Tag Archives: Mortimer Agasti

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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 – 60

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The fully detailed model of Ninkabi, from minarets to canyon depths, hovered in the center of Mortimer Agasti’s study, wrought of pale orange light that was too steady to truly resemble fire, though the dozens of points of purple light scattered throughout it did flicker and pulse. At a gesture from Xyraadi, the model began to slowly rotate in place, giving them all a view of the miniature city from every angle.

“Of course,” Xyraadi said after a weighted pause, “I will have to jump to one of these to be sure, but I can find no error in my analysis of the spells. Mortimer?”

“No, your work is perfect,” the old laywer said, slowly shaking his head, eyes fixed on the model. “I understand why you were confused at first; it’s not like any other portal spell I’ve ever seen. Clearly unconventional methods. But ultimately the effect of a dimensional warp is obvious. The only natural parallel is the gravitational field of the earth itself, or the sun. None of these have found a matching indentation on the other side and so can’t bridge the dimensional barrier, yet, but what they are is unmistakeable. Gods be merciful,” he added in a near whisper. “There must be almost forty of them.”

“According to Kheshiri,” said Natchua, “this is most likely the work of a shadow cult called the Tide, surreptitiously orchestrated by Archpope Justinian. She has a theory about what those actually are.”

All three warlocks turned to look at the succubus, who smiled as if pleased by the attention.

“I still don’t think the intention is to open any actual hellgates,” she said. “Mind you, it is just a theory, but I’m confident in my reasoning. Have I ever told you, Mistress, about the Belosiphon affair?”

Agasti straightened up, his eyebrows drawing together in consternation. “Did you say Belosiphon?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied with relish, her tail beginning to sway. “In point of fact, his skull. Justinian sent me and the rest of his little adventuring party to retrieve it from its resting place up in the Badlands, and quite deftly manipulated Bishop Darling into doing likewise with a rival team he was financing. There was a lot of guerrilla-style back-and-forth, and though I missed out on the final showdown, I understand it was quite the spectacle. Flattened most of a town.”

“Are you saying the Archpope has his hands on the skull of Belosiphon the Black?” Agasti demanded.

“Oh, yes, but as it turns out, he always did, it was never seriously contested, and that is my point. The damn thing was in Veilgrad the whole time—that was why it had that chaos crisis—and he was just using the oracular portent that business kicked off to test two groups of fighters against each other to see how we performed, possibly thin our numbers a bit, and experiment with how well he could plant information to lead Darling on a mockingjay hunt. That is what Justinian does.”

“You suspect these gates are a ruse,” Agasti said thoughtfully.

She nodded. “Justinian likes to control every detail from behind the scenes. A demon invasion is something he couldn’t possibly control. But the appearance that one might be imminent? I mean, Xyraadi may be an exceptional warlock, but she detected this from the other side of the Empire. Others must have spotted it, not least the Inquisition, who are specifically looking. Having the Tide create a credible threat and manipulating several rival factions to move in and destroy them, and probably ‘accidentally’ erase any trace that could link the Tide directly to him? Now, that would be a classic Justinian plan.”

“I see,” he murmured. “Well. Your reasoning seems consistent, but considering the potential stakes, I am not inclined to dismiss the possibility of at least some of these gates being activated.”

“Especially not at the word of a succubus?” she retorted with a wry smirk.

“Correct,” Agasti replied, unfazed. “Also, a person does not attain and hold a position like Archpope while pulling off the sort of schemes you describe by being predictable. Trust me, I speak as an old man who has avoided the long list of people who’ve wanted to knock me down a peg for a good few decades. Never assume a clever man will continue doing the same things he’s done before. Often enough, the point of establishing a pattern is purely to feint one’s enemies into a misstep.”

“True enough,” she conceded lightly. Natchua glanced sidelong at the succubus, noting the surge of sheer irritation that pulsed through her aura. That particular emotion could be in response to any number of things; without having insight into Kheshiri’s actual thoughts, it didn’t reveal much.

“Then the only obvious course I can see is to shadow-jump to each of these sites and try to destroy the portals, one at a time,” Xyraadi said, frowning. “With so few of us, that may be…impractical.”

“Not least because somebody is skulking about in alleys making these things,” Natchua added. “I’m confident you or I are more than a match for whatever bargain-basement warlockery is at play, here, but getting into a magical fight with any rival infernomancer raises its own risks. I doubt very much that you would be able to talk your way out of being apprehended by cult or Imperial personnel, Xyraadi.”

“By the same token, it’s not as if we can report this to the authorities,” the khelminash replied.

Kheshiri cleared her throat. “Cut off the head, and the serpent dies. I can tell you where Syrinx and my old crew are hiding out. They may have gathered more intelligence in the last couple of days, maybe even on where this group is based.”

“What would you say are the odds of that?” Natchua asked.

The succubus smiled, an expression full of malicious amusement. “Frankly, slim. Syrinx is a cornered animal and the rest are alternately falling apart from internal pressure and busy playing political games between Syrinx and Snowe.”

“If we are willing to risk a fight,” said Xyraadi, “apprehending one of the cultists creating these portals could yield results.”

“Unlikely,” Kheshiri retorted. “The Tide in Tiraas weren’t much for talking. The shadow-jumping leaders were a little more coherent but the lot of them were dosed up with something that kept them almost pathologically focused.”

“Well, we have to do something!” Natchua exclaimed.

Agasti inhaled slowly through his nose, staring at the model of the city with both hands clasped atop the crystal head of his cane. He let out the indrawn breath in a single muffled burst of a sigh.

“There is already a hellgate in Ninkabi.”

All three turned to stare at him.

“Excuse me, did you say in?” Natchua asked. “That can’t— Cities have been abandoned due to having one of those too close, let alone inside the walls!”

“This is a secret of the highest order,” he said solemnly, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “One of those secrets kept in part because it is so old. And that, as it happens, is how I happened upon it. My rather unique career has led me to comb through suppressed and nearly forgotten archives of lore with a particular bent for anything pertaining to infernomancy as it is dealt with in history and law. N’Jendo has a long-abandoned but very interesting historical association with the warlock’s craft that almost no one knows about anymore. But yes, Natchua, this gate is within the city proper—and in fact, is part of the reason there is a city here. You may have noticed that ‘across a pair of canyons’ is an odd and awkward place to build a metropolis.”

“Go on,” she said warily.

“Centuries ago,” Agasti narrated, his gaze growing unfocused, “N’Jendo was a land pressed on all sides by enemies. The orcs regularly attacked in force from Athan’Khar, Tidestriders raided from the coasts, there were constant border skirmishes with the tribes in Thakar, and even the Deep Wild occasionally coughed up some fairy madness. Occasional help came through the passes from Viridill, but the Sisterhood then was also pressured by Athan’Khar and Tar’naris, and even the Tira Valley in those days was a morass of warring city-states that demanded their attention. Our distant ancestors turned to dark bargains and desperate measures to protect themselves. In small ways at first, but as the early, careful warlocks met with some success, they eventually moved on to creating a gate, deep within an island plateau separated from the rest of the land by the river canyons. A fortress-temple complex was erected over it, and then, given its secure location, the local amenities necessary to service something like that. Then teaching and training facilities to which other tribes would send warriors and magicians…” He smiled humorlessly, still staring at the floating model without seeming to really see it. “The actual tribal dialect is long extinct, but in my research I encountered mention that the name Ninkabi originally meant something like ‘necropolis.’”

“City of death,” said Kheshiri. “I like it!”

“Of course you do,” Natchua muttered.

Agasti sighed again, and lifted his head, meeting Natchua’s eyes. “Well, I’m sure the full history was very interesting; even the surviving fragments I was able to dig up were quite the ride. But it’s not germane to our concerns, so I’ll summarize, and I suspect you can guess how it goes anyway. The ancient Jendi initially had great success in destroying their enemies; that is the lion’s share of what infernomancy is good for, after all. And then, once it was good and too late, they began to learn the costs. The resolution involved an entire crusade from Viridill, with concurrent missions by the Omnists up in Onkawa. Of course, as you’re aware, an established hellgate cannot simply be closed, and it was decided that trying to seal off and bury the portal would lead to disaster, positioned as it was in a highly defensible position that a demon horde would love to get their claws on. The fortress complex remained inhabited and used, and eventually, the same process occurred; the devastated city was rebuilt in order to provide for its needs. And ultimately, as the secret of what was hidden under it was deliberately suppressed, it evolved into a typical modern city, albeit one with somewhat fanciful architecture owing to its position.”

“I don’t see how something like that could be forgotten, even if established powers tried to make it so,” Xyraadi protested. “Minor hellgates can often be dismissed with a cursory watch, if they are not easily accessible from the other side, but something like what you describe? If factions in Hell knew there was a valuable position on the mortal end they would never cease pressing to retake it. The Sisterhood would practically have to establish a permanent war front around it.”

“In this case,” he said, “the gate itself was…plugged, somehow, by the then Hand of Salyrene. I have not been able to find any record of the method used, and believe me, I looked. Alas, my investigations were hampered by the need not to tip off the Nemitites what I was digging up. In the course of my career I have several times found it necessary not to reveal how much I know; being aware of certain dangerous secrets would give certain entrenched powers the excuse they’ve longed for to land on me. But yes, the gate is…not sealed, I don’t think, but subject to some magical effect that prevents it being a prospect from the other side. Apparently something that required that singularly powerful spellcaster to accomplish, as it hasn’t become standard practice in shutting down hellgates elsewhere. And even so, the site is not buried or abandoned. Its oversight was jointly administered by secretive elements within the Avenist and Salyrite cults. The most recent documentation I found of the gate’s existence was from nearly three hundred years ago, when its administration was handed off to the Universal Church.” He hesitated. “That was when Ninkabi’s central cathedral was built.”

“Oh, let me guess,” Natchua groaned.

Agasti nodded. “Right on top of it.”

“Hmm hm humm hm hmmmm,” Kheshiri murmured, half-stifling a grin by chewing on her lower lip. “You know, just for the sake of argument, if I were going to train and house a super-secret cabal of drugged-up disposable shock troops who know some basic infernomancy, an ancient hidden underground fortress around a secured hellgate would be—”

“Yes, we get it, thank you,” Natchua snapped. “Well, great. That sounds like an incredibly promising lead, but what the hell are we going to do about it? It’s not like any of us can even walk into a Universal Church cathedral, much less root around in its basement looking for a secret and no doubt heavily fortified door to Hell. Something like that would be as close to warlock-proof as anything in the world could possibly be.”

“We are back to needing allies,” said Xyraadi.

“Well, there’s the Inquisition,” said Kheshiri, “but in my opinion that would be a major roll of the dice. Khadizroth and the gang would move on such a facility if they could, but Syrinx is working for Justinian, after all. And I strongly suspect the purpose of putting her in charge of that group is to see how many of them die as a result. I wouldn’t swear she’s actually assigned to do what she claims to be, and I definitely would not assume she’s interested in doing what Justinian wants rather than using him as a cover for her own antics.”

Natchua absently dragged her fingers through her hair, turning away to begin pacing in thought. “Nobody in any position of authority would listen to us. Mortimer, surely you have connections in the government?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “A fellow in my position could never survive without them. But those are strings not easily pulled. It would take some doing to get any action initiated—and more importantly, time.” He turned his eyes back to the model of Ninkabi, with its dozens of incipient hellgate sites flickering angrily. “I hesitate to assume we have enough time. Unfortunately I don’t have a better idea.”

“I don’t suppose you happen to know of an ancient secret back way into this hidden fortress?” Kheshiri chirped. Agasti just gave her a sardonic look.

“Merde alors,” Xyraadi said with a heavy sigh. “All right… Natchua, you are either going to like this very much or not in the least little bit. I know just who we can call on for help.”


The safehouse wasn’t much less tense for being less crowded. After Bradshaw had shadow-jumped back to Branwen’s Izarite-supplied borrowed residence with Schwartz, Grip, and Jenell in tow, another Wreath agent had been dispatched to serve as the point of contact with the Eserite holdout. Vanessa was less overtly displeased to be there than Bradshaw had been, but she elevated aloofness to an art form, blithely rebuffing even Branwen’s attempts to strike up a conversation. The warlock simply lounged in the most comfortable chair in the front room of the townhouse, reading a penny dreadful and seemingly ignoring the rest of them.

Flora and Fauna lurked in the same room, ostensibly keeping a surreptitious watch out the front windows but making no real effort to conceal that they were taking turns keeping an eye on Vanessa, who continued to ignore them. Shook paced through the house’s rooms and corridors very much like the caged animal he felt like. Branwen, after striking out with Vanessa, had set herself up in the kitchen and begun baking cookies, of all things, filling the room with soft humming and the clatter of utensils against mixing bowls. Sweet just wandered about with a lot less nervous energy than Shook, making idle chitchat with whoever was nearby and even including Vanessa in some of his jokes. She ignored that, too.

There had been a brief period in the early afternoon when it was quiet in the townhouse, as Sweet and his apprentices had gone to the local Guild headquarters to bring the Underboss up to speed on the situation and Shook had hidden himself in a bedroom, disliking Vanessa’s chilly company and not trusting Branwen to make small talk without adding layers of skillful manipulation which he knew himself ill-equipped to outwit.

Now, though, the tension was beginning to simmer, and neither Branwen’s homey act nor Sweet’s lighthearted banter were doing much to diminish it. Any time they were in proximity, the mutual dislike between Shook, Vanessa, and the two elves was like a tangible weight in the air, not lessened by their refusal to engage in overt backbiting.

It was a combination of desperation and boredom that drove Shook to meander over next to Vanessa’s chair and speak to her. “Can I ask you a question?”

She looked up from her book at him and raised one eyebrow, and already that was not going the way he’d expected. The woman had given Branwen a single snide comment and Sweet a couple of disinterested grunts before ceasing to react to them at all; he had honestly not anticipated any response.

“No,” she said evenly before he could speak again, “I will not retrieve your succubus for you.”

Shook grimaced reflexively at the very unpleasant mix of emotions that idea brought up. Unpleasant not least because a part of him still desperately wanted Kheshiri, and no amount of knowing better and despising his own weakness made that little whining voice shut up.

“That is absolutely the last thing I want, thanks,” he said quickly.

“No, I will not summon you another succubus.”

“I don’t want a fucking succubus!” he exclaimed. “I’m lucky I survived the last one!”

“No,” she drawled, “I will not go to bed with you.”

He paused, closed his eyes for a moment, and deliberately breathed in and out. “Look, lady, if the answer is ‘fuck off, I don’t wanna talk to you,’ that’s fine. Understandable, even. You can just say so, no need to make a production of it.”

She stared at him inscrutably for two more heartbeats, and then, to his surprise, closed her book. “What’s on your mind, Thumper?”

Well, shit, he hadn’t actually thought this conversation would be allowed to happen. Shook straightened his lapels unnecessarily, hating himself for being nervous and awkward like some damn teenage virgin, but having come this far he wasn’t about to compound his weakness by running away.

“Hypothetically,” he said, looking at the front window rather than her face, “as a woman, I mean… If some guy had been, uh, checkin’ you out and you didn’t really appreciate it, would… I mean, if you hadn’t even noticed. Would you feel better if he apologized, or wouldja rather just not know?”

The silence stretched out. A moment later, Shook had to look away from the window because the two elves stationed there had turned to stare incredulously at him. He brought his gaze back to Vanessa’s face, which he found chillingly devoid of expression.

She let the awkwardness hang for another handful of seconds before speaking.

“Are you drunk?”

“I wish,” he muttered. “Sorry to bother you.”

Shook jammed his hands in his pockets and turned to retreat. To his chagrin, Sweet was now in the room, standing just inside the door from the kitchen munching on one of Branwen’s fresh cookies. He was holding another, which he offered as Shook slouched over to join him.

“Thanks,” he muttered, accepting it. Still warm; Shook didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, but you couldn’t turn down fresh homemade cookies right out of the oven. “Y’know, talking to women is a lot easier when it doesn’t matter what they think.”

Flora and Fauna both turned to look at him again; he’d kept his voice deliberately low, but they were elves. Shook hid his expression behind a big bite of cookie. It was some kind of citrus and spice confection, surprisingly delicious. He couldn’t decide whether it was incongruous or incredibly appropriate that Branwen Snowe could make great desserts.

Sweet shrugged and swallowed the bite he was chewing. “You do realize where you’re getting tripped up is thinking that talking to women isn’t exactly like talking to everyone else.”

Shook pondered that while chewing. He finally swallowed, then nodded. “Yeah, that tracks. With that in mind, I stand by my observation.”

A faint smile of amusement flickered across Sweet’s mouth. “Still an enforcer at heart.”

“Yup.” Shook nodded slowly, staring at the front door but not really seeing it. “And will be til I die.”

Sweet studied him sidelong, nibbling a bit more of his cookie before speaking again. “Apropos of nothing, Thumper, when you were last hanging out with Khadizroth, did he do any significant magic at you?”

“Like what?”

“Oh, anything,” he said, shrugging. “Just curious.”

“Well…” Shook hesitated, but couldn’t see any reason to dissemble. “There was that night right after I was attacked and lost the reliquary. He used fae magic on me for cleansing, which I figure’s a damn good deal when you’ve been fucked up by warlock shit.”

Vanessa glanced at him sidelong before returning to her book.

“And,” Shook added, frowning in recollection, “I think after that… Yeah, he did a little something to help me sleep. I was pretty worked up, which I think is understandable. K gave me some mojo for calm and rest.”

“I see,” Sweet mused.

Shook frowned at him. “But seriously, why do you ask?”

“Well… When somebody’s had powerful fae magic done at ‘em and then starts showing surprisingly rapid shifts in—”

“Hey, Sweet,” Flora interrupted, turning from the window, “I think we’ve got trouble.”

Sweet immediately straightened and strode across to them; Vanessa set down her book, watching. “What kind of trouble?” the Bishop asked.

Fauna had leaned over to press her ear against the curtained window; Flora took a step away, speaking just quietly enough to be plainly heard. “Large groups of people moving into the buildings opposite us, and both sides of the street out of view of the windows. We figured that was the troops Syrinx was going to bring us… But then, they started talking.”

“It is the troops Syrinx was bringing,” Fauna reported. “Local police, Imperial Army, Holy Legion. She went all out. And…the officers are giving last-minute orders to take this place by force.”

Vanessa shot to her feet, tossing the book aside. “Exactly how much can elves hear?”

“It’s less about what sounds they can detect than how well they can pick out individual noises from the background, especially in a city,” Sweet said, apparently calmly. “You sure, girls?”

“It’s a bit garbled at this distance,” Flora replied. “But…”

“Yeah,” Fauna said, turning from the window to give him a grim look. “We’re sure. They’re primed to storm a Wreath stronghold, specifically.”

“Oh, look,” Branwen said bitterly from the doorway behind him. “Basra helped.”

“Yep,” Sweet chuckled. “That was a bad call on my part. Well, ladies, battle stations, if you please.”

Flora grabbed the fairy lamp fixture by the door and yanked it sideways, causing a loud THUNK to echo through the room as heavy bars hidden in the door frame slid out from above and below into slots in the steel-reinforced door itself, securing it in place. Fauna gave the curtain cord two short tugs and then a carefully measured three-second pull, and a low hum of arcane magic rose in the room, shielding charms in the window frames buzzing to life to reinforce the glass.

A Guild safehouse’s defenses were designed along a “don’t see” philosophy; with the door and window precautions engaged, the fastest way in would be to break down unguarded sections of the walls. Nearly all attackers would waste time trying to force open what were usually the weakest parts of a house’s outer walls.

“Don’t beat yourself up, Sweet,” said Shook. “Your decision made sense at the time. I thought so, and I’m otherwise totally down for the ‘kill Syrinx’ plan.”

“Of course it did,” Branwen said wearily. “This is what she does. In the moment, in that situation, while she was being calm and controlled and her skills were useful, it made perfect sense to let her help. And then this happens.”

“Well, spilled milk,” Sweet said cheerfully. “Vanessa, how many people can you shadow-jump at a time?”

Vanessa was already frowning heavily. “I…can’t, Darling. My shadow-jumping is blocked. That requires some major magical intervention.”

“Why, Basra, you sly minx,” he murmured. “That’s it, I’m definitely killing her next time I have eyes on her, I don’t care if it’s in a room with Justinian himself. But that’s then; this is now! Any measures that block shadow-jumping are pretty targeted, as the large-scale ones like we used in Tiraas a couple years back tend to draw a lot of attention. We just need to get you some distance from this spot. Come along, folks!”

“You want to…hide in the basement?” Vanessa asked warily, even as she trooped along in his wake with everyone else down the kitchen stairs.

“Don’t forget, this is a Thieves’ Guild safehouse!” Sweet replied, still with evident good humor. “Just let me…ah, I believe this is it.”

In the wine cellar, he crossed directly to the far wall, flicked a small fairy lamp on and then back off, and pulled one dusty bottle off a rack.

Immediately, the section of brick wall to which the rack was attached slid backward with a low rumble, leaving a dark gap with another staircase descending into the unknown.

“How did you know that?” Branwen exclaimed. “How much time do you spend in this city, Antonio?”

“Some features are standardized up to a point,” he said, winking. “Come along, down we go. It’ll take them a while to get into the house once they’re ready to move, so we should have a bit of a head start. By the by, on that subject, I don’t suppose any of you happen to hail originally from Ninkabi?”

“Are you serious?” Shook demanded. “Sweet, you’re talkin’ to two elves and the four palest people on this side a’ the mountains.”

“Hey, you never know! We’re all one big happy Empire, after all. I suppose,” he added wryly, “that means none of you happen to know your way around the tunnel system under this city.”

They all stared at him in silence.

From above there came a percussive crash as a lightning weapon was fired at the heavily reinforced front door.

“Welp!” Sweet said brightly, ducking into the tunnel, “I guess this’ll be an adventure.”

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15 – 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this time, he stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had never been in control of her.

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

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

“Is this what passes for dragon humor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shook paused, blinking twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up, Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered.

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

“That isn’t shutting up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melaxyna and Hesthri snorted in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 23

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“Kheshiri.”

Mortimer Agasti made an impressive figure despite his age, even when sitting down and hunched slightly forward to lean upon the cane planted between his feet. Those dark eyes remained piercing beneath his short frizz of white hair, as if he could unearth Natchua’s secrets simply by staring her down. Of course, the surroundings helped; facing him in his own expensively furnished apartment emphasized who had control, here. He had two more of his revenants flanking him from behind, with Xyraadi off to the side, now in her true form and deliberately positioning herself to emphasize whose side she was on. Natchua couldn’t help feeling a tad less impressive, even with her own escort and all three of them in their dashing finery.

“It would alarm me simply to learn that Kheshiri is once again active in the world,” Agasti continued after a momentary pause in which he grimly stared at each of them in turn. “Imagine how pleased I am to learn she is in my club. If, that is, we are certain it’s that bad. Xyraadi, my dear, you are sure this one did not trip the wards?”

“Quite,” Xyraadi confirmed. “I have examined her with such care as I could manage, when so pressed by the circumstances. I would not swear the craft used to conceal her is something even I could do. This Natchua is a practitioner of exceeding skill,” she added, directing a significant look at the old man.

Agasti met her eyes and nodded. “I hope, as established warlocks one and all, we can agree to eschew any violence, despite the various provocations already rendered here. Such engagements are always more expensive than they are worth, and with Kheshiri on the prowl, we cannot afford to be distracted.”

“Agreed,” Natchua replied, nodding deeply. “And again, I am very sorry for the trouble. We truly did come here with friendly intentions.”

“And you expressed these intentions by unleashing Kheshiri in my backyard?” Agasti retorted, now with a hard edge in his tone.

“I certainly did not,” she said firmly. “I simply…did not take the first opportunity to button her up again. And, as it turns out, that wouldn’t have helped anyway. She did not figure out how to circumvent a Black Wreath soul vessel in one afternoon; even one of us would have been hard pressed to match that feat. She has had, at my best guess, almost two years to work at it.”

“But if you had at least tried, you could have been forewarned,” he said sharply. “Ironic; that would have given you a ready-made pretext to come here and earn favor with me. I would be extremely interested to learn that she was off her leash in my neighborhood. Would you indulge an old man and explain why you, clearly someone who understands the danger a Vanislaad poses in an urban environment, did not immediately act to button her up when you had the power right in your hands?”

“Because you also have the Black Wreath and a new incarnation of the Inquisition prowling around this neighborhood,” Natchua replied. “It seemed to me that between them, they would provide enough pressure to hamper her—and she would give them both trouble.”

“Young lady,” he said, and while she loathed being scolded in that patrician tone she couldn’t quite blame him in this instance, “what could possibly have made you think that was a good idea?”

“I don’t have good ideas,” Natchua snapped, ignoring the shuffling of the two revenants and Xyraadi’s frown at her belligerent tone. “Circumstances have left me wielding powers no sane person would touch against foes no smart person would challenge. There are no good courses of action available to me! I stay one step ahead of my enemies solely by doing whatever mad thing they don’t expect, usually because they can’t conceive of it. And yes, this mostly leads to an endless succession of crises and messes, which I always clean up, and in the process am one step ahead of the Wreath, the Church, and whoever else, moving in a direction they haven’t even thought to look! It’s not pretty, but it works, and I can’t afford to be picky.”

“That’s no way to live,” he said quietly. “By the time you slip up and die, you will be so exhausted you might just welcome it. And at this rate, that will be tragically soon.”

“That is specifically the end toward which I am planning,” she said flatly.

Agasti closed his eyes and shook his head. Xyraadi was still frowning at Natchua, but now more in apparent puzzlement than reproach.

Hesthri cleared her throat discreetly. “Are you sure it’s wise to trust this man to this extent? The khelminash is one thing, since we came here for her specifically…”

“Xyraadi,” Natchua corrected. “Let’s not make this worse by being rude, Hes. Or would you like it if she called you ‘the hethelax?’”

“That’s exactly how most of her kind speak to mine,” Hesthri retorted, narrowing her eyes.

“She is not incorrect,” Xyraadi admitted.

“Anyway,” Natchua continued, her eyes now on Agasti’s, “we came here to ask for trust, and have already gotten off firmly on the wrong foot. Wise or not, I do intend to offer trust in turn. We’re in no position to refuse to.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Agasti said in a deceptively mild tone. “And on the note of trust, may I know whom, specifically, I have the honor of hosting?”

“Ladies,” Natchua ordered, “disguises off.”

“Natch, I don’t think—”

“Do it, Mel.”

The succubus sighed with ill grace, but shifted, and in the next moment was flexing her wings. Hesthri slipped off her disguise ring, revealing her blunt claws and patches of chitinous armor—another reason it had been necessary to give her the loosest clothes.

“These are my friends,” Natchua said simply, “Hesthri and Melaxyna.”

Agasti’s eyebrows shot upward. “You continue to drop the most surprising names, Natchua. Is Professor Tellwyrn aware you’ve liberated one of her captive Vanislaads?”

“Three things I know Tellwyrn can do,” Natchua replied, “are notice that Melaxyna is no longer in the Crawl, figure out who is responsible, and find me. It would seem she feels Mel has served her time. Silence, as they say, gives assent.”

“Mm.” He shifted his gaze to the other demon, expression inscrutable. “Yours is an even more surprising name, Hesthri.”

“You’ve heard of me?” she squawked. “Don’t tell me I’m famous!”

“I’m going to be very put out if that’s so,” Natchua growled, “given how hard it was for me to get your name.”

“Oh yes,” Hesthri spat, “we all know exactly what trouble you went to and what was hard about it!”

“On the contrary,” Agasti interjected as they rounded on each other, both clenching fists, “I highly doubt more than ten people in the Empire know your name, all sworn to confidentiality. But I am both an attorney and a warlock, and privy to a small amount of rather shady Imperial business. Your…anomalous case, Hesthri, is one about which I never expected to hear another word. Usually, unless one is dealing with a child of Vanislaas, when a demon is banished back to Hell, that’s the end of it.”

“Well…good,” Hesthri muttered. In contrast to her aggressive pose of seconds ago, she now appeared to be trying to edge behind Natchua. “I think I’d rather not be as recognizable as this Kheshiri.”

“That is unlikely in the extreme,” he said, “more because of her case than yours. Kheshiri is a figure of historical significance in this part of the world. Specifically, during the Enchanter Wars, she wriggled her way into a position as the unofficial spymaster for House Turombi, where her actions played a major role in shaping the world as it still is today.”

“Oh?” Natchua tilted her head. “This I hadn’t heard.”

“Provinces were rising up in revolt, thanks to the Veskers,” Agasti explained. “I doubt most Imperial citizens would have cared much what happened to the orcs otherwise, but when every bard is pushing for a specific goal, that is typically what happens—especially in the court of public opinion. That is exactly why the Bardic College all but never does this; no government would allow them to move freely, were they in the habit of toppling thrones. But with the whole Empire a feuding patchwork of rebels and loyalists, almost no governing body could maintain order. The exception was here in the Western provinces, thanks to House Turombi carving out a substantial power block by playing both sides against each other and making its own propaganda push to encourage people to embrace a cultural identity that was both Western and Imperial.”

“And all of this…was thanks to Kheshiri?” Natchua said, frowning. She’d been taught this history, of course, but not from this angle.

Agasti nodded. “That is not widely known, of course. But matters became dire indeed when Tiraas fell to the rebels and the Emperor was slain. Lord Turombi proclaimed the capital lost, the Western provinces the true Tiraan Empire, Onkawa the new seat of power, and himself Emperor. Thanks to Kheshiri’s groundwork, these claims were mostly embraced throughout Onkawa, Thakar, and N’Jendo. And not even he knew that a succubus was the power behind his would-be throne. She was that close to being the implicit ruler of her own empire.”

“According to Mel, here,” said Natchua, “by the time she was caught she had replaced the leader of the Black Wreath and taken over the cult. It apparently took Elilial herself to collar her.”

His eyes widened. “Now that is news to me. It is…frighteningly plausible.”

“That’s insanity,” Hesthri protested. “She couldn’t possibly have gotten away with all that. The Pantheon themselves would have intervened if she’d managed to become an actual ruler!”

“And that is why people react the way they do to Kheshiri’s name,” Melaxyna said quietly. “There’s a certain pattern with most of our kind: they cause what trouble they can, and move on when things look like they’re getting too heated. Most would rather abandon their schemes than risk a return to Hell, and most have no real attachment to those schemes anyway. Kheshiri, though, likes to push the envelope. You’re right, she couldn’t have won. But she’d have wanted to see how close she could get, how much she could achieve, and what was finally necessary to bring her down. The fact that it took the Dark Lady in person probably means she counts it as a total victory. I’d been wondering what she could possibly have been doing for two years under the nominal control of some Eserite goon who’s not even a warlock, but I think this Inquisition explains it. It’s rare that she’d have the chance to work under a green dragon and who knows how many priests of multiple cults. This has been a chance for her to practice operating under tremendous pressure and evading notice from powerful foes at close range. And based on the fact that she won’t go back in her bottle, it’s clearly paid off.”

“Natchua,” Agasti said flatly, “I have some sympathy for your position. As little as I understand directly, I can infer much of the rest. This, however, was an extraordinarily foolish thing to do. A creature like that is not a weapon you can wield, but a universal hazard on a scale that threatens whole kingdoms.”

“Once again,” Natchua snapped, “I didn’t release her, and—no. This argument is pointless and we don’t have time for it. You’ve convinced me she needs to be caught, and I’ll acknowledge some responsibility in this, let’s leave it at that. Now we need a course of action.”

“She is somewhere on the premises,” Xyraadi said. “The wards barely reacted to her and cannot pinpoint her; she is clearly employing some manner of stealth beyond their usual type. But the wards were tripped when she entered and continue to faintly register her presence, which means she has not yet left.”

“What is she doing?” Hesthri asked. “Why come here?”

“It is a logical move,” Agasti murmured. “A child of Vanislaas, freshly at liberty, and caught between the Wreath and the Church. Seeking the aid of a neutral party adept at navigating these political currents, and inclined to be receptive toward infernal beings, is a sensible approach. I have been sought out by a number of rogue demons and warlocks over the years.”

“Yes…that fits,” Natchua said, nodding and narrowing her eyes in thought. “By the same token, she’ll be seeking a friendly approach—like we were. The last thing she’ll want is to make an enemy of you.”

“Kheshiri does not think the way you do,” said Melaxyna. “And I say that acknowledging that your squirrelly idea of strategy is about as close to the Vanislaad approach as I’ve ever seen from a mortal, Natch, all madcap improvisation and inscrutable sideways anti-logic. But you, fundamentally, have ethics and a regard for other people, which she does not. So yes, she’ll make a friendly approach to Agasti, but not without leverage.”

“What kind of leverage?” Xyraadi asked quietly.

“Dunno,” Melaxyna replied in a grim tone. “She’s probably looking to pick something up on the fly. The longer she’s loose in this club, the more progress she’ll be making toward that. It’ll take her time to figure out the angles and form a plan, but I really don’t recommend sitting here waiting for her to come knocking. She will, but if you wait till she’s ready, somebody will suffer for it. You’ve got your own revenants to care for, not to mention a whole crowd of customers, and that’s just listing the obvious targets.”

“Then she must be intercepted before she is ready,” Agasti said with a heavy sigh. “Xyraadi, I must lean heavily upon you for aid in this matter. I am sorry to so burden a guest in my home…”

“It is nothing, Mortimer,” she said, turning a warm smile upon him. “You are a true friend and I would not leave you in need. Besides, I have missed this! And to think, when the paladins left, I thought I was done with adventures.”

“The paladins were here?” Hesthri said sharply, almost shoving Natchua aside in her haste to scramble to the front of the group. “Which ones? When?”

“You needn’t worry, they are gone,” Xyraadi assured her.

“That, I think, is not her concern,” Agasti said softly. “All three, Hesthri, just this last summer. I am not averse to discussing it with you, but we have more urgent problems first. As I see it, we must do two things: find Kheshiri, quickly, and find a way to contain her again. This brings us to a potential point of conflict.” He fixed his gaze on Natchua. “Since, I assume, you will insist upon being the one to work on her reliquary.”

She frowned. “Why is that… Oh, yes, I see. You obviously would prefer to stay here; I know you don’t like to go out. No, in fact, that seems to me a perfect division of labor. Xyraadi, Mel, and I are probably more useful on the hunt, while you have the luxury of time to crack this.”

Natchua stepped forward till she was within arm’s reach of him, ignoring the way his three demon companions tensed, and held out the reliquary.

“I suspect what she has done is focused on herself rather than the artifact; I don’t think she had much direct access to it. In short, nothing can ever be the easy way. But hopefully a practitioner of your skill can get some results, with it in hand.”

He stared up at her in silence for a few seconds. Then, carefully reached out and grasped the other end of the reliquary. Natchua released it and stepped back.

“Your good faith is noted,” Agasti said at last. “And what do you intend to do with this once Kheshiri is back inside it?

“If you have a plan, I’m inclined to trust you,” she said frankly. “If you’d rather not be burdened with that, you can give it back. I was just going to take it to Professor Tellwyrn. According to some of the other faculty at Last Rock, she’s good at making dangerous artifacts disappear.”

“Last Rock,” he murmured, shaking his head. “I might have known. You…really do mean well, don’t you?”

Natchua let a bitter little grin flicker across her face. “Well. The ill I mean is strictly directed at those who royally deserve it. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt in the process, if it can be avoided.”

“That being the case,” he said wryly, “failing to immediately act against a succubus on the loose is an…interesting choice of approach.”

“Did you catch the part where she said she has no good ideas?” Melaxyna said sweetly. “Because you really have no idea how true that actually is.”

Natchua sighed. “I’m surrounded by ingrates, as usual. All right, Xyraadi, can you give us any hints? I’ll understand if you don’t want to give me access to the ward structure, but without it I’m as blind as anyone, here.”

“Just a moment,” Agasti interrupted even as Xyraadi opened her mouth. “While the trust offered thus far is appreciated, there is a limit to how far it goes. I’m afraid having a second child of Vanislaas loose in my club is beyond that limit.”

“Oh, come on,” Melaxyna protested. “Who better to hunt a succubus than another succubus?”

“Mortimer is a kind and very courteous man,” Xyraadi said pleasantly, “so it falls to me to be blunt. That your warlock friend seemingly trusts you means nothing to us, especially as her judgment is very much in question here. I quite agree; having a second Vanislaad running around loose is not acceptable. However,” she added, turning a small frown upon Agasti, “I am also not so sure about leaving her alone with you, Mortimer.”

“I’m hardly alone,” he said, shifting in his chair to smile at one of the revenants. The other reached forward and patted his shoulder.

“Still,” she said skeptically. “Provided the creature is sufficiently contained—”

“I should clarify something at this juncture,” Natchua interrupted. “If you insist on Mel staying here, that’s reasonable and I’ll agree to it—”

“Oh, come on!” Melaxyna repeated, this time in a shrill whine.

“—but I will specify that she is not my thrall or servant. She is my friend, and if she is bound, dispatched to Hell, or in any way mistreated, I will take massive offense. If you think I’m irrational when—”

She broke off with a grunt as Hesthri jabbed her from behind with a fist. “Okay, your point is made, this is all tense enough without anybody making threats.”

“The essence of compromise,” Agasti said gravely, “is that every party gets something they desire, but no party gets everything they ask. I do insist that Melaxyna remain under my own supervision, but I am willing, upon your word that her intentions are not malign, to leave her outside of a binding circle.”

“Mortimer,” Xyraadi warned.

“So long as it is understood,” he clarified, “that I will take any and all actions necessary to protect myself, my employees, and my property should I find a demon in my presence suddenly behaving in a threatening manner.”

Natchua nodded, then turned to Melaxyna. “Is that agreeable, Mel?”

The succubus threw up her hands. “It’s stupid! You seriously want to try hunting down Kheshiri in this place without my help?”

“I meant—”

“Well, of course I’m not going to try to hurt him! I know what we’re here for, and it’s not like I need any new enemies of my own. Hell, if you put a succubus and a warlock alone in an apartment, it’s not the warlock who’s in the more physical danger. Especially when he’s brought his own muscle,” she added, scowling at the revenants. They smiled in unison.

“It’s not strictly a waste of talent,” Natchua pointed out. “Remember, we’re acting on the assumption that Kheshiri is going to come for Mr. Agasti himself at some point. If we can’t manage to nab her before that happens, I’ll feel better if he’s got some extra backup. She won’t have made a move on Second Chances without doing some research and having some idea what to expect, but Kheshiri has no way of knowing there’s another Vanislaad here. In the worst case scenario, you’re still an ace in the hole.”

“Mmm,” Melaxyna hummed, frowning.

“There is also that,” Agasti agreed. “Though of course I shall hope not to have to rely on her. Now, Natchua, much as I am looking forward to having a very detailed conversation with you, I fear we have already spent too much time at this. Helping me contain this mess will go a long way toward proving your good intentions to me. Xyraadi, I leave the matter in your charge. Please direct our guests as you see fit.”

The Khelminash turned to him and executed an old-fashioned curtsy. “Consider it done. Come, ladies, the hunt awaits.”

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14 – 28

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Vesk doubled over very satisfyingly, the breath seemingly driven from him. Even the fact that this was an obvious case of playacting on his part didn’t dull the appreciative smiles it brought from several of those present. Trissiny didn’t smile, simply turning her back on him and resuming what had been her original course.

She didn’t hug Gabriel, after all, but reached out to grab him by both shoulders, and only then drew in a deep breath and blew it out in relief, as if unwilling to believe he was actually there until she had her hands on him.

“Thank the gods, Gabe. Are you…okay?”

“I’m really thirsty,” he said frankly. “You have no idea how dry the air is over there. Yeah, Triss, I’m fine. You guys?”

“We had the easy half of the bargain, don’t forget,” Toby said, smiling as he strode up. He did hug Gabriel, and was hugged back. Trissiny took a step back, smiling at the two of them for the long moment they shared.

Behind them, Izara blinked, a gesture so slow it verged on simply closing her eyes, and a serene smile spread across her thin features. Around her, the air seemed to lighten.

“Oh! Right.” Gabe released Toby and pulled back, turning to the woman who was now surreptitiously trying to hide behind him—which didn’t work well, since she was taller by a few inches. “Are you okay, Xyraadi?”

“I…have been manhandled before, with far less courtesy than that,” she said warily. Her yellow eyes had fixed on Trissiny, taking in the silver armor, and she stood tensed as if prepared to bolt. “It is a very great relief to be out of that place, again. I could have done without a personal audience with the Dark Lady and that creature Vanislaas, but given how quickly it was all over, I think I can forgive you for bringing me there.”

“I beg your pardon,” Agasti interjected, stepping toward them wearing an expression that verged on awed, “but did you say Xyraadi?”

“Ah, yes,” Gabriel said, grinning at them. “Everybody, meet the help Salyrene kindly arranged for us. You remember Xyraadi was mentioned when we were in Vrin Shai? I know we weren’t in there long, but she kept my ass alive the whole time; I would’ve been a sitting duck without her help. Xyraadi, may I present Mortimer Agasti, attorney at law and the only Izarite warlock I’ve ever met. And these are my two best friends! Toby Caine, Hand of Omnu, and Trissiny Avelea, Hand of Avei.”

Xyraadi glanced at Agasti and then Toby before her eyes returned to Trissiny, her lips pressed into a frightened line. She managed a terse nod of her crested head and a small noise deep within her throat.

Trissiny stepped forward, meeting her eyes, and held out a gauntleted hand. “Xyraadi? I understand you’ve been an ally of the gods for a very long time. Thank you very much for looking after Gabriel. I truly don’t think I could thank you enough for that.”

“I…” The khelminash swallowed once, nodding again.

“It’s all right,” Trissiny said in a softer voice. “I’m not going to stab you.”

“Well, you can’t blame her for wondering,” Vesk remarked from the sidelines. “I’m fine, by the way, thanks everybody for your concern.”

“You hush,” Izara ordered.

“I have known another Hand of Avei,” Xyraadi said, still tense. “I worked with her toward common cause for several days before she stopped actively trying to kill me. It was three years before she would accept me being on watch when our party camped and refrained from putting divine wards around me as I slept. I had to nearly die saving her life before she consented to speak with me directly.”

“That…sounds about right,” Trissiny said, her hand remaining outstretched and open. “And honestly, that also describes me just a few years ago. Hands of Avei…have to see the world a bit more black and white than it really is. You can’t very well bring the light into a world if you hold too much respect for the darkness. But the world is more complex than it used to be, and I have to appreciate the shades of gray more than the sisters who come before me. I judge you by your actions, Xyraadi, and they mark you a friend.”

Slowly, the demon reached out and placed her slender hand in the paladin’s grip. Trissiny closed her gloved fingers gently around Xyraadi’s and squeezed once, smiling at her, before letting go.

“There truly are wonders in the world,” Xyraadi said, herself sounding awed.

Agasti cleared his throat, catching her attention, and bowed deeply to her. By that point, there was no trace left of the hunch or stiffness which seemed to have plagued him just the day before. “My lady, it is a tremendous honor to make your acquaintance, and one I never imagined I should enjoy. You are a creature of legend, Xyraadi. Legends only told in certain circles, true, but legends nonetheless. Please consider me humbly at your disposal; I shall be only too glad to help you adjust to the world as it is now.”

“You are too kind,” she said, clearly mystified, but placed her hand in his outstretched fingers next. Agasti didn’t offer his grip in the same position as Trissiny’s, but gracefully lifted her hand and brushed his lips lightly across her knuckles.

“There, now, isn’t that just lovely?” Vesk said cheerfully, swaggering over to them with his hovering lute trailing along behind. “New friends and old, united in common whuff!”

Trissiny pivoted and rammed her fist in a precise uppercut into his solar plexus, bending him over again. This time he staggered to one side and his lute fell to the ground with a sad, discordant little plonk.

“I know that’s bound to get old eventually,” Gabriel remarked, “but something tells me it’ll be a while.”

“You two can come out,” Izara said kindly, turning to speak in the direction of the carriage which was parked some yards back down the path. “Elilial is gone, and neither of us the sort of god who smites without reason.”

“It’s quite all right,” Agasti added as Arkady and Kami gingerly poked their heads around from behind the vehicle. “Come, be sociable. The danger has passed.”

“Ah, but there’s always more danger!” Vesk declaimed, straightening. For all that he reacted like any mortal when physically assaulted, he recovered from the hits faster than a person of mere flesh and blood would. “Fortunately, you two won’t be asked to charge into it. Nor you, Mr. Agasti, nor our newest friend Xyraadi, here. Once more, it is time for a parting of paths, as our intrepid heroes proceed on to the next stage of their destiny! A good bit of the reason for this whole trip was introducing you kids to some new faces who’ll be more important later.”

Trissiny turned to him again and he took two circumspect steps to the left, his lute swinging around to hover behind him while plucking an offended little arpeggio.

“I knew it,” Gabriel said gravely. “The real great doom was the friends we made along the way.”

Toby drew in a breath as if to sigh, then grinned at him. “Gods, am I glad you’re okay.”

“But enough of that!” Vesk said more briskly, even as he minced around the group to place himself as far from Trissiny as possible without removing himself from the conversation entirely. “Let’s see the fruits of your labor, champions! How’s my key coming along?”

“You have got some nerve,” Trissiny spat.

“Indeed, you might say that’s my calling card!” Vesk said brightly, flicking a hand in her direction. A small piece of thick paper flew from his fingers, heading right for her face with the speed and precision of a paper glider, causing her to catch it purely by reflex. Trissiny thus found herself holding an actual calling card.

While she stared at this in utter disbelief, the god turned his attention back to the other two paladins, grinning and rubbing his hands together. “Well? Don’t keep a deity in suspense!”

“Oh, so it’s only okay when you do it?” Gabriel muttered, but obligingly reached into his pocket. Toby didn’t bother to comment, simply producing the conjoined first two pieces of the key they had gathered.

Vesk reached out with both hands, almost reverently taking the objects from them. Slowly, with a solemnity actively contrasted by Trissiny flinging his card to the ground in disgust, he brought them together. The mithril fragment Gabriel had snagged from the temple wouldn’t have been taken for the teeth of a key on its own. Flat on one end, save for small indentations which caused it to fit neatly into the markings on the side of Gretchen’s Dowry, its other end was an irregular pattern of jagged points and angles, a thin lip of some glossy black material like obsidian emerging to resemble the edge of a serrated blade.

It attached neatly to the others, though, and the thing in the god’s hand did indeed have the aspect of a large, old-fashioned key. The shape was evocative, if the resemblance was not precise. Vesk held it out before them on his outstretched palm.

“Behold,” he said softly. “Once upon a time, a collection of interlocking bits and pieces such as might have been cluttering up anybody’s junk drawer. In this era, a rare assemblage of ancient and precious relics. But so it is with the passage of time, which elevates all trash to treasure—in the eyes of the archaeologists, if nothing else. To us…to you…this means more than you can possibly imagine.”

“I can think of precious few things you might do with that,” Izara said quietly, “none of them wise.”

“Ah, but dear sister,” he said, giving her a roguish grin and wink and closing his fingers around the key. “How often am I wise, yet how often am I right? In my experience, there is very little connection between those two qualities.”

She just shook her head. “I’ve learned to trust you, Vesk. I dearly hope you know what you are doing.”

“Especially since you as good as sold us to Elilial to do it,” Toby added, staring flatly at the god of bards.

“Here, since you’ve appointed yourself keeper of the artifact,” Vesk said with a less than subtle note of mockery now in his solemnity, handing the key back to Toby. “Now say your goodbyes, kids, we’ve got a long way to go, and this last leg of the journey you’ll have to make without any sidekicks. Though, frankly, you could have kept some of them along for a little bit longer. Honestly, Trissiny, what’s the big idea, scaring off the comedy relief I found for you? Without the Jenkins brothers, Gabe’s had to pick up that slack, and he has his own character development to—”

Trissiny strode swiftly through the center of the group, aiming another jab with her right fist at his midsection. Vesk reflexively ducked and retreated, bending his body to evade the blow and in the process bringing his head down and forward, which put it right within range of her other hand. He evaded the feint, but she slapped him upside the noggin with her shield.

Nobody paid the god the slightest attention as he rolled on the ground, clutching his skull and groaning melodramatically. Agasti turned to the still-nervous Xyraadi, bowing courteously to her again.

“My dear, I realize you are something of a fish out of water; rest assured I will not allow you to go without aid or shelter so long as I have it to offer. I believe you’ll find my home quite comfortable, if you would do me the honor of accepting my hospitality. Indeed, I very much look forward to the conversations we shall have in the days to come!”

“Mr. Agasti is a trusted friend,” Gabriel assured her when she turned her eyes questioningly to him. “I’m really sorry to just yank you back and then dump you like this, but believe me, you’ll be just fine with him. I don’t know how long this quest is going to keep us occupied, or what’s coming next, but I’ll do my best to come see you as soon as I can, okay?”

“Ah…well. I appreciate that very much. And I shall be glad to accept your offer, M. Agasti,” the demon said, inclining her head toward Mortimer. She then looked past him at the carriage, where the two revenants had emerged fully, but so far declined to approach any closer to the gods. “But perhaps the farewells are premature; it seems none of us is going anywhere quickly. In all the confusion your horses have run off.”

There was a momentary pause. Vesk, still slumped on the ground, grinned hugely and opened his mouth, but closed it when fixed by a glare from Izara.

“Also,” Gabriel said solemnly, “Mortimer has lots and lots of books. That’ll help you a bunch. You’ve, uh, got a lot to catch up on.”


Instantaneous travel by the auspices of a god wasn’t very much like being teleported around by Tellwyrn. There was less sensation, and not even the noise of displaced air. Vesk’s method was also a whole level more sophisticated, given how he arranged them mid-transit. The four of them had vanished from the sunny hillside below the Wyrnrange after saying their farewells to the others, and reappeared in darkness, in what seemed to be a ruined temple. It was hard to tell as they couldn’t see beyond the tiny island of firelight in which they found themselves, and anyway were more distracted by the fire and their own positions. They were seated on fallen hunks of masonry surrounding the flames, as if they’d been there for hours in conversation. Even their eyes were already adjusted to the light.

“I really hate it when people do that,” Toby said with uncharacteristically open annoyance. “I think yours is even worse than the way Tellwyrn does it.”

“Not at all!” Vesk said cheerfully from across the low flames. The fire looked to have been burning for quite a while, and was on the verge of sputtering out. “I can attest that I moved you through space, not unlike what you call shadow-jumping. Arachne’s method is a whole other kettle of fish. Tell me, have you covered the great quandry of teleportation in Yornhaldt’s class yet?”

Gabriel straightened up, seemingly ignoring the question, and turned on his seat to peer into the darkness around them. The shapes of scarred and pitted columns rose from the stone floor all around, barely visible where the fire illuminated them. Beyond that was nothing but fathomless blackness. “Did you hear something moving?”

“I wasn’t aware teleportation had any great quandries,” Toby answered the god. “I thought the method was pretty well ironed out by this point.”

“Oh, I don’t mean method,” Vesk replied airily, “I mean the ethical quandry. This is the reason wood elves generally refused to be teleported, by the way. See, in arcane teleportation, a person or thing is dissolved at one point and reappears at another. But! Here’s the unanswerable question: was that person moved, or destroyed and then re-created?”

Silence answered him. Then Trissiny heaved an annoyed sigh.

“I might’ve known you’d find a way to ruin even that.”

“And she just ‘ports people around whenever she feels like it,” Toby huffed. “Usually doesn’t even ask. She’s even an elf!”

“Well, you have to understand Arachne’s mindset,” Vesk chuckled. “She’s never had much patience for philosophical dilemmas. Everybody comes out the other end with their memories and personality as intact and unchanged as their bodies, so why bother mulling pointless questions? Stuff like that is the lion’s share of why Arachne has never fit in with the other elves.”

“Also it’s pretty much a bogus question,” Gabriel said distractedly, still peering about at the surrounding dark. “Since you can’t break the teleport spell into its component parts. You can’t use it to just disappear someone without an exit point, or duplicate them. You have to move the subject from one point to another. Okay, I know I heard something out there.”

“Where are we?” Trissiny demanded.

“Uncomfortably close to Veilgrad, as the mole burrows,” Vesk said, leaning forward so that the firelight cast dramatic shadows over his face and causing her to roll her eyes. “Welcome, my children, to the lost city of Irivoss.”

Toby frowned. “Where?”

“There are, as you know, three Themynrite drow cities upon this continent,” Vesk explained, his voice echoing in the darkness. “Tar’naris, Akhvaris, and the unnamed city. Yes, I know its name, but nobody on the surface needs to; for purposes of this discussion, that’s an apt demonstration of my point. Each Themynrite city is an island, deprived of contact with its sister cities. All are fully devoted to Themynra’s sacred charge: to form a living, fighting barrier between Scyllith’s deep drow and the surface world. Existing in isolation as they do, they have developed no overarching Themynrite culture, and each has created its own way of expressing her will. The Narisians, like the Nathloi over in Sifan, have raided the surface for slaves and supplies, and have been amenable to peaceful trade and, much more recently, alliance. Tiraas’s firepower helping hold back the deep drow is an unprecedented development, and while that treaty is young, other human nations are eyeing it as a potential example. Queen Takamatsu is very interested in its implications. The Akhvari, by contrast, regard themselves as under a kind of sacred quarantine. They have consented to speak, briefly, with Imperial ambassadors at their borders, but they permit no one to cross, conduct no trade, and have never attempted to come out for any reason. And of course, the drow of the third city regard themselves as a kind of cleansing flame. Anything which approaches their borders from either direction is met with unreasoning violence. It’s funny, isn’t it? So many different ways for the commands of one goddess to be observed. But you see, kids, there are three Themynrite cities here now. At one time, on this continent, there were five.”

He paused, likely just for effect, and in that moment there came a soft rustle, practically impossible to discern above the faint crackling of the fire. Then it came again, louder, and clearly from the darkness beyond them. Trissiny and Gabriel both drew weapons, shifting on their seats to peer around.

Vesk gave no sign of noticing, just continuing with his tale. “The first was lost ages and ages ago. Closer to the Elder Wars than to today, in a period before anything modern human records touch. Only the gods and the elves of Qestraceel remember Rakhivar at all. Their defenses faltered under the onslaught. The Scyllithenes broke through, routed the Rakhavi, and breached the surface. The Pantheon were forced to intervene directly—in fact, it was our last act of cooperation with Naiya, and pretty much the last time she was coherent enough to have a conversation with anyone, at least until Arachne began poking at her more recently. The whole city was flooded with lava and buried, the passage permanently sealed off.”

“Why not just collapse all the tunnels, then?” Gabriel asked, still peering around at the blackness at the edge of the firelight. There were no more skittering noises, for now. “Put a stop to that once and for all…”

“Come on, Gabe, don’t you think elves who live deep underground know how to dig? If all the tunnels were closed off, they’d just bore their own, and then they might pop up anywhere at all. No, there are paths left theoretically open, which is much easier than tunneling even if the Themynrites block them off. And yes, after eight thousand years, they could probably have gotten out faster if they had devoted themselves to excavating, but you have to understand how Scyllithenes think. Doing lots and lots of hard work is just plain not on the table, not when the alternative is committing horrific violence against those they see as enemies. So obsessive are they on this point that no major incursions of deep drow have ever tunneled all the way to the surface, at least not under their own power. That’s an excellent example of why they cannot be allowed to have access to the surface kingdoms.

“And that brings us to the fall of Irivoss,” Vesk continued, staring solemnly into the last dim flickers of flame. He had obviously conjured the fire here, wood and all; there was no fuel for it in this place. “The Irivoi were even more amenable to surface contact than the Narisians, and less inherently predatory about it. They had a great influence on the culture that would become the Stalweiss. Humans used to come to them, offering their strength and skill in combat against the deep drow in exchange for wisdom, divine and in rare cases arcane magics, and metalwork far beyond their own technology. The drow kept their mortal visitors at arm’s length…at first. Time passed, familiarity grew, and eventually it came to be that the primitive humans were a downright common sight in Irivoss. And this, in turn, fostered doubt. Very reasonable questions of the sort that the drow priestesses could not allow. Why must we bleed and struggle to protect these humans, who are so much physically stronger? What makes us truly better than the Scyllithene? Can we not take what we need from those above and below us? Would it really be so terrible if they were allowed to meet? Why should we care what happens to the surface world?”

“Okay, what is that?” Gabriel asked somewhat shrilly, getting to his feet. The other two did likewise, turning to stare out into the black. The rustling noises were intermittent still, but clearly came from all sides now.

“These questions rise in every Themynrite city, of course,” Vesk continued, ignoring them, “and are suppressed. But in Irivoss, the suppression…failed. Eventually the unthinkable and unacceptable occurred: complete penetration from both sides. The slightest trickle of deep drow sneaking through to the surface, and humans journeying beyond the lower gates to learn from the Scyllithenes. The Irivoi had failed in their sacred charge. And so, Themynra commanded them to die. Those still loyal and obedient, she ordered to end themselves and their entire society.

“And so they did.” Finally, the god stood up and turned to look outward, as the three of them already had, raising both his hands. “Let me introduce you.”

Light bloomed, clean, white light. It rose first from crystals embedded in the pillars of the temple above them, rising to illuminate the ruined splendor. Then it spread outward, ancient magics long dormant coming to life again at the god’s will, and crystals began to gleam throughout the city. They illuminated the ruin of crushed and fallen structures as well as the majesty of beautiful stonework still standing, rising and spreading ever outward until they revealed the shape of lost Irivoss, its half-moon arc around the black surface of a subterranean lake. The temple appeared to be at the highest point of the city, overlooking it all and built right against the wall of its massive cavern.

None of them appreciated the view.

The spiders were everywhere. They had clearly been creeping closer ever since the intruders had arrived, and were not arrayed just beyond what had been the rim of the firelight. Ranging from the size of wolves to a few specimens bigger than oxen, their carapaces glistened and sparkled in the sudden illumination, apparently encrusted with gems.

As the light rose, they swiftly retreated. A veritable tide of them hurried back down the sides of the temple and those thronging the ruined streets scuttled away into the shelter of buildings, tunnels, and alleys.

“Veth’na alaue,” Trissiny whispered.

“Dreadcrawlers do not enjoy light,” Vesk said with a casual shrug. “That and the fact that they’re rubbish at digging are the saving graces of this whole mess. They can’t get to the surface, and wouldn’t if they could. It was humans and dwarves who collapsed the tunnels and did their best to bury and forget the entrance to Irivoss after the priestesses did this to their people. Now, nobody on the surface even remembers this city, and so much the better. The dreadcrawlers, you see, are only sort of alive. There was necromancy involved in their creation; they’re basically walking husks, made almost entirely of chitin with very few squishy parts, and exceedingly durable against physical damage. Practically immune to magic, as well. They’re also as immortal as the drow they once were, and don’t strictly need to eat. They can eat, and will eagerly do so, but that’s only part of their breeding cycle. Given meat to polish off, they’ll make more dreadcrawlers.

“And still, the Scyllithenes have not collapsed their end of the tunnel. They still keep trying to attack Irivoss. It’s been four millennia and that always ends badly for them. But they can’t pass up having something to fight.”

“Themynra,” Toby whispered, aghast, “did that? To her own people?”

Now, in the rekindled light, they could see that the entire city practically sparkled with enormous spider webs.

“A lot of surprising things happened in the Third Hellwar,” Vesk mused, gazing out across the ruin of Irivoss. “One of which was Arachne popping up. I doubt she’s mentioned this to you—she doesn’t like to talk about it—but she and Elilial handed Scyllith the last and greatest spanking that old bag ever received, the most crushing defeat she’d suffered since Lil cast her into the Underworld in the first place. Ever since, she has been…remarkably quiet. Her own consciousness even more scattered and unfocused than Naiya’s, and her drow completely deprived of unifying agency. They’re just widespread colonies of maniacal murderers these days, without a singular purpose. You can’t imagine the reprieve this has been for the Themynrites. Before that… Rakhivar wasn’t the first or last city to fall. Themynra wasn’t winning. Honestly, I sometimes wondered if Scyllith wasn’t trying all that hard to break out—if she was just having too much fun slowly crushing the upper drow, one city at a time, to actually campaign for her own freedom. That was exactly the kind of thing she used to do, back when she was loose. Even the other Elder Gods didn’t want her around, and they were vicious megalomaniacs at their very best.”

He turned and paced forward, along the half-fallen colonnade of the main temple space, till he came to the top of a wide flight of stairs leading down into the spider-infested city. Silently, they followed him.

“And this is what godhood means,” Vesk said, staring emptily across the ancient ruin. “Compromises made with countless lives. Responsibilities no one could possibly uphold, weighed against fates too terrible to be imagined and costs no one should have to pay. It would make anyone detached after thousands of years, but the very thing that prevents us from becoming the monsters that power makes of everyone leaves us vulnerable to…subtler influences. We gods are fixed, in what we are. We can make decisions, up to a point, but at our core? We are cause and effect. Rules, unalterable and absolute. And so you know my bias, when I say that slamming a door in Scyllith’s face was well worth the atrocity done to these people. That is how terrible she was, in her heyday. And how unable I am to even entertain the idea that I might be wrong.”

Abruptly, he turned to face them.

“You’re desperate, by now, to know what the point of all this is. Why I sent you on this damn fool quest, what that key unlocks. It is a key to the possibility of change, my heroes. You see, the last and worst thing the Irivoi did, that caused Themynra to give up on them? They reopened a tunnel to the ancient Infinite Order machine which struck down the old gods and raised the new ones. I can’t even approach it; none of my brethren can. And for the longest time, I never doubted that that was a good thing. We have way too much power as it is without being tempted by the prospect of more. But things…have changed. If the Pantheon is going to survive the changes that are coming, I need you to take that key to that terrible contraption… And turn it back on.”

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14 -27

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“Lil,” Izara said in a supremely even tone, “you are looking well.”

“Why, yes, Iz,” Elilial replied with lurid emphasis, “I am. No thanks to you, of course.”

Izara inclined her head very slightly, folding her hands demurely before her. “I was very sorry to hear of—”

DON’T YOU DARE

Elilial did not speak. Reality rippled outward from her in a shockwave very like the previous disruption which had merged the dimensions, and in it were words, and the full weight of her outrage and derision—and, yes, grief—pressing on the minds of all those present. The mortals without exception stumbled backward from the sudden impact of it, though no physical force had touched them. Izara, by contrast, remained perfectly serene in her bearing, despite the way her clothes and hair were blown back by Elilial’s fury as though she stood momentarily in a high wind.

“Nonetheless,” the love goddess said quietly, “I was. I acknowledge your grudge, and that you aren’t without a point…in a way. But I would not have wished that—”

“Not another word,” Elilial grated. “You’re more a hypocrite than any of them, Izara, and that is truly saying something. If you had a beating heart or a shred of empathy you would have stopped that, at the very, utterly least. More likely would have resisted them with me in the beginning. Or if nothing else, walked away like Themynra did.”

“You were never completely in the wrong, in your beliefs,” Izara said sadly, “but the situation has never for a moment been as simple as you make it out to be. I wish I could make you see that.”

“They’re called principles, Izara,” the other goddess sneered. “I wish I could make you understand that, just because the reality of the concept would probably shatter your consciousness. Trissiny, don’t make me laugh. I am really not in the mood for your slapstick.”

Trissiny had taken two steps forward and had sword and shield up and ready; at being addressed directly, she stopped, not relaxing in the slightest. “Slapstick. I’ve been accused of some wild things, some of them accurately, but that is a first.”

“I’ve never yet personally harmed a Hand of Avei,” Elilial said dryly. “The few who managed to stand before me I sent off with a pat on the head and some motherly advice. They hate that; the outrage is absolutely hysterical. I honestly think you might be the first one willing to share a spot of banter. Eserion and Vesk have really done a number on you, haven’t they?”

“Get back, Trissiny,” Izara ordered. “And don’t you start, either!”

Toby had stepped forward as well, on her other side. Both paladins were still a few steps behind the love goddess, but flanked her in ready stances, staring down the queen of Hell.

“Aw, look how protective they are,” Elilial cooed. “Ready to lay down their fleeting little lives to defend this delicate flower of the Pantheon’s gentility. How utterly precious.”

“It’s all right, children,” Izara insisted softly. “I am not in danger here.”

“Yes, killing a god is not such a simple matter,” Elilial agreed. “Power for power, this waffling little puff of pixie dust doesn’t approach a match for me, or I assure you I’d have snuffed her out without bothering to chitchat. Everything that need be said between us was done eons ago. No, to annihilate a god, you have to get…creative. To sever them from their animating aspect, or simply remove it from the world. Ironically, the Pantheon are far more dangerous to one another than I am—I, at least, care what happens to the people of this planet. Just ask Khar. Oh, but I forgot. I guess you can’t.”

“Mortimer,” Izara said calmly, still holding Elilial’s gaze, “I want you to take the paladins and get back to Ninkabi with all haste.”

“Invulnerable or not, lady, you can’t ask me to leave you here,” Agasti insisted. “Not that. I would far rather—”

“She is stealth and deception incarnate,” Izara interrupted, and for the first time there was an audible strain in her voice. Watching her, Elilial began to smile. “The rest of the Pantheon is not coming—they don’t know this is happening. I can protect you from her for a time, but you must go!”

“Always in such a rush,” Elilial drawled. “Let your boy show off his courage, Izara. After all, how often does the chance for a conversation like this—”

The goddess broke off and physically jumped, stiffening up. Slowly, she turned around, angling her body to finally grant them all a glimpse of the hellgate behind her.

From the barely-visible vortex another figure had emerged, his dark green coat and slightly unkempt black hair ruffling in the breeze caused by air pressure equalizing across the rift. Gabriel was returning his staff to the upright position when Elilial’s burning gaze fell upon him, and he greeted her with an angelic little smile.

“You,” Elilial said flatly, “Did. Not.”

“So! It doesn’t kill gods,” he said. “And now we know.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Gabriel Arquin!”

For all that he had appeared without any of them noticing during the confrontation, Vesk still managed to make an entrance. By the time everyone turned to stare at him, he had already struck a dashing pose and plastered on a big, insouciant grin. It helped that he punctuated his introduction by striking a triumphant chord on his lute.

“You!” barked half a dozen people.

“Me!” Vesk exclaimed happily. “And not a moment too soon, I see! Of course, that goes without saying. A bard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely—”

“I’m gonna punch him,” Trissiny announed, taking a step toward the god.

“Nothing goes without saying with this one,” Elilial added wearily.

“Whoah, now, okay, let’s all settle down,” Vesk interjected in a soothing voice, holding up both hands at them all in a placating gesture. His lute hovered in the air next to him where he’d let go of it. “We’re all one act of careless temper from kicking off entirely the wrong climax for this story. Blood, tears, and suffering, y’all know the drill. But it isn’t time for that yet. Each of these things must happen at the proper moment, otherwise it all goes right to hell.”

“I have found myself wondering, over the years,” Elilial said, glaring down at him, “whether I could begin the process of snuffing you out by getting you into one of your well-trod archetypal narrative paths and them yanking you right out of it by not doing what the story demands next.”

“Worth a try,” he said agreeably, with a little shrug. “Of course, that experiment will probably have to wait. I assume you’d much rather find out who murdered your children, and six other children in the process, not that you care about that.”

“Vesk,” Izara exclaimed.

Elilial shifted without stepping; one moment she stood in front of Gabriel and the hellgate and in the next had seized the goddess of love by the throat and hiked her bodily off the ground. All the paladins and Agasti immediately surged forward, but were just as quickly stopped by a force that was not physical, nor even perceptible, but inexorable all the same. Something was projected by the three gods, some pattern woven right into reality itself, and the mortals present could no more step out of the roles it demanded of them than they could have lifted themselves off the ground by their own hair.

“You do not know,” Elilial whispered, “how treacherous is the ground on which you stand, Vesk. You think you know, but you don’t.”

“Once in a while, antagonists find themselves at common purpose,” Vesk replied, his solemn expression contrasting with the playful strumming of the lute, which he still wasn’t touching. “That secret isn’t mine to keep, Lil, and I’m with Izzy on this matter: despite what you think, there are some lines I don’t care to see crossed, and some offenses that demand to be avenged. I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.”

“If,” she growled, “I dance to your tune.” Her grip tightened on Izara’s throat, and the smaller goddess tilted her chin up slightly in response, still without struggling. All of them were beings well beyond the physical forms they now presented; the evidently mortal drama now playing out between them was a manifestation of something happening on a different level entirely. It was difficult to look at directly and impossible to look away from; pressure was building up from the exposure of human consciousness to something it wasn’t meant to experience. So far, all of the mortals held their ground, weapons and magics at the ready, but no one could make themselves intervene by even so much as a word of objection.

“But it’s such a simple few steps,” Vesk said, smiling, “and you do it so well. Come on, Lily, you have your own reasons for wanting everything to fall into place at the right moment. I’m not holding out on you; there are some things that can’t be rushed, and you know it well. You know the forces that can…inhibit the likes of you and I from doing what we wish. These delightful youngsters are assembling a key for me. A key to the ultimate lock. You know the one.”

Slowly and slightly, Elilial relaxed her fingers on Izara’s neck, though her eyes remained locked on Vesk. “You have finally lost it.”

“You can’t do this, Vesk,” Izara agreed, somewhat hoarsely. “It won’t work.”

“It won’t work the way it did for us,” he agreed. “Weren’t we just discussing timing? There’ll be no apotheosis for the kiddos, don’t you worry. The alignment isn’t here yet; the great doom is still coming. But it’s close. The lock can be opened. And there is much to be gained from the opening, with the right key in hand.”

“You know who will be released if they do that!” Izara said urgently.

“Common cause, indeed,” Elilial added, giving her a grudging sidelong look. “Letting that thing out is absolutely out of the question. We worked too hard and sacrificed too much to make sure the monster couldn’t escape.”

“And so the monster won’t,” Vesk said, bestowing upon them all a placid smile which just begged for a slapping. “Because this must be done now, at the right time. Just before the alignment, when true escape is impossible, when there will be no gods present to provide fuel for the fire. When a few sufficiently gifted mortals—like, say, three paladins—can snatch their treasure from the beast, and yank out the key again before she can escape.”

In the silence which fell, the hellgate whistled ominously.

“Let her go, Lil,” Vesk said softly. “Let them go. Once they do what they need to, I’ll have your answer.”

“Oh, you’ll have it,” she said, narrowing her eyes to blazing slits. “But that does me no good, Vesk. I know very well what your integrity is worth. I will make you a deal, though.” A smile lifted one side of her mouth, and for the first time, Izara struggled weakly, lifting her hands to grasp Elilial’s wrist. “We will consider your champions the collateral. Send them in there with your key. If they survive, you’ll owe me the truth. And if I don’t get the truth, Vesk, I will claim them.”

Trissiny finally managed to emit a growling noise from deep in her throat. It was more than any of the rest of them could do. There was no force upon them, no restraint they could feel; the thing holding them back was subtle, ineffable, and felt almost like their own impulses. They stood, and watched, because in this drama they were the bystanders and could not go against their role.

“You’ve struck down brave Hands of the Pantheon before,” Izara said, her voice slightly strained by the grip on her neck—or rather, by Elilial’s grip on something important in her being which looked, to the mortal eyes watching, like a hand holding her throat. “You, and yours, and it’s never profited you in the long run. More will rise.”

“Exactly. I’m not going to kill them.” Elilial turned her eyes on Izara and grinned broadly. “You are. I will take them back to the domain you cast me into, beyond the reach of your power. And there I will tell them the truth. All of it. Everything you did. To the Infinite Order, to me, to those who worked and fought alongside us, to all the people of this world. To them. And once I’ve done that… I will trust their sense of justice. When that great doom comes and I return to claim what’s mine, it’ll be with three of your own paladins leading my armies. Have we a deal, Vesk?”

He raised his eyebrows, seeming unconcerned by her threats and Izara’s plight. “You’re that confident they would side with you?”

“That’s the ultimate flaw in this whole paladin thing, you know,” Elilial replied in a lightly conversational tone. “You two, at least, have better sense than to raise up and empower beings of pure, incarnate principle. You get by with being inherently sleazy and vague, respectively, and your followers don’t stand to lose much by following your asshole example. Maybe Vidius’s new pet would stick by his master; he seems a charmingly irreverent boy. But Avei’s? Omnu’s? Those raised and trained to honor justice, and life? You know what they will do when they learn the truth.” Slowly, her grin broadened into a vicious snarl, and the hand clutching Izara’s throat tightened. “All these years I have respected that unspoken truce. I could have done this at any time, simply abducted the Pantheon’s best servants beyond its reach and stripped away your lies. But you kept your hands off my daughters, and I showed restraint in return. Now, though? We’ve well and truly moved beyond that, haven’t we?”

“Vesk, no,” Izara rasped. “They aren’t yours to gamble with! They’ll never survive what you’re sending them into, and even if they do—”

“But don’t you see, Iz?” he said with a soft, plaintive sigh. “This is the price that must be paid, the suffering that must be endured. We’ve come to that point in the story. Without a cost incurred, it can’t progress. I have worked so hard, harder than you’ll ever know, to ensure the stakes are as bloodless as I could make them. There’s been no way to save everyone, but the kids have made it so far without paying for their success with the lives of their comrades. We need them all to live a while longer, and so the cost comes in the risk I can’t face for them, and the devil’s bargain they can’t even decline. Just because nobody’s died doesn’t mean there are no stakes. This isn’t that kind of story. Yet.” He turned his focus back to Elilial, and swept a bow, doffing his floppy hat. “We have a deal.”

She held his eyes for a moment, simply to make her point, and then abruptly released both Izara and the world. The indefinable pressure holding everyone in place lifted, and immediately all three paladins charged her.

In the next moment all went bowling over like ninepins. She hadn’t so much as gestured.

“That’s an option, you know,” Elilial said pleasantly, turning to sweep a smug little smile across them. “Let’s say you succeed at the insanity your patron, here, is about to drop you into. Then there are two outcomes: either he keeps his word and I get to learn what I need to drive a stake through the rotten heart of the Pantheon…or he doesn’t, which I would say is about fifty-fifty odds, and I get you. I’m the goddess of cunning, ducklings; this is what I do. Any way it shakes out, I win. But there is, of course, one alternative. If you want to arrange it so that I lose, all you have to do is die.” She grinned broadly down at them. “I’m sure you will have no trouble finding an opportunity. Oh, it won’t be so bad! Paladins automatically get seats in the best part of Vidius’s little hive-mind heaven. And your gods won’t really need their laboriously-trained paladins when that great doom hits in a few years, now, will they?”

“So help me,” Trissiny grated.

“Oh, don’t be boring,” Elilial admonished. “Every Hand of Avei blusters and makes threats she can’t back up. What happened to being your own woman? You were off to such a promising start just a moment ago. Oh, and Gabriel: don’t forget your baggage.”

Stepping over to the hellgate again, she plunged one arm into the vortex momentarily, then pulled it back out with a struggling khelminash demon gripped by her hair. Gabriel actually let go of the scythe to catch the woman as Elilial tossed her in his general direction.

The queen of Hell, meanwhile, lifted one hoof to step back into it, her half-disappeared leg an eerie sight where it vanished into the scarcely perceptible swirl of the new hellgate. “One way or another, kids, I’ll be seeing you soon. And just to show you all what a good sport I am, I will do my part from my end to close this exciting new escape hatch you’ve so thoughtfully provided for me. After all, it’s not as if I need any more help to get my way in the world. Ta ta…for now.”

Ducking her head, she slipped back through.

Behind her, the swirl diminished under the combined stares of Izara and Vesk, until with a final soft puff, it vanished entirely into the air.

There was silence.

“What?” Gabriel said, picking up his scythe and grinning at them. “No hug? It’s not every day a guy comes back from Hell, y’know.”

“I cannot believe,” Toby said, staring at him, “you tried to stab Elilial in the back.”

“That motion could hardly have been described as a stab,” Ariel said. “He poked her. In the butt.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Vesk repeated, grinning insanely, “I give you Gabriel Arquin! But, ah, anyway… I suppose you’ll be wanting a few questions answered.”

Trissiny had taken two steps toward Gabriel, sheathing her sword and looking very much as if she did intend to hug him. But at that, she abruptly changed course, crossed the distance to Vesk in three long strides, and punched him hard in the stomach.

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14 – 26

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In that moment of absolute tension, Gabriel called on every scrap of education he had received thus far. Val Tarvadegh’s coaching kept him still, kept any hint of his thoughts or feelings away from his face—though it would have been presumptuous in the extreme to assume he could stand before the very goddess of cunning and prevent her from knowing the shape of his mind.

Elilial appeared to be ignoring him for the moment, critically studying the scythe in her hands, which he knew was an affectation. Prince Vanislaas, by contrast, stared avidly, his lips bent in a hungry little smile. That was the look of a vulture observing a dying cow’s last breath. Xyraadi was still prostrate on the ground, her face pressed against the now-dead grass from the other world. Ariel, wisely, kept silent.

There was absolutely no winning here, through either power or strategy. Considering who he was dealing with, outsmarting his foes didn’t appear to be an option either. That left…what?

The basics.

Gabriel knew his failings; it had been repeatedly pointed out to him that his self-awareness with regard to his own weakness was one of his greatest strengths. So he channeled better examples, and put on a mask.

The posture exemplified by Professor Ezzaniel, Trissiny and Toby: a martial artist’s bearing, fully upright but not stiff like a soldier’s, a stance that conveyed poise and command, and bless Ezzaniel for so laboriously beating that into him over the last two years. The ineffable, inoffensive arrogance of Ravana Madouri and Sekandar Aldarasi, a subtle positioning of countenance which conveyed absolute self-confidence even when such was wildly inappropriate, without being aggressive. Intuitively he felt that a better choice here than Shaeine’s more serene poise.

“Excuse me.” Gabriel borrowed Tellwyrn’s voice, the tone she used that didn’t bother to be peremptory or commanding, but secured obedience through the simple conviction that she would be obeyed because this fact was as immutable as the downward acceleration of velocity resulting from the pull of gravity. He held out his hand in a gesture that was part Ezzaniel and part Ravana and just a little bit Darling, graceful and commanding and a tad effeminate. “That is mine. Return it, please.”

Prince Vanislaas’s red eyes widened notably, as did his smile. The demon lord actually began dry-rubbing his hands together in visible eagerness for whatever was about to unfold.

Xyraadi quivered.

Elilial looked up from her perusal of the weapon to meet his eyes, and Gabriel had the sudden and deeply incongruous thought that she wasn’t nearly as pretty as she could be, even aside from the horns and red skin and such. Couldn’t a goddess take any form she desired? She had rather hawkish features, a nose that was too long for her face, and despite a rather skimpy leather outfit (with metal spikes and buckles serving no evident purpose) she was much more lanky than curvy. Though of course, standards differed across eras and cultures, to say nothing of individuals. He wondered if there was some significance to her appearance, something he could perhaps use. Unlikely, but he wasn’t too proud to grasp at any straw at this point.

“Salyrene’s work,” she mused after a hesitation, returning her gaze to the scythe and slowly turning it over in her hands. “They’re very adaptive, you see; she is the best at what she does. Yes, this thing has a long memory, much of its shape and nature comes from its first master. But your touch is present, as well, Gabriel Arquin. Such…restraint, it has leaned from you. How odd, considering your reputation.”

She could probably hear his heart pounding. Well, hell, just because the game was over didn’t mean he had to concede. Gabriel cleared his throat loudly, raised his eyebrows in an expression he had seen Shaeine and Ruda both use to great effect, and subtly extended his outstretched hand an inch further in a silent demand.

“You know why Vidius is the god of death?” Elilial asked, now smiling down at him. “A coincidental affiliation that was baked right into his very identity when we seized ascension for ourselves. All due to his association with the valkyries. He won Naiya to our side by sheltering and supporting them. Have you ever found yourself wholly dependent upon someone for your very existence, Gabriel? Even if they are less of a two-faced snake than Vidius, it’s a relationship that tends to provoke…resentment. Have your valkyrie friends ever complained to you about your mutual boss?” One corner of her mouth drew upward in a lopsided smirk. “No? You needn’t answer, young man, I seldom trouble to ask questions unless I already know how they end. There’s a warning in that silence, you know. Everyone complains about their boss… Unless they are too afraid to.”

Gabriel experienced a most peculiar sensation. His mouth moved and words fell out, but unlike the habitual blathering habits which had caused him so much trouble over the years, he felt an almost transcendent state of flow, as if he were truly in control in a way he couldn’t even consciously grasp.

“Yes, yes,” he heard himself say in a bored tone, “and thus the seeds of suspicion are sown between me and my patron, and meanwhile there is no need for you to be insulting, madam. If I’m important enough to manipulate, I’m important enough to deserve better than cheap tricks that even Vesk wouldn’t write into a ballad. My scythe, if you please.”

“Oh, I like him,” Vanislaas breathed, pausing to lick his lips. “Such a shame he has the two-faced one’s favor; I dearly wish his soul could return here. He’d make such a splendid incubus. Elilial, my darling, may we restrain him here?”

“Hush, Van,” she said fondly. “Ignore him, Gabriel. You have nothing to fear from me.” So saying, she lightly tossed the scythe in the air, making its wicked length spin once, and caught it on the haft just below the blade, which ended up pointing skyward. Its long, subtly twisted shaft extended toward Gabriel, ending just barely past the reach of his hand. “My high priest nurtures a…pet theory, if you will, that he can somehow turn you three paladins against your masters by slowly introducing you to the truth. I know your gods better than you and I rather think they’ll just kill you if you learn more than they want you to know, but Embras is a good servant and I am willing to indulge him. Much more to the point, I’ve promised Arachne to bring no harm to her students—and that includes by omission and negligence. And…it seems my Vadrieny does rather like you, for some reason. Altogether, these facts mean you are as safe with me as anyone can be said to be, anywhere. For whatever that may be worth.”

He just met her fiery gaze until she came to a stop, before finally stepping forward and extending his hand to grasp the scythe. He’d half-expected her to exert some petty little power move, like moving it out of his reach or using it to tug him off balance, but she simply waited until he had a firm grip and released the weapon.

“Thank you,” Gabriel said with light dignity from behind the mask of Ravana Madouri, regretting that he hadn’t troubled to get to know the girl better. What little he had picked up of her mannerisms was already fabulously useful; the undeserved poise was very appropriate in this situation.

“Of course,” Elilial continued, and the combination of deliberately casual tone and overtly sly expression was a screaming warning of danger, “the same is not true of your little…friend back there.”

Xyraadi quivered again, not lifting her face out of the dust.

“This is a rare treat,” the dark goddess purred. “It is not every day a traitor wanders right back into my web. I don’t begrudge the odd demon struggling to escape this realm, Gabriel; you can plainly see what a mess it is. If I had my way, nobody would have to live here. But the khelminash are another matter. All the trouble I go to, ensuring they have lives of comfort! And truly, Xyraadi’s existence before she betrayed her kith and kin was luxurious beyond the dreams of most of Hell’s denizens. For that, I only ask diligent service; I don’t think that unfair. Yet, not only did she flee at the first chance, but threw in her lot with the Pantheon!” Elilial’s lips drew wider, baring teeth in an expression that no longer pretended to be a smile. “I suppose one betrayer is attracted to others. But to willingly bend knee to beings who despise you? I am torn between simply destroying the little wretch and compelling her to give me a satisfactory explanation first!”

Xyraadi emitted a shrill little groan, quickly stifled.

Gabriel took two steps to plant himself between her and Elilial, deliberately placing the butt of his scythe against the ground, holding the weapon up but not in an aggressive position. “Or you could do neither, and kindly show us where to find the nearest hellgate.”

Prince Vanislaas giggled. That was somehow much more unsettling than if he had unleashed a sinister laugh like a villain in a play.

“Young man,” Elilial said condescendingly, “I don’t know what made you think this is a negotiation, or that you are a party to it. Move aside, please.”

But it was, he realized as she spoke. A being like Elilial did nothing without a purpose and a plan, and there was no reason for her to make speeches in his presence unless she saw a reason for him to hear her thoughts. Still not losing sight of how out of his depth he was, Gabriel nonetheless concluded it best served his interests here to play along.

“Regardless,” he said firmly, switching to a mask of Trissiny implacably facing down a foe (and immediately thinking Toby doing the same might have been a smarter mask to assume but not willing to weaken his position by waffling), “Xyraadi is a friend and has helped me considerably, not to mention that I’m responsible for her being here. I’m not going to allow you to touch her.”

Elilial took one long stride closer, the dead earth crunching beneath her hoof, and loomed over him. Gabriel realized that his instinct had been right; they were playing roles, now, and Trissiny’s righteous defiance best suited the one in which he’d been cast.

“You can’t possibly imagine you are a threat to me, boy,” the goddess said, her voice just above a whisper and yet projecting powerfully over him. “Why don’t you spare yourself some avoidable grief and move?”

He pitched his own voice low and even, but firm. “You can’t possibly imagine that you’re a threat to the Pantheon, lady. Why don’t you?”

In the subtle but swift widening of her fiery eyes, Gabriel had a sudden warning that he’d gone off-script and was about to pay dearly for it.

Then Vanislaas began laughing. Loud and deep this time, wracked by belly guffaws that almost doubled him over.

“Shut up, Van,” Elilial snapped, cutting her gaze to him. It served to break the tension Gabriel had just created, and he wondered how much of this encounter was proceeding according to a script. Between Vesk and Elilial, nothing would have surprised him at that point. “I give you credit for not brandishing your weapon at me, Gabriel, but that appears to be the full extent of your forethought. Why in the hell, pun intended, should I show any compassion to this backstabbing creature?”

Well, it was a slender opening, but he’d take it. “How can you not? If you’re not going to kill me and you think there’s some strategic merit in influencing me, a show of force here doesn’t gain you anything. It’s not as if your power is in question.” Again, his words tumbled out, but they fell smoothly this time and left him with the sense that some part of him was in control, even if it was calculating too fast for his conscious brain to follow. “You can either play right into the stereotype of you that the Pantheon and the Universal Church try to push, or show a little…nuance. Are you the mad monster, or is there maybe something more going on here? Something it would benefit you to have a paladin wondering about?”

“Hmm,” she murmured, her expression calming, and once again that lopsided smirk tugged at her lips. “There may be something to that, after all. But meet me halfway, Gabriel. If you expect me to suspend my retribution on the one under your protection, it’s only fair that you offer me something in return.”

A sudden realization swept in, and both instinct and strategy prompted him to go with it. “No, I don’t think so.”

Xyraadi emitted a plaintive squeak. Elilial took another step forward, now looming over him with more overt and deliberate menace. “Oh? You are a presumptuous one, aren’t you?”

“And you don’t know when to stop,” he retorted. “You just got me to argue out loud why you’re not such a bad sort after all. Really well done, very crafty. I’m pretty sure I’ve had Eserites tell me about that trick. Fine, that’s your win; congratulations. You’re not extracting further concessions from me on top of it. If anything, maybe I should be asking for a favor now.”

Xyraadi reached feebly to tug at the leg of his trousers in a silent plea. Gabriel didn’t dare acknowledge her in that moment.

“Oh, but isn’t he delightful!” Prince Vanislaas crowed. “Please, Lil, can’t we keep him? He’s a little rough, sure, but the potential!”

“Yes, it’s a funny thing,” Elilial said dryly, ignoring her underling for now. “Spend a few thousand years as the actual goddess of a thing and you get sort of good at it. You do surprise me, though, Gabriel Arquin. Based upon everything I’ve heard of you, I really didn’t expect you to pick up on that. Color me…grudgingly impressed.”

“And that’s really good flattery,” he replied in the same tone. “Just the right hint of condescension to make it backhanded and harder to spot. Got me right in the ego.”

“All right, boy, don’t push your luck,” she said, fortunately in amusement. “Xyraadi, have some damned dignity. Your young friend here at least faces certain destruction with his spine in the vertical position, and now look! He appears to have bluffed his way out of it. There’s a lesson in that, if you have the wit to learn it. Van, how is your work progressing?”

“Splendidly,” the demon lord replied in a self-satisfied tone. “While you were playing verbal footsie over there, I’ve intercepted overtures from dear old Mortimer, directed at young Master Arquin.”

“When did you have time to do that?” Gabriel asked in spite of himself.

“Really, young man,” Vanislaas said, arching a condescending eyebrow. “Not everyone performs magic with grandiose and gratuitous gestures and sparkles. The Elilinist tradition of infernomancy is all about subtlety; it is by definition poor technique if anyone standing nearby even discerns that you are casting, much less what you are casting. Oh, but matters are ever so much more intriguing than we first anticipated, my darling,” he added to Elilial. “I presented my replies as coming from little Xyraadi over there, and my hunch was correct: no one was surprised. But Lil, dearest, it is not just Mortimer, nor even mostly Mortimer, working to extract our young friend. I think you will find this a grand opportunity.”


“Oh, no.”

That was the last thing anyone wanted to hear a goddess say under any circumstances, but especially not when they were in the process of boring a hole into Hell. At Izara’s soft interjection, Toby and Trissiny both stepped up on both sides of her and Agasti strode forward from his position on the sidelines, where his expertise had been rendered somewhat redundant by the presence of a deity to handle their dimensional bridge as it formed.

Izara didn’t look at any of them, seemingly keeping her attention focused on the nascent gate, which at that point was still little more than a shimmer in the air. “Stay back, children. This is more than you’re prepared to handle.”

“We’re far from helpless,” Trissiny said tersely. “Is it demons?”

“Is Gabriel all right?” Toby added.

“Back,” she said with enough of a snap in her voice that both obeyed. “We’ve been tricked. I’ve been tricked. That’s always a risk when one deals with Hell, but this…this is worse than I feared. All of you, be prepared to flee. Do not attempt to fight what’s coming.”

“That gate is still forming,” Agasti objected. “If it’s that dangerous, we can still collapse it. Elilial herself couldn’t rip it open without help from this side.”

Izara shook her head, still staring at the distortion before them, which was beginning to take an upright ovoid shape. It was as if heat waves had been captured and formed into a pillar which was being pulled apart at its center to create an opening. “Gabriel is still in there. If we abandon him now, there is no telling when or if we might be able to try again. Not to mention what might be done to him in retaliation if we retreat from this. Some risks…have to be taken.”

The hellgate finished forming with alarming suddenness, emitting a blast of hot, sulfurous-smelling air and a telltale prickle across the skin as loose infernal radiation bled out. The aperture itself remained scarcely visible; if anything, its borders became harder to perceive as they were stretched wide to create a proper door. There wasn’t even a view into whatever lay on the other side. Light was not one of the things which innately traveled through a hellgate, all part of the same dimensional effect that made them difficult to scry through.

Then a figure stepped out, and all of them save Izara retreated further. It was not Gabriel.

She emerged one leg first, as though striding across a threshold, and appeared almost to have to clamber through the low opening, straightening up finally as she crossed fully into the mortal plane. Once there, though, Elilial raised her horned head up to its full height, staring down her nose at the more diminutive love goddess before her.

“Well, well, well,” purred the queen of Hell, and the fiery blaze of her eyes did not conceal the vengeful hunger in them. “Look what we have here.”

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