Tag Archives: Embras Mogul

16 – 7

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“Well, of course,” Mogul drawled, thrusting his hands into his pockets and adopting a slouching pose so clearly exaggerated for effect it was reminiscent of a vaudeville performer. “That’s the only trick you know, isn’t it? Kill it with fire, ask questions never, then flounce away and let the authorities sift through the wreckage. No, Natchua, if I meant to mix it up with you, I promise you’d never have seen us coming. I want to have a word with you.”

“I don’t recommend having words with the Wreath,” Fedhaar said tersely.

“I notice you haven’t opened fire yet,” she replied, glancing back at him.

“Standard procedure not to force a confrontation with warlocks if it’s not necessary. If they don’t want to fight, grand, but that doesn’t make it smart to listen to notorious manipulators. We need to evac.”

“And that’ll be why he’s put himself between us and the exit,” Svanwen said.

Mogul tipped his hat.

“All right, sunshine, I’ll tell you what,” said Natchua, folding her arms imperiously. “Convince me you have something worthwhile to say and I’ll hear it out. Waste any more of my time and I shadow-jump all of us right out of this entirely pointless pain in the ass.”

“Any reason you can’t do that now?” Fedhaar asked.

“I’ll send you all back up top if you want,” she said. “He’s gone to the trouble of setting this up once, and cost Agatha’s people two days of work. I’d just as soon he get it out of his system before the next attempt is even more of a headache.”

“Hn,” the captain grunted, flexing his fingers along the haft of his battlestaff. “That said, I prefer we stay and keep an eye on this, then. Thanks for the offer.”

“Appreciate having you,” Natchua said, glancing back again to give him a nod. “Well? We’re waiting, Mogul. Spit it out, while we’re young.”

“Kind of an impossible position, isn’t it?” he mused. “I’m to impress someone whose core problem is being too up her own butt to possess basic empathy, or an awareness that actions have consequences.”

“Well, he came to the point more directly than I expected,” Natchua said, smirking faintly.

“Glib in the face of anything that might cause the discomfort of a real emotional response,” Mogul retorted. “I know you didn’t learn that in Tar’naris. You must’ve devoured those chapbooks and comics as soon as you hit Last Rock, kiddo. That would explain several things, actually.”

“I’m getting bored,” she warned.

“Now, as best as I’ve been able to piece together events after the fact, you actually spent a short time in chaos space yourself. You and the Crow; she’s just about the only person who can get into there and is insane enough to use it for transportation. So you know that’s not boring.” He was still showing teeth, the corners of his mouth still turned upward, but his upper lip had twisted the expression into a feral snarl beneath the shade of his hat. “Don’t you?”

“Did you honestly set all this up to complain at me?” Natchua exclaimed. “It was a warzone. I caught you idiots red-handed summoning more demons into it. And I’m the one who’s unaware of consequences? At least have enough courage of conviction not to whine when you get hurt in the process of being hilariously evil.”

“’Evil’ is a word people use to dismiss anything they can’t be bothered to understand,” Mogul shot back. “But don’t you worry, darlin’, we’re more than accustomed to being the bigger person. Case in point: I’m not even going to rant about how evil it is to consign a couple dozen bystanders to a dimension of unimaginable torment for no better reason than that you wanted to hurt the deity they answer to. Because I do understand it, Natchua. And mark me now: before I’m done, you will understand it, too.” His smile thinned, which ironically made it look more sincere, though it was still not a warm or cheerful expression. “Consider this the thrown gauntlet. Any fool can hurt someone; there is no greater vengeance than to make a person confront their own fundamental inadequacy. For most people, a personality is little more than a lifetime’s worth of built up defenses against the realization of what a piece of shit they truly are. I’m going to take that from you, Natchua. And when you finally have to acknowledge the true depth of your own stupid, selfish perfidy, that will hurt more than anything suffered by us, or by our comrades who never made it out of where you sent them. So you have that—”

“Oh, gods, are you done?” she demanded.

Mogul sighed, his smile finally inverting into an annoyed grimace. “Really, now, I’d think you could at least let me have my moment of drama. Surely even you will acknowledge you owe me that much.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Natchua snorted. “I’m gonna tell you what I told your bitch goddess: you’re no better. However justified Elilial is in her beef with the Pantheon, she’s a spiteful, destructive monster with oceans of blood on her hands. You think you’re so very put upon? Please. Yeah, I messed you up, but—and I can’t believe I have to keep repeating this—you were summoning an army of demons into Ninkabi. What, did you look around at the city being torn apart by demons and think, ‘hey, I know what this needs: more demons!’ Just fuck right off.”

“We were acting under orders from the Dark Lady,” another of the Wreath cultists interjected harshly. Her voice was feminine, though none of their faces save Mogul’s was visible, and the echoes in the tomb made it difficult for even Natchua to tell which one was talking. “We were trying to put a stop to the invasion! Her forces—”

“Even you don’t believe what you’re saying,” Natchua scoffed. “You were trying to stop a demon invasion with a demon invasion? You’re supposed to be the ultimate anti-demon experts. There is zero possibility you’re not fully aware that is the opposite of how it works.”

“When you’re given marching orders from an actual deity,” Mogul began.

Natchua barked a harsh laugh which reverberated through the tomb, prompting an agitated hiss from the chained rozzk’shnid behind the wall.If you’re the Black Wreath and living on a diet of your own prideful resistance to the gods, you question your orders. If you’re the Black Wreath and have been close enough to Elilial’s plans to have seen firsthand how she’s been unraveling for years now, you definitely question orders that you can plainly see are only going to make a catastrophe worse. Apparently, you idiots couldn’t be bothered. So what does that make you?”

“Are you trying to suggest we’re not the actual Black Wreath?” Mogul asked, his tone amused. “I have to say, that’s something I’m rarely accused of. In fact, this may be a first.”

“I’m saying you’re exactly like every other poor sap wrecking the world and coming up with no better excuse than ‘my god told me to.’ You think the Pantheon and their cults are assholes? Fine, maybe so, I wouldn’t really know. You think you’ve been mistreated? Sure, I handled you roughly, and so have a lot of others. But you think you’re in any better position to look down your noses? Please. You had your chance to prove you were better; I caught you right smack dab in the middle of it. That was your opportunity to show that all your resistance to the gods was something more than asshat us vs. them tribalism, your chance to stand up to an unjust goddess and do what was right instead of what you were told. And did you take it? Did you prove your character? Or did you duck your head and obey, and try to fuck up a disaster even worse? Well, Mogul?” She threw her arms wide, sweeping a glare around at the robed figures. “Any of you? What did you do?”

They remained hooded and inscrutable, though a growl sounded in the feminine voice which has previously spoken, softly enough that only Natchua could have heard it. Mogul’s mouth had pressed into a thin line, no longer showing any amusement either real or dramatically feigned.

The ensuing two heartbeats of silence were broken by a low whistle from one of the soldiers, followed by a muffled snort from another.

“Never mind, you don’t have to say anything,” Natchua stated in the most condescending tone she could muster. “We all know the answer. I just wanted to see your face wrap itself around that stupid expression. And you chuckleheads came here to make me confront my inadequacy? No wonder your goddess had to surrender.”

“You have no idea what that place was like!” the woman snarled.

“Vanessa,” Mogul warned, but ignoring him, she stepped forward, revealing herself to be the hooded figure closest to him on his left.

“People I cared about died in agony right in front of me because of you,” she snarled, pointing accusingly at Natchua. “Torn apart by monsters, because you had to pursue your own little grudge with Elilial! You don’t get to climb up on a high horse and lecture us!”

Natchua folded her arms again. “You know what? Fuck your dead friends.”

“Little beast!”

Vanessa hurled a shadowbolt of such intensity that its sullen purple glow lit the chamber for a split second. Natchua deftly brought up a hand to intercept it and plucked the thing out of the air; in her grasp, the streak of energy was suddenly a yard-long shaft of irregular violet crystal which streamed with sulfurous smoke. She contemptuously tossed it aside, and the solidified magic shattered upon the stone floor, brittle as old charcoal. By the time the soldiers managed to bring their weapons to bear, the fragments were already decaying into nothing.

“Fuck your nihilistic crusade,” Natchua continued relentlessly. “Fuck your whingeing goddess, fuck her hurt feelings, and fuck you all. You’ve been through some shit, fine, you can be upset about that, but you’re not going to act like the aggrieved party. You know what you did, and this entire stupid thing is nothing but you trying to make yourselves feel better by pretending there’s someone worse than you out there. And the proof of it is that you’re trying to pick on me instead of Mary the Crow, who was at least as responsible for that whole thing and would flick her fingers and annihilate the lot of you if you went near her, you self-involved cowards. You made your choices, and you chose to lick Elilial’s hooves and in the process throw away your own vaunted spirit of defiance and your divine mandate to protect the world from demons. So yeah, I sent your asses to Tentacle Super Hell, and you are now getting on my case about it so you don’t have to face up to the fact that that was what you deserved.”

Vanessa practically vibrated with rage, but silently; Mogul had gone still and stood stiffly upright, with none of his theatrically slouched demeanor. The other cultists, previously impassive, shuffled restlessly in their robes.

“Fuckin’ told,” Lieutenant Bindo observed, prompting another derisive snort from a fellow soldier.

“Quiet,” Captain Fedhaar ordered tersely.

All of them stilled, though not in response to him. The sound that echoed through the tunnels hovered right at the edge of hearing, even Natchua’s, resembling both a groan and a whisper. It came from the gate into the deeper, unmapped catacombs, accompanied by a soft stirring of air and the acrid smell of old decay. The rozzk’shnid whined and began scrabbling furiously at the stone, as if trying to burrow into the floor; mostly smothered by its noise was an ephemerally faint suggestion of murmuring voices, with words hinted at but nothing meaningful to be discerned.

It faded in little more than a second, though, and in the next instant the darkness momentarily deepened in the tomb, shadows drawing together around the cultists in unison. They receded immediately, and with them the Wreath vanished.

Ms. Svanwen let out a huff of pent-up breath. “Well. That’s…that, I suppose.”

“Not hardly,” Natchua murmured, frowning at the spot where Embras Mogul had stood. “There is no possible way that was all he wanted.”

“Agreed,” said Fedhaar, raising his battlestaff to plant its butt on the stone floor. “That kind of confrontation isn’t their pattern at all, though it can be the first step of a characteristic misdirection. Whatever they came here for, that was just the opening move.”

“Well, if they’re after me in particular, hopefully they won’t mess up your work any more,” Natchua offered, turning to face them.

Svanwen shook her head. “If nothing else, now they know they can draw you out by messing with Veilgrad’s interests. Blessed Light, and I played right into it. It was me who went and drew you into this, just like that prancing cockerel wanted.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about the Black Wreath thinking two steps ahead of you, ma’am,” Fedhaar advised. “That is pretty much what they do. For now, we need to get out of here and report this nuisance to ImCom and Duchess Dufresne. Jevani, finish what we came here for.”

“Sir!” One of his soldiers saluted, then swiftly stepped around the dividing wall with her staff at the ready.

“I could’ve done without that last bit of theater, though,” Fedhaar commented. The crack of lightning was deafening in the tomb, causing Natchua to wince and cover her ears; Jevani had to shoot the rozzk’shnid three times in succession to finish the armored creature off, but the captain continued as though there had been no interruption the second its squeals ceased. “That was just plain creepy. Didn’t seem like it fit with the rest of that guy’s performance, either.”

Natchua turned to face the direction of the doorway into the deeper tunnels, hidden out of view by the likenesses of the ancient kings, her face again drawn into a pensive frown. “I don’t…think…that was them. We may have additional problems.”


The whole exchange so far had taken place in the lodge’s grandiose entrance hall, simply because that was the only indoor space large enough to contain the whole group. The Harpies numbered thirty-eight women in total, most somewhere in their middle years but including a handful of teenagers and three gray-haired grannies, one of whom required a cane to walk, not that it had apparently held her back from rebelling against the regime in Shaathvar. There was a single Tiraan among them, a woman in her thirties named Sadhi who had looked singularly depressed every time Ravana had seen her; all the rest were Stalweiss, with hair in shades of brown and gold when not gray, plus two with the rarer red, most of them with the solid build of hardy mountain folk.

Despite the opulence of the lodge, with its gilt-fluted marble columns, the atmosphere in the room was surprisingly convivial, largely due to the noise from the front area near the doors, where Dantu had taken over shepherding the Harpies’ dozen or so accompanying children. The old man appeared to be having the time of his life, guiding the youngsters through a game that seemed to involve alternately sitting in a wide circle and chasing one another around it; fortunately he’d selected as the site for this roughhousing a large swath of plush carpet which had been enchanted so as to both repel stains and not inflict burns when skidded across. Ravana had already decided never to inform any of them that her great-grandfather had commissioned the thing for sexual purposes and her father had laid it before the door as its magic conveniently prevented mud from being tracked into the lodge. For the most part, she kept her focus on Ingvar and the Harpies, but periodically stole inquisitive glances at the elder and the children. She’d never had the opportunity to play such games at that age…

With the sounds of play as a backdrop, the more serious scene unfolding around the great hearth at the opposite end of the hall was spared from excessive solemnity. The refugee women stood and sat in a roughly semicircular formation, their attention mostly on Ingvar, who spoke in a steady and soothing tone that Ravana admired for how deftly he had perceived the mood of this crowd and the best approach to them. At least a few of the Harpies were still studying Dimbi with awed expressions. The younger Shadow Hunter had taken the form of a great wolf as a demonstration, and not seen fit to change back; she now sat next to Ingvar before the fire, a tawny creature the size of a small donkey surrounded by a gentle aura of light as if occupying her own private sunbeam, the golden geometric patterns marking her fur glowing gently.

“There’s nothing more natural than to feel that way,” Ingvar was saying earnestly in response to Brenhild’s last statement. The closest thing the Harpies had to a leader, she was a broad-shouldered woman with dark brown hair done in a single long braid and then wrapped around her head like a crown; apparently she had personally fended off Huntsmen trying to drag her and her comrades back home, first with a broomstick, then a cudgel, and later with the Avenic leaf-bladed gladius now hanging at her hip. She watched Ingvar with a skeptical frown as he continued, but showed no signs of disagreeing. “Every person has the right to space of their own; in Shaath’s service, we learn to appreciate solitude, and the fact that women are so frequently denied it in traditional lodges is just one of the crimes heaped upon you.”

More of the women than otherwise nodded at that, a couple grunting approval.

“As free beings, you’re entitled to decide whose company you keep, and when,” Ingvar went on, still holding Brenhild’s gaze with that inexhaustible calm of his. “If you don’t want anyone around sometimes, that is fine. If you don’t want any men near you at certain times or places, that’s entirely your right. It would be even if you hadn’t been through ordeals that would make it particularly understandable. Being part of the wild means determining these things for yourself. As a group, though, and as a doctrine, we will not be segregated by sex.”

“The Avenists cultivate women-only spaces,” Brenhild stated, narrowing her eyes.

“So they do,” Ingvar agreed with a nod. “In fact, so do Izarites and some sects of Vidians. We do not. This thing with men against women is the whole root of all our miseries, and needs to end. There is a lot we can learn from Avenists, and others, but not to the point of losing our own identity as Shaathists. As I said, when you need times and spaces to be by yourself, they’ll be available—but this will be because you are human beings with the absolute right to determine with whom you will keep company, and when, and under what circumstances. It will never be about formal segregation within the Shadow Hunters. That is a point of principle, yes, but there is also a crucial matter of overcoming bad habits within our own ranks. We have many former Rangers who are already accustomed to this and provide good examples; we also have Huntsmen who need to get used to accepting women as equals, and women from both Shaathist and other backgrounds who I will not see brushed aside into separate spaces. Even with the best intentions, that can all too easily lead to exactly the kind of gendered divide Shaath’s people urgently need to overcome.”

At that, Brenhild nodded, her expression finally softening; clearly taking a cue from her, several of the others nodded as well. Some of the Harpies still seemed skeptical of Ingvar, but fewer than when he had started speaking, and quite a few were gazing at him with utterly rapt expressions. Watching all this unfold from the shadow of a marble column a few yards away, Ravana was impressed by how well and quickly he was winning the group over.

“We’ve our own scars to heal, you know,” said Gretchen. A widow, she had had the personal privacy to take up a very cursory study of the fae arts without any Huntsman preventing her; the woman was no witch, but even her slight connection to magic had made the wolf dreams especially vivid and informative for her, leading to her taking a role as the Harpies’ unofficial shaman. It had been Gretchen who had foreseen Ingvar’s coming even before Ravana had informed the group of her intention to bring him, and she had ardently championed him as a solution to many of their problems. Now, though, her expression was concerned, even cynical. “Not that I doubt the seriousness of what you’re suggesting, Brother Ingvar, but I don’t think any of us are anxious to take on the obligation of tending to more Huntsmen of Shaath, even if it’s to teach them how not to be pompous puffed-up arses. There’s plenty of pain here that needs to be healed before any of us look to take responsibility for anyone else.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Ingvar agreed, inclining his head toward her. “I mean no offense, but you all have a great deal of learning to do in the ways of the wild, due to being unfairly kept from them for all these years. If you’re ever to be responsible for guiding others, that will come later, and only if you choose to embrace that task. For now, it will be the Shadow Hunters who take on the duty of guiding and nurturing you, not expecting you to do likewise just yet. I confess we are not an ascetic or healing-oriented order. There are other cults with deep arts for soothing hurts to the spirit. In Shaath’s service, we have the wild.” He smiled, glancing about at the group. “And honestly? The wild is good medicine. Simply being out in nature is one of the most healing experiences a person can have. The harmony of wild places soothes the spirit and guides the mind back into balance. This is true for anyone, but as you grow in your knowledge of woodcraft, your connection to the earth will grow stronger. That eternal comfort will always be there.”

He paused, glancing aside at one of the hall’s towering windows, and shook his head ruefully.

“Well. Words are cheap; this is the point where ordinarily I would lead you outside to walk among the trees and show you what I mean, but unfortunately, we’re in the middle of winter.”

“Hah!” Ritta, the eldest among them, cackled and thumped her cane against the floor. “You call this winter, sonny boy? You’ve not spent much time up in the mountains.”

Amid the laughter which followed, Ingvar grinned right along.

“All right, fair enough! I certainly have time, and I came prepared for a Tiraan winter.” He picked up his bearskin cape and swung it over his shoulders. “No one need feel obligated, if you’d rather stay in here by the fire, but anybody who’d like to accompany me in a short exploration of the forest is more than welcome. There’s no time like the present to introduce you to your birthright. The wild belongs to all who are called to it.”

Smiling broadly, Brenhild clapped her hands. “You heard him! Cloaks and scarves, everybody, and let’s not keep Brother Ingvar waiting. Give us five minutes, young man.”

To Ingvar’s visible bemusement, every last one of them headed off to the hallway toward the inner rooms where their effects were kept, from stooped old Ritta to little thirteen-year-old Mittsin, herself barely mature enough to be welcomed by the group as a sister rather than consigned to Dantu’s care with the other children. Evidently not a one of the Harpies was willing to be held back from her formal introduction to Shaathist woodcraft by anything so paltry as a foot of snow.

As the last of them streamed out of the hall, Dimbi stretched out in front of the fire, resting her head on her forepaws, and Ingvar slowly crossed the room to join Ravana.

“You impress me, Brother Ingvar,” she said before he could speak. “You’ve handled all of this with great skill. I did hope you would be the one to guide them forward; my faith was clearly well-placed.”

“It’s I who should thank you, my Lady,” he replied. “All of this is thanks to your kindness.”

Ravana nodded once, then made a languid gesture at the great hall itself. “I realize the pretentiousness likely doesn’t suit your aesthetic, but what do you think of the lodge?”

“I do feel slightly out of place,” he admitted, “but it is a magnificent edifice.”

She smiled coyly up at him. “How’d you like to keep it?”

Even his well-mastered expression faltered into startlement. “Pardon?”

“There are drawbacks, of course,” Ravana mused, turning her head to gaze toward the hearth. Dimbi was watching them sidelong, her ears pricked upright despite her relaxed posture. “Being stationary poses risks, with Grandmaster Veisroi and his loyalists baying at your heels. But it will also better enable more followers to find you, and Tiraan Province is in a far more central location on the continent than N’Jendo. There is certainly ample room for your extant group and quite a few more additions, even counting the Harpies.”

“I…” He trailed off after one syllable, staring at her in apparent confusion.

“It’s not charity I offer,” Ravana assured him. “There is a traditional relationship between House Madouri and the Huntsmen of Shaath, allowing them free reign of the forests in the province in exchange for providing forestry services. You’ll be aware of this, of course, as I understand you lived in the lodge in Tiraas for several years. The Huntsmen have similar agreements with a number of Houses. With a single ducal decree I can award this traditional right to your group.” She allowed her smile to widen slightly. “To keep up appearances, of course, that means I will have to formally and publicly acknowledge your sect to be the legitimate cult of Shaath.”

Dimbi raised her head at that, turning it to stare directly. Ingvar had belatedly marshaled his features, and now peered down at Ravana through narrowed eyes.

“Why would you do such a thing?” he asked. “Supporting the Harpies is one thing, Lady Madouri. What you suggest would place you right in the center of what may yet become a violent religious schism. It seems like an impolitic move.”

“I’m a calculating creature, Brother Ingvar,” she murmured. “If I choose to take sides in any conflict, it is a sign of my confidence that the side I select will be the winning one. So the question is: do you want me on your side?”

He studied her in silence for a handful of seconds before answering.

“I am not sure.”

Ravana grinned. “Your reticence shows wisdom. I do think you are in the right in your conflict, but more importantly, I think that you are the future. Veisroi and his ilk are the past. Have you considered the meaning and the nature of the progress we have seen in the last century, Ingvar? Telescrolls, Rails, zeppelins, wands, shielding charms. What does it all mean?”

“Connection,” he answered. “The world grows smaller.”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” she said, waving a hand. “House Madouri has reigned over this land for a millennium by looking always to the future. The future I see is one in which secrets will grow harder and harder to keep, and even the most common people more and more able to defend themselves. With every advancing decade, people will grow harder to deceive, and harder to oppress. The Shaathist traditionalists have a regime built upon lies and persecution; it will grow ever more unsustainable, and would even without the wolf god himself plaguing their nightmares. It is people like you, who seek to liberate and enlighten, who will move to the fore in the coming century.

“Which is not to say that your victory is preordained,” she cautioned. “It’s early, yet, and Veisroi is well-positioned to make his enemies disappear. Someone will topple his kind, in the end; it may or may not be you. As I see it, by throwing my support into making sure that you are the one, I position House Madouri to enter the world of tomorrow with hard-won credibility and valuable allies.”

“Hm,” he murmured.

“And then, there is the more immediately practical,” Ravana continued, lowering her voice nearly to a whisper. She gazed at the fire past Dimbi, who was still staring at her. “I am…a patriot, Brother Ingvar. Acknowledging my bias, I judge the Tiraan Empire to be the preeminent example of the potential of human civilization in the world today. I consider the Tirasian Dynasty the most effective the Empire has yet known, and Sharidan a superior ruler to either of his predecessors. His Majesty is regrettably constrained by the politics of his position from openly acknowledging that Archpope Justinian has deliberately made himself an enemy of the Throne.”

She deliberately parted her lips, showing the tips of her teeth in what was not a smile.

“I am not.”

“And to think,” Ingvar said softly, “I feared you underestimated the scope of the conflict you offered to enter. It’s the opposite, isn’t it? You are looking to an even grander struggle.”

“You deserve to succeed,” she replied, “and the Empire must endure. It is the general practice of those in my station to sit upon the fence until they feel they see which way the wind is blowing. Then again, it is the general practice of nobles to think nothing matters more than their own power. I choose to make a stand upon what I deem a greater purpose than my own desires. And in so doing, I mean to help shape the course of the wind itself.

“So!” she said, suddenly brisk, turning to face him directly with a broad smile. “This is what I propose, specifically. House Madouri shall formally recognize your sect as the true Shaathists, and award you the traditional rights, duties, and privileges of husbanding the wilds of Tiraan Province. You will be granted indefinite use of this lodge as a headquarters, with its upkeep and defense still funded by my treasury. Given the precarious nature of your situation, in order to lend further legitimacy I will bestow upon you the traditional title of Warden; it is long retired, like Court Wizard, but still on the books and will throw the weight of custom behind your position. In fact… Yes, to make certain you have the full authority to act in your new capacity as Warden of this province, in my capacity as governor I will appoint you an Imperial Sheriff, which will enable you to enforce the law within this domain, as well as create severe repercussions for any who seek to attack you.”

Dimbi shifted her head to stare at Ingvar.

“That is…incredibly generous, my Lady,” he said slowly.

“No, it isn’t,” Ravana replied, her smile unfaltering. “I have considered the matter carefully. What I propose will lay obligations upon you, as well as expose you to certain risks. This arrangement comes with plentiful compensation, to be sure, but only that which I deem necessary and suitable considering what I gain from it.”

“I see,” he murmured. “This is a larger decision than I had planned to make today, Lady Madouri. Obviously, I would like to discuss it with my fellow hunters.”

“You should of course do what you think is right,” said Ravana. “I will not, however, promise that the offer will still be on the table when you have finished with that.” He frowned, but she continued before he could speak. “I’m certain that consulting your fellows sets a most admirable precedent for spiritual purposes, Brother Ingvar, but with all due respect, such matters are between you and your followers. For my purposes, I require a leader who can act decisively when it is called for. I judge you to be just such a man. If I am thus in error, it of course changes the situation.”

She gave him a single beat of silence in which to mull that, during which he stared narrowly at her eyes as if trying to glimpse what lay behind them.

“Decisively, but not in unseemly haste,” Ravana added in a gentler tone. “You were just informing our guests of the calming powers of a walk in the forest, and are just about to lead them upon one. By all means, embrace this opportunity to ponder; I’m sure it will be every bit as soothing for you as for them. And when you return, we can discuss our shared future.”

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16 – 6

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“My family’s hunting lodge,” Ravana said, gesturing at the scene before them.

They stood upon a snow-covered hill in the western reaches of Tiraan Province, near the Viridill border, with a dense stand of leafless oaks behind them and in front, the long descent to the lodge itself in the middle distance. It rose proudly from a lower hill of its own, positioned right on the border between the ancient forest (one of the few in the province not burned or leveled in the Enchanter Wars) and the broad plain stretching toward the low hills that would become Calderaan Province beyond the northeastern horizon. Half a mile from the gates of the lodge stood a sleepy little village, looking quite picturesque buried under a heavy snowfall and with the smoke of a dozen fires streaming upward from its chimneys.

Lodge?” Dimbi repeated incredulously. “Don’t you mean summer palace?”

It could be fairly called palatial in its proportions. The main building was designed in the shape of a traditional Stalweiss longhouse, though the resemblance did not extend beyond shape. Its roof was expensive Sheng-style gabled slate, the tall windows stained glass, and even its towering support pillars were hand-carved into the shapes of upright animals, every one a work of art which had taken an entire ancient oak trunk. From the central longhouse spread rambling wings of faux-rustic timbers supported by fluted marble columns, the more recent featuring huge banks of plate windows made feasible even in the depths of winter by modern arcane heating.

She wasn’t about to mention that the nearby village existed entirely to staff and support the lodge. Ingvar, at least, had probably already figured that out.

“The House of Madouri has reigned over this province continually for a thousand years by cultivating certain defining strengths of character,” Ravana said proudly. “I will acknowledge that restraint and modesty are not among them. Honestly, I’m just glad to have found a useful purpose for this property, as I confess I don’t hunt. Nor, I suspect, did most of my ancestors who stayed here. Please forgive the distance; those staying in the lodge currently have been subject to a great many upsets of late, and I have observed they seem somewhat uncomfortable with grand displays of magic. I try to approach them in the most humble and unobtrusive manner feasible. My Court Wizard has been very accommodating in—Veilwin, really.”

The rest of them turned from their study of the lodge to follow Ravana’s gaze, now fixed on the wizard herself. Veilwin was now gulping deeply from a silver flask, and did not stop while meeting Ravana’s stare with raised eyebrows.

“You know, you’re just going to have to down a sobriety potion to teleport us back,” the Duchess said, exasperated. “It’s unlikely to be more than an hour from now.”

“An hour?” Veilwin replied, finally lowering the flask and grimacing bitterly. “An hour of complete, uninterrupted sobriety? Girl, do you have any idea what that feels like?”

“Yes, in fact,” Ravana retorted. “Speaking as a wine lover of, if I may flatter myself, some local repute, sobriety is my default and preferred condition.”

“And you’re easily the worst person I’ve ever met. Coincidence?” Veilwin brought the flask back to her lips and resumed an uninterrupted sequence of long gulps, while holding an arch stare at Ravana and, with snaps of her fingers, conjuring an armchair and a small bonfire. The sorceress flopped down in her seat and stretched her feet out toward the arcane blue flames as the surrounding snow hissed away to steam.

Ravana shook her head and turned her back on the elf. “Anyway. I presumed that veteran outdoorspeople such as yourselves would not mind a short winter hike, but if you are in any way uncomfortable I will not hesitate to send Veilwin back for coats.”

“That’s not necessary at all,” Ingvar said smoothly. “Your judgment was correct, my Lady, we are quite comfortable. Shall we?”

“Let’s,” she agreed, setting off down the hill. Ravana noted he did not question her comfort, but the man was doubtless intelligent enough to infer the presence of a heating charm. The enchantment woven into her own dress was more sophisticated than anything on the market (a Falconer prototype; Geoffrey came up with the most marvelous things when he got bored of tinkering with carriages). Even her breath did not mist upon the frigid air.

“What is she drinking?” Dimbi muttered as they strode through the knee-deep snow toward the distant lodge. “I could smell that flask from two yards away, it was like a burning alchemy lab.”

“I don’t know,” Ravana admitted. “Though I have observed its contents to be quite combustible. Between an elvish constitution and the resistance built up over a lifetime of drinking, I suspect what it takes to get Veilwin tipsy would kill an orc.”

“She’s…interesting,” Dantu said, grinning.

“Veilwin is a powerful and exceedingly skilled mage; I am quite satisfied with the performance of her duties. She is also, in addition to the alcoholism, congenitally incapable of withholding her opinions. I don’t think she’s ever held a single job for more than a month before.”

“I just meant,” the old man chuckled, “I’ve managed to meet a handful of nobles in my long years, none half so important as a Duchess, and I can’t see a one of ‘em letting one of their employees talk to them like that.”

“Not long ago,” Ravana murmured, gazing ahead as they plowed through the snow, “as I was listening to Professor Tellwyrn rightly excoriate my entire character, I experienced an epiphany: no one had ever spoken to me that way before. And further, no one ever spoke to my father in such a manner, either, and I now believe that is directly why he ended up the way he did. My father was neither evil nor unintelligent, he simply failed to comprehend that his own desires were not synonymous with the highest good of the universe. It is a failing to which nobles are regrettably prone due to the circumstances of our upbringing, and in fact, those circumstances are an unavoidable necessity. A chain of command only functions of those at its top are respected and obeyed. This is…a dilemma.”

“So,” Ingvar said softly, “you seek to surround yourself with those who will speak truth to power.”

“I was considering leaving university,” Ravana admitted, “but this understanding changed my mind. At Last Rock, I am surrounded by royalty, paladins, demigods… All manner of people who are in no way impressed by me. And those are just my classmates; the faculty are on another level entirely. It is an extremely healthy environment for people such as myself. Additionally, it buys me two and a half more years to collect advisors who will not hesitate to challenge me at need. Hopefully I can find some with more nuance than Veilwin, but she is…a start.”

“I respect that a great deal,” said Ingvar. “To know one’s own faults and seek to overcome them is both the least and the most that can be asked of anyone.”

They reached the base of the hill, which was less than half the distance to the lodge, but changed their trajectory. No longer descending toward the grounds, they now in fact began to push upward through the snow toward the rise upon which it was built.

“In any case,” Ravana said briskly, “our correspondence was relatively brief before Veilwin took it upon herself to fetch you, Brother Ingvar. How much do you know about the conditions from which the Harpies fled?”

“Less than I should,” he admitted, frowning. “We have stayed largely on the move; most carriers of news have been less persistent than your agents in finding us, Lady Madouri. Hunters have continually sought us out to join since Shaath’s call first went out, both Huntsmen and Rangers, and some have brought news from the Stalrange. It is somewhat sketchy regarding events in and around Shaathvar, however.”

“You are probably getting more applicants from Lower Stalwar, where the Rangers have more enclaves,” Ravana said. “Yes, I shouldn’t wonder; the situation around Veilgrad is quite different. People there have ample recent experience at rolling with large metaphysical punches, and Duchess Dufresne is a pragmatist after my own heart. Loudly dissident Shaathists have been inexplicably vanishing all winter, and not long ago, someone shadow-jumped a group of their runaway wives and daughters to the Abbey in Viridill.”

“I would be grateful to know anything you have learned of their circumstances,” Ingvar said in a carefully neutral tone.

“They are somewhat dire,” Ravana warned, now frowning herself. “Shaathvar has been an ongoing disaster from the day of the Battle of Ninkabi until I intervened last month. With the dreams that won’t stop coming every night, the core Shaathist regime there has been tearing itself apart, and one of the biggest sources of conflict is the simultaneous unraveling of more families than otherwise as women have been trying to either flee with their children, or in some cases, attacking their husbands.”

Dimbi grimaced. “Yikes. I support anyone wanting to live free, but that sounds…”

“Can’t rightly expect a person to remain calm and logical after they get divine confirmation they’ve been lied to like that for their whole lives,” said Dantu. “I don’t blame the women one bit.”

“It’s been chaos,” Ravana continued. “Nearly coming down to guerrilla fighting in the streets of Shaathvar and the surrounding forests, as women and sympathetic Huntsmen have been trying to escape, most willing to shed blood in the process, and traditionalists have taken it upon themselves to forcibly retrieve them. The governor declared a curfew and martial law, which didn’t help; the Empire had to send troops to hold the city, and that barely helped. The jails are crammed beyond capacity and the courts overwhelmed trying to figure out who drew steel on whom, and whether any of them were justified. And as if all of that were not chaotic enough, the Sisterhood sent a detachment of priestesses with a Silver Legion escort to counsel and support any Stalweiss women who desired freedom from their circumstances. The loyalist Huntsmen still in nominal control took that about as well as you would expect. And that, too, began to spiral, as various Huntsmen have arranged for themselves to be reminded why it is not wise to assault servants of the goddess of war.”

“I would have thought High Commander Rouvad had better sense than to poke the bear in such a manner,” Ingvar muttered, his eyes narrowed.

“I suspect that after the Syrinx debacle this summer, Rouvad is anxious to be seen standing on Avenist principle regardless of the political repercussions. Then, too, the Archpope has been deliberately dragging his heels on confirming a new Avenist Bishop, and it is known that the Huntsmen are his greatest pillar of support within the Pantheon cults. The Sisterhood may be growing tired of waiting to be listened to, and looking to make a point that they can insist upon it.”

“You said your intervention calmed things?” Dantu inquired.

She nodded. “It started as mass chaos but quickly coalesced into factional conflict, as such things do. The Shaathist traditionalists remained in control of the bureaucracy of the province, but once the Avenists got involved, they secured a defensible structure and began teaching runaways both the art of self-defense and the relevant laws around it. By then the group of local women who rose to find and shelter other runaways had begun to organize, and took to calling themselves the Harpies. Which was also a provocation, as no one has seen a living harpy outside of Inner Anvedra in a thousand years; it is obviously a reference to the harpy eagle on Avei’s sigil. By last month, a bitter stalemate had ensued, as the Harpies more or less rescued everyone they were apparently able to, and then had to turtle down and defend themselves from outraged husbands and fathers trying to drag them back home. When I offered to remove them en masse from the province, even the local government was grateful. They were themselves glad of a safe route out of the situation, the Sisterhood and the Silver Throne supported me, and with the Harpies gone from Shaathvar, it has finally begun to settle. Of course, I am inundated with complaints from various lodges about my unwarranted interference, but my lawyers are handling all of it so far.” She shrugged, allowing herself a cold little smile. “And what they cannot, the House guards stationed at the lodge will. I have made it clear that any rogue Huntsman trying to sneak into these grounds is asking for whatever he gets.”

All three Shadow Hunters glanced sidelong at her, but none responded directly to that.

“Did you have them teleported here by your mage?” Ingvar asked after a momentary pause.

Ravana shook her head. “These are women from a very traditional Shaathist background and their young children, who have already lost the most central underpinnings of their understanding of the world. They’re not sanguine about arcane magic and I have found it best not to rattle them any more than I absolutely must. Plus, teleporting this many individuals would have required me to hire most of the Wizards’ Guild, who themselves came from the great Salyrite schism a century ago. I made inquiries of the Archmage, who was leery of getting into internal Shaathist affairs. In the end, the Harpies’ escape served as the inaugural mission of my new private zeppelin. It was a little cramped, but more of them than otherwise seemed to enjoy the flight.”

Ingvar nodded, glancing at her again, and she could practically hear the unexpressed thought in his eyes: why was she willing to stick herself into the center of a bitter religious feud in which both sides were willing to shed blood and neither offered her any apparent gain? He kept quiet, though, and Ravana indulged in another knowing smile. It wasn’t yet time for that conversation.

The other two likewise held their peace, looking to Ingvar for guidance, and Ravana took note of the political acumen on display. He had clearly picked this group with care, even though it didn’t include his dryad friend or any of the others closest to him, or those most intimidating in a confrontation; his Shadow Hunters had only survived this long because they were too physically dangerous for any Shaathist lodge to attack in force. Obviously Ingvar had opted for a gentler approach here. Dimbi was a young woman, a good choice to help put the Harpies at ease and demonstrate that women were equals in his new Shaathism; Dantu was an old man, and doubtless a source of wisdom, while also not being an even remotely intimidating figure. And tellingly, both were socially adroit enough to follow Ingvar’s lead without overt instruction. It was a small thing, but it showed greater sophistication than she was accustomed to expecting of Shaathists.

Which boded well for her own plans.

“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that you have done this, Lady Madouri,” Ingvar said softly as they ascended the last steps of the hill upon which the lodge stood, its gables now towering over them. “The effort must have been considerable, and the results…are priceless.”

“No one else was doing it,” she said noncommittally. “A person in my position can do a great deal of good. I could also exhaust myself and my resources trying to put out every fire in the world, an error I am not about to commit. To an extent, one must pick and choose from many worthy causes. This one…resonated with me. I know what it’s like to live under the thumb of a man whose brittle ego and need to keep me there informed his entire view of the world. I brought you here, Brother Ingvar, because I believe you are the best possible person to help these women find their footing in this strange new world. And I daresay you will find a warm welcome here: the dreams of Shaath that continue to come have, according to some of them, mentioned you by name.”

“Now, that I did not know,” he murmured as they climbed the broad stone steps to the front door of the lodge.

“Regardless, we can only do what we can,” Ravana said, grasping the latch and turning it. She pulled the door wide, letting a rush of warm air out, and gestured within. “What will be, will be. After you.”


“It’s simple economics,” Svanwen explained as another fairy lamp clicked on in the tunnel ahead, and one behind the party winked out. “Lights with motion-sensing charms are a lot more expensive up front, yes, but they save me both the cost of a lot of recharging dust that needn’t be burned while nobody’s around and the man-hours it would take to have somebody come through switching them on and off. It’s one more thing my people can ignore and get on with their work. This project is likely to take decades, years at the very least. Over time, it’ll save a fortune. A good businesswoman takes the long view.”

“How’s all the flashing on and off on your eyes?” Captain Fedhaar asked Natchua. “I know drow see well in the dark, but I’ve heard you lot have some trouble in bright light.”

She had long since perfected the magic to maintain her vision without the need of dark glasses, but was not inclined to delve into that for his benefit.

“Don’t you worry,” Natchua said with a wink. “I can see better than any of you under any light level.”

Fedhaar grunted and turned his gaze back forward. “Elves are bullshit.”

Svanwen shot him a look as if fearing a racial conflict was about to erupt, then switched it to Natchua when the drow chuckled.

“Well,” Natchua said, shrugging, “he isn’t wrong.”

The dwarf shook her head. “Anyway. How’s the trail looking?”

“We’re still following,” reported Fedhaar’s tracker, a Western human called Lieutenant Bindo, who was walking at the head of the group with his attention on the ground. “The beast’s healthy, which is both good and bad; means it’s not leaking any infernal radiation. Harder to follow, that way, but much safer for everyone. Lucky there’s so much stone dust in these tunnels. Nothing that belongs on this plane has feet like this.”

“My people know what they’re about,” Fedhaar said coolly.

“I never meant to imply otherwise,” Ms. Svanwen assured him. “If I forget myself and prompt everybody to keep alert for any infernal craft nearby, it’s not meant as a personal slight. Just my veteran tendency to micro-manage.”

“It’s good advice, no matter whose ego is at stake,” said Natchua. “The second rule of infernomancy is to triple-check everything, and then triple-check it again.”

There was a momentary pause.

“All right, fuck it, I’ll bite,” Fedhaar finally said with a sigh. “What’s the first rule of infernomancy?”

She grinned at him. “Don’t.”

The captain couldn’t help grinning back. “Good rule.”

“So,” Svanwen said pensively, “the big question is how there’s a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels. They’re not the sort of creature that tends to wander through hellgates, even underground. We’re thinking there are two possibilities, the first of which is that some deep drow have burrowed into the catacombs somewhere down below the areas we’ve explored. That’s a worst case scenario, obviously. Scyllithenes with access to Veilgrad would officially be a crisis.”

“Unlikely,” Natchua opined. “If you had Scyllithenes, you’d be finding the mutilated corpses of your crew, now tracks from what amounts to a loose animal.”

“That’s exactly my assumption,” Svanwen agreed, nodding, “hence coming here with a small team of specialists and not Captain Fedhaar’s entire battalion. Imperial Command and Duchess Dufresne agree, though they did insist on having another unit from the Azure Corps on standby to bring in more soldiers if this goes sideways somehow. But all things considered, it’s most likely the second possibility: some rogue warlock hiding in the deeper tunnels. They made a great hideout for shifty types even when they were still full of bodies. That’s exactly what drew the chaos cult that caused the big disaster in the first place.”

“Mm,” Natchua grunted. “One warlock shouldn’t be too hard to take down, if it comes to it. Question is what they would summon a rozzk’shnid for. The creatures make decent guard dogs in tunnels, and…that’s about it.”

“This hypothetical warlock will explain themselves when we get them,” Fedhaar stated dispassionately. “One way or another.”

Natchua gave him a nod of approval.

“Tunnel opens out up ahead,” Bindo reported. “Tracks are still leading that way.”

“There’s a sequence of larger vaults just ahead,” Svanwen added. “They mark the deepest regions my people have explored and secured. Beyond that, there’ll be no more installed lights, and we don’t even have reliable maps of the tunnels.”

“We’ve got light sources and directional charms,” said Fedhaar. “I’m not worried about getting lost. It’ll just be a little less comfortable, that’s all.”

They emerged into a broader chamber than the arched tunnel along which they had been traveling. Well-lit now with large fairy lamps Svanwen’s crew had set up in each of the rectangular room’s corners, it was lined entirely by deep alcoves in the wall of the right size for a human body to be laid out, all currently empty. The center of the long chamber held three huge stone sarcophagi, their lids pushed aside and lying broken upon the floor.

“It still gets to me, sometimes,” Svanwen whispered as the group stepped carefully through the rubble. “All these honored dead, just… Treated that way. It’s sickening. Did you know Veilgrad was originally a necropolis? The first living residents were Vidian priests who looked after the old Stalweiss chieftains interred here. Burial records extend back before the Hellwars. And all just…swept aside, in service to pointless, destructive madness.”

“The Vidians have been quite clear that they were just bodies, at least,” said Fedhaar. “The souls of the dead were long since in Vidius’s hands and beyond tampering. C’mon, no use dithering here.”

Natchua opened her mouth, but stopped herself from commenting at the last second. While she suspected that was the sort of thing the Vidians would say regardless of its veracity just to keep people from worrying needlessly, it belatedly occurred to her that suggesting it would also cause nothing but needless worry.

Then she frowned, tilting her head. “Wait.”

The others paused, turning to look expectantly at her.

“I hear… Up ahead, there’s something. Sounds like scratching… Claws on stone, maybe.” She brought her eyes back into focus, first on Svanwen and then Fedhaar. “May be our beastie.”

The captain turned his head toward his soldiers and nodded once; in unison, all of them drew wands. “Good to have the elven bullshit on our side, I won’t deny it,” he said. “How far?”

“It echoes weirdly down here,” Natchua murmured. “Hang on…”

She closed her eyes, reaching out through magic. Yes—definitely a demon, at about the outer limits of her perception in this manner.

“There’s a sequence of chambers like this,” Svanwen said while Natchua concentrated. “All in a neat row, the last being the biggest. Beyond it the tunnels are more rough-cut, smaller, and twist about more. The final gate is as far as we’ve explored. It was supposed to be barred, but I’ve not had people down this deep in weeks.”

“Yes, looks like a rozzk’shnid,” Natchua reported, opening her eyes. “I can’t tell anything about the surrounding tunnels, but it’s maybe a hundred yards up ahead. Not moving around much. I don’t detect any active magic nearby.”

“Right,” Fedhaar stated, moving ahead. “We’ll take point, then. Careful and quiet, people. This thing may just be an animal but we don’t know what’s what down here.”

The soldiers saluted, and he waited to get nods of acknowledgment from Svanwen and Natchua before proceeding.

It was a tense passage through a series of cleared out burial chambers, each growing progressively larger, and the ancient carved decorations more elaborate the deeper they went. By the time the group reached the final sepulcher, the scrabbling of the demon was audible to all of them, along with a soft, intermittent metallic clatter. It was loudest as they stepped into what Svanwen whispered was the largest final tomb, a space the size of a church. There were motion-activated fairy lamps down here, too, though they were already on before the group came into view of them.

The last gate opened onto an open space lined with more burial alcoves, these carved into the stone walls to a height of four per wall. Above, the vaulted ceiling lay in shadow, soaring high enough not to be easily reached by the installed fairy lamps. This chamber had no free-standing sarcophagi, but maybe two thirds of the way along its length a stone wall stood in the center of the open space, leaving passages to either side and not reaching the ceiling. Its purpose was apparently decorative, being carved with the solemn likenesses of five ancient Stalweiss kings, each with inscrutable runes engraved above their heads.

The scratching was coming from the other side of this.

At hand signals from Fedhaar, the troops split up, creeping forward with weapons upraised to both sides of the barrier. Natchua joined the captain himself, as did Svanwen, and ignoring his grimace of disapproval, stepped forward to be the first around the corner.

The demon was there, all right. The rozzk’shnid was the size of a large dog, proportioned somewhat like a monkey and plated in natural armor, and eyeless. It was also wearing a heavy iron collar, from which a chain trailed to an iron spike driven into the ground. At their approach, the best stopped its futile worrying at the chain, turning blindly toward them and hissing.

For a second, they just stared.

“It’s like…” Svanwen whispered, “like it’s set out as…”

“As bait,” Natchua finished. “Oh, fuck.”

“Retreat,” Fedhaar ordered, and the soldiers immediately stepped back.

“Now, now, now, let’s nobody go and panic,” a new voice said jovially, and the group trailed to a stop just beyond the stone wall, staring at the entrance to the tomb, where a dark-skinned human in a pristine white suit complete with a wide-brimmed hat had just sauntered out of the tunnel beyond.

The soldiers brought their weapons up as eight figures in hooded gray robes materialized seemingly from nowhere along the walls of the tomb.

“Whoah,” the man in white said soothingly, raising both his hands. “Easy, now! Sorry about all this rigamarole, but I assure you I’ve no beef with most of you. Last thing we want is to kick up a scrap with the Army, after all. And most especially not with the inimitable Ms. Svanwen, here. I confess after having a good look through these chambers I’ve become quite a fan of your work, ma’am. Why, the place is starting to look downright homey!”

“Most of us?” Svanwen demanded, ignoring his flattery.

“Hey,” Natchua said, narrowing her eyes to slits. “I remember you.”

“Oh, do you,” he replied, his smile growing broader and notably brittle. “What an honor it is to be remembered by the great Natchua! My heart is all a-flutter.”

“I’m positive I killed you fucksticks in Ninkabi,” she snorted. “How the hell did you get out of that—”

“You seem to’ve adopted Veilgrad as your home,” Embras Mogul interrupted, grinning more widely still until the expression looked nearly psychotic, especially as he held his head tilted so the brim of his hat concealed his eyes. “There’s an old Shaathist hunting axiom you really should’ve picked up by now, Natchua honey: never wound what you can’t kill.”

“Those robes…” Fedhaar said. “Are these Wreath? What exactly are you assholes playing at? Elilial’s not even at war with the Pantheon anymore. It was kind of a big deal.”

“Oh, indeed, our business is not with anyone aligned with either the Pantheon or the Empire,” Mogul assured him. “My humble apologies for drawing you fine folks into this. It seemed the least disruptive way to get this malicious little darkling off by herself, but rest assured, I’ll make amends for the inconvenience. Now, as for—”

He broke off, staring incredulously, as Natchua burst out laughing.

“Oh, this is too rich,” she chortled, striding forward into the center of the room and rolling up her sleeves. “The Black Wreath has come to exact terrible vengeance! And here I was afraid for a second that something bad was happening. Agatha, Captain, this shouldn’t take long, but you may wanna step back a few paces to enjoy the show. The front row of seats may see some splattering.”

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15 – 72

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No one would ever call what happened to Ninkabi less than a disaster, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The city was constructed nearly entirely of stone, and so fires had been relatively small, contained, and swiftly doused by magic users. For whatever reason, the specific spells and weapons used by the infernal invaders had not tended to cause large structural collapses, which after the battle helped a great deal to alleviate the need for search and rescue efforts. Being a warren of tunnels and bridges much better known to its inhabitants than invaders, the population, police and civilians alike, had largely survived by making use of countless natural choke points to hide from demons or pin and counter-attack them; fearsome though hellspawn were, the last major demonic invasion had been before the advent of lightning weapons and even the khladesh phalanxes had been unprepared to face wandfire. Perhaps most conveniently of all, especially in contrast to most recorded invasions from Hell, there were no lingering demons to fight; no invasion from Hell had ever been met by a counter-invasion of tiny, relentless fairies. Every demon in the city was gone, either destroyed or fled, by the time the final confrontation with Elilial had been ended, save the few allied with the adventurers.

The Empire’s state of war footing necessarily slowed the deployment of troops to Ninkabi, as there just weren’t large concentrations of them in any one convenient place, but Tiraas did not lack for non-military resources and sent everything it had. More aid came from all quarters as the day went on and telescrolls carrying word of the invasion spread across the Empire. Every cult sent what personnel and resources it could, the Omnists in particular contributing vastly to humanitarian efforts. The Wizard’s Guild lent every available mage to teleport anything and anyone needed to the city from wherever they came, and soon other cities, provincial governments and Houses likewise donated resources. After Falconer Industries dispatched its private zeppelin to transport any injured judged unfit for teleportation or Rail travel to the nearest standing hospitals, its competitors and soon other corporations began clamoring to be seen helping in front of the reporters, beginning with a fleet of trucks from DawnCo.

Tiraas’s allies also responded, with two members of the Conclave of the Winds arriving within an hour of the battle’s end, and pledges came from Rodvenheim, Puna Dara, Tar’naris and Sifan that packages of aid were being prepared for shipment as soon as it was feasible. The Tiraan Empire was richer by far than any of these nations and did not objectively need the help, but word of each such promise brought cheers from the people of Ninkabi when it was announced. During the darkest times, a simple show of solidarity could be as powerful as any helping hand.

In the broader world of politics, everyone everywhere had just been affected by the wolf dreams and unearthly howling, and word was only just beginning to be spread by witches and shamans that that crisis had passed. As much as the powerful liked to network with each other and be seen to make grand gestures, great uncertainty often brought out the best in populations. Generosity toward a stranger in need might not be satisfying in the same way as the destruction of a threat, but it was a means of asserting both power over fate and the virtue that most people liked to think they already possessed.

And of course, from the beginning, the large force of adventurers was there. Most of them had little skill in healing, but there was plenty to be done and none of them hesitated to pitch in. Even the spirit wolves attached to Ingvar’s group went to work sniffing out people trapped by collapsed structures. Ninkabi’s beleaguered residents, desperate and simply spellshocked as so many were, didn’t raise a peep of objection to having dozens of heavily-armed anachronisms running around their city, not as long as they were willing to help.

Two hours after full dark, the city was finally beginning to calm down, with the various relief workers now joining injured and displaced residents in the various hastily improvised shelters, most too simply tired to keep going by that point. Back in the old trading guild hall up near the main gates of the city, where the first concentration of civilians had taken shelter and many of the aid efforts were being coordinated, bedraggled adventurers, soldiers, and volunteers were settling in for some hard-earned rest in the spaces where the citizens had been huddled just a few hours prior, with the full expectation of being back at work with the crack of dawn. By that time, they were all that remained, the actual civilians having gone either back to their homes or off to other, less improvised shelters, leaving this space for administration of relief personnel.

It wasn’t silent, and likely nothing in Ninkabi would be for some hours, but the atmosphere was muted due to sheer fatigue. The knot of people huddled in one corner not far from the broken wall where baerzurgs had torn their way in tried to keep their voices low, though none of them seemed close to sleeping.

“She is, as far as I can tell, completely human,” Shaeine reported, releasing Jackie’s head. “I will caution everyone that I am not a medical professional, however, and I really recommend that she be examined by one of those.”

With Fross having regained possession of the Mask, Jackie had had the benefit of a quick wash, three helpings of Omnist vegetable stew, and a colorful new dress donated by someone in Onkawa, and generally looked a great deal better than she had previously, if still a little hollow-eyed from simple fatigue. She remained animated, though, and begin gesticulating broadly and rapidly in response.

“I don’t…suppose…you know how to write, Jackie?” Juniper asked hesitantly. Jackie grinned at her and nodded.

“We tried that,” Shaeine said, serene as always. She reached around behind herself and retrieved a sheet of paper, on which a crude stick figure had been scrawled, surrounded by equally roughly-sketched little butterflies. Or, upon closer inspection, pixies. “This was the result.”

Jackie raised her chin, beaming with pride.

“But why can’t she talk, then?” Fross asked.

“I can find nothing physically wrong with her vocal apparatus,” said Shaeine, carefully putting the picture back down. “But, again, someone more qualified than I should really check that before we consider the matter settled. Even so, muteness is known to be a possible side effect of mental trauma. She has certainly endured more than her share of that.”

Some of the good humor leaked from Jackie’s face, and Juniper leaned in to wrap an arm around her shoulders. Fross settled down in her hair, which immediately restored her smile.

“I’m honestly more curious why she’s human,” said Trissiny. “I suppose something like that isn’t beyond Salyrene’s power, but… Why?”

Everyone looked at Jackie, who shrugged, grimaced, and rolled her eyes.

“Yep, that’s the look of somebody who’s met a god, all right,” Principia said lightly. “Well, Jackie, now that things are a little more settled here, I’ve got something for you.”

While speaking, she had already been digging in one of her belt pouches, and now produced a golden eagle charm on a twisted chain, which she held out toward Jackie.

“Hey!” Trissiny exclaimed. “Why do you have that?”

“Rouvad issued it to me,” Principia said cheerfully.

“If that’s the case, it’s not yours to give away, Locke.”

“As it turns out,” Principia said, “this was created by a certain Mary the Crone, with whom we are all tediously acquainted. It’s a conversion focus which draws power from the bottomless well of an extremely high-ranked fairy, whom the old lady decided needed to be a little less powerful and so made that to turn some of her energy into divine magic in the hands of whoever has this charm. Specifically, it siphons magic from Jacaranda the Pixie Queen.”

Jackie, who had been frowning quizzically at the pendant, straightened up and stared at Principia.

“So,” the elf continued with a grin, “as far as I’m concerned, this is stolen property which I am now returning to its rightful owner. If it becomes necessary, I’m sure I can have Ephanie look up a suitable interpretation of Legion regulations to back me up on that, but to be quite honest? After that whole mess with Basra, I am far more inclined to work around Commander Rouvad’s politicking and bad judgment than try to persuade her if it’s not absolutely necessary.”

Trissiny looked away, her own expression settling into a grim frown. “I… Should probably not agree with a sentiment like that in the presence of witnesses. Off the record, though, Jackie, I’d say you’re definitely entitled to take that back if you want it.”

“As I understand it,” Principia said as Jackie carefully took the charm from her hands, “you picked up a suite of very basic spells from all four schools in that tower, right? That’d be typical for anybody getting a crash course in Salyrite magic; all their apprentices learn the fundamentals before specializing in one of the Colleges. If my grasp of the theory is correct, that’ll significantly augment your ability to do divine magic without specializing you into it, so you can still cast whatever arcane or infernal spells you know without interference. Don’t get mad if I’m wrong, though. I just do pretty basic enchantments, myself.”

“Will it still work?” Shaeine asked. “She is, after all, no longer a fairy.”

“It still worked today when I was using it to do some spot-healing on rescuees,” Principia said with a shrug. “Don’t ask me why, much less how. We’re into some advanced hoodoo, here; it’s not like there’s a textbook on how twice-transformed dryads work.”

Jackie gently extricated herself from Juniper’s grip, causing Fross to flutter aloft again, and leaned forward to wrap her arms around a startled Principia in a hug.

“Uh…okay, then?” the elf said, gingerly patting her on the back.

“That appears to be her default expression of approval,” Shaeine explained with a small smile. “It might cause issues in my culture, but in absolute terms I believe there are much worse things.”

“Well, you’re welcome,” Principia said, finally squeezing Jackie once and then carefully but firmly pulling herself back. “Tell you what, I know Aspen went outside the gates with those Huntsman pals of hers, but it seems like you three could use some family time before everybody turns in for the night. Something tells me tomorrow’s gonna be almost as long as today.”

“Good advice for us all,” Shaeine agreed, glancing over to the other side of the long room, where Teal was strumming a soothing lullaby on someone’s borrowed guitar for an audience of relief workers slumped in various postures of exhaustion. “I would very much like to spend some quiet time with my own consorts before retiring.”

“I’d really like to check on Sniff and F’thaan,” Juniper said with a sigh, “but I’m sure they’re fine in the Gardens with our guides. For a day or so, at least. C’mon, Jackie, let’s let everybody rest.”

The group parted ways with smiles and muted farewells. Trissiny, catching Principia’s eye, stepped over to the broken wall and carefully picked her way across the rubble to stand in the quieter darkness outside, with the elf right behind her. The air was pleasantly cooler in the alley beyond, though the smell of old garbage and fresher burned demon was not really an over the scent of packed bodies in the trading hall.

“I’d like to check if you caught anything I missed,” Trissiny said softly, “from that ridiculous confrontation in the cathedral. I know a con when I see one, at least in hindsight, and Elilial conned the hell out of all of us.”

“Yes, she did,” Principia agreed, nodding. “I was pretty sure something fishy was up when we got close enough for me to hear her raging at Kuriwa and Natchua like a baerzurg; anything that different from someone’s usual behavior is likely to be some kind of trick. What’s your take on it?”

“An armistice is great and all, though I maintain this one will not hold, and in fact she’s probably already working against the terms on her next sneak attack. But also, I can’t help seeing how she used even her concessions to get what she wants, starting with explaining in detail, to a mixed mob of adventurers, how to kill a god. The cults and the Church have worked hard to suppress that information for centuries. Even Tellwyrn, who has actually done it, refuses to say how; she just told us not to try it.”

“Good advice,” Principia said, grinning faintly. “But…yeah. And did you catch the other part?”

“What do you mean?”

“I think the bigger issue was her dramatic forgiveness of four less-influential gods. In public. With that, she drove a wedge right into the Pantheon.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes in thought. “Surely you don’t think the gods are dumb enough to turn on each other over that?”

“Oh, definitely not. But their mortal followers absolutely are. And I dunno how much Arachne’s taught you about metaphysics, but gods tend to end up agreeing with whatever ideas come to permeate their cults. Now, Naphthene and Ouvis don’t even have cults, and nobody cares what the Ryneans think about anything, but splitting Shaath away from the rest of the Pantheon is a big damn deal. The Huntsmen are firmly behind Archpope Justinian’s politicking, and now this Ingvar character is right here, in the thick of these events, and from what I’ve been able to gather today, trying to stir up a major schism within that cult.”

“That’s…utterly brilliant,” Trissiny said reluctantly. “She can significantly damage Justinian’s support base, and no one will even object. Nobody actually likes the Huntsmen, and a lot of people are already unhappy with Justinian’s maneuvering. Yours truly firmly included. See, this is why I wanted to ask you. I completely missed that.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo,” Principia said, smiling. “Don’t worry, you’ve got no shortage of wits, I’ve just had longer to exercise mine.”

“And even that’s not the bigger deal here,” Trissiny went on. “Nothing’s more in character than Elilial using her own defeat to underhandedly stab at her enemies. I’m a lot more interested in the fact that Vesk, who definitely knows better, deliberately let all this happen.”

“’Let’ isn’t a strong enough word,” said Principia, her jaw clenching momentarily. “Vesk forced that to happen the way it did, and I don’t just mean by running roughshod over you and the dragon and everyone else in that room who damn well knew better than to let Elilial get away with all that. I’ve been in situations before where some deity or other major power was putting a finger on the scales, nudging events to flow in a direction of their choosing. It’s hard to pick out concrete signs of it happening, but when you’ve seen it a few times, you know what it looks like.”

“And that leaves the question,” Trissiny whispered. “Why? Is he turning against the Pantheon? Is this just part of his ongoing quest to thwart the Archpope? I might even be willing to participate in Vesk’s troublemaking if I could only be sure it was toward a good purpose.”

“There is just no way to tell, with a creature like that,” Principia said grimly. “It’s important not to drive yourself crazy trying to second-guess him. Keep your eyes and your mind open and be prepared to think fast, but… You can’t let trickster gods trap you in your own paranoia. I know that all too well, now.”

“Yeah, and to think even after being dragged around by Vesk this summer I still thought of him as just sneaky and annoying. After all this… I really do see why his involvement sent you into such a panic.”

“Well, now, I dunno about panic…

“Locke, I have never seen anyone that panicked, and I suspect I may never again.”

Principia heaved a sigh. “Yeah, well, take it as a warning, then. We’re not going to outsmart either Vesk or Elilial by dealing with them on their own terms.”

She paused suddenly and half-turned to look back through the gap in the wall; after a moment, Trissiny followed her gaze. It was a few seconds longer before Shook appeared in the gap, squinting into the darkness outside. He was quite a mess, his normally slicked-down hair in disarray and his neat suit filthy and torn beyond repair after the day’s fighting and then whatever else he’d been doing all evening.

“There you are,” the enforcer grunted, carefully stepping through the fallen masonry. “Hard to find as usual, Keys.”

“Aw, Thumper, you missed me?” Principia said sweetly. “That’s creepy. Are you here to enlist with Avei, or would you prefer to fuck directly off?”

He stopped in the gap itself, reaching out to brace himself against one of the broken walls, and fixed her with a glare. “You know what, you have got to be the single most insufferable woman I ever had the misfortune to meet. To give you some context on that, Keys, I’ve been hanging out with a fucking succubus. But you are seriously the absolute worst, you smarmy, stuck-up, conniving, backstabbing little—”

“I really hope this is going somewhere worthwhile, Thumper,” Trissiny said in a very even tone.

He broke off, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah. Yeah, it is. I just wanted to say, Keys, that despite all of the above, I…” Shook grimaced as if pained, and swallowed heavily. “I was… Back in Last Rock, I was out of line. I mean, I went way over the line in dealing with you. That was shitty and totally outside my mandate, and… I’m sorry. That’s all I wanted to say to you.”

Principia stared at him in silence, as if confused; Trissiny glanced rapidly back and forth between them, absently resting her palm on the pommel of her sword. As the silence stretched out, Shook grimaced again and awkwardly tried to straighten the ragged lapels of his jacket, then ran a hand over his disheveled hair.

“Thumper,” Principia said finally, “the shit you pulled doesn’t go away with an apology.”

He shrugged in a jerky little motion, averting his eyes. “Yeah, well… Maybe not. May as well take the ‘sorry’ anyway, Keys. You’re owed it, and… That’s all I got for you. So…yeah. Take care.”

He started to turn and navigate back through the mess.

“Seriously, though,” Principia said suddenly, “you looking to sign up? Avei really needs people with adventuring experience, and let’s face it, you really need some major protection from all the people you’ve pissed off.”

Shook turned back to squint at her. “This some kinda practical joke? Cos I wouldn’t begrudge you that, I just like to know where I stand.”

“This is what I’m doing now, Thumper; I am all in with the Legions. I don’t joke about this. I meant what I said in the cathedral. Full amnesty, as long as you can follow the rules.”

“Well, that’s…somethin’ to keep in mind,” he mused. “Gotta pass for right now, though. I’m goin’ back to Tiraas with Sweet an’ the others when the Rails are up again. I got a way overdue report for the Boss, and anyway, you know how Style gets when you delay an asskicking she wants to hand out. Gonna be bad enough already without putting it off any longer.”

“Pff, what’s this ‘taking responsibility for your actions’ BS, Thumper? That’s not a good look on you at all. You go back to the Guild, I give you fifty-fifty odds of walking out alive, at best. I’ve got a place for you if you want it.”

He shook his head, smiling faintly, and turned away. “See you ‘round, Keys. Good work today, Thorn.”

They watched as Shook made his way back into the building, then headed off toward the front doors.

“So,” Trissiny said at last, “you want to explain to me what that was all about?”

“Nope,” Principia grunted, still staring after him.

“I can make it an order, Lieutenant.”

“Trissiny,” she replied, turning to meet her gaze. “I do not want to talk about this with you. Please.”

Trissiny frowned deeply, holding her stare, but after a long moment nodded in acknowledgment. “Very well. All I’ll say is that if you’re going to command forces in Avei’s name, you had better watch out for conflicts of interest. No matter how desperate you are for recruits, don’t hire that guy if you’re going to use it for some kind of revenge against him. How much he might deserve it is beside the point. Power is not to be abused that way.”

“Nah,” Principia said lightly, a faint grin fluttering across her features. “I’m not traumatized over that guy. I’ve been treated worse by idiots whose names I don’t even remember now; I doubt I’ll remember his in fifty years. No, while I was idly thinking of pushing him off a bridge if the opportunity came up, I like this a lot better. Put him in Avei’s service and one of two things will happen: either I will successfully housebreak that weapons-grade POS and it’ll be the ultimate proof of the viability of what I’m doing, or he’ll do the same old shit he always does while surrounded by Legionnaires and priestesses and permanently cease to be anyone’s problem, ever again. Yeah… I’d better make sure Style doesn’t actually kill him. This has potential.”

Trissiny sighed. “And here we go again.”


The security of their improvised base was very much a matter of don’t and won’t see; little explicitly barred anyone from just wandering in, save that it was located in an inconvenient storage room fairly deep in the warren of tunnels below Ninkabi’s cathedral, and that everyone else in the area who was still alive was out tending to survivors. Khadizroth had also hinted that he was directing attention away from the room, which of course was well within the purview of his chosen school of magic. Even so, Darling had no trouble finding his way back there, pushing a cart laden with bread, cheese, jerkey, blankets, bandages, and healing potions.

“Sorry about the wait,” he said quietly upon re-entering the chamber. “There was stew, but no way in hell would that’ve made it down all those damn stairs. I think I got the basics, though.”

“I never doubted you would be able to pilfer adequate materials,” the dragon said gravely.

“Hey, there was no pilfering. Any Eserite who looted aid supplies during a crisis would be asking to have all his fingers amputated.”

“And yet…”

“These are donated for victims of the demon invasion,” Darling said placidly. “Which is exactly who we’re using them for. Some of the donors might take issue with the specific victims we are aiding, is all; no need to poke that bear by telling them. How’s everybody holding up?”

Khadizroth turned to regard the room full of people in gray robes, mostly huddled together along the walls and in the back corner. It was quieter than when Darling had left; there was still audible sniffling, but no one was openly sobbing anymore. Several of the rescued warlocks were rocking back and forth by themselves, or clutching each other for dear life.

“I have addressed every physical injury to my satisfaction,” the dragon said softly, “which of course was always going to be the lesser problem. Even for people as resilient as these, that was a kind of trauma from which recovery simply takes time. Potentially years. To say nothing of the outright nightmarish experience of chaos space’s defenders… There are seventeen of them, Darling. I do not know how many of the Wreath were left before Kuriwa and that drow ambushed them, but it goes without saying that they have just witnessed the loss of numerous comrades.”

The Bishop blew out a soft breath, frowning worriedly. “Damn. Maybe I should’ve requisitioned a few bottles of brandy… Or shrooms.”

“I would not recommend those even as a stopgap treatment for something like this. Right now they are together and safe, and that is a solid beginning to the healing process.”

“Has anybody said anything? I don’t know how long they must’ve been in there. Usually you’ve got quite a bit of leeway before the creepy thingumajigs attack. I’ve spent a bit of time in that zone myself and came out none the worse for wear.”

“We had demons with us,” Embras Mogul said suddenly. He was sitting nearest the door with his back to the wall, one long leg stretched out and the other bent with one elbow resting on his knee. It was by far the most relaxed posture of any of the surviving Wreath, but his head remained bent forward and his eyes wide, staring at seemingly nothing. With his trademark hat missing and his dapper white suit badly torn and stained with blood, he seemed suddenly much older, and a mere shadow of his usual self.

Darling frowned quizzically at him, then turned a questioning look on Khadizroth.

“An average person might last several minutes in chaos space,” the dragon explained quietly. “Someone with basic mental discipline, if forewarned what to expect and what not to do, can linger there for an hour, maybe two, before drawing enough attention to be in danger from the guardians. The unnatural aggression caused by infernal corruption, though… Demons in that space will always provoke an immediate attack. Sufficiently corrupted warlocks, the same. And the nature of chaos space renders shadow-jumping impossible.”

“They were…under assault from the moment they were in there?” Darling breathed. “Holy shit.”

“It is deeply impressive that this many survived,” Khadizroth agreed.

“I am not ungrateful.” Mogul finally raised his bald head to look directly at them, and suddenly the intelligence was back in his eyes. “We owe you big for the rescue. But I’m also not stupid, Antonio. You wouldn’t do something like this without good and specific reasons of your own. And since we know for an empirical fact you’re not above using a demon invasion to kill us off, I doubt it was anything as vague as wanting the Dark Lady to owe you a favor. Not to mention I know enough of your history with this character to be sure you wouldn’t work with him unless you wanted something really badly.”

“Well, it’s not like I can rip open a door to chaos,” Darling said reasonably. “I just figured, anything Mary can do, Khadizroth would be pleased to un-do.”

“Up to a point,” Khadizroth murmured.

Mogul just stared at them, unblinking.

Darling collected a small breadroll, a wedge of cheese and a stick of jerky, and knelt to hand them to Mogul; the warlock accepted the food mutely, not breaking his stare.

“Because that’s what folks do for each other,” Darling said with a smile. “At least, as long as they’re not the kind of bitter enemies who set demons to eat one another as a matter of course. Which, it turns out, you and I suddenly no longer are. In this brave new world, Khadizroth and I decided it actually is a grand idea to have Elilial owe us a solid. Not to mention that there will soon be an urgent need for demon control specialists who aren’t answerable to the Archpope or the Empire.”

Mogul narrowed his eyes.

“I’ll fill you in on the high notes,” Darling promised. “You’re gonna find this hard to believe, Embras old boy, until you’ve heard it verified by Elilial herself, but I’ll get you started at least. In the short time you weren’t on it, the world changed.”

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15 – 69

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They proceeded one step at a time through the labyrinth of the cathedral and the spaces under it, every stride carrying them as far as they could move in a straight line before having to turn and navigate around a corner or obstacle. It was especially disorienting because this method of travel moved them straight through closed doors and other temporary obstructions; apparently only features which were permanently in place were actually real, here. Over the course of five minutes, Kuriwa led them on a dizzying descent through passages, stairwell, locked doors, and hidden chambers, long past the stone construction of the cathedral complex and deep into the living bedrock under Ninkabi.

Until finally, they arrived in a chamber awash in energy which refracted and scattered light so badly in this space that they could make out nothing of what was below. They were on an upper lip of stone surrounding a pit of what looked like a scintillating soup of gold and orange beams.

“Are we there yet?” Natchua asked.

Kuriwa gave her a look while leading the way off to the side where they could crouch behind a low wall separating them from the melange below. “I will open the way back to our plane. Keep silent while we take stock of the situation.”

“You don’t have to explain the obvious to me, for future reference.”

“I have learned not to assume that about the young, the infernal, or drow.”

She made another slashing motion, carving a distortion in the air, and they slipped through back into reality.

“—maimed, possibly permanently. The Dark Lady is unhappy, Mogul.”

“We’re all unhappy, Khrisvthshnrak. I dare to presume that you’re not planning to hold me responsible for the actions of paladins, since I know the Dark Lady wouldn’t do anything so silly.”

“Mind your words, human. Are your lackeys any closer to finishing their work?”

“You can see their progress as well as I. Do you want this done quickly, or do you want your forces to survive the passage?”

The two elves were still crouched on the same ledge, but the character of the light had changed from a morass of apparently solid illumination to a steady glow of pure gold. Right next to them was the corpse of a human in Holy Legion armor stained by the pool of blood in which it lay, with more of the same scattered along this upper balcony.

As one, they carefully raised their heads just enough to peek over the side.

The long, rectangular chamber was predominated by the hellgate itself. While hellgates in general were invisible fissures in the air, this one was encircled by a carved stone doorway, circular in shape and more than a full story tall. It was heavily engraved with sigils and runes, all of which put out the steady golden glow which lit up the whole room. More of the same shone from carvings on the dais upon which it sat; at each of the four corners of this rose an altar topped by a huge chunk of faceted quartz, which blazed with the brightest intensity of any of them.

All of it had been heavily worked over. Erratic cage-like structures of something black that looked organic in its organization had been placed over each altar, and all the carved symbols in the stonework which put off divine light. None were fully obscured, but the purpose of the growths to contain their magic was obvious.

More corpses were strewn about, both Holy Legionaries and a few priests in black Universal Church robes. Most had been unceremoniously shoved into the edges of the room. One corner was entirely piled with bodies in oddly nondescript brown robes.

Those present and still alive were either Black Wreath warlocks in their ash-gray robes or demons. The warlocks were at work on complex spell circles they were creating, both free-standing designs in cleared stretches of the ground and an ever more intricate pattern being crafted around the dais of the hellgate itself, doubtless to finish suppressing the divine effects keeping it sealed. Armored khaladesh demons stood guard while three khelminash sorceresses paced among them, supervising and adding occasional corrections.

Two more figures stood at the very edge of the dais, on the cleared path leading from it to the chamber’s door: a dark-skinned human man in a vivid white suit, and a towering, muscular Rhaazke demon with bands of metal encircling her forearms.

“I thought you said demons couldn’t get near this.” Natchua kept her voice below a whisper, barely a breath; no one but another elf could have heard it, even from right alongside her.

“They have worked faster than I expected, to suppress this much of the divine effect,” Kuriwa breathed back at the same volume. “This must be most of the Wreath who remain alive on this continent; they have been badly culled in the last several years. That man is known to me: Embras Mogul is their leader. I don’t know that demon, but Rhaazke are Elilial’s uppermost lieutenants and she seems to have some authority over him.”

Natchua grinned viciously. “Every head of the hydra, on one convenient chopping block.”

Kuriwa’s expression was more subdued, though Natchua thought it reflected much of the same dark satisfaction. She wondered what this woman’s grudge against Elilial was, but this was no time or place for such questions. “A pitched battle is not to our advantage. Whatever we do must cause massive damage to them in a single strike.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes in thought, then lifted her head again to peek over the edge and take in the scene before ducking back down. She glanced at the distorted line where their exit to the space between remained open. “Can you stifle all infernomancy in the room?”

“Simplicity itself, in other circumstances. The loose divine magic in here makes that more difficult, but they themselves have suppressed it enough that I believe I can manage. You have an idea?”

She nodded. “Here’s the real question: can you do that without suppressing my magic?”

Kuriwa gave her a sidelong look, and Natchua could almost see the gears turning in her head. Neither of them knew a thing about the other, after all. But in the end, neither had anything to gain by turning on the other, or they wouldn’t have made it this far.

The shaman produced what looked like an acorn from within one of her pockets and held it out. “Do not make a sound.”

Natchua accepted the nut, and immediately discovered why that obvious warning had been necessary. The instant it left Kuriwa’s fingers, it blossomed into a twist of vines that wrapped around her lower arm like an extravagant bracelet, producing thorns which plunged straight into her skin. Not a drop of blood welled up, apparently being consumed by the vine itself. She gritted her teeth against the pain, but at least that subsided after a second.

Kuriwa nodded once when the vines settled into place. “There.”

“All right. Keep this…uh, aperture here open. As soon as you’ve done whatever you do to banish infernal magic, I’m going to attack. I will try to hold their attention and without their magic I’m pretty confident I can handle them, but I’d rather not underestimate this lot, so stay on alert. You’ll need to finish the job if I fail.”

The shaman nodded once more. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

Kuriwa closed her eyes, inhaled slowly, and began whispering under her breath so silently that even Natchua couldn’t make out any words.

There was no sign from the elf of the moment approaching, but when it came, the signal was inescapably clear. The entire room seemed to shift as if tilting, and the color of the light changed, growing misty as if thickening. Immediately, warlocks yelled and staggered backward from their work where infernal spell diagrams began to collapse in showers of sparks and smoke.

Natchua stood up fully, gazing down on the panic, and noting with particular satisfaction the way the demons, even the Rhaazke, suddenly staggered as if drunk. One of the khelminash collapsed entirely.

She reached within herself for the familiar fire, the seductive whisper of the infernal, and it was there. In fact, in this state, she could tell the broad shape of how that bracelet of thorns worked, how it anchored her magically to the default state of the mortal plane while the whole rest of this room was suspended in the midst of being shifted somewhere else.

For a fae user, this Kuriwa certainly seemed to know a lot about dimensional magic.

Then Natchua shadow-jumped straight down into the midst of the chaos.

“You,” spat the Rhaazke, stepping unevenly toward her. “Meddling—”

She remembered Scorn, from the campus at Last Rock, both the sheer physical strength and her unusual magical aptitude. This creature looked to be bigger, likely much more experienced.

Natchua flicked her fingers, and a dark tendril of magic sprang up out of the very stones, coiling around the Rhaazke and lifting her bodily off the ground. Then slamming her into it, thrice in rapid succession.

“Young lady,” said Embras Mogul, seizing her attention. He held up both hands in a placating gesture. “I know it’s chaos up there. I’m not sure what I can say to convince you, but I will swear any oath you require that we are only trying to help. We didn’t do this.”

She turned to look pointedly at the big pile of bodies.

“Well, yes, we did that,” he said with a shadow of a grin. “Those idiots called themselves the Tide. They were organized by the Universal Church of the Pantheon, and they were the ones who built all those hellgates. Not us. We are trying to fix this.”

In other circumstances, despite everything, she might have let him help. But Natchua knew the demonic invasion was even now being massacred by swarms of fairies, and a counter-force led by the paladins was on its way to this very cathedral. The Wreath’s help was not necessary, even if she hadn’t just caught them in the act of trying to open this hellgate to admit more of Elilial’s forces.

So she just smiled. “I know.”

Natchua gestured with both hands, and the entire room swarmed with shadow tendrils, snatching up every remaining demon and warlock, including the two trying to sneak up on her from behind, whom she could only assume had never dealt with elves before. The tentacles whipped them disorientingly through the air, keeping each of their victims fully occupied and too dizzy even to protest, while they systematically hurled each one in turn into the breach Kuriwa had made.

There were about two dozen warlocks, and almost half as many demons. It took almost a full minute, even moving at the speed of elvish reflexes, to consign every last member of the Black Wreath to the twisted netherworld between dimensions. But the instant the final khaladesh soldier had been hurled through, the twisting in the air abruptly ended. With a final gesture, Kuriwa sealed shut the opening between planes, locking them in.

Natchua exhaled slowly, dismissing the shadow tendrils.

“When you said you were uncertain about taking them all,” Kuriwa called down to her, standing up behind the stone balustrade, “was that an example of drow humor?”

“Actually, I was expecting…more. My plan should have worked, but my plans never just…work. They’re the Black Wreath. Shouldn’t they have been able to come up with something?”

“Eh.” Kuriwa vaulted over the edge and dropped down to land lightly on the stone below. “Their reputation is overblown. By themselves, by the Universal Church and the Pantheon cults, all of whom benefit from making the Wreath seem terrifying. In truth, if you’ve ever encountered a Scyllithene shadow priestess, Elilinist warlocks are just not that impressive.”

She paused in the act of inspecting one of the dark growths massing over a corner altar to give Natchua a sidelong look.

“I’m not a Scyllithene,” she said irritably.

“I didn’t ask.”

“Yes, you did.”

Kuriwa smiled faintly, then stepped back and simply gestured with her hand.

All around them, the black tendrils began to burn away. What began with currents of her fae magic was quickly taken up and completed by the innate divine power of the place.

Natchua grinned broadly, staring with savage satisfaction up at the glowing hellgate portal. “I have to say… I didn’t expect to make it this far alive. Hell, I wasn’t so sure about making it this far at all. But it’s done. The entire core of the Wreath, Elilial’s main officers from Hell…”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” Kuriwa warned, watching the black brambles finish burning away. “Gods may be standoffish creatures, but Elilial will definitely notice this. And you just stuffed our escape route full of our enemies. This far underground, they may survive for a few minutes, but the demons will already have drawn that place’s inherent defenders. No one in the vicinity of Ninkabi is going in there for the time being.”

“Complaints, now?”

“It was worth doing,” Kuriwa said quietly. “Even if the cost…”

“This divine magic won’t interfere too badly with shadow-jumping,” Natchua said. “Now that the Wreath’s spellcraft is gone, I can get us back to the surface. From there—”

“From there, we should make for the paladins and their army,” Kuriwa said firmly, holding her gaze.

It took Natchua a second to catch on, but then she nodded. Given what might be after the two of them any moment, best to draw it away from her friends in the cathedral.

That, finally, caused her a pang, but she suppressed it. At least they would survive. In a way, that made it perfect. Natchua had fully expected to lead all of them to their deaths in this endeavor. If, in the end, only she and this odd shaman came to grief… Well, that was for the best.

“Hold onto your ears,” she advised, raising a hand and raising the shadows.

They subsided, leaving them in the great domed space of the cathedral’s main sanctuary, a gorgeous fresco dominating the ceiling above a ring of lovely stained glass windows.

That was all the time they got.

The shockwave bowled both of them over physically, and then the overwhelming psychic presence of a god-sized mind finished the job. She manifested in a tower of flames, looming over them at a height which dominated even the vast cathedral’s space.

An enormous hand seized each of them, hauling both elves aloft, and Elilial brought them both up before her face. At that proximity, her bared fangs were easily as long as Natchua’s leg.

“Kuriwa,” the goddess spat in a voice that made the whole chamber tremble. “I didn’t curse you nearly hard enough the last time. Ah, well, live and learn.”

“Elilial,” the shaman replied with amazing dignity, considering the situation. “It has been eight millennia; I suppose you’ve not learned, since we last met, to recognize that your actions have consequences, or that you bear any responsibility for them.”

The goddess brought the wood elf closer to her face, snarling so widely Natchua suddenly wondered if she intended to bite Kuriwa physically in half.

It was probably just a reaction to the emotional stress of the last half hour, but Natchua surprised herself even more than the other two by beginning to laugh.

When Elilial’s gaze fell upon her directly, the pressure of her simple attention was tangible, a force that seemed to be trying to blast away her mind like a typhoon striking a sandcastle. She only laughed harder.

“Oh, I remember you, little one,” Elilial purred. “I dearly hope you enjoyed your precious little prank, Natchua. That was the last pleasure you are going to have in what I intend to be a very long existence.”

“You know, it’s all about the ability to manage expectations,” Natchua cackled. “It’s not like I was ever going to kill you or anything! But I hurt you, Lady in Red. Ohhh, yes, I did. Me, the little nobody you tried to use up and throw away. I wrecked your day good and proper, and now you get to spend the rest of your long eternity dealing with it.” The laughter welled up again, wracking her so hard she might have fallen had the goddess’s fist not been holding her arms pinned to her sides. Even so, it didn’t stop her from choking out a final sentence. “I win, asshole!”

One of the stained glass window was smashed to powder by a huge streak of fire which slammed into Elilial like a descending meteor. In the next moment, both elves were dropped. Natchua didn’t quite manage to sort herself out in midair enough to avoid a painful impact on the marble floor, but she was buoyed at the last instant by a cushion of air which smelled of moss and autumn leaves.

She couldn’t even spare the attention to thank the shaman for the rescue, staring up at the spectacle of Elilial staggering backward and trying to throw off the burning shape now savaging her with enormous talons. Finally, she succeeded in hurling her away.

The archdemon landed right in front of the two elves, spreading her wings as if to shield them from the goddess.

Elilial bore ugly scratches across her arms, face, and upper chest, oozing a black ichor that evaporated into smoke before it could drip far. Those cuts receded almost immediately, sealing back up as if they’d never happened. Seeming to ignore them, the goddess was staring down at the interloper with a stricken expression.

Vadrieny contemptuously flicked her claws, scattering droplets of ichor which hissed away to nothing in midair.

“So,” she said. “You can bleed.”

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15 – 55

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“It fits all too well,” Khadizroth murmured, narrowing his eyes to emerald slits of concentration. “In hindsight, I can only condemn myself for failing to anticipate such a development. The entire project of monitoring and interfering with Justinian from within his organization was the Jackal’s idea, and it must be said that our success has always been…limited. Evidently he decided to start over with a different set of co-conspirators.”

“Let’s be honest,” Shook said dryly, “the fact that you and not he ended up calling the shots more often than not had to’ve been at least a factor.”

“Syrinx is an odd choice of ally, considering the assassin threw away some far superior candidates in the process,” Bradshaw remarked.

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” said Shook, deadpan.

The warlock grimaced at him. “That woman is notoriously unstable and has so grievously offended so many powerful people already that her continued survival is an affront to the laws of probability. And this, if you have not noticed, is a dragon.”

“Indeed, theirs is hardly a match made in heaven,” Khadizroth agreed. “Syrinx and the Jackal have in common that they are creatures of pure self-interest, willing to advance the goals of others only so long as they advance their own by so doing. Ultimately, that places them at permanent cross-purposes, since his goal is explicitly to thwart Justinian in tightening his control over the world, and Syrinx has burned every bridge until Justinian’s protection is the only thing keeping her alive. It is clearly a temporary union, and a reminder that we have merely gained some insight into the underlying mystery, not solved it. Well, in any case.” He turned back to Shook directly. “I am glad you succeeded in having a peaceful discussion; frankly it surprises me that you received a response this quickly, and especially that Darling would come here himself. Was there any sign of the others?”

“Nope, and when I asked about ’em, the news wasn’t great,” Shook said with a sigh. “Sweet says that group might do work for him again in the future, but aren’t formally answering to him anymore and are currently off on some personal business way out of contact. He mentioned the Golden fuckin’ Sea, so I guess we can write that possibility off. Not that it breaks my heart. I’m still not sure why you were actually hoping to get those assholes involved.”

“Our personal grievances with them notwithstanding,” Khadizroth said pensively, “Jenkins, McGraw, and Kuriwa have always evinced personal integrity and a willingness to act for the greater good. The bard and even that ridiculous gnome always seemed willing to follow their lead.”

“And let’s be honest,” Bradshaw added, “at this point we all seem to be taking it as given that we’re in no position to be picky about allies.”

Shook snorted a short laugh of agreement, while Khadizroth nodded gravely to him.

“What of those he did bring?” the dragon asked.

“Grip’s one of the Guild’s best,” Shook answered. “Or worst, depending on how you slice it. I would describe her as a fuckin’ creepy monster, and I say that as a mark of respect. They also brought his and her apprentices—three, between them, and that’s not nothing but I wouldn’t count apprentices for much.”

“I know Darling’s students quite well,” Khadizroth said softly. “Their skills are considerable, though… Well, as we have said, allies are in short supply and beggars can’t be choosers.”

“There was also a witch,” Shook added. “Salyrite kid, name of Schwartz. Looked kind of reedy and bookish, not somebody I would’ve picked for a job like this. Just from that short conversation, though, I could tell he’s got some real deadly spells under his belt, and seems to have a real mad-on for Syrinx.”

“At this point, I’d be astonished to learn that anyone doesn’t,” said Bradshaw.

“Schwartz,” Khadizroth mused. “Interesting. I glimpsed him only in passing, but during the Viridill affair he appeared to be working for Syrinx.”

“Yep, I guess that’d do it,” Shook chuckled. “Sure worked for us.”

“He was the reason they were able to find us so quickly,” Bradshaw added in a more serious tone. “He was able to track Shook based on nothing but that telescroll Bishop Snowe sent with his message. My familiarity with fae magic is only passing, but isn’t that an extremely tenuous connection on which to zero in?”

“Indeed, the boy sounds quite talented,” Khadizroth said slowly. “Now that I am reminded of Viridill, a thought occurs: that entire chain of events was instigated by the Archpope for the specific purpose of lifting Basra Syrinx out of disgrace by arranging for her to do something heroic in the eyes of the Sisterhood.”

There was a beat of silence while they processed this.

“Mother fucker,” Shook said at last.

“Succinctly put,” Khadizroth agreed with a faint smile. “It’s not as if we don’t know this Tide cult is Justinian’s creation. That may be a positive sign, in fact. While those events doubtless appeared out of control and potentially apocalyptic to onlookers, based on the response of the Empire and the Sisterhood, the truth is they were carefully orchestrated—by me, principally—to minimize collateral damage.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m reluctant to trust the kindness of Justinian’s wizened heart,” Bradshaw snapped. “Or need I remind you what he—and Darling—did in Tiraas during the hellgate crisis?”

“And us!” Shook added helpfully.

“You need not,” Khadizroth assured him. “I merely suggest that we consider all angles and refrain from panic. And on that note, while you gentlemen were out, we have made some progress here, as well. Please, come with me; the others are waiting below, and some of this will be easier to show than to tell.”

He led them toward the stairs of Branwen’s borrowed apartment, which was sizable enough to qualify as a townhouse—at least because it had a second floor and, apparently, a basement. Khadizroth himself had not answered the front door, for obvious reasons, but Vannae had already drifted off in this direction in his discreet way after letting them in.

It wasn’t a large basement, but fortunately had come unfurnished and not storing any of the household goods which would normally clutter such a space, and so worked well enough for the purposes to which it was currently being put. Though Khadizroth bore it with his usual equanimity, Shook and Bradshaw both wrinkled their noses upon descending the steps right into the acrid smell of rot.

“What the fuck—oh, you brought one of those things here,” Shook grunted, drawing a handkerchief from within his suit to hold over his nose and mouth. “In fuck’s name, why?”

“Are you serious?” Embras Mogul asked in a mild tone. “We’re trying to figure out every detail we can about these devices and you’re confused that I’d move one to a controlled space for study? Tricky thing about you, Shook, is I’m never sure when you’re playing dumb and when it’s the genuine article.”

Shook started to breathe in slowly and immediately regretted it, but at least that paused him long enough to push aside his instinctive reaction and deliberately un-tense his shoulders. “You mean the great and wily Black Wreath is havin’ trouble figuring me out? Dear fucking diary. You managed to learn anything from that, then?”

The necromantic altar was looking a little worse for wear, set up on a pair of crates pushed together at one end of the basement; it had partially collapsed, no doubt due to a combination of being delicately constructed mostly of body parts and spare wood, and having been moved across the city. Even if done by shadow-jumping, some dishevelment was inevitable.

“A bit,” Mogul answered. “I brought this one here in case Khadizroth could extract some more detail from it than my people; we’ve got another one in a different location.”

“How did you gentlemen fare today?” Branwen asked. She actually had a bandanna wrapped around her lower face to protect against the stench. Necromancy in an enclosed space was an assault on multiple senses.

“Progress on our intended project was interrupted early on, but the day did yield fruit,” said Bradshaw. “Bishop Darling has graced Ninkabi with his presence, and brought some reinforcements. Not what I gather you were hoping, but something, at least.”

“Antonio is here?” She perked up visibly, despite the improvised mask.

“Not here,” Shook clarified. “In the city, though. In other news… You’re not gonna like this, Bishop, but Sweet and the rest of us have agreed to a…how to put this…”

“We’re back in bed with Syrinx,” Bradshaw said flatly, addressing himself to Mogul. “The short version is that with this group out from under her thumb she has no investigative ability to speak of, especially magically, and even with two Bishops we do not have access to the sheer manpower and resources it will take to clean these up, or even find them all, to say nothing of rounding up the Tide themselves.”

“You don’t need to justify it to me, Bradshaw,” Mogul said with a thoughtful expression. “It is the logical move.”

“And so Basra manages to make herself too necessary to immediately get rid of, the better to sink her claws into everyone’s business and hold on,” Branwen said, her blue eyes eloquently unhappy. “Because that is what she does. I hope I don’t need to point out that she is definitely planning to twist this whole situation toward her own benefit?”

“We’re not morons,” Shook retorted. “I mean, your Grace. Yeah, I don’t doubt she is, but that’s mutual as hell. I got the distinct impression half the people with Sweet specifically want her ass dead even more than you do, Miss Snowe. Sweet’s good at handling people, he’ll keep ’em under control, but a lot of folks here are lookin’ to take her down if they can swing it without knocking over the whole applecart.”

“Including yourself?” she asked in a tone of simple curiosity.

He shrugged. “I don’t have half the personal grudge with Syrinx I’m startin’ to get the impression everybody else does, but I know an evil bitch when I meet one. If the opportunity presents, yeah, I’d put a wandshot through her eye. Can’t really deny that somebody fuckin’ needs to already.”

She nodded once, and though it was hard to tell with the cloth over her face, he had the impression she was satisfied with that answer. “Antonio didn’t come here with you, then?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, grimacing behind his handkerchief. “The Jackal tried to whack him on the way into town and got chased off.”

Branwen’s eyebrows rose sharply. “Antonio fought off the Jackal?”

“Sweet may be more of a talker than a fighter, but he didn’t get where he is in life by bein’ easy to cut down. Point is, suspiciously soon after that, Syrinx came right to us. We got to putting some hints together, and…”

“The Jackal is still working with her,” Branwen said, her eyes widening. “Of course.”

“Damn,” Shook said approvingly. “Ain’t just a pretty face, are ya?”

She winked at him.

“So we returned here via shadow-jump,” Bradshaw finished impatiently, “so as not to lead either of them to this location. The witch was under the impression that he and you, Khadizroth, would be able to find one another given a little mutual cooperation, if you’re willing to offer it. We have a meeting place to carry an answer back to the Eserites when you have one.”

“That is sensible,” Khadizroth said, nodding. “There are many advantages to keeping these groups separate, and we can mitigate the drawbacks by actively coordinating. I will provide you a token which should enable a competent witch to find me, when you are ready to return. In the meantime, gentlemen, we should bring you up to speed on our own findings, as well.”

“It isn’t good.” Mogul’s tone was as grim as the hard line into which he set his mouth. “Examining these things closely has turned up some more spooky details, but notably not the one I was most curious about. How much do you know about hellgates, Mr. Shook?”

“Why in fuck’s name would I ever need to know anything about hellgates?”

“You mean, aside from the present situation?” Mogul shook his head. “No, sorry, your point is taken. It’s not germane knowledge for most people, luckily. See, the tricky thing about hellgates is you can’t just unilaterally pry one open. They require at least two summoners, one working from each side of the dimensional barrier. To open a hellgate, you not only need to be a pretty competent warlock—”

“Or portal mage, in theory,” Bradshaw commented.

“Yes, yes,” Mogul said irritably, “and also to be in close contact with an equally skilled demon on the other side to coordinate your efforts. That is exactly why they are rare and idiots aren’t prying more open every damn day.”

“Now, wait a second,” Shook protested. “How the hell does that work if these assholes are squirreling these thingies away in apparently every corner of the city… Oh. Yeah, I think I see the problem.”

“Yup,” Mogul drawled. “We have no idea who’s working this on the other side, or how they’re planning to do their part. Some of the possibilities are actually somewhat optimistic. For instance, if they’re deliberately casting a wider net than necessary in the hope that their demon accomplices can find some of the targets, that’d mean not all or even most of these things will actually open. Maybe not more than one.”

“Hell, are we absolutely sure these fuckwits know they can’t open a gate by themselves?” Shook asked. “What if they made a couple dozen because they don’t know why it doesn’t work and just keep trying?”

“Speculation,” said Mogul, “and, I fear, overly optimistic. Not that it’s impossible, but given what’s potentially at stake here I’m still going to plan as best I can for the worst case scenario.”

“Yeah, that’s probably smart,” Shook agreed with a sigh.

“I’m so glad you approve,” Mogul said solemnly, tipping his hat. “Because according to Khadizroth and Vannae’s ongoing efforts, the news is worse than we feared.”

“While you two were out,” said Khadizroth, “we have continued searching via magical means. We have thus observed the number of gate altars continuing to grow.”

“What?” Shook exclaimed. “More? How the fuck many of these things do these freaks need?”

“I get the impression these people don’t grasp the concept of overkill,” said Bradshaw.

“It does present a potential opportunity,” Khadizroth said, “though it also adds considerably to the legwork necessary to shut these sites down. Vannae is upstairs designing a spell we think may be able to catch them in the act of setting up a new altar. If we react fast enough, with a shadow-jumper on hand, we might be able to seize some of their personnel and extract answers more directly. I have also gained insight into the specific mechanism through which they are using necromancy to create dimensional portals, though I have yet to devise a practical use for this knowledge. In theory, with more experimentation, this may yield a method to interfere with the process on a wide scale, though that as yet eludes me.”

“What have you found?” Bradshaw asked.

“In short, they are using death itself as a vector,” Khadizroth explained. “There are several mechanisms through which death links the mortal plane with Hell. The damnation of souls rejected by Vidius, the creation and passage of Vanislaad demons—which, in fact, is how Mr. Mogul first discovered this angle, as there are elements of the incubus summoning spell worked into the basis of the apparatus. Some of the bones and tissues used in its construction are human; we think human sacrifice may be an element in their creation.”

There was a particularly gloomy pause.

“I guess,” Shook said slowly, “with Jackass whittling down the police, they’re both short on manpower and too focused on his bullshit to notice some extra folks going missing. Fuck. This has got to stop.”

“Think so, do you,” Bradshaw muttered. Shook gave him a sidelong glare, but declined to rise to the bait.

“Of course, that presents obstacles,” Branwen added. “Divine ones, specifically. Either of those avenues risks the attention of Vidius or Elilial. Well, at the very least, valkyries or Prince Vanislaas, which should amount to the same thing given what’s at stake. I am assuming, of course, that Mr. Mogul is being forthright with us on the subject of his goddess’s involvement in this.”

“Hey, say what you will about us, but the Wreath has always worked to keep the planes separate and demons on their own side,” Mogul retorted. “The kind of breach we’re potentially looking at here would rival what the Dark Lady achieved during each of the Hellwars, and since she is specifically not planning something like that, this kind of disruption would be as bad for her plans as anyone’s. My goddess doesn’t enjoy being pestered by followers who’ve failed in their tasks any more than the Pantheon’s, but during today’s work I’ve come to the conclusion I have no choice but to petition her directly for aid. I just am not sure enough that we’ve got the means to shut this down before it all activates, and… If I have to embarrass myself in front of her to avert something like this, so be it.”

“Will she help, do you think?” Khadizroth asked.

Mogul tilted his head forward so that the wide brim of his had concealed more of his face. “I can’t imagine she wouldn’t do something. But as to the form that help would take… You never can tell with gods, can you? A lot depends on what exactly is on the other side of the gate. Last I heard there was a khelminash city in this general region on the other plane, which is both good and bad. The khelminash are loyal to Elilial and will send forces to secure the site at her order. But Hell is…well, it’s hell, and since khelminash territory is the safest to be had, lots of unaligned demons will be populating any area where they live. If it was a single gate, they could secure that, no problem. But with multiple portals opening, they’ll come up against the same issue we are.”

“Not enough warm bodies to throw at the problem,” Shook muttered.

Mogul nodded silently.

“I had just come to the conclusion that I’d better take this to the Imperial and city authorities,” Branwen said with a sigh. “Farfetched as it is, I am still a Bishop of the Universal Church. They cannot simply brush me off.”

“Syrinx is already doing exactly that,” said Shook. “Might be best to let her handle it, your Grace.”

She gave him an extremely level look.

“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” he said, raising the hand not holding his kerchief in place in a gesture of surrender. “Nobody’s saying she’s not a twisted, sadistic fuck who deserves a knife in the neck. But speaking as another one of those, you gotta give us credit for the particular things we’re actually good at. Syrinx is probably a better choice for haranguing people into action when they don’t want to go, and her position with the Church is more martial than yours. Or any Izarite’s, no offense.”

“I hardly take offense at that,” Branwen murmured. “I mislike putting Basra in a key position, is all.”

“Don’t blame you,” he agreed. “But we are bumpin’ up against shit out of options here. Hey, you know your strengths better than me; do what you think is best. I’m just offerin’ my thoughts.”

“Worth considering, I guess,” Mogul commented. “You ready for the worst news yet?”

“There’s more?” Shook groaned. “Fuck. Well, don’t keep us in suspense.”

“What we have not managed to find in this altar or the other one is an activation mechanism,” said Khadizroth before Mogul could answer. “They are functionally operational as is. Well, the intact ones; there will be no demons out of this one, or those you have already disrupted. Once set up, they are simply waiting for activation, which evidently will have to come from the other side.”

“So,” Shook said slowly, “you’re telling me that since we don’t know what the fuck is going on in Hell, these things could pop open and start spraying murder-crazy demons at literally any moment?”

“Too much fatalism is as bad as too much optimism,” Mogul cautioned. “Remember, the issue is we don’t know what’s happening in Hell, yet. I’d advise against making extreme predictions in either direction. The fact it hasn’t started already strongly indicates there’s something holding back the activation of the gates.”

“So you’re telling me,” Shook repeated more loudly, “these things could start spraying demons at literally any moment?”

Mogul hesitated, then nodded once. “Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m telling you.”

Shook dragged a hand roughly down his face. “Fuck.”

“Soooo,” Bradshaw said, “I gather we should rendezvous again with Darling and his coterie? If they’re going to be useful, it sounds as if this is all information they will need.”

“I’d like to come with you,” Branwen said, stepping forward. Khadizroth looked over at her, then nodded slowly.

“Then let us all pray our fortunes improve quickly,” the dragon said, “but pray while continuing to work. The gods help those who help themselves.”

“Hey, you’re talking to a thief,” Shook said, grinning. “Helping myself is my strong suit.”

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15 – 29

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Ingvar was accustomed to relatively quiet evenings in Aspen’s company, their natural rhythms attuned to the cycles of the world around them, and so they were rarely up past dark. It was well into the night, now, and the group remained awake around a hearty fire, but he had decided to leave them to it since they were conversing with apparent harmony and goodwill—traits sorely needed in this fractious group. It was the first promising sign that they could get along and simply find some enjoyment in each other’s company. He decided that was worth more than a couple of hours of sleep.

When Rainwood had stepped over to whisper to him earlier, the rest of the group was mostly too engrossed in Taka’s current anecdote to notice, though Aspen turned her attention to him. Upon rising, Ingvar paused to murmur an explanation to her. Tholi looked up curiously, but Ingvar demurred the attention with a gesture, and so he and the shaman were able to slip off into the trees without disturbing the party.

He returned minutes later at a far more deliberate pace, striding forward to stand in the firelight at the edge of the group. At this entrance, the others all shifted their attention to him with expressions of curiosity.

“I have something important to show you,” Ingvar stated. “Please remain seated. And above all else, remain calm. You are in no more danger here than you create. Be peaceful, and peace will reign.”

“That is pretty ominous,” November commented.

He smiled. “I’m serious, though. Trust me.” Pausing only to sweep a look around at each of them, Ingvar then stepped aside, positioning himself so that he could see both the firepit, the four of them clustered by it, and the spot in the trees from which Rainwood now silently emerged.

The shaman slipped back into their little clearing and immediately moved off to the side, bowing low in the direction of the gap between trees from which he’d come. After a momentary pause, another shape slowly emerged out of the darkness.

There was a sharp indrawing of breath from multiple throats and a rustle as several of them shifted as though to jump up.

“Peace,” Ingvar murmured, keeping his voice low but projecting it firmly. The group stilled at his reminder, watching in wide-eyed silence as she came.

The firelight reflected in her eyes as she approached, a huge dark shape slipping out of the night with two burning points directed at them. In silence, she padded forward, her footfalls precise and stealthy but still audible against the carpet of grass and fallen leaves due to her sheer weight. One deliberate step at a time, the wolf emerged into the circle of light, ears upright and alert; as she came into the illumination, the dark shape she had seemed at first coalesced, revealing the mottled gray and brown coloring of her pelt.

She stopped, just at the perimeter of the light, where they could see her clearly. For several seconds, there was only the sound of the crackling fire, and the crickets in the woods outside. The wolf stared at them, shifting her head only minutely to focus on each of them in turn.

Then, ears still on the alert, she sat down on her haunches.

Taka drew in an unsteady breath. “It’s huge.”

“She,” Ingvar corrected quietly.

“She is like a pony!”

“Not quite,” he said with an amused little smile. “But they are not dogs. Domestication does a great deal to change an animal.”

“To call wolves,” Tholi whispered. “Only the most blessed among the Huntsmen’s shaman have this skill.”

“Wolves are not to be called,” Ingvar said firmly. “And a Shaathist shaman so blessed has not been known in so long that I, and many others, suspect that is nothing but an old story. She has agreed to come visit us. Remember: this is her land, not ours. Her family lives and hunts here. They know the nearby Rangers, and the Huntsmen of the lodge, and keep their distance. Wolves and people have no business with one another. We do not belong in each other’s homes. Only through the auspices of a skilled shaman,” he turned and bowed toward Rainwood, “can they be asked to join our company for a short time. And it is never more than a request. Of the pack which lives in these woods, only she decided to come.”

“Why?” November asked in a bare whisper. The wolf shifted her head to look at her directly.

“That is her business,” he said. “I can tell you this much, though. There are a number of myths about the world’s creation that seek to explain wolves; Aspen and I have gathered a few in our recent travels. The Huntsmen have their own story… Which I have learned, to my own very great chagrin, is a falsehood.” Tholi’s head snapped around to stare at him, but Ingvar simply continued in the same even tone. “I think the story told by the elves is the most likely to be true. They claim that it happened on another world far away, that none of our kinds are native to this world but were brought here by the Elder Gods. In their version, in the unthinkably ancient past, the first humans all lived as we are tonight: in small bands, hunting to survive off the land, clustering around their tiny fires at night. Over countless years, they tamed and bred wolves, developing them into the dogs we have today, creatures uniquely responsive to human beings because they were made for and by human companionship. But it all began with exactly what you see here.” He turned toward the wolf, inclining his head deeply to her. She looked at him then resumed her slow study of the rest of the group while he spoke. “One who was curious, and brave, and willing to extend a little trust. We will not be domesticating our visitor tonight, I can tell you that much. But you should also know this moment for what it is: a moment that, if we chose to make it so, could start this ancient process anew. This is a rare thing, a pivot point which we could seize, and initiate the process of making a slice of the wild our own.”

He hesitated, letting the pause hang.

“What makes us who we are, who we have gathered to become, is that we shall not do this, even as we respect the possibility.”

Ingvar shifted his focus to study each of them in turn, as the wolf was doing. The three humans looked exactly as he hoped, now that the initial shock had abated: all three were gazing at the wild creature avidly, their faces matching pictures of awe and wonder. Even, he was faintly surprised to observe, Taka. Perhaps the gods had indeed sent her to this group on purpose. Aspen, of course, was much less impressed by a wolf, but was regarding the creature with an expression of calm thought, her head cocked to one side as she did when mulling over something he had just explained to her.

“There is an awkward dichotomy to Shaathism,” Ingvar continued after the pause, again turning to regard the great beast among them. “Outsiders to the faith often use it to deride the Huntsmen. Shaath is the god of the wild, and so it is the wild that we take as both mission and guidance. We revere the example of the wolf—or at least, the Huntsman claim to, though they suffer from several severe misconceptions about wolves in the process.” Again, Tholi glanced sharply at him, but resumed gazing at the wolf as Ingvar kept going. “But that always leads back to the question: at what point must we stop being wild, and be tamed? If we truly immersed ourselves in the way of the wild to the utmost degree, we would simply be running naked through the woods scavenging for berries. Obviously, the Huntsmen do not seek to do this. And though I have been called specifically to correct them to the path from which they’ve strayed, I have no intention of doing so, either.”

He paused, drawing in breath and just looking at the wolf, drinking in her presence. She moved her head again, meeting his eyes.

“This is the balance the Huntsmen seek…that we must seek. If you, living in this moment, can feel the weight, the sacredness of what you are experiencing, then this is a path you can walk. This is what it means to be guardians of the wild. We sit here with our fire and our weapons, our clothing and our magic, our complex language and philosophies. But we do so out in the wild space, knowing—and respecting—that we are not the masters here. We invite the wild to sit at the edge of our fire, and are honored by her presence.

“We are not wild, nor tamed. We stand between two things and apart from both. Protecting them, from themselves and from each other.”

He fell silent, and no one spoke this time. The night stretched out, none of them willing to interrupt the reverence of the moment.

Until, fittingly, it was interrupted from outside. In the distant darkness, a single voice arose: the long, lonely howl of a wolf. Immediately it was followed by another, and then a third, singing together in harmony.

Right in front of them, the wolf at the edge of their firelight raised her own head and howled in reply. That close, her voice was almost piercing, but it was no less musical for that. She let out a single long note, ending it on a soft warble.

Then she stood up, turned around, and padded off into the darkness, in the direction of the family calling her back.

All of them stared into the night after the departing visitor, while wolves continued to cry from deep in the darkness beyond.

“We will meet her again,” Ingvar said quietly. “We have business with three packs in this area before it’s time for us to move on: the Huntsmen, the Rangers, and the wolves. Now that we are acknowledged by all three, we can truly begin tomorrow. It is from the wolves that we, and the other two, must learn the truth of the wild. It is a truth that I suspect they will not like. But they will hear it.”

The group were silent, listening to the wolves cry.


“I thought demonology and necromancy were completely separate things,” said Shook.

“Distinct, yes,” replied the stocky warlock introduced to him as Bradshaw, “but if by ‘completely separate’ you mean there are zero points of overlap, then no magical disciplines are completely separate, not even the four cardinal schools. Ultimately it all comes back to subjective physics—”

The woman, Vanessa, cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right,” Bradshaw said hastily. “Point being, what we are looking at here is soul magic. That’s not so much a school of magic in itself as a category of things you can do with magic—like necromancy itself, which you can do with infernomancy or fae craft most easily. There are some well-known uses of souls in infernal magic, notably the creation of incubi and succubi. Or those half-assed revenant things the local back-alley warlock is so fond of,” he added with a disparaging scowl. “Soulcraft is also well-known to the caster demons, too. Human souls barred from paradise by Vidius end up in Hell and only a very few impress Prince Vanislaas enough to become his children; the rest tend to get snapped up for use in spells by the khelminash or vrardexi.”

“I am torn between flattery that you think I understand any of this, and annoyance that you seem to think I give a shit,” Shook informed him.

Bradshaw blinked at him once and then turned to Mogul. “Embras, are you absolutely sure we need this clod alive?”

“Let’s show a bare minimum of courtesy to our guest, now,” Mogul said, grinning. “Think of it as setting an example.” The voluptuous, under-dressed woman clinging to his arm tittered, and Shook barely managed not to flinch. What with his recent experiences he was even more jumpy around succubi than a sensible person would be ordinarily. If anything, the fact that Vlesni was more overtly vampish than Kheshiri made him less alarmed by her. It was the innocent, well-behaved facade he feared.

“So,” he said pointedly, pushing down a surge of anger over Bradshaw’s crack at his expense, “these guys are using necromancy to get souls to power their magic?”

“Souls aren’t a power source,” Bradshaw said in a long-suffering tone that would’ve gotten anybody else punched. Shook might have punched him anyway, had there not been two other warlocks and a demon present. “They’re… Ugh. Comparing them to golem logic controllers is horribly inadequate and feels disrespectful, but the principle applies. A soul can process information, which is basically what casting a spell is, and serves as a focus point enabling the use of magic. The ability of a conscious being to observe and determine a reaction is key in any magical effect.”

“What about passive enchantments?”

“Those were made by a conscious caster, the effect is just delayed and tied to secondary stimuli. With a soul, you can do several interesting things. Attach it to something you want to animate, for example, or boost your own spells by adding what amounts to a secondary focus so it’s as if you are two casters working in concert, rather than one. What this does, as near as we can tell by examining the half-made array, is a kind of portal magic.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted, studying the spell circle scrawled in dried blood upon the warehouse floor. Empty warehouse: the best friend of anyone up to urban skullduggery. It was an open question whether the person who owned the place had any inkling what was going on here, much less whether they were complicit, but he didn’t bother to ask. This was the Black Wreath, they had undoubtedly seen and covered all the angles well in advance. “So. Basically, these guys are doing some kind of ritual sacrifice to make portals. Neat, I didn’t know that was possible.”

“All other things being equal, it should only be possible in theory,” said Mogul, patting Vlesni’s hand and then disentangling her from his arm to step forward and join them at the edge of the circle. “Here’s the fundamental problem with soul magic and necromancy in general: it is stepping very directly and aggressively on Vidius’s toes. Theoretically you can achieve almost any end with almost any type of magic, if you’re creative enough and powerful enough. The limits of possibility with necromancy are mostly unexplored, though, because as soon as you start doing necromancy on any significant scale you’ll find yourself ass-deep in valkyries.”

“And pause for dramatic effect,” Shook said dryly when Mogul did just that. “Next you’re gonna explain how these guys are doing this without pissing off Vidius. Oh, sorry, were you waiting for me to ask that?”

“Why is he here, again?” Bradshaw demanded.

“Oh, calm down,” Vanessa said with an amused little smile. “I like him. Or at least, I would if I knew a little bit less about his personal history.” She winked at Shook, who curled his lip. Vanessa was pretty enough, but he couldn’t get an idea what kind of figure she had thanks to that dumpy gray Wreath robe. Thinking back to Alan Vandro’s advice about women, he was keeping his focus on the fact that she could snap her fingers and boil his blood where he stood. In an ironic way, the conscious effort of reinforcing Vandro’s teachings above the habits Kheshiri had spent the last two years encouraging was helping to keep him grounded and alert.

“That is, indeed, the bloody knife in this little mystery,” Mogul drawled, showing no signs of annoyance at Shook’s attitude. “The last major necromantic event was that disaster at Veilgrad last year, which was caused by a chaos cult. Chaos, of course, fucks up all calculations by its very nature and can indeed be used to obscure the gaze of the gods. Once the Hand of Vidius was on-site, that place was swarming with soul reapers putting down skeletons. Last one before that was Tethloss the Summoner, who we killed because the son of a bitch had somehow got his mitts on a tome of Black Wreath spellcraft and was using our own workings to hide himself from the gods.”

“Hey, I remember that guy,” said Shook, interested in spite of himself. “I was up in Thakar when he got done in. I seem to recall it was the Fourth Legion that did it.”

“Pfft, they cleaned up his lingering summons. Which we left for them, as housekeeping is the proper duty of the Silver Legions once the real work is out of the way.” Mogul waved one hand in a languid gesture of dismissal. “No, the point is that when you see an organized use of necromancy, it always hinges upon some mechanism for hiding its use from Vidius. In this case, we have not identified the specific one, at least not precisely. What we have is circumstantial indication of who is behind this, and that provides a hint.”

“The Tide shall wash away impurity,” Bradshaw intoned, pointing to an arc of demonic runes scrawled around the edge of the circle. “This outer ring of text is in demonic, but it’s not spellcraft; it appears to be just dogma. And mostly gibberish, but…”

“But,” Mogul continued, “it fits. You are here ostensibly to hunt the cult that tried to kill the Emperor and was using some pretty damn advanced necromancy right in the middle of Tiraas.”

“We have no information on who or what that cult is,” Vanessa added, “which is incredibly suggestive. Nobody knows anything about these people, even the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. You know how hard it is to raise up an entire religion full of suicidal shocktroopers without anybody noticing? The very idea is ridiculous. It can be done, in theory, if you’ve got access to the huge amount of resources to keep the whole group—of hundreds, apparently—in total isolation. Plus a willingness to aggressively recruit—by which I mean borderline abduct and then brainwash—a lot of the kind of back-alley undesirables whom nobody will miss from cities all across the Empire. The Universal Church is one of the very few organizations with that kind of funds, and Justinian is probably the first Archpope since Sipasian who has cultivated enough personal loyalty from his clergy that enough of them would be willing to do something so skeevy and keep it under wraps.”

“And,” Mogul finished, nodding, “we’ve known for a while now that Justinian has some means of deflecting the notice of the Pantheon gods from some of his pet projects. Therefore this Tide is his creation.”

“Hn,” Shook grunted. “We more than suspected that already, but it’s nice to have a chain of evidence leading to it.”

“Circumstantial evidence, of course, but still,” Mogul agreed. “And that leads us to you, and as my dear friend Bradshaw keeps incredulously demanding, why I am bothering to bring you into the loop.”

“Pretty curious about that, myself,” Shook admitted. Bradshaw nodded emphatic agreement.

“Let me ask you this,” Mogul said to him in a less jocular tone. “Was the Jackal aware of any of this before he started his killing spree?”

“Well, I sure as fuck wasn’t, and I don’t think any of the rest of my crew were,” Shook said thoughtfully, “though Syrinx obviously has information she’s keeping from us. I don’t think Jacko was ever out of our sight before today enough to pick up details but…fuck if I know. Why?”

“Because this is the only example we’ve found of this Tide actually trying to do something magically constructive. Every previous indication was merely the site of a ritual sacrifice, where they murdered someone in a back alley to capture their soul. You said the Jackal is trying to rile the police; what he’s doing looks an awful lot like what the Tide were doing, only they were at least trying to be careful. He’s being the opposite.”

“Maybe,” Shook said reluctantly. “I have no reason to think so, specifically. That explanation does make sense, but honestly that twisted fuck might just as well be doing this because he thinks it’s funny.”

“What charming company you keep,” Bradshaw said flatly.

Shook pointedly turned to look at Vlesni and then back at him. “You don’t get to criticize, petunia.”

“The reason I’m showing you this,” said Mogul, “is so you can go back and inform your cronies. Because it doesn’t seem they have any idea what is happening here, and they really need to. Not that I trust most of your lot to buckle down and do what’s sensible, but you and Khadizroth, at least, I believe have that much basic intelligence. Plus that other elf who follows him around. Victor, was it?”

“Vespa,” Vanessa corrected.

“Vincent,” said Bradshaw.

“Close enough,” said Shook.

“This isn’t about trust, you see,” Mogul continued. “Syrinx, the Jackal, and Kheshiri neither know sense when it bites them on the nose, nor would they let it restrain them from scheming for their own advantage even if they recognized it. You, Khadizroth, and I think Snowe are another matter. I don’t mean to underplay the many, many currents blowing here, but this is more important.”

“Yeah?” Shook said warily, again reminding himself how dramatically untrustworthy these people were. It was an important reminder; Mogul was a very compelling speaker when he tried to be. “What the fuck is this, specifically?”

“That,” said Mogul, pointing to the scrawled circle, “is incomplete, but it is clearly intended to use a captured soul to open a dimensional portal, and its guidance runes are scribed in demonic. We have identified a dozen ritual murder sites where souls have been stolen and are assuming there are at least twice that out there since we haven’t once caught one of these bastards in the act. When I said twenty hellgates, Thumper, I wasn’t just trying to give you an example of the scale of the problem. I strongly suspect that that is the literal, specific plan.”

Shook let out a long, low whistle. “Why the fuck would anybody want to do a dumbass thing like that?”

“As for these Tide people, there’s this bit about washing away corruption,” said Bradshaw, wrinkling his nose as he stared down at the circle. “That’s bog standard doomsday cult horseradish. The world is corrupt, the world must be cleansed, yadda yadda. The kind of thing the ignorant think we set out to do.”

“But they’re just pawns,” Vanessa said quietly.

“What concerns me here is Justinian’s motivations,” Mogul agreed. “Unleashing huge amounts of random destruction is the desperate act of someone who considers himself cornered and urgently needs to upset the whole board. Believe me, I know. I’ve found myself repeatedly backed into that corner in the last few years. Why do you think I was willing to put a creature like Kheshiri into the hands of a creature like you?”

“No offense taken,” Shook said flatly.

Mogul grinned at him, but his expression just as quickly sobered. “What worries me, old boy, is what it means if Justinian feels he’s in that position. He’s one of the most powerful men in the world, and if we’re reading this right, he is willing to burn down a major city and unleash demons across half of N’Jendo just to create a distraction. The question is why, and no possible answer isn’t terrifying.”

“A great doom is coming,” Bradshaw murmured.

“Or,” said Shook, “to put it less pretentiously, shit’s about to get real.”


Merry emerged from the darkened old structure to creep up behind Principia. Trying to keep quiet was simple respect for their surroundings and the late hour; she was under no illusion that she was capable of sneaking up on an elf.

“I’ll take over,” she said softly, coming to a stop at the lieutenant’s shoulder.

Principia shook her head slowly, still staring across the flat plateau at the place where the eight students and their animal companions were arranged around the bonfire they’d built. “That’s okay, Lang. Go back to sleep, I’ve got this.”

“You need sleep too, LT.”

“Less urgently. I’m an elf.”

“Yeah, an elf who forgets I’ve got Shahai to fact-check your bullshit stories with. You need less food and air, not less sleep.”

“That sideways-eared race traitor,” Principia grumbled without rancor.

“Prin,” Merry said very quietly. “Go rest. Nothing’s gonna happen here. I can keep watch.”

“You know what they’re doing?”

Merry shifted her gaze to the students. The eight of them had arranged themselves in an equal formation around the bonfire, and were still awake despite it being well past midnight. Since coming back from the tree yesterday and arranging themselves thus, they hadn’t kept any specific pattern, for the most part staying in their assigned places, though they all moved around a fair bit. Sitting and kneeling in a variety of meditative postures, in some cases pacing (or in Fross’s case, hovering) back and forth in apparent thought. Occasionally they had crossed to one another’s positions for quiet exchanges, though they always returned to their assigned places.

Right now, Toby and Juniper were talking softly with their heads together, the only two currently out of position. Teal and Shaeine were both kneeling, eyes closed, facing each other across the distance between their specific spots around the edge of the firelight, F’thaan belly-up and fast asleep in the drow’s lap. Gabriel lounged on the ground, frowning at the horizon, while Trissiny stood at parade rest, staring at the Great Tree in the near distance with her hands behind her back. Ruda was pacing back and forth, absently swishing her jeweled rapier through the air and muttering to herself. Fross, for a wonder, was actually sitting on the ground at the moment, almost invisible in the firelight.

“Can’t say I do,” she said at last, “though it sure does look a lot more goal-directed than most of what they’ve done since Last Rock.”

“It’s a vigil,” Principia said quietly. “This is some Vidian thing Arquin suggested. They are going to do a ritual at dawn. Dusk and dawn are the powerful moments in Vidian ritual magic, boundaries between the two phases of the day. But first, an all-night vigil. It’s time to watch, to contemplate…to prepare.” She paused, then finished in a whisper. “I’m not sure what exactly they are keeping watch for, but I’m holding my own. I am not going to sleep, Lang. You may as well; there’s no sense in both of us being up all night. I’ll get a nap tomorrow, while they’re off at the tree.”

Merry stood behind her for several drawn-out seconds, studying the University students thoughtfully. Then she stepped forward and sat down at Principia’s side.

The elf shot her a sidelong frown. “Corporal…”

“I’m gonna crawl way out on a limb and guess they didn’t ask you to keep watch over them tonight,” Merry stated. “This is more one of those things you get to do because you avoided them telling you not to by not asking permission, right?”

Principia made an annoyed grimace at her.

Merry leaned over to bump the elf with her shoulder. “I’m not asking you, either.”

Principia shook her head, but didn’t protest any further. The plateau was quiet, then, as they all kept their vigil.


Dawn as always brought warmth, which was confusing when she opened her eyes, because it was not dawn. Yesterday she’d been awakened by sunlight streaming through the window right onto her bed, as the ramshackle old room in Leduc Manor lacked shutters, or even curtains. The sky outside was still just barely gray, though, at least an hour before sunrise. But it was so warm…

Hesthri stirred in her arms, and Natchua went fully rigid as memory and wakefulness crashed down on her. The demon mumbled in her sleep, burying her face back in Natchua’s collarbone. She was so warm, and surprisingly soft where she wasn’t armored, the texture of her skin smooth but patterned, almost like a snake’s. All of her skin, pressed close to all of Natchua’s.

The two of them entangled on one side of the wide bed, because the other was still a big damp patch where they’d…

Natchua squeezed her eyes shut again as if that would blot out the evidence of her most recent stupidity.

“Ssssshit.”

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15 – 28

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When the knock came at her door Natchua thought very seriously about yelling at whoever it was to go the hell away. Seriously, but briefly, and not with any real intent. Everyone in this place had reason to be on edge and they were all here because of her, after all. Well, all except Sherwin, but he had as much cause as anyone to seek her out.

And so she paused, looked longingly at the bed she had just turned down, then double-checked that her loose sleeping robe was buttoned, and was pleased at the calm of the tone with which she called, “Yes?”

The door opened just enough for Hesthri to lean her head and one shoulder into view. The demon’s gaze immediately flicked past Natchua to where the expensive Glassian designer outfit she’d just imported was thrown carelessly over a rickety old wooden chair that had not been entirely cleared of dust first. Just for a moment, though, and she did not let the pause drag on before speaking.

“Good, I was afraid I’d wake you.”

“I only came upstairs a few minutes ago, Hes.”

“Yes, but you’re as exhausted and tense as I’ve ever seen a person,” Hesthri replied, slipping the rest of the way inside and gently closing the door. “And you have cause, after all. I didn’t want to interrupt a needed rest.”

“I’m fine,” Natchua said shortly. “Not really that tired. Elves have a great deal more stamina than most demons.”

“Physically, sure. That’s not really the type of stress we’ve all been under, though, is it?”

She drew in a breath for patience before answering. “What do you need, Hesthri?”

Hesthri drew closer in small, diffident steps, her hands clasped behind her back, keeping her eyes below the level of Natchua’s; khelminash etiquette was not part of the infernal knowledge Elilial had given her, but Natchua was from a caste society herself and recognized a formal posture of submission. Which meant the hethelax was likely to smirk and start ribbing her any moment, to judge by her established pattern.

“Things are going better than I honestly expected downstairs,” Hesthri reported. “No one is giving Kheshiri any wiggle room. Xyraadi treats her like a servant, Melaxyna is running interference when she tries to pry at anyone, and the hobs appear to be terrified of her. Jonathan and Sherwin are both refusing to engage her, too. I was a little worried about the humans, but it seems they’re properly wary.”

“Well, Jonathan has no shortage of sense,” Natchua pointed out, “and has had plenty of time and reason to educate himself about trickster demons.”

“Yes,” Hesthri agreed with a fond little smile which caused a heavy knot of some uncomfortable emotion in Natchua’s stomach. “I was worried about Sherwin, though. A man who wants a succubus around, well…”

“Yes, I can see the concern. Sherwin had some of his ideas about women and demonology pretty roughly corrected a while ago, however. And he’s got Melaxyna to keep him happy for now.”

Hesthri nodded. “Xyraadi has been polite to everyone else. She…appears unimpressed by this manor. It’s better accommodations than I’m used to, but khelminash are all nobility in their own societies. I’m a little concerned she may lose patience with roughing it like this.”

“Give Xyraadi a little credit, Hes. She’s used to Agasti’s lavish style now, but she has spent most of her life adventuring in the old style, in the Glassian highlands, in a much more primitive time. I highly doubt she’s that insistent on creature comforts. In any case, the hobgoblins will be fixing this place up as quick as possible. I think I’ll take her to see Malivette’s place first thing in the morning, though,” she added, rubbing at her forehead. “I wasn’t in a hurry, but you have a point. Having a proper noble to hobnob with will probably do her good. And I bet those two will hit it off swimmingly.”

“Do you… Forgive me, but is it necessarily wise to inform Lady Dufresne about this?”

“Maybe, maybe not, but it’s moot. Keeping her informed of details such as what demons I’ve brought here is part of the deal we struck that keeps her from handing us over to the Empire or tearing this place down her own damn self. Besides, I’m actually looking forward to briefing her on Kheshiri. My contract with that… With her prevents me from deliberately sending harm her direction, but Malivette could be severely dangerous to Kheshiri if she chose. If she decides to claim noble privilege and deal with her, that solves one of my biggest headaches.”

“If Kheshiri dies,” Hesthri said softly, “she’ll return to Hell right at Prince Vanislaas’s citadel. I don’t know how willing she’ll be to cooperate with him, but by the rumors I’ve heard, his children can’t keep secrets from him.”

“Yes, because nothing can ever be simple.” With a heavy sigh, Natchua sat down on the edge of her four-poster bed, making the old thing creak. She’d already had to prop up its short leg with two sad little blocks that had been books before years of exposure ravaged them. Now, she let her hands dangle listlessly between her knees, unable to prevent her shoulders from slumping. “I’ll tell Vette the full situation, see what she thinks. At the very least, we know she keeps an eye on this place. If I fail to turn up and report on this, she might… Well, we don’t want to learn what she might do, let’s put it that way.”

“Fair,” Hesthri agreed, nodding. She had stopped creeping forward about a yard away, just out of arm’s reach. “Please excuse me if I overstep, but I wanted to ask about the details of that contract. I was…occupied while you hammered it out.”

“It’s not overstepping, Hes, I think you’re entitled to know.” Natchua tried to make her tone gentle; as frustrating as it was when Hesthri treated her like a temperamental noble, she was well aware that getting snappy about it would only make it worse. “She basically doesn’t want to be harmed, killed, returned to Hell, or imprisoned, and the contract bars me from doing any of that, or encouraging anyone else to do it, or allowing it to happen if I have a reasonable chance of preventing it. In return, she is required to be personally loyal to me.”

Hesthri narrowed her eyes, her expression growing intent. It was a timely reminder that despite her intermittent posture of servitude, she had a sharp mind. “That’s it? Just loyal?”

“It is actually the best practice in dealing with Vanislaads. Trying to dictate their actions both provokes them to resist you and gives them rules in which to sniff out loopholes. It’s basically inviting them to play a game at which they are better, for the highest stakes. That’s the mistake that Eserite clown Shook made in trying to control her. No, the better avenue is to dictate their motivations. She’s bound to look out for my best interests above all, which keeps all her creativity working for me rather than against me. In theory, anyway. Of course, because it is the established best practice and she’s Kheshiri, I’ve no doubt she’s already got some way around it, or if not is working on finding one.” Natchua scrubbed at her face again. “Gods. I really, truly did not need this pain in the ass.”

“And this happened because of me,” Hesthri almost whispered.

“It is not your fault, Hes,” Natchua said sharply, then carefully moderated her tone. “Look, I won’t hesitate to call you down if you actually screw something up, all right? But getting grabbed from behind and shadow-jumped… Well, there just aren’t many defenses against that, and hethelaxi have none of them. If anything, you being imprisoned like that is my fault for letting my eyes off you when I knew there was a succubus around.”

“I don’t think I’d know where to begin establishing actual fault,” Hesthri said, looking up with a small smile. “All I know is that I don’t blame you, and I can’t help feeling guilty.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Natchua said with another sigh. “Feelings…very inconvenient in general.”

The silence hung there.

“Oh,” Hesthri said suddenly, straightening up and bringing her hands around from behind her back. “Look what Xyraadi gave me!”

“Your gloves!” Natchua said in surprise. They were apparently of supple leather, a few shades paler than Hesthri’s own complexion and without her patterns of scales that decorated her skin; the fingertips were a little bulkier where some inner structure fitted over her blunt claws and rounded them out to softer shapes. “I’m sorry, I haven’t had time…”

“Oh, that’s all right!” Hesthri said hastily, raising her gloved hands. “It hasn’t been long, and it’s not like you haven’t had more important things to do. I just wanted to show you and withdraw my request, as it’s now moot.”

“Wait,” Natchua said, frowning. “Where did she get those, exactly?”

“She said she summoned them.”

“Summoned…” She scowled. “Which means they came from somewhere. Which means someone in Hell will notice they’re missing. It’s not as if resources are common there, isn’t that the whole point of the place?”

“A khelminash city is a reasonably well-equipped haven,” Hesthri explained, stepping closer. “I did ask about that, and Xyraadi insisted she knew what she was doing. I saw no reason to doubt her, but if you want to ask her more detailed questions, that might be smart.”

“Yeah, I think it would,” Natchua grumbled. She got as far as tensing her legs to rise, then slumped again. “…tomorrow.”

“Yes, tomorrow is plenty of time,” Hesthri agreed, coming up to the edge of the bed now. “I wasn’t kidding when I said you looked tired and stressed. Actually…that was the other reason I came. There’s something I wanted to show you.”

“Something you—hey, what’s the big ideeeeeaaauughh…” Natchua started to shy away when Hesthri reached out to grasp her shoulder, but then her forefinger and thumb had pressed into the stiff tendons of her neck in just the right spot and she found her entire upper body practically melting. Warm ribbons of bliss radiated out from where the demon’s fingers pressed. “Where…the hell…did you learn…”

“In fact, I was trained in this specifically,” Hesthri replied with audible satisfaction. She climbed onto the bed and sidled around behind Natchua, and the drow once again started to protest, but then both hands were on her shoulders, pressing right where the tension accumulated, and all she produced was an awkward burbling sound. “You see why these gloves are so important, hmm? Hethelax fingers never cramp or tire. And those of us trained as personal servants are expected to massage khelminash, who are all built like Xyraadi. Even more gangly than elves. I know exactly where every spot is.”

“I…um…ooooh.” Natchua’s head lolled bonelessly forward as Hesthri knelt behind her kneading right at the spot where her neck and shoulders melt. As hard as she was pressing it seemed like it ought to hurt, but it was a tremendously satisfying almost-pain. “Not sure if…nngh! I don’t really…like being…”

“Of course, I’ll stop if you’re not enjoying it,” Hesthri said in a whisper, practically right in her ear. “You’re the mistress. It’s just that… I can’t do much for you, but I can do this. I can at least thank you, Natchua. For coming for me.”

She slid her hands into the collar of Natchua’s robe, pulling it looser to gain access to her shoulders, and for a moment the drow tensed again. Just as quickly she relaxed, the unique sensation of bone-hard fingertips under a layer of padded leather pressing insistently into every spot where the rigid pain was and soothing it away.

Something in the back of her mind told her this might be a bad idea, but she couldn’t quite say why. Much more prevalent in her thoughts was that nobody had ever touched her this way.

“I…ffmmmnn. What the hell. Lower.”


“And this is the jewel of the collection, almost literally,” the smiling woman said, gliding into position next to the large display case in which stood a heavily begemmed golden gauntlet, upright on a model hand behind glass marked with alarm runes. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is our Arcane Fist! And I mean the original, not the comic book hero. What you see here is one of only two still in existence, the other being Empress Theasia’s personal weapon which is now on display in the Imperial Palace in Tiraas.”

Shook found himself drifting closer as she spoke, her tour group clustering in front to gawk at the jewel-studded metal glove. He’d been drifting basically since leaving the Inquisition’s piddly excuse for a headquarters, wandering into the museum merely out of idle surprise at finding it still open at this hour, wandering into the historical weaponry exhibit as it was the only collection that really interested him, and now wandering to join the tour group mostly because it was there. This surely had to be the last one of the day, but the docent seemed as bright and alert as if fresh from her morning tea. Then again, that was probably a requirement of her job.

“You can see the large gemstones incorporated into the gauntlet, and the large amount of gold,” she nattered on. “Those aren’t just affectations, but are essential to its function. The enchantments are designed around those materials specifically. An Arcane Fist fires a charge of electricity about fifty times the power of a modern battlestaff shot, at close range, and includes charms to protect its wearer from the blast. This little beauty delivers a blow that can shatter any magical shield known to exist, right up to the personal defense of a paladin or archmage. The Arcane Fists were created as part of Theasia’s initial push to develop better enchantments for the military, and used briefly by Imperial Intelligence. In fact, they emerged in the same generation as a number of big innovations we still use—shielding charms, telescrolls, the Rails, and mag cannons all came out of Theasia’s push for newer, better enchantments.”

“Is that thing still usable?” one of the tour group asked.

“Well, it’s behind unbreakable alarmed glass for more reasons than that it’s valuable,” she replied cheerfully. “We’re in the business of preserving artifacts here, and truly disabling the Fist would damage it significantly. In theory, sure, it could be charged up and used again. Obviously we don’t keep weapons like this sitting around carrying an arcane charge. Right now, its chief use as a weapon is that it’s heavy. You would not want to be punched by someone wearing a glove of solid gold.”

Shook meandered closer till he was at the very edge of the group as a titter rippled through them, eyes on the gauntlet. He wondered how many in this gaggle of rubberneckers knew that those old-fashioned powered gems couldn’t be drained of their charge, unlike modern enchanting crystals. Then again, they’d naturally lose charge over time. After sitting in that case for fifty-odd years it probably didn’t hold enough power to light a fairy lamp.

“How come they stopped using these?” he asked.

He wasn’t part of the tour group, but the docent gave him a warm smile, seemingly pleased at the question. “As with a lot of things, it was a combination of factors. What those factors added up to is that it simply isn’t practical. The necessary materials are wildly expensive, as you can plainly see—and it is, as I just mentioned, heavy enough to be hard to use for such a small device. The expense is made worse because they tend not to be reusable; when one of these has been fired more than a couple of times it’s all but destroyed by its own energy, and while gold can be melted down and re-cast, there’s not a lot you can do with shattered gemstones except make earrings. There were also a couple of very embarrassing cases when a Fist’s grounding charms failed, frying its wielder instead of their target. At least some of these problems likely could have been overcome with time and refinement, but that still leaves the fundamental fact that if you’re going to shoot lightning at someone, it’s a much better idea to do so from a distance than close enough to slug them.

“Which, in turn, led to political problems that pressured Theasia’s government to abandon the Arcane Fist as a field weapon. You see, anything it can do in terms of inflicting damage on an enemy can be done with more control and at a safer range by a wand or battlestaff. The Fist’s primary utility is as a shield-breaker, and it’s just plain inconvenient to have to get right up close to someone in order to beat their magical shield down. Besides which, it’s massive overkill for use against any conventional shielding charm. Remember, this all took place in the period early in Theasia’s reign, before the paladins disappeared for ten years, after Magnan the Enchanter was long dead and while Arachne Tellwyrn was missing and thought also dead.” She grinned and winked. “Can you guess who would’ve been the most likely target of a weapon that’s mostly used to break the strongest magical shields?”

“Wait, you mean Imperial Intelligence used this on paladins?” one of the onlookers asked, aghast.

“Believe me, you’d have learned about it in school if they ever had,” the docent replied. “But you’re right on the money, regardless. The Universal Church and especially the cult of Avei started asking extremely loud questions about why Imperial Intelligence needed a paladin-killer in particular. And so, the Empire quietly discontinued the Arcane Fist and scrapped those still in existence—except for the two which, luckily for us, slipped through the cracks. There are actually some pretty famous pieces of jewelry made from the remains of this weapon’s siblings. In the end, it ended up being an object lesson for the great age of magical innovation: just because you suddenly have the ability to do some exciting new thing doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea!”

“Good advice for everybody,” Shook mused aloud.

The docent nodded at him. “And that’s exactly how history works: the lessons are repeated until they’re learned, and the winners are those who learn them fastest. And speaking of that! Next we’ll be going backward in time a few more decades, thanks to an exhibition on loan to us from Mathenon. Here in the West we were spared the depredations of Horsebutt the Enemy and his hordes, so this is a rare treat for Ninkabi. This collection of weapons and armaments is significant for a number of reasons: in addition to being the last military offensive of the traditional Stalweiss archers, it was the first to begin incorporating modern enchantment—the beginning of a new military tradition that will never get to grow to maturity. History, as they say, is written by the victors. Which doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the losers!”

She glanced curiously at Shook while shepherding her flock off to the next exhibit, but he stayed where he was, staring at the old gauntlet. Something about the thing was strangely arresting. So much sheer wealth had gone into its creation, and for what? He had the uneasy feeling that there were lessons here that he wasn’t getting, truths only hinted at by the docent’s brief introduction. Shook had never been one for intellectual pursuits as a rule. The effort of pondering on things which held no immediate utility for him was frustrating and annoying. He felt exhausted, though, and oddly numb, and so stood there studying Theasia’s gauntlet while the sounds of the tour group faded as they rounded a corner into another gallery.

“Hope you’re not getting any ideas, old boy. A museum must be a veritable candy store for an Eserite, but that thing would be practically impossible to fence. Or so I’d assume!”

Shook was just too tired to react with overt surprise. He glanced to the left at the man who had stepped up beside him, also apparently studying the Arcane Fist behind its layer of protective glass. A lean fellow a few inches shorter than himself, his skin a few shades darker than the Jendi average, wearing a white suit and a wide-brimmed straw boater tipped at an angle that concealed his eyes.

“Embras Mogul,” Shook said, then let out an incredulous bark of laughter. “Well, I mean, sure. Why not? Yeah, this is the correct ending for this fucking day. Now I’m embarrassed I didn’t actually see it coming.”

“You have had quite the day, so I understand,” Mogul said lightly. “Mind you, I’ve only caught the high notes. No offense, my friend, but you don’t rate among the things I make sure to keep a close watch upon. Still! What a charming coincidence, us all running across one another in this exotic locale. Eh?”

“I see you still talk too much,” Shook grunted. “And I’m not enough of a hick to think a major Imperial metropolis is ‘exotic.’”

“It’s called polite conversation, Thumper old boy. Honestly, what do they teach you at that Guild?”

Shook glanced around. No one else was near them, at least not visibly. “So, what’s next? You here to even the score?”

“Now, now,” Embras demurred, raising both hands and shifting to he was angled more toward Shook. They studied each other’s reflections in the glass, rather than directly. “Let’s give one another a modicum of credit, shall we? I have no beef with you, old top. I did not set Kheshiri loose on the mortal plane without expecting to get bitten on the ass by it at some point, and I’m man enough to recognize when I’ve pushed a fellow hard enough to deserve a slug across the jaw. After that spanking you and your buddies handed to me and mine back in Tiraas, I would say the score is about as even as we could reasonably ask. Don’t you think?”

Shook snorted quietly. “Right. So this is, what? A social call? You just wanna catch up on old times?”

“Oh, you know how it is, one hates to be all business all the time. But still, it seems there’s plenty of current events you and I could chat about without dredging up ancient history, Thumper.”

“Yeah,” he said with a heavy sigh. “Whatever. Didn’t get everything you wanted from me already, then? If you’re gonna use your infernal bullshit to fuck with a man’s memory you might wanna make sure you finish picking his brain first. Or were you just so anxious to get Shiri back under control you couldn’t be arsed?”

Mogul tilted his head back enough that his eyes, or at least their reflection, were visible. He studied Shook’s image in silence for several seconds.

“Infernal bullshit,” he finally repeated slowly, “to fuck with a man’s memory.”

His face betrayed nothing. Shook narrowed his own eyes, staring back.

“If you were anyone else,” he said after another tense pause, “I might think you didn’t know what I was talking about. But you’re you. I figure looking like you know less than you do has to be half your religion, right?”

“Well, now, you’ve got me there,” Embras agreed. “I am assuredly not in the habit of handing out tidbits of useful information to people who’s as soon shank my ass as look at me. So I’ll just limit my commentary to common facts you could learn from the Topaz College, then, shall I? Using infernal magic to erase memories would be so incredibly useful to my cult in particular that if we could do that, believe me, everyone would know it by now. Which isn’t to say I’ve never heard of such craft. A few of the more exotic caster demons can allegedly do such a thing. Some of the red dragons, perhaps. May I infer from context, Jeremiah, that this incident is the reason you are no longer in possession of that bauble I gave you?”

Shook studied him out of the corner of his eye. “You trying to sell me that there’s some other master warlock sticking their nose into our business in Ninkabi?”

“You see why I am concerned. The only other warlock in Ninkabi I consider to be worthy of note is Mortimer Agasti, and I’ll eat my hat if he’d do such at thing—or even could.”

“So what’re you following me around for, if this is the first you’re actually seeking me out?”

“There’s some real shit going down in Ninkabi,” Mogul said in a much flatter tone. “There was before you and your little posse showed up, and with the greatest possible respect, Mr. Shook, you are not fucking helping. I have established already that ex-Bishop Syrinx is hunting the oh-so-mysterious cult which attacked the Emperor in Tiraas recently. That woman is maybe twenty percent as sly as she thinks she is at the top of her game—and she is very far from the top of her game these days. So that explains her, and you. But I do not know what game Bishop Snowe is playing, or what Justinian is up to in sending the lot of you to dig up a mystery we all know damn well he is behind. And after your knife-eared friend’s little performance today, I’m starting to think I cannot afford to let you lot wander around unsupervised any longer.”

Shook drew in a deep breath, slowly. “Knife-eared… Right. Vannae only wishes he was interesting enough to piss you off. What the fuck has that giggling freakjob done now?”

“Oh, is he not under your control, either?” Mogul’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Well, I can’t say what specifically he is trying to accomplish by murdering seven police officers in the course of one day, but as a Thieves’ Guild veteran, I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you what the result of that will be.”

Very slowly, Shook reached up to grind his thumbs into both his temples. Only the fact that the glass in front of him was visibly marked with alarm runes spared it from being punched.

“News to you as well, then?” Mogul said lightly. “It may interest you to know that Syrinx is not here on a mockingjay hunt. My people have been trying to pin down Justinian’s mystery cult for weeks. What they’re up to is… Ah, but excuse me, I seem to be getting ahead of myself. I was wondering exactly how your group would fit into this whole mess, but now I learn that not only do none of you seem to know what any of the rest of you are doing, but there’s yet another interested party who can do shit with infernomancy that I’ve barely heard of and now have custody of Kheshiri. I say this as someone for whom the last two years have been a nearly unbroken sequence of disasters, Thumper: I don’t know what’s happening in Ninkabi, but it’s looking like it might shape up to be the biggest mess I have ever seen.”

“Right,” Shook growled. “On a scale of one to the hellgate, how bad are we thinkin’, here?”

“Try twenty hellgates,” Mogul said quietly. “In an urban area. I am after these guys for a reason, Thumper. I do not need you and your out-of-control friends getting underfoot, and neither does this city.”

Shook finally turned to stare at him fully. Mogul kept his own gaze on the Arcane Fist behind the glass.

“Thanks to you,” he said at last, “I’ve had some pretty vivid object lessons lately in the dangers of trusting people who I know are too slippery to even talk with.”

“Smart,” Mogul replied. “And from where I’m sitting, everyone in your current address book is either in the same category or too crazy to be reasoned with. So rest assured, when I take the gamble of assuming you just might be desperate enough to talk with me anyway… Well, you’re not the only one.”

Shook shifted again, glancing back at the exit from the museum gallery. A bored-looking security guard stood there, glancing at the two of them intermittently. One other patron was in this wing, ambling through the Horsebutt exhibit. At this hour, the place was quiet; it had to be near closing time. It was public enough to be semi-safe. A good place to talk business.

If he was willing to risk talking. Events had proven he hadn’t been a match for Kheshiri; he was not nearly dumb enough to think himself a match for the high priest of the goddess of cunning.

Of course, not having options made a lot of things much simpler.

“I’m listening.”

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