the next moment, a golden circle appeared on the pavement beneath it, and the chain dragged the demon down through it, where it vanished.

“I’ve gotta say, something about that guy equipping himself with new skills and powers doesn’t fill me with a sense of serenity,” Billie mused, watching their patron closely.

“You don’t trust him?” Joe asked. She barked a sarcastic laugh.

“Ain’t exactly about trust,” McGraw noted.

Mary reappeared next to them with her customary suddenness and lack of fanfare. “One can always trust a creature to behave in consistency with its own essential nature. As things stand, Darling is extraordinarily unlikely to betray us.”

“As things stand?” Joe asked, frowning.

The Crow shrugged noncommittally. “Change is the one true constant. In any case, be ready. I believe we will not be called upon to carry out the planned ambush; it likely would have happened already, were it going to. That being the case, we’ll shortly need to return to the material plane and move on to general demon cleanup duty.”

“Fun,” Joe muttered.

“What, y’mean we don’t get to stay and hang out in this creepity-ass hellscape?” Billie said. “Drat. An’ here I was thinkin’ of investing in some real estate.”

Mary raised an eyebrow. “If you would really like to remain, I can—”

“Don’t even feckin’ say it!”


“Hold it, stop,” Sweet ordered. Fauna skidded to a halt on command, turning to scowl at him as a robed figure scampered away down the sidewalk before her.

“He’s escaping!”

“Him and all three of his friends!”

“Let ’em,” he said lightly, peering around at the nearby rooftops with some disappointment. “We were making a spectacle of ourselves, not seriously trying to collar the Wreath. That’s someone else’s job. You notice there are no signs of Church summoners here, despite the presence of the demons they let loose?”

“Everyone’s bugging out?” Fauna asked, frowning. “What’s going on?”

“Seems like ol’ Embras isn’t taking my bait,” Sweet lamented with a heavy sigh. “Ah, well, it was probably too much to hope that he’d do something so ham-fisted. It’s not really in an Elilinist’s nature, after all. Welp, that being the case, onward we go!”

“Go?” Flora asked as he abruptly turned and set off down a side street. “Where now?”

“You know, it would save us a lot of stumbling along asking annoying questions if you’d just explain the damn plan,” Fauna said caustically.

“Probably would,” he agreed, grinning back at them. “But adapting to circumstances as they unfold is all part of your education.”

“Veth’na alaue.”

“You watch it, potty mouth,” he said severely. “I know what that means.”

“Oh, you speak elvish now?” Fauna asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Just enough to cuss properly. It seemed immediately relevant to our relationship.” They both laughed. “Anyhow, just up this street is the bridge to Dawnchapel. We are going to a warehouse facility, uncharacteristically disguised behind the facade of an upscale apartment building so as not to offend the ritzy sensibilities of those who dwell in this very fashionable district. A fancy warehouse, but still a warehouse if you know what to look for, which makes it the perfect spot for what’s coming next.”

“I didn’t realize there were warehouses in Dawnchapel.”

“Just outside Dawnchapel,” he corrected, grinning up ahead into the night. “Along the avenue leading straight out from the less obvious exit from the Dawnchapel sanctuary itself.”

“I don’t know what to hope for,” Fauna muttered, “that this all plays out as you’re planning and we finally get to learn the point of it, or that it doesn’t and you have to eat crow.”

“Well, there was a mental image I could’ve done without,” Flora said, wincing.

“Not that Crow, you ninny. Oh, gods, now I’m seeing it too.”

“Don’t worry your pretty little heads,” he replied. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

Before any of the obvious responses to that could be uttered, the clear tone of a hunting horn pierced the night.

“Now what?” Flora demanded. “What’s that about?”

“That,” said Sweet, picking up his pace, “is the signal that we are out of time for sightseeing. Step lively, girls, we need to get into position.”


The spectral bird lit on Hawkmaster Vjarst’s gloved hand, and he brought it forward to his face, gazing intently into its eyes. A moment passed in silence, then he nodded, stroking the spirit hawk’s head, and raised his arm. The bird took flight again, joining its brethren now circling above.

“The summoners have retreated to their safehouses,” he announced, turning to face the rest of the men assembled on the rooftop. “Warlocks in Wreath garb are attempting to put down the remaining demons. There is significant incidental damage in the affected areas. No human casualties that my eyes have seen.”

“And the Eserite?” Grandmaster Veisroi asked.

“His quarry has not bitten his lure, but gone to Dawnchapel as he predicted. Darling and his women are moving in that direction. They are now passing through a cluster of demons, and acquitting themselves well.”

“How close?”

“Close.”

Veisroi nodded. “Then all is arranged; it’s time.” The assembled Huntsmen tensed slightly in anticipation as he lifted the run-engraved hunting horn at his side to his lips.

The horn was one of the treasures of their faith, a relic given by the Wolf God himself to his mortal followers, according to legend. Its tone was deep and clear, resounding clearly across the entire city, without being painful to the ears of those standing right at hand.

At its sound, Brother Ingvar nocked the spell-wrapped arrow that had been specially prepared for this night to his bow, raised it, and fired straight upward. The missile burst into blue light as it climbed…and continued to climb, soaring upward to the clouds without beginning to descend toward the city. Similar blue streaks soared upward from rooftop posts all across Tiraas.

Where they touched the clouds, the city’s omnipresent damp cover darkened into ominous thunderheads in the space of seconds. Winds carrying the chill of the Stalrange picked up, roaring across the roofs of the city; Vjarst’s birds spiraled downward, each making brief contact with his runed glove and vanishing. Snow, unthinkable for the time of year, began to fall, whipped into furious eddies by the winds.

The very light changed, Tiraas’s fierce arcane glow taking on the pale tint of moonlight as the blessing of Shaath was laid across the city.

“Brother Andros,” Veisroi ordered, “the device.”

Andros produced the twisted thorn talisman they had previously confiscated from Elilial’s spy in their midst, closed his eyes in concentration, and twisted it. Even in the rising wind, the clicking of the metal thorns echoed among the stilled Huntsmen.

Absolutely nothing happened.

Andros opened his eyes, grinning with satisfaction. “All is as planned, Grandmaster. Until Shaath’s storm abates, shadow-jumping in Tiraas has been blocked.”

“Good,” said Veisroi, grinning in return. With his grizzled mane and beard whipped around him by the winds, he looked wild, fierce, just as a follower of Shaath ought. “Remember, men, your task is to destroy demons as you find them, but only harry the Wreath toward the Rail stations. Yes, I see your impatience, lads. I know you’ve been told this, but it bears repeating. A dead warlock may yield worthy trophies, but he cannot answer questions. We drive them into the trap, nothing more. And now…”

He raised the horn again, his chest swelling with a deeply indrawn breath, and let out a long blast, followed by three short ones, the horn’s notes cutting through the sound of the wind.

Four portal mages were now under medical supervision in the offices of Imperial Intelligence, recuperating from serious cases of mana fatigue from their day’s labors, but they had finished their task on time, as was expected of agents of the Silver Throne. Now, from dozens of rooftops all across the city, answering horns raised the call and spirit wolves burst into being, accompanying the hundreds of Huntsmen of Shaath gathered in Tiraas, nearly every one of them from across the Empire. They began bounding down form their perches, toward lower roofs and the streets, roaring and laughing at the prospect of worthy prey.

“And now,” Grandmaster Veisroi repeated, grinning savagely, “WE HUNT!”


The three of them hunkered down behind the decorative stone balustrade encircling the balcony on which they huddled, taking what shelter they could from the howling winds and snowflakes. Uncomfortable as it was, they weren’t as chilled as the weather made it seem they should be. The temperature had dropped notably in the last few minutes, but it was still early summer, despite Shaath’s touch upon the city.

Directly across the street stood the warehouse Sweet had indicated. It had tall, decorative windows in sculpted stone frames, shielded by iron bars which were wrought so as to be attractive as well as functional. Its huge door was similarly carved and even gilded in spots to emphasize its engraved reliefs. It was, in short, definitely a warehouse, but did not stand out excessively from the upscale townhouses which surrounded it, or the shrines and looming Dawnchapel temple just across the canal.

“More information is always better,” Sweet was saying. His normal, conversational tone didn’t carry more than a few feet away, thanks to the furious wind, but his words were plainly audible to the elven ears of his audience, who sat right on either side of him. “When running a con, you want to control as much as you can. What you know, what the mark knows, who they encounter… But the fact is, you can’t control the world, and shouldn’t try. There comes a point where you have to let go. Real mastery is in balancing those two things, arranging what you can control so that your mark does what you want him to, despite the plethora of options offered to him by the vast, chaotic world in which we live.”

“And you, of course, possess true mastery,” Fauna said solemnly. She grinned when Sweet flicked the pointed tip of her ear with a finger.

“In this case, it’s a simple matter of what I know that Embras doesn’t,” he said, “and what Justinian doesn’t know that I know. This part of the plan wasn’t shared with his Holiness, you see; he’d just have moved to protect his secrets. That would be inconvenient, after all the trouble I went to to track them down, and anyway, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make use of it tonight.”

“What trouble did you go to?” Flora asked. “When did you find time to snoop out whatever it is Justinian was hiding from you on top of everything else you’ve got going on?”

“I asked Mary to do it,” he said frankly, grinning. “Now pay attention across the bridge, there, girls, you are about to see a demonstration of what I mean.” He shifted position, angling himself to get a good look down the street and across the canal bridge at the Dawnchapel. “When you know the board, the players, and the pieces…well, if you know them well enough, the rest is clockwork.”


“Don’t worry about that,” Embras said sharply as his people clustered together, peering nervously up through the glass dome at the storm-darkening sky. “It was a good move on Justinian’s part, but they’ll be hunting out there. This is probably the safest place in the city right now. Focus, folks, we’ve got a job to do.” He pointed quickly at the main door and a smaller one tucked into one of the stone walls. “Ignore the exterior entrances, we’re not about to be attacked from out there. That doorway, opposite the front, leads into the temple complex. Sishimir, get in there and shroud it; I don’t want us interrupted by the clerics still in residence. Vanessa, Ravi, Bradshaw, start a dark circle the whole width of the sanctuary. Tolimer, Ashley, shroud it as they go. You’re not enacting a full summons, just a preparatory thinning.”

“Nice,” said Vanessa approvingly. “And here I thought you just wanted to smash the place up.” She moved off toward the edge of the sanctuary, the rest of the warlocks shifting into place as directed, Sishimir ducking through the dark entrance hall to the temple complex beyond. The two hethelaxi took up positions flanking the main doors, waiting patiently, while the non-sentient demons stuck by their summoners.

“Now, Vanessa, that would be petty,” Embras said solemnly. “It’ll be so much more satisfying when the next amateur to reach across the planes in training tomorrow plunges this whole complex straight into Hell. Perhaps they’ll think with a bit more care next time someone suggests fooling around aimlessly with demons.”

“Ooh, sneaky and gratuitously mean-spirited. I like it!”

Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing, turning to face the succubus who had spoken.

“Not one of ours,” Ravi said crisply, extending a hand. A coil of pure shadow flexed outward, wrapping around the demon and securing her wings and arms to her sides; she bore this with good humor, tail waving languidly behind her. “Who are you with, girl? The summoner corps?”

“Justinian’s messing around with the children of Vanislaas, now?” Bradshaw murmured. “The man is completely out of control.”

“Why, hello, Kheshiri,” Mogul said mildly, tucking a hand into his pocket. “Of all the places I did not expect you to pop up, this is probably the one I expected the least. You already rid yourself of that idiot Shook? Impressive, even for you.”

“Rid myself of him?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Now why on earth would I want to do something like that? He’s the most fun I’ve had in years.”

“Change of plans,” Embras said, keeping his gaze fixed on the grinning succubus. It never paid to take your eyes off a succubus, especially one who was happy about something. “Vanessa, Tolimer, cover those doors. Sishimir, what’s taking so long in there?”

The gray-robed figure of Sishimir appeared in the darkened doorway, his posture oddly stiff and off-center. His cowled head lolled to one side.

“Everything’s okey-dokey back here, boss!” said a high-pitched singsong voice. “No need to go looking around for more enemies, no sirree!”

The assembled Wreath turned from Kheshiri to face him, several drawing up shadows around themselves.

Two figures stepped up on either side of Sishimir, a man in a cheap-looking suit and a taller one in brown Omnist style robes, complete with a hood that concealed his features.

“That is absolutely repellant,” the hooded one said disdainfully.

“Worse,” added the other, “it’s not even funny.”

“Bah!” Sishimir collapsed to the ground; immediately a pool of blood began to spread across the stone floor from his body. Behind him stood a grinning elf in a dapper pinstriped suit, dusting off his hands. “Nobody appreciates good comedy anymore.”

“I don’t know what the hell this is, but I do believe I lack the patience for it,” Embras announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, hex these assholes into a puddle.”

Kheshiri clicked her tongue chidingly, shaking her head.

A barrage of shadow blasts ripped across the sanctuary at the three men.

The robed man raised one hand, and every single spell flickered soundlessly out of existence a yard from them.

“What—”

Bradshaw was interrupted by a burst of light; the wandshot, fired from the waist, pierced Ravi through the midsection. She crumpled with a strangled scream, the shadow bindings holding Kheshiri dissolving instantly.

“Keep your grubby hands off my property, bitch,” Shook growled.

The robed figure raised his hands, finally lowering his hood to reveal elven features, glossy green hair, and glowing eyes like smooth-cut emeralds.

Khadizroth the Green curled his upper lip in a disdainful sneer.

“I do not like warlocks.”


“Almost wish I’d brought snacks,” Sweet mused as they watched the dome over the Dawnchapel flicker and pulse with the lights being discharged within.

“I wouldn’t turn down a mug of hot mead right now,” Flora muttered, her hands tucked under her arms.

“Hot anything,” Fauna agreed. “Hell, I’d drink hot water.”

“Oh, don’t be such wet blankets,” Sweet said airily, struggling not to shiver himself. “Where’s your sense of oh wait there he goes!”

He leaned forward, pointing. Sure enough, a figure in a white suit had emerged from the small side entrance to the temple’s sanctuary and headed toward the bridge at a dead run.

“Clockwork, I tell you,” Sweet said, grinning fiercely, his discomfort of a moment ago forgotten. “Confronted with an unwinnable fight when they weren’t expecting one, the cultists naturally huddle up and create an opportunity for their leader to escape. The rest of them are losses the Wreath can absorb; he simply can’t be allowed to fall into Justinian’s hands. And so, there he goes. But whatever shall our hero do now?”

Embras Mogul skidded to a stop at the bridge, glancing back at the Dawnchapel, then forward at the warehouse. He started moving again, purposefully.

“So many choices, so many direction to run,” Sweet narrated quietly, his avid gaze fixed on the fleeing warlock. “The Wreath’s first choice is always to vanish from trouble, but with their shadow-jumping blocked, his options are limited. But what’s this? Why, it’s a warehouse! And all warehouses in this city have convenient sewer access. Once down in that labyrinth, he’s as good as gone. As we can see, he is slowed up by the very impressive lock on those mighty doors.”

“Amateur,” Flora muttered, watching Mogul struggle with the latch. After a moment, he stepped back, aimed a hand at the lock and discharged a burst of shadow. With the snowy wind howling through the street, they couldn’t hear the eruption of magic or the clattering of pieces of lock and chain falling to the ground, but in the next moment, Mogul was tugging the doors open a crack and slipping through, pulling it carefully shut behind him.

“You weren’t going to ambush him there?” Fauna asked, frowning.

“What, out here in the street?” Darling stood up, brushing snow off his suit. “Where he could run in any direction? No, I believe I’ll ambush him in that building which I’ve prepared ahead of time to have no useable exits except the one I’ll be blocking.”

“One of these days your love of dramatic effect is going to get you in real trouble,” Flora predicted.

“Mm hm, it’s actually quite liberating, knowing in advance what your own undoing’ll be. The uncertainty can wear on you, otherwise. All right, girls, down we go. We’ve one last appointment to keep tonight.”


Embras strode purposely forward into the maze of crates stacked on the main warehouse floor, scowling in displeasure. This night had been an unmitigated disaster. He only hoped his comrades had had the sense to surrender once he was safely away. For now, he had to get to the offices of this complex and find the sewer access—there always was one—but in the back of his mind, he had already begun planning to retrieve as many of them as possible. It was a painful duty, having to prioritize among friends, but Bradshaw and Vanessa would have to be first…

He rounded a blind turn in the dim corridors made by the piled crates and slammed to a halt as light rose up in front of him.

The uniformed Butler set the lantern aside on a small crate pulled up apparently for that purpose, then folded her hands behind her back, assuming that parade rest position they always adopted when not actively working.

“Good evening, Master Mogul,” Price said serenely. “You are expected.”

Embras heaved a sigh. “Well, bollocks.”

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6 – 32

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“Ah, perfect.” Mogul calmly adjusted his lapels as he stepped out of the shadows onto the latest rooftop. Carter landed beside him, for once without stumbling, and had to repress a moment of pride at how well he was adapting to shadow-jumping.

Their new perch was an especially narrow structure four stories tall, facing what had clearly once been a park before being piled with trash and the debris of preliminary deconstruction of some of the district’s buildings. The piles of rubbish were short, though, affording them a view of both the street leading to the bridge out of the empty district, and a side street which intersected it, down which a small party of people was now moving at a good clip.

“That’s them?” Carter asked, stepping up to the edge of the roof. He couldn’t see identifying details at this distance, but it pretty much had to be. The only other people around were Wreath warlocks, who were in hiding, and the four were clearly fleeing away from or toward something.

“Mm hm,” his guide murmured in reply, turning his back to the scene below.

“You called?” said a new voice from behind them. Carter embarrassed himself by jumping in surprise, then whirled to face the speaker. He might as well not have bothered; it was another figure shrouded in the gray anonymity of their ceremonial robes. Definitely male, possibly of a large build.

“There you are,” Mogul said, cheerful as ever, leaving Carter wondering by what mechanism he had called the man. “How’s it look out there?”

“You can see the Bishop and his servants nearing the square,” the warlock replied, nodding his hood in the direction of the street beyond. “There’s also activity just over the bridge. Looks like reinforcements coming to meet him.”

“All expected,” said Mogul. “What’d he bring?”

“His Butler, a pair of elves in…what I guess might be Eserite garb, or maybe they’re just stupid. Also two Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“That is interesting!” Mogul sounded delighted. He turned to look at Darling’s group and then at the bridge. Carter couldn’t see figures at that distance, but he wasn’t about to make assumptions regarding the warlocks’ capabilities. “Why, this is all shaping up marvelously. The timing is impeccable! The Lady smiles on us tonight. All right, you know the plan. Get started. Unleash the demons at both groups. Carefully, stagger the attacks so as to give them a sporting chance. If it isn’t too difficult to manage, do try to time it so that they meet up about as the demons run out.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The robed figure put his hands together; there came a soft clicking noise, and he vanished in a swell of darkness.

“How many of those talismans do you have?” Carter asked.

“As many as we need, and a few extras to play with.”

“I must say that’s…oddly generous. That bit about giving them a sporting chance. These are your enemies, aren’t they?”

Mogul half-turned to give him a knowing smile. “And why waste a perfectly good enemy? I’m just getting to know this one. As soon as you kill the bastard you’re used to, you’ll find yourself hip-deep in an unknown quantity. Anyhow, I am taking the opportunity to…clean house a bit.” He turned back to watch the street. Darling’s party had slowed as they neared the square; suddenly there were flashes of fire and the white sparkle of wandshots from their vicinity. Infuriatingly, their path had taken them behind as shattered old clock tower, leaving Carter with no idea what was happening.

“The demons I’ve brought to this little hoedown are…troublesome sorts,” Mogul continued, idly gazing down on the street as if he could see the action. Nothing was visible except the odd flash of light. “Some of the more animalistic ones who just aren’t taking their training… Some sentients who seem determined to use the Wreath to scheme toward their own ends. Exactly the sort of thing we are on the mortal plane to put a stop to. Of course, we have our own methods, but when fortune gives me a squad of bloodthirsty Church enforcers, why waste the opportunity?”

“I see,” Carter said, frowning.

“Come now, Mr. Long, why do you imagine I really allowed Darling to finish his little obstacle course and get himself set up where he wanted to be? He needs to be in a position of strength if I’m to let him get out of this alive.”

“In that case…I’m afraid I don’t see,” Carter admitted.

Mogul laughed. “It’s all about expectations. As I told you earlier, I want to have a few words with Mr. Darling this evening, but following that, he can go home and do whatever it is Eserites do when not cutting purse strings. If I simply offered them the chance to leave unmolested, they would either suspect a trap and attack, or see it as a sign of weakness…and attack. If they’re going to attack anyway, I’d rather they be tired out mowing down the fodder first. Then we’ll have a nice, polite little stand-off and they can leave believing they forced us to a truce.”

“You’re that certain they’ll be so aggressive?”

“I am, as I said, cleaning house.” Mogul gave him a considering look. “I began this sequence of events by sending some of my less reliable members to visit the Church. Warlocks who, like the demons below, have been scheming on their own to amass personal power through the infernal arts, at the expense of their duties. Now, we attract all manner of miscellaneous oddballs and I’m quite indulgent of eccentricity in the ranks, but abuse of power is absolutely not to be tolerated. Ours is a sacred calling. So off went the ne’er-do-wells, and not a one came out alive. That’s what the servants of the Pantheon do when they catch someone who doesn’t bend knee to their power.”

“I’m not aware of Church personnel behaving that way, as a rule,” Carter said very carefully.

Mogul grinned bitterly. “I encourage you not to take my word for it. Look into the events of warlocks being killed by Bishops recently. They have floated the official story that the Wreath attacked them, and frankly I doubt there will be any contradicting evidence left intact. But have a long, deep look at the histories of the Bishops in question. Things may become more clear to you then.”

“This is all…absolutely byzantine,” Carter said, shaking his head.

“Demons are a responsibility, and an occasional means to an end,” Mogul replied. “They’re not the point of our faith; we serve the goddess of cunning. Who, through no fault of her own, was consigned to a dimension full of demons by her own family, and even still took it upon herself to defend the mortal world by disposing of the last hostile Elder Goddess. You don’t think it interesting that the only other deity who bothers to keep Scyllith away from our civilization is Themynra, who also is not of the Pantheon?”

Carter frowned, deep in thought. Below, Darling’s group moved out from behind cover, at a more cautious pace than before, but he barely saw them.

“Welp, looks like matters are coming to a head,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Come along, Mr. Long. Let’s go have us a chat.”


 

The third and final katzil demon rebounded off the wall against which Weaver’s wandshot had smashed it, emitting an aimless puff of flame from its mouth at the impact. The feathered serpent shook itself, barely staying aloft, and opened its fanged maw to direct another blast at them.

Joe fired a bolt of light straight down its throat. Soundlessly, the creature flopped to the pavement, where it immediately began to crumble to dust and charcoal, as the other two had.

“You seein’ what I’m seein’?” Joe asked, warily scanning the streets with his wands up.

“I see fucking demons!” Peepers practically wailed. She was trying to hide behind Darling, who had a throwing knife in each hand, but had let the two men with wands take the lead against the onslaught.

“Yeah,” said Weaver. “Small groups, one at a time. No warlocks, just demons. Not hitting hard enough to herd us away… We’re being softened up. Wonder what’ll be at the end after we mow down the disposables.”

“Hard to say what is and isn’t disposable with these guys,” Darling noted. “This whole thing started with them sending twelve trained spellcasters to their certain deaths. It’s odd that they’d do this now, when we’re close to the edge of the district. That’s not a smart place for the Wreath to set up a confrontation. Any ruckus kicked up in sight of the public will bring the Army down on them.”

“So, basically, we don’t know what the fuck is going on,” Weaver snorted. “Situation normal.”

“Standard procedures, then!” Darling proclaimed. “Forward! There’s a somewhat reasonable chance we’ll be having help soon.”

“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.

“He’s right, to the extent that we can’t exactly stay here,” said Joe. “Exit’s just up ahead. How’s it look, Weaver?”

“Actually…” The bard tilted his head in that way he did when listening to his invisible friend, then smiled. “Well, fuck me running. Looks like Twinkletoes’s non-plan is actually working.”


 

“Stay back,” Price said in a clipped tone, simply striding forward, the clicking of her shoes on the pavement lost in the thunder of the charging demon’s footsteps.

“You can’t—”

“What can two little elves do about this?” The Butler gave Flora a sharp sidelong look before returning her attention forward as the baerzurg reached her.

She sidestepped neatly, allowing it to charge several steps past. Roaring in fury, the hulking, bronze-scaled brute rounded on her, striking out with a ham-sized fist. Price calmly stepped inside the swing of its arm, grasping it as it went past. Her hands looked absurdly tiny against its forearm, which was as thick as her waist. At that moment, however, there came a tiny golden flash as the creature stepped on the small holy charm she had dropped the second before. With a bellow of pain, it staggered into the impetus of its own punch.

The movement of its body momentarily hid the Butler from view; they didn’t see exactly how she did it. In the next second, however, the huge creature had been spun to the side, staggering back against the bridge’s railing. This came only just past its knees, and scarcely served to stop the baerzurg. It teetered at the edge, flailing with its arms.

Price took two running steps forward and vaulted, landing lightly with both feet against the demon’s massive chest.

Roaring, it toppled backward, grasping at her and just missing as she hopped lightly back down to the bridge’s surface. Behind her, the bellowing demon plunged into the canal. Price pause for a moment to straighten her tie.

“Whoah,” Fauna muttered.

An arrow whistled above their heads, and a second later there came a squawk of protest. A flying katzil demon dropped to the ground, a quivering shaft still embedded in its neck.

“We will create a path through these trash,” Andros growled, stalking past the two elves with Tholi and Ingvar flanking him. “Your agility will be needed against the warlocks when we near them. Stay behind us.”

Another arrow, fired by Ingvar, brought down a sshitherosz that spiraled upward, apparently seeking a higher vantage from which to strike. The next creature to charge forward was a grotesque abomination of tentacles and claws that looked like it would be more at home underwater. It faltered as an arrow from Andros’s bow, glowing gold, thudded into its upper chest. Then Price had darted forward and past it, reaching around to rip a small knife across the creature’s throat. Blue-green fluid sprayed forth and it dropped.

The next moment, Price had to dodge backward as a sinuous, crocodile-headed khankredahg snapped at her. She bounded onto the bridge’s rail, then back down, retreating from its powerful jaws. For being built like an elongated bulldog, it was awfully fast.

Tholi was there in moments, striking out with a hatchet. The beast paused, maw gaping open to hiss threateningly as the Huntsman and Butler moved to flank it.

“Hsst,” Flora said, joining Fauna on her side of the bridge. “Tell me you see it too.”

“One at a time, never enough to push us back,” Fauna replied, nodding. “Something’s up.”

“Let’s get behind the lines.”

“Remember the rules…”

“Oh, come on, we’re still elves.” Smirking, Flora switched to elvish. “If we can’t sneak past this lot without teleporting, we don’t deserve the name.”

Exchanging nods, they separated and dived over the bridge on both sides. In the next moment, while their companions pressed forward through a sequence of demonic attacks, they were clambering horizontally along its decorative stonework just below the level of its surface.


 

“There, and there,” Darling said, pointing at two side alleys. “Uglies coming out, attacking in both directions, but not trying to block the way. As a strategy, it’s so ineffective I have to assume it was meant to be.”

Even as he spoke, the latest khankredahg collapsed with a piteous groan, incidentally bearing down the young Huntsman who had charged forward, thrust his arm into its open mouth and driven a knife into its brain. The lad cursed at being dragged down, though he was free almost immediately as the demon began to disintegrate into ash.

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned, striding forward. “I trust the results of tonight’s excursion have been to your satisfaction?”

“Ask me again when I’ve seen the results,” he said cheerfully. “Excellent timing, by the way, Price.”

“Yes, it was. If your Grace is seeking comfort in reminders of the familiar, I also have red hair.”

There came a scream from above, and a figure in a gray robe plunged from a second-floor window to hit the street with an unpleasant thump. A second behind, a slim figure in black leather dived down, landing nimbly beside him.

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Fauna told the groaning warlock. “You’re barely broken.”

“More summoners over here!” Flora reported, leaning out a window in the structure opposite. “They shadow-jumped away as I got here, though.”

“Oh?” Darling turned to her, raising an eyebrow. “It’s not like you to give warning of your approach.”

“I’m gonna let that pass because I’m really glad to see you’re okay,” she shot back. “And no, they were already in motion by the time I arrived. Whatever they were up to, it looks like their plan is still going forward.”

“Then it is time we were gone,” Andros rumbled. “These are the two gentlemen you mentioned?”

“Indeed,” Price replied.

He studied Joe and Weaver for a moment, flicked his gaze across Peepers and visibly dismissed her from consideration. “Very well. The force we now have assembled is sufficient to repel a considerably greater threat than we have faced thus far. While they are in retreat, we should do likewise.”

“But we have them on the run!” Tholi said, practically panting in eagerness. “Now is the time to press on and finish them off!”

“Listen to your superiors,” Ingvar snapped. “And to your scouts! The Wreath has planned this, all of it, and it’s gone as they intended. We are in a snare. It’s time to flee.”

“I quite agree,” said Darling, tousling Flora’s hair fondly as she rejoined the group. “C’mon, once across the bridge we’re—”

“Too late,” said Joe, raising both his wands.

The ten of them clustered together, unconsciously forming into a circle in the center of the square. Behind them was the bridge back to the lights of the city, before the desolation of the condemned neighborhood, but all around, there were suddenly shadows rising from nowhere. They appeared in windows, out of doors and alleys, on rooftops, some seeming to rise up from the very pavement. Surges of darkness swelled, then receded, leaving figures in gray robes standing where they had been. Some carried weapons, a mix of wands, staves and clearly ceremonial (to judge by their elaborate design) blades, quite a few accompanied by demons of various descriptions. In seconds, a dozen ringed them; in seconds more, their numbers doubled, and then continued to grow. The Wreath pressed forward, flanking them from behind, not quite cutting off escape but edging into their own path out of the district.

“Hmp,” Weaver muttered, “damn. I forgot to tell you so. Now I can’t say it.”

“These are pups that have cornered bears,” Andros snarled. “If they will not let us leave in peace, crush them.” Tholi growled in wordless agreement.

A final surge of shadows rose up from the street directly ahead, depositing two men in front of the group.

“Now, now,” Embras Mogul said reprovingly. “There you go, offering to solve a puzzle with a hammer. Honestly, how you get dressed in the morning without strangling your wife is beyond me.”

“Are you really still hanging out with these guys, Carter?” Peepers demanded.

“I’m just here to observe,” the journalist said, licking his lips nervously.

Ignoring a hissed warning from Flora, Darling stepped forward out of the circle. “Well, this has been a grand little chase, Embras, but we all have better places to be, don’t we?”

“Quite so.” Mogul stepped forward to meet him, placing each foot with a care that made him resemble more than ever a wading stork. “My people have suffered no end of abuse at your hands already, Antonio, and you’ve worn yours down with your ill-conceived antics.”

“Not to mention that I’ll have to spend my whole day on paperwork tomorrow if I’m party to shooting up a whole district, condemned or no,” Darling replied easily. “I just can’t spare the time. There’s a social event in the evening to which I’ve been looking forward for weeks.”

“Then it’s all too obvious how we handle this, isn’t it?”

They came to a stop less than a yard apart. The priest and warlock stared at one another, grim-faced.

“Indeed,” Darling said softly. “None of you interfere. This is personal.”

“Are you crazy?” Fauna shouted. Price held up a warning finger in front of her face.

“We settle it like gentlemen,” Mogul said, equally quiet.

“Man to man.”

“One on one.”

“To the death.”

There was a horrified silence. The Wreath stood motionless, robes fluttering in the faint night breeze, several of their demon companions shifting impatiently. Darling’s party held weapons at the ready, staring at the pair in disbelieving fascination. The light shifted, faltering, a cloud scudding across the moon and leaving them momentarily illuminated only by the distant glow of the city itself.

And then Mogul and Darling simultaneously burst into gales of laughter.

While the entire assembled crowd stared, utterly bemused, both men roared in mirth. Mogul slumped forward, bracing his hands against his knees; Darling reached out to steady himself against the other man’s shoulder.

“Fuck it,” Weaver said loudly after this had gone on for half a minute. “I say we shoot them both.”

“Oh, my stars and garters,” Mogul chortled, straightening up. “Thanks, old man, I needed that.”

“Hah, makes me wish we could do this more often! Price never lets me have any fun.”

“I admit I’m impressed! For a second there I really thought you were serious.”

“C’mon, Embras, how long have we been at this tonight? Give me credit for a sense of fun.”

“Yeah, I particularly enjoyed your little street-writing display.”

“Oh, you caught that! Better and better. It gets so tedious, running mental circles around people all the time. Sometimes I feel like nobody really gets me, y’know?”

“Tell me about it. Some days I’d trade it all for some intelligent conversation.”

“I hear that.”

“What the hell is going on?!” Peepers shrieked.

“Well, anyway, I’ve got cranky little ones to take home and put to bed,” said Darling, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the group. “Are we just about done here?”

“Yeah, this seems like a good place to call it a night.” Mogul patted his shoulder, still grinning. “Good game, my man. Mr. Long!” He turned to beckon Carter forward. “I realize this has been more excitement than you planned on seeing. We’ll not detain you if you would rather head back into the city with these folk, but I encourage you to keep in mind what I said about the Church.”

“You’ve said a lot of things,” Carter replied warily, looking as confused and nonplussed as Darling’s allies.

“At the moment,” Mogul said, stepping back from Darling, “you’ve not done anything to earn the Archpope’s ire. Matters will be different if you decide to publish your story, though, and you can certainly expect these folk to lean on you about it one way or another. The Empire’s another matter. Lord Vex is too canny to disappear an inconvenient member of the press and set your entire profession yapping at his heels. Sometimes I kind of miss his predecessor.” The warlock grinned reminiscently. “I could make that guy chase his tail across the city and back, all from the comfort of my rocking chair.”

Carter stared at him, then at Darling, then glanced around, at the warlocks, the assembled mix of Huntsmen and Eserites, the demons. “I, um…”

“Careful,” Mogul cautioned. “You’re thinking with your emotions, remembering who your upbringing has taught you to trust. That’s fine and dandy for an opinion columnist, but if you decide to play the game on the level at which this story will place you, you’ll need to be more careful. Think in terms of whose interests align with yours, not who you happen to feel fondly toward.”

“That is excellent advice for a variety of situations,” Darling said, nodding. “Just keep in mind that telling the truth is the most valuable weapon in a good deceiver’s arsenal. You understand that better than most people, Carter.”

Long’s face grew blank as he clearly marshaled his expression through sheer will. “I…appreciate the reminder, Bishop Darling,” he said somewhat stiffly. “Mr. Mogul, do you think you can drop me off at the offices of the Imperial Herald?”

“Not within it or too close,” Mogul replied. “Your superiors very wisely keep their wards updated, and the whole place had a recent and thorough Pantheonic blessing. We can put you down in the neighborhood and keep watch till you’re safely home, though.”

“I would appreciate it.”

“Very well, then,” Mogul said, grinning widely. The expression he turned on the Bishop was subtly triumphant. “This has been just a barrel of laughs, but…time marches on.”

“Mm hm,” Darling replied mildly, his own face open and affable. “See you next time, Embras.”

With a final, mocking grin, Embras Mogul laid his hand on Carter’s shoulder and vanished in a heave of darkness. All around them, the rest of the Black Wreath followed suit, demons and robed cultists disappearing in a series of shadowy undulations, till in seconds, the small group were clustered alone in the deserted square.

“Either someone is going to explain to me right damn now what just happened or I will begin stabbing people at random,” Peepers threatened.

“You don’t have a knife,” Joe observed.

“I will improvise.”

“Simple mathematics,” Darling said, strolling back over to the group. “They had the numbers, but we have the power, pound for pound. After watching all of us in action, Mogul knew it. A real fight would have left the area in ruins and cost lives on both sides. Neither of us wanted that.”

“I did,” Tholi muttered sullenly. Ingvar rolled his eyes.

“There will be another time,” Andros rumbled. “Did you at least learn what you set out to, Antonio?”

Darling grimaced in annoyance. “We bloodied their noses, cost them some tame demons and I have a few more little pieces of the puzzle to slot into place. For all the general fuss and bother this evening has been, though… I can’t say we’ve gained as much ground as I would have liked. But we drew them out of hiding, got a sense of how much manpower they’ve got in the city, and faced them down. That’s not nothing.”

“It will be worth reporting in detail to his Holiness,” Andros said, nodding. “But I agree. We must make more progress, quickly.”

“I’ve a few more ideas to mull over,” Darling replied, then rolled his shoulders. “Well, anyhow! What say we haul ass out of this depressing dump? I don’t know about any of you, but right now I would kick a nun into the canal for a brandy.”

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6 – 30

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“Are you sure you should be confronting this guy?” Carter asked as they strode rapidly along the rooftop. “And no, I’m not making a tactical suggestion; this is in my professional capacity of looking for information.”

“Duly noted,” Mogul said with a grin. “I’m curious about the question, however. This chap and his various lackeys have attempted to spy on our interview and then assaulted and killed my personnel when confronted about it. While I happen to have a miscellaneous handful of warlocks and demon thralls in the area, this seems like an ideal opportunity to have a word with him.”

“But the djinn strongly advised you not to. I’m just puzzled that you’d ignore his advice after summoning him to ask for it.”

There came a pause in the conversation when they reached the edge of the building. The darkness swelled around them, and then they were stepping onto the next roof over, two stories up and thirty feet away across a broad street. Carter stumbled again, but less dramatically; he was growing more accustomed to the disorientation.

“Mr. Long,” the warlock said as they resumed walking, “I’ve just spent much of the afternoon making the case to you that the Black Wreath are not at all as you believe them to be. With that established, let me just emphasize that demons are every bit as dangerous as you’ve always been told, and worse. That is why the Wreath is important, because believe me, no one else who tries is adept at handling them without creating a mess. Making allowances for individual personalities, they are highly aggressive. Infernal magic has that effect on any form of life it corrupts. Now, djinn aren’t able to physically interact with the world, which doesn’t diminish their propensity to cause trouble; it only limits the methods by which they can do so.”

The roof along which they were walking wasn’t another flat top like the previous one; their path was a lip of stone along the edge of a steep incline shingled in ragged old slate tiles. They came to the corner, where the path was interrupted by a decorative finial, and Carter had to accept a hand to navigating his way over the smooth slope and back onto even ground on the other side. It was an apparently L-shaped structure, to judge by the long distance it stretched out on the side ahead. Embarrassing as it might be to be handed about like a lady in silks and slippers, Carter wasn’t too proud to admit he needed the assistance. Despite the excitement of this assignment, he was keenly aware of being out of his element. His avuncular suit and briefcase didn’t lend themselves to nocturnal rooftop shenanigans.

“Ali and I have a well-negotiated contract,” Mogul continued as they moved on again. “He doesn’t lie to me and answers direct queries with a minimum of obfuscation. But beyond the simple answers to my questions, in the realm of his personal opinions and asides? You’re damn right I ignore his advice. It’s calculated to trip me up, without exception. Either with the goal of weaseling out of our contract, or just to create general mayhem.”

“But…if he can’t lie…”

“And what did he say, exactly?” Mogul grinned and winked. “That I would learn humility? Come on, what does that mean? You have to be eternally on guard when negotiating with demons. Any demons, but particularly the crafty ones. Sshitherosz, djinn, Vanislaad, all the schemers. They’ll promise you your own doom in a frilly dress, and you’ll step right into it if you make the mistake of paying too much attention to the frills. The exact wording gets you every time.”

“That sounds…exhausting,” Carter mused.

“Warlocks and lawyers, Mr. Long,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Warlocks and lawyers. Ah, here we are. You may want to keep back, we’re about to have some company.”

They had come to the end of the building, where there was a small rooftop patio. Raised beds held sad-looking old dirt and the twisted skeletons of small shrubs. Mogul hopped down from their improvised walkway and positioned himself against the bannister looking over the square below, beckoning Carter over to join him.

In the next moment the shadows gathered and took shape in the lee of the overhanging roof, then receded, leaving two figures standing there. One, dressed in obscuring gray robes, was hunched over with an arm across its midsection, supported by the other, which was clearly some kind of demon. Armored plates covered its forehead and limbs.

“Ah, still breathing,” said Mogul. “I’m glad to see that.”

“I had to confiscate her potion belt,” noted the demon. “She may have already taken more than the safe dosage.”

“It hurts,” the robed figure rasped, her voice taut with pain. “Inside. Bricks landed on my back… Think I have ribs broken. And lower.”

“That’s bad,” Mogul said, frowning, “especially if you’ve been chugging potions on top of internal bleeding. You know better, Vanessa. Hrazthax, get her to a healer. You two are out of this evening’s events.”

“You sure you won’t need me here?” the demon asked.

Embras waved a hand. “She’s urgent, and by the time you got back this would all be over. Be careful, though. Speak to Ross on your way out and have him pass along the word: anyone with a Vanislaad thrall needs to send it away, and everybody watch for holy symbols popping up in surprising places. There’s a reaper on the loose.”

Hrazthax frowned heavily. “A reaper? A real one? Just on patrol, or… It’s not good if Vidius is taking an interest in this.”

“You let me worry about that,” Mogul said firmly. “Take Vanessa’s talisman and get her to help. And when you find Ross, tell him to get everyone organized; our quarry is heading to the intersection of 31st East Street and Alfarousi Avenue. Don’t impede them; get everyone set up and ready to spring at that location, on my command.”

“Got it,” said Hrazthax, nodding. “But what about—”

Vanessa groaned and slumped against him.

“Go.”

The hethelax nodded to Mogul once more and took something from Vanessa’s hand, which she relinquished without argument. There came a few soft clicks as he manipulated it one-handed, and then the shadows welled up again, swallowing them.

“Busy, busy,” Mogul said, straightening his lapels. “Ah, well. When things go the way I want them to, I have the damnedest time keeping myself entertained. Ironic, isn’t it? This way, if you please.”

One shadow-jump later, they were on yet another rooftop across the street, and heading toward…Carter didn’t know what. The district was like an island of quiet and darkness. On all sides, not too far distant, the lights of Tiraas blazed like a galaxy come to earth, and at this altitude the sounds of carriage traffic and periodic Rail caravans were audible, but immediately around them was desolation. He doubted he could have navigated this jumble of broken-down structures even with the streetlights working, but Embras seemed to know where he was going.

“What’s a reaper?” Carter asked, regretting having put his notebook away. Ah, well, he wasn’t great at writing while walking at the best of times, and would likely have broken his neck trying to do it while navigating rooftops.

“Grim reaper,” Mogul said as they moved, “soul harvester, valkyrie. You’ve surely heard of them under one name or another.”

It took the journalist a few seconds to gather his thoughts before he could reply.

“Well… I must say, this night is going to leave me without things not to believe in.”

Embras grinned at him. “Oh, they’re very real, but you can be forgiven for not knowing it. The Vidians don’t encourage people to ask about them, and really, nobody on the mortal plane is likely to interact with one at all unless they dabble in necromancy. It’s the reapers who usually get sent to shut that down. Oh, and Vidian exorcisms? All theater. If the death-priests want a spirit laid to rest, they put on a big show to make you think they’re being useful while a valkyrie quietly gets rid of it. Warlocks only need to know about them because they have the same authority over incubi and succubi—which, as you may know, are human souls who are not supposed to be on this plane.” He shook his head and chuckled. “Vlesni is going to wring every ounce of pathos out of this anecdote she possibly can. I hear tell getting sent back by a reaper is…uncomfortable.”

“Do you really think you can intercept your opponent if he’s got an invisible spirit working with him?” Carter asked, glancing around somewhat nervously.

“Intercept him? I’m going to do no such thing.” Mogul stopped at the edge of the current roof, one long leg raised with the foot propped on the low wall surrounding it, and grinned at him. “We’re meeting him at the end. The man’s going excessively out of his way to spell out a message. I really ought to let him finish it, don’t you think? That’s just good manners.”


“Where the hell are we going?” Weaver snarled. “And don’t feed me that bullshit about just wasting time. You keep insisting on taking specific routes!”

“Lang—“

“Child, I swear by Omnu’s hairy third testicle I will shoot you right in the fucking mouth.”

“Settle down, good gods,” Darling reproved. “And yes, Weaver, you’re right, we are heading for an intersection a few blocks up.”

“Great, well, you should know there are warlocks and demons moving parallel to us in the same direction. We’re either walking into an ambush or being escorted by a mobile one.”

“Okay, how do you know this stuff?” Peepers demanded. “Where are you getting intel?”

“He’s got a spirit companion,” Joe explained.

“I want one. You have any idea how valuable that would be in my line of work?”

“You wouldn’t get along,” Weaver grunted.

“Don’t even ask,” added Joe, “it just gives him an opportunity to be standoffish and coy about it. He loves that.”

“About how many?” Darling interrupted.

Weaver cocked his head as if listening for a moment before replying. “Nine warlocks. Six of them have companion demons of various kinds. No incubi or succubi. And…a guy in a white suit almost straight behind us on the rooftops. With Peepers’s friend.”

“He’s not my friend,” she said with a sigh. “Never was, probably sort of hates my guts now.”

“Shame,” Weaver said, grinning nastily. “He was cute. Ah, well, guess you’re destined to be an old maid.”

“Joe, please shoot him in the foot.”

“Maybe after we deal with the demons.”

“You’re not wrong,” said Darling, “we are heading somewhere. There’s a small square up ahead close to the bordering canal of this district. That street leads straight to one of the bridges out.”

“The ones you said not to go near because they’d be guarded?” Joe asked.

“Yup!” Darling didn’t slacken his pace in the slightest; none of them were having trouble keeping up, though Peepers was starting to look a little haggard. “But it’s been enough time, approximately. I hope. I chose this particular bridge to approach because it leads to the most direct route toward the main temple of Shaath.”

“And…that is relevant…why?” Peepers asked.

“This must all be part of that plan he doesn’t have,” said Weaver, rolling his eyes.

“The Wreath has both oracular and divinatory sources of information,” Darling said lightly. “Many warlocks can use enough arcane magic to scry, and there are demons who trade information for favors. Any plans we made could be found out and countered, heading up against what we were.”

“There are methods to block both of those,” Joe noted.

“Yes,” said Darling, nodding, “and when I have time to arrange a real campaign against the Wreath, with Church and Imperial support, you better believe I’ll be using them. On the fly like this, though, there’s a loophole that can be exploited: they can’t scry a plan that doesn’t exist.”

“Not having a plan doesn’t strike me as a great plan,” Peepers muttered.

“I know the board,” Darling said more quietly, “and I know the pieces. I set in motion the ones most likely to lead to the result I want. Plans are nice, kids, but sometimes they’re a luxury you can’t afford to count on. If you know what’s going on, and if you’re a little lucky, you can tell more or less how things are going to play out. Even arrange them the way you want, sometimes.”

The other three glanced at each other.

“This is not how I wanted to die,” Peepers sighed.

“Oh?” said Joe. “How did you?”

“Of sex-induced heart failure on top of a gigolo in my eighties, wearing a fortune in jewels and nothing else. And drunker than any woman has ever been.”

He flushed deeply and didn’t manage to form a reply. Weaver actually laughed.

“And,” Peepers said in a more subdued tone, “certain my little brother was going to be taken care of…”

“He’ll be fine,” said Darling soothingly. “We will be fine.”

“You are so full of it,” Weaver snorted.

“Yeah.” Darling glanced over his shoulder and winked. “Luckily I keep enough of it on hand to throw into my enemies’ eyes. It’s always worked so far.”

“Ew,” said Peepers, wrinkling her nose.

“I think that metaphor got away from you,” Joe added.

Weaver shrugged. “Eh, they can’t all be winners.”

“Oh, shut up, all of you. We’re almost there. Mouths shut, eyes open, and be ready to fight or flee.”


“Of course,” Andros rumbled to himself, staring across the canal at the darkened district up ahead. “What better place? I’m a fool for not thinking of it.”

“Holy shit, that all looks abandoned,” Flora marveled. “How long has it been like this?”

“Less than a week,” said Savvy. “It’s not going to be left this way long, but while it’s there… Yes, it really is an ideal venue.”

They had stopped in the shade of two warehouses flanking the road which became a bridge into the condemned district. The spirit wolf had come unerringly here, then halted, glaring ahead with his hackles raised. He growled quietly until Andros rested a hand on his head.

Ingvar and Tholi immediately set to prowling around, investigating, with Flora and Fauna following suit after a moment. The elves, after peering in every direction, nimbly shimmied up lamp posts and perched improbably atop the fairy lights, peering ahead into the district. The two Huntsmen kept their attention chiefly on the ground, tracking back and forth.

“Cities,” Tholi muttered disparagingly. “Nothing leaves tracks.”

“Not easy tracks,” Ingvar said in a more even tone. “And the rains wash away what little there is very quickly. These are not elk, Tholi; be sure you are not following the wrong kind of spoor. Look.”

He had crossed to the foot of the bridge and knelt, drawing his hunting knife and carefully scraping it across the pavement.

“Infernal magic isn’t useful for stable area-of-effect spells, unlike arcane wards,” Ingvar said, holding up the knife. “It is anchored to something physical. In this case, the paving stones.”

The tip, where he had dragged it against the ground, was now spotted with rust. Even as they all stared, the reddish stain crept up the blade another half an inch.

“Infernal wards cause rust?” Fauna asked, frowning down at them.

“The weapons of Huntsmen are blessed by the Mother,” said Andros, glaring over the bridge.
“They do not decay, nor suffer damage from the elements. Heat, cold, moisture… Such an effect is the result of magical corruption. They are here, and they have warded this bridge against intrusion.” He began to glow subtly.

“What mother?” Flora asked.

“Honestly,” said Savvy, pointing at the wolf. “Have you ever seen divine magic used for anything like that? Most of the Huntsmen’s arts are fae in nature. I really need to explain this? I was almost certain you two were elves.”

“I don’t like you out of uniform,” Fauna announced.

“Enough,” Andros growled. “What can you see from that vantage?”

“Movement,” Flora said, peering into the dark district. “Through windows and gaps in walls, mostly. There’s activity directly ahead, hidden behind things. People moving inside buildings.”

“Without lights,” said Ingvar, nocking an arrow to his bow. “That’ll be the Wreath. Once we go in there it will be increasingly hard to track our quarry. They won’t appreciate our presence.”

“Let them come,” Tholi said, grinning savagely. Behind him, Ingvar rolled his eyes. “I just hope the Eserite we’ve come to rescue isn’t dead. If he’s running around in there with warlocks and demons after him… Doesn’t look good, does it?”

“Darling would die swiftly in our wilds,” Andros said, “but we fare almost as poorly in his. The man is adaptable and this is his city. He chose to enter there. I will believe he has fallen when I’ve buried him. We proceed.”

“Agreed,” Savvy said crisply, deftly smoothing her hair back with both hands. She shrugged out of her coat, reversed it and swept it back on, and just like that the illusion vanished, leaving the immaculately attired Butler straightening her tie.

“Uh,” Fauna asked, “what was the point of that, then?”

“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding approvingly. “There are few enough Butlers in the city that some know all their faces, and their masters. Best not to advertize that Bishop Darling has run into trouble.”

“Wait!” Flora said suddenly, straightening. “I see people coming into the square— It’s him! And the others!”

“And more coming out of hiding,” Fauna added. “In robes. With demons.”

“Then this is the time,” Andros declared, starting forward and raising his bow. The spirit wolf stalked at his side. “Ingvar, Tholi, strike down the demons. I will attend to any infernal arts used against us.”

“And the people?” Ingvar asked. “The warlocks?”

Before he had finished speaking, Price strode forward onto the bridge, gliding smoothly down its center. Flora and Fauna leaped from their perches, landing on either side of the Butler. The three of them walked without apparent hurry, but at a pace that devoured the distance between them and Darling.

“That,” said Andros with a grim smile as he stepped forward after them, “appears to be attended to.”


Teal staggered slightly upon materializing, but quickly caught her balance and straightened, self-consciously smoothing her coat.

“That’s a neat trick,” Sarriki noted, pausing as she slithered past with a tray of empty mugs, bound for the bar. “You shouldn’t be able to teleport into here. Are you even a wizard?”

“Not using arcane magic, no,” the bard said with a smile, holding up a waystone. “But the Crawl’s methods work just fine.”

The naga cocked her head to the side. “I thought you kids couldn’t afford to buy from Shamlin.”

“Shamlin has decided to return to the surface,” Teal explained. “As such, he was quite interested in Tiraan bank notes. Where’s Professor Ezzaniel?”

“Here,” he said from the second level of the bar. “And what are you up to, Miss Falconer? It is not generally wise to split up the party.”

Teal tilted her head back, staring mutely up at him for a moment. “It’s funny how you’re supposed to be evaluating our progress down here, yet you haven’t been around for any of it. You just sit here drinking and chatting with the other patrons.”

“Since you make such a point of my absence, what makes you think you know what I’ve been doing while not under your eyes?” Ezzaniel leaned one arm against the railing and smiled down at her.

Teal stared at him thoughtfully, then glanced at Sarriki, who chuckled and set about pulling herself up the steps.

“It’s not like you to nakedly evade a question like that, Professor,” she said quietly.

Ezzaniel raised an eyebrow. “I assure you, Miss Falconer, everything is attended to. Professor Tellwyrn has made appropriate arrangements for you to be graded fairly.”

“I don’t doubt she has. Where is Rowe?”

The Professor shrugged. “I don’t much wonder about him when he is not in front of me. He is entertaining company, but in a rather exhausting way. One does get tired of always keeping a hand on one’s purse strings.”

She turned from him and bounded up the stairs in two long leaps, then paused, glancing around. The Grim Visage was fairly quiet at the moment. A lone drow man was nursing a drink in the far corner; he nodded politely to her as her gaze fell on him. A small party of five goblins were conversing quietly next to the fireplace. Not far away, Sarriki was clearing dishes and trash off an empty table.

Teal squared her shoulders and strode past the naga, straight through the curtained doorway next to the bar.

She paused only momentarily in the kitchen beyond, quickly taking in its meager furnishings and stored food at a glance, then stepped across the floor to study the door opposite the exit. It was secured with multiple locks. Unlike most of the rusted, battered and apparently recycled equipment the students had seen in most parts of the Crawl, these looked new. Clean, strong, and highly effective. Teal didn’t need to start tampering with them to know there was magic at work, too. This door would not be opened by someone who wasn’t entitled.

“You know, you’re not supposed to be back here.”

She turned slowly to look at Sarriki, who stood framed in the doorway, her arms braced against it on both sides.

“My friends are going directly to Level 100,” she said quietly.

“Oh?” The naga smiled, a bland, languid expression. The light framing her wasn’t bright enough to make her features difficult to see, but it was sufficiently darker in the kitchen than in the bar that the contrast made for good dramatic effect. “Excellent. I had a feeling, you know. And I’ve just won a bet. If they manage to beat the boss, I’ll be absolutely rolling in it.”

“The going theory,” Teal went on, “is that the final boss of the Descent is the Naga Queen.”

“Interesting idea. My people mostly live far below, you realize. It’s rare that any of us climb to this level.”

“Mm hm. It would fit, though, wouldn’t it? She’s easily the most formidable personality in the Crawl… One possibly powerful enough the Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t want to leave her running around at liberty.”

Sarriki shrugged. “Whatever. Your friends are hard-hitters; they have as good a chance as anyone. I’m fairly confident of my odds.”

“You have more at stake here than a bet, don’t you?” Teal asked softly.

The naga’s eyes hardened. “Little girl, it is seldom wise to stick your nose into other people’s business. Now, if you’re hungry, kindly come back out front and I’ll make you something. This area is not for patrons.”

“Where’s Rowe? It’s odd for him not to be around. With Melaxyna placing bounties on his head, it’s not exactly safe for him to leave, is it?”

“Child,” Sarriki said sharply, “I’m losing patience. There’ll be no fighting in here, but you’ll find there is a lot I can do to make your stay in the Visage and the Crawl unpleasant if you disrupt the peace in my bar. Now, for the last time, out.”

“Actually,” said Teal, stepping aside and pointing at the locked cellar door, “I need to get through here.”

Sarriki actually laughed, loudly. “Oh, you silly little thing. That is not going to happen.”


They were familiar with the drill by now, after making extensive use of Melaxyna’s portal and waystone. Immediately upon landing, the students unlinked arms, Fross zipping out from under Ruda’s hat, and fell into formation, weapons up, eying their new surroundings carefully.

It was definitely the Descent. The distinctive proportions of the room were right, and the staircase behind them was just like those they had seen dozens of times before. It was the contents of the room that made them all straighten, staring.

“Well,” Toby said after a moment, “I don’t know what I was expecting.”

The wall were covered with masterfully painted murals, all depicting in exquisite detail their adventures through the Crawl thus far. The scenes blended one into the next as they marched around the walls, but everything was familiar, if portrayed somewhat more dramatically than the events had actually occurred. Juniper laughing in delight as she hugged a capling, Trissiny standing at the foot of the throne with Melaxyna smirking down at her, the whole group in disarray and being chased by boars, Gabriel studying an invisible maze with an expression of intense thought while the others ostentatiously bickered around him, the group lined up facing a row of chessmen. The scenes continued, wrapping around the chamber and showing the details of every step of their journey through the Descent, though they did not portray anything from before or after that. Nothing of the Grim Visage, the complex of dream-inducing mists, Shamlin’s grotto or the Naga Queen’s shrine.

There were statues, too, nine of them. Towering marble depictions of the students lined an avenue straight toward the opposite end of the chamber, each over eight feet tall even without the plinths on which they stood. At the far end, rather than another staircase downward, there was a semicircular indentation in the wall, in which stood an even larger statue, this one of the Naga Queen.

Of the Queen herself, there was no sign.

“I kind of wish I had one of those lightcappers,” Juniper mused. “Remember, from Tiraas? I mean, just look at these portraits! Makes me feel kinda proud, y’know?”

“Maybe we can come back with one?” Gabriel suggested.

“Unlikely,” said Fross. “This was all arranged for us on this visit. I bet it’ll all be blank as soon as we leave.”

“Experience is by nature a transient thing,” Shaeine said quietly.

“Only one direction to go,” Trissiny said, stepping forward. Ruda fell into step right beside her, the others quickly following suit.

They came up short a moment later, before they’d gone ten feet, when the sound of clapping began to echo throughout the chamber. Slow, rhythmic, and coming from only a single pair of hands, it resounded sourcelessly from the stone on every side, leaving them peering around again, weapons raised.

He materialized then, fading from invisibility into view atop the Naga Queen’s statue, where he was perched on her stone shoulder. Rowe continued to applaud, smirking down at them.

“Well done, kids. Well done. I congratulate you on your highly improbable victory.”

“Son of a bitch,” Gabriel murmured, not noticing the sour look Trissiny shot him. “Teal was right.”


“I have a theory,” Teal said, drawing the snake flute from within her coat. “One I’ve been working on since we came here. A lot of the pieces to the puzzle were hard to find, but several of the more important ones fell into place for us just recently.”

Sarriki had fallen still, eyes fixed on the flute. Her expression was purely hungry. Teal raised the instrument toward her lips.

“Let’s see if we can come to an understanding, your Majesty.”

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6 – 29

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They made excellent time; the Butler was half a head shorter than the elves and had shorter legs to match, but she stayed in the lead the entire time, not quite compelling them to rush. Not being the swiftest members of a group was an unfamiliar experience for them. It wouldn’t have been wise to run, though. Three women walking through the city was not a sight interesting enough to draw attention, but matters became different when two of them were elves, and more different still when one of the elves wore a sweeping cloak and the other a suit of black leather with ostentatiously displayed daggers. Running would have set the police on them.

“You are two Thieves’ Guild apprentices,” Price said as they rapidly crossed one of the city’s oldest districts under a darkening sky. She kept her eyes straight ahead and her voice to a bare whisper, but of course they could hear perfectly. “You are elves. That’s all. No matter what we end up seeing tonight, you will keep a sense of context in mind. Show the world anything beside what they expect of you and it’ll create trouble for all of us. Especially the Bishop. The kind of trouble from which there’s no coming back.”

“If it comes to an emergency—” Flora clamped her mouth shut as Price half-turned her head to give her a flat look.

“Why are we coming here?” Fauna asked in audible disgust.

“The Bishop has made it clear that with regard to the business at hand, the Guild can’t be considered reliable,” Price replied flatly. “And it should be obvious why we’re not going to the Empire for help. If you have a better idea, the time to say so was when we were leaving the house. Now hush.”

With that, she set off up the long staircase to the city’s main temple of Shaath, in bounds that consumed three steps at a time. The apprentices fell silent as ordered, following her.

At the top, a bearded man in ceremonial leathers, carrying a longbow, nodded politely to them. “Welcome, girls. Can I help you with—”

“Nope,” Price said curtly, sailing past him. He raised his eyebrows, turning to watch the three women vanish inside, but made no further comment and didn’t pursue.

“Odd how polite he was,” Flora murmured. “I’d have expected—”

“Hsst!” Price snapped, making a beeline for the only group of people present. The dim, barbarically ornate sanctuary was quiet at this hour, with only two Huntsmen in attendance. They stood at the far end near the large wolf statue, apparently doing nothing but talking quietly, their poses relaxed. Either they were simply stopping for a chat or Shaath didn’t require much formality from his ceremonial guards.

Both turned as the Eserites approached, expressions curious but not unfriendly. The older one had no beard; the younger had only the earliest scruffy stages of one, and appeared not much past fifteen. The beardless elder opened his mouth to speak, but Price beat him to it.

“I need to speak with Bishop Varanus.”

“All right,” the Huntsman said, in a deep but evidently female voice. “Why is that, and who are you?”

“You can call me Savvy, and it’s about Bishop Darling. There’s a problem. An urgent one.”

“Mm.” The Huntsman eyed her up and down, then flicked a cool gaze over Flora and Fauna. “I see. Tholi, go find the Bishop and bring him here with all haste.”

The boy took one step toward the rear door of the hall, then hesitated. “And…what shall I tell him?”

“The truth,” replied the Huntsman, giving him an irritated look. “There are three Eserites here asking for him, and it’s to do with that blonde poof.”

“Got it,” he said with a grin, then darted off.

“You’re Brother Ingvar?” Price—Savvy—inquired.

“Mm hm. So he remembered my name? I’m surprised.”

Savvy shrugged, took three steps backward and leaned against a carved pillar, producing a coin from within her sleeve, which she began rolling across the backs of her fingers. “Everyone makes mistakes, Huntsman. Only a fool doesn’t learn from them.”

“That’s very wise,” Ingvar replied in a completely neutral tone. “Can I get you ladies anything while you wait? It won’t be long, but I would have guests be comfortable in our lodge.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather not be comfortable,” Savvy said, keeping her gaze on the coin. It flashed in the dim light of the braziers as she manipulated it. “I’ll be comfortable when all this is settled.”

“As you like,” Ingvar said mildly, turning an inquiring gaze on the two elves. When they shook their heads, he nodded to them politely and folded his arms, staring down the length of the hall at its opposite door.

“I’m a little surprised by the reception,” Fauna said after nearly a minute’s silence. “I expected…subdued hostility.”

“Oh, and why’s that?” Savvy asked quietly. Ingvar flicked his gaze over to them, but didn’t join in the conversation.

“Well, it’s not as if our cults get along,” Flora said.

“And everyone knows how Shaathists are about women,” Fauna added.

“Apparently you don’t. Shaath always needs women.” Savvy made the coin vanish into her sleeve and straightened up, dividing a long look between them. “Your training has been mostly on practical matters, but you need at least a basic grasp of the theologies of the other cults. Particularly the ones we tend to butt heads with. The Huntsmen are always looking to recruit women. A successful man in this faith is one who can afford to provide for two or more wives; just by the numbers, they need to have more women than men in their ranks. The bar is set accommodatingly low for female converts to Shaathism, but men have to prove a great deal before being allowed to join a lodge from outside the faith. You can walk into any Shaathist lodge, anywhere, and if you don’t mind a generally condescending attitude toward your faculties, you’ll have no cause for complaint about your treatment. Now, if you marry a Shaathist, your ass is his to do with as he pleases. But for an unattached female, a lodge is probably as safe a place to seek shelter as an Avenist temple. Creepy and not pleasant, but safe.”

“Huh,” Flora said, sounding flummoxed.

“Relating to that,” Savvy added with a faint smirk, “spend any amount of time around here and you will be courted. Aggressively.”

“Tholi is newly raised to the rank of Huntsman,” Ingvar chimed in with an amused smile, “and looking for his first wife. Give him an hour or so to decide which of you he wants and you’ll see what she means. It’s a rare honor for a Huntsman to claim an elf maid for his own.”

“Him and what army?” Fauna said, baring her teeth and placing a hand on the hilt of her dagger. Ingvar laughed.

At that moment, the rear door opened again and Bishop Varanus himself emerged, crossing to them with long strides, Tholi trailing along behind. Andros wore traditional leather, with a pelt of some spotted animal hanging from his shoulders like a cape; he carried a longbow in one hand, and a heavy knife and hatchet hung at his belt. He came to a stop next to them, studying the three.

“What is this about, then?” he asked without preamble.

“Bishop Darling went off about four hours ago with a companion, tracking two other allies of his through metaphysical means,” Savvy reported crisply. “The two in question were pursuing a nest of the Black Wreath. He left instructions to seek help if he wasn’t back by dinner, which he was not. So here we are.”

Andros drew in a long breath through his nose and let it out quickly. “How many Wreath? Of what potency? With what demonic allies?”

“Everything I know, I’ve just told you,” Savvy said evenly.

“And you cannot go to your Guild with this?”

“The Guild’s skills are not most applicable here,” she replied, “and besides, the Bishop believes they are compromised by the Wreath. I have no idea where he is, only that he is certainly in some trouble. We need trackers.

Andros grunted in agreement. “Antonio is a dismal excuse for a fighter. What possessed him to chase a bear into its den?”

“The allies he’s with are far from weak.”

“Allies?”

“Gravestone Weaver and the Sarasio Kid.”

Tholi’s eyes widened and he bit back a curse. Ingvar simply lifted an eyebrow, watching Andros.

The Bishop himself stroked his beard once with the hand not occupied with his bow, frowning. “There is a limit to what powers the Wreath can bring to bear within the city. Hn…very well. If Antonio has been delayed, he is presumably in danger, and requires assistance. Hopefully those allies will suffice to hold out. Come.”

He turned and strode off toward the front door. Price immediately fell into step behind him, followed by Ingvar. Tholi and the elves brought up the rear, eying one another warily.

“Is this…all?” Flora asked. “This is the only help you’re bringing?”

“There are few Huntsmen in residence, and mustering them will take time we cannot spare,” Andros replied curtly. “Ingvar is one of the lodge’s finest, and Tholi…can run ahead, beating the bushes.”

Ingvar grinned, and Tholi devoted a self-defeating amount of effort to not looking sullen.

“And what about you?” he countered, glaring at Flora. “Three women is the only thing you offer your Bishop in a time of need?”

“This woman is a Butler,” Andros said.

“I don’t see a uniform,” Tholi snipped.

“You don’t see the world,” Ingvar replied calmly, and the youth fell silent, flushing.

“And these two are only partially trained,” Andros continued, “but you should know that elves are never to be taken lightly.”

Sweeping outside, he paused at the top of the steps, turning to face them. “I need something of Antonio’s.”

Price instantly produced a strip of cloth from inside her coat, handing it to him. The four Huntsmen, including the one watching the door, paused to regard the paisley silk scarf with identical expressions, then Andros raised two fingers to his mouth and let out a long, sharp whistle.

A shape formed seemingly out of thin air, a bluish-white discoloration upon the world, as if it were an invisible presence wreathed in frost. It was a wolf, standing waist-high on the Huntsman who had summoned it, eyes glowing like blue candle flames and a faint but steady mist trailing off its fur. Andros held the scarf in front of its nose.

“Find this lost friend,” he said softly, tucking his bow under his arm to stroke the ghostly animal’s neck.

The wolf made a soft whuff, then whirled and bounded down the steps. It paused at the bottom, looking up at them, its aspect clearly impatient.

“And now,” Andros said with a grin, “we hunt.”


 

Joe fired off another warning shot, blasting a spray of rubble from the corner of the building up ahead. “I confess it’s downright liberating, doing something like this in a civilian-free landscape for which I won’t be held financially liable.”

“Yeah, something about this city is just asking to be shot to hell,” Weaver said tersely; he held a wand in one hand and his flute in the other. He’d not distributed earplugs, so hopefully he was planning to rely on the former, not the latter. “Did you get it?”

“Nope,” said Joe, keeping his gaze on the now-smoking corner around which the demon had retreated. “Just scared it off.”

“Means there’s a warlock behind it somewhere,” said Darling. “Katzils are smart, but not sentient; once on the hunt it wouldn’t retreat unless ordered to.”

“Cat and mouse it is, then,” Joe murmured, tearing his eyes from the corner to peer warily about.

“Guys, we might all die out here,” said Peepers solemnly, “so…just so we don’t go out with any unfinished business, I want you to know I hate you all.”

“Aw, somebody’s not having fun,” Darling said, grinning at her. “Relax, Peepers, we’re gonna be fine. Think of it as a great game—the great game. You know your catechism, surely.”

“I’m fully comfortable thinking of theft, espionage and extortion as games,” she snapped. “That I was trained for. I did not apprentice myself to the Thieves’ Guild because I wanted to be chased around by fucking demons.”

“And warlocks!” Weaver said helpfully.

“Hate. You. All.” She viciously kicked a chunk of fallen masonry out of the road. “Except maybe Joe. Mostly because he’ll let me slap him upside the head if we survive this.”

“Excuse me?” Joe said, affronted. “What did I do?”

“Come now, vaudeville while we move, please,” Darling said, setting off for a side alley.

“Let’s keep going to the next alley,” Weaver said. “That one’d put us straight down the line of sight of that demon’s last known position.”

“Oh, it could be anywhere by now,” Darling breezed. “Worry about the demons when you see them. This really is a game, guys. It cannot go on long and it can’t involve a huge amount of force. It’s only a matter of time and not much of that before the Empire or the Church realizes this district is blockaded with infernal magic. The Wreath doesn’t deal in brute force tactics; whatever they’ve fielded against us will be fine for chasing around a ragtag band of misfits, but not enough to stand against an Imperial strike team or squad of Silver Legionnaires. Keep moving, keep alert, and we’ll get through the night just fine.”

Weaver actually walked backward a few paces as they proceeded down Darling’s selected alley, peering up the street where the katzil demon had last been seen. “Fine, whatever. I still think going straight would have been safer. We’re backtracking toward where we shot at that guy with the staff. Likely to be more Wreath in the vicinity.”

“When we don’t know where the Wreath may be, assume they could be anywhere!” Darling said cheerfully.

“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.

“Then why this alley?” Weaver demanded.

Darling turned his head and grinned at him.


 

Carter staggered as the latest swell of shadows deposited them on another rooftop, bracing himself against the low wall surrounding its edge. A figure in gray robes, accompanied by a hulking, crocodile-like demon—a khankredahg, that’s what they were called—prowled the streets below.

“How’re you holding up, Mr. Long?” Embras Mogul asked solicitously. “Shadow-jumping itself is perfectly harmless to the body and spirit, I can assure you, but I know any kind of rapid teleportation can be disorienting. Particularly if one isn’t used to it.”

“I’m…fine,” Carter said, straightening and taking a breath, and finding that he more or less was. “This is…well, not what I was expecting.”

“We aim to entertain,” Mogul said with a grin and a bow. “And now, if you don’t mind a momentary respite from the action, I’m going to offer you the chance to see something even most warlocks never manage to behold.”

“Oh?” Carter reflexively pressed himself back against the wall. It was a four-story drop, but he’d never had a problem with heights. He had what he felt was a perfectly reasonable aversion to demonology, though.

“All this running around, stalking shadows and shooting around corners is very exciting, to be sure,” Mogul said, reaching into his inner coat pockets. He produced an ancient-looking clay bottle and set it upright on the flat rooftop, then pulled forth a handful of fine gray powder, which he trailed around it, forming a circle. “However, I find that I’ve somewhat lost my taste for playing games for their own sake as I grow older. Our visitors are proving to be exactly the kind of delightful challenge I enjoy when I don’t actually have anything that needs to get done, but this isn’t the night for it. Here we are, wasting your valuable time and keeping me from my beauty rest. So! I’m arranging a little shortcut. It’s cheating, really; takes a lot of the fun out of the game. A man must do what he must, though. You know how it is.”

As he chattered, he had knelt beside the bottle and its boundary of powder—which was lying remarkably flat despite the light wind over the rooftop—and begun augmenting the circle with a piece of chalk, adding glyphs and embellishments whose meaning was completely lost to Carter. He flipped to a new page in his notebook, though, and began making a sketch, leaving out the glyphs. Writing down demonic symbols, especially summoning symbols, seemed like an invitation to trouble.

“Since we have a moment to breathe,” he said while they both worked, “may I ask about what we saw in that alley? That was obviously the symbol of Vidius, who isn’t known to be very proactive in combating Elilial. Or, at least, he doesn’t have that reputation among most mortal laypeople. I guess everything looks different from the Wreath’s perspective. What could create an effect like that, if there wasn’t a Vidian priest nearby?”

“Well, for starters, that neatly answered the question of what happened to my succubus,” Embras mused, continuing to draw on the floor. “This has been a night of firsts for us all, Mr. Long. Suffice it to say there are much more dangerous things than demons prowling this night. But not to worry! You and I are perfectly safe. I don’t have much to fear from holy symbols, which are about the worst that Vidius’s little pets can throw onto the mortal plane, though I don’t fancy trying to walk through one and having to replace most of my personal effects as a result. It’s all terribly inconvenient, though. Now I have to re-summon Vlesni, and she’s always such a pain about it.” He looked up at Carter and winked. “She’s a sweet girl, really, just can’t resist the opportunity to be a pain in the butt. The children of Vanislaas are like that, as you may have heard. She’s forever trying to sneak her friends through, as if I need extraneous demons cluttering up the place. Believe me, Mr. Long, you never want a demon around that you haven’t fully planned for, and prepared the means to both control them and get rid of them when you’re done.”

“I must say the most surprising thing to me is how responsible you seem to be about diabolism,” Carter remarked. “The last time I heard this much talk about safety measures I was interviewing a professional wandfighter.”

“Betcha I have more reason to worry than he did,” Mogul said glibly. “Worst thing you can do with a wand is kill somebody. All right, now, prepare to feast your eyes!”

With a dramatic flourish, he plucked the lead stopper from the upright bottle and stepped back.

A thick mist immediately poured out, curling upward and filling the air with the scent of spices and an ocean breeze. The smoke coalesced, rapidly taking the shape of a man—or at least, the upper half of one. Below the waist he trailed off into a swirling funnel of smoke, the tail of which poured into the mouth of the bottle. Above he was shirtless, muscular, and bald as a melon. And, at the moment, grinning broadly.

“Finally,” he said, his voice resonating as though heard down a long tunnel.

“Getting antsy, are we?” Mogul said, grinning in return. “Now, you know how I like to solve things for myself. If I weren’t in such a hurry—”

“Oh, Embras, you know I don’t care about that,” the smoke-creature interrupted. “But I do keep an eye on you, and I did so desperately want to see the look on your face when this one was explained to you.”

“Is that a djinn?” Carter breathed.

“It most surely is,” Embras said brightly. “Mr. Long, may I present Ali Al-Famibad, an old acquaintance and colleague of mine. Ali, this is Carter Long, noted journalist.”

“Indeed, I quite enjoyed your column, when it was circulating,” the djinn said, bowing elaborately to Carter, which was a very peculiar sight given his lack of legs.

“I…you… Well, it’s news to me that the Herald is distributed in Hell,” Carter said weakly.

Ali let out a booming laugh. “My good man, I am, after all, a djinn! Knowledge is what I do. Knowledge is what I am. And I rather miss your opinion column, I must confess. Naturally the position as reporter makes better career and financial sense from your standpoint, but when dealing with the facts you tend to suppress that sly wit of yours. ‘Tis a loss to the world.”

“Why…thank you,” Carter said, bemused.

“Glad as I am to see you all getting along,” Embras interjected, “I have a little problem, Ali.”

“Ah, yes, your Eserites.” Turning back to him, the djinn grinned broadly, an expression with more than a hint of cruel mockery. “I have advised you time and again not to antagonize Eserion’s followers—they play your little games as well as you, and with less courtesy. As a case in point, you’ll be wanting to know where the good Bishop Darling and his friends will poke their heads up next, yes?”

“Quite so,” Embras replied, then turned to Carter. “By the way, Mr. Long, Ali and I have a long-standing and fully enforceable contract. Should you ever find yourself in a position to ask a favor of a djinn, or any sentient demon, don’t. The loopholes will get you every time. It’s not only a joke that lawyers make the best warlocks.”

“I can’t really see that coming up,” Carter said, “as until two minutes ago I thought djinn were a myth. But thanks for the advice.”

“Here it is, then,” Ali boomed, and dissolved. He swirled about above the circle as a cloud of smoke for a moment, before resolving his shape into a visual representation of the district. The demon’s voice echoed sourcelessly out of the diagram. “And here is the path taken from your meeting point by the Bishop.”

A golden mote flared to life near one edge of the diorama, which did indeed resemble the nexus of streets where Carter remembered seeing them, or so he thought; it was very hard to align the map with his recollection of the area from the ground. The mote moved off rapidly down the tiny streets, leaving behind a glowing thread of gold tracing the path taken by the Bishop and his party.

Its form almost immediately was apparent. It was somewhat distorted by the angular nature of the paths they were obliged to take, conforming to the street grid, but there were enough alleys of various dimensions to give Darling enough free reign, it seemed. The golden thread traced out, in oddly blocky cursive script, a brief message.

“Well,” Mogul said after a moment of silent perusal. “I do say that seems rather…gratuitous.”

“How does he know the streets that well?” Carter marveled.

“It says ‘fuck you!’” Ali crowed from within the diagram. They didn’t need to see his face to know he was grinning. “Or it will when he gets to the end.”

“Yes, I can read Tanglish, thank you,” Mogul said dryly.

“How does he know the streets?” the djinn continued. “He is the streets. You’re one of the best operators it has ever been my privilege to know, Embras, but you’ve let your perceptions of Antonio Darling be colored by your first encounter with him, in a tiny town where you were in your element and he was wildly out of his. You’ve skillfully sealed off this district, which is the only way for you to safely tangle with that man in the streets of Tiraas. Know this, Embras Mogul: the next time you do, you’ll learn humility.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Mogul said solemnly. “So the question is, does he expect to be intercepted at the end of his little script? What trick might be prepared there? Or… You know what, no.” He shook his head. “You can drive yourself nuts playing ‘does he know that I know that he knows.’ No, I do believe I’m fed up with this foolishness. Come Mr. Long, let’s bring this to a conclusion.”

The three-dimensional map dissolved back into smoke, and then re-formed in the shape of the djinn’s upper body. Still smiling unpleasantly, he bowed again. “I have rendered my advice, Embras Mogul. Thus is our contract upheld. Ignore my counsel at your peril.”

“Thank you, I believe I shall.” Mogul bent forward and stuck the plug back in the bottle. Above it, the djinn dissipated instantly into the air, taking with him the exotic scent of whatever incense it was. “After all,” the warlock added, picking up the bottle and straightening, leaving the summoning circle inscribed on the floor, “life without peril is just too easy to be worth it. Don’t you think so, Mr. Long?”

Carter very much did not agree, but found himself with no safely polite way to say so.

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