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“Ah, perfect.” Mogul calmly adjusted his lapels as he stepped out of the shadows onto the latest rooftop. Carter landed beside him, for once without stumbling, and had to repress a moment of pride at how well he was adapting to shadow-jumping.
Their new perch was an especially narrow structure four stories tall, facing what had clearly once been a park before being piled with trash and the debris of preliminary deconstruction of some of the district’s buildings. The piles of rubbish were short, though, affording them a view of both the street leading to the bridge out of the empty district, and a side street which intersected it, down which a small party of people was now moving at a good clip.
“That’s them?” Carter asked, stepping up to the edge of the roof. He couldn’t see identifying details at this distance, but it pretty much had to be. The only other people around were Wreath warlocks, who were in hiding, and the four were clearly fleeing away from or toward something.
“Mm hm,” his guide murmured in reply, turning his back to the scene below.
“You called?” said a new voice from behind them. Carter embarrassed himself by jumping in surprise, then whirled to face the speaker. He might as well not have bothered; it was another figure shrouded in the gray anonymity of their ceremonial robes. Definitely male, possibly of a large build.
“There you are,” Mogul said, cheerful as ever, leaving Carter wondering by what mechanism he had called the man. “How’s it look out there?”
“You can see the Bishop and his servants nearing the square,” the warlock replied, nodding his hood in the direction of the street beyond. “There’s also activity just over the bridge. Looks like reinforcements coming to meet him.”
“All expected,” said Mogul. “What’d he bring?”
“His Butler, a pair of elves in…what I guess might be Eserite garb, or maybe they’re just stupid. Also two Huntsmen of Shaath.”
“That is interesting!” Mogul sounded delighted. He turned to look at Darling’s group and then at the bridge. Carter couldn’t see figures at that distance, but he wasn’t about to make assumptions regarding the warlocks’ capabilities. “Why, this is all shaping up marvelously. The timing is impeccable! The Lady smiles on us tonight. All right, you know the plan. Get started. Unleash the demons at both groups. Carefully, stagger the attacks so as to give them a sporting chance. If it isn’t too difficult to manage, do try to time it so that they meet up about as the demons run out.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” The robed figure put his hands together; there came a soft clicking noise, and he vanished in a swell of darkness.
“How many of those talismans do you have?” Carter asked.
“As many as we need, and a few extras to play with.”
“I must say that’s…oddly generous. That bit about giving them a sporting chance. These are your enemies, aren’t they?”
Mogul half-turned to give him a knowing smile. “And why waste a perfectly good enemy? I’m just getting to know this one. As soon as you kill the bastard you’re used to, you’ll find yourself hip-deep in an unknown quantity. Anyhow, I am taking the opportunity to…clean house a bit.” He turned back to watch the street. Darling’s party had slowed as they neared the square; suddenly there were flashes of fire and the white sparkle of wandshots from their vicinity. Infuriatingly, their path had taken them behind as shattered old clock tower, leaving Carter with no idea what was happening.
“The demons I’ve brought to this little hoedown are…troublesome sorts,” Mogul continued, idly gazing down on the street as if he could see the action. Nothing was visible except the odd flash of light. “Some of the more animalistic ones who just aren’t taking their training… Some sentients who seem determined to use the Wreath to scheme toward their own ends. Exactly the sort of thing we are on the mortal plane to put a stop to. Of course, we have our own methods, but when fortune gives me a squad of bloodthirsty Church enforcers, why waste the opportunity?”
“I see,” Carter said, frowning.
“Come now, Mr. Long, why do you imagine I really allowed Darling to finish his little obstacle course and get himself set up where he wanted to be? He needs to be in a position of strength if I’m to let him get out of this alive.”
“In that case…I’m afraid I don’t see,” Carter admitted.
Mogul laughed. “It’s all about expectations. As I told you earlier, I want to have a few words with Mr. Darling this evening, but following that, he can go home and do whatever it is Eserites do when not cutting purse strings. If I simply offered them the chance to leave unmolested, they would either suspect a trap and attack, or see it as a sign of weakness…and attack. If they’re going to attack anyway, I’d rather they be tired out mowing down the fodder first. Then we’ll have a nice, polite little stand-off and they can leave believing they forced us to a truce.”
“You’re that certain they’ll be so aggressive?”
“I am, as I said, cleaning house.” Mogul gave him a considering look. “I began this sequence of events by sending some of my less reliable members to visit the Church. Warlocks who, like the demons below, have been scheming on their own to amass personal power through the infernal arts, at the expense of their duties. Now, we attract all manner of miscellaneous oddballs and I’m quite indulgent of eccentricity in the ranks, but abuse of power is absolutely not to be tolerated. Ours is a sacred calling. So off went the ne’er-do-wells, and not a one came out alive. That’s what the servants of the Pantheon do when they catch someone who doesn’t bend knee to their power.”
“I’m not aware of Church personnel behaving that way, as a rule,” Carter said very carefully.
Mogul grinned bitterly. “I encourage you not to take my word for it. Look into the events of warlocks being killed by Bishops recently. They have floated the official story that the Wreath attacked them, and frankly I doubt there will be any contradicting evidence left intact. But have a long, deep look at the histories of the Bishops in question. Things may become more clear to you then.”
“This is all…absolutely byzantine,” Carter said, shaking his head.
“Demons are a responsibility, and an occasional means to an end,” Mogul replied. “They’re not the point of our faith; we serve the goddess of cunning. Who, through no fault of her own, was consigned to a dimension full of demons by her own family, and even still took it upon herself to defend the mortal world by disposing of the last hostile Elder Goddess. You don’t think it interesting that the only other deity who bothers to keep Scyllith away from our civilization is Themynra, who also is not of the Pantheon?”
Carter frowned, deep in thought. Below, Darling’s group moved out from behind cover, at a more cautious pace than before, but he barely saw them.
“Welp, looks like matters are coming to a head,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Come along, Mr. Long. Let’s go have us a chat.”
The third and final katzil demon rebounded off the wall against which Weaver’s wandshot had smashed it, emitting an aimless puff of flame from its mouth at the impact. The feathered serpent shook itself, barely staying aloft, and opened its fanged maw to direct another blast at them.
Joe fired a bolt of light straight down its throat. Soundlessly, the creature flopped to the pavement, where it immediately began to crumble to dust and charcoal, as the other two had.
“You seein’ what I’m seein’?” Joe asked, warily scanning the streets with his wands up.
“I see fucking demons!” Peepers practically wailed. She was trying to hide behind Darling, who had a throwing knife in each hand, but had let the two men with wands take the lead against the onslaught.
“Yeah,” said Weaver. “Small groups, one at a time. No warlocks, just demons. Not hitting hard enough to herd us away… We’re being softened up. Wonder what’ll be at the end after we mow down the disposables.”
“Hard to say what is and isn’t disposable with these guys,” Darling noted. “This whole thing started with them sending twelve trained spellcasters to their certain deaths. It’s odd that they’d do this now, when we’re close to the edge of the district. That’s not a smart place for the Wreath to set up a confrontation. Any ruckus kicked up in sight of the public will bring the Army down on them.”
“So, basically, we don’t know what the fuck is going on,” Weaver snorted. “Situation normal.”
“Standard procedures, then!” Darling proclaimed. “Forward! There’s a somewhat reasonable chance we’ll be having help soon.”
“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.
“He’s right, to the extent that we can’t exactly stay here,” said Joe. “Exit’s just up ahead. How’s it look, Weaver?”
“Actually…” The bard tilted his head in that way he did when listening to his invisible friend, then smiled. “Well, fuck me running. Looks like Twinkletoes’s non-plan is actually working.”
“Stay back,” Price said in a clipped tone, simply striding forward, the clicking of her shoes on the pavement lost in the thunder of the charging demon’s footsteps.
“What can two little elves do about this?” The Butler gave Flora a sharp sidelong look before returning her attention forward as the baerzurg reached her.
She sidestepped neatly, allowing it to charge several steps past. Roaring in fury, the hulking, bronze-scaled brute rounded on her, striking out with a ham-sized fist. Price calmly stepped inside the swing of its arm, grasping it as it went past. Her hands looked absurdly tiny against its forearm, which was as thick as her waist. At that moment, however, there came a tiny golden flash as the creature stepped on the small holy charm she had dropped the second before. With a bellow of pain, it staggered into the impetus of its own punch.
The movement of its body momentarily hid the Butler from view; they didn’t see exactly how she did it. In the next second, however, the huge creature had been spun to the side, staggering back against the bridge’s railing. This came only just past its knees, and scarcely served to stop the baerzurg. It teetered at the edge, flailing with its arms.
Price took two running steps forward and vaulted, landing lightly with both feet against the demon’s massive chest.
Roaring, it toppled backward, grasping at her and just missing as she hopped lightly back down to the bridge’s surface. Behind her, the bellowing demon plunged into the canal. Price pause for a moment to straighten her tie.
“Whoah,” Fauna muttered.
An arrow whistled above their heads, and a second later there came a squawk of protest. A flying katzil demon dropped to the ground, a quivering shaft still embedded in its neck.
“We will create a path through these trash,” Andros growled, stalking past the two elves with Tholi and Ingvar flanking him. “Your agility will be needed against the warlocks when we near them. Stay behind us.”
Another arrow, fired by Ingvar, brought down a sshitherosz that spiraled upward, apparently seeking a higher vantage from which to strike. The next creature to charge forward was a grotesque abomination of tentacles and claws that looked like it would be more at home underwater. It faltered as an arrow from Andros’s bow, glowing gold, thudded into its upper chest. Then Price had darted forward and past it, reaching around to rip a small knife across the creature’s throat. Blue-green fluid sprayed forth and it dropped.
The next moment, Price had to dodge backward as a sinuous, crocodile-headed khankredahg snapped at her. She bounded onto the bridge’s rail, then back down, retreating from its powerful jaws. For being built like an elongated bulldog, it was awfully fast.
Tholi was there in moments, striking out with a hatchet. The beast paused, maw gaping open to hiss threateningly as the Huntsman and Butler moved to flank it.
“Hsst,” Flora said, joining Fauna on her side of the bridge. “Tell me you see it too.”
“One at a time, never enough to push us back,” Fauna replied, nodding. “Something’s up.”
“Let’s get behind the lines.”
“Remember the rules…”
“Oh, come on, we’re still elves.” Smirking, Flora switched to elvish. “If we can’t sneak past this lot without teleporting, we don’t deserve the name.”
Exchanging nods, they separated and dived over the bridge on both sides. In the next moment, while their companions pressed forward through a sequence of demonic attacks, they were clambering horizontally along its decorative stonework just below the level of its surface.
“There, and there,” Darling said, pointing at two side alleys. “Uglies coming out, attacking in both directions, but not trying to block the way. As a strategy, it’s so ineffective I have to assume it was meant to be.”
Even as he spoke, the latest khankredahg collapsed with a piteous groan, incidentally bearing down the young Huntsman who had charged forward, thrust his arm into its open mouth and driven a knife into its brain. The lad cursed at being dragged down, though he was free almost immediately as the demon began to disintegrate into ash.
“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned, striding forward. “I trust the results of tonight’s excursion have been to your satisfaction?”
“Ask me again when I’ve seen the results,” he said cheerfully. “Excellent timing, by the way, Price.”
“Yes, it was. If your Grace is seeking comfort in reminders of the familiar, I also have red hair.”
There came a scream from above, and a figure in a gray robe plunged from a second-floor window to hit the street with an unpleasant thump. A second behind, a slim figure in black leather dived down, landing nimbly beside him.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Fauna told the groaning warlock. “You’re barely broken.”
“More summoners over here!” Flora reported, leaning out a window in the structure opposite. “They shadow-jumped away as I got here, though.”
“Oh?” Darling turned to her, raising an eyebrow. “It’s not like you to give warning of your approach.”
“I’m gonna let that pass because I’m really glad to see you’re okay,” she shot back. “And no, they were already in motion by the time I arrived. Whatever they were up to, it looks like their plan is still going forward.”
“Then it is time we were gone,” Andros rumbled. “These are the two gentlemen you mentioned?”
“Indeed,” Price replied.
He studied Joe and Weaver for a moment, flicked his gaze across Peepers and visibly dismissed her from consideration. “Very well. The force we now have assembled is sufficient to repel a considerably greater threat than we have faced thus far. While they are in retreat, we should do likewise.”
“But we have them on the run!” Tholi said, practically panting in eagerness. “Now is the time to press on and finish them off!”
“Listen to your superiors,” Ingvar snapped. “And to your scouts! The Wreath has planned this, all of it, and it’s gone as they intended. We are in a snare. It’s time to flee.”
“I quite agree,” said Darling, tousling Flora’s hair fondly as she rejoined the group. “C’mon, once across the bridge we’re—”
“Too late,” said Joe, raising both his wands.
The ten of them clustered together, unconsciously forming into a circle in the center of the square. Behind them was the bridge back to the lights of the city, before the desolation of the condemned neighborhood, but all around, there were suddenly shadows rising from nowhere. They appeared in windows, out of doors and alleys, on rooftops, some seeming to rise up from the very pavement. Surges of darkness swelled, then receded, leaving figures in gray robes standing where they had been. Some carried weapons, a mix of wands, staves and clearly ceremonial (to judge by their elaborate design) blades, quite a few accompanied by demons of various descriptions. In seconds, a dozen ringed them; in seconds more, their numbers doubled, and then continued to grow. The Wreath pressed forward, flanking them from behind, not quite cutting off escape but edging into their own path out of the district.
“Hmp,” Weaver muttered, “damn. I forgot to tell you so. Now I can’t say it.”
“These are pups that have cornered bears,” Andros snarled. “If they will not let us leave in peace, crush them.” Tholi growled in wordless agreement.
A final surge of shadows rose up from the street directly ahead, depositing two men in front of the group.
“Now, now,” Embras Mogul said reprovingly. “There you go, offering to solve a puzzle with a hammer. Honestly, how you get dressed in the morning without strangling your wife is beyond me.”
“Are you really still hanging out with these guys, Carter?” Peepers demanded.
“I’m just here to observe,” the journalist said, licking his lips nervously.
Ignoring a hissed warning from Flora, Darling stepped forward out of the circle. “Well, this has been a grand little chase, Embras, but we all have better places to be, don’t we?”
“Quite so.” Mogul stepped forward to meet him, placing each foot with a care that made him resemble more than ever a wading stork. “My people have suffered no end of abuse at your hands already, Antonio, and you’ve worn yours down with your ill-conceived antics.”
“Not to mention that I’ll have to spend my whole day on paperwork tomorrow if I’m party to shooting up a whole district, condemned or no,” Darling replied easily. “I just can’t spare the time. There’s a social event in the evening to which I’ve been looking forward for weeks.”
“Then it’s all too obvious how we handle this, isn’t it?”
They came to a stop less than a yard apart. The priest and warlock stared at one another, grim-faced.
“Indeed,” Darling said softly. “None of you interfere. This is personal.”
“Are you crazy?” Fauna shouted. Price held up a warning finger in front of her face.
“We settle it like gentlemen,” Mogul said, equally quiet.
“Man to man.”
“One on one.”
“To the death.”
There was a horrified silence. The Wreath stood motionless, robes fluttering in the faint night breeze, several of their demon companions shifting impatiently. Darling’s party held weapons at the ready, staring at the pair in disbelieving fascination. The light shifted, faltering, a cloud scudding across the moon and leaving them momentarily illuminated only by the distant glow of the city itself.
And then Mogul and Darling simultaneously burst into gales of laughter.
While the entire assembled crowd stared, utterly bemused, both men roared in mirth. Mogul slumped forward, bracing his hands against his knees; Darling reached out to steady himself against the other man’s shoulder.
“Fuck it,” Weaver said loudly after this had gone on for half a minute. “I say we shoot them both.”
“Oh, my stars and garters,” Mogul chortled, straightening up. “Thanks, old man, I needed that.”
“Hah, makes me wish we could do this more often! Price never lets me have any fun.”
“I admit I’m impressed! For a second there I really thought you were serious.”
“C’mon, Embras, how long have we been at this tonight? Give me credit for a sense of fun.”
“Yeah, I particularly enjoyed your little street-writing display.”
“Oh, you caught that! Better and better. It gets so tedious, running mental circles around people all the time. Sometimes I feel like nobody really gets me, y’know?”
“Tell me about it. Some days I’d trade it all for some intelligent conversation.”
“I hear that.”
“What the hell is going on?!” Peepers shrieked.
“Well, anyway, I’ve got cranky little ones to take home and put to bed,” said Darling, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the group. “Are we just about done here?”
“Yeah, this seems like a good place to call it a night.” Mogul patted his shoulder, still grinning. “Good game, my man. Mr. Long!” He turned to beckon Carter forward. “I realize this has been more excitement than you planned on seeing. We’ll not detain you if you would rather head back into the city with these folk, but I encourage you to keep in mind what I said about the Church.”
“You’ve said a lot of things,” Carter replied warily, looking as confused and nonplussed as Darling’s allies.
“At the moment,” Mogul said, stepping back from Darling, “you’ve not done anything to earn the Archpope’s ire. Matters will be different if you decide to publish your story, though, and you can certainly expect these folk to lean on you about it one way or another. The Empire’s another matter. Lord Vex is too canny to disappear an inconvenient member of the press and set your entire profession yapping at his heels. Sometimes I kind of miss his predecessor.” The warlock grinned reminiscently. “I could make that guy chase his tail across the city and back, all from the comfort of my rocking chair.”
Carter stared at him, then at Darling, then glanced around, at the warlocks, the assembled mix of Huntsmen and Eserites, the demons. “I, um…”
“Careful,” Mogul cautioned. “You’re thinking with your emotions, remembering who your upbringing has taught you to trust. That’s fine and dandy for an opinion columnist, but if you decide to play the game on the level at which this story will place you, you’ll need to be more careful. Think in terms of whose interests align with yours, not who you happen to feel fondly toward.”
“That is excellent advice for a variety of situations,” Darling said, nodding. “Just keep in mind that telling the truth is the most valuable weapon in a good deceiver’s arsenal. You understand that better than most people, Carter.”
Long’s face grew blank as he clearly marshaled his expression through sheer will. “I…appreciate the reminder, Bishop Darling,” he said somewhat stiffly. “Mr. Mogul, do you think you can drop me off at the offices of the Imperial Herald?”
“Not within it or too close,” Mogul replied. “Your superiors very wisely keep their wards updated, and the whole place had a recent and thorough Pantheonic blessing. We can put you down in the neighborhood and keep watch till you’re safely home, though.”
“I would appreciate it.”
“Very well, then,” Mogul said, grinning widely. The expression he turned on the Bishop was subtly triumphant. “This has been just a barrel of laughs, but…time marches on.”
“Mm hm,” Darling replied mildly, his own face open and affable. “See you next time, Embras.”
With a final, mocking grin, Embras Mogul laid his hand on Carter’s shoulder and vanished in a heave of darkness. All around them, the rest of the Black Wreath followed suit, demons and robed cultists disappearing in a series of shadowy undulations, till in seconds, the small group were clustered alone in the deserted square.
“Either someone is going to explain to me right damn now what just happened or I will begin stabbing people at random,” Peepers threatened.
“You don’t have a knife,” Joe observed.
“I will improvise.”
“Simple mathematics,” Darling said, strolling back over to the group. “They had the numbers, but we have the power, pound for pound. After watching all of us in action, Mogul knew it. A real fight would have left the area in ruins and cost lives on both sides. Neither of us wanted that.”
“I did,” Tholi muttered sullenly. Ingvar rolled his eyes.
“There will be another time,” Andros rumbled. “Did you at least learn what you set out to, Antonio?”
Darling grimaced in annoyance. “We bloodied their noses, cost them some tame demons and I have a few more little pieces of the puzzle to slot into place. For all the general fuss and bother this evening has been, though… I can’t say we’ve gained as much ground as I would have liked. But we drew them out of hiding, got a sense of how much manpower they’ve got in the city, and faced them down. That’s not nothing.”
“It will be worth reporting in detail to his Holiness,” Andros said, nodding. “But I agree. We must make more progress, quickly.”
“I’ve a few more ideas to mull over,” Darling replied, then rolled his shoulders. “Well, anyhow! What say we haul ass out of this depressing dump? I don’t know about any of you, but right now I would kick a nun into the canal for a brandy.”