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As afternoon faded into early evening, the overall light in Tiraas did not diminish, even in this relatively dingy district, though it changed in character with the transition from gloomy, cloud-obscured sunlight to the sharp golden glow of the fairy lamps lining the streets. Given the typical weather in the region, nightfall often had the ironic effect of enlivening the colors of everything the light touched. At any rate, the approach of dusk did little to diminish the activity in the street. This particular district was a fairly quiet one most of the time, not rich by any means, but with several temples and regular patrols by the military police; it was a safe enough place to stand outside, observing passersby.
That was fortunate for the man currently calling himself Danny, as he lounged against a corner, simply watching the people as they went about their business. City folk were not terribly ebullient with strangers as a rule, but he received and returned a few polite greetings, nonetheless. One pair of patrolling soldiers slowed slightly as they passed him, but a smile and cordial greeting, coupled with his calm demeanor, apparently assuaged their concerns. People did much stranger things than stand around doing nothing in the city, and those up to no good either avoided troops or were with the Thieves’ Guild, which in either case was encouragement not to bother him.
When not greeting someone, though, he tended to let his expression lapse into a near-frown, more pensive than unhappy. He was normally quite adept at concealing his thoughts; here, he was nobody worth looking at twice, and being able to let his guard down just a little was a luxury.
Three young men approached, immediately standing out. They were moving faster than the average passerby, they had come out of an alley across the street rather than down the main avenue, and they went right toward him with obvious intent. All three drew up on the sidewalk next to him, looking nervous and generally shifty, and he suppressed a sigh. This would draw far more attention than anything he’d been doing.
“Your, uh,” the red-haired one stammered, “I mean mister—I mean, um…”
“My friends call me Danny,” he said mildly. “For the time being, that is. Are we friends?”
“We would never presume,” said the only one with an obviously military bearing, his tone as stiff as his spine. “It would be entirely inappropriate—”
“Yes, we most certainly are friends of yours,” interrupted the third, the only ethnic Tiraan in the group and with an impressive enough habitual slouch to make up for his companion’s posture. “Have been for a good long time. Look, uh, Danny, you don’t know us, so I get that you’ve got no reason to trust us here, but—”
“If I am not mistaken,” he said with a smile, “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, yes?”
They all gaped at him.
“You know us?” Finchley croaked at last. “I mean—you—but that’s—”
“You lads have had a rather interesting couple of years, so I understand,” Danny said lightly. “You might be surprised how many people are aware of you. Just as I am surprised to find you, of all places, here. I’m sure this is quite a story.”
“We’re here to escort you to safety, y-your…” Moriarty swallowed hard. “…Danny.”
“It is quite a story, but he’s right,” Rook added. “This probably isn’t the best time. We’re working with Ms. Darnassy, whom I trust you also know?”
At that, Danny straightened up. “That’s…very interesting. Last I heard, she was fully occupied with matters that didn’t include my immediate safety. How you three factor into it is quite the puzzle.”
“The short version is, by accident,” Finchley said hurriedly, glancing around in a way that would be sure to draw the attention of any patrolling soldiers, had any been nearby. “The, uh…the…men…who are a little…”
“I have some friends who are presently under the weather, yes,” Danny said mildly. “Milanda was working on that. Please, continue.”
“Uh, right. Well, one was at the college where we were…um, attending, and he caused…some trouble.”
“Yadda yadda, some stuff happened,” Rook continued airily, “our mutual friend Quentin found us and pointed us at the lovely and talented Ms. Darnassy, and when he heard you lost the couch you were crashing on, we got tapped to lead you to a new one. So, speaking of that, shall we? This is all very, y’know…terrifyingly exposed.”
“Hmm.” Danny considered them thoughtfully for a long moment, not minding their obvious signs of anxiety. A trap? That, he decided, was very unlikely. They knew who he was, and the core of all their recent problems was that they had more personal loyalty to him than sense or talent; that made them the worst possible choice of agents to mean him harm. Plus, this would be just like Vex. The spymaster had not been happy in the least with his plan, and this way he could put a token watch around him and be able to argue later that as incompetent as these three were, they didn’t count as real guards. In fact, it was sort of perfect. “Very well, I appreciate you going out of your way, gentlemen.”
“It is no trouble, sir,” Finchley said fervently. “So, uh, this way, if you please.”
“Now, now, wait up,” Danny said smoothly as they all three took a step up the street. He paused to straighten the lapels of his suit. “It’s such a fine evening, isn’t it? There’s no hurry. I so rarely get to stroll the streets; no need to set such a pace.”
He actually passed them, at a leisurely amble, while they gaped at him as if wondering if he were insane and not daring to say so. He recognized that specific expression; it was directed at him with fair frequency.
“Um,” Rook said finally, “with all due respect…there kind of is a hurry. Because you’re…pretty vulnerable here, y’know, and if something happens to you, it’s not just you who’s gonna suffer for it. Danny.”
“Relax,” Danny said, turning to grin at him. “I know what I’m doing. Coming?”
There was another pause while they hastened to catch up and fell into an obvious formation behind him, looking nervous. He repressed another sigh; attracting certain kinds of attention was, after all, part of the plan, but this was going to get random soldiers or Silver Legionnaires involved. Did the Legions even patrol this district?
“As I understand it,” Finchley said, clearly choosing his words with extreme care, “the plan involves…our friends who are unwell. Yes? Maybe they aren’t the most reliable of…friends…right now? Kind of by definition?”
“I’m not expecting much from them except trouble, truth be told,” Danny agreed. “If they end up showing up tonight, the trick will be making sure it’s trouble for the right people, but I’m reasonably confident I can arrange that. No, gentlemen, I’m counting on other parties to become involved in this.”
Even with all three of them behind and thus out of his line of sight, he could practically hear them exchanging dubious looks.
“Who?” Moriarty finally asked.
“Let me pose you a hypothetical question,” said Danny. “Suppose you were trying to outmaneuver someone who is adept at manipulating events from a safe distance, someone who works with exacting precision and never takes a risk unless he’s certain he has control over the whole environment. Suppose that a major part of your long-term plan in this regard involves gaining the allegiance of his opposites: individuals who thrive on adapting on the fly to chaotic situations, and who have been stubbornly refusing to take a side. In that situation, what would you do?”
“I suppose,” Rook said slowly, but without pausing, “in that purely hypothetical scenario, I would create some goddamn chaos.”
“Watch your language!” Moriarty barked.
“It’s fine,” Danny said with a grin. “And quite so, Mr. Rook. That is, indeed, the plan.”
“Which means,” Rook continued sourly, “you’re gambling that you can control the chaos when it breaks out.”
“Unlike the antagonist I referred to, I don’t bother to wait until everything is certain before acting. Adaptation is crucial. That doesn’t mean I don’t hedge my bets, however. It’s a critical mistake to gamble without an ace or three up one’s sleeve, gentlemen.”
“Oh, gods,” Finchley muttered. “Please tell me he doesn’t mean us.”
“Now, who the hell is that?” Sweet muttered, leaning over the rooftop’s edge to frown at the four men proceeding up the street below. “Those three resemble some individuals I know by description, but there’s no possible way it’s them.”
“Actually, we know them,” said Flora.
“Yeah,” Fauna agreed, “they were with Professor Tellwyrn and her students in Lor’naris last year.”
“They wore Army uniforms then, but she treated ’em like bellboys.”
“Which, to be fair, could just be Tellwyrn being Tellwyrn.”
“If I were a lesser man,” he complained, “I would need to sit down. What the fuck is going on here? With everything I learn, this makes less and less sense. C’mon.”
He stepped back from the ledge and strode up the fortunately gently angled slate roof beside them, swiftly cresting it and proceeding with more care down the other side. At the base of that, they had to vault across a narrow alley to the flat roof opposite in order to keep pace with their quarry.
“According to what they said to him,” Flora reported, “Vex and Darnassy sent them here.”
“Darnassy,” Sweet muttered. “That one keeps popping up lately—and suddenly. She’s been an Imperial mistress for a few years now and never made a peep about wanting to do more than warm Sharidan’s bed until this week. I don’t like unknown quantities butting into my already messy job…”
“Is this a job, though?” Fauna asked. “Do we really need to keep doing this? Maybe the best thing is to back off and let the Imps deal with their own crap.”
“You have a point,” he said, “and yet, you aren’t right. Think back: you said you overheard about the Hands being able to teleport by lurking above an open window, yes?” He paused to look at them, waiting to get nods of acknowledgment before proceeding. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that seasoned Intelligence operatives on a mission of no less importance than keeping watch over the Emperor himself would chatter about sensitive mission details right next to an open window? They do know we like to use the rooftops. Did you take any special steps to make sure you weren’t seen?”
“No,” Flora said, frowning in thought. “You’re saying they leaked it to us on purpose?”
“But why?” Fauna asked. “That would just set the Guild against Intelligence. Which it did.”
“Not exactly,” he said. “Everything that happened after that might as well have been scripted. Based on the roles we play, I pretty much had to go down to Vex’s house and make a show of being able to kick his ass—a ranking Guild priest who’s been given the runaround by Intelligence has little other option. He knows this. Not only did he play along, with an aggression I’ve never seen from him before, he actually threatened me to the point I had to hurt one of his people to avoid breaking character.”
“You’re saying he forced you to act that way?”
“You know better than that, Flora,” he reproached. “Force is the least effective of all kinds of coercion, and Vex knows that as well as any Eserite loremaster. No, he told…a story. Laid out a neat narrative that I had to follow unless I wanted to break character, and doubled down on it to make sure I followed along. I had the option not to comply, but would pay for it by signaling that my allegiance is elsewhere than with the Guild—which is not true, and considering where else I’ve got strings tied, would have created complications for me and the Guild’s business. It was neatly done, actually. The point is, it’s unusual for him to be even that pushy. The only reason he would even try to back me into a corner like that is if something big were on the table, either something he hoped to gain for the Empire, or an unexpected threat he had to move against.”
“Like the Hands?”
“That’s the thing,” Sweet mused. “Any other time, I’d think he was just trying to make me take a side and declare allegiance. But he’s never shown interest in pressing that issue before, and this is the worst possible time. The whole government should be in damage control mode as long as the Hands are off-kilter, and with Danny running around down there, the stakes are far too high for Vex to be playing games like that with me, of all people. None of this makes any goddamn sense, and that means we don’t know what’s really going on. And that means we need to learn, fast, given how involved we already are.”
“That kinda goes back to the original question,” Flora pointed out. “Couldn’t we…disengage?”
“Isolation is death,” he said severely. “There is no safety; a fortress is a trap. We’re already engaged, and whatever’s happening has already proved it’s going to seek us out. This strategy is already as conservative and hands-off as I’m willing to go; we urgently have to figure out what the hell is going on here.”
All three paused at the hoarse cawing of a crow, turning to look in the direction of the noise. Darling nodded at Fauna, who nodded back, and then produced a few notes of a starling’s call. Flora paced along the edge of the roof, keeping an eye on the torturously slow progress of their targets, while the other two waited tensely.
They didn’t have to wait long. A woman in a long coat hoisted herself over the opposite edge of the roof and strode toward them, scowling.
“That bad, huh?” Sweet asked.
“Dunno from bad, but it’s weird,” she said. “You were right, Sweet, they’ve all started moving. I’m late to report in because we’ve had to wait to make sure of what we were seeing. You sure that guy down there is important to the Imps? You made it sound like they’d wanna protect him.”
“Spit it out, Duster,” he said tersely.
“They’re bugging out,” she replied. “All across the neighborhood. And not in one direction; they’re fanning out like they’re fleeing a fire. Intelligence is abandoning the whole district.”
Slowly, his expression crumpled into a thunderous scowl. “What the hell?”
“You tell me,” she said, folding her arms.
“You’re sure of—no, never mind, you already said so. Hn… Seen any signs of…special agents?”
“Seen, no,” the enforcer said with a shrug. “Sure, Intelligence has assets we wouldn’t be able to spot, but by definition, how the hell would I know if they’re hovering around?”
“You’re right, of course,” he agreed, clapping her on the shoulder. “Sorry, Duster, I wasn’t snapping at you. This whole thing is just balls-out crazy. Good work; have everybody pull carefully to this area. Not clustered all together, but I want us to be able to react in concert to anything that goes down in this vicinity.”
“You got it,” she said, nodding, then turned and dashed away. Reaching the edge of the roof, she vaulted over, causing a metallic thump as she hit the fire escape below.
“Vex,” Darling whispered, turning to stare down at the Emperor of Tiraas, walking the streets accompanied only by three of the worst soldiers in the Empire, “have you lost your mind?”
Gabriel was still shrugging into his coat as he entered the town hall, but just inside the door he stopped, staring at the standoff which had developed. “Uh…what’s this, now?”
“Ah, welcome back,” said Toby. “You heard about the demons?”
“Vestrel warned me before one of Vengnat’s friends got there, yeah. What’s this doing here?” he demanded, pointing at the gray-robed Black Wreath warlock.
“That is the subject of some discussion, Mr. Arquin,” Matriarch Ashaele said.
“They’ve offered to help,” Teal added. “Nobody’s happy about this, but we may not be able to afford to turn them down.”
“They? Them?” Gabe exclaimed. “There’s more?”
“Any time you see one Wreath, you can assume there are more,” Toby said grimly. “This didn’t get really awkward until she spilled the beans about him.”
“Let me just point out, again,” said Inspector Fedora with a long-suffering sigh, “that I am the only person here with legitimate government credentials.”
“Hey,” the Sheriff protested.
“And he’s hardly the first child of Vanislaas to get those,” the warlock said cheerfully. “This is supposed to be a secret, but one of his ilk was governor of Mathenon for over a month a few decades back. It’s never a smart idea to let them weasel into positions of power.”
“Very much the same can be said about you,” Toby snapped. “Fedora, what are you even doing here? I thought you were up on the campus.”
“I have made careful arrangements to know when and where demons are being summoned in the whole region around Last Rock, for obvious reasons,” the Inspector replied. “That’s here, and so here I am.”
“Speakin’ of which, I’ve got demons in and around my town, apparently,” Mayor Cleese said tersely. “I don’t think we’ve got time for this, people. I recognize this is literally makin’ deals with devils, but if it keeps Last Rock from bein’ overrun with hellspawn, I’m prepared to take whatever help presents itself.”
“I’ll leave this to wiser heads than mine to settle,” Sanders added. “But for the record, if the order that comes down is ‘shoot ’em both,’ I ain’t gonna complain.”
“I am not excessively worried about lesser warlocks such as the Elilinists,” Ashaele said smoothly. “She is correct about the incubus, however.”
“Now, I realize you don’t much care for me, friendly neighborhood paladins,” Fedora said with a grin, “but you both know my credentials are legitimate, and my superiors know who and what I am. Turning on a duly appointed agent of Imperial Intelligence will create trouble none of you want.”
“And now he’s threatening us,” Teal said, scowling.
“Hey!” Gabriel shouted, earning surprised silence. “The only person here making a lick of sense is the Mayor. We do not have time for this! Am I correct about those robes? Are there two priestesses of Themynra in this room?”
“You are indeed,” one of the drow women he indicated replied with a thin smile.
“Fine,” he said firmly. “I’m not much of a theologian, but some of us here should remember what we’ve learned from Shaeine. If the ladies will oblige us, a simple blessing by the goddess of, among other things, judgment, will reveal who is and is not trying to screw us over.”
“It is not quite so simple,” the other Themynrite cleric said. “A simple blessing will not reveal agendas or plots. However, it will burn any who are aligned with evil against Themynra’s objectives, which appears to be the fundamental question here. I’m sure the goddess will not consider this a frivolous use of her power.”
“Well spotted, Gabriel,” Ashaele said, smiling.
“Themynra, huh,” Fedora mused. “You know, I’ve never actually had a divine blessing on me that wasn’t used as an attack. By all means, go for it. This oughtta be interesting.”
“Whatever,” the warlock said irritably. “If that’s what it will take to get some action taken here, I’ve no objection.”
“And aren’t they gracious,” Sanders muttered.
Toby gently nudged Gabriel out of the doorway and toward one corner of the town hall, where Juniper was hovering with her sister Ash. “Nicely done,” he murmured. “Though for the record, you just insulted a room full of important people, including the Matriarch.”
“I—wait, what? No, I didn’t!”
“You kinda did, though,” Juniper observed. “I mean, if the mayor’s the only one making sense, it implies…”
“Aw, fuck,” he muttered. “I mean, that is. Um. I’m sure Shaeine has mentioned to her mother that I tend to have my foot in my mouth. And any of the drow who were at the picnic can attest I’m a big fan of the lady.”
At the other side of the noisy room, Ashaele shifted her head slightly to look at him and very deliberately smiled, before returning her attention to the front, where Fedora and the warlock were being limned with silver light by the two priestesses. In keeping with their previous attitudes, the incubus seemed fascinated by the whole procedure, while the warlock had her arms folded and extended one leg so her foot peeked out from beneath the hem of their robes, just to make sure everyone could see her tapping it. Neither appeared to be burning.
“Smooth, kid,” Ash said with a grin.
He sighed. “Thanks, I try. Has anybody else turned up? Ruda and Fross would be handy to have around about now, or any of the remaining freshman girls…”
“No sign of our classmates,” said Toby. “I haven’t heard anything about Szith, but actually Maureen and Iris were in town. From what I’ve been told, they were the first to spot a demon, and got a warning to the drow. Then apparently they retreated into the prairie to avoid sparking off a fight, and that’s the last we heard—”
“What?!” Fedora’s insouciant demeanor instantly collapsed, and he lunged across the room toward them, prompting Sanders and three of Ashaele’s bodyguards to level weapons, all of which he ignored. “You idiots! What are you standing around here for?!”
“Um, excuse me,” Juniper said, frowning, “but I think we were just discussing—”
“You know the Sleeper likes to create distractions to herd people off and strike them alone! You’ve got two classmates who’ve isolated themselves out there away from help, and that wasn’t your first priority?”
There was a second of shocked silence.
“I hate to acknowledge it, but the hellspawn is right,” Ariel observed. “You’re idiots.”
“Come on!” Gabriel barked, spinning and bolting for the door.
“You cannot just run out there without a plan,” Ashaele said firmly, coming after him with a swiftness which did nothing to diminish the smoothness of her glide.
“I don’t intend to, ma’am,” he said. The Matriarch actually pushed ahead of Toby and Juniper, following him outside. Gabriel bounded down from the town hall’s steps, put two fingers to his lips, and whistled.
Several nearby townsfolk yelped and dashed away at the explosion of smoke and shadow which erupted from the ground in the middle of the street. Whisper lunged out, prancing to a stop near Gabriel and pawing one of her invisible hooves at the ground in eagerness.
“It’s not a complex plan,” Gabriel continued, placing a hand on his steed’s neck, “but it’ll work. I need to go after them. I have the fastest mount, my valkyries can conduct a search pattern at very high speed, which’ll be the most reliable way of finding the girls, and I’m hardly defenseless. Nobody else has the same combination of advantages.”
“I see your point,” Ashaele acknowledged, though not without a faint frown.
“I can still help,” Teal disagreed, stepping out of the town hall. “Vadrieny is faster than Whisper, and there’s not a thing the Sleeper can do to us. Let’s be realistic, Gabe, we don’t know if you being a half-demon has any effect on that curse. What if you get sleeped out there on the prairie? We’d never find you.”
“Keep in mind I’m the Hand of a god,” he said with a grim little smile, nodding at Toby. “Trissiny clued us in about this, remember? You do something magical enough to a Hand, particularly if it’s demonic in nature, and you’re begging for their patron’s direct attention. We can only hope the Sleeper’s dumb enough to want a face-to-face chat with Vidius. I kinda doubt he is.”
“Gabriel is correct,” said Ashaele, placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “He is the best suited for this. And while you are also correct, daughter, there are other factors to consider. The town is still in immediate danger, and Vadrieny is one of our most potent combat assets. There are more people than your friends who will need protection; he can help two, but it will take every pair of hands we have to look after the whole town.”
“I’ll be quick as I can,” Gabe said with a roguish grin, then took a step back from Whisper, got a brief running start, and vaulted onto her back.
He landed awkwardly and she whinnied in protest, prancing and pivoting about to give him a reproachful look. Gabe yelped, snatching ineffectually at her mane as he tumbled off the other side.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Ariel, “he remembered to mount from the left. Believe it or not, this represents marked progress in the Hand of Vidius’s horsemanship.”
Standing in the door of the town hall, Fedora folded his arms and heaved a sigh. “Ohh, yeah. We’re all boned.”