Tag Archives: Basra Syrinx

15 – 66

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Trissiny reached by reflex for her sword, finding nothing. Of course; there was no telling where she’d dropped it. It might be half a block away. She tried to scramble to her feet and reach for her divine power, which combined had the effect of driving her right back to the floor. The first action set off waves of pain from the collection of bruises and minor fractures she’d just acquired, and the second caused a stab of agony in her temples.

It wasn’t like when she’d been shot with the divine disruptor in Veilgrad; the magic was there, she could feel it and touch it as always, but her nerves felt fried and trying to embrace it brought pain. Trissiny had never experienced this personally, but Professor Yornhaldt had described the effects in great detail in class specifically because he refused to subject students to them Circle backlash faded quickly, but for now, the aftermath of having her divine spark crushed by a powerful arcane charge left her dazed and unable to cast.

She just needed minutes, maybe only seconds, before she could shield and heal herself again.

Syrinx’s stride broke into a run; she dashed across the marble floor at the fallen paladin, raising her sword. She did not have seconds.

Then a lightning bolt cracked across the museum’s foyer, bursting into a shower of sparks that ignited the blue bubble of a shielding charm around Basra, who stumbled to the side from the hit.

A second shot struck her, then a third, and she scrambled behind a pillar.

“Afternoon, boss lady!” called a tall, hatchet-faced man in the scruffy remains of a nice suit, striding into the museum with a wand in each hand. “Glad I caught ya. Consider this my two weeks’ notice.”

“Your existence has been an unbroken succession of mistakes, Shook,” Basra snarled from her hiding place. “This one was your worst, and last!”

He laughed derisively, a note in his voice almost as wild as her own. “Rrrrriiight back atcha, sweetheart.”

Basra spun back around the pillar and charged right at him, keeping her body low and her blade up. Her shield had recovered from the impacts in the intervening seconds, but Shook had also not been idle, having switched the settings on both his wands. The ex-Bishop pelted across the floor toward the door at a pace that would reach him in seconds, but he fired back with straight beams of light instead of lightning bolts. The impacts made her shield flash entirely opaque and begin to smoke; after three hits it was clearly on the verge of collapse, and with a shriek of pure frustration, Basra broke off her attack again and rolled behind the dubious cover of the half-crushed front desk.

He shot that, too, beams punching straight through the heavy wood. A moment later she lunged out the other side, soaking up another hit—he was a pretty good shot with those wands—and somersaulted behind a marble wall separating the foyer from the wide exhibit space behind.

Trissiny gritted her teeth, trying again for the magic. A faint flicker pulsed through the air around her, slightly assuaging her battered body even as it sent another spike of pain through her head. She just needed a few more seconds. Hopefully this guy had bought her enough time…

She was abruptly jerked out of her thoughts, literally. He had crossed the rest of the distance to her in long strides, and now seized her by the collar of her breastplate. In the next moment, Trissiny found herself being bodily dragged around behind another low wall separating out what appeared to be a gift shop. Despite the indignity—and the additional pain in her limbs—she couldn’t find it in her to complain too much. Basra would be crazy to have tried this without a ranged weapon of her own, and Trissiny wasn’t entirely sure she was yet capable of walking to cover under her own power.

“Omnu’s balls, it’s the twelfth fuckin’ century,” her rescuer grunted. “What’s the big idea, goin’ around dressed in metal? Get your shit together, girl, I’m not draggin’ your heavy ass all over this place.”

“Fair ‘nough,” Trissiny wheezed, managing to arrange herself sitting up with her back against the wall. “Just…buy me a minute, please. And thanks for the save.”

“No worries,” he muttered, crouching by the end of the wall and leaning just enough to peek out. “Call me Thumper. I’m here with Bishop Darling.”

“Oh, you’re Guild? Good.”

“Good?” He glanced back at her. “Probably the first time a Hand of Avei’s ever thought that was good.”

Trissiny let it go, concentrating on trying to regather her magical focus. Even giving a Guild countersign would just lead to questions, and this was no time or place for explanations. The power was there again, accessible but still weak. In fact, she decided that was for the best. Keeping the glow low and minimal, she carefully directed precise currents of healing magic to every place that hurt.

“You’d better hope that creature’s a lot more use than I found him to be, Trissiny!” Basra’s voice echoed through the museum. The wide-open marble construction made it aggravatingly impossible to tell where the echoes were coming from. “Any shield you can put up, I can crack! It’s your sword against mine, and we both know how that ends, don’t we?”

“Bluffing,” Thumper grunted, “or ignorant. There’s a reason they quit making weapons powerful enough to break a paladin’s shield. That thing was good for one, maybe two uses when it was brand new, and that was before it sat under glass for fifty years. I’m amazed it still had enough juice for one shot. She tries it again, it’s likely to blow her fuckin’ hand off. If it does anything at all.”

“How do you know that?” Her new companion had slicked-back hair that gave him an oily look like the stereotype of a potion salesman, but he was obviously no stranger to violence, like most Eserites. His once-smart suit was torn and singed in multiple places, and he had a streak of blood down the left side of his face from a wound on the temple that looked like it had only just clotted. Altogether he didn’t look like the sort of person whose head was filled with historical trivia.

“I took the museum tour,” he replied, glancing at her again, this time with a little smirk. “Try crackin’ a book sometime, paladin, get yourself some culture.”

“So she either doesn’t know her big surprise weapon’s a dud, or she’s trying to intimidate us…” Trissiny trailed off, eyes narrowing as she almost absentmindedly finished applying divine healing to the necessary spots. “Hey. Can you fake a demon ambush?”

Thumper shot her an incredulous look. “Can I fuckin’ what?”

“Knock some things over, shout and shoot your wands. Make it sound like something’s attacking us here.”

He caught on immediately, a malicious grin stretching across his features. “Oh. Make noise and break shit? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can manage that.”

She raised her voice to a near-shriek, and slammed one boot into a display of little wooden figurines. “From the stairs! Look out—no, behind you!”

Thumper bellowed in convincing pain and blasted several more harmless gift items with lightning bolts, lunging across the store space to slam his shoulder into a row of shelves and send the entire thing crashing over.

While he carried on demolishing the gift shop, Trissiny lunged forward out of cover, making a beeline toward the broken front doors. She made herself stagger to her hands and knees, and then struggle back upright, head down and panting laboriously, then proceeded again with a heavy limp, arms around her midsection to cradle her ribs.

The blur of motion was all the warning she had. Basra Syrinx at the height of her power might have been more careful, but Trissiny had taken the time to ask her grandmother in the grove what anth’auwa meant and how they acted, and this time it seemed she’d predicted the woman’s actions accurately. Seeing an enemy alone and vulnerable, just as before, Syrinx charged to attack, heedless of the fact that Trissiny had baited her into the open in range of Thumper’s wands.

Not for nothing was Basra a blademaster; she crossed the space between them far faster than she’d been moving before, perhaps sensing that there would not be another chance. It was all Trissiny could do to react in time.

But her reaction was not sword against sword. Light burst from her, filling the atrium, and her sword and shield coalesced in her grip from wherever they had fallen. Basra tried to adjust, her reflexes almost elf-like, but here she was disadvantaged by her own burst of speed. She just didn’t have the space to change course, and slammed sword-first into Trissiny’s impenetrable shield of light.

The blade went flying from her grasp, and Trissiny slammed the metal shield into her, igniting Basra’s shielding charm and sending her reeling back. Basra tried to turn her stumble into a more orderly retreat, but Thumper popped up from behind the low gift shop wall and set about systematically ravaging the front desk behind her. That was as close as he dared shoot with Trissiny in melee range, but it had the effect of making Basra choose between facing the paladin or a veritable wall of lightning bolts.

Sensibly, she chose a third option, hurling herself to the side in a bid to put distance between her and Trissiny. Thumper’s barrage effectively cut off her access to the exhibit hall, but there was one more place she could go: a staircase at the other end of the lobby, leading up to the second floor.

“NOT THIS TIME,” Trissiny roared, dashing after her with golden wings flaring.

Basra let her pursue for three yards before whirling mid-step, golden gauntlet upraised and with a vindictive smirk on her face.

Apparently she hadn’t been bluffing. It was all Trissiny could do not to smirk right back in the half-second before the glove came to rest against her sphere of protection.

Sparks flew from it, and nothing else happened. Basra wasted another half second dithering in shock, while Trissiny carried on with her sprint, leading right past the woman and also pivoting mid-step to bring her sword down in a vertical sweep.

The ancient sword of the Hands of Avei carried countless scars and dents from its legendary adventures; people who didn’t know what it was often mistook it for a battered old piece of junk. At the very least, they reasonably tended to assume the pitted blade couldn’t possibly be all that sharp. This assumption was in error.

It cut cleanly through muscle and bone, taking Basra’s left hand off just above the wrist, gauntlet and all.

Basra’s scream was ear-splitting at that proximity, but even that was immediately drowned out by the explosion. The impact on a divine shield followed by a drop to the floor proved to be more than the old enchanted weapon could take, and the gauntlet discharged every remaining spark of arcane power it held in a single burst that hurled both women away from each other.

This was a much lesser charge than the first one; Trissiny definitely felt the hit on her shield, but it held this time. Of far greater concern was that an extremely bright light had just gone off right in front of her face, leaving her blinking and staggering further backward in an instinct instilled by long training. When incapacitated, seek distance from the enemy.

Fortunately her eyes were not only acclimated to lights thanks to her own glowing effects, but benefited from the divine magic coursing through her body. She was blinded for scarcely two seconds, but upon blinking away the last sparks, found that Basra had let neither pain nor blindness slow her, and was just now bounding up the stairs three at a time. Cradling her left arm and leaving behind a trail of blood, but moving with amazing speed considering her condition. Trissiny had to wonder if she might have dosed herself with something alchemical before this.

“Quick, get to the other staircase,” she barked. “If we cut her off—”

“Those two staircases don’t open onto the same room,” Thumper said, approaching from the wreckage of the gift shop. “It’s a maze of galleries up there. And she’s gonna run, now. Jumpin’ you when you were down was one thing, but that bitch wants nothing to do with a pissed-off paladin at full power. Even wounded, all she’s gotta do is pop a potion and it’ll take us fuckin’ forever to run her to ground again.”

“Then we’re wasting time,” Trissiny said impatiently. “We can still catch her!”

He glanced at the door. “If that’s what you wanna do, I’m in. But is she the priority, here? We got a city bein’ eaten by demons as we speak.”

Trissiny froze, one foot raised to dash off after Basra. He was right. After that beating, Basra was officially not an immediate threat to anyone, but the demons in Ninkabi were ravaging and killing with every passing moment. She knew, intellectually, that what she needed to do was regroup with the others and press on to the cathedral to finish this.

Intellectually.

The growl started low in her throat, rising in pitch and volume until she threw back her head and let out a shriek of pure, impotent frustration.

“Tell me about it,” Thumper agreed sympathetically.

“Again,” Trissiny spat. “Again that monster gets to slither away! How many times do I have to almost kill her before I can finish the job?!”

“Life’s like that, kid,” he said. “Sometimes the bastards get to walk all over you and stroll away whistling. But this time you hurt her good, and sometimes that’s just gotta be enough. Smartest guy I know once told me the key to never bein’ in a position where you gotta actually surrender is knowing when to make a tactical retreat.”

“Good advice,” she growled. “Ugh. You’re right, we don’t have time for this. Come on. Not that I don’t appreciate the backup,” she added while leading the way back out into the street, the enforcer on her heels, “but what are you doing way over here anyway, if you came with Sweet?”

He quirked an eyebrow at the use of the Bishop’s tag, but just answered her question. “Saw you come flyin’ in like a fuckin’ meteor. I gotta say, I wasn’t expecting to find ol’ Basra with the same idea, but I figured I’d at least better check and see if you were okay.”

“Sure, but why out here? Like I said, I got thrown by the big demon. Or maybe it was the big explosion, it’s all a little hazy. But that’s at least a block away. Tell me you weren’t thinking of pulling a museum job while this city’s under a demon invasion,” she added in a more dangerous tone.

“Hey, fuck you, lady, my priorities ain’t that screwed up. Anyway, I’m muscle, not an ops guy. I came here to kill demons, and that’s what I been doin’. For your information, since I—uh, got separated, I’ve done for at least a dozen of those scrawny guys in the armor, and two of the warlock chicks.”

“You attacked khelminash sorceresses?” she demanded, giving him an incredulous look. “With a wand?”

“From behind,” he clarified. “I’m not a moron.”

“Thumper, are you crazy? Stay with the group! You can’t take on a city full of demons on your own, even I couldn’t manage that. It’s amazing you haven’t gotten killed already!”

“Yeah,” he said, his tone strangely mild. He kept his gaze ahead, not seeming to really see the street in front of them. “Well, seems like a pretty good way to go. Look, you take the cross street up there, see? Hang a right and you’ll come right back to the square, I bet the others haven’t moved too far from there. Probably some of ‘em out lookin’ for you. If you’re good to go, I’m gonna get back to it.”

Trissiny slammed to a halt, turning to stare at him in bemusement. Thumper also stopped, but oddly refused to meet her gaze.

It took her a moment to understand, just because she wasn’t used to thinking of Guild members acting like this. Soldiers, though… Men and women in war zones tried this pretty regularly, enough that the Sisterhood had entire doctrines on the matter.

“Last I checked,” she stated, “Eserion has no use for cowards.”

He snapped his gaze back to hers, baring his teeth in a snarl and clenching up his entire body in sudden fury.

Trissiny was not in the least intimidated. “And that’s what that is, Thumper. No matter what you’re running from, ending it yourself is cowardice. Are you a Guild enforcer, or are you going to give up and seek an untimely demon-related death? Because those are the two options. There’s no overlap.”

He physically swelled up, and for just a moment she thought he might take a swing at her.

Then, quite suddenly, he deflated. The red faded from his face and the man closed his eyes, letting his shoulders slump.

“You got no idea what you’re talkin’ about, kid. If you knew my story, you’d be puttin’ that sword in my ass yourself.”

“Then do me a favor and don’t tell me about it while I’ve got all this to deal with,” she snapped, gesturing with her blade at the ravaged city around them. Then, catching herself, Trissiny shook her head. “No, this is… Look, Thumper, I’m not a confessor, and I definitely didn’t pass up on chasing Syrinx to waste time with whatever drama this is. If you really think you’re ready to find out what Vidius thinks of your life’s work, then…go do what you want, I guess. But if there’s still an enforcer of Eserion under all that self-pity, then you come with me and bust some heads. Make the call.”

She turned and strode off in the direction he’d indicated, leaving him behind.

Trissiny was almost surprised to hear his footsteps as he jogged to catch up, but kept it to herself. She did glance sidelong at him when he fell into step beside her, if only because he was glaring at nothing and muttering a prolonged soliloquy of obscenities.

“Save that anger for the demons, not me,” she advised.

“I’m not mad at you,” he spat. “Mad at me.”

“Well, same goes. We’ve got a lot of work still to do.”

He didn’t stop cursing, but she didn’t press the issue, and they rounded the corner onto the next cross street leading back to the square. In the next moment, a shrill squeaking rose out of the noise echoing from every part of the city, followed by a tiny red streak bounding erratically over piles of rubble straight toward them.

“Meesie!” Trissiny cried, stopping and descending to one knee. The little elemental squealed ecstatically, swarming up her body like a squirrel climbing a tree, coming to rest on Trissiny’s shoulder where she began patting her ear, cheek, and hair as if checking for injuries. “I’m glad to see you, too,” Trissiny said, standing back up and unable to keep the smile off her face. It felt good to smile.

“Hey, I know that rat,” Thumper commented, studying them quizzically. “What, no hug for me, too?”

Meesie blew a tiny wet raspberry at him, then turned around and wagged her rump in his direction.

“If I had a copper,” the enforcer grunted.

“Hey!” called a voice from up the street, commanding their attention. Three more figures were approaching.

Though it was Schwartz who had shouted, waving as he ran toward them, Grip led the way, leaving him and Jenell to trail after her.

“What the fuck are you doing with this assclown, Thorn?” she demanded, giving Trissiny a quick once-over and then Thumper a scathing look.

“Thorn?” he asked, frowning. “What’s that, a nickname?”

“It’s a tag, you impossible dipshit,” Grip snorted.

He blinked, twice.

“Oh, yeah, she’s Guild,” the other enforcer said, grinning. “Trained and tagged by Style herself.”

“These are interesting times we live in, Thumper,” Trissiny said sagely while he gaped at her. “Ease up, Grip, I don’t know what issues you two have but Thumper saved my bacon back there. Basra showed up, apparently out of nowhere, and decided to…give me a hand.”

Thumper let out a bark of malicious laughter, to the bemusement of the others, while Trissiny continued.

“I was in no state to deal with her when I hit the ground. It was a very good thing he was there to have my back.”

“Did you finish her off?” Jenell demanded, her face taut.

“Does anyone ever finish her off?” Trissiny replied bitterly. “I bled her pretty well, this time, but that was it. I swear that woman is more slippery than the Wreath.”

“Well, look on the bright side,” Thumper offered. “Anybody that hilariously evil and also harder to kill than she has any right to be is absolutely gonna end up as a succubus. Every minute she’s still alive, at least that’s not happening.”

A chorus of groans answered him.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Jenell grated.

“I’m glad to see your ass in one piece, Thorn,” Grip added, her expression more serious. “Now get it back here with the rest of us.”

“Bad?” Trissiny asked tersely, already striding forward. The rest of them fell into step alongside, Meesie bounding from her shoulder to Jenell’s and then back to the top of Schwartz’s head.

“Yeah, well, lemme put it this way. Remember the giant fucking demon with the unbeatable superweapon in his eyeballs that you and your paladin pals went to all that trouble to finish off? Apparently, that was the easy part.”

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15 – 65

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Both mounted paladins did the best thing they could do in that situation: attack.

Whisper, nimble as a mountain goat, bounded down the steps and Gabriel went right for Kelvreth’s hand, as Khadizroth had instructed. Trissiny, however, went straight forward.

Arjen launched himself off the top of the stairs in a far more powerful leap than it seemed he should have been able to perform, arcing through the air right at Kelvreth’s enormous bulk. Even with his preternatural strength, it didn’t carry him all the way, but at the apex Trissiny leaped free from the saddle, golden wings flaring as she hurtled sword-first right at the gigantic demon’s face.

Kelvreth had already twitched visibly as Gabriel’s scythe raked a gash in his wrist, but clearly one did not become arch-general of Hell without being made of stronger stuff than the average being; even the valkyrie weapon did not destroy him outright, nor even his hand. Instead, Gabriel flung himself from his saddle and, on foot, brought the scythe down in an overhead swing to impale the great clawed hand and nail it right to the pavement below, into which the blade sunk with no apparent resistance.

What Kelvreth thought about this was not immediately clear, as that was also the moment Trissiny landed on his face, driving her sword up to half its length in the spot between his eyes.

The demon emitted a non-verbal bellow of pain that made the very air around them shiver, rearing backward. His eyes were still open, and pouring their maddening effect out onto the world, but with them no longer gazing directly at the group atop the stairs the impact was lessened.

Toby chanced a quick look around at the chaos in which he now stood.

Khadizroth was visibly struggling with the effects, his teeth bared and emerald eyes narrowed in focus, but the dragon stood firm and was casting something which he presumably believed would help. He and Toby were the last two in front of Kuriwa’s hedge; the glimpses Toby could gather through it of what was happening behind were appalling.

The Bishops were still together, Bishop Snowe’s face streaked with blood where she had clawed at her eyes. Darling was thrashing and snarling, being held down by his two elven apprentices, who for some reason were still lucid. They had Guild training in grappling and Darling was too far gone to remember his, but they were still elves and also having to fend off the other thrashing bodies in the vicinity; they looked constantly on the verge of losing their grasp on him.

Evidently the dryads were also immune, to judge by Juniper, who was trying to keep herself physically between Ruda and a huge spirit wolf who clearly wanted to fight each other and was taking physical abuse from both in the process. Fortunately Ruda had lost her rapier, so neither had any power to physically hurt the dryad, but that left Juniper with her hands full trying to protect one person in a mass melee.

The entire plaza was a discordant choir of screams, both of pain and rage, and unhinged laughter. Weapons were being fired—a stray wandshot sparked off Toby’s divine shield even as he glanced around—and the sounds of more mundane violence were borne out by passing glimpses of people struggling through gaps in the hedge. There were bodies on the ground, and already puddles of blood.

Icy mist and sleet pounded down on the whole crowd as Fross tried to pacify them the only way she could. It wasn’t a bad idea, given the effect cold had on living bodies, but in the short term the slickened ground was going to make things even worse. At least Fross apparently shared the fairy immunity to Kelvreth’s power.

All this Toby took in with one sweep of his eyes before turning back to look again at the great demon and his two fellow paladins, just in time to see Kelvreth dislodge Trissiny and toss her aside. He couldn’t see Arjen at all; a leap like that probably would have killed a mortal horse or broken his legs, but at worst Arjen would just return to the divine plane, ready to be re-summoned. Gabriel, concluding that holding the demon’s hand down was not helping, ripped his scythe free and began to hack at it wildly, while Kelvreth ponderously reached for him with the other hand, now that he was done swatting Trissiny away.

Khadizroth grated something in a strained voice that Toby couldn’t quite make out, but at that moment he was in no state to answer the dragon’s orders anyway.

He was about to lose close friends, if he had not already, and this utter smashing of the defenders signaled the probable end of Ninkabi, especially on the heels of the revelation that Elilial did have a plan in play here, and a goal for the city. If ever there was a moment for panic, this was it. And so, having trained in the meditative arts since he could talk, Toby emptied his mind purely by well-practiced instinct. He did not struggle against the emotions that pounded at him, or acknowledge them at all, simply letting them flow by. Because this time, he also knew what was coming next.

And there it came.

The by-now-familiar torrent of power rose, like standing in the middle of a sunrise, as Omnu responded to his paladin’s intense peril with his own direct touch. Toby had lived through this holy nova enough times now to know that it was more than just a wild blast of divine light; it could be sophisticated and subtle, carefully healing some even as it annihilated others, and all the while protecting himself from the normal consequences of channeling that much power. And why not? With the mind and will of a god at work so directly, what would be impossible?

But this time, in addition to knowing the nova well enough not to be taken by surprise, Toby knew a lot more about the nature of gods. He emptied himself of distraction and emotion, but not of will or purpose. As the monks had taught him back home, making himself the bed of a river—immutable and serene even as it channeled incredible currents, not a thing to be struggled against, but providing a shape to the flows of thought and of magic. He opened himself to accept the god’s presence, mindful of what a god was: an imprisoned intelligence, bound by its aspects and by the will of those who believed in it. Especially of that god’s paladin.

And this time, Tobias Caine decided what would be the will of Omnu.

Light poured across the upper part of the city, searing away the infernal effect of Kelvreth’s gaze in its first burst and burning against even that titanic demon. Trissiny, Gabriel, and now Khadizroth were all hacking away at him, though the struggle had been turning against them until Omnu’s direct touch pushed it into a stalemate, Kelvreth clearly weakened and trying to protect himself from the glare while also fending them off. The madness was also burned away from the onlookers, leaving them amid the wreckage they’d just made of themselves and each other.

In a way, it was like a microcosm of magic itself: subjective physics, a vast and intricate mechanism by which one person’s idea was crafted into reality, one sub-atomic reaction at a time. With the direct presence of a god as an intermediary, Toby could both sense the situation around him and direct the power with a sophistication that normally would have been utterly beyond his capabilities.

First, he directed the light to avoid harming any of the fairies present despite Circle effects, which was fiendishly complicated work if you were crafting a spell by hand but quite easy for the mind of a god. It would have been nice if Omnu had shown such consideration for Fross and Juniper back in Puna Dara, though. Toby let that thought drift away; it was unimportant, and resentment was good for exactly nothing.

Then, most important, he healed.

The injuries were already both widespread and considerable, many beyond the ordinary means of medicine either magical or mundane. They were washed away in a second, bodies repaired and bolstered beyond their original state to a condition of maximum possible health. Then, a generous—but not excessive, it would not do to addle anyone—touch of the peace of Omnu upon minds that had just been through trauma enough to scar anyone. They were going to need that peace, starting immediately.

But there were others beyond healing.

Several wolves lay dead, and many others Toby did not know, archers and soldiers and police. There was no spark of life in Longshot McGraw, or November. Or Shaeine.

He breathed, letting the power flow through him in the rhythm of his own breath. In, out, bringing calm, balance. Emotions of an intensity that should have buckled him to his knees floated away, disregarded.

Making himself a bastion of serenity, Toby reached deeper into the power. What could a god not do?

Repairing mortal bodies was simplicity itself, even if the spark had left them. The Light did not restore them in quite the same way in this condition, it required deliberate and specific manipulations of matter, but that was well within Omnu’s power.

He pressed further, finding within the god’s presence all the knowledge he needed to do what he meant to. The dimensional barriers thinned, and Toby was examining, through Omnu’s consciousness, the flows of data that made up magic itself—and beneath them, the more primal morass of numbers and forces that was physical reality. He pulled back from that; what he sought wasn’t quite at that level. People who perished within a transcension field did not instantly or completely cease to exist, for a mind was information, and the field was made to recognize and respond to it. The impressions were still there.

It was just a matter of restoring their connections to the physical shell.

At this, finally, Omnu stirred against him. As always, the god communicated only in vague impressions, feelings. This was too far. Loss must be accepted; death was part of life. This was breaching fundamental truths that even the gods knew to respect. For trespassing on Vidius’s domain in this way, the consequences could be dire.

The anger that welled up rivaled the preceding grief in its intensity. After all Toby had been through trying to understand and form a relationship with his god, usually being brushed off, this was what finally made Omnu talk to him? To try to thwart him when he needed that power the most?

That emotion also flowed away, barely noticed. He had no use for it. The process was, in fact, easier in this state, as he could clinically see the role emotion played in human cognition. Separating one strand of mental activity out from another became as simple as sorting beads by color.

Instead, Toby met the god’s resistance, accepted and embraced it. Made it part of himself, of what he was doing. He was the riverbed; he was the serenity which determined the shape of that power. In perfect calm, without resistance or engagement, he overcame the reluctance of the god and continued right on with what he was doing.

And Omnu, mechanistic old thing that he was, fell silent. In the serene and absolute confidence of his paladin acting in an ascended state of mind, his will became what Toby decided it should be.

This shed some light on what had happened to Shaath, as well as why Naphthene feared and hated the idea of being worshiped, but Toby had no time for such introspection. He was here to work.

With his consciousness thus expanded, he noted two black-winged shapes shouting imprecations at him in Esperanto as they fled from the blaze that now leaked into their space between spaces, seizing the shapes of mortal souls before they could dissipate further.

It had only been seconds, all of this intricacy transpiring in eyeblinks thanks to the entirely different relationship Toby had to time itself while in this state, but seconds mattered. He could see there had been some degradation. Very slight, though. Probably, as they were, they would be fine.

He decided there was no reason to settle for “fine.”

Some of the restoration could be done by gleaning data straight from the transcension fields into which those souls were trying to dissipate, but there were elements that did not yield to such reconstruction. Instead, he had to walk them backward through time itself, just for a few heartbeats.

No Scions of Vemnesthis appeared to chastise him. Evidently they could tell when even they were outmatched.

Gently, in meticulous detail, he re-ignited the biological processes of each body, every chemical reaction in each brain, and stitched every consciousness right back into place, bonded to their mortal forms in exactly the manner they had been previously.

Eyes opened, hearts beat, and breaths were gasped.

Toby finally gave them all a tender but firm dose of Omnu’s peace. They were definitely going to need it.

Less than ten seconds had passed while he unmade the worst the general of Hell could do. Now, Toby was still in the grip of Omnu’s power, and free to deal with Kelvreth directly.

He stepped forward, descending the stairs in a serene glide with his hands folded before him, eyes wide open and blazing with pure divine light. Kelvreth glared down at him.

Toby’s golden gaze met the torrent of unfiltered insanity, and pushed it back.

“Paladins,” Kelvreth growled, and under the overwhelming pressure of Omnu’s presence, all the power had been stolen from his voice; it seemed all he could do to project words. “You wield magic tricks you cannot hope to understand. You do not impress any more than she, Tobias Caine!”

Toby paced slowly to the foot of the stairs and stopped, staring up at Kelvreth. Khadizroth had snared one of the demon’s arms in a thorny vine seemingly made from green light, which was trying to pry it up and loose from its grip on the ground. Trissiny and Gabriel were slashing away at his other. Gradually but surely, the demon’s grasp on this plane was slipping.

“You achieve nothing,” Kelvreth grated at him. “It is the wont of mortals to struggle against inevitability. I have come to bring my Lady’s plans to fruition. You will not—”

“I have come to bring peace.”

Tobias and Omnu spoke as one, and Kelvreth of the Eyes was struck down by the force of it.

With an ephemeral roar of pain, he fully lost his grip, and was immediately pulled deep into the half-stable portal. Still determined to maintain what hold he had on the mortal plane, Kelvreth managed to grab the edges of his summoning circle with the fingertips of one hand, bracing the forearm of the other on the ground even as the rest of him slipped deeper. Only his head and one shoulder still emerged from the portal.

“Can you ward me against being pulled into that portal?” Trissiny asked, striding up to Khadizroth.

The dragon finally looked somewhat disheveled by these exertions, but even under such circumstances his equilibrium was already restoring itself.

“If necessary,” he said, his tone asking a question. “A variant of a craft I know to temporarily bar hellgates should secure you for longer than that portal can sustain itself.”

“Good. Please do so.”

“Even with protection, General, you propose a risk. Is this important?”

“I made a promise,” Trissiny said grimly. “Promises must be kept.”

Khadizroth nodded immediately at that. “Exceedingly true; we are nothing without our honor. Very well, General, proceed and I shall guard you.”

She nodded back in thanks, then strode right toward the circle, breaking into a run as she crossed the last few yards. For the second time, Trissiny leaped forward to land bodily on Kelvreth’s face.

Kelvreth growled, shifting his head and almost knocking her loose. Trissiny planted her boots in the slits that made up his nose, actually grabbing the edge of his eye socket with her free hand for support as he tried to tip her off. At some point she had dropped her shield, but still had her sword in hand and was blazing with enough of power to easily protect her from whatever of his gaze managed to eke out past Omnu’s light.

Examined up close, it was difficult to tell what his eyes were, exactly. They might have been swirling portals, or flat stretches of glowing surface. Even protected by the light of the gods, that intensity of infernally powered pure insanity did not easily yield itself to analysis.

Trissiny let go, rearing back and raising her sword in her right hand. In her left, a second sword appeared, identical in shape to the original but formed out of hardened divine light.

“I warned you,” she stated, and plunged both blades straight into Kelvreth’s eyes.

The demon’s scream seemed to be trying to tear at reality itself, and likely would have been almost as maddening as his gaze if not for the constant pressure of all three Trinity gods having their attention fixed here. Kelvreth tried to toss his head to dislodge his attacker, but Trissiny had immediately twisted her swords inside his eye sockets and was now using them to hold herself in place and hang on despite his efforts.

Whatever magic animated him was incredibly complex, and surely capable of restoring itself—up to a point. That point did not extend to combating Avei’s direct touch. Kelvreth twitched and thrashed involuntarily in addition to his struggles as ancient spells inside him unraveled, the magic animated his dread gaze being permanently seared away one layer at a time, causing an internal torrent of explosions that made him heave in agony. Trissiny snarled at him, clinging on and pouring Avei’s power into his shattered eyes. Already the light of them had given away to smoke.

“You’ll need a new name,” she grated. “Kelvreth the Blind. Now go tell Elilial she’s next!”

He finally relented, raising his hands to try to grab her, and with the loss of his grip, the incomplete summoning collapsed. Kelvreth was sucked straight down into what was suddenly a flat stretch of pavement, vanishing from view and from their plane of existence. The final disintegration of such a powerful summoning produced an explosive shockwave that sent Trissiny hurtling away and bodily knocked down everyone present, even Khadizroth. Everyone except Toby, who did not even close his eyes in the face of it.

Only when the demon’s departure was final did Omnu’s grace begin to recede. Toby closed his eyes, then opened them again with their golden glow gone. It was…heady. Even in the aftermath of riding that towering current of divine power, he felt as if he’d been dosed with coffee, or something stronger.

A hand took his, and he turned to meet Shaeine’s garnet eyes. Heedless of the crowd now approaching them from behind, she wrapped her arms around Toby in a hug. He just held her back.

It was good to be alive.

“Yeah, so,” Ruda’s voice came out of the sea of murmurs now rising, “first question that springs to my mind: why the fuck did none of you wise old ancients warn us about that guy’s fuckin’ eyeballs? I coulda really used some advance fucking notice of that!”

“To my knowledge, that creature has never been on the mortal plane before,” Kuriwa replied, pacing forward to inspect the remnants of the summoning circle. “Everything known about Kelvreth of the Eyes was hearsay brought by demons, which are notoriously unreliable. Even so… His gaze was said to pacify and compel demons, rendering them lucid despite the infernal corruption and forcing them to obey his commands. Kelvreth’s eyes, according to what little I knew, were a leading reason Elilial has been able to turn rabbles of demons into armies. I was not expecting…that.”

“Nor I,” Khadizroth agreed. “Else I most certainly would have given warning.”

“Huh,” Ruda grunted, seeming at least somewhat mollified. She strode up out of he approaching crowd, cocking her head to give the dragon a skeptical look. “So how come you shouted not to look when he opened ‘em?”

“Yes, please forgive me if I gave offense,” Khadizroth replied, bowing to her. “Many long years of experience with adventurers have left me with the habit of shouting obvious common sense.”

“Oh, up yours,” she said without rancor, grinning. Khadizroth, evidently familiar with Punaji, smiled back rather than taking insult.

“Hand of Omnu,” the dragon said, turning to Toby with a more serious expression, “first of all, my deepest thanks. That was a thing the likes of which I have never seen. Can you do that…at will?”

“No,” Toby said immediately. “No, that is not something I can do except in very severe circumstances. And even so… I’m not sure it’s a good idea to exercise that much power even when it’s possible.”

“Look alive, folks,” Joe called, striding forward and pointing at the sky ahead of them. “We seem to’ve gone an’ made ourselves popular.”

Where they had previously been swarming around the distant spire of the cathedral, a large force of flying khelminash warlocks had peeled away and was heading right for them. Evidently, as Joe had pointed out, they took the defeat of their feared general with the utmost seriousness.

“Wait,” Schwartz called out suddenly. “Where’s Trissiny?”


She had likely been out only a few seconds, Trissiny concluded as her vision swam back into focus. Brief unconsciousness aside, she was disoriented; her last clear memory had been of tumbling through the air, and then…

Right now she was slumped against a large wooden desk which had evidently been smashed by the impact of…well, her, apparently. In front of her was a set of double doors, likewise burst open by the blow. Beyond them was a street, and beyond that another wall of buildings, not the square.

Apparently, she’d been launched over a city block and into the next street, where she and her bubble of divine protection had bowled straight into this structure and come to rest here. That was enough of a calamity to have killed even a paladin, had she not at the time been deep in the grip of Avei’s power, both protected behind an invulnerable shield and pumped to the gills with healing magic.

Thank the goddess for survival, but even so, she felt like she’d been beaten all over.

Wincing, Trissiny started to struggling upright, then fell back with a grunt of pain. Instead, she fell back on lessons taught by Professor Ezzaniel, Taowi Sunrunner, and Shaeine. Check for injuries before moving… Shaeine’s instruction in divine diagnosis greatly expedited the process; Trissiny wasn’t yet good enough to sweep others with any great accuracy, but she could scan her own body using the spell.

Nothing was broken, aside from a few cracked ribs. She was bruised…basically all over. Mild concussion. All in all, nothing a little more divine magic wouldn’t fix.

She channeled it slowly and carefully, directing the flows of power to where they were needed and being careful to avoid either divine burnout or mana fatigue. Thanks to Avei’s grace and her elven heritage, neither seemed to be looming close. Good, she could be back in fighting shape in a few minutes. Regrouping with the others was of the utmost importance.

Trissiny stood again, still wincing in pain, but managing this time. It would take a few more minutes to fully heal all this, healing not being her specialty, but with her ribs and skull seen to she could at least stand up and look around. Actually, she appeared to be in some kind of museum. Hopefully all she’d broken was the reception desk and not an exhibit…

Instinct and Avei’s continued attention slammed her divine shield into place at full strength, causing her already-bruised brain a moment of disorientation which cost her dearly. That shield had just withstood a duel with a lord of Hell and a subsequent fall from the sky, but what hit it now smashed it utterly, the backlash snuffing out her divine magic entirely and sending her hurtling ten feet.

Trissiny’s already bruised body impacted a pillar and bounced off; she couldn’t do anything but lay there, stunned and struggling to regain her breath. At least now she could see what had snuck up on her, though.

On one hand she wore a golden gauntlet that glittered with jewels, some cracked, and others spitting intermittent sparks and tiny arcs of arcane energy. In the other she held an Avenic shortsword with an elaborate golden hilt. On her face was the wild, sadistic grin of someone who presently saw no reason to put up a pretense of sanity.

“Why, hello, Trissiny,” Basra Syrinx purred, striding forward and raising her sword. “Oh, you can’t imagine how much I’ve been looking forward to this.”

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15 – 53

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“Touch me and she dies.”

Syrinx already had two wands aimed at her, to say nothing of the knives coming out; that sentence bought her a momentary pause.

“You’re gonna sit there and threaten my apprentice right in front of me?” Grip asked in a dangerously serene tone. “Ballsy.”

“Your…? Oh, Covrin’s here.” Syrinx barely glanced at Jenell in passing. “No, I was referring to Ninkabi. Forgive the dramatic phrasing, but you thugs clearly needed encouragement not to shut down your brains entirely. Now, here’s the situation.”

“Really, holding the entire city hostage?” Sweet said with a derisive little smile. “Well that’s…an approach.”

“Don’t pretend to be stupid, Antonio,” she snapped. “You know very well I am not behind the threats here, but without me you haven’t a prayer of thwarting them.”

“Yeah, that’s bullshit,” said Thumper. “She’s got nothin’, not even her crew anymore.”

“I cannot believe we’re still talking to this woman,” Schwartz exclaimed. “Jenell, do you want to do the honors or may I…?”

“I’ve gotten my pound of flesh from her,” Jenell said stiffly, looking away from Basra. “Knock yourself out.”

Syrinx slapped a hand down on the table, rattling the silverware again. “You’ve got nothing. You have neither the necessary forces to head off the coming attack, nor adequate knowledge of where it will come from. The fact that you’ve invited this into your ranks only proves how desperate you are.”

Bradshaw met her sneer with a raised eyebrow. “Well, I have no personal horse in this race, but if the consensus of the group is that we table other business and char Basra Syrinx down to her skeleton, I’m for it.”

“A person with a scrap of self-awareness would take note that others are more willing to ally with the Wreath than herself and reflect on that,” Grip drawled.

Shook snorted a bitter laugh. “Damn, woman, nobody doesn’t hate you. Even I don’t have a hundred percent aggression rating, and that’s literally my job.”

“Your inability to do your job is another topic, Shook,” Syrinx sneered. “Having to deal with me is the tax you lot will have to pay for this one and his cronies splitting my forces. I know that dragon is helping you track down the summoning sites; had he and you not run off on your own I could be sending troops to each one. But they did, so here we are. You can maybe keep tracking down those portal sites, but the cultists will just keep making more, and you quite simply do not have enough warm bodies to throw at them. Sooner than later they’ll have enough up and running to put their plan into motion while you’re still chasing your tails.”

“Troops?” Sweet asked mildly.

“Oh, come on, you know she has nothing of the kind!” Jenell spat. “This is nothing but a ploy to get us off her back so she can prolong her existence another day.”

“She could have easily done that by not coming here,” Sweet pointed out. “It’s not as if anybody here has time to go hunting her down, we’re fully occupied with shit that matters.”

Jenell slammed a fist on the table in an ironic echo of Basra and started to rise from her seat. “I cannot believe you’d even consider—”

“Covrin!” Sweet did not raise his voice, but projected in a sharp tone that cut her off. “If somebody makes you mad enough to go on the attack without thinking, they’re beating you. Basra, you will either wipe that smirk off your face or Schwartz will burn it off.”

Meesie puffed up like a spikefish, hissing, and Schwartz cracked his knuckles, staring at Basra. Jenell sank more slowly back into her seat, deliberately marshaling her expression. Syrinx smoothed her own as swiftly as if a switch had been flipped.

“We’re gonna do this smart,” Sweet announced, again in a tone of calm. “If Basra has something critical to offer, we’ll get all the available info and decide logically what to do. If what she offers isn’t very good—and I mean, incredibly persuasively necessary—she doesn’t leave this room alive. Agreed?”

A few grudging mutters of assent followed, though most of those at the table just watched Syrinx in silence. She herself curled her lip disdainfully, but nodded.

“All right, then,” Sweet said with an unconvincing little smile. “Let’s hear your pitch, Bas. I assume you wouldn’t have risked coming here if you didn’t have something good.”

“I have the one thing you need and do not have,” she replied. “Men who can follow orders. As a designated emissary of the Archpope, I can take direct command of the Holy Legionaries in the city, and have pull with the local police and Imperial Army presence.”

“You seem to be forgetting that both of us didn’t get de-Bishoped,” he said with a pleasant smile. “I also have—”

“This isn’t Tiraas, Antonio,” she interrupted. “Nobody here knows you—and by the looks of it, you came in your Eserite persona, looking to rummage around in the city’s underground. Sure, you can prove your identity and your status…eventually. Except you’re forgetting that the Tiraan Empire is currently in a state of war footing, which means civilians do not have access to the Rails or telescroll network as of this morning. You were probably among the last people to be able to travel freely to get here. And let’s say the local police recognize you: the Eserite Bishop. We all know how much police love Eserites.”

She smirked again, while he regarded her impassively. Flanking him, Flora and Fauna narrowed their eyes to blue slits.

“How’d you find us here so fast, Basra?” Sweet asked lightly.

“That is not among the things you need to know.”

He shifted his gaze. “Mr. Bradshaw, if I might inquire, how much manpower can your group lend to this effort?”

“I trust you won’t be surprised if I decline to share exact numbers,” the warlock drawled. “But it won’t come as a surprise to anyone here that the Wreath is running low on competent and trusted personnel, since you in particular are the lion’s share of the reason for that, Darling. With shadow-jumping we can cover ground quickly, of course. But we have…let us say a bare handful of warlocks on the ground in Ninkabi, and it would be a very hard sell to get Embras to place them directly at the disposal of you or your pet dragon. We all remember well the last time we tried to protect a city from demon attack while you were involved.”

“I suppose I’ll have to accept that,” Sweet said slowly. He studied Basra for a moment, then Schwartz, and finally met Grip’s eyes. She nodded minutely. “All right. As I see it, this is a matter of weighing risks against each other. We can take out Basra since she’s offered herself up on a plate, and embrace the risk that we just won’t have enough people to stop the enemy from opening multiple hellgates, much less find and shut them down in person. We can agree to work with her, for now, and take the risk of whatever bullshit she’s planning to pull harming us or the effort, because it’s not even in question that she’s scheming something.” Syrinx made a sardonic face at him, but didn’t interrupt. “There is also an inherent risk in cooperating with the Wreath, of course. Even when they act in good faith, they never do so without ulterior motives, as they proved in Veilgrad, and as our new friend Bradshaw pointed out they have good and specific reason to feel unfriendly toward yours truly, and by extension now, the rest of you.”

Leaning forward with his elbows on the table, he interlaced his fingers and turned his gaze on Jenell. “In my judgment, these risks are similar in both likelihood and severity—too close to call, even if we knew all the nuances, and the fact that we clearly don’t is another factor. So in cases like this, where the simple practicalities don’t tell us what to do, we must look to our ethics. And with regard to that, while quite a few of us here have reasons to be annoyed at Basra Syrinx, you have by far the biggest claim. So it’s your call, Covrin.”

Jenell blinked twice, then slowly raised her eyebrows. “I…what?”

“If you don’t want the pressure you can pass it right back to me and no one will blame you,” he assured her. “This is not an obligation. But it is your prerogative. You know the situation, the balance of risks. It comes down to whether this is a monster we can work with, and you’re the one with the biggest right to make that call, if you want it.”

She stared at him for a silent moment, then nodded once, turning her gaze back to Syrinx.

Basra had gone completely rigid in her chair, despite her insouciant pose straddling its back, watching Jenell with a complete lack of expression.

“So,” Jenell said quietly after a long pause, “that makes it twice now I’ve held your life in my hand, Basra. I’m officially ahead, now. Isn’t that a hell of a thing?”

Basra’s left eyelid twitched and she drew in a breath to speak.

“Open your mouth and lose an eye,” Schwartz stated flatly. “You don’t need depth perception to make yourself useful.” Meesie growled in agreement.

Shook pointed at him, and then turned the gesture into a thumbs up. Grip shook with almost-silent laughter.

“Well, apprentice,” she chuckled, “I officially approve of your boyfriend, here.”

“Sweet, do you see any practical concern that tips the scales one way or another?” Jenell asked, turning back to him.

He leaned back against the rear of the booth, pursing his lips for a moment in thought. “I suppose…it’s two gambles against one. With Basra, we risk…Basra. Without her, we’re betting that I can drum up some manpower from the police and military by hook or by crook—definitely without the Holy Legion, because I have no pull at all there—and also that the Wreath will come through. I feel like that’s making it sound simpler than it is, is the thing. This city is crawling with extraneous factors. The Jackal is still jacking around and all of this is contingent on Khadizroth behaving himself, which is a hell of a coin to flip.”

The look Jenell gave Syrinx was purely contemptuous, and caused Basra’s eye to twitch again. “Then I say put her to work. The days when she was important enough to risk the safety of a city over are long past. None of this changes the reality of the sword hanging over Basra’s head. She may as well get to survive a little while longer, if it means she’ll be of some use for once.”

Syrinx shifted her head to face Jenell directly, opening her mouth.

Schwartz raised one hand from under the table and blew across it. A thin streamer of dust wafted forward, caught fire, and coalesced into a single needle of flame which then hovered in the air, pointed directly at Syrinx.

She shut her mouth.

“Well, there you have it!” Sweet said magnanimously. “Once again, Bas, you are the lesser evil, a position I know you find comfortable. How soon can you marshal these boots on the ground?”

She rose smoothly, swinging one leg over the chair and retreated a strategic two steps from the table. “I have Holy Legionaries I can send out immediately. Getting movement from city and Imperial forces is going to take some politicking, as you well know. By the time you and your dragon have useful targets, I’ll have forces ready to move.”

“Splendid,” he said, smiling. “And where shall I look for you?”

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Syrinx retorted, her flat expression a contrast to his languid smile. “I can locate you cretins when I need you. I will decide when it is time to link up again. Just do your job with a minimum of your usual screwing around, and maybe we can prevent this city from being burned to the ground.”

She turned and strode out of the room without another word.

“Son of a bitch,” Thumper whispered.

“Yeah, no kidding,” said Schwartz.

“No, not…her in general,” the enforcer said impatiently. “I think… Sweet, this whole thing where our crew was gonna join up with Justinian to keep tabs on him was the Jackal’s idea, though Big K basically took over leading it by the time it all fell apart. It was the Jackal who suggested I get out from under Syrinx’s thumb right before disappearing himself. He’s been carving up the local police, making damn sure there’s a shortage of manpower to protect the city, right when she’s got Holy Legionaries just where we’ll need ’em. And didn’t you start to say you had a brush with him on the way in, just before that bitch somehow found us here? You seein’ what I’m seein’?”

“Why, Thumper, I think you’re onto something,” Sweet said slowly. “And I was just wondering what the hell the Jackal could possibly be playing at. It seems he and Basra are Ninkabi’s newest power couple.”

Schwartz let out a low whistle.

“Soon as this is over,” Grip said in a resigned tone, “we’re gonna have to go on a serious murdering spree.”


“Thanks,” Merry said, accepting the steaming cup from Juniper. The dryad smiled and handed the other mug to Trissiny, who nodded in gratitude as she accepted it.

“How’s she doing?” Juniper asked, carefully seating herself on the floor beside Merry. They had brought Principia into the building where they’d camped the night before and laid her on a bedroll, covered with a blanket and with a portable fairy lamp resting nearby. In the hours since she had collapsed, Mary had checked on her several times, as had McGraw and Shaeine, but for the most part the others had preferred to respect their privacy. Given the various people assembled here, there was no shortage of conversations to be had elsewhere. Only Merry and Trissiny had remained by Principia’s side steadily.

“Asleep,” Merry said tersely, then offered a thin smile. “According to the Crow, that’s the best thing for her now.”

Juniper nodded again. Sniff padded around behind her and gently inserted himself between his mistress and Merry, making a cooing noise deep in his throat. Juniper smiled and leaned her head against him.

“I feel like I get what it must be like for you, Triss,” she said quietly. “At least a little. Not the same situation, but…I’m seeing parallels.”

“What do you mean?” Trissiny asked.

“Family,” the dryad whispered. “The idea being new…and so much more complicated than I would’ve expected.”

“Well, that definitely sounds like my experience of the last couple of years,” Trissiny replied with a wry chuckle.

“I never thought I was an orphan like you,” Juniper said softly, staring over Princpia’s prone form into the fairy lamp. “I had my mother, and my sisters… It was painful, coming to understand that Naiya only ever thought of any of us as basically pets. That my sisters—just like me—were all immature, selfish monsters who’d never had a reason or a chance to actually grow up. Now, there’s pixies and kitsune and valkyries, and they’re all so strange and…in the case of valkyries, terrifying. But…good? It’s an amazing thing, to be loved by someone who actually understands what that means, just because they feel a kinship with you. Even if they’re a bossy know-it-all like Kaisa, or something like Yngrid who makes my blood run cold just looking at her. And that just reminds me what a cruel thing it was for Naiya to design us to have that reaction. It’s all so… It’s a mess. It’s sweet, and bitter, and generally confusing.”

“Yep,” Trissiny said, nodding and staring into her tea. “That hits the nail on the head. I have different weirdos, is all, but that’s exactly the feeling.”

“You guys are actually making me miss my parents,” Merry commented. “The worst thing they ever were was boring.”

“They sound very nice,” Trissiny said solemnly. Juniper laughed, then Merry did, and finally Trissiny herself had to chuckle. Her expression sobered again, though, as her gaze fell once more on Principia’s face. “I hope you don’t have to sympathize with this, too, Juno. It’s kind of a heck of a thing, finding yourself worrying over someone before you’ve been able to figure out how you even feel about them.”

Juniper heaved a sigh. “Sort of too late, there, too. Over the summer, we… I mean, me, Aspen, Fross, and Kaisa, we went back to the pixie grove.”

Trissiny looked up at her. “Oh. To see… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten what her name was.”

“Jacaranda. It’s okay. We, uh…” She winced, then shook her head, causing Sniff to chirp softly in comfort. “Well, it was Kaisa’s idea. It seemed kind of harsh, but honesty harsh measures might be the only thing that could help. Even Kaisa wasn’t sure if it would.”

“The Pixie Queen is fully transformed by trauma, right?” Trissiny asked. “What did Professor Ekoi do?”

“We took her to a place where she could be… Kaisa wasn’t exactly clear. Tested, or treated, or possibly imprisoned? You know, she made it all sound very necessary at the time but in hindsight the more I think about it the less sure I am.”

Trissiny straightened up suddenly, setting her tea aside. “Hang on. This summer we also—that is, me, Gabe, Toby, and my brother Herschel—had to visit the Tower of Salyrene.”

Juniper’s eyes snapped back to her. “You did?”

“The talking sword there said something about a kitsune dropping off a transformed dryad.”

“He did?” Juniper herself perked up in excitement. “Did you see her?”

“Sorry, June, when we were there the place was empty. It was just us and Athenos.”

“Oh.” Juniper deflated just as abruptly, and Sniff rubbed his head against her shoulder. “I…hope that’s good. You didn’t see Petal or Bugsy, either?”

Trissiny blinked twice. “…who?”

“The pixie and the imp. They were in the tower when we got there.”

“An imp? Uh…no, like I said, the place was dead empty. Gabe and I encountered some caplings in one of the testing rooms, and Toby and Schwartz said they had to fight a demon. That was it. Nobody who seemed intelligent enough to talk with us except the sword and then Salyrene.”

Juniper chewed on her lower lip. “I hope that means it helped her and she got out. Though that raises the question of where she is.”

“You guys have really interesting lives,” Merry commented.

Trissiny and Juniper both stared at her, then burst out laughing in unison. After a moment, she had to smile along with them.

“Well,” Trissiny said at last, catching her breath, “I really hope Jacaranda’s okay, Juniper. If she went through the Tower and got out, I’m pretty sure she must be at least better. The way it was described to us, the whole point of that place was tests of intellect, character, magical skill…”

“I sure hope so,” Juniper said with a sigh. “It’d be nice to know what happened to her, is all. I’m not sure how feasible it is to get a message to Kaisa all the way over in Sifan but I’ll ask Professor Tellwyrn about it as soon as we’re back home.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

“And I hope Principia’s all right when she wakes up,” the dryad added.

“Kuriwa seemed pretty sure she would be,” Trissiny said. “Sounded like she just needed some rest.”

“This is jarring,” Merry whispered. “That’s the word. It’s just jarring. This is the least like her I’ve ever seen Locke.”

Both of the others turned their heads to watch her in silence. She stared down at the sleeping elf, her brows drawn together pensively.

“I’ve hated and loved and everything in between this crazy knife ear,” Merry continued at last. “And she’s just always in control. No matter what goddamn thing is trying to kill us on a given week, there she is, all smug and knowing and with a plan. You could look at her and just…just be able to calm down, because Locke was there, and she was working on it, and that was always enough because she always came up with something. The only thing I’ve never seen her pull off before is lose. Whatever happened, she had three schemes in place to meet it, and if something outmaneuvered her even so, she’d pull something else out of her butt and we’d still win, because she’s Principia fucking Locke and that’s what she does.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, also turning her eyes back to the elf.

“Until today,” Merry added in a bare whisper. “Man…she really got twisted around and then smacked down this time, didn’t she? That was… I mean, watching that… I still haven’t sorted out how to feel. Is it weird to be a little bit relieved?”

“No, I think I can understand that one,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a smile. “I’ve seen her vulnerable, too. I think it’s the only reason I’ve been able to give her a chance.”

“It’s still a pretty good record,” Juniper offered. “Getting outmaneuvered by an actual trickster god isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Locke being someone who can scheme her way around anybody except Vesk… That’s plenty impressive.”

“And hey, look at it this way,” Trissiny added with a heartier smile, “maybe it was all part of her cunning plan. Letting herself get outfoxed just so she could look all pitiful in front of us and gain sympathy.”

Merry chuckled, a sound both derisive and rueful.

“Yeah, sure, let’s go with that.”

All of them abruptly leaned forward, setting down drinks, as Principia’s eyes opened. Her voice was hoarse and barely above a whisper, but she still managed a weak grin as she continued.

“I like the sound of it. All according to plan. Omnu’s breath, my head hurts… So, what have I missed?”

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15 – 52

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Once his back was to the temple, Sweet stopped putting so much focus on controlling his expression, allowing a pensive frown to settle on his features. He bounded down the stairs three at a time, perhaps not terribly respectful conduct for visiting a religious sanctuary, but Izarites were hard to offend and his thoughts were already elsewhere.

“Any luck?” Fauna asked as he reached the street level.

“You know, I’m increasingly unsure,” he mused. “Still nobody who’d acknowledge having seen Bran, but this is the third place in a row where I’m starting to get…a mood.”

“Uh oh,” Flora said, widening her eyes. “He’s getting a mood. Where’s Price with a brandy when we need her?”

Sweet playfully swatted the back of her head. “Not my mood, wiseass, from the priests. It’s a pretty subtle thing, just a tension and wariness when I ask after Branwen. I wasn’t convinced I wasn’t imagining it until this place; that dude up there was definitely annoyed by me asking.”

“Huh. Now that’s weird,” Fauna said, also frowning as the three of them set off down the sidewalk, both elves flanking their trainer.

“I didn’t know it was possible to annoy Izarites,” Flora agreed. “We’ve…um, absolutely never tried.”

“Yeah, your not trying has been brought to my attention,” he said dryly. “But the thing is, you’re right, they’re a pretty unflappable lot. And hypothetically, if they were hiding Branwen for some reason, they would definitely not reveal it by betraying emotion when asked. So what’s this about, then?”

“Mmm,” Fauna hummed thoughtfully.

“Wasn’t a rhetorical question,” Sweet clarified. “Let’s hear some theories. Consider it a training exercise.”

The two leaned subtly forward to exchange a glance across him, in one of those brief, silent conversations they were always having. Sweet just waited, keeping to an average walking pace.

“They might react that way,” Flora said slowly, “if someone else had recently been here sniffing around after Snowe.”

“Especially,” Fauna added, “if it was somebody who might make them nervous.”

“Someone like Thumper,” Flora continued, nodding to herself. “Izarites are hard to rattle, but for empaths, being around that guy has to be like getting slapped in the face with a live fish.”

“Nice imagery,” Sweet said with a grin. “Of course, all this is pure speculation, but that was the same thought I had. Glad to hear I’m not the only one following that logic. So, now the question becomes whether this should alter our approach, and if so, how?”

“Well, before you decide on anything, we gathered some new intel for you while you were in there,” said Fauna.

“You two were supposed to be staying within sight,” he reminded them.

“Yes, but there are these wondrous new things called newspapers,” Flora replied sweetly while Fauna handed him one. “I know this must be mind-blowing for someone of your generation, but people actually go out and collect the news! And then they write it down!”

“Y’know what, I’m not even mad. You go ahead and milk this shtick for every drop you can.” Sweet held up the paper and rapidly skimmed the front page article as they walked. “You two’re going to spend a lot longer than I will having people point out how very old you are. Well, this is a hell of a mess. You thinking what I’m thinking?”

They both nodded, their expressions rapidly sobering.

“A bunch of murdered police doesn’t have to be any specific person, by itself…”

“But when we already know the Jackal’s in town, that’s pretty damn suggestive.”

“Plus, the gross things done to some of the bodies.”

“That is exactly that twisted fuck’s sense of humor.”

“Something like this is obviously going to enrage the local cops and trigger a city-wide crackdown,” Sweet murmured, lowering the paper and staring ahead in thought. “That’s too obvious for someone like him not to see it coming. So is it something he’s willing to risk for another purpose, or is it the purpose by itself? Hm. In theory, he answers to Justinian, who I absolutely know is ruthless enough to do such a thing as this, but he’s ruthless with an agenda. I cannot fathom what the hell this accomplishes except making everything he might want to do in Ninkabi a lot more difficult.”

“Makes shady shit difficult for anybody,” Fauna offered.

Flora nodded. “Maybe that was the point? If what Thumper talked about in that scroll was true, it could be beneficial to have an increased police presence.”

“Yeah, but you don’t increase the police presence by reducing the number of police,” said Sweet. “Almost thirty officers so far, if this reporter is right. In a city the size of Ninkabi the local force can maybe absorb that, but…probably not any more. Plus there’s not much in the way of reinforcements available, even if the mayor wants to request them. With the Empire moving to war footing in response to this wolf nonsense, Ninkabi’s getting a detachment like every other city, but after that there are no other soldiers to send. They’ll all be deployed.”

“Thumper was vague,” Fauna mused, “probably cos he doesn’t understand the subject well, but this sounds like more magic bullshit. Could it be related to the wolf dream thing?”

“Worth considering,” Sweet agreed, “but we’re still just speculating. We need some hard info to go with these wild theories. Hmm… Well! You know how I hate to cogitate on an empty stomach. I’m gonna keep heading toward the next temple on the list; think I’ll cut through the alleys across this block…”

“You wanna cut through alleys while there’s a serial killer on a rampage,” Flora said flatly.

“It’s broad daylight and I’m not a cop, and also don’t interrupt. See if you can find a vendor slinging local cuisine, something we don’t see often at home. Tiraas doesn’t import much Jendi food. Catch up when you’ve found us something to nosh while we walk.”

“Really?” Flora protested. “Really? You’re sending us on a snack run?”

“That is correct,” he said piously. “As is no less than your duty to your spiritual guide and guardian.”

“We should dose him with laxatives,” Fauna suggested.

“Nah, he needs to work today. Tempest peppers will suffice.”

“I’m still hungry,” Sweet said in an annoying singsong cadence.

Both elves groaned and rolled their eyes melodramatically, but turned and slouched back up the sidewalk the way they had come, complaining the whole time. Sweet kept to his course, grinning and tucking the folded paper under his arm.

It was impossible not to feel a swell of pride in the girls. When he’d switched to code words they had played along seamlessly, without reacting or breaking character for an instant. Really, he reflected, they might be coming to a point where he just didn’t have much more to teach them. Sponsored apprentices always studied longer than those who rose through the Guild’s general pool, gaining the benefit both of a particular trainer’s in-depth tutelage and access to their existing connections to get the student started on a career. Of course, he’d always have the benefit of greater experience, but there came a point when the baby birds had to leave the nest. Keeping them under his wing longer than they needed to be could be detrimental to them in the long run. It had been nearly three years, which was about typical for a sponsored Guild apprenticeship. And the girls unquestionably knew their stuff. They were at a point where he was quite comfortable treating them as partners on a job, not just pupils.

But when it came to his two apprentices in particular, there were concerns beyond their command of Eserite philosophy and technique. Obviously, he couldn’t keep a pair of headhunters on short leashes forever. He had extra concerns about setting them loose, though. Sweet more than trusted his girls by now. He’d never fully stop worrying about them, though…

Sweet gently pushed that chain of thought aside to be pondered on at a less urgent moment, redirecting his attention to the city as he strolled through it.

He didn’t have his finger on the pulse of Ninkabi as he did in Tiraas, of course, but some things were universal. The tension in the city was evident in the way people walked and spoke to each other—faster and furtively, respectively. Between the police murders and the night spent listening to howling wolves and trying to rouse people taken by the dreams, this place was steadily rising beyond a simmer. It wasn’t boiling over just yet, but there was only so much tension a city could take.

That had to have been the point of the Jackal’s rampage, but…why? Eserite doctrine made it absolutely clear that you did not fuck with cops; the Jackal was no Eserite, but he was also no fool, and that particular creed was fully rooted in pragmatism. Even when the problem being addressed was a corrupt police force, the Guild dealt with that by cutting into the crooked politicians and other rich figures behind them. Directly attacking police was an open invitation to urban war. He had to know this. What did it gain him, or Justinian?

He picked the clearest-looking alley, a fairly wide one which appeared to cut through the entire block to the main street on the other side, and strolled in without slacking his pace. In fact, he lengthened his stride slightly, as if eager to get through it and out quickly. Of course, a darker, dimmer, and more private space would have suited his purpose better, but for the same reason he couldn’t give the impression that’s what he was up to.

Perhaps nothing would come of it, anyway. It was a long shot, banking on the idea that his poking around among the Izarites had already been noticed, but given that the most likely person to have been doing the same recently was Thumper, it wasn’t improbable that that route was being watched. Still, codewords aside, it had been simple truth he’d pointed out to Flora: it was broad daylight and he wasn’t the preferred target of whoever was preying on police in this city.

Still, he didn’t manage to be truly surprised when, far enough into the long alleyway that the streets in both directions were comfortably out of sight, a sphere of golden light sprang into existence around him, ringing like a bell as it repelled a brutal strike.

“Cheating,” the Jackal complained loudly, already skittering backward and switching his grip on his knife to a defensive posture.

“Smarter than you,” Sweet corrected, turning and giving the elf his most shit-eating grin. The divine shield faded from around him in a perfect invitation—particularly admirable, as it wasn’t under his control. They really were ready. “That was a good try, though! Seven out of ten—points for form, even if you flubbed the landing.”

“I just keep wondering,” the Jackal cooed, grinning right back, “going over and over it in my mind. Why the hell has nobody killed you yet? It really is a cosmic oversight.”

“Didn’t we just go over this?” Sweet replied, rolling up the newspaper to wag it at him reprovingly. “Smarter than you. And also than most people, though I guess that doesn’t necessarily follow. Hey, remember that time in Tiraas when I walked right into a trap you’d set and still ended up kicking your ass?”

“Oh, please,” the elf scoffed, “as if I’d be that easily baited—”

He shot forward mid-sentence with no warning, at a speed which suggested his natural elven gifts had been augmented further in preparation for this. Had he been contending with simple human reflexes it might have worked; Sweet couldn’t have sworn he’d have been able to get another shield up in time to avoid a knife to the throat. As it was, though, the Jackal was adroitly kicking off the golden sphere that had snapped back into place by the time he’d realized what was happening.

And then it was pretty much none of his business as two more forms in dark clothing tore into the assassin. Sweet stood placidly behind his bubble—since he couldn’t actually take it down, the thing having been put there by one of the girls—and watched the three elves scrap in the narrow alley.

It really was something to see, not least because his eyes could scarcely follow it. Three slim blonde figures ricocheted about the alley like billiard balls, bouncing wildly off the walls and each other with impossible agility, slashing with knives and the odd beam of light from Flora’s wand. The pair had subdued the Jackal on their last encounter, assassin though he was, and that was before they’d had two more years of Eserite training.

In seconds the assassin saw which was the wind was blowing and retreated straight up, kicking back and forth off the closely-spaced walls without trouble. In fact, Sweet could have done that; what made it impressive was that with Flora and Fauna still trying to bring him down, all three of them made an erratic path up, down, and sideways, before the moving scuffle finally managed to climb over the lip of one of the facing buildings, four stories up.

Sweet was impressed in spite of himself that the Jackal had managed it, with two trained elven street fighters nipping at his heels. Nothing wrong with that; it was generally a better idea to respect an enemy’s skills than to underestimate them.

Then they were gone, and he was left standing there, effectively imprisoned by the shield.

He’d just had time to make an annoyed face when it flickered out. Sweet sighed, shook his head, and turned to continue on his way. A large part of him wanted to reach for the comforting glow of divine light, just in case the Jackal gave his apprentices the slip and doubled back, but it wasn’t as if he’d be able to put up a shield fast enough should it come to that. Sometimes, you just had to trust your crew. And besides, Eserion didn’t encourage his priests to rely overmuch on magic. What was the point of having wits if you made excuses not to use them?

Nonetheless, and though he kept his physical aspect relaxed and focused, he remained actively worried for the next twenty minutes as he made his way back into a public street and toward the next temple on the list. Not just for himself, either. Flora and Fauna were good, and they’d bested the Jackal before… But he was the Jackal.

Sweet was actually a little proud of himself for managing not to react with open relief when the pair of them emerged silently from a narrow alleyway he passed to fall back into step flanking him.

“Let’s see,” he said, putting on a thoughtful expression and pointing to each of them in turn. “One, two…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Fauna groused. “We lost him, obviously.”

“We could’ve got him, or at least finished him off,” Flora added, scowling, “but not without making a big damn mess.”

Sweet nodded. It went without saying that in truth, the Jackal was not a match for the pair of them, or even probably just one, not if they went all out. Whatever enchanting and alchemy he’d used to augment his stealth, speed, and whatever else, a headhunter would tear him apart like a dog catching a squirrel. If, of course, they used the power available to them.

Unfortunately, Flora and Fauna were hamstrung by the need to conceal what they were. They were fully capable of chasing down incubi, but as they’d discovered after a close call last year, they could be evaded by the simple expediency of their target getting lost in a crowd, which was a trick someone might use to escape pursuit even if they didn’t know their pursuers couldn’t afford to show powers in view of the public. That incident had nearly been a disaster; they’d caught the demon’s trail again by sheer luck, and thereafter only summoned Vanislaads for their hunts far out into the wilderness, where the risk of exposure was minimal.

“You made the right call, then,” he said. “All right, I’m calling this. Change of plans; let’s meet up with the others. Even if we haven’t managed to locate Branwen, we’ve got info they’ll need.”


Notoli’s was one of those establishments which catered to a concept more than a crowd: discretion. Its maze-like main floor was laid out in a series of deeply secluded booths and private rooms, tables serviced by waiters who wore tiny bells on their uniform caps so there was no chance of them accidentally sneaking up on any patron’s conversation. It was the preferred meeting place in Ninkabi of not only visiting Eserites, but numerous other parties who did not want their business known.

Quite coincidentally, the food was very good.

Having cut off their own pursuit a bit early, Sweet and the elves were the first to arrive, and secured a quiet corner booth in one of the larger public rooms; he didn’t think absolute discretion would be necessary given their business, and given the presence of such as Grip and, if the other party proved more successful, Thumper, it might be better to have other diners within view to discourage any unfortunate outbursts. Not that he was really expecting it to come to that. His own quarry should’ve been easier to find, and Grip, for all her strengths, was not a tracker.

In his heart of hearts, though he of course kept it to himself, Sweet was therefore a little bit peeved when, after a shorter wait than he’d expected, a waiter escorted no less than five people to his booth.

“Well, well,” he said as soon as the diffident serving man had departed. “This is quite a haul, Grip.”

“It all went much better than expected!” Schwartz said brightly, sliding into the booth without hesitation. “I won’t lie, I was dubious about our prospects, lacking any direct link to Mr. Shook to use for tracking purposes, but the spirit guides came through! Meesie was quite helpful, of course.” His fire-rat familiar sat upright on his shoulder, squeaking proudly. “I hypothesize that the general disruption in ambient fae magic due to recent events may have worked in our favor instead—”

“Yeah, yeah, best witch,” Grip interrupted, not without a small smile. “I’ll buy you a cookie. Now hush up.”

“Thumper,” Sweet added blandly, “you’re looking well, all things considered.”

Shook grunted and slid himself onto a seat, on the opposite side from Schwartz. Jenell had seated herself next to the witch; now Grip sat down on Thumper’s other side, boxing him in. Sweet was impressed in spite of himself. Both enforcers had to understand fully the logistics of their posture, but the usually prideful and cantankerous Shook had let himself be pinned in without protest or even hesitation. Flora, next to whom he was now sitting, eyed him sidelong but kept her peace.

“I’ll tell you what I told Grip,” Shook said flatly. “I know I’ve got some stuff to account for, but I’ll explain myself to the Boss. Not you two goons.”

“I’ve already pointed out that’s not how it fucking works and he knows it,” Grip added in a bored tone.

“Fine, then there’s no need to keep picking at that scab,” Sweet said soothingly, noting the way Thumper was tensing up. “I believe this time we can defer old business, while we deal with fascinating new business.”

He looked pointedly at the last person to join them, still standing there at the head of the table wearing an ash-gray robe and a sour expression.

Thumper cleared his throat. “Sweet, this here’s my very good buddy Bradshaw, on loan from the…” He glanced casually around the room. There were other diners, in other booths, but the place was designed with heavy fabric curtains and numerous potted plants to muffle acoustics. Still, he lowered his voice significantly before continuing. “…Black Wreath. Bradshaw, this is Bishop Darling and his apprentices.”

“Delighted,” Bradshaw stated in a flat drawl that couldn’t be mistaken for anything but hostility.

“Annnnd…” Sweet deliberately tore his gaze from the warlock to meet Shook’s eyes. “You trust this character?”

Grip snorted loudly.

“Trust ain’t the word,” Thumper said, shooting Bradshaw a neutral look. “I am… I’m gonna say about eighty-five percent confident he doesn’t plan to hex my ass, at least until our current mutual business is taken care of. And assuming that goes well, I’m inclined to give him an’ the rest of his buddies a fair head start before I tell any authorities where I last saw ’em. That’s about as warm and fuzzy as it gets around here.”

“Oh be still, my trembling heart,” the warlock said, deadpan.

“Well, all righty then,” Sweet said congenially. “While your credibility is running pretty thin these days, Thumper, I’m willing to extend a little faith. Gods know I’ve made worse deals with worse people, probably for lesser stakes. Please have a seat, Mr. Bradshaw, and let’s talk about what we all might have in common.”

Bradshaw’s mouth thinned into a disgruntled line and he deliberately peered at each of them in turn.

“Oh, sit down,” Grip exclaimed. “Omnu’s balls, it’s not like you can’t just shadow-jump away the second anything happens you don’t like the smell of. And nobody else here is stuffed to the gills with cancer magic. Don’t act like you’re the one making allowances.”

“My goodness, are you always this charming?” Bradshaw snipped. “And all the way over here I thought you were putting on an act for my sake.”

“Oh, she’s rarely this charming,” Shook said wryly.

“Children, please,” Sweet said in exasperation. “Not at the dinner table!”

Bradshaw shook his head, but finally deigned to perch at the very end of the booth seat next to Jenell, who gave him an extremely neutral look.

“Great, all friends!” Sweet said magnanimously. “I’ll open with a question: Thumper, when’s the last time you saw the Jackal, and are you still working with him?”

Shook grimaced bitterly. “Couple days ago, an’ fuck no. Our whole group’s been pared down to the bone. Somebody stole Kheshiri’s reliquary and she’s gone, and now that demented fuck has finally snapped. At least, that’s my theory, since I can’t conceive of a single goddamn productive goal he could have for the shit he’s been doing. Last I heard he’s taken to offing cops. I don’t have to tell you where that kind of horseshit leads. I think two years of acting like an actual fucking person half the time was too much pressure for all the crazy in his head.”

“Well, how about that,” Sweet mused. “Funny story, we just had a brush—”

On either side of him, Flora and Fauna abruptly tensed and started to rise from their seats. Their sudden movement made Bradshaw half-stand himself, turning to stare suspiciously and raising one hand as if prepared to cast.

“Good, you’re all here.”

A chair was slammed against their table, its back impacting the edge hard enough to make the silverware bounce. Basra Syrinx seated herself straddling it, fixing her eyes on Sweet’s and seeming to ignore everyone else present, though most of them had just drawn weapons on her.

“Shut up and listen,” she ordered. “We don’t have much time.”

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15 – 27

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“And now, not only have we lost a major asset, that thing is on the loose in Ninkabi with knowledge of our plans! I want every warm body in this place out there until we catch that filthy—”

“Inquisitor,” Khadizroth said loudly, the deferential attitude with which he tried to address Syrinx finally buckling under the strain. “City-wide manhunts never succeed in catching a Vanislaad, even when one has the manpower necessary to mount one—of which we have here only the tiniest fraction. All this would accomplish would be to tip our hand and stir the pot irrevocably.”

Silence fell. Leaning against the wall outside the conference room, well out of view of the door, Shook turned his head to face it more directly. He had the hallway to himself for the moment, lit only by a single fairy lamp and no guards or servants in sight. The conversation on which he was eavesdropping was, so far, not going terribly well. Part of him wondered exactly how bad it would be if Syrinx poked her head out and caught him there. A larger part didn’t much care anymore.

“I hope you will excuse me for speaking out of turn, Inquisitor,” Khadizroth finally said into the chilled silence. “I only meant—”

“No,” Syrinx interrupted, the scowl audible in her voice. “No, you’re right. That was a knee-jerk reaction on my part and no good could have come of it. Well, the fact remains, we are still in this mess. In an amazingly short time, this operation has careened off the Rail and is heading for a truly unrecoverable disaster. I don’t think any of us are in a position to rebound from squandering his Holiness’s support. Or do you disagree?”

“I’m afraid I cannot,” the dragon said quietly. “The matter before us, then, is how to salvage…something from these events.”

“Well,” she grunted, “while we’re trimming the fat around here, we may as well acknowledge that this debacle has cost us two agents, in a manner of speaking. Honestly, what use does that fool Shook even have, if not for holding the succubus’s leash? With her gone, he may as well be stashed in a closet. Or hurled into the canyon.”

Shook clenched his fists so hard they vibrated. He could feel the pressure rising up through him, the familiar pounding in his head, the taste of bile at the back of his throat.

And this time, he stopped.

Mind on the on the job, not on the insult, Alan Vandro’s distant voice reminded him. They’ll try to make you mad to throw you off your game. Bottle up that anger and use it. Rage is a good weapon, so long as you don’t let it control your actions.

You’ve got to let things go, Sweet had told him, back when he was Boss. Remember the broader situation, not just what’s right in front of you. If some fool shows in front of a Guild enforcer that they need an ass-kicking, they’re going to get one. But at the proper time and place, administered with a cool head and an eye for strategy. A good enforcer doesn’t just break knees, he controls the circumstances so that they practically break themselves.

Breathe in, breathe out, and keep doing so, Khadizroth’s more recent advice whispered. Be present, be conscious, be aware. Emotions are things that pass by; they do not require a reaction. A child is ruled by them. A man rules himself.

He had mostly humored Khadizroth by listening, and not just because the dragon could have obliterated him with one swipe of his claws. He liked Khadizroth, for all that mystical mumbo-jumbo was not to his own tastes. But how long had it been since he’d remembered his old Guild sponsor’s teachings? Webs had let him down hard in Onkawa, but Thumper had only ever benefited from practicing what the old conman preached. And Sweet… As much as he was to blame for Shook’s present situation, none of that had come about until long after he had tried to offer him guidance. Of course he’d sided with Keys. She played the game, like he’d tried to teach Shook to do.

And Kheshiri… Shook’s breathing stilled, his eyes widening slightly, as the connections began to form. She was always needling at him. Throwing up little reminders of the various people who’d wronged him, coaxing him to rant about how he’d even the score. She gave every indication of enjoying being treated violently, responded avidly when he displayed his temper. Always bringing him drinks, providing such a constant stream of blisteringly heated sex that even his appetites began to flag under the exertion.

Training him, he realized, now that it was too late. It was subtle, but in hindsight, the pattern was there. Everything Thumper had ever achieved had been through the control his various teachers had drilled into him, the conquest of the anger that had driven his entire life. Kheshiri had carefully undone years of work, provoking outbursts of passion and rewarding them, evincing boredom and disinterest when he controlled himself, discouraging restraint and promoting indulgence of all kinds. And the very fact that she had worked at it so subtly said worlds about her intentions, in comparison with those of the men who had patiently explained to him how to better himself.

A knot twisted in his gut. In Onkawa… Even looking back, the whole scene was tainted by a haze of fury and betrayal, but in the end, hadn’t that final showdown been dueling displays of spectacle by Webs and Kheshiri? Because of course, he’d shown her that he had a powerful, well-connected patron who actually cared about him, and she couldn’t have that if she was going to keep him under control. Gods, had Webs actually betrayed him? What was there in all their years together that hinted he even might do such a thing?

And he had bought it. Hook, line, and sinker.

Shook slumped back against the wall, almost losing his balance. For once, the understanding of how he had been played and thoroughly defeated didn’t make him angry. He couldn’t have put a name to what it felt like.

Khadizroth had been completely right. He was better off with that bitch out of his life. She’d done this to him in only two years; gods only knew what he might have been reduced to if she’d kept her claws in his psyche much longer.

He had never been in control of her.

While Jeremiah Shook was reeling from personal epiphanies in the hall, the conversation in the conference room had continued. His attention focused back upon it just in time to catch up on matters very relevant to his interests.

“…as great a loss as it first seems, anyway. I have been working with this group for some time now, and I can assure you that everything you’ve been warned about children of Vanislaas is true of that one. She is strategically useful, yes, but I have never been wholly satisfied that the benefits outweigh the constant trouble of keeping her in line. If anything, I believe Mr. Shook will be more helpful now that he is freed of that burden.”

“Is this what passes for dragon humor?”

“Alas, I have never been a humorous person,” Khadizroth said wryly. “It’s a real shortcoming; a well-timed joke can do a lot to improve morale. No, Inquisitor, I still speak out of familiarity with the parties involved. Thumper is a Thieves’ Guild enforcer, personally trained by one of Eserion’s most esteemed servants, as I understand it. He is far more than merely muscle under any circumstances. With respect, I would remind you that we are now engaged in surreptitious maneuvers in an urban setting; his skills are particularly relevant to our situation.” The dragon paused, then continued in a quieter volume. “And on the subject of our situation, can we really afford to divest ourselves of any more assets?”

A silence hung briefly. Then there were footsteps heading toward the door. Shook straightened up belatedly, preparing to face the music, but no one emerged. Instead, the conference room door swung shut with a decisive bang.

“Whew,” the Jackal giggled right next to his ear. “I see it’s been a hell of a day here!”

“Goddammit!” Shook barely held onto enough restraint to keep his voice low as he jumped away from the grinning elf; that door was thick, but shouting would be heard through it. Planting himself across the hall, he bared his teeth at the Jackal. “Where the fuck have you been all day?”

“Me?” The assassin put on a wounded expression, placing a hand theatrically over his heart. “I am affronted by the doubts implied in your question, Jerry old man. Really, after all we’ve meant to each other! I’ve been out doing my job. You know, carefully stirring up trouble as only I can. The work is begun, not finished, but I believe I can attest with fair certainty that there will be an increased police presence in the area around Agasti’s club in the days to come.”

“I should really demand what specifically that means,” Shook growled, “but fuck it, I’m pretty sure I don’t even wanna know right now. Here’s what I already know: we’re down a person, our whole mission here might be fucked, and it’s taking all of Big K’s smooth talking to keep that cunt Syrinx from losing every last ounce of her shit and sending what’s left of this whole mess straight to hell with all of us strapped to it. So this is not a good time for you to be haring off on your own!”

“Hmm.” The Jackal struck a pose, rubbing at his chin and screwing up his face in an expression of deep thought. “Hummmmmm. No, my man, I do believe this is an excellent time to go haring off on my own. Think about it: the options are being stuck in an enclosed space with Basra Syrinx while her extremely delicate self-control is being tested to its limits, or doing anything else.”

Shook paused, blinking twice.

“There, see?” the elf said, once again grinning cheekily. “That’s why they pay me the extra-shiny coins. I consider these angles.”

“Yeah, well… I’m not sayin’ it wouldn’t be good to clear my head, but…”

“Oh, don’t mistake me, ol’ top,” the Jackal breezed, turning and sashaying away up the hall. “You do what you like, I wouldn’t want you getting the impression I care. I’m outta here. I’ll be back when the boss bitch has had time to cool down and be grateful to see me again.”

“I don’t really think that’s how her mind works,” Shook said, trailing off as the elf suddenly turned, threw open the nearest window, and launched himself out.

That window opened onto a cliff wall overlooking the canyon about halfway down it. But then…he was the Jackal.

Shook stood there, chewing on the inside of his cheek, for a good five minutes before saying aloud, “Fuck it.”

He strode off toward the front door of the Inquisition’s small offices. There would be a Holy Legion guard on duty, but he could probably bluff his way past by claiming to be on official business. And if not, he was a Guild enforcer and those clowns were little more than living accessories. Either way, he was getting some goddamn fresh air.


“There, see? All that’s settled and everybody’s friends. We can finally all one big family!”

Kheshiri beamed at the room at large, spreading her arms as if expecting a hug. Everyone glared at her.

“Are you sure,” Natchua began, turning to Agasti, but he was already shaking his head.

“I apologize for being so mercenary, my dear,” the old man said sincerely, “but I quite simply do not need the headache. Speaking as your attorney with regard to this matter, the contract we just drew up places you in the best situation relative to her that you could reasonably expect. I’m afraid that will have to suffice for reassurance. She’s your problem now.”

“Well, I have to say, I appreciate your forthrightness,” she replied, smiling in spite of herself. “Where I’m from, that would’ve been a flowery ‘fuck you’ shrouded in tedious layers of false courtesy.”

“Yes, I’ve been told by several of my colleagues in the legal profession that they get on surprisingly well with Narisians as a matter of course,” he said, smiling back. “Besides, it doesn’t do to indulge in sly doublespeak in front of the succubus. She’s inherently better at it, and I don’t care to give her the satisfaction.”

Natchua heaved a sigh, followed by a sullen mutter. “Why do I always have to have the satisfaction?”

“Yes, you are very put upon,” Melaxyna deadpanned. “Obviously you’ve brought absolutely none of this situation on yourself.”

“Mel,” Natchua said shortly, “do I look like I’m in the mood?”

“So, you’re with her and not him, right?” Kheshiri inquired, regarding Melaxyna inquisitively. “I’ve met the hethelax and the khelminash. What’s your story?”

Melaxyna stared back at her for a long moment, then glanced at Natchua. Then, her human disguise melted away to reveal her alabaster skin, crystalline eyes, wings, and tail.

Kheshiri’s own smile melted just as quickly, leaving her glowering morosely at the other succubus. “Oh. Goody.”

“I believe that’s my line, sugar tits,” Melaxyna drawled.

“Let me be explicitly clear on this up front,” Natchua stated. “There will be a maximum of zero demon catfighting. Am I clear?”

“Hey, you know me,” Melaxyna said cryptically.

“You command, and I obey,” Kheshiri declaimed, sweeping an elegant bow in her direction. “I live to serve you, my mistress.”

“Ugh,” Natchua grunted. The troubling thing was, as best as she could suss out from her newfound skill at analyzing the succubus’s emotions directly, she appeared to be sincere about that. It wasn’t as simple as detecting truth from lies; emotions, even when read through any attempted dissembling, were just more complex than that. But she could see as plain as written words what Kheshiri felt toward her, and while that was also complex, it was disturbingly positive. Downright avid, in fact. She wouldn’t go so far as to say the succubus was in love—and thank all the gods for that—but she was at the very least utterly fascinated and delighted by Natchua, without a hint of the predatory instinct or malice that such attraction usually meant from her kind.

Whatever this would mean, in the long run, it was a safe bet that she’d not heard the last of it by far.

She had already found that this ability worked on Melaxyna, too, now that she knew the method. It didn’t work as well; the shadow magic suffusing Kheshiri’s body and aura helped a lot once Natchua had detected it, but just having the method down provided the insight. She could read Melaxyna plainly with a bit more focus and concentration, and even interpret things about the other succubus’s magical structure to which she had been blind before. The new insight told her Melaxyna wasn’t very happy about their current situation, obviously. But she was also surprisingly fond toward Natchua, regarding her with a layered mat of feelings which she interpreted, belatedly and with some surprise, as protectiveness.

Natchua wasn’t much for scientific research, but even she was not blind to the possibilities here. Considering that all her current plans were leading toward her own inevitable death, she really ought to relay this to someone else, perhaps someone like Agasti. It would be an invaluable tool for warlocks to counter the predations of Vanislaads. Of course, once it was known, Vanislaas himself and all his children would begin developing countermeasures, which was why she had decided to keep this to herself for the moment, even with Agasti and Xyraadi both right there. For now, it would be a priceless strategic asset if she encountered any more of their kind, which was not unlikely considering what she was about. In fact, with a bit more study and experimentation, she thought she might be able to develop a way to see through their invisibility and shapeshifting at a glance.

But she currently had to cut short her ruminations, as Kheshiri had fixed her attention on Hesthri.

“I really am sorry about all that, you know,” she said earnestly. “It wasn’t personal, for whatever that’s worth. I suspect you know what it’s like to be backed into a corner and desperate for some leverage to survive. But we’re on the same side now! I’m sure I’ll find a way to make it up to you.”

“Speak to your owner or not at all,” Hesthri said curtly. “You and I have nothing to discuss. I’m sure no one else wants to talk to you, either.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Well, at the very least, it seems you and I can discuss how no one else wants to talk to me! Any point is a starting point, don’t you—”

“Shut up, Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered.

The succubus bowed again, as courtly and grandiose as before. “As you command, mistress, I—”

“That isn’t shutting up!”

This time Kheshiri did indeed fall silent, but proceeded with a grotesquely detailed pantomime of sewing her lips shut which she had to have practiced.

Natchua, Hesthri, and Melaxyna all grimaced and averted their eyes. Fortunately, there were other things to behold, as Xyraadi had taken the opportunity presented by the sudden quiet to approach Agasti.

“I cannot thank you enough, Mortimer, for your hospitality and your kindness these last weeks,” she said, gently taking one of his hands in both of her own and smiling warmly.

Agasti lightly squeezed her slender fingers. “My dear, you owe me no consideration; your presence here has been just the breath of fresh air I needed. My prayers have heavily featured gratitude for you and those three young heroes coming here to kick some life back into these old bones. Are you…resolved to do this, then?”

“I know it is sudden,” she said, nodding, “but I am indeed. I feel, above all else, certain that this is right.”

The old warlock sighed, lowering his eyes. “I can’t pretend I’m glad to see you go, considering…what you are going toward.”

Slowly, Xyraadi shook her head, her expression growing distant. “I am sorry for that, Mortimer, truly. I hate to make a friend watch. But the truth is…” She turned her head, meeting Natchua’s eyes. “I am not afraid. I don’t rush headlong toward death, but its inevitability does nothing to dissuade me. This world has changed beyond recognition while I was imprisoned. And I… It has not been six hundred years for me. I have very old wounds that are still very fresh. I lost my friends, my cause, my love.” The demon closed her eyes, and Agasti again gave her hands a comforting little squeeze. “What this drow is suggesting may be madness, but it’s exactly the madness I wished for when I asked the Sisterhood to imprison me in that crystal. Elilial must be made to answer for all she has done. And who better to make her than those who are willing to give everything to it?” She opened her eyes again, still facing Natchua, and her stare hardened. “She stepped on me once, too. Very recently.”

“Wait.” Kheshiri appeared to have forgotten the order to shut up; right now, the expression of concern on her face matched what Natchua saw in her aura. “What…exactly…are you lot trying to do?”

“Oh, it’s a rollicking good tale,” Melaxyna said in her driest tone. “We’ll catch you up on what you’ve signed on for, don’t you worry. I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”

“Remember that I am only a shadow-jump away,” Agasti said softly. “I hope you’ll visit again, Xyraadi. Before… Well, when you can.”

“I encourage that,” Natchua added. “If nothing else, this place is a lot more comfortable. Our current base of operations is, well… A work in progress.”

Melaxyna and Hesthri snorted in unison.

“I guess we might want to invest in a Glassian dictionary, then,” Melaxyna added to Natchua.

“Excuse me,” Xyraadi retorted haughtily, “but you are complaining about having a little culture injected into your lives. You speak of a language which is an ongoing work of beauty and inherently superior for any purpose except counting to seventy.”

Agasti cleared his throat, releasing Xyraadi’s hands, and reached behind himself to pick up Kheshiri’s reliquary, which had been hidden against the back of his chair by his body. “Well, then. I suppose the only remaining business is for you to retain custody of this, Natchua.”

He held it out to her. Kheshiri’s eyes fixed on the reliquary and her tail lashed twice. Natchua, though, tilted her head, making no move to take it.

“Upon consideration,” she said pensively, “no, thank you.”

“Point of order,” Kheshiri interjected. “By the contract we just signed, you’re not to imprison me in that thing or give it to someone who might.”

“Yes,” Natchua said, turning a flat grin on her, “that was worded very precisely. Once I have it again I’ll definitely be bound by those provisions. But I can’t exactly give away something that’s not in my possession, now can I?”

Kheshiri smirked wryly at her. “Well, well. I knew you were a smart cookie, mistress, but you continue to impress.”

Her blasé attitude stood in marked contrast to the surge of fury that pulsed through her aura. Natchua’s grin widened as she held the succubus’s gaze for a moment, then turned back to the lawyer, who was smiling at her with patrician approval.

“Now, make no mistake,” he cautioned, “based on your description of how she slipped its control, it is very unlikely I would be able to restore the reliquary’s function by working on it alone. The problem is not with it, but with her.”

Natchua shook her head. “You’ve been tremendously helpful already, Mr. Agasti, I won’t expect you to solve any of my problems for me. Don’t worry about that, I’ll deal with Kheshiri.” She tried to ignore the sly amusement that radiated from the demon in question, who was at least still keeping her expression even. “To my knowledge, this kind of Black Wreath spellcraft is rarely available for Pantheon-aligned warlocks to study; I’m certain it will be of at least some value to you, even if not for its intended purpose. And if nothing else, do you recall what I said I’d planned to do with it in the first place?”

“I do,” he said slowly. “That might be a bit trickier for me than for you; I have no personal connection…there.”

“You are courteous and professional,” she assured him with a smile. “Despite her reputation, that’s really all you need.”

Kheshiri remained outwardly calm, but her increasing curiosity and alarm was deeply satisfying. Melaxyna was grinning openly.

Hesthri snorted. “If you ever do manage to get her back in that bottle, just do us all a favor and drop it in the ocean.”

“Never drop one of those in the ocean,” Melaxyna retorted, her smile vanishing. “Rookie mistake. If the water’s deep enough, the pressure will crush it and release the demon. If it’s not, mermaids will find it; they’re drawn to magical objects.”

“You’re awfully free with your advice,” Kheshiri commented. “Pretty confident you’ll never be stuck in one of those, are you?”

Melaxyna shrugged. “It looks like a more comfortable prison than the last one I was in. If I never taste bacon and mushrooms again it’ll be far too soon…”

Natchua just sighed. “Well, I believe we have caused enough trouble here for one night.”

“Oh, come now, it’s scarcely an hour past dark! The night is—”

“Shut up, Kheshiri. Gather in, everyone. The sooner we get home, the sooner we get the next round of awkward explanations over with.”

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15 – 20

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“Warlocks?”

“Or, in theory, demons,” Khadizroth answered, still resting one hand upon Shook’s shoulder. The enforcer lay on the narrow bed in his room at the Inquisition’s improvised headquarters, blinking groggily at everyone around him—which was basically everyone else here, save the Church-assigned guards and servants. In addition to the dragon, Kheshiri knelt by his side, holding his hand against her bosom, and Vannae was lurking in one of the room’s corners, unobtrusive as only he could be. Syrinx stood at the foot of the bed with her arms folded belligerently, scowling at Shook as if she held him personally to blame for his situation. Which was likely the case.

“In theory,” Syrinx repeated with heavy sarcasm, her eyes cutting to Khadizroth.

“It bears mentioning, since we know so little,” the dragon replied in his customary calm. He seemed to make a game of not rising to her constant needling. “What we know is that the attack was magical and infernal in nature, thus a demon is a possibility. I am inclined to suspect warlocks, however. They are the most likely to be found lurking in human cities.”

Syrinx grunted, turned, and began pacing back and forth. Her caged lion routine appeared to be just a sign that she was deep in thought; apparently the woman couldn’t do anything without looking like she wanted to kill somebody. Shook suspected that she existed in a constant state of wanting to kill somebody, anybody, or everybody. For as brief a time as he’d known Basra Syrinx, he already fully understood why Bishop Snowe would go behind her boss’s back and secretly sneak off halfway across the continent to try and get rid of Syrinx for good.

“And you say you’ve never heard of this magic before.”

“I said I have never seen it before,” Khadizroth corrected gently. “I’ve heard of such spells, but only in rumors, ancient tomes of infernal magic, and the boasting of red dragons. Allegedly, Elilial’s wraiths employed some such craft during the last Hellwar, though I did not encounter it personally. This is exceedingly advanced infernomancy, Inquisitor. There are few warlocks who even might have the capability.”

“So,” she murmured, still pacing with her eyes now narrowed to slits. “Wreath.”

“Those fucking…” Shook started to struggle upright, but Khadizroth exerted slight pressure on his shoulder—a message, not enough to physically hold him down.

“It is normal to feel foggy after what you have been through, Jeremiah, even with the most thorough cleansing I could give you. Your mind will clear quickly, but do not push yourself before it does.”

Shook settled back down, squinting up at the dragon, who was looking at Syrinx. Actually, by that point he felt fine; pretty well-rested and alert, considering the amount of fae healing that had been done on him in the last few minutes. Further, he would have bet Khadizroth knew that perfectly well. He made a show of squeezing his eyes shut and then blinking rapidly, letting them go out of focus in an imitation of his own natural state just moments ago.

Jeremiah Shook knew a subtle signal from a teammate when he saw one, and all other things being equal, he trusted Khadizroth to know what he was about. And Syrinx’s very presence automatically validated any measures to pull the wool over her eyes.

“What of our actual targets?” Khadizroth asked, watching Basra stalk up and down the narrow room. “We are, after all, pursuing a mysterious cult with mysterious powers. Among other things, we know for a fact that they have prodigious skill in necromancy.”

“Necromancy isn’t infernomancy,” she snorted, giving him a scathing look in passing.

“Of course,” he said politely. “But there is a saying: when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses before zebras.”

Syrinx slammed to a halt so abruptly that Shook twitched in bed, then made a show of lolling his head drunkenly to one side. She didn’t appear even to notice him, though, fixing her attention fully on the dragon.

“Khadizroth, perhaps you can clear something up for me,” the Inquisitor said in an alarmingly calm tone. “What in the hell is a zebra?”

If Khadizroth was taken aback by the intensity with which she delivered this apparently innocuous question, he gave no overt sign of it.

“Zebras are a rare species of equine which are found only on the Arkanian sub-continent,” he explained. “They greatly resemble horses, aside from their coloration, which consists of black and white vertical stripes. Unfortunately, they are not domesticable, being notoriously ill-tempered and aggressive.”

“Oh,” she said pensively, looking off to the side. Incongruously, she smiled. “Oh, I get it. Good one.”

“It’s a somewhat obscure aphorism, but I can’t claim original credit,” Khadizroth said, still showing no surprise at this turn of the conversation. “I merely meant that given our mission here, it might be premature to posit the intervention of a hypothetical third party when we are already after dangerous prey of uncertain capabilities. These cultists have not been seen using infernomancy, that we know of, but we specifically do not know their identity or motivation, or the origin of their powers. The necromancy they were seen performing was very impressive, as I understand it, and the spell used on Jeremiah something nearly unheard of.”

“That works the other way, too,” she snorted, turning aside and starting to pace once more. “If it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and uses infernal spells like a duck, no reason to assume it’s a mysterious doomsday cult when the Black Wreath are known to be belligerent and active.”

“Actually, they have been notably quiet since the debacle in Tiraas,” Khadizroth countered. “The last I’ve heard of them popping up since was the announcement that Tellwyrn actually invited them to her school in Last Rock. And again, this is a particular kind of spell which they have never been known to use—strange, if they had the ability this whole time, especially as it would be fantastically suited to their goals in particular. And chaos cults are nothing if not unpredictable in their methods.”

Syrinx stopped again, turning to frown at him. “Chaos? Where are you getting that?”

“A theory, as yet unsupported by the evidence,” he admitted, releasing Shook’s shoulder to fold his hands at his waist. “Necromancy is the only firm lead we have on these people. It was also highly characteristic of the chaos cult which attacked Veilgrad not so long ago. And these people did pop up in the middle of Tiraas with no prior hint of their existence, and then disappeared without a trace.”

“Nothing I’ve been told suggests chaos is a factor here,” she said, then leveled a finger at him. “And don’t you go borrowing that kind of trouble unless we have good and sufficient evidence that it needs to be considered. The Veilgrad cultists were necromancers out of expediency; they were operating out of the catacombs where all the corpses were. No, everything points to a warlock attack, so that is what we will assume. And that leads to the question of why the hell our boy was ambushed by warlocks and then ditched in an alley!” She turned the full force of her glare on Shook. “I don’t suppose you have remembered anything slightly useful, yet?”

“It is possible some few of his memories will return in time,” said Khadizroth. “But definitely not so soon after the event. He is unlikely to be fully lucid—”

“Excuse me, dragon,” Syrinx said very evenly, “but was someone talking to you?”

He bowed, and took a step back away from her. “My apologies, Inquisitor.”

“I went to the cafe,” Shook said, not faking the slowness of his speech or the faraway expression in his eyes; it was difficult to dredge up the images from his memory. It no longer hurt, but he well remembered the singe of hostile magic attacking his mind, and the recollection of it was like a curtain over his thoughts, growing thicker and hazier the more he tried to focus on what he needed to know. “That’s… That was the last time it was clear. I think I talked to somebody. Yeah, yeah, I remember that much. A man.”

“His name?” Syrinx said flatly. “Description?”

He shook his head slowly. “Sorry, boss. Whole thing kinda trails off into sparks after that. Whoever these assholes were, they knew what they were doing. I get some flashes of what came later…” He squinted, concentrating on what few flickers remained. “A dark place… I think that was just the alley where K found me. Beams of light—yeah, wandshots, I’m pretty sure. I dunno who fired or at who.”

“One of your wands was on the ground,” Khadizroth said, reaching out to touch the shaft of dark wood where it lay on his nightstand. “I retrieved it. Unfortunately, it carries no trace of the magics used in its vicinity. Occasionally one can extract such hints from enchanted objects, but in this case it was a forlorn hope.”

“How specifically inconvenient,” Syrinx sneered.

Shook started to shoot back at her, remembered Khadizroth wanted him to play possum, and winced, placing a hand on his forehead. He slumped back against the pillow, growling deep in his throat, a noise which came quite naturally.

“Rest, master,” Kheshiri murmured, caressing his hand and then tucking it right into her cleavage. “We’ll get them for this.”

Syrinx gave the succubus a look of utter contempt, then rolled her eyes and turned to resume pacing yet again. “Then the question becomes: why did Thumper get rolled by the Wreath, in particular?”

“Also significant is that whoever attacked him used esoteric spellcraft to wipe his memory and leave him for us to find,” Khadizroth murmured. “Killing him would have been far easier.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Shook muttered.

“One damn thing at a time!” Syrinx barked. “Our mission, our very presence here is secret. No one should even know of the Inquisition’s existence! And yet, the first time I send you louts out on a simple information-gathering assignment, one manages to come under attack by the Black Wreath.”

“Second time,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

“What I want to know,” Syrinx snarled, “is which of you idiots have been jabbering!”

Shook lay back and tried to look sleepy.

“To whom would any of us talk?” Khadizroth asked. “Aside from being somewhat inherently unsociable, each of us is currently working for the Church because we have a need for protection, and nowhere else to go.”

“I haven’t even been outside this birdcage of yours since we got here,” Kheshiri pointed out.

“Another old saying springs to mind,” Khadizroth added. “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. We are not the only people involved in this.”

“That’s a point,” Shook said absently, groping at Kheshiri’s chest, less for the inherent pleasure of it than because the looks Syrinx was giving them were increasingly entertaining. “You’ve got at least one servant, guards… And obviously this whole Inquisition of yours has more to it than what’s just here. There are personnel in Tiraas, at least, right?”

“The Wreath’s whole method is infiltration,” said Kheshiri, puffing out her chest into his hand. The two of them shared a sense of humor when it came to winding up the likes of Basra. “Especially of low-ranking people who tend to get ignored.”

“Everyone here has been thoroughly vetted,” Syrinx said through gritted teeth, pointedly turning away from the pair of them. “But your point is taken. If our security has been compromised, there’s no reason to assume it had to come from you in particular. I suppose now I have to go round and interrogate the entire bloody staff. If there’s even still a point, since there’s no telling what Shook revealed to his attackers. I’ll have to assume it was everything.”

“How much do I even know?” he asked pointedly. “Who and where we are, what we’re doing. It ain’t like we got some great master plan in the works, anyway.”

Syrinx rubbed at her eyes in frustration. “Where in hell is that sniggering elf?”

“Presumably still following leads,” Khadizroth murmured. “Hopefully, the fact that he is taking this long means he is having better luck than the rest of us.”

“Well, as soon as his scrawny ass is back here, it’s not leaving again,” Syrinx stated curtly. “This operation is locked down until I figure out exactly how much damage has been done by this breach. We must assume our location has been betrayed, and while I doubt even the Wreath would attack a Church facility openly and in force, it doesn’t pay to make assumptions with the likes of them. We’ll be moving ASAP. I have to arrange a suitable alternate base first…” Her scowl deepened. “And verify, again, that none of the base staff are corrupted.”

“If we may be of assistance in any way, you have only to ask,” Khadizroth said gravely.

“Yeah!” Kheshiri simpered. “We live to serve!”

“You freaks have ‘helped’ enough for one day, I think. Everyone is confined to the safe house until further notice, and while I realize this isn’t exactly a sprawling estate, I would appreciate it if you lot would try not to get underfoot while I’m cleaning up this mess.”

“And our core mission?” Khadizroth asked.

Her scowl was a fearsome thing to behold. “Our mission…is effectively halted. If this is our quarry striking back at us, our whole strategy will need to change. Though I don’t know how they could even know we are here unless several of you have been more grotesquely incompetent than is even possible. More likely the Black Wreath has discovered a secret Church operation and decided to meddle, in which case the entire thing might have to be scrapped. I probably don’t need to tell you this,” she added, glaring at each of them in turn, “but this does not look good, for any of us. And we are none of us in a position where we can afford not to look good.”

“Well,” Khadizroth said gravely, “for now, we will simply have to rely upon your guidance, Inquisitor. We will be here when you have tasks for us again.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she grunted, waving him off. “Everybody out, then. Let Shook rest up; if you recover any fragment of memory from that missing period, Shook, you come to me with it immediately. I don’t care how inconsequential it seems. I will be the judge of what’s relevant.”

“Can do, boss,” he said, saluting haphazardly.

“That means everybody get out and let the man rest,” Syrinx added acidly when nobody moved.

“The Inquisitor is right,” said Khadizroth. “I can work a minor craft that will help you sleep, Jeremiah. I do not know a specific counter to this specific spell, but if you are willing to indulge me I can induce a dreamless state that is generally recuperative for the mind. It may yield results, if the memories are still there to be recovered.”

“Uh… Not tryin’ to be difficult, K, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I’m not excited about having more hoodoo done to my head right now.”

“I will not force the issue, of course. I merely offer, for your good and that of the mission. Rest assured, I am extremely competent.”

“Omnu’s breath, let him help,” Syrinx said irritably, pausing in the doorway after shooing Kheshiri and Vannae out. “Did you not hear me say we need every possible scrap you can recover? If the dragon doesn’t know what he’s doing, no one does.”

“Yeah…all right, fine,” Shook said with a sigh.

“Thank you, Inquisitor,” Khadizroth said politely, bowing to her. “Would you kindly close the door? The quieter, the better. This should not take long; should you need me after—”

“No one leaves the house,” she ordered curtly. “If and when I want you, I’ll find you.”

Syrinx shut the door behind her, harder than was called for upon a room for which quiet had just been requested.

Khadizroth stepped silently over to it and rested his fingertips against the wood, closing his eyes and for a few long seconds just standing there. Shook watched him curiously until the dragon inhaled deeply and lowered his hand.

“We are alone. Good, we must have a quick discussion during what little privacy we are afforded.”

“So that sleep thing was a crock of bull,” Shook said, grinning. “Had a feeling.”

“Actually, that offer was quite real, and I still strongly suggest it. I don’t think well of the odds of recovering any more memories, I must inform you, but attacks upon the mind are to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Your brain needs rest and rejuvenation.”

“Yeah, fair enough,” Shook agreed with a worried frown. He didn’t feel brain-damaged, at least not anymore, but the dragon was right; that was not an area with which risks should be taken. “You not gonna do your ward thing on the room?”

“It is a mistake to over-rely upon magic. For furtive conversations such as this, it is more likely to attract attention than to deflect it. On the subject of deflections, I rather think Syrinx is correct that the Wreath has caught wind of us hunting them. Any further attempts by me to deflect her interest back to this mystery cult would have prompted her to wonder about my motives.”

“Thought that was your angle,” Shook said, nodding. “How’s that gonna affect our game?”

“The range of possibilities narrows if this turns explicitly into the Inquisition versus the Wreath; the lack of that other cult in the mix deprives us of a convenient patsy. I believe we can still work it to our advantage, but too much is unknown and up in the air to lay firm plans just yet. There is a much more immediate problem, Jeremiah; brace yourself.”

“Uh oh.”

“I am accustomed to sensing the presence of a specific, very significant infernal artifact upon your person—one tweaked with arcane charms and linked to your own life force. I have not intruded upon your privacy, but the nature of such a thing is impossible for a being like my self not to notice simply by being in a room with it. Jeremiah, when I found you in that alley, it was missing.”

Shook went pale. He already knew the dragon was right; it had escaped his notice amid all the pain and subsequent healing, but on having his attention called to it, he keenly felt the absence of the reliquary’s familiar weight inside his coat. Still, he clutched at the spot where it normally lay out of useless reflex.

“Oh, shit. Shit. Motherfucker.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth urged, again laying a hand on his shoulder. The dragon’s voice was soothing but firm, a tone that practically commanded calm. “The soul vessel is lost, and unless we are able to learn the identity of your attacker, we have little chance of retrieving it. In the meantime, this provides clues. Obviously your assailant was an infernomancer; the interest of such a being in a Vanislaad soul vessel is obvious. And yet, Kheshiri is still here, neither recalled to it nor given contradicting orders. She shows, so far, no sign of being aware it is gone. Either the thief does not understand how to make use of it—unlikely, given the caliber of infernomancy they have already demonstrated—or for their own purposes saw fit to leave her at liberty. I do not yet know what meaning to attach to these possibilities, but they cannot but be significant.”

“I had it bound to me,” Shook said weakly, his eyes wide and darting about frantically. “They wouldn’t just be able to…”

“I must inform you, Jeremiah, that any skilled warlock would be able to dismantle arcane charms laid after-the-fact upon such a device. It is of Black Wreath craft; its core magics are quite impervious to tampering. All you can do is add bindings, which can then be removed far more easily than they were applied. Even an arcane enchanter would be able to do so. The lack of a reaction so far suggests they may still be working upon that task. Regardless, this is the reality we must now accept: very shortly, Kheshiri will be either gone, or suddenly working against us. Or possibly even left entirely to her own devices, which for practical purposes is the same.”

“I…she’ll listen to me,” Shook said frantically, starting to rise from the bed. “I know my girl, after two years. She—”

“Jeremiah.” Khadizroth placed a hand against his chest and pushed him inexorably back into the bed. “That creature is not your girl. You have, through cleverness and strength of will, kept nominal control of her for a time—longer than most men can claim to have done, even most warlocks. But that time was always limited. Children of Vanislaas are not pets, and leashes do not hold them. Be grateful that this ending has come without worse loss to you than even this; you have suffered less for it than most who underestimate their kind. Now, it’s over. Let her go.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Shook snarled, grabbing his wrist and shoving it aside. “Everybody says that, but I did it. She’s mine, and I’m not giving up my property to anyone!”

“You have held Kheshiri this long in part because she chose to allow it,” Khadizroth said mercilessly, holding his gaze. “I have watched you and the demon carefully, seen her working at your mind. Even with your hand on her chain, it was she leading more often than being led, and more so the longer you were linked. It is for the best that you are separated before you ended up fully subservient and ignorant of it.”

“I am no one’s servant!” Shook roared, surging up off the bed. He managed to sit upright, but Khadizroth was standing too close for him to even swing his legs over the side, and he immediately had to sit back down, to his further outrage.

“Of course you are,” the dragon retorted, still calm. “Right now, you should be worrying about what Syrinx will do when she learns you no longer control the asset that earned you a place here. That moment is coming very quickly.”

“Fuck Syrinx and fuck you. Get out of my way, I’m going to get my fucking property back!”

“Jeremiah Shook.” Khadizroth’s voice pushed down on him more firmly than his hand had, pressing him inexorably back against the cushion. He was still in a well-lit bedroom with a thin elvish man who had green eyes, or so his senses told him, but now another impression began to be layered over the top of this perception. The image of the room in his mind wavered, dreamlike, imposing the mundane room with the towering form of a dragon, great wings and sinuous neck arched menacingly above and blazing emerald eyes boring into his very soul. “Do you imagine it pleases me to bow my head to that vicious little shell of a woman whom I could annihilate with one snap of my jaws? Do you think I seek to impose any greater humility upon you than I have embraced for myself? I am a creature beyond your understanding, blessed and burdened with pride greater than you could imagine. And even I am not too proud to bend my neck, when the situation calls for strategy above force. You are an enforcer, one of Eserion’s chosen. You understand this—or did, before that slinking demoness worked her fingers into your mind, stroking your ego and teasing away your restraint. I am not trying to subdue you.”

The second perception faded away, the room swimming back into simple focus, and once more he was simply there, in a bed, with a green-eyed man standing over him wearing a sad little smile.

“Right now, I am the closest thing in this world you have to a friend,” Khadizroth said gently. “I am trying to free you.”

“Why?” Shook croaked in spite of himself.

“Why would I not?”

“Nobody does anything just…to be nice. Everybody’s got an angle.”

“Oh, Jeremiah.” Slowly, Khadizroth turned and sat down on the foot of the bed; Shook retreated, tucking his knees against his chest. The dragon just gazed wearily at the wall, offering no further hint of aggression. “Some philosophers argue that there is no such thing as a truly good action, because there are no truly unselfish actions. Because it is inherently, viscerally satisfying to be good to others. You’re wise to be mindful of schemers, but if you disregard the very possibility of altruism, you are blind to a vast swath of the motivations of people. But…if it helps you…I am not without ulterior motive.”

“Uh huh,” Shook prompted warily.

“You’re a flawed creature, make no mistake,” Khadizroth said with a wry note in his voice, turning to regard him directly, “but in everything that is detestable in you, I see what I detest in myself. The reflection of my own sins, and the prospect of further. If I turned up my nose at you, I would be the most craven hypocrite. And I find, upon reflection, that while I have been worse than a hypocrite, I am unwilling to add that to my failures. We are here—you, me, Vannae. The demon is as good as gone. It is only a matter of time before the Jackal either turns on us or we simply lose control of him; I am somewhat surprised it has taken this long. And Syrinx is a lesser version of him; all the same flaws with less self-mastery. I would not have advised growing attached to her, even if we didn’t specifically intend to remove her from our list of troubles. Like you, I do not have so many friends left that I can afford to mistreat those who remain.”

Shook drew in a deep breath, unable to keep it from shuddering. “Well… What the fuck do we do now?”

“In the near future we will have to think very fast, and react just as quickly. There is simply too much unknown for us to plan that far in advance. But now, all we can do is make ourselves ready. So for the time being, you need to rest. You will need every iota of your strength very soon, my young friend. Lie back.”

He found himself obeying without protest, settling back down into the pillows and straightening out his legs as Khadizroth stood and stepped over to stand by his head. The dragon laid one graceful hand against his forehead, and that was it: nothing that looked or felt like magic. Just the light pressure, the warmth of his skin, and a single word:

“Sleep.”

Shook’s eyes closed in a second and his breathing evened out swiftly as he sank below consciousness. Khadizroth kept a hand upon his brow, still speaking softly.

“What is lost is gone; we heal not by restoring the old but by growing the new. I give you a dream, my friend, to aid you in rebuilding yourself. You are freed of one demon, and you must master the other with which you struggle. Rage.”

Shook’s sleeping face twisted in a scowl and he clenched his fists against the quilt.

“Feel the anger,” Khadizroth murmured. “Let it flow through you. Let it pass you by, Jeremiah, and understand that it is only a thing. You are not your anger. You have it; it does not have you. Learn to let it pass.”

Slowly, the human’s body began to relax, and his expression evened out. He breathed in slowly and back out, eyes darting behind their lids.

Khadizroth released him and stepped back. The dragon gazed thoughtfully down at the enforcer for several protracted seconds. Then, suddenly, he lifted his head and turned toward the door.

In a flash he had stepped across the room and yanked it open.

A few yards down the hall, Kheshiri turned to meet his eyes, perched in the sill of the window whose bars she had just somehow finished working loose. By this point, he knew the range of her senses; that was close enough to have overheard a great deal, if not everything. The succubus winked, and launched herself out over the ravine.

Khadizorth tore across the hall in a near-instantaneous glide, but even moving faster than an elf, he was barely in time to catch sight of Kheshiri vanishing into invisibility as she soared away.

“…clever girl,” he acknowledged, pulling himself back in out of sight. The dragon lingered for a moment, gazing thoughtfully out into space. Then he returned momentarily to the bedroom to pull the door softly closed, and departed up the hall, already planning how to manage this new crisis.

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15 – 10

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“Natchua, honey,” Malivette said in a deliberately kind and gentle voice, “I hope you’re comfortable being condescendingly spoken to like you’re a child, because my only other response to that kind of talk…well, you’d like that even less. Now, really. Are you sure you want to make this confrontational? Have you maybe not thought this matter through carefully?”

“Of course I haven’t thought it through,” Natchua said bitterly. “I came here with every intention of never interacting with anyone in Veilgrad but Sherwin. If I had my way, everything would unfold without anybody knowing we were ever here, and everybody would have been better off that way. Instead I’m now dealing with you, and no, I don’t have a plan for that. What I have is a lot of infernal magic and a vested interest in protecting these people. That’s what you should keep in mind here, Lady Dufresne. You start messing with my friends and I’ve got exactly one recourse for that, and it won’t leave anybody happy. So instead of that, how about we walk this back a little bit and see if we can’t find a friendly resolution to this…difference of opinion?”

“Uh, Natchua?” Sherwin said warily, glancing around at Malivette’s four attendants, who had fully encircled the group. “Remember just a minute ago when I said very firmly that we do not want to start a fight here?”

“Sounds like she agrees with you, Sherwin,” Malivette remarked, giving him a thin smile. “Right, Natchua? Nobody here wants the outcome of any kind of brawl that might ensue, especially since there’s no such outcome that doesn’t include most or all of you dead. Natchua, I need you to button up your fly and think with your big head for a moment. I’m sure you are very protective of your friends, and that’s admirable and all, but that is a succubus. If you know anything about infernal magic, or if you’re able to read, you understand why she cannot be allowed to run loose. I’m responsible for this city, and this province, and you bringing her here is the kind of thing for which I could legally have already separated you from your skeleton if I had any intention of doing such a thing. Sometimes, kiddo, the right thing to do is back down, acknowledge exactly how you’ve made a gigantic cock-up of the situation, and let the nice Imperial governor contain the incredibly dangerous demon without making this any messier than it already is.”

“Don’t,” Sherwin urged, placing a hand on Melaxyna’s shoulder as she tensed up. “Even the thralls can track you by smell; Vette definitely can. Don’t go invisible or do anything else to set them off.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” the succubus muttered, tail lashing.

“It’s not even that you’re wrong,” Natchua said quietly, still standing between Malivette at the others. “But it is what it is. Melaxyna is not a threat to anyone right now, and won’t be so long as you leave her in my custody.”

The vampire’s scarlet eyes flicked past her to Sherwin. “Your custody, is it? Interesting. If anything, you’re even less qualified for that than he is.”

“She’s a lot more qualified than you may realize,” Hesthri offered.

“We can either come to some kind of compromise,” Natchua insisted, staring her down, “or you can suffer the consequences.”

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“I’m afraid not, Jonathan,” Natchua replied without taking her eyes off Malivette. “That’s all we have to work with, here: the fact that interfering with us would be a lot more trouble than leaving us alone. I don’t want to do this, Malivette, but if you try to separate Melaxyna or any of my people, I’m going to have to stop you. And you may very well win that confrontation, but I can promise you it would cost you dearly. I intend to die elsewhere, do you understand? Not dealing with you. But I intend to die, regardless, and if you force my hand, it’ll be here and now, destroying a wide swath of whatever you may still love in this world. I don’t want to, and it may cost me everything, but I’ll do it anyway because I am way past being backed into a corner. Or you can avoid all this and we can find a compromise. Choose.”

In the short quiet which followed, it wasn’t just the vampires and elves who could hear Jonathan’s teeth grinding.

“Wooooow,” Melaxyna said at last. “I do believe that was the single edgiest thing I’ve ever heard. Did that sound impressive in your head before your mouth fell open? A chapbook author wouldn’t even cram a speech like that into the mouth of their most cliché villain—they’d re-read that and say ‘nah, everybody but consumptive thirteen-year-olds would find this unintentionally hilarious’ and start over. Really, Natchua, a vampire who lives in a crumbling manor with four beautiful maidservants is telling you to tone down the melodrama. You think about that for a moment, and reflect on the direction your life has taken.”

By the end of that, Natchua’s mouth was hanging slightly open. She blinked her eyes three times in rapid succession.

Malivette, meanwhile, clapped her hands together once and rubbed them briskly. “Well! I’ll say this much for this entirely too awkward conversation: now I know who’s responsible for belatedly jamming a spine up Sherwin’s butt, and to my surprise, it’s not the succubus.”

“You really don’t need to be an asshole about this, Vette,” Sherwin complained.

“It’s too easy to be with the effort of not doing it, Sherwin dear. I would like to have a pleasant little chat with the ringleader of this fascinating operation, without the peanut gallery. Girls, make our guests as comfortable as you can for a little bit. If,” she heavily emphasized the syllable, holding up one hand and meeting Natchua’s eyes, “Melaxyna attempts to escape, or does anything else that you judge requires it, kill her immediately. Failing that, she is an esteemed guest and is to be treated as such until I say otherwise.”

“Yes, Mistress,” all four chorused in eerie unison.

“And yet,” Melaxyna mused, “still not the kinkiest party I’ve ever been to.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said pleasantly, “do join me upstairs. I believe we should converse woman to woman without the distraction of all these onlookers.”

“I—”

“Now.” The syllable cracked with the force of a thunderbolt, seemingly through the entire house; the very floorboards shuddered and in the near distance, several doors slammed in emphasis.

Natchua slowly tore her gaze from Malivette’s and nodded at the rest of her group. “It’s all right. Please do as they ask, and be polite.”

“Look who’s telling who to be polite,” Jonathan said flatly. “Keep in mind we’re all still in the building and try not to start a brawl, will you?”

“I did manage to run my own life before you came along, Jonathan,” she said irritably, turning her back on him. “Lead the way, Lady Dufresne.”


Syrinx continued pacing up and down for a few minutes after hearing their report. The rest of them sat in silence in the conference room, watching her.

It wasn’t as if there was much for her to think about, and if this was some kind of power play, it clearly was not working. The three of them had returned to find Syrinx already stewing and both Kheshiri and the Jackal looking serenely pleased with themselves, which as good as said how that inevitable personality clash had played out in their absence. Now, Khadizroth and Vannae sat in matching poses of pure serenity, hands folded atop the table and regarding the pacing Inquisitor in total calm. The Jackal had tipped his chair up on its hind legs, slouching back in it and resting his snakeskin boots on the table. He was unnecessarily cleaning his fingernails with a stiletto and intermittently glancing up at Syrinx, his self-satisfied grin not wavering for a moment. Shook had pulled a chair away from the table and turned it to face the front of the room directly, and now slouched back in it with his legs splayed, watching the Inquisitor with a vague little smile with his head resting in Kheshiri’s bosom while she, standing close behind him, slowly ran her hands up and down his arms.

The Inquisitor’s clear anger was having no effect on its intended targets, and that appeared to be making it worse.

“And that’s all?” Syrinx abruptly demanded, coming to a stop and rounding on them.

“At this time, yes,” Khadizroth said, still utterly calm. “Your lead appears to have been fruitful. The results are slight, this is true, but one cannot expect miracles at the very first step of such an investigation.”

“Something wrong, boss lady?” Shook asked in a milder tone than his voice ever held when he wasn’t being deliberately spiteful. “It was your lead, after all. We met the mark and got results. I dunno why you seem so…tetchy.”

Ironically, that suddenly calmed Syrinx down. She straightened up and the tension melted from her stance, her incipient scowl fading away as she turned a more thoughtful stare upon Shook. He continued to sprawl indolently in his seat, but others in the room more sensitive to undercurrents clearly smelled danger; the Jackal’s blade froze, as did his expression, and he glanced rapidly between Shook and Basra. Kheshiri also stopped the movements of her hands, her fingers clenching on the sleeves of Shook’s coat.

“Quite so,” Syrinx said in a clipped tone, staring blankly at him. “For some reason I expected such a vaunted crew as yours to have achieved more progress, but in hindsight I cannot imagine why.”

“Well, don’t take it to heart, sugar,” he drawled. “We’ve disappointed even smarter people than you.”

Kheshiri’s fingers clawed an iota harder in a silent warning, which he disregarded.

“Mr. Shook,” Basra said, now with a pleasant little smile that made the Jackal’s grin widen slightly in anticipation, “it’s beyond my fathoming why you would even want to get a rise out of me in your situation, but what disappoints me most is that you aren’t better at it. Apparently the Thieves’ Guild doesn’t train its thugs nearly as well as they like to claim. Regardless, you will straighten up. You rely upon his Holiness the Archpope for protection from the Imperial law enforcement and multiple cults you have provoked, including your own. And right now, it is I who will decide how, and indeed whether, that protection will be extended over you.”

He had tensed up, but did not move, and kept his expression deliberately even. “That so?”

“You stand out even in this gaggle of reprobates, Shook,” she stated, planting her fists on the edge of the table and leaning forward to stare down at him. “I know your history. While we are here, I promise you, there will be no preying on or abusing women.”

Shook’s frozen expression suddenly thawed, and then warmed, a dark but genuine smile curling up the corners of his mouth.

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

The Jackal burst out laughing. The room filled with a series of shrill barks of his amusement which may have hinted at the origin of his nickname.

Slowly, Basra straightened back up, her expression revealing nothing.

“In a situation like ours, discipline is a necessity, not a luxury. It is sorely clear how the lack of it has rendered you lot virtually useless. For the duration of your service under my Inquisition, Shook, you will address me as Inquisitor, or ma’am. Is that clear?”

He gave her a lazy mockery of a salute. “Yes sir, ma’am.”

She elected not to push it, instead turning a wry look on the Jackal. “Are you just about done?”

“Wait, wait,” he gasped, holding up one finger with the arm not clutching his ribs. “A-almost…”

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

The elf instantly quieted as if a switch had been flipped, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands atop the table. The sudden display of obedience did not improve Basra’s mood; the look she turned upon the dragon was even more wintry than that which she’d directed at Shook.

“I am not very familiar with this city,” Khadizroth said in a courteously calm tone, bowing his head deferentially to Syrinx. “So I’m afraid I have little useful counsel to offer as regards our next move. We await your orders, Inquisitor.”

She held his emerald stare for a moment, then worked her jaw once as if chewing on the idea of him, and finally turned her gaze on the paper lying near her on the table. Scrawled in Khadizroth’s neat hand upon a sheet of enchanting vellum Vannae had been carrying was the short list of locations in Ninkabi where the contact Basra had sent them to meet had said cultist activity could be found. She picked it up, eyes tracking back and forth as she re-read the few lines.

“What was your impression of the contact in question?” Basra asked suddenly.

Vannae and Shook both turned to look at Khadizroth, who opened his mouth to answer.

“Shook,” Basra said curtly. “I want to hear from you.”

Shook hesitated, glancing at Khadizroth and then back to her with eyebrows raised. “Uh, you sure? As you were just commenting, I’m just muscle, here. Big K’s the—”

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

“Well, yes. You literally just did that.”

“Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said softly. “The Inquisitor is correct. Please don’t add to her difficulties.”

Shook hesitated, then nodded at him. “Yeah, fair enough. My apologies, Inquisitor. Well, there wasn’t a lot to see. Shortish woman, wore Omnist robes with the hood up. Not much of a disguise, since even monks don’t just walk around that way—practically announcing that you’re up to something, walking around like that. But it worked as far as hiding her face, anyway, and it’s not like we came off any less weird, with K having to use practically the same get-up. Acted pretty standard, for an informant who’s not used to playing this game. Skittish, looking over her shoulders a lot. Low-pitched voice, I think might’ve been using a voice-altering charm, but I’m no enchanter. Gave us those locations and then bugged off outta there.”

For the first part of his recitation, Basra had kept a level stare locked on Khadizroth, who was watching Shook attentively, but by the end she had directed her full attention to the enforcer.

“Anything to add to that, either of you?” she asked when he came to a finish.

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

“A good description,” the dragon agreed. “I can confirm the presence of a voice-altering charm. More than that I did not discern, as any such measures would by nature be intrusive, and your orders were to get information without spooking or provoking the informant. I assumed you wished to avoid jeopardizing the source, which of course is wise.”

“Where’d you dig up this alleged source, anyway?” the Jackal asked lazily, now balancing his knife point-down on his fingertip.

“You know as much as you need to,” Basra snapped.

“As you wish,” Khadizroth said diplomatically before the elf could respond. “I certainly understand the operational need to control information. As a rule, the more we know, the more effective we are in the field. I must admit I am curious about your choice of agents to send on this particular assignment.”

“Dragon,” Syrinx said coldly, “understand this now: I will not tolerate your attempts to undercut my authority.”

“I apologize if I have overstepped,” Khadizroth said, bowing to her from his seat. “No disrespect was intended. I simply took you for a kindred spirit, so to speak.”

Basra actually betrayed surprise, straightening up suddenly. “I beg your pardon?”

Khadizroth glanced briefly around the table, then unlaced his fingers to spread his hands in a small gesture of self-deprecation with a wry little smile. “You are not far wrong to call us a gaggle of reprobates. Most of us here have nowhere else to go, and assuredly little other prospect of being of use to the world than in the Archpope’s service. Likewise, we face potential…difficulties…with certain parties we have offended, should we find ourselves outside his protection. Forgive me, but I thought perhaps you could relate.”

Her lips drew back to bare teeth in a nearly feral expression. Khadizroth kept right on speaking with truly impressive control, managing to hastily cut off any response without sounding at all rushed.

“Those of us who have been a bit longer in this situation have rather laboriously learned not to take offense when it is inevitably given; it has doubtless not escaped your notice that this is a group of large personalities stuffed into a small space. Despite the obvious conflicts, we are a surprisingly effective unit when we exercise our various skills cooperatively. It seems to me a woman of your formidable reputation makes a significant addition to an already significant array of talent.”

“You seem to be under a misconception,” Syrinx said icily. “I am not joining your little…club. This operation is mine. You lot are simply an asset which has been assigned to me for my use, at my discretion. The sooner and more thoroughly you internalize that fact, the more smoothly this inquisition will go. And you want it to go smoothly. If it does not, I promise you, it will not be I who suffers for the failure.”

“Of course.” Again, Khadizroth inclined his head respectfully to her. “What is our next move, Inquisitor?”

Basra turned away, again studying the page. She paced up and down the short end of the room twice more before abruptly stopping.

“You were wondering why I dispatched the muscle and not the subtlety to meet with an informant.”

“Seemed like a curious choice,” Shook agreed, leaning his head back into Kheshiri’s cleavage while she began kneading his shoulders. “But hey, what do I know. The muscle just goes where the brain says.”

Basra divided a look of withering contempt between the two of them, which earned her nothing but a flirtatious wink from the succubus.

“I risked acting on the assumption that even you had sufficient wits to follow simple directions and not create a complete debacle out of one short conversation. I’m somewhat relieved to have that faith validated. The choice of you three was because I was uncertain of the identity and origin of this…informant. I preferred to deploy the less fragile talents given the potential risks. We are not going to be friends, let us clarify that up front. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be wasteful with your lives. You are, after all, valuable assets. Except Shook.”

The enforcer’s face tightened, but he threw her another sarcastic salute, not shifting from his comfortable position.

“I don’t know any better than you what any of these places are,” Basra continued brusquely, flapping the page once at Khadizroth. “I am going to check with the Holy Legion’s local personnel and decide on our next target, at which time I will have your next orders. For now… Adequate work, so far. Dismissed.”

The group exchanged a round of glances.

“Is that…military speak?” the Jackal asked, scratching his head. “What’s that mean, exactly?”

“I believe it means we can go,” Vannae offered.

“I think there’s a subext that we’re expected to go,” Kheshiri added.

“Correct.” Khadizroth pushed back his chair and stood; as if at that signal, the rest began rising as well. “It is customary to depart upon dismissal. Come, the Inquisitor has work and we will only be underfoot.”

He led the way to the door, the rest filing out after. Behind them, Basra turned her back, making a show of studying the list again, which did not conceal the seething tension that gripped her form.

Kheshiri at least waited until they were out in the hall with the door shut before commenting. “Now, that one is wound way too tight. Baiting her is so easy it’s not even fun.”

“Maybe don’t, then?” the Jackal suggested, then giggled shrilly. “Aw, who’m I kidding. You do your thing, doll—me, I have a taste for low-hanging fruit. And I’ve been itching to have a go a that one ever since she and a bunch of her Bishop friends ruined my night a couple years back. Actually it was just before I met the rest of you freaks. And now look! Poor little Basra has come down hard in the world.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth said firmly. “This is neither the time nor the place.”

The Jackal snickered, but followed without further commentary as the dragon led them to the common area around which was clustered the small bedrooms they had been assigned.

Vannae carefully shut the door behind them while the group clustered around the couch and two chairs before their small fireplace. Shook opened his mouth to speak, but Khadizroth forestalled him with an upraised hand.

The dragon produced a bottle seemingly from nowhere, a glossy thing of green glass about as tall as a wine bottle but much thinner. Raising it to his lips, he blew once across the top, producing a soft tone, then handed it to Vannae. The elf did likewise, his breath making a brief puff several notes higher in pitch, then turned and held it out to Shook.

The enforcer took the bottle slowly, frowning, and turned a look on Khadizroth. At the dragon’s encouraging nod, he shrugged and also blew across the lip, then handed it to Kheshiri. They all repeated the little ritual, the Jackal last; he pretended to fumble and almost drop it in the act of handing it back to Khadizroth, snickering at Vannae’s abortive motion as if about to dive to catch it.

Ignoring the byplay, Khadizroth held the bottle up to his own lips one more time, but on this round simply whispered something inaudible. Then he held the bottle out at arm’s length and upended it.

Whispers poured out, slithering voices resonating through the small room and gradually rising. As the sounds grew more distinct, their own voices emerged clearly, raised in an argument. Khadizroth gestured outward once with his hands, and the noise suddenly cut off.

“That,” he said, “is what anyone listening from outside the room will hear. For a few minutes, at least, we can speak in privacy.”

“Nice trick,” said the Jackal. “How come you never used that one before?”

“We are usually under tighter observation, especially in Tiraas, and I prefer not to tip my hand any more than necessary where Justinian might see it. Syrinx has fewer skills, resources, and options. Now time is short—while the spell lasts, let me catch you up.”

“So, shall I assume you were less than forthcoming about your encounter with the good Inquisitor?” Kheshiri asked sweetly.

“The person who came to meet us,” Khadizroth reported, “was none other than Bishop Branwen Snowe.”

The Jackal let out a whistle, but the dragon continued before anyone had a chance to chime in.

“There is, indeed, more going on here than we know—and more than Basra Syrinx knows. This cult, as we suspected, was a weapon of the Archpope’s and our mission here a sham. Snowe does not know what, specifically, Justinian intends by sending us all here, but her stated objective is to destroy Syrinx, whom she regards as unstable, dangerous, and a threat to the Archpope’s long-term plans.”

“Which is good and believable,” Shook added, “by virtue of being the simple truth. I never met somebody who so obviously had ‘crazy bitch’ written all over her.”

“And you’re taking Snowe at her word, are ya?” the Jackal asked wryly.

“Hardly,” Khadizroth replied. “She is, at the very least, going against Justinian’s wishes and seeking the downfall of another of his agents. To have achieved even this much progress toward such a goal, she would have to be far too clever to blithely trust the likes of us with her true intentions.”

“This game is getting better by the minute,” said Kheshiri, her tail beginning to sway eagerly behind her. “So Snowe has inserted herself into the Church’s agents out here to pose as Basra’s source, unknown to Basra?”

“Oh, he hasn’t even gotten to the good part yet,” Shook said.

“Snowe claims she has documentation of this secretive cult’s activities that is more thorough than anything any investigation could possibly turn up, if it were a serious mission,” said Khadizroth. “Evidently—and this should surprise none of you—the full details would be quite incriminating to Justinian, and as such she will not share them all. It appears she is, at least on some level, personally loyal to the Archpope. But she is willing to dole out enough tidbits for us to report back to Syrinx, and sustain the impression that we are actually pursuing this sham of an assignment.”

“While we…?” Kheshiri prompted, raising her eyebrows.

“The intelligence we just turned over is, indeed, about cult activity in Ninkabi,” Khadizroth said evenly. “But the cult in question is the Black Wreath.”

“And what,” the succubus said slowly, “is the Wreath doing here?”

“That she didn’t know,” Shook answered. “Seems like it’d be worth finding out, don’t you think?”

“So you want to conduct a real investigation of the Black Wreath while conducting a pretend investigation of this mystery cult?” the Jackal said, an incredulous note creeping into his customary grin.

“While,” Khadizroth replied, nodding, “playing both ends against the middle between Syrinx and Snowe. We need to learn what each of them is really up to, here, since they are clearly neither telling us anything resembling the truth.”

“And,” Shook added, “the most important part: figuring out how we can best use all of these assholes to bring each other down, before one or some or all of them can do it to us. And what do we call that, kitten?” he added condescendingly, swatting Kheshiri on the rump.

Her grin had stretched to resemble the Jackal’s at his most unhinged. “That, master, we call fun.”

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