Principia was just finishing up, settling her reagents back into place on her worktable, when a sharp knock came at her door. Thanks to the escalating stresses of the last few days, her usual equanimity was frayed; she started violently, then had to move quickly to prevent the vial of glittering powder from spilling even as she slid it back into its holder. Who the hell would be bothering her in the middle of the night?
The door to her attic apartment swung open before she could even call out that she was busy, and Shook strode in. She scowled, putting the cork back on the vial.
“By all means, come in,” Prin snapped. “Make yourself at home.”
“Much obliged,” he said easily, his eyes flicking over her in that skin-crawling way he had. She was reasonably sure he wasn’t even all that attracted to her. That just made it worse. “While you’ve been hiding away in your room, I’ve been getting things set up to get your hide out of this mess intact. Principia, meet our newest ally.”
Shook stepped to the side to admit possibly the most ridiculous person Prin had ever seen.
She was human, an ethnic Tiraan, with the dark hair, olive complexion and narrow face. Most eye-catching, however, was her costume: impractically tight pants, boots with two-inch heels, and a low-cut, sleeveless, midriff-baring top, every inch of the whole thing in black leather. An absolutely idiotic number of knives were bedecked around her in various places which made them far from practical to grasp, their sheaths stitched into the outfit itself. The only remotely useful thing she was wearing was a fairly typical belt with two holstered wands, which clearly had come separately. It was dyed a different shade of black and looked out of place.
“What,” Principia demanded, “are you supposed to be?”
The girl frowned at her. “Name’s Tazlith; I’m an adventurer. And I’m here to help you.”
“Uh huh.” Prin leaned back, exaggeratedly eying her up and down. “An adventurer dressed as what?”
“Be nice, Prin,” Shook reproved her gently. With Tazlith behind him, his face was hidden from her, and he didn’t trouble to conceal his amusement.
“Oh, I’m nice. All peaches and sunshine, that’s me. By the way, it’s pronounced tasleef.”
The “adventurer” narrowed her eyes, color rising in her cheeks. “I know how to say my own name, thanks.”
“It’s elvish for ‘arrow,’” Prin explained to Shook. “I guess it’d come out tazlith if you’ve got a thick Tiraan accent, like this one does. I know your parents weren’t daft enough to call you that. Unless the outfit is an heirloom.”
“I really don’t need to be here, you know,” Tazlith snapped. “If you want to deal with your problems alone—”
“Girls, girls!” Shook said soothingly. “Please! You’re both pretty. Taz, understand the kind of strain Principia’s under; a rather legendary wandslinger’s in town after her head. You’d be grouchy too. And Prin, Taz has a point: she’s helping us for not nearly enough material compensation, out of the desire to do a good deed. I think it’d be appropriate if you were a little more gracious about it.”
“Sorry,” Prin said ungraciously. “You’re right, I’m pretty damn tense. And I don’t see how gathering up stray adventurers is going to help; have you heard the rumors about this guy McGraw? You’re probably just gonna get the poor girl killed.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Tazlith said curtly, tucking her thumbs into her belt and adopting what she probably thought was a cocky pose.
“Anyway,” Shook interjected, “I don’t intend to just throw people at this guy like pies at a clown. We’re still refining a strategy, but when it comes down to it, no matter the quality of everyone’s equipment or skill, taking out a contract on one elf is a very different thing from facing a whole adventuring party. I highly doubt this guy’s badass enough to start something that’ll end with the town being shot up. Quite apart from what the law will say, he’s pretty much done for if he makes enough of a stink to coax Tellwyrn down off her mountain.”
“We’re all done for if anybody makes that kind of stink,” Principia groaned.
Shook nodded. “Exactly. Which is why I aim to persuade him not to do it. Taz here has been in town a couple weeks, and knows some people. She’s already gathered one other and got leads on more.”
“Heroes,” Tazlith said, nodding solemnly, “or those who have the inclination. Much better than hiring mercenaries; you want people who’re in it because it’s right, not because they’re looking to make a quick doubloon.”
Principia had to concentrate hard on repressing her response to this absolutely idiotic statement. Of course people in it for the money were better; someone who expected to make a living at something had an immediate need to be good at it.
“Yes. Well.” She smiled toothily. “Thank you for your assistance, Tazlith. I apologize for any snide things I’ve said, and likely will in the future.”
“She’s kind of a bitch,” Shook said agreeably, nodding.
“I’d argue with that, but the record’s against me. Would you mind if I had a word with Jeremiah in private?”
“Of course.” The wretched girl glanced back and forth between them and smirked faintly. “Take all the time you need.” Principia wasn’t sure whether she wanted to scream or punch somebody, but at least Tazlith stepped out into the stairwell, pulling the attic door shut behind her.
She rounded on Shook, but he spoke up before she could get a word out. “So, how’m I doin’? I never was much for running cons, but I think it’s going rather well. Doubtless you’ve already found a whole laundry list of things I could be doing better.”
“You seem to have it in hand,” she said grudgingly. Laundry list indeed. As if she were fool enough to poke holes in his brittle ego, knowing how he reacted to that. “Of course, you couldn’t have picked a better target. Manipulating people who are desperate to believe something is downright unfair. But…seriously? You’re gonna send that up against McGraw?”
“Not too bright, is she?” he said, grinning. “No, I don’t aim to make this a war. It’s just like I said: the hope is to put up a spectacle that’ll persuade McGraw to step more lightly, without involving Tellwyrn or anyone else who’ll overturn the whole cart. If it does come down to a fight, though, I want him wasting his spells on Taz and her dumbass friends, not us. It’s a shameful waste of a nice pair of tits, but them’s the breaks. While that’s going on, he’ll be vulnerable, and that’s what I came to speak with you about.” He nodded toward her workstation, on which were laid out her glittering enchanting dusts, imbued inks, and the various tools of their use. “What’ve you got?”
She gave him a grudging look but turned to gesture at a row of bronze rings laid out on the table. “Some basic boosts. Luck, protection, constitution…”
“Really?” He twisted his features disdainfully. “That’s it? That’s crap straight out of a museum.”
“No,” she said wryly, “the museum pieces would be gold and set with gems. Yeah, they’re the oldest, most basic enchantments, and that’s about all you can plan on. Modern enchantment is all about specific, reliable effects, which works great for making enchanted objects but if you want to enhance the attributes of a person, you have to be vague, or run the risk of messing them up. People are complicated.”
“Hm.” He stepped over to the table, running a fingertip over the row of rings, and she tensed, fighting the urge to chase him away from her work. “I guess it’ll have to do, then. Can you gear up Taz and her buddies?”
“Excuse me?” Prin said incredulously. “Gear up? Does this look like a production line to you? This took me all day. I’m a hobbyist; I make some pocket change on the side because this town is such a steel market. You want a pile of adventure-grade enchantments, you’re gonna have to go buy some.”
“Shame,” he murmured, stepping away from the table. Shook raised his eyes to her face and she had the distinct impression of something greasy being dragged along her skin. “Well, that’s not in the budget. I guess they’ll just have to trust their luck.”
“Mm hm.” She folded her arms. “Anything else you wanted?”
He watched her silently for a moment that stretched long enough to be awkward.
“You’re wandering why I bother,” he said finally. “I don’t really expect you to like me, Keys. Hell, though you dug yourself into this whole mess, I’ll freely acknowledge you’ve got some just cause to look unkindly on me. But you can trust that I’m quite sincere, here. I’m not gonna let anything happen to you if it’s in my power to prevent it.”
He stared at her, the hint of a grin hovering about his lips, until she finally had to ask. “Why?”
“Because I’m responsible for this mission, and for you. You may be a poor resource, but for the time being, you’re mine.” He reached up to brush the backs of his knuckles across her cheek, smiling faintly; her skin crawled so hard it was all she could do not to physically shiver. “I don’t like it when people mess with my things.”
“Your friend out there’s probably wondering what we’re doing,” she said coldly. He laughed.
“Yeah, yeah. Wouldn’t want the young’uns to get the wrong idea. You just sit tight for now, doll, and let me take care of this.”
He briefly but very deliberately flicked his gaze over her body once more, then turned and walked to the door. Shook stepped out and shut it gently behind himself without looking at her again.
She stood there silently, regathering her calm. It took a few minutes.
The cultists’ faces were well-hidden, but the man in the suit wore an expression which clearly said he meant business.
“I’m going to take it upon myself to assume you’re here in the capacity of your role as Imperial advisor, Mr. Darling,” he said amiably. His tone was light, his posture relaxed, but those eyes were hard as flint. This was a man worth taking seriously, one who knew that roaring and gnashing teeth weren’t nearly as impressive as some liked to think. “There is…an understanding. Most of the cults of the other gods know it—excepting yours, of course, as Eserion isn’t much for waging war, even against my Lady. Over the last century we’ve even hammered the lesson into the Church, somewhat laboriously. It’s a good system. Peaceable; functional.”
He put on a mild, slightly lopsided smile, taking a step closer to Darling. His steps were smooth, slow, precise and somewhat exaggerated; with his long limbs, in that white suit, he put Darling in mind of a wading stork. “The Wreath guard this world against demonkind, you see. You could say we have an affinity with the children of Hell; we know, better than most, that they can’t be allowed to run amok on this plane. As such, other cultists—even the Sisters of Avei—don’t jump on our backs when we are cleaning up a demon problem. And they most definitely do not abuse our willingness to be helpful by using a demon to coax us out. You’re hardly the first to think of that trick, my boy. The rest simply know better.”
“Well, this is just downright embarrassing,” Darling said genially. He kept his own face cheerful and posture relaxed, concealing the frantic racing of his thoughts. That explained the Archpope’s insistence that they not identify themselves as agents of the Church; posing as Imperials gave them plausible deniability if they were breaking some kind of treaty. “There are customs? Rules, even? I feel like I’ve showed up at a party and nobody told me it’s fancy dress.” But why hadn’t Darling and the others been informed of this up front? What was Justinian playing at?
“Speaking more generally,” the man in the suit went on, his smile growing brittle, “I think it’s considered bad form anywhere to go after an opponent’s kids. That’s the kind of conflict you don’t want to escalate; it gets real ugly, real fast.”
“Now, I’ll have to demur, there,” Darling replied, holding up one finger. “Those precocious little sprouts came at us. I’m pretty sure they put the town to sleep and conjured up Mommy and Daddy’s demon companions, too.”
“Well, little ones grow up pretty fast out here on the frontier,” the man said with a grin, tucking his hands into the pockets of his coat. His movements were languid, graceful. “They also had the forethought to call for aid; wading right into your little nest of vipers was a somewhat less intelligent move, I’ll grant. ‘Course, matters look different if you put yourself in their shoes. Bunch of outsiders from Tiraas come swaggering into town and kill your parents? You’d be a bit excitable too.”
“I’m reasonably sure you’re already aware nobody’s been killed,” Darling replied. “By the way, sir, it seems you have me at a disadvantage. Aside from the obvious, I mean,” he added, turning his head to wink at one of the cowled cultists.
“Why, I do most humbly apologize!” The man swept off his hat, revealing a shiny bald pate, and executed an elaborate bow. “Embras Mogul, at your service. I’m sorry we aren’t meeting under more cordial circumstances.”
“Ah, well, we go where the gods dictate,” Darling said lightly. Could this be Elilial’s high priest? If so, he had a name and a face, which put the Archpope’s plans and his own miles ahead of where he’d expected this night’s events to lead. Could he advance the one without aiding the other? At any rate, even if this wasn’t the one, he was clearly high enough in the organization not be be bound by their dress code.
“Yes, they’re good at…dictating, aren’t they?” Mogul replied, straightening and replacing his hat. “In honor of our new acquaintance and in recognition of your relative inexperience in this business, Darling, I’m going to let you off with a proverbial slap on the wrist. Obviously, I’ll need my people back, especially those kids. The demon, too. Aside from that, you and your little compatriots are free to go, with my blessing. Provided they behave themselves.”
Darling was spared having to form an answer to this by the opening of the saloon’s door.
Marshal Ross stepped out and crossed the board sidewalk at an even pace, as though he hadn’t a care in the world. By the time he’d descended to the street and turned to face the gathering of Wreath cultists and Darling, the two nearest Embras Mogul had drawn wands from within their robes.
“Welcome to Hamlet,” the Marshal said flatly. His hand hovered at his sides, near but not grasping his wands. “It’s usually a friendlier place, but someone appears to have put my townsfolk to sleep.”
“Present company excepted, I note,” Mogul replied, his tone as even as ever.
“Present company and more.”
Figures rose from the rooftops around them. Two men in denim and leather, each carrying staves, stepped out from behind the sign on the general store’s flat roof across the street. Another, aging and with a gray-streaked beard, knelt on the edge of the saloon’s overhanging porch roof, carrying a pair of wands. A middle-aged woman in a threadbare Imperial Army coat hopped from concealment into the rungs of the iron lattice scrolltower, balancing adroitly and keeping both hands on her staff. All of their weapons were aimed at the group in the street. Darling had to admire their positioning; they had the cultists neatly positioned to be cut to pieces by crossfire without accidentally firing on each other. Unfortunately, he was in exactly the center of the killzone.
“There ain’t a town on the frontier that doesn’t keep at least one practicing witch in business. Casting town-wide infernal magic ain’t a smart move, if you intend to keep a low profile; my girl knew exactly who to wake up and how. Legally,” the Marshal drawled, “I suppose I ought to arrest you. Seems like you could spare me some paperwork, though, if you decline to drop those fucking wands in the next ten seconds.”
“It’s Ross, isn’t it?” asked Mogul politely. “Jackson Towerwell always spoke of you in the highest terms. Marshal, we’re both civilized men, and I presume that we are both followed by more of the same. You don’t want your town shot to bits, and I don’t want any of my people cut down. How about, instead of that, you and I reach an accord, here?”
“Mm.” Ross tilted his head downward so his eyes were concealed by the brim of his hat. “Mr. Mogul, was it? Mind if I ask you a question?”
“But of course,” said Embras, bowing with an elegant flourish of his hands. “Glad to be of service in any way I can.”
Ross lifted his head again, and the look in his eyes was beyond ice, beyond fury. “Did you offer to ‘reach an accord’ with June Witwill?”
For one breath, everything was still.
Ironically, it was Darling who started the action—by diving to one side, throwing his arms over his head. He didn’t quite fit under the boardwalk, but smashed himself against it, squishing down as small as possible, while the whole street dissolved in lightning and hellfire.
Eserion didn’t encourage his followers to draw on divine light, as a rule. Members of his Guild were meant to rely on their wits and their skills; that was the whole point of their faith. The god of thieves was out to set an example, not to solve people’s problems for them. Darling had used more divine magic in the last week than in his entire previous career, what with one thing and another. Oddly, this thought sat in the forefront of his mind as he crept, inchworm-like, along the edge of the sidewalk, glowing with an intensity of held light that was the closest he could manage to a divine shield. It wouldn’t stop a wandshot, but would certainly discourage any demons that might have been summoned in the vicinity.
He didn’t risk looking up until he came to the corner of the saloon, but he could clearly hear the snap of thunderbolts, as well as the crashes and screams that marked their impacts. The air buzzed with static electricity, and his nose was assaulted by the reek of ozone and sulfur.
Finally reaching the corner, Darling bounded up and somersaulted around the edge of the building, keeping himself as low as possible. He pressed himself against the wall, very carefully peeking out.
Three bodies lay in the street, two in gray robes, one where it had fallen from the roof of the general store. The firefight continued, though Ross’s posse were exchanging blasts with opponents now out of his field of view down the street. Retreating? Were these cultists local, or had they come in with Embras? Whatever the case, they’d sure made a mess of the town. Every building in sight bore scorch marks and outright holes where they’d been blasted by wands. Plus, there was that stink of sulfur hanging in the air; someone had summoned something.
Obviously, his original plan of getting to the scrolltower office was off the table. He needed to get back to the house, regroup with the others, make sure all the prisoners were secure and the demon taken care of. Equally obviously, he wasn’t going back up the main street. He’d stick out like a sore thumb, and no place in this town was out of wand range of any place else. All it’d take would be one Wreath with a grudge and a clear shot to put him down.
He reversed course, heading for the alley behind the saloon. Hamlet didn’t have a lot of depth; there was nothing in town that he’d describe as a “street” aside from the main one, but behind the shops there were houses, stables and a few other structures, enough to give him a little cover.
In theory, at least.
No sooner had Darling slipped around the corner into the wide alley that would carry him on a roundabout way back to the house than Embras Mogul stepped out of a perfectly flat shadow lying against a wall, followed by one of his robed cultists.
Darling skidded to a stop; no more than six feet separated them. The cultist was carrying a wand, pointed at him; Mogul appeared to be unarmed, but he wasn’t about to dismiss the man as a threat.
“Well, this has all gone belly up, hasn’t it?” Embras said cheerfully.
“You said it,” Darling replied in the same tone. “What is it about wands coming out that makes people stop using their brains?”
“Must be that fight-or-flight instinct everyone’s always talking about. Ah, well; you’ll note that I did try to do this the civilized way. As will your patron, if he happens to be watching.”
“I like the civilized way. I was never in favor of abandoning it.” He still clung to the glow of divine light. It wasn’t likely to do him much good. “How about we try that again?”
“Alas,” Embras replied with a mournful expression, “the good Marshal’s intervention has played hell with my timetable. Now it seems I’ll have to content myself with making an emphatic statement to your superiors and bugging out. A disappointing outcome for everyone, but such is life.”
Darling opened his mouth without knowing what he was even going to say—it was a good strategy, usually, as his mouth was a finely tuned machine that reliably figured out the proper course of action—but before it even became an issue, a shadow passed over the moon, accompanied by a rush of wind, and the demon which had been imprisoned in the basement landed on the roof of the tiny shed next to them.
“Hi, boss,” he said, grinning unpleasantly at Darling.
“Well, well,” Mogul remarked, and for the first time there was an obvious note of strain beneath his affability. “Every time I turn around, this night just gets more interesting.”
“Bad news, big man!” the demon said, turning its gaze to him. “By way of saving my own ass, I’ve cut a deal with my erstwhile captors. I have come to interfere with you, so as to assure this asshole here’s escape!” He made a silly face, stretching his spiny wings to their fullest extent and waving his hands about over his head. “Grawr! Boo! Boogity boogity! Are you not distracted?!”
Mogul pointed a finger at him and growled a word that was just barely a word, and the shadows around them swirled as though trying to take physical form, sweeping the demon off the shed and dragging it to the dirt floor of the alley. The shadow coalesced into black chains, dark as iron but even less reflective, holding him to the ground by the wrists and ankles.
“Curses!” he declaimed. “Foiled again! Well, shucks, I keep finding myself in jail in this town,” the demon said gleefully, turning to leer at Darling. “Ah, well! Can’t say I didn’t try. You might have a word with that ferret-faced chick of yours, though. She can’t bargain worth a crap.”
“All right, enough,” Mogul said wearily. “You, hush, we’ll get you home in just a minute. Brother, kindly shoot this—”
He broke off as the steel tip of a sword appeared from the center of the robed man’s chest. An explosive grunt was driven from the cultist’s mouth; face still concealed by his cowl, he lowered his head, staring down at the blade. Behind him, the air rippled as Basra Syrinx tossed aside an invisibility cloak, deftly plucking the wand from the man’s suddenly limp fingers.
“Are you not distracted?” she said, grinning wickedly, and kicked the slumping cultist to the side, wrenching her sword free as he fell. She leveled the wand at Mogul’s heart.
“Right,” he said dryly. “Well. Looks like I owe you lot one. Until then!”
Lightning snapped straight through him, illuminating the alley for a split second, but he was already gone; it was as if he had turned to shadow, then was dispelled by the blaze.
Darling blinked rapidly to clear his vision. “Well. You sure have excellent timing.”
“Andros would’ve come too,” she said lightly, “but neither of us thought leaving Branwen in charge of the prisoners alone was the best idea. I guess we all have our strengths and weaknesses. After all…” She turned to the demon, her grin broadening. “Apparently I can’t bargain worth a crap.”
“Hey, just a little drama to sell the story,” he said, all bravado suddenly gone. The chains of shadow were steaming slightly as though coming apart, but continued to hold him, even as he tugged experimentally on them. “All’s well that ends well, right? I mean…we had a deal.”
“So we did! And it’s now fulfilled.” Basra stepped forward and drove her sword straight through his bony chest. She leaned in close, placing her face inches from his. “Avei thanks you for your service,” she said sweetly. “Go, with her blessing.” Light blazed along the blade, wrenching an impossibly shrill scream from the creature. For just a moment, golden radiance burned from his mouth and eyes, and just as quickly ceased.
Basra ripped her sword out sideways; the pieces of demon that were pulled loose more resembled charcoal than flesh. The smoking corpse flopped to the ground, already reeking of sulfur.
It was on this scene that Marshal Ross arrived, panting.
“Ah, there you are,” Darling said brightly. “Got the rest of them rounded up?”
“Three dead,” Ross said tersely, “four including this guy. The rest escaped. I’ve got no real way of tracking demon magic; Mavis is working on the spell keeping everybody asleep.”
“Sounds like a wise choice of priorities. Honestly, I doubt it would matter, Marshal. We’re not going to find them, I suspect.”
The Marshal straightened his back, setting his shoulders; the mantle of authority was all but visible as he pulled it back on. “Well. Seems you’ve had an interesting night.”
“To be honest,” Darling said ruefully, “I feel more as if it’s had me. Well, the good news is we’ll be out of town just as quick as we can arrange transport from Tiraas, and we’ll be taking the last of your Wreath problem with us.”
“Do I wanna know who?”
“Legally, you’re entitled. If you think it’ll make you happy.”
“I don’t do this job because I want to be happy,” he growled. “Right… Clyde took a bad hit, but Doc thinks he’ll live. I’ll round up the others and we’ll help you finish up the last of your business.”
“Thank you,” Basra said sardonically, “but I think we can manage without your help. Just like we have been from the beginning.”
“Bas,” said Darling gently, “just because the man spoke politely doesn’t mean he was asking.”
“Well put,” said Ross.
They allowed the Marshal to take the lead on the way back to the ravaged house. It was still the most damaged structure in sight, much of its bottom floor having been ripped out—Darling hoped they could get themselves and their magic wardrobe out before the second floor came down—but after the shoot-out with the cultists, much of the town matched. Ross’s scowl deepened with every step. It was hardly surprising that he’d take all this personally.
Darling was grateful for the silence; he desperately needed a chance to think. Much had been explained, but more questions had branched out from each answer. The next steps in this dance would have to be taken in Tiraas, where he intended to suss out more of the Archpope’s plans before proceeding with his own.
He hoped, quite sincerely, that Hamlet had seen the end of its problem with demons and cultists. For him, though, this matter had just barely made a beginning.