Tag Archives: Jenell Covrin

15 – 66

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, you’re Guild? Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intellectually.

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

“Tell me about it,” Thumper agreed sympathetically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He blinked, twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A chorus of groans answered him.

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

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

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

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

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15 – 62

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The swell of darkness deposited her at the very edge of the plateau, and she immediately dropped to a crouch, grimacing and trying to get her bearings despite the unpleasant prickle of magic. It was everywhere here, the divine and fae—both the schools of power that sought to erase her just by existing.

Xyraadi instinctively wove a net about herself to push back against the forces gnawing at her, igniting a barely visible corona of light in her vicinity. The plateau ahead of her was dotted with old structures that looked to be on the verge of falling apart. Apparently Mortimer had been right; the Order of the Light in this century must be teetering on its last legs if it allowed one of its most sacred sites to look like this. It actually didn’t look as if anyone was here, or had been in decades.

But there was the Great Tree, rising in the near distance from the spot where the Maw itself had once been opened. She had never been here before, obviously, but the Tree had been ancient even in her time, famously grown from a sprig of the World Tree found deep within Naiya’s domain of the Deep Wild. Even at this distance, the wind in its leaves seemed to whisper. Xyraadi had the very distinct impression that the Tree was unhappy to see her here.

“As it ever was,” she murmured, raising her hands with fingers spread to cast a spell circle around herself. “Let’s all kill the nice demon who’s trying to help, can’t let any of the rest of them get the idea they might be able to turn against the Dark Lady. That would be just awful.”

Three concentric rings of light solidified about her at waist level, marked with indicator arrows; they shifted and swayed like the needle of a jostled compass before settling down to point in the general direction of the Tree, helping her home in on what she had come here to find.

“All right, then,” Xyraadi murmured to herself, taking two cautious steps forward.

That was when a streak of orange fire burst upward from behind one of the structures ahead, and she froze. The fireball ascended straight up before spreading her wings and slowing.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi whispered, staring up at the archdemon who was now staring at her. “Why did it have to be that one?”

Vadrieny let out a piercing shriek that echoed from the mountains all around and hurled herself forward in a dive.

“Wait!” Xyraadi shouted, waving her hands overhead. “Truce! I’m a fr—”

She didn’t take the risk of waiting to see whether the force of fire and claws shooting at her planned to break off at the last second, instead shadow-jumping a few feet away. She still felt the hot breeze stirred up by the archdemon’s passing.

Vadrieny banked skillfully on one fiery wingtip, pivoting back around for another pass.

“My name is Xyraadi! I know—”

This time she jumped a good twenty feet distant to evade the next diving attack.

“Would you cut that out?” she exclaimed as Vadrieny recovered and swooped widely around for another pass. “I want to talk! In the name of Avei, truce!”

Arcane magic prickled nearby and by sheer instinct she reached out with one hand and clawed it away.

“Rude!” exclaimed a shrill little voice, followed by a swell of nauseating fae energy and then a barrage of icicles.

Xyraadi melted them before being shredded by their wicked points, shadow-jumped again to evade another swooping attack by Vadrieny, and sourly reflected that this was going about as well as she’d dared hope. On the one hand, her reflexive dismantling of whatever that arcane spell had been might have saved her life, but on the other it probably counterindicated her claims to have come here in peace.

She still couldn’t see who had cast either that or the fae ice spell, either. Nor could she detect any invisibility nearby.

Then a white ball of light darted past, momentarily more visible against an old stone wall than it had been against the daylit sky, and she narrowed her eyes.

A pixie?

“Truce!” she shouted again. “Would you please listen—”

Vadrieny’s screech cut her off, and Xyraadi thought very seriously about just knocking the archdemon out of the sky. She could definitely do that; it wouldn’t even harm her. Damaging a creature like that was beyond her power, but messing up her flight path wouldn’t be difficult. But that would be the unequivocal end of any conversation.

“I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS!” she shrieked, jumping yet again to evade a wide-area blast of ice. “I NEED YOUR HELP!”

Hoofbeats approached with astonishing speed, and she resignedly whirled to face whatever the new threat was.

The new threat looped around her, though, waving his scythe in the air and not at her. Between the scythe, that green coat and especially the shadow-wrought mare on which he rode, Xyraadi had to admit that Gabriel Arquin cut a dashing figure.

“Stop! It’s okay!” he yelled. “She’s a friend, we know her!”

More hoofbeats, and she took the risk of stopping her evasive maneuvers to turn and see. Trissiny’s silver-armored steed was not as fleet or nimble as Gabriel’s, leaving her a few seconds behind.

“This is Xyraadi, we met her over the summer!” Trissiny shouted at the sky, as both paladins guided their mounts closer to hover protectively around her. “She’s a long-standing ally of the Sisterhood.”

“And she saved my butt,” Gabriel added. “Plus all my other parts.”

“Well, okay,” squeaked the tiny ball of light, drifting over to hover near Gabriel. “But she messed up my barrier spell pretty hard. That did not feel good! Have you ever had a a spell you were shaping torn apart mid-invocation? That crap stings!”

“Well, if you were doing magic at her, what do you expect?” Gabriel asked, grinning.

“Wait a moment,” Xyraadi exclaimed. “Was that pixie doing arcane magic?”

Then Vadrieny hit the ground right in front of her, talons sinking into the ancient stone with an unsettling crunch. The archdemon folded her arms but not her wings, staring mistrustfully.

“I suppose it really shouldn’t surprise me that you two managed to befriend a khelminash sorceress,” she said, her voice like a choir. “Are you absolutely sure she’s trustworthy? Her people are among my mother’s staunchest allies.”

“She’s earned my trust,” Trissiny said firmly. “Xyraadi, are you all right?”

“I haven’t been incinerated, thank you for asking,” she replied, straightening her robe. “So this has already gone better than I anticipated.”

“I assume something seriously urgent is happening if you came looking for us here, of all places,” Gabriel said, soothingly patting his mount’s neck. The shadow-maned mare was clearly not pleased by Xyraadi’s presence, turning to snort angrily at her with ears laid flat back.

“Yes, exactly,” Xyraadi agreed quickly. “I will explain as much as I can, but we have not the luxury of time. Ninkabi is under severe threat and we urgently need the aid of paladins…” She looked quickly between Vadrieny and the pixie. “…plus whoever else you trust to help.”

More figures were approaching, led by, of all things, an elven woman with black hair wearing bronze Avenic armor. And, to Xyraadi’s surprise, a crow, which lit on the ground nearby and suddenly wasn’t a crow anymore.

“Xyraadi,” she said, tilting her head. “I confess, I never expected to see you again.”

“Kuriwa,” she answered warily. “Still alive, then? Well…good. The more help, the better.”

“Help for Ninkabi,” said the other elf, coming to a stop beside the Crow. “Just out of curiosity, have you been spending any time in Veilgrad recently?”

Xyraadi blinked twice in surprise. “Now, how in the world did you know that?”

Trissiny heaved such a heavy sigh that her armor rasped softly. “Locke, I have a feeling we may be about to break the terms of our field trip and leave the area.”

“I am struggling to contain my astonishment,” Locke answered with a grimace that did not look surprised in the least.

Toby pushed forward out of the gathering crowd, giving Xyraadi a welcoming smile that quickly faded into a more serious expression. “Let’s let her speak, everyone, she took a serious risk by coming here. Xyraadi, how bad is it?”


She set them down in the same nondescript alley where they had originally confiscated Kheshiri’s reliquary from Shook, and immediately it was clear that things were already worse than expected.

The first sounds to greet them were screams and wandshots, prompting Hesthri and Jonathan to raise weapons and shift into a triangular formation with their backs against Natchua’s.

“Oh, this is bad,” Natchua muttered, raising her head and narrowing her eyes in concentration. “I can feel… Kheshiri, get a look at the immediate area.”

The succubus shifted to invisibility even as she unfurled her wings, shooting upward and ruffling their clothes with the backdraft.

“No organized resistance near here,” Jonathan muttered, squinting at the mouth of the alley. “I hear staff and wand fire, but just piecemeal. Soldiers would fire in a volley. Natch?”

“There are demons everywhere,” she whispered, her eyes now closed in concentration. “Plus… Fuck. We were right. Multiple open hellgates. Omnu’s breath, there are so many I can’t focus enough to count them. Plus…”

She opened her eyes and turned, the others instinctively pivoting to keep their formation intact. That left all of them looking directly at blank walls, but no one relaxed.

“There’s something big happening in that direction,” Natchua stated. “I think… It’s not a hellgate, exactly, but it’s putting off energy that’s similar enough but distinct. I think someone is trying to summon something. Something large, and powerful.”

Kheshiri popped back into view, hitting the ground just behind them. “This is bad, mistress. This city is under a full-scale invasion. It’s not just randos fleeing from Hell through the gates, either, I saw khelminash in formation on those flying discs of theirs.”

“Flying discs?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“Battlefield superiority,” Hesthri murmured. “Three warlocks on a mobile platform, raining spells from above.”

“Plus,” Kheshiri continued, “khaladesh troops, also marching in formation rather than rampaging around. These are Elilinist forces, and they’re organized. But, there are also some of the other kind; just in this area I saw khaladesh fighting with ikthroi and shadowlords.”

“They brought their feuding here?” Natchua breathed. “Oh, no, I do not think so. Well, Kheshiri, seems your big idea about this all being a trick was way off the mark.”

“I maintain my reasoning was sound,” the succubus said, scowling, “but yep, I obviously called that one wrong. Mistress, there is just plain nothing we can do about this mess. No matter how big and bad a warlock you are, this will require organized forces to clean up, lots of them. We need to get out of here.”

“You will shut your mouth and do as you’re told,” Natchua snapped. “Did you get a look at the cathedral?”

“Yes, the spire’s visible from here,” Kheshiri said, her tail lashing in agitation. “That’s going to be an even tougher nut to crack than we thought, because the Dark Lady’s followers had the same idea. The biggest concentrations of them are converging on that area.”

“Typical,” Natchua muttered. “Well… I guess I owe you two yet another apology. After all that, instead of going after Elilial herself… I’m sorry, but I have to do something here. I have to.”

“Natchua, you might just be the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met,” Hesthri said fondly, looking over her shoulder. “Imagine, apologizing to us for dropping your crazy revenge to protect people.”

“It does seem like a sudden waste of a lot of preparation,” Kheshiri commented.

“Oh, shut up,” all three of them chorused.

“Right, that’s enough standing around,” Natchua added. “Charms on, weapons up. Kheshiri, stay invisible and reconnoiter; kill any demons you have an opportunity to assassinate without risking yourself, but focus on watching our perimeter and bring me any new information that comes up.”

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Kheshiri said sourly, then shot upward and faded out again.

Natchua strode boldly out of the alley into an ongoing firefight, the others flanking her.

Immediately, arcs of lightning flashed across the street in front of her as one woman in a police uniform rapidly retreated, firing her service wand fast enough to risk overheating it. The gnarled, sinewy black shapes of shadowlords already lay smoking on the street, thanks to her and a man with a battlestaff leaning out the door of a nearby pawn shop, but at least a dozen more were still upright and charging forward, their attention grabbed by the show of resistance.

As the trio emerged from their landing alley, a squad of khaladesh demons, graceful and deceptively dainty humanoid figures with clawed feet, thick tails, and curling horns, charged out of a side street and right into the rabble of shadowlords.

Both armed humans, and now a third from a second-story window, continued firing indiscriminately into the ensuing melee, at least until Natchua put a decisive stop to it.

She gestured upward in a lifting motion with both hands, fingers clenched into rigid claws, and an entire forest of bruise-colored energy tendrils sprang out of the very pavement, entangling every brawling demon on the street. Natchua lifted them twenty feet into the air and then slammed the lot back down so hard their bones shattered. The shadow tentacles didn’t stop there, ripping straight through their victims as they vanished back into the ground and leaving them strewn about in pieces, which immediately began to disintegrate into charcoal.

“Holy shit,” exclaimed the policewoman, turning to point her wand at Natchua.

“You need to get people inside,” Natchua barked. “Gather up whoever you can and retreat to a defensible position. Fight only if you must! Demons are pathologically aggressive, and will be drawn to attack anybody who’s violent. Try to hide as many people as you can rescue.”

“Who the hell are you?” the officer shouted back, not lowering her wand.

“The lesser evil,” Natchua said, and turned her back to look down the street in the other direction. “I gather that’s where the cathedral is.”

She could see flying platforms like Hesthri had described, each with three slender figures balanced atop it. They seemed to move in triangular wedges of three platforms each, and dozens were converging on the spire of Ninkabi’s cathedral from the air. Down the street right in front of her, another small company of khaladesh rounded a corner and began moving in their direction. In addition to the khelminash warlocks, the sky was cluttered with the sinuous forms of katzil demons, diving into clusters of buzzing hiszilisks and scorching them to char with gouts of green fire.

“The succubus called it: that’s a much bigger mess to wade into than we were expecting,” Jonathan noted, raising his staff to point at the khaladesh now loping toward them. “Still wanna try for it?”

“Yes…just not yet,” Natchua decided. “It’s not impossible, it’s still the primary target, but we need Xyraadi and the paladins. And the rest of their group; that entire class are serious heavyweights. Let’s hope she can find them quickly.”

She moved her hands in front of her body as if shaping a globe out of clay, and in the space between them a single point of light sparked into being. Natchua abruptly jerked her arms to both sides and it shot forward, bursting alight and casting off beams of white light in all directions as it sped right at the oncoming demons. They tried to break ranks and dodge, but not fast or far enough; it struck the street amid their formation in an explosion that left a crater and seared fragments of khaladesh strewn about the street.

Natchua turned and pointed in the opposite direction. “That way, toward the front gates of the city. See those flying khelminash? I don’t know what they’re trying to conjure up, but I’ll bet putting a stop to it is a good use of our time.”

“We’re right behind you,” Hesthri promised.

They set off up the street at a run, cutting down stray demons with lightning and shadowbolts on their way toward whatever the greater evil was.


Branwen, to the surprise of the rest of them, was the first to step out into the square.

She paused, the others clustering behind her, to take in the scene. Pillars of fire decorated the skyline in ever direction, and from all of them demons were emerging, either swarms of wasp-like hiszilisks or sinuous katzils. There were no other portal altars within view, denying them the sight of whatever land-bound demons were coming out, but even those had already made it into the square.

Ninkabi had been on high alert, which was the only reason the carnage was not a complete massacre. Even the heavier-than-usual police presence was quickly being overwhelmed by ikthroi and shadowlords streaming out of several side streets piecemeal. Fortunately, the two types of demons seemed to pause and attack each other as often as not, but even so, there were already bodies lying on the pavement, and swooping katzils were making it difficult for the police to organize.

Branwen threw out her hand, and a streamer of golden light flew forth, lashing out to wrap around the neck of a passing katzil. It hissed and bucked as she hauled it down to the ground, but stilled upon being drawn into arm’s reach.

“Shhh, shh,” Branwen soothed, actually patting the demon on its beak. She continued to stroke the infernal animal’s scales as the loop of holy magic shifted, forming a collar that hovered about its neck without touching. Then she took one step to the side and gestured again, and her snared katzil shot upward, where it began making wide passes around the front of the historic trading guild hall, where beleaguered officers were trying to herd civilians inside. Bursts of green fire incinerated any other demons trying to get too close.

“Did you ever get around to more than the basic holy summoner training, Antonio?” she asked.

“Not to the point of actually summoning, but I think I remember how that trick goes,” he said, throwing out another tendril of light and seizing a katzil that was in the process of fleeing from Branwen’s thrall. This one struggled more as he reeled it downward. “Vanessa, get out of here.”

“You want to send the warlock away?” Khadizroth asked pointedly.

“Now’s a good time for the Wreath to do what they do,” Darling grunted, still struggling with his quarry. “We’d best stay here and help, but they need to be hunting down and closing those damn gates! Unless you can shadow-jump, K, that’s a job of the highly mobile casters who can sense demon magic directly.”

“You’re right,” Vanessa said bitterly. “I don’t know how much we can do about this, but Embras will have more information. You three… Try not to die.”

Shadows gathered and whisked her away.

“Demons will be drawn to whatever resists them the most fiercely,” Khadizroth stated, striding forward into the square. “The trading hall seems a serviceable place to hide the civilians, as the police have already discovered. Therefore, we shall draw attention elsewhere. Come.”

“Yes, sir,” Darling drawled, finally getting his demon under control. He hadn’t done this since the attack on Tiraas, but the divine spell worked just as well as it had then. Unfortunately, a katzil was about the most potent type of demon he was able to control, and the holy summoner who had instructed him had warned that a skilled warlock or spellcasting demon would be able to disrupt his link, and if he lost control of a thrall it was likely to immediately attack him with near-suicidal rage.

He and Branwen flanked the dragon, directing their katzils to sweep the surrounding area clear of shadowlords and ikthroi, while Khadizroth casually hurled glowing leaf-pods to the ground which caused the spectral shapes of animals to burst into being. Though they looked fragile, they were constructs of pure fae magic, and the stag, bear, and lion he summoned immediately tore into the nearest demons with devastating effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the three of them were drawing more attention. The western edge of the square was a broad flight of steps down to another, lower square on the next level of the city as it descended toward the first waterfalls. Something was clearly happening there; flying discs carrying khelminash sorceresses were moving in a slow circle, their warlocks directing streams of orange spellfire into some working they were creating on the paved area below. They clearly did not welcome the kind of intrusion a dragon and two priests represented, as a whole company of khaladesh demons immediately surged up the stairs and charged at them.

Khadizroth continued calling up spirit animals to harry the miscellaneous demons on the upper square as he led the way further from the trading hall. As he had predicted, most of the demons already up there were now following them.

Unfortunately.

There was a sufficient concentration that even the fae workings he’d left were beginning to vanish; despite being an excellent counter for demons, they clearly were as fragile as they appeared, and the infernal-addled beings now on the attack did not hesitate to throw their lives away piling onto the translucent shapes. The sheer numbers were overwhelming them.

“Not to overwork you, Khaddy,” Darling grated, guiding his katzil to strafe the front line of khelminash closing on them, “but we could use something bigger…”

“Try to buy me time,” the dragon ordered.

They managed to decimate the first line of the attackers with aerial fire before the next rank harpooned both katzils to the ground. Their golden chains flashed out of being upon the demons’ death. Darling and Branwen exchanged a flat look, and both of them lit up with divine shields. All around them, the last four remaining spirit animals trampled the last of the loose ikthroi; their cousins had managed to deplete a good five times their number, but now both sides of the melee were almost exhausted.

Khadizroth was busy drawing a spell circle on the pavement with a leafy branch he had pulled out of nowhere. Branwen planted herself in front of him; Darling drew his wand and fired shot after shot into the khaladesh, which only seemed to make them madder.

A bare three yards before the charging demons piled into the priests’ shields, Khadizroth paused in his work to gesture. Cold wind rose around them, suddenly carrying with it bladelike autumn leaves, and ripped into the phalanx. The fae-driven leaves tore through flesh and armor alike, slaughtering the demons even as the wind bowled them bodily over backward.

In seconds, the entire force was decimated.

“I feel like we’re redundant here,” Darling commented to Branwen.

“You are not,” Khadizroth replied before she could, already back at work on his circle. “Every second I am distracted from this is precious. Damn Kuriwa and her curse, but I cannot work as fast as I should.”

“We’ll be…oh, bollocks,” Branwen cursed uncharacteristically.

The next wave to charge at them was only five demons, but these were a good eight feet tall, writhing masses of tentacles and heavy pincers stomping forward on heavy legs.

“Well, hey, smaller numbers’ll be easier for us to block, as long as the shields hold,” Darling said lightly, shooting one of the things twice. The wandshots slowed it, but that was all. He couldn’t even see its face, if it had one. “I don’t suppose you can command this particular caliber of ugly?”

“Khroshkrids,” she said curtly, “and no. Try to burn that one down before they get here; I think we can stop four with our shields alone. They hit hard but are not very durable.”

Indeed, the fifth wandshot made the targeted khroshkrid stumble to one knee, and two more caused it to slump over, twitching. Unfortunately, even before the rest reached them, another squad of khaladesh topped the stairs at a run.

Darling gritted his teeth, pouring energy into his shield in anticipation of the impact of tentacles and claws. Even with the intermittent pace of reinforcements from the khelminash up ahead, they were soon going to be overwhelmed just by sheer numbers. “K, may need to interrupt you again—”

Of all things, a white wolf dashed past him. Then another, and suddenly there were over a dozen of them swarming forward, great glowing beasts which charged fearlessly at the hulking demons.

“Oh…kaaay,” Darling said, blinking. “I don’t get it, but I’ll take it.”

He had never actually seen wolves take down large prey in the wild, but these clearly fae beasts showed how the power of the pack was more than a match for a moose or bear. They snarled and lunged, distracting and infuriating the demons while others dashed in behind to hamstring and bring them down.

Then one of the wolves about to be trampled flashed white and became a slim young woman with short dark hair, planting herself in a kneeling position with one arm upraised. A divine shield flashed into place around her, as well as a hardlight construct in the shape of an Avenic shield in her grasp. Both shields soaked up the blow of the descending pincer; she didn’t even flinch. It created the opportunity for two more wolves to flank the khroshkrid, savaging its legs to pull it down, and then another wolf flashed as it approached at a run, changing to the shape of a woman with pale green hair who rammed into it with her shoulder.

Under the dryad’s onslaught, the demon was utterly pulverized, its fragments already drying to charcoal as they sprayed the oncoming khaladesh behind.

Then more people were darting past Darling from the city’s open gates, a mixed group of cloaked Rangers and Huntsmen of Shaath, skidding to a halt to draw bows.

The first volley of arrows ripped the oncoming khaladesh apart. By the time they’d fired a second volley, the attackers were done.

One particularly large white wolf loped up, changing to human form as it approached. A form Darling recognized.

“Antonio,” Ingvar said with a grim smile. “I am surprised at how unsurprised I am to find you in the middle of this.”

“I get blamed for everything,” Darling complained. “Ingvar, I’ve got a rousing chorus of ‘what the fuck’ I wanna sing you later, but for now I am just damn glad to see you and all the rest of this…I don’t even wanna know, do I?”

“What exactly is the situation here?” Ingvar asked, turning to scowl at the flying khelminash sorceresses.

Two wood elves, one with a goatee and the other with short black hair, had also approached; the bearded one spoke. “Lord Khadizroth, if we might assist?”

“Please,” the dragon said fervently. Both stepped up beside him, raising hands and adding streams of pure fae energy into the glyphs he was embossing on the pavement.

An arcane sparkle in the air heralded the arrival of an Imperial strike team, led by a mage who took one look at the situation and shouted, “What in shit’s name?!”

“Hellgates,” Branwen reported. “Lots of them.”

“Well, that explains it, all right,” said Tholi. “This looks to be a challenging hunt, Brother.”

Everyone whirled, the various hunters raising weapons, as the shadows swelled out of nowhere right next to them, but what materialized was Vanessa, along with Grip, Thumper, Vannae, Schwartz, Jenell, Flora, and Fauna.

“Omnu’s balls, you were not kidding,” Thumper stated, drawing his wands and staring at the nearby demons. Vannae immediately scurried over to join Khadizroth and the other elves, followed a moment later by Schwartz.

“Young lady, I thought I told you to go find your fellow warlocks,” Darling said severely to Vanessa.

“Luckily for you, old man, you’re not the boss of me,” she replied with a thin smile. “I told you three not to die, and as I expected, you were doing a piss poor job of it. Here are your buddies; try to manage a little longer this time, cos this is all the reinforcements you’re getting.”

She sketched a mocking salute and shadow-jumped out.

“I like her,” Grip remarked. “Prolly gonna end up punching her teeth out before all this is settled, of course.”

“Incoming,” the warlock attached to the strike team reported in a clipped tone. Another phalanx of khaladesh was topping the stairs, this one much larger. Hunters drew arrows again and the four Imperials readied spells.

Before they could attack, the demons were hit from the rear by something which exploded with the force of a mag cannon burst. Khaladesh were hurled into the air like dolls, those who weren’t incinerated outright in the initial impact. Only those at the edges of the formation survived, but as quickly as they regained their footing and tried to turn on their attackers, they were felled by a barrage of staff fire and shadowbolts.

Whatever had dared to skirt their formation finally drew the full attention of the khelminash sorceresses, and one platform broke from the group, the warlocks turning to pelt the area with fireballs.

Their platform was seized by a single giant tentacle of shadow-magic which sprang up from the ground below and yanked it out from under them, then while all three plummeted screaming to the ground, whipped about to smack it against the next in the formation.

While the warlocks were forced to turn and subdue that, three figures dashed up the stairs, hesitating only momentarily before making a beeline for the group assembling around Khadizroth.

“Hold,” Ingvar called, raising one hand. “These don’t smell of enmity.”

“Excuse me, they don’t fuckin’ what?” Thumper demanded.

The drow woman in the lead waved frantically at them as she approached, the staff-carrying man and woman behind her half-turning as they ran to take potshots at the khelminash.

“We have to stop them!” Natchua shouted. “Whatever fairy magic you’re doing here, pour it into the middle of—”

She broke off, whirled, and reached out with both hands, just in time. One of the khelminash trios had just conjured up a carriage-sized ball of fire and hurled it in their direction. Natchua swept her hands to one side, and it veered off course to slam into the unoccupied middle of the upper square.

“What?” Captain Antevid demanded. “What are they trying to do?”

It seemed the khelminash had decided to suspend their operations, though, and most of the flying discs broke off, coming in their direction. A dozen points of multicolored light appeared around them as infernal spells were gathered.

“Khad, now would be a good time!” Darling shouted.

“Yes,” Khadizroth agreed, striding into the center of his meticulously-arranged spell circle while Schwartz and the elves backed hastily away. The dragon stomped one foot upon the spiraling central rune.

Seven tree trunks of luminous white wood sprang from the ground all around him, shooting upward and bending in the middle to twine into a single colossal tree. It shot skyward, branching out in all directions and spreading its canopy over the entire square. Pale green light shone from the white tree’s fern-like leaves, filling the air with a healing, floral scent and the soft sound of whispers.

At the sheer intensity of fae magic which roiled out across the square, the incipient attacks of the warlocks fizzled, the foremost disc wobbling and then careening drunkenly to the ground to crash against an abandoned carriage. The woman with Natchua gasped and buckled to her knees, clutching her chest, and as the drow and Jonathan whirled to catch her, a flickering outline of another person intermittently betrayed itself behind them.

“Hey, is she okay?” Branwen asked, raising one hand. “I can—”

“No!” Natchua and Jonathan shouted in unison.

“That is a demon, wearing an arcane disguise charm,” Khadizroth stated. “Hethelax, I believe. Hello, Kheshiri.”

Shook’s head snapped around. He clenched his fingers on his wands, but pressed his lips together into a line and said nothing.

“Excuse me,” said Schwartz, “but at this point I’d say we’ve worked with enough friendly warlocks—well, maybe not friendly, but clearly allied…”

“Yes, I concur,” Khadizroth said, nodding and raising a hand. Immediately Kheshiri’s outline vanished again and Hesthri straightened up, gasping for breath. “My apologies. We are in no position to turn away any potential allies, I fear. This tree will buy us a moment of sanctuary, but by the same token it makes this spot a target, and I cannot say with certainty how long it will last against a prolonged assault. We must use this time to formulate a plan.”

“Hey, you guys should really see this,” called Jenell, the only one among the growing group clustered under the dragon’s tree who was turned to face Ninkabi’s front gates instead of the beleaguered city beyond them.

Being mounted, Trissiny and Gabriel were the first to arrive, with Vadrieny and Yngrid swooping in above while Fross darted about the paladins. Behind them came the rest of their class at a run, accompanied by Principia and Merry in full armor, lances at the ready.

“As I live and breathe,” Darling cackled. “Hey! I thought you lot were on vacation!”

“Dunno whatcher talkin’ about,” Billie called back, riding on McGraw’s shoulders as their group brought up the rear. “This here’s where the demon invasion is! What the hell did ye think was my idea o’ fun?”

Mary fluttered down to settle on Darling’s shoulder, where she ruffled her feathers and croaked in irritation.

“You said it,” he replied sympathetically.

“Somehow, your Grace, it just ain’t a surprise to find you here,” McGraw drawled. “Really seems like it should be, but it is not.”

“Why do people keep saying that to me?”

“People have met you,” Grip replied.

“General!” Khadizroth called, striding forward out of the group toward the new arrivals, ignoring Juniper and Aspen as they ran squealing right past him to hug.

“Holy shit, is that guy a dragon?” Ruda asked.

“These hellgates are conjured through some highly improvised combination of necromancy and modern enchanting equipment,” Khadizroth said, ignoring her and fixing his attention on Trissiny. “Each is beneath one of those columns of fire. They are numerous, but fragile, and highly unstable. We’ve found that destroying the altars to which they are synced on this plane will cause a backlash that destroys the other side as well. So long as we reach them all before they stabilize and become permanent, we can shut all of this down.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said, nodding to him. “That’s the best news I could hope for. Natchua! Xyraadi says you know something about the source of this?”

“There’s an ancient facility under Ninkabi’s central cathedral,” Natchua called, striding forward through the crowd. “Apparently there’s some kind of sealed hellgate there. We think that’s where the Tide cult that created this mess is concentrated. So do the demons; a lot of them are heading in that direction.”

“Will shutting that down shut all of this down?”

“It is far too late for that,” Khadizroth said gravely. “There are too many gates, and not all under Elilinist control. Before we can even begin cleaning up the demons, every one of these portals must be destroyed.”

“There are both Elilinist demons and various other factions coming through,” Natchua added. “Don’t get me wrong, there are no allies here. They all need to die. But they’re working on culling each other, which helps a little bit.”

“All right,” Trissiny said, turning Arjen to face the city and the stairs down to the lower plaza. “First things first…”

Before she could go further, the assembled flying khelminash began to chant, loudly enough to be clearly audible to those clustered under the tree. They spoke in alternating groups, one syllable each.

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“Mes dieux, non,” Xyraadi groaned, pressing one hand against her forehead crest.

“Wait a second,” Branwen exclaimed. “They’re not saying—”

The chant rose, the assembled masses of khaladesh demons gathered below the flying sorceresses adding their voices. Around them, a sullen red glow had begun to rise from whatever the warlocks had been crafting upon the square.

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“Kelvreth of the Eyes,” Vadrieny stated. “Elilial’s chief general. One of the greatest demons in existence.”

“Oh, good, that’s all,” said Weaver, deadpan. “For a sec I was worried.”

“ALL RIGHT!” Trissiny roared, raising her sword into the air and projecting above the noise. “I want three groups of highly mobile fighters to destroy those portals! Vadrieny and Yngrid take the north bank, strike team take the central island, Natchua’s group the south bank. You will move as quickly as you can from one portal site to the next. Shut them down, and only fight as much as you must to protect yourselves.

“We do not have the forces to contain the city or even gather up civilians—the best thing we can do is draw attention from them. Demons are compelled to attack anything which attacks them, so you will demand their attention! Hit every infernal thing you see with everything you have. No quarter, no hesitation, and maximum destruction! We will press west till we reach the cathedral, slaughtering every invader in our way, and drawing the rest to face us. The best thing we can do to protect the city is to buy the defenders time by forcing every demon to turn and face the most destructive force here: US.”

A tremendous pulse burst out from the lower plaza, sending a gust of wind and sheer kinetic energy across the city, pushing all of them bodily backward a half-step. The branches and leaves of the dragon’s tree rustled, whispering in protest.

Below them, a single, skeletal arm rose, by itself twenty feet in length, formed seemingly of gigantic iron bones bound together by pulsing green sinews. Its clawed hand came to rest upon the top of the stairs between the plazas, and the assembled demons’ chanting rose to a frantic pitch as they chorused Kelvreth’s name over and over.

“Tall fella, ain’t he?” McGraw said laconically, puffing on a cigarillo.

“Pushing ourselves against that will definitely suffice to gather their attention,” Shaeine observed, her expression eerily serene.

Hunters drew arrows, soldiers and enforcers readied weapons, casters of all four schools began charging spells, and a dozen wolves raised their melodic voices to howl a fierce counterpoint to the demonic chanting.

“We are not going to charge at the warlord of Hell,” Trissiny thundered, drawing her lips back in an animal snarl. She brandished her blade and burst alight, golden wings flaring. “WE GO THROUGH HIM!”

Arjen trumpeted as they galloped forward, and with a combined roar, the assembled forces with her hurled themselves into motion, charging into Ninkabi and straight into the teeth of Hell.

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15 – 61

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The darkness receded, leaving them in the more brightly-lit basement storeroom under Branwen’s borrowed townhouse. Immediately, weapons and spells were aimed at them, then just as quickly relaxed when those present saw who had arrived.

“All right, what happened?” Grip demanded in an exasperated tone.

“Now, why would you assume something happened?” Sweet retorted, grinning. “What, can’t six people abruptly shadow-jump in after deciding not to gather everyone here without y’all assuming something’s gone terribly wrong?”

“Well,” Khadizroth said evenly, “if you feel relaxed enough to joke, I gather the situation is not urgent.”

“You’d think that, but no,” Grip snorted. “Apprentice, this is an important piece of Guild lore: sometimes it is both necessary and appropriate to punch the Bishop in the nuts.”

“Basra happened,” Branwen interjected before Sweet could reply. “You know those soldiers she was going to gather and bring to our location? Well, she certainly did that, as we discovered when they began shooting down the door. They had also blocked shadow-jumping somehow; we escaped through a basement tunnel and came back here as soon as we were far enough from the effect for Vanessa to use her magic again. Are you all right?” she added solicitously to the warlock. “If it is anything like teleportation, moving this many people must be tiring.”

Vanessa just curled her lip slightly and stepped away to join Bradshaw against the far wall.

Meesie, for once not on Schwartz’s shoulder, came scampering out of the stone scale model of Ninkabi on which she was setting and arranging tiny glowing seeds, squealing and pointing accusingly at them.

“I trust I don’t need to interpret that?” Schwartz said dryly.

“Kid,” Grip replied in the same tone, “with all respect to your pet fire-mouse, you never need to interpret.”

“You’re both Bishops, which is more than can be said about Basra anymore,” Schwartz said, glancing at Grip but still facing the new arrivals. “It might have taken some doing, but surely you could have explained…”

“And that is why they opened with shooting,” Sweet said with his good cheer undiminished. “Not only do Bran and I have official standing, we’re both quite good at talking our way out of confrontations, and Basra knows this about us. Whatever she told the troops, they were in a ‘shoot first and ask questions never’ kinda mood. Flora and Fauna overheard some chatter about the Wreath. Mighta been awkward if they’d gotten close enough to see Vanessa’s robes.”

“Well,” Schwartz suggested, “maybe that’s an opportunity. If we can get word to the soldiers, and prove she lied, she’ll be vulnerable!”

“She won’t be with them,” Sweet said, ruefully shaking his head. “Remember, thanks to me, Basra is wanted by the Empire. I made damn sure the local authorities were notified of this, since I came here more than half expecting to find myself standing over her smoking corpse explaining it to the cops. No, she’ll have mobilized the Holy Legion and used them to plant a lever under the police and the military.”

“This is my fault,” Jenell whispered, clenching her fists. “If I hadn’t told you to…”

“Now, let’s have none of that, apprentice,” Sweet said, his smile finally fading. “I told you at the time, it’s not your responsibility. This is on me. Hell, I even instructed everybody to kill that twisted bitch on sight, and then I went and let her maneuver us again. I was right the first time, and if we do get a glimpse of her again, go right for the jugular. But for now, this is the situation we’re in.”

“Where is Embras?” Vanessa asked.

“At the secure space,” Bradshaw replied, “seeking to commune with the Dark Lady. Our magical work here is not done, but it is trending in such a direction that Embras thought playing that trump card had become a better use of his time than continuing to work here.”

“Oh, that doesn’t sound promising,” Shook muttered.

“Bad, is it?” Sweet asked.

“Worse,” said Khadizroth, finally turning away from Flora and Fauna, who had been staring fixedly at him since their arrival. He made a soothing gesture in Vannae’s direction, prompting the shaman (who had looked like he wanted to charge them) to retreat to a corner of the room opposite the two warlocks. “Our additional avenues of inquiry have not borne fruit yet, but thanks to Mr. Schwartz’s knowledge of new developments in Salyrite practice that even I was not aware of, we have managed to refine the sophistication of our existing divinatory methods. So I cannot tell, exactly, how long it has been going on, but in examining these portal sites through this new lens, we have found that their energy output is rapidly increasing.”

“Not consistently or uniformly,” Schwartz added. “It’s quite fascinating, really! We have been trying to nail down a pattern, in case that might point us to a source, but so far it seems pretty random. We’re working with the idea that something on the other side is probing at them. It’s as if they’re wandering around, looking at all these nascent portals to find which ones will be easiest to pry open.”

“Excuse me,” Shook snapped, “but which part of that doesn’t sound like those fuckers are about to blow?!”

“That was the conclusion to which Mr. Mogul came,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Hence his departure. I begin to share his assessment. At this point, our time might be better spent on urgent damage control rather than investigation.”

“Yeah,” Shook said bitterly, “except the warm bodies we need to fuckin’ do that are out trying to murder our asses instead of looking for demon portals.”

“As to that,” the dragon mused, shifting his attention to Darling, “a thought occurs. Syrinx’s duplicity has, indeed, painted a large target on you—specifically, I should think, upon the Bishops. There are ways to leverage being a target.”

Sweet grinned broadly at him. “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, K-man?”

Khadizroth nodded. “For once, Bishop, I believe so.”


“Ready,” Jonathan reported, stepping into the kitchen with Hesthri at his side. “As we’ll ever be, anyhow.”

Natchua smiled at them both even as she looked them over. “Wow. Where’d you get all that stuff?”

Both were carrying lightning weapons; in addition to Jonathan’s personal Army-issue staff which he’d brought from Mathenon, Hesthri had a battlestaff propped over her shoulder and both wore wand belts with, in addition to holstered wands, clipped-on shielding charms and enough extra power crystals for any conceivable firefight. Hesthri’s staff was a bit heavier than his, and looked fancy, with a rich mahogany varnish, a baroque silver-plated clicker mechanism and fanciful engraving around its handholds and butt end, complete with silver inlay.

“Ah, well, you know,” Sherwin answered modestly, “I just figured, they are sort of, if you squint at it sideways, in the employ of House Leduc. At least, I believe my lawyers can make that case in the very unlikely event that the Throne takes issue with me opening my House armory to civilians.”

“Oh,” Hesthri said worriedly, “is that…illegal?”

“Significantly less than you being here at all,” Jonathan said, leaning over to plant a kiss on her forehead plating.

“The reorganization after the Enchanter Wars included a lot of laws about who’s allowed to have what sort of soldiers,” Sherwin said with a shrug. “I can’t say I give a damn, I just try not to draw Sharidan’s attention. That ship may have sailed, though. I see you found enough that’s still in working order, Arquin? Like I said, it’s all been collecting dust for a good fifteen years.”

“Yes, and that took its toll, but fortunately your House armsmaster knew what he was doing, back when there was one,” Jonathan replied. “A lot’s pretty decayed but the only problems with this stuff was drained charges, and luckily there were plenty of power crystals still magnetically sealed. These are some nice shielding charms,” he added, producing another from a belt pouch that looked identical to the ones on his and Hesthri’s belts and tossing it to Natchua. “Not cutting edge anymore, but way better than what we had when I was in the service. Reactive shielding; you prime it by pressing the rune, there, and then it’ll ignite whenever any source of energy gets too close to you. Including kinetic energy, so it’ll block spears and arrows, too. These suckers even work in the rain.”

“Why aren’t they more commonly used, then?” Natchua mused, turning it over in her hands.

“Because even twenty years later they’re still expensive,” he said, grinning. “That’s why they’re so bulky, too; takes not only shielding magic but a detection array and some really sophisticated logic controllers. Intelligence and the Imperial Guard use ‘em, and some of the richer House guards, but they’re not practical for a whole army. Back when these were made they were worth more than a Falconer carriage.”

Sherwin shrugged. “Sounds about right. My family never kept many troops, but those they had always had to be the best of the best. More for showing off than for any actual fighting.”

“I don’t know why you think I need a shielding charm, anyway,” Hesthri said sardonically. “Or have you really gone all this time without noticing I’m a hethelax?”

“And as such,” he said firmly, “you are vulnerable to divine magic. An arcane shield is the best counter to that.”

“Neat!” Kheshiri said brightly from her chair by the fireplace. “Where’s mine?”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Logistically speaking,” said Natchua, “you are a spy, not a brawler. If anybody ends up shooting at you at all, you’ve already failed. Are you planning to fail me, Kheshiri?”

“Why, that could never possibly happen, my mistress,” the succubus simpered. The muted amusement pulsing through her aura heightened slightly; evidently she was not truly worried.

The small sound of a throat being cleared interrupted Natchua’s pondering before she could wonder too much about Kheshiri’s motivations. All three of the hobgoblins had just crept into the kitchen; the other two seemed to be trying to hide behind Pizzicato, who herself appeared to be physically trembling. “Uh, so,” she squeaked, then paused to clear her throat again before continuing in a more normal (though still strained) tone, “scuze me if this is, y’know, presumptuous, but… Do we get fancy magic weapons, too?”

Natchua blinked. “What? You aren’t coming. There are likely to be hostile warlocks and demons, and who knows what else. You girls are here to fix the house, I’m not sending you into that bedlam.”

She froze in astonishment as they all rushed forward and embraced her legs from all sides, leaving her standing amid a waist-high hobgoblin huddle.

“Um?” Natchua asked.

Then they broke and scurried back out of the room in a tiny stampede, leaving her staring after them in confusion.

“What the hell was that about?”

“It was about Hell,” Hesthri said, stepping up next to Natchua and sliding an arm about her waist. The drow absently hugged her back, leaning against the demon’s warm frame while she listened. “In any tribe or colony or city-state or whatever that has horogki, whenever there’s a large-scale battle they get sent in first.”

Nathua frowned. “That’s bonkers. I can’t imagine hobgoblins are very effective shock troops.”

Hesthri shook her head. “They’re thought of more like…ammunition. Natch, you are far and away the best boss any of those young ladies ever dreamed they might have.”

“Doesn’t sound like that’s a high bar to clear,” she muttered. “All right…wait, where’s Mel?”

Sherwin cringed. “Oh, ah…yeah. She…asked me to tell you goodbye.”

Natchua instinctively squeezed Hesthri, who squeezed her back. Jonathan stepped over to them and rested a hand comfortingly on her shoulder.

“Just…goodbye?” she asked, forcibly keeping her tone even. “That’s it?”

He nodded. “I’m afraid…yeah. I don’t think she’s one for drawn-out farewells. I gave her an old heirloom of the House, a Wreath shadow-jumping talisman, so she could go whever she wants to be. Sorry if that was presumptuous, Natchua, I just felt… Well, hell, I owed her that much. I’m really gonna miss her,” he added with a dreamy sigh.

“Pathetic,” Kheshiri sneered. “What child of Vanislaas sneaks away right when things are about to get really interesting?”

“Most of them,” Natchua shot back, “and on that note, shut up.”

“I don’t want to make this worse,” Jonathan said quietly, “but we are talking about a succubus now on the loose in the world, with that magic armor you gave her and apparently now a jumper charm as well. That’s gonna be a nightmare for somebody down the line.”

“Melaxyna…is a friend,” Natchua said tightly. Both he and Hesthri squeezed in closer at her tone in silent comfort. “I’m under no illusions about what she is, but Sherwin’s right. I owe her that much.”

“Even though she left you?” Hesthri asked quietly.

“Our pact was very much up front. She was only going to stay with me until I could gather more allies and resources, and she was to be free to get away from any fighting before I launched any kind of attack on Hell’s forces. And now…here you all are, and here we are, heading into exactly that. Mel kept up her end, and even warned me not long ago that she would be leaving soon. She’s played fair. I just…wish I could’ve said goodbye.”

“Right, well,” Sherwin cleared his throat awkwardly. “I didn’t wanna ask, but… I notice you came back missing someone, as well.”

“Yes,” Natchua agreed briskly, gently disentangling her arms from around Jonathan and Hesthri. “Xyraadi is also getting us some help. There aren’t many people out there who even can storm the kind of citadel we may need to, but fortunately she knows just the ones.”

“Who does she know, apart from…” Jonathan trailed off, his eyes widening. “Oh.”


“The good news,” Xyraadi said with a heavy sigh, “is that they are not in this Last Rock.”

“That is good news,” Mortimer agreed, leaning over to study the diagram wrought in lines of shifting orange light atop the obsidian surface of the scrying table. “They may or may not have mentioned you to Tellwyrn, but even in the best case scenario a khelminash shadow-jumping into the vicinity of her school would be asking for an instant and lethal response.”

“C’est incroyable,” she muttered. “Arachne Tellwyrn, running a school. If I am unlucky enough to see this firsthand I think I will still not believe it. But that brings be directly to the bad news. This site, the location of the great hellgate that caused the Third Hellwar and the blessed tree…”

“The Desolate Gardens?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Oh, dear.”

“I don’t suppose,” Xyraadi said, grimacing, “that this site is, in this century, administered by someone a bit more easygoing than the Order of the Light?”

“I’m afraid not,” Mortimer replied sympathetically. “The Order is not what it was in your day, though. Frankly it’s not much of anything anymore, in terms of its relevance to world events, but it is not dead and still looks after the Desolate Gardens. I believe it is a usually quiet place; they do not station any soldiers there anymore. Likely no more than a few priests.”

She heaved a sigh. “Merde alors. A few priests will be bad enough…”

“You have three paladins who remember and will speak for you, my dear,” he reassured her. “It is a bit outside my own effective radius, but if you will kindly handle the shadow-jumping, I shall be glad to—”

“Mortimer, no,” she said firmly but with a smile, turning to face him and placing a slender hand on his shoulder. “As far as such people as that will be concerned, you are just a warlock, no different from me in terms of telling friend from foe. It makes no sense at all for us both to risk the wrath of the Order. The danger is here, in Ninkabi; a warlock who knows the city as well as you may be exactly what it needs in the very near future.”

“I dislike leaving you to face such a risk on your own,” he said with a grimace, reaching up to pat her fingers. “But you are right. And as I said, if you can find Arquin, Avelea, and Caine, they will vouch for you.”

“Yes, that will be the real challenge, n’est-ce pas? All I have to do is shadow-jump into one of the most sacred places on earth, with a deep and dire history of demonic activity, administered by militant clerics who will attack me on sight with lethal intent and listen to nothing I have to say, and hope I can find the right holy people before being burned to ash.”

The old man closed his eyes, wincing. “I dearly wish I could say that was an overly dramatic assessment…”

“Oh, it is suitably dramatic, yes,” she said, smiling. “But not all bad. Very much like old times, in fact. Ah, I find I have missed the call of adventure! If I do not see you again, Mortimer, know that I have been deeply grateful for your friendship over these last weeks. It has made all the difference in the world to me.”

“And to me, as well,” he replied, smiling. “So let us decide here and now that this is not a goodbye. Whatever befalls, there and here, we have many more interesting conversations ahead of us.”

“It is a date.” The demon leaned forward gently to press a light kiss to his cheek, then stepped back and vanished in a swell of shadows.


They bounded across the landscape like silver gusts of wind, the wolves forming a tight arrowhead formation with their various human companions dashing alongside. Rangers and Huntsmen alike shared space, their numbers mingling without tension and without separating back into their distinct groups. Though they still wore the unique regalia of each order, an unspoken threshold had been crossed in their allegiance. They now followed Ingvar, right into the teeth of an evil for which they did not yet have a name, nor anything but his word that it lay ahead.

Even the Rangers’ animal companions kept up with the impossible pace set by the pack, all of them spurred on by the fae blessings laid over them. Across fields, through forests and over streams, the expanded pack moved faster than a diving falcon. Though they avoided any roads on which they could have proved it, they cleanly outpaced even the newest enchanted carriages; galloping horses could not have kept pace with them. Fae magic could do only so much to speed travel, and it was no shadow-jumping or teleporation, but they would reach their destination far sooner than unaided mortal legs could have achieved, whether those legs came in groups of two or four.

The pack slowed, following Ingvar’s lead, as they reached the apex of a ridge and that destination finally lay before them.

Wolf and human, elf and hound and lynx, they straggled to a halt, staring at the descending landscape ahead. The sea was out of sight in the distance, the river to their left, just beginning to flow deeper into its rocky bed in what would become the plummeting canyons and waterfalls of Ninkabi far ahead. The city itself stood at the very edge of view, its famed spires a jagged monument rising against the afternoon sky.

The wolf in the lead shifted to regard the elf who paced forward to stand next to him, then in a flash of light stood on two legs once more.

“This is a great gift, Elder Shiraki,” Ingvar said, nodding deeply to him.

Shiraki shook his head. “Twas within thee that the power dwelt, young hunter. I serve merely as a guide. Thou needst not my guidance to perform this work again; now that he has seen it done, Rainwood can awaken the blessing of speed, and extend it to thy brethren. With time and practice, mayhap thou canst learn to perform this feat without a shaman’s aid.”

Darkness swelled to their right, and the strike team materialized alongside them on the ridge.

“Dare I hope you’re only coincidentally heading in this general direction?” Captain Antevid asked in an even more sardonic tone than usual. “Because you lot are pointed right at an Imperial city of significant size.”

Ingvar raised his head; he did not sniff the air, though his face stilled in concentration.

“Ninkabi, yes,” he said quietly. “Whatever gathers there is evil of a depth I have never encountered before. It blemishes this land, and threatens the city and wild alike. We will suffer no desecration of this world,” he added, raising his voice. “We hunt!”

Wolves howled in response, and he was lunging forward even as he returned to a four-legged form in a flash of concentrated moonlight. They were off, dashing toward the distant city in league-eating bounds that carried them swiftly from sight.

“They hunt,” Antevid sighed. “Well, then! I guess you get to visit home a little earlier than planned, Lieutenant Agasti.”

Maehe clenched her jaw, then gestured with both hands, raising shadows around the team and whisking them away.


The small group materialized in a dingy space barely reached by the sunlight, strewn with old trash.

“Ah, home sweet home! If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all: filthy alleys, just like mama used to make,” Sweet said, inhaling deeply through his nose. Immediately he coughed and turned to scowl at the necromantic altar attracting flies against one wall. “Phew! That’s new, though. Guess we’re in the right place. Help me out, Vanessa, where are we relative to…anything?”

“The city’s most prominent square isn’t far in that direction,” she said, nodding at the stone wall next to them. “This is the back of the historic merchant guild hall along its north side. It’s the widest open space in Ninkabi, just inside the city’s main gates, and heavily trafficked. If you want attention, it won’t be hard to get from here. If you’re sure you are prepared for what the results of that attention will be,” she added skeptically, panning her eyes across the three of them.

“Our plan does rest upon assumptions not quite proven,” Khadizroth acknowledged, nodding to her. “One, that the soldiers will be wise enough not to attack a dragon on sight, and two, that if they are not so wise, their attempts to do so will be ineffective.”

“And three,” Branwen added, “that Antonio and I can talk some sense into them while they’re taken aback. If these soldiers have been told to look for warlock craft, showing them this should divert their attention.” She directed a displeased look at the reeking altar of bones.

Vanessa shrugged. “Well, your funeral. Just so there’s no ambiguity, if this turns into a shooting match I will be instantly leaving you all here.”

“You’re an absolute dear to be concerned,” Sweet said gallantly, “but don’t you fret on our behalf. Now, I believe we need to ask you for one final favor.”

“Yes, I remember the plan,” she said, stepping back and kneeling, chalk in hand, to begin drawing a summoning circle on the pavement. “I’m going to call up a katzil. That should be sufficient to draw attention.”

“Kind of small, aren’t they?” Branwen asked.

“Oh, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of fellow demonologists,” Vanessa said acidly. “They’re only small when seen from below. Which is often, because they fly and spit green fire. Trust me, a katzil will draw eyes. If there’s already a legion of troopers in the city looking for demons to slay, this’ll bring them running.”

“Stop,” Khadizroth said suddenly, turning from his perusal of the altar to frown at her unfolding diagram.

“I thought we decided time was a factor, here,” Vanessa retorted, continuing to draw.

“Stop!” he repeated, stepping forward and smudging out part of her work with one foot. “Your circle is interacting with—”

A shockwave of heat blasted across them, sending old newspapers fluttering about the alley. A hole opened in the air above the bone altar, a shimmering space of uncertainty that seemed to overlook some fiery abyss. Above that, a single column of wavering fire shot skyward, taller than a minaret.

All three humans backed away, instinctively throwing up arms over their faces against the furnace-like heat, Branwen and Sweet snapping divine shields into place as well. Only Khadizroth stood against the blaze. With a single contemptuous gesture, he sent a torrent of floral-scented wind into the portal with the force of a hammer.

The altar was shattered, pieces spraying across the walls, and instantly the portal snapped shut, the flame and light disappearing.

“It seems,” Khadizroth commented in the ensuing stunned silence, “destroying the altar suffices to snuff out the portal even once it has opened. That makes sense. Hellgates can usually be closed if it is done before they have the chance to stabilize. This suggests that whatever holds them open on the other side is even more fragile than these, otherwise it would have to be closed from both ends. This slapdash infernomancy seems frail enough that the shock of a unilateral disruption does the trick.”

“Good to know,” Sweet said, tilting his head back and pointing. Though the alley’s shape cut off most of their view of the sky, they could see two more columns of fire beyond its ends, directly to the west and east. The distant hubbub of traffic and crowds audible from the other side of the old guild hall had suddenly begun to prominently feature screams. “I’m afraid that information is about to be very pertinent.”

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15 – 58

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“Once again, ‘any moment’ is not technically incorrect, but it is overly dramatic,” Bradshaw said with the strained patience of a perfectionist having to continually clarify. “The most accurate description of the situation is that we do not know what the trigger for opening the portals is—yet. I recommend all haste, but not panic. Clearly, something has prevented the portals opening at least this long, and we are working to figure out what.”

“Haste but not panic is the right action in almost any circumstance,” Grip said in a deceptively lazy tone, eyes on the dismantled wand she was cleaning. “Including if, for example, there were twenty-odd demon portals in the city that might open any fucking minute.”

“Grip, play nicely with the other kids,” Sweet reproved. “Bradshaw’s doing us a big solid and these stakes don’t allow for any infighting. What is it you need from us?” he asked the warlock.

“Embras and the dragon simply want to stay in communication,” Bradshaw replied a little less testily. “Khadizroth did mention Mr. Schwartz as a possible assistant in his own efforts. He and the elf seem competent but they are trying to chase multiple leads at once and the aid of another shaman couldn’t hurt.”

“I say, that’s a point,” Schwartz agreed, reaching up to stroke Meesie, who had started squealing in alarm. “Though I’ll admit the prospect of working under a green dragon is both tremendously exciting and rather terrifying.” His familiar bounded onto his head and began gesticulating wildly, keeping up her shrill commentary. “Meesie agrees,” Schwartz added solemnly. “It’s also worth keeping in mind that we have, ah, something of a history. Given what happened last time our paths crossed his…” He trailed off, looking over at Branwen.

“I have found Lord Khadizroth an eminently reasonable being,” she said with a reassuring smile. “He is well aware of what happened that night and bears us no grudge over Ildrin’s actions.”

“Makes sense to keep the finger-wigglers on the same page,” Grip mused. “Well! If that’s how it’s gonna be, I’d like to come along. You, too,” she added to Jenell. “This is an invaluable learning opportunity.”

Jenell opened her mouth, apparently found nothing to say, and shut it. Her tutor grinned wolfishly at her.

“I am of course honored at the opportunity to serve as your personal taxi service,” Bradshaw said in an exceedingly dry tone.

Shook cleared his throat. “For what it’s worth, I agree with the Bishop about Big K bein’ more or less reasonable. He doesn’t flame-broil people who don’t create a need. You, Grip, run a very significant risk of creating a need if you park yourself in a room with him for five minutes.”

She rolled her eyes. “If you can hang around with this dragon without setting him off, Thumper, any actual grown-up with a shred of functional impulse control should be fine.”

He clenched both fists and she grinned again.

“Peace,” Sweet exclaimed. “What did I literally just say about infighting?”

“Right,” Shook agreed, deliberately relaxing and straightening his lapels. “Sorry.”

Sweet gave him a tiny sidelong frown as if perplexed by that, but Schwartz hastily continued the discussion before it could be diverted any further.

“On that note! Just logistically speaking, might it not be best to combine both groups entirely?”

“How about no,” Flora and Fauna chorused. Schwartz turned to them, blinking in surprise, and Meesie sat bolt upright in his hair with her head tilted.

“Actually, the idea has merit,” said Bradshaw. “It is not without issues, though. Syrinx is supposed to be specifically finding Darling and company, and neither Embras nor Khadizroth want her coming at us. Not to tell you your business,” he added directly to Sweet, “but I wouldn’t want her sniffing after you unless you’re accompanied by some heavy-hitters. Also, given the increasing uncertainty and the fact that blithely trusting Syrinx to hold up her end of a deal would be hysterically stupid, it may be a good idea for the two Bishops to try to mobilize whatever there is of their cults in Ninkabi.”

“What exactly are Izarites supposed to do about a possible demon invasion?” Jenell asked scornfully.

“Protect and heal people,” Grip answered. “A priest is a priest, when it comes to demons. There’s value in other talents than yours, apprentice. Do not open your mouth if nothing’s gonna come out of it but ego.”

“So…are you in favor of blending the two groups or not?” Schwartz asked Bradshaw.

The warlock tilted his head from one side to the other in a waffling motion. “Thinking on it, I don’t see how a complete blending is workable. But we may want to reconsider who to station where. And we should definitely try to keep both groups in contact.”

“We are not interested in being under a roof with Khadizroth the Green,” Fauna stated.

“Or Vannae,” added Flora.

The discussion continued, almost immediately veering into argument again and then back, while Shook discreetly wandered around the perimeter for the room to stand next to his own Bishop.

“Sweet,” he murmured, “can you spare a minute for a talk? In private?”

Sweet looked at him, raising his eyebrows, then shrugged. Saying nothing, he straightened up from his slouched pose against the wall and slipped out through the door. Shook fell into step behind him.

They were ensconced in a safe house used by the local Guild, on loan to Sweet for the time being by Ninkabi’s Underboss. While the argument carried on in the sitting room, Sweet led the way through the kitchen and down the short flight of steps beyond into a dusty but surprisingly well-stocked wine cellar, slapping a switch in passing that made a single dim fairy lamp come on.

“Thanks,” Shook muttered once they were both over the threshold. There was no door, but the distance and intervening halls muffled the conversation out front to a bare murmur. “This is… Okay, there’s obviously more important stuff going on, so shut me up as soon as something interesting happens. But while we got a breather I…” He inhaled deeply and self-consciously straightened his suit again. “I wonder if I could… I mean, you are a priest. I just wanna bend your ear in that capacity.”

Sweet leaned back against the wall next to the door and folded his arms, keeping his expression calm. “Well, you know we don’t have much of a confessional tradition, Thumper, but I fancy I’m a pretty decent listener. What’s on your mind?”

He took a few steps to the end of a wine rack, then turned and paced back the other way. The words were hard to dredge up, but he was keenly aware that this was an inopportune time; the clock was ticking, as assuredly was the Bishop’s patience.

“Spending a couple a’ years with Kheshiri around really fucked me up,” he said abruptly, straightening up and making himself look Sweet in the eye. “I’m… Well, she’s gone, and I’m better off, obviously. Been thinkin’ over a lot of stuff as I have time, getting a handle on how bad she screwed me up an’ trying to undo some of the damage. Khadizroth has helped with that.”

“I will just bet he has,” Sweet said mildly.

Thumper heaved a sigh. “I’m not a moron, Sweet. The dragon’s got an agenda, same as anyone, but in his case… Augh, that’s a whole other conversation. It’s just… Okay, well, first things first: you tried to help me out a lot back in the day an’ I pretty much blew you off. I been thinkin’ back on a lot of real good advice I’ve been given by several people, including you. Better late than never, I guess. So, before anything else happens: thanks, Sweet, for trying. And I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

One corner of Sweet’s mouth turned upward and his eyes softened. He nodded once, gravely. “You are welcome.”

“But what I keep comin’ back to,” Shook went on, turning his head to glare at the wall, “is that… Well, that. All that was long before Kheshiri came along and as bad as she screwed with my head, she wasn’t the start of it. I… Sweet, I’ve fucked up a lot. And looking back, I’m not even sure, a hundred percent, how much of everything I thought I knew was bullshit. I’m pretty sure it’s at least some of it. I dunno where to draw the lines. All I’m absolutely confident of is I’ve really fucked up.”

“Why?”

Thumper snapped his eyes back to him; Sweet was still regarding him with the same bland look. “Huh?”

“Why, specifically, have you habitually fucked up?”

He breathed in, slowly, and back out. The reactive surge of anger was not appropriate. It was a good question. Sweet was trying to help, just as he had years ago.

“That, right there,” Thumper said flatly after a moment. “I get too mad and I don’t handle it well. Better’n I used to, but… I, uh, also think… I absorbed a lot of Alan’s views about the world an’ I’m starting to think some of ’em may be kind of…incredibly wrong.”

“I’ll help you out a bit, since this is progress,” Sweet said evenly. “You have a long pattern of blaming everybody but yourself when you fuck up, Thumper.”

He inhaled and exhaled again. Then a second time, suddenly aware that the anger he was feeling was something he’d summoned, subconsciously, because it was easier to deal with than shame. “Yeah, I see that now. Specially the last couple years… I had it worked around in my head how the Guild had turned against me because of Keys’s lies, and… This thing with Justinian, I thought if I could get some results from him… I dunno.”

“Keys’s report from Last Rock was some seriously troubling shit, Thumper,” the priest stated tonelessly. “You wanna offer me some insight on that?”

Thumper looked away from his eyes again, crushingly aware it was simple cowardice and unable to summon up the strength to do better. “Keys…irrespective of anything else, has always been an insufferable piece of shit and you know it. I’m not gonna cop to anything she said until I hear the full details of it.”

“Well, that is not the response of a man who’s done nothing wrong,” Sweet retorted, and Shook just barely managed not to flinch. “So that tells me what I need to know. The fine details are Style’s problem.”

“I’m…I’m trying to do better, Sweet,” he said helplessly. “I’ve fucked up, I know it. I just…I want a chance to make things right, if I can. How do I get outta this, and earn that?”

Sweet’s shoulders slumped and he sighed. Then straightened up, shaking his head. “If that’s where this is going, Thumper, I don’t have time for it.”

Shook felt the betrayal like a stab in his chest. “But—”

“Has it ever once crossed your mind that there are things you just don’t get out of?” Sweet held his stare, and this time he found he actually couldn’t look away. “You crossed a line with her, Thumper. It’s a universal line everybody in every civilization in all of history knows not to cross, and you did it anyway. There is some shit that is just not excused by a bad upbringing. And then you ran instead of facing the consequences like a man. What you’re asking me now is to keep not facing consequences, and whatever progress you’ve made, that shows me it’s not enough.”

Shook finally lowered his eyes, fully occupied by the plummeting feeling inside himself. Sweet wasn’t done, though.

“I always approve of anybody trying to improve themselves, but in your case, the appropriate time for this was a decade ago. And especially before you interpreted an enforcement mandate as an excuse to get handsy with a fellow Guild member. Redemption is for the bards, Thumper. It’s a pretty story device that works well enough for made-up people in imaginary stories, but in real life? Nothing that’s done can be undone. Actions have consequences. Everybody fucks up and we’ve all got blood on our hands; character is measured by how you face responsibility. And you are still trying to duck out of it.

“You wanna man up, finally? You need to make peace with the fact that the consequences of your actions may be extremely final, Thumper. Facing them might not be something you come out the other side of. And you especially need to internalize the fact that this is what you’ve chosen. If you still don’t have the wits to see how you’ve created your own situation, or the guts to take your medicine…”

Sweet shrugged again, and turned to step into the stairwell.

“You can try running again. Gods know it’d be less paperwork for us. I can’t promise how far you’d get, but it might be far enough. There’s big shit going down, Thumper, and everybody has more important things to deal with than you. It’s your call. But if you’re really serious about doing better, then you know what you have to do. If you’ve got it in you.”

He climbed the stairs in silence. Thumper saw his legs hesitate at the top before he finished ascending, and returned to the others.

Shook turned his back to the doorway. His fists were clenched so hard his nails were cutting into his own skin. Breathe. In, out… Calm. Except this time there was no calm there. He was fighting a losing battle with the anger.

No, he realized, not with anger, not anymore. Sweet, with a few piercing sentences, had managed to take even that from him. Nothing Khadizroth had taught him had left him prepared to cope with shame.

The footsteps on the stairs behind him were softer. Oddly, for once in his life, Shook couldn’t find it in himself to care who was creeping up on him from behind.

“I think that was partly the situation talking,” Branwen Snowe murmured, stepping up into his peripheral view. “I have never known Antonio to be deliberately cruel.”

A bitter laugh tore itself from Shook’s throat, and not just because there were obviously things about Antonio she didn’t begin to imagine. “Ah, hell, ain’t his fault he’s right. I mean…well, you know what I mean. I guess you were listening in on most a’ that?”

“I apologize for intruding on your privacy,” she said with evident sincerity, reaching up to rest one hand against his upper arm. Her blue eyes were soulful and kind; in that moment he could almost forget the dozens of tiny signals he’d picked up over the last few days that Snowe was as cunning a creature as Syrinx in her own way. “Priestesses of my faith experience the emotions of others much the way you do smells in the air. Except I can’t just hold my nose, so to speak. It’s impossibly difficult to be around someone who is in as much pain as you are and not try to do something about it.”

For whatever reason, the conversation was helping. Maybe it just gave him something other than his own inadequacy on which to focus. Shook ran through another breathing exercise, then unconsciously smoothed a hand over his hair. “Yeah, well. Thanks for your concern, Bishop, but I figure I’m all confessed out for the time being. ‘less you have a wildly different interpretation than Sweet did…”

Still gazing up at him, she shook her head slowly. “I’m not going to contradict anything he said. Ironically, an Avenist would have told you much the same; I’ve always been amused by how similar your two faiths are beneath the surface. I do have my own set of biases, though, Mr. Shook. I’m an Izarite.” She laughed softly. “Not a very good one, but still.”

At that, he raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Whaddaya mean, not good? How come they made you the Bishop, then?”

“There’s a reason the Brethren don’t much care for politics,” she said softly. “Izara’s way is to do what good you can, right where you are, for whoever you can immediately reach. Me? I have always been a…big picture person. I believe deeply in the power of love, in how much the world needs more of it. I’ve never been able to content myself with the needs of the moment, though.”

She smiled, an expression so warm and caring he actually found himself believing it. Her small fingers gently squeezed his bicep. “I think, Mr. Shook, you might be an authentically bad person.”

It was truly amazing how much that actually hurt.

“I don’t say that lightly, or about many people,” she went on seriously. “Antonio was not wrong, about responsibility and justice. But I can’t make myself think that is the most important thing. However flawed you are, Jeremiah… I believe you are becoming aware of that, and earnestly trying to do better. And to me, that is what’s important. It’s not my prerogative to speak for anyone you may have hurt. In the big picture, though, I consider the good a person can go on to do more valuable than any punishment that can be levied against them.”

She closed her eyes, shook her head slightly, and let out a tiny huff that was just a shadow of a rueful laugh. “The Guild, the Sisterhood…not many will see it the way I do. But I hope that’s worth something to you, at least.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Calm was a choice. Surprisingly, he found it more within his grasp now.

Gently, he removed her hand from his arm and stepped back. “Right. Cos I’ve got all these forces circling that’ll take me down, but maybe with you I can still be spared, is that it?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean—”

“Look, your Grace, I already know you’re smarter than you like to appear. I also know you’re hard enough to come all the way out here to try to kill a former colleague of yours. None of that’s a criticism, mind you, because frankly I think it’s a goddamn shame we still haven’t managed to put a knife in Syrinx’s eye. But enforcement is as much about drama and manipulation as force. More so.” He gave her a humorless little smile, noting how blank her face had gone. “Due credit, it was a good recruitment pitch. An’ cos I like you, I’ll offer some free advice: don’t try that again on another Eserite enforcer. They’ll all see through it, an’ some’ll take offense.”

Thumper took a step back from her and inclined his upper body in a shallow bow.

“You really are more than meets the eye,” she said with a rueful smile. Gods, she was still doing it.

“I thank you for the kind words, Bishop. Dunno how sincere they were, but it helps nonetheless.”

Again, that gentle expression. “If I wanted to lie to you, Jeremiah, I would have spared your feelings.”

“Well, then.” He nodded, and turned to head for the stairs. “Best get back, there ain’t much time for screwin’ around.”

Thumper kept his gaze fixed straight ahead as he climbed back up into the kitchen and turned toward the living room and the still-ongoing argument therein. A thought had just occurred which put a little of the steel back into his step.

Unless they all had some very good luck very soon, this city was likely to shortly be filled with a thousand screaming, hell-crazed reasons not to have to go back to the Guild and grovel for Keys, Style, and Tricks. He was aware this was still a cowardly way of thinking, but it was cowardice he could meet with a wand in hand and blood under his nails, and right at that moment, that sounded like a compromise he could accept.

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15 – 53

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“Touch me and she dies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Troops?” Sweet asked mildly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shut her mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

“Son of a bitch,” Thumper whispered.

“Yeah, no kidding,” said Schwartz.

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

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

Schwartz let out a low whistle.

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


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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Trissiny asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny blinked twice. “…who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds like a good idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry chuckled, a sound both derisive and rueful.

“Yeah, sure, let’s go with that.”

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

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

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15 – 52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm,” Fauna hummed thoughtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both nodded, their expressions rapidly sobering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Quite coincidentally, the food was very good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grip snorted loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good, you’re all here.”

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

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

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15 – 49

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“Nothing here, either?”

“My particular magic isn’t well-suited for locating people,” Bradshaw reminded him. “I could check more definitively, but not without attracting a lot of attention. But even at a cursory glance… I rather suspect they’ve been and gone here, as well. To judge by the decomposition of this…altar…it seems to have been abandoned for several days, at least.”

Shook wrinkled his nose and took another step back from the now-familiar sight (and smell) of the necromantic construction languishing behind the wall of old boxes at the rear of a dead-end alley. More specifically, he stepped to put some distance between himself and the altar’s cloud of flies.

“The fuckers called themselves the Tide,” he muttered, covering his mouth with the hand not holding his wand. “Gonna wash across the world and cleanse all impurity, you know, standard-grade doomsday cult horseshit. For a primal force of destruction, they sure are shy.”

“Must be low ebb,” Bradshaw quipped. “Well, I rather suspect what we’re dealing with are the paltry leftovers after they expended most of their warm bodies in Tiraas. Tactics like these are a much better idea when one is low on resources and personnel.”

“I guess you’d know.”

“Exactly. I am more concerned that a brainwashed cult is capable of this level of planning. It suggests those in charge are still in charge. Justinian was party to that plan to unleash demons in Tiraas and blame the Wreath for it, along with the Imperial government itself, but that was a far more discreet and controlled action; just a few bands of holy summoners calling up demons one at a time. Opening multiple hellgates in a city is above and beyond even by the standards of that.”

“Uh huh,” Shook grunted. He had also been present at that event in Tiraas; in fact, that was the first time he and Bradshaw had crossed paths, and a source of lingering antipathy between them. Shook was the first to admit he’d not exactly had a good vantage from which to see the intricacies of what had happened that night, but he remained skeptical of the Wreath’s claim that it had been the Church and the Empire actually bringing the demons, especially since his own encounter with them had come when the Wreath had tried to break into Dawnchapel to vandalize the temple. “Well, then, I guess we’re back to the same question. Wreck it or leave it?”

“May I see the map?”

Shook handed it over and Bradshaw frowned at the scrawled markings in the dim light that made it down from the overhead gap between the three-story walls that loomed on all sides.

“Mmm,” the warlock murmured. “All right, look here. This is the site we’re at, reached by a straight walk from a main avenue behind us, see? Next one on the list if we proceed in the same pattern is hidden away in a cul-de-sac well behind several warehouses that looks quite impossible to find by accident. I think we’ll clean this site up and leave that one intact after we’ve checked it. And so on, going forward. If we create the impression we’re operating on foot, by a standard search grid, the planners of this will prepare to counter the wrong tactic and be unprepared for us. I don’t want them to know we have your dragon to sniff out all of their locations.”

“Promise you’ll let me be in the room if you ever call Khadizroth ‘my dragon’ right to his face,” Shook said, grinning. “I really don’t wanna miss that.”

Bradshaw gave him an annoyed look over the top of the map. “Shall I take that to mean you concur with my plan?”

“Hey, I’m just the muscle, here. But it sounds like a solid one, yeah. That bein’ the case, you want me to smash this thing up?”

“I can destroy it far more thoroughly with my magic, you know.”

“Yeah, we both know what hellcraft’s good for. But that’ll reveal they got warlocks after ’em, an’ warlocks with a plan pretty much always means you guys in particular. If the thing just gets fucked up with blunt trauma, could be anybody. More discreet that way, right?”

“Hum. I suppose it needn’t be a complete cleansing, under the circumstances. Enough blunt trauma, as you put it, will render this site inoperable.”

“Blunt trauma is what I do best,” Shook said, holstering his wand and cracking his knuckles. “Take over watchin’ our backs, this won’t take a sec.”

In fact, he didn’t relish the thought of laying his hands on that arrangement of rancid meat, bones, twigs, and tainted enchanting dust. Aside from being disgusting, the thing just looked wrong; he suspected that even the urchins who haunted these back alleys wouldn’t have tried to scavenge the power crystals out of the rotting altar. He was half-tempted to just rake it with wandshots, but Shook didn’t need Bradshaw’s protestations to know that discharging even conventional magic into unknown magic was a bad idea.

Casting about while the warlock stepped past him to watch the head of the alley, he fixed his gaze on the one thing there was to work with. Grinning, Shook picked up one of the crates that had been stacked to obscure the altar from the front of the alley and hurled it right into the center of its mass.

The first hit dislodged the carefully-arranged lattice of old sinew-bound bones and scattered a spray of enchanting dust. That probably would have been sufficient, but Shook grabbed a second crate and smashed it bodily down upon the largest remaining cluster of bones. He broke a third over the altar for good measure, only stepping back to dust off his hands when the ritual array was mangled beyond recognition and full of splinters and old nails to boot.

“There,” Shook said, turning back to Bradshaw with a grin. “I can confidently say any asshole coulda done that; nothing about it’ll scream ‘Black Wreath,’ no matter how smart their handlers are. Where to next?”

“Hold this, if you would,” the warlock replied, handing the map back to him. “I want to place and conceal wards on this site. That is about the limit of what infernomancy can do to detect anyone’s comings and goings, but if they do return here to restore this altar it may enable us to catch them.”

“Sure, take your time.” Shook folded the map and tucked it back into his coat pocket, then drew his wand again and positioned himself to keep an eye both on Bradshaw and the distant mouth of the alley.

In the next moment he began edging away as Bradshaw started making broad gesticulations with his hands and conjuring patterns of sullen orange light out of nowhere. The warlock carefully assembled a spell circle in midair while Shook watched, moved it to lie flush against one of the alley walls at head level, then made it disappear from view and took another few moments to stare at the spot where it had been with one hand upraised and fingers twitching minutely, no doubt adding to its layers of concealment.

Shook wasn’t in the least ashamed of his own discretion; staying the hell away from infernomancy being done was universal common sense, not cowardice. If he was a little phobic about it after having had hellcraft done at his own brain recently, well, that was deserved.

Rather than that, Shook found himself surprisingly bothered by the tense silence that stretched out while Bradshaw moved on to begin conjuring another ward against the opposite wall. He just wasn’t accustomed to awkwardness. For close to two years his whole social circle had been small and predictable: the Jackal was an intolerable pain in the ass, Vannae a diffident non-presence, Kheshiri simperingly submissive and Khadizroth beneficently able to get along with anyone. Aside from various unfortunates they’d been sent to smack around and the odd visit from a barely-tolerated authority figure such as Justinian or Syrinx, that had been it.

And before that, he’d worked with Guildmates. Thinking on it now, he actually couldn’t recall the last time he’d been stuck sharing a job with somebody he didn’t know how to talk to. What did you say to a warlock? Especially since Bradshaw, while he kept it professional on the job, had made it clear from the start that he wasn’t pleased by Shook’s very existence, much less his involvement in this project. Not that Shook was much of a social butterfly either, but even he could see that this was going to lead to trouble if they were going to be the mutual points of contact between the Wreath and what remained of the Inquisition.

Bradshaw finished his second ward and Shook perked up, hoping for an incipient end to this, but the warlock instead began casting a third. He sighed. Well, thoroughness was laudable.

“So,” Shook said aloud, looking the other way up the alley and affecting a nonchalant tone. “That Vanessa, huh? What’s her deal?”

“…deal?” The short pause didn’t bode well, but Shook pressed gamely on. In his experience there was one topic over which any two guys could always bond.

“Yeah, I mean, she’s not hard to look at, am I right?” He turned back to Bradshaw, who had his back to him. “You hittin’ that? Be a shame if somebody isn’t.”

“Ah, yes, that’s right. You have been keeping company exclusively with a succubus. I strongly advise you, Mr. Shook, to rid yourself of any habits Kheshiri taught you before attempting to talk to a real woman again. Any woman, but especially one who can hurl shadowbolts.”

Shook clenched his jaw. Then breathed in deeply, and immediately regretted it; days-old necromancy was surely one of the least pleasant things he’d ever smelled. But at least that helped serve to distract him from the surge of anger Bradshaw was trying to rile up.

“Hey, just sayin’,” he replied finally, deliberately keeping his tone mild. “No need to get all defensive, I’m not about to move in on your territory. It can’t make that much of a difference, anyhow. Trust me, I’m in a position to know: succubi may be particularly sly, but in the end those’re just female traits taken to their logical maximum.”

“Is that a fact,” Bradshaw murmured, starting on a fourth ward. How many of those damn things did he need?

“Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. Sly is your bread and butter, right? Somehow I don’t think it’s a coincidence there’s a goddess of cunning, and not a god.”

“Where’re you from, Mr. Shook?” Bradshaw asked, his tone also too light to be natural.

Shook narrowed his eyes at the warlock’s back. “What’s it to you?”

“No, wait, let me see if I can guess. The Stalwar provinces or Mathena, somewhere deep into the new frontier. Am I right?”

Breathe, deliberately…without gagging on the smell. “Oh, please, you don’t need to be a cunning warlock to piece that together. Old gnomish surname on a Stalweiss face means frontier stock. Even so, you’re only partly right. The frontiers in Mathena aren’t new. North of the elven forests, people have been pushed out toward the Golden Sea since before the Empire.”

“Ah, yes, of course. I’m revealing my bias; Bradshaw is also an old gnomish surname, after all. But in Calderaan territory, where I hail from, human settlement north of the Green Belt dates barely to the Enchanter Wars.” The warlock lowered his hands, finally, as the last ward faded from visibility, and turned around, wearing a knowing little smile which Shook didn’t like the look of. “And you, obviously, aren’t from Calderaas.”

“That obvious, huh,” he said as evenly as he could.

“You’re right, we tend to pick up sly people,” Bradshaw said lightly, folding his hands. “That’s a lot easier than recruiting idiots and teaching them to be cunning. And you know something, Mr. Shook, you’re not without a point. There is a definite gender imbalance in who tends to seek out the Wreath.”

“Well, yeah,” Shook replied, even as he braced himself for the other shoe to drop.

“Depending, of course, on where they’re from.” The warlock held his gaze, frank and un-intimidated, even verging on aggressive; this was not at all how Thumper was used to people looking at him. “And in country where Shaathist ideas are ascendant, that usually means women. The Stalrange, Mathena, Thakar, Vrandis. Funny enough, in Avenist territory it’s the opposite. We definitely get more men from Calderaas, Virdill, and Onkawa. People are pretty much people, Shook, and the way people develop depends a lot on the kinds of pressures placed on them growing up. Give people the prerogative to stomp around yelling and getting their way with little effort, and they’ll generally do exactly that. Push people aside and deny them a fair chance to participate in society, though, and they’ll not only develop a tendency to be underhanded but also harbor the kind of resentment that makes them ideal recruits for the likes of us. Or, for that matter, the Thieves’ Guild.” He tilted his head back slightly, as if to study Shook from a different vantage. “You say you find women in general to be as sly as succubi? You know what, I believe you. Even allowing for your extremely obvious biases, yes, I could see that. But that’s no reflection on women, Mr. Shook…or even the women you happen to know. It’s a reflection on the way those women were treated by whatever society produced them. Institutionalized power creates its own downfall, in the end. Brutish authority creates cunning, and resistance. Targeting groups of people for abuse creates deadly enemies. If the Pantheon and their followers were the icons of virtue they like to claim, the likes of us wouldn’t just be unnecessary; we would be impossible. And yet, here we are.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted when he finally stopped talking.

Bradshaw’s mouth twisted in a bitter half-smile. “Deeper thoughts than you’re used to, Mr. Shook? I have to wonder what you thought was going to happen here. Do you commonly find you can persuade people you barely know to embrace your prejudices?”

Breathe. Three heartbeats to inhale, three to exhale, ignore the stench. Emotions were just things; just because this guy wanted him angry didn’t mean he needed to be. In fact, it was a good reason not to be.

“Hell, I was just making conversation,” Shook said at last, and was pleased to find his own voice still light and even. “You wanna know my clever scheme? I was thinkin’, ‘this guy clearly hates my guts and we’ve gotta work together for who knows how long.’ Y’know, in normal places, Shaathist, Avenist, or what-the-hell-ever, guys can usually clear the air by chatting about chicks. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were gonna make a whole thing about it.”

Bradshaw stared at him with the expressionless facade of someone who’d just heard something he did not expect and was too self-contained to betray overt surprise.

“You can’t win a conversation, you know,” Shook said when he didn’t reply. “Everybody’s not trying to play brain chess with you. Is that how you people think all the time? Omnu’s balls, man, that sounds fuckin’ exhausting.”

“Right,” Bradshaw said dryly. “Well. I’m finished here, so unless you have something else to say…?”

“Yeah. Now you mention it, I do.” Keeping his expression flat, Shook took a step forward, bringing himself within punching range of the warlock and enjoying how the man tensed up in response. Bradshaw didn’t quite flinch when he raised his hand, but the way he froze was almost as good. Shook just patted him on the shoulder, though. “You’ve given me some shit to think about, Bradshaw. That was a perspective I did not have. So, thanks. All right, where to next?” he added, stepping back again and deliberately altering his posture to the indolent lounging stance common to Guild enforcers seeking to portray a general rather than specific threat.

“The next altar site, obviously,” Bradshaw said tonelessly. “Map, please?”

“You got it.” Shook fished it out of his pocket and handed it over with a bland smile.

This, he reflected while Bradshaw unfolded and perused the map, was fun. Weirdly, he’d never managed to get the hang of it when people had been actively trying to teach it to him, but now that the trick of it had clicked, it was amazingly satisfying to deny a confrontation to somebody who was openly fishing for one. And he hadn’t lied; Bradshaw’s philosophy on women and underhandedness was troubling and deserved some further thought. Not right at the moment, though. Shook did not have time to be pondering such things while busting necromancers in cooperation with somebody he half-suspected was planning to hex him in the back before this day’s work was done.

“All right, I know the place,” Bradshaw stated at last, folding the map again. “Off we go.”

The darkness swelled, then dissipated, and only the particulars of their surroundings changed. A filthy alley was a filthy alley, and there were only so many kinds of places where one could hide illicit dealings in a major city. He was already resigned to seeing a lot more of these today, with possibly the odd empty warehouse or condemned tenement to break up the monotony.

Both men stiffened upon arrival, however, as this alley was a lot less quiet.

It also wasn’t quite straight; they had to creep forward and peek around a corner to locate the little nook behind several buildings in which the Tide’s portal altar had been concealed. This time, someone had beaten them there. Someone who seemed to be on the same mission, to judge by the way she was busy smashing what remained of the altar with a piece of wood that looked like the headless haft of an ax or sledgehammer.

Actually, upon closer look, this individual probably wasn’t on any mission to speak of: she had matted hair trailing from her head in greasy tangles, filthy bare feet, and wore a stained and ragged dress that was more patches than fabric.

Shook and Bradshaw exchanged a resigned look. Wreath and Guild alike did a lot of their business in shady back alleys, and members of both were well-acquainted with a basic rule of urban living: do not interact with crazy street people. This time, though, it seemed unwise to let this pass without at least investigating.

Shook stepped out into the space in the leonine saunter he’d been taught in his apprentice days, keeping one hand casually tucked in his pocket. “Hey there, li’l lady. Whatcha doin’ that for?”

She spun to face him, wild-eyed, and raised the ax handle like a club. Not, he noted, like someone who’d been actually trained to wield a weapon; her stance was imbalanced and had her weight back on her heels. If she tried to swing that thing at him, he gave it even odds that she’d just fall down, and if not it would be child’s play to dodge and push her over. Luckily she was all the way across the grimy little courtyard and well out of range.

“Easy, there,” Shook said in an unimpressed tone. “No need to get all agitated. What’s your name, doll?”

The woman just stared suspiciously at him, her eyes darting to take in his suit, and then the gray-robed Bradshaw stepping into the alley behind him. Blocking her exit, as it happened. She was, Shook noticed, a fairly young woman. Might not have been bad-looking had she not been smeared with dirt and gaunt from more than a few missed meals.

“Name?” he repeated wryly, giving her a half-smile. “You got one? Most people do, I hear.”

She scowled at him, but straightened up after a moment and shifted her improvised weapon to one hand. With the other she patted the base of her throat, opening her mouth wide.

“Oh,” he said sourly. Mute, naturally. Well, street people usually had something wrong with them our they wouldn’t be on the street; just his luck the one he needed to answer questions, couldn’t. She wasn’t missing her tongue, he saw—also, not only did she have all her teeth, none of them were stained blue from glittershrooms. The girl couldn’t have been on the streets long, then. “Now, what would possess you to go whacking at that heap of evil that way? You take a stick to random piece of black magic and you’re likely to end up cursed to a greasy stain on the walls.”

She narrowed her eyes and brandished the stick again.

“No need to take that tone with the lady, Mr. Shook,” Bradshaw admonished dryly. “That’s what we came to do, after all. At least she’s spared us a little bit of work. He’s not wrong, though,” he added to the woman with the stick, who had lowered it again as he spoke. “Getting physically involved with necromancy is extremely dangerous; I don’t recommend making a habit of this. Was there some reason you felt the need?”

She grimaced almost comically, turning a look of pure disgust on the remains of the altar, and kicked away a stray bone that had fallen near her feet. Then spat on it.

“That’s surprisingly hard to argue with,” Bradshaw said, turning to Shook.

“Yeah, I gotta give her that,” he agreed. The girl, having made her point, had begun sidling toward the alley’s entrance, which the two of them were standing in. Shook gave her a thoughtful look. It was doubtful she’d seen anything, and anyhow, getting info out of her would be a giant pain in the ass. Just an unhinged homeless person who wandered into the wrong alley, most likely; that would make a workable disguise, any number of thieves had used that routine, but it wasn’t the method of this Tide or anyone else who had taken an interest in their business. He sighed, stepped out of the way so she could get by, and pulled a doubloon from his pocket, which he tossed at her. “Here. Go eat something, for fuck’s sake.”

The young woman fumbled to catch it, clearly not being the most coordinated, but once she got the coin in her grip her eyes went wide. Then, to Shook’s great discomfort, they filled with tears.

“Whoah—uh uh! No,” he said sharply, stepping back and reaching out to push her off when she ran at him, arms wide for a hug. “This is a tailored suit, you greaseball. You smell as bad as that voodoo you just smashed. Go on, get outta here. Get some lunch that’s not out of a trash pile.”

She pouted at his rebuke, but seemed to decide it was more than worth the doubloon. Pausing only to blow him a kiss, she skittered past them down the alley, actually skipping with no heed for her bare feet and the refuse-strewn floor.

“That was pointless, you know,” Bradshaw commented as she disappeared around the next corner. “There’s a reason you don’t give money to those people. She’ll most likely just buy cheap booze and shrooms.”

“Yeah,” Shook replied with a soft sigh, jamming both hands in his pockets. “Maybe I’m the asshole here, after all. Old teacher of mine used to say givin’ handouts to people like that is almost as bad as stealing from ’em; makes you feel better about yourself and doesn’t change their situation any. Oh, well, whaddayagonnado.”

“Sounds almost like Vernisite doctrine,” Bradshaw said, smiling wryly. “Charity being cruelty in disguise, and all that. Don’t let Embras hear you talking that way, he’s got a real bug up his butt about them.”

“About bankers? Can’t rightly blame a man for that. Well, anyway, I guess your plan’s bungled now; too late to leave this site intact and convince ’em we missed it. Now what?”

“According to your map, we still have thirty sites to visit; we can still lay out the pattern I described, and one anomalous spot shouldn’t make too much difference. It really was an anomaly, too; that was an unpredictable intervention if I ever saw one. Let me just lay wards again and then we’ll move on.”

He handed the map back to Shook, who accepted it silently.

A moment later, though, he turned from his perusal of the alley back to Bradshaw, frowning. The warlock was staring fixedly at a blank patch of wall, not moving to begin casting his wards.

“Something wrong?” Shook asked.

“There’s…a faint residue,” Bradshaw said slowly. “Maybe nothing important, but it’s definitely divine. Somebody used powerful divine magic here at some point not long ago. I wouldn’t think anything of it in most cases, just some nearby priest casting a blessing, but it’s odd to find in proximity to that pile of horror.”

“Hm.” Shook looked over at the wreckage of the necromantic portal altar, then back down the alley. “You don’t suppose she…”

“I really don’t. That was just some garden-variety human with no magic to speak of, or I wouldn’t have let her go. Had we the luxury of time I’d have wanted to hold and question her just for the sake of thoroughness, but we’re working on a solid strategy already, and there’s no telling how close the Tide is to activating these. We don’t even know what they’re waiting for. I don’t think we can spare a few hours to fish for what’s probably nothing. Let’s just…”

He broke off, whirling, as a tiny streak of fire zipped into the cul de sac from the alley along the ground. Shook whipped out his wand by reflex, but didn’t shoot even as the little glowing thing came to a stop, revealing itself to be a luminous read mouse-like creature almost the size of a small cat. It sat up on its haunches, emitting a series of shrill squeaks, and pointed one tiny paw accusingly at Shook. Then, just as quickly as it had come, turned and bolted back out.

“What the fuck,” Shook wondered aloud, staring after it in mystification.

“Trouble,” Bradshaw said tersely. “That was an extremely sophisticated elemental. Creatures like that don’t just wander around cities, they’re familiars of skilled witches. We need to—”

“Well, well, well. I thought I recognized that voice.”

Shook went rigid, bringing his wand up again just in time for three figures to round the corner. He ignored the two on the sides, even the reedy fellow with the red elemental rat now sitting on his shoulder; the teenage girl on the other side was even more uninteresting. His attention was fully occupied by the one in the middle. The one he knew very well, who was now regarding him with her trademark predatory smirk.

“So glad to see you, Thumper,” Grip said. “All kinds of people are interested in having a word with you.”

He allowed himself a small sigh. “Aw, shit.”

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