Tag Archives: Andros Varanus

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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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6 – 15

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“Oh, it’s only been the last two days,” Branwen said modestly. “Believe me, I’m more surprised than anyone at how quickly all this has taken off! Fortunately his Holiness has assigned me a staff to help with the project, or I’d never have been able to stay on top of it.”

“The runaway success of Branwen’s new role as motivational columnist is evidence of that plot’s original purpose,” said the Archpope, regarding them over his interlaced fingers.

“Plot?” Basra said sharply, looking up from her perusal of one of the newspapers Darling had brought to the meeting.

“Indeed,” Justinian said gravely. “For all that it has unfolded so quickly, it is a rather circuitous route that has brought us to this development. To being with, I took the unconventional step of consulting the resources in the Chamber of Truth with regard to our current dilemma.”

“You specifically cautioned us that those weren’t of much tactical value, your Holiness,” Andros noted.

“Indeed,” said the Archpope, nodding. “Generally the attempt has resulted in confusion and annoyance more than anything. However, I felt our lack of useful data in this situation warranted a gamble. In fact, oracular divinations, while rarely conducive to acquiring facts, are an excellent source of wisdom. In this case, the gamble paid off. Some of the prophecies I obtained were indecipherable, but several directed me toward, and I quote, ‘the singers of songs and the tellers of tales.’”

“That specific phrase is usually a reference to bards,” said Darling, frowning.

“Historically, yes,” agreed the Archpope. “But in the context of other hints the Chamber provided, suggesting that I consider things in a modern rather than traditional context, I decided to make inquiries among the modern world’s answer to the archetypal traveling storyteller.”

Basra ruffled the paper she was holding. “The newspapers?”

“Precisely.” Justinian smiled grimly. “And that is where matters began to become…interesting. Throughout the city, in the offices of all five widely-distributed newspapers, there have been, in the last few days, culminations of very unlikely sequences of events leading to…openings.”

“Openings?” Andros prompted.

The Archpope nodded. “It appears there has been some competition among the papers, as is only natural, and specifically rivalries among their advice columnists.”

“People can find the pettiest nonsense upon which to waste their energies,” Andros grunted.

“Over time,” Justinian continued, ignoring him, “these columnists have become de facto stand-ins for their respective papers with regard to this increasing competition for readership and distribution. All of the major Tiraan papers are now published across the Empire; most ship their stock out via Rail on a weekly basis, but two have managed to publish their daily editions from coast to coast by beaming out the contents thereof via telescroll and printing them on site.”

“Fascinating,” Basra said in a disinterested tone, again reading the paper before her.

“Various editors have used these columnists as major selling points. They have become public personalities, almost celebrities.” Justinian paused, then went on in a more grave tone, “and in the last week, two were killed in accidents, one perished of an aneurysm in his sleep, one retired unexpectedly, and the last was promoted to the position of editor-in-chief of his paper when the individual who previously held that post abruptly stepped down to tend to a family emergency.”

“Well,” Darling said, “that’s good and suspicious…”

The Archpope nodded. “And it tracks with the Wreath’s evident aim. Their actions have been toward improving the public’s perception of them while cutting down that of the Church and the gods. By subtly increasing the profile of certain newspaper columnists and then replacing those individuals with their own people, they position themselves to dramatically increase their ability to disseminate their message.”

“And that’s more characteristic of them than what we’ve seen in the last week,” Darling added. “The long, slow, careful plan.”

“This makes no sense,” Andros growled. “If they could do this, why not plant their agents over the long term? Creating these vacancies all at once, now of all times, is too overtly suspicious.”

“No, it makes perfect sense,” Basra argued, looking up again. “Any newspaper columnists spouting Wreath propaganda would have been silenced long since. Even if they tried to lay low and not actually…propagandize…until this event, the longer they had someone in place, the more chance any number of things could happen to that person. Look how easy it apparently was to make accidents happen to five such columnists at once. By waiting till now, after the recent debacle where the cults embarrassed themselves pursuing the Wreath too roughly, they have the perfect opening. Now of all times, all of us and even the Empire will be hesitant to do anything too ham-fisted in the name of suppressing the Black Wreath. The populace is already agitated about that.”

“A worthy observation,” Andros grunted, “from one of the hammy fists in question.”

“To keep this on point,” Justinian said swiftly, “upon learning of these events, I acted quickly, first to cut the Wreath off from the newspapers. Agents of the Church were sent to the offices of each, both here in Tiraas and to all their facilities on the continent, to bless them. Thoroughly. The Wreath may be adept at evading the detection of the gods, but a warlock or hidden demon will still burn when doused in an indiscriminate deluge of holy power.”

“I’m impressed you got all those organizations to go along with it,” Darling remarked. “I’ve worked with the newspapers a bit myself. Journalists don’t like outsiders mucking about with their offices.”

“Few turn down a free and thorough blessing from the gods,” the Archpope said wryly. “Some were, I think, suspicious of the Church’s motives, but they acquiesced when it was broadly hinted that their organizations were suspected of harboring demons.”

“You’ve noticed that, too?” Darling said with a grin. “Amazing the results you can sometimes get by just being honest with people.”

“Quite so,” Justinian replied, smiling benignly at him. The two men locked eyes for a long moment, both wearing placidly friendly expressions, before the Archpope continued. “In any case, this seems to have effectively barred the Wreath from moving into the positions they had just opened. Our next step was simply to place our own agent there. Bishop Snowe is now a syndicated columnist, her column distributed by every major paper published out of Tiraas. In the weeks to come, we shall see about getting her into various lesser publications throughout the Empire, as well. And even beyond it.”

“It remains to be seen how the abrupt loss of their competition among columnists will affect distribution,” Branwen said modestly, “but with all the prestige they’ve poured into the position, now that I’m being published in all of them, well… Instant celebrity. I’m afraid I don’t deserve any credit for it.”

“This is fantastic stuff,” Basra said rather dryly, reading again. “A guy walks away from the Vernisite faith of his parents and feels lost and directionless; you tell him to spend time in reflection, gain self-knowledge, and decide which of the gods best matches his own aptitudes. A housewife is bored and restless with her children gone from the nest, and you tell her to find purpose by cultivating her own talents and making a difference in her own world. A bullied kid doesn’t know how to stand up to his tormentors; you advise him to spend time in rigorous self-improvement and find a way to confront them on ground where he’s strongest. I’m sensing a theme here.”

“Again, I cannot take credit,” Branwen said, a picture of humility. “This is, needless to say, a secret, but I haven’t actually written these. I’m to serve as a public face, a personality; his Holiness has people providing the actual words.”

“We must not sacrifice our long-term goals for the sake of the short term,” Justinian said calmly. “Remember where this all ultimately leads, my friends. We strive for the elevation of humanity. It is never too early to urge that they elevate themselves. That, indeed, is the best possible use of our resources. In this case, it was convenient; the theme of self-improvement and empowerment has been increasingly trendy among the papers’ editors. The Wreath has been building this nest with great care.”

“Is it slightly disturbing to anyone else,” Darling asked grimly, “that we fit so neatly into a Wreath-shaped hole?”

“The Black Wreath’s theology, like all truly terrible ideas, has its roots in a good one,” Justinian replied. “Their rhetoric is filled with talk about human potential and human empowerment. That only becomes the disaster it is when married to their nihilistic hatred of the gods and predilection for diabolism.”

The others exchanged a round of silent looks. Basra finally laid down the papers and pushed the stack away from herself across the table.

“Moving forward,” the Archpope continued more briskly, “let us consider our current situation. This is the first decisive victory we have gained in this round of confrontations with the Wreath; this stage of their plan is undone, and in fact repurposed to serve our aims, but it would be naïve to consider this over. Placing newspaper columnists sympathetic to their goals is far too humble an aim to have been the entire point of this campaign, considering the resources they have already expended upon it, and I am reluctant to assume that having interrupted this step in the chain will throw their entire plan into chaos. The Wreath is characteristically too careful to let themselves be unmade by a single defeat.”

“Then that leaves our next moves to be made from much the same position as before,” Andros rumbled. “We do not know what they ultimately intend, much less what they will do next to achieve it.”

“Not quite,” Darling said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “This bit with the papers… Something that involved and long-term will have left trails that can be followed.”

“Precisely!” Justinian said with a broad smile. “Even assuming that some infernal craft was used in arranging this state of affairs, by far the most of it must have been the result of mundane manipulations. The Wreath are careful, but this is too broad a project for every trail leading from it to have been covered. That brings us to the now, and our next moves.”

“Well, Branwen’s role in this game is obviously settled,” Basra said wryly.

“Yes,” Justinian nodded while Branwen looked demure. “Which leaves the rest of you. Antonio, your particular skills are immediately relevant in following the trails from the newspaper offices. You are the master of information-gathering, particularly in Tiraas. May I leave this in your hands?”

Darling leaned slowly back in his chair, frowning pensively into the distance. “…I will do what I can, your Holiness. There’s a complicating matter I hadn’t had a chance yet to report on.”

“Oh?” Justinian raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve been following up with our various cults, as directed,” Darling continued. “I have…disappointing news from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“I shall try to contain my shock,” Basra said solemnly.

“Really, Bas,” Branwen protested. “Must you?”

“Tricks acknowledged having played into the Wreath’s hands with his actions following the warlock attacks,” Darling said, ignoring them. “Where it gets dicey is that he says this was on the specific orders of Eserion himself.”

There was momentary silence while they considered this.

“Is it possible he himself is compromised?” Andros asked finally.

“Andros!” Branwen exclaimed, scandalized. “That is a high priest you are talking about!”

“It’s okay, Bran,” said Darling, giving her a fleeting grin. “It’s a fair question. And to answer it, the possibility exists. We should assume that anyone might be compromised. However, it’s my policy not to reach for outlandish explanations when a simpler one makes more sense. The Boss of the Guild being in with the Wreath is a major stretch; Eserion playing a game of wits with Elilial would be entirely in character.”

“Hm,” Justinian said pensively. “I can attempt to inquire, of course. The gods are not obligated to speak to me, however, and Eserion in particular has never held much regard for mortal authority.”

“Just so,” said Darling, nodding. “So, to bring this back around to the issue at hand… I’ll certainly do my best, but with regard to this situation, I think we had better regard the resources of the Thieves’ Guild as unavailable to us. Trying to make use of them right now will put us at cross purposes with Eserion’s gambit, whatever that is, and presents the risk that our efforts will get back to the Wreath themselves.”

“How severely does this hamper you?” Justinian asked.

“I built the Guild’s current information network,” Darling said with a grim smile. “I’m still me; I can get information as needed. However, with much of my customary toolbox off-limits, it will take…longer. I’m not sure how much time we have to work.”

“Then it is vital that we not sit and wait for you to complete this project,” Andros said firmly. “It is an important one—perhaps the most important—but we must proceed with other avenues while you carry it out.”

“What’d you have in mind?” Darling asked mildly.

“In the last several days, we have continuously erred on the side of aggression,” the Huntsman said, folding his hands atop the table and leaning forward to stare at them. “This has been to the Black Wreath’s advantage, and apparently a cornerstone of their strategy. I propose that we continue to accommodate them.”

“Interesting,” Justinian mused. “Go on.”

“The hunt must suit the quarry,” Andros said. “The Wreath are subtle; subtlety is needed in pursuing them. They will expect such subtlety from us and be prepared to counter it. I believe we have, here, an opportunity to outmaneuver them by playing to their expectations.” He turned to stare at Basra. “The actions of the Silver Legions were by far the most ostentatiously aggressive in the aftermath of their attack. If this continues, it will force them to adhere to their strategy of attempting to use it to discredit the Sisterhood. Meanwhile, my Huntsmen will undergo a more careful, more effective search for demons and warlocks active in the city.”

“I can’t help noticing,” Basra said flatly, “that it’s my cult which will bear the bulk of the effort and the backlash for this plan of yours.”

“I would not ask that it be done that simply,” Andros rumbled. “Whatever issues there are between our faiths, against the Wreath we are ancient allies. These matters, I confess, are somewhat over my head, but is there not something the priests of Izara can do to turn the tide of public opinion?”

“In fact, we are very well suited for that,” Branwen said with a smile. “I will speak to the High Priestess about this. It should be possible to counter the Wreath’s propaganda efforts against the Sisters and the Huntsmen while this is going on.”

“No,” said Andros, shaking his head. “Only against the Sisters. We should do as much as possible to focus the Wreath’s attention on them, including the direction of our damage control efforts. I assure you, my faith does not suffer in the least from being disliked.”

“Historically speaking, that appears to be the plain truth,” Darling said cheerfully.

“And so,” Andros went on, “while the Thieves’ Guild engages in whatever campaign it is playing, the Sisters belligerently pursue the Wreath with the full backing of the Church, and the Huntsmen more quietly and carefully cut down demonic forces, there will be so many balls in the air that Antonio’s pursuit can, with the blessing of the gods, proceed unnoticed.”

“Excellent, Andros,” Justinian said with a smile of simple approbation. “It is the basis of a solid plan indeed.”

“I think I can enhance it form my end, too,” Darling added thoughtfully. “It shouldn’t take much effort to create the impression that I’m involved in the Guild’s operations. The simplest way to do that, of course, is for me to be involved, which the Boss will expect anyway. Only downside is that means I’m going to have to chase the Wreath from a distance, via proxies.”

“Can you?” Basra asked archly.

“I think so,” he said, nodding slowly. “Yes. I believe I know just the people to tap for this job. This should work out well; Embras Mogul engaged me personally in Hamlet. There’s a link there; I’ll make a pretty good scarecrow to hold his attention.”

“I may have a problem on my end,” Basra said darkly. “The High Commander was not appreciative of my efforts. My authority with regard to the Legions has not been impeded as such, but if I try to send them out to do more of the specific thing she ranted at me for doing last time…there will be trouble.”

“There should be a path around that obstacle,” Andros said somewhat dismissively. “You flying off the handle and flailing with your sword is a very different matter from you exercising your authority on behalf of a Church-sponsored campaign in pursuit of a definite goal.”

Basra stared flatly at him, sliding her hands off the table so they couldn’t be seen. Branwen sighed heavily and planted her face in her hand.

“Andros,” the Archpope said quietly, with gentle but definite reproof.

“Forgive me,” Andros said, completely calm, and bowed slightly to Basra from his seat. “I am prone to speaking in haste. I should not let old animosities so guide my words.”

“Mm hm,” she said, not dropping her cold stare.

“Needless rudeness aside,” Justinian said, still regarding Andros reproachfully, “it is a point of some merit. This plan proposes to make direct use of the Silver Legions; we should not even consider attempting to do so unilaterally. Obviously High Commander Rouvad must be included in this plan, as well as Grandmaster Veisroi and High Priestess Delaine. Circumstances being what they are, it seems regrettably necessary that Boss Tricks can’t be brought on board. Or do you think he should, Antonio?”

“All things considered,” Darling said ruefully, “I don’t think any good would come of that. So long as the Guild is pursuing its own ends, we should assume anything Tricks knows will be used for his purposes before ours.” He sighed heavily. “For the record, I’m not comfortable with this. It’s been my long experience that Eserion invariably knows what he’s doing. If he’s using the Guild in a play against the Wreath, it’s certain to be a good one.”

“I have little personal experience with your god,” said Justinian, “but I am amply versed in the history of the Church and its member cults, and I concur with your assessment. I also believe that, whatever the Boss does or does not know, Eserion will be aware of the players moving and accommodate their actions in his own plans. As is my general policy in dealing with the gods, I think it is incumbent upon us to do our best and trust them to do theirs. Have faith in your deity, Antonio,” he added with a smile. “He knows your own worth, and will not condemn you for taking action outside his own cult.”

“Oh, that’s not what worries me,” Darling said with a smile. “The Big Guy knows what he’s about, no question. It’s just a new and uncomfortable perspective for me, regarding the Guild’s activities from outside.”

“I fear we shall all gain new and uncomfortable perspectives before this is over,” Justinian said solemnly. “But I believe we are equal to the task at hand. Remember who you are and what we are to achieve.” His smile was calm, serene, and utterly confident. “We are only human, yes, but when we are done, the word ‘only’ shall never again be applied to us.”

Darling, obviously, kept his many doubts to himself.

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6 – 10

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From the outside, and even on a casual glance around its interior, the Tiraas lodge of the Huntsmen of Shaath looked modest, even humble. Situated in one of the city’s poorer districts, it was kept in shadow until late morning by the northeastern wall, which was appropriate as Shaathvar lay in that direction from Tiraas, deep in the snowy Stalrange. The lodge itself was designed after the pattern of a Stalweiss chieftain’s hall, a long building with massive oaken timbers exposed beneath an enormous thatched roof. Though it was one of the smaller of the major temples in the city, that still counted as a resource-intensive luxury, given how often thatch needed to be replaced. Despite the rough nature of its basic construction, the lodge was lavishly ornamented, the carvings adorning every part of its wooden surface a mix of intricate knotwork and crude animal pictograms.

Small and rough or no, it was actually one of the older temples in the city, hence the towering limestone foundation on which it sat, rising nearly a full story above street level. The lodge predated Tiraas’s magnificent sewer system, and had been designed to survive periodic flooding. Thus, Darling had to ascend a long flight of worn stone steps to reach the looming facade of the temple itself. Iron braziers glowed dimly with smoldering charcoal on both sides of the staircase; at the top, twin statues of wolves snarled down at those who dared approach the domain of the Huntsmen. It was a forbidding approach, and doubtless, deliberately so.

He had chosen his Universal Church robes for this visit, complete with neatly brushed hair, and wore a stately, calmly beneficent manner like a cloak. He didn’t really know what the Huntsmen thought of the Guild; Shaath’s cult wasn’t well-liked by most of the others, and it stood to reason the feeling would be mutual, but he hadn’t actually troubled to learn what the world looked like through their eyes. Regardless of interfaith tensions—or lack thereof—everything he did know about the Huntsmen suggested they wouldn’t respond warmly to a grinning, slightly scruffy city slicker like Sweet. Darling had heard from the Archpope, from Andros and from various third parties he used to keep tabs on both that the cult of Shaath was firmly behind the Church, so it seemed a safe bet that they wouldn’t turn away a Bishop who introduced himself as such.

A man in the traditional leather and fur stood at the top of the steps, in the shadow of the lodge’s overhanging eaves and partially hidden from the staircase by one of the wolf statues. He wore a short beard and had his hair tied back in a simple tail; a bristling stock of arrows bristled over his shoulder from a quiver, and he held a longbow.

“Welcome,” he said, nodding to Darling. That was all; no elaborate greeting, no inquiries after his business or the state of his spiritual health. Nothing unfriendly in the sentinel’s aspect, either, which was an improvement over the Huntsmen’s general reputation. Then again, Darling’s robes might have made a difference.

“Thank you,” he said, matching the man’s nod and adding a kind smile. The sentinel returned his gaze to the street below a hair before Darling was quite past him.

Inside, he paused for a moment to get his bearings, let his eyes adjust to the relative dimness and, in truth, take in the barbaric splendor of the place. To Tiraan sensibilities, the lodge of the Huntsmen was laughably rustic. Darling was certainly not versed in how things were done in the back country of the Stalrange, but even he could see the care and wealth that had gone into this temple.

It was all wood, stark iron braziers, thatch and various animal decorations, yes, but in each there was ample evidence of mastery and devotion. Racks of antlers and whole animal heads stared down from the upper reaches of the square wooden pillars holding up the roof, and enormous stuffed animals stood at their bases. The taxidermy was absolutely splendid; the creatures looked nearly alive in the smoky gloom. Enormous bears of several colors, multiple varieties of great cats, giant monitor lizards, serpents, and a few things to which Darling could place no name stood watch over the hall. What light there was came from torches and iron braziers, which added a light haze of smoke as well as a tangy smell of burning wood, yet he noted a lack of smoke damage, even above the sconces. Clearly, great care went into the maintenance of the place. Every inch of the wooden interior was heavily carved with Stalweiss glyphs, knots and geometric patterns; though the finer details were obscured by the dimness, every surface glowed faintly in the torchlight with lovingly buffed polish.

Not far from the door, some of the room’s constant maintenance was in progress, in the form of a handsome middle-aged woman sweeping the floor. She wore traditional attire—which, now that Darling saw it up close, looked a lot like traditional elvish attire with the addition of fur. Her dress was plain and of soft, dark-stained leather, with an animal pelt of some kind draped over her shoulders. She wore her long hair in a braid—meaning she was married, even he knew that much—but didn’t have a collar. Darling did not know enough about Shaathist customs to place a meaning to it, and resolved to keep his mouth shut on the subject.

“Excuse me,” he said politely to her. “Would you know where I can find Bishop Varanus?”

She paused in her sweeping to straighten up fully and look him in the eye. “Perhaps the Huntsmen can better help you, sir,” she replied quietly, tilting her head in the direction of a knot of men standing and talking quietly further into the great hall. The soft voice and respectful demeanor were at odds with the hard and distinctly challenging look she gave him.

“Thank you,” Darling said with a smile, nodding deeply to her. She made no reply; he broke eye contact first, and didn’t hear the sweeping resume until he had turned his back and proceeded a few steps away. All of this he filed away for further consideration. It wasn’t often someone outside the cult itself got to interact with Shaathist women, and the brief encounter had been…enlightening. The subservience he had expected, but not the aggression, and the combination thereof was intriguing.

Four Huntsmen stood about halfway down the length of the hall, talking quietly amongst themselves. Darling approached them at a moderate pace, unabashedly admiring the décor. At the far end from the door stood an enormous bronze statue of a wolf, staring impassively at all who came before it. There were no depictions of Shaath as such, but the bronze representation of his sacred animal was the only one of its kind. Belatedly, he noted that there were no stuffed wolves among the animals on display. Well, that made a certain amount of sense.

“Good day,” he said, drawing within conversational distance of the small knot of Huntsmen. They had shifted their group to face him as he approached, and now nodded in unison.

“Welcome, Bishop,” one said calmly. “What can we do for you?”

“I’m looking for Bishop Varanus,” he replied. “Is he available?”

Two of them exchanged glances. The details of their attire were different, but the overall theme was the same: skins, leather, hunting knives, hatchets and bows. Only one was visibly unique, in that he had no beard.

“Is Brother Andros expecting you?” the beardless one asked, and Darling had to deliberately still himself to avoid showing startlement. It was a woman—lean, strongly muscled and deep-voiced, but not so deep that her speech didn’t give it away. Now that he had noticed, it was obvious in the finer details of her face.

“I requested his presence at the Cathedral this morning via messenger,” Darling said. “His reply was that if it was so important I could come down here myself.” He grinned. “So…no, I rather suspect he is not.”

They all smiled along with him, the oldest-looking of the number going so far as to chuckle.

“Andros is meeting with the Grandmaster and has been all morning,” said the woman, “but they are not secluded. If it’s important, I can take you to him.”

“I would greatly appreciate that! My thanks, miss…?”

An instant stillness fell over them, and he realized he had missteped, somehow. The sudden silence had the unmistakable flavor of social awkwardness, though no one offered a hint as to the reason. The three bearded Huntsmen went impassive; the woman stared at him very flatly, her demeanor suddenly a lot less open but not quite hostile.

“You are an outsider,” she said after a terse few moments, “and by Andros’s description, rather a fool. As such, I’ll let that pass.”

“You would be amazed how often that very distinction has saved my life,” he said glibly, trying for his most charming smile.

She wasn’t having it. “Perhaps I would not. This way.”

The woman turned and walked away, toward the wolf statue. Darling had nothing to do but follow, nodding politely to the three Huntsmen. They just watched him go.

She led him to the right of the statue and through a door tucked away in the shadowed corner, making no attempt at conversation. Behind this a dark, narrow hall traced the rear of the main chamber, with doors and other hallways branching off it every few feet. They proceeded in silence about half the length of the hall, where she turned abruptly to ascend a wooden staircase set in what appeared to be a tower. The steps creaked softly as they ascended, but did not shift or give any sign of weakness. That was very reassuring, as the construction of the staircase was sparse and left a very open view of the increasingly distant floor between the wooden steps.

It grew colder as they climbed, the flickering light of torches giving way to the steadier illumination of windows. His taciturn guide finally came to a stop at a small landing and opened a door there, through which a cool breeze immediately entered, ruffling his robes. Beyond this was a wide platform neatly hidden behind the peaked roof of the main hall, affording it a decent view over the city—the buildings in this district weren’t notably tall—while remaining out of sight from the street below. She nodded once at the open door and stepped back from it.

“Thank you,” Darling said politely, wanting to assuage her clearly affronted feelings but wanting even more not to worsen them, which was likely to happen if he made further conversation; he still had no idea what he’d even done wrong. She just nodded once more, waited until he was through, and shut the door firmly behind him.

Two men stood at the far end of the platform, Andros and an older man who had to be Grandmaster Veisroi. The Grandmaster was aged enough that his beard and hair were nearly all gray with only residual streaks of brown, his face weathered and deeply lined, but he stood fully upright and had the wiry physique Darling had observed in the other Huntsmen below. In fact, despite the stereotype, he realized that most of these men were lean and angular in build, rather than bear-like. Andros himself was by far the most burly of them, and the imposing bulk of his massive chest was offset by his height.

They had broken off their conversation at the door’s opening, and now stood watching him approach.

“Gentlemen,” Darling said by way of greeting, strolling up to them. “I hope I’m not interrupting?”

“Nothing that cannot be delayed,” Andros rumbled. “Grandmaster, this is Bishop Darling, of the cult of Eserion. Antonio, you stand in the presence of Erik Veisroi, mortal leader of the Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“I’m impressed that you would come here,” said the Grandmaster, his voice rasping slightly with age, but still clear and strong. “Not many of our faith are welcoming to a thief-priest.”

“I am relieved to hear that, Grandmaster.”

“Oh?”

“Anyone who is pleased to meet a thief is either loony or up to something. It’s hard to predict which will end up being a bigger waste of my time.”

Veisroi grinned. “Well, you have your cult’s famous spirit. In truth, I’ve never found any quarrel with the Guild. I wouldn’t send an Eserite into the woods, but I’m also loath to send my Huntsmen to stalk prey in the city streets. We all hunt in the way our own wilds demand, eh?”

“Well put,” Darling said with an unforced smile.

“I am surprised to see you, Antonio,” said Andros. “I had not actually expected you to come to the lodge.”

“You did invite me,” Darling said innocently. “Anyhow, I always enjoy meeting new people. Though I seem to have offended the young lady who led me up here, somehow.”

The two Huntsmen exchanged a wry look. “Let me guess,” Andros said with a grimace. “You greeted Brother Ingvar as a woman?”

“Ingvar?” he said carefully. “Is that…incorrect?”

“We, of course, tend to assume a person would have the wit to see someone attired as a Huntsman and understand the situation,” Andros said pointedly, “but fortunately Ingvar has had enough contact with infidels not to be too disappointed. He is a dual soul.”

“Ah,” Darling said, nonplussed. “And…that is…?”

“A man’s spirit,” Andros clarified, “unfortunately born in a woman’s body.”

Darling stared.

“These things happen,” Andros continued, while Veisroi watched Darling’s face with a faint grin. “The wild does not presume to be without mistakes. It need not be perfect; it simply is. A dual soul in but one of many kinds of deformity that may be visited upon a person. Some cults see a god’s disfavor in these events. We see only the randomness of nature.”

“I am…surprised,” Darling said carefully, sticking to understatement for safety’s sake. “Knowing how your cult feels about women, and homosexuality.”

“That is behavior,” Veisroi said distastefully, “not nature.”

“It is reasonable to place expectations on how a man conducts himself,” Andros added, nodding. “There is no sense in arguing with what plainly is, however. Dual souls face enough hardship in coming to understand themselves, and in going through life without the possibility of having a mate. We accept them as their spirit befits. Needless cruelty is not the way of the wild.”

Darling decided that at some point, he had to goad Andros and Basra into a theological debate so he could watch. This was either the best or the worst idea he’d ever had; he couldn’t decide which.

“Well! While I always love learning new things, I actually did come here for a reason, and I don’t want to waste any of your time. His Holiness has tasked me with assembling a picture of what actually occurred yesterday, specifically among the four cults whose Bishops were attacked by the Wreath. It’s become clear those attacks were a ploy to goad our cults into making a misstep, which at least two have done. The Church hasn’t had a full report from the Huntsmen yet, though.”

“That is the very matter we were discussing,” said Veisroi, stroking his beard and peering hawkishly at Darling. “Not to evade the question, but…what missteps were made?”

Darling grimaced. “The Thieves’ Guild and the Sisters of Avei struck back at the Black Wreath, both in a manner that led to numerous uninvolved citizens being injured. It’s looking a great deal like both were manipulated from within, which leaves us the very difficult task of rooting out whatever agents the Wreath have placed in each cult. There are considerable difficulties in both cases…”

“Mm,” Andros grunted. “As I recall, the Avenist Bishop has some authority over the Legions in the city. Am I wrong to guess that rabid Syrinx woman is responsible for this debacle?”

“She was a contributing factor,” Darling said ruefully, “which makes it hard to spot any subtler influences at work. Basra…is Basra. A heavy-handed disregard for bystanders isn’t out of character for her, and doesn’t necessarily imply she has Wreath ties.”

“And there you have Avenists in a nutshell,” the Grandmaster said with a grin. “Women trying to take on tasks that are not suited to them always seem to end in witless thuggery. It’s impressive how many millennia they have gone, managing not to learn.”

Darling wasn’t about to touch that. “The issue with the Thieves’ Guild is different. We operate in the same general manner as the Wreath, which makes any of their activities in our own ranks damnably hard to spot.”

“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding. “Makes sense.”

“Well,” Veisroi went on more briskly, “I fear the Huntsmen are in no position to mock other cults for having been infiltrated by the Wreath. We do, however, have some cause for pride this day.” He grinned savagely. “There was, indeed, an attempt to provoke individual Huntsmen to join the attack on the Black Wreath yesterday. It rather spectacularly backfired. The men of Shaath stayed their hands, and we now have a traitor in custody.”

“He has yet to yield useful information,” Andros said with grim satisfaction. “But all things in time.”

“Really,” Darling said, impressed in spite of himself. “Well done. This will make things tremendously easier. If it’s not sensitive information, can I ask what happened, and how?”

“You come in your capacity as an agent of the Church, plainly,” said Veisroi. “We stand with Archpope Justinian, particularly against Elilial and her pawns; we are one in this struggle. Several of the more hotheaded Huntsmen were agitating for us to strike back at the Wreath in the wake of their assault on Andros’s quarters in this lodge. That was only to be expected. Brother Angner was only one such voice, and did not particularly stand out.” The Grandmaster grinned again. “But I have been on a hunt or two in my life, and haven’t forgotten quite yet how to do it. Rarely does one bring down prey by charging at it headlong. While Andros was supposed to be tending to his family and interfacing with the Church in the wake of the attack, I had him discreetly prowling around those men who were shouting loudest for blood. Angner was the only one caught. He was the one who had a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman in his room, and a brass syringe of poison on his person.”

“Naturally,” Andros growled, “he protested his innocence. Claimed these were trophies taken from a slain warlock, and that his only sin was in failing to share such valuable spoils with his brothers.”

“Sounds plausible enough,” Darling said slowly.

“Yes,” Veisroi replied, still grinning. “At least until we gathered together every light-wielding cleric amongst the Huntsmen in this city, as well as several other priests who were willing to help us, placed Angner in the center of a holy circle and inundated him with enough healing light to outshine the blessing on a paladin’s sword.”

“It is best to hunt like the wolf,” Andros added, “but sometimes it is useful to maul like the bear. He evinced no sign of infernal corruption when examined. So when such corruption was visibly burned from him under that onslaught, his guilt as proven. For such a devil’s mark to be hidden from our clerics’ eyes could only have been Wreath spellwork.”

“Unfortunately,” Veisroi added, scowing distastefully, “that is as much progress as we have made. It is difficult to get further; knowing his guilt is proven, Angner has clammed up and will tell us nothing. Wreath or not, he is a Huntsman, raised and trained. He does not fear pain or deprivation.”

“We are thwarted by our own discipline,” Andros said wryly. “This is the point we have been debating, Antonio. It is clear more measures must be taken than we are prepared for, but… If he is given to the Church…”

“The duty of interrogating prisoners is deemed a military one,” said Veisroi with a sneer, “and thus is generally given to the Avenists. There are some things to which I am reluctant to subject a man of my cult, traitor or no. We have been discussing whether we can place strictures on the manner in which the Archpope is allowed to interrogate Brother Angner…and indeed, whether we should.”

“The need is urgent,” Andros said gravely. “Aberrant as the Sisters of Avei may be, if they can get results, the sacrifice may be necessary.”

“Hmm…” Darling stroked his chin thoughtfully. “…mind if I have a go?”


 

Brother Angner, after a day of imprisonment and whatever stress it had laid upon him, more closely resembled the Shaathist stereotype than the calm and polite Huntsmen Darling had met in the lodge. His hair was matted and in need of washing, his deep-set eyes were shadowed from stress and lack of sleep, and the smell surrounding him clearly indicated that he had been denied the opportunity to bathe or change clothes for a while.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” Darling said brightly. Angner narrowed his eyes.

A plain wooden table separated them; the Huntsman’s hands were manacled to it, the chains attached to the table’s legs. He had some room to move, but could not stand or reach his own face unless he laid his head down, and he seemed much more determined to keep it held high. The room itself was intimidating and clearly meant to be so. Stark gray stone, lit only by a brazier of coals in the corner and containing no furniture but the table and the chairs in which the two men sat on either side. There was no window; the air was stifling.

Behind Darling stood Andros and another Huntsman, staring grimly down at Angner, who was doing his best to ignore them.

“Now, it seems you’ve gone and gotten mixed up with the Black Wreath,” Darling went on in a light, conversational tone. “People tend to make rather a fuss about that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Really, though, this is all more common than you may realize. That’s the beauty of being a whole cult devoted to a grievance with the gods, eh? Everybody’s got some kind of beef. All the Wreath has to do is work one fingernail into you, and before you know it you’re taking communion with… Okay, honestly, I have no idea what the actual rituals are. But you get my point, don’t you, Angner?”

Angner sneered so hard it was visible through his beard.

“I figured you would,” Darling said glibly. “You of all people. What I’m driving at is that you aren’t much of a catch. Just being a member of the Wreath isn’t a major crime. Well, not legally; different cults have different rules about apostasy. No, in the end, the reason for all this rigamarole is that you possess useful information.” He leaned back in the chair, smiling benignly. “And we will get that information from you. I assure you, Angner, that is a foregone conclusion. What you get to determine is how you’ll be treated when that’s done, but deciding how much trouble it’s going to be to get you talking.”

Angner glared at him.

Darling met his gaze in silence for nearly a full minute, then abruptly stood. “Andros, can I borrow your hunting knife, please?”

Andros raised an eyebrow fractionally, but bent to pull the blade from his boot and handed it over without comment. It was a hefty weapon, plain and serviceable with a ridged handle carved from horn.

“Thanks,” said Darling, strolling over to the corner and carefully arranging the knife on the brazier so that its blade was directly above the hottest coals he could find close enough to the edge. He positioned himself so that the prisoner could see the heating knife, then leaned back against the wall next to the brazier, folding his arms and smiling. “Now, Andros tells me that Huntsmen don’t break easily. I’m certainly willing to believe that. You’re trained not to fear pain, is that right?”

Angner snorted softly, speaking for the first time since Darling had entered the room. “Eserite poof.”

“Ah, you’ve heard of me!” Darling said, grinning hugely. “Smashing. So! Not impressed by pain. Also not…what was it the Grandmaster said, Andros? Ah, yes, deprivation. Well, that just stands to reason, I suppose. You’re out in the wilderness, hunting for your food… Or for sport or religious rites, whatever it is you guys do. I confess I’m not as well-read on comparative religion as I really ought to be. Busy busy, you know how it is, not enough hours in the day.” He cocked his head to one side, turning toward Andros. “What was I saying? Oh, right! Pain and deprivation. So, of course, the traditional way of dragging intelligence out of prisoners leans heavily on those two pillars. I understand your jailers anticipated you’d be resistant to such methods and haven’t bothered to try ’em. Yes?”

He glanced around the room, getting a curt nod from the other Huntsman, then turned back to Angner. “Well, that’s all well and good, but…and call me a naïve optimist if you want…I think a sharp-looking fellow like you deserves a chance to redeem yourself. I mean, that’s just basic fairness, right? We all make mistakes. The Wreath, as I was just saying, is very good at seducing people away from their common sense. Has anyone bothered to simply ask you, Angner, who your fellow Wreath agents are? Politely?”

Angner’s sneer deepened.

“I’m asking now,” Darling said more quietly. “Why don’t we just skip a bunch of rigamarole and get this over with?”

The chained Huntsman shifted in his chair, further straightening his spine, and stared haughtily at him.

Darling shrugged. “I’m not much of a fan of torture, myself. Oh, not on any moral grounds, I assure you. In the Guild we get very comfortable with the idea of breaking elbows when they need to get broken. It’s just that it’s not very effective sometimes. Folk like yourself, why…they’re just not impressed enough by pain to make it worth the time and effort. And, funnily enough, the more likely someone is to have useful information to extract, the more likely they’ll have had some training to prevent you from extracting it. The whole thing’s just a self-defeating mess, y’know what I mean?”

He lifted the knife from the brazier. Even the handle was almost uncomfortably hot; the blade glowed red. “Hey, buddy—I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name—can you do me a favor and hold his left arm down hard on the table?”

The second Huntsman looked to Andros, who nodded at him. In silence he stepped up, grabbed Angner’s arm and pinned it down as directed. Darling paced slowly over to the table, holding the glowing knife.

“The key, Angner, is knowing what people do fear. You’re not afraid to hurt? That’s perfectly fine. You’re afraid of something, though. Let me test out a theory.”

It was hard to hold the knife properly for what he had in mind; pressing on the blade wasn’t really an option, hot as it was. It was a hefty weapon, though, and very well-tended; its weight and sharp edge, to say nothing of the heat of it, aided in the task. Angner tried to ball his fist upon seeing what Darling intended, but the Huntsman holding him punched him first across the jaw to daze him, then slammed his closed fist down on Angner’s hand, then again, until the prisoner’s fist opened, and leaned on it, holding his flat hand down against the table.

Darling had to work fast so as not to burn his assistant, but the blade cut quickly and cleanly. It hung for a moment on the bone, but it took only two slices to chop off Angner’s thumb.

Holding the knife out to the side, now, he held his own hand over the Huntsman’s maimed fist, calling up his seldom-touched reserve of magic. A blaze of divine light poured forth, and in seconds, the wound had scabbed over, raw new skin already beginning to form at its edges.

“Thanks,” Darling said brightly. “You can let him up, now.”

He returned to the brazier, setting the knife back in its place to re-heat, then strolled casually back to the table, pulled out the chair and sat down. Angner had been impressively silent during the brief ordeal, and now stared in open-mouthed horror at his severed thumb, lying on the table before him. The other Huntsman stepped back, staying close but out of the way, his face impassive.

“What you fear,” Darling said quietly, “is weakness. Am I right? So here’s what we’re going to do, Angner. I am going to ask you some questions. Every time I don’t get an answer…or have reason to think you’re lying to me… You will lose something. The good news is I’m in no hurry! No appointments; you have my undivided attention. I can afford to go in small bits. You’ve got ten fingers…two eyes…” He chuckled softly. “Two balls. Lots of teeth. You know, the little things. So you’re not going to fail this little test all at once. Hell, if you’ve got the stomach, you could conceivably outlast me. If we get to the point that I’ve carved and healed you so much there’s just nothing else I can work with…” He shrugged. “Then you’ll have won! And I’m sure you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment. Something you can hold up to Elilial when you meet her to gain your reward in Hell. Oh, but that won’t be any time soon, mind you. Your life is in no danger here. You will have many long years to savor your victory, being carefully tended to and kept in the best of health. Without hands, without eyes, or feet. Unable to walk, feed yourself or wipe your own ass… Unable to talk or chew, with no tongue or teeth. Living on a diet of gruel and broth, completely and utterly helpless. Forever.”

He leaned back, grinning faintly and meeting the man’s wild-eyed stare. “Oh, I should mention, too, that the Universal Church really doesn’t have the facilities to keep prisoners over the long term. That duty is handed over to the Sisters of Avei.”


 

“Of course, it remains to be seen how accurate his information is,” Andros said as he and Darling strolled down the length of the lodge’s main hall toward the front doors. “The names are a starting point, though. They will each be in custody before the night is out.”

“Fabulous!” Darling said airily. “Will you be needing my help in chatting them up, as well?”

The Huntman eyed him sidelong. “I must discuss that with the Grandmaster.”

“Of course, of course. Well, you know how to reach me.”

“Mm.” Andros cleared his throat. “I have misjudged you, Antonio. You do have an irritating predilection for frivolity, but I had taken that to mean you are weak-hearted. That…was in error.”

Darling looked at him for a moment, then smiled. “You think what I want you to think.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence.

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6 – 3

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The upper levels of the Crawl were disappointingly plain. The rooms were square, unadorned, and empty, connected by simple doorways. Now and again there would be side rooms whose entrances were covered by iron gates, but Professor Ezzaniel ignored these, leading them through a sequence of chambers cut from the granite of the mountain and lit by occasional torches.

Ezzaniel himself was uncommunicative, to which the students were accustomed; even in class, though he could be quite snide with uncooperative pupils, he did not speak unless he had something in particular to say. The freshmen were mostly too groggy to make conversation anyway, and trooped after him in silence. Fortunately, he seemed to know where he was going. The dungeon thus far seemed more tedious than ominous, but the interconnecting identical square rooms with multiple doors would have been a very effective maze if one did not know the path.

“It’s clean,” said Teal after several minutes. “…too clean.”

Ruda groaned.

“I’m serious! Look, there’s no dust, no cobwebs. No mouse droppings or dead insects… See the torches? No soot marks on the walls or ceiling above them, no ash below. And who’s keeping those burning anyway? This does not look like the kind of place that’s been locked behind a heavy door and metal grate.”

“Maybe Stew cleans in here, too?” Gabriel suggested, half-heartedly smothering a yawn.

Fross chimed excitedly. “The Crawl, like most adventuring dungeons which are classified as such, is a self-regulating genius loci subject to massive magical interference with objective natural law. Among other things, it’s apparently self-cleaning!”

“Can somebody please put that in Tanglish for me?” Gabe asked.

“That was Tanglish!”

“He’s making a joke, Fross,” Teal explained. “It means—”

“I know, I’ve heard that one before. I reject the joke because I was speaking quite plainly and Gabriel is an arcane arts major who really should know all those terms!”

“First, it’s stupid o’clock in the morning and my brain is not awake yet,” said Gabriel irritably. “Second, I’m a first-year arcane arts major and haven’t been putting in nearly as much study time as you apparently have, because I do need sleep, and also a social life.”

“Porking the resident dryad whenever she isn’t too busy does not constitute a social life,” said Ruda, grinning.

“Up yours, Punaji, I have other friends.”

“Who’s porking?” Juniper demanded shrilly. “I haven’t—I would never— The only pork I eat is actual pork! I don’t know where this ‘long pig’ thing got started but I wish people would stop throwing it in my face!”

The group staggered to a stop, everyone staring at her. Ezzaniel got a few paces ahead and paused in the doorway to the next dim chamber, turning to look back at them with a raised eyebrow. Juniper folded her arms defensively around herself, her eyes darting back and forth.

“Oh, what are you all looking at?” she demanded huffily, then turned and stalked off after Ezzaniel. The others trailed after somewhat more slowly.

“Right. Well. Anyway.” Toby cleared his throat. “For those of us who aren’t arcane majors, Fross, can you put it in layman’s terms?”

“Layperson’s terms,” said Gabriel, grinning and nudging Trissiny with his elbow. “Amirite?” She gave him a disdainful look.

“All right, well, I assume you all remember Professor Yornhaldt’s class last semester?” Fross said, buzzing about their heads and casting her glow in erratic patterns around the chamber through which they were passing. “The difference between magical and non-magical physics is the difference between subjective and objective reality. Right? That was our very first lesson.”

“Right,” said Toby when nobody else replied.

“Okay, so! A genius loci is a place that has totally subjective physics! The very rules of reality themselves are completely different there!”

“That is deeply disturbing,” Trissiny muttered, glancing suspiciously around at the apparently empty room through which they were passing.

“So,” Fross nattered on, “it needs two things: an absolutely massive abundance of raw magical energy, and some kind of guiding intelligence. This results in places like the Golden Sea and the Deep Wild, where the rules are just plain different. It’s also the case in the great dungeons.”

“Wait, stop,” said Ruda. “You’re telling me this place is intelligent? Holy fuck. I’m seriously tempted to take the F and bug out.”

“What? You? Run away?” Gabriel turned to grin at her. “And me without my lightcapper.”

“Get fucked, Arquin. I’ll fight anything that lives, but being fucking digested by a giant sentient dungeon… Shit, I wanna go home.” She peered nervously around at the blank walls.

“It’s probably not that bad or Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t have sent us here,” Fross said consolingly. “I mean, there are intelligences and then there are intelligences, y’know? Generally they don’t even think in anything like the way we do, so it’s not like we could actively communicate. People have tried. And they’re all different! Most of the dungeons are the result of things the Elder Gods did at various times. More recently, there’s Athan’Khar, which is powered by the residue of Tiraan superweapons and the dead souls of all that died there. As far as I know, nobody’s sure who or what is running the Golden Sea or how it happened, but the Deep Wild is Naiya’s domain. So…different rules in all!”

“Right,” said Teal, nodding. She seemed to have become more alert over the course of the discussion. “So the Golden Sea has several predictable rules and doesn’t get nasty unless people try to screw with it, like the centaurs do. Athan’Khar, on the other hand, pretty much wants to kill everyone who sets foot in there. I’m guessing Tellwyrn wouldn’t have sent us in here if the Crawl was quite that hostile?”

“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” Ruda snorted. “Which Tellwyrn are you talking about?”

“Well, this mountain was once the stronghold of an Elder God before another Elder God destroyed it,” Fross said cheerfully. “I don’t figure it’s too friendly. But yeah, students go in here every year and rarely die. We’ll be fine!”

Trissiny sighed loudly.

The group came up short, several of the less attentive colliding with others. Professor Ezzaniel had stopped ahead of them, studying a blank surface of stone.

“Welp,” said Gabriel after a moment. “That sure is a wall.”

“It seems to have shifted again,” Ezzaniel noted. “The upper rooms are usually fairly stable, but the Crawl does like to change things around. No matter, it’s always fairly straightforward before you descend the main stairs. Excuse me.” They made way as he moved back through the group, exiting the way they’d come and turning left in the next chamber.

Lacking anything better to do, the students trooped after him.

“Pardon me, but does this mean you don’t actually know where we’re going?” Gabriel asked.

“I have the basics of an idea,” Ezzaniel said calmly from up ahead, his voice echoing in the semi-lit chamber. “As I said, the upper Crawl is quite benign, and I’m accustomed to it. Incidentally, I will only be guiding you through this initial stretch. Once we reach the actively dangerous areas, you will be responsible for finding your own way.”

“Lovely,” Gabriel groused. “What the hell is the point of all this, anyway? I mean, this is like learning to churn butter by hand. That shit isn’t relevant anymore. Nobody goes dungeon-delving!”

“Gnomes do,” Trissiny noted.

“So does the Empire,” Toby added.

“Right, sure, fine, but that’s because they own all the dungeons! Is anybody here planning to join an Imperial strike team after graduation?” Gabriel divided a pointed look among the rest of them. “Anyone? Yeah, me either. I don’t see what the purpose is of teaching us how to be an adventuring party. This is stupid.”

“Have you shared that opinion with Professor Tellwyrn?” Ezzaniel asked mildly.

“Do I look immolated to you?”

The Professor chuckled. “Arachne, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is rather more laid back than I in many respects. She doesn’t mind being yelled at, cursed at or even threatened—convenient, as she has a tendency to inspire those responses in people. She would be quite offended if you questioned her intelligence, however. I advise you not to learn firsthand what her offense looks like. Her methods may be confusing, but nothing Arachne Tellwyrn directs you to do is pointless.”

“What could we possibly gain from this?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Hell, five years ago I’d have thought it was the most awesome thing possible, to be on an actual dungeon dive. Okay, yeah, fine, it’s still sort of awesome. But right now I’m more concerned with the fact that I could die and it’d be for no purpose except learning how to have a successful career three hundred years ago.”

“The adventuring party enjoys a prominent place in Tiraan culture and legend, I have observed, and perhaps rightly so,” said Shaeine. “If nothing else, this will be an excellent lesson in teamwork.”

“And in appreciating history!” Teal chimed.

“Bah.” Gabriel stuffed his hands in his coat pockets and slouched sullenly. “Screw this place.”

“Okay, let’s not take it out on the place,” Ruda said nervously. She gently patted the stone frame of a doorway as she passed through it. “Good Crawl? Nice Crawl?”

“The Crawl is an excellent teacher,” Professor Ezzaniel said calmly. “Ah, here we are.”

The last square chamber they had entered had, instead of a wall opposite the door, an opening, from which a wide staircase descended. Two torches bracketed the entrance.

“Well, that’s good and ominous,” said Gabriel.

“Yes,” Ezzaniel said equably, stepping to one side. “All right, in you go. The path from here is quite straightforward. It will lead to the place from which the remainder of the expedition will be launched. You have officially moved beyond needing a guide. Go on, then.”

“Right,” said Trissiny, stepping forward into the gap. One by one, the others followed.

“Should we take the torches?” Toby asked.

“We’ve got Fross,” said Teal. “And several of our group can make light if needed.” She smiled at Shaeine.

“Two of those would harm Gabriel in doing so,” Trissiny pointed out.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Gabe said, trooping down the stairs. They descended just far enough that the topmost step was out of sight of the bottom, then terminated in a square landing and turned left, continuing down. Torches hung at the landing, too, but it grew quite dark near the middle of each flight. “Fross glows normally, Shaeine can make light that won’t hurt me. So can Vadrieny, for that matter.”

“All right,” Fross said briskly as they turned the corner onto the second stretch of steps, “we should discuss our strategy. Trissiny! Sponge or deepsauce?”

“…what?”

The pixie chimed sharply and bobbed twice in the air. “I’m talking about damage. Are you output or mitigation?”

“…what?”

“Uh, Fross,” said Teal, “have you by any chance been reading the old bardic scrolls?”

“Yes I absolutely have!” Fross said excitedly, zooming back to flutter around her. “Professor Tellwyrn likes to change up the timing so it’s a surprise, but there’s always a Crawl expedition in the second semester of the freshman year, so I’ve been studying up to be prepared for weeks now!”

“Uh huh,” Teal said with a smile. “And…you found Findlestin’s glossary of adventuring terminology, didn’t you.”

“Yes! It was very informative!”

“Which edition?”

“Well, all of them, but of course I made sure to study up on the most recent one.”

“Right. Fross, hon, the most recent edition of Findlestin was printed in 1031. It’s a hundred and forty-seven years old.”

“Well… I mean, yes, we all know adventuring parties as a formal institution are kind of outdated…”

“The thing is, if you’re talking about slang—which that stuff was—slang is by definition defined by popular use. If there isn’t any popular use, it’s not slang; it might as well be a foreign language. Nobody’s going to understand it.”

Fross drifted lower till she was fluttering along at about the level of their knees. “But…but…I memorized it. The whole thing.”

“Sorry, little glowbell,” said Ruda. “History isn’t always as useful as Tellwyrn likes to think.”

“That’s okay, though!” the pixie declared, rallying and zooming back up to her usual altitude just about their heads. “I’ll walk you all through it in layman’s—I mean, layperson’s terms, sorry, Trissiny—and we’ll all have it down in no time!”

“Oh,” said Ruda. “Good.”

“So! Trissiny! With regard to inflicting harm,” Fross continued, zipping forward to hover in front of the paladin, “would you consider yourself more of a harm-inflicter or someone who prevents the infliction of harm to herself?”

Trissiny came to a stop, staring at her. From the back of the group, Ezzaniel sighed heavily in exasperation.

“Fross,” Trissiny said after a moment, “what are you talking about? In any kind of fight you have to do both.”

“But this is how they did it! There are dedicated party roles, and—”

“Yeah, that’s really not gonna work,” said Ruda. “Do you not pay attention in Ezzaniel’s class?”

“Of course I do! But this is an adventure, and we’re a party. There’s a system.”

“It’s a hundred-year-old system that nobody uses,” Gabriel pointed out.

“That just isn’t true! Standard operating procedure for Imperial strike teams is based directly on the operating manuals written by the ancient Heroes’ Guild!”

“Imperial strike teams,” said Shaeine, “train for the purpose of operating as a single effective unit, relying on each other to act without the need for thought or communication. It is in a way a more intimate relationship than exists between family. Perhaps the adventuring parties of old operated in a similar manner, but… While I have enjoyed growing closer to each of you over the last several months, I would not consider us to be quite that tightly knit.”

“Shaeine, you have got the greatest knack for understatement I’ve ever heard,” said Ruda.

“Look, Fross,” Toby said firmly, “we appreciate your help, but this isn’t going to be functionally different from the Golden Sea, or Sarasio. We can operate as a unit, up to a point, and we’ve been getting better at it. But…it’ll have to be our way, not the way they did it in old-style adventuring parties.”

Fross let out a long sequence of soft chimes as if sighing heavily. “I’m just saying, they did it that way for a reason, is all.”

“Then be ready to consult on adventuring practices as needed,” said Trissiny, resuming her walk. “For the most part, though, Toby’s right. Better we stick to what we know.”

“So, we bicker and bitch at each other, generally fuck everything up and barely pull it out of the bag at the last minute?”

“That’s very helpful, Ruda, thank you.”

“You got it, roomie, I’m here for you.”

They descended for a good half an hour, the path remaining starkly the same. Left turns at right angles, going consistently downward. The group quickly lost any sense of how far they had gone; Ezzaniel offered no opinions, even when pressed.

“This is awful,” Juniper groaned, plodding along. She had fallen to nearly the rear of the group. “This is worse than the Golden Sea. At least there was life out there. Trees are not meant for hiking!”

“Well, you could try rolling down,” Ruda suggested somewhat snidely. “Logs roll, don’t they?”

“That’s a little insensitive,” Gabriel said with a grin. “A log is basically a tree’s corpse, right?”

“Corpses roll too,” she replied. “Downhill, at least. That is a scientific fact.”

“It’s not a bad idea, though,” the dryad mused, picking up her pace and pushing forward past the others. “Clear the way, please.”

“What’re you…” Trissiny stopped mid-step, her eyes widening. “Juniper, no!”

Disregarding her, Juniper rounded the next corner and hurled herself bodily down the steps, smashing down in a series of thumps and grunts. The others, with various outcries of alarm, rushed down the remainder of the flight they were on, regrouping at the landing to stare anxiously down.

“Juno?” Gabriel called. “You okay?”

“Wow!” At the next landing down, the dryad gathered herself and climbed to her feet, waving up at them. “That was actually fun! You guys have gotta try this! Oh, wait, no…you’d probably get hurt.”

“That’s not how you explore a dungeon,” Fross huffed quietly. “What if she springs a trap?”

“There are no traps up here,” said Professor Ezzaniel. “Still, it might be better if she didn’t—”

“Tallyho!” the dryad shouted, dashing forward and diving face-first down the next flight of stairs.

Trissiny sighed heavily, then raised her voice. “Just don’t get too far ahead!”


 

“I share your grief, Branwen,” the Archpope said, looking and sounding like he meant it sincerely. “I am grateful that you, at least, came through the night’s events uninjured. If you would like to take some time to heal…”

“Thank you, your Holiness,” she said quietly, with a faint tremor in her voice. “It would only be time to…to welter, though. I would rather be at work.”

“As you wish,” Justinian said, nodding. “Should you change your mind, you have only to say so. I’m glad you thought to go to her aid, Antonio.”

“I’m afraid everything was done by the time I got there,” Darling admitted.

“That, though, was beyond your control. It pleases me that you so quickly discerned the nature and motive of the attack and that your first action was to help your fellow Bishop.” The Archpope smiled at him, then turned to the two sitting along the other side of the opulent conference table, his expression growing more solemn. “I have heard the basics of what befell you two, as well, but would you kindly add your reports to Branwen and Antonio’s? It’s best if we are all on the same page.”

“The same pattern,” Andros said curtly. “Three warlocks, in robes. They carried, among other things, those syringes with death-drugs, though none of the three which assaulted my lodge had the opportunity to use them. I was meditating in seclusion, and was late to reach the scene of the confrontation. I was last to the battle and able to finish the remaining two warlocks. They entered my personal chambers and assaulted my wives.”

“Good gods,” Darling exclaimed, straightening up in his chair. “Are they all right?”

“They are recuperating,” Andros replied, smiling with such fierce pride that it was visible even through his heavy beard. “The healers tell me they will not bear permanent injury, though they are being given time to mend the various bruises of the battle. It is a common misconception among infidels that because Shaathist women are obedient, they are also weak. Nothing could be further from the truth.” He angled his head defiantly, as if to stare down his nose at the world. “There is neither honor nor satisfaction in dominating a dishrag.”

“I’m glad to hear that, at least,” said Darling. “Though let’s refrain from throwing the i-word around in mixed ecclesiastical company, yes?”

Andros grunted, which was likely as close to acquiescence as he was likely to get.

“Same here,” Basra said. “Three of them in standard Wreath robes. I was hosting the two Legion cadets I’m sponsoring at my residence that evening. I’m afraid they were both roughed up a bit in the action, too, but it was thanks to Elwick that things didn’t go a lot worse. The girl has a great deal of exposure to demons, and gave us warning that something was coming.”

Andros turned to her, scowling. “And just why does a Silver Legion cadet have great exposure to demons?”

“You remember events at Hamlet, I trust?” Basra said, giving him an unpleasantly cloying smile.

“Of course,” he growled. “It’s no stretch of the imagination to deduce that’s the cause of this attack.”

“Well, as you may recall, we appropriated several of the Wreath cultists’ children in the course of that. I’ve given the girl sponsorship in the Legions; she’s training with the Third right now. Elwick is actually quite promising; she’s certainly eager to put the errors of her upbringing behind her.”

“How fortuitous,” Darling murmured, wondering what Basra was up to. It was hardly like her to support the careers of others out of the goodness of her heart. Of course, there was also the question of what she was doing with two young girls at her home at four in the morning—girls whom she held in a vulnerable, subordinate position. At the intersection of both questions was a possibility; he made a mental note to find out whether she lived up to the Legionnaire stereotype with regard to her personal preferences.

“Indeed,” the Archpope intoned, looking directly at him. “Antonio, I suspect that your mind has brought you to the same conclusions at which I have arrived. I wonder if you would share with us your assessment of the Wreath’s motivations?”

“Of course, your Holiness,” Darling said, folding his hands on the tabletop and frowning thoughtfully. “To begin with… I think they won this round.”

“Won? Are you mad?” Andros snorted. “We slaughtered their entire attacking force with only one casualty, and none of their primary targets suffered harm!”

Darling was shaking his head before he finished speaking. “Think about who we’re dealing with, Andros. The Black Wreath serve the goddess of cunning; like all our cults, they take the aspect of their deity as their primary virtue. If this is in response to Hamlet, they’ve had months to study us, lay plans and make preparations. And you really think the result of all that would be a haphazard, half-hearted brute force attack? No… Killing the four of us was not the motive.”

“Whatever you think they were up to, they squandered the lives of twelve magic users to do it,” said Basra, frowning. “They either considered this hugely important or they’ve got a lot more personnel to draw upon than we realized.”

“Those are questions to which we can’t know the answers, I’m afraid,” said Darling.

“What is it you think they were after, then?”

“Think about what they did, or tried to do. Where they directed their efforts. Andros’s wives, Branwen’s servant and friend, Basra’s proteges. I have two live-in apprentices and a convalescing acquaintance at my home; I think they would have been the targets had my Butler not intercepted the Wreath at the door. And you two haven’t mentioned it, but I noted that at both my place and Branwen’s they used the front door.” He shook his head again. “This wasn’t an assassination. This was a provocation. They want us hurt, angry, and striking back.”

There was a brief silence while they all digested this.

“That, indeed, is how the matter appears to me,” Justinian agreed after a moment. “I’m glad to see I wasn’t alone in coming to that conclusion. It raises the very tricky question of what we must do now, however.”

“The obvious thing would be not to give them what they want,” Andros rumbled, “but in dealing with the Wreath, the obvious course is seldom the right one.”

“And that’s why I think they’ve got us good and proper, this time,” said Darling. He reached over to squeeze Branwen’s hand. “The Izarites aren’t interested in revenge, but the rest of our cults are another matter. The Sisters, the Guild and the Huntsmen will not take this lying down—and to be honest, we couldn’t make them even if we wanted to. It’s about to be all-out war on the Wreath.”

“In the streets of Tiraas,” Branwen murmured, visibly appalled.

“A witch hunt of the worst kind,” the Archpope agreed. “I can and will enforce moderation in the Church’s response, but you are right: the independent cults are beyond my control, and those three at least are not tolerant of such brazen affronts.”

“What could they possibly gain by calling down all that wrath on their own heads?” Basra exclaimed.

“I very much fear we’re about to find out,” said Darling. “The pertinent question is: what do we, the four of us, do? We’re in a dicey position; right at the center of this and tied to both the Church and our cults. We can’t really afford to break with either. Both we and whichever organization we sided against would lose face right when we need it most.”

“That can be mitigated by the nature of the Church’s response,” said Justinian, “which, I assure you, will be suitably nuanced. You will have my full support in this matter. As for what we are to do…” He drummed his fingers once on the tabletop, the ring of his office flashing in the light. “For the time being, we must wait and see what the Wreath is up to, along with the rest of the world. That does not mean we shall proceed blindly. In the first place, we will play along.”

“It is sometimes necessary to step into a trap,” Andros agreed, nodding. “The outcome may not be as the trapper wishes, if the prey knows it is there.”

“Just so,” said Justinian, then smiled. “And while we are allowing ourselves to be victimized by the Wreath’s plan… I believe there is a way we can use it.”


 

“Juniper,” Trissiny said, “don’t try to roll down these steps.”

“Well, obviously,” the dryad said reasonably. “I could fall!”

“Astute as always,” Ruda muttered.

It had been more than an hour of walking, and they were all sore in the legs and even more tired than when they had started out; unless the internal geography of the Crawl was truly unhinged—which was apparently not impossible—they were well below the surface of the prairie by this point. Professor Ezzaniel had refused to let them stop for a rest, insisting that the perfect place to do so was up ahead. No one had argued too strenuously, as what they wanted was breakfast, and no one had any food.

Now, they appeared to have reached their destination, or nearly so. The angular, spiraling staircase terminated into a truly vast open space, the size of a stadium in diameter and plunging down an impossible distance. Above were vaguely-glimpsed stalactites in a shadowed ceiling vastly far away; the floor of the cavern, if there was one, was too far down to be visible, but whatever was down there emitted a reddish glow that sullenly lit up the whole chamber. It wasn’t a vertical shaft, either; it plunged at a roughly forty-five degree angle. Almost as if it had been vertical before the mountain was sunk.

Directly from their feet descended another staircase, this one half as broad as the wide ones they had traveled thus far, and arching unsupported across a horrifying stretch of space. There were, of course, no guardrails. Similar stairs could be seen both above and below their level, going to and from points they could not discern. The steps before them ended in the far wall, in which a massive stone head at least four stories in height had been carved into the rock, angled so that it stood upright. The steps ran straight to its open mouth.

“All right, we should check for traps before proceeding,” Fross declared. “I have a statistical divination spell that can randomize outcomes on a scale of twenty reference points corresponding to magical threat levels. Once I code in the variables we’re checking for, it should warn us of any traps within an acceptable margin of error. This’ll just take a second.”

“Fross,” Gabriel said impatiently, “I may not be up to your study habits but even I know the Gygax Charm hasn’t been used in decades. Modern divinations are vastly more accurate.”

“It’s traditional!”

“There are no traps,” Professor Ezzaniel said wearily from behind them. “There will be no traps, nor enemies, until you have proceeded beyond what lies at the bottom of these steps. For heaven’s sake, students, get on with it. And watch where you put your feet.”

“You’re good with levitation spells, right, Fross?” Trissiny asked.

“Well, of course! That’s how I mostly interact with the world. You’d be amazed how much picking up of stuff is necessary in human society! Well, I mean, you would if you’d never actually thought about it, which I’ve noticed most of you haven’t. Uh, no offense.”

“None taken,” the paladin said gravely. “We’re all going to step carefully, but I need you to watch over the group and catch anybody if they fall.”

“Oh!” Fross zipped back and forth in excitement. “I can do that!”

“Good. All right, everyone…single file. I know it’s not that narrow, but let’s take no risks.”

She set off down the stairs, the others falling into line behind her.

The staircase was indeed broad enough that any of them could have laid down on the steps and neither their heads nor feet would have come near the edge. However, given the lack of rails and the staggering heights involved, it was still a nerve-wracking descent.

“What d’you suppose is down there?” Gabriel asked about halfway down. “Lava?”

“Can’t be,” said Toby. “The heat would whoosh up this shaft and cook us right where we stand.”

“Shut. The fuck. Up,” Ruda growled.

Trissiny stepped onto the small landing below the gloomy face’s nose with relief. In addition to being off those infernal stairs, from this vantage she didn’t have to see that huge thing scowling at them. The others clustered around her, several with soft sighs mirroring her reaction.

The face’s open mouth formed a short tunnel; set into the wall just in front of the was a wooden door with an iron latch. Next to it hung a sign, in Tanglish.

“The Grim Visage,” Teal read. “Well, it certainly is that.”

“Care to give us a hint on what lies ahead, Professor?” Toby suggested.

“Yes,” said Ezzaniel, deadpan. “If you open the door, you will find out.”

“This is gonna be one of those trips, isn’t it,” Ruda muttered.

Trissiny clenched her jaw, grasped the handle and pulled the door open. She stepped cautiously through, moving forward enough to give the others room to enter. They did so slowly, fanning out in a cluster just inside the door.

They found themselves in a room full of monsters.

An ogre sat in the far corner, his head brushing the ceiling even sitting down, clutching a barrel from which he drank like a pint glass. Near the door, three drow were clustered around a table, two women and a man; to judge by their “armor,” which was flattering but more decorative than functional, and the matching unpleasant grins they gave the students, they weren’t Narisian. A small group of gnomes were playing cards near a roaring hearth, two goblins were arm wrestling the next table over, and at the far end of the room, behind a bar, stood an improbably pretty man with pale skin and no shirt on. He grinned at the sight of the students, stretching spiny incubus wings. As they stood there staring, a naga slithered past them, carrying a tray of mugs.

The occupants of the room looked up at the new arrivals, and then mostly went right back to their drinks, games and conversations.

“Why is it,” Gabriel asked after a moment’s silence, “that wherever we go, we end up in some kind of bar?”

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4 – 20

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“Are you sure this is necessary? Or even a good idea?” Branwen huffed slightly, trying to keep up; Basra was setting an even more blistering pace back to the Cathedral than Mary had to the factory, and the shortest member of their group was actually having difficulty, now. Darling and Andros were both tall and long-legged; the elves, of course, had no trouble keeping up, even though one had his arms tied behind him and the other two were occupied keeping him under control. They marched right behind him, Flora holding an end of the rope lashed securely around his wrists, Fauna ready with an unsheathed knife.

“I’m with Ginger,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “It’s late, it’s damp, everybody could use a warm brandy. What say we call this a night and pick up in the morning?”

“We’ve got nothing but this guy’s word that his Holiness is responsible,” Branwen went on, ignoring him. “And even if he’s right, it’s not as if we were set up! It’s the Crow who sent us into this encounter. He has nothing to do with us!”

“Well, if I’m just getting in the way, here, I could toddle off,” said the Jackal helpfully. “Sounds like you lot have some things to discuss.”

“Justinian sent us out into the city to hunt adventurers,” Basra snapped, still stalking forward. She wasn’t quite running, but used the full length of her legs with every rapid step. “He conveniently failed to mention that he was employing them himself—to do the very thing he’d set us to hunt them for. How dense can you possibly be?”

“You don’t need to be rude,” Branwen muttered.

“Bah. Antonio, explain it to her.”

“That combination of factors made it pretty much inevitable his two groups of agents would blunder across each other, and likely start shooting as soon as they did,” Darling said grimly. “Not having sent us specifically after the Jackal only means he arranged himself plausible deniability.”

“All of this only matters if we are taking this oaf at his word,” Andros growled. “Why should we suspect the Archpope of this?”

“Because I do suspect him of it,” Basra snarled. “It’s too perfect. He’s got multiple teams in the field, involved in dirty work that he can’t have coming to the public’s attention. There’s no better tool to silence them than each other.”

“When you see him,” suggested the Jackal, “be sure to ask why Brother Hernfeldt needed to die. Not that I’m admitting anything, mind you. I may be privy to some interesting facts, however. Better yet, don’t ask the Archpope; do your own digging. Find out what the good brother was covering up for his Holiness.”

“You’re being awfully accommodating, considering you’re being marched to the gallows,” Darling remarked.

The elf laughed. “Oh, please. You lot aren’t going to kill me; I’m a source of information you very much need. Neither is anyone else, because you’ll find there’s a total lack of evidence connecting me to anything to do with that dwarf. All you’ve got me for is vandalizing a factory. I can survive a few months in jail.”

“Speaking of that, where are we taking this guy?” Flora asked. “It doesn’t seem like a great idea to march him into the Archpope’s office…”

“No,” Basra said sharply, turning her head as she walked to glare back at them. “Don’t put him in Justinian’s clutches where he can be silenced. We’ll put him in Imperial custody.”

“Bad idea,” said Darling. “Justinian can get to him there. Take him to the Temple of Avei, explain the situation. They’ll keep him secure.”

“All of this is just a wacky misunderstanding, you know,” the Jackal said, oozing sincerity. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“You’ve just admitted you were working with the Archpope!” Fauna exclaimed.

“Didn’t say doing what, now, did I? I am but a humble shoe-shine boy. His Holiness is very particular about his holy boots.”

“The Avenists are probably the best custodians for him for the time being,” Andros rumbled. “Funny how you didn’t think of that, Syrinx.”

Basra didn’t acknowledge him.

They emerged into Imperial Square and came to a momentary stop.

“Looks like this is our platform,” said Darling, turning to his apprentices. “Straight across to the Temple of Avei, girls.”

“What should we tell them?” asked Flora.

“Why, the simple truth,” he said serenely. They exchanged one of their glances.

“You guys are Eserites, yes?” asked the Jackal. “I dunno if you should try the truth. You might burst into flames or something. Not that I care, but y’know, one of you’s connected to me by rope…”

“Aren’t you hilarious,” Fauna said sourly.

Flora flicked his rope like a horse’s reins. “On with you.”

He carried on his good-natured jabbering as they escorted him across the empty Square to the Temple of Avei. The four Bishops watched them go for a moment. Then Basra snorted and began climbing the steps to the Cathedral. The others, after a moment’s hesitation, caught up with her.

They didn’t speak during their trek through the Cathedral itself, and she didn’t slow until they came right up to the doors to the Archpope’s chambers.

“His Holiness is in prayer,” one of the guards said. They both angled their spears to block her path to the door.

Basra paused, looking back and forth between them for a moment. The Holy Legion wore heavier armor than the Silver Legionnaires—and more elaborate, buffed to a luminous shine and etched with decorative spirals. Beneath the armor, their uniforms were all extravagant white and gold, and the two ceremonial spears bore enough ornamentation that they had to be too heavy to use effectively in battle.

“See, it’s fine,” said Branwen. “We can come back when—”

Basra punched the guard on the right in the throat. The other man wasted a precious half-second looking shocked; before he could even draw breath to cry out, she kicked him between the legs, hard. He crumpled with a hoarse gasp.

“Gap in the armor, there,” she said. “This whole pet project of Justinian’s is just ridiculous. These guys are recruited from the Army—they’re trained to fight with wands and staves, in light uniforms. Then he gives them armor and melee weapons. Feh.”

“Oh, no,” Branwen fretted, wringing her hands, her gaze darting about between Basra and the two felled guards, both of whom were clearly struggling to breathe. “Oh, dear, this is going to be trouble…”

Basra kicked open the doors, then bent momentarily to grab both guards by their heavy steel breastplates and stalked through, dragging them along. For being a woman of such compact build, she was remarkably strong.

The papal meeting chamber in which they ordinarily conferred with the Archpope was deeper into his suite. These main doors opened directly upon a chapel of sorts; the room itself was two stories tall and dominated by a towering staircase covered in thick red carpet, leading up to a dais above. Only a small foyer area sat at its foot, ringed by doors that led deeper into the complex. On the dais was an altar, surrounded by a trifecta of stained glass windows depicting the Trinity of Omnu, Avei and Vidius. All in all, the unusual chapel was more vertical than horizontal. It hadn’t been designed to host religious services; it was just for the Archpope’s personal use.

Justinian himself knelt before the altar above. Two more of the Holy Legion stood at attention at each side of the steps on the floor level; upon Basra’s dramatic entry, they sprang forward, leveling their spears at her.

“Wait.”

The Archpope didn’t trouble to raise his voice. The accoustics in the room being what they were, it wasn’t necessary. He rose smoothly to his full, imposing height, turning to gaze down at them. The two soldiers paused, not taking their eyes off the four Bishops now crowding in the doorway.

“What’s troubling you, Basra?” Justinian asked mildly.

“We need to talk,” she snapped.

“I gather this must be rather urgent, then. I do hope you’ve not damaged my guards unduly.”

“Plenty more were they came from,” she said dismissively, dropping the two men to the floor. Both were still clutching the injured portions of their anatomy, the one who’d been hit in the throat making ugly rasping sounds. Branwen shoved past Darling and knelt beside him, lighting up with a golden glow and ignoring the soldier who swiveled his spear to aim at her. After a few seconds of her attention, his breathing eased audibly.

“Thank you, Branwen,” the Archpope said, nodding down at her. “Gentlemen, would you kindly escort your comrades to the infirmary?”

“Your Holiness!” one of the men protested.

“It’s quite all right,” he said, serene as ever. “I have nothing to fear from my Bishops, and this must be very important indeed.”

They obeyed, visibly reluctant and with much glaring at the Bishops. Soon enough, though, they had helped the two limping soldiers out, and Darling pushed the great doors shut behind them.

“So,” said Justinian, still unruffled. “What’s on your mind, Basra?”

“We just had a fascinating conversation with an elf calling himself the Jackal,” she said, glaring up at him.

“Do tell?”

“He just murdered an Izarite priest by the name of Hernfeldt, in the Temple of Izara itself.”

“How deplorable.”

“And he insisted,” she went on, baring her teeth, “that you contracted him to do so.”

“I see.” Justinian appeared to ponder this for a moment. “My friends, would you join me, please? I hate to talk down to you so.” He stepped back and to one side, making room for them on the dais.

Again, three of the Bishops held back for a moment, exchanging uncertain glances, but Basra began climbing the stairs immediately. Darling followed suit once she was about head height above them, the others finally falling into step behind him. In short order they stood clustered around the altar; while they had ascended, the Archpope had stepped around behind it.

“So,” said Justinian, his expression serious, “in the course of your work on the adventurer problem, you apprehended an admitted murderer, who claimed that I had hired him. And…you believed this?”

“I didn’t,” Branwen said immediately.

“Oh?” He turned his gaze on her, open and nonconfrontational. “Why not?”

She stared back at him, her mouth open soundlessly.

“Forgive me, perhaps I misspoke,” Justinian went on, shaking his head. “I was not challenging your acceptance of this Jackal’s claim, merely calling your attention to it. I gather he offered you no evidence to support this, or you would have mentioned such in the first place. Yet the mere accusation was enough to send you marching back here, to mow down my guards and burst into this chamber.”

“Just for the record,” said Darling, “most of that was Basra.” She gave him a filthy look.

“Then I salute her initiative,” Justinian said with a faint smile. “Yet you all followed. Now, why is that?”

“Because,” Darling replied evenly, “it would be quite in character.”

If anything, the Archpope’s smile widened slightly. “And since you’ve been set loose upon the adventurers of this city, at least one of whom is a priest-killer of terrifying power, you are naturally somewhat perturbed at the thought that one might be working under the Church’s auspices.”

“It is a troubling idea, if true,” Andros rumbled.

“Troubling?” Justinian raised an eyebrow. “I should think it would be appalling.”

The four of them exchanged looks again; even Basra seemed confused, now. This was not going at all the way they had anticipated.

“I would like to show you something,” Justinian said with a small smile. Turning, he ran his fingers along the lower lip of the frame holding Omnu’s stained glass portrait, then reached under it. Silently, the entire window swung inward, revealing a spiraling staircase vanishing downward into darkness. The Archpope stepped through this. “If you would follow me, please? Whoever is last through, kindly push the window closed behind you.”

They looked at each other for an uncertain moment, in which he vanished completely from sight around the bend and downward, and then Basra grunted and set off after him, Darling right on her heels. Branwen followed, leaving Andros to come along behind and close off the secret passage.

It wasn’t a dauntingly long stairwell, though it was steep, narrow and generally uncomfortable. At least it wasn’t left in pitch-darkness; the lights came from the tiniest of fairy lamps, but they were frequently spaced, leaving the steps dim but not difficult to navigate. They descended perhaps two stories before the stairwell terminated and deposited them on the floor of a room much smaller than the chapel above.

It was a library, that much was obvious at a glance. For some reason, it was predominated by a fountain against the far wall, which produced both a soft, constant chuckle of falling water and a pale blue glow which was the only illumination in the dim room. It was barely enough to reveal the laden bookshelves lining both walls and low reading stand in the middle of the floor. Justinian stepped to one side, turning a knob mounted by the door, and fairy lamps came alight, bringing the illlumination in the room up to a pleasant, warm glow.

“This,” he said, “is one of the great secrets of the papacy. In that fountain is an oracular koi, a gift from Sifan.”

“An oracle?” Branwen breathed. “A real one?”

“Its powers are, of course, limited,” the Archpope admitted. “It does not answer questions pertaining to immediate tactical concerns, but rather those which touch upon a person’s path in life.”

“What’s the difference?” Basra asked.

“I confess it sometimes eludes me,” Justinian said with a smile. “It can be…frustrating…to work with. Luckily, there are other tools available.” He gestured to the shelves lining the left side of the room. “You may recognize some of those instruments as divinatory. All are relics; modern divination enchantments are quite specific in their application, but less powerful. The Church, of course, has access to such measures, and they are useful in their place, albeit quite easy to block with simple counterspells. These older, more powerful tools are, like the oracle, designed to reveal truth, not fact. They are likewise rather difficult to work with, and harder still to interpret. The same is true of the books,” he added, nodding to the shelves lining the other side of the room. “Every one old, and profoundly magical. These are the sort of tomes which are more than ink on paper; they reveal whatever truth they are designed to, which often depends upon the reader and the needs of the moment. Some of them, in fact, are quite full of personality. Some of those are particularly difficult.”

Smiling, he stepped forward, positioning himself in front of the reading stand, and spread his hands. “Welcome, my friends, to the Chamber of Truth. You are the first individuals aside from a sitting Archpope to set foot in this library. Here, generations of pontiffs have consulted these various tools to gain wisdom and perspective. And, to a lesser extent, knowledge, though as I have said, the creators of these devices were either unable or unwilling to grant access to the facts of the present-day world. I cannot, in short, identify the perpetrator of the murders, but I can obtain guidance toward the right direction in which to look.”

“Why show this to us?” Andros demanded.

“Why assume the Jackal spoke truth to you?” Justinian returned. He shook his head, his expression growing troubled. “Each of you is a politician, in your own way. You are here, as I told you when I formed this group, because your particular personalities are, in my opinion, well-suited to the kind of work I intend for you to do. But there must be thousands with such inclinations; you have brought yourselves to this point through your own cleverness and ambition. You know what the politics of this city are like. Mistrust is deeply seeded in you…and rightly so.”

“And?” Basra said skeptically.

“And,” Justinian replied, “that has placed us on uneven footing. You have always had to come to me as supplicants; you have always scrabbled for every scrap of information you could find, while I reaped the benefits of all these gifts, gathered by all those who came before me.”

He began to pace slowly around the room, frowning in thought as he studied various books and tools in passing.

“I am not satisfied with this. There are men and women…and then there are gods. What other steps do we need between?”

“There must always be sheep and shepherds,” Andros rumbled. Basra rolled her eyes.

“Quite so,” said the Archpope with some amusement, glancing at him. “Make no mistake, I am a man of many complex plans; it is not, for innumerable reasons, feasible for me to share every detail of my operations with you. But I want you, finally, to understand what it is that I mean to accomplish.”

“Which is?” Darling prompted when he fell silent for a moment.

Justinian stopped directly in front of the oracular fountain, staring at them intently. “Change. A more equal world. A world in which only the gods are above us. The world is evolving rapidly; institutions are failing. The Empire teeters, and the Church cannot claim to be faring much better. Individual cults cling to ancient ways that simply don’t function in the modern world. We have reached and passed the limit of what can be accomplished through reform. Right now, Elilial and her Black Wreath are preparing another mighty campaign against the mortal realm, as she has done several times in the past. This time, though, she has struck at a perfect moment; there are no more heroes or adventurers of a quality adequate to throw her back, and the institutions which should otherwise take up that burden are reeling from their own failure to adapt to reality, too weak and misaimed to take action. It falls to us, my friends, to break both the rock and the hard place. To bring humanity into the future.”

“That’s a lovely speech,” Basra said skeptically, “but I don’t see what it has to do with you hiring the Jackal to kill us.”

“I hired the Jackal,” said the Archpope evenly, “but not to kill you. To be frank, Basra, I did not plan or expect you to encounter him at all; he was not aimed at you.”

“Are you behind all the killings?” Darling asked.

Justinian shook his head. “Not even most. However, I have taken the opportunity they present to advance my goals.”

“How remarkably…forthright,” Andros said, narrowing his eyes.

Justinian smiled faintly. “I have brought you here and shown you this for a reason. It is time that there be greater trust between us. Up till now, you have moved in suspicion, uncertain of each other’s intentions, or mine. Now, we are on even footing: now, I have as much to prove as you. To be honest, I had not expected things to come to this pass so soon. Still, we adapt. I would have us be more equal, my friends. We must be, to work together. To save our world.”

He stepped to one side, gesturing around him with one hand. “This is the beginning. Going forward, I want you to have access to this library. You may find it takes some time to develop an affinity for it; extracting useful information from these various tools is something of an acquired skill. But you have proven yourselves trustworthy, at considerable personal risk. It is time that I do the same.”

“But…what are we doing, then?” Branwen asked tremulously. “Are we done chasing the murderers?”

“The Black Wreath’s retaliatory strikes are a lesser concern,” said Justinian. “I would not consider the matter dropped, but for the time being, it must become a lower priority. In any case, the killings are about to cease.”

“How are you able to ensure that?” Andros demanded.

“Because their pattern is quite particular, and because I have taken steps to identify all those who meet the criteria they have shown in picking their targets. They weren’t exactly subtle. There simply aren’t any suitable victims left.”

“So, you think they’re just going to stop?” Basra asked scornfully.

Justinian shook his head; the faintest grin tugged at his lips. “I think they are going to change tactics. We will deal with whatever comes next, but I fear we must acknowledge our failure to stop this particular campaign. However, it has set us on the right track. I intend nothing less than the dissolution of every corrupt, non-functional institution holding humanity back and leaving us vulnerable to Elilial’s advances. Obviously, to simply obliterate the political powers of this world would result in sheer anarchy, leaving us even more vulnerable than before…”

“So you’ll set yourself up as the power in Tiraas,” Basra said.

“No.” Justinian turned to focus the full weight of his gaze on her. “I will set humanity up as the power. And a necessary first step in that is to cull the last destructive malcontents who roam this world. Your work will continue, my friends. We must control or silence every powerful remainder of the Age of Adventures, and we have not much time in which to do it.”

Silence fell while they digested this, staring at him.

“You are talking about war on the entire damned world,” Darling whispered. “Treason against the Empire is only the start of this. You’d need to bring down the Church itself, the cults… The elven tribes, the remaining dragons, Tar’naris, Tellwyrn’s University… Everything which is a power in the world.”

“A daunting prospect, is it not?” Justinian said, smiling pleasantly. “To do this, Antonio, we will need to move beyond combative models of thinking. As you have implied, waging war on all these institutions simply isn’t a prospect—and if it were, we could not afford to leave the world so vulnerable to Elilial’s depredations. No, this will not be about destroying, but creating. We must lift up the people, grant them the power to seize their own destiny. We must create a world in which everyone is a power to contend with. In this world, no one can rule over or oppress the masses. No demon goddess can destroy them.”

“You’ll still have to bust a lot of heads to do that,” Basra mused, rubbing her chin and staring into space thoughtfully. “There are a lot of well-established institutions that won’t take kindly to losing their power.”

“Such as, for example, all of them,” Andros grunted.

“But we wouldn’t need to break every one of them completely,” Branwen added. “Just…prevent them from acting against us…”

“How, exactly, do you mean to elevate the human race like this?” Darling asked.

“Eight thousand years ago,” said the Archpope, “the beings we now call gods were mortal men and women. They rose up when the needs of their people demanded it, to seize power, to level the playing field, cast down the corrupt powers of their age and usher the mortal races into a new and brighter era. What has been done once can be done again. A great doom is coming. We will finish what the gods began, and lift up everyone.”

“If everyone is a god,” Darling said slowly, “no one is.”

The fountain splashed quietly, all of them staring, thinking, waiting.

“I can see why you need all the adventurers either working for us or out of the picture,” Basra said at last.

“It is a necessary first step,” Justinian agreed, nodding. “The question is: can you share my vision? Will you join me?”

“I will,” Branwen said immediately. She was gazing at him with something perilously close to worship. Andros nodded silently.

“Hell with it, I’m in,” said Basra.

“All right,” Darling said slowly. “All right…let’s do it. But!” He pointed a finger at the Archpope. “This business of running around chasing our tails after various adventurers isn’t going to work. We’ll just keep tripping over each other, scaring them off and provoking them to counterattack. We only stumbled across the Jackal because this project spooked Mary the Crow into intervening. If we do this, we do it smart. We do it my way.”

Justinian smiled. “I would have it no other way.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

4 – 17

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The crow flapped from perch to perch, pausing atop lamp posts, fences and eaves to look back at the four Bishops as they struggled to keep up before flittering off into the gloom again. In the darkness and oppressive drizzle, the black bird was all but invisible except when it moved; keeping it in sight was a challenge.

“Once again,” Basra growled under her breath, “this had better be her. If we are chasing some random crow across the city…”

“Crows are clever enough to play complex games like this,” Andros noted, “but a mundane bird would not be out at this hour, or in this weather.”

“She could’ve said something instead of pulling this cockamamie pantomime,” Basra complained, then raised her voice. “Oi! Beaky! Do all elves lack basic social skills or just the creepy shamans?”

“Shaman,” Branwen said.

“What?”

“It’s ‘shaman.’ The plural is the same as the singular.”

“Are you sure?” Darling asked. “I always thought it was ‘shamen.’”

“I’m pretty certain—”

“Nobody cares!” Basra shouted. “Antonio, if this turns out to be a bust I’m blaming you.”

“Me?! What did I do?”

“She’s your elf.”

“She is not my elf! I’m pretty sure she’d object strenuously to being called anybody’s elf.”

“Yeah, well, you found her for us.”

“Actually, she found him,” Branwen said helpfully. She wasn’t quite panting, but was having more trouble with the pace than the rest of them, between having the shortest legs and roundest figure in the group.

“Whatever, don’t care,” Basra said, now grinning wickedly. “Blaming you. I’m permitted to be irrational. Woman’s prerogative.”

A silence fell while the other three exchanged glances. Hearing misogynistic jargon repeated by a ranking Avenist cleric was…jarring.

“Where is she leading us?” Andros demanded after a moment. They rounded a corner at high speed, Branwen slipping on the slick paving stones before Darling caught her.

“Hear that?” Darling said. “That snapping noise in the distance? Those are antennae. We’re in the northern factory district. They’re supposed to shut down in the rain—bad things can happen when you discharge lightning into a watery atmosphere. But it’s still just drizzling, and some industrialists will push every rule they can to the very limit. Anything to scrounge a copper.”

“It’s well past midnight,” Basra huffed. “Who the hell is still running a factory anyway?”

“Every copper. Production would shut down when they had to burn lamp oil, but fairy lights are practically free to run.”

They came to an abrupt stop, their guide having done likewise, perched atop a lamp post. Branwen leaned against it, catching her breath, while the other glared up at the crow.

“Well?” Basra demanded, planting her fists on her hips.

The crow turned around to point its beak dead ahead and let out a hoarse caw.

The street ended about a block in front of them, where another street running perpendicular fronted another row of factories, with one dead ahead. It was at this that the crow now stared. Like most of the buildings here, it was dark, though a faint residual glow wreathed the antennae atop the structure. As they watched a faint flicker of static sparked across one.

In some of Tiraas’s wealthier industrial zones, the factories were showpieces, architecturally pleasing, their interiors clean and spacious, often fronted by elaborate foyers through which common employees were not permitted passage. It was to these that visiting dignitaries were usually shown to be awed by the city’s sophistication and industrial prowess.

This was not a wealthier industrial zone. The factory toward which they were pointed was a squat, ugly building of reddish brick, four stories tall and most of its exterior lined by rows of square windows. That would be for light, the factory clearly having been built before fairy lamps were cheap and widely available; newer structures favored thicker, more solid walls that gave them better insulation. It was clean, at least. Only in the city’s poorest and shiftiest districts was filth and decay permitted to accumulate.

“I guess we’re here, then,” Basra said in a quieter tone. The crow ruffled its feathers, croaking softly in response. “Right, then. Standard tactics for fighting elves. Remember, they are faster, more agile and more stealthy than you, but not as physically strong. Do not engage them hand-to-hand; their speed and accuracy gives them a considerable advantage.”

“Speed and accuracy gives them an even greater advantage in ranged combat,” Andros growled. “Do you propose to bring down the Jackal with stern language?”

“Elves are faster, not better,” she replied, giving him a look of pure irritation. “Humans are stronger, as I said, and sturdier. Our main advantage is that the elvish frame is compact, has lighter bones, very little fat and less muscle. Plus, they heal at something like a fourth the rate we do. Not only are they quite prone to injury, but any injury is a much more serious matter to an elf. Thus, they are cautious. Don’t compete with him in finesse: use brute force tactics at a safe distance. Cause damage, scare him.” She grinned, waggling the wand she had taken from the Cathedral. “These little beauties make all the difference. Remember, we want him alive to answer questions, so shoot up the area around him. A consistently effective strategy is to create barriers of burning debris. Hem him in, make it more attractive to deal politely with us than get blasted.”

Above, the crow squawked, ruffling its feathers.

“Yup, that’s how we take down elves,” Basra said, grinning savagely upward. “Want a demonstration? Oh, but you’ve probably seen it a time or two, haven’t you?”

“Don’t antagonize her,” Darling said firmly. “This guy’s already way up the list from what we started out tonight prepared to take on. Let’s not have two angry elves to deal with. Bas, the main problem with your strategy is it involves busting into somebody’s factory and shooting it to hell.”

“These places are all insured to the rafters,” she said with a shrug. “Besides, we answer only to the Archpope, and this business is in defense of the realm. We’re fine.”

“All the people who work there won’t be fine when their jobs are wrecked tomorrow,” Branwen said worriedly.

“Eh. Omelets, eggs, you know how it goes. Forward march, people.”

“Keep a divine shield around you at all times,” Andros rumbled, a glow springing up about him as he suited his words with action. “We will not be able to sneak up on him anyway. If he cannot strike back against us, he’ll have little option but to surrender.”

“Or flee,” Darling pointed out. “Let’s not just charge in there. How many entrances are there?”

“Come on, do you see those windows?” Basra said. “It’s pretty much one big entrance. The Jackal has killed one priest tonight, and my files on him suggest an aggressive temperament. If he runs, there won’t be much we can do about it. I’m betting, though, he’ll think he can take us.”

“Antonio is right,” Andros said, his glow winking out. “It would be wise to reconnoiter.”

“For what?” she demanded, exasperated.

“To plan for more than the best case scenario,” Darling said. “Look, I know this district. Behind that row of factories is a canal. At this time of year the water level will be too low for him to jump into; it’s a painfully long drop into not enough water to cushion the fall. We should at least check out the factories to either side, see where the convenient entrances are. If the Jackal’s holed up in there, he’ll have scouted already; knowing where the bolt holes are will tell us which way he’s likely to run, so we can better stop him from doing it.”

“We don’t have—oh, fine,” Basra said with poor grace, throwing up her hands. “Do what you want. Ten minutes, no more, and for the gods’ sake keep quiet. Elves can hear like rabbits.”

“I will investigate the factory to the left, you take the right,” Andros said, nodding to Darling. “The women will wait here.” He strode off into the dimness without waiting for a reply.

“The women can make decisions, too,” Branwen said, frowning after him.

“Oh, leave him alone,” Basra snorted. “He thinks he’s being the alpha male. Let him, it’ll be funnier when he finds out how wrong he is.”

Darling didn’t bother to reply, already striding off toward the other building. He did, indeed, know this district, in the general way he knew all the city’s streets, but had never had occasion to familiarize himself with these factories in particular. In fact, his information network tended to encompass the highest and lowest elements of the city; factories were so uniform, so uninteresting, little enough went on there that mattered to him. They were useful for all manner of dealings when closed—as the Jackal had clearly found—but functionally interchangeable for that purpose. The people who ran them usually had interesting secrets, but those were better investigated in their homes and the places where they went to play.

There were no convenient fire escapes, external stairs or even drain pipes to shimmy up. That was annoying; he much preferred the vantage of rooftops for getting a good look around. These factories were so square and unadorned there was hardly anything to climb. The brick walls were too smooth to ascend without the proper enchanted tools, and anyway, he wouldn’t even care to try that with everything as rain-slick as it was tonight. While this wasn’t good for his view, it was tactically advantageous for this specific situation. Darling was no elf, but he knew how to monkey his way around an urban landscape. If he couldn’t find a way to ascend, the Jackal likely couldn’t, either.

The alley between the two factories wasn’t broad, but it was also clean. Darling slowed his pace as he entered; it was even darker in here, without the benefit of the city lamps, but enough dim glow filtered through for him to make out where to put his feet. Clearly, though, this had been deliberately cleaned, and likely that very day. There wasn’t so much as a broken bottle. He mentally filed this away to investigate later; keeping alleys spotless had certain advantages, but it was a resource-intensive task, and didn’t seem characteristic of the fat cats who owned these factories and paid their workers just enough of a living wage to keep them coming back every shift.

Just as clearly, the two buildings had been designed in tandem. They shared the same spartan architectural sensibilities, and the lack of any windows facing one another showed their designers had known there would be no natural light to be had from this angle. Still, he traveled the full length of the alley, giving due diligence to his task. There was one door in the side of the factory in which the Jackal was allegedly holed up, and two in the other, all three of them firmly locked.

Darling reached the end and poked his head out; a chest-high wall was all that separated him from the drop into the canal below. Both factories were built right against the edge, with no space on which to stand above the canal.

The factory on the right was a good story taller, so even if he made the roof, the Jackal couldn’t jump it. No climbing, no usable entrances… Their quarry wouldn’t be escaping in this direction. It was good to know, but Darling couldn’t shake the feeling he’d just wasted a chunk of time.

Turning to head back, he froze. Mary stood blocking his path, her form mostly in shadow.

“It seems,” she remarked, “I don’t strictly need to know which of your companions you find trustworthy. Perhaps we shall let them demonstrate for themselves, hm?”

“Is this really how you want to do this?” he asked mildly. “I enjoy gamesmanship as much as… Well, okay, a good deal more than the next man, but really, do we need to cultivate a hostile relationship?”

“If we had a hostile relationship, I would have removed you from consideration already.”

“Well, isn’t that reassuring.” He moved a step closer; she didn’t back away. “You know what I mean. You’re clearly interested in forming some kind of understanding. How about we agree to stop playing these games with each other?”

“You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.”

He hesitated. She already had him over a barrel, given what she knew about Flora and Fauna. It would be so easy for her to explode his entire world… It made him instinctively reluctant to give her more information. On the other hand, that one secret was so potentially devastating she hardly needed more knowledge to scuttle all his plans, so what did it matter? On the third hand, it was a measure of control, giving her intel that she could use against him for lesser effect than completely wrecking his cover, and her “help” this far had been openly manipulative, verging on coercive. On yet another hand, trust was earned, and someone had to make the first overture…

Mary chuckled softly, and he realized he’d ruminated a second too long. “That is our dilemma, is it not? So let us see how this night plays out, Darling, and go from there. I will not betray you, you don’t turn on me. If we can trust one another this far…we’ll see.”

“Should we really be talking here?” he said, tilting his head to tap one ear significantly. “You lot have really sharp hearing, I’m told.”

“Oh, you needn’t worry about the Jackal,” she said dismissively. “He knew you were coming long before you did.”

The crow fluttered back down the alleyway, completely invisible in the darkness. Once its wings were out of earshot there was no sign it had ever been there.

“Right,” he muttered. “That’s a great way to build trust.”

Andros was already there when he jogged back to the others. The crow was not.

“The left flank is extremely porous,” the Huntsman said by way of greeting. “Two unsecured exits from our target’s nest, one into the building beyond.”

“Then we know which way he’ll go if he runs,” Darling replied. “The opposite side is a proverbial duck’s butt. Everything’s locked up tight.”

“Too convenient,” Basra noted. “Sounds like he’s set things up that way. A trap?”

“That’s worth considering,” Darling said, nodding. “I just had a little visit from our taciturn guide; she said the Jackal knows we’re coming.”

“And how does he know?” Andros growled.

“Maybe you made too much noise?” Basra said sweetly.

“No, he’s got a good point,” said Darling. “I don’t get the feeling Mary’s betrayed us, but…that’s just a feeling. She is most definitely working some angle here. We’re gambling that it’s in line with our own.”

“Um,” Branwen said hesitantly, “when the stakes is us walking into a probable trap with a dangerous enemy waiting… Maybe we should consider, uh, not doing it? Is anything about this urgent enough that we have to do it tonight?”

“Just that the Jackal is likely to get away if we don’t move now,” said Basra, then scowled. “Assuming the Crow isn’t in league with him. It wouldn’t be in character; they both work alone, according to my intel. But who knows with elves? Even normal elves, and these two are all kinds of trouble.”

“The Crow has no reason to play such elaborate games,” Andros rumbled. “If she wished us harm, she would simply do us harm. Her power is beyond ours. Besides, she swore an oath, and such as she do not do so lightly. It makes more sense to conclude she is sincere in her desire to help.”

“Into the trap, then,” Darling said grimly.

“Just so,” Andros nodded, then lit up again. “Shields.”

Darling and Branwen weren’t practiced at using the light for that purpose, but they managed. Basra and Andros took the flanks; they approached the factory side by side. Even considering the hour and the weather, the streets were eerily quiet. Between Mary and the Jackal, it seemed likely someone had cleared this area of people. By what means, he didn’t care to contemplate.

They had to break their impromptu formation to enter; the double-wide doors weren’t expansive enough to accommodate four people walking abreast. They opened, though, as soon as Branwen tugged the handle.

“Um,” she said quietly, “is it…normal for factories to be left unlocked after hours?”

All three of them looked at her.

“Right,” she mumbled. “Just checking.”

The lobby inside was as modest, utilitarian and generally ugly as the building itself: scratched and pitted hardwood floor, brick walls, a large old wooden desk just across from the entrance, behind which towered rows upon rows of pigeonhole shelves, most stuffed with papers of one kind or another.

Darling stepped forward and tapped the bell sitting on the desk. Its high, thin sound resonated through the stillness. Nothing happened in response, though.

He turned and smiled at the others, shrugging. “Worth a try.”

“Idiot,” Andros muttered. Basra just shook her head and led the way toward one of the doors along the back wall on either side of the desk.

They had to pass through this in single file, but beyond, they found themselves on the main factory floor. The space was cavernous, intimidating in the darkness. Half-seen shapes loomed around them, marching into the distance; the golden light the four of them put off was the only illumination present, and it only lit up their immediate environs, which largely consisted of boxes stacked against the front wall. Some dim light filtered in through the many rows of windows, but it did nothing to brighten the space, serving only to outline the windows themselves in a sullen glow.

They stood, looking about them, just inside the door, the only sound their breathing…painfully aware that their enemy could detect them clearly. Darling wondered if the Jackal could even hear their heartbeats.

“What does this place even make?” Basra asked. Her voice was impressively even.

Darling stepped to one side, picking up one of the boxes. “Looks like… Toasters.”

“Toasters? What?”

“They toast bread. Heh, that’s actually pretty nifty. ‘No muss, no fuss, perfect toast every time.’ I kinda want one, now.”

“Who needs a whole device to make toast?” Andros growled. “Do people in this city not have fire?”

“Are they expensive?” Basra asked.

Darling turned the box this way and that, studying its labels. “Hm, suggested retail is two doubloons. Not bad! Think I’ll get one for my Butler if we don’t all die in here.”

“Well, that’s something, anyway,” she said, grinning. “We’re already about to learn the limits of the Archpope’s power to get us out of trouble. Breaking and entering, and I foresee a heaping helping of property damage in our near future.”

“We didn’t break,” Branwen said defensively. “It was open.”

“Bran, love, I’ve yet to meet a judge who was impressed with that line,” Darling said with a wink.

“You would know,” Andros rumbled.

“My, my, does Justinian know how absolutely precious the four of you are?” They stiffened, peering this way and that; the voice echoed unnaturally in the vast space, seeming to come from every direction. “Did he select you for your vaudeville skills? But no, he’d have you on pulpits if you were only good for dramatic effect, not skulking around in the dark. Pity.”

“Show yourself!” Andros barked, the light around him intensifying.

A cold chuckle echoed through the darkness. “Well. Since you asked.”

Light bloomed all about them. Above, a row of hanging fairy lamps burned to life, illuminating the first few yards of the factory floor. Then another beyond them lit, then the next, and so on, light expanding from the front of the room to the far distance in a silent march. Half-glimpsed shapes became even stranger in the illumination; Darling recognized conveyor belts, towering glass tubes filled with enchanting dusts and hoses connecting them to various structures, and simple golems positioned to turn the belts and provide motive force in other places, but that was about it. The stacks of metals and other raw materials were fairly obvious, but the rest of the equipment, great abstract sculptures of brass and rune-carved iron, glass and exposed wires, was a mystery to him. Apparently making toasters was complex business.

A row of metal walkways lined the factory’s edges, two stories up. Immense chimneys, connected to every large piece of equipment by pipes and wires, would lead to the antennae atop the factory. The conveyor belts ran in two long rows down each side of the building, lined by equipment and stations for workers, with a long open space between them. At the far end of this stood the Jackal.

Darling was keenly aware of the disparity between human and elven vision. From where they stood, the Jackal was just a slender figure with blonde hair and a dark suit, but he could doubtless tell the color of their eyes. As they squinted at him, their eyes still adjusting to the sudden brightness, he spread his arms wide. Again, his voice echoed unnaturally through the chamber.

“Step into my parlor.”

Adros began moving instantly, striding forward at a good clip, with Basra next. The other two followed a touch belatedly, making their ranks a little uneven until they caught up.

“You will answer for the murder of the priest Hernfeldt,” Andros boomed, glaring at their prey.

“Well, yes,” he replied calmly. Rapidly closing on him, they could see him smiling now. He didn’t look like much, just an elf in a nice suit; he wasn’t even carrying any visible weapons. “Spend enough time in the dirty business, and you eventually have to accept that at some point, everyone answers for all they’ve done. The question we are here to decide is this: will I answer to you, tonight? Or will the four of you just become one more thing for which I must answer later?” He rolled his shoulders and adopted a wider stance, still watching them come.

Darling’s skin was fairly crawling. This was wrong; it made no sense for the elf to let the four of them, invulnerable behind their divine shields, get this close. He slowed his pace, finding the others doing likewise. Branwen was visibly frightened; Basra and Andros were glancing about, in between keeping tabs on the Jackal, clearly looking for the trap they all knew had to be there.

Focused as they were, only Branwen jumped when the great arcane furnaces hummed to life. Around them, conveyors began moving as the golems began turning their cranks. Almost immediately, toaster components started piling up into impromptu junk piles and magical machinery sparked and hissed, all of it operating without any of the people who should be there to oversee the process. In seconds the pieces sitting on the conveyors had been swept into heaps at the far end of the lines, and thaumaturgical equipment was casting a variety of charms directly at the empty belts, mostly to no effect. Things at various points started to spark and smoke, however.

“Is this all you’ve got?” Basra sneered. “Planning to burn the place down around us?”

The crackle of arcane energy was all around them now, unfocused. Darling was no enchanter, but he couldn’t help thinking all this stuff was working faster than made sense; at the speed those belts were turning, it would be prohibitively hard for even a well-trained team to assemble anything moving along them, and the charm-dispensing equipment was starting to emit shrill sounds of protest. Yes; watching, he could clearly see them accelerating. Why overclock the works? To what end?

“That must be it, yes,” the Jackal said equably, smiling at them.

“Surrender,” Andros barked. “You have no avenue of escape. You will be destroyed if you are encircled and give us no reason to hold our fire.” He raised his wand menacingly.

Something flickered through Darling’s perception, a peculiar sensation to which he was quite unaccustomed; it was like a momentary flutter in the divine light coursing through him. Branwen lifted her head, glancing about at the same moment. She had felt it too.

Sudden realization crashed down on him, and he slammed to a stop.

Encircled. The Circles of Interaction.

Even as he realized he was surrounded on all sides by an increasingly unfocused haze of pure arcane magic, he felt the flutter again, stronger; the sensation of divine energy faltering as it was gradually neutralized.

“Back up!” he shouted. “Away from the equipment!”

It was, of course, entirely too late. They were halfway down the length of the whole factory, right between two long corridors of arcane-powered equipment, which was running at an exponentially faster rate as the sabotaged golems cranked them ever more furiously. Sparks and crackles of lightning flashed across the aisle behind them, now; static filled the chamber, lifting their hair and snapping at their clothes.

Andros and Basra both fired simultaneously. Bolts of lightning arced away to the sides, smashing into chunks of machinery. The wands wouldn’t even shoot straight in this. As Darling began frantically backpedaling, dragging a frozen Branwen with him, his shield failed entirely. Hers had already vanished; Andros’s was flickering, and Basra’s had visibly weakened until it was barely discernible in the increasing haze of arcane blue light around them.

Then, finally, the Jackal flew into action.

Darling had, of course, seen elves moving at speed; he was in the process of training two. It had never happened with his life on the line, though, nor with an almost painful concentration of static tugging at him from all sides and lightning beginning to arc between pieces of machinery and various metallic structures all around. The Jackal was a black-and-blonde blur, darting among them. Darling had his grip on Branwen ripped away, then she went tumbling head-over heels with a yelp a split second before something slammed into his solar plexus, driving the breath painfully from his body.

He slumped to his knees, doubled over. Then Andros stumbled backward over him, bearing both of them to the ground, and Darling was effectively blinded, not to mention stunned and dazzled.

Well. This really wasn’t how he’d expected to go out. He’d have preferred something less…ridiculous.

Gasping, trying to force the breath back into his body, he couldn’t spare enough concentration to even try to get a grip on his surroundings—which mostly consisted of Andros’s considerable weight, anyway. But when the Jackal began barking curses in elvish, he did finally realize that the fierce crackling of arcane energy around them was starting to diminish.

He forced himself to breathe as Andros staggered to his feet. Yes, the machinery was shutting down, the power dissipating much faster than it had gathered. He lifted his head, blinking tears from his vision, in time to see the Jackal, standing on a conveyor belt that was slowing to a crawl, his face clenched in a snarl, holding a knife aloft in the act of hurling it.

Darling still couldn’t manage even enough breath to cry out.

Then another black blur sped across his vision, intercepting the blade. The Jackal stared, frozen in momentary surprise, which cost him; yet a third slim figure slammed into him from behind, pitching him forward off the belt.

Darling pushed himself laboriously upright, turning in a painful circle to take stock.

Basra was slumped against a conveyor, in the process of dragging herself up right and looking murderously angry. Andros had his feet again and was now aiming a wand at their foe. Branwen was still down, huddled on the floor with her arms over her head and her rump in the air, which might have made for a pleasing sight in less tense circumstances. Hell, it was a pleasing sight anyway, but he hardly had time to enjoy it.

The fight was already over by the time he managed to focus on it again. The Jackal slumped on the floor, dazed, while Flora efficiently tied his arms behind him and Fauna held his confiscated knife at the ready.

“More elves?” Basra spat, finally straightening herself up. “This is getting downright stupid. Did somebody plant a grove in this city without telling me?” She looked frightful, her short hair sticking up in all directions. Andros was likewise a sight, his already-bushy beard puffed up from static like a scared cat’s tail. Darling discreetly swept his hands over his own coif, smoothing it back into shape.

“How very curious,” Andros rumbled, turning to glare at him, “to find your housemaids here, Antonio.”

“What?” Basra turned to squint at Fauna, who grinned at her. “How can you… Holy shit, they are.”

“Is it over?” Branwen asked tremulously, lifting her head.

Darling sighed and helped her to her feet. “Well. Everyone, you remember Flora and Fauna, my apprentices.” He divided a grim look between them. “With whom I will be speaking later about blowing their cover.”

“You’re welcome,” Flora said acerbically.

“There is no cause for condemnation,” Andros said firmly, turning his stare on Darling. “They performed well, and their eagerness to protect you, even against your orders, speaks to your virtues as a teacher.” He dragged a hand over his beard, pushing it into a semblance of formation, and turned back toward the three elves. “You, however, should remember that you owe your master obedience. What if he had planned an operation that could be botched by well-meaning intervention? You would have ruined everything.”

They gave him matching sardonic stares, and Darling rolled his eyes. Andros’s repeated attempts to position himself as the patriarch of this group were getting annoying. It wasn’t going to work, for the simple reason that nobody here would have taken orders from a self-appointed patriarch, but he’d have to find time and a method to deal with it nonetheless. Andros wasn’t the type to give up just because his project was equally pointless and foolish; when this failed to work, he’d start looking for control in some other manner.

“Thanks for the help, girls,” Darling said, releasing Branwen to step over to them—and keeping a wary eye on the Jackal, who was now tugging experimentally at his bonds. Flora appeared to have mummified his arms together behind his back with a considerable length of thin cord; Fauna cleared her throat and brandished the knife as he shifted his legs. “Orders aside, you really saved our bacon. How’d you know how to shut down the machines?”

“Everything’s pretty clearly labeled,” Fauna said cheerfully.

“You guys actually walked past the master controls on the way in.”

“At first we thought this was some counter-strategy…”

“But then we realized, no, you’d just blundered into the trap.”

“So, sorry it took so long, we weren’t sure you needed help.”

“Next time we won’t give you so much credit!”

“Oh, goddess, they talk in tandem,” Basra groaned.

“Precious, isn’t it?” said the Jackal dryly, then shook his head. “I always suspected it’d be somebody cute who did me in. You four made me nervous enough; the addition of these two bits was the last nail in the coffin, I suppose.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Basra stalked over to him and kicked him in the chest, bowling him over backward.

“Hey, hey, hey!” Fauna protested, glaring. “Easy, lady!”

“Keep it in your pants,” Flora added, tugging the gasping Jackal back upright. “Elves are delicate. How’s he gonna talk if you smash his lungs?”

“Simple enough,” Basra said, holding out a hand. A warm glow extended forward, suffusing the fallen elf. “We can do this all night and he’ll still be fit as a fiddle when we’re done. Be a love and hold him up, I need to work off some frustration.”

“That is enough,” Andros growled.

“Yeah, leave off, Bas,” Darling agreed, noting but not responding to the significant look Fauna gave him. “Go out and get laid afterward like everybody else, we don’t have time for this.”

The Jackal actually laughed. “Ah, you lot really are just a rabble, aren’t you? Can’t even stand each other. It kills me how you’re dumb enough to think you’ll be the ones Justinian decides to keep around. There’s always a bigger fish, kids. Trust me, the final predators will be the ones who can work together without bickering or waltzing into obvious traps.”

“Let me clarify,” Darling said pleasantly. “It’s late, I’m tired, we’re all cranky, and nobody has any patience for your horseshit. You’re here to answer questions, succinctly and accurately, not to make villainous soliloquies.”

“Oh, by all means,” said the Jackal, grinning up at him. “Consider me humbly at your disposal.”

“Marvelous. To begin with, we know you had no reason to kill an Izarite priest of your own volition. Spit out the name of the person who hired you, and I’ll think very seriously about keeping you away from Basra until you’re safely in prison.”

“I never get to have any fun,” she muttered sullenly.

The Jackal was staring up at Darling. He looked… Actually, he looked shocked. Almost immediately, however, a grin blossomed on his face, and then he actually burst out laughing. Flora stepped back, glancing up at Darling uncertainly, as the Jackal fell backward, rolling about and kicking his legs in manic glee.

“I begin to see why this guy didn’t settle down to grow trees with the rest of his clan,” Basra said dryly.

“Oh come on,” Fauna protested. “Do humans really think that’s what we do?”

“Yeah, I’m done with this,” said Darling. “I take it back. Bas, kindly kick him in the nuts.”

“Yay!”

“Wait, wait!” their prisoner gasped, laboriously forcing himself back upright. Basra, who had started moving in response to Darling’s request, paused with one leg upraised. “I’m sorry, it was just too perfect. You didn’t… You actually didn’t know!” He shook his head, still chortling, and grinned up at Darling. “Who hired me? You poor, stupid assholes, we’re on the same team. I was contracted by Archpope Justinian.”

There was a moment in which the only sound was the Jackal’s continued chuckling.

“You’re lying,” Branwen said finally. She didn’t manage to sound convinced.

“I guess I probably am, from where you’re sitting,” the Jackal said gleefully. “That’s the logical conclusion, right? I’m in your power, so the only thing left for me is to sow distrust in your ranks. Hah! Go right ahead and believe that. You’ll never really know the truth until the next time Justinian decides to eliminate a group of unreliable lackeys who know too much. That’s you guys, by the way.”

“Actually, the Archpope did not send them here. According to the itinerary he was given, they would not have gone anywhere near you.”

The Jackal’s mirth vanished instantly and he glared past them at Mary, who now sat atop a still-smoking heap of arcane machinery. “You. You did this?! What did I ever do to you?!”

“Not a thing,” she replied serenely. “You’re merely a means to an end. It’s worth considering that I might have moved to protect rather than use you, had you taken any of the several opportunities I’ve offered you to be of aid to your own people. Yet…here we are.”

He spat a string of words at her in elvish, cutting off only when Fauna slapped him across the back of the head.

“Watch your mouth,” she said sternly. He glared up at her, but fell silent.

“You knew,” Andros growled, turning to face Mary.

“Of course I did,” she said, calm as ever.

“You could have said something,” Darling complained. “Hell, there are a lot of things you could have just told us instead of setting up all this rigamarole.”

“Could I?” She tilted her head. “What reason would you have for believing me? Better that you discover the truth for yourselves. Now that you know it… Well, I imagine you have some decisions to make.”

“Oh, we most certainly do,” Basra said grimly. “You two! Chat and Chew, or whatever it is. Drag that asshole along. We are going back to the Cathedral to have a little conversation with the Archpope.”

“But…” Branwen actually swallowed when Basra turned a glare on her. “But we can’t see him. He’s in seclusion!”

“Can’t we?” Even Darling shied back from Basra’s expression. A grin stretched across her face, pulling her lips to their very limit and baring a lot of teeth. Her eyes, though… It wasn’t that the smile didn’t reach them, but that it reached too well. Her eyes were almost painfully wide, their pupils narrowed to pinpricks. “I think he’ll make time for us.”

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4 – 15

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“Here,” said Basra, trotting down the front Cathedral steps to rejoin them. She held a small handful of wands, mass-produced models with thick grips and shiny new clickers that suggested they’d never been used. To Darling she gave two; Branwen accepted one, looking somewhat bemused.

“The shrine of Avei in there has wands?” Darling said in surprise. “I thought you lot were all about blades and traditional enchantment and whatnot.”

“That’s what I’m carrying,” Basra said, patting the sword now buckled at her waist, “but with all due respect—however much is due—I’m not going to assume either of you can handle a real weapon. And no, the shrine doesn’t, but the Holy Legion’s armory is pretty well-equipped.”

“I’m not shooting anybody,” Branwen insisted, holding the wand as gingerly as she might a live snake. “Izarites offer harm to no one.”

“That’s fine,” Basra said condescendingly. “I’ve given you the thing, so when you die from not defending yourself nobody can say it’s my fault. All right, you!” She pointed at the crow currently perched atop a nearby lamp post. “Which way are we heading?”

Fortunately, at this hour, even the Cathedral’s main steps were deserted. Tiraas was a city that never stopped glowing, nor truly slept, but it was a city whose weather often didn’t encourage sightseeing and lollygagging after dark. This was one such night; fog that couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to be a gloomy drizzle had dampened everything, reducing the fairy lamps to fuzzy patches of disembodied glow and obscuring the architectural splendor of Imperial Square. There was probably nobody about but the local constabulary, and none happened to be close enough to see a Bishop of the Universal Church addressing a bird.

The crow ruffled is feathers, tilting its head to peer down at her inquisitively.

“Well?” Basra prompted after a moment, then scowled. “…is that her? That had better be her. If I’m trying to have a conversation with some random carrion-eating feather duster, I’m gonna stab somebody.”

“Well, we can’t have that,” said Mary, amused. As always, she didn’t visibly shift; she was just an elf now, and apparently always had been, standing on the toes of her moccasins atop the lamp post as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Those non-changing transitions were starting to give Darling a sense of vertigo. “At least, not before it’s time. For me to lead you directly through the city would garner more attention than I like, but I assume you can follow directions well enough. You should start with the attack site; the crime is still fresh, and undiscovered. The Jackal has made arrangements and is counting on it remaining so until morning. Get there now and you can begin disrupting his plans.”

“And where is there?” Andros demanded.

Mary grinned. “Go to the Temple of Izara. Ask for Hernfeldt, and when they try to stop you, insist.”

“Oh, no,” Branwen whispered, and took off at a near run. The others quickly fell into step behind her, Basra muttering irritably under her breath. Behind them came the flapping of wings as their guide disappeared into the night.

Branwen was in surprisingly good shape. Like most of the main temples, that of Izara wasn’t far from Imperial Square; the city planners, and/or whatever Izarites had lobbied them, had placed it prominently at another large intersection. Nonetheless, it was ordinarily a walk of fifteen minutes. They made it in five, with Branwen staying in the lead of the group and never growing so much as winded, despite her short stature and generally cushiony appearance. She didn’t visibly glow during the trip, but drawing on divine healing may have helped explain her sudden vigor.

“You know this Hernfeldt?” Darling asked as they went. He and Andros had long enough legs to keep up with her vigorous trot without breaking into a jog themselves. Basra was having a little more trouble, being forced to lope for a few steps every minute or so, and looked increasingly annoyed by it.

“Yes,” Branwen said, uncharacteristically terse.

“You don’t seem surprised to hear of this,” Andros rumbled.

She shook her head, neither slowing nor looking back at him. They passed a few people, now, some of whom recognized at least part of their group and bowed to them, but Branwen didn’t allow them to slow and engage in pleasantries. “No follower of Izara deserves…that.”

“All the so-called victims deserved what they got,” Basra said snidely from the rear of the group. “That’s what they all have in common.”

To this, Branwen made no reply.

The city’s layout being what it was, they actually approached the Temple of Izara from the rear and had to proceed along its whole length to round the building and reach the front entrance. Apparently there was no back way in, which struck Darling as odd… Or perhaps it was just on the other side, or maybe underground. Regardless, there wasn’t a visible break in the towering wrought iron fence that enclosed the temple grounds until they rounded the corner into the square ahead. The archway leading into the front garden was bracketed by two Silver Legionnaires on either side, who stiffened and saluted Basra as they passed within.

While the Cathedral and the main temples of Avei and Omnu favored towering spires and sloped roofs, the Temple of Izara had a softer look. Set well back from the street, surrounded by lush flower gardens well-illuminated with fairy lamps, the white marble structure might actually have looked rather squat and blocky if not for its several gilded domes, stained-glass windows heavily favoring pink, and the vines and climbing roses ascending many of its walls. Overall it had a gentle look, even in the darkness, which the four Bishops didn’t pause to appreciate.

Branwen took the steps up to the main entrance at a near run. At this hour, the large doors were shut, though of course they weren’t locked; the acolytes of Izara made themselves available at any and all times, which resulted in good-natured jokes about “love emergencies.” Two more Legionnaires guarded the entrance. They, too, were stiffly at attention in Basra’s presence, which deprived Darling of the chance to observe some interfaith tensions in action. He’d heard that guarding Izarite temples was considered a punishment duty among Avenists.

The main hall was a similarly soft place, lit by fairy lamps and some exterior light through towering pink windows. It was full of pillows, low couches, the sweet scent of incense and the sound of gently splashing fountains. A few people were about, sitting or strolling together, some talking in low voices.

“Bishop Snowe,” a tall, willowy blonde woman greeted them, gliding over from the shade of a huge potted fern. “Your Graces, this is a surprise. How can—”

“We need Hernfeldt,” Branwen cut her off.

The woman raised her eyebrows. “Brother Hernfeldt is in seclusion in his chambers this evening,” she said carefully, “communing with the goddess. He is not to be disturbed.”

“He’s been pretty well disturbed, if our source is correct,” Basra remarked.

“One’s meditations are not to be—”

“Now!” Branwen said sharply. “This is a matter of life and death, Zoe!”

The priestess leaned back in surprise. “I…if you say so, Bishop. I hope we are not disrupting him frivolously. Abdul, please take the door position?”

Leaving another priest to assume her post greeting visitors, Zoe led them to an arched doorway off to one side of the hall. Apparently she was, indeed, taking Branwen’s orders seriously; at least, she set as rapid a pace as she could without causing a disturbance in the great hall. There was probably not much running in a temple of the goddess of love.

“You two,” Basra said sharply to another pair of Legionnaires standing inside the front doors. “With us.”

They exchanged a glance. “Ma’am, we’re assigned to guard—”

“Did I ask for your opinion, soldier?”

“No, ma’am!”

Zoe led them through the halls of the temple, the four Bishops right behind her and the two Legionnaires bringing up the rear. They walked in tense silence, the priestess having quickly picked up the mood. Well, Izarites were famously empathetic, after all. The temple’s layout seemed somewhat obfuscatory, assuming Zoe was taking them on as direct a route as possible; they changed direction and seemed to have to backtrack as they climbed floors, no single staircase apparently continuing for more than one story. Annoying as it was, Darling could appreciate the tactical benefit; anybody not familiar with these corridors would quickly become lost. Of course, Izarites being as they were, they probably had different reasons, but he didn’t understand their worldview deeply enough to interpret their architectural choices.

Finally, though, Zoe brought them to a stop outside a thick oak door on an upper corridor. Branwen strode up to this and rapped sharply with her knuckles. “Brother Hernfeldt?”

“Waste of time,” Andros growled. “We were told it was already too late.”

“Too late?” Zoe looked back and forth between them. “What is going on?”

“It’s locked,” Branwen said, jiggling the knob uselessly. “Blast… He really was in seclusion.”

“Allow me.” Darling knelt beside the door, extracting lock picks from within his sleeve.

“Oh,” Zoe fretted, “I don’t think you should be doing that…”

Before he could start working, however, Basra bumped him heavily with her hip, nearly sending him sprawling; he barely managed to keep a grip on his tools with one hand, catching himself with the other. She took one step back and drove her foot against the door in a powerful snap kick, wrenching it open with a crunch of wood.

“That also works,” he acknowledged, getting up. Before anybody could say anything else, Zoe screamed.

There was a brief traffic jam as all four Bishops tried to crowd into the door to look. Branwen was ultimately bumped forward into the room itself, Darling and Basra filling the opening and Andros craning his neck to see over them.

Brother Hernfeldt’s room was not large, nor ostentatious, but in keeping with Izarite aesthetics, it was more comfortable than the chambers of priests of other faiths tended to keep theirs. A large bed predominated the space, along with a cushy-looking sofa lining one entire wall and a much more modest desk and low bookcase opposite. He had apparently liked quilts; they were draped over the bed, couch and desk chair. The large one on the bed was a predominantly white and pink pattern, which very well showed off the blood drenching it.

Hernfeldt himself was a dwarf, or had been. He lay with his feet toward the door, pinned to his bed with the poker from his small fireplace driven clean through his chest.

Darling frowned. This was, indeed, not the work of his girls; too sloppy, no touch added to signify a Wreath link. The Jackal, from what little he knew of the elf, could certainly have done it. But then, so could Mary. She was definitely playing some kind of game with him. How willing was she to sacrifice pawns to achieve her ends? What were her ends?

“The killings,” Zoe whispered, one hand over her mouth. “Oh…oh, no, Hernfeldt. I told him to leave the city…”

“What’s that?” Basra turned to her, arching an eyebrow. “You do know the killer’s been targeting the corrupt, then? What was this fellow about that drew his attention?”

“He…he had…” She swallowed. “…urges. He controlled himself, though! He would never have acted on… That is, the worship of our lady helps us to channel our desires, to emphasize what’s healthy over… Hernfeldt is—” Zoe choked on a sob, but continued. “He was a good man, he’d never have actually done…anything.”

“Uh huh,” Basra said dryly. “What was it, eh? Goats? Corpses? Little boys?”

“Enough, Bas,” Darling said firmly, pushing into the room and swiftly casing it. The Jackal—or whoever had done this—was good. The locked door meant he hadn’t gone in and out that way. There was one window, narrow, but big enough for a person to slip through. He crossed swiftly to this, studying it. Closed, but not latched. It wouldn’t latch from the outside.

“Pretty girls pissing on decoupage—”

“Basra!” he shouted, turning to glare at her. “Needle the Izarites on your own time.”

“Fine, fine,” she said, following him into the room. “Our perp is gone, I take it?”

“This was his exit.” Darling knelt, touching the thick carpet under the window. “Damp here… The rug’s color makes it hard to see, but these are footprints, not just splashing from a loose window. This is how he came and went. Look, there’s a roof right outside here… It’s almost too easy.”

“You two,” she said more curtly, turning back to the Legionnaires standing just outside the room. “This needs to be reported immediately. Notify your captain and have word sent to the city watch and the Church.”

The two soldiers exchanged another glance.

“And the High Commander, ma’am?” one prompted.

“Yes, yes,” Basra said impatiently, waving them off. “Go.”

They saluted in unison, then whirled and dashed back down the hall. Branwen had slipped out of the room and was now trying to comfort Zoe, who appeared nearly catatonic.

Darling pushed open the window and lifted one foot to rest on the frame. “I’m going to have a look, here, see if I can determine the route he used.”

“Foolish,” Andros rumbled, “to follow a badger into his den.”

“He’s in Tiraas,” Darling said grimly. “This isn’t his den. It’s mine.” He slipped nimbly through, splashing down on the stone outside.

Hernfeldt’s view had been somewhat obstructed by a sizable dome that terminated right outside his window, but it did make for a convenient escape route. Being a round roof on a square building, the dome left a lip of flat stone all around this section of the temple, widest at the corners and guarded by a low, crenelated wall. Just below this was another half-dome over a lower wing of the temple, providing an easy slide down—or, for someone as nimble as an elf, a path up. Right now, everything was slick with the spurting drizzle, but Darling didn’t doubt the Jackal could have made the climb.

Of course, climbing was a complete non-issue for the Crow…

He wasn’t terribly surprised when Andros and then Basra joined him outside.

“There,” he said, pointing over the edge. “Down that roof, and from there he could jump to that pillar in the fence. Flat-topped…not very good for keeping people out.”

“The Izarites don’t want to keep anybody out,” Basra said disgustedly. “Unfortunately for what’s-his-name.”

“Or he could have climbed the vines,” Andros said. “The pillar is too far to jump.”

“To far for us,” Darling corrected. “An elf could make that.”

“Elves are fast, but they are not strong,” the Huntsman growled. “Jumping a long distance requires muscular legs.”

“Look, I don’t presume to know how they do it, but believe me, I’ve seen firsthand what elves can and cannot jump. Trust me, one could get across that. I’m gonna take a closer look.”

“You’re gonna catch your death of three-story drop, is what,” Basra said. “Look, it’s not like you can—and there he goes.”

Darling vaulted over the edge, sliding neatly down the half-dome below to land on the lower rim of stone without losing his footing. Behind him, Andros slid down a little more carefully and less gracefully, but also without falling.

“Yeah, you two take the more dangerous route,” Basra called from above. “It’d be just awful if everybody failed to see how big your dicks are. I’ll meet you at the bottom.”

“Funny thing is,” Darling mused aloud, peering across at the thick pillar, “this is probably the one temple in the city where this isn’t the first time somebody’s said that.” Inwardly, he filed that away against Fauna’s theory about Basra. The heartless, as elves called them, were usually the most reckless members of whatever group they were in, and never the least. That was what got most of them caught.

“You are more adept on your feet than I expected,” Andros remarked.

“I’m not just a pretty face, Andros.”

“Hn.”

“You were right,” he said, peering over, “there’s a thick vine cover here. Hm… Also no lights nearby. This would be a perfect place to climb up.”

“It makes no difference,” Andros growled. “Tracking in the rain is hard. Tracking in the city is hard. Tracking elves under any circumstances is prohibitively hard. Together they add up to an impossibility. We are dependent upon that woman to tell us which way he went. Assuming she actually knows.”

“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it,” Darling mused, “what kind of game she’s playing. Seems to me that bringing us here to see all this first is just…”

“Wasting time.”

“Yup.” They exchanged a grim look. “Bas didn’t give you a wand. I assume you’ve got your own?”

“Always.”

“Good.” He slipped nimbly over the side and began to descend; the vines did, indeed, provide an excellent grip. Getting up this way would have been easy enough for him, probably as simple as a stroll through the meadow for an elf. “Don’t trust the Crow any farther than you absolutely must.”

“Obviously,” Andros said disdainfully, following him over. Though he was much bigger, his weight didn’t prove too much for the vines, and he was deft enough in his descent. Once he was relatively certain the Huntsman wasn’t going to fall on him, Darling didn’t give him any more attention for the rest of the way down.

Not trusting the Crow was, indeed, obvious, but he wasn’t just making conversation. Mary had all the knowledge she needed to turn the other Bishops against him with a few well-chosen words. He could choose words, too, and it was never too early to start cutting into her credibility.


 

She ruffled her feathers, scattering raindrops, watching the two men descend from a convenient roof across the street. They’d regroup outside, once they’d finished setting the Church, the Imperials and the Avenists on the Jackal’s trail. By the time she re-convened with the four Bishops to give them their next breadcrumbs, the forces set in motion would be great enough to make this his last visit to Tiraas even if these humans failed to deal with him themselves. It would be ideal if they managed, but if push came to shove, she could arrange for him to confess his involvements to whoever brought him down. It would be trickier to pull off, and carried less certainty that the information would lead to the result she wanted, but it would be something.

Could the Bishops deal with him? The Sister and the Huntsman were potent threats, and Darling was not to be underestimated. Even the Izarite had tactical use against a stealthy foe; it was very hard to sneak up on an empath. Still, she might need to give them a few nudges. Subtly, of course. It was important they think they’d done it without her help.

Mary felt the howling presence of dozens of maddened spirits even before she saw the two materialize on either side of her. Impressive. Invisibility was a parlor trick to eldei alai’shi, but few of them had mastered the subtleties of their expensive gifts well enough to hide from her.

“You should understand something, if you’re going to be leading Sweet around on adventures in the city,” Flora said in a pleasant tone.

“You have tacitly taken responsibility for his well-being,” said Fauna, her smile doing nothing to offset the tension in her frame.

“You know something of our…kind, I take it?”

“Of course, someone like you has dealt with headhunters before.”

“Every one I could find,” Mary replied calmly, in her elven form again.

Flora’s smile widened enough to show just the tips of her teeth. “Ever killed one?”

“I never tried.” She shook her head. “Pointless. You were dead the moment you walked into Athan’Khar. All that remains at question is how much time passes before you lie down and accept it… And how many you bring down with you.”

Fauna cocked her head to one side. “Interesting. What would you seek them out for, if not to kill them?”

“Because they were elves,” she said simply, “because they suffered, and because no one should have to be alone.”

The two exchanged a loaded glance that made her wonder about the nature of their relationship.

“So,” Flora drawled. “Think you could kill one?”

“Let alone two?”

“Aren’t you two supposed to be at home, asleep?”

“We’re supposed to do a lot of things.”

“Our teachers are very disappointed with us.”

“When they catch us.”

“Which has nothing to do with this. You were asked a question.”

“I really don’t have time for this tonight, girls,” she said mildly. “Kindly make your threats and be done before I have to resume guiding the humans. They’re clever, but I hate to leave them blundering around unsupervised with the Jackal in town.”

“Very well, if you’re in such a hurry,” said Flora, still with that icy smile. “You’re an impressive piece of work, but so are we.”

“Whatever you do, we can track you down.”

“And if it comes down to it, you are not a match for the both of us.”

“So whatever it is you’re planning for our Sweet, I suggest you be extremely cautious of his well-being.”

“We will hold you responsible for what happens to him.”

“If he comes back with so much as a stubbed toe or a bump on the head…”

“Whatever happens to him, will happen to you.”

“Twice.”

Mary kicked her legs idly over the edge of the roof. “Two of you…apparently a matched set. That’s only the beginning of what’s new and fascinating about you. Already you’ve made it longer than most, and you are more stable, more sane and well-adjusted, than any headhunter I’ve encountered. And…a great deal of the credit for that, it appears, goes to Antonio Darling.”

“Precisely,” said Flora, nodding. “Hence our attachment to him.”

“I’ve seen men try to control eldei alai’shi before,” Mary went on, still calm as though she weren’t bracketed by maddened avatars of death. “It ends quickly, and exactly as they deserve. With him, though… It’s not about control, is it? There is care there. He is not only invested deeply in your welfare, he has actually managed to secure it. Something that no one, even no elf, has ever thought to try. No… I don’t want Darling harmed. I’m not certain what to make of him, just yet, but I strongly suspect I’ll want to wait and see how he develops.”

“The curiosity of a scientist examining a specimen,” Fauna said coldly. “That’s not what we’re looking for. Do we need to repeat our warning?”

They tensed as she flowed swiftly to her feet, but Mary made no aggressive move. Instead, she placed one hand over her heart, bowing to each of them in turn. “An’shala nau selenai. Valthiis nau selenai.”

Both of them reared back from her in surprise, going wide-eyed.

“Does that satisfy you?” Mary asked dryly.

“I think,” Flora said slowly, “that will do.”

“Very good, I’m glad we could settle this. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must continue to oversee my humans, otherwise they’ll probably fall in a hole or something. They’re such children.”

She took off in a flutter of dark wings before they had a chance to respond, leaving the two headhunters to stare after her in bemusement.

“Could she really be serious?” Fauna asked. “Would she go back on her word?”

“No. Not that one. She’s as tauhanwe as they come, but firmly, proudly elf. A vow like that… She won’t break it.”

“Then… I guess he’ll be safe, after all, with her watching over him.”

“Oh, well then, we can just go home and sleep safe and sound in our comfy beds.”

“There’s no need to be snide,” Fauna said reproachfully. Grinning, Flora gave her a quick one-armed hug.

No one could have seen, in the dark and the mist, the two shapes that soared silently across the street, leaping farther than even elves could have.

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