“Are you sure you should be confronting this guy?” Carter asked as they strode rapidly along the rooftop. “And no, I’m not making a tactical suggestion; this is in my professional capacity of looking for information.”
“Duly noted,” Mogul said with a grin. “I’m curious about the question, however. This chap and his various lackeys have attempted to spy on our interview and then assaulted and killed my personnel when confronted about it. While I happen to have a miscellaneous handful of warlocks and demon thralls in the area, this seems like an ideal opportunity to have a word with him.”
“But the djinn strongly advised you not to. I’m just puzzled that you’d ignore his advice after summoning him to ask for it.”
There came a pause in the conversation when they reached the edge of the building. The darkness swelled around them, and then they were stepping onto the next roof over, two stories up and thirty feet away across a broad street. Carter stumbled again, but less dramatically; he was growing more accustomed to the disorientation.
“Mr. Long,” the warlock said as they resumed walking, “I’ve just spent much of the afternoon making the case to you that the Black Wreath are not at all as you believe them to be. With that established, let me just emphasize that demons are every bit as dangerous as you’ve always been told, and worse. That is why the Wreath is important, because believe me, no one else who tries is adept at handling them without creating a mess. Making allowances for individual personalities, they are highly aggressive. Infernal magic has that effect on any form of life it corrupts. Now, djinn aren’t able to physically interact with the world, which doesn’t diminish their propensity to cause trouble; it only limits the methods by which they can do so.”
The roof along which they were walking wasn’t another flat top like the previous one; their path was a lip of stone along the edge of a steep incline shingled in ragged old slate tiles. They came to the corner, where the path was interrupted by a decorative finial, and Carter had to accept a hand to navigating his way over the smooth slope and back onto even ground on the other side. It was an apparently L-shaped structure, to judge by the long distance it stretched out on the side ahead. Embarrassing as it might be to be handed about like a lady in silks and slippers, Carter wasn’t too proud to admit he needed the assistance. Despite the excitement of this assignment, he was keenly aware of being out of his element. His avuncular suit and briefcase didn’t lend themselves to nocturnal rooftop shenanigans.
“Ali and I have a well-negotiated contract,” Mogul continued as they moved on again. “He doesn’t lie to me and answers direct queries with a minimum of obfuscation. But beyond the simple answers to my questions, in the realm of his personal opinions and asides? You’re damn right I ignore his advice. It’s calculated to trip me up, without exception. Either with the goal of weaseling out of our contract, or just to create general mayhem.”
“But…if he can’t lie…”
“And what did he say, exactly?” Mogul grinned and winked. “That I would learn humility? Come on, what does that mean? You have to be eternally on guard when negotiating with demons. Any demons, but particularly the crafty ones. Sshitherosz, djinn, Vanislaad, all the schemers. They’ll promise you your own doom in a frilly dress, and you’ll step right into it if you make the mistake of paying too much attention to the frills. The exact wording gets you every time.”
“That sounds…exhausting,” Carter mused.
“Warlocks and lawyers, Mr. Long,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Warlocks and lawyers. Ah, here we are. You may want to keep back, we’re about to have some company.”
They had come to the end of the building, where there was a small rooftop patio. Raised beds held sad-looking old dirt and the twisted skeletons of small shrubs. Mogul hopped down from their improvised walkway and positioned himself against the bannister looking over the square below, beckoning Carter over to join him.
In the next moment the shadows gathered and took shape in the lee of the overhanging roof, then receded, leaving two figures standing there. One, dressed in obscuring gray robes, was hunched over with an arm across its midsection, supported by the other, which was clearly some kind of demon. Armored plates covered its forehead and limbs.
“Ah, still breathing,” said Mogul. “I’m glad to see that.”
“I had to confiscate her potion belt,” noted the demon. “She may have already taken more than the safe dosage.”
“It hurts,” the robed figure rasped, her voice taut with pain. “Inside. Bricks landed on my back… Think I have ribs broken. And lower.”
“That’s bad,” Mogul said, frowning, “especially if you’ve been chugging potions on top of internal bleeding. You know better, Vanessa. Hrazthax, get her to a healer. You two are out of this evening’s events.”
“You sure you won’t need me here?” the demon asked.
Embras waved a hand. “She’s urgent, and by the time you got back this would all be over. Be careful, though. Speak to Ross on your way out and have him pass along the word: anyone with a Vanislaad thrall needs to send it away, and everybody watch for holy symbols popping up in surprising places. There’s a reaper on the loose.”
Hrazthax frowned heavily. “A reaper? A real one? Just on patrol, or… It’s not good if Vidius is taking an interest in this.”
“You let me worry about that,” Mogul said firmly. “Take Vanessa’s talisman and get her to help. And when you find Ross, tell him to get everyone organized; our quarry is heading to the intersection of 31st East Street and Alfarousi Avenue. Don’t impede them; get everyone set up and ready to spring at that location, on my command.”
“Got it,” said Hrazthax, nodding. “But what about—”
Vanessa groaned and slumped against him.
The hethelax nodded to Mogul once more and took something from Vanessa’s hand, which she relinquished without argument. There came a few soft clicks as he manipulated it one-handed, and then the shadows welled up again, swallowing them.
“Busy, busy,” Mogul said, straightening his lapels. “Ah, well. When things go the way I want them to, I have the damnedest time keeping myself entertained. Ironic, isn’t it? This way, if you please.”
One shadow-jump later, they were on yet another rooftop across the street, and heading toward…Carter didn’t know what. The district was like an island of quiet and darkness. On all sides, not too far distant, the lights of Tiraas blazed like a galaxy come to earth, and at this altitude the sounds of carriage traffic and periodic Rail caravans were audible, but immediately around them was desolation. He doubted he could have navigated this jumble of broken-down structures even with the streetlights working, but Embras seemed to know where he was going.
“What’s a reaper?” Carter asked, regretting having put his notebook away. Ah, well, he wasn’t great at writing while walking at the best of times, and would likely have broken his neck trying to do it while navigating rooftops.
“Grim reaper,” Mogul said as they moved, “soul harvester, valkyrie. You’ve surely heard of them under one name or another.”
It took the journalist a few seconds to gather his thoughts before he could reply.
“Well… I must say, this night is going to leave me without things not to believe in.”
Embras grinned at him. “Oh, they’re very real, but you can be forgiven for not knowing it. The Vidians don’t encourage people to ask about them, and really, nobody on the mortal plane is likely to interact with one at all unless they dabble in necromancy. It’s the reapers who usually get sent to shut that down. Oh, and Vidian exorcisms? All theater. If the death-priests want a spirit laid to rest, they put on a big show to make you think they’re being useful while a valkyrie quietly gets rid of it. Warlocks only need to know about them because they have the same authority over incubi and succubi—which, as you may know, are human souls who are not supposed to be on this plane.” He shook his head and chuckled. “Vlesni is going to wring every ounce of pathos out of this anecdote she possibly can. I hear tell getting sent back by a reaper is…uncomfortable.”
“Do you really think you can intercept your opponent if he’s got an invisible spirit working with him?” Carter asked, glancing around somewhat nervously.
“Intercept him? I’m going to do no such thing.” Mogul stopped at the edge of the current roof, one long leg raised with the foot propped on the low wall surrounding it, and grinned at him. “We’re meeting him at the end. The man’s going excessively out of his way to spell out a message. I really ought to let him finish it, don’t you think? That’s just good manners.”
“Where the hell are we going?” Weaver snarled. “And don’t feed me that bullshit about just wasting time. You keep insisting on taking specific routes!”
“Child, I swear by Omnu’s hairy third testicle I will shoot you right in the fucking mouth.”
“Settle down, good gods,” Darling reproved. “And yes, Weaver, you’re right, we are heading for an intersection a few blocks up.”
“Great, well, you should know there are warlocks and demons moving parallel to us in the same direction. We’re either walking into an ambush or being escorted by a mobile one.”
“Okay, how do you know this stuff?” Peepers demanded. “Where are you getting intel?”
“He’s got a spirit companion,” Joe explained.
“I want one. You have any idea how valuable that would be in my line of work?”
“You wouldn’t get along,” Weaver grunted.
“Don’t even ask,” added Joe, “it just gives him an opportunity to be standoffish and coy about it. He loves that.”
“About how many?” Darling interrupted.
Weaver cocked his head as if listening for a moment before replying. “Nine warlocks. Six of them have companion demons of various kinds. No incubi or succubi. And…a guy in a white suit almost straight behind us on the rooftops. With Peepers’s friend.”
“He’s not my friend,” she said with a sigh. “Never was, probably sort of hates my guts now.”
“Shame,” Weaver said, grinning nastily. “He was cute. Ah, well, guess you’re destined to be an old maid.”
“Joe, please shoot him in the foot.”
“Maybe after we deal with the demons.”
“You’re not wrong,” said Darling, “we are heading somewhere. There’s a small square up ahead close to the bordering canal of this district. That street leads straight to one of the bridges out.”
“The ones you said not to go near because they’d be guarded?” Joe asked.
“Yup!” Darling didn’t slacken his pace in the slightest; none of them were having trouble keeping up, though Peepers was starting to look a little haggard. “But it’s been enough time, approximately. I hope. I chose this particular bridge to approach because it leads to the most direct route toward the main temple of Shaath.”
“And…that is relevant…why?” Peepers asked.
“This must all be part of that plan he doesn’t have,” said Weaver, rolling his eyes.
“The Wreath has both oracular and divinatory sources of information,” Darling said lightly. “Many warlocks can use enough arcane magic to scry, and there are demons who trade information for favors. Any plans we made could be found out and countered, heading up against what we were.”
“There are methods to block both of those,” Joe noted.
“Yes,” said Darling, nodding, “and when I have time to arrange a real campaign against the Wreath, with Church and Imperial support, you better believe I’ll be using them. On the fly like this, though, there’s a loophole that can be exploited: they can’t scry a plan that doesn’t exist.”
“Not having a plan doesn’t strike me as a great plan,” Peepers muttered.
“I know the board,” Darling said more quietly, “and I know the pieces. I set in motion the ones most likely to lead to the result I want. Plans are nice, kids, but sometimes they’re a luxury you can’t afford to count on. If you know what’s going on, and if you’re a little lucky, you can tell more or less how things are going to play out. Even arrange them the way you want, sometimes.”
The other three glanced at each other.
“This is not how I wanted to die,” Peepers sighed.
“Oh?” said Joe. “How did you?”
“Of sex-induced heart failure on top of a gigolo in my eighties, wearing a fortune in jewels and nothing else. And drunker than any woman has ever been.”
He flushed deeply and didn’t manage to form a reply. Weaver actually laughed.
“And,” Peepers said in a more subdued tone, “certain my little brother was going to be taken care of…”
“He’ll be fine,” said Darling soothingly. “We will be fine.”
“You are so full of it,” Weaver snorted.
“Yeah.” Darling glanced over his shoulder and winked. “Luckily I keep enough of it on hand to throw into my enemies’ eyes. It’s always worked so far.”
“Ew,” said Peepers, wrinkling her nose.
“I think that metaphor got away from you,” Joe added.
Weaver shrugged. “Eh, they can’t all be winners.”
“Oh, shut up, all of you. We’re almost there. Mouths shut, eyes open, and be ready to fight or flee.”
“Of course,” Andros rumbled to himself, staring across the canal at the darkened district up ahead. “What better place? I’m a fool for not thinking of it.”
“Holy shit, that all looks abandoned,” Flora marveled. “How long has it been like this?”
“Less than a week,” said Savvy. “It’s not going to be left this way long, but while it’s there… Yes, it really is an ideal venue.”
They had stopped in the shade of two warehouses flanking the road which became a bridge into the condemned district. The spirit wolf had come unerringly here, then halted, glaring ahead with his hackles raised. He growled quietly until Andros rested a hand on his head.
Ingvar and Tholi immediately set to prowling around, investigating, with Flora and Fauna following suit after a moment. The elves, after peering in every direction, nimbly shimmied up lamp posts and perched improbably atop the fairy lights, peering ahead into the district. The two Huntsmen kept their attention chiefly on the ground, tracking back and forth.
“Cities,” Tholi muttered disparagingly. “Nothing leaves tracks.”
“Not easy tracks,” Ingvar said in a more even tone. “And the rains wash away what little there is very quickly. These are not elk, Tholi; be sure you are not following the wrong kind of spoor. Look.”
He had crossed to the foot of the bridge and knelt, drawing his hunting knife and carefully scraping it across the pavement.
“Infernal magic isn’t useful for stable area-of-effect spells, unlike arcane wards,” Ingvar said, holding up the knife. “It is anchored to something physical. In this case, the paving stones.”
The tip, where he had dragged it against the ground, was now spotted with rust. Even as they all stared, the reddish stain crept up the blade another half an inch.
“Infernal wards cause rust?” Fauna asked, frowning down at them.
“The weapons of Huntsmen are blessed by the Mother,” said Andros, glaring over the bridge.
“They do not decay, nor suffer damage from the elements. Heat, cold, moisture… Such an effect is the result of magical corruption. They are here, and they have warded this bridge against intrusion.” He began to glow subtly.
“What mother?” Flora asked.
“Honestly,” said Savvy, pointing at the wolf. “Have you ever seen divine magic used for anything like that? Most of the Huntsmen’s arts are fae in nature. I really need to explain this? I was almost certain you two were elves.”
“I don’t like you out of uniform,” Fauna announced.
“Enough,” Andros growled. “What can you see from that vantage?”
“Movement,” Flora said, peering into the dark district. “Through windows and gaps in walls, mostly. There’s activity directly ahead, hidden behind things. People moving inside buildings.”
“Without lights,” said Ingvar, nocking an arrow to his bow. “That’ll be the Wreath. Once we go in there it will be increasingly hard to track our quarry. They won’t appreciate our presence.”
“Let them come,” Tholi said, grinning savagely. Behind him, Ingvar rolled his eyes. “I just hope the Eserite we’ve come to rescue isn’t dead. If he’s running around in there with warlocks and demons after him… Doesn’t look good, does it?”
“Darling would die swiftly in our wilds,” Andros said, “but we fare almost as poorly in his. The man is adaptable and this is his city. He chose to enter there. I will believe he has fallen when I’ve buried him. We proceed.”
“Agreed,” Savvy said crisply, deftly smoothing her hair back with both hands. She shrugged out of her coat, reversed it and swept it back on, and just like that the illusion vanished, leaving the immaculately attired Butler straightening her tie.
“Uh,” Fauna asked, “what was the point of that, then?”
“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding approvingly. “There are few enough Butlers in the city that some know all their faces, and their masters. Best not to advertize that Bishop Darling has run into trouble.”
“Wait!” Flora said suddenly, straightening. “I see people coming into the square— It’s him! And the others!”
“And more coming out of hiding,” Fauna added. “In robes. With demons.”
“Then this is the time,” Andros declared, starting forward and raising his bow. The spirit wolf stalked at his side. “Ingvar, Tholi, strike down the demons. I will attend to any infernal arts used against us.”
“And the people?” Ingvar asked. “The warlocks?”
Before he had finished speaking, Price strode forward onto the bridge, gliding smoothly down its center. Flora and Fauna leaped from their perches, landing on either side of the Butler. The three of them walked without apparent hurry, but at a pace that devoured the distance between them and Darling.
“That,” said Andros with a grim smile as he stepped forward after them, “appears to be attended to.”
Teal staggered slightly upon materializing, but quickly caught her balance and straightened, self-consciously smoothing her coat.
“That’s a neat trick,” Sarriki noted, pausing as she slithered past with a tray of empty mugs, bound for the bar. “You shouldn’t be able to teleport into here. Are you even a wizard?”
“Not using arcane magic, no,” the bard said with a smile, holding up a waystone. “But the Crawl’s methods work just fine.”
The naga cocked her head to the side. “I thought you kids couldn’t afford to buy from Shamlin.”
“Shamlin has decided to return to the surface,” Teal explained. “As such, he was quite interested in Tiraan bank notes. Where’s Professor Ezzaniel?”
“Here,” he said from the second level of the bar. “And what are you up to, Miss Falconer? It is not generally wise to split up the party.”
Teal tilted her head back, staring mutely up at him for a moment. “It’s funny how you’re supposed to be evaluating our progress down here, yet you haven’t been around for any of it. You just sit here drinking and chatting with the other patrons.”
“Since you make such a point of my absence, what makes you think you know what I’ve been doing while not under your eyes?” Ezzaniel leaned one arm against the railing and smiled down at her.
Teal stared at him thoughtfully, then glanced at Sarriki, who chuckled and set about pulling herself up the steps.
“It’s not like you to nakedly evade a question like that, Professor,” she said quietly.
Ezzaniel raised an eyebrow. “I assure you, Miss Falconer, everything is attended to. Professor Tellwyrn has made appropriate arrangements for you to be graded fairly.”
“I don’t doubt she has. Where is Rowe?”
The Professor shrugged. “I don’t much wonder about him when he is not in front of me. He is entertaining company, but in a rather exhausting way. One does get tired of always keeping a hand on one’s purse strings.”
She turned from him and bounded up the stairs in two long leaps, then paused, glancing around. The Grim Visage was fairly quiet at the moment. A lone drow man was nursing a drink in the far corner; he nodded politely to her as her gaze fell on him. A small party of five goblins were conversing quietly next to the fireplace. Not far away, Sarriki was clearing dishes and trash off an empty table.
Teal squared her shoulders and strode past the naga, straight through the curtained doorway next to the bar.
She paused only momentarily in the kitchen beyond, quickly taking in its meager furnishings and stored food at a glance, then stepped across the floor to study the door opposite the exit. It was secured with multiple locks. Unlike most of the rusted, battered and apparently recycled equipment the students had seen in most parts of the Crawl, these looked new. Clean, strong, and highly effective. Teal didn’t need to start tampering with them to know there was magic at work, too. This door would not be opened by someone who wasn’t entitled.
“You know, you’re not supposed to be back here.”
She turned slowly to look at Sarriki, who stood framed in the doorway, her arms braced against it on both sides.
“My friends are going directly to Level 100,” she said quietly.
“Oh?” The naga smiled, a bland, languid expression. The light framing her wasn’t bright enough to make her features difficult to see, but it was sufficiently darker in the kitchen than in the bar that the contrast made for good dramatic effect. “Excellent. I had a feeling, you know. And I’ve just won a bet. If they manage to beat the boss, I’ll be absolutely rolling in it.”
“The going theory,” Teal went on, “is that the final boss of the Descent is the Naga Queen.”
“Interesting idea. My people mostly live far below, you realize. It’s rare that any of us climb to this level.”
“Mm hm. It would fit, though, wouldn’t it? She’s easily the most formidable personality in the Crawl… One possibly powerful enough the Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t want to leave her running around at liberty.”
Sarriki shrugged. “Whatever. Your friends are hard-hitters; they have as good a chance as anyone. I’m fairly confident of my odds.”
“You have more at stake here than a bet, don’t you?” Teal asked softly.
The naga’s eyes hardened. “Little girl, it is seldom wise to stick your nose into other people’s business. Now, if you’re hungry, kindly come back out front and I’ll make you something. This area is not for patrons.”
“Where’s Rowe? It’s odd for him not to be around. With Melaxyna placing bounties on his head, it’s not exactly safe for him to leave, is it?”
“Child,” Sarriki said sharply, “I’m losing patience. There’ll be no fighting in here, but you’ll find there is a lot I can do to make your stay in the Visage and the Crawl unpleasant if you disrupt the peace in my bar. Now, for the last time, out.”
“Actually,” said Teal, stepping aside and pointing at the locked cellar door, “I need to get through here.”
Sarriki actually laughed, loudly. “Oh, you silly little thing. That is not going to happen.”
They were familiar with the drill by now, after making extensive use of Melaxyna’s portal and waystone. Immediately upon landing, the students unlinked arms, Fross zipping out from under Ruda’s hat, and fell into formation, weapons up, eying their new surroundings carefully.
It was definitely the Descent. The distinctive proportions of the room were right, and the staircase behind them was just like those they had seen dozens of times before. It was the contents of the room that made them all straighten, staring.
“Well,” Toby said after a moment, “I don’t know what I was expecting.”
The wall were covered with masterfully painted murals, all depicting in exquisite detail their adventures through the Crawl thus far. The scenes blended one into the next as they marched around the walls, but everything was familiar, if portrayed somewhat more dramatically than the events had actually occurred. Juniper laughing in delight as she hugged a capling, Trissiny standing at the foot of the throne with Melaxyna smirking down at her, the whole group in disarray and being chased by boars, Gabriel studying an invisible maze with an expression of intense thought while the others ostentatiously bickered around him, the group lined up facing a row of chessmen. The scenes continued, wrapping around the chamber and showing the details of every step of their journey through the Descent, though they did not portray anything from before or after that. Nothing of the Grim Visage, the complex of dream-inducing mists, Shamlin’s grotto or the Naga Queen’s shrine.
There were statues, too, nine of them. Towering marble depictions of the students lined an avenue straight toward the opposite end of the chamber, each over eight feet tall even without the plinths on which they stood. At the far end, rather than another staircase downward, there was a semicircular indentation in the wall, in which stood an even larger statue, this one of the Naga Queen.
Of the Queen herself, there was no sign.
“I kind of wish I had one of those lightcappers,” Juniper mused. “Remember, from Tiraas? I mean, just look at these portraits! Makes me feel kinda proud, y’know?”
“Maybe we can come back with one?” Gabriel suggested.
“Unlikely,” said Fross. “This was all arranged for us on this visit. I bet it’ll all be blank as soon as we leave.”
“Experience is by nature a transient thing,” Shaeine said quietly.
“Only one direction to go,” Trissiny said, stepping forward. Ruda fell into step right beside her, the others quickly following suit.
They came up short a moment later, before they’d gone ten feet, when the sound of clapping began to echo throughout the chamber. Slow, rhythmic, and coming from only a single pair of hands, it resounded sourcelessly from the stone on every side, leaving them peering around again, weapons raised.
He materialized then, fading from invisibility into view atop the Naga Queen’s statue, where he was perched on her stone shoulder. Rowe continued to applaud, smirking down at them.
“Well done, kids. Well done. I congratulate you on your highly improbable victory.”
“Son of a bitch,” Gabriel murmured, not noticing the sour look Trissiny shot him. “Teal was right.”
“I have a theory,” Teal said, drawing the snake flute from within her coat. “One I’ve been working on since we came here. A lot of the pieces to the puzzle were hard to find, but several of the more important ones fell into place for us just recently.”
Sarriki had fallen still, eyes fixed on the flute. Her expression was purely hungry. Teal raised the instrument toward her lips.
“Let’s see if we can come to an understanding, your Majesty.”